2 Chronicles 2-4: Arts & Crafts

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In these chapters, after so much build up, we finally get to see the building of the Temple. Maybe it would have made a better climax for an audience that fluently knew terms like “cubit” and “talent,” but as a modern reader, it’s a slog. Generally speaking, if your climax is a slog, you’re doing something wrong.

Oh, I’m sure that the Chronicler achieved his goals of making the Temple’s wealth seem rather impressive and presenting a sort of blueprint for the construction of Temple 2.0, but the narrative impact is sorely lacking.

With The Aid of Tyre

As in 1 Kings 5, Solomon enlists the help of Tyre. The basic story in both chapters is that Solomon asks King Huram of Tyre (who appears as King Hiram in the Samuel-Kings accounts) to provide wood in exchange for food offerings and labourers to do the actual felling. King Hiram agrees, the two kings butter each other up a bit, and everyone is happy. Of course, the differences are in the details.

In 2 Chron. 2:1, we are told that “Solomon purposed to build a temple for the name of the Lord, and a royal palace for himself.” I found that the sentence felt rather out of place with what we’ve seen so far from the Chronicler. Up until this point, the build up has been very focused on the construction of the Temple; to mention a royal palace in the same breath almost suggests and equivalence that doesn’t fit.

The second issue is with the phrase “Solomon purposed,” as if there were no plans for a Temple up until Solomon decided that a Temple would be a lovely use for that empty mount. Until this verse, it has been David who purposed the building of a Temple, driving Solomon toward that goal. This shift to Solomon’s purposes feels rather too abrupt.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chronicler had copied this verse from another source. If he did, though, it doesn’t seem to have been 1 Kgs 5:1-6, where Solomon “purposed” to build a Temple (1 Kgs 5:5), but not a palace. He does, of course, also build himself a palace, which is described in 1 Kgs 7:1-12 (though, ironically, absent from the 2 Chron. account), but no mention of it is made during his interactions with Tyre.

It’s possible that the Chronicler had a reason to add the palace to Solomon’s To Do list at this point. After all, David already got wood for the Temple’s construction from Tyre in 1 Chron. 22:2-5. The easiest way for the Chronicler to fudge this is to add a reference to a personal palace, thus increasing the wood needed from the amount that David had anticipated.

It was a perfect plan, but if that’s the case, the Chronicler wasn’t quite as attentive to detail as he should have been. When Solomon initiates contact with King Huram, he cites David’s order of wood for the construction of his palace (2 Chron. 2:3, which is narrated in 2 Sam. 5:11), not for the Temple (which would put it in line with 1 Chron. 22:2-5). Someone fire that scribe!

We see a minor difference in the payment the two kings agree upon. Here, Solomon offers wheat, barley, wine, and oil, whereas 1 Kgs 5:11 mentions only the wheat and oil.

The interaction is peppered with performed humility and praises of God – interestingly, these latter come from Huram as well. This isn’t necessarily a problem since, as the New Bible Commentary says: “In a polytheistic society politeness to a neighbour’s god cost[sic] nothing” (p.384). The Chronicler adds a bit to this fawning, but the tone remains the same.

James Bradford Pate offers the possibility that some of the changes between our two accounts could be to implicitly put Solomon above Huram. One way of doing this is to give Huram more to say about God’s greatness. Another comes at the very beginning: In 1 Kgs 5:1, it is Hiram who initiates contact (a fairly standard check-in to make sure that an alliance remains despite a new brow under the crown), whereas it is Solomon to initiates the interaction in 2 Chron. 2 – almost implying that he commanded Huram’s service as one might a vassal.

A final difference between our two accounts is that, in his reply, Huram specifies that he will send the resources by raft to Joppa, from where Solomon can bring them to Jerusalem. The reference to Joppa is left out of the 1 Kgs 5 version.

Skilled and Unskilled Labour

In the 2 Chron. 2 account, Solomon asks King Huram to send him a skilled craftsman, someone who can work with gold, silver, bronze, and iron, as well as fabrics (specifically purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, though I’m not sure why the colour matters). As I’ve done a fair bit of work in IT, this sort of job ad looks pretty familiar in its impossibility. Could a single person really be a master in all of these crafts? For only $25,000 a year with benefits?

Building of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Jean Fouquet, c.1470

Building of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Jean Fouquet, c.1470

Despite the absurdity of the requirements, King Huram knows just the man: Huram-abi. Not only that, but he’s part Israelite, too, as his mother is from the tribe of Dan (though she is from Naphtali in 1 Kgs 7:13-14). Another difference between the two accounts is that, in 2 Chron. 2, Solomon asks King Huram to send someone, whereas in 1 Kgs 7:13-14, Solomon is said to have invited Hiram (as he is there called) directly (which is not necessarily a contraction, as the invitation could mean a request for an unspecified individual who happened to be Hiram).

