All posts by randymccracken

I am a teacher at Calvary Chapel Bible College York and the author of "Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel".

Dead Dog: Motifs in Samuel

Dead Dog: Motifs in Samuel

dead dogWe live in a dog lover’s world and so it should come as no surprise that we use many idioms related to our four-legged friends. The positive use of an idiom involving dogs is usually related to puppies. We talk about having “puppy dog eyes,” or when speaking of teenagers we say they have a case of “puppy love.” Of course there’s also the colloquial expression, “What’s up dog?,” or “Yo dawg!” As much as we love our dogs, it’s surprising how often we use them in idioms with a negative meaning. “It’s a dog-eat- dog world,” “I’m sick as a dog,” “I’m dog-tired,” “You work like a dog,” and many more (see How friendly are these 29 dog idioms–disclaimer, some of these aren’t the nicest of expressions!). When a woman is called “a dog,” or worse, a female version of a dog, it’s not a compliment! If someone pranks me, I might threaten them good-naturedly by saying, “You’re a dead dog!” When someone is wasting time we might say, “You’re beating a dead dog,” although admittedly I’ve heard “horse” used in this idiom more frequently.  Although we are talking about dead dogs in this post, hopefully we won’t be beating any (i.e., I hope you think the article is worth your time)!

“Dog” in Scripture

vicious dog
Enemies in Scripture can be pictured as menacing dogs.

While current idiom’s can use “dog” positively or negatively,  dog language in Scripture is always negative. “The psalmist’s enemies are presented as menacing dogs (Ps. 22:16 [17]), and dogs represent a fool in Prov. 26:11, where the folly or sins of the fool are compared to the filth of dog vomit. Israel’s sentinels are called ‘silent dogs’ who sleep rather than bark, while Israel’s enemy is described as a voracious, devouring dog (Isa. 56:10–11)” (M.E. Taylor, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 352). “Dogs were scavengers and kept towns clean by consuming garbage and unburied corpses (Ps. 59:14–15 [MT 15–16])” (Ibid.). The NT, like the OT, considers dogs to be an unclean animal (Matt. 15:26-27). In fact, in Revelation’s picture of the heavenly city, dogs are said to be on the outside along with other unsavory characters (Rev. 22:15).

“Dog” and “Dead Dog” in Samuel

There are 5 occurrences of dog language in Samuel with a possible sixth occurrence (which will be explained below). Three verses specifically use the words “dead dog” (1 Sam. 24:14 {MT 15]; 2 Sam. 9:8; 16:9). In the other two occurrences the speakers refer to themselves as “dogs” and later end up dead (1 Sam. 17:43; 2 Sam. 3:8). So it seems that we can legitimately label these as “dead dog” passages as well. These passages use the word “dog” in one of two ways: 1) When someone is called a “dead dog,” the person using the expression is speaking disparagingly of another. 2) When a person refers to themselves as a “dead dog,” it is usually a statement of humility, unless the context makes it clear that they do not see themselves as a “dog.”

Goliath and Abner: Dogs Who End Up Dead

Goliath becomes a dead dog
Goliath denies that he is a dog, nevertheless, he winds up eating the dust like a dead dog.

When David goes out to engage Goliath in battle, Goliath says, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (1 Sam. 17:43). Goliath’s question is clearly rhetorical. He does not believe that he is a dog, and therefore, this is a derogatory use of the word. In other words, Goliath is not expressing humility by referring to himself as a dog. Ironically, a few verses later, Goliath winds up dead, proving he is, in fact, a “dead dog!”

When Ishbosheth accuses Abner of sleeping with Rizpah, his father’s concubine, Abner angrily retorts, “Am I a dog’s head of Judah?” (2 Sam. 3:8). Once again, we have a rhetorical question. Clearly Abner does not think that he is a “dog’s head.” There are several interesting observations that can be made about this response. Anderson observes, “Since sexual promiscuity of dogs is nearly proverbial, Abner’s exclamation is fairly apposite” (A.A. Anderson, WBC, 2 Samuel, p. 56). It is also noted by some scholars that “dog’s head” may, in fact, be a euphemistic reference that actually refer’s to a dog’s backside! (See e.g., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel–Vol. 2, p. 424). Finally, the word for dog in Hebrew is keleb. The name Caleb comes from this word. It’s possible that Abner was making a wordplay here. Recall that at this time David was reigning over Judah from Hebron (2 Sam. 2:1-4). Hebron was the city given by Joshua to Caleb (Josh. 15:13). When Abner says, “Am I a dog’s head of Judah?,” some scholars take this to mean “Am I the chief of Caleb of Judah?” “Head” here would mean “leader” (see my post on the head motif in Samuel). The reference to Caleb (which means “dog”) would be a way of referencing Hebron. Therefore, Abner would be saying, “Do you think I’m loyal to David who rules over Caleb’s territory in Hebron?” (On this interpretation see, McCarter, 2 Samuel, Yale Anchor Bible, p. 106). At the same time, the expression carries the idea of being a dog’s head and thus it would have a double meaning. If this is the case, then this would be a clever retort indeed! By the end of the chapter (2 Sam. 3:27), the man who sarcastically referred to himself as a “dog’s head,” is dead.

Shimei, the Dead Dog

Shimei, the dead dog
Shimei’s cursing of David leads to his appellation as a “dead dog” by Abishai.

The clearest case of “dead dog” having a derogatory meaning is found in 2 Samuel 16:9. The context is a report of David’s flight from Jerusalem during the revolt of Absalom. As David is fleeing, Shimei throws rocks and dirt his way, while cursing him. Abishai, one of David’s commanders, gets fed up with this insulting behavior and says, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head.” David refuses to allow him and later, following Absalom’s defeat, when Shimei begs for his life, David pardons him (2 Sam. 19:16-23). However, David never forgets Shimei’s treachery and on his death bed he tells Solomon to deal wisely with him and see that he does not go to the grave peacefully (1 Kgs. 2:8-9). Eventually, Shimei breaks an agreement that he had made with Solomon. The result is his execution (1 Kgs. 2:39-46). In the end, Shimei truly winds up as a “dead dog.”

David & Mephibosheth: Dead Dogs

David spares Saul
David spares Saul. Image courtesy of St-Takla.org

The final two occurrences of this expression in the books of Samuel are found on the lips of David and Mephibosheth respectively. On one occasion when Saul is pursuing David in the Wilderness, David spares his life. Later, David confronts Saul by showing a piece of Saul’s robe in his hand, demonstrating that he might have killed him. After pleading with Saul he states, “After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! (1 Sam. 24:14). David’s reference to himself as a “dead dog” is a statement of humility. He is claiming to be insignificant. This is also backed up by his reference to himself as a “flea.”

