Law Divisions

Stanley Exercise 55  Read Exodus 22:16-31; Leviticus 19:1-37; Deuteronomy 24:1-22. As you read, make note of whether each law pertains to the social dimension, the ritual dimension, or the ethical dimension of the religious vision of the Torah. When you are done, look back over the list of laws in each category and summarize what is included under each heading.

In chapter 10 of his textbook The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach, Christopher Stanley outlines a system of analysis that categorizes religion and religious life in terms of six dimensions. In the exercise undertaken here (from chapter 22 of the same book) Stanley asks us to examine a selection of texts from each of the three major codes found in the Torah [the Covenant Code (Exodus 20-23); the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26); and the Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26)] and divide up each of the laws in terms of the social, ritual, or ethical dimension.

The first thing that strikes me here is that there are so many ways to divide up the laws! Stanley uses one set of categorizations (based upon work by Ninia Smart); Dr. Lester in his podcast series and Bandstra in his text (specifically chapters 3 and 5) use a different classification, with Bandstra going so far as to subdivide various verses from these codes based upon Document Hypothesis source! It is enough to make anyone’s head spin. But taking the exercise as written I have divided each of the commandments into the ritual, ethical, and social dimensions. These lists are included at the end of this post.

As I started dividing up the laws, I realized that each code contained elements of each of the three religious divisions. Furthermore, they do not seem to be in any particular order. For example, in the passage from Leviticus, vs.2 falls under the ethical category, vs.3 under social, vs.4-8 are ritual, vs.9-10 social, etc. There does not seem to be a predictable pattern. Perhaps there is some degree of organization (?are they alphabetized in the original language), but otherwise they seem to be all mixed in. If that is indeed the case, I can imagine the original recipients of the oral and written versions of these laws would likewise have struggled keeping them straight. Stanley does point out that it is unknown how widely these would have been known and followed at any given point (pg. 292), and I can only wonder if part of that is due to the non-sequitur nature of the individual laws within each code.

It was interesting to see how much of each law code is contained in each dimension. For instance, most of the laws in the Deuteronomic Code fall into the social dimension – not something I would expect from a law code surfacing during the Josianic reform. Of course, this is only a single chapter in an otherwise lengthy code, and to that end perhaps my initial observation about mixing the laws needs to be adjusted. But both of these observations illustrate a point that Bandstra makes regarding the purpose of the law: “All this technical, legal, and ritual material is embedded within historical narrative. Biblical law does not stand in isolation but is associated with the life story of Israel” (pg. 146). Clearly the ancient Israelites were not making these minute divisions, at least in terms of their written tradition. These laws were all part of how a society functions and they compliment each other to “offer a vision of what society ought to be like under the rule of Yahweh” (Stanley, pg. 292).

Finally, I went back to Dr. Lester’s Law Part A lecture where he described some of the features of the Covenant, Holiness, and Deuteronomic Codes. Interestingly, the three passages suggested for this exercise do not always embody these descriptions. The DC, for instance, is as a whole focused on the centralization of the cult and cultic activities, yet in this particular passage there is only a single ritual law (Deut 24:8). In this particular passage the majority of the focus is on the social realm, with much of the justification for the individual laws steeped in the ethical (Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this). Likewise the Holiness Code (Leviticus) contains a large selection of social rules, although this fits well with Dr. Lester’s description of laws intended to avoid polluting the land in which they dwell.

If I survey the categories one last time I realize that the vast majority of these laws fall into the social category. In fact, most of this has little to do with cultic or what we could consider religious practices; it is focused on how we treat each other and interact in society. This does not reduce the importance of the cultic practices, and certainly the other chapters in these codes provide much more ritual detail. But Yahweh’s laws are as much about how we live among our fellow humankind. The degree to which we can still apply the specifics of these laws to our own society is difficult to determine, as Dr. Anderson so succinctly explains in her video. But if we accept that these are God’s laws for God’s people, we have an idea of how God wants us to live: acting justly toward one another; not exploiting each other; taking care of those who are in need. These general principles can and continue to be applied across both cultural and generational divides.

Below are the 3 different dimensions.  Black font is from Exodus; red from Leviticus; Green from Deuteronomy.


20 Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.

29 You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.

31 You shall be people consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.

 Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.

When you offer a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, offer it in such a way that it is acceptable in your behalf. It shall be eaten on the same day you offer it, or on the next day; and anything left over until the third day shall be consumed in fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an abomination; it will not be acceptable. All who eat it shall be subject to punishment, because they have profaned what is holy to the Lord; and any such person shall be cut off from the people.

 21 but he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram as guilt offering. 22 And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of guilt offering before the Lord for his sin that he committed; and the sin he committed shall be forgiven him.

31 Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.

 Guard against an outbreak of a leprous skin disease by being very careful; you shall carefully observe whatever the levitical priests instruct you, just as I have commanded them.



