What are they talking about in the Bible?

NATIONAL Bible week, Nov. 19-26

How tall was Goliath? What did Joseph's "coat of many colors" look like? How many spans are in a cubit? The Bible is full of great stories, but it also seems to be full of mystery. People buy things with shekels, manna is collected by the "omer," and women even wear "tires"!

Scholars try to make sense of cubits, omers, and other strange-sounding subjects in the Bible in a couple of ways. One way is to look at how people live today in areas mentioned in the Bible. The other way is through archaeology. They dig into the ruins of cities that were active in biblical times, to find clues about people and objects mentioned in the Bible.

Women in Old Testament regions still wear "tires" on their heads, just like those mentioned in the King James version of the book of Isaiah (3:18), "round tires like the moon." These tires are small caps made of thin silver or gold. Coins and precious jewels hang all around the caps. By seeing women wearing tires today, we can understand Bible references from thousands of years ago.

Another rather strange-sounding idea in the Bible is the statement about a camel going through the eye of a needle. (See Matt. 19:24.) Why would anyone even imagine a camel going through a needle's eye?

Here's one way people interpret this idea. Some cities today, just as in biblical times, are surrounded by high walls for protection. These walls have several large gates where people enter or leave the city. In biblical times, the gates would be closed at night. When anyone wanted to enter or leave the city after dark, a small door within the large one could be opened. This small door, often only big enough for one person to slip through, might have been called a "needle's eye." A big camel, burdened with sacks of grain or other baggage, could never squeeze through such a small door. Some gates in Jerusalem still have this needle's eye -the Jaffa Gate, for example.

The Bible mentions a time when Jesus wrote on the ground (John 8:6). In many villages today in the same region, you'll find people writing on the ground. No laptops or Palm Pilots here. While bargaining for sheep or goats, people may scribble figures in the dirt. Maps or illustrations are drawn with pointed sticks. Just as Jesus did 2,000 years ago, it's a common practice to write in the dirt.

According to another Bible story, when Jesus asked some disciples to follow him, one man replied that he couldn't because he had to go and bury his father (Matt. 8:21, 22). Jesus told him, "Let the dead bury their dead." That might seem like an abrupt answer, but not when you understand the man's statement. Even today, if you ask someone in that region to do something he doesn't want to do, he may say he can't because he "has to go bury his father." It's probably not true. It's like a woman in the United States saying she can't go out because she has to wash her hair. The man was just giving Jesus a typical excuse.

So how tall was Goliath? That one is a little harder. In the story of David slaying the giant Goliath (I Sam., Chapter 17), the giant's height is described as "six cubits and a span." But nobody measures in cubits anymore.

A cubit is believed to be the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. A span is the distance from the thumb to the little finger with the hand stretched apart. But since arm and hand lengths vary, that doesn't give an accurate measure. And people are believed to have been much smaller thousands of years ago.

This is where archaeology may be a help. The Bible mentions Jehoash breaking down a 400-cubit section of Jerusalem's wall, from the Ephraim Gate to the Corner Gate (See II Kings 14:13). Another verse talks about two other gates being 1,000 cubits apart. If any of these gates can be found, the distance could be measured to get a better idea of the length of a cubit.

But there's another problem. In the Bible, numbers like 400 and 1,000 may not represent precise measures. They may be estimates. The length of the wall between two gates might have been 400 cubits exactly, but maybe 400 was just to give a general idea of its length. People have calculated Goliath's height at anywhere from 6 ft., 6 in., to 9 ft., 6 in. Others scholars say the numbers in the story are estimates - that all they mean is that Goliath was really big.

Sometimes a mystery lies in how a Bible passage was translated. Joseph's coat may not have been multicolored, after all. (See. Gen. 37:3.) It's possible that Joseph's father really gave him a coat with long sleeves. In some modern cultures, a long-sleeved coat is worn only by the leader or his heir. Joseph's brothers weren't jealous because the coat looked good, but because it meant Joseph would be their leader one day. But this is still something that is left to interpretation.

Many new translations of Bible texts are now available. Some of these start from the oldest known versions to try to clarify the meaning, and also consider other (relatively) newly discovered documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other translations focus more on getting rid of the "thee's" and "behold's," so the text is easier to understand for modern readers.

But stories like David and Goliath stay basically the same in every version. And no matter how tall Goliath was, the most important point of the story is that he was a whole lot bigger than David, but David still managed to beat him. David always comes out the winner. And so do people who enjoy these Bible stories and are inspired by them.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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