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.
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* “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.

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: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fuzitalondon/320861479/). 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), 6.vi.18 (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. 🙂
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[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).

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

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