28 You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people.

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy

12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

 17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.

18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

30 You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.

 32 You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old; and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. 37 You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them: I am the Lord.



16 When a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married, and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. 17 But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.

18 You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live.

19 Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.

21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

25 If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. 26 If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; 27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.

You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer[a] among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood[b] of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another

19 You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.

20 If a man has sexual relations with a woman who is a slave, designated for another man but not ransomed or given her freedom, an inquiry shall be held. They shall not be put to death, since she has not been freed;

23 When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden;[c] three years it shall be forbidden[d] to you, it must not be eaten. 24 In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the Lord. 25 But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you: I am the Lord your God.

26 You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice augury or witchcraft. 27 You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. 28 You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.

29 Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, that the land not become prostituted and full of depravity.

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

35 You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. 36 You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.

When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any related duty. He shall be free at home one year, to be happy with the wife whom he has married

No one shall take a mill or an upper millstone in pledge, for that would be taking a life in pledge.

If someone is caught kidnaping another Israelite, enslaving or selling the Israelite, then that kidnaper shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

10 When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. 11 You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. 12 If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as[b] the pledge. 13 You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God.

14 You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

16 Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.

17 You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. 18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

As faith recedes…

Trust. Which ancestral stories relate to the issue of trust in divine promises? List some specific episodes that stand out in your mind that have to do with issues of belief, trust, and faith. What developments can you trace in the growth and quality of the ancestors’ trust?


Deep in an Egyptian dungeon a handsome young, shirtless man in a loincloth laments his demise and worthlessness, yet expresses a profound faith and clings to an ancient familial promise: “children of Israel are never along; for we know we shall find our own piece of mind; for we have been promised a land of our own.” So sings Joseph in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rendering of the biblical tale. Interestingly, Joseph’s trust in God at this point in the musical seems quite extra-canonical. There is no account in Genesis 39-40 of Joseph expressing such trust in YHWH.

Why do I start with this example? Aside from the fact that Joseph is one of my favorite shows, I think it illustrates just the opposite of how I see the trust and faith of the ancestors building in the ancestral narrative in Genesis. As I read through the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cycles (and even into the story of Joseph), I actually see a decline in the faith and trust expressed in God and God’s divine promises.

Abraham is the prototypical example of faith in God, as witnessed first in Genesis 15:6 and repeatedly throughout Jewish and Christian history. As a “young” (75) man, Abram picks up his family and journeys across Mesopotamia from Haran to Canaan. He does so in response to a seemingly unforeseen promise by God to bless him and make a great nation out of his offspring. This covenant between God and Abram, reflecting some features of a Divine Charter, seems to come out of nowhere (although Ronald Hendel suggests that it was because Abram was already monotheistic in a polytheistic society). Nevertheless, without questioning and with what Bandstra calls an “eager but simple faith” (pg. 81), Abram takes his family on the long journey to Canaan (Genesis 12).

Numerous examples of Abraham’s faith abound within the Abraham Cycle. He is promised an heir, despite his and Sarah’s advanced age, and the Bible says he trusts God for it (Genesis 15:2-6); although the depth of his faith is called into question when he chooses to have a child with Hagar. He accepts, without question, the covenantal ritual of circumcision and in his advanced years circumcised himself! According to Bandstra, this rite perpetuates the covenant and, by its virtue, the faith that the Israelites must place in God’s hands (and presumably the hands of the mohel) for the future existence of the nation (pg. 88).

The most famous and profound test of Abraham’s faith is when he obeys the command to bind (or sacrifice) his beloved son Isaac (Gen. 22). Ellen Davis asserts that by doing so Abraham demonstrates his understanding that he is not in control of the covenantal relationship, but that he submits to the “sometimes inscrutable divine demand.” This demonstration of faith, while sometimes perplexing, is celebrated in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Abraham even anticipates the divine promise, namely that God will provide the lamb (Gen. 22:8), even though there is no evidence that this was ever to be the case.

Isaac continues to reap the benefit of the covenantal relationship between his father and God (26:3-5; 24), although there is no comparable explicit example of Isaac’s belief or trust in God. One may be able to speculate that it is implicit in chapter 22. There is no mention that Isaac resisted being bound and laid on the altar, and one could venture the interpretation that this indicates that he too trusted that God would provide an alternative; but this is purely speculative and there is no evidence to support or refute it. Perhaps the only outright example of Isaac’s trust in God is when he settles in Gerar despite famine instead of relocating his family in fertile Egypt (Gen 26).

Of the three main ancestral cycles, the third is the worst! Like his father, Jacob inherits the divine promises of prosperity and blessing (Gen. 28:13-15) but without ever demonstrating the degree of faithfulness and trust in God that Abraham modeled. In fact, Jacob deceives, negotiates, and even steals many of the blessings that he receives. We are aware of him holding his brother’s heal during birth; of the birthright-lentil soup trade; of the plot (with his mother) to trick his father into receiving Esau’s blessing. He even refused to release Elohim until he received a blessing. Bandstra points out that his name changes from “trickster” to “wrestles with God,” neither of which compliments his profound faith in God (pg. 103).

