Notes on Gideon and the God of Israel: Fire and Dew, Evening and Morning

angel-and-gideonThe account of Gideon requiring a sign from the God who has called him to rise up as a deliverer for Israel, has long puzzled interpreters (Judges 6.33-40). Gideon receives a messenger from Yahweh who calls him to action. This angel of Yahweh (6.11, 21; or “of God” in verse 20) is asked for a sign of confirmation by Gideon that he will indeed be successful in battle against the armies of the east and that it is indeed Yahweh (the god of Israel) that is calling him. Gideon prepares an offering of food, is commanded to put it on a rock. The angel  touches the food with his staff and fire flames from the rock consuming everything on it. The god of Israel has answered by fire for the man sent to destroy the altar of Baal and the Asherah pole.

He sets out in the cover of night to destroy the shrine to Baal and Asherah  that apparently is situated on his own father’s property. The people discover his act the following morning and intend to kill him. His father rescues him by arguing for Baal to be responsible in dealing with Gideon who thus receives the nick-name Jerubbaal (which is interpreted by Judges as “let Baal contend [with him]”). Yet Baal is silent against Gideon.

dewImmediately following this account, the Spirit of Yahweh clothes* Gideon and Gideon thus musters the armies of some of the northern tribes of Israel (6.34-35). Yet before he sets out to wage war, he calls upon this god to respond with a further sign of assurance. The sign is that of a wool fleece on the ground being soaked by “dew” (Heb. טָּל tal) in the morning and the ground being dry (6.36-37). The sign is granted (6.38). Then he asks for a further confirmation with the ground being wet in the morning with dew and the wool fleece being dry (6.39). The sign is granted (6.40).

The first testing of Yahweh was answered by fire. The second (and third) testing was by dew. As it turns out, both signs challenge the power of Baal as the Canaanite god who sends both fire and dew. The god of the storm (Baal Hadad) alone sends fire. Yet it is Yahweh’s emissary who answers by fire. Further, it is Baal who is so identified with the dew that in the Ugaritic literature (KTU 1.3 I.23-25) he is described as having a daughter called “Morning Dew” (tallay) which is the cognate term with the Hebrew tal in our narrative. Yet Baal is not the god who answers by controlling the dew in Judges 6.

Gideon (that is Jerubbaal) is not testing whether Yahweh can overcome Baal in battle (as if Baal were the god of his enemies, the Midianites, Amalekites and others of the east), he is testing which god has the power in the land he dwells in to act and to deliver. He is testing which god is the proper god of Israel. And it is decisively Yahweh who is god in Israel and this god alone can deliver any time of the day: evening and morning. In the morning, the citizens of Ophrah find their god Baal unable to protect his shrine. In the morning, Gideon (and the armies of Israel) find Yahweh able to control the “dew”. It was at night that Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal and build the altar of Yahweh and it was at night that Gideon shared in the destruction of the Midianite horde under the authority of Yahweh as god of Israel. Baal could not act nor could Baal rescue Israel. For the writer of Judges, Baal was the very reason for the troubling Midianites (6.1, 10). It was only in obedience to Yahweh that this community could enjoy peace in the land.


* “clothes” might literally be translated that the Spirit puts Gideon on as clothing if one follows the normal sense of the Qal stem for the Hebrew labash.

Advice from Miles Van Pelt

There was a helpful little video and blog post recently on where Miles Van Pelt (author of Basics of Biblical Aramaic and co-author of Basics of Biblical Hebrew) offers several bits of advice to language learning. He reminds students they must be intentionally regular in working on the languages. He says, “The way I have found most effective in my own life is to get up early and do it before everyone else starts to want your time, your schedule, and your attention” (and the other bit can be read and watched HERE).

Great advice to students, professors and anyone else working on learning languages. I would add that, while he may be disciplined sufficiently to rise early every day to work on it many of us are not that disciplined. However, this can be compensated for by simply finding natural ways of integrating language learning into the ebbs and flow of your day-to-day schedule.

For instance, when looking up a passage why not also look up the original as well as the English. Try sight translation and see how you do. This is a very simple practice that can result in significant language gains.

