Israel’s Origins – before Palestine

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

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:

Map from Asor.org. Sa-Imerisu, another name for the kingdom that is discussed by Garbini, with a root having a similar meaning for that of Damascus: the common root refers to “one who leads animals”, suggestive of the donkey and camel trading caravans that were run by the rulers of Damascus. The Eliezar of Damascus, Abraham’s “heir”, was called a “meseq” rather than “heir”.

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)

Zobah only appears in the Bible. Garbini suggests it is to be identified with Damascus. Map from The Bible Museum.

Garbini, Giovanni. Scrivere La Storia d’Israele. Vicende E Memorie Ebraiche. Brescia: Paideia, 2008.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

21 thoughts on “Israel’s Origins – before Palestine”

  1. Very good presentations, with a clear and exact translation !
    I would only add, for clarity, that “ṣabe’ān” is an aramaic form, fem. plur. absolute = “hosts”, which corresponds exactly to the hebrew form (fem. plur.) Ṣəba’ôth (in “Yahweh Sabaoth”…), which in turn is connected to the (aramaic / late hebrew) mascul. plur. ṣəba’īn “servants / auxiliary troops” and to the aramaean kingdom of Ṣobā’ (in the above map written “Zobah”)…

  2. “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.”

    You add: “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).”

    If it was “replaced” does Garbini list the places where it was “replaced” rather than just purposely misspelled? In any case, it’s entirely clear that Garbini doesn’t think this could have been just an innocently garbled tradition, as sometimes happens with ancient traditions, as he seems very certain that it was a “concealed tradition.” I’m not sure if he investigates that possibility but he theorises that: “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.”

    But since Genesis narrates that Abraham lived in Haran (Gen 11), that he sent Eliezer to Aram-Naharaim find a wife (Rebecca) (Gen 25:11), and Rebecca sends Jacob to Haran to escape Esau (Gen 27:43), though immediately afterwards Isaac sends Jacob to Paddan-Aram to find a wife (Gen 28:2), and as in all those instances the family associations are stressed, it has to be said that the “scribes closely associated with Jerusalem” did a pretty dreadful job of downplaying the Aramean connection. It’s true the Pentateuch also states unequivocally that Israel grew into a nation in Egypt, but the narrative doesn’t in any way hide the Aramean connection and both finds a place for it and gives it chronological priority by defining the time in Egypt as a temporary sojourn The full quotation from Deuteronomy 26:5 is “A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” (The sojourn went pear-shaped according to Exodus, but you couldn’t tell that from this passage from Deuteronomy. This, inter alia, has led some scholars to argue that the slavery theme was a later stratum, added to the earlier narrative of a less traumatic sojourn).

    “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. But Garbini’s focus on philology leads him to see in this word “meseq” a link with the root for Damascus. “

    I don’t think it’s certain whether the text really is corrupt, or it just that we don’t know the etymology of the expression “ben-mešeq” (a hapax legomenon), but whatever its literal meaning and origin, it appears, on the face of it, to be a pun on the word Damascus (Damešeq) and this, far from covering up Aramean origins, actually draws attention to it.

    But, that’s enough of the digressions. Let’s return to Garbini, and the reason for the scribes wanting to downplay these Aramean links, however poorly.

    “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.”

    That sounds like a fairly speculative theory to me (and it may be the first example of people wanting to downplay the high status of an ancestor that I’ve heard of, turning Abraham King of Damscus into a wandering sheep-farmer), but let’s say that it was indeed motivated by priestly antipathy towards the Damascus splinter-group. We then come up against a pretty major chronological problem. If the schism took place in 177 BCE, the “cover-up” must have happened at some later date. But as the cover-up also appears in the Septuagint, which was at the very latest in circulation in the 2nd Century BCE, and probably itself dates to the 3rd Century BCE (certainly according to Gmirkin), the cover-up predates the schism it’s supposedly responding to. And if the intentional misspelling of Muṣri as Miṣraim is what underpins the entire Exodus-from-Egypt narrative, then the entire book of Exodus would have to have been written after 177 BCE, which is surely impossible.

