The Throne in the Shrine

This week’s Torah portion continues Deuteronomy’s focus on removing idols and the worship of foreign gods. In Deuteronomy 7, Israel are told that “images of their gods you are to burn in fire.” In Chapter 8, they are warned that “If you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them…you will surely be destroyed.” Chapter 9 reminds of the sin of the Golden Calf. And Chapter 11 threatens that if you worship other gods, “you will perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.”

In the Bible, two kings who took action to remove the idols and worship of foreign gods were Hezekiah and Josiah. Hezekiah “removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.” Josiah did the same, and he “got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem.”

The generally accepted timeline for the reign of King Hezekiah is the latter part of the 8th century BCE, while Josiah’s reign is dated roughly 100 years later, to the late 7th century BCE. Finds at sites in Tel Arad, Beer Sheba and Lachish dating to the late 8th century BCE may provide evidence of Hezekiah’s actions against the other gods.

At Tel Arad, a fair distance away from Jerusalem, the area containing the shrine was filled in with dirt. This could be evidence of a deliberate effort to bury the shrine to remove any trace of idol worship, or it could have been an attempt to protect the shrine in anticipation of an Assyrian invasion.

In the areas of both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, altars with horned corner stones have been found. Deuteronomy 27 instructs that altars should be made of stone and plaster, but should not be shaped with iron tools. The horned altars are a violation of this rule. At Beer Sheba, horned altar stones were found embedded in walls, from before the Assyrian invasion, suggesting that before the Assyrians came the altars to the gods were dismantled and treated as if they had no special meaning by being built into regular walls.

At Lachish, the shrine area was found at the entrance gate. Telling is the placement of a toilet in the shrine where the idols would have been placed. The toilet seat was not used as an actual toilet, based on the remains, but appears to have been a symbolic desecration of a shrine to a god.

The image above is an example of a horned altar, from the Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod, Israel.

God and His Asherah

In Deuteronomy 7, God commands Israel that when they enter the land of Canaan, they are to drive out the inhabitants entirely. They are to destroy “their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.”

In 2 Kings, some kings did exactly this. Hezekiah was dedicated to God, and he “removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.” One hundred years later, another righteous king, Josiah, did the same when he “smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.”

While these kings are recognized for their dedication to God in eradicating the worship of other gods, implicit in the story is that for the majority of the time, the people in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah did in fact worship other gods. This point reinforced throughout the books 1 Kings and 2 Kings, and throughout the historical books. The nation is constantly being punished for turning its back on God. It is also stressed in the prophetic writings, as the prophets frequently warn the nation against worshipping other gods.

A number of inscriptions have been found connecting God and Asherah. Kuntillet Ajrud is a site in the northeastern Sinai desert, and inscriptions there are dated to the late 9th century BCE or the early 8th century BCE. The inscriptions at the site are in Hebrew, but even with its southern location it is not clear if the site was from the northern Israelite kingdom or the southern Judean kingdom. One inscription reads:

“Berakhti et’khem l’Y-HWH Shomron ul’Asherat,” meaning “I have blessed you by Y-ahweh of Samaria and Asherah.” If one adds the possessive to the last Hebrew word, it could be read as Y-HWH of Samaria and ‘HIS’ Asherah. Another inscription reads “I have blessed you by Y-HWH of Teman and Asherah,” or “his Asherah.” The connection to Teman echoes the line “God is coming from Teman,” in Habakkuk 3.

A similar inscription was found further north at Khirbet el-Qom, between Hebron and Lachish. The inscription is dated to the latter part of the 8th century BCE. It reads “Blessed be Uriyahu by Y-HWH and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!”

Some scholars have used this to argue that most people at the time believed that God had a wife, Asherah. This claim is disputed. But what should be clear is that in the 8th and 7th centuries, the kings Hezekiah and Josiah had to contend with Asherah worship.

The stamp above featuring an Asherah post is on display at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.

Discovering the Discoverers

In the biblical book 2 Kings, chapter 22, King Josiah of Judah sent his secretary Shaphan to see Hilkiah the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem. Hilkiah the high priest reported that he found a ‘sefer Torah,’ a book of the teachings, and Shaphan read it. Shaphan then took the book back to King Josiah, and read it to him.

Upon hearing its words, Josiah tore his clothes, because he realized that God would be angry that the nation was not following the words of the Torah. To rectify this, Josiah initiated a religious reform. He removed all objects connected to the gods Baal and Asherah from the temple and burned them. He destroyed the Tophet, where child sacrifices were offered. He got rid of spiritual mediums and gods that people kept in their homes. And he destroyed the high places where offerings were brought and the altars outside of Jerusalem, thereby centralizing worship in Jerusalem.

This religious revolution that preceded the Babylonian exile may have given the nation the religious boost that helped Judaism survive in exile. The Book of  2 Kings gives Josiah his due. “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.”

The actions that Josiah undertook focused on removing idolatry and centralizing worship in the temple in Jerusalem. More so than the other books of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy focuses on fealty to God, removing idolatry and worshiping in a centralized location in the conquered Canaan. Deuteronomy 12 discusses centralizing worship in the place that God will choose as a dwelling for his name, which later became Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 18 warns against child sacrifice and witchcraft. For this reason, many scholars argue that the ‘sefer Torah’ in 2 Kings 22 was the Book of Deuteronomy.

Shaphan and Hilkiah are the lynchpins in this religious reform. And they may be attested in archaeological findings.

A cache of bullae, clay seals that contained individual names, was found in the City of David, in a level that dates to just before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians. One bulla contains the name Gemaryahu ben Shaphan, a scribe during the reign of the King Jehoiakim, who followed Josiah on the throne. As Gemaryahu ben Shaphan was a scribe to the king, it would follow that he could be following in his father’s footsteps, in an identical role.

Another bulla found in the same cache contained the words “Belonging to Azaryahu son of Hilkiyahu.” In 1 Chronicles, it lists the descendants of Aaron the priest. Late in that list is Hilkiah the father of Azariah. As the bulla’s location points to it being before the Babylonian exile, it raises the possibility that this bulla belonged to the priest whose father discovered the ‘sefer Torah.’

These two seals, pictured above, are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

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: