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Fairies in the Bible?

Joel Hoffman is blogging today about unicorns and other mythological creatures in the Bible—or at least in the King James Version. As he usually does, Dr. Hoffman raises an intriguing question about how the original Hebrew words the KJV rendered as “dragon,” “unicorn,” and so forth should be handled. Did the original writers intend their readers to understand these as real-world creatures (e.g., as serpents, rhinoceroses, etc.) or did they mean to depict creatures of fantasy? He writes,

More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.

Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translations wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.

On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.

Hoffman deals mainly with “unicorns” (re’em) and “dragons” (tannin), although he makes passing reference to a possible merperson in the character of Dagon, the god of the Philistines.

Along these same lines, I would suggest that there are a handful of possible reference to fairies in the Bible—at least if the rabbis of the medieval period were interpreting these passages rightly.

Two Hebrew words are of interest: shedim and se’irim, both translated daimonia (“demons”) in the Septuagint. Shedim only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shed). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,

They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard.

Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to the Akkadian shedu, a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps something we might think of as a guardian angel. Then again, people around the world have made offerings to various local protective spirits to secure their goodwill. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging such a practice. Thus, in the Bible, they are depicted not as helpful minor spirits but as false gods to be avoided.

The next word is se’irim (singular se’ir), meaning “hairy beings” or “shaggy beings.” In the KJV, the word is translated “satyrs.” There are a few more references to se’irim than there are to shedim. According to Leviticus 17:7, “The Israelites must no longer sacrifice their communal sacrifices to the goat demons that they follow so faithlessly. This will be a permanent rule for them throughout their future generations.” The LXX renders se’irim as mataiois, “to empty or vain things.”

Se’irim dwell in the desolate wilderness and are apparently fond of dancing. According to Isaiah 13:21,

Wildcats will rest there;
houses will be filled with owls.
Ostriches will live there,
and goat demons (LXX, daimonia) will dance there.

And again in Isaiah 34:14:

Wildcats will meet hyenas,
the goat demon will call to his friends,
and there Lilith will lurk
and find her resting place.

I saw you wondering about Lilith in that verse. We’ll come back to her in a minute. It should be noted, that the Septuagint translation removes Lilith from the picture but possibly gives us a completely new mythological creature. My fairly wooden translation of the Greek is as follows:

Demons will meet onocentaurs
and they will shout one to the other,
There onocentaurs will rest
for they found a resting place for themselves.

If you’re not up to speed on medieval bestiaries, let me quickly explain that an onocentaur is part man, part ass. (And please refrain from any comments about half-ass blog posts. Thank you.)

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the se’irim are “are satyr-like demons, described as dancing in the wilderness…identical with the jinn of the Arabian woods and deserts.” Azazel, the goat-like wilderness demon (Lev 16:10ff) and Lilith (whom we already encountered in Isa 34:14) are said to be of the same class of beings. Further, it should be noted that some see in Lilith a prototype for later vampire legends. The Jewish Encyclopedia also raises the possibility that “the roes and hinds of the field” (gazelles and wild deer in the CEB) in Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 are “faunlike spirits similar to the se’irim, though of a harmless nature.”

How does all this apply to fairies? Thomas Keightley argued in The Fairy Mythology (1870)  that the prototypes of European fairy legends were to be found not only in the nymphs and satyrs of Greco-Roman mythology but also in Near Eastern stories of jinns and peris (or jinn and parian, to use the correct Arabic and Persian plurals). He even argued  that our English word “fairy” derives ultimately from Persian pari (or peri). This linguistic argument may or may not hold, but anyone who looks at Persian peri-stories will find many parallels to what was believed about fairies in rural Europe until fairly recent times.

If Keightley is correct, then the European conception of fairies owes a good deal to the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world(s) in which the Bible was written. It therefore would not be unusual to find references to the such creatures in biblical and other early Semitic materials.

After tracing the fairy mythology throughout northern Europe, Keightley makes quick reference to Jewish legends about similar creatures found in the rabbinic corpus. These beings are in fact called shedim and seirim (although Keightley transliterates them shedeem and shehireem). Another term, maziqin (or mazikeen in Keightley’s transliteration), is Aramaic and applies specifically to a malevolent spirit. According to rabbinic tradition, all these beings are in fact directly analogous to the jinn of Arabic folklore. Keightley writes,

It has long been an established article of belief among the Jews that there is a species of beings which they call Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen. These beings exactly correspond to the Arabian Jinn; and the Jews hold that it is by means of them that all acts of magic and enchantment are performed.

The Talmud says that the Shedeem were the offspring of Adam. After he had eaten of the Tree of life, Adam was excommunicated for one hundred and thirty years. “In all those years,” saith Rabbi Jeremiah Ben E’liezar, “during which Adam was under excommunication, he begat spirits, demons, and spectres of the night, as it is written, ‘Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begat children in his likeness and in his image,’ which teaches, that till that time he bad not begotten them in his own likeness.” In Berasbith Rabba, R. Simon says, “During all the one hundred and thirty years that Adam was separate from Eve, male spirits lay with her, and she bare by them, and female spirits lay with Adam, and bare by him.”

These Shedeem or Mazikeen are held to resemble the angels in three things. They can see and not be seen; they have wings and can fly; they know the future. In three respects they resemble mankind: they eat and drink; they marry and have children; they are subject to death. It may be added, they have the power of assuming any form they please; and so the agreement between them and the Jinn of the Arabs is complete.

Keightley shares three Jewish legends about the shedim: “The Broken Oaths,” “The Moohel,” and “The Mazik-Ass.”

As with dragons and unicorns, there are probably some who will pounce on “rational” or “scientific” explanations for fairies. Some do, in fact, attribute European fairy-lore to dim memories of diminutive tribes driven underground—and ultimately to extinction—by later invaders with the advantage of iron weapons (in both Europe and the Middle East, iron is a potent weapon against the Fair Folk).

In my experience, however, I think most interpreters would see shedim and se’irim as terms intended to describe supernatural or otherworldly beings and not merely misidentified pygmies or “wild men”—whether or not they judge such creatures to be “real.”

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Wise Women 4: Mourners

Singers of Dirges

In addition to presiding over births, a wise woman may also have a role at the liminal time of a death in the community. This is also a role with broad cultural currency in the ancient world. According to John Gray, not only at birth but

at death too it is the women who play the significant part as, for instance, the professional “keeners” in Jeremiah ix, 16 ff., who incidentally are also called חכמות “wise women,” a term reminiscent of the Skilful Ones, kṭrt of the Ras Shamra texts. (John Gray, The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)

In Jeremiah 9, the prophet calls upon the female mourners to lament for the coming destruction of Jerusalem:

Thus says the LORD of hosts:
Consider, and call for the mourning women to come;
send for the skilled women (חכמות) to come;
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water. (Jer 9:17-18)

Once again, I would advise readers that I am not implying we should understand all the Bible’s wise women as “professional” mourners, any more than I would claim they were all midwives. If you want to know what I think the “core” of ancient Israelite wise-womanhood was all about, you’ll find it in my first two posts (mothers, mediators). Having thus established the “core,” however, it is fruitful to explore as well some possible variations suggested by the roles wise women play in other ancient cultures.

In many ancient cultures mourning was a distinctively feminine function. The women who performed this function were often religious professionals. (I note in passing that all of the hospice workers of my personal acquaintance happen to be women.) In any event, mourning was often considered the domain of women. In ancient Israel as in many traditional cultures, women prepared the body of the deceased for burial: bathing it, trimming the nails, wrapping it up and applying perfumes and spices. Then, women led the public lamentation.

In the Ugaritic Legend of Aqhatu, for example, Anatu weeps for Aqhatu and perhaps also sings a dirge, accompanying herself on a lyre (KTU 1.19:I.1-8) (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 523). Similarly, in the Legend of Kirtu there is reference to the dirges of female mourners that would soon be heard when Kirtu is dead (KTU 1.16:I.3-5) (Marsman, 523). In this same text, Kirtu’s daughter Thatmanatu’s mourning for her father is narrated in great detail—far moreso than the mourning of Kirtu’s son Iluha’u. “We may conclude,” writes Marsman, “that, although both men and women mourned the dead, women were more prominent in the performance of wailing rites, often in a professional capacity” (525).

In ancient Greece as well women—both professional religious practitioners and female family members—traditionally sung lamentations at a person’s death. Mourning was, in fact, one of the few ways women wielded public power in Greece. Some even theorize that Solon and other early Greek legislators condemned professional mourning precisely in order to restrain the public voice of women.

Women were no less the “mourners, musicians, and teachers” of Israel at times of bereavement (Angela Bauer, “Death, Grief, Agony, and a New Creation: Re-reading Gender in Jeremiah after September 11,” Word & World 22/4 [Fall 2002] 380). In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find women weeping, singing dirges, or reciting laments at public funerals in Judges 11:40 and 2 Chronicles 35:25 (where “singing women” are paired with “singing men”). As Jeremiah 9 reveals, the image of women dirge-singers was so culturally familiar that the prophet could evoke it to call the people to national lamentation. In the book of Lamentations, the fallen city of Jerusalem is itself depicted as a female dirge-singer (Lam 1:16).

As with the event of childbirth, it is perhaps possible to discern something of the “folk religion” surrounding death and dying in ancient Israel. This will be our focus in the section that follows.

The Cult of the Dead

No less than birth, death is a passage that seems in every culture to generate rituals by which a community reorients itself to new realities. Unfortunately, discussions of a “cult of the dead” tends to evoke images of occultism, rank superstition, or low-budget horror movies. My goal in the remainder of this post is to approach the topic phenomenologically. This means I won’t attempt to evaluate the beliefs and rituals of ancient Israelite folk religion in theological terms. (The Hebrew Bible condemns many of these elements; that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. On the contrary, it is proof of their pervasiveness.) Rather, I simply want to approach these aspects of early Israelite faith on their own terms and hopefully discern their underlying internal logic.

By way of example, consider the following rituals associated with dying and the dead:

  • Loved ones gather at the home of the deceased to sing hymns and recite prayers. A religious professional may conduct a brief ceremony involving additional hymns and prayers before sunset on the night before burial.
  • The body is removed from the house feet-first in the belief that if the head faces backward the deceased may influence another member of the family to follow him or her in death.
  • The body is carried to the burial site in a wagon pulled by steers or oxen. It is considered bad luck for a new bride to meet the funeral procession.
  • Before burial mourners, even young children, honor the dead by stooping to touch or kiss the body.
  • At the graveside a religious professional performs a lengthy, dramatic, and often emotional interpretation of the central myth of the cult. This ritual is meant to assure loved ones that the deceased has completed the necessary initiations to safely enter the afterlife.
  • Offerings, most often flowers but sometimes other items of personal significance, are placed on or near the grave.
  • Loved ones periodically return to the burial site, either on the anniversary of the person’s death or on public days of commemoration. At these times, additional offerings are performed.
  • Though the dead are honored, they are also believed to pose a potential threat to the living. Surviving loved ones therefore light candles or lamps in their front windows to prevent the spirit of the deceased to return to their home.
  • Charms may be worn or simple rituals performed to protect oneself from ghosts: throwing salt on the hearth fire, carrying the left hind foot of a rabbit caught in a graveyard, carrying a snakeskin bag containing a toad’s eye, etc.

Are these the beliefs and rituals of an ancient pagan culture such as Egypt or Babylonia? No, in fact they are part of the folk religion of conservative Christians—namely, the rural folk of Appalachia (described here, here, and here)—albeit described in more-or-less clinical language. Greater connection with the modern world has wiped out many of these traditions; others show no sign of going away soon. Offering flowers at the graves of deceased ancestors on “Decoration Day” (what most of the country calls Memorial Day) is still a significant tradition in many Appalachian families. None of these rituals has the slightest bit of biblical warrant, but that is precisely the point: humans invent rituals to help them to cope with mystery, and death is one of the greatest mysteries there is. Where the Bible is silent, folklore tends to fill in the gaps.

Therefore, let us examine the folk religion of ancient Israel with respect to death and the dead. Elizabeth M. Bloch-Smith has examined the archeological and Scriptural evidence for Israelite death customs (“The Cult of the Dead in Judah: Interpreting the Material Remains,” JBL 111/2 [1992] 213–24.) Based largely on her work, the following patterns may be suggested:

(1) When a person died, he or she was honored with lamentation (2 Chr 35:25; Jer 22:18), the erection of a burial marker (Gen 35:20; 2 Sam 18:18; 2 Kgs 23:16-18; Isa 56:5) and sacrifices of food, drink, and other commodities (Isa 57:7, 9; 2 Chr 16:14).

(2) Remains of food and drink offerings are in fact prevalent in Israelite tombs throughout the Iron Age. Grave goods discovered in Israel and Judah include “vessels for foodstuffs, liquids, perfumes, spices, and oil for lamps, plus jewelry, tools, household and personal items, and talismans” (Bloch-Smith, 222). Such offerings, of which ceramic vessels were by far the most common, were thought of as a way of caring for the dead. A possible technical term for such care, פקד (pqd), is found in a number of Old Testament passages. In Mesopotamia, a paqidum was one who provided regular food and drink offerings for a deceased father or other relative (Bloch-Smith, 220). Bloch-Smith concludes,

Proper postmortem care (*pqd) was probably not a foreign practice but an integral aspect of Judahite and Israelite social organization. Moses denied proper care to the accursed Korahites (Num 16:29), and in a play on the root *pqd Jonathan attributed David’s absence in court to a trip home for a family ancestral sacrifice (1 Sam 20:6). (220–21).

(3) The dead were regarded as “divine beings” (אלהים, [‘elohim] in 1 Sam 28; Isa 8:19), possessing supernatural powers. Therefore—although the Deuteronomist(s) severely condemned the practice—they might be consulted through various types of intermediaries (see Isa 8:19), including human magico-religious specialists (“diviners,” “necromancers,” etc.) and cult objects such as the teraphim, often understood to be ancestral figurines. In this light, it may be relevant that there are a couple of stories where women traffic in teraphim. In Genesis 31:19, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim as she flees with Jacob and the rest of his family. Much later, Michal helps her husband, David, escape from her father, Saul, by hiding a teraphim in his bed as a decoy (1 Sam 19:13).

(4) In addition to divination, the dead were credited with the power to give life (Elisha’s bones, 2 Kgs 13:20-21; Hannah’s prayer for a child in 1 Sam 1:11—assuming this took place at some sort of ancestral sacrifice.)

(5) The dead may also have been thought vengeful and able to harm the living. Such a belief may explain David having the hands and feet of Ishbaal’s already dead murderers cut off (2 Sam 4:12). Was this done to avert the possibility of revenge from beyond the grave?

There may be additional oblique references to rituals associated with death and dying in the story of the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam 14). At two points in her encounter with King David, she uses expressions that suggest familiarity with the mortuary rituals of the wider Ancient Near Eastern culture.

First, she seems familiar with the use of cultic coals in exorcisms and purification rituals. As Michael S. Moore explains,

To communicate the depth of her dilemma the wise woman uses a revealing metaphor. She describes the clan’s demands as an attempt to “quench my coal which is left.” Rykle Borger has pointed out that this phrase is similar to an Akkadian phrase which describes a man without a family as one whose “cultic oven as gone out.” Thus it does not seem coincidental that the Hebrew word for “coal” in this text (gahelet) is also found in the Isaianic tradition in a passage mocking the use of cultic “coals” in Babylonian purification rites [Isa 47:14], or that the Akkadian word for “cultic oven” is a standard fixture in neo-Assyrian exorcistic ritual. (“‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3 [1993] 154)

