Why God is like a Unicorn

As my father lay dying several years ago, I was reading from the Psalms by his bedside. I read the following verse and became rather whimsically startled:

But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn:

I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

While I kept reading, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Really, God? Unicorns? This is what you are promising to the righteous? This is supposed to comforting?”

Later I looked up the issue and this post is about what I found.

Unicorns in Antiquity

Unicorns are found in legends in many cultures, with some obvious variations on the general theme. Today they are wimpy rainbow-poopers for little girls (much like angels!) but in medieval Europe they were hunted for their horns (supposedly) which were believed to have been quite powerful. They were animals on the liminal edge of nature and supernature, to use modern categories. They could be killed, but they had supernatural powers of some sort.

The book Barlaam and Josaphat uses the image of a unicorn in a striking way, at least to the modern eye/ear:

A man saw a raging unicorn, and flying from him fell into a pit.

But as he fell he caught hold of a branch which saved him from falling to the bottom, while he rested his feet upon a projecting stone.

Looking about him he saw two mice, one white and one black, gnawing at the root of the branch which he was holding, while at the bottom of the well he saw a fiery dragon, and near the stone on which his feet rested, a serpent, with four heads.

But just at this moment he noticed on the branch he was holding a few drops of honey trickling down, and forgetting the unicorn, the dragon, the snakes, and the mice, he directed his whole thoughts how he might obtain the sweet honey.

Now the unicorn is death,

the well is the world, full of manifold evil,

the two mice are the night and the day which, eat away the branch of life,

while the four serpents are the four elements of man’s body,

and the fiery dragon represents hell.

The few drops of honey, the pleasures of this world.

This parable, taken from a work that appears to be a Christian retelling of the life of the Buddha (ca. 7th c. AD), is noteworthy because the unicorn is “raging” and is the most obviously threatening animal listed. But unicorns these days are not dangerous, and in Medieval times unicorns were hunted rather than the hunters. So what gives?

Unicorns in the Bible

The apparent anomaly above pushes us towards our Biblical evidence and back to the Old Testament.

“Unicorns” are mentioned in the KJV translation of the OT 9 times in 5 books, and in each occurrence the unicorn is a symbol of power.

The Hebrew word used in rĕ’em, which is derived from the Hebrew word ra’am, meaning “to rise.” It denotes an exalted and powerful animal, in context and typology linked with the bull. The exact animal it refers to is not known.

Yet in the LXX we have a Greek rendering of the Hebrew term: in all 9 instances the term used is μονοκέρως (“single-horn”) (but not Job 39:10 where the noun is referred to but not repeated, or Isaiah 34:7 where ἁδροὶ, meaning “an animal that is stout, fine, fat, etc.” is used).

So it appears that the Greek Jews who translated the Hebrew OT into the the LXX considered rĕ’em as meaning a “unicorn.” But what was a unicorn in their minds?

The Greek term μονοκέρως simply means “single horn,” just like rhinoceros means “nose horn.” So the animal had a single horn, to be sure, but was not necessarily the unicorn that we think of. In fact, some English dictionaries as late as the 19th century had “unicorn” as meaning the single-horned rhinoceros. The LXX may denote this, or an animal that was bull-like but had a single horn (note that the LXX was done in Alexandria, where exposure to both the rhinoceros and other animals was possible).

This makes sense of the ominous and powerful depiction of the unicorn in the LXX. If one imagines a rhinoceros or bull-like creature charging you, one would be filled with dread. The single horn was for putting a hole in you, and was backed up by a large and very strong animal. We can add to this that the horn was a biblical symbol of power, and so the image is one of extreme power and danger to whatever was opposed to the animal. Rather than a horse, we should imagine a bull or rhino. No wings were necessary, of course.

Conclusion

While the Bible does speak of unicorns, they are not the unicorns of medieval times or modern times. Rather, they are somewhat ambiguous animals that are extremely large and powerful, with a single horn for attacking their enemies. It is not the case that the Bible buys into mythological fairy-tales on this point, but rather uses animal symbolism that was real and known to the readers.

This page tells us that “the Talmud states that the bull which Adam offered up to God had but one horn, centered in the middle of its forehead (Shabbat 28b).” In other words, a unicorn was sacrificed to God by Adam (the picture at the top of this post is from the same source).

The unicorn of the Bible was like God: powerful, exalted (literally), and with a single horn/power. The unicorns of today, in this sense, are much like the modern God: wimpy, fictional, and for entertainment purposes only.

 

 

 

The Christology of Hebrews Chapter 1

I recently got into a discussion about the assertions that the author of Hebrews makes in the opening chapter of his letter and I was invited to unpack just how I interpreted what the author was doing. Given that it is a somewhat complex topic that is not germane to a short comment in a thread, I decided to make a blog post about it.

