Postscript on Rome’s and Israel’s foundation stories

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by Neil Godfrey

I should follow up my previous post with a clarification of Weinfeld’s argument as he presented it in his 1993 book, The Promise of the Land. The bolding is mine for the benefit of those who don’t want to read lots of text but just hit the highlights.

As is well known, most of the genres of biblical literature have their counterparts in the ancient Near East. Creation stories, genealogies, legal codes, cultic instructions, temple-building accounts, royal annals, prophecies, psalms, wisdom literature of various kinds—all are widely attested in the cognate literatures from Mesopotamia, the Hittites, and the Egyptians. The only genre lacking such counterparts is that of stories about the beginning of the nation and its settlement, which are so boldly represented in the Patriarchal narratives and the accounts of the Exodus and the conquest of the Land. The contrast is especially striking when we compare the first eleven chapters of Genesis with the rest of the book. In Gen. 1–11 we find stories of creation, the food story, and lists of world ancestors before and after the food—literary types all well established in Mesopotamian literature. From [Genesis] chapter 12 onward, however, no parallel with the ancient Near East can be shown—not in content, of course, which reflects the particular nature of Israel, but also not in form. This kind of storytelling might be expected in the great cultures of the ancient Near East, but we look for it in vain. The lack of this genre is quite understandable given that, unlike Israel, the large autochthonous cultures were not cognizant of a beginning of their national existence.

On the other hand, this genre would be expected in the Greek sphere, which like Israel was based on colonization and founding of new sites. (pp. 1-2)

Weinfeld appeals to the quotation from Plato which I used as a header in an earlier post as evidence of the popularity of the foundation story genre in the Greek world:

[Greeks] are very fond of hearing about the genealogies of heroes and men . . . and the foundations of cities in ancient times and, in short, about antiquity in general . . .  —  Plato, Greater Hippias, 285d

Weinfeld offers us some biographical background to his interest in the question of biblical and Greek parallels and was encouraged to find he was not alone:

My thoughts on this problem took further shape when, more than ten years ago, I participated in a seminar on the Aeneid conducted by the late H. Wirszubsky. What concerned me especially in the seminar discussion was the central idea of the work: the mission of Aeneas to found a city that would rule the world, an idea strikingly similar to that found in the book of Genesis, in which Abraham and his seed are to become, like Aeneas, a great nation (gôy gadōl : Gen. 12:1 ff.) that will rule peoples (Gen. 27:29).

I have been pondering this question ever since. I had the feeling that the composition of the patriarchal stories is based on a model similar to that of Aeneas. Because the Aeneid is modeled on foundation stories prevalent in Greek colonies, the so-called Ktisissagen, I saw in the patriarchal stories, with their promises for the inheritance of the land of Canaan, a reflection of the same genre.

I was pleased to discover that one of my colleagues at the University of Tel Aviv, Jacob Licht, was elaborating a similar idea and applying it to the Exodus–Sinai cycle. He suggested that I publish his thesis in a journal I edited, Shnaton 4 (1980), which I was eager to do. Licht’s point of departure was Deut. 27:9:

“Today you have become the people of the Lord your God,”

which he took as a proclamation of establishment. He rightly connected it with the foundation stories so widespread in the Greek world and so boldly expressed in the Roman epic of Virgil. Both Licht and I drew the same analogy, though from different points of departure: I was asking about the patriarchal promises, while he was interested in the Exodus-Covenant traditions. The two approaches could be combined, as they are in the Pentateuch itself, but my main focus in this book is the Aeneas-Abraham analogy. (pp. 2-3)

At that point Weinfeld begins the discussion that I distilled into table format in my previous post. I made some brief comments on his own thoughts about an explanation for the similarities but will elaborate those here.

What was the motivation for the creation of these kinds of stories about the first ancestors? Apparently, at the end of the second millennium, the formation of petty states in the eastern Mediterranean area led to the development of the genre of foundation stories as we find them in the Greek sources.

“Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” — Amos 9:7 (NIV)

Amos 9:7 may serve as evidence: Amos compares the establishment of Israel with the establishment of Aram, originating in Kir, and the establishment of Philistines, coming from Kaphtor. As is well known, the Aramaeans—like the Israelites—formed a league of twelve tribes (Gen. 22:20–24), and as may be learned from Amos’s prophecy, they also preserved memories of the native home they had left behind. The same pattern applies to the Philistines, though we do not have precise information about the formation of their league. (p. 18)

The same idea, Weinfeld suggests, is expressed in description of Nimrod founding the various cities of Assyria and Babylonia. Genesis 10:8-12 (KJV)

And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth.

He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.

And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah,

And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city.

Similarly with the Danites in Judges 18:27-29

And they took the things which Micah had made, and the priest which he had, and came unto Laish, unto a people that were at quiet and secure: and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and burnt the city with fire.

And there was no deliverer, because it was far from Zidon, and they had no business with any man; and it was in the valley that lieth by Bethrehob. And they built a city, and dwelt therein.

And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father, who was born unto Israel: howbeit the name of the city was Laish at the first.

And of the founding of Jerusalem according to Josephus in Wars 6.10

But he who first built it. Was a potent man among the Canaanites, and is in our own tongue called [Melchisedek], the Righteous King, for such he really was; on which account he was [there] the first priest of God, and first built a temple [there], and called the city Jerusalem, which was formerly called Salem.

To interject with my own comment here (though consistent with Weinfeld’s argument), each of the above passages contains motifs distinctive in the foundation stories: the need for the blessing of a god; piratical raiding; heroic founder building cities and their temples.

Weinfeld writes that the foundation genre consisted of two parts:

the first part describes the migration of the ancestor, and the second describes the settlement.

Russell Gmirkin demurs on this point, however, when he remarks in an endnote:

According to Weinfeld (1993: 19), “The genre of foundation stories consists of two parts: the first part describes the migration of the ancestor, and the second describes the settlement.” The two phases were discussed at 1993: 19-21. This generalization does not universally hold true, because charter myths with ancestral land promises are sometimes lacking for historical foundations in the classical period, when consultation of the oracle at Delphi provided an alternative means of legitimizing colonial territorial conquests. (Gmirkin, 2017, p. 238)

(I am currently working on a post addressing different versions of the founding story of Cyrene and how they changed over time with different genres and related for different purposes.)

But to continue with Weinfeld’s interpretation:

In contrast to Joshua, the settler, Abraham is a wanderer. The story about Aeneas reflects—as interpreted by Schmid—the legend about the hero-ancestor and not about the oikist who was the settler. In Israel as well as in Rome, the epic composers were aware . . . of the chronological-historical gap between these two stages. Just as Aeneas is the first ancestor of the nation, “the pater,” and not the first settler, so is Abraham “the father”—and not, like Joshua, the conqueror and settler. (p. 19)

The Roman story changes after the time of Aeneas and moves into a period of settlement with Romulus and Numa, the founder of Rome’s religious or cultic institutions.

In Israel, these two figures correspond to Joshua and Moses, only in reverse order: first Moses, the legislator, and then Joshua, the settler. In one respect Romulus parallels Moses and not Joshua, and that is in the legend of exposure: like Romulus and Remus, who are cast into the Tiber and then rescued, Moses is cast into the Nile and rescued. (p. 20)

Weinfeld sees the two-stage process also in the accounts of Carthage and Cilicia.

Carthage was founded in 814 B.C.E., but tradition related its foundation to Azoros (= Zor) and Carchedon (= Carthage) of the late thirteenth century, as told by Philistos of Syracuse in the first half of the fourth century B.C.E.

The same pattern applies to Mopsos, the eponymous hero of “the house of Mpš” in Cilicia, whose heroic deeds belong to the second millennium B.C.E.; the actual ethnic existence, however, of Mopsos’s people (= the Danunians in the Karatepe inscriptions) is attested in the first millennium. (p. 20)

According to Weinfeld, in referring to a study demonstrating the two-stage process of Western Phoenician colonization, the two stages in the stories may reflect actual historical processes.

The first phase comprises the beginning of a connection with the indigenous population (for purposes of trade), which is followed by a second phase involving a great influx of new settlers into the area and representing real colonization. These two stages are reflected in the traditions of both Roman and Israelite history . . . (p. 21)

Hopefully the above offers a clearer idea of Weinfeld’s thoughts behind his discussion of the parallels set out in the previous post.


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14 thoughts on “Postscript on Rome’s and Israel’s foundation stories”

  1. If you are interested, you may want to read about parallels between the Aeneid and Japanese myths, in ‘Classical World Literatures: Sino-Japanese and Greco-Roman Comparisons’, by Wiebke Denecke.

  2. The sorts of parallels or comparisons that are addressed can be seen in the review at http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2014/2014-08-50.html

    It is no doubt an interesting work from the point of view of literature in different cultures and for those interested in comparative literature studies across cultures.

    I can’t see any relevance to the sorts of literary comparisons I am addressing here, though, which are meant to focus on features in common across neighbouring cultures and their interdependent historical development.

    1. The relevance of examining similarities between the literatures of distant cultures may be as a sort of “control” that cautions us against making rash assumptions regarding cultural influence, without taking into proper account the possibility of parallel but independent literary development.

      I do have misgivings, for example, about asserting that the writers of the Pentateuch must have derived their interest in history, foundation myths and codes of law from the Greeks, as if it were utterly impossible for anyone else to develop such concerns independently.

      1. Most certainly if the same sorts of comparisons would be made between ancient Roman and Japanese literature you would most definitely have a point. But have you read what sorts of comparisons are addressed in Denecke’s research? Do you really see any relevance to what is actually being compared in her work with what we are looking at here?

        I would be surprised if anyone really considered the detail addressed in Gmirkin’s work as based on “rash assumptions”.

        I think what would be rash would be to believe that a neighbouring culture arrived at very similar ideas and literatures and ways of thought without any influence at any point whatever from a broader culture that surrounded them yet expressed the same sorts of ideas, literature and ways of thought.

  3. I haven’t read the specifics of Denecke’s research at all. I was just making the general and abstract academic observation – without meaning to accuse any particular person of rashness – that a consideration of similarities between literatures of non-proximal cultures MAY (I did use the word “may”) be helpful in establishing some sort of control to help one avoid misidentifying ACTUAL cases of “cultural influence” from APPARENT cases, which are in fact common literary characteristics of many cultures or certain historical conditions.

    Of course neighbouring cultures are bound to have similarities in their literature and ideas. Some of them may be derived from direct external influence, and some of them will derive from common cultural origins. And it is important to ensure that we can distinguish between these scenarios. One case comes to mind which does involve Russell Gmirkin: Plato’s manslaughtering mule and Exodus’s goring ox. Gmirkin is right to note that the Mesopotamian ox wasn’t killed; there is a clear resemblance between the Platonic and Biblical rulings on this subject. The question is, did the death of the goring ox derive directly from the execution of Plato’s mule, as Gmirkin asserts, or might both have been derived from a shared tradition of earlier origin? Or, thirdly, did the two cultures arrive at similar practices by quite different routes and for different reasons… a bit like the convergent evolution of two animals that now look similar but are of different ancestry?

    Perhaps more importantly still, what evidence is needed to make one of these answers preferable to the other two?

    1. The questions you raise are important. Of course my own posts cannot cover the entirety of Gmirkin’s arguments or all of his nuances. I focus on what come across to be key points of most interest to me and I try to make as much room for interested readers to follow up the points that interest them at source.

      I can give my own responses to your questions, but it is quite possible that I have been influenced by reading Gmirkin’s text and simply am not recalling how much of what I say he himself covers in his own words and in specific chapters. On the other hand I did start posting about many points in common between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuch before Gmirkin’s book was published and put my own posts on hold until I discussed Gmirkin’s book. I hope to continue with my own readings after I complete Gmirkin’s book, so I have been thinking along these lines for some time independently.

      If the two cultures arrived at a common point by independent routes then I think we would expect to find only a very few such common points and each in a context distinctive from that of the neighbouring culture. What we find is that such details in common appear in wider literary narratives that themselves have much in common.

      I do recall being frustrated as an undergrad student of Greek history (I was also a fundamentalist type of Christian believer) at not being able to understand the literary style of the Primary History vis a vis Near Eastern literature that was supposed to be contemporary. It was only after I left the faith that I was able to see just how close Herodotus’s Histories was compared with the Primary History — and how other scholars long before Gmirkin were noticing and writing about this similarity, too. (But they did not suggest the Hebrews borrowed from Herodotus.) Also frustrating at the time was Herodotus’s account of Palestine — so inconsistent with what we expected given the biblical history, but so coherent alongside the thesis that the province of Jehud only came into existence in the Persian era and its history was fabricated under the influence of Hellenism.

      In fact I think Gmirkin’s chapter on specific laws can be said to be his “weakest” for establishing a Greco-Hebrew link because he cites numerous cases where biblical laws have no counterpart in Greece but do match others in the Near East.

      What tips the scales in favour of the Hellenistic connection is the literary and theological or political motifs, style, themes, the larger literary body itself.

      I think in this contect Lemche’s contribution (that I also posted about recently) is very significant. Intellectual ideas come and go like fashions — it would be most exceptional to find one group espousing a question or topic of interest that was completely alien to the wider intellectual world of the day, but totally undestandable when common questions and topics are part of a common intellectual culture.

      1. Well. a propos of your last two paragraphs, I have problems with what I see as an entirely Hellenocentric viewpoint. When you say “it would be most exceptional to find one group espousing a question or topic of interest that was completely alien to the wider intellectual world of the day” what “wider intellectual world of the day” do you mean other than Greece? You seem to be suggesting that no-one could be interested in something before the Greeks were. But there may be many reasons why one (or other) culture might become interested in something for reasons arising out of its own historical situation. It’s not impossible that foundation myths may appeal to one culture at a particular time, and another related culture somewhat later, especially if there were areas of common intellectual antecedents. You are right that intellectual ideas come and go like fashions, but not all cultures share the same fashions at the same time.

        Whether that notion has any value in this particular case is really dependent on how close the Hellenistic and Biblical books really are. And here I have a feeling that it becomes very subjective subjective indeed. You, Gmirkin, and presumably Lemche suggest that all the parallels and similarities overwhelmingly show that the literary structure, architecture and details of the Primary History were derived from Hellenistic literature. I think you do that because you start from the Greek literature and then pick the bits of the Biblical material that support your theory, run with them, and ignore everything else. A sort of confirmation bias. And arguing that there have to be SOME differences (which is true) is all well and good, until it becomes a get-out-of-jail free card. Some differences are too basic.

        So while you think “how close Herodotus’s Histories was compared with the Primary History” I think how different they are. How Herodotus, for all his use of previous sources, retains a singular voice, a guiding personality, as compared to the chorus of discordant voices of the Primary History, with its overlaps, repetitions, contradictions – many voices jostling to be heard. Four different bodies of law in Exodus-Deuteronomy, with clear links from one to the other, but none acknowledging the existence of any of the others, and no Plato, or Herodotus or any authorial voice to disentangle them for the reader. And there are all the narrative hiccups, repetitions, contradictions, changes in tone and direction. (You can usually tell where they are in the Primary History because a truly Hellenistic writer like Josephus tries to resolve them by omitting awkward elements, adding details and explanations to create a far smoother narrative than the biblical text.) That literary approach is quite different to the Hellenistic model, and this for me is a very heavy counterbalance to the parallels that you have listed.

        1. You wrote:

          You are right that intellectual ideas come and go like fashions, but not all cultures share the same fashions at the same time.

          For clarification, can you give me some examples that you have in mind?

          Four different bodies of law in Exodus-Deuteronomy, with clear links from one to the other, but none acknowledging the existence of any of the others, and no Plato, or Herodotus or any authorial voice to disentangle them for the reader. And there are all the narrative hiccups, repetitions, contradictions, changes in tone and direction.

          I don’t disagree with this analysis. I certainly agree that there are differences from the way Herodotus wrote. I don’t mean to suggest that the Hebrew authors were imitating Greek literature in toto; they couldn’t, especially with different theological interests. By influence I don’t mean that we should expect the style to be the same in every respect — otherwise it would be direct imitation rather than influence that is adapted to one’s own culture. Do you see anything comparable to Primary History in the Near Eastern literature?

          The narrative hiccups and contradictions are undeniable, and so is the impersonal omniscient narrative voice. Yet as you point out, Herodotus also contains hiccups and contradictions but of course he interjects as the narrator to comment on those features. We have to assume that some sort of “editor” or author who was piecing various stories together in the Hebrew text (eg Genesis 1 and 2, the two contradictory creation accounts) side by side could also have chosen to comment on the contradictions but for some reason he chose not to. Why? The pervasiveness of the impersonal narrative voice appears to be a deliberate choice. One would expect contradictory accounts set side by side would demand an authorial explanation. Yet the Primary History reads reasonably well as a coherent narrative just the same, so it has not been just blindly or randomly stitched together.

          The question that arises, I think, then, is this: Does a historical narrative filled with contradictions and inconsistencies (yet overall still read reasonably coherently) have any literary counterparts in the Near East? If the contradictory pieces all stitched together also point to the same sorts of themes and topics of interest as found in Hellenistic literature — with the primary difference being the role of a narrative voice — then is it not reasonable to suspect a Hellenistic influence?

          Of course the questions you raise are important, and after examining the argument of Gmirkin we set out the different literatures of the regions and compare and test the argument more thoroughly. I have suggested at least one weakness in the way Gmirkin argues his case in my most recent post, for example.

          1. I think I need to step back a bit because – such is the internet – I seem to be arguing something I’m not. I’m not saying that there COULDN’T be a Hellenistic influence, even a significant one, only that the case isn’t utterly proven; there is still, in my mind at least, a range of possibilities. Lemche’s comments are of value, but they aren’t definitive and decisive: alternatives haven’t been definitvely discounted. Indeed, I think it’s quite plausible to suggest that the stitching together of the entire Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) may well show Hellenistic inspiration. However I don’t believe that the entire kit and kaboodle – content AND form – is Greek inspired. I think there are earlier pre-Hellenistic strata, pre-Hellenistic narratives and projects contained within it. For example, Noah’s flood is categorically not derived from Deucalion’s flood, however similar they may seem to be; Deucalion is a “cousin” of Noah, not his literary “father”.

            I think I’ve said something like this before, but however appealing the broad sweeping theories are, they cannot be more than circumstantial theories which may be more or less plausible, that offer a range of possible scenarios. To prove or disprove one or other, it comes down to forensic textual detail – the textual equivalent of fingerprints, DNA and shoeprints in the mud, and that detail can often prove or disprove the validity of the broader circumstantial accounts.

            However I certainly do feel strongly that Gmirkin’s account, with (a) what at times sounds like virtually all biblical material being derived from one Greek book or other (Berossus/Maneto/Plato), and (b) an incredibly tight chronology his theory requires (5 years from Berossus to LXX) – is (a) both broadly implausible in the proposed narrative of Alexandrian research, composition, and translation back into Greek; (b) that this does not adequately explain the densely patchwork, stratified Biblical text we encounter; and (c) examination of particular details of that text gives strong reason to doubt the thesis, at least in part.

            1. I think your points on the whole are fair enough. I do admit that for these posts I do try to single out what strike me as the strongest evidence, usually necessarily truncated, for Gmirkin’s case. At the same time I do try to be careful to point out where he acknowledges non-Greek influence, although that is necessarily briefer on the whole. Gmirkin does not deny Near Eastern influences and does in fact acknowledge them but of course his main argument is to present a case for Hellenistic influence.

              I suspect part of his reasoning would have been that we already have mountains of material about the Near Eastern influence on the Bible so he is trying to wedge a space for a rethink of some of those details to open up the possibility that there is a very major influence coming from another direction.

              Gmirkin’s book packs in so much detail but much of this supporting detail is only fleshed out by following up his copious endnotes. From that perspective (and speaking as an amateur) I see Gmirkin’s study as opening up a space for debate and further study.

              Sometimes (you probably noticed) I pause in discussing Gmirkin’s own points to digress with an exploration of one of his citations. There is so much more I would like to do in that direction. I look forward to returning to my own reading of Plato’s Laws and completing my posts on that work as I see it reflected in the Pentateuch in the light of Gmirkin’s thesis.

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