The Josephus Problem

As the nation of Israel was moving closer towards crossing the Jordan, a number of tribes decided that they liked things right where they were on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses and informed him of their desire to stay put. Moses was highly critical of the tribes. “Should your fellow Israelites go to war while you sit here?” Moses and the tribes made an agreement that the tribes of Reuben and Gad would help the other tribes conquer the land west of the Jordan River first, and only then could they return back to their territorial allotments east of the Jordan River.

This story highlights the importance of having a clear understanding about expectations in wartime, and ensuring the actions are completed before the reward is offered. Reuben and Gad must participate in the conquering of Canaan, and cannot return to their territories until the fighting is done. This lies in contrast to another event in Jewish history where the agreement was ignored.

When the First Jewish Revolt erupted in 66 CE, the Romans initially lost control of the course of events. Eventually they amassed the troops needed to suppress the revolt and began by marching north to south. In the Galilee, they captured to the town of Jotapata, Yodfat in Hebrew, in the Galilee.

Forty people, including the Jewish general Josephus, were hiding in a cave. The group wanted to commit suicide instead of surrendering the to the Romans. Josephus argued in favor of surrender, saying that it was an act against God. “Why do we set our soul and body, which are such dear companions, at such variance?” The group was intent on not falling into Roman hands, so Josephus convinced them to draw lots. The first person whose name was drawn would be killed by second, and so on, until the last two would kill each other. Josephus’ name fell into the last two, and he convinced the other man that they should surrender and not kill each other. The entire group was dead, save Josephus and the one other man. So while Josephus had seemingly agreed to not surrender, in the end he was able to work the system in his favor and survive.

This situation with Josephus inspired the game theory study of the ‘Josephus Problem.’ Game theory is a mathematical study of decision making in real life scenarios such as business and politics.

An example of the Josephus Problem in medieval Europe was the Turks and Christians example. 15 Turks and 15 Christians are on a ship which will sink unless half the passengers are thrown overboard. It is decided that the group will stand in a circle and every 9th person will be forced off the boat. As the order of the counting is known, the 15 of one group can decide where to stand so that they will survive the counting.

In the biblical account, Moses created an agreement that eventually was to lead to full tribal participation in the conquering of the land. Josephus skirted his agreement in a way that it remains a taint on his legacy that is memorialized in a way to cheat on an agreement.

Dark Skinned Exile

Balak the king of Moab failed in his bid to have Balaam curse Israel, but the Moabite women enticed the Israelite men to worship Baal Peor. While Moses was discussing plans to kill the violators, Pinchas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi, took the initiative and killed Zimri son of Salu, and Kozbi daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family. This is one of a number of instances in the Torah where the tribe of Levi is shown to be loyal to God.

The Midrash Tehillim is an aggadic midrash and a source for a well known midrash repeated on Passover. “Rabbi Elazar Hakefar says that Israel left Egypt on the merit of four things: they did not change their names or their dress, they were not promiscuous and they did not reveal their secrets.”

If the Nile was the source of Egypt’s great wealth, its natural boundaries allowed it to protect this natural wealth. The Mediterranean provided a sea barrier, deserts to the east protected it from Asia, to the west from Libya and cataracts in the Nile and mountains from the south. Egypt’s southern neighbors are referred to as Nubians, and lived in the area of today’s southern Egypt and Sudan, along the Nile River. The Nubians were black, and have different features than Egyptians in ancient Egyptian art.

The name Pinchas, or in English Phineas, is derived from the Egyptian term Pa-nehasi. There are different translations for the name. One suggestion is that it meant southerners, and came to eventually mean black or Nubian. Another source translates it to bronze-colored one, and another as dark-skinned. Regardless of the source, all agree that the name had the connotation of one with darker skin than the average Egyptian.

The name itself is not an unusual one. The pharaoh Akhenaten had an important assistant in the temple of Aten named Panehesy. And the pharaoh Merneptah had a vizier, a chief councilor, by the name of Panehesy.

That Pinchas was from the tribe of Levi and had an Egyptian name follows a pattern. Moses’ name derives from the Egyptian word for ‘born of’, a term that was embedded in the names of Egyptian kings such as Ahmose and Tuthmose. Moses’ sister Miriam’s name appears to derive from ‘beloved of Amun,’ and shared that name with an Egyptian king.

This highlights a pattern of oddities about the tribe of Levi. According to Rashi in Exodus 5, the tribe of Levi was not enslaved, which is how Moses and Aaron were allowed to move freely and visit the pharaoh. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the tribe of Levi aligned themselves with Moses and killed the violators. Yet when they entered the land of Israel, only the tribe of Levi was left without its own home territory, and even then was forced to live in towns of refuge with escaped killers. And in spite of the midrash, in the biblical story the Levites with their Egyptian names left Egypt.

A Whole New Baal Game

The nation of Moab failed in its bid to curse Israel, but succeed in seducing the men of Israel and getting them to worship the god Baal Peor. God commanded Moses to kill the violators. This is an early example of Israel’s struggle to maintain loyalty to God in the face of the foreign gods, and Baal in particular.

After the reigns of King David and King Solomon, the northern Kingdom of Israel seceded from the union of the twelve tribes headed by the Davidic kings from Judah. Unlike the U.S. Civil War, here the north seceded from the south.

The northern Kingdom of Israel soon fell into the worship of other gods. King Ahab of Israel married Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon, and adopted the worship of Baal. This sparked a fight between the prophets of God and of Baal, and led to Elijah’s showdown against the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel and perhaps the best example of biblical trash talking by Elijah. When the prophets of Baal could not summon Baal to ignite their sacrificial offering, Elijah taunted: “If Baal really is a god, maybe he is thinking, or busy, or traveling! Maybe he is sleeping so you will have to wake him!”

The Canaanites of the Bible are not connected to a specific geography, but are generally in the area lumped in with the inhabitants of northern Israel running north through Lebanon and coastal Syria. In the Canaanite pantheon of gods, Yam is the god of the sea, Mot is the god of death and the underworld, and Baal the god of lightening and weather. The relationship and rivalry of these gods is spelled out in the Baal Cycle, which was discovered at Ras Shamra in northern Syria, above the ancient town of Ugarit. In the Baal Cycle, Baal emerges victorious and he becomes elevated in the Canaanite pantheon.

The archaeological record bears this out as well, as Baal is prominent at Canaanite sites. As the god of weather, Baal is commonly depicted in a striking position, standing, with his right arm raised to strike. He can also be represented by a bull.

The popularity of Baal is in evidence in the areas that became Israel. Bull figurines and storm god figurines have been found in both northern and southern areas. Numerous storm god figurines were found at Hazor in the Upper Galilee that date to the Late Bronze Age, in the 15th-13th centuries, when the city was identifiably Canaanite. Bull figurines were found further south at Shiloh.

As the Canaanites were geographically spread out and could be in contact with Israel in many locations, a key god which Israel would have been exposed to by the Canaanites was Baal.

The Baal idol in the image above is from Hazor, and can be seen at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Lost Books

In parshat Chukat, the nation of Israel moved north towards the Arnon River, which was the southern border of Moab. It quotes a poem about this river and Moab from the ‘Book of the Wars of the Lord.’ By quoting this book, the Bible assumes that the reader is aware of it.

Archaeologists have uncovered numerous artifacts that have significance for the Bible, but there are many books that the Tanakh quotes that have not been found. The Book of the Wars of the Lord is one, and there are over twenty others:

  • Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:7)
  • The Book of Jasher (Joshua 10:12-13, 2 Samuel 1:19-2)
  • The Manner of the Kingdom / Book of Statutes (1 Samuel 10:25)
  • The Annals of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:29)
  • The Annals of the Kings of Israel (1 Kings 14:19)
  • The Annals of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41)
  • Acts of the Kings of Israel (2 Chronicles 33:18)
  • Acts of Samuel the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)
  • Acts of Gad the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)
  • Acts of Nathan the Prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29)
  • History of Nathan the Prophet (2 Chronicles 9:29)
  • Prophesy of Ahijah the Shilonite (2 Chronicles 9:29)
  • Visions of Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 9:29)
  • Acts of Shemaiah the Prophet and Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 12:15)
  • Acts of Jehu Son of Hanani (2 Chronicles 20:34)
  • Acts of the Seers (2 Chronicles 33:19)
  • Midrash of Prophet Iddo (2 Chronicles 13:22)
  • Midrash on the Book of Kings (2 Chronicles 24:27)
  • Annals of Uziah (2 Chronicles 26:22)
  • Visions of Isaiah the Prophet (2 Chronicles 32:32)
  • Book of the Annals (Nehemiah 12:23)

There can be any number of reasons why these books did not survive. Israel fought many wars and suffered many defeats and the books could have been destroyed. The Dead Sea Scrolls survived for over 2000 years, but mostly in fragmentary form, and they were stored in near perfect dry, shaded conditions. Scrolls would not typically survive the elements and the ravages of time. And if they did survive, they would still have to be found.

From a scholarly perspective, the Bible’s quoting an outside source lends it credibility. It assumes the reader is familiar with other outside information that supports the Bible’s version of events. But it also raises eyebrows, because it assumes that at the time the Bible was written these other books were written and known. And if it is quoting a historical record or book, it suggests that it was written at a later time, removed from the events.

Many of the early 2nd millennium CE rabbinic commentators, the ‘Rishonim,’ were aware of this question as it related to these outside books. In this specific instance in parshat Chukat it is not overly problematic, as it is not quoting a history but a poem: “Waheb in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the settlement of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.” Still, commentators such as the Ibn Ezra, Rashi and the Ramban each offered up explanations as to the source of this book or the material, to remove any doubt.

CSI: Bible

In parshat Korach, after Korach and his band were killed, there were rumblings against Moses and Aaron. God struck the protesters and killed nearly 15,000 people with a plague. Though no remains of this event or disease have been found, archaeology can tell us about diseases in the past.

Archaeology as a field has developed well beyond the simple digging up of artifacts. It has become increasingly technical and scientific. One of these newer technical areas is the field of paleopathology, the study of disease in ancient times. This can be done through finds such as physical remains, texts and through images in art.

One particularly bothersome pest in ancient Egypt was lice. Lice is found in Egyptian mummies. In ancient Egyptian art, Egyptians are featured with shaved heads and faces, while Africans have full heads of hair and Asians have hair and beards. Egyptians shaved their hair to deny lice a home, and wore wigs for presentation.

The oldest examples of malaria were found in Egyptian mummies. Tissue containing DNA from a parasite that causes malaria was discovered, showing that ancient Egyptian dealt with this disease.

The Ebers Papyrus is an Egyptian papyrus from the 16th century BCE. It contains a long list of medical conditions with guidance and prescriptions for treatment. This gives us insights into the types of conditions prevalent at the time. Certain treatments, such as the removal of worms, remain the same today.

In Egyptian art, pharaohs were traditionally depicted in an idealized form: broad shouldered, with strong physical features, either smiting Egypt’s enemies or sitting on his throne. The 14th century BCE pharaoh Akhenaten is a unique character in Egypt’s history. He attempted a short-lived religious revolution that did not hold. He broke with tradition in art as well and was depicted in a more realistic fashion. In this realistic fashion he presented a clumsy figure, tall, lanky, long fingers, with a narrow chest and wide hips that are almost feminine in shape. This shape has led to speculation that he had Marfan’s Syndrome.

The Egyptian were unique in that the process of mummification help preserve human tissue, and they produced a tremendous volume in art. These give scientists more material to study.

In the area of today’s Israel, tissue remains and art are harder to come by. But diseases that affect the bones can still be studied.

The oldest cases of tuberculosis were discovered off the coast of Haifa in an ancient village that is now underwater. The skeletons of a mother and child had bone lesions that are signs of tuberculosis infection. A study of the preserved portion of the DNA confirmed that they had been infected with tuberculosis.

Through paleopathology we can see that the ancients too struggled against deadly diseases.

Am I Blue?

In this week’s parsha, Israel is commanded to wear tzitzit, or tassels, on the corners of their garments, and to have one tassel of ‘tekhelet.’ Earlier in the Book of Exodus, when instructed to build the tabernacle, Israel was told to collect yarn of tekhelet, purple and scarlet red.

Tekhelet is generally thought to be a shade of blue. In the 3rd century BCE Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible, tekhelet is translated as a deep blue or purple. A comparable word sign in Akkadian, the language in Mesopotamia, for tekhelet was the same as lapus laziuli, the rich blue semi-precious stone, indicating its blue color.

The Murex trunculus is a sea snail that can be found along the coastline across the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times, the Murex trunculus dye was used to extract a purple dye. Because a large number of these sea snails were required to produce small amounts of dye, the dye was expensive and exclusively worn by royalty. The ancient Canaanites in northern Israel and Lebanon came to be known as Phoenicians, from the Greek word for purple.

Israel’s first chief rabbi was Isaac Herzog. As a Ph.D. student, he wrote his dissertation arguing that the blue tekhelet came from the Murex trunculus. Later, a chemist by the name of Otto Elsner demonstrated that the Murex trunculus could produce a sky blue color if the secretions were exposed to UV rays during the dyeing process.

If the Murex trunculus is the correct source, two textile finds do little to confirm the correct blue color. A small fabric found in a cave at Wadi Murba’at near the Dead Sea with a sky blue color was tested and discovered to have been colored with a dye from the Murex trunculus. A textile fabric with a darker blue found at Masada was also found to have come from the dye of the Murex trunculus.

A further question remains the correct source. Murex trunculus is one possible source for the dye. Some question how a non-kosher snail could be the correct source of the dye, and suggest either a fish or a plant dye would be the source.

An organization in Israel called Ptil Tekhelet produces tzitzit today with a sky blue tekhelet made from the Murex trunculus. But the matter of the exact color and source is not settled. So for tekhelet, as George Strait sang, “Am I blue, yes I’m blue.” But which blue and from where remains an unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question.

Eyewitness to the Temple

Behaalotecha begins with instructions regarding the menorah in the tabernacle. “When you set up the lamps, see that all seven light up the area in front of the lampstand. Aaron did so; he set up the lamps so that they faced forward on the lampstand, just as the Lord commanded Moses. This is how the lampstand was made: It was made of hammered gold—from its base to its blossoms. The lampstand was made exactly like the pattern the Lord had shown Moses.”

The town of Migdal is on the western banks of the Sea of Galilee. Under Roman control 2000 years ago the town was known as Magdala, and the town has significance for Christians. A Catholic institution purchased property along the water in hopes of setting up a retreat. As is the case in Israel, construction is subject to an archaeological review, and the digging exposed an ancient synagogue.

The Migdal, or Magdala, Synagogue is dated to the 1st century CE, before the First Jewish Revolt in 66-70, based on a coin found in the synagogue. The synagogue building had stone benches built along the walls, a common synagogue design, with frescoes and mosaics. But the most important find in this synagogue was the Magdala Stone.

The Magdala Stone was found at the center of the synagogue. It is significant because it is large enough that a scroll could be unfurled on it and read in the synagogue. This would demonstrate that during the Second Temple period the synagogue was not just a meeting place but that it also had religious significance, even as the temple stood as the primary national place of worship.

The sides and top of the Magdala Stone feature reliefs, which are carvings where the design stands out from a surface. The designs on the Magadala Stone are important. They feature what appear to be the design of the temple building in Jerusalem, and the menorah. Given its dating during the temple period, it raises the possibility that the designer had seen the temple and the menorah, and thus the Magdala Stone would feature an eyewitness model of both the temple and the menorah, the menorah that “was made exactly like the pattern the Lord had shown Moses.”

A replica of the stone is kept on display at the Magdala Synagogue, but the actual stone is held in storage by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The stone can be seen via the following link:

The Lord Kept the Amulet

In parshat Naso, Moses is instructed to tell his brother Aaron the text for the priestly blessing:

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.

The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

These words today remain part of the daily prayer service and are part of one of the most important archaeological discoveries for the Bible.

In 1979, Gabi Barkai undertook excavations at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem. The site is above the western side of the Valley of Hinnom, opposite of the City of David on the other side of the valley. Specifically, the site is near the Begin Center and St. Andrew’s Scottish Church.

Gabi Barkai had a group of kid volunteers helping him. There was one kid who was especially annoying. Gabi sent this kid, Natan, to go clean an empty tomb, mainly to keep the kid away from him. The kid returned shortly with a fully intact clay jar, an extremely rare find and a violation of archaeological method, because objects are supposed to be left in place for analysis. Natan had taken a hammer and was hitting the floor, but this floor turned out to be the ceiling of another room below it.

In the movie the Goonies, the klutzy, annoying kid Chunk saves the day so the kids can take the treasure. At Ketef Hinnom, the annoying kid Natan discovered a room that produced perhaps the most important archaeological artifact for the study of the Bible.

The room Natan revealed was full of artifacts, that were later dated to the latter half of the 7th century to the early 6th century BCE. Included among the items were two small tarnished amulets in the shape of rolled up silver scrolls. They were brittle and it took three years before they were successfully unwound. The scrolls were written in an archaic Hebrew script and read:

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.

The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

Written letters have a tendency to change over time. For example, in the original 18th century United States Bill of Rights, the word Congress is spelled with one ‘long s’, a letter that no longer appears in today’s English. A study of the archaic Hebrew letters on the Ketef Hinnom scrolls demonstrated that the scrolls were from the late 7th or early 6th century BCE.

This would make the scrolls the oldest existing words from the Bible, 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls and before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Typically, writing on an amulet would be taken from a pre-existing known source. This has important implications for the study of the Bible, as it demonstrates that the words of the Bible were already written before the exile to Babylon.

Thanks to an annoying kid with a hammer, we today know that the Lord kept the amulet intact, and that the daily priestly blessing are words that were known in the First Temple period.

The Ketef Hinnom Scrolls, one of which is shown above, are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Sectarian Levites

Parshat Bamidbar discusses the tribe of Levi and its role in the temple service. In the first perek, the Levites are held separate from the rest of the tribes. They are not counted with the rest of Israel in the census, and they are given responsibility for the building, dismantling and carrying of the tabernacle that moved with Israel in the wilderness. In the third perek, the Levites are given added responsibility. Those who do not descend from Aaron and the priestly lineage are to manage the functioning and logistics of the tabernacle.

The Dead Sea Scrolls refers to documents that were found stored in caves around the Dead Sea, initially at Qumran but later elsewhere along the Dead Sea coast. The scrolls largely date from between the 3rd century BCE through the 1st century CE. There is debate around who wrote and stored the scrolls, but the consensus view is that it was a group known as the Essenes, mentioned by 1st century CE writers Philo, Pliny and Josephus.

It is known that in the 2nd century BCE, there were varying forms of Judaism. The traditionalists and Hellenizers faced off in the Hanukkah story. The Pharisees and Sadduccees vied for supremacy. The Essenes appear to have had enough of it all and parked themselves in a remote area near the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea Scrolls mostly contain fragments of portions of the Bible, and sectarian scrolls, scrolls that revealed the rules and beliefs of this breakaway group. The scrolls also contain books that did not make the final cut in the canonization of the Bible. One such book is the Aramaic Levi Document.

The Aramaic Levi Document was found in fragments at two separate caves at Qumran. Based on material in other books found at Qumran, it is believed to be a 3rd century BCE document. This is significant because the period beginning with the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem under Persian rule until the Maccabean revolt against Greece in the 2nd century BCE is a black hole for archaeologists, with very little in the way of artifacts to tell us what Judaism looked like at that time.

One part of the Aramaic Levi Document has instructions for the Levite service in the temple. It has specific guidelines for temple offerings, measurements for flour offerings, butchering for animal sacrifices and the types of wood to be used for fuel when performing the offering. This points to there being a temple being in operation with a specific service for Levites. However, the laws here do not match the laws in the Bible or later rabbinical laws, so it raises the question about who authored it and if it reflected actual practice in the temple.

The Aramaic Levi Document also has a different take on a future messiah, as it envisioned only a single messiah from the tribe of Levi who would control both the monarchy and the office of the priesthood. This compares to texts elsewhere that envision a post-messianic restored Israel having a division between the priesthood and the monarchy.

The Aramaic Levi Document offers a window into practices and beliefs in the 3rd century BCE, but since its statements conflict with the practices and beliefs elsewhere in the Tanach, it could have been left on the cutting floor in the canonization process, when the final version of the Bible was set. 

A Surprising Source

Leviticus 27 contains scenarios in which a person dedicates something of value to temple. Depending on the person, animal or object, values may be assigned to the dedicated item and money can be offered to the temple in place of the item.

“If what they vowed is an animal that is acceptable as an offering to the Lord, such an animal given to the Lord becomes holy…Whatever value the priest then sets, that is what it will be. If the owner wishes to redeem the animal, a fifth must be added to its value.”

This follows earlier laws in Leviticus 12 that discuss financial aspects of temple offerings. “But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”

One of the limitations of archaeology is that an artifact needs to be found to make a determination about it. Many aspects of the Jerusalem Temple are well known through archaeology. Herod’s retaining walls still surround the Temple Mount. The large collection of animal bones relative to the ancient city’s size, and the DNA of the bones points to Jerusalem being a pilgrimage site where animals were sacrificed. But other aspects of the temple service cannot be found. One such example is the money changers at the temple, and those who would be responsible for redeeming temple offerings.

One source that provides external corroboration for the presence of money changers in the temple is a surprising one: The New Testament.

The New Testament contains 27 books that Christians added to the Tanach. These books were originally written in Greek. The first four books, also known as the Gospels, tell the stories of a man named Iesous, translated to Jesus. In the narrative, he goes to the temple in Jerusalem. In one book it writes: And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” In another version, he ‘went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.’

Whether or not this story actually happened cannot be known. The concept is not unreasonable. Here the money changers are accused of taking advantage of pilgrims who have traveled large distances and finally arrive in Jerusalem. Anyone who has ever arrived exhausted from a long international flight knows that the money changers at the airport offer the worst exchange rates. But what is important for knowing how the temple operated 2000 years ago is that the New Testament provides a source outside of the Torah itself that confirms the presence of monetary transactions occurring at the Jerusalem Temple in accordance with the laws listed in Leviticus.