From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph

Adrien Guignet, Joseph explains Pharaoh's dream, 19th century

The story of Joseph stands out in the book of Genesis as a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. Its position in the Pentateuch also makes it a bridge between the stories of the patriarchs in Canaan and the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. Differences of style, narrative contradictions, details that don’t line up with the surrounding narrative, and other issues call into question the authorship and original purpose of the story, however. What can we learn from taking a closer look? Continue reading “From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph”

Shamgar Son of Anat and Israel’s Age of Heroes

Few biblical characters are as obscure as Shamgar ben Anat. To be sure, there are many names that appear just once or twice in the genealogies, but Shamgar is a character whose actions distinguish him within the biblical narrative, and not just a forgotten name on a list. Although he is mentioned in only two verses, he is supposedly one of the judges of Israel who was remembered for a mighty feat in battle. However, I knew practically nothing about him beside the name before I set about writing this article, and I chose him as an experiment to find out how much biblical studies could tell me about such a marginal character.  Continue reading “Shamgar Son of Anat and Israel’s Age of Heroes”

Bethel, the Forgotten God of Israel

Few literary sources about the early religion of Israel are available to us. There is the Old Testament of course, and although many of its stories and traditions are old, the text itself comes to us through redacted manuscripts produced by Judean scribes at a fairly late date. From archaeological evidence and careful analysis of some of the Bible’s earliest passages, scholars have developed a view of early Israel that was much more polytheistic right from its origins than the traditional story would have us believe.

In the early 20th century, a collection of Aramaic papyri discovered in Egypt opened a new window on Israelite religion. They consist of letters, legal documents, and literature written by and for a colony of Israelites and Arameans who were apparently recruited as mercenaries to guard the southern frontier of Egypt at what is now Aswan. Dated to the fifth century BCE, these papyri are far older than any biblical manuscripts we possess, and unlike the Bible, they are original documents with no opportunity for editing and revision over the centuries. Although Yahweh is frequently mentioned in the form “Yaho” (YHW or occasionally YHH), the letters also mention the god Bethel and the goddesses Anat-Bethel (i.e. Anat consort of Bethel), Anat-Yaho, and the Queen of Heaven in association with people who are clearly Israelites. There seems to be a clear implication that these were other deities venerated by at least some Jews and Israelites. Can we find other evidence that such was the case? For this article, I am particularly interested in Bethel, but others may occasionally come into the picture. Continue reading “Bethel, the Forgotten God of Israel”

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 Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10

Joshua 10 has one of the most remarkable miracle stories in the whole of the Old Testament  outside the opening chapters of Genesis. Fresh off of victories at Jericho and Ai, Joshua’s Israelite army faces down a coalition of five Amorite kings; victory is swift, and with the enemy on the run, Joshua commands the sun and moon to stop moving, apparently in order to give the Israelites more time to pursue and slaughter the Amorites. So great is this feat that the narrator exuberantly declares, “there has been no day like it before or since!” and the chapter eventually ends with Israel in firm control of the Judahite heartland.

This passage, sometimes referred to as Joshua’s Long Day, is a puzzler. Exactly what kind of miracle is supposed to have occurred here? What traditions is the author working with? Answering these questions has proven quite difficult, since voluminous books and papers have been written on Joshua 10, and there is a remarkable diversity of opinions on every facet of the story among biblical scholars.

The passage is also interesting for its role in the debate between science and religion that has embroiled theologians, church authorities, and other interested parties since the time of Galileo and Copernicus. Even today, the interpretations given by those with a more conservative perspective reveal much about the thinking of modern biblical literalists. Continue reading “The Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10”

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”

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. Continue reading “And Then There Was One: Yahweh and the Shema”