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Old Testament undesigned coincidences: The loss of Gibbethon

In I Kings 15:25-27 we learn that, in the time of Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, the Israelite city of Gibbethon belonged to the Philistines. Nadab was besieging Gibbethon, trying to get it back, when he was attacked and killed by another Israelite named Baasha, who then reigned in his stead.

J. J. Blunt, from whom I borrowed this coincidence, raises the question as to why Gibbethon had fallen to the Philistines in the first place. He admits, of course, that it may be impossible to find out. There were Philistines around. They probably sometimes took cities. Maybe that's the end of the story as far as we know here about three thousand years later. But Blunt has an idea worth considering.

In the immediately preceding generation, the kingdom of Israel (ten tribes) had split from the kingdom of Judah. Jeroboam, who was not in the Davidic line, was chosen as king over the kingdom of Israel because of the people's dissatisfaction with the harsh rule of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. I Kings 12:26ff tells how Jeroboam set up the fake religion of worshiping golden calves in Bethel and Dan in order to prevent the people from going to Jerusalem in the kingdom of Judah to worship God. He set up his own calf-worshiping priests and urged the people to follow this phony cult.

In 2 Chronicles 11:13-17, we are told that the priests and Levites, as well as other worshipers of the true God, left Israel in large numbers and moved to Judah, where they "strengthened the kingdom of Judah, and made Rehoboam the son of Solomon strong..." 2 Chronicles 11:13-15 specifically says that there was such an emigration of the priestly class from their designated cities:

And the priests and the Levites that were in all Israel resorted to him out of all their coasts. For the Levites left their suburbs and their possession, and came to Judah and Jerusalem: for Jeroboam and his sons had cast them off from executing the priest's office unto the Lord: And he ordained him priests for the high places, and for the devils, and for the calves which he had made.

To make the final connection in the puzzle, Blunt notes that Joshua 21:23 says that Gibbethon in the tribe of Dan, with its surrounding area, was a designated Levitical city.

A reasonable conjecture, then, is that Gibbethon was in large measure deserted when the Levites and their families emigrated to Judah, leaving their lands behind. Nor need this have been entirely a matter of religious outrage. If Jeroboam cut off the worship of the true God, the Levites wouldn't have received the tithes and offerings from the people previously prescribed in the law of Moses, so their material situation and perhaps even their safety would have been shaky, especially since their towns were scattered throughout the tribes of Israel.

Levites and Israelite priests could be fighting men. They took no vow to forswear arms and could certainly have defended their city if it were attacked by the Philistines. But once they were gone, their cities would not immediately have been repopulated and properly defended. Says Blunt,

[W]hat, then, can be more probable, than that Gibbethon, being thus suddenly evacuated, the Philistines, a remnant of the old enemy, still lurking in the country, and ever ready to rush in wherever there was a breach, should have spied an opportunity in the defenceless state of Gibbethon, and claimed it as their own? (p. 181)
Blunt then gives a lot of references showing that the Philistines were still around and about at this time, a point that has been noted by more recent commentators as well.

This is of course a conjecture regarding the loss of Gibbethon. But it is a plausible and interesting conjecture, one that makes sense of the evidence. I appreciate it as an undesigned coincidence in particular because it brings together works that are undeniably by different authors. Whoever wrote or compiled I Kings (very likely it was compiled from various chronicles), it wasn't the same person who wrote or compiled 2 Chronicles. (Independence between Chronicles and Kings is, one might say, notorious, given various putative contradictions between them.) And both of those were certainly different from whoever wrote Joshua.

As usual, some of the authors might have known of the other works, Joshua in particular being much earlier. But it is absurd to suppose that the author of 1 Kings casually mentioned that Gibbethon "belonged to the Philistines" because he was trying to connect it in his readers' minds with the far-flung fact from Joshua that Gibbethon had previously been a city of the Levites, with the fact from his own book that Jeroboam had started a new religious cult, and with the fact from some other source that many Levites had moved to Judah in consequence of losing their jobs.

I find that skeptics (and philosophers, sometimes the same people) treat every author as some kind of Cartesian demon who makes up all sorts of nearly-invisible marks of truth in his work, marks that most people don't even notice. One would like to think that this one is sufficiently far-fetched that no one would seriously propose that the author of I Kings did any such thing. It is possible, of course, that the whole thing is a coincidence and that Gibbethon had fallen to the Philistines for some completely different reason. That's the way to go if you don't think this coincidence actually supports the truth of the mundane narrative of conspiracy and usurpation in I Kings together with the statements about Gibbethon and the Levites in other books. I'm inclined to think, however, that it's a genuine connection explained by truth in the various narratives in I Kings and elsewhere.

Comments (8)

Lydia how has the response been since the book release? I'll admit it's something i keep an eye on, especially those who want to dismiss undesigned coincidences. I'm certain they will dismiss it, i'm at a complete loss as to how! I have the feeling a few desperate attempts are on the horizon. . . .

