Tag Archives: ancient near east

In The Mail: Kenneth Bailey's The Good Shepherd

My friends at Intervarsity Press sent along Bailey’s The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament. Psalm 23 was one of the first Bible passages I memorized as a child. As an adult, I discovered just how prominently political the language of “shepherd” was. I hope to put this book to good use.

A Covenant of Peace: Ezekiel's Use Of Numbers


Tetragrammaton (Photo credit: nathanleveck)

Zeal, the Knowledge of YHWH and Radicalism

“YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, “I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. 13It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.”- Numbers 25: 10-13 NRSV


” I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. […] They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations.”- Ezekiel 34:25-26, 28-29

When I was in seminary and taking a class on Ezekiel, one of the questions that haunted the class at the end of the semester is what happened to the language of God’s “Covenant of Peace”? Where did it come from? One of the problems I believes starts with the commentary we depended on, by Katherine Pfisterer Darr, who is rightfully hesitant to explain Ezekiel as a prophet who used the Torah, specifically Deuteronomy (unlike Jeremiah, Paul, and Christ Jesus, for example). I think there was an opportunity missed to talk about Israel’s role in the Ancient Near East, as well as Ezekiel’s role as PRIEST and prophet. The notion of a covenant of peace, as Darr points out, is part of the ANE tradition whereby the gods end their hostilities towards humanity and creation at large. The god’s pledge to be peaceable was signed and sealed with a visible sign. Darr rejects the idea that Ezekiel borrows this idea from any of the Torah writers since he has a theology that deals more with the ritual and ceremonial laws of Israel (a priestly theology if you will). Ezekiel cannot simply be put in a box, I tried that once, and utterly failed.

Ezekiel is more of a hybrid thinker, using the language of the Law and the priesthood. Ezekiel and his disciples were zealous for YHWH, much like Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron (the head of the Priesthood). Phinehas was given a covenant of peace with YHWH because he saw one of his fellow Israelites sinning right in front of the Moses and the congregation, and in the First covenant manner, since blood had to be shed, Phinehas used a spear to sacrifice the man and his lover. Once YHWH saw that one of the priests was concerned, the plague that Israel was suffering ended, but not before thousands had died of the sickness. This plays out as an example of the scapegoat mechanism. A few persons must die for the rest of society to be “saved.” If the spearing and priesthood are the visible sign for Aaron’s family and the covenant of peace, then the destruction of the first Temple (along with the people in it Ezekiel 9 & 10) as well as the raising of Ezekiel’s 2nd temple Ezekiel 39:21 through chapter 48) is the sign of YHWH’s latest covenant of peace with Israel.

When we get to the New Testament, the death of the Son of YHWH, Christ Jesus, is the visible sign of the covenant of peace, that God makes with humanity, creation, and between Jew and Gentile, who are engrafted into the covenant life. The finality of Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice that ends all sacrifices, making all other sacrifices and scapegoating unnecessary.

This makes the old traditional hymn from Black churches, “Showers of Blessing” (inspired by Ezekiel 34) all that more interesting. “There shall be seasons of refeshing, Sent from the Savior above.” Written in the first decade of the 20th century, the peak period when thousands of Negro women and men were victims of lynching, “Showers of Blessing” is a theological interpretation of Ezekiel 34 that protests Jim & Jane Crow Law, and the lynching parties that were its scapegoating mechanism.

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Letter to a Confused Young Christian

The following is an e-mail forwarded by my brother Ryan to me late last night; he was unable to answer it because he is on a church retreat right now, so I decided to take the time to answer this morning.

The email:

Subject: European History and Faith

Hey Ryan,
I know you’re busy on a retreat so if I don’t get a response soon I’m not too worried. In European History we learned that the plagues happened over the course of a century or two, also, the Israelites had political control in Egypt thereby making Exodus a lie. Also, Pope Benedict 17th made concessions to evolution and the Big Bang thereby making Genesis a lie. There has also been no documentation of King David whatsoever and that would make the guidelines for Jesus Christ (and thereby his messiah-ness) false. As you can imagine this shakes my ENTIRE Christian foundation. With the Pope making concessions which would falsify Genesis and the archaelogical and historical evidence making Exodus and King David false. Just wondering if you learned anything in your theological studies at TCU that would help restore this because I’m just shook up right now over this.
Thank you,
Confused Young Christian
My re:
Greetings Confused Young Christian,
This is Ryan’s brother, Rodney. We both had similar education experiences but since he is on retreat right now, and since I had a course on the Exodus story, I think it would be appropriate for me to respond.

1. First,  I would like to address the book of Genesis. Genesis, chapters 1-11 are not histories of how the world was created. I repeat: they are NOT histories. In fact, Job is the oldest book in the Bible, and even in Job, funny thing is, God asks Job at one point, were you there when the earth was created? Of course, the answer is no. So, Genesis is a story, more likely an allegory, much like other creation stories which existed with the peoples surrounding the Israelites. Genesis 1-11 cannot be proven or disproven to be “true” to the modern scientific mind. Genesis 1-11 is about THEOLOGY and not historical events. It is to tell us what our purpose is, why God created us, not how. Creation is a mystery, and if we want to know creation the way God wants us to, then we must first love the One true God. That is what separates Genesis from other creation stories in every other religion. It is not about what humanity discovers or what is revealed to them but who God reveals God to be.  Now,  while evolution can be reconciled with the Bible’s story and not contradict it, evolutionary scientists are unable to tell all of God’s story.  Evolution can only go so far to tell nature and humanity, but it cannot tell the whole story and nor can it complete the story: only Jesus can. For the record, I lean on the side of affirming Adam and Eve as historical persons, but at the same time, I believe that other people were on earth (but not the garden) with them. Its complicated, but you know how the priests work in the sanctuary of the temple in the Old Testament? Well, that is how Genesis 1-3 works. There are people outside the Garden (the temple) and then there are 2 priests, Adam and Eve who work for God, and once the two priests fall, well, all of the rest of humanity falls with them. From my readings, the language of Genesis 1-3 and texts about priests point in this direction. Again, Genesis is about theology, not history (well not in the way we understand history). I think this is the importance of why ALL Christians should learn the original languages of the bible, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Also,Christian leaders should take the time to teach laypersons important elements of Ancient Near Eastern history. The ANE is the context that the Hebrew Bible refers to, and without it, one cannot begin to comprehend the Jewish Scriptures.

2. Second, Let me address the book of Exodus question. I do not know what it is meant by “political control of Egypt” but that assumption or idea I have never come across. Maybe they had political agency in some form or another, but archaeological evidence does point toward an Israelite flight from Egypt.  There are written accounts from the reign of Ramses II, and also, like a few other stories in the ANE context, like King Sargon of Akkad, (2300 BC), there are elements that the ancient Near Eastern mind would know better than the 21st century Western on.  I would hesitate to say that the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites was the same as the white enslavement of African Americans.  I believe that the Israelites were oppressed by the Egyptians, but perhaps on a smaller scale. But like Genesis, Exodus is much more about theology than history (history, the way we see it, that is).  It is an interpretation of the central event in the Israelites’ history and how God intervened. Some people say it was written and recorded by Moses, others do not, but the authorship is NOT important. The important thing is the message: God saved God’s people from Egypt, and God’s people should always remember that, and when God’s people forget that fact, they will pay a price. It’s a theme throughout the writings of the Prophets, especially Jeremiah.

3. Thirdly, on the king David issue, first let me say, it is a mistake to say that Jesus’s messianship is grounded in his relationship to the Israelite monarchy. With a close reading of Judges and 1st Samuel, one realizes that the monarchy was NOT God’s perfect will. YHWH God alone desired to be Israel’s king. To make the Israelite monarchy the foundation of Christ Jesus as Messiah I think is erroneous. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah because God chose him (Christ means annointed one in Greek). Historical evidence does not disprove the existence of King David. What scholarship says is that the Israelite kingdom was not as powerful as Christians imagine it to be.  That, much like the Exodus, it was happened on a much smaller scale.  The Dead Sea scrolls have the first 2 books of Samuel but other than that, there is not enough suffice archaeology to deny David’s reign. In the Christian imagination, we like to think of the time of the Israelite kings as this big great classic empire, and when text and the facts tell us differently, we may have trouble with that.  As believers, I think we should be relieved that Israel was NOT like Babylon or Egypt or Rome or Greece.

Thank you for your questions. I know that there are many other young Christians such as yourself that go through similar situations and do not know if they should ask these questions, but it is okay to ask.  I hope this helps.

Truth and Peace,

Rodney A. Thomas Jr.

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