Fickle Gods and the Wondrous Clarity of the Law

It’s the time of year again when countless Bible readers are about to get bogged down in Leviticus. It’s easy to quickly skim through these sections of the Pentateuch that deal with Israel’s laws, our brains struggling to stay focused and longing to get back to some narrative passages. We read the minute detail of Israel’s purity requirements and wonder if the ancient audience was just as bored as we are. Could there have been a time and a place where hearing Leviticus read actually held the hearers in rapt attention?

Apparently so, even centuries after the fact. No reading of the Psalms can avoid the evidence that the writers of that anthology – and faithful Israel through them – not only found God’s Law interesting, but even delightful. Why did ancient Israel love God’s law so dearly? It was in Tremper Longman III’s How to Read the Psalms where I first came across one of the powerful answers to this question, an answer that continues to serve me today as I try to read and put myself in the shoes of those during that period of redemptive history. In short, they loved the Law so intensely because of its clarity.

To understand this, we need to step back into the religious worldview of the ancient near east. All of the peoples surrounding Israel would have believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Think Dagon, Baal, Ashtoreth (Ishtar), Chemosh, Ra, etc. These so-called gods and goddesses were not necessarily moral, nor were they necessarily loving and committed to the good of their people. They were deeply flawed like humans, except immensely more powerful. And they needed to be constantly appeased in order to guarantee a good harvest, fertility in marriage, or safety from enemy armies.

To top it off, these gods were fickle and hard to predict. Their will could change on a whim. Elaborate divination ceremonies were needed to discern their wills and to (hopefully) avoid outbursts of their wrath. These divination attempts included things like reading the livers of animals, interpreting dreams, and slapping kings until they cried to see if they still enjoyed the gods’ favor. Ancient Arabs, for example, threw a handful of arrows on the ground in hopes of finding meaning in the unique design thereby created.

Remember, life and death and eternity depended on these shifting signs and their subjective interpretations. This meant that the inhabitants of the ancient world lived in a kind of hell of relativity. Their religious systems taught them that your crop’s failure or your wife’s death in childbirth was due to your failure to rightly appease the gods – whose requirements were always opaque and were always shifting, always arbitrary. How could this not foster fanaticism, resignation, or even madness? There was precious little that was solid and unchanging that you could hold onto. You might do everything right according to the oracles, only to find out after the fact that the gods had mysteriously changed the requirements without telling you. How easy it would have been for the priestly class to abuse this system for its own benefit, while the commoners and kings either gave up or gave themselves over to a life of endless striving and fear.

Into this kind of context came the Law of Moses, not only revealed, but even written in language that could be understood by the people. Written down so that it could be regularly accessible for the entire people group and for each new generation. And it was marvelously clear, on points major as well as minor. Don’t make any idols, take the seventh day off and rest, don’t drink blood, treat the foreigners in your midst well, make sure you rinse that pot when you find a dead lizard in it.

We tend to chafe at the sheer number of laws given to the people of Israel, viewing things primary through our new covenant perspective where so many of these laws have now been fulfilled in Christ. And yet a primary response of the ancient Israelites to these laws would not have been a sense of burden. It would have been a sense of tearful relief, even rest. They did not have to live at the fickle mercy of cruel gods. They had one true and unchanging God, who rescued them because of his steadfast love and who now called them to a life conformed to his clear will – his will that would not change or shift. It was solid, dependable, steadfast, not going to cut their knees out from under them when least expected out of some kind of twisted divine freedom. No wonder they loved the law.

Our own age of diversity echoes the fickle relativity of the ancient gods. Within our own cultures, the changing pace of public morality is increasingly hard to keep up with. Lives are destroyed as one slip of the tongue or keyboard violates the shifting sands of what phrases are now safe (clean) and what is bigoted (unclean). The man on the street must live at the whim of the “priestly class” of academics, politicians, celebrities, and journalists who somehow have the inside scoop on what is newly demanded in order to be a virtuous person.

The interconnectedness of the world also brings with it an invitation to fall into relativity. As diverse cultures increasingly interact, the morality of one is seen to be vastly different from the morality of another. For many, this casts doubt on the existence of a universal morality at all. Then languages interact with other languages, highlighting the limitations, weaknesses, and localized viewpoints of each. This casts doubt on any ability to access universal truth through such an imperfect medium as human language. Similarly, the more exposure you have to other cultures and languages, the greater the sense that it’s foolishness to think that you just happened to grow up with the true answers. Yet just like those in the ancient near east, all must be risked upon our attempts to get it right, to rightly discern “the will of the gods.” It’s not surprising then if some of us also turn to fanaticism, resignation, or even madness in response to this uncertainty.

However, just like ancient Israel, believers now don’t have to live at the mercy of the fickle gods. We have God’s Law and his gospel, wondrously clear and accessible. It proved to be a solid rock in the churning sea of ancient polytheism. It is just as stable of a rock in the contemporary sea of progressive culture and globalization.

In a world with nothing to hold onto, we should conduct ourselves with a certain knowing confidence, always ready to invite those weary of the world’s arbitrary demands to something eternally steadfast. “Don’t you want something solid and truly good to hang onto?” “In all the noise, don’t you long for something that is clear and always true?” “Don’t you want access to an eternal definition of love?” We need to keep our eyes peeled for the castaways around us who already know from awful experience how the gods of this age turn on those who were desperately trying to keep up and get it right. They are in need of rescue and rest. We can offer it to them.

The shifting will of the culture, the contradictory decrees of different global cultures, these are not a problem for us as believers. They are echoes of humanity’s desperate need for something solid, universal, and unchanging. And like a weary ancient near east worshiper hearing Leviticus for the first time, we have God’s word. And it is wondrously clear. So clear, it’s worthy of delight.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Consistent With A Cosmic Air Burst

Sooner or later, archaeology tends to validate the biblical record. Take this research being done in the lower Jordan valley, the area of Genesis’ description of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. Archaeologists have found evidence in a layer of soil of a cosmic air burst from around 3,650 years ago. A cosmic air burst is when a meteor explodes while still in the atmosphere, which can cause devastation on the ground resembling a nuclear bomb, such as occurred in the Tunguska Event in 1908 Siberia. The research on the site in Jordan goes on to describe cataclysmic temperatures, in excess of 2,000 degrees Celsius:

In addition to the debris one would expect from destruction via warfare and earthquakes, they found pottery shards with outer surfaces melted into glass, “bubbled” mudbrick and partially melted building material, all indications of an anomalously high-temperature event, much hotter than anything the technology of the time could produce.

Not also was there a fiery disaster from the sky spelling the end of the cities in the area, there’s also a connection with salt:

The airburst, according to the paper, may also explain the “anomalously high concentrations of salt” found in the destruction layer — an average of 4% in the sediment and as high as 25% in some samples.

The salt was thrown up due to the high impact pressures,” Kennett said of the meteor that likely fragmented upon contact with Earth’s atmosphere.

If this is indeed archaeological evidence of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, then we now have a little more information about what kind of means God used in this particular judgment: a meteor, exploding before it hits the ground. If so, it’s not that we now say that God wasn’t really actively carrying out a judgement of sin, since we now have some evidence that it was a meteor – something that naturally occurs. Nor do we have to reject this kind of evidence, insisting that God’s judgements in history must be purely “miraculous.” Rather, here we see an example of how God can sovereignly judge through natural means. A meteor – set on its cosmic track countless years beforehand – explodes above the lower Jordan valley at the appointed time, when the outcry against cities’ sin has reached its full pitch, and just after Lot and his family are rescued. And thus God’s sovereign action in history and the (super)natural workings of the universe are seen once again to go hand in hand.

“All the observations stated in Genesis are consistent with a cosmic airburst,” says the quoted professor. Yes, we may not always see how, but the record of scripture and the record of the soil will ultimately align. The archaeologists may be surprised. But we shouldn’t be.

Photo by Vincentiu Solomon on Unsplash

A Song on High Priests

“Peace on Earth/A Conversation” by The Psallos

In truth these are two songs, transitioning at the 1:30 mark. Both are exploring the theme in Hebrews of Jesus being our great high priest. It’s a fun pairing of theology, typology, and some creative banter. Some select lines:

I see your point, but you gotta see mine,
These men were appointed by God's design.

Designed to die? 

No, designed to sympathize 
With the lives of the Israelites.

I think you might be losing your mind there, Thom!
Sympathy's not going to save.

I know, but listen to what I'm saying, Kelsie!
These guys are like shadows and types. 

Yeah, ineffectual types. 

Your guitar's an ineffectual type. 

But what we can agree on is this,
Jesus he is better, he is infinitely better, 
Blameless, spotless, sinless, righteous,
Able to fight this sinful-itis. 

Able to right these wrongs that plague us,
Able to sympathize with our weakness,
Cause he has taken on flesh to save us. 

The Ark of the Covenant in its Egyptian Context

Here is a fascinating article from the Biblical Archaeology Society about the Ark of the Covenant and the possible meanings of its design. The Hebrews weren’t operating from a blank cultural slate. They had been living in Egypt for 400 years and adopting from that culture certain meaning-form understandings. For example, the pharaoh could go into battle while seated on a winged throne. That throne would be held aloft by shoulder poles – just like the Ark of the Covenant. In other words, it’s highly likely that the poles the Levites used to carry the ark, and the wings of the cherubim, and the mercy seat itself were all designed to carry a particular visual meaning – YHWH is divine king. I find the concluding paragraph of the article helpful in summarizing many of the elements of Old Testament religion.

“Therefore, even though Yahweh is not bound to human limits, he condescended to mankind deferring to human expectations of divinity. The cherubim had wings that stretched out over the Mercy Seat, and the shekinah glory met with man from between the wings of the cherubim above the ark. God did not try to change the beliefs of the people before engaging them, but instead respected human frailty and human notions of the divine, inverting or modifying those beliefs to teach humanity new ideas about himself.”

Photos by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons

Why Steal the Household gods?

Ever wondered why Rachel stole her father Laban’s household gods in Genesis 31? Was she really that devoted to these idols? Perhaps something else was going on. See this note from Gen 31:19.

household gods. One of the purposes of these idols was to obtain oracles (Ezek. 21:21). It may be that Rachel stole them to prevent Laban from using them to divine Jacob’s route of escape. In addition, possession of family gods symbolized title to family property in the ancient Near East, so Rachel may have stolen them to safeguard her inheritance rights.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible

This is another example of why it can be so helpful to understand the culture and context of biblical narratives. Here are two possibilities for Rachel’s motives in this story that I never would have known nor guessed without this background info. Divination or inheritance rights being tied to household gods is simply not self-apparent to me, given my own cultural and historical context. Interestingly, if the second possibility is what was going on here, then we see in Rachel an echo of her husband’s particular sin – seeking to wrest her inheritance rights in her own strength, rather than trusting in the promises of YHWH. As is usually the case, this backfires. And Rachel comes awfully close to losing her life because of her deception.

Photo by Agnieszka Kowalczyk on Unsplash

A Hedgehog Named Desolation

My history with colorful pets on the mission field is a long one. As a child in Melanesia we had pythons, owls, parrots, praying mantises, tree kangaroos (my favorites), and a baby bat. We also had seasons with the more typical dogs and cats. Mostly these were good experiences. Though an eclectus parrot once bit a chunk out of my thumb and a tree kangaroo bit a chunk out of my big toe. That same tree kangaroo also bit one of my classmates, and for some reason his parents insisted on getting him a tetanus shot, which was probably much worse than what the frightened marsupial had done. Sorry about that, Ken.

