Consider How would Elisha plowing with 12 oxen have been understood at the time of writing?.

The OP asked, as I see it, specifically for a cultural, anthropological, or, perhaps, literary reading.

Mike Bull provides a lengthy Christian exegesis, and, when challenged in a comment, asserts that the only possible answer is liturgical, emphasizing that his belief is that the text was composed by someone with this liturgical attitude. (If I'm understanding his comments.)

My view is that responding to that kind of question with this kind of answer is not consistent with the self-described mission of this site, particularly when the answer is not framed with a declaration of religious point of view.

Since I can't escape from the fact that I also offered an answer:

It's hard to find a concise reference to site for basic anthropological / archaeological ideas about the Northwest Semitic material cultural, let alone religious, context of the period of Kings and Judges. It is possible that Tadmor and Cogan have something interesting to say. I'll check later.

So, I confess: I typed in the gestalt of everything I've read about the immediate cultural context in which the story was composed. Note: 'composed'. If the OP really meant to focus on the much later time period in which it was written, canonized, interpreted, etc, then my answer isn't a good one. It also occurs to me that there is an expansion of what I wrote based entirely on internal comparison with other passages in the vicinity, and I'll add that if I find it.

And now that I'm really spun up on this:

This story was created by Jews in a Jewish environment before Jesus. If you imagine yourself sitting around at the communal sacrificial meal listening to this story, you are doing what I thought the OP was asking about. Maybe I'm right that the 12-ness of the oxen was a simple literary device to communicate some important but mundane facts about Elisha. Maybe I'm wrong. But if there's one thing that the human being who first told this story was not thinking about, it's Saint Paul.

If your doctrine tells you that all these stories were divinely inspired to contain Christian inspiration, OK, that's your doctrine. I wish you'd at least state that assumption when offering such an answer to this sort of question.

Some more introspection

As promised, more detail on my beef here.

I see this as a peshat question. That is, a question about the plain sense of the text. I am a fierce believer in the importance of the plain sense of the text. I think that it comes first. I think that it is the place where people of all doctrinal positions can meet up and often agree. So, when I see what appears, to me, to be a peshat question, I get riled up when someone posts an answer that is concerned with the further reaches of interpretation. In this case, one that starts by baldly asserting that there is no available peshat meaning. Them's fighting words.

I confess that I get particularly riled up when I see Christian interpretation applied to Hebrew Bible in such a case. Now, further down in the comments, someone asked me to justify the contention that the answer in question was, in fact Christian. It would take quite a lot of typing for me to explain my view here, and it's not terribly important. Honestly, I'd be just about as passionate if someone showed up and offered some Jewish doctrinal analogy here.

I appreciate that it is possible to read the question in such a fashion as to justify some sort of doctrinal interpretation. If you assume that this text was composed with an explicit doctrinal purpose, and you read the question as asking for the doctrinal significance as it would be understood at the time of composition, you might have some justification. I can't read the OP's mind. Maybe he or she meant that. I think it's quite a stretch to read the question that way, but perhaps that's because of my ferocious attachment to peshat.

If we had evidence that this was the OP's intended question, we would then be in the much more complex terrain of trying to understand the historical theology of ancient Israel and later editors. Anyone is welcome to go there, but here I would appeal for a really high standard of expert citation. Just making cross-text comparisons on the assumption that the entire Hebrew Bible represents a single, coherent, theological standpoint really won't do.

Some response to Soldarnal

So, your hypothetical answer doesn't set me off. Why not, given that it's a bit of an allegory? Well, for one thing, it doesn't lay a claim to being authoritative. It didn't claim that no other explanation was possible, and it owned the fact that it was some of your own thinking about it. Also, it's a very little bit of an allegory. It makes only one assumption about the author/audience: that they know that the 12-ness of the tribes is a big deal. And, indeed, it is. We all know that you can't say '12' anywhere past the end of Genesis without setting off some sort of echo of the tribes. In fact, I stand by my answer, but I also would agree with you that the choice of 12 and not 42 or 11 is pretty likely coming from that department -- even if my source doesn't happen to mention it.


I'm conflicted on this one. The whole thing is a mess and it seems to me that part of the problem is the fact that the author of the question seems to preclude what might be a correct answer.

Ironically, Mike's answer gives more historical context that is actually relevant to the question than any of the other answers, your own included. He might be wrong, but he does seem to have answered the question. His answer to the question "how would the people at the time have understood this" seems to be along the lines of "they would have had the following liturgical framework and seen this allegory".

That being said the answer may have other problems: it may not provide any sources for either the historical or doctrinal claims being made, but it does seem to answer the question. I don't think it does a good job of showing the interpretive work or of defending the historical claims. I find it unconvincing, although without further study I cannot say off the top of my head that I believe it to be wrong.