If I have not yet convinced you that the ancestors’ trust actually diminishes throughout subsequent generations, consider Jacob’s response after he witnesses the gateway to heaven and receives again the promise of divine blessing to him and his offspring.   He states “If Elohim stays with me, and protects me on this path I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return to my father’s house in shalom, then Yhwh shall be my Elohim” (28:20-21). Jacob’s trust in YHWH as his Elohim is conditional and dependent upon God’s actions first. While later chapters (36 and forward) describe a much more faithful Jacob, one cannot help but wonder if his faith would have even existed had he faced recurrent hardship or challenging tests like his grandfather.

So are these guys, celebrated throughout both Jewish and Christian scripture, really worthy of their stature as exemplars of faith? Was Abraham the only truly faithful follower of God, with Isaac and Jacob riding his coattails and reaping the benefits of an everlasting covenant? Alternatively, is it God who “seems to continue receding from personal contact” through subsequent generations (Bandstra, pg. 110)? Or, does the writer/redactor of the Pentateuch presuppose the faithfulness of the patriarchs, or even the readers’ perception of their faithfulness, without needing to continue to provide explicit examples? Much of this hinges on whether or not these events actually occurred historically. But regardless of their historicity, these stories form the foundation of a theology deeply steeped in everlasting Divine covenant that describes a faithful God who upholds the blessings of that covenant from generation to generation.

Who brings the coffee to that Council meeting?

I grew up going to church. I often joke that I was born on a Sunday morning, and that was the only time in the first 18 years of my life that I missed church (hospitalizations notwithstanding). But somehow in those early years the concept of the Divine Council never made its way into Sunday School lessons or VBS flannelgraphs. Even after my undergraduate Bible courses I still did not have a grasp on what it was (is?) and how it functioned in the literature of the ANE and specifically in the Bible. I chose this make to educate myself a bit further on the topic in hopes of better understanding the historical and theological contexts of the Hebrew Bible.

The Primeval Story of Genesis 1-11 makes three references to the Divine Council:

Gen 1:26 – And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”

Gen 3:22 – And the LORD God said, “now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”

Gen 11:7 – “Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”

From these three passages it is nearly impossible to determine who or what comprise the membership of the Divine Council, nor the specifics of role that this council plays either in heaven or on earth. There are some features that can be implied. First, the members of the Divine Council have the same likeness as God (1:26). My traditional understanding of this (and of the image thus imparted to humanity) was one of eternal and spiritual likeness (ie possessing an eternal soul). Barry Bandstra defines it as the “governing assembly of angelic beings that managed the world with God…the administrative council of heaven.” (Bandstra, pg 43)  He argues that contextual clues suggest that the likeness indicates a ruling function over the newly created earth as God’s agents and as in situ reminders of God’s rule (pg. 43-44). If this is the case, we can imply that the Divine Council has some sort of ruling or governing authority. However, this says nothing of their physical appearance, or even of their identity.

A second conclusion about the Divine Council, based upon Genesis 3:22, is that the members are both able to discern good from evil, and are immortal. This latter descriptor finds further evidence in numerous other texts from the Hebrew Bible. Job 38:7 indicates that the divine beings were present at the time of creation, and thus presumably before the creation of the world. Psalm 82:6-7 contrasts the sons of the Most High (understood as members of the Divine Council, cf. Ps. 82:1) with human beings in terms of their mortality. Men can die; divine beings cannot. However, this still does not inform us about the identity of the Divine Council.

If we accept Bandstra’s definition, these members are angelic beings – angels. There is biblical evidence for this, namely the description of the heavenly throne room provided in Isaiah 6. However, this surely cannot be considered a complete (or even necessarily accurate) description of the Divine Council. Paul Sumner provides an extensive list of the names of the council members (“mighty ones,” warriors, cherubim, messengers, etc), and subsequently categorizes them in terms of their relationship to YHWH (Sumner, pg 8-12). We do know from other biblical passages that there were at least some assigned roles in the Divine Council. The Adversary, for example, is specifically mentioned and plays a prominent role in the story of Job (chapters 1-2). The Jewish Study Bible describes him as a sort of “prosecuting attorney.” Joshua 5:13-15 introduces the reader to the captain of the Lord’s host or divine army (described in Joel 3:11-12). Presumably this is an angelic warrior member of the Divine Council.

From each of these and other descriptions it would seem that the members of the Divine Council are those heavenly hosts who function as consultants (Gen 1:26), worshippers (Job 38:7, Neh 9:6), messengers, and administrators (1 Kings 22:19-22). However, for a person living in the ancient Near East the concept of the Divine Council may have been understood differently, namely as the pantheon of the gods.

There is much support for this latter view, both from within and outside the Bible. Scholar Michael S. Heiser has published extensively on the topic, and the articles found on his website ( have been instrumental in locating these texts and understanding this philosophy. According to Heiser the Divine Council is comprised of many lesser gods (elohim, which can be both plural and singular), and other heavenly beings. Yahweh presides over this council as the supreme God among the pantheon of gods. Support for this is found in several biblical texts. In Deuteronomy 32:8-9 the various nations are distributed by the Most High (Yahweh) to the various other gods; Yahweh keeps Israel for himself. Psalm 89:5-8 indicates that Yahweh is “feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him,” and Psalm 29:1-2 similarly illustrates the superiority of Yahweh over the other gods (heavenly beings). To quote Christopher Rollston, “Yahweh is the supreme head of the pantheon, and no divine being is considered his equal“ (pg. 107). To the reader/hearer in the ancient Near East, this arrangement would not be unfamiliar as many other regional religions had similar features.

So how are we to understand this Council and its role? I envision it as a royal court, with Yahweh as the Divine monarch, and the other members, some perhaps with royalty claims and others simply as servants in the court, as Yahweh’s advisors, counselors, and messengers. This may not be entirely accurate, at least from the perspective of the Torah’s writer(s), but there are immense similarities between the two institutions.

I do not know that having a better understanding of this Divine Council much changes my understanding of the Primeval Story. There is Yahweh calling the shots (literally) and creation coming into being. There is a distinction between the immortal heavenly beings – whether other gods, angels, or other creatures – and the earthly human beings, and the tension that develops when the latter try to become like the former. (It certainly sets up an amazing epic to follow – Dr. Junior was right!) Whether these other members of the Divine Council are deities or not does not change my understanding of God creating in community a world that is supposedly perfect and, at least in some ways, reflects the divine community.


Bandstra, B. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.

Heiser, MS. (specifically “The Divine Council and Biblical Theology,” “Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and the Divine Council Worldview of the Old Testament,” “Elohim in the Hebrew Bible,” “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” “The Divine Council and Israel’s Godhead”).

Rollston, C. The Rise of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence. 2003. Stone-Campbell Journal: 95-115

Sumner, PB. The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible. 2013. (accessed via

Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation. Oxford University Press.

Pre-redaction Tamar

The stories found in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were compiled from a variety of sources by the so-called Deuteronomic Historian.  It is possible that the original version of each of the stories had alternative endings, differing perspectives, or a completely different narration of the events.  However, the DH edited them in such a way as to form a cohesive and consistent theology.

One particular feature of the Deuteronomic History is the incorporation of the Judean Royal Theology into the fabric of the historical narrative.  According to Dr. Lester, a key feature of this theology is the establishment of a royal family (David’s) and a royal city (Jerusalem).  YHWH established an everlasting covenant with the house of David, but David’s sin with Bathsheba set in motion a generational punishment within his family (Bandstra, 257; Stanley, 105; 2 Sam. 12: 10-12). David’s family will continue to reign, but the succession will not be a peaceful passing of the royal scepter.

David’s son Amnon, first in line to the throne, raped his sister and was ultimately killed by his brother.  The final edit in the bible reflects the themes and theology of the DH.  However, it is possible that an original narrative may have contained more nuance than the Biblical version.  Below is a fictionalized sample of what the original story of the rape of Tamar may have looked like.  Much of the ideas for this came from Deborah Rooke’s article “The Woman-Adulterer Motif” (link from OOTLE16 website).  Italicized words are those “redacted” by the final Deuteronomic editor.

2Sam 13:A-33a

YHWH said to David, “Because you have committed this sin with another man’s wife, the punishment will be visited upon subsequent generations.  And know this, your household shall not know peace, for you have disobeyed the LORD your God.”

Some time passed. David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her.  Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her.  But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man.   He said to him, “O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?” Amnon said to him, “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.”   Jonadab said to him, “Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.’  Then you may take her and lie with her as you desire, that your needs may be fulfilled and your heart will no longer be filled with lust.  But do this in secret that your sins will not be made known throughout the land.  For the sins of your father’s house shall not be brought to light.”   So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, “Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.”

Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, “Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him.”  So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes.   Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, “Send out everyone from me.” So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand.” So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother.   But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.”   She answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile!   As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.”   But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.

Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, “Get out!” But she said to him, “No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her.   He called the young man who served him and said, “Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her.”  (Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.) So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her.  But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went.  Those who heard her wailing inquired of her grief.  But she would not answer them, for her shame was very great.

Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has Amnon your brother been with you?” She answered, “Yes, my lord, and I am now great with his child.  Oh that the LORD should enact this evil upon me.”  But Absalom answered her saying, “Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.” So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house.  And when the time came for her to deliver, she bore a son to Amnon her brother.  And she called his name ילד של תשוקה, which means child of lust, for he had been conceived out of the lust of her brother.  When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Tamar and her child he put out of his house, for she had brought shame to the house of David.  And in their isolation the child grew ill and died, but David did not weep for the son of Tamar.  After this, Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar. From that time forward he sought an opportunity to enact revenge on behalf of Tamar.  

After two full years Absalom had sheepshearers at Baal-hazor, which is near Ephraim, and Absalom invited all the king’s sons.  Absalom came to the king, and said, “Your servant has sheepshearers; will the king and his servants please go with your servant?”   But the king said to Absalom, “No, my son, let us not all go, or else we will be burdensome to you.” He pressed him, but he would not go but gave him his blessing. Then Absalom said, “If not, please let my brother Amnon go with us.” The king said to him, “Why should he go with you?” But Absalom pressed him until he let Amnon and all the king’s sons go with him. Absalom made a feast like a king’s feast.  And Absalom had made arrangements with his sister Tamar that she should dance before her brother Amnon as he feasted and made merry.  But Amnon did not recognize Tamar, for she had suffered greatly because of his evil deeds.  Then Absalom commanded his servants, “Watch when Amnon’s heart is merry with wine, and when I say to you, ‘Strike Amnon,’ then kill him. Do not be afraid; have I not myself commanded you? Be courageous and valiant.” But his servants replied, “Be it not so, our lord, for we shall not strike dead the king’s firstborn.”  So Absalom arose and struck Amnon in the sight of his brothers and his sister Tamar, that all may know that she had been avenged.  [So the servants of Absalom did to Amnon as Absalom had commanded.] Then all the king’s sons rose, and each mounted his mule and fled.

While they were on the way, the report came to David that Absalom had killed all the king’s sons, and not one of them was left. The king rose, tore his garments, and lay on the ground; and all his servants who were standing by tore their garments.  At that time he remembered his daughter Tamar and her son, and was filled with remorse, for he had acted harsly toward them; he also knew that the child could have been his heir.  And David lamented saying, “Oh that my seed should be removed from the face of the earth!”  But Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah, said, “Let not my lord suppose that they have killed all the young men the king’s sons; Amnon alone is dead. This has been determined by Absalom from the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar. Now therefore, do not let my lord the king take it to heart, as if all the king’s sons were dead; for Amnon alone is dead, and by this his sin is removed from all the land.&  David remembered the words of YHWH, that the sin that he had committed with Bathsheba, the wife of Urriah the Hittite would be visited upon the second and third generation.  And David thought no more of his daughter Tamar, even to the end of his days.  

It’s starting to come full circle!

Several weeks ago we started this course by examining the Writings, including examples from the wisdom literature. As we more closely study the Deuteronomistic narrative and theology we are better able to appreciate the context and content for much of the Wisdom writings, particularly that categorized as conventional wisdom. A very simple rendering of this theology follows a very basic pattern: follow YHWH → reap blessings; stray from YHWH → suffer consequences. These blessings and consequences were seen not only personally, but primarily on a large scale sociopolitical level.

Deuteronomy 28:1-68  This chapter, like the theological tradition to which it belongs, outlines the dichotomous possibilities for Israel based upon their response to YHWH’s commandments. It all hinges on whether or not they “obey and faithfully observe the commandments of the LORD…and do not…worship other gods” (vs 13-14).

Blessings shall be showered upon the people, their land, their livestock, and their habitation (vs 3-6); as a nation they will be prosperous and autonomous (vs 11-13).


Curses shall be enacted upon the people, their land, their livestock, and their habitation (vs 16-19); they will be subject to disease, plagues, hunger, death, pillage, destruction, and exile (vs 20-36; 59-63). Furthermore, as a result of this destitution there will be a total destruction of the normal social order as the people themselves turn on each other, forsake the needs of their families, and even resort to cannibalism (vs 52-57). Even worse, those who survive to be dispersed will live forever in terror, despondency, and without worth (vs 65-68).

I am intrigued by the relatively brief description of benefits. Essentially Moses is saying, “you will be prosperous if you follow YHWH.” I suppose for a people who have spent four decades wandering around the wilderness it wouldn’t take much beyond the promise of prosperity to motivate them. By contrast, the curses are graphically described at length (over half the chapter). Again, the people may be tempted to think, “how much worse could things get?” By this account…much worse! [It reminds me of television commercials for medicines: the simple depiction of happy people living happy lives while the long list of terrible side effects scrolls across the screen or is read by an auctioneer]. Of course, if Deuteronomy was indeed written around the time or shortly after the destruction of the northern kingdom (Bandstra 182/3), then perhaps the blessings were a distant memory and the curses all too real in the mind(s) of the author(s).

