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

Doesn’t the Title “Son of Man” Emphasize that Jesus is Not Divine?

Sometimes Muslims will seize on Jesus’ favorite title for himself, Son of Man, as evidence that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God or that he didn’t claim to be divine. There is a passage where Jesus uses the title, Son of God, for himself. But here we’ll deal with the claim directly – Does Jesus’ usage of Son of Man mean that he is emphasizing his mere humanity? At first glance, it would indeed seem that this title is emphasizing humanity. Perhaps Jesus knew that people would naturally ascribe divinity to him, given his many miracles, and he wanted to guard against this? However, as with so many other questions, a better answer comes from reading the passage in question in the context of the whole Bible.

Jesus isn’t the only one who is the recipient of the title, Son of Man. Many of you reading this know where I’m going, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world have never heard of the book of Daniel, much less the vision of the Son of Man contained in chapter seven. Here is that vision from Daniel 7:13-14.

     “I saw in the night visions,
             and behold, with the clouds of heaven
                        there came one like a son of man,
            and he came to the Ancient of Days
                        and was presented before him.
            And to him was given dominion
                        and glory and a kingdom,
            that all peoples, nations, and languages
                        should serve him;
            his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
                        which shall not pass away,
            and his kingdom one
                        that shall not be destroyed. (ESV)

In this passage, this Son of Man figure is pictured coming on the clouds of heaven. This is not merely a note about the mode of this person’s arrival. This is theophany language, phraseology used to describe when God reveals himself. Only YHWH is pictured coming on the clouds in the Old Testament. If the clouds in Daniel 7 are not meant to imply divinity, then, according to the scholar Peter Gentry, this would be the only time in about seventy Old Testament occurrences.

This Son of Man comes to the throne of the Ancient of Days, apparently possessing the kind of standing and glory necessary to approach the throne of God himself. Then he is given dominion and universal service (another translation could render this term as worship) and an everlasting kingdom. These two things, universal service/worship, and an everlasting kingdom, belong to God alone, as every faithful Old Testament believer would attest. But in this passage, the Son of Man is given both. Furthermore, he is mysteriously presented as distinct from the Ancient of Days, yet also possessing the unique attributes of the Ancient of Days. Sounds a lot like and the word was with God, and the word was God. Somehow distinct, yet somehow the same. The Son of Man is clearly presented here as mysteriously divine.

But how do we know that Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7 when he uses the title, Son of Man, for himself? Couldn’t he be using it to say he’s not God, as is the usage in Numbers 23:19? Maybe it’s just royal language like is used in Psalm 8:4? Or maybe Jesus has a particular affinity for the prophet Ezekiel, who is called Son of Man more than ninety times in his book? I actually find the linkage to the Psalm 8:4 and and Ezekiel helpful, though they are not usually mentioned in talking about the background to Jesus’ usage of this title. Apparently, the title Son of Man has Davidic-Messianic meaning as well as context informed by Ezekiel, the prophet who suffers in exile on behalf of his people. Very appropriate for the Messiah-King-Prophet who would suffer exile from God for the sake of his people.

But Jesus himself lets us know which passage he has in mind as the primary lens through which we are to view the meaning of Son of Man.

Matthew 26:63–65

[63] But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” [64] Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” [65] Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. (ESV)

Apparently the high priest understood Jesus’ allusion to Daniel 7 all too well. We also are to understand Jesus’ choice of the title, Son of Man, primarily through the figure of Daniel 7. This means that the title Son of Man is Jesus claiming to be divine every single time he uses it. And the gospels are absolutely saturated with his usage of this term.

Far from being a title that proves Jesus didn’t claim divinity, Son of Man is instead a radical self-claim by Jesus that he is with God, and that he is God, that he has received an eternal kingdom and is worthy of universal service and worship. So, if you ever encounter the objection that Son of Man is emphasizing Jesus’ mere humanity, take your friend to Daniel 7 and Matthew 26 and draw the connections. They are mysterious, yes, but they are clear.

Source Material:

Hamilton, Jim, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology

Photo by Michael Weidner on Unsplash

The King of the World Gets Boanthropy

Daniel chapter 4 is an epic tale in itself, one in which Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon begins as the king of the most powerful empire in the world and then dreams a foreboding dream. He does not heed Daniel’s prophetic interpretation of his dream, instead falling into pride and being cursed for seven years to live like a cow. But in the end, proud Nebuchadnezzar is humbled and restored to an even greater glory than before. Someone needs to turn this into a musical.

It wasn’t until I took a seminary class on the book of Daniel though that I learned that Nebuchadnezzar’s seven-years-a-cow punishment is most likely a documented psychological disorder, known as boanthropy. The Pharmaceutical Journal defines boanthropy as “a psychological disorder in which the sufferer believes he or she is a cow or ox.” Fascinating that this is still happening to the extent that it is mentioned in the medical literature. Am I the only one who missed this in Sunday school? Apparently, this was not limited to Nebuchadnezzar, but is a possibility for any one of us, should God in his providence choose to let our minds go. Beware, prideful world rulers! Beware, prideful self, prone to take credit for your own limited works when they were all gifts of sheer grace. God opposes the proud. How? Sometimes he turns us into cows.

I also can’t help but appreciate whenever the Old Testament is demonstrated to be sound history, in spite of all the skepticism hurled against it. After an initial reading of this text, many would be tempted to dismiss this narrative as mythological moralizing. Yet here we have an ancient text proving not only that truth is stranger than fiction, but also that we can trust the seemingly mythological text of Daniel to present reliable history. If Daniel is proven reliable with such a strange thing as boanthropy, then we should be willing to trust the text in other areas we might be tempted to scoff at. Indeed, that would have something to do with the humility the king’s boanthropy is meant to cultivate.

Photo by Jonas Koel on Unsplash

Babylonian Seminary

[3] Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, [4] youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. [5] The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. [6] Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. [7] And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:3-7 ESV)

I’ve recently started reading the book of Daniel again. While the book of Daniel is full of amazing theology, history, and prophecy, today I only want to take one obscure point and with that point to poke popular missiology. Here is that point: Daniel and his friends were asked to study the language, literature, and religious practices of the Babylonians for three years before they were qualified to serve as leaders in pagan Babylonia.

Why does this matter? Popular missiology (the study and practice of missions) contends that multi-year seminary-type preparation of leaders is a modern Western concept. It claims that for the needs of the Great Commission today, we should jettison such slow, non-reproducible, knowledge-centric leadership training. In its place we need to create streamlined rapidly-reproducible leadership lessons that pump out leaders at a much faster rate – something like ten leadership development participatory bible studies. After all, can’t we trust the Spirit of God and the word of God to raise up qualified leaders? Why should we ask locals to sit under training for so long and under the instruction of foreign teachers? God forbid we train leaders in ways that echo those of the older Western paternalist missionaries, stuck in their colonialist mindsets. We are beyond that, aren’t we?

My contention is a simple one. Multi-year leadership training is a global concept, one embraced by all epochs of church history and even practiced before church history began. It’s not a modern Western imposition on the rest of the globe, even if we grant the questionable point that if something is Western then that automatically means it should be jettisoned. Multi-year leadership training is a simple outworking of what many civilizations have found to be universal wisdom – it takes some years to really know a man and to impart to that man the knowledge and skill necessary to lead well. This was not only true of ancient pagan Babylon, but also of the ancient Christian training centers of Edessa, Gond-i-Shapur, Ireland, and the those medieval European centers of clergy training that would form the basis of our modern university system. Jesus himself invested three and a half years in those who would become the first leaders of the global Church.

While living in the US, for three years I took part in a church-based pastoral apprenticeship. Then after I graduated, I helped to lead that apprenticeship for two more years. Though I was skeptical in the beginning about the length of time being asked by the elders (three years?!), over time I came to see the wisdom of taking the slow route when it came to raising up pastors, missionaries, and church planters. Sometimes a man would make it two and a half years through the program only to flame out in the final year, some character or doctrinal issue finally bubbling up to the surface. It was often very surprising when this happened, and this in our own language and culture, where we have a much easier ability to discern character and belief. On the other hand, for the vast majority of the men that made it through the apprenticeship, at the end of those three years we could say with confidence that we really knew their life and doctrine. Many of these have now gone out as pastors, church-planters, and missionaries and are raising up leaders in their own contexts.

But what about Paul? Didn’t he appoint elders much more quickly than this in the churches he planted? Yes, there is some evidence in the book of Acts that Paul didn’t always take years to train and assess potential leaders before they were appointed. This is a valid point, and one worth exploring further. But it’s the whole counsel of the word we need here, not just the book of Acts. When the instructions for leader qualification of 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (written by Paul) are taken seriously, we will often find that it takes years to soberly assess and inculcate these character traits and skills in the men of our churches – especially when we are working in a different language and culture. And this should probably be considered normal. Who, after all, plants lasting churches as quickly as Paul did? So shouldn’t it be normal if our leadership development runs a little slower than his did also? I for one recognize that there are some real discontinuities between my gifts and Paul’s, just as there are also some continuities. That capital or lower-case “A” in apostolic makes a real difference. But I digress from my simple point.

If anyone states that multiyear leadership training is a Western concept (and therefore bad), that person is simply speaking ahistorically. It’s popular to take pot-shots at seminary in missions circles. Yet the common witness of the Church throughout the centuries has been that an investment of years in faithful men leads to trustworthy leaders, who will then be able to train others also (2 Tim 2:2). What may be truly Western (in the bad sense) would be methods that insist that leaders can be multiplied rapidly and exponentially like some kind of pyramid scheme.

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