 

Hebrews 1

The passage in question is this:

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,

Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high:

Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?

And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.

And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.

Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

10 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

11 They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;

12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

The passage is a beautiful exposition of the identity of the Son of God. By using a series of different scriptural quotations the author makes his point about just who the Son actually is, and he also adds his own assertions/rhetorical questions both prior to and after this string of quotations.

Here is a listing of the quotations used:

Verse 5: Ps. 2:7b and then 2 Sam. 7:14

Verse 6: Dt. 32:43 (see this paper for more info on the text critical issues involved)

Verse 7: Ps. 104:4

Verses 8-9: Ps. 45:6-7

Verses 10-12: Ps. 102:25-27

Verse 13: Ps. 110:1

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the author’s use of Scripture in this chapter is that he asserts that the words of David directed towards God are actually the speech of God directed towards the Son! This issue is a problematic one for non-Trinitarians, and one which I will address here. But first we need a little background.

 

Jewish Monotheism

Jews believed in One God. They might have admitted to other “gods” existing, but such entities were not on par with the One God. Only God was worthy of worship, only God created everything, only God chose Israel and spoke by the Prophets.

In the created realm there were humans, animals, inanimate objects, and angels. The gods of the nations were thought to be either in the angelic realm or else simply imaginary. They were no gods at all, even if men worshipped them as gods.

The way that God was spoken of by Jews was diverse but rather consistent. God was called  El, YHWH, the Lord, Father, the Rock, and other titles. The primary titles were ‘el, ‘elohiym, and Yĕhovah/Yahweh. This final name is a proper name of God revealed directly to Moses, and the variation of how it is rendered is due to the Hebrew text lacking consonants. It is called the Tetragrammaton because it is 4 consonants (YHWH); he vowels between those letters are inferred, leading to the different renderings as Yĕhovah/Yahweh.

The Greek terms corresponding to these Hebrew titles/names are fairly consistent: El and Elohim are ὁ θεὸς (God), and YHWH is κύριος (Lord). The second is quite important, since when reading the Hebrew word YHWH, the reader would not pronounce the Tetragrammaton but would instead pronounce the word as Adonai (Lord). This was due to the belief that YHWH was such a holy name that it should not be pronounced, except once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

This led to a curious aspect of the Greek text of Scripture: when the Hebrew text had YHWH, the Greek text usually had κύριος. When the Hebrew text had Adonai, the Greek text also had κύριος. Hence there was no way of telling (by the Greek alone) if the κύριος written of was YHWH or Adonai. Even in the account of God revealing his name of YHWH to Moses (Ex. 6:3) the Greek has no literal rendering of YHWH and instead has κύριος. So when a Jew heard “Adonai” or “κύριος” they had to decide whether it was referring to the One God or was simply a title of respect that could be used of humans. (note: Adonai is a plural of Adown, just as elohim is a plural of el. This was a plural of heightened emphasis rather than actual pluarlity, at least in the minds of interpreters.) Just as Mr. or Sir Jones means “master” and “sire,” but we don’t actually consider Jones to be our Master like God is said to be; or when we hear “Lord Byron” we don’t assume that it denotes the same Lord as the phrase “Lord have mercy.”

 

Hebrews 1 and the Exegesis of Jewish Monotheism

While the authorship of Hebrews is a contested matter, we can safely assume that the author was either Jewish himself or was convinced of the truth of Jewish beliefs. This follows from his use of Jewish scriptures in his argument in chapter 1 and throughout the entire letter. As such, it is shocking (to us) how he appears to speak of Two Gods.

The implicit assertion is found in verse 8, but the previous verses set the stage and the verses which follow strengthen his point. It should be noted that while many modern Christians have doubts about the divinity of Jesus as opposed to his humanity, it appears that Hebrews 1 addresses the divinity of Jesus as opposed to his angelic status. The humanity of the Son is never mentioned explicitly in chapter 1.

The book opens (vs.1-2b) with the assertion that in these last days God spoke through his son rather than through the prophets. It follows that the Son spoke for God, but there is also an implication that he trumped the work of the prophets precisely because he spoke as a son rather than as a servant.

The Son is then said to be:

1) the heir of all things,

2) the one who God used to make the worlds

3) the brightness of God’s glory

4) the image of God’s person

5) the upholder of all things by the word of God

6) the one who purged our sins

7) the one seated at the right hand of God

(Note that rather than copying and pasting the original, I summarized the content and therefore the listing above contains some of my own interpretation of the words rather than a literal retelling. One should always defer to the original when in doubt, which would be the Greek text rather than my reworded synopsis.)

Verse 4 is where the angels come in: the Son was made to be better than the angels and by virtue of his inheritance the Son received a greater name than the angels.

