The Heavenly Temple, Seeing God and New Forms of Religion after 586 BCE.

Gustave Doré’s illustration for Dante’s Paradiso–note the eye-like shape of heaven and the wheels of angels, evocative of Ezekiel 1

There is a very old idea that the gods and their places of worship were so different from us that that they could generate not only awe but confusion, disorientation, or even terror. One of the earliest pieces of religious literature ever discovered, the Sumerian Kesh Temple Hymn, contains the line:

Approach, O Mortal–do not approach!

What we will see here is that early Jewish traditions were even broader and more varied than what we can see in the Bible, and their sources weren’t just the Bible but also the cultures around them. Looking more closely at these visions of God’s realm and where they came from can put us in touch with a four-thousand year-old religious tradition that helps explain key elements of both Jewish and Christian mysticism, which would otherwise be invisible to us.

What Does God Look Like? Divine Visions before the Exile

In the Hebrew Bible, God certainly has a great deal of disorienting otherness about him, whether in creating the world and humanity with a few mere sentences or breathing his own air into wet clay to make us, then cursing that clay and us with his words. Yet when the early prophets see God, they do not give much detail about what they are seeing–neither the divine being nor the appearance of his dwelling place. When the Lord himself appears to the early prophet Amos (c. 760 BCE), Amos is more concerned with understanding the meaning of a riddle God tells than remarking on His appearance:

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.”

–Amos 7:7-8

Other prophets see differently: a couple of decades later (c. 740 BCE) Isaiah has his vision of God enthroned in a temple that may be earthly or heavenly. Here we learn exactly one thing about God: he is gigantic.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple.

–Isaiah 6:1

We are told nothing of His face here but reckoning the Temple at 20 cubits (perhaps 30 feet) wide, this might put God at a towering 30 or 40 feet tall.

Moses himself is said to regularly see God in person in the non-Priestly tradition (called E, or Elohistic because of its preference for using the divine name Elohim) on which Deuteronomy bases most of its account:

The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another. — Exodus 33:11

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew personally, face to face –Deuteronomy 34:10

Yet immediately after the E account, Moses asks to see God’s presence and is told that nobody can do that. In the J (Yahwistic) account Moses begs:

“Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Yahweh, and the favor that I grant and the compassion that I show. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for humanity may not see Me and live.” — Exodus 33:18-20

We do not find out whether this is a gesture of respect (you can’t look directly at the king, either) or because God’s appearance is too much for a human to bear: as the poet Rilke later wrote, he would be ‘annihilated in that stronger presence.’

Later in history, toward the very end of the kingdom of Judah around 593 BCE, we finally find a prophet’s detailed description of God. Ezekiel reports his vision of God in great detail, but now with a certain anxiety about his own perception. He speaks–as a student in my Bible class put it–as if this is something he’s never seen before. And while he is certain that he is encountering God, he seems worried about describing what he sees correctly, or describing it at all. In total contrast to Amos or Isaiah, Ezekiel has no confidence that he can really describe what he sees, so every single description is hedged with “appearance like” or “the semblance of,” culminating in a very disoriented-sounding claim to have seen what the Lord’s material presence (Hebrew Kavod) is like.

Above the expanse over [the angels’] heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form. 27 From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of amber—what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord.

–Ezekiel 1:26-28.

Unlike Moses, Ezekiel sees God, or at least his material presence, and lives, but seems shaken.

Centuries later, by the time of the early Jewish mystical Hekhalot literature, the writers are equally confident that a direct vision of God would destroy you in specific, gruesome terms:

…And no eyes of any being are able to gaze at Him, neither eyes of flesh and blood nor the eyes of His attendants. And the one who gazes at Him and peers at and sees Him—flashing seizes his eyeballs, and his eyeballs discharge and bring forth torches of fire, scorching and burning him. And the fire that goes forth from the man who gazes burns him and scorches him. For what reason? Because of the likeness of the eyes of the robe of [the mystical name of the] God of Israel, who is garlanded and comes down to sit on the throne of glory.

His beauty is pleasant and sweet, like the appearance of the beauty of the splendor of the adornment of the eyes of the likeness of the holy living creatures, according to the word that is said, “Holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3).

The Rejection of the Earthly Temple in Favor of the Heavenly Temple

Why these increasingly psychedelic and magnificent visions? Are they dreamt in compensation for the loss of a real temple or was the heavenly temple somehow always there, even before the earthly one? Readers of the Bible familiar with history know that the earthly temple is doomed from the start, but this does not make it any less important. The Bible describes the Jerusalem temple in great detail: first, most of the second half of Exodus is devoted to a lush (and to us, probably over-elaborate) description of the Priestly Tabernacle. While this scene is set on Mt. Sinai, it is clear from the careful ritual laws described for it in Leviticus that this is the model of the Temple that is going to be built in Jerusalem. Then, in the book of Kings, God appears to Solomon and tells him it is time to finally build a real one. Its luxurious construction and final ritual consecration is described as intertwined with the fate of the kingdom of Judah and the Davidic Dynasty itself from 1 Kings 5:15 to 9:9.

The tragedy of the first temple’s destruction happens in tandem with the destruction of Jerusalem and the doom of the kingdom of Judah. It is described in 2 Kings 24-25. The terrible human impact of this defeat is reflected in the book of Lamentations. After this Judahite history becomes rather vague and blurry for about a century. It is probably no coincidence that this history starts again with the saga of the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. After this holy place, known as the Second Temple, is revived it stands for almost 500 more years before its final destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, detailed in both the Gospels and early Jewish literature.

But there were some like Ezekiel and the Dead Sea Scrolls community who thought the Temple was already a lost cause even when it still stood. Even in exile, Ezekiel 8 describes a supernatural vision of horror and corruption in the Jerusalem temple around 592 BCE, leading God himself to remark:

“Mortal, do you see what they are doing, the terrible abominations that the House of Israel is practicing here, to drive Me far from My Sanctuary?”

Here it is hard to separate what is accurate historical description and what is Ezekiel’s passionate opinion. After all, this is a particularly fierce and strict prophet who thought the Temple had been defiled almost from the beginning due to the traditional Davidic practice of burying kings near it.

It is Ezekiel’s alienation from the Temple that makes possible his magnificent vision of a mobile, heavenly throne for God. While Isaiah sees God enthroned inside, contained in a room, Ezekiel sees him enthroned atop the sky itself. Rather than being stuck in a defiled place, Ezekiel 1-2 describes his throne as a chariot surrounded by a rainbown and composed of four-faced living creatures, each with the features of an ox, a lion, a man, and an eagle. In language that can still boggle the reader’s imagination almost as much as it boggled Ezekiel’s, it describes the animated, seeing wheels of the chariot:

As I gazed on the creatures, I saw one wheel on the ground next to each of the four-faced creatures. As for the appearance and structure of the wheels, they gleamed like beryl. All four had the same form; the appearance and structure of each was as of two wheels cutting through each other. And when they moved, each could move in the direction of any of its four quarters; they did not veer when they moved. Their rims were tall and frightening, for the rims of all four were covered all over with eyes.

–Ezekiel 1:15-18

This terrifying, psychedelic shrine, Ezekiel implies, was always God’s real abode.

And after the destruction of the Second Temple, this is this vision that is built on in the Book of Revelation. Chapter 4 describes a vision that recombines the rainbow, animals, and eyes of Ezekiel with the prayer Isaiah hears in heaven:

…there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald... and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and back: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

“Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come.”

Was the Rejection of the Earthly Temple Just Sour Grapes for Exiles Who Couldn’t Visit It, or Was there Something More?

In fact the very first vision of a temple in the Bible is not an earthly one at all but God’s own. It appears when the elders are invited to meet God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:9-10) as part of accepting the covenant, immediately after the first set of laws (the Covenant Code) is given:

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended. And they saw the God of Israel, and beneath his feet was something like a brickwork of lapis lazuli, (kemaˤaśê libnat hassappîr) like the very heavens in purity.”

For Moses and the elders, you can visit God while you’re still alive, but you don’t need to travel to heaven. It’s accessible from our physical world on top of a mountain, because Sinai connects this world with another one–at least for some.

What makes this vision of meeting God especially interesting is the description of his temple’s floor: it is like brickwork, a high-status building material in the more ancient religious texts of the Near East, but a low-class one for human temples in the Bible. While in historical reality it was still a common building material in Iron Age Syria-Palestine, in the Hebrew Bible brick is depicted as a shoddy, low-budget building material. The Tower of Babel story makes fun of the builders for their cheap, Mesopotamian-style construction work (Gen 11:3). Meanwhile not one brick is used in the Bible’s depiction of the Temple, the Tabernacle, or Solomon’s palace.

This early vision of a heavenly temple was more than just the writers’ own contemporary real-life Temple projected onto heaven, because it was made of materials they would never have imagined in the real Jerusalem temple–brick, not wood or stone.

It turns out that God’s throne in Exodus 24 resembles some of the most ancient visions of divine temples, dating to at least 500 or 1000 years before the text of Exodus was written down. Mark Smith (1987) pointed out this shared imagery between early Canaanite imagery and some biblical and apocalyptic images of heaven. Already in the Canaanite Baal epic (around 1250 BCE), when the storm-god Baal begins construction on his temple, he order the builder to use lapis lazuli, a blue precious stone whose glow resembles sapphire :

wbn.bht.ksp.wḫrṣ Build the house with silver and gold,
bht.ṭhrm.iqnim The house of pure lapis lazuli! [Baal Epic KTU 1.4 V 18-19, 33-5]

When it comes time to actually build, the house is burnt, a process that transforms the precious metals into bricks, like in Exodus 24:

sb.ksp.lrqm The silver had turned to building material ,
ḫrṣ/nsb.llbnt The gold had become bricks
šmḫ/aliyn.bˤl Mightiest Baal rejoices:
[b]hty.bnt/dt.ksp. “My house I have built of silver,
hkly[.]dtm/ḫrṣ My palace of gold.” [Baal Epic KTU 1.4 VI 34-8]

Like God’s throne, Baal’s temple is made of bricks and shining blue stone. But even then, this vision was ancient. What was Baal’s real-life temple at Ugarit, the one his worshipers would have encountered, actually made of? Not brick! Archaeologists found that its temple walls, preserved in several places, are made of large, well-cut stones, carefully assembled on massive stone foundations. Stone was the prestige material of construction in the West Semitic world, as the stonework of the Jerusalem Temple and the jibe at mudbrick construction in Genesis suggest. But it leads to a surprising observation: by contrast with Baal’s real-life temple, his mythic temple in the Baal epic, as well as God’s palace in Exodus, is already archaic.

In other words, the heavenly temple is not simply modeled on the earthly one, either in Exodus or Canaanite myth. Instead, the tradition in the Baal epic is so ancient that it was already out of date at Ugarit, and reflects older mythological conceptions as well as traditions from earlier realities. This tradition finds a closer fit with accounts that are a thousand years older. For around 2100 BCE the Sumerian king Gudea also had a heavenly vision of a temple, that he describes as guiding his real-life temple. Like Baal, Gudea burns the area where he is building, and molds bricks (Gudea Cylinder B). But unlike Baal, Gudea’s gods were actually worshipped in brick temples.

