1 Chronicles 1-2: The Never-ending List

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They say it’s important to begin a story in media res, start with a bang, start with something that will grip your audience and leave them salivating for more.

The Chronicler took this advice and decided to do the precise opposite. And so we begin 1 Chronicles with what is little more than an incredibly tedious list of names. This isn’t even like Genesis, where at least “the begats” were interspersed with narrative. No, not here. Our very first paragraph is composed of thirteen names and one conjunction. It certainly does set a tone!

There are, of course, many theories as to why the Chronicler should choose to begin this way. My study Bible argues that the genealogies are provided to “make it clear that he [the Chronicler] was dealing with the true Chosen People.” Personally, I liked James Pate’s thought that:

I Chronicles may have genealogies as a way to affirm a societal structure in post-exilic Israel and to connect it with pre-exilic Israel, to tell Israel who she is, and to convey that God is preserving God’s people, notwithstanding the exile.  There were a lot of people-groups that became lost once they went into exile, but I Chronicles may be trying to demonstrate that Israel did not.

In the beginning…

To being our journey, the Chronicler condenses all of Genesis 5 into these names: “Adam, Seth, Enosh; Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech; Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (1 Chronicles 1:1-4).

Here, Brant Clements notes that this is first mention of Adam that we’ve seen since Genesis 5:5, and that he will not be mentioned again in the Old Testament. “Adam actually featured more strongly in the New Testament. The ancient Hebrews didn’t put much emphasis on him at all.” It’s a very interesting observation, and clearly an indication of theological evolution. I hope that we get to find out some more about that when we finally reach the New Testament (in, oh, about five years).

Up until Noah, this is a list of generational patriarchs, a direct line from father to son to grandson, and so on. But abruptly, without any indication of change, it presents us with three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah.

That’s because it’s with Noah’s sons that we see our first ethnic branching.

The sons of Japheth: According to my study Bible, the sons of Japheth represent Indo-European populations. The section is taken from Genesis 10, and the sons are Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.

In the next generation, the sons of Gomer are Ashkenaz, Diphath (who appears as Riphath in Gen. 10:3), and Togarmah. The sons of Javan are Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim (who appears as Dodanim in Gen. 10:4).

It’s worth noting that Javan (literally Ionia) represents the Greeks. According to James Pate, the discrepancy between Dodanim (Gen. 10:4) and Rodanim (1 Chron. 1:7) may be due simply to the fact that the “d” and “r” sounds are represented in Hebrew with letters that look similar and may have been confused at some point by some hapless copier. Pate goes on to propose another possibility:

Relying on Mefaresh’s interpretation, which is based on Genesis Rabbah 37:1, the Artscroll says that, when Israel sins, the people-group subjugates Israel and is called the Rodanim, from the Hebrew root r-d-h, which means ruling or oppressing.  If Israel controls the people-group, however, the people-group is called the Dodanim, for it is telling Israel that she is its friend, or dod.

Of course, this presents a number of problems, but it’s certainly an interesting proposition.

The sons of Ham: Ham’s sons are Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. In the next generation, the sons of Cush are Seba, Havilah, Sabta, Raama (here spelled without an ‘h’ at the end, though he has one later in the same verse, as well as in Gen. 10:7), and Sabteca. We are also told that Cush was the father of Nimrod, who “began to be a mighty one in the earth” (1 Chron. 1:10). In the generation after that, we have the sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

Back up the line to Egypt, his sons were Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim (whom the Chronicler tells us fathered the Philistines), and Caphtorim.

Next comes Canaan, for whom the pretence of personification is dropped. Rather than naming his sons, we are told instead that he was the father of Sidon, Heth, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites.

The sons of Shem: The final son of Noah is the sire of the Semitic group, the population from which Abraham will emerge. The sons of Shem are Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, Aram, Uz, Hul, Gether, and Meshech (who appears as Mash in Gen. 10:23). This is either an error or deviates quite a bit from the Genesis 10 version, in which Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash are the sons of Aram, and the grandsons of Shem.

In the next generation, Arpachshad was the father of Shelah, who in turn was the father of Eber. Eber had two sons: Peleg and Joktan. Joktan was the father of Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Ebal (given as Obal in Gen. 10:28), Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

Father of sand, father of stars

We move next to Abraham, who is descended from Shem by way of Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah. This portion is lifted from Genesis 11:10-26. Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael.

The sons of Ishmael: This section is lifted from Gen. 25:12-16. I’ve always found it an interesting twist that Ishmael should be the first born, yet did not inherit divine attention. We see this motif a great deal in Genesis, of younger sons usurping their older brothers. It would be nice to have an explanation for this, though I suppose it could be as simple as inversion of expectation making for psychologically satisfying (and entertaining) stories. Ishmael, of course, sired the Arabic people.

Ishmael was the father of Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah.

A painting of Abraham's departure, by József Molnár 1849

A painting of Abraham’s departure, by József Molnár 1849

The sons of Keturah: Though 1 Chron. 1:28 implied that Abraham only had Ishmael and Isaac, we know from Gen. 25:1-4 that Abraham remarried after his wife Sarah’s death, a woman named Keturah. Here (1 Chron. 1:32), she is demoted to the status of concubine.

Through her, Abraham was the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. In the next generation, Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan (the same two sons given to Raamah in 1 Chron. 1:9). Jokshan’s brother, Midian, fathered Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah.

The sons of Isaac: We next move over to Abraham’s son by his first wife, Sarah. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Israel. Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites. Israel was born with the name of Jacob, but received the name Israel after an encounter with the Divine. While Genesis used the two names inconsistently, he is here referred to only as Israel.

Esau’s sons were: Eliphaz, Reuel, Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. In the next generation, Eliphaz fathered Teman, Omar, Zephi (appears as Zepho in Gen. 36:11), Gatam, Kenaz, Timna, and Amalek. Reuel fathered Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are taken from Genesis 36:10-14, where Timna appears as a concubine of Eliphaz, not as his son, and she is the mother of Amalek.

The sons of Seir: We run into a difficulty here, since this is the first mention of a Seir. So where is he meant to fit? My study Bible notes that Seir is “another name for Edom”, referencing Gen. 36:8, and in Gen. 36:20, we learn of a Seir the Horite who lived in Edom. Yet none of this helps to explain how Seir is meant to fit into this genealogy.

In any case, Mystery Seir’s sons are Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. He also had a daughter, named as a full sister of Lotan, by the name of Timna.

In the next generation, Lotan fathered Hori and Homam (appearing as Hemam in Gen. 36:22). Shobal fathered Alian (appearing as Alvan in Gen. 36:23), Manahath, Ebal, Shephi (appearing as Shepho in Gen. 36:23), and Onam. Zibeon fathered Aiah and Anah (he either fathered a daughter by the same name, or there is some confusion – in Gen. 36:2, Zibeon had a daughter named Anah, who married Esau). Anah (Seir’s son, not Zibeon’s) fathered Dishon. And Dishon (again, Seir’s son) fathered Hamran (appearing as Hemdan in Gen. 36:26), Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran. Ezer fathered Bilhan, Zaavan, and Jaakan (appearing as Akan in Gen. 36:27). Dishan fathered Uz and Aran.

The kings of Edom: Before Israel had a king of its own, Edom had plenty. This record may be compared to Gen. 36:31-43. They begin with Bela son of Beor, who ruled from Dinhabah. When he did, Jobab son of Zerah, of Bozrah, took over. After him came Husham, of the lands of the Temanites. Then Hadad son of Bedad, who defeated Midian and ruled from Avith. Then came Samlah of Masrekah. Then Shaul of Rehoboth. Then Baalhanan son of Achbor. Then another Hadad (appearing as Hadar in Gen. 36:39), whose city was Pai (which appears as Pau in Gen. 36:39) and whose wife was Mehetabel daughter of Matred, daughter of Mezahab.

The chiefs of Edom were Timna, Aliah (appearing as Alvah in Gen. 36:40), Jetheth, Oholibamah, Elah, Pinon, Kenaz, Teman, Mibzar, Magdiel, and Iram.

The sons of Israel: These are, of course, our twelve tribes. Israel fathered Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. This is, of course, parallel to Genesis 35:22-26.

Focus on Judah

The next few chapters cover will cover each individual tribe in excruciating detail. But we begin with Judah, who fathered Er, Onan, and Shelah, via Bathshua the Canaanite.

God killed Er for wickedness (and Onan, but not mentioned here), which leads to Judah impregnating Er’s wife, Tamar, himself. This produced two more sons: Perez and Zerah. This rather sordid story can be found in Genesis 38.

In the next generation, Perez fathered Hezron and Hamul (this corresponds to Gen. 46:12). His brother, Zerah, fathered Zimri (appearing as Zabdi in Jos. 7:1), Ethan, Heman, Calcol, and Dara. If several of these names seem familiar, it might be because they appear in 1 Kings 4:31, as the men of great wisdom to which Solomon is favourably compared. Except, of course, that the version in Kings describes them as the sons of Mahol, not Zerah.

We then skip to a Carmi, who fathers Achar. Achar is described as “the troubler of Israel” (1 Chron. 2:7). Carmi’s link to the rest of the genealogy is omitted, and the description of Achar as “the troubler of Israel” suggests a story with which the reader ought to be familiar. One possibility is that Achar is the Achan from Joshua 7, who cursed the Hebrew army by keeping some of the spoils of war. He is identified in Jos. 7:1 as “the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah.” This would explain his inclusion here. Except, of course, that it completely screws up the timeline of the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt.

In very next verse, we return to the explicit relations with Ethan, who fathered Azariah.

