24 April 2010

Saul: the Archetypal Searcher

by Timothy S. Wilkinson

Saul is something of an archetypal character in that his existence can be summed up in a single characteristic: the pursuit of knowledge of the future. “Saul’s entire story, until the night of his death on the battlefield, is a story about the futile quest for knowledge of an inveterately ignorant man,” writes Robert Alter. Samuel may have wanted to illustrate with Saul’s life the importance of having knowledge—especially for one who ruled over others. In any case, Saul’s quest for knowledge and his descent into madness provide a fascinating character study from both a literary and a spiritual perspective.
                Saul’s name in Hebrew is sha’al. Throughout the account, Samuel uses this as a pun by playing with the word for “asked”—sha’ul. The similarity also emphasizes Saul’s constant “asking” for information to figure out what to do.
                Saul is introduced to us in Chapter 9 of the book of 1 Samuel in search (of knowledge) of his father’s lost asses. He and his traveling companion seek their knowledge from a “seer”—Samuel the prophet.  In the verses that follow, almost all of Saul’s words are questions.
                In Chapter 10 and verse 11 the origin of a proverb is given: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” It is noteworthy that this saying (which is apparently a way of expressing incredulity) also links Saul with his inability to get the knowledge he seeks.
                Some time into Saul’s kingship he finds himself at the new capital city of the kingdom—Gibeah, known thereafter as Gibeah of Saul. When his son and crown prince Jonathan leads a surprise attack against a nearby garrison of Philistines, Saul’s reaction is predictable: he seeks knowledge. In Chapter 14 and verses 17 through 20 Saul wants the priest Ahijah to cast the sacred lots to inquire of Jehovah as to what the king should do. (The Masoretic Text says that the “Ark of God” was with them, but the Septuagint says “ephod.” The latter seems the more likely translation since the priest wore the ephod—a sort of jeweled breastplate which (according to Jewish tradition) had a pouch that contained the Urim and Thummim—sacred lots used to make a direct inquiry to God).
                A little later, but during the same conflict, Saul again attempts to inquire of Jehovah. In Chapter 14 verses 36 through 37 the priest encourages Saul to go to God for direction before making any decision.  Saul does so, but (in harmony with the pattern of his life) does not get the knowledge he seeks: “And [Jehovah] did not answer him on that day.”
                After Saul’s successful campaign against Amalek in Chapter 15, Samuel denounces the king for failing to obey Jehovah’s command not to take spoil from the enemy. In his condemnation Samuel speaks in poetry and compares Saul’s offense to divination—a method of seeking knowledge of the future.
                Following David’s valiant conquest of Goliath in Chapter 17, one episode of the tale of Saul comes to an end. In the final verses we find Saul once again in a state of ignorance, repeatedly asking questions about David’s identity.
                The pattern continues. In Chapter 19 verse 22 Saul (sha’ul) has to ask (sha’al) where Samuel and David are; in Chapter 20 verse 27 he asks why David does not show up for a feast; in Chapter 22 verse 8 he complains that knowledge has been denied him by his friends. In that same instance Doeg the Edomite falsely claims that Priest Ahimelech inquired of Jehovah for David. This enrages Saul, whose efforts to ascertain divine guidance have repeatedly met with failure.
                King Saul’s life comes to an end as it began: in a futile attempt to acquire hidden knowledge. In Chapter 28 and verse 6 we find that Jehovah will not speak to Saul “by dreams nor by the Urim nor by prophets.” Desperate, he seeks out a spirit medium, the Witch of Endor. She claims to raise the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel, but once again Saul needs her help to gain access to “Samuel’s” knowledge: in verse 13, he asks “What did you see?”
                Her answer and the words of “Samuel” do not provide Saul with the knowledge he is looking for: some way to attain victory in the upcoming battle against the Philistines. The next day Saul and his sons are killed at the Battle of Mount Gilboah. We cannot help but imagine the hapless king in his last desperate moments looking around and asking the final question: How could this have happened to me?

23 April 2010

The Robe of Power: An Example of the Literary Genius of the Bible Writer, Samuel

By Timothy S. Wilkinson


My earlier blog discussed the genius of the authors of the Bible, a genius that is sometimes not apparent because it is lost in translation. Over the course of the next few blogs I wanted to share some of the literary elements of the David story that have impressed me. I hope that they might help some of my readers to look at the work of Samuel, Nathan, and other Bible writers in a new way.

Samuel, in particular, was skilled at layering complex metaphors into his writing. The first one of these that we will consider is the me’il: a cloak or coat. Samuel (and his successor, Nathan) uses this as a symbol of authority and rulership throughout Samuel’s life—and even after it.

The garment is introduced in 1 Samuel chapter 2 verse 19, where we learn that every year Samuel’s mother, Hannah, brings him a new meil woven by her own hands. The verse first points out that Samuel wore an “ephod”—an apronlike garment worn by the priests and Levites when they were serving at the Tabernacle. This is Samuel the Levite, the Prophet-to-be. But he is also Samuel the child, and his mother’s annual weaving of a “cloak” for him reminds us of both her sacrifice and the struggle that Samuel faced all his life: his dual identity as a hero and leader and a simple man plagued by his own doubts and fears.