At this point the description of the Son seems to rule out a (mere) human being, although it could be said that the description could apply to a perfect, high priestly, true human being on all points except one: that God made the worlds through the Son. This simply did not happen through a human in Jewish teaching.

Yet all of these points could possibly apply to an angelic figure, including the making of the worlds. It was affirmed by Jews that God was the creator of everything, but also that God made everything through Wisdom, a hypostasized (personalized) concept. Some Jews believed that Wisdom made everything by the power of God, and still other Jews believed that God made everything through angelic mediators.

This seems to be exactly what the author of Hebrews was addressing: the idea that the Son was Wisdom and an angelic mediator. His aim seems to clarify the latter and distinguish the Son from a “mere” angel, affirming that the Son was the Son of God, not merely a creation of God (as the angels were). There was a “genetic” connection, to use a modern metaphor.

So, verse 4 distinguishes the Son from all other angels, but still allows for the Son to be an angel himself. He could simply be the highest angel. Yet verse 5 makes clear that the identity of the Son is that he is God’s son, not simply one of God’s angel. Verse 6 has God telling all of his angels to worship his Son, which shows that the Son is higher than the rest of the angels, but admittedly still allows for the Son to be an angel. After all, the chapter began with the Son being sent by God to speak to humans, which is exactly the role of an angel.

While verses 4-6 set up a distinction between the Son and the angels: angels are not spoken of (here) as being “sons” nor are they (here) objects of worship. Yet it should be remembered that in some instances an angel could receive worship that was due to God alone, and that angels were sometimes called “the sons of God.” So the distinction is not absolute at this point.

It should also be pointed out that my analysis here is functional, not ontological. The angels could be exalted men, since an angel is simply an agent who brings a message. Verse 7 speaks of angels as “sprits,” and men have spirits; they are also “ministers,” and God appointed men to minister to him in the Temple and elsewhere.

Yet in verse 8 we have something rather different: the author of Hebrews boldly asserts that “to the Son” (or perhaps “regarding the Son”) God calls him (the Son) “God”! Not only is this bold on the face of it, but it is bold when we consider the Psalm that he is citing. On a plain reading of the Psalm it is clear that David is speaking of the One God. Yet the author of Hebrews tells us that God spoke those words to the Son. The One God called his Son “God.” This simply cannot be said of a (mere) angel or a (mere) man.

Yet the citation continues with another twist: God, still speaking to the Son, says that the Son’s God anointed the Son above the Son’s fellows. This is perplexing because the One God cannot be “anointed,” nor can the One God have a God. In the Psalm it is clear that the figure being anointed is not the One God, but the king (Ps. 45:1), yet verse 8 in Hebrews (Ps. 45:6) makes it explicit that the one being addressed has shifted from the king/warrior to the One God, apparently as an aside. The author of Hebrews makes clear that he interprets the Psalm differently than this, and that the king is God. Yet the king is God who has a God and has “fellows.” This seems to be impossible to say of the One God. Yet the fact remains that the author of Hebrews is asserting this very impossibility.

God is often spoken of as a king and a warrior. Could the Psalm be about God himself, and not a human agent? It could be, and the author of Hebrews seem to lean in this direction, but again there is the objection of the king having a God, and being anointed (Hebrews 1:9, Psalm 45:7). Whoever this figure is, he is God and he has a God, which John 20:17 applies to Jesus and in Hebrews is applied to the Son.

The specific words used for “God” in this Psalm are elohiym and θεός. These terms cannot be read as merely functional (like Adonai or κύριος). They apply only to the One God in a plain reading of the OT writings. The author of Hebrews points out to his readers that this is not the case, but rather that elohiym and θεός are rightful titles for the Son. The Son is both God and yet distinct in some ways from the One God who goes by the same name/title.

For the sake of easy reading I will here repost the end of Hebrews chapter 1 so the reader doesn’t need to scroll up to see the original:

10 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

11 They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;

12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

Verses 10-12 move from the stunning assertion that the Son is God to the assertion that the Son is Lord. The idea that Jesus is Lord is nothing new, of course, but is often taken in the more mundane sense of “master.” But the author of Hebrews makes clear that the Son is Lord and God, making the “Lord” to mean YHWH. No human Lord laid the foundations of the earth or created the heavens. Only the Lord YHWH did this, and this idea was already mentioned in Hebrews 1:2. But again, the original context of the Psalm seems to apply to YHWH as the One God, leaving open the possibility that the actual work of creation may have been done by an imtermediary. The author of Hebrews affirms that it was done through an intermediary, namely the Son of God who is also God and Lord (YHWH).

We can see this when we look at the original in Psalm 102, and for your convenience I have listed below the verses that mention God/Lord by name, starting with verse 1:

Hear my prayer, O LORD (YHWH, κύριος), and let my cry come unto thee.