Mephibosheth the dead dog
Mephibosheth approaches King David with humility.

When Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s crippled son, is summoned to appear before David, he comes in fear. As he approaches the king, he falls on his face in reverence. David tells him not to fear, and promises that he will restore all of Saul’s land to him and have him eat at the king’s table as one of his sons. Mephibosheth responds by saying, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?” (2 Sam. 9:8). This statement certainly expresses Mephibosheth’s humility, but in most circumstances, these words would also be literally true. It was very common in the ancient world when a new dynasty was established, the new king would kill all of the remaining descendants of the former king.  This is why Mephibosheth was hiding out in a place called Lo-Debar (2 Sam. 9:4), and why David was unaware of whether Saul had any surviving descendants (2 Sam. 9:1). However, David proves to be true to his word to both Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:14-15) and Saul (1 Sam. 24:21-22) and does not destroy all of their descendants, but instead blesses Mephibosheth.

Is Nabal a Dog?

Is Nabal a dead dog?
Abigail pleads for David to forgive he foolish husband’s harsh words.

Having covered the 5 passages which clearly speak of a dead dog, we come to a sixth, questionable passage. The question has to do with how to translate the Hebrew. In 1 Samuel 25 we are introduced to a despicable man named Nabal, and his wise and beautiful wife, Abigail. Nabal is described in v. 3, along with his wife. Most English translations at the end of v. 3 read, “He was a Calebite.” We have already noted that the name Caleb means “dog.” Nabal, whose name means “fool” is introduced in a less than complimentary way–“the man was harsh and badly behaved.” This introduction looks especially bad when contrasted with his wife. Nabal lives in the area around Hebron. As we noted above, this is Calebite territory. The text could simply be telling us that Nabal was a descendant of Caleb. If so, he has failed to live up to his ancestor’s reputation! Some scholars, however, think that the designation, “he was a Calebite,” is meant to communicate, “he was dog-like.” This would certainly fit the negative description he is given, not to mention, the way he is depicted in the coming story.   To muddy the waters a bit, the Hebrew text, literally reads, “he was like his heart.” The difference between “he was like his heart,” and “he was a Calebite,” is one small letter. Also, although the text was written as “he was like his heart,” it was read as, “he was a Calebite.” For those who know Hebrew, this is the difference between the Kethib (what is written) and the Qere (what is read). This textual issue is why it is difficult to be sure that Nabal is being described as “dog-like.” Regardless, the rest of the story shows him to be a despised individual, and he dies in the end. Therefore, it is a strong possibility that Nabal should also be viewed as a “dead dog.”

Dog Language in the Ancient Near East

The Amarna Letters
There is a lot of “dog” language in the Amarna letters.

The discovery of ancient documents by archaeologists demonstrates that the dog language of 1&2 Samuel (as well as the rest of the OT) has a clear ancient Near Eastern (ANE) background. For example, among the Amarna letters (documents from the 14th century B.C. describing an invasion into Canaan) we find a number of expressions using dog language. The dog language is used either to speak derogatorily of an enemy, or in a self-deprecating manner evidencing humility. In other words, dog expressions in ANE literature are used the same way as they are in the books of Samuel. Here are two examples from the Amarna letters, showing the two meanings.

  1. “Who are the sons of ʿAbdi-Aširta, the servant and dog? Are they the king of Kaššu or the king of Mittani that they take the land of the king for themselves?” (EA 104:26). Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters (English-language ed., p. 177). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. “As I am a servant of the king and a dog of his house, I guard all Amurru for the king, my lord.” (EA 60:6-EA 60:9). Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters (English-language ed., p. 132). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Another example comes from Judah’s final days as they attempted to fight off the Babylonians. From the city of Lachish come some letters of desperation from the commander there, seeking help against the Babylonians. These letters, written on pieces of broken pottery, are known as the Lachish ostraca (see the link to the left, or my post on Tel Lachish). The dog language used in these letters is all of the humble variety since the commander is writing and addressing his superior. Because of the similarities, I have just listed one example below.

“To my lord Yaosh: May Yahweh cause my lord to hear tidings of peace this very day, this very day! Who is thy servant (but) a dog that my lord hath remembered his servant? May Yahweh afflict those who re[port] an (evil) rumor about which thou art not informed!” (Pritchard, J. B. (Ed.). (1969). The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament  (3rd ed. with Supplement, p. 322 Princeton: Princeton University Press.)

Conclusion: Dead Dogs Do Tell Tales (or is it “Tails?)

dog's tailAs we have learned in earlier posts, the purpose of a motif is to accentuate one of the messages that the inspired author is seeking to communicate. The dead dog motif contributes to the theme of humility and pride, so prominent in Samuel. We saw this theme also emphasized in the motif of tallness (see last week’s post). One who is a dog, but doesn’t know it, like Goliath and Abner, are an example of pride. Pride always results in a fall in the books of Samuel. Shimei, who is correctly identified as a “dead dog,” is eventually executed. While there is some uncertainty as to whether Nabal is described as a dog, he certainly is dog-like in his words and actions. In the end, he succumbs to the Lord’s judgment and, therefore, might be regarded as yet another “dead dog” in Samuel. On the other hand, those who confess that they are a “dead dog” are an example of humility in the books of Samuel. In David’s case he is exalted to the kingship. In Mephibosheth’s case, he is lifted up to sit at the king’s table (1 Sam. 2:8; 2 Sam. 9:11-13). In the end, every dog has his day in the books of Samuel and gets his just desserts.

If you are interested in a more in-depth look at the various characters in the Book of Samuel, like those mentioned in this study (Abner, Shimei, or Abigail), please check out my book:

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.

Family Portraits

Tallness: Motifs in Samuel

Tallness: Motifs in Samuel

Tallness
Robert Wadlow, the tallest man on record was considered a “gentle giant.”

Tallness has its advantages and disadvantages. A tall person will have less legroom on a plane or may have to duck their head when entering a doorway. Tallness is great for reaching things in high places or for being able to see above the crowd when watching a public event. Of course, these are all trivial advantages and disadvantages. On a more serious note, a recent study suggests that taller people (over 6 feet) may be more susceptible to COVID-19 (read here). Another study suggests that taller people are more susceptible to cancer, whereas shorter people are at a greater risk for diabetes. The article states, “For several years researchers have identified strange associations between height and disease” (Why Shorter People are at Greater Risk for Diabetes). At times, tall people may be considered intimidating (Why Tall People Feel So Intimidating). On the other hand, the tallest man on record, Robert Wadlow, was considered a “gentle giant” (see photo above).

