In city, Old Testament on May 10, 2011 by simonbriercliffe Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Endor and Mt Tabor

Endor and Mt Tabor. Photo from Visual Bible Alive

Besides being the home of the Ewoks, Endor was a Canaanite city that fell in Manasseh’s Eastern portion of the promised land, as recorded in Joshua 17:11. It was more of a village really, and it’s name (aka En-dor) means “spring” and “settlement” – so nothing too detailed there. Its location is debated, but was around the Jezreel valley, a large plain in the Lower Galilee region of modern Israel. Though allotted to the Manassites, the incomers failed to displace the Canaanites who were living there. In these days of indigenous rights and tension in Israel/Palestine this could have become a very contentious issue. In the days of Joshua, the instruction was brutally clear:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.
Deuteronomy 7:1-4

Israelites are fail. God told them to scourge the land for a very good reason, and it’s a picture of sin in the life of a Christian. The first of Luther’s 95 Theses was that “the whole life of believers should be repentance,” not just an initial “I’m sorry.” This fits with the experience of Israel – they didn’t cleanse the land properly at first, they didn’t constantly analyse themselves in God’s eyes, they didn’t get rid of evil influences when they had a chance, there was certainly no ongoing repentance, only sporadic, small revivals; as a result they suffered the contamination of Canaan’s idolatrous influence. It’s the same today: there’s no benefit in accommodating things we know go against God in our lives: they’ll just cause bigger problems down the line, and so it was for Israel.

According to Asaph in Psalm 89, Endor also saw maybe the most unconventional death described in the Bible (saving Christ of course…): Jael’s tent-peg-to-the-temple effort on Sisera, commander of the Canaanite forces. See: no-one’s left by themselves to do the cleansing, God gives us help.

Endor is most famous though for its witch (1 Samuel 28). I have no idea whether a black hat or cat or warty nose was needed to be a witch in those days: according to the KJV she had a familiar spirit, the NIV calls her a medium. Darby’s is the most esoteric translation, a “woman that hath the spirit of Python.” Darby’s, the one-man translation, keeps this consistent with Acts 16:16 for instance, as do the Young and Douay-Rheims very-literal versions; the KJV renders that verse spirit of divination, the NIV as predicting the future. Hard to say what the spirit of Python means; I’ve not found satisfactory explanations of that so I’m sticking with medium, I think.

Any way you read it, even Saul remembered God’s views of any sort of sorcery, divination, necromancy, etc. Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6 and 27 tell me these are not on, and I get the same message from Revelation 21:8. It’s very clear, and Saul did right to chuck all the sorcerers out of the land after Samuel’s death. Nevertheless, he backtracked in his moment of panic, woke up a dead prophet and received a suitably miserable prediction. Lesson: don’t try asking dead folk for stuff, they’re busy. Opinion is mixed as to just who was called up on that night: Hanegraaf suggests it was a sovreign act of God for that situation, perhaps like Abraham and Moses in the transfiguration? The reformers believed it was a devil’s ghost (Luther) or spectre (Calvin), and Adventist interpretation suggests it’s the devil himself. I wouldn’t like to say; whatever/whoever it was, Saul was a fool to mess around with that.

Worse than a fool, in fact, because 1 Samuel 28 clearly shows that he inquired of God first. Instead of waiting for a clear answer he pushed for something mystical: a dream-vision, trying to divine something from the (priestly) Urim and Thummim, going to prophets. When he got impatient, he got stupid. How familiar… When I want an answer, I want it now, dammit, but that’s not God’s way. He speaks “in the fullness of time” just as when He sent Christ (Galatians 4:4) or when He’ll gather everything in to Christ (Ephesians 1:10). Patience is a virtue you know.

Location: Endor is guessed to be in the valley of Jezreel, Lower Galilee, about here.




In New Testament, political geography on May 6, 2011 by simonbriercliffe Tagged: , , , , , , ,

The times described in the Bible were dominated by dynasties: not just Abraham but the Pharoahs, the Roman emperors, the Persians and so on. This was true on a regional as well as imperial level of course, hence the Herods (the full family tree shows it well), a family tree to put modern day pretenders like the Kennedys to shame. The title of the post is a bit of a misnomer: there was no one Herod. When the name is given, typically it’s Herod the Great, but his father Antipater is more rightly the founder of the line. Antipater was the Edomite who cosied up to the Romans and secured the title procurator of the Roman province of Judea for himself, and subsequently his descendents.

Kingdoms around Israel, from Wikimedia Commons

Kingdoms around Israel, from Wikimedia Commons

The nation of Edom were the descendents of Esau, brother of Israel, and just like a brotherly relationship, things were always tense between the two. The Roman province of Idumaea was the territory of Edom, as well as most of the OT Ammon and Moab (see Mount Peor), and today is part of Jordan – Petra was a major city of the later Edomites. It took some political manoeuvering worthy of The Wire to combine the two nations, but combine they did.

The most notorious of Antipater’s descendents was Herod the Great. With no little nepotism, at 25 his father made him governor of Galilee, noted for his brutality which was approved by the Romans, but which made him unpopular with the Jewish religious authorities. He eventually took Jerusalem by force from Antigonus and set himself up as basileus, i.e. King of the Jews.

It’s in this context that we first find him in scriptural record, as some magi turn up on his doorstep (this would have been quite some doorstep too, given his tendency towards the megalithic in architectural terms) and ask him where the new king of the Jews was to be found. While he was justifiably bemused at this, he managed to work out where in his kingdom a prophesied king might be, and characteristically killed all the babies he could find (Matthew 2) – this was a charming man.

I was generally under the impression that once conquered, Roman provinces were Roman provinces and that was that. But the story of the Herods was deeply political. Herod the Great died a thoroughly unpleasant death in 4BC (so not long after the slaughter of the innocents) and his hard-won region was split between three of his sons. His first son (by the excellently named Doris), Antipater II, was executed by his dad for attempted patricide in 4BC. His second wife Mariamne had two sons, Alexander and Aristobolus – both executed by Herod in 7BC. Aristobolus’ daughter, Herodias was married off to his brother Herod II (creepy much? her mother was Berenice, daughter of Herod the Great’s sister Salome, making Herodias both granddaughter and twice daughter-in-law to HtG, or if you prefer Herod II’s own neice), another of The Great’s sons (this time by Mariamne II – keeping up?). She went on to have a daughter, Salome, who was the eventual cause of John the Baptist losing his head in Matthew 14.

Palestine after Herod, from Wikimedia Commons

Palestine after Herod, from Wikimedia Commons

As well as marrying another seven times (including a neice and a cousin), Herod had at least 14 children. Herod II scarpered off to Rome after Herodias divorced him, leaving the ‘kingdom’ of Herod the Great to be split between three of his sons. Herod Archelaus became ethnarch of Samaria, Judea and Idumea (bright green on the map) – later his title became king over the combined regions, named Idumaea. This was the Herod of Matthew 2:22, and the reason for Joseph and Mary’s withdrawal to Galilee.

Here, they found another tetrarch and another Herod – this time Herod Antipas, who was given Galilee and Perea in HtG’s final will. His was a far more successful reign than Archelaus’, who was deposed by the emperor Augustus in 6AD – Antipas ruled til AD29 and built cities like Tiberias. Yet he was still, in the words of Jesus, a “fox” (Luke 13:32). He received a telling-off from John the Baptist after marrying Herodias (his sister-in law, who’d just divorced Herod II), then had to have him beheaded after rashly promising to grant any wish to Herodias after her daughter’s sexy dancing. This in turn came back to Jesus, and when Antipas threatened Him, Christ was more than happy to write him off as wicked. It was a long time til they met though – not til Jesus’ trials. After his kangaroo court appearance in front of the priests, Jesus was referred to Pilate who then gladly bounced Him on to Herod when he knew He was from Galilee.

The final Herod was Philip the Tetrarch, or Herod Philip II, who ruled the orange area of Golan, Batanea, Trachonitis and Aurantis. This was Herodias’ first husband, but an otherwise unremarkable man in history. The House of Herod comes back into New Testament history in Acts 12. This is Herod Agrippa, second son of the executed Aristobulus, and very much a persecuter of the early church in the name of Jewishness. He had James put to death, and arrested Peter whilst king of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Perea. The Herodian curse struck though: this was an arrogant man and he was struck down accordingly.

The final Herod was Agrippa II, the previous Herod’s son. Another man in love with the pomp and ceremony of royalty, according to Acts 25, this Agrippa was nevertheless a reasonable man and gave Paul a fair hearing. Indeed, he would have released him where it not for Paul’s appeal to a higher still authority – this was he who realised that Paul was an innocent, intelligent man and not a raving madman, and who gave due consideration to his words. Yet, he was not persuaded.

So what do we learn from this dynasty, other than that it ranks up there with the most bloodthirsty family histories – the Borgias could have learned a thing or two from the Herods. This was a family for whom adultery, betrayal and exploitation went hand in hand with glitz and glamour and gruesome displays of power. They seem to appear as counterbalances in scripture. Where Herod the Great ruled in great splendour and brutality, the true King of the Jews was born in humility and meekness. When his sons were content to adulterise and indulge their lavish lifestyle, the ascetic John the Baptist had courage to speak out and met an unfair end. When Christ was on trial, all this so-called king could do was interrogate and mock, to no effect. Never really kings in the real sense, no words of a Herod could worry the true King. When Agrippa’s crowd-pleasing machinations butted up against James and Peter, he duly met a sticky end, his pride and pomp thoroughly abased.

When Paul came up against the glam royalty of Agrippa II, the king was made to pause, and it’s this last account that breaks the mould. The Herods were old-time kings: cruel, vengeful and wicked and no doubt Agrippa II was the same (it’s generally accepted that Berenice who was at the court with him was both sister and lover). But there’s hope for everyone who hears the gospel. He heard it not by force or by constraining anyone to talk to him; but was “almost persuaded” by a humble prisoner presenting a reasonable point. There’s many more lessons I’m sure, but that’s an interesting one – doesn’t matter who is preaching or who too, the prerogative lies with God, who’s far more forgiving than we even give Him credit for.


Ebal and Gerizim

In mountain, Old Testament, physical geography on May 4, 2011 by simonbriercliffe Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

Nablus, showing Mount Ebal (right) and Mount Gerizim (left of picture). Photo from Wikimedia Commons by uwea.

Nablus, showing Mount Ebal (right) and Mount Gerizim (left of picture). Photo from Wikimedia Commons by uwea.

The modern West Bank city of Nablus (previously Shechem) sits in the shade of two mountains: Ebal (940m) to the North and Gerizim (881m) to the South. The two are intrinsically linked, not just in geographical proximity but in God’s commandments to Israel, symbols of the heavy demands of the law.

The mountains are first mentioned in Deuteronomy 11:

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— 27 the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; 28 the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. 29 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.

Although yet to cross the Jordan and entered the promised land, the Israelites new these mountains already: “As you know, these mountains are across the Jordan, westward, toward the setting sun, near the great trees of Moreh, in the territory of those Canaanites living in the Arabah in the vicinity of Gilgal.” (11:30) About twenty miles West of the river Jordan, the Israelites could likely see these mountains from their encampments on the Eastern side – they are the highest points in what’s now the West Bank.

The instructions are made more specific in Deuteronomy 27, which lists the curses read out from Mount Ebal and Deuteronomy 28, listing the blessings. Half the nation (the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali) stood on Ebal to pronounce the curses of God, that is, a list of further, quite particular commandments that the nation would be cursed for failing in. The remaining tribes stood on Gerizim and countered with God’s blessings, introduced with the lovely expression that “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth.”

Image of the Nablus valley from Google Earth via

Image of the Nablus valley from Google Earth via

The mountains’ roles are finally fulfilled in Joshua 8, after the destruction of the city of Ai. There was an altar built on Ebal and plaster-cast copies of the law, and the whole of the law was read out with the nation of Israel arrayed on these hills, the ark of the covenant in the middle. It must have been a pretty spectacular scene with the nation numbering in the hundreds of thousands at least, by this stage. An awesome statement of the primacy of the law of God in the nation of Israel, and a visual representation that the Old Covenant, the Hebrew Law, was both a blessing and a curse to the people. They had blessings beyond comparison by being God’s people; but they had standards like no other nation could imagine.

That remained true and was borne out very graphically: throughout the times of the judges then the kings, when a leader and the people followed God, prosperity was found – not always in a financial sense, but through God’s provision. When the nation strayed, so they would founder and this proved especially true when the people were carted off to Babylon to be taught a lesson. The warning of mount Ebal rang true – fail to follow God and know His curse.

This salutory lesson, logically, should have stayed true. All have sinned, Paul says; and the wages of sin is death. But Christ intervened:

There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death… He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Romans 8:1-4

Christ overcame the requirements of the law, He met its asks. I can live therefore according to the spirit of the law, not in fear of its letter; that’s my Christian liberty. My salvation doesn’t depend on my consistency or purity anymore, but on Christ’s – thank God. I can take the grim proclamations of Mount Ebal as a serious lesson in natural consequences – even to the believer, sin makes its mark in so many ways. But I don’t stand in the hand of an angry God any more, as Mr Edwards would have put it; I’m stood on solid rock.

Mount Gerizim pops up once more in Judges 9, when Gideon’s son Jotham has a rare attack of holy boldness and stands on the mountain representing blessing to deliver a curse on the people below. It didn’t take long for the blessings of obedience to God to be forgotten and violence and disobedience to become the norm. Important then to stay on the case as Christians; shame to see our blessings turned to accusations.

Location: Mounts Ebal and Gerizim sit overlooking the Palestinian city of Nablus, in the West Bank.


Mount Peor

In mountain, Old Testament, physical geography on April 26, 2011 by simonbriercliffe Tagged: , , , ,

Possible location of Mount Peor, from

Possible location of Mount Peor, from

And Balak took Balaam to the top of Peor, overlooking the wasteland.
Numbers 23:28

Mount Peor might not be one of the most well-known physical locations in the Bible, but it played a pivotal part in the history of the Israelites. Peor overlooked one of the resting points of the Israelites on the Exodus route, and gave its name to a settlement nearby, Beth-Peor (Deuteronomy 3). It was from this point that Moses had to ascend Mount Pisgah to overlook the promised land – and also learn the galling news that because of his earlier disobedience, he’d never get to enter it. The location of the mountain is unclear: it’s somewhere East of the lower reaches of the Jordan: at this time it was in the land of Moab, later part of Reuben’s inheritance.

Peor is first mentioned in connection to the notorious Balaam, a prophet who tried to take money to curse the Israelites but was pretty much humiliated, first by a donkey, then by his own mouth (full story in Numbers 22-24). He was led by Balak, king of Moab, to the top of the mountain overlooking the Israelite encampment to have a final go at cursing Israel – instead, he had no choice but to say God’s words prophesying not just the power of Israel but also the coming Messiah.

This all contrasts pretty sharply with the events following in which Israel falls for the first time to idolatry and immorality – they worship the local god, Baal Peor and fall so far into sexual problems that God sends a plague killing 24,000 of them. Thus the Peor “incident” became a reference point for Israel’s fall from favour with God, the starting point for their cycle of obedience and disobedience – Psalm 106 includes it in its rundown of Israel’s greatest screw-ups. Hosea defines it as a turning point:

“When I found Israel,  it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.
But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.”
Hosea 9:10

Numbers 31:16 makes it pretty clear that although his tongue was held on the mountain at Peor, Balaam still managed to sow some pretty treacherous seed, tricking the Israelites into taking on board idolatrous practices. The theme picked up in the New Testament epistles condemns the immediate profit of disobedience to God that proved so tempting to Balaam (Jude 11; 2 Peter 2:15) – it reminds me of Jesus’ warning though: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Luke 9:25, NKJV). Balaam found this out in the most literal way. Revelation 2:14 also reminds us not to let ourselves slip into a similar trap as the Israelites.

What should have been a miraculous blessing for them at Mount Peor turned into a shameful mess that haunted them for years – it’s pretty clear that accommodating any sin is going to mess a Christian up. While God generally reserves the most dramatic judgements for the first incident in its environment of a particular sin (compare the plague and massacre here with Nadab and Abihu doing things their own way; or Achan holding on to the evidence of his guilt; or Ananias and Sapphira at the birth of the church); nevertheless as sinful people we have consequence stacked upon consequence of our actions – no wonder life is hard. Thank goodness then for Jesus’ offer to take our burden away completely:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Matthew 11:28-29

 Location: possible location as per Bible Geocoding


Hebron/Kirjath Arba

In city, Old Testament, physical geography on April 25, 2011 by simonbriercliffe Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

The burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah

Unlike the more obscure Mount Peor, you don’t have to look too hard for evidence of Hebron, one of the most ancient cities of the near East – the town is still there. The earliest Biblical reference describes Abraham settling in this Hittite territory after his nephew Lot chose to live on the ill-fated plains of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 13), but it was founded before that: 7 years before Zoan in Egypt  (Numbers 13:23) makes it hundreds of years older than Abraham, even. Abe lived near Mamre, a Canaanite shrine which was in use c.2600-2000BC, and once he’d bought the land off its Hittite owner, Ephron, he installed his dynasty and made it the burial place of him and his descendants. You can still find the Herod-era enclosure marking the spot where first Sarah, then Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried.

While Abe’s descendents were in Egypt the area fell into Amorite hands, most notably the sizable hands of Arba, forefather of the giant Anak – possible descendants of the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4. Arba’s descendents the Anakites were eventually driven out by Caleb in Joshua 14, but not before putting the willies up Caleb’s fellow-spies in Numbers 13:33. Later on it was being ruled by Hoham the Amorite (Joshua 10:3).

It was to Caleb that the city of Hebron (or as it was known then, Kirjath-Arba) was apportioned as a special allotment in the region prescribed for his tribe, Judah. The city became Caleb’s in Joshua 14:12-14 but is also notable for its variety of concurrent roles – it was a city allotted to Levi (who didn’t get big swathes of land – the priestly tribe had God for its inheritance), so it’s inhabitants must have been a tribal mixture of Judah and Levi. As well as that, it was a city of refuge – somewhere you could run to if you accidentally killed someone.

A lot of space is devoted to these cities in the Old Testament which suggests that there are important lessons in this, and my Bible reading this morning jolted my memory of this:

“God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged.” 
Hebrews 6:18

This, in a passage full of the infallibilities of God’s promises, reminds me that I’m part of that “we”: I’ve fled away from the old way to a “new and living way” and confidently so, because the hope I have is certain and sure – and that’s encouraging.

I like the idea of the levitical cities as well: I’ve no doubt that every so often the Levites would have had a grumble at the intangible nature of their inheritance compared to the other tribes, so God provided for them practically. The same is true today: Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), now ascended out of our eyesight, and our inheritance is specifically not tangible or physical (1 Peter 1:18) but God makes our provision clear anyway: a Comforter in the Holy Spirit, the Word of God to read, “the riches of his glorious inheritance” (Ephesians 1:18).

Later on, Hebron became the first capital of Judah, then of a united kingdom of Israel under David for seven and a half years before David moves up to Zion. The ancient settlement has seen all sorts of rulers and regimes: after the peak of the kingdom of Israel it was overtaken by the Edomites, then sacked by Judah Maccabee, fortified by Herod, conquered by the extremist Sicarii, burnt down by the Romans, rebuilt by the Byzantines only to be destroyed by the Sassanids. After years of varying religious sway it now became Islamicized, then “liberated” by Crusaders, recaptured by Saladin then occupied by the Ottoman empire and after them the British. Post-1948 gets even more complicated, so that today it’s a mishmash of all sorts, mainly Palestinian. Such is life: plenty of ups and downs. But for the Christian, with his/her sure and certain hope? I’m happy to remain cheerful and optimistic in Christ the Rock.,35.408158&spn=0.23184,0.626316&t=p&output=embed
View Biblical Geography in a larger map

Location: Hebron on the Biblical Geography map