Nephilim

“Once upon a time there were giants in the land.”

The time when Noah lived, a time commentators call antediluvian, a delicious word simply meaning “of or belonging to the time before the biblical Flood.”

Even for people who don’t know much about the Bible, this is a famous story. But for being so well-known, it raises a lot of questions and a lot of controversy: Did the Flood really happen? How widespread was it? Was it universal, or only regional? Was there really an ark, and was it large enough to hold all those animals? Where did the water come from? And who are the Nephilim?

As I mull over this iconic drama, I once again face the difficulty of trying to harmonize what I understand of science with this fantastical account that, even in its day, must have pushed the boundaries of known reality.

There are several approaches to the Flood story, as you can imagine. One way is to simply accept the story as true, as difficult as that may be to sync science with the story’s details. Another way is to treat the tale as basically true for the original writer whose known world included only one hemisphere (the western hemisphere being, as yet, undiscovered by eastern hemisphere dwellers), or possibly only the Levant and surrounds.

The famous Epic of Gilgamesh includes many elements of the Flood, as well as historical facts  that date this poem to about 2,100 B.C. The oldest existing copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh (cuneiform on stone tablets) are older than the oldest existing copies of Genesis (ink on papyri), prompting many scholars to contend the Epic came first, and the writer of Genesis borrowed from it in order to write scripture’s Flood account. Keep in mind, however, stories passed on orallyas they were in ancient times—are hard to date, for when they are finally written down, they are already very old.

One thing is certain, in my mind. Setting aside the assortment of details that may, or may not, reflect accurate scientific data, there is truth in this story, truth about people and cultures and life, and truth about God. So, let’s suspend our need to wrangle over science and enter into the three-dimensional world of this story. Let’s look all around us and see what might be revealed.

The Nephilim

Much time has passed, the seasons flowing one into the other, generations of people rising up and out from the ones before them, and the days of Cain and Seth recede into distant antiquity. Now the earth’s surface is being pushed up into ziggurats, excavated for building materials, tilled and sown with fields of grain, orchards planted, herds multiplied, cities springing up across the wide plains and rocky mountains of the Fertile Crescent. Farther and farther out, people groups claim new land for themselves, till the earth, make bricks and mortar, bring down great trees for beams and pillars, and like the frothing waves of a busy sea, human beings begin to increase in number on the earth.

In contrast to the list of men in chapter 5, chapter 6 begins with the beautiful daughters born to those spreading out from Eden and into the world. It’s a strange juxtaposition. Adam was lonely in the perfect world of the Garden, in perfect relationship with God and surrounding creation. Yet, God’s gift of woman brought a change that eventually became Adam’s undoing. Love for Eve stirred up other desires, tempting desires, and the serpent, recognizing its opportunity, pressed in.

And so, once again, the beauty of human women stirred up strange desires in beings the writer of Genesis called “sons of God.” Who were they? And why, after presenting the dilemma of marriage between human women and these “sons of God,” did God Himself announce, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” Doesn’t that seem like a non sequitur? From just three verses, dozens of questions come pouring out.

And then come the Nephilim. Who were they?

  • Possibly the “sons of God” were godly men in the line of Seth, and the “daughters of men,” were godless women in the line of Cain. The Old and New Testaments both prohibit intermarriage between those of faith and those who do not believe, as it corrupts the faith and purity of believers. The “Nephilim” would then be the ungodly and violent men who were the product of this unholy union.

Here’s why I don’t like this theory: I have met plenty of awsome human beings who grew up in mixed-faith families. It just doesn’t hold water. And, if this theory were right, then how weird to read the Nephilim identified as “the heroes of old, men of renown.” This is most likely a retrospective within the story itself, explaining to a later generation the stories of the Nephilim which had since become legend. Perhaps this is also a passing reference to the myths of other cultures’ pantheons of gods, and demigod heroes.

  • Another approach sees the “sons of God” as ambitious, despotic, and autocratic rulers. The “daughters of men” would represent both the women and the power these rulers seized in an attempt to gain all the authority and notoriety they could from those within their reach. Their offspring, the “Nephilim,” would have then been young princes raised to be despots themselves, entitled, powerful, and thoroughly wicked.

This one makes a little more sense to me. But, to be the cause of world-wide desctruction? Maybe?

  • The third possibility has the “sons of God” as fallen angels, now called demons, which had taken on the forms of human men, or possessed human men, married the “daughters of men,” human women, producing, literally, giants, the Nephilim.

Here’s why I favor this explanation: Remember the Israelites in the desert who refused to enter Canaan because they were terrified of the gigantic warriors there? Remember that God gave Canaan as a land grant because the indigineous people groups had reached the “full measure” of their sin? The story itself requires something huge, something so awful, so wicked it would prompt God to basically scour the earth of all trace of humankind and do a reboot with His remaining remant of eight presumably untainted humans.

The word Nephilim actually means “fallen ones.” They were described as giants with physical superiority who became famous for their military might. Interestingly, there were tales of giants with great warrior-like power throughout the ancient world, the most well-known to you and me would be from Greece: Cyclops.

There is sound biblical reasoning for all three interpretations. Notably, when these four verses were written, not much detail was given. Evidently, the important point was to explain the necessity of the Flood. Humankind had become so irredeemably corrupted they were becoming a chimera of physical and spiritual malevolence, the very DNA within human genes altered to become inexorably evil. The outer shell was still beautiful, still recognizably having the stamp of God, but now deforming into something not fully human anymore, becoming instead the embodiment of wickedness.

This is what drove God to His grief-stricken lament, “I regret that I have made them.”

Every intention of the thoughts of the heart was only evil, continually. It seems hard to imagine, doesn’t it. But, to get inside this story we have to imagine what was it like to live in that kind of culture, where every thought, every motive, every emotion, was tinged with evil. How safe was it to walk around the neighborhood, or even just to go to work? Everyone must have distrusted everyone else, and kept themselves well-guarded. Betrayal, violence, robbery, perversity, all must have been a part of daily life. Think also of despair, the emptiness of isolation, loneliness, of being used, and crushed. Everyone was both victim of trauma and perpetrator of evil. How did children survive in such a world?

And yet, they must have, because humankind was thriving, and spreading out. Jesus described that era when He taught on the coming Day of Judgement, saying “In the days before the Flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark.”


[Nephilim: Eric Leiser [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Acts Wednesday


Author: Luke

Just a few days ago I watched Max McLean’s incredible-edge-of-your-seat performance of the Gospel of Mark. It has totally transformed that Gospel for me and convinced me that Mark’s Gospel was originally written as a script for the stage, an amazing piece of literature that is every bit as cohesive yet complexly composed as Handel’s Messiah. I can -not- stop thinking about it.

And I just wonder if Acts was written more in that way as well?

The book of Acts is also an edge-of-your-seat story. It’s a story that turned the world upside down, two thousand years ago. It began with one person, and over the course of just one generation that one person’s life affected the whole known world. This is the continuing account of how God Himself came to earth as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to remedy the earth’s greatest need, restoration and reconciliation with God, and the power to live a new life that would continue into eternity with the Lord.

Jesus’ world was not much different than ours today. It was a world in which there was no place for one true God. Instead people worshiped a multitude of multiple gods. Many were mostly just socially religious. Some of the cultures of that day were downright brutal. And people were just as plagued with high crime, random violence, sex trafficking, wide-spread sexual ambiguity, resentment against authority, a sense of self-centered entitlement, a wide gulf between the wealthy and the poor, restlessness and discontent, emptiness, despair, and fear.

And into this troubled world came Jesus, a real man, but also God Himself.

It’s not clear exactly when Luke, the author of what we call the “Acts,” became gripped with Jesus’ life story. What we do know is that at some point Luke met Paul and became one of Paul’s coworkers. Paul said of Luke “Our dear friend Luke, the doctor.” The way certain ailments and situations are described in both his gospel and Acts do reveal Luke’s medical background.

Luke, being Greek, was a well-educated physician of some standing. He was learned in the classical Hellenistic style and an accomplished writer. Apparently, he enjoyed a certain measure of wealth and reputation in his society because he had become friends with a fairly well-known government leader named Theophilus.

Luke wanted to give Theophilus an account of Jesus’ life and continuing ministry as risen Lord, so he sent his friend a two-volume chronicle which today is found in two books of the New Testament: the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles.

It’s possible Luke mentioned himself in Acts 13:1 when he listed the various teachers and leaders in the church of the Greek city of Antioch, in Ancient Syria. Among those named was a Lucius the Cyrene, a man of African origin. It was men from Cyprus and Cyrene, in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, who had first brought the gospel to the Greeks in Antioch. Lucius is a Latin name, so he was probably brought up in the Roman culture, and was most likely a Gentile by birth, since he was uncircumcised.

Paul also said of Luke “Only Luke is with me.” He was Paul’s faithful companion. Loyal and true once they had met, Luke joined Paul for most of the rest of his missionary journeys. Just once, when they first came to Philippi, Luke stayed behind for a while, and then rejoined with Paul when Paul visited Philippi on his second, follow-up trip. Luke remained Paul’s close associate and fellow missionary for many years, together establishing the first medical mission on the island of Malta.

Judging from Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry, he was possibly one of the seventy disciples Jesus sent out on an evangelism tour, and he could very well have been one of the two disciples who met with Jesus on their way home to Emmaus, after Jesus’ resurrection (since Luke is the only gospel writer to tell that story).

The most ancient record of Luke’s life says that he “served the Lord continuously, unmarried and without children, filled with the Holy Spirit; he died at the age of 84 years.”[1]                    

He had an artistic nature, as revealed through his literary excellence. He was artful in the use of good, classical Greek for some sections, then employed the Aramaic of that time – the vernacular, as we say – for other sections, adding a sense of drama and reality, such as the bracing description, vivid with details, of the shipwreck in Acts 28

Luke was also a historian trying to set the record straight about Jesus, the gospel, and Christians. He frankly recorded the hardships, and also the joy. There is suffering in this book, but you can’t have a life with the Lord Jesus without suffering. When you share in His life, you share in everything, the joy and the cross.

Luke also gave an accurate depiction of his day and place, offering historical details that help anchor in time when these events occurred. Reflecting his Gentile background, Luke brought out what would have interested a Roman, such as the legal aspects of the jailings, beatings, and Paul’s citizenship. Archeological discoveries support that Luke used the proper terms for the people, places and era being described.

More than any other Bible author, Luke had a particular respect for women. Both in his gospel and in Acts, he emphasized the women, their presence, their leadership, and their service. It was Luke’s habit throughout his account to mention women by name and to give details about their involvement, such as the group of women who received Paul in Acts 16, one of whom was quite wealthy.

In keeping with Luke’s preface, this story is the continuation of the Acts of Jesus Christ. Luke’s first volume introduced Jesus the man, his birth, life, death, and resurrection. Now, in this second volume, Luke moved the story forward as Jesus, God the Son, acted through His Spirit powerfully enlivening, guiding, and working within His followers.


[1] From Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke


[Luke, Author of Acts – The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]

New Schedule

I’m pretty much in the middle of Genesis and I’m starting in on the Acts of the Apostles–lots of people I know are studying that book right now, and it seems like a good idea to sort of be together in that with them. So! I am going to catch up with the series I’ve been posting on another blogsite, “Misfits Theology,” and once I have, I am going to slow down to two blogs a week for a while, then probably add in a third day for “Say What?” posts.

If you have a “Say What?” you’d like me to work on, please send it in, I’d love to have that conversation, I’m always learning and changing, and welcome the opportunity.

Starting this week, then, I’ll begin the Acts series, and continue with the Genesis series until I’m caught up. Once there, Acts will stay on Wednesdays and Genesis will move to Saturdays.

Once Genesis winds down, I’m not sure what I’ll bring in. If you have special requests, (like, for instance, Ezekiel?! What the heck!) please message me!


Girl Writing | Victoria and Albert Museum [Public domain]

Shabbat


Shabbat is the centerpiece of Jewish life, and has been so since the infancy of Israel. According to the Talmud, Shabbat is equal to all the other commandments. Shabbat is so central to Jewish life, that the term shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observer) is synonymous with “religious Jew” in common parlance.

Shabbat is a day of rest and celebration that begins on Friday at sunset and ends on the following evening after nightfall.


Every Friday evening, we make a special point of dressing nicely, and arriving to dinner in time for the kiddush. It’s important to be punctual, since the candles are to be lit at least 18 minutes before sunset.


The Torah commands the Jewish people to “remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.” The sages understand this to mean the faithful Jew must verbally declare the Sabbath a holy day, so on Friday night a special prayer is said over wine in a ritual of sanctification.


After the candles are lit, prayers are said, scriptures such as a selection from the Psalms are read, the reader drinks from a cup of wine prepared especially for the Shabbat table.

Everyone stands for the Kiddush as it is sung

The sixth day. And the heavens and the earth and all their complements were finished.

And G‑d finished by the Seventh Day His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.

And G‑d blessed the seventh day and made it holy, for on it He rested from all His work, which G‑d had created to do.

Attention Gentlemen! Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the world, who creates the fruit of vine.

Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, king of the world, who made us holy with His commandments and favored us, and gave us His holy Shabbat, in love and favor, to be our heritage, as a reminder of the Creation. It is the first of the holy festivals, commemorating the exodus from Egypt.

For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations, and with love and goodwill given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.

Blessed are You, Lord, who sanctifies Shabbat.

Then we sit for the feast prepared for us, including special rolls which are served only on Shabbat, reminding us of the double portion of manna that fell every Friday during the Exodus. Challah, as it is called, is made of dough from which a small portion has been set aside as an offering, making it special for festival occasions.

Tonight, as we celebrated Shabbat together, I realized this remembrance of God’s provision, and His command to rest, have become very dear to me. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, NRSV) Jesus is certainly our Sabbath. And, I know there are all kinds of robust discussions going on, between denominations, about what is the Sabbath, how do Christians keep the Sabbath, are we obligated to have a Sabbath, considering Jesus is our rest, and considering what the apostle Paul later wrote,Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

Nevertheless, the deep truth of Shabbat, that God established this day as one of celebration and rest, that studies show keeping a regular Sabbath ends up physically and mentally benefitting us, (think “Blue Zone“), that worship is refreshing to the soul…I think I’d like to incorporate Kiddush, Challah, and Sabbath Feast into my life.

Astragali


Today was our last day at the dig. The last chance to pull something interesting out of the ground, last opportunity with a pick, a brush, and a pan as my tools of discovery.

As I carefully brushed around what seemed like a floor formation of pottery sherds and cobblestones, almost by accident, I unearthed what looked like a knucklebone—actually a bone in the ankle. At first, I didn’t recognize what I had—old bones are as brown and textured as smooth wood. Then it hit me. I might be holding an astragalus, a game piece usually made from an unmodified ankle bone, though some were polished or ground, and some were filled with metal plugs. Astragali have also been found as replicas in ceramic, marble, or other materials.

[Astragali | courtesy Picryl, Public Domain]
[Faience astragalus | The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Knucklebones were used in games of chance, but in the ancient world, games were seen as influenced by deities, nothing was merely chance, so some Astragali had inscriptions on them. (That link takes you to Wikipedia.) We even have a Proverb in the scriptures explaining this very thing, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” (Proverbs 16:33, RSV) Later, in Acts, the remaining disciples cast lots to decide who would replace Judas as the twelfth apostle, most likely trusting in this text.

The use of astragali as gaming pieces goes as far back as four thousand years ago, and  quickly became widespread. Sophocles claimed the invention of astragali went to the mythical figure Palamedes, who taught it to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain references to games similar to knucklebones.

However, both Herodotus and Plato actually point to a foreign origin of the game. Plato named the Egyptian God Thot as the inventor, whereas Herodotus wrote about the Lydians originating the game during a time of famine. Thot shows up in Akko as a small monkey amulet, probably carried by those who labored in the forge, as Thot was, among other things, a protector of those who worked with iron and furnaces. Lydia is one of the regions known for textiles in the ancient world, and would have been closely linked with Akko, which operated a robust trade in purple dye. Several astragali have actually been found at Akko, some with drilled holes in them.

[Jacks | The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

As a matter of fact, we have kept a form of knucklebones to this day—we call them “jacks,” now, but they are essentially the same as the astragali of antiquity. As I dropped my possible astragalus into my specially labeled bag for bone finds, I wondered whether it was a gaming piece, or just the leftovers from some ancient meal.

Tomorrow, we’ll sweep the entire site, then our survey archaeologist, Jamie, will take aerial photos with the drone. He’ll later use photogrammetry[1] to create a 3D model of the site, and each area. Saturday, we’ll attempt to wash all 400 buckets of pottery sherds—yes, that is not hyperbole, or even exaggeration. That is the running count, at this moment, despite daily two-hour pottery washing sessions. Saturday is Shabbat in Israel, so we’ll wash pottery in the morning, and we’ll get the afternoon off—that is to say, everyone who is not responsible for some aspect of the excavation.

I, most likely, will be inputting the data for the survey, being a pottery scribe, and checking through all my work. Since not all the pottery will be read by the time Dave and I leave Monday, I won’t be able to close the books. But, I will have brought the survey project much farther along than they’ve had in the recent past.

Sunday, we head back up to the excavation one last time to lay down somewhere in the region of 3,000 sandbags on everything, to protect it, and to protect others from falling in. After that, a quick shower, and off to the mayor’s office where all 50+ students and staff will be hosted at a reception in our honor. We’ll finish the day with feasting at Uri Buri, voted best restaurant in the Middle East in 2016.

[1]Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs. The input to photogrammetry is photographs, and the output is typically a map, a drawing, a measurement, or a 3D model of some real-world object or scene.” (Wikipedia)

[Cover Photo: Dice players. Roman fresco from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio (VI 10,1.19, room b) in Pompeii.| WolfgangRieger [Public domain]

The Forensics of Archaeology


Some people dig for gold, others for artifacts. But the true archaeologist digs for knowledge.

Dan Griswold, PhD

Dan, our area supervisor, has been living in Israel for years, now, having earned his PhD from Haifa University. I’ve enjoyed learning from him, and the way he approaches our work.

The excavation site is organized around several areas, each with a letter designation. Some areas, designated with double letters, are being re-excavated from an earlier time—the late sixties, early seventies, to be exact, by a well-known Israeli archaeologist, Moshe Dothan. Both of the current co-directors for the Tel Akko Excavation were mentored by professor Dothan and his wife, Trude.

However, area Z, the part of the excavation Dan supervises, is new. And, it is complicated.

The Dothans specialized in the transition from the Chalcolithic to the Bronze Age, and their excavation centered primarily on learning more of this time period in Akko. Now, Anne Killebrew, PhD and Michal Artzy, PhD are searching for a broader understanding of all the layers the Tel has to divulge. Their survey of the mound, and their re-visitation of the earlier dig, have already revealed a greater appreciation for the mosaic of cultures represented in Akko, from the Phoenician, to Persian, to Hellenistic, to Crusader, to Ottomon, and finally, to the current day.

And, all of that rich texture is displayed in Dan’s area, where I’ve been digging since the first week.

“I want to see the foundation layer for this installation,” he told me recently, as he was assigning all of us our projects for the day. “I think this is a Crusader installation, and I think they cut through this Persian wall,” he continued, as he pointed to three ashlar stones, laid side by side, with a clear line of them running diagonally to the installation in question.

As he spoke, I could see exactly what he was talking about. Dan has made a deep study of all the diagonals, ashlar formations, pottery layers, and cobble stones that seem to make up a crazy patchwork quilt of our squares.

I’ve watched Dan study our area every morning, and tell us the questions he’s asking. He’s keeping each of these layers of time organized in his mind, as he traces who built what, what they did with their detritus, where they chose to sink pits, or take stones, or hide things. As each of us are given our locus to brush back the dirt, and discover what’s been hidden, Dan is piecing together all the clues and data into an evolving narrative.

If you ask the wrong questions, chances are, you’re going to get the wrong answers.  I’ve watched Dan, time and again, ask good questions that prompt the area to respond with information-rich answers. As soon as I hear him say, “I think we’re going to find…” I’m just about certain we are definitely going to find something. It may not be exactly what he thought, but he is asking the right kind of questions that deliver good answers.

Case in point: we have very interesting activity happening in one of the square’s loci. Our whole area shows evidence of a Phoenician presence (female figurine heads and horse heads), Persian construction (ashlar stones), Crusader intrusion (cuts through ancient—even to them—walls), and modern-day trenches from the warfare this area experienced in the late 1940’s. A few days ago, as Dan was zeroing in on where a trench may intersect with an ancient floor, someone called out, “There’s a bullet!” Five feet down, we really thought we’d gotten past the present, and deep into the past. Nope. That’s area Z!

This morning I asked Dan to tell me a little more about the new locus I’ll be working in these last couple days of the dig. See if you can see what he saw:

The diagonal line of pottery sherds

The floor formation of cobble stones

Stones that are probably part of a wall, still to be fully uncovered.

Archaeology is really sleuthing and science all rolled into one. I’m keeping my eye on this young PhD. I feel sure he’ll be publishing more as he applies his art of inquiry in the yet undug world of antiquity.

[Cover photo courtesy Pixabay]

Ashtoreth


Working in the Pottery Lab complex is one of several unexpected pleasures I’ve been experiencing on this excavation. As a microcosm of Israel itself, our Lab is international. Yolanta, who knows all the pottery of each age in this region, is Jewish, of Polish descent. Rachel Ben Dov, well-known metallurgist and archaeologist, is a native Israeli, born not long after Israel became a nation in 1948. Sarcon, an artist and computer graphics expert, is a Turkish Muslim. Rauna, the builder and maintainer of Tel Akko’s rather magnificent database, is Danish, married to an Israeli.

Each brings seasons of experience, intelligence, multiple PhD’s, creativity, humor, and good nature to their work. I look forward to heading there, every day, after digging in the morning.

In the early afternoon, around 1pm, the rest of the crew returns from the excavation, and a small cadre of area supervisors come in with the special finds, and the “Find of The Day.” This year, we seem to have uncovered a treasure trove of horse heads and female figurines. Both have intriguing implications.

The horse heads originally belonged to a horse-and-rider combination. “According to Dr. Adi Erlich of the University of Haifa, the use of horses in the Ancient Near East was greatly increased during the Iron Age. Chariots are mentioned in several ancient literary accounts including Pharaoh’s pursuit of the Israelites in Exodus, and Deborah and Barak’s battle against Sisera in Judges. Erlich says that “Horse figurines were common in the Land of Israel in the first millennium BCE,” including horse-shaped vessels used for holding liquids.” (That link will send you to a short and fascinating story about horse heads being discovered near Akko)

It is thought, at least in our Pottery Lab, the horse-and-rider figurines came from Bronze Age graves perhaps disrupted during Crusader times and used as landscaping fill when they planted vineyards and orchards on top of the Tel.

The several female cylinder figures and sculpted women’s heads we’ve been discovering are even more provocative. Rachel Ben Dov, who wrote a three volume series on the Tel Dan excavation, sent me an article she’d written on similar statuettes. Evidently, it is thought these figurines represent Astarte/Ashtoreth. They typically depict a woman with long, flowing hair, holding what seems to be a dove. Others hold what seems to be a tambourine, or hand drum, and still a third variety hold what seems to be a cake. The style is Phoenician (which makes complete sense, considering Akko began as a Phoenician sea port). Evidently, statuette manufacture was centered in Tyre and Sarepta, but the figurines were distributed up and down the coast, being found in Akhziv, Akko, Kaisan, and even farther south, into ancient Israel.

These pottery figures’ heyday was in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, when production seemed to dwindle down (and consider, that is about the time the Assyrians came riding through, conquering and terrorizing everything in sight, with deportation on Israel’s itinerary).

We know worship of Ashtoreth was a regular source of contention between God and His people during this time frame. According to Wikipedia, she was “a foreign, non-Judahite goddess, the principal goddess of the Sidonians or Phoenicians, representing the productive power of nature.” (That link takes you to Wikipedia). Ashtoreth was the goddess of sexuality, fertility, and war, and among her several symbols was the dove.

It is generally accepted that the Masoretic “vowel pointing” adopted c. 135 AD, indicating the pronunciation ʻAštōreṯ (“Ashtoreth,” “Ashtoret”) is a deliberate distortion of “Ashtart”, and that this is probably because the two last syllables have been pointed with the vowels belonging to bōšeṯ, (“bosheth,” abomination), to indicate that that word should be substituted when reading.  The plural form is pointed ʻAštārōṯ (“Ashtaroth”). The biblical Ashtoreth should not be confused with the goddess Asherah, the form of the names being quite distinct, and both appearing quite distinctly in the First Book of Kings. 

The biblical writers may, however, have conflated some attributes and titles of the two, as seems to have occurred throughout the 1st millennium Levant. For instance, the title “Queen of heaven” as mentioned in Jeremiah has been connected with both (in later Jewish mythology, she became a female demon of lust; for what seems to be the use of the Hebrew plural form ʻAštārōṯ in this sense, see Astaroth).”

Here’s where it get’s hinky:

“Inscriptions from several places including Kuntillet ‘Ajrud have the phrase “YHWH and his Asherah”. Because the Jews combined El with YHWH, it is understandable that many inhabitants of the land of Israel, linked El’s wife Asherah with YHWH.”

Makes it even easier to see why Asherah was both wildly popular, especially among women, and why God was so grieved over her worship.

Al Jazaar Mosque


[Al Jazaar mosque street entrance, by Erik Törner | https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/]

Even as I sit here and type these words, I can hear the muezzin singing out the Adhan from the minaret of Al Jazaar mosque, the final of five calls to prayer throughout the day.

God is great

There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of God.

[The Five Pillars of Islam | Xxedcxx [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

This statement of faith is called the Kalimah, and is the first of the Five Pillars of Islam. We, along with all Akko, hear these words at 4 in the morning, Fajr, the dawn prayer. Then, there is Dhuhr, the early afternoon prayer, Ast, the late afternoon prayer, Maghrib, the sunset prayer, and now Isha’a, the night prayer. As I listen to the muezzin chant, I wonder what it would be like for my spirit to stop what I am doing, and commune with God in such an intentional way, five times a day. 

A brief history of Al Jazaar mosque is easily accessible on most Akko tourist sites. “It is the second largest Mosque in Israel after the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The mosque was built in 1781 on the ruins of a church that was built on the ruins of a mosque from the early Muslim era. The mosque is named after the ruler of Acre at the end of the 18th century.

[Al Jazaar mosque inner entrance, by Erik Törner | https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/]

The Ottoman Empire ruled the Middle East for four hundred years, from 1517 to 1917, but after a short golden age the empire gradually declined. The central government was weak and local rulers controlled large areas. When Dhaher al-Omar, a Bedouin ruler of Galilee, appropriated too much authority and started establishing connections with hostile European empires, the sultan in Istanbul decided to put an end to Dhaher autonomy. Al Jazzar, a Bosnian officer that was known for his cruelty (Al Jazzar means “the butcher” in Arabic; his real name was Jezzar Pasha), was sent to assassinate Dhaher. After completing the task he became the governor of Acre. At the time of his rule he fought against Napoleon.

The mosque was built during the reign of Al-Jazzar, and he is buried next to it. Once a year, at the Eid al-Fitr celebration, a hair – which according to tradition comes from the beard of Mohammed – is presented in the mosque.”

Younger than Christianity, Islam itself does not appear in the Bible. However, the Qur’an points to Ishmael as the true first son of Abraham. He is considered a prophet, and the ancestor of Muhammad. According to Islamic texts, Abraham brought Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca in response to God’s command, and later returned to build the Kaaba, house of God, making Mecca a holy city.

That’s me, covering my hair and shoulders out of respect for this holy space to the Muslims

As Abraham left, Hagar asked him to whom he was entrusting herself and Ishmael, and he said, “I am entrusting you to God,” to which she responded with her own trust that God would guide them. The overlap in this story with the biblical account is Hagar’s and Ishmael’s terrible thirst in the desert, and their miraculous rescue with the provision of water.

Most Muslims believe that Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, though the Qur’an does not mention the name of the son. The holiest day of the year, Eid al-Adha, celebrates Abraham’s willing obedience to God in this, during which every observant Muslim family  slaughters a lamb in his honor.

[Al Jazaar mosque inside | MartinVMtl [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

As Dave and I went into the mosque, looked at all the beautiful calligraphy on the walls, words from their holy book, and the rich burgundy prayer rugs on the floor, all pointed towards Mecca, we thought about those whom we hold dear who know Allah as their god. Inwardly we pointed our own hearts heavenward, prayed to the God whom we know, trusting in His great love for all those who seek to know Him.

[Cover Photo, Al Jazaar mosque entrance | Chadica from Jerusalem, Israel [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

We Went To Prison Today


The Akko prison intersects the Crusaders with the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, and the Jewish resistance movements throughout Palestine. Today, the 12th century Crusader Hospitaller Center bears evidence of the 18th century Muslim fortress with military barracks and palaces, and the 19th century British prison. During the British Mandate, there were three major prisons: Jerusalem (Russian Compound and Kishle); Akko; and Bethlehem (women’s prison).

Most famously housed within Akko’s prison walls is one of the Bahai’s holy sites, the cell which held Baha’ullah. Today, only Baha’i may enter into that sacred space.

The other inmates celebrated in this now museum are the Jewish underground resistance fighters, from three main groups: the Haganah, the Etzel, and the Lehi, and most especially Zeb Jabotinsky. As we walked through the displays, set in what had been the prison cells, we read about the Zionist movements that formed throughout Palestine and Europe. It was a somber moment to enter the gallows room, and come face-to-face with the reality of execution. Nine Jewish fighters were executed in that grim room, hung by the neck, as the rest of the prisoners sang the hymn that became Israel’s national anthem.

Afterward, we heard a lecture on the themes the museum display seemed to be designed around:

  • Building Israel
  • Being strong

According to our speaker, the traditional perspective of Jewish history was as an account of a passive, weak people who had been unwilling or unable to defend themselves. Zionism sought to communicate strength and heroism as redemptive qualities

Our speaker continued by saying the depiction of unity and cooperation was emphasized, with the value of building a nation. The narrative holds the three resistance groups were willing to work together and deserved joint and recognition and honor for creating the state of Israel. Each of the three displays were equal in size, verbiage, display, giving each group equal respect.

Indeed, these themes were easily recognized in the steel girders, blossoming trees, and pictures of verdant fields, houses, and families in the backgrounds of each of the didactic panels telling the stories of the prisoners.

Our speaker also pointed out the narrative that was missing, and asked what impact that might have on the community of Akko as a Mixed City, and what greater implications this museum’s choices may indicate for a nation as diverse as Israel, with nearly 25% of its population as Arab.

Probably the most significant missing piece to the Akko prison’s story is the fate of the Arab prisoners—thousands of Arabs were imprisoned, and hundreds executed in Akko. There is only one plaque mentioning Arab prisoners. The Arab cells contain no displays, no explanatory plates, no pictures…really no indication at all of who might have been incarcerated there. Also missing is the often contentious, even vitriolic, conflict between the various Jewish resistance groups in the early 20th century. Their story has been cleansed and revised to reflect a more heroic view. In reality, this is a museum dedicated to the lives and stories of underground Jewish fighters, rather than a museum of the Akko Prison.

As New York Senator William L. Marcy famously said, “To the victor belong the spoils.” History is often written by the victors. Even today, when we read a news article about conflict among peoples, we are being guided in how to view each side—are they terrorists, or are they freedom fighters, are they rebels or revolutionaries? The tactics are the similar, but the narrative is very different.

Jerusalem


“On that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that there were many breaches in the city of David, and you collected the waters of the lower pool. You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago.” (Isaiah 22: 8-11, NRSV)

Part of the Tel Akko Excavation’s Total Archaeology approach is to take in the larger context of the dig—the present day city and its history, the surrounding landscape, the people groups and cultures, the land of Israel and its history. Today, to get a better understanding of the unique challenges Israel faces, we visited the capitol city, Jerusalem, another of the six “Mixed Cities” and filled with spiritual pilgrims from three of the major religions in the world: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

As we walked through the Jewish Quarter during Saturday Shabbat, it was very quiet. The only activity was in the grand courtyard adjacent to the Western Wall of the temple mount, where many Jews from all kinds of denominations had come to pray: men to the left, women to the right, and on the other side of a rampart, the egalitarian section where families could pray together. Cutting through this area is what seems to be a cobbled together tube, completely enclosed, heavily guarded, rising up to the temple mount. No Jew is permitted access, so passports are necessary to enter.

As we walked to the Christian quarter to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we passed an impressive excavation of the wall that surrounded the old Jerusalem during what’s called the First Temple Period—when Solomon’s temple still stood, and Judah had not yet been conquered and exiled by the Babylonians.

The wall is massive, 147 feet long, 23 feet thick—you can read a little more about it on the Rova Yehudi site.

Looking at it, it really came home to me, the reality of the stories we so easily read in the Bible. This wall was built hastily, workers tearing down all the nearby houses to not only clear the way, but to reuse the stones. It was a life-and-death matter. And here it now is, a silent reminder of the ancient, and turbulent history of this city.

All we had to do next was turn a corner, and the quiet, empty streets were suddenly vibrant with color and aromas, stall after stall of brilliant textiles, gleaming gold and silver objects, brilliant ceramics, filled with people, and noise, and commotion. For the Christian quarter, Saturday is not sacred, so everyone was bustling about, tourists, shop owners, students, tour guides, families, and lots of kitty cats darting everywhere. As we made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we were told a little of its contentious history, and the millions of devoted believers who go there to worship.

If the streets of the Christian corner were filled, they were nothing in comparison to the Church. The lines were three and four people broad, and so long they curled around each other like conch shells. They waited patiently to touch, kiss, and rest their hands and heads

[Wknight94 talk [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

…on the rock upon which Jesus’ cross stood

Woman praying on the Stone of Anointing, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old city of Jerusalem. Seen from the Golgotha.
[Guillaume Paumier [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

…the stone where His body was laid before being interred

[israeltourism [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

…and the fresh grave where His body lay for three days

[Church of the Holy Sepulcher | Matt0962 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

…are all housed in this one, massive 11th century building, that was pretty much crumbling before our very eyes.

We didn’t have time to enter the Armenian or Arab quarters, but I hope Dave and I will get our chance next week.

[Cover Photo: Church of the Holy Sepulcher | israeltourism from Israel [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

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