Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 3

This is the third post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “And Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the second post here. All Scripture quotations unless otherwise noted are from the New Revised Standard Version.

PROMISE #3 – “THE STONES WILL CRY OUT”

Thomason wrote,

“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ I tell you,’ He replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out’” – Luke 19:39-40.

As Millar Burrows of Yale says, “In many cases, archeology has refuted the views of modern critics. In a number of instances it has been shown that these views rest on false assumptions and unreal artificial schemes of historical development. The excessive skepticism of many liberal theologians stems not from careful evaluation of the available data, but from an enormous predisposition against the supernatural” (Kennedy, 1999, pp. 24).

“The archeological confirmation of the Flood of Noah’s time is enormous. Stories of the Nochian Flood have been found in almost every civilization in the world. Among the most interesting are those found in Babylonia and Acadia. They provide substantially the same description except for the perversions that had entered into the later Babylonian version, written about eight hundred years after the Mosaic account” (Kennedy, 1999, pp. 23).

It should come as no surprise that Thomason rips Luke 19:39-40 from its original context to use it as her springboard to cite Kennedy and Burrows (via Kennedy). In fact, her clever subtitle – “The Stones Will Cry Out” – is one she lifted from Kennedy in his book Why I Believe. The second chapter of that volume is entitled “The Stones Cry Out…” and the verse that opens it is none other than Luke 19:40. Not very original. But let’s move on.

Before we address the Noachian myth itself, we must first consider the position of James Kennedy whom she cites at length and refers to a few times in her blog. Whereas Thomason has every apperance of being an Old Earth Creationist, Kennedy was a Young Earth Creationist, a position that claims the universe is around six-thousand years old. Consequently, Kennedy believed that the Flood was global in scale, covering every continent on the earth. He wrote,

The Flood was such a terrifying experience that it has remained forever etched in the memory of humankind. People all around the globe—from the Indians of Mexico to the inhabitants of the South Seas to the Eskimos of the Arctic—have included the story of this worldwide catastrophe in their oral and written histories.

I’m not sure if Thomason realized this when she quoted Kennedy and that it contradicts her own position on the subject [1] but in my experience with Thomason and in reading her blog posts she often rashly and indiscriminately lifts and borrows from authors without realizing the import of their writing (or if what they write is even accurate).

We should also consider her quoting of Millar Burrows, an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls who died before I was even born. Now, it is clear that Thomason is quoting Kennedy who is quoting Burrows. But if you dig a little deeper you will find that in reality it is Thomason who is quoting Kennedy who is quoting Josh McDowell from his Evidence That Demands a Verdict who is quoting Burrows. This is quote-mining at its finest. Furthermore, while Burrows was undoubtedly an accomplished biblical scholar, the book that the quote comes from – What Mean These Stones? – was published in 1956 and a lot has happened in the sixty-two years since that time. That Thomason does not bother to provide more relevant or more recent work is problematic but it also reveals, yet again, her affinity for quote-mining indiscriminately. [2]

It almost goes without saying that there is no good evidence to warrant belief in a Flood on the scale that the book of Genesis says happened. And it would be a waste of time to provide reasons why we should reject such a view since Thomason apparently doesn’t buy into it. [3] So rather than dismantle Young Earth Creationism, we will move on to an analysis of the biblical texts that are relevant to our discussion here as well as other ancient Flood texts which predate the Noachian myth.

THE TWO BIBLICAL FLOOD TALES

Your average Bible reader that takes up Genesis 6-9 sees but one continuous story. This is a testament to the skill of the text’s editors. But if you look closely you can see not one but two versions of the Flood myth. Both feature the character Noah and both follow a very similar plot which include a prelude to the Flood, a narrative of the Flood itself, and then the aftermath of the Flood. But the two versions differ on details that help us see that someone has woven two versions of the myth together.

The Yahwist Version (or the J Source)

The first version we can identify is commonly referred to as the Yahwist – or J – source. [4] J was composed sometime in the ninth or tenth centuries BCE and we see it in earlier biblical passages, including the second creation account in Genesis 2:4-25 and the story of the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Among the more notable features of the J source are its usage of the divine name יְהוָה (Yahweh, or “LORD”), its anthropomorphistic view of God (see Genesis 2:7, 3:10, etc.), and in the patriarchal narratives the emphasis on the southern area of Judah.

In J’s version of the Flood we see the use of יְהוָה over and again by the narrator as well as the very personal and anthropomorphized deity who, among other things, shuts Noah and his family into the ark (7:16) and smells Noah’s post-Flood sacrifice (8:21). In J, Yahweh decides to send the Flood because he was “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth” (6:6). J also describes the Flood’s effects as blotting out (6:7, 7:4, 7:23) and the Flood itself only lasts for forty days (7:4, 7:17, 8:6). Also in J Noah is told to bring seven pairs of clean animals and birds and a pair of unclean animals (7:2-3).

Here is a reconstruction of J based upon the work of Richard Elliot Friedman, a prolific biblical scholar and proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis. (Friedman, 2003, 42-47) The translation is from the New Revised Standard Version.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. (6:1-8)

Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”  And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him. (7:1-5)

And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.  The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. And the LORD shut him in. The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters.  The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. Everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. (7:7, 10, 12, 16c -20, 22-23)

The rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made.  Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark. And the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more. and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. (8:2b-3a, 8-12, 13b)

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.” (8:20-22)


The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan.
These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.

Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
 lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

He also said,
“Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave;
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.” (9:18-27)

All the elements of the Flood story are there: the prelude to the Flood, the Flood itself, and the aftermath of the Flood. It is a self-contained narrative that can be read and understood without the second source we find in Genesis 6-9.

The Priestly Version (or the P Source)

The second version of the Flood comes from what is known as the Priestly – or P – source. P was likely composed sometime after J in the sixth century BCE. In P the featured deity isn’t יְהוָה but אֱלֹהִים (Elohim or “God”), at least until the revelation of the divine name to Moses in Exodus 6:2-3. And whereas in J the deity Yahweh was more imminent and personable, in P he is more transcendant. The entire creation account of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is entirely P. The Priestly source seems to be very concerned with rules and regulations governing worship and holiness. Thus the book of Leviticus is almost exclusively from the Priestly source.

In P’s version of the Flood myth we can detect some of these elements. Clearly the name אֱלֹהִים appears rather than יְהוָה. We also see an emphasis on the dimensions and material of the ark (Genesis 6:14-16) which reads much like the description in Exodus of how the tabernacle was to be built (Exodus 26-27). We also see where P differs from J. Whereas in J the command is to take seven pairs of clean animals and birds and a pair of every unclean animal, in P Noah is simply told to take “two of every kind into the ark.” (Genesis 6:19) Furthermore, in P the Flood lasts over a year while in J it is just forty days and forty nights.

Here is Friedman’s reconstruction of P. As with J, I am using the New Revised Standard Version.

These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.  For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. (6:9-22)

Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days. (7:8-9, 11, 13-16a, 21, 24)

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared. and [he] sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth;  In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families. (8:1-2a, 3b-5, 7, 13, 14-19)

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (9:1-17)

Like J, P is a complete story which includes the reason for the Flood, the Flood itself, and the aftermath of the Flood. It can be read straight through and the reader will have understood it sufficiently. Regarding both J’s and P’s versions, Friedman notes that the

two flood stories are separable and complete. Each has its own language, its own details, and even its own conception of God. And even that is not the whole picture. The J flood story’s language, details, and conception of God are consistent with the language, details, and conception of God in other J stories. The P flood story is consistent with other P stories. And so on. (Friedman, 1997, 60)

Yet as old as the stories in J and P are, they are not the oldest versions of a Flood myth extant. In fact, we have no manuscripts of J and P from their respective time periods. The earliest Hebrew texts featuring the Flood myth were found in the caves of Qumran and date to the first or second century BCE. This is problematic for the claim by Kennedy and, by extension, Thomason that other ancient versions of the Flood were “written about eight hundred years after the Mosaic account.” (Kennedy, 2005, 37) The available data do not show this as we will see.

THE FLOOD BEFORE NOAH

The Flood myth is one that can be found in many different cultures, as Kennedy astutely observed. But there are at least three major versions of it that predate what we find in both the J and P versions of the Flood myth. Recall that J dates to around the tenth century BCE and P to the sixth. While undoubtedly these stories existed in some oral form, how far back the version with Noah as the hero goes is uncertain. But what we do know is that there are version of the myth that feature different heroes that are older than what we have in the biblical texts.

Atrahasis 

The first and oldest of the Flood myths that we will consider is known as the Epic of Atrahasis. It was composed sometime around 1700 BCE in the Sumerian city of Sippar by a scribe named Ipiq-Aya. The Epic is featured on three clay tablets each with eight columns and each column containing around fifty-five lines. (Dalley, 1989, 3) It features a creation narrative as well as a Flood narrative and has been called one of “the most significant works of Mesopotamian literature.” (Finkel, 2014, 92)

In the Epic‘s Flood narrative, the gods are upset that humanity has become too numerous and too noisy. The high god Ellil speaks to his council saying,

The noise of mankind has become too much.
I am losing sleep over their racket. (Dalley, 20)

Various methods are employed to cut down on the rabble but in the end Ellil decides to send a Flood to destroy humanity. However, not all the gods are thrilled by the idea of killing off everyone. One of them, Enki, reveals to Atrahasis that the Flood is coming and that he should dismantle his home and build a boat. Enki tells him to “reject possessions, and save living things.” (Dalley, 30) He even offers instructions as to how to build the vessel. There are to be upper and lower decks (cf. Genesis 6:15). It is to be pitched with bitumen (cf. Genesis 6:14). Atrahasis begins gathering animals – “pure ones” and “fat ones,” birds that “fly in the sky,” cattle, and wild animals of the “open country.” (Dalley, 31)

Atrahasis gathers up the animals and people and he hears the thunder from the god Adad being to roll.

When (?) he (Atrahasis) heard his noise,
Bitumen was brought and he sealed his door.
While he was closing up his door
Adad kept bellowing from the clouds.
The winds were raging even as he went up
(And) cut through the rope, he released the boat. (Dalley, 31)

Then the Flood arrives. Dubbed the kašušu-weapon, it covers the sun and makes it so that no one can see anyone else. It is such a frightening weapon that even the gods are terrified of it. And it rages for seven days and seven nights.

As the storm subsides, the vessel Atrahasis and those he saved are in comes to rest. He then offers a sacrifice to the gods who, when they smell it gather “like flies over the offering.” (Dalley, 33; cf. Genesis 8:21) But Ellil, who must not have been with the gods to smell the offering, sees the boat Atrahasis had been in and becomes very angry with the divine council.

We, the great Anunna, all of us
Agreed together on an oath!
No form of life should have escaped!
How did any man survive the catastrophe? (Dalley, 34)

Ellil knows that it is Enki who told Atrahasis about the Flood. “I did it, in defiance of you,” Enki tells the high god. “I made sure life was preserved….” (Dalley, 34) It is not clear what becomes of Atrahasis. But the gods decide to not send another Flood but find alternative methods to control the human population including causing stillbirths.

As I pointed out above, there are some similarities between the Epic and the biblical Flood narratives. In both stories, a Flood is decided upon by the god(s) to purge mankind. However, a hero is chosen out from mankind to preserve life and he is given instructions to build a boat and to take with him various animals. Following the Flood, the hero offers a sacrifice to the god(s). This is clear evidence that there was a common Flood story in the Ancient Near East upon which the biblical authors drew.

But there are also many differences between the Epic and the biblical texts. For example, while in both stories the Flood is sent to purge mankind, the reason for the Flood is different in the biblical text from the Epic. In J the Flood is sent because Yahweh is “sorry that he had made mankind” (Genesis 6:6) because of humanity’s “wickedness” (6:5). And in P the Flood is sent because “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (6:11) In the Epic the Flood is sent because of overpopulation, resulting in Ellil’s sleeplessness. There is also an emphasis on the covenant with Noah in J and P but we do not see any such covenant in the Epic.

These differences do not in any way detract from my point that the biblical authors drew from ANE versions of the Flood myth. What the differences show is that the biblical authors – J and P – accomodated the story for their own purposes. And the final editor of the Torah wove them together to create a single, authoritative version of the Flood myth. But as the Epic was composed in the seventeenth century BCE, it is far older than either J or P which were likely composed in the tenth and sixth centuries respectively.

Eridu Genesis

The second version of the Flood myth we will consider briefly is known as Eridu GenesisEridu is an old Sumerian version of the Flood story that was probably written down around 1600 BCE. (Finkel, 90) The tablet upon which it is written is not complete and we are missing nearly two-thirds of the whole story which undoubtedly included some kind of creation narrative. What we do have is the story of Ziusudra, a king in Shuruppak, who builds a boat to survive a Flood.

In Eridu, the gods have decided to destroy mankind for reasons not known to us. But as in the Epic of Atrahasis, not all the gods are in agreement that the Flood should be sent to destroy humanity and so Enki tells Ziusudra that the Flood is coming. Though it isn’t described in the text (those lines are missing), Ziusudra evidently builds a boat and takes with him animals and people. As the flood abates, Ziusudra exits the craft and offers a sacrifice to the gods. An enraged Ellil knows that Enki is the reason humanity has survived the Flood but because he has survived it Ziusudra is rewarded by Ellil and the gods immortality.

Now, there are elements that Eridu shares with the biblical narrative. There are differences as well. But as we saw with the Epic of Atrahasis, the point is that the reason the biblical narratives read similiarly to works like Eridu Genesis and the Epic of Atrahasis is that they borrowed elements from them. And as Eridu predates both J and P by centuries, it cannot be that Eridu is a bastardized form of the biblical versions. That ship won’t float.

Gilgamesh

The final version of the Flood story we will consider is perhaps the most famous of all: the Epic of Gilgamesh. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, a king in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, and his adventures.

[Of him who] found out all things, I [shall te]ll the land,
[Of him who] experienced everything, [I shall tea]ch the whole.
He searched (?) lands (?) everywhere.
He who experienced the whole gained complete wisdom.
He found out what was secret and uncovered what was hidden,
He brought back a tale of times before the Flood. (Dalley, 50)

The Epic was likely composed sometime around in the second millenium BCE and there are multiple versions. The Old Babylonian Version is the oldest, though it is missing numerous sections including the Flood narrative. The Standard Babylonian Version can be dated to around to the second millenium as well but the tablet upon which the Flood story was written – Tablet XI – does not date to the second millenium. Rather, it is a first millenium production, perhaps as old as P.

In the Epic‘s version of the Flood, Gilgamesh tracks down Ut-napishtim, the survivor of the Flood. He asks him to detail what happened and Ut-napishtim tells the tale. The gods had decided to send a flood to destroy humanity but, as in the Epic of Atrahasis and Eridu Genesis, not all the gods felt this was a good thing. One of them, Ea, swore that he would not reveal the plan to anyone so he goes to a reed hut and begins to give it instructions.

Listen, reed hut, and pay attention, brick wall:
(This is the message:)
Man of Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu,
Dismantle your house, build a boat.
Leave possessions, search out living things.
Reject chattels and save lives! (Dalley, 110)

Ea offers some instructions as to how Ut-napishtim, the “man of Shuruppak,” was to build the boat. He loads the vessel with gold, animals, and plant seeds. Then he sees the storm approaching and closes the door to the boat. “Everything light turned to darkness,” he tells Gilgamesh. (Dalley, 112)

As was the case in the Epic of Atrahasis, the gods are terrified of the Flood.

Even the gods were afraid of the flood-weapon.
They withdrew; they went up to the heaven of Anu.
The gods cowered, like dogs crouched by an outside wall. (Dalley, 113)

The storm rages on for six days and seven nights and finally ends on the seventh day. The boat in which Ut-naphishtim was in came to rest on Mount Nimush. After seven days, he releases a dove that comes back as it had nowhere to perch. Then he releases a swallow but it too returns. Finally, he releases a raven that did not return because the waters had finally receded. When he exits the craft, Ut-naphishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods.

Then I put (everything ?) out to the four winds, and I made a sacrifice,
Set out a surqinnu-offering upon the mountain peak,
Arranged the jars seven and seven;
Into the bottom of them I poured (essences of ?) reeds, pine, and myrtle.
The gods smelt the fragrance,
The gods smelt the pleasant fragrance,
The gods like flies gathered over the sacrifice. (Dalley, 114)

Ellil, the high god, comes down and discovers that there was a survivor of the Flood. He is enraged at Ea for revealing the plan and allowing Ut-napishtim to survive. But for his efforts, Ut-napishtim is rewarded with immortality.

It is quite obvious that the Epic of Gilgamesh‘s version of the Flood is very similiar to that of the Epic of Atrahasis. And it is also very similiar to the biblical version. In both the Epic and the biblical version, the boat rests on a named mountain or mountanous area. In both, birds are released to check the status of the Flood. In the Epic it is a dove three times while in J it is three different birds, including a dove.

Again, this is evidence that J and P were produced in a culture where stories of the Flood had already been circulating. The Yahwist and Priestly versions, then, are adaptations of the Flood myth and are not the original versions of it. The Epic of Gilgamesh clearly borrows from far older versions of the story, one that had been circulating for millenia.

Noah, Ziusudra, and Ut-naphishtim

The hero of the biblical version of the Flood is נֹ֫חַ, Noah. It looks similiar to the Hebrew word for “rest” – נ֫וּחַ. The hero of Eridu Genesis is Ziusudra whose name means something like “long life.” The hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh is Ut-naphishtim (or Uta-na’ishtim) and his name means “he found life.” It is possible that an abbreviated form of Uta-na’ishtim was used in ancient Palestine that was closely related to the name “Noah.” (Uta) – na’ish(tim) becomes “Na’ish,” phonetically close to “Noah.” (Dalley, 2) If this is the case, it is further evidence that the biblical authors were borrowing and adapating other ANE Flood stories.

There are other signs of this borrowing and adapting as well. In the Sumerian King List which dates to the third millenium BCE we read of numerous kings who reigned for tens of thousands of years. Before the Flood, there were a total of eight kings who ruled a total of 385,200 years. But after the Flood, those reigns are greatly shortened, the longest being a mere 1,200 years. (Coogan, 2013, 65-66) Similarly, in the biblical epic the lives of the antediluvian patriarchs are far longer than those of the postdiluvian patriarchs.

In another version of the Flood by a Babylonian priest named Berossus, the story’s hero is Xisuthros, a Hellenized rendering of “Ziusudra”. Berossus’ version begins with a list of ten antediluvian kings of whom Xisuthros is the tenth. In Genesis 5 we read of Adam’s genealogy and we have ten antediluvian patriarchs of whom Noah is the tenth.

THE MEANING OF IT ALL

Again and again we see that the biblical version clearly adapts other versions of the Flood story just as other cultures clearly did with one another. This should not be surprising as this was standard practice in the ANE. Stephanie Dalley writes, “Plagiarism and adaptability are characteristics of written literature in ancient Mesopotamia.” (Dalley, xvi) This is why we often see themes that stretch across cultures and why stories share details though the characters are often different.

Given that works like the Epic of Atrahasis and Eridu Genesis are far older than the biblical versions, Kennedy’s position as well as Thomason’s is invalid. The fact of the matter is that the biblical versions found in J and P are just two of many versions of the Flood myth but they are not by any stretch the oldest. Archaelogy has not confirmed the biblical account. If anything, it reveals its utter lack of imagination.

ENDNOTES

[1] I know of no Old Earth Creationists who believe in a worldwide Flood.  

[2] Kennedy also quotes Nelson Glueck in his book as saying, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.” (Kennedy, 38) Like the Burrows quote, Kennedy lifted Glueck’s words from McDowell’s volume. Glueck wrote those words in the 1960s and he was just plain wrong as the work of a myriad of archaeologists have shown.

This also shows that Kennedy was not relying on any analysis of the data but was simply quote-mining. Did Thomason sit under his tutelage or is this an “apologist” thing?

[3] Later in this same post in her bungled attempt to render γενεά as “times” in Matthew 24:34 she wrote, “The translation to times may also be the case, considering the earth’s age (4.5BY) and the time since Jesus walked the earth is relatively short.”

[4] The J refers to the German for Yahweh which is Jahweh.

PRINTED WORKS CITED

Michael D. Coogan. A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Stephanie Dalley. Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Irving Finkel. The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2014.

Richard Elliot Friedman. Who Wrote the Bible? New York, NY: HarperOne, 1997.

Richard Elliot Friedman. The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View Into the Five Books of Moses. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003. 

James Kennedy. Why I Believe. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2005.

 

 

 

 

Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 2

This is the second post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “And Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the first post here.

All biblical quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version. (Crossway, 2001)

PROMISE TWO – “MARCH AROUND JERICHO 7 DAYS AND JERICHO WILL FALL”

Continuing her post on God’s “promises” that he kept in the Bible, Thomason writes,

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, but critics say the battle never occurred. They state that walls do not fall down because of people marching around them. What is unusual is the fact that archeological evidence demonstrates the walls fell outward, when ordinarily walls fall inward.

As you can see, Thomason offers no source for the claim that “archeological evidence demonstrates that the walls fell outward.”  However, in the previous section on Babylon Thomason had relied on James Kennedy’s Why I Believe and it is there we find her claim.

Then there was the story about Jericho. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, but the critics said that it never happened. One does not just walk around a city and have the walls fall down flat. But what did Professor John Garstang, British archaeologist and authority on Hittite civilization, discover when he came to the site of Jericho to dig? He stated: “As for the main fact, there remains no doubt the walls fell outward so completely that the attackers would be able to clamber up and over their ruins into the city.” Why is that so unusual? Because walls do not fall outward. Ordinarily they fall inward, but in this case the walls were made by some superior power to fall outward, as the Bible says. The critics also declared that the account is obviously fatuous because it says that the Israelites marched around the city seven times in one day. You could not walk around a modern city of one hundred thousand people seven times in one day, and Jericho was described as a great city. But Garstang’s investigation provided an interesting fact about Jericho – it was small than the sites upon which many large metropolitan churches are built. Having been to Jericho many times, I know that I could walk around it seven times in one morning and play a set of tennis before lunch! Again the critics were proved wrong. (Kennedy, 2005, 34)

So, what do we make of this? Are Thomason and Kennedy right that the archaeological evidence shows that the walls of Jericho fell outward? Is this proof that God keeps his promises?

Joshua and Jericho

If you went to Sunday School as a child you are no doubt familiar with the story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho. After Moses’ death, Joshua, Moses’ assistant, is left to command the Israelites as they enter Canaan. (Joshua 1:1) One of the first major cities that Joshua has scouted is Jericho and he sends two men to the city to check out its defenses. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. (2:1) The king of Jericho learns that spies from the Israelite military were in Jericho and so he searches the city. He asks Rahab if she was housing the men but she lies and says that while they came to her house, she did not take them in and they left the city later that night. If the king wants to catch them, he should do so quickly. (2:2-5)

After the king leaves, Rahab goes to where she has hidden the two men and tells them that everyone in the region knows that Israel is on the move and that Yahweh is with them. She also knows that they will take Jericho which could mean death and destruction for her family and for herself. So she pleads with them to “deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” (2:12-13) The spies commit to this and she helps the men escape Jericho. (2:14-21)

Foster_Bible_Pictures_0085-1_The_Two_Israelites_Letting_Themselves_Down_from_Rahab's_House
An illustration of the two spies leaving Rahab’s house. From the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us. 

After a few days, both spies return to Joshua and tell him that “all the inhabitants of the land melt away because of us.” (2:24) Not long after, Israel crosses over the Jordan River and begins to approach Jericho. Jericho, in the mean time, has prepared for a siege and the city shuts down. (6:1) Yahweh tells Joshua to march around the city once a day for six days. While they do that, seven priests with seven trumpets will march too with the ark of the covenant behind them. On the seventh day, the Israelite military will march around the city seven times and then the priests will blow with their horns. Once the people hear the sound of the trumpet, they are to shout “with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat.” (6:2-5)

Joshua follows Yahweh’s command and on the seventh day, when the trumpets blew and the people shouted, Jericho’s walls fell and the people took the city. They “devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” (6:21) As a result of Jericho’s capture and destruction, Joshua’s “fame was in all the land.” (6:27)

Now, as fascinating a story this is and as memorable as it may be, it is unlikely that it has any basis in historical fact. It is not simply that, in Thomason’s words, “walls do not fall down because of people marching around them.” The reason is that at the time the Canaanite conquest was purportedly taking place, Jericho had no walls. In fact, it was likely not even inhabited.

Dating the Conquest

There are a variety of issues that need to be considered when asking what happened at Jericho. We cannot address each and every one of those issues but we do need to consider both historical and archaeological issues related to the conquest of Canaan by Israel which began with the destruction of Jericho.

In dating the conquest we must also date one of the major events that preceded it: the Exodus. The Deuteronomic Historian in 1 Kings 6 wrote that the time between the fourth year of Solomon’s reign and the Exodus of Israel was four-hundred and eighty years. (1 Kings 6:1) We can date Solomon’s reign to around 968 BCE which would put the Exodus at 1448 BCE. And since we know that Israel wandered for forty years in the desert before entering Canaan (Deuteronomy 2:7), this would put the conquest of Canaan and the sacking of Jericho at around 1408 BCE.

There are a variety of problems with this view. For starters, the number four-hundred and eighty may be symbolic as it is 40 x 12. Both the number forty and the number twelve are significant in biblical texts. And, as R. K. Harrison observed, it isn’t always easy to determine whether the numbers that the Bible is using are meant to be taken literally or symbolically. (Harrison, 1970, 131) The number forty in the Bible signifies a generation and it may be here that the historian is trying to fit twelve generations – just as there are twelve tribes of Israel over which Solomon ruled – into the period between the Exodus and the building of Solomon’s temple. In other words, perhaps it is merely a symbolic dating, not a historical one.

There is another issue as well. The first mention of Israel in non-Jewish texts comes from a poem written by the Egyptian Pharoah Merneptah who ruled from 1213-1203 BCE. The Merneptah Stele, composed sometime during that period, says,

The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!”
Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head:
Tehenu is pacified, Hatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is captured, Gezer seized,
Yahoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed,
Hurru is become a widow for Egypt.
All who roamed have been subdued
by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt,
Banere-meramun,
son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat,
given life like Re every day.
(Coogan, 2013, 75)

If the Exodus happened in 1448 and the conquest began in 1408, why is there no record of Israel for two-hundred years in Egyptian literature or, for that matter, any literature? This is problematic.

Merenptah_Israel_Stele_Cairo
The Merneptah Stele, By Webscribe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8206743

Another problem for the dating of Exodus in the fifteenth century BCE can be found in Exodus 1:11 – “Therefore they [i.e. the Egyptians] set taskmasters over them, to afflict them [i.e. the Israelites] with heavy burdens. They built for Pharoah store cities, Pithom and Raamses.” These cities were in actuality military garrisons that guarded northern Egypt from enemy invasion. Pithom – Egyptian for “house of Atum,” an Egyptian deity – and Ramesses (i.e. Raamses) – which would have been known in Egypt as Pi-Raamses or “house of Ramesses” – were cities constructed during the Nineteenth Dynasty, a period in Egyptian history that lasted from 1295-1186 BCE. (Durham, 1987, 8) The Pharoah who built Pi-Ramesses, Ramesses II, reigned in Egypt from 1279-1213 BCE, well over one-hundred and fifty years after the Exodus allegedly took place if we follow the chronology of the Deuteronomic Historian in 1 Kings 6:1. There is simply no way that the Israelites built those two cities if the Exodus happened in 1448.

We must also observe that in the fifteenth century BCE, the Pharoah who would have been the one presiding over the events of the Exodus would have been Thutmose III whose reign lasted from 1479 to 1450. (Cline, 2007, 75) Following his decisive win against a coalition of the Canaanites in Megiddo, Thutmose gained control of Canaan and used it as a platform to invade Mesopotamia. In fact, Egypt’s control of Canaan remained well into the thirteenth century under Pharoah’s like Ramesses II as the empire was in the thirteenth century “at the peak of its authority – the dominant power in the world.” (Finklestein & Silberman, 2001, 60) The idea that the Israelites were dominating Canaan during the late fifteenth and early fourteenth centuries does not fit with the data.

So, when did the Exodus occur? [1] It must have occurred before the reign of Merneptah (1213-1203) but not before the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213). Many scholars date the Exodus, then, to around 1250 BCE. This would put the conquest of Canaan under Joshua’s regime to 1210. But now we run into more trouble.

Did the Walls Come Tumbling Down?

We have already noted that Egypt’s power in Canaan was at its height, making an Israelite conquest of the region unlikely. But there is specific evidence that makes the claim to an Israelite attack on cities like Jericho even more improbable, if not entirely untenable.

Excavations of the ruined city of Jericho began in the nineteenth century but a more thorough one was conducted by the British archaeologist John Garstang who was referenced by Kennedy. Garstang conducted his work in the 1930s and concentrated on City IV, the version of Jericho that supposedly existed at the time of the Israelite conquest of the region. Among the various things Garstang discovered, by far the most important was a wall that had been destroyed presumably by an earthquake. Jericho had walls throughout much of its history, even as far back as 3000 BCE. But the wall at City IV had to be dated to 1400 BCE in Garstang’s view for a number of reasons. This was proof that the biblical account was vindicated: the Israelites had marched on Jericho and sacked it after an earthquake and taken down its wall. (Cline, 2009, 40-41)

This was, of course, not without controversy. Previous excavators had dated City IV to 1550 BCE and so Garstang was essentially upending the prevailing model. This is, of course, what good scientists do, but good scientists also check each other’s work. And in Garstang’s case that peer-review came in the form of Kathleen Kenyon, director of the School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. From 1952 to 1958 she labored in Jericho to see if Garstang was right and to uncover what happened to the famous city. (Cline, 2009, 40)

Kenyon [2] discovered that Garstang was wrong about much of his findings. For starters, City IV was indeed destroyed by a military force but it wasn’t the Israelites and it wasn’t in 1400. Rather, the destruction had been caused by the Egyptians around 1500 BCE. Furthermore, the wall that Garstang had discovered was likely destroyed by an earthquake, not in 1400, but in 2400 BCE. (Dever, 2003, 45)

However, Kenyon’s most important finding deals a death-blow to the version of the Canaanite conquest recorded in the book of Joshua. She showed that during the time period when the Israelite conquest must have occurred that the city of Jericho was abandoned and unfortified. There were no inhabitants to slaughter and no wall to march around. In other words, the biblical story was flat-out wrong. (Dever, 46-47)

The Purpose of the Story

So if there was no battle at Jericho, where did the story come from? For starters, we must acknowledge the fact that the book of Joshua was not written at the time of the conquest. The book shows similarities with Deuteronomy, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. It is a Deuteronomic History and as such was likely put together from various sources during the days of King Josiah. The Deuteronomic Historian

took texts that told the story of his people’s arrival in the land – the stories of Joshua, Jericho, and the conquest – and he added a few lines at the beginning and at the end to set the story in a certain light. This became the book of Joshua. (Friedman, 1997, 130)

The main purpose behind telling such stories, particularly at that time in Judah’s history, was to show that Yahweh had been with Joshua and the people in their conquest of the land. That land belonged to them, their descendants, despite the threats from the Assyrians or Egyptians or Babylonians. Just as Yahweh was with Joshua so too would he be with Judah if they would return to him and get rid of false gods.

That isn’t to say that the Deuteronomic Historian knew he wasn’t writing history. Undoubtedly, he thought he was. But six centuries would have separated him from Joshua and without proper records he would have had to rely on much later traditions no doubt. Furthermore, there was no such thing as “archaeology” by which he could have unearthed evidence of City IV of Jericho, nor were there things like radiocarbon dating or the “Kenyon-Wheeler” method of excavation. The historian worked with what he had. And what he had, as it turns out, was false.

God’s Broken Promise

So in the end, despite the claims of Thomason (or Kennedy), the promise from God that if the people marched around Jericho once a day for six days, seven times the seventh day, and shouted when they heard the blast of the priests’ horns, the walls would fall down simply did not come to pass for one very simple reason: there was no wall there to be felled.

END NOTES

[1] In proposing a date for the Exodus I am in no way committing myself to belief that it occurred as the book of Exodus narrates. I am skeptical that such an event ocurred and tentatively think that if an exodus-type event happened, it was in reality multiple events that took place gradually over time. As I type this end note, it is August 28th, 2017 and in September a new book is coming out by Richard Elliot Friedman entitled The Exodus: How it Happened and Why It Matters (HarperOne, 2017). I am looking forward to seeing Friedman’s view on the issues.

[2] The Vassar College website has an excellent overview of the excavations at Jericho that can be found here.

PRINTED WORKS CITED

Eric H. Cline. From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2007.

Eric H. Cline. Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Michael D. Coogan. A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

William G. Dever. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.

John I. Durham. Exodus. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987.

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 2001.

Richard Elliot Friedman. Who Wrote the Bible? second edition. New York, NY: Harper One, 1997.

R. K. Harrison. Old Testament Times. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1970.

James Kennedy. Why I Believe. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2005.

 

Evangelical Eisegesis: SJ Thomason and “God’s Promises,” part 1

The last post I did on “Evangelical Eisegesis” covered the Twitter ramblings of Greg Locke, the veritable gift that keeps on giving. Today’s post will cover a similar fountain of fallaciousness who I’ve briefly dealt with before on this blog: SJ Thomason. Thomason runs around Twitter with the moniker “Christian Apologist” and she can be seen posting all sorts of curious statements like this one.

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894381565970702336

Oh, and this one.

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894359705027522560

These are just relatively recent posts. I’ll leave it to the reader to dig into her older posts to find the really good stuff. She also has a blog which features some of her thoughts on issues related to atheism and atheists. She posted a link to it on Twitter though she apparently deleted that tweet at some point. It was here. While it was still up, I couldn’t help but comment.

Then she accused me of just throwing jabs.

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894339729541533696

So I decided to write this blog post.

God’s Promises

I am writing this post working under the assumption that you’ve read Thomason’s blog post. If you haven’t, please do so. It will not be a huge investment of your time or mental energies. The post is mostly fluff and reworking of stuff written by the late James Kennedy and the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, a resource I’ve perused myself a few times. There is very little that is original to her but nevertheless we must address her claims.

My rebuttal to Thomason will come in seven posts, mirroring the seven “promises” she structured her post with. But before we dive in, let’s briefly consider what she says about atheists and their use of the Bible. She writes,

In my time on social media, I have discovered a good number of atheists who pull Bible verses out of context in an effort to discredit its authors and the source from whom the Bible was authored: God.

At the outset, let me say that I agree with almost all of that sentence. I am currently working on a blog post about problems within the nativity stories that may or may not come out sometime in 2018. But in that post I say this:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Many atheists on social media who claim to have read the Bible are either lying or they have only read it to find fault with it. In either case, the general lack of understanding about the Bible among those atheists is worrisome, particularly when they make comments like, “Reading the Bible will make you an atheist.” That statement has never been true and even if it were it could only ever produce the sort of shallow atheism for which the only parallel is the shallow theism we see in the general American public. What’s the saying – American Christianity is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep? Ditto for American atheism.

Atheists love to say that they’ve read the Bible but more often than not all they produce in conversations with theists are the same texts that Christians have adequately dealt with time and again. “The Bible says bats are birds” (no, it doesn’t), “Jesus said he was not going to bring peace but a sword” (yes, but read what he meant in context), etc. Many atheists I encounter on social media have a very shallow understanding of biblical texts or they draw conclusions based on a very shaky exegetical basis.

But Christians are guilty of the same. Thomason made the following comment on Twitter to an atheist.

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894535611314581505

I asked her,

She responded with,

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894536741633363968

I found that odd.

She replied.

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894538642735214593

I was even more perplexed since she had cited John 3:16 as proof. Now she threw this in there without offering an explanation. (This is her typical MO.)

Thomason responded,

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894624379967033344

I was still confused.

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894628993172897794

Huh?

Then Thomason throws in her own jab.

https://twitter.com/Lead1225/status/894631078203359233

And since I’m a glutton for punishment.

You see, it isn’t just atheists who “pull Bible verses out of context.” Christians like Thomason are guilty of it as well. And as we will see, her use of the Bible is at times quite problematic. She continues.

The intention of this blog is to analyze the truth behind a handful of Biblical passages, which have provided sources of controversy to atheists. Additionally, I will show the way God has used the Bible to demonstrate how He keeps His promises. 

Let’s be clear. The post does nothing to “analyze the truth behind” any biblical passage. There is no attempted exegesis, no appreciation for the complex historical issues involved, and certainly no attempt by Thomason to consider alternative sides. For Thomason, “analysis” involves quoting your own team and avoiding all evidence to the contrary. Why? Because, as a pop apologist, Thomason wants to avoid anything that might conflict with her biases. Reading the other side to learn from the other side is anathema! But this will not be so for this series of posts from me. And with that, let us tackle the first of “God’s Promises.”

All biblical quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version. (Crossway, 2001)

PROMISE ONE: “BABYLON SHALL NOT BE INHABITED”

Thomason writes,

Jeremiah (51:42) states: “The sea will rise over Babylon; its roaring waves will cover her. Her towns will be desolate, dry and desert land, a land where no one lives, though which no one travels.” Jeremiah (50:13,39) says: “Because of the wrath of the Lord it shall not be inhabited, for it shall be wholly desolate…It shall be no more inhabited forever.”

According to James Kennedy (1999, pp. 11-12) the site of Babylon is “a dry waste, a parched and burning plain…God said it would never be built again – a prophecy totally contrary to all expectations of the past, where every city of the Near East that had been destroyed had been built again. Babylon was situated in the most fertile part of the Euphrates valley, and yet twenty-five hundred years have come and gone, and Babylon to this day remains an uninhabited waste.”

In Narrative of a Journey to the Site of Babylon in 1811, Claudius James Rich states: “For the space of two months throughout the year the ruins of Babylon are inundated by the annual overflowing of the Euphrates so as to render many parts of them inaccessible by converting the valleys into morasses.”

In 323 B.C., Alexander the Great determined that he would make Babylon the capital of his worldwide empire. “He issued six hundred thousand rations to his soldiers to rebuild the city of Babylon. Would God be disproved? History records the fact that immediately after making the declaration to rebuild Babylon, Alexander the Great was struck dead, and the whole enterprise was abandoned (Kennedy, 1999, pp. 12).

It is clear from reading Thomason’s entire blog post of about 2,000 words that the first few sections depend almost entirely on a book written by the late James Kennedy entitled Why I Believe. For those of you unfamiliar with him, Kennedy was at one time an immensely popular evangelical pastor whose Coral Ridge Hour was broadcast to televisions across the United States for a number of years. I can remember my dad changing the station to the Coral Ridge Hour before we left to head to our own church. Kennedy was a methodical preacher who spoke with great clarity. He was also a prolific writer, authoring books on history, theology, and apologetics. His death in 2007 marked the end of an era for not only his church but for all of evangelicalism.

In this section of Thomason’s post she offers up a couple of citations from Kennedy with the goal of showing that the Bible’s prophecy that Babylon would no longer be inhabited has been fulfilled. Before we examine Thomason’s (and Kennedy’s) claim, let’s briefly discuss the city of Babylon and its relationship to the Bible and the biblical texts that Thomason cites specifically.

Babylon and the Bible

In the book of Psalms there is a poem of lament that likely originated in the era following Judah’s exile by the Babylonian Empire. It reads,

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the sons of Zion!”

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:1-9, ESV)

One can feel both the anguish over their lost homeland (137:1-6) as well as the rage of having that homeland ravished by the conquering Babylonians. (137:7-9) Few psalms capture such range of emotion, particularly the imprecatory ending. The vitriol against Babylon extends even to the empire’s “little ones,” a sign that such horrible things as being dashed against rocks happened to Jewish infants as well.

The word “Babylon” is the Hebrew word בָּבֶל, Babel. The first time we see Babel in the Hebrew Bible is in the “Table of Nations” listed in Genesis 10. The Table traces the children of Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. But instead of beginning with Shem and ending with Japheth, the section begins with Japheth and ends with Shem. What is even more fascinating is that the author of the Table spends far more time on the “sons of Ham” (10:6-20) than he does on either “the sons of Japheth” (10:2-5) or Shem’s progeny. (10:21-31) The likely reason is that the Table functions as an etiology and, in particular, it is functioning as an account of the origins of Israel’s various enemies they encounter from the days of their wandering in the desert to after the Babylonians take the Israelites away into captivity.

For example, Ham has four sons: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. (10:6) Cush has five sons: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. Raamah has two sons: Sheba and Dedan. (10:7) And then the text veers off course and mentions another son of Cush not mentioned among the five listed in 10:7 – Nimrod. (10:8) Nimrod is described as “the first on earth to be a mighty man” (10:8) and “a mighty hunter before the LORD.” (10:9) And then it says that Nimrod’s kingdom began with the cities of Babel (בָּבֶל), Erech, Accad, and Calneh in “the land of Shinar.” (10:10) It also says that Nimrod “went into Assyria and built Nineveh.” (10:11) So we can already detect two of the great Ancient Near East superpowers who laid siege to Israel and Judah: the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

Following the Table of Nations is a story that takes place in “the land of Shinar” – the story of the Tower of Babel. (11:1-9) There the people have gathered together and decide to make bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar so that they can built a tower to heaven. (11:3) But Yahweh comes down and sees what they are doing and decides that they cannot be allowed to build this tower because if they do then “nothing that they propose to do will…be impossible for them.” (11:6) So he confuses their languages so that, as they once all spoke with the same tongue, they would now speak with different tongues. The city they were building around this sky-scraping tower was dubbed “Babel” (בָּבֶל).

The narrative on the Tower of Babel is yet another etiology, this time to explain the origins of Babylon and their impressive technological and architectural feats as well as their abject godlessness. (It is also intended to explain the origin of the various languages of the world.) The “tower” is very likely a reference to the ziggurat of the Babylonian deity Marduk known as Etemenanki. This temple was described by the Greek historian Herodotus writing in the fifth century BCE.

The gates of this sanctuary are bronze, its shape is square and its sides are each 2 stades long. Right in its centre a tower of solid brick [c.f. Genesis 11:3] has been constructed, a square stade in size, and on top of this there stands another tower, and on top of that a third in turn, and so it continues, right the way up to the eighth. Sculpted into the exterior of these eight towers, winding its way up to the very summit, is a staircase; and midway up this staircase is a resting place complete with benches, where those who are making the ascent can sit down and catch their breath. In the very topmost tower there is a huge temple; and within this temple are stationed a large couch, adorned with splendid coverings, and beside it a golden table. No cult-statue is to be seen standing there, however – nor, after dark, any mortal. There is one exception to this rule, however, for the god (according to the Chaldean priests who serve him) will select a single woman, a native of the city, to pass the night in his shrine. (Herodotus, 1.181)

This would have been an impressive sight to behold and fits the description of a temple reaching up to heaven. [1]

640px-Etemenanki_Berlin
A model of Etemenanki, the ziggurat of Marduk in Babylon.

The Rise of Babylon

As we noted in our brief discussion of Psalm 137 above, at some point in Judah’s history the Babylonians had come in and taken away captives from the kingdom’s cities. But Babylon was not always a world power and the city was itself the subject of sieges and intense warfare.

Whereas the Bible ascribes the founding of Babylon to Nimrod (Genesis 10:10), it is unclear who actually founded the city. The city began to emerge on the world stage under Sargon of Akkad, a Mesopotamian ruler who reigned from 2334 to 2279 BCE. Sargon had conquered the ancient city of Sumer but had expanded his empire into the surrounding regions which included the area of Babylon. [2] Sargon was the first true empire-builder who sent his forces all over the Ancient Near East and even to places as far off as Ethiopia. (Roberts, 2002, 58) The Akkadian Empire did not last but a few centuries and was finally done away with by in-fighting and invasions from outsiders. Sargon’s great empire was split into pieces and the prominent ruler of the area became Gudea who centered his reign in the city of Lagash. (Podany, 2014, 51)

391px-Ancient_Egypt_and_Mesopotamia_c._1450_BC
The ANE c. 1450 BCE.

Not long after the reign of Gudea, the region was subsumed by Ur-Namma. Ur-Namma’s reign oversaw the construction of great ziggurats, including one in Ur that reportedly took two million baked bricks and five million sun-dried bricks to build. (Podany, 53) Babylon under Ur-Namma remained a small town on the Euphrates River. It would not be until around 2000 BCE when Babylon would begin to come to the forefront.

Historians divide Babylonian history into five periods. (Walton, 1994, 68) The first period known as the Old Babylonian Period (2000-1600 BCE) featured a number of Amorite kings among whom was the famous Hammurabi who reigned from 1792 to 1750 BCE. Hammurabi is of course known for his legal code which included the lex talionis style justice that is featured in ancient Israelite law. (Exodus 21:23-24) It was not long after his reign, around 1600 BCE, that Babylon was sacked by Hittite invaders and the region of Mesopotamia fell into disarray. (Roberts, 61)

Amorite control of Babylon ended and Kassite control began. This was the dawn of the Kassite Period (1600-1160 BCE). Fascinatingly, in a region and time period typically plagued with violence, the Kassite period was relatively peaceful. But this too would end when Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria sacked Babylon in 1235 BCE and then between 1160-1157 BCE the Elamites ended Kassite rule. (Walton, 68; Podany, 99)

What follows is known as the Middle Babylonian Period (1160-730 BCE) [3] and the standout king in that time frame is Nebuchadnezzar I. (He is not to be confused with Nebuchadnezzar of the Neo-Babylonian Period.) Nebuchadnezzar I ruled in Babylon for two decades (1126-1105 BCE) and restored the idol of Marduk that had been stolen by the Elamites (Roberts, 64) to the temple in Babylon. Babylon continued in relative strength but all the while a threat was looming to the north in the form of the Assyrians.

That threat would not go away and the Assyrians gathered more and more territory including Babylon in 729 BCE. The Assyrians would also come against other kingdoms, including Israel.

In the thirty-ninth year of Azariah king of Judah [circa 745 BCE], Menahem the son of Gadi began to reign over Israel, and he reigned ten years in Samaria. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He did not depart all his days from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. Pul the king of Assyria came against the land, and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that he might help him to confirm his hold on the royal power. Mehahem exacted the money from Israel, that is, from all the wealthy men, fifty shekels of silver from every man, to give to the king of Assyria. So the king of Assyria turned back and did not stay there in the land. (2 Kings 15:17-20)

If the name Pul doesn’t ring a bell, keep in mind that “Pul” was his birth name. He went by the moniker Tiglath-Pileser III and was one of the greatest kings the Assyrian Empire had ever known.

Tiglath-Pileser’s reign ended in 727 BCE and he would be succeeded by a series of Assyrian kings. One of the most famous was Sennacherib [4] and it was during his reign (704-681 BCE) that Babylon revolted against Assyrian control. For their defiance, Sennacherib destroyed the ancient city in 689 BCE, leaving it in utter ruins. Sennacherib was assassinated in 681 and his successor Esarhaddon rebuilt Babylon in 676 BCE.

Fifty years later would see the dawn of the Neo-Babylonian Period (625-539 BCE) when Nabopolassar gained independence from Assyrian rule. In-fighting among the Assyrians had given the Babylonians, in cooperation with the Medes, the opportunity to wage war deep into Assyrian lands, eventually destroying the capital city of Nineveh in 612 BCE. The Assyrian kingdom was then divided up among the conquerors. (Podany, 111)

Babylon and Judah

Though Assyria was no more, the new empire of Babylon meant that the tiny kingdom of Judah had gone from the frying pan into the fire. After Yahweh rescued Jerusalem from the Assyrians, Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon, sent envoys to Hezekiah “for he heard that Hezekiah had been sick.” (2 Kings 20:12) Hezekiah took them in and showed them all his wealth. But he is confronted by Isaiah the prophet and it is through him that a message from Yahweh is given.

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD. And some of your own sons, who shall be born to you, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (20:16-18)

Strangely, Hezekiah is okay with this message of future doom for selfish reasons. He figures that as long as Babylon doesn’t come during his reign, who cares? He will be dead and gone when that time comes. (20:19)

Hezekiah dies and his son Manasseh takes his place. (20:21) Manasseh is wicked and undoes Hezekiah’s work. (21:2-9) Because of his evil, Yahweh says that he will send “such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle” and that he will “wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” (21:10-15) Manasseh dies and is replaced by Amon. (21:18) Amon is assassinated and is replaced by Josiah. (21:23-24) Under Josiah, a religious reform is ushered in (22:3-23:27) that unfortunately does not last. Josiah rides out with his military to take on the Pharoah Neco but is killed in battle. (23:28-29) The Chronicler describes the battle and its aftermath.

After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates, and Josiah went out to meet him. But he sent envoys to him saying, “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. And the archers shot King Josiah. And the king said to his servants, “Take me away, for I am badly wounded.” So his servants took him out of the chariot and carried him in his second chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. And he died and was buried in the tombs of his fathers. All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a rule in Israel; behold, they are written in the Laments. (2 Chronicles 35:20-25)

Neco had gathered his forces to assist the Assyrians against the Babylonians and it seems that Josiah was trying to curry favor from the Babylonians by taking out Neco for them. This ended in utter disaster for him and at his funeral the prophet Jeremiah utters a lament for him.

Josiah is replaced by Jehoahaz (23:30) but Neco comes and places him in chains and forces Judah to pay tribute to Egypt. (23:33) Jehoahaz is taken to Egypt where he dies and Eliakim is put in the throne of Jerusalem. (23:34) Neco changes Eliakhim’s name to Jehoiakim and Jehoiakim becomes a loyal vassal of Neco. (23:35) Like so many before him, Jehoiakim is a wicked ruler but his reign would not last forever. (23:36-37)

Enter Nebuchadnezzar

In 605 BCE a new king came to power in Babylon following the death of Nabopolassar. He took the name of another famous Babylonian ruler: Nebuchadnezzar. The vacuum left by the fall of the Assyrians in 612 BCE meant that the region was ripe for conquerors. In the north, the Medes, allies of the Babylonians, had managed to take control. In the south, Egypt tried to take control areas to its north and east but they were stopped by Nebuchadnezzar, “the greatest king of his time, perhaps of any time until his own,” and it is under his reign that “an Indian summer of grandeur and a last Babylonian empire, which more than any other captured the imagination of posterity” emerged. (Roberts, 117) And in the final years of the tiny kingdom of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar comes knocking.

While Jehoiakim is on the throne Nebuchadnezzar comes to the city and forces him to become his servant for three years. But then Jehoiakim decides to rebel. (24:1) This angers Yahweh who had already decided that Judah’s days were numbered thanks to Manasseh (23:26-27) and so he sends in “bands of the Chaldeans and bands of the Syrians and bands of the Moabites and bands of the Ammonites” to destroy Judah. (24:2) Whereas the Deuteronomic Historian in 2 Kings only says that Jehoiakim died after the armies of Judah’s enemies had come in to the land, the Chronicler writes that Nebuchadnezzar “bound him in chains to take him to Babylon.” (2 Chronicles 36:6) Furthermore, the Babylonian king had taken with him “part of the vessels of the house of the LORD to Babylon and put them in his palace in Babylon.” (36:7)

Jehoiakim is replaced by the eighteen-year old Jehoiachin who ends up only reigning three months in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 24:8) In the spring of his reign (2 Chronicles 36:19) Nebuchadnezzar comes to Jersualem again and lays siege to it. (2 Kings 24:10-11) Jehoiachin gives himself up and he is taken prisoner and lives out the rest of his days in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar apparently takes more from Yahweh’s temple and the royal treasury. [5] He also takes 10,000 captives which include officials, soldiers, craftsmen, and blacksmiths. (24:12-16) In Jehoiachin’s stead, Nebuchadnezzar places Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, on the throne and changes his name to Zedekiah. (24:17)

Zedekiah’s reign in Jerusalem lasts eleven years. (24:18) But like Jehoiakim, hecontinues to do evil against Yahweh and then he rebels against the king of Babylon. (24:19-20) This is it for the kingdom of Judah, the city of Jerusalem, and most importantly, the temple of Yahweh.

The Fall of Judah

In 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar brings his military to the gates of Jerusalem and lays siege to it. This happens in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign and it lasts until the eleventh year of his reign. (25:1-2) Cut off from the outside world, the city begins to starve. (25:3) Then an opening is created in the wall of Jerusalem and “all the men of war” escape by it. With them is Zedekiah and his sons who are soon captured by the Babylonian army. They bring Zedekiah to the king of Babylon who is camped at Riblah. Nebuchadnezzar removes Zedekiah’s eyes, kills his children, and takes the vanquished king to Babylon with him. (25:4-7)

The Babylonian military storms the city. The temple of Yahweh is destroyed as are the great houses of the city. The wall that had surrounded Jerusalem is broken down and the inhabitants are taken into captivity. The temple is also looted (presumably before it is destroyed) and they take everything. Well, everything that was left to take. The temple leadership, commanding officers of the Jewish army, and various others are then brought before Nebuchadnezzar and executed. “So Judah was taken into exile out of its land.” (25:18-21)

For those that remained in the land of Judah, their king would now be a foreigner. But some still would not bow the knee. Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah, a Judean, to govern Judah for Babylon. This was seen as an act of betrayal and soon some patriotic young men pledged lip-service to Babylon but then a few months later assassinated Gedaliah and killed a few more Babylonians and Jews who were loyal to the new king. They then fled to Egypt, away from Babylon. (25:22-26)

The Deuteronomic history ends with the release of Jehoiachin by Evil-merodach, son of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned from 562-560 BCE. Apparently, Jehoiachin removes his prison apparel, puts on more royal attire, and is given a regular audience with the king during dinner. He is also given an allowance to cover his daily needs. (25:27-30) The Chronicler ends his version with a proclamation by the Persian king Cyrus who declares that Yahweh has commissioned him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and to the Jews return to the land. (2 Chronicles 36:22-23) The books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the details of that era.

Jeremiah the Prophet

As we have already seen, throughout this time period various prophets had been working in Israel and Judah. During the Assyrian control of the region the prophets Amos and Hosea worked in Israel while Isaiah and Micah worked in Judah. During the Neo-Babylonian era, the prophets Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel were at work. These prophets brought Yahweh’s message to leadership and the people in times of great distress. Sometimes their message was doom and gloom. Sometimes it was of a future hope. Always their call was to true worship of Yahweh.

You may remember that after Josiah is killed in battle and his body is returned to Jerusalem, the city mourns. At his funeral, one prophet in particular stands up and offers a lament – Jeremiah. According to the book that bears his name, Jeremiah was a priest in the town of Anathoth, a small village in the land of Benjamin. (Jeremiah 1:1) It was during the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah (627 BCE) that “the word of the LORD came” to him and it did again during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah. In fact, Jeremiah prophesied all the way up to the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE itself. (1:2-3)

The book of Jeremiah, though not entirely original to him, reflects Jeremiah’s message and attitude toward the historical context Judah found itself in during the 6th and 7th centuries BCE. It is the longest of the prophetic books in both its number of words and number of verses. It is also one of the most difficult of the prophetic books to read for a number of reasons.

The modern reader of the Book of Jeremiah is faced at the outset with a difficult task. What has survived is not a book, in the normal sense of that word; it does not move from beginning to end, following a clear logic and inner development. Indeed, the major portion of the substance of this “book” was never designed for the literary context in which it has survived; the stuff of which Jeremiah’s book is constructed started life in various contexts, ranging from public proclamation to private diary. What we are dealing with, then, in reading the Book of Jeremiah, is a work that is essentially an anthology, or more precisely an anthology of anthologies. (Craigies, Kelley, and Drinkard, 1991, xxxi-xxxii)

This anthology was likely completed sometime after Jeremiah’s death and there are a number of signs that indicate that a redactor put together what we have now. Of course, in saying that I am implying that there is a single text of Jeremiah. In truth, there isn’t.

One other problem clouds the issue of composition even more: the Hebrew and Greek texts of the book differ significantly. The LXX text is one-seventh shorter than the MT [Masoretic Text] and also has the oracles against the nations in the middle (between 25:13 and 15) rather than at the end (chs. 46-51). Evidence from Qumran suggests that LXX was translated from a short Hebrew original different from that behind MT. Given how greatly LXX and MT diverge, the final book may once have existed in more than one form, or both MT and LXX may ultimately derive from a common Hebrew original. (Lasor, et. al., 1996, 340-341)

Both the tradition behind the LXX and the MT are attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, “indicating that the book of Jeremiah had a fluid editorial history.” (Hutton, 2010, 1058) [6] For the purposes of this post, we will be considering the MT’s version of Jeremiah unless otherwise noted.

Within the book of Jeremiah there are three major cycles of oracles and traditions. (Hutton, 1058) Within each of these cycles are various literary forms, typically designated by the letters A, B, and C. Oracles in the form of poetry make up form A; prose narratives, usually about Jeremiah, make up form B; and speeches and discourses in prose form make up form C. (Craigies, et.al, xxxii) The cycles themselves, however, are not written along chronological or theological lines. In fact, an analysis of Jeremiah reveals “no clear principle or development in the book.” (Anderson, 1998, 351) This makes interpreting the book a bit difficult. [7]

Before we move to take on Thomason’s specific claim concerning God’s “promise” that appears in the book of Jeremiah, let’s briefly examine the three cycles. For the details of each cycle, I’ll be borrowing from Paul House’s outline of Jeremiah that appears in the ESV Study Bible (2008, 1367-1368).

Cycle One: Jeremiah 1-25

Cycle One of Jeremiah covers a lot of ground. It begins with an introduction (1:1-19) that covers the historical setting for Jeremiah’s ministry as well as his call by Yahweh. Following this there is a diatribe by Yahweh on Israel’s covenantal unfaithfulness (2:1-6:30), including portends of disaster and what will happen if Judah does not repent of its sin. The book then moves onto the topic of false religion and idolatry. (7:1-10:25) Judah has rejected God’s law and for it they will go into exile. Next is a description of Jeremiah’s own struggles with both Yahweh and Judah. (11:1-20:18) He faces opposition by some in leadership and the people. He also feels that God has betrayed him. Finally, we see Jeremiah confronting kings, false prophets, and the people of Judah. (21:1-25:38)

Cycle Two: Jeremiah 26-45

Cycle Two begins with Jeremiah opposing false belief (26:1-29:32), and he himself is threatened with execution for delivering a doom and gloom message. He is, of course, spared. The book then goes on to promises of a restoration for Israel and Judah. (30:1-33:26) Yahweh will honor the covenant he made with David. Next we see God judging Judah. (34:1-45:5) Because of Judah’s rejection of Yahweh and his law, Yahweh will destroy them by means of the Babylonians.

Cycle Three: Jeremiah 46-51

The final cycle features a series of oracles against various nations that surround Judah (46:1-51:64) including Egypt, Philistia, Moab, and Babylon.

Jeremiah 52

The last chapter of the book of Jeremiah is a description of the fall of Jerusalem that is practically verbatim from 2 Kings 24:18-25:7.

Judgment on Babylon

We now have some background about the book to deal with the text that Thomason brings up when she writes about God’s “promise” as it pertains to the fate of Babylon. In her post she quoted from Jeremiah 51:42 and 50:13, 39. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophetic utterances against Babylon appear in chapters fifty and fifty-one and I will offer a brief analysis of the two chapters. I will be borrowing the schematic for Jeremiah 50-51 from Keown, et. al (1995, 361-362).

Jeremiah 50:1-3

The introduction to the oracle against Babylon begins with these words.

The word that the LORD spoke concerning Babylon, concerning the land of the Chaldeans, by Jeremiah the prophet:

“Declare among the nations and proclaim,
set up a banner and proclaim,
conceal it not, and say:
‘Babylon is taken,
Bel is put to shame,
Merodach is dismayed.
Her images are put to shame,
her idols are dismayed.

The oracle against Babylon is similar to the oracles against the other nations. The beginning of the oracles in 46:1 reads, “The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning the nations.” There are eight oracles total and they all contain some version of what we see in 50:1 whether it is “the word of the LORD that came to,” “concerning” a particular nation or land, or “the word that the LORD spoke.” Here there is the use of a “by Jeremiah the prophet,” a unique phrase that is not characteristic of the section.

The lengthy oracle begins with a declaration concerning the fall of Babylon and it couches it in terms related to her gods. The city has been captured but it is the city’s gods who are truly demoralized: “Bel is put to shame, Merodach is dismayed.” Robert Carroll notes that

the defeat of Babylon is the defeat of the god and the triumph of Yahweh – a logic not used in the tradition with reference to Jerusalem’s defeat in 587 but mooted in lament psalms (e.g. 44.23-26; 74.18-23; 79; 89.38-48) within the constraints of the chauvinistic theology of the national cult. (Carroll, 1986, 819)

Marduk (“Merodach,” ESV) was the supreme deity of the Babylonian pantheon though it had not always been that way. Marduk, though known to be a deity, was only considered a minor god at the beginning of the third millennium BCE. (Hamilton, 1984, 525) But it was during the reign of  Nebuchadrezzar that his position amongst that pantheon was that of supreme god.

The glory of the [Babylonian] empire came to a focus in the cult of Marduk, which was now at its zenith. At a great New Year festival held each year all the Mesopotamian gods – the idols and statues of provincial shrines – came down the rivers and canals to take counsel with Marduk at his temple and acknowledge his supremacy. Borne down a processional way three-quarters of a mile long (which was, we are told, probably the most magnificent street of antiquity) or landed from the Euphrates nearer to the temple, they were taken into the presence of a statue of the god which, Herodotus reported two centuries later, was made of two and a quarter tons of gold. No doubt he exaggerated, but it was indisputably magnificent. The destinies of the whole world, whose centre was this temple, were then debated by the gods and determined for another year. Thus theology reflected political reality. The re-enacting of the drama of creation was the endorsement of Marduk’s eternal authority, and this was an endorsement of the absolute monarchy of Babylon. The kind had the responsibility for assuring the order of the world and therefore the authority to do so. (Roberts, 118) [8]

At that festival, called Akitu, the statues of Marduk and his wife Sarpanitu were brought together and made to simulate sex acts, the purpose of which was to guarantee that the crop yield for the next year would be great as the land would be fertile. (Hamilton, 526)

Here in Jeremiah the great god Marduk, with the title “Bel,” is struck down from his lofty place. Babylon’s “images are put to shame, her idols are dismayed.” But how? What has happened? Through the prophet Yahweh says that “out of the north a nation has come against her, which shall make her land a desolation, and none shall dwell in it; both man and beast shall flee away.” Previously, the nation from the north referred to Babylon (Jeremiah 1:14, 6:1, etc.) and was used to describe the impending doom of Judah because of her sins. Here the term is used back on Babylon to describe her declared demise. This enemy, Yahweh declares, will turn the land of Babylon into “a desolation” (לְשַׁמָּה) such that “none shall dwell in it” and “both man and beast shall flee away” from it.

Jeremiah 50:4-20

Yahweh through his prophetic mouthpiece continues.

“In those days and in that time, declares the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant that will never be forgotten.’

“My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold. All who found them have devoured them, and their enemies have said, ‘We are not guilty, for they have sinned against the LORD, their habitation of righteousness, the LORD, the hope of their fathers.’

“Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans, and be as male goats before the flock.For behold, I am stirring up and bringing against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country. And they shall array themselves against her. From there she shall be taken. Their arrows are like a skilled warrior who does not return empty-handed. Chaldea shall be plundered; all who plunder her shall be sated, declares the LORD.

“Though you rejoice, though you exult,
O plunderers of my heritage,
though you frolic like a heifer in the pasture,
and neigh like stallions,
your mother shall be utterly shamed,
and she who bore you shall be disgraced.
Behold, she shall be the last of the nations,
a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert.
Because of the wrath of the LORD she shall not be inhabited
but shall be an utter desolation;
everyone who passes by Babylon shall be appalled,
and hiss because of all her wounds.
Set yourselves in array against Babylon all around,
all you who bend the bow;
shoot at her, spare no arrows,
for she has sinned against the LORD.
Raise a shout against her all around;
she has surrendered;
her bulwarks have fallen;
her walls are thrown down.
For this is the vengeance of the LORD:
take vengeance on her;
do to her as she has done.
Cut off from Babylon the sower,
and the one who handles the sickle in time of harvest;
because of the sword of the oppressor,
every one shall turn to his own people,
and every one shall flee to his own land.

“Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured him, and now at last Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon has gnawed his bones. Therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing punishment on the king of Babylon and his land, as I punished the king of Assyria. I will restore Israel to his pasture, and he shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and his desire shall be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead. In those days and in that time, declares the LORD, iniquity shall be sought in Israel, and there shall be none, and sin in Judah, and none shall be found, for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant.

The vision cast in 50:4-5 is one of total restoration of the nation of Israel. Both “the people of Israel” and “the people of Judah” will come together to “seek the LORD their God.” They will enter into a covenant with him, one that is “everlasting” and “that will never be forgotten.” Babylon’s demise is Israel’s restoration.

50:6-7 recounts why destruction came upon Israel and Judah: “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray.” The wickedness of the kings of Israel is legendary and the final kings of Judah were an assortment of bad apples. These leaders failed Israel and Judah causing their enemies to destroy them. But judgment is coming upon these enemies of Israel though they try to excuse their destruction of Yahweh’s heritage: “We are not guilty, for they [Israel and Judah] have sinned against the LORD, their habitation of righteousness, the LORD, the hope of their fathers.” (50:7) Yahweh tells the people to “flee from the midst of Babylon” because he is “stirring up and bringing against Babylon a gathering of great nations, from the north country.” (50:8-9) Chaldea, Yahweh declares, will be plundered. (50:10)

What follows in 50:11-16 is a poem describing why Babylon must fall. “The plunderers” of Yahweh’s “heritage” will see their “mother…utterly shamed” and “disgraced.” (50:11-12) Mothers are life-bringers but Babylon will “be the last of the nations, a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert.” (50:12) Furthermore, “because of the wrath of the LORD she shall not be inhabited but shall be an utter desolation; everyone who passes by Babylon shall be appalled, and hiss because of all her wounds.” (50:13; cf. 50:3) Again we see the declaration by Yahweh that Babylon will become “an utter desolation [שְׁמָמָה].”

The demise of Babylon will come from those “who bend the bow,” who will lay siege against the great city. Because Babylon has sinned against Yahweh, the coming foe is to “spare no arrows.” (50:14) Her walls will be destroyed (50:15) and her captives will flee. (50:16)

Next Yahweh recounts the history of Israel and Judah’s demise. Israel is described as a “hunted sheep” who was “driven away by lions.” The first of those lions was the king of Assyria who came up against Israel and ended the kingdom in 722 BCE. Then came Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who “gnawed his bones.” (50:17) So Yahweh, “the God of Israel,” will do to Babylon what he did to Assyria and end their empires. (50:18) He will restore Israel to the land (50:19) and sin will be no more. (50:20)

It cannot go unnoticed that Yahweh has chosen an enemy of Babylon to punish them for destroying Judah just as he used Babylon to punish Israel for their sins. The lion who gnawed on Israel’s bones is the lion who is the manifestation of Yahweh’s “fierce anger.” (4:7, 8) Jeremiah views Babylon as Yahweh’s instrument of destruction against Judah “because she has rebelled against me.” (4:17) Though Nebuchadnezzar is the one who destroys Jerusalem, for Jeremiah it is Yahweh who performs it:

“Be warned, O Jerusalem,
lest I turn from you in disgust,
lest I make you a desolation [שְׁמָמָה],
an unihabited land.”
(6:8)

Now, it seems, Yahweh has changed his mind. Babylon, the tool he used to destroy Judah for her sins, has sinned by destroying Judah and for that she must be punished.

Jeremiah 50:21-32

The diatribe against Babylon continues.

“Go up against the land of Merathaim,
and against the inhabitants of Pekod.
Kill, and devote them to destruction,
declares the LORD,
and do all that I have commanded you.
The noise of battle is in the land,
and great destruction!
How the hammer of the whole earth
is cut down and broken!
How Babylon has become
a horror among the nations!
I set a snare for you and you were taken, O Babylon,
and you did not know it;
you were found and caught,
because you opposed the LORD.
The LORD has opened his armory
and brought out the weapons of his wrath,
for the Lord GOD of hosts has a work to do
in the land of the Chaldeans.
Come against her from every quarter;
open her granaries;
pile her up like heaps of grain, and devote her to destruction;
let nothing be left of her.
Kill all her bulls;
let them go down to the slaughter.
Woe to them, for their day has come,
the time of their punishment.

“A voice! They flee and escape from the land of Babylon, to declare in Zion the vengeance of the LORD our God, vengeance for his temple.

“Summon archers against Babylon, all those who bend the bow. Encamp around her; let no one escape. Repay her according to her deeds; do to her according to all that she has done. For she has proudly defied the LORD, the Holy One of Israel. Therefore her young men shall fall in her squares, and all her soldiers shall be destroyed on that day, declares the LORD.

“Behold, I am against you, O proud one,
declares the Lord GOD of hosts,
for your day has come,
the time when I will punish you.
The proud one shall stumble and fall,
with none to raise him up,
and I will kindle a fire in his cities,
and it will devour all that is around him.

War has come to Babylon and the enemies of the empire are called to go to “the land of Merathaim” and go up against “the inhabitants of Pekod.” Both places are plays on Babylonian concepts. “Merathaim” means “double rebellion” but may also be a play on an area of the southern Babylonian empire known as mat marrati, a swampy area. Pekod also is a play on a Hebrew term implying punishment and may refer to the Puqudu tribe of eastern Babylonia. (Graybill, 1990, 691)

Regardless of where these localities may have been or what they mean, the message against them is clear. “Kill, and devote them to destruction [וְהַחֲרֵם אַחֲרֵיהֶם].” (50:21) Using language from the conquest of Canaan recorded in the Deuteronomic histories, Yahweh orders Babylon’s enemies to offer up the inhabitants of Babylon as things devoted to him. Leon Wood notes that devoting something to God meant “the exclusion of an object from the use or abuse of man and its irrevocable surrender to God.” (Wood, 1980, 324)  In holy war, the enemies of Israel were dedicated to God in a “religious act” which “removes them from human use and assigns them to destruction.” (Brekelmans, 1997, 475) In other words, Yahweh would determine how the devoted thing would be used as he saw fit and here in 50:21 he wants them to be killed. [9] 

“The noise of battle is in the land,” Yahweh declares, “and great destruction!” (50:22) Whereas Babylon was once his “hammer and weapon of war” by which he broke “nations in pieces” (51:20), now that hammer “is cut down and broken.” The instrument of Yahweh has been broken by Yahweh himself. “As a result, Babylon becomes “a horror [לְשַׁמָּה] among the nations.” (50:23) Yahweh set a trap for Babylon and she was caught in it “because [she] opposed the LORD.” (50:24)

Next, Yahweh says that he opened his armory and “brought out the weapons of his wrath” (cf. Isaiah 13:5) for he “has a work to do in the land of the Chaldeans.” (50:25) The war is Yahweh’s doing and the theme in this poem (50:21-27) is that above all else Yahweh is in control of the fates of the nations. Not even proud Babylon (50:31) can oppose Yahweh without facing his just wrath. He will cause Babylon’s enemies to “open her granaries” and “devote her to destruction.” (50:26, cf. 50:21) They are to “kill all her bulls,” either a literal reference to the cattle of the land or to the soldiers with which she fights against her enemies. (Kleown, et. al., 367) “The time of their punishment” has come. (50:27)

The Jewish captives flee from Babylon and head to Jerusalem where they “declare…the vengeance of the LORD our God, vengeance for his temple.” (50:28) Here we see the singling out of Babylon’s primary crime: the destruction of Yahweh’s temple. Though later her crimes are more general, through the voice of the prophet Yahweh declares that the destruction of Babylon is retribution for the destruction of the temple. This is her sin.

We see in 50:29-30 another call to arms, similar to 50:14. The archers are to “encamp around “the city and “let no one escape.” This is so that Yahweh can “repay her according to her deeds” and “do to her according to all that she has done. For she has proudly defied the LORD, the Holy One of Israel.” (50:29) Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and Yahweh’s temple. So too shall Babylon be destroyed and her gods cast down (cf. 50:2).

The poem of 50:31-32 is directed not at Babylon per se but at Nebuchadnezzar. He is addressed as, “O proud one.” [10] His time of punishment has come and he will “stumble and fall.” Yahweh will “kindle a fire in his cities, and it will devour all that is around him.” The king’s days are numbered and his end is near.

Jeremiah 50:33-46

The oracle against Babylon continues.

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: The people of Israel are oppressed, and the people of Judah with them. All who took them captive have held them fast; they refuse to let them go. Their Redeemer is strong; the LORD of hosts is his name. He will surely plead their cause, that he may give rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.

“A sword against the Chaldeans, declares the LORD,
and against the inhabitants of Babylon,
and against her officials and her wise men!
A sword against the diviners,
that they may become fools!
A sword against her warriors,
that they may be destroyed!
A sword against her horses and against her chariots,
and against all the foreign troops in her midst,
that they may become women!
A sword against all her treasures,
that they may be plundered!
A drought against her waters,
that they may be dried up!
For it is a land of images,
and they are mad over idols.

“Therefore wild beasts shall dwell with hyenas in Babylon, and ostriches shall dwell in her. She shall never again have people, nor be inhabited for all generations. As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring cities, declares the LORD, so no man shall dwell there, and no son of man shall sojourn in her.

“Behold, a people comes from the north;
a mighty nation and many kings
are stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
They lay hold of bow and spear;
they are cruel and have no mercy.
The sound of them is like the roaring of the sea;
they ride on horses,
arrayed as a man for battle
against you, O daughter of Babylon!

“The king of Babylon heard the report of them,
and his hands fell helpless;
anguish seized him,
pain as of a woman in labor.

“Behold, like a lion coming up from the thicket of the Jordan against a perennial pasture, I will suddenly make them run away from her, and I will appoint over her whomever I choose. For who is like me? Who will summon me? What shepherd can stand before me? Therefore hear the plan that the LORD has made against Babylon, and the purposes that he has formed against the land of the Chaldeans: Surely the little ones of their flock shall be dragged away; surely their fold shall be appalled at their fate. At the sound of the capture of Babylon the earth shall tremble, and her cry shall be heard among the nations.”

50:33-34 is Yahweh’s description of and plan of rescue from the clutches of Babylon. His people are oppressed and their captors “refuse to let them go.” (50:33) But Israel’s Redeemer, the LORD of hosts, “will surely plead their cause” with the purpose of giving “rest to the earth, but unrest to the inhabitants of Babylon.” (50:34) This portion of the oracle recalls Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. Yahweh was their Redeemer then too. (Exodus 6:6, 15:13) This “unrest” comes in the form of what is described in the poem of 50:35-38. There Yahweh declares “a sword against” the Chaldeans, the inhabitants of Babylon, the officials and wise men, the diviners, the warriors, the horses and chariots, and the treasures of Babylon.” (50:35-37) Yahweh also declares “a drought against her waters, that they may be dried up.” Why? Because Babylon is “a land of images” and the people there “are mad over idols.” This is, at its heart, a call to total destruction. All areas of Babylon will feel the wrath of Yahweh. (Keown, et. al, 368)

The resulting destruction causes Babylon to become uninhabited where only hyenas and ostriches live. (50:39, cf. 50:3, 13) The only apt comparison for the destruction Yahweh will bring to the city is that of Sodom and Gomorrah which were destroyed when Yahweh “rained…sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven” (Genesis 19:23). The destruction is so total that “no man shall dwell” in Babylon and “no son of man shall sojourn in her.” (50:40)

50:41-43 are a poem which bear similarities with 50:3. A people will come from “the north” which is a “mighty nation” that has been stirred up and whose “many kings” come with it. These kings “are cruel and have no mercy” and have come to take the city. (50:41-42) Nebuchadnezzar has heard of them and “his hands fell helpless, anguished seized him” and he felt “pain as of a woman in labor.” (50:43) All this is a reversal of what Yahweh had spoken by the prophet in 6:22-24. Note the parallels.

Thus says the LORD:
Behold a people is coming from the north country,
a great nation is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.
They lay hold on bow and javelin;
they are cruel and have no mercy;
the sound of them is like the roaring sea;
they ride on horses,
set in array as a man for battle,
against you, O daughter of Zion!”
We have heard the report of it;
our hands fall helpless;
anguish has taken hold of us,
pain as of a woman in labor.”

Just as Babylon was cruel and without mercy against Judah, so too this people from the north will be with Babylon. This is Yahweh’s retribution for Babylon’s sins against him.

What follows in 50:44-46 is Yahweh’s boasting about how powerful he is. It also parallels the oracle against Edom in 49:19-21. “Who is like me?” Yahweh asks. “What shepherd can stand before me?” (50:44) Thus, Yahweh’s plan against Babylon will surely be fulfilled and “at the sound of the capture of Babylon the earth shall tremble, and her cry shall be heard among the nations.” (50:46)

Jeremiah 51:1-33

Yahweh continues.

Thus says the LORD:
“Behold, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer
against Babylon,
against the inhabitants of Leb-kamai,
and I will send to Babylon winnowers,
and they shall winnow her,
and they shall empty her land,
when they come against her from every side
on the day of trouble.
Let not the archer bend his bow,
and let him not stand up in his armor.
Spare not her young men;
devote to destruction all her army.
They shall fall down slain in the land of the Chaldeans,
and wounded in her streets.
For Israel and Judah have not been forsaken
by their God, the LORD of hosts,
but the land of the Chaldeans is full of guilt
against the Holy One of Israel.

“Flee from the midst of Babylon;
let every one save his life!
Be not cut off in her punishment,
for this is the time of the LORD’s vengeance,
the repayment he is rendering her.
Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand,
making all the earth drunken;
the nations drank of her wine;
therefore the nations went mad.
Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken;
wail for her!
Take balm for her pain;
perhaps she may be healed.
We would have healed Babylon,
but she was not healed.
Forsake her, and let us go
each to his own country,
for her judgment has reached up to heaven
and has been lifted up even to the skies.
The LORD has brought about our vindication;
come, let us declare in Zion
the work of the LORD our God.

“Sharpen the arrows!
Take up the shields!

The LORD has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the LORD, the vengeance for his temple.

“Set up a standard against the walls of Babylon;
make the watch strong;
set up watchmen;
prepare the ambushes;
for the LORD has both planned and done
what he spoke concerning the inhabitants of Babylon.
O you who dwell by many waters,
rich in treasures,
your end has come;
the thread of your life is cut.
The LORD of hosts has sworn by himself:
Surely I will fill you with men, as many as locusts,
and they shall raise the shout of victory over you.

“It is he who made the earth by his power,
who established the world by his wisdom,
and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.
When he utters his voice there is a tumult of waters in the heavens,
and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth.
He makes lightning for the rain,
and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.
Every man is stupid and without knowledge;
every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols,
for his images are false,
and there is no breath in them.
They are worthless, a work of delusion;
at the time of their punishment they shall perish.
Not like these is he who is the portion of Jacob,
for he is the one who formed all things,
and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance;
the LORD of hosts is his name.

“You are my hammer and weapon of war:
with you I break nations in pieces;
with you I destroy kingdoms;
with you I break in pieces the horse and his rider;
with you I break in pieces the chariot and the charioteer;
with you I break in pieces man and woman;
with you I break in pieces the old man and the youth;
with you I break in pieces the young man and the young woman;
with you I break in pieces the shepherd and his flock;
with you I break in pieces the farmer and his team;
with you I break in pieces governors and commanders.

“I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done in Zion, declares the LORD.

“Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain,
declares the LORD,
which destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you,
and roll you down from the crags,
and make you a burnt mountain.
No stone shall be taken from you for a corner
and no stone for a foundation,
but you shall be a perpetual waste,
declares the LORD.

“Set up a standard on the earth;
blow the trumpet among the nations;
prepare the nations for war against her;
summon against her the kingdoms,
Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz;
appoint a marshal against her;
bring up horses like bristling locusts.
Prepare the nations for war against her,
the kings of the Medes, with their governors and deputies,
and every land under their dominion.
The land trembles and writhes in pain,
for the LORD’s purposes against Babylon stand,
to make the land of Babylon a desolation,
without inhabitant.
The warriors of Babylon have ceased fighting;
they remain in their strongholds;
their strength has failed;
they have become women;
her dwellings are on fire;
her bars are broken.
One runner runs to meet another,
and one messenger to meet another,
to tell the king of Babylon
that his city is taken on every side;
the fords have been seized,
the marshes are burned with fire,
and the soldiers are in panic.
For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel:
The daughter of Babylon is like a threshing floor
at the time when it is trodden;
yet a little while
and the time of her harvest will come.”

51:1-33 is made up of six units: 51:1-2, 51:3-5, 51:6-10, 51:11-19, 51:20-26, and 51:27-33. The opening verses, 51:1-2, continue the oracle from Yahweh. He declares that he will “stir up the spirit of a destroyer against Babylon, against the inhabitants of Leb-kamai.” (51:1) “Leb-kamai” is a cipher for “Chaldea.” (Graybill, 692) The reason for ciphers in Jeremiah is not readily apparent, though Carroll suggests that it is intended to make the “spells” against Babylon “incapable of being counteracted.” (Carroll, 842) Whatever the reason, the point of this opening section is to show that Yahweh will utterly ruin Babylon. He will send to Babylon “winnowers” that will empty the land. (51:2)

51:3 contains a curious statement. Whereas before the archers were to “encamp around” Babylon to “repay her according to her deeds” (50:29), here the archers are told to stand down. Why? The likely explanation is that the archers here are Babylonian whereas in 50:29 they were Babylon’s foes. The sense in 51:3 may be that any attempt to resist the attack from Babylon’s foes by Babylon’s military is futile so they should just stand down. Yahweh commands that the enemy “spare not her young men” and to “devote to destruction all her army.” (51:3, cf. 50:26) Babylon’s military defeat is grounded in the faithfulness of Yahweh and his committment to punish Chaldea for her sins. (50:5)

The next five verses are addressed to the inhabitants of Babylon. They are told to flee lest they too are “cut off in her punishment” which is “the time of the LORD’s vengeance.” (51:6) Babylon had once been Yahweh’s golden cup (cf. 25:15-29) that he had used to make the nations mad. (51:7) But now, Babylon is broken and cannot be healed. (51:8-9) Yahweh has “brought about our vindication” and redeemed Israel will “declare in Zion the work of the LORD our God.” (51:10)

To the “kings of the Medes” Yahweh commands, “Sharpen the arrows! Take up the shields!” Why? Because as we saw in 50:28, Yahweh will have his vengeance for his temple. (51:11) The Medes are to lay siege to the city for Babylon’s “end has come” as “the LORD has both planned and done.” (51:12-13) The city’s demise is a certainty for “the LORD of hosts has sworn by himself.” (51:14) 51:15-19 describes Yahweh’s immense power: he created the world (51:15), he creates a tumult of waters in the heavens (51:16), he is immeasurably more intelligent than stupid men and more powerful than false gods (51:17-18), and he is the one who has formed all things, he whose inheritance is Israel. (51:19)

At one time, Babylon had been Yahweh’s “hammer” (50:23) but now the Medes will be Yahweh’s instrument of destruction, a destruction that is total. (51:20-23) The Medes will “repay Babylon…for all the evil that they have done in Zion.” (51:24) Though Babylon was once a “destroying mountain,” now it will be a “burnt mountain” and “a perpetual waste.” (51:25-26)

51:27-33 describes the attack on Babylon itself. Yahweh reiterates that his purpose is “to make the land of Babylon a desolation, without inhabitant.” (51:29) The defeated warriors of Babylon retreat into the city and “have become like women,” frightened. (51:30) Runners are sent to the king of Babylon to tell him that the city has been taken and there is nothing he can do: “the marshes are burned with fire, and the soldiers are in panic.” (51:31-32) There is no hope for Babylon – “yet a little while and the time of her harvest will come.” (51:33)

Jeremiah 51:34-44

The oracle continues.

“Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has devoured me;
he has crushed me;
he has made me an empty vessel;
he has swallowed me like a monster;
he has filled his stomach with my delicacies;
he has rinsed me out.
The violence done to me and to my kinsmen be upon Babylon,”
let the inhabitant of Zion say.
“My blood be upon the inhabitants of Chaldea,”
let Jerusalem say.
Therefore thus says the LORD:
“Behold, I will plead your cause
and take vengeance for you.
I will dry up her sea
and make her fountain dry,
and Babylon shall become a heap of ruins,
the haunt of jackals,
a horror and a hissing,
without inhabitant.

“They shall roar together like lions;
they shall growl like lions’ cubs.
While they are inflamed I will prepare them a feast
and make them drunk, that they may become merry,
then sleep a perpetual sleep
and not wake, declares the LORD.
I will bring them down like lambs to the slaughter,
like rams and male goats.

“How Babylon is taken,
the praise of the whole earth seized!
How Babylon has become
a horror among the nations!
The sea has come up on Babylon;
she is covered with its tumultuous waves.
Her cities have become a horror,
a land of drought and a desert,
a land in which no one dwells,
and through which no son of man passes.
And I will punish Bel in Babylon,
and take out of his mouth what he has swallowed.
The nations shall no longer flow to him;
the wall of Babylon has fallen.

51:34-35 are the words that Jerusalem will say about Nebuchadnezzar. He had “devoured” and “crushed” Jerusalem and made the city “an empty vessel.” He had “swallowed” the city up “like a monster [כַּתַּנִּין]” and “filled his stomach” with its delicacies, and then “rinsed” the city out. (50:34) This rapaciousness will not be overlooked. Yahweh will plead Zion’s case and will take vengeance on Babylon. It will “become a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals, a horror and a hissing, without inhabitant.” (51:36-37, cf. 50:13, 23)

The lion Babylon may roar and growl but Yahweh will “make them drunk, that they may become merry, then sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake.” (51:38-39) Instead of mighty lions, they will be killed like sheep. (51:40) The mighty city of Babylon will be taken and become “a horror among the nations.” (51:41) Her foes, like the raging waters of the sea, will “come up on Babylon” (51:42) causing her cities to “become a horror, a land of drought and desert, and land in which no one dwells, and through which no son of man passes.” (51:42-43; cf. 50:40) Bel – the supreme Babylonian deity Marduk – will be punished and “the nations shall no longer flow to him” as they did at the New Year’s feast. Babylon’s wall has fallen. (51:44)

Jeremiah 51:45-53

The oracle continues.

“Go out of the midst of her, my people!
Let every one save his life
from the fierce anger of the LORD!
Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful
at the report heard in the land,
when a report comes in one year
and afterward a report in another year,
and violence is in the land,
and ruler is against ruler.

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming
when I will punish the images of Babylon;
her whole land shall be put to shame,
and all her slain shall fall in the midst of her.
Then the heavens and the earth,
and all that is in them,
shall sing for joy over Babylon,
for the destroyers shall come against them out of the north,
declares the LORD.
Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel,
just as for Babylon have fallen the slain of all the earth.

“You who have escaped from the sword,
go, do not stand still!
Remember the LORD from far away,
and let Jerusalem come into your mind:
‘We are put to shame, for we have heard reproach;
dishonor has covered our face,
for foreigners have come
into the holy places of the LORD’s house.’

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD,
when I will execute judgment upon her images,
and through all her land
the wounded shall groan.
Though Babylon should mount up to heaven,
and though she should fortify her strong height,
yet destroyers would come from me against her,
declares the LORD.

Yahweh tells his people to leave Babylon to escape the coming wrath that he will bring upon the city. (51:45) For Yahweh is going to punish Babylon for her idolatry and “the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, shall sing for joy over Babylon.” (51:47-48) The city, Yahweh declares, must be destroyed because of Israel’s slain. (51:49)

Those who have escaped Babylon are called on by Yahweh to remember him and to “let Jerusalem come into your mind.” (51:50) Though they have been put to shame and the temple had been ravished by foreigners, Yahweh will “execute judgment upon [Babylon’s] images” and he will send destroyers to the city despite her strong and high fortifications. (51:51-53)

Jeremiah 51:54-58

At the end of the oracle, Yahweh offers some final thoughts.

“A voice! A cry from Babylon!
The noise of great destruction from the land of the Chaldeans!
For the LORD is laying Babylon waste
and stilling her mighty voice.
Their waves roar like many waters;
the noise of their voice is raised,
for a destroyer has come upon her,
upon Babylon;
her warriors are taken;
their bows are broken in pieces,
for the LORD is a God of recompense;
he will surely repay.
I will make drunk her officials and her wise men,
her governors, her commanders, and her warriors;
they shall sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake,
declares the King, whose name is the LORD of hosts.

“Thus says the LORD of hosts:
The broad wall of Babylon
shall be leveled to the ground,
and her high gates
shall be burned with fire.
The peoples labor for nothing,
and the nations weary themselves only for fire.”

To end the oracle, we see again that Yahweh is “laying Babylon waste and stilling her mighty voice.” (51:55) The destroyer, the Medes, have come and put Babylon into a state of “perpetual sleep” from which she will not awake. (51:57) Her wall “shall be leveled to the ground” and her gates “shall be burned with fire.” (51:58) The mighty city, the hammer of Yahweh, is itself hammered. Yahweh declares that Babylon’s reign over the earth will end because of her sins against him.

Summary of Jeremiah 50-51

It is quite clear from just our cursory reading of Jeremiah 50-51 that Yahweh through the prophet declared Babylon’s utter destruction. The Hebrew text employs a variety of terms and ideas to communicate Babylon’s utter ruin, some of which we have noted in the analysis above. These include the verb שָׁמֵם (“to make desolate”), a related noun שְׁמָמָה (“a desolation”), and the verb חָרַם (“devote to destruction”). We also saw specific language of war, particularly the mention of archers and swords. By all counts, it would seem that Babylon’s fall was prophesied to be total. The Medes, the instrument of Yahweh, would come to Babylon and raze the city, killing its inhabitants.  The hope of the writer of Psalm 137 that Babylon, the city “doomed to be destroyed,” would be repaid for her treatment of Jerusalem will be realized. “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 139:9)

So what happened to the city of Babylon when the Medes invaded the Babylonian empire? Were the words of Yahweh by the prophet fulfilled? Did the city become uninhabited and “an utter desolation”? (50:13) Did Babylon became “a horror among the nations”? (50:23) Was a sword put to “the inhabitants of Babylon”? (50:35) Let’s begin with looking at the end of the Neo-Babylonian period and the rise of the Persian empire.

The End of an Empire

The Neo-Babylonian period would last from 625 to 539 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar’s reign which began in 605 ends in 562 and he is succeded by Amel-Marduk (562-560), then, Neriglissar (560-556), then Labashi-Marduk (556), and finally Nabondius (556-539). Nabondius would be the Babylonian empire’s final king. To the east of Babylon a threat had been growing, one that, according to Jeremiah, was being stirred up by Yahweh himself. (50:9)

1249px-Ancient_near_east_540_bc
The Persian and Neo Babylonian Empires in 540 BCE.

By 539 CE, Persia had already consumed must of the area to the north and east of Babylon. All that stood in their way of total domination was Nabondius. So the Persian military, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, embarked on a campaign to take Babylon.

Nabondius was not your standard Babylonian king. He was not from Babylon but from Harran, a city whose patron god was Sin. Nabondius abandoned the worship of Marduk and promoted Sin to the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Consequently, the annual Atiku festival mentioned previously was, according to Persian records, abandoned. Nabondius also left Babylon for a decade, leaving his son in charge of the city in his absence. The king only returned when the Persian threat became all too real. (Podany, 121-122) The consequences of abandoning the worship of Marduk played right into Cyrus’ hands. Many were unhappy with the changes and Nabondius was condemned for exalting Sin above Marduk. When Cyrus came to Babylon, instead of being considered an invader, he was hailed as a deliverer. (Saggs, 1989, 290)

But before Cyrus could take Babylon he had to deal with the Babylonian city of Opis. The fragmentary Chronicles of Nabonidus (i.e. Nabondius) records that “in the month of Tishri [i.e. September – October]…Cyrus made an attack on Opis.” (Coogan, 2013, 83) No other details are offered about the battle but we know that Cyrus won decisively. We also don’t know who led the Babylonian forces though it likely wasn’t Nabondius.

661px-Cyrus_invasion_of_Babylonia
The invasion of Babylon by Cyrus the Great.

The next city to fall was Sippar, which according to the Chronices, was taken without any kind of fight. Babylon, one of the greatest cities of the ANE, was on the cusp of defeat.

What happens at Babylon is not entirely known. The sources that we have all differ. The Chronicles of Nabonidus claim that Babylon was taken without a fight. The Cyrus Cylinder records the same. (Coogan, 84) But Herodotus records that there was fighting just outside the city.

The following spring, however, once Cyrus had been avenged upon the Gyndes, and left the river sliced up into three hundred and sixty channels, he resumed his drive against Babylon. The Babylonians were waiting for him, in a position in advance of their city. At Cyrus’ approach, they moved to the attack, but lost the resulting engagement and were forced to retreat behind their walls. Of course, it hardly came as any great revelation to them that Cyrus was a man of restless ambition, for they had long been tracking the indiscriminate course of his aggression against other peoples far and wide; and so they had taken the precaution of stockpiling food sufficient to last them for very many years. As a result, they viewed the prospect of a siege with equanimity; and indeed, as time dragged by, and everything continued as a stalemate, it was Cyrus who found his position an increasingly precarious one. (Herodotus, 1.190)

Herodotus says that Cyrus’ tactic to get into the city was to divert the Euphrates River and once the waters had abated so that they reached only up to the thigh, they were able to enter into the city. And the city was so big that those in the center of Babylon didn’t know the city was being taken and, in Herodotus’ own words, once they did get the message “it was very much the hard way.” (Herodotus, 1.191)

The biblical book of Daniel also describes Babylon’s fall and Persia’s takeover. (Daniel 5:13-30) According to that account, the king Belshazzar had called Daniel to come and interpret the meaning of handwriting that had mysteriously appeared on the wall in his palace. The words read “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN.” (5:25) Daniel told the king that MENE meant that God had numbered the Babylonian king’s days and that his kingdom would end. TEKEL meant that Belshazzar had been “weighed in the balances and found wanting.” And PERES (PARSIN) meant that his kingdom was divided and to be given to the Medes and Persians. (5:26-28) Daniel is rewarded by the king (5:29) but that night Belshazzar was killed and “Darius the Mede” began to rule over Babylon. (5:30-31)

None of these accounts are particularly satisfying, especially what is recorded in Daniel which we can dismiss with relative certainty as mere myth. It would be surprising if there was no resistance from the Babylonians against the Persian military. Joshua Mark, who agrees with Herodotus on how the Persians entered, notes that

[i]t was claimed the city was taken without a fight although documents of the time indicate that repairs had to be made to the walls and some sections of the city and so perhaps the action was not as effortless as the Persian account maintained.

Nevertheless, there was no widespread devastation and Cyrus was, generally, welcomed into Babylon. (Wiseman, 1993, 145)

Under the Persians Babylon continued to flourish and became a cultural center for the region. Cyrus and Persian leadership would come to the city annually to participate in the feast of Atiku, a practice that continued even after Cyrus had died. (Podany, 122) However, there were at least two revolts following Cyrus’ conquering of the city. During the reign of Darius I (522-486 BCE) various rebellions had sprung up throughout the empire, including one at Babylon. Darius marched his army to the city and was greeted with a shut gate and mockery from atop the walls. Herodotus states that after over a year of laying siege to the city, Darius was able to take it and destroyed the walls of the city and killed three thousand of “their most prominent men.” However, he did not want to see the city entirely destroyed and her population dwindle down to nothing and so he ordered that the surrounding areas send women to Babylon to make sure there was a steady population. (Herodotus, 3.159)

Another revolt broke out during the reign of Xerxes I (486-464 BCE). Unlike Cyrus who venerated Marduk, Xerxes simply did not care and melted down the statue in Babylon. (Herodotus, 1.183) This was an affront to the Babylonians and during his reign they twice revolted. However, Xerxes was able to maintain control over the city. Babylon, though defeated, continued to thrive.

Though Darius had destroyed Babylon’s walls, at some point they had been rebuilt. Robin Lane Fox observes that as Alexander the Great was marching through Asia, he came to Babylon and, upon seeing the city’s impressive walls, “drew up his army as if for battle and ordered a prudent advance, hoping to seem a liberator, not another marauding king.” But war with Babylon was unnecessary and the people welcomed him warmly, including the city’s officials who had lined the road “with flowers and garlands and lined with incense-laden altars of silver.” (Fox, 1973, 247) When Alexander the Great entered Babylon the city

was still the greatest city in the world, though Susa had long supplanted it as the capital of the empire. It was still the spiritual center, the grand old wicked city that was the cynosure of all hearts of the people of the country. For over long centuries in which it had reigned supreme as the trade center of the world and the imperial seat of power of the long long lines of her kings, Babylon had, whatever name she bore on the tongue that was speaking of her, the glamor of her storied years and her mighty being. The seventy-five-foot-high walls of sunbaked brick, thirty-two feet wide on top, that enclosed the city were ten miles in length on each side, though the whole enclosure was not completely populated. (Cummings, 1968, 235-236)

Following Alexander’s death in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar in 323 BCE, the city began to experience its fall from grace. Alexander’s empire had been divided among his generals and Babylon came under the control of Seleucus. But fighting over the city led to either an exodus or, by some accounts, a deportation. In either event, with the population dwindling the city’s magnificence was no more. A brief revival of the city by the Sassanid’s only lasted to 650 CE before Muslim invaders put an end to their rule and the city became virtually uninhabited.

The Bible versus History

For anyone paying close attention, it can already be seen that there is a significant difference between what the prophet Jeremiah said would happen to Babylon and what actually happened. According to the prophet, “the vengeance of the LORD” entailed Babylon becoming “a wilderness, a dry land, and a desert,” a city that “shall not be inhabited.” (50:12, 13) But this simply did not happen. Yahweh had declared that “the LORD has stirred up the spirit of the kings of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it, for that is the vengeance of the LORD, the vengeance for his temple.” (51:11) But Cyrus didn’t destroy Babylon and under his rule the city thrived. The city did not become “a perpetual waste” (Jeremiah 51:26) and her wall, though destroyed by Darius, did not remain destroyed. (Jeremiah 50:15)

At this point we should revisit Thomason’s words. Her claim rests on the words of James Kennedy who had written about Babylon that

God said it would never be built again – a prophecy totally contrary to all the expectations of the past, where every cit of the Near East that had been destroyed had been built again. Babylon was situated in the most fertile part of the Euphrates valley, and yet twenty-five-hundred years have come and gone, and Babylon to this day remains an uninhabited waste. (Kennedy, 2005,  26)

Twenty-five hundred years? We know that Babylon had been inhabited as late as 650 CE, about fourteen hundred years ago. Kennedy also wrote,

God said the city would not be built again, yet the mightiest man the world had ever seen – Alexander the Great – decided that he would rebuild Babylon. Coming across the ruins of Babylon, he determined to make this the capital of his worldwide empire. He issued six hundred thousand rations to his soldiers to rebuild the city of Babylon. Would God be disproved? History records the fact that immediately after making the declaration to rebuild Babylon, Alexander the Great was struck dead, and the whole enterprise was abandoned. For God had said it would never be built again. (Kennedy, 26)

This is patently absurd and, as we have already seen, the city was still a thriving cultural center when Alexander marched on it. Her walls were intact and her palaces were still magnificent. This claim by Kennedy, and by extension Thomason, is plainly ignorant of the historical facts. The prophecies of Jeremiah aren’t vindicated; they are repudiated! No king “devoted to destruction” the inhabitants of Babylon (50:21) and the city did not become uninhabited “for all generations.” (Jeremiah 50:39) Her cult of Marduk (50:2) did not end when Cyrus took Babylon and the city was not overthrown “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring cities.” (50:40)

The fact of the matter is that Jeremiah’s prophecy has virtually nothing to do with the historical record. Yes, the Babylonian empire fell but Babylon itself was not destroyed. Yahweh, through the mouth of Jeremiah, had declared, “How Babylon has become a horror among the nations!” (51:41) A horror? Cyrus had declared himself not only the king of Persia but also the king of Babylon. The city had not become a horror nor had the surrounding lands. Persia had taken control and found the former empire beneficial for their purposes.

How curious, then, is Thomason’s first promise that “God has used the Bible to demonstrate how He keeps His promises”? Right off the bat, we are confronted with a failed promise if we are to take Jeremiah 50-51 seriously. No, Yahweh’s promise concerning Babylon was not fulfilled. This is an example of where the Bible gets it utterly and completely wrong.

ENDNOTES

[1] Genesis mentions another ziggurat reaching from earth to heaven in 28:10-17 at Bethel. There the patriarch Jacob dreams of a stairway (סֻלָּם) that leads to heaven. (28:12) Robert Alter notes,

As has often been observed, the references to both “its top reaching the heavens” and “the gate of the heavens” uses phrases associated with the Mesopotamian ziggurat, and so the structure envisioned is probably a vast ramp with terraced landings. (Alter, 2004, 149)

סֻלָּם is translated as “ladder” in the ESV and is a hapax legomenon.

[2] In his entry on Babylon for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, John Mark notes that the city’s name is thought to have originated with the Akkadian word Bavil, a term which meant “Gate of the gods.” It is likely that the Hebrew word בָּבֶל borrowed from the Akkadian. The term “Babylon” actually comes from Greek, Βαβυλών. בָּבֶל is a play on the Akkadian Bavil and in Hebrew means “confusion.”

[3] Some include the Kassite Period in with the Middle Babylonian Period.

[4] Sennacherib also tormented the southern kingdom of Judah during the reign of Hezekiah. In 2 Kings 18 (cf. 2 Chronicles 32:1-23), the twenty-five year old Hezekiah starts his rule and begins to restore worship of Yahweh. (18:2-6) He also started a rebellion against Assyria and attacked Philistine controlled areas in his kingdom. (18:7-8) When he nearly thirty, the northern kingdom of Israel is attacked by Assyria and its capital city of Samaria is sacked by Shalmanesar V shortly thereafter. (18:9-12) This is the end of the kingdom of Israel.

Judah, though intact, is not out of harm’s way. Hezekiah’s rebellion will not go unpunished and in his fourteenth year on the throne of Jerusalem he faces Sennacherib himself. The Assyrian king attacks Judah’s fortified cities and takes them. (18:13) In his own account of the siege, Sennacherib wrote,

As for Hezekiah, the Judean, I besieged 46 of his fortified walled cities and surrounding smaller towns, which were without number. Using packed-down ramps and applying battering rams, infantry attacked by mines, breeches, and siege machines, I conquered them. I took out 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, cattle, and sheep, without number, and counted them as spoil. He himself I locked up within Jerusalem, his royal city, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him with armed posts, and made it unthinkable for him to exit by the city gate. His cities which I had despoiled I cut off from his land and gave them to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Silli-Bel, king of Gaza, and thus diminished his land. I imposed dues and gifts for my lordship upon him, in addition to the former tribute, their yearly payment.

He, Hezekiah, was overwhelmed by the awesome splendor of my lordship, and he sent me after my departure to Nineveh, my royal city, his elite troops and his best soldiers, which he had brought in as reinforcements to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, choice antimony, large blocks of carnelian, beds inlaid with ivory, armchairs inlaid with ivory, elephant hides, ivory, ebony-wood, box-wood, multicolored garments, garments of linen, wool dyed red-purple and blue-purple, vessels of copper, iron, bronze and tin, iron, chariots, siege shields, lances, armor, daggers for the belt, bows and arrows, countless trappings and implements of war, together with his daughters, his palace women, his male and female singers. He also dispatched his messenger to deliver the tribute and to do obesiance. (Coogan, 2013, 80-81)

The biblical text corroborates some of these details. Hezekiah did send someone to Lachish to meet with Sennacherib to tell him that Hezekiah would do all that the king commanded. Sennacherib demands  three hundred talents of silver (eight hundred according to Sennacherib’s version) and thirty talents of gold. (18:14) Hezekiah also gives him all the silver from Yahweh’s temple, all the silver from the royal treasury, and the gold from off the temple’s doors and doorposts. (18:16)

This does not seem enough for Sennacherib and he sends emissaries to Jerusalem to confront Hezekiah for his rebellion. (18:17-18) One of those emissaries, the Rabshakeh, Sennacherib’s chief butler, tells Hezekiah’s emissaries that the Jewish king is relying too heavily on his allies in Egypt because it is a “broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it.” (18:21) Furthermore, the Rabshakeh asks what good it would be trust in their god, Yahweh for Hezekiah had removed his high places and altars and forced worship of him in Jerusalem, the city now under Assyrian threat of destruction. (18:22) Sennacherib, through the Rabshakeh’s mouth, claims that it was Yahweh himself who had told him to destroy Judah. (18:25)

A conversation between Hezekiah’s and Sennacherib’s emissaries continues and eventually the Rabshakeh makes it apparent that there will be no stopping the king of Assyria.

And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The LORD will deliver us. Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (18:32-35)

When the emissaries return to Hezekiah, the king tears his clothes, covers himself in sackcloth, and goes into Yahweh’s temple. (19:1) He sends a group of his advisors to the prophet Isaiah and they ask him to consult Yahweh about what the Rabshakeh has said. Isaiah tells them to tell Hezekiah that the LORD has declared the fall of Sennacherib “by the sword in his own land.” (18:6-7)

What follows is perhaps one of the more famous events in the Bible. The Rabhshakeh returns to Sennacherib though the king is no longer in Lachish. Sennacherib has learned that Tirhakah, the king of Egypt, has mustered up forces to take him on Assyrian forces. Hezekiah is told not to rely on this turn of events as Sennacherib simply cannot lose. (19:8-13) Tirhakah’s forces, along with those of Shebitku, another king of Egypt, retreat back to Egypt. (For more on the confusing situation of the kings of Egypt of this time, see Merrill, 1996, 368-369 and 415-416.)

Hezekiah then prays to Yahweh, asking for deliverance. “So now, O LORD our God, save us, please, from [Sennacherib’s] hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone.” (18:14-19) Yahweh hears his prayer and through the prophet Isaiah tells him that the king of Assyria

“shall not come into this city [Jerusalem] or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” (18:32-34)

That night the angel of Yahweh goes into the Assyrian camp and kills 185,000 Assyrians. (19:35) Sennacherib leaves for Nineveh and, as he is worshipping in the temple of Nisroch, he is killed by Adrammelech and Sharezer, two of his sons, and the kingdom is handed over to Esarhaddon, another son. (2 Kings 19:36-37)

[5] One wonders if the Deuteronomic historian and the Chronicler are conflating events.

[6] For more on the Greek and Hebrew texts of Jeremiah, see Craigies, et. al., 1991, xli-xlv.

[7] For an attempt to organize the book along chronological lines, see Lasor, et. al., 1996, 353-355.

[8] Fascinatingly, in both the book of Deuteronomy and in the Psalms God is described as being part of a divine council and determining the outcome of the world. In Deuteronomy 32:8-9 we read,

When the Most High gave to all the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.

Similarly, in Psalm 82:1 we read,

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.

Richard Clifford notes that in Psalm 82

[a]s in Ps 29, and to a lesser extent Pss 58 and 75, the setting is the assembly of the heavenly beings, who were thought to rule the nations of the earth under God’s supervision (cf. Deut 32:8-9)…. In Ps 82, the gods are summoned to trial, found guilty of misrule, and punished with mortality, i.e., loss of divine status and expulsion from heaven. (Clifford, 2010, 842)

This is an indication that for at least part of Israel’s history they practiced monolatry and were not necessarily strict monotheists.

[9] The Hebrew word translated as “kill” in the ESV is חֲרֹב (herev) and the phrase used for “devote…to destruction” comes from חֵ֫רֶם (haram). The enemies of Babylon were to herev and haram the inhabitants of the land.

[10] It could also be that 50:31-32 personifies Babylon as a singular “he.” Normally the city is referred to in the feminine.

PRINTED WORKS CITED

Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: W W Norton and Company, 2004.

Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament, abridged fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

C. Brekelmans. “חרם.” In Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann. Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 2. Mark E. Biddle, translator. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986.

Richard J. Clifford. “Psalms.” In Michael D. Coogan, editor. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fourth edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Michael D. Coogan. A Reader of Ancient Near Eastern Texts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Peter C. Craigies, Page H. Kelley, Joel F. Drinkard, Jr. Jeremiah 1-25. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 26. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1991.

Lewis V. Cummings. Alexander the Great. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1968.

Robin Lane Fox. Alexander the Great. London, England: Penguin Books, 1973.

John F. Graybill. “Jeremiah.” In Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1990.

Victor P. Hamilton. “מְרֹדָך.” In R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, editors. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1984.

Herodotus. The Histories. Tom Holland, translator. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2013.

Paul R. House. “Introduction to Jeremiah.” In Lane T. Dennis, executive editior. English Standard Version Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Rodney R. Hutton. “Jeremiah.” In Michael D. Coogan, editor. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fourth edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.

James Kennedy. Why I Believe. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2005.

Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise, Thomas G. Smothers. Jeremiah 26-52. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 27. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishers, 1995.

William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, Frederic William Bush. Old Testament Surveysecond edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Amanda Podany. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

J.M. Roberts. The New Penguin History of the World. London, England: Penguin Books, 2002.

H.W.F. Saggs. Civilization Before Greece and Rome. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

John H. Walton. Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Donald J. Wiseman. “Cyrus.” In Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Leon J. Wood. “חרם.”In R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, editors. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1984.

Final Post of 2017

I recently came across a new version of John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” sung by the talented members of the acapella group Pentatonix. Even as a young fundamentalist and evangelical I found the melody beautiful and now as an atheist the song resonates more than ever before. Imagining a world where we live for now, not dependent on religion for meaning and purpose, is far easier than accomplishing what the song expresses. But I don’t think it is impossible and I look forward to the day when humanity casts aside rigid ideologies and religious dogma and we all embrace one another and the cold, hard fact that the universe is indifferent to our suffering but we need not be. No saviors will come from the skies; they will come from among our brothers and sisters.

For the rest of 2017 and the first two months of 2018 I will be taking a break to focus on family, catch up on some much needed reading and rest, and enjoy the holiday season. I am not sure if I will resume blogging in 2018 and may “retire” the blog altogether.

Feel free to leave comments and questions though be aware that I may not get a chance to reply until a later date. If you want to contact me directly, just email me at amateurexegete@gmail.com.

So, comrades, I will see you next year. Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Imagining with you,

Ben

Prepare a Guest Room

Of the seven letters Paul wrote, the shortest is one he wrote to a slave owner by the name of Philemon. The letter was probably written sometime in the early 60s CE while Paul is imprisoned and sometime shortly before or after he wrote the letter to the Christians in Philippi. Whereas the other six letters were addressed to specific gatherings of believers in Corinth, the region of Galatia, Rome, Thessalonica, and the aforementioned Philippi, the letter from Paul to Philemon is very personal and has a different tone than his other letters. In it, Paul asks Philemon to receive his runaway slave Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother.

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (1:8-16, ESV)

Paul uses familial language when describing his relationship to Onesimus. He is “my child” and Paul had become his “father.” (1:10) [1] And by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul was “sending my very heart [τοῦτ’ ἔστιν τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα].” (1:12) Paul is hopeful but does not demand that Philemon will receive Onesimus “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” (1:16) Paul knows he has no legal right to free Onesimus but for Paul the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon is one of brothers in Christ and transcends any human law. As Paul had said in another letter, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) 

At the end of his letter to Philemon, Paul tells Philemon to “prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.” (1:22) This is an interesting little note and we often forget that Paul was a real person, not just some legendary figure. Though he was imprisoned, he was hoping to be released and see Philemon. And he knew that he would need a bed to lie on so he asked Philemon to prepare a room for him in the event he was “gracious given” to him. Paul had hopes and was planning for a future that for him never happened.

Sometimes I think we read biblical texts either as Christians who see little more than the supernatural elements infused within it or as skeptics who are looking for all the inconsistencies and problems within it. How often we forget that these texts originated with human beings and, in the case of epistles, were composed for specific reasons and in specific circumstances. If we read carefully, we can detect the feelings and aspirations of its authors and maybe feel a little bit of emotion as we study these ancient tomes.

ENDNOTES

[1] The Greek text literally reads, ὃν ἐγέννησα, “the one whom I begot.”

Featured image by user:AngMoKio – Own work (Original text: selfmade photo), CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1196825

Pinched Off

A while back I was reading through the book of Job when I came across the words of Elihu, Job’s younger friend, that he spoke to the suffering patriarch.

The Spirit of God has made me,
and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
Answer me, if you can;
set your words in order before me; take your stand.
Behold, I am toward God as you are;
I too was pinched off from a piece of clay.
(Job 33:4-6, ESV)

That same day I was reading from the Epic of Atrahasis and read this about Mami’s creation of humanity.

She kept reciting her incantation,
For Enki, staying in her presence, made her recite it.
When she had finished her incantation,
She pinched off fourteen pieces (of clay),
(And set) seven pieces on the right,
Seven on the left.
(Dalley, 1989, 16)

Not long after that I read this in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

They called upon great Aruru:
‘You, Aruru, you created [mankind (?)]!
Now create someone for him, to match (?) the ardour (?) of his energies!
Let them be regular rivals, and let Uruk be allowed peace.’
When Aruru heard this, she created inside herself the word (?) of Anu.
Aruru washed her hands, pinched off a piece of clay, cast it out into open country.
(Dalley, 52)

Without getting into the question of when the book of Job was written or compiled, it is clear that the author was influenced by the culture of which he was part. David Clines in his commentary on the book of Job notes that here in 33:6

Elihu uses an expressive word for the creation of humans from clay. They have been “pinched off” (קרץ) from a lump of clay, as a potter nips off with the fingers the piece of clay to be worked into a pot or plate….The same image appears famously in the Gilgamesh Epic when the female creator deity Aruru “nipped off clay” to create Enkidu – interestingly enough, in order that he should be the equal of Gilgamesh….There does not seem to be a direct allusion to the creation of Adam out of the mud of the earth in Gen 2:7 (the term חמר “clay” is not used in the creation narrative). (Cline, 2006, 727)

We all know that culture affects the way we think, speak, and write. Ancient writers were no different. Here we see a clear example of ANE ideas creeping into biblical texts. Elihu, the text tells us, was “pinched off” from a piece of clay just like Job was. It is not merely a sign of solidarity – Elihu is trying to assert that he has every right to his views as Job does. He is from the same Potter, formed by the same hands that formed Job.

Printed Works Cited

David J. A. Clines. Job 21-37. WBC: 18a. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006.

Featured image by Soyer Isabelle.

 

Miserable Comforters: Job and His Peers

My weekly Bible reading consists currently of readings in the Torah (Monday thru Friday) and readings in the rest of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures on the weekends. Lately, I’ve been in the book of Job and today’s reading was Job 16-20. I came across this gem.

Then Job answered and said:

I have heard many such things;
miserable comforters are you all.
Shall windy words have an end?
Or what provokes you that you answer?
I could speak as you do,
if you were in my place;
I could join words together against you
and shake my head at you.
I could strengthen you with my mouth,
and the solace of my lips would
assuage your pain.
(Job 16:1-5)

If you’ve ever read the book of Job you know that following the narrative portions in chapters 1 and 2 the rest of the book is mostly poetry. Leading up to chapter 16 you have various speakers including Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. It is to Eliphaz’s words in 15:1-35 that Job replies that his peers who have travelled far to see him in his suffering (2:11-13) are all “miserable comforters.” Eliphaz had accused Job of dismissing God outright – “You are doing  away with the fear of God and hindering meditation before God.” (15:4) He also accused him of standing in opposition to God – “Why does your heart carry you away, and why do your eyes flash, that you turn your spirit against God and bring such words out of your mouth?” (15:12-13)

In chapter 16, Job is taken back by this accusation. Job had been described as being “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (1:1) Even in the midst of his suffering, when he lost his children and his wealth, and proclaimed that “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away” (1:21), the text tells us that Job “did not sin or charge God with wrong.” (1:22) He was, at his core, a God-fearer who trust in him above all else. So when he confronts Eliphaz and his other friends, you can sense the frustration in his words. What Eliphaz tells Job he has heard before and to him they are nothing more than “windy words.” (16:2) If their roles were reversed and it was Eliphaz who lost his children, his wealth, and his health, Job could just as easily speak as he did and accuse him of not fearing God. (16:4) And he could even bring solace to Eliphaz in his pain.

But Job points out that when he speaks his own pain is “not assuaged” for “God has worn me out” and “he has made desolate all my company.” (16:6-7) In other words, no amount of complaining out of Job’s mouth is actually helpful and so when his friends accuse him of not fearing God they are doing him no good. God has already “torn me in his wrath and hated me,” he tells Eliphaz. (16:9) And even though his “face is red with weeping” and on his “eyelids is deep darkness,” yet “there is no violence in [his] hands,” and his “prayer is pure.” (16:16-17) The Job of 1:1 and 1:22 is the same Job who confronts his peers and their accusations.

The book of Job is perhaps my favorite of the books of the Hebrew Bible. It is filled with emotional language and circumstance and one can sympathize completely with Job and his reaction to his less-than-helpful friends. Job is in all likelihood a legendary figure and the book of Job is nothing more than pious fiction, but it doesn’t mean that there is nothing to enjoy about it and nothing to glean from it. The person Job may be fictional but the terrible things that happened to him in the story – the loss of children, the loss of personal wealth, and the loss of his health – are all completely relatable for many people, whether a believer or a skeptic.

Atheists tend to dismiss the Bible too quickly and read it with the sole purpose of finding problems with it. Frankly, that is child’s play compared to giving the text a deeper reading and seeking to understand the worldview from which it was written. Christians too have this tendency to read the Bible superficially, using it as a reference book to prove this or that doctrinal belief. Both groups have a tendency to be unaware of the fact that the Bible is a complicated and messy anthology of books.

Let’s read the Bible anew and see it for what it truly is: the words of ancient writers trying to understand their world and the events that happened in their own lives.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Musings on Mark: “I Know Who You Are – the Holy One of God”

λέγων· τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί, Ἰησοῦ Ναζαρηνέ; ἦλθες ἀπολέσαι ἡμᾶς; οἶδά σε τίς εἶ, ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ.
Mark 1:24

One of the themes of Mark’s Gospel is that people cannot figure out who Jesus actually is. The reader knows from the first verse who he is – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” (1:1) But throughout the book, those with whom Jesus interacts are perplexed. Well, there are some who know exactly who Jesus is: the demons.

In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus travels to Capernaum and, on the sabbath, goes into the synagogue to preach. The people there are astonished “for he taught them as one who had authority [ἐξουσίαν], and not as the scribes.” (1:22) As he is teaching, “a man with an unclean spirit [ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ]” appears in the synagogue who yells to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebukes the man and tells the unclean spirit, “Be silent, and come out of him!” The man begins to convulse and, after he cries out loudly, the man is free of the spirit. (1:23-26) 

Mark 1:21-28 is the first time in the Gospel of Mark we read of him dealing with unclean spirits and so this sets the stage for what it is to come with regards to his dealings with demonic forces. The response of the crowd at the synagogue is amazement. Not only does this young man teach with ἐξουσία but he can command unclean spirits “and they obey him.” (1:27) His ministry featured more casting out of demons (1:32-34; 5:1-20, 7:24-30, and 9:14-29) and he would even grant his disciples the authority (ἐξουσίαν) to cast them out. (3:15)

What is striking, though, about Jesus’ exchange with demons is that they know who he is even when no one else does. The man with the unclean spirit calls him “the Holy One of God.” (1:24) The man possessed by Legion comes before him and calls him “Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” (5:7) But despite the fact that these demonic forces recognize him, the human characters in the story do not. The scribes say that “he is possessed by Beelzebul” and that “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (3:22) Though Jesus points out the frivolity of such a claim, it is not entirely convincing to those in ear-shot.

Yet the reader knows that Jesus is not demon-possessed and that the demons are the only ones who understand the Messianic secret, as it were. Through his teaching, healing, and exorcising of demons, Jesus was making known that he is “the Holy One of God.”

 

Sealed by God: Who Are the 144,000 in Revelation 7?

Apart from the first few chapters of Genesis, no other book of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures has been so hotly debated as the book of Revelation. The reason for this is obvious from even a cursory reading: the book is filled with strange imagery that is foreign to modern readers. Consider the description of Jesus from chapter one.

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. (1:12-15, ESV)

Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Bible would recognize immediately the not-so-subtle allusions to the Jewish prophets. The white hair makes us think of the Ancient of Days in the book of Daniel (7:9) as does the phrase “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:13). The voice that is “like the roar of many waters” harkens back to the prophet Ezekiel who describes “the coming of the glory of the God of Israel” as “the sound of many waters” (Ezekiel 43:2).

But there is other imagery that isn’t simply foreign, it is out-of-this-world! In chapter nine we read about locusts emerging from a pit who “were like horses prepared for battle” and upon whose head “were what looked like crowns of gold” below which were humanoid faces (9:7). To make matters more bizarre, they have feminine hair and lionesque teeth (9:8) and are covered in armor (9:9). And while most locusts are somewhat formidable because of their chompers, these locusts have tails like a scorpion’s and they have “power to hurt people for five months” with their tails (9:10). But these are not aimless, directionless locusts. They have a king – “Abaddon” in Hebrew and “Apollyon” in Greek – who is “the angel of the bottomless pit” (9:11).

The paragraph above sounds more like a scene from The X-Files than it does a biblical text. Yet there it is, in black and white, and there are as many opinions on what it means as there are people who have them. It is imagery like that which makes interpreting the book of Revelation so difficult.

A Sealed Remnant

It would take multiple blog posts to cover the entirety of book of Revelation, and by multiple I mean probably a couple hundred or more. Entire tomes have been written on the subject and they still do not exhaust the book so I’m fairly confident that spilling more words exegeting the entire text of the final book of the New Testament canon will not be coming from my fingers any time soon. But there is one section of the book of Revelation I wish to focus on in this blog post: Revelation 7:1-8, a section about the 144,000. Who are they? What is their function? Let’s begin by reading the passage itself.

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on the sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the trip of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed. (Revelation 7:1-8*)

At first glance, it may seem quite intuitive who these 144,000 are. After all, isn’t the fact that they are “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (v. 3) a dead give-a-way?

[We] note that the 144,000 will all be Jewish. This is shown by the announcement in these verses that they come from all twelve tribes of Israel – 12,000 from each tribe. (Claeys, 2010, 58)

But as we will see, this literalistic reading is not a truly viable interpretation of the identity of the 144,000. Yet to get at their identity we cannot ignore the religion of the Jews nor its scriptures.

The Book of Revelation in Context

A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext, or so goes the saying (Carson, 1996, 115) and to understand Revelation 7:1-8 we must understand its context within the book of Revelation as well as the book of Revelation’s context within the wider setting of biblical texts. We will begin with the latter.

As I have already stated, the book of Revelation is full of allusions to passages within various books of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, it borrows from the Hebrew Bible more than any other book of the New Testament. (Carson & Moo, 2005, 712) This fact is of the utmost importance if we are to truly understand the book of Revelation in general and 7:1-8 in particular. Failing to appreciate this will result in erroneous interpretations, typically of the fundamentalist variety.

We must also note that the book of Revelation belongs to a genre of literature called “apocalyptic.” This is, in some ways, an unfortunate moniker. The opening words of the book are Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, “the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” That word “apocalypse” simply means “revelation” or “unveiling” and is used throughout the New Testament to refer to something previous hidden or undisclosed that is now or will be disclosed. While it is certainly used to describe events about the end of the world (Romans 2:5; 1 Peter 1:7; etc.), it is also used to describe personal revelations received (Galatians 1:12). But for biblical scholars, the term “apocalyptic” now refers to literature pertaining to the end of the world.

Apocalyptic literature has certain characteristics, some of which are shared by the book of Revelation. In general, there are two types of apocalyptic categories: journeys to heaven wherein a prophet has a vision of heavenly events that affect earthly realities and futuristic visions of doom and gloom.  These categories may, at times, overlap. The features of such apocalypses include the following features (Ehrman, 2016, 534-536):

  • They are typically written pseudonymously in the name of some famous individual from the past. For example, we have The Apocalypse of MosesThe Apocalypse of Abraham, and more.
  • They contain truly weird and strange visions. We have already seen this in the description of Jesus from Revelation 1:12-15 and the locusts of 9:7-11. These visions are symbolic as taking them literally leads us to believe that all manner of weird beings exist.
  • They contain repetitionsThese repetitions are, in Ehrman’s words, violent in that they ruin any chance of taking the words of the prophet literally. In the book of Revelation we see the numbers three, seven, and twelve repeated often.
  • They contain a triumphalist movement, that is to say that the forces of evil are overcome by the power of God. God always wins.
  • They have a motivational function, to encourage readers to be faithful to God and not lose hope.

The aforementioned features do not necessarily have to be present in all apocalyptic texts. For example, the first feature, pseudonymity, is clearly not an aspect of the book of Revelation as it is purported to have been written by someone who was, at that time, still living (Revelation 1:2). Still, most of these features are present in one way or another in an apocalyptic text.

The Occasion of the Book

Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to ask the question, Why did John write the book of Revelation? To begin with, the book of Revelation was written sometime between 90 and 100 C.E. during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. (Carson and Moo, 711-712). Domitian, successor to the infamous Titus, was not particularly liked by anyone. He was killed in his own palace in 96 C.E. and the Roman senate decreed that his name should be erased from every inscription where it was found. (Gonzalez, 1984, 38) It was under his reign that some persecution of Christians commenced.

The suffering endured by Christians, whether in reality or in perception only, is addressed by the text of Revelation. John writes specifically that he is the seven churches’ “brother and partner in tribulation” having been exiled to Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). These seven churches listed in 1:10-11 were located in Asia minor, an area where the imperial cult was beginning to grow. (Kistemaker, 2001, 37) Refusal to participate in this cult was punishable by execution and we know that at least in the early decades of the second century C.E. Christians were killed because of their refusal to worship the emperor as dominus et deus. (Baker, 2002, 20)

map-66-01
The Setting of Revelation. From ESV Study Bible (Crossway Publishers, 2008), p. 2,461

The entirety of the book of Revelation is about the coming judgment of God and the triumph of Jesus. But it also serves a more pastoral and polemic function, namely as a warning against false teaching and compromise, issues that appear to have been problems in the churches of Asia minor (see 2:1-3:22). To remedy this, Christians are told be patient and to wait for the coming of Jesus in triumph over his enemies. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” Jesus tells the church in Smyrna. “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (2:10)

So the book of Revelation serves as hope for those suffering under the Roman’s heavy hand as well as a warning against compromising with false teachers. “And [the angel] said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” (22:10-11)

Revelation 7:1-8 in Context

We should now consider the context that the 7:1-8 finds itself in. Various outlines for the book have been proposed including some very detailed outlines in Aune (1997, vii-ix), Johnson (2001, 47-48), and Kistemaker (66-70). The benefit of an outline is that you can see how the book of Revelation flows. However, this comes at the cost of being subject to the interpreters biases. Of course, bias is impossible to avoid.

I will not provide an outline here but I would like to break down the major sections of the book of Revelation that lead up to 7:1-8.

Prologue (1:1-8)

This section features the purpose of the book (“to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” – 1:1), the method of revealing this to John (“by sending his angel” – 1:1), and a blessing for those who read aloud and keep all that is written in it (1:3). We also see that this is essentially a work to the “seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4) and includes a kind of doxology (1:5-8).

Opening to the Letters to the Seven Churches (1:9-20)

John gives a short history of events explaining why he is on the island of Patmos and relays that he heard a voice telling him to write what he saw in a book and send it to the seven churches of Asia (1:9-11). This is important: the book of Revelation is written to Christians. Therefore, what it describes must have relevance to them. 

John also describes “one like a son of man.” The imagery is derived from the Hebrew Bible. (See the introduction to this post.) This is clearly Jesus who tells John to “write…the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this” (1:19).

The Letters to the Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)

Here John writes down the words Jesus spoke concerning the seven churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Please note that attempts to turn these churches into time periods from the first century CE to the present are eisegetical and do not come from the text itself.

Jesus, the Scroll, and the Seals (4:1-8:1)

John is called up to heaven (4:1) where he sees out-of-this-world things: a massive throne (4:2) whose occupant has an appearance like “jasper and carnelian” and around whose throne is a rainbow that looks like emerald (4:3); twenty-four smaller thrones occupied by twenty-four elders (4:4); and more. He also sees “four living creature” that strongly resemble the cherubim of Ezekiel 1:10-14 and the seraphim of Isaiah 6:1-3.

In the hand of the occupant of the massive throne there is a scroll that is sealed with seven seals (5:1). A strong man asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (5:2) No one can do so apparently and John begins to weep (5:3-4). But one of the elders tells him to stop his crying because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5) John then turns to see this Lion and he sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (5:6). This Lamb takes the scroll from the one seated on the throne (5:7) and begins to open the seven seals (6:1).

The first four seals are all different color horses with different riders who portend various calamities: a white horse (6:1-2), a red horse (6:3-4), a black horse (6:5-6), and a pale horse (6:7-8). The fifth seal is opened and an altar appears and under the altar are the souls of those who were martyred. They cry out to God asking him how long before he will take his vengeance for their deaths. But they are told to wait a while longer “until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (6:9-11) The sixth seal is then opened and there is a vision of the end of all things (6:12-17).

A Brief Exposition of Revelation 7:1-8

But weren’t there seven seals? Yes, there are, and the seventh seal isn’t opened until after the passage we are looking into in 8:1. 7:1-8 (and 9-17) feel like an interlude between the opening of the sixth seal and the opening of the seventh. So what is going on?

Look back if you would at the sixth seal and the reaction of the people experiencing this end of the world event. They call to the mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of God” (6:16) Then they ask a very important question: “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:17) It is that question – “Who can stand?” – that leads us to this interlude in Revelation 7:1-8 (and 9-17).

Four Angels, Four Corners, and Four Winds

In this interlude the first thing John observes are four angels standing at four corners of the earth holding back the four winds of the earth (7:1). We cannot help but note the repetition of the number four.  Numbers and their repetition play an important role in the book of Revelation, even if what they mean isn’t always clear. For example, the number seven appears numerous times: seven churches, seven spirits, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc. In the book of Revelation, the number four conveys the idea of wholeness, especially with regards to a worldwide scope. (Beal, 1999, 59)

The four angels that John sees are tasked with holding back “the four winds of the earth.” The imagery is borrowed from Jewish apocalyptic literature like the book of Daniel – “Daniel declared, ‘I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea'” (Daniel 7:2). In the book of Jeremiah, the four winds are used to enact God’s judgment on Elam (Jeremiah 36:34-38). Here, too, in the book of Revelation the winds are there to cause destruction as the task of the angels is to hold back those winds “that no wind may blow on earth or sea or against any tree.”

In his impressive commentary on the book of Revelation, G. K. Beale identifies the four winds with the four horsemen mentioned in 6:1-8. (Beale, 406) He bases this on Zechariah 6:1-8:

Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses – all of them strong. Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the LORD of all the earth. The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.”

The similarities are obvious. Both the books of Zechariah and Revelation feature four different kinds of colored horses. Both books also mention four winds, with the book of Zechariah making an explicit connection between the four chariots and the winds. It is not a very great leap, then, to connect the four winds of Revelation 7:1 with the four horsemen of 6:1-8. And if this is the case then the events that take place in 7:1-8 happen before those of 6:1-8. (Beale, 406)

Sealed Servants

While these four angels are restraining the four winds, another angel appears “from the rising of the sun” and cries out to the four angels, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” (7:3) The seal (Greek, sphragis) is not identified until chapter fourteen: “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (14:1). This seal stands in contrast to the mark of the beast which is described as “name of the beast or the number of its name” (13:17). The servants of God are sealed with the divine name and the servants of the beast are sealed with his.

The purpose of the seal is for divine protection against the impending doom of the seven seals. Here John is borrowing from other ancient sources, including Ezekiel where “a man clothed in linen” is ordered to “put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed” in Jerusalem. He is then to kill anyone without the mark as they were partakers in wickedness against God. (Ezekiel 9:3-8) This mark was for the purpose of protection from divine judgment, just as the seal is in Revelation 7:3.

At this point John hears the number of the sealed: “144,000…from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” (7:4) Earlier I wrote that if we are to ask who these 144,000 are, it seems intuitive to respond that they are Israelites. But few things in the book of Revelation are straightforward.

The Sons of Israel 

The list of tribes featured in verses 5-8 is not a standard list found elsewhere in the Bible. But before we begin, let’s review some biblical history.

If you think back to your Sunday School lessons, Abraham had two sons: Ishmael by Hagar and Isaac by Sarah. Isaac had two sons by his wife Rebekah: Esau and Jacob. Jacob manages to steal the blessing due to Esau by fooling an elderly Isaac (see Genesis 27). He is then sent by Isaac to Paddan-aram to find a wife amongst the daughters of his uncle Laban because Isaac forbids Jacob from marrying a Canaanite woman (Genesis 28:1-5). He falls in love with Rachel, the youngest daughter of Laban, and works for him for seven years, presumably because he cannot afford a dowry (Genesis 29:15-20).

On their wedding night, Jacob quickly realizes something is amiss. Rachel is not Rachel but Leah, Laban’s oldest daughter. He had been tricked! When he confronts his uncle he is told that it is customary to marry the oldest daughter off first and then the youngest. If he will complete the seven-day wedding celebration he can then marry Leah but he will have to work for Laban for another seven years to pay for the dowry. This Jacob does but it is clear that he loves Rachel far more than he does Leah (vss. 21-30).

Seeing just how much that Jacob preferred Rachel to Leah, he “opened up [Leah’s] womb” and made Rachel barren  (v. 31). So Leah conceives and Jacob’s firstborn son is Reuben. Then, in time, comes Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel sees that Leah has now had four children by Jacob and becomes envious. “Give me children, or I shall die!” she tells her husband (30:1). Jacob tells her that it is God who has made her barren. Rachel, however, has a plan. She offers her servant Bilhah to Jacob and tells him that she will have children through her. Jacob goes along with the plan and soon Bilhah conceives and gives birth to a son, Dan. Bilhah conceives again and gives birth to Naphtali (vss. 2-8).

Over the course of time, more children are conceived and born either by Leah’s servant Zilpah (Gad and Asher), Leah (Issachar and Zebulun), or Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin). Thus, the sons of Jacob are

Reuben (Genesis 29:32)
Simeon (29:33)
Levi (29:34)
Judah (29:35)
Dan (30:6)
Naphtali (30:8)
Gad (30:11)
Asher (30:13)
Issachar (30:18)
Zebulun (30:20)
Joseph (30:24)
Benjamin (35:18)

Twelve sons from four different women. The first to be born was Reuben and the last to be born was Benjamin.

Another list of the sons of Israel are found in Genesis 35:22-26.

Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah: Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon. The sons of Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. The sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s servant: Dan and Naphtali. The sons of Zilpah, Leah’s servant: Gad and Asher. These were the sons of Jacob who were born to him in Paddan-aram.

Now, it is clear from this list that the order is out of whack. But there is a simple explanation for this. The author is listing Jacob’s children not by order of birth but according to their mothers. Leah is Jacob’s first wife and Rachel is his second. Bilhah is the first of the servants to have children by Jacob while Zilpah is the second.

The Tribes of Israel

Fast forward a few centuries and the Israelites have escaped the clutches of Pharoah and are headed to the Promised Land. They are divided into thirteen tribes, each named for a son (or grandson) of Israel. The first list is from a census ordered by God designed to determine Israel’s military strength (Numbers 1:1-46). The second list comes from the twelve spies, one from each tribe, that are chosen to scout out the land of Canaan ahead of the rest of Israel (Numbers 13:1-16). The tribes listed are

Reuben (Numbers 1:5, 13:4)
Simeon (1:6, 13:5)
Judah (1:7, 13:6)
Issachar (1:8, 13:7)
Zebulun (1:9, 13:10)
Ephraim (1:10, 13:8)
Manasseh (1:10, 13:11)
Benjamin (1:11, 13:9)
Dan (1:12, 13:12)
Asher (1:13, 13:13)
Gad (1:14, 13:15)
Naphtali (1:15, 13:14)

Note: The verses in bold indicate a change in the order and, in the case of Manasseh, a change in the name of the tribe (13:11 calls the tribe “Joseph”) though it is clear from the text that it is still referring to the tribe of Manasseh.

If we compare these two lists of twelve tribes with the list of Jacob’s sons I produced previously, we see a couple of differences. First, Levi, Israel’s third son, appears nowhere on either list in Numbers. Second, Joseph is not on the first list in Numbers 1 and in Numbers 13 his name refers specifically to the tribe of Manasseh. What is going on?

Again, the biblical texts give us the answers we need. Levi is omitted deliberately as God told Moses that they were not to be counted in the military census. Instead, they were the priestly class, in charge of the tabernacle and would receive no territorial allotment. The Levites would surround the tabernacle on all sides to serve as a buffer between it and the rest of Israel (Numbers 1:47-54).

fullsizeoutput_2bf
Israel in Camp and on the March. From the ESV Study Bible (Crossway, 2008), p. 267

But why is Joseph left out and his sons included? The answer to this is simple as well. Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are brought before an aged and infirmed Israel and are blessed by him (Genesis 48:8-22). Since Levi is omitted, Joseph is dropped as well but is still represented by his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Therefore, the number of tribes remains twelve in terms of territorial allotments.

Back to the Future

So we have a list of the sons of Israel and we have a list of the tribes of Israel and both lists differ but for reasons we discussed. So now we can ask the question, How does the list of tribes in Revelation 7:4-8 differ from the aforementioned lists?

First, in the list in Revelation 7 Judah is listed first for reasons not explained by the author. But given that Jesus is alleged to have been a descendent of Judah (Matthew 1:3) and is described as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” in Revelation 5 (5:4), it makes sense that Judah would be listed first. We also know that following the death of King Solomon (1 Kings 11:43) Israel split in two (see 1 Kings 12) leaving a northern kingdom made up of the tribes of Reuben, Issachar, Zebulon, Ephraim, Manasseh, Dan, Asher, Gad, and Naphtali, and a southern kingdom made up of Judah and Benjamin. The ten northern kingdoms became known as Israel and the two southern kingdoms became known as Judah. By-and-large, the kings of Israel are wicked whereas the kings of Judah feature some righteous leaders including Hezekiah and Josiah. Furthermore, Israel falls to foreign armies long before Judah succumbs, a sign of Judah’s general allegiance to the cult of Yahweh.

Second, the list of Revelation 7 is missing a number of traditional tribes. In the list of tribes in the book of Numbers we discovered that Joseph was missing and his sons Ephraim and Manasseh were included. But in Revelation 7 we find that Joseph is included (7:8), Manasseh is included (v.6) but Ephraim is nowhere to be found. And because we see that Levi – a tribe with no territorial allotment – is included in the list (7:7) then another tribe must be missing too. That tribe is Dan. What happened to Dan?

Again, the author does not explain himself. A number of hypotheses have been put forward to account for the missing tribe. For example, the late New Testament scholar Robert Mounce suggested in his commentary that the reason Dan was missing from the list was because of the tribe’s “early connection with idolatry.” (Mounce, 1977, 169) Following their entry into Canaan with the rest of Israel, the Danites were essentially without territory, having been thwarted by the Amorites in attempting to take their territory (Judges 1:34-36). As they continue their search for a home, they visit with a man named Micah, a nefarious character whose mother is complicit in his idol-making (Judges 17:1-5). With Micah is a Levite who serves Micah as “a father and a priest” (17:10). When a scouting party of Danites meets with Micah, they ask his priest to bless their journey for territory which he does (18:5-6).

The scouting party reports to a larger force that Micah has cultic objects in his house including an ephot, household gods, a carved image, and a metal image (18:14). They steal these items along with the priest but are confronted by Micah’s neighbors who drive out the Danites and an argument ensues. But Micah doesn’t have the force to take back what is his so he lets it go (18:21-26). The Danites then take the city of Laish, killing its inhabitants (who are described as “quiet and unsuspecting”) and rebuild it, naming it “Dan,” after their ancestor. They set up the carved image for worship and apparently continued their idolatry until either the Assyrian captivity or the Babylonian captivity (18:27-31).

Is this the reason Dan is omitted from the list? Did their sinful reputation force the author of Revelation to axe them entirely? Perhaps, but the author simply does not offer us an explanation so whatever the reason it is conjecture, though Mounce’s hypothesis does hold promise.

What about Ephraim? Again, since the author does not explain himself we are left to conjecture. Under normal circumstances, Manasseh and Ephraim are paired together since they are Joseph’s sons. We also know that, at least in the book of Numbers, the name “Joseph” is a stand in for Manasseh (Numbers 13:11). Furthermore, in the book of Ezekiel – a work that the book of Revelation borrows from heavily – Joseph and Ephraim appear to be interchangeable (Ezekiel 37:16, 19). Could it be that here in Revelation 7:8 Joseph is standing in for his son Ephraim? We simply do not know.

12 x 12 x 1000

So there are some differences, that the readers of Revelation would have picked up on, between the traditional set of tribes of Israel and the list that appears here in chapter seven. Now we must ask, why 144,000?

If you have ever read the entirety of the book of Revelation, you should have noticed the repetition of numbers. For example, in chapter one we read about “seven golden lampstands” (v. 12) and “one like a son of man” holding “seven stars” (v. 15). Then we read that the seven stars are seven angels and the seven lampstands are seven churches (v.20). Then in chapters two and three we read about those seven churches. The number seven appears over fifty times in the book of Revelation.

Other numbers appear frequently as well. The number three appears nine times; the number ten appears eight times, and so on. We cannot forget that the author was in all likelihood a Jew, or, if not, someone very familiar with the Hebrew Bible. From the very first chapter of the Torah, numbers are obviously significant, particularly the number seven as it was “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:11). Numbers are also significant in the two main books of the Hebrew Bible that the book of Revelation draws from: Ezekiel and Daniel. To ignore numbers and their symbolic value is to miss a huge part of the book of Revelation.

Here in Revelation 7, the number 12,000 (12 x 1000) appears twelve times. When multiplied together, we arrive at 144,000. The math, then, is simply 12 x 12 x 1000. What is the significance of the number twelve and the number one-thousand?

Later in the book of Revelation, the author has a vision of a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1). The identity of the woman is not explicit but the symbolism employed gives us a clue as to who she is. This is yet again an allusion to the Torah for in Genesis 37 we read of Joseph’s dream where the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow to him, a dream which angers his father and brothers (vvs. 9-11). The sun is his father Jacob, the moon Jacob’s wife, and the stars Joseph’s brothers. John is adopting the imagery in Revelation 12 leading us to the natural conclusion that she represents Israel.

The number twelve also appears prominently in the description of the New Jerusalem. It has “a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (21:12). It also has “twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (v. 14). The city also has an equal length, width, and height and is measured at 12,000 stadia (12 x 1000) while the walls are measured at 144 cubits (12 x 12) (vss. 15-17).

As for the number one-thousand, it appears in only one chapter in Revelation but within that chapter it is mentioned six times (20:1-7). What is its significance?

In the Hebrew Bible, the number one-thousand appears multiple times and is used in a variety of ways. For example, the Psalmist declares, “He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8, cf. Deuteronomy 7:9). This is a parallelism whereby the Psalmist compares a covenant remembered “forever” with “the word that he commanded” remember “for a thousand generations.” So “a thousand generations” isn’t a literal amount but is intended to represent a long time, or “forever.”

Other passages use the number one-thousand to represent a large quantity. In the book of Judges Sampson claims that he slew “1,000 men” with the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:15-16). Are we to assume that Sampson counted as he struck each man and stopped at one-thousand? Of course not. Sampson is boasting that with such an unlikely weapon he was able to kill a large amount of men.

It is possible and, in my view, highly likely that the thousand years in Revelation 20:1-7 is to be understood symbolically. However, even if we were to understand the thousand years literally (as in premillennial eschatology) it would not preclude us from thinking of it as being representative of a large amount of time. In either case, one-thousand is short hand for “a whole lot.”

But what bearing does this have on Revelation 7:1-8? Well, remember that 144,000 is 12 x 12 x 1000.  As we have seen, twelve comes up quite a bit in the description of the New Jerusalem, a city built upon the foundation of the twelve apostles and with gates named for the twelve tribes of Israel. Is it possible that this 144,000 is meant to incorporate that symbolism?

Various Interpretations

There are a number of interpretations of who exactly these 144,000 represent. In his excellent three-volume commentary on the book of Revelation, David Aune lays out a number of possibilities (Aune, 1998, 440-445, 460-461):

  1. It refers to Jews or Jewish Christians.
  2. It refers to the Christian church, including both Jewish and Gentile Christians.
  3. It refers to Christian martyrs.

In his commentary, Aune lays out the arguments put forward to support each position and I will be relying on his thoughtful analysis as we briefly consider the possibilities.

The 144,000 as Jews or Jewish Christians

A straightforward reading of Revelation 7:1-8 might lead us to consider that when John says that “12,000 from the tribe of Levi” were sealed that perhaps he means that 12,000 Levites were sealed by God. Or, they are 12,000 Levites who are also Christians, protected by God from the tribulation that will come during the eschaton. Aune lays out some arguments that have been put forward to support this view (Aune, 440-441).

  1. The author of Revelation gives a specific number, 12,000, which is hard to consider to be allegorical.
  2. The author of Revelation is a Jewish Christian so it makes sense that he would believe Jewish Christians might have a special part to play during the eschaton.
  3. There is precedent in the New Testament for the belief that there will be a faithful remnant of Israel. Paul wrote that “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” but “the elect obtained it” (Romans 11:7). Perhaps the 144,000 are that faithful remnant.
  4. The 144,000 are the “firstfruits for God and the Lamb” according to Revelation 14:4. The gospel first went to the Jews so its first converts were Jewish.
  5. Some commentators believe that the number 144,000 is approximately the number of Jewish Christians who were alive at the time the book of Revelation was written (90 C.E.).
  6. If the sealing symbolizes salvation or baptism, it is more likely that those who are not sealed are Jews rather than Christians since it is easier to conceive of “unsealed” or unsaved Jews than “unsealed” or unsaved Christians.
  7. Early Christian literature is filled with the distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians though both were considered to be part of the new people of God.
  8. The term sphragis is sometimes used to mean circumcision, a Jewish rite (Romans 4:11).

Some of these arguments are not particular convincing. For example, number 8 on the face of it seems strong but upon investigating the word sphragis you find that of the sixteen times it appears in the New Testament, thirteen of them are in the book of Revelation and there is no indication that it refers to circumcision among those instances. Number 5 is also unconvincing as there is no way John could have known how many Jewish Christians were alive at the time he wrote Revelation.

Aune (441-442) lays out a few counterarguments against the notion that the 144,000 are Jews or Jewish Christians.

  1. There were no “twelve tribes” that literally existed in the first century and any hope of their restoration was not real but ideal.
  2. By the end of the first century, the distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians is no longer common.
  3. Throughout Revelation the Christian Church is described in language normally applied to Israel. It would seem odd if the author changed that up here in Revelation 7.
  4. The author of Revelation equates this 144,000 in Revelation 7 to the 144,000 mentioned in chapter 14 and the latter are certainly not Jews or Jewish Christians.

Of the three counterarguments, I find number 3 the most compelling. Throughout the book of Revelation, the Church (i.e. Christians) is described in terms normally used of Israel. John writes to his audience that Jesus “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (1:6). This is repeated in chapter 5 where the twenty-four elders sing a song proclaiming that the Lamb “ransomed people for God from every tribe and langauge and people and nation, and…made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (5:9-10). The author is alluding to Exodus 19:6 where Yahweh tells Moses that Israel “shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

What is more is that the book of Revelation is a kind of tribute to the Hebrew scriptures what with its numerous allusions to prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel. The fact that these prophets foresaw a future of the nation of Israel that John employs in his description of Christians lends credence to the idea that the 144,000 are not actual tribes but are instead representative of something greater. But I may be giving away my own position on the topic so let’s consider another possibility that Aune lays out in his commentary.

The 144,000 as the Christian Church, Jews and Gentiles

Another possibility is that the 144,000 represent the Christian Church, both Jew and Gentile. Aune (442-443) lays out a number of reasons why this may be the case.

  1. The Church was widely considered in early Christianity to be the true Israel. Paul, for example, wrote that “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly….But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28, 29). Similarly, the author of James writes his letter “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1) which is clearly a reference to the church (James 5:14). Peter also writes “to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1).
  2. In Revelation 9:4 the scorpions released from the pit are told that they cannot harm those with the seal of God on their foreheads, strongly suggesting that all Christians have the seal.
  3. The irregularity of the list of the tribes may be a “subtle clue” from the authors that real Israel is not intended in Revelation 7.

Of the three points Aune offers, the first is by far the strongest. It is hard to argue that the New Testament seems to strongly suggest that the Church is the new people of God and that those of faith are the true sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). Furthermore, Paul argues in the book of Romans that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (Romans 9:6-7). In other words, being an “Israelite” is more than just being of Jewish descent and that being a child of Abraham is more than a matter of birth.

The 144,000 as Christian Martyrs

A third possibility is that the 144,000 represent Christian martyrs, “whose complete number must be fulfilled before the end” (Aune, 443). This view comes on the heels of the context of chapter six where John witnesses the fifth seal being opened and sees “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (6:9). These disembodied souls are restless, crying out to God for vengeance, but are told that they must “rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be completed, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (6:11). Revelation 7:4-8 provides that number, in this view.

Aune mentions a variation of this view that sees the 144,000 as a holy army, an army for Christ himself. This is not a militaristic force which uses violence to accomplish his ends but is rather a force made up of those faithful to Jesus who are willing even to die for him. Aune offers some supporting arguments.

  1. The form that Revelation 7:4-8 takes resembles the census of the tribes of Israel (i.e. Numbers 1:1-46) and every census in the Hebrew Bible is a military census.
  2. In Numbers 31:4-6 we read of a military force composed of twelve-thousand men, an equal amount of men taken from each tribe.
  3. In some Jewish writings, the War Scroll for example, there is an expectation that there will be a messianic army that is composed of members from each of the twelve tribes.
  4. That this is a non-militaristic force is evidenced by the fact that elsewhere in Revelation an elder announces that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (5:5) but when John looks to see this great, conquering Lion he sees “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (5:6). In other words, the conquering is accomplished by sacrifice.
  5. The 144,000 are only a portion of the Church, represented by the twelve tribes just as martyrs represent only a portion of the Church.

Of the five arguments put forward, the strongest are the first two. However, I remain unpersuaded that this is what the 144,000 represent.

Aune’s View

Aune offers a solution, stating that he does not find any of the three possibilities as viable. He writes,

In my view, the 144,000 of Rev 7:4-8 represent that particular group of Christians (including all ages and both genders) who have been specially protected by God from both divine plagues and human persecution just before the final eschatological tribulation begins and who consequently survive that tribulation and the great eschatological battle that is the culmination of that tribulation. (Aune, 443)

Furthermore, he writes that “the number 144,000 (12 [tribes] x 12 [apostles] x 1000) is a Christian symbol for the fullness of the new people of God, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, constituting the remnant of Christians who survive the eschatological woes.” (444) There is much to like about Aune’s view.

First, the book of Revelation is about eschatology. While it is clear from the opening and closing chapters that the expectation would be that it would happen very soon (see Revelation 1:1, 3, 7, 25; 3:10, 11; 26:6, 7, 10, 12, and 20), this doesn’t mean that since it did not happen that we are warranted to rip the text from its historical context. John thought the horrific events detailed in his work were going to happen, if not in his own lifetime, then not long after his death.

Second, Revelation 7 comes on the heels of the opening of the sixth seal (6:12-17) and the question posed at the end of that section – “The great day of their wrath has come and who can stand?” – seems to be answered by, “The 144,000 sealed by God.” As the seals represent God’s judgment during the time of tribulation on the earth, it seems reasonable to assume that the 144,000 represent God’s people under his divine protection.

Third, as we have already noted, there is no need to take the number 144,000 as a literal number and due to the odd nature of the list of the tribes we should not presume that the author of Revelation means for us to take it to mean actual tribes.

Sealed for the Coming Judgment

It seems that given the apocalyptic nature of the text that the 144,000 are those sealed by God for protection from the coming judgment. It also seems that though they are described using Jewish tribes, these are not Jews but Christians of every ethnicity – the Christian church is the true Israel. And the number, 144,000 is symbolic representing a perfect number of believers chosen by God to be protected during the judgment – 12 x 12 x 1000.

Furthermore, the 144,000 are, from John’s point of view, living at the time of his writing. Remember, John is under the impression that Jesus is coming back soon. (1:1, 3, 7, etc.) So the expectation is that those who are sealed before the coming wrath of God are those who are already alive at the time. The 144,000 are among those who John has been with and ministered to at the end of the first century CE. This should not be overlooked.

I have to confess that other questions remain. For example, what is the relationship of the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4-8 to the “great multitude that no one could number” of 7:9? And what is going on with the description of the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1-5? I may write more on those issues in a later post but for now I would recommend picking up the commentaries to which I’ve referenced here and seeing what more accomplished exegetes have to say. Their full information can be found in the “Print Bibliography” below.

As always, please feel free to leave any questions or comments in the comments section!

* All biblical citations unless otherwise noted are from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001).

Print Bibliography

David E. Aune. Revelation 1-5. WBC: 52A. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997.

David E. Aune. Revelation 6-16. WBC: 52B. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998.

Robert A. Baker. A Summary of Christian History. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002.

G. K. Beale. The Book of Revelation. NIGTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

D. A. Carson. Exegetical Fallacies. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996.

D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

John Claeys. Apocalypse 2012: The Ticking of the End Time Clock. Sister, OR: VMI Publishers, 2010.

Lane T. Dennis, general editor. English Standard Version Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Bart D. Ehrman. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day. Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1984.

Dennis E. Johnson. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001.

Simon J. Kistemaker. Revelation. NTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Robert H. Mounce. The Book of Revelation. NICOT. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

 

 

 

Musings on Mark: Fishers of Men

καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου, καὶ ποιήσω ὑμᾶς γενέσθαι ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων.
Mark 1:17

I do not care for fishing. While some find it to be a relaxing hobby, I find it to be boring and tedious. Maybe it’s because my dad never took me fishing or maybe it’s because I prefer to have my nose in a book. Whatever the reason, fishing is not for me. And hunting even less so!

Yet much of the world depends on fish and other seafood to sustain its growing population. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, scientist and author Jared Diamond notes,

While seafood consumption is high and rising in the First World, it is even higher and rising faster elsewhere, e.g., having doubled in China within the last decade. Fish now account for 40% of all protein (of both plant and animal origin) consumed in the Third World and are the main animal protein source for over a billion Asians….As a result of our dependence on seafood, the sea provides jobs and income for 200,000,000 people around the world, and fishing is the most important basis of the economies of Iceland, Chile, and some other countries. (Diamond, 2005, 479)

Throughout much of human history, fishing has been an important task. If you lived near a body of water then you got much of your food supply from it. This is true today and it was true in first century Palestine.

With Him All the Way

The Gospel of Mark has a very simple structure. In broad terms, there are three major sections: a prologue or introduction (1:1-15), the public ministry of Jesus (1:16-8:26), and the journey to the cross (8:27-16:8). Within the first section we can see three major divisions: the authority of Jesus (1:16-3:12), the teachings of Jesus (3:13-6:6), and the mission of Jesus (6:7-8:26). Each division begins with a pericope concerning the disciples. Why is this?

To put it simply, one of Mark’s goals in writing his Gospel is to turn readers who may know about Jesus into disciples of Jesus. So in his Gospel the disciples are far from minor characters on the stage that is Jesus’ life. Rather, they are there from the beginning and are vital to the story. And by including them so early in the narrative, Mark is emphasizing that the disciples had been with Jesus all the way. [1]

“Left their father Zebedee”

But the pericope in Mark 1:16-20 is also intended to demonstrate that the proper response to Jesus’ call is immediate and unwavering commitment. When Jesus sees Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the sea, he calls to them and says, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (1:17) And what is their response? καὶ εὐθὺς ἀφέντες τὰ δίκτυα ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ – “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (1:18) If this isn’t surprising, it should be. Mark’s audience would have recognized that in dropping their nets to follow Jesus, Simon and Andrew were leaving behind their livelihood, their source of life. Yet they drop their nets and at the call of Jesus follow him.

But Simon and Andrew are not the only ones who abandon fishing to follow Jesus. As he goes a little farther, Jesus sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in their boats repairing their nets. The text says, “And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.” (1:20) This is surprising not only because fishing was their source of food but also because apparently Zebedee’s fishing business was doing well enough that he could afford to have τῶν μισθωτῶν, “hired servants.” Furthermore, James and John left their own father behind to follow this man from Galilee. This is astonishing.

Mark is highlighting for his readers that discipleship is costly. You may have to abandon your source of food. You may not have incredible financial success. You may have to leave behind family. But the one you are following is one who teaches with authority and casts out demons (1:21-28), who can heal those who have been sick with leprosy or paralyzed for life (1:40-2:12), and who is even able to raise the dead to life again. (5:35-43) Sure, along the way you may be lumped in with “tax collectors and sinners” (2:15-16) but Jesus said he wasn’t where the healthy were but where the sick were.

“I will make you become fishers of men,” Jesus told Simon and Andrew. And that is one of the purposes of Mark’s Gospel: to make his readers fishers of men.

End Notes

[1] Though as Jesus faces his own death they scatter. This turn of events is intended to emphasize a theme in Mark’s Gospel that no one really understands who Jesus is, not even his disciples. They may have expected a triumphant king but got a crucified prophet.

Print Bibliography 

Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005.