Storytellers love stories of the stark clear-cut one-on-one showdown between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The story we hear most now is the one between David and Goliath. While Putin and Zelensky will not meet physically in such a confrontation, they did meet cosmically on May 9, 2022 in the celebration of the victory of evil decades ago. The words and images also were weapons in the current war which convulses the land and wreaks havoc throughout the world. The current confrontation provides insight into the story that was told millennia ago and which is still relevant today.
1 Samuel 17:1 Now the Russians gathered their armies for battle; 3 And the Russians stood on the mountain on one side of the border, and the Ukrainians stood on the mountain on the other side of the border, with a border between them.
4 And there came out from the camp of the Russians a champion named Putin, of Moscow, whose height was six cubits and a span and who rode horses bare-chested. 5 He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. 6 And he had greaves of bronze upon his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. 7 And the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. 8 He stood and shouted to the ranks of the Ukrainians, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Russian, and are you not servants of me? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” 10 And the Russian, “I defy the ranks of the Ukrainians this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.”
21 And the Ukrainians and the Russians drew up for battle, army against army. 23 As David talked with his brothers, behold, the champion, the Russian of Moscow, Putin by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. 32 And Zelensky said, “Let no man’s heart fail because of Putin; I will go and fight with this Russian.”
33 And Trump said to Zelesnsky, “You are not able to go against this Russian to fight with him; for you are but a loser, and Putin has been a man of war from his youth and he is a savvy genius.” 37 And Zelensky said, “Yahweh who delivered the Ukrainians me from the paw of the Nazis and from the paw of the Communists, will deliver me from the hand of this Russian.” 38 Then Biden clothed Zelesnky with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail.
40 Then David took his staff in his hand, and chose five Javelin smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Russian. 41 And the Russian came on and drew near to Zelensky with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 And when Putin looked, and saw Zelensky, he disdained him; for he was weak and small.
43 And Putin said to Zelensky, “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?” And Putin cursed Zelensky his gods. 44 Putin said to Zelensky, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” 45 Then Zelensky said to Putin, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a convoy of tanks; but I come to you in the name of freedom, Yahweh, the God whom you have defied. 46 This day Yahweh will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head and your generals; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Russians this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in the Ukraine, 47 and that all this assembly may know that Yahweh saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is Yahweh’s and he will give you into our hand.” 48 When Putin arose and came and drew near to meet Zelensky, Zelensky ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Russian. 49 And Zelesnky put his hand in his bag and took out his drones, his Javelins, his Stingers, and slung them, and struck Putin on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
50 So Zelensky prevailed over Putin with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Russian, and killed him. 51 Then Zelensky ran and stood over the Russian army, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath, and destroyed it, and cut off generals. When the Russian people finally saw that their army was defeated was dead, they rioted.
It is surprising how little the wording needed to be changed to tell this 21st-century version of the story.
Right now Putin does not know what to do.
The Ukrainian people did not welcome him.
He failed to take the capital.
His is failing to take the east.
His pride-and-joy ship sank.
He is depleting the Russian military so much that soon Poland and the Baltic States will be able to invade Russia instead of fearing an invasion by Russia.
He has strengthened NATO.
He has awakened the “arsenal of democracy” just as Japan did at Pearl Harbor.
His future is one of more and more pounding as the American arsenal becomes the Ukrainian arsenal.
At some point, even his generals will be able to read the handwriting on the wall.
He has no idea how to get out of the hole he has dug for himself so he just keeps digging.
It’s time for Joe Biden to send a special emissary to Moscow to find out what it will take to end this madness. It is time to send the Russian asset, the only American Putin trusts because he can dominate him. It is time to send Donald Trump to the Kremlin.
We are a storytelling species. Since a picture is worth a thousand words and a meme can move political mountains, people have been trying out various words to depict the current invasion by Russia of the Ukraine.
DAVID and GOLIATH – By far the most frequent symbol used to describe the war has been the traditional biblical one of David and Goliath. This one routinely is used in a variety of encounters with one particular trait. It refers to a confrontation between two entities where one is very large and the other is very small. Typical examples have included start-up companies doing battle with Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Its use in legal and/or political battles is standard operating procedure.
In a David and Goliath struggle, which one would you rather be? Naturally, the answer should be David. After all, he wins. He wins rather decisively.
1 Samuel 17:48 When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49 And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. 50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine, and killed him; there was no sword in the hand of David. 51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath, and killed him, and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.
As victories go, there is little room for doubt as to who emerged victorious.
One should note that David’s triumph was not that of one involving two sport’s teams. There is no returning to the battlefield for round two. In the battle against the unnamed Philistine warrior [for those interested in biblical exegesis], David’s victory means never again will the Philistine warrior threaten David or anyone else again. The significance of this result often is overlooked.
In a David and Goliath fight, not only do you want to be David, the final outcome really is a final outcome. In the current situation, this means that not only does the Ukraine successfully defend itself against Russia but that never again can Putin threaten its neighbor or any other neighbor. In human terms, this means Zelensky remains in power and Putin is removed from power. Whether Putin ends up dead like the Philistine warrior or simply imprisoned is secondary. The point is in a true David and Goliath confrontation, it is a fight to death where the larger one, meaning Putin, loses. Putin probably knows this which is why he will never stop on his own and will have to be stopped by others.
LEONIDAS AND XERXES
A similar scenario with a different ending appears in the Leonidas-Xerxes confrontation. On March 1, 2022, I asked, “Suppose Zelensky ends up being Leonidas and not David? (The State of the Putin Union: The Dr. Strangelove Scenario). My reference was to the famous story of Three Hundred Spartans versus Persia at Thermopylae. The story has been made into a couple of movies. Its counterparts in American cultural mythology have been Davy Crockett at the Alamo and George Custer at Little Bighorn. In Jewish tradition, it is Rome at Masada which has became a foundation story for the new Israeli nation in the 20th century. These battles share in common the concept of valiant heroic death by the few in face of a much more numerous enemy. It does make for great storytelling in its own right.
So here we have these two contrasting big versus small war stories. In one, the little guy wins and the big guy is vanquished. In the other, the reverse occurs, but the dead little guy still remains the hero for the courageous fight against insurmountable odds. On March 3, Zelensky provided his own take:
I don’t want Ukraine’s history to be a legend about 300 Spartans. I want peace.
Jewish Zelensky apparently prefers David to these other options.
Marina Ovsyannikova out of nowhere has become a worldwide phenomenon. She appeared unannounced and uninvited on the Russian counterpart to the American Foxhub cable network. As everyone including Putin now know, she stood behind an oblivious news announcer with a handmade sign. Her message was a direct repudiation of Putin’s war and Putin himself. Given that such public declarations are illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison, her action truly was brave.
Regardless of what ultimately happens to her, one suggestion is that she speaks for many others in Russia, perhaps millions who do not have the opportunity to be as brave as she was. In fact one American commentator compared her to the “I’m Spartacus” moment from Hollywood Spartacus, not historical Spartacus. Perhaps now others will stand with her. It is too early to tell if that analysis proves to be correct. It does highlight how we seek historical symbols to understand events in the present.
The term “rope-a-dope” originated due to a boxing strategy employed by Muhammad Ali in his Rumble in the Jungle fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 29, 1974, against George Foreman, the heavyweight champion. In this boxing match, the more massive Foreman was the “Goliath” against the less powerful-looking challenger Ali better known for his dancing and poetry skills than sheer raw TKO power. In presidential terms, it looked like the earlier showdown between the experienced Nikita Khrushchev and the young inexperienced John Fitzgerald Kennedy or the later Mikhail Gorbachev versus the enfeebled Ronald Reagan.
The technique Ali employed has had more legs than David’s slingshot victory. It demands a practitioner to withstand a pounding by the more powerful combatant until at last, the hulking puncher tires himself and is himself beaten. The final result may seem shocking. How could the obviously-more-powerful figure collapses in exhaustion?
The parallel with the current war in the Ukraine is limited. Yes, Russia is the larger one. Yes, it is pounding the Ukraine while the latter is unable to attack Russia itself. The world watches in awe and horror as Russia pounds away at the smaller country. The difference is that Foreman played by the rules while Putin does not. Foreman did not hit below the belt; Putin targets civilians. He targets the very exemplars of a civilized world. He targets electricity, water, food, hospitals, and everything that enables people to function as a 21st-century country. So heroic as the Ukraine is in taking the pounding, there are legitimate concerns about how long Ukraine can withstand such a pounding. Muhammad Ali would not have last long if Foreman cheats the way Putin does now.
I have no comforting words with which to conclude this post. The story is still unfolding. We don’t know what the outcome will be. We really don’t know what is going on in Putin’s mind beyond that is evil and uncaring. We don’t know what the Russian people really want or can do about it. We don’t know how the soldiers on the field of battle feel about the “training maneuvers” actually be invaders against their Slavic brothers and sisters. At some point we will and my preference is that the David and Goliath relationship prevails.
Child sacrifice is in the news. Not in those words, of course. Rather it is the willingness of various governors and parents to risk the lives of children rather than to vaccinate them. Sometimes, people hide behind the Bible as a way of claiming a religious objection. Such protestations are intended to cover-up the real reason or reasons whatever they may be. Still, it is worth examining some biblical stories to see how the issue of child sacrifice was handled in ancient times.
ABRAHAM AND ISAAC
One of the most famous stories involving child sacrifice occurs in the story of Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 22). This story of the binding of the son or Akedah is read yearly as part of the Rosh Hashanah holiday meaning last week. It is a powerful and emotionally gut-wrenching story. It lives on in storytelling and art and packs a punch. In my opinion, the story originally was performed before a live audience so whoever played the role of Abraham may be considered one of the great ancient actors. It is a role to die for.
In the story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son in a burnt offering. The purpose here is not to provide an exegesis of the story. Instead, I simply note its existence in the canonical text. Spoiler alert: just in the nick of time a ram is discovered entangled in the thicket and is sacrificed instead. Scholars debate whether or not in the original story the son was sacrificed, how old he was at that time, and if the change involved legitimating temple sacrifice in Jerusalem since the event occurred at the future location of the ram sacrifice. My perspective is that the original audience witnessing the story was meant to be revolted by the prospect of the child sacrifice.
DAVID AND ABSALOM
The situation is a little clearer in the story of David and Absalom. According to the text (II Sam. 18:5), David instructs his commanders to go gently with his son and not to kill him. A few verses later, Absalom like the ram in the Abraham story, becomes entangled as well. This time it is his long hair in a tree. Shortly afterwards Joab dispatches Absalom with nary a thought about the command he had been given from David. When messengers bring David the news, the king famously responds as one would have expected Abraham to have done if he had gone through with the child sacrifice: and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Sam. 18:33)
How is this a sacrifice as opposed to an execution of an opponent who rebelled against his king? Joab, of course, is person who arranged for Uriah, husband of Bathsheba, to be on the frontlines so he could be killed. He knew what David really wanted then and he fulfilled his role. The same happened here. This is not to say that David did not have great remorse over the way events unfolded. However, as with Abraham, David was willing to have his son die for a greater cause. In this case obedience to God meant preservation of the kingdom of Yahweh with his son David as king.
SOLOMON AND THE BABY
In this also famous story, Solomon displays his wisdom in threatening to cleave a baby in two and then not having too (I Kings 3). The situation arises due to the death of a child and two women claiming to be the mother of a living child coincidentally born at the same time. Solomon devises this test of splitting the living baby in half and having each claimant receive a half. The ruse leads to the real mother expressing her willingness to sacrifice her child, that is, give the child up to the false mother, for the sake of keeping the child alive. The fact that the story occurs just before the kingdom itself splits into two with each side claiming to be the true kingdom of God is another factor. By contrast today, anti-vaxx mothers are quite willing to play Russian roulette with both their own child and the children of others.
MESHA AND SON
The final example to be included in this blog involves a child sacrifice by a non-Israelite. In this situation, Jehoram, and son of Ahab, the king of Israel is waging a war against Moab (II Kings 3). At first the battle is going well for the Israelite king. He is on the brink of victory against Moab. Suddenly, in desperation, Mesha, the king of Moab, resorts to the ultimate counter move:
Then he took his eldest son who was to reign in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they withdrew from him and returned to their own land (II Kings 3:27).
The presumption is that he sacrificed his adult son much as Abraham was willing to do. According to the biblical text, the child sacrifice is successful. As a direct result of this action a divine wrath is visited upon the Israelite forces leading to their withdrawal from the land of Moab. The net result is that Israel lost and the Moabite rebellion succeeded.
Historically, there is one problem with this story. By chance, the Moabite version of the war with Israel has been discovered. According to the Mesha Stele, Moab did prevail in this war of rebellion after having been a vassal of the Israelite king Omri, the father of Ahab and grandfather of Jehoram. There is, however, no mention of a child sacrifice. Instead there is mention of Mesha having destroyed the sanctuary to Yahweh at Nebo. These references catch the eye of the biblical scholar since it is a Nebo where Moses was buried. To have a Moabite mention by name Yahweh, Israel, and Nebo is significant.
Since both versions attest the victory of Mesha over Israel, the scholarly consensus is that Mesha really did win. The defeated Israelite king needed an excuse to explain his loss. His explanation was the big lie: victory was stolen from him by this alleged act of child sacrifice by the enemy king. Otherwise, Israel would have won.
The presumption is that such an excuse for a defeat with resonate with the Israelite population. There would be no point to concocting such an explanation if the Israelite people would not have believed it. In this case, the biblical writer seems to have drawing on a Canaanite tradition. In the image shown above, the people of Ashkelon are facing defeat by Merneptah, the Pharaoh who claimed in this sequence to have destroyed the seed of Israel. They are shown dangling a child over the wall of the city. The consensus is that the act was the same as what Mesha supposedly would do centuries later: when the battle is not going well, the leader sacrifices his son to stave off defeat. The effort against Egypt was unsuccessful and the larger-than-life Pharaoh in effect mocks this gesture.
This raises the question of why the biblical writer thought the claim that Mesha sacrificed his son would work. After all, Mesha’s alleged sacrifice would be to Chemosh the Moabite god and not to Yahweh, the Israelite god. Does this mean that Chemosh is greater than Yahweh? Why should Jehoram expect that the claim that victory was stolen from him by Mesha drawing on a Canaanite tradition would be acceptable to an Israelite audience?
As it turns out, according to the biblical text Jehoram’s protestations failed as well. The prophet Elisha condemns him and his house. He commissions Jehu to lead a coup against the king. Jehu slays both the king and his mother Jezebel fulfilling prophecy.
“This is the word of Yahweh, which he spoke by his servant Elijah the Tishbite, `In the territory of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; and the corpse of Jezebel shall be as dung upon the face of the field in the territory of Jezreel, so that no one can say, This is Jezebel'” (II Kings 9:36-37).
The big lie about having victory stolen from the incumbent king due to a child sacrifice by his opponent did not end well for the loser and those associated with him.
What are the lessons to be learned from this partial review of biblical stories involving child sacrifice?
1. There is no biblical justification for not being vaccinated. Hiding behind the Bible is cowardly and dishonest.
2. Know your audience when promoting child sacrifice – why do you think gambling with the lives of children is a winning political move? The voice of the people in California like the voice of the prophet Elisha has been heard. People want the pandemic to end. Are Trumpicans listening?
3. Know your audience when explaining away defeat through the big lie – how many times can you tell the big lie before losing all credibility even to your own followers? After every election defeat? Even when by millions of votes?
What will the fate be for the candidate(s) of the big lie who are willing to sacrifice the children of voters?
He said, “Throw her [Jezebel] down.” So they threw her down; and some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled on her (II Kings 9:33).
The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) held their annual conferences in San Diego the week before Thanksgiving. The Protestant Evangelical Institute of Biblical Research and the American Academy of Religion also met then. Nothing the approximately 10,000 in attendance said or did made the news.
The religious event which made the news was the Gospel according to Rick Perry as revealed through Fox News host Ed Henry to the world.
God’s used imperfect people all through history. King David wasn’t perfect, Saul wasn’t perfect, Solomon wasn’t perfect….And I actually gave the president a little one-pager on those Old Testament kings, about a month ago. And I shared it with him, I said, “Mr. President, I know there are people that say, y’know, ‘You said you were the chosen one.’” And, I said: “You were.” I said, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.”
These words echo those of other Trumpicans:
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale: “only God could deliver such a savior to our nation.”
Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: [God] “wanted Trump to become president.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responding to interviewer Chris Mitchell’s query “Could it be that President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from an Iranian menace?” said: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”
So the Gospel according to Perry is not out of line with the core beliefs of his fellow worshipers.
By coincidence, my own paper during these conferences was “Political Texts of Terror in the Book of Judges.” The paper is about Saul and David and I mention Solomon once. Since Thanksgiving I have been asked by the editor of online The Bible and Interpretation to write an essay of 2,000-3,500 words on my paper for the general public.
With that background in mind, let’s turn to the kings mentioned by Perry.
As I am sure Perry knows, Saul was the first person in Israel to be designated a “messiah” or anointed one.
Saul was a warrior; he was not a bonespur boy. He did not pick on women or children or people smaller than him. True he died in battle against the Philistines, but the point here was that fought in the real world against foes who could fight back.
Saul’s Deep State was the Levites represented by the prophet Samuel. He was there to present the law. While not exactly the Constitution, it did provide one key item: only the Levites, priests of Moses, could call Israel to war. Saul did not have the right to initiate a military confrontation without the blessing of Samuel. Scholars debate the historical relationship between the king and the prophet in ancient Israel. One should recognize, as surely Rick Perry does, that in ancient Israel there was a battle of over whether the king was constrained by the law or not. According to the pro-Samuel writers, Saul was bound by the law; according to the pro-Saul writers, Saul did nothing wrong when he acted on his own in the absence of Samuel. Who knew they had Fox and MSNBC in ancient times.
David, too, was a warrior in the real world unlike Bonespur Boy. Unlike Saul, David remained successful at it throughout his life although he did have some close calls.
David also could write. He actually was a far greater writer than he is given credit for. He certainly was a far superior writer to the juvenile tweets and 3rd grade letter to Erdogan of Perry’s Lord and Savior, the Chosen One, Blessed Be His Name.
David had to deal with his own famous confrontation with the law. The incident in question is the Bathsheba one. During the incident, the prophet Nathan, from a different priesthood/political-faction than Samuel, said after telling a parable:
THOU ART THE MAN! (II Sam. 12:7 or Two Samuel if you are the chosen one).
Consider now what David did not say in response.
David did not say: “Fake News.”
David did not call Nathan a disloyal traitor.
David did not call Nathan human scum and an enemy of the people.
David did no disparage Nathan as “Little Nathan.”
David did not call Nathan a maniac and deranged human being.
David did not claim Nathan grew up with a complex for lots of reasons that are obvious.
David did denigrate Nathan as a very sick man who lies.
Note: Is it coincidence that Little Donne Waney himself fits his description of Schiff except for the size?
Quite the contrary, David replied that he had sinned before the Lord.
Hard to imagine Perry’s Lord and Savior, the Chosen One, Blessed Be His Name responding as David did.
Solomon, of course, was not a warrior and is remembered as a builder of the temple among other things. Perhaps the most famous story about him occurs when two women claim to be the mother of the same child. Solomon famously adjudicates the dilemma with the following wisdom:
Kings 3:23 Then the king said, “The one says, `This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, `No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.'” 24 And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.”
It’s not exactly Charlottesville with good people on both sides but it is close enough. The difference is that in the biblical story, Solomon’s pronouncement is a ruse to expose the fraudulent claim while in Charlottesville, the assertion was meant to be taken on face value.
It would be interesting to hear Rick Perry expound on his theological musings. What are the imperfections of Saul, David, and Solomon that he refers to? What did the three kings do in the face of these imperfections? What has Perry’s Chosen One done? I do not have the power to ask Rick Perry to comment. Perhaps someone reading this blog can inquire of him for me.
So which biblical figure is most like our current President? Back on March 19, 2018, I wrote
Is Donald Trump Our Rehoboam? – A Bible Penis Story. If you are interested in my opinion, check out that blog.
In the meantime, it is important to note the ancient Israelite tradition of truth to power even involving the king. There certainly was nothing like that in ancient Egypt. The only person who called Pharaoh to task was Moses and he had to leave Egypt after he did so. But that spirit came to define Israel.
There was nothing like that in ancient Mesopotamia either. There the prophets knew their place and to tell the king what he wanted to hear. Ancient Israel followed the Mesopotamian tradition up to a point. But in the end, Israel was different. Before going into battle even the king needed permission as Saul had not done.
1 Kings 22:5 And Jehoshaphat [the king of Judah] said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the LORD.” 6 Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramothgilead, or shall I forbear?” And they said, “Go up; for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” 7 But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?” 8 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah the son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” 9 Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah the son of Imlah.”
In ancient Israel, they knew to trust not the yesmen who told the king what he wanted to hear but the one who did not. You need to have some adults in the White House!
That spirit of Moses lived on the creation of the United States. The Declaration of Independence was an impeachment of King George III. It is a legal document that indicted the king on multiple counts of an abuse of power. It was written by people who were disloyal traitors to the king and who compounded their disobedience by voting with their guns to remove King George III from power over them. Now we are engaged in battle to determine if the rule of law or a would-be King George will prevail. Where are Moses and David when you need them?
There is more to Moses than Charlton Heston. Ignore the theology. Ignore the special effects. Ignore Cecil B. DeMille. Instead focus on the political. Focus on the fact that when Israel emerged in history it did not have a king, it did not have a temple, it did not have a capital city. It was not a nomadic people. Yet somehow people still were able to identify themselves as Israel. What the people did have that no one else had was a covenant. While not exactly a Constitution, it did serve to define the people. Whereas our defining document begins with WE THE PEOPLE, Israel’s began with “Yahweh thy God took thee out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 20:2).
Pharaoh Merneptah (1212-1202 BCE), the son and successor to Ramses II, claimed to have destroyed the seed of Israel. When the Merneptah Stele was discovered in 1896 with these words, it caused quite a stir as you might imagine.
Merneptah used an indentifier with the word “Israel” to indicate that Israel was a not a settled people as were the people of the Canaanites cities that Egypt had ruled for centuries. But they were not nomads in the land of Canaan either. So what were they?
Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of small unwalled settlements in the land of Canaan that date to this time. They are considered to be Israelite because realistically speaking who else could they be? Merneptah knew there was a people Israel there and they knew they were not a city-based people. So how did they maintain their identity?
The answer is the covenant renewal ceremony. They were united by an idea. Israel was not a people based on geography. It was not a people based on race. It was not a people based on ethnicity. It was a people based on an idea expressed in the covenant and later physically expressed in the Ark of the Covenant. Periodically, the people met (or at least the elders did) to renew that sense of identity. At first Israel did so at Mount Ebal as instructed by Moses (Deut. 11:29, 27:4, 13) and done by Joshua (Josh, 8:30-35). Archaeologists have discovered the altar used in the ceremonies but the consequences of admitting it are too much to accept.
After Mount Ebal, the covenant renewal ceremony relocated to Shiloh. Shiloh also served as a place for men to bring the unmarried women in their family to find mates (Judg. 21:19-23) much like the camp meetings in the early 1800s in the United States. The ark remained at Shiloh until it was captured by the Philistines.
When David became king of all Israel, he continued this tradition of defining the people based on an idea. He brought the ark to Jerusalem, his new capital. Jerusalem, unlike with the founding of Washington, DC, had been enemy territory for centuries. Based on the archaeological record, Jerusalem had been a good vassal of Egypt during the more than three centuries of Egyptian rule in the land of Canaan.
It is reasonable to conclude that Jerusalem like other vassal cities would have joined with Pharaoh Merneptah against the newcomer Israel. And according to the biblical account, Jerusalem organized a coalition against Israel (Josh. 10:1-5). In the biblical accounts of this time period, Jerusalem definitely is not part of Israel (Judg. 1:7-8, 21; 19:11-12).
Yet David makes the enemy city his capital. He installs the ark there (II Samuel 6). He buys land there from most likely the Jebusite king of the city and the Temple of Solomon would be built there (II Sam. 24:16-25; I Chr. 24:15-30; II Chr. 3:1). He does not massacre the Jebusite inhabitants of the city. Instead he welcomes them into his kingdom, his government, his family. Consider the words of Rahab the Canaanite, the female figure used to symbolize the Canaanite people who are now under the rule of David, King of Israel.
Joshua 2:10For we have heard how Yahweh dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed.
Note that the Canaanites have heard what Yahweh has done. By contrast, the Israelites had seen what Yahweh had done.
Exodus 14:13 And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of Yahwweh, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.
In this contrast between those who saw and those who heard, one may recognize the difference between the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution and the naturalized Americans who have no biological link to the Patriot cause. It is precisely this distinction and inclusion that Lincoln will replicate at Gettysburg (see below).
Before Lincoln did do that, four score and seven years earlier, the Founding Fathers had to first create the United States of America based on an idea. To understand what they accomplished it is necessary to put aside our racial classification system. Based on the standards of the time, they were trying to create “WE THE PEOPLE” out of a disparate amalgamation of peoples. There were English of various types, Scotch Irish, Irish Catholic, Dutch, Palatine Germans, Sephardic Jews, and French Huguenots among other peoples. There was no precedent for combining such a diversity into a non-imperial republic. Certainly no political entity was organized on such a basis in Euope. The idea of constituting themselves as a people was farfetched to say the least. They knew it was an experiment. They knew it might not work. They probably would be shocked by the idea of a pending 250th anniversary for such a political entity.
Lincoln at Gettysburg continued this definition of the political entity based on an idea. When he said “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers,” he knew that not everyone in his audience was a son or daughter of the American Revolution. But just as David included in the political kingdom of Israel people who had not been part of the people of Israel that Merneptah had claimed to have destroyed two centuries earlier, so Lincoln linked all the Americans of his present to the events 76 years earlier. If you stood for the Union now, you were one with those who had created the Union then.
This idea took a giant leap forward for humanity with Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise. His hero was Lincoln so I presume Lincoln was a hero to Gene Roddenberry as well. Earth like the 13 states was part of a Federation. Beings of different races were joined together in a single entity. The precise details of how the Federation of Planets operated are not the issue here. What is the issue is the concept of beings becoming one without abandoning their individuality as with the Borg or in Mainland China. In this regard, Federation with its Prime Directive and other defining principles is another step on a journey that began millennia earlier when a mixed multitude entered into a covenant. They are united not by geography, not by race, not by ethnicity, but by an idea.
It’s all one story. Moses in the wilderness with the covenant, David at Zion with the Ark of the Covenant, the Founding Fathers with the Constitution, Lincoln with the Gettysburg Address, Kirk on the Enterprise are all part of a single story. As the Ark of the Covenant once was the physical expression of the covenant idea that defined Israel, so the Statue of Liberty is the physical expression of the idea that defines the United States. Both for the people who come here and those in Hong Kong, Russia, and elsewhere, the Statue of Liberty is the global symbol for people who want to be free. So which Charlton Heston ending will America choose? The Charlton Heston of The Ten Commandments who ends the movie with the words of the Liberty Bell to proclaim liberty throughout the land (Lev. 25:10) or the Charlton Heston of Planet of Apes overwhelmed by the sight of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sands?
On April 10, 2019, Politico posted an article entitled “Trump’s ‘truly bizarre’ visit to Mt. Vernon.” The article recounted a visit on April 23, 2018, by the French and American Presidents to Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, the first President of the United States.
According to Mount Vernon president and CEO Doug Bradburn, the tour guide for the Presidents, the Macrons were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the American President. France, of course, contributed to America’s victory with Marquis de Lafayette and Count Rochambeau, the first but not the last time foreign intervention helped elect an American President.
By contrast, our President is renowned for being incapable of reading of book and being historically ignorant (unless he saw a movie). It was easy for the trained guide to rapidly discern that the American President was completely bored. Drawing on his experience with 7th graders who similarly had no interest in the Father of the Country, Bradburn attempted to engage the person before him. As reported by Politico, a former history professor with a PhD, Bradburn “was desperately trying to get [Trump] interested in” Washington’s house. So he draw on his bag of tricks and informed the uninformed President that Washington had been a real-estate developer.
That approach did the trick. Now the guide had the President’s attention. Not only was Washington a real-estate developer, but for his times, he was one of the richest people in the United States. In today’s terms, he could be compared to Gates, Buffet, and Bezos and not to a comparative pauper like the fake billionaire President. (No, Bradburn did not say that! At least not the last part.) Again according to Politico, “That is what Trump was really the most excited about” said a source.
At that point, our narcissistic President responded to the news in the way that defines him as a person
[H]e couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself. “If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”
In other words, unless you make your name great, you are not great and will be forgotten.
The concept of making your name great is familiar to biblical students referring to another book he has not read.
Genesis 12:1 Now Yahweh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
In the biblical tradition, a person does not make his name great, the Lord does.
It should be noted that in ancient times the people who made their name great were kings. Lost in translation is the recognition that the way one made one’s name great in ancient times was by the king building something. To the deep regret of biblical archaeologists, ancient Israel did not partake of this royal tradition of kings building things with their name on it.
By contrast, Ramses II, the traditional Pharaoh of the Exodus of Passover fame, did make his name great. He built extensively. And when he had not built it, he still carved his name into it. It would be a little like our having the Trumpire State Building or Mount Vertrump. And he did achieve lasting fame. By having approximately 100 children, a condom was named after him so his name is remembered all the time.
Mesopotamian kings followed a generally similarly path. Kings build stairways to heaven (ziggurats) at the cosmic center (the capital) where they ruled the universe from sea to shining sea (the Upper Sea or Mediterranean to the Lower Sea or Persian/Arab Gulf; there maps are oriented at a 90 degree rotation from ours). The baked bricks used in these constructions bore the name of the king.
Nimrod is the first king mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. He is the first king mentioned before Abraham encounters various kings. To understand what he is doing there one must put aside what the name means colloquially today and in rabbinic tradition and focus on the biblical text itself. In the original version of the story:
Genesis 10:8 Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9 He was a mighty hunter before Yahweh; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before Yahweh.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, and Calneh [Calah] in the land of Shinar.
These verses are descriptive, not accusatory. Nimrod is to be praised for his achievements not condemned. Indeed, he is a figure to be emulated given his success as mighty man or warrior before the Lord. He was the ruler of the Mesopotamian universe.
As biblical archaeologists and Assyriologists eventually learned, Nimrod was not an individual but an exemplar. He was not Sumerian Gilgamesh of Uruk (Erech) as had been originally thought. He was not Akkadian Sargon the Great of Accad, he was not Amorite Hammurabi of Babylon, and he was not Assyrian Tukulti-Ninurta of Calah. Instead he was all of them; he represented that Mesopotamian life. Now with Abraham leaving Ur and settling near Hebron (David’s first royal capital), the torch had been passed to a new location. The Israelite king in Jerusalem was advised to rule like a Mesopotamian king at the new cosmic center. He was to make his name great as Solomon did in building the temple.
So at least claimed one political party in ancient Israel. However, there was another political party, the Levites or Mushites who claimed the law came first. They objected to the claim that Yahweh had sanctioned the royal way of life in Mesopotamia as the Nimrod author had written. Yahweh had first appeared at Sinai to Moses and the law was revealed there. They mocked the Mesopotamian way of life by writing the Tower of Babel story. Look at those mighty stairways to heaven! They all were built for naught. All those mighty and grandiose empires crumbled into dust, lost to history until recovered by archaeologists. It was the law which endured and ruled even when kings and temples were no more.
Exodus 18:17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him…19”Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God, and bring their cases to God; 20 and you shall teach them the statutes and the decisions, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover choose able men from all the people, such as fear God, men who are trustworthy and who hate a bribe; and place such men over the people as rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times; every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves; so it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
Jethro and Nimrod offer two different models of political organization: the rule of law and the king who makes his name great. Two political parties in ancient Israel offered two different versions of how society should be organized: one based on the rule by a king and one based on the rule of law.
For the first centuries of Israel’s existence, it had had no king. Therefore no one was in a position to abuse power. Only when Israel had a king could someone be a law unto himself. We will never know if ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia debated the powers of a king when he first ascended to the throne in Egypt and descended to the throne in Mesopotamia. But we do know the debates ancient Israel had on the powers of the king. It decided there should be checks and balances on the power of the king. No one was above the law. Even David could be called to task: “Thou art the man.” And when he was confronted he repented.
Bonespur Boy is no David. He is no George Washington either who also is remembered for having left the presidency voluntarily. And even though he is no mighty man and is not before the Lord, he still is a Nimrod.
For more on the stories of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel see my book Jerusalem Throne Games: The Battle of Bible Stories after the Death of David.
This blog marks the final one [YAY!] on the ASOR and SBL conferences in 2018.
Suppose a supernatural event occurs in historical time. By supernatural, I am referring to a natural but infrequent event that does not lend itself to daily, weekly, monthly, annual, or even Sothic cycles. These are events in historic time which are unique to the individuals experiencing them. Neither they nor anyone they know has ever experienced the event before. However similar events may have been remembered in the oral tradition from a long time ago.
A classic example would be the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. That event had an immediate impact on the people at that time. It also became part of the cultural legacy of the people. If a storyteller sets a story in Pompeii (or on the Titanic or in Atlantis), it is not too difficult to figure out that the ending will not go well for the people living there.
There were two such papers at ASOR both with biblical implications.
Environmental Archaeology of the Ancient Near East
“The 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event: Catastrophic Termination of a Bronze Age Civilization”
Phillip J. Silvia (Trinity Southwest University), A. Victor Adedeji (Elizabeth City State University), Ted E. Bunch (Northern Arizona University), T. David Burleigh (New Mexico Tech), Robert Hermes (Los Alamos National Laboratory), George Howard (Restoration Systems), Malcolm A. LeCompte (Comet Research Group), Charles Mooney (NC State University), E. Clay Swindel (Comet Research Group), Allen West (Comet Research Group), Tim Witwer (Comet Research Group), James H. Wittke (Northern Arizona University), Wendy S. Wolback (DePaul University), and Dale Batchelor (EAG Laboratories),
This paper surveys the multiple lines of evidence that collectively suggest a Tunguska-like, cosmic airburst event that obliterated civilization—including the Middle Bronze Age city-state anchored by Tall el-Hammam—in the Middle Ghor (the 25 km diameter circular plain immediately north of the Dead Sea) ca. 1700 B.C.E., or 3700 years before present (3.7kaBP). Analyses of samples taken over twelve seasons of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project have been and are being performed by a team of scientists from New Mexico Tech, Northern Arizona University, NC State University, Elizabeth City (NC) State University, DePaul University, Trinity Southwest University, the Comet Research Group, and Los Alamos National Laboratories, with remarkable results. Commensurate with these results are the archaeological data collected from across the entire occupational footprint (36 ha) of Tall el-Hammam, demonstrating a directionality pattern for the high-heat, explosive 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event that, in an instant, devastated approximately 500 km2 immediately north of the Dead Sea, not only wiping out 100% of the Middle Bronze Age cities and towns, but also stripping agricultural soils from once-fertile fields and covering the eastern Middle Ghor with a super-heated brine of Dead Sea anhydride salts pushed over the landscape by the Event’s frontal shockwaves. Based upon the archaeological evidence, it took at least 600 years to recover sufficiently from the soil destruction and contamination before civilization could again become established in the eastern Middle Ghor.
I am not qualified to discuss the science of this presentation which I did not see. What I do note is that it was of one two papers to garner some media attention. The other one was the session on changing the name of ASOR to delete the word “Oriental.” While I did download the papers from that session, so far I have not decided to write about it and instead am confining myself to archaeological and biblical papers.
The reason for the media attention for this presentation was due to a word not mentioned in the abstract and as far as I know not mentioned in the session. The word is “Sodom.” Here are some examples courtesy of Joseph Lauer.
According to Lauer, the ASOR presentation was not the first one on the subject. Silvia and Steven Collins presented the paper “The Civilization-Ending 3.7KYrBP Event: Archaeological Data, Sample Analyses, and Biblical Implications” to the Near East Archaeological Society in November 2015. The paper had been available at Silvia’s Academia page, This event is in accord with Collins view that Tall el-Hammam at the northern side of the Dead Sea is a strong candidate for the biblical city of Sodom.
The biblical implications of the cosmic event are not that it proves the Hebrew Bible is true. It is that the memory of the event survived for centuries and could be used by a biblical storyteller just as stories today can be set at Pompeii, on the Titanic, on in Atlantis. The application of the political template I have been using works for the original core story in Gen. 19 as well.
1. The story was composed as a standalone story. It was not yet part of a Lot or Abram cycle yet alone the Book of Genesis.
2. The author took for granted that the audience knew the legacy of the destruction of Sodom. As soon as the story was set there everyone knew what the ending would be.
3. The author took for granted that the audience knew what Israelite city the city of Sodom stood for in the political polemic or allegory (Gibeah).
4. The author took for granted that the audience knew who the weak king of the city was (Ishbaal).
5. The story was composed after the following event had occurred:
2 Samuel 3:7Now Saul had a concubine, whose name was Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah; and Ishbosheth said to Abner, “Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?” 8 Then Abner was very angry over the words of Ishbosheth, and said, “Am I a dog’s head of Judah? This day I keep showing loyalty to the house of Saul your father, to his brothers, and to his friends, and have not given you into the hand of David; and yet you charge me today with a fault concerning a woman. 9 God do so to Abner, and more also, if I do not accomplish for David what the LORD has sworn to him, 10 to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul, and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan to Beersheba.” 11 And Ishbosheth could not answer Abner another word, because he feared him.
This text had not yet been written but the breakdown in the social order implied by the text had already occurred. Ishbaal had become a figurehead king who had lost control of his military.
6. The author took for granted that the audience knew who the two messengers of Yahweh were (David and Joab).
In other words, according to this story, David offered amnesty or sanctuary to Ishbaal if he abandoned his capital city before it was destroyed. Ishbaal chose not to accept this offer. However Abner did abandon ship as he recognized that David was the superior warrior who could save Israel from the hand of the Philistines, but that’s another story.
The second cosmic story is my own presentation at ASOR.
“What Happened on October 30, 1207 B.C.E. in the Valley of Aijalon?”
Peter Feinman (Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education)
The suggestion has been made that on October 30, 1207 B.C.E. in the late afternoon in the Valley of Aijalon an annular eclipse occurred. The suggestion further has been made that this astronomical event is connected to the poem in the Book of Jashar recounted in Joshua 10. The astronomy and physics in the calculation of the annular eclipse are not the subject of this paper. Given the validity of those calculations, what historical reconstruction, if any, can be proposed that takes into account the relevant archaeological and biblical information including the Merneptah Stele, the Iron Age I hill-country settlements, Iron Age I geopolitics, the poem, and the narrative biblical texts?
I propose that the emergence of Israel as an anti-Egyptian entity generated a reaction among the Canaanite cities. Some cities shared Israel’s antipathy to Egyptian hegemony and welcomed the new entity while others were good vassals of Egypt and opposed the Canaanite cities and Israel that disrupted the Egyptian order. In other words, there is a story to be told of real-world power politics that has been lost amidst the cosmic imagery and the fight to determine whether the Bible is true. Applying the same techniques an American historian would use to understand the American Revolution may provide a more fruitful resolution of these issues.
The second cosmic story differs from the Sodom story in that Israelites, in particular Benjaminites, directly experienced it. The victory and cosmic sign became part of the Benjaminite tribal legacy, an alternative cosmic event to those of the Songs of Miriam and Deborah presumably part of the Book of the Wars of Yahweh controlled by the Levites.
What the paper only briefly alluded to is something frequently minimized in biblical scholarship: the precarious hold of Jerusalem as the capital city after the death of David. It is easy to overlook this situation if you think David and/or Solomon never existed or were at most chieftains. It also is easy to overlook if one’s focus is the temple. But it is important to realize that Jerusalem did not have a dominant position in the land of Canaan over either other Canaanite cities or Israel except for David. Then he died. So did presumably Jebusites Bathsheba and Zadok. Now what?
The questioning of the centrality of Jerusalem to Israel can be observed textually.
Jerusalem was not part of Israel:
Judges 19:10and arrived opposite Jebus. He had with him a couple of saddled asses, and his concubine was with him. 11 When they were near Jebus, the day was far spent, and the servant said to his master, “Come now, let us turn aside to this city of the Jebusites, and spend the night in it.” 12 And his master said to him, “We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel; but we will pass on to Gibeah.”
Jerusalem was an enemy of Israel:
Joshua 10:1When Adonizedek king of Jerusalem heard how Joshua had taken Ai, and had utterly destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, 3 So Adonizedek king of Jerusalem sent to Hoham king of Hebron, to Piram king of Jarmuth, to Japhia king of Lachish, and to Debir king of Eglon, saying, 4 “Come up to me, and help me, and let us smite Gibeon; for it has made peace with Joshua and with the people of Israel.”
Bethel was a better cosmic center than Jerusalem:
Various supplements to the story of Jacob (Day 3 of the King David Bible).
By Persian times, the rivalry between Bethel and Jerusalem was déjà vue all over again.
To counter this opposition, Jerusalem relied on its old standby protector Egypt. Pharaoh’s daughter replaced Bathsheba as the dominant person in Solomon’s life. Pharaoh Solomon mimicked the ways of Egypt to the point of even building in the same locations Egypt had used to control the local populations. It is during the reign of Solomon when the rivalry among Zadokites, Aaronids, and Levites really heated up in the politics and in the stories.
The 11th-10th centuries BCE were quite active archaeologically, historically, and textually for the shifting Israelite people and polities. There still is a lot of work to do to historically reconstruct this period and to understand the formation of the Hebrew Bible. And with that thought, this review of the ASOR and SBL conferences in 2018 comes to an end.
This blog is part of a series of posts about the ASOR and SBL conferences in November, 2018. They can be accessed at the IHARE website and will be posted to academia.edu.
One of the developments in the ASOR and SBL conferences was the increased archaeological data from the 11th and early 10th centuries BCE (Where Is the Tenth Century BCE?: The ASOR and SBL Conferences and The Tenth Century BCE and the SBL Conference). This development occurred even without any sessions on Khirbet Qeiyafa. One logical consequence to this development is the meaning for the biblical stories set in that exact time period. As previously reported, Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, begins her ASOR abstract “A Fresh Biblical Lens on the Iron Age Shephelah: Social Ambiguity versus Order in Judges-Samuel” with:
Textual studies of the Shephelah have yet to catch up with the archaeological portrait of identity ambiguity or “entanglement” in this Iron Age landscape of ancient Israel.
In her SBL presentation, (“Boundary Crossing and Boundary Blurring in the Bible’s Tales of David and Gath,” S19-117 Historiography and the Hebrew Bible), she suggests the book Memory in a Time of Prose: Studies in Epistemology, Hebrew Scribalism, and the Biblical Past by Daniel Pioske (Oxford University Press, 2018) is of value in understanding this subject. I downloaded, printed, and read the book. Chapter 2: Gath of the Philistines (85-133) and Chapter 4: A Past No Longer Remembered: The Hebrew Bible and the Question of Absence (182-191 on Khirbet Qeiyafa) directly relate to the question raised here. What follows is a review of these two sections and some thoughts of my own on the topic.
Based on his presentations in the preceding chapters, Pioske begins here by stating that Gath flourished prior to the emergence of a mature Hebrew prose. The result of this interpretation is the need to bridge the gap between these two time periods: the 11th-10th and the 8th BCE.
He begins his analysis with a reference to the Epic of Gilgamesh. At the beginning of the Epic and at the end of Tablet XI, Gilgamesh walks the walls of Uruk. He deems these lines as part of a sophisticated framing technique drawing on the images of Uruk’s monumental fortifications. The physical presence of the walls became part of the process through which the story of Gilgamesh was remembered. As he puts it:
…the historian must be sensitive to the possibility that memories from former times endured alongside the places to which they referred… (90).
Turning to the site in question here, Pioske observes:
There are nearly double the biblical references to this Philistine site, in fact, than to other settlements identified within the so-called Philistine pentapolis,,, (90).
These references to Gath in the Hebrew Bible are not mere data points or part of lists. Quite the contrary, the Gath occurrences are at key moments and play a significant role in the unfolding narrative. Pioske asserts that:
…it is unlikely that the scribes who made reference to Gath within their stories would have had access to first-hand, eyewitness information about the famed Philistine city…(91).
He concludes that:
…the biblical writers possessed knowledge about Gath that was reflective of the location’s early Iron Age past (91).
This observation leads Pioske to the crux of his investigation: how did scribes have access to material from decades if not centuries prior to the composition of the Gath stories.
To resolve this question, Pioske reviews the textual and archaeological information.
Philistine Gath in the Hebrew Bible (91-102)
What strikes Pioske’s attention is the military-basis for the Gath biblical mentions. Its battles occur in the heart of Benjamin/Judah/Israel. The Gittites are warriors. They are descendants of the Raphah which he compares to the Rephaim. In other words, the Gittites are part of a warrior cult of distinct martial abilities who are remembered for their prowess. David defeats them, is a vassal to them, and they serve as his mercenaries, quite a range of relationships one might add. Yet the reason for David’s attraction westward to Gath is never explained by the storyteller (97). Pioske concludes that “Gath likely functioned as a crucial gateway into the highland regions and the capital of Jerusalem” (101). Most important for the storytelling, there may even have been a time when Gath became part of Judah in the 8th century BCE just as Hebrew prose writing began to flourish (102).
Philistine Gath: The Archaeological Evidence (103-117)
In this section, Pioske describes the Gath landscape. He then turns to the Bronze Age archaeology noting Canaanite Gath’s contacts with Egypt such as in the Amarna letters. Next he notes the arrival of the Philistines in Iron I. He posits that native Canaanite population from the rural areas of the Shephelah came to be relocated in the Philistine-controlled cities (109). Pioske has no explanation for how and why Gath developed as it did during this time.
Shortly afterwards, nearby Judean cities begin to be built/rebuilt as well. He specifically notes the border town of Beth-Shemesh. Pioske is struck by the rebuilt and refortified Judean town of Lachish in the early ninth century BCE given its Late Bronze Age rivalry with Gath. These constructions plus the evidence of trade leads Pioske to conclude that relationships between Gath and its eastern highland neighbors in the tenth and ninth centuries BCE was peaceful.
Gath and the Resilience of a Remembered Past (117-131)
Pioske begins by asserting that “biblical scribes had access to information that could have only descended from the early Iron Age period… (118). Furthermore, Gath is always regarded as a foreign city even though Judah temporarily had some sort of control over it during part of the eight century BCE. The geographical setting also dates to the Iron I period due to the presence of Ekron as a significant city.
…in the thousand years that passed from the Middle Bronze Age to the end of the Iron Age, there was one and only one moment when both locations were of some size and status at the same time: the Iron I period, or the era in which the biblical writings indicate the importance of both (119).
There is no biblical account of Gath having been conquered by Israel or Judah. In addition its rise in Iron IIA coincides with the founding and growth of the House of David (123). All these developments are not by happenstance or coincidental.
Pioske now has to explain how this happened. He does not exclude the possibility of some older documents which mentioned Gath. He sees oral story-telling as being crucial to the maintenance of these memories. Nonetheless he is forced to conclude that “how and why this Philistine city was remembered with such tenacity remains something of a mystery” (125). He refers to other biblical examples of such memories at Shiloh, Bethel, and Tirzah. He notes non-biblical examples such as Troy, Icelandic sagas, and Beowulf enduring for centuries before being written.
His overall conclusion is:
…a remembered past endures more readily when it is tethered to the physical environs of a place (131).
For a short time, Judah controlled Gath. The visible remains endured.
…old memories of the Philistine center may have found their way into Hebrew texts because traces of this remembered past were still preserved in the ruins familiar to those who began to write these stories down (131).
Gath was a “place of memory.” Due to its sheer size it left an impression on the local inhabitants. And just as the Epic of Gilgamesh begins and ends in Tablet XI with the walls of the immense city of Uruk, so Pioske begins and end his chapter on Gath with references to Gilgamesh at Uruk.
Khirbet Qeiyafa (182-191)
Pioske’s analysis of this site is quite different from that of Gath – it’s all archaeology, there are no texts. He describes the site through its uniqueness.
Indeed, at a time when the eastern Shephelah and highland regions consisted of mostly small, unwalled villages and a limited population, the fortifications of Kh. Qeiyafa offer an unanticipated testament to political will and human capital at this point along the Elah Valley. The sophisticated casemate wall construction of the settlement and its two monumental gates would have been a tremendous undertakings for this period in time…(186).
Nonetheless, this extraordinary site garners no biblical mention.
The lack of reference to this location is all the more mystifying considering that a number of events within Kh. Qeiyafa’s vicinity are recounted in the biblical narrative and are said to have occurred at that moment in the early Iron Age when Kh. Qeiyafa was most likely populated and functioning… (191).
How Come Gath Is in the Hebrew Bible and Khirbet Qeiyafa Is Not?
My explanation for this discrepancy is human agency, specifically that of Abiathar. To repeat the approach I have taken in Jerusalem Throne Games and in these blogs
1. Abiathar is the father of the alphabet prose narrative.
2. Saul’s desire to become king was the catalyst for his writing.
3. All his writing was political: not historical, not theological, not as literature.
4. He wrote throughout his life from the time of Saul to Solomon.
5. To identify and date his writings permits a better reconstruction of Israelite history and the development of the Hebrew Bible.
6. He had rivals, a successor, and a student.
So now let’s apply the Abiathar template to the question of Gath and Khirbet Qeiyafa using the story of David and the Philistine warrior written in the time of Ishbaal and now in I Sam. 17.
1. The story originated as a standalone story. In the early part of his career, Abiathar had not yet mastered the skill to write continuous prose narratives.
2. Abiathar employed nameless individuals to represent a people. These anonymous people may be considered a diagnostic for his prose. In this case the Philistine warrior represents the Philistine people especially those warriors Pioske referred to.
3. Since the Philistine warrior is a symbol the story should not be taken as a physically literal encounter. Think of the story of “Ronnie and the Bear.” Ronnie goes hunting for a bear and at the end of story either is rocking on his bear skin rug and/or is sitting under his stuffed bear trophy. Older people will know that Ronald Reagan was a real person, the Soviet Union was real, and that “Ronnie and Bear” is about the United States winning the Cold War. They will not try to analyze the weapon Ronnie used or identify the species of bear he hunted. Younger people might be clueless and condemn Ronnie for killing an endangered species. “David and the Philistine Warrior” is not about a literal encounter; it is a political polemic by Abiathar about who has the right stuff to go into the arena and defeat the enemy.
4. Long before Thucydides put words in the mouth of Pericles, Abiathar put words in the mouth of David.
5. Khirbet Qeiyafa is not the only thing missing in the story, so are Jonathan and Ishbaal. Even if Saul did not confront the Philistine warrior, how come neither Jonathan nor Ishbaal did either? Abiathar is going for the kill. Saul, Jonathan, and Ishbaal all lacked the right stuff. At this time, Saul and Jonathan were dead and Ishbaal was weak. The story is an all-out humiliation of Benjamin and its leaders by the Philistines.