The sons of Perez: Back over to the line of Perez, we move down through his son, Hezron, who fathered Jerahmeel, Ram, and Chelubai. Much later, we learn that Hezron, at the age of sixty, married the daughter of Machir (the father of Gilead). Through her, he had a final son named Segub, who fathered Jair. Jair controlled 23 cities in Gilead until Geshur and Aram conquered a bunch of them.

In the next generation, Ram fathered Amminadab, who fathered Nahshon (described here as the “prince of the sons of Judah” – 1 Chron. 2:10). Through Nahshon, we get Salma (who appears as Salmon in Ruth 4:18-22), through whom we get Boaz (the love interest of the book of Ruth), and through him Obed. Then, through Obed, we get Jesse.

The sons of Jesse: Jesse fathered Eliab, Abinadab, Shimea, Nethanel, Raddai, Ozem, and David. Though only these seven sons are listed here, 1 Sam. 16:10-11 and 1 Sam. 17:12 both explicitly state that he had eight (of which David was the youngest).

He also had daughters: Zeruiah and Abigail. Zeruiah gave birth to some rather plot critical characters: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel, who play a fairly important part in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Abigail married Jether the Ishmaelite (named Ithra the Israelite in 2 Sam. 17:25), and bore Amasa. It’s interesting that the children of David’s sisters should be worth mentioning, but not those of his brothers.

 

The sons of Jerahmeel: The narrative is jumping around quite a bit, making it difficult to follow. We now bounce back to Jerahmeel, Hezron’s eldest. Jerahmeel is a bit difficult, since he is listed specifically as being a member of the tribe of Judah here, yet 1 Sam. 27:10 and 1 Sam. 30:29 refer to the Jerahmeelites as if they were a separate, non-Israelite, group. To smooth this over, my New Bible Commentary argues that “it is much simpler to suppose that the descendants of Jerahmeel, who in any case were settled in the south of Judea, retained their nomadic habits longer, and so in the days of David were reckoned separately from the rest of Judah” (p.372).

Jerahmeel fathered Ram, Bunah, Oren, Ozem, and Ahijah. In the next generation, Ram fathered Maaz, Jamin, and Eker.

Jerahmeel also had a second wife, Atarah, who bore Onam. Onam fathered Shammai and Jada. Shammai fathered Nadab and Abishur. Abishur married a woman named Abihail, and they had Ahban and Molid. Nadab fathered Seled (who died childless) and Apparim, who fathered Ishi. Ishi fathered Sheshan, who fathered Ahlai.

Despite what I said just above, we are told that Sheshan had no sons (this isn’t necessarily a contradiction, as Ahlai might either have died young or been born after the events I am about to relate). To continue his line, he married his daughter to his Egyptian slave, Jarha, and they had Attai.

Brian Shwimmer (of the University of Manitoba’s Department of Anthropology) addresses this in the broader context of inheritance:

Inheritance by daughters imposed a particular difficulty, which is acknowledged in several biblical passages. After Moses first promulgates the rule (Numbers), he is confronted with a problem: if females inherit land from their fathers they will pass it on to their children and therefore into the patrimony of another tribe or lineage. His solution is to institute a parallel cousin marriage regulation. Thus a woman who inherits from her father is to marry her father’s brother’s son so that property will automatically be retained within the wider patriline. A second mechanism for maintaining the continuity of lineage holdings was to marry inheriting daughters to household slaves. Since these dependants had no partilineages of their own, their children were by default incorporated into their mothers’ lineages. The arrangement of marriages to slaves created a number of segments that originated with female rather than male founders (see I Chronicles 2:34-36 for an example.) This institution directly mirrors a solution to the reverse problem of a daughterless family among the Akan, a matrilineal people of West Africa.

The reference to Numbers, of course, relates to the daughters of Zelophehad, whose story can be found in Numbers 27 and Numbers 36.

Attai fathered Nathan, who fathered Zabad, who fathered Ephlal, who fathered Obed, who fathered Jehu, who fathered Azariah, who fathered Helez, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Sismai, who fathered Shallum, who fathered Jekamiah, who fathered Elishama.

After all that, we move back up the line to Onam’s second son, Jada, who fathered Jether (who died childless) and Jonathan. Jonathan fathered Peleth and Zaza.

A Tale of Two Calebs

I am moving the two sections about Calebs to the bottom for special treatment. The first originally began with 1 Chron. 2:18. The mention of a Caleb is rather odd. It appears to be yet another sui genesis dynasty. In looking for more information, I am finding that the consensus makes Caleb a variant spelling of Chelubai, making him the son of Hezron, grandson of Perez. Except that that Caleb will be mentioned later on, leaving this one still without explanation.

Whoever he is, this Caleb married a woman named Azubah. The verse (1 Chron. 2:18) is rather difficult to parse out, suggesting that Caleb had sons with both Azubah and Jerioth. My interpretation was that this might refer to an arrangement similar to the one used by Abraham in Genesis 16. My New Bible Commentary, however, argues that “either Jerioth was another name of Azubah, or there is a textual corruption” (p.372). The Commentary goes on to suggest that the original wording might have had Azubah give birth to a daughter, Jerioth, who in turn had the sons who will shortly be listed. In any case, Caleb had the following sons: Jesher, Shobab, and Ardon. After Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath (later listed as Ephrathah, compare 1 Chron. 2:19 to 1 Chron. 2:24), who gave birth to Hur.

Caleb, who apparently lived up to his name (kelev means “dog”), impregnated his father’s wife, Ephrathah – though he at least waited until his father was dead. Through her, he fathered Ashhur, who fathered Tekoa. (There is no mention of either of them being put to death, which would be required by Leviticus 20:11.)

In the next generation, Hur fathered Uri, and Uri fathered Bezalel. This appears to be the same as Bezaleel, named in Exodus 31:2.

Further down (I’m putting it here for convenience), we will get another section headed: “The sons of Caleb the brother of Jerahmeel” (1 Chron. 2:42). The two genealogies are different, though my New Bible Commentary insists that the names here are meant to supplement the ones above. To me, this suggests that either Caleb was a quasi-mythic figure in a few different spots, each with their own traditions that had to be amalgamated, or there were a few different Calebs that somehow became conflated.

In any case, the Caleb specifically identified as the brother of Jerahmeel fathered Mareshah, who fathered Ziph and Hebron. Hebron fathered Korah, Tappuah, Tekem, and Shema. Shema fathered Raham, who fathered Jorekeam. While Rekem fathered Shammai. Shammai fathered Maon, who fathered Bethzur.

This Caleb also had a concubine named Ephah, who bore Haran, Moza, and Gazez. Haran also fathered a Gazez, though hopefully a different one.

There is another sui genesis patriarch listed among the descendants of Caleb: Jahdai. Jahdai fathered Regem, Jotham, Geshan, Pelet, Ephah, and Shaaph.

Caleb had yet another concubine, this one named Maacah. She bore Sheber and Tirhanah. We are told that she was also the mother of Shaaph (if the same as above, the implications are even more headache-inducing). Shaaph fathered Madmannah and Sheva. Sheva fathered Macbenah, and was the father of Gibea.

Finally, Caleb had a daughter, Achsah. It is on this basis this Caleb is identified with Caleb the Kenizzite, who appears, for example, in Joshua 14:6, and who also had a daughter by the same name (Jos. 15:17). The theory, if I understand it correctly, goes that he may have been an honorary Israelite, perhaps adopted into Hezron’s family.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that several of Caleb’s descendants are also the names of towns. So are we to understand that Caleb (and his lineage) founded those towns? Or that these individuals gave their names to the towns that they founded?

The sons of Hur: I am continuing this out of order, just to keep Hur in the same section as Caleb. Hur was the son of Ephrathah (called Ephrath in 1 Chron. 2:19), Caleb’s second wife. He fathered Shobal (who “fathered” Kiriath-jearim), Salma (who “fathered” Bethlehem), and Hareph (who “fathered” Beth-gader).

Shobal’s sons were Haroeh, and half of Manuhoth. Yeah, I’m scratching my head as well.

The families of Kiriath-jearim were the Ithrites, the Puthites, the Shumathites, and the Mishraites. From these came the Zorathites and the Esthaolites. The families of Bethlehem were the Netophathites, Atrothbethjoab, the Zorites, and half of the Manahathites. The families of the scribes who lived in Jabez were the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, and the Sucathites. These, we are told, were the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab.

And now I think I need to go detox my brain for a while.

1 Kings 11: Mistakes were made

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When it comes to women, Solomon has gotta catch them all – or at least a multi-national representative sample. Over his lifetime, he manages to accumulate 700 wives and 300 concubines (almost certainly hyperbole, though such numbers – and higher – are not unheard of for kings), brought in from many nations, including some that God specifically forbade (a reference to passages like Deut. 7:1-4).

The passage is clearly meant to be a shock, an indication of just how far Solomon had fallen, though it’s the sin seems more to be the foreignness of the women than their number.

Solomon led astray, by Giovanni Battista Venanzi, 1668

Solomon led astray, by Giovanni Battista Venanzi, 1668

As Solomon ages, we are told that his wives began to steer him toward their foreign gods, even though God had specifically told Solomon not to stray! Solomon builds a “high place” dedicated to Chemosh (the Moabite god) and Molech (the Ammonite god), and his wives build some high places of their own.

At first reading, I assumed that this meant that Solomon was a polytheist (or at least taking Pascal’s Wager to its logical conclusion), but now I’m wondering if accommodating his wives’ faiths might not simply have been part of the marriage deal. The women are described as princesses, and the marriages are diplomatic. Dogmatically cutting off the women from something as deeply meaningful as the worship of their natal lands could have caused trouble. It’s entirely possible, then, that Solomon remained personally faithful to YHWH, but provided accommodations for the other faiths in his household.

