Pillar of Strength

In Numbers 6, God tells Moses of the Nazirite: The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long.”

In Judges 13, an angel directed a woman to designate her unborn son a Nazirite: A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb.”

That son would be Samson. And his uncut hair would become his pillar of strength.

At the time, the Philistines were said to be under Philistine control. Samson tormented the Philistines, and in one instance the Bible says he killed a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey. “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them, with a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.”

Samson fell in love with Delilah, but the Philistines conspired with her to get him to betray the secret of his strength, his uncut hair. Delilah cut the braids of his hair as he slept. Sapped of his strength, the Philistines subdued him and gouged out his eyes. In the climactic scene, the Philistines brought him to their temple. Samson prayed to God for one last gasp of strength, and he collapsed the two central pillars of the Philistine temple, killing the rulers and people in the temple.

The five major Philistine cities were Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. Archaeologists have determined that today’s Tell es-Safi is the most likely site of the ancient city of Gath. At Gath, archaeologists found a Philistine temple, identifiable as such by ritual items, dating to the 10th century BCE. This temple was supported by two central pillars, similar to the design described in Judges 16.

An image of the base of the two pillars can be seen in the following link:


Counting Crowds

In Numbers 1, God instructs Moses to take a census of the tribes of Israel: The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. He said: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army. One man from each tribe, each of them the head of his family, is to help you.

Archaeologists do not have the benefit of ancient censuses, and have to use other methods to estimate an ancient population. This can be done in a variety of ways.

One method of estimating an ancient population is to look at ancient records or monuments that mention population numbers. Some records make mention of the number of soldiers in an army, and using of rough estimate of soldiers to inhabitants of 1 out of every 6 could be used to estimate the population. However, ancient monuments can be given to exaggeration, and are not always reliable. 

Another method is to look at the city’s physical size, and estimate population density. Many ancient towns were built on hills for security reasons, limiting their size. Archaeological digs typically do not unearth an entire area, but concentrate the digging on a smaller area and then use that data to extrapolate to a larger area. Homes can be identified by layout and by the presence of a hearth, where the food was cooked. The layout of the home provides an indication of the sizes of the homes. The number of homes could then be estimated for a city, reduced by the areas required for defensive fortifications, roads, monumental buildings, royal buildings and public spaces that had lower population densities.

The next step would be to estimate the number of members per household. This would be based on size of home, number of families per home, children per family and mortality rates, to arrive at a density figure. Calculating a number of residents per home, multiplied by the total number of homes would produce an estimated population number.

In the Late Bronze Age, Hazor was one of the most important Canaanite cities. The archaeological site of Tel Hazor has a combined area of 205 acres. If each acre was on average home to 75 individuals, it could sustain a population of over 15,000 people.

Another method for calculating population is by looking at the carrying capacity, the number of people who can be supported by food production and water availability. The presence of rivers, rainfall amounts, the number of springs and wells, cisterns and water storage jars can all contribute to the number of humans that can survive in any given area. Scientists can sample the soil to determine the quality of the soil and the yield of food for the land. During peaceful periods, people could tend to fields further away from the city to produce more food, allowing the city to grow in size.

If a city had adequate water sources, and 2 acres of land could feed a single person for an entire year on a diet of wheat, barley, peas and beans, a city of 15,000 people would require 30,000 acres of farmland, roughly 47 square miles, 7 miles by 7 miles around. 

As archaeologists have not uncovered every ancient city and every surrounding village, they can calculate the size of a city and surrounding towns and then extrapolate from there to arrive at a population estimate for a larger region.

These methods are a starting point. There are often wide disagreements about the key inputs and therefore wide disagreements about the size of ancient populations. Not all agree about how many humans can be cramped into a confined space. But without the benefit of a biblical survey, they are at least a start.

When the Man Comes Around

In Leviticus 26, God tells Israel what will befall them if they do not follow God’s laws. “But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.”

