Sunday, March 11, 2012

King Josiah's Reforms (2 Kings 23)

The following quote is taken from

"Josiah and Human Sacrifice - At the LORD's command, a man of God from Judah went to Bethel, and he arrived there just as Jeroboam was approaching the altar to offer a sacrifice.  Then at the LORD's command, he shouted, "O altar, altar!  This is what the LORD says: A child named Josiah will be born into the dynasty of David.  On you he will sacrifice the priests from the pagan shrines who come here to burn incense, and human bones will be burned on you."  (1 Kings 13:1-2 NLT)

    He [Josiah] executed the priests of the pagan shrines on their own altars, and he burned human bones on the altars to desecrate them.  Finally, he returned to Jerusalem.  King Josiah then issued this order to all the people: "You must celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in the Book of the Covenant."  There had not been a Passover celebration like that since the time when the judges ruled in Israel, throughout all the years of the kings of Israel and Judah.  This Passover was celebrated to the LORD in Jerusalem during the eighteenth year of King Josiah's reign.  Josiah also exterminated the mediums and psychics, the household gods, and every other kind of idol worship, both in Jerusalem and throughout the land of Judah.  He did this in obedience to all the laws written in the scroll that Hilkiah the priest had found in the LORD's Temple.  Never before had there been a king like Josiah, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and soul and strength, obeying all the laws of Moses.  And there has never been a king like him since.  (2 Kings 23:20-25 NLT)"

            In order to get a better sense of what is going on in this passage, we need to examine what was going on during the reign of King Josiah of Judah (circa 640-609 BCE).
            At this point in Israel's history, the northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, and those who had lived there were exiled and dispersed.  The kingdom of Judah remained, and had fallen into decline.  King Manasseh of Judah (circa 698-642 BCE), King Josiah's grandfather, was responsible for defiling the Temple of God by placing idols of Baal and Asherah inside of it (Deuteronomy 16:21; 2 Kings 21:2-9; 2 Chronicles 33:1-9).  He also practiced child sacrifice in defiance of the Law (Deuteronomy 18:10), by sacrificing his own sons in a fire (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chronicles 33:6).  He also was responsible for the murder of many innocent people (2 Kings 21:16).  His son, Amon (Josiah's father) was no better when he became king, and he reigned only two years before being murdered by his officials as part of a conspiracy (2 Kings 21:19-24; 2 Chronicles 33:21-25).
            Josiah became king at age 8, after his father was murdered.  He was different than his father and grandfather in terms of his devotion to God, and he made plans to restore the Temple in Jerusalem.  During this restoration, the high priest, Hilkiah, found the book of the Law in the Temple, and presented it to Josiah.  After Josiah's secretary read it to him, he despairingly sent the high priest and some of his officials to a prophetess named Huldah to find out what God had to say regarding the book that had been found.  Huldah proclaimed a message from God that Judah would be destroyed because of the people's idolatry, but that Josiah would not live to see it.
            In response to this message, Josiah immediately began a series of reforms in his kingdom.  Determined to do everything he could to help his kingdom avoid the coming disaster, he committed himself to God's covenant, and the people did the same (2 Kings 23:1-3; 2 Chronicles 34:29-33).  He then began removing all of the idols and pagan priests from the kingdom, starting with the Temple. 
            The question that has been posed is this: Why did Josiah go to such extremes in his reforms?  What was going on at that time that posed such a threat to the kingdom of Judah?  We will attempt to examine some of the major issues that Josiah faced, and that he eliminated during his lifetime.
            First and foremost, there was the major issue of idolatry.  The Israelites' covenant with God demanded that they worship and serve him only.  They were not supposed to worship other gods or fashion idols for themselves.  During Josiah's lifetime, and partially due to the practices of his father and grandfather, the people of Judah worshipped Baal, Asherah, Molech, and a host of other idols, in addition to general worship of the stars and constellations.  This was in direct violation of God's Law, which forbade these practices on several occasions (Exodus 20:3-6, 23; 23:13, 23-24; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15-28; 5:7; 6:14-15; 8:19; 12:31; 17:2-7; 27:15; 29:17-18).  God had warned them that if they did these things, it would lead to their destruction: "If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 8:19, NIV).  Idolatry is a sin that God does not take lightly.  This is why Josiah took careful measures to remove and destroy every idol set up in the Temple, as well as everywhere else in his kingdom.
            Another issue was that of cultic prostitution.  Many ancient cultures who engaged in pagan worship, particularly that of Baal, engaged in this kind of prostitution [1].  In some cultures, each man and woman were forced to participate in the ritual at least once, which was believed to stimulate the fertility of the crops, animals and humans [2].  The prostitutes (male or female) would engage in sexual intercourse on a public altar or in front of a shrine, with whomever would give them money in exchange.  The Canaanites would give their firstborn daughters to the local pagan temples for this purpose.  This was another practice that Josiah abolished during his reform; he "tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes that were in the temple of the LORD, the quarters where women did weaving for Asherah. " (2 Kings 23:7, NIV).  Prostitution was forbidden in the Law (Leviticus 19:29; Deuteronomy 23:17-18).  
            Finally, there was the matter concerning the verse that quotes: the killing of the pagan priests on their own altars.  Why would Josiah do this?  To find out, we must examine what went on during worship at the pagan altars in the kingdom of Judah.  It is interesting that the author of does not mention this, since the website (and this section in particular) is focused on the condemnation of human sacrifice: human/child sacrifice was massively performed on the pagan altars in question.
            Worship of Baal and Molech frequently involved the sacrifice of infants, particularly firstborn sons [2] [3].  Sometimes the babies and children would be immediately burned to death in a fire, other times they would first be placed on an altar that had been heated by coals, and then rolled off of it into a burning fire as a sacrifice.  This practice was strongly condemned by God: "They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin" (Jeremiah 32:35, NIV; see also Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 19:5).  (A common question in response is, "If God was against human/child sacrifice, then why did he command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?"  See my earlier article for a discussion of this topic.)  Baal worship, besides human sacrifice and cultic prostitution, also involved self-mutilation (1 Kings 18:28).
            With all of this in mind, we can conclude that Josiah executed the priests for violating God's commandments against idolatry and child sacrifice.  He was, in essence, doing to them what they had done to countless victims on their altars.   


