On God-ordained, Abortion-inducing Magic Potions and Jealous Husbands Shaming Their Wives in the Bible

What can a faithful, God-fearing man do if he is jealous and suspects that his wife has been unfaithful to him?

Well, if you are an ancient Israelite and if you believe the text of the Bible, (or if you are a modern man who thinks that the Bible’s laws concerning sexuality should be used to legislate issues of sexuality today), then this is what THE LORD ALMIGHTY commands that you do in Num. 5:11-31 (all verses below are from the NRSV):

Num. 5:11: The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Num. 5:12: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him,
Num. 5:13: if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act;
Num. 5:14: if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself;

So basically, if a husband even suspects or, in a paranoid, jealous craze thinks that his wife has been unfaithful to him…even if she has not “defiled herself”, the jealous husband can take action against his wife. And once you read what that action is, you’ll be shocked.

Num. 5:15: then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
Num. 5:16: Then the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD;
Num. 5:17: the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water.

So the woman is ordered to sit before the priest, and the priest begins creating a potion, of which one of the ingredients is the dust of the floor of the desert tabernacle.

Thus, so far, if you’re a woman, and your husband thinks you’ve cheated on him, you’re going to have to drink some dirty floor water. I wonder what else goes into this lovely potion?

Num. 5:18: The priest shall set the woman before the LORD, dishevel the woman’s hair,

So take that! The priest messes up your hair. And why? Because your jealous husband is accusing you of being a slut and you are to be shamed even if you are not guilty. But wait, it gets worse. Let’s see what the LORD GOD instructs Israel to do next in this trial.

Num. 5:18 con’t: and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse.

I’m guessing the “water of bitterness that brings the curse” is bitter because of all the foot-trampled dust in the bowl of water she’s about to drink.

But if you’re wondering, “Hey, I thought you said there was some magical element to this process”, this is where it gets weird.

Num. 5:19: Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, “If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse.
Num. 5:20: But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you,”
Num. 5:21: —let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman—“the LORD make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge;

Delightful. If you’ve cheated, drinking this dirt water will make you miscarry. That’s what it says. And why? Because to God every life matters, even the unborn in the womb, who were conceived through means that were less than ideal? God loves every unborn child??

No. At least that’s not what the text says. Read it.

God wants the woman who had been suspected of cheating by her jealous husband to drink a bowl of holy water that contains dust from the floor of the tabernacle, and if she’s guilty, that is, she cheated and is now pregnant, drinking the magic dirt potion and pronouncing the curse will cause her to abort the child! This is what GOD IS INSTRUCTING: that the suspected unfaithful woman orally consume a concoction that will induce an abortion if she is pregnant.

Tell me again how much God hates abortion. Here, he’s giving the recipe for a drink that induces one.

But wait, there’s more…

Num. 5:22: now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.”
Num. 5:23 Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness.

Now we’re dealing with straight up magic! SYMPATHETIC MAGIC! Apparently, it wasn’t enough to pronounce the curse over the bitter potion. God instructs the priest to write down the miscarriage curse, and then WASH IT INTO THE WATER. We are dealing here with the vestiges of sympathetic magic. The priest has to write down the curse, and then brush it into the drink to be consumed, as if just saying a prayer aloud over your meal is enough. Why not write down the grace you say before your meal and sprinkle it on your salad?

This is sympathetic magic, just like the Egyptian execration texts (which, btw, contain the earliest mention of Jerusalem) that are motivated by the belief in the numinous power of writing. The writing activates the magic potion that causes the woman to abort if she is guilty.

The accused woman (remember, she has not been found guilty, this is her TRIAL!) has to drink dirt water containing the remains of ink that was used to write an magic abortion curse. And IF she drinks this bitter water, and IF she’s cheated, the magic potion will cause her to spontaneously abort the child. Again, tell me how much God loves the unborn (even in cases of rape, incest, and adultery) and hates abortion. Here, God is mandating–this is God’s instruction to all Israel–mandating that a woman drink a magic potion that will bring about an abortion if she is pregnant.

And before you start criticizing this interpretation because it doesn’t fit with what you already believe, note that God’s view of the unborn in Num. 5 is consistent with the Bible’s other teachings about unborn and even newborn children.

For instance, in Exod. 21:22-23, the miscarriage of a child following an assault on its mother is not treated as a murder of a human punishable by death, but as an assault against a man’s wife that is punishable by a fine paid to the woman’s husband. Or, note that in Num. 3:15-16, only males one month of age and older are counted as people in the roll. Children under one month of age don’t count. This is consistent with and corroborated by the equivalency prices of various aged individuals in Lev. 27:2-8, where Lev. 27:6 says that children under one month of age require no equivalency, as they do not yet count as people! Again, the biblical view concerning the unborn is consistent with the text of Num. 5, which is clearly calling for a drink to be drunk that will supposedly induce a miscarriage.

Num. 5:24: He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain.

Again, if a husband makes an accusation against his wife, the very trial to determine whether the accusation is even true should involve the magical, ancient equivalent of a morning after pill.

Num. 5:25: The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall elevate the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar;
Num. 5:26: and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and turn it into smoke on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water.
Num. 5:27: When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse (ארר) shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb (בטן) shall discharge (צבה), her uterus (ירך) drop (נפל), and the woman shall become an execration (אלה, or “curse”) among her people.
Num. 5:28: But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.

Let’s address some technical things here. This is ABSOLUTELY describing an abortion or chemically induced (remember, she is drinking a potion after all) spontaneous miscarriage. I don’t care what “gotquestions.org” tells you, while the term ירך (yrk) in Num. 5:21 and 27 is the Hebrew word for the “upper thigh”, it is also the common Hebrew euphemism for things dealing with the genitals, like in Gen 46:26, where the offspring of Jacob are referred to as the “ones going out of his thigh” (יצאי ירכו) (cf. Exod. 1:5). The same expression (יצאי ירכו) is used of Gideon in Judg. 8:30.

The same word, ירך (yrk), is also used in the incredibly awkward vow taken by Abraham’s servant mentioned in Gen 24:2 and 24:9 in which Abraham tells his servant to “put your hand under my ‘thigh'” (ירכי) as a fertility vow that he will only choose a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac, from among his own people and not from the Canaanites. Note that Israel (Jabob) demands the same vow of Joseph not to bury him in Egypt in Gen. 47:29. This is a very different kind of “handshake”, and yet, there it is in the Bible.

Likewise, the word בטן (btn, or “belly”) is a euphemism for “womb”, as in Prov. 31:2, in which the “son of my womb” is expressed as בר–בטני (bar-bitni), using בטן (btn) as a clear reference to the womb. In Ecc. 11:5, בטן (btn) is used in the expression “how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb (בטן)”, obviously referencing the breath of life that ultimately comes to a fetus at birth. In Deut. 28:4, when the text says, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb (בטנך)”, it is not talking about that which comes forth from the stomach (in either direction), but from a woman’s womb. Judg. 16:17, Ps. 22:11, Job 1:21 (“naked I came from my mother’s womb (בטן)”) and countless other passages make clear that בטן (btn) in Num. 5:27 is not an upset stomach or a simple tummy malady that came from drinking some expired dirty foot water, it is an explicit reference to a woman’s womb.

So the word בטן (btn) here means a womb swelling or distending (צבה) in distress (not a stomach), and because it is in parallel with the word ירך (yrk) in Num 5:27, ירך (yrk) does not simply mean “thigh” (as if “thigh dropping” made any sense at all). Rather, ירך (yrk) here is another reference to the womb, and the “dropping” or “falling” (נפל) of this womb is an unmistakable reference to a miscarriage. In this regard, the NIV (2011) translation of “miscarry” in Num. 5:21 and 5:27 gets it right.

And if the womb, or more technically, the uterus, “falls” (נפל), this can only be speaking about one thing: a potion-induced spontaneous miscarriage (i.e., abortion) to purge the unfaithful woman of the child that was not conceived by her husband.

And remember, THIS IS COMMANDED BY GOD in Num. 5. It is God’s prescribed means of discerning whether or not the woman has cheated on her husband: if she has, the fetus is aborted and the wife is presumably executed following the punishment prescribed in Lev. 20:10; if she has not, nothing happens.

The punishment for the crime is clear. Not only is the woman exposed as an adulterer and killed for her capital offense (cf. Lev. 20:10), but so too is the potential child’s life terminated in the process. And this, too, is consistent with the activity of God described elsewhere in the Bible, for God is described as having no problem whatsoever with killing an innocent child because he was brought about by illicit sexual activity like adultery. In fact, this is precisely what happened in 2 Sam 12:14, when through the prophet Nathan, God tells David, who conceived a child with Bathsheba, that, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.” And of course, while the child is completely innocent–the product of an adulterous relationship between David and Bathsheba–GOD KILLS THE CHILD in 2 Sam. 12:18-19, despite the fact that David begged God for mercy. Thus, this ritual is a double punishment for both woman and child, which is completely consistent with the commands and actions of God throughout the Bible. And if the child from an illicit union does happen to survive, Deut. 23:2 (HB 23:3) says this child is banned from the assembly: “Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” Thus, even if they do survive birth, God’s position is to ostracize these children completely from his assembly!

And yes, this passage involves sympathetic magic in the form of a potion containing a written curse. The potion of dirty water and ink is not a likely abortifacient. But the point is that they believed in the magic. They believed that imbibing the written curse would reveal the truth, and they believed this divining process to be prescribed by God himself. Whether or not it actually worked is another question. All we know is that Israelite and later Jewish women were to be subjected to this humiliating, presumably abortive process in order to prove their innocence. Again, drinking holy water with dirt in it doesn’t necessarily terminate or prevent a pregnancy. It is the presence of the written curse that makes this a magic potion, again, one prescribed by God.

So ladies, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you get to have your hair intentionally disheveled by a priest and you get to drink dirty foot water with the ink of an abortion-inducing magic curse in it. And then, if you’re innocent, you’ll be immune to the magic potion, and able to return to the loving arms of your jealous husband and conceive children for him. That’s if you’re INNOCENT!

Num. 5:29: This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself,
Num. 5:30: or when a spirit of jealousy comes on a man and he is jealous of his wife;

Don’t miss that last part. When she has cheated OR when a “spirit of jealousy” comes over the husband, she must endure the humiliating, abortion-inducing trial just to prove she’s innocent.

Num. 5:30 con’t: then he shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall apply this entire law to her.

And just in case you think there is some punishment for the husband for falsely accusing a wife who survives this humiliation and pain, read the last verse and think again.

Num. 5:31: The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.

Let me repeat that last verse. If the woman is INNOCENT, and her husband FALSELY ACCUSES her, read it with me: “THE MAN SHALL BE FREE FROM INIQUITY, BUT THE WOMAN SHALL BEAR HER INIQUITY.” The husband pays no penalty for the false accusation. His wife, on the other hand, is humiliated, and all because he had a “spirit of jealousy”.

As shameful as it is, I can think of no better summary–no better motto or slogan–for the treatment of women in antiquity (including in the Bible) than Num. 5:31:

“The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.”

Thus reads the Word of the merciful Lord (who apparently doesn’t hate abortion quite as much as the right wing conservatives thinks he does).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I cannot comprehend how any woman remained in this religion. Then I think to myself, “What choice did they have? They were chattel. And this is what happened to them when they were INNOCENT!

And let us also remember, this is the same God to whom Jesus prayed, and that Christians believe Jesus to be. So please dispense with the whole, “This isn’t applicable to us Christians anymore. This doesn’t count. We don’t have to deal with this because the Old Testament was nailed to the cross, and we live under grace, not the law” argument, because it’s the same God who sent Jesus, the same religious tradition whose God created the universe and established the very expectation of a Messiah, and the same Jesus who said in Matt. 5:18:

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Christians can’t claim that they can just sweep passages like these under the rug and act like they never happened or that they don’t tell us something about the nature of God because he’s the same God who told Moses to establish this practice. The same God who gave you Ps. 23 gave you Num. 5:11-31.

This is why we (men) must make every effort to lift up women, encourage them, promote them, and beg their forgiveness for the millennia of oppression we’ve imposed upon them–modern day, institutional oppression that is found in the very laws of this country that were (and many still are) rooted in the laws of this book – the same book and the same laws that some religious fundamentalists are STILL attempting to impose upon our secular government and the citizenry of this nation.

Where is NonStampCollector when you need him? This needs to be a video.


I welcome comments and would love to see someone attempt an apologetic defense of this passage. I’m particularly looking for people who will claim that this is a “poor exegesis” (which usually means a non-apologetic exegesis with which you don’t agree), or “out of context“, or that my comments don’t count because I don’t believe that this text is “authoritative” or “inspired” or because I’m “not a Christian” or because I’m “an agnostic” or “an atheist”, because those anti-intellectual excuses always betray that the one making them simply has no reasoned response, only a desire not to listen to the obvious anymore.

Robert Cargill interviewed by Iowa’s KCRG News on Same-sex Marriage

Dr. Robert R. Cargill, Asst. Professor of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Iowa, appears on KCRG-TV9 to discuss same-sex marriage.I appeared on KCRG news in eastern Iowa yesterday evening to discuss the contents of an op-ed piece I co-authored in June 2013 for the Des Moines Register with Iowa State’s Dr. Hector Avalos and Northern Iowa’s Dr. Kenneth Atkinson entitled “Iowa View: 1 man, 1 woman isn’t the Bible’s only marriage view”. (The link to the article at the Des Moines Register is broken, but there is a .pdf copy of the article on my Academic.edu page that you can download and read.)

Meredith Bennett-Smith of the Huffington Post subsequently wrote an article about the op-ed piece entitled, “Biblical Marriage Not Defined Simply As One Man, One Woman: Iowa Religious Scholars’ Op-Ed“.

Following the recent SCOTUS ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, the article has been receiving attention in the news again. And as Iowa was one of the first states to legalize same-sex marriage, and as we are the first stop for candidates hoping to receive their parties’ nomination for President, and because same-sex marriage will (unfortunately) still be an issue in the campaign, Brady Smith at KCRG did the story. The story featured a counter point of view from Bob Vander Plaats of The Family Leader.

Link to the KCRG story here.

Robert Cargill discusses the Ten Commandments on “Talk of Iowa” Jan 22, 2015 at 10am

Iowa Public Radio mugI shall be on Iowa Public Radio‘s “Talk of Iowa” today (Jan 22, 2015) at 10am (central) to discuss the Ten Commandments as literature, religious law, and political symbol with host Charity Nebbe.

We are scheduled to discuss the history of the commandments, what they (actually) are, what they mean, how they are interpreted today, the ethics of the Ten Commandments, and how they are used as a symbol in politics today, especially in ongoing debates about church and state relations.

Please tune to your local IPR News station, or listen live online.

Dr. Robert R. Cargill is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, specializing in Second Temple Judaism and the rise of early Christianity.


UPDATE: You can read about the interview here, or listen to an mp3 of the broadcast here.

Don’t Miss “Surviving Exodus” on all Discovery networks, Thurs, Dec 4, 2014 at 8/7c

Surviving Exodus on Discovery ChannelIf we were to set aside the fact that there is no archaeological evidence of the Exodus (early or late), and that there are internal chronological discrepancies within the biblical accounts of the Exodus, we can still ask the question: what would it be like to experience the literary account of the Ten Plagues?

The answer to this question will be explored on the new documentary special, “Surviving Exodus“, which will air Thursday, December 4, 2014 at 8pm eastern / 7pm central on all Discovery network channels simultaneously. That’s right, Discovery Channel, Science, The Learning Channel, Animal Planet, American Heroes Channel, and Investigation Discovery will all be airing the documentary simultaneously at 8/7c.

Discovery’s description reads as follows:

“Exodus is one of the greatest stories of all time, and Ridley Scott turned it into an epic movie. Now Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and a team of experts and scientists are going to experience the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea first hand.”

Others appearing in the show include Terry Schappert, Dave Salmoni, Hakeem Oluseyi, and yours truly.

In fact, Science will be airing episodes of a previous documentary series I worked with, “Biblical Mysteries Explained”, before and after “Surviving Exodus”.

7:00 PM – Biblical Mysteries Explained: Exodus
Biblical Mysteries Explained examines the Exodus. Is there any truth to this tale of plagues, parting of the Red Sea, and a man named Moses? New scientific theories will be examined that support the extraordinary tale of Exodus.

8:00 PM – Surviving Exodus

9:00 PM – Biblical Mysteries Explained: Lost Gospels
Biblical Mysteries Explained examines the lost books of the Bible. We’ll travel from the desert of Egypt to the labs of the Smithsonian Institution to uncover the secrets of the banned gospels of Mary Magdalene, Peter the Apostle, and Judas Iscariot.

10:00 PM – Biblical Mysteries Explained: Sodom and Gomorrah
Biblical Mysteries Explained examines the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Could their destruction be linked to evidence of an ancient asteroid strike?

So if you were thinking to yourself, “Man, I could go for 4 hours of Cargill on TV tonight,” you’re in luck. ;-)

It’s a fun concept. Tune in and watch.

Review of “The Lost Gospel” by Jacobovici and Wilson

Except it’s NOT lost, and it’s NOT a gospel.

Since I’ve already been bombarded with questions from students and readers about the latest claims made by Simcha Jacobovici and Dr. Barrie Wilson in their new book, The Lost Gospel, I thought I’d post a quick response to this latest round of absurdity by repeating and re-posting some of the comments I made over a year ago in a post announcing my spring 2014 University of Iowa course in Syriac – a post that dealt (almost prophetically) with many of the claims made in this new book.

You can read most of Mr. Jacobovici and Dr. Wilson’s book online (and search for the parts that interest you) at Google Books here.

Mr. Jacobovici’s new book essentially claims that the 6th century CE Syriac language version of a Greek pseudepigraphical story entitled  Joseph and Aseneth (which I discuss in my class “Banned from the Bible: Intro to Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha” course at Iowa) is a “gospel”, and should be read allegorically, but only after replacing every mention of Joseph with the name “Jesus”, and every mention of Aseneth with “Mary Magdalene”.

Now, if your first thought is, “WTF? This is just as problematic as the Bible Code dude, who attempts to read every passage in the Bible as an allegory for every modern event, from the Invasion of Iraq, to the Wall Street Crash, to President Obama’s election, etc.”, then you’re right on the money. It is precisely that silly – same interpretative technique, same lack of evidence, same wishful speculation. The same guy who claims to have discovered the route of the Exodus, Atlantis, the nails of the cross, the tomb of Jesus (with Jesus still in it!), and another tomb of people celebrating Jesus’ resurrection (with Jesus still in the other tomb), has now written a book claiming “evidence” that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, by swapping out the names of Joseph and Aseneth and replacing them with the names of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

By that same allegorical logic, you could swap out the names of Samson and Delilah and claim that Mary Magdalene cut Jesus’ hair. Or swap out Adam and Eve and conclude that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were the primordial couple. Or read David and Bathsheba allegorically and end up with Jesus having a son named Solomon, who is guarded by the Priory of Sion, and…well, you get the picture.

There is a reason that the scholars of the world are not paying any attention to this latest so-called “discovery”: there’s nothing there.

First things first: Mr. Jacobovici’s The Lost Gospel is neither “lost” nor a “gospel”. Scholars have known about and have studied the Syriac version of Joseph and Aseneth, located in the British Museum, for a very long time. Written by an unknown West Syriac writer dating to the late 6th century CE, the author composed an Ecclesiastical History that included a translation of part of a lost Ecclesiastical History by the Greek writer Zacharias Rhetor. The work is commonly referred to as Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor. This Syriac text is of interest because books 1-2 of Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor contain a Syriac translation of the History of Joseph and Aseneth, which was often skipped in English translations because it is already known in the Greek. Keep in mind that the story of Joseph and Aseneth has been well documented over the years, both by my adviser at Pepperdine, Dr. Randy Chesnutt, who wrote his dissertation on Joseph and Aseneth, and by my Duke colleague Dr. Mark Goodacre, who has edited an Aseneth Home Page now for years.

Second: We already know why the story of Joseph and Aseneth was written. The story of Joseph and Aseneth is a well-known, ancient apocryphal expansion of the biblical account of the patriarch Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, the daughter of the Egyptian Priest of On (Heliopolis). The story of Joseph and Aseneth was composed to solve the later theological problem of Joseph, a Hebrew patriarch, marrying a non-Israelite woman (Aseneth), in direct violation of biblical commands (albeit later commands) that prohibit Hebrews/Jews/Israelites from intermarrying with other peoples, for instance, those found in Deut. 7:3; Josh. 23:12; Ezra 9; and Neh. 13:25. As prohibiting intermarriage became a bigger and bigger deal in the Second Temple period, many Jews began to see the problem with Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, as Joseph was said to have not only married an Egyptian, but the daughter of an Egyptian priest!

In Gen. 41:45, the Bible says that Pharaoh gave Joseph one of his daughters as a wife:

“Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him Aseneth daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, as his wife.”

Gen. 41:50-52 further says that Joseph’s wife Aseneth bore him two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim, whence we get the tribal names:

“Before the years of famine came, Joseph had two sons, whom Aseneth daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, ‘For,’ he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.’ The second he named Ephraim, ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.'”

As one might imagine, this became a problem for Jews in the Second Temple period. Perhaps many asked, “How can God prohibit us from marrying women of another race when our patriarch Joseph did so?”

Enter Joseph and Aseneth, which was composed like so many pseudepigraphical stories of the Second Temple period and early Christian centuries to “explain away” the problem. We find these same apologetic techniques used in early Rabbinic writings as well as the Aramaic Targums, which clean up the stories of the Jewish Patriarchs by explaining away anything that might be perceived as a misdeed.

The popular ancient love story of Joseph and Aseneth serves an apology explaining why a righteous Israelite patriarch like Joseph would marry the daughter of a pagan priest. And the solution is a simple one: Joseph and Aseneth explains that Joseph’s wife, Aseneth, first converted to monotheism and belief in the Hebrew God before she married Joseph (a detail the Bible obviously “left out”). See? All better.

And that’s basically it. The biblical account says Joseph married an Egyptian woman, so Joseph and Aseneth explains that Aseneth first converted, and therefore was eligible to be married to Joseph.

Third: The Syriac account of Joseph and Aseneth in Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor does not talk about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and simply substituting names does not make it so. However, the Syriac account is still noteworthy because just prior to his retelling of the story, the author writes a letter to a certain Moses of Ingila, asking for a translation and whether there is a deeper allegorical (θεωρία) interpretation of the story beyond the literal narrative. Some have argued that Moses of Ingila’s response attempts to interpret the story of Joseph and Aseneth allegorically, as a gnostic union of the soul (represented by Aseneth) with the divine Logos/Word of God (represented by Joseph). Likewise, there have been many who have argued (largely unsuccessfully) that the text is an allegory, with Joseph symbolizing anything from Jesus to the nation of Israel.

For her part, some scholars have understood Aseneth’s description as the “Bride of God” in 4:2 as representative of a redeemed Israel, or of the matriarchs of the Bible, or perhaps even the practice of voluntary virginity, which was increasingly popular in Christian circles in the late first and early second centuries. The simplest answer is that one who is now a “bride of God” is one who is a “daughter of God”, i.e., “a Hebrew” (and no longer an Egyptian, at least for religious purposes), in much the same way that a “son of God” represents any “child of God” in the Hebrew text. Keep in mind that there are many “sons of God” mentioned in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that appear to be referring to heavenly beings, from Job 1:6: וַיְהִי הַיּוֹם וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים לְהִתְיַצֵּב עַל-יְהוָה (“Now it fell upon a day, that the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD”), to Job 38:7: וַיָּרִיעוּ כָּל-בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים (“and all the sons of God shouted”), to Gen 6:2: וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי-הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה (“and the sons of God saw the daughters of men, because they were fair”), as well as in the New Testament, when human peacemakers come to be called “sons of God”: μακάριοι οἱ εἰρηνοποιοί ὅτι αὐτοὶ υἱοὶ θεοῦ κληθήσονται (“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God“).

The use of the phrase “son(s) of God” in the Old and New Testaments does not automatically mean “INSERT JESUS’ NAME HERE”.

Fourth: Simply employing symbolism does not an allegory make. So while some scholars have argued that the text is a distinctly Christian text, most scholars conclude that the text is distinctly Jewish, while allowing that the text may possess some evidence of later Christian tampering and reworking, especially those parts of the text involving Eucharistic interpretations of the meal of bread and wine found within the story. However, the attempts by multiple scholars (cf. Chap 1 of Chesnutt) to interpret the story allegorically ultimately fall short, as any allegorical interpretation must be highly selective of particular details, and therefore necessarily ignores many other details within the story that simply do not fit the supposed allegory, relegating claims of allegory to the realm of wishful thinking. The story must ultimately be read as what it is: a Jewish narrative apology for the patriarch Joseph’s mixed marriage, with possible, occasional Christian reworking.

Keep in mind that there are all kinds of allegorical interpretations of biblical texts in the first centuries BCE and CE. Chapter 15 of the pseudepigraphical Epistle of Barnabas offers an allegorical interpretation of the Creation account from Gen. 1. The first century Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria also offered allegorical interpretations of biblical events and figures (including Joseph). The difference here is that Mr. Jacobovici and Dr. Wilson are claiming an allegorical interpretation of a pseudepigraphical text, as if the text of Joseph and Aseneth were itself canonical.

When all is said and done, Mr. Jacobovici and Dr. Wilson offer an allegorical interpretation of a Syriac translation of a (likely originally Greek) pseudepigraphical text, written to “clean up” the fact that the Hebrew patriarch Joseph married a non-Hebrew.

Fifth: The text used as “proof” of Jesus’ marriage dates to the 6th century CE, and only hopeful speculation pushes the Syriac version of this text back to earlier centuries. The fact that the Syriac version is composed long after an established minority tradition that depicts Jesus as Mary Magdalene’s κοινωνός, or “companion” in the Gospel of Philip, or the Gospel of Mary, which states that Jesus “loved [Mary] more than the rest of woman” – a tradition that some modern interpreters and fiction writers have argued is evidence that the Mary mentioned is Mary Magdalene, and that the two were married – does not provide “evidence” that Jesus and Mary were married. It simply means that some later author was making a contribution to this tradition. BUT, because it is written after the others, it CANNOT be used as “evidence” of ANYTHING but a continuation of the already late tradition that Jesus was married.

It would be like citing a favorable book review written by followers of Simcha Jacobovici three centuries after the publication of The Lost Gospel, and citing it as evidence that Simcha knows what he’s talking about. Such a review would contribute nothing to Simcha’s credibility, but would only serve as evidence that someone much later liked the book. Similarly, the Syriac version is a translation of a pseudepigraphical apology, upon which is forced Mr. Jacobovici’s allegorical translation. This is evidence of nothing.

Sixth: (And please remember I originally wrote the following over a year ago.) Anyone attempting an allegorical interpretation of Joseph and Aseneth, and arguing for anything other than an apology for why Joseph married a non-Israelite (and the daughter of a pagan priest at that), is grasping at speculative straws, and attempting (like the author of the Syriac text) to stretch the text into something it was never designed to do. Whether it be a gnostic interpretation of the text, or an attempt to argue something truly ridiculous and sensational, for example, that the story somehow represents Jesus and Mary Magdalene (as “Bride of God”, requiring an appeal to separate Gnostic texts like Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip), and that this allegorical representation from six centuries after the life of Jesus, relying on the weaving together of multiple Gnostic texts composed a full century after the life of Jesus, somehow provides “evidence” of aspects of Jesus’ actual, historical lifesuch allegorical interpretations are the height of unsubstantiated speculation.

My teacher, Randall Chesnutt, said it best in his conclusion:

“While no one doubts the presence of symbolic and allegorical elements, the trend now is toward a method which recognizes those elements of symbolism and allegory which are straightforward and explicit in the narrative of Aseneth’s conversion rather than those supposed to be encoded deep within it.” (Chesnutt, From Death to Life, p. 45).

Finally: The book’s methodology is highly problematic. Scholars won’t reject Mr. Jacobovici’s findings because of some “theological trauma” or a confessional, apologetic desire to preserve the Jesus described in the Bible. I’m an agnostic. I have no dog in the fight of whether Jesus was married or not. He could be married and have 4 kids like me and I wouldn’t care. The problem is not a theological one, it is one of scholarship, methodology, and the (mis)use of evidence. Scholars won’t reject Mr. Jacobovici’s claims because they want to defend Christianity, scholars will reject Mr. Jacobovici’s speculations because he engages in circular reasoning, lacks evidence, breaks any number of rules of textual criticism, and engages in what I’ve described in the past as “speculation wrapped in hearsay couched in conspiracy masquerading as science ensconced in sensationalism slathered with misinformation” – all of which is designed to sell books and get viewers to watch the accompanying documentary in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

So in my professional opinion as an archaeologist and a tenure-track professor at a major research university (GO HAWKS!), I must recommend against this book. Just don’t bother. Were it a Dan Brown-esque novel, positing a speculative interpretation about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene utilizing a fanciful allegorical interpretation of a document written six centuries after Jesus came and went, I’d say buy it and have fun. Fiction can be so much fun! But the problem with this book is that Mr. Jacobovici believes what he’s writing. He believes his interpretation is true. He wants it to be true. And that hovers somewhere between comical and scary.

I HAVE read the book and it really is worse than you might imagine. The text in question is neither “lost” nor a “gospel”, and the allegorical reading of the Syriac version of Joseph and Aseneth is little more than a wishful hope that it would be so, employing little more than name substitution and a desire to prove The DaVinci Code true. Absolutely no scholar will take this book seriously. It will not change Christianity. It will not change biblical scholarship. It’s just Simcha doing what he does best: direct-to-the-public pseudoscholarship just in time for Christmas.

Prof. Robert Cargill on Iowa Public Radio to Discuss Issues of Separation of Church and State in Iowa

I’ve been invited to discuss matters pertaining to the separation of church and state on Iowa Public Radio‘s “River to River” with Ben Kieffer tomorrow, Monday, June 2, 2014, from noon to 1pm.

Iowa Public Radio mugWe’ll likely be discussing the recent proclamation signed by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, as well as the use of public Iowa funds to build a Christian themed park in Sioux City, recent court decisions dealing with prayer at government meetings, and my favorite, the placement of religious monuments on government lands and buildings.

You can listen to the discussion live by clicking on the LISTEN LIVE button on the top of the page here.

Tune in tomorrow. Should be fun.

So much for the separation of church and state in Iowa

HOW IN THE NAME OF IOWA could Governor Branstad sign this? How is the even a part of the Governor’s duties?

The governor of our great state of Iowa recently signed a proclamation calling on the people of the state of Iowa to pray and fast and repent according to the text of the Bible.

Again, we’re not talking about the Governor of Kansas or Kentucky, but of Iowa.

Here’s the video.

Hemant Mehta has offered his thoughts on the matter, but allow me to offer a few of my own.

Proclamation signed and issued by the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, inviting Iowans to pray, fast, repent, and 'come together" under the teachings of the deity YHWH so that the deity will "heal our land".

Proclamation signed and issued by the Governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, inviting Iowans to pray, fast, repent, and unite (lit. “come together”) under the teachings of the deity YHWH so that the deity will “heal our land”.

The Christian equivalent of Sharia law is alive and festering in fundamentalist circles, and those who support the idea of baptizing of our civic administration are scheming increasingly creative ways to sneak religious language and practices into our supposedly secular government.

Read the text of the proclamation here. And note the last paragraph:

“NOW, THEREFORE, I, Terry E Branstad, as Governor of the State of Iowa, do hereby invite all Iowans who choose to join in the thoughtful prayer and humble repentance according to II Chronicles 7:14 in favor of our state and nation to come together on July 14, 2014.”

Now I know that some will come to the governor’s defense and point out that this is a non-binding “proclamation” and not a law, and that the text of the proclamation merely “invites” Iowans to pray instead of “requiring” them to do so. But this is still the Governor of a state calling on residents to pray and repent “according to II Chronicles 7:14”.

And it is the second part of the above line – “according to II Chronicles 7:14” – that should give us an even greater pause. To be sure, it is a problem for the governor of a state to call on his residents (many of whom are not Jewish or Christian) to participate in acts of devotion and worship to the god YHWH. But when we examine the actual context of the verse invoked in this proclamation, it is all the more troublesome.

The Governor of Iowa issued an executive proclamation specifically employing the text of 2 Chronicles 7:14 to call Iowans to a day of prayer to the Hebrew god YHWH. But please also note that he called on Iowans to participate in “humble repentance according to II Chronicles 7:14.”

And to what precisely are Iowans repenting? “Repentance” implies the leaving behind of our present ways and the turning or returning to the teachings of the god YHWH. Thus, Governor Branstad just signed a proclamation calling on Iowans to return to the specific teachings of a specific god, so that he will bless our land.

What is troubling is that the context of the verse invoked in his proclamation – that of  2 Chronicles 7:12-18 – specifically states that the reason we should we pray to this deity and do what the deity has commanded, is so the deity will “forgive our sin and heal our land.”

Read it for yourself:

2 Chr. 7:12 Then the LORD appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice.
2 Chr. 7:13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people,
2 Chr. 7:14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
2 Chr. 7:15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.
2 Chr. 7:16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house so that my name may be there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.
2 Chr. 7:17 As for you, if you walk before me, as your father David walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my ordinances,
2 Chr. 7:18 then I will establish your royal throne, as I made covenant with your father David saying, ‘You shall never lack a successor to rule over Israel.’

Does the Governor of Iowa believe that prayer, fasting, and repentance to the teaching of YHWH will “heal the land” of Iowa? Perhaps he does. Should the Governor of Iowa be calling on the residents of Iowa to participate with him in this act of sympathetic magic? Absolutely not!

What is all the more troubling is what specifically the verse invoked in the proclamation is calling upon King Solomon to do. Again, context is key in reading the Bible!

Did the Governor realize that the context of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the building of the temple to YHWH in Jerusalem?

Again, let us look at the verses that appear on either side of 2 Chronicles 7:14:

2 Chr. 7:11 Thus Solomon finished the house of the LORD and the king’s house; all that Solomon had planned to do in the house of the LORD and in his own house he successfully accomplished.
2Chr. 7:12 Then the LORD appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice.
2Chr. 7:13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people,
2Chr. 7:14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
2Chr. 7:15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.
2Chr. 7:16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house so that my name may be there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.

Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem now stands where the Temple in Jerusalem once stood.

Did Governor Branstad realize that this Temple to YHWH in Jerusalem no longer stands, that the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE, and that the Islamic Dome of the Rock stands where the Jewish Temple once stood?

Does the Governor of Iowa realize that invoking the text of 2 Chronicles 7 in an executive proclamation may be seen my some many as a call to re-establish the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which would necessarily involve the destruction of the third holiest shrine in Islam, the Dome of the Rock?

Because this is precisely what many fundamentalist Christian and Jewish organizations want to do: rebuild the Third Temple! And this becomes a much bigger problem when Governor Branstad employs a verse that is regularly employed by religious zealots to call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and the re-establishment of the Temple to YHWH in Jerusalem.

Yet, this is precisely the context of the passage referred to in the proclamation! Is Governor Branstad calling on Iowans to “pray” to YHWH, and to “repent” to his teachings so that the Temple that YHWH has “chosen and consecrated” will stand forever?? That’s what the verse implies. That is the verse’s context.


This is a clear violation of the principle of separation of church and state, which was first introduced by Thomas Jefferson and made abundantly clear in our US Treaty of Tripoli, which spells out explicitly that:

The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion“.

I discuss this further in posts responding to claims that the United States was “founded as a Christian nation.”

Let me say this once more clearly:

We were NOT founded as a Christian nation. We we founded as a secular nation by many Christians, but we were NOT founded as a “Christian nation”.

And our Founders had the foresight to see the problems that would arise should the civic government ever engage in favoring one religion over another. This is because the same First Amendment that allows the freedom of religion for Christians also allows the worship of other gods – a clear violation of the very teachings not to worship other gods referred to in 2 Chronicles 7:14! (Cf. Deut. 13:12-16; Exod. 20:3-5; Matt. 4:10; Matt. 22:36-38; 1 Cor. 10:14) The hypocrisy is palpable.

Invoking the First Amendment of the US Constitution to defend the signing of an executive proclamation citing 2 Chronicles 7:14 is like invoking the Second Amendment in issuing a proclamation calling for the confiscation of all firearms. It is the epitome of irony.

Allow me to offer a parallel example from a different religion to demonstrate my point that this is not only a violation of the principle of separation of church and state, but why so many Iowans may have such a strong reaction to the Governor’s involvement with this particular religious decree.

What if a Fundamentalist Islamic group, let’s say, the Islamic Family Leader, invoked the same First Amendment of the US Constitution to ask the Governor of Iowa to issue a non-binding proclamation that called Iowans to repentance to God and cited Qur’an Sura 9:3:

So if you repent, that is best for you; but if you turn away – then know that you will not cause failure to God. And give tidings to those who disbelieve of a painful punishment.

or Qur’an Sura 9:5(b):

But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah (alms), let them [go] on their way. Indeed, God is Forgiving and Merciful.”

Simple enough, right? Same basic message of 2 Chron. 7:14: beautiful holy verses calling on Iowans to “repent” so as not to incur the wrath of God.

So what if Governor Branstad issued a similar non-binding proclamation that invoked these Qur’anic verses? My guess is that this would anger some in the Christian community, who might begin asking questions about the separation of church and state.

And of course, those objecting might actually go and read the larger context of the Qur’anic verses cited in the Governor’s proclamation, and would find that the proclamation deliberately neglected the context of the words coming just before the verse cited in the proclamation, Sura 9:5a:

And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists (which likely includes Christians who believe in a triune God, which the Qur’an repeatedly derides as polytheism. Cf. Qur’an Sura 4:171) wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush.”

Do you think some people might object to this?? Might Christians object to a Qur’anic verse calling on Muslims to ambush and kill non-believers at least as much as many Muslims might object to Governor Branstad invoking averse that celebrates the establishment of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem where the Dome of the Rock now stands? Do you understand how this might make some Iowans unhappy?

This must be the litmus test for invoking religion in state matters. If Christians would object to the Governor of Iowa invoking a Qur’anic verse in an official proclamation, why would they expect others not to object to his invoking a verse from the Bible?

When the elected leader of a secular state calls on citizens of his state to engage in acts of devotion and worship (e.g., prayer, fasting, repentance, etc.) to one god and not to another, the elected leader engages in favoring one religious tradition over another. And while the elected leader may not be “establishing” one religion as the official state religion, by favoring one religion over another, and by calling on citizens to participate in one religion and not another, and by invoking a verse from one sacred book of scripture over another, the elected leader violates the principle of separation of church and state.

Besides, Jesus called on his followers to AVOID large public prayer performances, and instead said,

“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matt. 6:6)

By signing this proclamation, Governor Branstad gains absolutely nothing except a scandal over issues of church and state (and perhaps a sizable campaign contribution or political reconciliation).


In closing, I’d still like to offer Governor Branstad the benefit of the doubt, and believe that he (or at least his advisers) failed to read the “history and purpose” section of the still “under construction” Prayer 7-14-14 website, which is written in the first person by an anonymous author who claims God was speaking to him in visions and dreams.

ScreenCap of the "History and Purpose" page on the prayer7-14-14.com website as of May 30, 2014.

ScreenCap of the “History and Purpose” page on the prayer7-14-14.com website as of May 30, 2014.

Here’s a section from the “History and Purpose” page of the Prayer 7-14-14 website (see screen cap image at right):

“Since 2011 God has been speaking to me through dreams, visions and His word about our NationBelow I have referenced one dream and given two references, in scripture, that show God speaks through dreams and visions and tells us we need to be able to discern the times.. [sic]

Acts 2:17-21
AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS IN THE LAST DAYS, SAYS GOD,  THAT I WILL POUR OUT MY SPIRIT ON ALL FLESH;  YOUR SONS AND YOUR DAUGHTERS SHALL PROPHESY, YOUR YOUNG MEN SHALL SEE VISIONS, YOUR OLD MEN SHALL DREAM DREAMS…I WILL SHOW WONDERS IN HEAVEN ABOVE AND SIGNS IN THE EARTH BENEATH; …THE SUN SHALL BE TURNED INTO DARKNESS, AND THE MOON INTO BLOOD, BEFORE THE COMING OF THE GREAT AND AWESOME DAY OF THE LORD. AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS THAT WHOEVER CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD SHALL BE SAVED!

MATTHEW  16:1-4
WHEN IT IS EVENING YOU SAY, ‘IT WILL BE FOUL WEATHER TODAY, FOR THE SKY IS RED AND THREATENING.’   HYPOCRITES!  YOU KNOW HOW TO DISCERN THE FACE OF THE SKY, BUT YOU CANNOT DISCERN THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES….

ON 4-20-13 God spoke to me through a dream and His word…

In the dream I was writing on a red, white and blue shirt, “Something will start to churn in you today.”  I wanted to change the word to move, but I heard a voice say “NO, it is churn.” I happened to be reading through Hosea again for the third, fourth or fifth time, and I was starting at Chapter 11 that day.  When I got to verse 8, you can see below, it said His heart CHURNS  (just like in the dream)within Him and His sympathy is stirred.

I knew God was is pursuing America to turn back….” (red highlights mine)

Did the Office of the Governor of the State of Iowa really issue a proclamation sponsored by this group??

Sigh.


It is my hope that in the future, elected state officials will refrain from issuing calls for Americans to engage in acts of worship to any god. And if they do persist in this practice, that elected officials would refrain from invoking highly problematic verses from holy books that members of other religious groups might find wholly offensive and alienating.

When the Founders of our nation did mention a deity, they did so in narrowly defined contexts, referring to it, for example, as the “Creator” or as “Nature’s God“, and deliberately refrained from mentioning any specific religion, or from invoking or citing holy scriptures specific to any particular religious tradition.

There is no mention of Jesus or Christianity in the Declaration of Independence. There is no mention of Jesus or Christianity in the Constitution. We were not founded as a Christian nation. God did not write the Constitution. And when a deity was referenced (other than the standard “Year of Our Lord” dating convention), it was in a theistic or Deistic fashion, and not a specifically Christian one. This should serve as a template for those elected leaders who insist on referring to a deity as part of their civic duties.

Calling on citizens to engage in acts of worship to a specific deity and invoking the religious tradition affiliated with that deity only creates problems for the elected official and paints him or her as a tool of fundamentalist religious zealots, who hope to infiltrate our secular government and introduce religious law that our Founders sought to avoid at all costs.


To learn more about the presence of Christianity in our founding documents, take this quiz.

 

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