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King David’s Women Part I: Abigail of Blessed Memory

In the Scriptural game of thrones, Abigail plays a key role in a surprise-filled plot. A strong woman of the Bible take the lead – again.

Why start my series on the women in King David’s life with Abigail? She’s not his first wife (Michal) nor is she the most famous (Bathsheba). Neither is she the daughter that his son, and David himself, so wronged (Tamar). But Abigail – her wisdom so powerfully revealed in so few slender verses – reaches out across the millennia in a way that has put her at the top of my list of strong women of the Bible.

Abigail, by Riki Rothenberg. Abigail appears in the center, and red-headed David and his men at left. David’s future crown is tied, literally to Abigail. Nabal is carousing at top right. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

As usual, although Abigail is the heroine, it’s Nabal, a man of means – and a mean man – about whom we get all the details. And, seeking to understand more about Abigail from elsewhere in Scripture, we find that according to scholars, Abigail was no more than a means to an end for David. Nabal, we’re told in 1 Sam 25:3, was a Calebite chieftain. According to 1 Chron. 2:50–51, David must have been a descendant of the Calebites, through a man named Bethlehem (David’s ancestral city). By marrying Abigail, some say David attained vital Calebite support for his kingship.  Indeed, David was eventually crowned in Calebite territory, in Hebron, where he spent seven years.

But it’s in the story itself that Abigail reveals herself to us, with Haiku-like brevity and precision. Here we find a decisive, strong, quick-acting woman of faith, who rewrote not only her own history and future, but the history through which we descendants of the Judahites know ourselves. In that sense, Abigail was an inspiration for my first-generation heroine in my first historical novel, The Scroll, among the few survivors of Masada, who by her wisdom and sheer willpower, changed a bleak future overshadowed by men’s desires.

The story in 1 Samuel 25 opens with David roaming the desert with band of 600 (!) outlaws. David had sent men to Nabal with a message: To paraphrase 1 Sam. 25:6–7:  “We’ve been watching your shepherds now for some time, busy with the shearing of your prodigous flock, and, just so you know, they’re feeling fine.” Then came some over-the-top wishes for continued good health and wealth, and a request for supplies. Considering David had left behind 200 of his men to guard his own supplies, it seems hunger was not his motive, but rather a Corleone-style demand for protection money if ever there was one. Nabal mockingly refuses, and it’s all downhill from there. Swords girded, off they go.

Abigail comes on the scene, having heard of the goings-on from a servant after the men involved had already sparked conflict. The quantity of supplies she presented to David might have fed Nabal’s household for no more than two days. That is, except for the extravagant “five dressed sheep,” which Abigail undoubtedly included to make a point – she was in charge, not Nabal. Abigail bows when she meets David, as her culture required. But using Nabal’s unfortunate nickname (“base fellow”) against him, she makes it clear that David will find dealing with her much different than with Nabal.

Pretending that violence is the last thing on David’s mind, Abigail blesses the outlaw and future king with long life, the monarchy, victory over his enemies and a dynasty to boot.  David, quite bowled over, sends her home with a promise that all will be well. Abigail then reports back to a drunken, carousing Nabal, who keels over when he hears what his wife had done without his knowledge and against his wishes.

David “proposes” to Abigail (roses and champagne are not mentioned, but “taking” is…twice. That’s ancient culture for you; lucky we’re done with that…). Abigail agrees, describing herself as a lowly handmaid and foot-washer, in direct contradiction to what we have already come to appreciate about her.

No need to dwell on David’s numerous flaws here. One of his most egregious sins had to do with another married woman who he brought into his life, with disastrous results. But David himself recognizes the role Abigail played in restraining his worst inclinations. That even God’s chosen king needed someone to keep him in line should comfort us  ordinary mortals at this time of year, when New Year’s resolutions are already weakening for some.

Abigail tells David that his life “will be bound securely in the bundle of life by the Lord your God.”  Our sages, who counted Abigail among the seven prophetesses of Israel (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Megillah 14a), found that image so touching that they quoted it to describe what happens to the souls of the righteous after death (tractate Shabbat 152b). These poignant words are recited at Jewish funerals to this day. And thus, Abigail is still with us.

Thank you, Abigail, of blessed memory, for your deeds, and the hope of eternity bound up in your words.

 

Further reading

C. Meyers (ed.), Women in Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI, 2000), pp. 43–44.

J.D. Levenson and B. Halpern, “The Political Import of David’s Marriages,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99:4 (Dec.1980), pp. 507–518.

T. Kadari, “Abigail: Midrash and Aggadah.” https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/abigail-midrash-and-aggadah.

M. Feinberg Vamosh, The Scroll.

M, Feinberg Vamosh, Women at the Time of the Bible.

 

 

My thoughts on Abigail are partly based ideas exchanged with the artist Riki Rothenberg, whose inspiring work adorns this blogpost. My thanks to Riki for allowing me to present them and her art to you.

When might a man love a woman so much that he divorces her? And what does that have to do with David and Goliath? Click on the headline “Loving Divorce” below and find out! Thank you David Bivin and the Jerusalem Perspective for allowing me to reflect on a unique Jewish practice of wartime divorce, which gave me the plot of my first historical novel, The Scroll.

“Loving Divorce”: Born on the Battlefield

Interview About The Scroll on Hebrew Nation Radio

Click here to listen to my recent radio interview! Thanks to the hosts on the Hebrew Nation Radio morning show “The Remnant Road,” who gave me an opportunity to discuss my books, especially The Scroll. The audience at Hebrew Nation Radio wants to learn more about the Jewish roots of their faith, and so I was able to tell interviewers Mike Clayton, Al McCarn and Barry Philips about episodes in The Scroll where I brought Jews and early Judeo-Christians together. The interview was a golden opportunity to discuss all the subjects I love to write about, including the strong women of the Bible. But best of all, I was able not only to discuss the women survivors of Masada and the future I imagined for them and their descendants, but also the Hebrew roots of Christianity and the beginnings of Christianity,  My aim in bringing Jews and early Christians together in The Scroll,  as I told the interviewers, was to show how each community faced the harsh challenges of  its times.  To this day, we can and must face the enormous challenges of our times together, celebrating and building upon what unites us rather than what divides us.

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors

Like the women of faith in the Bible, the heroines of my first historical novel, The Scroll, are strong women whose voices I want to make heard. When The Scroll begins, during the final days at the fortress of Masada, a woman surrounded by the enemy chooses life. She chooses life against all odds, like the strong women of the Bible. I introduced that woman to my readers as I imagined her – the last of the Masada’s survivors. I raised her in a Jerusalem torn asunder by the infighting that led her to that desolate plateau. But I brought her from that killing ground into a future where faintheartedness was not an option.

What’s in a name?

I didn’t make her up entirely. I based her character on a real woman who called out from across the millennia. Her name, and place of residence (Masada!) appears in an ancient divorce document, a real archaeological find, discovered in a cave in the Judean wilderness in the 1950s. Her name gave me pause for thought. It was Miriam – the same as mine. That could be awkward for an author. But it harked back to another strong woman of the Bible, Miriam, who praised God for deliverance in song and dance by an ancient sea.  And so I decided that this was no coincidence; it was going to help me understand how a modern Miriam would have faced the challenges of dark, troubled, ancient times.

Biblical Miriam dancing and playing the tamborine, by contemporary artist Rikki Rothenberg.

Biblical Miriam is just one of the female Bible characters I sought to bring alive in The Scroll. The spirits of other women of the Old Testament are reflected in  my plot, as readers discover whether, over three generations bookended by rebellion, my characters learned the lesson of Masada’s downfall or whether enemies – within and without – robbed it from them. Infused in the women of each generation in The Scroll are the warrior instincts of Deborah and Jael and the survivor instincts of Ruth, the steely determination of Sarah, Rebecca’s mastery of subterfuge, Hannah’s boundless faith, Rahab’s unwavering commitment, Esther’s love of her people. In such women, in The Scroll and in Scripture, I hope you’ll find lessons of endurance we all need now more than ever.

 

The Fury Next Door

Har Adar, my home town, suffered a terror attack two weeks ago today. 

Plenty of pundits have put in their two cents since the terror attack in my community, Har Adar, on September 26. Las Vegas overshadows us all, but in our community, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of that awful Tuesday morning. Confident commentators are sure they know why a terrorist opened fire at the gate of our community, who precisely is to blame, and precisely what steps to take. And what I lay before you here also has its whys and whats.  But in the spirit of the season, it looks both inward as we do on Yom Kippur, and outward, as the Feast of Tabernacles teaches us.

“Are you alright?” The text messages started beeping in at 7:45 a.m. on September 26.

I was on my second cup of coffee and had already sat down at my desk. About 30 minutes earlier, I heard the sirens. One siren. I guess someone had a heart attack.

Two. That’s strange. Three. I opened my news websites.

The first reports said three Israelis had been shot and killed by a terrorist on the patrol road at Har Adar. That makes sense in my world. There are plenty of guns aimed at us all the time. If it’s on the patrol road, I told myself that morning as the news broke, the “Israelis” (the euphemism for security personnel before the authorities allow any more information to be released) are soldiers, and a terrorist must have opened fire on a patrol vehicle. I’m fine, I text back.

This yellow gate slides open to admit Palestinian workers to Har Adar. It’s been closed since the Sept. 26 attack. Behind it is the Palestinian village of Bidu.

Then the news came into focus. At the gate of Har Adar. More text messages. A terror attack at the gate? I began to think in terms of our front gate, and civilians. West of that gate, in the wadi on the other side of the security fence is the village of Qatana in Palestinian territory we had learned to fear. When our girls were younger, when we’d drive up the main road from the entrance toward home, which parallels the forest, the wadi and the road down to Qatana, we’d follow protocol to be able to escape the car in case an incendiary device was thrown at it. Time to undo your seatbelts girls, we’d call out with false cheer. Why? They’d ask. Well, we’re almost home, we’d say.

The entrance to Har Adar. On the right, is a banner dedicated to the three men who lost their lives protecting the community. On the window ledge of the guard post are three potted plants each marked with the name of one of the dead.

Next I heard, it’s not the entrance gate, it’s the big yellow gate where Har Adar ends and the Palestinian Authority begins, down the street from our sports center, elementary school and library, where the Palestinian workers come and go every day. On a weekday I see their cars parked on the Palestinian side of the barrier. They come in on foot. The gate is locked and no one’s ever there whenever I pass it on my walks around the community.

And then, everyone knew. The casualties were two civilian security guards and a Border Police officer. From Wikipedia, where the attack now has its own entry: “Border policeman Solomon Gavriyah (20), civilian security guards Youssef Ottman (25) of nearby Abu Ghosh and Or Arish (25), who lived in Har Adar. A fourth man, the head civilian security officer of Har Adar, is injured. The attacker was shot and killed.”

Our community security coordinator, Amit Steinhart, was seriously injured.

Our community bulletin board looked surreal to me. At left, a row of the three death notices, one for each guard. The turquoise sign next to them announces prayer times for Yom Kippur, amid various and sundry other community notices like houses for rent and a macrobiotic sukkah.

Later, on his release from the hospital, Steinhart told the media that Or Arish’s last words were “Amit, I saved you.” Meaning that Amit could now do what was needed to save others. And with our schoolchildren streaming into their classrooms at that very hour, only 200 yards up the road, that meant everything.

8:30 a.m.: I phoned Abed. I don’t know his last name. I can’t remember where he lives. Bidu, I think, northeast of us. That’s where the men came from who built our home 30 years ago. (The murderer came from Beit Suriq, farther along the ridge east of Bidu.) Old Abu Ghazi, who was in charge of the laborers who built our home, was from Bidu. When construction was done, he came with his whole family with gifts for us. A bucket of apricots from his trees. Toys for the girls. He brought a grapevine from his own vineyard and planted it in our garden. It gives us tiny, sweet, green grapes every summer. As for Abed, he planted the rose bushes in my garden 25 years ago. He’s been working at somebody’s house right down the street from us so I’ve seen him every day recently. He has a tractor with a Palestinian Authority license plate. When he first got the tractor, when it was shiny and new, 25 years ago, I saw it had a Palestinian Authority license plate and I thought, that’s a good sign, the Palestinian Authority has license plates. Over the years after the rose bushes, he’d greet me with shalom Miriam, what’s up, and I’d say shalom. But by then I had forgotten his first name too.

I’m not sure why I phoned Abed on the morning of the attack. Maybe because when I went outside to see if I could figure out where the sirens were coming from, and to watch the helicopters hovering, I saw Abed drive up the street in his tractor, as usual.  Passing him in the opposite direction, from the end of our cul-de-sac, without a second glance, were two security officers of some kind, on motorcycles.

I saw a contingent of four heavily armed Border Police officers, three young men and a woman, going from house to house. One of them, a young woman, asked me gruffly: Everything OK?  Yes, everything’s OK, I responded. Why are you going from house to house, I asked, is there a terrorist loose?  No, we’re just making sure you’re OK, they answered.

Oh yes, I’m fine. Thank you for your service, please accept my condolences, I said. Their faces were impassive, as if I hadn’t spoken.

Abed wasn’t down at the house where he’d been working. But he picked up my call. Abed, what’s up? Hakor beseder, everything’s OK, Miriam, what’s up with you, he responded, automatically. I ask him: Where are you? I saw you driving up the street. He answers, I was there but then I left. They’ve got us up here together, by the offices, he said. I’m sorry, I said to him. And in my mind, I enumerated my reasons for being sorry. Sorry for the three of our own killed, and our security officer seriously injured. Sorry that I wondered for a second whether you had done it, Abed. Sorry for living in a place where such a thing could happen. Sorry for living in a world where some version of this now happens all the time.

A shopping basket at our minimarket with a sign saying “Place your goodies for the soldiers, and kids letters and drawings here. The top drawing, in the heart, wishes a speedy recovery to Amit, our security chief.

Four days later, Erev Yom Kippur. Before Kol Nidre services began I was sitting in the vestibule of the Har Adar synagogue, talking to my brother Paul, who also lives in Har Adar. He said he saw the Palestinian workers sitting there when he went to buy milk, on the morning of the attack. I wondered if they had rounded them up for their own safety, I said. That was after I saw the venom spewed forth on our private community Facebook page.

The fury began on Facebook that same day. They’re all terrorists, wrote some. Don’t let them in your house, said several others; if you do, you’re risking your life and the lives of your children. Betwixt and between, arrangements were discussed to visit the houses of mourning, one in Be’er Ya’akov down near Rishon LeTzion, one in our neighboring Muslim town of Abu Ghosh and one in our own Har Adar. A long, emotional post by one neighbor said that with such great gaps between them and us, despite seemingly warm personal ties for years between the murderer and people in whose homes he worked, despite the money they make working here, despite how fair and kind we believe we are to them, their frustration, fury and envy will find its expression in religious ideology, she wrote.

Our neighboring town of Abu Ghosh, which is Muslim, and is also the biblical site of Kiryat Yearim where the Ark once rested.

And then she went too far, for people who had lost loved ones and friends here that day. She wrote that all the deaths where tragedies, even one not usually counted in such attacks. The responses grew furious at that. You’re insane. You disgust me. You’re sewage. You’re filth. Etcetera. Out of about 77 replies to her comment at that point, I only saw two that showed understanding of her viewpoint. I wondered about that, given what I know of our community. Apparently so did one neighbor who went as far as to post, in response to those posts, the official distribution of Knesset votes in our community, which is a West Bank settlement just over the pre-1967 line  – 47. 77 percent of our votes went to center-left or left-wing parties. And the posts continued to pour in. The woman with too much sympathy eventually retracted her post, with apologies.

Our community rabbi also posted on our community Facebook page. Ah, he’ll have an answer for me, I thought. OK, Let’s see now. He quoted from Psalm 130, the one that begins, famously: “Out of the depths I called Thee O Lord.”  One I’m sure families and people of faith are reading these days, especially across the United States. The verses he quoted were 6–8: “My soul waiteth for the Lord, more than the watchmen for the morning; yea, more than the watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope is in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” I can relate to that, I thought, noting how poetic that the verse the rabbi found was about watchmen. What do you think of that, I asked my husband Arik, who, not by the way, is a wounded warrior who this Yom Kippur marks 44 years as a paraplegic. That puts it on God, he said in his usual cryptic manner.

At Kol Nidre services, in the women’s section, I told a neighbor I had come because I was hoping to hear the rabbi speak out about the need for unity in the face of the disaster that had struck the families of the fallen and the community. Indeed, his sermon began with the same verse he had quoted in his post: “Waiting for redemption ‘like the guards wait for the morning’. That’s something almost everyone here can relate to, he said. “Who here hasn’t done guard duty at night and waited for the morning, for the shift to be over, giving thanks for having stayed awake,” he continued. But when morning came for Solomon Gavriyah, Youssef Othman and Or Arish, the rabbi reminded us, it was their last. He spoke of their heroism and camaraderie, of the light they brought to the world. He spoke of his personal acquaintance with Or and Youssef, and the heroism of Solomon and his family, who had come to Israel from Ethiopia. He didn’t counsel us as to what we should do now. Perhaps he wanted to leave it up to each of us to know what’s right. Perhaps he wants us to realize that we should trust in God, like the Psalm says.

After the sermon came the haunting chant of Kol Nidre. This includes Numbers 15:26: “And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojouneth among them; for in respect of all the people it was done in error.”

Forgiveness for “all the people”…I’m not that noble. I can’t find any forgiveness for the perpetrator. I haven’t even forgiven the neighbor down our street, who in his carelessness rammed his car into Arik’s car three and a half years ago, seriously injuring Arik and his mom, who never fully recovered (Arik’s mom died last month). But I’ve got a new vow. It’s one I don’t intend to seek release from next year on Yom Kippur. It’s an anti-venom vow. I vow to speak out when an entire group is incriminated and condemned for the actions of damnable individuals. I vow to continue to see every person as just that: a person, not a threat, not part of a nameless, fearsome mob of others. I vow to hold on to what makes me a member, above and beyond any other group, of the human race.

Further reading about Har Adar: My Judean Mountains Home.

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of several non-fiction books about daily life in Bible days and a historical novel, The Scroll.

 

Flashback and Flashpoint: What’s Going on with the Temple Mount?

Sometimes it seems like I must have dreamed it; that before the year 2000, I used to lead my tour groups around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and into the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Those were days when the Mount often seemed strangely tranquil, amid unrest elsewhere in the country and even in the city. This was the eye of the hurricane, I used to tell people.

The Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism; photo: Noam Chen.

But over the years, beliefs about the Temple Mount’s sanctity have been gathering into what seems like a tidal wave of fury and hatred. Now the Mount has become a flashpoint again. The recent spate of violence was sparked in mid-July by the killing by terrorists of two Israeli policemen on duty outside the Mount, followed by the killing of the terrorists on the Mount and the killing of three Israelis in their home in Samaria by a terrorist. In the wake of clashes with security forces over these past two weeks, hundreds of Palestinians were injured and at least six Palestinians have been killed in the midst of clashes, mainly in the West Bank and Gaza.

What I’d like to do here is to help illuminate a little of what the Mount means to the different religions that sanctify it. There is so much to read on the subject that one lifetime isn’t enough. But at the end of this article, you’ll find a small assortment of less familiar sources, some of which I quote here and which I’ve found helpful.

Flash back 2,000 years, and you’ll find ancient texts that extol the Temple, and by extension the Mount, as the embodiment of peace and unity, the very antithesis of bloodshed. Truly, it is a great idea and ideal – a uniquely perceived sacred intersection of space and time. And it has been disastrously diminished by self-serving small-mindedness, especially of late, into a wicked scrummage over a piece of real estate.

Debate swirls about virtually everything involving the Temple Mount. It’s the place where Abraham offered Isaac, you’ve probably been taught. Then you discover that Muslims believe it was the patriarch of the Arabs, Ishmael, who was offered by his and Isaac’s father, Abraham. You’ve only begun to digest that when you discover that the traditional site of the offering, which the Bible names as Mount Moriah, actually defies the inner geographical logic of the biblical story.  Be that as it may, Solomon, the Bible says, built the Temple at “Jerusalem, Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared unto David his father” (2 Chron. 3:1). And as Prof. Dan Bahat told me many years ago in an interview: “I believe that when David founded Jerusalem as his capital, he created a formula: Jerusalem equals city plus people plus God plus dynasty.”

The Temple was the intense focus of Israelite/Jewish practice – notwithstanding the thwarted desire for decentralized worship and the railing of the prophets against sacrifice in the midst of corruption and deceit . The Roman destruction of the Temple sparked a crisis in Jewish faith and practice that was turned into a fateful crossroads by sages like Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, who said that Temple sacrifice and worship could be represented by “deeds of love, as it is said [Hosea 6:6] for I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifice” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 4). And yet, the rebuilding of the Temple continued to flicker in various sources over the centuries.

Stones that fell from the Western Wall at the moment of its destruction by the Romans. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Fast forward to the modern era, and the secular Zionist movement, which espoused an essentially practical project – the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral land. Even so, it couched its philosophy in messianic terms of redemption. According to comparative-religion expert Dr. Tomer Persico, Israel’s visionary first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount would preclude “the fulfillment of Zionism’s progressive worldview.” Persico, among others, has noted that Zionism sought to make use of the idea of a rebuilt Temple, but to clothe it in secularity –  national home, yes; Temple, no. The relatively recent movement by nationalist Orthodox people to ascend to the Temple Mount, and the outcry in those selfsame circles about the method of the government’s resolution of the current crisis, are a sign – which can be either worrisome or joyful depending on who you ask – that this dichotomy may be failing.

Christian pilgrims devoted to the site often ask me why Moshe Dayan “gave up” the Temple Mount after capturing it in the Six-Day War. “What do I need all this Vatican for,” is one version of a statement widely quoted as Dayan’s answer to that question. Indeed, after the Six-Day War, with Israel in virtual possession of the holiest place in Judaism and third holiest place in Islam, and as a political decision rather than a purely religious one, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel forbade Jews to visit the Temple Mount. The reason given: we are currently in too impure a state to set foot on the holy ground. Mainstream Orthodoxy still holds to this view, although the debate in the nationalist Orthodox milieu has grown heated in recent years. Actually, the decision was meant to keep the lid on an clearly volatile religious powder keg. As Dr. Sarina Chen, an expert on this issue, has pointed out: “Both camps believe the Temple Mount possesses cosmic sanctity stemming from the place itself, and both sides call upon ancient rabbinic sources, regarding the hierarchy of sanctity and impurity…”

As for Christianity and the Temple Mount, Jesus’ relationship with the Temple spanned literally his entire life according to the New Testament. As the first-born son he was presented in the Temple; at age 12 he accompanied his parents there on the Passover pilgrimage; the devil dared Jesus to jump from the Temple’s “pinnacle”; on Hanukkah he taught in the temple courts; he prophesied the Temple’s destruction and perhaps most famously of all, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple courts. Christian texts, John 4:21 for example, seem to regard the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as replacing sacrifice in the Temple and the Temple itself. Yet over time, many Christians have come to look forward to the rebuilding of the temple as an essential harbinger of Jesus’ return; some see political unrest as part of that process. This is but one example of the complexities of Christian views on the Temple, surveyed in an article by Oded Irshay that you’ll find in the reading list below. According to legend, when Christians first ruled Jerusalem they maintained the Temple Mount as a heap of garbage and rubble. But as time went on, Jerusalem was seen as key to the End of Days, and the rebuilt Temple actually became essential to that vision. Over the past two decades or so, this has led to a confluence of interests that brings thousands of Christians annually to the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, which teaches about the laws regarding the rebuilding of the Temple and hints broadly of its desire to bring that about. Ironically, the Temple Institute might be one of the few places anywhere where a devout Christian and an Orthodox Jew might meet, both geographically and ideologically.

And what about Islam’s views of the Temple Mount? The rock where Abraham offered his son, and from which in Islamic tradition Mohammed ascended to heaven, now crowned with the Dome of the Rock, is their third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. One of their many names for the esplanade is Al Aqsa, after the eponymous mosque on the Mount.

The devotion of Islam to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount has been in evidence for centuries. Islamic tradition has a specific genre of praise literature going back to the seventh and eight centuries called Fada’il Bayt al-Maqdis (“Praises of Jerusalem”). Jerusalem is not mentioned specifically by that name in the Koran, yet in this genre and in other literature it holds an essential place in the Islamic view of final judgement, redemption, resurrection, heaven and hell.  And speaking of names, one of Islam’s names for Jerusalem is Bayt al-Maqdes, from the Hebrew Beit Hamikdash, which means Temple.

One such tradition, cited by the 11th-century  Ibn al-Muragga, and quoted by Ofer Livne-Kafri (another source in the list below), clearly links up to Christian beliefs. It expresses the idea that the hour of resurrection “will not come until seven walls of precious stones, gold, silver, clouds, and light are set around Jerusalem.” In another place, Ibn al-Muragga writes that God will send winds that will “uncover every stone and building and they will purify them from all the damages of men. Then he will build around it seven walls: a wall of light, upon which are the angels of holiness, and a wall of clouds and a wall of topaz and a wall of sapphire and a wall of pearls and a wall of silver and a wall of gold,” going on to mention that at that time Jesus will appear in Jerusalem.

From the same source, Livne-Kafri shows us inspiration from Judaism: “Rejoice, Jerusalem and the Rock … and it is called the Temple…and I shall restore bayta l-maqdisto its former sovereignty (mulk) and I shall crown it with gold and silver and pearls, and I shall send to you my people, and I shall place my throne on the Rock, and I am God, the Lord, and David is the king of the sons of Israel.”

It’s all so complicated and so fraught that I can only end with hope, and a return to sources of spiritual sustenance of my own faith. In the words of Isaiah 2:1-3: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains…and all nations shall flow to it …” and Micah 4:3-4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

 

 

 

Recommended Reading

 

Chen, S. “Visiting the Temple Mount: Taboo or Mitzvah” Modern Judaism 34, 1. February 2014, pp. 27–41.

 

Feinberg Vamosh, M. 2010. “Meaning of the Mount.” http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/books/meaning-of-the-mount-1.260723.

 

Grabar, O. and Kedar, B.Z. 2009. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade. Jerusalem.

 

Irshay. O. 1996.  “The New Testament Temple.” Eretz. May–June 1996, pp. 30–35.  

 

Livne-Kafri, O. “Jerusalem in Early Islam: the Eschatological Aspect,”

Arabica, T. 53, Fasc. 3 (Jul., 2006), pp. 382-403.  http://holyland.oucreate.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/livne-kafri-jerusalem-in-early-islam-eschatological.pdf.

 

Marx, D. “The Missing Temple: The Status of the Temple in Jerusalem in Jewish Culture following Its Destruction. European Judaism 46, 2: 2013: 61–78.

 

Persico, T. 2014. “Why rebuilding the Temple Would be the End of Judaism as we Know It.” http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.626327

 

“Tunnel Visions.” 1996. An interview with Prof. Dan Bahat. Eretz, May–June 1996, pp. 7–8.

 

 

The Ghost Writing of All Time

“What is history? Wars, victory, and wars. So many dead. So many tears. So little regret, so many fears”  – Abraham Joshua Heschel

A recent discovery in the laboratories of Tel Aviv University has revealed ancient Hebrew words hiding on an already famous piece of pottery, the university announced last month in a story picked up by media worldwide. Kudos to the scientists who brought those words to light, using multispectral image acquisition. Or, to quote that ancient sherd’s writer – greetings to their households and blessings on them.

Arad ostracon no. 16 with the new lines of text newly discovered by a Tel Aviv University team. Courtesy of Tel Aviv University.

The newly discovered words – about 17 of them – were found on a potsherd, part of a group known as the Elyashiv ostraca, discovered 50 years ago in the Negev desert fortress of Arad and inked some 2,600 years ago. The article announcing the discovery, published last month in the journal PLoS 1, says the revelation shows how important it is to thoroughly document such finds with the advanced technique the team used, rather than a standard digital camera or even by infrared. They are so fragile, and we may not always have them with us.

Soon I’ll ask you to don your mind’s multispectral lens to read between the lines, too. But first, a little about what the sherd is and what we now know it says. Known to scholars as sherd no. 16, it’s one of over 100 Hebrew inscriptions, written during the sixth-century BCE Babylonian siege of Judah, which included the city of Arad where it was found a half-century ago. A name they mention more than once is Elyashiv, commander or quartermaster of the Arad fortress; they mostly bear instructions from his superiors to supply grain, wine, oil and even military reinforcements.

Tel Arad, view of the ruins. Courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism www.goisrael.com.

According to the Tel Aviv University research team, the three new lines, found on the back of the sherd, were written to Elyashiv from one Hananyahu, asking about wine, oil and silver (money), offering to send anything Elyashiv needs, and mentioning a measure of sparkling (!) wine transported by a man named Ge’aliyahu.

A new reading, made possible by the Tel Aviv team, of two words in the first line on the sherd’s front side, thought to have been fully deciphered by earlier scholars, shows that Hananyahu and Elyashiv were not only superior and underling as previously surmised, but also personally close: “Your friend Hananyahu send greetings to (you) Elyashiv and to your household. I bless (you) by Yahweh.”

Scholars say the sherds were written just before the destruction of Judah and the Jerusalem Temple by the Babylonians – during one of Nebuchadnezzar’s incursions, possibly in 598 BCE or 587 BCE, or as late as the time of the Temple’s destruction a decade later.

When I take visitors to the Judahite sanctuary in the desert at Arad, there’s all that history to cover (hopefully in the shade) – and now, even more to tell. But a high point is when we open our Bibles to Psalm 137:7. “Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom, The day of Jerusalem, who said, “Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!”

Boundaries of biblical kingdoms in the Holy Land. Wikipedia.

It’s believed that Psalm 137 was written right after Judah’s destruction by the Babylonians, an event in which scholars tell us the Edomites took part, possibly even destroying Arad itself. The Edomites then occupied Judah, and the region to the south eventually became what the Romans called Idumaea, from the word Edom.

The Edomites and the Israelites were closely related through their ancestors, twin brothers Jacob and Esau – Esau became Edom and Jacob became Israel. And as it turns out they despised each other even before the famous mess-of-pottage and birthright fiasco – right back in Rebekkah’s womb. Because of their relationship, the Israelites were forbidden to hate the Edomites (Deut. 23:7). You wouldn’t know it, though, with all the furious and vengeful verses the Bible flings at them (among them Psalms 60:8 and 108:9, Obadiah 1:1–16; Ezek 35:15). And Edom gave Israel plenty of cause over the centuries (Num. 20:17, 2 Chron. 28:17, 2 Kings 24:2). But there’s nothing worse than a feuding family; we need the Bible for many things, but not to tell us that. Eventually “Edom” morphed into the most convenient name for “the enemy,” back in the day, whether Romans or ancient Christianity.

The Arad sherds are a treasure trove to scholars for many reasons. And now, the  recent study’s highlighting of sherd no. 16  can lead back to consideration of the names it bears, known from before and particularly significant because of their Hebrew meanings: Hananyahu (“God grant mercy”), Elyashiv (“God restore”), Azaryahu (“God help”), (Ge’alyahu “God redeem”). All soldiers or servants of soldiers. All no doubt hoping someday to go home to their families.

In “Tourists,” the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai urges us to think of modern-day Jerusalemites when we marvel at the antiquities among which they live. Let’s take his advice and ponder the ancients behind the stones as well. This landscape is so thickly littered with remnants of the past. The builders of the ramparts, fortresses, palaces and temples, and their destroyers, are all ghosts now. Specters, now brought alive by multispectral screening. Unfortunately, there’s no cutting-edge technology to screen our souls to find something ghost-written there, other than the enmity in which we so stubbornly persist, for others and even for our own. If there were, that right there might be our mercy, our restoration, our help, our redemption. And our Independence Day as well.

 

To learn more, check out these sources

Yohanan Aharoni. Three Hebrew Ostraca from Arad. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No. 197, Feb.; 1970, pp. 16–42.

Yehuda Amichai. “Tourists.” http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/yehuda_amichai/poems/52.html.

Elie Assis, Why Edom? On hostilility towards Jacob’s brother in Prophetic Sources, Vetus Testamentum Vol. 56, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 1–20.

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin Anat Mendel-Geberovich, Arie Shaus, Barak Sober, Michael Cordonsky, David Levin, Murray Moinester, Benjamin Sass, Eli Turkel, Eli Piasetzky Israel Finkelstein. Multispectral imaging reveals biblical-period inscription unnoticed for half a century,  http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0178400.

Feinberg-Vamosh, Miriam, The Scroll. https://www.amazon.com/Scroll-Miriam-Feinberg-Vamosh/dp/1940516463,

Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Prophets, Vol. 1. New York: Harper Colophon, 1962.

Schuster, Ruth, Inscription Found on First Temple-era Pottery in Jerusalem, Ruth Schuster, Haaretz English Edition, http://www.haaretz.com/1.796024.

 

It’s About Then, it’s About Now, it’s About Time

 

 

Disaster, success, gleaning, growing

 

How will this turn out? Will some cataclysmic event occur while it’s underway? What will it mean for our future? Those are the questions we’ve been asking ourselves these days, that’s for sure, but no, they have nothing to do with the recent presidential visit. They are the same questions people have been asking themselves at this season in this part of the world (and not only) for thousands of years. The season? Between Passover and Pentecost, the time of the Counting of the Omer. Omer is the Hebrew word for a measure of grain – equal to about six gallons. In the Holy Land spring, barley and wheat are harvested in the season between Passover and Pentecost. The counting took place over seven weeks, 49 days (Pentecost means “weeks” in Greek).

A grain field at harvest time, near the Yarkon Springs, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Hope, anticipation, almost unbearable tension, dread – sound familiar?  We all experience them, but they were hallmarks of this season in that biblical counting of the passing days. In later times, mourning rituals became associated with this period, although no one can say for certain why . Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve, wrote that it was because the weather in the Holy Land is very capricious around now. With everything from the “latter rains” to hail storms and heat waves, these 49 days of the Omer were “ripe” with potential for either disaster or success of the harvest, putting people into a very somber state of mind. That’s why the Bible commands sacrificing part of a successful harvest in thanksgiving.

Granddaughter Eliah, all decked out with her basket of fruits to take to pre-school to celebrate Shavuot/Pentecost. Photo: Maya Dubinsky

According to a fifteenth-century scholar, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, Psalm 67, which in Hebrew is said to have 49 words – one for each day of the counting – should be recited each day of the Omer. Have a look at this beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry and notice the universalist sentiment it shares.

And speaking of sharing, like Passover, Pentecost is a holiday Judaism and Christianity share – according to Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended on a group of Jerusalemites from all over the world during this very festival. If you study more about Pentecost/Shavuot in the Hebrew Scriptures, you will doing one of my favorite things: focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us.

Enlargements of Israeli children’s drawings on the walls of Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, under the motto: “Embracing our Differences.” Psalm 67 tells us that whatever our differences, we’re all in this together. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Eventually, Jews began associating the Feast of Weeks with the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, based on the opening verse of Exodus 19, where the words “that same day” seem to mean  the “festival of the giving of the Torah” and the Feast of Weeks/Shavuot/Pentecost coincided on the calendar.

Ruth

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth in synagogue. Why? One tradition says Ruth and Naomi came from Moab to Bethlehem around this time of year, and Ruth’s accepting the Israelites as her own people recalls the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

The story of Ruth is, among many things, the saga of a widow – one of the most disenfranchised and at-risk members of biblical society – who  leaves home and everything familiar, accompanies her mother-in-law Naomi all the way through the burning desert (a feat in itself, and not only because of the weather…) from Moab east of the Jordan to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem, to embark on a new life.  It is Ruth’s courage and conviction that propel her forward through history, an example to us down to this very day: She  is the ancestress of King David (who, tradition says, died on Shavuot) and as such, earns her place in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).

And as we read of Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz, we learn how Boaz obeyed the biblical injunction to leave the corners of his field unshorn so the poor could take this part of the harvest home (Lev. 23:22). “Why are you so kind to me, to single me out, when I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10), Ruth asks Boaz. In expounding on the connection between this story and Leviticus 23:22, Prof. Judith A. Kates says in the wonderful book Reading Ruth: “Ruth is relying on one of the fundamental principles of Torah law…Leviticus makes it clear that we should understand this obligation as a mode of connection to God…acknowledging that what we have is ultimately a gift to be shared.”

Don’t you agree?

Happy Shavuot/Happy Pentecost!

 

Recommended Reading

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper (Herzliya, Israel: Palphot, n.d.)

Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblical Heritage (Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1980)

Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (eds.), Reading Ruth (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)