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The Offering of Firstborn Sons

I truly appreciated this post by Eve Levavi Feinstein that leads the reader through the many possible interpretations of the commandment in Exodus 22 for Israelites to offer their firstborn sons to God. As Dr. Feinstein notes, it is not at all obvious what this commandment originally meant for Israelites to do, and the Bible itself offers support for a number of different possibilities. She writes,

In the end, the biblical evidence does not point to a single conclusive interpretation of the law in Mishpatim. On one hand, it may express a requirement (albeit aspirational) that every Israelite family sacrifice its firstborn son. While it is difficult to accept that the Torah commands the ritual slaughter of children, we can at least see in the commandment’s development an attempt to modify a bad law (as Ezekiel put it) by requiring monetary redemption in place of actual sacrifice (Exodus 34:20).

If, on the other hand, what the law required was service at a sanctuary, it calls for an expansion of our understanding of sacrifice in biblical thought. Indeed, the very plausibility of this interpretation — and the fact of its apparent acceptance by P — argues for a view of sacrifice that is not centrally about slaughter but is equally, if not more, about the act of giving.

In either understanding, the law in Mishpatim expresses the idea that the first of all life properly belongs to God. Underlying its cryptic and challenging mandate we can detect a conviction that every birth, human or animal, is a gift from God, which is to be recognized through a partial, symbolic return of life to its Maker.

Happy Passover!

Here’s your Rube Goldberg retelling of the Exodus:

(H/T: io9.com)

Repost: The Wealth of Egypt

From Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses:

The loftier meaning [of the Israelite’s plundering the wealth of Egypt] is therefore more fitting than the obvious one. It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.

Those who treasured up for themselves such wealth handed it over to Moses as he was working on the tent of mystery, each one making his personal contribution to the construction of the holy places. It is possible to see this happening even now, for many bring to the church of God their profane learning as a kind of gift. Such a man was the great Basil [of Caesarea], who acquired the Egyptian wealth in every respect during his youth and dedicated this wealth to God for the adornment of the Church, the true tabernacle.

In this classic of Christian mysticism, Gregory reads the entire story of Moses as an allegory of the spiritual life. Whenever the bare historical details of the text create moral or rational difficulties, he finds a “spiritual” meaning beneath the surface. This is what he did with the detail that the Israelites on their way out of Egypt plundered the wealth of their former oppressors. He equates the “Egyptian wealth” with the learning of pagan cultures–the Egyptians of Moses’ time and the Greeks and Romans of his own. He praised Basil the Great for his extensive learning in pagan arts and sciences.

One of my majors in college was geography, and as a Neutestamentler I have also had some training in the study of history. Both are “field-encompassing fields.” You can’t just learn history or geography; studies in those fields will eventually lead one to dabble in a handful of other disciplines. Sociology and linguistics are more or less obvious examples, but sometimes a historian must go even further afield. He or she may be called on to learn a little astronomy to interpret the timing of events such as comets and eclipses as an aid to establishing ancient chronology, agriculture and animal husbandry in order to understand farming practices and technology, medicine in order to interpret physical conditions described in texts written before the advent of modern medicine, and so on. The field-encompassing nature of these disciplines is probably one of the main reasons I am personally drawn to them, which may be a highly academic way of confessing that I have a very short attention span.

Hopefully, however, I’ve acquired a small bit of “Egyptian wealth” in this sense. A liberal arts education exposes one to a little bit of a lot of disciplines (science, economics, history, mathematics, etc.)—for some, enough to make them think they know something; for others, enough to convince them there is much more to learn. In the spirit of Gregory, I would like to think that my meager “wealth” is at God’s disposal, to bring beauty to his spiritual house.

Not every Christian would agree with Gregory about the value of this “Egyptian wealth,” however. Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By that he meant, What does profane learning have to do with the things of the spirit? There are plenty of Tertullianists around today who reject the idea that Christians can learn anything from unbelievers. There was a fairly recent outbreak of this attitude at Patrick Henry College when a couple of faculty members wrote a paper about “The Role of General Revelation in Education.”

