Sanctified Dirt

SanctifiedDirt

Author Michael S. Heiser

Elisha’s healing of Naaman the leper, commander of the army of the king of Syria, is a familiar story to many (2 Kgs 5:1–27). Naaman hears that Elisha, the prophet of Israel, can heal him, so he makes the trip. When the two meet, Elisha tells him rather dismissively that he needs to take a bath in the Jordan River. Naaman doesn’t take this well and prepares to go home. At the behest of some servants, he consents to dip himself in the Jordan. He is miraculously healed by the simple act. The display of power, so transparently without sacrifice or incantation, awakens Naaman to the fact that Yahweh of Israel is the true God. Here’s where the story usually ends in our telling, but that would result in the omission of one very odd detail—what Naaman asks to take back home.

In 2 Kgs 5:15–19 the elated Naaman returns to Elisha and begs him to take payment for healing him. Elisha repeatedly refuses. Finally, before embarking for Syria, Naaman makes a strange request: to load two mules with dirt to take back with him.

Dirt? I can think of a few favors I would ask of a prophet in a receptive mood, but dirt certainly isn’t one of them. The request is so odd that it’s hard to avoid wondering if Naaman needed some other kind of therapy. Why would he ask for dirt?

But Naaman was completely in his right mind. In 2 Kgs 5:17, Naaman follows the request with an explanation: “for from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord” (ESV). The dirt and Naaman’s new allegiance to the God of Israel are related. Naaman was a man with significant duties in his home country. He couldn’t stay in Israel, but he could take Israel with him. Why would he want to?

Naaman’s unusual request stems from the ancient—and biblical—conception that the earth is the locale for a cosmic turf war. Naaman wanted dirt from Israel because Israel was Yahweh’s territory. The dirt which is Yahweh’s domain is holy ground.

The idea of “holy ground” is an important element of Israelite theology. This phrase is used when Moses is in the presence of the Angel of the Lord and the God of Israel at the burning bush (Exod 3:1–5), and when Joshua meets the Angel of the Lord (Josh 5:15).[1] More broadly, the idea derives from Deut 32:8–9 (compare, Deut 4:19–20) where we learn that when God divided up the nations at the Tower of Babel, they were allotted to “the sons of God.”[2] The nations of the world were, in effect, disinherited by Yahweh as His own earthly family. Immediately after Babel, Yahweh called Abraham and the nation of Israel was created. Israel was therefore “Yahweh’s portion” (Deut 32:9), whereas all the other nations belong to the sons of God whom Israel was forbidden to worship. As a result, Israel was holy ground; the territory of every other nation was not. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of God’s intention to reclaim every nation on earth.

Elisha understood Naaman’s request and granted it without hesitation. He knew the request came from a sincere theological change of heart. Naaman believed that “There [was] no God in all the earth but in Israel” (5:15) and wanted to return to his homeland with holy ground. Even though he would still have to help his aged king bow before Rimmon, Naaman wanted Elisha to know his heart belonged only to the God of Elisha.

Notes:

[1] The “captain of the Lord’s army” in Josh 5:13–15 can be identified with the Angel of the LORD on the basis of two observations: (1) The parallel with Exod 3:1–5; and (2) The description of the Captain standing before Joshua “with his sword drawn in his hand.” The Hebrew phrase behind this description is found in only two other places in the Old Testament: Num 22:23 and 1 Chr 21:16, both of which explicitly apply the phrase to the Angel of the LORD.

[2] This translation is based upon a correction of the Hebrew text in Deut 32:8 with material from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most English bibles read “sons of Israel” in Deut 32:8, a reading that makes no sense, since Israel did not exist at the time of the tower of Babel, nor is Israel listed in the Table of Nations that resulted from the judgment at Babel. The ESV correctly incorporates the Dead Sea Scroll reading into Deut 32:8. For more information, see MichaelSHeiser.com/DT32.pdf

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Love Potion: Numbers 5

Author Michael S. Heiser

When’s the last time you heard a sermon on Numbers 5:11–31?

One of the things I enjoy telling people in conversations about Bible study is that “if it’s weird, it’s important.” This passage certainly qualifies in both respects. The strangeness of the passage is easily detectable, but only careful Bible study makes its importance apparent.

LovePotion#5

Numbers 5:11–31 describes a water ritual to determine the guilt or innocence of a woman suspected of adultery. A husband is to bring the wife under suspicion to the priest, along with a required grain offering that will “bring iniquity to remembrance.” The priest in turn prepares a jar of water mixed with dust from the tabernacle (5:16–17). To this mixture is added the curses against her written “in a book” (5:23). Either the curses were written and erased, so that the erasures are swept into the water mixture, or the ink is washed off into the water mixture. The woman is compelled to drink the concoction after saying “Amen, Amen” in response to the priest’s invocation of blessing or cursing upon her, depending on her innocence or guilt. If she is guilty, the ingested mixture will cause pain and sterility; if there is no such reaction, she is deemed innocent (5:27–31).¹

Since the instructions in Num 5 were given by God (5:11), the water ordeal is a means of divination, whereby it is expected that God will use the ritual to answer a question human beings cannot. That the Israelites could use such divination comes as no surprise, as the high priest had the Urim and Thummim at his disposal, and various biblical characters utilize the casting of lots for discerning the mind of God on a matter (Josh 18:6-8; Prov 16:33; Acts 1:26).²

This passage provides a useful starting point for discussing why biblical characters were permitted to practice divination at all, when elsewhere such methods are condemned (e.g., Deut 18:9–14).³ But let’s instead focus on one practical implication of this passage.

Students of the Bible know that adultery was punishable by death in ancient Israel (Lev 20:10–11). Surprisingly, death is not the penalty for the guilty woman in Num 5:11-31. The normal word for adultery (na’af, נאף)—the word used in connection with the death penalty—does not occur in this passage, further distancing it from being a capital crime. Why these discrepancies?

The answer lies in the fact that the guilty woman was not discovered in the act of adultery (5:13). Since this is the case, the community and, particularly, the angry husband, is effectively prohibited by the law of the water ordeal from taking matters into their own hands. This would serve as a protection for women suspected of adultery, or who might be the target of someone’s animosity or jealousy. The point is that secret adultery can and will be punished only by God.

Notes:

¹There are explicit parallels to this procedure in the literature of the ancient Near Eastern world of biblical times. For example, one of the laws in Hammurabi’s code (COS 2.31) concerns a river ordeal for a woman accused of adultery.

²Urim and Thummim: The exact nature of the Urim and Thummim and how they were used is unknown. A literalized translation of the terms would be “lights and perfections.” The Urim and Thummim are distinguished from the casting of lots as a method of divination in the traditional Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text) of 1 Sam 14:36–42, though this is often obscured by English translations that follow the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (e.g., ESV).

³See Michael S. Heiser, “The Old Testament Response to Ancient Near Eastern Pagan Divination Practices.”

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 2.