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Samaria: Ahab’s City of Ivory

Posted by foryourfaith on February 19, 2017

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The city of Samaria stood on a hill about 42 miles north of Jerusalem and 25 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. Omri, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, bought the hill from a man named Shemer, built the city and its surrounding fortifications, and then made this newly founded city his capital. Samaria remained Israel’s capital until its capture by the Assyrians in 722 BC, at which time the northern kingdom ceased to exist as a political entity.

Archaeological excavations were conducted at Samaria from 1908 to 1910 and again from 1931 to 1935. Among numerous finds from the Old Testament period were the remains of a two-story palace of the dynasty founded by King Omri, a large adjacent pool, and the three walls of the defensive system that helped the city withstand sieges until the Assyrian conquest. The more spectacular finds included more than 500 fragments of ivory and about 70 ostraca, or inscribed potsherds.

The ivory fragments were inlays from wooden wall panels, furniture, and small boxes and toiletries. Beautiful in design, they are thought to have been made by Phoenician artisans for the Omride imperial family including Ahab, king of Israel and son of Omri, and Ahab’s notorious wife Jezebel. She was a Phoenician princess and a strong supporter of her ancestral religion and culture. Although ivory utensils and inlays are not unusual in the ancient Near East – ivory gaming pieces and spoons, and inlaid ivory beds, couches, and boxes have been found in quantity, for example – the finds at Samaria attest both to the powerful Phoenician cultural influence on the northern kingdom and to the accuracy of the biblical record. In 1 Kings 22:39, King Ahab is said to have built an “ivory house.” Moreover, the prophet Amos, whose ministry was in the northern kingdom of Israel, refers to ivory beds and couches as examples of the excesses of the Samarian elite.

The ostraca date to the eighth century BC, many specifically from the years 778 to 770 BC, during the reign of Jeroboam II (786 – 746 BC). These inscribed potsherds are invoices for the delivery of oil and wine to the royal treasury, another excess of which Amos speaks: “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory/ . . . who drink wine in bowls/ and anoint themselves with the finest oils.” In addition to providing historical records from a period of peace and prosperity, these ostraca have provided scholars with data and information on the dialect of Hebrew then spoken in the northern kingdom, on religion (from personal names incorporating the names of Phoenician deities), and on state administrative procedures.

The fall of the city is recorded not only in the biblical material (2 Kings 17:5-6), but also in the annals of Sargon, the Assyrian king who was on the throne when the city fell. The strategic placement of the city and its strong fortifications made it important to any state wanting to control the region, and thus the city was rebuilt after the Assyrian destruction and continued to survive into the seventh century AD.

The excavations uncovered fragments of an Assyrian stele and a cylinder inscription, clay cuneiform tablets, and shards of pottery from the period of Assyrian domination. During the period of Babylonian rule, Samaria was the administrative center for the province, as was also the case during the subsequent Persian period.

The city and district of Samaria figure prominently in the New Testament, especially in the work of Luke (Gospel and Acts) and John. Memorable personalities are mentioned and described in these books – the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John for example, and the hero of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:9-37).

The importance of Samaria lies both in the fact that it was the capital of the northern kingdom, and in its religious, cultural, and civic wealth. It has given us an understanding of the architecture, art and craft, language, religion, and administration of early Israel and subsequent periods. Samaria has indeed been a gold mine.

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Numbering the People

Posted by foryourfaith on October 20, 2013


On three occasions God gave instructions to Moses on counting the Israelite nation. The basic law for conducting a census is recorded in Exodus 30:11-16. The Lord ordered the taking of the first census while the Israelites were still at Sinai, in the second month of the second year after the Exodus (Numbers 1:1-49). The Israelites were again counted 40 years after the Exodus, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. These two censuses give the Book of Numbers its name.

Like modern governments, ancient societies used the census for two primary purposes: taxation and military recruitment. The Israelites had the same concerns. The census law in Exodus was meant to provide financial support for upkeep of the tabernacle. “Each who is numbered in the census shall give . . . half a shekel as an offering to the Lord” (Exodus 30:13).

However, the same instructions were also the source for a traditional Jewish taboo against the direct counting of people. God says, “when you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them” (Exodus 30:12). Each Israelite gave half a shekel, a piece of silver of a specific weight; evidently, the money was then counted and the population was calculated by multiplying the figure by two.

The Israelites took seriously the Lord’s threat to send a plague if they directly counted heads. The Bible reports that King David ordered a direct census “through all the tribes of Israel” (2 Samuel 24:2). His sin was punished with a pestilence that killed 70,000 people.

The Israelites, traveling through a desert populated by potentially hostile tribes had to be ready for war at a moment’s notice. Thus, the military purpose of the biblical censuses is also clear. Only males above the age of twenty were counted, “all in Israel who are able to go forth to war.”

Moses’ last census, taken immediately before his death and the invasion of the Israelites into Canaan, had yet another purpose. “To these the land shall be divided for inheritance,” God told Moses, “according to the number of names. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance according to its numbers.”

Why is direct-numbering opposed in the Bible? The prohibition may be of superstitious origin, stemming from the idea that somehow an “evil eye” will do harm to a group of people if their number is known. In Jewish tradition, however, there was great stress on a moral lesson implicit in the taboo. The rabbis teach that the Jewish people are not simply a collection of individuals rather they are part of a nation. Census-taking lays stress on the individual, whereas the contribution of a half shekel helps bind the nation. Thus each Israelite, rich or poor, gave half of a shekel. No one member of the community is whole without the participation of his fellows.


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Death and Burial in the Bible

Posted by foryourfaith on April 14, 2013


The Psalmist tells us that “the years of our life are threescore and ten,” meaning that a person may expect a lifetime of 70 years (Psalm 90:10). But in all likelihood, few people in ancient times lived so long. War, famine, and disease put them at hazard. Medicine was primitive; people died of injuries and infections that today are considered minor and that we are able to treat effectively with simple antiseptics. Anything as serious as a wound received in battle, or a mangled limb, would most likely prove fatal. And, not understanding how disease spread, people in ancient times could not guard against plague.

A set of burial rituals evolved among the ancient Israelites in accordance with the circumstances of the times. None was more important than to bury the dead as quickly as possible. The hot Middle Eastern climate made a speedy burial essential; more pressing, however, was the age-old fear, pervasive throughout the Mesopotamian region, of lying unburied after death. It was believed that after death the soul continued to feel what was done to the body.

Archaeological evidence has revealed that the Israelites did not develop their own burial practices but instead adopted the customs of Mesopotamia. “May the earth not receive your corpses” is a curse frequently cited in Mesopotamian texts. Its echo can be found in Deuteronomy 28:26, where the litany of curses for those who disobey the Lord’s rule includes: “And your dead body shall be food for all the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth; and there shall be no one to frighten them away.”

The urgent need to provide the dead with a proper grave is the focus of the poignant story of Rizpah, one of King Saul’s concubines, told in 2 Samuel 21. When famine struck the Israelites after Saul died, it was blamed on Saul’s breach of a treaty with the Gibeonites, entered into years before by Joshua (Joshua 9:3-27). Seeking to ease the famine and placate the Gibeonites, Saul’s successor, King David, agreed to let the Gibeonites execute two of Saul’s sons together with five of his grandsons. The two sons were Rizpah’s children.

The seven were hanged and their bodies were left unburied as a way of expiating the bloodguilt of Israel. Rizpah kept faithful watch at the execution site for a period of several months, guarding them against birds and animals. When David heard of her vigil, he journeyed to Jabesh-gilead to retrieve the bones of Saul and Jonathan, which had been buried there after the father and son died in battle against the Philistines (1 Samuel 31). Then he buried their bones with those of the seven hanged men, laying them all to rest in one grave.

For the ordinary Israelite family, the rituals of death began when, following a precedent set in Genesis 46:4, a close relative closed the eyes of the deceased. The body was then bathed, fully dressed, and carried on a wooden bier to the grave site. Coffins were not in common use. Ideally the deceased would be buried in a family tomb, but most Israelites could not afford such a luxury, so the dead were interred in pits, trench graves, or caves.

Embalming was not practiced by the Israelites, nor was cremation, since it would have run counter to the precept given in Genesis 3:19, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Leviticus and Deuteronomy are very clear in their bans against excessive rites of mourning, such as cutting one’s hair or mutilating one’s own flesh, but there is evidence that the Israelites engaged in these immemorial customs all the same. For instance, in mourning the destruction of Moab, the prophet Jeremiah writes that “every head is shaved and every bead cut off; upon all the hands are gashes.” Expressions of grief that were not forbidden included fasting, the wearing of sackcloth, the tearing of one’s clothes, and, of course, weeping and wailing.

Professional mourners, usually women, played a prominent role, and assured an orderly and ritually proper ceremony. More than that, they orchestrated the grief, making sure that the cries of woe were rendered at the appropriate times. The professional mourners often wrote their own songs or poems for the dead; the more distinguished the deceased, the longer the dirge.

It is remarkable that many of the lamentations preserved in the Bible lack specific religious content. This may be because the Old Testament itself prescribes no special veneration of the dead, nor does it set any rules for honoring them. On the contrary, it apparently takes the view that the remains of the dead are unclean.

Did the Israelites believe in an afterlife? In Genesis 37:35 is the first of many references to Sheol, a dismal underworld inhabited by the shades of the deceased where there is no memory or possibility of action. Psalm 139:8 is one of several passages in the Old testament expressing the belief that the dead are subject to the rule of god, although in Sheol they are not aware of his presence.

The Christian concept of resurrection is believed to have developed from two other important themes in the Old Testament – death as a form of sleep and death as a condition that the Lord can ultimately conquer. In Job 14:10-12, for example, we find death viewed as a sleep from which there is no awakening; later, in Isaiah 25:8, we come upon the prophecy that “the Lord will swallow up death forever.” These two passages are taken by scholars as the major building blocks leading to the concept of resurrection, introduced in the Bible in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

For the ordinary person of the ancient Middle East, however, the most one could hope fo in the way of immortality was to be remembered by one’s family; remembered, especially, by sons who would bear one’s name into the future.


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