Gibeon Versus Jerusalem: A Biblical Game of Thrones?

On my YouTube channel, I’ve posted a new video that takes a brief look at the three biblical quotations of a source that English translations usually call “the book of Jasher” (which means “the book of the upright”). The third one is interesting because its context appears to be the transfer of the Yahweh cult from Gibeon to Jerusalem during the reign of Solomon. The poetic excerpt is inserted at the start of Solomon’s dedication of the new temple. It is incomplete in extant Hebrew manuscripts, but the Greek Septuagint contains a more complete quotation. (The lines preserved only by the Greek are in green.)

Then Solomon said:
“[Yahweh?] placed Sun in the heavens,
But Yahweh himself has decided to dwell in a thick cloud;
Surely I have built an exalted house for You
A place for You to dwell in forever.”
Lo, is this not written in the Book of Jasher?¹ 

(1 Kings 8:12–13 / 3 Kingdoms 8:53; based on the translation by Taylor, p. 137; see also van Keulen, pp. 164ff)

This passage is difficult to interpret (English translations hide a lot of the linguistic problems), and it’s not obvious what historical reality or tradition lies behind it. The subject of the first line in particular is uncertain.² There are, however, some interesting threads we can tie together. A good starting point is the city of Gibeon, which happens to be the site of the battle described by the first Jasher quote in Joshua 10.

Gibeon and Its Religious Sanctuary

The ancient site of Gibeon is equated with the modern plateau of El-Jib. Archaeology shows that it was mostly uninhabited in the Bronze Age, but a regional polity based in Gibeon emerged at around the start of the 10th century BCE (Finkelstein 2019). Gibeon flourished for only a short time until Pharaoh Shoshenq sacked it during a military campaign about a century later, and it went into decline until it was completely abandoned in the sixth century BCE. (Ibid.)

In the book of Joshua, Gibeon belongs to a group of people called the Hivites, who sign a treaty with Joshua to avoid destruction by the Israelites. The Gibeonite territory includes the nearby towns of Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim (Joshua 9:17). A few chapters later, however, we find Gibeon and all its towns included in the territory allotted to Benjamin (Joshua 18:11ff). And in chapter 21, Gibeon is given to the Aaronid priests. Gibeon seems to be simultaneously a Hivite city, a Benjamite city, and a priestly city. The Bronze Age setting is anachronistic, but these passages might still contain genuine memories from Iron Age Judah.³

In fact, one can find throughout Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles the vestiges of a tradition in which Gibeon was the religious center of the kingdom governed by Saul, David, and Solomon. This is stated explicitly in 1 Kings 3:4:

The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.

1 Chronicles 1:3–5 adds that the tabernacle of Moses and the bronze altar of Bezalel were also located at Gibeon. This fact is reiterated several times by the Chronicler.

For the tabernacle of Yahweh that Moses had made in the wilderness and the altar of burnt offering were at that time in the high place at Gibeon. (1 Chronicles 22:29)
And [David] left Zadok the priest and his brethren the priests before the tabernacle of Yahweh in the high place that was at Gibeon, to offer burnt offerings to Yahweh upon the altar of burnt offering continually, morning and evening…. (1 Chronicles 16:39–40)

This is most likely the invention of the Chronicler.⁴ Even so, the Chronicler seems to be aware of the great religious importance of Gibeon and is bringing it in line with orthodox Judaism by connecting it with the tabernacle and bronze altar of Moses.

We also have a strange story in 2 Samuel 21 in which David’s kingdom is struck by a famine for three years. Yahweh reveals that the famine is due to guilt from Saul’s massacre of the Gibeonites. This might come as a surprise to the reader, since no such massacre has been narrated anywhere in the books of Samuel. There’s also a question as to why Yahweh would have waited all these years until David’s reign to punish Israel for Saul’s crimes.⁵

Anyway, the remedy for the famine is for David to hand over seven grandsons of Saul to the Gibeonites, who will then impale (or crucify) them as human sacrifices “before Yahweh” (2 Sam. 21:6 and 21:9). The Hebrew Masoretic text of verse 6 says that the Gibeonites intend to “hang them before Yahweh at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord”, but most commentators believe this text is defective and prefer to rely on the Greek translations of Aquila and Symmachus: “so that we may crucify them to Yahweh in Gibeon on the mountain of Yahweh.”⁶ It is remarkable for a biblical author to describe any location other than Jerusalem this way.