Height in the Bible

In previous posts we have noted how the Bible uses physical language in a metaphorical way to communicate spiritual truth (e.g., feet, and head). The same is true with the ideas of height or tallness. Thus height can be literal, figurative, or both. Just as in real life, biblical imagery of tallness or things that are high, has both positive and negative connotations. For example, God is pictured as “high and exalted” (Isa. 6:1 ), or as “God Most High” (e.g., Gen. 14:22–Hebrew = El Elyon). The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states, “Implicit in this imagery is an implied vertical hierarchy in which God and the unseen spiritual world that he inhabits are qualitatively ‘above’ earthly experience. We should not ignore the physical basis of such imagery: the ‘heavens are high above the earth,’ as the psalmist puts it (Ps 103:11), and the human imagination has always pictured heaven as being ‘up.’ God is therefore named as being ‘high’ in the Bible. This is encapsulated in the epithet ‘Most High,’ which occurs well over fifty times (NRSV). God is ‘high and lofty’ (Is 6:1; 57:7, 15), the one who is ‘high above all nations’ (Ps 113:4), and he dwells ‘in the high and holy place’ (Is 57:15)” (p. 384).

Temple Mount
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

In Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern thought, God, or the gods, often met with people on mountains or high places (Deut. 12:2). For example, God reveals Himself to Israel at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:18-20), and later the temple is constructed on Mt. Zion (Ps. 48:1-2). Legitimate and illegitimate places of worship in the Old Testament are often described as “high places” (1 Sam. 9:12-14; 1 Kgs. 3:2-4; 11:7; 13:32). Not only is God “high” but he honors His people by lifting them up. The promise to Israel is, “. . . He will set you high above all nations which He has made, in praise, in name, and in honor, and that you may be a holy people to the Lord your God, just as He has spoken” (Deut. 26:19).

The Hebrew Root gbh (Tallness)

While the idea of height or tallness can be positive and negative throughout the OT, in 1 Samuel the picture is wholly negative. The Hebrew word we are looking at comes from the root gbh. It can be seen in the name of Saul’s hometown, Gibeah, which means, “hill” or “height.” Besides its occurrence in the name Gibeah, the root occurs 6 more times, all in 1 Samuel (1 Sam. 2:3 [2x]; 1 Sam. 9:2; 10:23; 16:7; 17:4). We will look at these passages in a moment, but first, more needs to be said about the negative connotations of this word in Scripture.

Tallness can equal arrogance
In the Bible when height is used in conjunction with the eyes or heart, it can be a reference to arrogance. Portrait–Leon Battista Alberti

Just as we might use the term “high” to refer to an arrogant person or attitude–“get off your highhorse,” “don’t be so high and mighty”–so too does the Bible. This negative aspect to the word is often connected with various parts of the body in Scripture. For example, the heart (Ps. 131:1), the eyes (Isa. 2:11), the spirit (Prov. 16:18), and the nose (Ps. 10:4), can all be said to be “high” (gbh). In all but one case (2 Chron. 17:6), this is a negative quality, variously translated as “proud,” “arrogant,” or “haughty.” Thus, while the word tallness, in and of itself, is a neutral term, context determines whether it carries the connotations of honor or arrogance.

Tallness in Samuel

Hannah's prayer
The words of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam. 2:3 set the tone for the meaning of “tallness” in 1 Samuel.

The first use of the Hebrew root gbh in Samuel is found in Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:3. It occurs twice in this verse and sets the tone for its usage in the rest of 1 Samuel. Most English versions translate the opening line of verse 3 similar to the NKJV which reads, “Talk no more so very proudly.” “Very proudly” is the English rendering of a double use of the word gebohah. When Hebrew uses a word two times in succession, it is for emphasis. Hence the use of “very” in English translations. We could translate Hannah’s words as “Talk no more proudly, proudly.” If we wanted to be very literal, however, we would translate these words as Robert Polzin does, “Do not multiply your words, ‘Tall! Tall!'” (Samuel and the Deuteronomist, p. 34). Another alternative is Keith Bodner’s translation, “Do not multiply your speech, ‘O Tall one! O Tall one!’” (1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, p. 28). In other words, although the word here means “tall” it’s intended meaning is “proud,” thus the rendering by English translations. As noted by many, Hannah’s song enunciates many of the main themes of Samuel (see my post on the Theology of 1&2 Samuel). Therefore the allusion that tallness represents pride anticipates the introduction of certain people in 1 Samuel. To be precise, there are three people in 1 Samuel who are said to be tall–Saul, Eliab, and Goliath. Bodner sums up this same point with some clever wordplay of his own. He writes, “Even a cursory glance ahead in the story of 1 Samuel reveals that ‘tall’ is a big issue in this narrative. Physical height can be, at the very least, illusory, and breed a false sense of security. Saul’s outstanding attribute is that he is taller than all the people, and Goliath’s height instills great fear in the fighting ranks of Israel. Yet both will fall down (forward) at different times before the end of 1 Samuel” (1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, p. 28).

Tall Saul

Tallness--Saul
Tall Saul was not all he appeared to be!

Saul is certainly the most significant figure of the above trio. From the moment we are introduced to Saul we are told, “From his shoulders upward, he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2). This distinguishing characteristic, seems to be the one that most impresses Samuel. When Saul is chosen by lots to be king, we are reminded that, “he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward.” Samuel then continues by saying, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people” (1 Sam. 10:23-24). Ironically this “kingly” looking man was found “hiding among the supplies” (1 Sam. 10:22). This story already begins to hint that Saul is not all his physical appearance makes him out to be. This is confirmed later in the story in numerous ways. It is noteworthy that Saul, the tallest Israelite, cowers in fear when Goliath challenges Israel (1 Sam. 17:10-11). Saul’s lack of obedience (1 Sam. 15:11), his building of a monument for himself (1 Sam. 15:12), and his pleas for Samuel to honor him before the elders of his people (1 Sam. 15:30), all suggest a problem with pride.

Tall Eliab

David's anointing
David’s brothers, including tall Eliab are rejected in favor of him.

The next tall person we encounter in 1 Samuel is David’s brother, Eliab. After Saul’s rejection from being king, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king among the sons of Jesse (1 Sam. 16:1). As Samuel approaches Jesse’s sons, he comes to Eliab the firstborn and is convinced that the Lord’s anointed is standing before him (1 Sam. 16:6). Samuel is immediately rebuked by the Lord and told “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him” (1 Sam. 16:7). Once again Samuel is impressed by physical stature, but the Lord is not and offers a rebuke. Within the context, Eliab appears to be compared to Saul. He is said to be tall and that the Lord had rejected him–two things said of Saul as well. In the next chapter, Eliab opposes David’s inquiries about fighting Goliath (1 Sam. 17:28). In a subtle way, tall Eliab’s fear of fighting Goliath, once again compares him with Saul. Thus, for the second time in the narrative, tallness is rejected as a desirable quality. No doubt, the suggestion is once again that Eliab had a problem with pride (for more on Eliab, see my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel).

Tall Goliath

Tallness--David vs Goliath
Tall Goliath did not intimidate David.

Obviously, the most famous, or infamous, tall person in 1 Samuel is Goliath. 1 Samuel 17:4-7 gives a detailed description of Goliath, including his height (see my other articles on Goliath, here, here, and here). Tallness appears in what is clearly a negative context here. Once again, the tall person doesn’t turn out to be what we thought he was. Goliath is cut down to size by the young shepherd boy David, proving he was not as intimidating as he looked. Goliath’s pride is evidenced in his defying the army of Israel and its God (1 Sam. 17:25-26). Finally, there is some irony in these stories involving David’s interaction with Saul, Eliab, and Goliath. When David is introduced in 1 Samuel 16:11 and 1 Samuel 17:14, a certain Hebrew word is used that most English versions translate as “young.” This is a correct translation, and no doubt the intended meaning. However, the Hebrew word also means “small,” and is used intentionally to create a contrast between “small” David and these other “tall” individuals.

Gibeah, Ramah, and Tallness

As noted above, Gibeah was the hometown of Saul, while Samuel’s hometown was Ramah (1 Sam. 15:34). We have pointed out that the word Gibeah comes from the Hebrew root gbh and thus means “height,” or “tall.” Since Gibeah means “height,” it is not unusual that this name could be used to refer to different cities in Israel that were on a hill. This, indeed, was the case. The Gibeahs mentioned in Joshua 15:57, Joshua 18:28, and Joshua 24:33, are all different places and none are to be equated with Saul’s Gibeah. Ramah is a word that also means “height” or “hill.” Just as there were a number of Gibeahs in ancient Israel, so there were also a number of places called Ramah. The verbal form of Ramah ִis rûm (pronounced “room”), and means “high” or “exalted.” It is obvious that rûm and gbh are synonyms. It is interesting that the verbal form rûm occurs 7 times in 1&2 Samuel and always has a positive meaning (1 Sam. 2:1, 7, 8, 10; 9:24; 2 Sam. 47, 49). Notice that it occurs 4 times in Hannah’s opening song. In fact, in its first appearance in 1 Samuel 2:1, it actually takes the form “ramah.” The point of this is that, although these words are synonyms, the root for the word Ramah, always has positive connotations, while the root for Gibeah always has negative connotations in the books of Samuel. Not only does the root word for Gibeah have negative connotations in Samuel, Gibeah itself is remembered as a place where a terrible crime took place that turned into a civil war in Israel (Judg. 19-21). In fact, the story of Saul chopping his oxen into 12 pieces and sending them throughout Israel (1 Sam. 11:7) is an echo of the story of the Levite chopping his concubine into 12 pieces in Judges 19:29. All of this seems to be a subtle way of communicating that godly Samuel comes from Ramah (a word referring to a good use of “height,” meaning “exalt”), while ungodly Saul comes from Gibeah (a word associated with a negative use of “height,” meaning “pride”).

Conclusion: The Motif of Tallness Brings a Heightened Awareness in Samuel

Tallness--Naram-Sin
The King of Akkad, Naram-Sin is depicted as towering over his enemies.

Once again by following a motif in the books of Samuel, we are given insight into the inspired author’s message. In her song, Hannah says that God will bring down the proud but lift up the humble (1 Sam. 2:6-8). The motif of tallness plays into this important theme of the book. Ancient people were smaller in stature and so a tall person would be impressive. Indeed, many of the portraits of ancient kings depict them as being taller than their subjects and enemies (the stele of Naram-Sin above is one example among others). The motif in Samuel turns this expectation on its head by stating that appearances can be deceiving (1 Sam. 16:7). Tallness becomes symptomatic of pride and arrogance. The books of Samuel teach, if you raise yourself up, be sure God will cut you down to size! But if you are lowly and humble, be encouraged for God will lift you up!

Administrative Site of the Kings of Judah Uncovered

Administrative Site of the Kings of Judah Uncovered

administrative site on slopes of Arnona
Aerial Photo of the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation on the slopes of Arnona (photo credit: ASSAF PEREZ/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

The IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority) has recently uncovered a 2700 year old administrative site dating to the time of the biblical kings Hezekiah and Manasseh. This administrative site is located in a neighborhood of Jerusalem where the US Embassy now resides. The neighborhood, known as Arnona, is only 1.8 miles outside the Old City located between Talpiot and Ramat Rachel (where another ancient administrative site also exists). While preparing for a new residential complex two year ago, the discovery was made. As always in Israel, before any building activity can commence, an archaeological survey must be carried out by the IAA. Prior to excavation, the only ancient remains known consisted of a giant hill of flint stones. Excavating led to the discovery of a monumental concentric structure. The size of the site and the other objects discovered has led to the conclusion that it was an administrative site. The announcement about its discovery was released this past week (July 22, 2020).

An Administrative Site for Storage and Collecting Taxes

administrative site LMLK seal
LMLK seals usually consist of a disk with wings and ancient Hebrew script designating it as belonging to the king.

One of the discoveries includes a large collection of royal Judah seal impressions. The impressions on the handle of storage jars are known as LMLK seal impressions (see photo above). The letters LMLK in Hebrew mean “belonging to the king” (pronounced lam melech). About 120 of these stamped jars were found. Only about 1300 are known from various sites throughout Judah. The jars were normally used for tax collection purposes and included various agricultural items such as olive oil, and wine. The jars also include the names of four cities in Judah: Hebron, Socho, Ziph, and Memshat. Three of these are known from Scripture. The location of the fourth, Memshat, is still a bit of a mystery. These, and other finds, date the site to the eighth and seventh centuries–the time of Hezekiah and Manasseh, kings of Judah. One of the interesting observations to be made is that somehow this site survived the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 BC (Isaiah 37). It continued until the Babylonian destruction in 586 BC and began to be reused shortly after that up through the period of Persian rule.

What Else Was Discovered?

images from Arnona
Female and animals figurines, along with seal impressions were among the objects found. (Photo credit: Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority).