Another mourning ritual involves pouring out water upon the ground. At a later point in the wise woman’s exchange with David, she portrays Israel’s fate with the words, “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up” (2 Sam 14:14). This metaphor also seems to have its roots in the technical language of ancient mortuary cults. In the previously mentioned Legend of Kirtu, when Kirtu becomes ill he tells his son Iluha’u not to mourn for him. Instead, he entrusts this task to his daughter Thatmanatu “because she is well-practiced in putting ‘her water in the field…the issues of her lifebreath on the heights’” (Moore, 156). Although the Ugaritic ritual texts give few details, the metaphorical connection between death, mourning, and pouring out of water suggest there is some kind of connection. (Might a similar ritual lie behind David’s actions in 2 Sam 23:13-17?)

Bloch-Smith argues that although the Torah attempts to regulate the cult of the dead, it doesn’t try to abolish it outright. The concern of the prophets and preeminently the Deuteronomist(s) is with the centralization of the cultus at the temple in Jerusalem. According to Bloch-Smith, the temple personnel never denied the dead’s powers nor the people’s right to honor them. “Individuals could still feed the dead,” she argues, “but not tithed food” (see Deut 26:14). And though they might continue to consult the dead in private, they were forbidden to enlist professional help in doing so (223).

This reconstruction could be right or it could be wrong, but in any event it seems clear that not every aspect of Israel’s religion is codified in Scripture. For good or ill, certain rituals (prayers, songs, symbolic acts) and presuppositions surrounded birth, death, and most likely other liminal junctures. All of them fall under the rubric of “folk religion,” the informal beliefs and practices passed down from generation to generation quite apart from any official endorsement. For various reasons, women were often the bearers of these traditions. They were part of the “tool kit” of at least some of Israel’s wise women.

What, then of the darker or less savory aspects of this picture of Israel’s “cult of the dead”? In my concluding post, we’ll look at one last wise woman and the way she used officially forbidden rituals in the service of others.

The Genealogy of Jesus 4

The Lukan and Matthean accounts of Jesus’ genealogy diverge after David. Matthew traces Jesus’ line through Solomon (and thus traces the royal Davidic line as it is found in the Bible and in Seder Olam). Luke traces a line through Nathan, also a son of David by Bathsheba.

The two lines come together once more in the generations following the deportation to Babylon, where both lines include Shealtiel (Greek, Salathiel) and his son, Zerubbabel (Mt 1:12; Lk 3:27). The generations around Shealtiel and Zerubbabel mark the first major dilemma in untangling the genealogy of Jesus. Three problems may be noted:

  1. In Matthew, Shealtiel’s father is Jechoniah (aka Jehoiachin). In Luke, Shealtiel’s father is Neri.
  2. In both Matthew and Luke, Shealtiel is the father of Zerubbabel. In 1 Chronicles 3:19, however, the father of Zerubbabel is Pedaiah.
  3. Following Zerubbabel, the genealogies of Jesus once again diverge, with Matthew tracing a lineage through Abiud and Luke tracing a lineage through Rhesa. Presumably, these are two sons of Zerubbabel. In 1 Chronicles 3, however, the sons of Zerubbabel are listed as Meshullam and Hananiah.

Let us take these issues one at a time.

The Father of Shealtiel

As with Joseph himself, the Matthean and Lukan genealogies both purport to identify the father of Shealtiel, but the two lists disagree! Is Jehoiachin the father of Shealtiel, or is Neri? Seder Olam follows the Old Testament in describing Jehoiachin as the father of Shealtiel with no apparent need for any elaboration on the matter. Luke complicates matters by adding Neri son of Melchi (and his immediate ancestors) to the mix.

Is there any reason to question Jehoiachin’s paternity? Jereremiah 22:30 reports that Jehoiachin (called Coniah in this passage) was condemned to die childless:

Thus says the LORD:
Record this man as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed
in sitting on the throne of David,
and ruling again in Judah.