Others—thankfully the majority over the course of Christian history—have seen the wisdom of learning whatever can be known, even if pagans teach it. Justin Martyr was an early proponent of this view, which is also found in Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others. These heroes of the faith would have agreed with the concluding paragraph of the paper cited above:

When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, “Was this man a Christian?” but “Is this true?” Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.

I hope my students figure this out early in their college careers. When they take their classes in economics, physics, or English literature, they are storing up treasure they can place at Christ’s disposal. It doesn’t matter where that knowledge came from. It only matters if it’s true.


Exodus: Web-enabled Version

Google Exodus (H/T: James McGrath)

Wise Women 3: Midwives

Medical Practitioners

At the end of my previous post I suggested that wise women (in the Ancient Near East generally and in Israel in particular) often performed their services on occasions marked by liminality, the betwixt-and-between of important life passages. In this post, I hope to raise awareness of the activity of some wise women at one particular liminal occasion: childbirth. In Mishnaic Hebrew, the word for “midwife” is in fact chokhmah, “wise woman” (Shabbat 18:3; Rosh Hashana 2:5). In many corners of the ancient world, there is a strong connection between midwifery and wise women. I don’t mean to imply that all Israelite wise women were midwives. Deborah or Abigail were not necessarily out delivering babies on the side! Nor am I saying that all midwives were “wise women.” But it is nevertheless fair to say that, based on ancient cultural patterns, there was a significant overlap between these two classes of people.

According to Babylonian mythology, for example, goddesses who act as midwives are called “wise,” which seems to indicate that midwives belong somewhere in the ancient category of “wise women” (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 412).

Childbirth is a liminal experience for the baby, the mother, and the entire community. Everything changes when a new baby is born! Therefore, it is a time of potential spiritual danger as status and relationships get rearranged to accommodate the arrival of a new community member. In ancient cultures the liminal nature of childbirth calls for the involvement of women. John Gray explains,

It is perhaps natural that women should assist at birth, but there is a further reason, suggested by the fact, as among the modern Arab peasants, that the men including the father studiously avoid the very house where the birth is taking place. The fact is that in such a crisis the normal activity of the community is suspended and the men, who normally take the initiative, become for the moment nonentitites. In the Book of Ruth not only do the women assist at the birth but they hold the initiative right through until the time when they actually name the child and so integrate the new life with the community. (The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)

The religious nuances of the midwife’s calling is underscored by the fact that, like the goddesses of Babylonia, God is also depicted performing the duties of a midwife (Ps 22:9; see also Isa 66:9).

Midwives are rather thin on the ground in the Bible, but they appear on a number of important occasions. The first story that may come to mind is that of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in the time Israelite slavery in Egypt (Exod 1). Like the wise woman of Abel, these women stand up to powerful men and intercede in such a way that their people are saved from destruction.

By the nature of their calling, midwives in traditional cultures were often the doctors, psychologists, and family therapists of their village. In that light it is instructive to read S. D. Goitein’s composite portrait of a traditional Yemeni wise woman:

This is a woman who keeps a watchful eye on her fellow villagers from the day of their coming forth into the light of the world until their death. It is she who helps during childbirth; she who knows the remedies and other treatments…required in case of illness; she who assists in matchmaking and, when necessary, who makes peace between husband and wife. Her advice is sought not just by her family but by her whole village. It is she who is most proficient at whatever craft is practiced in the district, and she, too, who is the poet who “declaims” before the women at weddings and other festive occasions and in mourning as well. (S. D. Goitein, “Women as Creators of Biblical Genres,” Pretexts 8 [1988] 10, cited by Cullen Murphy, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own [Mariner, 1998] 102, n. 21)

This picture harmonizes nicely with the themes of motherhood, conflict resolution, and liminality that we have already explored.

