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”

Canaanites, Amorites, and Hittites in History and the Bible

The Old Testament is full of names used to describe various ethnic groups of the Promised Land and the lands they occupy. Some of these names are well-attested from other archaeological and historical sources; others are obscure and remain a mystery to this day.

Throughout the Pentateuch and historical books, the Promised Land is frequently referred to as Canaan, and its non-Israelite inhabitants as Canaanites. Other terms used fairly often for the land’s indigenous inhabitants, though less frequently than “Canaanite”, are “Amorite” and “Hittite”.

What, in historical terms, was a Canaanite, a Hittite, an Amorite? How did ancient sources outside the Bible use these labels, and what comparisons can we draw with the Bible? The answers may help us to understand the times and places in which the biblical authors wrote, as well as the idealogical framework they were working from. Continue reading “Canaanites, Amorites, and Hittites in History and the Bible”

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?”

Did the Jerusalem Temple Use Slave Labour?

Discussions about slavery in the Bible tend to focus on the treatment of slaves in the Jewish law as described in the Pentateuch. These passages, however, concern only private ownership of slaves. In the Ancient Near East, the institution of slavery was present in three different domains that were legally distinct: private slavery, state slavery, and temple slavery. Whether the Bible described and condoned slavery in the context of the Jerusalem temple and religious practices is a topic I had not encountered until recently. Continue reading “Did the Jerusalem Temple Use Slave Labour?”

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”

The Men Who Killed Goliath: Unraveling the Layers of Tradition behind a Timeless Tale of Heroism

There might be no Old Testament story more popular or seared more deeply into Western consciousness than the legend of David and Goliath. It is surprising, then, how few people (aside from scholars) have read the story carefully enough to notice its many oddities and contradictions. The Goliath narrative in 1 Samuel 16–18 is, in fact, two different stories spliced together, and there is yet another brief account in 2 Samuel 21. These three versions of the iconic tale show the interesting ways in which Biblical authors utilized and revised their source materials. Continue reading “The Men Who Killed Goliath: Unraveling the Layers of Tradition behind a Timeless Tale of Heroism”

The Twelve (or So) Tribes of Israel

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. Continue reading “The Twelve (or So) Tribes of Israel”

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. Continue reading “Some Observations on High Priests in the Gospels and Acts”