The Crisis of the Third Century was a roughly fifty year period in the middle of the 3rd century CE in which the Roman Empire nearly fell apart under the weight of invasions, civil war, rebellions, economic crisis and plague.

The Plague of Cyprian struck Rome in mid-century, and may have lasted as long as one or two decades. Cyprian was a bishop in Carthage, modern day Tunisia. He wrote on theological matters, and described a plague that struck during his time. In ‘On Mortality,’ Treatise VII, he described the symptoms as follows: “This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened;—is profitable as a proof of faith.”

The plague was described as killing 5,000 people in a day in Rome. Some claim the cause of death was smallpox. Others suggest that the description of “eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” is more typical of an ebola-like condition.

Christianity was born out of Judaism, and took many of its theological concepts. Just as Leviticus 26 shows the hand of God in plague and disaster, Cyprian, himself a Christian bishop, saw the hand of God in the plague. He wrote that “The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand.” He said that believers need not worry because they would be entering a better world if they died. And he compared the situation to that of Job. “Thus Job, after the loss of his wealth, after the death of his children, grievously afflicted, moreover, with sores and worms, was not overcome, but proved; since in his very struggles and anguish, showing forth the patience of a religious mind, he says, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, naked also I shall go under the earth: the Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; as it seemed fit to the Lord, so it hath been done. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The image above is of a an electron microscopic image of the 1976 isolate of Ebola virus. To understand how Cyprian might have thought of this ebola-like plague, some Johnny Cash:


Out of Egypt

Leviticus 23 lists the annual festivals of Israel, and ends with the Festival of Tabernacles. The festival falls on the “fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land…Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt.”

If this agricultural related holiday recalls a time in Egypt, Egypt’s role as a breadbasket for the world positioned it to be the source one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

The Plague of Justinian struck in 541-542 CE. The disease erupted first in Egypt, first moving across Egypt, and then spreading to the rest of the Roman world. With the steady waters of the Nile River, Egypt had for millennia been the most important source of food in the world. This continued under the Roman and then Byzantine Empire. In all likelihood, it spread from Egypt via merchant ships, carried by rats and fleas infested with the disease.

The disease is known through the writings of ancient historians. Procopius of Caesarea catalogued the Byzantine Wars. Evagrius Scholasticus wrote Ecclesiastical History. Both of their works recorded a devastating plague during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

Procopius described the symptoms: “They had a sudden fever, some when just roused from sleep, others while walking about, and others while otherwise engaged, without any regard to what they were doing. And the body showed no change from its previous color, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever, nor indeed did any inflammation set in, but the fever was of such a languid sort from its commencement and up till evening that neither to the sick themselves nor to a physician who touched them would it afford any suspicion of danger. It was natural, therefore, that not one of those who had contracted the disease expected to die from it. But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed; and this took place not only in the particular part of the body which is called boubon, that is, “below the abdomen,” but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears, and at different points on the thighs…For there ensued with some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium, and in either case they suffered the characteristic symptoms of the disease…Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days; and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day, but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued without visible cause and straightway brought death.”

Evagrius Scholasticus described similar symptoms: “The plague was a complication of diseases: for, in some cases, commencing in the head, and rendering the eyes bloody and the face swollen, it descended into the throat, and then destroyed the patient. In others, there was a flux of the bowels: in others buboes were formed, followed by violent fever; and the sufferers died at the end of two or three days, equally in possession, with the healthy, of their mental and bodily powers. Others died in a state of delirium, and some by the breaking out of carbuncles. Cases occurred where persons, who had been attacked once and twice and had recovered, died by a subsequent seizure.”

The descriptions of the symptoms and the progression of the disease as described by these historians have allowed scientists to positively identify the disease as bubonic plague.

Bubonic plague is caused by Yersinia Pestis, a highly virulent bacterium that can be carried by rodents and fleas. A similar variant of the bacteria was responsible for the Black Death in Europe in the mid-14th century CE. Studies of DNA extracted from skeletal remains from the early Medieval period demonstrated the presence of Yersinia Pestis, further confirming it as the cause of the Plague of Justinian.

The impact of the disease is uncertain. Byzantium later known at Constantinople and today’s Istanbul, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. In Byzantium alone, Procopius claimed that the death toll reached as high as 5,000 and then 10,000 per day. A disease that virulent would have had a devastating impact on the Byzantine world. Some question Procopius’ figure and believe it to be an exaggeration. At the time of the outbreak, the Byzantines were locked in conflict with the Sassanian Persians and Justinian had attempted to reunify the Byzantine Empire with the lands of the Roman Empire in the west. If as devastating as described by Procopius the plague may have altered the course of history in both the west, the east, and in the rise of Islam less than a century later, when the Arabs defeated the weakened Byzantine and Persian Empires.

Vice Mentioned Twice

In Leviticus 18, God warns Israel not to imitate the behavior of the Egyptians and Canaanites in sexual relations. They are warned specifically against sexual relations with one’s mother, father’s wife, father’s daughter, mother’s daughter, son’s daughter, daughter’s daughter, father’s sister, mother’s sister, father’s brother’s, daughter-in-law, brother’s wife, a woman and her daughter, a woman and her granddaughter, wife’s sister while your wife is living, during the uncleanness of her monthly period, neighbor’s wife, a man and an animal. The Israelites are warned corporately, that the land that they are planning to enter will vomit them out if they transgress them.

To stress the seriousness of these laws in the Bible, they are repeated in Leviticus 20. Here the warnings are given to the individual. One who transgresses a certain number of these rules will be put to death.

One common sense reason for restrictions on sexual activity may have been to reduce the spread of disease. Israel is warned against practices that occur in Egypt. And an Egyptian artifact points to the existence of sexually transmitted disease (STD).

STDs often affect the body’s soft tissue, and thus decompose after death. Similarly, DNA typically degrades after death. Viruses are small molecules that attack cells, and are unlikely to survive over long periods of time on their own. The decomposition hampers our ability to learn if the deceased suffered from an STD just by looking at the physical remains.

One source of information can be ancient texts. The Ebers Papyrus dates to the mid-16th century BCE, roughly at the time of the establishment of Egypt’s New Kingdom. The papyrus contains a long list of medical conditions, and remedies and prayers to counteract the conditions.

One of the conditions describes ulcers or disease on the female genitalia. Some believe this to be a case of genital herpes. For this condition the Ebers Papyrus offers a series of remedies, including one designed to cool the area. Some of the topical remedies recommended by the Ebers Papyrus include ingredients such as a mixture of hemp in honey; emmer seeds in oil; terebinth resin, celery and cow’s milk. The papyrus does not record the relative efficacy of the specific treatments.

For an image of the Ebers Papyrus, which is held by the University of Leipzig, see the following link:


The Priest Shall Isolate the Diseased

Leviticus 13 addresses laws regarding a condition which presents on a person’s skin: The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests, and the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease.

There are a variety of fields which engage in the study of ancient human remains. Paleopathology is the study of ancient diseases, often done through analyzing human remains. Many diseases affect the soft tissue and organs, and these typically decompose quickly after death, leaving nothing for paleopathologists to study. Under certain conditions, human skeletons can fossilize and survive. Certain diseases can make an imprint on the skeleton. Leprosy is one such disease.

Leprosy is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. It does not spread easily, but is transmitted from human to human through repeated exposure to droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth. It does its damage slowly, so symptoms to not appear quickly after infection, and instead take years to present.

The initial symptoms of leprosy are pale skin sores above bumps under the skin. Leprosy causes nerve damage, which results in muscle weakness and loss of sensitivity. The loss of nerve function can damage the muscles, particularly in the extremities. This can result in muscle atrophy and permanent disfiguration of the hands and feet. The loss of nerve sensitivity can contribute to injury and damage to the bones. These bones are further susceptible to bone damage from infections. These effects, including bumps, can lead to permanent disfiguration of an infected person’s face.

There are a number of ways that leprosy can be identified in the archaeological record. Organic remains containing the bacteria DNA can be used to positively identify an infected individual. However, these remains rarely survive for extended periods of time, and are harder to come by. Another means of identifying a leper is through the telltale signs of damage, such as facial lesions, in the skeletal remains. 

In Leviticus 13, a suspected leper is removed from the community and is placed in isolation. “But if the spot is white in the skin of his body and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the diseased person for seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day, and if in his eyes the disease is checked and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall isolate him for another seven days.”

In medieval times, fear of the disease led to lepers being isolated from their communities. Burial grounds from leper colonies, showing groups of skeletons with damage from leprosy, have been discovered at the Hospital Of St. Mary Magdalen in Winchester, England, and at sites in Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Sweden and the Caribbean. The practice of isolating those with a condition that begins with skin discoloration, continued well past the biblical period.

Eastern Pathogen, Western Pain

In Leviticus 10, “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. “ Aaron’s sons died while in service to the Lord.

In 165/166 CE, Roman soldiers laying siege to the city of Seleucia, in Mesopotamia, began dying of a disease while in service to Rome. 

The plague that killed these soldiers marked the beginning of what became variously known as the Antonine Plague, for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius during whose reign it occurred, or as the Plague of Galen, for the physician who described its symptoms.

Galen is a significant figure in his own right. He is one of the most important physicians in medical history. With a nod to Leviticus 11 and its list of animals, Galen dissected and performed medical experiments on primates, pigs, goats and sheep, and his researched informed physicians about basic functions of the human body for over the next thousand years.

The first outbreak of the plague began in Seleucia, but then spread west. In Rome, Dio Cassius described that “Moreover, a pestilence occurred, the greatest of any of which I have knowledge; for two thousand persons often died in Rome in a single day.” The plague spread throughout the Roman Empire and struck both Rome and its rivals in Europe. It continued to spread for 15 years after the first soldiers were struck in Mesopotamia. Estimates vary as to how devastating it was to the Roman Empire, but it was damaging enough to limit Roman action and delay construction projects during its spread for over 15 years. It may also have had an impact on the authorship of the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish oral law, as it occurred during its formative period. 

Galen described the symptoms. The infected experienced a rash that covered the whole body, fever, upset stomach and black excrement. Some experienced diarrhea, vomiting, a cough or bad breath. The symptoms would worsen over time, with the crucial days being day 9 through day 12 after the symptoms first appeared. There have been various suggestions that the symptoms describe typhus, measles or smallpox.

The rash, or exanthem, was described in detail. “On the ninth day a certain young man was covered over his whole body by an exanthem, as was the case with nearly all who survived… In those who were going to survive who had diarrhea, a black exanthem appeared over the whole body. It was ulcerated in most cases and dry in all…Of some of these which had become ulcerated, that part of the surface called the scab fell away and then the remaining part nearby was healthy and after one or two days became scarred over. In those places where it was not ulcerated, the exanthem was rough and scabby and fell away like some husk and hence all became healthy.The specific descriptions of the rash have led some to point to smallpox as the most likely cause.

From Mesopotamia, the pandemic moved from east to west and into Europe. It is believed to have had its origins further east either in China or in Central Asia, and was carried along the Silk Road.

In ways, it is mirrored by events today. A pathogen, originating in the Far East, is carried by traders to a virgin population susceptible to the condition. It disrupted the normal functioning of government, limited economic activity, trade, and reduced governmental tax collections. Eventually, enough people developed immunity and life returned to normal. Hopefully the same pattern repeats itself quickly, in less than 15 years time.

How Plague Changed the Jewish Calendar

Leviticus chapters 6-7 list the various types of offerings that were brought in the tabernacle, and that would later be brought at the Second Temple in Jerusalem. These offerings included the burnt offering, grain offering, sin offering, guilt offering, and fellowship offering. A chain of events that began with a plague resulted in the cessation of the temple activities in Jerusalem for a number of years and the creation of a new Jewish holiday.

In 431 BCE, the Peloponnesian War broke out between the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, and the Delian League, led by Athens. Thucydides chronicled the war in the History of the Peloponnesian War. In the second year of fighting, Athens was struck by plague.

As told by Thucydides, and translated by Richard Crawley: “Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighborhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.”

He described how the the disease attacked the body: “…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal.” Despite the detailed description of symptoms, epidemiologists have not been able to definitively link it to a specific pathogen.

The disease started in a neighborhood and then spread throughout the city. People from the countrysides where the disease struck staggered into the cities, furthering the spread of disease. The plague struck again in 429 and again in 427.

While the plague struck Athens, it appears to have spared the Peloponnese. It sufficiently weakened Athens relative to the Spartans, and eventually the Spartans emerged victorious from the Peloponnesian War. Athens never regained its former stature.

Macedon, to the northwest of Attica and Athens, was historically considered a backwater region. In 359 BCE, Philip II of Macedon began to assert himself militarily.  A weakened Athens could not stand in his way, and eventually Philip II consolidated his power over ancient Greece. Philip II’s son Alexander was a military genius and was able to build on his father’s conquests. Alexander the Great marched out of Europe and captured a landmass from Egypt to the Indus Valley, defeating the Persian Empire in the process.

After Alexander’s death, the area he captured was divided and ruled by his former generals. Judea eventually fell under the control of the Seleucid Empire, so named after Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander’s generals. Antiochus IV, a direct descendant of Seleucus I Nicator, would be the ruler who defiled the temple in Jerusalem in 167, leading to a revolt, and ultimately to the holiday of Hanukkah that is celebrated today.

A plague in Athens may have set off this chain of events that changed Jewish history. And it was started by a plague that devastated the crowded streets of Athens, shown in the image above.

Packed Pilgrims and Pandemics

In the course of human history, humans began as hunter gatherers. Small bands of humans would forage for food, picking fruits, vegetables, nuts and other edibles. They would engage in hunting and fish when and where it was available. In foraging for food, these bands could cover large distances while looking for food. And they had limited interaction with other humans and animals.

Eventually humans learned to domesticate plants and animals, and established farming civilizations. Humans no longer had to wander to find food, but could stay in one place and meet all their nutritional needs. But with sedantarization, humans came into regular contact with animals, and into contact with animal diseases.

One source of disease for humans is when animal waste contaminates water that is used for drinking. Humans can contract cholera, typhoid and diphtheria.

Animal to human disease can be described in stages. Some diseases remain confined to animals. Diseases such as rabies and West Nile viruses can be transmitted from an animal to a single human being. Ebola can spread from animal to human and then spread amongst humans, but its rapid and severe effects tend to limit the spread. Some diseases began in animals but take on a long independent life in the human population, and some graduate to become solely human diseases.

Some of the deadliest pathogens in human history, such as measles, influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis are believed to have originated in cattle, pigs, dogs or ducks.

Leviticus 1 initiates a series of chapters that list the various animal sacrifices that were to be offered to God. It begins: The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting. He said, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When anyone among you brings an offering to the Lord, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock.” The sacrifices were to come from cattle, sheep, goats, turtle-doves and pigeons.

The Bible’s rules dictated what would be done with the animals. The animals would be slaughtered and the blood drained. The animal would be cut up, and then depending upon the specific sacrifice, parts would be parceled out to priests or consumed by large groups of people. During pilgrimage periods, the number of daily sacrifices would increase.

The archaeological record can show that certain places operated as cultic sites. This can be seen in cultic vessels that do not have a domestic purpose, in unique building designs and in unique icons. Another sign of a cultic site can be large animal bone deposits beyond what the residents of an ancient site might have been expected to consume. Bronze Age Shilo and Roman era Jerusalem are two examples of this. They both were cultic sites with significant bone deposits.

