Tag Archives: ancient near east

The Lost World of Genesis One – Personal Thoughts

This is my third and final post on John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One from IVP-Academic. You can read my posts on the author and contents: here and here. Thanks again to IVP-Academic for sending a review copy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. First, John Walton is an expert on the conceptual world of the Ancient Near East. His expertise is apparent from the titles of many of his previous works, and it shines through in The Lost World of Genesis One. He displays the breadth of his knowledge most clearly in the chapters concerning the functional, rather than material, orientation of ancient cosmologies and in the chapters concerning divine rest taking place in temples. Readers may disagree with Walton, but I don’t think they can do so because they feel he hasn’t done his homework.

Second, Walton communicates in clear, ordinary language. If you have paid attention to recent posts on this blog, you may have seen Joel mention Walton’s forthcoming academic work on Genesis 1. Academic writers sometimes experience difficulties writing books intended for a wider audience; Walton has avoided this problem. As a result, The Lost World of Genesis One is a book on the first chapter of the Bible that I would not hesitate to recommend to an interested lay person in my parish.

Third, I appreciate the author’s forthrightness concerning Genesis 1, the theory of evolution, and public education. Walton declares:

The concern of this book is neither to tell scientists how they should or should not do science, nor to determine what scientific conclusions are right or wrong. It should be noted that this book is not promoting evolution. The issue I have attempted to approach concerns what scientific ideas or conclusions that the believer who wants to take the Genesis account seriously is obliged to reject … Biological evolution is the reigning paradigm, so we have asked whether this view requires the believer to compromise theology or biblical teaching. We have concluded that there is nothing intrinsic to the scientific details (differentiated from the metaphysical implications that some draw) that would require compromise.

Amen. Now I only hope that Walton can keep his job.

I will conclude with one critique that I did have of the book. I could mention that I would have liked to have seen more discussion of Genesis 1 as polemic, but other scholars have taken on that task elsewhere. My main concern was with the front and back covers. Although I realize words like “new” and “landmark” help sell books, I think they were overdone on this one. While many readers, especially pastors and lay people, will find this book helpful, I wasn’t blown away by the newness of it all. The cultural climate makes the work timely, and Walton certainly adds to the discussion about Genesis 1, but “landmark” (see back cover)? I don’t know. Maybe I have drunk too deeply of Qohelet’s teaching (Ecc. 1.9).

Overall, I highly recommend The Lost World of Genesis One. The combination of Walton’s expertise and his ability to communicate in ordinary language makes for a beneficial, easy read. I also look forward to reading Walton’s academic treatment of Genesis 1 forthcoming from Eisenbrauns.

*** update – I have been informed that the forthcoming title had already forthcome when I wrote this – you can also find it here

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Brief Exegesis: Song of Solomon 2-3.4

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There is so much more to be said about this wonderful book, but I only have 1500 words.


The Song of Solomon is a work which has often been purposely clouded in allegorical mystery; however as this exegesis will show, the work fits well into the subtle, but sexually passionate, protest songs as often song by women in the Ancient Near East, with this passage in particular showing the work of the more a humanistic Deuteronomist[1] mindset. We cannot interpret the Song either hyper-literally, or hyper-erotically, but must rely upon social context to drive our understanding of this deeply beautiful text. We should de-euphemize the text, setting the whole work within the frame of the ANE love poem as often performed (and ‘written’ in some cases) by women who were challenging the patriarchal worldview at the moment.

