I came across a couple of interesting Jewish interpretations in my study of I Chronicles 9. Here are two items.
1. I Chronicles 9:2 states: “Now the first inhabitants that dwelt in their possessions in their cities were, the Israelites, the priests, Levites, and the Nethinims” (KJV).
Who were the Nethinim? The Nethinim were non-Israelites who were given to the Levites to assist them in their work surrounding the Tabernacle, later the Temple. E.W. Bullinger in his comment on I Chronicles 9:2 refers to Numbers 31:47 and Ezra 8:20. Numbers 31:47 states that Moses took one out of fifty of the men from Israel’s plunder and gave them to the Levites. These men were foreign captives from Israel’s war. And Ezra 8:20 states that David and the princes appointed Nethinim to serve the Levites.
According to Jastrow’s dictionary, rabbinic literature interpreted the Nethinim to be the descendants of the Gibeonites, who appear in Joshua 9. The Gibeonites were Canaanites, and they were afraid that they would be destroyed in Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Consequently, they sent representatives to Joshua, falsely claimed to be from a faraway country, and tricked Joshua into entering an alliance with them. Joshua did so, which meant that he could not destroy the Gibeonites. Later, when Joshua learned that the Gibeonites had misrepresented themselves to him, Joshua made them “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and for the altar of the LORD, even unto this day, in the place which he should choose” (Joshua 9:27 KJV). Since the Gibeonites served the altar, as the Nethinim did, rabbinic literature tended to associate the Nethinim with the Gibeonites.
The Gibeonites appear again in II Samuel 21. God has sent a famine to Israel, and the reason is that King David’s predecessor, King Saul, killed Gibeonites. II Samuel 21 does not mention Joshua, but the reason that God in II Samuel 21 was so mad at Saul may have been that Saul violated Joshua’s promise not to kill the Gibeonites, or at least Saul violated the alliance between Israel and the Gibeonites for which Joshua 9 attempts to provide an etiology. David in II Samuel 21 asks the Gibeonites what he should do, and they suggest that he hang seven of the sons of Saul. David does so, and the famine goes away.
This story is an example of how disturbing the Old Testament can be to modern people, who generally believe that people should be punished for their own sins, not the sins of their parents or ancestors. They may have problems with hanging, too, though I am sure that there are conservatives who believe that we should return to that as a method of capital punishment. It turns out that there were rabbis who found the story to be disturbing, too. According to Babylonian Talmud Yebamoth 78b-c, Saul killed Gibeonites indirectly, when he slaughtered the priests of Nob in I Samuel 22. The idea here is that the priests were the ones who were supplying the Gibeonites with food, since the Gibeonites worked for the priests, and so, by killing the priests of Nob, Saul was depriving the Gibeonites of food. Years later, during the events of II Samuel 21, David acceded to the Gibeonites’ request that he hang seven of the sons of Saul to atone for what Saul did to them. Yet, in B.T. Yebamoth 78b-c, David was not happy with their request. He considered it to be brutal and unmerciful, and therefore he excluded the Nethinim from the Israelite community by forbidding them to intermarry with the Israelites. David himself issued a decree that would punish descendants for the misdeeds of their ancestors: because of what Gibeonites in his day requested, their descendants would never be able to join the community of Israel.
2. I Chronicles 9:20 states: “And Phinehas the son of Eleazar was the ruler over them in time past, and the LORD was with him” (KJV). The Jewish commentator Rashi seems to wonder why this verse says that Phinehas the priest ruled Israel in time past. Why highlight that Phinehas’ rule was in the past? Rashi says that it does so because Phinehas in the past prophesied to Israel, but God removed God’s Shechinah (presence) from Phinehas because Phinehas did not annul Jephthah’s vow to sacrifice his daughter to God (Judges 11). Phinehas was the priest in Judges 20:28, so Rashi believes that Phinehas was the priest during the time of Jephthah and had the authority to nullify Jephthah’s troubling vow. That is one Jewish attempt to deal with Jepthah’s vow: to say that God disapproved of it!
Incidentally, I wrote in my post here about the high priesthood and how there appears to be diversity within the Hebrew Bible about which family should have the high priesthood: Should it go through Aaron’s son Ithamar (through whom Eli and Abiathar came), or Aaron’s son Eleazar (though whom Phinehas and, according to the Chronicler, Zadok came)? I’m not saying that there is any place in the Hebrew Bible that supports Ithamar, but it is interesting to me that Ithamar’s descendants were the high priests in I-II Samuel, when God had promised Eleazar’s son Phinehas an everlasting priesthood in Numbers 25:13, plus Phinehas appears to be the high priest in Judges 20:28. What happened to Phinehas? Was the priesthood taken away from him and given to Ithamar’s line? Could the Jewish story of how God removed God’s presence from Phinehas be (at least in part) an attempt to address this question? In any case, Phinehas’ line got the high priesthood back, assuming that Zadok was the descendant of Phinehas.
I enjoy your discussions about the Old Testament a lot, I learn a great deal. 🙂
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