The presence of pilgrims, bringing large quantities of animals, along with the mass slaughter of the animals would have brought the risk of disease. And the Bible appears to acknowledge that pandemic was a constant risk.

Unlike some of the miraculous plagues in the exodus account, such as the Nile being turned to blood and the death of the Egyptian firstborn sons, plague appears to have been a normal risk.

In Leviticus 26, God warns Israel that if they do not follow his rules, “I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength.” In Deuteronomy 28, God “will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses.”

In the 8th century BCE Book of Hosea, God warns of the devastation he will bring. “Where, O death, are your plagues?” In the 6th century BCE, Ezekiel it warns, “How much worse will it be when I send against Jerusalem my four dreadful judgments—sword and famine and wild beasts and plague—to kill its men and their animals!”

While plagues may strike with varying frequency, with animal sacrifices, a poor understanding of hygiene and regular pilgrimages, they remained a reality for ancient Israel and ancient Judah.

The image above is from Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage and routinely the largest single gathering of people in human history. The video below shows the magnitude of the crowds, and the risk of the spread of disease. 


Sore Winners

In Exodus 37, the centerpiece of the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, was built.  “Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. He overlaid it with pure gold, both inside and out, and made a gold molding around it. He cast four gold rings for it and fastened them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then he made poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold. And he inserted the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. He made the atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Then he made two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. He made one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; at the two ends he made them of one piece with the cover. The cherubim had their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim faced each other, looking toward the cover.”

In Joshua 18, Joshua set up the tabernacle in Shiloh. “The whole assembly of the Israelites gathered at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The country was brought under their control.”

In 1 Samuel 4, the Philistines defeated the Israelites between Ebenezer and Aphek. To improve their chances for the next battle, the Israelites went to Shiloh and took the ark of the covenant to protect them. The plan failed. The Philistines again defeated the Israelites, only this time they captured the ark of the covenant.

The Philistines took the ark and brought it to the Philistine city of Ashdod. The inhabitants of the Ashdod became afflicted with hemorrhoids. In distress, they sent the ark to the Philistine city of Gath, and Gath too was afflicted with hemorrhoids. The ark was sent to Philistine Ekron, and again the inhabitants suffered a bout of hemorrhoids.

To alleviate the problem and atone for taking the ark, the Philistines put the ark on a cart, with five golden hemorrhoids and five golden mice, each one representing the five great Philistine cities: “for Ashdod one, for Gaza one, for Ashkelon one, for Gath one, for Ekron one.” The ark was then sent to Beit Shemesh, and the plague ended.

The five major Philistine cities listed in the Bible are often referred to as the Philistine Pentapolis. 

There are a number of ways archaeologists can determine where an ancient city was. One way of doing so is by its name, and Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza all carry their ancient names. There has not been extensive digging at heavily populated Gaza, but both Ashdod and Ashkelon have been demonstrated to be the sites of major Philistine cities, based on the pottery and other material evidence. The ancient gate of Ashkelon, believed to be the oldest remaining arched gate in the world, is shown in the image above. It dates to the Canaanites of the Midddle Bronze Age, before the Philistines arrived in the Iron Age, and was thus in existence during the Philistine settlement. 

Archaeologists have been able to locate what they believe are the cities of Gath and Ekron, based on their large geographical footprints and the prevalence of Philistine artifacts. Gath is associated with the over 100 acre site at Tel es-Safi, just south of the Elah Valley. 8 km to the north is Tel Mikne, believed to be the site of Ekron.

Unlike the first three cities mentioned that sit on the Mediterranean coast, Gath and Ekron lie between the coastal plain and the Judean highlands. Thus in the biblical story, the ark would have been carried from battle to the Philistine coast, passed to Gath, along to Ekron and then sent east to Beth Shemesh in the Shefela region between the coast and the Judean hill country.

In the Bible, returning the ark of the covenant was sufficient to end a plague of hemorrhoids. For the rest of us: