Israelite Divination and the Mysterious Teraphim

My latest video is on the story of King Saul and his visit to the so-called Witch of Endor to summon the spirit of dead Samuel. It’s based on an article I wrote several years ago, but as usual, I’ve added some new material.

A biblical topic that intersects the practice of necromancy—though not specifically the ritual at Endor—is that of the teraphim. These religious objects play a minor role in several stories and are also occasionally mentioned by the prophets, but their physical appearance and their purpose remain conjectural. Based on parallels in neighboring cultures, scholars have often thought that they were household idols of some kind, inherited from one generation to the next. Knowing more about them could be the key to a better understanding of Israelite folk religion. Let’s take a look at some key passages.

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A Discussion with Bible Unboxed’s Lachlan on Elhanan and Goliath

In case you’ve never seen the Bible Unboxed channel on YouTube, it’s created by an up-and-coming Australian scholar named Lachlan who covers a variety of Bible-related topics much like I do. For his latest video, he graciously asked me to chat with him about David, Elhanan, Goliath and what it means when Bible stories contradict each other.

A longer version of our conversation without the flashy graphics can also be seen here. I think the highlight is around the 18 minute mark where we discuss weaver’s beams and why they’re important to the Legend of Elhanan.

For general background, see my earlier article on David and Goliath.

The Origins of the Parable of the Sower (and Other Seedy Riddles)

Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it once has found favorable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth. (Seneca, Epistles 38:2) 

Most people are unable to follow any demonstrative argument consecutively; hence they need parables. (Galen, from an Arabic fragment of an unknown work)

Why does Jesus speak in parables? The very word itself has become inextricably linked to Jesus because of how much that rhetorical style dominates the first three Gospels. As a method of teaching, it is a bit eccentric, but the images it conveys are memorable.

It is commonplace for Bible scholars and theologians to take church tradition as their starting point and assume that the Gospel parables actually originated as stories told by the historical Jesus in more-or-less the same form we read them today. How they found their way into the Gospels — whether recorded by eyewitnesses, preserved as oral history, or produced through divine inspiration — is trivia for specialists to quibble over. However, early critical scholars like David Friedrich Strauss and the emergence of the Synoptic Problem opened a breach in the defenses of traditionalism, as it became undeniable that copying, revision, and creative invention figured heavily in the construction of the Gospels. Debating the authenticity of specific sayings and parables became a core focus of scholarly initiatives like the Jesus Seminar.

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Did Jezebel Murder Naboth? A Reassessment of Israel’s Most Notorious Queen

Note: This article is also available as a YouTube video, which you can watch here.

There is probably no woman in the Bible as hated as Jezebel. She was a Phoenician princess, given in marriage to king Ahab of Israel by her father king Ethbaal of Sidon—probably without any say in the matter—yet according to 1 Kings, she was a manipulative and deceitful character whose corrupting influence led to the downfall of Ahab’s dynasty.

Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of Yahweh, urged on by his wife Jezebel. (1 Kings 21:25)

Within these same biblical pages, however, an alternate depiction of Jezebel can be gleaned—one of a pious queen who remains faithful to her native religion of Baal and Asherah worship in the face of Elijah’s hostility, and a strong wife who makes a name for herself in a nation where the countless consorts and concubines who lived and died were almost always forgotten. Even at the end, she defies the usurper Jehu as he invades her palace and orders her bloody death.

In the book of 1 Kings, Jezebel’s most memorable crime—the one that cemented her legacy as a wicked queen—is her role in a plot to accuse and execute an innocent landowner named Naboth so that her husband, king Ahab, can possess his vineyard. This heinous murder by itself should be enough to justify our condemnation of her.

However, a closer look at these chapters reveals numerous inconsistencies—some of them serious enough to cast doubt on Jezebel’s guilt. Could it be, after all this time, that Jezebel herself is yet another victim of scheming kings and traitors? Let’s reopen this three-thousand-year-old murder case and see what the facts tell us about Naboth’s murder.

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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.

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What Was the House of Joseph?

I’ve just published a new video on my YouTube channel — this time about the story of Joseph. It’s based on this article I wrote a while ago, but as usual, it has some new material and a new approach to some issues.

Although a small minority of scholars still argue that the story of Joseph was written in the monarchic period, the modern consensus seems to be that it dates to post-exilic times and is linked somehow to the Jewish diaspora in Egypt. The canonical narrative begins and ends with a focus on the twelve sons of Jacob who are to become the twelve tribes of Israel; but as we know, the twelve-tribe motif is a fictional reinvention of Israel’s history that emerged quite late, and you don’t find individuals with those names in ancient inscriptions, ostraca, et cetera. At the very least, any part of the story involving the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel cannot be so ancient.

However, the name “Joseph” does seem to be older than most of the other names. Even in the Bible, there are places where Joseph is listed as a tribe or house that is distinct from other Israelite tribes, including Manasseh and Ephraim—oblivious to the verses in Genesis and Numbers that “replace” Joseph with Manasseh and Ephraim in the twelve-tribe framework.

Two questions I pondered while I was revisiting the Joseph story were (1) could there be an older core of the story that concerns only the Joseph character, and if so, (2) what, in historical terms, did Joseph originally refer to? Was it just another name for the kingdom of Israel, or did it represent something else?

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Did Biblical Authors Literally Cut and Paste? A Review of The Dismembered Bible by Idan Dershowitz

Countless scholars have appealed to multiple documentary sources and stages of redaction to explain the complex and often puzzling state of various Old Testament texts. Rarely do they attempt to describe the actual physical process by which such editing would have been carried out. A few scholars have even gone so far as to ridicule the idea that ancient scribes could have performed complicated edits the way modern writers do. Susan Niditch criticized the Documentary Hypothesis on this very basis some years ago, highlighting the implausibility of the techniques that the pentateuchal scribes are assumed to have used.

At the heart of documentary hypothesis…is the cut-and-paste image of an individual pictured like Emperor Claudius of the PBS series, having his various written sources laid out before him as he chooses this verse or that, includes this tale not that, edits, elaborates, all in a library setting.

If the texts are leather, they may be heavy and need to be unrolled. Finding the proper passage in each scroll is a bit of a chore. If texts are papyrus, they are read held in the arm, one hand clasping or “supporting” the “bulk” of the scroll, while the other unrolls. Did the redactor need three colleagues to hold J, E, and P for him? Did each read the text out loud, and did he ask them to pause until he jotted down his selections, working like a secretary with three tapes dictated by the boss?

(Niditch, p. 113)

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The Metamorphosis of Lot’s Wife (Plus a New Video)

Recent scholarship on the Sodom and Gomorrah story increasingly explores the long-ignored connections with Greek mythology — and in particular, the theoxeny motif that typically involves one or more gods visiting human civilization in disguise. This motif forms the framework for chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis, and it occurs in the Greek New Testament as well, but it is absent from other Near Eastern literature.

I first wrote about Sodom and Gomorrah several years ago. I’ve created a new video on the topic that covers much of the same material, but with some new insights and approaches. You can find it on YouTube here.

One aspect of the story I do not address in the video is that of Lot’s wife. The instantaneous transformation of the unnamed Mrs. Lot into an upright mineral formation is unique in all the Bible, and apparently unique among Near Eastern literature as well. What should we make of it?

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When and Why Does Satan Fall in Luke 10:18?

The Miltonian myth of Satan as an angel named Lucifer who rebelled against God and was cast out of Heaven in primordial times has no real grounding in the Bible, and yet it is the origin story that many—if not most—Christians regard as canonical. In the Old Testament, Satan operates as an obedient member of God’s heavenly court even as he roams the earth testing God’s followers. In Jubilees, he is the leader of the evil spirits who remain after the flood, permitted by God to tempt humans. Early Christianity incorporates Satan into a Middle Platonist matrix, imagining him to be the prince of the corrupt angels or demons who control the earth and lowest heavens. It is only the tradition we find in an apocryphal text, The Life of Adam and Eve, that moves Satan’s expulsion back to Eden and explains why it happened.

In discussions of whether the Edenic version has a biblical basis, people inevitably bring up a certain verse in Luke:

I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. (Luke 10:18b)

Taken without more context, it’s easy to see why this verse can be interpreted as confirming some version of Satan’s primordial expulsion. But is that what the verse is really talking about? Let’s take a closer look.

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Nimrod and Other Legendary City Founders

In the middle of a genealogy about the descendants of Noah in Genesis 10, the author inserts a brief and obviously incomplete narrative about a great king named Nimrod who founds and rules several of the great cities of Babylonia and Assyria. The story cannot be described as historical, of course. No ruler named Nimrod can be found in the archaeological record, and the cities in question — to the extent that they can be identified — were established at different times over the span of several millennia.

It might seem strange that ancient authors would invent or tell stories about fictitious founders of great cities, but this was, in fact, common practice. Ancient Greek authors were particularly interested in the founding stories of Nineveh and Babylon, even though they possessed very little reliable knowledge about those cities and their histories.

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