Posts Tagged bible
Around 5,000 years ago, there were three languages spoken in the Middle East that have no relationship whatsoever to any other known language – present or ancient. These three languages – Sumerian, Elamite and Hattic – are older than the pyramids. They are older than even the Egyptians.
We have no clue where these languages came from or why the people who spoke them spoke them. They are prehistoric languages. They are quite literally the languages men and women were speaking when it first occurred to them to start using symbols in clay to represent their words. They are the languages people were speaking in their respective regions when they came up with the idea of the wheel, and possibly even agriculture and fire.
In many ways, the stories of these languages are the stories of human history in the Middle East. They are worth considering, not only because of their ancient origins but also because of their relatively recent extinctions.
Sumer sits in ancient Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. We don’t know exactly how long the Sumerians lived in the region, but we think they were responsible for the domestication of cattle and sheep, the development of staple crops such as barley and emmer wheat, and the basic structuring of human society into towns. They developed the wheel and struck on the idea of keeping records by pressing a sharpened read into tablets of wet mud to make symbols.
They lived and worked happily in their region until about 4,500 years ago when another group of people, who are known today as the Amorites, swept down from modern day Syria and conquered them. The Amorites set up what is known as the Babylonian kingdom, and their language became the language of trade and government.
In Mesopotamia, they became the Akkadians, and their language became the lingua franca of most of the Middle East. But Akkadian gave birth to a number of other languages, related to it in varying degrees. Eventually, the languages spoken to the west in Palestine would evolve independently into their own language group and give birth to the languages of Canaanite and Hebrew. These would be heavily influenced by Egyptian, which shared a common origin with Akkadian although it developed along completely different lines.
Akkadian took the Sumerian method of writing for its own, using many of the symbols to represent their own words, and Sumerian in turn borrowed a lot from Akkadian as it made its long, slow march toward extinction. But Akkadian was an entirely different language, the first of what are known as Semitic languages.
Within a millennium, Sumerian was all but extinct and although it persisted as something of a classical language until around the time of Christ, it was pretty much gone by about 3,500 years ago.
To the Sumerians’ north in modern day Turkey, there was another language group that called themselves the Hatti. They spoke a wildly different language and contented themselves with basic farming, a semi-nomadic existence and experimenting with metal work.
They did not build cities or even towns at first. In fact, at Çatalhöyük (pronounced however you want to!), archaeologists uncovered one of the strangest living experiments ever known. The town has no streets or paths. It does not even have doors. People entered their homes through holes in the roofs. They buried their dead under their floors. They farmed, but their farms were seven miles from the village. There are no public buildings, so if they had any form of government, it must have met offsite.
For thousands of years, the Hatti seemed to have lived all by themselves in a land that no one was terribly interested in. They spoke their own language, of which we don’t have a single inscription; but it obviously existed through allusions in the writings of their conquerors. They had a very loose form of regional government, more of a “we’ll help you if you help us” arrangement than a government.
Around 4,000 years ago, another people called the Nesa invaded Hattusa (the land of the Hatti). They swept down from the region of the Black Sea, and one by one they conquered the Hatti regions. The Nesa, who spoke Nesili, a language that has loose but definite ties to other languages spoken in the world.
The Nesa, who history calls the Hittites after the people they conquered, were a ruling minority. They kept the Hatti in a feudal state and used them in their armies. In the Bible, the Nesa and Hatti are both called Hethiy (Hittites) because by the time the Bible was written, their culture was already an old one.
No one knows when Hatti died out as a language, but it is likely that by the time of the Assyrian empire, it had already been extinguished.
Of the three, Elamite lasted the longest. It was still being used as a liturgical language in what is today Iran when Alexander the Great’s armies conquered the known world.
In the mountains of western Iran, the people who called themselves the Haltamti managed to perpetuate their culture and language through multiple phases of ruling and being ruled. For a time, they dominated the Sumerians and Akkadians.
Around 2,600 years ago, the Haltamti were subjugated by invading Aryan tribes which called themselves the Parsua, or Persians. The Parsua brought their own language with them, but they adopted much of the Elamite way of life. In time, the two groups became indistinguishable, but Elamite as a language died out.
Why Does This Matter?
These three languages isolate form the core of a world that was then dominated and controlled by people we call “Semitic”, after Noah’s son Shem. The Semitic peoples came from somewhere and over the course of about two thousand years displaced or destroyed the three cultures that existed before them. Archaeology has shown that the Nesa and Amorites were Semitic, as were the Arameans, Chaldeans, Canaanites, Phoenicians, the Edomites, and the Ammonites. Although genetically the Egyptians were distinct from the Semitics, they spoke a Semitic language.
When we study the Bible and read about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Exodus, David and all the other people of the Hebrews, it is easy to forget that what we are reading is the tail end of a huge story. We are reading some of the last migrations of Semitic peoples on a landscape that had already been worn down by the feet of migrations, invasions and assimilations.
By the time Moses and Joshua led the sons of Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, the Canaanites had been living there for three thousand years or more. The Hebrews and Canaanites, linguistically and archaeologically, were descendants of the same groups that had swept over the Sumerians a millennium before but the distance of time and language had so separated them that would never have known.
After all, a modern Englishman looks and talks nothing like his Saxon, Norman or Dane forebears. Most Scotsmen would recoil if they knew that they share more of a genetic heritage with Germans than with the Celtic people who inhabited his land before the Romans. And the Celts themselves displaced yet another people group, of which we know only in legend. Millennia do a lot to change our perspectives and thoughts.
Before the earliest period of the Hebrew Scriptures, there were others living in the lands we read about. That’s something that is hard to process for people who tend to see the history of the world only in terms of the Biblical narrative. The idea that our story as human beings is really a recent innovation takes some getting used to, but there it is.
It requires some serious rethinking about how we read the Scriptures, and it should call us to ask some really hard questions of ourselves. In no way am I saying that the Bible is not accurate or that it is untrue. But it is worth asking whether our interpretation of it is not based on an incomplete understanding of what it has to say.
Just some things to think about this morning.
Amorites, Ammonites, Jebusites, Edomites, blah-blah-ites. What’s with all these -ites in the Bible?
Sometimes the most confusing thing about reading the Bible is all of the names. Because the early translators used a sort of English shorthand for lots of different idioms, it gets overwhelming and redundant to have all these -ites and not know anything about them.
Here’s a quick list from Genesis 10, known as “The Table of Nations”. It lists seventy people groups who lived in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean basin, and it divides them as descendants of Noah’s three sons.
Japtheth (יפת, “open”)
The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras.
And the sons of Gomer; Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah.
And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim.
By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations. (Genesis 10:2-5)
Let’s start with a couple of misconceptions. The word Gentiles is the Hebrew word goyim and it simply means “nations” or “peoples.” In early Hebrew usage, it means people not from around here. These are people who are distinct from the local conflicts of the Hebrew people. Those conflicts, we will soon see, are about the rivalry between the sons of Ham and the sons of Shem.
The sons of Japheth are the people who lived to the west and north of Israel – in modern Turkey, Armenia and Greece, as well as the islands of the Mediterranean. They lived in the open spaces.
And here, we encounter a Hebrew plural form -im. It appears in Kittim and Dodanim. These words are plurals of the words Kittiy and Dodan. These are foreign words which appear nowhere else in Hebrew except as some kind of geographical identifier.
We believe that Kittiy is the term the Hebrews used for the island of Cyprus. The city of Larnaca, on eastern Cyprus, was known as Kition as early as the 13th century BCE, and the derivation seems to be pretty solid.
Dodan is not as easy to identify. It is possible that the pronunciation was changed from Rodan, in which a likely candidate is the island of Rhodes in the Aegean. In the victory inscription of Ramesses II from the Battle of Karnak in 1275, there is mention of a group of Hittite allies called the Dardanayu. They came from the Aegean, so they might be the same geographic identifier. If so, then the Dodanim would have lived in the Aegean islands.
But the really -ite activity begins with the sons of Ham and Shem.
Ham (חם, “hot”)
And the sons of Ham; Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan.
And the sons of Cush; Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtecha: and the sons of Raamah; Sheba, and Dedan. And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city.
And Mizraim begat Ludim, and Anamim, and Lehabim, and Naphtuhim, and Pathrusim, and Casluhim, (out of whom came Philistim,) and Caphtorim.
And Canaan begat Sidon his firstborn, and Heth, and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgasite, and the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, and the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite: and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as thou comest to Gerar, unto Gaza; as thou goest, unto Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Admah, and Zeboim, even unto Lasha.
These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations. (Genesis 10:6-20)
Let’s begin with Ham’s four sons, and the -ites get a bit easier to sort out. They are listed in order of distance from Palestine.
- Cush is mostly people in Africa south of the 2nd cataract of the Nile, except for Nimrod. Nimrod establishes cities in what is today Iraq and Syria. More of that in a minute.
- Mizraim is Egypt, in fact everywhere you read the English word Egypt, it is a replacement for the Hebrew word Mizraim.
- Phut appears to be western Africa, the region of Libya
- Canaan is, of course, Canaan or Palestine as it was later known.
It is in the sons of Canaan that we encounter our -ites. A lot of them are relatively unknown to history, but the Hebrew forms are quite interesting, so I am going to list them out and note how they appear in Hebrew. Specifically, these are considered the people who lived in Canaan when the Hebrews arrived. Eventually, most of them seem to have merged with other people groups.
The first two are easy, because they’re not -ites. They are geographical designations for regions.
- Sidon (צידון) – southwestern Lebanon today, the core of what became the Phoenicians.
- Heth or Hat (חת) – the region of Hatti, Syria and western Turkey – the land of the Hittites
- Jebusite (יבוסי, Yebusiy, “of the threshing floor”) – Interestingly, the author does not say Jebus as he did Sidon and Heth. Most people assume that Jebus is the name of a person, but it may also be that these were the people who lived around the threshing floor – what became Jerusalem.
- Amorite (אמרי, Amoriy, “of the speaker” or “of the public place”) – Amor is an old Canaanite word for speaker, so it may be that these were the city dwellers of the Canaanites although the presence of the word Chamath later might indicate that they were people who lived at the assembly places. Israel had a couple of places where people, probably representatives of the various peoples, gathered to hear proclamations. (Both Deuteronomy and Joshua are written around these kinds of places.)
- Girgasite (גרגשׁי, Gergasiy, “of the clay”) – Gerad is the Hebrew word for clay. So this could be a group of people who lived in a region known for its clay, like the region east of the Sea of Galilee or it is a group known for working with clay.
- Hivite (חוי, Chiviy, “of the village”) – if the Amorites are the city dwellers, the Hivites are the villagers, those who lived in the unwalled collectives in the region.
- Arkite (ערקי, “of the sinew” or “of the fleeing”) – we assume an affinity of this name with the word ‘araq but no one is really sure how it works. The root word appears only in Job (30:3, 17). In particular, Job 30:3 seems to indicate something people would do in starvation – perhaps gnawing on the sinew or marrow of bones. But no one knows. The imagery of Job evokes, for me at least, images of the Gadarean demoniac.
- Sinite (סיני, Ciyniy, “of the thorns” or “of the moon goddess”) – the word Ciyn appears several times as a descriptor of a wilderness through which the sons of Israel journeyed. No one knows what it actually means. Some thing it means “thorn” while others equate it to the Canaanite moon goddess who might have been called SIN.
- Arvadite (ארודי, ‘rwadiy “of the loose land”) – this word could best be translated as “nomads” because that is the image it evokes. These are people who are not tied to a location or a practice. They are wanderers.
- Zemarite (צמרי, Tzamardiy, “of the two wools”) – Hebrew has a plural form called the dual, denoting pairings of things. It is used for legs, heavens, eyes, and anything else that comes in pairs. This name is derived from the dual of TZEMER or “wool”. Probably these were shepherds and goatherds, although this might also connect to the materials used to make their clothes. We know from Egyptian descriptions that some Canaanites were known for wearing striped woolen garments.
- Hamathite (חמתי, Chamathiy, “of the fortress”) – people who dwell in fortresses.
So, here is a list of the sons of Canaan, all of which have something to do with the way they lived when the Hebrews arrived. They are not necessarily patronyms at all.
Shem (שׁם, “name”)
This is driven home when we read the list of the descendants of Shem and realize that since Shem actually means “name” we are looking at the names of his descendants rather than descriptions of their lifestyles.
Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born. The children of Shem; Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram.
And the children of Aram; Uz, and Hul, and Gether, and Mash.
And Arphaxad begat Salah; and Salah begat Eber. And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan. And Joktan begat Almodad, and Sheleph, and Hazarmaveth, and Jerah, And Hadoram, and Uzal, and Diklah, And Obal, and Abimael, and Sheba, And Ophir, and Havilah, and Jobab: all these were the sons of Joktan.
And their dwelling was from Mesha, as thou goest unto Sephar a mount of the east. 31 These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations. (Genesis 10:21-31)
First of all, it should be noted that Eber may be the source of the word Hebrew and that the genealogy is picked up again in Genesis 11 to tell the connection from Shem to Abraham.
Second, it is worth noting that these are definitely names. There is a distinctly different feel to the way the names are presented. For one thing, it is linear. Both the families of Japheth and Ham only go two or three generations. Here, the genealogy follows the line through one son of Eber, Joktan. In chapter 11, it follows the other son, Peleg.
The division between Peleg and Joktan is the “in his days was the earth divide”, much to the displeasure of creation scientists everywhere who want to make this the continental drift. The line of Shem divides between the two sons of Eber. There is more or less a consensus among scholars that Joktan is representative of the Arab peoples.
Joktan was probably the Hebrew name for the northern Arabian cultures, which are largely nomadic due to the topography of the region. It is generally conjectured among linguists that the Semitic languages began in northern Arabia and spread out from there.
What is interesting about the Semitic peoples is that they are not labeled as -ites generally. They are given the English suffix -ans. So, we have the Assyrians and the Chaldeans and the Babylonians instead of the Assurites, the Chaldites and the Babylonites. This is an intentional distinction, made first in Latin and Greek, and then carried through into English.
Within the line of Shem, we will encounter Abraham and his father Terah. From Abraham’s brother Haran, we get his son Lot. Lot is the progenitor of two of the Hebrews’ closest relatives and rivals, through an incestuous relationship with his daughters:
- Ammonites (עמוני, Ammowniy, “of the tribes”) – the Ammonites are generally called simply AMMONIYM or “the tribes”. They are rarely an organized group.
- Moabites (מֹואָבִי, Moabiy, “of her father”) – likewise, the Moabites have kings from time to time, but they are nomadic peoples.
Both the Ammonites and the Moabites lived in modern Jordan. They were bordered to the south by the Edomites (descendants of Israel’s brother Esau) and the southeast by the Ishmaelites (descendants of Abraham’s illegitimate son with an Egyptian woman). There are also a number of related groups, all of which are various forms of -ites, including people like the Kenites and the Midianites. Do a little digging and you’ll find their relationships to the Hebrews as well.
There is one last group worth mentioning – the Pilistim, or the Philistines. Originally, this term was a designation for people who lived in what is today the Gaza strip. Historically, another group invaded the region during the Bronze Age Collapse and the Hebrews simply referred to them as Pilistim as well although they were clearly a different people.
There are a lot of Herodians in the Gospels and Acts. It gets pretty confusing if you’re not keeping a score card.
Herod the Great and His Kids
They all descend from Herod the Great, who the gospel of Matthew says was ruling as King of the Jews when Jesus was born. He died in 4-3 BCE, and he left behind a real mess for the Romans to sort out. He had originally been married to a Jewish princess, then he married a different one – both of whom where named Mariamne. He traded her for a Samaritan woman named Malthace and moved from her to another lady named Cleopatra. He also had a number of girlfriends on the side.
He had children with all of them, but to ensure the ascendancy of his children by Malthace, he had his sons by the first Mariamne killed. He married his son from the second Mariamne to his granddaughter from the first Mariamne. Then she (her name was Herodias), divorced that son and married Herod’s son by Malthace.
It is all very confusing. Have I said that yet?
Anyway, when Herod died, the Romans divided his kingdom between two of his sons by Malthace: Herod Archelaus received the title of ethnarch and ruled Judea and Herod Antipater received the title of tetrarch and ruled Galilee. Of course, the Romans had to make that decision because Herod the Great had left two wills, both naming a different son as tetrarch.
Archelaus ruled Judea until 6 CE when the Romans, unsatisfied with his conduct, deposed him and declared the region to be a province. They banished him to Gaul, and he was never heard from again.
Rule and Marriage(s)
Antipater on the other hand, catered to the Romans and built the resort town of Tiberias for them. He loved the Romans, and they allowed him to pretend he had power. Galilee was a populous place under Antipater, and it flourished. He spent time in Rome, where he met Herodias and persuaded her to leave his half-brother and marry him. This marriage was what enraged John the Baptist and led to his imprisonment and ultimate beheading.
(Antipater was a fascinatingly depraved guy. He beheaded John because of a request from Herodias’ daughter Salome after she “danced before him.” Salome was not only Antipater’s stepdaughter. She is also his niece, since her father was Antipater’s half-brother. AND since Herodias was also Antipater’s niece, there’s an additional level of incestuous lust involved. I’m still not convinced he wasn’t from the deep, dark recesses of Appalachia.)
Of course, when Antipater met Herodias, he was already married to the daughter of the king of Idumea, who was also a distant relative. It took so long for Herodias to get to Galilee that Antipater’s first wife had time to run home to her father, who promptly declared war on Antipater and Galilee. Had it not been for timely interference by the Romans in 26 CE, Antipater would have lost his kingdom over the affair. But the Romans did interfere, because Antipater’s former father-in-law, Aretas IV Philopatris, was a pain in their side and they needed an excuse to put him in his place.
Are you keeping track of all this, because to be honest, I’m not sure that I am!
His Downfall and Exile
Antipater’s downfall also came about because of Herodias. Her brother, Agrippa, ran into money trouble and she persuaded Antipater to cover for him. The two men quarreled, and Agrippa left in a huff. He went to Rome where he joined his friend Gaius, whom he had met when Gaius was in Antioch as a child. Gaius is a common enough Roman name, so you might know him better by his nickname Caligula.
When Caligula became emperor, he was in a position to help his childhood friend Agrippa. At first, Caligula made Agrippa the king of Lysanias (basically southern Lebanon), but in 39 CE Agrippa went to Caligula with complaints of treason against Antipater. The emperor deposed and exiled Antipater and made Agrippa king of Galilee and eventually Judaea as well.
Antipater died in exile in Gaul, ironically near the place where his brother Archelaus had died thirty years before.
Among students of the Scriptures, it is often hard to discern the theories from the facts. Someone in one generation develops an idea, and the next generation – who learned the idea in their college classrooms – teaches it as fact.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than the theory of the “historical Jesus” which fuels so many of the articles about Jesus that appear every year in mainstream magazines around the time of Easter. The same theory fuels almost every History Channel and PBS documentary about Jesus as well.
But the theory – which briefly states the that Jesus of history is very different from the Jesus of the Bible – is just that, a theory. It is a theory first clearly and plainly articulated around 1900, although it had been discussed at great length by German theologians at the close of the previous century. Two works – Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, first published in English in 1910; and Albert Kalthoff’s The Rise of Christianity (1907) – made the idea somewhat mainstream. Both owed an enormous debt to an earlier book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, written in 1846 by David Friedrich Strauss.
The themes were taken up in the 1950′s and 1960′s, and then became a part of pop culture with the formation of the Jesus Seminar in 1985. Almost all of the mainstream authorities on the “historical Jesus” – Robert Bonk, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg – first gained notice outside of academia because of it. Infamously, in the Seminar, members voted on the historicity of Jesus’ sayings by putting colored beads in a bowl – red meaning Jesus said it, black meaning he did not, and a range of colors between indicating various probabilities.
Although opposed by some of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century – Karl Bath and Rudolf Bultmann both opposed it – the idea has gained traction in popular culture and is taken as a given by almost everyone, including Christians. People just assume that the gospels present Jesus differently than he actually was in life.
But the theory hangs on the slender threads of assumptions. The assumptions are simple ones:
- Jesus was illiterate because he came from Nazareth and therefore would not have
- Jesus was poor because he came from Galilee and therefore resented the rule of the Romans
These two notions should bother the student of history. They are the Marxists ideals. Jesus is a poor, illiterate carpenter who rises up against his bourgeoisie Roman masters and is crushed for trying to lead a rebellion. They are not representative of first century Palestine, but they are representative of an ideal that existed in Europe at the time that the historical Jesus quest took root.
Everything about Jesus’ teachings is rephrased into a class struggle, and because it was convenient to the struggle of the day, people followed it. It should not surprise us that it gained popularity again in the 1960′s when Marxist ideals – repackaged as communal living and the oppression of “the Man” – became an academic norm again.
My purpose in all of this is not to critique the Jesus Seminar. I have done that elsewhere. It simply illustrates the weakness of the theory, which unfortunately is taught in even some of the most conservative colleges and churches.
For example, almost everyone who attends a basic Bible study or New Testament Survey class is told that Mark was the first gospel written. But why is this taught?
Because the historical Jesus people say so. Mark has the fewest miracles, reports events in the tersest terms; and since Matthew and Luke contain many of the same events, it became popular to conclude that it was the first gospel written.
This, of course, moves the core of the gospel out a generation from the life of Jesus and it makes Matthew and Luke derivative works.
In historical fact, however, most of the Church Fathers believed that Matthew was the first gospel written. It is 1) the most Jewish of the gospels and 2) reflects very little of later events. This is why Matthew appears first in the canon lists, and in your own Bible if you have one.
The argument that Mark was written first was created to justify dissecting the others, eliminating the miracles and the divinity of Christ. The Jesus Seminar people then decided that Mark was actually a composite of an imagined work called Q (from the German for source) and the Gospel of Thomas. They extrapolate Q from Mark by simply removing anything miraculous, supernatural or divine.
The theory, and it is was nothing more than that, became presented as fact and now, virtually everyone in Western Christianity adheres to it when in fact the Church has not adhered to that position for nearly 2,000 years.
All of this is just an illustration.
When something is presented to you as if it is facts, ask where the facts come from. Assume nothing. Alone, we won’t always catch everything; but as a community, we watch each other’s backs. We keep each other straight.
Don’t be afraid to question things, especially when those things are presented as undeniable fact without substantiation.
I was once told by a fellow pastor, “I don’t teach deep stuff. I just preach Jesus.”
That sounds great on a surface level, doesn’t it? Let’s just preach Jesus because He is after all the Savior of mankind, right? If people believe Him, then they can sort everything else out eventually, right?
Jesus does not exist in a vacuum. The gospels occur within a massive supranarrative (many writers would say metanarrative but they would be using that word incorrectly). The Church is born and flourishes within a greater story, a symphonic movement of harmony, dissonance, leitmotif and crescendo. To dismiss the Scriptures as secondary to “preaching Jesus” is to do a poor job of preaching Jesus.
That is not to say that the Gospel is not, at its core, Jesus Himself. The apostle Paul wrote that in Corinth he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) But before we use this as a proof text for a sort of “nothing but Jesus” philosophy, let’s not forget that this same Paul plumbed the depths of Hebrew Scripture, Greek philosophy and Roman culture. This is the same guy who wrote things that Simon Peter said were, “hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16)
Paul was not a simplistic preacher with a one note repertoire. He brought to bear some formidable knowledge of the Scriptures, and he was not afraid to teach it when necessary.
And here’s the thing. The Gospel is the culmination of the Hebrew Scriptures, and without them, it is not much of anything. While the Gospel of Luke certainly frames Jesus as the Messiah of all mankind and leans heavily on pagan culture, he cannot separate Jesus from the context in which He lived or the Scriptures which He fulfilled. Even Luke must place Jesus in context with the Hebrew Scriptures.
So a supposed Bible teacher who does not dive headfirst into the Hebrew Scriptures and saturate himself with the supranarrative will teach a shallow Jesus.
If you ask me for advice about pastoring, I will tell you that you must know the Bible. You must immerse yourself in it and have the intestinal fortitude and spiritual integrity to allow it to change you. The Revealed Scriptures must have your absolute, undying devotion. You must be willing to allow the Spirit of God to discipline, chasten, correct and encourage you. You must never have an opinion that cannot be altered by a deeper understanding of the Word of God.
You should bow to the ground before the authority of the Scriptures. They must be your schoolmaster and you must ever be their servant. You must be conformed by the written Word in order to be conformed to the image of the Living Word.
Acquire knowledge of history and language so you can understand the Scriptures. Read them in translation. Read them in the original languages. Read them silently and aloud. Teach them constantly and receive teaching from them. Heed the wisdom of those who have spent their lives immersed in them and reject those who handle them lightly.
The older I get the more I realize the foolishness of my youth – pursuing trends and methodologies under the mistaken belief that those things would “build” the church. I have little patience for people who tell me they are too busy to “be deep.”
Get out of the ministry if you don’t have a passion for the beauty of the Scriptures. You are supposed to be ministering the Scriptures to people, not feel good sentiments and leadership strategies.
Preach Jesus. Yes! But preach Him from a place of deep, growing commitment to the Scriptures that reveal Him. Otherwise, you will preach a Jesus conformed to your image rather than being conformed to His.
I have mentioned before that our Sunday School ideals of David’s kingdom are painfully mistaken. David formed an uneasy alliance between Judah and Ephraim, which Ephraim often tried to violate. The Ephraimites claimed that they were meant to rule because Israel (Jacob) had chosen Joseph to lead and had specifically blessed Joseph’s younger son Ephraim (Genesis 48). This claim was in conflict with David’s claim to rule which came from both Israel’s proclamation (Genesis 49) and Samuel’s anointing (1 Samuel 16:1-13).
In the wake of Absalom’s failed coup, David returned to Jerusalem to the acclaim of his fellow Judahites but the Israelites, led by Ephraim, complained about the way that Judah welcomed him home. (2 Samuel 19) This led to a rebellion by a man named Sheba b. Bichri (שבע בנ-בכרי) who is initially referred to as being from the tribe of Benjamin (2 Samuel 20:1) but then later Joab says he is from the country of Ephraim (2 Samuel 20:21). Both Benjamin and Ephraim were troubled regions under David, and Joab seemed to be more than willing to equate them.
Regardless where Sheba was from, he led Ephraim and the other ten tribes in a rebellion against Judah and David.
David’s Cousin Amasa
In response, David sent his new commander Amasa to gather the Judahite soldiers. The first time we encounter Amasa in the narrative, he is leading Absalom’s armies in rebellion against David.
How did he manage to switch sides? And who was Amasa, and what was his relationship to David and Joab?
Amasa was David’s nephew through David’s sister Abigail. According to 1 Chronicles 2:13-17, David had six brothers and two sisters – Zeruiah and Abigail. The two sisters were the daughters of Jesse’s wife Nahash, and the fact that she is identified this way probably indicates that she was not the mother of David and his brothers.
Zeruiah mothered Joab, Abishai and Asahel. These three sons of Zeruiah, which is how they are always referred to in the narrative, were some of David’s closest friends and most ferocious warriors. Abigail and her husband Ithra had one son we know of, Amasa, who first appears in the narrative as the commander of Absalom’s armies.
This would make Zeruiah and Abigail David’s half-sisters and Joab, his brothers, and their cousin Amasa David’s nephews. Easily the most dangerous of this group of cousins was Joab.
Keeping track of who everybody is in the David narrative is tough, especially when they keep killing each other! In reality, it is pretty simple. Just remember that Joab kills pretty much EVERYBODY.
Joab’s brother Asahel was killed by Saul’s uncle Abner (2 Samuel 2:18-23). When Abner turned on the House of Saul and joined David, Joab took revenge upon him. (2 Samuel 3:26-30).
Then, when Joab led David’s armies against David’s son Absalom, Joab defied David and killed Absalom despite the fact that Absalom was helpless and could have been captured easily. (2 Samuel 18:9-15)
Joab’s brother Abishai recommended killing all the leaders of the factions that opposed David, which drew David’s scorn. (2 Samuel 19:22)
Because he had killed Absalom against orders, David replaced Joab with Amasa – who had been commanding Absalom’s armies. David sent Amasa out to put together an army to stop Sheba’s rebellion, but Amasa faieds to appear at the appointed time. Due to the press of time, David dispatched Joab to find the army and route Sheba.
When Joab found Amasa and stabbed him in the gut, leaving him to bleed to death on the side of the road. The spectacle was so gruesome that eventually, someone dragged Amasa off the road and covered him with a cloak.
Joab then led the combined army against Sheba, who had holed up in the town of Beth-Maacah or “The house of Maacah.” The name Maacah should sound familiar. She was Absalom’s mother, and this may very well have been a stronghold with affinities to her and her father, the king of Geshur.
An old woman inside the city talks with Joab, the population dispatches Sheba and sends his head to Joab. That rebellion ends a bit abruptly.
Joab is a paradox. He is both David’s closest friend and often the only person to tell him the truth in the midst of tragedy, but he also kills people with an almost psychotic fervor. He is a strange character indeed - loyal to David but also absolutely ruthless in his own interpretation of what that loyalty means.
Because of Joab’s reckless method of dispatching enemies – both real and perceived – he severely handicaps David’s influence over the tribes of Israel. He kills a number of men who could have proven worthwhile allies – Abner and Amasa are the ones we know about – which puts David in difficult straits. Eventually, Joab will even try to subvert David’s succession in favor of David’s fourth and oldest remaining son, Adonijah.
It is hard to judge Joab in light of history. In one sense, he was the strong arm that made David’s pre-eminence possible. But his actions also weakened that pre-eminence. History is full of these confusing characters with multiple dimensions. When we try to make them two dimensional, we lose the complicated interactions that make them so important.
Here are some interesting thoughts on the natural capacity for belief in the supernatural. Not sure what I think about it yet. http://musingsonscience.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/is-religion-merely-a-natural-phenomenon/
As David is fleeing east from Jerusalem because of his son Absalom’s betrayal, he meets an old friend Ittai the Gittite. Ittai is planning to come with David, and the following conversation occurs:
DAVID: Why would you come with us? Go back and stay with Absalom. You’re a guest here. You just got here yesterday. I can’t drag you into this. Why don’t you just stay here?
ITTAI: As YHWH lives, wherever you go, that’s where ITTAI goes. If you die, I die. If you live, I live.
DAVID: Oh, you’re definitely coming then! (2 Samuel 15:19-22, my paraphrase)
Gittite means “from Gath”, the same Philistine city that Goliath was from. We all know that David had a long history with Gath. Beside the fact that he killed Goliath, David also spent quite a bit of time working as a mercenary general for the Gittites. Apparently, Ittai had become David’s friend during his service in Gath, and as the Philistines were fading from power, Ittai had brought his 600 man unit over to David in Jerusalem.
So here is a Philistine working for David, commanding other Philistines. And then we read the most fascinating thing about Ittai in a little tag that the chronicler throws in at the end of verse 22: So Ittai the Gittite passed on with all his men and all the little ones who were with him. (Emphasis mine)
“All the little ones”?
That obviously doesn’t mean children, so what is the chronicler getting at?
Ittai was a giant, like Goliath. He was a mighty man who commanded a contingent of “little ones”. This might even be a little joke, like calling a 6’6″ man “tiny” and the entire unit might have been giants OR Ittai commanded a contingent of both giants (“all his men”) and regular sized men (“all the little ones”).
One way or the other, one of David’s closest confidants and allies was a giant Philistine from Gath. In fact, during the battle with Absalom, Ittai will hold a command equal to Joab and Abishai, David’s cousins. (2 Samuel 18:2)
Can things get any more ironic in David’s life? As a shepherd boy, he brought down the giant of Gath in a contest of champions. As an exiled king, he is depending on a giant of Gath to protect him.
And people wonder why I spend so much time studying David.
For bedtime reading, our family has been reading through the David cycle in the Hebrew Scriptures. Of course, this part of the Scriptures is my bread-and-butter. One day, I will write a book on David and it will sell like five copies – AT LEAST.
But I digress.
The other night, we started reading about Absalom, David’s third son, in 2 Samuel 13-15. Without getting into details you can read for yourself, David’s oldest son Amnon raped and shamed his Absalom’s sister Tamar. Absalom waited for years for an opportunity, then he tricked and killed Amnon. To escape David’s retribution, Absalom fled into exile in the city-state of Geshur and stayed there until David’s cousin and counselor Joab talked David into recalling him.
Once Absalom was back home, he patiently planned and executed a coup and drove David into exile. Ultimately Joab killed Absalom and reinstalled David as king. The whole story spans over six chapters of 2 Samuel and involves quite a bit of intrigue – some real cloak and dagger stuff.
It is like an episode of Jersey Shore: Iron Age.
The Geshur Connection
Absalom was David’s son through a woman named Maacah, the daughter of the king (Hebrew MLK) of Geshur, which was probably a neo-Hittite city-state in what was known as Bashan. This was the region north of Israel in what is today the Golan Heights. During the time of Solomon, the region was absorbed into Israel’s domain, but appears to have broken free shortly thereafter and was absorbed into the kingdom Aram (or Syria).
Last week, I posted some thoughts about Uriah the Hittite and the relationship between the Hebrews and the neo-Hittites. After considering Absalom and his mother, I have a feeling that the relationship between these two people groups was stronger than I originally supposed.
A Little Bit about the Name
Absalom is not strictly a Hebrew name. It arises from two root words: Av or “father” and Shalom or “peace.” It could mean “my father is peace” or “my father’s peace.” The second is more likely, as Absalom was born from the treaty marriage of David and Maacah.
Hebrew writers love irony, and while shalom means peace a very similar word shilluwm means “revenge”. In ancient Hebrew, there are no written vowels so both words appear as שלום. Consider that the Absalom cycle is preceded by the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and that Absalom’s life was defined by killing his own half-brother in retribution for his sister’s rape.
The idea that someone named “my father’s peace” would attempt to usurp his father’s kingdom as retribution for his treatment of others was something worth writing about. The literary value of the entire cycle is enormous.
Absalom Had Like SIX Stepmothers!
If I read the book of Ruth right, David himself was descended from some powerful chieftains in Moab. A number of David’s first wive’s came from powerful people as well.
- Ahinoam, his first wife, was relatively insignificant and he probably married her before ascending the throne. (Amnon’s mother)
- His second wife, Abigail, was the widow (and we assume the successor) of Nabal – a powerful man in Carmel, which is in northwestern Palestine.
- Absalom’s mother was the daughter of the MLK of Geshur, which I have already noted.
- His fourth and fifth wives, Haggith and Abital are unknown; and his sixth wife, Eglah, is simply called “David’s wife. (2 Samuel 3:2-5)
- He also recalled Michal, Saul’s daughter who had been betrothed to him, but married another man. David reclaimed him as a wife, although whether he ever consummated that relationship could be a matter of discussion. (2 Samuel 3:12-16, 6:21-23)
Out of his first seven wives, David married at least three women of influence in the region. He married a number of other women, bedded even more concubines and had many other children. David was a playah.
His marriages were primarily about treaties with neighboring powers, consolidating strength in the vacuum left by the weakness of Egypt’s New Kingdom, the collapse of the Hittite state, and the disorganized but rising threat of the Assyrians to the northeast. David was attempting to build a significant power in the Levant, and you did that by extending peace to your neighboring city-states.
We often read and translate the Hebrew word מלכ or MLK as king, and rightly so. King is the closest English word that we have for it, but we should be aware that MLK was applied to the rulers of great empires as well as the chieftains of small people groups and essentially the mayors of city-states.
When Absalom killed his half-brother Amnon, he was making a move to claim David’s throne. Amnon was the oldest brother son. That Amnon was an incestuous scumbag who raped his own sister and then abused her simply gave Absalom an excuse to act. (I think most translations handle this passage badly, but no matter how you read it, raping your sister was considered a detestable thing then just as it is now.)
There is no absolute indication that Amnon was David’s chosen successor, in fact the text of 2 Samuel seems to indicate that David had already chosen Bathseba’s young son Solomon (or Jedidiah as Nathan the prophet called him) as successor. But if you were going to seize power in a household with as many royal sons as David had, you started with the oldest son; and it is worth noting that when Absalom kills Amnon, David fears that Absalom has killed all of his sons (2 Samuel 13:30).
Today, we think of monarchy through the lens of the European idea of primogeniture - the oldest son inherits everything. It is a bit shocking to discover that this practice is a relatively recent innovation. In ancient Palestine, a son would be chosen to receive the BECHORAH, which is often translated as “birthright” in English translations. This was not necessarily the oldest son. It could be the oldest son of a chosen wife (as in the case of Joseph and Isaac), or the youngest son even (as in the case of David). It could also be bought and sold (as in the case of Esau and Jacob).
