Mysteries of the Bible

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Archive for the ‘Old Testament’ Category

Mount Horeb

Posted by foryourfaith on April 4, 2017


One of the puzzles to which biblical scholars have periodically turned their attention is the location of Mount Sinai, where god gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  In the Bible, Mount Horeb appears to be another name for Sinai.  Those scholars who accept the documentary hypothesis of the first books of the Bible, the majority of contemporary Bible scholars, have offered an explanation.  The documentary hypothesis suggests that the first five books of the Bible were composed by editing together manuscripts from four traditions (named J, E, P, and D) rather than being originally written as a single text basically as they appear today.  That being the case, Sinai is the name used for the mountain of god in the J and P documents (for example, Exodus 19:11 or Leviticus 7:38) and Horeb in the E and D documents (Exodus 17:6 and 33:6).

However, whether one accepts the documentary hypothesis or not, the problem of locating Horeb/Sinai remains.  Over the centuries, the location of the site of the giving of the law was lost, and the exact date of the Exodus has been a matter of considerable debate.  The search for Sinai appears to have been a Christian concern; by the time the kingdom of Judah emerged, memory of the location of Sinai had been lost and was apparently of little concern.  However, as early as the second century CE, Christians appear to have gone into the Sinai desert looking or it.

According to biblical accounts, the mountain was located some eleven days’ journey from Kadesh-barnea, and was located adjacent to a flat area large enough for the Hebrews to camp at its base.  There is no agreement on the location of Kadesh-barnea and other sites mentioned in the biblical narrative relative to the Exodus.  However, a variety of locations were examined, and during the fourth century, during the reign of the emperor Constantine (r. 306-337), the peak known as Jebel Musa was selected as the site.  Its selection was not altogether based on its close conformity to biblical descriptions, however, but due to the visit of Constantine’s mother Helena (c. 248-c. 329) on her famous trip to the Holy Land.  Along with Jerusalem and Bethlehem, she visited Jebel Musa and erected a tower and small church.  The fixing of the site seems to have been confirmed to Helena in a dream.  During the reign of the emperor Justinian I (438-565), it is said, a monastery was constructed at the site of the tower.  It appears that, in fact, Justinian was responsible for building a castle-like structure, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, to protect the monks who had previously come to reside in the area.

Others have identified Sinai as the place near Midian (in the Arabian desert across the gulf of Aqaba from the Sinai Peninsula) where Moses had the experience of encountering God in a burning bush as recorded in Exodus 3.  Paul identifies Arabia as the location of Sinai (Galatians 4:25).  Some support to this idea was offered by the historian Josephus (c. 37-100 CE).  Additional evidence is cited from the apparently volcanic nature of the mountain, which spewed forth fire and smoke while the Hebrews camped near it.  Those who support the Midian location of Sinai/Horeb have identified it with the peak known as Jabel el Laws, noting its similarity with the mountain and adjacent land described in the Bible.

Amateur archeologist Ron Wyatt, famous for his search for Noah’s Ark, has championed the Midian site.  He claims to have found parts from Egyptian chariots in the nearby Gulf of Aqaba, which would have been the place the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.  He has also suggested the valley largely surrounded by Jabel el Laws’s volcanic rim is the place they camped when Moses received the Ten Commandments.  Though the evidence is by no means conclusive, the Arabian desert site is certainly one possibility for the place described in the Book of Exodus.


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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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