    “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.”

    Now it really gets chronologically confusing. If the cover-up was already included in the Septuagint, what possible involvement could these “rabbinic revisers” have had? (Unless he is suggesting that the Masoretic Text has even more “sporadic allusions… made incomprehensible” than the LXX, though I don’t know what examples he has in mind.) Just to make it clear, the title “rabbi” was only really used from the 1st Century CE (and even that may be a bit early), so it’s difficult to know how, in any meaningful sense, “rabbinic revisers” could have been active in the pre-LXX era (ie during or before the 3rd Century BCE). Very peculiar.

    A propos of Garbini’s theory that the replacement of “Muṣri” with “Miṣraim” is the result of intentional priestly and scribal obfuscation/concealment, the issue is actually far more complex. This subject was frequently discussed in relation to 1 Kings 10:28-29, and 2 Kings 7:6 where some commentators argued that the biblical originally read “Muṣri” rather than “Miṣraim.” Bearing in mind that the Assyrian for Egypt was “Muṣuri/Muṣri/Muṣur” that is not, on the face of it, at all unreasonable. The notion that Solomon’s horse dealing etc was with Muṣri rather than Egypt was certainly prevalent when Muṣri was believed to be in Cilicia, a notion that has since been categorically disproven, however that is no longer the case (see below).

    Garbini states: “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.”

    It is now generally accepted that the original Muṣri was in the Kurdistan area, not Cilicia. In a 1961 essay Hayim Tadmor stated that that: “Muṣri, accordingly, is to be placed not too far from Qummani… in the area of Sulaimanya.. [or] the šad Muṣri, the range of Jebel Maqlub, about 30 miles north west of Niniveh.” However, the issue of the “gradual move west” is very problematic. It may be that the problems were addressed by Garbini in this 1966 book, but in the same essay, Tadmor continued that: “This Trans-Trigidian Muṣri was conquered by the Assyians in the twelfth century BC, revolted and was reconquered by Ashurdan II. When it appears in the Sargonid period, it is already an integral part of Assyria proper. This being so, every reference in the Assyrian records to a foreign country Muṣri/Muṣur from the tenth century B.C. onwards should be taken as referring exclusively to Egypt.” (p. 146)

    In other words, the “Musrean” troops at the Battle of Qarar as well as the exotic animals received “from Muṣri” mentioned on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, both referred to Egypt, and not any second Muṣri to the west, making Garbini’s notion of Muṣri’s “gradual move west” a chimera. I don’t know whether Tadmor’s argument is generally accepted or not but it certainly hasn’t been debunked. (In passing, I’d note that original Trans-Tigridian Muṣri survived into the 20th Century CE as the Kurdish Muzuri tribal group of Kurdistan.) At any rate, if Tadmor was wrong, and a western “Muṣri” really did exist, and if it was indeed rewritten as “Miṣraim” (eg in 1 Kings 10:28-29, 2 Kings 7:6 and perhaps elsewhere – including the “Egyptian” sojourn), I really don’t think Garbini made a particularly coherent or convincing case for the notion of purposeful concealment or “cover-up” by priests, scribes and/or “rabbinic revisers” (I nearly wrote “Priests, Scribes and Pharisees”).

    1. Garbini (inspired by “Les Nomades de Mésopotamie au temps des rois de Mari” by Jean-Robert Kupper) was quite contrary to the opinions of Hayyim Tadmor, not only about Muṣri (ancient Aramaeans were wandering tribes…), but also about his (fundamentalistic-oriented) interpretation (followed by the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, sub voce) of da-ab-da-a / da-wi-de-e-em dâkum / maḫāṣum (literally: “to kill [the] dawida/i”) simply as “to defeat, to massacre”.
      Garbini also argued that “Aram Naharaym” (Aram “of the two rivers”) should not be interpreted as “between Euphrates & Tigris”, but “between Euphrates & Baliḫ” / “between Ḫabûr & Baliḫ”…
      As for the Septuagint, Garbini put its redaction contemporary with that of the Hebrew text, by the People of the Knesseth ha-Gedolah, under the pontificate of Alkimos (162–159 BCE.).

