What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?

JesseTree (Capuchin's Bible, c. 1180, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris) - cropped

For most Christians who read the Bible casually or devotionally, Matthew’s genealogy — the very first chapter of the New Testament — is one of the dullest passages in all of Scripture. It was a tremendously important passage for the author and his audience, however; and for me, it is an incredibly fascinating window into the author’s methods and who he thought Jesus was. It also contains numerous puzzles — some more easily solved than others. What’s so interesting about this long list of begats? Read on and find out more than you probably ever wanted to know. What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?Continue reading

The Twelve (or So) Tribes of Israel

Joseph finds the silver in Benjamin's sacks

The identity of Israel in the Bible is closely linked to the notion that the ancient nation was an alliance of twelve distinct tribes, each with its own territory. Reading the Old Testament in its canonical order, we encounter tales about Jacob the patriarch and his twelve sons who all moved to Egypt. Their descendants are depicted as remaining divided into distinct clans, which would later journey to Palestine, carve up the land, and then conquer their allotted portions.

History is not so simple, however, and neither are the traditions we find in the Bible itself. Not all biblical authors were aware of this storybook picture of Israel’s tribes, and many of the text’s later claims are rooted as much — or more so — in theology and politics as in history. Themes that have captured the imagination of exegetes for millennia, like the myth of the “lost tribes of Israel”, take on new significance when examined closely. The Twelve (or So) Tribes of IsraelContinue reading

Some Observations on High Priests in the Gospels and Acts

Jesus before Caiaphas

The high priest, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman administration play an important part of Jesus’ trial and execution in the Gospels. Jesus’ trial thus provides the somewhat rare opportunity for known figures from history to be mentioned. There are some oddities when it comes to the key role of the Jerusalem high priest, however. Let’s take a look at who is cast in this role in the four Gospels as well as Acts. Some Observations on High Priests in the Gospels and ActsContinue reading

And Then There Was One: Yahweh and the Shema

Kuntillet Ajrud

One of the most famous phrases in all the Old Testament is certainly the declaration in Deuteronomy 6:4, referred to as the Shema after its initial word.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד
šᵉma’ yiśrāêl yahweh ’ělōhênū yahweh ‘eḥāḏ

The best nuance with which to translate this statement has been debated. The NRSV and its footnotes offer no fewer than four options, for example. I used to frequently hear it in sermons expressed as “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God!” and there is a popular church song that uses this translation as its main lyric. Hearing it this way, people naturally assume the Shema to be a simple expression of monotheism. And Then There Was One: Yahweh and the ShemaContinue reading

The Mark of the Beast Demystified—Or, I’ve Got 666 Problems but the Rapture Ain’t One of Them

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 12.52.31 PM

Growing up with dispensationalist parents and acquaintances, the end times, Antichrist, and mark of the beast were topics that came up not infrequently. Add in Pentecostalism, Satanic Panic, and an unhealthy preoccupation with flavour-of-the-month charismatic prophets, and you have the makings for some bizarre biblical hermeneutics.

The fact of the matter is that end times prophecy, the mysterious number 666, and the identity of the Antichrist have all been subjects pursued with pseudo-scholarly gusto by Christian writers and evangelists (particularly in the Anglosphere) over the past few decades. For the lay Christian with a casual interest in eschatology, deliberation over who the Antichrist is (present tense intended) and the meaning of 666 offers a fascinating opportunity to involve oneself in things that seem both spiritual and important. In fact, the discussion has become productized, with each self-styled end-times teacher and prophet hocking his or her own theories as truth. The Mark of the Beast Demystified—Or, I’ve Got 666 Problems but the Rapture Ain’t One of ThemContinue reading

The Phoenician God Resheph in the Bible

Stele_of_the_Syrian_goddess_Kadesh

Bible translations often conceal the polytheistic context of Israel’s devotion to Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures. Even as the Yahweh religion spread from its obscure Edomite/Kenite origins to become a unifying force across Samaria and Judah, acknowledgement of other deities and divine beings remained. Often, these deities might be represented as part of Yahweh’s divine council or personal retinue. The Phoenician God Resheph in the BibleContinue reading

Cosmos and Chaos: Understanding the Bible’s Description of Creation

720px-Flammarion

With the recent Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate and the conservative religious reaction to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new educational TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the spotlight is once again on Creationists — a vocal minority of the Christian public that believes “biblical creation” as described in Genesis ought to be taught in place of scientific theories about the origins of life and the universe.

Although the scientific absurdities of Creationism have been widely addressed, the biblical and theological failings of this doctrine are less well known. Even outside Creationist circles, most Christians (even most theologians, perhaps) know very little about the subject. What exactly did the ancient Jews believe about the creation of the world, and how are those views expressed in the Bible?

It is a common misconception that Genesis 1–3 is the key passage for understanding biblical creation. After all, this story (two stories, actually) is found at the very beginning of the Bible and seems to provide the basis for what comes after. This simplistic approach, however, ignores the complicated history of the Bible’s compilation and canonization — not to mention the rich cultural background of Palestine. Genesis 1, in fact, is a rather late retelling of a story that is woven throughout much of the Bible — the Psalms, Job and Isaiah in particular — and does not really mean what many people think it does.

Cosmos and Chaos: Understanding the Bible’s Description of CreationContinue reading

Moses: The (Mostly) Untold Story

Moses and Pharaoh

It is well-known that many of the narrative books of the Bible contain similar traditions combined together, often in ways a modern reader would find contradictory. The Exodus from Egypt provides an interesting case. The overall narrative as it now stands paints a grandiose picture of Israel’s national past — millions of people enslaved in Egypt, who then escaped and wandered the desert for forty years before conquering the Promised Land. Yet hidden away in the text are vestigial traces of a very different story that spans only a few generations from the tribal patriarchs to the settlement of Canaan, and involves a far smaller group of people.

Moses: The (Mostly) Untold StoryContinue reading

Lilith in the Bible and Jewish Folklore

Anyone who has read through Isaiah has come across the hauntingly beautiful poetry of Isaiah 34. This apocalyptic poem, which scholars now believe was a late addition to the book, appears to describe the destruction of Edom by the Nabateans in the 5th century BCE¹.

Verses 12 through 16 describe the desolation of the land:

The satyrs will make their home there,
its nobles will be no more,
kings will not be proclaimed there,
all its princes will be brought to nothing.

Thorns will grow in the palaces there,
thistles and nettles in its fortresses,
it will be a lair for jackals,
a lodging for ostriches.

Wild cats will meet hyenas there,
the satyrs will call to each other,
there too will Lilith take cover
seeking rest.

The viper will nest and lay eggs there,
will brood and hatch its eggs;
kites will gather there
and make it their meeting place.

(Isaiah 34:12–16, Jerusalem Bible)

Along with this bestiary of wildlife, we encounter some interesting mythical creatures — satyrs and Lilith. Let’s take a closer look at the latter.

Lilith in the Bible and Jewish FolkloreContinue reading