1 Kings 9: Hints of trouble

Leave a comment

God last phoned home in 1 Kings 3, where he gifted Solomon some wisdom (among other things). Like an absent father who does try to keep in touch sometimes, God calls in to congratulate Solomon for having build “all that Solomon desired to build” (1 Kgs 9:1), what with the temple and the palace, and a bunch of fortifications, and the palace for his Egyptian queen, and whatnot.

The conversation is fairly typical Deuteronomist fair: Follow the rules and all will be well, disobey and I’ll exile you. This time, he has a temple to point to and can tell Solomon that “this house will become a heap of ruins” (1 Kgs 9:8) if he’s disobeyed. Interestingly, he points again to David as both a religious exemplar and as an example of the rewards for faithfulness. You know, the David who lost a child and then his throne at least once (possibly twice) because God was angry with him. But now the gears have shifted and he is the paragon king. It’s the privilege of the dead, I suppose.

Dream of Solomon, by Luca Giordano, 1693

Dream of Solomon, by Luca Giordano, 1693

The rest of the chapter hints at Solomon’s mismanagement of Israel as he focused on his grandiose building projects. We’re told that he gave twenty cities to King Hiram of Tyre, who had previously sold him the wood for use in construction. It would be an odd thank you gift, since Solomon paid for the wood, and is made odder still when we learn that King Hiram sent Solomon 120 talents of gold. This suggests that Solomon sold parts of the country to Tyre. But Solomon seems to be a jerk to his friends as well as his subjects, as Hiram was quite disappointed in the cities when he visited them. So disappointed, in fact, that “they are called the land of Cabul to this day” (1 Kgs 9:13). The meaning of Cabul is unknown, but seems related to “like nothing.”

This is followed by a list of Solomon’s building projects, which required forced labour to build. The list includes something called “the Millo,” which is mentioned as already existing in 2 Sam. 5:9, so either Solomon improved it, rebuilt it, or one of the sources was in error. The list also includes Gezer, which we are told was conquered from the Canaanite inhabitants by Pharaoh. Despite burning the city down and slaughtering its inhabitants, Pharaoh thought it was still a suitable dowry, and gave it to Solomon along with his daughter. Solomon then rebuilt it.

Apparently contradicting 1 Kgs 5:13, we’re here told that the forced labour Solomon used was of the non-Israelite variety. Instead, he forcibly enslaved all the other ethnic groups left in the country, such as the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Unlike the Israelite levy, these other enslaved groups remained enslaved “to this day” (1 Kgs 9:21). It’s possible that the distinction is in the type of forced labour, that when the text reads that “of the Israelites Solomon made no slaves” (1 Kgs 9:22), what is meant is that they are merely forced to work for the government for a defined period of time, but that their status is not changed to slave. It could also be that the brute labour was to be done by the non-Israelites, whereas the Israelite levy was to work as overseers and such (which appears to be supported by this chapter).

There’s a very brief mention of Solomon’s cultic activities, telling us that he made offerings three times a year at the temple. Knowledge of the context is assumed, unfortunately, but it seemed to me that Solomon was acting as a Priest King, leading the sacrifices at three major festivals per year. If that’s correct, then we see something of a continuation of the Mosaic tradition, with the strict division between king and priest not being introduced until later on. This would all be supported by 2 Samuel 8:18, where David’s sons were made priests despite being Judahites, not Levites. It seems that, at the time of the early monarchy, the royal family was still intimately involved in the ritual life of the nation.

There’s a final note about one of Solomon’s trade ventures. Despite the disappointment of the twenty cities, King Hiram continues to be on Team Israel and helps Solomon build a bunch of ships for a trade mission to Ophir so that Solomon can get gold.

Numbers 33: The recap

Leave a comment

In this chapter, we get a recap of the journey so far. It’s long and about as exciting as washing the dishes when you’ve finished your last audiobook. We do, however, find out that Aaron was 123 years old when he died. So that’s… something.

Here’s your cliff’s notes image:

In the plains of Moab, God tells Moses to tell the people to “drive out” all the people they meet on the other side of the river, and to destroy all of their religious symbols and buildings. Once this is done, they should divide the land by lot (in accordance with the size of each tribe/sub-tribe/family).

But, God warns, you must make sure to fully stamp out the indigenous population, otherwise you’re going to have to deal with them being “pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides” (v.55). Plus, if they don’t totally wipe out the local population, God “shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them” (v.56) (both quotes from the KJV because it sounds better and doesn’t alter the meaning).