      1. Thanks for your comments. I’m not familiar with Garbini’s work so that helped put his argument in some perspective, especially the late date of the LXX. That still doesn’t quite explain the “rabbinic revisers” and “priests associated with Jerusalem” and how all that fits with the sectarian divisions between the Pharisees and Sadducees, as outlined by Josephus, which I might have thought made priests and rabbis unlikely bedfellows in the redaction of the Torah at that very late date. I’d probably have to read some more of his work to get a better sense of it.

        I can’t really add much about the Wandering Arameans though I don’t really understand what “fundamentalistic-oriented” means. I would have thought that fundamentalism is a pretty extreme position, and usually people are fundamentalist in a very big way or they are not fundamentalist at all. Actually, rereading your post, I’m not 100% sure whose ideas about the translation were said to be “fundamentalistic-oriented”… Garbini or Tadmor … though I assume the latter. If so, was Tadmor really a “fundamentalist”? And in regard to that particular translation, for example, how exactly was it fundamentalist, rather than, say, conservative?

    2. If it was “replaced” does Garbini list the places where it was “replaced” rather than just purposely misspelled?

      Garbini, pp 22ff (again, translation)

      Musri is also mentioned in the Bible, or rather it was mentioned, because in the current text, both Hebrew and Greek, this name has been systematically hidden through a series of textual interventions. 1 Kings 10:28-29 (= 2 Chronicles 1:16-17) recalls the horse trade organized by King Solomon: the horses came from Egypt and from Que, that is, Cilicia; after mentioning the price of horses and chariots (obviously these were combat chariots), the passage ends with these words: “and they went out from the hand of all the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Aram.” Apart from the strangeness of the Masoretic Hebrew text, which, using the preposition “l-” instead of “m-” before “kings,” would suggest a sale rather than a purchase, the parallelism of the sentence allows us to restore the original text: the kings of the Hittites fit well with Cilicia, but the Aramean kings have little to do with Egypt (which, moreover, had only one king, the pharaoh). It is evident that Aram did not correspond to Egypt (msrym), but to Musri (mwsr). This is the most obvious of the not a few cases in which the Masoretic text has transformed “Musri” into “Egypt,” but it is the only one in which the editor of the text has warned the reader not to be distracted: when the Bible says “Egypt,” it does not always mean the land of the Nile. That the name Musri created big problems for the most recent transmitters of the biblical text is confirmed by the fact that this toponym, when it was not transformed into “Egypt,” was intentionally misspelled (mswr instead of mwsr), and all the contexts in which it appeared have been so tampered with as to be incomprehensible, in the Masoretic text as well as in the Greek.

      . . . .

      A prophetic text handed down in the book of Hosea rebuked the Israelites of the northern kingdom for their bad religious behavior, which it considered to be the abandonment of the worship of Yahweh. While waiting for a conversion, it recalled the happy days of Israel’s youth, still faithful to its God: “I will lead her into the desert, and speak tenderly to her… and there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:16-17); “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son… I taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in my arms” (Hosea 11:1, 3). Although the biblical text speaks of Egypt, it is difficult to imagine this idyllic picture in the context of the Sinai; the account of Exodus and Numbers describes relations between Yahweh and the Israelites so tempestuous as to make the divinity want to kill them all, including Moses, before reaching the promised land (who knows for what reason only Joshua was spared). In the passages now cited, it is obvious that the word “Egypt” must be corrected to “Musri.”

