The target: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (7)

Armitage, Edward; The Festival of Esther

The Festival of Esther, 1865, Edward Armitage. Royal Academy of Arts collection.

In an earlier post I provided a kind of ‘checklist’ of features we would need or expect to see in a work of satire. Esther checks most of the boxes.

  1. Ridicule. The Persian court in general, and Ahashverosh in particular, are mocked as constantly feasting and drinking, beginning in the opening scene with a feast lasting six months! Almost every time we meet Ahashverosh he has a wine goblet in his hand, and before Esther asks him to save her people she invites him to a wine-drinking party on two successive days, presumably to ensure he is in ‘good spirits.’ 
  2. Target. As the main object(s) of ridicule appear to be Ahashverosh and the Persian court, we might well wonder what purpose the writer would have in targetting a power which allowed the Jews exiled in Babylonia to return to the Land under their protection, and permitted them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. I’ll deal with this below.
  3. Irony. As we’ve seen in earlier posts, Esther abounds in irony. Haman and Mordecai  in particular are both ironised, and their fates are ‘reversed’ in truly ironic fashion.
  4. Exaggeration. Almost everything is exaggerated in Esther, from the length of the opening feast and the incredible numbers attending, Haman’s outlandish bribe, and the height of his gallows, to the enormous numbers of people who failed to heed the warning and were killed as a result.
  5. Humour. It’s somewhat dark, but it’s there! (See here)
  6. Puns and wordplays. I haven’t dealt specifically with these; although they are not a big feature of the book they are there. Perhaps I’ll come back to it later.
  7. Contradictions. Esther has these in the form of contradictions between the text and historical facts. 
  8. Unbelievable elements. Some of the exaggerations (hyperbole) in Esther are simply unbelievable, such as the duration of Ahashverosh’s banquet, and Haman’s incredible wealth. 

So everything is there to make us think the book of Esther abounds in irony, but to be  satirical it must also have a target. Why would the writer want to target Persian rulers who had been relatively friendly to them? A feature of what some have called ‘resistance literature’ is that writers do not directly challenge their overlords or people in authority. Rather than write about the Seleucid kings who were in control of the Land at the time, Judith is a fictionalised account of an Assyrian king who comes against Israel, but there are so many Hellenisms in the book it’s clear that ‘Assyrians’ are ‘code’ for the Seleucids who are the target. Likewise, Daniel is set in Babylon, but the writer’s real concern is the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes who he describes using apocalyptic imagery although without naming him. Later, the books of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch will deal with the Romans, but their stories are set in Jerusalem during the Babylonian invasion. The pattern tends to be that writers of resistance literature address contemporary concerns by setting their stories in earlier times and/or in other places to avoid naming their overlords. If Esther follows the same pattern then we should expect its target to be later in time, and after the fall of the Persian empire.

There are really only two contenders. First, Alexander the Great defeated the Persian king Darius III and claimed that, while dying, Darius had named him as his successor to the Achaemenid throne and he then ruled from Babylon over an empire which extended from India to Egypt. Alexander is said to have adopted several elements of Persian dress and customs at his court and was also renowned for feasting and drinking. His death in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon at the age of 32, from unknown causes, came  after heavy drinking. Alexander also adopted the controversial practice of proskynesis, falling to the ground to pay respect to superiors, a practice which was later abandoned. Is there an allusion to this practice in Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman? There are certainly similarities with Ahashverosh in the Esther story, although while Ahashverosh had a large harem Alexander, on the other hand, had three wives and also had a male lover, Hephaestion, and a reputation for preferring the company of young men over women. If the target of Esther was Alexander, and if he was being portrayed in the story as Ahashverosh, then there may be some satirical significance in the fact that while Ashverosh had a huge number of women at his disposal if he so desired, and took a lengthy period to choose the most beautiful woman in his empire as his Queen, he doesn’t seem to have had much of a sexual interest in her. There is a possible hint of this in 4:11 where Esther comments that he hadn’t called for her – the most beautiful woman in the empire! – for 30 days. 

Interestingly, in order to symbolically unite Greek and Persian cultures, Alexander took a Persian wife and organised a mass wedding at Susa, the scene of the Esther story, in 324 BCE. I find this particularly interesting in the light of the Septuagint Greek translation (LXX) of Esther 1:5 which describes Ahashverosh’s banquet in Susa as a γάμου wedding feast. 

There is a second contender as the satirical target: ‘Hellenist’ Jews in the Maccabean/Hasmonean era who adopted Greek customs and philosophies. There is a clue in the LXX translation of the description of Haman as “the Agagite”. Rather than “Agagite” the LXX in 9:24 calls him ὁ Μακεδών the Macedonian and elsewhere as a Βουγαῖον Bougean, possibly a reference to Bagoas, a Persian eunuch who became an intimate friend and lover to Alexander the Great. Linking Haman to Alexander could be a warning to Jews living under Greek rule not to trust them or forget their atrocities.

My inclination at this stage is that the book of Esther is ‘resistance literature’ written during the time of Greek control of Judea. Being unable to directly criticise the Greek overlords, the writer depicts them as Persians – a fairly logical choice given Alexander’s fondness for Persian customs and way of life. In Esther, Alexander in particular and the Greeks in general are being satirised, as a warning to Jews living in Judea not to trust them or get too close. The irony that Mordechai ends up becoming like Haman and orchestrating the massacre of tens of thousands of people also serves as a warning that the conquered run the risk of becoming like their conquerors, and that Jews living under Greek rule who become too ‘Hellenised’ can easily lose their Jewish identity.

What Judith can tell us about Esther: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (6)

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio (c.1598-9). In the public domain.

Some readers of the Bible may ask “I know who Esther is, but who is Judith?” That’s because the Book of Judith isn’t in most Protestant Bibles. It is accepted as canonical (“inspired Scripture”) by the Orthodox and Catholic churches, and as Apocryphal by others (including the Anglican and Lutheran churches), but is excluded from Jewish and Protestant Bibles. If you haven’t read it I’d recommend it as a great piece of Jewish literature and story-telling from the Maccabean period (probably around 135-104 BCE). It’s relevance here is that it has been said of the book of Judith that “No biblical book is so quintessentially ironic as Judith” [1]. Moore describes the writer as “an ironist extraordinaire” who often means the opposite of what he says. The books of Judith, Tobit (also deuterocanonical, or Apocryphal) and Esther are very similar in style and in the literary techniques used by the writers. They are early forms of the “novel”. By understanding some of these techniques in Judith we can gain some insights into the intentions of the writer of Esther.

The first thing which strikes us when reading Judith is that it has all the trappings of historical narrative, but a reader who is familiar with biblical history will quickly note several historical and geographical inaccuracies, so many, in fact, that it becomes fairly certain that the writer’s carelessness with the facts was deliberate. While the story has a believable plot, someone even casually acquainted with Jewish history will recognise several discrepancies. For example, the story begins “It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh” (Judith 1:1). Most readers of the Bible will know that Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylonia, not Assyria, and some will know that Nineveh had been destroyed several years before his reign began. The twelth year of Nebuchadnezzar would have been the fourth year of Zedekiah (cf. Jeremiah 32:1), the last king of Judah before the exile. Yet the story is set in the post-exilic period and Nebuchadnezzar’s general, Holofernes, is said to come against Judah after they had returned from exile and rebuilt and re-consecrated the temple in Jerusalem:

When the Israelites living in Judea heard of everything that Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Assyrians, had done to the nations, and how he had plundered and destroyed all their temples, 2 they were therefore greatly terrified at his approach; they were alarmed both for Jerusalem and for the temple of the Lord their God. 3 For they had only recently returned from exile, and all the people of Judea had just now gathered together, and the sacred vessels and the altar and the temple had been consecrated after their profanation. (Judith 4:1-3. See also 5:18-19).

This is so obviously a distortion of history that any contemporary reader or listener would recognise that it wasn’t a telling of history but was rather a fictitious story using the names of well-known historical characters. Moore makes the point that it would be like telling a story which begins “Once upon a time, when Napoleon Bonaparte was king of England …” No reader/listener would think the writer had simply made a mistake – the errors are so huge (and there are so many of them) that it would be obvious that they were intentional and designed to mimic the style of historical narrative while serving an entirely different purpose. Almost everything about the book of Judith is ironic: it’s major and minor characters, several episodes and the overall plot are all ironic. A  number of scholars, including Edward Good in his classic work “Irony in the Old Testament” (1965), and Carolyn Sharp in her “Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible” (2009), have identified several forms of irony in the Hebrew Bible, all of which abound in Judith.

The relevance of this to our consideration of Esther is that both books have features in common:

    1. Both are in the ‘style’ of historical narratives, yet contain historical inaccuracies. For example, no king of Persia had the name “Ahasuerus/Ahashverosh” and the fact that scholars over the centuries have been unable to agree on which king it could be (Xerxes I, Xerxes II, Artaxerxes?) simply highlights that it’s probably a made-up name for a non-existent king. We also know the names of the Persian Queens, and no king had a wife named Esther, or even Vashti, and we know that the wives of Persian kings all came from certain families, so it’s impossible that any Queen was Jewish. Interestingly, that other fictional biblical “novel” – the Book of Tobit (14:15) – mentions a king Ασυηρος  Asoueros, or Ahasuerus, as king of Media (not Persia). [2]
    2. Both books feature irony and ironic characters. The most obvious ironies in Esther are that Haman plotted to have Mordecai killed, but was himself executed on the gallows he had erected for Mordecai, and that the honours which Haman wanted for himself were actually bestowed on Mordecai. The writer of Esther draws  attention to the irony near the end of the story, by saying that “on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred” (9:1). Such twists and reversals are the tools of an ironist. Interestingly, the Book of Tobit also abounds in ironic characters and has an ironic plot, and it too contains historical inaccuracies.

Similarities in style between Judith, Tobit and Esther suggest that the ironic “novel” may have been a known and accepted literary genre in the post-exilic period. All three books have post-exilic settings – Tobit is set in Nineveh following the Assyrian invasion, Judith is set in the Land at the time of an Assyrian/Babylonian invasion but also following the Babylonian exile, and Esther is set in Susa after the Babylonian exile (but being in the Persian period is after the decree of Cyrus and the return of many Jews to the Land). We can’t be certain about the date of composition for Tobit, but we can be confident that Judith was probably written between 135 and 107 BCE in the “Hellenistic” period, that is, the period after the Empire of Alexander of Greek was divided into four and Judea became part of the Syrian Seleucid Empire, and during the rule of the Hasmonean/Maccabean High Priest John Hyrcanus I. There are unmistakeable Hellenistic signs in the books and several clues that Judith’s defeat of Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes may have been modelled on the defeat of Nicanor, a general of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (described in 1 Maccabees 7:43-50). If so, the writer of Judith may have been “targetting” the Seleucids but using the names Nebuchadnezzar, Assyria and Nineveh as “codenames” for Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Seleucid Empire. This certainly wouldn’t be unusual for biblical or Jewish literature of the time. The apocryphal book of 4 Ezra and the pseudepigraphical book of 2 Baruch are both set during the Babylonian seige of Jerusalem but describe the events of the Roman seige of Jerusalem. It was probably considered “safer” to avoid referring to one’s overlords directly and therefore using “Babylonians” as a code for “Romans”. The New Testament book of Revelation does something similar by using “Babylon” as code for “Rome”. So too the writer of Judith probably used “Assyrian” as code for “Syrian/Seleucid”.

This brings us to Esther. If this book is doing something similar then “Ahashverosh” and “Persia” may be codes for someone/something else.

… to be continued

__________________

[1] Carey A. Moore “Judith, Book of” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. III, 1117-1125.

[2] Although Aramaic and Hebrew fragments of Tobit have been found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls this verse (Tobit 14:15) has not been preserved so I cannot check to see if it is the same Hebrew spelling as Esther’s Ahashverosh.

Defining satire: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (5)

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Jan Viktors, The Banquet of Esther and Ahasuerus, c. 1640

Satire and irony are often confused, even in academic literature. Irony is an essential feature of satire, although not all irony is satirical. You can have irony without satire, but cannot have satire without irony. Similarly, humour is common in satire and ridicule is essential to it, but not all humour or ridicule is satirical. Parody, exaggeration and double entendre are also common features of satire (although not necessarily essential to it). So how do we know when any of these elements – irony, exaggeration, wit, ridicule – mark a piece of literature as satirical, and when it doesn’t?

One problem with defining ‘satire’ is that it is a very old literary form which has changed over the course of time and we run the risk of becoming anachronistic if we apply definitions which work for one era or place to another time, language or setting. Ancient genres are not identical to modern ones, and while modern satire bears some similarity to classical Greek, Roman or biblical Hebrew satire, we shouldn’t push the resemblance too far and apply a modern definition to ancient literature. I was acutely aware of the risks involved with applying modern terms to biblical literature when I wrote my doctoral thesis on satire in the book of Jonah. I noted that biblical satire is similar but not identical to classical Greek and Roman satire; however, it may have evolved independently as a literary style from the mocking ridicule common to the Hebrew prophets. I suggested that we really need a term which specifically refers to the biblical literary style which is similar to Greek/Roman satire. In the absence of a specific term (for now), when I use ‘satire’ here I am referring to what we could identify as biblical-satire.

Biblical satire has several essential features. These will always be present.

  1. Ridicule. The purpose of satire is to confront and debunk ideas, whether they be political, religious or social. Satire does this by ridiculing the leaders and adherents of the movements progressing these ideas, not simply to mock them as individuals but as a vehicle to bring about reform and improvement. While it ridicules, mocks, offends and humiliates, the intention is to bring about change in those who are ridiculed.
  2. Target. A distinguishing feature of satire is that it has a target. Satire always has a target. Without a target a work may be irony, but it’s not satire. The character(s) being mocked or ridiculed may be fictional, even if based on real historical persons. If so, these characters will represent contemporary individuals or ideas. For example, a writer may produce a fictional work and ridicule an historical person from an earlier time, not to mock that person but for the purpose of targetting a contemporary whose ideas or actions are superimposed on the fictive character. These days a book or film might begin with the words “This is a work of fiction, but is based on real people and events.” Biblical writers did much the same, but without the opening disclaimer (well, I have a theory that they did this in their own way, but that’s for another time). In modern works we might detect contemporary characters ‘dressed’ as historical persons and even though a story is set, for example, in the sixteenth century we might recognise a ‘modern’ idea, attitude or individual in the historical character. Similarly, a sixteenth century writer (such as Shakespeare) may have set a story in ancient Rome but satirised contemporary sixteenth-century individuals in its ancient characters. Sometimes we will detect an anachronism which may be a deliberate way for the writer to inform the reader or listener that they are satirising something contemporary, such as putting ‘modern’ words or ideas in the mouths of characters from a previous time. Biblical writers used similar techniques.
  3. Irony. Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way as to contradict or conceal the real meaning, so that the intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. For a modern example, if someone said “X would know because they are the smartest President/Prime Minister we have ever seen” they could actually mean the opposite: “we shouldn’t listen to a word they say because they are the dumbest President … etc”. The context will usually determine what the writer/speaker intended, and many (perhaps most) in the audience will recognise the irony, but because of the inevitable ambiguity there will always be some people who take the words literally, not recognising the irony, and this in fact adds to the humorous nature of satire.

Biblical writers also used several techniques to produce satire. These techniques on their own do not identify a work as satirical, as they also occur independently of satire, but the preponderance of these techniques – when several of them are clustered together – act as ‘markers’ in recognising satire. Not all these techniques need to be used, but a combination or ‘cluster’ of them are a good indication that a work is satirical.

  1. Exaggeration, and hyperbole (gross exaggeration). I’ve mentioned this several times in this series already and provided a few examples in Esther. It is almost always present in satire.
  2. Humour. When wit or humour is used in satire it will evoke disdain and contempt rather than to simply arouse laughter. It is generally coupled with ridicule and is therefore almost ‘essential’ to satire. While a satirist generally needs to use wit as part of the essential ridiculing, not all humour is satirical.
  3. Puns and wordplays. Biblical Hebrew uses wordplays in a wide variety of contexts, so wordplays alone do not indicate satire. However, Biblical satire makes great use of puns, wordplays and meanings of names, often as part of ridicule.
  4. Contradictions, including contradictions within a text (i.e. one detail in a story contracicts another detail in the same story), as well as contradictions between the text and historical sources. The book of Judith, for example, calls Nebuchadnezzar the king of Nineveh (Judith 1:1) when he was actually the king of Babylon, and Nineveh had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s predecessor Nabopolassar. Readers are likely to have known this. The contradiction is probably an intentional device by the writer, making it clear from the outset that this was a work of fiction, although based on an historical personage. Rather than being mere historical mistakes, such contradictions could be a means for the writer to ensure that the reader understood that it was a work of historical fiction or, in some contexts, satire.
  5. Unbelievable elements. Satire often includes a mixture of unbelievable or unrealistic elements. Biblical examples could include surviving for three days inside a large fish, talking animals, or surviving being thrown into a furnace. Rather than reading such stories simply as ‘miracles’ we should look for other literary devices which may suggest these unrealistic elements serve some other literary purpose. 

In my next post I will evaluate the book of Esther using these criteria.

Dark humour: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (4)

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Esther and Mordecai Writing the First Purim Letter, by Aert de Gelder, c.1685. In the public domain.

Wit and humour, often expressed as ridicule, are characteristics of satire and in the context of a serious subject such as genocide the humour can be somewhat “dark”. Devices for creating a humourous effect include exaggeration (some examples of which I noted in previous posts) and repetition.

The writer of Esther uses repetition and  exuberant language through the use of synonyms. For example, when letters are first sent out throughout the Persian empire ordering the massacre of Jews they gave instructions “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children” (3:13). The language is tautological as the verbs “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate” all effectively mean the same thing. However, the use of these verbs with similar or identical meanings together is chilling, and the same wording occurs twice again (in 7:4 and 8:11) as though the writer wants to maintain or emphasise the effect. Further, having said “all Jews” are to be massacred it would be unnecessary to elaborate further by saying “young and old, women and children” except to emphasise the cold-blooded mercilessness of the atrocity.  The third time these three verbs are used together is in the letter sent out by Esther and Mordecai where it also expresses their horror at Haman’s hateful plot. The repetition also has another effect: it starkly draws attention to the disproportionate nature of Haman’s response to a personal insult by one man, Mordecai, in ordering the massacre of an entire ethnic group. Rather than an appropriate or proportionate “eye for an eye” response, Haman’s reaction to the insult is an overkill (pun intended). But then, the number of people who are killed when the edict is revoked, or reversed, is also somewhat comical (I did say it’s “dark humour”!) As Haman’s reaction to a personal insult was excessive, so too was the slaughter of 75,800 people in the aftermath. It was not enough that Haman and his ten sons were executed, a huge number of people throughout the empire also died. Perhaps the writer is saying that hatred always spirals out of control.

The letter from Esther and Mordecai declared that “the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them” (8:11). To emphasise that everyone would receive this warning with plenty of notice the Hebrew uses the word כָל “all/every” five times in three verses:

By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods 12 on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. 13 A copy of the writ was to be issued as a decree in every province and published to all peoples, and the Jews were to be ready on that day to take revenge on their enemies. (8:11-13)

The repetition emphasises that no one had an excuse for not knowing about this new decree, and forewarns them to do nothing. There was no danger to anyone, so long as no one attacked the Jews first. Yet 75,800 died died precisely because they ignored this second edict. How could so many people be so stupid?! The number is exaggerated, but so too was Ahashverosh’s almost-delighted response on hearing the news that so many of his own people perished: “In the citadel of Susa the Jews have killed five hundred people and also the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.” (8:12) Rather than showing any signs of sadness he grants Esther’s request and allows a second day of slaughter and for further deaths to occur! (8:13). This response is so unrealistic that it’s almost humorous. Historically, there is no evidence that any of this ever occurred, or that Esther and Mordecai ever existed. The humour, even dark humour, probably wouldn’t work if the events were real. However, in the context of exaggeration and hyperbole and highlighted by repetition Ahashverosh is not only depicted as a king who is easily manipulated but one who is callously out-of-touch with his own people.

The literary effect of this repetition includes building suspense. When Esther agreed to Mordecai’s plan that she should approach the king to ask for their people to be spared she invited Ahashverosh and Haman to a banquet. Yet nothing happens. The next day she invites them to another banquet. There is considerable repetition in the telling of the story, and it effectively build suspense. There seems to be no other purpose for the first banquet other than this literary effect, and to draw attention to the Persian love of drinking and feasting.

The story begins with Ahashverosh hosting a banquet which lasted 180 days (clearly an exaggeration). Both the Hebrew text and the ancient Greek translations use words which specifically refer to the banquet as a drinking bout. The Hebrew word מִשְׁתֶּה “banquet” occurs 20 times throughout the book and comes from a root meaning to drink. On four occurrences it is combined with the word for wine as מִשְׁתֵּה הַיַּיִן “wine-drinking banquet”. The Septuagint Greek uses the word πότον “drinking party”. The frequent and repetitive use of these terms implies that the Persian court was constantly feasting and drinking. Esther’s request to Ahashverosh to spare her people, when she exposed Haman as the murderous schemer, was made during the second successive day of drinking/feasting and “as they were drinking wine” (7:2). This repetition has the effect of portraying the Persian court in general, and the king in particular, as heavy drinkers whose judgments were clouded by their excesses. The repeated mentioning of their drinking effectively ridicules them and implies that their excesses not only made them irrational but left them open to easy manipulation.

The Persians and Ahashverosh are not portrayed positively in this story, but why not? It was the Persians who allowed the Jews who were captive in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild their nation and Temple. So why ridicule them?

… to be continued

Is Mordecai the real hero? Irony and satire in the book of Esther (3)

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Haman and Mordecai by Paul Alexander Leroy, 1884. In the public domain.

Mordecai is a central character – perhaps the central character in the book of Esther. In some ancient literature the book is even called “the Book of Mordecai” and the earliest reference to the festival of Purim outside Esther refers to it as “the Day of Mordecai” (2 Maccabees 15:36). Undoubtedly in the Greek versions Mordecai is the real hero of the story, and rather than the story beginning with the feast of Ahashverosh, as it does in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, the Greek versions begin with God speaking with Mordecai in a dream. In this post I want to look solely at the Hebrew version and ask the question, is Mordecai also the hero of the story there?

While the book bears Esther’s name, Mordecai is actually mentioned slightly more often (58 times for Mordecai, 53 times for Esther). And while Esther is the one who appeals to king Ahashverosh to spare her people from murderous annihilation, she did so only at Mordecai’s prompting. Her initial response, in fact, was to show concern for her own life and safety if she appeared before Ahashverosh uninvited, rather than the lives of all the Jews in the Persian empire (which included the Jews living in the land – the Persian province of Yehud – as well as those who remained in Babylon or settled elsewhere in the empire). Almost everything Esther does in this story is done at Mordecai’s initiative. The main point of the story – saving Jews from Haman’s murderous scheme – only comes about because Mordecai refused to show respect to Haman, for some unstated reason. So Mordecai is the real instigator of the actions which are central to the plot. And while the story begins with Ahashverosh and the might and wealth of his empire, it ends with Mordecai being second in rank to him (10:3).

Mordecai appears to be the hero of the story, yet there are some unsettling things about him. First, no reason is given for his refusal to show respect to Haman, the king’s representative, and therefore his disrespect to the king. Second, even in the face of the possible genocide of his own people he does nothing to undo the crisis of his own making by retracting his stubborn refusal. If we weigh the possible deaths of all the Jews against Mordecai’s own humiliation his stubborness seems to be even more unreasonable. Thirdly, when Ahashverosh readily agrees to stop the planned genocide of Jews, Mordecai himself proposes that this is best done by allowing the Jews to slaughter 75,800 people (undoubtedly another exaggeration). Surely this was not the only way to undo Haman’s scheme, and other options could have been devised to prevent the slaughter of Jews without the Jews having to slaughter tens of thousands of people. There was no urgency to come up with a half-baked plan. The text specifically says that Mordecai came up with the plan on the 23rd day of the third month allowing the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies (8:9-12), but that the day scheduled for the attack was not until the 13th day of the 12th month (9:1). In other words, Mordecai (and Esther) had nearly nine months to come up with another plan. Even if it was true that the king’s initial decree could not be revoked (which is inferred from 8:8), they could have come up with a more creative way to rescind it which wouldn’t have ended in a slaughter.

There is an irony in the king’s words to Esther, cancelling Haman’s edict. Esther had asked

“If it pleases the king, and if I have won his favor, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I have his approval, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote giving orders to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king.” (8:5-6)

Ahashverosh’s response effectively revoked Haman’s plan. There was no need to do anything more, no need to allow the Jews to defend themselves. Haman’s decree (in the name of the king) was revoked.

“See, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he plotted to lay hands on the Jews. You [Esther] may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.” (8:7-8)

Ahashverosh agreed to her request and said she could write whatever she pleased with regard to Haman’s planned annihilation being undone. Ironically, he said whatever she wrote would be the king’s edict and could not be undone, even though by this very action he was undoing and revoking an earlier decree. Some commentators have argued from this that Mordecai and Esther had to come up with a plan that allowed Haman’s edict to stand while circumventing it. But the text says no such thing. It says the first decree was revoked. The king did not ask for or even suggest that a way should be found to allow both decrees to stand. He specifically said Esther could write whatever she pleased. Yet it is not Esther who writes this letter. It is Mordecai, and the idea which enabled 75,800 people to die was entirely his own.

The decision to allow the Jews throughout the empire to defend themselves against their attackers was completely unnecessary. It could only come about by allowing the first decree to stand. Even if it couldn’t be undone, a slaughter could have been prevented in any number of ways. For example, people could have been ordered to remain within their houses for the day (and we all know that’s feasible!), or not to carry weapons. There was no need to prevent one slaughter by allowing another slaughter.

