Dodgy theology (5): the sin of Sodom


The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin, 1852

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on dodgy theology (3)

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

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

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

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

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



Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 2)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel Folau’s dodgy theology (part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Theodicy and literature of catastrophe (2)


The Death of King Josiah by Francesco Conti

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued …


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued …


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

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

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

Biblical kings (6): the problem of transgenerational punishment

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued …


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued …


Biblical kings (4): the writer


Akkadian cuneiform tablet in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, naming Jehoiachin, king of Judah.

I’ve mentioned “the writer” of the book of Kings a few times as well as the scholarly consensus that it went through a process of revision, addition, editing and redaction. I want to explore that a little further before returning to the problem of why we have conflicting messages about some of the kings. We first need to look at the evidence in the book itself for a possible date for when it was written. The earliest date for the final form (I’ll come back to what “final form” means later) has to be the latest event recorded in the book. In other words, while some parts of the book may have written earlier, and the writer may have drawn on older sources for his information, the finished product could only have been completed after the latest event in the book, which we can date with considerable accuracy. That event forms the concluding lines of the book of Kings and was specifically described as being in the thirty-seventh year of the Babylonian exile:

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)

Interestingly, tablets excavated by archaeologists near the Ishtar Gate in Babylon (pictured) mention food rations for Jehoiachin (also known as Jeconiah and Coniah) and his five sons. From Babylonian records we know the date when Evil-merodach (or Amel-Marduk in Akkadian) ascended the throne of Babylon, so we can confidently date this as the year 562 BCE. It is therefore likely that the book of Kings was written or completed in 562 BCE or soon after, and presumably before the death of Jehoiachin as no mention it made of it, unlike the deaths of other kings in the book. As it makes no mention of other events in the exile, or the return, we can also be certain it was written before the return from exile, and was therefore probably written in Babylon. This is not to say that it couldn’t have gone through some process of editing at a later date, and there are, in fact, some good arguments that it did. There is some evidence that more than one version or edition of the book of Kings was known to later biblical writers. For example, if we compare the parallel traditions of Zedekiah’s reign recorded in 2 Kings 24:18-25:12, Jeremiah 52:1-16 and the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version of Jeremiah 52 we can detect signs of different ‘editions.’ It can be seen in the table below which compares the first three verses from each account that the Septuagint does not contain the standard condemnation of Zedekiah which is in the Masoretic Text and the parallel account in Kings.

2 Kings 24:18-20 Jeremiah 52:1-3 LXX Jeremiah 52:1-3
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.







You will notice that the material in Jeremiah 52 is so similar to the text of Kings that it’s arguable that the writer of one either had the other in front of him or that they both copied from a third source. However, the ancient Greek translation of Jeremiah has a shorter version than the Hebrew. There are a couple possible explanations for this: (a) the Greek translator deliberately left some material out of his translation, although it’s uncertain why he would do this; or (b) the Hebrew manuscript he was translating from was a shorter version than the one we now have. This second possibility could be the case if there were two (or more) editions of Jeremiah, and that the final Hebrew edition of Jeremiah which we know as the Masoretic Text (MT) is a later, and longer, edition than the earlier edition from which the Septuagint was translated. In my opinion, a good case can be made for this option. Because the longer MT version of Jeremiah is so similar to the Kings record, if an addition was made to Jeremiah which was not available to the Greek translator this would imply that a similar addition was made to Kings, probably around the same time. I mentioned in the first post in this series that Jeremiah shares similar language and themes with the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH), which includes the book of Kings, and so is often classed as being “Deuteronomistic.” Some scholars have argued that the writer of Jeremiah may have played a significant role in producing the DtrH. It would not be surprising then that an editor of Jeremiah also edited the book of Kings and made changes or additions to both books at the same time. The Greek version of Jeremiah is evidence of an earlier edition before these changes were made.

You may have noticed that the shorter version of Jeremiah 52 does not contain the formulaic evaluation that King Zedekiah “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” In my view this suggests that the condemnation of Zechariah was added by the editor who worked on the later editions of both Jeremiah and Kings, and if this was added to the record about Zechariah it’s also possible that the same words which appear at the end of the record of every other northern king was also added at the same time by the same editor. This raises the possibility that the earlier edition of Kings provided a more positive appraisal of the reigns of the kings, and that the later edition was edited in such a way as to condemn them, even though the rest of the record was more approving of their performances. This would explain the disparity between the positive material (which may have come from the official Annals which I mentioned previously) and the negative evaluation of the kings which follows somewhat jarringly after the favourable report of the good they had done. 

The next questions to be answered then is who added this material to the later edition of the book of Kings, and why?

To be continued …

Biblical kings (3): the Jehu dynasty



The Death of Jezebel, engraving by Gustave Doré

In line with God’s promise that Jehu would establish a dynasty and be succeeded  by four generations, Jehu’s reign by followed by four of his descendants. Remarkably, the book of Kings records positive things about three of them. First, Jehoahaz (817-800 BCE) was the  only northern king recorded as having a prayer answered when God sent a saviour to deliver Israel from the Arameans.

“The anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, so that he gave them repeatedly into the hand of King Hazael of Aram, then into the hand of Ben-hadad son of Hazael. But Jehoahaz entreated the LORD, and the LORD heeded him; for he saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Aram oppressed them. Therefore the LORD gave Israel a saviour, so that they escaped from the hand of the Arameans; and the people of Israel lived in their homes as formerly.” (2 Kings 13:3-5)

It is axiomatic that in the Hebrew Bible individuals who pray are regarded as being more righteous than those who don’t, and righteous individuals have their prayers answered. The fact that Jehoahaz is the only northern king to have this said of him is significant.

Next, Jehoash (800-784 BCE) was the subject of a favourable prophecy from Elisha and proceeded to defeat Aram three times (2 Kings 13:14-25) and Amaziah of Judah (14:8- 14). According to Deuteronomy 28:7, those who keep covenant can expect victory in battle, so this positive record about Jehoash portrays him as keeping covenant.

Third, Jeroboam II (789-748 BCE), as I’ve noted earlier, restored Israel’s borders to the boundaries of Solomon’s empire (2 Kings 14:25-8) and received prophetic support. According to both the biblical evidence and archaeological findings the reign of Jeroboam II was a period of great prosperity for Israel. Finally, the last king in the Jehu dynasty was Zechariah (748-747 BCE). It was brief, lasting only six months, and ended in a conspiracy and with Zechariah’s violent end. The Jehu dynasty began and ended with a coup (2 Kings 15:8-10).

However, there seems to be conflicting messages in the book of Kings about the Jehu dynasty, and woven together with the reports which are approving of them and express God’s ongoing concern and compassion for the northern kingdom and his commitment to the covenant, we find the standard condemnation of all northern kings as doing evil and following in the ways of Jeroboam I. These conflicting messages in the book of Kings suggests to several scholars that the writer was drawing on various sources. This shouldn’t be surprising as we could expect an historical writer to use earlier writings from the past for his information. It could explain why there seems to be a disparity between the positive material in Kings about the Jehu dynasty and the fact that Jehu and his successors are assessed more negatively than the evidence presented about them seems to warrant. I’ve noted that there is significant positive information about three kings in this dynasty in particular – Jehoahaz, Jehoash, and Jeroboam II – and David Lamb offers the suggestion that here the writer was drawing on sources which were favourable to these kings, even though he held a different perspective about them, writing from a later time and place.[1] According to Lamb, although the writer of Kings has a different agenda to his sources, the disparity between the earlier positive material and the writer’s own negative evaluation of the kings suggests that he had respect for his sources and retained the positive material despite it being at odds with his own perspective.

Jonathan Robker takes this position further and argues for the probability of “a royal narrative source covering the history of Israel from the time of Jeroboam I to the time of Jeroboam II, having been composed during the reign of Jeroboam II with the intention of supporting his dynasty and establishing the legitimacy of his son and successor in the face of rising criticism.”[2] He speculates that this royal narrative source was taken from Samaria to Jerusalem, presumably at or after the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE and incorporated into the Judean historical records “leading ultimately to the book of Kings in its Deuteronomistic context as we know it today.” (I will write more about this later.)

Several other scholars also argue that the writer of Kings was drawing on an earlier source, or sources, for his historical information about the kings. This is extremely likely as eighteeen times the writer acknowledged one of his sources as the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, a book we no longer have. The phrase is often accompanied by other positive descriptors of the king’s reign, such as: how he fought and reigned (1 Kings 14:19);  what he did, and his power (1 Kings 16:5; 2 Kings 10:34; 13:8); and the might which he showed (1 Kings 16:27); and all that he did, and the ivory house that he built, and all the cities that he built (1 Kings 22:39); and the might with which he fought against King Amaziah of Judah (2 Kings 13:12; 14:15); and his might, with which he fought, and how he recovered for Israel Damascus and Hamath, which had belonged to Judah (2 Kings 14:28); and the league which he made (1 Kings 16:20; 2 Kings 15:15). Overall these records are positive and suggest that the Annals reported favourably about the kings’ reigns. There is convincing evidence that there was a record (or records) of the kings of Israel which appraised some or all of them positively, especially the Jehu dynasty, and that the writer of Kings incorporated some of this material into his book. The scholarly consensus is that the book was composed or reached its final form during the exile. Whether or not there was what we might call a “pre-Deuteronomistic” version of Kings or not is speculation, however the evidence supports a conclusion that a positive appraisal of the kings of Israel was known to the writer(s) of Kings.

To be continued …

[1] David T. Lamb, Righteous Jehu and His Evil Heirs: the Deuteronomist’s Negative Perspective on Dynastic Succession (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] Jonathan Miles Robker, The Jehu Revolution: A Royal Tradition of the Northern Kingdom and Its Ramifications (BZAW 435;  Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), 164.

Biblical kings, good and bad (2): Jehu

Jehu Obelisk

Possible depiction of Jehu King of Israel giving tribute to King Shalmaneser III of Assyria, on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III from Nimrud (circa 827 BC) in the British Museum (London).

The story of Jeroboam II begins with Jehu, the tenth king of the northern kingdom of Israel (reigning 841–814 BCE or thereabouts). One of the odd things about the accounts of this dynasty in the Book of Kings is that positive things are said of all the kings in the dynasty, although in each case the record ends with the condemnation “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin” (e.g. 2 Kings 13:2). To understand why, we need to look at the account of the founder of the dynasty: Jehu.

Jehu came to power in a coup which overthrew Jehoram (also called Joram), the last king of the Omri dynasty (hereafter called the Omrides). Reading the various accounts of the kings of Israel and Judah around this time can be rather confusing as Jehoram was the name of a king of Israel as well as a king of Judah, both reigning at the same time. Both Israel and Judah also had kings with the name Ahaziah: Ahaziah of Israel was the brother and predecessor of Jehoram (of Israel), while Ahaziah of Judah was the son of Jehoram (of Judah). In the fifth year of Jehoram king of Israel, a different Jehoram became  king (or co-regent) of Judah. The Jehoram of Judah was also married to the daughter of Ahab of Israel. Due to this intermarriage between the two royal houses, Ahab’s grandson Ahaziah (probably named after his deceased uncle, an earlier king of Israel) became king of Judah, the first monarch to be in both the Omride and Davidic lines. Ahaziah the king of Judah was also the nephew of Jehoram the king of Israel. I warned you that it is confusing! The confusion somewhat ends with Jehu, who slaughtered the Omrides in both Israel and Judah.

In one way Jehoram of Israel is described in positive terms in Kings in that “he removed the pillar of Baal that his father [Ahab] had made” (2 Kings 13:2). He also seems to have had a somewhat friendly relationship with the prophet Elisha. According to the book of Kings, Jehu’s rise to power was determined by God and announced by the prophet Elisha when he anointed Jehu, a commander in Jehoram’s army, to be the next king of Israel:

Thus says the LORD the God of Israel: I anoint you [Jehu] king over the people of the LORD, over Israel. You shall strike down the house of your master Ahab [Jehoram’s father], so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the LORD. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish; I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. (2 Kings 9:6-8)

It appears that this announcement that Jehu would wipe out the line of Ahab had more to do with the sins of Ahab than the sins of his son Jehoram. The book of Kings goes on to tell how Jehu killed Jehoram king of Israel, Ahaziah king of Judah, Jezebel the Israelite Queen Mother, seventy descendants of Ahab, all Ahab’s friends and officials, and the priests of Baal. “So Jehu killed all who were left of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his leaders, close friends, and priests, until he left him no survivor” (2 Kings 9:11). He also wiped out all traces of Baal worship in Israel. Jehu became king and went on to reign over Israel for 28 years, and his dynasty lasted more than 100 years, longer than the Omrides. The book of Chronicles describes him in approving terms: “Jehu son of Nimshi, whom the LORD had anointed to destroy the house of Ahab” (2 Chronicles 22:7). In all this Jehu acted out of zeal. In his own words “see my zeal for the LORD” (2 Kings 10:16), and the writer of Kings adds the favourable comment that Jehu “killed all who were left to Ahab in Samaria, until he had wiped them out, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke to Elijah” (2 Kings 10:17).

Of all the kings of Israel and Judah, Jehu was in several ways the one most like David:

  • Both David and Jehu were divinely elected (only Saul, David, Solomon, Jeroboam I and Jehu are described as divinely elected to rule).
  • Both David and Jehu were prophetically anointed.
  • Both were given an unconditional promise of a dynasty (only David, Solomon, Jeroboam I and Jehu receive dynastic promises, and only David and Jehu’s promises lack conditional language). “The LORD said to Jehu, ‘Because you have done well in carrying out what I consider right, and in accordance with all that was in my heart have dealt with the house of Ahab, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel’” (2 Kings 10:30).
  • Both are acknowledged for their heroic military exploits.

The book of Kings provides quite a bit of detail in describing how Jehu ended the Omrides and eradicated Baal worship, in response to God’s calling. Yet, despite doing what God had required him to do in removing all traces of the Omrides, the book of Kings adds the ‘standard’ condemnatory formula to the record of his reign:

Thus Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel. But Jehu did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to commit—the golden calves that were in Bethel and in Dan … But Jehu was not careful to follow the law of the LORD the God of Israel with all his heart; he did not turn from the sins of Jeroboam, which he caused Israel to commit (2 Kings 10:28-31).

It seems that if even Jehu couldn’t measure up, the king most like David, commended by God for his zeal in carrying out what he was called to do, then who could? On top of it all, a century later the prophet Hosea seems to condemn Jehu for his zeal in carrying out God’s commandment: “And the LORD said to him [Hosea], “Name him [Hosea’s son] Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:4). Punished for doing what God commanded him to do? Something seems to be wrong.

To be continued …

Biblical kings, good and bad (1)

Jeroboam sacrificing to his idol, oil on canvas by Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert, 1641

Jeroboam sacrificing to his idol, Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert, 1641

A consistent theme of the biblical books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings (which was probably originally written as one book but was divided into four because it wouldn’t all fit on one scroll – in the Septuagint and other ancient versions it is one book in four parts known as 1-4 Kings) is that almost all the kings do evil. Measured against king David as the benchmark very few are up to standard. The overall impression one gets from reading the book of Kings is that both Israel and Judah had a succession of bad kings, with only a handful of exceptions. In the case of the northern kingdom of Israel it seems that they all get a bad report. If there were any good kings it appears that they could only be found in Judah, and then rarely.

In this series of posts I plan to explore whether or not all the kings of Israel and most of the kings of Judah were thoroughly bad, why almost all of them are judged as doing evil in the eyes of God, where the writer got his information, and how the book of Kings came to be in the form we have it today.

I’ll start with the phrase which recurs frequently (more than 30 times) throughout Kings: he “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” which is sometimes followed by “and did not completely follow the LORD, as his father David had done,” or words to that effect. In the records of the northern kings (Israel) this description typically follows the form “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin,” while the southern kings (Judah) are sometimes measured against the standard of David, such as Solomon:

For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not completely follow the LORD, as his father David had done (1 Kings 11:4-6).

Sometimes this condemnation is combined with a description of the particular evil that he committed, such as  “They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire; they used divination and augury; and they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger” (2 Kings 17:17), but more often than not we aren’t given any details about they did that was particularly evil.

First, we need to look at the book of Kings in its literary context. Scholars often refer to the book as being part of the “Deuteronomistic History.” This terminology began with a German biblical scholar, Martin Noth, who proposed that Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings form a single literary presentation of the history of Israel. [1] Since Noth’s groundbreaking work scholars have come up with several theories about who wrote the Deuteronomistic History (hereafter DtrH), whether it was an individual or group of people, if it was written over a lengthy period or at one time, if it went through a process of revision, addition, editing and redaction, if so, by whom, and when the process was finished. Scholars are a long way from reaching a consensus about this. In this series I will touch on some of these issues. The reason Noth, and others, have given the name “Deuteronomistic” to this group of biblical books is that they seem to share ideas, terminology and themes with the book of Deuteronomy. For example, the phrase about kings doing evil in the sight of God  is traditionally identified as a significant marker of Deuteronomism since similar phrasing is found in Deuteronomy 4:25; 9:18; 17:2; 31:29.[2] Because it shares similar language and themes with the DtrH, Jeremiah is also often classed as being “Deuteronomistic” and so some scholars have argued that the writer of Jeremiah may have played a significant role in producing the DtrH. I will also explore this connection later in this series.

I should state from the outset that I’m not intending to write a commentary on Kings, or to go through every king in Israel and Judah’s history! My particular interest is in the Jehu dynasty – a succession of five kings in the northern kingdom – and this interest was sparked primarily because my PhD thesis is on the book of Jonah, and the prophet Jonah is mentioned in Kings in connection with Jeroboam II, a king in the Jehu dynasty. It seems like an odd place to begin, but I will start with Jeroboam II because it was this king which aroused my interest in the kings in the first place. While looking at the mention of Jonah in 2 Kings 14, I noticed that the book of Kings generally treats the Jehu dynasty favourably (including its account of the reign of Jeroboam II with its naming of Jonah), although it assesses all of the kings in this dynasty with the standard formulaic “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin” (e.g. 2 Kings 13:2). I wondered why the record on the one hand seemed to treat them positively, but then on the other hand each king was condemned for doing evil. What evil?

2 Kings 14:25 says that Jeroboam II “restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kings 14:25). Jonah’s message in 2 Kings was one of comfort and hope for Israel “for the LORD saw that the distress of Israel was very bitter; there was no one left, bond or free, and no one to help Israel” (2 Kings 14:26). The historical narrative continues with an odd negative expression: but the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven (v.27). It’s odd precisely because it is in the negative: “but the LORD had not said …” and it’s unusual to see things expressed this way in the Hebrew Bible. It implies that someone – although we’re not told who – was saying just that, namely that God would blot out the name of Israel, and that this message through Jonah specifically refuted this. We’re not told who was saying this, but we do get a clue later in the Bible (I’ll return to this).

To be continued …

[1] Martin Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien: Die sammelnden und bearbeitenden Geschichtswerke im Alten Testament (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1957); English translation: Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981).

[2] Kurt Noll, however, has pointed out that the actual phrase occurs only in Deut 17:2 and argues that it begs the case for Deuteronomism in Kings. Kurt L. Noll, “Is the Book of Kings Deuteronomistic? And Is It a History?,”  Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 21, no. 1 (2007): 68.

