For earlier posts where I indicated the importance of some of Garbini’s approaches, see Testing (or not) Historical Sources for Reliability and Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1.
The current post follows on from the previous one where we outlined the identification as “forerunners” of Israel the Banu Yamina (Benjamin) with their “davids” in the northern Syrian steppes during the second millennium BCE. One detail I did not note in that post but am adding here is that those same people had a particular group of diviners known as “nabi’um” — from which the Hebrew “navi”, meaning “prophet”, derives. So Garbini drew attention to the “Benjamin” confederacy having connections with Yahud, “davids” and “prophets”.
Giovanni Garbini traced the origins, migrations and settlements of Israel through his research as a professor of Semitic philology. In Garbini’s view, both “maximalists” (those who interpreted all archaeological evidence through the Bible) and “minimalists” (those who relied upon archaeological evidence ‘speaking for itself’) overlooked the evidence of epigraphy — the study of place and ethnic names in both the archaeological finds and the Bible. Garbini wrote that he…
found himself alone in supporting the thesis that adequate linguistic and philological preparation, with the support of extrabiblical sources, makes it possible to reconstruct the ancient history of Israel differently from the biblical account, using the Bible itself as the main source . . . (Scrivere, p. 11 – translation)
Throughout much of that second millennium in the northern Syrian steppes tribal groups were changing their seminomadic and pastoralist lifestyles when they built and settled into cities, allowing for new groups to move in to surrounding areas, with those semi-nomadic groups ever-changing their confederations, with new tribes emerging and older ones disappearing, always over the centuries in ethnic and tribal flux.
Egypt dominated the coastal and hinterland region as far as today’s Lebanon up until the 1300s BCE when we have Egyptian records informing us that new tribal groups and mercenary armies were threatening the security of cities over which Egypt had been the hegemon.
When Garbini integrates these Egyptian records with those of the Assyrian kingdom covering the ensuing century he pinpoints a critical new group of people who will become major players in the Levant: the name by which they were eventually most commonly known was the Aramaeans. They are sometimes named in association with one of the tribes of the Banu Yamini (or “Benjamin”, whom we met in the previous post.)
The Assyrians first encountered the Aramaeans in the northern region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The region between the Tigris and Euphrates where the Assyrians first encountered these Aramaeans was known as Musri. Over the following centuries Musri was also identified on both sides of the Euphrates and in the ninth century, at the Battle of Qaqar on the Orontes River, some of the combatants were identified as Musri. Evidently they took their name from the region where they had originated. It appears that this branch of Aramaeans was gradually moving west.
1300’s BCE — Israel came out of ‘Egypt’, or Musri?
What are we to make of this name “Musri”?
Musri in the Bible
Musri is also mentioned in the Bible, or rather it was mentioned, because in the current text, both in Hebrew and Greek, this name has been systematically concealed through a series of textual interventions. (Scrivere, p. 22 – translation)
Garbini sets out the evidence that the Hebrew Bible we know today has several times replaced Musri with the name Egypt. When it was not replaced, it was spelled incorrectly to make it look like another name for Egypt (msrym instead of mwsr). At some stage scribes associated closely with Jerusalem and who were responsible for the Hebrew Bible attempted to downplay early links between Israel and the northern Aramaean people and region. They repeatedly stressed that though Abraham had come from Mesopotamia, Israel grew into a nation in Egypt and Yahweh who drew them out of Egypt. That was their identity.
But the evidence of philology, the names in the sources, indicate that Israel rather came from the north, from Musri and the Aramaic area, Garbini explains.
In Garbini’s view, some of the biblical books preserve very ancient traditions to this effect:
When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, . . . Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” . . . . 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramaean . . . — Deut. 26:1-5
Hosea fondly looks back on the time Israel was in Egypt and called out to be with God, but any perusal of that time in the Pentateuch quickly reminds us it was not a time of fond romance but one of tension, rebellion, so much so that God cursed the entire generation and even required Moses to die before entering the promised land. Hosea and Amos warn that Israel will be punished by being made to return to Assyria — and Egypt, in a context that suggests Egypt is near or under the dominion of Assyria. That makes more sense if the original text spoke of Musri, Garbini argues. There are other detailed arguments but I am avoiding the technicalities in this post.
The testimony of Hosea and the stories about the patriarchs, which were written at a later date, reveal the existence of a remarkably ancient tradition that traced the origins of Israel and Ephraim to the environment of the Aramaic-speaking seminomads who, starting from the 15th century BC, moved in the land of Musri, i.e. the vast steppe area of northern Syria that extended on both sides of the Upper Euphrates. Here, through processes that we do not know, a homogeneous group of tribes was formed, which took the name of Israel and at a certain moment began to move southwards. If several centuries later a prophet, who felt himself to be the custodian of the religious tradition of the group to which he belonged, launched reproaches and threats to his contemporaries who, in his opinion, did not honor the god who had brought them to the land of Canaan enough, it is very likely that the cult of that god played an important role in the formation of Israel. (Scrivere, p. 25 – translation)
Abraham, King of Damascus – and the Damascus Document
If, with Garbini, we leave aside the Bible and look at other traditions about Israel’s origins, we find that there was a tradition that Abraham was a king in Damascus:
In the Hellenistic and Roman period, some non-Jewish historians who were interested in the Jewish people collected a curious tradition about the origin of this people; a tradition absent from the Bible but which necessarily had to be present in one or more Greek-language Jewish-authored writings used as a source by historians. One of these was Nicolaus of Damascus, a friend of the Emperor Augustus and of Herod the Great, who wrote in the fourth book of his Histories: “Abraham reigned in Damascus, where he arrived after leaving with an army from the land of Chaldea situated beyond Babylon”, adding shortly thereafter: “Indeed, the name of Abraham is still so famous in the region of Damascus that a village is indicated by his name”. These words reported by Eusebius of Caesarea are certainly a summary of a larger text, while the Damascus origin of the writer guarantees the real existence of the tradition regarding Abraham. The schematic information provided by Nicolaus reappears, in a much more complex narrative, in what is for us the most important source for the knowledge of Hellenistic Jewish historiography apart from the Bible. This is the excursus on the Jews written by the Latin historian Pompeius Trogus, who lived between the second half of the 1st century BC and the first decades of the 1st century AD, in his Philippic Histories. Unfortunately, the text has come down to us only in the epitome made by Justin, but even in its schematization this brief writing constitutes the only organic panorama of the earliest Jewish events; the rest that we possess are isolated fragments. Justin writes: “The origin of the Jews dates back to the noblest city of Syria, Damascus, from which also descended the dynasty of Assyrian kings on the part of Queen Semiramis. The city received its name from King Damascus: in his honor, the Syrians held as a temple the tomb of Atarate, his wife; and since then they consider her a goddess and venerate her with the utmost piety. After Damascus, there were kings, successively, Azel, Adores, Abraham, and Israel. But Israel was made more illustrious by the fortunate birth of ten sons. Thus he entrusted the people divided into ten kingdoms to his sons, and called them all Jews after the name of Judah, who died after the division.” This account, worthy of the greatest attention and on which we will return, interests us here because it confirms in substance the words of Nicolaus of Damascus and reveals that the link between Abraham and Damascus belonged to a widespread tradition. Due to its origin and structure, the form of this tradition cannot be considered prior to the Hellenistic period, but it is difficult to imagine that its core did not already exist in the Persian period …. (Scrivere, pp. 26f – translation)
The origin of the Genesis 14 account makes sense if we think of Abraham as having been a king of Damascus, Garbini proposes.
When Abram heard that [Lot] had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men . . . and went in pursuit . . . and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. . . After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him . . . (Gen. 14:14-17)
The biblical author would appear to have wanted to preserve appropriate traditions about Abraham (he neglected another that portrayed Abraham as an astrologer) but at the same time suppressing the Damascus connection.
Compare Abraham’s complaint to God that his only “heir” is Eliezar of Damascus:
But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? (Genesis 15:2)
Garbini observes that the word for “inherit” is textually corrupt and is not literally “inherit”. But Garbini’s focus on philology leads him to see in this word “meseq” a link with the root for Damascus. See below for more detail about this word.
What Garbini finds strikingly unusual about the Genesis 15 covenant God makes with Abraham is that absence of any geographical markers — and the existence of a text – the Damascus Document – opposing the Jerusalem priesthood:
After so many topographical indications relating to the places where Yahweh made and renewed his promise to give Abraham the land he was in, the silence about the place where the promise was formally sealed with a covenant appears truly singular. However, what the Bible conceals has been revealed by a Hebrew book discovered in the genizah of the Karaite synagogue in Cairo at the end of the 19th century and present with many fragmentary copies among the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts: it is a doctrinal text expressed by a community of priests that had formed around the year 177 BC, which had then separated, also in fact, from the official clergy of Jerusalem. This was accused of betraying the covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and therefore the dissident group “entered into a ‘new covenant in the land of Damascus’; the expression should be understood in the sense that the covenant that Abraham had made with God in the land of Damascus had been renewed. (Scrivere, p. 27 – translation)
Again, Garbini sees evidence of an ideology opposed to the conventional one of Jerusalem:
This literary work, composed around the mid-1st century BCE and now known as the Damascus Document, not only reveals to us the place where Abraham had concluded the covenant with God but also helps us understand the reason for the damnatio memoriae of Abraham’s relationship with Damascus. The priestly environment of Jerusalem, which is responsible for the final compilation of the two most important parts of the Hebrew Bible (the Law and the Prophets), did not want Abraham’s name to be associated with the rebellious priests who referred to the covenant stipulated by Abraham when he was in the land of Damascus. Unable to renounce Abraham, nor his covenant with God, they gave up Damascus instead. (Scrivere, p. 28 – translation)
Damascus and Israel — tied together by Yahweh
Amos and Isaiah depict Israel and Damascus as “intimately united, at least in the eyes of Yahweh, and sharing the same fate. Amos goes so far as to define the inhabitants of Damascus, or at least some of them, as ‘sons of Israel.'” (Scrivere, p. 29)
Thus saith the Lord: “As the shepherd taketh out of the mouth of the lion two legs or a piece of an ear, so shall the children of Israel be taken out, that dwell in Samaria in the corner of a bed and in Damascus on a couch. (Amos 3:12)
The burden of Damascus: “Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap. The cities of Aroer are forsaken; they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid. The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus and the remnant of Syria; they shall be as the glory of the children of Israel,” saith the Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 17:1-3)
Zechariah makes explicit what is only implicit in the above references, that the two peoples shared the worship of Yahweh:
The burden of the word of the Lord in the land of Hadrach and Damascus, shall be the rest thereof, when the eyes of man, as of all the tribes of Israel, shall be toward the Lord. (Zechariah 9:1)
The head of the Syrian pantheon was the storm god Hadad but the god of the king was Yahweh Sabe’an, “Yahweh of the mercenary troops”.
As the Egyptian influence waned mercenary Aramaean forces eventually seized control of Damascus. These forces were closely linked with “Israel”:
Bringing together the threads of our discourse, we can reasonably assume that in the course of the 12th century BC, Damascus saw the end of the monarchy supported by Egypt, which was replaced, at an unspecified date around 1100 BC, by a dynasty from the environment of the Aramaic mercenary troops, the Sabe’in . . . . Dominating politically, the newcomers managed the caravan trade themselves, which they probably exercised on behalf of the reigning sovereign before. We do not know what title the new kings of Damascus officially presented themselves with, but it is very likely that they designated themselves as kings not of the city but of the ethnic group to which they belonged, according to the habit of sedentary nomads: king of the Ya’udi in Sam’al, of Israel in Samaria, king of Moab and the Ammonites in Transjordan; the title of king of Aram, borne by the dynasty of Bar-Hadad, can be considered a confirmation in this sense. The dynastic god of the first Aramaic monarchy of Damascus was naturally the god of the social group to which the sovereign belonged: the head of the pantheon was Hadad, the god of the storm, but the god of the king was Yahweh Sabe’an, that is, “Yahweh of the mercenary troops” . . . .
According to the historical reconstruction proposed here, for about a century and a half (approximately between 1100 and 950 BC), Damascus was ruled by Aramaic Israelites, who probably also constituted the most distinguished group of the population. Initially recruited as mercenary troops and subordinate labor, they took advantage of Egypt’s weakness to assume political control of the city. Even before there was an Israelite kingdom in Palestine, there was a kingdom in Damascus that, ignored by the Bible, was nevertheless present in Jewish tradition, which preserved its memory until the Roman era. This kingdom was linked to the name of Abraham: an indication of some documentary importance because outside the Bible this name is only documented in Ugarit at the end of the Late Bronze Age; however, we do not know what role this character played in the kingdom of Damascus: it is likely that he was its founder, but this remains only a hypothesis. (Scrivere, pp. 36f – translation)
Garbini concludes this chapter:
At the conclusion of this first chapter, we can summarize succinctly what we know about the prehistory of Israel. The remote origins are found in the environment of the Amorite semi-nomads, where in the 18th century BCE there existed a tribal confederation, that of the Banu Yamina, whose name we will find later in Jerusalem together with that of dawid, a political and military figure widespread among both the semi-nomads and the cities of the first half of the second millennium BCE. However, the oldest biblical tradition places the origins of the Hebrew people in the land of Musri, i.e., in upper Syria, at a time when it was inhabited by Aramaic-speaking peoples. This brings us towards the 14th-13th century BCE, when the Amorites had almost all become sedentary, and those who remained at the semi-nomadic stage mixed with the new peoples of the same stock, the Akhlamu-Aramaeans. Here, a group of tribes with the name of Israel was formed, which recognized itself in the worship of the god Yahweh. These gradually moved south, dividing into two nuclei: one settled in the area of Damascus, serving the local ruler to whom they provided mercenary troops and caravans with donkeys; the other continued on to Palestine, as we will see in the next chapter. The Israel of Damascus took advantage of the political crisis in Egypt and managed to dominate the city until around the middle of the 10th century BCE; it was then that a new Aramaic tribe, which the Bible claims was originally from the country of Qir, seized Damascus, putting an end to the Israelite dynasty and killing much of the population, so that from that moment on only a small number of Israelites remained in what had been their first capital.
Of these Israelite children who remained in Syria, the Bible preferred not to speak, and some sporadic allusions that remained in the texts have been made incomprehensible by rabbinic revisers. But in actual Jewish tradition, things had gone differently, as revealed by the Hellenistic writings that made Abraham the king of Damascus. The close relationship between Damascus and Ephraim recalled in the prophetic texts mentioned above means that this ancient bond was particularly felt in the northern kingdom still in the 8th century BCE, and that there must have been fairly close relations between the two communities. The journey of Saul to Damascus (Acts of the Apostles 9:1-25) is quite significant and indirectly confirms the tradition collected by Nicola Damasceno. (Scrivera, pp. 37f – translation)
Garbini, Giovanni. Scrivere La Storia d’Israele. Vicende E Memorie Ebraiche. Brescia: Paideia, 2008.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!