Seals impressions bearing the names of a number of individuals were also found. These individuals are believed to be governmental personnel or wealthy land owners who held economic clout in the area. None of the names are known from the Bible, but they are found on jar handles at other sites in Judah. For the stout of heart who don’t mind reading ancient Hebrew names, here is the list: Naham Abdi, Naham Hatzlihu, Meshalem Elnatan, Zafan Abmetz, Shaneah Azaria, Shalem Acha and Shivna Shachar. Among the other items found are female and animal figurines which the excavators equate with idolatrous practices. This is not a surprise, since this is a well-known feature of ancient Judah. Although Hezekiah sought to rid the land of idolatry (2 Kgs. 18:1-6), his son Manasseh brought it back with a passion (2 Kgs. 21:1-10).

For more information on this discovery, including photos and videos of the excavation and surrounding area, check out the article in The Times Of Israel (Huge Kingdom of Judah Government Complex Found Near US Embassy in Jerusalem), and the article in the Jerusalem Post (Key Site From Biblical Kings’ Time Unveiled Near US Embassy in Jerusalem). The best video for English speaking people, as well as the most comprehensive, can be found at CBN News (Israel Uncovers Major Archaeological Find From the Times of King Hezekiah, Manasseh).

Cosmic Warfare in the Book of Joshua

Cosmic Warfare in the Book of Joshua

Ancient Jericho and Cosmic Warfare
Ancient Jericho or Tel es-Sultan, illustrates the aspect of Cosmic Warfare in Joshua. Courtesy of pininterest.

The book of Joshua has suffered a damaged reputation in recent years. Many archaeologists consider the account of the Conquest as fantasy. Kathleen Kenyon’s dating of the fall of Jericho to 1550 BC has led them to conclude that there was no city to conquer in the time of Joshua (1400, or 1250 BC, depending on the date accepted for the Exodus). This has been ably challenged by Bryant Wood and the team at ABR (Associates of Biblical Research), but conservative voices are easily overlooked these days, even if they offer persuasive evidence (see the article here, and the video here). The Book of Joshua has also come under fire for its language of “utterly destroying” the inhabitants of Canaan (e.g., Josh. 6:17, 21). I have written elsewhere on the problem of violence in the OT (see my series, Violence in the Old Testament). Here I would like to focus on a point that is far too often overlooked. This involves the Book of Joshua’s outlook on the Conquest as Cosmic Warfare.

What is Cosmic Warfare?

Cosmic Warfare
Battling the prince of Persia (Daniel 10).

It is sometimes stated (and I have probably done so myself), that warfare in the OT is physical, whereas warfare in the NT is spiritual. However, a more accurate picture of what Scripture teaches would be to affirm that both testaments teach that warfare is physical AND spiritual. Cosmic warfare involves understanding the Bible’s teaching that spiritual forces battling it out in the heavenly realm often manifest that conflict in the physical realm. Daniel 10 gives us a glimpse into this dynamic. Daniel is given a vision and waits 21 days until a heavenly messenger is able to come and reveal to him its meaning. This heavenly being states that he was opposed in arriving sooner because of opposition from the prince of Persia (Dan. 10:13). The vision, however, reveals what will happen “to your people in the latter days” (Dan. 10:14). Daniel’s visions involve the revelation of real historic events. Thus there is a combination of spiritual and physical realities. While this is widely recognized as a feature of the Book of Daniel, a similar dynamic is at work in the Book of Joshua. This outlook is pervasive throughout the book, but I will limit my observations to 5 (groups of) passages.

Meditate on the Word and Follow It (Joshua 1:7-8)

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

The theme of Cosmic Warfare is inaugurated from the outset of the Book of Joshua. When God appears to Joshua promising to give Israel the land (Josh. 1:2-3), He does not do what we would expect. Certainly a general who is being sent on a military expedition, especially one as vast as the conquest of Canaan, needs some sage military advice. A clever plan outlining successful military tactics is what most commanders would hope for. Instead, Joshua is told to know and keep the Law of Moses! The Lord specifically says that if Joshua knows the Word, then he will prosper and have good success. Such a statement clearly implies that Canaan will not be won because of brute military strategy and force. The battle is more than a physical battle; it is first and foremost, a spiritual one! Although Joshua will battle a physical enemy, he needs to know that the physical resistance is a symptom of a greater spiritual reality.

The Preparation for Cosmic Warfare (Joshua 3-5)

Cosmic warfare-Crossing the Jordan
Israel prepares for cosmic warfare by following the ark across the Jordan.

The emphasis on spiritual preparation for battle continues in chapters 3-5. In chapter 3, the people are called upon to consecrate themselves as they prepare to follow the ark of God across the Jordan River (Josh. 3:2-4). Following the ark reinforces the idea that God is leading the way and fighting for Israel. The parting of the Jordan emphasizes God’s presence and recalls the similar miracle at the Red Sea when Israel left Egypt (Exod. 14-15). Just as the Lord had done battle with Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt and had triumphed (Exod. 15:4-12), so now He was leading Israel in the conquest of Canaan and its gods. After Israel crosses the Jordan, they do something counter-intuitive–they circumcise all the males (Josh. 5:2-9). Since the generation born in the wilderness had not been circumcised, this meant that every male of the nation needed to be circumcised except for Joshua and Caleb (the only two remaining from the previous generation). Such an action left the entire nation vulnerable to attack! All one need do is recall the story of Simeon and Levi attacking and wiping out the town of Shechem after all the males were circumcised (Gen. 34:24-29). For Israel, however, keeping the covenant (Gen. 17:9-14) was more important than physical vulnerability to the enemy. Following the recovery from being circumcised, Israel observes the Passover (Josh. 5:10-11). Once again, Israel is not following proper or even logical military protocol. The text is teaching us that being spiritually fit in order to maintain the Lord’s presence in the camp is far more important.

The Commander of the Lord’s Army (Joshua 5:13-15) and the Battle Plan for Jericho (Joshua 6:1-5)

Joshua and the Commander of the Lord's army
Joshua and the Commander of the Lord’s army by James Tissot. The Commander’s appearance is a clear announcement of Cosmic Warfare.

On the eve before the conquest of Jericho, Joshua has a strange and surprising encounter. He sees a man with a sword and inquires “Are you for us, or for our adversaries” (Josh. 5:13)? The man reveals that he is under allegiance to no one but the Lord by his response of “No.” He then proceeds to identify himself as “the commander of the army of the Lord” (Josh. 5:14). His deity is emphasized by the fact that Joshua falls down before him and the commander tells him to remove his sandals as he is on holy ground (Josh. 5:14-15). This statement is, of course, a direct allusion to God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai in the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-6). The continued references to the Exodus story remind us that just as the Lord conquered Egypt, so the Lord will conquer Canaan. The appearance of the commander of the Lord’s army could not be a more explicit reference to the nature of the coming conflict. What faced Joshua and Israel was not only a conflict with the people of Canaan, but a cosmic conflict.