This part of my life – an enjoyment of local critters – never quite went away, even when I moved to Central Asia. There was a part of our previous city called “Under the Bridge,” where the animal sellers would gather. All kinds of strange and interesting animals would be for sale there, though their conditions were sometimes lamentable. But sometimes you could see eagles, ostriches, chipmunks, or beautiful pheasants for sale. Locals have a thing for birds, especially of the dove, pigeon, and pheasant variety.

One day as a new single on the field, I saw a couple of monkeys for sale under the bridge. I committed one of my classic language blunders that day by asking “Where are the monkey’s people?!” over and over because I thought I was asking, “Where are the monkeys from?”

I later enthusiastically told my team about the little monkeys for sale. “Guys! We could have an office monkey! It would be great, we could teach it to serve chai to guests!”

Needless to say, my team didn’t share my enthusiasm.

Many years passed and I never saw a monkey for sale again in the bazaar. Alas. But one day, I spotted hedgehogs. Just a few months beforehand I had been reading in Zephaniah and was struck by the peculiarity of this passage:

 Zephaniah 2:13–14
             [13] And he will stretch out his hand against the north
                         and destroy Assyria,
             and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
                         a dry waste like the desert.
             [14] Herds shall lie down in her midst,
                         all kinds of beasts;
             even the owl and the hedgehog
                         shall lodge in her capitals;
             a voice shall hoot in the window;
                         devastation will be on the threshold;
                         for her cedar work will be laid bare. (ESV) 

When I read the word desolation in verse 13 I wasn’t exactly expecting it to be illustrated with such a cute friendly little critter in verse 14. I mean, who saw that coming? “I will bring desolation… the hedgehog!” (cue thunder and lightning). Now that I’ve lived in Central Asia for a while I understand that hedgehogs (like owls) represent one of the desert creatures that would move into an abandoned city, as Nineveh was to become. Still, I couldn’t quite shake some level of amusement with the connection of these particular words in the text.

“Darling,” I told my wife, “If we ever get a hedgehog, we’re naming him Desolation.”

“OK, love, whatever you say,” was my wife’s response. She didn’t actually expect me to buy one.

But when I came across some for sale in the bazaar for the grand sum of $8 each, it was too good to pass up. I bought one and brought him home in a shoebox, proudly presenting him to my wife and two toddlers. The kids of course were thrilled. My wife was bemused and skeptical.

“His name is Desolation! Desi for short.” I announced. My wife shook her head. The TCK in me occasionally takes over and she remembers that she did indeed marry someone who grew up swimming in jungle rivers and shooting his friends with coffee cherries.

I asked my wife tonight what she remembers about Desi.

“He was a punk,” she said. “And whenever we held him he would hiss at us! And shrink his little head back up under his spikes. Then we would set him down and he would run and try to get under the couch. But he was too fat so he would get half way under, get stuck, and then scurry his little back legs against the floor until he got flat enough to eventually fit under.”

Indeed, Desi had a grumpy personality befitting the name. Still, sometimes he was very cute and would let us rub his belly. Though most of the time he would just hang out under the couch – once he had finally managed to squeeze through. Every night I would tip over the couch and put him back in his cage. The greatest danger for him in the house was that he would somehow find the bathroom and fall in the squatty potty in the floor and drown.

Ultimately, Desi never found the perilous bathroom, though he eventually succumbed to some kind of mysterious hedgehog virus and passed away, as Tolkien would say, “an image of the glory of the splendor of the kings of [hedgehogs], in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.”

The kids were sad. I was sad. Even my wife was a little sad. We haven’t had a pet since, but I keep my eyes open every time we’re in the bazaar. I would love for my kids to also grow up with strange tales of colorful creatures that are usually grumpy and sometimes even cute. There are some downsides to growing up as TCKs. But there are many upsides also. Tree kangaroos. Hedgehogs. Parents who are naturally adventurous and who let you have things like pythons.

