Tag Archives: Ancient Near East

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!

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[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

Ancient Near Eastern Texts and the Bible

There are quite a few ancient Near Eastern texts that shed light on our understanding of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. The documents come from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Ugarit and other places. Their similarity in language, culture and historical context is immensely helpful in understanding the Old Testament more clearly. There have been two major publications of these texts in English translation to which scholars refer. The first collection, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, was edited by James Pritchard and published first in 1950, with a revised edition in 1955. For many years, the “ANET” was a standard reference for Old Testament scholars. However, in the 1990’s the ANET was replaced by a three volume work called The Context of Scripture, edited by William Hallo. This “COS” is now the standard scholarly presentation of ancient Near Eastern texts in translation. However, as you could imagine, the ANET and COS are not identical. They offer mostly the same texts, but COS omits some texts included in ANET and ANET omits many texts included in COS. And what if you find a reference to ANET, but need to locate it in COS? Lots of confusion could result from all of this! Fortunately, a certain Kevin P. Edgecomb, has provided a very helpful cross index of ANET and COS with notations as to which texts are included and excluded from the two publications. If you ever find yourself comparing texts from these two translations, his cross index will be indispensible to you.