Joshua 23:1-16  Joshua reminds Israel that they have prospered, conquered many nations, and become the fear of those nations because they have obeyed YHWH’s commands (vs 1-10, with verse 8 affirming their adherence to the YHWH). YHWH has been on their side throughout these events, faithfully fighting for them because of their devotion. However, they are warned that YHWH can just as easily withdraw His support if they turn away, disobey His commands, and serve other gods (vs 12-16). Their success is covenantially linked to their theological ethic.

1 Samuel 12:1-25  This is the inauguration of the monarchy. Samuel describes the history of the people in terms of the Deuteronomic theme (sin, punishment, repentance, deliverance) and even places them in the context of it during the inauguration. He insists that their request for a king was a wicked thing and as a result YHWH sent thunder and rains (which during harvest time was both rare and would harm the crop (Jewish Study Bible liner notes)) as punishment. The people respond by acknowledging their sins, although not overtly repenting. The passage concludes with the exhortation to revere and faithfully serve YHWH, for failure to do so would result in “both you and your king [being] swept away” (vs 25).

2 Kings 17:5-18  The northern kingdom of Israel is overtaken by Assyria and its inhabitants deported. “This happened because the Israelites sinned against the LORD their God” (vs 7). They worshipped other gods and syncretistically incorporated other customs into their YHWH worship. They were given adequate warning by the prophets and seers and yet still “stiffened their neck” and did this evil thing. It is very clear in this passage that it is the people themselves, and not their leaders per se who are responsible for this punishment. The sin of the people led to the destruction of the nation.

 2 Chronicles 36:11-21  In contrast to the Deuteronomist’s description of the fall of the northern kingdom as a result of the people’s sin, the Chronicler attributes the fall of Judah to the sin of both the people and their king (Zedekiah). Like their northern counterparts over a century earlier, the people of Judah failed to heed the words of the prophets calling them to repentance. (vs 12, 15-16 Their worship of YHWH was also syncretistic, and desecrated the temple. For their sin they were awarded destruction and exile. Fascinatingly, the corresponding narrative in Kings assigns no culpability to the people, instead placing the entire responsibility upon the kings themselves, particularly Manasseh and Zedekiah.


The message in all of these passages is consistent and very clear: failure to follow YHWH results in destruction (the converse is also stated but much more attention is given to the negative consequences). Is it credible? Perhaps. There is obvious correlation between Israel’s unfaithfulness to YHWH and their destruction and dispersion.   Certainly correlation does not equal causation, and concluding that one led to the other cannot be definitive. However, for the Jews living in exile, and in particular those who composed and edited the books of the Deuteronomic history, this was a reality, or at least a way to make sense of their sufferings (Stanley, pg 258).

These are not the only examples of such theology in the Bible. As I mentioned at the outset, examples from the Writings, particularly those found in Proverbs, follow the same formula. I will not here speculate on the apparent coincidence of a character from the Deuteronomistic history possessing a wisdom ethic in line with that theology. Although not in the Hebrew Bible, passages like John 3:36 and 1 John 5:12 share similar dualistic language.

One of the challenges of reading ancient texts as our sacred scripture is finding if and how they apply to modern life and thinking. Do we see examples of this today? Some would say we do. There are those that argue that our national American heritage was a result of a Judeo-Christian grounding, and that the increasing liberalization and de-moralization of our society will lead (or is leading) to our national demise. For them, these passages will certainly resound. It has even been argued that the ongoing threat to the state of Israel and continued persecution of the Jews is the result of their ancestors’ sin (“you will find no peace” Deut. 28:65).

Finally, is the Deuteronomic theology moral? Talk about developing a tautology! The word moral is defined as being concerned with the goodness/badness of human character and right or wrong behavior. By that definition, this theology is moral; or at the very least it is a moral code.  Let’s put it another way: Was it wrong for a group of people to recount history in a manner that emphasized devotion to YHWH? If the intent was self-serving in terms of personal interests or placed unneeded blame on the people for their demise when the leadership was responsible for bad judgment (which is also a feature of this literature), then perhaps this can be seen as immoral. But then again, my understanding of morality is firmly grounded in the very history I am asked to assess.

If it was immoral, then we are left to conclude that either the writers were wrong, our understanding of morality is wrong, YHWH is wrong, or YHWH had nothing to do with any of it.  The implications, though, are serious.  This is very much the core if Israel’s history, and if this core is immoral (again, by what standards as this is essentially developing a moral standard), then the very foundation of Judaism (and consequently Christianity and Islam) is a sham.  If that’s the case, I just wasted about 6 hours!

Isaiah’s Servant…for the teenage soul


For over a decade I have been involved in youth ministry, including a three-year stint as confirmation teacher. For this week’s assignment, I tasked myself with drafting a letter to explain the concept of Isaiah’s Servant to a group of teenagers.


Hey Gang!

This week is Holy Week in our church calendar, and as part of our observances we will no doubt talk about Jesus as the Suffering Servant. You have probably heard that phrase before, and you may even have some understanding of what it means to us as Christians. But I bet most of you don’t know where it comes from. Allow me to explain…

The idea comes from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a book written several hundred years before Jesus was born. The book of Isaiah can actually be divided into three parts, each of which were probably written by a different prophet during three very different periods of Israel’s history. You may remember that we talked about the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah and how they were conquered by other nations. Well, during the time that Babylon (remember Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar?) took over Judah, the middle part of the book of Isaiah was written, and it contained these passages about the Servant of YHWH. If you want to look them up you can find them here: 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12.

What do we know about this Servant? For starters, the Servant was chosen by God before he was even born, filled with God’s Spirit, and called to bring justice to the other nations. His ways are gentle and set an example for the nations on how justice should be carried out. God has given him the right words to say so that he can be a light to those nations, and to spread God’s salvation throughout the world. But this will not come easily. According to Isaiah, the Servant will be punished, attacked (physically and verbally), disfigured, and humiliated. It will be so bad that he won’t even be recognizable anymore! But amazingly, he will stand steadfast in spite of this. He will suffer in silence, and simply go along with it. And the kicker…he doesn’t deserve any of it! He will be punished because of others’ wrongdoing. He’s the scapegoat.

Now at this point you must be wondering why! Why wouldn’t he fight back? Why would he let someone else do this to him? What is the point of a Servant (and a Suffering Servant at that) anyway? Or maybe more importantly, why was this written in the first place?

To answer these questions and understand this passage better we have to look at when it was written. Most of the time, Christians interpret this Suffering Servant description as a prophecy or foreshadowing of Jesus. But that is not how a Jewish person living in the mid 500s BCE would understand these words (just like we would not read our newspapers and books or watch a television show and think it was predicting events several hundred years in the future). Isaiah’s audience would hear or read his words and recognize it as a metaphor for their own time. Remember, these were the Jewish people who had been deported from their homeland and were living in Babylon. They were trying to understand and make sense of their situation: they believed they were God’s chosen people and yet were now captive in a strange land. They knew that they had initially been conquered because they were unfaithful to God; other prophets had warned of this. But the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was enough…this long-held captivity in Babylon went beyond what they believed the punishment should be, and so it must have some additional purpose. The debt (for their sins) had been paid, and continued to be overpaid by the ongoing captivity.

Whoa, whoa.  Have I forgotten all about the Servant?  Well, no.  In the earlier chapters (42 and 49), the Servant is actually identified as the nation of Israel, and many prominent Jewish scholars, both historical and contemporary, understand this to be the correct interpretation. This certainly makes sense. Israel was a gentle nation (small compared to its neighbors), chosen by God, filled with God’s Spirit, and called to be a light to the rest of the world. The laws of Israel were intended to promote justice and peace. Sound familiar? But, like the Suffering Servant, they were beat up: their nation was divided beyond recognition; Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple in ruin; they were humiliated and led off into captivity. The story of the Servant parallels and story of Israel. Coincidence?

Now let’s bring it all together by looking at 53:11-12. “My righteous servant makes the many righteous…I will give him the many as his portion…he bore the guilt of many and made intercession for sinners.” By suffering for so long and overpaying the debt, the nation of Israel would someday be fully restored, glorified among other nations, and show the entire world God’s plan of salvation.  They had become the scapegoat!  They took the punishment so that someone else would benefit.  How?  The other nations would see the Jewish people, even in their lowest moments, still clinging to their god Yahweh.  That faithfulness in spite of tragedy may have looked foolish to some, but to others was the evidence they needed that Yahweh, the God of Israel was the true God.

It is important to remember that this is only one interpretation of these passages in Isaiah. Other Jewish and Christian scholars believe that the Servant represents only a select few very holy members of the captive Jews who had remained faithful to Yahweh in spite of great suffering. Still others believed it referred to a specific prophet, such as Moses, Jeremiah, or some other Jewish leader during the captivity. There is even a group of Jewish scholars who believe that the Servant does indeed describe the Messiah, although what exactly that means to them (both then and now) is much different than our Christian understanding. The point is, the Servant (whether the nation Israel, a group of holy men, or an individual) would be chosen by God to show the way of God’s salvation to the entire world. For a group of people living as hostages in a foreign land, this must have provided hope and a sense of excitement.

I don’t want you to think that the Suffering Servant does not at all refer to Jesus. After all, in our own Christian tradition this has been the understanding since the earliest apostles were preaching (think of the story of Phillip with the eunuch). But remember that these words, written centuries before Jesus lived, had a different meaning to the people who first heard them, and it is important to study and understand that meaning in order to fully appreciate the scripture, how it came into our own tradition, and what it means for our lives.

If you want to read more, check out these resources below. I have highlighted the important pages for you so you can jump right in and read.

Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008. (pages 350-351)

The Jewish Study Bible (Tanakh Translation). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004. (pages 867-892 – read the liner notes as well as the bible text)

Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009. (pages 460-464)

Singer, Tovia. Who is God’s Suffering Servant? The Rabbinic Interpretation of Isaiah 53.

I also listened to a podcast (Responses to Exile, part B in the Introducing the Tanak series found on Youtube…most useful between minutes 10 and 20).

Ricoeur revisited in Rollston

DISCLAIMER: Christopher Rollston is much smarter, better educated, and probably better looking than I am. My knowledge of Hebrew scripture and ancient near East religions pales in comparison to his. My assessment of his article will reflect this, but is nevertheless my own understanding and interpretation at my current level of biblical education. I must start somewhere!


Christopher Rollston’s article “The Rise of Monotheism in Ancient Israel” provides the reader and scholar with the intriguing argument that the ancient Israelite religion did not embrace monotheism from the beginning, and indeed only fully adopted this belief in the late 7th century BCE. For this orthodox evangelical (perhaps an oxymoron in itself), the article was both insightful and challenging. In my reading (and re-readings) I have asked myself two major questions: 1) does Rollston provide definitive evidence of his argument? 2) does Rollston provide compelling evidence to support his argument. The answers to these two questions have helped me understand the point of the article, better understand the sociological development of Israelite religion, and informed my readings of the prophets.

The answer to my first question is no. Although his argument and reasoning are compelling (more on that below), Rollston fails to produce conclusive evidence that the Israelite religion did not emerge monotheistic, but instead evolved into it over a period of several centuries. For instance, he does not quote any statement from biblical or epigraphic sources that confirms his hypothesis of the early Israelite belief that Yahweh was one of several deities. In fact, his methodological statement (“inductive analysis”, pg 96) affirms this lack of certainty and by definition acknowledges the logical limitations of this kind of reasoning. [Although truth be told…his reasoning is as much deductive as it is inductive]. In fairness, I am not aware of a biblical passage that definitively supports a counter-claim that the Israelite religion was de novo monotheistic. So there is room for doubt on both sides.

This brings me to my second question: does Rollston provide compelling evidence for his conclusion? I think he does. By starting with the premise that Israel did not exist in isolation, but “was within a polytheistic cultural context [and] had substantial contact with these cultures,” (pg. 98) he identifies many of the cultural similarities between ancient Israel and the surrounding nations, including some of the cultic practices. He linguistically dissects several scripture passages, (in particular those referring to “sons of the god”) to suggest a divine council similar to that encountered in neighboring religions, with the eventual emergence of Yahweh as head of the pantheon (pgs. 102-106). Finally, by tracing the anthropologic development of religious practice, including that related to possible Asherah worship and cross-cultural syncretism evidenced in both First and Second Temple literature, he plausibly identifies the evolution of religious belief based upon descriptions of the cultic acts.

Interestingly, Rollston’s conclusions are almost solely based upon inductive and deductive analysis of biblical and epigraphic passages, as well as cross-cultural studies of the ancient near Eastern religious practices. There is only minimal appeal to archaeological evidence in his argument (pg. 108). A comparison of artifacts and remnants from early and later Israelite worship sites demonstrating substantial differences and a shift from veneration of multiple deities to one would provide strong evidence in favor of his hypothesis. (An example of this is found on the Biblical Archaeology Society website: Pagan Yahwism).

Let’s suppose that Rollston’s compelling argument is accurate and Israel really did emerge as a monotheistic religion after years (centuries?) of polytheism with a Yahwistic focus. How could this historical understanding get lost? How did Jewish and Christian history come to believe in solely monotheistic culture and practice?

Many societies could and did (and still do) suppress unpopular or unwanted perspectives and philosophies. The rise of monotheism in ancient Israel seems to correspond in part with the deuteronomic reforms of Josiah (Bandstra pg. 326). It seems likely that the prevailing covenantal/Mosaic theology may have supplanted other practices or even references to those practices in favor of the king’s religious decrees. History can literally be rewritten by revisionist scribes and editors, and Rollston gives several examples of this practice in relation to the passages he cites (pg. 104-106). In this way the world behind the biblical narrative may not be reflected in the biblical narrative itself.

At the conclusion of his article, Rollston attempts to appeal to those who may struggle with his conclusions in light of their traditional understanding of the Bible. Although I, myself, did not reject this paper after my initial reading, I did find it left me with many new questions with which to grapple. On subsequent re-readings I have come to embrace Rollston’s arguments as valid even if they are subject to critique. Certainly it has affected the way I read Jeremiah and Ezekiel in this week’s study of the exilic prophets.   Space and time prohibit a full exploration of that here, but I will admit that the Rollston article has provided much of the critical distance needed to move me from my first to second naiveté as I examine the role that these prophets played in Israel’s history. Were their calls for reform and repentance intended to take Israel back to their monotheistic roots or move them into a new understanding of Yahweh as their sole deity?