BECHORAH was a place of honor, but it was not necessarily for the first son. We could translate it as “made first among” and we would not be far off from the meaning.
If you were going to attempt to take the BECHORAH by force, you would have to start with your oldest brother. Killing the chosen successor (Solomon) would just bring down the king’s wrath and guarantee that one of your other brothers would take the throne. But if you killed your oldest brother with a valid excuse, you would be allowed to live and continue your work. This is exactly what happens with Absalom.
He kills Amnon and then claims he was acting as Tamar’s kinsman redeemer (which technically was David’s job as her father). That gives him the moral high ground against David, at least in the eyes of the people. Absalom then leveraged his position to solidify his place as a “righteous” man and overthrows his father who the people perceive as somewhat unrighteous.
This is hard for us to grasp because we think of David as this fantastic guy. In reality, his personal life was erratic at best. In this particular situation, it is pretty obvious that he has lost his grip on what is happening, and he is practically allowing Joab to run the kingdom for him.
Why Include This Narrative?
The narrative is far from flattering to David, and we must pause to realize that there is no religious reason to include it in the text. It certainly does not cast David in a positive light. So, why include it?
This is not a case of the righteous suffering for righteousness’ sake, but rather a king weakened by his own personal sins being ousted by a man who believed he was doing what was right. Absalom was not acting wickedly when he ousted David – not in his mind at any rate. David had failed the kingdom, and even he realizes that perhaps this is judgment upon him for his failures (2 Samuel 15:25-26).
Set aside all moralistic and religious interpretations, and you realize that this narrative serves a vital purpose in the story of God’s people. This narrative as well as the later Adonijah narrative (1 Kings 1-2) serve to explain why Israel was not a dominant nation at the time of its foundation. The alliances that could have ultimately created a strong nation with allies at its borders fell apart. Instead, Israel was the plump fruit waiting for the right usurper to pluck it, and this is exactly what happens in Israel and Judah. The nation divides after Solomon and remains two competing principalities for most of the next two centuries.
Judah particularly would struggle to find a foothold in the international scene until several centuries later. This would not have happened if the internal strife of David and his sons had not occurred. Although Solomon sought out other alliances (like his alliance with Egypt) to compensate, they ultimately failed him.
2 Samuel 11 contains a story that pretty much any Sunday School kid learned. King David commits adultery with a young woman named Bathsheba and they conceive a child. He then has her husband killed to cover up the sin. Of course, in chapter 12, Nathan the prophet confronts David and he repents.
Being a nerd, the part of the story that interested me was never Bathsheba and David. After all, that was just what happened back then. I was intrigued by her husband’s name – Uriah the Hittite.
What was a Hittite doing in David’s court? How did he manage to integrate himself into the Hebrew court enough that he was marrying a girl who lived in the palace complex? Just how stupid are Hittites that they can’t figure out the king is sleeping with their wives?
A little historical research reveals a lot. The Hittite kingdom fell apart in 1180 BCE as part of the Bronze Age Collapse. The encroachment of the Assyrians to their east eventually brought about a fragmentation of the Hittite sphere into a number of smaller kingdoms or city-states, largely under Assyrian domination or influence. The majority of the Hittite military seems to have headed elsewhere, serving as mercenaries in various other power bases.
Of course, the David narrative occurs two centuries after the collapse of the Hittite kingdom, so it is very likely that Uriah’s family had continued their military tradition and Hittite identity in the intervening years. His name means YHWH is light, so it is highly unlikely that Uriah was some kind of foreign mercenary. The worship of YHWH was restricted to the Judean highlands.
Do a quick search and you will discover that the Hittites are intertwined with the history of the Judean highlands.
- Abraham purchased his family gravesite from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 49).
- The Hittites are said to dwell in the mountains with the Amorites and Jebusites (Numbers 13:29, Joshua 11:3).
- Judges notes that the Hittites remained in the land when the Hebrews moved in (Judges 3:5).
- David has at least one other Hittite in his retinue (1 Samuel 26:6).
The presence of the Hittites in the Judean highlands and the fact that David seemed to associate with them lends to the very real possibility that these Hittites were in fact integrated into the Judean culture. They apparently spoke the same language, worshiped the same god and were considered part of society. Both Uriah and Ahimelech (1 Samuel 26:6) had the king’s confidence.
It is fairly clear that one group of Hittites wound up in the Judean highlands rather than in one of the neo-Hittite kingdoms that popped up after 1180 BCE. At least some of them became a part of the Judean society, although they maintained the title “Hittite” – probably in reference to their military prowess.
It would have actually have been a little odd if David did not have Hittites among his men. They were trained fighters who knew iron, which was something David was introducing during his reign. Men like Ahimelech and Uriah were vital to David’s rise in power.
Think about it. If you’re fighting a bunch of disorganized Canaanites or even opposing Ammonite cities, wouldn’t you want some Hittites helping you?
It is likely that Uriah’s marriage with Bathsheba was part of his compensation for service – a compensation to be claimed later and not presently. The indication of 2 Samuel 11 is actually that she was very young and had just gone through her first ritual purification, which means she was probably no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. Uriah had not had an opportunity to consummate his marriage with her, which is why David was in such a hurry to get him to do so. Otherwise, the Hittite contingent of his army would probably turn on him.
Everyone assumes David wanted to cover his sin because he did not want to get caught. I think it more likely that David knew his impropriety would prompt the Hittites to join his enemies and he would lose the advantage they gave him. David was no idiot.