Ritual Practitioners

Midwives also appear in two stories from the patriarchal period. In Genesis 35:17, a midwife is at Rachel’s side to comfort her as she is in hard labor with Benjamin. More interesting in terms of the wise-woman tradition is Genesis 38:28, where the midwife at the birth of the twins Perez and Zerah ties a scarlet thread around Perez to identify him as the firstborn. Though ostensibly to mark which baby came out first, the use of red thread as a protective amulet for both mother or child is attested in Mesopotamian and Hittite texts. (Carol Meyers, Households and Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women [Fortress, 2005] 39; Marten Stol and F. A. M. Wiggermann, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting [Styx, 2000] 49, 56–58). Such customs are likely to have influenced Israelite practices. Indeed, tying a scarlet thread around the wrist of a newborn baby girl is a longstanding Jewish Kabbalistic practice intended to ward off evil spirits—despite the fact that the custom has been condemned since Talmudic times as pagan supersition (Michele Klein, A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth [Jewish Publication Society, 1998] 125).

Perez’s scarlet threat reminds us that in the Ancient Near East midwives had two categories of tasks. First, obviously, she performed the physical tasks involved in childbirth: preparing the necessary equipment, comforting the mother, and delivering the child. Second, she effected magical or religious protection of the woman and especially the newborn. Citing G. M. Beckman, Marsman explains, “[T]he midwife recites incantations on behalf of the new-born, beseeching the gods to remove evil influences and to grant a desirable fate to the child” (412). Midwifery is thus a religious vocation in the ancient world, surely no less so among the ancient Israelites.

In addition to the scarlet thread, we find hints of later Israelite birth rituals in Ezekiel 16:4: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths.”

The implication of this verse is that certain ritual actions were performed upon a newborn. While some of these are obviously matters of simple practicality (e.g., cutting the umbilical cord), others seem to be ritualistic in nature. The word for “washed,” for example, is used only here in the Old Testament. Meyers suggests it may be related to an Aramaic cognate meaning “to smear,” and may reflect the application of protective ointment. The “washing with water” may then have had ritual and not merely practical significance. This is certainly the case for “rubbing with salt.” The prophet is thus painting a picture of a newborn baby for whom the expected rituals of childbirth were not performed, thus leaving the baby vulnerable to the forces of evil.

Even in modern times, a Jewish midwife might recite certain customary prayers on the way to attend to a woman in labor (Klein, 125). She tries to calm the cries of the laboring woman through words of encouragement, prayers, or simple incantations (Klein, 123). Alice Bailes, a modern Jewish midwife, relates the following testimony of her experience:

There are psalms that I sing to myself in Hebrew when I am attending a birth. If the baby’s head is a little big for the mother’s bones and it has to mold to fit through I sing “Min Ha Metzar, from the narrow place I call to God and God answers me in this great expanse of space.” I think that my singing these prayers helps the baby come.

In addition, midwives were often specialists in folk remedies and incantations. Klein notes that “The old midwife, the bubbeh (Yiddish for “granny”) who served Jews in the shtetl a century ago, kept her incantations a closely guarded secret, for fear of destroying their potency (Klein, 124–25).

Just as women are present in ancient Israel at the time of birth, they are also present at the time of death and bereavement. Therefore, the next installment in this series will thus focus on wise women’s roles as mourners.

Moses Talked Funny, but at Least He Might Have Been in His Right Mind

Claude Mariottini has written a couple of interesting posts, pondering whether Moses had a cleft lip and/or was left-handed. The verdict on both questions is “not enough evidence,” but the reasoning process, and especially the midrashic material in Claude’s second post, is very interesting.

All the King’s Horses: Conclusion?

Having examined the evidence—what little there is—for military tactics in the Old Testament and comparing it to Robert Drews’ thesis in The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton University Press, 1995) that the shift from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age was marked in a radical transformation from chariotry to infantry as the basic offensive unit of ancient armies, we are ready to take stock of what we have found.

Remember, my point in this exercise has been to see whether the depictions of armed conflict in the Bible might serve either to verify or falsify certain revisionist theories about ancient chronology. According to the conventional chronology, the transition from Late Bronze to Iron Age tactics occurred circa 1200 BC, but there are several challenges to this chronology. Most famously, David Rohl has proposed a circa 300-year downdating which would place this transition some time shortly after 900 BC. Most recently, Pierce Furlong’s dissertation (“Aspects of Ancient Near Eastern Chronology [c. 1600-700 BC],” University of Melbourne, 2007) has argued for a downdating of nearly 200 years. Other theories gravitate between relatively modest adjustments to the standard chronology and sweeping revisions of the magnitude proposed by Rohl and Furlong.

So, where does the biblical evidence leave us? It seems clear that the campaigns against Judah launched by “Shishak” of Egypt (2 Chr 12:3-4) and “Zerah the Ethiopian” (2 Chr 14:10) take place in an Iron Age milieu. Since these expeditions are dated to the closing years of the 10th century BC (ca. 927 and 901 respectively by my estimation), Rohl’s 300-plus-year revision is ruled out as untenable. Ramesses III, representing the end of the era of Late Bronze Age chariotry, cannot have invaded Judah fifty or more years after the Iron Age transition!

Furthermore, the army the (frustratingly) unnamed Pharaoh sent against Israel during the Exodus (Exod 14–15) seems clearly to be a Late Bronze Age chariot force. Whether one prefers a thirteenth-century Exodus or a fifteenth-century one, this establishes a date after which the Iron Age transition occurred. A Late Bronze Exodus is to be expected in anyone’s chronology.

Between these two points, however, the evidence seems far more ambiguous than it should be on standard chronological assumptions.

Early in the period of the Judges, Deborah and Barak’s confrontation with Sisera’s chariot force in Judges 4–5 is described in ways that strongly suggest a Late Bronze Age milieu. When did this battle take place? Biblical chronology offers two possible answers, depending on whether one is calculating from an early Exodus (15th century) or a late one (13th century). On an early Exodus model, a date some time in the 1200’s BC is not out of the question, and once again is perfectly in line with conventional assumptions about the chronology of the ancient world, as this would still be prior to the Iron Age transition. On a late Exodus model, however, circa 1200 BC is probably the earliest possible date. “Twelfth century” is usually as accurate a claim as scholars are willing to make, although I’ve seen specific dates as low as 1120 BC for the judgeship of Deborah. Did those who passed on the oral tradition of this conflict preserve genuine memories of a Bronze-Age battle, or did they insert anachronistic details that would be alien to their own Iron-Age setting? On the theory of a thirteenth-century Exodus, the story of Deborah and Barak at least raises the possibility of downdating the end of the Bronze Age by perhaps 50-100 years.

Finally, the period of the United Monarchy seems to be a tangle of conflicting data. Both Saul and David operated militarily in a setting that seems at one point Iron Age and at another Bronze Age. At the dawn of this period, the prophet Samuel makes reference to (Late Bronze Age) chariot runners and implies that these are standard issue for the prosperous, “civilized” kingdoms Israel wishes to imitate. The presence of large infantry units and armored infantry, seeming hallmarks of the Iron Age, actually made their debut a century or so beforehand, leaving much of the evidence for Saul’s reign subject to varied interpretations. Likewise with David, a case can be made for either an Iron Age or a Late Bronze Age setting. Finally, Solomon—the last king of the United Monarchy period—seems to have a thoroughly Late Bronze chariot force!

The simplest explanation for this ambiguity is that the United Monarchy in fact overlaps with the time of the Iron Age transition in the Ancient Near East. If this transition took place in the decades around 1000 BC rather than 1200 BC, the descriptions of Saul and David’s battles would count as evidence of the contemporary state of flux in military tactics and technology. Samuel can envision his chariot runners, Ammonites can hire mercenary chariot soldiers from Mesopotamia, and Solomon can build his “chariot cities” at the same time the Philistines can field their armored infantry and mounted cavalry can appear on the battlefield for the first time in history.

By this hypothesis, Solomon’s (unused!) chariot force is at worst only slightly behind the geopolitical learning curve. Furthermore, the depiction of Sisera’s chariotry can fit comfortably even on a thirteenth-century Exodus model, since with a circa 200-year downdating of ancient chronology, the entire judges period is within the scope of the Late Bronze Age from beginning to end.

This conclusion enhances my estimation of the work of Jeremy Goldberg and Pierce Furlong, who have independently argued for chronological revisions of similar magnitude, and whose theories—insofar as they intersect with biblical history—I have summarized in the posts linked below.