cui bono?

To whose benefit?  That is an interesting question when applied to the laws of the Pentateuch.   Does the priestly legislation benefit the priests?  No, not really.  They may partake of the sacrificial meat, but they are forbidden from owning land.  What about the merchant and land holding class?  The laws concerning the remission of land certainly doesn’t favor them.  How about the king?  Not at all.  The whole structure of the Pentateuch focuses on the responsibility of the individual to YHWH.  YHWH does not make the covenant with Moses, but with the people.  They were, in turn, to be a kingdom of priests.  This is in striking contrast to ANE customs in which the king and the priests answered to the gods.   J. Berman notes that one is hard pressed to find any religious laws among the Hittites or Babylonians that pertain to the masses.   After all, what does the rites and rituals of the state deities have to do with the common person?   These are just a few of the arguments Berman makes in the first chapter of his book, Created Equal, to make the case that the laws of the Pentateuch are unique in that they do not seem to favor any one class of society.  If anything, the Pentateuch is inherently suspicious of kingship.  When Korah and his company charged Moses with making himself a ‘prince’ over the people, Moses angrily denies it saying that he has not taken so much as a donkey from any of them (Num 16:15)!  A king he would have taken a heck of a lot more!


Berman, J. (2008). Created equal : how the Bible broke with ancient political thought. Oxford ; New York, N.Y., Oxford University Press.

Tombs Cut in the Rocks

Several hundred Iron Age tombs have been found in the hillside opposite the City of David .  Most are just simple burial chambers carved into the rock with a raised bench inside where the body was laid.  All that is visible from outside is the square opening to the chamber.   However, two tombs have been discovered that were more elaborate.  The first of these is the tomb of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Although difficult to spot among the tightly packed houses of Silwan, the tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter (aka.The Silwan Monolith) is a truly impressive tomb – probably one of the best preserved structures from the 1st temple period.   The tomb takes its name from the very Egyptian looking beaded cove that encircles the outer edge of its roof.  Apparently it was originally crowned with a pyramid.

One of these tombs preserves a lengthy Hebrew inscription (now in the British Museum) that may have an interesting connection with the prophet Isaiah:

“This is the tomb of… ]yahu who is over the house. No silver or gold is here but (his bones) and the bones of his Amma. Cursed be the man who opens this.”  (1)

Based on the identification of this tomb with an overseer of the house, and the fact that the tomb is one of the more elaborate Iron Age tombs in Silwan, it is quite likely that this tomb is the one mentioned by Isaiah,

Thus says the Lord GOD of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him:   What have you to do here, and whom have you here, that you have cut out here a tomb for yourself, you who cut out a tomb on the height and carve a dwelling for yourself in the rock?  (Isa 22:15-16)

So why was Isaiah so critical of Shebna’s tomb?   Was it because it was a symbol of vanity?   Some indication that this may be the case is found in the prophet’s criticism of Shebna for traveling about with ‘glorious chariots’ (lit. – chariots of his glory).   But it is also possible that the elaborate tomb of Shebna was influenced by Egyptian ideas about death and the afterlife.

It is interesting to consider that many of the greatest monuments surviving today are tombs.  Think: the Pyramids, Petra, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Terracotta Warriors, the Taj Mahal…  I don’t think the prophet Isaiah would have approved.

Shalom, Goodbye!

I finished school at the end of January. Yes, it feels good to done! These last few months have been busy with several tours, finishing up papers, and making plans for where to go from here.  Joel and Cathy Kramer kindly let my stay with them for the last month or so of my time in Israel.  During that time, my parents and bro-in-law came over for 10 days.  We had a great time touring Israel and seeing some of the more off-the-beaten-path places.  I decided to fly out of Jordan on my way to London.  There is a lot to see there – way more than I had time for!  Tomorrow I will take the train to Cambridge where I plan to spend some time at the Tyndale House Library.

Here are some pictures from the set of panoramas I have been trying to bring together of places in Israel in Jordan.

What’s in a Name? – Part 2

The following is the summary of a little book by Jeffery Tigay called “You Shall Have No Other Gods”.  The premise is simple: Name lists compiled from ancient texts tell us about what deities were worshiped at different times.  For example, from a list of names of 90 families from Sippar (Old Babylonian period) we learn that parents named their children after Sin, Shamash, and a number of lesser deities.  So too, the names for the kings of Assyria (8th-7th centuries BC) were compounded with Asshur, Shamash (the sun), Sin (the moon), and Sherua (the consort of Asshur), etc.  One final example is a list of names found in the temple of Eshmun near Sidon.  These names are compounded with seven different deities: Baal, Ramman, Sism, Shamash, Eshmun, Tannit, and Astarte.

One would expect a significantly larger percentage of children will be named after the chief deity of a city or a temple but this not the case. In Sippar, the chief deity of the city, Shamash, appears in only 20% of the theophoric names, with Sin following close behind with 15%.  In Asshur during the 15-14th centuries, the god Asshur appears in only 17% of the theophoric names.  In name lists from the Eshmun temple, Astarte appears in 23.8% of the theophoric names, with other deities, including Eshmun, appearing with lesser frequency.

We can conclude from this:

  1. The names of people in ANE were compounded with the names of the many deities that they worshiped.
  2. The chief deity is not represented in a significantly larger proportion of names.
  3. Children were commonly named after astral deities, storm deities and goddesses.

