Tag Archives: manuscripts

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.

Saint Augustine and Demons on Pillars

augustinedemons1

Yesterday, I picked up my copy of Augustine Confessions from the Penguin Classics series, translated by the most splendidly morbid translator, R.S. Pine-Coffin. The cover has a picture of Augustine as bishop taken from a “French illuminated manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale” in Paris. What struck me as a little odd, however, were the pillars standing behind the great saint. Each pillar had a human figure on top, with a winged demonic creature behind. So, I asked my colleague, Dr. John Sehorn, “What do these demon figures on pillars mean?” After some digging, he found a good explanation, while I found more versions of our given picture. Unfortunately, none of the online versions of this illuminated page are both complete and high resolution, so I’m including a couple different versions in this post.

The artwork that I saw on the book cover omitted much of the page. In fact, the page actually has two illuminated scenes. Top register include St. Augustine with attendants talking with a pagan. The pagans are saying, “Quare Romani tanta mala paciuntur” or “Why have the Romans endured such great evils?” St. Augustine responds “Propter mala culpe perpetrata per vos sugestione demonum,” or “Because of offenses perpetrated by you at the suggestion of demons.” This little conversation leads to an explanation of the whole image. On the left hand side, a group of pagans is confronting St. Augustine with a challenge to faith—very similar to challenging questions raised today like “why do bad things happen to good people?” Their question is a bit different, simply, “Why would a just, loving, merciful God such as you proclaim, if he were really all powerful, allow such a great civilization such as Rome be destroyed by the barbarian hoardes?” It is a question that Augustine himself asks in one of his most famous works, The City of God. Augustine’s response here is a paraphrase of the book, where his answer is that God is bringing judgment on the sins of Rome. In particular, I think the artist is point to Book II, chapter 26.

This brings us to the background of the image, where we see a bunch of people robed in brown, kneeling down and looking at the figures on pillars. The kneeling people represent the pagans of Rome and the human figures on idols represent the gods of Rome. The demonic whisperers are animating these false gods, like St. Paul teaches “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God” (1 Cor 10:20). Thus the answer to my question is that the winged demons are the spiritual powers behind the false gods of Rome like Saturn, Vesta and Venus.

augustinedemons

The bottom register depicts St. Orosius, a student of St. Augustine, preaching to the Romans while demons dance around the city. Presumably, the demons represent the evil barbarian forces which are about to overrun the city. The demons are celebrating the downfall of the great city and the spread of chaos. The saint meanwhile is telling the Romans, “Roma destruetur propter peccata hominum,” “Rome shall be destroyed because of the sins of men.”

In this explanation and even in the transcription of the words, I am relying heavily on Les manuscrits à peintures de la Citè de Dieu de Saint-Augustin by Alexandre Laborde, vol. II (Paris: Société des bibliophiles François, 1853-1944; 1909), pp. 408-409. Here is his text in full:

LIVRE II. – fol. 23. – H. om, 325× om,230. – Saint Augustin et les païens, Orose et les Romains. – Deux registres.

I° Dans une sale spacieuse, aux fenêtres grillagées, dont le sol est recouvert de dalles vertes, des colonnes en marbre de couleur, places contre le mur de droite, soutiennent des idoles qu’assaillant des diables. Dans le fond, un groupe de païens implorent à genoux ces divinités. Au premier plan à gauche, les Romains debout discutent. Le chef du groupe déploie une banderole et s’adresse à saint Augustin: Quare romani tanta mala paciuntur. En face à droite, saint Augustin, en évêque, recouvert d’une dalmatique rouge et suivi de huit ecclésiastiques, répond: Propter mala culpe perpetrata per vos sugestione demonum.

2° Nous sommes à Rome, ville française du xve siècle, aux maisons rouges et jaunes, entourée de murs crénelés que le Tibre, mince filet bleu, baigne de ses eaux. Six diables se tenant par la main deansent au dehors. Sur une place publique, à l’intérieur, un docteur, probablement Orose, barbu et tête nue, vêtu d’une robe brune, s’adresse à un groupe de vingt Romains des deux sexes, richement vêtus et leur dit: Roma destruetur propter peccata hominum.

I don’t know if you had the same question as I did when looking at this picture for the first time, but I do think that the illumination does a great job of visually summarizing St. Augustine’s argument. Good job, Anonymous Illuminator!

Missing Bible Verses

P46You might be surprised when you’re reading the New Testament and a verse disappears into thin air. For example, if you are reading Acts 8:36, you would expect Acts 8:37 to follow, but oddly, 8:38 is the next verse. What happened to Acts 8:37?

Or try to look up Romans 16:24. Or Matthew 17:21.

In fact, there’s a whole list of Bible verses that have been, er, excised from modern editions. Why?

The versification system that we use in English is based on the King James Bible (and some precursors) that relied on the Greek “Textus Receptus” (relying for the NT mainly on Erasmus’ edition) while modern translations are based on more recent text-critical work. The Textus Receptus  represents a Byzantine text type, but the newer critical editions are based on an Alexandrian text type. The Alexandrian text is now generally regarded as more accurate.

So our versification system is based on the King James, which is based on the Byzantine text, but our translations are based on the Alexandrian text. This means we’re using a verse system that does not line up with our text and it creates, well, holes. Even the Nova Vulgata, the Catholic Church’s official edition omits the verses.

Then are these omitted verses Scripture? Well, not exactly, but they were regarded as Scripture by many Christians for ages. Fortunately, most of them are not crucial verses.

Just a little piece of Bible-reader knowledge that will prevent you from calling the publisher in outrage when you find that a verse is missing from your Bible!

Huge Hobby Lobby Bible Collection

The NY Times is reporting that the Hobby Lobby founding family is purchasing huge numbers of Bibles and Bible manuscripts for their projected Bible museum. The Times reports that their collection has grown to over 30,000 items. The plans for the museum are not final, but the likely location will be in Dallas. So I may have to plan a visit when the open up shop. It does not seem that the museum has a website yet.

For some reason the whole project reminds me a lot of the enormous manuscript and Bible collection that was acquired by the Holy Land Experience and is now housed in their Scriptorium. The Holy Land Experience is a biblical theme park in Orlando. Their collection actually belongs to the Sola Scriptura Foundation, a trust set up by Robert Van Kampen (d. 1999), who formerly housed the collection in Grand Haven, MI. Perhaps the Hobby Lobby folks could attempt to acquire some of the Van Kampen collection or convince the foundation to move it from a theme park to a mueseum. The Evangelical Textual Criticisms blog claims that some of the texts in the Van Kampen collection are dated very early and have not been officially included in lists of NT manuscripts used for textual criticism.