Keritot 5b ~ Hemorrhoids, Plague, and the Ark of the Covenant

כריתות ה,ב

משנגנז ארון נגנז צנצנת המן וצלוחית שמן המשחה ומקלו של אהרן שקדים ופרחים וארגז ששגרו פלשתים דורון לאלהי ישראל

When the Ark was hidden, along with it was sequestered the jar of manna, and the flask of the anointing oil, and Aaron’s staff with its almonds and blossoms. And also hidden with the Ark was the chest that the Philistines sent as a gift to the God of Israel [after they captured the Ark and were stricken by several plagues].

The Talmud relates that when King Josiah hid the Ark of the Covenant, he also hid, among other things “the gifts to the God of Israel.” And what were these gifts? Golden Hemorrhoids. To understand why, you need some some background.

How Israel lost their Ark

In one of the many battles between the Philistines and the People of Israel, the latter were routed, losing “four thousand men on the field of battle” (I Sam 4:2). The Israelites then came up with a plan: “Let us fetch the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh, so that He will be present among us and will deliver us from the hands of our enemies.” This turned out to be a terrible idea. The Ark was quickly captured, taken to Ashdod and “ put into the temple of Dagon where they set it up beside Dagon.”

But watching the Ark of the Covenant comes with a lot of responsibility, which the Philistines had not really factored in. The very next day “they woke to find Dagon lying face down on the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord. They picked Dagon up and put him back in his place.” Next day, same thing, except this time “the head and both hands of Dagon were cut off, lying on the threshold; only Dagon’s trunk was left intact.”

The priests in Ashdod got the message and decided to move the Ark to Gath. And what happens next is critical to our story:

וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי הֵסַבּוּ אֹתוֹ וַתְּהִי יַד־יְהוָה בָּעִיר מְהוּמָה גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד וַיַּךְ אֶת־אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר מִקָּטֹן וְעַד־גָּדוֹל וַיִּשָּׂתְרוּ לָהֶם עפלים [טְחֹרִים]׃

And after they had moved it, the hand of the Lord came against the city, causing great panic; He struck the people of the city, young and old, so that hemorrhoids broke out among them.

The Philistines had enough of the Ark, and decided to send it back to Israel, but they were warned by their priests, “If you are going to send the Ark of the God of Israel away, do not send it away without anything; you must also pay an indemnity to Him.”

וַיֹּאמְרוּ מָה הָאָשָׁם אֲשֶׁר נָשִׁיב לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ מִסְפַּר סַרְנֵי פְלִשְׁתִּים חֲמִשָּׁה עפלי [טְחֹרֵי] זָהָב וַחֲמִשָּׁה עַכְבְּרֵי זָהָב כִּי־מַגֵּפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וּלְסַרְנֵיכֶם׃

They asked, “What is the indemnity that we should pay to Him?” They answered, “Five golden hemorrhoids and five golden mice, [corresponding to the number of lords of the Philistines;] for the same plague struck all of you and your lords.

The Plague of Ashdod  1630 by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). Louvre, Paris. The picture was on the front cover of the January 2018 edition of the journal   Emerging Infectious Diseases   .

The Plague of Ashdod 1630 by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). Louvre, Paris. The picture was on the front cover of the January 2018 edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

So “they placed the Ark of the Lord on the cart together with the chest, the golden mice, and the figures of their hemorrhoids” and sent them on their merry way. The Ark was taken briefly to Bet Shemesh, where the Bible tells us more than 50,000 people were killed “because they looked into the Ark” before it finally found a resting place in Kiryat Ya’arim, where, for the first time, no-one who came into contact with the Ark died.

Those “Five Golden Hemorrhoids” were the gifts that were kept with the Ark, and which were later hidden by King Josiah. And I hear you ask “what on earth is going on in this story?” That’s where science, and a bit of Latin come in.

It wasn’t hemorrhoids. it was plague.

The story about the “hemorrhoids” seems to be somehow related to mice - for why did else did the Philistines send back golden mice? And what’s with hemorrhoids as a divine reaction to removing the Ark? The author of a Letter to the Editor that appeared in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, noted something important.

