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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Why all the inaction? Three reasons why the Seleucid Empire failed to defeat the Maccabees

51To one who knows the historical happenings concerning the war between the dreaded Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes IV and Judah Maccabee (story of Hanukkah), they must be always struck with a sense of awe and monumental surprise, for when we take a step back and examine the situation on the eve of the rebellion, the odds were clearly stacked in the Seleucids favour. This earth shattering story, intimately recorded in 1st and 2nd Maccabees of the Apocrypha and celebrated at the winter festival of Hanukkah, has all the colour and depth of any literary masterpiece: friendship, loyalty, faith, love, war, torture, betrayal, triumph, honour, courage, wisdom, virility, and standing against all odds. The small, seemingly insignificant Jewish people, surrounded by the behemoth empire of the Greek Seleucids with their vast armies and endless resources, are victorious over their brutal adversary following decades of war. This Seleucid defeat, eventually led to the weakening and collapse of the proud Seleucid Empire. For the Jews of Judea among the conquered nations which made up the Greek empire, a proper comparison would be to liken Judea to a single white dot on a chalkboard. Yet, it was the Jews who would triumph in battle and not the Seleucids. It was a rabble of Jews who became seasoned warriors, defeating massive armies three to four times their number. How could these Jews, who started out as simple masons, carpenters, priests, scribes, shepherds, butchers, vinedressers, farmers, weavers, and potters even have a chance at success? How could they seize victory over a professional, battle-hardened enemy? One may ask, how was this even possible? Well, let’s examine three clear facts which we know to be true. This examination is not meant to be exhaustive, but hopefully will shed light on how Judah Maccabee, the son of a priest, managed to lead the Jews of Judea in open revolt, staging one of the most incredible, daring, military feats in human history.

Number One: The subservient shall never rise!

The fact of the matter is simple, the idea of Jews rebelling in armed response against their Greek overlords never entered Seleucid thinking. Nobody on the Greek-Seleucid side saw it coming. Either they didn’t believe it at first, chose to out rightly ignore it, never thought it possible, or scoffed at the very idea. To say the Seleucids had a low opinion of the Jews would be a huge understatement. To Seleucid kings, nobles, and generals, the subservient never rebelled. History demonstrated that typically kings and generals led rebellions, amassing militias to their side, (i.e. Xenophon’s 10,000, Caesar and Pompey, or the Greeks versus the Persians) so why would Antiochus Epiphanes IV have treated this any differently?

Stattler-Machabeusze1Obviously communication was much slower than. The record shows that out of a result from the intense competitive lifestyle among Greek officers, information was suppressed and not properly passed on, yet still the Seleucids failed to treat the Maccabee uprising as a genuine rebellion for nearly a year since the initial outbreak, thus giving it time to strengthen and morph into a real problem. But at the grassroots of it all, the Seleucids thought they had no reason to worry. They suspected that they were dealing with nothing more than a gang of cut-throats and treasonous thieves. Even when a modern-day student of history looks back over time, the amount of conflicts started by “nobodies” and “peasants” are barely a fraction of a percentage when weighed against the wars and conflicts started by generals, kings, politicians, and warlords.

In the Seleucid opinion, the Jews were a backwater people, with no combat experience possessing strong religious roots. The Jews were divided among themselves, many adopting the Hellenism of the Greeks. Those who rejected Hellas, clung to their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this category was where the Maccabees would arise from. So, when the rebellion was burning bright and the Maccabees were organizing their campaign to crush the Seleucids, the Greeks were making other plans to invade Parthia (a neighbouring superpower). Around the same time, Antiochus passed strict edicts, forcing all the inhabitants of his realm to adopt Greek customs and worship their gods in an effort to strengthen his western borders, due to his fear of the rising power of Rome. While all of this was going on, Antiochus, who saw himself as the next Alexander the Great, hardly paid any attention to the Jews as a result from his ego, overconfidence, and what history told him in regards to dominated, suppressed people.

Number Two: Bad tactics equal a bloody mess!

The harsh edicts in which Antiochus Epiphanes IV issued to all his subjects, were edicts that made it mandatory for all inhabitants to observe and participate inb878eleazar and the macabees attack seleucid Hellenistic activities, which included pagan rituals. This was Antiochus’ attempt to unify the subjects of his kingdom, in a two-pronged effort to guard against the rise of Parthia in the east and the might of Rome in the west. Rome was becoming more of an expansionist empire, having already defeated Carthage in two wars for supremacy of the Mediterranean Sea and now held Sicily, Sardina and Corsica, parts of west Africa, and swathes of provinces expanding into Europe. So Antiochus, intimately familiar with the Roman mindset from his days as a hostage, feared that the Roman eye would gaze upon his kingdom. Thus, he took swift action to strengthen his western borders. Antiochus also had to guard against his old rival, the Ptolemaic Empire, which had been a splinter kingdom, ruling out of Egypt, since the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Since the Jews had fallen under Seleucid rule (190’s B.C.) with the suppression of the Ptolemaic influence, they continued to remain as staunch monotheists in the God of Israel, observing Torah (Bible) and the traditions of their forefathers.

As a result of Jewish refusal to obey his new Hellas laws, Antiochus launched a campaign of persecution, targeting the Jews of Judea which made up the faithful majority who refused to compromise the commandments of Torah and their beliefs in one God. Thus, Judea became divided, with one side making up a significant percentage of Jews (known as Hellenists or Antiochians) who obeyed the king and forsook the Torah, and the other side being compiled of Jews who would rather die then break the commandments. Against overwhelming Seleucid persecution, the Maccabees, led by Judah and his brothers from the village of Modiin, launched a guerilla-style rebellion.

The commander of Jerusalem, Philip of the Phyrgians, failed to take the rebellion seriously, ostracized the Jews and branded them as nothing more than ‘murderers and thieves.’ Meanwhile, Antiochus was rallying a huge army in his capital of Antioch, to invade the lands of Parthia and expand his kingdom. As a result of his inaction, Philip allowed the Maccabees to gain intimate knowledge of the land, establish a system of bases among the friendly villages, create a network of recruiting soldiers to trai them, and settled in the hills around Gophna where they established a base. From here, nearly a year went by in which the Maccabees raided and ambushed Seleucid patrols, slaughtering them, seizing their weapons and armour. After Philip had lost substantial troops, he finally attempted to launch his own campaign into the wilderness, but was quickly destroyed, thereby realizing the threat that faced him. Thus, he had no alternative but to turn to the governor of Samaria for help, Apollonius.

In all his pomp, Apollonius marched 2,500 troops along the Samaritan Road, a road which runs north and south to Jerusalem. This was the easiest and quickest road to take but Apollonius failed to treat the Maccabee threat seriously. Marching his men through the Judean Hills, overcome by heavy armour and cumbersome weapons, they were ambushed by the Maccabees (numbering around 600 men) and massacred…including Apollonius who was decapitated. After this solid victory, Jews flocked to the Maccabee ranks and they went on to win another outstanding victory against Seleucid general, Seron. Seron made almost the identical mistake as Apollonius, except this time taking 4,000 men along a different route, only to be ambushed and slaughtered. Next came Seleucid generals Nicanor and Gorgias, who were commissioned by Seleucid Viceroy Lysias who was governing the capital of Antioch in the king’s absence on his Parthian campaign. Nicanor and Gorgias took an army of 25,000 troops, sought to establish a base camp in Emmaus and chose to divide their forces to launch a double attack against the Jews. However, through Maccabee genius, the Jews dodged Gorgias’ men, leading them on a wild goose chase, and closed in against Nicanor’s 15,000, striking the main base camp at Emmaus with force. In a desperate battle, Judah’s army of 6,000 managed to put to flight Nicanor’s host and capture the camp. Upon Gorgias’ return, he found the camp in ruins, the Maccabees waiting for round-two, and decided to retreat.

Jerusalem_Israel1When word reached Antioch, Lysias felt he had no choice but to lead his own army. So, he assembled 45,000 men, marched them down the coast, and struck inland for Hebron with plans of reaching Jerusalem from the south. Meanwhile, the Maccabees had been shadowing his advance, and assembling their men outside of Beit Zur, they attacked the marching columns of Lysias’ army and slaughtered 4,000 of them before putting them to flight. Lysias vowed his revenge, and like a dog with its tail between its legs, he withdrew back to Antioch. The Maccabees, unopposed, marched to Jerusalem and captured the city.

The series of Seleucid defeats can only be summed up by stating the obvious: they were unprepared for a guerrilla war, arrogant in their methods, never suspecting what awaited them, unorganized in their tactics, failed to share vital information or treat the threat as credible. The Maccabees on the other hand, capitalized on the Seleucid weaknesses, used their strengths against them, and constantly changed their tactics. They managed to unite the people of Judea, drive out the enemy, and establish an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonean Kingdom, after the family line of Judah Maccabee.

 

Number Three: Did anyone mention anything about divine intervention?

“Then all the people fell upon their faces, worshipping and praising the God of heaven, who had given them good success. And so they kept the dedication of the altar eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness, and sacrificed the sacrifice of deliverance and praise.” 1st Maccabees 5

To say that the Maccabees did not believe that God had intervened on their behalf would simply be a untrue. The Maccabees were pious men, with scribes, priests, and teachers of Torah amidst their ranks, and they fervently believed that God would deliver them, sustain them, and rescue them from the wrath of Antiochus’ Seleucid war machine. A strong contingent of the Maccabee ranks, were made up of the Hasidim, or ‘pious ones’, who were be the descendents of the Pharisees and Zealots. These men were fiercely loyal to the Torah, the commandments and traditions of their forefathers and would gladly die in order to preserve their faith. The Hasidim guarded the Torah, building a fence of protection around it (as stated in Pirke Avot- Ethics of the Fathers), and were true men of faith in the God of Israel.

Upon the outbreak of the revolt, the Maccabees refused to bow the knee to Seleucid pressure which demanded that they cease: the practice and study of Torah, circumcision of their sons on the eighth day, gathering to worship in houses of prayer or the temple, prayer, and other elements of traditional, biblical Jewish faith. History clearly shows us that many Jews were intimidated and therefore compromised their faith in an effort to “fit in”, but the Jews of Judea, including the Hasidim and Maccabees, out rightly refused. The historical accounts of 1st and 2nd Maccabees demonstrate this refusal to obey Seleucid law as the Maccabees smashed down pagan altars, continued to study Torah, circumcised sons in the villages, and prayed openly as Jews.

david-goliathOver and over in the Apocryphal accounts of the Maccabees we see prayer to the God of Israel and a genuine faith that He will not abandon them, plastered across it’s pages. We especially see this character of God clearly defined in the Bible throughout the history of Israel. From Moses to King David, to the righteous kings of Judah or the Jews exiled in Babylon, the yearning hope that God will defend His people and avenge them is a strong tone. In the Bible, we see divine intervention, at times, strike down the enemies of Israel, such as the account in the book of Isaiah concerning the plague that wiped out most of Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army in the year 701 B.C.. However, most of the conflicts and happenings in the Bible, pertaining to the enemies of Israel, are displayed with God encouraging Israel to physically march to war through actions of divine judgement or self-defense. We see generals, prophets, prophetesses, and kings of Israel praying to God and seeking wisdom. Whether this is Moses against the Amalekites, Joshua on the eve of battle with Jericho, King David’s war against the Philistines, or King Hezekiah pleading to God about the Assyrian threat, the belief that God would never abandon His covenant people is not something to take lightly. This in no way should paint the picture of ancient Israel being a warmongering nation, as it is clear in the Scriptures that special service was to be given to strangers in the land or other nations who did not provoke them to war, but it should reveal the reality of those days and the hostile nations of the ancient world.

In the historical accounts of the Bible, we see a clear picture in which the ancient people of Israel invaded a hostile land (by the direct word of God) which was made up of wicked nations. Israel was to be at times a tool of judgement by God who had given these nations centuries of time to repent. Thus, the Maccabees viewed themselves as cut from the same cloth. These men and women, who were firmly educated in the Torah and history of their people, recognized the commonalities and dangers they now faced, as seen in past generations. They were a tiny fragment of righteous people, surrounded in a sea of paganism which sought to obliterate them. The Maccabees had no choice but to trust in the promises that God would uphold the covenant, see their righteous cause, and give them victory. The faith of the Maccabees, and the reflection of their strong biblical conviction, already cemented into their hearts, cannot be ignored when weighing out their actions against the Greek armies who marched against them.

By, Peter J. Fast

Like what you read? Keep an eye out for my second novel, 164 B.C. A War of the Jews – to be published this summer 2014 (click on the “Novels” link on my webpage for more info)

Serapis-Divine Healer or Counterfeit God?

TorahScrollIn both Jewish and Christian belief, one important characteristic of God is that He is a healer who can restore an individual’s body and sustain health. Common to each faith is the belief that life is a precious gift, as man is created in the image of God to worship Him, give Him glory, take pleasure in His creation, and to walk in such a way that he is a delight to God. To Jews and Christians, life is seen as the vehicle for delivering praise to God because He is a God of life and covenant.

One focal point of the quality of life is the sense of blessing through health. Where there is lack of health, sometimes all one can do is cry out to God as Job did. Yet, at the same time it is clear that, even through suffering, it is possible to experience divine peace, the kind that surpasses all understanding.

During times of suffering, we find comfort in God’s Word. In the Tehillim (Book of Psalms), each psalm is arranged into daily groupings for the recitation of prayer by Jewish people all over the world. Added to the Tehillim, are traditional Jewish prayers for the sick and people stricken with disease, such as this one: “And in Your hands is the strength and the power to make great, to strengthen, and to cure every human, even he who is crushed, crushed to the very depths of his soul…O God Who is trustworthy, Father of Mercy, Healer of all illnesses of Your people, Israel, even those near unto the very gates of death.”

Created for Health

In the beginning, God created mankind not to solely “exist,” but to live according to his/her true purpose—to be in a relationship with Him. God’s creation was perfect, prior to sin entering the world, and mankind did not experience bodily degeneration, which leads to sickness and ultimately death. With sin came sickness and the need for healing.

In Hebrew, the word rapha (רפא) is a unique term equated with healing, or the act of being healed or cured. Rapha is used periodically throughout the Bible in different forms, and can take on meanings of divine healing, healing brought about by a physician, spiritual healing, healing of the tongue, or the restoration of a nation.

For the covering or repairing of a wound, the Hebrew word gehah (גהה) can be used, and dictates bodily healing, whether through medicine or one’s outlook on life. However, in this teaching letter we will focus on rapha and the healing which must come from God.

In Christian Thought

God literally used rapha through the healing power of Jesus (Yeshua) who encountered a paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda. The incident is described in John 5:2–9.

In John’s account, Yeshua visits Jerusalem, enters through the Sheep Gate, and arrives at the Pool of Bethesda, which in Hebrew means “House of Grace.” John states that401px-Jerusalem_Bethesda_BW_1 this pool had five porches, and that this was a gathering place of many sick, crippled, blind, and infirm people. Then, something very interesting is described. An angel is said to have come down to stir the waters, and that the first to reach the pool and enter the waters would be healed. Strange?

It is at this place where John gives an account of Yeshua confronting a paralyzed man who has been a cripple for thirty-eight years. The beginning of the chapter sets the scene. We learn about what is happening at this pool, and a little about the lame man who had been stranded there with no one to care for him. We can only begin to fathom what it would be like for this man who was crippled; his body useless by most people’s standards, lying on the ground as other people were healed. He remains alone and neglected. It would appear as though all love was absent from that place. Then, who should appear in the midst of this man’s misery—Yeshua, the famous teacher, and miracle worker from Nazareth.

When Yeshua asked the paralytic if he wanted to be healed, the man’s answer should not surprise us. He spoke from the pit of despair. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me” (John 5:7). He is filled with anguish and sorrow. He has never reached the water. Not even once!

Now, let’s pause and examine the story. What is wrong with this picture? Some questions need to be asked. Why is the man lying there? What is this place where an angel stirs the water for healing? Since when, in the Bible, does an angel of the Lord heal only on a first-come-first-served basis? Why is it that those people who are healed seem to be those able to reach the pool, yet others—the lame, the blind, and the paralyzed—are left to their own devices? Who is this man whom Yeshua confronts? Finally, what is Yeshua trying to accomplish by approaching this man? To answer these questions, we must first examine some truths in history in order to connect the dots.

Pool of Bethesda—Greek Influence

IMG_6006Archaeology has shed light on the location of the Pool of Bethesda and what it was used for. In the first century AD, it was located near the Fortress Antonia, and was used both as a place of relaxation by Hellenists, as well as a temple to the god Serapis (the larger temple was constructed in 2nd-3rd century but there was observance prior to this date). Evidence has shown that the pools were used for pagan ritual immersions and pleasure, and would have attracted and catered to Hellenized people. So what is Hellenism?

Hellenism is a derivative of the Greek word, hellas, which encompasses Greek lifestyle in its basic form. Hellenism, according to historian and theologian Emil Schurer, was “the organization of the state, legislation, the administration of justice, public arrangements, art and science, trade and industry, and the customs of daily life down to fashion and ornaments, and thus impressed upon every department of life, wherever its influence reached, the stamp of the Greek mind.”

Hellenism surrounded the Jewish people, and the influence of Greek culture was very appealing. This can be seen in the names of men and women before and during the time of Yeshua, in architecture and building construction, and even in the style in which Herod renovated the Second Temple. Hellenism was a “Greek-minded ideology,” contrary to Hebraic thought in many of its tenets and principles. A large number of Jews, who may have participated in Hellenism to some extent, still rejected the weightier baggage that came along with a Greek paradigm. These issues would revolve around the worship of man, nature, and polytheism, all three of which stood directly against the belief in the one creator God as upheld in the Torah (see Deut. 6:4 for example).

Hellenism also naturally produced hedonism, which encompassed the veneration of the body and the literal worship of pleasure. This belief is contrary to Judaism which places God at the center (theo-centric) not man, and sees creation and pleasure as something not to venerate or worship, but to praise God for. Since hedonism places man at the center and literally worships his physique, to be sick or physically unattractive could result in alienation. Hedonism judges the exterior, God judges what’s in a man’s heart. Therefore, one of the many fallacies of hedonism is that if someone is not able to meet this standard of outward, physical beauty, they could be cast out of society—set apart from community.

This would explain why all the sick and infirm people were gathered at the Pool of Bethesda, separated from the main population. It is likely that these people would have been discarded Hellenists, due to their presence in such a place, seeking healing at the temple of Serapis. We must therefore ask: who is Serapis and how is this pagan god connected to healing?

True Healing in the Desert

To understand the origins of Serapis, it is imperative that we visit the period when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness after they had been delivered from Egypt. In Numbers 21:4–5, we read that “…the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses…” The Lord sent fiery serpents among the Israelites as a result of their sin, and as they were bitten, they began to die. However, it was not until the people came to Moses in repentance that things shifted and we see God pour out His mercy on His people.

God commanded Moses to “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num. 21:8). God acted through the Hebrew term rapha and restored. He literally took the nation from a place of sin and doubt, to a place of faith, trust, and salvation. God was not instituting idolatry here, but in this unique case, He desired for them to be brought to the end of themselves, and only through the obedience of gazing upon the bronze serpent could they be healed and delivered.

This was an incredible test of faith. The people who had just condemned Moses, accused God, and had symbolically shaken their fists at the Most High, were reduced to pleading for God’s saving power and were restored. It would be wonderful to say that God’s people remembered the true Source of their healing. Sadly, nearly seven hundred years later, we encounter another shocking happening in the land of Israel.

In 2 Kings 18:4, there is mention of a pagan deity called, “Nehushtan” which is clearly equated with the bronze serpent of healing. This verse tells us that King Hezekiah of Judah destroyed the bronze serpent of Moses, as the people of Israel had begun to worship it. Nehushtan had become known as a “god of healing,” replacing the God of Israel. As Merrill C. Tenny writes, “Nehushtan thus exists as an example of how an originally good, redemptive, ritualistic object may be perverted into its opposite and become detrimental to true saving faith.”

Since the reign of Hezekiah was during the Divided Kingdom era of Judah and Israel, it is likely that the worship and reverence of Nehushtan also found its way into the Kingdom of Israel. Hezekiah was able to cleanse his lands, but one thing is commonly known about paganism: idolatry spreads with influence. We can be most assured that it affected the northern kingdom of Israel as well.

Trail of the Serpent of Healing

During this era, we find another god like Nehushtan, and that is Eshmun of the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were a Semitic people who dwelt on the northwestern coast of modern day Israel and southern Lebanon. The derivation of the name “Phoenician” alludes to the purple dyes they harvested from the murex snail, which they widely sold, particularly for royal clothing. It is these people we must now investigate to follow the trail of the serpent of healing.

In Dr. Nissim Ganor’s book Who Were the Phoenicians?, we find startling insights into the connection of the Phoenician god Eshmun with Nehushtan. The Phoenicians resided in the large port cities of Sidon and Tyre and were a seafaring people. Evidence in the biblical record and archaeology seems to place them as descendants from the Israelite tribe of Asher, and so they may have had Jewish origins. The possibility that the Phoenicians were of Jewish descent can also be supported by ancient Greek historians such as Herodotus and Diodorus, who described “circumcised people” who had come from Egypt as nomads and settled on the northern coastal plain, a land which had been inhabited by Canaanites and other peoples. It was these Phoenicians who would adopt a god of healing and call him Eshmun.

Archaeology has confirmed that Eshmun was considered to be a god of healing and medicine who was portrayed carrying a pole with a bronze serpent coiled around the shaft. This sounds strikingly familiar when we recall God’s command to Moses in the desert of Kadesh regarding the bronze serpent (Num 21:8). How is this possible? It appears that this idolatry not only affected Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms, but these deities quite possibly were adopted by the Phoenicians, changed to suit their culture, and worshipped.

Ganor gives a detailed report of the 1901 Macridy Bey excavations in Sidon. During these digs, Bey discovered a temple to the Phoenician god, Eshmun. In this temple he found an inscription that read, “God Eshmun sar Kadesh” or “ruler of Kadesh.” This is another crucial point of evidence revealing the possibility that the origins of Eshmun were tied not only to Nehushtan, but to the original bronze serpent erected in the wilderness to heal those struck by plague. Numbers 27:14 gives us the location of the “fiery serpent” passage discussed earlier—the Desert of Kadesh. Eshmun, who is identified as a god of healing clutching a pole with a serpent coiled around it, is called “ruler of Kadesh.” Could this be the Phoenician name for Nehushtan?

Phoenician–Greek Connection

IMG_7066There is ample archaeological evidence (pottery, art, clothing, etc.) to make a solid association between the Phoenicians and the Greeks. It is safe to say that the two peoples traded with one another and had contact. So, it should not be a surprise that we find a pagan deity named Asclepius emerging in Greece soon after Eshmun’s appearance in Phoenicia. The Greeks saw Asclepius as a god of healing, associated with sacred snakes, who was often depicted holding a pole with a snake coiled around it.

Greek historian, Will Durant, states that, “In Greek art, a snake is often seen about the figures of Hermes, Apollo, and Asclepius;” and continues that since gods were attached to city-states and professions, “so the physicians of Greece looked back to Asclepius.” Durant goes into detail concerning Greek medicine and Asclepius to mention, “Even in the fifth century, Greek medicine was in large measure bound up with religion, and the treatment of disease was still practiced by the temple priests of Asclepius.”

The annals of Greek thought are silent as to why snakes were connected to Greek mythology in the first place. However, outside Greek literature, evidence of snakes associated with a healing deity can be found in the Phoenician cult of Eshmun and its arrival upon Greek shores. This, therefore would have had a direct influence in the conception of Asclepius. So how does Asclepius fit into our original question: who was Serapis and where did he come from?

The Origin of Serapis

As archaeologists uncovered the Pool of Bethesda, a temple to the healing god Serapis was discovered. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, all the lands he had conquered were divided between his four generals, one of those being Ptolemy I (367–283 BC), who took the lands of Egypt to build his kingdom, and styled it after Greek–Macedonian values.

Ptolemy wanted to make his kingdom attractive, especially to the Greeks. Since they considered the animal–human deities of Egypt strange, he decided to create a new god. His desire was that his god would rule the capital of Alexandria, and would contain all the best attributes a god could have. He gave his god all-knowing wisdom (Zeus, Osiris, Helios), the characteristics of fertility (Dionysus), command over the underworld (Apis and Hades), and the beauty of healing (Asclepius). The name he gave his god was Serapis. In Alexandria, he built the enormous Serapeum Temple, which contained the bearded image of Serapis as well as sacred snakes associated with healing.

We know the influence of Serapis spread to the city of Jerusalem as archaeologists have uncovered the temple built for him at the Pool of Bethesda. This pool has beenSerapis bowl excavated and has revealed its secrets. In the time of Yeshua, there were pipes in the floor of the pool that could release air to stir the water and create bubbles. Each morning, the priests of Serapis would release sacred snakes into the water to swim around and prepare it as an offering for the day. There were also hollow pipes along the pool that would carry the sound of the priests’ voices speaking as they beckoned the people to come to the water for healing.

As if this was not enough, Asclepius, from whom Serapis received his healing characteristics, is often pictured in Greek mythology with the wings of an angel. Was this perhaps the “angel” the Gospel of John describes—an angel who plays favorites, does not heal everyone, and who only heals those who, most likely, do not need healing?

Why was Yeshua at the Temple of Serapis?

So, what was Yeshua doing there? A basic precept of evil is that it seeks to distort and sometimes appear as if it is from God. This way, it can lure people and deceive them. More than likely, there had to be some sort of healing agent at the pool to keep people in a state of false hope. Whether the healing was temporary or long lasting, it was a place where hope was fleeting and everything was unpredictable. We do know, according to the Bible, that even Satan can mimic God and has limited power when allowed. This distortion of power can be clearly seen when God allowed Satan to test Job or when Pharoah’s priests were able to mimic Aaron and also turn their staffs into snakes (Exod. 7:11).

Satan is the ultimate deceiver, a father of lies within whom nothing good exists. His desire was and still is to be “like the Most High” and he delights in confusion and keeping people from the truth. Christian teaching tells us that Yeshua was very familiar with Satan’s tactics, as seen in the Gospel of Matthew when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11). Yeshua chose to enter the “lions den” to perform a miracle of healing, a rapha. This account demonstrates the extreme degree to which Yeshua was willing to go to in order to heal someone. He told the man to rise, take up his bed, and walk and, before everyone’s eyes, he was healed.

Who was the man Yeshua healed at the Pool of Bethesda? In the verses that follow the miracle of healing, we find that the former paralytic does two things which reveal who he was. First, he answers questions from certain Jews who are concerned with him breaking the Sabbath. Their questions clearly reveal his identity as a Jew. They would not have cared had he been a Gentile. The man tells his Jewish audience that he has been healed and that he only carries his bed because he was told to do so by the healer. When they continue to question him, the healed man is unable to identify the healer as Yeshua, for it is obvious he does not know.

Following their questions, the healed man goes to the Temple. Why? Any number of reasons could have placed him at the Temple that day. Perhaps he was there to be reinstated into the Jewish community after being deprived of temple worship for thirty-eight years. Maybe he was there to pray and repent for looking to Serapis for healing, or even yet, perhaps he was there to offer a sacrifice of praise to God for being healed.

No matter why he was there, the man met Yeshua in the Temple, which solidifies the man’s Jewishness once again. In excavations around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a number of stone inscriptions have been found. These inscriptions were written in Greek and were warnings to prevent non-Jews from entering the inner courts of the Temple. In fact, the closest a Gentile could get to the Temple was the Outer Court. Thus, for Yeshua to greet this man in the Temple, there can be no other conclusion but to say the man Yeshua healed was a Jew.

True Healing Comes from God

Perhaps the final lingering question that should be begged is: why would a Jewish person seek healing from a false god? Why would he deliberately trust in something that he must have known to be false? This is a mystery. Yet ultimately, this event sheds light on the inner struggle between a man and God. Perhaps the man’s response when Yeshua first approached him gets us closer to an answer. We can surmise that the man felt abandoned, not just by men, but by God. For years he had felt worthless and deserted. There must have been despairing times where he cried out to God and felt nothing. More than likely, his initial response to Yeshua, concerning his feelings of neglect, was but a mirrored image of his bitterness towards God. Yet, a lingering desire to trust God must have existed. This is clearly evident in his actions once he was healed—he went up to the Temple to worship. He understood where the healing had come from.

In a place where hope was fleeting, Yeshua and the healing power of God confronted Serapis. The God of Israel used rapha to demonstrate not only complete deliverance from disease, but also spiritual healing. The man was radically changed and not only would his position in society be restored, but his literal faith in God was transformed. God’s sovereign will and His nature will forever be the source of true healing. God breathed restoration upon an ungodly place that day at the Pool of Bethesda, and it should be expected that the power of Serapis in that place was broken.

By Peter J. Fast,

Bibliography:

Achtemeier, Paul J. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. San Francisco:
Harper and Row, Publishers, 1985.

Brown, Francis. The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius
Hebrew and English Lexicon.
USA:Hendrickson Publishers, 1979.

Davis, Rabbi Menachem. The Schottenstein Edition: Tehillim The Book of Psalms
with an Interlinear Translation.
Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2001.

Dearman, Andrew J. Religion and Culture in Ancient Israel.
USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992.

Durant, Will. The Life of Greece: The Story of Civilization.
New York: MJF Books, 1966.

Ganor, Dr. Nissim Raphael. Who Were the Phoenicians?
Israel: Kotarim International Publishing Ltd., 2009.

Gesenius, H.W.F. Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the
Old Testament.
Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

Jastrow, Marcus. Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli
and the Yerushalmi and the Midrashic Literature.

USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

Pritchard, James B. ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating
to the Old Testament.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Schurer, Emil. Translated: Sophia Taylor and Rev. Peter Christie.
A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ:
Vol. 1.
USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.

Tenney, Merrill C. ed. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible:
Vol. IV.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976.

Abraham: From Ur to Haran

Not much is known about Abraham prior to Genesis 12:1 where God first called to him and said, “Lech Lecha!” which is Hebrew for, “Go, go out!”What kind of world did Abraham live in and leave behind when he left Ur? Why did he leave in the first place?  Was Abraham truly a pagan before he decided to trust in the voice of the one true God and heed His call? These questions and more we will try to sort out as we examine the world Abraham grew up in, why he left, and what it meant for him to believe in monotheism, and beyond this, to follow the true God in a world of polytheism.

To begin, we must first briefly examine the world of Abraham (his name was first Abram but later it was changed to Abraham in Genesis 17:5, but we shall just refer to him as Abraham to avoid confusion.) Abraham lived in the region of Mesopotamia, which is a Greek term meaning “land between two rivers.” These rivers would be the Tigris and Euphrates and this land would be found in modern day Iraq and Iran. Mesopotamia was a very rich and fertile place due to the existence of these two massive rivers which helped balance the region. Mesopotamia can be divided up into the Southern Plain, Northeastern Foothills, and the Steppe Area which is located in the northwest. The climate today is very much like what it would have been in the time of Abraham around 1950 BC, and apart from the shifting of the rivers since then, examining the geography can help us pinpoint key areas Abraham would have lived. But let’s examine the geographical setting a little more.

The Southern Plain has dry, subtropical summers, yet at the same time winter can fall below freezing. In the south, it generally receives ten inches of rain annually, which in turn massive irrigation systems were developed in the biblical world and still are utilized today. The irrigation system was also needed due to the salinity levels which are given off into the soil from the Tigris and Euphrates. In the region of the Southern Plain barley became the chief crop prior to Abraham and continued flourishing.

In the Northeastern Foothills, the climate would have been temperate much like it is today, rainfall sufficient which meant a lack of dependence on irrigation such as found in the south. However, despite the significant levels of rain and moisture, the terrain was difficult and contained poor farming land, which meant dependence on trade and transporting certain grains and foods from other localities.

Finally, the Steppe area can be found in the northwest part of Mesopotamia. These vast lands, fertile and rich, have led to many discoveries of ancient mounds which have unearthed ample evidence of vast settlements in and around this region. Also, an interesting note was the discovery of cities and towns with walls being erected around them, which begs the question, what were they afraid of and why did they feel they had to lay out defenses?

During the periods of Halaf (5500-4500 BC), Ubaid (5300-3750 BC) and Protoliterate (3750-2900 BC) we see incredible changes take Mesopotamia by storm. We see an increase in pottery design and decoration, the smelting of copper and other metals which replace stone tools and weapons, we see towns increase in size by the thousands, enhanced irrigation systems put in place, temples grow larger and higher, and fertility become a focal point of the peoples. During these times nearly 70% of all children under age five died, and with deaths increasing from people in battles a sense of the progression of life was focused upon. To the peoples of these periods, they also saw fertility as the earth giving back, and pantheons of gods and goddesses began to develop so that by 3000 BC there were over four thousand deities worshiped in the region as mankind worshiped and adored the creation instead of the true Creator.

However, in the later Protoliterate Period, the north of Mesopotamia began to stagnate as cultural unity was lost, while the south flourished and expanded. The fast potter’s wheel was developed which vastly increased production, the stamp seal was replaced with the cylinder seal, the chariot was invented, metals were in full swing of being used. We also see free standing columns and sculpture, the development of writing, and the massive Ziggurat’s were constructed. This would give way into what is known as the Early Dynastic Period where kings began to rule, establish kingdoms which led to city-states, and of these the kings of Ur became very powerful and strong as they believed their dynastic powers came from the heavens.

During the Akkad Period (2334-2193 BC) a strong king named Sargon expanded and unified all of Mesopotamia making his capital the city of Agade. Cuneiform writing was implemented and other massive changes occurred through the work of stone, bronze, silver, and wood.  During his rule the city-state was replaced by the centralized government and widespread law developed. However, this would be short lived for around the year 2112 BC a people called the Guti, who were mountain people invaded the land and ruled for 100 years. During this time they naturally created political unrest, yet soon Ur was rebuilt (for the third time) and founded by a man named Ur-Nammu. This ushered in a Sumerian type of renaissance as peace was restored and father-son succession of throne kings was instituted. At this time the kings ruled absolute and were believed to be gods.

Ur-Nammu developed the oldest known law codes, which predate the Code of Hammurapi by 300 years, with an emphasis on justice. However, this incredible era of change and splendor would close with another invasion yet again in 2004 B.C. when the Elamites would burn Ur to the ground. It would be at this time, shortly after the destruction of Ur III, that Abraham would be born. He would be raised in a world with a strong, proud past, that was civilized and had established life which stretched back thousands of years. In fact, ancient Mesopotamia had more freedoms for people then many countries today in the 21st century.

In Genesis 11:26-29 we see the first mention of Abraham (mentions him as Abram). Through a genealogy we see people such as: his father Terah, his nephew Lot, and in verse 29 we see his marriage with Sarai, later to become Sarah. Now, the Bible does not actually state that Abraham was born in Ur, but it does say in 11:28, “And Haran died before his father Terah in his native land, in Ur of the Chaldeans.” Since Ur is considered the “native land” of Haran, we can then presume this is where Abraham was born and lived as well. Yet, before we move on, one interesting thing is where it states, “Ur of the Chaldeans.” This is the first time in the Bible where the reference to the people of the Chaldeans, is mentioned. The other two major occurrences outside the book of Genesis are in Nehemiah 9:7, and Acts 7:4. What is interesting is that during the time of Abraham the people called, Chaldeans did not exist and when Nehemiah and Acts were written, the Chaldeans had come and gone. So what is this saying then? Well, the book of Genesis is the key. Basically, when Moses wrote what is now called “Genesis” or “Beri’shit” in Hebrew, meaning, “beginning,” the Chaldeans did exist, but there were at least four places called Ur. So Moses attached the people group to the specific city so his readers would know which “Ur” he was speaking about. Thus, we get in all three cases, Abraham being named as coming from Ur of the Chaldeans, or the Ur where the Chaldeans would later settle by. Problem solved.

Now, let’s continue. During the time of Abraham when he was growing up in his father’s house, Mesopotamia was made up of thousands of gods and goddesses with each city having its chief or central god. Some of the main deities we see at the time were: Sin/Nanna god of the moon, Anu the chief god who was replaced by his son Enlil. Enlil would take on many titles, such as “King of the Earth” or “Lord of the Earth.” Enlil was seen as the god of wisdom, protector of arts, crafts, science, literature, and magic which was one thing that highly interested the people of that day. We see the god of sun and magic Marduk, take his place in Babylon, and others such as Ishtar (later Asherah) goddess of sex and war, Shumuqan god of cattle, and Baal god of crops and storms. Amulets were made to keep in homes or wear for protection, and priesthoods were created to be mediators between mankind and the pantheons that ruled the heavens. Pagan worship became very ritualistic as sacrifices (sometimes human) were made, the gods were fed by placing food before them, temple prostitutes appeared as important in matters of fertility, and people adopted household gods to serve. This is the era and world Abraham grew up in. There is no doubt that he would have been influenced heavily by his surroundings.

Many people, both Jewish and Christian, see Abraham as a man who had always rejected the notion of multiple gods. They conjure up a man who, when God called him, obeyed right away because he had never believed in polytheism to begin with. Most likely, this is not an accurate depiction. Did Abraham obey God? Yes he did! Did God call out to Abraham to leave his country? Yes, He did. Genesis 12:1 says that God told Abraham to leave his country, and Acts 7:2 states that God called for Abraham to leave “before he dwelt in Haran” which would mean, when he lived in Ur. In Genesis 12:4 it states that after Abraham heard the word of the Lord he departed, and when he had left Haran he was seventy-five after the death of his father of which the Bible is very clear. From there, he journeyed to Canaan where God would show Himself and bring Abraham to a place of dependence. Simply said, Abraham was a man of faith and believed what God told him.

Yet, was Abraham ever a pagan before God called him? This is possible. There is a story in the Midrash (Jewish collection of stories, translated as ‘to seek, study, or inquire’) where Abram, as a boy, was working for his father who was an idol maker. Abram had come to doubt the validity of idols as being “gods” and so when his father was absent one day, Abram smashed one of the idols and put a hammer into the hand of one of the other idols. When his father returned he was naturally upset and demanded to know what had happened. Abram told his father that one idol had attacked the other and smashed it. His father then declared this to be impossible, for idols were lifeless creations of stone, wood, and metal. Therefore, Abram proved his point, the idols were only man-made, not God. Thus, according to the Midrash, Abram began his journey to discover the real God. Even in the book of Joshua 24:2, it clearly reveals Abraham’s father and family as being pagans. It is then very likely, that having grown up in this home and in a polytheistic city, that Abraham could have spent a portion of his 70+ years either willingly practicing paganism or else in the least going through the motions to please his father. Certainly, he was raised in a pagan home and was heavily exposed to this influence.

It is likely he would have been familiar with stories of past generations from before Noah, the flood and some of the descendants who followed after God (Gen. 5-6) but simply knowing these stories does not entirely mean Abraham followed the true God when he was younger. Even being well versed in the stories of earlier generations, such as Enoch or Noah, does not completely absolve Abraham from the possibility of being a pagan in his early days, as polytheism often syncretizes other beliefs, even adding other ‘gods’ to their pantheons. This can be compared to other pagans in the Bible who, either obeyed a message from God or were said to have believed in God yet, did not completely abandon their polytheism (i.e. people of Nineveh in Jonah, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, or Cyrus of Persia). However, knowing of these earlier men who “were righteous before God” could indeed point towards a doubt that may have simmered for years in Abraham’s mind as to the possible existence of the gods compared with the One True God. Whether Abraham was a pagan or not, one thing we know for sure, that out of this pagan family and environment he lived in, the True God called out to him and Abraham obeyed. In years to come, he would become the father of the Hebrew nation (Israel) as well as a ‘father of many nations.’

We know that for ourselves in the world we have grown up in, it is nearly impossible to separate oneself from our culture, it is a trademark stamped upon ourselves, almost written into our DNA. It can define us, rule our thoughts, and guide us. Our culture is identity and part of our makeup, it is what is familiar, how we talk, sometimes what we believe spiritually, what we do for fun, where we work, and shapes our thinking. Culture is powerful, and to leave ones culture is a very drastic major life choice. This is exactly what Abraham did, but not right away.

In Genesis 11:31 was see an interesting circumstance develop. It states that Terah took his son Abraham, his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai to go to the land of Canaan, but they only made it as far as Haran and he decided to live there. Now, this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the Bible names the main people of importance in this account as Abraham, Lot, and Sarai, yet along with Terah he would have taken his entire household. This would mean animals, servants, concubines, other children of less stature then Abraham, and anybody else associated with him. This was not four people wandering in the desert but a community. When we see Abraham later on moving from Haran to Canaan in Genesis 12:5, again we see that he took even more people that he had acquired there.

But, why did they move to Haran in the first place, apart from God speaking to Abraham? Could there also have been something else to play a part in the move? Since moving to new lands at that period in time was seen as extreme and out of the ordinary, there had to be a purpose to it for Terah to ask such a thing of his family. The Bible does not give us our answer, apart from telling us there had been a word spoken to Abraham from God earlier, but history may also shed some light on this interesting predicament. At the time we find Abraham living in Ur, we see a couple things happen. The Elamites had invaded and continue to be a major problem, we see major crop failures particularly on the barley yields, and political unrest as well as economic strain was prevalent. So, this clearly could have been a strong motivator to find fresh pastures, and for Terah to pack up his belongings, take his family out of Ur, head for Larsa, decide to cross the Tigris, and head to Haran.

Now, one of the final things we will cover is to answer, why Haran? Why did Terah stop there? In Genesis 11:31b it definitively states “…and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.” Now, if one examines a map, Haran definitely is not Canaan. But why did Terah stop? Well, let’s take a glimpse at what Haran was like in those days and perhaps we will find our key. First, Haran was a caravan city, it was politically stable, and was flourishing. These are all very good reasons to stop, but I think the final one may be the hidden key, and that is Haran’s chief god was Nanna the god of the moon. Why is this so important? Well Nanna or Sin, was also the chief god of Ur, where Terah had just left. Joshua 24:2 says, “And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.'” Thus, it is possible Terah found a new home in Haran, and wanted to stay because that was a city that honored and worshiped a god he would have revered all his life, Nanna the moon god. So, essentially we get a familiar religious scene, a good economy, and a location which is safe. Although we cannot know for sure why, these could still very well be clues at why Terah chose to live in Haran.

So, why did Abraham stay in Haran and not just move on if God had called him? Well, unlike today and our societies definition of independence which involves people freely moving and traveling and often living very far from family, in Abraham’s day it was not so. The culture in Mesopotamia was a patriarchal society. So, Terah as the father ruled and his sons and extended family obeyed. In this case, Abraham simply acted in a culturally acceptable way by following his father and bidding his time. We clearly see that by the time Terah did die, Abraham would assume the role as patriarch. Then we see everyone following Abraham, just as he had obediently demonstrated his place as a son to Terah in Ur.

In conclusion, the life of Abraham was a real life account and not a myth. He was a man of God who followed and demonstrated a faith which has been modeled after for centuries and centuries. His step of faith was very significant and went completely against the norms of his age and the world at that time. To believe in one God would have been seen as foolish, strange, and weird, but God called Abraham and he obeyed. We do not see him arguing about journeying to Canaan, or lamenting and wanting to return to Ur, we see him as a hero of the faith, and a man whose heart and mind was opened to the incredible character and nature of the God who had created him, and this would forever change history.