In chapter 15, verse 27 Samuel’s childhood “cloak” has now become his robe of office. After the Prophet denounces Israel’s new king, Saul, Saul makes a desperate attempt to get Samuel to help him save face before the people. He grabs Samuel’s meil and, as Samuel walks away, tears it. Once again it appears as a symbol: the tearing of the cloak becomes the tearing away of royal authority from Saul. (We also get a glimpse of Samuel’s personality here in his wit at immediately turning this event into the basis for a poetic denunciation).

The next appearance of the cloak is in chapter 18 verse 4. Following David’s defeat of the giant Goliath, Saul’s firstborn son Jonathan (the crown prince of Israel) offers his meil to David. Once again it is a symbol of rulership. Jonathan’s bestowal demonstrates his willing transfer of his rights as crown prince to David.

Samuel and Saul’s estrangement in chapter 15 began with Samuel’s using a meil as a symbol of Saul’s rights as ruler. In chapter 19 verse 24 Saul comes in pursuit of David, chasing him to the School of the Prophets run by Samuel in Samuel’s hometown of Ramathaim. Samuel defends his School with supernatural power, and Saul strips himself naked and writhes on the ground for a day and a night, humiliated. This becomes the ultimate fulfillment of Samuel’s prophetic statement: Saul strips himself of his royal garments, or divests himself of his kingship.

In chapter 24, Saul is using his army to hunt David through the wilderness, determined to find the young man and kill him. But David has his own army, a gathering of malcontents whom he has welded into a deadly guerrilla army. While Saul “eases nature” in a cave, David sneaks up and cuts off the “skirt” of Saul’s meil. (1 Samuel 24:6) David almost immediately regrets the action. David’s remorse over his cutting off the skirt of Saul’s cloak is more understandable when we now see the meil as a symbol of kingship. David has here “cut away” the kingship without divine authorization.

In confronting Saul over the above incident, David now uses the scrap of cloth he had cut from Saul’s me’il as a symbol of his own power over Saul—yet another example of “he who has the cloak has the power.” (1 Samuel 24:12)

Saul, having chosen to take a firm stand against Jehovah’s anointed one, David, spirals toward his ultimate destruction. Earlier in his reign he had instigated a campaign against the spirit mediums, or witches, who were operating in Israel. Now, in a desperate attempt to learn what to do (since Jehovah will no longer answer him), Saul goes to the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:8). This is the penultimate instance of clothing as a symbol of rulership. Just moments before learning of his own impending death and the final transfer of power to his enemy, David, Saul removes his clothing yet again in order to put on a disguise and avoid being recognized by one of the witches he had condemned. Just a few verses later (vs. 14), the “ghost” of Samuel supposedly appears. (Clearly this is not actually Samuel’s ghost—whether it is a malevolent spirit or simply the illusion of a clever hoaxer is a subject for another time). But “Samuel” is identified by—of course—his prophet’s meil.

Chapter 31 records Saul’s death at the Battle of Mount Gilboah. In verse 9 he is once again divested of his clothing, lying naked in his final defeat.

I do not believe that Samuel and Nathan manipulated the truth to include such interesting and complex metaphor. They developed this account in the way that every brilliant writer does—by finding and highlighting thematic elements that helped them to convey the subtext of their work. In upcoming posts, I will discuss further examples of their literary skill in putting together a story that has captivated readers for 3000 years and provided the basis for one of the greatest legends of all time.

22 April 2010

Lost in Translation

Most of us have grown up making silent excuses for the way the Bible is written. It sounds quaint, simplistic, redundant—even childish at times. This must be because it was written “a long time ago,” we tell ourselves. All of the prose in the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures (or Old Testament) is a violation of the most basic rule of good writing: show, don’t tell. Sentences are always beginning with “and” or “thus,” which our English teachers taught us never to do. Run-on sentences, laundry lists of names or places, statements of the obvious, and a small vocabulary—all of this and more incline us to read the Bible as though it were written by an ignorant people from an unenlightened time.
                The reality, though, is that it is we who are ignorant. The problem lies not in the writing, but in the translation and in our reading.
                Translation is always a tricky endeavor. An internet search for “engrish” will provide a plethora of examples. To illustrate the point, though, imagine trying to translate the following with no comprehension of idioms.

 “Yo! Johnny! What’s the word?”
“You’ve got nerve showing up here. How’d you track me down?”
“A little bird told me you’d be here.”
“What—did my lawyer give me up?”
“That ambulance chaser? You’re nuts. Why do you want a lawyer to thrown a monkey wrench in the works?”
“Yeah, OK. I’m just trying to stay ahead of the curve here, you get my drift?”
“Well, the tables have turned. Let’s talk turkey.”
“Yeah? And I get immunity?”
“That ship has sailed.”
“Of course. And the DA shows her true colors. That apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“You leave her old man out of this. He was a good egg and you know it.”
“I don’t deserve this.”
“That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.”

