Snakeshead Hill

Jesus was executed on a hill outside Jerusalem that they named Golgotha, which we’re told means ‘the place of a skull’ (Matthew 27).

I’ve always imagined a hill that looks like a skull, rocky with caves to highlight eyes and a mouth. Perhaps something a little like Lion’s Head Rock down Dovedale in the Peak District. Or perhaps just an evocative name for a place a lot of people get executed. After all, the detail isn’t important, Jesus is being crucified outside of the ‘camp’ of Jerusalem as a Levitical scapegoat (Leviticus 16).

I’d agree so far as it goes, but here’s an interesting detail that might shed some light on why the hill is called Golgotha.

In 1 Samuel 17, David kills the Philistine Goliath. You know the story. There’s a little detail tucked away at the end that you may have missed, David takes Goliath’s head to Jerusalem. Which sounds like a grisly but not unreasonable thing to do as a way of displaying victory over the great champion.

Except that’s strange. Jerusalem is not King Saul’s capital, Gibeah is. David’s first capital when he becomes king many years later is Hebron, then later it is Jerusalem. It’s not until David makes it his capital that the city is even conquered by Israel (2 Samuel 5). At this point the young man David has taken Goliath’s head to a Jebusite city that will be his capital a long way in the future, but not yet.

Critical scholars would suggest this is just poor editing on behalf of the Bible’s writers. I honestly think we should chuckle a little at this sort of claim, though I appreciate the work of evangelical scholars who tirelessly work to refute their more critical colleagues. Whenever there’s an odd detail like this it’s worthy of our reflection, but we should explore it assuming there’s something to it.

Perhaps the skull was put up as a warning to the Jebusites?

To dig deeper, we need to pay attention to Goliath’s clothing. Yes, seriously. The ESV translates his armour as a coat of mail (1 Samuel 17), which is probably anachronistic, though I wouldn’t expect most readers to be intimately familiar with Iron age armour and armaments. The Hebrew reads coat of ‘scale’, and bronze scale armour (or ‘scalemail’) fits with what we might expect of around 1000BC. Except that’s an unusual word in the Bible, no one else is described like that. The word translated ‘mail’ is mostly used to describe fish scales.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the writer of 1 Samuel wants us to see that Goliath is dressed as a snake? I don’t think so, and reading the Bible with New Testament lenses on, the Davidic king who comes to slay the snake-man? That sounds mightily like the central conflict of the whole Bible. Goliath is a snake, and a bronze one at that.

A bronze serpent, like that of Numbers 21 that Moses stood up on a pole to see off the ‘fiery serpents’ that were attacking the people. Perhaps David’s threat to Jerusalem was evoking this story too: the city once ruled by a worshipper of Yahweh (Genesis 14) that is promised to be part of the land, will be again ruled over by God’s people. The ungodly—assuming the fiery serpents are demonic—will be cast out.

There is some suggestive etymology that Golgotha is a compound word in Aramaic of ‘Goliath of Gath’. This is pretty speculative, Golgotha means skull in Aramaic, but it’s at least evocative even if we can’t put any real weight on it.

To brings these ideas together, there is at least a possibility that Goliath’s skull stayed outside Jerusalem, or that the hill it was planted on gained his name. In other words, Jesus was crucified over Goliath’s skull.

Why is that an interesting fact? In Genesis 3 Eve is promised that her seed will crush the Serpent’s head while the Snake bruises his heel. And so Jesus did, putting Death to death in his own death, defeating the Prince of this World irrevocably.

But to look at it from another angle, Jesus was crucified about Goliath’s head, on Snakehead hill, if you like. With his feet suspended in the air above the skull they would soon crush. This is not the fulfilment of God’s promise to Eve—that happened in Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than simply his location—but it is a nod towards it.

I do think we should read the Bible like this. The geography is laden with significance, and the seeds are sown a thousand years earlier to declare finally that this is the place where the Son of Adam will die and rise again: where Adam’s failed mission will be completed and Adam’s aborted reign will be begun by his greatest Son.

Perhaps as he jeered at the Jebusites David meant less, “you’re next!” and more “this is the place! The king greater than I, the true house of David, the true Israel, will here slay greater giants than I: Satan, Sin and Death themselves, the three dragons, will be torn limb from limb right here outside your door.” And he did it by losing. By submitting. By waiting to be given instead of taking.

I look forward to asking David what he was thinking, but even if he didn’t know it, this is what he was saying.

Photo by Thanti Nguyen on Unsplash

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