Arabia | The Voice 12.05: January 30, 2022

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Few landscapes in the world prove as inhospitable as the desert lands to the south of Israel. Nevertheless, tribes of people have lived and even thrived in the land of Arabia throughout time.

“Arabia” generally refers to the Arabian Peninsula, the large strip of land extending south of Israel and Mesopotamia between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Throughout recorded history the majority of this territory has been desert, able only to sustain nomadic tribes of pastoralists which we often call the “Bedouin.” Only the areas in the southern Arabian Peninsula in modern day Yemen and Oman featured more rainfall and a more pleasant climate; Yemen was thus known to the Romans as Arabia Felix, and these regions were the main provider of frankincense used throughout the ancient world in religious rituals. In Solomon’s day Yemen was ruled by the Kingdom of Saba, from which the Queen of Sheba would come and visit him (cf. 1 Kings 10:1-10).

For our purposes we will focus upon the northwestern portion of the Arabian Peninsula: the lands directly south of Israel and Edom, which is in modern day northwestern Saudi Arabia, parts of southern Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. All of these lands receive very little precipitation; only on oases could anyone maintain permanent dwellings. Since the people were mostly nomadic, it is difficult to speak of the “land of Midian” or the “land of Amalek” like we would speak of Egypt or Israel or Assyria; their “lands” would be the areas in which they would roam to find places to feed their animals and survive.

People have dwelt in Arabia for a very long time. According to the Scriptures the tribes the Israelites encountered in Arabia descended from Abraham: Midian was Abraham’s son through Keturah; Ishmael would become known as the father of the Arabian tribes; Amalek was a grandson of Esau (Genesis 25:2, 12-18, 36:10). These Bedouin tribes in the Sinai and northwest Arabian Peninsulas feature prominently in pre-monarchic Israelite history.

The Amalekites proved a concern because of their proximity, dwelling in the Negev, the southern part of Judah which would not have maintained a firm boundary out in the desert (cf. Numbers 13:29). We know of them only through the Biblical witness; descended from Esau, yet deemed by Balaam as among the first of the nations (Numbers 24:20). The Amalekites attacked Israel while they were wandering in the Wilderness, yet Israel was able to defeat them through YHWH’s help (Exodus 17:8-16); because of this Moses will compel Israel to destroy Amalek (cf. Deuteronomy 25:17-19). YHWH charged Saul to complete this task, and he did kill many in Amalek (1 Samuel 15:1-9, 33), but not everyone. The Amalekites would continue to harass and attack the southern reaches of Judah and Philistia, including Ziklag when David was king over it; David attacked and killed that band of Amalekites (1 Samuel 30:1-31). We hear nothing more of Amalek after this, although it would seem Haman, enemy of Israel in the days of Xerxes of Persia, as an Agagite, might descend from Agag king of Amalek (1 Samuel 15:33, Esther 3:1, 10).

Midian and the Midianites are generally strongly associated with the areas to the east and southeast of the Gulf of Aqaba in modern day northwestern Saudi Arabia. It is not known whether we can speak of Midian as a tribe or a confederation of tribes. In Exodus 2:13-22 Moses fled from Egypt to Midian; Reuel (named Jethro in Exodus 18:1) was deemed a priest of Midian, and Moses married his daughter Zipporah. Since Moses is shepherding Reuel’s flock when he comes to Horeb/Sinai, it might well be that Sinai is not the traditionally accepted mountain in the Sinai Peninsula, but instead Jebel al-Lawz in northwestern Saudi Arabia; if that is the case, then Israel spent a lot of time in Midianite territory while wandering in the Wilderness. It would seem that Balak king of Moab was in a strong alliance with the Midianites, since he plotted with the Midianite elders against Israel and hired Balaam son of Beor to prophesy against them (Numbers 22:3-7). The idolatry of Baal of Peor was primarily about Israelites taking Moabite women, but Cozbi, killed by Phinehas, was a Midianite princess, and YHWH commanded them to destroy Midian for this offense (Numbers 25:1-18). Israel struck Midian violently and killed Balaam son of Beor who was among them in Numbers 31:1-24). Yet the Midianites endured. Zebah and Zalmunna, kings of Midian, oppressed Israel in the days of Gideon and maintained a mighty army; Gideon, his associates, and the Ephraimites struck the Midianites strongly and thoroughly defeated them (Judges 6:1-8:28). We do not hear of the Midianites in any significant capacity afterward.

The Kenites seem to be either a family within or a tribe among the Midianites. The Judges author identified the Kenites as the descendants of Reuel/Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, and spoke of them as living in the Negev of Judah (Judges 1:16). Heber the Kenite’s wife Jael would become famous for being the one to drive a tent peg through the head of Sisera, army commander of the Canaanites (Judges 4:11-22). Balaam prophesied that the Kenites would be consumed and taken away by the Assyrians (Numbers 24:22); nevertheless, Rechab the Kenite and the Rechabites also dwelled in tents in Judah throughout the monarchic period, receiving commendation from YHWH for their faithfulness to their father’s decrees in Jeremiah 35:1-19. Some Kenites, therefore, would assimilate into the population of Judah and likely remain thus to this day.

We can notice that the Scriptures speak less of these Arabian tribes once the Israelite monarchy is well established; from this we can conclude that they took advantage of political instability and caused distress and grief to the Levantine peoples until a strong centralized government held sway and kept them at bay. Whoever might remain among them would have continued to dwell as the Bedouin of the area.

A great power would arise in these parts of Arabia in the wake of the collapse of the Kingdom of Judah: the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans might descend from Nebaioth, son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13); they seem to be an Arabic tribe which came out of an Aramaic cultural milieu. As the Edomites encroached upon Judahite territory during the days of the exile, it would seem the Nabataeans encroached on Edomite territory. With the local powers decimated, the Nabataeans took over the trade routes leading deeper into Arabia and its frankincense and myrrh. The Persians left them alone since they let Cambyses travel to Egypt in peace, but the Seleucid Macedonians constantly, and unsuccessfully, attempted to overcome the Nabataeans in order to secure those trading routes. The heyday of Nabataean power came in the first centuries BCE and CE: they conquered parts of Syria and ruled over Damascus and most of the Transjordan, as was prophesied by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 25:1-10). The “Arabia” to which Paul fled would have been this Nabataean Kingdom, perhaps even to Petra its capital (Galatians 1:17); the King Aretas of 2 Corinthians 11:32 is Aretas king of Nabataea, whose daughter had been married to Herod Antipas until the latter divorced her to marry his sister (cf. Matthew 14:3-5). In anger Aretas fought against Herod and destroyed his army. Over the next century the Nabataeans ceased their warlike spirit and took to the life of trading and agriculture, developing extremely complex engineering to allow them to maintain continual sources of water at Petra, a city which remains one of the great architectural masterpieces of antiquity. The Nabataeans would be conquered by the Roman emperor Trajan in 106, converting their land into the Roman province Arabia Petraea.

The desert lands to the south of Judah and Edom proved harsh and difficult but not entirely inhospitable. The Israelites met their God in those lands; YHWH might well have been served by some of those desert nomads. May we all seek to honor and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Voice 5.10: March 08, 2015

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The Assyrians, the scourge of Israel, were the strongest power of the day. It would not be long before they would decimate and then destroy the northern Kingdom of Israel. How could YHWH want such people to repent and be saved? Such is the mentality of the prophet Jonah.

Sistine jonah Jonah is the thirty-second book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible it is part of the Nevi’im, the Prophets; in the Greek Septuagint Jonah is the sixth of the Duodecim (Latinized; Dodeka in Greek), “the Twelve.” In Hebrew Jonah’s name is the same word as for “dove,” generally a sign of peace (e.g. Genesis 8:8-11, but also Hosea 11:11 in terms of Assyria). Jonah son of Amittai came from Gath-hepher, on the border of Zebulun near Nazareth (Joshua 19:13), and prophesied of Jeroboam’s (II) restoration of the borders of Israel to their former state (2 Kings 14:25; ca. 786-746 BCE). While Obadiah and Nahum prophesy against other nations, Jonah alone among the Twelve actually goes to the nation and preaches to them without respect to Israel; while we primarily hear the voice of the other eleven prophets, Jonah’s story is being told by an inspired narrator of whom we know nothing. The book of Jonah tells how YHWH summoned Jonah to preach to Nineveh in Assyria so as to demonstrate YHWH’s concern for people of all the nations.

The book of Jonah begins with the story of God’s first call and Jonah’s rejection of that call (Jonah 1:1-17). YHWH’s word came to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh and cry against it (Jonah 1:1-2). Jonah attempted to flee, embarking on a boat heading to Tarshish away from YHWH (possibly Tartessus in Spain; Jonah 1:3). While the boat was at sea YHWH stirred up a large storm; each person cried out to their god; Jonah was asleep; the crew woke him; they cast lots and learned Jonah was the cause of the storm (Jonah 1:4-7). Jonah explained how he served YHWH the God of heaven; the crew was afraid; Jonah offered to be cast overboard; the crew resists but ultimately does so, praying to YHWH for mercy; when Jonah goes overboard the storm stops; the crew offered sacrifice to YHWH (Jonah 1:8-16). A large fish swallowed Jonah and he was in its belly three days and nights (Jonah 1:17).

Jonah prayed while in the belly of the fish, poetically narrating his descent into the waters, his helplessness, and YHWH’s deliverance (Jonah 2:1-9). The fish vomited Jonah up onto dry land (Jonah 2:10).

YHWH again called Jonah to go to Nineveh, and this time he obeys (Jonah 3:1-3). He cried out that Nineveh would be overthrown in forty days; the people of Nineveh believed in God and fasted, even the king in Nineveh, who decreed fasting, sackcloth, and prayers for relief (Jonah 3:4-9). God saw and relented of the calamity which He was going to bring upon Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).

Jonah, however, is none too pleased; in anger he prays to YHWH, indicating he had spoken of this when first summoned, knowing that YHWH was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and had fled to Tarshish because he knew YHWH would relent; he wanted to die (Jonah 4:1-3). YHWH asks if he does well to be angry (Jonah 4:4). Jonah then sat outside of the city in a booth to see what would become of Nineveh: it got hot, and YHWH prepared a plant for him to give him shade, and it pleased him (Jonah 4:5-6). The next day the plant withered, and a very hot east wind arose, and Jonah asked to die on account of the heat; God asked if he does well to be angry about the plant; Jonah believed so, even to the point of death (Jonah 4:7-9). YHWH provides the lesson: Jonah showed concern for the plant for which he had done nothing to make or nourish and lived but a day, so why should YHWH have no concern for more than 120,000 Ninevites who do not know their right hand from their left and who have many cattle (Jonah 4:10-11)?

Most people remember Jonah’s story on account of the big fish; it may have been a whale, since Israelites tended to categorize creatures by environment or function as opposed to our categorization system (cf. Leviticus 11:13-19), or it could have been a sea creature no longer in existence. Jonah’s three days and nights in the fish prefigure Jesus’ time in death before His resurrection (the “sign of Jonah,” Matthew 12:38-41, 16:4, Luke 11:29-32). Nevertheless, the book of Jonah is less about the big fish or even Nineveh and more about YHWH and Israel. YHWH loves Israel, abounds in covenant loyalty, and is gracious and merciful; He is able to show the same love and loyalty to foreign nations, even foreign nations whom He will use to judge His people. Nineveh will have its day of destruction as Nahum makes clear (Nahum 1:1-3:19), but it would not be in the day of Jonah, because they had repented.

We do well to learn the message of Jonah: God is love, and does not want anyone to be condemned but all to come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 1 John 4:8). Let us proclaim the Gospel to all the creation so all may praise God the Father in the name of Jesus the Son (Mark 16:15, Romans 1:16)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Voice 5.06: February 08, 2015

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Obadiah and Nahum

The Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and humiliated the southern Kingdom of Judah. The Edomites attempted to take advantage of Judah when they were down and out. YHWH had noticed. He spoke condemnation upon them through His prophets Obadiah and Nahum.

Obadiah is the thirty-first book and Nahum the thirty-fourth book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible they are part of the Nevi’im, the Prophets; in the Greek Septuagint Obadiah is the fifth and Nahum the seventh of the Duodecim (Latinized; Dodeka in Greek), “the Twelve.” Nahum is most likely earlier than Obadiah; he prophesies between the fall of Thebes in Egypt (ca.664 BCE; Nahum 3:8-10) and Nineveh in Assyria (612 BCE; Nahum 2:3-4), and within that range most likely between 660-630 BCE. Obadiah’s message does not have any specific chronological information and has been dated from 850 BCE to 400 BCE. Nevertheless Obadiah is most likely prophesying after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (586 BCE; Obadiah 1:11 yet is anticipating Babylon’s campaign against Edom (553 BCE; Obadiah 1:15-16). The two prophets live at distinct times and prophesy to different nations but among the Twelve they devote their messages primarily to foreign nations and not to Israel and Judah (Jonah prophesies to the Assyrians but the story as told is directed to Israelites). Obadiah condemns Edom for their rapaciousness against Judah and warns about the judgment coming upon them. Nahum warns Nineveh of the wrath of YHWH’s vengeance which will come against it swiftly.

Abdias Obadiah sets forth the vision he received (Obadiah 1:1-21): YHWH will make Edom small among the nations; its pride will be humbled (Obadiah 1:1-4). Esau will be thoroughly pillaged with nothing left, having been deceived by former allies, and the wisdom of the wise is for naught (Obadiah 1:5-9). This judgment comes upon Edom because of how they treated their brother Judah: they stood aloof when Judah was ravaged, and they should not gloat over the downfall of Judah and encroach so as to pillage (Obadiah 1:10-14). The Day of YHWH is upon the nations, and their deeds will return upon their heads (Obadiah 1:15): Israel will again rise and possess its land and will then consume Edom; all Edom will be ruled by Israel (Obadiah 1:16-21).

Nahum of Elkosh also sets forth the vision he received (Nahum 1:1-3:19): YHWH is jealous and avenging; the land shakes before Him; He pours out His wrath against the adversaries but provides refuge for His people (Nahum 1:1-11). YHWH promises that those who have power will be cut down; the yoke will be removed; the idols will fall; good news will be brought; Judah must keep feasts and vows, for the enemy will be cut off (Nahum 1:12-15). YHWH is restoring the majesty of Israel by destroying Nineveh; Nahum evocatively describes the siege and war that leads to Nineveh’s devastation and destruction (Nahum 2:1-13). Nahum declares woe upon Nineveh as the “bloody city,” full of plunder, now full of slain in the streets, suffering because of its idolatry (Nahum 3:1-4). YHWH is against Nineveh and will cause the nations to see its shame; none will mourn for Nineveh (Nahum 3:5-7). Nahum asks whether Nineveh is better than Thebes in Egypt which suffered destruction and devastation; the presumed answer is no, and thus Nineveh will suffer the same fate (Nahum 3:8-10; Thebes was attacked in 664 BCE). Nineveh will go into captivity: its fortresses are ripe for destruction, and its soldiers weak (Nahum 3:11-13). Nahum (likely sarcastically) advises them to prepare for siege, but it will end in destruction; their merchants and princes are as locusts and grasshoppers, here today, gone tomorrow (Nahum 3:14-17). Assyria will be grievously wounded but all will be pleased, for Assyria’s unceasing evil has afflicted all the nations (Nahum 3:18-19).

The visions of Obadiah and Nahum may be short but remain quite compelling. The fulfillment of their words is nothing short of astonishing: even though Edom was allied with the Babylonians, Nabonidus would turn against Edom in 553 BCE to more effectively control trade routes in Arabia (cf. Nabonidus Chronicle). In 125 BCE John Hyrcanus of Judea conquered Edom and forced them to convert to Judaism, vividly fulfilling Obadiah 1:21 (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 13.9.1, 14.4.4). While Nahum prophesied Assyria was the strongest empire in the land at the height of their power; the entire ancient Near Eastern world was astonished at the speed of the fall of the Assyrian Empire at the end of the seventh century. Nineveh was the largest city of the world for fifty years; after an internal civil war a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Scythians, and Cimmerians attacked and destroyed it in 612 BCE, fulfilling Nahum’s oracle (cf. Babylonian Chronicles). Three years later Nebuchadnezzar defeated the remnant of the Assyrians and it was all over!

Obadiah and Nahum remind us that YHWH is loyal to His covenant. His people may rebel against Him and He may punish them for a time; nevertheless, the time will come when YHWH will gain vengeance over those who humiliate His people. Perhaps few believed it at the time, but YHWH proved faithful to His oracles through these prophets, whether quickly or over time. YHWH remains God; He is jealous and avenging; He is slow to anger, great in power, but will not clear the unrepentant guilty. May we ever serve Him and take refuge in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Voice 4.50: December 14, 2014

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A great plague threatened Israel. Would the people of God repent? What would happen on the great day of YHWH? We learn about such things from the prophet Joel.

Joel is the twenty-ninth book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible it is part of the Nevi’im, the Prophets; in the Greek Septuagint Joel is the fourth of the Duodecim (Latinized; Dodeka in Greek), “the Twelve.” Joel’s name means Yahweh is God. The book does not specify when Joel prophesied; concern about the land indicates he spoke either during the later period of the divided kingdoms (ca. 800-600 BCE) or after the return from exile (ca. 530-400 BCE). Joel warns and comforts Israel regarding the judgments in the “day” of YHWH, with danger in the near term and hope for the long term.

Joel’s warnings are found in Joel 1:1-2:17. Joel summons the elders and people of Israel to hear of what YHWH is planning, a thing not seen in the past, and remarkable for the future: a series of locusts will have devoured the produce of the land (Joel 1:1-4). Drunkards should lament the devastation wrought by this nation which entered the land: offerings cease, the priests, the farmers, and the ground mourn, and gladness is gone in the face of famine (Joel 1:5-12). Joel then calls all people to consecrate a fast, to lament and repent, for the day of YHWH and the devastation it brings is near, causing famine and devastation in the land (Joel 1:13-20). The trumpet should be blown, for the danger of the day of YHWH is at hand; it is described as thick darkness, fearful, devouring like fire, as paradise before them but a desert behind them; they look like horses and a powerful army, powerfully advancing ahead, fully set on devastation; before them all are afraid and melt away, and they enter everywhere (Joel 2:1-9). On account of this the earth quakes, the heavens tremble and are darkened, for YHWH speaks to His army; the day of YHWH is great and awesome, and who can endure it (Joel 2:10-11)? Yet it need not be this way: YHWH gives His people an opportunity to repent, returning to Him with fasting, weeping, and mourning, rending their hearts; the summons is made for all people to consecrate a fast and weep, lament, and mourn (Joel 2:12-17).

In Joel 2:18 YHWH becomes jealous for His land and has pity on His people. He sends food and prosperity, and they will no longer be a reproach among the nations; the northerner will be removed from them and driven away; the land will be given reason to rejoice in its produce and the people for their overflowing prosperity; they will praise YHWH and His people will not be put to shame (Joel 2:19-27).

Joel then looks forward to an upcoming day of YHWH in Joel 2:28-3:3. In those days YHWH will pour out His Spirit on all flesh, even male and female servants (Joel 2:27-28). Wonders and signs will be seen in the heavens and on earth; those who call on the name of YHWH will be saved, and a remnant will remain in Zion (Joel 2:29-32). At that time YHWH will gather the nations in the Valley of Jehoshaphat (“YHWH judged”): there He will render judgment on them since they have scattered His people, mistreated them, and divided His land (Joel 3:1-3).

Joel continues his oracles against the nations in Joel 3:4-21. Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia come under condemnation for selling Judean captives to the Greeks as slaves; God will bring them back into their land and bring recompense by selling the Phoenicians to the Sabeans (Joel 3:4-8). A summons is made for war, turning plowshares into swords and pruning hooks into speaks, preparing war against the nations; YHWH will render judgment at the Valley of Jehoshaphat; YHWH is powerful but remains a refuge and stronghold for His people (Joel 3:9-16). The Israelites will know YHWH is their God when they dwell in Zion without strangers passing through, full of produce and prosperity (Joel 3:17-18). Egypt and Edom, for their violence against Judah, will become as a wilderness while Judah will be inhabited; YHWH will avenge the blood of those in Judah (Joel 3:19-21).

The book of Joel leaves us with a few questions: is the marauding army really of locusts or is it a reference to Assyria and/or Babylon? Did YHWH relent before the disaster or did He restore what was lost? The power in Joel’s message, however, is beyond doubt; Peter makes it known that the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost is a fulfillment of what Joel had spoken (Acts 2:14-31); the locust army is seen again in John’s vision in Revelation 9:1-12. Joel vividly speaks of YHWH’s judgment as the day of YHWH; His judgments lead to pestilence and destruction for those who have turned away from Him, and yet brings prosperity and hope for those who find refuge in Him. Let us repent of our wickedness, turn to God in Christ, and obtain the hope of prosperity in the resurrection for those who serve the LORD God!

Ethan R. Longhenry