Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Prophetic Anachronism?

And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South, heard tell that Israel came by the way of Atharim; and he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said: 'If Thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.' And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities; and the name of the place was called Hormah.
Numbers 21:1-4

Where was the Canaanite city of Arad? Now referred to as "Tel Arad" (in contradistinction to the modern Israeli city of Arad), it was located about 20 miles west of the Dead Sea. The location of Hormah is not so clear, but it was apparently located near Arad. Similarly, the location of Atharim is not positively known, but it was presumably a roadway in southern Canaan (one scholar suggests that it was a primary route between Arad and Kadesh-Barnea).

The obvious problem is that Numbers describes Hormah as being conquered by Israel before the Israelites crossed over into Canaan! Thus, Joshua 12:7,14:

And these are the kings of the country which Joshua and the children of Israel smote on this side Jordan on the west... The king of Hormah, one; the king of Arad, one...

and Judges 1:17:

And Judah went with Simeon his brother, and they smote the Canaanites that inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. And the name of the city was called Hormah.

How could the king of Arad war against Israel when the latter were still on the eastern side of the Jordan?? Ramban discusses this chronological problem at considerable length. (Chavel translation used here.) He states that the king of Arad heard of the coming of Bnai Yisrael so he travelled by way of Atharim to the plains of Moab to fight against Israel, that Israel took a vow to dedicate everything that they had if Arad was conquered, and that the vow was finally fulfilled after the death of Joshua at which time they named the city Hormah (="Utter Destruction"). Ramban continues that even though the vow was fulfilled later, Scripture "completed the account here, just like it did in the section regarding the falling of manna". Thus in Exodus 13:35 "And the children of Israel did eat the manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat the manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan".

Ramban mentions another example in Numbers 34:17: "These are the names of the men that shall take possession of the land for you: Eleazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun." This passage, he says, "constitutes a prophecy that these men will live and function at that time, for it is impossible to say that God would specify for them men about whom there was a doubt as to whether they would still be living; for otherwise He should have commanded Joshua at the time of the division of the land. Since the command was given to Moses, we see that the Torah speaks of future events."

Ramban continues with another explanation that also relies on a prophetic understanding of the verses, suggesting that the king and his people were destroyed during the time of Moses and that they named the place of battle Hormah. Later, during the time of Joshua, they called the cities Hormah - because they were utterly destroyed - and they then fulfilled their vow.

I find Ramban's explanation unconvincing, but not primarily because of his reliance on prophecy to explain the chronological problem. Note that he states that the king of Arad heard of the coming of Bnai Yisrael so he [the king] travelled by way of Atharim to the plains of Moab. He thus engages in a twisting of the translation so that the king of Arad travels from Canaan to Moab - rather than have Bnai Yisrael traveling to Canaan - to better fit his exegesis. Now Ramban was certainly more expert than I in Hebrew, but this does seem like a stretch: וַיִּשְׁמַע הַכְּנַעֲנִי מֶלֶךְ-עֲרָד, יֹשֵׁב הַנֶּגֶב, כִּי בָּא יִשְׂרָאֵל, דֶּרֶךְ הָאֲתָרִים;

But my intention is not to argue with Ramban on his translation. It is to simply state that his approach demonstrates one of the fundamental differences between the traditional approach and a scholarly one. The former accepts the notion of prophecy, the latter does not. Thus a traditionalist has no problem explaining an anachronism - such as is found here - as being indicative of a prophetic statement. A Biblical scholar will simply say that it is an error in chronology and thus proof of a later authorship or compilation.

Because an obscure or problematic passage can almost always be made to fit a subsequent historical event after the fact, claims of prophecy are difficult - if not impossible - to falsify. Fans of Nostramadus are guilty of using this to their advantage, as are Christian missionaries and - of course - JOFs (Jewish Orthodox Fundamentalists). Torah code proponents (mostly a subgroup of OrthoFundies) likewise rely on carefully crafted "unfalsifiable code prophecies."

This is one area in which I don't see any room for debate between the assertions of the traditional and scholarly approaches to Bible. One accepts a priori the notion of prophecy, the other denies its existence altogether.


B. Spinoza said...

I don't know about that. You can believe in prophesy but still deny that a given verse was intended on being prophetic based on the style of phrase. for example, if most prophesy is first proclaimed with the phrase and "thus spoke the Lord in X days such and such will happen" or something like that, then i may assume until given good reason to the contrary that the phrase without the usual proclamation wasn't intended to be prophetic. I'm just making up an example here, but you get the picture, i hope. If you have to say that something is prophetic when it doesn't look like a prophetic statement then that is a sign of a kvetchy answer and that you should look for a better one to explain it

littlefoxling said...


a great example to your idea is Isaiah 44:28
הָאֹמֵר לְכוֹרֶשׁ רֹעִי, וְכָל-חֶפְצִי יַשְׁלִם; וְלֵאמֹר לִירוּשָׁלִַם תִּבָּנֶה, וְהֵיכָל תִּוָּסֵד
That saith of Cyrus: 'He is My shepherd, and shall perform all My pleasure'; even saying of Jerusalem: 'She shall be built'; and to the temple: 'My foundation shall be laid.'
And 45:1
כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה, לִמְשִׁיחוֹ לְכוֹרֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר-הֶחֱזַקְתִּי בִימִינוֹ לְרַד-לְפָנָיו גּוֹיִם, וּמָתְנֵי מְלָכִים, אֲפַתֵּחַ--לִפְתֹּחַ לְפָנָיו דְּלָתַיִם, וּשְׁעָרִים לֹא יִסָּגֵרוּ.
Thus saith the LORD to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him, and to loose the loins of kings; to open the doors before him, and that the gates may not be shut:

The problem of course is that Isaiah lived hundreds of years before Cyrus. The traditional explanation is that this is prophetic. The problem is that this doesn’t sound prophetic and for two reasons:

1. Prophecies are usually vague, not using specific names (though see I Kings 13:2, though that is an equally contentious verse)

2. There is nothing prophetic or proclamatory about these verses. It does not make a big deal that it is saying this guy is going to be called Cyrus. It’s just stating it like it’s obvious.

Still, I think FH has a point which is that what “sounds like a prophecy” is highly subjective and debatable and JOF’s are obviously never going to admit that something “doesn’t sound like a prophecy” when faced with an anachronism problem and so in some sense it really is non falsifiable.

Frum Heretic said...

Mr Spinoza (hey, I did a movie poster about you here: - Prophetic statements are rarely stated in such precise language which is why they are so rife as proof-texts. But even when they are more precise (such as Daniel's 70 Weeks) they are subject to radical reinterpretations to fit subsequent historical events and/or the interpreter's ideology.

Anyway, are you saying that Ramban is being kvetchy?!

B. Spinoza said...


well, you can't ever get a fundamentalist to go against their dogma, but you can sill, perhaps, get them to admit it doesn't sound like the usual prophetic statement. simply ask them had you have not known the fact that cyrus came later would you have said it was a prophesy. Or ask them before they were told that Cyrus came later did it cross their mind to think it was prophetic. if the answer is no, then it's obvious it doesn't sound like a prophesy and the answer is a kvetch.

B. Spinoza said...


they recently had a real play about spinoza's (fictional) trial by the beit din in Amsterdam

B. Spinoza said...

>Anyway, are you saying that Ramban is being kvetchy?!

well, i'm not really too concerned about this specific example. I'm more interested in the general idea of methodology about how to determine a kvetchy answer versus a more valid one. But yes, the ramban seems kvetchy to me, but maybe i'm just biased :)

Anonymous said...

What does it mean 'If Thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.' What is the incentive for G-d to give our enemies into our hands? Because we will then destroy their cities? Why wouldn't we want to destroy the cities of our enemies?

Frum Heretic said...

anonymous: Mechon Mamre (from where I copy & paste) translates וְהַחֲרַמְתִּי as "I will destroy". And I agree, it doesn't make sense given that Bnai Yisrael was commanded to wipe out the Canannite cities (unless Moses didn't know this yet!) But the word has also been translated as "I will consecrate", which perhaps is less ambiguous.