What then is the story telling us about Mordecai? Herein lies another irony and lays the groundwork for reading this as satire. Early in the story we find Haman scheming to effectively replace the king. Not satisfied with being promoted  to a very high position, he  proposed that a person who pleased the king (thinking this person was none other than himself) should be clothed in royal clothes, should ride the king’s own horse, and should be given a royal crown. In other words, he wanted to be king! Ironically, there is a twist in the story and Haman is executed while Mordecai is honoured with all these things. Mordecai becomes what Haman wanted to be be. But herein is the greatest irony, and perhaps the most disturbing twist: by ordering the slaughter of tens of thousands Mordecai gains not only what Haman wanted, he becomes Haman!

… to be continued

Exaggeration and hyperbole: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (2)

Esther_Denouncing_Haman

“Esther Denouncing Haman” by Ernest Normand, 1888. In the public domain.

Exaggeration and hyperbole (gross exaggeration to the point of absurdity) frequently occur in satirical literature. A text is not necessarily satirical simply because it contains exaggeration, but when clustered with other markers such as irony, ridicule, wit and wordplays, its presence in a text is a strong indicator of satire. I mentioned some examples of exaggeration in Esther in my previous post and here are a couple more.

One of the main characters in the story of Esther is Haman who, for undisclosed reasons, plots to commit genocide against all the Jews in the Persian empire. One of the features of the Esther-story is that it doesn’t provide explanations for some of the key events or decisions. Haman is a key character, although he doesn’t appear until chapter 3 where his promotion to the highest position in the empire next to the king is announced but without a reason being given.

After these things King Ahashverosh promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. (3:1)

We learn little about Haman from the book of Esther. The fact that he was an “Agagite” suggests he wasn’t a native-born Persian (although his name may be Persian, as are the names of his 10 sons), but how he came to be an important official and why he was promoted to the highest office isn’t explained. From ancient times scholars have noted that “Agagite” probably means he was descended from Agag, king of the Amalekites – long-term enemies of Israel – who was executed by king Saul after defeat in battle (see 1 Samuel 15; Numbers 24:7; Exodus 17:8-16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19). They also note that Mordecai, the protagonist or “hero” of the Esther-story, was “son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (2:5). If this is the same Kish who was father of king Saul (1 Samuel 9:1-3), and if we “read between the lines,” then there may be an indication here that the hostility between Haman and Mordecai was the product of historical enmity between the two families. If so, this isn’t spelled out in any way in the story and we are left to simply speculate about it. I will come back to this in a later post because there may be a clue here as to the target of the satire.

Haman’s promotion isn’t the only unexplained detail in this episode. It should be noted that his advancement comes immediately after the episode where Ahashverosh became aware that Mordecai had saved his life by foiling a plot to assassinate him (2:19-23). Mordecai wasn’t rewarded for that at the time, and no explanation is given: the fact was simply noted in the court records. As part of Haman’s promotion Ahashverosh commands that all the king’s officials should bow down and pay Haman homage, as the representative of the king (3:2). There is nothing unusual or surprising about this, and treating the monarch’s representative with respect as though you were dealing with the monarch themself is a practice which has continued to this day. What is surprising is that Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman. No reason is given for this, and for centuries scholars have tried to find a reason. Some have suggested that Jewish law prohibits bowing down to someone, as it implies an act of worship. However, several other characters in biblical narratives bow down to kings or nobles to show respect and Esther herself later falls down at the feet of king Ahashverosh (8:3), so it seems there was no explicit prohibition against bowing to a person of rank. Even when repeatedly questioned about his refusal to bow to Haman, Mordecai provides no explanation. Apparently this went on for several days without Haman even noticing, and it was not until it was brought to his attention by officials that Haman flew into a rage and set out to not only destroy Mordecai but to commit genocide on his people throughout the kingdom (3:2-6). This in itself is an absurdity because Haman’s response to the insult was disproportionate to the offence. A modern reader would be justified in thinking that wholesale genocide is always disproportionate and there can be no justification for it, but it would be anachronistic to read this back into the story as though the writer is making that point. If Haman was descended from the biblical Agag, king of the Amalekites, then he may have felt some historical justification for revenging the slaughter of his own people centuries before at the hands of Mordecai’s ancestors. However, the writer never explicitly makes this point and there is nothing in the story to suggest that until this incident Haman knew who Mordecai was, and even then that he knew Mordecai was a distant relative of Saul.

While no reason is provided for Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman, his actions appear to be quite unreasonable in the face of the genocide of his own people. The whole story hangs on Mordecai’s inexplicable refusal to show respect to the king’s representative, and in the light of potential genocide it is somewhat surprising that Mordecai makes no attempt to avert the catastrophe by simply demonstrating his respect for the king’s man. From the beginning almost nothing is explained in this story. Why did the king have a six month long celebration? Why did he not reward Mordecai for saving his life? Why did he promote Haman? Why did Mordecai disrespect the king by disrespecting his representative? Why did he not swallow his pride to avert disaster for his own people? The story raises more questions than it answers!

In what follows there are two noteworthy exaggerations. First, Haman approaches Ahashverosh and offers to pay 10,000 talents of silver into the king’s treasury in return for a decree to slaughter all the Jews. That is an extraordinary amount to pay. According to some commentators it was equivalent to 340,000kg of silver (according to my calculations at today’s prices that’s worth more than $300 million [Australian dollars]). What was that in ancient terms? The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that running the Persian empire cost 15,000 talents of silver per year, so Haman’s bribe was equivalent to two-thirds of the entire running costs of the Empire! That is an unbelievable amount for one man to be able to afford, no matter how wealthy, and even if he was that wealthy Haman could almost certainly have obtained approval by offering a considerable lesser amount. While the writer makes the point that Haman was prepared to pay handsomely, even way beyond what was necessary, the actual amount offered is undoubtedly a gross exaggeration.

Another exaggeration soon follows. Haman plots for Mordecai’s execution, and working on the assumption that Ahashverosh will go along with his plan he erects a 50 cubits high gallows (or stake)  in preparation (5:9-14). Fifty cubits is approximately 25 metres. That’s extraordinarly high for a gallows! The form of execution was probably impalement or crucifixion, rather than hanging by a rope, but however it was to be carried out 25 metres is unnecessarily high. Even if the purpose of a high gallows/stake was so that the victim would be publicly seen and disgraced, the risk associated with such a high gallows is that it is too high and the victim would be almost out-of-sight. This is clearly another exaggeration designed to demonstrate the extent of intended humilation rather than a high gallows serving any practical purpose. It seems that almost everything in this story is exaggerated.

One of the ironies of the story is that Haman himself and his 10 sons were eventually hanged on these gallows (7:9-10; 9:13-14). In fact, Haman’s execution on the gallows he’d built for Mordecai is just one of several ironies in the book. There are a number of twists and turns throughout the story and the writer hints near the end that “reversal” is at the core of the tale:

… on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred (וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ): the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them (9:1)

The word וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ means there was a turn, a twist in the story. Coming back to Haman’s promotion, there is a “reversal” here as well, for in 10:2 the writer uses the same word used earlier for Haman’s “promotion” (גדל) to describe the advancement of “Mordecai, whom the king promoted“. Earlier in the story no reason was given for Haman’s promotion, nor is any reason offered for why Mordecai wasn’t rewarded at the time. Perhaps the writer was highlighting that in the “upside down” system of rewards and punishments in Ahashverosh’s court good behaviour wasn’t necessarily rewarded and that the king was arbitrary in his judgments and with his rewards. He didn’t need a “reason” for any of his actions. While the point is repeatedly made that the king was all-powerful, he is also portrayed as lecherous, as a drunk, as capricious, arbitrary and easily manipulated. Is he really in control?

… to be continued

“A man is master in his own house”: Irony and satire in the book of Esther (1)

VashtiRefusestheKingsSummons.Long

Vashti Refuses the King’s Summons, by Edwin Long, 1879. In the public domain.

There are several unusual features in the book of Esther, including the fact that God is never mentioned! In fact, there is nothing “religious” about the book at all (at least, not the Hebrew version, although the ancient Greek translations are a different story. See my blog post here.) There are no prayers, there is no specific mention of the laws or commandments, and none of the characters are portrayed as being particularly ‘godly’ or moral. It’s probably not surprising then that it is the only Biblical book not to have been found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is not quoted or alluded to anywhere in the New Testament.

There are a number of features in the book which are associated with irony and satire elsewhere in the Bible, including exaggeration, hyperbole, aburdities or unbelievable elements, repetition and wordplay. None of these elements on their own would suggest that a work is satirical, but when they occur together and dominate a text this is a good indication that we are reading satire. Over the next few posts I will look at how some of these features work in Esther, and conclude with my ideas about the possible target, or targets.

The Hebrew version of Esther begins with an episode that seems to be only incidentally related to the rest of the story. In fact, we could omit it all together and the story would still make complete sense. This episode features a huge and prolonged banquet hosted by the Persian king, at the end of which he called for his queen, Vashti, to present herself before his guests “to put her beauty on display.” The queen objected, and refused to be paraded before a crowd of drunken men. Conseqently, king Ahashverosh (אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ is sometimes translated as Ahasuerus, or Xerxes, but I will use the Hebrew pronunciation here) is persuaded by his officials to replace Vashti and decree that throughout the empire “every man shall be master in his own household.” While this episode provides some background as to how Esther became queen, the story would work just as well without it: the main point of the story doesn’t depend on us knowing how the previous occupant lost her position. The mere fact that an apparently unrelated incident appears in the story should highlight that it needs to be examined more closely. The added fact that the story begins with this incident which has little apparent connection to the main point of the story should alert us to the possibility that it is guiding us towards reading the story as something other than a simple narrative.

There appears to be a considerable emphasis in the book on kingly authority. The Hebrew words for king, queen, kingdom, royal and ruled are all derivates of the same root word מלך which occurs more than 250 times in a book of 167 verses. In some verses these words occur three or four times as if to emphasise, or exaggerate, the king’s authority. The irony is that while Ahashverosh has absolute authority, he has difficulty making a decision on his own and is easily manipulated. His decisions appear to be based on whatever was the last opinion he heard. For example, this initial decree that “every man be master in his own house” wasn’t his own idea but was made at the instigation of his officials. One of the distinguishing features of irony is a contrast between reality and appearance. While Ahashverosh appears to be in control, and this is exaggeratedly emphasised by over-using the words for king, kingly and kingdom, the reality is that he is easily swayed by others. We find similar ironies elsewhere in other stories about foreign kings in the Hebrew Bible, where the tendency is to ridicule them.

This opening scene also appears to use considerable exaggeration. Ahashverosh’s initial feast goes for 180 days (can you imagine a feast going for half a year?!), and then they celebrate its conclusion by having another feast lasting for a further seven days! What’s the ideal way to celebrate the end of a feast? Another feast! Several feasts then follow throughout the book, most of them described as drinking-parties, as though the writer is intentionally trying to depict the Persian court as gluttonous drunkards. Ahashverosh’s major decisions in the story are all made after he has been drinking heavily, which further questions his ability to make sound decisions.

Even in our introduction to Ahashverosh in the first verse he is described as ruling over 127 provinces. Whatever is meant by the word מְדִינָה medinah translated as ‘provinces’ it’s possible that this too is an exaggeration. While there is no corresponding Persian word, the Greek historian Herodotus divided the Persian Achaemenid Empire into 20 ‘districts’ for the purpose of tribute payments. The story later (3:12) uses the Hebrew word אֲחַשְׁדַּרְפָּן  aḥashdarpan a variation of an Old Persian word which has come into English via Greek and Latin as “satrap”. There were only 20 satraps in the Achaemenid Empire. It’s possible that by מְדִינָה medinah the writer of Esther was referring to smaller districts rather than what later came to be called ‘provinces’ but it is equally possible that he introduces his story with an exaggeration to immediately alert the reader to the kind of story that is to follow. At the outset of the book of Judith, another Biblical book probably written around the same time, the writer exaggerated the massive size of the Assyrian army and used place names unrealistically when describing Nebuchadnezzar’s military campaign against Arphaxad (Judith 1:1-16). Rather than being mere historical mistakes, this was probably a deliberate device by the writer to ensure that the reader understood that it was unquestionably historical fiction, and the writer of Esther could very well be doing the same thing here.

The use of exaggeration here, together with the irony that Ahashverosh decreed that every man should be master in his own house when he wasn’t master of himself let alone his house or kingdom, suggests to me that the story is not only fiction but is also likely to be satire. In following posts I will look at more examples of exaggeration and other indicators of irony/satire, and try to determine who may have been its target.

Cannabis in the Bible

98A study published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University has revealed that researchers have identified a well-preserved substance found in a 2,700-year-old temple in Tel Arad (in the Negev desert, about 95km south of Tel Aviv) as cannabis. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) – all compounds found in cannabis – were found on an altar at the temple.

Researchers know that Arad was a Judahite fortress because of the discovery of an archive of Hebrew inscriptions dated to the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., shortly before the kingdom was overrun by the Babylonians. The researchers say that Arad was part of a hilltop fortress at the southern frontier of the Kingdom of Judah, and the shrine is said to match a scaled-down version of Biblical descriptions of the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Frankincense, a resin collected from Boswellia trees, was also found on one of two altars found at the site. This is the first time frankincense has been identified in an archaeological dig in the Levant, although its presence isn’t particularly surprising as the ritual burning of frankincense resin is described in the Bible and other ancient sources.

Eran Arie, curator for archaeology of the Iron Age and Persian Period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which now houses the ancient artifacts, says this discovery means that it is possible that the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem would also burn cannabis on their altars. A report of the cannabis discovery in the Israeli newpaper Haaretz, asks the question “why doesn’t the Bible mention the use of cannabis as a substance used in rituals, just as it does numerous times for frankincense?” In actual fact, the Bible may very well mention cannabis. Our English word comes from the Latin word which itself is derived from the Greek κάνναβις kánnabis, which further borrowed from the Persian kanab. This Persian word, or another related Semitic term such as the Sumerian kunibu, may be behind the Hebrew term קְנֵה־בֹשֶׂם  kene-bosem, which is sometimes translated as “sweet-smelling cane” (Exodus 30:23-33). It is described as one of the ingredients of a holy oil blend used to anoint the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and the Aaronic priesthood. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to see how kene-bosem could have come from the same origin as kunibu or kannabis.

This discovery of cannabis compounds on a Judahite altar in Arad confirms that the plant was used in ritual worship in the Biblical period and gives strength to the view of those etymologists who already suspected that the Biblical קְנֵה־בֹשֶׂם  kene-bosem was cannabis.

A Statement on Black Lives Matter, Right to Protest, and Bible as Prop

The Council of the Society of Biblical Literature and Executive Staff of SBL have issued the following statement:

We are appalled at the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 by police. We grieve the murder of Breonna Taylor and many others who have died because of anti-Blackness.

We are committed to the clear and unequivocal assertion that Black Lives Matter.

We applaud the spirit of protest that has emerged around the world as a result of that heinous act, while lamenting the violence that has also broken out in pockets of that otherwise peaceful and necessary protest.

Black Lives Matter.

The Bible matters.

We protest the actions by the president of the United States, who, on the evening of 1 June 2020, called for military action against US residents on US soil, had peaceful protesters tear-gassed out of his way, stood uninvited before an Episcopal parish, and waved a Bible.

We call out the president for abusing what is for many a treasured spiritual resource and symbol, and we deplore his violation of sacred space.

We call out political leaders to engage the Bible in thoughtful and responsible ways. The Bible should not be brandished as a weapon to attack humanity or to violate the dignity of the human spirit. We commit to the work of studying and exposing how the Bible has been and continues to be used in this way.

Black Lives Matter.

The 2017 JBL Forum on Black Lives Matter for Critical Biblical Scholarship is available for free download here, beginning on page 203:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.15699/jbibllite.136.issue-1

Efraín Agosto, Chair
Ehud Ben Zvi
Christian Brady
Marc Brettler
Tat-siong Benny Liew
Monica Melanchthon
Laura Nasrallah
Judith Newman, Secretary
Jorunn Økland
Hugh Rowland Page, Jr.
Adele Reinhartz, President
Chris Rollston
James C. Vanderkam, Vice President
Sidnie White Crawford
John F. Kutsko, Executive Director

2 June 2020

The two (or three) versions of Esther

Queen Esther

Queen Esther. Painting by Edwin Long, 1878. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

The book of Esther is found in two different versions in our Bibles. Jewish and Protestant Bibles follow the Hebrew version known as the Masoretic Text, while Catholic and Orthodox Bibles follow the Greek version known as the Septuagint. This Greek version has just over 100 additional verses in 6 blocks, in addition to some other relatively minor differences. The additional material appears to have been mostly translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original [1], and includes a colophon (Esther 11:1) which names the translator:

“In the fourth year of the reign of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, Dositheus, who said that he was a priest and a Levite, and his son Ptolemy brought to Egypt the preceding Letter about Purim, which they said was authentic and had been translated by Lysimachus son of Ptolemy, one of the residents of Jerusalem.”

From the date in the colophon we can set the latest possible date for the translation as either 142 BCE or 78/77 BCE, both dates being in the Maccabean or Hasmonean era. The longer (Septuagint) version of Esther has some noteworthy differences from the Hebrew:

  1. The Hebrew version does not mention God at all, not even once, while the Septuagint version uses “God” or “Lord” about 50 times, mostly in the additional verses but also including a handful of places where the Hebrew parallel does not mention God.
  2. There is nothing “religious” about the Hebrew version. However, the Septuagint version includes prayers by Esther and Mordecai, refers to laws of Moses including circumcision and dietary regulations, and speaks of Israel as God’s “inheritance.” It also includes the “Deuteronomistic” claim that Israel went into exile because of disobedience to God’s laws (14:6-7), and refers to the Temple in Jerusalem as God’s house (14:9). 
  3. The Hebrew version tells the story of how Esther came to be Queen, married to a Persian king, but only the Septuagint version tells us that she found it abhorent that she was compelled by necessity to be married to a Gentile (14:15-18).

There is a scholarly consensus that while the longer Septuagint version was translated from a Hebrew or Aramaic original, some of these additions were probably made to the Hebrew version before it was translated, and not added by the translator. The additions were not all necessarily made by the same person or at the same time. Scholars are mostly agreed, however, that these are additions, and were added some time after the shorter Hebrew version which has come down to us as the Masoretic Text was written, but before being translated into Greek. In other words, the shorter version is earlier than the longer version – verses were added to the long version rather than deleted by the short version. (For an alternative view, David Clines has argued convincingly that the religious elements in a Pre-Masoretic story were edited out by the author of a Proto-Masoretic version  [2].)

Interestingly, the longer (Septuagint) version is more “biblical” than the shorter Hebrew version in that it frequently mentions God and his relationship with Israel, refers to biblical commandments and morality, contains prayers, and mirrors theological ideas which we find elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. This has led many scholars to speculate that the reason the additions were made was to give the book a more religious character, to make it a religious rather than a secular story, to make up for the “religious deficiencies” of the shorter version, and to explictly state God’s involvement which is at best only implicit in the Hebrew version. All the additions emphasise God’s providential care for Israel. The additions also add drama and detail to the shorter version, and may have had the intention of improving its trustworthiness.

In fact, we actually have two ancient Greek versions of Esther: the Septuagint is sometimes known as the β-text (or BT) but there is also another ancient version known as the α-text (or AT).  The α-text doesn’t have the additions which are in the β-text and appears to be a translation of a Hebrew original which was different to both the Masoretic Text and the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint (β-text) was translated. So at one stage there may have been three different Hebrew versions of Esther in existence.

The fact that we have these three versions of Esther demonstrates that from a very early time, quite likely soon after the story was first written down, alternative or expanded versions (“redactions” if you like) started to appear. In Esther’s case we still have three of those versions, and in the case of other books of the Bible we can be confident that alternative, revised or expanded versions were also made. Sometimes we can detect evidence of redaction in the texts which we have, although we don’t have a complete record of the editorial process and we don’t know what the “original” form looked like. At best we can speak of the “final forms” – the versions which have been preserved in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek Septuagint, and other ancient versions – but we should never refer to any of these texts as “the original” version. I have to laugh (or cry) when I hear people speak of “the original Hebrew [or Greek]” of the Bible as though we still have those “orginal” manuscripts. The fact is, we have well and truly lost “the original” and it would be quite wrong to refer to the Masoretic Text, or any text, as the original. We have copies which have been edited, revised, expanded, and redacted, we have “final forms” of this editorial process, and our oldest manuscripts are preserved in multiple versions, but alas, no “originals.”

_____________________

[1] It is, however, generally accepted by almost all scholars that the two “edicts” in 13:1-7 and 16:1-24 were composed in Greek and are later additions.

[2] Clines, David J. A., The Esther Scroll: The Story of the Story. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement series 30. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984.

Academic terms: Q

St. John (depicted as a scribe) from Bodleian Library MS Auct. D. 1.17

No, it’s not a typo, but after “Deuteronomistic” I thought I’d go for something shorter and you can’t get much shorter than a single letter. ‘Q’ is a term that you might come across when looking at how the New Testament gospels were written. In this 5 minute video I explore one of the sources the writers may have used when writing the Gospels.

The Deuteronomistic Redactional Layer

Dtr Redactional layers

It sounds complicated but it’s really quite simple. In my first two videos in this series explaining academic terms used in Biblical studies I spoke about the terms  Deuteronomistic and redaction. In this 9.5 minute video I combine the two ideas and speak about the Deuteronomistic redactional layer (or layers) which some scholars argue can be detected in several books of the Hebrew Bible, and why we need to know about this.

Academic terms: Deuteronomistic (2)

This post provides additional information about the terms Deuteronomic and Deuteronomistic which I briefly defined in yesterday’s video blog. There has been considerable scholarly discussion about these terms since the proposal of Martin Noth that Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings form a single literary presentation of the history of Israel. However, my use of these terms should not imply that I necessarily adopt Noth’s definitions of these terms. Scholars in various ‘schools’ of thought use Noth’s terms in ways which have changed markedly from his original proposal, so that his distinctions do not necessarily carry the same meaning in these contexts, and this can lead to confusion.

Noth originally used the term Deuteronomic to refer to themes and phraseology in the book of Deuteronomy, and Deuteronomistic when referring to themes and phraseology in the historical books which he argued were a kind of ‘sequel’ to Deuteronomy.  His distinction between the terms has been refined by subsequent scholars, especially by Frank M. Cross. Some scholars find it impractical to maintain the distinction between Deuteronomic and Deuteronomistic and opt for either one term or the other. Raymond Person, for example, encourages scholars to either adopt one term or the other and use them consistently, or to define their terms so that readers are clear which of the multiple meanings they are using. Person himself opts for using ‘Deuteronomic’. In this blog I generally use Deuteronomistic  with reference to terminology, themes and ideas which are found in those biblical texts regarded by many scholars as coming from a common author or school of thought and sometimes called ‘the Deuteronomistic historian’ (namely, sections of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings and Jeremiah). The word Deuteronomic is used with reference to terminology, themes and ideas found in the biblical book of Deuteronomy.

In a future video blog I will talk about “redactional layers” and what some scholars regard as a Deuteronomistic redactional layer.

For further reading see:

Martin Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien: Die sammelnden und bearbeitenden Geschichtswerke im Alten Testament (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1957).

Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981).

Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 274 n.1.

Raymond F. Person, Jr., The Deuteronomic School: History, Social Setting, and Literature (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), 6-7.

Person Jr, Raymond F. “In Conversation With Thomas Römer, The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical And Literary Introduction (London: T. & T. Clark, 2005).” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9, no. 17 (2009): 1-49. 

Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972;

Kurt L. Noll,  “Deuteronomistic History or Deuteronomic Debate? (A Thought Experiment).” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3 (2007): 311-45. 

Römer, Thomas C., The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: a Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction. London: T & T Clark, 2005.

Römer, Thomas C. “The Current Discussion on the so-called Deuteronomistic History: Literary Criticism and Theological Consequences.” Christianity and Culture, no. 46 (2015): 43-66. 

Auld, A. Graeme. “The Deuteronomists and the Former Prophets, or What Makes the Former Prophets Deuteronomistic?,” Pages 116-26 in Those Elusive Deuteronomists: The Phenomenon of Pan-Deuteronomism. Edited by L. S. Schearing and S. L. McKenzie. Vol. 268 of Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplementary Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.

Academic terms: Deuteronomistic

DeuteronomisticThis is the first of a series of video blogs I’ll be posting on biblical studies academic terms. Academic jargon is useful for academics: it provides a kind of shortcut so that one word or phrase can sum up a whole concept which may have been thoroughly developed in a thesis, and perhaps debated and refined over decades. But for those who are not ‘in the know’ they can sound pretentious. I generally try to avoid academic jargon in this blog, but when I do use it I also try to provide an explanation. Sometimes I don’t, because I think I’ve explained it earlier, but I’m aware that not everyone has read every post since I started blogging, so it could be handy to have a link to an explanation. The plan is that these videos will all be short (5-10 mins) episodes.

I’m kicking off with an 8 minute explanation of the terms Deuteronomistic, Deuteronomic, Deuteronomy and Deuterocanonical (no, they do not all mean the same thing!)

Reading Lamentations at Easter

Today in the Christian calendar is Holy Saturday – the day in Holy Week between Good Friday and Easter Day – and in many liturgical churches it is one of the days of Tenebrae (Latin for “darkness”) when candles are progressively extinguished during services so that they end in darkness. Traditionally, Tenebrae is observed over the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (some churches observe it only on the Wednesday of Holy Week), and the Book of Lamentations is read during services. Lamentations mourns the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. It has been described as “literature of catastrophe.” So why is it read in Christian churches during Holy Week?

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners, 1896–1902

Lamentations, in Hebrew, is poetry. The five chapters of the book are five distinct poems. The poems are well structured and the first four are “acrostic” and follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet as each verse begins with a new letter of the alphabet. So, the first word of the first poem is אֵיכָה (“how”) which begins with א the first letter of the alphabet, and so on. The five poems are each written from the perspective of someone who has felt the impact of the city’s destruction.

  1. The first two poems are written from the perspective of the city of Jerusalem, personified as a woman.
  2. The third poem is written from the perspective of a man (possibly a soldier) who was in the city during its seige.
  3. The fourth poem begins from the perspective of an observer watching the city’s destruction, and then moves to the collective voice of the people. It ends with a voice addressed to the inhabitants of the city.
  4. The final poem is a collective prayer addressed to God as the inhabitants of the city call on God to remember them in their affliction.

The poems progress through a sequence describing the destruction of the city and its aftermath. The poetical style is dirge and its metre contributes to its mournfulness. If one were to hear it read without knowing a word of Hebrew they would still pick up that it’s sad and solemn. The third poem – the central one – transitions from despair to hope.

So why is it read over the three days leading up to Easter Sunday? Here are just three possibilities:

  1. The first two poems in Lamentations personify Jerusalem as a widow. It begins “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.” For some Christian readers this is reminiscient of the loneliness and solitariness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. In Catholic tradition, for example, on Holy Saturday Mary is assigned the title Our Lady of Solitude.
  2. According to the synoptic gospels, in the week before his crucifixion Jesus prophesied about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Repeating history, and similar to its destruction by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, Jerusalem was beseiged and then destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. In some non-canonical Jewish literature of that period the Roman destruction of Jerusalem is described using similar phraseology to the earlier Babylonian destruction. The two events are remembered together in the Jewish commemoration known as Tisha B’Av – the traditional date of the destruction of both the first and second temples, as well as other cataclysmic events. Reading Lamentations during Holy Week also recalls Jesus’ prophecies in the days before his death about another impending destruction of Jerusalem.
  3. As despair turns to hope in the poetry of lamentations, so in the liturgical traditions of Tenebrae all lights are extinguished with just one candle remaining alight (or, in some churches one candle is relit). Like the message of Lamentations, this act is meant to symbolise that even in the darkest times hope remains.

I hope you have a blessed Easter.

Agnus Dei: a post for Good Friday

Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), Zurbarán, Prado Museum, c. 1635–1640

The Lamb of God (Agnus Dei in Latin) is a common motif for Good Friday services. Perhaps the best known biblical text using this phraseology is in the Gospel of John which records an incident when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and said: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29-35). This is not the only time in the New Testament that Jesus is referred to as a lamb. Other places are:

  • The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Acts 8:32, quoting Isaiah 53:7). The story continues by saying that the apostle Philip “starting with this scripture, proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (v.35).
  • “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
  • “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

The Revelation also refers to “the Lamb” about 30 times, and I wrote about this apocalyptic use some time ago in a post about the Lamb of God. It is commonly assumed that the slain lamb analogy is a reference to a sacrificial animal which was a “type” of Christ, and that as the blood of the animal made an atonement for sins so the shedding of Christ’s blood in crucifixion was a sacrificial atonement for sin.

However, there are a number of problems with this assumption.

  1. Almost all the New Testament references are alluding to the Passover lamb. The passage in 1 Corinthians is explicitly to “Christ our Passover” (strictly speaking, the word “lamb” is absent in the Greek – some translators have inserted it as they think it is implied) and 1 Peter speaks about being redeemed (set free, liberated) – an allusion to freedom from Egyptian slavery which Passover celebrates. As Easter coincides with Passover season, and Jesus was crucified the day after Passover, the connection to the lamb which was killed (and eaten) at Passover is logical enough.
  2. However, the Passover lamb was not sacrificed as an atonement or for the forgiveness of sins. Its blood marked the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt to distinguish them from the Egyptians, and the lamb was eaten as the meal on the final night before escaping from slavery. Passover commemorated Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt, but there is no association with atonement or forgiveness.
  3. It is sometimes assumed that the slain lamb analogy is an allusion to the Day of Atonement when Israel’s sins were forgiven and blood was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place. However, it was a goat that was slain on the Day of Atonement, not a lamb.
  4. For the daily sin offerings bulls and goats were most frequently sacrificed. Hence Hebrews says “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:14). If a lamb was offered it had to be a female lamb (e.g. Lev 4:32; 5:6). Lambs were also offered as burnt offerings, but when they were they were distinguished from sin offerings (e.g. Lev 12:6 “a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering”; Num 6:14 when a Nazirite completed his vow he was to bring “a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe [female] lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering …”). Burnt offerings and fellowship offerings were not for atonement or forgiveness of sins.
  5. The Isaiah 53 reference to a lamb is to a sheep being led to its shearers or for slaughter, but not necessarily being led to the altar as a sacrificial victim. The metaphor (“like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer”) were both in reference to the sheep/lamb being “silent” – “so he did not open his mouth”. We should not push the metaphor beyond what the prophet clearly intended. The sheep/lamb was “before the shearer”, not “before the priest”. The metaphor was about being silent like a sheep, not being sacrificed as an offering.

So what did John the Baptist mean when he said “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”? Geza Vermes, late professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University and a renowned scholar and expert in the Judaism and Aramaic of the time of Jesus, has pointed out that the description Lamb of God does not necessarily refer to the metaphor of a sacrificial animal. He points out that in Galilean Aramaic the word טליא talya literally means “lamb” but had the common meaning of “male child”. This is akin to “kid” meaning “child” in modern colloquial English. The female equivalent of talya was טליתא talitha, literally “ewe lamb” and figuratively “little girl” (the word is found in the narrative of the raising of the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5:41). It is a term of endearment. Thus, “Lamb of God” could have been a colloquial way of saying “Son of God” or “God’s Kid”.

Understood this way John the Baptist wasn’t referring to Jesus as a sacrifice for atonement, but rather he was saying “Look, the dear child of God, God’s little pet-lamb, the one who will remove sin!” How he would remove sin isn’t specified.

David and Jerusalem

Jebusite wall

Ancient ruins in Jerusalem believed by archaeologists to be part of the wall of the Jebusite city

Considering that Jerusalem is such an important city in the Bible and central to Israel’s worship, it is somewhat surprising that so little is said about its conquest in the historical narratives. What little is said also appears to be confusing and contradictory. Let’s try to sort it out.

The earliest biblical reference to the conquest, or rather non-conquest, of Jerusalem is at the beginning of the book of Judges where we read:

Judges 1:19 “The LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron. 20 Hebron was given to Caleb, as Moses had said; and he drove out from it the three sons of Anak. 21 But the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day.”

This is similar to a statement in Joshua 15:63 that “the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Judah could not drive out, so the Jebusites dwell with the people of Judah at Jerusalem to this day.” Note that Joshua says that the Jebusites dwelt with the people of Judah (not Benjamin) in Jerusalem “to this day” while Judges says they dwelt with the Benjaminites. A possible reason for mentioning both the tribes of Judah and Benjamin with respect to Jerusalem is that the city lies right on the boundary between the tribes, although neither in the allotment given to Judah (Joshua 15:8), and apparently not in the allotment given to Benjamin either (Joshua 18:16). It seems to be in a kind of “no mans land.”

However, these statements about not conquering Jerusalem are contradicted by an earlier verse in Judges 1 which says “the people of Judah fought against Jerusalem and took it. They put it to the sword and set the city on fire” (v.8). It is difficult to make sense of what is going on in Judges 1. Arguably, the claim in verse 8 that Judah captured the city isn’t necessarily at odds with Joshua 15:63, because the Joshua text descibes the conquest of the land under Joshua, while Judges describes further conquests after Joshua’s death. It is strange, however, that the chapter then goes on to say that Benjamin could not capture the city, and even stranger that both Joshua and Judges note that the Jebusites, the Canaanite occupiers of Jerusalem, continued to live with the Judahites/Benjaminites because they could not be dispossessed of the city. One of the sub-themes in the book of Judges is the denigration of the tribe of Benjamin, in contradistinction to Judah, undoubtedly because the book is laying a foundation for the opposing claims of Saul (of Benjamin) and David (of Judah) to the throne. There may be a hint of this here with the claim that Benjamin could not take the city from the Jebusites while Judah could. The situation, however, is confusing, especially when we come to later accounts of the conquest of the city.

According to 2 Samuel 5:6-9 it was David who conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites.

2 Samuel 5:6   The king [David] and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” 7 Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. 8 David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” 9 David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward.

This is in direct contradiction of Judges 1:8 which says the city had been taken previously by Judah. It is unthinkable that such an important city would have been captured and then lost without a mention of it, especially when other texts say the city was not taken by either Judah or Benjamin. Samuel refers to David’s conquest of the city as though it was the first. But what kind of conquest was it? This text in Samuel includes the problematic sayings about “the blind and the lame” and David’s hatred of them. The Hebrew contains some difficult expressions, including the phrase about going up through a “water shaft” and another about attacking the blind and lame. Several explanations have been offered as to what this means. Why did David hate them? Is it because they taunted him? And what is the connection to the “saying” that “the blind and the lame shall not come into the house”? What house?

It looks like the Chronicler had trouble with these expressions as well, so while his account looks like it was sourced from Samuel he left out the phrases which don’t make a great deal of sense:

1 Chronicles 11:4  David and all Israel marched to Jerusalem, that is Jebus, where the Jebusites were, the inhabitants of the land. 5 The inhabitants of Jebus said to David, “You will not come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, now the city of David. 6 David had said, “Whoever attacks the Jebusites first shall be chief and commander.” And Joab son of Zeruiah went up first, so he became chief. 7 David resided in the stronghold; therefore it was called the city of David. 8 He built the city all around, from the Millo in complete circuit; and Joab repaired the rest of the city. 

The Chronicler removes the difficult phrasing regarding the blind and lame, and the water shaft and instead inserts an account of the attack against Jerusalem being led by Joab, who was rewarded by being made David’s general. I have read several scholarly explanations about what was going on in the Samuel text, and why the Chronicler left out the details about the “water shaft” and “the blind and the lame.” I think the most likely reason he left them out was that by the time Chronicles was written there was already some confusion about their meaning, or that they portrayed David in a negative way (and the Chronicler likes to portray David positively). I personally like Jonathan Grossman’s explanation in an article published just last year [1].  Grossman argues several things convincingly:

  1. First, he notes that the Samuel text does not read like other conquests recorded in the biblical historical narratives, and suggests that it was a conditional surrender after an attack on the stronghold rather than a full conquest.
  2. He further argues that the Jebusites regarded the city as a sacred place (for example, it is linked elsewhere in the Bible with Melchizedek “priest of the Most High God” who met Abraham) and therefore anyone with a physical deformity was not allowed to enter it (similar prohibitions on the blind and lame entering sacred places can be found elsewhere in the Bible). As David’s supporters were drawn from the lowest tiers of society (2 Samuel 22:2), his army probably included men with injuries and disabilities and it would have been offensive to the Jebusites if they entered the sacred site.
  3. Putting these two points together, Grossman speculates that it may have been one of the Jebusites’ terms of surrender that they would hand over the city so long as David respected its sacredness and did not allow the blind and lame to enter it. He translates 2 Samuel 5:6 this way: “And it was said to David, ‘You shall not come here unless you remove the blind and the lame’ [saying, ‘David shall not come here’]”.
  4. He also argues that the Hebrew word צִּנּוֹר tzinnor/ṣinnôr should not be translated “water-shaft” but rather refers to a weapon used during sieges.
  5. The awkward phrase translated “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft” would be better translated as  “Whoever attacks a Jebusite—will be struck with the ṣinnôr.” In other words, David accepted their surrender and their terms, and anyone who attacked a Jebusite thereafter would themself be struck down. This explains why the other texts speak of Jebusites living with the occupiers “to this day.”

Grossman’s arguments make good sense to me and I find them convincing. It explains why later these terms of surrender were maintained with prohibitions against people with deformities entering the Temple in Jerusalem: “For this reason, they say: ‘the blind and the lame must not enter the House’ [i.e the Temple]” (v.8).

There is further evidence that this interpretation is right. It explains, for example, why men such as Uriah the Hittite were included amongst David’s highest ranking fighting men, as there is evidence that Hittites/Hurrians held prominent positions in the Jebusite city. I may come back to this some time and discuss Nicholas Wyatt’s interesting ideas about Uriah being the crown prince of the Jebusite city, and his inclusion as part of David’s military elite being one of the outcomes of the surrender.[2]

For the Chronicler, however, David’s military conquest of the city of Jerusalem which was previously unconquerable was a better story than the version in Samuel which was a negotiated surrender. Even in Chronicles though, the victory was not entirely David’s and it is Joab who is credited with taking the stronghold (although, strangely, Joab is left out of the list of David’s chief fighting men later – that’s possibly another story in itself!) This rewriting of history serves two purposes: (1) it avoids difficulties in the text of Samuel by removing them; and (2) it enhances David’s reputation as a conquering hero. For me, however, the Samuel story is the more fascinating one!

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[1] Grossman, Jonathan. “Did David Actually Conquer Jerusalem? The Blind, the Lame, and the Ṣinnôr.” Vetus Testamentum 69, no. 1 (2019): 46-59. 

[2] Wyatt, Nicolas. “‘Araunah the Jebusite’ and the Throne of David.” Studia Theologica 39, no. 1 (1985): 39-53. 

Who was at the Last Supper?

Last-SupperToday is Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar, which commemorates when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples the night before his crucifixion. Passover was one of the obligatory feasts when a large number of pilgrims would have been in Jerusalem. We have artists like Leonardo Da Vinci to thank for giving the impression that the ‘Last Supper’ was eaten at a table with Jesus seated in the centre, and with only his twelve closest disciples present. However, I think Da Vinci was wrong.

Some scholars dispute that the Last Supper was actually the Passover, although the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were unanimous that it was – Mark even specifies that it was on the day when the Passover lambs were sacrificed (Mark 14:12). This is disputed by some scholars on the basis that John 18:28 appears to contradict this with a statement that the Chief Priests claimed they would be “defiled” by entering the Roman governor’s court (on the Friday), and that defilement would make it impossible for them to eat the Passover later that day. This implies, it is argued, that Passover that year was on Friday night, not Thursday, and the ‘last supper’ was therefore held on the night before Passover. However, I think John’s account can easily be reconciled with the synoptic gospels if we accept that there was some overlap in the terminology related to the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread which was connected to it. There is evidence that in the first century CE Passover day and the week-long festival of unleavened bread which followed Passover were referred to collectively as “Passover”. John’s reference is most likely to the priests being unable to join in with the festival meals during the week-long “Passover” festival, and not to the Passover meal itself which had already happened the night before. Any other interpretation puts John in conflict with Matthew, Mark and Luke. If you’ve read any of my posts on contradictions in the Bible you will know that I don’t have a problem with contradictions per se. But not every “difficulty” has to be a contradiction, and some (many?) can easily be explained.

So I am going with the traditional view that the last supper was held on the Thursday night and that it was the Passover meal. According to Jewish tradition and law, it was necessary that the Passover meal be eaten indoors, in groups, and following procedures which were carefully laid down in the law and by tradition. Jerusalem on Passover night was a crowded city and space was at a premium. To find a vacant “large upper room” (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12) in Jerusalem at Passover would have been well nigh on impossible as thousands of pilgrims from around the country (and around the world) would have been in Jerusalem for the occasion. It’s highly unlikely that at short notice they could have found a large room for the exclusive use of a dozen or so people. At best they would have arranged to have shared a large room, with other groups of between 10 and 20 people (the numbers specified by Jewish law). For several families or groups to have gathered together in one large room, and then to have eaten the meal around their individual tables was such a common practice that the Jewish Oral Law (the Mishnah) explained the procedure for such cases.

The book of the Acts of the Apostles refers to a gathering of 120 disciples “all together in one place” in Jerusalem a short time after (Acts 2:1). Elsewhere it refers to the Jerusalem church meeting at the home of John Mark (Acts 12:12) and there is some circumstantial evidence that the last supper was held in the same home (let me know if you’d like me to provide it).

It is extremely likely that Jesus and the Twelve celebrated Passover in a large room which could have accomodated 120 people. They probably shared the room with several other groups, possibly with other disciples, especially the ones who travelled around the country with them. This helps to explain why private conversations between Peter and John, John and Jesus, and Jesus and Judas , were not heard by the others present, because there would have been considerable background noise. So the idea often portrayed in artistic works like Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” that Jesus’ final meal with his disciples was a small, quiet, intimate meal is probably far from the truth. It’s more likely that it was held in a large, crowded, noisy room. For those commemorating Maundy Thursday this year, however, with the isolation imposed by Covid-19 restrictions, this will be an altogether different experience with tiny groups or just individuals, perhaps joining with others via the internet. Whatever you do, I hope it will be a meaningful time for you.

David and Goliath: history or legend?

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

The story of the boy David slaying the giant Goliath is undoubtedly one of the best known stories in the Bible. But did it really happen? Are all the stories in the Bible meant to be taken as historical facts, or were some of them written for some other purpose? We tell stories, we read fiction and watch films and television series for all sorts of reasons, including simply for entertainment. Is it possible that some of the stories in the Bible served similar purposes, including merely to entertain? If so, how can we tell when a story in the Bible is meant to give an historical account of actual events, or if it served some other purpose? In this post I’ll look at the popular story of David and Goliath.

The story is recorded only in 1 Samuel 17. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) has a shorter version, omitting verses 12-31 and 55-18:5 which describe how David came to be at the battlefield (his father sent him with some provisions for his three older brothers who were at the battle, and an odd detail about also sending some cheese for their commander); how David heard the threats made by the Philistine giant, Goliath; how he was introduced to king Saul; and a long section detailing how Saul enquired about David after he had killed Goliath. This second omitted section contains important clues as to the veracity of the story:

1 Samuel 17:55 When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this young man?” Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.” 56 The king said, “Inquire whose son the stripling is.” 57 On David’s return from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. 58 Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”

18:1 When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. 2 Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. 3 Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. 4 Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. 5 David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; as a result, Saul set him over the army. And all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved. (1 Samuel 17:55-18:5).

There is a considerable problem with this section. It reads as though this is the first time Saul had met David or heard of him. This is a major difficulty because immediately preceeding the David and Goliath incident (v.16) there is a different account of David’s introduction to Saul in the previous chapter:

1 Samuel 16:14 Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. 15 And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.” 17 So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.” 18 One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him.” 19 So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David who is with the sheep.” 20 Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. 21 And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armour-bearer. 22 Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” 23 And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.

There is a clear contradiction between the two stories. If the first actually happened then by the time Saul goes out to do battle with the Philistines David was already in his service as his armour-bearer and personal musician, and Saul “loved him greatly.” It’s possible that the Septuagint translators deleted this section in chapter 18 because of the obvious difficulty that David was introduced to Saul twice, the second time after he was already well known to Saul and loved by him. It’s equally possible that this second introduction wasn’t in the Hebrew version they translated from because it was added later. The Dead Sea Scrolls don’t help us here because the Samuel manuscripts are fragmentary, having fallen prey to worms and the ravages of time, and the entire section from 1 Samuel 17:7 to 18:16 is missing. So the incident where David is introduced to Saul could have been deleted by the translators who noticed the difficulty and removed it in order to avoid the problem, or the discrepancy was created by a late editor of the Hebrew text who added it. If so, it’s unlikely that the editor wouldn’t have seen the problem; it’s more likely that he wanted to preserve both accounts of David’s introduction to Saul and wasn’t concerned about the contradiction. He was simply preserving two differing traditional accounts.  (Most scholars these days accept Emanuel Tov’s arguments for the Septuagint being the older version and the Masoretic Text being a later expansion. [1])

That’s not the only difficulty with the story. In both the Hebrew and Greek versions there is the detail that after killing Goliath David severed his head and “David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armour in his tent” (17:54). The first problem here is that Jerusalem wasn’t under the control of Israel at the time and it wasn’t until decades later that David himself is attributed with capturing it from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:6-9). It is unthinkable that the Jebusites would have allowed David to take Goliath’s head there, and for what purpose? (I’ll go into further detail about the conquest of Jerusalem in a later post). The second difficulty is that David is said to have put Goliath’s armour in his tent. What tent? The Hebrew version of the story tells us that David was at the battlefield simply to deliver some provisions to his brothers, who didn’t particularly welcome their kid-brother being there. David wasn’t one of the fighting soldiers, so he is unlikely to have had his own tent there. There is a clue here that this version of the story could itself have been a merging of two older stories: in one David was visiting his brothers with provisions; in the other he was one of the fighting men camped there.

There is a further contradiction between the story of David killing Goliath and another account of Goliath’s death which is almost glossed over later in Samuel and also in Chronicles.

Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jair, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. (2 Samuel 21:19) [2] 

Although this is a brief account two details support the conclusion that it’s the same “Goliath” apart from the fact that it’s an uncommon name. First “Goliath the Gittite” means the same as “Goliath of Gath”  (1 Samuel 17:4), and second, the expression “the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” occurs in both accounts but nowhere else. The size of the spear was clearly noteworthy and it’s highly unlikely that there would be two different people with the same name from the same city whose spears were noteworthy. It’s likely that the story of Elhanan killing Goliath was taken over and adapted as part of the legend of David’s fighting prowess and added to Samuel later. The fact that both Elhanan and David were from Bethlehem may have made it easy to appropriate a story about a local hero and apply it to another local boy.

The two stories about David being introduced to Saul cast David in a good light, and make Saul appear as weak and ineffective, and with a mental illness. It’s easy to see why the writer or editor wants to preserve them both. It’s also interesting that the Chronicler, who generally portrays David in glowing terms, doesn’t include these stories in his Chronicles. We might think they would serve his purpose, but perhaps he hadn’t heard them or he didn’t regard this information as historically reliable, or it simply didn’t fit with his story which begins with the death of Saul.

It’s still a good story, but we should accept that it’s probably just that: a good story! And that’s ok. We shouldn’t assume that the writers of the Bible intended for every story to be taken as historical fact. They were as capable as anyone of telling a ripping good yarn to make a point. The important thing is the point they were making, not whether the story is true.

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[1] Emanuel Tov, “The Composition of 1 Samuel 16-18 in the light of the Septuagint Version,” in J. H. Tigay (ed.), Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (Philadelphia, 1985), 98-130.

[2] Chronicles has an almost identical parallel:  “Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (1 Chronicles 20:5). In both cases I’ve followed Robert Alter’s translation (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Jonah, Samuel and satire

I had the honour of presenting a paper to the Fellowship for Biblical Studies in Sydney last week. Due to the coronavirus this was our first online meeting so it created some interesting challenges, and delivering a paper online was a first for me. Unfortunately, I lost my internet connection a couple times during the question and discussion period (some might think I conveniently lost my connection when faced with some tough questions!) so the recording doesn’t include the discussion (and also to protect the privacy of participants who may not have known the discussion was being recorded). However, I welcome feedback, comments and questions, so feel free to comment here or on the YouTube page.

Here is a link to a recording of my presentation. My paper can also be downloaded as a pdf here: FBS presentation notes, Jonah

Historiosophy, inerrancy, and Chronicles

History is what has happened in the past. Historiography is the study of how history is recorded and the methods employed for writing it down and passing it on. Historiosophy is a study of the philosophy of history, the lens through which the events of the past are viewed and interpreted. Knowing the philosophy or worldview of those who recorded history can enable us to come to terms with why they recorded the past in the way they did; for example, why some events were recorded and others ignored, and whether characters are presented positively or negatively. Conversely, by comparing different accounts of history we may gain insights into the philosophies of the historians, and why they understood events of the past in the way they did. We can sometimes work out their motives for describing events and people in the way they did, or whether they had some kind of agenda, such as propaganda purposes, for describing the past in a certain way. For example, a present situation might be explained as the result or culmination of past events, so our circumstances in the present and our plans or desires for the future will influence how we interpret the events of the past.

By comparing the biblical books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles we can see that the events of the past are recorded quite differently at times, relative to the historians’ unique perspectives. We can be confident that the writer of Chronicles was familiar either with the book of Kings, or with one or more of the sources used by the author of Kings. This is evident from the fact that Chronicles sometimes repeats lengthy sections of Kings, word-for-word. It would be easy to gloss over this repeated material, but by paying close attention we would note that sometimes minor, although perhaps important, details are modified. The early chapters of Chronicles are a good example of this. In fact, we could be tempted to skim over the first 9 chapters of 1 Chronicles because they contain long lists of names and genealogies, and it’s not until chapter 10 that we get the first account of historical events with the battle between Israel and Philistines in which King Saul was killed. The first 14 verses is a good example of how the Chronicler appears to have copied from Samuel-Kings, as this account is almost word-for-word the same as 1 Samuel 31:1-13. Both records begin the same way: “Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and many fell on Mount Gilboa. 2 The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul.” (1 Samuel 31:1-2 // 1 Chronicles 10:1-2). Both accounts are almost identical from that point on, differing only slightly in some details. These details, however, are significant in that they provide insights into the theological worldviews, or historiosophies, of the different writers. For example, compare the two accounts of the death of Saul’s sons in battle:

"Death of King Saul", 1848 by Elie Marcuse

“Death of King Saul”, 1848 by Elie Marcuse

“So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together on the same day.” (1 Samuel 31:6).