Another idea is to bring along your Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek Bible to church, Sunday school or a Bible study. You can also have an English Bible open for reading along, but just try following along as much as possible with the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek.

Just a couple of simple tips to increase time spent reading the original languages that does not require much effort or extra work (not least, waking up early to do it…yuck!). So what advice might you give?

Silver Dross or Like a Glaze

silver covered earthenwareI was a little surprised to find that the TNIV and NIV 2011 have reverted to the Masoretic text (partially) of Proverbs 26:23 against the 1984 NIV which followed the critical rephrasing of this verse in light of Ugaritic and Hittite evidence (though it includes “silver dross” in the footnote). The updated NIV texts created a mixed text that attempts to blend the emended text of the Hebrew as well as maintaining the traditional (misunderstanding) of the Masoretes (adding “like” and maintaining “silver dross”).

Like a coating of silver dross on earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.” (NIV2011 – emphasis added)

Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.” (NET – emphasis added)

The issue pertains to the Hebrew כֶּ֣סֶף סִ֭יגִים  which is properly translated “silver dross”. Based upon the cognate Ugaritic word spsg “glaze” (and another cognate in Hittite zapzaga[y]a) a significant and clarifying emendation was made by numerous translations. The emendation involves several elements: the admission that vowel pointing and spaces between words were lacking in the original text of the Old Testament. Removing the vowel-pointing (as well as the matres lectionis yods) and spacing of the Masoretes was inaccurate and should be altered to read כסףסגם “like glaze”. The kaph has then been understood to be the comparative preposition “like”, the yods have been dropped as matres lectionis along with the vowel pointing and the mem regarded as an enclitic (ESV, NAB, NIV1984, NRSV, NLT and, of course, the NET have followed this emended reading).

While the LXX retains the Masoretic reading of “silver”, but it offers an expansion (apparently because the translator was equally confused by the sense of the Hebrew): ἀργύριον διδόμενον μετὰ δόλου ὥσπερ ὄστρακον ἡγητέον χείλη λεῖα καρδίαν καλύπτει λυπηράν, “Silver given deceitfully is considered as earthenware, a smooth tongue hides a troubled heart” (my translation).

Part of the reason for opting to prefer the emended text in light of the cognate terms of Ugaritic and Hittite is based upon the notion that “silver dross” would simply not be used for such a thing. Glaze would be applied to vessels (though obviously it should not be applied to earthenware unless it is being used to conceal). In both cases the point is simply that one is covering over something that will not endure (earthenware) with something that makes it look better than it truly is. The reality is concealed. It is a ridiculous covering of earthenware. It is, in fact, a waste and deceitful. Its apparent value is only that…appearance. It is a cheap object made to look like it is worth something far more.


K. L. Barker, “The Value of Ugaritic for Old Testament Studies,” BSac 133 (1976): 128-29.


כֶּ֣סֶף סִ֭יגִים

Wrestling with Unicorns

unicornYou read that right. Yesterday I wrestled with unicorns…all afternoon. And not just your run of the mill mythic Greek unicorns. No. I wrestled with the Biblical variety. In case you have no clue what I’m talking about, you might be surprised to find that “unicorns” are mentioned in the Bible (or at least in the King James Version of the Bible). [1]

Here are the passages where “unicorn/s” are referred to: Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9; Psalm 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7. This is quite a list. I know I was surprised by it.

Perhaps you are actually wondering why I would be concerned about “unicorns” (the Hebrew is  רְאֵ֖ם or r’m) in the Bible and spend my afternoon studying them? Well, as it turns out, I have a friend who is a professor in Canada who emailed me an extended question on the topic, because someone had asked him about it. Here is part of his question (where he is citing the person who brought it to him):

“Psalm 92:10 is very clearly saying that this animal has one horn, while Deut. 33:17 is clearly saying that this animal has two horns. Therefore, whatever the r’em is, it must be an animal that could have either one or two horns.”

As such, this individual believes that the “wild ox” translation of most of our modern versions is actually misleading and inaccurate and we should be sticking with the LXX  (KJV) rendering of rhinoceros/unicorn.

Unicorn on the Black ObeliskAnd here is my reply:

Technically Psalm 92.10 (or more specifically the MT 92.11) only refers to “the horn” of the r’m. This does not require it to have only one horn, but only notes “the horn” of this creature as if to specify a type rather than delineate the number of horns this creature has normally. For instance, I could refer to something being “like the tusk of the elephant” but this does not mean that elephants only normally have one tusk, but I would be referring to the general category, or exemplar of just one of the tusks of the elephant. I could be wrong and perhaps the plural form for “horns” in Deut.33.17 is intended to refer to multiple horns or to the significance of the horn of this creature, but it seems more likely in that case to actually be referring to multiple horns on the single r’m.

On the NIDOTTE [2], it doesn’t have ANY mention of this term as a synonym or anything. Too bad really. And the TWOT doesn’t have anything besides “wild ox”. 😦

The Black Obelisk [3] also contains images of monkeys (?) and elephants (on another side of it). These are the only two of the four sides depicted in ANEP. However, on yet another side there are what appear to be some sort of an ox and a buffalo and in their middle is a one-horned ox-like creature also being brought as tribute to Shalmaneser (this is a photo from the British Museum: So PERHAPS it is a reference to a one-horned creature, but there does not appear to be anything requiring such. Not sure what to think about it. If only there were actually a depiction with a cognate term used so that potentially one might know what is being referred to precisely.

The cognate occurs in Ugaritic r’m : rum “buffalo” UT 49:VI:18, plural rumm (UT 51:I:44; 62:19; 2 Aqhat VI:21 [where his “sinews” are considered “splendid”). For more contemporary citation references: 4.i.44 (in the land of Ym’an there are 10 thousands of them); 5.i.17 (captivated by a pool of water much like the appetite of lions in the wasteland, or the desire of dolphins with the sea and hinds with springs of water), (the brutality of the battle between Mot and Baal is compared to the goring of this creature) in Gibson who provides the gloss “wild ox”. [4]

Interestingly enough EVERY occurrence in the Hebrew Bible is in a poetic statement. Not sure what that might mean, but it is interesting nevertheless.

My likeliest explanation for “unicorn” is it derives from the Vulgate [5] which translated the LXX which started with “one-horned”. Not sure where the LXX derives this from, other than potentially their own understanding of the Psalm passage about the singular “horn” of this creature. Granted (as is witnessed on the Obelisk) there is some sort of creature known to the ANE which had a single horn (or so it appears as such), but this does not necessitate the same creature for the Hebrew r’m.

So that is the gist of my wrestling with unicorns in the Bible. However, the story isn’t quite complete, because when I arrived home my oldest daughter (Abbi, 11) showed be a video that her sixth grade class had made which was based on the topic they had been discussing yesterday…which just happened to have been “unicorns”. 🙂 Coincidence…you be the judge. 🙂


[1] Wild ox or buffalo seems to be the preferred translation in many other versions.

[2] He had asked about the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (5 vols; Zondervan, 1997). I also looked at the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament ()2 vols.; Moody, 1980) which is why I mention it next.

[3] In one of the commentaries he had consulted there was mention made that the Black Obelisk had a picture of a one-horned creature along with other livestock, but sadly that particular side of the Obelisk is not pictured in James Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (2 vols.; Princeton, 1971). So I included a link to it as photographed in the British Museum.

[4] UT refers to Cyrus Gordon’s Ugaritic Textbook: Grammar, Texts in Transliteration, Cuneiform Selections, Glossary, Indices (Analecta Orientalia 38, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1965). The Gibson text I refer to is Canaanite Myths and Legends (2nd Edition; New York: T&T Clark, 2004). While I did not mention it in my response, one also finds a cognate in the Aramaic and, yet earlier, Assyrian rimu.

[5] The Latin Vulgate translates with the English equivalents of “unicorn” and “rhinoceros”. This appears to be following the Greek Septuagintal translations (LXX).

On Hebrew Poetics (A Brief Introduction and Refutation)

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Suffice it to say that one spends several years learning basic skills in reading and interpreting the Hebrew Bible, but then after all the “rules” one learns (whether those passed down from Medieval Masoretes or ancient scholastics schooled in Greek and Latin works), suddenly one enters the strange world of Hebrew “Poetry”.

This strange new world does not follow the “rules” one has just spent years memorizing and practicing. Now an altogether new adventure commences wherein such “rules” simply fail to guide the linguistic adventurer along her path to understanding and appreciation.

So what sort of journey is this and how does one find their way while avoiding the many pitfalls of previous generations of students of the ancient text form? What follows will be a multi-part, multi-layered map (of sorts…or so it is hoped).

To begin with one must come to the realization that Biblical Hebrew knows nothing of “poetry”, but practices the poetic with great fluidity. What is the difference? To begin with, there is no word or words in the Hebrew text which might be translated “poetry”. There are words for song (משכיל or שיר), proverbial sayings and riddles (משל), but none for “poetry” specifically. In fact, “poetry” is a construct one uses to try to categorize what is happening at the level of literary genre. As a construct (and one technically foreign to Hebrew) it creates its own issues.

English poetry is marked by such features as meter, rhythm, and rhyme, but Hebrew is not marked as such. The typical explanations of what makes a certain Hebrew text “poetic” are notions of “meter” and “parallelism” (both of which will be discussed in future posts — other features which bear discussion are “terseness” and “imagery”). But such constructs are difficult to follow through with once one begins to actually examine the Hebrew texts available. There are clearly non-literary texts (narrative, for instance, like Exodus 2:1-7) which have notable meter and parallelisms. There are also texts belonging to corpora clearly intended to be poetic which offer little in the way of meter or clear parallelisms throughout (such as the well-known Psalm 23). Highly problematic for discerning what is “poetry” and what is “prose” is the writings of the prophets. Their works offer something of a bizarre admixture of all varieties of such categorizations without fitting either very well. There is a fluidity of such strictures that points toward a need to reject formal constraints on what constitutes “poetry” and “prose” in the Hebrew texts.

To close, James Kugel has fittingly imaged this polarity and its demise:

…the categories of prose and poetry imply too sharp, and total, a polarity: to use only these terms is to describe sections of the skyline as consisting either of ‘building’ or ‘no building.’

Of course, there is a case to be made for the use of the term ‘poetry’ in regard to some parts of the Bible. It has, as noted, an approximate validity, and is sanctioned by a centuries-old tradition. But it is not a perfect fit; and since ancient Israel seems to have gotten along without any corresponding term, it might be better for modern critics to enclose the phrase ‘biblical poetry,’ at least mentally, in quotation marks. (The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1998] p.86)

So this is why I’ve labeled this series “On Hebrew Poetics”. It is to attempt to point toward poetic notions without the strictures of imposing ‘rules’ of ‘poetry’ on a text which resists all attempts to frame such constructs, yet at every turn offers poetic sensibilities.


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Book Exchange

Thanks to Jason Gardner I will be reading a new book soon: Cynthia L. Miller, ed., The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Approaches (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1999). Hopefully Jason enjoys Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament: An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012). How are those for fun reading selections. A little light reading for the weekend. 🙂

Others may have seen such in the past, but I had never witnessed a book exchange via a blog. What a great idea for exchanging resources. I will be doing this again in the future. Thanks Jason!

Cambria: The Hebrew Poet


חבקני אם (Mom hugs me)

שקני אם (Mom kisses me)

שקני אב (Dad kisses me)

חבקני אב (Dad hugs me)

כי בי אהבו רב מאד (And they love me very much)

Note the chiastic structure of the first four lines where the verb in line one matches line four,* and line two matches line three. And the subjects of line one and two are coordinate, like the lines of lines three and four. And the final line climaxes (though lying outside the chiasm) the whole poem with a lively summation of the whole as an epexegetical crescendo.

Okay, so Cambria (my eight year old daughter who is very intelligent — I’m obviously not biased) never wrote this poem in Hebrew, but the English is all hers. I added the Hebrew, because, well, it just seemed like fun (sick, I know). I thought it was fascinating how she chose to write these lines of hers with this sort of structure (and all without training as a scholar of Hebrew poetry…fascinating isn’t it??? 🙂 ). I may be spending a bit too much  time thinking about such things.

My wife’s rhetorical response to me about the poem was, “I wonder what her love language is?” I’ll give you one guess…


* A curiosity is the energic nun in the verbs of lines one and four. 🙂