Category Archives: Old Testament

What Does “Pour Out My Spirit” Really Mean?

pentecost_apostlesI was reading Proverbs last term and came across a line that struck me as important for non-Proverbs reasons, namely 1:23 “If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (ESV). Clearly, the author is talking about conveying his thoughts. He will “pour out his spirit,” that is, he will open his mouth and words will tumble out. In perfect Hebrew synonymic parallelism, the second line repeats the idea in the first line. Thus, “I will pour out my spirit”= “I will make my words known.” This does not mean that he thinks of his spirit as wordy, as composed of words, but rather that the pouring-out process he mentions in the first line is precisely the process of talking, of letting words drop from his lips.

Pouring Spirit in Joel
Now, you might ask, “what’s the big deal?” The Bible is full of metaphors, similes, comparisons and so on, but this particular one actually opens up new dimensions for several very important passages. Indeed, the most important passage here is Joel 2:28-29, which I will quote in full:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:28-29 ESV)

This passage notably uses the concept of “pouring out spirit” twice. In between, the meaning of the “pouring” is that people will prophesy, dream and have visions. While only one of these three ideas, prophecy, is explicitly about words, all three of them are about divine revelation. The dreams and visions here are not just nice hallucinations, but revelations from God. Visions and dreams in the Bible are received by seers or prophets who then explain, interpret and hand on the meaning of what they see to other people with words. Joel is predicting a time when the prophetic gifting will be universally available and every member of God’s people will be part of the process of revelation.

Talking at Pentecost
The Book of Acts views the fulfillment of this prediction as the event of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowers the apostles to prophesy and speak in tongues. Peter quotes Joel 2:28-29 to explain what is happening (Acts 2:17-18). However, what I had always missed and what I imagine a lot of other people missed, is that to “pour out my spirit” is to talk. Sometimes people think of the Holy Spirit as a liquid since he can be “poured out” like oil or water, but this is not a correct interpretation of the Bible’s use of the phrase. (Though in other ways, the Holy Spirit is linked with oil and water, e.g. anointing, living water, etc.) When God “pours out his spirit,” he speaks, or at least, he speaks through an intermediary like a prophet.

Other Spirit-Pouring Concepts
Elsewhere, the concept of God “pouring spirit” appears in the context of rain (Isa 44:3), sleep (Isa 29:10), renewed relationship with God (Isa 32:15; Ezek 39:29), and mourning (Zech 12:10). In all the contexts, the pouring of God’s spirit is viewed as a positive thing, a good development. Paul gives expression to the same idea, though he takes it out of the realm of words to some extent, when he says that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). However, I can’t easily fit Paul’s explanation of pouring out the Holy Spirit in Titus 3:5. Comment if you can!

Hannah, Psalms and Prophets “Pouring” Words
But, to get back to the wordy idea, that “pouring out my spirit” is talking, we can see Hannah “pouring out my soul before the Lord” as she prays (1 Sam 1:15; cf. Ps 42:4, 62:8). Even in Peter’s speech on Pentecost, he claims that the Holy Spirit can be seen and heard as it is poured out (Acts 2:33), meaning that the bystanders can hear the words of the prophecies being spoken. There are many OT mentions of pouring out an emotion like anger (Job 40:11; Ps 69:24, 79:5; Ezek 7:8; Sir 36:7). In addition, the Psalmist will pour out both complaint (142:2) and praise (119:171;  145:7). The point is that when the OT conceives of “pouring” it is usually talking about talking, so when we see God “pouring out his Spirit,” he is likely talking or giving someone else a gift of talking on his behalf.

So, next time you are thinking about the Holy Spirit as a liquid, remember that “pouring” can mean talking, and God empowers his people by speaking through them not just dousing them.

Bloodthirsty Flies and the Prohibition on Blood Drinking in the Old Testament

I hate flies. Living in a dry climate is helpful, but late in summer the flies start to multiply and collect. They often haunt the windows, banging their disgusting bodies against the glass repeatedly, trying to escape to the outdoors. Flies are carrion creatures, feeding on dead things, excrement and other unmentionable rotting items. They have a role in the ecosystem, I suppose, but not one that I want to personally witness.

Fortunately, most flies don’t bite, but some do. I remember going to Lake Michigan as a child and my brother and I fending off the “horse flies” that attacked any part of me not submerged in the water. Fly bites, while not as itchy as mosquito bites, actually hurt more. I don’t know what the flies were doing, but their blood-sucking plungers must have been higher caliber than the mosquitoes’ delicate straws.

In reading Aesop’s Fables to my children in combination with teaching the Book of Sirach, I came across a theme that I had never noticed before: flies are blood-drinkers! I wondered if this little insight could link up a few disparate concepts in the biblical world, namely, carrion flies, the prohibition on blood-drinking in the OT law, the portrayal of enemies as bloodthirsty and most fun of all the identity of Baal-zebub, “lord of the flies.” Well, let’s try it on for size.

 

Blood-Drinking Flies in Aesop

First, Aesop! “The Fox and the Hedgehog” mentions a “swarm of blood-sucking flies,” who are “full of blood” and who plan to “drink up all the blood I have left.” Also, “The Bald Man and the Fly” introduces a controversy between a bald man and a fly who bit his bald head. The bald man derides the fly as one who “live[s] by sucking human blood.” The flea who stars in “The Flea and the Ox” brags about how he lives on human bodies and “drink[s] my fill of their blood.” In “The Bald Man and the Gardener,” the gardener insults the bald man and wishes that flies might “bite you and drink your blood and poop on your head.” I hope that’s enough examples to convince you that flies as blood-drinkers is a common trope in Aesop. I wouldn’t be surprised, if we looked longer and deeper at Greco-Roman literature if we could find many more examples of  blood-drinking flies.

 

Blood-Drinking in the Bible (and related literature)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judgement_and_first_resurrection_-_The_final_battle_Wellcome_L0029284.jpg

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Judgement_and_first_resurrection_-_The_final_battle_Wellcome_L0029284.jpg

But now, the Bible! Leviticus 17:10 threatens that anyone who “eats blood” will be cut off from the people of God. King David, whose extreme thirst was provided for by a few of his bravest soldiers at the risk of their lives, refuses to drink the water they give to him since it would be tantamount to blood-drinking. Instead, he poured out the water as a libation and said, “Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” (2 Sam 23:17 ESV). This event is memorialized again in the non-biblical 4 Maccabees 3:15, where David “considered it an altogether fearful danger to his soul to dirnk what was regarded as equivalent to blood” (RSV). Also see Josephus, Ant. 7:314. Sirach 12:16 portrays an enemy whose “thirst for blood” is “insatiable.” The nonbiblical 4 Esdras 15:58, describing the sorry plight of sufferers, who “drink their own blood in thirst for water.” Zech 9:15 in the LXX as least in certain manuscripts refers to soldiers who will “drink their blood like wine.” Ezekiel envisions the carrion birds drinking the blood of the dead after the grand battle against Gog and Magog (Ezek 39:17-19). And of course, the Lord turns normal water into blood to make it undrinkable a few times (Exod 7:21; Ps 78:44; Rev 16:6). The nonbiblical Book of Enoch also refers to giants eating people and “drink[ing] the blood” (7:5).

 

“Men of Bloods”

The Bible also uses a phrase, ish-damim, which literally means “man of bloods.” Usually it is translated as something like “bloodthirsty men.” We see the exact phrase in 2 Sam 16:8 and Ps 5:7. A similar phrase, anashe-damim, “men of bloods,” shows up in Ps 26:9, 55:23, 59:2, and Prov 29:10. The point is that nasty, violent men seek out the blood of other people. You know, kinda like flies! Flies are bloodthirsty and so are violent men.

 

What about Flies?

Flies show up in the Bible as a divine curse (ha!) sent against the Egyptians in Exodus 8:20-32. They come as a “swarm,” but the text says nothing about blood. The Hebrew word for “fly,” zebub, is only used twice in the Hebrew Bible (Eccl 10:1 and Isa 7:18). However, the term “Baal-Zebub” does show up in 2 Kings 1:2, 3, 6, and 16. This god of Ekron plays a minor role in the narrative of Elijah’s relationship with Ahaziah, but the term underlies the “Beelzebul” who shows up in Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees as the name of a demon or an alternate term for Satan. “Baal-zebub” means “lord of the flies,” or as the TDOT puts it “lord of filth,” perhaps beacause the offerings which the god consumes are regarded as ritually polluted and therefore disgusting. The term could show up in the fragmentary Qumran text 4Q560. Creepily, the female demon Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology, “could enter the rooms of pregnant women as a fly.”[1] So flies, since they are blood-drinkers, consumers of ritually impure sacrificial offerings, are associated with the demonic.

 

Conclusions

So now that we’ve taken a look at the biblical texts, Aesop’s fables and a few nonbiblical texts, what kind of portrait can we draw? I think we can offer up a few tentative conclusions:

  1. Flies were regarded as suspicious, demonic and violent because their habit of drinking human blood.
  2. Drinking blood was forbidden in biblical law not only because of its associations with magical practices of uniting oneself with an animal’s spirit (the typical explanation), but because it mirrored the carrion activity of flies.
  3. Violence is regarded as “fly-like” behavior. Violent men, like flies, are “bloodthirsty.”
  4. Demons, since they also seek to violently destroy human beings, are also “fly-like” in their desire for human blood.

I have to admit I didn’t think that Aesop’s fables would lead me down such a dark and scary path! It does seem like Dracula is staring back at us from what I’ve concluded here. The blood-drinking of vampires then appears “fly-like” and therefore also demonic. The connection between violence, flies, and demons on the basis of blood-drinking now makes more sense to me, but I do think it will give me pause when reading seemingly innocent old tales to my children. Hopefully, we can keep those pesky “horse flies” away!

——————–
[1] Penney, Douglas L, and Michael O Wise. “By the Power of Beelzebub: An Aramaic Incantation Formula from Qumran (4Q560).” Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (1994): 627–50, here 634.

What is a Garden Like?

The Bible mentions quite a few famous gardens: the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane, the, the metaphorical garden in the Song of Songs, the vegetable garden of King Ahab. I think that our imagination of what a garden is like is too informed by modern values and doesn’t get the garden image quite right. When we hear the word, “garden,” we envision a small vegetable garden in the corner of a suburban yard or maybe a flower bed in front of Grandma’s house, when for the ancients, a garden would be exotic, expensive, private, and royal.

Gardens are for Kings

The word for “garden” (Heb. gan) appears 41 times in the Hebrew Bible. A related synonym for garden or orchard (Heb. gannah) appears 16 times. Notice how frequently these gardens are associated with kings:

  • King Ahab wants a vegetable garden attached to his palace (1 Kings 21:2)
  • King Manasseh is buried in the “garden of his house” (2 Kings 21:18)
  • King Amon is likewise buried in the same garden (2 Kings 21:26)
  • The soldiers of Jerusalem flee the city through a gate “by the king’s garden” (2 Kings 25:4)
  • The “king’s garden” appears after the exile as a location in Jerusalem (Neh 3:15)
  • In Persia, the “palace garden” is used for feasting (Esther 1:5; 7:7; 7:8)

The point of these examples is to show that gardens and kings go together. Gardens are luxury items, like having a swimming pool or putting green in your backyard. Not only that, but gardens likely require professional maintenance by full-time gardeners. Ok, so not absolutely every garden-owner was a king, but you’d at least have to be “very rich” (Daniel 13:1||Susanna 1:4). Gardens are not just for veggies and flowers, but also for tombs, especially tombs of kings. We find corroboration for this in an Egyptian “necropolis garden” (ANET 22).

Gardens are Private and Behind Walls

The “palace garden” of Ahasuerus in Susa, where the king himself eats lunch al fresco with his queen, would not be a public park. It would be a private enclave for the king alone, sort of like the papal gardens at Castel Gandolfo. What hints do we have to show gardens were private?

  • Song of Songs mentions “a garden locked” (4:12)
  • Walls are associated with the “king’s garden” at Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:2; Neh 3:15)
  • A garden is a suitable place to take a bath with the doors closed (Daniel 13:15-20||Susanna 1:15-20)

If a garden can be “locked” or bolted shut, then it must have doors. If the doors are to be meaningful then they must be part of a wall. So rather than thinking of your Grandma’s strawberry patch, we should be thinking more of the “Secret Garden.” Biblical gardens are not just the domain of royalty, they are private and behind walls with lockable doors.

This little insight would actually shift the translation of Song of Songs 5:1. Most English translations render ba’ti as “I come” or “I am come” or “I have come.” But that translation envisions the garden as an unwalled space that could be arrived at from any direction. The better translation here is not only closer to the dictionary definition, but respects the private and walled nature of ancient biblical gardens: “I enter…” Only the NET Bible gets it right with “I have entered…” The ancients would envision the speaker walking through a door in a stone wall, not just straying into a pumpkin patch.

A Garden with a Water Source is the Most Prized

If you are going to have a successful garden in an arid climate, you need a spring, river or other source of water. The Bible celebrates the “garden fountain, a well of living water” (Song 4:15), the “watered garden” (Isa 58:11; Jer 31:12), water channels that drench a garden (Sir 24:30-31), even a river in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:10). Gardens also must have enough water to take a bath (Daniel 13:15||Susanna 1:15). The “watered garden” is also mentioned in other ancient Near Eastern literature (ANET 577, 641, 649). In addition, royal gardens were celebrated for their exotic spices, flowers and trees (e.g. Song 4:14).

The Garden of Eden is the Prototype of the Promised Land

The Bible repeatedly portrays the Promised Land as a new Garden of Eden. Lot looks out over the land and sees that it “was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord” (Gen 13:10 RSV). Similarly Moses will contrast the Promised Land to Egypt and explain how the new Land is so much better, it “drinks water by the rain from heaven” and is cared for directly by the Lord himself (Deu 11:10-12). This concept comes up again a few times when the land is called “a garden land” (Mic 7:14) or “like the garden of Eden” (Joel 2:3). The Garden of Eden is the ideal, but the Promised Land does a good job approximating its flourishing bounty.

Gardens are like Temples

The Garden of Eden is also called the “garden of Yhwh” (Gen 13:10; Isa 51:3) and the “garden of Elohim” (Ezek 28:13; 31:8-9). The Garden of Eden was the place where Yhwh dwelt—similar to a garden being the site where the Ugaritic god, El, dwelt. El’s garden is also the site of the Ugaritic divine council, where multiple gods meet to discuss (See ABD, “Garden of God”). A river rushes out from Eden, so it makes sense that a river should also rush out from the Temple (Ezek 47; Zech 14; Joel 4). While the temple in Jerusalem is rarely compared to a garden in a direct manner, it does happen: He has broken down his booth like that of a garden, laid in ruins the place of his appointed feasts (Lam 2:6 RSV). The walls of the garden and the fact it has a door make it feel like a building, like a temple that is open only to the heavens. God dwells in the garden and so God dwells in the temple, where he is worshipped. The Jerusalem temple took advantage of these garden motifs in its decoration, with two bronze pomegranate “trees” for pillars, with a huge basin of water and, of course, with walls and a door. Eden is Yhwh’s “natural temple,” the garden where he is king, while the Temple is a kind of “artificial Eden” where he chooses to dwell. The king’s gardener then is a foreshadowing of a temple priest.

So, next time you come across the word, “garden,” in the Bible, remember that we’re not talking about roses or cucumbers, but about a private, walled, royal garden with a spring-fed fountain. The garden’s walls make it feel like a temple and it is a place where God dwells, the place from which the water of life goes gushing forth.

Image credit: Pauline Eccles, Small door in old stone wall – geograph.org.uk – 486910CC BY-SA 2.0

Aureolae: The Little Crowns of the Virgins, Martyrs and Doctors

Saintsheaven

Ok, I just came out of a theological rabbit hole of sorts. I suppose it’s trivia, but I thought I’d share it here. The piece of trivia is as follows: that according to St. Bede the Venerable and St. Thomas Aquinas, certain saints receive special heavenly rewards referred to as “aureolae” or “little crowns.” Now it’s important to say that the Catholic vision of heaven is always graded rather than flat. Instead of everyone receiving the exact same level of beatitude, the saints in heaven will vary according to their various virtues and the depth of openness to grace. While “our merits are God’s gifts” (CCC 2009), it is true that according to the Church’s teaching different persons merit at different levels, so Heaven is not a flat land, but a variegated terrain. We see this principle on display in Dante’s Paradiso which describes Heaven as concentric rings, where the holiest saints are closest to God at the center.

The Tradition sets aside certain persons with exceeding merit as special. Indeed, if you flip through the Roman Martyrology, the Divine Office or the Missal, you will find that certain categories of saints receive special types of feasts–most notably, virgins, martyrs and doctors. From ancient times, these three categories of saints were especially honored. Surprisingly, St. Bede finds support for this tradition in Exodus 25:25. I’ll quote the Douay to get closer to the Latin he was reading:

And to the ledge itself a polished crown, four inches high: and over the same another little golden crown. (Exod 25:25 Douay-Rheims)

Now this description comes from the instructions on how to build the Table of Shewbread in the original tabernacle. What Jerome called an “alteram coronam aureolam”, most contemporary translations render as something like “a molding of gold around the rim/frame”. The LXX has “a twisted wreath for the crown round about”. The original Hebrew is zer-zahav lemisgarto sabib, which I’ll translate just for fun as “circlet of gold around the border.”

Enough of the text…onto the Interpretation!

Bede offers two different readings—one in a gloss and one in his work, On the Tabernacle. In the gloss, he identifies the “aureolam” of Exod 25:25 with the physical crown that all the blessed will receive when they are reunited with their bodies. This first idea is a general description of the glory which all the redeemed will receive, not a special privilege. However, in the work, On the Tabernacle, he identifies the auroelam as the special honor that will be received by Virgins ([CCSL 119A], Bk. 1, ch. 6).

St. Thomas Aquinas will quote this tradition from Bede:

  • On the contrary, on the passage: he shall make another little golden crown (Ex 25:25), a Gloss says: to this crown pertains the new song, which the virgins alone sing together before the Lamb. From this it seems that an aureole is a kind of crown rendered not to all but to some in particular. A golden crown, however, is rendered to all the blessed. Therefore, an aureole is something other than the golden crown. https://aquinas.cc/31/32/~2866 Super Sent., lib. 4 d. 49 q. 5 a. 1 s.c. 1

This same concept shows up in the Summa Supplement 96, which is taken from this chunk of Aquinas’ “On the Sentences”. The main idea is simple: that virgins, martyrs and doctors will receive a special reward, a special aureole or “little crown” which will be a sign of special honor over and above the “aurea” or the crown which every saint receives.

I also found reference to this tradition of the “auoreoles” in Cornelius a Lapide, unfortunately in the untranslated part. Here’s an image:

aureola

What’s the Big Deal?

Rather than relegating this idea to the dust bin of ecclesiastical trivia, I think that it helps in a couple ways. One, the aureole actually shows up in Christian art all the time. Whenever you see a virgin, martyr or doctor with a halo in an icon or stained glass, that’s an aureole, a special reward from God for their particular merit. Two, the idea of the aureole helps explain why certain saints are celebrated in certain ways. Doctors of the Church get officially proclaimed by the Pope. Martyrs get red vestments on their feast days. Virgins are celebrated as virgins in the official liturgical texts. While one might question whether such a broad Church tradition can truly be rooted in the text of Exodus 25:25, it is a beautiful example of how Christian interpretation sometimes is more a creative re-weaving of Scripture and Tradition rather than a literal submission of Tradition to Scripture. Not only that, it gives us the etymology for a certain famous bird that is somehow related to baseball.

A Mysterious Pagan Toilet

tel_lachish

In a bizarre archaeological discovery that has prompted many pun-filled headlines–for example, “Holy crap”; “When a King Means Business;” “The Wrong Kind of Throne” –even in its original December 2017 publication, “Going to the Bathroom at Lachish” by Saar Ganor and Igor Kreimermen, these archaeologists found a toilet in a pagan shrine. The original article is behind a paywall, but there are multiple free summaries of it (Newsweek, Biblical History Daily). The main thing is that this evidence has been interpreted as verification of the biblical report of Hezekiah’s desecration of a Baal sanctuary: “And they demolished the pillar of Baal, and demolished the house of Baal, and made it a latrine to this day” (2 Kgs 10:27 ESV). This seems right, but…

Today, I came across a very weird comment in an interesting article (Gnana Robinson, “The Prohibition of Strange Fire in Ancient Israel,” Vetus Testamentum 28 (1978): 301-317; here p. 307), namely, “‘excreting’ is the peculiar way of worshipping Baal Peor and ‘stoning’ the peculiar way of worshipping Merkolis (mercuris).” Robinson gets this tidbit from the Mishnah (m. Sanhedrin 7:6): “One who relieves himself to Ba’al Be’or [is liable, for] such is its worship. One who throws a stone at Merkulis [is liable, for] such is its worship.” Danby’s translation is a bit clearer: “But if a man excretes to Baal Peor [he is to be stoned, because] this is how it is worshipped. He that throws a stone at a Merkolis [is to be stoned, because] this is how it is worshipped.” Danby adds a disturbing footnote: “Num. 25:3, 5; Deut. 4:3; Hos. 9:10. The meaning of the root of ‘Peor’ is ‘open wide’.”

As far as I could tell, nobody has brought up this Mishnah text in conjunction with the mysterious toilet discovered at Tel Lachish, which according to chemical analyses was apparently never used for its practical purpose. That could mean it was a symbolic desecration, a pretend toilet. Or perhaps the analysis isn’t perfect. I’m not sure if there’s a connection, but if this Mishnah tradition is authentically relating ancient pagan practice, then Hezekiah’s toilet could be upended. Er…that is, the toilet-in-sanctuary might not be a means for desecrating the sanctuary, but rather for actually worshipping the god of that sanctuary through, um, defecatory means. I suppose we can be thankful that the means of worship have significantly changed since ancient times!

Image credit:<a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Poliocretes”>Oren Rozen</a>, <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lachish_160313_02.jpg”>Lachish 160313 02</a>, cropped, <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode” rel=”license”>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>

Very Bloody Sacrifices

altarstoke

Recently, I had an email back-and-forth with my friend who was wondering about the bloody nature of Old Testament sacrifice.

The conversation begins with his inquiry:

I’ve been trying to learn details of how OT Temple sacrifices were actually done. I’ve found articles that distinguish the different types of sacrifices and describe what they are but nothing that gives a concrete picture of how they were done. On the principle that God taught the Jews how to offer sacrifice so they would be prepared to understand Jesus’ sacrifice of himself to atone for sin I’d like to learn more about what a First Century Jew would have seen and experienced at the Temple.

For example, commentaries and articles explain that a holocaust sacrifice meant burning up the animal completely. How did they actually burn up a full-grown bull completely? Seems like it would take a very large fire and take hours to fully reduce the carcass to ashes. If they offered ten bulls and 50 goats as a holocaust how did they do it? Seems like it would take all day and use a lot of wood. (The Romans are usually blamed for the deforestation of the region around Jerusalem. Was it actually the priests?)

Communion or peace sacrifices involved giving some of the meat of the animal to the worshipper that provided the animal to be eaten as a sacred meal. How was that done? Did the priest butcher the animal on the Temple Mount in front of the people, skin the animal and then carve it up into various pieces some of which were given to the worshipper to cook and eat. Where did the worshipper who brought a sheep from Nazareth go to cook and eat his part of the animal. Was eating their share of the animal a festive meal like Christmas dinner or a religious rite like the Passover?

If the apostles had understood what Jesus foretold they would have expected that Jesus was going to be the sacrificial victim to atone for the sins of the world and that they would eat of his flesh and drink his blood just as one did with temple sacrifices. What images and experiences would have been in their minds? When they later realized the full truth of what Jesus did and what it meant to eat his body and drink his blood how would that have affected them given their long exposure to Temple sacrifice?

Are there any books I could read on the subject? Any good articles or lectures?

My initial response, I’ll admit, did not answer every question, but here it is:

Your question is very important, and, unfortunately understudied. My sense is that Protestants, who make up the bulk of biblical scholars, care little for questions of liturgical procedure. These minutia are more interesting to Catholics, Mormons and Jews. One other problem is that many biblical scholars regard the ritual texts of the OT as mere fantasy and believe that they do not describe a real cult that actually existed.

A handful of scholars address the questions:

  • Haran, M. 1978. Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel. Oxford. (very expensive! A collection of the author’s earlier articles)
  • Jacob Milgrom –  a Jewish scholar who wrote multiple commentaries on Leviticus
  • Jonathan Greer – an evangelical biblical archaeologist – https://www.cornerstone.edu/staff/jonathan-greer/
  • Gary Anderson (at Notre Dame) has written quite a bit about OT sacrifice.
  • G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (an evangelical NT scholar, focuses on temple symbolism)
  • You might check out the work of the evangelical Leviticus scholar, Jay Sklar
  • Also of interest might be The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy by Margaret Barker.

Since the biblical texts are not specific enough, it only later in the Qumran material (Jubilees, Temple Scroll) and the rabbinic sources (esp. fifth division of the Mishnah, Kodashim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodashim ; Available at Sefaria – https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Zevachim.1?lang=bi ) that the details of the ceremonies are fleshed out. Again, for the rabbinic material, most scholars regard their comments as recalling an imagined past rather than actually describing real rituals. For some of that critique, turn here: https://www.amazon.com/Memory-Temple-Making-Rabbis-Divinations/dp/0812244575

The classic text that tries to answer your questions is Alfred Edersheim’s The Temple—Its Ministry and Services (https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/temple.html ), but his work in general has been rejected as being uncritically and sometimes inaccurately reliant on rabbinic sources. However, he might be one of the best biblical scholar-authors at inspiring the imagination and filling out the picture.

My conversation partner later supplied a great quote about bloody sacrifice in the time of Julian the Apostate, which illustrates the gruesome nature of sacrifices:

Ammianus writes that “he drenched the altars with the blood of too great a number of victims, at time sacrificing a hundred bulls at once . . . he was called a slaughterer rather than a priest by many . . . and though he took offense at this, he controlled his feelings and continued to celebrate the festivals.”  Yet even despite such a spectacle as this, the ordinary people stayed home. “In the temples, after he had spent a long time with his tunic tucked up and sweating like a slave at quartering his victims, he would suddenly realize that almost all the spectators had quietly walked away.”  (Bennett, Rod. The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church (Kindle Locations 3670-3674). Catholic Answers Press. Kindle Edition.)

I was able to offer up a few things in response:

  1. That many scholars believe the Temple in Jerusalem had a drainage system to evacuate all the animal blood from the sanctuary
  2. That you can actually find a handful of videos of Jewish (and Samaritan) animal sacrifice on YouTube:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kgbRusmqjshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-KPnmSj_TA

Conclusion

Here are a handful of takeaways from this wide-ranging conversation worth thinking about:

  • Old Covenant animal sacrifice was technical and bloody. To perform it properly involved a lot of logistical challenges like large amounts of fire wood, sufficient numbers of priests, caring for animals before they were sacrificed and disposing of their blood and remains properly.
  • Early Christian perceptions of Jesus as sacrificial lamb would be shaped by Jewish experience of animal sacrifice at the Temple. The shocking, violent nature of his death could be interpreted in light of the public slaughter and sacrifice of animals at the Temple.
  • While many scholars disregard the OT sacrificial cult as a fantasy or as unimportant, a serious consideration of its technical execution can help bring together insights from archaeology (as in the work of Jonathan Greer), liturgy and biblical theology. In fact, recently NT scholars have started to see “cultic language” all over the New Testament literature, emphasizing the centrality of Temple-worship in the consciousness of the earliest Christians.

The “Finger of God” in the Bible

The “finger of God” in Exodus

The first time the “finger of God” appears is during the plagues of Egypt, specifically during the plague of gnats. Pharaoh’s magicians are frustrated in their attempts to produce gnats by their magical arts and tell Pharaoh: “This is the finger of God” (Exod 8:19). Of course, he does not believe them and continues in his famous obstinance. But the point is, in this instance it seems that “finger” means power. I’ll quote the UBS Handbook on Exodus on this point:

This is the finger of God is a literal translation. The expression finger of God, however, is usually understood to mean the power of God in the same way that “hand of God” is often used (for example, 3:20; 7:4; 9:5). This type of figure of speech is known as “synecdoche,” meaning that a part represents the whole, a finger or hand here representing the full power or the full person. And so this may be translated dynamically as “This is the power of God,” “This is an act of God,” “God has done this” (8:19 TEV), or “God has shown his power by doing this” (N. D. Osborn & H. A. Hatton, A Handbook on Exodus, [New York: United Bible Societies, 1999] p. 188).fingerofgod (Small)

Ok, while the UBS Handbook goes on to discuss other possibilities, for example, that the magicians identified Aaron’s staff as the “finger of God,” here the idea of finger=power seems to work just fine. So far, there is no distinctions between “finger” and “hand” as far as denoting abstract ideas.

Yet if we jump ahead just a bit to Exodus 31:18, then we see that the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments are “written with the finger of God.” Here, rather than indicating raw power, the “finger” is connected with the activity of writing. The same idea reappears in a parallel discussion of the tablets in Deut 9:10.

 

Later in the Old Testament

While the largest share of the “finger” references in the Old Testament have to do with blood manipulations rituals in Leviticus, God’s “fingers” reappear in Psalm 8:3

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place

Here, one could equate “finger” with power, but I think it would be better to go with the poet and see God as setting the various heavenly bodies in the canopy of heaven, almost like one decorating for a party. The psalmist is not describing God’s capability to create, but his artistry, his dexterity, if you will.

(While not divine fingers themselves, Isaiah criticizes those who bow down to idols made with their own fingers [Isa 2:8, 17:8].)

The next, and I think most telling, example comes from Daniel, where the “fingers of a human hand” (Dan 5:5) appear and write a terrifying inscription on the wall of the palaWriting-on-the-groundce during King Belshazzar’s sacrilegious romp, where he and his frat buddies are drinking wine from the sacred vessels of the Temple. This divine hand writes out a death sentence for Belshazzar: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN (v. 25). Here, clearly, the fingers of God are connected with the concept of writing, as they were in Exodus 31 and the stone tablets.

 

New Testament Fingers of God

Jesus uses his fingers to cure a deaf man (Mark 7:33), which seems to indicate they have to do with power. In addition, he refers to how “it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons,” (Luke 11:20). Here, we could easily equate finger and power: “it is by the power of God…” Yet, I think there might be one slightly hidden example in John 8:6, where Jesus writes “with his finger on the ground.” It is during the scene where an anger mob is trying to stone a woman caught in adultery and get Jesus to sanction their action. He instead writes on the ground. If the writing is anything like stone tablets or even worse, the cryptic phrase on Belshazzar’s wall, Jesus could be writing the condemnation of the woman’s accusers in the dirt.

 

In sum, when the “finger” of God appears in the Bible, as opposed to his “hand” or “arm,” it seems to indicate the writing of God and therefore his intentions—whether in law, creation or judgment. Jesus exemplifies this meaning when he writes with his finger in the dirt, perhaps listing off the sins of his opponents.

Abraham’s “Promised Lamb”

Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_Guard_near_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.jpg

When it comes to the Bible, I have never ceased to be amazed at the number of interconnections. So often, one can draw out a web of links from one passage to a thousand others through themes, prophesies, anticipations, foreshadowings. The possibilities are endless! Rather than giving me a sense of unease or haphazardness, these connections continue to inspire me as planned, perfect and beautiful. The more points of contact we find, the more the whole thing hangs together, the more impressive it is. It is like taking apart a Swiss Guard’s handsome uniform to realize that it has been sewn together from one hundred and fifty-four pieces![1]

 

One of those connections starts with an odd hanging question that Isaac asks his father when they are hiking up Mount Moriah: “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” (I apologize for starting in the middle of things, but if you need a refresher, check out Genesis 22 where God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son and then stops him at the last minute.) Essentially, Isaac, the ostensible victim of the imminent sacrifice is a bit concerned about the fact that his dad has all the appropriate sacrificial implements, except one: the all-important sacrificial animal. Isaac even goes through a verbal checklist with his dad, “Fire, check. Wood, check. Lamb, nope!”

 

Now if you read to the end of the chapter, which you should, you’ll find out that at the end of the story, God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and instead provides a ram for sacrifice that had gotten stuck in a nearby bush by its horns. There are a couple juicy exegetical tidbits that can be extracted from Isaac’s exchange with his father. Most importantly, it seems that God does not actually fulfill Abraham’s prediction. Abraham predicted a lamb, but God provided a ram. So…where’s the lamb?? Then, over a millennium later, Jesus walks by the Jordan and a prophet points a bony finger at him and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29). It would be very tempting to say that John is referring back to Abraham’s prediction that God himself would provide the lamb for sacrifice and since the ancient prediction was never fulfilled in Abraham’s life, it is now coming to fruition in Jesus, the ultimate “lamb” of sacrifice.

 

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abtei_Seckau_Basilika_%C3%A4u%C3%9Feres_Portal_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg

Bear with me, here. I like this line of thinking and it has been adopted by quite a few Christian interpreters,[2] but we have to put the brakes on first and go back to the original language to see if we can really find warrant for this direction. Otherwise, we could end up on an exegetical gangplank.

 

First, if you go back to the original father-son Q&A, maybe we don’t have such a strong contrast between prediction and fulfillment after all. Isaac asks where the sheep (seh) is (Gen 22:7). Seh is the all-purpose word for sheep and goats. It is not very specific. Normally, the word, which appears 47 times in the Hebrew Bible, is translated as “sheep.” However, Isaac’s question is the first occurrence of the word in the Old Testament and seh can refer to a lamb, as we can see in Lev 5:6-7, where the word seh in v. 7 refers to the lamb previously mentioned in v. 6. In addition, though, it can refer to a young animal when specified as such (see Deut 14:4).

 

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boreray_Ram.jpg

Second, there is another word in Hebrew for lamb, a more specific vocabulary choice: kebes. This word occurs 107 times (or 108 if you include the sole feminine occurrence in Lev 5:6). If Genesis were trying to be very specific about making a distinction between Isaac’s question and the seeming fulfillment later in the verse then kebes would be the obvious choice. There’s some great online discussion about the terms here.

 

Third, the term used to describe the animal Abraham finds later in the chapter is ayil. This term is a subset of seh and simply means “ram.” So Abraham ends up sacrificing the ayil in place of his son, Isaac, which seems to fulfill his prediction that a seh, sheep, would be provided by God. Abraham himself seems to think his prophecy fulfilled in that he proclaims the place “yhwh-yireh,” the Lord provides (Gen 22:14).

 

So, that brings us back to the original question. Can we say that the promise or prediction Abraham makes is not fulfilled until the time of Jesus? Not really. On the other hand, I think we can say with confidence and faith that the ram caught in the thicket serves as a type of Christ. Rather than being a “throwaway” miracle, the ram itself is significant as a foreshadowing and precursor for Christ. In the same way that the ram took Isaac’s place on the altar, Jesus takes our place on the cross. He is the true lamb/seh/ayil who takes our sins upon himself. Like Isaac, we get to go free.

 

Wait, there’s on more exegetical nugget here! In the lead-up to the sacrifice, Abraham tells his servants that he and Isaac “will come again to you,” knowing full well that he planned on sacrificing his son on the mountaintop. While you could take this phrase multiple ways—perhaps Abraham was covering for the fact that he would return alone and was planning on making up a story about what happened; or maybe he was doubting his own resolve—some of the Jewish rabbinic tradition saw this phrase as indicating something unheard of: that Isaac would die on the altar and then rise from the dead![3]

 

Well, there you have it. Abraham not only received the promised land, but he predicted the “promised lamb”—which in one way is the ram stuck in the thicket, but in a bigger more magnificent way is the one Lamb of God who took our sins upon himself, actually being sacrificed on a mountain and, like Abraham expected of Isaac, rising from the dead.


 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/11/1118_vaticanswiss.html
[2] See, for example: https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/blog/ram-or-lamb/
[3] See http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2011/11/more-or-isaacs-resurrection.html or http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/Summaries/Vayera/Akedah/akedah.html

Photo Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_Guard_near_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abtei_Seckau_Basilika_%C3%A4u%C3%9Feres_Portal_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boreray_Ram.jpg

On TV This Week

Johnette Benkovic and Mark Giszczak

This week, I’ll be appearing on Johnnette Benkovic’s TV show, Women of Grace, on the EWTN channel. The 30-minute shows will air at 11:00am Eastern and 11:30pm Eastern Monday-Friday. We’ll be discussing my recent book, Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture. If you miss the TV broadcast, you can always watch the shows online on the Women of Grace website. The shows are entitled, “Light in the Darkness: A Look at the Dificult Passages and Themes of the Bible.” Let me know what you think of the shows!