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.