Chronicles modifies this ever so slightly: “Thus Saul died; he and his three sons and all his house died together”  (1 Chronicles 10:6). However, by omitting any mention of Saul’s armour-bearer and “all his men” and substituting this with “all his house,” the Chronicler gives the impression that with the death of Saul and his three sons there was no surviving claimant to his throne so his dynasty (or house) came to an end. The transition to David as king over Israel, according to the Chronicler, is smooth and unchallenged. However, tucked away in the long and rather dull chronologies which occupy the first nine chapters, the Chronicler lets slip that he is aware that Saul had a fourth son, Eshbaal  (1 Chronicles 8:33; also 9:39). The writer of Samuel knows this son as Ishvi (1 Samuel 14:49) or Ish-bosheth (several times throughout 2 Samuel 2-4, in some versions translated as Ishbaal). What is most significant about this fourth son is that after the death of Saul, according to Samuel, he was acknowledged by “all Israel” as Saul’s heir and reigned for two years as king (2 Samuel 2:9-10). His reign came to an end when he was assassinated by two of his military captains who defected to David (2 Samuel 4:5-8). This also brought to an end “a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” (2 Samuel 3:1). Chronicles not only makes no mention of this long war, or Ish-bosheth/Ishbaal’s two year reign over “all Israel,” its claim that the dynastic house of Saul died together on the battlefield effectively airbrushes Ishbaal and any opposition to David from history. According to Chronicles David is accepted as king, unchallenged (1 Chronicles 11:3). This fits with the Chronicler’s depiction of David as a model king, divinely appointed to rule, and faultless. In this version of history, the writer ignores any facts which challenge his historiosophy.

I will give one more example. The book of Kings gives an account of the reign of Abijam:

“Now in the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijam began to reign over Judah. 2 He reigned for three years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Maacah daughter of Abishalom. 3 He committed all the sins that his father did before him; his heart was not true to the LORD his God, like the heart of his father David. 4 Nevertheless for David’s sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him, and establishing Jerusalem; 5 because David did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite. 6 The war begun between Rehoboam and Jeroboam continued all the days of his life. 7 The rest of the acts of Abijam, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah? There was war between Abijam and Jeroboam. 8 Abijam slept with his ancestors, and they buried him in the city of David. Then his son Asa succeeded him.” (1 Kings 15:1-8).

In this case, Chronicles has a longer account of Abijam’s reign (Chronicles calls him Abijah) and the war with Jeroboam (14 verses, compared with 8 in Kings). It begins this way:

In the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam, Abijah began to reign over Judah. 2 He reigned for three years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Micaiah daughter of Uriel of Gibeah. Now there was war between Abijah and Jeroboam. 3 Abijah engaged in battle, having an army of valiant warriors, four hundred thousand picked men; and Jeroboam drew up his line of battle against him with eight hundred thousand picked mighty warriors. (2 Chronicles 13:1-3).

Chronicles is often so similar to Kings that many scholars think the Chronicler had a copy of Kings in front of him when he wrote, copying lengthy sections almost word-for-word. Here, however, his account is so different he even has a different spelling for Abijam/Abijah’s name, a different name for his mother, and for his mother’s father. Kings has a fairly standard condemnation of Abijam, as it does for almost all the kings: “He committed all the sins that his father did before him; his heart was not true to the LORD his God, like the heart of his father David” (v.3). The Chronicles version, on the other hand, includes a lengthy speech by Abijah directed against Jeroboam, which argues that God has appointed and is on the side of the Davidic kings, and condemns Jeroboam as an idolater (vv. 4-12). We are left with the distinct impression from Chronicles that Abijam was a true successor of David and Solomon, faithful to God and militarily victorious over a superior force. This account is so much at odds with the Kings version that we could be forgiven for thinking they are two different kings!

So which version is “correct” – Kings or Chronicles? The considerable differences between the two records of Israel’s history pose several problems for those whose view of “Biblical inerrancy” does not allow for any “errors” in the Bible. In matters of fact both versions cannot be right. Yet both versions present what the writers would have regarded as a “true” telling of the story of Israel’s history and God’s part in it. Their historiographies, while often similar, provide different lenses through which they see history, filtering out some details and colouring others. According to the writer of Kings the kings of Israel and Judah – almost all of them – were deeply flawed and monarchy as an institution was a failure. For the Chronicler, the Davidic kings represented the special relationship between God and Israel and his view of history was interpreted through this unique status. These conflicting philosophies or worldviews, their divergent historiosophies, caused them to see history quite differently; yet both accounts were regarded by later generations as worth preserving. No one view held sway over the other.

The problem for those who believe in inerrancy is one of their own making. The Bible nowhere claims to be free of errors. It does not not claim for itself what others claim for it. It does, however, preserve different and sometimes conflicting views of events, side-by-side, and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

(Re)writing the Bible: solving contradictions between Kings and Chronicles (and in the Gospels)

Solomon offering sacrifices

Solomon offers sacrifices at the dedication of the temple, Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht, Netherlands, 1430

I was raised in a denomination which firmly believed in the “inerrancy” of the Bible and any apparent contradiction between one part of the Bible and another had to be resolved. This usually meant that the alleged contradiction was explained in such a way that the contradiction no longer existed, and sometimes it meant “doubling up” with accounts of stories. For example, the Gospel of Mark tells a story of Jesus healing a man who was blind and begging beside the road. Mark specifically says this happened as Jesus was leaving the city of Jericho (Mark 10:46). Luke tells the same story, but in his version the incident took place as Jesus was entering the city of Jericho (Luke 18:35). A minor difference perhaps, but for someone who believes the Bible is free of any errors it is an important problem to resolve. I’ve heard a number of possible explanations which have been offered to explain away the contradiction: (a) Jesus actually healed two blind beggars, one as he was entering the city and another as he was leaving (this kind of “doubling up” has been used to solve several contradictions in the Gospels); (b) there were two cities called “Jericho” close to each other (the “old” city and a “new” city), and this miracle happened between them, as Jesus was leaving one and entering the other; or (c) Jesus left the city of Jericho but then turned around to go back and it was then that he healed the beggar, so he was both “leaving” and  “entering” at the same time. We can easily rule out (a) as the stories are so similar, with the beggar in both stories using identical words to address Jesus, that there could have been only one incident. Many ancient cities (such as Jerusalem) have both “old” and “new” districts to this day; however, while you might say, for example, that you are leaving the “old city” of Jerusalem and going to one of the new suburbs, you wouldn’t say you are leaving Jerusalem and entering Jerusalem, and you wouldn’t refer to the two areas in such a way that you could be said to be both entering and leaving the city at the same time, so (b) is highly improbable. We can also rule out (c) as being simply far-fetched and doesn’t fit with either Mark or Luke.  The simplest, most logical, and best solution to the problem is that the incident took place outside the city, and whether Jesus was entering or leaving wasn’t an important detail whose accuracy overly concerned the writers. One of them simply got this detail wrong.

However, for Bible readers who believe in inerrancy every detail has to be absolutely correct, and this results in the sort of mental and exegetical gymnastics such as the examples above. It’s quite plain from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that some of the writers were aware of similar contradictions or errors in versions of biblical books which were available to them, and they attempted to re-write them to remove the contradictions. How they did so is insightful for how the writers of the Bible themselves viewed “errors” and contradictions. I’ll go back to the different accounts of the history of Israel in Kings and Chronicles to provide an example.

The book of Kings describes how Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, and provides details of how he paid King Hiram of the Phoenician city of Tyre for some of the building materials, including a note about how Hiram was dissatisfied with the payment.

10 At the end of twenty years, in which Solomon had built the two houses, the house of the LORD and the king’s house, 11 King Hiram of Tyre having supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress timber and gold, as much as he desired, King Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee. 12 But when Hiram came from Tyre to see the cities that Solomon had given him, they did not please him. 13 Therefore he said, “What kind of cities are these that you have given me, my brother?” So they are called the land of Cabul to this day. 14 But Hiram had sent to the king one hundred twenty talents of gold. (1 Kings 9:10-14)

While selling or bartering with cities was not unheard of in the ancient world, it’s odd that Solomon paid Hiram with 20 cities when elsewhere in both Kings and Chronicles it is recorded that he was extremely wealthy and silver and gold were “as common as stones” in Jerusalem (1 Kings 3:13; 10:27; 2 Chronicles 1:12, 15; 9:27). Why not pay for the timber with silver or gold, and why buy gold when it’s already so plentiful and “common as stones”? Surrendering 20 cities also contradicts the claim made earlier (1 Kings 4:21) that “Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.”

It seems that the writer of Chronicles, who appears to have used an edition of Kings as one of his primary sources, also noticed the difficulties. Chronicles frequently quotes Kings word-for-word and when it came to this part of the story the Chronicler starts out in just this way by copying Kings: “At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon had built the house of the LORD and his own house …” (2 Chronicles 8:1). But then, in order to resolve the difficulty of handing over 20 cities to Hiram, Chronicles completely changed what followed: “Solomon rebuilt the cities that Huram had given to him, and settled the people of Israel in them” (v.2). This is the exact opposite of what is in Kings! In Chronicles it is Hiram who gives 20 cities to Solomon, and there is no mention of gold. The Chronicler didn’t simply avoid the problem by deleting the difficult verses (as he does elsewhere), he sets the record straight (at least as he sees it, or according to his other sources) and contradicts Kings. His new version avoids the difficulties of the fabulously wealthy Solomon being unable to pay for timber, and of Solomon bartering for gold when he purportedly already had plenty of it; and it removes the contradiction in Kings that Solomon expanded Israel’s borders but also purchased goods by ceding territory. So one book of the Bible “rewrote” an earlier version of history in another book of the Bible, and both versions continued to exist.

Which of the two accounts is correct we may never know. Chronicles provides a more consistent portrayal of Solomon as extremely wealthy and to whom neighbouring kings were subservient, but this does not mean it is a more accurate account; rather, it suggests that it was written at one time, possibly by a single author, with a deliberate agenda. As I pointed out in earlier posts, Kings has no problem with presenting the kings of Israel and Judah as deeply flawed characters, and in fact we can be fairly certain that to do so was one of the writer(s) main interests; Chronicles on the other hand sets out to portray David and Solomon as successful model kings. It sometimes does so by ignoring difficulties in Kings and “deleting” stories or details which don’t fit with its version of Israel’s history, but at other times, such as here, it “corrects” the record and provides an entirely new version. Both versions of Israel’s history are fascinating, and I am personally more interested in trying to discover the writers’ motives for recording history as they did than in attempting to reconcile difficulties or to “harmonise” the accounts. More important (to me) than knowing what actually happened is why the writers told different and conflicting stories; how their different accounts influenced the development of ideas and the unfolding of history; and how this helps me to understand the Bible.

Name puns: Solomon as a man of peace

Cornelis_de_Vos_-_The_Anointing_of_Solomon

The Anointing of Solomon by Zadok the priest. Cornelis de Vos, 1630.

Puns on names of people is a common phenomenon in many languages, including biblical Hebrew. Puns do not, however, translate easily from one language to another and so they are often lost in translation. The Bible contains a few well-known name-puns, largely because they are explained in the text or in translators’ footnotes. For example, we have one in 1 Samuel 25:25 where Abigail, speaking to David about her husband Nabal, says “My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him.” The pun isn’t obvious in the English translation but the explanation lets us know that one exists. In fact, the Hebrew Nabal נָבָל (more correctly pronounced Naval) means “foolish”, “worthless” or “good for nothing”.  Since it is unlikely his parents hated him so much as to call him “fool” from birth, scholars have discussed how the name might also be understood according to an alternative Semitic root meaning “noble.” The meaning “fool” would be a play on the double meaning of the name. It’s a word-play: his name may actually have meant “noble” but it sounded like the word for “fool” so it would be an easy way to denigrate him. These types of puns are much more common in the Bible than we might realise by reading an English translation, and it seems that they are particularly prevalent in the books of Samuel and Kings.

I mentioned in my previous post that Solomon’s name in Hebrew – שְׁלֹמֹה, Shlomoh – actually  sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for “peace” – שָׁלוֹם shalom – and he has a reputation for being a man of peace. The book of Chronicles is largely responsible for giving Solomon that reputation. In the book of Kings Solomon secures the throne through the bloody murders of his brother Adonijah and his supporters; hardly a man of peace. Further to this, it appears that the writer of Kings uses a series of puns playing on Solomon’s name and the word for peace, but using them in the context of bloodshed. Here are some of them:

  • Before David died he spoke with Solomon about his general Joab (a loyal supporter throughout David’s reign) and referred to two incidents where Joab killed Abner one of Saul’s commanders who had gone over to David, but whom Joab did not trust, and Amasa one of his own relatives whom he believed to be conspiring against David. David, however, read Joab’s motives differently and so he encouraged Solomon to carry out an act of post-mortem vengeance on his behalf: “you know also what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner son of Ner, and Amasa son of Jether, whom he murdered, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war” (1 Kings 2:5). The word “peace” is mentioned several times throughout these narratives (e.g. 2 Samuel 3:21-23; 20:9).  An interesting thing here is that the vengeance was allegedly for shedding blood “in time of peace (שָׁלוֹם shalom)”. Ironically, throughout David’s reign, there never was “a time of peace”!
  • David’s advice/instruction to Solomon about Joab was “do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace” (1 Kings 2:6), emphasing that Solomon was not to allow Joab to have a peaceful death. He was murdered on Solomon’s instructions while seeking sanctuary at the altar of God.
  • The record of David’s death and Solomon’s accession to the throne (and, according to some scholars, the end of the long section in Samuel-Kings called the “succession narrative”) ends with Solomon ordering that Joab be struck down beside the altar at the tent of the Lord: “so shall the blood of Abner and Amasa come back on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendants forever; but to David, and to his descendants, and to his house, and to his throne, there shall be peace from the LORD forevermore” (1 Kings 2:33). David and Solomon blamed Joab for the kingdom’s woes because he allegedly shed blood during a time of peace; yet, ironically, they think that peace will eventually come through shedding more blood!
  • After Solomon secured the throne “Adonijah son of Haggith came to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother. She asked, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably‘.” (1 Kings 2:13). The question and declaration that he came in peace use the word שָׁלוֹם shalom. This “peacable” audience with Bathsheba was soon to end with Adonijah’s death.

After a great deal of war and bloodshed throughout David’s reign these early chapters of Kings give the impression that peace was finally expected to come through שְׁלֹמֹה, Shlomoh, Solomonthe man of peace. There are a number of ironies here. First, Solomon secured the throne only by shedding more blood; and second, the bloodshed was not over. Solomon thereafter commenced a series of military campaigns against neighbouring nations in order to secure peace through warfare. It may very well be that the writer of Kings is highlighting the irony by juxtaposing the word “peace” – which sounds like “Solomon” – with “blood”, “war” and “death” on several occasions.  Perhaps the writer wasn’t convinced by the propaganda of the Zadokite priests whose descendants were probably behind the writing of the alternative version of Israel’s history which made Solomon out to be a peaceful king. Through the clever use of puns Kings reminds its readers that Solomon’s so-called peace came at the cost of bloodshed! And “peace” which comes through bloodshed isn’t really peace.

The Bible in Conversation with itself (3): Why two (different) accounts of the reign of Solomon?

Solomon_and_the_Plan_for_the_Temple

Solomon and the Plan for the Temple (1896)

I’ve already raised the question of why the Bible includes two versions of the history of Israel. A clue as to why we have different versions can be discovered by looking at the two different accounts of the reign of Solomon, traditionally regarded as one of Israel’s greatest kings.

The books of Kings and Chronicles not only have different versions of the reign of Solomon, they portray Solomon in entirely conflicting ways. In Chronicles Solomon is a man of peace (his name in Hebrew – שְׁלֹמֹה, Shlomoh – actually  sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for “peace” – shalom) and was therefore enabled to build the Temple in Jerusalem instead of his father David who was prevented from doing so because he had shed blood (1 Chroncles 28:3). However, in the Kings version, Solomon also shed quite a lot of blood, including murdering his brother Adonijah who was first in line to the throne, and Joab, David’s general and a supporter of Adonijah’s claim to the throne (1 Kings 2:24-34). In fact, the story of Solomon’s accession to the throne in Kings begins with a series of murders ordered by Solomon. Hardly a “man of peace”!

While Chronicles devotes a great deal of space to describing the building of the Temple as one of Solomon’s greatest achievements, picturing him as a godly man, Kings is careful to point out that Solomon spent more time and effort building his own palace (13 years) than he did in building the Temple (7 years) picturing him as self-interested (1 Kings 6:38; 7:1). Kings is almost meticulous in describing how Solomon repeatedly broke the laws in Deuteronomy which set out how a king was to be appointed and reign. Chronicles on the other hand doesn’t have a bad word to say about him, and omits all this negative material found in Kings. Reading the two accounts is almost like reading descriptions of two different kings!

So why is this? How could it be that these two versions of Israel’s history contain such glaringly different views of one of their most famous kings? The answer may be in the Kings account of Solomon’s bloody accession to the throne. While ordering the murders of Adonijah and Joab, Solomon specifically spared Abiathar the priest who had also supported Adonijah’s claim to the throne:

The king [Solomon] said to the priest Abiathar, “Go to Anathoth, to your estate; for you deserve death. But I will not at this time put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Lord GOD before my father David, and because you shared in all the hardships my father endured.”  So Solomon banished Abiathar from being priest to the LORD, thus fulfilling the word of the LORD that he had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh. (1 Kings 2:26-27)

In his place Solomon appointed Zadok as priest (1 Kings 2:35). We don’t hear much about Abiathar after that, or what happened when he got to Anathoth, except we read that centuries later Jeremiah the prophet was “of the priests who were in Anathoth” (Jeremiah 1:1). The most likely explanation for this connection to Anathoth was that Abiathar continued to minister there as a priest and this priestly order continued to the time of Jeremiah. Interestingly, many scholars have noted that Jeremiah’s “writing style” including his use of certain key words and phrases is very similar to the book of Kings and the other books in what we call “the Deuteronomistic History” (Joshua, Judges and Samuel). Some scholars argue that the book of Kings was actually written, or edited, by priests/scribes who belonged to this priestly community set up by Abiathar in Anathoth. Chronicles, on the other hand, was probably written by priests/scribes who descended from Zadok. The Anathoth priests were descended from a supporter of Adonijah, while the Zadokite priests were descended from a supporter of Solomon. Two groups of priests/scribes/scholars with two entirely different perspectives on the reign of Solomon and therefore two different versions of his reigns and opinions as to whether he was a good or bad king. Remarkably, both accounts of Israel’s history were preserved, and both were eventually bound together in the book we call “the Bible”!

The Bible in Conversation with itself (2): Why two accounts of the history of Israel?

ChroniclesMy previous posts on The Bible in Conversation with itself and How the Bible was (re)written were on a similar theme, building on some ideas which I’ve blogged about in the past. This post (and possibly others to follow) continues on the same theme.

In my early Bible-reading days I was puzzled about why the Bible contained two very similar histories of Israel, often with almost identical wording, but also with stories that were unique to each account. It’s a similar question to why the New Testament has four accounts (‘Gospels’) of Jesus’ life. Wouldn’t it be simpler and more straight-forward to have just one? The question presupposes some intentionality and design in how the Bible was written. Personally, if was writing the Bible I’d go for simplicity and avoid unnecessary duplication and I’d produce a kind of ‘Readers Digest version’ of the Bible. But then, the question also presupposes that someone, or some group of Bible, at some point in time, set out to write the Bible. We know that’s not how it happened. The Bible came together as a collection of writings, or a collection of collections, and as I’ve mentioned previously there is some very good internal evidence that the work of collecting these texts took place over a long period and some editing work was done along the way.

It may come as a surprise to some people that not all Bibles are the same, or contain the same ‘books.’ There is a well-known difference between Catholic and Orthodox Bibles and Protestant ones in that Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain a number of books known as ‘Apocrypha’ (or Deutero-canonical books). Lesser known is the fact that Catholic and Orthodox Bibles differ as to the number of books accepted as Apocrypha or Deutero-canonical. Then the Ethiopian Coptic Bible includes some additional books (1 Enoch and Jubilees). Historically we know that early Christians debated for a long time about which books should be included in the Canon, and the matter was never fully settled to the agreement of all churches. The New Testament itself quotes (or alludes to) books which the writers regarded as ‘Scripture’ which are known to us but which didn’t make the final cut (e.g. Jude quotes from 1 Enoch, which is a good case for why the Ethiopian church might have got it right by including it). So, if there are several different versions of the Bible to this day it shouldn’t be surprising that there were also different versions in early times, even during the period when the books of the Bible were still being written.

In this post I want to speculate about why we have two versions of Israel’s history in the Hebrew Bible: the books of Kings and Chronicles (incidentally, although Christian Bibles have 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, in the Hebrew Bible these are just one book each. The Greek Septuagint regards 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as one ‘book’ but divides them up as 1, 2, 3 and 4 Kingdoms. The Hebrew Bible knows these four books, together with Joshua and Judges, as ‘The Former Prophets’. Many modern Biblical scholars refer to the Former Prophets collection as the Deuteronomistic History.)

At this point I should explain two terms frequently found in scholarly literature: synchronic and diachronic. In a nutshell, to read a book synchronically is to read it as a whole, as a single unit, without any special consideration of how the book may have ‘evolved’ over time. A diachronic reading, on the other hand, tries to identify the various ‘layers’ as the book was edited, redacted and modified by several hands over time; it attempts to identify the various sources and concerns of each editor in the process. Even those who read books in this way – diachronically – will acknowledge that what we have now is the ‘final form’ of what may have been a long process of editing and redaction, and this final form should be read as a single unit (i.e. synchronically), the last revision by the final editor. Having noted previously that there is evidence within Kings of editing, and that the various manuscripts and the ancient versions testify to the existence of a number of ‘versions’ of the Bible, even during the time when the Bible was still being written, the final forms of Kings and Chronicles indicate that they have quite different fundamental concerns and interests.

When we read Kings and Chronicles we note several similarities and differences:

  1. There are several portions of Chronicles which are nearly identical to sections in Kings, which suggests that the writer of Chronicles may have been familiar with Kings, or one of the sources of Kings, and was intentionally writing a new version.
  2. While Kings records the histories of the kings of both Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom), Chronicles is interested primarily in the kings of Judah.
  3. In Chronicles both David and Solomon are regarded as model kings. It contains details about both kings which are not in Kings, and this additional information always extols their kingships. Negative information about David and Solomon contained in the book of Kings (such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba and Solomon’s idolatry) are not found in Chronicles. It is as though the records have been ‘white-washed’  to make these kings seem better than they actually were.
  4. In a similar way, the formulaic condemnation of the kings – “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – is found repetitively through Kings but nowhere near as often in Chronicles.   Some of the stories in Chronicles have been ‘cleaned up’ to present a better image of them than the one in Kings (such as Manasseh’s sins and his repentance which I mentioned in part 1.)
  5. The writer(s) of Chronicles seems to approve of the Davidic Dynasty and makes an effort to present a positive picture of many of the kings descended from David.
  6. The writer(s) of Kings, on the other hand, condemns even exemplary kings, detailing the failings of David and Solomon and painting all the kings as deeply flawed characters.
  7. Chronicles omits many of the stories found in Kings about prophets, including the long accounts about Samuel, Elijah and Elisha. It also refers to the work of the Levites in the Temple (including musicians) as ‘prophecy,’ changing the image of what/who is a prophet. Chronicles has many more details about priests and Temple institutions than does Kings.

Why do these two books paint such different pictures of Israel’s history? Scholars have various theories about this, although there is also a fair degree of consensus. What follows is my current thinking on the matter.

After the Babylonian exile, when the Persians allowed the exiles to return to their homeland in Israel/Judah (then known as the Persian province of Yehud), there must have been a great deal of discussion amongst the returning exiles, as well as with the people who had remained in the Land and not gone into exile, about what kind of nation they would rebuild. Some matters which needed to be resolved were issues about what kind of government they would have, and whether they would return to a monarchy with a king in the line of David. Whether they had a monarchy or not, various voices would want to be heard in government and the competing interests of priests, Levites and prophets would need to be negotiated. Related to this would be the centrality of Jerusalem, and the importance of the Temple and its institutions.

It seems to me that on one hand Chronicles reflects the interests of priests and Levites who believed they could work together with a king in the Davidic dynasty, and who regarded the Temple in Jerusalem and its institutions to be central to both their faith and to culture and society in a rebuilt nation. The book of Kings, on the other hand, reflects another side in the debate. Its writers saw the monarchy as a deeply-flawed institution and blamed the kings for Israel’s predicament in going into exile. They wanted no place for a monarch in the new nation. They did, however, value the role of prophets, a class of individuals who were not necessarily linked to the priests, and wanted their influence to be a dominant one.

Read this way, it makes perfect sense why two different accounts of Israel’s history would be written or needed. Subsequent history demonstrates that there may have been a sort of compromise between the two groups, or they at least fought out their differences. The history of the rivalries between various groups in the era of the Maccabees makes interesting reading in this connection. Ultimately there was no revival of the monarchy, although the priests did exercise a huge amount of influence and authority. The role of ‘prophet’ seems to have morphed into that of a scholar, or scribe, and eventually into the sages and Rabbis. The differing accounts of Kings and Chronicles give us important information about the competing voices at this stage in Israel’s history and in the development of Judaism, which we would not have if there was only one homogenised historical record. Those who were responsible for the Canon of the Hebrew Bible obviously understood that it is important to preserve differing voices. The Bible does not have to present a single, consistent message, but contains a record of the development of ideas in an ongoing conversation.

