Ram Caught in a Thicket, from Ur of the Chaldeans

January 15, 2018

In 1927 the archaeologist Leonard Woolley uncovered spectacular finds in southern Mesopotamia, in the ancient city he had identified as Ur, home of Abraham. The treasury of his finds included this figure, known as “The Ram in the Thicket.”

Ram in the Thicket. British Museum. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

This statuette is composed of gold, silver, copper, lapis, shell and coral. Two of these were in what is called “the Great Death Pit.” The other is housed in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

This figure is illustrative of the ram which Abraham offered at Moriah, in the stead of Isaac his son (Gen. 22:13). This figure here is actually a male goat.

Interestingly, this artifact predates Abraham by a few centuries.

Fant and Reddish suggest that

. . . the discoveries at Ur are a significant indication of an amazing level of cultural sophistication in an early period in the locale identified as the birthplace of the father of the Hebrews. If Abraham and his family came from Ur, a city of such considerable cultural advancement, to the tents of the land of Canaan, it further dramatizes the biblical story of his sacrificial following lowing of the promises of an unknown God. (Clyde E. Fant; Mitchell G. Reddish. Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums, Kindle Locations 580-581. Kindle Edition.)

Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi . . . More Background for Esther

September 20, 2017

The restored treasury of the Athenians at Delphi:

The Athenian Treasury was a votive building in the form of a reduced scale temple, designed to hold the multitude of Athenian offerings to the Delphi oracle. The building was constructed entirely of Parian marble and had a Doric frieze decorated with 30 metopes. It is a distyle in antis building with a porch before the entrance to the cella, measuring 10 x 6 meters.

The metopes depicted mythological themes of Theseus, Heracles, and Amazons in high relief. It is believed that two Athenian sculptors carved the metopes, each representing a distinct style or generation: one from the Archaic period, and one from the Severe style of classical art (the transition from Archaic to High Classical art). The walls of the treasury were inscribed with various texts, among which are the hymns to Apollo which included melody notation (see below).

Several dates for its construction have been suggested (with Pausanias mentioning that it was built after the battle of Marathon), but it is widely accepted that its was created sometime between 510 and 480 BCE, a period framed by the founding of the Athenian democracy and the defining battle of Marathon. (http://ancient-greece.org/museum/muse-delphi-athenians.html)

Delphi of course is “home of the famous oracle of Delphi, known as the Pythia, and the Temple of Apollo, where the oracle presided” (Fant, Clyde E.; Reddish, Mitchell G.. A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey, Kindle Locations 1180-1181).

Our photo here shows the treasury at left center:

Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

Regarding the famous battle of Marathon, 490 BC, where the greatly outnumbered Greeks repelled and defeated the Persians, EyeWitnessHistory.com has the following info:

The battle of Marathon is one of history’s most famous military engagements. It is also one of the earliest recorded battles. Their victory over the Persian invaders gave the fledgling Greek city states confidence in their ability to defend themselves and belief in their continued existence. The battle is therefore considered a defining moment in the development of European culture.

In September of 490 BC a Persian armada of 600 ships disgorged an invasion force of approximately 20,000 infantry and cavalry on Greek soil just north of Athens. Their mission was to crush the Greek states in retaliation for their support of their Ionian cousins who had revolted against Persian rule.

Undaunted by the numerical superiority of the invaders, Athens mobilized 10,000 hoplite warriors to defend their territory. The two armies met on the Plain of Marathon twenty-six miles north of Athens. The flat battlefield surrounded by hills and sea was ideal for the Persian cavalry. Surveying the advantage that the terrain and size of their force gave to the Persians, the Greek generals hesitated.

One of the Greek generals – Miltiades – made a passionate plea for boldness and convinced his fellow generals to attack the Persians. Miltiades ordered the Greek hoplites to form a line equal in length to that of the Persians. Then – in an act that his enemy believed to be complete madness – he ordered his Greek warriors to attack the Persian line at a dead run. In the ensuing melee, the middle of the Greek line weakened and gave way, but the flanks were able to engulf and slaughter the trapped Persians. An estimated 6,400 Persians were slaughtered while only 192 Greeks were killed.

The remaining Persians escaped on their ships and made an attempt to attack what they thought was an undefended Athens. However, the Greek warriors made a forced march back to Athens and arrived in time to thwart the Persians. (http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/pfmarathon.htm)

In our title I suggested that these events give further background to the biblical book of Esther. In our post here we showed how in 480 BC, ten years after the Battle of Marathon, the Persian King Xerxes was building his forces to again attempt to subjugate Greece. The fact that Persia was still “smarting” after her humiliating defeat by Greece helps us to see the purpose and even urgency behind those opening verses of Esther (1:1-9), where Xerxes is meeting with officials from his 127 provinces, which ranged from India to Ethiopia.

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Xerxes at Troy–Some Background for Esther

September 19, 2017

The events narrated in Esther take place during the reign of the Persian King Xerxes. “The Hebrew word used throughout the book is ʾaḥašwērôš (“Ahasuerus”) which is considered a variant of Xerxes’ name. Xerxes is the Greek form of the Persian Khshayârsha” (Huey, F. B., Jr., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, p. 797).

The book of Esther begins by telling of a great banquet in Susa, the capital,  in the 3rd year of his reign (483 BC): “in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his princes and attendants, the army officers of Persia and Media, the nobles and the princes of his provinces being in his presence” (Esther 1:3). The biblical author’s intent was not to give the details as to the why of this banquet, but historical sources are helpful. Xerxes was on a mission to gather strength and support for his invasion [ill-fated] into Greece. This is the setting for the opening verses of Esther.

In the year 480 BC Xerxes marched westward to invade and attempt to conquer Greece. En route he passed through ancient Troy, where the historian Herodotus states, “he sacrificed a thousand heifers to Athene of Ilion” (Herodotus 7:43). Ilion is the Greek name for ancient Troy.

Our photo shows the Troy sanctuary area, Stratum VIII (dated ca. 700-85 BC).

Troy Sanctuary Area. Here Xerxes, King of Persia (r.486-464 BC) offered 1,000 heifers in sacrifice to the goddess Athena, in preparation for his war on Greece. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

Xerxes’ invasion of Greece was a failure. It was after his return from his disappointing catastrophe that the Jewish maiden Esther became his queen, in the “seventh year of his reign” (Esther 2:17), which would be 479 BC.

Regarding the site in our photo above, Manfred O. Korfmann writes, “The earliest structures representing a sanctuary at the nearly deserted site are those established by the Aeolian Greeks sometime after 700 BCE, thus apparently existing within the lifetime of Homer! Votive offerings confirm the existence of much earlier sacred precincts as well” (TROİA/WIL̇USA p.62).

Of the city of Troy itself Korfmann continues, “Illion became the religious and political capital of a federation of municipalities, and to the south and east of the acropolis a lower city (on a grid-plan) arose – overtop and partially dug into remains from Trois VI/VII” (ibid.63).

The ancient city Troy consists of 46 occupational levels which date back to a total of nine different cities!

Our map shows Troy, which is a site on the Unesco World Heritage List.

Map of Troy in today’s Turkey, in relation to Greece.

I have previously posted on Troy here and here.

It is good to be reminded that the events of the Bible did not take place in a vacuum. The covenant people of God interacted with the people of their day, sometimes including the world powers as was the case in the Persian period, the setting for Esther.

Signing the Covenant–Nehemiah 10

August 18, 2017

I love to study the book of Nehemiah. Jerusalem’s walls that had been in ruins since the Babylonian destruction (586 BC) were rebuilt (444 BC) in just 52 days! (Neh. 6:15). The people had a mind to work (4:6); they had a godly and capable leader in Nehemiah, and the good hand of God was upon them. But the remainder of the book (chapters 7ff.) is about the necessary follow-up; the necessary commitment to covenant faithfulness, without which the newly rebuilt walls would be meaningless.

Gezer Calendar. One of the oldest examples of Hebrew script. Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

To that end Israel’s leaders/Levites promised God: “Now because of all this We are making an agreement in writing; And on the sealed document are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests” (Neh. 9:38). What follows is a listing of 84 names (Neh. 10:1-27). Nehemiah’s name appropriately is first.

The Gezer Calendar is one of the oldest examples of Hebrew script. We share it here to illustrate our Nehemiah text. Those men who signed their renewed covenant with God, as well as “the rest of the people” (10:28), were pledging themselves to obey (v.29) in their homes (v.30), their business (v.31) and worship (v.32). In short: “We will not neglect the house of our God” (v.39).

By the way, the Gezer Calendar in our photo is a school-boy’s exercise in learning the months of the year, associated with agricultural events.

Explanation of the Gezer Calendar. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Click images for larger view.

Temples in Pompeii, Italy

January 27, 2017

The Roman city of Pompeii, as was generally the case in the world of the 1st century, was a city of many gods.

Pompeii–as you might expect, given its many gods–had many temples, though by no means one for every god or goddess who might intervene in the lives of its inhabitants. They came in all sizes, in varying degrees of prominence and with very different histories. Some stretched back to the earliest years of the city. The temple of Apollo next to  the Forum was established by the sixth century BCE at the latest. (The Fires of Vesuvius.281-282).

Temple of Apollo, Pompeii, Italy. Photo by Leon Mauldin. Mt. Vesuvius may been seen the the background.

Temple of Apollo, Pompeii, Italy. Photo by Leon Mauldin. Mt. Vesuvius may been seen the the background.

Most of the rest [of the temples] date to the second century BCE or later. The Small Temple of Fortuna Augusta was dedicated to an almost untranslatable combination of the goddess of Good Fortune or Success (Fortuna) and the power of the emperor (the adjective Augusta can confusingly, or conveniently, refer either to the first emperor Augustus himself, or to imperial power more generally–for subsequent emperors used “Augustus” as part of  their titles too)  (Ibid.)

Temple of Fortuna Augusta, Pompeii. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Temple of Fortuna Augusta, Pompeii. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Pompeii is a city “frozen” in time by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, AD 79. Though this is not a “biblical city” it preserves scenes from a Roman city in the AD 1st century, and thus has tremendous value to us. Thus it helps us to see the setting for the biblical world in the early New Testament era.

When contemplating the widespread idolatry of the biblical world, I often think of Paul’s statement to the Corinthians, many of whom had themselves formerly been idolaters:

we know that “an idol is nothing in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth– as there are many “gods” and many “lords”– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through Him. However, not everyone has this knowledge. (1 Cor. 6:4-7, HCSB).

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Tirzah (Tell el-Far’ah), Israel’s Ancient Capital

November 30, 2016

On our recent trip to Israel we included one day in the West Bank. On our itinerary among other sites for that day I included Tirzah, Israel’s capital prior to Samaria, during the earlier years of the Divided Kingdom period.

Todd Bolen, of BiblePlaces.com makes this interesting observation:

In my experience, the most important area of the biblical land that people know the least about is the hill country of Samaria. Its importance is reflected in the fact that it is easier for me to list biblical people who were not in this area than it is to name those who were.

Why is this region generally less known? Most tour groups avoid it. Yes, it is possible to come to Israel and not see Shechem, Samaria, Shiloh, and Ai. In fact, I would estimate that 95% of tourists never see these major sites. (April 28, 2014, in BiblePlaces Blog).

What Todd says here would also (and especially) be true of Tirzah! We did not visit Ai, but saw each of the other sites mentioned: Shiloh, Shechem (Tel Balata, and also Jacob’s Well at Nablus), Samaria and also Dothan.

This aerial photo is the view of Tirzah from the north, used by permission of Todd Bolen.

Tirzah, aerial from north. Photo ©Todd Bolen.

Tirzah, aerial from north. Photo ©Todd Bolen.

It is ironic that this important Old Testament city is today an unmarked tel. Not even a sign. Many decades have passed since the excavations here.

Excavations at Tirzah. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

Excavations at Tirzah. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

My son Seth at Tirzah. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

My son Seth at Tirzah. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

View from Tirzah. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

View from Tirzah. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.

Biblical references to this Tirzah include:

1 Kings 14:17 Then Jeroboam‘s wife arose and departed, and came to Tirzah. When she came to the threshold of the house, the child died. Jeroboam was the first king of the Divided Kingdom following the death of Solomon.

1 Kings 15:21 Now it happened, when Baasha heard it, that he stopped building Ramah, and remained in Tirzah. Baasha was the king who destroyed all the family of the King Jeroboam.

1 Kings 15:33 In the third year of Asa king of Judah, Baasha the son of Ahijah became king over all Israel in Tirzah, and reigned twenty-four years. 

1 Kings 16:6 So Baasha rested with his fathers and was buried in Tirzah. Then Elah his son reigned in his place. 

1 Kings 16:9 Now his [Elah’s] servant Zimri, commander of half his chariots, conspired against him as he was in Tirzah drinking himself drunk in the house of Arza, steward of his house in Tirzah.

1 Kings 16:15 In the twenty-seventh year of Asa king of Judah, Zimri had reigned in Tirzah seven days. And the people were encamped against Gibbethon, which belonged to the Philistines.

1 Kings 16:17 Then Omri and all Israel with him went up from Gibbethon, and they besieged Tirzah.

1 Kings 16:23 In the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah, Omri became king over Israel, and reigned twelve years. Six years he reigned in Tirzah.

Tirzah is located seven miles NE of Shechem; it is situated near the source of the Wadi Far’ah, which drains down to the Jordan. It was W.F. Albright who identified the site with biblical Tirzah.

Roland de Vaux gives a good summary of Tirzah’s identification and history in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land.

The stratum attributed to the Late Bronze Age shows signs of destruction, which can be regarded as the result of the Israelite conquest [of Canaan]. Tirzah, as the capital of the kingdom of Israel, corresponds to stratum III at Tell el-Far’ah. This level was devastated during the Omrid capture of the town, subsequent to Zimri’s seizure of power (c.885 BCE). The fortress in the northwestern corner may be the king’s castle mentioned in 1 Kings 16:15-18, which Zimri himself set on fire and in which he met his death. Omri was able to rebuild Tirzah and to set up his residence there only at the end of a four-year struggle with his rival, Tibni. The foundations sunk into level III probably belong to his structures. However, after two years, Omri transferred the capital to Samaria (cf. 1 Kg. 16:23-24). This explains why there are buildings in the area that were never completed. The royal household and military and state officials left Tirzah, undoubtedly followed by the artisans and merchants. It is quite possible that the town was completely abandoned for some time. This would explain the paucity of the interim stratum, apparently constructed after a short period of settlement. As the Northern Kingdom flourished under Joash and Jeroboam II, Tirzah, too, enjoyed a measure of prosperity. It is from this town that Menahem launched his attack on Samaria (2 Kg. 15:14). Stratum II represents this era with its magnificent structures and administrative headquarters. As some have suggested, these may have served Menahem, if indeed he held sway at Tirzah. During the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom (c. 732 BCE), the town was captured. The destruction in stratum II dates from that time.

The École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem conducted nine seasons of excavations at the site, between 1946 and 1960, under the direction of R. de Vaux (Vol.2,p.433).

J.F. Drinkard Jr. notes:

Omri began his reign in Tirzah (1 Kings 16: 23), the capital of the northern kingdom during Baasha’s reign, and then built a new capital, Samaria. At Tirzah, identified as Tell el-Farah north along Wadi Farah about six miles northeast of Shechem, excavators have discovered that the Iron Age strata have a break and gap that match the point when Omri built his new capital. Apparently, he had begun new construction in Tirzah and abruptly stopped. Perhaps Omri began to rebuild Tirzah as his capital during the time of the conflict with Tibni. Once that conflict was resolved, Omri was free to establish his own new capital (IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books).

Click on photos for larger view.

Tel Hazor in Israel

November 18, 2016

Hazor is first mentioned in the Bible in Josh. 11 in the days of the conquest under Joshua. Having conquered the central and then southern regions of Canaan, the victory of Hazor established Israel’s “toehold” in the north, for as Josh. 11:10 explains, “Joshua turned back at that time and took Hazor, and struck its king with the sword; for Hazor was formerly the head of all those kingdoms.” Or, as the NET renders the text, “for Hazor was at that time the leader of all these kingdoms.” As such, it was the head of a confederation of several Canaanite cities in the battle against Joshua & Israel’s forces at the waters of Merom. Nelson’s NIBD says, “Hazor was one of the most important fortresses in the land (Josh. 11:10). This was due to its enormous size, its large population, and its strategic location of the main road between Egypt and Mesopotamia” (p.546).

It is recorded in the next verse, Josh. 11:11, that Joshua burned Hazor down, but not the surrounding cities. Verse 13 continues: “But as for the cities that stood on their mounds, Israel burned none of them, except Hazor only, which Joshua burned.” The standard procedure during the conquest was not to burn down the cities—God was giving them to Israel as their inheritance in which to live. Therefore it should not surprise us when the “critic” says there is not a lot of evidence of destruction, etc., to date Joshua’s conquest of Israel. There is a big difference between destruction and conquest. I.e., cities such as Jericho, Ai, and Hazor were the exceptions and not the rule.

Biblical Hazor. "Formerly the head of all those kingdoms" (Josh. 11:10). Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Biblical Hazor. “Formerly the head of all those kingdoms” (Josh. 11:10). Note the watchtower at upper left. Photo by Leon Mauldin.

Between the time of the Conquest and the time of the Judges, Hazor had rallied and was again a very serious threat, as God allowed the armies of Hazor to oppress the Israelites because of Israel’s sinfulness (Judges 4:1-3). These were the days in which God raised up Deborah to be judge and prophetess; Israel’s army was led by Barak (Judges 4-5).

Solomon made Hazor one of his fortified cities, which functioned as a military outpost (1 Kings 9:15). It continued to be an important city until its destruction by Tiglath-Pileser in 732 B.C. (2 Kings 15:29). The Solomonic gates, like those at Megiddo and Gezer, were an important feature of the city.

The city of Hazor occupied some 200 acres, making it the largest city in ancient Israel. Hazor is now the largest archaeological site in Israel. Remains show not only evidence of Israel’s occupation, but also prior Canaanite structures as well.

Extra-biblical references to Hazor: Hazor is previously mentioned in the Egyptian Execration texts from the 19th or 18th century B.C. It is listed in the Mari documents of the 18th century B.C. as one of the major commercial centers in the Fertile Crescent. Hazor is also mentioned in the Egyptian documents of the New Kingdom, such as the city lists of Tutmoses III, as well as Amenhotep II and Seti I.

I’ve previously posted on Hazor here and here.