On deserving it

David Plotz sees purpose in this plodding chapter:

Had the chapter skipped the travelogue and begun with God’s fearsome instructions, it would seem brutal.  The 40-year-itinerary—the weary, heartbreaking journey—serves as a reminder to the Israelites of their suffering, and, more importantly, as a justification for conquest. Why is it all right to sack and destroy another civilization? Why is it fair to seize land and settle it? Because of what the Israelites endured, that’s why. The 40-year accounting explains Israel. It says: You’ve earned it.

That may indeed have been the purpose of this summary, but it’s terrible ethics (not to mention a dangerous precedent to set – what’s to stop the Canaanites from doing their own decades-long dispossession dance and then coming right back, ready with their deserving?).

Exodus 14: Parting the Red Sea

Leave a comment

In Exodus 13, the Hebrews went to Succoth, and from there on to Etham (Exod. 13:20). Now, God tells them to go back towards Egypt and camp out in front of Pihahiroth (which, we’re told, is between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baalzephon). The locations of these places is not known, but my study bible says that they were probably Egyptian border fortresses.

Motives

It seems that the Hebrews were trapped between the sea/desert  and the Egyptian army, as implied when Pharaoh says: “They are entangled in the land; the wilderness has shut them in” (Exod. 14:3).

Pharaoh’s army engulfed by the Red Sea by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1900

Pharaoh’s army engulfed by the Red Sea by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1900

But God has a different excuse. He says that this is so that he can harden Pharaoh’s heart, causing him to chase after the Israelites and giving God the opportunity to “get glory over Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exod. 14:4).

Because, you know, “in the span of a week, something had slain their firstborn, destroyed their crops, and filled their graves with children, their rivers with blood, their homes with frogs, their streets with lions, their fields with dead livestock, their skies with darkness, and their faces with carbuncles… But it might have been just a coincidence” (The Last Testament, p.78-9).

Regardless of the Hebrews’ motives for turning back, Pharaoh gets his army ready. Unlike the Sunday School version I know, Pharaoh doesn’t suddenly regret letting the Hebrews go. Rather, he realises that they lied to him about the whole “couple days in the wilderness for a festival” thing and are actually escaping. I guess that teaching kids that God approves of lying is being a bit too literal.

When Pharaoh overtakes the Israelites and they get scared. They turn on Moses, again saying that his uppitiness has doomed them all.

I enjoyed the part where Pharaoh is preparing his army and special mention is made of the “six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt” (Exod. 14:7). I’ll be quoting scripture next time I get cookies!

I also rather enjoyed it when the Israelites are getting mad at Moses and they say: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exod. 14:11). I’m assuming that this has something to do with Egyptian burial practices. Does anyone know? My study bible says nothing and either I’m Google illiterate tonight or there isn’t a whole lot of commentary out there.

Parting the Waters

God instructs Moses to raise his rod (*gigglesnort*) and wave his hands about, causing the sea to divide so that the Hebrews are able to walk across. God then hardens the Egyptians’ hearts “so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen” (Exod. 14:17).

The Egyptians are slowed as their chariot wheels get bogged and, when the Hebrews are through, the waters flood back and the Egyptians are drowned such that “not so much as one of them remained” (Exod. 14:28).

This chapter has the most heart-rending line since Sarah’s death in Genesis 23: “Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore” (Exod. 14:30).

As David Plotz points out, “The moral problem, as I see it, isn’t that God is drowning the Egyptians. The Egyptians are wicked, and war is ugly. The problem is that God takes so much satisfaction in it.”

Red Sea vs Reed Sea

One vein of Bible reading takes the stories at face value, but tries to find naturalistic explanations for the miracles. So Jesus wasn’t really resurrected, he just fainted on the cross and revived later. One common explanation for the parting of the Red Sea miracle is that the Hebrews were actually at the Reed Sea, and the miracle is actually due to a mistranslation.

There’s a fairly good explanation of the theory in The Bible for Dummies, p. 105:

The reason for the discrepancy between the Red Sea and the Reed Sea is that the Hebrew Bible calls this body of water yam suf (sea of reeds), while the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, calls it thalassa erythra (red sea). Many scholars believe the Bible is referring to the Red Sea (or the Gulf of Suez), but some have suggested that it is referring to one of the many fresh-water lakes (with abundant reeds) now covered by the Suez Canal.

While there is no “reed sea,” it’s quite possible that it refers to a smaller body of water that was subject to fairly drastic tidal changes. The Egyptians, who were mired in the mud (Exod. 14:24-25) may not have been able to get out quickly enough as the tide came in.

One last little note I’d like to make is the symbolism of the episode. By using water to destroy the Egyptians, thereby paving the way for Israel to form as a nation, God is mirroring the creation of the world in Genesis 1. In both cases, creation emerges as God conquers chaos (as represented by water).