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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.

Pomegranates

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levit...

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levites in ancient Judah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue…and upon its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet, all around its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe all around (Exodus 28:31-34).

When the tabernacle was built in the wilderness and Bezalel was selected to make the priestly garments, had he ever seen a pomegranate or held one in his hand? He might have—it’s possible. Pomegranates grew wild in Persia as early as 3000 to 2200 BC. Pomegranates were imported into Egypt from Mesopotamia for wealthy Egyptians.  Archeologists have found pomegranates and drawings of pomegranates in Egyptian tombs, confirming the Egyptian belief that the fruit symbolized prosperity and a prosperous afterlife.[1]

We remember the fish, which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic (Numbers 11:5).

It’s possible, on the other hand, Bezalel never saw or tasted pomegranates. They were not among the foods the Israelites remember eating in Egypt. Slaves lived on a simple diet of fish, vegetables and melon, and pomegranates were a labor-intensive delicacy. If he had no first hand experience with the fruit, Bezalel must have fashioned Aaron’s robe from a pattern God gave Moses. The tiny poms on the robe’s hem were woven from scarlet, blue and purple linen threads—colors that contribute to a complexity of red—shades ranging from pink, to rose, to magenta—commonly seen in the pomegranates grown in the United States. The fruit’s gorgeous colors, its pleasing roundness, and its early appearance in eastern Iran have led some scholars to speculate: Was the pomegranate the tempting fruit in the Garden of Eden?[2]  The Bible doesn’t say.

Whether the Israelites were familiar with pomegranates when they were slaves, we don’t know. But scriptures confirm they knew about pomegranates by the time they entered Canaan (Numbers 13:23).

Then they [spies] came to the Valley of Eshcol, and there cut down a branch with one cluster of grapes; they carried it between two of them on a pole. They also brought some of the pomegranates and figs.

Scriptures show that after settling in Canaan the Israelites cultivated pomegranates: pomegranate trees were common, the juice was an important drink and the fruit was a popular decorative motif. Saul sat under a pomegranate tree surrounded by his army (1 Sam. 14:2). Solomon used pomegranate imagery in his love poem (Song of Solomon 4:3, 6:7, and 8:2). Rows of carved pomegranates decorated the entry pillars of Solomon’s temple (I Kings 7:18). Joel mentions the pomegranate tree withering like the wasting away joy (Joel 1:12). Haggai cites the pomegranate tree marking the onset of God’s blessings (Haggai 2:19).

Phenomenal Fruit

Today we can substantiate by chemical analysis what the Israelites learned through experience: the tree is an extraordinary resource. The juice is a refreshing drink and can be fermented into wine.[3] Tannins extracted from tree bark and fruit rind condition leather. Pomegranate seeds, juice and bark have medicinal uses: an astringent poultice of the bark draws out bee stings; seeds and juice treat diarrhea, dislodge tapeworms and boost vitality; juice reduces symptoms of fever and eases severity of some disease.[4] 

An opened up pomegranate.

An opened up pomegranate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Labor Intensive

To extract juice from the pomegranates, women in that day rolled the pomegranates on a hard surface until the seeds inside stopped cracking. The juice extracted during rolling was held in the leathery “cup,” then the skin was punctured to release the liquid. It is said that travelers carried pomegranates as a convenient way quench thirst. (I tried the rolling method as a traveler might have done but ended up splitting the skin and spilling juice, so it must take a deft, experienced hand.) Juice was also extracted by stomping on the pomegranates, much like smashing grapes. The juice drained out of the stomping trough and was strained through cloth to catch the seeds, pith and skin. Juice extracted by the stomping technique contained tannins that affected the taste. The website http://theshiksa.com/ illustrates gentler ways our Israelite mothers may have handled pomegranates.

