Why Was Cain’s Sacrifice Rejected?

The first instance of sacrifice in the Bible is a strange one, as we see in Genesis 4:1-6.


“And Adam knew Eve his wife;

and she conceived, and bare Cain,

and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

And she again bare his brother Abel.

And Abel was a keeper of sheep,

but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

And in process of time it came to pass,

that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.

And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:

But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.

And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.”

Why did God accept the offering of Abel but not of Cain? Evidently some think that it was because there was no blood offered with Cain’s sacrifice. But this clearly cannot be the case, since offerings to God were often of fruit, bread, and incense in the OT. So what was the reason?

The text does not tell us. We need to be open to the ambiguity that we are presented with. We also need to keep in mind that Cain and Abel were just introduced. They were born, they had respective roles, and then they sacrificed, all in a few verses. Nothing is said of their characters.

One explanation is that Cain harbored ill will against Abel. He goes on to kill him rather quickly in the story, but this could have been a result of jealousy stemming from the sacrifice, not a long held antipathy.

Another explanation is that the story shows the preference for the shepherd over the farmer, the pastoral life over the city life. It should also be noted in this regard that eating animal flesh had yet to be blessed by God (this only happened after the flood). Why was Abel shepherding sheep if nobody was going to eat them? This kind of shepherding is non-violent and non-abusive, while in the world of the readers the shepherd was known to occasionally slaughter a sheep for good (sacrifice) and bad (greed) reasons. The leaders of Israel were often compared to shepherds in the Bible, and criticized for abusing their power and devouring the sheep they were supposed to protect. Shepherds generally did not kill their sheep, but awaited orders from their masters as to when a sheep should be killed. The flock was “on loan” to the shepherd, not owned by him.

This explanation does little to resolve the tension in the story. Various other explanations have been offered, but rather than list all of them I will simply refer to the “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” a Christian text that preserves various Jewish and Christian traditions.

The text tells us that Abel loved to pray, fast, and sacrifice, while Cain often would skip out on the action. Cain had a “hard heart,” while Abel had a “meek heart.” Abel was interested in spiritual things, but Cain was interested in ruling over his brother.

The account is very much like Rabbinic retellings of Jacob and Esau. From the womb God favored Jacob, the second born twin, while Esau was “hated.” The two boys grew up very much like Cain and Abel, with one of the pair interested in the fields and hunting (Cain and Esau) and the other stayed at home and was gentle and pious (Abel and Jacob). The sworn enemy of Jacob becomes precisely his twin brother Esau. This continues until the end of time, when Amalek (the anti-Israel figure in the OT who is the descendant of Esau) is destroyed by the Messiah and the face of God is finally revealed to humanity.

In the “Conflict,” Satan appears to Abel while he is praying and tells him that he will kill Abel because he fasts, prays, and offers sacrifices to God. Then Satan appears to Cain, telling him that since Cain’s parents love Abel more than him, they will give Abel Cain’s twin sister for a wife (yes, Cain and Abel were both born with twin sisters in this retelling). Cain wants to marry his own twin (!) rather than Abel’s twin (Abel’s twin was evidently less attractive!). Satan suggests that Cain should kill Abel, leaving his beautiful twin to be his wife.

The story then takes a dramatic turn, in that it begins to conflict directly with the Biblical account. Here Adam tells Cain and Abel both to make an offering to God for their sins: both of their offerings are said to be “the fruit of thy sowing.” They both offer a vegetarian sacrifice. The tension between an animal and vegetable sacrifice disappears.

Abel makes his offering first, but only after being instructed how to do it properly by his parents. God accepts it “because of his good heart and pure body. There was no trace of guile in him.”

Cain, on the other hand, angered his father by not wanting to sacrifice and taking no pleasure in the offering. He offered a sheep (a surprise since the offering was “of his sowing”) but was thinking about eating it as he sacrificed it. He had also picked out the smallest (least desirable) sheep.

We should note here that the text in question has another strange tradition about sacrifice and blood. It tells us that Melchizedek offered bread and wine, and was the first priest. It is  specified a number of times that he never offered blood sacrifice, but rather the type of the Eucharist. His priestly ministry was without animal blood, in distinction to the Aaronic priesthood. So the views on animal sacrifice should be seen as later Christian teachings, although they might also be derived from Jewish traditions.

Here we come to the reason for the rejection of Cain’s sacrifice by God: the text tells us that “God did not accept his offering, because his heart was full of murderous thoughts.”


We cannot definitively say why Cain’s offering was rejected, and this is (evidently) how the writer of Genesis wanted it. Had he wanted the meaning to be plain, he would have simply stated it. Instead, ambiguity was inserted into the story, inviting various readers to add their own interpretation to the textual story.

The most convincing explanation is that God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice because he did not accept Cain. Cain was a (future) murderer and was a current murderer in his heart. We have no other information to explain the rejection. The explanatory sections of the “Conflict” fill out this picture with background information: Cain eschews prayer and sacrifice, and is jealous of his brother (the younger favorite).

God rejects his sacrifice because a pure heart is acceptable to God, not sacrifice, as we see from Psalm 50 (51 MT):


“O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:

a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,

with burnt offering and whole burnt offering:

then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.”

The praise of the lips (prayer) is an acceptable sacrifice, as we also see in Hosea 14:2

“Take with you words, and turn to the LORD: say unto him,

Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously:

so will we render the calves of our lips.”

Obviously the image is a metaphor, but it shows that the substitution of praise for animal sacrifice was not a development of post-70 CE Judaism, but one that was repeated in the Psalms and Prophets. It is also noteworthy that he Greek version of the verse above has “fruit of our lips,” indicating that the LXX translators saw the “calves” as being “fruit.” The hard distinction between fruit and animals sacrifices cannot be maintained, according to Hosea.

Cain did not have “a broken and contrite heart” while Abel did. Abel offered “sacrifices of righteousness,” which are sacrifices from one who practices righteous acts and has a righteous heart (not merely animal or vegetable offerings). The sacrifices are only acceptable of the sacrificer is acceptable. Cain was not, and it was because his heart was not right with god or his family (all of humanity at that point!).

Therefore the “Conflict” explains the story rather well, even if it of a comparatively late date (5th or 6th century CE). Cain’s offering was rejected because it was not offered with joy, nor remorse, nor charity. Instead, it was offered with a greedy mind, and one bent one killing his brother and anyone else who would stand in his way.


Revelation and Samaritan Joshua: The Plot of Balaam and Balak

We have seen the account of the fall of the Israelites into idolatry in Numbers 25, immediately after the conflict with Balaam and Balak in Numbers 22-24. But Jewish traditions and Samaritan Joshua record additional material either added to the account in Numbers or perhaps Numbers has a truncated account of the story. Here is the Samaritan version of events:


When the kings heard him relate what has preceded, they said to him: “How is the way to accomplish what thou hast mentioned concerning their destruction?”

And he looked up the last resource of infidelity and pollution, and made it known unto them, and said to them: “Select of the most beautiful and fair women as many as ye can, and the king shall be the first to send forth his daughter with them; thereupon give unto each one of them an idol which she may worship, and an ornament which she may look at, and perfume which she may inhale, and food and drink; and the daughter of the king should be in a chariot which is wafted along with the wind, and it should be enjoined upon her that she make it her aim to go to the tabernacle, and pay her respects to no one except to their chief unto whom the crowd show deference, for he is their chief.

And if in this she meets his approval, then she shall say unto him: “ Wilt thou not receive me, or eat of my food and drink of my drink and offer sacrifices unto my god? For after this I will be thine, and with thee will do whatsoever thou desirest.”

For know, O king, that by the chief of this people being polluted, both he and his company will perish, and of them there will not remain a survivor.”

And the kings did what he recommended unto them; and there were collected to them twenty-four thousand girls, and they sent them away on the Sabbath day.

And as they descended opposite the tabernacle, the chief of the tribe of Shim’aun (Simeon) rose up; for he was the chief of fifty-nine thousand men and was in the advance. And the daughter of the king advanced unto him, for she on beholding the great deference shown to him by his companions supposed him to be the prophet Musa- peace be upon him, and he ate of her food and drank of her drink and worshipped the idol which was in her hand, and after this she was submissive to him in his desire.

Thereupon everyone of them- I mean this particular tribe- took one girl for himself; and the Creator became angry at the people, and destroyed of them in the wink of an eye four thousand men together with four thousand girls.

And had not Finahas (Phinehas) the imam- peace be upon him- rushed from the presence of Musa the Prophet- peace be upon him- while he and his assembly were weeping at the door of the tabernacle, and seized in his hand a lance and bursting in upon them thrust through the man and girl- I mean the daughter of the king- and dispatched them, assuredly would the wrath of the Creator have destroyed the whole people; but by this action he removed and warded off the Divine anger from the children of Israil.

And to Finahas- peace be upon him- there resulted from this noble fame and an excellent remembrance, and a covenant to the end of the ages. And praise be to God the Creator without cessation! 

The Jewish accounts are similar, and identical in their attributing the fall of Israel to a trap invented by Balaam and set by Balak. The accounts in Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, Vol. II portray Balaam as advising Pharaoh to kill all the male Israelite children. His characterization is much more negative than in Numbers.

Balaam was the last to speak at the behest of the king, and he said: “From all that the king may devise against the Hebrews, they will be delivered. If thou thinkest to diminish them by the flaming fire, thou wilt not prevail over them, for their God delivered Abraham their father from the furnace in which the Chaldeans cast him. Perhaps thou thinkest to destroy them with a sword, but their father Isaac was delivered from being slaughtered by the sword. And if thou thinkest to reduce them through hard and rigorous labor, thou wilt also not prevail, for their father Jacob served Laban in all manner of hard work, and yet he prospered. If it please the king, let him order all the male children that shall be born in Israel from this day forward to be thrown into the water. Thereby canst thou wipe out their name, for neither any of them nor any of their fathers was tried in this way.

Later on in the same collection we read:

When Moses was in his third year, Pharaoh was dining one day, with the queen Alfar’anit at his right hand, his daughter Bithiah with the infant Moses upon her lap at his left, and Balaam the son of Beor together with his two sons and all the princes of the realm sitting at table in the king’s presence. It happened that the infant took the crown from off the king’s head, and placed it on his own. When the king and the princes saw this, they were terrified, and each one in turn expressed his astonishment. The king said unto the princes, “What speak you, and what say you, O ye princes, on this matter, and what is to be done to this Hebrew boy on account of this act?”

Balaam spoke, saying: “Remember now, O my lord and king, the dream which thou didst dream many days ago, and how thy servant interpreted it unto thee. Now this is a child of the Hebrews in whom is the spirit of God. Let not my lord the king imagine in his heart that being a child he did the thing without knowledge.

For he is a Hebrew boy, and wisdom and understanding are with him, although he is yet a child, and with wisdom has he done this, and chosen unto himself the kingdom of Egypt. For this is the manner of all the Hebrews, to deceive kings and their magnates, to do all things cunningly in order to make the kings of the earth and their men to stumble.

“Surely thou knowest that Abraham their father acted thus, who made the armies of Nimrod king of Babel and of Abimelech king of Gerar to stumble, and he possessed himself of the land of the children of Heth and the whole realm of Canaan. Their father Abraham went down into Egypt, and said of Sarah his wife, She is my sister, in order to make Egypt and its king to stumble.

“His son Isaac did likewise when he went to Gerar, and he dwelt there, and his strength prevailed over the army of Abimelech, and he intended to make the kingdom of the Philistines to stumble, by saying that Rebekah his wife was his sister.

“Jacob also dealt treacherously with his brother, and took his birthright and his blessing from him. Then he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban, his mother’s brother, and he obtained his daughters from him cunningly, and also his cattle and all his belongings, and he fled away and returned to the land of Canaan, to his father.

“His sons sold their brother Joseph, and he went down into Egypt and became a slave, and he was put into prison for twelve years, until the former Pharaoh delivered him from the prison, and magnified him above all the princes of Egypt on account of his interpreting the king’s dreams.

When God caused a famine to descend upon the whole world, Joseph sent for his father, and he brought him down into Egypt his father, his brethren, and all his father’s household, and he supplied them with food without pay or reward, while he acquired Egypt, and made slaves of all its inhabitants.

“Now, therefore, my lord king, behold, this child has risen up in their stead in Egypt, to do according to their deeds and make sport of every man, be he king, prince, or judge. If it please the king, let us now spill his blood upon the ground, lest he grow up and snatch the government from thine hand, and the hope of Egypt be cut off after he reigns. Let us, moreover, call for all the judges and the wise men of Egypt, that we may know whether the judgment of death be due to this child, as I have said, and then we will slay him.

Again we read of Balaam’s treachery:

He took counsel with his three advisers, Balaam, Jethro, and Job, how he might be healed of the awful malady that had seized upon him.

Balaam spoke, saying, “Thou canst regain thy health only if thou wilt slaughter Israelitish children and bathe in their blood.”

