Exploring (Extra)Biblical Literature: Ahiqar

The text of Ahiqar is one of the most ancient surviving texts of the middle eastern region. It is an extra biblical story normally placed in the category of Old Testament Pseudepigraphal works. Ahiqar was compiled sometime in the 7th through 6th centuries BCE. Ahiqar is actually not a story from Israel, but is a late Assyrian text made up of two sections. The first part is the narrative of Ahiqar and the second half is made up of proverb sayings. Ahiqar was such a popular Assyrian text that copies reached to Greece and have been found throughout Turkey, Syria and the Canaanite lands, the Eastern European churches, the Mesopotamian regions, even Egypt and Ethiopia.[1]

The narrative is about a man named Ahiqar who is an old and wise advisor to the Assyrian kings. Ahiqar has no sons so he adopts his nephew, Nadin, who he trains in all his wisdom. Ahiqar then presents Nadin as his replacement in the court. The king is pleased with Nadin and blesses Ahiqar with retirement. Sadly, Nadin poisons the king against Ahiqar by saying the old man is stirring the people into rebellion as he sits at the palace gates. The king sends a general to execute Ahiqar, but when found Ahiqar convinces the officer that he is loyal to the king and to instead hide him away until the day the king wishes for Ahiqar’s advice again. Later, when the king runs into a matter he needs advice about he laments his rash action of executing the wise Ahiqar. The officer then proclaims he has found Ahiqar alive bringing him out of hiding. Ahiqar then helps the king and exposes the wickedness of Nadin, who is then punished. Some texts include a long section where Ahiqar shames his nephew before the court by lecturing him on his evils.

Some scholars see parallels to the story of Esther in Ahiqar. They posit that the struggle between Mordechai and Haman might be modeled after the conflict of Ahiqar and Nadin. There is a general parallel of wisdom overcoming adversity in these two stories but this is not enough specific material to demand dependence of Esther on Ahiqar. Esther falls into the narrative category and format well worn by other stories, which included Ahiqar, in order for it to become a popularly told and circulated.

The second half of the Ahiqar text is made of proverbs. Their form and length are very similar to the books of Proverbs and Sirach. In fact, a number of proverbs are similar between Ahiqar and some phrases in the Old Testament and Apocryphal writings. Even these, though, do not seem to create a direct dependence of any biblical text on Ahiqar and is more an attestation to the general popularity of these particular proverbs in the ancient middle east. Just a few observations about the proverbs section:

  1. Similar to Proverbs and Sirach, Ahiqar encourages physical discipline of sons: “Spare not your son from the rod; otherwise, can you save him from wickedness? If I beat you, my son, you will not die; but if I leave you alone, you will not live.”[2]
  2. Like many wisdom texts, Ahiqar emphasizes control of the mouth. I found this text powerful in an age of social media where it is easy to slip any thought into public view. “My son, do not utter everything which comes into your mind, for there are eyes and ears everywhere. But keep watch over your mouth, lest it bring you to grief! Above all else, guard your mouth; and as for what you have heard, be discreet! For a word is a bird, and he who releases it is a fool. Choose the sayings you shall utter, then speak them to your brother to help him. For the treachery of the mouth is more dangerous than the treachery of battle.”[3]
  3. The centrality of family provision is encouraged. The provision should be achieved by any means available. Take advantage of and grasp every opportunity. “Hear, oh my son: Harvest any harvest, and do any job; then you may eat your fill and provide for your children.”[4]
  4. The posture of a good man is humility. There is also an interesting parallel on this topic to Jesus’ saying in Matthew 23:12. “Do not despise that which is your lot, nor covet some great thing which is withheld from you.”[5] And, “If you wish to be exalted, my son, humble yourself before [the god] Shamash, who humbles the exalted and exalts the humble.”[6]
  5. Freedom is more important than easy provision in slavery. But, could this also be a critique? As in, only a stubborn fool chooses freedom over the provision offered in servitude? “A man said on day to the wild ass, ‘Let me ride you, and I will provide for you!’ The wild ass replied, ‘Keep your care and fodder; I want nothing to do with your riding!’”

 


[1] James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1st ed (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1983), 480.

[2] Ahiqar 81-82.

[3] Ahiqar 97-99.

[4] Ahiqar 127.

[5] Ahiqar 136.

[6] Ahiqar 149-150.

Examining Biblical Literature: Zephaniah

The book of Zephaniah was compiled in the late 7th century BCE and is the last prophetic writing before the Babylonian exile becomes the main prophetic focus. There seems to be an interesting development occurring in the political situation around the time Zephaniah is compiled. Judah, the southern kingdom, has not heeded either the prior prophetic teachings nor have they learned from the judgment that fell upon the northern kingdom of Israel, captivity under Assyria over a century prior. Zephaniah becomes a written declaration against Judah about God’s coming judgment against Jerusalem. A judgment coming as surely as the anticipated judgment against the nations.

Much of Zephaniah is dedicated to the judgment coming against Jerusalem for its unfaithfulness. An unfaithfulness characterized by engaging in idolatry[1] and then the subsequent injustices socially perpetrated on account of disobedience to God’s law.[2] While Nahum and Joel both use the picture of lions for Assyria’s violence against Israel, Zephaniah uses the metaphor for the way the leaders, prophets, and priests of Judah have treated the people of God.[3] The enemies of Israel, those who have helped tear the people of God apart with Assyria, are also warned throughout chapter two that they will face judgment for their evils. As the nations are judged Judah is given a future hope that a remnant will be allowed to return to the land and flourish.[4] The nations around Judah will become desolate lands in the same way the people of God suffered as the armies of Assyria ravaged the north land of Israel and the coming judgment would desolate the south land surrounding Jerusalem.[5] Assyria, to the praise of all other nations under its empire, will be cast down. Zephaniah emphasizes the reason for her fall is more boastful pride than her violence.[6]

Zephaniah’s judgment text follows Joel’s tradition of explaining God’s actions primarily as the rightful sovereignty of the Creator god. Zephaniah begins with God’s declaration that he has the power and right to destroy all life in his creation.[7] A declaration that sounds conceptually similar to the logic of the Flood narrative of Genesis. Zephaniah focuses the Creator’s judgment firstly against Judah for its idolatry and in this way makes the people of God a representational figure for rest of humanity. Judah’s punishment isn’t only justified by the Creator’s sovereignty over all humanity but is depicted as, or at least the beginning of, God’s “affliction on humanity” because of sin against God.[8] Israel representing humanity in judgment is also seen in Joel’s language of the Creator sending armies against Israel in the land, which brings an end to the happiness of all humanity because is the destruction of the Garden of Eden.[9]

Zephaniah is the first prophet to bring in the concept of human sacrifice as the consequence of Judah’s for idolatry and injustice.[10] God intends to bring a violent army against Judah. Here Zephaniah slips into apocalyptic language to present the destruction of Jerusalem as the judgment of the Creator.[11] The entire creation, including humanity, is “consumed” or “eaten” by the fire of God’s zeal, or jealousy, for worship.[12] This linguistically connects to both the sacrificial language and the destructive Flood parallel earlier in the same chapter. God sacrifices creation, beginning with his own people, so that he will be rightly worshiped in his creation.

This utter destruction of humanity and creation should likely be seen more as a purification rather than a complete annihilation. Once judgment coming against creation is complete against the people of God it then begins to work outwardly toward the nations.[13] As the judgment moves towards to the nations it is revealed that a faithful remnant of Judah will be allowed to survive. This judgment, while destructive to creation, is also a divinely chosen purification process.[14]

Zephaniah claims that while the prophets and priests in Jerusalem may not have lived according to the law the God of Israel fulfills it because the law reflects the justice of God as the Creator. God, as Creator, does justice to creation by sustaining it continually, revealed in every new morning.[15] God as Creator will discipline creation and bring the nations into correction. The prophet announces that God will pour out his fire to consume the nations just as he will do to his own people.[16] The nations will be consumed in the creational sacrifice by God to himself. In the same way as this judgment purified a remnant of Judah to worship the Creator so too will it purify some within the nations. The nations will become one people, represented in a singular speech formed out of the many of humanity.[17] These remnants of the nations will be led as an offering of worship by the exiles returning to the land.[18] God will remove all people who rebel against him in idolatry and violence through his sacrificial purification of creation.[19] God the Creator is revealed as the King of Israel and the Lord of all nations in his purification of all creation through judgment and the concurrent rightful worship of a purified and unified humanity.

Observations:

  1. Zephaniah’s seeming allusions to the initial stories of Genesis is intriguing. Like Joel, Zephaniah focuses on the God of Israel’s sovereignty over creation, including the nations, on account of him being the Creator god. Because their use I’m tentatively convinced that the initial stories of Genesis were already being grouped together by the time Zephaniah was being pronounced and compiled in the late 7th century BCE. My reasoning is based on 1) the assumed depiction of God as Creator, which surround Zephaniah’s linguistic allusions to 2) the Flood narrative in the idea of a sweeping total destruction of creatures from the face of the earth and 3) the many languages of the nations being purified into one seems to be a reversal of God’s judgment on the nations from the Tower of Babel account.
  2. Along the lines of the above point, Zephaniah contains the earliest prophetic reference to Sodom and Gomorrah.[20] The reference is meant to cause fear in the Moabites and Ammonites by conjuring to mind a judgment by Israel’s God that brought about total destruction. The verses before and after the reference seem to show the parallel between Moab and Ammon with Sodom and Gomorrah is the sin of pride and being against God’s people. There is no sexual content to this reference. This could mean the later patriarchal stories are also somewhat connected to the early stories of Genesis by the time of Zephaniah’s complication. Or, at least, that Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction had already become connected to the same Creator god expressed in the Creation account(s), Flood account, and Tower of Babel story.
  3. Neither Joel, Nahum, nor Zephaniah seem to define idolatry as the worship of empty images made of stone or wood. Later prophets will ridicule both the people of God and the nations for worshipping idol-statues as divine. These earliest prophets simply call the worship of other nations’ gods idolatry and rebellion. The emphasis on God as Creator is meant to reveal his overarching sovereignty over all things and his rightful authority to 1) enact judgment on Israel for rebelling against him in refusing to worship him solely, and 2) to judge the nations for doing evil as errant components within his creation.
  4. Zephaniah seems to express a development in prophetic understanding concerning God’s theological role in the suffering of his people and the existence of evil in his creation. Nahum seems to be the most simplistic prophetic exposition with his rare references to God’s authority as Creator and his singlemindedness upon God avenging judgment on behalf of his people’s sufferings. Joel supplements this vengeance substantially. Joel shows the Creator god as a master gardener of his creation. The nations are seen as his animals or fruit trees and his authority extends to disciplining Israel with harsh, judgmental pruning. Joel depicts the hope of the people of God as the Spirit coming into Israel and forming a new creation out of the sinful, fallen obliteration of the Assyrian captivity. The Spirit’s renewal of Israel will then naturally be the destruction of the nations who oppress her so that she might be liberated and ascendant again.                                                                                                    Zephaniah adds to Joel’s understanding. While he agrees with Joel that God as Creator has authority to judge his own creation, the prophet uses very little “garden” or “Eden” language, using more pastoral metaphors overall, nor does he use “spirit” language to invoke a concept of a renewed creation. Instead, Zephaniah opts for Flood and sacrifice language. This allows Zephaniah to emphasize the overwhelming creational destruction of the Creator’s judgment and his demand for sacrifice. Such conceptual language allows space for a remnant in creation to survive. Since, clearly, some of humanity survived God’s judgment of the Flood and some sort of atoning outcome is to be expected of the sacrifice of Israel and humanity. Where Joel used the coming of the Spirit in the midst of judgment as God’s gratuitous renewal of Israel and creation, Zephaniah sees the judgment itself as the atoning means by which God purifies Israel and humanity of any and all evil, rebellious elements and people. Zephaniah becomes the first prophet to see that if the nations go through the same process of judgment as Israel they too will be purified to worship God. For Zephaniah this is depicted as the remnants of Israel not only leading the remnants of the nations in correct worship of the Creator god but, in fact, leading these worshipping remnants of the nations to correct worship in the land is remnant of Israel’s sacrificial offering to God. An act reminiscent of the promised Abrahamic blessing for all the families of the earth.

 


[1] 1:4-6

[2] 3:3-6

[3] 3:3-5; Compare with Joel 1:6-7 and Nahum 2:10-12

[4] 2:5-7

[5] 2:4, 8-9, 12

[6] 2:15

[7] 1:2-3

[8] 1:17

[9] Joel 1:2-12

[10] 1:7-9

[11] 1:10-16

[12] 1:17-18

[13] 2:1-2

[14] 2:3

[15] 3:3-5

[16] 3:6-8

[17] Another possible allusion to the initial stories of Genesis. This time the Tower of Babel of Genesis 11 after the Flood destruction.

[18] 3:9-10

[19] 3:11-20

[20] 2:9

Examining Biblical Literature: Nahum

There are evil people in this world. Evil cities, nations, and empires dedicated to oppressing others for their interests. Will God address these evils?

The prophetic book of Nahum was written against Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, after it had ravaged the northern kingdom of Israel. The text took on its final form in the mid to late 7th century BCE reflecting the deep pain and anger of Israel for being treated so horrifically by the aspiring empire. Written about a century after the events of Assyrian captivity, the language of Nahum is potent with the hatred of an oppressed people towards their oppressors.

Nahum gives a few of parallel clues to the book of Joel. 1) Yahweh is seen as the Creator god who cannot be stopped from inflicting judgment for violence against Israel.[1] 2) The metaphor of lions and locusts are used to represent the violent invader of the land.[2] 3) Nahum seems to draw from a similar phrase in 1:15 as Joel 3:17. The point of the passage is that never again will evil peoples conquer the land of God’s people again. For Joel, this phrase is about the reconstitution of the Edenic life in the land by the empowerment of the Spirit. For Nahum, this security will occur when the gospel (good news) is proclaimed—Nineveh has been destroyed! Assyria has fallen!

Interestingly, Nahum uses the metaphors of lions and locusts in a different nuance than the way Joel used them. Joel speaks of the invading as a swarm of locust coming to destroy Israel’s state of Edenic tranquility. Nahum uses the imagery of locusts for Nineveh as a way of saying their power and leaders will scatter to the wind at God’s judgment. The lion metaphor is used by Joel to talk about the violence of the invaders, while Nahum agrees with this use of the metaphor his point is that the lions will made to suffer on account of the violence they have done to God’s people.

Observations

  1. There is no judgment language towards Israel. There are only three references to the people of God and all of them are connected to restoring Israel in the midst of destroying Nineveh.[3] The celebratory nature anticipated by Nahum concerning the fall of Assyria even ends the text in 3:18-19.
  2. Nahum 1:15 seems to be one of the earliest biblical uses of theme “gospel”, or good news, and it is directly tied to celebrating the destruction of another nation. This destruction is seen as God action to restore Israel in 2:1-2.
  3. The imagery of a prostitute is employed by Nahum to describe the evils and relationships of other kingdoms with Nineveh.[4] This would be an early use of imagery relied on in Revelation 17.
  4. The imagery of fruit in 3:12 is not about individuals’ actions, but rather fruit is about the outcome of the communal reality of Nineveh. It’s goods and prosperity.
  5. References to the female body are only negative. The prostitute text infers that female genitalia is shameful. Though this could express the belief that all genitalia is shameful and the prostitute is simply the example at hand.[5] Also, the Assyria army is depicted as a group of women who will be easily overpowered when Nineveh’s lands are invaded.[6]

 


[1] 1:2-13

[2] 2:10-13 and Joel 1:5-7; 3:14-17 and Joel 1:4, 2:25

[3] 1:15, 2:2

[4] 3:1-7

[5] 3:5

[6] 3:13

Examining Biblical Literature: Joel

If our god is the Creator then why does his people suffer? What happens to those who have made us suffer so much? How will God overcome all this evil in us and the world?

One of the earliest written texts in the Bible is the book of Joel. The text of Joel seems to have taken on its final form sometime in the 7th century BCE. The contents of Joel are reflecting on the Assyrian captivity that took place in the Mid 8th century BCE, ca. 740. This text is a beautiful example of Jewish prophetic literature. If it is the oldest prophetic text it lays down a number of key metaphorical themes and linguistic phrases picked up by later writers.

Joel dedicates a large amount of time to representing Israel in the land as the Garden of Eden. The invading nation is depicted as laying “the vine” to waist, stripping and splintering “the fig tree”.[1] The unfruitfulness of Israel affects all humanity.[2] As the foreign nation destroys Israel the horror of the event can only be compared to a shift from the land of Eden to a wasteland.[3] Joel employs apocalyptic language, one of Jewish literatures earliest usages, to reveal how the Creator himself has changed the structure of creation and none (in Israel) are able to endure it.[4] Dependent on the repentance of Israel, God the Creator promises to bring Israel home to the land. The land is promised that at the coming of the Israel it will become an Eden again.[5] This end of exile and renewal of land and people into a restored Eden culminates in, or better is expressed as, the coming of the Creator’s Spirit onto everyone in Israel. This reverse of the exile in the coming of the Spirit results in events depicted in apocalyptic language.[6]

This second use of apocalyptic language signals a shift in Joel from judgment on Israel to judgment on the nations. These nations are those who either helped Assyria enslave Israel or did not come to their aid, thereby benefiting from the dividing of the land.[7] The use of apocalyptic language in Joel represents 1) political upheaval and change, 2) God’s employment of military power, 3) God’s sovereignty as Creator to determine the way of life in his creation, and 4) the submission of creation to the Creator’s will. God calls the nations to come to war again against his people, but this time the presence of the Spirit in Israel empowers them. God’s favor is not with the foreign armies this time.[8] Apocalyptic language is again employed by Joel, indicating a military battle of cosmic importance, and suddenly Israel is fully restored in Edenic language. The nations are left to exist in a wasteland as recompense for their violence against God’s people.[9]

Joel’s seeks to help the people of God wrestle with how can the Creator who controls everything allow his people to suffer under the oppression of a foreign army and nation? And, what will he do to fix such suffering?

Joel’s answer is that God as Creator does have all the power to stop the destruction of Israel, his Edenic creation, but he is the one who has sent this army into the land as a judgment against Israel for neglecting to worship him.[10] Once Israel turns back to worshiping the Creator his Spirit will recreate the people of God, empowering them to return to the land and reestablish their Eden. God as Creator will overturn and judge the nations for their evils against his people, but only if his people learn the lesson to worship their God, the Creator. The coming of the Spirit into the people of God is then also the day of judgment against the nations. The Spirit is the Creator’s empowering presence in Israel to participate in a renewed Edenic land, a land the nations have no place living.

Observations:

  1. Israel’s struggle to understand their monotheistic faith in a completely sovereign Creator god demands a way of understanding how Yahweh’s people are suffering. The exile forces Israel to create a unique theodicy; God chooses to allow his people to suffer creating an opportunity for his people to learn a lesson.
  2. The pervasive use of creation language and metaphor as a depiction of Israel is interesting. Does this give any understanding the creation stories in Genesis?
  3. The parallel of the Spirit of the Creator so Israel can live in a renewed Eden in the land and judgment on the nations to live in a comparative wasteland.

 


[1] 1:7

[2] 1:11-12

[3] 2:3

[4] 2:10-11

[5] 2:21-25

[6] 2:28-32

[7] 3:1-8

[8] 3:9-12

[9] 3:13-21

[10] 1:13, 2:12-14, 25