The bigger difference, though, is in the requirements themselves. In 1 Kgs 7:13-14, Hiram is only a master of bronze, not of all that other stuff. This meshes with the Chronicler’s own account later on, in the list of all the things Huram-abi built for the Temple found in 2 Chron. 4:11-18: They are all bronze!

So why did Solomon request all those other skills, and why was Huram’s parentage switched over to Dan? Probably because it connects him to Bezalel and Oholiab, the craftsmen Moses puts in charge of building the tabernacle. Bezalel’s skills in metalworking (omitting iron) are listed in the same order as Huram-abi’s in Ex. 31:3-5 and Ex. 35:31-33. As for Huram-abi’s competency with fabrics, these mirror Bezalel and Oholiab’s from Ex. 35:35, write down to the colours (and so we know why Huram-abi’s competency in working with certain colours was brought up!). Finally, Oholiab is from the tribe of Dan (Ex. 31:6, Ex. 35:34), so switching Huram-abi’s parentage makes more sense.

I’ve noted before that the Chronicler seems to be trying quite hard to tie the constructions of the Temple to Moses’s constructions in Exodus, and this seems to be yet more evidence of that. As Brant Clements points out, it could be that this mirroring is intended to legitimate the Temple as a central place of worship, an acceptable replacement for the tabernacle.

As for Solomon outsourcing the skilled work, my New Bible Commentary puts it rather bluntly: “Archaeology has fully borne out Israel’s backwardness in the arts at this time” (p.384). Ouch.

As important as skilled labour might be, so is the unskilled. For this, Solomon turns again to foreigners. Specifically, he finds himself 153,600 “aliens” hanging about Israel, and assigns 70,000 to bear burdens, 80,000 to quarry in the hills, and 3,600 to oversee the rest. The figure appears in the same in 2 Chron. 2:2 and 2 Chron. 2:17-18, though there are only 3,300 overseers in 1 Kgs 5:15-16. A more important is that neither 2 Chron. 2:2 nor 1 Kgs 5:13-18 mentions that these workers were sojourners or foreigners (in fact, 1 Kgs 5:13 describes them as “a levy of forced labor out of all Israel”, strongly implying that they were native Israelites). It’s only in 2 Chron. 2:17-18 that they are cast as outsiders.

James Bradford Pate notes also that the Chronicler omits the details from 1 Kgs 5:13-18, and specifically its mention of Solomon employing Israelite workers. Pate lists a few possibilities for this, including:

  • The author of Kings seems to be critical of Solomon for enslaving the Israelites, and the Chronicler generally tends to avoid unfavourable details;
  • The Chronicler may be trying to emphasize the idea that Israel is dominant over foreign peoples (with the added irony that these foreigners, who had fought against God’s people, are now being forced to build his Temple).

Construction Begins

2 Chron. 3 opens with construction beginning on Mount Moriah, where God had appeared to David at Ornan’s threshing floor. This appearance belongs to the Chronicler, narrated in 1 Chron. 21:16, but missing from 2 Sam. 24:16.

The mention here that the threshing floor was located on Mount Moriah is utterly new. Nowhere else is the Temple mound given such a name. In fact, the only other place in which the name “Moriah” appears is in Gen. 22:2, where it is the area in which the mountain where Abraham tries to sacrifice Isaac is located (not even the name of the mountain itself).

I posted a little while ago about a theory that Hebron had once been the most important Hebrew holy site, but the area was difficult to defend. So as the government changed and the need arose for an easily defensible location, propaganda began to elevate Jerusalem as the most important holy site. I mentioned the theory at the time because I like it, it has a ring of truthiness that I find appealing. But it seems odd that such a grand attempt to shift the cultural/cultic focus should only survive in this one small passage (and not even anywhere else in the Chronicler’s own account, despite being directly relevant in 1 Chron. 21).

As in 1 Kgs 6:1, though phrased quite differently, construction began in the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. Following the “narrative” of Kings, dimensions and materials are given in excruciating detail. For the sake of my sanity, I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that the description keeps pretty well to 1 Kgs 6 and the description of the pillars found in 1 Kgs 7:15-17. The differences I was able to dredge up are:

  • The vestibule’s height is given as 120 cubits in 2 Chron. 3:4, yet the total height of the Temple is only 30 cubits in 1 Kgs 6:2;
  • Without figures, 1 Kgs 6 does mention quite a bit of gold, but I’m given to understand that the 600 talents of gold mentioned in 2 Chron. 3:8 is unrealistically high. That said, 1 Chron. 22:14 has David setting aside 100,000 talents of gold and Israel’s elite contribute an additional 5,000 talents and 10,000 darics in 1 Chron. 29:7, so I’m not sure why the commentaries are so over-awed by the 600 talent figure;
  • 1 Kgs 6:31 describes the doors of the inner sanctuary, which are absent from Chronicles. Instead, 2 Chron. 3:14 has a veil in their place (which is absent from the Kings account). The most likely explanation is that we’re seeing an evolving tradition (it’s worth noting that it is the veil that wins out, as we see it being used in Matthew 27:51);
  • The bronze pillars, Jachin and Boaz, are 18 cubits high in 1 Kgs 7:15, but only 35 cubits tall in 2 Chron. 3:15.

The Equipment

The next chapter presents us with the Temple’s furnishings, and is every bit as boring as you might imagine. It mostly corresponds to 1 Kgs 7:23-51, though with a few minor differences, of course.

The most interesting difference is that the Chronicles account includes a bronze altar, which is not mentioned in 1 Kgs 7, nor even in the summary of stuff later on in 2 Chron. 4. We do see it mentioned as an existing Temple feature in 1 Kgs 8:64 and 2 Kgs 16:14, but with no mention of its provenance.

There is a bronze altar built in Exodus 27:1-5, though it seems strange to give Solomon credit for its construction (unless the Chronicler is trying to mirror Moses again by having Solomon also build a bronze altar? That seems a stretch, though).

Another possibility is that the Chronicler knew of a bronze altar, and accidentally gave the credit of its construction both to Solomon (here) and to David (1 Chron. 21:18, which was lifted from 2 Sam. 24:18-19).

We find a few minor discrepancies, as well. For example, 2 Chron. 4:5 has Solomon building 3,000 baths, whereas he builds only 2,000 in 1 Kgs 7:26.

As a point of interest, Steve Wells uses the measurements given for the molten sea to calculate that the Biblical value of pi is only 3.

1 Kings 5-7: Time for building up

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When David tried to build a temple to house the ark, God told him that it was a job for his offspring (2 Sam. 7:12). Now that the offspring is on the throne, it’s time to get cracking!

As I’ve learned from my many watchings (and re-watchings) of Bob the Builder, the first step to any construction project is to make sure you have all your materials (well, actually, Bob is quite clear that the first step is planning, but I assume the narrator is just skipping over that stage). For help, Solomon sends to King Hiram of Tyre, who had provided cedar trees, carpenters, and masons when David had built his palace in 2 Sam. 5:11-12, and who is described as having been a good friend of David’s. The narrative actually has Hiram contact Solomon first, when his reign begins, to remind him of what good friends he and David were. I’m sure that was political, though, and not a bid for a big construction contract.

In his message to Hiram, Solomon explains that David had been unable to build a temple “because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him” (1 Kgs 5:3) – a different explanation from what we were given in 2 Sam. 7, though they aren’t mutually exclusive. Now that there is peace, Solomon has the time to focus on his great works. He offers to send servants of his own to supplement Hiram’s, and to pay wages for Hiram’s workers. Hiram agrees with the stipulation that Solomon pay him in food for his household, and makes arrangements to send the wood down by sea from Lebanon. Both parties agree, Solomon sends Hiram 20,000 cors of wheat and 20,000 cors of beaten oil per year, and the two make a treaty.

Solomon’s next problem is finding the labour. Rather than offering appealing wages and other incentives, he decides simply to raise a levy of forced labour, to be directed by Adoniram, mentioned in 1 Kgs 4:6, and presumably the same person as the Adoram in 2 Sam. 20:24. Thirty thousand people are conscripted, to serve in groups of 10,000 for one month each in rotation (one on, two off) in Lebanon. Solomon also procures 70,000 burden-bearers and 80,000 hewers of stone to work in the hill country, presumably forced labour as well.

Paul Davidson has a great discussion about the various forms of slavery in the Bible that doesn’t fall under the category of “private ownership of slaves.” The term he uses in place of levy is “corvée,” – “the “right” of the king to force his subjects into mandatory labour as a sort of taxation for public works and other projects” (whereas “levy,” at least in my mind, carries the connotation that the services is to be military in nature). Davidson continues to explain that the nature of the slavery described here is one of temporary service for a specific task, citing 1 Kgs 9:22 (“But of the Israelites Solomon made no slaves”) to argue that this forced labour was socially considered to be a separate class from slavery.

Also, if the list in 2 Sam. 20:24 is correct, it seems that the practice of this kind of forced labour was already happening under David, and not a Solomonic invention to deal with the building of the temple. Another detail I noticed is that the levies are only said to be raised “out of all Israel” (1 Kgs 5:13), whereas the nation has generally been referred to as “Israel and Judah” for the last little while. I’m not sure of this is significant and Solomon is only “recruiting” from tribes other than his own, or if his is just a different source that is reverting to the earlier use of “Israel” to refer to the whole populace.