Ok, so there is nothing particularly earth shattering here!  But it gets more interesting when we catalog the names in the Bible and compare our results with those mentioned above.   We find that 96% of the theophoric names in the Bible are Yahwistic (this count excludes names with ‘el’ in them).  The other 4% may be considered pagan.  None of the pagan names are specifically astral deities or goddesses.  This is striking evidence that the worship of YHWH alone was orthodoxy from an early period – certainly much earlier than the reforms of Josiah.

It might be argued that the names in the Bible were changed at a later date in order to make them fit the monotheistic tendencies of a late redactor.  However, with the discovery of a large number of Hebrew inscriptions over the last 100 years or so, we have been given a way to check the name lists in the Bible against a list of over 1200 Judean and Israelite names compiled from these inscriptions.     According to Tigay, these inscriptions date from the 8th to the 6th centuries and are fairly evenly distributed over this time period.

Arad ostraca
Arad ostraca – Israel Museum

Here is a break down of the names compiled from the Hebrew inscriptions (from Tigay):

  1. 557 – names with YHWH as their theophoric element.
  2. 77 – bear names with  the theophoric element ‘el
  3. 35 – pagan (of these 7 refer to Horus, 6 to Baal, 4 Shalim, 3 to Qaus, 3 Mawet, 3 Min, 2 Gad, 2 Asher)
  4. the remainder are not theophoric

If we crunch the number we get 94.1 percent Yawhistic vs. 5.9 % pagan, roughly the same proportion of Yahwistic / pagan names that we find in the Biblical text. (1)

So what is the takeaway?

  1. Israelite names were not compounded with the names of goddesses. This accords with the Pentateuch, which gives no place to a goddess.   When the the prophets condemn the people for worshipping Asherah, they are not inventing something new.   The message of the prophets must be preceded by a law code that prescribed a way of life to which the broad majority of people adhered.  How does one explain the onomasticon any other way?
  2. Israelite names were not compounded with names for the sun, moon or stars.  This too, is in accord with the Biblical injunction against worshipping the starry host.
  3. The reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah were reforms.  The revolution began with Moses.

Tigay notes that there is no evidence that the Israelites had any regard  for foreign deities.  He concludes, “What is more surprising is to find similar indifference to nature gods whose spheres were not limited to specific nations, such as the sun god, rain gods, and fertility gods.  The Israelites surely recognized that they were as dependent on the sun and rain and fertility as their neighbors were.  If the bulk of the Israelites ignored the gods of these phenomena, is it likely that they considered these phenomena divine or independently effective?  A unilatry which ignores the gods of other nations can be classified as monolatry, but a unilatry which ignores phenomena on which all nations depend looks implicitly like monotheism.”  (Tigay 1986, 38)

A question arises from all of this.  If the Israelites were such good monotheists, what do we do with the widespread condemnation of the worship of the stars, the queen of heaven, etc. in the prophetic books?  One possible explanation is that the naming of children was based on tradition that did not change even as the people engaged in idolatrous and synchretistic forms of worship.


(1) It is not always clear whether the pagan names are actually pagan.  For example, Baal means ‘Lord’ and could have been used as an epithet for YHWH.   Only later, when Baal worship gained prominence, did Baal become associated with a pagan deity.  Scribes changed the ‘baal’ element in the name to ‘boshet’ meaning ‘shameful’ – a somewhat unsubtle emendation of the text!


Tigay, J. H. (1986). You shall have no other gods : Israelite religion in the light of Hebrew inscriptions. Atlanta, Ga., Scholars Press.

Whats in a Name?

Was the name YHWH revealed for the first time to Moses or did the Patriarchs also know the name YHWH?  Ex. 6:2-3 states quite clearly that the Patriarchs did not know the name.

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. (Exo 6:2-3 ESV)

Despite this explicit statement, it is often stated that the patriarchs must have known the name YHWH because the name is used by the patriarchs when addressing God and vice versa.  It is therefore suggested that Genesis 6:2-3 means that God did not reveal a new name to Moses but gave a more complete and nuanced understanding of the name.  This interpretation has influenced the NIV translation of the verse.

God also said to Moses, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself fully known to them. (Ex. 6:2-3 NIV)

There is no textual reason to insert the word ‘fully’ into the text.  That the name YHWH appears in Patriarchal narratives should not surprise us.  That was, after all, the most familiar name for God in the time period in which the narratives were composed!  What is more telling is a simple of break down of names in the Bible according to their time period and their theophoric element.  (The theophoric element is the part of a name that refers to God.  It might be ‘ya’ in Hezekiah meaning “YHWH is my strength” or ‘el’ in Daniel meaning “God is Judge”, etc.)

Here is a little chart from Tigay’s book ‘You Shall Have No Other Gods’.

Biblical Onomoasticon from Tigays Book 'No Other Gods'
Lists of Names in the Bible classified according to their theophoric element and time period.  Names with the theophoric element ‘el’ are excluded from the count.

Tigay does not count names with the theophoric element ‘el’ in them.  If he did, then there would be many more theophoric names listed for the Patriarchal period.  (Abel, Mahalalel, Abimael, etc.)  In contrast, there are no Yahwistic names from the Patriarchal period.   The takeaway is simple, the Patriarchs did not know God by the name YHWH.  The use of the name YHWH in the patriarchal narratives may be anachronistic, that name being the familiar name by which God was known in the time period in which the narratives were composed, or the name YHWH was used to make a theological point, YHWH being the revealed name of God.

But as Tigay points out, the real interesting part of this chart is the proportion of names with pagan theophoric elements (11%) compared to those that  are Yahwistic (89%).   More on that in another post.


Tigay, J. H. (1986). You shall have no other gods : Israelite religion in the light of Hebrew inscriptions. Atlanta, Ga., Scholars Press.