The Fall of Jericho
The destruction of Jericho emphasizes that Israel was engaged in Cosmic Warfare.

The battle plan against Jericho (Josh. 6:1-5), as well as the subsequent account of the battle, continues to emphasize the spiritual nature of the battle. From a human point of view, Israel could not have had a worst strategy. March around the wall everyday with the ark and the priests leading the way and on day 7 march around 7 times, blow the trumpets and shout, and the walls will fall down. The skeptical would surely say…”Right, now there’s a sure-fire plan!” Yet the text states that this is what Israel did, and as the song says, “the walls came a tumblin’ down.” Even archaeologists who are skeptical of the biblical account will admit two things that the Bible makes clear. 1) The walls fell outward (a very unusual thing–usually they fall inward); and 2) Jericho was well fortified. This initial story of the conquest not only emphasizes that the Lord fought for Israel, but that the battle could not be won by flesh and blood alone. Again, cosmic warfare is being waged.

Cosmic War and the Sun and Moon Standing Still (Joshua 10:12-14)

Cosmic Warfare
Joshua 10:13-14 clearly demonstrates cosmic warfare, as Joshua calls on the sun and moon to stand still.

One of the most famous stories of the Book of Joshua is the battle to save Gibeon in which Joshua calls on the Lord to have the sun and moon stand still (Josh. 10:12-14). While there is no consensus on what Joshua was asking the Lord to do, our point here is to notice how the theme of Cosmic Warfare is once again being emphasized. The mere fact that the sun and moon are involved in this story suggests that the focus is cosmic. It is not uncommon in the Bible to see the Lord use the elements of nature (or the cosmos) to fight against the enemy. In Exodus 14-15, God uses the sea. In Judges 5:20-21, Deborah and Barak celebrate by singing that the stars and the Kishon River fought against their enemy Sisera. 2 Samuel 18:8 declares that, “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.” In Joshua 10, we are told that the Lord sent great hailstones upon the enemy and that more died from the hailstones than by the sword (Josh. 10:11). Once again, the Book of Joshua could not be more explicit about the nature of the conflict. This is not merely a physical war between two nations, this is cosmic warfare.

The Destruction of the Anakim (Joshua 11:21-22)

To this point it is evident that the Book of Joshua depicts cosmic warfare. But the emphasis on the destruction of the Anakim clinches it beyond all doubt. Militarily speaking, the Israelites would have had little chance against the population of Canaan on their own. This is emphasized by the strength of the Canaanites and their fortified cities (Num. 13:28; Deut. 3:4-5). However, while Israel would have needed God’s help to defeat the Canaanites, the Scripture reveals that there was an enemy even more fearsome whose roots were in both the physical and spiritual realms. This enemy was the Anakim, the descendants of the Nephilim (Num. 13:32-33). No one has done more to demonstrate the cosmic view of Joshua than Michael Heiser by his investigation of the significance of this people group for the Conquest (see Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, especially Part 5 Conquest and Failure, pp. 181-217). Heiser writes, “Since the Nephilim were part of Israel’s supernatural worldview and their descendants turn out to be Israel’s primary obstacle for conquering the promised land, the conquest itself must also be understood in supernatural terms” (Unseen Realm, p. 185).

Cosmic warfare
The sons of God and daughters of men produced the Nephilim (Gen. 6:1-4)

We first learn about the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4. The union of “the sons of God” (spiritual beings) with “the daughters of men” (human women) results in the birth of these hybrid beings. It is specifically the presence of the Anakim that terrify 10 of the 12 spies. They report, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Num. 13:32-33). A number of passages in the OT demonstrate that the Nephilim and their descendants were spread throughout Canaan, Transjordan (Bashan), Edom and Moab (Gen. 14:5-6; Deut. 2:10-12, 20-23; 3:8-11; Amos 2:9-10). These passages show that they were called by various names including Nephilim, Rephaim, Anakim, Emim, Zamzumim (Zuzim), Horites, and Amorites. Heiser contends that the spiritual powers of darkness purposely planted their progeny in and around the Promised Land in order to prevent God from giving it to His people Israel. The main task of the Conquest was to rid Canaan and Transjordan of these people groups, as well as those who were intermixed with them such as the Canaanites, so that Israel could take up possession of the land. If Heiser is correct, and I think he is, this makes the Conquest more than just a clash between nations. It makes it cosmic warfare. This point is driven home in Joshua 11:21-22 which purposely focuses on the destruction of the descendants of the Nephilim. There we read, “And Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua devoted them to destruction with their cities. There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel. Only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod did some remain.” (For more on this aspect of the Conquest, see my article Giants or Canaanites? The Conquest.)

Joshua and Cosmic Warfare

More could be said, but the above discussion is sufficient to establish that the Book of Joshua pictures a cosmic conflict. When interpreting and teaching the Book of Joshua, as well as any discussion about the violence in Joshua, it is important to keep this ancient context in mind. In fact, the biblical worldview would teach us that with any conflict we need to see beyond the mere physical manifestation of that conflict. Scripture is clear, in both testaments, that there are spiritual enemies attempting to thwart God’s plan for this world. It is this worldview that prompts the apostle Paul to use the language of cosmic warfare as he reminds believers, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Revolutionary Revelation in a Cultural Package

Revolutionary Revelation in a Cultural Package

OT scholar John Walton refers to divine revelation as “revolutionary revelation” in his OT Theology

The Old Testament (OT) is a strange and foreign world to many, including many Christians. The reason for this is simple: The writings which compose the OT ( or Hebrew Bible) were written in a cultural milieu much different from ours. Yet in spite of its many similarities with the culture of the ancient Near East (ANE), the OT has many unique features and beliefs not found in any other neighboring country or region of that era. OT scholar John Walton refers to this phenomenon as, “revolutionary revelation in a cultural package” (Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief, p. 12–see link below).

This post is about some of the unique features of the OT. Such uniqueness causes one to ask, “How did writers in ancient Israel, come up with beliefs and ideas that were so counter-cultural?” Were they a race of geniuses? Or could it be that their claim of Divine Revelation is actually true? The context in which Walton uses the expression, “revolutionary revelation in a cultural package,” explains his answer to this question and is worth quoting at length. (The bold type and italics in the quote below are Walton’s and serve as one of the subheadings in his introductory chapter):

revolutionary revelation--John Walton
OT scholar and author John Walton

“Theology is to be understood within the framework of the ancient world, yet as the result of revelation that draws the people out of those ways of thinking. The Israelites were thoroughly immersed in the world and cultural framework of the ancient Near East, just as all of us are immersed in our own native cultures. However, God’s revelation of himself, though grounded in a specific culture, is capable of transcending culture. As a result, we can be transformed by that revelation, regardless of the time and space that separate us from the original revelation. The situation with ancient Israel was no different—God’s revelation called them away from the ways in which their culture inclined them to think and to be transformed in their minds. We have, then, a revolutionary revelation in a cultural package. But it is important to note that the Old Testament’s theology is situated against the backdrop of the ancient world’s customary ways of thinking.” (Walton, OT Theology, p. 12).

