Anthrax in the Bible: A Burning Issue

(note: normally I use only pictures that I have taken personally, but the image above is taken from the internet.)

 

Don’t let the title scare you: your Bible is not infectious. On the other hand, the Bible does speak of anthrax, although you probable haven’t realized this before. Below we will see just what this means.

What is Anthrax?

When I was growing up, Anthrax to me was a thrash metal band. Later on I associated the word with terrorism due to the anthrax attacks of 2001. I recently spent some time with a person who lived through those attacks. He survived, but as a result all of his possessions were burned as a precaution.

If you don’t know already, anthrax as a disease is deadly and found in herbivores, yet in modern times has been weaponized. The disease’s name derives from an ancient Greek term.

 

Coal

I typically encounter coal in the form of charcoal. Specifically, charcoal briquettes used to cook food on my grill. These are made by taking wood shavings pressed together and then burned in an environment where instead of being burned completely, the oxygen level is regulated so that the carbon structure of the wood is retained. Just like when you have a campfire that burns itself out, resulting in ashes and coal, charcoal is manufactured so that most of the wood is transformed into coal rather than ash.

If you grill a good deal, you might be familiar with natural wood charcoal. Rather than briquettes, these are pieces of wood that have been converted into coal. These pieces are black, of course, but also quite beautiful: they have a slight iridescent sheen to them and you can still see the grain of the wood. They also have a rather interesting sound to them when they are knocked about and when they crack as they catch fire, rather like what I would imagine semi-hollow crystals would sound like (think of the sounds in the crystal cave in Superman).

But we all know that coal is mined as well as made. A few years ago I was walking in the woods and looking for interesting rocks. This was in an area that had arrowheads and various types of quartz in plentitude. I came across a rather light-weight rock which was black and had an iridescent sheen. I had no idea what it was, but after a bit of googling I found out that it was anthracite coal. This type of coal, as opposed to bituminous coal, is rather hard and burns at a much higher temperature.

It was due to this discovery in the woods that I realized that anthrax was coal.

 

The Wider Etymology

Anthracite means “coal-like,” and anthrax (the disease) is so named because it produces boils that resemble coal. Boils, by the way, are so named because the body “boils” (bubbles) these lesions to the surface (just like water boiling). Another term associated with this family of words is carbuncle, a term that denotes both boils (lesions) and a semi-precious stone (red garnet). “Carbuncle” is from carbunculus, a small coal. Additionally, “carbon” is a more modern term that simply means “burning coal” (think of carbo-hydrates, carbu-rater, etc.).

Now that we have established that anthrax and carbuncle are synonymous terms that simply derive from different families of languages, we can look at the biblical evidence.

 

The New Testament

We find anthrax in the NT three times:

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink:

for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire (ἄνθρακας πυρὸς) on his head.

-Romans 12:20

The above verse is advice given by Paul, and it has always struck me as rather strange. Is the helping of one’s enemy a form of attack? Who wants burning coals on their head, after all? This becomes clearer when we realize that Paul is citing a teaching from Proverbs:

If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink

For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.

-Proverbs 25:21-22

The burning coals are useful and he is referencing the practice of carrying live coals as a way of transferring fire. Even the tradition of getting coal in one’s stocking at Christmas was originally a sign of good luck and prosperity; coal and fire were good. At any rate, Paul goes on to write in the next verse:

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

This makes it explicit that the coals were for the benefit of the “enemy,” in spite of their opposition to you.

 

The other two instances in the NT are both from John:

And the servants and officers stood there,

who had made a fire of coals (ἀνθρακιὰν);

for it was cold: and they warmed themselves:

and Peter stood with them, and warmed himself.

-John 18:18

Peter warms himself by a charcoal fire during the trial of Jesus, and there he denies knowing Jesus three times. He is literally and figuratively close to hell in this scene, and his three-fold denial is reversed a few chapters later:

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals (ἀνθρακιὰν) there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

10 Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now caught.

11 Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.

12 Jesus saith unto them, Come and dine. And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord.

13 Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.

14 This is now the third time that Jesus shewed himself to his disciples, after that he was risen from the dead.

-John 21:9-14

The passage continues with Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved him, and Peter’s triple affirmation serves as a balance to his triple denial in chapter 18. This scene plays out around a meal and a coal fire, just as the denials played out over a trial and a coal fire. The coals in scene one were of judgment, while in scene two they are of of life and forgiveness. Peter, in effect, was cooking/judging himself while Jesus was judged in ch. 18, and Jesus was cooking/preparing Peter and the Gentiles while Peter vindicated himself in ch. 21. Just as Paul taught that one should heap coals upon one’s enemy instead of doing them harm, Jesus uses coals to feed and forgive Peter. Peter, the denier of Jesus and therefore his enemy, benefits from the coals and is fed, just as we find in Proverbs and Romans.

 

The Old Testament

Other than Paul and John, we have no NT references to coals. Yet the OT provides us with a background for understanding the meaning of coal in Scripture.

28 Judge none blessed before his death: for a man shall be known in his children.

29 Bring not every man into thine house: for the deceitful man hath many trains.

30 Like as a partridge taken and kept in a cage, so is the heart of the proud; and like as a spy, watcheth he for thy fall:

31 For he lieth in wait, and turneth good into evil, and in things worthy praise will lay blame upon thee.

32 Of a spark of fire a heap of coals (ἀνθρακιά) is kindled: and a sinful man layeth wait for blood.

-Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach 11:28-32

Here we have the “heap of coals” that is strikingly similar to Paul’s and Proverbs’s “heaping coals of fire,” as well as the context of betrayal as in John 18.

We also have coal in the second chapter of Genesis 2:9-12:

And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.

The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;

And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. (KJV)

And the gold of that land is good, there also is carbuncle (ἄνθραξ) and emerald. (Br)

The Greek clearly speaks of coal, and it is notable that of the 4 rivers and regions spoken of in Genesis 2, only the first has gold and jewels. The Hebrew has the first “jewel” as being bĕdolach, which means “gum resin.” This calls to mind incense, which is composed of gum resin. The word may derive from badal, a term which means “divide.”

This is meaningful because creation in Genesis occurs by the process of division: God divides the earth from the water, etc. (see Gen. 1:4, 6, 7, 14, 18) The word used is badal. The rest of the many instances of badal in the OT deal with the difference between holy and unholy, Israel and the Gentiles, the Levites and the other tribes, and so on. It has to do with holiness, which is essentially the idea of separation.

But what does gum resin (with a connotation of holiness) have to do with coal? One burned incense (holy resin) on coal, not on regular wood. The smoke was a sign of holiness. So we see that the LXX and Hebrew refer to different substances, but ones that were particularly (and intentionally) linked. Coal is the only “jewel” which is burned, and bĕdolach is burned on it.

In Exodus 28:17-18 and 39:10-11 both mention coal/carbuncle in the context of the 12 stones of the priest’s breastplate that represent the 12 tribes of Israel. In both cases the text of the Hebrew and the Greek differ slightly:

And thou hast set in it settings of stone, four rows of stone;

a row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle (bareqeth, σμάραγδος) is the first row;

and the second row is emerald (ἄνθραξ, nophek), sapphire, and diamond;

We should note that the English translation above is simply guessing at what the Hebrew words are (as we see in the links), and yet “carbuncle” is anthrax. For our purposes we should simply note that once again ἄνθραξ is here not only a precious ornamental stone, but one that represents a tribe of Israel. Since σμάραγδος is the Greek for emerald it is clear that ἄνθραξ is the first stone in the second row of the breastplate. If we follow the standard order of the tribes, this corresponds to Judah.

The symbol of Judah, the royal tribe, is ἄνθραξ! Jesus, of course, was from the tribe of Judah, as was David. Again, we are talking about coal here, or possibly some otherwise unknown gem that went by the same name as coal.

We encounter this again in Ezekiel:

Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering,

the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald (nophek), and the carbuncle (bareqeth), and gold: (MT)

the sardius, and topaz, and emerald, and carbuncle (ἄνθρακα), and sapphire, and jasper, and silver, and gold, and ligure, and agate, and amethyst, and chrysolite, and beryl, and onyx: (LXX)

the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created.

Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.

Ezekiel 28:13-14

The Hebrew has 9 gems and then gold, while the LXX has 6 gems, silver and gold, and then 6 more gems. The Greek follows the order of the tribal gems in Exodus, while the Hebrew does not (nor is it complete). Whatever led to this difference is hard to ascertain, but it is clear that the Greek text is meant to recall the breastplate of the high priest, as well as the land of good gold and carbuncle from Genesis 2.

The figure described is called the King of Tyre, but the description is that of Satan and Adam (see vs. 9, 12, 13, and 17). This figure is also an “anointed cherub who covers” in the Hebrew, which means the figure is a messiah (anointed one) and an angel who guards paradise (see Gen. 3:24) but more importantly is enthroned above the Ark of the Covenant and covers it (Ex. 25:20). The Greek has “From the day that thou wast created thou [wast] with the cherub:,” a clear reference to Adam.

Other Instances in the OT

We read of various other instances of coal/carbuncle (ἄνθραξ) in the OT, detailed below by theme:

Burning of Incense before God

Leviticus 16:12 mentions the coals that were used by the high priest to burn incense during the Day of Atonement.

 

Divine Epiphanies

2 Samuel 22:9, 13 mention coals in describing the awesome appearance of God, as does Ps. 18:8, 12

Job 41:12 uses very similar imagery in describing Leviathan, whose eyes are like the morning star (Lucifer).

Ezekiel 1:13 and 10:2 there were “coals of fire” in the middle of the Divine Chariot, and 24:11 has God purifying through coals.

Isaiah 6:6 has a coal from the altar before God (in heaven) prifying the lips of Isaiah after he has seen God.

 

Punishment for the Wicked

Ps. 119:4 likens the tongue of the wicked to coals of the desert, and Ps. 139:10 says that coals will fall on them.

 

Danger from the Wicked

Proverbs 6:28 likens a harlot to coals that burn, and Proverbs 26:21 draws a comparison between the hearth for coals and a contentious man for strife.

 

Anti-Idolatry

Isaiah 44:19 speaks of baking loaves of bread on coals made from the same wood used for constructing idols, and Is. 47:14 in a rather sarcastic anti-idolatry theme says “Because thou hast coals of fire, sit thou upon them.”

 

Restitution

Isaiah 54:11-16

11 Afflicted and outcast thou has not been comforted: behold, I [will] prepare carbuncle (ἄνθρακα) [for] thy stones, and sapphire for thy foundations;

12 and I will make thy buttresses jasper, and thy gates crystal, and thy border precious stones.

13 And [I will cause] all thy sons [to be] taught of God, and thy children [to be] in great peace.

14 And thou shalt be built in righteousness: abstain from injustice, and thou shalt not fear; and trembling shall not come nigh thee.

15 Behold, strangers shall come to thee by me, and shall sojourn with thee, and shall run to thee for refuge.

16 Behold, I have created thee, not as the coppersmith blowing coals (ἄνθρακας), and bringing out a vessel [fit] for work; but I have created thee, not for ruin, that [I] should destroy [thee].

 

The final example is hard to categorize: it is a story told deceitfully to King David to try to trick him. The coal in the passage is the woman’s heir, her only surviving son.

And behold the whole family rose up against thine handmaid, and they said, Give up the one that smote his brother, and we will put him to death for the life of his brother, whom he slew, and we will take away even your heir: so they will quench my coal that is left, so as not to leave my husband remnant or name on the face of the earth.

-2 Samuel 14:7

 

Conclusion

The biblical role of anthrax/coal/carbuncle (ἄνθραξ) can be summed up in the following manner:

  1. It is valuable (like a jewel) and represents the tribe of Judah, the royal tribe.
  2. It is useful, the only useful jewel, in fact. It cooks things, melts metals, and primarily burns incense before God.
  3. It is a symbol associated with the divine presence (epiphanies).
  4. It is a symbol of divine judgement.

Because of all 4 of the above points, anthrax is particularly holy. For Christians, we can add that anthrax is associated with Jesus in particular: he is from Judah (1), he is judged and consumed (2), he embodies the presence of God on earth (3), his body was offered as a pleasing sacrifice and incense to God (2), and he will return to judge the earth (4).

Perhaps the next time that you hear of anthrax, you can turn your attention from the evil actions of men who have weaponized it to kill each other and refocus your gaze on Jesus, the one who (as true anthrax) was burned as an offering to God and taught that we should help our enemies rather than hurt them. Anthrax, originally a boon to humanity, now denotes a terrible weapon against our fellow man because of our rejection of Jesus and his teachings. But we can reprogram our minds to see anthrax as a beautiful jewel and symbol of the Messiah who came as a sacrifice, one which accomplished the forgiveness of his own enemies.

 

Thanks for reading!

Dr Larry Hurtado on the Trinities Podcast

I just thought I would pass along this great interview of Dr Larry Hurtado by Dr. Dale Tuggy. Hurtado is an expert in early Christianity and until 2011 was a Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh. Tuggy is a professor at The State University of New York at Fredonia whose podcast series focuses on the Trinity.

Hurtado is on episodes 99 and 100, a great way to round out the first century for Tuggy. I think Hurtado is one of the best historical theologians in the world for early Christianity, and his approach is refreshingly honest and inquisitive. I highly recommend the following works by him (a full listing is here):

One God, One Lord, New Edition: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (1998)

At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (1999)

Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003)

How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (2005)

The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (2006)

Mark (2011 reprint of a 1995 commentary)

Hurtado plays close attention to the earliest source material, and is careful to not read later ideas (especially regarding monotheism and credal formulas) into the early texts. They should speak for themselves and be understood in their own terminology. This avoids trying to shoehorn the thought of the writers of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers into later Christological categories. It also avoids the notion that such 4th century categories were necessarily novel in content. Instead there is continuity as well as a shift in terminology and mental furniture, so to speak.

Hurtado has also written excellently on text criticism, particularly the feature of nominal sacra. I highly recommend looking through nearly 40 of his published articles here, which are all available as free pdfs.