The early death of Jehoiachin’s son Zedekiah may well have been understood to be the fulfillment of this curse. But if Jehoiachin was childless, this fact at least raises the possibility that, while Shealtiel was the legal heir of Jechoniah, he was not his biological descendant. How can this be?

In Hebrew thought it was a terrible fate for a man to perish without sons to carry on his name. Therefore, several strategies are described in the Old Testament for avoiding this situation:

  • If a man died childless, the custom of levirate marriage provided for his widow to marry his brother. (Levir is the Latin word for “brother-in-law.”) The firstborn son of this union was legally reckoned to be the son of the dead man (Deut 25:5-6).
  • If a man had daughters but no sons, the custom of Zelophehad adoption permitted him to legally adopt the husband of his oldest daughter (Num 36:1-13), provided they marry within the tribe of their father. The children of this marriage would be considered the grandchildren of their mother’s father.
  • If a woman was unable to conceive, there was a custom in the patriarchal period whereby she would provide her husband with a female slave by whom to father children (Gen 16:1-2, 30:1-4). There is no evidence this custom prevailed into exilic or postexilic times.

In light of ancient marriage customs, there are a number of ways a son could be reckoned the legal heir of a man who was not his biological father. This include:

1. Levirate marriage. One possibility is that, once Jehoiachin was imprisoned in Babylon, his wife contracted a levirate marriage with Neri. The firstborn child of this union, Shealtiel, would legally be the heir of Jehoiachin. But one must then ask why there are six others also listed as sons of “Jechoniah the captive” in 1 Chronicles 3. By the levirate custom, the children after Shealtiel would be considered merely sons of Neri and would not appear in the 1 Chronicles genealogy at all.

2. Zelophehad adoption. By this theory, Neri was Shealtiel’s grandfather—the father of his mother. If Neri had no sons, the Zelophehad custom permitted him to adopt the sons of his eldest daughter. If this daughter were married to Jehoiachin, then Shealtiel could be called both the son of Jehoiachin and the son of Neri. By this theory, the line from Shealtiel back to Nathan (Lk 3) represents the ancestry of Shealtiel’s mother, while the line back to Solomon (Mt 1) represents that of his father.

3. Simple adoption. It is possible that Shealtiel was adopted by Neri after the death of Jehoiachin. Assuming he was a minor at the time, Neri may have taken him into his home and raised him as his son. Thus, though biologically the son of Jehoiachin, he became the legal heir of Neri, his distant relative. Alternatively, the adoption might have gone in the other direction. Although I cannot vouch for its accuracy, the Loeb family tree website, a compendium of ancient Jewish (and specifically Davidic) genealogy, offers the following explanation:

King Jeconiah…married Tamar, his cousin, her second marriage, the daughter of the late crown-prince, Johanan, his uncle [i.e., a previously unknown son of King Josiah—DJP], and begot Zedekiah, the crown-prince. The early death of the crown-prince was the fulfillment of “Coniah’s Curse”, placed on King [Je]Coniah’s off-spring by Jeremiah “The Prophet”.

The king adopted his step-sons, the sons of his wife, Tamar, by a previous marriage since they too were of the “royal seed”, that is, her first husband was a Davidic prince.

Some of the details of this report are questionable. Most blatantly, Zedekiah was the son of Josiah and thus the uncle of Jehoiachin, not his son! The remainder is logically coherent, although certainly not proven. For what it’s worth, this report makes Neri’s mother the first wife of a woman who went on to marry Jehoiachin. The king subsequently adopted Neri and Tamar’s children after the death of his own son, Zedekiah (presumably after his release from prison in Babylonia in 561 BC).

I leave it to the reader to decide which, if any, of these alternatives makes the most sense of the data.

