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”

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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 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”

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?”

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”