Contextual Analysis

The passage in question is 2.1-3.4 which is a song sung by the Beloved (female), first to her Lover (male), then to the Maidens (audience), which includes an oath, an interaction between the two, and finally a story of longing. 2.1-3 contains a sort of emblematic parallel which has the Beloved speaking (v1), the Lover (v2) and the Beloved again (v3), with each line containing nearly the same thought. The flower mentioned in verse 1 is often translated as ‘rose’, which would have made it nearly impossible to fit within the author’s timeframe, as the introduction of the rose is late to Palestine. Instead, it is better translated as meadow-saffron (NET, 2.1 note). The saffron plant was used in a variety of ways, and more notably in Egypt as an aphrodisiac[2]. It would have been a desert flower and was used as a symbol of God’s pleasure with Israel (Isa 35.1). This agricultural imagery is not reserved only for the Beloved, as the apple tree is used to represent the Lover. The apple was often times a symbol of romantic as well as sexual love (S.N Kramer, The Sacred Marriage Rite, 100-101) and is used in the Song to represent sexual desire (2.5, 7, 9) and in other parts of the Hebrew bible to represent fertility (Joel 1.12). Verse 3 is important in our later discussion because it shows that the Beloved is taking pleasure in (delight) in the kisses (fruit) of her Lover. The shade mentioned in this verse should be seen as a sort of protection afforded the Beloved by the Lover (cf John 4.6) especially given the fact that her skin has been darkened due to her own management of her vineyards. The temptation to interpret this passion in a hyper-erotic manner leaves us without the proper context. Vineyards are used as a symbol of sexuality (2.15), but the Beloved has been left on her own to ‘manage’ this field, which informs us that she was an independent person who wasn’t merely being passed around as property, but could in fact engage in courtship herself and select her own mate.

In 2.4-6, we may see signs of a fertility ritual, but what we more easily see is the expression of the sexual passion which the Beloved has for her Lover. The LXX, later mimicked by medieval Hebrew MSS (NET, note on 2.4), casts this verse in the imperative, so that this entire passage is seen as the Beloved demanding to be brought into the banquet hall and to be refreshed due to her lovesickness. The commands are in plural imperatives which give us the notion that the speech is meant to be given passionately.  The foods mentioned in v5 are foods often associated with ANE virility rites (cf 2 Sam 6.19; 1 Chron 16.3) and are cures for what is only best described as a near death state caused by the lack of sexual passion. These demands are met by the Lover who takes her into his arms for an embrace which may in fact be sexual union. Regardless of the actual outcome of the demands, it is noticeable that it is the woman who initiates the actions, not through beguiling or seduction, but by demanding the embrace of her Lover.

2.7-9 is the oath of the Beloved in which there is almost a step back from the demands presented in 2.4-6. Note that the oath is made ‘by the gazelles and the young does’, replacing the ancient witnesses of the heavens and the earth (Deut 32.1). These were symbols of romantic love (Pro 5.19), with other ANE literature associating them with sexual fertility. It was not uncommon to use the animals in this passage as an incantation for fertility, as we find in Mesopotamia, “With the love-[making of the mountain goat] six times, with the lovemaking of a stag seven times, with the lovemaking of a partridge twelve times, make love to me! Make love to me because I am young! And the lovemaking of a stag…Make love to me!” (R. D. Biggs, Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations [TCS], 26, lines 4-8).”

2.10-17 is an interaction between the two lovers. The turtledove in v12 (and dove in v14) was a symbol of romantic love and is used here by both speakers. In 2.10-17 we return to the notion of security for the Beloved, as we note that she is in the clefts of the rocks (cf Jer 48.28) where her Lover must find her. No doubt, managing her own vineyards, she would need to have a secure place from which to commune with her Lover. In 2.15, we counter the temptation to see her as a defenseless woman with more imperative demands of her Beloved as well as a return to the euphemism of the Vineyards. In 2.17, we find another temptation to interpret this passage too aggressively, but here it may be one in which we yield too. Verse 17 is clearly an invitation, or demand, for a night long furlough into sexual passion. HALOT notes that the phrase “to turn” means to sit at the table and is heavily nuanced. If so, then the invite is for the Lover to turn into the Beloved, which is accompanied again with the symbols of sexual virility.

3.1-4 is set immediately after the invite in 2.17, leaving us with a Beloved longing for her Lover who has disappeared. She searches for him in the city streets and being found by the night watchmen finds her lover. She takes him to her mother’s house, which can stand for several things such as the place of marriage proposal, or that the mother’s house is the place where consummation may happen. The latter is probable, given that in 8.5, consummation occurs under the apple tree where the Lover was conceived. Regardless, the mother’s chamber was a private place where men weren’t allowed.


The woman presented in the Song of Songs is not the usual woman as seen in the wide range of biblical literature. While Ruth is often praised for her initiative, women are generally used as a symbol of what makes a man fall; however, in the Song, we have a woman who is equal in the chase, so to speak, and perhaps even more aggressive, than that of her Lover. It is not condemned in anyway (neither are other excesses), but has long been considered as something holy. Following Foucault, Laqueur and others, Carr supposes that this Song may have helped, or been intended to help, shape sexuality in Ancient Israel. It would have had social predecessors, such as Deuteronomy, which sought to shape the community. What is seen is that this work, which is similar to those performed (and in some cases ‘written) by women in other ANE societies, serves as a patriarchal protest and sets the female on par with that of the male. Carr notes (p240) that the Israelite male had certain rights over that of the female, and yet here, it is the female demanding and exercising her rites. The Beloved is not the archetypical woman, but serves in the same way that Deuteronomy does, to counter established norms and perhaps to try to caress Israelite society to a certain point, and this point is made clear by the (social) obstacles they must continuously overcome (i.e, the night watchmen).


I am reminded of the early Christian sermon found in 2nd Clement (ch 12) which supposes that the Kingdom of God will come, “When the two shall be one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.” The Song of all Songs provides for us today a better understanding of the development of Israelite sexuality, which may serve to help modern believers address such topics with a more canonical focus. The female is aggressive for her lover, and is neither ashamed of it nor shamed by others (Tradition) for it.

[1] I note the influence of the Deuteronomistic way of thinking, especially in assigning humanity to God (see Carr 244-245). Song reflects the attitude of social change as found in Deuteronomy.

[2] Willard, P. (2001), Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice, Beacon Press, ISBN 0-8070-5008-3, retrieved 2009-11-23

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Working Thesis Statement for the Song of Solomon Exegesis

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The assignment is due tomorrow and is limited to 1500 words (1500 words!!!!!) so I have to be concise. I am exegeting Song of Solomon 2.2-3.4 which deals with the song from the Beloved (female) to the Lover, an offer, and the plight of trying to find the Lover in the dark of the night.

My main concern is not to interpret the Song as a hyper-erotic tale of ancient pornographic love, but to try to focus on de-euphemizing the text and setting the whole work with in the frame of the ANE love poem as often performed (and ‘written’ in some cases) by women who were challenging the patriarchal worldview at the moment. Here, I rely upon David Carr in his JBL entry, Gender and the Shaping of Desire in the Song of Songs and Its Interpretation, for some this backdrop. It’s not a feminist interpretation, to be sure, but one which seeks to analyze the why of the ‘whoa, should I be reading this’ aspect of the book while tempering the rush to see it as an oppressed view, oppressed by males for centuries.

So the thesis statement is essentially this:

The Song of Solomon is a work which is often purposely clouded in allegorical mystery, set either for or against sexual oppression and often times read in the tenor male voice; however as this exegesis will show, the work fits well into the subtle, but sexually passionate, protest songs as often song by women in the Ancient Near East, with this passage in particular showing the work of the more humanistic Deuteronomist.

Thoughts? Suggestions?

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Deuteronomy – Israel as a Vassal State to YHWH

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Try to remember that this is only based on Weinfeld’s study and is for my class on Deuteronomy.

Weinfeld’s study on the formulation of Deuteronomy 28 surmises that it is derived from a variety of Ancient Near Eastern treaties, such as the Hittites, Mesopotamians, and the Assyrians. For this brief response, I will state the data as presented by Weinfeld and then follow-up with a brief conclusion in answering Weinfeld’s passive question raised on page 148, in which he writes, “The analysis of this relationship (treaty and law-code) may also serve as a point of departure for understanding the crystallization of the covenant form in the theology of ancient Israel.” The importance of Deuteronomy, not just to various historical groups, has been understated and often passed over for the more exciting and meaningful (to Christians) prophets. If Weinfeld and others are correct, then Deuteronomy stands as a very important piece in understanding the uniqueness of the relationship between YHWH and Israel, and indeed, just what is actually a biblical covenant.