[1] Daily Life In Ancient Mesopotamia, Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, 1998.  Pg. 193. 
[2] Exploring the World of the Bible Lands, Roberta L. Harris, 1995.  Pg. 53, 73, 89.
[3] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 156.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Achan's Sin (Joshua 7)

The following quote is taken from

"God Commands Burning Humans - [The Lord speaking]  "The one who has stolen what was set apart for destruction will himself be burned with fire, along with everything he has, for he has broken the covenant of the LORD and has done a horrible thing in Israel."  (Joshua 7:15 NLT)

            Let's examine the story of Achan in Joshua chapter 7.  Since it always helps to examine a verse in context, you can read the full chapter here:

                Earlier, in the Law, God specifically had commanded that none of the plunder that had been set apart for destruction (see the earlier article on charam, things/people devoted to destruction) be kept by the Israelites (Deuteronomy 7:25-26, 13:17).  The items were a holy offering to God, and were not to be tampered with or stolen. 
            Just before this chapter, in Joshua chapter 6, the Israelites had destroyed the city of Jericho after God had caused the city walls to fall, and the city and everything in it was supposed to be destroyed as an offering to God.  Just before they conquered the city, Joshua reminded the Israelites not to take any of the items devoted to destruction; if they did, they themselves would be completely destroyed (Joshua 6:17-19).
            Achan, a man from the tribe of Judah, deliberately disobeyed this command, and stole some of the items devoted to destruction, then hid them among his possessions (verses 20-21).  Because of his crime, the Lord withdrew his protection from the Israelites, as he had warned them he would do if they violated the Law.  36 Israelite men were killed in battle because of what Achan had done (verse 5).
            The punishment that God sentenced on the one who took the items devoted for destruction was a very specific punishment for a specific crime.  It is important to note here that Achan did not voluntarily confess when all of the Israelites assembled before God.  If he had confessed immediately instead of waiting until all of the tribes and families had been narrowed down to him, there is a chance that he and his family might have been spared.  When David confessed his sin of adultery and murder (which was punishable by death), God had mercy on him, and let him live (2 Samuel chapters 11-12).  Likewise, when the city of Nineveh repented of their sins after a warning from God that he was about to destroy them, he had mercy and spared them (Jonah chapter 3).  If Achan had voluntarily confessed and repented instead of waiting until Joshua forced him to confess, he might have been spared as well.
            Unfortunately, that is not what happened.  Achan was forced to confess after he was singled out, and they found the evidence that he had stolen what was God's and lied about it.  The promised punishment was then carried out: he and his children, along with all of his livestock and possessions, were destroyed.  The Israelites stoned them to death and then burned the bodies (verse 25); they were not burned alive, as seems to suggest.
            One question that is commonly asked is, why were Achan's children killed as well?  After all, there is a verse in the Law that states that children should not be executed for their parents' sins (Deuteronomy 24:16).  The explanation here is that Achan's children knew exactly what was going on, and yet they said nothing.  If they had convinced their father to confess or told Joshua what had happened themselves, they would have been spared.  It is entirely possible that they were accomplices in their father's crime, assisting him in stealing and hiding the items.  This is why they were executed as well.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jephthah And His Daughter (Judges 11)

The following quote is taken from

"Jephthah Burns His Daughter - "At that time the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he went throughout the land of Gilead and Manasseh, including Mizpah in Gilead, and led an army against the Ammonites.  And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. He said, "If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the LORD the first thing coming out of my house to greet me when I return in triumph.  I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.

"So Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave him victory.  He thoroughly defeated the Ammonites from Aroer to an area near Minnith – twenty towns – and as far away as Abel-keramim. Thus Israel subdued the Ammonites.  When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter – his only child – ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy.  When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish.  "My daughter!" he cried out.  "My heart is breaking!  What a tragedy that you came out to greet me. For I have made a vow to the LORD and cannot take it back."  And she said, "Father, you have made a promise to the LORD.  You must do to me what you have promised, for the LORD has given you a great victory over your enemies, the Ammonites.  But first let me go up and roam in the hills and weep with my friends for two months, because I will die a virgin."  "You may go," Jephthah said. And he let her go away for two months.  She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never have children.  When she returned home, her father kept his vow, and she died a virgin.  So it has become a custom in Israel for young Israelite women to go away for four days each year to lament the fate of Jephthah's daughter."   (Judges 11:29-40 NLT)

            Let us examine the story of Jephthah and his daughter.  Jephthah was a judge of Israel, during the time period of the Judges (circa 1380-1050 BCE), which took place in between when Israel settled in the land God had promised them (Canaan) and the time when kings began to rule them.  Jephthah was somewhat of an outcast; his father was named Gilead, and his mother was a prostitute (Judges 11:1).  When he grew up, his half-brothers by his father's wife drove him into exile, so that he would not be able to share the inheritance with them (Judges 11:2-3).  Jephthah went into exile and apparently traveled with a band of men, most likely outcasts like himself.  At some point he had a daughter, although the text does not mention if he ever got married, or if the child's mother was around.
            Eventually, the Gileadites turned to him for help in fighting against the Ammonites, who had been oppressing the Israelites for several years (Judges 10:7-9).  They made him their leader and commander, and he went to battle for them against the Ammonites.  As the text shows above, he then made a foolish vow; stating that if given victory, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of the door of his house as a burnt offering (it is entirely possible that he had livestock where he lived, and so he most likely assumed that the first thing that would come out would be an animal fit for sacrifice).
            There are two major flaws in Jephthah's hasty vow.  First of all, God had already taken pity on the Israelites, and had determined to have mercy on them and deliver them from the Ammonites (Judges 10:16).  God did not give Jephthah victory in response to his vow, but in spite of it.  Secondly, Jephthah, for whatever reason, never considered the possibility that his daughter would be the one to come out of the door to meet him.  Human sacrifice was forbidden in the Law: "Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire" (Deuteronomy 18:10).  Jephthah should have kept this in mind before making his vow.
            It is interesting to note that Jephthah's daughter mourned with her friends over the fact that she would never marry or have children; the text does not specifically say that she was mourning that she was about to die.  Likewise, the original Hebrew text is ambiguous about what actually happened; stating only that "her father kept his vow" and "she died a virgin".  It does not specifically say that he killed her and made a burnt offering of her.  This has led some scholars to speculate that he did not actually kill her, but instead he gave her to the Tabernacle as a lifelong servant, which meant that she would never marry.
            Whether or not Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, the moral of the story is not to make foolish vows, especially vows that break God's law.  This story does not promote human sacrifice; likewise, the text never states that God approved of what took place.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Charam" - Devoted To Destruction (Leviticus 27:28-29)

The following quote is taken from

"However, in Leviticus 27:28-29, the Lord allows for no redemptions.  "Note also that any one of his possessions which a man vows as doomed to the Lord, whether it is a human being or an animal, or a hereditary field, shall be neither sold nor ransomed; everything that is thus doomed becomes most sacred to the Lord.  All human beings that are doomed lose the right to be redeemed; they must be put to death."  I must admit that I am a bit confused by this contradiction, but it might only apply to slaves in your possession.  Not that it makes any difference.  A human sacrifice is a human sacrifice, and it is just sick."

            Let's examine this passage in further detail.  In Leviticus chapter 27, it is detailing rules and regulations regarding the dedication of people or things to the Lord.  Verses 28-29 are as follows:

28 “‘But nothing that a person owns and devotes to the LORD—whether a human being or an animal or family land—may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted is most holy to the LORD.  
29 “‘No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; they are to be put to death."
            There are actually two categories being discussed in these verses.  The first part of verse 28 refers to gifts that have freely been made to God; such gifts could never be bought back; they were permanently dedicated to the Lord.   
            The last part of verse 28 through the end of verse 29 refers to a special case.  The Hebrew word used here is charam, meaning "the complete consecration of things or people to the Lord, either by destroying them or by giving them as an offering" [2].  Only God could decide when this type of devotion occurred, and it was always in response to a grievous sin that the person or people had committed against the Lord.
            For example, when the Israelites were travelling out of Egypt, the Amalekites attacked the weakest and most vulnerable people among them:Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). 
            In response to the Amalekites murdering the weakest of the Israelites who had fallen behind the others (the text seems to indicate that these included the elderly, the sick, and those with young children, although this is not specified), God determined that the Amalekites would be destroyed (1 Samuel 15).  He was, in essence, sentencing them to death for their crime.
            The term charam is only used when God sentenced a nation to death for such crimes; it was not something that could be determined by anyone other than God.  It was not, for instance, for a person to inflict upon a slave of theirs that had been dedicated to the Lord.  Such a person would spend the rest of their life in the Lord's service, and could not be bought back.  A person who was sentenced to death by God for their crimes could not be redeemed or bought back; they were to be executed. 

[1] Gesenius's Lexicon, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius (translated by Samuel P. Tregelles), 1847
[2] Footnote in the Holy Bible, New Living Translation (NLT).  This term (charam) occurs in the following verses: Exodus 22:20; Leviticus 27:21, 28-29; Numbers 18:14; 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 7:2, 26; 13:15-17; 20:17; Joshua 2:10; 6:17-21; 7:1, 11-15; 8:26; 10:1, 28, 35, 37, 39-40; 11:11-12, 20-21; 22:20; 1 Samuel 15:3, 8-9, 15, 18-21.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Biblical Archaeology #2 - The Black Obelisk

A depiction of King Jehu of Israel prostrating himself before King Shalmaneser III of Assyria
The Black Obelisk of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria (reigned 859-824 BCE) is a black limestone Neo-Assyrian bas-relief sculpture, the most complete Assyrian obelisk yet discovered.  It has been dated to 825 BCE.  It lists Shalmaneser's military campaigns of 31 years, and glorifies his achievements.

The obelisk depicts five subdued kings, bringing tributes to Shalmaneser III and prostrating themselves before him.  One of the kings is Jehu of Israel (reigned circa 842-815 BCE).  The depiction of Jehu prostrating himself before Shalmeneser III is the earliest depiction of an Israelite yet discovered, and confirms the existence of Kings Omri and Jehu of Israel.

The caption above the picture, written in Assyrian cuneiform, can be translated:

"The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king, [and] spears."

In the Bible, King Jehu's reign is described in 2 Kings 9-10. 

The Black Obelisk was discovered by archaeologist Henry Layard in 1846, during his excavations of the site of Kalhu, the ancient Assyrian capital.  It is now housed at the British Museum in London.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dedication of the Firstborn (Exodus 13:1-16)

The following quote is taken from

"Even more peculiar is God's obsession with first-born sons.  In Exodus 13:2 the Lord said "Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among Israelites, both man and beast, for it belongs to me."  Later it says that you can redeem (replace) an ass with a sheep and that you must redeem a child for an unspecified price.  It is clear from the context that "consecrate" means a burning sacrifice.  These priests are guilty of theft and kidnapping.  Since any sins in the Old Testament were punishable by death, these priests used the threat of death to extort food and money from their followers.  What do we call a scum-bag that threatens to kill your kids unless you pay a ransom?  A kidnapper!  If these priests were alive today they would be in prison with Abraham."

            Let us examine this passage, and others in the Torah that discuss the dedication of firstborn males, both human and animal.
   claims that "it is clear from the context that 'consecrate' means a burning sacrifice".  The Hebrew word used in Exodus 13:2 is qadash, which means "to set apart, consecrate, sanctify, be pure, separate, be holy" [1].  This differs from the word that is normally used to describe a burnt offering: 'olah.  It was not God's intention that every firstborn human male was supposed to be sacrificed as a burnt offering; rather, it was to set each firstborn male apart, dedicating them to God.  The sacrifice of a human child was forbidden; the Law clearly stated that every firstborn son (and every unclean firstborn animal) had to be redeemed with a price, not sacrificed (Exodus 13:15, 34:20; Numbers 18:15; Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10).  The redemption price was not unspecified; it was 5 shekels of silver, about 2 ounces (Numbers 18:16). 
            The reasoning behind this is given later in Exodus chapter 13: "In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the LORD the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand” (Exodus 13:14-16). 
            The redemption of the firstborn sons was a permanent reminder to the Israelites that God had spared their firstborn sons during the first Passover, when God struck down all of the Egyptian firstborn males (Exodus 11-12).  This was partially in response to Pharaoh refusing to release the Israelites from slavery, and partially because, years earlier, Pharaoh had commanded the murder of thousands of Israelite baby boys (Exodus 1:8-22).
            The purpose for redeeming a donkey with a sheep was because the donkey was unclean, and unfit for sacrifice (Exodus 13:12-13; Numbers 18:15-17).  All clean firstborn animals were sacrificed as an offering to God.  

[1] Gesenius's Lexicon, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius (translated by Samuel P. Tregelles), 1847

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Offerings (Leviticus 1-7)

The following quote is taken from

"The first seven chapters of Leviticus have extensive rules regarding animal and food sacrifices.  These offerings are supposed to be burnt so that God can smell them.  If you read through these it seems clear to me that the priests were getting their followers to make a big feast for them every week.  The priests were very particular about what kind of food to bring and how to prepare it."

            Let's examine the first seven chapters of Leviticus.  You can read the full text here:

            (A side note: I find it interesting that this section is included under "Ritual Human Sacrifice" on the website, since there were no human sacrifices commanded in Leviticus 1-7.)
            Leviticus is one of the books of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.  At this point in the story, God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and had led them into the wilderness.  There, he gave them the Law.  The first seven chapters of the book of Leviticus describe the various offerings that the people had to make to God: the burnt offering, grain offering, peace offering, sin offering, and guilt offering.
            The primary purpose of these sacrifices were not so that the priests or those making the offering could eat them, although the priests received a portion of some of the grain and sin offerings (Leviticus 2:3, 10; 5:13; 6:26-30; 7:7-10, 28-36) and some offerings were eaten as a communal meal by the one who was presenting the offering (Leviticus 7:16-21) .  The primary purpose of these sacrifices were to make atonement for sin, to make oneself right with God.  The animal being sacrificed died in the place of the person offering up the animal.  The animal had to be without defect or blemish, in order for the offering to be accepted by God.
            A burnt offering (chapter 1) was a voluntary act of worship.  It was an expression of devotion.  The animal, once slaughtered, was completely burned on the altar.  None of it was set aside, and none of it could be eaten.  This represented a whole commitment and complete surrender to God.
            A grain offering (chapter 2) was also voluntary, it was a recognition of God's provision, and symbolized devotion to God.  A portion of the grain offerings were set aside for the priests.  Since the priests lived near the Tabernacle and had no land of their own (Numbers 18:20-24; Deuteronomy 10:9, 14:27), God made provision for them by providing grain and meat to be eaten.  However, God commanded that the blood and fat of the animal were never to be eaten (Leviticus 3:17; 7:22-27).  Those were always reserved as an offering to God, and there were serious consequences for any priest who attempted to take the best part of the animal for themselves (1 Samuel 2:12-17).   
            A peace offering (chapter 3) was voluntary, it expressed thanksgiving and fellowship (a portion of this offering could be eaten both by priests and by the one making the offering).
            Sin and guilt offerings (chapters 4-7) were mandatory.  Priests also had to make this kind of an offering themselves (Leviticus 4:3-12).  The offering made atonement for sin, and allowed the one presenting it to be forgiven by God (Leviticus 6:7).
            We come now to the comments on "God wanted to smell some burnt flesh" and "these offerings are supposed to be burnt so that God can smell them".  While the phrase "a pleasing aroma to the Lord" is used 37 times in the Torah, the meaning is not literal.  God did not want them to sacrifice animals just so that he could smell the aroma.  (The smell of an animal burnt whole is not appealing in the slightest.)  It was what the offering represented that pleased God - a complete dedication and surrender to him, a willingness to make a sacrifice to him and acknowledge him as sovereign.  Burnt offerings on their own, without the person's commitment and dedication to God, meant nothing to him.  Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22).  (See also Jeremiah 6:18-20; Amos 5:21-24).