6. As I was thinking these points through, it suddenly occurred to me to ask where did Saul and Jonathan really die? The idea that the Philistines and Benjaminites squared off far to the north of where they both were located seems a little strange. It makes much more sense that the fight to the death occurred right where the two peoples faced in other: in the Elah Valley. Khirbet Qeiyafa was Saul’s pride and joy. The Philistines defeated Saul and destroyed his fortification. In other words, Abiathar located his political allegory at the site of Benjamin’s greatest humiliation.
When this thought flashed through my mind, it stunned me. To substantiate it will require analysis of other stories especially involving Jabesh-Gilead in Judges and Samuel. Still given the premise that stories are political allegories and not history, the showdown battle in the Elah Valley makes a lot of sense.
7. As much as Abiathar enjoyed mocking the Benjaminite warrior prowess, David was a wiser politician. He knew he could not have a kingdom with a hole in middle. He knew that Benjamin had to accept being part of the kingdom of Israel under the rule of David if it was going to work. It was probably at that point that Abiathar developed the David and Jonathan episodes. He now had learned how to write a continuous narrative of multiple episodes.
8. Biblical scholars have observed the similarities between the stories of Hector and Achilles and David and the Philistine warrior. They are deliberate. Why assume Israelites were the only intended audience? Abiathar’s story was for the Philistines too. When they heard the story they expected to be the winner. After all, they were like the Mycenaeans from across the waters and they had defeated the Benjaminites at Khirbet Qeiyafa. Naturally they would have expected the Achilles figure to be triumphant in Abiathar’s story.
Abiathar apparently deployed an old Israelite motif: take the defining story of you enemy and reverse it. In the Song of the Sea, the gift of the Nile is defeated by flooding waters. In the Song of Deborah, the wilderness woman smites Pharaoh Se-se III, a reversal of Pharaoh smites the male enemy. Now Abiathar had used the same technique against the Philistines.
This realization means the Philistines probably brought the story of Hector and Achilles with them when they arrived in Canaan after 1177 BCE. So how did Abiathar learn it? Obviously he did not go to Philistine scribal school. The most reasonable answer is through, Anson Rainey forgive me, the tribe of Dan. Dan was the first Sea People to arrive. It joined the Israelite-led anti-Egyptian NATO alliance (see Deborah at the SBL Conference). It was inducted into the Israelite community. And it had stories of Hector, Achilles, and then Samson. Imagine that. The Hebrew Bible helps prove antiquity of portions of what became the Iliad! That will drive the minimalists crazy.
The application of the Abiathar template provides a richer, fuller, more coherent account of early Israelite history and the development of the Hebrew Bible than possible with the present paradigms. Plus it is a lot of fun. Abiathar’s first stories will be the subject of my presentation at the upcoming Mid-Atlantic SBL conference.
Judges 19:26And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, till it was light. 27 And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 He said to her, “Get up, let us be going.” But there was no answer… 29 And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and laying hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”
The story of the rape and dismembered concubine in Judges 19 has been deemed a text of terror.1 Indeed the brutal and horrific treatment of this woman is a story likely skipped over in Sunday School even as it is standard fare in many slasher movies. What is frequently overlooked is that as with the Hollywood movies, no person was hurt in the creation of this story. It was the response to the story that is the key to understanding it.
The story was supposed to be a text of terror. That was the intent of the author. Janet Leigh did not die in Psycho but the audience was supposed to be and was terrorized. Similarly her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis did not die in either versions of Halloween but the audiences were terrorized. So too in ancient times. While the biblical story was not written to be a box office smash, it was written to provoke a reaction by its audience. In some sense, it is related to the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi at the instigation of the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince. There is a political dimension to the story in ancient Israel just as there is to the actions today.
The approach taken to understanding the story is critical. The story is a political one. It is not history. It is not theology. It is not religion. It is politics. Mario Liverani addresses the close connection between the writing of history and the validation of political order and political action in the ancient Near East by targeting Judges 19-21 as a possibly pro-Davidic, anti-Benjaminite story from the time of Saul.2 Yairah Amit declares:
Literature has always been susceptible to involvement in political struggle, so the political mobilization of biblical literature should occasion no surprise….I have chosen to discuss…the anti-Saul polemic hidden in chs. 19-21 in the book of Judges.3
…the confrontation between the house of Saul, whose origin is in Gibeah, and the house of David, whose origin is in Bethlehem Judah, is in fact the core of the story.4
Marc Brettler echoes Amit’s statement in seeing the alphabet prose narrative story as an anti-Saul polemic in the use of literature as politics. He wonders why what is seemingly so obvious is rejected by scholars. How can a story which mentions the homes of Samuel, Saul, and David not be a political polemic?5 The story is “a world of unrelenting terror” because that is the message the author wished to deliver in his polemic. But the story is a text of terror mainly for the supporters of Saul because it is a call to arms against them.
Let’s look at the individual characters in the story and who they represent. First there is the anonymous female just as there was in the preceding story of Jephthah’s Daughter, another text of terror. For this author, the anonymous female does not represent a specific individual in history. Like Lady Liberty, she is a symbolic figure representing We the People or in this case the Israelite people. Her fate is the fate of the Israelite people unless something happens to prevent it.
The figure of the anonymous female automatically raises the question of who is responsible for the safety of the people. As we have just been reminded through some home grown terrorist actions in the United States, the president is the political leader responsible for the safety of the people. In ancient Israel, one might expect the figure to be the king or Saul in these polemical texts of terror. That was true in the Jephthah story. In that story, he fails in this duty despite his military success and the people pay the price. He fails because he has crossed the line: as a warrior he does not have the right to initiate military action. Under the Israelite system of checks and balances that power is reserved to Yahweh acting directly or through his priestly representative.
In the second story, the call to arms is initiated by a Levite priest. He has the authority and now the obligation to do so. In these stories one may observe the ancient equivalent of the American Federalist Papers in the political battle with the Anti-Federalists over the ratification of the Constitution. Still to this very day, the political battle continues over the power of the President versus We the People through the House of Representatives to initiate war. Ancient Israel had a similar debate when kingship arose but expressed points of view through the story form rather than the essay or op-ed.
The stakes had ratcheted up since the Jephthah story. In that story, one individual was held accountable. Now it would be all then men of the city just as it would be in story in Gen. 19 with Sodom replacing Gibeah. Whereas in the story of Jephthah, his own family had disavowed him, in the sequel, all the men bear the responsibility for the crime which occurred. Now it was incumbent on the Levite to right the wrong which had occurred by the Benjamin violation of the Israelite people. To do so, he exercised his authority to call Israel to battle just as Deborah had done. However, it is one thing to call for the tribes to assemble for war, in the end there still needs to be a leader. Who would be the Barak?
The author is not subtle in who he had in mind. He did not need to designate the city of the concubine. He did not need to make that city Bethlehem. But just as Gibeah meant Saul so Bethlehem meant David. The author of this story was reaching out to David to be the leader to restore the order Saul and his Benjaminites had disturbed. David now had a responsibility to do so. Why did the author choose David? Why did he place Israel’s future in David’s hands? Why did he think David would accept this calling from the Levite?
Forget about hindsight. Forgot about people looking back at the establishment of the Davidic dynasty from Persian times. At the time when David emerged in history, no one knew that there would be a Davidic dynasty. This story is a call to action in the hope that David would accept that call. There was no certainty that he would. There was no certainty that if he did accept the call that he would succeed. To some extent, the story functions as a “Hail Mary” by the author if I may mix my metaphors. Then again, he was desperate.
What does that Levite call to David tell us about the Israel in the time before David became king?
First, it tells us that David was an Israelite. David’s ties to Bethlehem do not mean he was born a Judahite. Bethlehem and Ephratah are different names for the same location (Gen. 35:19 and 48:7). Mark Leuchter suggests that אפרתי in I Sam. 1:1 usually translated as “Ephraim” is better translated as “Ephrati” meaning a man of Ephratah. The pilgrimage of Elkanah and Hannah of Ephratah to Shiloh leading to the birth of Samuel therefore indicates a strong connection between the religious circles of Ephratah-Bethlehem and Shiloh.6 Sara Japhet suggests that David, the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah (see I Sam. 17:12), belonged to an Ephraimite clan that had migrated south. There it came in contact with Calebites such as Nabal and his wife Abigail whom David later married (I Sam. 25) when he was creating the kingdom of Judah.7
These suggestions help tie together various biblical strands. Nadav Na’aman concurs with this identification. He furthermore suggests members of this Ephraimite clan may have migrated to Gilead across the Jordan River as well. He raises the issue of the connection between the ark and Ephratah (Ps. 132:6) and David’s connection to the priests of Shiloh and their most sacred object. He focuses on Rachel, the eponymous ancestress of the tribe of Ephraim and the clan of Ephrathites. She dies from hard labor when giving birth to Benjamin and is buried by what becomes David’s birthplace in what is known as Rachel’s tomb. Na’aman claims the memory of her death dates to the early Iron Age.8 Albright earlier had suggested that a colony of Ephrathites had established a settlement in the Bethlehem district and had subsequently built Rachel=s Tomb.9 Rachel=s prominent appearance in the third cycle of Genesis stories may be traced back to her importance to David’s Ephrathite clan in the Bethlehem district which had migrated from Ephraim where the Shiloh priesthood was based.
