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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Sarah: Life with Abraham 3

The journeys begin

Sarai’s life story became one punctuated with journeys. First there were the physical relocations. While she grew up in one place—Ur—once she married Abram she found herself periodically going from way stop to way stop, especially since the LORD became an active part of their marriage equation. Then there was the challenge of navigating the endless cycle of hope and despair due to her barrenness. This, she was to learn, would last for almost a lifetime.

Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia.

Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Travel orders

Abram received direct communications from God from time to time, some of which involved picking up stakes and moving. Directives were specific: “…Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell” (Acts 7:2-3). Each time, Abram, with Sarai by his side, obeyed without question.

The road to Haran

One is left to wonder how Abram broke the news to Sarai of an impending move with a rather open-ended destination. Did he confide his encounters with the LORD early on, and in the process plant the seed that would eventually blossom into a faith which guided her life as well? Or was she, too, one of the ones who chose to shun the odious moon goddess, worshiping God only? Whichever the case, husband and wife prepared to leave.

Moving a household long distance must have been quite an undertaking. According to a distance chart in the Archaeological Study Bible, Haran (also known as Paddan Aram) was 612 miles to the north of Ur,[1] situated on an international trade route. The pace of a normal caravan was about twenty miles per day[2] so Terah’s family could anticipate spending around one month in travel.

Sarai and the other women of the household would likely have been responsible for assembling many of the provisions, especially clothing and foodstuffs. There would be containers of salted meat with a “shelf life” of about a month. No doubt grain for grinding, dried fruit, wine or beer, cheese, and oil were among the staples. Water, of course, would be a vital issue, as would provender for any livestock. According to the Collins Atlas of the Bible[3] the normal route between Ur and Haran was never a day’s march from habitations or water (the route followed the Euphrates River, and there were settlements every seventeen miles or so along the way).

So it was that one day Terah, Abram and Sarai, along with Lot, the deceased Haran’s son, set out on a journey which would be Terah’s last, and the first of several for the rest. One can picture their caravan, servants leading supply-laden donkeys and manning ox-drawn carts piled with furniture and other household accoutrements, carpets for bedding, a grinding stone, and various pots and baskets filled with food and other essentials, livestock and herders, all beginning the trek in the cool of the morning.

While there might have been caravansaries along the way, it seems likely that travelers often used tents, the movable habitations of the day. Relatively easy to erect and dismantle, these shelters provided a measure of safety and protection from weather and wild animals. If not on this trip, Abram and Sarai would find themselves living in tents permanently in the years to come.

Why Haran?

Haran was an important commercial center. Presumably the men had portable trades or extended business interests which could sustain the family at least in the near-term, so locating in or near a city was important. If Terah was an idol manufacturer as tradition purports, he would find a lively market in the new locale—another major center of worship for Nanna, the moon goddess. However, some speculate that the family stopped in Haran for an unspecified length of time due to Terah’s health since the Bible records that he died there at age 205 (Genesis 11:32).

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustratio...

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever the reason, after Terah’s death the LORD gave Abram details concerning his next move, this time with promises attached:

“Now the LORD had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

“So Abram departed as the LORD had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:1-5).—KM

 

Next time: Travels, famine, and Pharaoh’s harem.

 

[1] Archaeological Study Bible (2005), Article, “Distances in Miles Between Old Testament Cities,” p. 341, and article, “Archaeological Sites: Paddan Aram,” p. 48.

[2] Ibid. See note on Genesis 12:5, p. 21.

[3] Collins Atlas of the Bible (2003), p. 31.

The Enduring Olive Tree and its Precious Fruit: From Modern Day to Ancient Past1

While it is near impossible to coax out a distinct image for a specific woman from the Bible, there is at least one staple that was common to them all—the ever-present olive. In fact, as we shall see, its importance endures to this very day.

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Photo by Mary Hendren

Outside the store, simple iron shelves held two rows of terra cotta pots, each pot containing a miniature olive tree. Less than a foot tall, the tiny trees were placed to catch the pedestrian’s eye. Pruned in the manner of Provence, every tree bore six to eight bright green olives—intriguing that such young trees produced fruit.

Certain varieties of olive trees do well in containers. Likely the miniature olive trees in Provence were the Picholine cultivar, widely available in France. Dwarf varieties are very prolific with green fruit and produce a crop two or three seasons after planting. Full-sized olive trees usually bear fruit at the fifth year and reach full fruit production in seven to eight years, depending on the care given the tree and whether grew from seed or from cutting.[1]

Olives—green, brown, black, stuffed with garlic, combined in tapenade—delicious in many ways, are secondary in importance to olive oil. From earliest record, it is oil that has been prized more than the fruit. For cooking, flavoring, lighting, healing, offering and anointing, olive oil has an incomparable history. From the time of ancient Israel up to now, olive trees remain “the most important oil-producing plant in the world.”[2]

Native to the Mediterranean basin, olive trees grow best on rocky, well-drained soil in sunny climates. Olive trees flourish in parts of Africa, Arabia, France, Spain, Asia, and in the United States, in California and Texas, as well as others. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, accounting for the fact that family groves pass from one generation to another. It is said that olive trees have been around for thousands of years and that some of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane date back to the time of Christ. [3] Historian Oded Borowski states that olive pits (seeds) have been found dating back to 4000 years BCE.[4]

Olive trees in the traditional Garden of Geths...

Olive trees in the traditional Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Olive trees can be grown from seed (pits) but more successfully from cutting, potting and planting the shoots that spring up around an established tree. Psalm 128 likens children around a family table to healthy olive shoots ringing the parent tree. It is difficult to kill an olive tree by cutting it down because new sprouts arise from the roots of the stump. Isaiah probably had the olive tree in mind when he prophesied “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1).

 

 Olive oil in a variety of bottles lined shelves at the front of the shop. Tables in the center displayed oil-based lotions, creams, and cubes of embossed soap. Elsewhere were cruets of glass and porcelain, painted coasters, posters and articles of olive wood—cutting boards, cooking spoons and bowls smooth as satin.

The olive tree is an evergreen with hard, durable, lovely-grained wood, pale yellow to green-brown. Artists prize olive wood for carving because of its swirled grain. (For an interesting video demonstrating modern woodworking with olive wood go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSkcKu8gmv8.) As olive trees age they take on a spirally, twisted growth pattern reflected in the grain. It is thought that the olive tree’s propensity to twist and spiral enables it to live so long. The tree turns away from the prevailing wind toward its less disturbed side. As the trunks twist they are less likely to break. This may or may not explain the gnarled, twisted appearance of old olive trees, but it’s an interesting supposition.[5] Because the olive trees are important to the olive-oil industry, they are seldom cut down. Farmers prune them to improve productivity and remove dead trees from the groves. The wood from pruning and dead trees is sold to artists, as is explained in the video.

The book of Revelation states that a voice from heaven commands the rider of a black horse, “Do not harm the oil and the wine” (Rev. 6:5). Why was oil one of the two commodities protected in a time of global scarcity? In part 2 we’ll look at the importance of olive oil.—Mary Hendren

 

[1] http://www.eHow, “How Long Does It Take for an Olive Tree to Produce Fruit?”

[2] http://www.Olivetreegrowers.com, “Olive Trees, Yesterday and Today.”

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-10-20/jerusalem-olive-trees-among-oldest-in-world/4324342, “Jerusalem olive trees among oldest in world.”

[4] Oded Borowski, Agriculture in Iron Age Israel (2009), p. 117.

[5] http://notesfromatuscanolivegrove.wordpress.com/

Sarah: Life with Abraham 2

Before continuing: gathering some strands

As is often the case when pursuing a Bible topic or figure, information is found in several sources, and it requires careful investigation to locate and compile the relevant scriptures. The same is true concerning the person of Abram.

For instance, his father is mentioned as an idol-worshipper (Joshua 24:1-5), but it is unclear whether either Abram or his brother Nahor (or Sarai, for that matter) was, though they were brought up in a pagan household. In fact, later in Genesis 26:5, the LORD reminds Isaac that his father “obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” At some point, the LORD and Abram began a relationship in Ur that lasted an entire lifetime.[1] One can only wonder as to when and how. It’s worth considering that Shem[2] himself may have influenced Abram in some manner since he lived until Abram was about thirty.[3] All that is known for sure is it happened, and that relationship became the dominant thread in the fabric of his life.

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustratio...

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is the New Testament deacon Stephen who adds a detail not found in Genesis: “And he said, ‘Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:2-4). While Genesis 11:31 records that Terah, as patriarch, took his clan from Ur intending to go to Canaan, this scripture presents the likelihood that it was done at Abram’s urging as prompted by God’s direction.

Introducing Sarai

According to his genealogy, Terah’s clan consisted of himself, his sons Abram, Nahor, and Haran, two daughters-in-law, Sarai and Milcah, and a grandson, Lot. Nahor’s wife, Milcah, is identified as Haran’s daughter (and Nahor’s cousin). Sarai is later identified as Abram’s half-sister (Genesis 19:12)—they shared the same father but different mothers (neither of whom is named). Was Sarai born to a concubine? Did Abram’s mother die, and Terah remarried? The record is silent.

As a daughter, Sarai’s early years were spent learning household tasks at her mother’s side, or perhaps from a slave or servant. Grinding grain, baking bread, gardening, spinning, weaving, going to market, cooking and preserving foodstuffs, drawing water, perhaps even shepherding if the family had livestock—all these activities would have filled her days.

Fashion and grooming

It’s not surprising to find that type of clothing in Mesopotamia was dictated by social standing. If Terah was wealthy, his daughter wore one-piece woolen or linen garments, stylishly woven with many different patterns and designs. Embroidered and tasseled wraps and shawls protected her in bad weather. Men and women either went barefoot or wore sandals; women’s footwear was often ornamented.

Both sexes were known to wear cosmetics, outlining their eyes with a form of mascara; and both applied perfumes (“made by steeping aromatic plants in water and blending their essence with oil”[4]) after the none-too-frequent bath. Grooming and appearance were important.[5]

Courtship

The relationship between Abram and Sarai began from the day she was born. If the genealogy presented is complete, the family was small by ancient standards—only three boys and a girl—and the sibling bonds were likely quite strong. He had always been a part of her life. He might have been one of the first to see his baby sister wrapped in swaddling clothes or the like, nursing at her mother’s breast, and, as the firstborn, felt especially protective of her from that day forward.

As Abram grew into a mature man (he was ten years older than Sarai), he watched his sister develop into a strikingly beautiful young woman, one whose beauty would last for decades, and probably in his eyes, until the day she died. While marriages arranged by parents were practical matters involving bride-prices, dowries, property and lineage, one can suspect that a strong romantic attraction evident early on between these two influenced Terah to choose this pairing, and not one outside the immediate family. That, and, more certainly, the direction of an unseen Hand guiding events according to a yet-to-be-revealed master plan. [6]

Marriage

According to Mesopotamian custom, weddings occasioned rejoicing and celebration lasting for days or even weeks. Also by custom, the newly married couple was expected to live with either the bride’s or the groom’s family[7] (in case of Abram and Sarai, nothing would have changed).

Dreaded words

What had been a happy beginning eventually changed into a life of growing frustration. Months of hopeful expectation turned to years of disappointment. There was seemingly no escaping their dreadful predicament—one fraught with intense longing, and for her especially, a loss of face: “But Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:10).

A woman in Sumer had certain legal rights—owning property, engaging in business, or appearing as a witness. But when it came to a binding marriage, a husband could divorce his wife easily for little cause, and if she had no children, he was free to marry a second wife. Perhaps a not-so-obvious testimony to Abram’s devotion is that there is no record of his considering any such options. (The episode with Hagar was at an impatient Sarai’s request. See Genesis 16:2). What an emotional hurdle for a young couple to face in a society where fecundity was everything! — KM

Next time: Abram, God, and life on the move

When Abram took Sarai as his wife, neither of them knew what lay ahead, nor how a series of promises would affect their long and eventful years together.  

 

 

[1] It is likely there were pockets of people who maintained a worship of God through Shem’s subsequent generations, and that practice could have been passed on Abram. A more generally accepted scenario is simply that God called Abram out of the paganism of which he had been an adherent.

[2] In Genesis 9:26, Noah refers to God as “the God of Shem,” indicating Shem’s allegiance to Him.

[3] There are several websites with charts of genealogies and time spans from Noah to Moses. Here are just a few: http://biblefocus.net/message/Adam-Shem-Abraham-bible-genealogy/index.html

http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/charts/Generations%20Adam-Moses.htm

http://books.google.com/books?id=lV3VfSVNHNEC&pg=PA98&lpg=PA98&dq=was+shem+alive+when+abraham+was+born&source=bl&ots=SQF4wO3dJi&sig=2qPrrfYu3DXDrZVSMsaUTqrscBA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wUnuU_3kH-e8gHy1YHoCw&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAjgU#v=onepage&q=was%20shem%20alive%20when%20abraham%20was%20born&f=false

[4] S. Bertman, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (2003), p.291, as cited in online article, “Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/680/, accessed September 2, 2014.

[5] It can’t be known whether Abram and Sarai conformed to such fashion statements of the day. However, if one considers Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3:3, it’s obvious that Sarai’s core beauty did not depend on style and outward appearance but rather, it emanated from her attitude of heart. Also it’s hard to imagine Abram’s being unduly concerned with such transient matters when the LORD was in the process of lifting his vision to a much loftier plane.

[6] One might be inclined to raise an eyebrow given the fact that Abram married a close relative. Wouldn’t that be an incestuous union, and therefore, forbidden? The general consensus is that the law prohibiting such unions was not yet in place; it was enacted during the time of Moses (see Deuteronomy 27:22 and Leviticus 18:6-30; 20:11-12). Another point for consideration is that God accepted this union (and likely arranged it) and performed a miracle to provide an heir from it.

[7] Karen Nemet-Nijat, https://www.academia.edu/873588/Womens_Roles_in_Ancient_Mesopotamia/ , accessed September 2, 2014.

Rebekah Leaves Home 2

When Abraham’s servant met Rebekah, she was drawing water from the well. The shepherds of Nahor watered their flocks in the troughs adjacent to the well. Whether Rebekah intended to water Laban’s flock that day is less interesting than God’s interruption of her life. 

English: Woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bilder...

English: Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860. Rebekah Gives Abraham’s Servant Water, as in Genesis 24:11-12 Deutsch: Holzschnitt aus “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860. Français : Gravure en bois pour «Die Bibel in Bildern», 1860. Português: Rebeca oferece água para o servo de Abraão. Gn 24:10-28. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now the young woman was very beautiful to behold, a virgin; no man had known her. And she went down to the well, filled her pitcher, and came up. And the servant ran to meet her, and said, ‘Please let me drink a little water from your pitcher.’ So she said, ‘Drink my lord.’ Then she quickly let her pitcher down to her hand, and gave him a drink. And when she had finished giving him a drink, she said, ‘I will draw water for your camels, also until they have finished drinking.

 God chose Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. He identified her exactly in the manner requested by Abraham’s servant: a young woman would give him a drink of water at the city well (Genesis 24:13-14). Why did God choose Rebekah and not one of the other women in Nahor? The Bible doesn’t say, but likely her background and character had something to do with His decision.

Her Name

At the time Abraham was seeking a wife for his son, Isaac was already a successful sheepherder. He owned thousands of small cattle (sheep and goats) and “continued to live as a nomadic herder, residing in a tent he inherited from his parents (Genesis 24:67) and wandering in the same circuit as his father.”[1] Rebekah’s relatives were also herders, and she likely tended flocks as a young girl.[2] Her older brother managed the family business, so it’s probable that Rebekah was a competent shepherdess at the time of her betrothal.

Rebekah’s name means a “row of tied animals” [3] and reflects her pastoral heritage. “Milking in preindustrial societies was done by setting the ewes and does one opposite the other and tying them in pairs by a long rope, creating two long rows.”[4] Perhaps Rebekah’s parents thought orderly rows of sheep a lovely sight because her name carries the additional meaning of captivatingly beautiful.[5]

Rebekah’s understanding of nomadic life, experience in tending sheep, and generous nature made her an ideal wife for Isaac. That they had an affectionate relationship and that Isaac took no other wives, handmaids or concubines speaks highly of their marriage.

Married Life

After marrying, Rebekah would have managed Isaac’s household. Instead of tending sheep, Rebekah would have dealt primarily with sheep products: wool, milk, meat and skins. “Dairy products constituted an important category of food in ancient Israel. Whenever possible, milk was drunk to quench thirst…and it was available in abundance for consumption and processing.”[6] Like the wives of other sheepherders, Rebekah would have made yogurt, butter, curds, and dry cheese. She would have prepared lamb and game for special meals that included meat.

Sheep were shorn once a year. “Shearing was an event that brought together many people who were engaged in controlling and shearing the animals, and like during the gathering of other crops, it was an occasion for great celebration (1Sam.25, 2 Sam 13:23-28) during which food and drinks were offered.”[7] Likely Isaac, Rebekah, Isaac’s employees and their wives enjoyed the festivities at shearing time. Once the wool was cut, it had to be cleaned, spun into yarn and woven into fabric—activities that would have been familiar to Rebekah.

Leaving Her Family

Did Rebekah have doubts about marrying a man she’d never met? Did she regret leaving Nahor and all that was familiar? When her mother and brother asked her, “Will you go with this man?” she answered, “I will go.” The decision was Rebekah’s, and, for several reasons, I believe she left with confidence in the future.

  1. She expected to marry and become part of her husband’s life. In Rebekah’s culture, parents arranged marriages for their children and formalized negotiations with gifts and pledges. Young women prepared themselves to become wives and mothers because the role of wife and mother was important, as her family acknowledged.

“Our sister, may you become the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them” (Genesis 24:60).

  1. God brought Isaac and Rebekah together. He identified Rebekah in a word-by-word fulfillment of the servant’s prayer. Everyone immediately involved—the servant, Rebekah, her brother, mother and father—acknowledged that God orchestrated the match.

“. . . The thing comes from the LORD; we cannot speak to you either bad or good Here is Rebekah before you, take her and go, and let her be your master’s son’s wife, as the LORD has spoken” (Genesis 24:50-51).

  1. Rebekah saw evidence of a good life ahead. Jewelry and clothing
    English: ABRAHAM'S SERVANT GIVING JEWELS TO RE...

    English: ABRAHAM’S SERVANT GIVING JEWELS TO REBEKAH.—Genesis xxiv. 22. Русский: Слуга Авраама дарит драгоценности Ревекке (Быт. 24:22) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    presented by a wealthy suitor paid for the privilege of taking a valuable daughter from her family. The splendor of the gifts the suitor presented was a foretaste of what was in store for the bride.

“Then the servant brought out jewelry of silver, jewelry of gold, and clothing, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave precious things to her brother and to her mother” (Genesis 24: 52-53).

  1. Rebekah didn’t make the journey alone. She had a support group. Her traveling companions (her nurse and her maids) had shared her life in Nahor and would share her life in Canaan.

“Then Rebekah and her maids arose, and they rode on the camels and followed the man” (Genesis 24: 61).

 Practical lessons drawn from Rebekah’s life

As the Christian’s life is about change, suggested reasons Rebekah left in confidence are helpful insights. Christians are dedicated to moving toward the Kingdom of God and becoming more like Jesus Christ. That often means leaving what’s comfortable for something new. Knowing this is God’s will, just as Rebekah did, leads to a wonderful future, and inspires confidence. When God provides a support group of like-minded friends to share the journey, it is particularly gratifying.—Mary Hendren

 

[1] Borowski, Oded, Every Living Thing, Alta Mira Press, 1998, p.44.

[2] Ibid., p.48.

[3] Ibid., pp.53, 44; also Lockyer, Herbert, All the Women of the Bible, p.135.

[4] Ibid., p.53

[5] Lockyer, p.135.

[6] Borowski, Every Living Thing, p. 54.

[7] Ibid., p.73.

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