10 November 2010

The Madness of King Saul: Mental Illness in Ancient Times

by Timothy S. Wilkinson 

               Hollywood loves stories about demon possession; it has become a mainstay of horror movies. The Exorcist, the Exorcism of Emily Rose, Paranormal Activity, and The Amityville Horror all purport to depict actual cases of demon possession.  Emily Rose is based on the experiences of Anneliese Michel; The Exorcist on a patient with the pseudonym Robbie Manheim; The Amityville Horror on the Lutz family of Amityville, New York.
                Despite Hollywood’s assertions, though, all three of these famous cases are highly controversial—and not just among skeptics. Independent legal and scientific inquiries into all three share a common theme:  in all three cases, doctors and researchers have claimed that mental illness, not possession, was the culprit.
                Of course, some believe this diagnosis is based primarily on a refusal to believe in the supernatural. It should be noted, though, that many of the people who question the validity of these accounts do believe in demonic possession—they just didn’t see clear evidence of it in these cases.
                People have been confusing mental illness and possession for millenniums. It wasn’t until the time of Hippocrates that “doctors” even began to consider “madness” as a disease. The Greeks identified melancholy, hysteria, and phobias in their medical literature, but well into medieval times it was commonly believed that madness was the work of malevolent (or sometimes benevolent) spirits.
                Long before this, though, Bible writers were describing the symptoms of mental illness in amazing detail. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In the book of Daniel chapter four Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the greatest empire in the world, was struck with madness that sent him from his throne into the forests and fields where his hair and nails grew long and “vegetation he began to eat just like bulls” (Daniel 4:33). Modern doctors would call this lycanthropy, defined as the sickness of people who believe themselves to be changed into an animal, and who imitate the voice or cries, the shapes or manners of the animal.
                But an even more fascinating case, in my opinion, is that of King Saul. Saul belonged to a prominent Israelite family. When he was chosen as king he was also shy—he hid among the supply wagons to avoid being brought before all the people and crowned. Initially he was a good king—although his shyness seemed to continue to manifest itself in that he refused to live the life of a king, instead remaining in his family home and plowing his fields himself.
                By the time his successor, David, entered the picture, though, Saul had changed. He began to suffer fits of depression. His advisors recommended music therapy, and a teenaged David was brought in to play the harp for him. Shortly thereafter, David became a national hero when he slew the Philistine giant Goliath, and at that point Saul’s madness became much worse.
                When David returned from another battle against the Philistines, Saul interpreted the people’s celebration of David’s victory as a personal attack. Twice while David was trying to soothe the king with the harp, Saul attempted to kill the young man by throwing a spear at him (1 Samuel 18:11). Saul believed David was after his throne, and hatched elaborate plots to have him killed. When these failed, Saul again attacked David physically, and the young warrior fled from the palace into the wilderness.
                Saul’s son, Jonathan, recognized his father’s madness for what it was and confronted him about it. Saul’s response was to accuse Jonathan of being in league with David—and even to throw a spear at his own son one evening during dinner.
                Saul now began to hunt David through the wilderness, intent on destroying him and anyone who allied themselves with him. This might seem understandable for a king who believed his throne was in jeopardy, but what is telling is the strangeness of Saul’s attitudes during this period. Gathering his followers at his home in Gibeah, Saul begins to whine about his predicament: “You have conspired, all of you, against me; and there is no one disclosing it to my ear when my own son concludes a covenant with [David], and there is no one of you having sympathy for me and disclosing to my ear that my own son has raised up my own servant against me as a lier in ambush the way it is this day” (1 Samuel 22:8).  Next, he has an entire town of priests and their families slaughtered for daring to help David—but then, when David confronts Saul (yelling down at him from a mountaintop in the wilderness), Saul bursts into tears and begs David’s forgiveness.
                Some time later, David has the chance to kill Saul and refrains; in the exchange between the men Saul once again bursts into tears, blesses David, and tells him that, with God’s help, David will be successful in taking over the king’s throne. He follows up this admission by continuing to hunt David through the wilderness.
                In the end, King Saul fell upon his own sword after a battle. But looking over his actions, it is not hard to identify symptoms characteristic of paranoia. The official “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” of the US mental health industry gives the following as symptoms of paranoia:
  • unfounded suspicions; believes others are plotting against him/her
  • perceives attacks on his/her reputation that are not clear to others, and is quick to counterattack
  • maintains unfounded suspicions regarding the fidelity of a spouse or significant other
Additional symptoms can include dramatic mood swings, melancholy, extreme anger or fear, and the belief that anyone who disagrees with the sufferer is part of a plot or conspiracy against him.
All of these are manifest in King Saul. In recording these details, the Bible writer Samuel may have inadvertently provided us with the first diagnosis of paranoia.

02 November 2010

There Is the King Sitting In the Gate: City Gates In Bible Times

“There Is the King Sitting In the Gate”
City Gates in Bible Times
by Timothy S. Wilkinson

The Eternal Throne Chronicles take readers through many of the wars and battles fought by the nation of Israel in the years leading up to and during King David's reign. In trying to accurately capture the experience of warriors during that time, it is helpful to get a clear picture of the fortifications relied upon by ancient armies.
          The cities of ancient Palestine, like all cities for thousands of years, relied on massive walls for their defense. The city’s gates were the weakest point in its defenses and so, logically, they had as few as possible. Most early and all smaller cities had only one. The idiom “to take possession of the gate” meant to conquer or overcome. Gates were such an important element of defense that much superstition surrounded their construction among the pagan nations. Canaanites frequently offered a human sacrifice when putting up a gate.
                Biblical descriptions and archaeological discoveries have shed light on ancient gates. The 107th Psalm describes doors plated with copper and held closed with crossbars of iron; this would help to reduce the risk of fire. Babylon apparently had such gates (Isaiah 25:2). Some ancient Syrian cities have been found with gates of stone, solid slabs more than ten feet high.
                As siege equipment and techniques developed, the designs of walls and gates improved to match. Kings built gates with overlapping walls  in which two gates, one inside the other, formed a courtyard between them. Alternatively they would put walls at right angles to each other to form a similar courtyard; these were arranged so that entering attackers would have to turn left, exposing their right (shieldless) side to attack. Often the passage through the vestibule would have as many as six pilasters arranged in parallel sets, narrowing the passageway at three places. Rooms formed in the corners were used as guard chambers. This courtyard served a dual purpose: it forced attackers to penetrate two gates and it allowed defenders to dump hot oil on and shoot arrows at attackers from the walls all around them.
                Typically towers were constructed on either side of gates to bulwark the fortifications and and to serve as lookout posts. Sometimes small, door-sized gates (called posterns) were installed near the gate. These gave easier access to the city during peacetime, and allowed the defenders to release attacking sorties during a siege.
                The shade provided by the walls made the gate a good place for public assembly and public proclamation. They often had rooms in the walls for merchants to stay in. People gathered at the gate for legal judgments, to conduct business, and to hear the latest news (Deuteronomy 16:18; 2 Samuel 19:8).
                The great city of Jerusalem had a number of famous gates that helped define the parts of the city.
Sheep Gate
This gate was rebuilt by High Priest Eliashib, named because sheep and goats were brought through it—either for sacrifice or to bring them to the nearby market. It is believed that the gate was located near the temple.
Fish Gate
Hezekiah built this gate next to the fish market. This became the passage through which Tyrian fishermen brought their wares.
Gate of the Old
Apparently this was one of the original entrances to the city.
Gate of Ephraim (Nehemiah 8:16)
This guarded one of the northern entrances to the city, so people leaving through it would be traveling in the direction of the tribe of Ephraim’s territory. Near this gate was a large public square that was filled with tents and temporary shelters when the people celebrated the Festival of Booths.
Corner Gate (2 Chronicles 26:9)
This gate was, of course, located at one of the corners in the wall. Apparently it was near the Tower of the Bake Ovens, where the city’s commercial bakers made their wares.
Valley Gate
This marked the exit from the city that led to the great garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehinnom).  Jerusalem’s inhabitants carried or carted their refuse to this valley and tossed it into smoldering fires that were fed continuously with sulfur and lime. From this constantly burning vale comes the word gehenna, one of the words translated as “hell” in the King James Version of the Bible.
 Gate of the Ash-heaps
Alternatively known as the Dung Gate or the Gate of Potsherds, the latter probably because here fragments of broken pottery were ground to make cement commonly used for plastering water cisterns. The Valley of Hinnom and the spring at En-rogel are near this gate, and both of them were known for their high-quality clay deposits. Many scholars believe that this was the center of the potter’s industry. Just across the Valley of Hinnom from this gate was the now-famous Potter’s Field, purchased by the Pharisees with the 30 pieces of silver returned to them by a remorseful Judas. This was a busy gate, since it guarded the primary route to the spring at En-rogel where many citizens went for water.
Water Gate (Nehemiah 8)
Not far from the temple area was the spring of Gihon. Inhabitants of Jerusalem going to the spring for water would pass through the Water Gate. Here Ezra congregated the people to hear a reading of the Torah and to build shelters and tents to celebrate the Festival of Booths.
Horse Gate
Our modern view of gates is shaped by the huge examples found in late Medieval castles (or at least in Hollywood portrayals of those castles). Gates, though, were made as small as was practical—a narrower opening was more easily defended. The Horse Gate was a wider gate designed to accommodate the passage of teams of horses, chariots, and wagons. This gate gave access to the palace and temple, likely destinations for mounted travelers.
Inspection Gate
This was also known as the Gate of Muster and the Gate of the Guard. It seems to be a location from which soldiers and armies sallied forth; its name also obviously indicates that it provided room for commanders to inspect their assembled troops before marching.

29 October 2010

The Gems of the Bible

by Timothy S. Wilkinson

Beautifully colored and polished gemstones caught the eye and inspired the imagination of people of ancient times as effectively as they do our own. While writing scenes for The Eternal Throne Chronicles, I am constantly trying to paint mental pictures of the people and places of Iron Age Israel. While my research leads me to pictures that are more primitively agrarian and considerably less romanticized than most illustrations of the period, I do enjoy adding color to the scenes by imagining the use of gems as jewelry, ornamentation, and even building materials.
One of the most famous uses of gemstones was the breastpiece worn by the High Priest of Israel. Exodus 28 gives the instructions for its manufacture. It’s gold surface had twelve stones inset on it, representing the twelve tribes of Israel: ruby, topaz, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, jasper, leshem, agate, amethyst, chrysolite, onyx, and jade.
                The ancient Israelites probably did not facet stones—they simply did not have the technology to do so. Instead they polished them using materials like emery powder or, in the case of crystals, left them in a relatively natural state. Which stones they used is a question not easily answered: there is considerable debate as to the translation of some of the Hebrew terms, and the meaning of some has been entirely lost to the ages.
                In any case, here are a few of the common gems of Palestine and a comment or two about each.

Shamir (Ezekiel 3:9)
Some scholars translate this word as diamond. It seems unlikely that the ancient Israelites could fashion diamonds, although Jeremiah 17:1 talks about using Shamir to cut other stones. It was obviously a very hard material, and so many translators believe it refers to corundum, emery, or some other adamant stone.

Cadcod (Isaiah 54:12)
This stone’s identification is also a matter of debate. The Hebrew word means “reddish” or “ruddy,” and so it is most commonly translated “ruby.” Others believe that it refers to some form of agate.

Shevo (Exodus 28:19)
Most scholars agree that this is the common form of chalcedony that we know today as agate. It is a stone layered in shades of black, brown, blue, and white, and can be polished to a beautiful sheen. This stone was one of those used in the High Priest’s breastplate.

Sha’yish (1 Chronicles 29:2)
This is the famous alabaster of ancient times. Modern alabaster is usually hydrated calcium sulfate, a very soft material that is easily engraved and broken. The alabaster of the early Iron Age, though, was a type of  calcium carbonate that was white with streaks of various colors. It was nearly as hard as marble. The modern name comes from the fact that the stone was originally mined near Alabastron, Egypt. The material became famous for its use in perfume jars. Not only was the alabaster considered appropriately beautiful for the expensive contents, but the porous stone allowed the scent to escape very slowly over many years.

Achlamah (Exodus 28:19)
This is almost certainly amethyst, a rare, purple variety of the six-sided quartz crystal. The Hebrew name comes from the root halam, which means “to dream.” Ancient peoples believed that amethyst had the ability to give its wearer significant dreams.

Tarshish (Daniel 10:6)
The area known in the Bible as Tarshish (almost certainly modern Spain) was the source of a translucent yellow or green stone that is formed from silicates of magnesium and iron; we know it today as topaz. Some translators, though, believe that the term could also apply to the various forms of beryl: emerald, aquamarine, or morganite.

Shoham (Genesis 2:12)
Onyx stone has been used from the earliest of times in Mesopotamia. The most ancient of cultures took this hard type of agate and polished it for use in inlays, tile work, jewelry, and more. The word “onyx” is Greek in origin—it means “finernail.” Apparently the Greeks thought that the two materials had a similar luminescence.

Ramoth (Ezekiel 27:16)
The famed merchants of Tyre traveled along the Mediterranean coast in their ships, collecting the wealth of one culture and selling it to others. Various small communities along their route sold them pieces of the beautiful, red or orange coral their divers had collected from the sea. The Tyrians then sold them to the wealthy citizens of the Levant and Egypt. The material was polished for use in jewelry, or inlaid in the walls and floors of buildings.

Bareqeth (Ezekiel 28:13)
This word seems to refer to emeralds. Some scholars doubt that the Israelites could have worked emeralds, but many excavations in Egypt have uncovered decorate materials and jewelry set with emeralds. Emerald mining operations have also been discovered in upper Egypt, Cyprus, and the mountains of Ethiopia.

O’dhem; kadhkodh (Ezekiel 28:12, 13)
Both of these words mean “ruby”; the terms may refer to different colors of stones. Ruby is a type of corundum formed when traces of chromium and iron oxide form in aluminum oxide, turning it red. Only slightly less hard than diamonds, this stone was among the most expensive in Bible times.

24 October 2010

The Legendary Wealth of Solomon--Part II

by Timothy S. Wilkinson

My earlier post described the extent of King Solomon’s wealth in modern terms, and raised the question of whether or not the Bible’s descriptions of such wealth were believable. Golden dishes, golden furniture, golden shields and a temple plated with gold—are these fanciful exaggerations of later chroniclers intent on inflating Solomon’s reputation?

                Archaeology says they are not. Let’s address each of those specific examples in turn.

“All King Solomon’s goblets were gold…” (1 Kings 10:21)
                Obviously many kings throughout the centuries have used golden tableware—it is used today in some royal houses. The same was true in ancient times. When Sir Leonard Wooley excavated the Royal Cemetary in Ur from the 3rd millennium B.C., he found many golden cups and dishes there. Railway workers building near Bubastis once discovered a cache of Egyptian treasure from c.1279-1213 B.C., and included was a cup of solid gold. At the famous excavations at Ugarit a number of beautifully embossed golden plates were found, and gold jugs and dishes from Persian sites can be seen in museums all around the world.

Furniture of Gold
                The Pharaohs of Egypt plated their furniture with gold. Buried with Tutankhamen in 1331 were two carved wooden chairs plated with gold. A thousand years earlier Queen Hetepheres, the mother of Cheops (the builder of the Great Pyramid) was buried with a bed, a chair, and a canopy all plated with gold. The El-Amarna letters from the 14th century B.C. list gifts exchanged between the royalty of Egypt and their relatives in Canaan: golden bowls, toiletries and furniture and chariots plated with gold.
                Solomon’s throne is described as being plated in ivory, then in gold. Gold-plated ivory artifacts have been uncovered in the Assyrian palaces at Nimrud.

Shields of Gold
                The gold shields and bucklers that hung in Solomon’s palace were clearly ceremonial armaments meant as a sign of wealth. Their existence is supported by other similarly symbolic gold armaments from nearby empires. Sir Wooley found a gold helmet (engraved to look like a wig) in Ur’s Royal Cemetery, along with gold daggers and battle axes. A gold axe head was also uncovered at Byblos from c. 1800 B.C. King Sargon II of Assyria wrote a letter detailing the booty taken in his campaign of 714 B.C: the list included six shields of gold weighing a total of 700 pounds.

Temples of Gold
                It is one thing to have objects of gold—after all, everyone is familiar with the gold splendors of King Tut’s tombs and it is possible to purchase gold plated objects today in every shape and size. But a temple plated with gold?
                Sometime between 680 and 669 B.C. King Esarhaddon of Assyria plated the doors and walls of the shrine of Ashur with gold “as if with plaster” (Rykle Borger, Die Inschriften Asarhaddons (Graz, Austria: E. W. Weidner, 1956), p. 87.) Nabonidus of Babylon (555-539 BC) wrote of renovating the temple of Sin at Harran, saying that he clad the walls with gold. Amenophis III (c. 1386-1349 BC) built a temple to Amun at Thebes entirely plated with gold, silver, and electrum. The shrine of Ramesses III (1185-1154 BC) at Medinet Habu was paved with silver, and the walls and pillars were all gold-plated. In a remarkable display of extravagance, Ramesses built a cedar barge 200 ft long overlaid with gold to the waterline.
                We cannot discount the realism of the Bible’s description of Solomon’s wealth when we have so many similar contemporary examples. Truly, Solomon was one of the wealthiest rulers of all time—certainly the wealthiest of any king in Asia in the early Iron Age. In addition to supporting the accuracy of Biblical history, this record gives us a picture of the incredible opulence of Israel at its greatest heights.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my website at www.timothywilkinson.net.

22 October 2010

The Legendary Wealth of Solomon-- Part I

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                King Solomon’s fabulous wealth has become the subject of myth, legend, fiction, and film. After all, no ancient historical ruler is described with anything near his wealth—Solomon’s rule was the pinnacle of Israel’s power, politically, economically, and geographically.
                So it is perhaps not surprising that many today view the Bible’s descriptions of Solomon’s opulent reign as exaggerations—especially in light of the tendency to doubt anything that comes from the Bible. But were the Bible writers exaggerating in 1 Kings Chapters 9 and 10? Could it possibly be true that:
  • ·         Hiram regularly sent shipments of 450 talents of gold from Ophir
  • ·         The Queen of Sheba gave Solomon a gift of 120 talents of gold, plus balsam oil and jewels
  • ·         Solomon’s annual domestic revenue was 666 talents of gold
  • ·         Solomon had 200 shields each plated with 600 shekels of gold and 300 bucklers each plated with 3 minas of gold
  • ·         He sat on a throne of gold plated ivory
  • ·         All his tableware was gold
  • ·         His fleet of ships brought gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks from Tarshish every three years
  • ·         Rulers from all around brought him tribute in gold, silver, armor, balsam oil, horses, and mules
  • ·         He had 1500 chariots and 12,000 chariot horses

How much wealth is this? It is a challenge to calculate the values of ancient monetary measurements. There are basically two approaches: (1) take the weight of the measurements and calculate their value based on today’s gold and silver prices or (2) figure out the purchasing power of a certain amount of, say, gold in Bible times and find the modern amount that has that same purchasing power.
The second method has some distinct advantages. In Jesus’ day, a laborer made one Greek denarius for 12 hours of work. Washington State, where I reside, currently has a minimum wage of about $8.50 per hour. Twelve hours of work would yield a laborer about $100—a modern value for the denarius. (Of course if we did the simpler—but less accurate—conversion to the value of the weight of a gold denarius today then it is worth $164).
Next we have to convert that to Hebrew currencies. A gold shekel weighs three times as much as a gold denarius, so the shekel would be worth $300. Using that as a standard we can find the values of other Old Testament amounts: the bekah ($15), the mina ($15,000), and the talent ($900,000).
Now the record of Solomon’s income starts to come into focus. His annual domestic revenue was just under $600 million. The regular shipments from Ophir were worth just over $400 million. His gift from the Queen of Sheba was worth about $108 million. The 200 shields and 300 bucklers hanging in his palace were worth about $52 million.
Once we factor in the monies and trade goods brought to him as tribute by kings from nations all around Israel, Solomon’s annual revenue can be conservatively estimated as $1 billion. That’s $2.7 million dollars a day, or $114,000 per hour, or $1,902 per minute, or $32 per second. Twenty-four hours a day. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year.
And that’s liquid revenue—not net worth.
Of course, Solomon started out his reign with the wealth that his father, David, had put aside for the construction of the Temple of Jehovah. David had accumulated roughly $187 billion before his death; some of this went into the Temple’s construction and the remainder into Solomon’s treasury. If you started spending $187 billion at the rate of $1 per second and did that continuously, day and night, it would take you 5,929 years to spend it all.
Are these mind-boggling amounts just the fancy of Hebrew chroniclers? Are they fantastical elements of an ancient myth? Or is there reason to believe that Solomon and the nation he ruled were truly this rich? 
Tomorrow’s blog will answer that question…

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my website at www.timothywilkinson.net.

21 October 2010

The Sons of Zeruiah: Heroes and Villains

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                King David of Israel had a sister (apparently considerably older than David) who had three sons: Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. All three of these nephews of the king were famed warriors among David’s men, and their history is integrally linked with that David and his throne.
                They were mighty men, but they were also ruthless and impulsive. The third brother, Asahel, was “one of the thirty” greatest warriors of David’s army. His career was cut short early when he insisted on pursuing Saul’s uncle and military commander, Abner during a battle at (  )_. Abner was considerably older, and Asahel was known for his ‘fleetness of foot.’ Abner kept warning Asahel to stop pursuing him and, when Asahel would not (no doubt eager for the glory of killing the famed warlord), Abner rammed his spear backwards, impaling Asahel with its butt. Joab never forgave Abner for this act.
                The second brother, Abishai was the “chief of the thirty;” in fact, he was their leader and “had a reputation rivaling the three” greatest warriors in the nation. In one battle he struck down 300 enemy soldiers single-handedly. His ruthless, impulsive nature is apparent from two episodes in his life. First, when he accompanied a fugitive David in sneaking into Saul’s camp, David had to restrain him from executing the mad king. Later, during Absalom’s rebellion, a man named Shimei shouted curses at David as the king was driven from Jerusalem; twice David had to stop Abishai from killing the man.
                Abishai took the lead in killing 18,000 Edomites and in routing the Ammonites under his brother’s leadership. When Sheba rebelled against king David in his later years, Abishai loyally led the thirty in battle against him. Perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment occurred during David’s last recorded battle. A giant Philistine warrior made the King his target and David, in his old age, was no match for him. David would have been killed had not Abishai arrived and killed the Philistine hero.
                But it was Joab, the eldest son, who was the real hero of the story and one of David’s closest allies and counselors throughout the celebrated king’s reign. He fought alongside his brothers against Abner at the time of Asahel’s death. In the ensuing war, Ish-bosheth takes Abner to task over his actions toward the king’s concubines; offended Abner turns traitor and makes a covenant with David, promising to unify the entire kingdom under his rulership. Joab doesn’t trust Saul’s uncle—after all, Abner had hunted David for years while serving as Saul’s military commander. Joab charges Abner with spying. Together with his brother, Joab plots and kills Abner in revenge for Abner’s slaying of Asahel. It seems likely that Joab also realized that he was eliminating a possible rival for the position as head of David’s army.
                In the middle of David’s growing empire is a well fortified city inhabited by a sometimes-friendly Canaanite nation: the Jebusites. That city is Jerusalem. For centuries the Israelites have been unable to conquer the Jebusites because of Jerusalem’s mighty walls. David offers his knights a challenge—whomever conquers the city will become the supreme commander of the royal army. Joab accomplishes the feat by leading a contingent of David’s mightiest soldiers up a well shaft and into the city, fighting their way to the gates and opening them to the surrounding army. David is true to his word: Joab becomes the General of the army and is given ten attendants to bear his weapons for him—including one of the Mighty Men, Naharai the Berothite (perhaps as his personal bodyguard).
                Joab is the kind of commander kings dream about. He helps David conquer Edom, uses a clever strategy to conquer an alliance of Ammonites and Syrians, conquers the Ammonite capital of Rabbah but waits for David to arrive to ceremonially capture the city. Joab not only cooperates in David’s plan to murder Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, but improvises on the plan to better conceal David’s complicity in the affair.
                During Absalom’s rebellion Joab loyally supports David—but then disobeys David’s direct order not to kill Absalom; Joab slaughters him while Absalom is hanging, helplessly entangled, in a tree. For this act of disobedience, David removes Joab from his leadership of the army and appoints Amasa (Joab’s cousin) in his place. Joab continues to play a vital role in military activities, including the defeat of another rebel named Sheba. But during the pursuit of Sheba, Joab calls Amasa close, grabs his beard as if to kiss him, and runs him through.
                Inexplicably, David returns Joab to his command position at the head of the army. Some scholars believe that David was afraid of Joab’s power—and this seems to be borne out by David’s words at the end of the king’s life. While David is lying on his deathbed, Joab joins the conspiracy of David’s son Adonijah who is determined to take the throne from David’s chosen heir, Solomon. Joab must by this time be in his 80’s or 90’s. David makes Solomon promise to execute Joab and, after Adonijah’s rebellion is put down, Solomon sends one of the Might Men, Benaiah, after him. Joab flees to the Tabernacle and clings to the sacrificial altar, hoping to be saved by his presence on “holy ground.” Benaiah isn’t moved—he executes the last of the sons of Zeruiah in the Tabernacle sanctuary.
                The three sons of Zeruiah share a remarkable number of similarities to the three sons of Lot in Arthurian legend: Gawain, Gaheris, and Gareth—but that is a subject for another blog.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.


20 October 2010

'A Land of Olive Oil'


When I am writing scenes of life in ancient Israel, I am always trying to transport myself back in time, to be able to picture the details of the scene as though I was there. Historical research and even reenactment have become a vital part of my work on The Eternal Throne Chronicles. When imagining the textures, tastes, sights and smells of life in ancient Palestine, one cannot escape olive oil.

Golden olive oil flowed like blood through the life and economy of ancient Israel. It was an inseparable part of everyday activities. In Psalm 128 the psalmist says of blessed families: "Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table." The Promised Land was sometimes called 'a land of olive oil' (Deuteronomy 8:8). A Hebrew idiom complimented a good man by calling him "pure olive oil."
An olive tree planted more than fifteen centuries ago
Few people would consider the olive tree beautiful: Its bark is tortuously gnarled; its leaves spiky and dull green. Like most trees, it is at its most beautiful in the spring when white blossoms cover it and then carpet the ground beneath like falling snow (Job 15:33).

Domesticated olive trees were often grown by cutting down a wild tree and grafting a cultivated shoot onto the stump. Fifteen years later the tree would begin to produce harvestable fruit. This may seem like a long time from our fast-paced perspective, but olive trees were frequently planted next to the ancestral family home. That property would stay in the family for hundreds of years--and the tree would continue to produce all of that time. There are ancient olive trees outside Jerusalem that were being harvested before the days of Christ.

The fruit is ready by late September or early October. Women and children would spread cloth around the trunk and use poles to beat the branches, knocking the olives free. The Torah required that any olives that refused to fall be left on the tree; orphans, widows, and other landless poor could come after and glean them for themselves. This harvesting technique was not gentle--new shoots were likely destroyed by the beating. This resulted in a good crop often being followed the next year by a poor crop.