Regardless, God is a jealous god, and he decides that he will give Israel to Solomon’s “servant” (1 Kgs 11:11). Only, for David’s sake, he will wait until after Solomon has died before doing it. The use of Israel here refers to the northern tribes, as will be made clear later on. Once again, it seems rather clear that Deut. 17:14-20 was written specifically with Solomon in mind.

Adversaries

As punishment for Solomon tolerating other gods, God raises up three adversaries to make trouble for David’s dynasty.

The first is Hadad of Edom. We’re told that David campaigned in Edom, and that Joab slaughtered every male Edomite (it’s not clear whether this was at David’s command or just another example of Joab being Joab). Either way, it’s clearly hyperbole.

Hadad was only a child (or perhaps a young man) when this happened, and he fled with a small retinue to Egypt, where he was given shelter and the Pharaoh’s sister-in-law for a wife. He seems to have had a fairly close relationship with the Pharaoh, as his son, Genubath, was weaned by the queen and raised alongside the princes. He asked to return to Israel once he hears that David has died.

Incidentally, the queen is named Tahpenes. My New Bible Commentary claims that this is “believed to be an Egyptian title meaning ‘the wife of the king'” (p.336), making it the equivalent of “Pharaoh,” rather than a personal name. However, I didn’t find very much support for this online. Instead, sources like this one seem to agree that Tahpenes seems related to the name of a city, and that both mean “Head of the Age.”

The second adversary is Rezon, the son of Eliada. The grammar is a little fuddled, but either Rezon or Eliada fled from King Hadadezer of Zobah, and Rezon became a bandit leader. With his band, he returned to Damascus and was made the king of Syria. The trajectory of fleeing a court, raising an army, and returning to take power is eerily similar to David’s own rise. Incidentally, it seems that we may have some independent attestations for King Hadadezer.

The final adversary is internal, and this one has God’s backing. Jeroboam, son of Nebat and Zeruah, was an Ephraimite and a servant of Solomon. Remember back in 1 Kgs 11:11, where God said he would give Israel to one of Solomon’s servants? Yeah, the author just stuck a big neon sign pointing directly at Jeroboam.

Jeroboam was put in charge of the forced labour raised from “the house of Joseph” (1 Kgs 11:29), meaning from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, during the construction of the Millo. One day, he left Jerusalem and met the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite. It seems that Shiloh was not destroyed as implied by 1 Samuel 6, and was still a location of sufficient cultic significance to still be producing prophets.

Ahijah tore his robe (which we are told was new, so we can know that he really meant it) into twelve pieces in some rather obvious symbolism. He handed Jeroboam ten of those pieces, indicating that God would grant Jeroboam leadership of ten tribes (the northern tribes). One piece of the robe is to belong to Solomon, for David’s sake. The twelfth piece is never mentioned – there are several theories circulating for why this might be the case, but nothing seems particularly definitive.

If he is faithful, Jeroboam will get his dynasty (albeit only a temporary one) once Solomon has died.

It seems that Jeroboam was not quite willing to wait that long, or perhaps had thought to get a head start at winning the support of the northern tribes, because Solomon tried to kill him. In a story that feels rather similar to David’s escape from Saul to the court of a foreign king, Jeroboam flees to Egypt and the court of King Shishak – the first Pharaoh to be mentioned by name. He remains there until Solomon’s death.

King Shishak is thought to be Sheshonk I, the founder of the Kushite dynasty in Egypt. He is known to have lead a campaign into Canaan, which might explain why two out of our three adversaries found protection and support in Egypt. A great strategy for winning military campaigns is to destabilize a country by stirring up and supporting internal dissent.

Finishing up the chapter, we are directed to the book of the acts of Solomon if we’d like to know more details about Solomon’s reign. But for text itself, the author is content to simply tell us that he reigned forty years, died, and was succeeded by his son, Rehoboam.

Judges 9: On power plays and death curses

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For this chapter, Gideon has fully transformed into his Jerubbaal form. While Gideon refused kingship in Judges 8:23, Jerubbaal, it seems, took it. Or, perhaps we misunderstood Gideon’s words in Judges 8:23, and he was actually making a theological point rather than a refusal. Sort of a “yes, I’ll wear the crown, but God will be your true king” sort of thing.

Abimelech, one of Jerubbaal’s bastard sons – born of a concubine (Judges 8:31) or slave/servant (Judges 9:18) – decides that perhaps he should inherit his father’s title after Jerubbaal’s passing. But first, he needs supporters.

Abimelech travels to Shechem, where his mother’s family is from.

I find it rather curious that Shechem has had so many mentions both in Joshua and Judges – far more than a site I would have assumed would have had more importance, like Jerusalem. I found it especially surprising because, prior to this project, I’d never heard of it.

My study Bible says of the city that it was “the most important city and sanctuary in north central Palestine. It guarded the important east and west highway which passed between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim” (p.305). Baalberith, the god the people began worshipping in Judges 8:33 and who will make an appearance in a couple verses, is, according to my study Bible, named “the lord of the covenant” and was “the god of Shechem.” It’s significant that this is also, if you’ll recall, where Joshua’s covenant ceremony took place in Joshua 24.

It’s also worth noting that Abimelech’s name  means “my father, the king,” and is the perfect name for someone “claiming the inherited right to rule (wiki). It was also, according to the same source, a common name among Philistine kings. You will probably remember another Abimelech who slept with both Sarah (Abraham’s wife) and Rebekah (Isaac’s wife).

Back to the story, Abimelech asks his mother’s family to sow dissent, telling them to go out and ask everyone “What is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?” (Judges 9:2). He compels them to work on his campaign by reminding them of their blood tie.

The campaign works and Abimelech soon has Shechem on his side. They even fund his efforts, giving him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of Baalberith (one for each of Jerubbaal’s sons?), which he uses to hire “worthless and reckless fellows” (Judges 9:4).

The Rise of Abimelech, by Kevin Rolly

The Rise of Abimelech, by Kevin Rolly

Abimelech then travels to Ophrah (Gideon’s home-base in Judges 6) and kills all seventy of his brothers. Well, except that Jerubbaal had seventy sons of which Abimelech himself was one, so that would leave only 69 brothers. Also, he missed one. Jotham, Jerubbaal’s youngest, hides like the son of Gideon that he is, and thereby escapes death.

The people of Shechem, now joined by the people of Bethmillo who are never mentioned again, gather by the oak pillar at Shechem to name Abimelech their king. It was under this same oak that Joshua set up a large stone after composing his book of law (Josh. 24:26).

Jotham returns one last time, standing atop Mount Gerizim and yelling some weird parable about Ents choosing a king. The olive tree, fig tree, and vine all refuse the title, but the bramble accepts it on condition that the offer is sincerely made. If not, warns the bramble, “let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:15).

If that’s too trippy for you, Jotham helpfully spells it out – Abimelech, as a bastard, is as lowly and useless as a bramble, and if the offer of kingship is not sincerely made, then Abimelech and Shechem will both be destroyed.

With this, Jotham drops his mic and goes back into hiding. Clearly, his parentage is beyond doubt.

Big Trouble In Little Shechem

Abimelech rules Israel for three years. Notice that the text specifically says Israel in Judges 9:22, even though the story is very clearly focused on the Shechem region.

Indeed, when trouble begins to brew, it is the “men of Shechem” (Judges 9:23) who are divided from Abimelech, not the men of Israel.

Though God is otherwise quite absent from this story, he does get the credit for Shechem’s dissent, having sent “an evil spirit” (Judges 9:23) between Abimelech and the city. This is explained as punishment for the murder of Abimelech’s brothers (Abimelech for doing it, Shechem for giving him the means). Interestingly, it is not punishment for, say, being associated with Baalberith (Judges 9:4).

After this, the narrative gets a little hectic. As best as I can figure, the Shechemites take to banditry, but it’s also a covert attack on Abimelech himself (Judges 9:25).

Then Gaal, son of Ebed, moves to Shechem. He and the Shechemites harvest their grapes, tread on them, celebrate, go to the house of their god (unspecified), and “reviled Abimelech” (Judges 9:27). I can’t figure out what the significance is of the pastoral backdrop, except perhaps that we’re supposed to understand that Gaal is winning over the Shechemites by working with them, or perhaps that the Shechemites are drunken to the point of suggestibility by their post-harvest revelry.

Gaal incites the Shechemites by asking why they should serve Abimelech. Didn’t Abimelech’s father Jerubbaal and his officer Zebul both “serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem?” (Judges 9:28) I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. The only other reference I can find to Hamor is way back in Genesis 34, when Jacob is staying near Shechem and Hamor’s son rapes/has sex with Jacob’s daughter Dinah. I’m assuming that the mention here refers to some story that has not been included in the text.

At least we find out who Zebul is fairly quickly – he is “the ruler of the city” (Judges 9:30). Presumably, Abimelech is ruling the region (or all of Israel), and Zebul is his officer appointed to Shechem. Indeed, we will soon find out that Abimelech’s court is in Arumah.

So Zebul finds out about Gaal’s grumblings, and he sends word to Abimelech. He tells Abimelech to hide in the fields around Shechem at night and, in the morning, rush the city. If all goes according to plan, Gaal and his supporters will rush out to meet him and then Abimelech “may do to them as occasion offers” (Judges 9:33).

Abimelech follows his officer’s instructions. When Gaal spots his army, he tells Zebul, but Zebul insists that he must just be seeing things. But when Gaal insists, Zebul says “I thought you said Abimelech was just a nobody. If he’s just a nobody, go out and face him!”

Goaded, Gaal rushes out, is defeated, flees, and many die. His work done, Abimelech goes back to Arumah and Zebul casts Gaal’s family out of Shechem.

The next day, people go out into the fields, so Abimelech slays them. He then takes Shechem, razes it, and sows it with salt. None of this is really explained, except insofar as it was predicted by Jotham’s parable.

The survivors of Shechem hide in the temple of Elberith (Judges 9:46). It’s worth noting that no one in this story appears to be especially concerned with YHWH. Abimelech turned to Baalberith for support, and the Shechemites turn to Elberith for protection. Jotham and Gaal’s faiths are never mentioned. The only mention we really get of YHWH is the note that he is the one who turns Shechem and Abimelech against each other as punishment for the slaying of Gideon’s other sons.

Abimelech, once compared to brambles, goes to Mount Zalmon and collects a bunch of brushwood, which he then uses to set the temple of Elberith on fire, killing the thousand men and women inside.

For no particular reason, he then heads out to Thebez and makes to burn them down as well, but a woman throws a millstone down from the battlements of the tower and it lands on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull. Dying, he begs his amour-bearer to kill him so that no one can say that he was killed by a woman (an interesting mirroring of Jael’s work in Judges 4).

As the chapter concludes, we are told that this was all part of Jotham’s curse. The end.

Judges 6-8: Gideon’s 300

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Israel was at rest for forty years, presumably under Deborah as judge. At the end of that time, the cycle resets and God gives the Israelites over to Midian for seven years. The Midianites, who are suddenly joined by the Amalekites and miscellaneous eastern peoples, harass the Israelites so much that they build “dens” (Judges 6:2) in the mountains – defensible caves and strongholds. They harass the Israelites, and come through with so many people and cattle that they are “like locusts” (Judges 6:5), both in number and in the effect they have on the land. They’ve apparently bounced back quite admirably from the culling they received Num. 31:7, 16-17.

The situation is so terrible that it prompts God to give a big lecture and then he appoints his new judge, Gideon.

Gideon’s appointment story reminded me a lot of Moses’s call from Exodus 3. First, there’s the presence of Midianites (though in Moses’s case, of course, he was rather friendly with them). But the real connection is that Gideon is the first “hero” called since Moses who goes through the refusal stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The idea behind the refusal is that only a narcissist would accept becoming God’s Special BFF without protest. An initial refusal of the position demonstrates humility, therefore signifying to the audience that the hero is worthy of the position.

Gideon is visited by a figure who is alternately God and an angel of God – something we saw a bit of in Genesis, such as Gen. 16:10-11 and Gen. 22:11, then again in Balaam’s story in Numbers 22, and then not again until Judges.

This angel sits under an oak at Ophrah, on land belonging to Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon, his son, was beating out wheat in the wine press instead of out in the open “to hide it from the Midianites” (Judges 6:11).

Right from the start, Gideon challenges God. When the angel tells him that “the Lord is with you” (Judges 6:12), Gideon asks how that can be when the situation is so terrible. What happened, he asks, to the great deeds of the exodus? To which God replies, “do not I send you?” (Judges 6:14). That got a good chuckle out!

Gideon proceeds to make various excuses for why he can’t possibly be the deliverer of the Israelites – the Abiezrites are the weakest clan in Manasseh, and he has the lowest status within it. It reminded me of all the excuses Moses made when faced with a similar situation. God, however, still maintains that Gideon will do fine because he will have God at his side.

Still unsure, Gideon (who clearly never read Deut. 6:16) proposes a test and asks the angel/God to hang around for a bit. He runs off and prepares a meal, then brings it back to the where the angel/God is still waiting under the tree, offering the meal. God tells him to put the meal on a rock and to pour broth over it. That done, God touches it with the tip of his staff and it bursts into flame. The miraculous fire at the time of the call is another connection to the Moses story – and I wonder if the pouring of the broth over the food is intended to give the miracle a little more oomph, since it would pre-emptively shoot down any objections that perhaps Gideon’s meatloaf is just so dry that it spontaneously combusts like underbrush in a drought. Though the parameters of the test were never stated, this seems to satisfy Gideon – for now.

Unfortunately, it satisfies him too well, and Gideon freaks out as it dawns on him that he has seen God face-to-face (this being a death sentence, as per Exod. 33:20). God reassures him – “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die” (Judges 6:23).

Altar Real Estate

Like the patriarchs of Genesis, Gideon builds an altar that “to this day still stands at Ophrah” (Judges 6:24) on the spot where he communed with God. Details like this and the references to the “angel of the Lord” make me wonder if this story may not have originated from the same tradition that later birthed Genesis. Certainly, it seems that the bulk of the story comes from a very different set of traditions than the other books we’ve read so far.

Now that God has his altar at Ophrah, he asks Gideon to pull down his father’s altar to Ball and cut down his father’s Asherah – two separate monuments to two separate gods located on the same real estate.

The wording is a little confusing, but it seems that Gideon uses one of his father’s bulls to do this work, then builds (another?) altar to God, then sacrifices a second of his father’s bulls using the wood from the Asherah. I’m not sure whether these are two separate bulls, or if Joash’s second best bull is being used to both purposes.

I was somewhat shocked that God would ask Gideon to use the wood from the Asherah to build the sacrificial pyre since it would have been consecrated to another God. There’s no mention of, for example, reusing the materials from Baal’s altar in the building of the new one. I haven’t looked into it, but I’ve heard whispers that Asherah may have been proto-God’s consort before Judaism got all monotheistic. I’m just using a little wild conjecture but, if that’s the case, is it possible that using wood from an Asherah was at one time part of how sacrifices were supposed to be made to God, at least in a particular region?

Gideon, who seems to be depicted truly as the “least” (Judges 6:15). When we first see him, he is working in hiding, then demurs from God’s call, and now is willing destroy his father’s altars only under the cover at night for fear of his family and the townsfolk.

In the morning, the townsfolk see what happen and tell Joash to bring out his son. Despite the fact that Gideon had worked at night for fear of his family and the fact that the altars were his fathers, Joash seems quite firmly on Team Gideon.

He faces the mob, and he says: “If he [Baal] is a god, let him content for himself” (Judges 6:31) – a message that I truly wish were preached from the pulpit a bit more often. It seems to work because the townsfolk are not mentioned again.

Even though Joash is the one who says this, we are told that this is how Gideon earns his new name – Jerubbaal, which means “Let Baal content against him” (Judges 6:32).

On this name, my study Bible says:

The explanation given of the name Jerubbaal is not the natural one; the bearer of such a name was certainly a worshiper of Baal, not an antagonist.

This leads me to wonder if perhaps this portion of the story wasn’t invented to explain away a name that was associated with Gideon.

Abbie from Better Than Esdras asks, in a similar vein, if perhaps Gideon might not have originated as a Canaanite folk hero.

The Battle

With enemies amassing, “the Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” (Judges 6:34), which I assume is just another way of saying that he girded his loins.

Gideon calls out to Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and the rest of Manassehfor help. Before moving out, however, Gideon wants to make absolutely sure that God will be with him. Rather than simply asking for confirmation, he instead sets up a new test.

First, Gideon sets out a fleece of wool and tells God that, in the morning, the fleece should be wet with dew but not the ground around it. On the second morning, the fleece should be dry while the ground is wet. God abides.

Convinced, Gideon/Jerubbaal assembles his army and gets ready to head out. This time, it’s God’s turn to have reservations. He’s concerned that the gathered army of 32,000 men is too impressive – when they win, they will surely think that it was their number that won the battle and not God.

God would like the defeat of the Midianites (who are sporadically accompanied by Amalekites and assorted eastern peoples) to be an obvious miracle, so he proposes tests to reduce the number of soldiers in Gideon’s army.

  1. Anyone who is fearful is told to head home. This leaves only 10,000 soldiers, but the number is still too high for God’s liking.
  2. God has Gideon send the soldiers down to the river and take a drink. Those who lap at the water with their tongues like a dog may remain, while those who kneel to drink must go home. This leaves the 300 most savage and uncivilized Israelites – Gideon’s very own 300.

Timid Gideon who prefers hiding in wine presses and in the dark of night is woken in the wee hours and told to attack. Anticipating that he’ll object, God pre-empts any further testing and just tells Gideon to take his servant, Purah, and eavesdrop on the Midianite camp.

There, Gideon overhears two men talking. One of them has had a dream wherein a cake of barley bread tumbled into camp and crushed a tent. His friend interprets the dream, seeing the barley bread as a stand-in for Joshua’s sword. Because nothing says “sword” like a loaf of bread shaped to tumble.

My study Bible helpfully supplements this interpretation – the barley bread is a symbol of a settled, agrarian society (the Israelites), while the tent symbolises a nomadic culture (which the Midianites apparently are).

What follows is a bit of trickery – or, at least, I read it as such. I get the sense from both Better Than Esdras (where it is described as “SO WEIRD”) and Both Saint and Cynic (who refers to the Israelite army being “armed with pottery jars” but makes no reference to their purpose) that perhaps this is not the obvious interpretation I thought it was.

The Israelites position themselves in companies on different sides of the Midianite encampment perimeter. They all carry trumpets and torches, but the torches are kept inside jars. Once they are in position, they smash the jars and blow the trumpets. In my interpretation, the strategy here is to use the jars to hide the light from the torches during the approach (depending on the shape of these jars, it could allow for a focused beam of light so that the soldiers can see where they are going without being seen by the Midianites). When they smash the jars, the torches are revealed. Combined with their positions and the blowing of the trumpets, they would give the illusion that their number is far greater, which is what scares the Midianites, prompting them to flee.

