I wish to applaud the editor for the many diverse letters you print. Reading them is like sitting ringside at a boxing match, watching the intense writers jab each other. No knockouts, I hope.
I have been a subscriber to BR since 1985. In my search for the elusive answers to life’s many questions, BR has provided me with a welcome source of information and, more importantly, of divergent views. As I begin to understand that each person’s life experience is unique, I realize that others can offer me a small piece of knowledge that my life experience has not afforded me. I know that as long as I remain tolerant, I will gain a greater understanding of others.
This is why I am saddened when disagreements by readers or “expert” writers are expressed in hateful, rancorous and, most of all, self-righteous language. My constant prayer is that I do not become so rigid that I cease to learn and that when I disagree I will remember to keep my words sweet because I will most likely have to eat some of them.
Jots & Tittles
A Devilish Problem
Leonard Greenspoon’s Bible in the News column in your October issue states that telephone customers in Maine tried to have their prefix changed from the objectionable “666” to “616.” It’s a bit ironic, since a number of textual sources feature “616” as a variant in Revelation 13:18.
The two Norwegian scientists trying to figure out the story behind the burning bush should have looked in some plant books like Herbs (Time-Life Books, 1977). Here, the burning bush is identified as the Dictamnus albus, which is also called Dictamnus fraxinella. This plant is commonly known as the gas plant, fraxinella, false dittany, flame flower and burning bush.
The plant gives off a vapor that can be ignited; the resulting fire does not harm the plant. The seeds are sometimes offered by gardening companies as a novelty item. Mystery solved!
This is only one of many suggestions. A British scientist recently argued that the bush ignited when natural gas released from a volcanic vent beneath the bush caught fire. He identified the bush itself as Acacia seyel, which turns to charcoal as it burns. Thus, “flames would continue to come out from within the charred and glowing charcoal framework for as long as the gas was supplied, or the bush finally disintegrated” (Colin Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus [HarperSan Francisco, 2003]). The more likely explanation of the account of the burning bush that was not consumed, however, is that it was a story about a miracle.—Ed.
Where Was Moses?
In an otherwise interesting story on spies, author Rose Mary Sheldon appears to have made errors in both time and space. About Moses and the 12 spies in Numbers 13, she writes, “Our story begins with ... Moses and the Hebrews ... stationed outside the land of Canaan. Before they can cross the Jordan en masse, they need ...” (“Spy Tales,” October 2003).
My interpretation of this story is that the Israelites were still far to the south and west of the Jordan River. In fact, they were south of Canaan, probably still in the upper part of the Sinai Peninsula. For in Numbers 13:17, Moses instructs his 12spies to “go up through the Negev,” which lies about 50 miles south of Hebron, the spies’ goal (Numbers 13:22: “They ascended by the south and came to Hebron.”)
I believe this episode took place very early in the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness, probably weeks after the Exodus from Egypt. The 12 spies returned, bearing good news and bad news. The good news was that the land did flow with milk and honey. The bad news was that there were still descendants of the gigantic Nephilim there, making the land too dangerous to enter. Joshua and Caleb were the only ones who wanted to go on anyway, and they were quickly overruled. God was displeased and told Moses that the bones of an entire generation must fall in the desert before the Israelites could enter the Promised Land.
It was some 40 years later that Moses sent Joshua and Caleb from the Plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River, to spy on Ai and Jericho.
Dennis T. Olson of Princeton Theological Seminary responds:
The letter writer is correct that the spy story in Numbers 13–14 is indeed set on the southern boundary of Canaan rather than on the eastern side at the Jordan River. The area of the Negev where the mission begins and the town of Hebron (Numbers 13:17, 22) are known southern locations. In the present form of the narrative, Numbers 13–14 recounts a first failed attempt to conquer the land from the south of Canaan. Some scholars would argue that the present story is an adaptation of an earlier successful conquest story from the south of the area around Hebron by Caleb. In Joshua 14:6, Caleb is called a Kenizzite, but in Numbers 13:6 he is associated with the tribe of Judah. Caleb may have been a Kenizzite ancestor whose clan was later adopted into the genealogy of the tribe of Judah. Joshua 14 affirms that Caleb settled in the area around Hebron, and an earlier version of the spy story may have recounted Caleb’s successful military conquest of Hebron. This might account for certain points in Numbers 13–14 where Caleb alone (without Joshua) is mentioned as a faithful spy (Numbers 13:30, 14:22–24). In a later version of the story, Joshua (formerly named Hoshea from the northern tribe of Ephraim [Numbers 13:8, 16]) was added as the second faithful spy. Joshua would become Moses’ successor and, as a northern Ephraimite, balanced the southern Caleb of Judah. Once the conquest of Canaan from the east at the Jordan Riverbecame normative in Israel’s tradition, the spy story in Numbers 13–14 was altered from a successful conquest story by Caleb of Hebron to a failed conquest story by all Israel, even as Caleb and Joshua retained their positive portraits as faithful spies who trusted God and urged the people to enter Canaan but without success.
As to the chronology of the spy story, the letter writer is correct that the story is toward the beginning and not the end of the forty-year period of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness on its journey to the Promised Land from Egypt. However, it was more than “just a few weeks” after the Exodus out of Egypt. The closest chronological note is in Numbers 10:11, which indicates that Israel set out from the wilderness of Sinai “in the second year, in the second month,” and would presumably have to travel a matter of weeks to get to the edge of the southern Negev region of Canaan. So according to the present form of the biblical story, the spy narrative may have taken place about two and a half years after the Exodus out of Egypt. Israel’s refusal to enter Canaan brought on God’s judgment that they would spend a total of forty years wandering in the desert; so they would be a long time journeying in the desert before they ever got to the Jordan River and the eastern boundary of Canaan.
It’s All Inspired
Thank you for William H.C. Propp’s very fine article “Who Wrote Second Isaiah?” in the October 2003 issue. Please note, however, that over 25 different verses of Isaiah are quoted by the writers of the Gospels; 14 of these verses are written as direct quotes of Jesus. The quoted passages come from all sections of the Book of Isaiah. If the gospel writers and Jesus considered the text of the entire Book of Isaiah as inspired—and clearly they did—then there should be no reason to consider it otherwise.
Who’s the Liar?
You are in a field for which scrupulous precision and honesty are paramount, if only owing to the numerous religious beliefs that are impacted by what you say about what is found in the Holy Land, and how it is analyzed.
It was with a sense of revulsion, therefore, that I read Mr. Hendel’s statement that “the Bush Administration lied to us about the nuclear threat posed by Saddam Hussein” (“Was There a Temple in Jerusalem?” October 2003).
Everyone knows that at one time Saddam had them. (Remember the Israeli bombing mission?) That no one has yet found them does not mean that he did not have them, or that good intelligence did not say that he had them, or that intelligence that was believed to be good did not say he had them.
I will leave it to others to weigh the risks of Iraq selling bombs to Bin Laden’s folks and focus on what was said.
A lie, of course, is to say something you know is not true in the hopes that it will be taken as the truth.
Unless Mr. Hendel has a tape of someone admitting, Perry Mason-like, to making it all up, the most that could be said is that certain members of the intelligence community or of the administration appear to have exaggerated the case for the Iraqi nuclear threat at the time of invasion.
Thus Mr. Hendel himself appears to have exaggerated the case against the administration.
Unless he knew that what he was saying was not true.
In which case, of course, it would have been a lie.
Ronald S. Hendel responds:
How about those little sixteen words (or was it seventeen?) in Mr. Bush’s State of the Union Address that his office later retracted under duress and tried to blame on the CIA director? I’m sure that old Harry Truman, who hailed from Independence, wouldn’t have behaved so dishonorably.
Professor Ronald S. Hendel is to be commended for his BR October column noting the 3,000 years’ significance of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to Judaism. It is therefore unfortunate that he concluded with the gratuitous statement: “One hopes that these brothers [Isaac and Ishmael, referring to Israel and Palestine] can turn from their lies about each other [emphasis added] and reconcile.”
In his attempt to be “even-handed,”Hendel implies that Jews tell the same kind of lies about Islam that Arafat and his spokesmen are telling about Judaism. Can he cite a single example from comparable Jewish leaders to substantiate this statement?
Ronald S. Hendel responds:
How about Golda Meir’s infamous statement, “There are no Palestinians.” By classifying these people as non-people, she helped to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the defining problems of our time.
When I noticed that the bio at the end of Mr. Hendel’s column said he was from Berkeley, I had to laugh. Couldn’t such a prestigious magazine as yours do better than to have radicals like this write articles for your magazine?
The Deep, Dark Truth
Dr. Peter B. Roode, in a letter in the October 2003 issue, asks, “But what are the ‘deep truths’ of the Flood tale? That God can have a temper tantrum and can kill innocent children? That an unchanging God can change his mind?”
One answer to these questions is given in Ecclesiastes 9:2 and 9:11: “All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the clean, and to the unclean ... the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong ... but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
A shorter answer to Dr. Roode’s question is, “Yes.”
Read with Respect
Letter writer Peter B. Roode questions whether there are any deep truths embedded in the Flood tale.
As an adjunct professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Niagara University, I am intrigued by my students’ insights into this story. To them, the story suggests that
(1) Human sin can bring catastrophe not only upon humans but upon nature. Proof? Look how human greed, leading to environmental pollution, harms our earth today. Human sin causes the air and water to be polluted, the forests to be cut and the ozone layer to be depleted. Then we all suffer.
(2) God cares about animal life as well as human life. He wants every species to be preserved—a good defense for the Endangered Species Act.
(3) When the storms of life threaten to destroy us, God will always provide an ark of safety.
(4) It is important to have enough faith to obey God’s commandments even when people scoff at us.
If a person approaches biblical stories with an attitude of respect and meditation, insights can be found that seem to be in harmony with the stories. They can provide instruction for daily living. They become God’s word to us through these ancient tales.