Olives were eaten raw (olives and barley bread may have been a standard breakfast) or preserved by immersion in salt water. The far majority, though, were used for oil. A number of early Iron Age olive presses have been uncovered in excavations--some small enough to put in one's lap, some so large they were undoubtedly turned by pairs of mules or oxen. Larger presses used a rolling stone wheel to crush the olives. Smaller presses operated much like cider presses today, utilizing a lever and a lid to squeeze a basket of olives so that the oil ran out between the gaps in the basket weave.

Olive oil was used for cooking, as a condiment, as fuel for lamps, as a medicine, to make soap, lotion, hair products and for ceremonial purposes. Religious objects, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed with oil. Warriors oiled the leather surfaces of their shields to keep the leather supple and make it slicker so that an enemy's blows would slide easily off. Sandals, belts, and other leather objects would be similarly treated.

In Iron Age Palestine the smell of olive oil must have been everywhere. In the hot, dry climate a person might rub their face, arms, and legs with olive oil twice a day or more. Every household object would pick up this oil from the skin of those who handled it. Wooden handles of tools and implements absorbed it; it rubbed off on clothing and bedding. The scarcity of water meant that people did not bathe as frequently as they do today; an alternative was to rub the hair with oil to keep it healthy and presentable looking.

Olive oil thus became a symbol of wealth, health, and times of plenty. To the people of ancient Israel these were all inseparably connected to God's blessing. It is not surprising, then, that in the Scriptures olive oil is frequently used as a religious symbol and continued to be so right into the early days of Christianity.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

03 October 2010

The Highways of the King

The Highways of the King

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

Ancient Hebrew has two primary words for transportation routes: messilah, meaning “highway,” and derekh meaning “road.” From earliest times trade routes linked cities and kingdoms throughout the Middle East. The most important and well-traveled routes were the Via Maris (Way of the Sea) that followed the coast almost from Egypt all the way to Lebanon, and the King’s Road, running up central Palestine, paralleling the Jordan. Maintaining these roads was important for religious, as well as economic, reasons. Since all Israelites worshipped at a central location, travel was constant and required by the Torah. The maintenance of the roads to the Cities of Refuge was even more crucial.
It is very difficult to get a clear picture of where roads and highways were once located, but a great deal of effort has been put into doing so. The Bible provides us with very little information regarding either their locations or description, but does contain a few allusions to their construction and maintenance. Isaiah talks about hills being leveled; Josephus wrote of Solomon paving the roads to Jerusalem with black stone. Archival texts, itineraries and military annals collected from the Biblical period throughout the Middle and Near East allow us to make a reasonably accurate estimate of how far one could travel in a day: about 17 to 23 miles, whether by land or by sea.
                To the modern reader, references to “highways” conjures up a very different picture than the Iron Age reality. Late in the 13th century B.C.E. (during the time of the Judges), an Egyptian official was sent on a trip through Palestine. Fortunately for us, he kept a detailed record of his journey—and he spared no details when describing the condition of the roads:
“…the sky is darkened by day [because the road] is overgrown with cypresses and oaks and cedars which reach the heavens. Lions are more numerous than leopards or bears [and it is] surrounded by Bedouin on [every] side of it…Behold, ambushers wait in a ravine 2000 cubits deep, filled with boulders and pebbles…the narrow valley is dangerous with Bedouin hidden under the bushes. Some of them are four or five cubits from their noses to the heel, and fierce of face. Their hearts are not mild, and they do not listen to wheedling. You are alone; there is no messenger with you, no army host behind you. You find no scout, that he might make you a way of crossing. You come to a decision to go forward, although you do not know the road. Shuddering seizes you, [the hair of] your head stands up, and your soul lies in your hand. Your path is filled with boulders and pebbles, without a toe hold for passing by, overgrown with reeds, thorns, brambles and ‘wolf’s-paws’. The ravine is on one side of you, and the mountain rises on the other. You go on jolting, with your chariot on its side, afraid to press your horse too hard.”
                When Pharoah Thutmosis III traveled the “highway” sometime between 1490 and 1436 B.C.E. (the time of the Israelite conquest of Canaan or shortly thereafter), he reported that parts of it were so narrow that his horses had to walk single file—a singularly dangerous formation for an army. The passage of three and a half centuries didn’t see much improvement: in around 1100 B.C.E. (about the time of the birth of David), Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I wrote that he had to send engineers ahead of his army with copper pickaxes to make the road passable for his chariots. There were portions of the road that proved too rough—charioteers and cavalry were forced to dismount and pick their way through on foot.
                When we imagine the travels of people in the time of David, then, we should include in that mental picture a sense of just how difficult travel was. Wealthier people may have ridden on donkeys or used them to carry their burdens. Many sojourners likely took a siesta to avoid traveling in the oppressive heat of the Mediterranean day; night travel also served as an additional way to avoid detection by highwaymen. They crossed the miles on narrow, winding paths, choked with mud after winter rains, heavily rutted throughout the summer. They tried to avoid the deep canyons cut by rivers that raged during rainstorms, as well as the disease-infested swamps, barren deserts and broad badlands of sharp, hardened volcanic stone. Mountain roads took them up steep slops broken by twisting gorges; the ranges could be crossed only at well-traveled passes. They sought safety in numbers, traveling whenever possible in caravans.
                While writing The Eternal Throne Chronicles, one of the challenges is that I continually discover new details about the biblical world as the project continues. I gratefully incorporate them into future novels but—alas—there is nothing I can do about those already published. The state of roads in Israel is one of those details. I look forward, though, to traveling those roads with fresh eyes in the near future as I write the first chapters of Hero of Israel.

                For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

29 September 2010

Sacrifices for an Unsolved Murder: Community Responsibility in Ancient Israel

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                A fascinating example of the comprehensiveness of the Torah is the law recorded at Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 1-9. This law outlines the procedure for dealing with an unsolved murder, and helps modern readers to understand the great value that the ancient Israelites put on life—in spite of the brutal, bloody times in which they lived.
                According to the Law of Moses, anytime a murder victim’s body was found within the borders of the Promised Land, the village elders and judges would do what they could to solve the crime. If they were unable to find the murderer, though, the crime still required expiation. In an example of the concept of community responsibility that is (as far as I know) unique among the cultures of the early Bronze Age, a procedure had to be followed in order to absolve the nearest community of bloodguilt, and to remind everyone that the crime of murder could not be committed without serious, public consequences. These consequences could serve to motivate any witnesses to the crime into coming forward with what they knew.
                The procedure was this: the older men of the communities around the body were to measure the distance from the corpse to their cities and determine which city was closest. The elders of that city then acquired a young cow. Deuteronomy specifies that the cow must never have pulled a yoke. There is another Hebrew phrase used to describe the animal, but it is unclear—it either means “a cow that has not been used for work” or “a cow that has not bred.”
                This animal was led to a torrent valley in which there was running water, but the soil of which did not permit the growing of crops. (Interestingly, the Torah specifies that it must be a valley in which there was “customarily no tilling or sowing of seed;” in some areas of Israel there were few areas in which a crop had not been planted at some time, or that were not growing grain as a result of seeds that had spread naturally).
                There, over the running water, the Levites of the city were to break the animal’s neck. The Mishnah explains that this was done by striking the animal behind the ears with a heavy, broad-bladed axe. Apparently this unusual method of execution related to the unsolved nature of the crime. Sacrifices in Israel (almost) always involved the shedding of blood—it was the blood that was considered sacred and representative of the animal’s life. In this case, though, the animal was being executed, not as a sacrifice, but in place of the murderer. Had its blood been ritually shed, it might have seemed to be an atonement for the criminal’s crime, but it was not mean to absolve him of guilt. In fact, if the murderer was identified at some later time, he would be executed in line with what the Torah required. The killing of the bull allowed the city to put off the burden of their community guilt, as the next instructions make clear.
                After the animal was killed, the priests were to approach and observe as the elders of the city washed their hands over the body. There, in the hearing of the people they recited: “Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed. Do not set it to the account of your people Israel, whom you redeemed, O Jehovah, and do not put the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel.”
                What was done with the cow afterward is not specified, although it seems likely that the body was disposed of ritually rather than butchered and eaten. This ritual must have helped to provide a measure of closure for the families of the murder victim, and for the rest of the community.