Later in 1 Kings, Solomon receives his first of two visions from Yahweh at Gibeon.

At Gibeon Yahweh appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” (1 Kings 3:5)
When Solomon had finished building the house of Yahweh and the king’s house and all that Solomon desired to build, Yahweh appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. (1 Kings 9:1–2)

One more connection between the Hivites/Gibeonites and the Yahweh religion is that the treaty story in Joshua 9 is an etiology to explain the existence of Hivite servants (the Netinim) who belong to the Jerusalem temple in the writer’s day. (For details, see this earlier article of mine.)

During most of this time, the Ark of the Covenant is also located at Kiriath-jearim, another town controlled by the Gibeonites/Hivites.

James Tissot, The Conquest of the Amorites at Gibeon

Saul and Gibeon

King Saul is sometimes associated with Gibeon in Samuel and Chronicles. 1 Chronicles 8 gives Saul a Gibeonite lineage that begins with Abi-gibeon (a name meaning “father of Gibeon”; see Margalith p. 82). The town of Zela, where the tomb of Saul’s father Kish was located (2 Sam. 21:14), was probably located less than a mile from Gibeon.

Some scholars have identified the “large stone at Gibeon” (2 Samuel 20:8) with the stone that is consecrated as an altar to Yahweh by Saul (1 Samuel 14:33–35), most likely at the Gibeon sanctuary. (Blenkinsopp, p. 4; Margalith, p. 76) Part of Saul’s coronation as king in 1 Samuel 10 involved a procession with prophets from the Yahwhist shrine at Gibeath-elohim—a name that literally means “hill of God” and probably refers to Gibeon itself. (Niesiołowski-Spanò 2016, p. 160)

Furthermore, Saul’s home is repeatedly said to be Gibeah (with an ‘h’), and there’s some question as to whether Gibeon, Gibeah, Geba, and other similar-sounding names were actually the same location. Textual corruption is apparent in some of the verses that refer to Gibeah, making it difficult to know what the correct reading is. (See Blenkinsopp, p. 6) It might even be that Gibeah has been deliberately substituted for Gibeon in order to obscure the importance of Gibeon during the early days of the monarchy (Van der Toorn, p. 523). Even if Gibeah and Gibeon were distinct and Gibeah has been correctly identified as Saul’s hometown, Gibeah was still close to Gibeon and part of Gibeonite territory.

Who Were the Hivites?

Scholars have had difficulty identifying the biblical Hivites (Hebew: Ha-hivi) with any known political or ethnic group. It doesn’t help that the Bible itself seems to get them mixed up with the Hittites and Horites. (For example, Zibeon the Hivite in Genesis 36:2 becomes a Horite in verse 20.)

One possibility, now accepted by many historians, is that they were a nation from the Aegean coast of Asia Minor known as the Achaeans (Achaioi) to Homer—also called Ahhiyawa by the Hittites and Akawasha by the Egyptians. A rival theory proposes that they were Celicians from coastal Anatolia. (Margalith, pp. 63ff) If either proposal is correct, this would make them one of the Sea Peoples who migrated to Canaan along with the Philistines (Mycenaeans), Tjeker, and similar groups at the end of the Bronze Age.

The precise origins of the Philistines and other Sea Peoples have always been shrouded in mystery.  As a military elite that was outnumbered by the indigenous Canaanites, they followed a settlement pattern of strong urban centers (which they controlled) surrounded by a depopulated countryside, and they adopted the language and religious customs of the locals. (Niesiołowski-Spanò, p. 7) Under this model, they were the dominant political force in the Levant from the end of the Bronze Age until Pharaoh Shoshenq’s invasion of their cities created a political vacuum that allowed Israel, Judah, and other local kingdoms to assert independence. (Ibid., p. 29)

If Gibeon was controlled by the Hivites, then it is not surprising that they would have coexisted with the original Canaanite population (the Benjaminites) and adopted the worship of local gods such as Yahweh and Shemesh. 

