Gog and Magog: Israel’s Mysterious Northern Foes

Like many children raised in an Evangelical, charismatic church environment in the 80s, I was surrounded by a simmering fervour regarding the End Times and the Rapture, which we were constantly reminded could happen at any time. And like so many Christian households of that era, our bookshelf held a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth¹, which warned of a looming world war that had been foretold in the Bible. When we visited certain friends of my parents, the grown-up conversation would inevitably turn to current events and biblical prophecy, and my curious ears always perked up. I also remember my first encounter with the extremely lucrative End Times media industry — an episode of Jack Van Impe Presents — which left a lasting impression on me. Host Jack Van Impe would quote snippets from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation in rapid fire, showing how they all described the coming apocalyptic war against Israel. Even the identities of the participants were helpfully provided by the Bible, Jack assured his viewers; Russia would be the main aggressor, leading a coalition of such diverse nations as Iran, Germany, Egypt, and Ethiopia against Israel and her Western allies. To reach this undeniable conclusion, one simply needed to convert the names provided by Ezekiel — Magog, Meshech, Tubal, Gomer, etc. — into their modern equivalents. Welcome to modern dispensationalism. Continue reading “Gog and Magog: Israel’s Mysterious Northern Foes”

The Story of Ezer and Elead (and What It Means for the Exodus)

Tucked away amidst the genealogies of Chronicles almost no one reads, the tale of two cattle-rustling brothers from Ephraim might just be the most obscure story in the Bible. Like many such tales in the Old Testament, this one is brief and contains only the most essential details:

The sons of Ephraim…Ezer and Elead. Now the men of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him. He went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son; and he named him Beriah, because evil (beraah) had befallen his house. His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. (1 Chr. 7:20-24) Continue reading “The Story of Ezer and Elead (and What It Means for the Exodus)”

The Story of Balaam: How Biblical Tradition Turned a Prophet of God into an Arch-Heretic

In 1967, inscriptions written on a crumbled plaster wall were discovered during the excavation of Tell Deir ‘Alla in Jordan. Dated to the early 8th century BCE and written in a local Canaanite dialect, the inscriptions drew great attention when their title, written in red ink, was translated and found to say “Text of Balaam son of Beor, seer of the gods.” This remarkable find provided independent attestation of local tradition about a seer named Balaam who was already well-known to us from the Bible, and deciphering the fragmentary texts has been an ongoing task of archaeologists and linguistic experts since then.

The biblical Balaam passages are not without their own difficulties. The main story of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 is contradicted by other brief references in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, as well as three mentions of him in the New Testament. The importance of Balaam to the development of Christian theology is also remarkable, as we shall see once we untangle the development of the Balaam legend. Continue reading “The Story of Balaam: How Biblical Tradition Turned a Prophet of God into an Arch-Heretic”

Behold Your Gods, O Israel — The Golden Calves of Aaron and Jeroboam

No scene in the Old Testament characterizes the Israelites’ frequent apostasy more vividly than the Golden Calf incident in Exodus. Like so many other biblical stories, however, this tale reveals a complicated history of development and other problems that render its intent ambiguous.

The Golden Calf story does not stand in isolation, for 1 Kings tells a very similar story about the creation of two golden calves by king Jeroboam, and there are additional references to the golden calves in Hosea, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and elsewhere. The two incidents appear to be related, but how exactly?

The situation becomes more complicated still when we bringing historical and archaeological evidence. Having skimmed several dozen books and articles that discuss the golden calves of Exodus and 1 Kings, I will attempt to summarize the most widespread academic views. Continue reading “Behold Your Gods, O Israel — The Golden Calves of Aaron and Jeroboam”

The Origins of Yahweh and the Revived Kenite Hypothesis

The God of Israel is referred to by a number of names in the Old Testament. The two most significant are “El” (with its variants) and “Yahweh”. Thanks in large part to the religious libraries uncovered among the ruins of Ugarit, a Bronze Age city-state to the north of Israel, we now know a great deal about El as a distinct Canaanite deity who was regarded as the most high god in Ugarit, as he would be later in Israel.

It is generally understood that the cults dedicated to Yahweh and El originated independently of each other before their eventual merger — a process still not completed when much of the Old Testament was written. But determining how Yahweh came to be the patron deity of Israel and Judah is not so simple. The lack of archaeological evidence has required Bible scholars to rely mostly on the text of the Bible itself.