To learn more about everyday life in Bible times, check out my series The Eternal Throne Chronicles, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

17 September 2010

A Pastoral Paradise

By Timothy S. Wilkinson
Having never traveled to Palestine myself, I have often enjoyed reading descriptions of the land by those who have traveled extensively there. I have compiled a few of my favorites for this blog post. Enjoy!
The Historical Geography of the Holy Land” by George Adam Smith (1966, Harper & Row):
“There is the excellency of Carmel itself: wheat-fields from Esdraelon to the first bare rocks, then thick bush and scrub, young ilex, wild olives and pines, with undergrowth of purple thistles, mallows with blossoms like pelargoniums, stocks of hollyhock, golden broom, honeysuckle and convolvulus; then, between the shoulders of the mountain, olive-groves, their dull green mass banked by the lighter forest trees, and on the flanks broad lawns, where in the shadow of oaks you look far out to sea” (p.80).
“Even in the barest provinces you get many a little picture that lives with you—a chocolate-coloured bank with red poppies against the green of the prickly-pear hedge above it, and a yellow lizard darting across; a river-bed of pink oleanders flush with the plain; a gorge in Judea, where you look up between limestone walls picked out with tufts of grass and black-and-tan goats cropping at them, the blue sky over all, on  the edge of the only shadow, a well, a trough, and a solitary herdsman” (p.81).
“In the days of the pride of the land, what a plunge through nature it must have been, when one came down from oaks, through olives sycamores and walnuts, to palms with roots washed by the Lake [of Gennesaret]…Even now one sees proof of that luxuriance in the rich patches of garden upon Gennesaret, in the wealth of flowers on the surrounding slopes, and in the maidenhair fern that springs up wherever a stream gives water and a ruin throws shade” (p.289).
“[In Edom] elow 3000 feet flourish laurels, oleanders and tamarisks…Nubk or thorn and retem or broom abound and, in wadies running into the Arabah and Wadi Hesa, thick bush and reeds. Honeysuckle, caper, and other trailers are also found, and a flowering aloe in Wady Musa…On the limestone the olive, fig, and vine flourish…with the less frequent pomegranate, carob, and mulberry” (p.363).
“[In Damascus] you pass between orchards of figs and apricots. For hedges there are the briar rose, and for a canopy the walnut. Pomegranate blossoms glow through the shade; vine-boughs trail across the briar; a little waterfall breaks on the edge of the road. To the left the river, thirty feet of dark green water with white curls, shoots down a steep, smooth bed…For two miles more you ride between trees, through a village, over a bridge, between high banks of gardens, road and river together, flecked with light” (p.429-30).

Beverley Nichols, excerpted on his website www.beverleynichols.com:
                “You do not have to be a specially religious man to feel cleansed by Palestine; it is a country where sky and earth seem to meet; the heavens brood so closely over the hills that you feel you could stretch up your hands and just manage to touch the golden gates.
                And I wanted the flowers. Unless you have roamed through Palestine in the spring you have never seen wild flowers; like rivers of blood the scarlet anemones tumble down from the highlands that lead to the Jordan; near Nazareth there are fields so thick with crocuses that you would say the hills were draped with tapestries of blue; and only a few miles from Jerusalem there are quiet places where the little violet sword-lily—gladiolus atroviolaceus—grows so freely that you can pick an armful of it in a couple of minutes.
                And always, as you walk, you remember that on these same flowers the shadow of Jesus might have fallen, the poppy that you pluck for your buttonhole may be a direct descendant of some flower that His hands had touched as He wandered through the cornfields. Even the anemones, that riot so profusely throughout the land, may be the ‘lilies of the field’ which He made to shine so brightly in the loveliest of the parables. So, at least, maintain the majority of the scholars, and they quote the Song of Solomon to prove their contention—“My love is like a lily among the thorns.” For the tallest of the anemones, which are indeed of the lily family, are always to be found among the thorn bushes, struggling towards the light.”

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

10 September 2010

David and Bathsheba: Bible Writing at its Most Brilliant

The Subtext of 2 Samuel Chapter 11
By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                The brilliance of 2 Samuel Chapter 11 may be unparalleled in the extraordinary brilliance of the entire account of David’s life. Robert Alter (1999) comments: “…it seems as though the writer has pulled out all the stops of his remarkable narrative art in order to achieve a brilliant realization of this crucially pivotal episode” (Alter, p. 249). I wanted to share some of the complexities and nuances of this amazing bit of writing.

11 And it came about at the return of the year, at the time that kings sally forth, that David proceeded to send Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, that they might bring the sons of Ammon to ruin and lay siege to Rabbah, while David was dwelling in Jerusalem.
                The Hebrew word for “messenger” is malakhim; the word for king is melakhim. The difference is impossible to see in Hebrew, which is written only in consonants. This ambiguity is deliberate—it sets up one of the key contrasts in the upcoming account: the difference between those who do (the will of God) and those who stay at home.  Polzin writes: “The verse clearly doubles back on itself in a marvelous display of narrative virtuosity: at a time when kings go forth, David did not, making it a time, therefore, when messengers must go forth; at a time when messengers go forth, David, remaining in Jerusalem, sent Joab, his servants and all Israel to ravage Ammon.”
                The David and Bathsheba episode is not just a moral parable—it illustrates the dangers of monarchy. David is now a sedentary king who has too much time on his hands (“was dwelling” at the beginning of verse 11 is the Hebrew antonym of “sally forth” at the end of the verse). Throughout the whole account David operates through others—messengers and intermediaries. This creates all kinds of unforeseen complications. Nathan keeps reminding us that when we try to use others for our own ends, things never turn out the way we hope they will.

2 And it came about at the time of evening that David proceeded to rise from his bed and walk about on the rooftop of the king’s house; and from the rooftop he caught sight of a woman bathing herself, and the woman was very good in appearance.
The wealthy of Israel took a siesta after lunch. Apparently, David has been lounging in bed all afternoon.

 3 Then David sent and inquired about the woman and someone said: “Is this not Bath-sheba the daughter of E·liam the wife of U·riah the Hittite?”
“David sent”—once again using others to do his work.
It is highly unusual for a woman to be identified by both her father and husband. Perhaps this is because both Eliam and Uriah are members of the Gibborim, David’s elite warriors, the equivalent of the Knights of the Round Table. Uriah is a Hittite—a foreigner. The author makes use of a clever irony here: the man who turns out to be the perfect soldier is a foreigner, while the pure Isrealite, David, betrays and murders him.

 4 After that David sent messengers that he might take her. So she came in to him and he lay down with her, while she was sanctifying herself from her uncleanness. Later she returned to her house.
The author, Nathan the Prophet, uses a string of verbs (sent…take…came…lay…sanctifying) to convey rapid, single-minded action. But in the middle of this string, one verb switches its subject from David to Bathsheba. He writes “she came in to him”. When the verb “come into” has a masculine subject and a feminine object, it refers to sexual intercourse.

5 And the woman became pregnant. Consequently she sent and told David and said: “I am pregnant.” 6 At this David sent to Joab, saying: “Send to me U·riah the Hittite.” So Joab sent U·riah to David.
Bathsheba sent, then David sent and asks Uriah to be sent and Joab sends him. The theme of using others for one’s own ends, instead of acting for oneself, is once again repeated.

7 When U·riah came to him, David began to ask how Joab was getting along and how the people were getting along and how the war was getting along. 8 Finally David said to U·riah: “Go down to your house and bathe your feet.” Accordingly U·riah went out from the king’s house, and the king’s courtesy gift went out following him.
“Feet” can be a euphemism for the male sex organ, but probably that is not what Nathan is doing here. Most likely he is echoing his earlier reference to Bathsheba’s bathing, which led to sex. David is hoping that this bathing of the feet will lead to the same.

 9 However, U·riah lay down at the entrance of the king’s house with all the other servants of his lord, and he did not go down to his own house. 10 So they told David, saying: “U·riah did not go down to his own house.” Upon that David said to U·riah: “It is from a journey that you have come in, is it not? Why have you not gone down to your own house?”
The read might expect that the phrase “Uriah lay down” would have been followed with “with his wife.” But Uriah abides by the mandates of  the Torah, which require soldiers to practice abstinence during times of military action.
Nathan also reminds us here that people may not do what they are “sent” to do—leading to unforeseen problems.

 11 At this U·riah said to David: “The Ark and Israel and Judah are dwelling in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping on the face of the field, and I—shall I go into my own house to eat and drink and to lie down with my wife? As you are living and as your soul is living, I shall not do this thing!”
The verbs “dwelling” and “camping” and “lie down” are all cast in a negative light—they reflect David’s decision to “dwell” in Jerusalem while he sends forth others to do his bidding.
Moshe Garsiel suggests that the latter part of this verse tells us a lot about the subtext of this account. When Uriah first arrives from the front, he does not know what his wife has been up to—and Nathan conveys that by not specifically mentioning sex in Uriah’s conversation with David. But by verse 11, the court rumors have made their way to his ears, and so Uriah specifically brings up sex with his wife—as though to prick the conscience of the king. It may also be noteworthy that he does not add the deferential “my lord the king” to his statement.

12 Then David said to U·riah: “Dwell here also today, and tomorrow I shall send you away.” Therefore U·riah kept dwelling in Jerusalem on that day and the day following. 13 Further, David called him that he might eat before him and drink. So he got him drunk. Nevertheless, he went out in the evening to lie down on his bed with the servants of his lord, and to his own house he did not go down. 14 And it came about in the morning that David proceeded to write a letter to Joab and send it by the hand of U·riah. 15 So he wrote in the letter, saying: “PUT U·riah in front of the heaviest battle charges, and YOU men must retreat from behind him, and he must be struck down and die.”
More “sending” by David. It seems likely that Uriah guesses what is in this letter. Courageously, he goes to face his doom.  (There is something strikingly distasteful--and Shakespearean (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)--in having Uriah carry his own death warrant to his executioner).

16 And it came about that while Joab was keeping guard over the city he kept U·riah put in the place where he knew that there were valiant men. 17 When the men of the city came on out and went fighting against Joab, then some of the people, the servants of David, fell and U·riah the Hittite also died.
Joab doesn’t do as he is told. He recognizes that David’s plan (to have the men retreat and leave Uriah to be killed) is so clumsy it will immediately reveal to everyone that it is deliberate. So he decides that accomplishing the king’s will is important enough to sacrifice a few good men. David’s guilt grows.

18 Joab now sent that he might report to David all the matters of the war. 19 And he went on to command the messenger, saying: “As soon as you finish speaking to the king about all the matters of the war, 20 then it must occur that if the rage of the king comes up and he does say to you, ‘Why did YOU have to go so near to the city to fight? Did YOU men not know that they would shoot from on top of the wall? 21 Who was it that struck down A·bime·lech the son of Je·rubbe·sheth? Was it not a woman that pitched an upper millstone upon him from on top of the wall so that he died at Thebez? Why did YOU men have to go so close to the wall?’ you must also say, ‘Your servant U·riah the Hittite died too.’”
Joab sends this messenger with very bad news, but provides him with a get-out-of-jail-free card: as long as he mentions Uriah’s death, David can hardly be angry about anyone else’s bad decisions.
The Abimelech that Joab refers to (from Judges Chapter 9) begged his armor bearer to kill him so that it would not be said that a woman killed him. Joab is subtly calling David’s attention to the fact that he knows a woman is the source of this disaster.

22 So the messenger went and came and told David all about which Joab had sent him. 23 And the messenger went on to say to David: “The men proved superior to us, so that they came out against us into the field; but we kept pressing them right up to the entrance of the gate.
Robert Alter (1999) comments: “The astute messenger offers a circumstantial account that justifies the mistake of approaching too close to the wall: the Ammonites came out after the Israelites in hot pursuit; then the Israelites, turning the tide of battle, were drawn after the fleeing Ammonites and so were tricked into coming right up to the gates of the city” (p. 255).

 24 And the shooters kept shooting at your servants from on top of the wall, so that some of the servants of the king died; and your servant U·riah the Hittite also died.”
The messenger doesn’t bother to use Joab’s historical lesson about Abimelech. He knows what David wants to hear—Uriah is dead. This also shows the apparent public knowledge of David’s sin and plot.

 25 At that David said to the messenger: “This is what you will say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter appear bad in your eyes, for the sword eats up one as well as another. Intensify your battle against the city and throw it down.’ And encourage him.”
The king tosses back a sort of soldier’s cliché. He also gives an implicit admission that Joab made the right call in allowing other soldiers to die to accomplish his plan.

26 And the wife of U·riah got to hear that U·riah her husband had died, and she began to wail over her owner. 27 When the mourning period was past, David immediately sent and took her home to his house, and she came to be his wife. In time she bore to him a son, but the thing that David had done appeared bad in the eyes of Jehovah.
Bathsheba’s mourning is shorter than Gertrude’s in Hamlet.
Throughout this entire episode, David has never been seen anywhere but in his house. Robert Alter (1999) comments: “Only now after the adultery, the murder, the remarriage, and the birth of the son, does the narrator make an explicit moral judgment of David’s actions. The invocation of God’s judgment is the introduction to the appearance of Nathan the prophet, delivering first a moral parable “wherein to catch the conscience of the king” and then God’s grim curse on David and his house” (p. 256).

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

03 September 2010

Photos of Display on Daily Life in Ancient Israel

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

On the 31 July I hosted a party for the release of my new book, Judge of Israel. For the party I set up a miniature museum-type display dealing with everyday life in Ancient Israel. For all of you who weren't able to come, I thought I would share some of the highlights of that display. I do plan to re-do the presentation later this year in a couple of more public venues.
I hope you enjoy it!

Stephanie White loaned me this ancient Bible to display 1 Samuel 7, on which "Judge of Israel" is based
This is a replica of a limestone plaque discovered by R. A. S. Macalister in 1908 in the excavations of the city of Gezer. It is believed to be a schoolboy’s writing exercise (not unlike our “Thirty days hath September”)—the penmanship is of poor quality. The calendar dates to the second half of the 10th century B.C.E., and summarizes the yearly activities of the ancient Israelite farmer:

His two months are olive harvest
His two months are planting grain
His two months are late planting
His month is hoeing up of flax
His month is harvest of barley
His month is harvest and feasting
His two months are vine-tending
His month is summer fruit

This single tiny artifact answered a number of questions about the ancient agricultural year, and provided historians with a glimpse into the worlds of a farmer and a schoolboy in the days of King David.
The Lachish Letters are a group of letters written in carbon ink in Archaic Hebrew on clay ostraca. (Ostraca are pieces of broken pottery used as writing surfaces in ancient times—papyrus, vellum, and other alternatives were simply too expensive for everyday correspondence). The individual ostracon probably come from the same broken clay pot. They were written to Joash, likely the military commander at Lachish, from Hoshaiah, a military officer stationed nearby.

The letters were probably written shortly before Lachish fell to the Babylonian army in 588-586 B.C.E. during the last years of Jeremiah’s life and during the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah.

They were discovered by J.L. Starkey in January and February of 1935 and are currently the property of the British Museum in London.
From ancient times, the sling has been a weapon of shepherds and warriors. One end is tied to the hand or looped around a finger (as in this example), and the other end was held in the hand to be freed when the sling was swung. This sling is an accurate replica of one found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (d. 1343 B.C.E.). The cord is made of braided flaxe and the pouch is of leather. The stones displayed were the size commonly used in battle.
A sling this size can hurl a stone at nearly 200 miles per hour, capable not only of killing an armored man but of completely removing a limb. Shepherds who spent all day, every day with their sheep in the fields used slings to pick crows and other birds from off of the backs of their flock (crows will eat the eyes out of a living sheep if given the chance). They became incredibly skilled with the weapon. At Judges 20:16, Samuel describes a team of 700 ambidextrous Benaminites who were “slingers of stones to a hairbreadth and would not miss.”
By far the most common type of sword from Egypt to Lebanon, and from the early Bronze Age to mid-way through the Iron Age was the khopesh, or sickle-sword. This is an exact duplicate of a blade found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, but countless thousands of the same design were made throughout the centuries. It is vertically-cast bronze, in every way identical to the swords that most Israelites would have carried in the 10th century B.C.E. The sword is small to our eyes for several reasons: people at the time were smaller (probably 69 inches was the average height for a grown man), bronze was expensive, and the leverage provided by a longer blade made the sword more likely to break in battle.
Seeing this sword gives new meaning to the famous words in Isaiah 2:4 “And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears.” The khopesh began as a sickle. Kings could not afford to provide weapons for all of their people who only became soldiers in times of war. Each man would simply bring his farm implement into battle, adjusting its shape slightly and perhaps sharpening the outer edge. When peace was restored, swords would be ‘beaten into’ farm tools once again.
Archaeologists differentiate between daggers and swords by their length. Somewhat arbitrarily, any blade 16 inches or shorter was a dagger; anything longer was a sword. That makes this piece, at a little over 17 inches, a sword. It is vertically cast solid bronze with silver inlay. The so-called “Type F” was a simple, straight-bladed, double-edged sword suitable for close combat. This design was used primarily by warlike cultures, since the amount of bronze required made it unusually expensive to produce, and the design was not easily adapted to other purposes. 
The sword type classified “Naue II” is a basic design found across Europe and the Middle East throughout the Bronze Age. This piece is vertically hollow-cast bronze with silver filigree and represented the pinnacle of technology for the people of the day. The shape of the blade and hilt are fairly typical of a type of sword the Mycenaean Greeks, like the Philistines, might have carried. 
Axes, single and double-headed, have been used as weapons since the earliest days of history. They were popular weapons in Palestine in the 10th century B.C.E. among the Canaanite peoples. They owed this popularity in part to the fact that they were common and could be carried into battle by common men who could not afford to own a sword. They were also effective against even heavy armor and defensive weapons. This example is medieval in style, but the designs of axes changed so little through the centuries that it is quite similar to those made two millennia earlier.
The dagger on the right is a replica of the meteorite steel dagger that was found on the body of King Tutankhamen. It was forged for me by my younger brother, Leif.
This lamp design (called a "pinched" lamp) is found all over Palestine. The receptacle is filled with olive oil and a twisted flaxen cord is laid in it as a wick. It burns with a remarkably bright and clean flame.
The bow (Hebrew qesheth) is one of the most ancient of weapons and was used by every Bronze and Iron Age culture of the Middle East. 2 Samuel 22:35 refers to a “bow of copper,” probably referring to the practice of reinforcing the wooden limbs of the bow with thin sheets of copper, bone, horn, or sinew. Arrows (Hebrew chistsim) were made of reed shafts or light wood. Arrowheads were made of flint, bone, or metal. Metal arrowheads did not become common until late into the Bronze Age because of the considerable expense of making enough of them to equip an army, knowing that, unlike spear and javelin heads, most would not be recovered after the battle.
This bow is oak (common in Palestine in David’s day) and the arrow shafts are cedar. The arrow head is copper.
Goliath was a hero of the Philistine army during David’s boyhood. The Bible account says that he was “six cubits and a span” (9 ft 5.75 in) tall. Two hundred years earlier, the Hittites had forged a dagger from a meteorite that had ended up in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. It is not unreasonable that the Philistines, having learned iron-working from the Hittites, would have used the same precious material to forge the sword of their champion.
This blade is a standard Mycenaean Greek, one-handed design scaled up to be suitable for Goliath. Interestingly, David took this sword as his own after defeating Goliath, and wielded it for the rest of his life.
Iron Javelin
Iron Spear