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No. 31: The Abomination of Desolation
Part 4a: Abominable and Detestable

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 31
November, 1991
Copyright 1991, Biblical Horizons

Most Christians today, when they hear the phrase "abomination of desolation," think of some political figure who is to arrive on the scene some time in the future, and who will oppress God’s people. More careful exegetes have seen that the prophecies concerning "abomination of desolation" have already been fulfilled, though the principle embodied in those prophecies remains in force. Virtually all are agreed, however, in seeing the "abomination of desolation" as a horror committed by gentile military forces.

Matthew 24:15-17 records that Jesus said, "Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those in Judea flee to the mountains, and let him that is on the housetop not come down." Because Jesus said that these events would take place in the lifetime of the generation He was speaking to (Matt. 23:36; 24:34), many expositors take this to be a prophecy of the Roman army under Titus. We are told that Jesus meant that the Roman army would make Jerusalem desolate.

Substantiation for this opinion is thought to be found in Luke 21:20-22, which parallels Matthew 24:15-16 with one difference. Luke writes, "Therefore, when you see Jerusalem encompassed by armies, know that her desolation is near."

A more careful study of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem eliminates the Roman army as a possibility. When the Romans surrounded Jerusalem, it was no longer possible to get out of the city. Moreover, the Judean countryside had already been conquered by that time. During the months immediately preceding the Roman investiture, however, an army of Edomites (Idumeans), with Jewish cooperation, had snuck into the city and massacred many people. This event is more likely to be the precise fulfillment of Jesus’ warning.

Yet these interpretations do not get at the heart of the matter, and for this reason. The Hebrew term translated "abomination" in Daniel 7 and 11, to which Jesus referred, has a very precise meaning, and that meaning excludes any possibility that either gentiles or Edomites are in view. As we shall see, it was only possible for God’s own people, the Jews, to commit the "abomination that causes desolation." It was the sins of the Jews that angered God, and the armies that He sent against Jerusalem were simply the aftermath of His own desolation of His Temple and city.

As we shall see in this series of studies, it was the crimes of God’s own people, committed right before His face in the Temple, that are the abominations. God’s response to these abominations was to forsake His Temple and leave it desolate, an empty shell. Then God sent gentile armies to punish the people.

It is important for us to understand this, because it will enable us to see that prophecy is not concerned with political events first and foremost, but rather is concerned with the religious and moral behavior of God’s own people. It is only God’s people who have the privilege of coming into His presence, and thus it is only His people who can commit the "desolating sacrilege."

Two Different Words

In this section we must explore the differences between the terms "abominable" and "detestable" as they are found in the Bible. One of our problems is that English Bibles use the terms almost interchangeably, while in fact there are precise distinctions of nuance in the Hebrew terms. In English, the terms are indeed synonyms, though "detestable" has its roots in the idea of calling on the gods to curse someone. Thus, historically abominable had more to do with personal revulsion, while detestable had more to do with religious curse. In Hebrew there are two different words for these two general ideas. Of course, these two terms do have a large overlap of meaning, but as we dig into Leviticus we find that there are significant differences, and for our purposes precision is very important.

Basically, to anticipate our findings, "abominable" has to do with the land, while "detestable" has to do with the sanctuary. Abominations defile the land, while detestable things defile the sanctuary.

Leviticus 11 lists and describes the characteristics of clean and unclean animals. Then it goes further and says that the Israelites are no longer permitted to eat the flesh of unclean animals, but are to regard such flesh as "detestable." Moreover, they are rendered unclean if they touch the flesh of any dead carcass. "Unclean" generally means "dead," and so all dead carcasses cause uncleanness. Israelites become unclean if they touch dead carcasses, and Israelites become detestable to God if they eat them.

It would be nice if English Bibles consistently translated to`eba as "abomination" and sheqets as "detestable." (I shall use sheqets for all variants of the radical sh-q-ts.) Sadly, however, such is not the case. Yet the distinction is important. As Waltke has written, "In usage, to`eba denotes those persons, things, or practices that offend another’s sensibilities." Waltke adds that "in most cases to`eba has reference to that which is repugnant" to the Lord. By way of contrast, sheqets is "a more technical term denoting that which violates the practices of Yahweh’s cult." (Bruce K. Waltke, "Abomination," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, fully revised ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979-] 1:13.)

Similarly, Youngblood states that "whereas to`eba includes that which is aesthetically and morally repulsive, its synonym sheqets denotes that which is cultically unclean, especially idolatry." (Ronald F. Youngblood, "to`eba," in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [TWOT], 2 vols. [Chicago: Moody Press, 1980] #2530, 2:976f.) Not all unclean things are detestable, however. Unclean animals are not detestable in themselves. It is only their carcasses and their flesh, considered as food, that are detestable.

The relationship between abomination and detestable is this: An abomination, when brought to the sanctuary, becomes a detestable thing. Abominable carries the idea of abhorrence. Detestable carries with it the idea of expulsion, throwing away, spitting out. Thus, detesting meat is the opposite of eating it, and being expelled from the sanctuary is the opposite of being incorporated into it.

The relationship between what is abominable and what is detestable is seen in Deuteronomy 7:25-26. Here is a literal translation:

The word "ban" is herem, which is the opposite of sacrifice. The sacrifice is devoted to God’s fire as food for Him. The herem is devoted to God’s fire away from Him. In my opinion, "the" fire of verse 25 refers to the altar fire, lit by God Himself, which alone should be used in holy war. (See James B. Jordan, Sabbath Breaking and the Death Penalty [Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1986; available from Biblical Horizons ], pp. 52ff.) If you were going to burn up an idol, and you had a choice between your own fire and God’s fire, which would you choose as most appropriate? The obvious answer to this question is part of the rationale for my interpretation. Burning the idol in "the" fire of God would mean that the melted residue of gold and silver would belong to God–to the sanctuary–and thus not to individuals. The gold of the gods would be given to The God.

We see in these verses that the idol is to be detested and not coveted. It is to be thrown away, not taken in. We notice that taking the idol into the house results in the person’s being banned like the idol. Because the idol is abominable it is to be detested, cast away. The man who receives it will himself be cast away.

As mentioned, the word to`eba has to do with personal abhorrence, not cultic rejection. It occurs in Genesis 43:32 and 46:34 and Exodus 8:26 to indicate that the Egyptians found shepherding an abhorrent occupation. It is used in Leviticus 18 and 20 to refer to homosexual acts and idolatry, considered as non-cultic, whole-lifestyle activities that result in expulsion from the land (Ex. 18:22, 26, 27, 29, 30; 20:13). It is used throughout Deuteronomy for sexual sins and sins of idolatry. Waltke summarizes the things God abominates, including "images (Dt. 27:15) and the gold and silver belonging to them (7:25); the wages of prostitution (23:18); a false balance (Prov. 11:1); those with a perverse mind (11:20); lying lips (12:22); the sacrifice of the wicked (15:8); an arrogant man (16:5); the prayer of a lawbreaker (28:9); incense offered without regard to ethical conduct (Is. 1:13); etc." (Waltke, p. 13.)

In sum, what God abominates are violations of the First Commandment. God abominates covenantal idolatry, unfaithfulness. Such actions take place in common life, and result in expectoration from God’s holy land.

By way of contrast, sheqets is used of acts of idolatry considered as cultic activities that result in expulsion from the sanctuary. What God detests are violations of the Second Commandment. God detests liturgical idolatry. Such actions take place in the context of the sanctuary, and result in God’s expectoration from the sanctuary. An apt illustration from Israel’s later history comes from the period after the separation of Ephraim from Judah. The sin of Jeroboam I was to worship the Lord using pagan rituals, a violation of the Second Commandment: liturgical idolatry (1 Ki. 12:28-32). God cursed Jeroboam at his false sanctuary (1 Ki. 12:33–13:6). Later, Ahab introduced the worship of the false god Baal, a violation of the First Commandment: covenantal idolatry (1 Ki. 17:31-33). God cursed Ahab in the land (1 Ki. 17:1; 21:23-24; 22:37-38).

The sanctuary is an inner circle within the land. Similarly, detestable things are an inner circle within abominable things. God abhors both. Detestable things are more pointedly abhorrent because they come directly in conflict with the sanctuary — they are waved in God’s face — while abominations are more generally abhorrent because they more generally conflict with God’s moral law.

Sheqets occurs first in Leviticus 7:21:

This law stipulates the total incompatibility between God’s sacrifices and uncleanness. Becoming unclean was no great problem in itself. In most cases, you simply waited until sundown and were cleansed. Even in the severest cases of uncleanness, you were only prohibited from coming into the sanctuary until you were clean; there were normally no social restrictions on you. (The exception was when the wilderness camp organized for war. See James B. Jordan, "The Death Penalty in the Mosaic Law: Five Exploratory Studies" [available from Biblical Horizons ], chap. 4. Even here, however, being put outside the camp only meant being put outside the official boundary-line that separated the Israelites from the surrounding mixed multitude. Thus, the expelled person was not cast out to forage for himself, but was simply put over the line separating Israel from the Gentile camp followers.)

If, however, you presumed to eat of a sacrifice while in a state of uncleanness, the punishment was excommunication. Scholars debate what "cutting off" means. The older view was that it meant excommunication, while the most common view today is that it implies that God will kill the person. Even if the latter is correct, a person who was declared "cut off" would clearly be excommunicated from the worship assembly. (Similarly, New Testament excommunication means turning the person over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, and implies that God will put such a person to death if he does not repent; 1 Cor. 5:5). See Jordan, "Death Penalty," chap. 5.

Jacob Milgrom has argued that the only way to remove the penalty for such high handed sin is to repent and bring a Compensation Offering. This is the thesis of his study, Cult and Conscience: The "Asham" and the Priestly Doctrine of Repentance (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), esp. chap. 3. Though Milgrom does not make application to cases other than those found in Leviticus 6:1-7, I believe his point applies to any case where "cutting off" is in view.

We notice that in Leviticus "detestable" is not used of idols. It is used only with reference to the animal and dietary laws. In the rest of the Bible, however, "detestable" is almost always used in contexts of ritual idolatry. Ritual idolatry is in view in the two usages in Deuteronomy (7:26; 29:17) and in 1 Kings 11:5, 7; 2 Kings 23:13, 24; and 2 Chronicles 15:8. (2 Kings 23:14 speaks of Ashtoreth and Chemosh as detestable and of Milcom as abominable, indicating the overlapping zones of meaning of the words.)

The word occurs only once in the Psalter, in a verse dealing with prayer: "For He has neither despised nor detested the affliction of the afflicted; neither has He hid His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard" (Ps. 22:24). The afflicted man feels morally unclean and separated from God, but he states that God does not detest him. We notice again the "Second Commandment" context of prayer, mediation, and access to God.

Isaiah 66:3 uses "detestable things" to describe the rituals of faithless worship; and verse 17 speaks particularly of unclean meals: "Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go to the gardens [sanctuaries], following one in the center [sanctuary], who eat swine’s flesh, detestable things, and mice, shall come to an end altogether."

The cultic setting for the usage of "detestable" is also seen in the instance of this term in Jeremiah:

Ezekiel also uses the term in an exclusively cultic or cult-related fashion (Ezk. 5:11; 7:20; 11:18, 21; 20:7, 8, 30; 37:23). According to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the corruption of true worship in the Temple was detestable to God. It was for this reason that God marched out of the Temple, leaving it desolate and empty (Ezk. 8-11), and then destroying it.

Daniel picks up this thought. It is really impossible for the heathen to make God’s Temple detestable. They have no real right of access there, and so even if they invade it, they cannot really "touch" anything there. It is when God’s people turn to idolatry, or do His appointed rituals in an idolatrous fashion, with impure hearts, that the Temple is rendered detestable. Daniel predicts future times when again apostate religious leaders will bring in detestable things that cause desolation (the mistranslated "abomination of desolation"), resulting in the destruction of the Temple (Dan. 9:17; 11:31; 12:11; Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14).

Three more passages and our survey is completed. Hosea 9:10 speaks of Israel’s adultery at Baal-peor as rendering them detestable. We recall the association of idolatry with adultery. Nahum 3:6 says that God will throw detestable things over harlot Nineveh, thus making her abhorrent in the eyes of the nations. Here the idea of expectoration is paramount. Zechariah 9:7 speaks of detestable food, "I will remove their blood from the mouth, and their detestable things from between their teeth."

In summary, the use of detestable rather than abominable in Leviticus, especially chapter 11, clearly serves to highlight the cultic and idolatrous associations. The man who wishes to draw near to God in worship should not be detestable to God. Thus, he must avoid the things that make him detestable. It is liturgical idolatry that makes a man detestable to God, and eating at the table of demons is signified by eating the detestable flesh of unclean animals. The man who incorporates such symbolically-demonic flesh into himself renders himself detestable to God, and if he presumes to draw near, he will be cut off.

Eating dead (unclean) flesh is symbolically equivalent to eating the beliefs of idolatry. While the sins of the people in the land bring down the judgment of God upon themselves, it is precisely the sin of idolatry brought by God’s appointed priests into the Tabernacle and Temple that constitutes the desolating sacrilege.

With this background in mind, it will be useful to provide precise translations of two important passages that show that if a man makes himself liturgically detestable or covenantally abominable to God, God will vomit him out rather than eat (incorporate) him into His kingdom.

Leviticus 18:24-29

The sins spoken of here are acts of sexual immorality and idolatry, considered not as cultic acts in God’s special sanctuary presence, but as acts of covenantal idolatry committed in His land. If they do these things, they will be vomited out of the land. To spare the nation such general punishment, they are to vomit out any individual who does such things by cutting him off from the people. They are to act as guards, guarding the holiness of the land even as the armed Levite guards secured the holiness of the sanctuary.

Thus, the boundaries of society are to be guarded by the citizenry. They are to guard society against persons who commit acts of abomination. They are to vomit such persons out. If they do not, the entire land will become unclean and God will purge it by vomiting out the entire nation.

Analogous to this, the boundaries of the sanctuary are to be guarded by the Levites and priests (in the New Covenant, by the clergy/elders). They are to guard the sanctuary against persons who commit detestable acts. They are to vomit such persons out. If they do not, the entire sanctuary will become detestable, and God will forsake it, leaving it desolate.

Acts of sexual immorality, if committed in the sanctuary, as in cultic prostitution, would be detestable as well as abominable. Just as God left His Temple desolate when detestable acts were committed there in Ezekiel 8 – 11, so earlier He had abandoned the Tabernacle for the same reason. See 1 Samuel 2:22 and 4:11. The Ark refused to re-enter the Tabernacle, and it was only when the Temple was built that God again moved into a House. Similarly, God destroyed Solomon’s Temple after leaving it, and did not return until after the Exile, when a new Temple was built. In the New Covenant, God renounced the Temple in Jerusalem and took up residence in the people-house of the Church.

(to be concluded)