WordPlay: Roman Power (Ῥώμη Ῥώμη), Part 2

In part 1 we explored the connection between power and Rome on the basic level of linguistics. In part 2 we will look at the Greek usage of ρώμη in the Bible.

Greek Evidence

How often was ρώμη used by ancient Greek authors? You can see for yourself here. While  ρώμη was not the most common word for “power” or “strength,” it was used by many authors. It was not a little known or idiosyncratic word.

LXX Evidence

Ῥώμη never occurs in the most widely accepted books of the OT. However, the Greek Bible (LXX) contains a number of writings that were not included in the Masoretic Hebrew canon. Do any of these books use the term ρώμη to indicate “strength”?

It turns out that they do, but it is very unusual. 1 Maccabees has the term 12 times, all of them denoting the city of Rome, while 2 and 3 Maccabees include the word as denoting “strength,” as does Proverbs 6:8.

Here is Proverbs 6:6-8 according to the LXX (the MT is missing most of v.8):

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard; and see, and emulate his ways, and become wiser than he.

7 For whereas he has no husbandry, nor any one to compel him, and is under no master,

8 he prepares food for himself in the summer, and lays by abundant store in harvest. Or go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and how earnestly she is engaged in her work; whose labours kings and private men use for health, and she is desired and respected by all:

though weak in body (τῇ ρώμῃ ἀσθενής),

she is advanced by honouring wisdom (τὴν σοφίαν τιμήσασα).

The juxtaposition of weakness (or sickness) of the “(strength of the) body” (ρώμῃ), is a key Pauline idea, as we will see, as well as the preeminence of wisdom over physical strength.

2 Maccabees 3:26 has ρώμῃ, and below is the fuller context of the passage (3:7-30):

7 Now when Apollonius came to the king, and had shewed him of the money whereof he was told, the king chose out Heliodorus his treasurer, and sent him with a commandment to bring him the foresaid money.

8 So forthwith Heliodorus took his journey; under a colour of visiting the cities of Celosyria and Phenice, but indeed to fulfil the king’s purpose.

9 And when he was come to Jerusalem, and had been courteously received of the high priest of the city, he told him what intelligence was given of the money, and declared wherefore he came, and asked if these things were so indeed.

10 Then the high priest told him that there was such money laid up for the relief of widows and fatherless children:

11 And that some of it belonged to Hircanus son of Tobias, a man of great dignity, and not as that wicked Simon had misinformed: the sum whereof in all was four hundred talents of silver, and two hundred of gold:

12 And that it was altogether impossible that such wrongs should be done unto them, that had committed it to the holiness of the place, and to the majesty and inviolable sanctity of the temple, honoured over all the world.

13 But Heliodorus, because of the king’s commandment given him, said, That in any wise it must be brought into the king’s treasury.

14 So at the day which he appointed he entered in to order this matter: wherefore there was no small agony throughout the whole city.

15 But the priests, prostrating themselves before the altar in their priests’ vestments, called unto heaven upon him that made a law concerning things given to he kept, that they should safely be preserved for such as had committed them to be kept.

16 Then whoso had looked the high priest in the face, it would have wounded his heart: for his countenance and the changing of his colour declared the inward agony of his mind.

17 For the man was so compassed with fear and horror of the body, that it was manifest to them that looked upon him, what sorrow he had now in his heart.

18 Others ran flocking out of their houses to the general supplication, because the place was like to come into contempt.

19 And the women, girt with sackcloth under their breasts, abounded in the streets, and the virgins that were kept in ran, some to the gates, and some to the walls, and others looked out of the windows.

20 And all, holding their hands toward heaven, made supplication.

21 Then it would have pitied a man to see the falling down of the multitude of all sorts, and the fear of the high priest being in such an agony.

 22 They then called upon the Almighty Lord to keep the things committed of trust safe and sure for those that had committed them.

23 Nevertheless Heliodorus executed that which was decreed.

24 Now as he was there present himself with his guard about the treasury, the Lord of spirits, and the Prince of all power, caused a great apparition, so that all that presumed to come in with him were astonished at the power of God (τοῦ Θεοῦ δύναμιν), and fainted, and were sore afraid.

25 For there appeared unto them an horse with a terrible rider upon him, and adorned with a very fair covering, and he ran fiercely, and smote at Heliodorus with his forefeet, and it seemed that he that sat upon the horse had complete harness of gold.

26 Moreover two other young men appeared before him, notable in strength (τῇ ρώμῃ), excellent in beauty, and comely in apparel, who stood by him on either side; and scourged him continually, and gave him many sore stripes.

27 And Heliodorus fell suddenly unto the ground, and was compassed with great darkness: but they that were with him took him up, and put him into a litter.

28 Thus him, that lately came with a great train and with all his guard into the said treasury, they carried out, being unable to help himself with his weapons: and manifestly they acknowledged the power of God.

29 For he by the hand of God was cast down, and lay speechless without all hope of life.

30 But they praised the Lord, that had miraculously honoured his own place: for the temple; which a little afore was full of fear and trouble, when the Almighty Lord appeared, was filled with joy and gladness.

 31 Then straightways certain of Heliodorus’ friends prayed Onias, that he would call upon the most High to grant him his life, who lay ready to give up the ghost.

32 So the high priest, suspecting lest the king should misconceive that some treachery had been done to Heliodorus by the Jews, offered a sacrifice for the health of the man.

33 Now as the high priest was making an atonement, the same young men in the same clothing appeared and stood beside Heliodorus, saying, Give Onias the high priest great thanks, insomuch as for his sake the Lord hath granted thee life:

34 And seeing that thou hast been scourged from heaven, declare unto all men the mighty power of God. And when they had spoken these words, they appeared no more.

35 So Heliodorus, after he had offered sacrifice unto the Lord, and made great vows unto him that had saved his life, and saluted Onias, returned with his host to the king.

Here again we have a juxtaposition of human power and hubris (Rome as represented by Heliodorus) and divine power (ρώμῃ as the two angels). Irony is added by the play off of Heliodorus’s name, which means “gift of the sun”: he is cast to the ground and surrounded by “great darkness.” The representative of the sun beaten and cast into darkness, showing that he is not truly ρώμῃ. He even is at the point of death and is saved only by the priest sacrificing to God on his behalf.

(note: this episode is quite similar in some aspects to the Damascus Road experience of Paul)

3 Maccabees 2:4 has the last instance of ρώμῃ. The book begins with the attempt of Antiochus to enter the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem (similar to the actions of Heliodorus above). The was a profanation of the Temple and greatly distressed the Jews. Chapter 2 reads:

1 Now was it that the high priest Simon bowed his knees over against the holy place, and spread out his hands in reverent form, and uttered the following supplication:

2 O Lord, Lord, King of the heavens, and Ruler of the whole creation, Holy among the holy, sole Governor, Almighty, give ear to us who are oppressed by a wicked and profane one, who exulteth in his confidence and strength.

3 It is thou, the Creator of all, the Lord of the universe, who art a righteous Governor, and judgest all who act with pride and insolence.

4 It was thou who didst destroy the former workers of unrighteousness, among whom were the giants, who trusted in their strength (ῥώμῃ) and hardihood, by covering them with a measureless flood.

5 It was thou who didst make the Sodomites, those workers of exceeding iniquity, men notorious for their vices, an example to after generations, when thou didst cover them with fire and brimstone.

6 Thou didst make known thy power when thou causedst the bold Pharaoh, the enslaver of thy people, to pass through the ordeal of many and diverse inflictions.

7 And thou rolledst the depths of the sea over him, when he made pursuit with chariots, and with a multitude of followers, and gavest a safe passage to those who put their trust in thee, the Lord of the whole creation.

8 These saw and felt the works of thine hands, and praised thee the Almighty.

9 Thou, O King, when thou createdst the illimitable and measureless earth, didst choose out this city: thou didst make this place sacred to thy name, albeit thou needest nothing: thou didst glorify it with thine illustrious presence, after constructing it to the glory of thy great and honourable name.

10 And thou didst promise, out of love to the people of Israel, that should we fall away from thee, and become afflicted, and then come to this house and pray, thou wouldest hear our prayer.

11 Verily thou art faithful and true.

12 And when thou didst often aid our fathers when hard pressed, and in low estate, and deliveredst them out of great dangers,

13 see now, holy King, how through our many and great sins we are borne down, and made subject to our enemies, and are become weak and powerless.

14 We being in this low condition, this bold and profane man seeks to dishonour this thine holy place, consecrated out of the earth to the name of thy Majesty.

15 Thy dwelling place, the heaven of heavens, is indeed unapproachable to men.

Again we have the contrast between earthly power and the power of God. In all 3 instances kings and/or representatives of kings are contrasted with the weak in body who are strong in wisdom. Human power is therefore set up as the antithesis of divine wisdom, which is the ultimate power of God.

NT Evidence

In the NT ρώμη always means Rome. While the OT literature was read in the Roman context in the 1st century, it preceded the rise of Roman power. But in the NT Rome was always in control. The play on words was therefore implicit. When Paul says that he “must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21) the reader also heard that he “must also see power.” Paul, whose “bodily presence is weak” (2 Cor. 10:10) is the antithesis of ρώμη both in terms of Rome and bodily strength. Jesus himself was made to look weak by the powerful Rome, yet just as we saw in Maccabees this weakness was overturned by the power of God and Roman power was put to shame but the risen Christ. Jesus and Paul both carry names that denote victory through weakness when coupled with their personal stories: Jesus (“YHWH saves”) is killed by Rome but saved by God, while Paul (“small one”) was formerly the powerful persecutor Saul (“desired one”) who became weak for the sake of the Gospel.



