Easter – Passover Seder for Christians

A Christian version of the Jewish Seder supper that you can share with your family during the Holy Week of the Easter season. 

My wife Nancy is the finest woman I have ever known, and I rejoice daily that we have shared over 27 years of married life together. One thing about her and her family that I have always found so appealing is how they celebrate holidays. For Nancy, Christmas is not a day – it is a six-week party. Easter is the same way. We feast on Fat Tuesday, pray on Ash Wednesday, keep the Lenten season special, and celebrate the Holy Week, even though we are not Catholic. One important part of our festivities is a Christian version of a Seder Supper. The Seder is an important Jewish tradition, looking back at the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. As Christians and Messianic Jews understand that the Messiah has come, we celebrate Christ.

Jews might eat roast chicken for the Seder, since lamb was reserved for the Passover. Typically, our family eats lamb (or roast chicken) and unleavened bread. We have bitter herbs (horseradish), sweet charoset (apples, nuts, cinnamon), and grape juice. I am not sure where the following came from, else I would give credit. But I encourage all of our readers to celebrate the Seder, and celebrate the Savior who is the reason for it.



The Candles

Leader (eldest male of the family)                                           

As we light these candles tonight, we pray that God will light our hearts with His Holy Spirit. We want to understand how God has redeemed His people.

The woman of the house (lighting the candles)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe. You have your own. We light these festival lights in your Name.


The Four Cups of Wine


When we were slaves in Egypt, God heard our cries. He chose Moses to lead us out of Egypt. These are the four promises that God made to Moses.

Reader 1:  “I bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”

Reader 2:  “I will free you from being slaves.”

Reader 3:  “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”

Reader 4“I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.”


We remember these four promises at Passover by drinking from our cup four times. The first is called the Cup of Sanctification, the second, the Cup of the Plagues, the third, the Cup of Redemption, and the fourth, the Cup of Praise.


The Cup of Sanctification

Leader (pouring wine into each cup)

(If you elect to fill the cup each time, instruct the, family to drink only one sip when it is time to drink the cup. if you want to drain the cup each time, pour only a small amount into the cups each time you are to fill them.)

This is the Cup of Sanctification or setting apart as holy.

Reader 1:  “I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”

Family (lifting their cups)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. (All drink.)


The Hand Washing


We wash our hands to remind us that God is holy. As we come before Him, we too must be holy. As it is written:

Reader 4

“Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” (Psalm 24:3,4)

Leader (lifting the basin of water)

Let us share together in this hand washing ceremony.

(Pass the bowl. Each person dips his hands and passes bowl to next person.)


Let us also remember how Yeshua (yeh‑SHOO‑ah, or Jesus) took off His clothes and wearing a towel, washed the feet of his disciples.   In doing this, he showed that he came as a humble servant. We know that this water cannot really make our hearts clean. The only way that our hearts can be made pure and holy is by Yeshua’s greatest act of servanthood, his death on the cross.


The Karpas (pronounced KAR‑pas)


We now remember the tears of our people when we were slaves in Egypt.  As it is written:

Reader 2

“The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.” (Exodus 2:23)

Leader (lifting the parsley)(Celery may be substituted for parsley)

Passover comes in the spring, when we see new life around us. The karpas, or parsley, reminds us that life is a gift to us from our great and mighty God. The karpas is also like the hyssop plant which our forefathers used to smear the blood of the lamb on the door frame.

(lifting the salt water)

When we were slaves in Egypt, life was not easy.  It was full of pain, suffering, and tears. This salt water stands for our tears.

Family (dipping their parsley in salt water)

Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the earth. (All eat karpas.)


The Breaking of the Middle Matzah

Leader (lifting the Unity, or the plate which holds the three matzot wrapped in napkins)

At Passover, three matzot are wrapped together. They are called the “Unity”.  Jewish teachers have many explanations for this.  We who know Yeshua look at the Unity and see God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Leader takes the middle matzah out of the Unity, breaks it in two, replaces one half and wraps the other half in a linen cloth for the afikomen.)

I have taken the middle matzah and broken it in half. One half is wrapped and hidden. This is called the afikomen (pronounced ahfee‑KOH‑men), and it is an important part of the seder which comes after the meal. (hides the afikomen)


The Four Questions

Leader:  We now ask and answer the four questions. As it is written:

Reader 3

“When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them.” (Exodus 12:26)

A Young Child:  Why is this night different from all other nights?

1)      On all other nights, we eat leavened bread. On this night, why do we eat only matzah, or unleavened bread?

2)      On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables.  On this night, why do we eat only bitter herbs?

3)      On all other nights, we do not dip our vegetables even once.  On this night, why do we dip them twice?

4)      On all other nights, we eat our meals sitting.  On this night, why do we eat only reclining?


God has commanded us to answer these questions for our children. But we do so with thankful hearts, for the answers point to the great and mighty works of God.

Leader (lifting one matzah)

On all other nights we eat leavened bread, but on Passover we eat only matzah. This reminds us that when we fled from Egypt, we did not have time to let the bread rise Yeshua often compared yeast, which makes bread rise, with sin. He came to die and take away our sin.

Leader (lifting the maror, pronounced mah-ROAR)

On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on Passover we eat only maror, or bitter herbs. This reminds us of how bitter life was for us in Egypt. It also reminds us of life in slavery to sin.

Leader (lifting the charoseth, pronounced hah‑ROH‑seth)

On all other nights we do not dip our vegetables even once, but tonight we dip them twice. We have already dipped our parsley in salt water. Now we will dip our bitter herbs into sweet kharoset. This mixture reminds us of the mortar and bricks which we were forced to make as slaves in Egypt.


On all other nights we eat sitting up, but tonight we eat reclining. This is to remind us that now we are free from slavery. On the first Passover, we had to eat in a hurry, with our coats and sandals on, holding our staffs in our hands as we waited to be delivered from slavery. Now we may relax and enjoy this feast at our leisure.


The Story of Passover

Leader:  Now we tell the story of Passover.

Reader 1

Long ago, the Lord brought Abraham to the land of Canaan. God promised Abraham that this land would belong to his descendants. Abraham’s grandson Jacob left that land and moved with his family to Egypt to escape a famine. Jacob’s family grew, becoming our people, the Israelites.  Several hundred years passed and by this time, we had become a large nation.  The Pharaoh, or ruler of Egypt, feared that we would join Egypt’s enemies and fight against Egypt.  So Pharaoh decided to make us his slaves.  Even so, God blessed us with more and more children.

Reader 2

This made the Pharaoh even more nervous. He ordered his soldiers to throw every boy baby into the Nile River. One Israelite family hid their baby for three months. When they could hide him no longer, they put him in a basket and floated it out on the Nile River with his sister Miriam watching over him. The daughter of Pharaoh found the basket and decided to keep the baby and raise him as her own son. She named him Moses, which means “drawn from the water.”

Reader 3

Even though Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s court, he knew that he was an Israelite. He saw how we were mistreated by the Egyptians. One day, when he saw an Egyptian being cruel to an Israelite, Moses lost his temper and killed the Egyptian. He ran away from Egypt into a desert land where he worked as a shepherd.

Reader 4

The Lord heard our cries as we suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. He came to Moses in a burning bush and told Moses to go to Pharaoh. Moses was afraid, but he finally agreed that with the help of his brother, Aaron, he would go to Pharaoh and deliver God’s message to “Let my people go!”


The Cup of Plagues


Pharaoh did not want to let our people go. Every time Pharaoh said no to Moses, God sent a plague or disaster to Pharaoh and the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh hardened his heart and kept saying no. The tenth time, God sent the most awful plague. This plague caused Pharaoh to change his mind.


“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn ‑ both men and animals ‑ and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am the Lord.” (Exodus 12:12)


It was the Lord himself who passed over us and struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians. In this way he delivered us from slavery. As it is written: On that same night I will pass through Egypt.

Family:  I, and not an angel.

Leader:  and strike down every firstborn‑both men and animals

Family:  I, and not a seraph.

Leader:  and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt;

Family:  I, and not a messenger.

Leader:  I am the Lord.

Family:  I myself and none other. (Exodus 12:12)

Leader (filling the cups)

We fill our cups a second time to remember that many people died during the plagues especially the last one, in order that God’s people would be set free.  We also remember what it cost for us to be set free from sin and death – the lifeblood of Yeshua.  As it is written:

Reader 2:  “I will free you from being slaves.”


Each of the plagues focused on a being that the Egyptians worshipped. As we say each plague, we dip our finger into the cup and drip the liquid onto our plate. Think about how God showed himself much greater than all the false gods of Egypt.

Family (each plague is said loudly in unison while dipping a finger and letting a drop of wine fall onto the plate)



The Dayenu

(Pronounced die‑AY‑noo, meaning “it would have been sufficient”)


God has been so good to us! We do not deserve His great and numerous blessings. Any one of His acts of mercy would have been enough to show His love for us.

Reader 1

With lovingkindness He redeemed us from Egypt, bringing judgment on the Egyptians and their gods.

Family:  Dayenu.

Reader 2

With awesome power He divided the Red Sea, allowing us to pass over in safety

Family:  Dayenu.

Reader 3

With tender care He protected us in the wilderness, feeding us with manna and providing for our needs.

Family:  Dayenu.

Reader 4

With great goodness He gave us the Law on Mt. Sinai. With triumph He led us into the promised land of Israel.

Family (lifting their cups)

Dayenu! How many are your great blessings to us. For each act of goodness we are abundantly grateful. Most of all, we are thankful for Yeshua the Messiah. In Him we have forgiveness of sins and abundant and everlasting life. Hallelujah! (Drink the second cup of wine.)


The Passover Lamb

Leader (lifting the shankbone of the lamb) This shankbone of lamb reminds us of the lamb that each Israelite family killed on the night of the first Passover. God commanded that we take the blood of the lamb and put it on the top and the sides of the doorframe of their house. As it is written:

Reader 1

“Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses where they eat the lambs.” (Exodus 12:7)

Reader 2

“That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs and bread made without yeast.” (Exodus 12:8)

Reader 3

This is how you are to eat it; with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand.  Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover (Exodus 12:11)

Reader 4

“The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)


We who trust in Yeshua the Messiah believe that He is our Passover lamb. just as it was God Himself who redeemed the Israelites, so it is God Himself, in the person of Yeshua the Messiah, who redeemed us once and for all from sin and death. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Leader (lifting the roasted egg)

This roasted egg is a special Passover offering. It is a symbol of mourning, reminding us of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also a sign of new and eternal life. It is because of Yeshua, our Passover lamb, that we can have eternal life.


The Matzah

Leader (lifts the Unity)


Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Leader (takes the middle matzah from the unity, breaks it into olive size pieces, and distributes it to the family)

Let us now share the unleavened bread of Passover.

Family (holding the piece of matzah)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe. You set us apart as your people and commanded us to eat unleavened bread. (All eat.)


The Maror

Leader (Pass horseradish. Each person scoops some onto a piece of matzah.)

Family (lifting matzah with bitter herbs)

Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, who has set us apart by your Word and commanded us to eat bitter herbs. (All eat.)


The bitter herb reminds us of our persecution and suffering under the cruel hand of Pharaoh. just as the horseradish brings tears to our eyes now, so then did our great suffering bring tears to our eyes.


The Charoseth

Leader (Takes two pieces from the bottom matzoh and puts between them the charoseth, in a sandwich‑like fashion. Pass charoseth. Each person scoops charoseth onto a piece of matzoh)

Leader The charoseth reminds us of the mortar and clay bricks that we made as slaves in Egypt. (All eat.)


It was at this point in the Passover seder that Yeshua told His disciples that one of them would betray Him. When each asked, “Surely, not I?” Yeshua said that it was the one who dipped his bread into the bowl with Yeshua.


The Passover Supper

(Leader offers prayer of thanks for the meal. Supper is served and eaten)


The Eating of the Afikomen

(After the meal, the children hunt for the afikomen, the wrapped and hidden matzah from the Unity. The leader ransoms it back by paying money to the child who finds it.)

Leader (unwrapping the matzoh and showing the family)

We call this the afikomen, a Greek word. Jewish tradition has it that afikornen means dessert, but some scholars believe it comes from a root word which means “I have come.” Yeshua called Himself the bread of life. As it is written:

Reader 1

“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry.”‘

Reader 2

… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”‘

Reader 3

“‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day”‘

Reader 4

“‘Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”‘ (John 6:35a, 51, 54, 58b)


The matzoh is a picture for us of Yeshua and what He did for us. Look at how the matzoh is striped. As it is written:


“But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Leader:  Look at how the matzah is pierced. As it is written:

Family:  “They shall look upon me whom they have pierced.” (Zechariah 12:10b


See how the matzah is unleavened. Leaven stands for sin. Just as this bread is without leaven, Jesus was without sin.  As it is written:

Family:  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9, 1 Peter 2:22)


The middle matzah from the Unity was broken, just as Yeshua, the Messiah was broken with suffering and death.  We wrapped it in a white cloth, just as Yeshua’s body was wrapped in linen cloth for burial. Just as the afikomen was hidden, so Yeshua’s body was hidden for a short time in the grave. Just as the afikomen was brought out of hiding, so Yeshua arose from the grave.

Leader (lifting the afikomen)

Family:  Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Leader (breaking the afikomen and distributing it to all)

It was then that Yeshua added, “This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). Let us now eat matzah, remembering the broken body of the Lamb of God who takes awa

Leader (filling the cups)

Now we fill our cups a third time. (lifting the cup) This is the cup of redemption. It stands for the blood of the Passover lamb. As it is written:

Reader 3:  “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”


It was this cup, the cup of redemption, that Yeshua took after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).  Just as the blood of the Passover lamb provided salvation for us in Egypt, so Yeshua’s blood provides eternal salvation to all who believe.

Family (lifting their cups)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. Let us drink with thankful hearts, remembering the Messiah’s sacrifice for us.


The Prophet Elijah

Leader (lifting the extra cup from Elijah’s place)

This cup is for Elijah the Prophet. In Jewish tradition, one of the children opens the door to see if Elijah will come to the sederAs it is written:


“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)


We who believe in Yeshua believe that Elijah has already come.  Yeshua spoke of John the Baptist as the Elijah who was to come, and it was John who said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  We set this place for Elijah to recognize that he has come in the person of John the Baptist.


The Cup of Praise

Leader (filling the cups)

Now we fill our cups for the fourth and final time. This is the cup of praise. We praise Him especially because of His promise to us:

Reader 4:  I will take you as my people and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7)

Leader (lifting the cup)

With the cup of praise, we give thanks to God in the words of a psalm, just as Yeshua did with his disciples. After each phrase of thanksgiving, the family will join in saying, “His love endures forever.”

Leader: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: Give thanks to the God of gods.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: Give thanks to the Lord of lords.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: To Him who alone does great wonders.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: To Him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader:  And brought Israel out from among them.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: To the One who remembered us in our low estate.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: And freed us from our enemies.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: and who gives food to every creature.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: Give thanks to the God of heaven.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader:  Lifting our cups, let us bless the name of the Lord together.

Family (lifting their cups)

Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. (All drink.)


The prescribed order of the Passover service is now complete. May we remember throughout the year that our redemption is complete by the sacrifice of our Passover Lamb, Yeshua the Messiah.

Family:  Next year in the New Jerusalem!

US Foreign Policy and Donald Trump

Pundits, politicians, progressives, and prophets panic over Donald Trump’s “failures” in his foreign policy. They may want to reconsider

“Disaster!” media outlets howl when they discuss American foreign policy in the first year of the Presidency of Donald Trump. Some commentators bemoan the withdrawal and even decline of US power, while others rejoice to see the return of a multipolar, rather than a unipolar (US “hyperpower”) or bipolar (US and USSR, or perhaps China, as superpowers) world. Recently the Economist, a British news magazine, announced that Trump has made America and the world less safe.

Whatever one thinks of President Donald Trump, he or she must consider these breathless pronouncements in terms of history and geopolitical reality, not just in terms of modern events. In a speech to the House of Commons (1 March 1848), Viscount Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) said “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”[1] He was right, and the permanent interests of nations are a surer guide to success on the international stage than the vagaries of the news cycle and the panic of political pundits.

Russia and Turkey

Current events – Several articles last fall criticized Trump for driving Turkey into the arms of Russia, thus threatening NATO and by extension the security of the West.[2]

Historical reality – Turkey and Russia have been at each other’s throats for at least 500 years. The fall of Byzantium in 1453 opened up the Balkans to Ottoman armies, and Sultan Suleiman the Lawgiver capitalized on the victory, conquering Hungary in 1526 and even threatening Poland. Until the Ottoman defeat in 1918, the Turks occupied or at least threatened southeastern Europe, the Ukraine, and Southern Russia. From Romania to Crimea to Armenia, Russians and Turks spilled oceans of blood and mountains of gold.

Geopolitical reality – Russian Black Sea fleets are bottled up by Turkish control of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli Straits to the east and west of the Sea of Marmara, and Russia wants the surrounding land. For centuries, Russia has sought a warm water port with access to international sea lanes close to its European economic center. St Petersburg is no good – the Baltic Sea freezes over in the winter and Russian fleets can be halted at the Danish straits of Kattegat and Skagerrak. Vladivostok, on the border with China and North Korea, is too vulnerable and too far away. Further, Russia has historically positioned itself as the protector of Eastern Orthodoxy, the largest sect of Christianity in the Balkans, since the fall of Constantinople and southeastern Europe to the Muslim Turks.

Conclusion – Russia and Turkey are about as likely to become permanent allies as Roy Moore is to marry Hillary Clinton. If Turkey leaves NATO, it will not be because of Trump, but because of Islam.

Israel and the Palestinians

Current events – Trump announced that the US would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in defiance of the United Nations and most of world opinion. The US State Department has begun to comply, and the Palestinians have rioted.

Historical reality – The label of “Palestinian people” is a construct of the mid to late 20th century. From the Arab Muslim conquest of Palestine in 636 AD, the area has been part of the Umayyad Empire, Abbasid Empire, Fatamid Empire, Crusader State, Ottoman Empire, and British Empire. Only once Israel became independent in 1948 did the Palestinian people become a major political force and the Palestinian state a major political goal. This would seem to bode well for peace efforts, but it has not. Israel and its neighbors are no closer to a permanent peace now than they were 70 years ago.

Geopolitical reality – The desires of Israel and the Palestinians are mutually exclusive and in the current political framework, irreconcilable. Both want all of the historical city of Jerusalem, both want the Temple Mount and the buildings there (including the Dome of the Rock), and both want the best, most arable land. Both sides also want the finest ports for access to the Mediterranean Sea. Israel has built a wall (three-layer, concrete, barbed wire, 10-25 ft high) along its entire West Bank border (708 km), which it claims is for security and the Palestinians argue is a land grab. The 1988 Charter for Hamas, a major Palestinian political movement, called for the destruction of Israel,[3] although a recent manifesto may have partially mitigated that demand.[4]

Conclusion – If Trump’s moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem did nothing else, it changed the political calculus in the region and may have opened up new possibilities for peace.  The move is risky, but tolerating the status quo may be riskier.

North Korea

Current events – Donald Trump has been bellicose and unpredictable in his approach to North Korea and their nuclear arsenal, and he has faced withering criticism as a result. Major media outlets are predicting that nuclear war will result, or at least become more likely.[5]

Historical reality – Expecting Kim Jung Un (1984-) to be rational in 2018 is like expecting Adolph Hitler to be rational in 1938. The same was true for his father, Kim Jung il (1941-2011), and his grandfather, the founder of the North Korean personality cult and dynasty, Kim il Sung (1912-1994). They play by their own rules, but that only works if others are predictable, if North Korea’s adversaries play by well known international rules. This was true during the invasion of South Korea (25 June 1950), and has been true during the negotiations and border provocations for almost 70 years. Leaders from America, Europe, China, and throughout the world have obliged North Korea, until now.

Geopolitical reality – North Korea is bankrupt and starving, while South Korea is thriving. The North no longer has the muscle to challenge the South with conventional military forces – their only trick is a nuclear one. But with the capital and most populous city in South Korea, Seoul, only 30 miles south of North Korean forces on the DMZ, a nuclear attack would be devastating.

Conclusion – North Korea may implode in flame and ash, but such an end may signal catastrophe for its neighbors. More likely, the state will linger for decades and gradually decline. Trump’s high stakes game is risky, but by taking away America’s predictability, it has already borne fruit. North and South Korea have started talking again, and will march together under a unified flag in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

China, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam

Current events – Pakistan has been an unsteady US partner, the word “ally” is far too strong, since the Afghan war began in 2001. Pakistan has alternately fought and supported the Taliban and other Muslim extremists. As a result, America has suspended military aid. Pakistan has turned to Russia and China,[6] and the press has accused Trump of another foreign policy disaster.

Historical reality – Since their split in 1947, Pakistan and India have been at each other’s throats, and China has been a close ally of Pakistan. Why not, as India and China have fought over their shared border for half a century? China has also fought Vietnam for millennia, most recently in 1979, and Vietnam is a close ally of India.

Geopolitical reality – India and Japan are the only nations that can challenge China as regional powers in Asia. Combining their economic, demographic, technological, and military strength, India and Japan, together with Vietnam, can isolate the Chinese dragon. China, India, and Pakistan have nuclear weapons.

The Strait of Malacca is a 550-mile long strategic waterway (1.5 miles wide at its narrowest and 82 feet deep at its shallowest) between Malay peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is the busiest shipping lane in the world, transporting 25% of the world’s cargo, including oil. Closing down the Strait would cripple China and Japan, since the detour around it is thousands of miles. India could close the western end, and Vietnam the eastern end, with existing forces. China’s reply is twofold –

  1. Build a superhighway, a new Silk Road, from eastern Chinese centers of industry across western China, into central Asia, to the Middle East, and beyond.[7] Important branches will travel south into Pakistan, which is well west of the Straits of Malacca, but the road will bypass India. Such a road will allow China to position forces to threaten India’s western regions, and minimize the danger to China if the Straits of Malacca are closed.
  2. Occupy and fortify the “South China Sea”, bringing their own air and naval forces closer to the critical strait and threatening Vietnam.

Conclusion – China and Pakistan are friends for their own historical and geopolitical reasons, and will be for the foreseeable future, regardless of US presidents or policies. India and Vietnam are the same. As each of these powers begins to flex its muscles, the world is seeing the largest rebirth of Great Power politics since before World War 1.  Trump can ride the wave, but he cannot make the wave.

Europe and NATO

Current events – Trump’s consistent criticism of the NATO has earned him opprobrium from both sides of the political aisle.[8] When he called the alliance “outdated” and implied that he would scrap it, pundits swooned.

Historical reality – Europeans once dominated the world with their products, fleets, and armies. But today these descendants of the conqueror Charlemagne not only cannot rule others, most cannot defend themselves. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) emerged from the ashes of World War 2. It was effective in defending a prostrate Europe from the Soviet Union, but seemed to lose relevance at the end of the Cold War. Behind the shield of hundreds of thousands American troops, and shaded by the US nuclear umbrella, postwar Europe traded regional security for domestic programs. Britain lost its empire but gained the National Health Service, and Germany lost its self-defense but gained a short work week, long vacation, and generous unemployment benefits. Currently, only five of NATO’s 28 countries spend the agreed-upon 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on military expenditures.[9] Germany spends only 1.19%, and as a result they now have an air force with planes that cannot fly[10] and a navy with ships that cannot sail.[11],[12]

Geopolitical reality – While much of Europe has been in a sweet sleep for almost 30 years, Europe’s challengers have been wide awake. The most obvious threat, Russia, has abandoned even the pretense of democracy, invaded South Ossetia (2008), the Crimea (2014), and the Ukraine (2014 to present). The Baltic states fear they may be next. To the southeast, Turkey under Reycip Erdogan has grown more Islamic, more powerful, and more aggressive.[13] India and China rattle economic, diplomatic, and military sabers at each other, and to the world. These realities, along with Trump’s suggestion that Europe could no longer rely on American protection, have begun to rouse these children of Charlemagne from their stuporous slumber.

Conclusion – Forces larger than Trump, or even America, are at work. We can only hope that these once-great nations can find the political will to become forces for peace and stability on the world stage. Trump’s challenges probably help, not hurt, the situation.


Current events – Calling something or someone a “shithole” is not likely to endear them to you, or your country. President Trump endured withering criticism after allegedly using that word to describe several African nations during a recent meeting about immigration.

Historical reality – The US military has been heavily involved in Africa since the wars against the Barbary pirates (1801-1815). Our military and diplomatic involvement skyrocketed during the Cold War, and have not slackened. America was pivotal during the decolonization of Africa, often opposing our own friends (like Britain and France) who wanted to hold on to pieces of their empires. The US has been the largest benefactor of Africa, through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, foreign direct investment, and many other venues. The US government and other groups have bases, laboratories, and scores of other facilities in Africa, along with thousands of people working alongside Africans. While China has recently increased its dealings with Africa, it cannot touch America’s record over the decades.

Geopolitical reality – Many parts of Africa are rapidly developing, but the continent still has far to go. Meanwhile, it faces deadly threats in the form of Islamic terror groups (Al Shabaab – Somalia, Boko Haram – Nigeria, Ansar al Sharia – Libya), ISIS, al-Qaeda, and many others. Tribal conflicts in South Sudan, Rwanda, and elsewhere, including groups that claim to be Christian, and disease epidemics like Ebola, continue to flare. Africa needs a lot of help to catch up with the rest of the world, and is not likely to jettison old friends over idle words.

Conclusion – Trump probably used that phrase, or something like it, but judging from the media reports the outrage seems far greater in Chicago than in Cairo, or in London than in Lagos. It was probably an honest blunder, and an opinion shared by millions of Americans, Europeans, Indians, Chinese, and others too polite to say it. The incident is not likely to have any lasting effect, bad or good, on anyone except people who hated him anyway.


Liberals and America-haters have begun to achieve what they say they have always wanted; the decline of American hegemony and the rise of a multipolar world. No world system is perfect, but multipolarity didn’t work well in 1618, 1812, 1914, 1939, or at any other time in history. Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, and Pax Americana will start looking a lot better in the decades to come, at least for those willing to see.

Politicians, pundits, and progressives differ on how they feel about Donald Trump and the new American foreign policy. Detractors say that his relationship with the rest of the world has been an unmitigated disaster. This is both unfair and untrue. Trump’s foreign policy is certainly unorthodox, but it does not suggest a deranged or deluded mind. The President’s bravado, pugnaciousness, and unpredictability may be his greatest strengths on the international scene. Trump is playing a high stakes game, and it just might work. Time will tell.

[1] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Henry_Temple,_3rd_Viscount_Palmerston, accessed 30 Jan 2018

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/12/world/europe/turkey-russia-missile-deal.html, accessed 29 Jan 2018

[3] http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/pdf/PDF_06_032_2.pdf, accessed 31 Jan 2018

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/jan/12/israel, accessed 31 Jan 2018

[5] http://www.businessinsider.com/north-korea-nuclear-weapons-miscalculation-preemptive-strike-trump-2018-1, accessed 30 Jan 2018

[6] https://timesofislamabad.com/30-Jan-2018/pakistan-s-recalibration-of-foreign-policy-towards-russia-china, accessed 30 Jan 2018

[7] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/why-china-is-building-a-new-silk-road/, accessed 30 Jan 2018

[8] https://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/trump-nato-new-york-times-225942, accessed 31 Jan 2018

[9] http://www.businessinsider.com/nato-share-breakdown-country-2017-2, accessed 31 Jan 2018

[10] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/11057330/German-fighter-jets-unable-to-fly-and-mechanics-forced-to-borrow-spare-parts-claims-magazine.html, accessed 31 Jan 2018

[11] https://www.wsj.com/articles/german-engineering-yields-new-warship-that-isnt-fit-for-sea-1515753000, accessed 31 Jan 2018

[12] https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2018/02/german-navy-experiences-lcs-affect-in-spades-as-new-frigate-fails-sea-trials/, accessed 7 Feb 2018

[13] https://www.forbes.com/sites/rahimkanani/2014/03/05/the-rise-of-turkey-the-twenty-first-centurys-first-muslim-power/#288105856507, accessed 31 Jan 2018


Partial Obedience

My oldest daughter Anna hates washing dishes. While she was growing up, whenever my wife or I asked her to rinse the dishes and load the dishwasher, she suddenly remembered homework or some other desperately important thing to do. My wife Nancy would ask again and again until Anna started shouting and Nancy started crying. Eventually I would intervene and Anna would do the dishes. She did a fine job, but the process was exhausting.

“Mack”, an employee of mine from several years ago, never refused to do a task, but did a poor job at it. If I asked him to update a spreadsheet, he might update a column and leave the rest unchanged. This had the unfortunate effect of changing the results in most of the other columns and ruining everything. In the time it took to correct his work, I could have done it, and four other things. “Mack” soon found other opportunities.

Sometimes we identify tasks that we would rather not do and assign them to ourselves. Often someone else, like a parent or a boss, gives us undesired work. Parents have varying amounts of influence with their children, but workers who wish to keep their jobs rarely refuse their bosses. The right way to handle a legitimate command from an authority is right away, all the way, and with a happy heart, but few manage this. Instead, people partially obey, either resisting as long as possible or doing barely adequate work. Both are partial obedience, which is the same as total disobedience. This article will look at the example of King Saul of Israel and discuss four things that people do when they partially obey.


In 1 Samuel 15, God commanded King Saul to destroy the Amalekites, a nomadic tribe that had attempted to crush the Hebrew nation several times before. In the accordance with God’s earlier command to Joshua, every man and beast was to be killed, from the mighty king to the suckling child, and from the stallion to the kitten. Why God gave that command is the topic for another article.

Saul and his men smashed the Amalekites, killing every person except the king, and every animal that they did not want to keep. They kept the Lord’s command only as far as they wanted to. God was displeased; Saul’s partial obedience was really total disobedience. As a result, God rejected Saul from being king, and a short time later, anointed David as ruler of Israel (1 Samuel 16).

We do only as much of the task as we like

Most people are able to find something in any task which they enjoy, or at least tolerate. In the brutal cultures of the ancient near east, and everywhere else on the globe, war was the sport of kings.[1] Saul looked upon the coming surprise attack on the Amalekites as an opportunity for glory and treasure. In a well planned and executed ambush, Israel massacred its enemies, military and civilian. Only King Agag remained alive, probably to demonstrate Saul’s might over his foes.

Saul had destroyed a city, but as a pastoral people, the wealth of Amalek was primarily in livestock, not in gold, silver, precious stones, or merchandise. The king had victory but his troops expected plunder. Since the Hebrews had exterminated the people, they could not take female slaves. The only other booty available was livestock, and that needed to be kept alive to be valuable. Until the modern era, soldiers were often paid through pillage, and Saul probably had no other way to pay his troops. So the king kept the animals, and disobeyed God.

The Lord wanted King Saul to complete the task that He had commanded, but Saul did only the part that he liked. The king could easily justify his actions, but his obedience remained partial. As a result, God rejected Saul from being king. Saul reigned for many more years, but his rule degenerated into weakness, illness, and farce. When we fail to fully follow God’s commands, He rejects us from our positions as well. Whether we are ministers, merchants or managers, disobedience will lead us down the same path as King Saul.

We make monuments to ourselves

Having defeated the Amalekites, secured plunder, and thus satisfied his army, Saul commissioned a monument to himself on Mount Carmel, one of the highest places in the area (1 Samuel 15:12). Such a monument would have practical value; reminding the Hebrews of his great victory, legitimizing his rule and dynasty, providing stability to the nation, and warning to other nations not to challenge Israel. King Saul was not unique; he did what was expected of rulers. Historically, kings have been renowned for fighting (David, Alexander) or for building (Solomon, Herod).

Moderns do the same. Most people remember Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War II, a few can name his predecessor, derided for appeasement at Munich, but almost no one can name his successor. Our best remembered presidents are war presidents – Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.  Wealthy men build universities (John Harvard, Elihu Yale) and set up foundations (John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford) to memorialize themselves.

People of lesser means make monuments to themselves by writing books, behaving badly, or being social media celebrities. We even use our children as monuments to ourselves. I coach my youngest daughter’s soccer team, and during the final game of a tournament (from which we had been eliminated), parents and coaches from both sides screamed at each other, shouted profanities, and nearly came to blows. The game was no longer about the children; but about the adults.

God does not need glory; He is infinite in glory already, and you can’t add to infinity. As the Creator and Mover behind all things, He deserves all glory. Furthermore, humans have physical and psychological needs to give Him glory. Implicit in every task that the Lord gives us is the command to give Him glory. To take glory for ourselves, such as by building monuments, is to disobey that part of God’s command.

We deny our partial obedience, and try to justify ourselves with ritual

When King Saul saw the prophet and judge of Israel, Samuel, Saul reported that he had obeyed the Lord. Samuel openly challenged his assessment, and Saul countered that the animals were to be used for a burnt offering to God. Saul’s excuse is hard to believe – the soldiers would have been paid with plunder, and such a mass sacrifice was unnecessary under the Law. Even if the king had planned to sacrifice all of the livestock, he would have been substituting religious ritual for obedience. Samuel replied, as David would write after his most famous sins about 40 years later, that the Lord wanted pure hearts and obedient hands, not the blood of calves and goats.

How many people live shamefully Saturday nights and try to make amends by being active and “holy” on Sunday? How many pastors, rabbis, priests, shamans, and imams visit elderly women in hospitals by day, visit young women in brothels by night, confess, and repeat? Behaving badly and trying to atone for it by ritual is not limited to religious leaders; executives, politicians, athletes, artists, and military officers do the same. People assuage guilty consciences with “noble” thoughts, charity, community service, and religious activity. Poor conduct followed by ritual “cleansing” is not limited by race or sex either. Mothers have murdered their children, wives have slept with their lovers, and then tried to justify their actions with flimsy excuses or make amends with perfunctory apologies.  There is no “master race” or “nobler sex”; indeed “there is none righteous, no, not one.”

Partial obedience is total disobedience. No thought, word, act, or ritual can change this fact. Our efforts to atone for our selfish deeds are as disobedient to God’s command as they are futile. God the Father has provided God the Son, Jesus Christ, and His sacrifice alone can cleanse us from our sin.

We blame others for our disobedience

Saul blamed his soldiers for wanting to keep the livestock and therefore causing him to disobey the Lord’s command (1 Samuel 15:24). With these very words, the king proved himself unworthy of his title. Saul was the absolute ruler of Israel, responsible for every person in his realm but also holding life and death authority over his people. To complain that he was afraid of his soldiers was a stunning admission of incompetence. Napoleon spilled oceans of blood but never feared his soldiers. He was a military genius, knew a large proportion of his troops by name, and endured with them. God had rejected Saul from being king, and Saul’s excuse for his partial obedience proved that God was right.

Few leaders have authority over life and death today, but that is no excuse for blaming others for the leader’s mistakes. A commander in the US Army today would be (or at least should be) instantly relieved of command if he made Saul’s excuse. One of the biggest problems in modern society is that leaders try to keep glory for themselves and shift blame to others. Hillary Clinton failed in her duties; blaming her staff for the tragedy at Benghazi, and claiming incompetence to justify her misuse of classified emails.  She is not the only 21st century leader to have done so.

Ordinary people, likewise, are infected with the “blame others” disease. Society tells us that we are victims of circumstances, whether biological, chemical, social, or parental, and we readily believe it. We pursue power but we eschew responsibility because with it comes guilt.  We tell favored groups that they are the victims of unfavored groups, and that therefore they bear no responsibility for their actions. Oppression certainly exists and must be remedied, but every man and woman will stand before God, accountable for their own wickedness.

Since Adam blamed Eve for eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, people have blamed others for their wicked deeds. Excuses notwithstanding, the Lord of the Universe demands blood for every sin (Ezekiel 18:20). The only question is whose blood, the sinner or the Lamb?


King Saul partly obeyed God, and God rejected him as ruler of Israel. We partly obey God, thereby totally disobeying Him. If we persist, He eventually rejects us from our place of service as well.  If we understand and complete each task, give the glory to God, reject excuses, and avoid blaming others, we have fully obeyed. The Lord will keep us in the work that He has assigned, and bless us in it. Only then have we truly loved (John 14:15), and truly experienced abundant life (John 10:10).


[1] http://www.theaugeanstables.com/2013/04/26/war-the-sport-of-kings-the-bane-of-democracies-and-obamas-dilemma-in-syria/

Afraid to Be Holy

This morning I mentioned to a member of my Bible Fellowship class that we would be studying holiness. Like many people, he asked if I meant “morally good or ethical.” “Actually,” I replied, “to be holy is to be set apart to God. Morality is only part of holiness.” To be holy, we must be morally like God, but we must also be different in non-moral ways from the world around us. Ancient Israel is a good example. Circumcision confers no moral benefit, but God required it of His people nonetheless. Following the dietary and hygiene laws in Leviticus results in better health, but not in claims to greater righteousness.

The ancient Hebrews were afraid to be holy, and one example of this fear was that they demanded that God give them a king. 1 Samuel provides a good case study. Our lives are little different.


The Philistines had subdued the Israelites for many years and had themselves been struck by a terrible plague when they captured the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 4-6). After the Philistines returned the Ark, Israel repented and then prevailed in battle.  As a result, the Hebrews enjoyed relative peace throughout the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 7). Towards the end of his life, Samuel installed his sons as judges. They behaved poorly, however, and the people rejected their leadership. As a result of this crisis of succession, the Hebrew people asked for a king instead of a judge, so that they could be like all of the nations around them (1 Samuel 8).

After the conquest of Canaan (Joshua), God had instituted a system of governance in Israel in which He selected and then acted through a human judge to lead the people. Gideon, Deborah, Barak, Jephthah, and Samson were notable examples, and Samuel was the last of this line. The judge led the people in war and established justice, as a king would, but the role of judge differed from that of king in important ways:

  1. Under a judge, God was the acknowledged and immediate ruler. Under a king, God’s rule seemed less direct.
  2. The main duty of judges was to administer justice. They sometimes led armies in war, but were not responsible for the material well-being of their people. Governments led by judges were small and minimized hierarchy. In serving God and each other, the people were responsible for their material success.
  3. The main duty of kings was to ensure a prosperous kingdom, and this often meant war; both preparation and conduct. Kings administered justice, but did much more. Governments led by kings were large and hierarchical. Citizens increasingly looked to the ruler and his ministers for material success.
  4. Judges’ had little claim on the wealth of their people (1 Samuel 12:2-4), but kings exacted a heavy toll in taxes and other resources (1 Samuel 8:11-18).
  5. Overall, kings had far more power than judges.

God chose Israel to become a holy nation; a people separated to Him. His plan called for the Hebrews to be distinct among all of the inhabitants of the earth. They were to have a special Law, to be physically different (circumcised), to worship differently (no idols, one God), to behave better, and to have a key location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. Israel was to be directly led by God and not by a king, at least at this stage in their history.

Afraid to Be Holy

Despite the obvious disadvantages of having a king instead of a judge, the people of Israel wanted a king. They denied this crucial part of God’s plan for them. They were afraid to be holy. Why?

  1. They wanted to be like the other nations around them (1 Samuel 8:5, 20).

The Israelites were afraid to be “holy,” to be the “set-apart” people of God. We humans are herd creatures who constantly check the opinions of others to confirm our own worth. Being different from those around us denies us such affirmation. We continually hope we are better but fear we are worse. Being different also hinders our ability to affirm those around us, because they are as insecure as us.

Having a king allowed Israel to compete with their neighbors. If Israel had a stronger, smarter, and more handsome king, they could use that as “proof” of their superiority. The same goes for a more beautiful queen, a more spectacular palace, more awesome fortresses, and a larger army. Compared to those around them, the Hebrews could be the same, better, or worse, but at least they would be in the competition. Being different, such as having a judge and being governed directly by God, would just make them strange.

My friends and I used to joke in high school that everyone, whether nerds or jocks, wore the same clothes and did the same things. Even the pot-smoking “non-conformists” looked alike. What was true in the 1980s remains true today. For the same reasons as the Hebrews, we are afraid to be holy.

  1. They wanted the king to take care of them, judging them and defending them (1 Samuel 8:19-20)

It is hard to take responsibility for yourself. The people of Israel willingly sacrificed freedoms and resources to have a king who would take care of them. A visible king, not an invisible God, would lead them into battle. A sinful man that they could understand, not a mysterious and holy God, would guide the nations. A mortal that they could threaten and partially control, not an immortal far beyond their power, would be to blame if they suffered and failed.

Modern politics revolves around endless promises from would-be leaders to their would-be followers. Politicians assure voters that they can keep them safe and prosperous, eliminating crime and terrorism and maximizing jobs and welfare benefits. The electoral victor is the one who promises the most and then seems to be able to deliver.

  1. They did not want to trust in the Lord to take care of them (1 Samuel 8:7-9).

The Hebrews were creatures of the earth, as we all are, and believed what they could see. It is far easier to trust in mighty warriors, close alliances, towering fortresses, and fat treasuries than in an unpredictable God. Trusting in the Lord seems passive and even foolish. We are told that “hope is not a strategy” and ridiculed for waiting on God.

The other problem is that ultimately, man’s goals and God’s goals are different. We wish for peace, prosperity, power, and popularity, and do whatever we can to get it. The Lord wants love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) in His people. God’s goals are not our goals, and if our goals are actually correct, it is perfectly rational for us not to trust Him.  Our goals, however, are incorrect. We do not request what we need, or even what we would actually want if we saw reality clearly. We ask for things that we think we want; a certain job, a certain wife (or girlfriend), a lot of money, widespread fame.


God’s people, from ancient Hebrews to modern Christians, are called to be holy, to be set apart to the Lord. We are to look like Him, to act like Him, and to love like Him. But we are afraid. We intentionally distance ourselves from His Spirit and then wonder why we live powerless Christian lives. We want to be like others, to have people take care of us, and to reject the care of God. We, like our Hebrews forebears, are afraid to be holy. Despite the Israelites’ sin, God promised to love and help them (1 Samuel 12:14-25). The same is true for us today. Though we are faithless, He is faithful, for He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

Modern Idolaters and Chronological Snobs

My son recently completed his first year in engineering at Virginia Tech, and found himself surrounded by highly accomplished and intelligent faculty and students. These people differed on religion, politics, lifestyles, interests, backgrounds, and almost everything else. Yet they agreed on one important opinion: people today are smarter, more virtuous, and perhaps even better overall, than people of yesteryear.

The origin of this tacit belief is multifactorial. Standardized test scores have been generally improving over the past century, technology has rapidly advanced, and our ancestors have had great moral failures, whether slavery or racism. Many hold the quasi-Darwinian view that everything gets better adapted to the environment over time. Finally, the belief that moderns are better than ancients is seasoned with a heaping tablespoon of the salt of human arrogance.

C.S. Lewis called the belief in the superiority of moderns over their ancestors “chronological snobbery,” and noted that it does not survive challenge well. Students are certainly getting better at taking standardized tests, but that does not necessarily mean that they are smarter. Technology is improving, but the technology of today was invented yesterday…by our predecessors. Our grandparents and great grandparents had grievous moral failures, but it is hard to argue that ours are less bad. And though we may wish that evolution will make us better, evidence is hard to find. Mankind today is probably no worse than 100 or 1000 years ago, but also probably no better.

Christians are not immune to “chronological snobbery”, and often we find our supposed superiority in the fact that we are not idolaters. More than one Sunday School denizen has puzzled over how people in the Bible could literally bow before wood and stone, gold and silver. Such perplexity is often followed by a smugness that would make a Pharisee proud, saying “thank God that I am not like them (Luke 18:11).”

In truth, ancient idol worshippers did not believe that the wood or stone that they carved into an idol and could destroy at will was a god. Rather they believed that the spirit of the unseen god came to inhabit the idol. Whether wood, stone, gold, or silver, the idol was merely the physical manifestation or the carrier of the spirit of the deity. This belief is widespread today, especially among Hindus.

The sin of idolatry is not in the worship of the physical manifestation, because people generally don’t do that. Rather it is found in four factors that we shall examine below. The story of the Philistines is a good example.


The Philistines emigrated from Greece to the Levant around 1200 BC, a little later than the Israelites themselves came to the Promised Land. They inhabited five cities in southwestern Palestine, including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza. Able fighters, the Philistines are portrayed in the Old Testament as relentless foes of Israel. Along with the Canaanites, they are also seen as Godless idolaters. 1 Samuel 4-6 tells the story. It is best to read it directly from the Bible, but I have provided a brief summary here.

The Philistines had oppressed the Israelites for many years. The Hebrews rebelled and the two armies met in battle. The superior armament of the Philistines carried the first day. Desperate, the Israelites brought the Ark of the Covenant, their holiest object, the one that they believed contained the power of their God, into the fight on the second day. The talisman failed.  Israel met disaster, and the Ark of the Covenant was taken by the Philistines to Ashdod, to the temple of their god, Dagon.

In the morning, the keepers of the statue of Dagon found it prostrate before the Ark of the Covenant. They set it back up, but the same thing happened the next day. Not only had the statue fallen, but its head and hands had broken off.  Simultaneously a plague broke out in Ashdod, killing many. The description of the symptoms, including “tumors in their secret parts,” and the mention of mice suggests bubonic plague or anthrax. The plague may have been carried by the Israelites to the Levant. Relatively new to the area, the Philistines must have lacked the immunity that the Israelites possessed. The Philistines tried to abort the epidemic by moving the Ark to Gath and then to Ekron, but only succeeded in spreading the infection. Ultimately they sent the Ark back to Israel.

Let us consider the evidence of idolatry in this story. Let us also consider how we do the same thing.

Self, not God, is lord

The goal for both the Philistines and the Israelites was personal success, not the glory of God. Both sides assumed that their god wanted the same thing that they wanted; victory in battle. After their initial defeat, the Hebrews did not ask the Lord why He had let them lose, but asked each other (1 Samuel 4:3). Then they came up with a solution that had no bearing on the military situation. Israel hoped to use the Ark as a combination good luck charm and “revenge weapon,” as Hitler used his Vergeltungswaffe (revenge weapons) three millennia later. In battle on the second day, the Philistines initially feared the Ark. Soon however, their martial aptitude carried the day.

Modern man is no different. We say that “God didn’t work for me,” “I don’t need God,” or “God wanted too much from me.” When Napoleon asked Pierre LaPlace why there was no mention of God in his scientific treatise, LaPlace answered “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Anton LaVey’s Satanists bluntly declare that Self is Lord. Most other people are more subtle, but the message is the same; Self is god.

We go to church for what we can get out of it, to be inspired, to enjoy friends, or whatever, rather than for what we can put into it. We want personal peace and affluence instead of a chance to expend ourselves to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Our chronological snobbery is itself evidence of our pride; that we put ourselves above God. We are modern day idolaters.

Put God into our box

Since the Philistines had beaten the Hebrews, they reasoned that Dagon was more powerful than Jehovah. Happy with their choice of the mightier deity, they put the Ark of Jehovah at the feet of Dagon. The more perceptive of the Philistines would have recognized the chain of logic implicit in these actions but few would have admitted it.

  1. Dagon had served the Philistines by giving them victory over Jehovah and the Hebrews.
  2. The Philistines rewarded Dagon by putting Jehovah at his feet.
  3. As Dagon was by right over Jehovah, so Philistia was by right over Israel.

In the afterglow of victory, the Philistines developed a conception of the world which put them at the top and Israel at the bottom. God’s place in the world was with the loser people, the Hebrews. The victory and subsequent thought patterns were used to justify whatever Philistines did to the Israelites, including oppression, rape and even murder.

If moderns acknowledge the Lord at all, we limit His impact on our lives. We attend services for a specified time each week (or month or year) and give Him a specified amount of money. We think about Him, read about Him, talk about Him, and act in His service within firm limits. We demarcate the areas of our lives that we want Him to enter, and everything else is off limits. We might want God to make us stronger, richer, and more beautiful, but we don’t want hard work, suffering, or humility. These limits are dictated by the chain of logic that we apply to God and our lives. Even more, they are dictated by what we want to do. We are modern day idolaters.

When things go wrong, make your reality fit your preconceptions

No man-centered chain of reason survives its first encounter with the God of the Universe, and this Philistine chain of reason was no exception. When the statue of Dagon fell twice before the Ark of the Lord, and it broke to pieces the second time, they could have reasonably concluded that Jehovah was Lord over Dagon.  If so, the men of Ashdod could have become followers of the true God. Philistia could have followed the Law of Moses and become a great and prosperous people under the Lord. They did not; probably because they had beaten the Hebrews in battle but more probably because they did not want to. Their cultural god was Dagon, and to change that would have been hard. Worse, admitting the supremacy of the Jehovah would have undercut their entire justification for oppression. Therefore the Philistines came to a conclusion that had nothing to do with the situation – that the threshold of Dagon’s temple was especially holy.

If we fast forward to 2016, we find that nothing has changed. One Indian writer wrote a hatchet piece against Christians saying that despite their hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, and food kitchens, Jesus’ followers were to be reviled. He could not accept the work of the Church in sharing the love of Christ as the blessing that it is, and bent his reality to fit his preconceptions. The British news magazine the Economist does the same regularly.

All of us, however, are guilty to some degree. Students who were troublesome in grade school get labeled by their teachers, and these students can rarely shake the label no matter how good they become. The same thing happens to coworkers and others. One friend was investigated for sexual harassment and later exonerated. To judge from some articles and search engines, however, he is a criminal in the first degree. We are modern day idolaters.

When God gets troublesome, send Him away

A plague broke out among the Philistines, killing many. They attributed to the plague to the anger of Jehovah and tried the half-measure of sending Him to other Philistine cities. In their minds, this would enable them to maintain power over Jehovah and His people, the Hebrews, while aborting the epidemic. Their plan failed, and the Philistine leaders were forced to send the Ark back to Israel.

When a loved one gets sick or dies, when we lose our job, and when other trouble arises in our lives, what do we do? Do we reaffirm our faith in the God of the Universe or do we abandon our faith? Do we trust in His enduring goodness despite the circumstances or do send Him away? We send God away by skipping church, avoiding Christian friends, and rejecting Bible study, prayer, and the other spiritual disciplines. We deny Him by neglecting the sick, the hungry, the widow and the orphan. We send Him away when we fail to give Him glory for creation and for the amazing things that He has done. We are modern day idolaters.


Contrary to so many opinions, there is no real evidence that man today is better intellectually, morally, or in any other way better than his forebears. This is true in religion as well. To varying degrees, people are still inveterate idolaters; as well as being chronological snobs. What can Christians do? Ask the Lord for deliverance from the four marks of idolatry noted above. Also, humble ourselves, pray and seek His face (II Chronicles 7:14).

Timeline of Events in the Iron Age

What happened in the Iron Age? Which empires rose and fell? How do these events interact with Bible events? Look here for answers. 

This morning in Sunday School I was describing the background of the feast of Belshazzar in Daniel 5. In order to fully understand what this story, and what all Bible stories mean, we must understand the social, political, and cultural context. However it was hard for many in my class to remember and properly order each event so that they could grasp the full meaning of the passage. As a result, I promised to write and post a timeline of people and events that pertain to the eight centuries before Christ.

Keep in mind that these dates, specifically the dates of the reigns of kings, are approximate. Ancient chroniclers reckoned events by when they occurred in a sovereign’s reign (cf. Isaiah 6:1).

1179 BC – Catastrophic end to many civilians in the Western Mediterranean, including Crete and Mycenae

1046-256 BC – Zhou Dynasty in China

854 BC – King Ahab of Israel (869-850 BC) allied with Hadadezer of Syria and ten other kings held off at attack by Shalmaneser III, King of Assyria (858-824 BC), at the Battle of Qarqar.

841 BC – The Assyrians campaigned against Israel, forcing King Jehu (841-815 BC) to pay tribute.

810-782 BC – King Adad-Nirari III of Assyria claimed tribute from Israel.

798-782 BC – Jehoash reigned in Israel

796-767 BC – Amaziah reigned in Judah

793-753 BC – Jeroboam II reigned in Israel.

790-739 BC – Uzziah (Azariah) reigned in Judah (coregency with his father at first)

790 BC – Ministry of the prophet Jonah

782-746 BC – Shalmaneser IV reigned in Assyria

Around 782-745 BC – Ministry of the prophet Jonah. Assyria was at war with the powerful kingdom of Urartu (Van), allied with Mannai and Madai.

Around 767-752 BC – Ministry of the prophet Amos

753 BC – Rome founded by Remus and Romulus, legendary descendants from Troy

753-752 BC – Zechariah and Shallum ruled in Israel

752-732 BC – Pekah reigned in Israel

752-742 BC – Menahem reigned in Israel

750-731 BC – Jotham reigned in Judah

750 BC – Legendary rape (abduction) of the Sabine women

Around 750-715 BC – Ministry of the prophet Hosea.

Around 750-722 BC – Ministry of the prophet Micah.

742-740 BC – Pekahiah reigned in Israel

Around 740 BC – Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BC) was king of Assyria and invaded Israel, requiring tribute from Menahem (752-732 BC). He later invaded Judah and received tribute from King Ahaz (735-715 BC).

735-715 BC – Ahaz reigned in Judah.

732-722 BC – Hoshea reigned in Israel.

732 BC – Fall of Damascus

729-686 BC – Hezekiah reigned in Judah.

728 BC – 25th Dynasty in Egypt founded under Piye

722 BC – Assyria under Shalmaneser V (727-722 BC) besieged the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahaz of Judah paid tribute to Assyria.

721 BC – King Sargon II of Assyria (721-705 BC) conquered Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, and carried the people into exile.

718 BC – King Canduales of Lydia was murdered by Gyges, a courtier and probably a freed slave. Gyges then became King of Lydia.

717 BC – Assyria attacked Phoenicia and besieged Tyre but failed to conquer it.

703 BC – Hezekiah King of Judah (728-687 BC), stopped paying tribute to Assyria, thus launching a rebellion against Sennacherib (705-681 BC).

701 BC – Assyrian army under Sennacherib conquered Lachish and besieged Jerusalem.

701 BC – King Hezekiah of Judah humbled himself and God delivered Jerusalem, wiping out the Assyrians.

697-642 BC – Manasseh reigned in Judah.

684-320 BC – Maghada Dynasty in India

681-669 BC – Esarhaddon reigned in Assyria

669-633 BC – Ashurbanipal reigned in Assyria.

663 BC – Fall of Thebes

660 BC – Zoroaster (c 660- c 583 BC), founder of the Persian religion Zoroastrianism, was born.

652-626 BC – Ministry of the prophet Nahum.

Around 650 BC – Manasseh, the wicked king of Judah and son of Hezekiah, was captured by the Assyrians and carried away. While there he repented and sought God.

643 BC – Manasseh died and was succeeded by his son Amon.

642-641 BC – Amon reigned in Judah.

641 BC – Amon was assassinated and succeeded by his son, the good king Josiah (640-609 BC).

640-609 BC – Josiah reigned in Judah.

627-621 BC – Ministry of the prophet Zephaniah.

627-580 BC – Ministry of the prophet Jeremiah.

626-616 BC – Babylonian army under Nabopolassar (626-605 BC) and his son Nebuchadnezzar (605-562) achieved Babylonian independence from Assyria.

626-590 BC – Ministry of the prophet Habakkuk.

612 BC – Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, fell to Nabopolassar and the Babylonians.

609 BC – King Josiah died fighting against the Egyptians under Pharaoh Neco in the Battle of Megiddo.

609 BC – Pharaoh Neco installed Jehoahaz, then Jehoiakim as King of Judah.

605 BC – Nabopolassar died. At the Battle of Carchemish, Babylon defeated Assyria and Egypt (Pharaoh Neco).

605 BC – First exile of the Jews, including Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, to Babylon.

605-535 BC – Ministry of the prophet Daniel.

598 BC – Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiachin as King of Judah.

600 BC – Approximate time for the ministry of Hosea.

598-597 BC – Jehoiachin reigned in Judah.

596 BC – Revolt of Judah under Jehoiachin. Babylonians defeated the Jews and installed Zedekiah as king.

597-586 BC – Zedekiah reigned in Judah.

593-570 BC – Ministry of the prophet Ezekiel.

587 BC – Revolt of Zedekiah, Jerusalem and temple destroyed. Most of the inhabitants of the land were taken away.

586 BC – Remnants of the people in Judah killed the Babylonian governor Gedeliah, kidnapped Jeremiah, and fled to Egypt.

585 BC – Solar eclipse – key event from which other events were dated.

Around 586? – Early exilic period – Obadiah ministered and wrote his book.

584-564 BC – Moab, which had attacked Judah during Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion (2 Kings 24:2), resisted Babylon and was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.

563 BC – Nebuchadnezzar died

560 BC – Evil-Merodach, son of Nebuchanezzar, assassinated in a conspiracy led by Neriglissar

560 BC – Croesus became king of Lydia, a large kingdom in present day western Turkey.

556 BC – Neriglissar died

556 BC – Labashi-Marduk, son of Neriglissar, ascended to the throne of Babylon.

556 BC – Nabonidus, a wealthy merchant in Babylon, led a rebellion against Labashi-Marduk, seized power and assassinated the king.

551 BC – Confucius (551-479 BC) was born

546 BC – Croesus King of Lydia was defeated by Cyrus the Persian and his empire was destroyed. Nabonidus had allied with Croesus, and so Cyrus attacked him

540-539 BC – Cyrus (539-530) defeated the Babylonians at the Battle of Osis and Nabonidus fled south.

539 BC – Cyrus conquered Babylon and killed the king, Belshazzar (29 October).

538 BC – Cyrus issued his proclamation for Jews to return home (Ezra 1:1).

538-537 BC – Many of the Jewish exiles returned to Palestine. Temple rebuilding began.

538-518 BC – Assuming that Daniel wrote the Book of Daniel and that he finished it shortly before his death in the early part of Cyrus I’s reign, it must have been written in this period.

Around 530 BC – Many factors including resistance from neighbors caused the rebuilding of the Temple to stop.

530 BC – Cyrus the Great was killed while fighting against the Massagetae, a nomadic tribe in Central Asia related to the Scythians, along the Jaxartes River (modern Syr Darya).

Late sixth century to early fifth century BC – Probable writing of the Book of Joel.

529 BC – Cambyses (530-522 BC) ruled Persia.

528 BC – Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC) founded Buddhism.

525 BC – Persian forces under Cambyses conquered Egypt.

522 BC – After some political intrigue, Darius I (522-486) ascended to the throne of Persia.

520 BC – Haggai’s first message (August), second message (October), third and fourth messages (December)

520 BC – Zechariah’s ministry began (November)

520 BC – Temple construction resumed.

519 BC – Zechariah’s eight night visions (February)

516/15 BC – Temple in Jerusalem rebuilt under Zerubbabel (Ezra 6:15).

512 BC – Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) wrote the Art of War.

510 BC – Establishment of the Roman Republic

495-429 BC – Life of Pericles (Greek Ruler)

490 BC – In the Battle of Marathon, Darius 1 (the Great, 550-486 BC) of Persia was defeated by the Athenians and Plateans.

485 BC – Xerxes 1 (The Great, 485-465 BC) became king over Persia. He is known as Ahasuerus in the book of Esther.

484-325 BC – Life of Herodotus (Greek historian)

480 BC – Xerxes 1 invaded Greece with a large army, winning at the Battle of Thermopylae and losing decisively at the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes returned to Susa and left his general Mardonius in command of the Persian army in Greece.

After 480 BC – Zechariah’s final prophecy

479 BC – Mardonius was crushed by the Greeks in the Battle of Platea and the Battle of Mycale. The Persian Army limped home, a shadow of its former self.

479-465 BC – Likely period during which the events in the Book of Esther occurred.

475-450 BC – Ministry of the prophet Malachi.

470-399 BC – Life of Socrates (philosopher)

465 BC – Xerxes (As mentioned in the Book of Esther was assassinated, and after some intrigue, his son Artaxerxes succeeded him.

464 BC – Artaxerxes I (464-424 BC) became ruler over Persia.

460-395 BC – Life of Thucydides (historian and general)

458 BC – Ezra led a group of Jewish exiles back to Judah and wrote the Book of Ezra, recounting the rebuilding of the Temple under Zerubbabel.

450-300 BC – Most likely date range for the writing of the Book of Esther.

449 BC – Herodotus completed his History, covering the Persian wars.

445 BC – Nehemiah led a group of exiled Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls.

431-404 BC – The Peloponnesian War between the Athenian empire and the Peloponnesian League (including Sparta).

430 BC – Plague of Athens (recurred 429, 427, 426), a devastating epidemic that killed 1/3 to 2/3 of the population. Typhus, typhoid, and viral hemorrhagic fevers are possible pathogens.

427-347 BC – Life of Plato (philosopher)

Around 425 BC – Ministry of Malachi.

Early fourth century BC – Edom destroyed by the Nabateans, a people from northern Arabia and the southern Levant.

415-413 BC – Disastrous Athenian invasion of Sicily in the Peloponnesian War.

403 BC – Artaxerxes II (403-359 BC) ascended to the Persian throne.

384-322 BC – Life of Aristotle (philosopher)

384-322 BC – Life of Demosthenes (statesman)

358 BC – Artaxerxes III (358-337 BC) became ruler of Persia.

331 BC – Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) crushed Darius the Persian for the final time at the Battle of Gaugamela, destroying the Achaemenid Empire and extending his borders from Macedonia to India.

323 BC – Alexander died in Babylon, his four generals dividing up his empire. This resulted in the Ptolemic Kingdom (Egypt and Palestine), Seleucid Kingdom (Persia, Mesopotamia and Eastern Anatolia), Lysimachid Kingdom (Western Anatolia and Trace) and Antigonid Kingdom (Macedonia).

221-206 BC – Qin Dynasty in China

206 BC – 220 AD – Han Dynasty in China

198 BC – Antiochus III (The Great) of the Seleucid Kingdom defeated the Ptolemiac forces at the Battle of Panium, wresting Palestine from Egyptian control.

168 BC – Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, prompting a revolt. Later he massacred Jews in Judah.

164 BC – The Maccabees rebelled against the Seleucids, throwing off their rule and founding the Hasmonean Dynasty which reigned in Palestine until the Roman conquest.

63 BC – Roman forces intervened in a Hasmonean Civil War and captured Jerusalem, making Judah a client state.

37 BC – After Jerusalem passed back and forth between Parthian and Roman rulers, Rome finally secured it and the Idumean Herod the Great became “King of the Jews”.

4-6 BC – Jesus was born.

Please use this as a reference when trying to understand the history of the Ancient Near East in the seven centuries before Christ. This information came from several references, including The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, 1899-1983) and Annals of the World by Irish Archbishop Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656).

Jesus at the Feast of the Tabernacles

Modern Jews and Christians are far removed from the ancient Israelite culture. Our food supply in the developed world is relatively secure, while their food supply, and their survival, depended on each year’s harvest. “Feast” in rich modern nations usually means low food prices and “famine” means high food prices, whereas feast in ancient Israel meant life and famine meant death. Refrigeration and cheap transportation give us variety and reliability at the dinner table, while the lack of both made it frequently hard for the Hebrews to know where their next meal was coming from. In modern times we emphasize the role of technology in our prosperity and downplay the grace of God, while in ancient Israel they used existing technology wisely while recognizing that the hand of the Lord was the source of all things.

Is it any wonder that modern first-world Christians don’t understand how important the feasts were to the Hebrews in the Old Testament? Many Americans’ main worry surrounding the main cultural feasts, Thanksgiving and Christmas, is not putting on too much weight. Political and social leaders encourage people to enjoy family and friends, and maybe even thank others who grew the food, but say nothing about God.

To better understand the Bible we must have some understanding of the feasts that meant so much to the Israelites at the time.  

Significance of Feasts

Most ancient Israelites lived in farming villages and spent their days within a few miles of where they were born. Unlike today, when transportation is quick and communication instantaneous, transportation and communication in their world were at the same speed; that of the foot, the horse, and the ship. Travel was expensive and dangerous and people traveled little, except when going to Jerusalem twice per year for one of the feasts. There were two harvest times in ancient Israel, the spring (“Feast of Weeks”), when the winter grain was harvested, and the fall (“Feast of Tabernacles”), when the grapes and olives were brought in.

The Israelites loved their festivals. They got a break from their hard work and traveled with friends and loved ones over many miles of interesting landscapes. They met with people from the other tribes, sharing news, technological and cultural advances, and trade. When they arrived in Jerusalem they gazed at the beautiful city with its pools and palaces, and most of all saw the Temple. Most celebrants would never experience such gold, silver, silks and other finery as they saw in the City of Zion. The spread of food at the tables was spectacular, drawing the produce from every region and representing a variety of cuisine almost unimaginable to a remote villager. The religious ceremonies accompanying the feasts were impressive yet inspiring. Even more, singing with thousands of other Israelite voices, praying with their coreligionists, and sharing stories about the goodness of Jehovah was an experience they could never have anywhere else.  

Bringing all of the people together twice per year served many important functions for the government. The twelve tribes had spent more of their history divided than united (under David and Solomon only). By bringing the Hebrews together physically they were more united politically and religiously. The monarch in Jerusalem would gain legitimacy from the city, the Temple, the history, and the rituals. Thus he would find it easier to rule. It was this fear that led Jeroboam I to set up a separate religious system when he was king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12:26-33).  

The Feast of Tabernacles

God commanded His people to obey as well as to celebrate.  In Exodus 23:16 and Deuteronomy 16:13 He commanded Moses and the Hebrews to celebrate His provision for them at the end of the summer harvest.  The Feast of Tabernacles was the first feast celebrated after the Babylonian Exile (Ezra 3:2-4).  Celebrants lived in open topped tent-like structures as a reminder of the tents they lived in while wandering in the Sinai desert.  Each day of the feast, helpers would fill a golden flagon with water from the pool at Siloam.  The high priest would carry the flagon, leading a procession to the temple.  Three horn blasts were sounded and a choir would sing the “Hallel” (Psalms 113-118). On the last verse, each male would wave a branch, hold a citrus fruit and cry “Give thanks to the Lord”.  The daily drink offering of wine and the water would then be poured out to the Lord (pp 321-322).  Josephus wrote that Tabernacles was the most popular and one of the most significant of the major Jewish feasts (Kostenberger 108). 

Jesus fulfilled the symbolism

Despite the fact that the Jewish leaders in Judea wanted Him dead, Jesus had the Father’s work to do and He traveled secretly to Jerusalem.  The symbolic parallels between Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles were great.  As Tabernacles was a celebration of the provision of God for His people, so Jesus is the ultimate provision of God for His people.  As the outpouring of water was one of the key rituals in the festival, so Jesus is the source of Living Water. On the final day, the greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and shouted that He was the source of the Spirit and that whoever believed in Him would outflow with rivers of Living Water (Kostenberger 109). 

Notice that Jesus’ imagery was not of a cup overflowing with good things as David’s was (Psalm 23:5). As beautiful a picture as this is, it is far too small. Instead Jesus’ word picture was of rivers of living water flowing out of Him. Even more amazing, Jesus promised that rivers of life would flow even out of those who believed in Him (John 7:38). The devoted Christian is not one who is needy and sucking in, barely surviving and always wanting more in a hostile world. Rather he is one who is overflowing with rivers of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Role of water in the feast

Water played a great role in the feast, both in the ceremony of the outpouring noted above and also in the Old Testament background to the feast. In the parched land of Israel, especially at the end of a hot summer, the beginning of the rainy season in October was a welcome relief. Thus water itself was evidence of God’s gracious provision for the people and the promise of a good harvest the next year. Just as the first fruits of the harvest were given to the Lord in thanks for His care, so water was given to Him in gratitude for His goodness.  

Old Testament background to Jesus’ interaction with the Jews at the Feast.

Jesus presented Himself to the Jews as the source of the Living Water, the Spirit that God promised His people. The miracle noted in Exodus 17 in which God provided water from a rock provided the basis for the Feast of Booths and for the imagery of God providing His Spirit. Isaiah cited God’s free offer of mercy to him who thirsts (Isaiah 55:1), Ezekiel described the water of the Lord, referring to His Spirit, flowing out of the temple (Ezekiel 47:1-9), and Zechariah painted a similar picture (Zechariah 13:1). All of these form the background of Jesus’ interaction with the Jews at this feast.


The Bible is difficult to understand because it was written long ago to people far removed from our day to day experience. Nonetheless it is the Word of God and therefore Christians must study it; bringing our knowledge as closely to theirs as possible. When we do we discover that feasts were vital to public and religious lives of ancient Hebrews, and held tremendous imagery reflecting what God would do for His people. Jesus came, fulfilled the prophecy and clarified the imagery. He then offered rivers of Living Water to all those who believed in Him.


Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.

Kostenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.

The Land of Milk and Honey – Agriculture in Ancient Israel

In Exodus 33:3 God promised to take the Hebrews, recently freed from slavery in Egypt, to a “land flowing with milk and honey.” During my trip to Israel in March of 1995 when I approached Jerusalem, I was a little skeptical of the “milk and honey” description. Much of the land is dry and hilly, and it was warm even that early in the year. Israel more resembled where I grew up, arid Southern Calfornia, than the watered paradise I had envisaged. After many years and much study, I have come to realize that Israel truly was “a land flowing with milk and honey”, especially compared to the Arabian Desert and Egypt (beyond the Nile).

Even more important, it is impossible to understand much of the Bible without understanding the agriculture that it describes. Unlike modern industrial and information societies, in which food is so plentiful that only a small minority are involved in its production, Ancient Israel was agricultural. So was every nation around them. Every aspect of their lives, economies, religion, pleasure, and even war revolved around the cycles of nature in a way that few of us can understand.

Agriculture was the main economic activity in the ancient Near East, including Israel. The dry climate and hilly terrain provided only a few broad valleys for growing, including the Jezreel Valley in the north, the Plain of Sharon in the south and the Transjordan plateau (Gilead). Springs around Jericho allowed the region to the west of the Jordan River to be planted as well. Canaan is a fertile area, as attested in the Egyptian Story of Sinuhe, written in the 20th century BC: “It was a good land called Yaa. Figs were in it and grapes. It had more wine than water. Abundant was its honey, plentiful its oil. All kinds of fruit were on its trees. Barley was there and emmer, and no end of cattle of all kinds.”

The diet of the ancient Israelite was comprised primarily of barley, wheat, grapes and olives. In Israel, winter barley was usually harvested in May and winter wheat in June. Grapes were picked in August and September, and olives were harvested from mid-September to mid-November. The Gezer Calendar, inscribed in the 10th century BC on a limestone tablet near the Canaanite city of Gezer, records the annual cycle of agricultural work.

Gezer Calendar Time of Year Typical Rainfall
His two months are   the olive harvest mid-September to   mid-November Early rains
His two months are   planting grain mid-November to   mid-January
His two months are   late planting mid-January to   mid-March
His month is hoeing   up of flax mid-March to   mid-April Later rains
His month is   harvest of barley mid-April to mid-May
His month is   harvest and festivity mid-May to mid-June
His two months are   vine tending mid-June to   mid-August
His month is summer   fruit mid-August to   mid-September

“Late planting” also included supplemental crops such as garlic, cucumbers, melons, lentils, chick peas, sesame, millet, and other vegetables. Fig trees were especially valuable as figs provided an important source of vitamins, calcium and fiber. The trees are hardy, growing in areas unsuitable for other crops. Pomegranates were another vital adjunct. Pomegranate trees require little tending and the seeds are a rich source of C and B vitamins.

In Israel the agricultural calendar corresponded closely with the religious calendar. The beginning of the barley harvest corresponded with Passover, the start of the wheat harvest occurred with Pentecost, and the grape, fig, pomengranate and olive harvest closed with the Feast of the Tabernacles. Livestock also had an important role to play in the religious life of the people.

To plant the grassy crops such as wheat and barley, farmers would first plow the top 3-4 inches of ground with an ox-drawn plow. They would sow the grain by hand, casting it over a wide area (Luke 8:4-8), and then plow a second time to force the seed under the ground. Wheat would be sown in the most fertile fields and other crops in the less fertile ones. At harvest time, the men would cut the stalks with a sickle. Farmers with livestock would cut the stalks close to the ground to use the stalk itself as animal feed, and those without livestock would cut the stalks close to the seed to minimize the amount of threshing. Children would gather the stalks into bundles and take the bundles to the threshing floor, a cleared and compacted parcel of ground up to 40 feet in diameter. Sometimes one threshing floor would serve a whole village.

Threshing sledges were made of wooden boards with iron or stone projections on the bottom. They were pulled by horses or oxen over harvested stalks of grain that had been brought to the threshing floor. The projections cut the stalks and allowed the grain to separate and fall to the floor. Farmers could also use an ox-drawn disc harrow which would cut the stalks and not crush the grain (Isaiah 28:27-28). Once the grain and the chaff were separated, winnowers would go out when the wind was steady, usually early evening, and toss the mass into the air with pitchforks. The heavier grain would fall to the ground and the lighter chaff would blow away. Finally the grain would be gathered into jars for storing and the chaff would be burned (Matthew 3:12).

Vineyards were often located on terraced hillsides rather than flat valleys. In the spring farmers would repair terrace walls, prune dead branches, clear the ground of rocks and weeds, and plow around the vines (Isaiah 5:2). Such plowing would disrupt the ground, allowing it to capture more water during the spring rains. The farmer would build a wall around the vineyard to protect the grapes from wild animals and set up a lookout tower where he could keep watch over his crop (Song of Solomon 2:15). At harvest time the farmer and his entire family would leave their house and live in temporary huts (“booths” or “tabernacles”) in the vineyards so that everyone could pick grapes. Some were eaten raw, some dried into raisins, but most grapes were crushed underfoot in a winepress to separate the juice. The juice was then placed into jars and allowed to ferment into wine.
The dry and hilly topography of Palestine provides excellent areas for raising sheep and goats. The primary livestock in ancient Israel were sheep, goats, cattle, and donkeys. Camels were used by nomads and traders while horses were used by kings so they played less of a role in day to day life in the Holy Land. Sheep were valued for meat and for wool. Goats provided meat, milk, hair (for coarse cloth and tents), and skins (for containers for wine and other liquids). Donkeys were beasts of burden and cattle (oxen) pulled the plow. Cow milk and meat do not seem to have been large parts of the Israelite’s diet.

With little means of reliably storing food, protecting it from rot, frost, scorching heat, wild animals, and other people, the annual harvest was a life or death matter for ancient peoples such as the Israelites. Food was not often left to rot, frost damage could be minimized by planting on hills in the lee of the desert winds, and wild animals and other people could be dealt with. The two biggest threats to the food supply, and therefore to the survival, of the Israelites were drought and locusts (2 Chronicles 7:13).

Egypt could rely on the annual flooding of the Nile River to irrigate crops, and Mesopotamia on an intricate system of canals between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Palestine, on the other hand, depended on rain. Drought was caused by a combination of high temperatures and poor rainfall. Heat caused plants to wither on the stalk and quickly evaporated surface water. If the moisture containing clouds were then blown elsewhere by the winds, the land became drier. Droughts and subsequent famines devastated the land of Canaan throughout the Bible (Genesis 41:54-57, Ruth 1:1, 1 Kings 17:1, 1 Kings 18:2).

Locusts (גוב gowb) were another deadly threat to the lives of the Israelites, being mentioned 54 times using nine different Hebrew words in the Old Testament. They survive over three years in dry ground but eggs hatch after only 10 days when moisture is present. The Desert locust and the Morroccan locust were the most common, usually blowing in with the wind from the Arabian deserts to the southeast of Palestine. Swarms could number in the millions and appear as black clouds on the horizon. One desert locust swarm that crossed the Red Sea in 1889 covered an estimated 2,000 square miles. A swarm could devour every green leaf from a mature tree in less than 15 minutes. During the 8th plague, an east wind from the Arabian Desert carried a locust swarm into Egypt, devastating the country (Exodus 10:13) and a west wind from the Sahara carried them back into the Red Sea (Exodus 10:19). The Prophets frequently refer to locusts as destroyers (Joel 2:25). Locusts were also eaten by the Hebrews during the Exodus (Leviticus 11:22) and in the New Testament (Matthew 3:4).

In summary, Israel is a “land flowing with milk and honey”, though not precisely what visitors might expect. More importantly, to understand the Bible we must understand the dominant activity in their lives. Our lives, understanding, and faith will be enriched as a result. For more information, please see Agriculture, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1976, pp 71-78, written by G.J. Jennings.

Israel at the Time of Hosea

The Kingdom of Aram (modern Syria) had long been a major military threat to Israel, and Israel had been forced to devote many resources to defense against its northeastern neighbor.  During the days of Jehoahaz (816-800 BC), crushing defeats at the hands of the Arameans had reduced Israel’s army to “not more than 50 horsemen, 10 chariots, and 10,000 footmen (2 Kings 13:7).”

An adventurer named Zakir had successfully gained power in the small kingdoms of Hamath, Luash, and the regions nearby, situated northeast of Aram. Hoping to expand his power the king of Aram, Ben Hadad III, formed an alliance to overthrow Zakir and seize Hamath and Luash. According to the Stele of Zakkur, found in 1903 near Aleppo, the Aramean coalition laid siege to the city of Hazrach (cf. Zechariah 9:1) near Damascus, and was defeated. Zakir’s victory destroyed the army of Aram and led to their precipitous decline. These events occurred around 790 BC, and within 30 years Aram had grown so weak that Israel had gained control of Damascus and Hamath themselves (2 Kings 14:28). The borders of Israel expanded almost as far as they had reached under David and Solomon.  Assyria, which would destroy Israel itself in 722 BC, was relatively weak since the passing of Shalmaneser III (859 – 824 BC).

Jeroboam II, the grandson of Jehoahaz, was King of Israel from 785 to 745 BC. A strong and canny ruler, he capitalized on these events. Because of the Arabian Desert to the south and the mountains of Lebanon to the west, Damascus controlled the trade routes from the Fertile Crescent to Palestine and Egypt.  Governments charged tolls to pay for maintaining the routes, protecting the caravans, and enriching themselves.  Caravans traveling these routes could pay up to 20% of the value of the merchandise, so charging tolls was a source of great revenue.

Flush with newfound wealth, an affluent merchant class had arisen in Israel. Demand for luxury goods skyrocketed, and the gulf between the rich and the poor yawned. Beds inlaid with ivory (Amos 6:4) and many other ivory inlaid articles have been found. The Samaritan Ostraca, 63 inscribed potsherds found in 1910, refer to “refined oil” and “pure clarified wine.”  Many built large and ostentacious houses with expensive imported materials (Amos 3:14-15).

As so often happens in times of material prosperity, the people of Israel drifted even farther from the Lord their God (cf. Proverbs 30:7-9). The wealth gap encouraged the affluent to prey on the poor, and material security caused many to forget the need for the protection of Jehovah. The needy were sold as slaves at markets (Amos 8:4-8).The covenant at Sinai was forgotten (Exodus 19:5-8). Such problems had been present since the reign of Ahab (1 Kings 22:39) but became much worse under Jeroboam.

The Israelites’ ease of life and affluence increasingly conflicted with the self discipline and austerity inherent in the worship of God. As a result, they turned more and more to the licentious religion of the Canaanites. Baal, the son of the supreme god El, and his consort Asherah, were thought to control fertility; agricultural and human. Baal worship therefore involved temple prostitution (male and female) and wanton sexual practices. This lifestyle fitted nicely with the lifestyles of the Israelites, especially the wealthy, and moral standards collapsed.  Baal was portrayed as a bull and Asherah a cow, so leaders who set up golden calves specifically encouraged Canaanite-style worship (Exodus 32:1-6, 1 Kings 12:25-33). Thus the children of Israel engaged in the same Canaanite practices that caused God to order their destruction (Deuteronomy 7:1-5).

In the same passage in Deuteronomy, God promised to destroy His people Israel if they did the same thing. In Hosea, the promise was about to be fulfilled.