And this tradition of visualizing God’s realm persists into early Judaism and Christianity. If the lack of fit between the temple materials of Baal’s textual and physical throne is significant, the distance between the brickwork of Exodus 24 and the materials of the Jerusalem Temple is a striking recurrence of the same phenomenon. By the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls it is already 2,000 years old. The phenomenon reaches its extreme in the following text from the Scrolls’ Sabbath liturgy, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice:

The pi[ece]work of the wondrous firmament is brightly mixed (mmwlḥ ṭwhr)…[im]ages of the living God, images of bright spirits. All their workmanship is of holy, wondrous joining, [spirits (formed of)] piecework, figures of the shapes of angels engraved around their glorious bricks (llbny [k]bwdm), glorious images (formed of) splendid and awesome b[rick]work (lmˤśy l[bn]y hwd whd[r ]). Their construction is all of the living God/living divine beings and the appearance of their figures is (that of) holy angels.**

An alternative vision of the Heavenly Throneroom from The Brick Testament, h/t my student Christine Le

This text shows a deep fascination with seeing and encountering the physical construction of the heavenly temple: if our previous texts narrate heavenly architecture, this passage detonates it. And its imagery is not simply copied from one Biblical text or another.* Instead, the words appear in phrases unparalleled in the Bible. Indeed, one reason for the difficulty in interpreting this passage as a whole is that it appears to have a set of idioms and a technical vocabulary with which we were previously unfamiliar.

Visualizing the Heavenly Temple: A Four Thousand Year Old Tradition

This combination of ancient architectural concerns, which seem in some way to bypass those of the Bible, with a pervasive concern with the number seven as a physical structuring principle, suggests that we have found essential elements in the Dead Sea Scrolls liturgy which can neither be derived from Biblical interpretation nor imagined as springing full-blown out of the minds of the Qumran sectarians. The entire body of liturgical and poetic material in the Hebrew Bible shows almost no interest in the appearance or features of the Temple. From a strictly formal point of view, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice’s closest relatives are not in the Bible but in the ancient Sumerian Kesh Temple hymn and the later Hekhalot literature.

The most plausible explanation of these literary patterns is that there was a set of poetic techniques transmitted among Judean circles who were not only speculatively interested in but also ritually committed to the visualization and worship of a heavenly temple. The archaism of elements of these texts and their partial independence from biblical language and views suggests that they continue liturgical traditions not well represented in the Bible and not necessarily directed towards or performed in the Jerusalem Temple. The archaeology of worship in ancient Israel demonstrates there had to be liturgies outside of Jerusalem, and our Hellenistic materials may represent their descendants.

This suggests a new explanation for the apparent explosion of interest in heavenly temples in Jewish apocalyptic: these apparently new materials build on an ancient and shared hymnic tradition barely attested in the Bible. Temples outside of Jerusalem provide a possible physical and ritual context for the use of these hymns. We are thus able to document not only in the ancient Near East but within early Jewish tradition itself a stream of Israelite religion only dimly hinted at in the Hebrew Bible.


*. If the relation to I Kings 19 is exegetical, the use of two words from Exodus 24:10 ṭwhr and lbnt, is not, since they are not used in a similar way or associated with each other (thus failing Fishbane’s criteria for exegetical reuse).

** 4Q405 19 a,b,c,d 3-7


Job’s Challenge to God’s Legal System

The Book of Job contains some of the Bible’s deepest arguments about the nature of God, good, and evil. It puts these arguments in the form of artful, high-voltage poetry, using such intense and elevated language that it can read more like an ancient hymn or a ritual incantation. Yet there is a tight logic underneath the mystical-looking words.

Edward Greenstein, one of the greatest scholars of ancient Hebrew, has probably looked the longest and deepest into Job’s language and ideas. And probably the biggest advance in the 21st century for English readers who want to understand Job is that Greenstein has published a clear and fairly short book translating and summarizing Job’s poetry and arguments. This book (compared with some other commentaries and translations) has served as my main guide to understanding Job, and here I bring out one of the main points.

Greenstein explains Job’s own concluding speech (Job 42:1-6) as an act of defiance: he refuses to give up in defeat in the face of God’s infinitely superior power and knowledge (after all, as a famously pious wise man, wouldn’t Job already know God was super duper strong, super duper smart etc.?). Instead, Greenstein explains his speech this way:

“Job understands the deity to be exactly as he had feared: a purveyor of power who cares little for people. Parodying the divine discourse through mimicry, Job expresses disdain toward the deity and pity toward humankind (and not acquiescence, as has been generally thought…).”

Rather than Job sitting down and shutting up (for example the JPS translation renders his last line as “Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes”) Greenstein renders it thus:

“42:1 Up spoke Job to YHWH and he said:
I have known you are able to do all;
That you cannot be blocked from any scheme.

(that is, I already knew you were God, thanks)
“Who is this hiding counsel without knowledge?”
Truly I’ve spoken without comprehending—
Wonders beyond me that I do not know.

“Hear now and I will speak!
I will ask you, and you help me know!”

(Look at where Greenstein places the quotation marks, which for ancient Hebrew all readers must figure out for themselves since the original text did not use punctuation. Job is quoting God’s own intellectual bullying back at him, verbatim. The implication is sarcastic: “You’re so right, only an absolute idiot would be stupid enough to challenge you!-except you haven’t actually answered any of my arguments”)

[Previously I have only heard what other people say about you, but now I have direct experience of You, and]

That is why I am fed up;
I take pity on “dust and ashes!”

(In other words, now that I’ve talked with You face to face and learned your real attitude, I just feel sorry for the ones we call “dust and ashes,” that is, all of humanity (this is what the phrase means elsewhere in the Bible, see Genesis 18:27 and Job 30:19))

While nobody can actually beat God in a fight, unlike even the fearsome Leviathan, Job refuses to concede defeat.

Why such a harsh conclusion?

Remember the plot: After God causes Job the worst suffering imaginable, which we are clearly shown in chapter 2 is not because of anything Job himself did wrong, but because of a bet God makes with his court prosecutor (later, our “Satan”), Job initially just accepts it. What actually pushes Job over the edge is his friends, supposedly wise men, who endlessly pester him with stereotypical, traditional ideas of perfect divine justice. These long-winded, self-righteous statements about how everything is actually completely fair and just bother Job. But the final straw is when Bildad goes so far as to cruelly and ignorantly claim that this includes the death of Job’s own children (which chapter 1 has already clearly showed us is not their fault). No, Bildad confidently tells their grief-stricken father, your kids must have deserved it! (Job 8:4)

At this point Job can’t take any more of what strikes him as an unconscionably fake picture of the universe being pushed in his face, and officially charges God with injustice. Even though he knows that, as Eliphaz rather insultingly reminds him, God isn’t going to answer:

Call now! Will anyone answer you?

To whom among the holy beings will you turn? (Job 5:1).

Here the poetry of Job, imagining whether anyone in heaven would literally answer your prayers, has inspired stunning poetic responses. The German poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote in reply:

If I called out, who among the angelic orders would answer me?

And even if one suddenly appeared and pressed me to his heart, I would be extinguished in that stronger existence.

For beauty is just the beginning of terror that we are still able to bear,

And we are in such awe of it because it serenely disdains to annihilate us

(Duino Elegy 1)

The big plot twist here, of course, is that God does suddenly appear, and replies in detail!

The question is whether God’s beautiful and awe-inspiring speech actually answers Job’s charges. Since he lays out the legal case in Job 9-10, I will summarize it here and let you decide for yourself.

Job’s claim is that there cannot be justice in a world ruled by an all-powerful and all-knowing God, because if God were to act unjustly there is no possible remedy. God owns the entire justice system because he is not only the defendant (the person charged with wrongdoing, who would have to persuade the judge that he is not guilty) but also the judge himself.

2 Man cannot win a suit against God.

3           If he insisted on a trial with Him,

            He would not answer one charge in a thousand.

4           Wise of heart and mighty in power—

            Who ever challenged Him and came out whole?—

God is so unimaginably powerful that nobody could make him do anything:

Who commands the sun not to shine;

            Who seals up the stars;

8           Who by Himself spread out the heavens,

            And trod on the back of the sea;

He is also by definition so smart you could not win an argument with him:

How then can I answer Him,

            Or choose my arguments against Him?

15          Though I were in the right, I could not speak out,

            But I would plead for mercy with my judge.

16          If I summoned Him and He responded,

            I do not believe He would lend me His ear.

If a trial of strength—He is the strong one;

            If a trial in court—who will summon Him for me?

20          Though I were innocent,

            My mouth would condemn me;

            Though I were blameless, He would prove me crooked.

This all leads to a world where there cannot possibly be justice:

24          The earth is handed over to the wicked one;

            He covers the eyes of its judges.

            If it is not He, then who?

32          He is not a man, like me, that I can answer Him,

            That we can go to law together.

33          No arbiter is between us

            To lay his hand on us both.

So not only is God both accused and the one who judges the case, but, in addition to being accused of improper use of force, God is also the police, the executioner, and the bailiff (the official whose job it is to make the accused person appear and testify if he does not want to). To be fair, in Job 38-41 God redirects the argument to something truly amazing. But to what extent does it answer Job’s charges?


Dispelling the Darkness around the Bandit King

Was King David a self-serving mercenary usurper or the innocent favorite of Yahweh?

In the Hebrew Bible, the story of the rise of king David is one of epic victory shadowed by darkness. A series of tragic deaths all seem to benefit David: from that of the rich man Nabal, whose beautiful wife ended up with David (1 Sam 25), to king Saul, whose royal daughter ended up with David (1 Sam 18) and the death of all of Saul’s heirs from Jonathan to Ishbosheth to Saul’s commander Abner. Yet, the text keeps on emphasizing, David is never responsible. Rather, the book of Samuel seems to insist, David rose due to his humility and talent, and God chose to aid his chosen king.

And yet…some ancient Israelites of David’s own time were rather suspicious of David–so much so that after he had established his power, a rebellion led by his son Absalom comes within an inch of defeating him, and then another rebellion immediately follows after it. Finally, immediately on the death of David’s son Solomon, the kingdom he built splits in two, never to be reunited. Some never forgave him for consolidating the tribes of Israel, feeling exploited by his kingdom’s assertion of control.

Now, by the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the figure of the controversial warrior King David had been totally reinterpreted into a purely scholarly and intellectual figure. He is described in the Qumran Psalms Scroll as

a “wise man and a scribe,” spiritually “luminous as the light of the sun.”

Similarly Acts 13 describes David as someone inexplicably chosen by God to succeed, replacing Saul as King, and found the lineage that leads up to Jesus:

21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. 22 When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ 23 Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised…

But these are much later interpretations, for by this time king David had been dead for a thousand years. When we go back earlier, we find the Bible curiously divided over his reputation, even containing attempts at what looks like Public Relations “damage control.” What was the damage that led to such conflicting views of David, and how historically real was the darkness around him? There are a number of great full-length books* about this issue, but there’s no good 10-minute summary.

Satan and the Census: Chronicles’ Early Reinterpretation of David

Some 400 years before Qumran and the New Testament, the Book of Chronicles rewrote history to lessen the blame on David for a puzzling act of misconduct that enraged God himself. In the earlier, presumably more original history of David and Israel (1-2 Samuel, written down by around 700 BCE from earlier sources), the Lord becomes mysteriously angry at Israel and incites David. But in the the rewritten version it is the ancient Hebrews’ heavenly prosecutor who incites David (Hebrew śāṭān,God’s attorney, later understood as God’s enemy Satan). And while in the original, David simply feels remorse for what he did, with no external cause, in the rewritten Chronicles version it is because his census immediately causes God to attack Israel.

Important original lines are in italics, changes in bold

2 Samuel 24: David’s census1 Chronicles 21: David’s census
1 The anger of the LORD again flared up against Israel; and He incited David against them, saying, “Go and number Israel and Judah.” 2 The king said to Joab, chis army commander, “Make the rounds of all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know the size of the population.” 3 Joab answered the king, “May the LORD your God increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while your own eyes see it! But why should my lord king want this?” 4 However, the king’s command to Joab and to the officers of the army remained firm; and Joab and the officers of the army set out, at the instance of the king, to take a census of the people of Israel….8 They traversed the whole country, and then they came back to Jerusalem…

9 Joab reported to the king the number of the people that had been recorded: in Israel there were 800,000 soldiers ready to draw the sword, and the men of Judah numbered 500,000.

10    But afterward David reproached himself for having numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, “I have sinned grievously in what I have done. Please, O LORD, remit the guilt of Your servant, for I have acted foolishly.” 11 When David rose in the morning, the word of the LORD had come to the prophet Gad, David’s seer: 12 “Go and tell David, ‘Thus said the LORD: I hold three things over you; choose one of them, and I will bring it upon you….

1 Satan (Hebrew śāṭān, “the prosecutor/adversary”) arose against Israel and incited David to number Israel. 2 David said to Joab and to the commanders of the army, “Go and count Israel from Beer-sheba to Dan and bring me information as to their number.” 3 Joab answered, “May the LORD increase His people a hundredfold; my lord king, are they not all subjects of my lord? Why should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?” 4 However, the king’s command to Joab remained firm, so Joab set out and traversed all Israel; he then came to Jerusalem.

5 Joab reported to David the number of the people that had been recorded. All Israel comprised 1,100,000 ready to draw the sword, while in Judah there were 470,000 men ready to draw the sword. 6 He did not record among them Levi and Benjamin, because the king’s command had become repugnant to Joab.

7 God was displeased about this matter and He struck Israel.
1Chr. 21:8    David said to God, “I have sinned grievously in having done this thing; please remit the guilt of Your servant, for I have acted foolishly.” 9 The LORD ordered Gad, David’s seer: 10 “Go and tell David: Thus said the LORD: I offer you three things; choose one of them and I will bring it upon you…

For a deep look at how Chronicles reinterprets David, see Ralph Klein’s David: Sinner and Saint in Samuel and Chronicles.

But God’s anger may be a sign of the real issue: a tribal resistance to a kingdom’s political control. What’s so bad about a census? It turns out that this goes to the heart of the Israelite problem with kings. Because the census is here not a way of seeing who might need what social services, a tool for better government, but a tool for military enlistment: “in Israel there were 800,000 soldiers ready to draw the sword.” In other words, a census is a way of demanding people’s lives, that their military-age men fight for you. And so even as far back as the tribal society of Old Babylonian Mari, the Benjaminite tribes of ancient Syria were leery of a royal census. A letter from the king Samsi-Adad forbids it, it is a sign of betraying nomadic loyalties and saying that instead, the tribal headmen will make sure their own men show up to fight:

You wrote to me about taking a census of the Benjaminites. It is not a good idea to take a census of the Benjaminites. If you take their census, their kin, the Rabbû who live across the river …will hear (about it) and become provoked at them, so that they cannot return to their land. You must not take their census at all. (ARM 1 6:6-13, translation after Fleming)

What Did David Have to Apologize For?

Did the original controversy around David’s rise have its roots in tribal loyalty, or does it go even deeper? The Hebrew Bible scholar Kyle McCarter, author of a classic in-depth commentary on the books of Samuel, lays out what a number of historians see at its root in his “The Apology of David.” Journal of Biblical Literature 99, (1980): 489–504.

First, it’s important to see the story’s big picture. The history of David’s rise has two parts that show two different, contrasting attitudes toward kinship: 1 Samuel 1-15 “was composed from a prophetic perspective that was suspicious of monarchy in any form, committed to an ideal of prophetically-mediated divine selection of leaders, and thus opposed to hereditary succession” This problem with nepotism doesn’t stop at kings but extends to prophets too: remember that Samuel is picked out as a prophet in the first place because the prophetic office of Eli had become corrupt, with swinish sons who embezzled the offerings. This prophetic viewpoint “is represented in 1 Samuel by the story of Samuel’s career as a prophet in chaps. 1-7, which incorporates older material (especially the ark narrative), and the account of the inauguration of the monarchy in chaps. 8-15, which also incorporates older material.”

But the history of David’s rise in 1 Samuel 16-2 Samuel 5, as well as the promise to David in 2 Sam 7 has a very different point of view on kingship. It… “is a narrative that promulgates a political point of view supported by theological interpretation.” It argues–often by means of private conversations that might be hard to check up on–that David was politically blameless. And theologically, it argues that God’s hand was behind every extraordinary piece of luck in David’s rise to power. As we will see, the tone here resembles a well known kind of ancient narrative, the Royal Apology. the purpose of which is to justify the actions of a king to his current audience. In other words, it suggests at once that the story probably goes back to David’s time because it’s something that only an audience of his time would be worried about, but also that in the way it argues a little bit too hard for that audience, it might be covering something up.

A classic early study** argued that politically, the story takes pains to show that absolutely everyone, from northern tribes to royal rivals, either loved David or were demonically possessed. The goal was “to show by a careful presentation of the events of the early part of David’s career that his succession to Saul’s throne was lawful. There is particular emphasis, … on the legitimacy of the Davidic claim to the kingship of all Israel, north as well as south. Thus David, though a Judahite by birth, is shown to have been a favorite member of the court of the Benjaminite king; indeed he is presented us as the successful suitor of the king’s daughter (1 Sam 18:20-27) and the popularly acknowledged leader of the armies of both Israel a Judah (1 Sam 18:16). From this position, we are told, he eventual rose up to displace his father-in-law as king, and the intervening episodes as set forth in the narrative give no warrant for casting any blame upon David for the dark events that attended the transfer of power, including his estrangement from Saul, Saul’s death, and the deaths of Jonathan and Ishbaal, the sons of Saul who might have stood in his way; David was even innocent” in the affair that led to the assassination of Abner, Saul’s smartest and most ruthless general–and therefore one of the last possible threats to David. “In the end the northern tribes proclaimed him king as willingly and enthusiastically as Judah had earlier (2 Sam 5:3 cf. 2:4).” David, in other words, was pretty much universally loved and did everything by the book.

A second study argued that theologically–contrary to God’s total condemnation of kingship in 1 Sam 8 and 12– this kingship was absolutely God’s plan:*** “it is made completely clear in the narrative that the transfer of the throne from David to Saul was in accordance with the will of Yahweh. David is presented as a man generously blessed with divine favor, Saul as a man rejected by his god. Indeed the [theme] of the entire history is the assertion “Yahweh was with David,” which appears first in 1 Sam 16:18 and is repeated often thereafter, while the corresponding assessment of Saul’s situation is the narrator’s introductory remark to the effect that “the spirit of Yahw departed from Saul” in 1 Sam 16:14. The importance of the contrasting dispostion of Yahweh toward the two antagonists is demonstrated subtly but unmistakably by the development of the story itself. David succeeds in everything he undertakes (cf. 1 Sam 26:25), and even things he does with no intention of personal gain often work to improve his situation. On the other hand Saul’s undertakings, especially his plots against David’s life, seem to be not only unsuccessful but cursed with a dark irony, frequently resulting in further success for David and further grief for Saul himself.”

Apparently Sketchy But Ultimately Blameless

To get a flavor of this story’s apparently-sketchy-but-ultimately-blameless picture of David, we can take a quick look at how David got his beautiful second wife. In 1 Sam 25 we find out about a very rich man named Nabal (“fool” in Hebrew!) with a wife named Abigail and “The woman was intelligent and beautiful, but the man..was a hard man and an evildoer.”

David is hanging out in the wilderness with a large group of armed men–about 600–when he sends Nabal this friendly message: “Greetings to you and to your household and to all that is yours! 7 I hear that you are now doing your shearing. As you know, your shepherds have been with us; we did not harm them, and nothing of theirs was missing all the time they were in Carmel. 8 … So receive these young men graciously, for we have come on a festive occasion. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can.’”

In other words, you’re lucky our guys were there to protect your shepherds, in fact we didn’t kill them or even steal anything from them–you should be grateful! We will accept payment from you as a sign of gratitude. In the 20th century (and lots of old Mafia movies) this was known as a protection racket.

But Nabal wasn’t having it, answering rudely:

“Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many slaves nowadays who run away from their masters. 11 Should I then take my bread and my water, and the meat that I slaughtered for my own shearers, and give them to men who come from I don’t know where?” 12 Thereupon David’s young men retraced their steps; and when they got back, they told him all this.

13 And David said to his men, “Gird on your swords.” Each girded on his sword; David too girded on his sword. About four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.

Unlike Nabal, Abigail understands the direction this is headed and picks the winning side, arranging a secret meeting with David.

1Sam. 25:18 Abigail quickly got together two hundred loaves of bread, two jars of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of parched corn, one hundred cakes of raisin, and two hundred cakes of pressed figs. She loaded them on asses, 19 and she told her young men, “Go on ahead of me, and I’ll follow you”; but she did not tell her husband Nabal….

This turns out to be a good idea because behind David’s nice guy image is someone who seems pretty comfortable murdering anyone who doesn’t pay him for protection.

21 Now David had been saying, “It was all for nothing that I protected that fellow’s possessions in the wilderness, and that nothing he owned is missing. He has paid me back evil for good. 22 May God strike me down if I haven’t killed everyone who pisses standing up (Hebrew: “who urinates against the wall”) by tomorrow morning!

Abigail is quick to sell her husband out, saying that his name, Nabal or “fool,” is an apt description of him and that she understands that he is doomed.

26 I swear, my lord, as the LORD lives and as you live—the LORD who has kept you from seeking redress by blood with your own hands—let your enemies and all who would harm my lord fare like Nabal! 27 Here is the present which your maidservant has brought to my lord; let it be given to the young men who are the followers of my lord. 28 Please pardon your maid’s boldness. For the LORD will grant my lord an enduring house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD, and no wrong is ever to be found in you.

David accepts her plea, and her loyalty. Abigail then waits til her husband wakes up from a drunken stupor the next morning and sweetly informs him of what’s in store for him.

37 The next morning, when Nabal had slept off the wine, his wife told him everything that had happened; and his courage died within him, and he became like a stone. 38 About ten days later the LORD struck Nabal and he died. 39 When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Praised be the LORD who championed my cause against the insults of Nabal and held back His servant from wrongdoing; the LORD has brought Nabal’s wrongdoing down on his own head.”

The story ends happily when David proposes marriage to Nabal’s grief-stricken widow, who immediately agrees! A classic boy-meets-girl, girl’s husband dies mysteriously 10 days after being told that the 600 armed men on his property have it in for him, boy-marries-girl romance. The only problem is that David already had two wives.

1Sam. 25:43 Now David had taken Ahinoam of Jezreel; so both of them became his wives. 44 Saul had given his daughter Michal, David’s wife, to Palti son of Laish from Gallim.

Now, it so happens that there were a number of ancient Near Eastern royal histories like this, emphasizing a king’s remarkable rise from total underdog to total victory and total blamelessness. They are known as Royal Apologies and “composed for a king who usurped the throne… in order to defend or justify his assumption of the kingship by force.”

From Mercenary to Messiah: How an Ancient Royal Apology Worked

Of the surviving examples of Hittite apology, one, the 13th-century “Apology of Hattushilish III” is especially interesting here, “It tells the story of the early career of Hattushilish and his rise to power, describing his rebellion against his nephew and predecessor, Urhi-teshub.” McCarter summarizes it thus:

Hattushilish, after identifying himself and citing his royal lineage
(1:1-4), begins his apology with an introductory acknowledgment of the decisive role of the goddess Ishtar in what is to follow…: “I tell Ishtar’s power; let mankind hear it” (1:5). As the youngest child of Murshilish (II), he says, he was not expected to live and was assigned to the service of Ishtar; it was in this priestly role that he gained the divine favor that was responsible for his later success (1:9-21). His public career began with the death of his father and accession of Muwattallish, his brother, who appointed him to a high office and gave him the Upper Country, the northern part of the Hittite homeland, to rule (1:22-26). This early success provoked jealousy, especially on the part of a certain Armadattash, the previous ruler of the Upper Country, and malicious charges were made against him, eventually reaching the ears of Muwattallish (1:27-35). The crisis passed, however, when Muwattallish learned the truth of the matter (cf. 1:6-63), Hattushilish himself being sustained throughout the affair by Ishtar…

Safely back in the good opinion of his brother, Hattushilish enjoyed
success after success. He was now the chief military officer of the Hittites, building up a record of victories abroad while efficiently protecting the homeland from invasion (1:64-72). When Muwattallish retired to the Lower Country, a series of major rebellions and invasions began in the Upper Country, but Hattushilish, who was left in sole charge, thwarted them all (1:75-2:47), in each case, he says, with Ishtar’s help (2:24, 37, 45). He was appointed “king” or viceroy a number of Hittite principalities (2:48-68), whose troops he led battle alongside Muwattallish (2:69-72). He further consolidated position at this time by a politically advantageous marriage to priestess of Ishtar (3:1-4) and by a final legal victory over his old rival Armadattash (2:74-78; 3:14-27).

The critical series of events in Hattushilish’s rise to power began with his brother’s death. Muwattallish died without “a legitimate son,” as Hattushilish puts it, and was succeeded by Urhi-teshub, the son of a concubine. Hattushilish stresses his own restraint: “I… firm in my respect for my brother, did not act selfishly” (3:38). He took his nephew’s cause upon himself, he says, and installed him as great king of the Hittites, …keeping for himself only those territories that had been lawfully assigned him the past (3:38-45). Urhi-teshub, however, did not respond in kind. He was jealous of the favor of Ishtar, we are told, and soon deprived his uncle of all his possessions except a small home base (3:54-60). “…firm in (my) respect for my brother,” says Hattushilish, “I did not act selfishly. And for seven years I submitted” (3:61-62). But final when Urhi-teshub took away his remaining dominions and… “tried to destroy me” (3:63), he could submit no longer and declared war. There is great emphasis placed upon the fact that this was no furtive palace rebellion: it was an openly declared contest, an ordeal at arms, which would decide by its outcome whose cause was just (3:65-72). Ishtar, who “had even before this been promising the kingship” (4:7), marched with Hattushilish once again, and Urhi teshub was defeated, captured, and banished (4:7-35)….”

First, the ability of Hattushilish to rule is shown by reference to his various administrative accomplishments and military successes. Second, it is made clear that he was the favorite of his brother, Murshilish, and his viceregent in the rule of the Hittite dominions. Third, he is shown never to have acted out of self-interest though presented with frequent opportunity to advance his own cause, but instead to have conducted himself accordance with a deep respect for his brother. Fourth, he is exonerated from all blame in the incessant personal conflict that attended his rise to power, and the source of the antagonism is shown to have been the jealousy of his rivals, especial Armadattash, and the groundless suspicions of Urhi-teshub. Finally, as already mentioned, the decisive factor in his ascent at every stage shown to have been the effective power of Ishtar’s favor, by which he was protected from every danger (“Ishtar always rescued me” [1:4 etc.]) and given success in all his undertakings.”

It is this pattern of “political self-justification with its accompanying claims for the legitimacy of the usurper, his ability to rule, his moral rectitude, and his divine election” that we can trace in the inscriptions of a number of kings, from Hittite to Persian, And as McCarter argues, this is strikingly parallel to the David story itself.

“David’s ability to rule is illustrated by reference to early military successes, the spontaneous loyalty of the people of Israel and Judah, and the skill and restraint with which he wages the long war with the house of Saul after his accession as king of Judah. Second he is shown to have begun as Saul’s trusted lieutenant and to have the loyalty of the royal family. Third, he is depicted as thoroughly loyal to the king, never seeking out the power that steadily comes to him and indeed refusing at least one opportunity to secure his position by slaying Saul. Fourth, he is shown to have been blameless in all dealings with Saul, whose jealousy and groundless suspicions were responsible for the alienation of David and the conflict that ensued. Finally, it is made clear that David’s rise to power was made possible, indeed inevitable, by the special favor of the god of Israel, “Yahweh is with him” being, as already noted, the leitmotif of the entire composition.

Nevertheless, the charges against which the author of 1 Sam 16-2 Sam 5 is working so hard to defend are easy to recognize in the story of David’s rise. McCarter counts 7:

Charge 1. David sought to advance himself at court at Saul’s expense. The extraordinary attainments of the young Judahite at the Benjaminite court, especially in light of his subsequent fall from favor, might suggest that he acted out of a strong and perhaps unscrupulous self- interest while in Saul’s service. The narrator, however, shows that David came to court at Saul’s behest (1 Sam 16:19-22) and that as long as he was there he was completely loyal and indeed did much to help Saul’s own cause (cf. 1 Sam 19:4-5). He did not seek out his marriage to the princess Michal, the most conspicuous sign of his elevated position, but instead protested his unworthiness of the match (1 Sam 18:23), which was in fact Saul’s idea (vv 20-21a), until persuaded by the insistence of Saul’s courtiers.

Charge 2. David was a deserter. The circumstances of David’s deparure from court might lead to the suspicion that he shirked his responsibilities to Saul and deserted. The narrator of the history of David’s rise, however, takes special pains to show that David was forced to leave in order to save his life (1 Sam 19:9-17) and that he did so reluctantly, having first explored every possibility of remaining. In short, he was driven away from the place of his true loyalties Saul’s hostility (cf. 1 Sam 26:19). Moreover, Saul’s own daughter and his son, the crown prince, saw the rightness of David’s side and aided his escape (1 Sam 19:11-17; 20:1-21:1).

Charge 3. David was an outlaw.” Remember that even in the official story, David is depicted as ruthless enough to have his band of armed men “kill everyone who pisses standing up” overnight if they don’t pay him. It seems as if the fact that David was at one time a bandit leader was too well known to deny. “The narrator is careful to show, however, that David at that time was a fugitive from Saul’s unjust pursuit and that he earnestly sought reconciliation (cf. 1 Sam 26:1 20). Saul even recognized this state of affairs himself in his rare lucid moments (v 21).”

Charge 4. David was a Philistine mercenary. The public knowledge that David had served in the army of a king of the Philistines, Israel’s most hated foe, would certainly have provoked objections. Again this must have been too widely known to be denied. The narrative, however. makes it clear that David was forced into Philistine service as a desperate last resort. “Any day now I might be taken by Saul,” he says to himself in 1 Sam 27:1. “There is nothing better for me than to escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will give up on me and no longer seek me throughout the territory of Israel, for I shall be safely out of his reach.” It is scrupulously shown, moreover, that while he was in the Philistine army, he never led his troops against any Israelite or Judahite city, though he deceived Achish of Gath, his lord, into thinking so (1 Sam 27:8-12). Indeed he took advantage of the power of his position to attack Israel’s enemies and thereby to enrich Judah (1 Sam 30).

Charge 5. David was implicated in Saul’s death. Some must have suspected, if only on the ground of cui bono, that David was involved in the demise of his predecessor, especially since Saul died fighting against the Philistines at a time when David was in the Philistine army. Indeed the forces of Achish were known, it seems, to have participated in the battle of Mount Gilboa (cf. 1 Sam 29:1-2)! Nevertheless, David was not, we are told, with Achish at Gilboa (1 Sam 29:11), and it is subtly but clearly implied that if he had been, he would have fought with Saul rather than against him. In 1 Sam 29:8, having been told by Achish that he must quit the march north, David expresses a wish to “go out and fight against the enemies of my lord, the king.” Though Achish assumes the reference is to him, the irony is not lost on the audience. Elsewhere in the story, moreover, David is shown to ha been fastidious about the sanctity of the person of Saul, the anointe of Yahweh, refusing an opportunity to slay him when it is offered 1 Samuel 26) and strictly punishing the violator of his person (2 Sa 1:14-16).

Charge 6. David was implicated in Abner’s death. Suspicion must have fallen on David in regard to the death of Abner, inasmuch as it was he who set Ishbaal on his father’s throne (2 Sam 2:8-9) and seemed, therefore, to have been the major obstacle to David’s kingship over the northern tribes. The narrative shows, however, that David and Abner had reached an accord before the latter’s death, inasmuch as Abner, having quarreled with Ishbaal (2 Sam 3:7-11), had actually begun to champion David’s cause in the north (vv 17-18) and had offered him the kingship of Israel (v 21a). In particular we are informed three times (!) that after their last interview Abner left David “in peace” (vv 21b, 22, 23). In other words, the narrator means to show us that here as in the previous cases suspicion of David is groundless. Instead Abner died in consequence of a private quarrel with Joab, David’s commander-in-chief (2 Sam 2:12-32; 3:22-30), and David knew nothing, as we are explicitly advised in 2 Sam 3:26b, of the deception that finally cost Abner his life. When he learned of Abner’s death, we are told, David declared, “I and my kingship are innocent before Yahweh forever of the blood of Abner, son of Ner!” (2 Sam 3:28).23 Furthermore, he pronounced a curse upon Joab’s house (v 29) and led the mourning for Abner himself (vv 31-35), much to the approval of the people (v 36). “All the people and all Israel knew at that time,” says our narrator (v 37), “that it had not been the king’s will (k o16′ hayeta mehammelek) to kill Abner, the son of Ner.”

Charge 7. David was implicated in Ishbaal’s death. As in the cases of the deaths of Saul and Abner, David must have been suspected of treachery in the murder of Ishbaal. The narrative shows, however, that Ishbaal was slain without David’s knowledge by a pair of Benjaminites (2 Sam 4:2-3), opportunists who hoped to gain David’s favor by tak the life of their master (vv 5-8). But David was not pleased by news and indignantly condemned the assassins to death (vv 9-12 was David, moreover, who arranged for the honorable burial of Ishbaal’s remains.

McCarter concludes that “the history of David’s rise or the apology of David, as we are now entitled to call it, shows David’s accession to the throne of all Israel, north as well as south, to have been entirely lawful and his kingship, therefore, free of guilt. All possible charges of wrongdoing are faced forthrightly, and each in its turn is gainsaid by the course of events as related by the narrator.” These issues concern David’s basic decency and qualifications for kingship, so they would have been most urgent during the early period of the Davidic dynasty. It is the very specific details that the story takes so much trouble to deny that, ironically, argue that its source is an early and authentic apology for David.

In the end the apology worked, and David ended up as the model of a Messiah (from Hebrew mashiach “(royally) anointed one.” He was indeed a remarkable figure, a military and political (and perhaps a musical) genius. Yet the Bible preserved both the ancient royal PR for David and the historical darkness it came from. While this does not make for a simple political or religious story, it makes for a profoundly interesting one.


*The most in-depth study is Baruch Halpern’s David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King. W.B. Eerdmans, 2001. A good recent popular study is Joel Baden’s The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero. HarperCollins, 2013, and a vivid earlier one is Jonathan Kirsch, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel Ballantine Books, 2000.

**Artur Weiser, “Die Legitimation des Konigs David: zur Eigenart und Entstehung der sogenannte Geschichte von Davids Aufstieg,” VT 16 (1966) 325-54

***J. H. Grønbaeck Die Geschichte vom Aufstieg Davids (1. Sam. 15-2. Sam. 5), 1971 esp. 271-73


The Early Jewish Debate About Ritual

The Rabbis and Paul as Interpreters of Ritual Law

There has been a long-running tendency to underestimate ritual in Western European culture, seeing it as hollow, empty, merely formal behavior rather than a way of putting ideals into action,  “walking the walk” or “putting your money where your mouth is.” A contemporary example of this suspicion of ritual is the two opposite meanings of “performative” one encounters in discussion (or at least online). The first is performative action: as a real act, a long-term commitment created by means of speech, such as “I accept the offer” in negotiations, the Priest’s “I now pronounce you husband and wife” or the court witness’ promise “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” which makes them liable for perjury if they do not. The second, opposite meaning is merely performative in the sense of a theatrical or comedic performance, “fake, just for show.” But the people of ancient Israel and the creators of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament did not think ritual was merely for show: from the offerings for atonement in Leviticus to Jesus’ statement that the bread and wine of the last supper was “my body and my blood,” source of the communion tradition in Christianity, ritual was considered very real.

Early Jewish interpretation ties the ritual instructions contained in the Torah (“teachings of religious law”) inseparably together with deeds of kindness and loyalty, as in the line from the Mishnah (about 200 CE), the earliest post-biblical Jewish collection of ritual teachings: “the universe itself is founded on three things: on the Torah, on worship, and on deeds of loving-kindness.” Sincerity and whole-heartedness are equally essential

One of the earliest negative Jewish interpretations of ritual is Paul’s harsh criticism in the Galatians which accuses ritual law of being “empty” action, the letter of the  law without spirit.

Paul goes so far as to equate ritual law with death in Galatians 3:

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” 11 

But, Paul argues, nobody can actually follow all those laws, meaning they stand in violation of them, and therefore subject to the death penalty.

Now, as a formerly observant Jew himself, Paul presumably knows that this isn’t true for observant Jews. Leviticus 1-4 lets you atone for regular things and Lev 16 annually cleans up whatever is left over. But in Galatians he is not speaking to an audience who knows anything about Leviticus. In fact they had probably never read any of the Torah. The audience of this letter is entirely non-Jews, the originally pagan people of the Anatolian city of Galatia, most of whom have no idea about normal Jewish observance. He is trying to persuade them to follow his version of Jesus’ teaching:

 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith….[1]

Similarly in his second letter to the city of Corinth, Paul argues that

God has made his followers “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” and refers to the law as “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets” 2 Corinthians 3:6, 7

But as we have seen, the idea of law bringing death misunderstands the Priestly view presented in the Pentateuch. As Leviticus 18 emphasizes, you are to “live” and not die by the commandments, which are the reason the universe was created and still exists. Here the very ontological nature of God’s language and law, the way it structures reality through the words that created the universe, makes thoughtful acting out of divine command into its own kind of prayer—yet more real– and animates reality itself.

Indeed, in Romans 2—written to a different audience that includes some traditionally observant Jews, Paul makes a very different argument. Here he says that committed observance of ritual law does save those who follow it, as well as sincere following of God outside of the law: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (2:13), and sincere following of the law will save you even if you were not born Jewish: Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you are a transgressor of the law your circumcision has become uncircumcision.  So, if the uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (Romans 2:25-26).

Sincerity and Following the Law in early Jewish and Christian interpretation

The idea that it is not only the action itself but the spirit with which it is done, the importance of intention and mental state, is highlighted in Jewish traditional interpretation of the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 as well as in Jesus’ famous interpretation of them in the Sermon on the Mount. The New Testament scholar Matthew Thiessen collects key examples:

Matt 5:21–22: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; … But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council…

Already in the Hebrew Bible Ecclesiastes 7:9 says : “Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.” And Psalm 36:8: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”

The early Jewish Wisdom of Solomon (still part of the Catholic Bible) says in 10:3, of Cain: “But when an unrighteous man departed from her [i.e. wisdom] in his anger, he perished because in rage he slew his brother.”

The late antique Jewish text 2 Enoch 44.3 says “He who expresses anger to any person without provocation will reap anger in the great judgment. He who spits on any person’s face, insultingly, will reap the same at the Lord great judgment.”

In later Rabbinic tradition, b. Kallah Rabbathi 54b (7.8) says: “The Rabbis have taught: Whoever hates another is as though he were his murderer”

And another Rabbinic text, Derekh Eres Rabbah 57b, says: “He who hates his neighbor is among the shedders of blood.”

In other words, early Jewish interpreters–definitely including Jesus–shared the idea that one must go beyond the literal wording of the rules, to carefully consider their ultimate meaning and how one should live in accordance with them.

[1] He goes on: 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring[h] would come to whom the promise had been made, …

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be reckoned as righteous[j] by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,[k] heirs according to the promise.


The Exodus Inside Out

The Exodus is seen as the most important event in the Bible by ancient Hebrew writers themselves—no other event is mentioned as frequently. The book of Exodus itself commands the Israelites to remember and reenact it, and they followed this command.

As the political theorist Michael Walzer writes,

We can think of the Exodus as an example of what is today called “national liberation.” The people as a whole are enslaved, and then the people as a whole are delivered. At the same time, however, the uses of the story in Israel’s own history—first in legislation and then in prophecy suggest that the Egyptian model reaches to every sort of oppression and to every sort of liberation. Perhaps the crucial point is the linking of oppression and state power: “the oppression in Egypt,” as Croatto says, “is of a political order … [it is] exercised from the seat of political power.” Hence the escape from bondage is also the defeat of a tyrant—and the escape is only possible because of the defeat…

Hence Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for the inscription on the Great Seal of the United States: “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”

But just because something is frequently repeated does not make it a statement of fact, let alone an eyewitness account. Start with the most obvious example: in prayer, millions of people every day repeat an account of the Exodus that they obviously never saw. For example, part of the traditional Jewish morning prayer goes: “we remember His miracles and wonders when He took us out of Egypt.”The point is not that the person saying the prayer personally remembers this event happening to them. They are not saying that they themselves were an eyewitness 3,500 years ago who recalls the Exodus from personal experience, but that that they deliberately call these traditions to mind.

Historically, what can we know about the events that the Bible wishes us to call to mind? Here the Bible seems to disagree even with itself about exactly how this liberation from Egyptian oppression happened. Was the Red sea divided into two towering walls, as in the C.B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments, with the walls crashing back down on the Egyptian army as it pursued the fleeing Israelites?  

Or did the wind blow all night to simply dry up the sea, with God actively picking up the Egyptian forces and hurling them into the water?

The Bible’s Retellings of the Red Sea Story

In one prose version, which scholars recognize as Priestly, God first ‘stiffens the heart’ of the Pharoah, so that everything is part of his plan. He then rescues the Israelites by dividing the waters into two parts so they can be safe just as God divided the waters at the beginning in Genesis 1, and then destroys their enemies by releasing the waters just as he destroyed the world by releasing them to cause the flood in Genesis 6. This fits the special patterns of creation and de-creation we have seen in the Priestly source. And according to the Priestly account of events, since God has revealed his personal name Yahweh (“the Lord,”), that name is now used regularly for the divine being.

Ex 14:8 The LORD stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly, 9 all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon. 10b And the Israelites cried out to the LORD. 15 But the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward, 16 And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground. 17 And I will stiffen the hearts of the Egyptians so that they go in after them; and I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his warriors, his chariots and his horsemen.

18 Let the Egyptians know that I am LORD, when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.”

21aThen Moses held out his arm over the sea and the waters were divided.

22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

26Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen.”

27aMoses held out his arm over the sea, 28b and the waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen — Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; 29 But the Israelites had marched through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Here again in the Exodus, just as in creation and the flood, the Priestly version is woven together with an alternative version (the one scholars call J or Yahwist). In this one the Pharoah is not predestined by God to do it, but his aggressive behavior in pursuing the Israelites is just because he changes his mind about letting them go. Here the Israelites do not just cry out for help but yell at Moses because they think they are doomed—it is only after the divine rescue that their confidence in the Lord is restored. But the most dramatic difference is that here the Lord does not part the sea, but gradually blows the water away with a wind over the course of the night. Since the water only gradually comes back, the Egyptians almost escape but the Lord simply grabs them and throws them into the sea.

Ex  14:5    When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” 6 He ordered his chariot and took his men with him; 7 he took six hundred of his picked chariots, and the rest of the chariots of Egypt, with officers in all of them.

14:10a As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened11 And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the LORD will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. 14 The LORD will battle for you; you hold your peace!”

Ex. 14:19        The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, 20 and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spelld upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night.

Ex. 14:21b      Then the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground

24 At the morning watch, the LORD looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He lockede the wheels of their chariots so that they moved forward with difficulty. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

27Then at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But the LORD hurled the Egyptians into the sea. 28  so not one of them remained. 29  

Ex. 14:30        Thus the LORD delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. 31 And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the LORD had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD; they had faith in the LORD and His servant Moses.