Jehoiachin’s Curse

According to the book of Jeremiah, God pronounced a curse on Jehoiachin’s line. This is most clearly expressed in Jeremiah 22:28-30. There God declares that none of Jehoiachin’s offspring would ever sit on David’s throne. Jeremiah 36:30 makes a similar pronouncement concerning Jehoiachin’s father Jehoiakim. Some scholars take this pronouncement to describe a permanent condemnation of Jehoiachin’s line. Others believe that Jeremiah’s words were only intended for the near future—the lifetime of Jehoiachin himself.

The theory that the curse upon Jehoiachin was only temporary is buttressed by several facts recorded in the Bible and early Jewish tradition. First, Jehoiachin apparently repented while in exile. The last chapter of 2 Chronicles records how he was elevated from prison and given special honors at the Babylonian court. Although he was not permitted to return to Judah, he is recognized by the Jews as the first Exilarch or ruler of the exiled community in Babylon.

Second, there are also rabbinic sources that indicate God removed the curse on Jehoiachin, which they attribute to his repentance while in prison. For example, according to Leviticus Rabbah 19:6:

The Holy One, blessed be He, then said: “In Jerusalem you did not observe the precept relating to issues, but now you are fulfilling it,” as it is said, As for thee also, because of the blood of thy covenant I send forth thy prisoners out of the pit (Zech 9:11) [which means], You have remembered the blood at Sinai, and for this do “I send forth thy prisoners.” R. Shabbethai said: He [Jeconiah] did not move thence before the Holy One, blessed be He, pardoned him all his sins. Referring to this occasion Scripture has said: Thou art all fair, my love, and there is no blemish in thee (Song 4:7). A Heavenly Voice went forth and said to them: ‘Return, ye backsliding children, I will heal your backslidings'” (Jer 3:22).

Pesiqta Rabbati 47 records the following:

R. Joshua ben Levi, however, argued as follows: “Repentance sets aside the entire decree, and prayer half the decree. You find that it was so with Jeconiah, king of Judah. For the Holy One, blessed be He, swore in His anger, As I live, saith the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet on a hand, yet by My right—note, as R. Meir said, that it was by His right hand that God swore—I would pluck thee hence (Jer 22:24). And what was decreed against Jeconiah? That he die childless. As is said Write ye this man childless (Jer 22:30). But as soon as he avowed penitence, the Holy One, blessed be He, set aside the decree, as is shown by Scripture’s reference to the sons of Jeconiah”—the same is Assir—Shealtiel his son, etc. (1 Chron 3:17). And Scripture says further: In that day … will I take thee, O Zerubbabel…the son of Shealtiel…and will make thee as a signet (Hag 2:23). Behold, then how penitence can set aside the entire decree!

According to these sources, the curse was lifted because of Jehoiachin’s repentance. (See also b.Sanhedrin 37b-38a; Pesiqta de Rab Kahana; and Numbers Rabbah 20:20.)

In any event, the Bible is unanimous in casting Zerubbabel as the rightful heir and legal successor of Jehoiachin. Later rabbinic speculation insisted in no uncertain terms that the Messiah would be a descendant of Zerubbabel. The medieval Tanhuma Genesis states:

Scripture alludes here to the verse, “Who art thou, O great mountain before Zerubbabel? Thou shalt become a plain” (Zech 4:7). This verse refers to the Messiah, the descendant of David…. From whom will the Messiah descend? From Zerubbabel.

Any plausible claim on behalf of Jesus’ messiahship would have to involve descent from Zerubbabel (Hag 2:21-23), regardless of any irregularities surrounding the legacy of his grandfather Jechoiachin.

Next: Zerubbabel

Breaking News: Ancient Hebrew Men Didn’t Wear Pants

In a previous post I dealt with the customary attire of the New Testament era and the Greek vocabulary used to describe it. This was in response to a (shall we say) energetic defense of the idea that Jesus in fact wore pants.

The idea that men—and only men—should wear pants is rooted in a particular (misguided) understanding of Deuteronomy 22:5, which prohibits “cross-dressing.” Claude Mariottini, who had previously argued that this prohibition had to do with forbidding Canaanite religious practices, has now answered a critic of his position and provided some monumental evidence for the attire of ancient Hebrew men.