Sunday, November 3

Examining Honi the Circle-Drawer: History and Legends

Every generation has its stories. Some of these stories are myth, some are legends, some are folklore, and some are true stories. In Scripture, we have the true stories of men and women throughout history, the things they have done and accomplished, the good and the bad (and the ugly), as well as the recorded plan by which God saved mankind. God had chosen the Israelites to be His people, but in both the Old and New Testament, it is made abundantly clear that God also intended to include the Gentiles (from the Latin word gentilis), also known as a non-Jew, in His plan. Past articles have contended that the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament comprise the written revelation of God.

There are, however, various traditions and legends that can help us to gain more understanding or elicit deeper thinking into particular things. Some of these traditions are simply interesting, if for no other reason than the tale they tell. For example, in Jubilees 4:31 says, "At the close of this jubilee Cain was killed after [Adam] in the same year; because his house fell on him and he died in the middle of his house, and he was killed by its stones. With a stone he had killed Abel, and by a stone he was killed in righteous judgment." This work is usually dated to about 160-150 BC, and this excerpt illustrates the concept of “eye for an eye” or the concept of reaping what you sow. Another fascinating tale comes from the Jewish Talmud, which conveys the account of Honi ha-M'agel from the 1st century BC.

The Legend of Honi
Honi (חוני המעגל, also known as Khoni or Choni) ha-M'agel (meaning "the circle-drawer") was an actual historical figure. The phrase ha-M'agel is usually taken to be a reference to the miracle for which he is well known, although some scholars claim that ha-M'agel (or ha-Me'aggel) is the name of the place where Honi was from, and yet others contend that he was called by this name as he was often called to repair roofs or ovens, using a ma'gillah (a "roller").1-2 To be sure, he is not mentioned in the canonical Bible, however, the story recounted in the Jewish Talmud is one which enables us to take away several admirable traits and Biblical principles - it teaches us several lessons. Honi was a Jewish scholar, as noted, in the 1st century BC. During this time, the Talmud conveys the notion that several figures emerged who claimed to be in the spirit and tradition of prophets much like Elijah and Elisha. The Talmud itself, it should be recognized, has two components. The first is the Mishnah (meaning "repetition" or "secondary") which dates from approximately AD 200, and the second is the Gemara (meaning "to study" or "learning by tradition"), which dates from approximately AD 500. With this is mind, it may be easier to proceed. The following is the text we will utilize in this article:

"Once there was a terrible drought in the land of Israel. It was already the month of Adar, which usually marks the end of the rainy season and the beginning of spring, but no rains had fallen all winter long. So the people sent for Honi the Circle-Maker. He prayed, but still no rains came. Then he drew a circle in the dust and stood in the middle of it. Raising his hands to heaven, he vowed, 'God, I will not move from this circle until You send rain!' Immediately a few drops fell, hissing as they struck the hot white stones. But the people complained to Honi, 'This is but a poor excuse for rain, only enough to release you from your vow.' So Honi turned back to heaven and cried, 'Not for this trifling drizzle did I ask, but for enough rain to fill wells, cisterns, and ditches!' Then the heavens opened up and poured down rain in buckets, each drop big enough to fill a soup ladle. The wells and the cisterns overflowed, and the wadis flooded the desert. The people of Jerusalem ran for safety to the Temple Mount. ‘Honi!’ they cried. ‘Save us! Or we will all be destroyed like the generation of the Flood! Stop the rains!’” Honi prayed for the rains to stop, and the land was once again bountiful thanks to his fervent faith in God and his persistence.

There is another Jewish text that may further elucidate the story. According to Mishnah Taanit 3:8, "They sound the shofar because of any public distress -- may it never befall! -- but not because of too great an abundance of rain. Once they said to Honi the Circle-Drawer, 'Pray that rain may fall.' He answered, 'Go out and bring in the Passover ovens [made of clay] that they be not softened.' He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, 'O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not stir from here until you have pity on your children.' Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, 'Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits, and caverns.' It began to rain with violence. He said, 'Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness.' Then it rained in moderation, until the Israelites had to go up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They went to him and said, 'Just as you prayed for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away!' He replied, 'Go and see if the Stone of the Strayers has disappeared.' Simeon ben Shetah sent to him, saying, 'Had you not been Honi I would have pronounced a ban against you! But what shall I do to you? You importune God and he performs your will, like a son that importunes his father he performs his will. Of you the Scripture says, 'Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her that bore you rejoice.'"

Honi prayed time after time for more rain, less rain and no rain to the God of heaven. Honi drew a circle around himself and dared the Creator to make the next move. Many have compared what Honi did to love. Indeed, “"I think this is what any proclamation of love is; clutching the greater half of one's whole, drawing a circle in the dust, and refusing to budge until the heaven[s] above open up and pour. Honi the Circle-Drawer knew rain is always coming. Those in love know rain is always on the way and are brave enough to stand together until it rains on each and everyone of us.”3 The story of Honi has been interpreted a number of ways, but perhaps one way we ought to consider it is in light of the story’s relation to the Hebrew Bible.

Honi and Biblical Motifs
When we examine literature written in between the Testaments (intertestamental literature) as well as writings that come after the New Testament (which itself was written around AD 48-95), it is highly relevant to bear in mind the vast religious and literary traditions behind such things. For example, the book of Judith likely written in the intertestamental period is noted by many scholars as being strikingly similar and likely influenced by the story of Jael and Deborah in Judges 4-5. The intertestamental story of Tobit is also likely influenced by the story of Jonah – both involve fish, divine intervention, judgment on Assyrians and the presence of Nineveh.

We also find a variety of motifs (recurring story elements) between Scriptural books. An example of this is the “well type-scene” or “well motif.” A type scene (or literary motif) is essentially a scene that is repeated in different forms - Isaac's wife is found by a well, Moses saves the women by the well, Saul is searching by the well, and Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman by the well. With this in mind, we can then examine the story of Honi in relation to other Jewish understandings and traditions.

Honi reminds us of the stories of Gideon and Joshua. Gideon challenges God to give him a sign and prove himself (Judges 6:17, 39-40), and prove himself to Gideon he does. Similarly, Honi draws the circle around himself and puts God to the test. We find that this is not the only time a mortal has commanded the nature of the world. As God’s creation is indeed controlled by God himself, by attempting to command nature we are in a sense trying to command God. Yet in the book of Joshua, when Joshua and the Israelites were fighting the Amorites in an attempt to protect the Gibeonites, “Joshua said to the LORD in the presence of Israel, ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.’ So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day” (Joshua 10:12-13).

In this example, Joshua commanded the sun to “stand still over Gibeon” while they fought, just as Honi commanded the rain to come down. The author of Joshua uses this example to show God’s favor of Israel, and noted that this was “a day when the LORD listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!” (10:14). When we consider times in the Hebrew Bible when God gave human beings creative control or access to weather changes, we are reminded of the prophet Elijah who lived in the 800s BC. According to 1st Kings 17:7, “there had been no rain in the land,” just as in the time of Honi in the 1st century. As a result of the evil that was being done by the king of that time, God gave Elijah the power to shut up the sky, so to speak – “As the Lord, the God Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1st Kings 1:1). The book of James in the New Testament lays out this point: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17-18). The motif is also carried over into the book of Revelation, where the two witnesses have the “power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying” (11:6).

There is also another Biblical consideration to make when we think on the story of Honi, as well as a non-Biblical consideration. The usage of a circle drawn in the sand is not only a motif but was something that would have been somewhat familiar at the time. In fact, only a few decades before Honi (around 168 BC) there lived a Roman Consul named Gaius Popillius Laenas. This individual drew a circular line in the sand around the king of the Sleucid Empire at the time, Antiochus IV. After he did this, Gaius said, “Before you cross this circle I want you to give me a reply for the Roman Senate." His implication was that if the king stepped outside of the circle without agreeing to leave Egypt, Rome was going to declare war. Antiochus agreed, and shook hands with Popillius.4 This is an example of drawing a circle and expecting your opponent or the person you are challenging to make the next move, and either you or the other individual cannot or will not step outside of the circle unless change occurs.

Subsequently, it is also entirely possible that the story of Jesus and the adulterer shows signs of the circle-drawing. It is well-known (and noted in most modern Bible translations) that the story of Jesus and the adulterer recorded in John 7:53-8:11 is not found in the earliest manuscripts and other ancient writings, and is seen as an addition (interpolation) to the text. In fact, some manuscripts actually have this story in Dr. Luke’s gospel. Regardless, even if this story is indeed a later addition, could it include circle-drawing? The only two possible references in the text are in 8:6, “But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger,” and 8:8, “Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.” This passage does not specify exactly what it was that Jesus drew on the ground. Perhaps he drew a circle around himself and as the Jewish audience could have been familiar with the idea, simply heard Jesus’ words and left, but it is actually more likely that this passage (or event) was influenced by Jeremiah 17:13, “…People who quit following the Lord will be like a name written in the dust…”

A final consideration is the Flood. When there is too much rain coming down the people beg Honi to pray for the rain to stop, or they will “all be destroyed like the generation of the Flood!” This flood, of course, is the flood found in Genesis 6-9, which is well-known for being the event that wiped out most of the world while Noah and his family (along with several animals) survived on an ark built of wood. Thus, through various traditions and Biblical references we see that there is a precedence for challenging God, for humans being granted some control over weather (specifically rain) and also for either writing in the sand or drawing a circle – so when the story of Honi is told to Jewish audiences, the audiences likely understood a lot of this in light of their background.

Josephus and Honi
Although Honi is seen in the aforementioned passages from later Rabbinic literature, we do have one highly probable reference to him in the work of Josephus. Josephus was a 1st century AD historian (therefore living a little over one hundred years after Honi) who wrote extensively on the history of the Jewish people. He was highly skeptical about supposed “miracle-workers” of his time, and went so far as to call them deceivers (apateônes) and enchanters (goêtes). Interestingly enough, however, Josephus does call one man a "righteous man" (dikaios aner) as well as the "beloved of God" (theophilis). The miracle-worker that he details in his historical work is named Onias, who seemingly has a special relationship with God and has the ability to call down rain. The date Josephus is describing is around April of 65 BC:

“After Hyrcanus made these promises to Aretas [the King of Arabia]…Aretas made an assault upon the Temple with his entire army and besieged Aristobulus within. The people joined Hyrcanus and assisted him in the siege, while none but the priests continued to support Aristobulus. So Aretas united the forces of the Arabs and the Jews and pressed the siege vigorously. As this happened at the time when the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which we call Passover, was celebrated, the most reputable men among the Jews left the country and fled into Egypt. Now there was one named Onias, a righteous man and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had once prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain. Now seeing that this civil war would last a great while, he had hidden himself, but they took him to the Jewish camp and desired that just as by his prayers he had once put an end to the drought, so he might in like manner call curses down on Aristobulus and his supporters. And when, having refused and made excuses, he was nonetheless compelled by the mob to supplicate, he said, ‘O God, king of the whole world! Since those that stand now with me are your people, and those that are besieged are also your priests, I beseech you, that you will neither hear the prayers of those others against these men, nor to bring about what is asked by these men against those others.’ Whereupon the wicked Jews that stood about him, as soon as he had made this prayer, stoned him to death. But God punished them immediately for their barbarity, and took vengeance on them for the murder of Onias…He did not delay their punishment, but sent a mighty and vehement storm of wind that destroyed the crops of the entire country, until a modius of wheat at that time cost eleven drachmae.”5

Some scholars note the interesting fact that Onias (Greek form of “Honi”), like Jesus, had the ability to perform a miracle, promoted peace and was also supposedly killed in Jerusalem at the Passover.6 About a hundred years after Josephus wrote, we find the Rabbinic traditions quoted earlier, which detail a man named Honi who called down rain – just like this Onias. There is also a parallel worth mentioning in Josephus and the Mishnah. According to Josephus, "Just as by his prayers he had once put an end to the drought, so he might in like manner call curses down on Aristobulus" – the Mishnah says, " 'Just as you prayed for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away!'” This parallel expression in both works (Josephus came first, toward the end of the 1st century) seems to illustrate the faith and prayer that Honi was well-known for. Therefore, from a quick glimpse at the historian’s work, Josephus establishes the existence of a man named Onias/Honi, a man who is known for promoting peace, a man who is known for a rain miracle, and most interestingly: a man is known for his special relationship with God.  

Honi the Son of God
In the New Testament, we often find Jesus called the “Son of God.” The 1st century audience living at the time understood that this was not the literal offspring of a god – as in the case of the demigod Heracles/Hercules or with other figures such as Dionysus – but as a sort of dig at the Roman Emperor. Emperors of the time claimed divinity and were heralded as the “son of” such and such a god, just as the ancient Egyptian pharaohs often claimed that they were either incarnate gods or the offspring of a god like Ra, the sun god. Christian and non-Christian historians alike also recognize that there were individuals living shortly before, during and after the life of Jesus of Nazareth who were thought to be a miracle-working son of God, but not necessarily in the same sense that we consider Jesus to be the Son of God.

As scholar Bart D. Ehrman points out, Jesus’ "two most famous peers were probably Honi the 'circle-drawer' and Hanina ben Dosa, both of whom are known through the writings of later Jewish rabbis. Honi was a Galilean teacher who died about one hundred years before Jesus… Later sources indicate that Honi was a revered teacher and a miracle worker, who called himself the son of God. Like Jesus, he was martyred outside of the walls of Jerusalem around the time of Passover. To punish the Jews who had brought about his death, God sent a powerful windstorm that devastated their crops. Hanina ben Dosa ( = son of Dosa) was a rabbi in Galilee in the middle of the first century C.E., just after the time of Jesus. He was famous as a righteous and powerful worker of miracles, who (like Honi) could intervene with God to make the rain fall, who had the power to heal the sick, and who could confront demons and force them to do his biding. Both of these miracle-working sons of God are portrayed somewhat differently from Jesus, of course (most of their miracles, for example, were achieved through prayer, rather than through their own power); but they are also different in significant ways from each other (Jesus and Hanina, for example, are both portrayed as exorcists, whereas Honi is not). What is most interesting, however, is that anyone who called Jesus a miracle-working Jewish rabbi, the Son of God, would have been easily understood: other righteous Jews, both before Jesus and afterward, were portrayed similarly."7

The idea that a mere human was called a “son of God” is not as ridiculous or anti-Christian as it may sound. The idea is actually rather ancient. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, the king of Israel “was thought to mediate between God and humans and so stand in a special relationship with God as a child does to a parent. Even kings with dubious public records were sometimes called 'the son of God' (e.g., 2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7-9). And others receive the title as well: occasionally the entire nation of Israel, through whom God worked his will on earth (Hos 11:1), and sometimes God's heavenly servants, beings that we might call angels (Job 1:6; 2:1). In all of these instances in Jewish circles, 'the son of God' referred to someone who had a particularly intimate relationship with God, who was chosen by God to perform as task, and who thereby mediated God's will to people on earth. Sometimes these sons of God were associated with the miraculous."8

When Honi the circle-drawer is called a “son of God”– as Shimon puts it to Honi, “You importune God and he performs your will, like a son that importunes his father he performs his will” – and when the Jewish individuals see his miracle of the rain, we have the idea that Honi had a very special relationship with God. When we see Christ call God his own Father on numerous occasions as well as our Father, we often miss just how scandalous this claim was in antiquity. This was why Shimon looked down on Honi for calling upon God as if he were his own son who had the right to call upon him in that way. Calling on God as “the Father,” however, is not actually a New Testament concept as is popularly believed. Indeed, there are actually several references to God as a Father, both by an author calling God "Father," and God calling Himself "Father." Here are a few examples from the Hebrew Bible: "...Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?" (Deuteronomy 32:6), “You are my son today I have become your Father." (Psalm 2:7), "He will call out to me, 'You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.'" (Psalm 89:26), "...And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6), "But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name." (Isaiah 63:16), "Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand." (Isaiah 64:8), "...I am Israel's father..." (Jeremiah 31:9), "'A son honors his father, and slaves honor their master. If I am father, where is the honor due me? If I am master, where is the respect due me?' says the LORD Almighty." (Malachi 1:6), "Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another." (Malachi 2:10)

The fact that there are more than two references to "the Father" ought to be sufficient enough. The idea of God the "the son," may be found not only in Psalm 2, but also in Proverbs 30:4, "Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know!" If there is a son, it certainly implies a Father. Luke 1:32 and Matthew 3:17demonstrate that the Son who is being referred to is Christ, with other points of the passage further clarified by John 3:13, Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, Acts 1:9-11, and Ephesians 4:9-10. Another passage to consider is Hosea 11:1, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." This is quoted as a fulfillment of prophecy concerning the young Jesus in Matthew 2:13-15, which also implies that there is a Father. Other references include Exodus 4:22 and 2nd Samuel 7:14. Intertestamental (deuterocanonical/apocryphal) material such as the book of Tobit also shows God as “the Father.” In fact, Tobit 13:5 says, “he is our Father and our God forever.” Therefore, these passages are very important to bear in mind to the 1st century BC Jewish audience of Honi’s miracles and words, so that when he seemed to be calling upon God as a Father, the idea certainly has precedence in the Hebrew Bible.

The legend of Honi the circle-drawer is really quite simple. A man living in the 1st century BC saw how dry the land had become and prayed to God for rain, and God complied. Various other traditions and legends about the man have sprung up and grown since, such as a legend that he did not actually die when he was stoned but was in a deep sleep for 70 years (one of the earliest time travel stories?), among other traditions.9 Concepts and titles found in his short story such as the special Father-Son relationship with God, various Biblical motifs and ideas, and various other considerations help to further elucidate the early understandings and interpretations of this marvelous tale. At its core, perhaps, the message of Honi the circle-drawer is simply one of faith and prayer. By trusting in God, “drawing a circle” around ourselves and engaging in prayerful consideration, we not only further our relationship with God but we also find out what we are made of, and that even when the rain comes and the storms beat against our houses, we are like a man who had built his house upon solid ground rather than on the sand – our foundation is firm, and we are secure in our foundation of God.

1. Zemah Ga'on in Sefer ha-Yuhasin ha-Shalem
2. S. Klein, S.H. Kook in Zion 1. 1929/30.
3. Hove, E.G.. "Meditation on Honi the Circle-Drawer."SMALL, STUPID, AND BEAUTIFUL THINGS. N.p., 15 Oct 2007. Web.
4. Austin. The Hellenistic World from Alexander to Roman Conques. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2006. 374. Print.
5. Antiquities 14.2.1 21. Josephus (Translated by William Whiston, A.M.). Josephus: The Complete Works. Nashville, Tennesse: Thomas Nelson, 1998. 576. Print.
6. It is worth noting that the three main accounts quoted in this article that deal with Onias/Honi all actually post-date the life of Jesus, so that although the historical Honi lived about six-seven decades before the birth of Jesus, the accounts we have on Honi do not come about until over one hundred years after his death. The earliest mentions we have of Jesus, however, if we take into consideration early creedal formulas, christological hymns and poems, we have material related to Jesus within a couple years after his death, while the earliest complete NT document is alleged to be 1st Thessalonians written between AD 48-53. Therefore, if there is any distortion or changing of the Honi legend, the material we have related to Honi post-dates early Christian movements.
7. Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 66. Print.
8. Ehrman 69-70.
9. The Talmud (in Taanit 23a) claims that Honi actually fell into a deep sleep and “woke up” 70 years later. However, when no one believed him when he claimed that he was the infamous Honi the Circle-drawer, he prayed to God and God took him from this world, just as God took Enoch (Genesis 5, Enochian literature). Josephus, however, wrote that Honi/Onias was stoned to death. Renowned rabbi and Talmudist Maharsha (1555-1631) explained the inconsistency between the Talmud and Josephus by claiming that Honi/Onias was actually presumed to have been stoned by Hyrcanus II and his men, but what actually happened is that Honi was put into a coma-like state for 70 years, a sort of time-travel idea, and that the idea that he was stoned by Hyrcanus II’s men was actually a cover story. 

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