Finally, there are not one but two poetic versions, the first sung by Moses and the second, presented in an abbreviated form, sung by his sister Miriam and the women of Israel (Ex 15:20-21). In the first and most detailed poem, the divine being is imagined as a war-god and called both Lord and God. There is emphasis on his destructive power in battle, visualized as his mighty right hand. There is also an ending that we do not see in the prose versions, where Israel is brought to God’s sanctuary, described as his holy mountain, to dwell in safety.

Ex. 15:1    Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said:

            I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously;

            Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

2           The LORD is my strength and might;

            He is become my deliverance.

            This is my God and I will enshrinec Him;

            The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.

3           The LORD, the Warrior—

            LORD is His name!

4           Pharaoh’s chariots and his army

            He has cast into the sea;

            And the pick of his officers

            Are drowned in the Sea of Reeds.

5           The deeps covered them;

            They went down into the depths like a stone.

6           Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power,

            Your right hand, O LORD, shatters the foe!

7           In Your great triumph You break Your opponents;

            You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw.

8           At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up,

            The floods stood straight like a wall;

            The deeps froze in the heart of the sea…

10         You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them;

            They sank like lead in the majestic waters.

11         Who is like You, O LORD, among divine beings;

            Who is like You, majestic in holiness,

            Awesome in splendor, working wonders!

12         You put out Your right hand,

            The earth swallowed them.

13         In Your love You lead the people You redeemed;

            In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode.

14         The peoples hear, they tremble;

            Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia.

15         Now are the clans of Edom dismayed;

            The tribes of Moab—trembling grips them;

            All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast.

16         Terror and dread descend upon them;

            Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone—

            Till Your people cross over, O LORD,

            Till Your people cross whom You have redeemed.

17         You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain,

            The place You made to dwell in, O LORD,

            The sanctuary, O LORD, which Your hands established.

18         The LORD will reign for ever and ever!

There is a shared tradition here with a single very basic plot. Regardless of the conflicting details, the book of Exodus certainly presents a mass migration of Israelites out of Egypt through the sea, and the total defeat of the Egyptian army. But from a literary point of view we have a story told in several quite different ways, while the most broad general outlines are shared.

And for the historian the real problem is that there is no Egyptian or other outside record of such an event—a mass migration of Israelites and a miraculous massacre of Egyptian troops—during the period when it was supposed to have happened. If you add up the dates in the Bible the event is supposed to have happened sometime during the Late Bronze Age. The Israelites are said to have crossed at the Sinai border. Yet during this period this border was anxiously guarded due to political tensions with the powerful Hittite empire in the north, as the prizewinning Israeli historian Nadav Na’aman carefully documents.

How the Exodus may have happened in pieces

While there is no clear evidence of a mass migration, and such an event would have been very unlikely given the heavily guarded border, some specific individual elements of the Exodus narrative do have ancient Egyptian connections. First, is the basic fact of West Semitic speakers migrating to and working in Egypt. Already the very first alphabetic inscriptions in the world were written by speakers of a language ancestral to Hebrew as well as Aramaic and Arabic who were working as miners and soldiers in Egypt. And there are Egyptian records of smaller groups of West Semitic speaking nomads leaving Egypt and migrating away without any official permission. Finally, while there is no Egyptian account that really resembles the miraculous plagues, some ideas and imagery were likely to have been shared, such as the mythic image of a river turning to blood in the literary fiction of the Ipuwer papyrus.

How the Exodus could have been turned inside out

But the overwhelming pattern shared between the bible’s versions of the Exodus and our documented historical and archaeological evidence is political. The Egyptian empire did in fact violently dominate and exploit the ancestors of the Israelites! But it happened in Canaan itself, not Egypt. Starting around 1600 BCE, Egypt sent mercenaries and troops to take over cities and territories of Canaan. Indeed, I helped edit and translate a series of letters from such mercenaries complaining that they weren’t getting enough treasure or concubines. Found at the site of Aphek in Israel, they are written in Babylonian cuneiform but tinged with Canaanite expressions and grammar. The Egyptian empire appointed its own governors for these cities and demanded large amounts of tribute from them. By 1350 BCE many of the Canaanites had had enough and started leaving their own cities, returning to nomadic life or acting as mercenaries themselves. In a remarkable collection of cuneiform diplomatic records, these renegades are termed Habiru, a term that may be related to the root of “Hebrew.”

But worse was yet to come for the Egyptian empire. By 1200 BCE a series of disasters was causing the whole system of empires, from Egyptian to Babylonian to Hittite, to collapse. Eminent archaeologist Eric Cline documents this in his recent bestselling book 1177. It was triggered first by climate change, as this part of the world got drier, and then mass migration as climate refugees moved south from Anatolia and east across the Mediterranean. This was described in Egyptian records as the invasion of the “Sea Peoples,” probably mostly such refugees as they are often depicted pulling carts full of their families—not the typical invading military force. One groups of these Sea Peoples, called Pileshet in Egyptian, became the Philistines who settled on the coast of Israel and Phoenicia and ended up dominating part of the Southern Levant. These are the enemies described in Judges and Samuel!

This mysterious crisis ended the Hebrews’ Egyptian oppression, and it was later retold as an escape from Egypt in the land of Egypt itself, rather than from the power of Egypt in Canaan.

But Why Turn it Inside Out? The Power of a Journey

From the most reliable sources it looks as if the Egyptian empire’s collapse and release of its imperial subject territories was a moment of liberation in Canaan. Contemporary archaeological and written evidence from the Late Bronze Age (particularly 1400-1200) show people there champing at the bit to be free of Egyptian domination. So why isn’t it remembered in the Bible as happening the way it actually did, in Canaan? Why did they need to reverse it?

The most likely answer lies in how people understand, and talk about, change when they aspire to become something new. One of the most powerful images of change is a journey from one place to another. Whether Odysseus or Gilgamesh traveling to the end of the world or pilgrims or immigrants traveling to America, the quest to a new place is a powerful archetype. Indeed, not only did the Romans tell a similar story about themselves–the classical Latin epic the Aeneid is the story of how the Romans are actually Turkish refugees fleeing the defeat of Troy–but so does Abraham. In Genesis 12 God commands him to get up and leave his homeland of Ur, in Mesopotamia, to go to a new place God will show him: the land of Canaan.

And idea of being outsiders, people who had undergone a journey from elsewhere, likely took hold because the tribes that became Israel had started to see themselves as separate from their neighbors. Now, in practical terms they were Canaanite–they spoke the same North-West Semitic Canaanite type of language, ate the same food, and lived in the same kind of houses as their neighbors. And as we have seen, the Israelites of the 9th century BCE still wrote about worshiping Asherah and Baal alongside Yawheh in their own inscriptions. Later the prophet Jeremiah would accuse the people of Judah of being old-school Canaanites whose children “remember
their altars and sacred posts (Hebrew ‘asherehem, literally “Asherahs”) by the luxuriant trees and on high hills.” (Jer 17:2)

At the same time, there really were some Canaanites who had migrated to, and then out of, Egypt. So a combination of historical experience and powerful narrative archetypes meant there was a real basis for the story of liberation from Egypt to take the form of a quest–and a conquest. The quest to a new land was an image of change, and the idea of being foreigners who achieved the violent conquest of the natives was a way of understanding the Israelites as the superior side in local conflicts between Canaanites. This, at least, may be the most likely way that Israel became a nation of immigrants in their own land.


To Publish or Tell the Truth

On a False Dichotomy in Ancient Studies

“To Publish or Not to Publish? This is No Longer the Question,” archaeologist Morag Kersel writes in an important new article about an old ethical and political problem in ancient studies. Should we publish texts we know to have been stolen, and ones that we have no way of knowing were discovered legitimately? Texts of unknown, likely illegal origin provide exciting new knowledge and a shot of prestige in the field for white academics in wealthy countries, but at the expense of stealing these valuable objects from a poverty-stricken community. Dug in secret for profit, destroying the site in the country they came from for mainly foreign audiences, and serving the narrow view that only language matters, detached from life context, artistic qualities, or the realities of history? These, at least, are the charges leveled by some of the most respected institutions in archaeology and ancient history against those who publish ancient texts of unknown and therefore usually likely illegal origin.

Still, don’t you want to see the secret Dead Sea Scrolls or the lost language of the Amorites, even if there may be a crime or two somewhere in their past? Many of us are curious about what they say, and would feel in some way sad or frustrated if they were not published. The power of novelty makes these texts seem more important than others even if there are already lots of other interesting texts to read, if they are only adding to the vast number of published texts–not all of which have yet been studied deeply, or sometimes even at all. And after all, those crimes were likely committed by the kind of people we don’t tend to punish too hard anyway–the very rich and those who cater to them. Of course, those secret Dead Sea Scrolls turned out to be entirely fake, despite being published under the aegis of Emanuel Tov, perhaps most respected Dead Sea Scrolls scholar around.

But I do want to see the lost language of the Amorites, so this is my problem too. In her new article Kersel joins the Papyrologist Malcolm Choat arguing that the time for agonizing over the binary choice of ethics or knowledge is past. This “seemingly intractable” debate can be framed as “pitting archaeologists, nobly saving the past for the future, against those who abet the evil of the antiquities trade through their scholarly study and academic imprimatur.” In her piece, Kersel argues for a way forward including a clear and consistent academic standard of flagging unprovenanced texts, building on the proposals of the epigrapher Christopher Rollston. But is it really true that we are forced into this compromise of language or context, texts or ethics?

In fact there is a missing piece here which we are too polite to talk about: this is that the texts’ editors often deliberately hide information about the texts’ sources and provenance history. In the case of the wonderful new Amorite texts, the editors deliberately avoid inquiring into the provenance of the first, and go so far as to conceal the source of the second. The first is from

“the Jonathan and Jeanette Rosen Ancient Near Eastern Studies Seminar in Cornell University,… closed in June 2019 and the tablet removed to New York…published here by kind permission of Dr David I. Owen, the curator of the Rosen Collection’s tablets.

The second “was identified by George in a private collection in London. This collection is no longer accessible, but fortunately the tablet was photographed by Dr Owen.”

Like many illegally excavated cuneiform tablets, these flow through the retired Assyriologist David Owen, one of the premier defenders of the texts-alone tendency in the field. Indeed, over a long career it appears as if virtually every publication Owen has made is simply a new text edition of some sort, with or without detailed historical or cultural analysis. It is certain that George knows more about the second tablet’s location (otherwise he would not have known what address to go to to look at it), and quite plausible that both George and Owen know, or could easily ask, about their provenance history. Yet provenance history is the primary tool to discover where an unknown object came from, as Erin Thompson elegantly shows.

Quite simply, many scholars who plead helplessness about unprovenanced tablets are using their academic publications to deliberately reveal some things and conceal other things about the texts. If these editors did reveal what they knew about the texts’ provenance, the collectors might well be upset at them and close the candy store, chosing someone else to whom to show their illicit splendors. This is because those collectors rightly fear the law and the anger of the people from whom their agents stole the texts.

This way of improving the situation is straightforward. Scholars should do what everybody assumes they are already doing: provide all the relevant information they can about the texts they publish. This is because their whole careers, from education to employment to retirement, were supported by academic institutions dedicated to the promotion of public knowledge. And this solution should be in no way controversial because it merely involves scholars acting like scholars, rather than as the especially loyal minions of wealthy collectors.


But When Did They (Probably) Write the Bible? Part 2 of 2

We have already seen that there must have been all kinds of verbal art in Hebrew before any of it was written down: poems and prayers, prose storytelling and rituals. Indeed, it was part of a whole world that is now mostly invisible–for example there would have been many jokes and insults as well as recipes, intimate romantic speech, and plain everyday conversation. Most of it is lost and we do not know what that world looked like.

Preliterary tradition

Chronicles, Prayers, and Prophecies: Early Collecting and Interweaving of Texts

Baden example

Slave law example

we have very few Prose Narratives and Collecting, Interweaving, and Creating a Literature


But When Did They (Probably) Write the Bible? Part 1 of 2

600 Years of Possibility

We have seen from the archaeological evidence that people were already being trained to write Hebrew in an elegant script by about 825 BCE. Unlike the script of just 200 years before, which was casually taught to people and only used for short notes or graffiti, this was meant for serious texts. You can tell from the fluid, curved, and efficient lines that this is a script meant to be written rapidly for long amounts of time. This kind of flowing, easy script written with a brush or pen is called a cursive, in contrast to the heavy, stiff lines of a monumental script meant to be slowly carved into hard materials like stone. This also tells us about what they could have written in Hebrew. In contrast to the painstaking effort of carving a short monument, a good writer of cursive could write dozens of lines of accounting or official correspondence in an hour, or hundreds of lines of hymns or chronicles in a day.

But just because biblical narratives and poetry theoretically could have been written down by 825, this doesn’t prove that they actually were. After all, people can use a written language for a long time–we have been writing English in some form or other for over 600 years (if you count the first written English as appearing around the time of Chaucer) but that doesn’t mean that Shakespeare, the US Constitution, and this very blog post all date back to 1400 CE! The history of written Hebrew only provides a 600+ year range of possible dates between the ninth and the third centuries BCE. By itself, all it tells us is that biblical texts must have come together at some point roughly between 825 and 225 BCE.

So to get more specific, let’s consider the logical possibilities for when biblical texts could have been written, and check each one with concrete evidence.

Pre-Literary Traditions

Some scholars have suggested that some parts of the Bible must date to before Hebrew writing was invented. In this view, these texts were composed without being written down, then passed down by retelling and memory, until they were finally put into writing sometime after 825.

This idea of pre-literary tradition in the Bible is very plausible, because poetry, storytelling, jokes and prayers are universal features of being human. Every day we talk, sometimes playing with our words and expressing remarkable ideas, images, or phrases. But most of it never gets written down. Every culture creates important verbal art, yet many never feel the need to write it. This means that even before Hebrew script, there have to have been Hebrew poems and stories. But how would we know that any specific passage in the Bible comes from this pre-literary tradition?

Some classic passages of the Bible look intriguingly like they come from an earlier culture. These hints come through in both style and content. In their style, they speak a distinctive poetic language and feature fiery visions of Yahweh as a fighting storm god, nomadic warrior tribes, and astonishingly bold characters. And in their content, they assume things that only make sense for an earlier period. A good example is Judges 5, the “Song of Deborah.” It is presented as a victory song starring the military leader Deborah (literally “bee,” perhaps because of the sting). It memorializes her successful defense of the northern territory of Israel from warlords who were terrorizing it, with the help of direct intervention from the Lord (Yahweh), who is depicted as a storm-god marching out accompanied by torrential rains and earthquakes from his home in the south to help them.

1 On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang…

4 O LORD, when You came forth from Mount Seir,
Marched out from the country of Edom,
The earth trembled;
The heavens dripped,
Yes, the clouds dripped water,
5 The mountains quaked—
Before the LORD, Him of Sinai,
Before the LORD, God of Israel.
6 In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
In the days of Jael, caravans ceased,
And wayfarers went
By roundabout paths.
7 The townspeople had to hide,
Hide in Israel,
Till you arose, O Deborah,
Arose, O mother, in Israel!

There are two main reasons scholars think this poem may come from a pre-literary tradition: first is the style of poetic language, which has some grammatical features that are close to earlier written languages. The second one, in terms of content, is more surprising: it lists the tribes of Israel, praising the ones who showed up to fight and blaming the ones who stayed home. But it lists only ten tribes, where there are famously supposed to be twelve, as in Genesis 29-30, Genesis 49, all Jewish traditions afterward–yet here there are just ten! And it includes a tribe, Machir, never mentioned in other lists. A clue as to what changed is that the most famous missing tribe here is the southern tribe of Judah, which became influential after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722. In other words, the Song of Deborah represents an earlier political picture, before Judah mattered.

4 From Ephraim came they whose roots are in Amalek;
After you, your kin Benjamin;
From Machir came down leaders,
From Zebulun such as hold the marshal’s staff.
15 And Issachar’s chiefs were with Deborah;
As Barak, so was Issachar—
Rushing after him into the valley.
Among the clans of Reuben
Were great decisions of heart.
16 Why then did you stay among the sheepfolds
And listen as they pipe for the flocks?
Among the clans of Reuben
Were great searchings of heart!
17 Gilead tarried beyond the Jordan;
And Dan—why did he linger by the ships?
Asher remained at the seacoast
And tarried at his landings.
18 Zebulun is a people that mocked at death,
Naphtali—on the open heights.

Finally, it describes the brutal assassination of the sleeping enemy general Sisera by a warlike Israelite woman named Jael–a precursor of the famous later decapitation of the drunk enemy general Holofernes by the widow Judith (here in a painting by the remarkable Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi)

24 Most blessed of women be Jael,
Wife of Heber the Kenite,
Most blessed of women in tents.
25 He asked for water, she offered milk;
In a princely bowl she brought him curds.
26 Her left hand reached for the tent pin,
Her right for the workmen’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, crushed his head,
Smashed and pierced his temple.
27 At her feet he sank, lay outstretched,
At her feet he sank, lay still;
Where he sank, there he lay—destroyed.

The simplest explanation of Judges 5 is that it comes from a culture and time period sometime before the 9th century. But where and when? The complexity here is that these traditions can be fluid and adaptable, so we can’t be sure whether its current form is from the 12th century BCE or the 10th, or whether it was subtly reshaped centuries later. What we can be pretty sure of is that its heart comes from a northern tribal culture that existed outside, and probably before, the standard tribal lists and narratives of the later Bible. Poems in the Pentateuch that are often agreed to represent pre-literary traditions are:

Genesis 49, the “Blessing of Jacob,” Exodus 15, the “Song of the Sea” the poetry of the prophet Balaam’s oracles in Numbers 23 and 24,
Deutonomy 32, the “Song of Moses,” and Deuteronomy 33, the “Blessing of Moses.”

Chronicles, Prayers, and Prophecies: Early Collecting and Interweaving of Texts

So when do we first find actual examples of literature in the alphabet?

The 9th Century: Royal Historical Narratives and War-God Poems

In the ninth century we find the first Hebrew poems and scribal practice texts in Hebrew at Kuntillet Ajrud, in the far south. We also find the first narratives of historical events in the Levant in the ninth century with a victory monument at Dan, in the far north, written in Aramaic, and one in the mid-south at Dibon, written in Moabite–a language and script almost identical to Hebrew. This Moabite inscription in fact mentions a king known from 2 Kings 3 who is said to have driven off the Israelites by sacrificing his own son to his god. In this inscription also he boasts of winning a battle against Israel with the help of his dynastic god, Kemosh!

“I am Mesha, .. king of Moab, man of Dibon. My father was king over Moab for thirty years, and I became king after my father. And I made this high-place for (the god) Kemosh . . . because he has delivered me from all kings, and because he has made me look down on all my enemies.

Omri was the king of Israel, and he oppressed Moab for many days, for Kemosh was angry with his land. And his son reigned in his place; and he also said, “I will oppress Moab!” In my days he said so. But I looked down on him and on his house, and Israel has been defeated; it has been defeated forever!”

Finally, the 9th century already has evidence of Hebrew hymns and prayers. There is a poem written on the wall at Kuntillet Ajrud about God marching forth and the earth trembling that sounds a lot like the storm-god passage from Judges 5:4-5! Inscription 4.2 reads:

2. […] in earthquake. And when God
(El) shines forth in the heig[hts, Y]ahwe[h…]
3. […] The mountains will melt, the hills will crush […]
4. […] earth. The Holy One over the gods […]
5. […] prepare [to] bless Baal on a day of war […]

6.[…]the name of God on a day of wa[r…]

The 8th Century: Prophecy, Bureaucracy, and a Stonecutters’ Monument.

In the eighth century we start finding a whole range of administrative texts in Hebrew keeping track of supplies and shipments. The biggest set come from Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. We also find a significant set from Arad, a center for the southern kingdom of Judah.

In a tunnel underneath Jerusalem we find a fascinating monument to the building of an aqueduct, a way of supplying precious water to a city under siege. This inscription, deep in the Siloam tunnel, seems to describe exactly what King Hezekiah is said to have done around 700 BCE in preparation for the Neo-Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. What is especially interesting here is that unlike the Mesha or Dan monuments, this inscription does not mention any king. Its heroes are the workers themselves, the stonecutters who built the tunnel at great risk and probably had one of their own carve it–a memorial to their own livesaving work.

Finally, we find the first prophetic text, written on a wall like the earlier Kuntillet Ajrud poems. It is found in the north just across the Jordan river from Samaria and it is written in a kind of Aramaic that shares some features with Hebrew. In this text, the prophet Balaam famous from the book of Numbers is described as speaking directly to “his people.” He warns them of an apocalypse in which the sun-god will “sew up the sky” and put a seal of darkness on it, the normal rules of the world will be turned upside-down, and the king will be punished.

It is unusual in having certain parts written in red, emphasizing the practical parts of the message.

In the conclusion, it urges that this message be publicized and passed on. A final section also marked in red says:

“[That they may] know the account (of Balaam), proclaim out loud to the people (lit. ‘by speech/tongue’), “(This is) your judgment and your punishment!” Say…

In other words, by the late 8th century BCE we have direct evidence that people were writing down histories, prophecies, prayers and other poems in Hebrew and closely related languages all over the Levant.

But what does this say about what they were doing on other media that did not survive? Here we can speak more broadly of the period from the eighth through seventh centuries BCE. In the book of Kings, we have detailed chronicles from a state that was destroyed in the 8th century–the northern kingdom of Israel, which was conquered by the Assyrians in 722. Yet we have very specific accounts of events and chronologies of Israel’s kings.

To create the framework of the books of Kings, the northern Israelite chronicles were woven together with the chronicles of the southern kingdom of Judah, synchronized in chronological order so that the events in north and south for each year and king line up. While we can’t be sure exactly when this editing took place, we know that they were already actively making synchronistic chronicles in Assyria and Babylon (see here for specific examples).