      Confirmation of the need for this correction comes from other passages in the same prophet. Hosea shared with Amos the idea that Yahweh would punish a sinful people by making them return to the land from which they had come out. This is a concept that could only have arisen in regions where its inhabitants had been there for not very long, when the memory of a past without a fixed abode and with scarce economic resources – a past as seminomads – was still alive. The most obvious example of the validity of this idea was provided by the Arameans: originally from the mysterious land of Qir (according to Amos, the Arameans of Damascus were threatened with returning there as slaves (Amos 1:5), where they will indeed be deported by Tiglath-pileser III (2 Kings 16:9) after the conquest of the city. Hosea speaks against Ephraim: “Ephraim has multiplied altars, they have been a sin for him… though they offer sacrifices and eat the meat, Yahweh does not accept them… and punishes their sins; they will return to Egypt and in Assyria they will eat impure food” (Hosea 8:11, 13); “They shall not remain in the land of Yahweh, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria” (Hosea 9:3); “(Ephraim) will return to the land of Egypt and Assyria will be his king” (Hosea 11:5). Since “Egypt” and “Assyria” are in parallelism, and since Ephraim could not be in both nations simultaneously, it is evident that the original reading of the three passages was “Musri,” a country that was indeed under Assyrian rule.

      1. Thanks for the detailed translation, Neil.

        I was hoping that there would be references to support the comment “this toponym, when it was not transformed into “Egypt,” was intentionally misspelled (mswr instead of mwsr).” However, I think I’ve discovered that he was alluding to a few cases in the MT where the word מָצוֹר/”maṣor” appears, which he argues must originally have been references to the Aramean state of Muṣri, purposely misspelt. They are Isaiah 19:6; Isaiah 37:25 = 2 Kings 19:24; Micah 7:12 (twice).

        P J Calderone discusses these examples in his essay “The Rivers of ‘Maṣor'” * He points out there are numerous different translations in other versions (LXX, Vulgate, Targum, Syriac) – which is presumably what Garbini means by “so… as to be incomprehensible.” However, a quick glance at Isaiah 19 shows that – in that instance at least – Garbini’s suggestion is surely wrong. Isaiah 19 is a prophecy about Egypt and to think that verse 6 originally contained a reference to the Aramean Muṣri would create a bigger problem than it solves. Furthermore, if the “most recent transmitters of the biblical text” were eager to disguise Muṣri by either changing to Miṣraim or misspelling as Maṣor, this chapter surely have been a prime candidate for the former rather than the latter, since the chapter was already all about Miṣraim – and the subterfuge would have probably remained invisible for ever. But this is not what we find, and this makes it very unlikely that intentional obfuscation is behind the MT text.

        P J Calderone addresses argues, cogently, that in the above instance, the MT יְאֹרֵי מָצוֹר originally read יארים צוֹר meaning “rock rivers” or some such (achieved by merely moving the position of the word divider) and referred to the Nile cataracts, which sound’s distinctly more plausible than a reference to an entirely different country. Calderone goes on to argue that all the instances of מָצוֹר in the MT rise from mostly analogous textual corruption / scribal misunderstanding, and that none of them derived from an original Muṣri / מוזרי. His is effectively a “cock-up theory” rather than Garbini’s “conspiracy theory” (ie intentional obfuscation) – which I have to say would make it more appealing to me in any case, even if the detailed analysis didn’t also work in its favour. Garbini’s proposal of intentional text-tampering seems the very least probable of the possible solutions to the textual problems.

        * P. J Caldarone – The Rivers of “Maṣor”

        1. I liked Pfoh’s observation that Garbini’s observations can be just as well explained, if not moreso, by appealing to mythic creation rather than seeking to suppress uncomfortable history as such. That coheres better with other studies such as Gmirkin’s. Garbini sees the development of the biblical narrative in the Persian era, but a very different perspective emerges if we think of a new identity creation in the Hellenistic era.

          1. I haven’t read the entire Garbini book, but I’m not sure how the “damnatio memorial”/”mythic creation” would apply in this particular case of Masor/Misraim, however.

            I see on Wikipedia, but can find nothing else about it, that Garbini proposed “the existence, in Jerusalem between the reign of Hezekiah and that of Josiah, of a long Ammonite reign over Judah that was erased by Hebrew scribes.” I’m not sure that his proposals caught on with other scholars, but I’d love to know more about it. Allowing that my current knowledge of the details of his theory amounts to zero, it does appear to be another scribal jiggery-pokery narrative which, like the Musri “cover-up”, I view with great scepticism.

            And while we’re at it, I’m not particularly keen on Garbini’s hatchet-job on Josephus who, while he surely didn’t do history the way we in the 21st Century do history (ie with hopes of/pretentions to “scientific” method), certainly was a historian in the manner of many/most of his contemporaries – and throughout subsequent centuries, when History was viewed as one of the liberal ARTS, not as science. I’m only getting this from your Vridar page, of course, so may be misunderstanding Garbini’s argument, but his implication/insinuation (or is it only Henige’s?) that Josephus invented sources and/or quotations, is, I think, a groundless calumny.

            Since you mentioned Gmirkin, I may as well add that, as you probably know by now, I think his theories are entirely mistaken for various reasons and on many levels (macro- & micro-reasons, as it were). I’m in process of trying to get my arguments with his theory into shape, to upload…. somewhere. Be that as it may, I think that a broad chronological range for the Primary History (Genesis-Kings), entailing a mostly Persian development (possibly including even older material) through to a final redaction in the Early Hellenistic period, makes for a far better explanation of the multi-layered, stratified biblical text (and other versions)… and also gives room for the adoption of the largely identical Samaritan Pentateuch, which a too-late date, I suspect, makes problematic. It also gives a plausible time-frame for the Pentateuch to become authoritative in Judea as an established text, rather than a brand new one, hot off the scribal desk, during the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE.

            1. Garbini’s reasons for proposing the suppression of a Musri background relate to the ideological need to establish an “out of Egypt under Moses” identity for Judea. I can see arguments for and against. I do not know enough about the question to really say either way.

              As for Josephus as a historian, now there I think Garbini is spot on — and precisely because Josephus is a historian like others of his era. Ancient historians did tend to create myths once they wrote about the distant past and Josephus was no exception. It’s not about a “hatchet job” on an ancient historian but simply a matter of knowing how they all worked.

              As for Gmirkin’s Hellenistic proposal, I find it coheres with the archaeological evidence and other Persian or earlier era theories rely entirely on textual hypotheses without reference to, even in defiance of, the archaeological evidence. I look forward to your arguments “against’ — as I am sure Russell Gmirkin does, too.

              But I do have difficulties with Garbini’s philological approach to historical reconstruction. It begins with the assumption that the text is grounded in historical memories waiting to be deciphered or partly discerned. I think that needs to be argued, not assumed.

              1. For me, the problem with the “ideological needs” theory is that it is often entirely speculative: it requires ascertaining, or imagining, peoples’ motives, and that, in this sort of context as everywhere else, is terribly difficult to do with any degree of certainty (eg the “no-one would have invented being slaves in Egypt, so it must’ve been true” argument, which is – I’m sure we can agree on this at least – worthless.)

                In this case, the Muṣri suppression argument suffers from the problem that (a) none of the appearances of the supposed suppressed Musri are in the context of Israelite origins, so really wouldn’t compromise the “Out of Egypt” scanario; (b) the “Out of Egypt” scenario gets virtually a whole book to itself, so the idea that it needs these text-tweakings to further-emphasise it seems thin; and (c) Genesis in any case makes no attempt to suppress the Aramean origins of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, so the suppression of a few passing references to a Syrian polity would have no meaningful impact – especially in view of (a). So I’m pretty convinced that on this issue, Garbini is mistaken.

                As to Josephus, knowing that ancient historians tended to “create myths” isn’t really the issue. It’s whether they invented quotations. And even if the answer to that is “yes, they did”, it doesn’t absolve scholars of (or is it “from”?) the need to distinguishing the ones they made up from the ones they didn’t. After all, Gmirkin has written an entire book that takes for granted that the quotations from Manetho & Berossus in “Against Apion” are not inventions of Josephus. He has also argued that one passage of the book of Kings was actually based on a passage from Berossus, which he believes Josephus quoted (though I think this involves a major misunderstanding, which isn’t the point here), and he doesn’t entertain the notion that Josephus invented the supposed quotation (even though a more sceptical commentator might evaluate it as too suspiciously close to 2 Kings 22:35-37 to be believable). In other words, the argument that ancient historians made up quotes is too easy to deploy when it suits ones argument, and to forget all about it when it doesn’t. Be that as it may, I don’t think this page (about Garbini & Musri) is the correct place for a detailed response to the issue of Josephus and Tyrian sources, and it should rather appear on the appropriate page, which I hope it will soon.