The theory known as the Kenite hypothesis is one that has been around since the 19th century, initially proposed by the theologian F. W. Ghillany in 1862. According to this view, Yahweh was originally the God of the Kenite tribe prior to the Israelite settlement of Canaan. The Kenite hypothesis lost momentum as modern biblical studies undermined some of its key premises, but it seems to be making a comeback thanks to newer findings and a reassessment of the biblical texts. Continue reading “The Origins of Yahweh and the Revived Kenite Hypothesis”

The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery

One of many puzzling passages that anyone reading the Bible from the beginning is soon confronted with is a story in which the flood hero Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked—and which concludes with Noah placing a curse on his grandson Canaan. Since this passage was brought up by a commenter recently, I thought I’d look into it more closely.

Part of the reason, no doubt, for the impression of strangeness it leaves on readers is that it is (understandably) almost never preached on in church and may surprise those who remember the tale of Noah in children’s storybook terms, full of cuddly animals and pretty rainbows. When Aronofsky’s film Noah came out in 2014, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show aired a segment poking fun at religious viewers who were irked by the inclusion of a scene in which the titular character got drunk—and who were apparently oblivious to the existence of that very story in Genesis 9. In fact, during pre-release screenings of Noah to Christian audiences, viewers who didn’t realize the story was biblical reacted so negatively to the drunkenness scene that Paramount Pictures considered cutting it.

There was, however, a time when churchgoers might have been more familiar with Noah’s wine-imbibing ways, since the so-called “curse of Ham” that resulted was often invoked to show that enslavement and marginalization of Africans had been God’s divine will from the dawn of humanity. But more on that later. Let’s see what the text itself has to say. Continue reading “The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery”

Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord

“The ring of the King,” said Ransom, “is on Arthur’s finger where he sits in the land of Abhalljin, beyond the seas of Lur in Perelandra. For Arthur did not die; but Our Lord took him to be in the body till the end, with Enoch and Elias and Moses and Melchisedec the King. Melchisedec is he in whose hall the steep-stoned ring sparkles on the forefinger of the Pendragon.” — C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe.” — Doctor Who, “The Family of Blood”

I still remember my astonishment many years ago, reading Hebrews for the first time and coming across this character named Melchizedek who was apparently an eternal and immortal being, without parents and without beginning or end. This was one of those places in the Bible where the line between religion and fantasy seemed to blur.

When I read Genesis 14 — one of only two places in the Old Testament where the immortal referent of Hebrews is mentioned — I get a sense of a character who doesn’t quite belong to the world around him; an enigmatic priest serving El Elyon, the god whom Abram equates with Yahweh, and who is also king of a city that seems to be Jerusalem but not quite. He always struck me as someone like the Tom Bombadil character of The Lord of the Rings, a powerful but reclusive wizard who disappears from the narrative once the main characters move on. More lately, he reminds me of Doctor Who, a character who seems human but whose influence extends across time and space.

Somehow, this obscure character insinuated himself right into the heart of primitive Christian theology — as well as several parallel trends in Jewish and Gnostic thought, as we shall soon see. Whether an eternal cosmic being or merely a folkloric character, Melchizedek is more important to the development of Jewish messianism and Christianity than many people may realize. Continue reading “Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord”

The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?

The Tower of Babel is another biblical story that will be familiar to anyone with a typical Western religious upbringing. Like many of the narrative snippets found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis (the Primeval History), its brevity and ambiguous wording have led interpreters to fill in the gaps in all sorts of ways in order to squeeze meaning out of it.

As we read the text, there are a number of interesting questions we can ask. Was the Tower of Babel based on a real building? What message is the text trying to convey, both on its own and in context?

I’m also interested in the story’s application to the modern creationist movement. How much attention does the Tower of Babel get in the science-religion debate compared to the Genesis stories of creation and Noah’s flood? Continue reading “The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?”

Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition

Belief in Satan — the embodiment of sin and evil who exists in reality as a personal being — has been a mainstay of Christian doctrine and popular belief since the earliest days of the faith. As with most Christian theology, however, there is great diversity in the church’s teachings on the devil, both past and present. Most Christians assume that the qualities commonly attributed to Satan are derived from clear and straightforward readings of the Bible, but are they really? Continue reading “Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition”

Readers of the Lost Ark: Following the Literary Trail of an Ancient Religious Symbol

There is probably no artifact in the Bible more famous than the Ark of the Covenant — or, to use its fullest and most ancient title, the “Ark of Yahweh Sabaoth Who Sits Enthroned upon the Cherubim”.¹ When we look at what the Bible actually says about it, we find strange tales of the Ark’s dangerous powers, conflicting stories of its construction, contradictions about its contents, and a puzzling silence about its fate. If we dig deep enough, we even find signs of alternate traditions that have been erased by later biblical editors. A thorough look at all these passages would easily fill a book, but a few issues in particular have caught my attention lately. Continue reading “Readers of the Lost Ark: Following the Literary Trail of an Ancient Religious Symbol”