Biblical Israel as Fiction

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by Neil Godfrey

Biblical Israel, as an element of tradition and story, such as the Israel of the murmuring stories in the wilderness, or the people of the stories of II Kings who are faithless as their kings are faithless, or the lost Israel, which is the object of prophetic diatribe in Isaiah and Amos, is a theological and literary creation. This Israel is what I have called ‘old Israel’. It is presented as the polar opposite of an equally theological and literary ‘new Israel’, which is the implicit voice, for example, of II Chronicles, the Book of Psalms, the Damascus Covenant and the gospels. (p. 78 of The Mythic Past, Thomas L. Thompson)

The Bible is a theological book with literary creations to illustrate its theological messages. It bears little resemblance to the material evidence of actual history. (The quotations and notes here — up until the last paragraph — are taken from Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past.)

Israel in the Bible . . . stands in sharp contrast to the Israel we know from ancient texts and from archaeological field work. (p. 78)

We first encounter the name in the Bible when it is bestowed on Jacob after he wrestled with God himself. He became the father of twelve sons who each became the father of one of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. This eponymous hero named Israel is a character of fiction, based on an assumed existence of a later Israel comprising of twelve tribes.

Few biblical scholars would doubt this today. Such ‘eponymous’ figures of story have a life of their own, quite apart from any real or assumed past. Odysseus’ struggle with the Cyclops need not have anything to do with a known past and hardly gives us cause to believe in historical Cyclopses in the Aegean’s past. Similarly, Israel’s tribes need not have been either twelve or tribes in reality.

Names in both history and tradition tend to have very long lives. They change over time and can come to have a variety of references.

The Bible built its fiction of ‘old Israel’

out of traditions, stories and legendary lore from Palestine’s past. Some of the sources for such ‘knowledge’ are very old, and it is useful to take a look at how such knowledge changes over time.

The variable name ‘Israel’

The earliest known usage of the name “Israel” is in an Egyptian inscription from the thirteenth century bce, the Merenptah stele. Pharaoh Merenptah boasts that he has destroyed, in the land of Canaan, among other peoples, “Israel’s seed” and that “Israel is no more”.

This is clearly not the Israel that was later known from Assyrian inscriptions or from the Bible’s stories. The Bible speaks of Israel leaving Egypt with enough strength to threaten Egypt itself; Joshua’s Israel is opposed to the people of Canaan and is the conqueror of various peoples there. In II Samuel and I Kings biblical Israel controls the whole of the southern Levant and stretches as far as the Euphrates River. Assyrian inscriptions speak of Israel as a kingdom in the highlands north of Jerusalem.

Outside of this narrative in Genesis–II Kings and the related books named after the prophets, the name Israel is a constant of biblical literature especially in the form the ‘children of Israel’, with reference either to the patronage states of Jerusalem and Samaria, or to later groups of Jews, Samaritans, Galileans, Idumeans, Christians and still other religious groups who understood themselves with the theological metaphor of a ‘new Israel’. (p. 79, my emphasis)

(Philip R. Davies has identified ten different meanings for the word ‘Israel’ in the Bible: http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/davies4.htm)

The variable name ‘Hebrew’

The name ‘Hebrew’ refers to the language of the Bible but its use as a name for a people goes back much farther and refers to a class or a type of person. Similar or related terms appear in Sumerian, Assyro-Babylonian and Egyptian texts (e.g. SA.GAZ, Hapiru, ‘Apiru).

These terms refer to individuals and groups who were not accepted within the accepted political structures of patronage alliances and loyalties that governed society. These ‘Hebrews’ were both literally and figuratively ‘outlaws’, not terribly unlike such legendary characters in story as the David of I–II Samuel or the Abraham of Genesis 12 and 14, where they are called ‘Hebrews’.

The variable name ‘Amorite’

In the Early Bronze Age (3500 – 2400 bce) the name ‘Amorite’ first appears in cuneiform texts in the form amurru and is a geographic signifier — meaning ‘western’ regions. As a name it came to refer to the people of and from this region.

