Tag Archives: Archaeology

Holy Land Pilgrimage – May 2019

I’m excited to announce that this May 16-26 (2019), I will be co-leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Bishop Richard Henning, auxiliary of the Diocese of Rockville Center.

The Holy Land is such an amazing experience—to walk in the places where Jesus walked, to visit Bethlehem where he was born, Galilee where he taught and Jerusalem where he died and rose again! It is often referred to as the “fifth gospel” since paying a visit to the Holy Land fills in so many details that you could never pick up only by reading the Bible. The Bible comes to life when you look out over the same Sea of Galilee where the disciples fished and met Jesus, when you go to the places like Capernaum where Jesus performed miracles.

Not only does a trip to the Holy Land enhance your understanding of history and Scripture, it brings you into an unforgettable spiritual experience. To pray on Mt. Calvary where Jesus died for our sins, to visit the tomb where he rose from the dead, to visit the Upper Room where the Last Supper took place—these are opportunities for you to experience God’s presence in a profound way. A pilgrimage like this is not about a week’s vacation away from home, but a life-changing experience you’ll carry with you forever. Everytime you read the Bible, go to Mass or pray the Rosary, you will be thinking of the holy places you visited.

If you’d like to consider coming to the Holy Land with me and Bishop Henning, please take a look at the flyer and registration form:

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

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>

From Sea to (Shining) Sea

BlackBallDuring this Fourth of July Week, I thought a little reflection on an Old Testament conundrum that connects with some American patriotic poetics would be appropriate, so here goes: A mysterious phrase crops up three times in the Old Testament that has proved to be, well, a bit unsolvable. The phrase is “from sea to sea” and shows up in these passages. (I should note however, that the early Canadians tried to co-opt this phrase themselves in their coat of arms, which includes the Latin a mari usque ad mare. 🙂 )

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! (Ps 72:8 ESV)

They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8:12 ESV)

I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:10 ESV)

The trouble with this little phrase is that it seems to denote a geographical reality, but scholars have pounded their heads against the wall to figure out exactly what geographical reality we’re talking about.

Exegetical Nitpicking

It wouldn’t be right to pass over the passages and on to the dictionaries to solve the problem, so first we have to engage in a little nitpicky investigation. Notice that in the Psalm 72 and Zech 9 passages, the phrase is appended by another stock phrase “from the River to the ends of the earth.” In each of those two cases we’re talking about a messianic king reigning from Jerusalem and establishing dominion. One would expect such passages to recall the ideal borders of the Holy Land (Deut 1:5; Josh 1:3-4) and say something like “He’ll have dominion from Dan to Beersheba!” But instead, we get these other features. The only easy one to identify is “the River”, which is the Euphrates–I don’t think any scholar dissents from this view. The “ends of the earth” which could just mean “everywhere really far away” has sometimes been identified with the Atlantic exit from the Mediterranean, Gibraltar. In the Amos passage, we have something different. We’re not talking about ideal reigns or borders, but starving people roaming for food and “from sea to sea” is a convenient way of saying “helter skelter” or “higgledy-piggledy.”

The Options

Ok, so what are the options for explaining “from sea to sea”?

1. The most common sense option, from my view, is to consider one of the seas to be the Mediterranean and one to be the Indian Ocean or one of its offshoots (Persian Gulf, Red Sea). We don’t have a complete understanding of how the ancient thought about their geography, but those two HUGE bodies of water seem to be the logical choices for me.

2. One could say: Mediterranean sea to Gulf of Aqaba

3. Or: Mediterranean sea to Dead Sea.

4. BUT, the problem is those seas are actual things. “The ends of the earth” may not be. You can’t go on vacation there. Othmar Keel offers an interesting perspective in his important book Symbolism of the Bible here:

Keel uses an artifact called The Babylonian Map of the Woooooooorld (cue big voice radio guy) to show how the ancients understood their geographic position. In a GPS-free world, things can get confusing! There’s a disk of land, surrounded by a circle of water–all land being like a big island. While there’s some truth to this–continents are really just enormous islands–it makes our “sea to sea” thing a bit different. The idea here might be more to say “everywhere in the whole wide world!” which would comport with the “ends of the earth” idea our phrase is combined with in Ps 72 and Zech 9. Another scholar has examined this point and defended this view further: Magne Saebø,  “Vom Grossreich zum Weltreich: Erwägnungen zu Pss 72:8, 89:26; Zech 9:10b,” Vetus Testamentum 28(1978): 83-91. Saebø digs deeper and tries to explain how an ancient formula for describing a territory using east-west, north-south terms (like we might say “coast to coast and border to border”) has now expanded to account for the entire world in a way that doesn’t exactly make sense.

To me, the last option, while not easy to arrive at is probably the best one. Perhaps more archaeological digs and research will give us more examples or clues to explain the “from sea to sea” phrase more closely. When we hear of the messianic king reigning from sea to sea, we should be thinking something like “everywhere!!” 

That’s your Independence Day edition of the Catholic Bible Student. Enjoy it from sea to sea!