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

Dead As In All the Way

I’m reading through Jonah this week and came across this interesting note on the importance of three days and three nights in ancient near eastern mythology and culture. It seems to be understood as period of time that indicated a death that there was no coming back from – as in not mostly dead, which according to the austere religious scholar, Miracle Max, “is still slightly alive.” In the ancient near east, if you journeyed into the world of the dead there was hope – if you made it out before the third day. This ancient understanding of being utterly dead could also provide historical context for Lazarus and Jesus’ periods in the grave as well (four and three days respectively).

three days and three nights. This would have been equated with certain death; for example, in the Mesopotamian Descent of Inanna [a mythological text], the title goddess commands her servant to lament for her if she does not return to the earth within three days.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1280

The scriptures are indicating that Jonah was as good as dead. Lazarus was more than dead. And Jesus was dead – as in all the way.

Photo by Christophe Maertens on Unsplash

The Evil Eye: Surprisingly Ancient and Widespread

Typical evil eye amulets in the Middle East and Central Asia

Many cultures’ folk religions believe in the evil eye. In our area of Central Asia, some, particularly the elderly and rural, believe that certain persons secretly have the power to curse others by looking at them and envying them. This is said to be the evil eye, or the dirty eye as our local language puts it. In order to protect one’s self from this danger, certain eye amulets can be hung on persons, gifts, or in rooms.

It’s also important to assure others that you are not a secret possessor of the evil eye. Locals do this by prefacing a complement with the Arabic phrase, Mashallah, which means “what God has willed.” In complementing babies and small children, one should say, “Mashallah, what a cute baby!” This supposedly protects the child from an intentional or unintentional curse from the evil eye. Mashallah is also plastered on houses and vehicles in order to protect them from this curse.

A hidden ancestor of evil eye amulets in the West

I knew that the evil eye is a widespread belief in the Middle East and Central Asia. I had even come across it in strange places in Western history. Those unique geometric designs painted at the apex of Amish barns? Artistic descendants of attempts to protect their barns from the evil eye. But I had no idea just how ancient this belief in the evil eye is. Look at this Akkadian language (think roughly 2500 – 500 BC) evil eye incantation from the archives of ancient Assur.

The [eye] is evil, the eye is an eye which is evil, the eye is hostile… the eye which emerges is the eye of the terror of the enemy; (namely), the eyes of father, the eyes of mother, the eyes of brother, the eyes of sister, the eyes of a neighbor, the eyes of a (female) neighbor, the eyes of one who cares for or carries (a child).

The eye called out maliciously (at the) gate, the thresholds groaned and roofs shook. In the house which it enters, does the eye wreck (things)!

It has wrecked the potter’s furnace and caused the sailor’s boat to sink, it has smashed the yoke of the mighty ox, it has smashed the shin of the loping donkey, it has smashed the loom of the skillful weaving-ladies. It has removed the loping horse and the nose-rope of the plow-ox, it has scattered the bellows of the furnace when lit. It has deposited worm-pests at the command of the murderous Adad, it has raised quarrels between (otherwise) happy brothers.

Smash the eye, chase away the eye! Make the eye pass through seven rivers and make it pass through seven canals! Make the eye pass over seven mountains! As for the eye, take it and bind each of the joints of its feet. As for the eye, take it and smash it like the oil-pot of a potter in front of its owner. Whether fish in the river or birds of heaven, (the eye) causes them to fall/sink and destroys them. Whether one’s father or mother or brother or sister, or stranger or…

Akkadian Incantation, ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1270

Westerners struggle to feel the fear the evil eye has exerted over huge swathes of humanity. We tend to write it off as mere superstition. Even as Christians who believe in the power of the demonic, we are likely to miss when this belief might need a direct Christian response among our focus people groups. Yet for many, they are just as emotionally terrified of the evil eye as they are of Covid-19. It is real to them, even if it does not feel real to us.

What might a Christian response look like? Certainly the theological knowledge that the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit now protects believers from whatever demonic power could be manifest in the practice/belief of evil eye. He that is in you is greater than he that is in the world (1st John 4:4). Practically, all evil eye amulets should be discarded and the use of Mashallah discontinued as evidence of believers’ trust in Jesus for protection in the spiritual realm. It may also be appropriate to craft Christian prayers where believers actively “put on” the righteousness of Christ and the truth of God’s word, reaffirming their faith in God against their fears that the evil eye could still harm them. For one historical example of this kind of prayer, check out St Patrick’s Breastplate.

Whatever our response ends up looking like, it’s worth keeping “an eye out” for belief in the evil eye. This belief is surprisingly ancient and still surprisingly widespread.

Photos by Hulki Okan Tabak and Ella Christenson on Unsplash

Abraham and Ephron’s Honorable Dance

There’s a fascinating book called Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth Bailey. The premise of the book is that the life and ministry of Jesus can be better understood when viewed through the lens of Middle Eastern culture, of which Jesus was a native. It’s a good read and I highly recommend it.

