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Artifact Communication in the Bible

I’d like to draw your attention to artifact communication—the use of things to affect the understanding of another. Things have shared meaning within a community. Like a band of gold worn specifically on the “ring finger” of the left hand. Like a read dot in the middle of an Indian woman’s forehead. Like a bulbous red ball attached to someone’s nose. The gun and badge in this article’s pic.

When reading the Bible, we are constantly being confronted with artifacts, with things, that have a different meaning to the author than they do to us. We know what our artifacts mean to us… now we have to learn what their artifacts meant to them.

For us, uniforms mark out public functions like priest, police, & fireman.

  • In the Bible God clothes Adam and Eve after his curse (Gen 3:21) just as the prodigal son’s father puts a robe on his son and a ring on his finger. (Luke 15:22) It was a symbol of re-inheritance, just as stripping a robe is a sign of disinheritance.
  • Joseph’s “coat of many colors” (lit. a coat to the palms, i.e. long sleeved and perhaps full length) was interpreted by his brothers as a sign that he would receive the chief inheritance… which he did, later.
  • Tamar puts off her widow’s garments when she seeks back-alley justice from her father-in-law, Judah. He also mistakes her for a prostitute because she “covered her face” (Gen 38:14-15).

For us, hats can designate community associations like a Jewish Yamaka, which also symbolizes humility before God, or a Shriner’s Fez, or support for a sports team or cause, “Joe’s Diner… I eat there, you should too.”

  • Paul appeals to the use of head coverings by women in church during public prayer and public prophecy as “a sign of authority” (i.e. being under authority). (I Cor 11:5)
  • It was common in the biblical period to display mourning and grief by putting ashes on your head and ripping your clothes.
  • 2Sa 13:18 “Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves, for thus were the virgin daughters of the king dressed. So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. 19 And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went.”

For us, jewelry can mark out special relationships like wedding rings, or even split heart necklaces that declare a special bond of love.

  • Tamar takes the signet, cord, and staff from her father-in-law as promissory token when he mistakes her for a prostitute and promises to send her a goat. (Gen 38:17-18)
  • Rahab accepts a scarlet cord from the spies as a sign of their covenant with her. (Josh 2:18)
  • Rebecca’s dedication to Isaac is marked by placing a ring in her nose and bracelets on her arms. (Gen 24:47)

For us, special tools automatically associate a person with certain kinds of work, like a hearse [funeral director], jackhammer [road construction crewmember] or gavel [judge].

  • Biblical tools we might consider are the hut in a melon patch [a building with no roof, no windows, no door] (Isaiah 1:8); the Urim & Thummim [tools for getting yes no answers from YHWH by the high priest]; the sling stone [which is a baseball-sized serious weapon of war] (Judges 20:16).
  • In fact I Sam 17:40 is unusually explicit in its description of David’s equipment. “Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.”

In our world, we might consider octagonal red signs [stop], flags [community association], pink ribbon magnets [help fight breast cancer], or badges [authority to act], certain tattoos mark gang affiliation, sexual orientation, or, even, deep bonds of love or hate.

  • In Proverbs, the fact that both the woman wisdom (Prov 9:1-3) and folly (Prov 9:13-18) occupy the highest place in the city is important, because, as everyone back then knew, the highest point in the city was dedicated to temples and the gods believed to indwell them. So, from whence do these competing “women” call? The Temple of YHWH and the temple of idols.

The list of meanings and associations connected to artifacts is enormous both for us and for the biblical world. The difference for Scripture is that we are foreigners there and the artifacts often come and go unrecognized, or worse, misunderstood.

Do you have any favorites? Do any examples of artifact communication confuse you?

[1] media pic from freedigitalphotos.net

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