The New International Version (NIV) in its footnotes records that the Septuagint (a translation from the Hebrew to Greek done in Alexandria for Ptolemy Philadelphus) and Vulgate (a translation by St Jerome into Latin from the Septuagint) texts elaborate on the fact that Philistines were smitten with tumours as follows. In 1 Samuel 5 v6 the NIV states the Philistines were afflicted with tumours and the Septuagint and Vulgate expand this point with the words `and rats appeared in their land, and death and destruction were throughout the city' and in v 9 of the same chapter the Septuagint versions expand `He afflicted the people, both young and old with an outbreak of tumours' by specifying the site of the tumours as being `in the groin.’

A bubo, a swelling of the lymph nodes of the groin.

A bubo, a swelling of the lymph nodes of the groin.

As a result, the letter suggests it was bubonic plague that struck the Philistines, and it was the associated swelling of the lymph nodes - called buboes- that the Book of Samuel was describing. It wasn’t hemorrhoids at all.

Bubonic plague is caused by a nasty bacteria called Yersinia Pestis. It first causes a flu-like illness with fevers and muscle cramps, followed by severe swelling of the lymph nodes (but not hemorrhoids). Then things get really bad: there is secondary pneumonia, sepsis, gangrene of the fingers and toes, bleeding and death. Lots of death. The Black Death of 1347 killed one-third of the population of Europe. And it still kills; the World Health Organization reports a couple of thousand cases each year, and the actual number of cases is far higher. Fortunately it can usually be treated with antibiotics if they are started early enough.

The Role of the Mice and the rats

The bacteria that causes plague is carried inside fleas that feed primarily on rats. While the Hebrew Bible doesn’t mention the role of rats, the Septuagint does. Here is the verse in the Hebrew Book of Samuel (I Sam 6:1)

וַיְהִי אֲרוֹן־ה’ בִּשְׂדֵה פְלִשְׁתִּים שִׁבְעָה חֳדָשִׁים׃ - The Ark of the Lord remained in the territory of the Philistines seven months.

And here is the Greek Septuagint: “And the ark was seven months in the country of the Philistines, and their land brought forth swarms of mice.”It was theses swarms of mice (or really rats, which are the primary host for the rat flea that carries the plague bacteria Yersinia) that were responsible for the spreading the plague among the Philistines, causing the lymphatic swellings, the buboes, that were later (mis)translated as hemorrhoids.

So which is it, hemorrhoids or swellings?

It was with this same Septuagint translation that the hemorrhoids thing began: “According to the number of the lords of the Philistines, πέντε έδρας χρυσάς five buttocks of gold, for the plague was on you, and on your rulers" (I Sam 6:5). From this Greek version of the Hebrew we move to the Latin. In the late fourth century Jerome produced a Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Vulgate, which is still used by the Catholic Church. This translation gave us the quinque anos aureos, “five golden behinds,” which was then translated by the King James Bible as “five golden emerods.”

The Koren Jerusalem Bible translates the phrase as “five golden swellings,” but there is ambiguity as to the meaning in the very text of the Hebrew Bible itself. The text has the word ophalim, עפלים, but the traditional way of pronouncing this word is techorim טְּחֹרִים, which in both the Talmud and modern Hebrew means hemorrhoids. So the different ways of translating the text is embedded in the Hebrew text itself. But one thing is certain: although they may be painful, hemorrhoids won’t kill you, but bubonic plague certainly will. And that should certainly enter into any consideration of an appropriate translation.

From Panagiotakopulu E. Pharaonic Egypt and the origins of plague.  Journal of Biogeography  2004:31; 269–275.

From Panagiotakopulu E. Pharaonic Egypt and the origins of plague. Journal of Biogeography 2004:31; 269–275.

The Vulgate says that they offered five golden images of mice and ‘quinque aureos anos’. It would seem, therefore,that the compilers of the Vulgate were satisfied that the word opalim meant haemorrhoids ,and that the Philistines made golden replicas of the anal ring with a haemorrhoid,or a cluster of piles, protruding from it, not a difficult matter for a reasonably expert goldsmith.
— Shrewsbury, J.F.D. The Plague of the Philistines.The Journal of Hygiene Vol. 47, No. 3 (Nov., 1949), pp. 244-252.

One last candidate: Tularemia

There is another possible etiology of the disease that plagued the Philistines. It is a bacterial disease called tularemia, which most commonly kills rabbits and rodents, but may rarely pass into humans. It causes fever and pneumonia as well as swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck and groin. In a 2007 paper published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, Siro Igino Trevisanato suggested that bubonic plague was not known in the area, tularemia was a better candidate for the outbreak described in the Book of Samuel:

The biblical data appear to center around the box as a vehicle for the disease, as well as the rodents that appear shortly thereafter, and are depicted in the ‘‘settlement’’ paid in gold. The Hebrew word akhbar for the rodents fails to distinguish between mice and rats. Rats would have carried Y. pestis, but bubonic plague fails to adequately explain the epidemic. Mice are a better option: they can carry diseases, and fit the other data relative to the historical text, i.e., box, idol, and settlement payment.

Mice nesting in the [gold plated wooden] box would have explored their new habitat upon each the transfer of the box, thus offering an explanation for the box transmitting the disease.

Mice also explain the otherwise odd detail of a small Philistine idol falling on the floor. Once the box was hosted in the Philistine temple, the animals exiting the box from the same aperture, would have tipped over the statuette, eventually breaking the extremities after repeated falls (1Sa.5.2-5)…

Linking mice to the box and to the disease singles out tularemia as the disease portrayed by the biblical text: mice are known to carry Francisella tularensis, the etiological agent for tularemia. Moreover, the text calls for a disease which originated from animals, can be communicated, can form tumors, and is deadly. Tularemia is a zoonotic disease that can be transferred to humans, manifests ulceroglandular formations, which tend to be misdiagnosed for signs of bubonic plague, and carries a 15% fatality rate when untreated, thus fitting all the criteria in the text.

Nicolas Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod

The French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) depicted the Plague at Ashdod in a painting that now hangs in the Louvre. He drew the Philistines dying from what appears to be bubonic plague, a disease with which he was well acquainted, since there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Italy in 1630, where Poussin painted the work. “By including recognizable signs in his picture of the disease that was at that time a grave concern or all of Italy” wrote Sheila Barker, a specialist in southern Baroque painting, “Poussin coaxed his contemporary audience to identify their own friends’ and relatives’ suffering with the plight of the ancient Philistines.” She continues:

Ostensibly, Poussin's depiction accords with the biblical reference to a plague of "tumors in secret parts," since no tumors can be seen on the victims' bodies. In other respects however, he took great liberty with his laconic source, supplementing one "secret" attribute with a veritable catalogue of the bubonic plague's recognized symptoms. One of these, the telltale darkening of the victim's skin, is detectable in the old woman collapsed against a fallen column, the deceased mother and infant in the foreground, and the make cadaver being carried away by two men in the middle ground at right….Though the bubonic plague's namesake buboes are not visible in the picture, their painful presence can be intuited from the victims' postures. Both the dead mother in the central foreground and the male victim to the far left have raised the right arm away from the body, as if to avoid contact with the inflamed, tumescent, and pus-filled lymph glands in the armpit area….

Beyond the symptoms of bubonic plague, Poussin provides another identifying feature of the disease: its much-disputed means of propagation. Several figures in the painting pinch their noses or cover their faces in proximity to Ashdod's dead and dying. They are protecting themselves from one of the many mechanisms of contagion recognized by seventeenth- century physicians: the breath of the plague victims (rightly so, as today it is recognized that Yersinia pestis occasionally develops into a pulmonary plague transmitted through human sputum). More widely recognized by laymen and physicians alike, however, was the danger of breathing in the vicinity of putrefying corpses, since the foul odors they released were assumed to be the essence of the disease's poison, and of death itself…

Poussin's picture accommodates advanced plague etiologies in other ways as well-particularly in its depiction of the rats scurrying about the city of Ashdod, a detail that has intrigued modern viewers who recognize them as vectors of the plague-causing bacillus Yersinia pestis, discovered in 1894.

Whatever the true etiology of this curious plague, it was frightening enough for a memorial of it to be displayed at the epicenter of religious worship, as a constant reminder that pain and suffering will follow if the Ark of the Covenant is ever removed from its rightful place in Israel.

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