Weinfeld notes that Deuteronomy mimics Hittite treaties (p60) which were not unique amongst the Near Eastern treaties of the time (Weinfeld goes further to note that Deuteronomy has resemblances to treaties formulated thousands of years before it came to be). He writes that the ‘elaborate and detailed formulation of curses and blessing correspond both in structure and content’ (p62) with Mesopotamian texts and draws our attention to the fact that in Exodus and Joshua 24, these features are missing from the covenants formed there. By comparing the structure of Deuteronomy with Exodus 19-24 and Joshua 24, it is found that the last book of the Torah contains the structure of the political treaties of the Hittites and Assyrians while the other two covenant making passages do not (p66); however, the connections to the Hittites and Assyrians aren’t in total. Weinfeld notes that unlike the Assyrian vassalage treaties which only requires loyalty from the vassal, both the Hittite treaties and the Deuteronomic text includes the exchange of love/loyalty between the holder of the treaty (or grantor) and the vassal (p69), although loyalty was conditional, based on the fulfillment of the law (p81). Beyond that, however, lays the fact that ‘The religion of Israel was the only religion to demanded exclusive loyalty (p81).’

The author goes on to note that what the relationship between a king and his subjects was patterned in Deuteronomy to be reflected between YHWH and Israel. This pattern was a political treaty which was prevalent in the Ancient Near East (p83). It is in this light, then, that Deuteronomy 13 and the proscriptions which we usually, and flatly, read against false prophets should be taken. If, as Weinfeld postulates, religious treason was treated the same as political treason, then this sets the prophet in the light of a treasonous instigator  (p92), and further unites the fact that Deuteronomy is a political treaty between YHWH and Israel but cannot be made distinct from the religious covenant between the two. This leads Weinfeld to accept Frankena’s suggestion that Josiah, in ‘finding’ the book of Deuteronomy, removed Israel from vassalage to the King of Assyrian and placed it firmly under the political vassalage of YHWH (p100). This sets up the need, then, for curses and blessings, which we do not find in Exodus or Joshua 24, but is found throughout other Near Eastern treaties of the time.

Weinfeld notes that Deuteronomy, while mirroring the standard treaties of the time, including the issue of leprosy and judicial blindness which was borrowed from the Mesopotamian treaty (p146-147)  and the current materializing of the ‘prophetic word’ which was akin to the Assyrian treaty (p121; 130), underwent several cycles of covenantal structuring. Of these structures which are found within the overall treaty form of Deuteronomy is the introduction of the law-code.  This is, as the author notes, an abnormal difference as treaties were concerned only about loyalty (external) while law-codes generally dealt with the way citizens act (internal) (p48). Further, law-codes were seen as a sign of reform, which is not unusual during this time. It generally included the liberation of a people, generally slaves, and required the proclaiming of the law (p149). Already, our internal mnemonic devices are triggering the different times throughout Deuteronomy wherein we find that the law proclaimed as a symbol of reformation. Further, in Deuteronomy, Weinfeld finds traces of a polemic against the Hammurabi code. It wasn’t enough that a law existed, but it to bring about righteousness and good works (p150-151), which is what the Deuteronomic code does. Weinfeld has made his case that the whole of Deuteronomy is a treaty, with various intrastructering to reflect other forms of written restrictions and that chapter 28, as the zenith of the political structure, which contains the curses and blessings for keeping the treaty with YHWH.

I now return to the suggestion of Weinfeld on 148. I have briefly analyzed the treaty structure of Deuteronomy and mentioned that it contains as well a law-code which is abnormal to treaties of the time, and not found in Joshua 24. A law-code was meant to be internal while the treaty of vassalage was meant to be external (p156). As Weinfeld notes, Moses is seen as bringing about the legal reform needed to bring Israel through the transition (p152) which the Exodus (exile) would have caused. What brought them through the transition was in fact the reform brought by the Torah. In the Exile, what held the Israelites together was very much the tradition as expressed in Deuteronomy and allowed them to establish the community upon return which Moses had told them should be established. Further, it kept in their minds their own history of being slaves (Deut 5.12-15) and the liberation brought by the perfect Lawgiver, Moses.

What may be lacking is why the two are incorporated together, especially when we see that it wasn’t historically done so in other Ancient Near Eastern treaties and law-codes nor in biblical history (Exodus 19-24 and Joshua 24). In Deuteronomy 4.8 we see that no other nation had the Law which was being delivered to Israel. In Amos 9.7, God equalizes Israel with its neighbors and notes that the exodus from Egypt was nothing spectacular or unique to the Hebrews. Throughout Amos, what makes Israel special is their system of Justice, the same system which Deuteronomy now proposes to call attention to, as to what makes Israel special enough to be given in vassalage to the Most High God, YHWH. Thus, the Law Code prepares for the vassalage, which as Weinfeld notes, is different in that it is not a treaty between Israel and Assyria any longer, but between Israel and YHWH. It is, for the first time, a divine betrothal which unites the political vassalage with the law-code of holiness, allowing not a foreign king to visit the land, but a Divine King to intermingle with Israel.  Although, I admit that this is based in part on my biases in seeing Deuteronomy as a covenant from the ground up, offered from Israel to God, as I have continuously expressed.

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The Rise of the Israelite Monarchy, Rachel, and the Garden of Eden

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The question?

Discuss the issues surrounding Israel’s move to having a human king as their ruler. What role, if any, do women play role in ancient Israel’s transition to monarchy?

What may or may not be my answer:


The tribal system which had long connected the Hebrew peoples together was coming to a finale quickly due to the paradigmic evolution then-current in the developing political structures of the Ancient Near East. Powerful kings were rising up with economic powerhouses and military machines at their command which were actively destroying the enemies of the State. The Semitic tribes which inhabited Canaan were at constant peril, not only from the outside forces, but so too the internal forces brought on by Near Eastern kinship structures which might find tribes renegotiating kinship based on these predator nations. Examining the book of Judges, we see the increasing moral depravity brought on by the anarchist mentality of the rulers of Israel, namely the people themselves, would become a factor in the eventual enthronement of the king of Israel. When in times of great desperation, a divinely appointed Judge would rule, in an almost Arthurian way[1], until the crisis had passed. Several times in the book of Judges, this rise and fall of decentralized leadership was criticized by the Deuteronomist who regularly noted that, ‘In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.’  But, it wasn’t until rapidly successive judges began to appear that the idea of hereditary Kingship over temporary kinship (i.e., temporary alliances which created kinship) began to develop as something desirable to offset the growing fear from the tribes’ neighbors.

Theologically speaking, the act of asking for a King was a sin, not merely for the fear which replaced the devotion and reliance upon YHWH, but for the denial of the basic humanity of and God’s divine mission for the Tribes. In Genesis 1.26, God is said to make humanity in the image of Himself (and his heavenly court). For the early reader of this tract, it would have been read as God declaring all of humanity as royalty, removing the socio-political structure which was separating out of the larger mass a select family which other peoples were developing as hereditary rule[2]. By creating an oligarchy, or at the very least, a ruling elite, they also created a division of those who could and could not represent the gods on earth. The king was the gods’ agent and only through him could divine edicts be issued or prayers made. Seth L. Sander’s 2010 book, The Invention of Hebrew, strongly argues that the central difference between the Scriptures and other religious works of the period (and indeed, any written works) is that for the first time, it wasn’t the king who was addressed by a god, but the people.

Ronald Hendel, notes that for the Ancient Near East, the image of the King and the image of God where nearly married in the mind of the people,

“The close relationship between the image of the god and the image of the king is an important part of the ideology of kingship in the ancient Near East. The king was regarded as the earthly representative of the gods, and as such the image of the god was a symbol of the legitimacy of the earthly king. The divine image was pictured and was treated as a king, therefore serving as a reminder of the divine authority of the king.”  He cites as the strongest evidence “a 13th-century Middle Assyrian text, the ‘Tukulti-Ninurta Epic,’ that described the king as the salarti Illil däru, ‘the eternal image of Enlil.’ The phrase salarti DN, ‘image of the god,’ is also used of the king in later neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian texts, but the meaning of the phrase reflects the common royal ideology of Mesopotamia—and, we might add, the common West-Semitic ideology as well. The ‘image of the god’ was the king himself.” (CBQ 1988)[3]

Hendel and others are correct. We must make the point that if the Tribes were now seeking to replace the transcendent YHWH which walked and spoke with His people directly with a King, they weren’t just asking for a ruler like the other nations, they also wanted a god like the other nations, with a direct representative on earth, a position which they were abdicating. They had asked for a forbidden knowledge: that they were no longer worthy to walk and talk with YHWH. No longer were temporary leaders to be made available when Israel had digressed into moral depravity, but now a king was desired to perhaps constantly remind them of YHWH and in doing so, they quite easily rejected the imago dei as they had abandoned their roles as God’s agents, abdicating it as an answer to fear[4]. The people had put up a wall between themselves as the Children of God and God; they had sinned.

For the feminine involvement in the transition to monarchy, it could be easily noted that Hannah’s dedication of Samuel provided God a man to lead the Israelites as both Judge and King. Or perhaps it was Abigail’s[5] prevention of David’s bloodguilt which allowed him to later become King; however I believe that such an easy view might take away from the woman who plays not only a very central part, but is mentioned only once and then as a memorial: Rachel. On the heels of the moral decay which came to fruition by the almost complete destruction of the Tribe of Benjamin, a king was selected from that tribe. Not only was this true, but the prophet who anointed the King was himself a resident of the Tribe of Benjamin. Further, as a signal to the future king, he was told that he would find the proof of his impending royalty at the Tomb of Rachel. To further bring to light Rachel’s background role in the matter was the fact that she, the most beloved of Jacob’s wives, died while giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35.16-21). Later in (chronological, not necessarily literary) history, YHWH would speak to Jeremiah, saying,

This is what the LORD says: “A cry is heard in Ramah– deep anguish and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted– for her children are gone.” (Jeremiah 31:15 NLT)

Ramah is not only the prophet’s dwelling place, but so too the scene of the anointing of King Saul after the people of the tribes at met, at Ramah, to ask Samuel for a King. It may be that Rachel is seen in the historical background of the writers of 1st Samuel while Jeremiah has the denial of the imago dei in mind which fulfilled YHWH’s oracle in 1st Samuel 8.10-18. It was at Ramah that Rachel’s children died to the sin of knowledge.

[1] Or perhaps, akin to the Roman Dictatorships which would arise when times of troubles required it, and often times chosen by the two elected Consuls. Ironically, the story of the corruption of Samuel’s two sons preceding a time of trouble which required a King seems similar to the act which brought about the end of the Roman Republic.

[2] Collins notes in his book, King and Messiah as Son of God, two current scholars which have produced work to counter the notion that kings were seen as the incarnations of the gods.

1) Silverman: “A pharaoh might be: named as a god in a monumental historical text, called the son of a deity in an epithet on a statue in a temple, hailed as the living image of god in a secular inscriptions, described as a fallible mortal in a historical or literary text, or referred to simply his personal name in a letter”;

2) Leprohon: “The evidence shows that the living pharaoh was not, as was once thought, divine in nature or a god incarnate on earth. Rather, we should think of him as a human recipient of a divine office. Any individual king was a transitory figure, while kingship was eternal”.

In responding to these conclusions, Dr. Michael Bird, writes, “But since “image of god” was used quite often to describe ANE kings, it means perhaps no more than humanity is royal in God’s eyes and is charged with the delegated divine function of ruling over creation.”

[3] Source: Peter J. Leihart, November 2010.

[4] For further reading, Peter Enns, a senior fellow at the Biologos Institute has written multipart piece which explores the Image of God in ANE literature and how it applies to the biblical understanding.

[5] I believe that there may be more to the story between David and Abigail, but this is not the time to explore that arena. CF 1st Samuel 25.31 and v35 especially.

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