The New Testament contains two different versions of Judas Iscariot's demise: suicide by hanging (Matthew 27:3-10) and spontaneous gastrointestinal explosion (Acts 1:18-19). Despite the significant differences between these two versions, both associate the death of Judas with a place in Jerusalem called Akeldama, the Field of Blood. Since the fourth century this name has been connected with a plot of land south of the Old City, in the Hinnom Valley. Today it is the site of the Greek Orthodox monastery of St Onuphrius (pictured above), which has occupied the site since 1874. Death hangs heavy in the air here. The whole area in and around the Hinnom Valley (aka Gehenna) is full of burial caves cut into the rock face. Many of these belonged to the aristocracy of Jerusalem in the First and Second Temple periods. The site of Akeldama contains Jewish burial caves from the Hellenistic era and was later used as a charnel house during the Crusader period.
Let's have a closer look at these two versions of the death of Judas in the NT. In Matthew's version, on the morning of the crucifixion (Friday), Judas regrets having betrayed Jesus and tries to return the 30 pieces of silver to the Temple authorities. They refuse to accept the money, claiming that it is too late: Jesus has already been arrested, tried by both the Jews and Romans and condemned to death by Pilate. This is your problem, not ours, they tell him. Dejected, Judas hangs himself (in an unspecified location). The money that he relinquished is then used by the Temple authorities to purchase a field known as the Potter's Field, which becomes a burial ground for foreigners. It is clear that what is driving this story is Matthew's desire to cite yet another verse from the Old Testament in order to show that the gospel fulfills prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures. Here, the verse cited is Zechariah 11:13, with some additions from Jeremiah 18:2; 32:7-9. So according to Matthew's gospel, Akeldama got its name after it was purchased by the priests using the money that Judas earned by "betraying the innocent blood" of his teacher Jesus.
In the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we find a rather different version. First, it is Judas himself who purchases the field with the money he received ("the reward of his wickedness"), and not the priests. Secondly, Judas does not hang himself. He does not even seem to commit suicide, nor does he express any regret for betraying Jesus. Rather, the text provides the following mysterious sentence: "and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels rushed out" (Acts 1:18). What does this mean? What caused him to fall so violently that his belly exploded? What message does the author of Acts wish to communicate through this grizzly (perhaps "visceral" is the most apt word) scene? The Greek text of the verse reads as follows:
I find Most's interpretation fascinating but wonder if there might be a better answer. Another solution to this question might be found in an alternative reading of the verse in question which inserts the word πεπρησμενος ("swelling up") instead of πρηνὴς γενόμενος ("falling headlong"). This reading has been accepted by many NT scholars (see W. Bauer, Lexicon, s.v. πρηνής). This would mean that Judas' belly became distended to the point that it burst open. Could it be that the author of Acts was thinking of another biblical passage in which a betrayer is punished by means of a swollen belly that eventually leads to death? The best candidate for this is the Sotah ritual, an elaborate examination meant to convict a woman suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:11-31). The important verse for our purposes reads as follows:
I think this similarities are too numerous to ignore. The author of Acts constructed this vignette of Judas' death with the Sotah ritual in mind. His goal was not simply to vilify Judas but to demonstrate his guilt in an objective manner. The Akeldama episode serves as Judas' trial. The fact that he is tried in the manner of an adulterous woman demonstrates that Luke-Acts is not only interested in satanizing Judas (Lk 22:3), but also in feminizing him (Lk 22:47-8)
What these two versions of Judas' death have in common is that they are aetiological in nature. That is, they are intended to explain the origin of a name, in this case a place name (toponym). The name of the place associated with these two stories, Akeldama (Greek - Ἁκελδαμάχ) comes from two Aramaic words, field (חקל) and blood (דמא). Presumably, the original reason for this name was the reddish color of the soil. This is somewhat similar to the name of the "red ascent" (Maale Adumim) and the "red inn" (Khan el Ahmar) which are located on a stretch of the Jericho-Jerusalem road famous for its exposed pink limestone (see picture below). Both stories of the demise of Judas make the case that redness of the soil in Akeldama is due to the spilling of human blood; for Matthew it is Jesus' blood, while for Luke it is Judas' blood (not to mention his intestines).
There has been lots written in the last few weeks about a Proto-Aeolic column capital discovered in situ at Ein Joweizeh, in the Refaim Valley just outside Jerusalem. Proto-Aeolic (sometimes called Proto-Ionic) capitals have been found at many of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, including Megiddo, Hazor, Jerusalem, Samaria and Ramat Rachel (image above). Most date to the 9th-8th centuries BCE. They are considered the forerunners of the Greek Ionic order. Yigal Shiloh speculated that the volutes, a stylized motif based on the shape of a palm tree, were copied by the Israelites from the Phoenicians.
The Proto-Aeolic capital recently discovered at Ein Joweizeh ("Spring of the Little Nut" in Arabic) is a rare find because it is still connected to the column itself. It seems to have survived because it is carved directly into the bedrock several meters underground, at the opening to what is perhaps an even more impressive find: a water tunnel which dates to the First Temple Period and is the longest of its kind in the region (approx. 200 meters long). You can read an official report here. Much of the media coverage of the story has been focused on the political angle. Because Ein Joweizeh is located on the Palestinian side of the security barrier that surrounds the West Bank (this section has not yet been completed), the Israel Antiquities Authority was hoping to "let sleeping dogs lie" and did not initially publicize the find. Then all hell broke loose when the Kfar Etzion Field School announced the cover-up to the newspaper Mekor Rishon late last year. Last week the location of the capital was finally made public.
Today I was fortunate enough to visit this site, thanks to my friend and colleague Maayan Leshem. We were hoping to see the capital but were disappointed to find the opening to the tunnel filled in with dirt. Apparently all the media attention that the site has been getting in recent weeks has gotten the local inhabitants of Wallajeh (the Arab village where the spring is located) quite nervous. Presumably they are worried that if archaeologists begin to excavate the site, something of major importance will no doubt turn up which will result in the confiscation of their agricultural lands. Let's hope that the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Kfar Etzion Field School are able to come to a compromise with the local residents that satisfies everyone. In addition to the Proto-Aeolic capital and the water system, there might well be remains of a royal estate or an administrative center associated with the kings of Judah dating to the 8th century. The nicely chiseled ashlars one can see distributed around the area are a good hint that something big is lurking beneath the surface. Some have even proposed that this site is ממשת (MMST), the unidentified fourth royal city found on the LMLK jar handles, the other three being Soccoh, Hebron and Ziph.
Following Moses’ receipt of the Law and his descent from Mount Sinai, Exodus 24 contains a description of a unique ritual which ratifies the covenant between God and Israel:
The blood of the slaughtered bull is divided into two portions. Half is thrown against the altar, which represents God; the other half is presumably thrown against the twelve pillars, which represent the people of Israel. The covenant between God and Israel is thus sealed by means of both parties’ symbols being bathed in the bull’s blood. In the case of a standard sacrifice, the blood of an animal is drained and thrown against the altar. People are forbidden to eat this blood because it symbolizes life (see Gen 9:4). By ritually throwing the blood against the altar, the animal’s life-force (nefesh) is restored to God (Lev 17:11). The ratification ritual here in Exodus 24 is more complex than a typical sacrifice because it involves a restoration of the animal’s life to both the Creator and to humankind. This two-fold restoration of life serves as a visceral testimony which solidifies the relationship between the two parties.
But what really interests me in this passage is one particular word. The word translated here as “basins” is אגנות (aganot) in the original Hebrew, a rare word in the Bible. Normally when the priestly sections of the Torah refer to a basin for gathering blood the word used is מזרק (mizrak), literally "thrower", because it was used to dash the blood against the altar (e.g., Num 7 passim). Another common vessel found in Numbers 7 is a קערה (ke'ara) a bowl, dish or platter, from the Semitic root meaning to hollow out, make deep. The Mishnah uses the word בזיך (bazikh) to refer to a round vessel to gather the blood or entrails of sacrificed animals (m. Pes. 5.5; m. Tam. 4.3). With so many more common terms, why does the author of Exodus choose to use the rare word אגן here?
Let’s have a look at the etymology of the word and where else it appears in the Bible. The origin of the word is the Akkadian agannu, which means a bowl or cauldron. From Akkadian it made its way into several Semitic languages including: Hebrew (אגן) Aramaic (אגנא), Syriac (ܐܓܢܐ) and Arabic (إجانه).
Apart from our verse the word appears twice in the Bible: Isa 22:24 and Song 7:3. In the first example, Isaiah, having denounced Shebna, the corrupt royal steward (i.e., vizier or prime minister) to King Hezekiah, prophecies that a new steward named Eliakim the son of Hilkiah will be appointed:
It should be noted, by the way, that in 1870 the famous archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau discovered a lavishly decorated 8th century BCE rock-cut tomb in the in the village of Silwan across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. It bears an inscription which reads “This is … yahu who is the Master over the Household” (זאת... יהו אשר על הבית). See picture below. Many archaeologists believe that the missing part of the inscription contained the words “the grave of Sheban,” making this a reference to the same individual denounced in Isaiah 22:15-19. In verse 15 Shebna is referred to as “master of the household” and verse 16 castigates him for “hewing your grave on the height and chiseling your resting place in the rock”.
The only other verse in the Bible that uses the word אגן (agan) is found in the erotically charged description of the female lover’s body (from the feet up to the head) in chapter 7 of the Song of Songs:
Each part of the woman’s body is compared to an object found in nature. The woman’s navel is compared to a round bowl used for mixing wine. The term used here for the bowl is not just אגן - but אגן הסהר (agan ha-sahar), literally the “full moon basin”. The word סהר (sahar) which means crescent in post-biblical Hebrew, is another example of a word that comes from Akkadian: sa’ru which means ring. This verse is the only instance of the word סהר in the entire Bible. The point is that this is a two-step analogy: the woman’s navel is compared to a round bowl which is in turn compared to the full moon.
Thus far it is not clear what is driving the author of Exodus 24:6 to use the word אגן. In the Septuagint, our verse from Exodus is translated as follows:
The Hebrew word אגן becomes κρατήρ in Greek. A krater is a large bowl used to mix wine and water, as seen in the image below. This is quite different from the small bowl alluded to in Isaiah 22:24. Interestingly, the only other use of the word κρατήρ in the LXX is to translate the flower shaped cups (גביעים) of the menorah, described in the following chapter of Exodus (25:31-40).
The reason that the word used in Exodus 24:6 is אגן is to distinguish the blood dashed against the altar from that that which is thrown upon the people. For the former, a "dashing-bowl" (מזרק) is sufficient; but for the latter a different vessel, something far larger is necessary. It would be inappropriate to equate the portion of blood given to God with that which is given to the people. Whereas God’s altar is bathed in pure blood, the portion reserved for the people is perhaps diluted in water in a mixing vessel used to blend wine (as seen in Songs 7:3).
The Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat, which was celebrated last week, is most famously mentioned in the opening mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashanah as one of the four new years in the Jewish calendar:
ארבעה ראשי שנים הם: באחד בניסן, ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים. באחד באלול, ראש השנה למעשר בהמה; רבי אלעזר ורבי שמעון אומרין, באחד בתשרי. באחד בתשרי, ראש השנה לשנים לשמיטים וליובלות, ולנטיעה ולירקות. באחד בשבט, ראש השנה לאילן, כדברי בית שמאי; בית הלל אומרין, בחמישה עשר בו.
“There are four new years: The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month.” (Mishnah RH 1:1, translation Joshua Kulp)
Let us set aside Tu B'Shevat for a moment, however. I want to focus on another aspect of this mishnah, namely the connection of the first of Nisan to the first of Tishri. Nisan and Tishri are both more than mere months. They are packed with festive activity. Both are regarded in the rabbinic tradition as tekufot, annual quarters, a temporal designation perhaps analogous to our modern concept of seasons. The question that interests me is what is the connection between the liturgical experiences of the Nisan season and the Tishri season? And furthermore, what does this have to do with the weekly parshah which often coincides with Tu B'Shevat, B'shalach?
In the period of the Bible, the Israelites celebrated two new years, one in Nisan and one in Tishri. The process by which these two festivals developed into our Pesach and Rosh Hashanah is a complex one which we will not explore here. The point is that in mishnaic times both dates were still recognized as new years. Each date has its own identity. Nisan marks the beginning of the royal cycle. Nisan marks the beginning of the agricultural cycle. One might argue that this mishnah is making a distinction between the human and natural domains, however I think it is more apt to speak of a distinction between the historical and the terrestrial. Or perhaps the urban and the rural. Put otherwise, the mishnah is defining two temporal realities: one for the official Judaism of Jerusalem (the seat of monarchy and the destination of festival pilgrimages) and one for the local Judaism of the provinces (where agricultural laws were most relevant). To this day, our calendar marks these two new beginnings by means of the holidays of Pesach and Rosh Hashanah. In the eyes of the rabbis these two holidays were not only linked, but they were in competition with each other for the highest prestige, as can be seen in the following text:
“R. Eliezer says: The world was created in Tishri, in Tishri the Patriarchs were born, and in Tishri the Patriarchs died. R Joshua says: The world was created in Nisan, in Nisan the Patriarchs were born, and in Nisan the Patriarchs died.” (Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 10b)
Another item which figured in rabbinic arguments over Nisan vs. Tishri was the liturgical commemoration of the 'Aqedah, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). On what day did the 'Aqedah originally take place and when should we memorialize it? Today, we are used to thinking of the 'Aqedah in connection with Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashanah is taken from Genesis 22. We publicly read this narrative to remind (kivyachol) God, of the mercy he showed Abraham and to convince him to similarly take mercy upon us on the Day of Judgment. Moreover, the central symbol of the holiday, the shofar (preferably a ram's horn), is commonly seen as an allusion to the ram who is sacrificed in place of Isaac at the end of the story. Nevertheless, a divergent tradition which associated the 'Aqedah with Pesach is preserved in our sources:
“And when [God] chose Jacob and his sons, he fixed for himself the new moon of Redemption, in which Israel were redeemed from Egypt and in which they will be redeemed in the future...and in this month Isaac was born and in it he was brought to the 'Aqedah.” (Shemot Rabbah 15:11)
In the end, as we know, Tishri vanquished Nisan, and Rosh Hashanah claimed the rights to the 'Aqedah. But what about Nisan? Did it receive anything in exchange? Is there a parallel narrative associated with the Nisan season which similarly exemplifies the courage of the Jewish people to do God's will and displays God intervening in human affairs in a dramatic way?
To find the answer we must look at the Torah readings for both holidays. What we find is that on both Rosh Hashanah and Pesach we read well-known narrative sequences from the Torah which culminate in a suspenseful episode in which God dramatically intervenes. As we have already said, the 'Aqedah is the reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. However this incident is in fact only the second half of a larger narrative (Genesis 21-22) which is read over the two days of Rosh Hashanah. The narrative is the story of Isaac's coming of age: from his long-awaited and miraculous birth, to his weaning party, to his dynastic victory over his brother Ishmael, finally culminating in God's command that he be sacrificed.
Similarly, the Torah reading for Pesach is a major Pentateuchal narrative spread out over two days of the holiday (in this case, the first and seventh days), namely the departure from Egypt (Exodus 12-15): from God's command to sacrifice the paschal lamb, to the killing of the Egyptian first borns, to Israel's flight, to the encampment beside the Sea of Reeds, to the spectacular splitting of the sea, culminating finally in the Song at the Sea (“Shirat Hayam”). This, of course, brings us to this Shabbat, also known as Shabbat Shirah, because of the public reading of Shirat Hayam, which is found in parshat B'shalach.
The juxtaposition of the 'Aqedah and Shirat Hayam as the climactic liturgical moments of the Tishri and Nisan seasons (respectively) is corroborated in an unexpected and yet familiar place: the daily siddur. Comprised in large part of selections from Psalms, the liturgy of the morning service contains only two extended passages from the Torah (other than the Shema, of course). These are Genesis 22:1-19 (the 'Aqedah) recited before pseukei d'zimrah and Exodus 15:1-18 (Shirat Hayam) recited after it. The fact that the authors of the siddur chose to frame the hymns of praise recited every day with these two Biblical passages says a great deal about their centrality to the daily, as well as annual liturgical cycle.
Admittedly, the 'Aqedah and Shirat Hayam are not likely passages to be read side by side. First of all, they do not belong to the same genre. The 'Aqedah selection is a prose narrative, whereas Shirat Hayam is a poetic ode. The first builds up to a single moment of action, while the second describes the victorious denouement in the wake of the action. The first is terse and relies on empty space in its creation of suspense; the second is bombastic and lurid in is depiction of detail. Moreover, each passage expresses God's power to intervene in the world in a different way. In the 'Aqedah, God is elusive and mysterious. He remains in the background and when he emerges it is to display his mercy. At the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, God is front and center and the divine quality which is emphasized is physical might. In the 'Aqedah, God only enters the picture at the last second, sending an angel to hold back Abraham's hand, while at the Sea he is continuously present even if his actions are executed via a pillar of smoke/fire throughout the face-off.
However, there are important similarities also. Firstly, these two texts function analogously within their respective narrative units. Both are culminating events. The 'Aqedah is the tenth and final trial undergone by Abraham, while the splitting of the Sea is the greatest miracle which tops a long list of plagues in which the Egyptians are slowly tortured but never fully trounced.
More importantly, both passages are strongly connected to the same geographic location: the Temple Mount. In spite of the distinction made earlier between the urban character of Nisan and the rural provincial character of Tishri, both passages are expressly grounded in Jerusalem. In the 'Aqedah passage, God tells Abraham to go to “the land of Moriah,” a subtle yet clear reference to the hilly region where Solomon later built the first Temple (see 2 Chronicles 3:1). From a very early date, therefore, the tradition has existed that the 'Aqedah took place on the very site of the future Temples (see Genesis Rabbah 55:8). Likewise, Shirat Hayam describes God's future activity in which he will bring his people to the promised land: “You will bring them and plant them in your own mountain, the place you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established” (Exod 15:17).
There are also linguistic parallels between the two passages. Both passages refer to the act of splitting, using the same verb (ב-ק-ע), in their prologues. Just as Abraham had to split the wood (ויבקע עצי עלה) before he could lay his son Isaac between the logs, so too God had to split the sea (ויבקעו המים) before he could lead his children, Israel, between the walls of water. The 'Aqedah mentions a “ram caught in the thicket by his horns” (איל נאחז בסבך בקרניו), while Shirat Hayam says “trembling seized the tribes of Moab” (אילי מואב יאחזמו רעד). The two images are quite different, nevertheless the overlapping language is quiet unmistakable. The “tribes” or “lords” of the Moabites are referred to as “rams” and their “seizure” is effected by means of the same verb (א-ח-ז) as the entrapment of the 'Aqedah ram.
Interestingly, a survey of the verbs used in each passage shows two opposite trajectories of movement. The 'Aqedah describes a process of ascent to a high place, and so it is not by mistake that over and over the text uses the root meaning “to rise up, to ascend” (ע-ל-ה) to refer to the act of sacrifice. For instance: “offer (והעלהו) him up as a burnt offering (לעלה) upon (על) one of the mountains which I will point out to you.” Similarly, Abraham is twice depicted not merely seeing, but looking up and seeing. The text underscores the upward direction by using the phrase “he lifted up his eyes” (וישא אברהם עיניו). In contrast, the dominant linguistic trajectory of Shirat Hayam, expressed through the choice of verbs, is one of descent. The Egyptians are described using the following phrases: “drowned in the Sea of Reeds” (טבעו בים סוך), “the deeps covered them” (תהמות יכסימו), “went down to the depths like a stone” (ירדו במצולות כמו אבן), “sank like lead” (צללו כעופרת), “the earth swallowed them”(תבלעמו ארץ), “terror and dread descend upon them” (תפל עליהם אימתה ופחד),
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik noted that the morning prayers begin on a very optimistic note with jubilant psalms of praise, all of which use strong, active verbs (שירו, הללו, הודו). The individual is confident that through her prayers she will truly render praise to the Creator. However, by the time the worshipper is ready to begin Shacharit, her tone has grown much less confident. She has realized the impossibility of adequately praising the divine, and so the verbs in the liturgy shift into the passive tone (ישתבח). The two trajectories I have described above fit in to Soloveitchik's schema well. Before we begin pseukei d'zimrah we are self-assured, hopeful that our davening will be truly meaningful. Like Abraham, we lift up our eyes in anticipation. We are ascending to that sought after spiritual high. But soon enough, we reach a barrier. Like the Egyptians we begin to sink like lead, embarrassed by what we thought we could accomplish. God does not laugh at us. Like the children of Israel, we are ushered through the sea-bed and planted up in the highlands, in the place of God's sanctuary, the very same spot where the 'Aqedah narrative left off. Tu B'Shevat figures into this scheme too. The trees also wish to render praise to the Creator. Just as Shirat Hayam begins with the words אז ישיר משה, so too it says about the trees in p'seukei d'zimrah, אז יררנו כל עצי יער.
So the fact that the 'Aqedah narrative and Shirat Hayam both appear in the daily liturgy indicates that the memorialization of the two great calendrical cycles – Tishri and Nisan – is a daily matter, that each day provides an opportunity for the individual to situate himself within both the historical and the terrestrial orbits. This year we will be lucky enough to add to these the arboreal as well.
The initial idea for this post came from Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967).
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.