Chapter 15: Beneath the Surface

15:8 The LORD detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him.

      I am writing this from Tall el-Hammam, my dig site in Jordan. Our excavation here is testing a number of historical hypotheses: was this site Sodom (of Sodom and Gomorrah fame) in the days of Abraham; or Abel Shittim in the days of Moses; or the capital of King Solomon's 12th administrative district; or Livias, the capital of Herod Antipas' Perea in the time of Jesus?
      Two years ago at Tall el-Hammam we uncovered the foundation of a massive building sitting in the center of the site's lower city. We wondered if it might be an ancient temple. Last year, next to that building, we uncovered the circular stone foundation of an altar. Found in association with the altar were two stone offering bowls and a small gypsum juglet. This was one of those places where the ancients brought their sacrifices to whatever god they were serving in that temple. Tomorrow, it will be my responsibility to begin excavating that temple complex. I don't know what we will find under the ground, but I do know what is important to God. He says religious activities and offerings, themselves, are of no value. Instead, our prayers – backed up by right attitudes and actions – is all we really need today.

15:17 Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.

      The Promised Land was described by God as a place of flocks and herds as well as agricultural produce (Ex 3:8). Seven specific agricultural products are mentioned (Dt 8:8): wheat, barley, figs, vines (grapes), oil (olives), pomegranates, and honey (maybe bee honey, very possibly dates). While vegetables don't actually make the list (and the term is only used again in Daniel 1), individual vegetables were often mentioned in the Old Testament and are found regularly in excavations(see
http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2013/12/13/Home-Cooking-Old-Testament-Style.aspx#Article). At Khirbet Nisya, one of my dig sites in Israel's West Bank, we discovered a family tomb from the time of the Judges. Because the tomb was damp, most of the bones disintegrated and what we had more than anything else was teeth. A professor of dentistry organized them into sets and identified 50-51 different individuals.
      His analysis of the teeth also demonstrated what we already knew from elsewhere – that people in OT times rarely ate meat. The typical meal eaten by the average family was comprised of "vegetables" – agricultural produce which would have centered on bread with some vegetables, a little fruit and some dairy products. The meal in the first part of this verse thus represents what would be understood as a pretty normal everyday meal.
      The "fattened calf" of the second part of the verse would have been a young, specially kept and fed animal. While calling for a lot more work, it was important to have such a calf available for an important meal and/or sacrifice.
      In fact, the word used here ("fattened") is the adjective form of the noun "manger" or feeding trough (see the note at 14:4). Since animals were usually fed by grazing in the fields, this manger feeding took special resources and effort. This verse is talking about an animal kept in the domestic stable of the house and especially fed for a special purpose.

15:25 The LORD tears down the proud man's house but he keeps the widow's boundaries intact.

      In the ancient world, whatever a man owned was passed on to his sons and not his daughters (with an interesting exception in Numbers 36). Since what a man owned went to his sons and not his wife, she really had no rights to anything from him. Of course, if she had sons, they would presumably take care of their mother. In addition, a wife should also have a dowry which she brought into her marriage and it should help sustain her (see notes at 31:10). But widows, like orphans and strangers, were especially watched over by God in the Law of Moses and they had His personal attention and protection.
      The "widow's boundaries" meant all her territory, everything that was hers. It would include her dowry, if there was one and whatever was left. While her "boundaries" probably weren't much, God says He is watching over all of it – and that means everything will be okay and He will make it stretch to cover whatever is necessary. Because that's who God is and how He rolls!

15:27 A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live.

      The translation "bribe" in this verse is reasonable, but doesn't really explain the whole concept. While the Hebrew term is the standard word for "gift," it covers a whole range of "gifts" – from love gifts to tips to bribes. I think the best modern term for this word is the Middle Eastern word baksheesh. Originally a Persian term, it describes everything from religious offerings to charitable giving to tipping to political corruption.

15:30 A cheerful look brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones.

15:30 Light in a messenger's eyes brings joy to the heart, and good news gives health to the bones. UPDATED NIV

      "Healthy bones" is literally "fat bones." Of course, the focus is not on one's actual bones but on their weight. In the ancient world, to be fat (overweight) was to be wealthy (and, by extension, healthy, too), because only the wealthy had that much food to eat.
      Even today in Jordan, where I excavate every year, it is generally true among men that only the wealthy or important tend to be overweight. Established men of means and influence – who also tend to be at least a bit on the heavy side – are considered healthy and successful. I have had more than one Jordanian man over the years pat my stomach and suggest I must be a very successful man!