Did the Camel Break the Bible’s Back?

A current discussion relating to Genesis 12-50 that has crossed my desk…with wise comments from George Athas in Sydney.

With Meagre Powers

I’ve written a short response to the recent excitement about claims that ancient camels have disproved the Bible. It’s specifically in response to Sam de Brito’s article in the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. You can read my response at ABC’s Religion and Ethics site.


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Light on the Kingdom of God Theme from Daniel 7

The end of the Aramaic section of Daniel, Dan 7:28, sees Daniel troubled by a recent vision in (some) identical terms to those used to describe Belshazzar’s distress at his own ‘writing on the wall’ vision in Dan 5:6, 9.  That in itself is interesting but I’ll leave it with you to ponder.  My focus here is actually on the previous verse, v. 27.

The word translated ‘kingship’ at the beginning of v. 27 in NRSV and the New Jerusalem Bible and ‘sovereignty’ in the NIV is the same one (in the Aramaic, ‘malkû‘) translated a few words later, and often in Daniel, ‘kingdom(s)’.  It appears 53 times just in the Aramaic chapters of Daniel, showing how important these six chapters, Daniel 2–7, are for the theme of the kingdom of God in our biblical theology.  That, after all, is the point of the opening and closing visions of this Aramaic section.  Chapter 2 features a statue whose successive metals represent successive ancient Near East empires, which is finally wiped away by the uncut rock that represents this kingdom.  The same happens in Daniel 7, at the other end of the ‘envelope’ structure, when the heavenly court decides against the power of all the animal kingdoms and gives authority instead to the ‘one like a son of man’ (7:13).

But something I read in a classic OT monograph gave me a little more insight into this theme of Daniel.  R. R. Wilson in his 1977 work, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, 81, makes the comment about the Sumerian King List that it “presents the dogma that only one city can possess kingship at any given time [and] also suggests that kingship is now located in Isin.”   While we are quite comfortable with the idea that more than one powerful nation might find room to exist simultaneously in the world, the idea in the Sumerian King List and at least one rival document was that in the Mesopotamian world, only one city could legitimately hold the heaven-sent ‘kingship’ or pre-eminence in human kingdoms.

So suddenly the statue and the animal series make sense, being based on this ‘one-at-a-time’ idea, and the succession of empires that dominated the Tigris-Euphrates valley, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and finally Seleucia, could only have reinforced this obviously widely-held idea.  Only one human kingdom gets to hold the sceptre than heaven gives.  In Daniel it is the ‘Most High’ or the ‘Ancient of Days’ that hands out the sceptre, and when human kingdoms have had enough of a day, takes it back to hand to…the human-like one (v. 13)/’the saints of the Most High’ (v. 27a) and therefore, ultimately, Himself (27b)!

P.S. Out of 20 occurrences of this word, malkû, in the determined singular in Daniel, several occurrences seem to carry this meaning, ‘kingship’, rather than ‘kingdom’.  Check out 2:37-38; 4:31; 5:31 (all English text) as examples.

The Rage Against God

I’m borrowing the title of the Peter Hitchens book to highlight an interesting connection between a psalm and Daniel.  Having recently picked up some Aramaic, I was reading Daniel 6 in the wee hours (see my insomnia post!) and discovered a word in the Daniel-in-the-lions’-den story that also turns up, just once, in the Psalms in Hebrew.  The word is the verb ‘ragash‘, which appears in Psalm 2:1, in the gripping opening line, “Why do the nations rage?”  Being the only occurrence of this verb, its meaning is debated, but it seems to connote a crowd in tumult (see the cognate noun, used positively, in 55:15 (Eng. 14), to indicate a happy, noisy, chaotic crowd headed for worship at the temple.)

Well, the verb turns up three times in the lions’ den story, and in an interesting pattern.  In 6:7 (Eng. 6:6), the group that envies Daniel goes to the king, Darius, urging him to issue a decree that there be no worship for thirty days, except that directed to Darius himself.  We are led to understand this as an appeal to his ego.  Daniel learns of this, but maintains his three-time daily prayer routine towards Jerusalem (we are reminded of the programmatic, and possibly exilic, prayer of Solomon in 1 Kings 8), which makes him a sitting duck for the set-up, and his opponents in v. 12 (Eng. 11) come in in ‘ragash‘ fashion to catch him red-kneed.  When Darius learns of this development, he looks for a way to excuse Daniel, but now Daniel’s rivals in v. 16 (Eng. 15) ‘ragash‘ back into the king to remind him of his obligations to keep the irrevocable law of the Medes and Persians.  Into the lions’ den goes Daniel.

The third encounter in particular gives the reader the sense that the king is not in a strong negotiating position.  These plotting officials have the king pinned with his own strong piece, the legal force of his own edict.  He, like Daniel, is boxed in by them.  Thus the rhetorical force of this part of the story gives us a possible insight into the still-debated meaning of this elusive word.  In the English versions of Daniel 6, we are offered many alternative translations for ‘ragash’: ‘to come by agreement’ (ESV); ‘to go as a group’ (NIV); ‘[the conspirators] came’, says NRSV, giving the noun, ‘conspirators’, a little borrowed connotation from the verb, which may carry this sense in Psalm 2:1.  Somewhere I think I read, ‘stormed in’.  Perhaps that is the closest so far.  My sense is that it connotes the noisy, unruly approach of a group of persons with hostile, though hidden, intentions in this passage, though I don’t claim this with any dogmatism.  This seems to be the sense of the story, which justifies Daniel as courageously devout, and interestingly, absolves the Persian emperor Darius from any responsibility for Daniel’s plight, at the cost of making him seem disempowered.  Such an apologetic might have a real function in a Jewish community still living under Persian power.

So as in Psalm 2, not to mention in Esther, Daniel 6 finds “the nations raging” against the LORD still, and as in Psalm 2, this plotting and rebellion proves ultimately futile.  An interesting instance of how a rare Hebrew OT word lines up in meaning with its rare Aramaic counterpart.

Distribution Chart for an Unusual Hebrew Pronominal Suffix (Technical)

“Hey Mo, don’t you worry ’bout goin’ down south,

I’ll be sayin’ every word that comes outta your mouth,

Just be doin’ your best, and pray that it’s blessed,

I’ll take care o’ the rest.”

– Keith Green, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest”

Noticing that Psalm 2 had in common with Exodus 15 (the Song of Moses) and a range of other texts an unusual form of the 3rd masc. plural (usually) pronominal suffix, ‘מוֹ’ (-mo), I became interested in just where those endings turned up, why they might exist, and whether any significant implications stem from these features.

So let me offer an Excel chart that shows their distribution and specific references:

Distribution Chart for -mo 3mp pronominal suffixes


-mo suffix chart image

The distribution of these endings is interesting.  It shows clusters of its use on verbs (esp. Exod 15), nouns (e.g. Ps 2:3) and prepositions (normally ‘עַל’ or ‘לְ’, once ‘אֶל’, Ps 2:5).  For instance, Exodus 15 features seven such suffixes, exclusively on verbs, whereas all the prophetic uses are on prepositions, and then only in Isaiah and once in Habakkuk.  A few more observations:

  • The suffix is normally plural but occasionally singular, as in the Genesis references.
  • The suffix can occur in parallel construction with the regular 3mp ending, as in Ps 49:11.
  • The form is almost always found in poetry, though the poetry/prose boundary is difficult to identify in prophetic discourse (affecting the Isaiah references).  Exod 23:31, however, is a prose use.

A point of interest for me is whether this is an archaic form or instead an ‘archaizing’ form, a stylistic touch implying traditional authority or fidelity, e.g. continued use of archaic English forms by churchgoers reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Psalm 49 instance might suggest a stylistic use.  I suspect that some clusters are genuinely archaic, including Exodus 15.  Isaianic  usage probably reflects use of this suffix largely restricted to prepositions in the middle of the Old Testament period.  Some of the Psalms uses, especially later ones, occur in proximity to references to Israel’s distant past, e.g. 78:24, 66; 83:11; 99:7.

It is challenging to find where secondary sources discuss this phenomenon, but see Gesenius/Kautsch/Cowley #32m (pp. 107-8 in my edition), #58g (156-7) re verb suffixes, #91b, h, l (255-258) re noun suffixes, and #103f, o (301-2, 305) re suffixes on prepositions.  #91l debates the implications of such forms for dating, in the authors’ case, denying that they can be relied upon to be genuine signs of archaism, while those of the Albright school (e.g. Cross, Freedman) might take them as betraying the archaic nature of a poem like Exodus 15.  (See Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 86, for a sample reference to Exodus 15 and the beginning and ending of Deuteronomy 33 in these terms.  You’ll notice that all feature this suffix abundantly.)

I would assume that ancient Hebrew language like any other has a history and a course of development, and that it must be possible to arrive at some conclusions on the basis of phenomena such as the one mentioned here.  I believe that the authors behind Miller-Naudé, Cynthia L., and Ziony Zevit (eds.). Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012) would advocate this position, though I haven’t yet read the volume.  With the same proviso, I understand that the opposing position is put in Young, I., R. Rezetko, and M. Ehrensvärd. Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008).  Let’s all check them out!

Mini-Book Review: Gerald Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter

Far from recently published, this is one of those books that leaves your teaching institution’s library (where it’s certain to reside, normally) and stalks you in the dead of night, saying, “Read me, read me,” and just occasionally, if you haven’t done it, “Put the cat out!”  It doesn’t matter that it was published in 1985 (ooh, that reminds me, here are the details:)

Wilson, Gerald. The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (SBL Dissertation Series 76; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985).

…we sometimes don’t get around to reading these things for a while!

If you have read any of Wilson’s more recent essays, he has pretty well stayed on key with this book since, so you probably have a good idea of his thrust in this book, but this was the one that set the tone for the whole discussion about Psalms being an intentional editorial whole with a kind of underlying narrative thrust.  That thrust, in his view, is that Books I-II of the Psalms celebrate the Davidic kingship (kicked off in Psalm 2), until in Book III that dynasty appears shattered, especially in Psalm 89, and then in Book IV there is a rediscovery of Israel’s (or really, Judah’s) roots in Mosaic and Aaronic terms, and a fresh focus on Yahweh as king.

There are little things you might disagree with, and if you would like to compare a contrasting position, check out the general scepticism of R. N. Whybray about an overall canonical coherence to Psalms:

Whybray, Norman. Reading the Psalms as a Book (JSOTSup 222; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996).

But it is probably fair to say that Wilson managed to persuade many students and scholars of the virtues of at least a healthy dose of this perspective on Psalms, and in so doing brought some of seeds of his mentor Brevard Childs’ suggestions on Psalms to fruit.  Wilson died in late 2005, at an insufficient age…biblical scholars have a tendency to do this, for some reason.  See some of the details here: http://biblical-studies.ca/blog/2006/03/01/the-editing-of-the-book-of-psalms-a-tribute-to-gerald-h-wilson/

I should add: debates over the Qumran psalms manuscripts and particularly the critical 11QPs a are important to this work, as the question is asked whether that manuscript implies a different canonical psalm sequence at Qumran, or the incomplete formation of our biblical psalm sequence at that time.  Plus, any question you ever had about the Psalm titles probably comes up.  And this was a Yale doctoral thesis in its early life (1981), so it’s a little technical and lacks colour illustrations.