Second, David was an Israelite of some prominence. Whether he had made a name for himself though military exploits against the Amalekites, the Philistines, or both is not the issue here. I accept that he had acquired sufficient stature to warrant marriage to a daughter of the king. What is important is that he was not some unknown person who appeared out of nowhere. Quite the contrary, he already was a successful Israelite warrior with religious ties to Shiloh. The author of this text of terror felt quite comfortable reaching out to him in this time of need.
Third, the author of the story had reason to believe that David felt shortchanged by Saul in some way. Or if not by Saul himself, then certainly by the Benjaminites after Saul’s death who supported Ishbaal as the successor rather than the militarily superior David. In the real world, Saul undoubtedly expected Jonathan to be his successor as did David and there was no provision for both father and son dying in the same battle. Why support the weak surviving son and not the vibrant son in-law…other than the fact that he was Benjaminite and blood? The presence of David was less a threat to Saul as king than to Saul as dynasty founder. A successful story of David’s rise to power would need to show that David never had been such a threat.
We may never know that precise details of the political machinations which occurred at that time. What we do have are the texts of terror, Abiathar, the father of the alphabet prose narrative, wrote during the early part of his career when he first reached out to David.
1.The phrase comes from Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary‑Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).
2. Mario Liverani, Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 160-192.
3. Yairah Amit, “Literature in the Service of Politics: Studies in Judges 19-21,” in Henning Graf Reventlow, Yair Hoffman, and Benjamin Uffenheimer, ed., Politics and Theopolitics in the Bible and Postbiblical Literature (JSOT Sup Series 171; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 28-40, here 28.
4. Yairah Amit, “The Use of Analogy in the Study of the Book of Judges,” in Matthias Augustin and Klaus Dietrich Schunck, ed., Wünschet Jerusalem Frieden: Collected Communications to the XIIth Congress of the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament, Jerusalem 1986 (Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang, 1988), 387-394, here 391.
5. Marc Z. Brettler, “The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 1989: 395–418, here 402.
6. Mark Leuchter, “Jeroboam the Ephraite,” Journal of Biblical Liteature 125 2006:51-72, here 60-61.
7. Sara Japhet, “Was David a Judahite or an Ephraimite? Light from the Genealogies,” in Iain Provan and Mark Boda, ed., Let us Go up to Zion: Essays in Honour of H. G. M. Williamson on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 297-306.
8. Nadav Na’aman, “The Settlement of the Ephraites in Bethlehem and the Location of Rachel’s Tomb,” Revue Biblique 121 2014:516-539.
9. William F. Albright, “Appendix II Ramah of Samuel,” AASOR 4 1922-1923:112-123, here 118-119n.6.
The American Civil Religion posits that we are a city on a hill. At this point both political parties have abandoned that idea. The longtime staple of presidential politics and the America culture has been banished from public discourse. It died with the death of John McCain. We no longer aspire to a leadership role in human history.
But besides the city on a hill vision, there is a second line: the eyes of the world are upon us. Even though we choose not to lead, because of our size and might we still serve as an example to the world. Sometimes this influence is referred to as soft power. It means besides Coke and McDonalds, American cultural values and practices also ae known, in one form or another, around the world. So even as we forsake a political leadership role, the eyes of the world are still upon us.
Recently and still ongoing we have had two such examples of this phenomenon: the appearance of the President of the United States at the United Nations and the confirmation hearings of Judge Kavanaugh.
At the United Nations, the President of the United States spoke as if he were on Fox News. He spoke as if he were at one of his professional wrestling arena rallies. He spoke as if he were still in Trumpietown. But he had ventured outside of his comfort zone. He was speaking to an audience he has routinely insulted. He has insulted people based on their race. He has insulted people based on their religion. He has insulted people based on their cosmopolitanism. And he has launched economic war against many of them while withdrawing from providing American leadership.
Their reaction to his speech was exactly what you should expect: they laughed. They did not laugh with him, they laughed at him. In his surprised response that he was not expecting that reaction, he then did what he rarely does in his life – he told the truth. He really was surprised. He soon recovered and said they were laughing with him and they were just having fun with each other. Perhaps this “interpretation” was what inspired Kavanaugh to give his interpretation of being a member of the Renate” alumni.
Senate Judiciary Committee: Do You Have the Right Stuff to go into the Arena?
The story of David and Nathan is one of the most dramatic in the Hebrew Bible. Even as one reads the words, one can see the figures in one’s mind. There is no mention of Nathan extending his arm in the direction of David, yet we see it. There is no mention of Nathan pointing a finger at David, yet we see it. There is no mention of David’s physical reaction to the words and gestures of Nathan, yet we see it. Only when Nathan is telling his parable, does the storyteller mention an emotion, the anger of David. The story teller leaves it to our imagination to visualize David’s appearance after Nathan’s exclamation.
This story exemplifies the oral nature of biblical storytelling. It cries out for a physical performance. Undoubtedly, that was how most Israelites originally experienced the story – not read silently alone but as a public display. The op-ed pieces of yesteryear were performed in ancient Israel long before Saturday Night Live existed.
One key ingredient in the story is frequently overlooked. It is not the historicity of the story but its believability. There is no sense in the story that it lacks validity. The story is not one of science fiction, fantasy, or even dreams. It is a presented as a real world event that the audience easily could believe as true. There is no surprise in the display of truth to power. There is no sense that it defies all credulity that someone could call the king to task. There is no astonishment about the actions of Nathan. The only uncertainty is in the reaction of the accused.
That credibility extends beyond the prophet denouncing the action of the king to his face. Just as Nathan’s declaration garners no surprise, neither does David’s reaction. The king’s repentance is presented in just as routine a manner as Nathan’s charge. As far as the audience is concerned, it is expected that a prophet would call a king to task. It is equally expected that the king would respond positively when he heard the words of the prophet and repent his wrongdoings.
The contrast between yesterday and today is remarkable. In Nathan’s words, we see the uniqueness of his actions in the ancient Near East. No one can imagine anyone delivering truth to power in ancient Assyria. No one can imagine anyone delivering truth to power in ancient Babylon. No one can imagine anyone delivering truth to power in ancient Egypt. Actually we can in Egypt. It was delivered by Moses and commemorated in a holiday still celebrated to this very day.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings are an American phenomenon. The televising of these hearings to the world is part of the soft power of this country. The eyes of the world are upon us as we publicly debate whether or not to confirm an individual to the highest court in the land. Should the court be an independent judiciary? What is the answer in China? What is the answer in Russia? What is the answer in Turkey? What is the answer in Iran? What is the answer in Venezuela? What is the answer is so many countries throughout the world?
In David’s response we see the not only the uniqueness of Israel in the ancient Near East but to today. In the followup of the accusation levied at the Senate Judiciary Committee against Judge Kavanaugh, no one expects any change to occur in the behavior of the one charged. No one expects Kavanaugh to conduct an investigation into his own life, to ask his friends and classmates if he rely drank so much, if he really blacked out so often, if he really could have done what he is charged with doing. Unlike with David, there will be no change in behavior. He will not rise to the occasion. He will not be a profile in courage. He will not face the truth of his adolescent life that he thought he had left behind. Certainly a President who still is an adolescent himself will not encourage him to do so.
In the previous post, I referred to the possibility of the situation spiraling out of control. The Republicans have attempted to prevent such a collapse by limiting the scope and time of the investigation. But the challenge to do so is magnified by the number of venues available to people to speak out now. While some of the voices defy credulity and seem like a con job, too many others seem true. Those expressions will not be contained by the artificial constraints imposed on the investigation. The Republicans are in a superb position to alienate a huge swath of the American voting population for years to come. Of course, having a fifth Republican legislator on the Supreme Court may make jeopardizing the Republican position in the other two arms of the government worth the price.
Whatever happens, it will be seen around the world because the eyes of the world are still upon us.