Having lived myself in the Middle East and Central Asia, I’ve found other parts of scripture are also unveiled as I’m able to see them informed by these cultures. Consider this interesting back-and-forth between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite in Genesis 23:

[7] Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. [8] And he said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, [9] that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.”

[10] Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, [11] “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” [12] Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. [13] And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” [14] Ephron answered Abraham, [15] “My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” [16] Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants. (Genesis 23:7–16 ESV)

Sarah has just died and Abraham seeks a place to bury her in the land where he and his household are nomadic sojourners. So Abraham and Ephron enter into a curious exchange over what to pay for the field and cave that Abraham desires.

In ancient Near Eastern culture, and to this day in that part of the world, generosity and honor are some of the highest virtues. Men seek above all to avoid the appearance of greed or stinginess. Rather, they seek to be hospitable, magnanimous, and honorable.

In this very public and potentially tense exchange between Abraham, the wealthy immigrant, and Ephron, the native (perhaps living in the twilight years of the Hittite empire), it is important that both sides uphold their own honor and the honor of the other party. Both sides need to save face, but they also need to get business done. Sarah has died and it is important to bury her quickly. Abraham needs to find out the price of the field and get permission to buy it. Ephron needs to demonstrate that he is acting honorably toward this sojourner and that he is not greedy for money. Here is how the dance commences:

  1. Abraham announces his desire to buy Ephron’s land, and thus do the honorable thing by paying
  2. Ephron says that Abraham can have the land for free, thus making a very generous offer in front of the elders of the community
  3. Abraham insists on paying, not willing to take advantage of Ephron’s words, knowing Ephron does actually expect him to pay
  4. Ephron once again says that Abraham can go ahead and have the land, but he subtly names the price of the field
  5. Abraham listens to Ephron and pays the full price of the field and buries his dead

Notice how both men were able to get important business done while maintaining one another’s reputation and honor in the eyes of the community. Ephron is able to say that he offered the field for free and Abraham is able to say that he paid was justly Ephron’s due. For both to save face, Ephron’s refusal to accept money for the land had to be understood as what it was, an offer made as part of a very public honoring of Abraham, but not one that he actually wanted Abraham to take him up on. On the other hand, if Abraham had simply taken Ephron up on his offer of free land, the community would likely have been shocked and Abraham’s reputation would have taken a hit.

Why the dance? Why not just speak more directly for the sake of efficiency? Welcome to the complexities of living in a society that values honor and respect more than efficiency and directness.

I had a very similar exchange like this happen today, when texting a colleague’s language tutor. I asked him how many lessons’ payments we owed him. The dance went like this:

Tutor: “About the lessons, let it be Mr. AW, I don’t want to get money for those lessons.”

Me: “Mr. Mhmed, it’s no problem at all. Another teacher has already offered to bring it to you. Just let me know how many lessons you had and I will tell him.”

Tutor: “Mr. AW, just three hours and fifteen minutes, but for me it’s no problem if you let it be.”

Me: “Thank you so much Mr. Mhmed. We appreciate your kind help in teaching our colleague.”

I then went on to set up the delivery of payment for the language lessons. Even though Mhmed said he didn’t want me to pay him for those hours, I have learned that it is important to pay it anyway and to graciously push past my friend’s honorable offer.

A Westerner might initially feel that these offers are disingenuous or even dishonest. Were Ephron or Mhmed being dishonest by making offers they weren’t wanting others to actually accept? I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Offers like this need to be understood more in the realm of poetic flourish, an important way of verbally communicating respect. They are real gestures of respect and generosity, but it’s very important that neither side take them as literal offers. For a rough parallel, think about our own saying: I would give you the shirt off my back.

A former colleague once accepted a delivery driver’s offer of a free pizza. This Midwesterner was new in Central Asia and was thrilled that this kind delivery driver wasn’t going to make him pay for his pizza. “Wow! They’re so nice in this country!” The driver walked back to his motorbike, paused, then sullenly returned to my colleague’s door.

“I’m so sorry, if I don’t bring back the money for this pizza, I will lose my job.”

My colleague was of course mortified that he had almost cost this man his job by taking his offer too literally. We missionaries have all had to learn over time that it’s important to push back at least three times when a shop owner, taxi driver, or anyone offers us something for free. By not accepting these generous offers, we enable the one making them to save face as a generous person, and we also save face as those who don’t take advantage of others.

Like Ephron, many from Middle Eastern cultures simply consider it polite to offer something two or three times, even if they can’t actually afford it. They in turn expect others to decline these offers several times, and then if appropriate (such as an offer for tea) to accept it graciously at the third or fourth offer or in some indirect fashion such as, “please don’t trouble yourself.” While Western mamas teach their kids to say please and thank you, Middle Eastern mamas teach theirs to say no the first few times, even if they desire to say yes.

It’s all a part of the honorable dance, still going strong thousands of years after Abraham and Ephron took the floor.

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash