Women of the Bible

Their messages of endurance span the millennia

Some women of the Bible are so well known that we name our daughters after them – Sarah, Deborah, Mary, Martha. Others have left us familiar names, but less familiar stories, like Joanna of the New Testament, who put all her considerable resources at the disposal of Jesus. There’s fascination with the misdeeds of the infamous ones, like Jezebel and Delilah, as well as those of heroines like Rebekah. And there are some whose names we’ll never know, but whose stories still touch us – Jepthah’s daughter, the wise woman of Tekoa, the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and was healed.

Mary and Elizabeth meet. Detail of a mural at the Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

As seekers of inspiration from Scripture, we try to imagine ourselves walking a mile in the sandals of these female Bible characters, especially women of faith like Hannah and Ruth. Many of the strong women of the Bible, like the midwives Shifrah and Puah, the matriarch Rachel, or Queen Esther (and her predecessor, Vashti, for that matter) possessed the secret of finding power in a society that thrived on taking it from them. And let’s recall Michal, David’s wife, who, like many of her scriptural sisters, had to resort to subterfuge to reach her goals.

Some of the women of the Bible became “leading ladies.” Miriam, for example, was both leader and prophet. Her impression on Jewish history was so great that legend has portrayed her as part of Jewish experience for millennia after her death. And then we have Mary Magdalene, whom Christian scholars like Mary R. Thompson consider an early leader in the Judeo-Christian community.

The Rape of Tamar, by the 17th-century artist Le Sueur.

We painfully recall Tamar, a rape victim of her own half-brother, and Dina, raped as part of a biblical political drama. These are women who had everything taken from them. The biblical telling, or rather not-telling, leaves us to imagine that they must never have gotten over their tragedy, a fate that pursues all too many of their modern-day sisters.

The barren women of the Bible teach us special lessons in faith and strength. There’s Manoah’s wife, Samson’s future mother, who believed more strongly than her husband in the angel’s message, and Hannah, Samuel’s mother; both dedicated their sons to divine service.  Hannah in her praise poem gloriously presages Mary’s song when she met Elizabeth, another barren-fruitful, faithful woman.  Both these paeans point to unifying aspects of our Judeo-Christian tradition and lead to a deeper understanding of the Hebrew roots of Christianity.

Woman kneading dough, terracotta, 12th century BCE, from the cemetery at Akhziv, Israel. Courtesy of Palphot

We are fortunate in the gift that archaeology has given us in unearthing the tools of their everyday existence. Real archaeological finds bring these women alive!  Most of them (like us) worked from dawn to dark. Perhaps the first multi-tasker in biblical history was the indomitable “woman of valor” of Proverbs 31.

Cover of The Scroll, depicting a woman marching from darkness into light.

In my historical novel, The Scroll, I sought to make the spirit of the strong women of the Bible pivotal in my plot. which begins with the fall of Masada. According to the historian Josephus there were two women survivors of Masada. One is my heroine in the first generation of The Scroll. She brings a message of female empowerment down through the generations. With it comes striving the for the elusive goal of Jewish unity, with which we still struggle today.

Delve into the stories of the women of the Bible and don’t be surprised to discover that in their stories, you’ll find your own.

I gratefully acknowledge the publisher of my book Women at the Time of the Bible, Palphot, for permission to use material from it for this article.

 

 

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.

 

Singing but Often Unsung – Ancient Women Musicians

A recent discovery at “Solomon’s Mines” in Timna reveals the first evidence of women at this harsh desert site. It’s an intriguing prelude to the tradition of women musicians in the Bible and enriches our thoughts about the women of the Bible who came later.

Archaeologists excavating the ancient copper mines in Timna in southern Israel were startled, according to the recent report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, to find the 3,200-year-old remains of a woman. Touchingly, the skeletal remains of her fetus were entombed with her.

Pottery figurine of a pregnant woman. Akhziv, seventh–sixth centuries BCE. Courtesy of Palphot.

Why were the the experts startled? Archaeologist Erez Bar-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, digging at the site, explained to Haaretz that because Timna was not home, but rather a work site, prominent people who died there might be temporarily buried and eventually taken home for permanent interment. Slaves were accorded no real burial at all, Bar-Yosef said. Hence, most tombs they find are empty. But even when human remains were found, none were of women. Thus, this woman must have been someone special. She was important enough to be buried with jewelry – two beautiful, Egyptian-style glass beads were found – and what’s more, her final resting place was just 200 meters from the famous temple of Hathor, at the base of the massive cliffs known as Solomon’s Pillars.

Egyptian woman playing an instrument. From a fourteenth century BCE.

Tel Aviv University Egyptologist Deborah Sweeney told Haaretz that this apparently highly regarded woman may have been a singer or musician for Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love, fertility, music and mines, whose image was incised millennia ago into the red rock of Solomon’s Pillars, high above the temple.

Women and music have been associated for ages in this part of the world, as attested by ancient figurines and plaques.  Nine sistra (musical rattles associated with the worship of Hathor) were found at Timna itself by its first excavator, Beno Rothenberg.

Reconstruction of a banquet scene, showing women musicians, common in Egyptian tomb decorations of aristocrats in the New Kingdom (1570–1070). Courtesy of Palphot.

Women in the Old Testament in Song and Dance

The dramatic discovery at Timna is a good opportunity to recall the female Bible characters who sang and danced in praise of God. While the role of women in the Bible seems often to have been limited to family and home, it was in song and dance that they could give full expression to their creativity and devotion to God in the public sphere. Perhaps the most famous songstress in the Bible – and one of its best-known women of faith – is Miriam, who led the women in song and dance by the Red Sea – “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted…”(Exod. 15:20–21).

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

A New Psalm”

Deborah – one of the strong women of the Bible, sang a song of victory in battle in Judges 5. Later, Solomon says he had both men and women singers at his court (Eccl. 2:8). Also in Ecclesiastes (12:3–5) are references to slowing down in old age, one of which relates to women singers. “The daughters of music are brought down low.” The Apocrypha contains a magnificent praise poem by another of the strong women of the Bible, Judith: “Begin unto my God with timbrels, sing unto my Lord with cymbals: tune unto him a new psalm.”

And moving on to women of the New Testament, while according to Luke (1:46–55), Mary spoke the Magnificat, the text itself  appears in poetic style, and it became one of the earliest hymns, dating back to the beginning of Christianity.

Who was the “pregnant woman of Timna”? We hope the archaeologists will be able to tell us more in the future. She must have been a strong woman to have traveled so far and endured the rigors of the unforgiving desert. This woman lived on the cusp of Bible times, and in the southern reaches of the Bible lands.  And so we can call upon her to help us remember with love and admiration a long line of strong women of the Bible, who sing out to us to this very day.

In addition to her series on daily life in Bible days, Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of The Scroll, a historical novel about a woman of Masada and her descendants over three generations, who faced the challenges we still face today.

For further reading:

“Archaeologists startled to find remains of pregnant woman buried in ‘King Solomon’s Mines,’ by Ariel David. Oct. 31, 2017. https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/1.820180.

“A Joyful Noise: Music and Dance, in Women at the Time of the Bible, by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh (Palphot).

 

 

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)