A relief of Tiglath-Pileser III. Photo taken at the British Museum.

His Name will be Immanuel

For today’s blog, we are going to discuss the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-16:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  “Look, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will be call His name Immanuel.  He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”

Pastors often quote this prophecy during the Christmas season as a foretelling of the coming of Christ.  This is no coincidence since Isaiah links chapter 7 to the text in chapter 9.

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us. And the government will rest on His shoulders.  And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.  There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.” (Isa 9:6-7)

Many people are familiar with this prophecy with respect to the New Testament.  Few however are familiar with the historical context of this passage.  The events of Isaiah 7-9 take place during the Syro-Ephriamite War.  The prophet Isaiah wrote in the days of king Ahaz (ca. 732-716 BC) of Judah.  Ahaz was a king in trouble.  He was facing a potential invasion from an alliance between Pekah king of Israel and Rezin king of Aram.

In response to the impending invasion, Isaiah tells Ahaz to do nothing except believe the Lord’s word (Isa 7:9).  And as sign that his word comes from the Lord, a virgin was to conceive a son.  If the result were to be favorable, the Lord would name the son Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

However, Ahaz didn’t listen to the prophet.  Ahaz sent an envoy to Tiglath-Pileser III king of a Assyria.  He sent all the gold that he could to put pressure on Pekah and Rezim to withdraw (2 Kings 16:7-9).

While the meaning of “virgin” is uncertain in its original context, Isaiah visits the “virgin” who happened to be a prophetess.  She gives birth.  But instead of the favorable sign, the Lord names the child Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isa 8:3).

“For before the boy knows how to cry out ‘my father’ or ‘my mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (Isa 8:4).

While this might sound a positive outcome for Ahaz on the surface, it was a condemnation of Ahaz’s precipitous actions.

Look, the Lord is about to bring on them the strong and abundant waters of the Euphrates… then it will sweep on into the Judah (Isa 8:7-8).

Tiglath-Pileser III was probably planning on putting pressure on Pekah and Rezim anyway.  But now, the Assyrians, whetted with a taste for gold, believed they could invade Canaan to fund their ever expanding empire.  Ahaz’s act of faithlessness sets into motion a course of events that ultimately led to the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (2 Chr 28:16-22).

Despite the historical context of this passage, we must remember that Israelite prophecy is a form of amphiboly.  Amphiboly is a literary device where an author writes about two things at the same time.  It is a form compressed language.  Amphiboly was very common in Egyptian writing where a writer could leverage the pictorial and homonymic aspects of the language to refer to multiple things at the same time.

Israelite prophecy was no different.  The prophets could discuss current events as one aspect of their writing.  This could make plain the understanding of complex times for a living audience.  And at the same time, a prophet could allude to something in the future which would have meaning to some future generation.  Writing for this effect was not an accident; it is a complex form of writing that took tremendous skill, not to mention foresight.

This is why at the end of this fiasco by king Ahaz we get a rejoinder in Isa 9:6-7 that doesn’t make a lot of sense to a strict historicist reading.  The regional powers were about to subjugate Judah, but God was still sending a promised son.  Isaiah injects a secondary reading into the text that was the real point he was trying to convey.

Despite Ahaz’s treachery and faithlessness, God is still faithful.  A son called Immanuel would still come.  But he was going to be more than a resolution to a local geopolitical dispute.  He was going to be Immanuel–literally “God with us.”  Merry Christmas.



A digital reconstruction of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak.

Improving Scholarship with Digital Humanities

Some of us can relate to the following conversation with a student.  A student proposes a dissertation where he or she wants to catalog all the instances of some niche topic.  And then you pose that terrible question.  What do you hope to get out of aggregating all that data?  The student’s heart sinks.  And you receive that deer in the headlights look as if this question had never occurred to the student.

The sciences use computers every day to answer meaningful research questions.  The digital humanities and digital archeology have become the new norm in academic scholarship.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of digital humanities projects use computer technology for primarily data aggregation.

The Problem with the Digital Humanities

Without the same history as the sciences, the humanities have not developed a methodology to maximize utility of computer technologies.  Many digital humanities projects involve building large databases or open access publication of data sets in the hopes that if we build it, they (the researchers) will come.  And like our hypothetical student, many digital humanities projects have conflated scholarship with publication.

Too often magical thinking invades a project by throwing a bunch of data into a database and hoping that the computer will conjure a meaningful result.  Computers are not wizards that live inside a little metal box.  Computers crunch mathematical formulae at amazing speeds but understand none of it.  Any understanding that a computer has is only present because a human being has programmed that understanding into the machine.

Overlooked are the foundational questions.  What problem are you trying to solve?  Do you have access to the funds, time, and talent to see the project to completion?  What are you expecting the computer to do that a human being cannot?   How do you expect a computer to go about solving the problem?

A Better Approach to the Digital Humanities

I would suggest a methodological approach that I hope will raise the bar for the digital humanities.  And that method is simply to ask a research question that requires the help of a computer, see if that question is appropriate for a digital humanities project, and have the researcher and computer together solve the problem.

Experiments done with chess players and computers have shown that a good chess computer can beat almost any human player.  But a human player using a chess computer can beat practically any chess computer on its own.  This is the next step in the digital humanities: the digital and the human engaging difficult research questions that neither alone is capable of solving.

update, ark in Ethiopia is a replica

Beyond Indiana Jones: Backpedaling on Ark Claims

After my blog last week expressing skepticism over the news story announcing the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant, LiveScience.com has walked back its story.  The fact is that, lurid tales of killer priests and fabulous treasure aside, a Western professor has seen the ark in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.


The Man who Saw the Ark

Edward Ullendorff saw the ark inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  Ullendorff was a professor at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).  He also served as an army officer attached to the British armed forces in 1941.  And he was with them, when British forces took Ethiopia from the fascist Italians.   With soldiers to his back and no one to stop him, Ullendorff had access to the ark within the church.

When he was still alive, Ullendorff gave an interview to the L. A. Times in 1992 debunking Graham Hancock’s claims.  Ullendorff stated that he saw “a wooden box, but it’s empty.”   He described it as a “Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.”  He maintained that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion possessed a medieval period replica of the ark.


Ethiopian Replicas

These replicas are a common feature of Ethiopian Coptic churches, and none of them are the real Ark of the Covenant.  They serve an important role as an idealized place of veneration and religious focus.

These arks function like the altars in Roman Catholic churches.  In Roman Catholic churches, the altar is not really a place were consecrated offerings are incinerated with fire — they are technically offering tables that are called altars.

The tabot (or “ark”) in Ethiopian churches serve a similar purpose.  The word tabot comes from the Aramaic tebuta, which descended from the Egyptian tbt, “box, chest.”  The purpose of the tabot is to remind the onlooker of the Mosaic law and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

But this is not a the first time an outsider has seen an Ethiopian ark.  In 2002, a Scottish church returned a tabot to Ethiopia.  Photographs of these tabot show that they are nothing like the original Ark of the Covenant.  They are small wood boxes that a single priest carried over his head.  In contrast, the original Ark was 2.5 cubits (45 inches) long by 1.5 cubits (27 inches) wide and high (Exod 25:10) and the priests carried it on poles (Exod 25:13-14).

No doubt exists that these Ethiopian arks remain important religious and historical artifacts.  But they are only historically significant to the medieval world of Axum, not the late bronze age world of Israel.


A computer render of the Ark of the Covenant

Beyond Indiana Jones: A Dodgy Ark of the Covenant Claim

Few bible topics seem to attract as much prurient excess like the Ark of the Covenant.  Studies on the Ark have typically followed two unhealthy extremes.  These studies either follow the path of extreme skepticism after Julius Welhaussen, Gerhard von Rad, and the biblical minimalists.  Or they follow the treasure hunting of Ron Wyatt, Graham Hancock, and a large host of other weird players.

What makes this issue timely was a story on Fox News yesterday re-announcing that “Bible scholars believe the legendary Ark of the Covenant may have landed in Africa…”  The ‘scholar’ who announced this was Bob Cornuke who is a self-styled adventurer after the likes of Indiana Jones.  He has searched for Noah’s Ark, the biblical Golgotha, the ‘real’ Mount Sinai, and now the Ark of the Covenant.


Treasure Hunters

Treasure hunting is hardly new when it comes to the Ark.  In AD 1899, Freemasons and British-Israelites destroyed the archaeological site of Tara in Ireland looking for the Ark.  More recently, the upsurge of dispensational premillennialism in the 1970s renewed interest in end times events.  That interest in eschatology also kindled an interest the Temple and Tabernacle inviting an influx of speculative theories.  Ron Wyatt fed upon this fervor in the late 70s and into the 1990s.

Graham Hancock (1993) used the legend in the Kebra Negast and sterile speculation to suggest Solomon impregnated the Queen of Sheba.  The son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba returned to Axum (Ethiopia) to take up his throne.  Solomon, loving his son, made a copy of the Ark for the son to take back with him.  But the alleged son swapped out the real Ark with the fake.  The son returned to Ethiopia and the Ark ended up in a church where it supposedly still resides today.

The problem with the Kebra Nagast is that it is a mashup of unrelated historical characters and places that could even make the plot lines from Doctor Who seem plausible.  Part of that mashup confuses kingdom of Axum with the unrelated kingdom of Saba.  Axum is a region in northern Ethiopia that did not become a kingdom until ca. AD 100.  Saba was a southern Arabian kingdom that began ca. 1200 BCE and lasted until ca. AD 275.   Axum and Saba are in no way related historically or geographically.  It is historically impossible for the Queen of Sheba to be monarch of Ethiopia.

Many others writing on the Ark have regurgitated selections of Hancock’s hypothesis.  Bob Cornuke and David Halbrook repeated this hypothesis in 2002, Stuart Munro-Hay in 2003, and Randall Price in 2005.  These books typically involve an ‘expedition’ to Ethiopia to meet the Guardian, an enigmatic figure connected to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  The Guardian verbally affirms that the church holds the true Ark of the Covenant.   Heaven forbid that any of these scholars make an extended expedition to a library.  Needless to say, Hancock’s hypothesis is perhaps the most plagiarized hypothesis when it comes to the Ark.

Moreover, these treasure hunters take their readers on vicarious voyages of faith, confusing truth with possibilities.  Voyages of faith are a necessary aspect in how we come to believe.  But such voyages without a firm foundation in fact neither educates nor illuminates.  Thus, such literature has degraded into the pulp fiction of biblical publishing.


Problems with  Cornuke’s Hypothesis

Cornuke apparently holds a Ph.D. in Bible and Theology from Louisiana Baptist University.  However, questions have been raised about the quality of that dissertation, “Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant and Mount Sinai in History and Tradition.”  Some have suggested that his dissertation was a mishmash of Ron Wyatt’s and Graham Hancock’s theories.  Credentials aside, Cornuke’s hypothesis and the related news article have serious problems.

First, the idea that bible scholars believe the Ark landed in Africa is ridiculously weak.  The article makes it seem that there is consensus among bible scholars that the Ark is in Ethiopia.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact is that most bible scholars don’t believe that the Ark existed at all, let alone resides in Africa.

The other fact is that the actual number of scholars that specialize in the Ark is remarkably small.  These scholars normally complete of a Ph.D. dissertation on the Ark or its related archaeology or literature.  Among scholars that have done this there are less than a half-dozen subject matter experts worldwide; I happen to be one of them.  Of real experts on the Ark, none to my knowledge believe the Ark is (or ever was) in Ethiopia.

Also, the hypothesis supplies a narrative but no evidence.  Cornuke believes the Israelites transported the Ark up the Nile during the reign of King Manasseh.  He believes that Israelites stole the Ark when they established a colony at Elephantine.  He thinks this took place when Manasseh introduced pagan worship into Israel.  Where is the evidence for any of  this?

Furthermore, the biblical text contradicts the hypothesis.  2 Chr 35:3 quotes King Josiah ordering the priests to bring the Ark into the Solomonic Temple.  The priests removed the Ark and placed it in temporary housing when the Temple fell into disrepair.  Josiah ordered the restoration of the Temple (2 Chr 35:20) and the Ark returned to its place.


What Became of the Ark… And Why it Doesn’t Matter

Finally, the Prophet Jeremiah records in Jer 3:16:

“It shall be in those days when you are multiplied and increased in the land,” declares the Lord, “they will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again.”

Jeremiah was active from the 13th year of Josiah until after the destruction of the Solomonic Temple.  His writing stating “nor will it be made again” implies that the Ark no longer existed.  In other words, Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Ark and no one would rebuild it.  And like the people who mourned over the destruction of the Temple, some mourned over the destruction of the Ark.

After the priests brought the Ark into the Temple, the Lord’s glory departed from between the wings of the cherubim, and the glory of the Lord filled the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 8:11).  After that, the Ark was no longer important.  The thing that made the Ark special was not its physical existence or its value in gold.  The  truly valuable thing about the Ark was the presence of God dwelling in the sacred space between the cherubim.

The Ark does have a rich ancient history.  And as an artifact, it is an object worthy of study.  But to get something meaningful from such studies, we need go beyond both beyond extreme skepticism and beyond Indiana Jones.