About that Camel and Abraham

camelLast week a bit of a media kerfuffle emerged after several media outlets reported that a “new discovery” cast doubts about the “accuracy and truthfulness” of the Bible. This was not stunning news, these kinds of report happen often. Specifically here, the pieces were referring to an archeological discussion about camel bones.

The reports appears to center around a piece written by Martin Hiede, back in 2010, titled “The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological andInscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia,and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible.”

Certainly other, more informed folks, have written about this and given their more informed perspectives on the archeology behind this. Essentially, these qualified archeologists were excavating the site of an ancient copper smelting camp in the Aravah Valley when they found some leg bones from camels. After dating the bones to about BCE 900, they also noted that the bones showed no signs of domestication. This brings doubt to the use of camels in Genesis 12:16; 24:35; 30:43; 37:25 where camels are referenced in ways that demonstrate domestication.

However, the reports of the Bible’s utter demise seem, yet again, to be overstated.

As a means of working through this “new issue” let’s apply a couple of thoughtful apologetic processes consider the claim:

  • One of the first things I did upon hearing that the Bible’s testimony was suddenly both under scrutiny and possibly undermined, yes that should be read ironically, was consult a couple of technical commentaries I have in my study. One of the commentaries, Nahum Sarna’s excellent installment for the JPS Torah Commentary, written in 2001, points out the issues of early domestication against the certain archeological evidences (pg 96.) Sarna points out that this issue has been known for a while and there are some responses. He suggests that, perhaps, we are dealing with a different species of camel than is found elsewhere. So, two points here: 1) this isn’t a new problem and 2) very good, very informed scholars have already provided some responses.
  • Then we look deeper at the archeological discovery and note that negative evidence is tenuous at best and, in the words of Professor Hiede, “Proving that something did not exist at some time and place in the past is every archaeologist’s nightmare because proof of its existence may, despite all claims to the contrary, be unearthed at some future date” (337) This is not an exhaustive discovery since the site being excavated isn’t the entire ancient world. Other evidences may spring up in the future, the responsible action is to note the challenge and not make wild claims.
  • Even if this text comes from a later redactor, a reasonable claim in Old Testament scholarship, including evangelical scholars, this doesn’t mean the text suddenly a) isn’t inspired, b) isn’t coherent with the teaching of the Bible. We stand at such a distance from the inscripturation of the biblical text, especially the Hebrew Bible, that many references and idiomatic language can be lost in translation. However, an honest and forthright investigation of the text doesn’t take every “new story” uncovered four years after its publication and blow it up out of context.
  • If we trust in the media establishment to communicate authentically and with scholarly nuance we are setting ourselves up for failure. As Anthony LeDonne has aptly pointed out, even the media’s reporting they are confusing 900 BCE with CE 900…a difference of 1800 years. When scholars in the field, such as Alan Millard write concise letters to the editor much of the issues are cleared up. This is because these scholars have seen the issues before and also know of the contrary data that exists. Archeology is not the enemy of the faithful, yet too many reporters make their money off false-dichtomies like this.


The biblical text can be confusing at time and, in light of the scant archeological data around it, hard to comprehend as well. However, we will all do well to consider the actual arguments being offered and then see where scholars are in dealing with the primary issues. For evangelicals, and other Christians, we can have confidence in an inspired text that, though thoroughly troubling at times, is an inspired text that accomplishes what it sets out to do when properly understood amid its pre-modern times.

Feb 2014



The Witch of Endor: A Biblical Ghost Story in 1 Samuel 28

Ghost stories have a unique place in folklore from almost all ages. The more we uncover from ancient and old societies, the more we tend to find out about their ghost stories. Particularly around the Halloween festivities in the western world, we often hear more ghost stories and legendary tales of ghosts and goblins.

For readers of the Old Testament, there is a story that arises in the conflict between King Saul and (soon to be King) David that is a good, old-fashioned ghost story. In 1 Samuel 28:3-25, a strange scene unfolds where the leader of historical Israel goes in secret to a pagan necromancer to learn unworldly truths about his future and his nemesis.

The story of 1 Samuel 28 is a good read, so go read it first.

So what actually happens in 1 Samuel 28? Does the witch actually conjure Samuel’s spirit from the afterlife? Does the spirit of Samuel appear to these two and haunt Saul with a prophetic word? Is this the resuscitated body of Samuel that returns to the grave (i.e. zombie)? Or, is it all a dream that Saul had after eating bad matzo?

In the history of interpretation of this passage there are, unsurprisingly many different takes on the scene. Not the least of which attempts to explain it away. For Christian interpretation,

I. Samuel was resuscitated by the woman. (Justin Martyr, Zeno of Verona, Ambrose, Augustine, Sulpicius Severus, Dracontius, and Anastasius Sinaita.

II. Either Samuel or a daemon in his shape appeared at God’s command. (John Crysostom, Theodoret of Cryrrhus, Pseudo-Justin, Theodore bar Koni, and Isho’dad of Merv.)

III. A daemon deceived Saul and gave him a forged prophecy. (Tertullian, Pseudo-Hippolytus, “Pionius,” Eustathius of Antioch, Ephraem, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius Ponticus, Pseudo-Basil, Jerome, Phiastrius, Ambrosiaster, and Pseudo-Augustine.)

These appear as a consolidated list in KAD Smelik’s 1978 Vigiliae Christianae piece “I Samuel 28 in Rabbinic and Christian Exegesis.” The article goes on to point out some issues with each of these interpretations and the larger issue that remains: how is a pagan witch able to raise a God glorifying prophet from the dead? Is this ability still available in the world?

The entire scene is an odd one. Saul, the King of Israel, fears for his future and desires to get spiritual insight as to what might unfold. The Chronicler points out that two things have already happened  that 1) Samuel had been dead by now (referring to 1 Samuel 25), and that 2) King Saul had rid the land of pagan spiritualists and mystics. Yet this pagan witch still remains. With the sudden invasion of the Philistines into the land, there was another challenge to his throne.

Saul asks his servants that he wished to find a medium, or witch (the terminology used is specific to a female necromancer)  to help him discern what lies ahead. They tell him of the Witch of Endor (not the one with warrior carebears,) a town that (supposedly) lies about 5 miles northeast of Shunem where the Philistines had camped. So Saul gets into a costume…oh wait, disguise…and travels around the Philistine army to the other side to find this witch. He then commands her to “practice divination” and consult a spirit for him. The type of command used only exists in the Old Testament for a pagan cultic practice (HALOT.) Saul is asking for a pagan ritual to be performed. Not only is this a violation of his own decrees and actions, but also of violation of Deuteronomy 18:10-14.

After some haggling, Saul’s identity is revealed. (The text says she immediately sees Samuel and ackbar traprecognizes the man before her is Saul, but there is a textual issue which might be best resolved by her seeing Saul since only a mem differentiates the two names in Hebrew.) Then the witch can see Samuel coming up, presumably from the grave, and Saul asks her who it is. Samuel is known by his robe (cf. 1 Samuel 2:19; 15:27) and that is the identifying mark. Now it appears, given the textual data, that only the woman can see Samuel in some kind of diviner trance. Saul can hear, perhaps through the woman’s communicating Samuel’s words, and respond but cannot see Samuel. At this point, vs. 16-19, Samuel gives the prophetic curse of what will happen to Saul, the kingdom being taken from him and given to David, and that his sons and he will die at the hands of the Philistines.

The scene ends with the witch being concerned for Saul, who hadn’t eaten for the entire day while traveling (perhaps by foot since horses would have drawn attention of the Philistines.) She makes him some food and we are left the erie scene of a pagan witch feeding the powerless Saul who is quietly pondering his looming fate.

However, the same question remains: did Samuel actually come back from the dead?

I’m not so certain this is a good conclusion. Perhaps our best option is understanding from the scene that Samuel was not physically present but only seen via a vision. Some textual clues give us the idea that the witch entered a kind of trance though the explicit narrative never states this. When she asks Saul whom she might summon, probably a better word than “bring up” (vs. 11.) Just a moment later, after the revealing of Saul’s true identity, the witch notes that she can see “a divine being coming up from the earth” (vs. 13.) The Hebrew here is elohim. Saul cannot see this, as the text reflect, as a result perhaps this is that trance like state the witch has entered.

As the scene then unfolds the conversation takes place between Saul and Samuel and the witch disappears until after Samuel has gone and Saul collapses in exhaustion. In reading this text as a narrative developed by the Chronicler, perhaps it is reasonable to note that Samuel’s spirit is brought up from beyond the grave in a scene similar to Luke 16:27-28. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man expects that some kind of being can pass from Heaven to his relatives to warn them. The text in 1 Samuel 28 does not leave us with only conclusion that Samuel’s body was physically present before Saul and the Witch. Instead, it is reasonable to assert that the Witch summoned Samuel’s spirit which was brought through the providence of God to condemn Saul for his actions.

While these details are intriguing to discuss, the larger point of this narrative (even though it is oddly placed in 1 Samuel) is how far King Saul had fallen from being a godly leader. He had violated God’s ways before and it led him down a path of destruction. Sin always takes us farther than we expect. The larger point of the story, in spite of the details, is that pagan rituals are often a final mark of disqualification from God’s blessing. This was the event that Saul would be known for by Israel as reflected in 1 Chronicles 10:13.

It also should remind us that God’s plan is greater than the sins of our leaders. God will bring to pass what He desires and seeks out willing people to partner with Him. Those who disqualify themselves can, and might, receive a terrible end. Quite a bit like Saul.

So that is the grand ghost story from the Bible. It has all the good things a ghost story should contain, a witch, a king, a spirit, and a curse. 

What do you think about the story? Who shows up? Is it Samuel or a demon, or something else? What role does the witch play? What is the ultimate truth?


Zombies and the Bible

As it is almost Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve as it is properly said, which leaves many of us thinking of creepy and undead things. Well, perhaps more than usual. Over the past two years we’ve seen a pretty startling rise in the number of television shows and movies that showcase zombies, or zombie killing, as central to their plot. This has been along the same line as “teen paranormal romance” novels which are, perhaps, a telling sign that we are nearing the end of days.

So, as we look towards that spooky evening tomorrow night, I wonder how we might encounter zombies in the Bible. And I’m not talking about Zombie Jesus, because that’s a heresy.

The Bible is a varied text that ranges in genre, age, and personality from book to book. In this premodern book of books, there are any number of scenes that are odd or just downright creepy. For most of us, when we look to the Bible zombies aren’t the primary reason we read Scripture. However, there are some scenes that should remind us the undead are a topic of interest occasionally in the Christian Scriptures.

Few accounts match the description of a plague from Zechariah 14:12,

This will be the plague the LORD strikes all the peoples with, who have warred against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. 

Sounds pretty much like zombie-esque activities. Maybe a little too much like World War Z or I Am Legend. Zombies aren’t always the undead, but living people who become zombified.

One of the first descriptive accounts, and perhaps most notable, is the scene in Matthew 27:52f following the death of Jesus on the Cross. Here’s Matthew’s account: (HCSB)

52 The tombs were also openeda and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  53 And they came out of the tombs after His resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.

For many, perhaps most, Bible scholars this passage is viewed as apocryphal and an unnecessary elaboration by Matthew. Obviously after the recent dust-up between Mike Licona and Norm Geisler, this topic has been readily handled. For our purposes, let’s just note the passage and move on after pointing out, that imagine being in the streets of Jerusalem and seeing this horde of zombies pouring out of graves and staggering through the streets. Then you’re realizing, “Oh, that’s just Zephaniah…let’s see how’s he’s been.”

Another possible zombie passage is found in John’s Gospel, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the Dead. The scene given in John 11:38-44 shows Jesus, going to the tomb of Lazarus and calling him out from the grave. Most folks don’t think that Lazarus would have been a zombie since the account seems to reflect that Lazarus, though still shrouded in grave clothes, had a restored body. But still, you got to say that someone who was resuscitated (I think it is different than resurrection) who is walking around for another couple of years is pretty creepy. It becomes important, then to note there are differences between those who are resuscitated and those who might be actual zombies. Yet I’m compelled to think what the difference is, since zombies could be people who have been dead for a while. Perhaps its a matter of degree.

Other examples of Jesus resuscitating someone exist, specifically in the miracle stories of Luke 7:11-17, the widow’s son, and later in Luke 8:40-56, Jairus’ daughter. Perhaps this kind of miracle was attested to in Jesus’ ministry since he is thought of as a raiser of the dead in Matthew 10:8. However, I don’t think we need to label Jesus a necromancer, since he doesn’t have the clothes in all the pictures we see of him from that era…just kidding, about the clothes.

Revelation also depicts some possible zombie scenes with dead people springing to life-like existences. The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11:9-12 are raised from the dead and are cause people around them to be afraid. Also, in Revelation 20:5 there is talk of the dead being raised. It is unlikely these are zombie like states, though the Two Witnesses, given how they die might be zombies and that would surely explain their reception by others. Of course, this all means you need to read Revelation in a futurist frame of reference.

Hebrews 11:35 also speaks about women receiving dead loved ones, though this is by resurrection. It seems that resurrection talk is different than zombies for some New Testament authors. In Acts 9:40 there is a scene where Peter is thought to be dead but isn’t. Clearly this isn’t a zombie text, but more of a “not quite dead yet” scene.

The Old Testament has many scenes of people brought back from the dead. Though I will deal with 1 Samuel 28:3-25 tomorrow, the ghostly appearance of Samuel is unsettling to say the least (and perhaps the greatest ghost-story ever told.)

Outside of Samuel, we see in 1 Kings 17:17-24 a scene were Elijah resuscitates a boy from the dead and this also happens with Elisha in 2 Kings 4:32-37 when he resuscitates the Shunamite’s son. One intriguing scene is found in 2 Kings 13:26f where, after having died and, it seems, decomposed, Elisha’s bones have restorative powers. A group of men were burying a friend when they spied a band of marauding Moabites. They cast the body into Elisha’s the tomb (which was apparently open) and ran off, but the dead friend came into contact with Elisha’s bones and he sprang back to life. Now that’s a creepy story. Think about it, you run home to evade the Moabites and a couple minutes later Jeff comes walking in scratching his head and wondering why he just woken up in a crypt. Jeff died three days ago. And hopefully he isn’t hungry for brains…but it is possible.

So, I think this brief tour of zombies in the Bible we see that there are a couple of key passages worth investigating. Many will disregard these things as being outlandish or simply unreasonable. As we’ll talk about tomorrow, with Samuel, maybe a lot of this is because we’ve already made up our minds that once someone dies they immediately go into the presence of the other side never to return. I believe this kind of presupposed theology (or necro-ology) doesn’t automatically cohere with the biblical record.

Nevertheless, as you sit and ponder creepy and erie things over the next day, maybe one or two of these passages will help guide your thinking. Ultimately, those of us who are redeemed should be thankful that we have a greater Savior than anything which goes bump in the night.


What Happened to the Apostles?

One of the vexing issues left when you read the post-Pentecost accounts in Acts and other New Testament literature is that most of the 12 Apostles disappear. Though some major figures continue, the rest of the twelve are outside the view of the New Testament.

As I was doing some more (as if it ends) dissertation reading in Streeter’s  The Primitive ChurchI noticed that he points out a third century pseudipigraphal document, The Acts of Thomas, that makes a curious note concerning what happened to the 12 Apostles following Pentecost. Here’s the passage from the Acts of Thomas:

1 At that time all we the apostles were at Jerusalem, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Cananean, and Judas the brother of James: and we divided the regions of the world, that every one of us should go to the region that fell to him and to the nation to which the Lord sent him.  2 According to the lot, therefore, India fell to Judas Thomas, which is also the twin: but he would not go, saying that by reason of the weakness of the flesh he could not travel, and: I am a Hebrew; how can I go among the Indians and preach the truth?

Streeter, after appropriately noting the specious nature of the reference, does make a note about how it is helpful in framing a possible picture of the dispersion that existed following Pentecost. The 12 Apostles, representative of the 12 tribes of Old Testament Israel, went into dispersion to accomplish the Great Commission and charge in Acts 1:8.

The idea that the Apostles remained consolidated in Jerusalem for the next several years is certainly reasonable. Acts 9, perhaps occurring within two years of the resurrection, details Saul’s conversion and entrance into ministry (before being sent off in Acts 9:30.) The dispersion of the earliest Christians into regions beyond Jerusalem and Judea becomes more clear as it seems Saul, who later became Paul, had someone to go to in this distant place.

In the rest of the New Testament, there is a growing sense that the earliest Christian communities are indeed growing outside of Jerusalem as the Apostles, or at least early adherents, are moving away to capture the commission of Christ. While they seem to be around for the Jerusalem in Acts 15:6-21, though it isn’t immediately obvious if this means the original 12 Apostles, there is also the issue that Paul had to, at point after his return from ministry abroad, submitted himself to a council of Apostles per Galatians 1:11-24.

Perhaps here we consider that the Apostles referenced is not always synonymous with the original twelve but that an Apostolic Council, or a collegium of Apostles, would meet regularly to consider new leaders and aid in the direction of the earliest communities. This seems a reasonable point given that Acts 15 mentions the idea of Apostles and elders in some kind of council.

As a result, it would not have been natural for the New Testament to continue to include specific references to the 12 Apostles if they weren’t in view of the authors. For instance, if Thomas did go to India (and was often referred to as Jesus since he was Jesus’ identical twin…or not) it would be outside the normal development of texts primarily written about events in Judea to include him in their narrative. Perhaps, if for no other reason, the exclusion of the Apostles from the rest of the New Testament is a helpful authenticating device to show the truthfulness of the New Testament documents. While many Gnostic and pseudepigraphal texts attempt to draw the Apostles back into the ministry of the early church, the truthful New Testament texts represent an authentic picture.

Other texts indicate that the Apostles did indeed seek out regions for their ministry in the earliest days of Christianity. This would certainly account for the spread of Christianity across the Mediterranean region, Africa and Asia. While the Acts of Thomas is not a definitive text for what actually occurred, it likely has some data to provide for shaping the earliest Christian developments.


Resource Review: Faith Lessons Curriculum

Resource Review: Faith Lessons with Ray Vanderlaan

Resource Name: Faith Lessons

URL:  or the site

In a Sentence: Through live presentations filmed in archeological sites, this series takes the viewer into the places where biblical events occurred, tells the story, and draws applications.

Cost: $35/DVD or $320 for the entire set depending on where you shop

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars…an outstanding series


Perhaps I’m biased, but Faith Lessons videos were some of the first video curriculum options I encountered and began using in college and young adult group studies while in college. They were high quality then and continue to provide a tremendous group study experience.

Developed and hosted by Ray Vanderlaan, the Faith Lessons series has grown to 12 lessons sets with two holiday DVD sets that cover Easter and Christmas. As the ministry describes these videos they are:

In-depth video tours of the buried, distant, or otherwise forgotten places where the stories of the Bible actually happened. By weaving together fascinating historical, cultural, religious and geographical contexts, teacher and historian Ray Vander Laan reveals keen insights into the Scriptures significance for believers in this day and age.

What makes these videos unique is that Vanderlaan, as the host, takes a group of learners into an archeological place and films his talks. During these presentations Vanderlaan recounts the biblical story about that specific place, pointing out locations, buildings, and other relevant information that would have informed those who experienced those events in the biblical times. He then talks over how we read the story, begins drawing points, and comes to application for each of the videos. The entire method is very effective and it draws groups into the location with meaningful teaching content.

Click Here for a Video Demonstration

I first used the curriculum while leading a college aged small group where we covered the lesson series The Early Church. Already studying this era for my classes, the videos drew me in and our group participants who might otherwise have gotten bored with traditionally presented material. Being able to walk through the archeological sites and have a great teacher (Vanderlaan, not me) showing how the sites relate to New Testament texts made the biblical picture become more vibrant for these students.

One of the better parts of the video series is that I’ve now used this series with groups from college aged, young adults, middle aged adults, and even through senior adults. Each group is captured by the presentation and the discussions following are almost always full of life. This is a well researched and well done piece. It recently has gotten a make over from the older covers but the content remains the same. Though it might be a bit dated with regard to some of the fashions that appear on screen, this is easily overlooked as the content drives home important points.

Though you might well disagree with some of the thoughts, this is usually on some nettlesome issue that doesn’t effect the final, fuller application.

I really grew to enjoy these video curriculum options and have used them in every church which I have served in since my seminary days. As we can put high level, high quality content in front of our often distracted people we should find much treasure in these kinds of video curriculum options.

Lessons include:

  • Promised Land
  • Prophets & Kings
  • Life & Ministry of the Messiah
  • Death & Resurrection of the Messiah
  • Early Church
  • In the Dust of the Rabbi
  • Walk as Jesus Walked
  • God Heard their Cry
  • Fire on the Mountain
  • With All Your Heart
  • Walking with God in the Desert

So, my recommendation is to check out this series for yourself. You will certainly be benefitted. Also check out the YouTube channel above, it has many of the videos available from Zondervan.

As a final note: I have received no compensation nor preview copies of this curriculum in my review. This is an entirely objective review from a small groups leader in a local church.

Have you heard of this curriculum? How have you used it? What did you think?


Reading Revelation

In our Bible study group that meets on Sunday mornings, I’m currently a study called “Seven Kinds of Christians.” This study is using the seven churches of Asia minor as a context for talking about types of Christians.

One of the conversations that came up Sunday concerns how we are to read Revelation. Perhaps more than any other book in the New Testament, much less the rest of the Bible, the book of Revelation is terribly challenging to find consensus on with believers and scholars. The nature of the literature alone, the dramatic imagery, the allusions, its apocalyptic nature (it is called “The Apocalypse” in the Greek) all add to the challenge.

Growing up in a happy little neo-fundamentalist church, and then going to Liberty University, for my undergraduate, I had been taught the only proper way to read Revelation is from a purely futurist perspective. That is, the events of the book, particularly chapter 4-22, were all coming in the future. This lined up with the dispensational pre-tribulational, premillennial viewpoint taught at multiple levels in my formative years and collegiate education. I even studied with Dr Tim LaHaye and his group of leaders.

However, I no longer hold that view.

This is stunning for a lot of faithful church goers who have never been exposed to a complete presentation of the facts of these matters. For so many, their perspective on Revelation, and eschatology, has been informed like mine was informed.

There are four basic views of how to read Revelation:

  • Futurist view – the events of Revelation, particularly chapters 4 – 22, are describing coming events. (Ryrie, Patterson)
  • Historicist view – the events in Revelation describe historical instances throughout history. (Calvin, Edwards)
  • Idealist view – the events in Revelation speak about the spiritual battle between Satan and God throughout history. (Morris, Tenney)
  • Preterist view – the book of Revelation, having been written prior to AD/CE 70, describes events that will transpire at the fall of Jerusalem and by the end of the first century. (Hannegraf, Sproul)


Probe Ministries has a great discussion of these views at their website. Some scholars take an eclectic approach to reading Revelation which blends together two or three categories. For instance, GK Beale’s commentary on Revelation (which is outstanding) is an idealist-historicist read. George E Ladd also has a blended approach (preterist-futurist.)

Dispensationalists have better artwork than the rest of us.

Dispensationalists have better artwork than the rest of us.

My view on Revelation is an eclectic read that is between Beale and Ladd. Aspects of the book are clearly historical (first chapter, seven churches) while others are appear futurist (chapters 19-22.) There are challenges in the text, specifically how John is attempting to interpret massively symbolic acts along with figures and language that is clearly apocalyptic. Also, some of the figures and scenes are simply ontologically impossible.

So, I approach the text of Revelation with a historicist-futurist read of Revelation.

The first three chapters are the unfolding of the book and commissioning of it to the churches near John’s ministry. Chapters 4 – 18 are speaking of the grand narrative of salvation history as it has occurred in our time. Finally, chapter 19 – 22, speak of the coming final sequence of events.

Of course my eschatological view is important as I have moved from a dispensational pre-tribulational, pre-millennial view to historical premillennialism.

Being able to see that there is more than one way to read the book has a kind of liberating quality for so many of our church goers. We are no longer bound to an uneasy read, but we can allow them to study on their own and come to their conclusions. Ultimately, the one conclusion that we must reach is that Jesus is coming back and those who are in His Book have a greater future ahead.

So, how do you read Revelation? What challenges do you see in the book? What hope do you see?