Despite the depiction of the Philistines as enemies of Saul in some passages, it seems more likely that Saul was subservient to the Philistines, the dominant power in the region (who, as we have seen, were probably related to the Hivites). The shrine at Gibeon/Gibeah that celebrates Saul’s coronation was home to a Philistine garrison (1 Sam. 10:5). The term often translated as Saul’s “uncle” in 10:14 was probably a Philistine commander. (Edelman 1991, pp. 55-56) 1 Samuel 14:21 states that there were Hebrews serving in the Philistine army, and 1 Samuel 13 clearly depicts Saul’s kingdom as a vassal of the Philistines. The famous battle that pits Saul against the Philistines and their champion Goliath is anachronistic (see Finkelstein 2002), based in part on an older story about David’s champion Elhanan killing Goliath that is still preserved in the Bible (2 Sam. 21:19 — see here for details).

Archaeology has shown that, during the period in question here (the 10th century BCE), Jerusalem was of little significance. King Saul himself (if he existed) seems to have been a local Gibeonite/Benjaminite ruler. David, his successor, initially ruled from Hebron and is clearly depicted as a servant and vassal of the Philistines during his early years. It’s possible that the Saul-David rivalry of the Bible reflects an actual war between the Hivite/Philistine-aligned House of Saul and a rebellious House of David that was established in Jerusalem. In fact, Old Testament scholar Ernst Axel Knauf believes that these were the actual circumstances behind the battle of Gibeon in Joshua 10. (Ernst Axel Knauf, p. 205) This would also explain why the initial battle between David and Ishbaal son of Saul takes place at Gibeon in 2 Samuel 2 for no reason that is explicable in the narrative. Why would the battle for the throne of Israel occur there, if not for the fact that Gibeon was the capital of Saul’s kingdom and a local seat of power? (Edelman 2019, p. 232)

It is probably no coincidence that the large stone at Gibeon is also the focal point of the rebellion by the Benjaminites against David’s rule in 2 Samuel 20. As a rival capital both politically and religiously, Gibeon seems to have remained a thorn in the side of David’s Jerusalem. (See Blenkinsopp, p. 88.)

Gerrit de Wet, Saul Welcoming David after his Victory over Goliath, 1640

Yahweh on the Move

If we accept the biblical traditions about Gibeon as being genuine historical memories to some degree, then it seems likely that institutional worship of Yahweh in southern Palestine did not begin at Jerusalem, but at Gibeon — perhaps even among people whom the Bible would not consider Israelites. It also seems plausible that the religious practices at Gibeon combined their veneration of Yahweh and the sun to some degree. This would have been discouraged at some point (but perhaps not immediately) once the Yahweh cult and its priesthood were centralized at the Jerusalem temple.

The poem in Solomon’s temple dedication is probably best understood in that context. The distinction between Shemesh (the sun deity) and Yahweh is emphasized, and Yahweh’s new abode from now on is declared to be the temple, where he will dwell in darkness amidst clouds of incense.

Furthermore, the primacy of the temple’s location at Jerusalem and the necessity of praying toward that location (perhaps instead of the sky) is emphasized repeatedly in 1 Kings 8.

Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. (v. 30)
When…they pray toward this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin because you punish them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel…. (v. 35)

In a sense, this poem from the Book of Jasher is part of the foundation story of the fledgling Judahite kingdom that was based in Jerusalem and assumed control of the Yahwhist religion. In fact, all three excerpts from the book of Jasher — the battle at Gibeon, the lament for Saul and Jonathan, and the dedication of the Jerusalem temple — can potentially be understood against the same historical backdrop, a struggle between Gibeon and Jerusalem and their respective royal houses for control of the Judahite hill country.


Footnotes

  1. The Greek actually reads “book of the song”, but the Hebrew word for “song” is identical to “upright (yashar)” aside from one transposed letter, so scholars generally think the Hebrew original said “upright (yashar)”.
  2. Ernst Axel Knauf believes that it can only be El Elyon, the chief Canaanite deity, who has placed Sun in the heavens here.
  3. The military campaign by Joshua following the battle at Gibeon, for example, appears to be a retelling of Assyrian king Sennacherib’s campaign in southern Palestine in 701 BCE.
  4. The tabernacle of Moses did not actually exist, of course, but that’s a topic for another article.
  5. The story is so rife with narrative problems that John Van Seters concludes, “From a literary point of view, [2 Samuel 21] has so little merit that perhaps the less that is said about it, the better.” (Van Seters 2011, p. 551)
  6. The Septuagint also has an interesting variant. It says that the victims were hanged “in the sun for the Lord in Gabaon (Gibeon) of Saul”. This parallels an incident in Numbers 25 where the leaders of Israel were “hanged for Yahweh before the sun” because of their idolatry. It’s not clear whether the phrase “before the sun” has its origins in a ritual performed connected to solar worship, or if it is simply a figure of speech meaning “in public” (see Taylor, p. 119).

Works Cited

  • J. Glen Taylor (1993). Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel.
  • Percy S.F. van Keulen (2005). Two Versions of the Solomon Narrative.
  • Israel Finkelstein (2002). “The Philistines in the Bible: A Late-Monarchic Perspective”. JSOT 27, 2002.
  • Israel Finkelstein (2019). Finkelstein, “First Israel, Core Israel, United (Northern) Israel”. NEA 82/1, 2019.
  • John Van Seters (2011). “David and the Gibeonites”. ZAW 123/4, 2011.
  • Othniel Margalith (1994). The Sea Peoples in the Bible.
  • Joseph Blenkinsopp (1972). Gibeon and Israel.
  • Niesiołowski-Spanò (2016). Goliath’s Legacy: Philistines and Hebrews in Biblical Times.
  • Karel van der Toorn (1993). “Saul and the Rise of the Israelite State Religion”. Vetus Testamentum 43/4 (Oct. 1993).
  • Ernst Axel Knauf (2019). “History in Joshua”. The Hebrew Bible and History: Critical Readings.
  • Diana Edelman (2019). “Saul ben Kish in History and Tradition”. The Hebrew Bible and History: Critical Readings.
  • Diane Edelman (1991). King Saul in the Historiography of Judah.

7 thoughts on “Gibeon Versus Jerusalem: A Biblical Game of Thrones?

  1. …“so that we may crucify them to Yahweh in Gibeon on the mountain of Yahweh.”⁶ It is remarkable for a biblical author to describe any location other than Jerusalem this way.

    The only other places that I know that are called this are Sinai (Numbers 10:33) and the unnamed mountain in the area of Moriah (Genesis 22:14), though it’s possible in the latter case that it was called this after being equated with “Mount Moriah,” the site of the Temple (2 Chronicles 3:1) in Jerusalem.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good point. But once the Israelites are in the promised land and living under a monarchy, you don’t expect anywhere but Jerusalem to be called the Mountain of Yahweh.

    Like

  3. This stuff is all Gothic and mind-blowing. And disturbing.

    A crucification to Yahweh to stop a famine? Who is this Yahweh?

    Speechless but I can still write. It’s a bit confusing so I will read it a few more times but the O.T. is confusing. You could write a book about all of the creepy stuff in the Bible and all those stuff that they just stole from the Persians and Greeks. I found my kindred spirit who probably was like, Yahweh, Jericho?

    All the women and children and animals? Jews don’t believe that anymore except for the fundamentalists. Very little correlates between books and chapters. Why did these writers feel so passionately about Yahweh? It makes little sense. Zeus was far nicer than Yahweh. Wonder if they hung out some times. Elohim, Marduk, Baal and all of the rest. I need to research more the Persian God/gods but it is a bit similar I think. You just upgrade some really powerful evil god and hope for the best. Israel’s still alive and kicking and Greece too. Will the Persians ever make a comeback?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It seems like the Hebrew Bible preserves many popular former Yahwist worship places despite Mount Zion in Jerusalem being the “orthodox” one.

    One post on Torah.com (https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-places-that-yhwh-will-choose-ebal-shiloh-and-jerusalem) lists the other well-known places that were most likely used to worship Yahweh but have since been abandoned (only exception being Gerizim which the Samaritans consider the mountain Yahweh chose for his worship and not Zion).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the supposed centrality of the Israelite religion and priesthood described by the deuteronomists doesn’t really fit with the multiplicity of religious sites and religious orders that the Bible actually mentions.

      Liked by 1 person

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