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

02 September 2010

Music and Musicians in the Bible

By Timothy S. Wilkinson


Ancient Israel lay at a geographical crossroads that exposed it to a tremendous diversity of cultures. It is unreasonable to assume that Israelite arts developed in a vacuum—there can be no doubt that the music of these people was at least partly shaped by that of the nations all around them.

With that being said, Israelites also saw the need to avoid adopting many of the practices of these pagan nations because of the Torah's requirement that they remain "holy" in God's sight. These pagan nations used music and sensuous dancing to arouse worshippers to participation in religious orgies. Any music that sounded similar to this must have been repulsive to the Israelites. (Puritans condemned Bacchanal music during the Reformation, and many Christian churches today discourage their followers from listening to overtly sexual, violent, or angry music).

Nevertheless, music was a constant and integral part of the Israelite's life. People sang, played instruments, and danced when armies returned successfully, when the Ark of the Covenant was transported, at weddings, funerals, and feasts, and on many other occasions. In fact, families would often hire professional musicians—including professional mourners—to attend such events to guarantee the quality of the music. After the Temple was built—and even in the years leading up to it—Levite musicians were highly organized into choruses and orchestras. 1 Chronicles 9:33 seems to indicate that they were professionals who were excused from other responsibilities in order to focus on their craft.

We have very little detailed information about either the instruments used or the type of music played—the Bible is cryptic and sparse on the subject. (In 1968 Maureen M. Barwise claimed to have deciphered some very ancient Egyptian musical hieroglyphs into "sheet music" and played the resulting tunes. Her claims have been met with very mixed acceptance). There seem to be a few basic instruments that most scholars agree about:

  • Halil: this was a hollow pipe of bone or wood with a reed similar to a clarinet's
  • Mashrokitha: this appears to refer to some kind of large flute
  • Hazora: this was a metal trumpet or bugle, typically made of silver or bronze
  • Kinnohr (Chinner): this is a sheepgut-strung harp apparently shaped like the Sea of Galilee (which is why that body of water is also called the 'Sea of Chinnereth')
  • Menanaim: similar to the Egyptian sistra, this seems to have been a type of rattle made by stringing metal plates on metal rods in a wooden frame
  • Meziltaim: copper cymbals
  • Metsilloth: probably small copper rattles; at Zechariah 14:20 they are attached to the bridles of horses
  • Nebel: the word "nebel" literally refers to a skin bottle or jar; perhaps this refers to the swollen-looking soundbox of this small harp
  • Qeren: a wind instrument made of an animal's horn
  • Shophar: a Qeren made from a ram's horn
  • Tof: a large drum played with either bare hands or sticks, and large enough that two people could play it at once
Instruments were of high quality—the scriptures speak of harps being made of "choicest alum." Apparently, the musicians were of high-quality as well—an Assyrian bas-relief shows King Sennacherib demanding male and female musicians from King Hezekiah as tribute. Curt Sachs makes the following observation in The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West: "The choruses and orchestras connected with the Temple in Jerusalem suggest a high standard of musical education, skill, and knowledge. It is important to realize that the ancient Western Orient had a music quite different from what historians of the nineteenth century conceded it…Though we do not know how that ancient music sounded, we have sufficient evidence of its power, dignity, and mastership."

Music was also used therapeutically: in 1 Samuel 16:23 to calm Saul's nerves, and attempted in Daniel 6:18 to do the same for Darius.

In the historical fiction novels of Eternal Throne Chronicles, I have tried to capture some of the importance of music—both sacred and secular—to the Israelite people. While writing I often listen to recordings of traditional Middle Eastern music as well as music inspired by the same, hoping that some of its uniquely Oriental feelings would find their way into my work. I leave it to my readers to judge if it worked or not.


01 September 2010

The Cherethites and the Pelethites

At 2 Samuel 8:18 Nathan wrote that "Benaiah the son of Jehoiada [was over] the Cherethites and the Pelethites." From this time on, these otherwise unidentified groups serve as David's personal bodyguard. The lack of any further information about them has led to many decades of speculation as to their identity. After all, David had at his disposal the Gibborim, the "Mighty Men," his own personal Knights of the Round Table, made up of the greatest warriors in the land—and yet he chose to be protected by these two groups. He assigned one of his most trusted and deadly generals, Benaiah, to be their leader, but none of them are included in the lists of the Gibborim. This fact seems to indicate that the Cherethites and Pelethites were not part of the regular army, that they enjoyed an autonomy not shared by any other groups.

Whoever they were, they were extraordinarily loyal to David himself and not just to his position as king. In 2 Samuel 15 when David's son Absalom forcibly deposed his father it appears that most of the army supported Absalom—but the Cherethites and Pelethites stayed with David. They did the same during Sheba's rebellion in 2 Samuel 20, and even when the highest ranking officer in the army, Joab, sided with the usurper Adonijah after David's death the Cherethites and Pelethites supported Solomon, David's chosen heir.

The most popular identification for these groups is rooted in the name Pelethite. In Hebrew, adding a single character to "Pelethite" gives you the word "Philistine." The Cherethites are connected to the Philistines at 1 Samuel 30: 14 and 16, Ezekiel 25:16 and Zephaniah 2:5. The translators of the Greek Septuagint translated "Cherethite" as "Cretan"—likely alluding to the Philistine's origins on the island of Crete (Caphtor) (Amos 9:7). Many scholars, therefore, believe that the Cherethites and Pelethites were Philistine warriors, either of different tribes or serving in different positions, who served King David. Some see in the name "Cherethite" a relation to the Hebrew root karath, meaning "cut off". They feel this indicates that the Cherethites were some kind of executioners, but there is no evidence beyond this single etymological detail to establish this.

In 1 Samuel 27 David flees the land of Israel to escape the murderous intent of King Saul. In this case he flees to the Philistine city of Gath and comes under the protection of Achish, the Axis Lord of Gath. Eventually, David earns Achish's trust and he is given the city of Ziklag for himself and his men. Little detail is given regarding David's activities during his 16 months there. Nathan does record that David took the opportunity to raid the Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites, thereby laying the groundwork for his future hold on the land as king. (David told Achish that he was attacking Israel so that Achish would have no reason to question David's loyalty).

Apparently, though, when David left Philistia after the death of Saul, he was joined by a significant number of Philistines whose loyalty he had somehow earned. In 2 Samuel 15:18, Nathan specifies that David is supported by "all the Cherethites and all the Pelethites and all the Gittites, six hundred men that had followed him from Gath." It is a testament to David's incredible charisma that these people who had once considered him "enemy number one" would now follow him into a foreign land and pledge their lives to his protection. Gath was Goliath's hometown—if any of the Philistines might have had reason to hate David, it would have been the Gittites. But now they willingly became his servants. It must also have been a comfort to David to be guarded by soldiers who were bound to him by nothing but their personal loyalty—a characteristic that became important when David was usurped by Absalom.

The Pelethites are not mentioned after David's reign. Some feel that they might have returned to Philistia after his death. The Cherethites, though, may be referred to in 2 Kings 11:4 and 11:19 under the name "Carian bodyguard." The Masoretic text translates "Cherethites" as "Carian bodyguard" at 2 Samuel 20:23. It seems possible that both Pelethites and Cherethites, or at least some of them, continued to serve as the defenders of the Davidic line for some time after David's death.

These details give us a fascinating picture of the nature and structure of David's army. Joab was the general over the regular army. An elite group of warriors known as The Three was headed by Josheb-basshebeth the Tahchemonite. A second elite group known as The Thirty (the equivalent to Arthur's Round Table Knights) was headed by Abishai, Joab's brother. David's personal bodyguard, the Cherethites and Pelethites, were led by Benaiah (who had no familial association or loyalty to Joab). Out of these diverse groups David forged an army that, for nearly forty years, was undefeatable.

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