In the end, this makes it very plausible that the earliest written Hebrew literature was already being created by 700 BCE. Not certain, because our earliest physical copies are over 400 years later and it can be hard to be sure whether any specific text has been changed, but it’s a good bet. Because what we have woven throughout much of the books of Kings is the kind of thing that people were writing in the eighth century BCE, and often displaying the kind of knowledge of events that would come from that period.This means that the most logical possibility is that, like the editing that produced the Balaam prophetic inscriptions, Hebrew writers were likely already editing chronicles and prophecies in this period, between 722 and 586 BCE.

In part 2, we will cover Prose Narratives and Collecting, Interweaving, and Creating a Literature


When Could They Have Written the Bible?

And Why It Matters

The dating of the biblical sources is a hotly debated topic in biblical studies. It can seem arcane and technical–what does it matter if something was first written down in 800 or 500BCE? In fact there is a lot at stake here: at issue is when and where the books of the Bible came from, and therefore who their authors and audience were. Knowing when and where the texts were written could tell us a lot about their purpose–and therefore how to interpret them. Are they foggy legends of a distant past, or eyewitness accounts of things as they happened? Literary art designed to provoke complex emotions, or direct, literal instructions from God? Many assume that the Bible says Moses wrote all of its first books, the so-called “five books of Moses” or Pentateuch, at God’s dictation. But the actual text never says this. So how do we know when the Hebrew Bible really comes from, and what it was for?

One reason scholars have been curious about the dates of the Bible’s composition is that for the earlier narratives (roughly, the events described in Genesis through Samuel) it’s unclear how the writers could have known what they were talking about. Who was there to witness and then describe creation in Genesis 1, before any human existed? If you add up the dates in the biblical text, the Bible says the Exodus happened sometime before 1200 BCE, with the stories of Abraham and other parts of Genesis even earlier. And those stories don’t even mention writing down events relating to Abraham or the Exodus.

It turns out that the earliest actual physical evidence for the Hebrew Bible is much, much later than the events it’s describing: the earliest partial fragments of biblical texts date to a bit before 200 BCE–over a thousand years after many of the events they describe. And our oldest complete Hebrew Bible is far later: the version we usually translate from, Codex Leningradensis, dates from around 1008 CE. The Aleppo Codex, another valuable manuscript, is a bit earlier (c. 920 CE) but damaged.* If the earliest extended passages of the Hebrew Bible are in the Dead Sea Scrolls, a few of which (like 4QSamuel(a), a copy of the book of Samuel), date to perhaps 250 BCE, this means many of the Bible’s most important events are supposed to have happened well over a millennium before we have any first-hand evidence of their writing.

How Much Can Change in 200 Years? The Case of Davis, California

To get a sense of how much can change in 1,000 years–and how hard it could be to get reliable information about the past in an age before electronic media, or even widespread writing–consider Davis, California. What was Davis like 200 years ago?

Davis from the air, 1999

None of this was here, and it can be hard to even imagine what it was like. There were no white people, roads, towns, or buildings at all. The land was inhabited by Patwin, a part of the larger Wintun group of people who had already been living in the Central Valley for well over 3,000 years. They hunted, worked and lived all over this area in many small villages, and some burials have been accidentally discovered on our own campus. So where did they go? The first white explorers, trappers who arrived around 1833, brought a Malaria epidemic that killed thousands of Patwin people. Most of the rest were wiped out or displaced–often by the Federal or state government, or by European settlers–by the year 1923. That’s when the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber interviewed some of the remaining people

Think of how difficult it would be for a Patwin person today if they wanted to create a bible-like scriptural text of early Patwin history and beliefs. How could you find out exactly what your ancestors thought or did right here even 200 years ago? You could interview elders for the valuable ancient traditions they remember, read older texts like the interviews that Kroeber wrote down from 1923. But there are no words directly from 1823. In fact all of us might face similar challenges in understanding how our great-great-great grandparents lived, what they thought or experienced, and sometimes even who they were. But it is especially impressive to consider that it is hard to know a lot about what it was like 200 years ago in the very place we are reading this.

Now imagine you’re an ancient Hebrew writer trying to do that, but for much further in the past–1000 years before you lived.

How would someone writing 1,000 years later know what people believed or experienced back then? There seem to be three main ways: you could just decide to have faith and believe what you’ve been told about the way it was, you could base it on traditions that you’d heard verbally, or you could examine ancient evidence. First, of course, there’s total faith: you could just feel certain that the Bible’s writers found out about these events directly from God, through divine revelation. On the one hand, that means you’re fine personally–you don’t need to worry about evidence or arguments! On the other hand, as we’ve seen, the Bible doesn’t say that either. And with no evidence or arguments, you don’t have much basis to persuade anyone else that this is true. Second is spoken traditions–these are uniquely valuable, telling us things that never got written down, as well as including things like songs, movements, and places that you can’t get from a book. But since you can’t be sure what the tradition looked like in the past, it is sometimes hard to be sure whether the tradition was changed or even created 50 or 500 years ago.

This leaves us with ancient writing and archaeological evidence, from statues of gods to beer jugs; these are special because they come directly from the time and place we are curious about. And they are surprisingly clear about when the Hebrew Bible could have been written. In fact, I am so fascinated by ancient inscriptions and what they tell us about ancient Israel and Judah that I wrote my first book, The Invention of Hebrew, about it.**

1000 Years of Graffiti and the Invention of Hebrew (c. 850 BCE)

What I learned in researching my book is that the alphabet itself is much older than Hebrew writing, which itself seems to have been developed sometime roughly around 850 BCE. The alphabet was invented quite early, around 1900 BCE and probably in Egypt by speakers of a West Semitic language (the language group including Arabic, Aramaic, and the Canaanite languages) ancestral to Hebrew. But surprisingly, all of our evidence shows that it was only used casually, for graffiti and short notes, for the first thousand years of its existence!

How can we tell that the early alphabet wasn’t used for skilled, professional writing? Because all of our examples are irregular and sloppy, showing no uniform standards. Compare these examples of two of the very first inscriptions from Egypt around 1900, this newly discovered lice comb with a magical insecticide spell (!!) from Lachish in Israel from around 1200, and this list of names from Khirbet Qeiyafa, near Jerusalem, from around 1050 BCE.

Early alphabetic inscription from Wadi el-Hol in Egypt c 1900 BCE. Note that fourth fron the left is the first letter of the alphabet, aleph, as a pictographic ox head with horns, an eye, and a smiling mouth.

Early alphabetic inscription from Sinai (Sinai 345, also the cover of my book!) in Egypt c. 1800. Note second from the left, the rather different looking ox-head aleph with horns and eye.

Canaanite Ivory Comb with Anti-Lice Incantation from Lachish in ancient Judah, c. 1250 BCE.

Canaanite name-list from Khirbet Qeiyafah near Jerusalem, c. 1050 BCE. Note that the writing is so irregular that the alephs face three different directions, none of which was used in later Hebrew.

A practice letter in the first known standardized, recognizably Hebrew script, from Kuntillet Ajrud (Inscription 3.6) in the Sinai, around 825 BCE. Note that while there is some variation of about 10-15 degrees in angle, the alephs are far more uniform than the earlier ones and now all have the same orientation.

The elegant and uniform Siloam Tunnel inscription from Jerusalem. The Classical Hebrew of this text reads like narratives in the Bible and commemorates the building of a cistern to withstand the siege of Sennacherib, also mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:4) and Assyrian royal inscriptions. In this inscription the alephs all look nearly identical, evidence of a scribe who had written a lot.

These pictures tell the story: while the alphabet was used for short prayers and graffiti for about 1000 years, it was only adapted to write Hebrew as well as related languages like Aramaic by the 9th century BCE. In addition to the above inscriptions from the far south at Kuntillet Ajrud, we also have some crucial slightly earlier inscriptions from the north at Tel Rehov that look like they are halfway between the generic Canaanite script and Hebrew, evidence that it was being formed during the early 9th century. This is the earliest point at which Hebrew literary texts could have been written, what I call the Invention of (written) Hebrew.

The second-to-last inscription, from Kuntillet Ajrud, about 825 BCE, is the first that is written in a really clear and consistent script. This makes it the first one showing the signs of a professionally trained scribe: someone who would actually have been paid to sit around all day writing a lot of texts. And its contents are the first signs of a real bureaucracy. It is a practice letter that reads:

Message of Amaryāw:
“Say to my lord, are you well? I bless you by Yahweh (“the Lord”) of
Têmān and His asherah (=a goddess, and the Lord’s divine wife). May He bless you and may He keep you, and may He be with my lord…”

Here we first see not only a glimpse of early Israelite society, over 100 years after we would date King David, but a religious world that is different from the one we might expect from the Bible.

The next question–just because they theoretically could have written biblical texts then, back in 825, how do we know if they actually did? After all, we have been writing English in some form or other for 600 years, but that doesn’t mean that the US Constitution or this blog post both date back to 1400 CE! We’ll look at that next.


*A complete Hebrew manuscript of only the Prophets (Joshua through Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 minor prophets) has a note at the beginning from the scribe saying it’s even earlier, claiming he completed it in 896 CE. But the handwriting is slightly suspicious since it doesn’t match the rest of the text, and recent carbon dating puts it 100 years later, indicating that this note was a forgery to make the scroll look older and therefore more important and valuable.

** I was incredibly proud that it won an award named after the teacher I first learned about these inscriptions from, Frank Moore Cross, who was one of the main editors of the Dead Sea Scroll and who I consider the 20th century’s greatest American scholar of Hebrew inscriptions.


“A More Interesting Story to be Told”

Stepping into a tradition as old as it is controversial, I am pleased to be joining Dalhousie University as the McLeod Chair in Classics focused on the ancient Semitic languages and the religions and cultures of the Levant, starting in Fall 2024. What is exciting is the role I can play, not as a “Classicist” in the conventional sense, but as an expert in the people who taught the Greeks and Romans to read and write–a vital but often missing part of the picture in which Dalhousie will be going from strength to strength. I am privileged to work alongside scholars like Eli Diamond, Alexander Treiger, and Emily Varto, just to mention a few adjacent to my own work, who together span a world from Iron Age kinship and Platonic theory to Medieval Arabic Christianity and Analytical Philosophy.

I am delighted to join in an international movement with scholars from Dan-El Padilla Peralta to Carolina Lopez-Ruiz helping expand and explode the nostalgic old definition of “the ancient world.”The anachronistic image of antiquity as Greece plus Rome, the stuff school boys learned and white empires aspired to be, began life early in the modern era as a form of self-fashioning as well as self-flattery, an erudite cosplay for Western Europeans. Reality involved a lot more people, a lot more weird gods, languages, and social forms, and was generally a lot cooler.

As the scholar of Mediterranean cultures and contacts Josephine Quinn says, “There’s a more interesting story to be told about the history of what we call the West, the history of humanity, without valorizing particular cultures in it…It seems to me the really crucial mover in history is always the relationship between people, between cultures.” Even as Classics expands its view, images of East-West contact sometimes remain focused on those places and periods of the Near East which Greek or Roman politics colonized or conquered, from the Seleucid Near East to Greco-Roman Egypt. I look forward to participating in writing a new story, with multiple beginning and ending points, that can take us new places.