By the Late Bronze Age (1600 – 1300 bce) it is found as a name for the region of Syria.

A similar-sounding but unrelated name, ‘Amw, originally referred to a throwing stick used as a weapon by these people and was later found in early Egyptian texts to refer generally to the peoples of Asia — especially to the Semites and related groups living in the desert regions and Egyptian Delta.

The Bible uses ‘Amorite’ as a variant of ‘Canaanite’ — that is, as the name of an indigenous population of Palestine.

The variable name ‘Philistine’

The first appearance was in the form of peleset in thirteenth century bce Egyptian texts. Here it referred to one of several groups of immigrants from the Aegean, or perhaps from coastal Anatolia, settling along the southern coasts of Palestine and attacking the Delta. They are finally settled and accommodated within Egyptian territory, including Palestine’s coast.

Later Assyrian cuneiform texts adopted the form of the name Palashtu to refer to the geographic area of southern Palestine.

The sixth century bce Greek historian Herodotus used the name Palestine to refer to the entire geographic area of Southern Syria. The Romans later appeared to have used the word in the same sense.

In recent times it has come to refer to the territory west of the Jordan River and in particular to the territories that are not part of the state of Israel.

As a biblical reference to a people, however, the Philistines were the pre-Abrahamic inhabitants of the southern coast and region of Judea. They are said to have originated from Crete (Caphtor) and to have built cities in Gerar, Gaza, Ashqelon and Ekron.

The variable name ‘Canaanite’

The term ‘Canaanite’ is badly used by most everyone in archaeology and ancient Near Eastern studies today, thanks to the Israeli archaeological practice of identifying the Bronze Age as a ‘Canaanite period’. Biblical archaeologists use it as if it referred to an ethnic and culturally coherent fact. Not only is the term ‘Canaan’ originally a geographic name, without a specific historically identification; it is unknown as a name of a people at this early date. It has more to do with coastal Syria and Phoenicia than Palestine’s lowlands, and does not correspond with the larger towns of Palestine even in the Bible. The sharp boundaries that the use of the terms ‘Canaanite’ and ‘Israelite’ makes possible are wholly unwarranted. ‘Canaan’ appears on the Merenptah stele and has been shown to be paired with ‘Israel’ as his spouse. They are the metaphorical parents of three towns destroyed by the Egyptian army. The only historical group known to refer to themselves as Canaanites were Jewish merchants of North Africa in the fourth century ce. It has also been well argued that the name ‘Canaanite’ is used in the Bible as a literary and fictive term to contrast the biblical Israel. It is a negative term for those who worship foreign gods, and especially Ba’al. In the stories of Genesis to Joshua, Canaanites play much the role that Philistines play in Judges and I-II Samuel, and the role that Israel itself often plays to II Kings, namely as a universal term for the enemies of Yahweh. (p. 81)

Putting this all together

The above realities do not fit the neat constructs of these terms we have come to know from the Bible’s narrative. What has happened is that the creators of the biblical narrative traditions — and picture these living in the Persian or Hellenistic eras — took names like ‘Israel’ and its counterparts that they found in fragments of Palestinian folk traditions and literature that had survived the various national upheavals of the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods and used this raw material to create the biblical narrative we know today.

This process began during the late Persian or early Hellenistic eras and was still maturing into the period of the Maccabees.

Long after the destructions of Samaria and Jerusalem, in the course of the gradual restructuring of Persia’s conquered territories by both the Persians and their Hellenistic successors, the Israel of tradition presented itself to history, like the phoenix, specifically in the form of an Israel redivivus. The true essence and significance of Israel — and implicitly its future glory — was traced in the tales of the patriarchs, the stories of the wilderness and of the judges, and the great legends about the golden age of the united monarchy. Idealistic sentiments of futuristic incipient messianism ring throughout this tradition with the recurrent affirmation of one people and one God. It is this God, the only true king of a finally new Israel, who is projected to some day come to rule his chosen remnant from his throne in Jerusalem’s temple. This idyllic reality of piety is the Israel of tradition.

This may be hard to grasp at first given how thoroughly we have been indoctrinated into believing in the historicity of the biblical myth and the myth of the return of the Jews to their land. (See my notes on what archaeology says about the bible’s myth of Israel: http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/index.htm). Picture, rather, imperial deportations to repopulate certain areas for their economic or military strategic value, inculcating as they often did a belief in those deported that they were being returned to restore the true gods of their ancestors. The people being brought into the land may in some cases have been descendants of former inhabitants, but just as likely they were not. They may have included peoples from quite closely neighbouring areas, too. Once there, they found themselves in a land already occupied by a people with different gods and customs and language, and were faced with the inevitable conflicts that would come with that. To forge a new identity their priests and scribes taught them that they were the rightful inhabitants of the land, sent from exile to restore the worship of the true god of the land, etc. Mythical tales of ancestral migrants to the land emerged, along with tales accounting for their expulsion and return. The theme of ‘old Israel’ was a theological construct that was set up as a lesson to warn each generation anew, the ‘new Israel’ — and as TLT observes in one of the quotations above, the myth extended to the identity of the early Christians.

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20 thoughts on “Biblical Israel as Fiction”

    1. I have followed your link and for the first time read the review of your book. The idea that there were a multitude of saviors, and not just one monopolized by the figure of Jesus Christ strikes me as very interesting. The belief in one savior only automatically leads to the introduction of authoritarianism and dictature by the controlling priests or ideological leaders.

      The concept of one only savior is an offshoot of the idea of one only god. The assumption of one only god, I find boring and limiting. It is so boring and uninteresting that, once the rages and fumings of old Yahweh had disappeared in the OT, he found himself upstaged by the doings and drama of the new replacement star, a Son, no less! The Son upstaging the Father! Interest in the story of a tired God suddenly gets revived with new blood.
      Because that is the tremendous revolution engineered by the New Covenant: pushing God to the back of the picture and replacing him on front stage with the new, active and charismatic new god that Jesus Christ is made into. Small wonder that observant Jews of the time still attached to old Yahweh didn’t cotton to this new idea.

      Yahweh, with all his unpredictable flares and primitive reactions, was still an interesting literary character. But with the appearance of the new god as his mouthpiece, Jesus Christ, nothing much could be said about the aging old God that retains our interest.
      Whatever happens in this eternal life on the clouds of Heaven which are the Father’s dominion? Just sitting around and contemplating the radiance of the Father and his supporting team? For ever? If at least Jesus Christ looked like the Michelangelo figure in the Last Judgment! Perhaps, if lucky, we are listening to the choir of angels playing Mozart’s music.

      Much more exciting and realistic are the shenanigans of the Greek gods of the Olympus, with their variety of temperaments and activities, their intrigues and passions. Probably the ancient Egyptian gods also offered a lot of interesting tales, if we could only understand them correctly. Similarly the Norse gods surrounding Wotan with his brave and enchanting Valkyries offer more drama and action than the passive and invisible God of Christianity. And they come with the bonus of Wagner’s fabulous music.

      1. Yeah, I’ve had the same thoughts. What might it be like in the by-and-bye? Well, I do know one thing. This ain’t It. I want out of here PERMANENTLY. Reincarnation is taught in all traditions, so that has to be public enemy #1. Only a LIVING MASTER (John 6:40, 9:4-5) can save. There ARE Masters, or saviors. I have met two. This may seem heretical, but one man’s heretic is another’s savior. How to know? Try one out. Real Masters give a technique for realizing God HERE AND NOW (John 3:8, Surat Shabd Yoga). If it doesn’t work, keep looking. Jesus can help no one. He’s dead and ascended..

        Have you read Hyam Maccoby? He goes into Norse mythology of Balder and Loki as Jesus and Judas. Judas Iscariot is MYTH. “Judas” was Judas THOMAS. There was no “Iscariot” (“sicarii). Orthodox creeps like Luke wanted only a dead savior so they could CONTROL people, not save them. (It pays better to control.) Read Eisenman. He can straighten out the clueless. He sure did me. We are all clueless until having read his corpus. Paul is “The Liar”. He authored sacrificial atonement theology, not Jesus Christ.

        The Gospel of Judas will end orthodox Christianity within 50 years, That’s my prediction, and cherished life work.

  1. Neil, I came across this little debate while researching this post. Have you seen it before? It’s from BAR, Editor, H. S. (2002; 2002). BAR 21:02 (March/April 1995). Biblical Archaeology Society.

    Rainey’s Spleen Is More Impressive Than His Scholarship

    I have appreciated what many of your correspondents said (Queries & Comments, BAR 20:06) in response to my article “House of David Built on Sand,” BAR 20:04. Usually they have tried to offer some arguments, which, even if I don’t accept them, I can appreciate.

    But I was disappointed that you published the piece by Anson Rainey (“The ‘House of David’ and the House of the Deconstructionists,” BAR 20:06). Your journal is lively and informative, and this piece of disinformative abuse, though typical of Rainey, did not help either the debate or the reputation of BAR. By all means let him defend his Israeli colleagues, but I doubt that Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh will be flattered by this sort of thing (see “‘David’ Found at Dan,” BAR 20:02).

    Let me put Rainey and your readers straight. First, deconstruction is a literary philosophical approach to texts associated with Jacques Derrida. I do not use the term, nor have I ever heard it used of my work. If Rainey wants to call names, he ought to get his terms right. There are plenty of scholars I know who regard him as a fundamentalist, but they wouldn’t stoop to saying so in print. Second, I must be the only “amateur” with a degree in Semitic languages from Oxford!

    I am sorry that you have allowed Rainey to drag the tone of the debate down to where he feels happier. If he wants BAR readers to ignore what I say and take his word instead, he ought to credit them with a little more intelligence and offer them some reasons why bytdwd must mean “House of David” and couldn’t mean anything else (which is what he is trying to say). To assure them that he, the great expert epigrapher, knows best and they have nothing to worry about looks to me rather patronizing towards your readers, and a very odd ploy from a self-styled “opponent of the ‘authority figure syndrome.’”
    I can assure your readers that scholars know Rainey’s spleen to be more impressive than his scholarship. But they have now discovered this for themselves! They might like to ask themselves why he gets so angry about what is a highly disputed and extremely important scholarly issue. Does he really sound like a scholar? Are they in the future going to accept this man’s judgment on anything?

    Philip R. Davies
    University of Sheffield
    Sheffield, England

    Rainey’s Smear

    It was with considerable disappointment that I read the attack you published on Philip Davies by Anson Rainey. Rainey has every right not to like what Davies has written; he also can and should disagree with him and certainly he is free to assert that Davies’s methods are inferior to his own. However, this attack oversteps the boundaries of legitimate truculence and nastiness. It flirts with libel. It attempts to smear the reputation of a young scholar who has a considerable international reputation in the field of Biblical studies.

    Davies is not only about 15 years younger than Rainey, he has published much more and is more widely respected than is his critic, for both his critical scholarship and his integrity. He has also made significant and major contributions to the field of epigraphy, with considerable solid work on original texts. British universities rarely give full professorships to dilettantes, and Sheffield has just recently so recognized Davies’s extensive contributions to the field. His work on Qumran places him among the leading scholars in this field. Certainly in the sub-discipline of epigraphy, Davies ranks along with Ernst Axel Knauf and Joseph Naveh. On Davies’ reading of the bytdwd inscription, Rainey—if he is aware of the literature in the field—should have pointed out that Ernst Axel Knauf, Alan de Pury, Thomas Roehmer, Ehud ben Zvi, Niels Peter Lemche, Frederick Cryer and I have all agreed with Davies, reading this as a place name.

    As for Rainey’s promise of revelations about my incompetence, this is not his first attempt to slander me. He not only disrupted Society of Biblical Literature sessions to make his anger known, but he has frequently accused me of being anti-Semitic. BAR’s entry into yellow journalism should change to sincere apology and a return to articles that deal with archaeological evidence.

    Thomas L. Thompson
    University of Copenhagen

    What’s Bad for the Goose Is Bad for the Gander

    The unmoderated attack by Anson Rainey on the integrity of Philip Davies’s scholarly qualities—and at the same time on Thomas L. Thompson’s—transgresses all rules of interplay among scholars. In fact, in the September/October issue you yourself severely criticized Jacob Neusner’s habit of personal attacks on scholars—evidently siding with the people who had been attacked by this gentleman (Queries & Comments, BAR 20:05). Therefore it comes as an unpleasant surprise to see you publish something that belongs in the same garbage basket as the quotations from Neusner, a contribution far below the usual standards of BAR.

    I cannot imagine that you can and will support the attitude present in Anson Rainey’s contribution—which should never have been published. Besides, it is a fact that Rainey is absolutely wrong, that he distorts his evidence and, on top of it, that he is dishonest. Together, this should have stopped the publication of his note—or is it your intention that Rainey’s style should set a new standard for scholarly interchange?

    Niels Peter Lemche
    Department of Bible Studies
    University of Copenhagen

    1. Yes. There are a lot of slanderous and abusive publications against “minimalists”, not only by Rainey and not confined to BAR. What is interesting is Lemche drawing attention to what “transgresses all rules of interplay among scholars.” Now scholars do get mighty upset when a few of them start the abuse and insults against their peers. That sort of behaviour is considered very poor form within the guild. “True scholars” should only exhibit such spleen against outsiders, in particular “mythicists”, when they lose confidence in the ability of reasoned arguments to carry the day. (Though Thompson has himself spoken of Jesus being an “assumption” and a “myth”.)

  2. Fascinating, and a welcome change from the dry dissection and interpretation of verse numbers.
    It is striking that the fundamental event feeding the psychology that gave rise to the Hebrew Bible seems to have been more the reality of the Babylon exile, captivity, and return, than the imaginary tale of the Egyptian exodus. A return to good times was promised by the religious myth producers as the recompense for obedience and worship of the true God, Yahweh.

    What is striking is this strong and enduring myth-producing creativity of the ancient Jews or Israelites to account for their historical past and motivate them to action for the future.
    Obsessive thinking through the aid of myths and prophecies, seems to have been the major difference from the Greeks, who, in addition to ancient myth-making, also developed logic, analysis, observation, art, architecture, drama, literature and sports, skills that did not seem to have ever interested the ancient Jews at all.

    This cultural propensity and delight in producing myths as essential thinking tools carried over among the founders of Christianity, Paul, Jesus, Peter, etc… all sources of new fabulous stories. These Jewish stories survived and spread beyond anybody’s expectations, and as Jewish myths were then swallowed and absorbed by illiterate Gentiles, or Pagans, who started taking them seriously (or claiming to do so) as authentic accounts of past events.

    Thus was formed a school of scholars given fresh material for their active brains, all obsessing about the new stories launched around the figure of Jesus Christ as the major intellectual game in town for active minds: all the Pauls, anonymous Gospel authors, writers of epistles and apocalypses, Clements, Barnabas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Hermas, Marcion, Justin, Irenaeus, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, etc.. — all of them outdoing one another with ingenious and brilliant literary inventions, perpetuating and amplifying the mythical stories created by the Jewish founders of the Jesus Christ story.

    Imagination was given a great run and the scope for creativity was extraordinary, continuing through the centuries, up to our modern times, with new versions, interpretations, and critical re-evaluations appearing all the time, along with a monumental architectural and artistic tradition.
    Of course, this is abandoning simple textual criticism for the intoxicating field of History of Religions and Mythology. But that is how the reality of the Jewish story took shape and that of its Christian offshoot, with which the West has been all burdened ever since.

    1. Bravo! Now. What to do about it? How about the facts of true theology. RSSB.org. No joke. ‘xplains everything, Roo.
      Here is the online reading list. See for yourself

      I just found the second Sant Mat parallel heavenly region name in a DSS fragment (Psalms. Wise/Abegg scrolls collection): “Maha Sunn”, region of intense darkness, below Sach Khand (eternal region). Gospel of Judas was the first I found: “Anami Desh”, No-name region (“Judas” 47:13). “Apophasis Logos” is Word, or “Shabd” of Sant Mat. The five stones in the David and Goliath story are paralleled as five holy names in Sant Mat. The whole Exodus story is a parable of soul travel, right down to pursuing charioteers as desires and their “wheels” as energy centers, or chakras, that “drove heavily” when the “ISRAELITES” meditated on the “pillar of Fire” (same as burning bush on fictional
      Mt. Sinai), “by night” (meditating is done at fourth watch, like Matthew’s water-walking mystery. They follow “the cloud” (of Light) by day, same as the luminous cloud in “Judas”(57:17). We’re talking 2,000+ years for some of these matches. THAT is what I call amazing… wow

  3. Here is an article that reflects the theme of this discussion. This is the impact of the fiction of Biblical Israel on the current imbroglio between modern Israelis and Palestinians.
    How Palestinians see the history of Judaism


    A Jewish American expert on Middle East relations stated: “This article is actually rather factual. Israel’s policies are not working and will not work in any remotely foreseeable future. The Palestinians cannot get their act together to negotiate an sensible two-state solution. So the mess of the last 45 years seems likely to continue indefinitely.”

    1. Two books well worth reading:

      Keith Whitelam, The Invention of ancient Israel : the silencing of Palestinian history. This work looks at the history of “biblical archaeology” and what the western scholarly model and presumption of a biblical Israel has meant for the Palestinian peoples. It also looks at the invective and slanders within the scholarly guild itself over this question.

      Shlomo Sand: The invention of the Jewish people. Argues that the Jews have never been a single ethnic identity but have been made up of diverse ethnic groups converted at various times to Judaism. The ancient Jews were not “expelled” from Judea by the Romans and today’s Jews have no ethnic ties to Palestine. This model actually is consistent with something similar I have read by another renowned biblical scholar that the “birth of the Jewish people” was a religious phenomenon throughout Mesopotamia and the Middle East and that the concept of an ethnic identity grew out from that. The “Diaspora” was there from their “birth”.

        1. Lots of people are upset by facts and valid arguments in a whole range of areas — including the Christ-myth challenge to established scholarship. That brings comparisons with Holocaust deniers along with it. Lots of Jews are upset by the new archaeology, too. They see it as “anti-semitic” and even some non-Jewish scholars accuse minimalists of being anti-semitic. But they only serve to show that “anti-semitic” has become a label spat at anyone whom certain Jews do not like. I’m more interested in addressing the facts, methods and arguments than the rubbish we get with name-calling, insults and lies.

          1. My friendship with Dr. Robert Eisenman virtually ended when I told him I was fond of policies of Ron Paul –DOMESTIC polices, I was not even aware that he was known to be anti-Israel, whether true or not. He is anti- foreign involvement, as was George Washington, which I pointed out. Look where being world policeman and oil-dependent has gotten us.

            1. I’d like to put together a post to show that the historical sources — including the writings of Philo and Josephus — presents a pretty solid case that “Jew” was primarily a religious identifier that was applied to Egyptians, Medes, Samaritans, Greeks, whoever identified as a God-fearer opposed to religious views of the pagans. The indigenous inhabitants of Palestine today are more likely to be the closest descendants of the “Jewish” inhabitants of the land in Roman times than any modern-day immigrants.

              1. I find offensive any effort to denounce genuine historical arguments because of their perceived political implications. All this is the modern legal counterpart of medieval book burning and burning free-thinkers at the stake. If the historical arguments are false then demonstrate that by valid arguments.

              2. Ethnicity is a cultural identity. Most Jews, I understand, certainly see themselves as an ethnic collective. But that is the same for all races. Race is a cultural concept, not fundamentally a biological one. I don’t know what “the Arab position” is on Zionism any more than I know what “the Caucasian position” on it is. And none of this make the slightest difference to historical evidence.

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