Daniel’s time periods and the Lunar versus Solar Calendar debate

I expect most modern Christians would be well aware that the eastern and western branches of Christianity celebrate Christmas (and Easter) on different days, and that two different calendars (the Gregorian and the Julian) have been in use since 1582. What they may not know is that in the second temple era – the time “between the testaments” and the first century of the common era – there was a similar debate about which calendar to use. The Bible itself doesn’t have much to say about the controversy, although we might get the occasional hint of it. Some of the books known as “pseudepigrapha” and some of the documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) have more to say about it, including 1 Enoch, Jubilees, the Temple Scroll, and 4QMMT (Miqsat Ma’ase ha-Torah, or “Some Rulings Pertaining to the Torah”).

The main reason for the debate was that some Jewish groups insisted that the festivals and holy days should be calculated using a lunar calendar (354 days) or a variation known as a lunisolar calendar which made up for the shortfall in days by adding leap-days or leap-months (“intercalary” months), while others used a solar calendar (364 days). We also get hints in the Bible that a 360-days calendar was in use at some time. I won’t go into the technical details here because … well, it’s technical! In a nutshell, it appears from some of the discussion in the DSS that the calendar controversy was so important to the group which settled in Qumran (most scholars argue they were Essenes) that it was a contributing factor which led them to actually physically move from Jerusalem to the desert near the Dead Sea. The Qumran community used a solar calendar of 364 days. The present-day Jewish calendar evolved over several centuries but is a lunisolar one and, as rabbinical Judaism is descended from the Pharisees there are good reasons for thinking that the Qumran community and the Pharisees used different calendars. The Greeks and the Hellenistic Jews also used a solar calendar but it was probably different to the one used by the Essenes and so was considered to be ‘pagan’ and therefore abhorrent.

In a couple recent posts I touched on the prophetic time periods in the book of Daniel. I suggested that they almost certainly referred to the length of the Maccabean revolt and the period between the desecration of the Temple by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes and its re-dedication by Judah Maccabee. Josephus states quite explicitly that this period was 3 years and 6 months (Wars of the Jews. 1.1.1). I did say it is a matter for the experts, and while acknowledging that I’m not a Daniel-expert (or even close) I’m going to put my toe in the water, especially as these dates quite possibly relate to calendars.

First, here is a list of the time periods mentioned in Daniel which approximate to 3 – 3 ½ years:

  1. A time, two times, and half a time (7:25; 12:7). Possibly equivalent to “a year, two years, and half a year” i.e. 3 ½ years
  2. 2300 evenings and mornings (i.e. 1150 days, or about 38 months, or just over 3 years)
  3. 1290 days (12:11), approximately 3 ½ years (depending on which calendar is used and how many days are in the year)
  4. 1335 days (12:12), or 45 days longer than the 1290 days in the previous verse. This difference may simply be the length of time between Judah’s victory over the Seleucid’s and the re-dedication of the Temple a short time later.

Daniel also has a period of seventy weeks (literally “seventy sevens” in Hebrew), broken into smaller periods of 7 weeks/sevens, 62 weeks/sevens and half a week/seven (9:24-27). The length of these “sevens” is not specified. Hence, the full period could be seventy “weeks” or 70 X 7 years. That would make the final small-division “half a seven”, which could mean either 3 ½ days or 3 ½ years.

Second, the New Testament book of Revelation, which appears to draw much of its material from Daniel, has some similar periods:

  1. 1260 days, or 42 months (11:2-3; 12:6), which is approximately (or precisely) equivalent to 3 ½ years depending on which calendar is used and how many days are in the month and year.
  2. 42 months (11:2; 13:5), which is equivalent to 3 ½ years of 30-day months.
  3. Although it’s not 3 ½ years Revelation also has a period of 3 ½ days (11:9, 11). There may not be a connection, but equally it may not be coincidence.

It looks like the writer of Revelation is using a 360-days calendar, and this could explain why he has 1260 days when Daniel has 1290. If they are using different calendars 3 ½ years would be 1260 days using one calendar but 1290 (including a 30-day intercalary month) using another. It’s possible that the writer of Daniel stated time periods precisely in days because calendars and calculations of dates was a major issue at the time, although we can’t be certain this was the reason. In fact, there may be a reference in Daniel to a change in calendars during the Seleucid period:

He [Antiocus IV] shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the seasons and the law; and they shall be given into his power for a time, two times, and half a time.

Daniel 7:25

Some scholars argue that the phrase “he shall attempt to change the seasons” is a reference to the imposition of the Hellenistic lunisolar calendar on Judea, changing the times when religious festivals would be observed. (The word זִמְנִין can mean either seasons or times.) Some speculate that this could have been been one of the factors which triggered the Maccabean revolt. While the Qumran community and the priests at the Jerusalem Temple both used calendars of 364 days, the months, festivals and seasons were calculated using different methods. There very well may have been three or four calendars in use around this time: the solar calendar used by the Qumran group; a lunisolar calendar used by the Pharisees; a Hellenistic solar calendar which also had 364 days but replaced Jewish festivals with Greek ones; and possibly a solar calendar used in the Temple by Hellenistic priests (Sadducees) which blended the Greek and Jewish calendars and was not accepted by the Pharisees or the Qumran group.

Does this matter at all to how we understand Daniel? Perhaps not, although it is important to know the background to the conflicts between the Seleucids and the Maccabees which are the focus of much of Daniel. The calendar was one of these issues, and there is a hint in Daniel 7:25 that it was a concern to the writer. Daniel’s numbers may be symbolic, although the fact that they line up pretty closely with the historical records in 1 & 2 Maccabees and in Josephus makes me think that they refer literally, rather than symbolically, to the duration of the Maccabean revolt. But the writer of Daniel may also have been consciously using a kind of ‘code’ in his use of numbers to let his readers know exactly where he stood on the calendar issue. It is similar to the way small details can reveal a lot about a person or a group. For example, in some Christian denominations a visitor to a church might be able to detect from which edition of the denominational Prayer Book or Hymn Book is being used where that congregation stands on a whole host of issues. Simply from the congregation’s choice about which edition of the Prayer Book to use, a visitor might be able to determine where they stand, for example, on the ordination of women. An outsider probably wouldn’t pick anything up from such a small detail, but an insider would read it as a code which reveals more information. Perhaps we have a similar ‘code’ in Daniel’s references to the days in a year, or in 3 ½ years.

Lifting the lid on Israel’s ancient toilets

I posted here some time ago about toilet humour in the Bible, so it was interesting to read this article today about archaeological excavations of ancient toilets in Israel. Of course, it’s not shocking that they had toilets; it just may be somewhat surprising how similar they were to modern ones (or how different. I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable sitting in a public facility with 20 other people!)


An Iron Age toilet stone uncovered in the City of David in Jerusalem looks remarkably similar to modern-day loos. Photo by Eliyahu Yanai/City of David

When were Daniel and Esther written, and why? (2)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Altes Museum, Berlin

For traditionalists in Judea – those Jews who maintained a strict adherence to the laws attributed to Moses – the initial successes of the Maccabees would have provided hope that the dark days of Greek oppression would be over. They were not necessarily opposed to Greek influence per se, and in fact were attracted to many of the features of Greek culture and philosophy. The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek – known as the Septuagint – was made, for example, by Jews in Ptolemaic Egypt and was in regular use by the large Jewish community in Alexandria. Even the book of 2 Maccabees which records the history of the Maccabean revolt was written in Greek! However, under the authoritarian rule of Antiochus IV the Seleucids interferred too much in Jewish religion, initially by appointing the High Priest – a role which had previously been hereditary – and making that position a political appointment. That ‘interference’ developed into outright suppression of many Jewish religious practices, a move which was uncharacteristic of Seleucid rule elsewhere. It seems that Antiochus wasn’t so much opposed to Judaism as he was to those practices which were most closely associated with a traditionalist group whose politics posed immense problems for him. The conflict was not between Antiochus and Judaism, but rather was between differing groups of Jews, and Antiochus pragmatically sided with the group whose politics were most closely aligned with his own.

It was also not as simple a matter of two different groups (e.g. ‘traditionalists’ versus ‘Hellenists’) disagreeing with each other. There were several groups involved and Judaism was spintering into multiple factions. Among them were the Essenes who rejected the Seleucid-appointed High Priest as illegitimate, as well as the Hasmonean High Priests who followed. Their strict rules about purity, and their opposition to the desecration of the Temple by illegitimate priests, led them to withdraw from society in general and live in isolated communities. It is thought by many scholars that the community who preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves near Qumran were members of this group. Purity was an important issue for another group, the Pharisees (whose name פרושים Perushim probably derives from the verb פרש paras, to precisely declare, to split and divide, and came to mean “the separated ones”), although they didn’t go to the same extreme as the Essenes and withdraw from society. They were mainly scribes and sages – “rabbis” – regarded as experts in the laws, traditions and Scriptures, rather than being a priestly group (although some of them were priests). They were popular with the common people although their interpretation of purity laws meant they often refused to eat with them. Their popularity was probably due to the fact that the other main group – the Sadducees – were mainly wealthy aristocrats and corrupt priests. Their name probably derives from צְדוּקִים‎ “Zadokites” – a caste of priests who controlled the Temple and the High Priesthood. Sadducees were the most Hellenistic of all the groups and worked closely with the Seleucids to maintain their control. We don’t know precisely when these groups originated, or why, but we do know that modern Rabbinical Judaism has descended from the Pharisees as the other groups did not survive the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and we owe the preservation of the Hebrew Bible to them.

The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1635, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes

It looks like 1 Maccabees was written by a Pharisee, or at least by someone with Pharisaic sympathies. It’s likely that the revolt by Judah Maccabee and his brothers against the Seleucids would have been closely aligned with Pharisaic ideals. While we might initially identify the Maccabees as ‘traditionalists’ and the Sadducees as ‘Hellenists’ the situation became more complicated with time. “Maccabee” wasn’t a family name – it was more of a nickname derived from Yehudah HaMakabi – “Judah the Hammer.” The family name, according to Josephus, was derived from the Hellenised name Asmoneus (or Asamoneus – several Hebrew originals have been proposed), and so the descendants of the Maccabees became known as the Hasmonean dynasty. Without going into too much detail, the Hasmoneans made themselves Kings and, beginning with John Hyrcanus, also ruled as High Priests, thus combining the offices for the first time. They weren’t opposed to Greek culture: in fact, many of them took Greek names. The Pharisees, however, opposed the Hasmonean wars of expansion (for example, they conquered Idumea [aka Edom] and forced the Idumeans to convert to Judaism, something opposed by the Pharisees’ interpretation of Torah), they opposed the Hasmoneans taking the title “King” when they didn’t descend from David, and they opposed them taking the title of “High Priest.” The Hasmoneans consequently began to side more with the Sadducess than with the Pharisees. Little would the Hasmoneans know that the forced conversion of Idumeans would ultimately result in an Idumean who also had Maccabean ancestry – Herod “the Great” – becoming King of Judea and ending the Hasmonean dynasty. All this would have been a huge disappointment to the Pharisees and other traditionalists who had such high hopes for the Maccabean revolt.

So what does any of this have to do with the books of Daniel and Esther? I mentioned earlier that there is good evidence for Daniel being written between 167 and 164 BCE during the Maccabean revolt. The book ends with an expectation that the writer, together with “the wise” and “those who lead many to righteousness” – probably the writer’s own group – “shall rise for your reward at the end of the days” (Daniel 12:13). At the end of what days? The previous verse says “Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days.” That’s a period of about three and a half years, about the same length of time as the Maccabean revolt. Daniel mentions a few other time periods around the same length and making sense of the precise beginning and end of each one is a job for the experts! The important thing, I think, is that they are all about the same length as the revolt and no doubt refer to stages of it. What does the writer mean by “rising” at the end of these days? A general assumption is that the writer is referring to resurrection at the end of time, but the only time that is mentioned is the end of the 1335 days “at the end of the days” (i.e these 1335). Did the writer expect a resurrection of martyrs – those of his group who died under Seleucid oppression? The words “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (12:2) certainly sounds like a physical resurrection of the dead. Or did he expect that they would “rise” to positions of power, prominence or influence? “Rising” certainly can have this meaning in the Hebrew Bible, such as in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the coming to life of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). What Ezekiel was describing was the national resurrection of a people which had “died” in exile. It was the nation which was being revived, not individuals who had died. If the writer of Daniel is referring to a physical revival of dead bodies, it’s uncertain what he means by “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (12:3). Shining like a star after resurrection suggests something different to a dead body coming to life again – if it’s a physical resurrection then it’s a different kind of body to the one which died. Whatever the writer meant it seems fairly clear that he expected it to happen soon. So what was his main message to his readers/listeners in the midst of a rebellion?

The main purpose of the visions of Daniel 7-12 seems to be to re-assure the writer’s audience that there is a divine plan, history is not “random” but is controlled by God. They should take comfort in the knowledge that whatever they are going through is progressing towards an end when they – the wise who lead others to righteousness – will be vindicated and rewarded. But they should also know that their struggles will end very soon. These visions are prefaced by a series of stories – “court tales” – which describe how Jews in exile maintained their identity in a foreign land. Yes, they assimilated to a certain extent, benefitting from a Babylonian education, taking Babylonian names, and rising to positions of prominence in the empire. These stories of Jews who assimilated while maintaining their Jewish religion and identity no doubt served as lessons to Jews living in Judea under Greek Seleucid control that they could benefit from Greek culture and adopt Greek ways and names, but must be careful not to lose what was truly most important – their religion and Jewish identity.

The story of Esther is similar in many ways. Set in a foreign land, in the court of the King of Persia, the main Jewish characters also take Persian names and rise to positions of prominence, even inter-marrying (in Esther’s case) with a Persian, something which was contrary to the teachings of Torah. The risks were enormous, and the Jewish people were almost annihilated. Perhaps one of the main lessons from the story was that Jews need to use their wits in order to survive, but there is also a warning that there is a risk that assimilation will result in becoming too much like the dominant culture. I made the point in an earlier post that there is an irony in Mordecai ending up becoming like Haman and orchestrating the massacre of tens of thousands of people. It may have been intended as a warning to Jews in Judea 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.

The Joseph story also deals with someone living in a foreign land, taking an Egyptian name, and rising to prominence in the most powerful nation in the world. All three stories – Joseph, Daniel and Esther – have these things in common. Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt ultimately led to his family’s descendants being made slaves in Egypt. Daniel’s visions detail the desecration of the Temple and the end of Jewish religious observances at the hands of a power with whom they had become “friendly.” Jews survive the threatened genocide in the book of Esther, but in the process become too much like the Persians. The relevance of all these stories to Jews in the Maccabean period – at least from the perspective of the Pharisees and other traditionalists – would primarily have been as a caution against becoming too Hellenised, becoming too much like their overlords, and risking losing all that was most important.

When were Daniel and Esther written, and why? (1)

Antonio Ciseri, Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees (1863). The painting depicts an unnamed woman whose seven sons were tortured and killed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes for refusing to eat pork (according to 2 Maccabees 7, although according to the Talmud [Tractate Gittin 57b] it was for refusing to worship an idol).

Although they are not mentioned in either the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’) or the New Testament, most Bible-readers are probably familiar with the term “Maccabees” even if they don’t know exactly who they were. That may be because the Apocrypha includes the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees, dealing with historical events which occured “between the Testaments,” that is, between the recorded histories in the Old and New Testaments, and a lot of Bible-readers have at least heard about these books even if they aren’t actually in their Bibles. They may, however, be less familiar with “Hasmoneans.” New Testament readers would definitely be familiar with the “Pharisees” and the “Sadducees,” again even if they don’t know much about them. What they may not realise is that these two religious groups which are mentioned frequently in the New Testament developed in this period “between the Testaments” and are connected to the Maccabees or Hasmoneans. While the books of Maccabees don’t directly name the Pharisees and Sadducees, later historians (such as the Jewish historian Josephus who wrote around the same time as when the New Testament was being written) and the Talmud, provide more information about their origins. Christianity and rabbinical Judaism both have their historical roots in this period and are related to these groups, so it would be good to know more about what was happening.

What many Bible-readers may not realise is that some of the books of the Hebrew Bible were also almost certainly written in this period. That’s another good reason to know more about it. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am convinced that the books of Daniel and Esther were both written (or re-written) during this period, as well as some of the books in the Apocrypha such as Judith. In this post I will look at one of the arguments for why Daniel was written during this time, and what was going on in the world of the writer.

While Daniel is set during the Babylonian exile (after Nebuchadnezzar took many Jews captive and transported them to Babylon) the book was actually written considerably later, and not by Daniel (it is a book about Daniel, not by him). The writer may have included some earlier written material, or stories which circulated orally, but we can date the time of writing fairly precisely to within a couple years. We can do this because Daniel 10-12 is a long and detailed description of the conflicts between two powers: the Seleucid Empire (which Daniel calls “the king of the north”) and the Ptolemaic dynasty (“the king of the south”). After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE his Macedonian Empire was divided between four of his generals with Seleucus I Nicator establishing a dynasty (the Seleucids) which would last for over two centuries ruling much of Alexander’s near-eastern territories. Another general, Ptolemy I Soter, became Pharaoh of Egypt and established a dynasty which lasted 275 years (the Ptolemies). The land of Judea lay between these two super-powers and was the scene of many conflicts as the division of territory was repeatedly contested by the Seleucids and Ptolemies. Daniel 10-12 describes these conflicts from the perspective of someone living in Judea. A major player in the visions of Daniel 7-12 and the conflicts between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies is the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes who invaded Egypt twice, in 169 BCE and again in 168 BCE, marching his army through Judea en route. During this second incursion Antiochus plundered the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This assault on Jerusalem is mentioned in Daniel in the form of a prophecy, in the future tense:

Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate. 

Daniel 11:30

This prophecy refers to Antiochus’ prohibition of Jewish religious laws, including the regular sacrifices in the Temple (beginning in 175 BCE), and his setting up a Greek altar in the Temple in 167 BCE (according to 2 Maccabees 6:1-12, he ordered the worship of Zeus as the supreme god). These events were also mentioned in an earlier vision in Daniel, where Daniel asked how long this desecration would last:

Then I heard a holy one speaking, and another holy one said to the one that spoke, “For how long is this vision concerning the regular burnt offering, the transgression that makes desolate, and the giving over of the sanctuary and host to be trampled?” 14 And he answered him, “For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state.”

Daniel 8:13-14

The 2300 “evenings and mornings” refers to the evening and morning sacrifices which had been abolished by Antiochus. In other words, 2300 sacrifices would normally have occured during 1150 days, or just over three years. In response to this desecration a resistance movement began, led by a Jewish priest Yehudah HaMakabi [יהודה המכבי] (or Judah Maccabee, or Judas Maccabeus) and his four brothers. The biblical books which provide details of this resistance are therefore known as Maccabees. The Maccabean revolt began in 167 BCE and after a period of about three years of conflict (2300 “evenings and mornings”) they drove the Seleucids from Jerusalem, purified the defiled Temple, and restored services in 164 BCE. This re-consecration of the Temple is commemorated in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (referred to in the New Testament [John 10:22-23] as the Festival of Dedication).

The prophetic description of these events in Daniel 8-11 is historically accurate until we come to the prophecy of a final conflict between Antiochus and the Ptolemies and a prediction of Antiochus’ death in Judea (11:40-45), which ends with the words “Yet he shall come to his end, with no one to help him.” In actual fact, Antiochus died in Persia or Babylon, in 164 BCE. As the prophetic details in Daniel of the Seleucid-Ptolemaic conflicts are accurate up to 167 BCE or thereabouts, but do not accurately predict Antiochus’ death in 164 BCE, the scholarly consensus is that the book must have been written in the intervening years, that is, between 167 and 164 BCE during the Maccabean revolt. A reasonable conclusion would be that the book is responding to the situation in Judea leading up to and during the early years of the revolt.

There were two main issues for the writer of Daniel. The first was that Antiochus IV was hostile to the Jewish people and to their religious laws and traditions and desecrated the Temple. The second issue was that the Jewish people themselves were deeply divided between those who favoured Greek/Hellenistic culture and practices, and ‘traditionalists’ who resisted this influence. Before Antiochus IV the Seleucid rulers had taken a tolerant attitude to Judaism, had respected Jewish culture and protected Jewish institutions. For many Jews living in Judea there were distinct benefits in cooperating with their Seleucid rulers and adopting Greek practices, and the relationship worked well until Antiochus IV. For others – the traditionalists – there was a fear that adopting Greek culture would diminish their Jewish identity and threaten their religion. The writer of Daniel was almost certainly on the side of traditionalists and terms such as “those who are wise” and “those who lead many to righteousness” (12:3) probably refer to this group. The book ends with an assurance that at “the time of the end many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand” (12:9-10). The writer was no doubt thinking that in just a short time the struggles would be over and the Maccabees would restore traditional Judaism and eradicate “wicked” Hellenism.

To be continued …

What Daniel, Esther, Judith and Joseph have in common

Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1614 – 1616, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Even a cursory reading of the biblical books of Daniel, Esther and Judith will tell you that they are ripping yarns. (Judith isn’t found in all Bibles – it is part of what is called Apocrypha, or Deutero-Canonical books. See my post here. The Apocrypha also includes other stories of a similar style, including Tobit and Susannah – an addition to the book of Daniel – and I may deal with them at another time.)

In fact, two of these books – Esther and Judith – stand out as biblical novellas. While story-telling is a common feature of many biblical books (who doesn’t love a good story?), these short novels are complete in themselves and aren’t part of a wider historical narrative like many other short stories. Daniel is different. The first half (chapters 1-6) is a collection of short stories set in the Babylonian court (e.g. Daniel in the lions’ den, Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace, Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, Belshazzar and the writing on the wall, etc). The second half of Daniel (chapters 7-12) is written in a totally different style – what we call “apocalyptic” – and consists of a series of visions which include strange multi-headed animals and angelic beings. It is so different to the first half it looks like the collection of stories may have existed independently at some time and were then incorporated into the larger work when the “apocalyptic” section was written.

The stories of Esther, Judith and Susannah (an addition to Daniel) are obviously all about women or have a woman as their central character, which is refreshingly different to much of the male-centric narrative in the rest of the Bible. But that’s not all these books have in common. There are good scholarly reasons for thinking that all these books may have been written around the same time. Although Daniel is set in the Babylonian period during the exile there is good internal evidence within the book itself that it was written between 167 BCE and 164 BCE, in what we call the Hasmonean (or Maccabean) period. Similarly, while Esther is set in the court of the king of Persia, it was probably written in the Hellenistic period – after Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian empire – or even later in the time of the Maccabees when the Jews living in Judea threw off the shackles of their Greek overlords. It’s possible it was written around the same time as Daniel. Likewise, while Judith is set in Judah during the time of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire (although it is called the Assyrian empire in the book itself), it was almost certainly written late in the Hasmonean period, after both Daniel and Esther were written. One interesting thing about this is that while all three books were set in Babylonian or Persian contexts, the stories were almost certainly written in Judea during the Hasmonean or “Second Temple” period. With that in mind we can see hints in all the stories that the writers were responding to events and religious and political circumstances of their own time. The fact that they set their stories in earlier times is typical of satire. Rather than directly name or identify the ‘target’ of their stories – possibly for fear of repercussions from influential or powerful leaders – the writers hid their direct targets behind the facades of foreign rulers in more ancient times. This has always been a feature of satire, and in this respect biblical satire is no different.

Perhaps surprisingly, the books of Daniel and Esther also have a great deal in common with the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Like Joseph, who rose to a position of prominence in Egypt as second in command after Pharaoh, Daniel rises to a similar position in Babylon, and Mordecai (in the book of Esther) rises to the same position in the Persian empire. All three stories have ironic twists as these men rise from positions of obscurity or imprisonment, to become second in command in the nation or empire. But the stories have much more in common than similarities in plot. They even share specific phraseology or terminology. For example, the Joseph story contains a scene where Joseph predicts an Egyptian courtier will be “hanged on a tree” (Genesis 40:19, 22). Apart from a law in Deuteronomy 21:22-23  which prohibits hanging an executed person on a treee overnight [1] the only other place this expression (תָּלָה + עַל־עֵץ) occurs in the Hebrew Bible is in the book of Esther where it is used to refer to bodies being impaled on a stake following their execution. Is it just a coincidence that Joseph and Esther are the only stories to share this phraseology? I think it’s interesting that both stories also share other terminology. For example, Joseph is described in Genesis 39:6 as “handsome and good-looking” (יְפֵה־תֹ֖אַר וִיפֵ֥ה מַרְאֶֽה) and Esther is described in similar terms (2:7) as “fair [same Hebrew expression translated as “handsome” in Genesis] and beautiful” (יְפַת־תֹּ֙אַר֙ וְטוֹבַ֣ת ). Both stories use the term סָרִיס “eunuchs” to describe officials. Both feature banquets as the locus for where identity is revealed. The Esther story says “the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace [חֶסֶד] and favour [חֵן] more than all the virgins” (Est. 2.17) and the Joseph story says “the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love [חֶסֶד same word tanslated as “grace” in Esther]; he gave him favour [חֵן] in the sight of the chief jailer” (Gen. 39.21).  Both stories refer to the king removing his signet ring [טַבַּעְתּ֗וֹ] and giving it to the person he was honouring (Joseph in one, Mordecai in the other) together with royal garments or insignia (Genesis 41:42; Esther 8:2, 15). Is it simply coincidence that these terms occur in both stories but rarely elsewhere in the Bible?

The similarities between these stories – Joseph and Esther – suggest that the writer of one was probably familiar with the other. We could list similarities between Joseph and Daniel as well. Perhaps the writers of Daniel and Esther were familiar with the Joseph story and ‘modelled’ their own works on the earlier one. The Joseph story takes up a considerable part of Genesis (chapters 37-50). If we compare its length to the treatment given to other characters in Genesis (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc) it appears that a disproportionate emphasis is given to Joseph, possibly making him the main character of the book. Why? Some scholars suggest that the Joseph story may originally have stood alone as an independent work – a novella like Esther or Judith – and simply attached to the end of Genesis at some point in its editing history. It would be logical to do so as that is where the story fits historically or chronologically. But this raises the possibility that the Joseph story may actually have been written closer to the time when Daniel and Esther were written, and for similar reasons. Some scholars suggest that the purpose of all three works – Joseph, Daniel and Esther – was to guide Jews in exile as to how to live in their new situation in foreign lands, and deal with questions such as whether or not they should assimilate at the risk of losing their identity.

That’s possible of course, although I’ve already mentioned that there is good evidence for placing Daniel and Esther later, when many Jews (although not all) had returned from exile. Perhaps these stories, originally crafted for Jews in the diaspora in foreign lands, were reworked in the Hasmonean period and given new relevance. Not only are these stories in a similar style, one which was possibly becoming popular around this time, the new politico-historic situation created the need for such stories to be reworked as satires targeting influential/powerful people or groups. This isn’t unusual, and to this day old stories (such as plays by Shakespeare) are frequently adapted to new social or political situations.

In a future post I will explore further the world of the Hasmoneans and why some biblical literature was written to deal with it.


[1] “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

“Third Isaiah”? There’s only one Isaiah in my Bible, so why do some scholars think there was more?

Prophet Isaiah, Jan Mostaert, c. 1520, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Amongst biblical scholars there is broad agreement that the Book of Isaiah was not written all at once, or by one person. There is good internal evidence that the writing of the book spanned more than a generation (I’ve discussed some of the evidence here). For example, the prophet Isaiah is mentioned several times in the first 39 chapters, but never thereafter, and the events described in these chapters – such as the Assyrian seige of Jerusalem – are set more than a century before the events in the remainder of the book.

This is not a new idea. Since German Protestant theologian Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827) proposed it Christian scholars have argued that Isaiah 40-66 was written during the Babylonian exile . However, long before Eichhorn, the 11th century Jewish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Samuel haKohen ascribed Isaiah 40-66 to a Second Temple period prophet, i.e. after the return from exile. The great majority of biblical scholars now accept that “Isaiah” is made up of at least two different books, and probably three. Since Eichhorn several scholars have noted that there seems to be a clear break between the end of chapter 55 and the beginning of 56, that the last eleven chapters of Isaiah (56-66) have a different “style” and structure to the earlier chapters, and they refer to the Temple and sacrifices in such a way that it sounds like the Temple had been rebuilt and sacrifices were being carried out again. This would date these chapters to the period after the return from exile in Babylon and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. Some scholars think these chapters were written by the same person who wrote “Second Isaiah” (chapters 40-55) upon his return from Babylon to the Land, while others argue they were written by someone else – a “Third Isaiah” (or Trito-Isaiah).

This “Third Isaiah” – chapters 55 to 66 – looks like it could be a collection of speeches by one or more prophets, raising the possibility that there was no single author, or that an “editor” put it together at some later date. This could explain why at some points the speaker refers to the Temple as though it has been rebuilt (e.g. 56:7), while at other times he speaks as though the rebuilding is still a work in progress (e.g. 61:4), or even still in ruins (e.g. 64:10-11). There is little doubt that the scholarly jury is still out on whether there were two or three Isaiahs (few would argue these days that there was only one writer for the whole of Isaiah 1-66), and there is no consensus on when each of the major sections of the book were written. I am personally inclined to the view that Isaiah comprises three separate works – First, Second and Third Isaiahs – although I readily confess that I am not an Isaiah expert and my opinion is open to change if and when I do more work on Isaiah.

[By the way, if you’re wondering if prophet Isaiah in the painting is writing in ‘proper’ Hebrew or squiggles, it looks to me like he’s writing in Latin!]

Rembrandt’s Hebrew

Rembrandt, Belshazzar’s Feast, c.1635-1638, National Gallery, London

In a previous post Stephanie noted that beginning with the Renaissance artists began to include accurate Hebrew texts in some of their works portraying biblical characters, with prophets, for example, holding a parchment displaying a text from their biblical writings (Raphael’s Isaiah being an example of this). Before this artists often used illegible scrawl instead of accurate Hebrew text (and I noted an example of this in de Ribera’s Saint Peter and Saint Paul).

Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast portrays a scene from the book of Daniel when Belshazzar mysteriously watched a finger write some text on a wall during a large gathering (Daniel 5). When his experts couldn’t interpret the writing Belshazzar’s mother suggested calling for the Jewish exile Daniel, who was able to interpret it. This part of Daniel is actually written in Aramaic, not Hebrew, although the two languages share the share script. The mysterious writing said מנא מנא תקל ופרסין [MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN]. Remembering that Hebrew and Aramaic are written from right to left, if you look closely at Rembrandt’s painting this is not what it says. I recently put this to a class of university Hebrew students who struggled to make ense of it. Did Rembrandt get it wrong, or did he just use a weird combination of Hebrew/Aramaic letters hoping his audience wouldn’t notice?

Rembrandt actually lived in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and obtained the Hebrew/Aramaic text for his painting from his friend Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, so it should be right. In fact, embedded in Rembrandt’s work is an explanation found in the Talmud (Talmud Bavli, tractate Sanhedrin 22a) for why Belshazzar’s experts couldn’t interpret the writing. Rather than simply being written right-to-left, the Talmud suggests that the letters were also written in columns, top-to-bottom (like some Asian scripts), and that is exactly how Rembrandt has written it! So the first column (on the right), reading top to bottom, says מנא (mene), repeated in the second column, then תקל (tekel) and finally ופרסין (uparsin) split over two columns. To someone who is able to read Hebrew/Aramaic it now all suddenly begins to make sense, until they come to the final letter still being etched by the mysterious divine finger. In Rembrandt’s work that letter is zayin ז while the biblical text actually has a final nun ן. There are a few letters which beginners to Hebrew often confuse because they look similar, especially ז, ו and ן as well as י (there is a similar confusion with ד and ר, and ה and ח) and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just beginners and students who are confused; we can actually see evidence of scribal errors in the most ancient biblical manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, with scribes confusing these letters while making their copies. So Rembrandt can be forgiven for making a common mistake with his final letter, although the rest actually makes perfect sense once we have the key to read it in columns rather than simply right-to-left.

Esther before Ahasuerus

Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuerus, c. 1628–1635. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection.

In my recent series on irony and satire in the book of Esther I pointed out that the Persian king Ahasuerus (pronounced Ahashverosh in Hebrew) is ridiculed in the story while Esther and her cousin Mordecai manage to persuade (manipulate?) him in order to save the Jews in the Persian empire from a planned genocide.

In an unrelated post Stephanie wrote about the Italian female artist Artemisia Gentileschi and how many of her paintings portray strong women taking control and dominating a man. Stephanie’s post made me think about a painting by Gentileschi of Esther Before Ahasuerus. One version of Esther falling before Ahasuerus is in the Hebrew Bible which says Esther “fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him to avert the evil design of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews” (8:3). However, in another scene which appears in an addition to the story in the Greek versions of Esther, the writer describes Esther fainting before Ahasuerus:

Lifting his face, flushed with splendour, he [Ahasuerus] looked at her in fierce anger. The queen [Esther] faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed on the head of the maid who went in front of her.  8 Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. He comforted her with soothing words …

Esther 15:7

The scene in Gentileschi’s painting is from this addition to Esther, and she would have been familiar with it because the additional material in Esther is part of the Deutero-canonical books in the Catholic Bible (also called the Apocrypha).

If you take a careful look at Gentileschi’s painting you will see two rather striking things. First, in Esther’s fainting pose her neck is exposed as her head falls back, and she is portrayed with a rather muscular, almost masculine, neck. In fact, I think I detect an Adam’s apple! Second, by contrast with this ‘masculine’ Esther, Ahasuerus is portrayed as a ‘dandy’. It seems to me that Gentileschi knew the story well and had picked up that Ahasuerus is exposed as weak and easily manipulated, while Esther manipulates and therefore dominates him. The artist reveals in a masterful way that she understood what was really going on in the story.

Thanks again to Stephanie, the family art historian, for helping me to see more in Renaissance art than simply pretty pictures!

Hebrew, Greek or nonsense?

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, circa 1616, by Jusepe de Ribera, on display in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, France.

Two recent posts featured paintings which included Hebrew texts from the book of Isaiah. In an earlier post on Raphael, Stephanie commented that “before the birth of the Renaissance, many works that featured biblical themes had illegible scrawl substituted for Hebrew.” The above painting by Jusepe de Ribera is a good example of this. A few letters on the parchment and on the spine of the book under the arm of Saint Paul (the person on the right) look like Hebrew script, a few look like Greek, and the rest is just “illegible scrawl”. By this time other artists were beginning to include authentic Hebrew script in their religious works. Ribera, however, may have been constrained by social mores and the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Catholic church, or he may not have had the same social contacts as other artists to know how to write the correct script.

Ribera’s style was influenced by Caravaggio, and consequently paid a great deal of attention to detail, visible even in the naturalism of Saint Paul’s filthy finger nails. The painting includes some interesting details, such as the key on the table (according to Matthew 16:19, Jesus gave Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”) The painting depicts Peter and Paul in a belligerent manner, strangely with the younger Paul holding a sword. Two possible reasons why Ribera depicted Paul holding a sword come to mind. First, this could be an allusion to Paul’s own reference to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17), or second, to his early life when he persecuted the church (Acts 8:3; 9:1).

On another interesting note, Ribera apparently reused another canvas to paint over for this work as an upside-down head of a child from the earlier work can still be seen below the parchment in Saint Peter’s hand.

Thanks to Stephanie for her art history expertise in writing this post!

The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (4)

Prophet Isaiah, by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740). The Hebrew text is from Isaiah 6:6 “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.”

In my previous posts I argued that the song of the “suffering servant” was a message of hope for the exiles in Babylon. The writer was either living among the captives or was one of the people who was left in the Land, and wrote to encourage the captives to cross the desert and return to their homeland where a restored and revitalised nation of Israel would rise to prominence on the world stage. He personified the exiles as a suffering servant of God whose fortunes were about to change and who would be “exalted.” To my mind this is the most natural reading of the poem in its context. It isn’t unusual to personify the nation as a servant, and the writer actually does this several times throughout chapters 40-56. However, by referring to this servant in the singular the writer creates some ambiguity: is he referring to the nation, or to some individual? If it is an individual, then who? Could he be speaking about himself, or someone else? (This is precisely the question asked by the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:34.)

Several scholars have come to the conclusion that Second Isaiah’s language in this poem reflects the pain of an individual so intensely that the writer may well be speaking of himself, although there is not even a hint in the book as to who the writer might be. A few scholars* have argued that the suffering servant was King Jehoiachin (also known as Jeconiah) who was taken into captivity by the Babylonians. I personally think this proposition has a lot of merit. Jehoiachin was on the throne for only 3 months and 10 days when he was taken into exile at the age of 18 and made a prisoner in Babylon. The court officials who were taken into exile with him would have included many of the priests and scribes who were responsible for keeping the kingdom’s records and preserving and maintaining both civil and religious documents and archives. Some excellent scholarship has been done on the work undertaken by these scribes in captivity, and there is now practically a consensus amongst biblical scholars that much of the Hebrew Bible as we know it was composed, copied, edited and redacted in the hands of these scribes in Babylon, who were probably confined together with Jehoiachin. For example, the book of Kings concludes with a description of Jehoiachin’s time in Babylon, enabling us to date fairly precisely when the final lines of the book were written.

In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, King Evil-merodach of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, released King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes. Every day of his life he dined regularly in the king’s presence. For his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, a portion every day, as long as he lived.

2 Kings 25:27-30

As these are the concluding lines of Kings we can be confident that the book was written, or completed, in the 37th year of the exile, or soon after, around 562BCE (For more details on the dating and archaeological confirmation, read my post here. Chronicles, on the other hand, concludes with the return from exile, so it was clearly written later.) It describes Jehoiachin’s elevation from prison to a place of honour in the royal court of Babylon, and for the other captives this would have been an encouraging sign that their fortunes as a nation may have been about to change. Seeing the king elevated from prison to honour would have provided hope, and the scribes who were responsible for preserving the teachings of the prophet Isaiah may have taken the opportunity to write the song of the servant who was “exalted and lifted up” against this background and as a fitting sequel to Isaiah’s message. Jehoiachin’s exaltation after so long in prison would have seemed miraculous, or, in the words of Isaiah 53:1, “Who would have believed it?”

Kings of Judah, like all kings and rulers, were held to be responsible for both the fortunes and misfortunes of the nation. If they ruled well the nation prospered; if they made poor decisions the nation suffered. Their personal successes or failures were mirrored in the nation as prosperity or disaster. As the leader of the nation they represented it, and personified it. Coming to the throne at the age of 18 and ruling for such a short time Jehoiachin had little time to exercise any influence and could be described as “a young plant” and “a root out of dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2). As a captive he was “taken away” and as a prisoner in a foreign land “he was cut off from the land of the living” while no one could have imagined a future for him (v.8). As the representative of the people and embodiment of the nation it could be said that his sufferings were on behalf of his people and for their sins. Having reigned for only 3 months he could hardly have done much to warrant this treatment on account of his own actions, and so it is described as “a perversion of justice” (v.8). It could be said that he therefore suffered for the sins of the people, rather than his own actions: “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (v.5). Yet, according to the writer of this poem, because he suffered in silence and accepted his lot with patience God would “allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong” (v.12). The poem begins and ends with the servant being exalted, seated with the great.

Whether the servant song is about Israel/Judah in exile, or about their king who represented the nation, its purpose would have been to encourage the exiles and give them hope. Jehoiachin’s exaltation would undoubtedly have done that and so I personally think there is a convincing case that the occasion probably provided the immediate impetus for writing the poem. The fact that later writers (such as some of the writers of the New Testament) saw resemblances to the sufferings of Jesus, means that the poem could be appropriated and re-applied to this new situation. But the application to Jesus was not the primary meaning. In the context of the exile, and for people who were languishing in a foreign land, a vision of a Messianic figure who was to come hundreds of years later would have provided little or no comfort. However, a change in the fortunes of their king, present with them in exile, would have been immensely encouraging.


* For example, see Michael Goulder, ‘”Behold My Servant Jehoiachin”.’ Vetus Testamentum 52, no. 2 (2002): 175-90.

By the way, I’ve used a painting of Isaiah above by Antonio Balestra, although, as I’ve explained previously, I agree with the majority of biblical scholars who argue that Isaiah 40-56 was not written by the prophet Isaiah but rather by someone living at the time of the exile more than a century later.

The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (3)


Jews Mourning in Babylonian Exile (based on Psalm 137), 1832, Eduard Bendemann. In the public domain.

As early as the twelth century scholars have noticed that the emphasis and tone of Isaiah 40-55 is markedly different from the first 39 chapters. While the main concern of chapters 1-39 was the threat from the Neo-Assyrian empire, 40-55 is concerned with Jews living in exile in Babylon. By the time of the Babylonian exile the Neo-Assyrian empire had collapsed, defeated by the Babylonians who went on to conquer Judah and Jerusalem and take its king, the nobility and officials into exile. Scholarship now widely accepts that chapters 40-55 were written much later than 1-39, by a “Second Isaiah” who lived during the Babylonian exile. The main thrust of Second Isaiah is to provide comfort and hope for the Jews living in exile, and to encourage them with the message that the time is soon coming when they will leave Babylon, cross the desert, and return to Zion/Jerusalem. The sequel, and the third part of this “trilogy,” is in chapters 56-66 (“Third Isaiah”) which records the return from exile and commencement of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Second Isaiah declares its intentions to offer hope and comfort in the face of adversity from the very first verses:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins. (40:1-2).

In one lengthy section (43:1-48:22) the prophet compares the return from exile in Babylon to the exodus from Egypt, with the crossing of the Red Sea being re-enacted in the exiles’ crossing of the desert and a “way in the sea” becoming “a way in the wilderness”.

16 Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, 17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: [an allusion to the defeat of the Egyptians with their chariots in the Red Sea]

18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing … I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (43:19)

As God provided water for Israel when they were in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt, so God will again provide water in the desert which lies between Babylon and the land of Israel: “I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people” (43:20) and “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (44:3). The exiles should take comfort in the fact that what God has done in the past he will do again in the future:

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!”  They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split open the rock and the water gushed out” (48:20-21).

For the exiles in Babylon who had been forcibly removed from their homeland, this message would have given hope, together with prophecies that Jerusalem with its Temple and Judah would be rebuilt and inhabited again (e.g. 44:26-28). As Moses was chosen by God to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, so Cyrus is called God’s “shepherd” and a “Messiah” (מַשִׁיחַ =Messiah/anointed), the agent of God in freeing the Jews from Babylon (44:28-45:1). Like the fleeing slaves, the exiles would be set free: “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children” (49:25).

This message was followed by a series of visions of a restored Israel with Jerusalem rebuilt and glorified, elevated to be the most beautiful and important of all the world’s cities, reaching a crescendo with the return of the Lord to Zion (52:7-10). Immediately following this series of visions of a restored city and nation comes the fourth servant song, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Against the setting of an exiled and oppressed people who are not only restored to their ancient homeland but also elevated to be of prime importance among the nations, this song about a servant who first suffers and then is exalted makes perfect sense.

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—  so he shall startle many nations (52:13).

Having said restored Israel would prosper, this servant song says the suffering servant will prosper. As the nations would be astonished that Israel and Judah which had been destroyed and exiled by first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians could be restored to be even greater than they were at first, so they will be startled by the amazing recovery of the suffering servant. Despite the terrible things which happen to him, the servant will be vindicated and numbered with the great (53:11-12).

In the context of Second Isaiah – a message of comfort and hope to a nation in exile – and against this background of the nation’s prolonged sufferings, it becomes clear that the song of the suffering servant personifies the nation as an individual. It is followed by another song (54:1-17) where Jerusalem is personified as a childless woman (the book of Lamentations personifies Jerusalem in a similar way) who becomes the wife of the Lord and has many children. It is similar to the suffering-servant song in that it provides hope and promises restoration for the exiles. There are several similarities between these two songs. In the song of the childless woman God acknowledges that “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer” (54:7-8). In a similar way, in the servant song the writer says “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10). Both songs make similar claims that the sufferings of the servant and the childless woman were inflicted by God because of sins committed by the people, but that God will also bring them to victory. The themes are similar, and both songs would have been relevant and encouraging to people in exile wondering if they would ever see their homeland again. The message of Second Isaiah was that their tribulation would be temporary and would lead to greater prosperity than previously experienced.

Continue reading … part 4

The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (2)


The Prophet Isaiah, by Raphael, 1512. From a fresco located in Basilica di Sant’Agostino, Rome. In the public domain. The prophet is holding the Hebrew text of Isaiah 26:2-3a “Open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in. Those of steadfast mind …”

To understand any text in the Bible we have to see it in its historical and literary context. In the case of Isaiah 53, this not only means reading the whole of the book of Isaiah – all 66 chapters – to see how this chapter “fits” with the overall themes and messages, it also means placing it in its historical and social context. What was happening at the time when these words were written? How would the initial audience have understood them, and how was the message relevant to them?

Biblical scholars have long recognised that the book of Isaiah has three major parts which differ from each other in terms of content and style as well as in their messages. The differences are so significant that most scholars agree that they were written by three different writers, at different times. Consequently, scholars often refer to the three divisions as “First Isaiah” (or Proto-Isaiah, chapters 1-39), “Second Isaiah” (or Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55), and “Third Isaiah” (or Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66). If you read the book through as a whole you will notice that there are logical breaks between the three divisions, and the style of writing changes significantly. It is argued that only chapters 1-39 were written by the prophet Isaiah (or by one of his followers) in the eighth century BCE, that chapters 40-55 were written in the sixth century during the exile which began in 586BCE by an unnamed writer, and that chapters 56-66 were written after the return from exile in 515BCE when the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple was underway. Third Isaiah was possibly compiled as an anthology consisting of twelve “oracles” which may have originally been written (or spoken) by multiple prophets. There is a considerable amount of evidence within the book that it was not all written at the same time. For example, the name “Isaiah” occurs several times in chapters 1-39 but never after, and specific details in chapters 40-66 suggest that the writers had detailed knowledge and experience of the exile. For example, Second Isaiah refers to the Persian king Cyrus twice by name and says of him “I have aroused Cyrus … and he shall build my city and set my exiles free” (45:13). Cyrus lived 600-530BCE and Isaiah’s ministry was between 740 and 698BCE, more than a century before Cyrus was born, but he would have been well known to someone living at the end of the exile. Interestingly, Isaiah 45:1 calls Cyrus God’s מַשִׁיחַ anointed, using the word from which we get the English “Messiah”. The Greek translates it is as Χριστός Christos, from which we get the word “Christ”. This is the only place in Isaiah where the word מַשִׁיחַ / Messiah is used, and it describes a Persian king, probably because he was chosen by God as a saviour figure to restore the vanguished kingdom of Israel.

The chapter we are looking at – Isaiah 53 – is in Second Isaiah where it is one of four poems, or songs, which describe an unnamed “servant of the Lord.” In two of the songs it appears that the writer may be speaking about himself:

  1. The second song begins by saying “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me” and goes on to say  “You are my servant,” which makes it seem that the writer is describing his own calling by God. However, there is some confusion because the verse continues “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (49:1-3). I’ll come back to this shortly. The identification of the writer as the servant is maintained because the writer goes on to say “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob* back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him …” (v5). If this servant is Israel how can Israel be called on to bring Jacob/Israel back to God?
  2. Similarly, in the third song the writer again describes his calling: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4) He describes the people’s response to his message using servant terminology: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?” (v10), apparently speaking of himself as this servant.

The identification of the servant as Israel, noted in the first point above, is not unusual in the context of Isaiah. On several occasions the writer of Second Isaiah describes Israel as God’s servant. For example:

  • 41:8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;  you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.”
  • 43:10 You are my witnesses [speaking to Israel, see v1], says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen.
  • 44:1    But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!
  • 44:21    Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; , you will not be forgotten by me.
  • 45:4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
  • 48:20    Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (Incidentally, this verse is one of the many which provides evidence that Second Isaiah was written during the time of the exile in Babylon.)
  • 49:3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified.”

In fact, almost every time the writer of Second Isaiah uses the word עֶבֶד servant it refers to Israel. In only two or three places is the servant unnamed or not identified. The fourth song begins with the same servant terminology, but it is unclear whether the writer here is speaking of himself or not: “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (52:13).** Because of the confusion (especially in the second song) about whether the writer is describing himself or Israel as God’s servant, there is a possibility that he both speaks to Israel but also personifies and represents Israel. In other words, the prophet as God’s servant, and as a member of the nation of Israel, acts as a “servant” on two levels: individually, and corporately as a representative of the wider community.

Continue reading … part 3.


* The name of the patriarch Jacob was changed to “Israel”. “Jacob” is used in poetry as the semantic equivalent of “Israel.”

** The fourth poem actually begins in 52:13 and includes all of chapter 53 – the chapter divisions are a late invention and don’t form part of the most ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.

The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 (1)

Isaiah 53 in the “Great Isaiah Scroll” from Qumran (Dead Sea scrolls)

Isaiah 53, also called Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song, is one of the best known chapters in the Book of Isaiah. It describes God’s suffering servant. For Jews it is a metaphor for the nation of Israel which has been frequently and repeatedly persecuted and oppressed. For Christians it is a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. In this post I want to take another look at how the New Testament makes use of the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’), with specific reference to this chapter in Isaiah. In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in the context of the book of Isaiah, and will ask the questions “who wrote it?” and “why?” Finally I will look at various interpretations of the “suffering servant”.

Isaiah 53 is frequently quoted by Christians to show how the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind was predicted by the prophet. The New Testament quotes various parts of this chapter in the following ways:

  1. According to Luke 22:37, Jesus himself quoted from Isaiah 53:12 to say that he would be “counted among the lawless”: 

    35 He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” 

    Some argue that the positioning of this saying in Luke, at the beginning of the events in the garden of Gethsemane leading to Jesus’ arrest the night before his crucifixion, reveals that Jesus saw himself as the one destined to fulfill the whole of Isaiah 53, and therefore identifying himself as the suffering servant. However, in its immediate context it is part of Jesus’ explanation about the need for his disciples to buy swords, which is picked up again just a few verses later (v.49) when they literally draw swords. In other words, it appears that Jesus was telling his disciples that he – and they, because of their solidarity with him – should henceforth expect to be regarded by the authorities as “lawless” or as criminals. If the intention is to identify Jesus as Isaiah’s suffering servant, it seems to be an odd place to cite these words as being fulfilled when a more logical place would have been in 23:33 where he was literally “counted with the lawless”: “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” Some manuscripts, no doubt made by some scribe or scribes coming to the same conclusion, insert this quote from Isaiah 53 at Mark 15:27-28 “They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘He was counted with the lawless ones’.” Various scholars have suggested this and several other places during the passion narrative as the point when this Isaiah 53 prophecy was more properly fulfilled, which highlights the problem that we cannot be certain what Jesus (or Luke) meant by citing Isaiah 53 here.
  2. Matthew 8:16-17 cites Isaiah 53:4 in the context of Jesus’ healing ministry: “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’.” These verses are applied to Jesus in two ways in the NT. First, Matthew cites them with reference to Jesus’ work as a healer. The Hebrew word (מַכְאוֹב) translated “diseases” (sometimes also translated as “sorrows”) means physical pain and suffering, while “infirmities” translates חֳלִי which means “diseases”. Matthew’s “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” is an accurate translation of the Hebrew. The Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation, however, used the word ἁμαρτίας sin instead of “diseases”. The second citation of these words in the NT is by Peter (1 Peter 2:21-24) who quoted Isaiah 53 to encourage his readers to follow in Jesus’ steps: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ [from Isa 53:9]. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.” After undoubtedly quoting Isaiah 53:9 – “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” – he may have gone on to allude to another part of the same Isaiah passage: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” This may be an allusion to the words in the LXX that the suffering servant “bears our sins and suffers pain for us” although he does not specifically make this connection (although there was no real need to do so – having already quoted Isaiah the similarity in phrasing suggests quite strongly that he is further alluding to the same chapter). Peter may have been following the Septuagint Greek (LXX) translation which used the word ἁμαρτίας sin rather than the Hebrew. In any case, the Hebrew and the Greek translation have quite different meanings, and Matthew follows the Hebrew while Peter seems to follow the Greek. Matthew applies them to Jesus’ work as a healer, while Peter gives them a different meaning and applies them to Jesus carrying sins on the cross.
  3. The Acts of the Apostles has a pericope where an Ethiopian official was reading from Isaiah, and came to a verse in chapter 53 which said: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32-33, quoting Isaiah 53:7-8). The Ethiopian asked Philip: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Philip’s answer does not provide any explanation of the specifics, but says simply “starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (v35).

These quotations, or allusions, in the NT to Isaiah 53 tell us several things about how the NT writers used the Hebrew Bible (or its Greek translation).

  • First, different writers could use the same text in the Hebrew Bible in different ways, and give them different meanings. One writer could use the Hebrew, with one meaning, while another writer used the Greek translation, with an entirely different meaning. Or they could use the same text in the HB and apply them to different events, saying both events fulfilled the same prophecy.
  • Second, although Isaiah 53 seems to be the ideal prophecy to quote with respect to Jesus’ sufferings during the crucifixion the NT writers, and Jesus himself, quote it primarily with reference to Jesus and his disciples being regarded as lawless criminals, and to Jesus’ non-retaliation. The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion would have been the ideal place to quote Isaiah 53, yet the Gospel writers don’t take this opportunity and are silent. In fact, later generations of Christians have made more of Isaiah 53 than the writers of the NT, and found applications to Jesus which weren’t made by the NT writers.
  • Third, it seems that the first Christians did not think of Isaiah 53 in quite the same way later Christians did – as a prophecy of Jesus suffering as an atonement for the sins of the world – or at least Peter is the only NT writer who gives it this meaning, and even then his emphasis was on Christians following Jesus’ example of non-retaliation.

Going back to the first of those three points, we should note that when NT writers used HB/OT texts they often re-appropriated them or re-interpreted them for a new situation, and in doing so they weren’t necessarily implying that the whole passage applied in every detail to the ’new’ situation. A good illustration of this is the way Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) is used in Matthew 2:15 (This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”) This reads (in Matthew) as though the Hosea text was primarily about Jesus. However, if we continue reading in Hosea the very next verse says “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” The writer’s shift from the singular “my son” to the plural “they sacrificed to the Baals” makes it clear that God’s “son” there is the nation of Israel and the words cannot primarily refer to Jesus or to his taking refuge in Egypt. The Hosea text has been wrenched from its context and appropriated by Matthew because the words in just one verse fit the situation with Jesus. However, the Hosea text in its context cannot by any reasonable stretch of the imagination apply primarily to Jesus. We should therefore be careful in thinking that because a NT writer refers to a text in the HB that the passage must therefore refer primarily to the ‘new’ situation. With respect to the Isaiah 53 text, even though the NT quotes it and applies it to Jesus this is not its primary meaning.

In my next post I will look at Isaiah 53 in its context to determine its primary meaning.

Continue reading … part 2

The male gaze and Biblical interpretation


Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, in the Royal Collection (public domain).

In an earlier post Stephanie referred to a work by the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi and noted that “her gaze is not that of a man and so there is no male gaze here to interpret the female form”. The term “the male gaze” describes the heterosexual male perspective which dominates art and literature and which often represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. Gentileschi was radically different because she was one of the few female artists of the time and her work was almost exclusively of female subjects. They were often portrayed in dominant positions relative to males in the same painting,  including biblical scenes such as Jael and Sisera, Judith Slaying Holofernes, and Samson and Delilah (I may write about her painting of Esther before Ahasuerus when I come back to the Book of Esther at a later date.)

Terms such as “the male gaze” and “the female gaze” initially arose in feminist theory, and while they are useful in specific contexts we should acknowledge that they can be generalisations. I personally find the concept helpful in appreciating how male and female artists see the world from different perspectives. But those perspectives are not limited to their gender; they are also filtered by the artist’s race, religion, sexuality, social status and colour. In fact, each artist has a unique perspective and there as as many gazes as there are gazers. This is equally true of biblical interpretation as it is of art. As various artists will portray biblical scenes differently, depending on how they “view” it, so readers will read the same text differently. One’s interpretation of a text is not only influenced by their gender, race, colour, religious background, sexuality and social status, but also by countless experiences in life. There are as many interpretations of the Bible as there are readers.

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

Caravaggio painted at least three pieces of David with the Head of Goliath. In each piece it is clear that he used himself as the model for Goliath – a self-portrait of sorts. This wasn’t particularly unusual as other artists sometimes worked themselves into paintings. Cristofani Allori did something similar with his Judith with the Head of Holofernes (above) where he used himself as the model for Holofernes, his former mistress as the model for Judith, and her mother as the model for Judith’s maid. I wonder, however, if the artist did not merely use these women as “models” but by putting his own severed head in their hands he was also making some kind of commentary on their relationships. It’s possible that Caravaggio was also making some kind of statement about himself in his David with the Head of Goliath. In at least one of his three versions (possibly all three), his model for David was described as il suo Caravaggino (“his own little Caravaggio”). This may refer to Cecco del Caravaggio, the artist’s studio assistant in Rome some years previously, or it could mean the artist was painting his younger self as David. If so, we would have a young Caravaggio holding the severed head of the older Caravaggio. I am neither a psychologist nor an art historian so I won’t say too much about what this might tell us about how the artist saw himself. However, it makes me think about how people often read themselves into biblical texts. What I mean by this is readers of the Bible may “hear” the writer or God speaking directly to them through the text. They might perceive the text as speaking specifically to their situation or circumstances, perhaps giving the words a meaning which could not have been intended by the writer for their initial audience.

While it may be perfectly legitimate to read the Bible in this way – thinking that God is speaking directly to the individual reader through the text – there is a danger in thinking that this meaning which the reader has taken and applied to their own unique circumstances is actually the meaning intended by the writer and therefore also applies to other readers and their circumstances. We need to carefully distinguish between what the writer intended and how the initial audience would have understood the words when they first heard them, and any application of these words to the lives and circumstances of readers at some later time. The task of the biblical scholar is to endeavour to understand the actual text and what it meant to the writer and the initial audience. How these words are applied in new situations and at other times may be a legitimate task for rabbis, pastors and general readers, but we should not confuse this application with the original meaning. What the Bible actually says, and what it may mean “for us” may be two different things, and each reader will approach the text with a unique perspective. We don’t all read it with the same “gaze.”

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a question on an academic forum about the meaning of a particular biblical text. One of the respondents encouraged the person asking the question to “open themselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit who will reveal the meaning to them.” This response may have been appropriate in some religious contexts but was entirely out-of-place in that forum. The questioner was trying to understand the actual meaning of an expression and the best tools for that job would have been a good Hebrew lexicon, a Hebrew grammar, and some commentaries or articles which addressed the meanings of the words in context, or asking scholars who were competent with these tools (which is what they did). What the respondent was thinking was how the questioner might want to apply the text in their own unique circumstances, and that is a different matter entirely.

Biblical Art

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often like to include classical works of art in many of my posts. These art works often have a story of their own which are worth exploring, although this is not my area of expertise. However, I am fortunate to have an Art Historian in the family! From today Stephanie Cook will join me as a writer on this site. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Art History from the University of Sydney. She will bring another dimension to the biblical stories I write about by helping me to choose appropriate art works and by exploring and explaining the artists’ contributions to biblical interpretation through their craft.

When Napoleon was King of England


Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in Coronation Robe, François_Gérard, c.1805-1815, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. In the public domain.

Scholars and apologists have spilled a lot of ink trying to reconcile some historical details in the Bible with actual history. I suspect the urge to eliminate any discrepancy between ‘biblical’ and ‘secular’ history begins with the theological position that the Bible is the inspired word of God and free of any errors. If there is a conflict between the Bible and historical information derived from other sources, then it’s argued (by some) that the Bible must be right and the other sources must contain errors, or there must be some way to reconcile them so that both are right.

Let me give just a couple examples. The book of Daniel dates one of Daniel’s visions specifically to the first year of the reign of “Darius the Mede”.

In the first year of Darius son of Ahasuerus, by birth a Mede, who became king over the realm of the Chaldeans— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. (9:1-2. See also 5:31 where he is called “Darius the Mede”.)

There are several problems here. First, there is no Median king known from history named “Darius”. We do have some Persian kings named Darius, but none from Media. At least half a dozen kings have been proposed from as early as the first century CE as contenders, but there are difficulties with each of them and none are entirely convincing. Second, Daniel places this Darius the Mede between Belshazzar and Cyrus the Great. However, history knows no king between Belshazzar and Cyrus. Third, there is a major problem with the “seventy years” prophecy. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and Cyrus issued his decree for the Jews to return in 538 BCE, and if my maths is correct that is a period of only 49 years. Several attempts have been made to solve the problem, but again there is no scholarly consensus as none of the solutions are very convincing. However, I don’t want to delve further into that particular difficulty here – for now I just want to focus on the problems with kings.

While we are in Daniel, I’ve already mentioned Belshazzar and we have a considerable problem with him as well. He is the main character of the story in Daniel 5 about the “writing on the wall” where he is described as King Belshazzar (5:1), and he calls Nebuchadnezzar “father” (5:2). Apart from the relatively minor problem that Belshazzar was never king (he was crown prince) we have a major problem with the fact that he was actually the son of Nabonidus, a successor to Nebuchadnezzar, and not son of Nebuchadnezzar. There are other historical problems in Daniel, but these are enough to make the point that the writer seems to be very careless with historical facts. However, I think there is another possibility which solves the problem.

Daniel is not alone in confusing his kings, as other biblical books also create problems for scholars and commentators by mixing up their monarchs. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that scholars have tried for centuries to identify King Ahasuerus in Esther, again with no consensus. We also have a problem with the “king of Nineveh” in Jonah 3:6, as Nineveh had no king in the time of the prophet Jonah.

For those who have the book of Judith in their Bible, there are considerable problems there with Nebuchadnezzar being called “king of Assyria” ruling in Nineveh (Judith 1:1) when he was actually king of Babylonia and reigned after Nineveh had been destroyed. However, I think it’s a pity that those who don’t have Judith in their Bible aren’t more aware of it, because we almost certainly have the solution there to our problems in Daniel, Esther, Jonah and elsewhere. Not only does Judith confuse Assyria with Babylonia, the book also completely messes with chronology. We know from elsewhere in the Bible, and from history, that Nebuchadnezzar beseiged Jerusalem and sent its king and many of its inhabitants into exile in Babylon. Yet Judith has Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes coming against the cities of Judah after the return from exile 50 years later! (4:1-3; 5:18-19). By this time Nebuchadnezzar was dead and Babylon was in the hands of the Persians. Judith’s history is topsy-turvy! How could the writer get it so wrong?

It is actually in this topsy-turvy portrayal of history that we have a clue – and a solution – to our problems in Daniel, Esther and elsewhere. Judith deliberately distorts history for literary purposes. Its “errors” are so major and there are so many of them that they have to be deliberate. No one could get history so wrong – especially their own history – unless they intended to do so. As Carey Moore says in an article on Judith [1], to describe Nebuchadnezzar as King of Assyria would be like beginning a story with “It happened at the time when Napoleon Bonaparte was king of England …” Further to that analogy, Judith’s “confusion” about the timing of the seige of Jerusalem and the return from exile would be akin to saying “Hitler’s bombing of London came just a few years after the end of World War II.” It would be so wrong that no one would think it was a simple “mistake” – it had to be deliberate. It’s almost comical. Moore describes the book of Judith as the most quintessentially ironic biblical literature. It abounds in irony, and the historical distortions are a literary device used by the author as part of the ironic effect. The historical “errors” right from the very beginning of the story are unmistakeable signs to the reader or listener that while the story reads like historical narrative it is actually fiction. It is somewhat similar to a modern writer beginining with “Once upon a time …” You wouldn’t start a history book that way, so it’s an indicator to the reader that the story is fictional and even comical in parts, although its underlying message could be serious. In the Judith story it is inconceivable that the writer had forgotten or mixed up the timing of the most cataclysmic event in Israel’s history. However, by appearing to be confused about significant details the writer may be sounding a warning to readers or listeners that if they forget their history or don’t learn from it they are bound to repeat it.

Similarly, in Daniel, it seems to be a feature of the court tales that the writer mixes up or conflates details to give the appearance of historical narrative while also leaving clear markers that they are, in fact, fiction. This is so that the reader/listener is left in no doubt about the true nature of the book. Like Judith (and Esther), Daniel abounds in irony and satire. It shouldn’t be surprising then that these three books (and possibly others such as Jonah) were written, compiled or edited against the same historical background. There are clear signs that Judith and Daniel may have been written relatively close to each other and in response to the same historical events (Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ desecration of the Temple), and Esther too may have been written as a warning against becoming too cozy with the Greeks. In this Hellenistic era the biblical “novel” was beginning to take off as a literary genre, satire was becoming more popular throughout the wider literary world, and irony – a longtime favourite device of biblical writers – was reaching its zenith.

In my view, regardless of one’s ideas or theology about “inspiration” or “inerrancy,” there is no need to stress about conflicts between the Bible and history. They may be opportunities for readers to discover more about the motives of the writers and the literary techniques they used to bring serious issues to the attention of their readers/listeners.


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

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 Mordecai 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)


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)


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.

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


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)


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” 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 considerably less. 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)


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:


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 also has the additions which are in the β-text (which it appears to have copied from the β-text) but for the remainder it 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.

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!


[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.


[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


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 (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


“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.


[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.


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