12. But thou, O LORD (YHWH, κύριος), shalt endure for ever; and thy remembrance unto all generations.

15. So the heathen shall fear the name of the LORD (YHWH, κύριος), and all the kings of the earth thy glory.

16. When the LORD (YHWH, κύριος) shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory.

18. This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD (Jah, κύριος).

21. To declare the name of the LORD (YHWH, κύριος) in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem;

22. When the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD (YHWH, κύριος).

24. I said, O my God (El, no word given in the Greek), take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations.

We then come to verses 25-27, which are the ones cited in Hebrews 1:10-12. But we should note that the author of Hebrews has used the Greek version of the beginning of the citation. The Psalm English readers are used to is based on the Hebrew text, which begins:

“Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth”

while in Hebrews we read

“And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth”

This is better understood when we realize that the author of Hebrews is citing the LXX version of the Psalm, which includes “Lord.” Here is the Greek of both:

κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς σύ κύριε τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας (Ps)

καί Σὺ κατ᾽ ἀρχάς κύριε τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας (H)

The only difference between the two is the “and” which actually introduces the citation rather than forms part of it, and the transposition of the “you” (σύ).

Who is the Lord in this Psalm? It is always YHWH (6 times strictly speaking, and 1 time the shortened form YH substitutes YHWH). The Lord in this Psalm is always understood as the One God, and the author of Hebrews asserts that it refers to the Son, just as earlier elohiym, θεός refers to the Son.

The chapter has one final citation, this time of Psalm 110:1. He cites only the second and third clauses of verse 1, but it is worth noting the clause he omits (note that it is a common Jewish rhetorical technique to omit a verse or part of a verse with the aim of the reader supplying the clause/verse himself; the omitted phrase is usually the most important one).

The LORD (YHWH, κύριος) said unto my Lord (‘adown, κύριος)

Sit thou at my right hand,

until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

The author of Hebrews essentially asks how it would be appropriate to speak to an angel this way. Yet he omits the most striking clause, the initial one that calls the subject of the action “Lord”  (‘adown, κύριος). Here we should point out that Lord is not the name of YHWH, but adown in the Hebrew. Yet there is no such distinction in the Greek, and we have already seen that the Son is Lord in the sense of YHWH, not merely adown or Adonai.

By omitting the initial phrase which speaks of “the Lord” speaking to “my Lord,” the knowledgeable reader’s attention is brought to bear specifically on this phrase. And when they look at it, it clearly says that the Lord spoke to my Lord, just as the author of Hebrews had earlier asserted that God had spoken to the Son and called him “God.” Without this treatment by the author of Hebrews, a Jewish Christian would read Ps. 110:1 as YHWH speaking to a human or angelic “Lord.” The author of Hebrews makes that reading impossible. There are two Lords (κύριος) and two Gods (θεός). The two have distinct functions and are not the same, but are also identified with the same unique titles. The Son is not an angel or a man, but God and Lord.

At this point the reader here has a few options:

  1. Affirm that the Son is a second God and Lord, even while being distinct from the first God and Lord
  2. Affirm that there is only one God and Lord, and so the Son must be that sole God and Lord
  3. Affirm that the author of Hebrews is wrong in his treatment of the OT citations
  4. Affirm that the author of Hebrews didn’t mean what he actually wrote

The only viable option for those who affirm that Hebrews is an inspired book is #1. Options 2-4 are all contradicted by the author of Hebrews and the notion of the inspiration of Scripture. It should be remembered that the idea of a second YHWH was already an idea extant in Judaism, forwarded by Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who simultaneously affirmed that the second YHWH/Lord/Logos was distinct from the One God yet still God.There was also the “Two Powers in Heaven” discussion in Jewish circles, which pointed to Metatron as an angelic second YHWH. The only novelty in the assertions made in Hebrews 1 is that the Son (Jesus) is affirmed to be that second YHWH, something that Philo would not have affirmed and that Jews who believed in a second YHWH like Metatron also rejected.

As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Why Was Cain’s Sacrifice Rejected?

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

 

“And Adam knew Eve his wife;

and she conceived, and bare Cain,

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

And she again bare his brother Abel.

And Abel was a keeper of sheep,

but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

And in process of time it came to pass,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

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

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

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit:

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

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

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,

with burnt offering and whole burnt offering:

then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.”

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

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

Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously:

so will we render the calves of our lips.”

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

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

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

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

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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:

CHAPTER IV.
THE ACCOUNT OF THE STRATAGEM AND ARTIFICE USED BY BILA’AM AGAINST THE CHILDREN OF ISRAIL 

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.

Relevance

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.

Resignation

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.

Conclusion

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.