The Paschal Feast and the Lord’s Supper

Written by, Alfred Edersheim


‘And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake, and gave to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is My Body. And He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’
–Matthew 26:26-28

Jewish Traditions about the Passover 

Jewish tradition has this curious conceit: that the most important events in Israel’s history were connected with the Paschal season. Thus it is said to have been on the present Paschal night that, after his sacrifice, the ‘horror of great darkness’ fell upon Abraham when God revealed to him the future of his race (Genesis 15). Similarly, it is supposed to have been at Passover time that the patriarch entertained his heavenly guests, that Sodom was destroyed and Lot escaped, and that the walls of Jericho fell before the Lord. More than that—the ‘cake of barley bread’ seen in the dream, which led to the destruction of Midian’s host, had been prepared from the Omer, presented on the second day of the feast of unleavened bread; just as at a later period alike the captains of Sennacherib and the King of Assyria, who tarried at Nob, were overtaken by the hand of God at the Passover season. It was at the Paschal time also that the mysterious handwriting appeared on the wall to declare Babylon’s doom, and again at the Passover that Esther and the Jews fasted, and that wicked Haman perished. And so also in the last days it would be the Paschal night when the final judgments should come upon ‘Edom,’ and the glorious deliverance of Israel take place. Hence to this day, in every Jewish home, at a certain part of the Paschal service—just after the ‘third cup,’ or the ‘cup of blessing,’ has been drunk—the door is opened to admit Elijah the prophet as forerunner of the Messiah, while appropriate passages are at the same time read which foretell the destruction of all heathen nations (Psalms 79:6; 69:25; Lamentations 3:66). It is a remarkable coincidence that, in instituting His own Supper, the Lord Jesus connected the symbol, not of judgment, but of His dying love, with this ‘third cup.’ But, in general, it may be interesting to know that no other service contains within the same space the like ardent aspirations after a return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple, nor so many allusions to the Messianic hope, as the liturgy for the night of the Passover now in use among the Jews.

If we could only believe that the prayers and ceremonies which it embodies were the same as those at the time of our Lord, we should have it in our power to picture in minutest detail all that took place when He instituted his own Supper. We should see the Master as He presided among the festive company of His disciples, know what prayers He uttered, and at what special parts of the service, and be able to reproduce the arrangement of the Paschal table around which they sat.

The Modern Ceremonies 

At present and for many centuries back the Paschal Supper has been thus laid out: three large unleavened cakes, wrapped in the folds of a napkin, are placed on a salver, and on them the seven articles necessary for the ‘Passover Supper’ are ranged in this manner:

A roasted Egg (Instead of Roasted Shankbone of a Lamb the 14th day Chagigah) (Instead of the Paschal Lamb)
Charoseth (To represent the Bitter Herbs Lettuce mortar of Egypt)
Salt Water Chervil and Parsley

Present Ritual not the Same as the New Testament Times 

But, unfortunately, the analogy does not hold good. As the present Passover liturgy contains comparatively very few relics from New Testament times, so also the present arrangement of the Paschal table evidently dates from a time when sacrifices had ceased. On the other hand, however, by far the greater number of the usages observed in our own days are precisely the same as eighteen hundred years ago. A feeling, not of gratified curiosity, but of holy awe, comes over us, as thus we are able to pass back through those many centuries into the upper chamber where the Lord Jesus partook of that Passover which, with the loving desire of a Savior’s heart, He had desired to eat with His disciples. The leading incidents of the feast are all vividly before us—the handling of ‘the sop dipped in the dish,’ ‘the breaking of bread,’ ‘the giving thanks,’ ‘the distributing of the cup,’ and ‘the concluding hymn.’ Even the exact posture at the Supper is known to us. But the words associated with those sacred memories come with a strange sound when we find in Rabbinical writings the ‘Passover lamb’ designated as ‘His body,’ or when our special attention is called to the cup known as ‘the cup of blessing, which we bless’; nay, when the very term for the Passover liturgy itself, the ‘Haggadah,’ which means ‘showing forth,’ is exactly the same as that used by St. Paul in describing the service of the Lord’s Supper! (1 Corinthians 11:23-29)

The Roasting of the Lamb 

Before proceeding further we may state that, according to Jewish ordinance, the Paschal lamb was roasted on a spit made of pomegranate wood, the spit passing right through from mouth to vent. Special care was to be taken that in roasting the lamb did not touch the oven, otherwise the part touched had to be cut away. This can scarcely be regarded as an instance of Rabbinical punctiliousness. It was intended to carry out the idea that the lamb was to be undefiled by any contact with foreign matter, which might otherwise have adhered to it. For everything here was significant, and the slightest deviation would mar the harmony of the whole. If it had been said, that not a bone of the Paschal lamb was to be broken, that it was not to be ‘sodden at all with water, but roast with fire—his head with his legs, and with the purtenance thereof,’ and that none of it was to ‘remain until the morning,’ all that had not been eaten being burnt with fire (Exodus 12:810)—such ordinances had each a typical object. Of all other sacrifices, even the most holy (Leviticus 6:21), it alone was not to be ‘sodden,’ because the flesh must remain pure, without the admixture even of water. Then, no bone of the lamb was to be broken: it was to be served up entire—none of it was to be left over; and those who gathered around it were to form one family. All this was intended to express that it was to be a complete and unbroken sacrifice, on the ground of which there was complete and unbroken fellowship with the God who had passed by the blood-sprinkled doors, and with those who together formed but one family and one body. ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread’ (1 Corinthians 10:16,17).

Distinct From All Levitical Sacrifices 

Such views and feelings, which, no doubt, all truly spiritual Israelites shared, gave its meaning to the Paschal feast at which Jesus sat down with His disciples, and which He transformed into the Lord’s Supper by linking it to His Person and Work. Every sacrifice, indeed, had prefigured His Work; but none other could so suitably commemorate His death, nor yet the great deliverance connected with it, and the great union and fellowship flowing from it. For other reasons also it was especially suited to be typical of Christ. It was a sacrifice, and yet quite out of the order of all Levitical sacrifices. For it had been instituted and observed before Levitical sacrifices existed; before the Law was given; nay, before the Covenant was ratified by blood (Exodus 24). In a sense, it may be said to have been the cause of all the later sacrifices of the Law, and of the Covenant itself. Lastly, it belonged neither to one nor to another class of sacrifices; it was neither exactly a sin-offering nor a peace-offering, but combined them both. And yet in many respects it quite differed from them. In short, just as the priesthood of Christ was a real Old Testament priesthood, yet not after the order of Aaron, but after the earlier, prophetic, and royal order of Melchizedec, so the sacrifice also of Christ was a real Old Testament sacrifice, yet not after the order of Levitical sacrifices, but after that of the earlier prophetic Passover sacrifice, by which Israel had become a royal nation.

Guests of the Paschal Table 

As the guests gathered around the Paschal table, they came no longer, as at the first celebration, with their ‘loins girded,’ with shoes on their feet, and a staff in their hand— that is, as travelers waiting to take their departure.

On the contrary, they were arrayed in their best festive garments, joyous and at rest, as became the children of a king. To express this idea the Rabbis also insisted that the Paschal Supper—or at least part of it—must be eaten in that recumbent position with which we are familiar from the New Testament. ‘For,’ say they, ‘they use this leaning posture, as free men do, in memorial of their freedom.’ And, again, ‘Because it is the manner of slaves to eat standing, therefore now they eat sitting and leaning, in order to show that they have been delivered from bondage into freedom.’ And, finally: ‘No, not the poorest in Israel may eat till he has sat down, leaning.’ But, though it was deemed desirable to ‘sit leaning’ during the whole Paschal Supper, it was only absolutely enjoined while partaking of the bread and the wine. This recumbent posture so far resembled that still common in the East, that the body rested on the feet. Hence, also, the penitent woman at the feast given by Simon is said to have ‘stood at His feet, behind,’ ‘weeping’ (Luke 7:38). At the same time, the left elbow was placed on the table, and the head rested on the hand, sufficient room being of course left between each guest for the free movements of the right hand. This explains in what sense John ‘was leaning on Jesus’ bosom,’ and afterwards ‘lying on Jesus’ breast,’ when he bent back to speak to Him (John 13:23,25).

The Use of Wine 

The use of wine in the Paschal Supper, though not mentioned in the Law, was strictly enjoined by tradition.

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, it was intended to express Israel’s joy on the Paschal night, and even the poorest must have ‘at least four cups, though he were to receive the money for it from the poor’s box’ (Pes. x. 1). If he cannot otherwise obtain it, the Talmud adds, ‘he must sell or pawn his coat, or hire himself out for these four cups of wine.’ The same authority variously accounts for the number four as either corresponding to the four words used about Israel’s redemption (bringing out, delivering, redeeming, taking), or to the fourfold mention of the cup in connection with the chief butler’s dream (Genesis 40:9-15), or to the four cups of vengeance which God would in the future give the nations to drink (Jeremiah 25:15; 51:7; Psalms 75:8; 11:6), while four cups of consolation would be handed to Israel, as it is written: ‘The Lord is the portion of my cup’ (Psalms 16:5); ‘My cup runneth over’ (Psalms 23:5); ‘I will take the cup of salvation’ (Psalms 116:13), ‘which,’ it is added, ‘was two’—perhaps from a second allusion to it in verse 17. In connection with this the following parabolic story from the Talmud may possess some interest: ‘The holy and blessed God will make a feast for the righteous in the day that His mercy shall be shown to the seed of Israel. After they have eaten and drunk, they give the cup of blessing to Abraham our father. But he saith: I cannot bless it, because Ishmael came from me. Then he gives it to Isaac. But he saith: I cannot bless it, because Esau came from me. Then he hands it to Jacob. But he saith: I cannot take it, because I married two sisters, which is forbidden in the Law. He saith to Moses: Take it and bless it. But he replies: I cannot, because I was not counted worthy to come into the land of Israel, either alive or dead. He saith to Joshua: Take it and bless it. But he answers: I cannot, because I have no son. He saith to David: Take it and bless it. And he replies: I will bless it, and it is fit for me so to do, as it is written, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.”‘

The Mishnah Account 

As detailed in the earliest Jewish record of ordinances—the Mishnah—the service of the Paschal Supper was exceedingly simple. Indeed, the impression left on the mind is, that, while all the observances were fixed, the prayers, with some exceptions preserved to us, were free. Rabbi Gamaliel, the teacher of St. Paul, said (Pes. x. 15): ‘Whoever does not explain three things in the Passover has not fulfilled the duty incumbent on him. These three things are: the Passover lamb, the unleavened bread, and the bitter herbs. The Passover lamb means that God passed over the blood-sprinkled place on the houses of our fathers in Egypt; the unleavened bread means that our fathers were delivered out of Egypt (in haste); and the bitter herbs mean that the Egyptians made bitter the lives of our fathers in Egypt.’ A few additional particulars are necessary to enable the reader to understand all the arrangements of the Paschal Supper. From the time of the evening-sacrifice nothing was to be eaten till the Paschal Supper, so that all might come to it with relish (Pes, x. 1). It is a moot point, whether at the time of our Lord two, or, as at present, three, large cakes of unleavened bread were used in the service. The Mishnah mentions (Pes. ii. 6) these five kinds as falling within the designation of ‘bitter herbs,’ viz. lettuce, endive, succory (garden endive?), what is called ‘Charchavina’ (urtica, beets?), and horehound (bitter coriander?). The ‘bitter herbs’ seem to have been twice partaken of during the service, once dipped in salt water or vinegar, and a second time with Charoseth, a compound of dates, raisins, etc., and vinegar, though the Mishnah expressly declares (Pes. x. 3) that Charoseth was not obligatory. Red wine alone was to be used at the Paschal Supper, and always mixed with water.

Each of the four cups must contain at least the fourth of a quarter of an hin (the hin = one gallon two pints). Lastly, it was a principle that, after the Paschal meal, they had no Aphikomen (after-dish), an expression which may perhaps best be rendered by ‘dessert.’

The ‘Giving Thanks’ 

The Paschal Supper itself commenced by the head of ‘the company’ taking the first cup of wine in his hand, and ‘giving thanks’ over it in these words:

‘Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, who has created the fruit of the vine! Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God King of the Universe, who hast chosen us from among all people, and exalted us from among all languages, and sanctified us with Thy commandments! And Thou hast give us, O Jehovah our God, in love, the solemn days for joy, and the festivals and appointed seasons for gladness; and this the day of the feast of unleavened bread, the season of our freedom, a holy convocation, the memorial of our departure from Egypt. For us hast Thou chosen; and us hast Thou sanctified from among all nations, and Thy holy festivals with joy and with gladness hast Thou caused us to inherit. Blessed art Thou, O Jehovah, who sanctifiest Israel and the appointed seasons! Blessed art Thou, Jehovah, King of the Universe, who hast preserved us alive and sustained us and brought us to this season!’

The First Cup 

The first cup of wine was then drunk, and each washed his hands.

It was evidently at this time that the Savior in His self-humiliation proceeded also to wash the disciples’ feet (John 13:5). Our Authorized Version wrongly translates verse 2 by, ‘and supper being ended,’ instead of ‘and when supper had come,’ or ‘was begun.’ Similarly, it was, in all probability, in reference to the first cup that Luke gives the following account (Luke 22:17): ‘And He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves’—the ‘cup of blessing,’ which was the third, and formed part of the new institution of the Lord’s Supper, being afterwards mentioned in verse 20. In washing their hands this customary prayer was repeated: ‘Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments, and hast enjoined us concerning the washing of our hands.’ Two different kinds of ‘washing’ were prescribed by tradition—’dipping’ and ‘pouring.’ At the Paschal Supper the hands were to be ‘dipped’ in water.

The Herbs 

These preliminaries ended, the Paschal table was brought forward. The president of the feast first took some of the herbs, dipped them in salt water, ate of them, and gave to the others. Immediately after it, all the dishes were removed from the table (as it was thought so strange a proceeding would tend to excite the more curiosity), and then the second cup was filled. A very interesting ceremony now took place, It had been enjoined in the law that at each Paschal Supper the father was to show his son the import of this festival. By way of carrying out this duty, the son (or else the youngest) was directed at this particular part of the service to make inquiry; and, if the child were too young or incapable, the father would do it for him.

The Son’s Question 

The son asks: ‘Why is this night distinguished from all other nights? For on all other nights we eat leavened or unleavened bread, but on this night only unleavened bread? On all other nights we eat any kind of herbs, but on this night only bitter herbs? On all other nights we eat meat roasted, stewed, or boiled, but on this night only roasted? On all other nights we dip (the herbs) only once, but on this night twice?’

Thus far according to the earliest and most trustworthy tradition. It is added (Mishnah, Pes. x. 4): ‘Then the father instructs his child according to the capacity of his knowledge, beginning with our disgrace and ending with our glory, and expounding to him from, “A Syrian, ready to perish, was my father,” till he has explained all through, to the end of the whole section’ (Deut. 26:5-11). In other words, the head of the house was to relate the whole national history, commencing with Terah, Abraham’s father, and telling of his idolatry, and continuing, in due order, the story of Israel up to their deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the Law; and the more fully he explained it all, the better.

The Dishes 

This done, the Paschal dishes were brought back on the table. The president now took up in succession the dish with the Passover lamb, that with the bitter herbs, and that with the unleavened bread, and briefly explained the import of each; for, according to Rabbi Gamaliel:

‘From generation to generation every man is bound to look upon himself not otherwise than if he had himself come forth out of Egypt. For so it is written (Exodus 13:8), “And thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which Jehovah did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt.” Therefore,’ continues the Mishnah, giving the very words of the prayer used, ‘we are bound to thank, praise, laud, glorify, extol, honor, bless, exalt, and reverence Him, because He hath wrought for our fathers, and for us all these miracles. He brought us forth from bondage into freedom, from sorrow into joy, from mourning to a festival, from darkness to a great light, and from slavery to redemption. Therefore let us sing before Him: Hallelujah!’ Then the first part of the ‘Hallel’ was sung, comprising Psalms 113 and 114, with this brief thanksgiving at the close: ‘Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, King of the Universe, who hast redeemed us and redeemed our fathers from Egypt.’ Upon this the second cup was drunk. Hands were now washed a second time, with the same prayer as before, and one of the two unleavened cakes broken and ‘thanks given.’

The Breaking of the Bread 

Rabbinical authorities distinctly state that this thanksgiving was to follow not to precede, the breaking of the bread, because it was the bread of poverty, ‘and the poor have not whole cakes, but broken pieces.’ The distinction is important, as proving that since the Lord in instituting His Supper, according to the uniform testimony of the three Gospels and of St. Paul (Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24), first gave thanks and then break the bread (‘having given thanks, He break it’), it must have been at a later period of the service.

Pieces of the broken cake with ‘bitter herbs’ between them, and ‘dipped’ in the Charoseth, were next handed to each in the company. This, in all probability, was ‘the sop’ which, in answer to John’s inquiry about the betrayer, the Lord ‘gave’ to Judas (John 13:25, etc.; compare Matt 26:21, etc.; Mark 14:18, etc.). The unleavened bread with bitter herbs constituted, in reality, the beginning of the Paschal Supper, to which the first part of the service had only served as a kind of introduction. But as Judas, after ‘having received the sop, went immediately out,’ he could not even have partaken of the Paschal lamb, far less of the Lord’s Supper. The solemn discourses of the Lord recorded by St. John (John 13:31; 16) may therefore be regarded as His last ‘table-talk,’ and the intercessory prayer that followed (John 17) as His ‘grace after meat.’

The Three Elements of the Feast 

The Paschal Supper itself consisted of the unleavened bread with bitter herbs, of the so-called Chagigah, or festive offering (when brought), and, lastly, of the Paschal lamb itself. After that nothing more was to be eaten, so that the flesh of the Paschal Sacrifice might be the last meat partaken of. But since the cessation of the Paschal Sacrifice the Jews conclude the Supper with a piece of unleavened cake, which they call the Aphikomen, or after-dish. Then, having again washed hands, the third cup is filled, and grace after meat said. Now, it is very remarkable that our Lord seems so far to have anticipated the present Jewish practice that He brake the bread ‘when He had given thanks,’ instead of adhering to the old injunction of not eating anything after the Passover lamb. And yet in so doing He only carried out the spirit of the Paschal feast. For, as we have already explained, it was commemorative and typical. It commemorated an event which pointed to and merged in another event—even the offering of the better Lamb, and the better freedom connected with that sacrifice. Hence, after the night of His betrayal, the Paschal lamb could have no further meaning, and it was right that the commemorative Aphikomen should take its place. The symbolical cord, if the figure may be allowed, had stretched to its goal—the offering up of the Lamb of God; and though again continued from that point onwards till His second coming, yet it was, in a sense, as from a new beginning.

The Third Cup 

Immediately afterwards the third cup was drunk, a special blessing having been spoken over it. There cannot be any reasonable doubt that this was the cup which our Lord connected with His own Supper. It is called in Jewish writings, just as by St. Paul (1 Corinthians 10:16), ‘the cup of blessing,’ partly because it and the first cup required a special ‘blessing,’ and partly because it followed on the ‘grace after meat.’ Indeed, such importance attached to it, that the Talmud (Berac. 51, 1) notes ten peculiarities, too minute indeed for our present consideration, but sufficient to show the special value set upon it.

The service concluded with the fourth cup, over which the second portion of the ‘Hallel’ was sung, consisting of Psalms 115, 116, 117, and 118, the whole ending with the so-called ‘blessing of the song,’ which comprised these two brief prayers: ‘All Thy works shall praise Thee, Jehovah our God. And Thy saints, the righteous, who do Thy good pleasure, and all Thy people, the house of Israel, with joyous song let them praise, and bless, and magnify, and glorify, and exalt, and reverence, and sanctify, and ascribe the kingdom to Thy name, O our King! For it is good to praise Thee, and pleasure to sing praises unto Thy name, for from everlasting to everlasting Thou art God.’

‘The breath of all that lives shall praise Thy name, Jehovah our God. And the spirit of all flesh shall continually glorify and exalt Thy memorial, O our King! For from everlasting to everlasting Thou art God, and besides Thee we have no King, Redeemer, or Savior,’ etc.132

The Supper in Our Lord’s Time 

In this manner was the Paschal Supper celebrated by the Jews at the time when our Lord for the last time sat down to it with His disciples. So important is it to have a clear understanding of all that passed on that occasion, that, at the risk of some repetition, we shall now attempt to piece together the notices in the various Gospels, adding to them again those explanations which have just been given in detail. At the outset we may dismiss, as unworthy of serious discussion, the theory, either that our Lord had observed the Paschal Supper at another than the regular time for it, or that St. John meant to intimate that He had partaken of it on the 13th instead of the 14th of Nisan. To such violent hypotheses, which are wholly uncalled for, there is this one conclusive answer is that, except on the evening of the 14th of Nisan, no Paschal lamb could have been offered in the Temple, and therefore no Paschal Supper celebrated in Jerusalem. But abiding by the simple text of Scripture, we have the following narrative of events:— Early on the forenoon of the 14th of Nisan, the Lord Jesus having sent Peter and John before Him ‘to prepare the Passover,’ ‘in the evening He cometh with the twelve’ (Mark 14:17) to the ‘guest-chamber,’ the ‘large upper room furnished’ (Luke 22:11,12) for the Supper, although He seems to have intended ‘after Supper’ to spend the night outside the city. Hence Judas and the band from the chief priests do not seek for Him where He had eaten the Passover, but go at once to ‘the garden into which He had entered, and His disciples’; for Judas ‘knew the place,’ (John 18:1, 2) and it was one to which ‘Jesus often times resorted with His disciples.’ ‘When the hour was come’ for the commencement of the Paschal Supper, Jesus ‘sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him,’ all, as usual at the feast, ‘leaning’ (John 13:23), John on ‘Jesus’ bosom,’ being placed next before Him, and Judas apparently next behind, while Simon Peter faced John, and was thus able to ‘beckon unto him’ when he wished inquiry to be made of the Lord. The disciples being thus ranged, the Lord Jesus ‘took the cup and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves’ (Luke 22:17). This was the first cup, over which the first prayer in the service was spoken. Next, as in duty bound, all washed their hands, only that the Lord here also gave meaning to the observance, when, expanding the service into Christian fellowship over His broken body, He ‘riseth from Supper,’ ‘and began to wash the disciples’ feet’ (John 13:4,5). It is thus we explain how this ministry, though calling forth Peter’s resistance to the position which the Master took, did not evoke any question as to its singularity. As the service proceeded, the Lord mingled teaching for the present with the customary lessons of the past (John 13:12-20); for, as we have seen considerable freedom was allowed, provided the instruction proper at the feast were given. The first part of the ‘Hallel’ had been sung, and in due order He had taken the ‘bread of poverty’ and the ‘bitter herbs,’ commemorative of the sorrow and the bitterness of Egypt, when ‘He was troubled in spirit’ about ‘the root of bitterness’ about to spring up among, and to ‘trouble’ them, by which ‘many would be defiled.’ The general concern of the disciples as to which of their number should betray Him, found expression in the gesture of Peter. His friend John understood its meaning, and ‘lying back on Jesus’ breast,’ he put the whispered question, to which the Lord replied by giving ‘the sop’ of unleavened bread with bitter herbs, ‘when He had dipped’ it, to Judas Iscariot.

Judas Iscariot 

‘And after the sop Satan entered into him,’ and he ‘went out immediately.’ It was an unusual time to leave the Paschal table, for with ‘the sop dipped’ into the ‘Charoseth’ the Paschal Supper itself had only just begun. But then ‘some of them thought’—perhaps without fully considering it in their excitement—that Judas, who ‘had the bag,’ and on whom, therefore, the care of such things devolved, had only gone to see after ‘those things that they had need of against the feast,’ or to ‘give something to the poor’— applying some of the common stock of money in helping to provide ‘peace-offerings’ for the poor. This would have been quite in accordance with the spirit of the ordinance, while neither supposition necessarily involved a breach of the law, since it was permitted to prepare all needful provision for the feast, and of course also for the Sabbath, which in this instance followed it. For, as we have seen, the festive observance of the 15th of Nisan differed in this from the ordinary Sabbath-law, although there is evidence that even the latter was at that time by no means so strict as later Jewish tradition has made it. And then it was, after the regular Paschal meal, that the Lord instituted His own Supper, for the first time using the Aphikomen ‘when He had given thanks’ (after meat), to symbolise His body, and the third cup, or ‘cup of blessing which we bless’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)—being ‘the cup after supper’ (Luke 22:20)—to symbolise His blood. ‘And when they had sung a hymn’ (Psalms 115-118) ‘they went out into the mount of Olives’ (Matt 26:30).

Our Lord’s Agony 

Then it was that the Lord’s great heaviness and loneliness came upon Him; when all around seemed to give way, as if crushed under the terrible burden about to be lifted; when His disciples could not watch with Him even one hour; when in the agony of His soul ‘His sweat was as it were great drops of blood, falling down to the ground’; and when He ‘prayed, saying: O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt.’ But ‘the cup which the Father’ had given Him, He drank to the bitter dregs; and ‘when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared; though He was a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered; and being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him’ (Hebrews 5:7-9).

Thus the ‘Lamb without blemish and without spot, who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world’ (1 Peter 1:20)—and, indeed, ‘slain from the foundation of the world’ (Rev 13:8)—was selected, ready, willing, and waiting. It only remained, that it should be actually offered up as ‘the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’ (1 John 2:2).


Taken and adapted from, “The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ”
Written by, Alfred Edersheim


“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath: therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath.”  –Mark 2: 27, 28.

IT is a beautifully significant practice of the modern Jews, that, before fulfilling any special observance directed in their Law, they always first bless God for the giving of it.

One might almost compare the idea underlying this, and much else of a similar character in the present religious life of Israel, to the good fruits which the soil of Palestine bore even during the Sabbatical years, when it lay untilled. For it is intended to express that the Law is felt not a burden, but a gift of God in which to rejoice. And this holds especially true of the Sabbath in its Divine institution, of which it was distinctly said, I gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I, Jehovah, sanctify them.”—Ezekiel 20:12. In the same sense, the Sabbath is called “a delight, the holy of Jehovah, honorable;” –Isaiah 58:13, and the great burden of the Sabbath-Psalm is that of joyous thanksgiving unto God. 1

The term Sabbath, “resting,” points to the origin and meaning of the weekly festival. The Rabbis hold that it was not intended for the Gentiles, and most of them trace the obligation of its observance only to the legislation on Mount Sinai. Nor is another Rabbinical saying, that circumcision and the Sabbath preceded the law,” inconsistent with this. For even if the duty of Sabbath-observance had only commenced with the promulgation of the law on Mount Sinai, yet the Sabbath- law itself rested on the

Original “hallowing” of the seventh day, when God rested from all His works. (Genesis 2:3) But this was not the only rest to which the Sabbath pointed. There was also a rest of redemption, and the Sabbath was expressly connected with the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. “Remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and that Jehovah thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore Jehovah thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath-day.”(Deut. 5:15) At the close of the work-a-day week, holy rest in the Lord; at the end of the labor and sorrow of Egypt, redemption and rest; and both pointing forward to the better rest, (Hebrews 4:9) and ultimately to the eternal Sabbath of completed work, of completed redemption, and completed “hallowing” (Revelation 11)  “such was the meaning of the weekly Sabbath. It was because this idea of festive rest and sanctification was so closely connected with the weekly festival that the term Sabbath was also applied to the great festivals (As Lev. 23: 15, 24, 32, 39).  For a similar reason, the number seven, which was that of the weekly Sabbath (the first seven that had appeared in time), became in Scripture symbolism the sacred or covenant-number. 2

It is necessary to bear all this in remembrance when thinking of what the perverted ingenuity of the Rabbis made the Sabbath at the time of Christ, and probably even more in the generations following. For there is evidence that the Sabbath-law has become stricter than it had been, since, for instance, the practice of taking an ox or an ass out of a pit, to which our Savior alludes 3 as uncontroverted, would now no longer be lawful, unless, indeed, the animal were in actual danger of life; otherwise, it is to receive food and water in the pit. This “actual danger to life,” whether to beast or to man (at any rate, to the Israelites), determined the only cases in which a breach of the law of Sabbath-observance was allowed. At the outset, indeed, it must be admitted that the whole social rabbinical legislation on the subject seems to rest on two sound underlying principles: negatively, the avoidance of all that might become work; and, positively, the doing of all which, in the opinion of the Rabbis, might tend to make the Sabbath “a delight.” Hence, not only were fasting and mourning strictly prohibited, but food, dress, and every manner of enjoyment, not incompatible with abstinence from work, were prescribed to render the day pleasurable. “All the days of the week,” the Rabbis say, has God paired, except the Sabbath, which is alone, that it may be wedded to Israel.”

Israel was to welcome the Sabbath as a bride; its advent as that of a king.

But in practice all this terribly degenerated. Readers of the New Testament know how entirely, and even cruelly, the spirit and object of the Sabbath were perverted by the traditions of “the elders.” But those only who have studied the Jewish law on the subject can form any adequate conception of the state of matters. Not to speak of the folly of attempting to produce joy by prescribed means, nor of the incongruousness of those means, considering the sacred character of the day, the almost numberless directions about avoiding work must have made a due observance of the Sabbath-rest the greatest labor of all. All work was arranged under thirty-nine chief classes, or “fathers,” each of them having ever so many “descendants,” or subordinate divisions. Thus, “reaping” was one of the “fathers,” or chief classes, and “plucking ears of corn” one of its descendants. So far did this punctiliousness go that it became necessary to devise ingenious means to render the ordinary intercourse of life possible, and to evade the inconvenient strictness of the law which regulated a “Sabbath-day’s journey.” 4

The school of Shammai, the sect of the Essenes, and strange to say, the Samaritans, were the most stringent in their Sabbath-observance.

The school of Shammai held that the duty of Sabbath-rest extended not only to men and to beasts, but even to inanimate objects, so that no process might be commenced on the Friday which would go on of itself during the Sabbath, such as laying out flax to dry, or putting wool into dye. 5  The school of Hillel excluded inanimate things from the Sabbath-rest, and also allowed work to be given on a Friday to Gentiles, irrespective of the question whether they could complete it before the Sabbath began. Both schools allowed the preparation of the Passover-meal on the Sabbath, and also priests, while on their ministry in the Temple, to keep up the fire in the “Beth Moked.” But this punctilious enforcement of the Sabbath-rest became occasionally dangerous to the nation. For at one time the Jews would not even defend themselves on the Sabbath against hostile attacks of armies, till the Maccabees laid down the principle, which ever afterwards continued in force, 6 that defensive, though not offensive, warfare was lawful on the holy day. Even as thus modified, the principle involved peril, and during the last siege of Jerusalem it was not uniformly carried out. 7 Nor was it, so far as we can judge from analogy, 8 sanctioned by Scripture precedent. But this is not the place further to explain either the Scripture or the rabbinical law of Sabbath-observance, 9 as it affected the individual, the home, and the social life, nor yet to describe the Sabbath worship in the ancient synagogues of Palestine. We confine our attention to what passed in the Temple itself.

The only directions given in Scripture for the celebration of the Sabbath in the sanctuary are those which enjoin “a holy convocation,” or a sacred assembly; 10 the weekly renewal of the showbread; 11 and an additional burnt offering of two lambs, with the appropriate meat and drink offerings, “beside the continual” that is, the ordinary daily “burnt offering and his drink offering.” 12 

But the ancient records of tradition enable us to form a very vivid conception of Sabbath-worship in the Temple at the time of Christ. Formally, the Sabbath commenced at sunset on Friday, the day being reckoned by the Hebrews from sunset to sunset. As no special hour for this was fixed, it must, of course, have varied not only at different seasons, but in different localities. Thus, the Rabbis mention that the inhabitants of a low-lying city, like Tiberias, must commence the observance of the Sabbath half an hour earlier, while those who lived on an eminence, such as at Sepphoris, 13 must continue it half an hour later than their brethren. If the sun were not visible, sunset was to be reckoned from when the fowls went to roost. But long before that the preparations for the Sabbath had commenced. Accordingly, Friday is called by the Rabbis “the eve of the Sabbath,” and in the Gospels “the preparation.” 14

No fresh business was then undertaken; no journey of any distance commenced; but everything purchased and made ready against the feast, the victuals being placed in a heated oven, and surrounded by dry substances to keep them warm. 15

Early on Friday afternoon, the new “course” of priests, of Levites, and of the “stationary men,” who were to be the representatives of all Israel, arrived in Jerusalem, and having prepared themselves for the festive season, went up to the Temple. The approach of the Sabbath, and then its actual commencement, were announced by threefold blasts from the priests’ trumpets. 16

The first three blasts were drawn when “one-third of the evening sacrifice service was over;” or, as we gather from the decree by which the Emperor Augustus set the Jews free from attendance in courts of law, 17 about the ninth hour, that is, about three P.M. on Friday. This, as we remember, was the hour when Jesus gave up the ghost. 18  When the priests for the first time sounded their trumpets, all business was to cease, and every kind of work to be stopped. Next, the Sabbath-lamp, of which even heathen writers knew, 19 was lit, and the festive garments put on. A second time the priests drew a threefold blast to indicate that the Sabbath had actually begun. But the service of the new “course” of priests had commenced before that. After the Friday evening sacrifice, the altar of burnt offerings was cleansed from its stains of blood. 20  Then the outgoing “course” handed over to the incoming the keys of the sanctuary, the holy vessels, and all else of which they had had charge. Next the heads of the “houses” or families of the incoming “course” determined by lot which of the families were to serve on each special day of their week of ministry, and also who were to discharge the various priestly functions on the Sabbath.

The first of these functions, immediately on the commencement of the Sabbath, was the renewal of the “showbread.” It had been prepared by the incoming course before the Sabbath itself, and –we might almost say, invariably– in one of the chambers of the Temple, though, in theory, it was held lawful to prepare it also at Bethphage. 21 For, although it was a principle that “there is no Sabbath in the sanctuary,” yet no work was allowed which might have been done on any other day. Even circumcision, which, like the Temple services, according to the Rabbis, superseded the Sabbath, was deferred by some to the close of the festive day. 22 Hence, also, if Friday, on the afternoon of which the showbread was ordinarily prepared, fell on a feast day that required Sabbatical rest, the showbread was prepared on the Thursday afternoon (This must have been the case on the Thursday of Christ’s betrayal). The Rabbis are at pains to explain the particular care with which it was made and baked, so that in appearance and color the lower should be exactly the same as the upper part of it.

But this subject is too important to be thus briefly treated. 23  Our term “showbread” is a translation of that used by Luther (Schaubrod), which, in turn, may have been taken from the Vulgate (panes praepositionis). The Scriptural name is “Bread of the Face;” 24 that is, “of the presence of God,” just as the similar expression, “Angel of the Face” 25 means the “Angel of His Presence.” 26  From its constant presence and disposition in the sanctuary, it is also called “perpetual bread” 27 and “bread of laying out” (set in order),which latter most nearly corresponds to the term used in the New Testament. 28  The placing and weekly renewal of the “Bread of the Presence” was evidently among the principal Temple services. 29 The “table of showbread” stood along the northern, or most sacred side of the Holy Place, being ranged lengthways of the Temple, as all its furniture was, except the Ark of the Covenant, which stood broadways.

As described by the Rabbis, and represented on the triumphal Arch of Titus at Rome, the table of showbread was two cubits long (two cubits = three feet), one cubit broad, and one and a half high. 30 It was made of pure gold, the feet being turned out and shaped to represent those of animals, and the legs connected, about the middle, by a golden plate, which was surrounded by a “crown,” or wreath, while another wreath ran round the top of the table. Thus far its form was the same as that made at the first for the tabernacle, 31 which was of shittim-wood, overlaid with gold.

The “table” originally provided for the second Temple had been taken away by Antiochus Epiphanes (about 170 B.C.); but another was supplied by the Maccabees. Josephus tells a story 32 about the gift of yet another and most splendid one by Ptolemy Philadelphus. But as its description does not tally with the delineations on the Arch of Titus, we infer that at the time of Christ the “table” of the Maccabees stood in the Holy Place. 33 

Considerable doubt exists as to the precise meaning of the terms used in Scripture to describe the golden vessels connected with the “table of showbread.” 34 The “dishes” are generally regarded as those on which the “showbread” was either carried or placed, the “spoons” as destined for the incense, and the “covers,” or rather “flagons,” and the “bowls” for the wine of the drink-offering. On the Arch of Titus there are also two urns. But all this does not prove, in the silence of Scripture, and against the unanimous testimony of tradition, that either flagons, or bowls, or urns were placed on the table of showbread, nor that drink-offerings were ever brought into the “Holy Place.” 35  

On the other hand, the Rabbis regard the Hebrew terms, rendered “covers” and “bowls,” as referring to hollow golden tubes which were placed between the showbread so as to allow the air to circulate between them; three of these tubes being always put under each, except the highest, under which there were only two, while the lowest rested on the table itself, or, rather, on a golden dish upon it. Thus they calculate that there were, in all twenty-eight of these tubes to support the twelve loaves. The “tubes” were drawn out each Friday, and again inserted between the new showbread each Sunday, since the task of removing and reinserting them was not among those labors which made “void the Sabbath.” Golden dishes, in which the showbread was carried, and golden lateral plates, further to protect it on the stand, are also mentioned by the Rabbis.

The “showbread” was made of the finest wheaten flour, that had been passed through eleven sieves. There were twelve of these cakes, according to the number of the tribes of Israel, ranged in two piles, each of six cakes. Each cake was made of two omers of wheat (the omer = about five pints). Between the two rows, not upon them, 36 ‘two bowls with pure incense were placed, and, according to Egyptian tradition, 37 also salt. The cakes were anointed in the middle with oil, in the form of a cross. As described by Jewish tradition, they were each five handbreadths broad and ten handbreadths long, but turned up at either end, two handbreadths on each side, to resemble in outline the Ark of the Covenant. Thus, as each cake, after being “turned up,” reached six handbreadths and was placed lengthwise on the breadth of the table, it would exactly cover it (the one cubit of the table being reckoned at six handbreadths); while, as the two rows of six cakes stood broad wise against each other (2×5 hand-breadths), it would leave between them two handbreadths vacant on the length of the table (2 cubits = 12 hand-breadths), on which the two bowls with the incense were placed. 38 The preparation of the showbread seems to have been hereditarily preserved as a secret family tradition in “the house of Garmu,” a family of the Kohathites. 39 The fresh cakes of showbread were deposited in a golden dish on the marble table in the porch of the sanctuary, where they remained till the Sabbath actually commenced.

The mode of changing the showbread may be given in the words of the Mishnah 40 “Four priests enter (the Holy Place), two carrying, each, one of the piles (of six showbread), the other two the two dishes (of incense). Four priests had preceded them –two to take off the two (old) piles of showbread, and two the two (old) dishes of incense. Those who brought in (the bread and incense) stood at the north side (of the table), facing southwards; they who took away at the south side, facing north: these lifted off, and those replaced; the hands of these being right over against the hands of those (so as to lift off and put on exactly at the same moment), as it is written: ‘Thou shalt set upon the table bread of the Presence before Me always.’” The showbread which had been taken off was then deposited on the golden table in the porch of the sanctuary, the incense burnt on that heap on the altar of burnt offering from which the coals were taken for the altar of incense, after which the showbread was distributed among the outgoing and the incoming course of priests. 41 The incoming priests stood at the north side, the outgoing at the south side, and each course gave to the high-priest half of their portion. The showbread was eaten during the Sabbath, and in the Temple itself, but only by such priests as were in a state of Levitical purity.

