Ancient Treaties and Biblical Covenant

For years I have spoken about the Biblical Covenants of the TaNaK (otherwise known as Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament) and how they contain eternal truths related to Israel both then and now. There have been many who assert that God has replaced Israel with the Church. They state that God changed His mind towards Israel who “failed to pass the test” and so He chose the Church who accepted Jesus versus the Jews/Israel who rejected Jesus as the Messiah (many times laying the blame on Jews as killers of the Son of God or typical Christian anti-Semitic label of ‘Christ-killer’). This is Replacement Theology or Supersessionism in a nutshell. It’s theology is shaped around the basic belief that Israel let God down, so He chose another, the Church. Replacement Theology can take two sides of the spectrum. #1. There isn’t anything individually special or unique about the Jews anymore, they are just like everyone else and God loves them, yet the covenant has still been transferred to the Church. #2. The Jews are a cursed race because they rejected Jesus and thus, they are damned without the possibility of salvation. This second theological stance may come across as extreme, and it is, but it is one that is held today by many professing “Christians” and was the foundational ideology preached by many of the Church Fathers, leading eventually to the Nazi Holocaust (Shoah) of six million Jews.

Also, woven into the fabric of Replacement Theology is the belief that all the blessings attached to the covenants intended for Israel, were given to the Church, yet of course the curses would remain with the Jews. However, one of the key mistakes to this reasoning, let alone the complete neglect and ignorance of understanding God’s nature and what covenant is, is that you cannot divide the blessings and the curses as they were exclusively bound to the very fabric of covenant! The blessings and curses only describe one particular type of covenant, that is the Mosaic Covenant, and this type of covenant, based off of the Hittite/Babylonian Suzerain-Vassal Treaty, always included blessings and curses. You cannot separate them. So it must be understood that there were other covenants given to Israel (Abrahamic and Davidic based upon the ancient Royal Grant Treaty) which Scripture declares are eternal and everlasting to Israel…this cannot imply the Church, for these promises to Israel were literal, physical promises to the physical descendants of Abraham, renewed through Isaac and Jacob and the rest of the Jewish race.

So, by much of the Churches reasoning concerning Replacement Theology, if we are to approach the Biblical covenants justly, with the belief that the Church indeed has in fact replaced Israel, then the Church must also be subject to the curses just as much as they believe they possess the blessings! This is certainly not a popular thought as Church history teaches us that the Church Fathers (Justin Martyr, St. Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairveux, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc.) believed firmly that the curses remained with the Jews. Once again, a total ignorance and rejection, on the part of the historical Church, to the nature of Biblical covenant. The Church cannot say, “We want the blessings but not the curses!” If they are attempting to hijack God’s covenant with Israel, the Church must accept the curses…which only means, that do to the imperfect historical record of the Church (Crusades, Inquisition, etc.) the Church is in danger of being cursed. This might come as a shock to many, but it is the truth. If the Church did indeed replace Israel, which I reject this theology outright, then the Church is subject to being cursed through disobedience. You see where this leads us with the sticky, chaotic approach for the Replacement Theologian. The Replacement Theologian cannot just believe that the Church has replaced Israel until they thoroughly study the Biblical, Hebraic, worldview. They must take into account the approach of covenant and what God meant when he forged covenant with Israel. To try to twist this into fitting the Church, upsets the apple cart and warps the Word of God. It creates problems that the only way to “fix” is to pollute and change the message of the Scriptures. It is religious theft and Biblical hijacking.

So let’s get some things clear before we dive into the historical relevance of the Abrahamic/Davidic Covenants and the Mosaic Covenant. God alone did the choosing and established covenant. Israel did not approach God, nor did Abraham, for he was a pagan before the Lord called to him (Joshua 24:2). As we see in Genesis 12:1, “Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.“” God chose Abraham and blessed him on account of his righteousness and faithfulness to God. This does not imply Abraham was a perfect man, but it does reveal Abraham as a man with great faith and love for God. He was willing to go against his own cultural norms in order to follow God and that was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3).

Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants and the Royal Grant Treaty

Therefore, God established a promise with Abraham through Genesis 12:1-3 “Now the Lord said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”” In Genesis 15:1-21 we see covenant in action where God called Abraham to cut apart certain animals and separate them, according to the ritual of ‘Cutting a Covenant’, an ancient Mesopotamian practice of establishing a covenant between two parties. In this practice, the two individuals making a covenant would cut apart animals and then walk between the pieces, often before witnesses. Regardless of social standing, the two people would be considered equal. The symbolism behind the halved carcasses was to announce to the world the stipulations of the contract, that if either person violated the covenant, they would become like the animal pieces. Essentially their lives were tied to the deal! However, in Abraham’s case, although he is obediently doing what the Lord has commanded him to do, it is possible he is thinking, “How can I pass between the pieces with the Lord? That would mean I am equal to Him? That is impossible!” Yet, Abraham still obeys. Then in verses 12-17 we read:

Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him. Then He (God) said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions. Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not complete.” And it came to pass, when the sun went down and it was dark, that behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces.”

God made the covenant alone with Abraham. This covenant would be bound to the very nature of God, based on who He is. Abraham could never have kept the covenant, but God can. Abraham is put into a deep sleep and has an incredible vision where God shows him the history of his people. They will be strangers in a foreign land, as Abraham had been, they will be afflicted and enslaved but after four hundred years they will come out of the land wealthy. God will uphold His promise by giving them the land of the wicked Amorites, who at the time of Abraham, were still being given time to repent. The land of enslavement is Egypt, and we know by the history of Exodus, that the Israelites were slaves. Moses delivered them and they plundered Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36) during their exit as the Lord had promised to Abraham. So God promises redemption and the sign of the covenant is ‘land’. He promises that the Israelites will come into the Promised Land, which was fulfilled under Joshua (Joshua 2) and God seals this covenant by passing between the pieces in a fiery motif that represents the glory of God. It is also relevant to note, that before God passes between the pieces, He states the purpose of the covenant which has the great reward of ‘land’ after four hundred years of affliction. This is so Abraham knows exactly what sort of covenant this is. Then once the glory of the Lord has passed between the carcasses, God states clearly the boundaries of the land in verses 18-21:

“On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates–the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”” God is specific about His covenant which includes blessing the descendants of Abraham with land. It is important to note that these boundaries are much larger than modern-day Israel, and the only time in history where nearly all of this was under Jewish control, was during King David/Solomon’s time. This goes to show that God had specific borders in mind and this would be given to Israel. However, when the tribes entered the land, they failed to take it all, mostly out of rebellion, unfaithfulness, fear, or making unholy alliances with the people groups who were subject to God’s judgment.

The passage in Genesis 15 is based on a Hittite/Babylonian treaty called the Royal Grant Treaty. This treaty was made between a king and his vassal as a reward for the loyalty in which the vassal demonstrated. In Tim Hegg’s book, ‘The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective’, he says: “In this kind of treaty the Great King would grant a parcel of land to the Vassal, declaring it tax-exempt and the possession of the Vassal through perpetuity. When the Vassal died, the land would become the possession of his family throughout their generations.” The Royal Grant Treaty is patterned directly off of what God establishes with Abraham. God uses a legally binding treaty, Abraham would have been familiar with, to cement His covenant with the patriarch of the Jewish people. This also shows God as the God of history. He doesn’t need to invent something never before seen, but uses a customary method of establishing a covenant and then perfects it. So God, as the Great King, entreats His Vassal, Abraham, to a covenant that consists of land (Israel) being given to Abraham and his descendants forever. As the stipulations of the Royal Grant Treaty dictate, even after the Vassal dies, the land is still retained as a possession to his descendants forever. Hegg continues with by saying, “No one could take the land from them, and no one could require a tax from it, even by the successor of the Great King.”

This covenant is permanent according to the Great King. Hegg says, “In this case, the rights of the Vassal were guaranteed in the treaty, and the Great King was the one who took the oath. There were no stipulations laid upon the Vassal, or measures to which he would need to perform in order to receive the gift. The whole matter was guaranteed on the word and oath of the Great King.” God established covenant with Abraham because He desired to choose a people in which to glorify Himself to the world, and He chose a man of great faith who was righteous and obeyed. Israel was not chosen by their own merits, as Deuteronomy attests in 7:6-8: “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” This election, this covenant oath which God swore to the forefathers of the Israelite nation, was everlasting and God vowed never to forget or abandon His people Israel. God also reaffirmed this covenant through King David (2nd Samuel 7:8-17, confirmed in Psalm 89) who He promised would forever reign upon his throne and which the Messiah would one day come through his line. “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever…And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” (2nd Samuel 7:12-13, 16) With David, was the reaffirmation of land and permanent ruling. How can a king rule without a kingdom? How can a king rule without land? Although Israel would be banished from the land, return, and suffer exile again, God will never be proven a liar and His promise with David stands. The State of Israel was reborn on May 14th 1948 and we look ahead to the return of Messiah who is from the line of David, where He will once again reign, but this time His reign will never end. So, God’s promises to David also echo a future, messianic promise of the restoration of Israel.

This is attested in Jeremiah 31:31-37 where God promises to renew His covenant with Israel by writing it upon their hearts, forgiving their iniquities, and affirming His covenant with them which is eternal. At Mount Sinai the people verbally agreed, “We will do all the Lord has commanded of us.” But this lip-service, for most of the nation, was never fully upheld as Israel chased after idolatry, forged alliances with pagan nations, and even committed pagan acts. Thus, they were judged with famine, drought, sickness, war, and exile. But this was not the end, and the prophets proclaimed messages of hope, restoration, and a future time of salvation.

The Apostle Paul also affirms this covenant based upon God’s oath with the fathers in Romans 11:28. Here, in greater context, Paul is speaking about how Gentiles have come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah based upon the blindness of the Jewish nation who do not see Him as Messiah. Paul speaks of some of these Jews as “enemies of the Gospel” but he reminds the Roman Gentile believers that, by the Jewish nation opposing the Gospel, it actually works out that it is for the sake of Gentiles. For if the entire Jewish leadership had recognized Jesus as Messiah, Jesus would have had to set up His kingdom and the world would have been judged. Yet, for God’s great love for the world, the gospel was intended to go out into the world. However, despite the fact that most Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, Paul still reminds his readers that concerning election, Israel is still the beloved of God. This word ‘beloved’ is a word synonymous with how a bride is seen in the eyes of her groom. God has not forgotten His people and loves them dearly, like a bridegroom. 

Mosaic Covenant and the Suzerain-Vassal Treaty

The other covenant we will examine before closing, is the Mosaic Covenant which had a strict outline of what God expected from Israel. This was given at Mount Sinai, preached to the people through Moses and outlined clear blessings and curses. The Mosaic Covenant is clearly based on the Suzerain-Vassal treaty found in ancient history. Archaeology has shed much light on this treaty. In Princeton’s priceless resource by James B. Pritchard, entitled, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, primary sources of the ancient period are consulted and arranged giving the scholar a glimpse into the mythologies, laws, edicts, treaties, funerary rites, and so on of the ancient world. In the “Treaty Between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub of Amurru” (Hittite) it clearly depicts an individual, Duppi-Tessub, who has been accepted and taken in by the kingdom of the Hatti Land. King Mursilis offers assistance to Duppi-Tessub whose descendants will inherit the land of Amurru. Mursilis looks on Duppi-Tessub as his faithful Vassal. There has been loss in Duppi-Tessub’s life and a legal obligation to the king on behalf of Duppi-Tessub, which prompts the King Mursilis to make a treaty with him (Mursilis often speaking in the third person in the treaty). The treaty spells out the commitment of King Mursilis to Duppi-Tessub and reveals the nature of the Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. Tim Hegg writes, “The Suzerain-Vassal treaty was made between a Great King and his appointed Vassal in order to safe guard the interests of the Great King and assure the loyalty of the Vassal. By their very nature, these treaties were bilateral, meaning that the blessings or rewards from the Great King were dependent upon the obedience and compliance of the Vassal.” If the Vassal fulfilled his duty and remained loyal, the king would reward him, but if the Vassal disobeyed or rebelled, then the Vassal was subject to the curses outlined in the treaty. This was all to ensure the loyalty of the Vassal and that the king’s interests were protected.

In the Mursilis/Duppi-Tessub treaty, the document reads: “When I, the Sun, sought after you in accordance with your father’s word and put you in your father’s place, I took you in oath for the king of the Hatti land, the Hatti land, and for my sons and grandsons. So honor the oath (of loyalty) to the king and the king’s kin! And I, the king, will be loyal toward you, Duppi-Tessub. When you take a wife, and when you beget an heir, he shall be king in the Amurru land likewise. And just as I shall be loyal toward you, even so shall I be loyal toward your son. But you, Duppi-Tessub, remain loyal toward the king of the Hatti land, the Hatti land, my sons (and) my grandsons forever!” It continues with a warning: “Do not turn your eyes to anyone else! Your fathers presented tribute to Egypt; you [shall not do that!]” The treaty outlines blessings upon Duppi-Tessub, evoking the power of the gods and their will, but concludes with the threat of curses should Duppi-Tessub be unfaithful in keeping up his end of the treaty with King Mursilis. “The words of this treaty and the oath that are inscribed on this tablet–should Duppi-Tessub not honor these words of the treaty and the oath, may these gods of the oath destroy Duppi-Tessub together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house, his land and together with everything that he owns. But if Duppi-Tessub honors these words of the treaty and the oath that are inscribed on this tablet, may these gods of the oath protect him together with his person, his wife, his son, his grandson, his house (and) his country.”

This is the summation of the treaty. In this case, the Great King Mursilis and his treaty with Duppi-Tessub can be compared to the covenant established by YHVH, the God of Israel, with Israel (representing Duppi-Tessub) through the Mosaic Covenant. In the Mosaic Covenant God gives strict instructions to protect His interests, which is, He is holy and wants to separate the people of Israel as a holy people, so they must worship God as He dictates and do what He says. The people, who are the Vassal of the Great King, agree to this covenant, which thereby means, they are agreeing to uphold the covenant given to them by God, the Great King. With this covenant are clear instructions of blessing and curses (Leviticus 26:1-46). If Israel meets the standards of the covenant and is faithful, God will bless Israel with rain, prosperity, childbirth, wealth, no sickness, the absence of war, and security. However, if Israel fails and disobeys the Great King, then curses will befall them in the form of famine, disaster, war, and exile. This is a Suzerain-Vassal styled treaty which God established with the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai. The people would understand the meaning of such a covenant and submit themselves under God’s authority, in a similar way, but magnified, as Duppi-Tessub would have submitted under the authority of King Mursilis of the Hatti Land.

Despite Israel’s rebellion in their history, and the breaking of the Mosaic Covenant on their part, not God’s, Israel has suffered greatly. However, God continues to uphold his promise to the Jewish people based on their election through the establishment of the Abrahamic/Davidic covenants where God pledged, unconditionally, that He will remember them forever and never forsake His chosen people. The Great King still upholds his royal covenant, and despite Israel’s failing, the Great King of Israel will restore His people, as the prophet Zechariah declares in 14:16-17, when all the nations will come up to Jerusalem to worship the Great King and honour Him through the fulfillment and celebration of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. And it shall be that whichever of the families of the earth do not come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, on them there will be no rain.” Israel will be restored, the Law will be written on their hearts as Jeremiah prophesied, and Israel will lead the nations in worship in the city of Jerusalem, the city of the Great King!

By, Rev. Peter J. Fast, BA.IS, BA,BS

Sources Consulted:

All Scripture Quoted from: New King James Bible

Hegg, Tim. The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective. Tacoma Washington: Torah Resource, 2008. Pg. 156-157

Pritchard, James B. ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1969. Pg. 203-205.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. USA: Harper San Francisco Publishers, 2003.

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Dagon and the Ark of the Covenant

A look into the history of the Philistine god Dagon and the Ark of the Covenant of Israel

A glimpse into the past:

Like Greece and Troy, Rome and Carthage, or Norman and Saxon, the clash between the tribes of the Israelites and that of the Philistines has been one that has captured the fascination of Biblical scholars, historians, archaeologists, and professors. Historically, this clash found itself playing out along a narrow strip of land set against the shores of the eastern Mediterranean Sea and into the heart of Eretz Yisrael in the days of the Judges (i.e. Samson), and later during the time of King Saul and King David.

Biblical accounts of this struggle are well documented. For the players in this conflict, the Bible provides us a picture of what type of people the Philistines and Israelites were, where they lived, names of their kings and cities, how they fought, their military strategies, and what deity/deities they worshiped.

Looking closer at the Philistines:

Looking throughout scripture we see early examples of the Philistines settled in parts of the coastal plain and southern regions, as early back as Abraham (Gen. 21:34), and the Philistine King Abimelech who was operating around the region of Beer-sheva (Gen. 21:32). Later, when we see them in the Bible as a formidable enemy during the period of the Judges and King Saul, we see the Philistines established in five major coastal cities: Gaza, Gath, Ekron, Ashdod, and Ashkelon. Intense excavations have been done in some of these places, particularly recently at Gath which has uncovered incredible findings on Philistine pottery. You can read my post on the excavations at Gath : https://peterjfast.com/2011/07/11/in-israel-diggers-unearth-the-bibles-bad-guys/

Although many historians and archaeologists commonly believe the Philistines to be the illustrious “sea peoples” with their arrival from Crete or other parts of the Aegean, this brings about major complications and does not fit with scripture or realistic possibilities in those days.

Common misconceptions regarding Philistines and the “Sea People”

The “sea people” are seen as a “loose confederation” of people who originated either from the Aegean or Asia Minor and essentially sailed south due to famine and drought. This is depicted in reliefs in Egypt (i.e. Karnak, Medinet Habu, etc) and records that show a people invading northern Egypt, bent on conquering it. But who were these people? Many ideas and theories have been pitched around, but one of the most common is that the “sea people” (or a large segment of them) are unanimous with the Philistines who left Crete/Asia Minor in the 11th-12th century B.C. (time of Merenptah and Ramses III) and tried to settle in Egypt. The belief is that after Merenptah halted them in a bloody conflict, Pharaoh Ramses III finally blocked their way and engaged the sea people in a massive sea battle which the sea people eventually lost and therefore settled along the north coast and established Syro-Palestine (Land of the Philistines) and added their five major cities. This has been the idea of the settling of the Philistines into the land.  This theory has a number of major issues though which bear some holes. Although I am not debating the origins of the “sea people” I merely seek to start off upon their intended invasion of Egypt and the problems that arise once one attempts to explain them in terms of being Philistines.

First, the original reliefs are really divided into three major ones which are the most popular. One depicting the “sea people” engaged in a bitter sea battle with Egyptians (from Ramses III period), the second showing war-carts on land, and the third revealing prisoners of the “sea people” being led away. The first and third relief mentioned, are pretty self-explanatory, a battle happened, one side lost and was led away in chains. However, the complicated issue is in the second relief of the war-carts drawn by oxen.

This relief depicts the “sea people” as having many war-carts that are drawn by large animals as they gather on land for battle, yet the actual battle was fought at sea. The relief however, shows carts deployed for war and “sea people” filed into rank as they advance. So, this naturally begs the question of how did they get the carts over to Egypt? There are two possibilities. #1 They either would have had to try to sail them across, or #2 they simply crossed hundreds of miles of hostile land with all their carts as they headed for Egypt. Both are very difficult to swallow. Given the amount of ships needed for such an undertaking, the “sea people” would have had to double their fleet just to carry the carts, livestock, and supplies needed, especially animal feed. Along with this, if they were looking at resettling they would have had wives and children with them in the thousands. These people could never have been present for such a battle and so would have had to be left somewhere until after the battle, unless the army sailed without them intending to return to collect their populace once the battle had been won. Whatever the reason, major complications arise. Thus, the only explanation for ships and war-carts being depicted on different frescoes, of the same people in the same time period and supposedly during the same event is possibly that there were two battles: one at sea and the other at land. Another hypothesis is that the “sea people” engaged the Egyptians at sea with a land contingent that never actually fought due to the defeat. However, the presence of the war-carts does raise issues in still explaining their presence to begin with as they would have been brought by the “sea people” or possibly provided by an allied contingent. But this begins to change the story of people sailing across the sea to find new land in Egypt. Although this does not in fact disprove the “sea people” from being Philistines, this however demonstrates the difficulty in placing this people into the developed world of the Philistines, or make it plausible to forgo such an undertaking as settling the land after the near destruction at the hands of the Egyptians.

The “sea people” are also depicted in the frescoes as having feather head-dresses fixed to helmets, and unique sword styles. They are beardless and are fierce as they slaughter many Egyptians before eventually being outnumbered and overwhelmed. Although nobody has been able to state with absolute certainty where they actually originated from, it is possible they held alliances with the Libyans and also made up many small tribes from the north. There is a possibility they may have influenced Philistine culture along the coast, but nothing substantial as Philistine culture was firmly planted and we will explore that a little further. Yet, I do not wish to rule out future developments and cultural changes through trade, merchants, etc in Philistine culture as this evolution is prevalent through pottery discoveries and art (i.e. Cypriotic pottery at later dates).

The final evidence that the “sea people” cannot be the Philistines is that these theories do not take into account the Biblical history which places Philistine tribes already living in the land as natives. This is seen in scripture as Abraham interacts with them, Samson fights them, Saul is slain by them, and David joins them for a time before becoming King of Israel. More than likely they had Semitic roots, like the Canaanites, with linguistic similarities, and over time bands of them settled along the western coast and established their cities. We know they where there at the time of Moses (Ex. 13:17) as the Children of Israel were not to go the easier route through “the land of the Philistines.” Therefore, the Philistines were a nomadic, native, tribal people who dwelt in parts of the land and eventually settled en-mass along the coast to become Israel’s sworn enemies as they contested over land and power.

Looking closer at the Israelites:

The Israelites are a unique nomadic people who after the exodus from Egypt and the forty wandering years enter the land under their new commander Joshua ben Nun. The Israelites trace their ancestry through their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and are divided into twelve tribes (named after Jacob’s sons), have specific marching orders, a leadership system of elders and priests, roll calls for eligible military service among the men by tribe, worship one God, follow the same religious worship, and circumvent a tent like structure which is called the Tabernacle, when they set camp. As nomads, the Tabernacle is able to be packed up and transported to its next spot where it will then be set up again. The Tabernacle is like a mobile temple and bears sacred furnishings and specific calculations in how it was to be made, appear, set up, and taken down. The Tabernacle becomes the focus and center of the Jewish faith as priests form the tribe of Levi preside over it, and it is to contain the Ark of the Covenant (mercy-seat) which is where God’s glory resides in the camp.

However, throughout time the tribes of Israel invade the land that is promised to them by God, and through years of hard warfare, become experienced in war. Pagan kings, cities, tribes, and armies are crushed and the Israelites settle the land. But, after the death of Joshua ben Nun, it is clear that some of the tribes do not follow God’s commandments to fully conquer the land and they allow enemies to live, take slaves and seize possessions when they are to kill and destroy them, and over time begin to feel the backlash as those enemies become powerful once again. Thus enters the great rival and enemy of Israel in her early days, the Philistines of the eastern coastal plain. Despite similarities between the two, there is still a major difference and that is the idea of, who is God?

Dagon, god of fish and deity of the Philistine pantheon:

Like I mentioned, the Bible is an excellent tool in exploring who the Philistines were and who their gods were. In scripture we see one Philistine god rise above the others, Dagon the chief god. In Judges 16:23 we see the victorious Philistine lords and nobles take the captured Samson to place him as a human trophy before Dagon. It says, “Now the lords of the Philistines gathered together to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and rejoice.” Moving ahead in the story we come to verse 27 which states: “Now the temple was full of men and women. All the lords of the Philistines were there – about three thousand men and women on the roof watching while Samson performed.” They had gathered to mock Samson, but more importantly to present him to their god, Dagon, as a war trophy and proof that Dagon was stronger than the God of Israel. We see they brought Samson to the temple of Dagon and states in verse 25 that their hearts were merry, meaning they were drunk. In paganism it was common to drink and eat to the gods and toast them before a spectacle or offering. We see the same idea in 1st Chron. 10:10 where they put the suits of armor from Saul into the temples to their gods and fastened Saul’s head in the temple to Dagon as an offering which was a very common thing to do in those days. Yet, in this case of Samson, he was the offering and they were praising Dagon for defeating their enemies. Samson, however, ended up praying to God, receiving his strength back and collapsing the temple by pushing out the pillars.

Who was Dagon? Originally, Dagon had Assyro-Babylonian background as a fertility god that later spread into the Semitic west. The promotion of gods and goddesses was rampant in those times and easily spread through conquests, trade of goods, slaves, and other means of traveling people. We also see the locality of gods over certain areas and cities, like Baal and Asherah. Dagon eventually became such a locale deity of the Philistine people and in the Bible we see the effects and widespread worship of Dagon, not just in one or two cities, but as a national expression throughout the Philistines as a people group. Finally, as a fertility god, Dagon most likely had purpose in crops and as a provider of food and nourishment. Dagon also came to be expressed as a god of fish, although this tradition developed later as at the time of the Philistines we see in 1st Samuel 5:4 that when the god Dagon fell, “The head of Dagon and both palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it.” And what fish has palms and a torso? Although some say the image of Dagon may have been part man-fish (like a Centaur) there is nothing which says this was the belief held by the early Philistines until the fish-god adoption by later maritime Canaanites.

Ancient Israel’s Ark of the Covenant, a sacred symbol of holiness:

Setting Indiana Jones aside, the Ark of the Covenant was real and the most holy object in the Tabernacle (and later Temple’s) furnishings. It was built of a specific type of wood called Acacia wood, was inlaid in gold, with a lid that sealed the box. Upon the top were two shaped images of cherubim (angels) covered in gold, and through rings that were built upon the side of the ark were poles that would slide through for carrying. These specific instructions were given for the construction of the ark, including its exact size as seen in Exodus 25:10-22. It was also to be carried only by priests of the tribe of Levi (Deut. 10:8, Josh. 3:3). The ark was a holy, sacred symbol (Josh. 3:17, 4:9, 4:18) which represented God’s glory (shekinah) amidst the people of Israel, and this was not to be treated lightly. This explains the purpose of the ark to be separate and treated differently, and symbolized God’s judgment and mercy upon His people.

Some common Biblical facts about the Ark of the Covenant. #1 It was to be carried ahead of the people (Josh. 3:6, Num. 10:33). #2 The Ark of the Covenant also had the role as a military icon standing for God fighting the battle for Israel (Josh. 6:6-8). #3 Some of the Israelites came to see it as a magical charm in war because its presence terrified the Philistines, thus they treated it lightly and incurred God’s wrath (1st Sam. 4:3-5). #4 The Ark of the Covenant contained sacred items to the Jews and part of their history (Deut. 10:25, 1st Kings 8:9, Heb. 9:4). #5 The Ark of the Covenant was in Shiloh for 369 years before being moved to Jerusalem (Judges 20:27, 1st Sam. 3:3; 4:3, 1st Kings 6:19, 8:6). #6 King David wanted to build a Temple dedicated to God to place the ark inside it (1st Chron. 17:11, 28:2) and before this the ark was kept inside the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:33; 31:7).

Dagon and the Ark of the Covenant

Now, lets examine one of the most famous stories in the Bible where Dagon and the Ark of the Covenant meet. However, keep note that the Philistines, at this point, had grown to fear the Ark of the Covenant (1st Sam. 4:6-9) as they believed it to be a powerful, supernatural weapon the Israelites carried into battle. As accustomed in those days, often times before a battle, armies would bring their gods, charms, or hold sacrificial ceremonies in honor of their gods. So in the case for the Israelites to do the same, it was completely normal. Except that in the case of the ark, it was not to be paraded around like a good-luck charm or some trophy and because of the arrogance and recklessness of the Israelites we see in 1st Samuel 4:11;4:17-22 that the Philistines end up defeating the Israelites and capturing the ark.

After defeating the Israelite army we see an interesting play of events. The Philistines first take the ark as a trophy and seek to dedicate it to their god, Dagon. This was a typical thing to do in that day as a symbol of dominance, for as much as people were fighting against themselves, they also believed that the gods in the heavens were in constant competition. Thus, for Dagon in the eyes of the Philistines, he was tougher and mightier than the God of Israel.

So, we see the Philistines bring the Ark of the Covenant first to the city of Ashdod (1st Sam. 5:1) and they set it in the “house” or temple to Dagon. But, in this case they did not just put it in the temple, they placed it directly beside the image of Dagon as a superiority complex and boasting as the victors (1st Sam. 5:2). What happens next would have been a terrible shock to the Philistines for in verse 3 it says, “And when the people of Ashdod arose early in the morning , there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and set it in its place again.” The interesting way this is recorded does not show the people’s shock and surprise at first, although it most definitely would have existed. Most likely the first ones to stumble upon this would have been priests or magicians of Dagon. These men would have held sway over the minds of the locals and no doubt would have perceived this as a bad omen.

The gods in ancient times, were seen as rulers of the earth, nature, wildlife, and actual sustenance for humans. They conducted the affairs of man and ruled the vast stars and planets, which to humans at that time was a very mysterious realm. So, to see the image of their god lying upon the ground would have been terrifying. Yet, the story only tells us that they simply stood Dagon back up and put it in its place. The “place” where Dagon most likely would have been was either on a pillar or stand of some sort, or possibly in a carved out niche in a wall (in verse 5 it calls the place a “threshold of Dagon” and a place to tread upon). Nonetheless, this was not the end of the story for we see that the next morning the people arose and this time find not only Dagon upon the ground, but broken and ruined. We see in verse 5 that this was such a terrible shock to them that “Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

What happens next is stunning. A plague breaks out in Ashdod as described in verse 6 as “the hand of the LORD was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory.” So plague and suffering broke out beyond the borders of the city and people were affected by this. God was judging the pride, arrogance, wickedness and folly of the Philistines for treating Him lightly and scoffing His name. God had already judged the Israelites for treating Him lightly as they were hugely defeated in battle, but now it was the Philistines turn. As we continue we see the Philistines get absolutely desperate. They know and feel the power of the God of Israel, yet at first they think it is a local power that burns against them, as if perhaps it was the sacred ground and region of Ashdod that somehow insulted the Jewish God, and by moving the ark will solve the problem. So, they send it to Gath in verse 8b, yet the same thing happens there. Here we see the pride of the Philistines and stubbornness to relinquish the ark for it is not only their war trophy, but by surrendering it is them saying that the Jewish God is more powerful than Dagon. So, they send the ark to Ekron, yet the people there, who have no doubt heard of all the tragedy in the other cities, cry out to send it away but it is too late and many are stricken and die (1st Sam. 5:10-12).

The opening of 1st Samuel 6:1 gives us a time frame to work with of how long the Ark of the Covenant was in the hands of the Philistines. It states, “Now the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months.” Obviously the hand of the Lord burned upon them and plague continued to spread and devastate the people for we see in verse 2 of chapter 6, that the Philistines finally call for the priests and ask of them what they should do with the ark. Here we see the priests finally coming to grips with the power of the God of Israel and their fear. They know it has to be sent away, but to their understanding, appeasing the gods is always a smart move and so in verse 3 it states, “So they said, ‘If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but by all means return it to Him with a trespass offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known you why His hand is not removed from you.” This loaded passage gives us a glimpse into the understanding of the pagan Philistines and pagan culture of that time. The priests have attributed their suffering to the relic of another God, a common superstitious belief in those days. They therefore naturally wish to appease the deity and send it back, not just to the people, but to God! They misconceive the purpose of the ark and no doubt believe it to be an idol of the Hebrews. They also identify the land with the deity (God of Israel) as His domain and believe that once the sacred relic is united with the land and people then it will cause the deity (God of Israel) to relent on His anger and heal them. The priests and Philistines realize this is a matter of life or death and actually believe that they will be healed once they send it back, and so, with much haste the Ark of the Covenant is safely delivered to the Israelites at Beit Shemesh.

By: Peter J. Fast

If you have any insights on this article, please leave your comments.

Part One: “Let us worship the creation instead of the Creator!”: The clash between the pagans and the radical idea of monotheism

The Central Manifestation of Paganism: The Egyptians, Canaanites and the radical Hebrews

An exploration into the common links of ancient paganism will naturally unearth similarities between all participating cultures despite separation of time and place. For instance, the connections in religious worship between the ancient Egyptians, Canaanites (which we will both be studying) will show how both people groups, despite having different customs, language, religious expression, ruling worldviews, and so on, may actually have more in common than the regular person on the street may perceive. This commonality which I seek to open exists in the religious expression of the worship of nature which therefore rules and dominates that particular society’s life and thus controls their direction, decisions, governing bodies, military actions, agrarian pursuits, and the list continues. Let’s just say in simpler terms, “What you truly believe in will guide and dominate how you live, whether for good or for evil.”

One may say that paganism is something of days where ignorance was rampant, superstition ruled, and people were uneducated neanderthals, prone to believe anything and easily duped by strange, wild, interpretations of nature. Well, the apple does not fall far from the tree. As it states in the Christian scriptures of the Bible (New Testament) in Romans 1:24-25, that because of man’s wickedness God gave them to the “lusts of their hearts”, which interestingly enough it states in verse 25, “who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

Paganism Today

In this recent year, the practice of Druidism has become an official religion in the United Kingdom as it has well passed the minimum 10,000 adherents a faith needs to be recognized as a viable religion. On the other hand, Witchcraft/Wicca has become more popular as an umbrella based practice that views itself as connecting with and worshiping nature and the world. Environmentalists call the earth, “Gaia the mother goddess of the earth”, people flock to New Age expression to connect with nature (believing God or a great spirit, is in everything), ecologists place humanity on the same scale as animals (even saying humans are less of a concern), and now there are millions throughout the globe who demand to be called, “Neo-pagans” (as if what they believe is any real difference then the thousands of years of pagan practice) and that they are a true form of humanity and represent progressive human needs. This bunch believes that they alone can purify the world, cast off the chains of bondage (which is Christianity/Judaism or simply monotheism) and purport themselves as the true shepherds of nature, the animal kingdom, and guardians. So, has anything really changed? We may not be wearing toga’s, or embalming our dead and locking them in pyramids with mummified felines and alligators, but we are not that much different. So, let us first go back in time to the age of the ancient Egyptians.

Part One: Ancient Egypt (3150-30 B.C.E) Date is based on estimate of the ruling dynasties to the end of the Ptolemies before coming under Roman rule.

In the Hebrew TaNaK (Old Testament), a phenomenal story unfolds in the Torah (second book of Moses which is called, Exodus) where we see a Hebrew man ordained by God through a series of events named Moses. Ultimately, God charges Moses with the task to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt and demand that the Hebrew slaves be set free, which Moses is able to do with the assistance of his spokesman, Aaron.

In an epic showdown, Moses departs from the land of Midian and travels to his home in Egypt where he declares to Pharaoh for the enslaved and oppressed Hebrews to be released to go out into the wilderness and make a sacrifice to their God. This was naturally an affront to Pharaoh who would have viewed himself as god and who was part of a society which worshiped what they could see, namely nature. To believe that gods or spirits lived in living things (whether animal or plant or natural wonder) was the norm and which went contrary to a belief in one monotheistic God who was invisible and had selected a certain people as His own. When Pharaoh objected to Moses’ demand and refused, we see God send a series of ten deadly plagues (Exodus 7-12) through the actions of Moses to torment the people of Egypt until Pharaoh relinquished control over the slaves and allows them to leave. Now, to someone who is unfamiliar with the purpose of the plagues, they may be surprised to discover that the particular plagues were not chosen by mere chance. It was not like God had a fascination to torment people with frogs and insects because those were the creepier options, no, the plagues we read about that judged the land were precisely directed at the Egyptian’s pagan lifestyle and their elevation of nature and creatures over the Creator. It was God showing to them that their gods were nothing and powerless under His divine authority which was true power and fulfillment. Let’s take a closer look at these plagues and the gods that they defied.

1. Water turns to blood (Exodus 7:14-25) The water of the Nile turned to blood which corresponded to Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile. This plague would have devastated the agrarian aspect of Egypt in particular as the silt from the Nile enriches the fertile land for farming around the Nile. Along with the destruction of the farm land, the fish and any wildlife would have also died causing a catastrophe. However, Pharaoh would not so easily yield to the God of the Hebrews as he would cast his country and empire into such a dismal and terrible state until he would be brought to his knees. Following the powerful plague of the Nile, the priests of Pharaoh were able to duplicate this plague and the Pharaoh did not listen to Moses’ demands.

2. Plague of Frogs (Exodus 8:1-15) The outbreak of frogs that tormented the land and caused suffering corresponded to Heket, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, water, and renewal who is pictured with a human body and frog head. The priests of Pharaoh were able to also bring up frogs but only Moses was able to make them go away. One can just imagine how the land would have reeked from the piles of dead frogs and how sickness easily could have broken out.

3. Plague of Lice (Exodus 8:16-19) The outbreak of the lice which came from the dust of the earth was an attack against the Egyptian god, Geb, who was seen as the master of the earth. This interesting correlation also can be seen in the creation of man from the dust of the earth in Genesis, but in this case it was the plague that was a torment to man. The priests of Pharaoh are unable to content with this power and are humiliated as both man and beast suffer.

4. Plague of Flies (Exodus 8:20-31) The plague of the swarms of flies was a direct confrontation against Khepri, who was seen as the Egyptian god of rebirth, creation, and movement of the sun and was pictured with a human body and the head of a fly. This plague now only affects the Egyptians leaving the Hebrews (living in the land of Goshen) unscathed. It also elevates the plagues to causing destruction and not just discomfort as did the earlier ones. We see Pharaoh attempt to negotiate with Moses on his terms about the Hebrew’s leaving and when the plague ceases Pharaoh returns to worshiping his Egyptian gods.

5. Plague of Pestilence (Exodus 9:1-7) The plague of pestilence attacks cattle and livestock alike, but great death is noticed among the herds of cattle more than anything and this is a front against the Egyptian goddess, Hathor who is seen to be the goddess of love and protection. The interesting thing about, Hathor is that  she is pictured with a cow’s head and therefore represented directly the cattle, which was a main commodity of Egypt which would have affected military, transport, economic, and agricultural pursuits and lifestyle. Plain and simple, it would have been devastating to Egypt, but nevertheless, Pharaoh continued to be faithful to his gods and goddesses and refused to acknowledge the one and true God or give in to Moses and let the Hebrews leave.

6. Plague of Boils and Sores (Exodus 9:8-12) The horrible plague of boils was a direct attack against the Egyptian deity of Isis who was believed to be the goddess of medicine and peace. This was the first plague which we see directly affect the Egyptians physically and ironically enough it was a plague of great agony and discomfort to people’s health which revealed that a goddess such as Isis (who was a deity of medicine) ironically was powerless to do anything to relieve the misery of her faithful adherents. As well, this particular plague sent a strong and firm message to the Egyptians who were regarded as a very clean and hygienic people who this plague would naturally pronounce them as unclean and marred by the filth of their sores. One again, the Hebrews are unscathed by such a disease stricken plague and God shows that this is a personal judgment and vendetta against the people who are enslaving His people and are bound in the darkness of pagan idolatry. We also see a division between Pharaoh and the priests as the priests are unable to do anything to counter act the plague and therefore are removed from the scene completely and unable to even be in the presence of the king.

7. Plague of Hail and Fire (Exodus 9:13-35) The plague of hail and fire once again is a direct correlation to assaulting another Egyptian deity known as Nut who is the goddess of the sky. This literally shows the thing that was being worshiped, the sky, had become the enemy of the people as a firestorm rained down upon the land destroying the Egyptian crops. The crops ruined in the account were flax and barley, which would have been ripening in the fields at the time and ready for harvest. The interesting thing about this punishment is that the Egyptians did not eat these grains but used them in the process of clothing and libations for ceremonial temple practices. God was sending a message to the Egyptians but was merciful at the same time because He spared their fields of wheat (which was a main food source) as God was giving the Egyptians another chance. This entire plague, like all the ones before and after, were signs pointing to the one, true, God and that He alone was the God over the earth and the heavens and that He alone was God and not the gods and goddesses of the Egyptians.

8. Plague of Locusts (Exodus 10:1-20) The eighth plague was a devastating one that followed the hail and fire and this one was a result from Pharaoh hardening his heart and refusing to acknowledge the God of the Hebrews, and this plague was swarms of locusts (grasshoppers) in the billions. This plague was a direct attack against the Egyptian god of storms and disorder, Seth. This plague would devastate the country, destroying fields and tormenting everyone in its path. Like locusts do, they fly through fields, jumping upon each other and clinging to stalks of vegetation, devouring anything in their path. Their swarms can sometimes be so thick they blot out the sun and the beating of their wings can be so loud and terrifying it has been known to drive animals crazy with fear. Even today, swarms of locust are a huge problem. However, in the case of the plagues, God sent these locust by divine judgment to devastate the country and bring it to its knees. Yet, still Pharaoh would not listen.

9. Plague of Darkness (Exodus 10:21-29) One of the most widely known Egyptian gods, even today, was the god Ra who was the sun-god. Therefore, the plague of complete and utter darkness was a direct sign to the Egyptians that the God of the Hebrews was ultimate and was the one really in control, even over the sun.We see the Egyptians overcome by fear that is ripe within the land, and it being a time of terror. To the Egyptians, the essence and symbol of darkness was that of death, judgment and hopelessness. Therefore, with the sun being blotted out for three days it showed that the God which Moses spoke on behalf of, was ruler over life and death, a startling reality for the Egyptians who saw these attributes in Ra. However, Pharaoh did not relent and we move to the tenth and most terrible plague.


10. Plague of the Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 11-12:1-30) The final plague is an interesting one for it is directed at one type of person, the Firstborn. In ancient times the firstborn was the one who would inherit the family estate, blessings, and would be the leader of the house. When the Angel of the Lord passed through Egypt and killed the firstborn this was a devastating and crippling blow to Egypt. However, perhaps the most crippling blow was upon the house of Pharaoh himself, who his own child and firstborn died, and many scholars believe that he himself must have had an elder brother who did not inherit the throne (because of a handicap) and that he would have died and not the Pharaoh we read about. This would also explain why the Pharaoh in the Biblical account did not die from a plague that covered the entire land. Yet, the death of the firstborn in the house of Pharaoh was also significant mainly because Pharaoh was believed to be god on earth and believed to be the greatest of all gods, in fact the son of Ra manifest in the flesh. It was only after the death of the firstborn that Pharaoh relented and let the Hebrews go, yet we see further on in the account that Pharaoh’s pride would not end here but in the Red Sea after his entire army and himself had been drowned.

Conclusion of the Egyptians

Even after the terrible destruction caused by the plagues and the flight of the Jewish people from their bondage in the Exodus, we still see a hardening of the heart of ancient Egypt and the refusal to change. Pagan life around the Nile would continue as Pharaoh’s like Merneptah and Ramses III would reign in era’s considered “golden ages” yet immersed within the culture would continue the worship of nature, natural forces, and their kings. Massive pyramids, statues, palaces, and cities would be built in the honor and deification of nature, amulets, images, and names would be inscribed upon basic daily items such as perfume jars, combs, seals, kitchen ware, furniture, and wall reliefs. Entire compilations of papyrus scrolls would be written by scribes laying out the orders for burial, spells, magical incantations, and practices, all of which are found in the famous, “Book of the Dead”, as well as practically every other wall relief and scroll.

The worship and reverence of nature and life was interwoven like a thread in a quilt as the Egyptians continued this belief system even through when it became a Roman province in the year 30 B.C.E. It is important to note that the correlation between what the ancient Egyptians believed and what is going on today is no different. We still seek after and are entranced by that which is not God and truth as the Egyptians did. We still buy into the lie, follow blindly what we do not know, and stray away from hope and truth which leads to an understanding who God truly is and the salvation and freedom from darkness that He offers. We can definitely learn from the Bible which is laid out like a road map before us. As the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes states 1:9-10, “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, “See, this is new”? It has already been in ancient times before us.” (bold added by me).

by: Peter J. Fast

Soon to come: Part Two: The ancient Canaanites 2500 – 411 B.C.E. Date is based on period known as Late Bronze Age to the last recorded Canaanite king Abdemon