Solomon also brought in men from Gebal to do the hewing and preparation of the materials for construction, as well as a master stonemason named Hiram of Tyre, who was  the son of a Naphtali woman and a Tyrian man (1 Kgs 7:13-14).

Construction

We’re told that construction on the temple began in the 418th year since the Hebrews came out of Egypt, and the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. Even more specifically, it began in Ziv, which would be somewhere around April-May. According to my New Bible Commentary, there are a few problems here, the first being with the number of years since the exodus, which “would put the Exodus about 1447 BC, which is not in keeping with other evidence, either biblical or extra-biblical. There are indications that this verse may be a late gloss in the text. It is inserted two verses earlier in LXX, and reads ‘440’ instead of ‘480’” (p.328).

There’s another issue with the beginning month. Ziv is said to be the second month of the year in the text, yet it “was the second month of the later Babylonian calendar, but the eighth month of the pre-exilic calendar. LXX omits in the month of Ziv” (p.328).

What follows is an incredibly long description of the temple. The TL;DR version is that it’s pretty small for something that was meant for congregation-based worship activities, so it was likely used more for priestly rituals. All the stone used in the construction was prepared at the quarry  to reduce the amount of noise at the site – the reason is not stated, though I’m sure we’re to assume that it was for cultic reasons and not because Solomon lived nearby and liked to sleep in.

There was an innermost chamber to house the ark, and an outer nave or entryway that was a bit larger. Surrounding both were chambers. If I understand correctly, there was another structure surrounding this inner centre with a courtyard buffer. The inside of the temple was panelled with cedar and either foiled or inlaid with gold – the inner sanctuary entirely so, so that none of the stonework could be seen. This panelling was apparently quite ornate, as mention is made of images of gourds and open flowers.

Basically, it looked like this:

1 Kings 6

Perhaps as part of the temple complex, he made two free-standing pillars of bronze, one named Jachin and the other Boaz. My New Bible Commentary says that: “the use of free-standing columns in front of the Temple is attested in coins which were found at Sion and on the sculpture which tells that the pillars before the Baal temple at Tyre held a fire which glowed at night. It has been suggested that the pillars in front of Solomon’s Temple may have contained a sacred fire reminding the Israelites of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night of the wilderness period; but all suggestions are largely speculative” (p.330). In other words, for all the ink wasted in the description of the temple, frustratingly little information actually comes through.

On the names of the pillar, my New Bible Commentary explains that Jachin meant “he establishes” and Boaz meant “in him is strength” (p.331), both perfectly plausible literal names.

There was also a “molten sea” (1 Kgs 7:23) – a round structure filled with water and standing on twelve oxen – three facing out toward each compass point. According to Collins, “the symbolism of these objects is not explained, but the sea recalls the prominence of Yamm (Sea) in the Ugaritic myths” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.135).

All through the temple were images of various flowers, fruits, and animals – which is difficult to reconcile with the rather clear prohibitions in Exodus 20:4, Leviticus 26:1, and Deuteronomy 27:15.

In addition to all of this were stands, lavers, pots, shovels, and basins. Once the construction was over, Solomon brought in all the stuff David had already begun collecting and dedicating for storage in the temple’s treasuries.

The entire construction took seven years to complete.

It seems that the temple may have been part of a building complex that included Solomon’s personal apartments (which seem to have been called the House of the Forest of Lebanon), his Egyptian wife’s apartments, a Hall of Pillars (whatever that might have been used for), a Hall of the Throne (from which he made his kingly pronouncements), and a Hall of Judgement (in which he presumably saw petitioners like the two prostitutes in 1 Kgs).

As fancy as the temple seem to have been, it took only seven years to build. Solomon’s own house took thirteen. As Brant Clements puts it, “That may say something about how YHWH rates….”

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.

Numbers 33: The recap

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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

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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).

Genesis 33: Jacob and Esau make peace

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genesis-33-jacob-meets-esau-unknown-illustratorJacob (who is supposed to be called Israel now, but it appears that the authors have forgotten about that) sees Esau coming towards him. He organizes his household so that his “maids” and their children form a meat shield in front of his real family, and then the whole lot forms a meat shield in front of Rachel and Joseph. Just in case anyone had any doubts as to their place in the hierarchy of his filial affections.

All this was for naught, however, as Esau greets him with an embrace. There’s a bunch of “here, take these gifts” and “oh no, I couldn’t possibly!” and “but you must!” before Esau proposes that they journey on together. Jacob refuses because his children and cattle require a slower pace, so they head out behind Esau.

In the end, Jacob makes it to Shechem and sets up an altar that he names EleloheIsrael.

Bit of a short chapter this time, and thank goodness! See you all on Tuesday!