The idea that Rome was the world power and for all intents and purposes would remain so until it was conquered by God himself was reinforced in 1st century minds by the meaning of the term for Rome itself: it literally meant “power.” This power was human and fundamentally at odds with the power of God, who sided with the oppressed and powerless. The Davidic empire in the minds of readers was just that: it was only in their minds and their texts. It was tale told about the distant past, and one that fostered the hope that their current lack of power would somehow be reversed and a Davidic ruler would again emerge to vindicate Israel and their God.

This reversal, the readers were told, would be accomplished by God and would be a result of both God’s mercy and the turning of Israel to God. It was the apostasy and sin of Israel that had resulted in their current powerlessness, and their return to God that would usher in the Messianic age and the conquering of the power of men (Rome).

For the followers of Jesus, this teaching became reinterpreted after the Resurrection. Rome had conquered Jesus, and yet Jesus had emerged victorious days later by the power of God. The intervention of God in raising Jesus was exactly what the hope of Israel should have been, in retrospect. Not a military conquest, but a victory over death itself and the power of man to inflict death. The humble and powerless Jesus on the cross had been shown by God to be the exalted and powerful Christ at the right hand of God. The hope of Israel had been transferred to another plane and register. The very idea of power had been transformed, and this transformation had been exploited by Paul, who, like Jesus, made weakness a sign of power. Not just any weakness, mind you, but weakness in bodily strength (ρώμη) coupled with power in wisdom and humility. It was the ultimate rejection of Rome and all that Rome stood for. Rather than seeking a ρώμη Israel, Jesus and Paul taught by example that weakness (non-ρώμη) was more powerful than Rome (ρώμη). Rather than living and dying by the sword, they were to live and die by the sword of God, the Scriptures. The Messiah was to return and slay the enemies of God with “the sword of his mouth” (Rev. 19:15), and in the meantime it was the words from the mouth of God (Jesus) that the followers of God were to use to bring about his kingdom.

It was, therefore, no longer a problem that Rome appeared to be in control. Their power was superficial, given that God had demonstrated his ultimate power in raising Jesus from the dead. Let the ρώμη have their ρώμη, since believers in Jesus knew that YHWH saves, not Rome. David’s kingdom fell, Rome will fall, but the kingdom of God and his Christ had been instituted and would be fully realized in the future. It was only a matter of time until Rome saw the Divine Rome (ρώμη) coming on the clouds with great power to invest the faithful with the ρώμη of God and the age of peace, the true and eternal Pax Romana.


Worship in the New Testament

I’ve come across the claim that “worship” in the NT is either a) unique or b) ubiquitous. That is to say, some people claim that only Jesus is worshipped in the NT, while others claim that many people  are worshipped in the NT.

Both claims are flawed in that they seek to absolutize the evidence into a clear principle rather than following where the evidence leads. In the OT there are several instances of worship (basically bowing) being offered to humans as a sign of respect, yet the NT authors reframed the term to make it an action that is exclusively offered to God an Jesus in the positive sense, an offered to others in a negative (idolatrous) sense. So let’s look at worship (προσκυνέω) in the NT.

(note on methodology: We will concern ourselves only with occurrences of προσκυνέω, which may leave other occurrences of worship out of the mix, but is also an objective criterion for studying how the term was used formally.)


Usage by Author

We find the word 60x in the NT, divided thusly:

34x (57%) in the Gospels and Acts (Mt 13, Mk 2, Lk 3, Jn 12, Acts 4)

1x (2%) in the Pauline Epistles

24x (40%) in Revelation

2x (3%) in Hebrews

If we group John’s Gospel with Revelation, the usage by John accounts for 60% of the occurrences. Even if we consider the two texts to have different authors, it is worth noting that Revelation by far has the highest frequency of use, followed by John and Matthew. Mark, Luke, Paul, and Hebrews barely use the term. The 7 Catholic Epistles never use the term.


Usage by Object

To what or whom was the worship directed in the NT?

In Paul (1 Cor. 14:25) the object is God.

In Hebrews the first object of worship is the Son (1:6, citing Dt. 32:43)

“Rejoice, ye heavens, with him, and let all the angels of God worship him; rejoice ye Gentiles, with his people, and let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him; for he will avenge the blood of his sons, and he will render vengeance, and recompense justice to his enemies, and will reward them that hate him; and the Lord shall purge the land of his people.” (Brenton)

The second object is unidentified (11:21, citing Gen. 37:31)

“And he said, Swear to me; and he swore to him. And Israel did reverence, leaning on the top of his staff.” (Brenton).

In Mark the object is Jesus (2x, 100%), in both cases before the Resurrection.

In Matthew the objects are Jesus (11x, 85%), Satan (1x, 8%), and God (1x, 8%). The latter 2 are mentioned in the same passage (the temptation narrative), and only 2 of the 11 times that Jesus is the object of worship are post-Resurrection.

In Luke we have the same 2 instances from the temptation narrative that Matthew recounts, 1 for Satan and 1 for God. The only other instance is directed towards Jesus post-Resurrection.

In Acts we have 2 occurrences of worshipping (God) in Jerusalem/Temple, a mention of idol worship, and Peter being worshipped.

In John we have 11 references to worship of God (10 of which are in chapter 4), and 1 of worship of Jesus.

In Revelation the first object of (future) worship are the readers in Philadelphia (3:9)

” behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.”

Primarily God is worshipped (10x, 42%), and the beast/image/dragon/demons are worshipped 11x (46%). An angel is worshipped 2x (8%), and in both cases the one worshipping (the author) was corrected by the angel for such behavior.

Overall in the NT, we see this breakdown of objects of worship:

God (27x, 45%)

Jesus (16x, 27%)

Satan/Beast/Demons/Idols (14x, 23%)

An Angel (2x, 3%)

Peter (1x, 2%)



A few remarks are in order.

First, positive worship accounts for 72% of occurrences, applied only to God and Jesus, while negative worship accounts for the other 28%.

The implication is that only God and Jesus are to be worshipped, according to NT usage. However, it should be added to this that Jesus is worshipped after the Resurrection only 3x, and the remaining 13x occur from his birth to his ministry. We cannot, therefore, conclude that Jesus was only to be worshipped as the triumphant resurrected Christ. His worship was instituted when he was an infant (Mt. 2 with the visit of the Magi).

We can also add that this does not mean that the resurrected Christ was worshipped with any frequency in the NT. Although the Gospel narratives have only a short account of Jesus post-Resurrection, we do not find in the writings of Paul, Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude any mention of worshipping Jesus, God, or any other entity. They are silent on the issue, which indicates that when Jesus was worshipped post-Resurrection, it was not a new development in the NT trajectories, but a continuation of the worship that Jesus received throughout his life.

The depiction of Jesus being worshipped is largely confined to the Gospel narratives, and accounts for 23% of the total usages in the NT, and 48% of the usages in the Gospels (with God coming in a close second place at 45%).

Outside of the Gospels only Hebrews speaks of worshipping Jesus (referenced as the Son of God), and the author does so through the application of Deuteronomic song (referencing God himself as YHWH and El) to Jesus. We can ad to this that the words were said to have been spoken (or sung) to the Israelites by Moses and Jesus the son of Nun (Dt. 32:44). The author of Hebrews clearly identified the Son of God as YHWH/El, and not simply as a son of God (since the song reads “let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him.”)

We can conclude that worship in the NT is confined exclusively to Jesus and God. Other beings are worshipped (Satan, Peter, the Beast, idols, an angel) but theses occurrences are portrayed as negative. Only Jesus and his Father, God, are the proper objects of worship according to the NT authors.

Thanks for reading!


The Struggle for Jewish Identity: Leonard Rutgers and “The Synagogue as Foe in Early Christian Literature.”


In reading two articles in succession I was struck with the different interpretation of data from the two scholars. The articles were “The Synagogue as Foe in Early Christian Literature,” (Rutgers, 2010) and “Midrash,” (Bloch, 1978). Essentially Rutgers painted a picture of “evil” interpretive techniques by Christians, and Bloch description of authentic Jewish interpretive techniques was identical to Rutgers’ “Christian” techniques. When Jews used them they were the Jewish tradition, but when Christians used them (according to Rutgers) they were against the Jewish tradition and an illegitimate import/development. It follows that Rutgers begins with the content of the interpretation, which he disagrees with, and proceeds to act as if the content was contingent on methodology. This is a problem, since the methodology was Jewish (see Bloch) and the content was variable for both Christians and Jews.

“The Synagogue as Foe in Early Christian Literature.”

Rutgers looks at the rise of synagogue construction in the 4th century and the rise in anti-synagogue rhetoric in the same period. He asserts that it was a Christian idea to equate allegorically the Jews as a people with the synagogue. This led to the demonization of both through the process of idealization. What follows is a series of excerpts from the article that I find highly problematic. The first beginning with a citation from Augustine in italics and then commentary by Rutgers:

“By the synagogue we understand the people of Israel, because synagogue is the word properly used of them, although they were also called the church.

Our congregation, on the contrary, the apostles never called synagogue but always ecclesia; whether for the sake of distinction, or because there is some difference between a congregation whence the synagogue has its name and a convocation whence the church is called ecclesia:

for the word congregation (or flocking together) is used of cattle and particularly of that kind called “flocks,” whereas convocation (or calling together) is more of reasonable creatures, such as men. I think then that it is clear in what synagogue of gods God stood. (Augustine, Enarrat. Ps. 82.1)

In this passage, at least three things happen that merit our attention. First of all, Augustine equates “synagogue” with “the people of Israel.” This is a clear and definite departure from earlier practice. Traditionally, whenever the term “synagogue” was used in its meaning of “community,” it was always understood as referring to a specific community. That this is so follows, for example, from a famous passage in the book of Acts or from the rich collection of third- and fourth-century funerary inscriptions from the Jewish catacombs of Rome that contain references to no less than a dozen specific Jewish communities.” (453)

My response is this: a synagogue can be specific communities, but often in the OT it referred to a gathering of all Israel, just as ἐκκλησία (“the called”) functions in the LXX. In other words, the Christian “shift” was one inherent in Jewish writings predating Chrisitanity by centuries. It was a Jewish tradition.

“In our passage, however, Augustine moves away from such an understanding by expanding the original meaning: rather than considering the term “synagogue” as merely referring to a specific community, he now defines it as referring to all the Jews or, as he phrases it, the entire “people of Israel.” By expanding its original meaning, Augustine thus substitutes a concrete notion for one that is unspecified, potentially stereotypical and, in any event, completely atemporal. In Augustine, then, “the synagogue” and “the Jews” are not just coterminous. They have become interchangeable and synonymous.” (Rutgers, 453-454)

Yet in no way does generalizing the synagogue change its meaning. The synagogue was the gathering of the Jews, according to the Jews. There were multiple synagogues, but they were all united in their purpose and practice. Rutgers wants to gloss over this essential unity and make it an idealistic construct rather than an almost tautological aspect of the synagogue.

“Being the only church father who links the synagoga to the term congregatio in its meaning ‘gathering of animals’, Augustine does not merely deny the Jews reasonability as human beings. He is effectively saying that the synagogue is an animal’s den and implying that the Jews congregating in it are beasts.” (455)

To call this borderline ridiculous would be generous. Calling people “sheep” may be an insult today, but this was exactly how Jews referred to Israel throughout their writings. Augustine compares the Christians to gods in a synagogue, making the difference one between animal and man/god. This was a Jewish teaching, and a common Jewish technique to speak of people as different types of animals. Some animals become “men” (see 1 Enoch’s “Animal Apocalypse”) and this indicates that they are men who become “gods.” Augustine appears to be following entirely Jewish methods of exegesis and source material.

“In Augustine, then, “the synagogue” is so much more than just the church’s significant other: it also is an evil twin that must be abused verbally whenever the occasion arises. To characterize the ensemble of Augustine’s thoughts on the synagogue as relativement moderé is to speak utter nonsense.” (Rutgers, 455)

Rutgers goes on to say that the synagogue “now became synonymous not just with the entire Jewish people but with everything that was bad and despicable” and “As early as the second century, this shift (one by which the term “synagogue” was abstracted into a construct that existed only in the minds of early Christian theologians but that lacked a counterpart in real life) was already well underway.”(456)

All this is so much rhetoric. The depiction of the synagogue did correspond to reality, as far as we know. It was frequented by Jews who rejected the teachings of Jesus, and this was what the Fathers addressed. The synagogue was associated with the Jewish people because this was exactly how the Jews defined themselves. And how could that be a bad thing? Rutgers continues to rail against Jewish teachings and methods of exegesis when they are used by Christian authors, and is silent on the fact that these “sins” are based on Judaism itself. He, in effect, is demonizing Judaism in his attempt to demonize early Christian approaches to the synagogue.

“With regard to Tertullian, there can be no doubt that his accusation is historically incorrect. Not only are there a variety of reasons why systematic persecutions of Christians are unlikely to have originated in the synagogues of the Roman Empire, we also lack independent external evidence to confirm or even suggest that this was ever the case.” (458)

An argument from silence that conveniently ignores the texts we do have from the period, which speak of such persecution. This is methodologically flawed. He asserts certainty, and substantiates it with anonymous reasons it is “unlikely” and that “independent external evidence” doesn’t exist. This assumes that “independent external evidence” is even a possibility! Where would it come from? Certainly it could not come from Christians or any Gentile, leaving only Jews. But how could such evidence be “independent” if it comes from Jews? The whole idea is ridiculous and idealistic, an example of the very appraoch that Rutgers is divining in the Fathers.

“It hardly needs to be stressed that the above-named phenomena—looking at “the synagogue” through the eyeglass of authoritative texts—had far-reaching ramifications for the ways in which the synagogue would henceforth be perceived in early Christian circles. This was particularly so because from an early period onward (long before the canon of the Christian Bible was finally agreed upon), Christian exegetes began reading these texts figuratively. Importantly, these efforts were not dictated by clearly defined and universally accepted hermeneutical rules. Thus, one of the less-desirable side effects of this rather uncontrolled approach to Scripture was that it permitted exegetes to read statements into the biblical texts that no longer bore any resemblance at all to whatever original meaning or meanings the texts may have had.” (459)

Rutgers here describes Jewish exegesis par excellence, and concludes that it is illegitimate Christian exegesis! Jews interpreted their Scriptures allegorically, as we all know. They had clearly defined rules, of course, as did Christians. The application of these rules is another matter, and Rutgers begs the question as to whether the Christian interpretations were “valid” by Jewish standards. We have already seen that they were.

As for the meaning of the original text, Jewish exegetes did not have any qualms about changing or ignoring the original meaning. This was part of their tradition, as was the canonical status of their writings. Rutgers again is criticizing Christians for acting like Jews, not on the basis of appropriation, but of misappropriation. But he never demonstrates any elements of Christian exegesis that are at odds with Jewish approaches.

“Thus, it could be argued that there was something deeply and inevitably biblical about the fact that God now favored the younger church over the much older synagogue.” (460)

It “could” be argued, and it was argued in the writings of Qumran. It was based on a theme that was unmissable in the OT: that the younger is the one who gets the blessing.

“It is worthwhile to note in this context that this kind of early Christian supersessionist reasoning—hunting out the biblical text for models of superior, or rather, of unbeatable quality—was not an invention on the part of the Fathers. Rather it was of Pauline origin. In Rom 9:12–13, Paul observed, while paraphrasing Gen 25:23, that “it was said unto her [Rebecca], the elder shall serve the younger, even as it is writ- ten, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” And in Gal 4:22–31, Paul had remarked that the biblical story of the son born of the “bondswoman, Hagar” versus the son born subsequently of the “freewoman,” Sarah, should be understood allegorically as refer- ring to two covenants. According to this second, longer passage, one of Abraham’s wives was “bearing children unto bondage,” while the other had to be understood as being the mother of us “brothers,” who “are, as Isaac was, children of promise.” Paul was perfectly clear as to what needed to be done in this situation: “cast out the handmaid and her son, for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman.”” (460)

Rutgers is correct in noticing that the Fathers did not invent this methodology, but his assertion that it stemmed from Paul (rather than Judaism) is ridiculous and unsubstantiated. Paul certainly used the same techniques, as we would expect from a Jew. Jews before him used those same techniques, and if we are to believe Rutgers we must explain how Paul travelled back in time and “corrupted” the Jews with his exegetical methods!

“None of these Fathers, however, could surpass Caesarius of Arles when it came to tracking down scriptural precedents showing that in biblical times the younger had almost always been favored over the older. His preaching on “the synagogue” in one of his sermons led him to draw up a long list of pairs fitting into such a bipartite scheme: Cain and Abel, Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Ephraim and Manasseh, Moses and Joshua (on the count that Moses, although leader of the Jewish people, was not allowed to enter the Promised Land), and Saul and David. In the eyes of the Fathers of the church, then, the OT was nothing but an enormous treasure-trove in which God had ingeniously enshrined the idea that the one and only role of the synagogue in history was that of going to be surpassed by Christianity in general, and by the church in particular.” (460)

Rutgers extremism shows through here. The Fathers never thought of Scripture as focused on the synagogue. The pairs that “fit the scheme” are so prolific because the Jews and Christians were taught this way. It was not a matter of looking into every word of the Bible and trying to twist it: these pairs were essential and repeated in the OT to make an impression. Rutgers appears to deny that there is any significance to the idea, even though Jews taught that there was (and in the same time period!).

“It hardly needs stressing that also in the case of the NT this procedure—trying to understand Scripture figuratively without the restraint of clear hermeneutical rules—enabled the Fathers to engage freely in associative thinking and to pass this off as good exegetical and, ultimately, as good pastoral practice.” (461)

A perfect description of rabbinic exegesis, if one is uncharitable.

“But it was the story of the healing of the daughter of the synagogue’s archon Jairus in Luke 8:40–56 that inspired Ambrose to let go of his last bit of interpretational moderation.” (461)

“This totally fabricated explanation clinches the more general argument that, while none of the NT passages discussed in this paragraph has anything to do with actual synagogues, they had everything to do with the Fathers’ preconceived and hostile notions regarding “the synagogue of the Jews.” (461)

More unscholarly rhetoric and unsubstantiated claims. Again it is ironic that Rutgers is spewing venom in an attempt to discredit people who spewed venom in his eyes.

“It is not hard to imagine that this notion, the idea that “the synagogue” was responsible for the killing of the son of God, the savior of all of humankind, infuriated the Fathers to no small degree. However, it was only because of the pervasiveness of their associative reasoning that this idea took on a life of its own—with the result that patristic exegesis on “the synagogue” was now really spinning out of control. Where in earlier patristic thought, “the synagogue” had been considered the mur- derer of Jesus alone, Gregory of Elvira began expanding this idea by saying that “the synagogue” was responsible for killing everyone who had believed in Christianity’s Messiah. Wherever the Fathers encountered “murder” in their texts, they now began linking it to the synagogue.” (462)

This is anti-Christian rhetoric. The Fathers of course spoke of “murder” in a variety of context, and did not always link it to the synagogue, nor did they typically link it to the synagogue. Rutgers could have provided examples, but he does not.

“In turn, Chromatius of Aquileia made the synagogue into a murderer of prophets. The passage that induced him to make this allegation, Matt 23:37, did not speak of “the synagogue” but of Jerusalem instead, but this did not bother him much. After all, were not Jerusalem and “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” and “the synagogue of the Jews” all identical?” (463)

From a Jewish perspective, they were essentially the same. This was not a Christian idea. The Jerusalemites were a synagogue of the Jews, by definition. Furthermore, the passage in Matthew does not refer to “the synagogue,” but it does not follow that it referred to Jerusalem instead. It referred to the synagogue of Jerusalem. Rutgers implies that “synagogue” is absent from the passage, and he is right in that specific form. But the verb ἐπισυνάγω is used prominently, and Rutgers seems to ignore this. The result of ἐπισυνάγω is a synagogue.

“This rhetorical question brings us, finally, to one of the vilest and most artificial passages on the “murderous” synagogue in the work of Chromatius. Agreeing with the idea that the Jews were “serpents,” Chromatius noted that they were not to be considered just any kind of serpent but a specific subspecies, “the race of vipers.” Why? Because, unlike other snakes, vipers kill their mother instantly. The Jews had done exactly this. Through their “impiety,” they slew their mother, the synagogue. And by calling, “His blood be on us, and on our children,” they also killed their own offspring. This passage completes our picture. What had begun with the allegation of the killing of a single person had now been generalized into something far more comprehensive and detrimental: in fourth-century patristic literature, “the synagogue” did not just kill Jesus, or even his followers; it was perceived as wont to kill everyone it could lay its hands on.” (463)

Rutgers here makes an illegitimate rhetorical move: he asserts that killing one’s mother and/or offspring means that one kills everything. this is clearly false, but made for rhetorical effect. The Jews themselves identified unfaithful Jews with the most vile things they could think of. This was their tradition, and one which Rutgers seems to implicitly reject (at least when convenient).

“Perhaps as a result of the particular reception history of the book of Revelation in the early church, the term “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9 and 3:9) does not seem to have enjoyed much of an afterlife in patristic literature.” (463)

The reception history of Revelation is rather complicated, but it was extremely popular before the 4th century. It is precisely when Rutgers sees anti-Judaism in the writings of the Fathers that Revelation falls out of favor in many parts of the Roman Empire. Rutgers cannot explain this fact. If he is correct, we should see that Revelation was the proof-text for Christians agains the synagogue, yet this is exactly the opposite of what we see. It appears that Rutgers isn’t actually familiar with the reception history of Revelation.

“We have seen that, without exception, the Fathers defined the synagogue in excessively negative terms. The fact that they did so—not just once, but again, and again, and again—could only have resulted in one thing: the readers of their writ- ings and the listeners to their sermons began automatically to link “the synagogue” with everything that was undesirable and bad. The equation of “the synagogue” with “the Jews” made matters incomparably worse. After all, a whole range of dread- ful things initially believed to apply to the Jews could now be applied without any restraint to the synagogue as well. By this point, the one term automatically triggered all the negative connotations associated with the other, and vice versa. By denouncing “the synagogue of the Jews” whenever the occasion arose, the Fathers were not just systematically indoctrinating their flocks. They were programming them neurolinguistically.” (465)

What level of negative terminology would Rutgers accept? It seems that he would accept none, so his claim of “excessively negative” depictions is pure rhetorical fluff, just as the claims of systematic indoctrination” and neurolinguistic programming. These are simply negative ways of speaking about teaching, and hardly appropriate for a scholar to advance. Could Rutgers claim that Jews did not do the same thing? The OT commands that they do the very thing Rutgers is condemning: indoctrination via interpretation of Scripture.

“Having been brainwashed to regard the synagogue as the very incarnation of evil, not just naturally but inevitably, Christians began to see the actual synagogue buildings of Late Antiquity as local manifestations of a much larger phenomenon.” (466)

Brainwashing is hardly appropriate terminology for sermons. Rutgers also ignores that the 4th century was dominated by Christian polemics amongst each other far more than against the Jews. THe heretics may have been seen as “the incarnation of evil”(!) but not the Jews. Rutgers assumes that his preoccupation with the synagogue was hated by the Christians of the 4th century. It was not. Instead, it was one of dozens of themes that were prominent, and certainly it was not even near the top of the list. Rutgers also ignores the anti-synagogue rhetoric of the Romans and Greeks, not addressing whether the violence of mobs could be due to vestigial pagan opposition to Jews. Instead he insists with all of his might that it was due to learned theologians giving sermons! This is hard to take seriously. He ignores recorded evidence for invented assertions. The sermons could have been the result of such violence, or a sublimation of it, rather than the incitement of violence.

“It is at the point where the abstracted, wholly negative notion of “the synagogue” collided with the ongoing reality of the actual buildings—buildings in which people congregated who had lost their individuality as a result of patristic exegesis—that Christian theologians and the masses they addressed began to think that they now needed to translate thinking into practice. What other conclusion could one possibly draw when major ecclesiastical figures such as Ambrose argued, in reference to the dispersion of the Jewish people, that the Jews did not possess “a prescribed place of exile, but an unlimited one,” and that the purpose of this was so that “the place of the synagogue may never remain in the world”? There can be little doubt indeed that the Fathers of the early church were directly responsible for what the Theodosian Code calls, in reference to the spoliation and destruction of synagogues, “illegal deeds” performed “under the name of Christian religion.”” (466)

Rutgers again shows his hand: he asserts that the Fathers were directly responsible for what the Theodosian Code condemns. But does this make any sense? It implies that the Theodosian Code was defending Jews, yet it was not. It simply was imposing law and order. And why would we think that the Byzantine government would be pro-Jewish while the Byzantine theologians were anti-Jewish? How could the Code call all of the Fathers wrong and blame them for illegal activity? Rutgers shows himself to be an opportunist with no inclination to question assumptions or follow through logically or evidentially on his assertions.

“So did a more general trend in early Christian thinking: coercion was a legitimate means to further the spread of what the proponents saw as the one and only true Christian religion. The sheer violence that ensued as a result of all these developments was, in any case, enormous. As evidenced by the Theodosian Code, aggression was not directed only at synagogues. By the early fifth century, Jewish houses needed protection by the state as well.” (467)

Again, protection by a state that was dominated by the theologians. The “sheer violence” is, of course, not substantiated, but sounds rather impressive. Augustine is cited and he is assumed to speak for the Byzantine Empire, even though he was isolated from its own capital and was not read widely at the time. His huge influence on the West was later, and can hardly be applied to both East and West in his own day. Coercion was not practiced by Christians prior to the 4th century, and probably not until the Theodosian Code (ironically) was it practiced at all.

“it took Christian theologians a mere 35 years to obliterate the age-old tradition of Roman legal tolerance toward Jews and to force upon the late Roman legislature their conviction that the construction of new synagogues should be outlawed once and for all.” (467)

The “age-old tradition of Roman legal tolerance toward Jews” never existed in history. It was a construct used by Jews, and the Romans only affirmed it at times. There was no legislation that always protected Jews, but instead legislative decisions were made on the issue over the centuries. Many times they protected the rights of Jews, and many times they rescinded those same rights. Rutgers wants to think that the Jews had those rights as inalienable, no doubt, but Roman practice treated them as depending on the whim of the Emperor or even lesser officials and rulers.

“While the late Roman state protected the integrity of Jewish property, at least in writing, it was the Christian redefinition of the term “synagogue” that provided early Christian preachers the powerful weapon for which they had been looking. By stripping the term “synagogue” of its particular characteristics and then appealing to a sense of retributive justice and a desire to be counted good Christians, early Christian preachers successfully turned their communities into overly excited crowds— or rather, into raging mobs ready to torch actual synagogues or to turn them into churches. Thus, the destruction of synagogues in Late Antiquity documents the fact that there is a rather sinister flip side to John Chrysostom’s infamous Adversus Judaeos. Typically used to document the continued importance of meaningful contacts between Jews and Christians and as evidence of Christianity’s inability to prevent these contacts, Chrysostom’s treatise should also be seen as part of larger and all-too- successful effort on the part of the Fathers to create an atmosphere in which hate crimes against the Jews and their synagogues were considered both desirable and mandatory. That the early Christian exegetical construct of “the synagogue” should spill over into reality in the way it did shows that in the later fourth century early Christian self-definition was characterized not just by a strong desire to maintain boundaries by force. The need to behave punitively toward people believed to be identical with a hermeneutically constructed “other” was no less an integral part of Christianity.”

Hate crimes were desirable and mandatory? This would inexcusable for a layman to write, much less a scholar. It is completely unsubstantiated and irresponsible rhetoric. Ironically, it is hate speech.

The bizarre claims of Rutgers were shown to be false and anti-Jewish by reading “Midrash,” by Renee Bloch (1978). In teaching about the term and practice of Jewish Midrash (interpretation), he claimed that the following were essential to Jewish interpretation of Scripture from the earliest period, seen even in the OT itself: citing out of original context, allegory, typology, and linking words. All of these were asserted to be “Christian” false interpretation of the OT. But Bloch, writing about Judaism rather than Christianity as opposed to Judaism, casually shows that all of the criticisms Rutgers levels against Christian interpretations should historically be leveled at Jews. Jews were writing this way centuries before Christianity.

It seems that in order to discredit Christianity, or at least early Christianity, Rutgers is more than happy to discredit historical Judaism, both past and present. This is remarkable, and he exhibits in his own writing that which he condemns: illegitimate exegesis and hyperbole that borders on slander.

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.