May 6: 1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

1 Kings 18:12ff; 22:10-28

The main occurrences of the word j^Wr in the book of Kings (1-2 Kings) are found in the Elijah narratives, and the usage of the word here is quite illuminating. It is related to the idea, discussed already in several prior notes, of prophetic inspiration—of the spirit (j^Wr) of YHWH coming upon (or “rushing” to) a person, manifesting itself in a kind of dramatic (and ecstatic) prophetic experience. If Moses was the principal figure for the earliest mode of prophecy in Israel, Elijah serves much the same role in a later line of tradition during the Kingdom period. The main difference in the Elijah narratives, however, is that there is now a strong sense of conflict between the true prophet (Elijah, Micaiah) and the older tradition of spirit-enthused prophetic ecstasy.

1 Kings 18:12ff

The narrative in chapter 18 has, at its heart, the contest between Elijah and the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) of Ba’al and Asherah. This, of course, reflects the marked tendency of religious syncretism in Israel, whereby Canaanite religious traditions and practices where blended together with those devoted exclusively to El-Yahweh, to the point that Yahwism could become displaced in importance within the culture. Such tendencies had been present for centuries, practically from the first Israelite settlement of Canaan, but increased dramatically under the influence of certain royal houses and their administrations. This began with Solomon, but reached its pinnacle, it would seem, with the Northern court of Ahab and Jezebel, the principal setting of the Elijah narratives.

Almost in passing, within this narrative, there is an interesting notice at verse 12, involving the encounter between Elijah and the royal messenger Obadiah. Elijah instructs him to return to Ahab and announce “See! Elijah (is here)!” (v. 8). Obadiah is frightened at how Ahab may react to this. The king had been searching for Elijah, without success; and, if he is now told “Elijah is here”, and then comes and does not find the prophet, then the messenger giving this report will suffer for it. The rather superstitious and fearful mindset of Obadiah is reflected in the concern he expresses in verse 12:

“And it will be (that), (as) I go (away) from you, and (then the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH carries you upon [i.e. to] (a place) which I do not know, and I come to make (this known) before Ah’ab, and he does not find you, then he will slay me…”

Here the fundamental meaning of j^Wr as “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing) is clear. The idea is that, as a divinely-inspired prophet, around whom supernatural events and phenomena can occur, Elijah might suddenly (and/or miraculously) be taken away to another place by the “wind” of God. Indeed, this very thing was essentially described in the famous departure (or ‘ascension’) of Elijah in 2 Kings 2:11-12, though depicted more colorfully through the image of a ‘fiery chariot’ carried up by a powerful storm-wind (hr*u*s=). In this scene, the idea of the j^Wr of God is expressed through the imagery of Storm-theophany (i.e. God manifest in the storm), frequently applied to YHWH in the Old Testament. Such an identification is made in verse 16, when Elisha (now possessing the prophetic spirit that had been on Elijah) encounters the “sons of the prophets” (essentially a group of prophets-in-training) at Jericho. One of these young prophets, interested in searching for Elijah, suggests that the “spirit/wind [j^Wr] of YHWH” may have carried him off to another location (cp. Acts 8:39), echoing the earlier language of Obadiah.

Even though Elijah—and, after him, Elisha—clearly possesses the prophetic spirit (j^Wr) from YHWH (2:9, 15), these narratives tend to avoid the older manner of expression, in their referring to the spirit of YHWH coming/rushing upon the prophet. Instead, where this idea occurs in Kings, the preferred expression is “the hand of YHWH”. Like the spirit rushing upon the Judges (on this, cf. the earlier note), etc, the “hand” of YHWH brings special inspiration (3:15) or supernatural ability to the person. So it was for Elijah, in the episode following the contest with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18—the “hand” of God gives him special ability to run (v. 46), further proof of his status a true inspired prophet (in contrast to the false prophets of Baal).

1 Kings 22:10-28

A similar sort of prophetic contest/conflict is narrated in chapter 22. The situation is comparable, though instead of 450 / 400 prophets of Baal / Asherah, we now have 400 prophets of YHWH who belong to Ahab (i.e. attached to the royal court), vv. 6ff. We might be inclined to read this in light of the chap. 18 narrative, which recorded that the prophets of Baal/Asherah were put to death (v. 40); however, given the syncretistic tendencies at the royal court, there is no reason why the king might not employ prophets of YHWH in addition to those of Baal. Perhaps implicit in the chap. 22 narrative is the idea that there is little difference between these court-prophets—whether of Baal or YHWH—as they function the same way, and are generally branded by the author (and the underlying prophetic tradition) as false prophets.

On the surface, these 400 men function very much in the manner of prophets and diviners throughout the ancient Near East—including those in Israel. It was common practice for kings to consult such (apparently gifted) men, especially when they were about to make an important decision, such as going to war. It was important to ascertain the will of God (or the gods) in this regard—i.e., what the result would be, and whether one ought to take a particular action. There had been a longstanding tradition of priestly divination in Israel, especially involving the “urim and thummim”, stones used to obtain a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to questions. The prophets of Ahab in chapter 22 apparently utilize similar kinds of instrumental means for divination, in addition to oracular responses obtained during moments of prophetic ecstasy.

In verse 10, we read how the kings of Israel and Judah (Ahab and Jehoshaphat), together consult the group of prophets on the question of whether to engage in battle with the kingdom of Aram-Damascus at Ramoth-gilead. They meet at the threshing-floor (/r#G)) outside the city, the open area best suited for public gatherings. Here the prophets (<ya!yb!n+) are all “acting like a ayb!n`” . This denominative verb (ab*n`), in the reflexive hithpael stem, was discussed in the earlier notes (on Num 11:13-30 and 1 Sam 10:5-11; 18:10; 19:20-21ff). It seems to connote specifically an ecstatic manner of prophetic experience, brought about by the presence and activity of the divine spirit, and marked by unusual behavior. In the earlier lines of tradition (in Numbers and Samuel), this was an entirely valid expression of the prophetic gift, however strange and disturbing it may seem to us today.

In the book of Kings, by contrast—and especially here in the Elijah narratives—such ecstatic modes of prophecy are very much devalued, due in large part, I am sure, to the continued reliance upon them, in a superficial manner, among all these many prophets attached to the royal court (of Ahab, etc). Since such court-officials were expected to give the response that the king wanted to hear, all of the supposedly spirit-inspired phenomena had become largely a matter of show, lacking the substance of true prophecy. It is no coincidence that the verb ab*n` occurs in the books of Kings only in the narratives of chapter 18 (v. 29) and 22 (vv. 8, 10, 12, 18), referring essentially to the false prophets (of Baal and YHWH). While the true prophet of YHWH in chapter 18 was Elijah, here it is Micaiah, unique among the prophets because he typically does not tell the king what he wishes to hear (v. 8).

There is an important parallel involving the vision Micaiah narrates as part of his prophetic response to the king (vv. 19-23):

    • a heavenly being from YHWH’s court volunteers to be sent as a lying/deceitful spirit [j^Wr] from YHWH (vv. 21-23), to deceive Ahab and cause him to go out to battle (where he will be killed)
    • the 400 prophets who tell Ahab it is God’s will for him to go to battle, and that he will be victorious, similarly act as a ‘lying spirit’, speaking falsely (as prophets) on YHWH’s behalf (v. 24)

Zedekiah represents these 400 prophets, and confronts Micaiah regarding his contrary response, striking him as an insult, along with the following words:

“Where (did) this (happen), (that the) spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH crossed over from me to speak to you?” (v. 24)

The implication is, that if Zedekiah had spoken under inspiration by the spirit of God, and Micaiah gave a contrary response, then Micaiah could not possibly have been inspired by God as Zedekiah was—i.e., Micaiah is a false prophet. The narrative, of course, shows the situation to be exactly the opposite—Micaiah’s prophecy is true, while that of Zedekiah (and the other 400) is false, their apparent ecstatic manifestations of the spirit notwithstanding. The emphasis is on the substance and result of the prophecy, not the various phenomena that accompany it (vv. 25, 28)—a point fully in accord with the Deuteronomic principle for the testing/confirmation of true prophecy (Deut 18:21-22). The prophets of the 8th/7th centuries, whose oracles and activity received written form, attest a similar caution regarding prophecy apparently uttered under ecstatic inspiration from the divine spirit (Hos 9:7; Mic 2:11; cf. also Jer 5:13), and likewise tend to avoid use of the verb ab*n` (cf. above), though the verb does reappear with some frequency in the later prophets of the 6th/5th century (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah).

May 4: 1 Samuel 16:13-15 etc (continued)

1 Samuel 16:13-15

In the previous note, we considered the role of the spirit (j^Wr) of God in determining and guiding political leadership in ancient Israel. In the case of the Judges, this involved primarily military leadership in times of warfare and national crisis. Previously this was also true of Joshua, though the Scriptures also mention the wisdom he possessed due to the presence/activity of the divine spirit. With the Judges, as also Saul and David in the book of Samuel, the spirit of God is said to “rush” (vb jl^x*) upon them, indicating a rather violent sort of experience. This was fitting for the inspiration of prophetic ecstasy as well as for the strength and aggression needed for military action.

Overall, these traditions suggest a concept of charismatic leadership, understood as being the product of possession by a divine spirit. In the ancient world, gifted individuals were seen as possessing such a spirit; the word genius in English preserves a vestige of this original meaning. The signs of such giftedness could be superficial, drawing on certain aspects of personal appearance, as well as based on the obvious markers of natural ability and skill, physical strength, etc. For example, Saul possessed these natural signs (1 Sam 9:2), making him a clear candidate for leadership. David in his own way had these same attributes (of beauty, strength, skill, etc)—cf. 16:18; 17:1-18:8—though the narrative in Samuel also makes certain efforts to downplay this, as a way of emphasizing the unique choice of David by YHWH (16:6-7, etc). An important detail in the narrative is David’s musical ability, in addition to all the other factors (16:16-18, 23), which serves as a clear contrast to Saul’s deteriorating condition.

Once God’s spirit “rushes” to David (16:13), it is clear that Saul can no longer serve in this role as leader, according to the ancient principles of charismatic leadership. In the very next verse we read:

“And (the) spirit of YHWH turned (away) from (being) with Ša’ûl, and an evil [hu*r*] spirit from YHWH terrorized him.” (v. 14)

While God’s rejection of Saul is explained, to some extent, in chapter 15, according to the prophetic viewpoint of the author, it scarcely suffices as an explanation for the phenomenon narrated here. It is difficult for modern-day readers to understand the ancient worldview, with regard to the cause-and-effect of certain psychological and physiological conditions. To begin with, the idea of an “evil spirit” (hu*r* j^Wr) does not necessarily imply the kind of malevolent personal power we often associate with the term. Rather, it is “evil” (ur^) in the sense that it is the cause of something bad—such as illness, incapacity, or any manner of misfortune. In the ancient Near East, virtually any physical or mental illness was seen as caused by the activity/influence of a deity or spirit. This same worldview existed among the Israelites, and is clearly reflected in numerous passages throughout the Old Testament. However, from the standpoint of Israelite monotheism, all such divine activity was under YHWH’s control, and the spirits causing disease and death were sent by Him. That is why the text can state that the evil spirit comes from YHWH—just as He sends out a lying/deceitful spirit in 1 Kings 22:22-23. It is only much later that a more dualistic worldview developed, whereby the the spirits/powers causing evil were seen as operated separately from God (and opposed to him).

It is clear from the narrative that Saul is struck by a certain kind of illness—we would probably refer to it as a mental or psychological disorder (such as schizophrenia)—marked by paranoia, outbursts of anger and violence, etc. This serves as the basis for the conflict that arises between Saul and David. At first, the king is soothed and helped by David, through his musical ability (16:16, 23). This is described, from the ancient viewpoint, in terms of the evil spirit “turning away” (rWs, the same verb used in v. 14) and leaving Saul:

“And it was (that), in (the) (evil) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mightiest coming [i.e. when it came] to Ša’ûl, and Dawîd took the harp and made music (on it) with his hand, (then) there was spirit/breath [jw~r*] (again) for Ša’ûl, and (all was) good with him, and (the) evil spirit turned (away) from (being) upon him.” (v. 23)

The relationship between the noun j^Wr (“breath, spirit”) and the related verb jw~r* (“breathe”) here is hard to convey in English translation. It is a reminder that the fundamental meaning of the root jwr is not “spirit”, but “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing).

1 Samuel 18:10-11; 19:9-10

This same scenario is described again in 19:9-10, but this time David’s playing, apparently, is not enough to ease Saul’s illness. Things had deteriorated for Saul, and the king lashes out at David with violence:

“And the evil spirit of YHWH came to be to [i.e. upon] Ša’ûl, and he was sitting in his house and his spear (was) in his hand, and Dawîd was making music (on the harp) with his hand. And Ša’ûl sought to strike at Dawîd with the spear [and in(to) the wall], but Dawîd got through (away) from (the) face [i.e. presence] of Ša’ûl, and the spear struck in(to) the wall, and Dawîd fled and made (his) escape on that night.”

There is a doublet (a second version) of this tradition in 18:10-11, part of the complex situation surrounding the composition of these narratives, and how the various historical traditions were preserved and included. There are several details which strongly indicate that 18:10-11 genuinely represents a second (separate) preserved version of the historical tradition:

    • When the evil spirit comes upon Saul, he “acts like a ayb!n`” (vb ab*n` in the reflexive hithpael stem), that is, like an ecstatic inspired prophet; the spirit also “rushes” (vb jl^x*) on Saul, as it does upon the prophets and charismatic leaders (cf. above). Here, this is probably meant to convey several things:
      • The violent character of the spirit’s influence, resulting in unusual and aggressive behavior
      • That Saul was “raving”, seemingly out of his mind, uttering strange words
      • That he was truly possessed by a divine spirit, as the ecstatic prophets were—only this time it was an evil spirit of God (i.e. sent by God), which results in more negative and destructive conduct.
    • Saul’s intent to harm David is expressed: “I will strike Dawîd…”
    • It is said that David evaded his attack twice (an allusion to the second version of the tradition in 19:9-10?)

It is interesting that, in the overall course of the narrative, after this episode Saul again is struck by the ecstatic prophetic spirit (19:18-24). This largely repeats his earlier experience narrated in 10:5-12; it contains the same elements—the role of Samuel, a group of ecstatic prophets gathered together, a sacred “high place” site, etc. However, this time Saul arrives with the evil intent of arresting David, and the onrush of the (prophetic) spirit serves to waylay these efforts, disabling Saul for a full day and night. These two parallel scenes frame the period of Saul’s role as divinely-inspired leader. The first precedes the coming of God’s spirit on him (11:6), and the second follows the departure of that spirit (16:14ff). It is a vivid reminder of how closely connected the prophetic spirit was to the tradition of charismatic leadership in the ancient world.

In light of this theme of God’s spirit departing from a person, it is worth considering the famous expression of this idea in Psalm 51; this we will do in the next daily note.

 

April 30: Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note of this series on Old Testament passages involving the Spirit [j^Wr] of God, I discussed the fundamental association of the Spirit with prophecy. In particular, it is the special gifting by the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of YHWH that enables a person to fill the role of ayb!n`—a spokesperson who speaks and acts on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will to the people. From the standpoint of Old Testament tradition, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses; he was the ultimate ayb!n`, though, as we saw in Numbers 11:10-30, this role was not limited to him even at the time.

Various forms of prophecy had, of course, long been practiced in the ancient Near East. I previously mentioned the evidence from the city-state of Mari, where at least two different kinds of prophets are attested—one (the ¹pilum) apparently functioning in an official capacity (at the royal court, etc), while the other (the mu——ûm) operating at a more popular level, was marked especially by ecstatic experience (cf. below).

Numbers 24:2

As it happens, the Old Testament Scriptures refer to at least one such non-Israelite prophet, the famous (and rather enigmatic) figure of Balaam (Bil±¹m, <u*l=B!). He is featured in the narratives of Numbers 22-24, including four distinct oracles attributed to him; his role in the Baal-Peor incident (chap. 25), itself a complex tradition as recorded in the text, is more problematic (cf. Num 31:8, 16). It is the latter association, especially, that colored Balaam as a negative, evil figure-type in later Jewish and Christian tradition.

The historicity of Balaam, and the general authenticity of the Pentateuch traditions (in Num 22-24), would seem to be confirmed by the extra-biblical evidence of the Deir ±All¹ inscription from Jordan (c. 800 B.C.). For a translation of this inscription, along with photographs, see the treatment online at livius.org.

The entirety of the matrix of traditions in chaps. 22-24—but especially the oracles in 23-24—make clear that Balaam was a prophet, primarily in the sense of being a seer (ha#r)), a visionary clairvoyant, one who could discern the course of future events. Despite the lampooning episode of 22:22-35, and his subsequent negative caricature, there is no evidence in the text that he is in any way a false prophet, or that his visions do not genuinely come from God (El-Yahweh). Indeed, in the narrative he repeatedly receives communication from God (22:9ff, 20, etc). This is an extraordinary datum, and serves as an objective confirmation of the authenticity of the oracle-traditions.

As previously mentioned, Balaam would best be characterized as a seer (ha#r), from the root har), and the text several times mentions his eyes being “opened” (by God); indeed, this is stated at the beginning of the third and fourth oracles (24:3-4, 15-16), indicating that such revelatory experience was a regular occurrence for Balaam. Moreover, in accordance with the ancient understanding that all such prophetic experience was the result of divine inspiration (from the spirit of God), this is stated of the non-Israelite Balaam as well:

“And Bil’am lifted his eyes, and he saw [vb ha*r*] Yisrael residing (according) to its staffs [i.e. by tribe], and (the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] came upon him” (24:2)

It is possible that this detail was emphasized as a way of legitimizing the oracles of a non-Israelite (Canaanite) prophet, affirming (for an Israelite audience) that they are genuine and true prophecies. Much more likely, however, this simply reflects the basic understanding of how prophecy worked in the ancient Near East. Any distinct prophetic experience was the result of a divine presence (spirit) working in or upon the person—its source was the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of a deity, whether El-Yahweh or another.

1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note, we saw the distinctive use of the denominative verb ab*n`, which essentially means to “act or function as a ayb!n`” . This verb occurs either in the passive Niphal stem or the reflexive Hithpael stem—both of which imply the idea of a person being under the influence or control of a prophetic “spirit”. Outside of Num 11:25-27 (discussed in the previous note), the verb ab*n` (in both passive and reflexive stems) occurs a number of times in Samuel-Kings, where it unquestionably reflects old/authentic historical tradition. The very oddity and unorthodox character of some of the details in these narratives would tend to confirm, on objective grounds, the authenticity of the traditions.

A particular early reference occurs in 1 Samuel 10:1-13, where the young Saul is directed by Samuel that, on his journey, he will encounter a group of <ya!yb!n+ in front of the hill-site city of Gibeah, or Gibeath-Elohim (“hill of God”), vv. 5-6. Both the name, and the presence of these prophets, suggests that it was a sacred site (or “high place”); at the moment, it also was marked by a Philistine garrison. The prophets Saul will encounter will be coming as a procession from the city, playing musical instruments as they “act as ayb!n`” . As most commentators recognize, this involves a specific mode of ecstatic prophetic experience, of a kind frequently aided (or induced) through music. That it is a dramatic and aggressive (even violent) sort of experience is indicated by the wording in verse 6, stating that the spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH would rush (vb jl^x*) upon Saul and overtake him, so that he would “act as a ayb!n` ” with all the others. So dramatic would this experience be that it is said Saul would be “turned over” (i.e. changed/transformed) into “another man”.

This prediction by Samuel is fulfilled in verse 10, and the state of prophetic ecstasy indeed results in such unusual behavior that everyone who knows Saul has to take note and wonder at it: “What (is) this (that) has come to be [i.e. happened] to the son of Qîš?” (v. 11). A similar kind of evil spirit comes upon Saul in a later narrative (18:10ff), resulting in the same sort of unusual manic/ecstatic behavior, only in a more destructively violent manner. The same verb ab*n` is used here, even though it has nothing to do with “prophecy” in the typical sense. This is most informative, as it demonstrates rather clearly that, in the context of prophecy, the emphasis is squarely on the divine presence/spirit that influences and overcomes the person. In 18:10, though it is an “evil” spirit, it still comes from God, utilizing the common expression “spirit of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ j^Wr). While this certainly created (and still creates) theological problems for subsequent readers, it is fully in accord with the ancient way of thinking (cp. the episode in 1 Kings 22:19-23).

We should point out that the prophetic ecstasy that came over Saul in 10:10 was repeated in a separate tradition (19:20-24). There, at another sacred “high place” site (Ramah), there is a group of ecstatic prophets (<ya!yb!n+), only this time Samuel himself is present with them. The frenzied character of this experience, marked by unusual or aberrant behavior, is indicated especially by the detail of Saul tearing off his clothes, and laying naked in that place all day and night (v. 24). Again, this will no doubt seem troubling to our modern sensibilities, in terms of our conceptions regarding the nature of prophecy, etc, but it very much reflects aspects of traditional prophetic experience worldwide, both in ancient and later times.

The verb ab*n` (in the passive/reflexive) also occurs in 1 Kings 18:29 and 22:8-12 (note the group of prophets, v. 10), 18 par. Interestingly, while the verb is frequent in the later Prophetic writings (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah) it is quite rare in the earlier books (only Amos [6 times] and Joel [once]). This suggests that the earlier usage—indicated by the underlying historical traditions in Exodus–Kings—was abandoned for a time, only to be picked up again in the Exilic/Post-exilic period.

In the next note, we will touch further on the idea of the violent effects of the Spirit’s influence, as recorded in the Old Testament.

April 29: Numbers 11:10-30

Numbers 11:10-30

There is an interesting historical tradition recorded in the narrative of Numbers 11. Like most such narratives, there are simplifications involved in the telling of the story, and that can make it difficult, at times, for us to gain a clear picture of the underlying historical situation.

The basic tradition begins in verse 10 (see vv. 1-9 for the narrative context), as Moses is feeling overwhelmed at the responsibility for leading the people on their difficult journey across the desolate stretches of the Sinai peninsula. Within the Tent where Moses speaks with YHWH, he complains of this to God (vv. 11-15). In response, YHWH decides to relieve Moses of some of this burden, by having it be shared with seventy elders specially appointed for the role (on the tradition of seventy elders, cf. Exod 24:1ff, and cp. Gen 46:27; Exod 1:5 etc). Though it is not stated as such here, this relates to the idea of Moses as the ayb!n`, the spokesperson and intermediary between YHWH and Israel (cf. Exod 19:18-21, etc). In a real sense, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses, at least in terms of the Scriptural narrative, and he stands in many ways as the ultimate prophet-figure.

This is not to say that there was no prophecy and no prophets prior to Moses, since various forms of prophecy were practiced in the ancient Near East centuries before. Some of our best, and most relevant, information in this regard comes from the site of Mari, where at least two kinds of prophets were known (cf. Milgrom/JPS, pp. 380-4):

    1. ¹pilum, those functioning in an official capacity, it would seem, such as at the royal court
    2. mu——ûm, those operating at a more popular level, their gifted status marked especially by ecstatic experience

The use of the word “prophet” to translate Hebrew ayb!n` is actually rather misleading, since it tends to imply the limited function of telling/seeing the future. While the role of the ayb!n` may involve a measure of clairvoyance and visionary experience (as a “seer”, Heb. ha#r) / hz#j)), it is better defined as that of a spokesperson—i.e. one who speaks and acts on God’s behalf. The noun ayb!n` is quite rare in the Pentateuch, occurring just four times in Genesis–Numbers; this, along with the three passages in Deuteronomy where it is used (13:2-6; 18:15-22; 34:10), confirms the point above that the position of ayb!n` in Israel properly begins with Moses. Though in Exod 7:1 the word is used of Aaron (as Moses‘ spokesperson), the implication is that Moses himself is the one representing YHWH (Num 12:6ff; the use of the word in Gen 20:7 may be influenced by the Exodus/Moses traditions).

This brings us back to the tradition in Numbers 11, and YHWH’s response to Moses’ complaint in verses 16-17ff. Regarding the 70 elders chosen to share in Moses’ role (as spokesperson/ayb!n`), God says this about them:

“…and I will lay aside (some) from the spirit [j^Wr] that (is) upon you, and I will set (it) upon them, and they will carry with you (the) burden of the people, and you will not carry (it) by yourself alone.” (v. 17)

Though it is never so stated elsewhere in the Pentateuch, here it is clearly implied that Moses prophetic ability—that is, his role as spokesperson (ayb!n`) for God—is the result of a special gifting from the spirit (j^Wr) of God (on this, cf. the previous note). Now YHWH says that he will “lay aside” (vb lx^a*) something from this same spirit, and put it upon the 70 elders, just as it is upon Moses. In later terminology, this could be referred to more abstractly as “the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10). According to the ancient way of thinking, all varieties of ‘prophetic’ experience were the product of divine inspiration—that is, the possession of (or by) a deity or spirit. For Christians, of course, true prophecy comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21; Eph 3:5; 1 John 4:1-5, etc), and a comparable idea is expressed numerous times throughout the Old Testament (this will be discussed in upcoming notes).

The chosen elders are to gather around the Tent of Meeting, and, while Moses is inside, this transfer of the ayb!n`-spirit will take place. This is narrated in verses 24-25, precisely as declared earlier by YHWH:

“And YHWH came down in a cloud and spoke to him [i.e. Moses], and He laid aside (some) from the spirit [j^Wr] that (is) upon him, and gave (it) upon the seventy elder men; and, it came to be, as the spirit rested upon them, they also (themselves) acted as ayb!n` [WaB=n~t=y!]…” (v. 25)

While the specific noun ayb!n` is not used here (cf. below), the related verb ab*n`, a denominative from ayb!n`, does occur. The basic meaning is “act/speak as a ayb!n`” —that is, to fulfill the role as an inspired spokesperson for God. This is the same role Moses has, but now it is being shared by these 70 elders. The extent of their prophetic role is a matter of some dispute, given the ambiguity of the last two words of the verse: Wpsy aýw+. The Hebrew text wpsy could be parsed as Wps*y` (“they continued [to do]”, i.e. did repeatedly, vb [s^y`), or as Wps%y` (“they ceased [doing]”, vb [Ws). According to the first reading, the negation (with the particle ) would be “and they did not continue” (i.e. in this role as ayb!n`)—that is, it was only temporary, under special circumstances. The second option would be “and they did not cease” (in their role as ayb!n`). The latter is much to be preferred syntactically (but compare e.g. Gen 38:26), and in the context of the narrative; it is also supported by the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan), while the former reading has the support of the LXX and other Rabbinic authorities. It remains an open question of interpretation. Cf. Milgrom/JPS, pp. 89, 308.

A fascinating related tradition follows in verses 26-30. Two of the appointed elders—named Eldad and Medad—apparently were not gathered around the Tent with the others, and yet the prophetic spirit still came upon them. They, too, acted as ayb!n` —the same reflexive Hithpael form of the verb ab*n` used in v. 25 (cf. above). Such use of this verb seems to have the technical meaning of exhibiting a certain form of inspired prophetic experience. Based on similar occurrences elsewhere in the Old Testament (to be discussed in the upcoming notes), it would imply an ecstatic experience, manifested at times in strange or aberrant behavior. If so, it would have been striking indeed for these two men to go about through the camp, speaking and acting under such ecstatic inspiration. It is understandable why Moses’ young attendant Joshua might be troubled by reports of their activity (v. 27), calling out as he does to his master, “My lord Moshe, restrain them!” (v. 28). Moses’ answer in verse 29 is not what we might have expected, given the importance (expressed elsewhere) of regulating and testing apparent prophetic experience; here is his reply to Joshua:

“Are you red (with concern) for me? And (yet) who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) <ya!yb!n+, that YHWH would give His spirit [j^Wr] upon them!”

One is reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples’ complaint about people, outside his immediate circle, performing miracles in his name (Mark 9:38-41 par). Moses’ words also seem to foreshadow the use of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s famous Pentecost speech, with the promise that the Spirit of God would come upon all His people, and that they (i.e. all believers) would act as prophets. The initial question posed to Joshua suggests that the younger man’s concern may have been for any possible threat to Moses’ leadership that might arise out of such prophetic activity in the camp. Since Moses was aware that the inspiration of the 70 elders was the direct result of YHWH’s action, he had no immediate cause for concern. This also confirms Moses’ position as supreme ayb!n`, a point made even more explicit in several other passages which would greatly influence the subsequent Old Testament and Jewish tradition.

In the next few notes, we will continue to explore this important emphasis on the relationship of the Spirit to prophecy.

References above marked “Milgrom/JPS” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers rbdmb, commentary by Jacob Milgrom (Jewish Publication Society: 1990).

February 16: Revelation 22:6, 10-11

Revelation 22:6-21

Verses 6-21 form the conclusion to the book of Revelation, and, as might be expected, they run parallel in many respects with the introduction (1:1-3ff). Many of the same words, phrases, and motifs occur here. Verses 6-17 have a parallelistic structure that may be outlined as follows:

    • Angelic declaration (“And he said to me…”), involving the words of the prophecy (the book) as a whole—vv. 6 / 10-11
    • Announcement of the exalted Jesus (“See! I come quickly…”)—vv. 7a / 12-13
    • Beatitude declaring happiness/blessings for those who remain faithful—vv. 7b / 14-15
    • Closing personal statement, by the seer (John) and the exalted Jesus, respectively (“I, Yohanan…”, “I, Yeshua…”)—vv. 8-9 / 16f

It makes sense to discuss each component, as it occurs in each part, together.

Revelation 22:6, 10-11

Each part begins with a declaration by the heavenly Messenger who is speaking with the seer (John), cf. 21:9, 15; 22:1. Let us compare the two statements:

“And he said to me: ‘These accounts [i.e. words] (are) trustworthy and true; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the foretellers [i.e. prophets], se(n)t forth His Messenger to show to His slaves the (thing)s that are necessary to come to be in (all) haste [e)n ta/xei]’.” (v. 6)

“And he says to me: ‘You shall not seal (up) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll], for the moment is near [e)ggu/$]’.” (v. 10)

Clearly the statements are similar, involving a common set of verbal and thematic elements: (1) the opening phrase, (2) reference to the “accounts” (lo/goi, i.e. the words) in the book, (3) that it is prophecy (foretelling what is to come), and (4) the things described in the book are imminent.

22:6—Verse 6 is quite close to the introductory statement in 1:1 (words in italics):

“An uncovering of Yeshua (the) Anointed which God gave to him, to show to His slaves the (thing)s that are necessary to come to be in (all) haste…”

To this is added a specific reference to the words of the prophecy as being “trust(worthy) and true” (pistoi\ kai\ a)lhqinoi/), which repeats the wording in 21:5; elsewhere, the same dual expression is used of God and Christ himself (3:14; 19:11; cf. also 6:10; 15:3), indicating here the divine source and character of the prophecy.

There is also an emphasis on the spirit (pneu=ma) of the prophecy. From the standpoint of early Christian religious psychology and anthropology, the spiritual dimension of prophecy was rather complex, with certain conceptions that are generally foreign to us today. The word pneu=ma (“[life-]breath, spirit”) is used in three distinct, but interrelated ways, in regard to prophecy:

    • The deity as a spirit-being—this applies not only to the Spirit of God (and Christ), i.e. the Holy Spirit, but to the opposite: evil/unclean or deceptive “spirits” (spirit-beings)
    • The “spirit” (inner-most breath and source of life) within the human being; it represents the point, or level, at which people relate to the Spirit of God (and other spirit-beings); this is especially true for those gifted as prophets
    • The prophetic gift or ability is also referred to as a “spirit” (pneu=ma); early Christians saw it as a specific gift from the Spirit of God—this is a uniquely Christian development of the conception in the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world, etc, whereby such giftedness was due to the indwelling presence of a personal deity (or semi-divine being), i.e. a genius, in the original sense of the word.

This spiritual aspect of prophecy is described several ways in the book of Revelation:

    • On certain occasions, the seer (John) is said to be “in the spirit” (e)n pneu/mati) when he receives his visions (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10); since he is in contact with the Spirit of God at these moments, he is certainly “in the Spirit“, but he is also engaged “in the spirit (of prophecy)”
    • In 19:10 there is the statement that “the witness of Yeshua is the spirit of prophecy” (or “…of the prophecy”); the primary meaning here is that the exalted Jesus, through the Spirit, is the source of the message (cf. 1:1, above, and my earlier note on 19:10)
    • This message is also communicated (by God and Christ) through heavenly Messengers (i.e. Angels), themselves spirit-beings who are specifically called “spirits” (pneu/mata) in 1:4; 4:5; 5:6; by contrast, false prophecy is inspired by evil/unclean spirits (16:13-14, cf. also 13:15; 18:2).

22:10-11—If verse 6 resembles 1:1, the statement in verse 10 is correspondingly similar to 1:3, as it specifically emphasizes the need for believers to read (i.e. hear read aloud) the words of the prophecy, along with the declaration that “the moment (is) near” (o( kairo\$ e)ggu/$). Here the reading of the book is expressed negatively: “You shall not seal (up) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll”. The verb sfragi/zw (“seal”), along with the related noun sfragi/$, is used repeatedly in the book of revelation, mainly as an idiom for a message that is meant to be kept hidden until it is revealed at some future time (5:1-2ff; 6:1ff; 7:2; 8:1; 10:4). Generally, in the visionary narrative, seals are being opened—that is, the message is finally being revealed (and fulfilled) in the end-time, which is also the present time (and/or the near future) for readers of the book. This is also the reason here for the injunction not to seal the prophecy—the events described do not refer to things that will take place at some time in the distant future, but are about to be fulfilled now.

On the use of the adverb e)ggu/$ (“near”), and the expression e)n ta/xei (“in [all] haste”), as clear indications of the imminent eschatology of early Christians, cf. my earlier study on the subject. It is probably this sense of imminence that informs the proverbial declaration in verse 11:

“(For) the (one) being without justice [i.e. unjust], he must yet be without justice; and the (one who is) dirty, he must yet be dirty; and the (one who is) just, he must yet do justice [i.e. act justly]; and the (one who is) holy, he must yet be holy.”

The pairs of opposites are precise: just(ice) vs. without justice, holy [i.e. clean/pure] vs. dirty. The book of Revelation has a strong sense throughout of the wicked as belonging to evil, while the righteous (true believers) belong to God and the Lamb. Little hope is held out for the repentance and conversion of the wicked. The end-time was seen as a period of ever-increasing wickedness, a time of testing that will reveal a person’s true character and identity—i.e. whether he/she belongs to God, or to the forces of evil. As the end draws nearer, this dynamic will only intensify further, to the point that, even in the face of God’s Judgment, the wicked will scarcely repent (9:20-21; 16:9, 11). Believers will genuinely repent of their sins (2:5, 16, 21-22), but not the wicked. There is also in the book of Revelation an emphasis on what we would call predestination, which corresponds to the aforementioned sense of person’s essential religious identity (which cannot be changed). The form and language in verse 11, with its poetic parallelism, is similar to that earlier in 14:9-10; it also resembles certain proverbial statements in the Old Testament (e.g., Ezek 3:27; Dan 12:10).

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December 9: Revelation 19:9-10

Revelation 19:1-10, continued

Revelation 19:9-10

“And he says to me, ‘You must write (this): Happy (are) the (one)s having been called into the marriage supper of the Lamb’. And he says to me, ‘These are the true accounts [i.e. words/sayings] of God’.” (v. 9)

The subject of “he says” is not immediately clear; there is certainly a Messenger present with the seer in v. 10, perhaps to be identified with one of the two mentioned in chapter 18 (v. 1, 21). At the beginning of the book, the seer (John) was commanded to write down the things he would see in the visions (1:11, 19), a command which effectively runs through the letters to the seven cities (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). A closer parallel is found in 14:13, where what he is told to write is a beatitude, likewise beginning “happy (are) the ones…” (maka/rioi oi(…):

    • “Happy (are) the dead, the (one)s dying away in the Lord from now (on).” (14:13)
    • “Happy (are) the (one)s having been called into the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (19:9)

On the beatitude form itself, see my earlier study series on the Beatitudes of Jesus, esp. the introductory article on the contextual and historical background of the form, and the concluding article on the other beatitudes in the New Testament. The context of these beatitudes is fundamentally eschatological—that is, they relate to the blessed state of the righteous in the afterlife (or, in the Age to Come), following the Judgment. In Christian terms, the righteous and faithful ones (believers) will join in the heavenly, divine life, in the presence of the exalted Jesus (the Lamb) and God the Father. From the standpoint of the symbolism in the book of Revelation, this refers to the People of God in their heavenly aspect.

In this instance, the blessed life is expressed by the motif of a marriage and its wedding festivities (cf. the previous note). In Jesus’ parable of Matthew 22:1-10, the invitation to a wedding feast serves as a figure for the calling of believers and the proclamation of the Gospel. The meaning is comparable here, only the setting is that of the exalted condition of those believers who have remained faithful. There is actually a blending of images here, since believers represent both the bride and the wedding guests. As it happens, a number of written wedding-feast invitations, that are roughly contemporary, are preserved in the surviving ancient Greek papyri (e.g., P.Fay. 132, P.Oxy. 1579, 3313; Koester, p. 731).

The second declaration by the Angel (“these are the true words/accounts of God”) affirms the promise of salvation and the blessed future life for believers in Christ. Even as God Himself is true (a)lhqino/$, 3:7, 14; 6:10; 15:3; 16:7; 19:2), so also are all His words and promises. This also confirms the inspired character of the visionary message (cf. on verse 10 below). One is reminded of the Johannine emphasis that identifies truth (a)lh/qeia) with the Holy Spirit (Jn 4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6; 5:6).

“And I fell (down) in front of his feet to kiss toward [i.e. worship] him, and he said to me, ‘See (that) you do not (do that)! I am a slave together with you and all your brothers, (all) the (one)s holding the witness of Yeshua; (it is) God (that) you must kiss toward [i.e. worship]. For the witness of Yeshua is the Spirit of profhtei/a.'” (v. 10)

In previous notes, I have mentioned how there is a close relationship between believers and the heavenly beings (i.e. Messengers/Angels), both essentially making up (together) the People of God. This is expressed various ways throughout the book, and is emphasized again here in chapter 19, as exalted believers blend into the heavenly multitude (vv. 1-3, 6-8). The conjunction is also represented by the twenty-four Elders alongside the four Living beings (v. 4f). Perhaps nowhere is this relationship expressed more clearly than here in verse 10, where the Messenger (heavenly being) declares that he is “a slave together with” all human believers. The main thing they have in common is that they hold (vb e&xw) “the witness of Yeshua”. The directive by the Angel that the seer not give homage to (lit. “kiss toward”, i.e. worship) him, is found in other apocalyptic writings (e.g., Ascension of Isaiah 7:21) of the period, and so may have been something a standard traditional detail. It of course reflects the fundamental idea that worship belongs to God alone.

The expression “witness of Yeshua” (h( marturi/a  )Ihsou=) is central to the book of Revelation, which makes extensive use of the nouns marturi/a (9 times), ma/rtu$ (5 times), and the related verb marture/w (4 times)—the verb and noun marturi/a also occur frequently in the Johannine Gospel and Letters. The specific expression “witness of Yeshua” occurs four other times in the book of Revelation (1:2, 9; 12:17; 20:4). The genitival relationship can be understood two ways: either as a subjective genitive, i.e. Jesus is the one witnessing, or an objective genitive, in which case it is a witness about Jesus. Both are entirely valid, and each fits well in the overall outlook of Revelation. However, given the way that the book begins (cf. the initial note on 1:1), the subjective aspect should be given priority. Jesus is the one who gives witness, and believers reproduce Jesus’ own witness, both by word (preaching/proclamation) and example. This is beautifully expressed by the idea of believers following the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).

The concluding declaration by the Angel states that “the witness of Yeshua is the Spirit of profhtei/a“. The relationship of this statement with the rest of vv. 9-10 is not immediately apparent. Normally, I would translate the noun profhtei/a rather literally as “foretelling”; however, this can be misleading, as it suggests that the word refers merely to predicting the future. Certainly, the visions in the book of Revelation are to be taken as prophetic in that sense (1:1, etc), and yet early Christian use of the Greek word-group is better understood in light of the corresponding Hebrew root abn. A ayb!n`, in the religious sense, functions as a spokesperson for God—i.e., one who speaks on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will to the people. This is fundamentally the significance of a profh/th$ (foreteller, prophet) in early Christianity as well. Such divine communication was considered to inspired by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of God and Christ. Here, the statement confirms still further the close relationship between heavenly Messenger (Angel) and believer. Just as the Angel conveys the word and will of God, so also do believers through the Spirit. The basic message both groups convey can be defined as “the witness of Jesus”, and what unites believers (especially those gifted as prophets) with the heavenly beings—as messengers—is the guiding presence and activity of the Spirit. There are relatively few references to the Spirit in the book of Revelation, apart from the letters to the seven congregations in chaps. 2-3 (once in each letter). The seer (John) is said to be “in the Spirit” on several occasions, indicating the inspired and prophetic character of the visions (1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10); however, the closest parallel to the statement here is perhaps found at 22:17, in the concluding words of the book.

Some commentators would treat verse 10 as the end of a major section, thus separating it from the remainder of chapter 19. The declaration regarding the prophetic Spirit would certainly fit such a climactic position. However, I do not believe this way of dividing the book is correct; in my view, it is much preferable to retain the integrity of chapter 19 as a distinct unit, a set of three visions similar in structure and theme to those of chapter 14. Indeed, it is the sequence of visions in chaps. 14 and 19, rather than the more elaborate seven-vision cycles, which best encapsulates the traditional early Christian eschatology. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on vv. 11-16).

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