When boiled in water, cooled and strained, the pomegranate’s red flowers and rinds yield a “richly colored dye bath” [5] for coloring natural fibers into shades of dull gold and yellow. Similar to other vegetable dyes, pomegranate dye, does not color linen, cotton, silk and wool as brilliantly as animal-based dyes. Today pomegranates are valued less for making poultices, dyes, and ink than for their beauty, taste and health benefits.

In ancient cultures pomegranates represented fertility, righteousness, prosperity and wisdom. In keeping with tradition, many Jews eat pomegranates on the Jewish New Year, “to wish for good deeds and a year as plentiful with goodness as the seeds of the pomegranate.” [6] Apart from the symbolism surrounding the pomegranate, I think of it as a reminder of God’s delightful providence. Isaac Watt composed a hymn in 1784 in praise of God’s provision of the earth. So rightly it says, “There’s not a plant or flower below, but makes Thy glories known.”—Mary Hendren

 

 

 


[1] “The Incredible Pomegranate: Plant and Fruit,” Richard Ashton, p. 3

[2]  Edibleparadise.com, “Pomegranate—The Original Forbidden Fruit,” Annaliese Keller (online resource)

[3] “Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible,” Packer and Tenny, p. 255.

[4] Phytochemicals, “Pomegranates” (online resource)

[5] Folk Fibers, Maura Grace Ambrose, “Natural Dyes—Pomegranates,” Feb. 19, 2013 (online resource)

[6] Hebrewlessonsonline, “Israeli Symbols”

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 4

 For unto us a Child is born , Unto us a Son is given;

And the government will be upon His shoulder.

And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,

Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,

To order it and establish it with judgment and justice

From that time forward, even forever.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

(Isaiah 9:6-7 NKJV)

***

Mary barely heard the urging of the women as her body responded to contraction after contraction, unrelenting waves of pain, each closer to the one before, until finally… one huge push, and there were no more. Seconds later, a baby’s cry filled the air and she felt tension drain from her body like wine from a ruptured wineskin. Swiftly deft hands cut the umbilical cord and lifted her squalling infant, wiping away amniotic fluids and washing him gently with warm soothing water.

Swaddling (How to)

Swaddling (How to) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She held out her arms to comfort her little one, his arms and legs flailing, searching the familiarity of her warm body.  Holding him close and stroking away his tears, she rocked gently, humming a melody only mothers know, until his crying gave way to silence as he listened.  She pulled back the blanket, marveling at his beautiful fingers and tiny toes, the plump softness of his body, the wisps of fine dark hair framing his brow. He was perfect in every way. Reluctantly she handed him back and watched, taking note, as he was swaddled securely with linen strips. Then, in her arms once again, she put him to her breast and smiled, wincing a little as he nuzzled, then latched on and suckled contentedly to drink his fill. In one sublime moment their eyes locked on each other, mother and son, and her heart soared.

The love of a remarkable man

Joseph[1] quietly entered upon this touching scene and stood watching, his curiosity and awe obvious. The past nine months had not been easy. The shock and indignation when the truth of Mary’s swelling belly could no longer be denied. The feelings fueled by trust betrayed. Struggling with what must be done. Law in the extreme dictated stoning even when parties were only betrothed, but few, if any, did that these days. A quiet divorce with no reason given, in the presence of two witnesses—that seemed the only just thing to do. He did not want to shame Mary publicly, even in his hurt and anger. This way she could quietly prepare for the consequences to come. And he could begin putting his life back together.

While that was the course he intended to follow, a heavenly messenger cast a new light of understanding on an otherwise dismal situation.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Joseph himself was destined to be part of a grander plan.

Now he stood looking at the fulfillment of the angel’s word, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. “Jesus,” he said to Mary. “He will be called[2] Jesus.” “Yes. He will be called Jesus,” Mary responded softly, and gently placed her swaddled babe in his make-shift manger bed.

The world would soon know that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem that autumn day.

(To be continued.)


[1] Joseph’s part in the story of the birth of Christ is often overlooked. But in the opinion of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, a comment concerning Matthew 1:24-25 observes, “While the story is told simply, Joseph’s obedience and submission under these circumstances is scarcely less remarkable than Mary’s.” Barnes’ Notes adds, concerning Joseph as a “just” man: “The meaning is that he was kind, tender, merciful; that he was so attached to Mary that he was not willing that she should be exposed to public shame. He sought therefore, secretly to dissolve the connection, and to restore her to her friends without the punishment commonly inflicted on adultery” (see note on Matthew 1:19).

[2] Naming a child was of the utmost importance, and the Bible reveals instances where both mothers and fathers did the naming. In Jesus’ case, God, His Father, chose His name, and both Mary and Joseph complied. In that day, sons were often named during the circumcision ceremony. Scripture seems to indicate Jesus was called by His name from the time He was born.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 2

The Journey to Bethlehem

Mary packed as though she and Joseph were changing residences rather than making a round trip—that’s what astute travelers of her day did. Perhaps she had an idea or premonition that it would be a long time before they would return to Nazareth and home. There would be caravanserais[1] along the way, usually situated where roads crossed, for food and water, bathing, supplies, fodder for the animals, and places to sleep; but the wise and experienced often brought along their own tents and blankets as well as clothing and containers of dried raisins and other foodstuffs, water, oil, and flour, prepared for any eventuality.

Joseph was well aware of the difficulties of such a journey, not just for Mary in her condition, but for their safety as well. The eighty-mile trip could take as many as five days or possibly more, depending on the route and traveling conditions. The shortest and most direct way, through Samaria, was not an option for most Jewish travelers in light of long-standing animosities. They would rather face the threat of robbers and bandits[2] who often menaced the next best highway.

Félix_Bonfils_(French_-_Le_Jourdain_(The_Jordan)_-_Google_Art_Project (1)Caravans frequently traversed Roman roads, including the one he likely chose[3]—the road that went east from Nazareth, crossed the Jordan, and ran south through Perea toward Jerusalem. Ideally they could join such a convoy and lessen the danger along the way. Such a group contained a lively cross-section of humanity. Along with the average traveler and perhaps courses of priests on their way to fulfill their duties in the Temple, opportunistic hawkers often joined these odysseys, producing the latest articles of commerce or luxury, and passing on the most titillating news of the day. Nighttime chatter around campfires must have been a welcome relief from the monotony of seemingly endless miles of travel.

Taxed to the limit

Did Joseph and Mary hear grumbling about the latest demands and scandals of Rome? Most likely, and with good reason.  The general population was already taxed to the limit[4], and now this. Word had it that Caesar was displeased at the declining birthrate[5] in his empire, and this census would confirm his annoyance. It would not only give him his numbers, but replenish his coffers as well. Resentment seethed under the surface at the injustice of it all, a malignant stow-away on this mandatory trek to be counted. What they needed was a deliverer, and soon!

(To be continued.)


[1] Follow the link below for a picture of an Ottoman caravanserais built in the 1700s. Those available to Mary and Joseph were probably much smaller, but were also walled enclosures with guest rooms on upper levels, and the terrace level below, used for bedding down the animals. At night the gate was secured to protect travelers from robbers and wild beasts.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Akko_BW_13.JPG

[2] Palestine was home to highwaymen who robbed only for personal gain, and guerrilla warriors who directed their aggression against Roman Authorities and/or the Jewish authorities and persons who collaborated with them. Even the Apostle Paul was alert to such dangers in his travels (2 Corinthians 11:26). For more information on the social world of bandits, see the following link: http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/node/1511 .

[3]   Alfred Edersheim, in his Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), mentions six different highways or main arteries of commerce in Palestine. See Chapter IV, pp. 42-45. The one I chose for the journey of Joseph and Mary seems to me to be the most likely.

[4] Richard A. Horsely with John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (1985). During the time of Julius Caesar, “the Jewish agricultural producers were now subject to a double taxation, probably amounting to well over 40 percent of their production. There were other Roman taxes as well, which further added to the burden of the people, but the tribute was the major drain” p. 56. “If a peasant family, after rendering up 40 percent or more of its harvest, then had too little left to survive until the next harvest, it would have to borrow grain for food, or for seed for the next sowing….Continued borrowing would increase a family’s debt significantly, with great risk of complete loss of land …[and] sink into the ranks of…the landless day laborers, or…become a sharecropping tenant” (pp.58-59).

[5] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: “What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!” Quoted in Paul L. Maier’s  In the Fullness of Time (1991), p.6.

A Hospitality of Believers

How would you like to host a church in your home?  A number of women in the early years of the church opened their homes for prayer, study, and worship, even when it was not easy to follow Jesus Christ.  Because there were no official meeting places for Christians, they met in various homes to worship and share their faith in Jesus Christ.

Also, Christians met privately because Jewish and Roman authorities persecuted many of the faithful (Acts 8:3, Acts 12). Stephen was murdered for his bold declaration of truth. The apostle James was beheaded as a leader of the church in Jerusalem. Christians in the early years of the church “were unprotected by any civil power, and exposed, therefore, to the full blaze and rage of persecution. That the church was not destroyed, was owing to the protection of God.”[1]

Courage of hospitality in troubled times

 Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also…[and] put him in prison (Acts 12:1-4).

 Although it was at times dangerous for Christians in Jerusalem, Mary (the mother of John Mark) made her home a meeting place for believers. Mary’s house may have been where Jesus and the twelve disciples kept the Passover.[2] Tradition says the upper room of her home may have been where Jesus’ followers received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 1:5, 12-13). After the apostle Peter’s miraculous release from prison, he made his way to Mary’s house to inform the believers who prayed for him there (Acts 12:5-16).

St. Mark Syriac inscription

St. Mark Syriac inscription (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How long were Christians able to meet in Mary’s home? Was she among the believers “scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” because of persecution? (Acts 8:1) Scripture doesn’t say what happened to Mary. Tourists in Jerusalem today can visit what is thought to be the location of her house. The 800-year-old St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Church is said “to be built over a much older structure.”[3] Visitors are told to “look for the ancient inscription carved into a stone wall, written in ancient Syriac language and said to date to the sixth century CE, the inscription states: This is the house of Mary, mother of John Mark.[4] 

Believers Hosting Churches

After Paul established congregations in Asia Minor, men and women converted to the faith, met in one another’s homes. Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila hosted a church in their home in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19) and later in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5). Paul mentioned facing a crisis in Ephesus and that Priscilla and Aquila saved his life. “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles” (Romans 16:3-4).

Lydia, a successful businesswoman in Philippi, opened her home, which became “perhaps the first Christian church being formed therein [in Philippi].”[5] When Paul was miraculously released from prison, he went to Lydia’s home to encourage the believers there (Acts 16:40).

It is not clear if the host of the church in Laodicea was Nympha, a woman, or Nymphas, a man. “Most scholars agree that this person was a woman, Nympha,”[6] though nothing more is said of the individual. Apphia was probably the wife of Philemon and co-host of a home church in Colossae. Archippus, thought to be Philemon’s son, was the pastor of the Christians who met in their home (Col. 4:17). Phoebe, a leading member of the church in Corinth, hosted believers in her home in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1).

It is probable that Christians followed the pattern of home churches for at least 300 years until Constantine made Christianity his official religion. The hundreds of men and women who hosted small groups of Christians in their homes comprised a “hospitality of believers.” They played an important part in spreading the gospel and strengthening the church.—Mary Hendren


[1] Barnes’ Online Commentary, note on Acts 8:3

[2] NKJV Study Bible, Second edition, note on Acts 1:13

[4] Same source

[5] Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible, p. 85.

[6] Theresa M. Doyle-Nelson, in “House Churches in the New Testament,” AmericanCatholic.org.

Rebekah: A Marriage in Ancient Israel

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in age; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things. So Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, “Please, put your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell; but you shall go to my country and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:1-4).

The Search Begins:  the Bride Price

The old man had two gold bracelets and a ring, gifts for a woman he didn’t know. Camels accompanied him with food and gear for the journey and with many gifts. These were intended for people living somewhere in Haran where Terah had settled.  Abraham insisted that his son marry someone from his own people and not a Canaanite woman. That’s why he sent his trusted servant to find a wife from Terah’s family (Gen. 22:20-24). Abraham believed the servant would find a bride in Haran because God “will send His angel with you and prosper your way” (Gen. 24:40). So, the old gentleman was on a mission of faith—Abraham’s faith.

(Note to readers: Many commentaries, like Nelson’s cited in the footnote, believe the servant’s name is Eliezer “because of his high position over all that Abraham had.” [1] I will occasionally use the name Eliezer in referring to the servant.)

English: Rebekah and Eliezer, as in Genesis 24...

English: Rebekah and Eliezer, as in Genesis 24, illustration published 1908 by the Providence Lithograph Company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Eliezer arrived in Mesopotamia, he stopped at the well of Nahor where Terah’s people lived. The old man prayed for immediate success in finding the right woman for Isaac. He asked that she be identified by three signs: she would come to the well for water; when he asked her for a drink she would give it to him; and she would offer to water the camels. Immediately, beautiful Rebekah appeared at the well, filled her pitcher, gave him a drink and drew water for the camels. If that were not enough reason for joy, Rebekah said she was related to Abraham’s brother Nahor. Out came the bracelets and the nose ring.

Gifts

Eliezer knew she was the answer to prayer. God had divinely singled out Rebekah as the young woman intended for Isaac. So he “put the nose ring on her nose and the bracelets on her wrists…and worshipped the LORD” (Gen. 24:47-48). In bestowing the jewelry, Eliezer claimed Rebekah for Isaac. In accepting the jewelry, she allowed Eliezer to touch her wrists and face—she was willing to proceed. She “ran and told her mother’s household these things” (Gen. 24:28). Rebekah’s appearing before them wearing bracelets and nose ring opened the way for Eliezer to meet her family and propose marriage. After hearing the servant’s remarkable story, Rebekah’s father and brother agreed that this “comes from the LORD…let her be your master’s son’s wife, as the LORD has spoken” (Gen. 24:50-51). Was she committed at this point? Not yet, although everyone began eating, drinking, and acting as if she were.

More gifts

Because the talks had been favorable, Eliezer presented mohar, a gift from the family of the groom to the parents of the bride. It was traditionally given to the bride’s father when the parents gave their consent to the marriage. Mohar could be in the form of money, land, jewelry, clothing or something “precious” (Gen. 24:53). Mohar had somewhat a feeling of being compulsory and expressed the legal aspects of an arranged marriage.[2] It was thought to compensate the bride’s family for her loss. Some fathers kept their daughter’s mohar as insurance in case she was widowed or divorced.[3] In Rebekah’s case, Eliezer gave precious things to her brother Laban and to her mother. The Bible does not mention why Bethuel, the father, did not receive mohar, although he did give permission for the marriage (Gen.24:50).

Even more

Arrangements had come together quickly. Eliezer gave Rebekah special gifts from the groom to the bride called mattan. Mattan[4] could be cash or property or something of a personal nature, “jewelry of silver, jewelry of gold, and clothing” (Gen. 24:53). Mattan was a voluntary assurance of the groom’s personal interest in his bride. Isaac was a wealthy man (Gen. 24:34-36) and his mattan must have been sumptuous—purple linens, exquisite jewelry, embroidered fabrics, gold and silver ornaments, fragrances—everything to delight Rebekah’s heart. Was she committed to marriage now that mattan had been given?

A Purchased Bride?

Not quite. The parental arrangements for marriage and the exchange of gifts may give the impression that men in Abraham’s time could buy their wives. If a man proposed and gave gifts to a girl’s father, did she have any say in the matter? Daughters and sons were very much under the authority of their fathers. Jewish practices, however, made it clear that a wife had to consent to be married.[5] “The opinion that Israelites were required to buy their wives from the parents or relatives seems unfounded.”[6] Rebekah was finally asked for her consent when Eliezer packed up for the return trip.

Eliezer:  Since the LORD has prospered my way; send me away so that I may go to my master.

 Family: We will call the young woman and ask her personally…will you go with this man?

 Rebekah: I will go.

A final round of gift-giving occurred when Rebekah departed. The family allowed Rebekah’s nurse and maids to leave Haran and serve her in Isaac’s household. Her nurse and maids became a parting gift, shilichin,[7] (something given by the family to a beloved daughter leaving home).

Not every man could afford the investment Isaac made in procuring a wife. “It would undoubtedly be expected that the mohar should be proportioned to the position of the bride and that a poor man could not on that account afford to marry a rich wife (I Sam. 18:23).[8] Isaac and Rebekah’s son Jacob, for example, paid his Uncle Laban in work for the privilege of marrying Rachel. The relationship between the two men got off to a bad start because of Laban’s deceit, and it didn’t improve over the years. When Jacob separated his family from Laban’s family, there was no shilichin, no happy parting gifts.

Where is love?

Marriage in ancient Israel was about family, property and alliances. Love was usually not the reason for an arranged marriage. The negotiations, exchange of gifts, consent of the bride, wedding celebration, and blessings for the departing bride preserved the identity of the family. Love was not a factor that Eliezer and Laban discussed in the marriage proposal. However, with Divine chemistry at work, Isaac and Rebekah began to love one another the day they met (Gen. 24:63-67).—Mary Hendren


[1] NKJV Study Bible, note on Gen. 24:2

[2] The Ultimate Wedding, “Ancient Jewish Marriage Traditions and Their Fulfillment in   Jesus the Messiah”

[3] 1bread.org/Teachings/Ancient Israel, “Marriage”

[4] The Ultimate Wedding, same article

[5] 1bread.org, same article

[6] New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Dowry,” p. 317

[7] The Ultimate Wedding

[8] Unger’s, p. 818

By Way of Special Delivery

Note to readers: When Paul wrote, in Romans 16:1, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the LORD in a manner worthy of the saints and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also,” he fueled on-going curiosity as to who this woman was, and what she might have done.

 After studying a fascinating book about letter writing in the time of Paul and checking out the opinions of several commentators, I am leaning toward a couple of possibilities in this post: that Phoebe is the one who carried an important letter from Paul to the church in Rome (we now refer to it as the New Testament book of Romans), and that she went by ship.

 The following scenario might be how things actually transpired, but the Bible doesn’t identify the letter carrier or the method or means of transportation. However, there is no disputing that Paul is complimentary of Phoebe’s service to him and to the church in Corinth.

Travel arrangements   

English: Roman Ship

English: Roman Ship (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Phoebe’s business in Rome would take her away from Corinth a month, maybe longer. If she could get passage on a merchantman sailing directly to Rome, and the weather was favorable, it would take ten days.[1] If she went by some other means than ship, the time would be harder to estimate. Since she was uncertain how long she’d be away, Phoebe likely discussed her plans with Paul.

Paul and Phoebe were like family. She was his “sister” in Christ, dependable, competent, a worker in the faith. She served the congregation in Corinth tirelessly. She probably opened her home in Cenchrea[2] to Paul and his associates when they came to Corinth.

Perfect timing

Phoebe’s trip came at an opportune time. Paul had been unable to visit the church in Rome and wanted to get a letter to the members. She could deliver the letter and acquaint the church on Paul’s work in Corinth. With a note of introduction from Paul, the members would help her while she was in the city. Phoebe would be judicious in relating news from Corinth. When she returned to Cenchrea, Paul was undoubtedly confident she’d bring an accurate report on the brethren and their response to his letter.

A remarkable mail system

Roman Road

Roman Road (Photo credit: anfearglas)

At the time of Paul’s ministry, Rome operated a remarkable mail system. Augustus Caesar established relay stations equipped with riders, fresh horses, and light carts to carry the mail from one station to another. Men driving horse-drawn carts could carry regular mail a distance of 50 miles in a day.  Relay riders with priority mail changed horses every six miles and could cover up to 170 miles in a day.[3] Rome built 50,000 miles of paved highways throughout the Mediterranean region and 200,000 miles of secondary roads—initially to facilitate the movement of soldiers. The imperial mail system took advantage of the established routes for transporting letters pertaining to official Roman business.

Paul’s options

 Private citizens were unable to access the imperial mail system. Paul, like other citizens not officially employed by Rome, made his own informal arrangements for sending mail. The unofficial procedure for sending a letter depended on finding a family member or friend, a soldier or stranger—anyone who was willing to carry a letter to its destination. Author Randolph Richards calls the random messengers “happenstance letter carriers.” [4] If you happen to find someone going in the right direction, ask him to take your letter. It was a somewhat reliable way of sending and receiving mail, because it was the only option private citizens had at the time. Wealthy individuals hired slaves who were trained letter carriers or employed them as part of the household staff.

Richards states that Paul may have depended on happenstance carriers early in his ministry but later relied on fellow Christians. “From 1 Corinthians onward, Paul’s letters were carried by named, private letter carriers, who bore Paul’s endorsement and whom Paul said had authority to elaborate his meaning (Col 4:7-9).”[5]

Paul’s commendation

At the end of his letter, Paul recommends Phoebe to the church members in Rome. He states that she is a “sister,” a believer in Christ, and a servant of the church in Cenchrea. The members understood that her service would have included visiting the sick, helping women with family needs, teaching children, caring for elderly widows and extending hospitality. Paul states “she has been a helper of many and of myself also” (Rom.16:1-2).

Paul trusted the church to befriend Phoebe while she was in Rome “in whatever business she has need of you” (Rom.16:2). When Phoebe sailed from Corinth, she was confident of connecting with fellow Christians who would look after her.

Scripture doesn’t say anything about Phoebe’s voyage, the success of her business, her relationship to the congregation or how the church assisted her. All we know is that the letter arrived in Rome.

Helpful or significant?

The significance of delivering the letter relates to the value of it. If Paul had written a simple announcement of his intention to visit Rome, the carrier’s service would be remembered as helpful. I believe Phoebe carried the letter, and what elevates her service to significant is the extraordinary nature of the letter itself, which is underscored by the following sources:

  • By common consent, Romans is the greatest of Paul’s letters. (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 10, p.3)
  • The greatest of Paul’s epistles and considered by many as the greatest book in the NT…it is a book, in one sense, simple and clear, but in another sense so magnificent that it baffles complete comprehension. (The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 1088)
  • Romans is a masterful presentation of God’s plan of salvation for Jews and Gentiles. (NKJV Study Bible, p.1764)
  • This letter has also loomed large in the history of Christianity. Countless men and women of faith have singled out Romans as the weapon God graciously used to bring about their surrender to Christ. (Same source, p.1763)

A very special delivery

 If Phoebe was indeed the carrier, she had the privilege of delivering what is now commonly considered Paul’s most significant epistle. Did she hear the very first reading of the letter aloud in church? I imagine she was thankful to God for her small part in bringing such amazing good news to the church in Rome. —Mary Hendren


[1] Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, E. Randolph Richards, p. 199 (note on estimated time for a letter to reach Rome, via ship from Corinth)

[2] The Woman’s Study Bible notes that Cenchrea was a seaport for Corinth (p. 1890).

[3] “Mail,” Wikipedia

[4] Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, Richards, pp. 178-179

[5] Same source, p. 208

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