Jethro, averse from having a share in such an atrocity, left the king and fled to Midian. Job, on the other hand, though he also disapproved of Balaam’s counsel, kept silence, and in no wise protested against it, wherefor God punished him with a year’s suffering. But afterward He loaded him down with all the felicities of this life, and granted him many years, so that this pious Gentile might be rewarded in this world for his good deeds and not have the right to urge a claim upon the beatitude of the future life.

Here we have Jethro, the father-inlaw of Moses and priest of Midian, advising the Pharaoh. He cannot in good conscience approve of the plan, and earlier he counseled Pharaoh to solve the Israelite problem by letting them leave. Yet later on he throws Moses into a pit to die. He is a mixed character, but certainly not simply an idolatrous priest.

Even Job here gets a blot on his name for not standing against Pharaoh.

Revelation 21

We finally arrive at our explanation: the author of Revelation is not referencing Numbers 25 or 24, but the fuller story as found in the Samaritan Chronicle and Rabbinic writings. John’s reference is the earliest evidence of this fuller story by a Christian author, and possibly the earliest by a Jewish author.


The fallout from this is that we cannot understand what John writes in Revelation without an understanding of the extra-canonical Biblical stories. The same rule applies to Paul in I Corinthians 10:4,

And did all drink the same spiritual drink:

for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them:

and that Rock was Christ.

What on earth is Paul babbling about? Is he waxing eloquent or using a metaphor? The reader familiar with Jewish teachings outside of the canonical writings would know exactly what Paul was talkling about. The rabbis taught that the rock in the desert that was struck and produced water followed the Israelites through the desert, almost like a miraculous portable well. Paul asserts that this rock was Christ. The assertion makes no sense without knowing the traditions of Jews found outside of the Bible. This means that the Bible itself is unintelligible at points without outside information from sources that are not officially thought to be Scripture.

John writes that Balak learned from Balaam to throw a “stumblingblock” (mikshowl/σκάνδαλον) in front of Israel. But the account in Numbers 25 never mentions a stumblingblock. The rabbinic traditions, however, make a big deal of this term in the story (e.g. Balaam characterizes the Israelites as people who make kings and nations stumble). John could not have plausibly called the idolatry of Numbers 25 a mikshowl/σκάνδαλον without reason, nor could he have derived the term from the account in Numbers. John had recourse to accounts outside fo the Bible, which he used in writing his section of the Bible.

The Samaritan Book of Jesus, the Apocalypse of John, and the Book of Numbers

The Samaritan Chronicle/Book of Joshua has a number of interesting features, one of which we will explore here. There is a problem with the mention of a certain “Balak” (spelled in most English translations as “Balac”) in Revelation 21:14.

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.

What was this “stumblingblock”?

Our journey begins in the desert of Numbers 22-24, where Balak is first introduced and the traditional account is given. We will then look at the Jewish and Samaritan traditions associated with the story, concluding that Revelation 21 references a tradition not found in the canonical text of the Bible, but in extra-canonical Jewish traditions.

The Account in the Numbers

Numbers 22

1 And the children of Israel departed, and encamped on the west of Moab by Jordan toward Jericho.

2 And when Balac son of Sepphor saw all that Israel did to the Amorite,

3 then Moab feared the people exceedingly because they were many; and Moab was grieved before the face of the children of Israel.

4 And Moab said to the elders of Madiam, Now shall this assembly lick up all that are round about us, as a calf would lick up the green [herbs] of the field:– and Balac son of Sepphor was king of Moab at that time.

5 And he sent ambassadors to Balaam the son of Beor, to Phathura, which is on a river of the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, a people is come out of Egypt, and behold it has covered the face of the earth, and it has encamped close to me.

6 And now come, curse me this people, for it is stronger than we; if we may be able to smite some of them, and I will cast them out of the land: for I know that whomsoever thou dost bless, they are blessed, and whomsoever thou dost curse, they are cursed. 

Here we read that Balaam (whose name means “not of the people”) is summoned from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan by the King of Moab, Balak (whose name means “destroyer”).

He is summoned because Israel has crossed the Jordan River after fleeing Egypt and they have destroyed the Amorites, leaving his people in a state of terror. Would the murderous Israelites claim Moab as their next victims?

Instead of waiting for the carnage, King Balak decides to hire the famous sorcerer/prophet/soothsayer Balaam to use his supernatural abilities to defeat Israel. Balaam had a proven reputation for doing such things successfully. King Balak resorts to this plan as a last ditch effort to avoid complete annihilation.

Below is an excerpt from the message from Balak to Balaam as found in the Samaritan Chronicle, chapter 3.

Perchance now, our condition will be improved through thy agency, and thou wilt curse this people, and wilt prevail over them and effect a change in present circumstances through thy renown which is spread abroad, and the dignity of thy authority in consequence of thy circumstances, riches and servants;

and there will be glory to us and to thee among all kings, in addition to what reward will be added unto this, in consideration for thy grand beneficence toward a people whom no country can obtain, and whose numbers are countless and beyond reckoning;

for thou wilt have prevented a multitude from being murdered by fire.

For the character and manner of this army is, that it is not restrained by a feeling of shame from an old man, nor does it accord protection to a woman, or have pity on a child, or show compassion toward an animal; for they do nothing else but murder with the sword, and stone to death with stones, and crucify, and burn with fire: yea, this is its custom, and it does not allow any mercy to be shown, or protection to be granted, unto any and it spares not even a leafless palm branch in its annihilating and destroying.

By God, O our master, hasten unto us, bringing with thee whatever is necessary, and be not wanting unto us in this matter which involves the preservation of life, and we will reward a good deed with its like, and an evil deed with its like. And now, peace.

The reader is conflicted on the issue of the killings. The Israelites are portrayed as murderous destroyers who will not have mercy even on the elderly and children. The crucify and burn people, and even treat animals in the same manner. They seem to fit the definition of Balak, “the destroyer.”

But they are also understood by the reader to be holy, or at least obedient to the orders of God. Balak’s offer of money and fame to be given to Balaam in return for his cursing of the Israelites is repugnant, but his plea “thou wilt have prevented a multitude from being murdered by fire” is hard to ignore. This man was desperate to prevent his people’s extermination, or so the story goes.

Another shocking aspect is that King Balak writes of “God, our master.” Is this the same God of the Israelites? It appears to be so, and the implication is that the Moabites, Midianites, and other Canaanites were not simply “ignorant pagans” but were people that should have known better than to serve idols. In some sense they knew God, although not to the extent of the Israelites.

This fits in with the reasons for the Canaanite conquest and slaughter: it was punishment on the Canaanites for their sins, not a reward to the Israelites for their virtues. The Israelites were told that if they worshipped idols they would be killed and expelled from the Land just as they killed and expelled the Canaanites. The land belonged to God, not the Canaanites or Israelites.

On the other hand, “God our master” is probably a translation of “El our Baal” rather than “El our Yahweh.” In either case, both “God” and “Master” are terms used for the Jewish God and the god/s of the Canaanites. The words are the same, but the references differ.

Balaam’s Response

I will treat with due respect your rights, and the rights of those who urge you on in this message;

but my action is controlled by the One whom I serve, if He gives me permission to go with you, I would accomplish your desire and the desire of those who urge you on in the message, and I would accomplish their (the children of Israil’s) destruction, and in the end complete their annihilation, and would leave unto you a memory, for which you would praise me to the end of the ages.

And now decide to lodge with me this night, and I will hear what shall be addressed unto me, and we will wholly act in accordance therewith, whether it be of good or evil. (Sam. Chron. 3)

Balaam is a difficult character to figure out. He is obviously evil, in that he is willing to curse Israel for money and (primarily) fame. He is already famous for cursing and blessing people, as well as interpreting dreams. His technique seems to have been to offer sacrifices and praise to God, and then await a message during his sleep. This smacks of idolatry, but it works! He claims that his actions are controlled by God, “the One whom I serve.”

For some reason God speaks to Balaam and Balaam repeats what the Lord has told him. He does not change the message or manufacture it himself, as false prophets do. He seems both righteous and unprincipled at the same time. One thing is for certain, and that is that God does indeed speak to Balaam.

Balaam’s Refusal

At first Balaam is told by God to refuse to go with the elders of Moab and Midian, because their request is against Israel (Num. 22:9-12). God is in the business of blessing Israel (at least at the moment). A second delegation is then sent to Balaam, and his response is this:

If Balac would give me his house full of silver and gold, I shall not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord God, to make it little or great in my mind. (Num. 22:8)

This is the stand of a true prophet. Again this is shocking since Balaam was not an Israelite, he lived in Mesopotamia, and he was associated with cursing for monetary gain. He is the one who is “not of the people,” and in this story it seems that he is both not of the Israelites and not of the Canaanites (Moab and Midian). He is from where Abraham’s original country, a land of both Eden and idolatry.

Balaam is a contradiction, and it is worth noting that “Baalim” and “Balaam” are very close phonetically, with Baalim being the plural of “Baal” (Lord) a deity worshipped by the Israelites which they inherited from the Canaanites. This idolatry leads to the split of the Kingdom of Israel, and the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, followed by the destruction of the Southern Kingdom and the Temple. This is the same idolatry that is foreshadowed in Numbers 25, directly following the Balaam/Balak story.

Israel and Judah then see their people deported to precisely where Balaam is from (Mesopotamia); their conquest of Canaan was all for nothing because they turned to idolatry. They followed the Baalim rather than Balaam. The Babylonians came just like Balaam, to do the will of God (destroying Israel and Judah, Samaria and Jerusalem, Bethel and the Temple). They Babylonians  cursed Israel and destroyed it, showing Israel to be no better than the Canaanites, but rather they were two peas in a pod, so to speak.

Balaam Accepts

After the arrival of the second delegation, Balaam receives this message from God:

20 And God came to Balaam by night, and said to him, If these men are come to call thee, rise and follow them; nevertheless the word which I shall speak to thee, it shalt thou do.

21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.

22 And God was very angry because he went; and the angel of the Lord rose up to withstand him. Now he had mounted his ass, and his two servants were with him.

23 And when the ass saw the angel of God standing opposite in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand, then the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and [Balaam] smote the ass with his staff to direct her in the way. (Num. 22-20-23)

This is the famous story of “Balaam’s Ass,” where eventually Balaam’s donkey speaks. We won’t delve into this aspect of the story, since we are looking at other considerations. It seems unusual that Balaam is told to go with the delegation, and then God is very angry with him for doing so.

He arrives in Canaan and goes with Balak to survey the Israelites from a mountain overlooking the plain. Balaam goes through his process of conjuring, but the result is that the Holy Spirit speaks to him parable that Israel will be blessed rather than cursed.

Again the reader’s expectations are challenged, in that the sacrifice and praise are from a Gentile sorcerer, and yet God honors the actions by speaking to him. This would be scandalous to a pious Jewish reader in antiquity, since even the High Priest of Israel could only enter the Holy of Holies once a year. The Holy of Holies was entered not just to smear the blood of the Yom Kippur sacrifice on the altar, but to be in the presence of the Dabar, the place that God spoke from.

The Dabar was another name for the Holy of Holies, and shows the function of the cultic space: to receive an oracle from God (dabar is approximately the same in meaning as “word,” or more specifically λογος). To hear from God was so unusual and holy that the most holy in Israel (the High Priest) could only enter once a year and he did so under fear of death. Balaam, on the other hand, has no qualms or fears about conjuring God with the intention of cursing Israel by their own God. To say that Balaam has chutzpah would be an understatement. He is remarkably comfortable with God, and is on speaking terms even though he isn’t (it appears) one of God’s “Chosen People.” Instead he is “chosen” by Balak, but God then chooses to use Balaam for his own ends. In this sense Balaam is doubly chosen, while remaining a pagan magus.

Balak then tells Balaam to move to a different spot and repeat the process. The altars are built, animals sacrificed, and again God speaks to Balaam a blessing on Israel rather than a curse. The following is an important part of the blessing:

For there is no divination in Jacob, nor enchantment in Israel; in season it shall be told to Jacob and Israel what God shall perform. (Num. 23:23)

The practices spoken against seem to describe what Balaam does, and it foreshadows the downfall of the Israelites in Numbers 25. But at this point in the story the Israelites are not idolaters, and so they are blessed. Balaam is also blessed, in that he has conversation with God yet again, and he survives.

King Balak is understandably upset at the messages given by Balaam, who in turn protests that he can only say what is told to him by God. King Balak suggests moving to a different location, and Balaam agrees. The sacrifices are made again, and again a propitious blessing is pronounced on Israel. This continues until the messages from God turn to curses on the Canaanites as well as messianic prophecies. All in all, four sets of prophecies/parables were given, all in favor of Israel and against the Cannanites.


The only thing left for King Balak to do is complain and send Balaam home, which is exactly what he does. The story ends there. The situation has been decided, and Balak’s plan was foiled. He has only to await death for him and his people now.

But impending death has a way of motivating people. Did Balak really give up and go home at this point?

Numbers 25

Although the episode with Balak and Balaam seems to have ended in Numbers 25 with the return of both men to their respective homes, this reading is challenged by the following verses in Numbers 25.

1 And Israel sojourned in Sattin, and the people profaned itself by going a-whoring after the daughters of Moab.

2 And they called them to the sacrifices of their idols; and the people ate of their sacrifices, and worshiped their idols. 3 And Israel consecrated themselves to Beel-phegor; and the Lord was very angry with Israel.

The reader expects that when Balak goes home Moses and the Israelites will attack him. Instead we see that the statement in Numbers 24 that Israel did not practice divination is shown to now be false. The people have broken the essence of their covenant with God and have become like the Canaanites and Egyptians, worshipping idols. The story has taken a terrible turn.

4 And the Lord said to Moses, Take all the princes of the people, and make them examples [of judgment] for the Lord in the face of the sun, and the anger of the Lord shall be turned away from Israel.

5 And Moses said to the tribes of Israel, Slay ye every one his friend that is consecrated to Beel-phegor.

God tells Moses to basically crucify the leaders of the people, presumably as a punishment and a way of atoning for sin. Moses changes the message to that of killing all who worshipped the idols (although perhaps it amounts to the same thing). The deity they are said to have worshipped is “Beel-phegor,” or “Baalpeor” in the KJV. The name means “Baal (Lord) of Peor (the gap).” Here again we have the play on words between Balaam and Baal:

Balaam of Peor blesses Israel, and Israel blesses Baal of Peor.

The Gentile sorceror is righteous and listens to exactly what God tells him, while the circumcised and chosen Israelites do not listen to God and worship idols. The Israelites cannot be defeated by men or curses, unless such men or curses are from God. Their one strength is obedience to God, and their one weakness if infidelity towards God. Balaam, on the other hand, is obedient to God in spite of his character being associated with idolatry.

The account continues:

6 And, behold, a man of the children of Israel came and brought his brother to a Madianitish woman before Moses, and before all the congregation of the children of Israel; and they were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of witness.

7 And Phinees the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, and rose out of the midst of the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand,

8 and went in after the Israelitish man into the chamber, and pierced them both through, both the Israelitish man, and the woman through her womb; and the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

9 And those that died in the plague were four and twenty thousand.

The actions of Phineas are ironic, in that the first wife of Moses, Zipporah, was the daughter of Midian’s priest. Moses left Midian to free Israel from Egypt, and now he returns to Midian to destroy it. We can add to this that King Balak is initially identified as “the son of Zippor.” The names are the same, and it is strange that Moses marries a foreign woman who is named after a foreign king. Not to mention that she is the daughter of the “priest of Midian,” who must have been a priest of Baalim (or so it would seem). Moses not only marries his daughter, but lives in Midian and shepherds his flock. Jethro (the priestly father-in-law) also seems to support the mission of Moses. He might be a priest outside of the Israelites, but he respects God nonetheless. He is ambiguous in this respect, like Balaam. Both are “pagan” religious leaders, at least in some sense.

Jethro, in fact, is shown in Exodus 18 to rejoice that the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and he even sacrifices to God. The Israelites eat from his sacrifice to God.

And Jethro the father-in-law of Moses took whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices for God, for Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moses before God. (Ex. 18:12)

It also casts the marriage of Moses to a Midianite woman Zipporah in a negative light, in that the context of this story associates idol worship with consorting with foreign women (a dominant theme in the OT). But Moses picked his bride and followed God alone, while the Israelites here were seduced by the women and so worshipped their gods. The deciding factor is fidelity to God, not ethnic heritage or tribal affiliation.

Finally, the 24,000 who died are said to have been killed by a plague, in contradiction to both the instructions of God (to crucify the leaders) and Moses (to have the tribes kill their brothers). The incident is a recapitulation of the Golden Calf incident, when Israel worshipped an idol while God was speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The result was Moses telling the Levites to go through the camp killing people, and God struck the people with a plague (see Dt. 9). In Numbers 25 we have the same idolatry followed by almost indiscriminate killing by the command of Moses, followed by a plague by God.


Our introduction to the traditional account in the book of Numbers has come to an end. What remains is to explain why the author of Revelation wrote what he did.

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.

He obviously is referencing the actions in Numbers 25, but he is attributing them to Balaam and Balak, who are nowhere to be found in Numbers 25. How can this be explained? We will answer this question in a post to follow.

The Curious Samaritan Book of Joshua

When looking back at ancient literature, at times it is best to forget what we know and take a fresh look at things. This, however, often seems impossible. We read and hear the same old things, and even if the texts are different our ears form them into the same old stories.

I recently read this book:

The Samaritan Chronicle, Or The Book of Joshua, the son of Nun.

Translated from the Arabic, with notes by Oliver Turnbull Crane, M.A.

John B. Alden, Publisher, New York, 1890

It is a book written by Samaritans that corresponds in genre to the “historical” books of the Old Testament (Chronicles, Kings) as well as Joshua (reckoned as a prophetic book by ancient Jews). It was translated from Arabic and is based on manuscripts that are less than 500 years old. However, much of the content could reach back into the Hellenistic era (3rd c. BCE) or even later. We can be sure that the final form is much later, as the history does not stop where the Biblical history does, but continues into the 5th century CE.


The contents and style of the book are hard to describe. It reads as Islamic in some sense, in that the phrases “Peace be upon him” and a few other epithets are employed regularly. But the theology is very much in line with the Old Testament, with a few exceptions. The storyline stretches from Exodus to the Byzantine period. To give an indication of what the book is like, I’ll quote the first chapter:



This is the book narrating the chronicles of the children of Israil, from the time that our master Musa (Moses), the prophet- peace be upon him- the son of ‘Amran, invested Yush’a (Joshua) the son of Nun with the Kalifate over his people.

All of this is translated from the Hebrew language into the Arabic language, after the manner of a rapid translation by word of mouth, and giving only the statement of the narrative, and nothing more: even what God- Powerful and Glorious- showed forth of signs and miracles and wonders, which man is too weak to adequately specify and describe; such as, what happened at the Urdun (Jordan), and also at the time when the giants were humbled, and with what victory and power and might and authority God came to his (Joshua’s) assistance; also what they (the children of Israel) witnessed at the time of their entering the land, besides what they witnessed in Wady el-Mujib, and on mount Sina (Sinai) and its vast wilderness, with the essential incidents of this event which God made manifest, even the quaking of its mountains, together with what there was of thunders and lightnings connected with this, and joining the fires to the very heaven, and their hearing the code of their laws from the divine and eternal voice, from whom shone forth flashes of light, representing the form of its writer, even the Creator.

Afterwards what happened to them at the greater Sea, not to mention what their adversaries witnessed in Greater Misr (Egypt), and what calamities overtook their enemies, such as Fir’aun (Pharaoh) and his army, and ‘Amlaq (the Amalekites) and its host, and Sihun (Sihon) and his kingdom, and ‘Uj (Og) the father of ‘Anaq with his sorcery, and kings of Mab (Moab) with their greatness.

Also what happened unto Qarun (Korah) the son of the uncle of Harun (Aaron) and to the company who were with him, namely that some of them the earth opened its mouth and swallowed, and they went down alive to the deepest depths, while as to others of them the divine fire came forth and consumed their bodies.

And also what happened to the people while they were in the wilderness forty years, suffering want, without a guide and with no provisions or clothing, and barely living and existing; whom the cloud overshadowed by day and the pillar of fire protected from cold by night, and whose food was the manna from heaven; and when there was need of water, our master Musa- peace be upon him- the son of ‘Amran, brought it forth for them from the rock and from the parched ground and stone, until they themselves had drank, and all that were in the company both living souls and animals.

And it shall come to pass, that when they who are possessed of intelligence, but are yet unbelieving, shall have heard of what God did bountifully bestow upon them (the children of Israel), and with what happiness He did surround them, and how He lifted off of them all calamities, whether heavenly or earthly, and also what new things He revealed unto them, then they will know that, there is no Lord but their (the children of Israel) Lord and no prophet, but their prophet, and no book but their Book, and no true religion but their religion; and (they shall also understand) the excellency of the perfect creed, and the certainly of its validity, and that it is greatest in rendering praise to the Creator- Mighty and Glorious- the One who is omnipotent to do whatever He pleaseth.

And when one shall hear of the decline of the kingdom of the children of Israil, and what calamities and misfortunes and exiles and dispersions overtook them by reason of their disobedient doings and their rebellious actions, his fear will be increased for Him from Whom nothing escapes and of Whose kingdom nothing is destroyed- Blessed be he and exalted! And now of Him do we implore complete right-guidance and all-embracing favor in His mercy. Verily He is a hearer and answerer (of prayer).”

I highly recommend reading this book for a fresh perspective on the Old Testament. The text is of little use for those wanting to reconstruct history with any kind of certainty. The stories in the book could be ancient or modern, and the transmission of the text is very much unknown.

Yet one of the valuable things about reading the text is that it references magic and miracles, heroes, and villains. It is clearly a “fantastic” work. Yet it is strikingly similar to the Old Testament, leading us to ask ourselves whether the Old Testament is a totally different ballgame or whether we simply are more familiar with the OT narratives and don’t see their fantastic narratives as actual fantasies. We believe them and accept them as authoritative.

The Samaritan Chronicle challenges the idea that we can take these ancient narratives at face value. For example, Joshua is crowned king by Moses, and a series of kings follow him. This is not found in the Old Testament, where instead no real successor to Joshua is named and a series of Judges rule “Israel” for a period of centuries. This period is marked by strife and a lack of unity, but in the Samaritan version it is marked by good kings and peace.

In the OT the book of Judges serves to show that Israel needed a king. They had Moses, then Joshua, then various judges. But the judges were less than satisfactory, and the end of the book of Judges has terrible crimes taking place in Israel precisely because they had no king. This problem is solved in the book of 1 Samuel, where the people ask for a king and God allows it. The entire search for a king in 1 Samuel is seen as a rejection of God’s rule, while in the Samaritan tradition God had been ruling through kings for centuries.

The Prophets

Samaritans do not accept as Scripture any books other than the Penteteuch, or any prophet other than Moses. This should be tempered with the realization that these statements are largely rhetorical: Moses is the greatest among the prophets, to the extent that none are like him (except the coming Messiah which he predicted). The Penteteuch is on a different level than other writings, but Samaritans did not cease to write other books (e.g. The Samaritan Chronicle) even though they were not considered Scriptural or canonical.

In other words, the Prophets (as literature) are not accepted by Samaritans. They don’t care what Isaiah said, nor what Jeremiah said. Most shockingly of all, they portray Elisha the prophet as evil!

In the next few days I will be posting some reflections on particular aspects of the story that are surprising and/or interesting.

The Nativity of the Herodian Temple and the Nativity of Mary

The role of the Temple in the Bible is crucial, and for Christians the role of Jesus and  his Mother ties into this biblical theme. This essay will focus on a small aspect of the Temple, namely the timeline for the construction of the Herodian Temple. When we compare the testimony of Josephus and the author of the Infancy Gospel of James we can see some striking similarities. The building of the Herodian Temple and the life of Mary correspond very closely in time. Let’s look at the data.


The Infancy Gospel of James

This is an interesting early Christian document. No strong position will be taken on the authorship or dating of the text, nor will a very close reading be undertaken (for a brief introduction to the text and a quick read through it, see my series of posts here).

Instead, we will focus on the content of the PJ in regard to the early life of Mary, the Theotokos. Since the text has influenced (or was inspired by) Christian hymnography we will focus on the narrative of Mary’s birth being announced, her birth, her presentation in the Temple, her receiving the Annunciation, and her giving birth to Jesus.



The other half of our material is from Josephus. He gives testimony regarding the speech of Herod which announced that he was going to rebuild the Temple to the proper specifications and the glory that it deserved. Scholars have argued that based on seemingly conflicting testimony from Josephus, the actual building began 3 years later (this has been discussed by a number of scholars, here is an explanation of the evidence). Josephus also tells us that the Temple was “finished” 8 years after the building project started.



A Timeline

We will now construct a timeline of the pertinent events, with the caveat that all dates are open to revision within a year or two. It should also be kept in mind that some dates are dependent upon others, so a single change (or mistake) in our dating could throw off the dating of multiple events.

  • 22 – Conception of Mary Announced
  • 21 – Mary Born
  • 19 – Building of Temple Announced
  • 18 – Mary Brought to the Temple
  • 17 – Temple Construction Begins
  • 15 – Inner Court finished
  •   9 – Temple construction finished (possibly Mary leaves Temple at this point)
  •   6 – Mary leaves Temple
  •   5 – Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus
  •   4 – Birth of Jesus
  •   4 – Death of Herod


The Narrative Suggested by the Timeline

Joachim and Anna are told that they will conceive a child, and they they dedicate the child to serve God at this time. The child is born and is miraculous when presented at the Temple. She lives at home in a Temple-like environment. Herod announces that he will rebuild the Temple. Mary is brought to the Temple to live there, when the preparations for building the Temple are still underway.

When the Temple construction begins, Mary is 5. It ends when she is 13, and she leaves the Temple 2 years later at the age of 15 (the PJ is usually interpreted as saying that Mary was 12 when she left the Temple, but I suggest that the text is better understood as indicating the time she was in the Temple as being 12 years). The following year the Annunciation occurs when she is 16, and Jesus is born when she is 17. That same year Herod dies.

Mary is in the Temple for the entire period of construction. The announcement of her future birth and the birth itself precede the same for the Temple by 3 years.

At no point in Josephus do we read of Mary, and although he does mention Jesus in one passage, it is contested among scholars as to whether the text is authentic. Even f it is authentic, there is no mention of Jesus’ early life or mother. At no point in the PJ do we hear about Temple construction or a mention of Herod building the Temple. So it appears that both texts are writing of the same period, from different perspectives, and yet when we compare their dates the correspondence is uncanny. It is as if the author of PJ is using the timeline of the Herodian Temple and applying it to Mary.

We can add to this that the building program of Herod the Great was not simply good economics or a display of megalomania. It was also spoken in he language of eschatology: Herod declared that he was going to rebuild the Temple according to its proper glory, a privilege that he felt was due to the Romans. The Jews were expecting an eschatological Temple built by God, and Herod gave them a physical Temple built by Rome and Edom. At the same time and in the same place God was preparing Mary as a “rival Temple,” built by God and not man (as is made explicit by the lack of human input in the conception of Jesus). This image of Mary as the Temple or Tabernacle is seen in the text of Luke, as Brodie so expertly pointed out in his 1979 article “A New Temple and a New Law: The Unity and Chronicler-based Nature of Luke 1:1-4:22a.”


Some of the irony lies in the Temple imagery of Mary being linked to the historical accounts of Josephus. Herod tries to improve the Temple, which was obviously flawed (see 1 Enoch, Tobit, Jubilees, etc.), by building a flashy Temple. God initiates the “building” of Mary and announces it to her parents. The building of Herod’s Temple and Mary occur within a year of each other. Both events are unprecedented in Jewish history.

The idea that there was a 3 year gap in the annunciation and construction of the Herodian Temple is striking, given that it is based on Josephus and historical probabilities rather than a “spiritual” exegesis of the New Testament or PJ. If we put Josephus and the PJ together, we see that Mary is taken to the Temple a year before the Temple begins to be built. Herod’s Temple was built from start to finish with Mary residing there. We can add to this that if she was indeed in the Holy of Holies (see the Nutzman article for historical plausibility) she lived in the only part of the Temple that Herod did not rebuild.

So what do we make of this correspondence?

Is the PJ inserting a theological timeframe into the story and patterning itself on the construction by Herod?

Is Josephus patterning the construction of the Temple on the timeline of Christian claims in the NT and/or the PJ? (even without the specific information of the PJ the timeline is much the same based on the NT evidence)

Or is the correspondence simply coincidental and happens to contrast the origins of the two rival Temples in the 1st century?

Or is there another explanation for the correspondence?


Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 6 (chapters 17-20)

Chapter 17

“And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judaea should be enrolled. And Joseph said: I shall enrol my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enrol her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will. And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed. And when they had come within three miles, Joseph turned and saw her sorrowful; and he said to himself: Likely that which is in her distresses her. And again Joseph turned and saw her laughing. And he said to her: Mary, how is it that I see in thy face at one time laughter, at another sorrow? And Mary said to Joseph: Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting. And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth. And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whither shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is desert.”

Ch. 17 is the story of the census and traveling to Bethlehem. Of note is that Mary is about to give birth in a “desert.” Also of note is that a son of Joseph accompanies them on their journey. We can assume that this is James, but it is noteworthy that the author never writes as if he is in the story. This is rather strange, and almost inexplicable if the author is only pretending to be James.


Chapter 18

“And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a widwife in the district of Bethlehem. And I Joseph was walking, and was not walking; and I looked up into the sky, and saw the sky astonished; and I looked up to the pole of the heavens, and saw it standing, and the birds of the air keeping still. And I looked down upon the earth, and saw a trough lying, and work-people reclining: and their hands were in the trough. And those that were eating did not eat, and those that were rising did not carry it up, and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it; but the faces of all were looking upwards. And I saw the sheep walking, and the sheep stood still; and the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the current of the river, and I saw the mouths of the kids resting on the water and not drinking, and all things in a moment were driven from their course.”

Here we read that Joseph’s two sons were with the couple, one of which we assume to be James. They were in a cave roughly three miles (ch. 17) from Bethlehem. The early accounts of Jesus’ birth (outside of the NT) also speak of a cave rather than a barn or house.

What is most striking to me about this chapter is the mystical experience of Joseph. If this experience was made up by the author, it seems strange that it is so unique in Jewish and Christian literature. If it is conveyed from a confidant (James) then the portrayal becomes rather intuitive. Joseph’s perception slows down to a stop (it seems) just as most people experience when a momentous event takes place. Here time seems to stand still, and James likely included this aspect of the story to stress the paradox of the Virgin giving birth. All of nature both does and does not act as it always has.


Chapter 19

“And I saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, whither art thou going? And I said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said unto me: Art thou of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said to me: Is she not thy wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit. And the widwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen strange things — because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth — a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.”

Ch. 19 has Joseph meet a midwife, to whom he explains the situation. A cloud fills the cave in exactly the same way that it filled the Temple when it was dedicated or “born.” (see 1 Kings 8:10-11) When a certain Salome is notified of the event, she says “As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.” This is rather transparent parallel to the Thomas episode, with the exception that Salome is punished while Thomas is not. It seems to me that Thomas never actually touched Jesus, since the text does not tell us that he did. Instead he took Jesus at his word, and made a confession of faith. Salome lacks that faith and is punished and restored, as we see in the next chapter. This Salome is likely to be understood as Salome the Myrrhbearer, found in Mark 15:40 and 16:1.


Chapter 20

“And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for Thou knowest, O Lord, that in Thy name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Thy hand. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord hath heard thee. Put thy hand to the infant, and carry it, and thou wilt have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things thou hast seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.”

Ch. 20 recounts how Salome dares to inspect Mary, has her hand burned, and then is healed. This is very close to the traditional account f the Formation of Mary, where a Jewish opponent attempts to overturn the bier that Mary’s body is being transported on. An angel cuts off his hand, and then it is restored through prayer and repentance. This is almost certainly a later tradition than the PJ.

She then “went forth out of the cave justified” just as Joachim had “went down from the temple of the Lord justified,” in ch. 5. The locus of divine communication here is now the cave, not the Temple. Salome is sworn to secrecy, a theme found throughout the Gospels.

Notes on The Infancy Gospel of James, pt. 7 (chapters 21-24)

We have only the final four chapters left to examine.

Chapter 21

“And, behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judaea. And there was a great commotion in Bethlehem of Judaea, for Magi came, saying: Where is he that is born king of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him. And when Herod heard, he was much disturbed, and sent officers to the Magi. And he sent for the priests, and examined them, saying: How is it written about the Christ? where is He to be born? And they said: In Bethlehem of Judaea, for so it is written. And he sent them away. And he examined the Magi, saying to them: What sign have you seen in reference to the king that has been born? And the Magi said: We have seen a star of great size shining among these stars, and obscuring their light, so that the stars did not appear; and we thus knew that a king has been born to Israel, and we have come to worship him. And Herod said: Go and seek him; and if you find him, let me know, in order that I also may go and worship him. And the Magi went out. And, behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them until they came to the cave, and it stood over the top of the cave. And the Magi saw the infant with His mother Mary; and they brought forth from their bag gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by the angel not to go into Judaea, they went into their own country by another road.”

Ch. 21 is the story of the Magi, retold in a fairly straightforward manner but with some small differences. For the time being we will let the text speak for itself and simply move on.


Chapter 22

“And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.”

Here Mary places Jesus in a stall not because there was no room at the inn, but because Herod was searching for the child. This recalls the placing of Moses in the “ark” to protect him from Pharaoh.



Chapter 23

“And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zacharias, saying: Where hast thou hid thy son? And he, answering, said to them: I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord: I do not know where my son is. And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod. And Herod was enraged, and said: His son is destined to be king over Israel. And he sent to him again, saying: Tell the truth; where is thy son? for thou knowest that thy life is in my hand. And Zacharias said: I am God’s martyr, if thou sheddest my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because thou sheddest innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord. And Zacharias was murdered about daybreak. And the sons of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.”

Herod assumes that the Magi are looking for John the Baptist (simply “John” here, since he had yet to start his baptismal ministry). Zacharias tells Herod that as a priest he is always in the Temple, recalling Mary being always in “the Temple” even before her formal dedication in the Temple. Like Mary, Elizabeth is not with a male protector, and like Mary she has a holy child. Zachary’s is martyred and recalled by Jesus in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 (although this interpretation is hotly contested by scholars).


Chapter 24

“But at the hour of the salutation the priests went away, and Zacharias did not come forth to meet them with a blessing, according to his custom. And the priests stood waiting for Zacharias to salute him at the prayer, and to glorify the Most High. And he still delaying, they were all afraid. But one of them ventured to go in, and he saw clotted blood beside the altar; and he heard a voice saying: Zacharias has been murdered, and his blood shall not be wiped up until his avenger come. And hearing this saying, he was afraid, and went out and told it to the priests. And they ventured in, and saw what had happened; and the fretwork of the temple made a wailing noise, and they rent their clothes from the top even to the bottom. And they found not his body, but they found his blood turned into stone. And they were afraid, and went out and reported to the people that Zacharias had been murdered. And all the tribes of the people heard, and mourned, and lamented for him three days and three nights. And after the three days, the priests consulted as to whom they should put in his place; and the lot fell upon Simeon. For it was he who had been warned by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death until he should see the Christ in the flesh.

And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history. And grace shall be with them that fear our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory to ages of ages. Amen.””

Zacharias is in the Holy of Holies for too long in Luke, when an angel a[[eared to him and he became mute. Here he lingers because he has been murdered. A voice is heard, and it is assumed to be the voice of God, since it is in the “dabir” (word, oracle) the Jewish name for the Holy of Holies since it functions as the mouthpiece for God.

The fear, fleeing, and returning is both natural and in parallel to the discovery of the empty tomb in the Gospels, but here they do find the body. Finally Simeon is elected as the replacement for Zacharias, and he is connected with the Simeon the God-Receiver we read about it Luke 3.

The priests rent their clothes in disobedience to the law that forbade priests from doing so (see Lev. 10:6), showing their absolute grief.

The final paragraph is the only mention of James by name in the entire text. He does not say that he was one of the sons of Joseph, nor the brother of Jesus. The connection between the commotion, the writing, and the retreat to the desert is unclear. The commotion could have to do with the death of Herod (4 BCE), after which James would have left Jerusalem for the desert, then returned to Jerusalem to write the text. He thanks God for granting him the gift of wisdom to write the account, implying that it was not a mundane text but a prophetic one.

The most reasonable explanation is that the author is claiming to be James, the brother of Jesus. He has no need to tell this to the reader since he can assume that they might know him and would then understand that he is in the narrator (and therefor is a (partial) “eye-witness” account), and a family tradition. He nowhere mentions the life of Jesus, indicating that the story is meant to be understood as composed after the death of Herod the Great.

James would have been older than Jesus, but would he have been old enough to write this history? It certainly seems plausible that James could be up to 20 years older than Jesus (he died in 62 CE as an old man). If James was 20 years older, then he would have been 25 when he wrote this account.

While this seems highly unusual (especially if James was only 10-15 years older than Jesus) we should remember that James was portrayed in the NT and elsewhere as extraordinary. Many see him in the NT as a rather mundane figure, in contrast to the more exotic details from later Christian writing. While the NT might not mention that he was a Nazarite, it does mention quite a few things about James that point to him being exceptional. He was the son of Joseph, a righteous man. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church. His Epistle is an example of wisdom literature, not dry ethics. It is entirely plausible, even to be expected, that the son of an exceptionally pious Jew would be a Nazarite, even from birth. The story of Anna and Joachim shows that such a dedication to God was not implausible, and had happened in the OT with Samuel and Samson. If we were to look for a likely Nazarite in the NT, it would be James. He even had Paul pay for the services associated with Nazarite vows.

It is significant that the author does not identify himself as a Christian, or a leader, or he does not mention that Jesus rose from the dead. He does call Jesus “Lord” and “Christ,” but strangely this is only at the end of the text. This could be a later addition, possibly by James himself. It is significant that the ending is in contrast to the rest of the text, both in calling Jesus Lord and Messiah (not mentioned elsewhere) and identifying himself as James (presumably a character in the story never named). It seems a forger would have had the titles of Jesus in the main body of the text, and also made clear that James was the son of Joseph, yet he seems unconcerned with these issues.


Our next post will give a final reflection on some of the issues raised by the text.