How the Bible was (re)written

Scribe writing a TorahI’m sure some people would love to re-write the Bible, perhaps leaving out the difficult bits such as those ‘commandments’ which are hard to follow, or making the foggy parts a bit clearer. In some ways translators do this every time they try to clear up a problem in the original languages by making it ‘simpler’ in English. The work of translation is also one of interpretation, and every translator inevitably has to interpret, or re-interpret, what they are reading for a new audience. Most are very good at it, although translations made by religious denominations run the risk of making the Bible say what they want it to say, rather than letting it speak for itself.

It may come as a surprise to some people to learn that the practice of re-writing the Bible began very early, while the Bible was still being written! In my previous post I wrote about the process of redaction and editing which took place as ideas were discussed, challenged, revised and reformulated. In some cases conflicting ideas appear in the Bible as it preserves more than one voice in the discussion, and we get an insight in to how ancient people wrestled with difficult subjects and formulated their religious ideas.

To illustrate the point I want to look at just one example of how the Bible preserves more than one ‘edition’ of a text using just one piece of evidence in the Book of Kings that it went through a process of editing, and it may only have been in the final stage (or stages) of editing that some Deuteronomistic ideas were added (such as blaming Manasseh for the exile four generations later). We have three similar but different versions of the reign of Zedekiah recorded in 2 Kings 24:18-25:12, Jeremiah 52:1-16 and in the Greek Septuagint version of Jeremiah 52. The table below compares the first three verses from each account.

2 Kings 24:18-20 Jeremiah 52:1-3 LXX Jeremiah 52:1-3 [1]
18 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem; his mother’s name was Hamutal daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.

19 He did what was displeasing to the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done.

20 Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah were a cause of anger for the LORD, so that He cast them out of His presence. Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.

 

1 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for eleven years. His mother’s name was Hamutal, daughter of Jeremiah of Libnah.

2 He did what was displeasing to the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done.

3 Indeed, Jerusalem and Judah were a cause of anger for the LORD, so that He cast them out of His presence. Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.

 

1 It being Sedekias’ twenty–first year when he began to reign—and he reigned eleven years in Ierousalem, and his mother’s name was Hamital daughter of Ieremias from Lobena.

 

 

 

 

 

It appears that the material in Jeremiah 52 was taken from Kings because it is almost identical, so similar in fact that it seems that the writer of Jeremiah either had a copy of Kings in front of him, or he copied from another source from which the writer(s) of Kings took the same material. Two people don’t tell the same story using the same words, in the same order, unless one is copying the other, they have collaborated, or they are using the same source. But now take a look at the ancient Greek translation of Jeremiah (known as the Septuagint). The first verse is much the same, with the names being modified in a way which is typical of a translation from one language to another, but then the next two verses are completely missing.

There are a few possible reasons for this. It’s possible that the translator decided to leave these verses out, but why he would do this is puzzling. There is no clear reason why a translator would delete these verses. Most scholars are of the view that the shorter Greek version is, in fact, a translation of a shorter Hebrew version of Kings, and that nothing was removed in translation. This means that the verses in our Hebrew version were either added some time after the translation was made into Greek (unlikely, as it would make this revision quite late) or, more likely, that by the time Jeremiah was translated into Greek, there were two Hebrew versions of Jeremiah circulating. The Greek translator used a version which was subsequently lost (a version without the additional verses), while the Masoretic Text preserved the other ‘longer’ version. This is the most likely explanation, and it is supported by the fact that there are actually quite a lot of differences between the Greek and Hebrew versions of Jeremiah. There is some further evidence in the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Hebrew version from which the Septuagint was taken was still in circulation at the time these scrolls were put in caves near Qumran.

It’s interesting that this additional material in the Hebrew version of Jeremiah contains the formulaic evaluation that King Zedekiah “did what was displeasing to the LORD.” While this evaluation of Zedekiah might suit its context, there are a number of times in Kings when the good deeds of good kings are recorded and then followed by the same words – “he did what was displeasing to the LORD” – making little sense in their context. However, it might make perfect sense to an editor who was working during or after the exile, and who was trying to make sense of why Israel and Judah were destroyed as kingdoms, to blame the kings – all the kings – especially if this editor was opposed to the institution of monarchy. Such an editor might feel compelled to add the words “he did what was displeasing to the LORD” several times throughout Kings, and then he or a colleague also added them to the corresponding place in Jeremiah 52 [2]. But by this time the ‘other’ version of Jeremiah was also circulating and so we ended up having two. The earlier Hebrew version(s) of Kings, however, is now lost (except for a few fragments found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran) although evidence of its one-time existence is still there in the Septuagint.

_________________________

[1] Translation of the Septuagint is from Albert Pietersma and Marc Saunders, “Ieremias,” in A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under that Title (eds. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] There are many similarities between Jeremiah and what scholars call the ‘Deuteronomistic literature’ (the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), so many in fact that Jeremiah is also regarded as Deuteronomistic. Some scholars think it may have even been the writer of the book of Jeremiah (not Jeremiah himself), or his students/followers, who did the final editing of Kings and made some additions, including the one we’re looking at.

The Bible in conversation with itself

SCRIBEIn my previous post I referred to a ‘conversation’ that took place in the Bible over a long period, possibly centuries; a process of questioning earlier ideas, reformulating them, while abandoning some as inadequate or unsatisfactory. There is considerable evidence within the Bible of this ongoing dialogue, as ideas are challenged, modified and developed. Scholars often refer to a process of ‘redaction’ taking place within an individual text or ‘book’ in the Bible as later editors add to earlier material, sometimes editing the existing material to bring it into line with the new information. We also see evidence of dialogue between the writers of the Bible as later texts/books build on ideas in earlier writings, or challenge them (as I noted in my previous post in the rejection by some writers of the ‘Deuteronomistic’ ideas about rewards and punishments).

Let’s look at a couple examples of this. For a long time scholars have recognised a remarkable similarity between three of the four Gospels in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark and Luke are so similar they are called the ‘synoptic’ Gospels because they tell the same stories, often in the same order, and frequently even use identical wording to tell the story. This has led to a number of theories to explain the similarities, the most popular and most likely being that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke used it as one of their sources. As a result, large sections of Mark were copied verbatim by Matthew and Luke and included in their accounts of Jesus’ life, almost unchanged. Some scholars theorise that Luke also had a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in front of him when he wrote his own account, which accounts for similar stories in Matthew and Luke which are absent from Mark (another theory, known as the ‘two source theory’, is that Matthew and Luke used a second source in addition to Mark, but this source – generally called ‘Q’ from the German quelle=source – has been lost). The striking thing about this is that Luke acknowledged in his introduction that he used other sources, and without naming them it is almost certain one of his sources was Mark and another was possibly Matthew, but he regarded them as inferior to his own account.

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:1-4).

What is so striking about this? Matthew says that having consulted these earlier accounts he decided to write an orderly account so that the person for whom he is writing (Theophilus) “may know the truth.” In other words, he didn’t think these earlier accounts were adequate for Theophilus to “know the truth” and by saying he decided to write an “orderly” account he implies that the earlier accounts were somewhat disorderly. So one writer of the Bible is saying that one or two earlier writers of biblical books weren’t quite up to standard and he had to improve on their work.

We see a similar process at work in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in the similar accounts of the Kings of Israel and Judah in the Book of Kings and the Book of Chonicles. In some places Chronicles is so similar to Kings we can be confident that the writer of Chronicles copied large portions of Kings and incorporated them into his new work. But, like Luke copying from Mark, the writer of Chronicles felt the need to make some corrections as well as adding some new material. For example, Kings practically blames Manasseh for the Babylonian invasion and the destruction of Judah four generations later. Manasseh was so thoroughly wicked that even though his successor (Josiah) was a model king God had to eventually punish the kingdom for the sins of Manasseh (this notion of ‘transgenerational punishment‘ was disputed in the biblical book of Ezekiel, but this is a subject for another post). Despite Josiah being regarded by the writer of Kings as the best king of Judah ever (“Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him” 2 Kings 23:25), the writer is careful to point out that his merits did not outweigh Manasseh’s evil.

Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the LORD said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (2 Kings 23:26-27).

However, when we come to Chronicles we read a different story about Manasseh.

“And when he [Manasseh] was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God” (2 Chronicles 33:12-13).

The writer of Chronicles says nothing about Judah being punished and going into exile because of Manasseh’s sins, but instead he is commended for turning to God at the end of his life. There are several other differences in perspective between Kings and Chronicles but just focussing on this one difference for now it is evident that the writers of these two biblical books had different ideas about the reason for the exile and whether or not it was a punishment for sin. Kings reflects a more ‘Deuteronomistic’ theology: if Israel and Judah were ‘punished’ by exile then it must have been because they, or someone, had sinned and it was important to identify the sinner(s). There is evidence within Kings that it went through a process of editing, and it may only have been in the final stage (or stages) of editing that this Deuteronomistic theme was added. Chronicles reflects a different, and quite possibly earlier, tradition. So even while the writer of Chronicles was copying material from his earlier edition of Kings other editors somewhere else were working on a ‘revised’ version of Kings and their revisions were based on this Deuteronomistic approach which sought to blame someone for the exile. By comparing these two books we get an insight into the ‘conversation’ that may have been taking place between the writers and/or editors of the Bible as they recorded different perspectives of the same events.

By comparing the earliest versions of the Hebrew Bible – especially the Greek translation we know as the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls – with the Hebrew text that has come down to us as the Masoretic Text (the one from which translations are made into English), it becomes evident that in the ancient world there were various, and different, versions of several books of the Bible. The differences indicate that over time the books of the Bible underwent editing and revision. They were not static – they were not transmitted exactly as they were first written – but rather they were dynamic, changing over time and being revised possibly in response to new ideas and perspectives. We should bear this in mind when we think about ‘inspiration’ and ‘biblical inerrancy’ (the idea that the Bible is free of errors), but that discussion will have to wait for another day.

 

I wasn’t going to mention Israel Folau again, but then …

Australian BushfireI’ve been busy, but it’s that time of the semester when I’ve finished teaching and marking and now have some time to get back to writing for pleasure. I thought I’d finished with Israel Folau and didn’t want to give his bad theology any more publicity, but then he opened his mouth and spurted out more rubbish so I felt I just had to respond.

If his comments about homsexuals going to hell weren’t enough, this time he has claimed that the devestating bushfires raging across Australia are God’s punishment for same-sex marriage and abortion. This time Folau has proven how little he knows about the Bible.

The question of whether or not national calamities or personal disasters should be seen as a punishment from God is dealt with fairly extensively in the Bible in a ‘conversation’ that takes place over a long period, possibly centuries. There is little doubt that many people in the ancient world attributed disasters to God or the gods, and some of the writers of the Bible held the view that if you do the right thing you will prosper but if you do the wrong thing you will suffer. This view is often called ‘Deuteronomistic’ because it’s one of the hallmarks of the biblical literature which appears to stem from the book of Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 28 promises a number of blessings for Israel “if you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today” (28:1), but “if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you ..” followed by a list of the sort of calamities they could expect as a nation.

Other biblical books endorse this explanation of the connection between obedience/disobedience with rewards and punishments, such as this comment in Proverbs: “For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it” (2:21-22). This verse may very well have been problematic for the generation which witnessed the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, and the deportation of a large proportion of the population into exile. Many scholars think that several books of the Bible were written or edited during the time in exile in Babylon in an effort to make sense of how God could allow his people to be dragged from their ancient homeland when so many of them were innocent. The ‘old’ ideas of rewards and punishments didn’t make a great deal of sense in the face of righteous or innocent people losing their homes, livelihoods, lives and independance as a nation. If it was only the ‘wicked’ who suffered, the punishment-for-sin explanation would stand up, but when good people suffered for no apparent reason it was right to question the Deuteronomistic ideas, or even to abandon them.

Biblical writings such as the book of Job are evidence of this process of questioning, reformulating and abandoning inadequate or unsatisfactory ideas in action. The story of Job is of a good man – even by God’s estimation he was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” – who suffered the loss of his possessions, livelihood, the deaths of all his children, and then a painful and debilitating disease. Throughout all his sufferings he remained “blameless and upright.” A long dialogue between Job and his friends, and then finally between Job and God, analyses and dissects various explanations for why people suffer. Ultimately Job is judged to have been faultless and the arguments of his friends – who claimed his sufferings must have been due to some fault which required punishment or correction – were dismissed as wrong. Behind Job’s suffering yet hidden from Job and friends – but known to the reader – was a story about a wager between Job and Satan as to whether or not Job would abandon his faith in the face of suffering. All his sufferings were the result of a bet! There was no cause-and-effect, no relationship between sin and suffering, no system of rewards and punishments for good or bad behaviour. Suffering is random, even unfair. There is no explanation for why good people suffer.

Yet at least two centuries later the old Deuteronomistic ideas still lingered and show up in the New Testament where, again, they are challenged and dismissed. A story in the Gospel of John tells of Jesus and his disciples coming across a man who was blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Behind their question is the notion that if someone suffered an ailment or disability this must have been because they sinned; but if this man was born blind, it raised the possibility that he was being punished for his parents’ sins, as he could hardly have sinned before he was born. The question itself highlights the absurdity of the argument that suffering is the consequence of sin, but to leave no doubt Jesus replied “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Other sayings by Jesus also emphasize that there is no relationship between sin and suffering. In Luke 13:1-5, for example, Jesus referred to two instances in Jerusalem where people were killed, and said these people were no worse than anyone else and their deaths were simply random events: “Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is implicitly “no”!

To use Jesus’ words, we could ask “Those people who were killed in the bushfires, or who lost their homes and possessions—do you think that they were worse offenders than anyone else?” It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is implicitly “no”! We could broaden the question and ask “The bushfires and drought which has ravaged Australia—do you think it is because Australians are worse offenders than anyone else (by legislating for same-sex marriage)?” Again, the answer is a resounding “no”! (I’ve already dealt with Folau’s misquotations of the Bible on the subject of homosexuality so won’t go into them again).

Good people have lost their lives, livelihoods or possessions in the bushfires. Communities have been devestated. For a preacher to hold up the Bible and claim their suffering is the result of a decision to approve of same-sex marriage is not only unbiblical and absurd, it is callously insensitive and totally devoid of sympathy for their losses. It is obvious to anyone with a modicum of Biblical sense that Folau is ignorant of what the Bible actually says on the subject (possibly on any subject). I wish he would just keep quiet.

 

How to read Samuel and Kings

Guercino_Saul_Davide

“Saul Attacking David” by Guercino (1591-1666), (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome).

My title sounds a bit presumptuous: as if anyone needs to be told how to read the Bible! It’s really a kind of postscript to my previous posts about the possibility that David was a narcissist (yes, I know I said I was finished with that subject for now, but I thought this further note was important).

Some people react to the suggestion that David had a personality disorder by countering that he was “a man after God’s own heart” and he wrote so many beautiful psalms he must be a model of Godly behaviour. All I need to do really is to remind people that he was an adulterer and a murderer to set aside any notions that he was a paragon of virtue. But I should also restate something which I argued in earlier posts about the phrase “a man after God’s own heart”. For the full explanation you should read my posts here (and here and to a lesser extent here) but in a nutshell I explained that the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily read the same way as the English. The phrase “after [God’s] own heart” translates a single Hebrew word כִּלְבָבֹו. It literally means “according to his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart” (the prefix כ means as, or according to and a similar expression appears in 2 Samuel 7:21 where כְלִבְּךָ is translated into English as “according to your own heart”, the translators there correctly translating כ as “according to”.) [1] In other words, David is not being commended for being God-like, but rather the text reads as a simple statement that the choice of David as future king was God’s and God’s alone to make – God was following his heart in choosing David.

I could look at the David-psalms another time, but for now I want to comment on how we read the heroic stories about David in Samuel and Kings. It would be relatively easy to read these books as simple history: someone (or a group of people) was simply writing down the historical facts to record the history of Israel and Judah. But if it is simply history the writer has been very selective. A lot of important information has been left out and there is a serious imbalance in the amount of detail given about each king. If it was “simple history” we could expect, for example, that the most attention would be given to the longest reigning monarchs, yet some important long-reigning monarchs are glossed over. In any case, all history-writing has an agenda. A writer can never be totally dispassionate about the subject and will always portray his or her characters in a certain light, even when they are historical rather than fictional characters. So what could have been the possible agenda of the writer(s) of Samuel and Kings?

There are three main views about this:

  1. A large section of Samuel-Kings is sometimes called “the Succession Narrative” (also known as the Court Narrative, 2 Samuel 9 – 1 Kings 2) because it is argued that the writer is justifying the rightfulness of David’s claim to the throne, and the claims of his descendants to rule Judah at least, if not all Israel. In this reading Saul and his descendants (initially Jonathan and Ishbosheth) are portrayed as being weak, disobedient or otherwise unsuitable to rule Israel, while David is divinely-selected as God’s own choice. Of course, Samuel’s account of Saul’s anointing and enthronement reveal that he too was God’s choice. Reading Samuel-Kings as having an emphasis on God’s promise to David of a dynasty also ties in with messianic themes in the prophets, some psalms, and in the New Testament. These connections seem to emphasise the accuracy of reading Samuel-Kings as a kind of introduction and background to the Messianic Age. for There are several weaknesses with this view, and while some scholars still maintain it there tends to have been a shift away from it.
  2. There is another view that the writer(s) of Samuel-Kings was actually critical of monarchy in general and his goal was to demonstrate that none of the kings, from Saul, through David and Solomon, and down to the last of the kings before the exile, were any good. In his mind the institution of monarchy was flawed and even those with the best prospects of success (such as David) still failed miserably. This view argues that these histories were written during the exile (we can be certain of that because Kings ends with Jehoiachin going into exile in Babylon, so it couldn’t have been written earlier than that), while those in exile were discussing and planning their return from exile and what kind of government they would need. This writer argued against a return to monarchy because it was kings that got them into this mess in the first place! A good case can be made for the writer(s) to have been a priest or priests because when the exiles did return they abandoned any attempt to restore the monarchy and instead it was the priests who were most influential and powerful in rebuilding the nation.
  3. A third view combines these two options, although it in no way contradicts the second view. It argues that the material for Samuel and Kings was sourced from various earlier documents (official histories, stories, legends, etc) and put together over a period of time. At various stages through their history the work was updated to include the latest kings and events, and some of the earlier material may have been modified at the same time so that the story flowed smoothly. The final stage of editing would have been in the exile. This option explains why some of the material appears to be contradictory – as material was added which differed in some way from earlier material, little effort was made to ‘harmonise’ all the details. There is good evidence from elsewhere that ancient record-keepers didn’t have the same preoccupation with harmony and consistency that modern writers do, and they wouldn’t have had a problem with internal ‘inconsistencies’. This view makes good sense of conflicting data, and is consistent with what we might expect about ancient record-keeping and history-writing.

To me, the second and third options make a great deal of sense. David is portrayed as part of the problem: a deeply flawed person who established a dynasty which was never able to get it quite right, and which eventually led to Judah’s demise.

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[1] The ‘virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship … understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character’. (Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel”  Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 131, Number 3, 2012). See also P. Kyle McCarter Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary(AB 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229.  Since McCarter very few scholars have followed the traditional interpretation.

David and Joab – being the friend of a narcissist

Absalom and Joab

Trapped by his beautiful hair, the rebel Absalom is killed by Joab in this painting by the early 17th-century artist Giovanni Battista Viola from the Louvre.

This will probably be my final post, at least for now, in my series about David being a narcissist. I wanted to write something about what it’s like to be the friend of a narcissist, and in some ways I can relate to the biblical character Joab who seems to me to have been one of David’s best friends (if narcissists have “friends” in the same way most of us think of friendship).

Joab was David’s nephew – the son of his sister Zeruiah – the comander-in-chief of his army (1 Chronicles 11:4-6), and probably the commander of an elite group known as “the mighty men” (2 Samuel 10:7). He is credited with defeating several of David’s enemies and taking a number of cities (including Jebus, better known as Jerusalem, which became David’s capital [2 Chronicles 11:4-9]), and was the leading military figure throughout David’s reign. He is depicted as David’s staunchest supporter, and as the power behind the throne. At times he went against David’s express wishes – such as when he had David’s rebel son Absalom killed against David’s orders – but it seems when he did so it was always for David’s benefit. When Joab achieved victories for David, he gave David the credit even after David ceased to be actively involved in military campaigns (such as in the Ammonite and Syrian wars 2 Samuel 12:26-30; 21:15-17). Joab was the person responsible for putting down the rebellions of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:1-17) and Sheba (2 Samuel 20:1-22). In fact, Joab never lost a battle! To protect David, he also covered up David’s affair with Uriah’s wife. Unlike Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, Joab had no ambitions to occupy the throne himself. His only interest was to support David.

Yet David does not seem to show much gratitude to Joab for all he did for him. After Joab killed Abner (who switched his allegiance from Ishbosheth, Saul’s successor, to David) to avenge the murder of his brother at Abner’s hand – a move which benefitted David politically –  David publicly humiliated him and made him walk in sackcloth at Abner’s funeral. Yet, all the time Joab continued to work to support and strengthen David’s hold on power. After the death of Amnon, David’s heir apparent, he engineered for Absalom to return to court because he knew David pined for him (2 Samuel 14:1). This was a politically savvy move, as it brought Absalom back to Jerusalem where his ambitions could be held in check, because Absalom’s popularity was increasing and David’s was waning. Soon after, when David was publicly humiliated by an irate citizen, David blamed Joab for his declining popularity! (2 Samuel 16:9-10). Despite this public betrayal Joab remained loyal and saved David’s throne during Absalom’s revolt. Again, instead of being grateful to Joab for putting down the rebellion and saving his life, David lamented Absalom’s death, sapping the morale of his loyal fighting men and earning the rebuke of Joab on their behalf (2 Samuel 19:5-6). Again and again David publicly humiliated Joab and blamed him for his miseries, yet Joab remained loyal and worked tirelessly to support him. David’s generosity to others never flowed to Joab. Eventually David replaced Joab with Absalom’s former general Amasa, even though he lacked the support of the military and was a less capable leader. When there was another attempted revolt against David, this time by Sheba, it was apparent that Amasa would not be capable of putting down the rebellion. Joab murdered him, regained control of the military, defeated Sheba and put down the revolt. When Joab returned to Jerusalem it becomes clear that he was acknowledged by David as commander-in-chief (2 Samuel 20:23), although we get no details. Again it seems that David is incapable of recognising loyalty or showing gratitude to his most devoted supporter.

On his deathbed David warned Solomon to watch out for Joab! Even though he benefitted politically from the deaths of both Abner and Amasa, he told Solomon their deaths (at the hand of Joab) should be avenged, so after David’s death Joab was murdered on the orders of Solomon while seeking sanctuary at the altar of the Tabernacle (1 Kings 2:30-31). Loyal to David to the end, Joab was struck down on the advice of his ungrateful and vindictive ‘friend’ who depended on him for his success but could not bring himself to show any gratitude. In death, David proved himself, in my opinion, to be a narcissist beyond doubt. Narcissists depend on loyal supporters; they have a way of attracting people who are loyal and resourceful, and who will be useful to them, but they never really make them their “friends”. For a narcissist it’s a one-way relationship: they expect the people who are closest to them to be loyal and devoted, but it is never reciprocated. They seem to be almost incapable of showing gratitude, of putting themselves out for someone else, or able to reward loyalty.

I sympathise with Joab. Loyal to the end, but murdered for it. He probably would have made a better king than David, although he had no personal ambitions to rule. It’s likely he even genuinely loved David and only wanted the best for him. Narcissists are likeable, even loveable, but are rarely capable of reciprocating that love and devotion. Unless you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, or been a friend to one, it may be difficult to understand why someone like Joab could be so loyal to someone who never rewarded his loyalty or showed any gratitude. But if you have had that misfortune then, like me, you may be able to identify with the real victim in this story, Joab: the loyal and devoted servant who was humiliated, shunned and punished for his devotion.

Homosexuality in the New Testament (2)

img_1704.jpgThe third New Testament text which is often quoted as evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

One of the striking things about this passage is that it not only appears to refer to female homosexuality – which would make it unique in Biblical literature and rare in ancient literature generally – but also that such a reference to female homosexuality doesn’t become evident until the reader gets to the next verse which appears to refer to male homosexuality. In other words, the reader is left wondering about the meaning of “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” until they get to “men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another,” concluding that it refers to male homosexuality, and then having to read back female homosexuality into the earlier words. If this is the writer’s intention then it is certainly an awkward way to go about it. It is also odd that he doesn’t say “women with women” in the same way as he says “men with men” leaving open the question of what he means by women exchanging “natural intercourse for unnatural.”

Putting aside the conclusion of several scholars that this section of Romans is a late addition and was not written by Paul, I want to look at it in the context of the overall structure of this section of the letter which begins in verse 18. We should note a certain structural repetitiveness in this section:

1. “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (v.23), so “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (v.24).

2. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v.25) so “God gave them up to degrading passions” (v.26).

3. “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men … committed shameless acts with men” (v.26-27) “and since they did not see fit to acknowledge GodGod gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (v.28).

The tight structure and repetition of “exchanged” and “God them up” highlights the three attributes of God which come in between: God’s glory, truth and knowledge. In his commentary on Romans, Brendan Byrne [1] describes this series of repetitions as ‘waves.’ Each wave begins with an ‘exchange’ and crests with God’s ‘giving them up,’ building in intensity until the third wave ends with a crash. Once we recognise the repetition we can see that Paul is providing three examples of idolatry: making images, worshipping idols, and sexual debauchery as part of idol-worship. Each example concludes with God “giving up” the idolaters to certain consequences.

The association of sexual debauchery with idol-worship would have been familiar to an ancient audience, and certainly to one familiar with the Hebrew Bible. In earlier posts in this series, for example, I have referred to Biblical texts which mentioned both male and female temple prostitutes and why it was regarded as abhorent for Israel to worship  God in this way. The similarities between Romans 1:18-32 and two other texts in particular are so striking it is almost certain that Paul must have been familiar with them, and may have been directly alluding to them. For example, Paul’s line that “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” seems to come almost directly from Psalm 106:

They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. (Psalm 106:19-20)

The Psalm continues with a list of various ways the people of Israel provoked or angered God in their worship of foreign gods and images, and leads into a section dealing with sexual debauchery as part of that worship:

They mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them … they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they became unclean by their acts, and prostituted themselves in their doings. (Vv. 35-39)

Paul seems to get his “exchanged the glory/truth/knowledge of God… so God gave them up” language from this Psalm which continues with “then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them” (Vv.40-41).

There is an even more striking similarity to a long section in Wisdom of Solomon, a book found in the Apocrypha and quoted or alluded to many times in early Christian writings (including some of the writings of Paul).  Paul’s language in Romans 1 is so similar to Wisdom 13-14 – a lengthy section condemning the worship of idols – we can be almost certain that he was familiar with it. The section ends by detailing the depraved sexual practices associated with idol worship, and the consequences. Similar to Paul’s mention of exchanging the truth and knowledge of God for a lie, Wisdom says “it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God” (14:22) and goes on to list practices associated with their idol-worship:

For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs,they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil (Wisdom 14:23-27).

Wisdom concludes with the judgment that “just penalties will overtake them” – those worshippers who trust in lifeless idols – because “the just penalty for those who sin always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous” (v. 29-31). This too is similar to Paul’s “so God gave them up …” and he follows a similar line in his argument. These verses in Romans 1 are not primarily about homosexuality, but about sexual depravity associated with idol-worship. This sexual behavior regularly involved both male and female temple prostitutes and included both homosexual and heterosexual activity. While Paul speaks of men committing “shameless acts with men” during this idol-worship, homosexuality per se is not the focus of his argument and it would be wrong to draw any conclusions from it about sexual activity within the confines of a loving relationship.

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[1] Byrnes, Brendan, Romans, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996) p.64.

Homosexuality in the New Testament

562153f47ccce_King-James-Bible-GHaving dealt with the principal texts in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) which have often been quoted as mentioning or implying homosexuality I now plan to look at the New Testament texts.

There are only two texts in the NT where the word “homosexual” is actually used in some translations, and there are one or two others where it may be implied. Before taking a close look at these verses and the Greek words that are sometimes translated as “homosexual” I should give some history about the English word. No English translation of the Bible used the word “homosexual” prior to 1946 when the Revised Standard Version (RSV) used it for the first time in two places. Prior to 1946 the Greek was translated in a variety of ways, and I will come back to this. In fact, the word “homosexual” didn’t enter the English language until the end of the nineteenth century so it wasn’t even available to be used by earlier translations. The first known appearance of the word was in German, in an 1869 pamphlet arguing against a Prussian anti-sodomy law. In 1886, the Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms homosexual and heterosexual in a book about sexuality, and from there they were adopted into the English language. I find it somewhat comical when I read posts on social media (in support of Israel Folau’s assertion that homosexuals will go to hell) saying that he is simply “quoting the King James Bible”. The KJV was written 250 years before the word homosexual even existed! People would do well to read the Bible before they pretend to quote it.

The two places where the word occurs in some (but not all) modern translations of the Bible are (in the English Standard Version – ESV):

1 Corinthians 6:9-10   Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Timothy 1:9-10 The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.

In 1 Timothy 1:10 the phrase translated here in the ESV as “men who practice homosexuality” translates a single Greek word (ἀρσενοκοίταις arsenokoitais, while in 1 Corinthians 1:10 it is a translation of two words (μαλακοὶ malakoi and ἀρσενοκοῖται arsenokoitai). I will first look at the word ἀρσενοκοίταις arsenokoitais which is common to both (in cognate forms). This is a difficult word to translate for one simple reason: apart from these two places in the NT it does not occur anywhere else in ancient Greek literature; no where else in the Bible, in either the NT or the Septuagint, and no where in classical Greek literature. The technical term for a word which occurs in only one place is hapax legomenon, and they are notorously difficult to translate for the simple reason that we have no other texts for comparison to help us understand the meaning. Let’s take an example from English. If you came across the word butterfly in a text and did not know what it meant you could look at other texts to determine its meaning. It would be useless to try to make sense of it by breaking it up into what might look like its component parts, butter and fly. To do so would simply make a nonsense of it. The word ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs appears to be a combination of two Greek words arsēn a male and koitē a bed, and therefore by implication refers to men “going to bed” with men. But we can’t be sure, and we have no other texts which use the word to help us out. Just like the word butterfly has nothing to do with butter, we can’t be sure this Greek word has anything to do with men in bed. Translators have to guess at a meaning.

IMG_2788When Luther translated the Bible into German in 1534 he translated ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs with the German word knabenschänder which literally means “boy molester.” His translation suggests he understood the term to mean some form of sexual abuse, but like all translators he was still guessing. If his translation is right then perhaps it should have been given more prominence during the scandals (and, in Australia, a Royal Commission) involving institutional abuse of children, and the high profile trial of a Cardinal convicted for sexually abusing choir boys. There is nothing in the context of these verses to suggest that the word has anything to do with a loving relationship between two men, while sexual abuse or violence would make better sense in a list of vices.

The other word which is associated with ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoitēs in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is μαλακός malakos, which literally means “soft”. There is a great deal of diversity in the way the word is translated. For example, the King James Version (KJV) translates it as “effeminate” while the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates the term as “male prostitutes” which is actually quite strange. They are clearly guessing, although they may have been influenced by the use of a Hebrew word קָדֵשׁ qadesh which is sometimes translated as “male temple prostitutes.” I referred to this term in an earlier post where I argued that the problem does not seem to be one of men having sex with men, but doing so as part of the worship of God.  How the NRSV translators took the leap from “soft” to “male prostitutes” is anyone’s guess, but probably has something to do with an assumption that the word μαλακός malakos refers to the “passive” [soft(?)] partner in homosexual sex (presumably the receptive partner in anal sex) , and a further assumption that this was the part played by a prostitute. There are quite a few assumptions built into such a conclusion! If Paul did indeed mean “male prostitutes” then it may have been sex-for-pay that was the problem in his mind, and not male-to-male sex per se.

However, there is nothing inherently sexual about this word, let alone homosexual. The only other time it is used in the NT is in the parallel texts of Matthew 11:8/Luke 7:25, where it appears twice as a substantive neuter plural, malaka (literally meaning “soft things”) which in the context denotes “soft clothing” and has no sexual connotation whatsoever. In that context the writer used the term with reference to rich people who wore “soft” clothing in much the same way as we might refer to the privileged elite as “softies” – out of touch with the down-to-earth general population. Paul may have been condemning the rich who lived luxuriously at the expense of others, and this would be consistent with other terms in his list, “thieves, greedy persons, robbers.” We can’t be sure what he meant and there seems to be an almost endless range of possibilities including being rich. In my opinion, homosexuality is the least likely of the possibilities and seems to have been influenced more by prevailing social or religious attitudes in 1946 than by good scholarship.

To be continued …

David, Amnon, Tamar and Absalom – narcissism and its family consequences

Banquet of Absalom, Niccolò De Simone

The murder of Amnon at the Banquet of Absalom, Niccolò De Simone (17th century Flemish artist)

According to the book of Samuel, David’s family life was a mess! The biblical records don’t hide the facts that David was an adulterer, a murderer, a terrible father, a lousy husband and not much of a king either. On the positive side, it seems he was a pretty good musician and song-writer, but not much else is said in his favour. In this post I want to comment on a major incident which devastated David’s family, and relate it to my personal knowledge of what it’s like being in the family of a narcissist.  I should emphasise that as far as I’m aware there are no narcissists in my immediate family, and my understanding of what may have been going on in David’s life is based on my experience as the friend of a narcissist, and my knowledge of how he interacted with his family. I’d love to co-operate with a psychologist/psychiatrist to explore this further, so if you’re reading this and have professional qualifications dealing with NPD I’d like to hear from you.

Amnon, David’s eldest son and heir, has been described as “a chip off the old block” [1]. He was one of six sons born at Hebron to six different wives. Most of what we know about Amnon comes from one incident, but the story provides several important details which indicate that he was very similar to his father. Amnon was in love (or infatuated with) his half-sister Tamar and connived with a cousin (Jonadab) to get Tamar, with David’s knowledge and consent, to visit him while he was “sick” in bed. When Tamar visited Amnon in his bedroom Amnon raped her, but then his “love” – or lust – turned immediately to disgust and hate and he sent her away. We learn that when David heard about this he was incensed, but did nothing. Interestingly, two ancient versions of the story – the Septuagint and a scroll from Qumran (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) – adds a note to the story that David did nothing because he didn’t want to upset Amnon whom he loved. With or without this note, David is portrayed as weak and this sets the stage for Tamar’s full-brother Absalom (David’s third son and Amnon’s half-brother) to conspire to murder Amnon two years later in an act of vengeance for his sister. (The full story is in 2 Samuel 13 and has been described as a “masterpiece of drama, suspense, and irony … The literary and dramatic climax … is approached with a drawn-out, suspense-building account of the scene and the dialogue in Amnon’s bedroom.” [2])

The parallels between this story and the earlier account of how David lured Bathsheba to his bed, and then murdered her husband Uriah, are striking. Both father and son were driven by lust, both crossed legal and moral boundaries, and both stories end in murder. It’s not unusual, apparently, for a narcissistic parent to have a narcissistic child (although the opposite can also be the case – having a narcissistic parent can drive a child to the other end of the spectrum – and it can also happen that one child of a narcissist also turns out to be a narcissist while their sibling is the opposite). One of the major characteristics of a narcissist is their belief that the rules don’t apply to them, and both David and Amnon ignored the rules about adultery and incest. Probably related to this is the fact that narcissists are generally impetuous and reckless (and it’s not unusual for them to die as the result of committing a crime). Their recklessness and attitude to rules is particularly the case with respect to sex and they are often known to be promiscuous. It seems that Amnon was very much a chip off the old block. Perhaps this is why the record in Samuel hints that David had an idea of what Amnon was planning, but ignored it.

The second part of the story – which is contrasted with the suspenseful and dramatic account of the rape by being markedly matter-of-fact – describes Absalom’s plot to murder Amnon at a banquet to which all his brothers were invited. Significantly, David was also invited to the banquet but declined. In an interesting article about ancient near eastern customs of hospitality, Anne Gudme notes that it was polite to first decline an invitation to a meal, but then to accept the invitation when pressed. [3] Declining the invitation on David’s part was therefore not unexpected, but then continuing to decline would have been insulting. If he had attended we could speculate about how things might have been different and if Amnon would still have been murdered in the presence of the king. However, perhaps Absalom expected David to decline. Anyone who knows a narcissist would also know that if it isn’t their idea they will either avoid it, or try to change the plan. In my own experience, it was almost humorous but I came to expect my narcissistic friend to change the arrangements for meeting up even when I was well on my way there. If I suggested eating Thai, he would say he’d prefer Italian. If I suggested Italian he’d want Indian. I remember once, soon after my birthday, he said he wanted to take me out for dinner and because it was my birthday I could choose to go anywhere. On our way to the venue of my choice (a place with a lot of good food options that suited my preferences), he changed the plan and we went somewhere that had nothing I could eat! David’s response to Absalom’s invitation therefore doesn’t surprise me. It wasn’t his idea, so he wasn’t going! His excuse was that it would be a “burden” on Absalom to have him and his entourage attend, but then the story is careful to point out that Absalom prepared a feast, as the Septuagint puts it, “fit for a king” (v. 27). It clearly wasn’t a burden at all; David simply didn’t want to go because it wasn’t his party.

After Amnon’s murder Absalom fled to Geshur (his maternal grandfather was king of Geshur) where he stayed for three years to avoid any consequences. But David’s response was passive and he is portrayed as detached. Absalom was later persuaded by David’s general to return from exile, althoug even then David refused to see him for two years (a typical narcissistic “punishment”). Thereafter Absalom became a popular leader and obtained a great deal of support when he attempted a coup against his father David. Absalom was killed during the attempted coup and on hearing the news of his death the story includes a poignant lament by David: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). I have no doubts that David’s grief was genuine. The poignancy of these words, however, highlights for me how inadequate he was as a father, and how he could be detached and uninvolved in the lives of his children except to punish them (ironically by being even more detached!), yet yearned for a relationship with them. Again, this is typical of narcissists. They expect their children to love them, while being detached except to punish them. It’s sad, and difficult for a friend to watch them saboutage their relationships. In a later post I may write about David’s friend Joab, and how he tried to “fix” the mess that David created around him, but failed, and how even this loyal friendship eventually ended.

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[1] For example, by Gray, Mark. “Amnon: a Chip Off the Old Block? Rhetorical Strategy in 2 Samuel 13.7-15 the Rape of Tamar and the Humiliation of the Poor.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 23, no. 77 (1998): 39-54. Gray cited an earlier use of the expression by J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (Assen:Van Gorcum, 1981), p. 99.

[2] Howard, David M. “Amnon” in Freedman, David Noel ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992, volume 1, 196.

[3] Gudme, Anne Katrine de Hemmer. “Invitation to Murder: Hospitality and Violence in the Hebrew Bible.” Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology  (2019): 1-20. 

A biblical homophobic slur?

 

Julius_Kronberg_David_och_Saul_1885

David and Saul, Julius Kronberg, 1885. From this picture one would think that it was Saul, not Jonathan, who was in love with David!

A few posts back I wrote about the laws in Leviticus which are often quoted as evidence that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and discussed the term “uncover the nakedness of … [one’s father, mother, sister, etc].” I said there that this is generally regarded as a euphemism for having sex with that person, specifically taboo sex (i.e. incest). The phrase occurs rarely in the Bible outside these laws in Leviticus, although there are a couple notable exceptions. The first is in Genesis 9:22-23 in a story about Noah planting a vineyard after the flood, becoming drunk on wine which he produced, and then

“Ham [Noah’s son], the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth [Ham’s brothers] took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”

The phrasing is not quite identical because in the Genesis story Ham “saw” his father’s nakedness, while the Leviticus laws are about uncovering nakedness. The first appears to be inadvertent, while the latter is deliberate. However, the fact that when Noah sobered up “and knew what his youngest son had done to him” (Gen. 9:24) and then cursed Ham’s son (Canaan), suggests to many scholars that what Ham did was more than to simply see his father naked. Some have argued that Ham exposed his father’s nakedness while others think he had sex with his father while he was drunk. This text probably deserves more attention, perhaps in a later post, but it is enough for now to say that seeing or uncovering nakedness probably both contain sexual innuendos.

I also wrote earlier about a possible homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. If you’ve read my subsequent posts about David you will realise that I’m inclined to think that Jonathan had a homosexual attraction to David and was infatuated with him, but David was either oblivious to Jonathan’s feelings or he chose to use them to his own advantage. If David was a narcissist, as I suspect, then the latter could be expected. While taking another look at the D&J story I recalled that the story contains the only other reference to “your mother’s nakedness” outside of Leviticus (1 Samuel 20:30). In its context it seems to be an odd phrase:

Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?

The background to Saul’s outburst against his son was Jonathan’s loyalty to David in covering for David’s absence from the royal court because David was in fear of Saul. Interestingly, leading up to this incident, David and Jonathan spoke about Saul’s hostility to David, and David noted that Saul was well aware of their friendship: “Your father knows well that you like me” (literally, I have found favour in your eyes 1 Samuel 20:3). And then a little later the narrator reminds us that “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (v. 17, as if we needed reminding because he has already told us this twice!) I noted in my previous post that Virginia Miller has pointed out that when something is said three times in 1 Samuel it tends to be a case of overstatement for emphasis. So here I think the narrator is emphasising Jonathan’s attraction to David. And then comes this outburst about Jonathan choosing David “to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness.” Robert Alter has pointed out that this is quite violent and is a reference to the idiom for taboo sexual intercourse. [1] It is certainly odd why he would speak of “your mother’s nakedness” unless we understand it as an insulting idiom. He was not referring to any actual sexual intercourse between Jonathan and his mother, but it seems that for centuries the worse insults are those which make reference to having sex with one’s mother, giving rise to the idiomatic English expression “motherfucker”. I suspect that is what is happening here, but the very mention of shame (twice) coupled with a sexual innuendo suggests to me that Saul was making a slur of a sexual nature. Was he alluding to Jonathan’s attraction to David? Was this the first homophobic slur on record? Was this an ancient Hebrew idiomatic equivalent of faggot?

Because this phrase which we’ve encountered elsewhere is used here as part of an insult, and in the context where an emphasis is placed on Jonathan’s attraction to David, I would paraphrase it this way: “Shame on you! You’ve chosen to chase after your pretty boyfriend rather than being loyal to your family”, followed by some sort of derogatory slur of a sexual nature. Saul is hardly being commended for the slur. On the contrary, the narrator is describing Saul’s descent into insanity and the slur is therefore condemned rather than commended. Read this way it reinforces an interpretation of 1 Samuel which understands the friendship between David and Jonathan to have a homosexual element, even if the attraction was one-sided.

I should add a postscript that I don’t think the word “homophobic” is strictly correct in this context as there is no evidence that the ancient world had any concept of homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter. There is no evidence that they had a concept of sexuality at all. They were certainly familiar with homosexual acts, but probably had no need to categorise people based on their sexual preferences. So, if they didn’t have a word for homosexuality then homophobia would be equally out of place. But I use the word here because that is how we might understand it.

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[1] Alter, Robert, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, vol. 2, 263.

 

Did David really care for Mephibosheth?

00000mephiboshethI tentatively suggested in my two prior posts that David may have had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). As I understand it, narcissism is a spectrum and NPD is at one end. In the middle, or at the other end depending on how you devise the spectrum, is where the majority of people sit, with a healthy level of self-esteem and self-confidence. (Most of the information I have on narcissism and NPD comes from the excellent book by Dr Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism [1]). David, I think, was further along the spectrum than most people, heading towards the end where it becomes a personality disorder, or he was right there. It’s not uncommon for leaders, such as Presidents, Prime Ministers and monarchs, to have NPD. It’s their overblown ego which helps to get them there.

I suggested earlier that David’s ignorance of Mephibosheth’s existence – particularly surprising because his father Jonathan was supposedly one of David’s best friends – is a sign of David’s narcissism. However, a friend asked if that could be right seeing David seemed to genuinely care for Mephibosheth, who was disabled, “crippled in both feet” (2 Samuel 9:13). My initial reaction was that narcissists can be kind and caring, and it depends where they sit on the spectrum as to how much this will motivated by self-interest. My narcissistic friend, for example, was a really nice person most of the time and was a good friend to me at a time when I needed one. But as time progressed I learned that this is the typical modus operandii of a narcissist, and that they will often use kindness as a means of making you indebted to them so that you “owe” them your loyalty. I’m not sure that they do this consciously – it may very well be a learned subconscious mechanism. My friend, for example, would sometimes say “Remember I did such-and-such for you? Well, now I need you to do something for me.” They are good at keeping track of favours they’ve done, and will call it in when they need something in return.

Interestingly,  since I started exploring this angle, Dr Virginia Miller has sent me something she has written in her forthcoming book about David [2]. Dr Miller writes: “It is more likely that David only offered חסד [ḥesed usually translated mercy, but see below] to Mephibosheth because it was in David’s own interests to do so and not because he was doing goodwill to Mephibosheth.” She makes the excellent observation that ḥesed is mentioned three times within a short space in 2 Samuel 9, referring to the covenant that David made with Jonathan, and the repetition has the effect of overstating it. This word, often translated as “mercy” has a variety of meanings in the Hebrew Bible and Miller argues that from its context here it has the sense of covenant loyalty. She argues that the over emphasis on David’s pledge of loyalty suggests that David only offered to help Mephibosheth because it was in David’s own interests to do so, making a display of honouring a covenant he made with Jonathan some twenty years earlier. The political situation at the time warranted a display of loyalty on David’s part but, as Miller suggests, he honours the covenant with Jonathan in word but not in spirit.

David’s “kindness” to Mephibosheth – giving him a place at David’s royal court – was effectively a means of keeping the grandson of the previous king under house arrest and under control, incapable of being a threat to David’s succession. David’s lack of genuine concern is revealed later in the story when, on the say-so of a servant who profited by telling lies about Mephibosheth, David handed all Mephibosheth’s property to the servant without questioning Mephibosheth or giving him an opportunity to defend himself (2 Samuel 16:1-4). When confronted about this later (2 Samuel 19:24-30) he still couldn’t admit to making a mistake (narcissists never do!) and in a face-saving gesture offered to return only half the confiscated property, allowing the lying servant to keep the rest.

Such duplicity is not uncharacteristic of David. One of the most famous incidents from his life was his adulterous affair with Bathsheba who was married to Uriah, an officer in David’s army. David ordered for Uriah to be sent to the front lines in a battle, ensuring his death, and therefore demonstrating that even arranging the death of an innocent man was just a means to his narcissistic ends. As I see it, making a show of being kind to a potential threat to his throne, while also keeping him tightly under his control, is also characteristic of narcissism. Narcissists will use people in any way that suits their purposes. They are resources, means to an end. David’s treatment of both Uriah and Mephibosheth indicates this pattern of behaviour.

But narcissists are not necessarily thoroughly bad people, although they are generally deeply troubled. As many experts argue, their personality disorder most likely developed in response to childhood circumstances which produced in them a fear of abandoment and a lack of self-esteem. Their narcissism is a cover for feelings of inadequacy. There are some hints in the Bible that David’s childhood may have been troubled. In the story where the prophet Samuel went to the hometown of Jesse to find and anoint the future king of Israel (1 Samuel 16), Samuel invited Jesse and his sons to a communal event. After all Jesse’s sons were introduced to the prophet, Samuel asked “Are all your sons here?” to be told, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” (16:11). We never learn why David wasn’t invited along with his brothers to the event. Surely a worker could be found to look after the sheep! It makes me wonder if there was a reason why David wasn’t considered to be quite equal with his brothers. Then, in Psalm 51:5 [v.7 in the Hebrew], written (according to its title) by David after his adultery with Bathsheba had been exposed, he says “In sin I was born and in sin my mother conceived me.” Is there a hint here that David was conceived out of wedlock? Was he sent to keep the sheep when his brothers were invited to a party because as an illegitimate son he wasn’t regarded as fully one of them? If David was rejected as a child by his own family this could explain why he needed to prove himself and why he developed a personality disorder in order to convince himself that he was worthwhile, or even better than everyone else.

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[1] Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. Harper, 2016.

[2] Miller, Virginia, A King and a Fool? The Succession Narrative as a Satire. Biblical Interpretation Series 179, general editors Paul Anderson and Jennifer L. Koosed.  Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2019, 44-47 (forthcoming, due for publication in October).

David and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

220px-Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited

Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection, c. 1594-96

I ended my previous post by suggesting that David exhibited classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). (Narcissism was named after a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. It has been defined as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others” [1].) I’m not a psychologist and don’t claim to have any qualifications to diagnose NPD, but I have had the misfortune of being the victim of a narcissist so I am somewhat qualified by virtue of my own unpleasant experience to be able to recognise narcissism when I see it. I won’t attempt here to detail all the clinical signs of NPD, but will simply outline those narcissistic characteristics which I detect in the story of King David.

The first thing that alerted me to the possibility, and which I mentioned in my previous post, was that Jonathan seemed to have become infatuated with David from the moment he met him. Narcissists are charming people. They collect friends easily. They are often the life of the party and love to be the centre of attention. Everyone loves them, initially, and it’s easy to become infatuated with one. If David was a narcissist I’m not surprised that Jonathan thought he was amazing: they are, or at least that’s what they want you to believe, and they are pretty good at winning people over almost immediately. In time, however, if you have become a part of a narcissist’s network (a lot of people call it their “web”) you will discover that although they initially seemed to be genuinely interested in you it was only part of a strategy to obtain your loyalty and devotion. They are not genuinely interested in anyone other than themselves, but they will show an interest in you in order to draw you into their network because they need admirers and “resources”, people who will loyally do their bidding. I noticed in the story of Jonathan and David that after Jonathan’s death, well after it seems, David had to make enquiries about whether Jonathan had any offspring. True friends would know that! You know if your friends have children, you know their names, you know about their school or career, and if they play a musical instrument. But David knew nothing about Jonathan’s children: he didn’t even know if he had any!

Because they are so focussed on themselves narcissists inevitably clash with friends and family. Often there will be one drama after another, one relationship breakup after another, and it will never be their fault! Narcissists have an inability to handle any criticism, so if you say or do something to upset them they will find a way to punish you. Typically they will give you “the silent treatment”. In my experience, my narcissistic friend would refuse to speak with me for months on end; no replies to emails or messages, and wouldn’t answer phone calls. They will decide when the punishment has gone on long enough, and often they will make contact again (and “forgive” you) when they need something from you. We get a hint that David was like this in the story about when he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and danced in the streets in celebration. His wife Michal (who, incidentally, was Saul’s daughter and Jonathan’s sister) thought he was making a fool of himself, and said so. Big mistake! The account of this incident ends with the chilling line that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:16-23). In the context that line gives the impression that David didn’t sleep with her ever gain. Typical narcissistic punishment.

One by one a narcissist’s friends will leave them, or try to. Narcissists are simply too demanding, there will be constant drama, tension and friction, and you have to get away, for your own sanity. They will never understand why but will act as though they have been betrayed, as though their closest friend had put a dagger through their heart. This is almost certainly what happened when David’s friend Ahithophel sided with David’s son Absalom when Absalom attempted, with a great deal of popular support, to seize the throne from his father. I personally think Psalm 55 – about the betrayal of a close friend who became an enemy – may have been written by David bemoaning the betrayal by Ahithophel. Read it and see if you think it fits.

David’s family was disfunctional. His children attempted coups against him; his friends abandoned him. At the end of his life his courtiers had to find a young woman to sleep with him to keep him warm, suggesting none of his wives would do it. He died alone, and cold. This is what often happens to narcissists. Often even their own children steer clear of them. They sometimes die in prison cells, or while committing a crime (they tend to be reckless); often alone and lonely.

Perhaps I’m reading the story of David through the lens of my own experiences with a narcissistic friend (ex-friend now – I was finally able to end the friendship on my own terms). I may be misjudging David. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who is qualified or who has had experience dealing with a narcissist.

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[1] Narcissistic personality disorder: https://www.mayoclinic.org

David and Jonathan

Frederic_Leighton_Jonathan’s_Token_to_David

Frederic Leighton, Jonathan’s Token to David, c. 1868

I am in two (or three) minds about the story of David and Jonathan in the book of Samuel. On one hand the description of their friendship is unique in the Hebrew Bible and displays an uncharacteristic intensity. I can understand why many writers have concluded that it was a homosexual relationship. Their relationship has been explored and commented on in scores of commentaries and articles, and it is well beyond the scope of this post to examine the history of scholarship on the matter, or to summarise all the arguments. When I say I am in two (or three) minds about the story it is because I see merit in three interpretations of the account of their friendship. They are not necessarily contradictory, and all three may be right, or at least contain elements which are harmonious. I will briefly summarise these three positions and am happy to provide references or further details in the comments section.

1. There are several elements in the D&J story which suggest an intensity beyond any other friendship between two men in the Bible. It begins with what seems to be their first meeting, at least as far as the record in 1 Samuel portrays it. Having just killed Goliath, and with Goliath’s severed head still in his hands, David was summoned to meet King Saul. He had barely introduced himself (“I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite” 1 Sam. 17:58) when Jonathan appears to have been immediately smitten.

“When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul“ (18:1-3).

Twice in three verses we are told that Jonathan loved him, but not why. We don’t even get any hint from the record that they had even spoken to each other at this point, and the repetition of “Jonathan loved him as his own soul” seems intentionally designed to emphasise that just seeing David and hear him speak was enough for Jonathan to fall head-over-heals in love with him. In addition to telling us that Jonathan loved David, the writer uses a variety of terms to describe the attraction: “Jonathan took great delight in David” (19:1), and David “found favour in his [Jonathan’s] eyes” (20:3). After Jonathan’s death David lamented that “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). These words, perhaps more than any others, have convinced many readers that theirs was a homosexual relationship.

Some commentators read 1 Samuel 18:4 as homoerotic  – “Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” – while others see it as an act of allegiance, Jonathan seeing himself as a subordinate treaty partner. The use of the terms “servant,” “brother,” and even “love” would be appropriate in the context of a treaty, especially as 20:7-8 later describes a covenant between them. Joab’s speech to David (2 Samuel 19:6 [v.7 in Hebrew]) refers to David’s army as those who love him, so it is argued that Jonathan’s love for David was of the same type, that is, one of loyal devotion to a charismatic leader.

2. This leads to the second interpretation of the D&J relationship which I think has considerable merit. Lieut. Cmdr. Nathan Solomon, a military chaplain with the US Navy, wrote about the special bonds that often develop between soldiers in combat situations in “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship” [1] and argues that “no existing study of the relationship between David and Jonathan takes seriously their combat experience as a key to the friendship.” He writes:

It is in the chaos of combat and loss that friendships are forged that are unwieldy and intrusive in civilian life.  The language used to describe friendships in the civilian world simply cannot carry the freight these relationships ask them to bear.  Lacking the ability to verbalize the intensity with integrity, cultures default to language and categories with which they are familiar. The result is that the vocabulary of romance and kinship is often appropriated to describe what arises between comrades on the battlefield because no other suitable language or category exists.

Based on his work as a military chaplain working with men who have experienced the trauma of combat and the close bonds that are forged on the battlefield, he suggests that the friendship of David and Jonathan was not a homosexual relationship, but rather it “might be fruitfully analyzed as an intense friendship of the type forged in trauma, for it is the trauma that seems, in large part, to create and cement the friendship.” I personally think that Nathan Solomon’s perspective has a lot of merit.

3. We also need to consider the D&J story from a literary perspective and consider the role that it plays in the overall context of Samuel. What is the writer’s reason for writing the book, and what role does this friendship play for the writer in making his point, whatever that “point” is? There are a couple of things we need to note here about the D&J story within its overall context. First, we should note that the writer of Samuel reports a number of times that Jonathan loved David (adding in 20:17 that “he loved him as he loved his own life”), but never that David loved Jonathan. Was it a one-sided infatuation?  Interestingly, Patricia Tull notes that the Bible doesn’t actually describe David and Jonathan’s relationship in terms of “friendship.” [2] Even in David’s lament on the death of Jonathan, he says that it was Jonathan who loved him, not that he loved Jonathan – “your love to me was wonderful”. The closest he comes to mirroring Jonathan’s love was to say נָעַמְתָּ לִּי מְאֹד “You were very nice to me” which hardly seems to be the kind of thing you’d say to your lover! Elsewhere in 1 Samuel we are given details of Jonathan acting rashly (for example, he is introduced to the reader when he attacked the Philistine garrison at Michmash prematurely without waiting for his father, in 13:2-3). It is part of a narrative which depicts Saul’s rejection as king, and Jonathan’s unsuitability to succeed him. The purpose of the story about Jonathan falling in love with David after the briefest of encounters may have been to further highlight his unsuitability as a future king, because he was impetuous and driven by emotions, while also serving the dual purpose of showing why David was so suitable for the job – even the heir to the throne loved him!

We learn another interesting thing about David from this relationship. Later in the story, long after Jonathan’s death, David enquired “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam. 9:1). The story goes on to provide details of a surviving son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth (aka, Meribaal). What strikes me as particularly odd about this is that if David and Jonathan were lovers how likely would it be that he knew nothing about Jonathan’s son, and did not even enquire about him until what seems to be a considerable time later? This could further support the theory that Jonathan was infatuated with David, but that it wasn’t reciprocal. It could also imply that if D&J were indeed close friends, or even lovers, that David was a narcissist and didn’t care much for Jonathan beyond the fact that he enjoyed having him as an admirer. That would make sense of many of the other details of the story in which David seems totally incapable of forging “normal” or enduring relationships. His family is disfunctional, close friends eventually abandon him, and he dies alone and lonely; classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder. That, however, would open another can of worms. Perhaps another time.

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[1] “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship,” in Probing the Frontiers of Biblical Studies (ed. J. Harold Ellens and John T. Greene; Princeton Theological Monograph Series 111; Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009), 21–32. See also Solomon, Nathan. ““Only God Can Judge Me”: Faith, Trauma, and Combat.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69, no. 1 (2015): 63-75.

[2] Tull, Patricia K. “Jonathan’s Gift of Friendship.” Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology 58, no. 2 (2004): 130-143. 

 

Dodgy theology (6): “your father’s nakedness”

David and Jonathan

David and Jonathan, stainglass window from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1882

Having argued in my earlier posts that the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’) does not specifically prohibit homosexuality or homosexual activity, in this post I want to respond to the question of whether there is any evidence in the HB of homosexuality in ancient Israel, and in my next post I will look specifically at the case of David of Jonathan.

There is an intriguing series of prohibitions in Leviticus which begin with “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness” (18:6-18). So as not to leave in any doubt what is meant by “near of kin” the prohibited relationships are then listed:

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your:

  • father
  • mother
  • father’s wife (i.e. step-mother, possibly also implies polygamy)
  • sister
  • your father’s daughter (i.e. half or step sister)
  • your mother’s daughter (i.e. half or step sister)
  • father’s sister
  • mother’s sister
  • father’s brother
  • father’s brother’s wife
  • a woman and her daughter or grand-daughter
  • a woman and her sister, while the woman is still alive
  • a woman during her menstrual period (i.e. a wife is a ‘prohibited relative’ during her period)

To “uncover the nakedness” of someone is almost certainly a euphemism for having sex with that person so that the prohibitions against incest maintain a hierarchy within the family. In other words, it prevents any confusion about an individual’s position within that hierarchy and whether they can simultaneously be one’s wife and their mother, for example.

However, there are two problematic relationships in this list. The first probition is against having sex with one’s father: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of [or have sex with] your father.” Most English translators have recognised the problem that as these texts are all addressed to men this would therefore refer to an incestuous homosexual relationship. They “amend” the Hebrew text by translating the whole verse as “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness” (v.7). In other words, they interpret “nakedness of your father” as actually meaning having sex with your mother. But this is not what the Hebrew says! The Hebrew עֶרְוַת אָבִיךָ וְעֶרְוַת אִמְּךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ literally reads “the nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover. She is your mother, do not uncover her nakedness.” The second half of the verse (אִמְּךָ הִוא לֹא תְגַלֶּה עֶרְוָתָהּ “She is your mother, do not uncover her nakedness”) is almost tautological – an unneccessary repetition of the prohibition that has already been made. I can think of two possible reasons for this: (a) the relationship between a boy and his mother is generally more intimate than the relationship with his father, due largely to the fact that from birth he was nursed at her breast and may have slept with her even into his teens, and therefore the prohibition against having sex when he came to maturity (or when his father died) had to be emphasised; or (b) the additional words were ‘interpretive’ (as the English translators have it) and explain what is meant by “the nakedness of your father”. The problem with this second option is that it renders the first half of the verse as unnecessary. Why say something if you need to immediately explain it? Why not simply say “the nakedness of your mother” rather than “the nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother” if you then need to explain what you mean? The conjunction implies two relationships, not that one is really the other. Hebrew has a perfectly adequate way of saying “that is” when an explanation is required, so its absence here is noteworthy.

The second problematic relationship in this list is “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt” (v. 14). Again, the translators have inserted the words “that is” which are not in the Hebrew. The Hebrew עֶרְוַת אֲחִי־אָבִיךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה אֶל־אִשְׁתּוֹ לֹא תִקְרָב דֹּדָתְךָ הִוא reads literally as “the nakedness of your father’s brother you shall not uncover, do not approach his wife, she is your aunt.” To me, this reads most naturally as two prohibitions, not one.

If this list of prohibited relationships includes two same-sex relationships (i.e. with one’s father and paternal uncle), the implication is that other same-sex relationships are not prohibited. However, a question inevitably arises from this: why are only two same-sex relationships prohibited? If sex with one’s sister is prohibited, why not with one’s brother? If sex with a paternal uncle is prohibited, why not a maternal uncle (your mother’s brother)? To me, the most likely explanation is that in a patriarchal society the most dominant family member is the male head-of-the-family, the father. Next in the hierarchy would be his brother(s), then his mature sons in order of their births, then his wife, his brother’s wife, his son’s wives, unmarried daughters, and finally servants (or something akin to this order). The mother’s brothers have no place in the hierarchy, as they are attached to another family. For a son to have an intimate and  sexual relationship with the dominant males (father and paternal uncles) confuses or disrupts the hierarchy. For example, if a son was in an intimate relationship with his uncle, would this place him above his older brothers, or above other uncles who were younger than his lover? The same conflict does not arise with other male members of the family, and are therefore not specifically addressed in the list of prohibited relationships. Leviticus is careful to maintain order in the family and society. (Inheritances and property rights are also important and related to this hierarchical order and are dealt with elsewhere in Leviticus and Deuteronomy).

In a nutshell, the prohibition against two specific same-sex relationships in Leviticus 18 implies that other same-sex relationships were not prohibited. It further implies that they did exist. If I saw a sign on a cafe saying “closed on Sundays” I could reasonably infer that it was open every other day. So, a prohibition against certain same-sex relationships implies that all others were acceptable. I have already discussed the two texts which are often quoted as prohibiting all homosexual relationships and demonstrated that they do no such thing and most probably refer to relationships with married men. In fact, if such blanket laws did exist it would have been unnecessary to further prohibit two specific relationships that were already covered by the blanket prohibition. This further confirms in my mind that the only homosexual relationships which were prohibited in Leviticus were with one’s father, one’s paternal uncle and with a man who was already married to a woman.

In my next post I will look at the biblical story of David and Jonathan to see if there is any evidence that it was a homosexual relationship.

Dodgy theology (5): the sin of Sodom

John_Martin_-_Sodom_and_Gomorrah

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852

Genesis 19 has a well-known story about the destruction of two Canaanite cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. The story goes that Lot, a nephew of Abraham who was living in Sodom, was visited by two angels who came to warn him about the impending disasters and to encourage him to leave. Soon after their arrival …

the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly”.

It is apparent from Lot’s reaction – “do not act so wickedly” – that their intentions were less than friendly. It is argued that the phrase “that we may know them” uses a well-known biblical euphemism meaning “that we can have sex with them” as in one of the first uses of the verb “to know” in the Bible: “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Gen.  4:17). The story in Judges 19 is similar in some ways. That story is about a Levite who was on a journey with his wife/concubine from Bethlehem to his home in Ephraim and made a decision to spend a night in the town of Gibeah. They were taken in for the night by an old man who was also from Ephraim but living in Gibeah.

While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may know him.” (Judges 19:22).

The NRSV translates the phrase here rendered “that we may know him” as “that we may have intercourse with him” although it is identical in Hebrew to the phrase in Genesis 19 which they translate differently. The translators have understood it as a euphemism for having sex and removed any doubt with this translation. They are almost certainly right that this was the intention, although in rendering it this way the translation becomes less literal. The story continues using almost identical language to the story about Sodom:

And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing.

It is often claimed that these two stories demonstrate that the biblical writers regarded homosexuality as perverse, wicked and vile. In fact, neither account says any such thing. In both stories the men of Sodom and Gibeah are condemned for their attempted rape of strangers. In the Gibeah story the host offered his daughter and his guest’s wife to the men pounding on the door. This is similar to the story about Sodom where Lot offered his daughters. In both stories the offer was initially rejected, but in the Gibeah story the traveller “seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go” (v. 25). The story has a horrific ending.

The Gibeah story makes it clear that the motivation in calling for the stranger to be sent out to them was not one of homosexual desire, but rather an intention to rape him. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the difference. The fact that these men had their way with the traveller’s concubine for the whole night demonstrates that the story ultimately condemns them for heterosexual rape. The issue is rape, not sexuality. In fact, the rape of men by men is most often committed by heterosexual men and is a violent, terrorising and abusive exertion of power by one person over another. It has nothing to do with desire or sexual attraction.

The predominant common element in both stories is that there was an attempt to exert power over strangers, or foreigners. The stranger was hated, perhaps feared, by a group within the community who asserted their ‘superiority’ over the unwelcome foreigner(s) by attempting to abuse him/them in an horrific way. Their motivation was hatred, or fear, not lust.

Significantly, when Ezekiel later referred to the “sin of Sodom” he said nothing about their sexual behaviour. He recognised that the real problem was their disregard for the poor and needy: “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me” (16:49). It was this “haughty” attitude and their lack of concern for the needy which turned into violence against strangers.

“The sin of Sodom” was not homosexuality, it was a lack of concern for those in need. One scholar (Michael Carden) put it well in his conclusion to an article titled Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah, where he argued that “Sodom represents … cruelty and meanness. Therefore xenophobia, racism, disregard for/exploitation of the poor and grasping miserliness should be considered forms of sodomy.” Rape and sexual violence – against both men and women –  should come within the definition of sodomy and Carden rightly notes that “rapists should be regarded as sodomites, as should misogynists”. He further argues that homophobia and its violent expression should also be seen as forms of sodomy. Including homophobia as sodomy, Carden says, “might be surprising, however, for those of us from Christian traditions where homosexuality and Sodom and Gomorrah are so deliberately confused.” [1] Several scholars are in agreement with Carden’s conclusions about the sins of Sodom and Gibeah and have demonstrated that the ultimate evil of these cities, the evil which led to their divine destruction, had nothing to do with anal sex or homosexuality. It did, however, have everything to do with how one treats the poor and needy, and the stranger.

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[1] Michael Carden, “Homophobia and Rape in Sodom and Gibeah”Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999) 83-96.

Dodgy theology (4): “It is an abomination”

This short series will be longer than initially planned as I’ve been asked to comment on several specific biblical texts, including the two instances in the Hebrew Bible of what appears to be homosexual rape (Genesis 19 and Judges 19), the New Testament texts which, in some translations, use the word “homosexuals” and the description of some sins in the Hebrew Bible as “abominations” (including, it is claimed, homosexual acts). These texts weren’t specifically quoted (as far as I’m aware) by Israel Folau in his social media comments about those people who he thinks will go to hell, but I will cover them here in this series to keep my discussion of the relevant texts together.

In the texts referred to in an earlier post about the probition against a man “lying with a man as with a woman” Leviticus adds that “it is an abomination.”  Some translations have gone beyond the meaning of the Hebrew word and instead have “it is disgusting” (CEV), “loathsome” (JM),  “detestable” (NWT) or “I hate that” (NLB). But this is not what the word means. The Hebrew word תּוֹעֵבָה toʿevah is used in the Bible sometimes used to describe the customs of other ethnic groups. For example, “the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43:22). Similarly, according to Genesis, “all shepherds are abhorrent [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (46:34). Moses also said to Pharaoh that “the sacrifices that we offer to the LORD our God are offensive [תּוֹעֵבָה] to the Egyptians” (Exodus 8:26). The use of the word תּוֹעֵבָה in these contexts demonstrates that there is no intrinsic  implication of sexual perversity. Within Leviticus several things are regarded as תּוֹעֵבָה an abomination to God because they were associated with the customs of the Canaanite tribes with whom they shared the land, or surrounding nations. The emphasis in the Levitical laws was that something was abhorent, not because it was necessarily intrinsically such, but rather because it was associated with Canaanite practices: “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations … (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled)” (Lev. 18:26). The association with idolatry and worship of other gods is even more evident in the way the word is used in Deuteronomy: “The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the LORD your God.  Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You must utterly detest and abhor it, for it is set apart for destruction” (7:25-26). In Deuteronomy “the abhorrent practices of those nations” included sorcery, casting spells, and consulting the spirits of the dead (18:9-14). The prohibition against these things was because “you must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God” (v.13) and the implication is that all these practices were somehow related to the worship of other gods. For the same reason, making an idol was also abhorent (Deut. 27:15). Ezekiel refers to “your abominable idols” (16:36), confirming further that this word is more often associated with worship of other gods than with sexual behaviour.

In Deuteronomy eating  certain animals was also regarded as an abomination, including camels, hares, badgers and pigs (14:3-8). It is sometimes argued that these dietary laws had some health benefits, or they were intended to protect the Israelites from contracting diseases from animals which were more likely to be hosts to parasites. Yet there is no evidence that avoiding camels or hares had any health benefits, or that they were more prone to carry diseases. The reasons for these dietary prohibitions remains a mystery.

Offering an animal that had any kind of physical defect as a sacrifice to God was also “abhorent” (Deut. 17:1). Isaiah 1:13 says “incense is an abomination to me” and because incense was used in the tabernacle and Temple as part of the worship of the God of Israel this verse is best understood as a condemnation of the lack of sincerity on the part of those who offered it. These two texts suggested that faulty worship of the God of Israel was as much an abomination as the worship of foreign gods, or eating the meat of certain animals. There is nothing in these texts that even hints that these practices were “disgusting” in any moral sense. Those translations which use such terms in the translation of the same Hebrew word in Leviticus, in the context of “men lying with men”, are clearly prejudiced by a bias against the acceptance of homosexuality.

In one of the few places where “abomination” is connected with sexual practices, 1 Kings 14:24 reports that “there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” The phrase “male temple prostitutes” is a translation of a single word in Hebrew (קָדֵשׁ). It seems clear enough from the context that the problem was not men having sex with men, but rather the “abomination” was that prostitution (of any kind) formed part of the worship of foreign gods.

We can conclude from the frequent usage of this word throughout the Hebrew Bible, where it occurs more than 100 times, that “abomination” can refer to practices such as eating with people from a different group (such as Egyptians refusing to eat with Hebrews), or disliking the religious observances of other groups (such as the Egyptians finding Hebrew forms of worship “abominable”). It can refer to almost any form of worship of other gods which was foreign to Israelites. Eating certain animals was also an “abomination”, for no clear reason. The behaviour regarded as abominable is often not specified, and the term is sometimes used in parallel with “evil” or similar terms (although in some biblical texts worshipping idols is regarded as the greatest evil). The word rarely refers to sexual behaviour. When it does, such as in Ezekiel 22:11, it refers to adulterous or incestuous heterosexual behaviour: “One commits abomination with his neighbor’s wife; another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; another in you defiles his sister, his father’s daughter.” There are only two texts out of more than 100 where the word apparently refers to sex between men: once with reference to male temple prostitutes (and even there it may refer to prostitution in general), and the other in the verse in Leviticus we have been discussing. There is nothing, anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, to suggest that homosexuality or homosexual activity per se was considered to be morally perverse.

Some people might refer to the “sin of Sodom” in Genesis 19, and a somewhat similar story in Judges 19 as examples of a biblical condemnation of homosexuality. I will discuss these texts in my next post.

More on dodgy theology (3)

IMG_1664I wasn’t planning to write a long series on the subject of Israel Folau’s dodgy theology, but to be fair to Folau and those who hold similar views I should cover the other texts which are quoted in the debate about the Bible’s statements on homosexuality. In my two previous posts I referred to the texts in Leviticus about “a man lying with a man” but I should note that Leviticus wasn’t actually quoted by Folau in his controversial message on social media. I dealt with the Leviticus texts primarily because I’m an Old Testament scholar. Although that doesn’t disqualify me from writing about the New Testament, it does mean I feel more competent dealing with Hebrew rather than Greek texts. However, the New Testament was written by people whose Bible was what we call the Old Testament, and they were writing against that background and were heavily influenced by OT writings, so the OT is always a good place to start. Apart from the Leviticus texts, the other OT verses often referred to in discussions on this subject are the verses which deal with the sin of Sodom. I’ll come back to that in a later post.

But first, let’s look at the text which was quoted by Folau in his message on social media, Galatians 5:19-21. The version used by Folau in his quote (the Kings Kames Version, KJV) was written in 1611 and uses terminology which isn’t in common use these days. The quotation below is from a modern version preferred by many scholars, the New Revised Standard Version:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

We should note a few things about these verses. First, Folau has obviously equated “not inherit the kingdom of God” with “going to hell.” I won’t get side-tracked into a theological discussion about this, but will simply note that they are not necessarily the same thing.  Next I note that this list says nothing about homosexuality. The closest we might come to it would be to include it under an umbrella term like “licentiousness” but that would require making an assumption about what the term means and includes. The Greek word is ἀσέλγεια aselgeia and can refer to unbridled lust and debauchery, as well as gluttony and insolence. It isn’t restricted to sexual behaviour, and there is no suggestion in the scholarly literature that is means or includes homosexuality. On the other hand, the word translated “fornication” is the Greek word πορνεία porneia which does refer to sexual immorality (and is the origin of our English word pornography). It’s a non-specific term in that doesn’t refer to any one form of illicit sexual behaviour, and can include adultery and prostitution. Again, there is nothing in the word itself or its biblical or classical usage to suggest it includes homosexuality.

While this list quoted by Folau doesn’t mention or even imply homosexuality, it does condemn “dissensions” διχοστασίαι dichostasia, which means “causing divisions”. The writer (of Galatians) may have meant causing divisions in the church specifically, although this isn’t certain. It could mean causing divisions in communities or in society. I’m not about to accuse Folau or anyone in particular of being guilty of doing this, although some outspoken commentators seem not to have realised that being divisive prevents someone from inheriting the kingdom of God as much as immoral behaviour. The fact that Galatians lists it together with  ἔχθραι echthra “enmities”, a term which can include being hateful,  ἔρις eris, “contention, strife”, and ἐριθεῖαι eritheia “quarrels” (a term which, interestingly, is used by Aristotle with reference to  those who use dirty tricks while electioneering for office to obtain popular support), suggests that the writer was just as concerned about those who stir up hatred and division in the community as much as he was about those who were sexually immoral. People who use the Bible to condemn others should take note, and take care!

 

 

Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 2)

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Israel Folau portrait session at Sydney Olympic Park, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Photo: Steve Christo)

Israel Folau is not alone in thinking that the Bible prohibits homosexuality. What he is probably not aware of is that the argument for this rests on some very dodgy translations of a tiny handful of texts in the Bible. I’ve seen comments on social media that, after all, Folau was only quoting the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. What many people don’t realise is that the KJV never uses the words “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” In fact, the word is a relatively modern invention and didn’t appear in any Bible translation before the mid-twentieth century.

What he also may not realise is that the ‘original’ Hebrew and Greek texts of the verses in the Bible which have been translated to condemn homosexuality are incredibly difficult to translate. One reason for this, in the case of the Hebrew (‘Old Testament’) texts, is that the sentence construction is so awkward we cannot be certain what the writer was actually saying, and at best scholars are guessing at what was intended. In the case of the Greek (‘New Testament’) texts an added difficulty is that the writer uses a word which occurs no where else in the Bible, or in any ancient Greek literature, so we really have no idea what it means. Again, scholars have to guess. There is considerable disagreement amongst scholars what these texts mean and how they should be translated. If a prohibition against homosexuality was so important to the writers of the Bible they could easily have made it clearer!

Let’s take a look at the main texts concerned. I’m a Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (OT) scholar, so my expertise is not with the Greek New Testament. I’ll focus on the OT texts. There are two verses in the book of Leviticus (18:22; 20:13), a legal text, which use a phrase translated as  “a man lying with a male as with a woman” or words to that effect, in the context of listing prohibited sexual relationships. The phrase contains an expression which is difficult to translate: מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה miškĕbê ʾiššâ. It literally means “the beds (masculine plural) of a woman” or “the beds of a wife” (“wife” and “woman” are the same word in Hebrew) so that the whole phrase would read something like “a man lying with a man on the beds of a woman/wife commits an abomination”. Scholars agree that this is an awkward way to say “a man must not have sex with a man” and there would be much simpler ways of saying it, if that was what the writer intended. The context in both verses is about individuals who are be considered  to be “off-limits” sexually due to their relationship with another individual. Grammatically, there are a lot of difficulties with the phrase, but without becoming too technical the best scholarly explanation I have read which makes sense of it in its context is that it probably has to do with ‘ownership’ and monogamous marriage. It is about family stability and prohibits a man from going to bed with a man who ‘belongs’ to a wife. In other words, a man can sleep with another man, provided they are both ‘single.’ But even if this explanation is wrong, to make any definite claim about such a gramatically difficult phrase is decidedly dodgy. Folau is on shaky ground.

Then there is the issue of the meaning of “abomination”. Eating shellfish, or wearing clothing made of two different kinds of fibre (Leviticus 19:19) are also “abominations”. I wonder, does Folau post on social media that people eating lobster, or wearing cotton-polyester shirts are also going to hell? I don’t think one gets to pick and choose with these laws: either you accept them all as binding, or reject them all.

A claim made by some of Folau’s opponents is that he is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and the Bible allegedly prohibits tattoos. The sole verse quoted in the case against tattoos is Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” Interestingly, it is the same biblical book (Leviticus) which is quoted to prohibit homosexuality, so the argument goes that if one quotes Leviticus to condemn homosexuality one has to keep all the laws in that legal code, including the one about tattoos. In the interests of full disclosure I probably should confess that I have a couple of tattoos, although none as awesome as Folau’s! He also has a better canvas to work with!

The key words in this text are “for the dead.” Whatever it means, it probably refers to some ancient practice of cutting oneself as part of a mourning ritual. It almost certainly doesn’t refer to decorative “body art.” It’s in the context of some random laws, many of which relate to the customs of surrounding idol-worshippers. The verse immediately before it says “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” It’s difficult to determine what was behind this prohibition, but it probably had something to do with a ‘pagan’ practice that was associated with the worship of another god. While Orthodox Jews have a particular way of interpreting and practising that law, mainstream Christians such as Folau wouldn’t see it as obligatory for Christians. The prohibition against cutting/marking the flesh for the dead, falls into the same category. Again, we can’t pick and choose. Either all the laws are binding, or none of them. I think Folau’s tattoos are awesome, and I’m happy with my own. I’m also ok with wearing cotton-polyester, and ordering a short-back-and-sides at the barbers. I’m not an Orthodox Jew and the laws don’t apply to me. So I’m not going to single out any that I like and impose them on anybody else. I’m not going to come after lobster-eaters and post on social media that you’re going to hell. I wish Folau would do the same.

Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 1)

INSTAGRAM-GETTY-israel-folau-homophobic-1120The ongoing clash between Rugby player Israel Folau and Rugby Australia over a post by Folau on social media which said liars, atheists, adulterers, homosexuals and others would go to hell has triggered a fair amount of debate in the community. The main issues seem to be Folau’s rights to freedom of speech and to practice his religion, against whether a prominent public figure should keep his religious views to himself, especially if it is seen to target a group within the community (in this case the LGBTIQ community) which has already suffered enough. NRL player Ian Roberts has condemned homophobia in sport and pointed to the high rate of suicide amongst gay youth saying Folau’s comments could have an adverse impact on the “[gay] kids in the suburbs killing themselves.”

In this post I’m not going to weigh-in on the issues of freedom of speech or whether Folau’s comments have anything to do with freedom of religion. As a biblical scholar I want to look at his claim that the people on his list are going to hell. There are two issues here: (a) does the Bible say that liars, adulterers, drunks, etc, will go to hell? and (b) does the Bible condemn homosexuality?  In a subsequent post I will look at the claim by some people that Folau is a hypocrite because he has tattoos, and I’ll examine the verse they cite to say that tattoos are prohibited by the Bible.

First, who is going to hell? A lot of people are surprised when they learn that, according to the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) everyone goes to the same place at death! The Hebrew word is sheol and everyone – good and bad – goes there at death. Sheol is often translated as “hell” in English Bibles (such as the King James Version), but it’s not the kind of fiery place of judgment that we find in much later Christian writings. We don’t get any kind of description of sheol in the Bible. Some of the latter parts of the Hebrew Bible to be written speak of the dead being resurrected at some future time, and thereafter face a “judgment” to determine their final reward or punishment. This idea of resurrection is more prominent in the New Testament, but it has its origins in a small handful of places in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Jewish literature such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s pretty clear that to the writers of the Hebrew Bible sheol/”hell” was a kind of waiting room until the resurrection at the end of the world as we know it. (I’ve written more about sheol and the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible here.)

In the oldest translation of the Hebrew Bible that we know of, the translation into Greek known as the Septuagint (probably translated between 300-200 BCE), sheol is translated into Greek as hades. This is one of the words often translated as “hell” in the New Testament. Hades probably had a similar meaning for the earliest Christians as the Hebrew word sheol and didn’t have any connotations of fire or burning. The word that is associated with fire in the New Testament is Gehenna and is the word generally used by Jesus, also translated as “hell”. Gehenna is derived from a Hebrew phrase and refers to a valley to the south of the city of Jerusalem where the city’s rubbish was burned. The dead bodies of executed criminals were also burned there, and Jesus himself would have been burned in Gehenna if a rich politician hadn’t intervened and paid for his burial instead. But it wasn’t a place of torment as the people who were burned there were already dead. In fact, the New Testament does say (Acts 2:27-31) that Jesus went to hell! This is in a text quoting the Hebrew Bible and using the word sheol. The writer was almost certainly thinking that Jesus was in the place of the dead, waiting resurrection. The only place in the New Testament that associates hell with fire and brimstone is a text in the highly symbolic and enigmatic book of Revelation, where the devil, “death” and hades/”hell” are all cast into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:10-15). This text is at odds with the later Christian idea that the devil rules in hell, because here he is destroyed in the lake of fire, together with hell! How could “hell” be a lake of fire if hell itself is destroyed in a lake of fire? I said this is highly symbolic and enigmatic!

The idea that hell is a place of torment for the wicked dead is foreign to the Bible. According to both Old and New Testaments everyone goes to the same place after death. Israel Folau should get used to the fact that, according to the Bible, he is going to spend some time in sheol/hades/hell with everyone, good and bad.

In my next post I will look at what the Bible has to say (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality.

 

Theodicy and literature of catastrophe (2)

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The Death of King Josiah by Francesco Conti

Theodicy deals with whether, or how, one can defend or justify God in allowing his people to suffer overwhelming catastrophe. For example, one could argue that all suffering is the consequence of sin, and God is therefore “justified” in allowing people who sin to suffer. The suffering may be the direct consequence of a person’s sinful behaviour – a criminal being sentenced to prison for example – or it could be the cumulative effect of society’s actions – such as the whole community bearing the burden of wasteful, polluting or unethical behaviour. Often these consequences can be directly attributed to the individual or community’s actions, but in the case of natural disasters (which used to be called “acts of God”) the calamity may be attributed to God’s punishment. The problem with attributing natural disasters to God is that the innocent suffer alongside the guilty and it is more difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship; so one could ask whose sin caused this disaster, or why did the innocent have to suffer for the sins of the guilty?

There is good evidence that these questions were being asked, and discussed, in the biblical literature. In the Gospels, for example, there is a story of a man who was blind from birth and, based on the notion that all suffering is the consequence of sin, Jesus’ disciples him “who sinned? This man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). In another incident, Jesus referred the death of some people when a building collapsed and raised the question of whether they were more or less guilty than anyone else in the city: “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4). These are questions of theodicy: where is the justice in the suffering of apparently innocent people?

Arguably, the whole of the Bible deals with the issue of theodicy. Some books, however, tackle it as their main concern. Job is generally regarded as a theodicy. Job is an innocent man who suffers tremendous loss in the deaths of his children and the loss of his livelihood, and then being afflicted with a terrible disease. Throughout the whole book Job protests that he is innocent and does not deserve such torment. God too agrees that Job is innocent, and the book takes the form of a “debate” about justice and suffering. Ironically, the reader knows from the beginning that the only reason Job is suffering is because of a wager between God and Satan about whether Job will lose his faith in the face of calamity. His suffering is undeniably unfair, and the question is not resolved in the book. Consequently, some have described it as “antitheodicy” – that is to say, it deals with the issues of theodicy but is unable or unwilling to defend any role of God in human suffering. In my PhD thesis I argued that the book of Jonah falls into a similar category, but that’s another story.

So, back to the book of Kings. It seems pretty clear that at least one of the contributors to the book thought that the suffering of Israel and Judah was the result of the sins of their kings, with the exile of Judah being directly blamed on one king in particular: Manasseh. However, from Ezekiel and Jeremiah we learn that there was a discussion at the time about the justice or injustice in punishing the people for the sins of an earlier generation, and this also seems to be reflected in some of the later prophetic writings. A major problem with the theodicy in Kings that argued that the exiles could be blamed on certain kings, was that there were also some very good kings, as well as some which were evidently bad. For example, Hezekiah and Josiah stand out as particularly good kings of Judah. In fact, they are the only kings of Judah who are commended as meeting the benchmark set by David: Hezekiah “did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:1). The Chronicler also says Hezekiah “did what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20). Of Josiah it was also said “He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2). Between these two kings came Manasseh. Surely these two good kings would outweigh the evil of one. In fact, the book of Kings appears to be careful in detailing how Josiah undid all the sins of his father Manasseh and brought about religious reforms in Judah (2 Kings 23:1-27). The record goes so far as to say “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25). If Judah was to be punished for Manasseh’s sins, surely they would be forgiven because of Josiah’s undoing of them. The sin-retribution theodicy consequently failed because it was unable to satisfactorily explain how Judah, under Josiah, could repent of the sins of Manasseh yet still be destroyed. If the exile was a punishment for Manasseh’s sins, the subsequent reformation and then the death of Josiah and the Babylonian exile posed significant problems of theodicy for the exilic and post-exilic generations. As one scholar put it, the death of Josiah in a battle with Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt was “an occurrence completely at variance with the principle followed elsewhere in the book of Kings that those who did what was good in the sight of God were appropriately rewarded.” He regards Josiah’s death as “not only unjust but was a personal and national tragedy that hastened the demise of the kingdom of Judah.” [1]

The death of the righteous king Josiah was experienced as a national trauma in Judah (Jeremiah 22:10-12) and mourning songs were still being sung for him in the time of the Chronicler in the Persian period (2 Chronicles 35:24-25). His death would have presented considerable theological difficulties for the proponents of the retributive view that suffering is always the consequence of sin, as Josiah was credited with being a hero of religious reformation. This paradox of the retributive theodicy – a righteous king suffering a catastrophic death – was somewhat resolved by the Deuteronomistic Jeremiah who claimed that in spite of the fact that Josiah was a righteous king the people did not turn to God wholeheartedly (Jeremiah 25:3; 36:2-3) and that it was their sins that brought about the catastrophe of the exile. A difficulty with this theodicy is that Josiah and Judah were punished because of the sins of Manasseh (or Josiah was punished for the sins of Judah) yet the notion that one person can be punished for the sins of another presents difficulties for any reasonable concept of justice.

To be continued …

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[1] R.N. Whybray, “Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What Is Just?,” in Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What Is Right? Studies on the Nature of God in Tribute to James L. Crenshaw (eds. David Penchansky and Paul L. Redditt; Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2000), 12.

A digression: theodicy and the literature of catastrophe (1)

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James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners, 1896–1902

I digress (although only slightly) from writing about the book of Kings to explore the subject of theodicy and the literature of catastrophe. It will become evident shortly why this is only a slight digression. Literature of catastrophe refers to texts written soon after a calamity of some kind. In terms of biblical literature, the greatest catastrophes of the time were the destruction and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (722 BCE) and the destruction and exile of the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians (597 BCE). There is a fair degree of scholarly consensus that much of the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) was written either in exile in Babylon or soon after when the captives began returning to Judah (which by then was known as the Persian province of Yehud). Some texts are easy to date to this period because they refer specifically to the exile or the return. Others are less easy to date, but they may include exilic themes or language which lead scholars to speculate that they were probably written against a background of exile.

A recurring theme in literature written after a catastrophe is to question why the calamity happened, was there something someone did which triggered it, can anything be learned from it to avoid a future repetition? Related questions include, where was God during this disaster, and why did he allow it to happen? We can see signs of this questioning in the biblical literature, and in other texts written around the same time. These non-biblical  texts are generally categorised as “apocrypha” (although the apocrypha is included as canonical in the bibles of most Christian denominations) or pseudepigrapha. I will refer specifically to two of these texts shortly: 4 Ezra (apocryphal) and 2 Baruch (pseudepigraphal). Because these are Jewish texts which were written in the same period as biblical texts which are accepted as canonical, they can give us insights into the kinds of issues which were important at the time.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the exiles on the national psyche. According to one biblical scholar,  Daniel Smith-Christopher, the archaeological evidence of destruction together with population estimates draws “a picture of horrific events that not surprisingly becomes permanently etched into the historical lore of the Hebrew Bible.”[1]  He argues that the impact of the Babylonian exile on both those who remained in the land as well as the exiles would have been traumatic and that this continued well into the Persian and Hellenistic eras and that any discussion of post-exilic theology “must first contend with the enormity of the physical, social and psychological trauma of this experience in the life of Ancient Israel, and only then proceed to an assessment of theological themes that are part of the recovery process of a frankly heroic survival of domination in the ancient Near East.” [2] In fact, after every major catastrophe in Jewish history we find philosophers, theologians, scholars and writers exploring the kinds of questions I mentioned above. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire in 70 CE was thought by some at the time to be so strikingly similar to the Babylonian captivity that subsequent texts such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch used the events of 587 BCE as the setting for narratives to frame apocalypses dealing with the events of 70 CE. The commemoration in Jewish tradition of Tisha B’Av – the traditional date of the destruction of both the first and second temples, the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, and the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492, and other events – almost certainly reflects the view that these calamities share more in common than a date.  Jewish literature written after the Holocaust, or the Shoah, also reflects similar concerns and I’ll refer later to works such as “The trial of God” and “God at Auschwitz”.

There is evidence of discussion in the affected communities regarding the questions of theodicy and divine justice in allowing these calamities to happen. The Babylonian exile and its aftermath produced a considerable body of biblical literature which addressed these issues in various ways. Job is regarded by some scholars as post-exilic theodicy (I will discuss this further in a later post). Similarly, theodicy is a major theme in Jewish texts after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, including 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. It could also be argued that the expulsions from Spain and Portugal gave birth to movements in Judaism such as Lurianic Kabbalah as a means of interpreting and overcoming the disaster.

But first, let me explain what I mean by theodicy.  The term “theodicy” literally means “justifying God” and derives from the Greek words Θεός and δίκη and was coined by Gottfried Leibniz in 1710 [3].  In a nutshell, it deals with whether, or how, one can defend or justify God in allowing his people to suffer overwhelming catastrophe. The same questions were undoubtedly raised after each catastrophe – including the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, the European pogroms and expulsions, and the Nazi mass murders – and similar discussions must have taken place each time as the survivors and succeeding generations endeavoured to come to terms with their anguish and the theological implications of theodicies which offered little comfort. Each of these crises had their own unique circumstances, and the theological responses therefore varied. It can be inferred on the one hand from the Hebrew Bible that some people were satisfied with the explanation of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles as due to sins such as idolatry. On the other hand, the problem in 4 Ezra was that the Jewish people before the Roman destruction of 70 CE did not easily fit the model of idolatrous Israel. The solution proposed by 4 Ezra combined a radical view of the near impossibility of keeping the Law and an “eschatological theodicy” which deferred justice to an afterlife or ‘the age to come’. However, between the retributive view that suffering is the consequence of sin, and the eschatological theodicies of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch where justice is deferred and meted out in the future, I argue that some biblical texts represent a stage or stages in the dialogue where there was dissatisfaction with the retributive view but before ideas of resurrection and future rewards were fully developed.

To be continued …

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[1]Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, “Reassessing the Historical and Sociological Impact of the Babylonian Exile,” in Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian Conceptions(ed. James M. Scott; JSJSup 56; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 17-18.

[2] Smith-Christopher, “Historical and Sociological Impact of the Babylonian Exile,” 36.

[3] In French: Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal. English translation: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (trans. E.M. Huggard: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000).

Biblical kings (6): the problem of transgenerational punishment

Prophets-smallerIn my previous post I mentioned the possibility that someone in the Babylonian exile may have made a connection between their predicament and the attributes of God in Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 – especially the one that he “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” In this post I’d like to explore some evidence that the notion of transgenerational punishment was also discussed by other biblical writers at the time.

From our modern perspective it may seem unfair or unjust for one generation to suffer punishment for the sins of a previous generation. There is good evidence that some of the biblical writers had similar issues with the apparent injustice of transgenerational punishment. For example, both Ezekiel and Jeremiah refer to a proverb which said “the parents have eaten sour grapes and the childrens’ teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2; Jeremiah 31:29). Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah are set in the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. The fact that they both discuss this proverb suggests  that it was probably an issue that was being discussed at the time, perhaps by the populace in general. Ezekiel argues against the idea that an individual or generation can be justly punished for the sins of another: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel … it is only the person who sins that shall die” (18:3-4). He emphasises that the people who went into exile were being punished for their own sins. Yet the problem remains that the book of Kings, and indeed Jeremiah, also claim that to a large extent the nation was being punished for the sins of Manasseh, four generations earlier. When Jeremiah refers to this proverb he makes the important distinction that “the days are surely coming” when “they shall no longer” say this proverb (31:27, 29). In other words, according to Ezekiel, the proverb remained true for his own time, but at some point in the future it will no longer be the case that one generation suffers for the sins of another. It seems that Ezekiel and Jeremiah had different ideas about the justice, or injustice, of transgenerational punishment, with Jeremiah being in agreement with the book of Kings (or, alternately, Kings being in agreement with Jeremiah) and Ezekiel (and Chronicles, which was written, or completed, after the return from exile [1]) taking a different position.

For some people the idea that one part of the Bible is in conflict with another presents a problem. Many readers of the Bible expect to see a consistent message which they understand to be a revelation of the divine purpose. This is really a theological issue and, in my view, is the result of approaching the Bible with a predetermined expectation that all parts of it will be in agreement with every other part. However, it seems to me that the Bible is better understood as an ongoing conversation. The writers come from different perspectives as they tackle complex issues and sometimes arrive at different conclusions. There is evidence of revision and editing as later writers or editors refined the texts to reflect new perspectives, perhaps in the light of new circumstances and experiences. Sometimes older writings were reinterpreted and applied in new ways to new situations. In this way, we can read the Bible as a dynamic collection of writings which preserves the development of ideas about issues such as divine justice.

Returning to the book of Kings, I can understand how those in exile who interpreted Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 to mean that their defeat during the reign of Jehoiachin was the consequence of sins committed four generations earlier, might revise and edit the record of the kings to reflect this new understanding. We don’t know whether these records existed solely in the form of the Annals of the Kings of Israel and Judah, or whether these Annals had already been used as sources for an early edition of the book of Kings. Either way, the book of Kings may have been written in the exile, or edited to include additional material which highlighted the sins of Manasseh in particular and of the kings in general. This would explain the repetitive use of the phrase “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin” which is used almost like a rubber stamp added to the end of each king’s reign. It also explains why this formulaic conclusion is often at odds with the positive material which preceded it.

Over time, this notion may have been debated and challenged, and by the time the book of Chronicles was written after the return from the exile it needed to be modified. This is reflected in the different emphasis of the Chronicler. Other exilic or post-exilic books appear to deal with the same concerns about divine justice. Although it is difficult to date biblical texts a good case can be made for also dating Job to the time of the exile or later. A major concern of Job is why good people suffer for no apparent reason and may have been prompted by a discussion about why innocent people in Israel and Judah went into captivity. Job certainly contains some of the language of exile. If Job was indeed responding to issues arising from the exile, it demonstrates how other biblical writers were also wrestling with the questions of  divine justice in the suffering of the covenant people. It also demonstrates how the Bible preserves more than one point of view in the conversation.

To be continued …

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[1] Chronicles ends with the decree of the Persian king Cyrus allowing the captives to return to their homeland, which dates the book to that time or soon after (2 Chronicles 36:22-23).

 

Biblical kings (5): the Deuteronomistic editor(s)

The Scribe, George Cattermole, 1800-1868, The Cooper Gallery, UK

In my previous post I speculated about the existence of an editor who added text to Jeremiah and the book of Kings at some point in time after a shorter edition of Jeremiah was made available to the translator who produced the Greek version we know as the Septuagint. Admittedly, this is speculation, but it does resolve several difficulties with the Hebrew text of Kings as we have it. Although scholars are divided about the details of the editing or redactional processes, including the identity of the editor, or editors, there is a general consensus that the book of Kings must have gone through an editing process of some kind. Some scholars see evidence in Kings of several stages of redaction. Marvin Sweeney summarises what he considers to be the various “editions” of Kings through its stages of redaction thus:

“There is evidence of earlier editions of 1-2 Kings and its role in the Former Prophets. These editions include a final exilic edition of the DtrH from the mid-sixth century B.C.E. that sought to address the problems posed by the Babylonian exile by pointing to the kings of Israel and Judah as a source for divine punishment; a Josianic edition of the DtrH from the late seventh century B.C.E. that sought to identify the sins of the northern kings of Israel as the source for divine punishment and the reigns of the righteous Josiah as the means to address that issue; a Hezekian edition of the DtrH from the late eight century B.C.E. that sought to explain the suffering of northern Israel based on its inability to produce competent and righteous rulers and to point to Hezekiah as an example of the leadership needed; a Jehu edition of Samuel-Kings from the early eighth century B.C.E. that saw the rise of the house of Jehu as the means to ensure the security of the nation and to restore the past glories of the age of Solomon; and finally a Solomonic edition of Samuel-Kings from the late tenth century B.C.E. that sought to present the house of David as the key to the well-being of the united people of Israel and Judah.” (Marvin A. Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 3-4.)

I don’t want to get bogged down discussing these various stages of redaction, but I mention it here to point out that the issues are complex. In attempting to keep it simple I hope I’m not over-simplifying the issues. At this point I’m interested in identifying why this material which condemned the kings of Israel may have been added to the book of Kings. One of the features of what can be called the “literature of catastrophe” is that texts written after a calamity of some kind often tend to seek reasons for the disaster, and sometimes to ask the question “where was God during that catastrophe?” There is considerable evidence that much of the biblical literature was written or edited during the exile or soon after the return from Babylon, and can therefore be placed in the period when reflection on the causes of the exile could be expected. Who or what was to blame? Was it something the people did, or didn’t do, was the leadership to blame, did the problem rest with the institution of monarchy, or was one king in particular the cause of the problem?

The Deuteronomistic literature places the blame for human suffering – and for the exile – on human sin. Whether it was the sin of the people as a whole, or of an individual king, someone must have sinned for God to have abandoned them to destruction or exile. While the leaders in Israel and Judah, including prophets, priests and kings, are criticised in some of the exilic or post-exilic biblical texts, one king of Judah in particular is singled out for blame: Manasseh. The book of Kings (2 Kings 21:10-15; 23:26-27; 24:3-4) largely blames Manasseh for the exile, as does Jeremiah 15:4: “I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what King Manasseh son of Hezekiah of Judah did in Jerusalem.”

However, the biblical texts are not consistent in blaming Manasseh for the exile. While Kings and Jeremiah on the one hand say the the exile came about “because of what Manasseh did” the book of Chronicles, on the other hand, blames the exile on the people and a cumulative process of ignoring the prophets (2 Chronicles 36:15-16). In fact, rather than blaming either Hezekiah or Manasseh for the exile, the Chronicler says of both kings וַיִּכָּנַע he humbled himself, thus avoiding the destruction of their kingdoms (2 Chronicles 32:26; 33:12-13). There is an interesting connection in 2 Chronicles 33:18 between Manasseh and “the book of the Annals of the kings of Israel” which I wrote about earlier: “Now the rest of the acts of Manasseh, his prayer to his God, and the words of the seers who spoke to him in the name of the LORD God of Israel, these are in the Annals of the Kings of Israel.” This positive account of Manasseh’s prayer is contrary to the current version of Kings where Manasseh is portrayed as evil and the cause of Israel’s exile, and the reference to the Annals is further evidence for an earlier version of the tradition that was more positive to the kings who were condemned in Kings.

This raises the question of why an earlier positive account of Manasseh’s reign (in the Annals and preserved to some extent in Chronicles) would be altered by the writer (or a later editor) of Kings to blame him for the exile. Again, we can only speculate, but there may be a clue in a biblical text which is quoted or alluded to several times in later texts. In Exodus 20:5; 34:7 and Deuteronomy 5:9 a description is given of God’s key attributes, including one that he “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” This idea of transgenerational punishment seems to be the basis for several discussions elsewhere in the Bible. Significantly, Judah went into exile four generations after Manasseh, counting a generation as the reign of a king, during the reign of Jehoiachin. Is it possible that Exodus 34:7 influenced someone in exile to count back four generations and therefore blame Manasseh for their predicament?

To be continued …