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.

A Window for Death

 As I prepare for my course on Jeremiah this fall I noticed that the commentaries I was using (Brueggemann, Feinberg, Harrison, Kidner, Lalleman, Wright) were not covering the Ugaritic connection in Jeremiah 9:21 (English versions; vs. 20 in the Hebrew) which reads:

‘Death has climbed in through our windows. It has entered into our fortified houses. It has taken away our children who play in the streets. It has taken away our young men who gather in the city squares.’ (‭Jeremiah‬ ‭9‬:‭21‬ NET)

In fact, only one (Fretheim p. 162) even mentions any Canaanite connection at this passage and even so draws in the connection to death overcoming Baal and leaving him “strewn across the countryside”.

The Ugaritic Baal Cycle contains a whole account of the Baal’s house (temple or palace) being built by Kothar-waHassis. As he builds the house, Kothar-waHassis is emphatic that he wants to put a window in, but Baal is concerned about having a window for fear of Mot (death) entering his house. At last he relents and the window gets installed. Mot enters and defeats Baal. At Baal’s death El and Anat weep and mourn.

This is precisely what seems to be at play in Jeremiah’s call for lament in chapter nine. In fact, verse 14 had already mentioned their commitments to Baal:

Instead they have followed the stubborn inclinations of their own hearts. They have paid allegiance to the gods called Baal, as their fathers taught them to do. (‭Jeremiah‬ ‭9‬:‭14‬ NET)

It would only seem fitting that their end should follow Baal who found his house also invaded via a window for death to enter and the call for mourning has been issued.

Instead they have followed the stubborn inclinations of their own hearts. They have paid allegiance to the gods called Baal, as their fathers taught them to do. (‭Jeremiah‬ ‭9‬:‭14‬ NET)



Having just looked over Thompson’s comments (p. 317), I note that while he gives attention to the Ugaritic account stating at the first that is has “a significant parallel in Canaanite mythology” he concludes stating, “despite the apparent closeness of the parallel it may be no more than a coincidence arising from Jeremiah’s personification of death”.

Craigie, et al, (pp. 150-1) notes that this account in Jeremiah has “occasioned much debate” because of the potential connection. They cite an article by S. Paul as having “argued persuasively that the proposed connection is not correct”. They further offer (via Paul) a connection to the Babylonian account of a demon named Lamashtu. In Paul’s article, the primary contention against any Baal myth connection (or at least the argument for direct dependence which I would also oppose) is, first, that Mot is not engaged in conflict (nor mentioned) in the window building section and, second, that there are no extant texts that Mot ever enters windows (pp. 373-6: here S. Paul also notes the development of the notion of connecting Jeremiah 9.20 to the Baal Cycle giving treatment to those who argued for it and added to the notion citing Cassuto, Pohl, Albright, Ginsberg, Singer, Lowenstamm and Hyatt).

Finally, Smith (pp. 602-10) explains at length that the function of the window in the Baal Cycle is not for Mot to enter (noting that Mot is never connected to the window in any of the extant texts), but only for Baal to exercise his kingly dominion. It becomes the means by which Baal will thunder his voice and send the rains and bring fertility to the earth. He cites a number of scholars who did not go as far as those S. Paul noted that argued for direct connection (see above), but mentions those who still see connections between the window and Mot (Caquot and Sznycer, Gordon, and Pardee; p. 604).

Upon further reflection from reading Paul and Smith, I note now that my reading of the connection owed its origin to a number of the writers each indicated. I had not read either of their work on this particular passage. While they are correct to note that Mot is not connected directly to the window in Baal’s house, it still seems that Baal had trepidation (unnamed though it is as to its cause) about the installation of the window. That the cycle continues from that point with the conflict with Mot is striking. Further, that Baal is actually named in the same poetic unit (v. 14) is also striking. My own understanding might be that there is not a direct literary connection, but a common myth (perhaps shared in the Babylonian texts noted above) of death entering via the window (though Mot is not seen to enter Baal’s window).


Brueggemann, Walter. A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.

Craigie, Peter C., Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard. Jeremiah: 1-25. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991.

Feinberg, Charles L. Jeremiah, a Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1982.

Fretheim, Terence E. Jeremiah. Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys Pub, 2002.

Harrison, R. K. Jeremiah and Lamentations: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973.

Kidner, Derek. Jeremiah. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.

Lalleman, Hetty. Jeremiah and Lamentations. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.

O’Connor, Kathleen M. Jeremiah: Pain and Promise. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.

Paul, Shalom M. “Cuneiform Light on Jer 9:20.” Biblica 49, no. 3 (1968): 373-376.

Smith, Mark S. The Ugarit Baal Cycle: Volume 1: Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU I.1-I.2. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.

Thompson, J. A. The Book of Jeremiah. New International Commentary of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Message of Jeremiah: Against Wind and Tide. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014.

Stories from Ancient Canaan, Second Edition

Stories from CanaanI had not realized there was an update to the already helpful “Stories from Canaan” by Michael Coogan. This update includes the work of Mark Smith (who has been writing THE critical commentary on the Baal Cycle for well over a decade and has compiled the most exhaustive bibliography on Ugaritic studies available). While I quite enjoyed the first edition, I would guess this update (which includes several new texts) offers an updated introduction and continues the tradition of an easily readable translation of these texts which provide a significant entree into the cultural-religious context which ancient Israel found herself.

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

Coogan, Michael D. and Mark S. Smith, eds. Stories from Ancient Canaan. 2nd ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012. Pp. x + 180. Paper. $25.00.

Context is king. It’s a simple yet profound statement. A word has any number of possible meanings and any given one is determined by the words that surround it (at least at the written level; the meaning of a spoken word can be discerned by paying attention to body language, tone, inflection, etc.). But context refers to more than mere words and the words that surround them; it has reference to situations and circumstances that form the setting for any given event. One of the biggest hindrances to the interpretation of texts, especially ancient texts, is the lack of context. There are just some things that the original readers/hearers of an ancient text would have taken for granted that modern readers have to work…

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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

The Lost Treasure of Ugarit

It appears that the SYFY channel is making a movie about my life as an Ugaritic scholar. They even got my wife, Jenn, into the mix. I’m just annoyed they went with my name being “Jack Hunter”. Lame! I prefer Vladimir von Bonhoeffer if I must have a pseudonym. 🙂

Now you can all see what kind of adventures I enjoy as a scholar of dead languages. Booyah! #PhDshaveallthefun

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).

It Is About Time

High noon approaches. Sagebrush tumbles along the alleyway. The streets begin to empty.  Two masters facing one another for the stroke of the hour.  Which will take the day?

Of course, I’m talking about two indroductory Ugaritic texts being published in November.  (How is that for melodramatic set-up??? 😉 ). The one being published by Zondervan (the leader in introductory accessible Biblical language publishing…in my opinion) and the other by Hendrickson (who masterfully reproduced Barth’s 14 volume Dogmatics for just under $100…thank you Hendrickson!).  It has been well nigh impossible for students of Ugaritic to access the grammar without wading through dated materials (like that of Gordon) or overly technical materials (like Sivan and Bordreuil/Pardee)—both of the former of which I used extensively in my own course of study.  At last there will be options for the neophyte student of Ugaritic.

Zondervan’s volume is written by Michael Williams.  Basics of Ancient Ugaritic: A Concise Grammar, Workbook and Lexicon (144pp.) lists at $27.94 as a paperback on Amazon.  It will likely offer what the other Basics (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic) offer in this series.  I have personally found the series to be accessible to beginning students with numerous aids for learning (pedagogical, digital, etc.)  Zondervan has ruled the day in providing other companion resources (vocab cards, laminated paradigm sheets, etc.) to the language student…and done so at an affordable cost.  Check out this great video on the text:

(Gotta love that it includes dry humor…by “taking the ‘ug’ out of Ugaritic”).

Hendrickson’s volume (An Introduction to Ugaritic) is written by John Huehnergard (who also wrote a grammar on Akkadian).  I would think it promises to be an excellent resource (hardback retailing at $39.10 through Amazon and numbering 250pp.).  It will offer a far more exhaustive introduction that the volume by Zondervan which is certainly in its favor so that perhaps it can continue to be used as somewhat of a reference grammar.

I look forward to checking out both volumes at this year’s SBL meeting Chicago next month.  Just in time for the showdown!