Meanwhile, perhaps we’d better bring more hedgehog imagery into our teaching on God’s judgement? I’m sensing a theme…

 Isaiah 14:23
 [23] “And I will make it a possession of the hedgehog, and pools of water, and I will sweep it with the broom of destruction,” declares the LORD of hosts. (ESV) 

Photo by Siem van Woerkom on Unsplash

The Cow As Local Shibboleth

Shibboleth [ shib-uh-lith, ‐leth ], noun

  1. A peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons. (

A shibboleth has come to mean a type of signal, usually verbal, that betrays what group someone actually belongs to. Having spent some years in the Philadelphia, PA, area, I know that locals pronounce water as wooder and call sub sandwiches hoagies. These verbal cues betray that they have been shaped by the dialect of a particular city. My wife being originally from the Rochester, NY, area, means that she happens to add and “L” sound into the word both, pronouncing it as bolth. Arabs usually can’t say the letter “P” and instead of Pepsi, they say bibsi. And Americans have an awfully hard time with the “Q” sound of Arabic, often mispronouncing the name of the country Qatar as kataar or gutter.

The term shibboleth itself comes from the book of Judges, from one of the many tribal conflicts that takes place in that book of uniquely highlighted human depravity.

Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.” And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell. (Judges 12:4–6 ESV)

Alas, the dialect of the Ephraimites had lost the sh sound and so their tongues gave them away when they were asked to reproduce shibboleth, the Hebrew word for ear of grain. As one who struggled even as a six-year-old to pronounce the tricky American “R” sound, I feel their pain. But I only had to go to speech class and miss my 2nd grade Thursday afternoon movie. Once their lie was exposed and they were found out to be Ephraimites, they were promptly killed.

I was surprised to hear a very similar account echoed by my Muslim neighbors here in our corner of Central Asia. Our region, like many tribal and mountainous areas worldwide, has many diverse dialects. These dialects are supposedly all part of the same language (though linguists debate at what point a dialect becomes its own language). The dialect of our new city is surprisingly different from the dialect of our previous city, for being geographically as close as they are. We are currently in the throes of learning a whole new set of vocab that we thought we had already mastered. Turns out many of the words that are commonplace in our previous city are just not used here, and vice versa. I’m talking about words you use every day like spoon, nose, neighbor, y’all, and cow. Well, maybe we don’t use cow every day, but it would have been a word used daily until the very recent past. But the term for cow used in our city and our previous city are as different as the English words mail and saunter. In other words, there is no connection between them whatsoever.

Not too long ago there was a civil war between these two cities and they unknowingly performed a live-action remake of Judges 12. As they say, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But instead using shibboleth as a shibboleth, they used the words for cow instead. When someone was caught at a checkpoint professing to be a friendly member of the soldiers’ side, they were put to a linguistic test.

“Say cow.”

Their answer, at least until word got out, determined their fate. Their chosen word for cow, of all things, was the difference between life and death. Though civil war is always tragic, locals do find humor in this tale of their recent conflict. It seems to somehow appropriately highlight the absurdity of conflicts that really boil down to the basic competition between two tribes, and nothing deeper than that. “It was a stupid war,” locals will say. “To this day we really don’t know why it even happened.”

Stupid and inexplicable. Like most human conflict. In the new heavens and new earth, if we still have shibboleths, I’m sure they’ll only be used for fun. “So, you’re a Philly boy, eh? I caught that usage of wooder.” Thankfully, the age where shibboleths are used for evil will then have finally passed away.

Photo by Hilde Demeester on Unsplash

Harmony-Tongued Sumer

Is there evidence that other ancient civilizations believed in a past where the world had one language, as Genesis 11 teaches? Yes, apparently.

11:1 one language. A text from Mesopotamia called the Enmerkar Epic indicates that the people in that culture also believed that the earth had previously had a single language. The tablet reads in part:

“Man had no rival.

In those days the lands of Shubar (and) Hamazi,

Harmony-tongued (?) Sumer,

the great land of the decrees of princeship,

Uri, the land having all that all is appropriate (?),

the land Martu, resting in security,

The whole universe, the people in unison (?),

To Enlil in one tongue…”

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 27

Like the better-known parallels to the great flood (e.g. Gilgamesh), it appears that language disaster of Babel was also remembered and passed down in other Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Fascinating.

Those Who Leap Over the Threshold

Not unlike the Evil Eye, it appears that threshold rituals are also surprisingly ancient and widespread. When we find religious practices held in common by the ancient Assyria, tribal Melanesia, and contemporary Central Asia, that’s something worth digging into a bit. Humanity, it seems, impulsively fears the demonic entering their homes through their doorways. This fear has resulted in some common responses among the religious beliefs and traditions of the world.

Take this obscure rebuke from Zephaniah 1:9,

On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold,
and those who fill their masters house with violence.

Here’s a historical explanation of this verse: “Evil spirits were often believed in the ancient Near East to be able to enter temples and homes via windows and doors, especially if someone stepped on a threshold (cf. 1 Sam 5:5). This is perhaps why the Assyrians often buried sacred objects below their thresholds.”*

Apparently there were residents of Judah in Zephaniah’s day who were leaping over thresholds because they had been influenced by the pagan religions around them. They believed that by not stepping on the threshold of the door, they could protect the space they were entering from evil spiritual forces. This was of course syncretism which would be part of the reason for Judah’s coming judgment. Even though some might view this as a relatively harmless folk belief, here we see how seriously God takes this kind of attempt to fight the demonic by borrowing from the rituals of the pagans. Missionaries, let us take note.

As soon as I read the part about Assyrians burying sacred objects below their threshold, I was transported back to high school, when one of my Melanesian teachers shared her testimony. One of the key parts of proclaiming her faith in Jesus was her agreement to dig out and throw away the sacred ancestor stone that was buried in the dirt beneath her door frame. This stone, viewed as a spiritual necessity by her tribesmen, was buried in order to protect her house from evil spirits and the curses of enemy witch doctors. When she dug it out her family was furious and made genuine threats against her life. But by getting rid of that stone she was proclaiming that Jesus now protected her from the threats of the spiritual realm, not her sacred ancestor stone. It was a hill to die on.

How fascinating that the ancient Assyrians had the same practice of burying sacred objects below thresholds. Did these things ultimately come from the same early pagan practices that emerged sometime in the first eleven chapters of Genesis? Or did they arise independently, inspired by the demonic who seem to have a pretty similar playbook they use in the animistic/polytheistic systems that have emerged around the globe? Was all of this some kind of hijacking of what occurred at the Passover, when the lamb’s blood spread on the door posts protected God’s people from the angel of death?

Sacred objects being buried is one threshold ritual which attempts to protect against evil spirits. Another is to avoid stepping on the threshold, as was mentioned earlier in Zephaniah 1:9. If we follow the cross-reference in that passage to 1st Samuel 5:5, we learn that Dagon’s head and hands were mysteriously cut off and found on the threshold and Dagon’s torso was found lying facedown in front of the Ark of the Covenant. “This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.” Apparently YHWH, by placing these idol pieces on the threshold, was communicating in a form the Ashdodites would clearly understand. An enemy spiritual power has been here, one more powerful than your patron “god.” Not only can he can cross this threshold, he can dismember your idol and leave him on the threshold for double emphasis. The Ashdodites, rightly terrified, decide to never step on that threshold again. Why exactly they thought that would accomplish anything is unclear, but perhaps they thought it was better than doing nothing. Typical religious response.

The Islamic traditions in our part of Central Asia advocate for their own threshold rituals. But instead of burying things or not stepping on things, they focus on the goodness of the right side and the badness of the left side. This likely has links to the old idea that the right side is the side of honor, as is often picked up in biblical language and imagery. But apparently our local friends are also taught that Satan does everything with his left side. So he eats with his left hand, leads with his left side, and most importantly, enters a room with his left foot.