The text implies that all the Midianites flee and that there is no actual battle at this point.

Ephraim’s Victory

With the Midianites fleeing, Gideon sends word to Ephraim to kill off the deserters coming their way. The Ephraimites manage to capture two Midianite chieftains, Oreb and Zeeb. They kill Oreb at a rock of the same name, and Zeeb at a winepress of the same name.

But all of this happens after something of a river-hopping chase. Being unfamiliar with the geography, I noticed nothing strange about the description of the movements. Abbie, from Better Than Esdras, however, did a little more research than I:

The Midianites flee. The average reader wouldn’t realize it, but the OSE [Oxford Study Bible] editors note that the places they flee to are all east of the Jordan (outside of Canaan). If you’ve been paying ANY attention you’ll know all the action has taken place in Ephraim, west of the Jordan. So, logically, the Midianites have crossed the Jordan. TAKE NOTE OF THIS.

[She then quotes Judges 7:24-25]

See any problems? The Ephraimites are trying to prevent the Midianites from crossing the Jordan… and apparently they succeed (the fords are held, right?) But the Midianites, we know from their locations, just crossed the river. Major, major contradictions here. And then what is up with the king’s heads? Which side of the river are they even headed towards? HAHAHA.

How to solve these contradictions? Sift out the sources. After a lot of puzzlement, here is my FINAL ANSWER. I believe that the main text of chapter 7 ends abruptly partway through verse 22. Then, 7:22b-7:24 is a short bridge, drawn from several fragments. Finally, 7:25-8:3 is a cohesive insert. The text beginning 8:4 apparently continues the main story from Chapter 7.

The chieftains dispatched, the Ephraimites turn on Gideon, angry that they were not called in to the war efforts earlier. Gideon mollifies them by arguing that the capture of Oreb and Zeeb was a greater victory than the ruse at the Midianite camp.

Zebah and Zalmunna

Gideon and his 300 men pursue two more chieftains, Zebah and Zalmunna (or, more likely, origin stories for locations known as Oreb and Zeeb got associated with the story of Gideon’s triumph over Midian and something to do with two kings, and we’re seeing two very different versions of the same story).

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

The soldiers are exhausted, so they stop at Succoth and ask for bread. The residents of Succoth refuse, saying that Gideon hasn’t yet caught Zebah and Zalmunna (which I see some people interpret as a taunt, though I saw it as choosing the side they anticipate will be the winner, having seen how much smaller Gideon’s army is). Furious, Gideon tells them that he’s busy right now, but when the chieftains are caught, he’ll come back and flay the people of Succoth with thorns and briars.

Still hungry, the Israelites stop in Penuel and the same thing happens, only this time Gideon says that he will return and break down their tower.

Eventually, the 301 Israelites catch up to Zebah, Zalmunna, and their 15,000 men in Karkor. Gideon’s army attacks and wins. This is clearly not the timid Gideon we’ve seen so far who hides in the shadows. Rather, the Gideon of this portion of the story resembles more the Israelite-hero-who-kills-everything archetype we’ve seen so much of.

He returns to Succoth with his two prisoners and confronts a young man they find from the city. The young man – under what conditions it is not described – gives up the names of Succoth’s 77 elders. Gideon confronts the elders, presenting his captive chieftains, and then “taught the men of Succoth” (Judges 8:16) by flaying them, as promised, with his thorns and briars. He then moves on to Penuel and takes down their tower, slaying their men too, for good measure.

I think it’s rather clear that there was a story in which Gideon asked for help from a town, was rejected, and then got revenge, though different areas had attributed it to different towns. These two divergent threads were then stitched back into the same narrative by the Judges editor.

Having shown off Zebah and Zalmunna to his enemies, Gideon then questions them about men they killed at Tabor. To chieftains confess to having killed them, and Gideon reveals that “they were my brothers, the sons of my mother” (Judges 8:19). Wait, what??

According to J.R. Porter:

[Gideon] seems to have been originally a simple folk-hero of a small clan group, who was remembered as one who upheld the fundamental social institution of the blood-feud by slaughtering the two kings of Midian who had killed his brothers (Judg. 8.18-21). (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 68)

In other words, there seems to have been a story where, instead of being called by God to liberate the Israelites, Gideon was instead on a personal quest for revenge. I wonder if Gideon and Jerubbaal might not have originally been separate figures who were combined at some point, and then given an origin story that better fit with the Judges pattern of judges being elected to free Israel from the hands of some enemy.

That the story had originally been of revenge rather that freedom is the only way that I can see to explain his reaction when the chieftains confess to the killing: “if you had saved them alive, I would not slay you” (Judges 8:19). I don’t think we have any example of the hero from a freedom narrative sparing the enemy leaders, but in the context of a blood feud, Gideon would have no basis for killing them if his brothers still lived.

At first, Gideon tells his eldest son, Jether, to kill the chieftains (wait, if he was the “least” in his family back in Judges 6, does that mean that his status was lower, even, than his own son? How on earth did literalphilia ever become a thing?). Jether, taking after his dad, refuses, and the text tells us that it’s because he was so young. Surprisingly, he is not stricken down or killed for his refusal, and Gideon simply does the job himself.

Monarchy and Heresy

Having seen him in action, the Israelites ask Gideon to become their king, and for his position to be hereditary. Gideon refuses (Judges 8:23).

He does, however, ask a favour of his soldiers – he asks them all to give him the gold earrings they had taken from their enemies, who have suddenly transformed from Midianites to Ishmaelites. These, he melts down with the crescent jewellery he’d taken from the Midianite kings, and uses the gold to build an ephod. This he sets up in Ophrah, presumably near the (two) altar(s) he made for God.

The Ishmaelites, if you’ll remember, are the descendants of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, whom he abandoned in the wilderness. He is considered by Muslims to be the father of Arabs. It struck me that the text should associate these Ishmaelites with crescents twice, that symbol being today associated with Islam.

Wikipedia confounds any conclusions I might draw from this, however, as it seems to have been a symbol in use around the Ancient Near East.

The building of the ephod turns out to be a rather bad idea because “all Israel played the harlot after it, there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judges 8:27).

Thing is, we have no idea what an ephod is.

Brant Clements discusses the object:

Previously we encountered the word in reference to a priestly garment (Exodus 25:7). That doesn’t seem to be what Gideon made.No, Gideon made some kind of object of worship (an idol). I suspect that, like the priestly garment, it may have been used for divination, but that’s just speculation on my part. Whatever it was, Gideon’s ephod was problematic because people worshiped it.

The Israelites have forty years of rest under Gideon, during which time he has seventy sons via many wives. One, Abimelech, was born of a concubine. We’ll hear more about him later.

When Gideon dies, the Israelites turn to Baalberith as their god.

Joshua 13-21: Land allotments, oh my!

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Always a bit of a Debbie Downer, God begins by telling Joshua that he’s getting old and that there is still much land to be conquered. He then proceeds to list these lands in Josh. 13:2-6.

The narrator follows up by describing the boundaries of the land under Israelite control on the east side of the Jordan, reminding us once more about how Moses defeated King Og and King Sihon (will he ever stop going on about that?). We are told that the Israelites had failed to drive out the Geshurites and Maacathites, who still live within Israel “to this day” (Josh. 13:13).

The actual allocation sections are a little scattered, so I’ll deal with the content out of order. In Josh. 18, Joshua tells the tribes who still require lands to each send out three men to scout the land and write descriptions of it. When they return, Joshua will use a lottery system to divide it among the tribes. This all takes place at Shiloh.

ChariotsBecause the place names are extremely boring, I will just list verse references plus any detail that happens to attract my interest. Here are the tribal allocations:

Judah: Josh. 15:1-12, 20-63. Though God had promised to Joshua that no one would be able to stand against him (Josh. 1:5), the people of Judah were not able to drive out the Jebusites, who were the people living in Jerusalem. Because of this, “the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh. 15:63).

Reuben: Josh. 13:15-23.  Amid the listing of territories, we are reminded that the Israelites killed Balaam, “who practiced divination” (Josh. 13:22). This was, if you remember, a totally awkward twist from Numbers 31

Gad: Josh. 13:24-28. In Josh. 13:27, we are told that Gad gets “the rest of the kingdom of King Sihon. This conflicts with Josh. 13:21, where we are told that Reuben is to receive “all the kingdom of King Sihon.” The biblical penchant for exaggeration is all well and good, but probably a terrible idea when relating tribal land allocations…

Manasseh (eastern half/Machir): Josh. 13:29-31, 17:3-6. In Josh. 17, we are reminded of Zelophehad’s daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – who are to receive an inheritance in their own right. Here, the women are given their lands.

Manasseh (western half): Josh. 17:7-13. Once more, the Israelites are unable to kill off all the native inhabitants, so that the Manassites have to wait until they strong enough to enslave the Canaanites.

Ephraim: Josh. 16:1-10. Once again, we are told that they were unable to drive some people out – the Canaanites of Gezer remain and, we are told, have been enslaved.

Benjamin: Josh. 18:11-26.

Simeon: Josh. 19:1-9. Though the apportioning of land was supposed to have been fair, for some reason Joseph had given too much to Judah. So when he gets to Simeon, he doesn’t have enough territory to give and has to carve pieces out from Judah and give them over. Mastermind Joshua strikes again. You’d think he’d have planned ahead a little…

Zebulun: Josh. 19:10-16.

Issachar: Josh. 19:17-23. Excavations began on what is believed to be Anaharath, one of Issachar’s towns, somewhat recently!

Asher: Josh. 19:24-31.

Naphtali: Josh. 19:32-39.

Dan: Josh. 19:40-48. We are told that Dan took land from Leshem, renaming it “Dan” after their ancestor. Unfortunately, they are given Zorah and Eshtaol, which had already been given to Judah back in Josh. 15:33. Poor Joshua just cannot wrap his head around how this stuff works…

Levi: Josh. 21:1-45. Though they get no territory per se, the Levites do get cities, as well as a little pasture land. A portion of the Kohathites are given thirteen towns from Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin. The rest of the Kohathites get ten towns from Ephraim, Dan, and Manasseh. The Gershonites get thirteen towns from Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh. The Merarites get twelve towns from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun. We are told that Caleb had been given the fields and villages of one of the towns now being given to the Levites.

Caleb and Joshua

Caleb: Josh. 14:6-15, 15:13-19. You’ll remember Caleb has the scout who (with or without Joshua) stood against the other scouts in their position that the Israelites should not rush into the Promised Land. I can’t recall if Moses promised him his own land as a reward at the time, but the text here says that he did. And so, while Joshua is drawing all his lots, Caleb approaches and demands his reward. Though he is 85 years old now, he claims that he is still strong enough to fight and, therefore, would like to be granted the hill country where he had initially seen the Anakim (the giants he saw in Numbers 13). Joshua agrees, giving him Hebron – previously named Kiriatharba. The Arba in the name is the “greatest man among the Anakim” (Josh. 14:15). Incidentally, there’s a discussion over at Remnant of Giants about whether “Anakim” here should refer to a specific group of people, or whether it is used more broadly as a term for giants.

We have to wait until the next chapter and half of Judah’s allotment before we find out what happens next. Caleb heads up to Hebron and defeats Anak’s three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai. Having now a taste for blood, he heads off to fight Debir, offering his daughter, Achsah, as a wife for anyone who conquers it for him. Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, takes him up on the offer and marries his niece. She tells her new husband to ask her father for a field and they are given some land in the Negeb. Later, while dismounting a donkey (presumably not an unflattering nickname for Othniel), she asks her father for water springs as well. Caleb gives her a few.

It’s a cute story, but we were told in Josh. 11:21 that it was Joshua who had defeated the Anakim in Hebron and Debir.

Joshua: Josh. 19:49-51. Now that all the lands are distributed, God tells the Israelites to give Joshua some land, too. I love this little detail – we are specifically told that the Israelites gave Joshua his land (on God’s command), just in case anyone dared to wonder if perhaps Joshua was skimming a little from the top for himself! Of course, we’re also told that he specifically asked for the town they gave him, so it still feels a little like a stacked deck. Either way, he receives Timnathserah, which is in his tribe’s – Ephraim – land.

The Remainder

In Josh. 20, the cities of refuge are appointed. You will remember these cities from Numbers 35. We had been told that there should be six of them in total, and they are:

  1. Kedesh in Naphtali’s territory
  2. Shechem in Ephraim’s territory
  3. Kiriatharba (Hebron) in Judah’s territory
  4. Bezer in Reuben’s territory
  5. Ramoth in Gad’s territory
  6. Golan in Manasseh’s territory

The latter three had already been appointed in Deuteronomy 4.

The tribe of Joseph (composed of Manasseh and Ephraim) complain to Joshua that they are too numerous for the amount of land they were given. Joshua, who sadly lacks a head for numbers, also managed to muck up Judah’s portion (giving them too much) in Josh. 19:9. To solve the problem, Joshua sends them into the forests belonging to the Perizzites and Rephaim to clear some space for themselves.

But, reply Manasseh and Ephraim, those guys have chariots of iron! (Josh. 17:16) Joshua reassures them that they will be fine, and that they will drive out the Canaanites even though they have chariots of iron and are very strong.

Numbers 31: But keep the virgins for yourselves

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After having a few chapters of census and rules, we resume our narrative from Numbers 25. If you’ll remember, there was a minor scandal where Hebrew men were shacking up with Moabite women, which was leading the men to start worshipping the wrong gods. Then, suddenly, the offending women spontaneously changed their nationality and became Midianites.

I speculated at the time that it was a revisioner’s attempt to make clear that Moses having a Midianite wife should not be seen to be implicit acceptance of marriage to foreign women generally.

God, still rather sore about the whole episode, tells Moses to “avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites” (v.2).

The Story of Moses and the Midianites by Barbara Griffiths

The Story of Moses and the Midianites by Barbara Griffiths

So Moses gets together a thousand men from each tribe. Phinehas, son of Eleazar – the guy who showed us what he thought of Midianites back in Numbers 25 – was sent along with the trumpets for the alarm and the  “vessels of the sanctuary” (v.6) – though, interestingly, not the ark.

Apparently, every single Midianite man (at least in that region) was slain in the battle, including the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba. They also killed Balaam, son of Beor (more on that later). Yet the Israelites themselves suffered no casualties (v.49) – presumably a little dig to reinforce God’s power to win battles that have his support.

The soldiers took the women, children, cattle, flocks, and possessions as spoils of war. They then burned down what remained of the towns and cities.

But when they bring all the spoils to Moses and Eleazar, Moses was enraged. “Have you let all the women live?” (v.15), he asks them, then commands his soldiers to kill every male child and woman who has “known man by lying with him” (v.17). He will, however, allow them to keep the little girls alive.

What’s with Balaam?

In Numbers 22, Balaam was a good guy, seeking out the instructions of the right god and refusing the curse the Israelites (even going so far as to bless them). So why is he suddenly a bad guy who is going around telling women “to act treacherously against the Lord” (v.16)?

I think that we’re seeing the same thing we saw happen in Numbers 25, where the Moabite women magically transformed into Midianites. We have a revisioner – probably a clerical person (or movement) given the tone of the changes/inserts – who is trying to make a theological point. As with the Midianite issue, this is clearly an attempt to smooth over elements of older traditions that have become distasteful.

Collins puts it thusly in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (P and JE are hypothetical authors in the documentary hypothesis):

P adds an interesting notice in Num 31:8, 16. The Moabite women, we are told, acted on the advice of none other than Balaam, and the Israelites accordingly killed Balaam with the sword. The [P] writers were evidently uncomfortable with the idea of a “good” pagan prophet and undermine the older JE account of Balaam by this notice. It is also axiomatic for the Priestly writer that the women who tempted the Israelites must not be allowed to live. (p.83)

Purification

The massacre of the women and male children done, Moses tells every man who has “killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain” (v.19) to go purify themselves in the way stipulated in Numbers 19. In addition to purifying themselves, they must also cleanse the spoils – anything that can withstand fire must be passed through fire and then purified with the special water from Numbers 19. Anything flammable can just be washed with the special water.

David Plotz, upon reading this chapter, responds:

What is particularly poignant is that Moses himself seems to know that this massacre of innocents is wrong. He orders his death squads to stay outside of camp after they finish their butchery. They need a week away from the Tabernacle to purify themselves. The Bible never mentions such a quarantine for Israelite soldiers after other battles. But, as Moses recognizes, these killings are not war, they are murder, and they defile his people.

Well, that’s partly true. We haven’t seen it specified that soldiers who kill in battle should be purified, but Numbers 19:16 does say: Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain with a sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” How easy is it for a soldier, in the middle of a battlefield, to kill someone without touching them?

So while it may not be explicit that the purification Moses is ordering in Numbers 31 is just part of the normal post-battle routine, I don’t think that it can be discounted as such either.

Since we’re on the subject of ‘things David Plotz writes,’ he also has a very interesting discussion of the apparent reversal in this chapter:

Let’s pause for a second to consider Moses’ rage, which I find almost incomprehensible. For most of the last three books, Moses has been restraining God. The Lord loses his temper with His disobedient people, and Moses persuades Him to show mercy. But God is on the sidelines during the Midianite slaughter: It is Moses who’s bloodthirsty. Where does his new anger come from? Is it the fury of a frustrated old man who’s been barred from his Promised Land? Is it the homicidal megalomania that descends on so many dictators who hold power too long?

As usual, he’s taking the text at face value. That’s fine, but I think it misses the more likely reason for the reversal – to show Moses himself siding against exogamy. If anyone used the story of Moses’ wife as a sort of hadith to argue that exogamy is permissible, having him come down so strongly against it here would put an end to that.

I also think it needs to be noted that, even if we’re taking the text at face value, there’s still an important difference between this narrative and the narratives where Moses calms God down. When God flies into a rage, it’s against the Israelites, and Moses is therefore protecting his own in-group. But in this case, the war is with the Midianites. Another reasonable interpretation would be, simply, that Moses couldn’t give a flying fonkey about members of the out-group.

Dividing the booty

God gives Moses the rules for dividing up spoils of war (would that mean that he’s making the booty call? – ugh, even I’m embarrassed by that one…).

It’s a fairly decent system: The spoils are divided into two equal halves, one half to be distributed among the soldiers, and one half to go to the general community. The Levites get 1/50th of the community share, and the high priest alone gets 1/500th of the soldiers’ share. What this looks like in actual numbers is:

  • Sheep: 675,000 total, 337,500 to soldiers and the community each, 675 to Eleazar, 6,750 to the Levites.
  • Cattle: 72,000 total, 36,000 to soldiers and the community each, 72 to Eleazar, 720 to the Levites.
  • Donkeys: 61,000 total, 30,500 to soldiers and the community each, 61 to Eleazar, 610 to the Levites.
  • Virgin girls: 32,000 total, 16,500 to soldiers and the community each, 32 to Eleazar, 320 to the Levites.

In addition to this, we’re told that Eleazar also received 16,750 shekels.

The share that’s to be given to Eleazar the high priest is referred to in my RSV as “the Lord’s share.” In the King James, it’s called the “heave offering.” In my journeys across the vast lands of the internet, I’ve found quite a few atheists interpreting this chapter (particularly v.40) as a demand for human sacrifice. You can see this illustrated over at BibleSlam, where the author writes: “The LORD’s share was given as a ‘heave offering,’ which implies that 32 human virgins were sacrificed.”

Having now read the chapter, all I can say is “bwuh?”

The context makes it abundantly clear that Eleazar’s share is just that, Eleazar’s share. I’m not saying that what’s about to happen to his 32 virgin girls is good, but it sure ain’t sacrifice.

Heck, even the “implies” of “heave offering” is silly, since the heave offering is the portion that the priests get to take home with them after it’s waved around in front of God for a bit. It’s specifically the part that isn’t burned – as illustrated by Exodus 29:27-28.

So yeah, there’s a whole lot going on in this chapter that’s pretty horrible, but human sacrifice isn’t one of them.

Numbers 22: Talking out of his ass

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This chapter reminds me a lot of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, except that the instructions have all disappeared.

The easy-peasy version of the story has a king getting antsy at the approaching Israelites, so he calls on a magician, Balaam, to curse them. Balaam refuses, and the king asks him again. This time, God tells Balaam to go. Balaam obeys, but God suddenly changes his mind and there’s a humorous episode involving an ass, and the  Balaam submits his final refusal to aid the king against the Israelites.

God’s sudden change of mind makes very little sense unless we realize that this chapter is actually a proto-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book written, unfortunately, before the use of page numbering. (Or, you know, two separate traditions have been melded, or its an attempt at – as my Study Bible so quaintly puts it – “oriental humor.”)

The Moabite king

While the Hebrews are camping in the plains of Moab, the Moabite king Balak, son of Zippor, starts to get nervous. He’s heart about their defeat of the Amorites and, justifiably, isn’t sure he wants them hanging around his territories.

To deal with the situation, he sends messengers to Balaam, son of Beor. The messengers ask Balaam to use his super awesome magical powers to curse the Hebrews, “since they are too mighty for [Balak]” (v.6). Balaam does seem to be a magician of some renown: “he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” Interestingly, though the effect would be the same, Balak has asked for his enemies to be cursed rather than himself to be blessed – something that may be a smart move if Balaam is getting his power from the God of the Hebrews.

Unwilling to act rashly, Balaam tells the messengers that he needs to sleep on it.

At some point – the context seems to indicate that this happens in a dream since, afterwards, we’re told that “Balaam rose in the morning” (v.13) – God comes to Balaam and tells him not to go with the messengers and not to curse the Hebrews.

The conversation between Balaam and God seems to indicate that Balaam is familiar with the Hebrew God. In fact, he tells his guests that he needs to take the night to consult first, “and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me” (v.8) – suggesting (assuming that I’m not getting duped by a crappy translation) that Balaam is deliberately seeking the will of the Hebrew God. Yet the context makes it very clear that he is not an Israelite himself.

Duane Smith, of Abnormal Interests, also brings up a very interesting discussion regarding solicited versus unsolicited divination, which he refers to as omina impetrativa and omina oblativa. In the former case, a diviner will actively perform some kind of ritual with the intent of divination – such as reading the entrails of an animal or interpreting the flight of birds. In the latter case, the divination is passively received by the individual without having previously been sought.

For obvious reasons, divination through dreams – oneiromancy – is generally thought of as passive, unsolicited divination. Yet in this case, Balaam is very clearly going to bed with the explicit intention of chatting with God.

David Plotz points out that this isn’t the first time God appears in a dream to a non-Hebrew. Way back in Genesis 20, he came to Abimelech and warned him not to sleep with Sarah. In both cases, the non-Hebrews seem to obey God more readily than most of the Hebrews.

But now we get our choice: Should Balaam listen to God and refuse the king’s request? Or should he disobey God and go back with the messengers? YOU DECIDE!

Balaam refuses the king’s request

Balaam tells the messengers that God has forbidden him from going to King Balak, so they return with the message.

Balak decides to try again and he sends a second wave of messenger princes, more than before and of higher status. They arrive and ask Balaam, once again, if he could pretty please with a cherry on top come curse the Hebrews.

But Balaam refuses. No matter what the price, he won’t come so long as God doesn’t want him to. However, because he’s such a nice guy, he’ll go ahead and ask the Big Man Upstairs for permission again.

That night, God’s tune changes. Now he wants Balaam to go to Balak, only he must do exactly as God instructs.

Balaam returns with the messengers

Now there’s a gear shift. Balaam is heading back to Moab with the messengers, as God asked, but “God’s anger was kindled because he went” (v.22). Talk about mixed messages!

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Balaam and his Ass, by Rembrandt, 1626

Then God continues his hissy fit by refusing to actually voice his concerns to Balaam directly. Instead, he just sends an angel to stand in Balaam’s donkey’s path.

The donkey, seeing the angel (that’s invisible to Balaam), turns off the road and walks in the field instead. Balaam, confused, starts whacking his ass (*gigglesnort*). In typical mythic fashion, this happens three times. The third time, the donkey opens its mouth and complains: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (v.28).

Balaam, acting for his part as though it’s perfectly ordinary for his donkey to sit down for a chat, goes on about what a bad-ass the donkey’s been for refusing the follow the road properly.

Just then, God’s angel reveals himself and tells Balaam that he shouldn’t be hitting his ass. You see, explains the angel, if the ass had not turned aside, he would have killed Balaam.

This is an interesting commentary on the nature of sin. As we saw in Leviticus 4, sin does not mean here what it’s come to mean these days. As Balaam puts it: “I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me” (v.34). His sin, therefore, is in not knowing that he was doing anything wrong.

The angel repeats (or says for the first time, if you’re playing the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game properly) the instruction to do exactly as God says when Balaam gets to his meeting with Balak.

Meeting Balak

Having heard of Balaam’s arrival, Balak goes out to meet him. He asks Balaam why he didn’t come (I’m assuming that he means the first time), and Balaam basically just says “I’m here now, aren’t I?”

But Balaam repeats that he can do nothing other than what is instructed of him by God. “The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak” (v.38).

The two men go to Kiriath Huzoth together, where Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep. It’s unclear whether these sacrifices were made to the Hebrew God (whom Balaam is clearly soliciting) or to another (which I would assume Balak would prefer).

I’ll stop here, even though there’s a verse left. Verse 41 more properly belongs to Numbers 23, so I’ll cover it next time.

Who was Balaam?

Which gets us to the interesting question of just who, exactly, is Balaam. We know from the text that he was living in Pethor when Balak sought him out. We don’t know where Pethor might have been, by the way, though Wikipedia thinks that it might be the same place as Pitru, mentioned in ancient Assyrian records. Regardless, it seems to have been in Babylonia, and Babylonia was, according to my Study Bible, famed for its divination (p.193). In fact, according to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, Balaam is shown as a “typical Mesopotamian seer-priest, the kind known as baru” (p.61).

Balaam may have actually been a real person. His existence is corroborated by an inscription discovered in 1967 at Tell Deir’Alla (or, simply, Deir Alla) dating from the 8th century B.C.E. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.82).

The prophecies described in the Deir Alla text bear no resemblance to the ones we’re about to read in Numbers. Instead, they merely recount Balaam’s vision of a disaster that befalls his city. However, this revelation is said to have been received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, “which recalls the title Shaddai, ‘Almighty,’ an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4″ (Porter, The New Illustrated Companion, p.61).

Exodus 4: The Planning Session Continues

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Moses and God continue their discussion. Moses complains that the Israelites won’t believe that he really spoke to God. So God gets him to throw his staff on the ground and it turns into a snake. Moses leaps back in fright, but God tells him to grab the snake by the tail and it turns back into a staff.

The Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment, 1476

The Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment, 1476

For his next trick, God instructs Moses to put his hand “into his bosom” and pull it out again. When he does so, his hand is “leprous, as white as snow” (Exod. 4:6). Then God tells him to do it again and the rabbit is returned! Err… I mean, his hand is back to normal!

Now this is all pretty impressive and should be enough to convince the Hebrews that Moses really is speaking for God. But just in case, God teaches Moses one final trick: He is to take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground, and it will then turn to blood.

But Moses still isn’t sure. He’s not eloquent enough to speak for God, so can’t God just find someone else? As David Plotz says over at Slate: “If he lived in the 21st century, this is the point when Moses would be showing God two doctors’ notes diagnosing chronic fatigue syndrome.”

Somewhat justifiably, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses” (Exod. 4:14). But it’s too late to turn back now, so he allows Moses to take his brother, Aaron, along as spokesperson. “You shall be to him as God” (Exod. 4:16), which is totally not idol worship.

Heading home

Moses lies to his father-in-law, asking permission to go back to Egypt to see if his kinsmen are still alive (Exod. 4:18). If God says that lying is okay, the floodgates are opened, I suppose. Jethro/Reuel agrees, so Moses takes family and hits the road.

God tells Moses to perform his miracles before the new pharaoh, “but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exod. 4:21). Therefore, Moses should tell him that since Israel is God’s ‘firstborn,’ God will kill Pharaoh’s first-born son.

It’s passages like these that really turn atheists off about the Bible: the pharaoh has no choice, God is controlling his actions. And yet, God is still going to punish Pharaoh for these actions. As if this weren’t disgusting enough, God’s punishment is infanticide, killing a child who’s had no part in Pharaoh’s supposed crime.

Yuck.

At a lodging place…

“At a lodging place on the way the Lord met [Moses] and sought to kill him” (Exod. 4:24).

We’re never told why God decided that he wanted to kill Moses right after sending him on an important quest. The only clue we have is the way in which this lurking God-monster is repelled: Zipporah circumcises her son and rubs the foreskin on Moses’ feet (which my study bible says is a euphemism for genitals).

So there you have it. Garlic repels vampires, silver takes care of werewolves, and rubbing a child’s circumcised foreskin on your genitals wards off God. I think I’ll stick with garlic.

These disembodied snippets of stories are clear evidence of the multiple authors theory – that the Old Testament began as several books kept by several different communities that someone pasted together. Sometimes they did a good job and the seams are hard to find, sometimes not so much.

Taking the story at face value, Bible Slam wonders if Moses got food poisoning on the way home and attributed it to God. My study bible, on the other hand, has this to say: “Originally circumcision was a puberty or marriage rite; bridegroom of blood (v.26) [what Zipporah calls Moses after rubbing her son’s foreskin on his junk] is perhaps an old expression for a young man who was circumcised before marriage.” Furthermore, it could indicate that Moses was not circumcised, but that Zipporah’s action allowed him to be snipped by proxy.

So if we want to make some wild assumptions, we can say that Moses, who was cut off from his people when he was married, never underwent the proper ceremony. He would therefore have to “do it proper” before he returns to his people.

If not food poisoning or a replacement circumcision for Moses, Victor Matthews offers up another explanation: That it’s an apotropaic rite to ward off evil. “The Phoenicians also thought of circumcision as a means of escaping danger, as can be seen in the myth in which the god El protects himself by sacrificing his only son and then circumcising himself” (Manners & Customs, p.41).

Later, Matthews points out that there’s a parallel between smearing the son’s blood on Moses to protect him and, later, smearing the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the doorpost before the Passover to protect the Hebrew people in Exodus 12:22 (Manners & Customs, p.77-78). As I’ve noted several times, the act of circumcision functions as a replacement for child sacrifice, and this parallel makes that all the more clear.

One final point before we move on: Bible Slam points out that only one son is mentioned here, but earlier we were told that Moses has “his wife and his sons” (Exod. 4:20) with him. Since only Gershom has been named, this may again be an issue caused by multiple authors.

Back to the Mountain of God

Earlier, God had said to Moses of Aaron: “Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you he will be glad in his heart” (Exod. 4:14).

Now, God says to Aaron that he must go into the wild to meet Moses. Aaron obeys and meets Moses “at the mountain of God” (Exod. 4:27).

The mountain of God is in Midian, meaning that both Aaron and Moses have made the journey across the Sinai Peninsula twice. In both cases, the journey is made in less than a sentence.

Another point here is that the timeline is very muddled. Moses left Midian with his wife and sons, then he met his brother back in Midian. This only makes sense if the narrative is playing fast and loose with the timeline – but there are no indications in the “future” portions that Aaron is with them.

Taking it to the elders

Presumably back in Egypt, Moses and Aaron gather all the elders and Aaron tells them about what God said and performs the magic show he learned from Moses.

Moses’ concerns aside, the people are quickly convinced and they bow their heads in worship.

Exodus 3: The Hero’s Call

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According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey begins with a call:

This first stage of the mythological journey – which we have designated the “call to adventure” – signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p.58.

It would be unseemly for our current hero to accept his task too readily. The hero’s task is very great and only a narcissist would feel equal to it. This is why a common component of the call is the refusal. It’s a token act of modesty that makes the hero worthy, in the eyes of the reader, of the task.

On the mountain of God

Moses and the Burning Bush by Sebastien Bourdon, 1642-1645

Moses and the Burning Bush by Sebastien Bourdon, 1642-1645

In this chapter, Moses is taking care of his father-in-law’s flock (who is now named Jethro instead of Reuel) when he accidentally stumbles on Horeb (sometimes called Sinai), the “mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1). The location of Horeb/Sinai is unknown, but my study bible says that “tradition places it in the eastern part of the Sinaitic Peninsula” and theorizes that it “was probably a Midianite sacred place.”

God appears to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” and though “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exod. 3:2). Back to Joseph Campbell, he writes in Hero With A Thousand Faces that: “there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography” (p.55).

Moses is all like “Wuh?!” and takes a good look at this burning-yet-not-burned shrubbery, at which point God calls out to him.

God tells Moses not to approach, but to remove his shoes “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5).This raises the question of what makes a site holy. Is it because God is there? In which case, are all the places he ‘touches down’ holy? This is certainly possible since the patriarchs like Abraham built shrines wherever they talked to God (no mention of any shoe removal, though). Alternatively, did God choose to appear at this site because it was already holy? If this is the case, do the Midianites also worship the God of the Hebrews, or is God respecting another deity’s special turf? Or, to use the Euthyphro phrasing, is the site holy because God is there, or is God there because it is holy?

In any case, Moses hides his face because he’s afraid to look at God.

The Quest

God announces to Moses that he’s “come down to deliver [my people] out of the hand of the Egyptians.” He intends to lead them to “a land flowing with milk and honey” – to the place that currently belongs to “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exod. 3:8). But that doesn’t seem so nice, moving the Hebs out of one land belonging to others and into another land belonging to others. Unless…

Oh no…

Leaving this ominous little verse aside for a moment, God gets down to business: “I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exod. 3:10).

The Refusal

Moses: Who am I to tell Pharaoh what to do?

God: I’ll be with you, so you’ll have my cred.

Moses: But if I tell the Hebs that God has sent me, they’ll ask me which god I’m talking about! [A statement that seems to “assume a polytheistic environment; thus he must know the identity of the God who is dealing with him,” according to my study bible.]

God: I am who I am. [Or, YHWH, which may also translate to the third person, or “He causes to be.] Now stop yer winging and go tell the Hebs what I’ve told you. They’ll listen.

God gives further instructions: The elders of the Hebrews should go to Pharaoh and ask for three days off so that they can go into the wilderness and sacrifice to their god. This is after making his intention to lead the Israelites out of Egypt quite clear. In other words, God is telling the Hebrews to lie.

That’s morally iffy enough, but in this case God knows it won’t work anyway: “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand” (Exod. 3:19). So basically, God just feels like making people lie. Just cause…

Not content to end there, God doesn’t want his peeps to start off empty handed. “Each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her who sojourns in her house, jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; thus you shall despoil the Egyptians” (Exod. 3:22). If you’re lying anyway, you may as well steal too.

Exodus 2: Saving Baby Moses

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Scenes from the life of Moses by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482

Scenes from the life of Moses by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482

At the end of the last chapter, Pharaoh has ordered his subjects to kill all male Hebrew newborns. So when a woman in the line of Levi gives birth to a boy, she’s justifiably concerned. She hides him for three months, but then can’t hide him any more. The timing is fairly realistic, at least in comparison to my own son. By 3-4 months, babies tend to need a lot more entertainment and you can’t just keep them tucked away in a closet any more.

So this Levite woman comes up with a rather ingenious plan (or has the best luck ever). She takes her baby and puts him in a basket, and then sends the basket floating down the river.

The basket is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who recognizes that the baby is Hebrew but takes pity on him and adopts him, naming him Moses. The name is, again, somewhat realistic. “Moses” is a common Egyptian name – or rather, part of one. It would usually be combined with the name of a god to mean “X is born.” The most well known figure with the name is probably Tutmosis III, who uses the name Moses in combination with the name of the god Thoth. Alternatively, the Bible indicates that an Egyptian woman named the baby with a Hebrew word meaning “to draw” – as in, she drew him out of the water (Exod. 2:10).

Murder of the Egyptian

When Moses grows up, he sees an Egyptian beating up one of his fellow Hebs. So he “looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian” (Exod. 2:12).

Putting aside the question of morality, this is premeditated murder. This is not something he does in the heat of the moment (like Charlton Heston’s depiction in 10 Commandments). Rather, Moses makes sure that no one is looking before he strikes. Is the Hebrew victim even still around? Or did Moses go so far as to stick around or even follow the Egyptian home?

In any case, Moses goes out the next day and sees two Hebrews fighting each other. So he asks one of them why he is hitting his fellow, and the Hebrew responds by asking Moses: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exod. 2:14). This is an excellent question because this situation mirrors the other. In both cases, one man is beating up another. The only difference is that one of the aggressors is of the same ethnic group as Moses while the other is not. It’s telling that Moses reacts by killing the “other,” but only asks a question of the Hebrew.

But the response tips off Moses that his crime is known. At this point, Moses either sticks around anyway for a while, or he and Pharaoh find out at the same time, because: “When Pharaoh heard of [the murder], he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh” (Exod: 2:15).

Moses meets his shiksa

To escape from the law, Moses flees to Midian. Midian, by the way, is just south of Canaan, on the other side of the Sinai peninsula from Egypt. That means that Moses does essentially the same journey here in one sentence that will later take him forty years.

Once in Midian, Moses loiters near a well.

I think you can guess what comes next…

Reuel, the priest of Midian, has seven daughters, and these girls are coming to the well to water their flock. For some unknown reason, the local shepherds are giving them a hard time, so of course Moses steps in and helps them. As a reward, he gets to move in with Reuel and marry Zipporah, one of the seven daughters.

So what advice does the Bible have for would-be suitors? This story and that of Rebekah and Rachel suggest that if you are having trouble finding yourself a little lady, you ought to hang out around wells.

Zipporah and Moses have a son named Gershom.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt…

The king of Egypt dies, but conditions don’t improve for the Hebs under the new ruler. God hears his people “groaning” and gets ready for fix things.

… to fix things that are his fault. Let’s not forget that God sent the Hebrews to Egypt (by starving them out of Canaan) so that they would become oppressed. But nice of him to decide to fix things afterwards, though.

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