In any case, the problem seems to be with the question as much as with the answers and if I were to pick on answers for not answering the actual question, I would have at least as much beef with the other ones. Frankly I don't see ANY good really good answers there.

Your own answer also delves into application more than it does into what the "information/perception at the time" was. It also lacks any references or sources.

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    Caleb, what time? When this story was composed, there were no Christians. So a Christian allegory can't, as I see it, have been resonating in their heads. Unless the claim here is that the final form of the story is much later. – user947 Sep 13 '13 at 13:05
  • @bmargulies I can't see any Christian allegory in Mike's answer: to my reading the very short mentions Jesus, Paul and 2 Corinthians are brief asides in an answer that focuses largely on the imagery in the Hebrew Bible. Don't you agree? – Jack Douglas Sep 14 '13 at 11:28
  • @JackDouglas I do, but on consideration it's not really what I'm on about. I plan to expand on my question above (and my answer over there) when my copy of Coogan arrives on Tuesday. – user947 Sep 15 '13 at 15:06
  • @bmargulies OK, thanks, I'll check back in a few days :) – Jack Douglas Sep 16 '13 at 9:16
  • @JackDouglas citation delivered to original answer and theses nailed to electronic door above. – user947 Sep 16 '13 at 21:33

I think I'm largely in agreement with you, but I want to clarify your concern. Are you concerned that Mike's answer gives a Christian theological interpretation? Or are you concerned that it gives any theological interpretation?

For instance, let's pretend I wrote an answer like this (I haven't studied this passage enough to give a real interpretation, so this is just something off the top of my head):

At the time of composition, the number twelve would have brought to the mind of the audience the twelve tribes of Israel. This can be seen, for instance, in 1 Kings 18, where Elijah selects twelve stones for his altar, "one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob." Thus, by sacrificing the twelve yoke of oxen, the text would have carried symbolic overtones of Elisha leaving his place within Israel to join the company of prophets led by Elijah.

First, would you agree that this is not particularly a "Christian" allegory or interpretation? And if so, then second, would you agree that this kind of answer would be inappropriate as well? If you agree with both of these propositions, then I think we're in agreement.

In my opinion, it's perfectly fine to ask about the plain text meaning, suspending the need for a full interpretation momentarily. I know I've asked questions like that and been disappointed when I received theological answers in return. Sometimes I'm wanting to do my own full interpretation but I need help understanding the pieces.

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    See another edit. Comment boxes never work for this. – user947 Sep 17 '13 at 1:18
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    I agree but it is far from clear in this case that the OP is asking for a plain text meaning. If that is clearly asked for I'd have no hesitation downvoting or even deleting an allegorical answer (it's 'not an answer') – Jack Douglas Sep 17 '13 at 6:25

Many thanks for giving this some further thought.

I hope I'm being fair here, but it seems clear to me that you are biased against allegory. (Possibly for the same reason I am, namely that a hundred different people can each make up a different allegory and there is usually no way of choosing which is 'correct'?).

I am sure we are agreed that if a question clearly asks for only peshat then we should downvote or delete answers that are allegorical like the one we are referring to. My argument here is that Despite saying "I'm not looking for an allegorical answer", the OP is not clear he is asking for peshat, I think He is saying he doesn't want modern allegory read back into the passage. In this case I think we need to set aside our personal preferences for 'plain sense' readings and allow room on this diverse site for hermeneutical approaches that are unfamiliar to us.

There are three more general things I think need to be said:

  1. Allegory is used in scripture by Bible characters regularly, it is therefore strange to dismiss allegory per se just because of the difficulties testing it.

  2. Some of our contributors use approaches that are hard for us to follow to the point of seeming completely random. This does not necessarily mean they are completely random: our unfamiliarity with their techniques mean we do not see 'patterns' in their approach that are obvious to them. The answer we are talking about here is especially interesting because it remains relatively 'on-topic' and yet reveals a few pieces in the puzzle of understanding the techniques the author employs.

  3. The folk who use allegorical techniques face an inherent bias against them because even if we don't DV, we are much less likely to vote up content we don't understand. So peshat answers from a Jewish perspective often get my up-vote because despite the different angle they make sense and can be appropriated/applied to my own framework. This is neither good nor bad it's just a fact and it seems 'fair' to me: answers are already judged by their usefulness to the community at large, and if you want to find/read the allegorical answer you already have to be prepared to scroll down.

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    I have no problem with this. You've done a better job than I did of homing in on what is 'special' about the answer I complained of. At this point, I agree that a simple downvote should have sufficed. – user947 Sep 17 '13 at 12:45

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