John Walton is not only an OT scholar, but is a scholar of the ancient Near East. As such, he is eminently qualified to address this topic. His writings include other works on the ancient Near East such as, “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament,” and “Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context.” The rest of this article will focus on 9 aspects of this “revolutionary revelation” in the OT as revealed in Walton’s Old Testament Theology. These are not the only unique features of Israel’s religion, there are others. These are enough, however, to substantiate that Israel’s outlook  and practices were qualitatively different in many aspects, in spite of sharing a common culture with its ancient Near Eastern neighbors.

Revolutionary Revelation in the Old Testament

  1. One Supreme God–this is probably the most obvious difference between Israel and its neighbors. It’s difficult to underscore just how revolutionary this belief is. All the nations of the ANE believed in a pantheon of gods. While one god might be considered the head of the pantheon, this could change. For example, the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish recounts how the god Marduk is elevated to the head of the pantheon. The OT reveals that God has a council of divine beings (e.g., Ps. 82:1, 1 Kgs 22:19-22). However, none of these beings are equal to God. In fact, all were created by God. God allows these beings to participate with Him, just as God allows humans to participate in His plans. Walton explains how foreign this concept was to the other peoples of the ANE. He points out that people functioned and found their identity within community. They believed the gods did likewise. Walton then states, “With this brief discussion as a backdrop, we can understand the challenge of the theology revealed to the Israelites. How could one God do it all? Why would one God do it all? It would have been difficult for them to think of Yahweh as a cosmic deity, a phenomenon deity, a national deity, and a clan deity all at the same time. It just would not have made sense” (OT Theology, p. 38). The fact is, many Israelites had a hard time accepting this belief themselves. The OT is full of examples of Israel worshipping other gods. Given the mindset of the ANE, the idea of one supreme God overall only makes sense if it was received by divine revelation. No one in that culture would come up with such an idea!

    Moses and the burning bush
    Revolutionary revelation: A God who reveals Himself! Courtesy of pininterest
  2. A God who communicates and reveals Himself–I was honestly shocked to learn this one.  In the ANE although gods did, at times, reveal answers to oracular questions through divination (Should we go to war?, Will this famine end soon?), they didn’t offer an account of their plans or their attributes the way we are accustomed to seeing the God of Israel do in the OT. Walton states, “In the ancient Near East it was more common for the gods to manifest themselves rather than to reveal themselves. Gods “manifested” themselves in objects, images, names, celestial bodies, or other things that comprised the divine constellation” (OT Theology, pp. 43-44). Revelation of the kind we are used to speaking of, simply was not a thought that occurred to an ancient person. The gods were about having their needs met (see below), not about revealing themselves.
  3. A God of relationship–Of course, one of the reasons for self-revelation is for the purpose of relationship. It appears the gods of the ANE were little concerned with developing a relationship with their worshippers. One of the aspects of the God of Israel is his desire to dwell in their midst (e.g., the tabernacle and temple). Walton states, “Other gods dwelled among people, but they were not prone to claim a people group as their own” (OT Theology, p. 65). No other ANE deity ever said anything like, “I will be your God and you will be My people” (Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23; etc.). While the OT is full of expressions of God’s love for His people, and people’s love for God (Deut. 6:4; 7:7-8; 23:5; etc.), such an expression from the ANE gods is rare. Walton writes, “The gods in general are considered to love (e.g., in Akkadian râmu) people, and people likewise love the gods, though it has been demonstrated that terms such as these in the ancient world are sometimes used to express the presence of political relationships rather than emotions. But such expressions from the gods are rare and are more often directed to the king than to the people at large. Even considering the myriads of royal inscriptions wherein the kings speak at length about the relationship between themselves and a god, clear expressions of emotion in either direction are little attested” (OT Theology, p. 57).
  4. Exclusive worship–If God is the one true God then it makes sense that He would require exclusive worship. While other nations had patron deities, for example, the Moabites’ god Chemosh, or the Babylonians’ god Marduk, no one expected them to be worshipped exclusively. After all, exclusive worship would offend the other gods! When one ancient Pharaoh by the name of Akhenaten attempted to force the worship of only one god (the sun god Aten), he was considered a heretic (see wikipedia article here).  Walton says that Israel’s practice was, “an idea unmatched in its particularity in the rest of the ancient world” (OT Theology, p. 66). Even today the insistence on worshipping only one God as the true God causes offense to many. Why would Israel go against the grain of ancient society, unless, as they claim, such action had been revealed to them?

    Atrahasis Epic
    The Atrahasis epic contains one version of the Babylonian creation story.
  5. The reason for creation–Perhaps the most revolutionary revelation (besides one supreme God), is in regards to creation. In the accounts of the creation of the world and humanity, there is a significant difference between Israel and the nations of the ANE. Most people who read this blog are probably aware that other nations of the ANE had creation stories (as well as Flood stories!). Scholars have noted some similarities between these accounts with the account in Genesis 1-3. One similarity relates to the creation of humanity. Genesis states that Adam was created from the dust of the ground. The Atrahasis epic states that 7 male and 7 female embryos were fashioned from clay. However, the major difference between the ancient creation accounts and Genesis is why God/the gods created human beings. Walton refers to the ANE ideas contained in the various creation accounts as “The Great Symbiosis.” Several quotes from Walton flesh out what is meant by the Great Symbiosis, and how this contrasts with the biblical account. “According to the theology of the Old Testament, God created the world for humans. This theology, however, stands in contrast to the ancient Near Eastern idea that the gods created the cosmos for themselves. In this view, humans, as afterthoughts, were to function as slaves of the gods to ensure the cosmos would continue to serve the deities’ needs” (OT Theology, p. 71). A few pages later, Walton writes, “The other gods order the cosmos to function for themselves, and people merely function as cogs in the machinery…. But in the Old Testament, Yahweh orders the cosmos to serve people, not himself, and it is ordered to be sacred space (by virtue of his presence there) (OT Theology, pp. 83-84). One final quote from Walton emphasizes the ANE perspective on the creation of humanity: “Conventional wisdom was that the gods wanted to be pampered, and if the people succeeded in meeting their every whim, the gods might just treat them well. After all, if the gods desired all of this pampering, they had to protect and provide for those who were diligent and conscientious in their ministrations. Experience, as the people interpreted it, had taught them that the gods were fickle, demanding, capricious, and disinterested in the cares of humans; the gods were interested only in their own comforts and were concerned primarily with their own needs” (OT Theology, p. 112). I have spent extra space on this point and provided extra quotes from Walton because it is such a significant difference. The idea that humans were created as the slaves for the gods to do the work they didn’t want to do was ubiquitous throughout the ANE. The biblical depiction is clearly superior and certainly more attractive. The question once again arises, “How did Israel come up with such a radically different concept?” As a side note, I find it interesting that many people today have a more ANE view of God than they do a biblical view. The picture of a god who only wants to use people for his own purposes aligns perfectly with the ANE, but is diametrically opposed to the God of the Hebrew Bible.

    Enuma Elish
    The Babylonian tablets containing Enuma Elish, one of the ANE accounts of creation.
  6. Cosmic Conflict vs. No Conflict in Creation–We can keep this one short. The Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish speaks of conflict between the gods resulting in the creation of the world. Genesis evidences no such conflict. The Creator God is in complete control and all of the cosmos is created by his sovereign word.
  7. The image of God–The biblical creation story states that all human beings (male and female) are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). The image is not a characteristic or quality; it is a status. Humans are to rule the earth as God’s representatives. We have already noted that, in the ANE, humans were created to be slaves to the gods. The only one mentioned as being in the gods’ image is the king. Only the king is granted the status of rulership. Walton states, “…in the Old Testament, the image of God provides the primary description of human purpose and meaning. Human dignity in the Old Testament is found in the status and function people have as God’s image” (OT Theology, p. 97). Because humanity is created in God’s image, this also means that Israel was not to permit any other likeness or image of God. This, of course, is stated clearly in the 10 commandments (Exod. 20:4). Walton writes, “Aniconism is observable in various ways in other times and places in the ancient Near East….However, total aniconism in the ancient Near East outside Israel is unknown. The significance of this is far-reaching and cannot be overstated” (OT Theology, p. 150).
  8. Sin and separation from God’s presence–Walton writes, “There is nothing like the fall in ancient Near Eastern literature because there is no idealized primeval scenario (OT Theology, p. 102). Furthermore, “Even the discussion of sin is problematic in an ancient Near Eastern context” (OT Theology, p. 102). People in the ANE certainly knew what it was like to offend a deity and to suffer for it, but the concept of sacrificing for atonement to restore a relationship was foreign to them (Remember, the gods were not interested in a relationship as such. Their interest was in how they could benefit from human existence). In the biblical understanding, sin separates a person from God. An unrepentant sinner can be driven from the presence of God (Gen. 4:14), or God can remove his presence from a sinful nation (Ezek. 11:22-23). The gods of the ANE would be considered foolish for removing humanity from their presence–they needed them! Humans were created to do the work and to offer the sacrifices that fed the gods. To remove humanity would be devastating! In the Atrahasis epic the gods actually find this out when they attempt to destroy humanity with a flood. They soon realize their mistake as there is no one left to offer them sacrifices to feed them or to do their work. Fortunately, one of the gods, Enki, has saved Atrahasis in a boat (sound familiar?). When Atrahasis leaves the boat, he offers sacrifices to the gods. The story humorously states that the gods gathered around the sacrifice like flies! Although one can see a few similarities with the Genesis story of the Flood, the qualitative differences in the biblical story are undeniable.

    God makes a covenant with Abram
    The God of the OT (and NT) is a covenant-making God.
  9. A God who makes covenants with people–We have already noted that one of the distinctive features of the Bible is that God is a God of relationship, while the gods of the ANE are not much interested in partnering with people. One of the ways this is expressed in Scripture is the making of covenants between God and people. Once again we have a unique feature that is not found in the ANE. Walton states, “In the ancient Near East, the idea of a god who made a covenant with a group of people was unique to Israel—a circumstance for which we have little precedent. Gods did, however, make covenants with kings… (OT Theology, p. 105). We noted above that the image of God can apply to kings in the ANE, but not with the general public. The same is true of making covenants. But we have no record of gods making a covenant with a group of people. In the OT we read of God making a covenant with Noah and the whole earth, promising not to flood it again (Gen. 9:8-17). Beginning with Abram, God makes a covenant with an individual who will grow into a family, which will, in turn, grow into a nation. Along these lines Walton writes, “The transition from an agreement with a family to an agreement with an ethnic group/nation is paralleled by the transition of Yahweh from a family God (“personal god”) to a national God. No other examples exist in the ancient world of such a relational transition by a god” (OT Theology, p. 120). In other words, once a family god, always a family god. Once a national deity, always a national deity, etc. In the ANE, there was no need for one god to fill many roles, after all, there were plenty of gods to go around. Not so in biblical teaching. Only one God was supreme (see #1 above), and he fulfilled all necessary roles.

Conclusions Regarding Revolutionary Revelation

Very few people go against the values and beliefs that are prevalent in their culture. To do so leads to ridicule, rejection, and in severe cases, persecution and death. In fact, most of us assimilate our cultural values and beliefs without giving it much thought. Throughout this post we have noticed that Ancient Israel, while having many similarities with its neighbors, differed in significant ways. These beliefs and practices were enough to make them “stand out in the crowd.” According to Scripture, this was the purpose. Israel was to be a nation of priests to draw others to the true God (Gen. 12:3; Exod. 19:5-6; 1 Kgs. 8:43, 60). These differences, however, did come with a price (e.g., Daniel 3:8-18).

revolutionary revelation--3 men in the fiery furnace
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to bend to the cultural practices and beliefs of Babylon.

The OT testifies to the fact that not all Israelites were willing to swim against the current of ANE culture. We read of much compromise in its pages. This leads to the question of why a group within Israel proclaimed and clung to these radically different beliefs and practices–a question I have noted a few times above. Again, we must ask, “Where did these beliefs and practices come from?” Why Israel and no other nation? How is it that every other nation of the ANE had similar beliefs and practices, but Israel was unique? Not only that, but Israel also produced a unique literature we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. This characteristic is not only true of Israel in the Old Testament era, the same can be said for a group of Jewish believers in the New Testament era. Many of the beliefs and practices of early Christianity were also counter-cultural. I have noted some of these counter-cultural beliefs in an article entitled, “Evidences for the Cross and Resurrection.” Did Israelites just have a thing about being counter-cultural? Did they enjoy the ridicule and persecution of others? Why not another nation or group of people? Why always Israel? I believe Walton’s explanation is the best and most logical. Israel was gifted by God with a revolutionary revelation.

Walton’s Old Testament Theology is available at  Amazon USA / UK. A digital version is also available at Logos/Faithlife.

Revolutionary revelation