Hanukkah’s Christian connections

Today is the fifth day of the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה‬ “dedication”) – a festival which commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the revolt against the Seleucid empire by the Maccabees (Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, and their supporters). The Maccabees were revolting against occupation by the Seleucid Empire in general, but more particularly against the desecration of the Temple (which begain in 167 BCE when Antiochus IV ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected in the Temple, banned circumcision, and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple). The revolt began soon after and the Temple was liberated in 165 BCE.  Judah Maccabee ordered the Temple to be cleansed and a new altar to be built. The Temple was re-dedicated and this re-dedication has been commemorated ever since in the festival of Dedication (Hanukkah). The custom of lighting candles every night during the eight days and nights of the festival originated in a story told in the Talmud that for the re-dedication it was necessary to find undefiled pure olive oil for the candelabrum, or menorah, in the Temple. The story goes that only one flask was found and with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it miraculously burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle. Since then Hanukkah is commemorated by lighting one candle on the first day, two on the second, etc, until eight candles are lit on the eighth and final night of the festival.

The story of the revolt, the liberation of the Temple, and its re-dedication is told in the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees. The first book of Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, but this Hebrew original has been lost and it has been preserved in a Greek translation in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible which was popular with early Greek-speaking Jews and Christians. The second book of Maccabees was written in koine Greek, the “street Greek” which was also the language of the New Testament. (The books known as 3 & 4 Maccabees which are found in some Orthodox Christian Bibles have nothing to do with the story of the Maccabees and deal with entirely different events).

Interestingly, the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees which tell the story of Hanukkah are not included in the canonical Hebrew Bible as these books are in Greek, not Hebrew. They are, however, included in many Christian Bibles including the canons of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and those Protestant churches which include the Apocrypha in their Bible. It’s interesting that these books which tell the story of the origins of this important Jewish festival are found in many Christian Bibles, but not in the Jewish canon, although Christians have never commemorated Hanukkah as a Christian festival (although some other Jewish festivals are celebrated by Christians under different names, such as Passover=Easter and the Festival of Weeks  [Shavuot]=Pentecost/Whitsunday).

There is also one more Christian connection to Hanukkah which I find interesting. The Hebrew Bible never mentions Hanukkah (as the Hebrew canon was probably completed by the time 1 & 2 Maccabees were written), but the New Testament does mention it. In the Gospel of John a casual reference is made to Jesus being in the Temple in winter during “the festival of the Dedication” (John 10:22) which is a clear reference to Hanukkah.

To all my Jewish friends חַג חֲנֻכָּה‬ שָׂמֵחַ – Happy Hanukkah!

The Sign of Jonah

jonah-and-the-whale.jpgThe New Testament doesn’t say much about the prophet Jonah, although the little it does say has made him an important figure in Christianity, his time spent inside the fish prefiguring the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The only references to Jonah in the New Testament are in a saying by Jesus recorded in both Matthew and Luke. The two accounts are similar although different so I put them both below with the words they have in common highlighted in red.

MATTHEW 14:39-41; 16:4

But he [Jesus] answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  40For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

… 16:4  An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

LUKE 11:29-32

When the crowds were increasing, he [Jesus] began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation…32The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

It can be seen that the words in red are common to both Matthew and Luke, but in both accounts they are ‘split’ with different words in between. So which of the two accounts records the actual saying of Jesus? The most likely explanation in my view is that the words in red are the ‘actual’ saying of Jesus and that both Matthew and Luke have copied them from a source which they both accessed. There is a widely held view amongst New Testament scholars (known as the “two source hypothesis”) that when Matthew and Luke were written the writers had two written sources in front of them: one was the gospel of Mark, as large parts of Mark appear word-for-word in both Matthew and Luke; the other was an unknown source which scholars often call ‘Q’ which is an abbreviation of the German word Quelle, or ‘source’. If we compare Matthew and Luke in their entirety we discover that much of these two gospels are identical. If we extract those sections which are identical to Mark the remainder is what scholars call Q. An interesting thing about Q is that it consists primarily of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative. It appears that at some stage, before Matthew and Luke were written (although possibly after Mark) a document was written which listed many of the sayings of Jesus, and this is what we now call Q. It doesn’t exist any more, or at least it hasn’t been found anywhere. But who knows, maybe it will turn up some day in a monastic library (like some of the best manuscripts available of the New Testament) or in a Judean cave (like the Dead Sea Scrolls). It appears that another very early Christian text called the Didache, or teachings of the apostles, may also have used Q as a source, but that is another discussion to be had.

It would be a reasonable explanation then that the actual saying of Jesus which may have been sourced from Q went like this:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

The problem is, this leaves the reader to guess what this “sign of Jonah” was. Both Matthew and Luke inserted their own explanations into their accounts. This isn’t uncommon as we see this kind of thing happening quite a bit in ancient texts which quoted from earlier ones. In this case, however, Matthew and Luke provide different explanations for Jesus’ saying. Matthew says the sign would be “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Luke on the other hand says “as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” We don’t have a case of the two writers recording Jesus’ saying differently (and hence one or both of them ‘misquoting’ Jesus) but of them both recording the same saying but inserting their own explanations, and these explanations differed.

The modern reader is still left to wonder what the “sign of Jonah” meant as the two explanations are different. Luke’s explanation isn’t that different from the saying of Jesus as it focussed on the people of Nineveh and their reaction to Jonah’s preaching. But Matthew’s explanation steps right away from this and offers an allegorical interpretation of the story of Jonah. It is not surprising that a story as strange as Jonah’s which has a host of unusual features (such as someone surviving inside a fish for three days) would attract an allegorical interpretation, and there is evidence in Rabbinic sources that this method of interpretation was applied from an early time. One interpretation, for example, is that Jonah represents Israel and as he was vomited by the fish so Israel was ‘vomited’ from their land when they went into captivity. Leviticus 18 uses precisely this kind of language to describe the land of Canaan vomiting out its inhabitants (18:25) and threatens the same for Israel if they do not keep the statutes and commandments God has given them: “lest the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (18:28).

Jeremiah 51 portrays Nebuchadnezzar and Bel the god of Babylon as sea monsters that have “swallowed up” Israel: “he has swallowed me like a monster; he has filled his belly with my delicacies, he has spewed me out” (Jeremiah 51:34). Jeremiah use the same word that occurs in Jonah 1:17 for the fish swallowing Jonah (although it uses a different word for vomitting, and “sea monster”), and this may be further evidence that Jonah presents an image of Israel being vomitted out of captivity after being swallowed by the Babylonians. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should interpret Jonah allegorically, although it seems that some of the early Rabbis and Matthew did to some extent. It could be an allusion by the writer of Jonah to both the Leviticus and Jeremiah texts recalling the experiences of Israel being “spewed” from place to place as they go into exile and then being disgorged again by Babylon.

Matthew’s interpretation is similarly somewhat allegorical and adds another level of meaning. This is not to suggest that this was the original intention or meaning of Jonah, as we have clear evidence in the way the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible (and also in the way some of the Dead Sea Scrolls quote the Hebrew Bible) that later writers often re-interpreted earlier texts, giving them ‘new’ meanings which were appropriate to their own circumstances and relevant to their audiences. So Matthew gives a new meaning to the Jonah story for his audience. He saw a connection to Jesus’ resurrection while Luke apparently didn’t make the same connection. It suggests there is no ‘right’ way to read many of the stories in the Bible. For Matthew there was one way, for Luke another. Perhaps we can learn something from this when we try to make an argument from the Bible; that even the writers of the Bible read earlier biblical books in different ways.

Making fun of foreign kings (2)

Ninive, Koenigspalast / nach Layard - Nineveh, Assyrian palace / watercolour -

Painting of Nineveh by James Ferguson 1853

Good satire or parody can be hard to detect. The better it is, the more likely it is that someone will take it seriously and won’t get the joke. I well remember when I was a much younger man having a conversation with a good mate about the clichés that were used in church prayers far too often. Between us we came up with an impressive list of all the prayer-clichés we could think of. A few days later my mate’s church had a social function in the church hall and my friend was called on to say grace before dinner. Being young, brash, and a bit of a smart-arse, my friend decided to have some fun while having a pointed poke at what had become a traditional, yet irrelevant style of prayer. He made use of every one of those clichés in a rather lengthy parody of grace before dinner. Later that evening an elderly lady came to him and said “I’ve been a member of this church for forty years, and that was the loveliest prayer I’ve ever heard!” That’s a sign of truly clever parody – people will be divided as to whether it is serious (and in this case pious), or is making a joke at the expense of those who take it seriously.

The royal court scene in Jonah 3 in my view is a case of clever satire (and parody), which commentaries have traditionally interpreted very seriously (while missing the humour, and, therefore, the real point of the story). It must have been the briefest evangelistic campaign in history (Jonah preached for only one day in a city which normally took three days to cross), consisting of just five words (in Hebrew, a few more in English): עֹוד אַרְבָּעִים יֹום וְנִֽינְוֵה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Remarkably, the people responded to this short message by repenting, proclaiming a fast, and putting on sackcloth (Jonah 3:4-5). It’s remarkable for several reasons: Jonah was unheard of in Nineveh, and had only just arrived; being from Israel his message would suggest that the god of tiny Israel was more powerful than all the gods of Nineveh and the mighty Assyrian empire; the five-word message gave no details and no call to repent or opportunity to avert the disaster. News of this reached the king, who immediately responded in much the same way as his people. His response was even more remarkable because he only heard the message second-hand, and was in a much better position to evaluate the likelihood that an unknown preacher from some backwater would know the fate of a great city like Nineveh, soon to be the most powerful city in the world. This is all so astoundingly unlikely the initial readers or listeners of this story would almost certainly have recognised it as humorous.

So the king decided to issue a decree that everyone should fast and put on sackcloth. The problem with this is that everyone had already decided to do just that! His decree would therefore be meaningless, simply ratifying what the masses had already decided. It would confirm that the king wasn’t in control, and that the mob made the rules. Nineveh wasn’t a democracy, and wasn’t about to become one, so the king issued a different decree:

“By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty.” (3:8)

The royal decree affirmed what the masses had already decided, but the king extended it to livestock as well! The animals even had to repent from their evil ways and cry out to God! The writer is having a joke at the king’s expense. He makes him out to be powerless – if he can’t rule his own people at least he can issue decrees to dumb cattle. The writer of Jonah has a final punchline right at the end of the book, where God is discussing with the prophet whether or not he should save Nineveh, because, after all, it was a big city with a lot of (dumb) people (because they couldn’t tell one hand from the other) but with “many cattle” (who were smart enough to cry out to God and to repent!) (4:11).

But there’s a twist in the story. When the king issues his decree he adds “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish” (3:9). In the words of one biblical scholar, this is “a piece of rather sophisticated theology” [1]. The Ninevite king demonstrated an apparent awareness of Hebrew scripture, or at least the theological issues which gave rise to or came out of those texts, because he uses the specific language of several texts in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Chronicles and frames it as a question in an almost identical way to the book of Joel. Is the writer implying that the Ninevite king was familiar with all these biblical texts? The idea is comical, which may very well be the point of the ridiculousness of the allusions. 

In using these texts in the way he does, the writer simultaneously ridicules the foreigner and makes his question the central issue of the story. The king would certainly have been unaware of one or other of these texts, yet the writer puts words into his mouth with which the reader or listener would have been familiar, implying that he was aware of the theological discussion about these texts. This is a story-telling device which is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Nebuchadnezzar is ridiculed on the one hand, but makes profound statements about God on the other. Naaman, a Syrian military commander, was humiliated by the prophet Elisha, but teaches the king of Israel a valuable lesson at the same time (2 Kings 5). It’s a clever device. It’s easy to ridicule a foreigner, but then to have sophisticated theological truths come from their mouths is akin to saying “See, these stupid idol-worshippers get it, why don’t you?” The audience is first softened by the humour, and in doing so the writer/speaker prepares them to be more receptive to the hard-hitting message that follows. 

[1] Good, Edwin M., Irony in the Old Testament.London: SPCK, 1965, p.50

Making fun of foreign kings (1)


Cameo of Nebuchadnezzar on display in the Florence Museum, dated to 585 BC

Several times in the Hebrew Bible the writers make fun of foreign rulers, often with an interesting twist. Here are two examples which have some striking similarities.

Daniel 3 tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue and how he “sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue” (v.2). And then, in case you missed it, the very next verse says “So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue” (v.3). Then, once all these people had assembled the king makes a proclamation that “when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue” (v.5).  Then, again in case you missed something, “as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up” (v.7). But just to make sure we really get the point, the writer tells us that certain officials came to him and said “You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue …” (v.10). Tiresome as it may be, we get the same list again in verse 15 when the king addresses three Jews: “Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good.” Why do we need such repetition? It seems that the writer is emphasising that the Babylonians had an endless stream of officials and bureaucrats and that everything was done with a great deal of pomposity. He makes fun of it by repeating the long lists of officials and instruments.

The book of Esther begins by explaining that “King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne in the citadel of Susa,  in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all his officials and ministers” (1:3).  Then, at least ten times throughout the book, we are told about banquets. The book is actually structured around these feasts. It’s as though the writer is letting us know that it seems that all the Persian officials do is eat and drink wine! Like repetition in Daniel, the writer of Esther makes fun of the endless feasting of the Persians by mentioning it at every turn in the story.

These are possibly the two best examples of making fun of foreign rulers and their courts in the Hebrew Bible, but there are also other occasions when foreign rulers were ridiculed, suggesting it was a common practice. But these humorous stories often contain a twist and the joke is turned back on the reader or listener. More about that to follow in my next post.

Irony, satire and humour in 1 & 2 Samuel



Samuel anoints Saul. Ridpath, John Clark Cyclopedia of Universal History (Cincinnati, OH: The Jones Brothers Publishing CO., 1885)

To do justice to this subject I would need to write several posts, an entire book perhaps. Indeed, Virginia Ingram wrote an entire PhD thesis on irony and satire in the 9 chapters of 2 Samuel commonly called the “Succession Narrative”. [1] Who knows, perhaps when I’m done with Jonah I will turn my attention to satire elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. In this post I’d like to follow-on with some thoughts introduced in previous posts about whether the ironies in Samuel about good-looking men are part of an ironic style which pervades the book.

The introduction to the “succession narrative” in 2 Samuel 11, for example, says:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

The writer couldn’t have been any clearer in highlighting the remarkable irony that when kings should have been fighting battles king David was at home gazing out of his window at a beautiful woman. The juxtaposition of two opposing ideas like “when kings go out to battle” with “David remained at Jerusalem” is a style the writer uses frequently in this book. In this case it highlights David’s failing as a king. One of the main purposes of a king was to fight battles; it was the expressly stated reason why the people wanted a king in the first place, to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19). Yet David sends his general Joab to do his fighting for him. His affair with Bathsheba sets in train a series of disasters: first an adulterer, he then becomes a murderer, his family is a wreck, his administration of the kingdom is chaotic, there is civil war, his own son leads a coup against him, his friends and family abandon him in droves. And it all began because he wasn’t doing what the people wanted a king to do, and what he was appointed and anointed to do in the first place. As I’ve said before, the writer of 1 & 2 Samuel thinks monarchy is bad for Israel, and he demonstrates this by showing David, the “model” king to be a prime example of why it doesn’t work.

This juxtaposition of opposing ideas is similar to the positioning of the description of David as “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” immediately after the rejection of David’s good-looking brother on the basis that appearance is not important.  The writer of 1 & 2 Samuel seems to deliberately put seemingly contradictory statements side-by-side in order to draw attention to them. A further example of this, earlier in the story about whether or not Israel should have a monarchy, appears in the story about the elders of Israel coming to Samuel and saying “appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). Samuel disliked the idea and prayed about it. The LORD responded by saying to Samuel “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (v.7). In fact he says it twice: “Listen to them” (again in v.9). Samuel returned to the elders and tried to talk them out of the idea, giving a long speech about all the bad things a king would do (vv. 11-18). But the people insisted on having a king, and Samuel prayed about it again. Again the LORD said “Listen to their voice and set a king over them” (v.22). So, having been told three times by God to give them a king, you would think that’s what Samuel would tell the elders. God was in favour and they would get their king. But what does Samuel do? “Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home'” (v.22). Samuel may, in fact, have reported fully about his conversation with God, but if so the writer has chosen not to tell us. He wants to leave the impression that Samuel was still convinced that he was right, and by implication, God was wrong, and he’s not going to tell the people that they will get their king after all! (This may sound shocking, but the prophet Jonah does something very similar, arguing with God about his policy of being compassionate and merciful! Job also argues with God about divine justice, and whether God is just in allowing the righteous to ever suffer. More about this another time). As the story continues, God has to later tell Samuel he’s going to send someone to him to be anointed as king, and he sends Saul to Samuel the next day. Samuel made no effort himself to find a king or even to ask God about it. He just sulks about not getting his way.  What would Samuel have preferred? The writer leaves us in no doubt about that, right at the start of the story: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel” (v.1). He didn’t have a problem with hereditary leadership, he just wanted it to be his own dynasty that ruled Israel!

In this story we have something of a repetition of an incident earlier in Israel’s history, also involving a judge and an attempt to establish a hereditary office. Judges tells the story of the judge Gideon who successfully saved Israel from their enemies. So impressed were the people with his victories that they said to Gideon “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian” (Judges 8:22). Gideon’s reply was theologically almost identical to Samuel’s reaction later: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you” (v.23). However, there is a remarkable irony in the Gideon story in the events that follow. First, Gideon asks for the people to pay him a gold earring each (a tax if you like); then he uses this gold to make an אֵפֹד ephod, which was probably some kind of garment designating a high office (the same word is used to describe the garments of priests, especially the High Priest, and which was used in consulting God and determining the divine will). Then Gideon has a son and names him Abimelech (v.31) which literally means “My father is king”! So, having rejected the office and title of king, Gideon then levies a tax (like a king), produces a garment to designate his high office (like a king), and names his son “My father is king”. After the death of Gideon Abimelech goes about to establish himself as king, clearly on the supposition that Gideon had founded a dynasty.

By appointing his own sons as successors Samuel was following the precedent set by the judge Gideon. Theologically they were on the same page (God is Israel’s king), but in practice they ruled as kings and wanted their sons to rule after them. By using similar language in his story to that used in Judges, the writer of 1 & 2 Samuel is making a literary connection, letting the reader know that history was about to repeat itself. The juxtaposition of God’s words to Samuel, “give them a king”, set against Samuel’s words to the elders of Israel in the finale, “go home”, highlight the irony. Samuel was not opposed to hereditary rulership; he was opposed to the idea that it shouldn’t be his family that would rule! No wonder that Samuel criticised almost everything that king Saul did and undermined his kingship.

Not all irony is humorous, although it can be. However, the repetitive nature of the ironies in 1 & 2 Samuel, highlighted by the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas, tends to ridicule the key characters, principally Samuel and David, and portrays their weaknesses in a somewhat comic way.

[1] “A King and a Fool? Verbal irony in 2 Samuel 11:1-19:8a” 2016, Murdoch University

Biblical humour: left-handed men

Barack_Obama_signs_at_his_desk2_1024A recent article posted on the Biblical Archaeology Society’s site about left-handed people in the Bible put a smile on my face.

The article makes a good observation:

The Hebrew Bible mentions left-handed people on three occasions: the story of Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite king (Judges 3:12–30), the 700 Benjamites who could use the sling with deadly accuracy (Judges 20:16) and the two-dozen ambidextrous warriors who came to support David in Hebron (1 Chronicles 12:2). All of these stories of left-handed people in the Bible appear in military contexts, and, curiously, all involve members of the tribe of Benjamin.