It's a combo. of things. One is "they just made this up and it came out looking like this" (reminds one of Aaron telling Moses that he just threw the jewelry into the fire and a golden calf came forth). Another is the ur-source thing that I wrote about in a previous post. Another is claiming that one part of the coincidence was "general knowledge." For example, I saw an attempt to dismiss the one where Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" in John even though John doesn't record the Jewish leaders' charge of sedition. That's given in Luke. One skeptic said that it was "general knowledge" that Jesus was crucified by the Roman governor on the basis of some sort of sedition charge, so John was just assuming this from "general knowledge" and then making up the dialogue. Of course, if it was "general knowledge" then it had to have come to be "general knowledge" from somewhere, and why not from some of the people Luke talked to? But somehow unknown, conjectural sources are always better than the sources we actually have. Not to mention the fact that there is another UC in the opposite direction in those same passages that could not have arisen from "general knowledge"--namely, John's bit of dialogue in which Jesus says that his kingdom isn't of this world and Luke's statement that Pilate said that he found no fault in Jesus. For that one that critic applied the "golden calf" treatment: John and Luke both wanted to emphasize Jesus' innocence, made up independent fictional details about his innocence, and the result just came out looking like a coincidence between different details of truthful accounts.

I've presented the type of argument with secular examples to a philosophical audience, and they were more inclined in the Cartesian deceiver direction. One even opined that any time you have collusion between witnesses you would *expect* to get the type of pattern I'm describing as undesigned coincidences. This is obviously untrue, both inductively and on the basis of rational considerations. (E.g. Such subtle coincidences between the colluders' accounts might not be noticed. They are difficult to think of. They require time and lots of thought. Etc.)

Yikes! "they just made this up and it came out looking like this" is embarrassing. That's an absence of a hypothesis.

When you mention the Cartesian deceiver reply by the philosophical audience, do you mean just in the "makes up all sorts of nearly-invisible marks of truth in his work" sense or that they allude to it as a natural result of collusion? The angle i'm thinking of here is a possible alluding to the independence on other gospels (though of course earlier gospels are explained by later ones as well).

I do think it's good for skeptics to engage and give ot their best shot rather than Erhman's brief dismissal as 19th century apologetics.

do you mean just in the "makes up all sorts of nearly-invisible marks of truth in his work" sense or that they allude to it as a natural result of collusion? The angle i'm thinking of here is a possible alluding to the independence on other gospels (though of course earlier gospels are explained by later ones as well).

These are bound up together. The idea seems to be that anyone who was out to deceive *is* going to use whatever he has available (if collusion, the other person's cooperation, if another work is available, that other work) in *this* type of extremely subtle way. Which frankly just isn't true. People *don't* use available material or colluding partners in that way. And understandably not. It's way, way too subtle and complicated to be worth it for a forger, colluder, or liar, and in fact isn't even thought of.

Of course, the same people who say that would probably nod their heads sagely if someone referred to "suspicious similarities between accounts suggesting collusion," which is in conflict with the idea that UC-like statements are the way that colluders behave. That is, the notion of "suspicious similarities" itself shows that colluders are generally over-similar. Probably because they are worried about avoiding contradictions--making sure they "get their story straight."

Perhaps a reductio ad absurdum has been met. If suspicious similarities suggest collusion, the nuance connections of UC suggest collusion and contradictions suggest innacuract and unreliability ... just what are we supposed to be looking for as a sign of accuracy? Not too similar, in fact not even subtlety similar, but not inconsistencies either!

It gets even worse, because one kind of UC can involve corroboration with something that isn't even an account of the event--some piece of physical evidence or background information about the surrounding circumstances. The more common name for this would just be prima facie independent corroboration of detail.

In one of the things I was recently running by people, I gave an example of an old family memoir that referred to bad visibility on a particular night, and the UC was supposed to be discovering a newspaper account that referred to a forest fire in the vicinity at that time. I raised only to dismiss the idea that the author of the family memoir might have oh-so-subtly introduced the reference to poor visibility into a false tale in hopes that someone, somewhere would have heard separately of the forest fire and hence think his tale more credible. Astonishingly, one person who read what I wrote said that he thought this quite plausible, because if someone were writing a false family chronicle, this would be *exactly* the kind of reader for whom he would be writing. This is absurd on its face for reasons I scarcely need to belabor. (The author of the family memoir could have no particular reason to think that a later reader would know about the fire. The author doesn't mention the fire. Etc.)

So apparently even corroboration of casually mentioned details by external information about the surrounding circumstances is not a mark of truth either!

Damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

Take a historian's build-up argument that X happened in history - one that is widely accepted as a good substantiation. Re-word it into a proof for X happening in the Bible. Watch the nay-sayers go hog-wild over how it is suspiciously collusive. Hmmmm, might there be a double standard?

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