Job 40.26 (41.2), in the context of the might of Leviathan, reads התשים אגמון באפו ובחוח תקוב לחיו, “Can you put a (reed-)rope (אגמון) in his nose or pierce his jaw (לחי) with a thorn?”

In the Rassam Cylinder of Ashurbanipal, a captive is described: ᴜᴢᴜ.ᴍᴇ.ᴢᴇ-šu apluš ina laḫšišu attadi ṣirritu, “I pierced him through his jaw/cheek(?), a lead-rope (or ‘nose-rope’) on his jaw.”

I’m certainly not arguing for dependence of any kind; yet the similar ‘poetic’ repetition is interesting.

Funny enough, yet another occurrence of the same is found in 2 Kings 19.28.

The Ge’ez word ድግድግ, dagdaga, has an extremely peculiar threefold meaning. First, ‘to be lean, be meager’; second, ‘to gird oneself’; and, finally, ‘to be early morning, get up early in the morning’. Further, there is also ደግደገ, dəgdəg, ‘chicken’.

Leslau suggests that dagdaga as ‘gird oneself’ could be reduplicated from dəgg, ‘belt’. He considers alternatively that it may be a development of ‘get up early’ – similar to how (interestingly) Hebrew שכמ ‘to rise early’ is thought to be denominative from שכמ ‘shoulder’. This latter seems like a stretch, though.

But Leslau also suggests that dagdaga as ‘be early morning, get up early in the morning’ may be a denominative from dəgdəg, chicken, “whose crowing,” of course, “indicates the early morning.”

Whence ‘to be lean, be meager’? In other branches of Ethiopic, the cognates of this mean ‘crush’ or ‘grind’. This is probably to be connected with cognates like Hebrew דכא. Although at first this may seem like the odd man out, it seems likely the connection is that crushing grain was mainly done in the morning. This is possibly being referred to in Jeremiah 25.10, “And I will banish from them the sound of mirth and the sound of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp.” Quoting Walton and Baker (2009:290), “The millsone [sic] and the lamp together symbolize domestic life in its regular cycle. The millstone is heard in the mornings and the lamp burns at night. The presence of both signals joy because normality prevails.”

If so, this constitutes a nice parallel with dagdaga as chicken – the connection mainly being one of *sounds* (in the morning).

In b. Sanh. 4b, there reads:

Has it not been taught: ‘letotafoth [frontlets] occurs…in the Torah…four in all, to indicate [that four sections are to be inserted in the phylacteries]…R. Akiba maintains…the word totafoth itself implies four, [it being composed of] tot which means two in Katpi and foth which means two in Afriki (טט בכתפי שתים פת באפריקי שתים).

There’s been some discussion on Classics-L as to what validity, if any, there is to this. The most recent post suggests “This is an example of a d:rash daHuq (proof by play on words, which, in my opinion, should not be taken literally or very seriously).”

I somewhat agree that this “should not be taken literally or very seriously.” I find כתפי curious, though. It has been suggested that this means ‘Coptic’. There is, of course, the כפתרים of Gen 10.13 – descendants of Mizraim. If we were to accept that this is what was being referred to, we would have to assume both metathesis and loss of resh, though (however, ‘Caphtor’ appears as Keftiu elsewhere). Also, the Targums often have, for Caphtor, an assimilation to Cappadocia: קפוטקיא.

There really is nothing like טט meaning ‘two’, however, in Coptic. I guess the closest thing would be tōt, ‘to be joined’ – but this isn’t really close at all. (There is also tou, ‘five’ in Coptic; but this has no relevance.) In Ugaritic, ṯiṯṯ is the numeral for six; and in Qatabanian, ‘one’ is ṭd. [Late addendum: apparently there’s a Fula(ni) word for two, didi.]

In regard to פת: there’s really nothing like this for ‘two’ in the אפריקי language(s) – although there is ftoou for ‘four’ in Coptic (Černý, 266 – see Crum, 625). This is seen also in several branches of Chadic languages.

In Mark Smith’s On the Primaeval Ocean (2002) – his monograph on a Demotic cosmological text – he mentions a papyrus from the 21st Dynasty. This papyrus “depicts a winged serpent with four legs, a human head on its neck, and a jackal’s head at the end of its tail. Its wings enfold a sun disk containing a scarab. The accompanying inscription identifies this creature as mwt pꜢ nṯr ꜥꜢ ir nṯr.w rmṯ.w.” Smith translates this (or quotes from a translation) as “Death the great divinity who made gods and men” (p. 212).

Christiane Zivie-Coche, following this translation/interpretation, calls this a “unique instance of Egyptian religious iconography and literature…a tradition otherwise unknown to us…imaged death as a whole iconology [sic]” (2004: 158). And while the presence of the jackal’s head may indeed suggest Anubis – that is, death – it is hard to completely follow this view, in light of characteristic of the Egyptian goddess Mut (in modern conventions of Egyptian transliteration, mw.t) – “the mother of mothers, who has given birth to every god.” How death could be regarded as a creator seems illogical. Come to think of it, while Egyptian mythology isn’t my primary interest, from the amount I’ve looked into it I haven’t found Mw.t as a clearly deified ‘Death’ in Egyptian texts.

Interestingly, though, Christopher Hays has argued in several recent papers for an identification of the Egyptian Mut and the Northwest Semitic deity Mot, from Ugaritic texts and elsewhere (cf. especially “The Covenant with Mut: A New Interpretation of Isaiah 28: 1-22” in VT 2010). I think he’s way off here, though; and I may write about this in a future post.

Also, speaking of a future post, if we were to think that this indeed depicts Mut – and not a personified Death – the winged serpent would also requires some more comment (in addition to the jackal head-on-tail). Perhaps there’s actually some (wholly unique) cross-pollination between mw.t and mwt here.

Well, I had pretty much finished a post talking about how Takács, in an otherwise massive entry in his monumentally impressive dictionary of Egyptian, missed a crucial Semitic cognate for mr, ‘pyramid’ – “[o]ne of the most enigmatic words from an etymological viewpoint” – in Akkadian amaru, “pile of bricks.” This seemed pretty important, and I was excited to write about it. I even did a PDF search, just to make sure Takács hadn’t already covered it. As I’m finishing up my post, I was looking back through the discussion of mr, and somehow stumbled upon an entire section I had missed that indeed mentions amaru. No idea how I missed it, either…it was one of the very first sections.

Anyways, I don’t have much to add to this, other than the slightly interesting fact that ziggurats – the well-known Mesopotamian stepped pyramids – were made of baked mud bricks; whereas the Egyptian pyramids were limestone blocks. Thus, the Mesopotamian amaru and Egyptian mr are even more analogous than thought, in terms of basically meaning the same thing to the respective cultures (that is, Egyptian pyramids as “piles of stone blocks”).

Also, Takács cites Biberstein Kazimirski, Albright and others have appealed to another apparent Semitic cognate of amaru: Arabic ˀamārāt, either interpreted as “pierre qui indique la route” – that is, marker stones to indicate routes – or as “pyramidal heap of stones” (Albright). Although somewhat insightful, this is a contextually-dependent definition, Albright noting correctly that ˀamāra is “properly ‘mark, sign'” (Albright 1927: 218). But interestingly, in Genesis 31, Jacob makes a “heap” (גל) of stones as something of a stele – a boundary marker (31.52), and a sign of his “treaty” with Laban.

I know I just made a post saying that most stuff on Christianity was going to be on my new blog – but this touches on Hebrew Bible (and to some degree other ancient Near Eastern stuff) enough to where it’s probably at home here, too.

In Colossians 1.18 and Revelation 1.5, Christ is referred to as “the firstborn of the dead” (ὁ πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν). This is interesting for a multitude of reasons – as evidence of a common formula circulating around the communities in which Colossians and Revelation were written, etc. – but most of all, because it’s one of the loci classici that best embodies what is perhaps Christianity’s major religious innovation: that the resurrection of a single human presages the general resurrection.

As such, this idea is seen as wholly unparalleled in the history of religions. Yet at every turn, early Christianity was informed by early Jewish beliefs – even its innovations seen through their lens. I wonder if it’s not possible to see hints of this in the phrase πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν (and a variant of it in 1 Corinthians).

First, it’s surprising how infrequently scholars note how similar this phrase is to one appearing in the Book of Job: בְּכֹור מָֽוֶת, “the firstborn of Death” (Job 18.13). πρωτότοκος is the normal Septuagint translation of בְּכֹור (according to Aune 2003, used for it 131 times). Although τῶν νεκρῶν is different than מָֽוֶת (not to mention LXX has θάνατος here [though LXX Jb. 18.13 is otherwise corrupt]), perhaps the main impediment to scholars reading the passages together is that, in Job 18, the “firstborn of mwṭ” is clearly a demonic, anthropophagous figure: “the firstborn of death devours his limbs.”


Shifting gears ever so slightly, I mentioned that there’s a variant of ὁ πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν in 1 Corinthians.

1 Cor. 15.20 reads “…Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων). Although first fruits are, of course, a sacrificial offering – and elsewhere, Paul clearly understands Jesus’s death as a sacrifice (most explicitly in Rom. 3.25) – here, as in the aforementioned texts, “first fruits” in conjunction with κεκοιμημένων (=those who have died) still seems to refer simply to the newness, the novelty of Jesus’s resurrection, before the general resurrection. While Aune notes that ἀπαρχὴ is never used to translate בְּכֹור in LXX, it is used in conjunction with “firstborn” (πρωτότοκα) at LXX Ex. 22.29, and is clearly an analogous idea.

As Paul continues his discussion of death and resurrection throughout 1 Cor. 15, he personifies Death several times. The first instance of this is just a few verses later from 15.20, where he writes that the “last enemy to be destroyed is Death” (15.26). Finally, in 15.54, he quotes Isa. 25.8, “Death will be devoured” (κατεπόθη). It has often been noted that the Isaiah passage that Paul quotes may be building on ancient personifications of Death – though with an element of ironic reversal, as it usually Death (in the guise of the Semitic deity Mot and others) who does the devouring in ancient Near Eastern traditions.

Considering that Paul plays with this ironic reversal (as he does elsewhere), is it possible that he similarly appropriated the language of Job 18.13 – though not the LXX as we have it – in his utilization of the phrase ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων, but giving it an “opposite” twist (or even a polemical twist: that Jesus is the true firstborn/first fruits of Death)? The quotation of the Isaian “devoured” passage might give this additional credence.

This may help us view 1 Cor. 15.20, 26, and 54 more closely together, as expressive of Paul’s knowledge of traditions of Death’s personification. But how far does this principle extend?

Healey, in a paper called “‘Death is Swallowed up in Victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54): Canaanite Mot in Prophecy and Apocalypse,” notes that

the old mythology of the Ancient Near East and Greece was not dead in the first century C.E. The victory of Bel and Nabu over Tiamat was still celebrated at Palmyra, and at least some of the Jews of Palestine made use of old mythological ideas, as is clear from Jewish apocryphal works and some of the Dead Sea documents… (Healey in Harland/Hayward 1999: 212)

While echoing Bauckham in his view that the Ugaritic material is far too distant to have directly influenced Paul, he reiterates that “the image of Death the Devourer was maintained in popular culture through the intervening centuries, surfacing from time to time in poetic and less rigorously orthodox works” (213).

Job, it might be noted, has a large concentration of instances of personification of Death – and hints of revival/resurrection. Could Paul’s remembrance of Job (esp. 18.13) have brought to mind his “inventory” of knowledge of personified Death, in all its Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern guises – and even prompted him to think of the various things he did when composing 1 Cor. 15, a text full of death and decay of the body? Or is it the other way around?

What, then, is the relationship between the 1 Corinthians passage and the Colossians and Revelation phrase quoted earlier? Are there implications for the (contested) Pauline authorship of Colossians?

I don’t know how many people read this blog – probably less than 5 regularly – but from now on, all posts on non-Semitic culture/texts will be at another blog, When I write something about Christianity that heavily involves the Hebrew Bible, I may crosspost to here; but all future posts centered on Christianity will be on the new blog.

I apologize if this is a little inchoate in parts – I tried to clean it up a little, after my first draft.

Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend, and they said something along the lines of that the doctrine of inerrancy wasn’t really a thing before the New Testament, at the earliest. I kind of contested this; and, for reasons I’ll get in a bit, I actually first thought about the tabernacle “blueprints” given in Exodus 25 (and the temple blueprints shown to David in 1 Chronicles 28). Today, my thoughts turned to that conversation again, at the mention of 2 Timothy 3.15 – probably the locus classicus for inerrancy. In 2 Tim. 3.15, all “Scripture” (γραφή) is called θεόπνευστος, literally “God-breathed.” γραφὴ is, of course, a common designation in the New Testament (and elsewhere) for authoritative Jewish literature.

In addition to the 2 Timothy passage, one of the other most-discussed New Testament passages relevant to inerrancy is Matthew 5.18: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (NRSV). Although it’s certainly possible that we have, here, a stock rhetorical exaggeration, I think we can also detect the idea of the perfection of Scripture.

The Matthean passage (and its parallel in Luke 16) seems to be hinting at traditions that can plausibly be traced back to the Deuteronomistc laws themselves – cf. Deuteronomy 4.2 and 13.1 (=12.32 in other numbering systems): “Everything I am commanding you, you must be careful לַעֲשֹׂות; you must not add to it nor should you subtract from it” (Deut. 13.1). Further confirmation that this idea was on the radar of NT authors is found in Rev 22.19, “if anyone takes away from the words of the book…” (καὶ ἐάν τις ἀφέλῃ ἀπὸ τῶν λόγων τοῦ βιβλίου…), using the same word for “take (away),” ἀφαιρέω, as LXX Deut. 13.1 (=12.32) does.

Interestingly, however, Deut. 13.1 has clear parallels in ancient Near Eastern (and even Greek) literature. This is explored perhaps most fully in English language scholarship in a recent paper by Bernard Levinson (“The Neo-Assyrian Origins of the Canon Formula in Deuteronomy 13:1,” in Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane [Oxford University Press, 2009]: 25-45). He connects the Deuteronomy text to, among other things, a vassal treaty of Esarhaddon (VTE § 4):

šumma abutu ša Aššur-aḫu-iddina šar māt Aššur tennâni tušannâni šumma Aššur-bāni-apli mar’a šarri rabi’u ša bēt ridūti

      . . .

You shall neither change nor alter the word of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, but heed this very Assurbanipal, the great crown prince designate . . .

Levinson writes “The injunction [also] takes the form of a double prohibition against any change, using two synonyms in the Akkadian: enû, ‘to revoke or change’, and the D-stem of šanû, ‘to change’ (transitive), ‘to alter’” (bracketed word mine – SF).

It’ss this that’ll bring me back around to the “blueprints” of the tabernacle and temple.

The first part of Deut. 13.1 reads, in the Hebrew, אֵת כָּל־הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתֹו תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשֹׂות (again, for clarity: “Everything I am commanding you, you must be careful לַעֲשֹׂות; you must not add to it nor should you subtract from it…”). This might be connected in a way with Exodus 25.9, which gives instructions for the construction of the tabernacle: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אֹותְךָ אֵת…וְכֵן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ (“In accordance with all that I show you…just in this way תַּעֲשֽׂוּ”).

There are, of course, formulations similar to the first part of Deut. 13.1, throughout the Hebrew Bible (which, further, are clearly suggesting behaviors/actions). However, I wonder if, in conjunction with the second part of the verse, לֹא־תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּֽנּוּ (“do not add to it or take anything from it”), and its parallels with ancient Near Eastern treaty formulas and other things, this might lead us to interpret 13.1 as a whole as calling for the “drafting/construction” of God’s “treaty” with his people – a treaty that must be as precise and, we might say, perfect, as the construction of the tabernacle and temple (a precision demanded especially by the latter being an earthly reflection of the heavens, the domain of the deity) (although cf. Exodus 31, for the former).


In light of the proposed connection here, is it possible that עָשָׂה in Deut. 13.1 is to be understood not as a call for the observance of the laws, as traditionally interpreted, but the actual process of recording/writing them? The main objection to this would be that similar language to 13.1a is found in Deut 16.12; 28.15; 30.8; Nu 15.39, in contexts where this must refer to the actual observance. Yet this still does not change the fact that there are also intriguing connections in vocabulary with Ex 25.9.

Taking this in an even more interesting direction, BDB cites several instances of the conjunction of עָשָׂה with שֵׁם, ‘name’: 2 Samuel 7.9, 8.13, and 1 Chron. 17.8 (cf. now Wright, ‘Human, All Too Human’ – Royal Name-Making in Wartime”). To this, I would add another especially relevant instance: Genesis 11.4. This is relevant in light of the provocative thesis of John T. Strong (and others), that the call of Babel’s workers to “make a name for themselves” (וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם) – as well as other motifs in the the Babel narrative – builds on imagery of the construction/drafting of victory steles (cf. Strong’s “Shattering the Image of God: A Response to Theodore Hiebert’s Interpretation of the Story of the Tower of Babel,” in JBL 127 [2008]: 625-634).

I note that steles, first and foremost, display the name of their “founder”; and thus the use of עָשָׂה might be even more plausibly understood, in certain rare contexts, as playing on the meaning of something like “make (an inscription).” Wright writes

[quote]In hundreds of building inscriptions throughout the ANE, a figure commemorates and perpetuates his own name by commissioning (or donating funds for) the construction of a temple to honor the name of his divine patron. See also the admonition in the Egyptian Instructions of Merikare (Papyrus St. Petersburg 1116A): “Construct [fine] monuments for the god, for it means the perpetuation of the name of whoever does it” (108–109).[/quote]

As a final thought, it’s interesting that מַעֲשֶׂה in Ps 45.1 is used in conjunction with סֹופֵר and עֵט – and in various translations is given as “verse(s)” (a nearly identical semantic analogue can be found with Greek ποίημα).


Regardless of whether there’s a literal intention of “recording/writing” here or not (despite what I’ve said, I’d definitely lean towards not), this is surely still the traditio-historical background of the motif here…only that the actual observance of the law is cast in similar language as stock conventions of inerrancy in writing.

Another late realization of something I didn’t touch on in my previous post (see below). In that post, I considered that there may be a (quasi-linguistic) parallel between the fountains (from מָקוֹר) of the deep, from which the waters issue in the Genesis flood, and the fountain (from מַעְיָן) of (postpartum) blood flow, in Lev. 12. I noted that “the ‘fountains’ appear again, at the end of the issuing of the waters in Gen 8.2: ‘the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed’.”

Looking a little bit more closely at this last phrase, “the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed” (וַיִּסָּֽכְרוּ מַעְיְנֹת תְּהֹום וַֽאֲרֻבֹּת הַשָּׁמָיִם), I remembered that Anne Kilmer, in her original paper proposing the “gestational” imagery of the Genesis flood, mentions how the word סָגַר is used both in Gen. 7, referring to Noah being “shut in” the ark, and in places like 1 Sam. 1, referring to Hannah’s womb being “closed” (read: her being unable to bear children). Although I haven’t looked that extensively into ideas of ancient Near Eastern anatomy and physiology, we might see the latter passage (1 Sam. 1) as evidence that, in cases of infertility, the “womb” was imagined as being literally closed – that, pardon the explicitness, there was something blocking (סָגַר) the semen from fertilizing the egg.

In light of this, it is perhaps even more relevant that, in the quoted passage from Gen. 8 (“the fountains of the deep…were closed”), the word used for “closed” is סָכַר, a homophonic duplicate of סָגַר. Although it is not explicitly said that the “fountain” of blood is (eventually) “closed”/”shut off” in Leviticus 12, this is certainly the implication; and the womb (=vagina) being imagined as “closed,” in 1 Sam 1 and elsewhere, might show that these are reasonably parallel ideas.

In a paper to be submitted soon, I elaborate on Anne Kilmer’s provocative proposal of the author(s) of the Genesis flood narrative prominently utilizing motifs associated with pregnancy/gestation — the centerpiece of her hypothesis being a correlation between the duration of the flood in Genesis, and the average length of human gestation (270-280 days). I suggest, further, that “beyond the flood period proper and into the intermediate period of the drying up of the waters before Noah’s exit from the ark, we might detect a…connection with the length of postpartum impurity set forth in the childbirth laws of Leviticus 12.”

Up until this point, I’ve considered that there was merely a conceptual parallel between the waters “abating” (from קָלַל) from earth, on one hand, and the cessation of the postpartum bleeding in Lev. 12, on the other. But I just realized that there may be a little more specific (quasi-)linguistic connection between the two texts that I hadn’t noticed before.

In Leviticus 12, an offering is made by a priest on behalf of the new mother, after her bleeding has stopped. Lev. 12.7 reads “[The priest] shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her מְּקֹר of blood” (NRSV). מָקוֹר is translated here as “flow” – used similarly in Leviticus 20 to refer to menstruation – and yet, more literally, it means “fountain.”

Is it possible to see here a connection to the “fountains of the great deep” (מַעְיְנֹת תְּהֹום רַבָּה) that the floodwaters issue from, in the Genesis flood narrative (7.11)? Granted, the word for “fountain” there, מַעְיָן, is not the same word used in Leviticus; and yet the presence of similar terminology in both texts is interesting (the “fountains” appear again, at the end of the issuing of the waters in Gen 8.2: “the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed” [סָכַר]).

Last night, a friend and I were talking about some Arabic linguistic stuff and, in the course of the conversation, he asked me about words for ‘letter’ (as in ‘letter of the alphabet’) in other languages. I first brought up Greek γράμμα, gramma, and γραφή, graphē, after which he told me that the Arabic word for letter is حَرف, ḥarf. I think both of us immediately realized how similar graphē and ḥarf sound. The discussion then shifted to how Greek gamma is often used to translate ḥet (Arabic ḥāʾ) (and vice versa) in ancient texts.

A little digging showed that one of the earliest uses of حَرف for ‘letter’ was by Sībawayh, a Persian grammarian (of Arabic) of the 8th century. A cursory look at the lexicons shows that there was no cognate Persian word at the time. Although we might then logically assume that ḥarf is a loanword from Greek, there’s an even deeper connection between the two words to be explored.

The Arabic word حَرف has a broader semantic range than just ‘letter’, and has cognates in nearly all branches of Semitic. For example, ḥarf also means “sharp edge, cutting edge of a knife or sword” – a definition that we can see as early as Q 22.11. This connects clearly with חֶרֶב, “sword, edge,” a word common in Biblical Hebrew.

The connection with γράφω, to ‘scratch, graze’ (also γραφή, “representation by means of lines”), can be seen even more clearly in texts like Exodus 20.25: “But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones (גָּזִית); for if you use a chisel (חרב) upon it you profane it.” Similar to this, Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, in their derivation of Greek γράφω from Proto-Indo-European *(s)krebh, “scratch, scrape, draw,” cite Iliad 17.599-600, “but the spear of Polydamas had grated the bone’s edge.”

In light of other ancient Semitic cognates such as Ugaritic ḥrb ‘sword’ (and perhaps Akkadian ḫarbu, ‘plow’) we may have here another word to add to the early Indo-Semitic lexical koinē.

This is a preliminary “catalogue” of texts in early Judaism and Christianity (mainly noncanonical) where the dimensions of gigantic angels, demons, or simply monstrous beings are given. This is a work in progress, to which I’ll be adding more material over the next little while. Currently it only contains entries where concrete measurements are given (usually in cubits). It’s also arranged somewhat chronologically, based on the best dating of these texts—although there are some uncertainties (for example, I didn’t quite know where to put the Book of the Watchers, in light of the uncertain textual history of the passage).

In the next post, I’ll be adding rabbinic texts and entries from the ‘merkabah’ literature. I need to find out more about the giant angels in the “Ascension of Moses” (distinct from the Assumption/Testament of Moses?). I might add the giant men in the Gospel of Peter, even though no concrete measurement is given (other than their height extending to the sky).


Og in Deut 3.11 – 9 cubits tall?

“Now only King Og of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites. By the common cubit it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide.” (NRSV)

Beelisah/Belisath in Testament of Judah 3.7 – 12 cubits tall

“And Jacob my father killed Beelisah, the king of all kings, a giant in strength, twelve cubits high.” (Hollander and de Jonge 1985: 190)

The primordial giants in (several recensions) of the Book of the Watchers (1 En 7.2) – 300 or 3,000 cubits tall

Nickelsburg (2001) opts for a reading of 1 En 7.2 that follows the Chronography of Syncellus (9th cent): “And they conceived from them and bore to them great giants. And the giants begat Nephilim, and to the Nephilim were born Elioud. And they were growing in accordance with their greatness.” (2001: 182)

However, here in Codex Panopolitanus (5th/6th cent), the giants’ size is given at 3,000 cubits; and in Ethiopic mss., given as 300 cubits. Black, in his text of 1 En, followed the reading of Panopolitanus, “And they became pregnant by them and bore great giants of three thousand cubits” (28). However, Nickelsburg thinks these readings are secondary glosses (185). The Aramaic texts of the Book of the Watchers from Qumran (4Q201-202) contain virtually nothing of 7.2.

The angels who reveal the Book of Elchasai (Hippolytus, Haer. 9.13.2–3) – 96 miles tall

Hippolytus, in his Refutation of All Heresies (~230 CE), mentions a heretical teacher Alciabiades, who claimed that his ‘book’ of teachings had been divinely revealed:

“It had been revealed by an angel whose height was 24 schoeni—that is 96 miles—and whose girth was 4 schoeni; from shoulder to shoulder he was 6 schoeni; his footprints were three and a half schoeni long—that is fourteen miles—the breadth being one and a half schoenus. With him was a female whose dimensions, he said, accorded with those mentioned, the male being the Son of God and the female was called ‘Holy Spirit.’” (Luttikhuizen in Marjanen/Luomanen 2005: 336)

Beliar in the Questions of Bartholomew 4.13 – 1,600 cubits long

The Questions of Bartholomew is a text (with ‘Gnostic’ hints?) possibly from the 3rd or 4th cent CE. (Elliott, 662). The apostle Bartholomew asks Jesus to reveal to him various “mysteries,” including showing him “the adversary of men.” Beliar is brought up from Hades: “And the length of him was one thousand six hundred cubits and his breadth forty cubits … and his mouth was as the gulf of a precipice, and one of his wings was four-score cubits.” [note: there are textual variants these sizes in the Latin and Slavonic versions]

Adam and Eve in The Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle – 80 cubits (Adam) and 50 cubits (Eve) tall

The Book of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Bartholomew is a Coptic text possibly from the 5th-6th century, and “may be deemed to come from a different cycle of tradition from the Quaestiones Bartholomaei.” (Elliott, 653). Elliott summarizes this text, based on James’ version of a London ms:

“a series of hymns sung in heaven, eight in all, which accompany the reception of Adam and the other holy souls into glory. Adam was eighty cubits high and Eve fifty. They were brought to the Father by Michael. Bartholomew had never seen anything to compare with the beauty and glory of Adam, save that of Jesus.”

The Antichrist in the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 4.30-31 and the (early medieval) Apocalypse of John (Apokalypsis tou Hagiou Ioannou) – uncertain size, although very large

The Apocalypse of Ezra is a Greek text preserved in a fifteenth century manuscript. It is of uncertain date, with the only chronological marker suggested in Charlesworth’s OTP being a possible mention of it in the Canon of Nicephorus (9th cent CE). The Antichrist is described here as having a mouth one cubit in length- and “his teeth are a span long, his fingers like scythes, the soles of his feet two span.”

This line is identical to one that appears in the Greek Apocalypse of John – a text possibly dating to the fifth century CE (Elliott 1993: 684), edited by Tischendorf. Its description of the Antichrist is identical to that of the Apocalypse of Ezra (see Tischendorf, Apocalypses Apocryphae, p. 74).

The eminent scholar of Ethiopian studies/languages Wolf Leslau, in his Comparative Dictionary of Ge’ez, gives the definition of kwannana as to “regulate, rule over, have dominion, govern, judge, pass judgment, pass sentence, plead, convict, condemn, punish…” In discussing the etymological origins of the word, Leslau rejects Grimme’s suggestion (1901) that it from Hebr כנן (‘establish’), as this is a polel stem. He settles for the possibility that it may be taken from “Semitic kwn (Heb. ken, Syr. kawwen ‘erect, admonish’) with reduplicated last radical.”

I’d like to suggest what is, in my view, a better candidate: it is instead taken from חנן. The hithpael of חנן, to “ask for/seek grace, kindness; to plead,”* coheres well with the meaning of takwanana, “plead, press for justice.” The hithpael here merely “[seeks] what the simple stem designates”*: “to show favor/be partial to,” which puts us closer to the idea of “judgment” that most of the meanings of kwannana seem to revolve around—at least those instances in the Hebrew Bible where !nx is used in a context where one figure or one group is favored over another, or is beseeching someone to favor them over another.

Yet all of the occurances of חנן in the Hebrew Bible—if accurate to say that some of them have ‘judicial’ hints—only have connotations of positive judgment. It’s not clear whether any more general judicial connotations can be teased out of this.

Earlier this week, Richard Friedman and Shawna Dolansky posted an article in the Huffington Post examining the passages on homosexuality in the book of Leviticus. As any position on this invariably invites accusations of bias—religious or political, whether one way or the other—before I respond to their arguments, I’d like to offer a caveat, as they did, on my personal leanings.

My main field of study is in ancient Near Eastern culture and texts, with an emphasis on the Hebrew Bible. I am, as Friedman and Dolansky also profess, first and foremost a scholar, not a politician. I am also an atheist who is committed to the idea that the only correct methodology for interpreting ancient texts such as the Bible is in assuming that they are solely the product of human minds—without supernatural inspiration—and that they can only be understood in light of their original historical/cultural contexts.

As my only concern is in recovering the original historical meaning/connotations of the Biblical passages under discussion—Leviticus 18:22 and Lev 20:13—I have no preference as to whether the texts indeed display an anti-homosexual agenda, or whether there is a “way out” that calls for a re-thinking of their meaning, and a “homosexual-friendlier” interpretation (this despite the fact that I am a strong supporter of homosexual rights).

For the sake of background, the two passages from Leviticus are offered in translation by Friedman and Dolansky as follows:

“You shall not lay a male the layings of a woman; it is a to’ebah” (offensive thing)
(Leviticus 18:22).
“And a man who will lay a male the layings of a woman: the two of them have done a to’ebah (offensive thing). They shall be put to death. Their blood is on them”
(Leviticus 20:13).

Their main focus in challenging traditional understandings/translations of these passages centers around the term to’ebah (in original Hebrew, תועבה):

Is this term to’ebah an absolute, meaning that an act that is a to’ebah is wrong in itself and can never be otherwise? Or is the term relative — meaning that something that is a to’ebah to one person may not be offensive to another, or something that is a to’ebah in one culture may not be offensive in another, or something that is a to’ebah in one generation or time period may not be offensive in another — in which case the law may change as people’s perceptions change?

Friedman and Dolansky point to other uses of the term in the Hebrew Bible that suggest that it does in fact have relative meaning—specifically passages that refer to the undesirable or offensive customs of one culture in the eyes of another (for example, Genesis 43:32, “the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is to’ebah to the Egyptians” [note: all subsequent Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version]).

While it is true that most of the occurences of the term in the Hebrew Bible are in contexts in which they refer to characteristically foreign practices (mainly negatively—but also implicitely acceptable to those cultures), there are several things to bear in mind on this: first, to’ebah is almost always used with a modifying preposition that specifies to whom the action or practice is offensive; second, there are significant examples throughout the Hebrew Bible where the only person to whom to’ebah is offensive is God, or where to’ebah refers to general practices that are not characteristic of any particular ethnicity—for example, its use in Deuteronomy 25:16, which follows a list of possible domestic offenses, such as having two different kinds of weights or measures in the home (a usage repeated throughout the book of Proverbs).

However, further attempting to show that to’ebah itself implies “relativity,” Friedman and Dolansky also remind us that laws in Leviticus barring to’ebah actions are violated by the patriarchs themselves elsewhere in the Torah, citing Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister Sarah, a violation of Leviticus 18:9, which prohibits a man from sleeping with his mother or father’s daughter. Thus, according to the authors,

An act or an object that is not a to’ebah can become one, depending on time and circumstances. The word to’ebah does not automatically mean that something is immoral. Depending on the context, the period and the persons involved, it means that it offends some group.

But that Abraham violates Levitical law does nothing to show—as they seem to suggest—that the concept of relativity is embedded in the meaning of the word to’ebah; the example only shows “relativity” in the sense that two biblical books (certainly written by different authors) perhaps do not see eye-to-eye on this issue*—the author of one of which happened to believe that this type of marriage was wrong (even if a later lawgiver or a different culture did not believe such).

Yet having underscored that to’ebah is used in the Bible in contexts of human relativity, they set up for their proposal on the Leviticus passages on homosexuality:

Now, one might respond that the law here is different because it concerns an offensive thing to God — and is therefore not subject to the relativity of human values. But that is actually not the case here. The Bible specifically identifies such laws about things that are divine offenses with the phrase “an offensive thing to the LORD” (to’ebat yhwh). That phrase is not used here in the law about male homosexual acts. It is not one of the laws that are identified as a to’ebah to God!

It is hard to imagine how Friedman and Dolansky, as professional scholars who proclaim to only be after the truth of the matter, could in good faith adopt this line of argument: the phrase “it is an offensive thing to the LORD” (תועבת יהוה אלהיך הוא) appears only a handful a times in the entire Torah, and only in the book of Deuteronomy—this despite its hundreds of laws, the violation of which must implicitly be offensive to God (that is to say, offensive to the various Torah authors’ conception of God), even if not explicitly said to be so. Further, as we mentioned earlier, even the most tedious of domestic disputes, such as having two differing types of weights, are said to be to’ebah to God.

Despite these things, they finally conclude, on the weight of all of the “evidence,” that the prohibition against homosexuality “is not one that is eternal and unchanging,” and that “[t]he prohibition in the Bible applies only so long as male homosexual acts are perceived to be offensive.”

The fallacy at the heart of their arguments is a false dichotomy of an autonomous human sphere of justice and order, and a divine one. This dichotomy does not exist — in the Bible, sexual offenses of the kind homosexuality is, are doubtlessly thought to be violations of God’s created order. Bearing this in mind, whether it is explicitly specified in Biblical texts that a certain offense is undesirable or particularly offensive to humans is irrelevant (which we have argued, however, is an unsustainable interpretation).

Yet Friedman and Dolansky have stumbled near a truth that deserves to be repeated: of course humans are the ultimate judges of what they find to be offensive or distasteful. Of course the God of the universe wouldn’t be concerned with things such as whether humans plant two different types of seed in the same field, or wear clothing of two types of material (both prohibited in Leviticus 19:19), or whether they eat the meat of cows and chickens but not pigs. It is indeed humans who put these rules in the mouth of God.

Of course it is humans alone who believe homosexual acts are offensive. And it is well past the time that we drop this belief. But why do we need the Bible’s permission?


* This, however, is not the only interpretation. See Gershon Hepner, “Abraham’s Incestuous Marriage with Sarah a Violation of the Holiness Code,” Vetus Testamentum 53 (2003): 143-155 for several different proposals as to the two passages’ relationship.

For the time-being, I’ve started posting content mainly on

I’ve actually been there for a couple of months now; but only finally getting around to telling people about it. 😛