The thing which looks to me to be intentionaly humorous is that all these left-handed men are from the tribe of Benjamin, and Benjamin means “son of my right hand“! There has to be an intentional, and possibly humorous, play on Benjamin’s name there.

In fact, the Bible has so many stories which refer specifically to meanings of names it seems fairly obvious that in some of these stories the name was actually made up to fit the story, or to ridicule a character. For example, in 1 Samuel 25:25 there is an incident concerning Nabal where his wife 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”. 

In Hebrew Nabal נָבָל (pronounced Naval) means “foolish”, “worthless” or “good for nothing”. [1]  Since it is unlikely his parents hated him so much as to call him “fool” from birth, so scholars discuss 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. Zeev Weisman deals specifically with the case of Naval as one of several pejorative names which ridiculed and smeared the bearers, noting that there is also a phonic association between the name Naval and the wordנַבֶל  (navel) wineskin which may be behind the account of Naval’s death: “In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Naval [like an empty wineskin, a navel], his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him”(36-37). [2]

There is certainly some wordplay going on here, and wordplay in the Hebrew Bible is often not just a case of being clever with words, but also of being playful with words in order to ridicule a character or simply to inject some humour in to the story.

[1] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 663

[2] Zeev Weisman, Political Satire in the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1998), 15-6.

Does God like handsome men? (2)

King-of-EgyptIn my previous post I asked the question what is going on in the story of the choosing of David as king, where God told Samuel not to choose someone based on their appearance, and then tells him that he has chosen David, noting that he was handsome and had beautiful eyes. The two comments stand so closely together in the text it seems to me that the writer is clearly wanting the reader/listener to note the irony. This kind of irony is relatively common in several books of the Hebrew Bible, including 1 and 2 Samuel. (Irony can be humorous, although not necessarily so. Whether or not it’s funny will depend on the listener’s perspective.)

It is probably not coincidence that nearly all of the good-looking people in Samuel are in David’s immediate family: his brother Eliab, his sons Absalom (2 Sam 14:25) and Adonijah, his daughter Tamar (2 Sam 13:1), Absalom’s daughter (also named Tamar 2 Sam 14:27), his wife Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2) and his third wife Abigail (1 Sam 25:3). David’s predecessor Saul was also described as “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Sam 19:2). The books of Samuel go to great lengths to compare and contrast Saul and David and to legitimate David’s kingship by highlighting Saul’s failings. There is a hint of this in the comment about Eliab: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him” (1 Sam 16:7) which mirrors the words about Saul in the opening words “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel” (v.1). When we get repetition of words or phrases in the Hebrew Bible, especially when they stand so closely together, it seems that the writer is almost certainly making a point of some kind.

Yet, when it comes to good looks, both Saul and David were noted for being very handsome. The unnamed [Davidic] king praised in Psalm 45 is described as “the most handsome of men” (v.2), splendid and majestic (v.3) and a casual reference in Judges 8:18 to certain men who “resembled the sons of a king” also suggests that being good-looking was a common feature of royals. Could it be that the writer(s) of Samuel was also comparing Saul and David with the comments about looks? Yes Saul was handsome, and tall, but David’s whole family were good looking! Or could it be that the writer, who apparently was not keen on the institution of monarchy at all, was making a sarcastic comment about kings? No matter how good-looking they are, kings aren’t good for Israel! I’m inclined towards this second view as the story of David is full of ironies and satire. Even though he is regarded later in the books of Samuel and Kings as the ‘benchmark’ for kings, against whom all the kings of Israel and Judah were compared, the writer goes to great length to show how deeply flawed he was. If the narrator was telling us that Saul’s good looks were actually a flaw, then David (and his family) were even more fatally flawed!

A note about similar words being paralleled in the biblical narratives for effect: I mentioned in the previous post that Joseph was also described as being handsome and good-looking (Genesis 39:6). In that story his good looks get him in to trouble, as he is seduced by the wife of an Egyptian official. But there is a striking parallel between the description of Joseph and his mother Rachel (Genesis 29:17). Joseph is described in Hebrew as יְפֵה־תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶֽה and his mother Rachel as יְפֵה־תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶֽה. Can you see the difference? There is none! Is this coincidence, is the writer hinting that Joseph was effeminate in his appearance, or is he deliberately hinting that in both cases their beauty caused them problems? There is another striking parallel in a story involving Joseph: Pharoah’s dream about 7 ‘sleek’ cows being eaten by 7 ‘ugly’ cows (Gen 41:1-4). The Hebrew word translated ‘sleek’ is יָפֶה, the same word that is translated ‘handsome’ or ‘beautiful’ elsewhere, and in the descriptions of Rachel and Joseph.  Why handsome and ugly cows? Why not just fat and thin? Is the writer making an ironical comment about human appearances, or having some fun (at Joseph’s expense) about what happens to people with good looks?

Biblical humour – does God like handsome men?

david-headSome of the biblical writers seem to have an obsession with how people look. For example, we read that “Joseph was handsome and good-looking” (Genesis 39:6), that Saul was “a handsome young man” (1 Samuel 9:2), in fact “there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he”. David’s son Adonijah “was also a very handsome man” (1 Kings 1:6). Ezekiel describes the Assyrian warriors as “all of them handsome young men” (23:6, 12, 23), and he was so impresed he uses this description three times within a few verses! Daniel and his friends were described as “without physical defect and handsome” (1:4), and 4 Maccabees tells the horrific story of the torture and murder of four handsome brothers (8:3ff). Are these just casual observations, or is there something more to the story?

One story at least seems to have a touch of humour, or irony at least. In 1 Samuel 16 we have the well known story of Samuel choosing the future king from the family of Jesse. He begins with Jesse’s firstborn, Eliab, but God says to Samuel “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (v.7). We know the story ends with Samuel choosing and anointing David because the Lord said “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one” (v.12). The funny bit comes just before that: “Now he [David] was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” So, having said he doesn’t look on the outward appearance, the Lord then chose the one who has handsome and with beautiful eyes! What’s going on there?

Continue reading … part 2

The Bible’s one and only fart joke (maybe)

I knew as soon as I mentioned it in passing someone would want to know immediately about the alleged ‘fart joke’ in the Bible. Ok, unless you’ve already googled it, here it is, but I should warn you that if you’re wondering why you haven’t seen it already it may because you need to know Hebrew, and Akkadian!

The story begins in Judges 1:11-15 (which is actually repeated from Joshua 15:15-19) where Caleb (one of the famous ‘two good spies’) offers a prize to whoever successfully conquers the city of Kiriath-sepher. The prize? His daughter Achsah as wife. As the story goes, it may have been better if Caleb consulted Achsah about this first, because she wan’t entirely happy about being given away to a hardened soldier as a trophy. The prize-winner was Othniel (later to become one of the famous judges in the book of Judges), Caleb’s nephew (and therefore Achsah’s cousin).

Achsah may have been a great prize for Othniel, but she wasn’t entirely satisfied with the deal herself and wanted something more, so she urges her cousin-now-husband to ask her father for some real estate to sweeten the deal. As the story goes, they come to Caleb and she dismounts from her donkey, prompting Caleb to ask “What do you wish?” (v.14). This is an odd question to ask in response to his daughter getting off her donkey! She asks for some land as a present, and receives it. (And it’s interesting, in passing, that it was Achsah, not Othniel, who did the asking, even though she’d tried to persuade her new hubby to put some pressure on the father-in-law).

The phrase וַתִּצְנַח מֵעַל הַחֲמוֹר “she dismounted from her donkey” includes a verb which occurs only here (in both accounts in Joshua 15:18 and Judges 1:14) and a couple chapters later in Judges 4:21, so translators are at best guessing with their translations. It’s an old problem and the earliest known translation (the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) says instead “she cried out from the donkey” (Joshua 15:18), or “she grumbled” (Judges 1:14) which are hardly the same as dismounting. The Septuagint translators may have misread ותצנח as ותצרח she cried, [1] or perhaps they read it right and another copyist read it wrong, and our Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew Bible has descended from the copy with the mistake.

You’re probably becoming a tad impatient at this point and just want me to get to the fart joke! The eminent Biblical scholar Sir Godfrey Rolles Driver noticed a similarity with the Akkadian (Babylonian) word ṣanāḥu which he argued was the Akkadian term for farting, and so he translated the Hebrew as “she broke wind”, suggesting Achsah farted as a sign of her disgust and that was sufficiently clear to her father that he asked his otherwise odd question. One major English translation (the New English Bible) picked this up and included it in their translation. This may not be surprising, however, as G.R. Driver was the Convenor of the NEB Old Testament Committee! (and they dropped it in a later revision in favour of “she dismounted”).

As you may suspect, Driver’s translation received quite a bit of scholarly attention at the time and a fair bit of opposition, and hardly rates a mention in commentaries these days. It’s even been suggested that Driver was playing a joke of his own in slipping a fart joke into the Bible!

[1] As HALOT suggests. Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Study ed. Leiden: Brill, 2001, 1038.

(Toilet) Humour in the Bible

I haven’t been blogging very often for quite some time now, mainly because I’ve been focussed on writing my thesis. However, a friend recently suggested that I should blog about my thesis (which is about possible satire and humour in the book of Jonah), but as I need a distraction from reading and writing about Jonah I’ve decided instead to write a series of posts about a subject which is indirectly related to it. So, I’m planning to post a series here about possible humour elsewhere in the Bible. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that scholars really began to accept that the Bible might contain humour at all. This is probably not surprising because, after all, the Bible is a religious text and religion is serious business! No one really thought there could be anything ‘funny’ in sacred texts.  That probably began to change with articles such as Knapp’s Traces of Humor in the Sayings of Jesus  [1]  which tentatively suggested a small handful of Jesus’ sayings contained traces of humour. These days, humour in the Gospels is much more generally recognised, and it goes well beyond the small handful of texts suggested by Knapp, and some scholars are discovering possible humour in all sorts of places in the Hebrew Bible as well, sometimes in unexpected places.

Many scholars are still cautious about the types of humour we might find in the Bible. Even an interpreter such as Yehuda Radday who has done excellent work on identifying humour in the Bible, fails to recognise some cases of humour because he assumes that biblical humour is “never scatological or frivolous” [2]. “Scatological” is a polite way of saying “toilet humour”. In doing so he misses at least four likely cases of toilet humour in the Bible:

  1. In the Eglon incident in Judges 3:12-30 the King of Moab goes to “a well ventilated room” (v. 20 NET translation) and despite a lengthy delay his guards assume he was simply “relieving himself” (v. 24). The well-ventilated room was clearly his toilet, and his assassination while on the toilet is probably an attempt by the writer to ridicule or belittle him.
  2. Isaac in Genesis 24:63 went to the field  ַלָשׂוּח “to meditate”, a possible euphemism for relieving himself [3], which explains why meeting his future wife under these circumstances was somewhat awkward.
  3. Similarly in 1 Kings 18:27 the Hebrew uses a similar and possibly related word שִׂיחַ  to mock Baal. Elijah suggests to the prophets of Baal to “cry louder” because their god might be ‘meditating’ (or, ‘on the toilet’).
  4. Belshazzar in Daniel 5:6 apparently experienced sudden incontinence: וְקִטְרֵי חַרְצֵהּ מִשְׁתָּרַיִן “the knots of his loins were untied”, and his mother later (v.12) referred to the embarrassing incident with a double entendre, referring to Daniel as וּמְשָׁרֵא קִטְרִין one who “solves problems” or, more literally, “unties knots”. [4]

I read recently that the oldest known joke is, in fact, a fart joke. (Incidentally, the Bible may include a fart joke as well, but more on that later). So it shouldn’t be surprising that a collection of ancient texts such as the Bible should contain toilet humour. Now that I have the toilet humour out of the way I can write about other types of humour in the Hebrew Bible.


[1] The Biblical World, Vol. 29, No. 3, March 1907, pp. 201-207

[2] Yehuda T. Radday, “On Missing the Humour in the Bible,” in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (eds. Radday and Brenner; Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990), 38.

[3] Kaminsky regards the Isaac incident as part of a pattern of “scatological and other, even cruder forms of humor” in the Isaac narrative. In support of his argument he cites Rendsburg who suggests that this word has something to do with urination or defecation. (Kaminsky, J. S. “Humor and the Theology of Hope: Isaac as a Humorous Figure.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 54, no. 4 (2000): 363-375. p. 369 n20.)

[4] Al Wolters, “Untying the King’s Knots: Physiology and Wordplay in Daniel 5,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 1 (1991).

Heman, the afterlife and the “shades” of the dead (Psalm 88)

Following on from my last post, it seems that while we don’t know the cause of Heman’s death, it appears that he was afflicted with a disease from a relatively early age and had been slowly dying for a long time: “afflicted and close to death from my youth up” (v. 15). It’s possible, of course, that he was exaggerating his situation and may have been overly dramatic (although he did die from it!), but in the process of describing his condition, which as I suggested earlier may have caused an untimely and perhaps sudden death, the writer gives us an interesting list of synonyms for the afterlife.

The Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) doesn’t say much after the afterlife, and there is certainly nothing to suggest that the writers had any concept of souls living on after death in heaven or hell. The idea of some souls going to a place of reward while others go to a place of punishment is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible and while it later became popular with Christian and some Jewish writers the idea doesn’t have any roots in the Hebrew Bible. Even the idea of a physical resurrection of the body at some point after death was a relatively late development. The only place in the Hebrew Bible which seems to clearly suggest the idea is the book of Daniel although there may also be a hint of it in Isaiah. Daniel describes a time of trouble such as never was, to be followed by a “resurrection” (12:1-3):

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

This text poses a few questions. What does it mean to “sleep in the dust of the earth”? Is the writer describing death, or something else? Is his description of these people waking up similar to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37), which is a metaphor for the national restoration of the nation of Israel, or is he describing something else?  Who are these “wise” ones who will shine? What does it mean to “shine like the brightness of the sky” or “like the stars”? Is this literal or figurative? The writer of Daniel may very well have been describing the restoration to positions of power or influence of a group he knows as “the wise ones”, in a way similar to Ezekiel’s description of the revival of the nation. Or, he may have been describing the actual coming to life again of people who have died. If the latter, then this is probably the earliest mention of resurrection in the Bible, and, as Daniel was almost certainly written in the period of the Maccabees around 164BCE, it would suggest that the idea of resurrection was a late development in pre-Christian Jewish thought.

There may also be a hint of a similar idea in Isaiah 26:19

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.

This verse is part of a poetic description of a time of crisis for the nation of Judah, and, similar to Ezekiel and Daniel, it may be describing a revival of the nation following the crisis. Or, it could be describing a physical bodily resurrection of certain individuals. If so, its position within this poetic piece would certainly be odd. Either way, we can’t be certain. (I dealt earlier with a text in Job which appears to refer to resurrection, and argued that it does nothing of the sort).

Apart from these possible references to resurrection, the Hebrew Bible says nothing about the dead going to places of reward or punishment. In fact, it says little at all about the afterlife. One thing is clear: the writers of the Hebrew Bible thought everyone at death goes to the same place, and this place is most often described by the Hebrew word sheol.

Psalm 88 is interesting because of the number of synonyms it uses for sheol and the way it describes the state of the dead:

  • my life draws near to Sheol (v.3)
  • I am counted among those who go down to the pit (v.4)
  • like one set loose among the dead (v.5)
  • like the slain that lie in the grave (v.5)
  • like those whom you remember no more (v.5)
  • they are cut off from your hand (v.5)
  • You have put me in the depths of the pit (v.6)
  • in the regions dark and deep (v.6)
  • in the grave (v.11)
  • in Abaddon (place of destruction) (v.11)
  • in the darkness (v.12)
  • in the land of forgetfulness (v.12)

While this description doesn’t tell us a lot about sheol it does suggest that normal consciousness doesn’t continue and that people who go there forget and are forgotten. However, in the midst of this description the writer uses a strange expression in a (rhetorical?) question about whether anyone in sheol praises God (verse 10):

Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?

The expression here translated “the dead” appears earlier in verse 5 where it is translated the same way  – it is a common Hebrew word for the dead, מתים metim from the root meaning “to die”. But it is followed here by a term translated variously as “the dead” (KJV), “the departed” (ESV), or “the shades” (NRSV). Here the word is רפאים rephaim. This word is used in the Hebrew Bible as a person’s name, and for a race of giants who inhabited the land before the conquest under Joshua [1]. There are also a few places where it seems to refer to the dead [2].  Its meaning is uncertain and some translations use the term “shades” (a popular Hebrew dictionary gives the translation “shades, ghosts, name of dead in She’ôl” [3]). However, the Septuagint, an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, presents a completely different idea:

Wilt thou work wonders for the dead? or shall physicians raise them up, that they shall praise thee?

Where does this translation “physicians” come from? The Hebrew word רפאים rephaim comes from the root רפא rapha = to heal and the plural noun for physician or healer would be spelled the same way as our word for “the departed” in verse 11. It’s understandable why the Septuagint translators thought the writer of Psalm 88 was asking a rhetorical question and saying something like “once someone is dead surely it’s too late for a physician to work a miracle!”

So where did the translation “the departed” come from? The references to the race of giants may provide a clue, as do the so-called Rephaim texts from Ugarit. These texts, in Ugaritic, a semitic language which has many similarities with Hebrew, refer to a group of people called rephaim whose identity is still a mystery, but may be a group of princely or divine beings, or the spirits of the dead. Some scholars argue that these Ugaritic texts are “conclusive” in identifying the rephaim as the spirits of the dead [4], while others argue from the same texts that they are almost certainly gods, minor deities who served as acolytes of Baal, or cultic functionaries who accompany the king [5]. The connection between them, and with the root רפא to heal is most likely that one of the titles of El was “the healer” (which was also a title of YHVH, the god of Israel, e.g. Exodus 25:6), from the same root, so his acolytes were also described as “healers”. By extension, it is argued, the term for these gods was eventually also applied to (some of) the dead who also took on a god-like status.

In my view, the Septuagint translation is most convincing. It suggests that at the time it was translated (3rd century BCE), there was still no place in Judaism for “departed spirits” in sheol and that the dead had no memory or ability to praise God.


[1] Gen. 14:5; 15:20; Deut.2:11, 20; 3:11 ,13; Josh. 12:4; 13:12; 17:15.

[2] Isa. 14:9; 26:14, 19; Ps. 88:11; Prov. 2:19; 9:18; 21:16; Job 26:5.

[3] Brown, Francis, Samuel R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

[4] For example, Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Study ed. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

[5] L’Heureux, Conrad. “The Ugaritic and Biblical Rephaim.” The Harvard Theological Review 67, no. 3 (1974): 265-274. 


The Ezrahite Psalms (88 & 89)

Two psalms are attributed to “Ezrahites” – the superscription to Psalm 88 says it is “A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” and Psalm 89 “A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite”. Book III of the psalter (Psalms is made up of 5 books) concludes with these two psalms.

Psalm 88, as it stands in the Masoretic Text and all the ancient versions, attributes authorship to both “the Korahites” (בני קרח is literally “sons of Korah”) and to “Heman the Ezrahite”. James Thirtle [1] argued that the phrase “A song, a psalm of Korahites”, should be placed at the end of Psalm 87 which is explicitly described in its superscription as “Of the Korahites; a psalm; a song”, leaving the title “a maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” in place as the title of Psalm 88. He cited Franz Delitzsch who commented that there are here “alongside of one another two different statements” as to the origin of one psalm, and asked “which notice is the more trustworthy?” [2] This explanation creates the difficulty that Psalm 87 would then be the only psalm to have an almost identical description in both its superscript and postscript, although this would be less of a difficulty than Psalm 88 being attributed to two different authors, and it frees Psalm 88 from its awkward association with the Korahites as it differs from the other Korahite psalms in content. [3]

Psalm 88 is distinguished as possibly the most negative, pessimistic psalm in the Bible! The writer complains that his life is miserable, that he is at the point of death, and, in a very Job-like way, describes his situation as being abhorent to his companions who shun him. He further complains that God has turned away from him, and blames God for his misfortunes. It ends abruptly without a glimmer of hope.

It’s not unusual for writers of Psalms to complain about their situation. In fact, “complaints” are the largest category of psalms. Typically, however, these psalms end with the writer turning to God in their misery and praising him for delivering them from their calamity. Not Psalm 88! Heman doesn’t have a positive word to say about his situation and he has apparently has no reason to praise God. So what went wrong? Why is this psalm different? My theory is that it’s an unfinished work and that the writer died before it was completed. Having described his situation as worsening, and complaining that he was at the point of death, it makes sense that he abruptly died!

Perhaps Psalm 89 was an attempt by a relative to “balance” the despair and hopelessness of Heman’s complaint with a more positive and hopeful psalm. It opens by praising God for his steadfast love and is mostly positive throughout.


[1] James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained. London: Henry Frowde, 1904, p13-14

[2] Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on Psalms (trans. Bolton; Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint 1973), vol iii, 24

[3] Bruce K. Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 4 (1991): 592

SBL International Meeting in Berlin

I am planning to be at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) International Meeting in Berlin Germany this coming August. If anyone who reads this blog also plans to be there I’d love to meet up.

I will be presenting a paper on my research in Jonah:

“Should not I pity Nineveh?” – the concluding conundrum in the book of Jonah

Abstract: The book of Jonah is one of only two biblical books which end with a question in most English translations. Arguably, the most sophisticated theology in the book is also expressed in the form of a question (“Who knows? God may turn and relent …”).

But do the translators interpret the concluding verse correctly? As the phrase lacks the usual interrogative markers some scholars have challenged this common reading and have argued that it is declarative.  This paper looks at the function of questions in the book of Jonah, and examines whether the conclusion is best read as interrogative or declarative within this context. It has been argued that a declarative reading of this phrase would reverse its meaning and the theology of the book of Jonah and that this alone would invalidate an affirmative reading. However, the use of irony in a work frequently acknowledged to be replete with irony, satire and comic elements should influence our reading of the conclusion. If the conclusion to the book is an affirmation, rather than a question, could God’s lack of concern for Nineveh be read as a further irony?

This paper looks at the use of irony, satire and comic elements in the book and how an affirmative conclusion works in this context, and offers an interpretation of the theology and message of the book which is consistent with an affirmative conclusion.

The binding of Isaac (2)

I think the Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides was on to something when he argued that Abraham ‘misunderstood’ God when he attempted to sacrifice Isaac. A variation of the idea was proposed in an article by Curt Leviant titled “Abraham’s Failed Test” [1]. Leviant emphasised the importance of reading the story in context, and pointed to an earlier dialogue between God and Abraham when Abraham ‘negotiated’ with God to save the corrupt city of Sodom if there was even just a handful of righteous people there. Throughout the story of Abraham in Genesis there is an interesting sub-theme in the way God talks with Abraham. The story begins with God telling Abraham (then named Abram) to leave his home-city of Ur and his relatives and travel to a place he would show him. The journey takes many years as Abram stops along the way, and takes family members with him. God doesn’t speak with him again until he reaches the ‘promised land’ and parts company with his last relative, his nephew Lot. Thereafter we find God speaking with Abraham with increasing frequency. But after the attempted sacrifice of Isaac the communication stops – God never speaks with him again. Even the order not to kill his son comes through an angel, rather than God himself. It seems that God was disappointed with Abraham and never spoke to him again.

But that’s not all. It also seems that his wife Sarah didn’t speak with him again. At the end of the story about the binding of Isaac the writer tells us that Abraham went to live in Beer-Sheba (Genesis 22:19) but soon after we find him travelling to Hebron where his wife Sarah had died (23:1).  They weren’t living together apparently. Why not? Was Sarah annoyed with him because of his attempt to sacrifice her only child? We don’t read of any interaction between Abraham and Isaac either. Abraham arranged a marriage for him, but Isaac appeared to be living away from his father. Reading between the lines it seems the family was fractured and Abraham’s relationship with God deteriorated.

If this was a ‘test’ it appears, as Leviant suggested, that Abraham failed the test. He should have negotiated with God, as he did for the corrupt city of Sodom. Or, if he misunderstood, as Maimonides suggested, then God was disappointed, or annoyed, that Abraham didn’t speak up for his son’s life as he did for Sodom. Either way, the story highlights that the ‘heroes’ of the Hebrew Bible are mostly deeply flawed men. They are not meant to be role models, but examples of how God works to achieve his purposes through people who are hardly ideal, often flawed, sometimes corrupt or incompetent, and always very human.

  1. Leviant, Curt. “Abraham’s failed test.” Midstream 56, no. 3 (2010): 31. 31

The binding of Isaac (1)

Sacrifice of Isaac

Sacrifice of Isaac (Sacrificio d’Isacco) by Caravaggio c. 1598

How could a good God tell a father to sacrifice his son? I’ve heard it asked several times (mostly by atheists) referring to the biblical story of Abraham’s (attempted) sacrifice of his son Isaac. It comes across to me as a smug question, but not a clever one.

Richard Dawkins referred to it as a “disgraceful story” and as “child abuse”. He said “As it turns out God was only joking after all, ‘tempting’ Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: ‘I was only following orders.'” [1]

Let me say first that while Christians often speak of the sacrifice of Isaac, Jews generally refer to this incident as the Akedah – the binding of Isaac (as Isaac wasn’t actually sacrificed). To me, there are a couple of really interesting things about the binding of Isaac. First, it portrays Abraham in a bad light and I think it’s significant that the Hebrew Bible portrays its main characters as deeply flawed human beings, not as ‘saints’ or extraordinary people. Second, this story forms part of a book which condemns human sacrifice. So why would a book which condemns child sacrifice include an incident where one of its ‘heroes’ appears to be doing just that?

The Hebrew Bible is incredibly sophisticated literature. Its authors were clearly not stupid. It is inconceivable that they wouldn’t have noticed a glaring ‘contradiction’ like this (if, in fact, it is a contradiction). It seems to me that to dismiss this story as evidence that either (a) there is no god, or (b) if there is a god then he/she/it is ‘immoral’, is to take the lazy way out. I am much more interested in why the authors decided to include a story which portrays their patriarch and their god in such a shockingly confronting way, especially when the same authors condemn the very thing they are reporting.

I think we should take note of the conflicts in the story (call them ‘contradictions’ if you like, although I personally don’t think it’s a good word because they appear to be quite intentional rather than accidental), and there are several of them. Abraham ‘the saint’ is juxtaposed against Abraham ‘the sinner’ on several occasions throughout Genesis and the deliberateness of it has to be saying something. We should also note a couple of ‘contradictions’ within this incident. First, when Abraham arrives at Moriah he tells his servants to wait for them: “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” We are meant to take note that both Abraham and Isaac would return. Abraham either didn’t plan to sacrifice Isaac, or he fully expected something to happen (the NT says he expected a resurrection) and Isaac would be coming back. So premeditated murder is a long way from the mind of the author(s).

Second, there is the question of why Abraham was initially told by God to do something, but then accepted God’s directive being overruled by an angel, a lesser spiritual being. That also has to be deliberate and shouldn’t be ignored.

The medieval Jewish rabbis pointed out that the Hebrew text doesn’t actually have God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (although the English translations usually do), and that Abraham ‘misunderstood’. That would go someway further in portraying Abraham as ‘flawed’ and would be consistent with other aspects of the story. It might also explain why the storyteller then has God refusing to speak to the obtuse Abraham, and delivers his next message through his agent instead.

The words “and offer him there for a burnt offering” translate just three words in the Hebrew text (or two actually, because one word is repeated). The Hebrew word translated “offer” was used later in Israel’s history for burnt offerings, but comes from a root which literally means “to go up” (hence it was later used in the evolution of the language for offerings whose smoke ‘went up’). The word is used twice: והעלהו שם לעלה (you may notice the three letters עלה repeated in the first and last word of the phrase – they are just variations of the same word), which might literally mean “offer him there as an offering” (that kind of repetition is not unusual in Hebrew), but could mean, as the Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides pointed out, an emphatic “bring him up” (the mountain). There was no further instruction about what to do when they got there – Abraham ‘misunderstood’ the intention.

I should clarify that I wasn’t suggesting the translators got it wrong. In fact, the Hebrew והעלהו שם לעלה would quite naturally read as “offer him there as an offering”, especially in light of later usage. In pointing out Maimonides’ alternative reading I was trying to make the point that Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have wrestled with the many questions raised by this text for centuries. It doesn’t seem the least bit clever to me that an atheist should raise this incident as some kind of dilemma for believers when believers themselves have been discussing the ethical issues since at least the first century. The point I am making is that the text reads (to me) to be intentionally confronting and that the writer is deliberately raising serious ethical questions. We should note that Genesis is a narrative preamble to a legal document and carefully lays the foundation for why Israel ‘needed’ the law, and why their law should be different to the other ancient near eastern nations (who frequently offered human sacrifices, which Israel’s law denounced). I personally think it is much more enriching to explore the issues that the narrative raises, rather than smugly poking fun at believers as though they hadn’t noticed the problem.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 242

… to be continued

I’m still here

A student asked me today if I have any plans to post anything again on my blog. I guess it has been quite a while. My answer to him was that blogs are a real dilemma for PhD candidates. We tend to be pretty focussed on the subject of our research and have a kind of tunnel-vision which sometimes makes it difficult to write (or think) about anything else. On the one hand blogging about other subjects could be a much-needed healthy distraction (although I have no problem finding distractions!) On the other hand, distractions can be very time-consuming so we become riddled with guilt because we are not working on our thesis whilever we write about anything else.

There is also a fear that if we write about our research we will give away our best ideas and someone else will beat us to the post and publish our ideas before we submit our thesis, meaning our work is longer ‘original’. So we want to keep that stuff to ourselves, but feel that the rest is not interesting enough to blog about. Many PhD candidates are strangely silent in the blogosphere, while others seem to find the time and inclination to blog about anything and everything. I don’t know how they do it. Every time I’ve convinced myself to start blogging again the effort lasts a few days or at best a few weeks, and then I fall silent again.

I probably gave him the impression that I’m not likely to be blogging again for a while, so, just to contradict myself, I’m going to post something!

By the way, I’d be interested to hear from fellow PhD candidates, or those who have gone before us, how you feel about blogging while working on a thesis.

Titles of Psalms (Postscript 2)

The use of על in Psalm titles

This post is a more ‘technical’ note and readers without a working knowledge of biblical Hebrew may choose to gloss over it.

As על occurs in several psalm titles it needs to be considered in further detail.[1] Herbert May argues that על is a rubric which should be given a relatively uniform interpretation referring to “the title of the ancient melodies to which the psalm was sung, indicated by the first words or word of the ancient hymn from which they were taken”. He further argues in relation to the occurrence of על in the Psalm titles that “It is not impossible that as a result of outside influences on the temple cult, especially on the music – for it is with the music that this rubric [על] is probably to be associated – changes in the temple cult made this rubric obsolete, so that its significance was forgotten, although it was still inscribed in the superscriptions.”[2] Others have also argued that the same may be true of other terms in the Psalm titles whose meanings have been lost. Thirtle, on the other hand, objects to על being interpreted as relating to a tune, arguing that it means on, concerning, or related to but cannot mean set to. A similar term, אֶל, also occurs in some psalm titles: for example, the Psalm 79 postscript (Ps 80:1) has אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים עֵדוּת which here could mean to or possibly in connection with. It should be noted that the interchange of על and אל is a well known phenomenon in biblical texts.[3] However, Thirtle argues that they should be distinguished in the Psalm titles and given different meanings, so he may not have been aware of this phenomenon or he was overly optimistic about the MT’s preservation of linguistic details. [4] In the אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת psalms (56, 57, 58, 74 [postscripts]) the particle עַל gives way to אַל although here, according to several translations, it is used as a negative particle, namely do not destroy.[5] All occurrences of על or אל are in Books I to III, mostly in the Davidic and Elohistic collections. According to Thirtle’s thesis they all occur in postscripts to the preceding psalm, with the exception of על־דברי־כוש בן־ימיני concerning the words of Cush the Benjamite. This is found in the superscript of Psalm 7 and appears to be a historical title.[6] The difficulty here is that this would be the only use of על in the Psalm titles as an historical referent. Childs argues that the preposition rather indicates that Psalm 7 “is to be sung ‘according to the words of Cush’ … and belongs to a liturgical setting.” If he is right then this is actually not an historical title.[7] It would still, however, be the only occurrence of the על rubric in a superscript rather than a postscript.


[1] See Table below

[2] May, “‘AL….’ in the Superscriptions of the Psalms,” 71-72.

[3] Ian Young, et al., Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008), Vol 1, 40.

[4] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 126.

[5] It should be noted that in these superscriptions the MT has אַל (rather than אֶל).

[6] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), drawing on Talmudic sources (BT Mo’ed Qatan 16b and Midrash Tehillim), regards the term “Cush” to be a reference to Saul and the historical context to be David’s cutting of Saul’s garment in 1 Samuel 24:6. Mayer I. Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms 1-89 (Books I-III): With English Translation, Introduction and Notes (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 69, 71.

[7] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 138.

Table: The אל/על rubric

Title אל Psalm (postscript except where indicated) Collection
אל־הנחילות אל 4 Book I Davidic
עַֽל־הַשְּׁמִינִית 5, 11 Book I Davidic
עַל־דִּבְרֵי־כוּשׁ בֶּן־יְמִינִֽי

(Possibly an historical title: “Concerning the words of Cush the Benjamite”)

7 (superscript) Book I Davidic
עַֽל־הַגִּתִּית 7



Book I Davidic

Book III Asaph

Book III Elohistic

עַל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים 44


Book II Korahite/Elohistic

Book II Davidic

עַֽל־עֲלָמֹות 45 Book II Korahite/Elohistic
עַֽל־מָחֲלַת 52 Book II Davidic
עַל־יֹונַת אֵלֶם רְחֹקִים 55 Book II Davidic
אַל־תַּשְׁחֵת אל 56, 57, 58


Book II Davidic

Book II Asaph

עַל־שׁוּשַׁן עֵדוּת 59 Book II Davidic
עַֽל־נְגִינַת 60 Book II Davidic
עַֽל־יְדוּתוּן 38



Book I Davidic

Book II Davidic

Book III Asaph

אֶל־שֹׁשַׁנִּים עֵדוּת אל 79 Book III Asaph
עַל־מָחֲלַת לְעַנֹּות 87 Book III Elohistic

Titles of Psalms (Postscript 1)

Collections of Psalms within the Psalter

It would be clear to any reader that the book of Psalms contains several groupings with common authorship or style, or similar themes. Many translations provide headings for the five major groups as Book 1, Book 2, etc. Within these five books there appears to be other collections such as ‘Songs of Ascent’. It is possible that some or all of these groups of psalms existed independently at some stage and were brought into the book of Psalms in the process of bringing together a larger collection.

The following table may be helpful for understanding the various “collections” within the final form of the “Book of Psalms”. The “Davidic collection” refers to psalms with the title le-David which is discussed elsewhere.

“Elohistic” psalms are those which use the title “elohim” but not the name of God (Psalms which use the divine name are often called “Yahwistic” psalms). It is possible that these psalms were written using the elohim title and never contained the divine name. It is also possible that at some stage an editor decided to replace the divine name with elohim. There is evidence in the Psalter that an ancient editor replaced the divine name in some Psalms with elohim, especially in the group of psalms 42-83. In at least one case both versions (the older “Yahwistic” psalm as well as the edited elohistic one) were kept in the final form of the Psalter. Psalms 14 and 53 are very similar, with the major difference being that Psalm 53 uses elohim while Psalm 14 uses the divine name. Psalm 82 also shows some evidence of having being altered at some stage to remove the divine name. The Elohistic psalms may have been written or compiled for the use of a group within Israel which preferred elohim over the divine name and these collections were later absorbed into the book of Psalms. This editing may have occurred in the period in which Israel began to avoid pronunciation of the divine name. (There are some hints in the book of Daniel that it was also written against a similar background as it shows a preference for adonai over the divine name.)

Structure of the Psalter

Books (Postexilic division) Collections Psalms Stage of redaction[1]




Davidic collection 3-41 Exilic


Elohistic collection 42-83 Exilic
Korahite collection (part of Elohistic collection) 42-49 Later preexilic
Davidic collection 51-72 Exilic


Asaph collection 78-83 Later preexilic
Elohistic collection 84-89 Exilic


YHVH Enthronement 96-99 Later preexilic


Davidic collection 108-110 Exilic
Hallelujah psalms

(Only in Books IV and V)

111-118 Later preexilic
Songs of Ascent 120-134 Exilic
Davidic collection 138-145 Exilic
FRAME Five-fold Doxology 146-150 Post-exilic

[1] According to Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 29.

Titles of Psalms (6)


There are several implications in Thirtle’s thesis for the study of the development of the Psalter. Thirtle agrees with many scholars that the original use of several terms in the Psalms titles had been lost before the time of the LXX translation “as is evident from the disordered state in which they are presented even at that age”, and argues that it then follows that these titles must be very old: if the liturgical terms attached to the psalms are archaic, then it is likely that the psalms themselves were also ancient.[1] He concludes from this that almost the whole of the Psalter is very old.[2] However, almost all the Psalms assigned to “the chief musician” and containing musical notations or the על rubric are contained in the first three books, mostly in the Davidic, Elohistic and Asaph collections, and while Gerstenberger asserts that these psalms were redacted in the exilic or late preexilic periods,[3] a case could also be made for at least some of them being written in the monarchic period. We cannot conclude from this, as Thirtle does, that this is evidence for almost the entire Psalter being from the earlier period. It is arguable that the majority of historical titles are from the exilic or post-exilic periods, and the LXX and Qumran provide evidence of a growing later tendency to attribute psalms to David or to at least make connections to Davidic events or themes. The evidence from Qumran in fact, suggests that Books I to III were stabilised by the beginning of the Qumran period and that Books IV and V remained fluid into the first century CE. The almost complete absence of the rubrics למנצח ,עלמות ,על־ששנים ,שגיון, and על in these later books may support Thirtle’s claim that the key to their understanding was lost early, or it could suggest that they were regarded as archaisms and no longer relevant in the period when the Psalter was completed and stabilised.

David Carr refers to the difficulty of dating biblical psalms, specifically the royal psalms, and urges caution in identifying early monarchic materials in the psalms.[4] While proceeding cautiously he follows by noting that, even if some of the psalms originated in the early monarchic period, “they also have undergone centuries of oral-written tradition before being incorporated into the later Hebrew Bible”.[5]

Some aspects of Thirtle’s work are tenuous, such as his identification of גתית gittith (Pss 8, 81, 84) as pertaining to Tabernacles and ששנים shoshannim (Pss 45, 69) to Passover, and that the psalms with these terms in their titles were to be sung on these occasions. However, he argues convincingly that the rubrics למנצח and על indicate that these psalms were intended for cultic purposes, and should be placed as postscripts to the preceding psalms. The evidence from the LXX and Qumran is that the meaning and cultic purposes of these psalm titles were lost early, and that later editors were inclined to add historical headings in a midrashic style. An analysis of the various collections within the Psalter, paying special attention to the placement of these titles, could provide further opportunities for rewarding insights into the editing and development of the Psalter.


[1] See Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 151-159.

[2] Thirtle makes an exception for the possibility of Psalm 137 being post-exilic.

[3] Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 27-30.

[4] Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: a New Reconstruction, 386.

[5] Ibid., 402.

Titles of Psalms (5)

Initial Reception of Thirtle’s thesis

When J.H.A. Hart reviewed Thirtle’s book soon after it appeared in 1904 he commended it as “a forcible and convincing presentation of a new point of view” noting that “the clue which the writer has discovered is obvious once it is discovered and explained”.[1] Thirtle’s view, he concluded, “deserves serious consideration”.[2] By 1915 The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia included the key points of Thirtle’s theory in its article on the Book of Psalms.[3]

Citations in Commentaries

E.W. Bullinger (1837-1913) followed Thirtle’s structuring of the psalm titles in The Companion Bible, a work which he edited and for which he wrote most of the notes and appendices.[4] He claimed that “The Companion Bible is the first edition of the Bible in which the Psalms are thus correctly presented in harmony with the two Psalm-models, Isa. 38.9-20, and Hab. 3.”[5] He acknowledged that the “key” to the proper structuring of the psalms was “discovered by Dr. J.W. Thirtle” and “admirably set forth” by him in his two works[6] having “been lost for so many centuries”.[7]

In his Music in Ancient Israel[8] Alfred Sendrey referred extensively[9] to Thirtle’s arrangement of psalm titles. He noted that “after closely investigating the textual relationship between the psalms and the terms contained in the headings, [Thirtle] has made the important discovery that some of these terms apply not to the following, but to the preceding psalm”.[10] Though Sendrey considers this arrangement clarifies the meaning of most of the musical instructions, he expressed his surprise that “none of the innumerable biblical scholars ever sensed even the remotest possibility of the headings belonging as subscriptions to the preceding psalm”.[11]

Indeed, given the positive reception by some commentators to Thirtle’s thesis it is surprising that others have ignored it completely. Gerald Wilson, for example, has written extensively on the Psalms, including a commentary on Psalms in the NIV Application Commentary series[12] as well as articles dealing with the editorial shaping of the Psalter.[13] One reviewer of his commentary on the Psalms observed: “Unfortunately, in his discussion of psalm titles (75-81) the author makes no mention of the work of James Thirtle … Thirtle’s theory deserves discussion in any serious commentary on Psalms”.[14] Bruce Waltke thinks that Wilson missed the opportunity to gain even more rewarding insights into the editing of the Psalter by ignoring the superscript-prayer-postscript phenomenon.[15] Mitchell Dahood,[16] in an otherwise extensive commentary, tends to gloss over the psalm titles with comments such as “the historical significance of these superscriptions is still a matter of dispute”,[17] while ignoring completely the musical notations.

On the other hand, Dale Brueggemann,[18] Bruce Waltke,[19] Alfred Sendrey[20] and Derek Kidner (although somewhat cautiously),[21] have all referred positively to Thirtle’s postscript idea, with the most thorough validation of Thirtle’s thesis being Waltke’s article in the Journal of Biblical Literature titled “Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both”. Commentaries tend to support Thirtle’s thesis positively, or ignore it completely. There does not appear to have been any thorough review which has dismissed the thesis as unsound.

To be continued …


[1] J.H.A. Hart, “Review: The Titles of the Psalms: Their Nature and Meaning Explained by James William Thirtle,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 16, no. 3 (1904): 594.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richard Sampey, “Psalms, Book Of,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (eds. Orr, et al.; Chicago: Howard-Severance Company, 1915) [cited 3 July 2014]. Available from

[4] The Companion Bible was originally intended as a six volume work. Only four volumes, covering the Old Testament, were published in Bullinger’s lifetime (from 1909) with the New Testament being completed by colleagues from Bullinger’s notes in 1922. It has continued in print to the present as a single volume.

[5] Ethelbert William Bullinger, The Companion Bible: The Authorized Version of 1611 with the Structures and Critical, Explanatory, and Suggestive Notes and with 198 Appendixes (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, 1969, fp 1909).

[6] The second work being Old Testament Problems.

[7] Bullinger, Companion Bible, Appendix 64.

[8] Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1969).

[9] There are twenty one references to Thirtle listed in the index.

[10] Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel, 114.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms Volume 1. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).

[13] Including G. H. Wilson, “The Qumran Psalms Scroll (11QPsa) and the Canonical Psalter: Comparison of Editorial Shaping.,”   59, no. 3 (1997); Gerald H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Society of Biblical Literature, 1985); Gerald H. Wilson, “Evidence of Editorial Divisions in the Hebrew Psalter,” Vetus Testamentum 34, no. 3 (1984).

[14] William Barrick, “Book Review: Psalms Volume 1. NIV Application Commentary By Gerald H. Wilson Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2002),” Master’s Seminary Journal 14, no. 2 (2003).

[15] Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” 585.

[16] Mitchell Dahood , Psalms, Translation and Notes. 3 vols., (The Anchor Bible 16. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, vol. 1, 1965, vol. 2, 1968, vol. 3, 1970).

[17] Mitchell Dahood, Psalms I: 1-50 Introduction, Translation and Notes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1965), 16.

[18] Dale A. Brueggeman, “Psalms: Titles,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (ed. Enns; Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 615.

[19] Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both.”

[20] Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel.

[21] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1973).

Titles of Psalms (4)

Septuagint (LXX) and Qumran superscriptions

There are several instances where the LXX deviates significantly from the Masoretic Text in the titles and these should be noted. Five Psalms are attributed to David in the LXX but not in the MT (27, 71, 97, 143, 144), perhaps going some way to repairing the deficiency of the twenty four “orphan psalms”.[1] Several Psalms in English translations have the title “Of David” translating the Hebrew prefix (the letter ל lamed) as “of” or “by”. The attribution לדוד (le-David) is much discussed in the literature and is beyond the scope of this post, except to note Nahum Sarna’s useful observation:

If le-David indeed originally indicated authorship, then it is of interest that the form is unique to the psalms’ literature (cf. Hab. 3:1) for the ascription of no other biblical book to a historic personality ever involves the use of the lamed formula (cf. Song, Proverbs). Yet the Psalter is internally consistent in its employment of the same construction with other names such as the Korahites (Ps. 42, et al.), Asaph (Ps. 50, et al.), Solomon (Ps. 72), Heman (Ps. 88), Ethan (Ps. 89), and Moses (Ps 90).[2]

He asserts that “in Psalm 72 lamed must mean ‘about’ or ‘dedicated to’, and in Psalm 102 le-‘ani can only mean, ‘for [recitation by] the afflicted man’.”[3] If commentators expect to see consistency by the redactors of the Psalter in their use of lamed (not that this should be necessary) then לדוד could just as readily mean about David, or of a Davidic style or genre, as denoting authorship. The question is certainly not settled, and Childs asserts that, “whatever the expression לדוד may once have meant, the claim of authorship now seems most probable. This point is confirmed by the final clause in those titles which specify a particular historical incident in David’s life as providing the occasion for composition.”[4]

Adrian Curtis argues that the superscriptions provide evidence of the beginnings of a process of ongoing interpretation of the psalms, and that the presence of more such titles in the psalms from Qumran and in the Septuagint show that this process continued after the formation of the Psalter as a single collection.[5] Childs argues from the Hebrew version of Psalm 151 from Qumran (11QPsa) and the further expansion of titles in the Syriac Apocryphal Psalms, in the Targum and in the Peshitta, that this process continued for some time.[6] The difference in historical titles in the various sources (MT, Qumran, the Syriac and LXX) “suggests that titles were not fixed and that there was some fluidity”.[7]

Gerstenberger argues that most superscriptions betray later theological and liturgical interests, without heeding the original intentions of the psalm. For him, technical musical terms such as למנצח “to the choirmaster” or what he regards as obscure references to tunes (understanding על as being an indicator of a tune) would have been of interest only to the ritual expert or the leader of community worship. The frequent indications of authorship (David, Korah, Asaph, Solomon, and Moses), and the linkage with incidents in the life of David, made the psalms authoritative and edifying so that the people might expect that their prayers and songs in both private and communal worship would have the same powerful and beneficent effects as of old.[8] Norman Whybray finds confirmation in the historical headings that the editors intended the readers or worshippers to find encouragement and models for their own behavior in the life of David.[9] There is a hint here that these “historical” psalms may have been intended for personal use by the pious rather than for cultic purposes.

References in the titles to historical events provide some of the most convincing evidence that titles may not have been part of the original work but were added by later editors in a style similar to rabbinic midrash.[10] In the MT all the historical titles are in Books I and II (with one exception in Book V). The LXX has a further fourteen historical titles, mostly in Book V.

The evidence from Qumran

Psalms scroll from Qumran. Tehillim 11QPs

Thirty nine Psalms manuscripts have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls. The largest extant, and best preserved, Psalms scroll found at Qumran is 11QPsa . It contains forty nine (or fifty) compositions, or parts thereof, including thirty nine psalms found in Books IV and V of the Masoretic Psalter, and ten (or eleven) additional compositions including four which were previously unknown. It “diverges radically from the Masoretic Psalter, both in arrangement and by the inclusion of additional compositions.”[11] Differences in the order of psalms are also evident in seven manuscripts from cave 4 and a second Psalms scroll from cave 11.[12] Flint summarises the evidence and the opinions of several scholars and concludes that Psalms 1 to 89 (Books I to III) show a high degree of stabilisation during the Qumran period with no major deviation in content from the MT, and with only minor deviations with respect to the ordering of the psalms.[13] However, he finds abundant evidence of major deviations from the MT in Psalms 90 to 150 (Books IV and V), both in content and ordering. This supports the proposal that the compilers of 11QPsa may have regarded this collection as a “work in progress” and Flint concludes that the Book of Psalms was probably finalised in two stages: the first part (Psalms 1-89) was stabilised before the beginning of the Qumran period (which he puts at about 150 BCE); the second part (Psalms 90-150) remained fluid into the first century CE.[14]

This is important to note for an investigation of the superscripts and postscripts, as Thirtle’s theory relies on the ordering of the Masoretic Psalter. Interestingly, almost all the psalms containing the למנצח to the chief musician rubric in the superscript (or postscript, according to Thirtle), and therefore important for Thirtle’s thesis, are in Psalms 1 to 89 (fifty two psalms, with only three in Book V[15]). Thirtle argued that the “key” to the interpretation of the musical and liturgical notes in the superscripts was “lost early”. The concentration of these terms in Psalms 1 to 89 while almost completely absent in the remainder of the Psalter, together with the evidence from Qumran, supports his thesis and suggests that the understanding of these terms was lost before the compilation or stabilisation of Books IV and V.

To be continued …


[1] A Talmudic term for psalms without a superscription (Av. Zar. 24b)

[2] Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” 669.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 138.

[5] Adrian H.W. Curtis, “”A Psalm of David, when …”: Reflections on Some Psalm Titles in the Hebrew Bible,” in Interested Readers: Essays on the Hebrew Bible in Honor of David J.A. Clines (eds. Aitken, et al.; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 59.

[6] Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” 143.

[7] Curtis, “Reflections on Some Psalm Titles,” 55.

[8] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 1, With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry (ed. Rolf P. Knierim; Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1988), 30.

[9] Roger Norman Whybray, Reading the Psalms as a book (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 21.

[10] See Elieser Slomovic, “Toward an Understanding of the Formation of Historical Titles in the Book of Psalms,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 91, no. 3 (1979); Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis.”

[11] Peter W. Flint, The Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls and the Book of Psalms (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 39-40.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid., 141. The manuscripts for Psalms 1-89 are much more fragmentary than for Psalms 90-150, so caution must be exercised in drawing conclusions about these sections of the Psalter.

[14] Ibid., 146.

[15] In the MT appearing as superscripts to Psalms 109, 139 and 140.

Titles of Psalms (3)

Musical Notations and Instruments

It is common for some translators to comment (typically as footnotes or marginal notes) regarding many of the terms in the psalm titles that “the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear” and that the terms are probably musical notations of some kind. Thirtle, not content to leave matters as “unclear” or too difficult, distinguishes the terms in the superscripts from those in the postscripts. He claims on the one hand that the superscripts contain information about authorship and sometimes historical background, as well as using literary terms which describe the type of psalm. On the other hand, the postscripts contain musical terms, including references to instruments, and certain liturgical terms. The most important term for his thesis, primarily because it occurs in Habakkuk which provides a “key” to its correct placement in the Psalms, is למנצח “for the leader” or “for the Chief Musician” or “to the choir master” which occurs in fifty five Psalms. It is rendered in LXX by εἰς τὸ τέλος  for the end, or regarding completion, apparently reading the Hebrew as a niphal participle לנצחת enduring or for eternity.[1] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), referring to the verbal root נצח meaning “leading” and citing Ezra 3:8, understands the term to refer to the Levites who lead the instrumental music in the Temple.[2]

The title מזמור mizmor, from the root זמר , is attached to fifty seven Psalms (predominantly in Book I but spread across all five books) and seems to be connected with playing instruments.[3] The Septuagint translates it ψαλμὸς psalmos which is derived from psallein which means to pluck and presumably refers to stringed instruments which were plucked. Montagu suggests that these psalms may therefore have been performed with musical accompaniment and that the psalms titled שיר a song were sung. That may further suggest that the fourteen psalms which have both words (“A Psalm, a Song” in some translations, or better, “A song with musical accompaniment”) were sung with musical accompaniment. This then raises the question as to how those described as מזמור mizmor (“with musical accompaniment”) only were to be performed, as the words must have been heard somehow, if not sung. “Unfortunately, no such correlations wholly work and the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that we really do not know what these words imply”.[4] Psalm 81:2 uses the phrase שאו־זמרה using another word also derived from the root זמר together with a word meaning “to lift up” (cf. Psalm 24:7, 9) and the directive probably means “lift up the zimrah. This suggests that the zimrah was a particular instrument, or class of instruments. Accompaniment by musical instruments is also indicated in seven psalms as well as Habbakuk 3:19 which use the term בנגינות which probably means “with stringed instruments”.[5]

According to Rabbinical interpretation a number of other terms in psalm titles also refer to musical instruments: “Menahem [b. Jacob Ibn Saruq] explained that all of the terms nehiloth, alamoth (Ps. 46:1), gittith (Ps. 8:1; 81:1; 84:1), and Jeduthan (Ps. 39:1; 62:1; 77:1) are names of musical instruments and that the melody for the psalm was made appropriate to the music characteristic of the particular instrument named in the title of the particular psalm.”[6] Against this, Thirtle argues that עלמות, which literally means young women,[7] refers to a female choir (while שמינית refers to a male choir[8]), and ידיתון refers to the choir originally under the control of the Levite thus named.[9] Sendrey concurs and lists several biblical texts where female singers are mentioned.[10] Thirtle understands נחילות inheritances to refer to a commemoration of the taking possession of the promised land under Joshua,[11] a view also taken by the aggadic Midrash Tehillim which interpreted נחילות as “inheritance”, although Rashi disputes this meaning “as the subject matter of the psalm does not refer to inheritance”.[12] However, if this is read as a postscript to Psalm 4 not only is this objection removed, there are, in fact, several expressions in that psalm which might allude to the occupation of the land (Psalm 4: 8, for example, refers to dwelling in safety, a strong Deuteronomic theme). The LXX also adopted this meaning with its translation ὑπὲρ τῆς κληρονομούσης over her that inherits.

To be continued …


[1] Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” 673.

[2] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 60.

[3] Montagu, Musical instruments of the Bible, 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 668.

[6] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 63.

[7] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, 835.

[8] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 110.

[9] 1 Chronicles 15:16-22; 16:1; 25:1

[10] 2 Samuel 19:36; 2 Chronicles 35:25; Ezra 2:65; Nehemiah 7:67, and Ecclesiastes 2:8. Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel.

[11] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 172.

[12] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 63.

Titles of Psalms (2)

Thirtle identified in the stand-alone psalm of Habakkuk a pattern for interpreting the structure of psalms elsewhere. The prayer of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38 is remarkably similar, leading Brevard Childs to comment:

The most striking feature of Isa. xxxviii. 9 is the similarity of form between the superscription and those of the Psalms. The similarity reaches to the technical Psalm classification, the designation of the author, and the specification in the infinitival form of a setting which referred to a historical event known elsewhere in the Old Testament.[1]

This similarity further validates Thirtle’s thesis.

Habakkuk 3:1-19


תְּפִלָּה לַחֲבַקּוּק הַנָּבִיא עַל שִׁגְיֹנֹֽות׃

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth.


לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינֹותָֽי

To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.

Isaiah 38:9-20


מִכְתָּב לְחִזְקִיָּהוּ מֶֽלֶךְ־יְהוּדָה בַּחֲלֹתֹו וַיְחִי מֵחָלְיֹֽו׃

The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, when he had been sick, and was recovered of his sickness


יְהוָה לְהֹושִׁיעֵנִי וּנְגִנֹותַי נְנַגֵּן כָּל־יְמֵי חַיֵּינוּ עַל־בֵּית יְהוָֽה׃

The LORD was ready to save me: therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.

If Thirtle is correct then the merging of the postscripts with the superscripts of the following psalm must have happened early, before the translation of the psalms into Greek and before the production of the manuscripts from which the Qumran Psalms scrolls were copied, as both the earliest accessible Septuagint manuscripts and the Qumran scrolls include the postscripts and the superscripts on the same line without any distinguishing separation marks. However, the Isaiah and Habakkuk texts indicate that the arrangement of psalms into superscript, psalm and postscript was still understood in the late monarchic period.

There is some evidence in the Greek translation of the Psalms that the translators had difficulty in determining where one psalm ended and the next began.[2] For example, the LXX adds the word αλληλουια alleluia (functionally equivalent to הללו יה hallelujah) to the beginning of nine psalms: 105, 107, 114-119 and 135. In all but Psalms 115 and 118 the hallelujah belongs in the MT to the preceding psalm. In the MT הללו יה hallelujah occurs at the end of Psalms 104, 105, and 115 but appears at the beginning of the subsequent psalms in the LXX. Psalms 9 and 10 in the MT have been combined in the LXX and numbered as 9. Psalms 114 and 115 in the MT have been combined in the LXX and numbered as 113. Psalm 116 has been divided in the LXX and numbered as 114 and 115. Psalm 147 in the MT has been divided in the LXX into 146 and 147. Wilson argues that this was deliberate and that “the LXX rectified the ‘nakedness’ of Psalm 114 in the MT and Targum by shifting the הללו יה postscript of Psalm 113 to the beginning of Psalm 114, by combining Psalms 114 and 115, and by shifting the postscripts of Psalms 115, 116, 117 to the beginnings of Psalms 116, 117, and 118”.[3] It could equally be the case that there was uncertainty as to where some psalms ended and others began, and that the translators did not know whether הללו יה concluded or introduced a psalm (or both, in the case of Ps 113 in the MT). [4] There may have been some confusion about where one psalm ended and the next began, although it is also possible that the translators had access to a variant Hebrew Vorlage which reflected a different tradition of the arrangement of these Psalm headings.[5]

Psalm 48 concludes with the strange phrase הוא ינהגנו על־מות he will lead us unto death and Kidner notes that if the final words על־מות are joined, as in some Hebrew manuscripts, they can be vocalised as עֹלָמוֹת evermore, which he regards as an intact postscript.[6] The LXX apparently followed this reading with its εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας to the ages (commonly translated as for ever). Herbert May argues that the על מות at the end of Psalm 48 may be an allusion to a melody, and “really belongs to the superscription of Ps. 49:1, as most commentators agree”.[7] However, there is also the possibility that these words have been corrupted and should be read as על־עלמות as in Psalm 46:1 (which Thirtle understands to be a postscript to Psalm 45). Oesterley notes a similarity to Psalm 9:1 and the possibility of a corruption and suggests that עלמות לבן should read על־עלמות as in Psalm 46.[8] If he is correct than the expression על־עלמות occurs three times in the Psalms: as a postscript to Psalm 48 and a superscript to Psalms 9 and 46. Perhaps all three should be read as postscripts, following Thirtle’s thesis, and the MT of Psalm 48 provides evidence of an original postscript. If so, it would be an example of an intact postscript retained in Psalms.

Commenting on Thirtle’s suggestion that the musical directions were originally attached as postscripts to the preceding psalms, Jeremy Montagu raises the issue that “there is no certainty that the psalm which precedes any title now has always done so – the order of the Psalter has almost certainly changed over time”.[9] This valid point highlights the view that Thirtle appears to have given little if any consideration to the likely development of the Psalter over a long period of time. While the connection between the titles of certain psalms with material in the preceding psalm is persuasive, in other cases Thirtle’s attempts to find a connection seem somewhat strained. So, in the case of Psalm 9 the title עלמות לבן is interpreted as עַל מוּת לַבֵין concerning the death of the champion and certain phraseology in the preceding psalm is interpreted in the light of this rendering to refer to the death of Goliath. He appeals to the similarity with אִישׁ־הַבֵּנַיִם in 1 Samuel 17:4, 23 and the Targum of Psalm 9 which has על מיתותא דגברא רי נפק מביני משריתא “concerning the death of the man/warrior who went out between the armies”.[10] However, the connections between Psalm 8 and the death of Goliath are strained and unconvincing. It is possible, if the title of Psalm 9 did indeed refer to the death of the champion Goliath, that it was attached as a postscript to another psalm which has been displaced, as Montagu’s caution might suggest.

Psalm 22 (21 in LXX) has the Hebrew title על־אילת השחר on (or concerning) the doe (or hind) of the dawn but in the LXX is ὑπὲρ τῆς ἀντιλήμψεως τῆς ἑωθινῆς  Over the support at dawn. Thirtle suggests this may have been an attempt by the translators to relate the title to the words of verse 20 (19). [11] “But you, O Lord, do not put my help far away! Attend to my support!” The Hebrew is enigmatic and this has led to several possible explanations. Thirtle regards this as a postscript to Psalm 21 which he considers to be a kind of “national anthem” for Davidic Israel.[12] Other scholars agree that Psalm 21 belongs in the class of “Royal Psalms” with echoes of Judah’s most ancient royal traditions.[13] Thirtle therefore reads “hind of the dawn” as a kind of term of endearment for the king, a description of him in royal beauty. This, however, is hardly more convincing than any other explanation of this difficult phrase. Again this could very well be another case of a postscript which was originally attached to another psalm which once stood immediately before Psalm 22 but was displaced in the process of compiling and editing the various collections which eventually became the Psalter.

To be continued …


[1] Brevard S Childs, “Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis,” Journal of Semitic Studies 16, no. 2 (1971): 142.

[2] It should be noted that the earliest extant complete manuscripts of Greek translations of the Psalms are the uncial codexes, Vaticanus (c. 325-350 CE) and Sinaiticus (c. 330-360 CE). Uncial manuscripts were written in scriptio continua with very few divisions between words. Although scrolls and fragments in Greek of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomony and the Twelve Prophets have been found at Qumran, no Greek portions of Psalms have been discovered.

[3] Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter, 180.

[4] Nahum M. Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (ed. Skolnik: Macmillan Reference, 2003), 665.

[5] Peter Flint has provided considerable evidence which suggests that, “while the Vorlage of the Septuagint Psalter is not evident in any single Psalms manuscript, several shared variants and passages show that the translator’s Hebrew text contained many readings found in specific scrolls but not in the Masoretic Text.” See Peter W. Flint, The Psalters at Qumran and the Book of Psalms (Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertations Publishing., 1993), 199-207.

[6] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 181 n.1.

[7] Herbert Gordon May, “‘AL….’ in the Superscriptions of the Psalms,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 58, no. 1 (1941): 77.

[8] W.O.E. Oesterley, The Psalms: Translated with Text-Critical and Exegetical Notes (London: S.P.C.K., 1962), 13.

[9] Jeremy Montagu, Musical instruments of the Bible (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2002), 73.

[10] Edward M. Cook, The Psalms Targum: An English Translation (2001 [cited 12 July 2014); available from

[11] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 17.

[12] Ibid., 86.

[13] For example, David M. Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: a New Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 389.

Titles of Psalms (1)

I must apologise for not posting anything for so long, and I won’t bore you with excuses, but I will make every effort to post more regularly in future. My current research is focussed on unusual linguistic features in The Twelve Prophets in general and Jonah in particular, so I will definitely be posting about that in future. In the meantime I will post some thoughts about the titles of the Psalms.

In 1904 James Thirtle, a relatively little known biblical scholar, wrote The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained.[1] Thirtle argues that the meaning of many of the titles of the psalms, especially those using musical terms, had been lost relatively early, but that the stand alone psalm in Habakkuk 3 was an example of a structure to be applied to many of the other psalms and provided a key to the meaning of the titles.

J.W. Thirtle’s Thesis

Thirtle argues that the meanings of several terms which appear in the titles to many psalms in the Masoretic Text[2] of the Hebrew Bible were lost even before their translation into Greek in the Septuagint.[3] There were two main reasons for this: first, in many cases what we now understand as the “titles” were originally postscripts to the previous psalm which merged with the superscript of the following psalm, so that their original connection with the previous psalm was lost. Second, the term למנצח to the leader, or chief musician[4] was a rubric designating the psalm’s assignment for liturgical use in the first Temple, and associated terms therefore often served a liturgical purpose, providing directions to the chief musician concerning the occasion for its use, the type of choir, and so on. Thirtle came to these conclusions primarily by comparing the psalms in the collection with the stand alone psalm in Habakkuk which has a superscript תפלה לחבקוק הנביא על שגינות “A Prayer of the prophet Habakkuk in the mode of Shigionoth” and concludes with a postscript למנצח בנגינותי “for the leader; with instrumental music” (NJPS[5]).

Thirtle deduced from this arrangement that other psalms with similar phraseology should be set out similarly: namely, musical notations such as “for the leader” and “with instrumental music” should be placed as a postscript to the preceding psalm, while notes which appear to relate to authorship, descriptions of the type of psalm (prayer, miktam, maschil, etc.), and those of a literary or historical nature should remain in the superscript. He further deduced from the psalm of Habakkuk that “in the mode of Shigionoth”,[6] being included in the superscript rather than with the musical notations at the end, served some special literary or liturgical function rather than indicating a musical type.[7]

By dividing some of the titles into a postscript which should be attached to the end of the preceding psalm, and a superscript, Thirtle removes the difficulty in the title of Psalm 88 which, as it stands in the MT and all the ancient versions, attributes authorship to both “the Korahites” (בני קרח is literally “sons of Korah”) and to “Heman the Ezrahite”. He argues that the phrase “A song, a psalm of Korahites”, should be placed at the end of Psalm 87 which is explicitly described in its superscription as “Of the Korahites; a psalm; a song”, leaving the title “a maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” in place as the title of Psalm 88.[8] He cited Franz Delitzsch who commented that there are here “alongside of one another two different statements” as to the origin of one psalm, and asked “which notice is the more trustworthy?”[9] This explanation creates the difficulty that Psalm 87 would then be the only psalm to have an almost identical description in both its superscript and postscript, although this would be less of a difficulty than Psalm 88 being attributed to two different authors, and it frees Psalm 88 from its awkward association with the Korahites as it differs from the other Korahite psalms in content.[10]

In a similar way, Thirtle’s thesis makes sense of the title of Psalm 56 (על־יונת אלם רחקים which NJPS leaves untranslated with the note “meaning of Heb. uncertain” but which other translations render as “A Dove on Distant Oaks” [NIV] or “The Dove on Far-off Terebinths” [ESV]). This title seems to bear no obvious relationship to the psalm which follows, but is preceded by Psalm 55 which includes the lines “Oh that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and find rest; surely I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness” (Ps 55:6-7). Several commentators[11] have observed the similarity between the words of Psalm 55 and the title of Psalm 56 “but it seems never to have occurred to them to go behind appearances and thoroughly to examine the entire system of psalm inscriptions”.[12]

To be continued …


[1] James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained (London: Henry Frowde, 1904). Dr Thirtle (1854-1934) also wrote Old Testament Problems: Critical Studies in the Psalms and Isaiah (London: Henry Frowde, 1907). He was the editor of The Christian between 1887 and 1934 and was a close friend of several better known scholars, including E.W. Bullinger and Joseph Rotherham, the author of The Empasized Bible (he delivered the eulogy at Rotherham’s funeral in 1910). In The Christian in 1904 he advertised for sale the library of Charles Spurgeon, suggesting that he may also have been close to the well-known preacher. However, relatively little is known about Thirtle himself.

[2] Hereafter MT.

[3] Hereafter LXX.

[4] The meaning of this term will be further considered in a later post.

[5] Bible quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

[6] The term על in the mode of, or for will be discussed in a later post.

[7] The Habakkuk psalm superscript is similar to Psalm 7:1 which has the words שגיון לדוד “Shiggaion of David”.

[8] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 13-14.

[9] Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on Psalms (trans. Bolton; Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), vol iii, 24..

[10] Bruce K. Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 4 (1991): 592.

[11] Including Delitzsch, Psalms, vol ii, 166.

[12] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 15.

The Barabbas connection

There is another possible connection between the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus and the discovery of the remains of a crucified man likely to have been the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah.

In 1970 a decorated ossuary – a limestone box containing the bones of the deceased – was discovered inside a a rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood, dating back to the first century BCE. It had an Aramaic inscription which referred to “Abba, son of Eleazar the priest”:

I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah son of Judah and buried him in the cave that I purchased.

An article by Ariel David in Haaretz  refers to a paper published last year in the Israel Exploration Journal by Yoel Elitzur, a Hebrew University historian, which notes that in Jewish texts and manuscripts the name Abba and Baba were often used interchangeably, and identifies Abba as the head of a family mentioned by Josephus as the “the sons of Baba” and described as being supporters of the Hasmoneans long after Herod had taken power. Abba later also appears frequently as a personal name in the Gemara (a section of the Talmud).

All four canonical Gospels refer to an incident where Pilate asked ‘the crowd’  if they wanted Jesus to be released (referring to a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover) or Βαραββᾶς Barabbas (several ancient manuscripts give his full name as ‘Jesus Barabbas’). Βαραββᾶς is a Hellenised form of the Aramaic בר אבא Bar Abba, or son of Abba. Barabbas, or Bar Abba, is described in the Gospels as a δέσμιον ἐπίσημον desmion episēmon, that is, a ‘notable (or notorious) prisoner’ (Matthew 27:16), and Mark 15:7 and Luke 23:9 say he had been imprisoned with the στασιαστής stasiastēs or insurrectionists because of his role in an uprising in the city. John 18:40 calls him a λῃστής lēstēs which is sometimes translated ‘robber’ but a better translation would be ‘rebel’ or ‘insurrectionist’.

Barabbas or Jesus?

Barabbas or Jesus?

Barabbas/Bar Abba was no ordinary thief or murderer. He had been caught up in one of the several unsuccesful insurrections against the Romans and was possibly a member of the prominent priestly Abba family in Jerusalem. He was almost certainly facing crucifixion. According to my reading of the Gospels ‘the crowd’ which called for his release was not the same group of people who just days before had hailed Jesus as the Messianic ‘Son of David’, but rather a mob consisting of or backed by the religious leaders. If I have read this correctly, then they were calling for the release of one of their own sons.

Pilate and the body of Jesus

A question arises from my previous post: why would the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, be so willing to allow the body of Jesus to be buried rather than disposed of in the manner common to executed criminals?

Joseph of Arimathaea

Joseph of Arimathaea is one of the most crucial characters in the early accounts about the death of Jesus. Without his appearance in the story Jesus’ body might have been left on the cross to be devoured by animals, or thrown into the city rubbish dump, known as Gehenna. His role in Jesus’ burial was one of the details which are recorded in all four Gospels, yet each writer gives us some information peculiar to his account. Mark tells us that Joseph was “a prominent member of the Council, who was himself looking for the Kingdom of God” (Mark 13:43). Luke informs us that he was “a good and upright man” who had not consented to the decision and action of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50-51). Matthew tells us that he was a rich man and had become a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57) and John adds that he was a disciple “secretly because he feared the Jews”[1] (John 19:38).

Pilate – After the Trial

The Gospels tell us nothing about the activities of Pilate between the time he sentenced Jesus and his audience with Joseph. Commenting on the early hour of Jesus’ trial, A.N. Sherwin–White remarks: “There is ample evidence about the arrangement of the upper-class Roman official’s daily round” to know that Pilate would be “at his official duties even before the hour of dawn” and would have enjoyed “the elaborately organised leisure of a Roman gentleman” by an early hour.[2]

We can confidently deduce a number of other things. First, Pilate would have been in an inhospitable mood, for several reasons. His authority as Governor and his political aspirations had been challenged by the Jews who threatened to report him to Caesar (implied in John 19:12).[3] He had been shown to be judicially impotent, having declared Jesus to be “not guilty” three times before feeling compelled to sentence him to death. He was in trouble on the domestic front as well. His wife had sent him a message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19). Imagine his reception when he had to report to her that he had had “that innocent man” put to death!

Secondly, it is likely that Pilate was determined, by the events of the morning, to make the best of his afternoon leisure time. He may well have given instructions to his secretary that he was not to be disturbed, especially by local politicians!

The Arrival of Joseph

Jesus being prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea

Jesus being prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea

All four gospels tell us that Joseph was from Arimathaea, possibly Ramathaim-zophim, a short distance north-west of Jerusalem. Matthew adds the detail that Joseph arrived in Jerusalem from Arimathaea that afternoon “as evening approached” – in other words around 3 p.m.[4] How long he had been away from Jerusalem, and why, we can only speculate. According to Luke, Joseph had not consented to the actions of the Sanhedrin of which he was a member. It may even have been his cross–examination which had revealed the accusers of Jesus to be “false witnesses”, although that is mere speculation. As a result, he may have felt threatened or intimidated by the hostile enemies of Jesus, and had consequently gone into hiding in Arimathaea. John’s description of him as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jerusalem religious leaders” can be translated to read that Joseph was “a disciple in hiding, for fear …” (the word translated “secretly” – κρύπτω kryptō – is a perfect participle passive). Joseph may have recently gone into hiding but he now came out of his seclusion. We can only guess what caused him to return so soon. It may have been the isolation of Arimathaea and the opportunity to think about the circumstances of the day in the quietness of his own home which allowed Joseph to re-assess his position.

Joseph Before Pilate

Joseph must have arrived in Jerusalem at about the time of Jesus’ death, and did not have a moment to waste. He had approximately three hours to arrange and expedite the burial of Jesus. By Roman law the body of a criminal would normally be disposed of ignominiously[5]. “The Roman law was that a convict, after execution, might not be buried: the crucified, in particular, were left on the cross until beasts and birds of prey devoured them. Guards were mounted on duty at the cross to prevent kinsfolk or friends from taking down a corpse and burying it; unauthorised burial of a crucified convict was a criminal offence. The emperor or his officers might, exceptionally, grant kinsfolk or friends authorisation to bury the convict.”[6]

However, according to Jewish law, even a criminal’s body might not be left hanging all night, but had to be buried that day (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), even more so when the next day was one of the most important Sabbaths in the year (John 19:31). Jesus’ family and friends, however, were in no position to claim the body. His disciples had all fled after his arrest in the garden and would not have risked their lives to beg for his body. His family, being Galilean, would almost certainly have great difficulty in finding anywhere in Jerusalem to bury him with such short notice. Had it not been for the appearance of Joseph, Jesus’ body would no doubt have been consigned to Gehenna, the city’s rubbish dump.

Why was it that Pilate was persuaded to grant Joseph’s request? It is improbable that Pilate would have known of Joseph’s opposition to the Sanhedrin’s actions and, having been forced to deliver Jesus for crucifixion in the morning, it is strange that he should be prepared so generously to deliver his body to one of their number for burial. I speculated earlier that Pilate would have been in no mood to receive any Jewish visitors that afternoon. Perhaps the reason he agreed to this audience was that he knew Joseph to be a very rich man. Philo tells us that Pilate was accustomed to taking, or demanding, bribes. He may have hoped to make this wealthy ruler pay dearly for whatever he was to ask, and so agreed to see him, hoping he might be compensated for the earlier aggravation. Surprisingly, he immediately granted Joseph his request. Mark’s use of the word δωρέομαι dōreomai (Mark 15:45) indicates that he made a gift of the body, as though to emphasise that no bribe or payment was sought – something quite unusual for Pilate. Something transpired during that meeting that persuaded Pilate to allow the body to be taken down from the cross and be buried. But what?

It has been said that Roman crucifixion was designed to prolong the agony for days and Pilate was surprised to hear of Jesus’ death after only six hours (Mark 15:44). He called for a report by the centurion. Almost certainly this was the same centurion who was in command of the execution; the centurion who, having seen the way in which Jesus died, was persuaded that he was ‘a Son of God’ (Mark 15:39). He may have seen a countless number of crucifixions, but never had he seen a man die so willingly; never had he seen a man “yield up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50) as Jesus did. The manner of his death may have persuaded him that this was no ordinary crucifixion – and that this was no ordinary man. The centurion may have expressed this conviction in his report – we will never know. But hearing Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God previously, Pilate was afraid (John 19:7-9). If the Centurion had expressed his own conviction in his report then Pilate’s fears would have intensified and, perhaps in a superstitious effort to appease the gods for executing one of their sons, he immediately granted Joseph his request.

[1] Joseph himself was, of course, a Jew. So too were Jesus and all his disciples. The term “the Jews” in John’s Gospel refers to the religious leaders in Jerusalem and not to Jews in general.

[2] A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, page 45.

[3] Pilate was no doubt sensitive to such threats, as complaints against his handling of important issues had been made previously to Tiberius who over-ruled him. His career ended as a result of such a complaint and he was recalled to Rome in AD 37.

[4] Evening was reckoned to be approx. 3 p.m. to sunset.

[5] It was after Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion (Matthew 26:2) that Mary anointed him with costly perfume which she was saving for his burial (John 12:7). No doubt she understood that if Jesus was to be crucified she would not be allowed the privilege of anointing his body, so she did it in advance.

[6] Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus, page 238.

What happened to the body of Jesus?

Antonio Ciseri: Il trasporto di Cristo al sepolcro (The transport of Christ to the sepulcher)

Antonio Ciseri: Il trasporto di Cristo al sepolcro (The transport of Christ to the sepulcher)

I have read two interesting and unrelated posts in the last day or so which touch on the question of what happened to the body of Jesus after his death on the cross.

Dustin Smith, continuing his review of Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God, today tackled Ehrman’s claim that ‘the common Roman practice was to allow the bodies of crucified people to decompose on the cross and be attacked by scavengers as part of the disincentive for crime’. Ehrman argues that the body of Jesus, after crucifixion, would have been eaten by wild dogs or other animals. Smith counters this by citing nonbiblical sources in support of his view that the Roman governor Pilate would make exceptions for the Jews in regard to their ancestral customs and that Jesus would have been given a proper Jewish burial.

I agree with Smith, not only for the reasons he provides, but also because of other historical and archaeological evidence. In an unrelated post George Athas recently referred to evidence that the bones of the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah, and one of the nails used to crucify him, were buried together in Jerusalem.

The remains of the last Hasmonean King?

The remains of the last Hasmonean King?

Skeletal remains of other crucified victims have also been found in Israel, which is clear archaeological evidence that the Romans made exceptions to the rule of leaving crucified victims to decompose on their crosses. In fact, the evidence has been there since at least 1968, when the remains of Yehohanan, a first century CE Temple worker, were found in a cemetery in Giv’at ha-Mivtar in northeast Jerusalem and it has received so much scholarly attention since then that I doubt very much that Ehrman would be unaware of it.

Eminent Israeli Jurist Haim Cohn notes that “The Roman law was that a convict, after execution, might not be buried: the crucified, in particular, were left on the cross until beasts and birds of prey devoured them. Guards were mounted on duty at the cross to prevent kinsfolk or friends from taking down a corpse and burying it; unauthorised burial of a crucified convict was a criminal offence. The emperor or his officers might, exceptionally, grant kinsfolk or friends authorisation to bury the convict [citing, in an endnote, Ulpian, Digesta, 48,24,1; Paulus, Digesta. 48,24,3], and what in Rome was the imperial prerogative was in a province the right of the governor.” (Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972, page 238).

It seems that the historical and archaeological evidence is against Ehrman. There is no reason to doubt that the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried. What happened after that will, however, continue to be debated.

Elohim in the assembly of elohim (Psalm 82)

I have been prompted by a discussion on Dustin Smith’s blog in connection with his review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God to share some thoughts about the divine council in Psalm 82. Dustin critiqued Ehrman’s analysis of this psalm and argued that the Psalm speaks of human judges as elohim, using the regular Hebrew word for God (or ‘gods’) and applying it to “the human rulers who judge on God’s behalf, thus effectively taking the title of elohim onto themselves as God’s agents”. I read this psalm differently.

Some scholars regard Psalm 82 as being one of the oldest psalms in the collection, and showing evidence of Canaanite influence. It is also argued by some that Psalm 82, and others, may have been written at a time in Israel’s development when its religion was monolatrous (i.e worshipping one god while allowing for the existence of others), rather than monotheistic (recognising the existence of only one god). The psalm begins with what appears to be a reference to a heavenly council and in this detail shares some similarity with Canaanite texts. Mitchell Dahood argues that it is directed aginst the Canaanite gods: “the first section (vss. 1-4) is a depiction, or rather a vision, of the heavenly tribunal where God passes judgment on the pagan deities (vs. 1) and a summation (vss. 2-4) of the charges on which they are convicted.”1 The introductory verse is chiastic2:

אֱֽלֹהִים נִצָּב                                            God [אלהים elohim] presides

 בַּעֲדַת־אֵל                                                    in the divine council,

 בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים                                                in the midst of the gods [אלהים elohim]

 יִשְׁפֹּט                                                   adjudicates.3

There appears to be an intentional ambiguity here with אלהים elohim presiding in the midst of the אלהים elohim. Most translators translate the first אלהים elohim as “God” and the second as “gods” or “divine beings”. Some scholars attempt to resolve the difficulty by arguing that the first אלהים elohim should be replaced by the divine name יהוה (YHVH) on the assumption that the divine name was replaced by an ancient Elohistic editor.4 If we accept this emendation יהוה YHVH is consequently represented as a participant deity in the council of gods led by El (and subordinate to El) as an accuser against the other אלהים elohim/gods, and rather than “presiding” over the council he “takes a stand” (נִצָּב) as a prosecutor.5 Other scholars variously identify the second אלהים elohim as human officials (although the expression כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן “you will die like men” in verse 7 would seem to rule out the possibility of these אלהים elohim being human), angels, heathen gods, or “divine kings”.6

There is an interesting chiastic structure in Psalm 82 suggested by the second and third grammatical persons. This structure could further indicate that there may be two (or three) speakers and the juxtaposition of the voices suggests a forensic setting.

Section Verse            Person Subject matter Speaker
A 1 Third person singular אלהים/יהוה in the divine council. Psalmist
B 2-4 Second person plural The charges: question and a series of imperatives addressed to the accused. אלהים / יהוה as Prosecutor
C 5 Third person plural Those addressed in 2-4. Psalmist
B1 6-7 Second person plural The verdict and sentence. New speaker? Possibly Presider over council.
A1 8 Second person singular Addresses אלהים/יהוה using an imperative to judge. Psalmist

We could call this a grammatical chiasmus with sections A and A1 in the singular, either addressing or referring to אלהים/יהוה, the god of Israel, sections B and B1 in the second person plural, and section C (at the crux) in the third person plural. Verse 6 seems to introduce a new speaker with אֲֽנִי־אָמַרְתִּי “I, I have said …”,7 although this could also be read as the verdict in response to the charges brought in verses 2-4, and the speaker would therefore be the presider over the divine council. Perhaps the psalmist envisages a council where אלהים or יהוה, the god of Israel, is both prosecutor and judge.8 In verse 8 אלהים9 elohim is called on to קוּמָה and שָׁפְטָה, “arise, judge”, and Dahood claims that קוּמָה here “designates the intervention of God as judge and ruler”.10

The crux appears as an aside, almost parenthetical, and is possibly the psalmist’s own verdict on the accused.11 He claims that the injustice and lawlessness of the accused אלהים elohim shakes the very foundations on which the earth is ordered (the “foundations of the earth are shaken”), possibly suggesting that they are responsible for cosmic disorders, although, more likely, referring to the disrupted ‘order of things’ in society.12  The world is founded on justice for the poor, the oppressed, the needy, and the disenfranchised; and injustice disrupts this order and causes chaos. The frequent mention throughout the psalter of the antagonism between the righteous and the wicked, the oppressed and their oppressors, suggests the existence of an enmity in Israelite society between two primary classes: (1) the poor, but pious, and (2) the rich and powerful.13

According to several scholars Psalm 82 shows signs of possible Canaanite influence. However, it may have been written as a polemical response to Canaanite religion rather than merely mimicking its forms, using the language of the Canaanite texts while delivering a message against the gods of those texts. It may in fact be a caricature or parody of the Canaanite idea of a divine council, in which the god of Israel stands up among the gods of the surrounding nations and accuses them of failing to do what gods are meant to do, asserting that Israel’s god alone acts righteously.

1 Dahood, Mitchell, Psalms: Introduction, Translation and Notes Vol. II: 51-100, (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 268.

2 We could also call this an introverted parallelism.

3 Following the translation of Mitchell Dahood , Psalms: Introduction, Translation and Notes vol. II: 51-100, (New York: Doubleday, 1968).

4 James M. Trotter, “Death of the אלהים in Psalm 82.” Journal of Biblical Literature 131.2 (2012): 221-239,222-224. There is evidence elsewhere in the Psalter of an Elohistic editor replacing the divine name with elohim, especially in the group of psalms 42-83. For example, Psalms 14 and 53 are very similar, with the major difference being that Psalm 53 uses elohim while Psalm 14 uses the divine name.

5 Morgenstern, however, argues for “presides” (Julian Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939): 29– 126, 71). The inferences drawn from the meaning of נצב in this context are crucial in determining whether יהוה is standing as Prosecutor or Judge. In this text it appears as a niphal participle (HALOT 714f: to place oneself, to be positioned, stand; BDB, 662: station oneself, take one’s stand). It has the sense of supervising (to be set over) when accompanied by עַל (HALOT) but this is absent in Ps. 82:1. It differs from עמד which suggests standing motionless.

6 Trotter, argues for “divine kings” (Death of the אלהים in Psalm 82, 230ff) and against Morgenstern who argued that the content of vv. 2–4 “can refer only to human beings who discharge the judicial function in a consciously and grossly corrupt manner.” (Morgenstern, The Mythological Background of Psalm 82, 31).

7 Dahood translates this as “I had thought …”, arguing that the speaker is the psalmist, and noting how אָ֭מַרְתִּי introduces one clause, followed by אָ֭כֵן introducing a second clause, which suggests “I had thought … but …”. “The psalmist has been under the impression that the pagan deities were of some importance, but now realises they are nothing, because they are quite incapable of defending the poor and rescuing the downtrodden.” (Dahood, Psalms: Vol. II, 270).

8 In a similar way, God is portrayed in the book of Job as both defendant and judge, so reading God in Psalm 82 as having dual-roles is not unreasonable.

9 Or יהוה if we accept the possibility of an Elohistic emendation, as in verse 1.

10 Dahood, Psalms: Vol. II, 271.

11 Surprisingly, Oesterley says this verse “seems to have little to do with the rest of the poem, and is best regarded as an accidental insertion”. (W.O.E. Oesterly, The Psalms: Translated with Text-Critical and Exegetical Notes (London: SPCK, 1962), 373.) My own view is that this is a disappointing way to deal with what seems to me to be the crux of the psalm.

12 A similar metaphor appears in Psalm 75:3-4 where equitable judgment is said to keep firm the pillars of the earth.

13 Oesterley argues for this antagonistic theme in his chapter “Saints and Sinners in the Psalms”. (Oesterley, Psalms, 56-66).

Husband or master?

In an earlier post I argued that the relationship between God and his people is described in several places in the Hebrew Bible as being like a partnership and that this equality between the creator and the created was radically unique in ancient near eastern religion. I quoted Hosea 2:16 where God says Israel should no longer call him בעלי Baali – my master/husband but rather call him אישׁי Ishimy man/partner. The prophet is here providing a glimpse of how the relationship was always meant to be. Suzanne McCarthy has posted an article today along similar lines and with some interesting comments about the use of these terms in modern Israel.

Jesus on hell (2): a diversion on the soul

Before going on to look at some more sayings where Jesus spoke of hell, I feel I should write some more about the sayings mentioned in my previous post, specifically what Jesus meant by soul when he spoke of “body and soul”. It would be easy to conclude that Jesus had a dualistic view of human nature, namely that the human being is made up of two principal parts, the physical body and an immaterial soul. This would certainly be a common Greek way of thinking, and seeing that the Gospels as we have them are written in Greek and use the terms σῶμα sōma (body) and ψυχή psychē (soul) which are frequently used in Greek discussions about a dual nature we could be excused for assuming that Jesus was using these terms in the same way. Interestingly, however, Luke’s account doesn’t use these terms at all: he has Jesus saying “fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna” (Luke 12:5), without any mention of a soul or any hint of a dual nature.

The Gospels as we have them are written in Greek, and Jesus almost certainly knew some Greek, but it’s equally certain that Jesus’ native language was either Hebrew or Aramaic and that he taught primarily in one or both of these languages rather than Greek. So if he referred to a soul we can be confident that it would have been in the Hebrew sense of the word, and the word which is most frequently translated as ‘soul’ in the Hebrew Bible is נֶפֶשׁ nephesh. The first time it appears in the Bible is in the story of the creation of the first human being: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” The word translated here (in the NRSV) as being is the Hebrew word נֶפֶשׁ nephesh which several translations (such as the KJV) give as soul. In this story the breath of life is breathed into a lifeless body and it becomes a living nephesh. It does not have a nephesh. The nephesh is not what is breathed into the body. The human being became a nephesh.

In Hebraic thinking and usage a living human being is a nephesh – the nephesh is not a seperate part of a dual nature made up of body and soul. In the Hebrew Bible the nephesh is said to become hungry (Proverbs 10:3; 27:7; Isaiah 29:8), and thirsty (Proverbs 25:25), expressions which in Greek thinking would apply to the body but not to the soul. Consequently the word most often simply means a human being, rather than an immaterial part of that being, and as such the nephesh can die. For example, when Ezekiel was discussing the issue of whether children can be punished for the sons of their fathers he wrote: “The person (Heb. נֶפֶשׁ nephesh) who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child” (Ezekiel 18:20). The King James Version translates nephesh here as soul: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”, making it quite clear that Hebrew speakers did not think of the nephesh in the same way that Greeks thought of the psychēas an immaterial and immortal part of the human being. Priests were even instructed not to come near a נֶפֶשׁ מֵת a dead nephesh (Numbers 6:6 – most English translations have ‘a dead body’ as ‘a dead soul’ would sound too strange).

In Hebrew, souls die!

So, when Jesus spoke of ‘souls’ being destroyed in Gehenna there would be nothing unusual in this for his Hebrew or Aramaic speaking audience. His expression “body and soul” would not have implied to them that he was making a distinction between two parts of a dual nature, but rather as an emphasis on killing not only the body but the entire person including their name and reputation.

Jesus on hell (1)

Depending on which English translation one uses, the word “hell” appears up to 15 times in the Gospels, and in 11 of those places it translates the Greek word γέεννα gehenna (the only other place in the New Testament where this word occurs is James 3:6): 7 times in Matthew, 3 times in Mark, once in Luke, never in John, and always from the lips of Jesus. There are a further 3 sayings of Jesus where he uses the Greek word ᾅδης hades.  In this post I will look only at the gehenna sayings.

Gehenna is a Hellenisation of a Hebrew phrase גֵּֽיא־הִנֹּֽם gai Hinnom which means “valley of Hinnom”. It appears in this form in Nehemiah 11:30 and in a slightly different form in a few places in the Hebrew Bible where it is also known as גֵּי בֶן־הִנֹּם gai ben Hinnom = the valley of the son of Hinnom. In Joshua 15:8; 18:16 it is referred to as both  גֵּֽיא־הִנֹּֽם gai Hinnom = the valley of Hinnom, and גֵּי בֶן־הִנֹּם gai ben Hinnom = the valley of the son of Hinnom. These texts locate it in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Several commentators have pointed out the historical connections to the valley of Hinnom as a place where, first, child sacrifices were offered to the pagan god Molech, and, later, it became a place for burning rubbish and the dead bodies of executed criminals. The historical uses for the location almost certainly are the basis for its connection in the New Testament as a place of fire.

The single saying of Jesus about Gehenna in Luke (12:5) also appears in a slightly different form in Matthew 10:28.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Matt.)

But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke)

In Matthew’s version Gehenna is a place of destruction while the Luke version suggests a judicial use (one “has authority to cast into Gehenna“). Read together it suggests that Jesus was referring to those who have the judicial authority to dispose of one’s body after execution. The context refers to those who “have called the master of the house Beelzebul” and “malign those of his household” and ends with an assurance that “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven”. The emphasis of this saying is about being being maligned or being acknowledged. At the crux of the saying is an illustration from life which would be familiar to his audience, and which I suggest means in its context that as we would fear the one who has the authority to destroy one’s reputation as an ignominous criminal more than one who can kill but cannot take away one’s reputation, so the followers of Jesus need not fear those who malign them for now but cannot change their standing with God.

The three occurences in Mark are part of the one saying, which appears in a slightly altered form in Matthew 5:29-30, and, I suggest, has a similar judicial application.

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna. (Mark 9:43-47. Matthew leaves out the “foot” part of the saying, which is odd because this gospel seems to like triadic formulas and if Markan primacy is assumed then Matthew has intentionally left out this part of the saying).

The context of this saying in the Sermon on the Mount is about simple actions which have serious consequences. So, looking lustfully at a woman can lead to an offence which carries a death penalty; uncontrolled anger can lead to murder, which also carries a death sentence. A death penalty – a judicial execution – would result in the body of the criminal being burned in the valley of Hinnom rather than receiving a dignified burial. In a comment on a previous post Thomas Farrar referred me to a very helpful comment by Alan Bernstein: “throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, improper burial signified great disgrace …The wicked suffer ignominy in the deepest recesses of the underworld. Shame in death is the beginning of hell”. [1]  Seen in that context this saying of Jesus is a further warning to avoid the ‘minor’ misdemeanors which could lead serious breaches of the law with the most dire consequences.

In the same context Matthew has another saying by Jesus which refers to Gehenna.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of Gehenna (Matt 5:22).

Similar to the previous saying, this verse contains several terms which indicate that it is referring to minor actions with serious consequences:

  1. Simply being angry with someone can result in an action which lands you in Court;
  2. A simple insult can snowball into an action which can end in the Council, the Supreme Court;
  3. Calling someone a fool could be just the beginning which leads to an action demanding a death sentence, and consequent disposal of the guilty person’s body in the valley of Hinnom.

All of these references to Gehenna refer to actions which result in a legal execution, and have no connection to an afterlife. There are a few sayings which refer to fire or burning in the context of judgment and often understood to refer to punishment after death. I will look at these in a subsequent post.

[1] Bernstein, Alan E. 1996. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Cornell University Press. (pp. 166-167)

Sheol and the afterlife

The Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) doesn’t have a hell. At least, it doesn’t have a place where the wicked go to be tormented when they die. There is not even a hint that some people go to heaven at death, while the rest go to ‘the other place’. In fact, according to the Hebrew Bible everyone, good or bad, goes to the same place at death, to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). The word sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and is usually translated into Greek as hades, and into English as either “hell” or “the grave” (although there is a tendency for more modern translations to leave it untranslated and transliterated as Sheol). However, the way the ancient Israelites thought of sheol was considerably different to the way later Christians often think of hell. 

Everyone goes there. According to the Hebrew Bible everyone goes to the same place at death. When news came to the patriarch Jacob that his son Joseph was dead he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37: 35). Using parallelism typical of biblical poetry David described his deliverance from death at the hands of his enemies in terms of being rescued from Sheol:

For the waves of death encompassed me,
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me. (2 Samuel 22:5-6).

Interestingly, he thinks of death in terms of destruction rather than conscious existence in an afterlife. Perhaps even more surprisingly Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) even asserts that animals and humans share the same fate: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upwards and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (Eccl. 3:19-21).

Sheol is not a place of punishment.

In a long speech in which he longs for his own end, Job describes death this way:

But a man dies and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and where is he?
As waters fail from a lake
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.
Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath be past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If a man dies, shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait,
till my renewal should come. (Job 14:10-14).

There are a few important things we should note from this speech. First, Job describes death as a place where he could hide from God’s anger, not as a place where he would experience wrath or punishment. Second, he describes death as a place of sleep (see more about this below). Third, in the last lines of the extract above there is a possible hint of resurrection (there is a more familiar possible reference to resurrection in Job 19:25-26, although I have explained earlier that I personally don’t see any evidence in this text that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death). However, the Hebrew word חליפתי (“my renewal” ESV or “change” KJV) could mean that Job is looking for some kind of relief (so ESV footnote).  There isn’t necessarily a sense of “renewal” or resurrection in the Hebrew word, which simply means “change” in the same way we could speak of a change of clothes. The NJPS translates this as “my replacement”, in the sense of a soldier or servant carrying on with their duties until their watch or shift ends when they are replaced by another.

God is there. I sometimes hear people describe hell as a state of being seperated from God, rather than a physical location. But this is not how the writers of the Hebrew Bible understood sheol. A Psalm attributed to David makes the confident assertion that God is everywhere, even in sheol!

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 138:7-8)

Satan is never associated with Sheol in the Hebrew Bible. In popular culture hell is ruled by Satan. Somewhat surprisingly the Hebrew Bible nevers links Sheol with Satan, and, perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the only time the New Testament mentions hell (hades) and the devil together is when it describes both the devil and hell being destroyed together in a lake of fire: “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever … Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:10, 14). According to this text the devil does not rule hell: he meets his end, together with hell, in a lake of fire. And hell isn’t a lake of fire: on the contrary, hell is destroyed in a lake of fire. Puzzling imagery indeed, and one which deserves more attention. (There is a similar reference in Matthew 25:41 to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” but see my short post here.)

Sheol is for sleeping. The New Testament refers to death as sleeping and the image is almost certainly drawn from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Bathsheba describes David’s death as the time “when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers” (1 Kings 1:21). The New Testament draws on this terminology in a speech by Paul: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). Earlier in the same book of Acts is a speech by Peter, and both speeches refer to a Psalm attributed to David:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10).

In the speech by Peter he quotes this Psalm and says “David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:34). He was firmly of the view in the Hebrew Bible that everyone, good and bad, go to the same place at death, to sheol, and that not even King David went to heaven.

The patience of Job

The Patient Job, Gerard Seghers (1591–1651). In the public domain, wikimedia commons.

There is a popular expression that someone has “the patience of Job,” probably based on a reference in the New Testament letter of James: “You heard about the patience of Job” (James 5:11). Job’s patience had apparently become proverbial by the time the letter of James was written, probably around the middle of the first century CE. But when we read the biblical book of Job we are hard-pressed to find much evidence of Job’s patience. The Greek word (ὑπομονή hypomonē) translated “patience” in James could equally mean “endurance” or “steadfastness”, but these are hardly major themes in Job either. Job is hardly a paragon of patience or endurance. In fact, he even protests that he has every right to be impatient! “Why should I not lose my patience?” (Job 21:4 NJPS). He constantly protests his innocence, complains that he is suffering without cause, and demands justice. The only time the word ὑπομονή hypomonē appears in the Greek version of Job is to say that God is wearing out Job’s patience, like water wears down rocks (Job 14:19LXX)! So where did James get the idea that Job was a model of patience or endurance?

David deSilva [1] argues convincingly that, rather than quoting from the biblical book of Job, James was more likely  referring to the Testament of Job (hereafter TJob), a pseudepigraphical work probably written in the first century BCE or first century CE.  TJob is based on the canonical Job but the emphasis is different: this Job is a model of endurance, and the word ὑπομονή hypomonē used by James occurs several times throughout the book. DaSilva points to linguistic similarities between James 5:7–11 and TJob and argues that James learned a version of the story of Job from a tradition beyond the canonical Job that came to written expression in TJob, which “presents a fully developed picture of Job as an athlete of endurance, holding on to his commitment to obey the One God and empowered to bear any temporal loss by God’s promise of a future reward for the righteous”. James’s brief reference to the patience/endurance of Job would presume that his audience knows the reshaped Job story from a version such as  TJob and that it is this tradition, rather than the biblical book of Job, to which he refers.

[1] “The Testament of Job: Job Becomes an Example of Patient Endurance”, chapter 9 in The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 237-251.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth

Dieric Bouts (circa 1420-1475)

Hell, Dieric Bouts (circa 1420-1475)

The New Testament expression “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a puzzling one, and one which has engendered fear into generations of believers. It’s an image associated with being “cast into outer darkness” and rejection, and is a favourite of “hell-fire and brimstone” preachers, and is often quoted as an image of the torments of hell. But what exactly is “gnashing of teeth?” The Greek word that is translated as “gnashing” (βρυγμός) is from a word that means “to bite” and describes the snarling of a wild animal as it attacks. The Septuagint uses this word in Proverbs 19:21 to translate the Hebrew word נַהַם used to describe the growling or snarling of a lion (different to the word used for the roaring of a lion, which is שָׁאַג). In all of the passages where the Greek terms for gnash or gnashing are used in the New Testament or in the Septuagint they are always used of anger, rage, pain or anguish. They are never used of sorrow, grief, remorse or regret. The expression “weeping and gnashing of teeth” occurs only seven times in the Bible: six are found in the gospel of Matthew, one in Luke.

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11-12).

The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:41-42).

This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:49-50).

‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 22:12-13).

The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:50-51).

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:29-30).

But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. (Luke 13:27-28).

A similar reference to gnashing of teeth occurs in Acts:

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth (Acts 7:54).

This is the only passage in the New Testament where the verb “gnash” is used and it is a significant passage because it sheds light on the meaning of the associated noun “gnashing of teeth.” This verse describes an incident where the religious leaders were furious with Stephen, the first follower of Jesus to be martyred. Apparently full of anger and hatred at Stephen’s teaching, their rage soon led to them stoning him. To “gnash the teeth” as it is used in this passage has nothing to do with sorrow or regret or grief or remorse. It describes their anger and hatred. They are described as being like angry growling animals about to devour their prey.

We should firstly note that in these sayings Jesus envisages a future time, “the end of the age”, and not something immediately following death. When speaking about “the kingdom” his emphasis was almost invariably on a future period, what is often called the ‘Age to Come’ (Hebrew עולם הבא, or ‘world to come’), or the ‘Messianic age’,  although he also taught about how this future time has implications for the present. We would be hard pressed to find any teachings of Jesus which explicitly refer to an intermediate stage between death and this future Messianic age.  While many of the images from the sayings listed above are popularly used to describe the torments of hell following death, the original context in the gospels is about some event “at the end of the age”.

One of the occasions when Jesus used this expression was in the context of speaking about the “sons of the kingdom”, or citizens of the Kingdom (the NIV has “subjects of the kingdom”). The background to this saying was an encounter with a Roman centurion – someone outside of God’s chosen people Israel – and Jesus said of him ” I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” He then went on to say that while many would come from outside and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom, the “children/sons/subjects of the kingdom” would be cast into outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is evident that he is saying outsiders (such as this Roman centurion) would be welcomed into the kingdom while those who thought the kingdom was their “right” would be rejected. When we look at some of the other similar sayings of Jesus we see that he did not argue that all Israel who would be cast out, but only a particular class within Israel.

It was not only “Gentiles” who were “outsiders”. The Pharisees and religious leaders also excluded people with disabilities (the blind, the crippled, the deaf), those with infectious diseases such as leprosy, people who colluded with the Romans (such as tax-collectors), people who didn’t measure up to their standards of holiness or who rejected some of their doctrines (the term “sinners” included people who disagreed with them as well as those who were guilty of breaking the Law) as well as Samaritans and Gentiles. In fact, they took the name “Pharisees” precisely because it meant “the separated” – those who were “pure in doctrine and conduct”.

Consequently many of Jesus’ sayings and stories were directed against this elite class within Israel: the religious leaders, the pure, the separated, those who felt that they alone were the “true Israel”. For example, after Jesus told the parable of the talents Mark and Luke tell us that “the teachers of the law and the chief priests … knew he had spoken this parable against them” (Mk 12:12; Lk 20:19).

In these sayings Jesus is saying that it was those who were regarded by the religious leaders as being “outsiders”, those whom they rejected, that are to be made welcome in the Kingdom. On the other hand, the “insiders”, the doctrinally pure, those who have separated themselves from the ones who don’t measure up doctrinally or in their behaviour, are to be “cast out”. As a result of being rejected there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This is not a weeping of remorse or sorrow, but of anger and resentment. This is a technique which is used frequently by Jesus – turning things on their head and saying that the truth is actually the opposite of the popular notion or the teaching of the religious leaders.

When Jesus told stories or parables about the kingdom he often referred to some future time in the Age to Come. However, he used these images of the future to make an important lesson about the here-and-now, and how kingdom-people should prepare for this Age to Come. Even when he sais “this is how it will be at the end of the age” the context often suggests that he was drawing lessons about the hear-and-now and how our actions in the present will have implications for the future. So it is that the religious purists who will be rejected “at the end of the age” will go away angrily “gnashing their teeth” with rage because that is how they behave now. In Stephen’s day they directed their anger and rage against this follower of Jesus (and his Greek name suggests that he may have been a Gentile, an “outsider”). Throughout history we have seen “religious” people directing their anger against other believers who don’t measure up to the standards imposed by the purists.

Putting this together, we see that the idea behind this expression is that those who are apart from God attack each other and try to tear each other, much like a pack of dogs fighting over a carcass. Without love there is just hatred and envy. According to the gospels, those who do not live by Jesus’ teachings end up biting and tearing each other, while those who live according to God’s way help others, rather than tearing them down. In these stories of Jesus we are being told that the time will come when this class of people will be left to themselves to tear each other apart. But, as with many of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom, we don’t have to wait until “the end of the age” to see this principle fulfilled. Communities, denominations and churches which splinter and divide often do so because they are obsessed with their own standards of doctrinal purity or so-called holiness rather than reaching out in love to those who are in need of God’s kingdom, and in the process they tear each other apart.

In future posts I would like to explore some more biblical imagery commonly associated with hell or the afterlife, especially some of the popular ideas which have moved considerably away from their biblical foundations.

In praise of the storm god (2)

In the final lines of Psalm 29 the writer repeats some terms used earlier, connecting the concluding lines with the opening statements. The Psalm begins by ascribing strength to the LORD and concludes with the benediction “May the LORD give strength to his people”. The central section describes the chaos and terror of a violent storm and the conclusion has a call for the LORD to “bless his people with peace”. The two concluding couplets declare that the LORD is enthroned “over the flood”, a term which probably refers either to the primeval chaos in the Canaanite myths or the chaos of the great flood described in Genesis.6 Either way there appears to be a deliberate contrast between chaos and peace and the structure of the psalm forms a tight unit.

Both lines of the penultimate couplet declare that “the LORD sits enthroned”. In the 1960s Sigmund Mowinckel wrote a thorough analysis of what he called the “enthronement psalms” which are characterised by an acclamation that the LORD is King and the use of language pertaining to the ascent of the throne. Mowinckel argued that these psalms had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles.7 Significantly, Psalm 29 in the Septuagint has a superscription ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς “at the leaving of the tabernacle”, which could possibly indicate that it was sung on the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles. Strangely, Mowinckel did not identify Psalm 29 as an enthronement psalm, despite these notable characteristics. The Festival of Trumpets and the Festival of Tabernacles are closely associated in the Hebrew calendar, both being in the seventh month. If Mowinckel is right this could also explain the possible connection between seven trumpets and the seven thunders in The Revelation.

Other scholarshave also noted similarities between the enthronement psalms of Israel and the enthronement festivals of Ugarit and identified several features in Psalm 29 which could possibly have Canaanite origins. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that almost every word in Psalm 29 can be found in earlier Canaanite texts. Aloysius Fitzgerald asserted that “it is clear that the typical Canaanite presentation of Baal as the god of the rainstorm which characterizes each of these texts has been used by Israelite poets in speaking of Yahweh, and such connections can be spotted with relative ease.”9 He concluded that Psalm 29 was originally Canaanite and simply adapted for Israelite use by changing “Baal” to the name of the God of Israel. Theodor Gaster argued, perhaps over-enthusiastically, that

There is a complete correspondence in details between the Hebrew psalm and the texts to which we have referred [Enuma elis and the Poem of Baal], and several passages of the former which are at present difficult of interpretation are at once clarified and illuminated by comparison with the latter.10

The introduction to Psalm 29 says it is לדוד ‘of’ or ‘pertaining to’ David.  It is therefore possible that it was composed with reference to an event associated historically with David and David’s two attempts to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem might qualify as this historic occasion. In connection with the first attempt to relocate the Ark the Chronicler wrote:

And David and all Israel went up to Baalah [Kiriath-jearim]… to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord who sits enthroned above the cherubim (1 Chronicles 13:6).

The tradition which understood the Ark as the throne of God may have prompted the composition of the psalm for the purpose of commemorating that event. While the first attempt failed the second succeeded, and this may be behind the exclamation in Psalm 29:9 that ‘in his temple all cry, “Glory!”’, referring to the Ark’s eventual resting-place in the Jerusalem Temple. The intriguing superscription in the Septuagint (ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς “at the leaving of the tabernacle”) would therefore refer to the departure of the Ark from its location in the Tabernacle at Kiriath-jearim and the ‘enthronement psalms’ might possibly commemorate the enthronement of the LORD on the Ark of the Covenant.

The main similarities between Psalm 29 and Ugaritic or Canaanite motifs are: (a) the reference to the divine council and the Sons of Elim/El; (b) geographical references in the psalm (Lebanon, Sirion [Mount Hermon], and the Desert of Kadesh [in Syria]) suggesting it may have originated from that region; (c) thunder is representative both of the voice of the LORD and the voice of Baal; and (d) enthronement over the flood in the psalm may reflect Canaanite creation conflict themes. However, Robert Alter has noted that “None of these arguments is entirely convincing.”11

Stela depicting Baal the storm god

Stela depicting Baal the storm god

So is Psalm 29 a Canaanite poem? While Fitzgerald asserted that it is a Baal poem transformed to become a poem to worship the LORD using a simple substitution of Baal with the name of the LORD, the psalm may equally have been intentionally composed by an Israelite using Canaanite ideas and poetic conventions. It is possible that in this psalm the God of Israel is deliberately described in the terms of pagan gods to appeal to Israelites who were tempted to worship pagan gods or as a polemic against Baal worship.12 Leland Ryken thinks that “Psalm 29 imitates (and ultimately parodies) the motifs of Canaanite poems written about the exploits of Baal.”13

My own view is that the Canaanites and Israelites both drew on poetic conventions and literary practices which were widespread throughout the region, producing literature which inevitably had many similarities in language and style but with different purposes and objects of devotion. Psalm 29 was probably written to be used liturgically as part of an ‘enthronement festival’, possibly associated with the Festivals of Trumpets and Tabernacles in the seventh month, commemorating the enthronement of the God of Israel in the Jerusalem Temple, and may have drawn on historic traditions about the relocation of the Ark to Jerusalem by David.


6 The Hebrew word for “flood” (מבול) occurs only here and in Genesis with reference to the great flood.

7 S. Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, 106

8 For example, A.R. Petersen, The Royal God: Enthronement Festivals in Ancient Israel and Ugarit? (Sheffield: Sheffield academic Press, 1998)

9 A. Fitzgerald,  “A Note on Psalm 29” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 215 (Oct., 1974), pp. 61-63

10 Theodor H. Gaster, “Psalm 29” The Jewish Quarterly Review New Series, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jul., 1946), pp. 55-65 University of Pennsylvania Press, 57

11 R. Alter, The Book of Psalms: a translation with commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007)

12 So argues A.P. Ross , A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (1-41), (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 653

13 L. Ryken, and T. Longman III (eds.) A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 50

In praise of the storm god (1)

stormPsalm 29 may be one of the oldest psalms in the Hebrew Bible. Its beginning is set in a heavenly council and is addressed to the בני אלים “sons of Elim”. This terminology is very similar to Psalm 82:1 and Psalm 89:6-7 which respectively refer to the עדת־אל “council of El” and the בני אלים “sons of Elim”. These texts in turn are similar to the frame narrative of Job which is partially set in a divine council of the בני האלהים “sons of ha-Elohim”; and the narrative of the interbreeding of the בני־האלהים “sons of ha-Elohim” with the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6.  Some scholars have noticed the similarity of this divine council with the Canaanite myths of the council of El.1

The central section of Psalm 29 describes the voice of the LORD in terms of an intense storm which forms over the sea (“the waters” and the “many [or mighty] waters” in verse 3 probably means the Mediterranean Sea) and then moves eastwards over the land (Lebanon, Sirion [Mount Hermon] and on to Syrian Kadesh), following the east-to-west pattern of weather in Canaan2 and breaking the cedar trees in its path (v. 5) and stripping the forests bare (v. 9), causing animals to flee (v. 6) and in their terror to prematurely give birth (v. 9), sending bolts of lightning (v. 7) and making the ground to shake (v. 8). In a striking parallelism the psalm refers seven times to “the voice of the LORD” and after the first use of this expression says “the God of glory (or, “the Glorious El”) thunders”. John Day saw this as reminiscent of the seven thunders of Baal in Ugaritic poetry3, specifically in the following lines from two poems:

Seven lightnings (he [Baal] had),  Eight storehouses4 of thunder were the shafts of (his) lightnings. (RS 24.245 lines 3b-4) 

And you [Baal], take your clouds, your wind, your chariot team, your rain, take with you your seven servitors and your eight boars, take Pidriya daughter of dew with you, and Taliya daughter of showers with you. (CTA 5.v. 6b-11) 

The identity of the “seven servitors” and “eight boars” here is uncertain, but because the other metaphors in this section of the poem are meteorological so Day takes them to be the same as the “seven lightnings and seven thunders” mentioned previously. Psalm 29 concludes with the ‘enthronement’ of the LORD and Day observed that the Ugaritic text RS 24.245 commenced with a similar enthronement statement:

Baal sits enthroned, having the mountain as a throne, Hadad (the shepherd) like the flood in the midst of his mountain, the god of Zaphon in the (midst of) the mountain of victory. (RS 24.245 lines 1-3a)

Several scholars have noted the similarity between the language of Psalm 29 and Ugaritic poems about Baal. For example, Tremper Longman III asserts that

It is well known that the Canaanite god Baal was a storm-god. He was the one who dispensed rain, flashed lightning, and created thunder. Psalm 29 pictures Yahweh as a storm-god in language reminiscent of Baal.5

There is a possible intertextual link between the “seven voices/thunders” of Psalm 29 and the apocalyptic New Testament book of The Revelation where the narrator heard an angel call out “with a loud voice … When he called out, the seven thunders sounded” (Revelation 10:1-4). The use of the definite article suggests that there were seven specific thunders he had in mind. Elsewhere he heard seven angels blow on seven trumpets “and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:2-5). The similarity in the language suggests that the writer either had the language of Psalm 29 in mind (and the Psalms are among the most quoted biblical books in early Christian literature), or was drawing on the same pool of metaphors which inspired the writer of Psalm 29. The mention of seven trumpets along with seven thunders and the frequency of Temple imagery in The Revelation further suggest that the writer may have been referring to a liturgical use of trumpets in connection with the language of Psalm 29, and I will return later to this connection.

 … to be continued

1 For example, at Ugarit there were seventy sons of the gods (KTU 1.4:VI.46).

2 R.J. Clifford,, Psalms 1-72, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 155

3 J. Day,, “Echoes of Baal’s Seven Thunders and Lightnings in Psalm XXIX and Habakkuk III 9 and the Identity of the Seraphim in Isaiah VI” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 29, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1979), 143ff.

4 Day understands the juxtaposition of ‘seven” and “eight” to be a poetic device for emphasis meaning “seven”, hence “seven lightnings and seven thunders”.

5 Temper Longman III “Psalms: Ancient Near Eastern Background” in Tremper Longman III, Peter Enns (eds.) Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 603