Therefore, for a good Muslim, you must not enter a room (especially a mosque) with your left foot first. You should be careful to enter with your right foot only. This also applies if two men are walking through a door side by side. The one on the right should be allowed to go first, leading with his right foot of course, then the man on the left can enter with his right foot. This in some way is supposed to fight evil, not unlike the way locals build staircases with one random step always higher than the others, “to stop Satan.” Seems more likely to cause missionaries severe pain in the middle of the night when the power has gone out than to do anything of consequence to Satan.

Missionaries would be wise to keep an eye out for the presence and importance of threshold rituals among our focus people groups. Some of them, like those of my Melanesian teacher, will be so serious as to warrant repudiation as an expression of true faith. Others, like those in my Central Asian context, are not quite this serious. Because they have shifted out of a serious spiritual practice and into a simple tradition or way of being polite, it’s not necessary for us to strongly emphasize our freedom to enter a room with our left foot first. Sure, we talk about it and joke around with our local believing friends, sometimes insisting that the man on the left go first because we are those who do not believe the local folk religion. But it seems to be heading in the direction of “Gesundheit” and less like digging up a sacred ancestor stone, with its accompanying death threats. Still, we need to ask more questions because these beliefs can go very deep, only reemerging in force in times of crisis and weakness. It was always when a child was very sick that Melanesian Christians were most tempted to return to the old witch doctor.

But whether we need to relieve a believer of threshold-demon fear or simply help one another better understand these fears that are out there, we can have confidence in the power of the Spirit. He is the Lord of thresholds, the one who dismembered Dagon on his own doorstep. He can keep us from spiritual harm, whether we are too afraid of the demonic or not afraid enough. The simple practices of spiritual warfare advocated in the New Testament are sufficient. Elaborate threshold rituals are not required.

No leaping over my threshold, please. Leave the burying of items to my future dog. And when you come over, feel free to enter with your left foot first.

*ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p.1309

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash

King-Slapping Ceremonies and the Original Redcoats

Old Testament background continues to fascinate. I’ve recently come across two customs from the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires that once again prove that the past is truly a foreign land. This type of material is interesting because it adds more texture and color (here literally) to ancient history. It reminds us that these were real people, just like us, with their own complex traditions and cultures – that they were just as fully alive as we are. Not unlike the effect of seeing old black and white footage restored in color for the first time, these details help the stories, carvings, and statues feel more real. That in turn helps guard us from treating the Old Testament narratives as more like myth and less like actual history that we ourselves are connected to.

Micah 5:1, strike the judge of Israel on the cheek. This may allude to a ritual in the Mesopotamian Akitu festival known as the royal negative confession (with “judge” here referring to the Israelite king). A third-century-BC Seleucid source describes how, in this ritual, the high priest would stand before a statue of Marduk and recite the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation epic) in order to emphasize Marduk’s superiority over other gods as well as his creation of all things, including mankind. After the temple was cleansed, the priest would take the royal insignia from the king, slap his face, and force him to kneel before the statue of the god. The king was then to confirm that he had not misused the power given him by Marduk nor violated the welfare of Babylon or Marduk. The high priest would then slap the king again and force him to cry, possibly to demonstrate his contrition. After this, the king’s authority would be restored.

Nahum 2:3, shield is … red. The palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh depicts the typical Assyrian shields of his day, such as those used in his conquest of the Judahite city of Lachish in 701 BC. According to the early fourth-century-BC Greek historian Xenophon, armies of Assyria, Babylon, and Media typically dressed in blood-like scarlet in order to intimidate their enemies.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, pp. 1289, 1296

So the next time you are reading an Old Testament account of Nebuchadnezzar, imagine him at the head of a column of soldiers who are dressed in blood-like scarlet – and he himself with blood-shot eyes because his high priest recently slapped him until he cried.

We probably have some updating of the Sunday school flannel boards to do.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons