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Category Archives: Bible women

The Story of Ruth: The Beginning

“Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man from Bethlehem, Judah, went to dwell in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons” (Ruth 1:1).

Famine. A word that had major implications for the land of Israel. Usually it started with a period of drought. If that condition lasted three years or more, the prospect of famine loomed large, bringing with it a dwindling and depletion of food supplies for both man and livestock, as well as affecting commercial ventures. It was a word that evoked great dread. Famine.

Elimelech and Naomi had undoubtedly lived through such regional natural disasters[1] before and perhaps had even grown accustomed to them, but this famine evidently affected the whole land. Even though they were from Bethlehem, the city of bread (normally a fertile area), they, too, were faced with the specter of impending want. Elimelech made a pragmatic decision: He would relocate his wife and two teenaged sons, Mahlon and Chilion, in Moab until the cycle broke, in hopes they would soon be reunited back in their homeland with family, clan, and Israel’s God.

The journey was not especially long, perhaps under a hundred miles, and possibly took less than a week to complete, depending on how many relocation necessities they took with them, whether they had any livestock to care for along the way, and their mode of travel. Though their final location in Moab can’t be determined, it can be assumed that their new home offered potential for subsistence for the foreseeable future.

Map of ancient Moab territory neighbored that ...

Map of ancient Moab territory neighbored that of Israel and Judah to the east, with disputed territories such as Nebo and Baal-meon shown here to the north. The map shows Atarot and Dibon, the site where the Mesha Stele was discovered, due east of the Dead Sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why Moab?

One might ask, why Moab? Possibly because:

  • Travel to Moab was evidently unrestricted, indicating a peaceful relationship, at least for the moment.
  • It was relatively close geographically.
  • The languages were similar.
  • It was generally a fertile land which received adequate rainfall much of the time, and was evidently unaffected by the famine afflicting Israel.[2]
  • There were major trade routes passing through its borders which could facilitate commerce.[3]
  • Moab was polytheistic, as were many of Israel’s Semite neighbors, though its chief god was Chemosh.[4] As such, it seems possible to me that the family (or at least Naomi) could still worship Israel’s God without consequence.
  • This choice, along with other events related in the book of Ruth, is often attributed to the guidance of the unseen hand of God. (See Ruth, “Background Information” in The Woman’s Study Bible.)

Three widows

There is no time frame given for Elimelech’s death, nor a reason. (However a later rabbinic tradition says that Elimelech was punished because of greed or because he forsook his homeland.[5]) The same is true of his sons. What the Bible records is that Mahlon and Kilian took Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah, seemingly after their father’s death, and at some time in the next few years they, too, died, leaving two widows and no heirs.

Why?

Studious Bible readers are usually not easily satisfied when there are blanks in Bible narratives, such as why these men all died, and often try to fill them in various ways. For instance, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary mentions one such attempt looks for hints hidden in the meanings of the names of Mahlon and Chilion: Mahlon, linked to the root “to be sterile,” “to be weak, ill,” and Chilion, linked to a Hebrew root word which means “to be finished,” “at an end,” or perhaps, “weakening” or “pining.” The commentary then wisely concludes that “in the face of etymological uncertainties, however, it is best not to read too much hidden significance into the names of Elimelech’s family” (comment on Ruth 1:2). Whether they were generally weak and sickly is just not known.[6]

Desperate circumstances again

After Elimelech’s death, Naomi would naturally have depended on her sons for her survival. When both of them married Moabite women, she would have worked into that context, and still have had a measure of security. But when all the males in her immediate family died she was left with few options. It had been ten years since she first came to Moab, and now her eyes turned back to her homeland.

(to be continued…)

[1] The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, regarding Ruth 1:1-5, posits that this famine could have been due to devastations brought on by the seven-year oppression of Israel by the Midianites in Judges 6.

Scripture records that Midianites and their cohorts would “encamp against them [Israel] and destroy the produce of the earth as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep nor ox nor donkey….So Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites, and the children of Israel cried out to the LORD” (vv. 4-6).

This might also be the reason Naomi was in Moab ten years before she heard that prosperity had returned to Bethlehem. Matthew Henry’s Commentary mentions this as a possibility as does The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.

There are, however, differing opinions, and the Bible itself does not speak specifically to the causes of the famine.

[2] The Encyclopedia Britannica (1973) article on “Moab” mentions Moab’s fertility, and its wealth of wine and grain.

[3] See http://www.bible-history.com/maps/ancient-roads-in-israel.html . While nothing is said to indicate Elimelech’s source of livelihood, I feel it is within the realm of possibility that he could have been a tradesman of some sort, and as such, could provide for his family in this foreign land.

[4] See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10898-moab .

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Ruth 1:3.

[6] (Ibid) Rabbinic tradition says their deaths were punishment for leaving Judah and for marrying non-Jews, a view that one can still find on the Internet. Other sources mention there was no prohibition to such a marriage, so the controversy continues. See Expositor’s note on Ruth 1:4a and the Critical and Experimental Commentary as examples.

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Deborah: Judge/Deliverer

Wanted: Administrator/Judge for Israel
Duties: Adjudicate disputes, give counsel, defeat Canaanites
Qualifications: Confident, wise, visionary, dedicated
Term limits: 40 years

In the calamitous times of the Judges, ancient Israel did not, of course, post a job description to fill leadership vacancies. In that period of the nation’s history, God Himself provided deliverers to rescue the Israelites from the consequences of moving away from God. God did this because of promises made to Abraham concerning his descendants. God did this because He loved Israel.

Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever (Genesis 13:14-15).

But what if God had turned His back on the nation and left it up to Israel to find leader/judges? What if the people had to scour the land for a qualified leader to set things in order and fend off enemies? Would Deborah (or any woman) have been considered for the job?

Her background

Deborah lived in the hill country between Bethel and Ramah with her husband Lapidoth. Not much is known about Lapidoth or if the couple had children, although Deborah refers to herself as “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). The nation had been floundering, “being in a state of anarchy, more or less, and harassed at times by civil war among themselves, and surrounded by enemies who made attempt after attempt to exterminate them” (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 23rd edition, 1962, p. 168). Without the benefit of continual godly leadership, the people did what they thought was in their best interest. If they were given the responsibility of coming up with the right leader, Israel would not likely have looked to a woman, even a mother of Israel. “As the position of women in those days was of a distinctly subordinate character, Deborah’s prominence as a ruler is somewhat remarkable” (All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p. 41).

A few commentators suggest that Deborah became a deliverer of Israel because there weren’t enough good men around or if there were qualified men they weren’t willing to take on the job. The Bible doesn’t support the line of reasoning that Deborah got the job because there were “few good men.” Before God informed Deborah of her role in His plan to rout the Canaanites, she was already holding court and making civil judgments for the people in the hill country. They knew her to be a wise woman who had a connection to God. She was a prophetess and able to “discern the mind and purpose of God” (Lockyer, p. 41). In the time of the judges, leadership may have been mostly bankrupt, but Deborah served because of her loyalty to God.

Public domain

Deborah beneath the palm tree by Tissot (Public Domain)

The Battle

Before the decisive battle recorded in Judges 4, Deborah told Barak that God had selected him to lead Israel’s forces. She informed him of God’s battle strategy (Judges 4:6-7) and twice assured him that the battle was under God’s control (Judges vv. 7, 14). But Barak doubted. He hesitated. He refused to proceed in confidence.

If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!

In the face of his foot-dragging, Deborah made another prophesy.

I will surely go with you, nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.

Song of Deborah

Judges 4:12-23 describes the battle. With powerful torrents of rain, God swept away Sisera’s charioteers and terrified horses (v.21). Barak’s forces pursued the enemy with the “edge of the sword” (v.16). Of the Canaanite army, not a man was left. And the battle ended as Deborah predicted: General Sisera died by the hand of a woman (Judges 5:24-31).

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dea...

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 24 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her song Deborah added an interesting detail. The call to gather troops had gone out to all Israel, but only five tribes responded with warriors: Naphtali, Zebulun, Ephraim, Benjamin and Issachar. For the other tribes–Reuben, Gad, Dan, Asher and eastern Manasseh, Deborah had disdainful remarks. (I’m paraphrasing her words for clarity.) “Why did hang back with the sheep? Why did you refuse to cross the river? Why did linger on your ships? Why did you remain on the shore while the others risked their lives!” (Judges 5:14-18).

The story of Deborah ends with the statement that the land had rest for forty years. Deborah understood the power of righteous leadership and made this wise observation:

When leaders lead in Israel, when the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the LORD!

Deborah sets an admirable example for us in that she saw needs and envisioned herself in their solution. She acknowledged the constraints women faced (her references to the honor given a woman in Sisera’s death) but she didn’t doubt her ability. She had no misgivings about believing God. I wonder if Deborah was one of those blessed persons who naturally live in the present? That natural in-the-present tendency combined with a strong relationship to God made Deborah the leader and deliverer perfectly suited for the time.—Mary Hendren

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Hair

 And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil (Luke 7:37-39).

Luke didn’t name the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, but Simon said she was a sinner. Weeping, she stood behind Jesus, let down her hair and wiped His feet. Her extraordinary behavior disturbed the men. “Among the Jews it was a shameful thing for a woman to let down her hair in public.”[1] In adoration, she kissed His feet and massaged them with oil.

Simon thought that if Jesus were truly a prophet, He would have known the woman was a sinner. Responding to Simon’s thoughts, Jesus reminded him that a host customarily greets his guests with a kiss, provides water for washing their feet, honors them with anointing oil—all of which Simon had neglected to do. The woman, however, in heart-felt humility, fulfilled every courtesy Simon had neglected. Jesus called attention to the proportion of her love in comparison to Simon’s: Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (Luke 7:47).

Cut

The woman’s hair was very long, long enough to wipe Jesus’ feet. I didn’t find any references to Israelite women cutting their hair for stylish purposes. There are references to women shaving their heads and cutting their hair in connection with vows. If a woman took a Nazarite vow, she couldn’t cut her hair for the duration of the vow. When the woman completed her obligations, she shaved her head and presented the hair in the Temple as part of an offering. A woman cured of leprosy shaved her head (Lev. 14:8). An Israelite soldier that took a foreign woman captive shaved her head, trimmed her nails, gave her new clothing and allowed her a month of mourning before consummating the marriage (Deut. 21:10-13).

Washed

Women in ancient Israel didn’t wash their hair with the regularity we do today. “How widespread and how frequent non-ceremonial bathing was in Israel is impossible to determine.” [2] Bathsheba bathed, Naaman bathed, Levites and priests washed before serving in the Temple, and men and women cured of leprosy bathed (Lev. 14:8). In the time of Jesus, some religious leaders made a great show of washing their hands. However, there’s no mention of soap for bathing the body or shampoo for washing the hair.

In the ancient middle-east “oil served a hygienic purpose prior to the invention of soap and shampoo.” [3] Although the Babylonians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans used a compound made from oil, fat and caustic soda to wash clothing, the compound was harsh and tended to burn skin and hair. Women made a body scrub from oil mixed with natron, a mineral deposit that resembled baking soda. The natron scrub had some anti-bacterial properties but gummed up the hair and was difficult to rinse out. It is said that Egyptians washed their hair and their wigs in diluted citrus juice, but I found no references that citrus hair-washing was practiced in Israel.

Arranged and Colored

Isaiah, in warning ancient Israel, refers to “well-set hair.” Israel had defied God and would suffer for it. As part of the nation’s punishment, women who prided themselves on beautifully arranged hair, scarves, veils and turbans would experience the baldness of poverty and famine.

1024px-Beautiful_Greek_woman_statue

Beautiful Greek woman (public domain)
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Wonderlane at http://flickr.com/photos/71401718@N00/4258937618. It was reviewed on 12 September 2011 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

On occasion women in Egypt and Israel colored their hair. Solomon may have been referring to the use of henna as a coloring agent in Song of Songs 7:6. Your head is like scarlet [or Carmel] and the locks of your head like purple. “Some scholars suggest that this refers to the purplish sheen of hennaed black hair, since elsewhere the woman’s hair is described as black. It is certainly possible that henna was known in the Biblical period as a hair dye. In fact, the earliest evidence for henna use in the Land of Israel are wigs of henna-dyed hair, dating from the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1550 BCE), which were found in the excavations of Jericho; furthermore, Greek and Roman historians specifically mention henna from the Land of Israel being used to colour hair.”[4] 

Women paid attention to their hair—covering it, wrapping it into buns, folding, curling and braiding it. They wove ribbons into their braids and fastened them atop their heads with ivory pins. They twined pearls and jewels into their hair. They added gold dust and metallic plates to catch the sunlight.[5] In writing to Christians in Asia Minor, Peter stated that a woman’s outward adorning of arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel (I Pet. 3:3-4) should never overshadow the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. The Nelson’s Study Bible states that Peter “is not condemning women who wear jewelry” [6] or dress in an attractive manner. He encourages a woman to appear and conduct herself worthy of one called to inherit a blessing (1 Pet.3:9).

One woman’s hair and humility

All four gospel accounts mention the occasion of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman before He was crucified, but with some variations (indicated in italics).

  • The accounts in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 agree almost word-for-word. Both writers say that an unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head with fragrant oil while He was at dinner in the home of Simon the Leper. Some disciples criticized the woman for wasting the oil on Jesus rather than selling it to help the poor. Jesus stated that the woman had done a good work by anointing Him prior to His burial. The act would be remembered as a memorial to her.
  • Luke states that Simon the Pharisee hosted the dinner (Luke 7:36-50). The unnamed woman was a known sinner from the city. She wept at Jesus’ feet and wiped the tears with her hair. She anointed His feet with fragrant oil. Simon criticized her in his thoughts. Jesus drew a lesson about love and forgiveness from the woman’s devotion. He acknowledged that the woman was a sinner, and He forgave her sins.
  • John is the only writer that identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8). Lazarus, Martha and Mary hosted the supper. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil and wiped them with her hair. Judas questioned why the oil was not sold to help the poor. Jesus stated that Mary had the oil in preparation for His burial and that the poor would always be there.

Postscript: Who was the woman?

Some scholars say that the differences in the four accounts reflect what the writers saw and remembered, which is the nature of eyewitness reports. These scholars believe there was only one occasion when a woman anointed Jesus, and details from the accounts can be accounted for. Their reasoning is based on speculations:

  • Simon may have been related to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and may have owned the home where the three friends prepared supper.
  • Simon may have been a Pharisee and a recovered leper.
  • The unnamed woman may have anointed Jesus’ head before she anointed His feet.
  • Simon may have condemned her in his thoughts while Judas and the disciples criticized her openly.
  • Jesus may have addressed Simon’s self-righteous lack of love privately and corrected the disciples in public.

Other commentators believe that Mary of Bethany and a different unnamed woman anointed Jesus on two separate occasions. “There is no Biblical evidence whatever for identifying this sinful woman with Mary Magdalene or with Mary of Bethany as some commentators have done…as for Mary, sister of Martha, what is said of her devout spirit is strikingly adverse to that of a harlot of the streets.”[7] Lockyer’s argument rests most strongly on his confidence that Mary of Bethany, the dear friend of Jesus, could not have been the unnamed, sinful woman.—Mary Hendren


[1] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, on-line note on Luke 7:38

[2] Archeological Study Bible, Zondervan, “Bathing,” p. 456

[3] Same source, “Perfumes and Oils,” p. 1746

[4] hennabysienna.com/henna-in-the-bible.html

[5] On-line commentaries: Barnes’ Notes, and Adam Clarke’s, notes on 1 Peter 3:3

[6] Nelson Study Bible, NKJV, Second Edition, note on 1 Peter 3:3, p. 1986

[7] Herbert Lockyer,  All the Women of the Bible, p. 231

The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Conclusions of the Matter

First impressions

Solomon's_Temple,_Museum_für_Hamburgische_Geschichte,_Hamburg,_Germany_IMG_5846_edit

Model of Solomon’s Temple
Museum fur Hamburgische Geshichte, Hamburg, Germany

She must have marveled as her entourage finally reached the outskirts of Jerusalem, home of the famed King Solomon. It had been weeks and hundreds of miles since the queen of Sheba began her journey from the arid climes of southern Arabia, and even though she undoubtedly enjoyed all the amenities of the royalty of her day, extended travel on ancient roadways was bone-jarring and just plain wearying.

What must she have thought when she first caught sight of the famed capital of Israel? As she entered the gates of Jerusalem and neared the king’s premier building projects—the Millo, the impressive and beautiful temple Solomon had erected in honor of his God, and the king’s own palace—did the abundance of richly mellow gold veneer and lacy filigree, the soft sheen of opaque ornate ivory, and the smell of sandalwood, cedar and pungent incense overwhelm her senses?

A queen with a quest

She came on a two-fold mission: to cement some sort of trade agreement, and to witness the wisdom of this famous ruler of Israel. It was common knowledge that his innate abilities (God-given, it was said) and keen intelligence were exceptional. 1 Kings 4:31-34 comments that he was wiser than all men; he spoke three thousand proverbs; he wrote more than a thousand songs; and he was perhaps the leading authority on the botany and zoology of his day. Solomon oversaw gardens of herbs, vegetables, and orchards of succulent fruits. Perhaps he even had a zoo of sorts, featuring the likes of peacocks and apes from the distant East of India. His numerous stables were filled with the finest Egyptian horses, and there were hundreds of chariots at his disposal. Plus he had been able to assure peace and stability to the kingdom of Israel. This was no ordinary monarch the Arabian queen was about to meet.

F.W. Farrar, in his Solomon: His Life and Times (1886?), proposes a scene encompassing her visit there: “…she saw him [Solomon] seated on the unrivaled lion-throne of gold and ivory, dispensing justice in the pillared hall of cedar. She saw him seated at the banquet, at his table covered with the richest delicacies brought from distant lands in boundless profusion. She saw the vessels and lavers of pure gold, and the goblets for wine, the great guests seated at the table, and the retinue of gorgeously-attired attendants, and the various stringed instruments framed in aromatic wood” (p. 136). If she had any doubts as to his wealth and majesty, they were soon put to rest.

Public domain Google pictures

Public domain Google pictures

Hard questions?

At a certain point she was able to pose her “hard” questions. Did she come to learn more about Solomon’s God? Was hers merely an attempt to survey the competition, and gain insights into Israel’s commercial agenda? The Bible does not say.

Some rabbinic literature written well after the first century AD (and which was excluded from  the literary productions of the conservative Rabbis of the day) went so far as to furnish not only the imagined gist of her inquiries, but her exact questions. Some sources recorded four questions or riddles; others, as many as nineteen. Here are a couple of examples:[1]

Q: “Seven there are that issue and nine that enter: two yield the draught, and one drinks.

A: Solomon’s supposed answer: “Seven are the days of a woman’s defilement, and nine the months of pregnancy; two are the breasts that yield the draught, and one the child that drinks it.”

Q: A woman said to her son, thy father is my father, and thy grandfather my husband; thou are my son, and I am thy sister.

A: Again, Solomon’s supposed answer: “Assuredly it was the daughter of Lot who spake thus to her son.”

Other questions prove quite fanciful, and given that they were generally written hundreds of years after the fact, can only fall into the category of pure folklore/legend in my estimation. The queen of Sheba appears to have been an astute business woman, perhaps a wily politician, and greatly intrigued by the likes of Solomon. It’s hard to image that such a mind would seriously employ the trivialities of worthless riddles by which to make her assessments.

Lasting impressions

Josephus, on the other hand, offers this quote, ostensibly from the queen herself, concerning her conclusions: “All things, indeed, O king, that came to our knowledge by report, came with uncertainty as to our belief to them; but as to those good that to thee appertain, both such as thou thyself possesses, I mean wisdom and prudence, and the happiness thou has from thy kingdom, certainly the same that came to us was no falsity; it was not only a true report, but it related thy happiness after a much lower manner than I now see it to be before my eyes….One would therefore bless God, who hath so loved this country, and those that inhabit therein, as to make thee king over them” (The Antiquities of the Jews, 8.6.5).

While the Bible does not specify what these hard questions were, Jesus alludes to them in Luke 11:31: “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold are greater than Solomon is here.” The Bible says “she communed with Solomon all that was in her heart, and he told her all her questions: there was not anything hid from the king, which he told her not” (1 Kings 10:2-3).

Her quest at a satisfactory end, the Bible says, “she thus turned and went to her own country, she and her servants” (1 Kings 10:13). Thus the elusive queen of Sheba fades into the backdrop of the life of Solomon, king of Israel, never to appear again.


The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Gold and Spices

And she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great abundance, and precious stones; there never were any spices such as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon (2 Chron. 9:9).

When the queen departed Sheba, Scripture says she came to Jerusalem with “a very great retinue.” How many does “very great” indicate? No consulted commentary ventures any speculation, but perhaps there is a way to guesstimate. Bible scholar, Leon Wood, equates a talent (the queen gave Solomon one hundred and twenty talents of gold) to  just over sixty-six pounds.[1] A rough calculation yields 7,920 pounds…of gold—worth a staggering amount by today’s precious metals market! Evidently a dromedary camel can carry from 300-900 pounds (per a Goggle search). That means the queen could have had anywhere from nine to twenty-six camels just to carry the gold.[2]

There is no way to determine the weight of the jewels or the spices so as to calculate how many additional camels were needed. Nor is there any way to assess how many attendants would have accompanied her, whether she was escorted by armed guards or units of her army perhaps, or how many of these pack animals were needed to carry necessities such as food, clothing and shelter (i.e., tents). Suffice it to say, “she came with a very great retinue” (1 Kings 10:2).

“. . .there never were any spices such as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon . . . .”

Why were spices of such note in this account? Why would they have been gifts worthy of the king of Israel? There are several reasons, some going farther back into antiquity.

1. A primary consideration is one of commerce. According to a note in The Women’s Study Bible (p. 565), Sheba’s considerable economy was “dependent upon worldwide, overland spice trade.” Solomon’s new trade alliance with Hiram, king of Tyre, may have caused the queen concern since her merchants must travel through Israel in order to reach other distribution points. Her gifts, including an abundance of spices, were no doubt part of trade negotiations, and as such, were expected. 1 Kings 10:22-25 fills in some of the details.

Arabia was known for its dominance of the spice trade, and went to great lengths to guard its “trade” secrets. It was not above using disinformation as to the origin of its precious commodities (many of which came from as far away as India) nor the routes used to procure/transport them. By keeping a corner on the spice market, Arabia, and in this case, Sheba, could control the supply, charge exorbitant prices, and thus far, avoid paying duty. There was much at stake during this meeting of two formidable potentates.

2. Spices and aromatic gums were quite valuable—some of them were purportedly deemed more precious than gold—and in demand. As early as Genesis 2:12 bdellium,[3] a fragrant gum resin which is thought to be from the arid regions of western India, is mentioned. Another mention of spices is found in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37:25). Joseph was cast into a pit by his jealous brothers, and eventually sold to a caravan of Ishmaelite (some say Midianite)[4] spice merchants traveling the main trade route from Gilead to Egypt—possibly one of the routes the queen intended to use.

Cinnamon bark (publicdomainpictures.net)

Though hundreds of years later than the time of Solomon, in the days of the early Roman empire, naturalist Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, wrote that a pound of pepper, the cheapest and most available spice, would buy forty pounds of wheat, and “a pound of the finest cinnamon oil [which most likely came from India or modern-day Sri Lanka] would cost a centurion up to six years’ work.”[5]

3.  Spices were used in funerary preparations—both as preservatives and agents to control the odors of putrefaction. Egypt in particular is known for its embalming techniques and funerary practices involving various herbs, unguents and spices.[6] Using these to slow or kill bacteria that caused decomposition was an effort to keep a corpse fresh and presentable. According to Egyptian belief, mummification preserved a home—a necessary physical frame—to which the immortal ka (life principle) could return.[7]

Israel had its own funerary practices. 2 Chronicles 16:13-14 recounts the burial of King Asa of Judah: “They buried him in his own tomb, which he had made for himself in the City of David; and they laid him in the bed which was filled with spices and various ingredients prepared in a mixture of ointments. They made a very great burning for him.”

4. Spices and unguents were used in religious rituals. In Leviticus 24:7 Moses is instructed to pour “pure frankincense” on the showbread. In Exodus 30:22-33 he is given the formula for holy anointing oil. Using quality spices, perfumers were to combine:

  • five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh,
  • half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels),
  • two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane,
  • five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary,
  • and a hin of olive oil.

He was further instructed, ‘”With it you shall anoint the tabernacle of meeting and the ark of the Testimony; the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense; the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the laver and its base. You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them must be holy. And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister to Me as priests. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘This shall be a holy anointing oil to Me throughout your generations. It shall not be poured on man’s flesh; nor shall you make any other like it, according to its composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it on an outsider, shall be cut off from his people.'”

Presumably Solomon himself was anointed king with this same holy oil (1 Kings 1:38-39). “The anointing of Solomon was carried out immediately, as the king had commanded. . . .‘The oil-horn out of the tent’ (i.e., a vessel made of horn and containing oil) was no doubt one which held the holy anointing oil, with which the priests and the vessels of the sanctuary were anointed (see Exo. 30:22 ff.).”[8]

Next time…

There is another reason Solomon would have welcomed such an abundance of spices, one which has to do with his harem. We’ll explore this fascinating topic in the next post.


[1] Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History (1970), p. 292, note 16. However, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, 1, 2 Kings, v. 10, equates the 120 talents to be four and one-half tons (p.101)! The above calculation would have to be refigured based on this formula.

[2] There is an ongoing mystery as to the source of the queen of Sheba’s gold. As recently as February 2013 a British archaeologist discovered what may have been her gold mine in northern Ethiopia. Historically Ethiopia was part of the territory of Sheba according to some scholars, and thus under the queen’s control.

[3] F. Rosengarten, Jr. 1969. The Book of Spices, pp. 23–96, Jove Publ., Inc., New York. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/Hort_306/reading/Reading%2026-1.pdf

[4] It seems ironic that these merchantmen could have been distant relatives of Joseph’s through Keturah, Abraham’s wife after Sarah died. See Genesis 25:1-2.

[5] Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (2004), p. 73.

[6] In the winter of 1975-1976 the deteriorating mummy of Ramses II (argued by some to be the pharaoh of the exodus) was sent to the Musee de l’Homme in Paris for conservation concerns. An x-ray revealed for the first time that peppercorns had been inserted into the king’s nose with plugs of an unidentified resinous substance. Jack Turner, in his book, Spice: The History of a Temptation, mentions, “. . . its [the peppercorn] identity confirmed after an exhaustive process of elimination of native African species some three millennia after its harvest somewhere in the tropical south of India” (p.146).

[7] Turner, p. 147.

[8] From Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition, Electronic Database.

Levirate Law—in Confusion

The Sadducees confronted Jesus with a difficult question that appeared to be a theological puzzle. Actually the question was a red herring to engage Christ in a dispute the Sadducees and Pharisees had about the resurrection. The Sadducees argued that there was no resurrection of the dead, but the Pharisees believed the dead would live again (Acts 23:7-8).

To draw a statement from Christ supporting their belief, the Sadducees concocted a marriage situation that had one chance in a million of happening. Unlikely as it was that a Jewish woman would be married and widowed by seven brothers, the law did take care of that earthly scenario.

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name not be blotted out of Israel (Deut. 25:5-6).

The Sadducees projected that such tangled affairs would create chaos in the resurrection. Which of the seven resurrected brothers was entitled to the woman who had been married to them all? Or from the woman’s perspective, which of the seven would she be bound to forever? The Sadducees assumed that laws governing physical life would govern eternal life—if there were such a thing. Their answer to the hypothetical confusion physical laws would produce in the resurrection was to reject the resurrection. Christ corrected their misunderstanding of life after death.

You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven (Matt. 22:29-32).

 Levirate Law Working Beautifully

The levirate marriage was an “alternate arrangement under specific bounds to make possible the retention of landed property throughout the families of Israel” and to protect “widows without children.”[1]  In the story of Ruth, the levirate law worked beautifully to protect a childless widow, and her deceased husband’s property. Boaz fulfilled the obligations of the levirate law when he married Ruth, Mahlon’s widow. As a near relative of the family, Boaz qualified for the duty of fathering an heir for Ruth’s deceased husband. He was also entitled to the property that would have been become Mahlon’s when Naomi died. From the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, a son was born who upheld Mahlon’s name and property rights.

And Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, from the hand of Naomi. Moreover, Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have acquired as my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his brethren and from his position at the gate” (Ruth 4:9-10).

 Levirate Law not so Beautiful

Figures_Judah_Gives_his_Signet,_Bracelets_and_Staff_in_Pledge_to_TamarThe levirate law played a part in Boaz’s ancestry, going back six generations to Perez, one of the twin sons of Tamar (Matt. 1:3). Tamar (possibly a Canaanite woman) was married to Er, the firstborn son of Judah. Er died because of an unspecified wickedness that angered God, and Tamar was left a childless widow. In accordance with the levirate law, Judah told Onan, his second son, to impregnate Tamar and preserve the family line of his deceased brother. But Onan refused to beget children for Er. His callous disdain for Tamar displeased God. Onan died for his contempt of duty, and Tamar was widowed the second time.

Judah told Tamar to remain a widow until his third son Shelah was old enough to be married (Gen. 38:11). Then he sent Tamar away to her father’s house where she was no longer of much concern to him. Perhaps fearing that Shelah would meet the same unfortunate end as his brothers, Judah seemed in no hurry to facilitate this union.

When Shelah was grown and Tamar realized that “she was not given to him as a wife” (Gen. 38:14), she undertook a daring deception. Veiling herself as a prostitute, Tamar seduced her father-in-law, Judah. Not knowing whom he was impregnating, Judah, in a perverse twist of the law, fathered Tamar’s twin boys.

Observations

Twins were considered “a special blessing from the Lord”[2] and Tamar’s name is recorded in the lineage of the Savior. Some commentators refer to her as a “heroine of the faith—despite her origins and the nature of her actions.”[3] Other writers describe Tamar and Judah harshly. “It shocks our inner, finer feelings to see Christ’s lineage interwoven with such abhorrent degradation as we have in this chapter (Genesis 38). We cannot but wonder how Judah and Tamar have the distinction of mention in that sacred genealogy of Jesus Christ.”[4]

As a reader of this significant birth story, I am sobered. I wonder that commentators venture to make judgments. When Judah acknowledged that he caused Tamar’s pregnancy, God allowed his words—Judah’s words—to be the verdict of record: She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son (Gen. 38:26). —Mary Hendren

 


[1] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 150

[2] New King James Study Bible, Second Edition, Thomas Nelson, note on Genesis. 38:27.

[3] Same source, note on Genesis. 38:30.

[4] All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p.163.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Conclusion

Herod’s troubles

Herod spent his last decade in the grips of turmoil fueled by an ever-growing paranoia. While he had achieved a degree of peace in Judea (despite the financial rigors imposed on his subjects due to Imperial taxes and his own extravagant building projects), there were always trouble spots to be dealt with, especially within his own family. During his seventy years Herod married ten wives and fathered fifteen children. Needless to say, troublesome rivalries found fertile soil.

To make matters worse, Herod suffered the effects of a painful degenerative disease which affected not only his body but also his mind. He knew death was inevitable and imminent—there was no cure for his malady. The time had come for him to nominate, by Emperor Augustus’s request, an heir to assume his kingdom upon his demise. Obviously it would be a son—but which one?

A tangled web

Early on, Herod divorced his first wife, Doris (a “commoner” so to speak), and banished her and his firstborn son, Antipater, in order to marry a true “royal,” the Princess Mariamme 1, of Hasmonean descent. She also bore him sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and two daughters. The ensuing years were littered with political intrigue as mothers and sons, jealous siblings, shrewd sycophants and toadies, connived and maneuvered to grab the reins the instant of his death. The demented king saw threats everywhere—some quite real, others figments of his tormented mind.

As Augustus requested, Herod put forth the names of three sons, Antipater, Alexander and Aristobulus, for consideration; in response, each ambition-driven mother with her cohorts sought to claim the throne for her son by whatever means at her disposal. In the end, it finished badly for them all: Antipater, Herod’s firstborn, was executed on a charge of plotting to murder his father; Mariamme was executed because of an alleged murder plot; her two sons were strangled on charges of treason; and Doris was once again sent into exile.

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of ...

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maniacal obsessions

Herod was increasingly plagued with fears of treason and impending overthrow, and the palpable Jewish expectation of a coming Messiah did nothing to calm his apprehensions. Just yesterday his spies brought word of a caravan arriving from the east, and among its travelers, Magi, wise men of some stature, with their gift-laden entourage, inquiring about one born King of the Jews. “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” A King of the Jews?!

Summoning all the chief priests and scribes, Herod got straight to the point: Where was this Christ to be born? Their reply: according to the prophet, in Bethlehem.[1] His minions were no doubt already combing all Jerusalem to find out more, sneaking, demanding, investigating, threatening; before long the whole city knew that Herod was on a rampage, and braced itself for his growing fury.

These wise men…they could be pivotal players in his manic search. Herod arranged for a private audience with them, and a plan took shape. First, a question. Exactly when did they see this star? If it took several weeks, or months even, for these Magi to make their journey,[2] how old might this…this king be—days, months, even a year or more? Then suppose he feigned a shared interest in paying homage also, and encouraged them to continue on their quest and keep him informed? Once Herod knew the child’s whereabouts, he could quickly dispatch this interloper. The Magi, unaware of such a murderous plot, played into his hands, and set off for Bethlehem, still guided by the star.

Herod waited.

Sometime earlier

Jesus was eight days old, and according to the Law, it was time for his circumcision. Joseph and Mary sought out the local Mohel to perform the age-old rite. The young mother comforted her crying infant, and soothed away his tears with the gentle sound of her voice. Their bond was already strong, and she found herself pondering many of the recent events which had so dramatically changed their lives. What did the future hold for this Son of God?

Perhaps this question loomed large a month or so later. Mary’s days of purification were completed and the time for Jesus to be consecrated to the Lord had arrived. Both events required sacrifices, and so Mary and Joseph with their precious son journeyed to Jerusalem and climbed the steps to the temple courtyard, making their way to the Court of the Women to fulfill their duties.

Unexpectedly, out of those gathered in the temple precincts, a man appeared, one Simeon by name, and took the infant Jesus in his arms, blessing God, saying, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). The parents marveled as he continued, speaking directly to Mary, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Surely she would revisit this scene in the years to come as she and Jesus lived through the full implications of Simeon’s foreboding words.

A very old woman, a prophetess named Anna, upon witnessing this encounter, added her blessing, thanking the Lord, and explaining to all who would hear that the long-awaited Messiah had been born.

Visitors from the east

Mary must have watched with interest as the group of foreigners approached, fascinated by their strange accents, their quick gestures, and their obvious delight at what appeared to be a star hovering directly over the couple’s house. She learned these were Magi, dignitaries from the east, who were on a quest.

Was it a whimper or a full-blown cry that attracted their attention, stopping all conversation, and causing the strangers to turn in her direction? Perhaps as she shifted position and lifted Jesus to her shoulder, the realization hit them: They had come in search of the one born King of the Jews; they were led to this very place by a star; and now here he was, in the arms of his mother. Scripture records that the wise men dropped to their knees and worshiped him. Then they presented the little child with chests of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, gifts carefully guarded and transported over hundreds of miles, gifts in honor of the King.

Warnings

Herod’s plan was about to be thwarted by God Himself with two dreams. First He warned the wise men not to return to Herod, but rather to choose another route for the journey home. And He warned Joseph to take his family and leave immediately, that very night, and flee to Egypt. By the next day, both parties were well en route.

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by...

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by Matteo di Giovanni (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Herod realized that his plan had gone awry and he had been outwitted by the Magi, he flew into a murderous rage, and issued a chilling edict: All boys[3] from two years old and under living in Bethlehem and its environs would be killed. Scripture records, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’” (Matt 2:17-18). To this day, the event, sometimes referred to as the Massacre of the Innocents, is synonymous in the minds of many with Herod.

One last slaughter

According to historical records Herod the Great, King of the Jews, died in 4 BC in great pain, suffering from among other things, gangrene and dropsy.[4] But he did not go without one more grand design. “During his sickness Herod meditated only upon ways and means by which he might make the Jews mourn the day of his death. When he had returned from the baths of Callirrhoe to Jericho, he is said to have given orders that upon his death the most distinguished of the nation, whom he had caused to be shut up in the arena of that place, should be slain, so that there might be a great lamentation on his passing away. In his delirium he tried to kill himself, and the palace resounded with lamentations.”[5]

After Herod’s death Joseph had one last dream. It was finally safe for his young charge to return to Galilee, and particularly to Nazareth, thus fulfilling yet another prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). Mary’s son, One born King of the Jews, would live to fulfill many more.


[1] See Micah 5:2.

[2] There is no easy identification of who these individuals were. Possibilities include Babylonians and Persians. See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary comments on Matthew 2.

[3] Scholars estimate that based on the size of Bethlehem (a small village), perhaps a dozen or so baby boys were murdered in Herod’s attempt to stop a threat to his throne.

[4] Stewart Perowne, Herod the Great, His Life and Times (1956), pp. 172-173.

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