A translation would likely end up sounding something like this:

“Hello, Johnny. What is the word?”
“You have nerves appearing in this place. How did you follow me down?
“A small bird informed me that you would be here.”
“Did my attorney provide me with up?”
“He chases emergency vehicles? You are snack foods. Why do you want an attorney to hurl a monkey’s tool into the moving parts?”
“Yes, Yes. I am just trying to remain in front of the curvature that is here. Do you receive my coast?
“Well, the furniture has rotated. Let us speak in the language of turkeys.”
“Yes? And I will be protected from the disease?”
“That boat has already disembarked.”
“Of the route. And the Da exposes the real tints that she owns. A piece of fruit lands on the ground near the trunk.”
“You should leave the elderly gentleman belonging to her outside. He was an egg that was satisfactory, which you know.”
“I do not deserve this.”
“That is how the baked good breaks apart.”

                We should notice two things about this translation. First—idioms do not lend themselves well to translation. It’s not just a matter of the meaning not coming across clearly. Of equal importance is the fact that the personality of the speakers, their tone, attitude, background and a host of other details about them disappear in the translated version. We have no trouble picturing the speakers in the first exchange—in fact, you might have even envisioned where they lived, what time period they lived in, what social strata they belonged to, etc. All that information came, not from their words, but from the types of words they chose. And all of that information is, literally, lost in translation.
                The second thing we should notice is that the translation turns both speakers into idiots. When their speech is not nonsensical, it is ignorant or juvenile. If we read the translation without the benefit of the original, we would assume these were simpletons (perhaps with serious head injuries).
                This is precisely what happens when we read the Bible. Ancient Hebrew is a language of idioms. Even the best translation of this sort of idiomatic speech fails to convey anything accurate about the speakers. It makes them sound like ignorant simpletons.
                The reality is that many Bible writers were truly brilliant. My favorites, the prophet Samuel and his successor Nathan, crafted a history with layers of intricacy, symbolism, subtextual themes and ideologies that rivals the very best poetry and prose at any time in history. I think that sometimes, in our determination to establish the authenticity (and/or divine origin) of their accounts, we downplay the role that these men played as writers, and the skill with which they practiced their craft. In the following blog posts, I hope to illustrate this skill in a way that reveals the genius of these writers that is all too often buried by the sincere efforts of translators whose work is science, and not art.

21 April 2010

The Giants of Palestine

The Bible, like many ancient works of literature, speaks of giants. Genesis describes the Nephilim (meaning “those who make others fall down”), and the books of the Pentateuch mention races of giants: the Rephaim and the Anakim. These are not giants of the willowy, slender type—these men were all known as warriors of great strength and skill. Og, the king of Bashan was one of the Rephaim. His height is not recorded, but he was buried in a sarcophagus that measured over 13 feet. Goliath of Gath, whom David slew, was nine and a half feet tall. Ishbi-benob, Saph, and Lahmi were other giants from the time of David’s rule.
                Are such accounts clear evidence of exaggeration or the influence of legends on Bible writers? Not necessarily. Although no conclusive evidence has been found for the existence of a giant race in Palestine, there are reasons not to dismiss the idea out of hand.
                First of all, acromegalic gigantism has produced men of extraordinary size throughout recorded history. In our modern times these have included:
                Robert Wadlow (1918-1940), 8 feet 11 inches
                John Rogan (1865-1905), 8 feet 9 inches
                Edouard Beaupre (1881-1904), 8 feet 3 inches
                Vaino Myllyrinne (1909-1963), 8 feet 2 inches
                Don Koehler (1925-1981), 8 feet 2 inches
                Sultan Kosen (1982-present), 8 feet 1 inch
                Patrick Cotter O’Brien (1750-1806), 8 feet 1 inch
                Gabriel Esevao Monjane (1944-1990), 8 feet ¾ inch
                Julius Koch (1872-1902), 8 feet
                Some of these names may be familiar. I grew up reading about Robert Wadlow in the Guinness Book of World Records. My memory of him was as a fragile-looking giant who required two canes to walk. Others on this list are similar—John Rogan could not walk, and Sultan Kosen also requires the help of two canes.
                But not all giants are weakened by their condition—at least not in their youth. Edouard Beaupre weighed over 400 pounds and worked as a professional strongman and wrestler. He would regularly entertain crowds by lifting a 900 pound horse on his shoulders. Vaino Myllyrinne was a soldier in the Finnish defense forces and later a professional wrestler and boxer. Patrick Cotter O’Brien weighed over 460 pounds. In 1826 he grabbed a heckler by the collar, held him at arm’s length and shook him.
                In the span of a mere 260 years there have been twelve people with a verified height of more than eight feet. From a purely statistical point of view, that suggests around 140 such people have lived in the past 3000 years—even if we do not allow for the possibility of a genetic anomaly that would increase the height of a given race.
                Modern Sudanese may average 6 feet 4 inches; modern Scandinavians are nearly 6 feet 2 inches. Surely it is possible that at some time there existed a race whose average height was close to 7 feet. If so, a case of gigantism in that race could certainly result in an incredibly tall person.
                Of course, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence of the remains of people of much greater stature being found all over the world. Most of this evidence has been ignored by science or has been destroyed before it could be properly analyzed. It should, though, at least allow us to consider the possibility that a race of giants did at one time live somewhere on the earth.
                It is interesting that the Bible’s most famous giant, Goliath of Gath, is not described as being twenty feet tall (or as living atop a beanstalk). His nine-and-a-half foot height is certainly extraordinary, but not beyond the realm of physical or medical possibility.
                As I said, there is no conclusive archaeological evidence of such a race. But huge stone constructions in Palestine are traditionally attributed to the Rephaim giants. In the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad before the looting, there was a display of three battleaxes that had been found in southern Palestine. I have included a photograph of them below. The heads of these axes weigh more than thirty pounds each. Most archaeologists believe them to be ceremonial weapons—but they draw this conclusion purely based on their size. The axe heads themselves are entirely functional. (The handles are re-creations for display purposes). Below them are photographs of Andre Roussimoff (7'4" and 500 lbs.) and Eduoard Beaupre.
                The possibility must be entertained that these were once weapons in the hands of one of the most feared races of warriors ever to walk to the earth: the giants of Palestine.

20 April 2010

Idioms and Images: Ancient Hebrew Speech

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

            It is impossible to truly understand the Bible (or other ancient Hebrew writing) without some understanding of idioms. The online reference site www.dictionary.com defines “idiom” as: “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements or from the general grammatical rules of language, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.”
            In ancient Hebrew a relatively small vocabulary was compensated for by recombining the same terms into word pictures. Most of these word pictures related in some way to parts of the body; others were based on cultural elements or religious concepts.
            Some of these idioms are quite straightforward or have entered the English vernacular: to “put your hands to” something, to “put your life in someone’s hands,” to  have “clean hands”, or “a handful” of something; we even use the term “closefisted” to refer to a lack of generosity.
            As may be apparent, the hands are an important idiomatic element. The hand is used as a symbol of power or ability, and so metaphoric hands are given to various things. The “hands of the tongue” is a reference to the power of language, and a person could fall victim to the “hands of a sword.”
 “In one’s hand” means “under one’s control.” “Strengthening the hands” refers to empowering or equipping; to “weaken the hands” or “cause the hands to droop” means to break down someone’s morale. Conversely, to “find the life of your hand” was to regain power or be revived. To “put your hands on” another’s goods is to steal them. A murderer had “hands filled with blood,” and a generous person “open hands.”
Some uses of the metaphoric hand are more obscure. A man who agreed to keep silent about something was said to “put his hand over his mouth.” If an individual could not afford something, it was said that “his hand did not reach” it.
Other parts of the body also provided the material for idiomatic expressions. To clear an accused person’s reputation was to “cover your eyes.” A beach was “the lip of the sea.” To “lengthen the nostrils” was to be patient or slow to anger, and “height of nose” was arrogance. A person who was “in want of heart” lacked good motives.
The expression “to lift up the face” is used in two ways. Disparagingly, it means to treat with partiality. It can also mean to accord a friendly reception. This idiom is based on Oriental greeting rituals. When entering a person’s presence an Israelite would bow and turn their face to the ground. Their host would then lift up, or raise the face of the one who is bowing.
Understanding many idioms requires us to picture daily and ritual life in ancient Palestine. Today we might say that something is “razor sharp;” in Palestine it would have been called “the most pointed of earthenware fragments.” To “cut a covenant” was to enter into a formal agreement. It was likely that this came from the practice of sacrificing an animal in symbol of such agreements. A man who was a good person was called “pure olive oil.”
A man was “one who urinated against a wall;” to “keep the feet hidden” was to ease nature. “Shortness of spirit” was impatience, and “height of spirit” was haughtiness.
Military terminology included such expressions as being “brought to silence” (being killed), to “tread the bow” (to prepare for war), and to “place on high” (to protect or safeguard).
Some of these expressions are virtually indecipherable translated into modern English. To say that someone had “become heavy” meant that they had gained honor or glory. The question “What is there to you and to me?” was mean to indicate that the speaker and listener had nothing in common in regards to the issue under discussion.
Modern translations paraphrase these idioms for us for obvious reasons. I cannot help but think that we lose some of the meaning of these expressions, though, in such summaries. Even if we do not immediately understand the meaning of a literally translated idiom, it often communicates more to us than is apparent on the surface. Each one tells us a little about the life and the thinking of the people. 

19 April 2010

Childbirth In Ancient Israel

The first command God gave to humans in the Scriptures was "Be fruitful and multiply." Families in Bible times took this command very seriously. One rabbi of the first century B.C.E. wrote, "If anyone does not [have children], it is as though he were to shed blood or to diminish God's image."

There was no such thing as deliberate childlessness among Jewish families. Children were the purpose of marriage; children assured that the family name would continue and that hereditary property would remain in the family. Modern Palestinian Arabs believe that a couple without children is unnatural. When a couple's first son is born, the father's name is changed to include that of the firstborn: if the child's name is Dathan, the father's name would be changed to Abudathan (Father of Dathan). A man without children is chidingly called "Father of Nothing," and one without sons is called "Abu el Banat" (Father of Daughters), which is both an insult and an expression of sympathy.

Childlessness or barrenness was a serious problem. A barren woman was considered a reproach by her neighbors (Luke 1:25); Rachel's inability to conceive made her suicidal (Gen 30:1). Partly this was because Israelites believed the barrenness was a sign of divine disapproval--a curse resulting from some sin on the part of the woman or her family. In Moses' benediction to the people before his death, he had promised the faithful and obedient: "Blessed shall you be above all people, and there will not be found among you a male or female who is barren."

Out of this belief came the common procedures for encouraging conception. The couple examined their entire lives for any unconfessed sins and repented of them, even offering sacrifices in atonement for sins they did not know they had committed (Leviticus 4:2). Their prayers centered on this theme (note the examples of Isaaac in Genesis 25 and Hannah in 1 Samuel 1).

If sin was ruled out as the cause of the malady, friends and relatives would suggest remedies. Rachel asked Leah for mandrakes, plants believed to produce fertility. Apples and fish were also used for this purpose.

Despite the divine edict against idolatry, modern excavations in Israel have uncovered countless clay fertility figurines in the rough shape of pregnant women. Women believed that by keeping the image close and handling them they could invoke "sympathetic magic" and become pregnant themselves. Jeremiah records women kneading cakes and offerings libations and incense to Ashtoreth (Astarte), the Canaanite goddess of sex, maternity, and fertility.

A women who was persistently barren might find herself replaced in her husband's affections by a second wife or a concubine. This was not always considered bad by the wife--Sarah asked Abraham to impregnate her servant, Hagar (Genesis 16), and Rachel asked Joseph to do the same to Bilhah (Genesis 30).

When the wife did become pregnant, it was a time for great rejoicing and celebration. Miscarriages were no doubt common, though, as were complications (Genesis 35, 38; 1 Samuel 4:20). The child came into the world on a dirt floor, was washed with unpurified water and swaddled in cloths that could not be freed of fleas and insects. Researchers believe that infant mortality in ancient Egypt was as high as 90 percent, and archaeology supports the idea that the numbers were not much better in Palestine. The Torah specified that the infant was to be redeemed after he or she had lived for 30 days; if the child survived that long, it was considered likely that he or she would live longer.

Mothers were assisted by midwives, and the birth took place with the mother in a seated or kneeling position on a birthing stool (Exodus 1:16). When the baby came out the umbilical cord was cut and the child was rubbed with salt, water, and oil. Swaddling clothes were used to wrap the child and were changed every week or so until the child reached the age of 40 days. Either on the day of its birth or on the eighth day afterward (when the male children were circumcised) the child was named.

Male children were preferred. In the cultures of some of Israel's neighbor nations parents might actually leave a newborn girl in the wild to die, or sell her into slavery. Israelite couples welcomed both male and female babies, but only the male could carry on the family name and keep the family's hereditary properties in the genealogical line. (Exceptions were made to this--see the case of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers Chapter 27). Thus the famous and no-doubt oft-repeated proclamation: "There has been a child born to us; There has been a son given to us."(Isaiah 9:6)

18 April 2010

Israelite Tribal Heraldry

            Our wide-range view of the history of Israel, taken with the perspective of passing millennia, gives us a picture of a single, united nation. That concept has become a prominent political theme since the Second World War. But when we narrow our focus to the ninth and tenth centuries B.C.E., a different picture emerges.
            It was at Mount Sinai in the year 1513 B.C.E. that Israel became a nation. It was comprised of an amalgamation of thirteen tribes and countless foreigners who joined themselves to those tribes (including entire peoples, such as the Gibeonites of Joshua chapter 9). It would be many centuries before Israel viewed itself as a single people. Tribal loyalty remained stronger than national until after Saul’s day, perhaps reinforced by divine edicts forbidding intermarrying between tribes and strict delineation of unalterable tribal territories. Throughout the period of the judges (the three hundred years between 1450-1117 B.C.E.) the tribes are primarily described as operating somewhat independently, and inter-tribal civil wars and conflicts break out more than once.
            Under these circumstances, over a period of over 700 years of tribal intermarriage, each tribe would have no doubt developed their own subculture as well as distinct genetic traits and characteristics. It was possible for an Israelite to identify a man of another tribe by his looks, dress, or accent (Judges 8:24, 12:1-6).
            The tribes also had unique military roles or specialties. Chaim Herzog (former President of the State of Israel) and Mordechai Gichon (Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University) have written a wonderful book entitled “Battles of the Bible” (Greenhill Books, Lionel Leventhal Limited, 1997). In it they describe the various tribes’ “military proficiencies.” The Benjaminites were ambidextrous missile warriors with sling and bow (1 Chronicles 12:2; Benjaminite boys had their dominant hands tied behind their backs for long periods of time to force them to develop ambidextrousness). Judges 20:16 says of the Benjaminite slingers: “They would not miss.” The Gadites were highly mobile “shield and buckler” warriors, ‘as swift as the roes upon the mountains’ (1 Chronicles 12:8). The Zebulunites were experts with all weapons and apparently known for their fearlessness—the writer of Chronicles says they could “keep rank” in the direst of circumstances (ibid., v.33). Judeans were rank and file spear and shield warriors (ibid., v.24), as were the men of Naphtali (ibid., v. 34). The tribe of Issachar is described as having an ‘understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do’—apparently indicating that they were specialists in military intelligence, logistics, and tactics.
            While Israel was traveling in the wilderness, their camps were organized by tribes, and each tribal encampment was marked with a ‘sign’ or ‘banner’ (Numbers 2:2). While the Bible does not give descriptions of these signs, it seems that they served a similar purpose to heraldic coats of arms in medieval times. Such designations would have been very useful in organizing a camp of upwards of three million people. Some scholars feel that these ensigns were likely based on the prophetic descriptions of each tribe given by the patriarch Jacob on his deathbed (Genesis Chapter 49): a lion for Judah, a ship for Zebulun, an ass for Issachar, a snake for Dan, a deer for Naphtali, a sapling for Joseph, and a wolf for Benjamin. 

17 April 2010

Israel's Stonehenge

Considering the attention garnered by the megaliths, menhirs, sarsens, and dolmens of Europe, I find it fascinating (and a little disappointing) how little attention has been paid to the ancient stone monuments of Palestine. Standing stones have been an element of the culture of the Levant from the earliest times (from Jacob’s day, in the 17th century B.C.E., according to Genesis 28 and traditional Bible chronology). They played an important role as remembrancers for the people of Israel both before and after the conquest.
                In 1761 B.C.E., the patriarch Jacob ben Isaac had a dream in which he saw a ladder going to heaven. On that location, near the ancient city of Luz, he set up a stone pillar (using the stone that had served as his “pillow”) and named the place “Bethel,” or “House of God” (Genesis Chapter 28). Later that same year, Jacob and his father-in-law Laban concluded a covenant at a place north of the Torrent Valley of Jabbok which Jacob named Galeed, or “Witness Heap.” Again Jacob erected a stone pillar, this time having his brothers to pile stones around or near the pillar in the form of a table, upon which a communion meal was eaten with Laban (Genesis Chapter 31).
                Centuries later, in around 1473 B.C.E., the nation of Israel crossed the Jordan River and began their conquest of the Promised Land. The flooded river was miraculously stopped up for this event when the Priests carried the Ark of the Covenant out into its waters. After the crossing, Joshua had twelve stones set up in the middle of the river to commemorate the event.
                Sometime afterward Joshua followed through on Moses’ instructions as recorded at Deuteronomy Chapter 27. An unspecified number of “great [uncut] stones” were to be whitewashed with lime and erected on Mount Ebal next to an altar. After offering sacrifices on the altar, the words of the Torah were to be copied onto the whitewashed stones, “making them quite clear” (Deuteronomy 27:8).
                Joshua Chapter 24 records Joshua’s speech to the nation just before his death in 1450 B.C.E. After the people vowed to obey the words of the Torah, Joshua concluded a covenant with them near Shechem. The Tabernacle was set up near a “massive tree,” and beneath it Joshua erected a “great stone” as a witness: “Look! This stone is what will serve as a witness against us, because it has itself heard all the sayings of Jehovah that he has spoken with us, and it must serve as a witness against you, that you may not deny your God.” (Joshua 24:27, New World Translation).
                It would be many centuries before the Scriptures recorded the next stone being put up. This time it was done by the Prophet Samuel to commemorate Israel’s victory over the Philistines in a campaign that stretched from Mizpah to the Plains of Philistia itself. The stone was erected by the prophet “between Mizpah and Jeshanah,” and was named “Ebenezer,” or “Stone of Help.”
                Of course most of the stone installations in the Levant are not recorded in Scripture. One of the more fascinating ones (to me) is a set of giant concentric rings of stacked stone in the West Bank region. It is traditionally known as “Gilgal of the Rephaim.” Ancient Jewish tradition says that it was constructed by the race of giants sometime before the 16th century B.C.E. I have included a photograph of it below; it is, to me, Palestine’s Stonehenge.
                The standing stones of Palestine are every bit as significant and fascinating and ancient as the various henges and dolmens of Europe, and often illustrate important turning points in the history of the Israelites. I hope that more information is forthcoming on these structures. 

16 April 2010

The Climate of Ancient Palestine

The Palestine I present in the Eternal Throne Chronicles is obviously a far lusher, forested, and climatically milder place than we find it to be at present. As with all things Biblical, there is a great deal of ongoing debate as to the ecological and meteorological conditions of Israel three millenia ago.

The ecology of modern-day Israel, though, is remarkably diverse. From the snow-covered slopes of Mount Hermon it is possible to view, in once glance, broad and barren deserts of yellow sand, lush green jungles, fertile valleys of checkered fields, plateaus and steppes of garigue, sandy Mediterranean beaches, majestic forests of oak and cedar and more. During the rainy season streams, lakes, and swamps appear temporarily all over northern Israel, and the fens south of Lake Hula once served as home to crocodiles and hippos. There are few places on earth with such variety of geography and climate within so small an area.

Many researchers believe that the dawn of the Iron Age in the tenth century resulted in a dramatic increase in the harvesting of timber, since the production and forging of iron require enormous quantities of fuel. Archaeology seems to support (or at least allow for) this interpretation. Israel was once a place of great forests, the remnants of which can still be glimpsed in a handful of preserves. (I have included below a few photographs of one of the surviving forests in present-day Lebanon, and a link to some further pictures). At some time the entire Plain of Sharon was a mighty, sprawling forest of oaks; the forests of Hereth, Mahanaim, Ephraim, and Bashan were all celebrated in scripture for their majesty and density. When forests are referred to by Bible writers, they are generally connected to an element of danger or mystery (David's hiding place in 1 Samuel 22:5, the site (and cause) of Absalom's death in 2 Samuel 18).

There is also some evidence that the current aridity of the Levant results in part from the logging of its mountains. When the land was still covered in trees, especially the hills and mountains of the Shephelah and Judah (which would have been taller three thousand years ago), clouds traveling inland from the Mediterranean would have been much more likely to drop their precipitation before evaporating over the Arabian Desert. This increase in rainfall, added to the fertility of a soil that had not been depleted by millenia of farming, erosion, and irrigation, add up to considerably more lush Israel.

The town in which I live in Washington averages only 15 inches of precipitation per year--almost 10 inches less than Jerusalem's current average. But Sequim is surrounded by lush forests of fir, hemlock, and cedar covering the slopes of the snow-capped Olympics. Admittedly, there is more to climate than rainfall, but this fact does allow us to entertain the possibility that the Israel of King David's day was a land with more in common with portions of northwest Washington today than with the barren hills of modern Judea.

15 April 2010

The Philistines

Most modern scholars consider the Philistines of the Bible to have been one of the "Sea Peoples" that probably originated in Mycenae, Cyprus, and surrounding lands. Homer's Iliad was a battle involving the Mycenaean Greeks of this time period. It is entirely possible that Odysseus and the Warriors who sacked Troy were the forefathers of (or at least related to) the Philistines who eventually settled in Israel.They traveled south (likely to escape a period of crop failures and famine), conquering peoples as they went. They destroyed the Hittite empire in Anatolia, ransacking its capital Hattusas and sacking Ugarit in Syria and the Cyprian capital, Enkomi. Fighting alongside the Libyans at the Nile delta, they were defeated by Pharaoh Merenptah. Returning to Egypt in the eighth year of Rameses III, the Sea Peoples were again defeated, but Pharaoh allowed them to settle in the north--in Palestine (the name of which comes from Philistine).

At this period in history, the Philistines become a significant problem for the people of Israel. Starting with the Battle of Aphek in the days of High Priest Eli and the childhood of Samuel the Prophet, Israel faced off against the Philistines repeatedly. Whether under the leadership of Samson, Samuel, or Saul, the Israelites could not gain a decisive advantage over these fierce coastal warriors.

It seems that a major reason for this was Philistine technological superiority--especially in the area of metalworking. In the book of 1 Samuel, chapter 13, Samuel reports that the Philistines had completely taken over the business of smithing in Israel. Samuel must have been referring here to iron working; archaeology substantiates the notion that the Philistines brought this technology with them from Anatolia, where the Hittites had been the first to master it.

The Philistines also owed their military greatness to their alliance with the most feared people of the eighth through the tenth centuries B.C.E.--the Rephaim. Although skeptics are quick to cry foul whenever "giants" are mentioned in ancient literature, there is solid, empirical data to support the notion that a race suffering/blessed with a form of gigantism was once prominent in ancient Palestine. Philistines used these super-warriors as champions, as in the famous case of Goliath.

"Philistine" has entered the English vernacular since the seventeenth century as a synonym for boorish or uncultured. Archaeology in recent decades has in many ways debunked this notion. the Philistines achieved high levels of artistic sophistication and a deep appreciation for aesthetic values. The fact that these qualities existed in a culture that also practiced child sacrifice, ritualized sex rites and barbarous military methods should not be surprising when one consider the obvious parallels in the "advanced" cultures of the world today.

14 April 2010

The Deadliest Animal

The people of ancient Israel lived in a world filled with wild and dangerous creatures. Just as today you are statistically likely to be related to someone who has died of cancer, in Palestine in the 10th century B.C.E. you were statistically likely to be related to someone who had been killed by a wild animal.
Man-eating lions haunted watering holes (2 Samuel 23:20); Syrian brown bears ate children (2 Kings 2:23); cobras, scorpions, and pit vipers sent many unwary travelers to their deaths. Of the ten deadliest animals on earth today (in terms of numbers of people killed per year), eight of them (dogs, bears, hippos, crocodiles, lions, leopards, scorpions, and cobras) were common in Palestine in Bible times.
But the deadliest animal in ancient Israel hasn’t killed anyone in centuries. It has been extinct since Roman times, the last of them having been hunted down in Europe by the Gauls. It is the aurochs, (Hebrew re’em), the wild bull.
The aurochs stood over six feet at the shoulder and was over ten feet long. Massive and muscled, it weighed in at well over a ton. It’s razor-sharp horns spanned nearly six feet—and it is one of the few creatures in history that deliberately hunted men. As far as I know, the aurochs and the elephant are the only herbivorores to do so.
English archaeologist Austen Layard wrote: “The wild bull, from its frequent representation in the bas-reliefs, appears to have been considered scarcely less formidable and noble game than the lion. The king is frequently seen contending with it, and warriors pursue it both on horseback and on foot.” (Nineveh and Its Remains, 1849, Volume 2, page 326) Julius Caesar wrote the following description of them: “[They] are scarcely less than elephants in size, but in their nature, colour, and form, are bulls. Great is their strength, and great their speed: they spare neither man nor beast when once they have caught sight of them.”
Today, there are no non-domesticated strains of bovines left. Even the deadly water buffalo, while it may live in the wild in some areas, is descended from domestic ancestors. It is hard for us to imagine what it would have been like to face an animal of the size, speed, and ferocity of the aurochs with nothing more than sword, spear, and short bow. From the standpoint of a Bronze Age warrior, these creatures were unstoppable.
Researchers believe that the closest representation of the aurochs alive today is an Asian breed of cattle called Gaur. I have included pictures below--one of gaur, and one of a bull Photoshopped to be the size of an ancient aurochs.
I would rather face a lion any day.

13 April 2010

The Horror of Canaanite Religion

I am currently editing a section of Judge which details some of the cultic practices of the Canaanites and the Philistines. They worshiped a pantheon of gods who lived on Mt. Zephon (modern Mount Aqraa in Syria) ruled by the drunken El (Dagon) and Asherah. The gods include the craftsman Chousor, Lightning-wielding Baal, Goddess of war and sex Ashtoreth, Goddess of savagery Anat, sea-god Lotan or Yam, and Mot, the god of death and the underworld.

Like their later Greek and Roman counterparts (Zeus, Hera, Vulcan, Athena, Neptune, and Hades) these gods were known for their all-too-human characteristics. In the Ras Shamra mythologies uncovered in the ruins of Ugarit, Baal sires a decoy of himself on a cow and later turns himself into a bull to rape his sister Anat. Anat wears a belt of the heads and hands of her victims and is depicted wading exultantly through rivers of blood. The gods hold orgies on Mount Zephon, sometimes including humans.

Priests in Canaan were political and religious leaders with absolute power over their followers. They practiced exorcism and various forms of divination. They were assisted by Kurgaru (castrato), Assinu (homosexual priests), Naditu (ritually neutered priestesses), Sinnishat Zikrum (lesbian transvestites), and Qadishtu (female temple prostitutes).

Among the most well-known of their practices was the invocation of "sympathetic magic." During the dry summer season vegetation died when Mot triumphed over Baal, forcing him to withdraw into the depths of the earth. Baal (and the rain) would return only after Anat conquered Mot and Baal could mate with Ashtoreth, ensuring fertility for the coming year. To encourage Baal to do so, Canaanites held huge sexual orgies in which the priests had sex with any and all women they desired. The priests might also re-enact Baal's copulation with cows, and offer sacrifices of infant children. In some cases, Canaanites would appeal to their dead relatives for help in overcoming Mot; this was done by having sex with one's closest living fleshly relative.

Evidence indicates that Canaanites lived in morbid dread of their priests. Marriages and families were shattered by their practices, and the unwanted children of these unions were often slaughtered on altars to Baal or Dagon. Sexually transmitted disease was likely epidemic; rape was perhaps as common as it is in the worst of today's war-ravaged nations. According to Merrill F. Unger: “Excavations in Palestine have uncovered piles of ashes and remains of infant skeletons in cemeteries around heathen altars, pointing to the widespread practice of this cruel abomination.” (Archaeology and the Old Testament, 1964, p. 279) Halley’s Bible Handbook (1964, p. 161) says: “Canaanites worshipped, by immoral indulgence, as a religious rite, in the presence of their gods; and then, by murdering their first-born children, as a sacrifice to these same gods. It seems that, in large measure, the land of Canaan had become a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah on a national scale. . . . Did a civilization of such abominable filth and brutality have any right longer to exist? . . . Archaeologists who dig in the ruins of Canaanite cities wonder that God did not destroy them sooner than he did.”

Writing about the reality of these practices is important, I think. People should know and understand why these nations were condemned to destruction. From a Biblical standpoint, the most humane thing Jehovah could do for them was to kill them, preserve them in His memory, and at a later date resurrect them into a better world.

12 April 2010

The Home Stretch

Editing has entered the home stretch. I hope to order my final proof on 24 May. If all goes well, I will hold my release party on 19 June and the book will become available for sale on that day as well.

Today also begins my pre-marketing schedule. I intend to keep my blog and Twitter updated daily. I will be using Twitter to share information regarding life in Bible times and details about Bible verses that I have encountered in my research for The Eternal Throne Chronicles. I will also begin marketing to bookstores.

I hope to be invited to join the North Olympic Library System's Author Fair again this year on 22 May. (Unfortunately, this falls the day after Chelsey's and my sixteenth wedding anniversary--what were you thinking, NOLS?)

Thanks for following!

03 April 2010

Editing progress

I am in Bellingham this weekend to give a talk about the 20th chapter of 2 Chronicles. We are staying with friends, allowing me to ignore phone calls and escape everyday distractions and work on editing Judge of Israel. So here I sit, Bolt curled up at my side, a view of Bellingham's storm-tossed bay outside the window--blogging instead of editing.