Does the Flood Matter?
In a letter in your October 2003 issue, Alan D. Arnold writes: “The truth or falseness of the biblical flood is meaningless.” I don’t think it is meaningless to the Fundamentalist theologians, because if a universal Flood never happened, then all the other stories in Genesis are in doubt.
A few years ago I did a survey of 150 archaeologists from all over the world asking one simple question: “Have you found any evidence of a worldwide biblical flood that could have happened in the last 10,000 years?” Every single one of them answered, “No, they could not find any evidence of Noah’s flood ever happening.”
For years, I’ve wondered why everyone calls Herod’s Temple the Second Temple. Doesn’t that make the Temple built by Zerubbabel and the returned exiles (Zechariah 4:9) Temple 1.5? Why don’t we say that Zerubbabel built the Second Temple and Herod built the Third Temple?
The First Temple, built by Solomon, was completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. When the Jews returning from the Babylonian Exile began to rebuild the Temple, they had to work from scratch, which is why their Temple is generally referred to as the Second Temple. Herod’s Temple is traditionally seen not as a new construction (and thus not as a Third Temple) but as an expansion of the Exilic Temple (and of the Temple Mount, the platform that supported it), which is why it, too, is generally referred to as the Second Temple. But some scholars do refer to Herod’s Temple as the Third Temple. Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon referred to it this way.—Ed.
Order of the Books
Could you clear up a debate for my men’s Bible class, which has been studying the Old Testament? Were the books written in the order usually presented or were they merely arranged in that order to coincide with the periods of Jewish history about which they dealt? Genesis is a particular bone of contention since several of us recall that it was, in fact, the last (or one of the last) to be written and essentially came out of the Babylonian captivity, hence its many similarities to some Babylonian stories. To some of our members this is pure heresy, but we cannot seem to find confirmation one way or another.
Can you help us out?
James Sanders, of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center, responds:
Your thoughtful question is one many serious students of the Bible have asked over the years, beginning probably with Ibn Ezra in the 13th century. Standard Introductions to the Old Testament present the answers that have been worked out since then and offer a history of the formation of the text of the Bible. They all agree that the order of the books of the Jewish or the ChristianBibles is not the order in which they were written. When one says “Bible” one has to specify which one, for the Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic and Protestant canons differ considerably in content and order.
“Histories” from the ancient Near East are not like the literature of modern times. To begin with, the most important “character” in biblical histories is God, not any of the humans as is true of Western histories. The Bible began to take shape when various accounts from ancient Israel and Judah about their origins were collected and edited together to provide a continuous history or story that moves from Creation in Genesis to the Fall of Jerusalem to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. (Genesis to Kings). These collectors did not use every available source, as we know from the some 24 ancient literary works cited in the Bible but otherwise totally unknown to us. The ancient collectors edited together what made most sense to them in the life-and-death situation thrust on them by the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in the sixth century B.C.E. Deported to Babylon, they lived in prisoner-of-war camps along the Tigris and there had plenty of time to reflect on what had happened to them and to God’s promises.
Most survivors of that debacle apparently assimilated to Babylonian culture and out of despair lost their Jewish identity. But there was a strong remnant that still believed in Yahweh, their God, and they needed a continuous history or story of their past that would explain both the blessings and the curses that had befallen them, their freedom from slavery in Egypt and the gift of a land in which to live, and their ignominious defeat and total loss of that land to the Babylonians. For them, God was not just an ordinary nationalist deity who was obligated to take care of them; if they believed that, then they lost their faith and identity because they would have viewed their God as having failed them. On the contrary, the faithful remnant continued to recite many of the old stories and sing many of the old songs that were still meaningful to them, and shaped them into the story line that goes from Genesis to the end of Kings, or indeed the end of Chronicles. It is remarkable how honest the Bible is in its confessions of Israel’s sins as the reason for its defeat.
Another very important point to remember is that most of the Bible is anonymous in authorship. The titles given to books in the Bible are late titles and do not claim authorship in any case, despite the tendency of the Western mind to read authorship into them. Most traditional literature and art from the Near East and the Orient are anonymous. Focus on individual authorship is a Western trait, not Eastern. The names of the evangelists were not affixed to manuscripts of the New Testament until Christianity had become thoroughly hellenized, that is, influenced more by Greek notions of individual authorship than Jewish. The Greek mind focused on the humans in the story, while the Jews focused on God, who worked through humans.
It is very exciting to study the Bible historically as you are doing, for one must not bring preconceived, Western notions to it. One must let the text speak for itself out of its original historical contexts, and your letter shows you want to be responsible in doing this. Many blessings for you and your class as you pursue study of these exciting texts.
You’ve already discussed Moses’ real name (Ogden Goelet, “Moses’ Egyptian Name,” June 2003, and Readers Reply, October and December 2003). My class and I want to know the name of Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 2:5 (“And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river.”)
Hurry, 6th graders can be very impatient!
Any suggestions, readers?—Ed.