The importance of the service which has just been described depended, of course, on its meaning. Ancient symbolism, both Jewish and Christian, regarded “the bread of the Presence” as an emblem of the Messiah. This view is substantially, though not literally, correct. Jehovah, who dwelt in the Most Holy Place between the Cherubim, was the God manifest and worshipped in the Holy Place. There the mediatorial ministry, in the name of, and representing Israel, “laid before” Him the bread of the Presence, kindled the seven-lamped candlestick, and burnt incense on the golden altar. The “bread” “laid before Him” in the northern or most sacred part of the Holy Place was that of His Presence, and meant that the Covenant-people owned “His Presence” as their bread and their life; the candlestick, that He was their Light giver and Light; while between the table of showbread and the candlestick burned the incense on the golden altar, to show that life and light are joined together, and come to us in fellowship with God and prayer. For a similar reason, pure incense was placed between the showbread –for, the life which is in His Presence is one of praise; while the incense was burned before the showbread was eaten by the priests, to indicate God’s acceptance and ratification of Israel’s dependence upon Him, as also to betoken praise to God while living upon His Presence. That this “Presence” meant the special manifestation of God, as afterwards fully vouchsafed in Christ, “the Angel of His Presence,” it is scarcely necessary to explain at length in this place.

But although the service of the incoming “course” of priests had begun with the renewal of the “showbread,” that of the outgoing had not yet completely ceased. In point of fact, the outgoing “course” of priests offered the morning sacrifice on the Sabbath, and the incoming the evening Sacrifice, both spending the Sabbath in the sanctuary. The inspection of the Temple before the Sabbath morning service differed from that on ordinary days, inasmuch as the Temple itself was lit up to obviate the necessity of the priests carrying torches on the holy day. The altar of burnt offering was cleansed before the usual hour; but the morning service commenced later, so as to give an opportunity of attending to as many as possible. All appeared in their festive garments, and each carried in his hand some contribution for religious purposes. It was no doubt from this that the practice was derived of “laying by in store upon the first day of the week,” which St. Paul recommended to the Corinthians. 42  Similarly, the apostolic practice of partaking the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s-day may have been in imitation of the priests eating the showbread every Sabbath. The Sabbath service was in every respect the same as on other days, except that at the close of the ordinary morning sacrifice the additional offering of two lambs, with its appropriate meat and drink-offerings, was brought. 43 ”When the drink-offering of the ordinary morning sacrifice was poured out, the Levites sang Psalms 92, in three sections, the priests drawing, at the close of each, three blasts from their trumpets, and the people worshipping. At the close of the additional Sabbath sacrifice, when its drink-offering was brought, the Levites sang the “Song of Moses” in Deut. 32. This “hymn” was divided into six portions, for as many Sabbaths. 44 Each portion was sung in three sections with threefold blasts of the priests’ trumpets, the people worshipping at each pause. If a Sabbath and a “new moon” fell on the same day, the Sabbath hymn was sung in preference to that for the new moon; if a feast day fell on the Sabbath, the Sabbath sacrifice was offered before that prescribed for the day. At the evening sacrifice on the Sabbath the song of Moses in Exodus 15 was sung.

Though not strictly connected with the Temple services, it may be desirable briefly to refer to the observance of the Sabbatical year, as it was strictly enforced at the time of Christ. It was otherwise with the year of Jubilee. Strangely, there are traces of the latter during the period before the return from Babylon, 45 while the Sabbatical year seems to have been systematically neglected. Hence Jewish tradition explains, in accordance with 2 Chron. 36:21, that the seventy years’ captivity were intended to make up the neglected Sabbatical years “commencing the calculation, if it be taken literally, from about the accession of King Solomon. But while, after the return from Babylon, the year of Jubilee was no longer kept, at least, as a religious ordinance, the Sabbatical year was most strictly observed, not only by the Jews, 46 but also by the Samaritans. 47 Jewish tradition has it, that as it took seven years for the first conquest, and other seven for the proper division of the Holy Land, “tithes” were for the first time paid fourteen years after the entrance of Israel into Canaan; and the first Sabbatical year fell seven years later, or in the twenty-first year of their possession of Palestine. The Sabbatical law extended only to the soil of Palestine itself, which, however, included certain surrounding districts. The Rabbis add this curious proviso, that it was lawful to use (though not to store or sell) the spontaneous produce of the land throughout the extent originally possessed by Israel, but that even the use of these products was prohibited in such districts as having originally belonged to, were again occupied by Israel after their return from Babylon. But this, as other rules laid down by the Rabbis, had many exceptions. 48 

As Divinely enjoined, the soil was to be left uncultivated at the end of every period of six years, beginning, as the Jews argue, after the Passover for the barley, after Pentecost for the wheat, and after the Feast of Tabernacles for all fruit-trees. The Sabbatical year itself commenced, as most of them hold, on New Year’s Day, which fell on the new moon of the tenth month, or Tishri. 49 Whatever grew of itself during the year was to belong to the poor, (Ex. 23:10-11) which, however, as Lev. 25:6 shows, did not exclude its use as “meat,” only its storage and sale, by the family to which the land belonged. Yet a third Scriptural notice constitutes the Sabbatical year that of “the Lord’s release,” when no debt might be claimed from an Israelite; (Deut. 15: 1-6) while a fourth enjoins, that “in the solemnity of the year of release, in the Feast of Tabernacles,” the law was to be read “before all Israel in their hearing.” (Deut. 31:10-11)

It has been strangely overlooked that these four ordinances, instead of being separate and distinct, are in reality closely connected. As the assignment of what grew of itself did not exclude the usufruct by the owners, so it also followed of necessity that, in a year when all agricultural labor ceased, debts should not be claimed from an agricultural population.

Similarly, it was quite in accordance with the idea of the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year that the law should be publicly read, to indicate that “the rest” was not to be one of idleness, but of meditation on the Word of God. (Idleness is quite as much contrary to the Sabbath law as labor: “not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words” –Isaiah 58:13) It will be gathered that in this view the Divine law had not intended the absolute remission of debts, but only their “release” during the Sabbatical year. 50 Jewish tradition, indeed, holds the opposite; but, by its ordinances, it rendered the law itself void. For, as explained by the Rabbis, the release from debt did not include debts for things purchased in a shop, nor judicial fines, nor yet money lent on a pledge. But, as the great Rabbi Hillel found that even these exceptions were not sufficient to insure the loan of money in view of the Sabbatical year, he devised a formula called “Prosbul,” 51 by which the rights of a creditor were fully secured. The “Prosbul” ran thus: “I, A. B., hand to you, the judges of C. D. (a declaration), to the effect that I may claim any debt due to me at whatever time I please.”

This “Prosbul,” signed by the judges or by witnesses, enabled a creditor to claim money lent even in the Sabbatical year; and though professedly applying only to debts on real property, was so worded as to cover every case. 52 But even this was not all, and the following legal fiction was suggested as highly meritorious to all concerned. The debtor was to offer payment, and the creditor to reply,” I remit;” upon which the debtor was to insist that “nevertheless” the creditor was to accept the repayment. In general, money owing to Jewish proselytes was to be repaid to them, but not to their heirs, even though they also had turned Jews, as by becoming a proselyte a man had separated himself from his kin, who therefore were no longer, strictly speaking, his natural heirs. Still, to make payment in such a case was deemed especially meritorious. The Rabbinical evasions of the law, which forbade the use of that which had grown spontaneously on the soil, are not so numerous nor so irrational. It was ruled that part of such products might be laid by in the house, provided sufficient of the same kind were left in the field for cattle and beasts to feed upon. Again, as much land might be tilled as was necessary to make payment of tribute or taxes. The omer (or “wave-sheaf”) at the Passover, and the two wave-loaves at Pentecost, were also to be made from the barley and wheat grown that year in the field. Lastly, Rabbinical ordinance fixed the following portions as being “the law” which was to be publicly read in the Temple by the king or the high-priest at the Feast of Tabernacles in the Sabbatical year, viz., Deut. 1:1-6; 4:4-8; 11:13-22; 14:22; 15: 23; 17:14; 26:12-19; chapters 27 28. 53 

This service concluded with a benediction, which resembled that of the high-priest on the Day of Atonement, except that it referred not to the remission of sins. 54

The account just given proves that there was scarcely any Divine ordinance, which the Rabbis, by their traditions, rendered more fully void, and converted into “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear,” than the Sabbath law. On the other hand, the Gospels bring before us Christ more frequently on the Sabbath than on any other festive occasion. It seemed to be His special day for working the work of His Father. On the Sabbath He preached in the synagogues; He taught in the Temple; He healed the sick; He came to the joyous meal with which the Jews were wont to close the day. (Luke 14:1) Yet their opposition broke out most fiercely in proportion as He exhibited the true meaning and object of the Sabbath. Never did the antagonism between the spirit and the letter more clearly appear. And if in their worship of the letter they crushed out the spirit of the Sabbath law, we can scarcely wonder that they so overlaid with their ordinances the appointment of the Sabbatical year as well-nigh to extinguish its meaning. 55 That evidently was, that the earth, and all that is upon it, belongs to the Lord; that the eyes of all wait upon Him, that He may “give them their meat in due season;” 56 that the land of Israel was His special possession; that man lives not by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of the Lord and that He giveth us our daily bread, so that it is vain to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows. (Psalms 127:2) Beyond it all, it pointed to the fact of sin and redemption: the whole creation which “groans and travails in pain together until now,” waiting for and expecting that blessed Sabbath, when “creation itself shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21-22)   Thus, as the Sabbath itself, so the Sabbatical year pointed forward to the “rest which remains to the people of God,” when, contest and labor completed, they sing, “on the other side of the flood,” the song of Moses and of the Lamb: (Rev. 15:3, 4)

“Great and marvelous are Thy works. Lord God Almighty; just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints. Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? For Thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before Thee; for Thy judgments are made manifest.” 57 

Reference Table

1 Psalms 92 The Talmud discusses the question whether Psalms 92 bears refers to the Sabbath of creation, or to that final Messianic Sabbath of the Kingdom according to Rabbi Akibah, “the day which is wholly a Sabbath.” (See Delitzsch).  It is a curiously uncritical remark of some Rabbis to ascribe the authorship of this Psalm to Adam and its composition to the beginning of the first Sabbath “Adam having fallen just before its commencement, and been driven from Paradise, but not killed, because God would not execute the punishment of death on the Sabbath.

2 The term “Sabbath” is also applied to a “week,” as m Lev. 23:15; 25:8; and, for example, in Matt, 28:1 ; Mark 16:2 ; Luke 24:1, to be regarded as separate from, but as giving its character to the rest of the week, and to its secular engagements. So to speak, the week closes and is completed in the Sabbath.

3 Luke 14:5

4 By depositing a meal of meat at the end of a Sabbath-day’s journey to make it, by a legal fiction, a man’s domicile, from which he might start on a fresh Sabbath-day’s journey. The Mishnic tractate, Eruvin, treats of the connecting of houses, courts, etc., to render lawful the carrying out of food, etc. On the other hand, such an isolated expression occurs (Mechilta, ed. Weiss pg. 110 a): “The Sabbath is given to you, not you to the Sabbath.” If we might regard this as a current theological saying, it would give a fresh meaning to the words of our Lord, Mark 2:27.

5 Shabb. 1: 5, 6, etc.

6 Josephus. Antiquities. 7: 6, 2; 14:4, 2

7 Compare Jewish Wars, 2:19, 2, but, on the other hand, Antiq. 14: 4, 2

8 Joshua 6: 15, etc.

9 There is a special Mishnic tractate on the subject

10 Lev. 23: 3

11  Lev. 24:8

12 Numbers 4:7

13 Sepphoris, the Dio-Csesarea of the Romans, was near Nazareth. It is often referred to by Josephus, and, after the destruction of Jerusalem, became for a time the seat of the Sanhedrim. –See Robinson’s Researches in Pal. vol. ii. p. 345.

14 Mark 15:42; John 19:31. The expression, Luke 6:1, rendered in our version “the second Sabbath after the first,” really means, “the first Sabbath after the second” day of the Passover, on which the first ripe sheaf was presented, the Jews calculating the weeks from that day to Pentecost.

15 See the disquisition in Mishnah, Shab. iv., as to what substances are lawful for the purpose, and what not.

16 Perhaps from the so-called “tectum Sabbathi,” or “Sabbath roof,” which Rheuferdius (Op. Phil., p. 770) identifies with the “Sabbath covert,” 2 Kings 16:18. See Goodwin, Moses et Aaron (ed. Hottinger), pp. 518, 519.

17 Josephus Antiquities 16: 6, 2.

18 Matt, 27:45; Mark 15:34; Luke 18:44

19 Seneca, ep. 95

20 The altar was whitened twice a year, before the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles. But no tool of iron was used in this.

21 Mishna Men. xi 2

22 See Oehler in Herzog’s Real-Encycl. xiii. p. 202.

23 The articles in Kitto’s Cyclopedia and in Smith’s Diet, are meagre and unsatisfactory. Even Winer’s Real-Worterb. ii. p. 401, etc.  is not so accurate as usual.

24 Ex. 25:30 ; 35:13 ; 39:36

25 Isaiah 63:9

26 The curious explanation of the Rabbis (Mishna. Men. xi. 4) that it was called “Bread of the Faces” because it was equally baked all round, as it were, all “faces,” needs no refutation.

 27 Numbers 4:7

28 Matt. 12:4; Luke 6: 4; Heb. 9:2

29 2 Chron. 13: 10

30  The table on the Arch of Titus seems only one cubit high. We know that it was placed by the victor in the Temple of Peace; was carried about the middle of the fifth century to Africa, by the Vandals under Gensenc, and that Belisarius brought it back in 520 to Constantinople, whence it was sent to Jerusalem.

31 Ex. 25:23, etc.

32 Antiquities 12:2, 8.

33 Winer has, on other grounds, thrown doubt on the account of Josephus.

34 Ex. 25:29

35 We cannot here enter into the discussion, which the reader will find in Relardus, Antiq., pp. 39, 41.

36 as according to the Rabbis. Menach. xi. 5

37 LXX. Lev. 24:7 ; Philo ii. 151

38 We have been thus particular on account of the inaccuracies in so many articles

39 I Chron. 9:32 ; Mishna Shekal. v. i

40  Men. xi. 7.

41  According to other authorities, however, the incense of the showbread was burned along with the morning sacrifice on the Sabbath.

42 1 Cor. 16: 1, 2

43 Numbers, 28: 9, 10

44 ver.1-6; 7-12; 13-18; 19-28; 29-39; 40-end

45 I Kings 21:3 ; Isa. 5: 8 ; 37:30 ; 61:1-3 ; Ezek. 1:1; 7:12; Micah 2:2

46 Neh. 10:31 ; I Macc. 6:49, 53; Josephus, Antiquities 13: 8, I ; 14: 10, 6; 15:1, 2; Jewish Wars 1:2-4

47  Antiquities 11: 8, 6

48 Mishna Shev. 6:1

49  The year of Jubilee began on the 10th of Tishri, being the Day of Atonement

50 The manumission of Jewish slaves took place in the seventh year of their bondage, whenever that might be, and bears no reference to the Sabbatical year, with which, indeed, some of its provisions could not easily have been compatible. –Deut. 15:14.

51 probably “addition,” from a Greek word to the same effect.

52 Mishna Shev., sec x.

53  Mishna Sotah, 7:8, where a curious story is also told, to show how deeply King Agrippa was affected when performing this service.

54 Relandus, suggests that the expression (Matt. 24:20), “pray that your flight be not on the Sabbath,” may apply to the Sabbatical year, as one in which the fugitives would find it difficult to secure needful support.

55 Compare also the remarks by Oehler in Herzog’s Encycl. 12, pg. 211

56 Psalms 104:27; 145:16

57 For an account of the Sabbatical years, mentioned by tradition, see Wieseler Chron, Synops Cf p. 204.

ELIJAH: Murder, and the Doom of Ahab


So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and vexed, and came to Samaria.
–1 Kings 20: 43

IT is significant that the words describing Ahab’s state of mind on returning from Jezreel to Samaria after his unsuccessful negotiation with Naboth for his vineyard…

…are precisely the same as those formerly used in regard to the impression made on him by the prophet’s message (1 Kings 20: 43).

god-idolatry-discipleship-1-GoodSalt-stdas0022-254x300On both occasions he “was much [and rebelliously] excited and angry.” The identity of terms indicates identity of feelings. The same self-assertion, dependence of God, and want of submissiveness which had led to his release of, and covenant with, Ben-hadad, and inspired feelings of rebellion and anger on hearing the Divine message, now prompted his resentment Naboth’s conduct.

The summer palace of Jezreel was the favorite retreat of King Ahab and Jezebel. The present somewhat marshy plain of Esdraelon, the almost bare mountains of Gilboa, and the miserable village which now occupies the site of Jezreel, and overlooks the ruins of Bethshan, can afford no adequate idea of what the place was in the days of Ahab and Jezebel and of their immediate successors. Then the mountains of Gilboa were richly wooded, and sweet springs brought freshness to the air and luxurious beauty to the vegetation of Jezreel, even as they carried fertility into the great plain beneath, which in the summer light shimmered and trembled like a sea of golden corn. At the northern declivity of Gilboa, where it descends, steep and rocky, on a knoll about 500 feet high, stood Jezreel. Protected from the fierce southern sun by the delicious shade of Gilboa, that rises up behind, it looked “as a place suited to a summer-residence in the East” northwards, across the plain to the mountains of Galilee, to Tabor, and in the distance to snow-capped Hermon. The height descended into the valley of Jezreel, where a sweet spring rippled, and close by gathered into a pool. Eastwards, you would look down on Bethshan, and, across the deep depression of the Jordan valley, to the mountains on the other side on which rested the blue and purple light. To the west you might sweep those fifteen miles to Mount Carmel, and perchance the westerly breeze might carry up the plain the fresh scent of the sea. Such was the Jezreel of Ahab and Jezebel” the nearest, the safest, the sweetest summer- retreat from Samaria.

Naboth's VineyardOn the east and south-east, where the hot Limestone rock shelves into the valley beneath, are to this day wine-presses. They mark the neighborhood of where the vineyards of Jezreel must have been, among them that of Naboth. Right above was the royal palace, narrowed and cramped within the city walls, of which indeed it seems to have formed part. Manifestly it would be object of desire to acquire the land nearest to the palace, with the view of converting it into a garden. What such a garden might bear, and what sweet outlook on it could be enjoyed from the windows of the palace, may be judged from the lemon-groves still existing in the near neighborhood. But Naboth, the owner of the coveted piece of land, could not be tempted to part with it by the king’s offer of either a better vineyard or an equivalent in money. It was the ancestral possession of the family of Naboth, and piety towards God combined with reverence for the memory of his fathers to forbid the unholy bargain. It is a healthy sign to find such stern assertion of principle so fearlessly uttered. Israel could not be wholly sunken in corruption and idolatry so, long as it numbered among its peasant proprietors men like Naboth, nor could the service of Jehovah have left its households when even in Jezreel a burgher could appeal from the demands of an Ahab to the authority and law of his God. And it affords happy evidence of what the legislation of the Pentateuch had secured for Israel, that even in the worst times an Ahab dared not, like a heathen monarch, lay hands on Naboth, nor force him to surrender the inheritance of his fathers.

ahab_2It is another mark of that self-willed and uncontrolled frame of mind which had determined the bearing of Ahab towards Ben-hadad, and then towards the prophet sent to rebuke him, that he could not brook the refusal of Naboth. It was utter and childish petulance, as well as unbridled selfishness to, act as he did on his return to Samaria. He turned his face to the wall and refused to eat bread. In Samaria at least all was submissive to his will” thanks to the strong hand of Jezebel. But, outside her sway, he was always encountered and opposed by Jehovah: now by His prophets, then by His worshipers. Here was a power which he dared not resist, yet to which he would not submit. But Jezebel shared neither the feelings nor the scruples of her husband. She dared what she would, and she would what she dared. She now spoke to the king as a strong unscrupulous woman to a weak and unprincipled man. She must have known what had prompted the refusal of Naboth –although it deserves notice that, in his account of what had passed, the king had studiously omitted all reference to it (verse 6). Similarly, Ahab must have known that when Jezebel demanded the royal signet, with which official documents coming directly from the king were stamped, she must have had in view some scheme of violence. And often does it seem more convenient –certainly more easy –to remain in willful ignorance, than to learn what would call for our active resistance, or, in the absence of it, fill our conscience with uneasiness. And while remaining in willful ignorance, Ahab may have flattered himself that he had not incurred responsibility in the murder of Naboth.

JESEBEL PLOTS MURDER77The measures of Jezebel were at least plain and straightforward old Mosaic civil order still continued in Israel by which jurisdiction, even in matters of life and death, lay in the first instance with the “judges and officers” of a place (Deut. 16:18). This local “senate,” consisting partly of elected life-members, partly of what may be designated a hereditary aristocracy, might in times of corruption become subject to court influence, especially in a small royal borough such as Jezreel. Jezebel knew this only too well, and with a terrible frankness wrote to each member of that senate what would seem the king’s directions. By these each recipient of the letter would become a fellow-conspirator, and each feel bound to keep the horrible secret. As if some great sin rested upon the city (compare 1 Sam. 7: 6), and, in consequence of it, some heavy judgment were to be averted, (2Chron. 20: 2-4; Jer.36: 6, 9), the eldership of Israel gathered the people to a solemn fast. If it had been so, and some great sin had been committed or were even suspected, it would have been the duty of the city thus to purge itself of guilt or complicity. For according to the deep and true idea which underlay all the institutions of the Old Testament there is solidarity (as it is called in modern language) between those whom God has placed side by side. There is solidarity between all the members of the human family –solidarity of curse and of blessing, of judgment and of promise, because all have sprung from a common stock. There is solidarity also in a city, since ten righteous men might have preserved Sodom from destruction; solidarity in a nation, since the sins or the piety of its rulers were returned in blessing or in judgment on the people” a solidarity which as it pointed back to a common ancestry, also pointed forward to the full and final realization of its inmost meaning in that great brotherhood of believers which Christ came to found. And hence it was that, when blood had been shed and the doer of the crime remained 21: 1-9), and that, as here, when a great crime was supposed to have been committed, all would humble themselves in fasting before they put away the evil-doer from among them.

1 Kings 21 Naboth StonedIn the assembly thus called Naboth was to be ”set on high,” not in order to assign him an honorable place, so as the more effectually to rouse public indignation when one so honored was convicted of such crime, nor yet to give the appearance [of impartiality to the proceedings that were to follow. Evidently the fast had been appointed in humiliation for a sin as yet unknown to the people, and the assembly was called to set before them the nature of this crime. For this purpose Naboth was “set on high,” as one incriminated before the elders, against whom witnesses were to rise and on whom judgment was to be pronounced by the people of his own city. This explains (ver.10) how these “two sons of Belial” who were to bear false testimony against Naboth were “set before him.” The sacred text only informs us that the two witnesses (compare Deut. 27: 6, etc.; 19: 15; Numb. 35:30) testified that Naboth had “blasphemed” “uttered blasphemous language against” God and the king.” It is scarcely conceivable that Naboth should not have made some defense, nor that the people would have given so ready credence to such a charge against one so well known, if some colorable confirmation could not have been found for it. May it not have been that the refusal of the vineyard to Ahab had become known to the townsmen of Naboth, and that these two sons of Belial were suborned to say that Naboth had at the same time pronounced in their hearing a curse upon Ahab –perhaps also that he had uttered threats of resistance? Such a solemn curse would be regarded as an act of blasphemy, not only against the king but primarily against God, Whose authorized representative the king was (compare. Ex. 22: 28). But blasphemy against God was to be punished by stoning (Deut.13:10; 17:5).

As in all such cases, the punishment was immediately carried out, and apparently in Naboth’s own vineyard, where the witnesses would, according to our suggestion, have located the “blasphemy” spoken in reply to the request of the king. It is not necessary to suppose (as some commentators have done) that the property of a man stoned for such a crime was treated like that of one on whom the ban was pronounced, since in that case it would have been laid waste, not given to the king (Deut. 13: 16). But it was quite natural that the property of one who had been found guilty of high treason should be forfeited to the Crown. And so when the elders of Jezreel informed Jezebel that Naboth was stoned, she could tell her royal husband to go and take possession of the vineyard that had been refused him for purchase by “the Jezreelite,” since Naboth was dead.

storyofahab_3There was bitter as well as haughty irony in the words of Jezebel, as if she had felt herself a queen whose wishes and commands were above all law, human or Divine, and could not be resisted by God or man (ver.15). The text gives no indication that she had informed Ahab of the manner of Naboth’s death; nor did the king make inquiry. But there was far more terrible irony of fact in what followed the words of Jezebel. On receiving the welcome tidings of Naboth’s death, Ahab “rose up” to go and take possession of the coveted vineyard, –perhaps the very day after the judicial murder (compare 2 Kings 9:26). But on that day Jehovah had bidden Elijah arise and meet Ahab with the Divine message, just as the king thought himself in secure possession of the fruit of his crime, as if there were no living God in Israel. We can picture to ourselves the scene. Ahab has come in his chariot from Samaria, apparently attended by his chief officers (2 Kings 9:25). Before entering his palace at Jezreel “on the way to it” he has reached the vineyard of Naboth. He is surveying with satisfaction his new possession, perhaps giving directions how it should be transformed into “a garden,” when of a sudden there stands before him not one of the sons of the prophets, nor an ordinary seer, but the terrible figure of the Gileadite, with his burning eyes, and clad in the rough cloak of black camel’s hair, girt about with a leathern girdle. It must have recalled to Ahab his first apparition in the midst of Samaria, when the prophet had announced to his startled hearers the three years’ drought, and then so suddenly and tracelessly vanished from sight. And the last time he met the prophet had been on Mount Carmel; the last glimpse had been when through the blinding rain he saw the dark figure running before his chariot to the very gate of Jezreel, as if he had come to herald the triumph of Jehovah, and to bring back a new God-devoted king. That had been a weird sight of the prophet, through the storm; and it had been a short dim dream of Ahab’s to make the scene on Mount Carmel a reality in Israel. With Jezebel came back to him the evil spirit of his “madness;” nay, it had even sought, or consented to, the destruction of him who but yesterday had visibly brought God’s fire on the broken altar, and God’s rain on the parched land.

images (6)And now Elijah stood once more before him and Ahab knew only too well why.

It was for briefest but unmistakable message. Its first sentence swept away all self-deception. It had not been Jezebel but Ahab who had killed. And now he had taken possession, as if there were not Jehovah in heaven, nor yet the eternal reflection of His Being, and the permanent echo of His speaking, in right and truth upon earth. Having thus not only wakened the conscience of Ahab, but vindicated the authority of Him in Whose Name he spoke, the next sentence of Elijah’s message announced stern, strict, even literal retribution.

The retort of Ahab we regard as a childish lament to the effect that Elijah, who had always been his personal enemy, had now at last “found him” in some actual sin, on which he might invoke Divine punishment. It was an admission, indeed, in that moment of surprise, of his guilt and apprehension of the Divine punishment announced. But it conjoined with it this –if not in excuse, yet as a counter charge –that Elijah was his personal enemy, and had lain in wait for the occasion to call down Divine judgment upon him. It was against this attempt to make it a merely personal controversy that Elijah’s answer was directed (ver.20). “I have found (not ‘thee’), because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of Jehovah.” What the prophet had spoken was not the outcome of personal enmity, nor was what had occurred the result of a sudden temptation or rash mood of the king, but of the whole direction of life which Ahab had deliberately chosen. And in this two elements were closely marked: that he had sold himself as a slave (Rom. 7: 14), so that he had no longer freedom of action, but had, as it were, images (4)to obey his master’s behests; and that he had so sold himself, consciously or unconsciously, “to do the evil in the sight of Jehovah.” Accordingly, the judgment which Elijah announced was not merely personal to Ahab, as what he said about the dogs licking his blood ; but it also struck his dynasty and doomed it to extermination for this twofold reason: “on account of the wrath which thou hast caused to go forth, and hast made Israel to sin.” On the other hand, this general judgment should not take the place of personal punishment upon the doers of such a crime as the judicial murder of Naboth. The dogs would “eat Jezebel at the wall of Jezreel,” while a similar fate would overtake all the posterity of Ahab in the city (as in regards, of Samaria) or in the field. These must be regarded as personal judgments denounced on personal sins. This is also indicated by the interpolated remarks of the writer of the narrative (in verses 25, 26). But the actual punishment might be averted or modified by personal repentance, although not as regarded that pronounced on the national guilt in which the rule of Ahab had involved Israel.

If evidence of the truth of this narrative –and, as connected with it, of this whole history –were required, what is told in conclusion would furnish it. For a legendary story would not have represented Ahab as repenting and yet not renouncing his former courses. But this also is true to life. As formerly what he witnessed on Carmel, so now the words of Elijah went straight to Ahab’s heart. He no longer disguised the truth from himself, nor sought to divert his mind by thoughts of personal animosity on the part of the prophet. It was against Jehovah that he had sinned, and before Jehovah he humbled himself. As a mourner he rent his clothes; as a penitent he wore sackcloth; as guilty he fasted; and as one staggering under a heavy load of grief and sin, he walked softly. And all this publicly –in the sight of all men. It was fitting, if we may venture on the expression, and in accordance with God’s previous declaration of judgment, that the living God Who had seen and avenged the crime done in secret should also acknowledge the repentance shown in public. Accordingly the word of Jehovah came once more to Elijah to declare that the personal repentance of the personal sin had brought remission of the personal punishment, though not of that denounced on the dynasty. The visible judgment, by which all were to perceive the retribution of God’s justice, was delayed to the time of his son, and would have been delayed still further had he shown like repentance. But only delayed “for retribution must follow such open sin. And so the remembrance of it was kept up; and even this, in merciful warning to Ahab’s son. But when the dogs licked up the blood of Ahab, as they washed the chariot stained with his gore, they recalled the yet unfulfilled judgment that hung like a dark cloud over the house of Ahab (1 Kings 22: 38). But this was in Samaria, not in Jezreel, nor in the portion of Naboth, for, as the prophet had foretold, God brought not “the evil” itself, only its warning remembrance, in the days of Ahab. But on Jezebel would it descend with the terrible reality of a literal fulfillment.



Written by, Alfred Edersheim, M.A., D.D., Phd.
Edited for thought and sense


Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage:  Alfred Edersheim (March 7, 1825 – March 16, 1889) was a Jewish convert to Christianity and a Biblical scholar known especially for his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883). 

Edersheim was born in Vienna of Jewish parents of culture and wealth. English was spoken in their home, and he became fluent at an early age. He was educated at a local gymnasium and also in the Talmud and Torah at a Hebrew school, and in 1841 he entered the University of Vienna. His father suffered illness and financial reversals before Alfred could complete his university education, and he had to support himself.

He converted to Christianity in Pest when he came under the influence of John Duncan, a Church of Scotland chaplain to workmen engaged in constructing a bridge over the Danube. Edersheim accompanied Duncan on his return to Scotland and studied theology at New College, Edinburgh and at the University of Berlin. In 1846 Alfred was married to Mary Broomfield. They had seven children. In the same year he was ordained to the ministry in the Free Church of Scotland. He was a missionary to the Jews at Iaşi, Romania for a year.

On his return to Scotland, after preaching for a time in Aberdeen, Edersheim was appointed in 1849 to minister at the Free Church, Old Aberdeen. In 1861 health problems forced him to resign and the Church of St. Andrew was built for him at Torquay. In 1872 Edersheim’s health again obliged him to retire, and for four years he lived quietly at Bournemouth. In 1875 he was ordained in the Church of England, and was Curate of the Abbey Church, Christchurch, Hants, for a year, and from 1876 to 1882 Vicar of Loders, Bridport, Dorset. He was appointed to the post of Warburtonian Lecturer at Lincoln’s Inn 1880-84. In 1882 he resigned and relocated to Oxford. He was Select Preacher to the University 1884-85 and Grinfield Lecturer on the Septuagint 1886-88 and 1888-89.

Edersheim died at Menton, France, on March 16, 1889.

ELIJAH: When Ahab obeyed God

images (3)

The mission of Elijah must have had other more deep-reaching results in Israel than even those with which God had comforted His servant.

The “seven thousand” who had never bent the knee to Baal, must also have been greatly quickened and encouraged by what had taken place on Carmel. Nay, it could not but have made lasting impression on King Ahab himself. Too self-indulgent to decide for Jehovah, too weak to resist Jezebel, even when his conscience bothered him, or directed him to the better way, the impression of what he had witnessed could never have wholly passed from his mind. Even if, as in the case of Israel after the exile, it ultimately issued only in pride of nationality, yet this feeling must ever afterwards have been in his heart, that Jehovah He was God” “the God of Gods'” –and that Jehovah was in Israel, and the God of Israel.

It is this which explains the bearing of Ahab in the first wars with Ben-hadad of Syria. It need scarcely be said that this monarch was not the same, but the son of him who during the reigns of Baasha (1 Kings 15:20) and Omri had possessed himself of so many cities,both east and west of the Jordan, and whose sovereignty had, in a sense, been owned within the semi-independent Syrian bazaars and streets of Samaria itself (1 Kings 20:34). To judge from various notices, both Biblical and on Assyrian monuments, this Ben-hadad had inherited the restless ambition, although not the sterner qualities of his father. The motives of his warfare against Ahab are not difficult to understand. It was the settled policy of Syria to isolate and weaken the neighboring kingdom of Israel. With this object in view, Ben-hadad IV. (the father of this king of Syria) had readily broken his league with Baasha, and combined with Asa against Israel. But since the days of Omri the policy of both Israel and Judah had changed. Their former internecine wars had given place, first to peace, and then to actual alliance between the two kingdoms, cemented at last by the marriage of the son of Jehoshaphat with the daughter of Ahab (2 Chron. 18:1 ; 2 Kings 8:18).

Adding to the cause for this uneasiness of Syria must be affixed the close alliance between Israel and Tyre as indicated, if not brought about, by the marriage of Ahab with Jezebel. Thus the kingdom of Israel was secure both on its southern and western boundaries, and only threatened on that towards Syria. And the increasing prosperity and wealth of the land appear not only from the internal tranquility that obtained during the thirty-six years of the reign of Ahab and his two descendants, but also from the circumstance that Ahab built so many cities, and adorned his capital by a magnificent palace made of ivory (1 Kings 22:39). Lastly, the jealousy and enmity of Benhadad must have been increased by his own relations to the great neighboring power of Assyria, which (as we shall see)were such as to make a dangerous alliance between the latter and Israel an event of political probability.

In these circumstances, Ben-hadad resolved to strike such a blow at Samaria as would reduce it to permanent impotence. At the head of all his army, and followed by thirty-two vassal kings, or probably rather chieftains, who ruled over towns with adjoining districts within the territory between the Euphrates and the northern boundary of Israel he invaded Samaria. He met with no opposition, for, as Josephus notes {Ant. 8:14, 1), Ahab was not prepared for the attack. But even if it had been otherwise, sound policy would have dictated a retreat, and the concentration of the Israelitish forces behind the strong walls of the capital. This proved a serious check to the plans of Ben-hadad. The Syrian army laid, indeed, siege to Samaria, but the heat of the summer season, – the character and habits of his allies, and even the circumstance that his own country seems to have been divided among a number of semi-savage chiefs, must have proved unfavorable to a prolonged warfare. Ben-hadad might have succeeded if at the first onset he could have crushed the small, hastily-raised forces of Ahab by sheer weight of numbers. But the slow systematic siege of a well-defended city, into which Ahab had evidently gathered all the leading personages in his realm and all their wealth, must have appeared even to a boastful Oriental a doubtful undertaking, which might at any time be converted into a disaster by the sudden appearance of allies to Israel from Judah, Tyre, or perhaps even from Assyria.

It was probably shortly after the commencement of the siege of Samaria, that Ben-hadad sent envoys to demand in imperious terms the absolute submission of Ahab (1 Kings 20:2). At least so the latter seems to have understood it, when he declared his readiness to agree to his enemy’s terms. But whether Ben-hadad had from the first meant more, or his insolence had grown with what he regarded as the necessities and fears of Ahab, the next day other heralds came from Ben-hadad, requiring in terms of extreme and wanton insult, not only the surrender of Ahab, but that of Samaria; and especially of the palaces of its nobility, for the avowed purpose of plunder. It was evident that Ben-hadad intended, not the surrender of Ahab, but the destruction (“evil”) of the capital, and the ruin of the whole land (ver.7). Possibly the apparently strange demand of Ben-hadad (ver.6) may indicate a deeper scheme. To oblige Ahab formally to submit, would be of comparatively small, at most, of only temporary use. On the withdrawal of Ben-hadad the hostility of Israel would, as experience had shown, once more break forth under Ahab, or some new military leader, and threaten Syria with the same or even graver danger than before. But if the spirit of the leaders could be crushed by having their substance taken from them, then the chiefs of the people would not only be detached from their native monarchy, which had proved powerless to protect them, but in future rendered dependent on Syria, and hence led to seek the favor of Ben-hadad, instead of giving their allegiance to their own Israelitish rulers.

But the scheme was foiled by the clumsy frankness of its avowal. Ahab summoned to his council the elders of Israel. He told them how on the previous day he had expressed to Ben-hadad his willingness to make absolute personal submission and surrender of all that he possessed –as Josephus, no doubt, correctly puts into his mouth –for the sake of their preservation and peace. But the new terms which Ben-hadad proposed involved the leaders of the people as well as himself, and meant ruin equally to them all. In these circumstances, “the elders” counseled the absolute rejection of the terms demanded. Their advice was ratified by a popular assembly (ver.8). These measures of Ahab were wise. Besides, the bearing of Ben-hadad must have indicated even to a ruler less astute than Ahab, the weakness and folly of his opponent. And, instead of attacking the city, on the refusal of his terms, as he would have done had he been sure of his army, Ben-hadad now only sent a message of ridiculously boastful threatening, to which Ahab replied with calm dignity (vs. 10 -11).

Thus, for a time at least, Ahab seems in the school of adversity to have learned some of the lessons which his contact with Elijah might have taught him. Besides, it is only reasonable to suppose that both the composition of the force outside the city, and the utter demoralization of its leaders, were known in Samaria. A summer campaign in Palestine would have tried even the best disciplined troops. But the Syrian host contained a motley following of thirty-tow Eastern chiefs, who probably had little other interest in the campaign than the hope of plunder. It was an army incoherent in its composition, and unwieldy from its very numbers. Hitherto their advance had been unchecked, and its progress, no doubt, marked by the desolation of the country along their straggling line of march. Their easy success would make them not only more reckless, but also unwilling to engage in serious fighting, especially in those hot and enervating days, when their leaders lay in the cool shadow of their booths, indulging in drunken orgies. It was a dissipated rabble, rather than an army.

Ben-hadad and his allies were engaged in a midday bout when the reply of Ahab to the Syrian challenge arrived. Received under such circumstances, we scarcely wonder that it provoked the order of Ben-hadad to make immediate preparation for an assault on the city. But in whatever sense these preparations consisted, –whether in the advance of siege engines, or a massing of the troops, they could scarcely have been very effective, since all the Syrian chiefs continued at their orgies, so that the hour of battle surprised them while incapacitated by intoxication (ver. 16).

Matters were very different within Samaria. There a prophet appeared, to announce not only deliverance from the Lord, but to point its lesson in the contrast between the great multitude of the enemy, and the small number of Israel’s host, by which they were to be defeated. This, with the view of showing to Ahab and to Israel that He was Jehovah, the living Covenant-God, Who gave the victory.

Thus the teaching of Elijah on Mount Carmel was now to find its confirmation and application in national blessing. And that the influence of that scene had not been, as Elijah had feared, only temporary and transient, appears even from the presence of a prophet in Samaria, and from the whole bearing of Ahab. He is neither doubtful nor boastful, but, as having learned the prophetic lesson, anxious to receive plain Divine direction, and to follow it implicitly. Apparently the land was parceled out among “princes of the shires,” either hereditary chieftains of districts, or governors appointed by the king: an arrangement which throws further light on Ben-hadad’s previously expressed purpose; to permanently to break the power of these leaders of Israel. These ” princes of the shires ” seem to have been each resounded by a small armed retinue: ”the young men” (comp. 2 Sam. 18:15). By these, numbering in all only 232 men, the victory over the great Syrian host was to be achieved. It only remained for Ahab to inquire, “Who shall commence the warfare?” For in such a victory the main condition would be exact conformity to all Divine directions, in order to show that all was of God, and to give evidence of the principle of faith on the part of the combatants.

Having received the direction that he was to begin the battle, Ahab lost no time. At midday –probably of the following day –when, as no doubt was well-known in Samaria, Ben-hadad and his thirty-two confederates were “drinking” themselves ”drunk” in the booths, the 232 of the body-guard of the princes marched forth, followed by the 7000 men which formed the army of Israel. Although this number naturally reminds us of the 7000 who had not bent the knee to Baal, there is no need to regard it as referring to them, or (with the Rabbis) to “the true children of Israel.” The precise number (232) of the body-guard points to an exact numeration, nor need we perhaps wonder if in the wonder-working Providence of God there was a striking coincidence between the number of the faithful and that of Israel’s victorious host.

The same wonder-working Providence appears in the manner in which victory was granted. As so often, we mark the accomplishment of a result, miraculous when viewed by itself, yet, as regards the means, brought about in the order of natural causation. And thus we ever learn anew that although too frequently we do not perceive it, we are constantly surrounded by miracles, since Jehovah is the living God; and that hence ours should be the faith of a constant expectancy. It reads as we might have expected in the circumstances, that, when Ben-hadad was informed that men had come out from Samaria, he commanded in his drunken conceit and boastfulness, they should not be attacked, but made captives and brought to him. It may have been that those who were sent to execute this command went not fully armed. At any rate they seem to have been quite unprepared for resistance; and when these 232 Israelitish soldiers cut down each a man, no doubt following it up by further onslaught, the Syrians might naturally imagine that this was only an advanced guard, which was intended to precede a sortie of the whole garrison of Samaria.

A panic, not uncommon among Orientals, seized the unprepared and unmarshalled masses, whose officers the while lay drunken in the booths. The very number of the Syrians would make a formation or rally more difficult, while it would afterwards increase the confusion of what soon became an indiscriminate flight. At this moment King Ahab issued from Samaria with his whole army. Whether, as our present Hebrew text bears, the king struck at the war-horses and war-chariots of the enemy, with the view of capturing them, or, as the ancient Greek translators (the LXX.) seem to have read, he “took” them,” implying that there had not been time to harness the war-chariots when the Israelitish host was among them “the result ” would be the same. Ben-hadad, followed by a few horsemen, escaped by hasty flight as, the word used in the original conveys, on a “chariot-horse,” showing how sore was the stress when the king was obliged hastily to escape on the first horse to hand.

If it were necessary to demonstrate the compatibility of direct Divine help, and of reliance upon it, with the most diligent use of the best means, the narrative which follows would show it. After this great victory the king and people might have indulged in outward, or still worse, in professedly religious security to, the neglect of what was plain duty. But the same prophet who before had announced Divine deliverance, now warned Ahab to gather all his forces, and prepare, for that –“at the turn of the year,” that is, in the spring (comp.2 Sam. 11:1), he might expect another attack from Syria. And to make best preparation for the coming danger, in obedience to the Divine word, would not supersede but presuppose faith, even as we shall work best when we feel that we have the Divine direction in, and the Divine blessing on, our undertakings.

It was as the prophet had told. It seems quite natural that the courtiers of Ben-hadad should have ascribed the almost incredible defeat of such an army to supernatural causes, rather than to the dissipation and folly of their king. They suggested that the gods of Israel were mountain-deities, and that the rout of Syria around mountainous Samaria had been due to this cause. But the result would be far different if the battle were waged in the plains, man against man, and not gods against men, (“but, on the other hand, we shall fight with them in the plain [see, if] we shall not be stronger than they!”) The grounds of this strange suggestion must be sought partly in the notions of the heathen world, but also partly in the sin of Israel. The ancient heathen world worshiped not only gods on the heights, but gods of the heights, and the sin of Israel in rearing altars and chapels on “the high places” must have led to the inference that the national worship was that of mountain-deities. Thus did Israel’s disobedience bring also its temporal punishment.

But to their general advice the courtiers of Ben-hadad added certain practical suggestions, to avoid the secondary causes to which they attributed their late defeat. The tributary ” kings” were to be dismissed, and their places filled by governors. This would give not only unity to the army (comp. 1 Kings 22:31), but these officers, appointed by Ben-hadad himself, would naturally take a more personal interest in the cause of their king. And, instead of the former army, Ben-hadad was to raise one equal in numbers, but –as the text has it– “from those with thee ” (that is; thine own subjects).

In these well-conceived measures there was only one, but that a fatal, flaw. They proceeded on the supposition that the God of Israel was like one of the heathen deities. And this point was emphasized in the defeat of the Syrians, which was announced to Ahab by “a man of God,” probably another than “the prophet” who had formerly been commissioned to him. But it deserves special notice that this message only came after the invasion of the Syrian host. Thus would the temptation be avoided of neglecting all ordinary preparations: faith would be tried, and also called forth; while, by this prediction, and from the disparity between Israel and the host of Syria, Israel would once more learn to recognize in this deliverance that Jehovah He was God.

The winter rains had ceased, and the spring wind and sun had dried the land. There was a fresh crispness in the air, and a bright light over the scene, when the immense Syrian host swarmed down into that historic battlefield of Israel, the great plain of Jezreel. We are carried back in imagination to the scene of Saul’s last fatal defeat (1 Sam. 29:1), and beyond it to that of Gideon’s glorious victory. Once more the foe lay at Aphek, with his back against the hill on which probably the fortified city of that name stood, and facing the plain where it is broadest. As in imagination we travel southwards to the highlands, and to those mountains among which Samaria lies embosomed, we feel how literally Ben-hadad had acted on the suggestion of his servants to avoid a contest with the mountain-deities of Israel. It was the very time and place for Jehovah to show forth that great lesson which underlies and sums up all revelation. Of the Israelitish host we know not the numbers ” only that, as they camped in two divisions on the opposite side of the valley, perhaps beneath the two spurs of the ridge that juts into the plain from the south-east, they seemed like two little flocks of kids –so small and weak, as compared with their enemies. For seven days the two armies lay observing each other. From the circumstance specially mentioned in the text, that the Israelites had gone out “provisioned”(ver.27, margin), and even from their camping in two divisions, we infer that the object of Ahab was to remain on the defensive, which, indeed, the inferiority of numbers rendered imperative. Besides, the Jewish position was most happily chosen. It barred the advance of the enemy, who could not move forward without first giving battle to Israel.

The Syrians must have perceived the advantage of Ahab’s position, with his back to the base of his operations, while the division of Israel into two camps might enable them to envelop their enemies if they attempted an advance, in which case the very size of the Syrian army would, from its unwieldiness, prove a serious difficulty. But the danger of idle delay in a hostile country, and in an Eastern warfare, was nearly as great. And so on the seventh day the attack was made –as we judge, by the Syrians. Their defeat was crushing. The great Syrian host of 100,000 was destroyed, and the men who either made their way from the battle-field to Aphek, or who had been left there as a garrison, experienced another and even more terrible calamity. While crowding into the gates, or else while occupying the ramparts, which had probably been hastily thrown up or strengthened, a wall fell upon 27,000 of their number.

Further defense being thus rendered impossible, the previous confidence of Ben-hadad gave place to abject fear. He fled from room to room ” into the innermost chamber. His servants, who had formerly given such warlike counsel, now advised him to sue in most humble manner for his life, holding out the hope of the mercifulness of the kings of Israel of which they had heard. There is an ominous sound in this. The kings of Israel had never been distinguished for mercy. But they had only too often shown their sympathy with the heathen kingdoms around, and manifested a desire to make alliance with them, and to conform to their ways. Yet, even so, it is not easy to explain the conduct of Ahab when the Syrian envoys of Ben-hadad appeared before him, in true Eastern manner, with sackcloth on their loins and ropes round their necks, suing only for the life of him who now ostentatiously styled himself Ahab’s slave.” It could scarcely have been due to weakness of character when Ahab broke into the almost joyous exclamation,”Is he yet alive?” Nor could it have been merely from kindness of disposition that he ostentatiously substituted: “he is my brother” for the designation, “thy slave Ben-hadad,” used by the Syrian envoys.

They were not slow to perceive the altered tone of the king. They favorably interpreted and laid hold on that which had come from him; and they said: “Thy brother Ben-hadad.” Presently, at Ahab’s invitation, Ben-hadad himself was brought, and made to stand by the side of the king in his chariot ” both in token of companionship and for more private conversation. In truth, nothingness than a treaty of alliance was in hand between them. Ben-hadad undertook to restore the towns which his father had taken from Ahab’s father (in a warfare of which we have no other record) and to allow to Ahab the same rights and privileges as to having “streets,” or rather ” bazaars ” –what in modern language would be called an Israelitish “factory” –in the Syrian capital, which Ben-hadad’s father had possessed in Samaria; and with this covenant Ahab dismissed the Syrian king.

We have said that it is not easy to understand what motives could have prompted an act which, even politically, was a grave mistake. Was it flattered vanity on the part of Ahab, or sympathy with the heathen king, or part of his statecraft to secure, not only an ally, but a vassal on the northern flank of his kingdom, or all these combined ? In any case he must have looked upon the victory over the Syrians in a manner far different from that in which it had been announced to him by the God who had wrought it. Ahab no longer thought of Jehovah; he inquired not as to His purpose or will.

There was an ominous similarity between his conduct and that of Saul in regards to Agag (1 Sam. 15) Evidently, Ahab claimed to have himself gained the victory, and felt sure that in like circumstances “should Ben-hadad rebel” he would equally gain it once more. It was he, and not the Lord, who would shape and direct the destinies of Israel. Jehovah was only the national deity of that Israel of which Ahab was the king. And so the error of the Syrians was substantially repeated by Ahab, and the lesson which Jehovah would have taught by their defeat had to be learned anew by Israel and its king –this time in judgment.

This explains the commission with which God now charged one of “the sons of the prophets. –We mark that the expression here occurs for the first time. It referred to those associations under the leadership of some prophet (hence sons of the prophets)which, in the decay of religious life in Israel; served such important purposes, alike for the preservation of religion, and in the execution of the Divine behests. In fact, they would recall to Israel, what, as a nation, Israel had been destined to be, and ever keep it before them. Thus they represented, so to speak, ideal Israel in the midst of apostate Israel. To a member of this community it came “by the word of Jehovah” –that is, by direct command from Him –to confront Ahab with such a symbolic (or parabolic) presentation of his late conduct as would show it in its true light, and lead the king to pronounce sentence on himself. Thus only could a man like Ahab be convicted, if not convinced, of sin.

In the execution of this commission the “son of the prophet” went to one of his colleagues, and, telling him that it was “by the word of Jehovah,” bade him “smite” him. It was conduct not unlike that of Ahab when this behest was resisted by the prophet. Remembering these two things: that the person addressed was also a “son of the prophets,” and that he had been informed that it was “by the word of Jehovah,” we can understand the Divine judgment which so speedily overtook him when he was torn by a lion. For the fundamental idea, the very law, of the prophetic was absolute, unquestioning obedience to the command of God. This was the lesson to be taught by these associations and their leaders, and it explains how sometimes exceeding strange things were given them to do in public, that so in the absoluteness of their obedience they might exhibit the absoluteness of God’s authority. Hence not to have visited with signal judgment the disobedience of the prophet would have been not only to contravene the principle on which the whole prophetic institution rested, but also the very lesson and message which was to be conveyed to Ahab. But what one “son of the prophets” had refused, another soon afterwards did. Then the “son of the prophets,” now smitten till he was wounded,” disguised himself with a bandage upon his eyes,” and waited for the king by the way. The reason of his appearing as a wounded man was that he might appeal to the king with the more show of truth, and of claim upon his interference, as wounded in the fight. And a symbolism may also have been designed. For, as the prophet’s conduct was intended to represent that of the king, it might be wished to anticipate this possible excuse of Ahab that the difficulty of his circumstances had rendered it not easy to retain Ben-hadad by the analogous case of a wounded man, who might have fair ground of excuse if he allowed his prisoner to escape.

The story which the wounded prophet told the king was to the effect that, while in the battle” and this is an important point, as intended to indicate that Ahab was only like a soldier engaged in a warfare in which God, and not the king of Israel, was the commander “one had turned aside and bidden him have safe custody of a captive, with this injunction: “If he be missed [as when the prisoners are mustered], thy life shall be for his life, or else thou shalt pay a talent of silver.” From the language we infer that the person who handed over the prisoner was represented as a superior officer; that the battle itself was ended, and that the captive was a very valuable prisoner, since such a price was set upon him. But while the pretended soldier “was busy here and there” –or, as it has been proposed to be read: “looked here and there” –the prisoner escaped. In these circumstances he appealed to the king that he might not be punished as threatened by his leader. The king had no hesitation how to decide. He told him that in recounting his story he had already pronounced sentence upon himself. Then the prophet, having removed the bandage from his eyes, so that the king recognized him, announced the application of the Divine parable. The war had been Jehovah’s, not Ahab’s, and Ben-hadad had been the “banned” of the Lord. “Because thou hast let go forth out of thine hand (custody) the man of my ban (compare Lev. 27:29), therefore thy life shall be for his life, and thy people for his people.”

The judgment pronounced was not only righteous, but alike the necessary sequence of God’s dealings throughout this history, and of Ahab’s bearing in it. And in the judgment the people as a whole must also share. For even if theirs had not been the same spirit as that which had prompted the conduct of Ahab, yet the public acts of rulers are those of the nation, and national sins are followed by national judgments. Ahab had been on his triumphant return to Samaria, there to receive the popular applause for his achievements, when, in presence of all his retinue, he was thus publicly confronted by the prophet’s message. He now “went to his house much excited and angry.” And this also casts further light both on what Ahab had done, and on what he was about to do.


Written by, Alfred Edersheim, M.A., D.D., Phd.
Edited for thought and sense


Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage:  Alfred Edersheim (March 7, 1825 – March 16, 1889) was a Jewish convert to Christianity and a Biblical scholar known especially for his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883). 

Edersheim was born in Vienna of Jewish parents of culture and wealth. English was spoken in their home, and he became fluent at an early age. He was educated at a local gymnasium and also in the Talmud and Torah at a Hebrew school, and in 1841 he entered the University of Vienna. His father suffered illness and financial reversals before Alfred could complete his university education, and he had to support himself.

He converted to Christianity in Pest when he came under the influence of John Duncan, a Church of Scotland chaplain to workmen engaged in constructing a bridge over the Danube. Edersheim accompanied Duncan on his return to Scotland and studied theology at New College, Edinburgh and at the University of Berlin. In 1846 Alfred was married to Mary Broomfield. They had seven children. In the same year he was ordained to the ministry in the Free Church of Scotland. He was a missionary to the Jews at Iaşi, Romania for a year.

On his return to Scotland, after preaching for a time in Aberdeen, Edersheim was appointed in 1849 to minister at the Free Church, Old Aberdeen. In 1861 health problems forced him to resign and the Church of St. Andrew was built for him at Torquay. In 1872 Edersheim’s health again obliged him to retire, and for four years he lived quietly at Bournemouth. In 1875 he was ordained in the Church of England, and was Curate of the Abbey Church, Christchurch, Hants, for a year, and from 1876 to 1882 Vicar of Loders, Bridport, Dorset. He was appointed to the post of Warburtonian Lecturer at Lincoln’s Inn 1880-84. In 1882 he resigned and relocated to Oxford. He was Select Preacher to the University 1884-85 and Grinfield Lecturer on the Septuagint 1886-88 and 1888-89.

Edersheim died at Menton, France, on March 16, 1889.

ELIJAH: A pastor among wolves, and Ahab’s desperate decision



Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people did not answer him a word.
–1 Kings 18:21

In the breathless silence that ensued upon this challenge Elijah now stood forward…

…and pointing to the white-robed crowd of priests over against him, he recalled to king and people that he and he only remained, that is, in active office and open profession –a prophet of Jehovah. Single-handed, therefore, he would go to the contest, if contest of power it were against that multitude.

Power! They worship as God the powers of nature; let them then make trial as to on whose side these powers which are in nature are arrayed. Let this be the test: the priests of Baal on their side, and he on his, would each choose a bullock and prepare it for sacrifice, but not kindle the fire beneath,” and it shall be the Elohim who shall answer by fire, He is the “Elohim.”

A shout of universal assent greets the proposal. Under the circumstances it would be of greatest practical importance that the futility of Baal-worship should be exhibited in the fullest manner. This explains the details of all that follows. Besides, after a whole day of vain appliance of every resource of their superstition, the grandeur of Jehovah’s majestic interposition would also make the deeper impression. But although from Elijah’s point of view it was important that the priests of Baal should first offer their sacrifice, the proposition was one to which no objection could be taken, since Elijah not only gave them the choice of the sacrificial animal, but they were many as against one. Nor could they complain so far as they regarded the test proposed by Elijah, since their Baal was also the god of fire, he was the very Sun-god himself.

Now commences a scene which baffles description. Ancient writers have left us accounts of the great Baal-festivals, and they closely agree with the narrative of the Bible, and only furnish further details. First rises a comparatively moderate, though already wild cry to Baal; followed by a dance around the altar, beginning with a swinging motion to and fro. The howl then becomes louder and louder, and the dance more frantic. They whirl round and round, running wildly through each other’s ranks, always keeping up a circular motion, the head low bent, so that their long disheveled hair sweeps the ground.

Ordinarily the madness now became infectious, and the onlookers join in the frenzied dance. But Elijah knew how to prevent this. It was noon, and for hours they have kept up their wild rites. With cutting taunts and bitter irony Elijah now reminds them that, since Baal was Elohim, the fault must lie with them. He might be otherwise engaged, and they must cry louder. Stung to madness, they become more frantic than before, and what we know as the second and third acts in these feasts then ensues. The wild howl passes into piercing demoniacal yells. In their madness the priests bite their own arms and cut themselves with the two-edged swords which they carry and with lances.

As blood begins to flow the frenzy reaches its highest pitch, when first one, then others, commence to “prophesy,” moaning and groaning, then bursting into rhapsodic cries, accusing themselves, or speaking to Baal, or uttering incoherent broken sentences. All the while they beat themselves with heavy scourges, loaded or armed with sharp points, and cut themselves with swords and lances, sometimes even mutilating themselves –since the blood of the priest was supposed to be specially propitiatory with Baal.

Two more hours of this terrible scene have past, and their powers of endurance must have been all but exhausted. The sun has long passed its meridian, and the time of the regular evening-sacrifice in the Temple of Jehovah at Jerusalem has come. From the accounts of the Temple-times left us, we know that the evening sacrifice was offered “between the evenings,” as it was termed, that is, between the down going of the sun and the evening.

In point of fact, the evening Temple service was to commence between two and three p.m. It must have been about the same time that Elijah begins the simple yet solemn preparations for his sacrifice. Turning from the frantic priests to the astonished people, he bids them to draw nigh. They must gather around him, not only in order to be convinced that no deception is being practiced, but to take part with him, as it were, in the service.

And once more Israel is to appear as the Israel of old in happier times, undivided in nationality as in allegiance to Jehovah. This was the meaning of his restoring the broken place of former pious worship by rolling to it twelve of the large pieces of rock that have strewed the ground, according to the number of the tribes. And as he builds the altar, he consecrates it by prayer: “in the name of Jehovah.” Next, the soft crumbling calcareous soil around the altar are dug into a deep and wide trench. Then the wood, and upon it the pieces of the sacrifice are laid in due order. And now, at the prophet’s bidding, willing hands fill the pitchers from the well close by. Once, twice, thrice he pours the water over the sacrifices, till it runs down into the trench, which he also fills.

This, as we suppose, was not merely to show the more clearly that the fire, which consumes the sacrifice in such circumstances, is sent from heaven, but also for symbolic reasons, as if to indicate that Israel’s penitent confession is being poured upon the offering. And now a solemn silence falls upon the assembly. The sun is going down, a globe of fire behind Mount Carmel, and it covers the mountain with a purple glow. It is time for the evening sacrifice.

mt carmel elijahBut Jehovah, not Elijah, would do this miracle; the Hand of the living God Himself must be stretched out. Once more it was prayer which moved that Hand. Such prayer was not heard before –so calm, so earnest, so majestic, so assured, so strong. Elijah appeared in it as only the servant of Jehovah, and all that he had previously done was only at His Word: but Jehovah was the Covenant-God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, manifesting Himself as of old as the Living and True, as Elohim in Israel: the conversion of Israel to Him as their God being the great object sought for…

He had said it as when first the Tabernacle was consecrated (Lev. 9: 24),or as when King Solomon (1 Chron. 21:26; 2 Chron. 7: 1) brought the first offering in the temple which he had reared to Jehovah, so now the fire of Jehovah leaps from heaven, consuming the sacrifice and the wood, wrapping and burning up the limestone rocks of which the altar was constructed, and with burning tongues lick up even the water that was in the trench. One moment of solemn silence, when all who has seen it falls in awe-stricken worship on their faces; then a shout which seems to rend the very air, and finds its echo far and wide in the glens and clefts of Carmel: “Jehovah, He the Elohim! Jehovah, He the Elohim!”

And so Israel is once more converted unto God. And now, in accordance with the Divine command in the Law (Deut. 13:13 ; 17:2, etc.), stern judgment must be executed on the idolaters and seducers; the idol-priests. The victory that day must be complete; the renunciation of Baal-worship beyond recall. Not one of the priests of Baal must escape. Down the steep mountain sides they hurried them, casting them over precipices, some fourteen hundred feet to the river Kishon, which is reddened with their blood. –But up on the mountain-top lingers King Ahab, astonished, speechless, himself for the time a convert to Jehovah. He also is to share in the sacrifice; he also is to eat the sacrificial meal. But it must be in haste, for already Elijah hears the sighing and low moaning of the wind in the forests of Carmel.

Elijah, himself takes no part in the feast. He has other bread to eat that they know not. He has climbed the topmost height of Carmel and out of sight of the king. None has accompanies him save his servant, whom tradition declares to be that son of the widow of Sarepta who was miraculously restored to life. A most fitting minister, indeed, he would be in that hour.

Once more it was agonizing prayer –not once, but seven times repeated. At each break, the faithful attendant climbs the highest knoll, and looks earnestly and anxiously over the broad expanse of the sea, which is there before him, glittering in full view. At last it comes –a cloud, as yet not bigger than a man’s hand.

But when God begins to hear a prayer, He will hear it abundantly; when He gives his blessing, it will be without stint. Ahab must be up, and quick in his chariot, or the rain, which will descend in floods, will clog the hard ground, so that his chariot would find it difficult to traverse the six miles across the plain to the palace of Jezreel. And now as the foot of the mountain is reached, the heaven is black with clouds, the wind moans fitfully, and the rain now comes in torrents.

But the power of Jehovah was upon the Tishbite. He girds up his loins and runs before the chariot of Ahab. On such a day he hesitates not to act as outrunner to this convert-king; nay, he would himself be the harbinger of the news to Jezreel. Up to the entrance of Jezreel he heralds them; to the very gate of Jezebel’s palace he goes before them, like the warning voice of God, ere Ahab again encounters his tempter.

But there the two must part company, and the king of Israel must henceforth decide for himself to whom he will cleave, whether to Jehovah or to the god of Jezebel.


Written by, Alfred Edersheim, M.A., D.D., Phd.
Edited for thought and sense


Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage:  Alfred Edersheim (March 7, 1825 – March 16, 1889) was a Jewish convert to Christianity and a Biblical scholar known especially for his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883). 

Edersheim was born in Vienna of Jewish parents of culture and wealth. English was spoken in their home, and he became fluent at an early age. He was educated at a local gymnasium and also in the Talmud and Torah at a Hebrew school, and in 1841 he entered the University of Vienna. His father suffered illness and financial reversals before Alfred could complete his university education, and he had to support himself.

He converted to Christianity in Pest when he came under the influence of John Duncan, a Church of Scotland chaplain to workmen engaged in constructing a bridge over the Danube. Edersheim accompanied Duncan on his return to Scotland and studied theology at New College, Edinburgh and at the University of Berlin. In 1846 Alfred was married to Mary Broomfield. They had seven children. In the same year he was ordained to the ministry in the Free Church of Scotland. He was a missionary to the Jews at Iaşi, Romania for a year.

On his return to Scotland, after preaching for a time in Aberdeen, Edersheim was appointed in 1849 to minister at the Free Church, Old Aberdeen. In 1861 health problems forced him to resign and the Church of St. Andrew was built for him at Torquay. In 1872 Edersheim’s health again obliged him to retire, and for four years he lived quietly at Bournemouth. In 1875 he was ordained in the Church of England, and was Curate of the Abbey Church, Christchurch, Hants, for a year, and from 1876 to 1882 Vicar of Loders, Bridport, Dorset. He was appointed to the post of Warburtonian Lecturer at Lincoln’s Inn 1880-84. In 1882 he resigned and relocated to Oxford. He was Select Preacher to the University 1884-85 and Grinfield Lecturer on the Septuagint 1886-88 and 1888-89.

Edersheim died at Menton, France, on March 16, 1889.