                Gmirkin’s theory certainly does cohere with archaeological evidence, but his arguments don’t particularly reference archaeology and (ironically, given your comments about Persian theories) are based on a textual hypothesis – ie: that biblical texts are directly borrowed from Platonic/Berossian/Manethoan texts.

                To avoid any misunderstanding, I am pretty agnostic when it comes to absolute dates, and am comfortable with the notion that parts of the Pentateuch may indeed have been written in the Hellenistic period, and that redaction, even substantial redaction, might have taken place at that time – especially when we take the entire Enneateuch into consideration. Adler has determined a “terminus ante quem” that certainly permits such late dates… but it allows for many theories other than Gmirkin’s too, ones that take into account the late “terminus ante quem” date (without treating it as a “terminus post quem” as well) but also give a plausible and adequately detailed account of the stratification of the biblical text.

              2. You are certainly correct to point out that any assertion based on imagining people’s motives etc should not find any place in these discussions, but ideological focus of writings is something that can be discerned from the evidence in the text itself, and that applies as much to ancient as to contemporary literature.

                I really don’t know enough about the details of the relationship between the Samaritans and Judeans over time to take a firm position on the question. I am raising ideas only from the perspective of some of what I have encountered — one can imagine (based on analogy, not mind-reading) ideological conflicts between various resettled populations (at the behest of imperial powers) and local inhabitants, along with long-standing relationships with neighbouring local cultures.

                What is the strong point of Gmirkin’s thesis is is explanatory power given the state of the archaeological evidence. Does not the evidence we have speak against any notion of any kind of “biblical Judaism” in existence prior to the Hellenistic period? Yahwism was widespread and far from unique to Jews and Samaritans, so the worship of Yahweh can hardly be used as evidence of any concepts or practices foreshadowing anything “biblical”.

              3. You ask: “Does not the evidence we have speak against any notion of any kind of “biblical Judaism” in existence prior to the Hellenistic period?”

                I answer: Yes. It absolutely does speak against “practical biblical Judaism” (ie followed by a substantial portion of the Judean population) prior to the Hellenistic period, but it says nothing against “literary pre-Judaism” to coin an inelegant phrase, ie a background of developing ideas, theologies, attitudes, approaches expressed in a scribal milieu.

                I think you’ve recently linked to work by Sara Milstein, which discusses some of the biblical laws in terms of scholastic legal-pedagogical exercises, which seems to me to be spot-on. Such a literary “genre” would not have authority in the wider community – it wasn’t originally written to be the law of the land but material for and within a scribal community or communities (the scriberati, one might say these days). I think the same is true with other mythical narratives: the material was originally literary, not legislative. Only later, when those scholastic exercises were embedded in a more “directed” narrative expressing monolatrous covenant, monotheism, centralized cult (all probably different ideological inputs) and ultimately promulgated as authoritative “laws” as such (and during that time the Platonic influence indeed came into play – I don’t by any means rule out that the process carried on into the Hellenistic period), only then did the laws contained in the Pentateuch begin to have enough impact on behaviour to become apparent to archaeology.

                I’d suggest that this gradual literary accumulation, piecemeal amendment, serial redaction explains the texture of the Pentateuchal/Hexateuchal texts far better than the tight “copied-from-Greek-literature-all-at-once model” that Gmirkin and in similar fashion, Wajdebaum, propose. Absolute chronology is not my main concern, if we are able to integrate that complex literary pre-history of the text before its eventual promulgation as Torah.

                However, I am reluctant to exclude the Persian period, because I think the supposed reflection of Hellenistic Judea in the Pentateuch is actually far thinner than Gmirkin supposes. If this were a wholly Hellenistic “foundation document”, intending to authorize and legitimize Hellenistic authority, why does Deuteronomy (which Gmirkin considers the “Jewish constitution”) contain no rules and details of the workings of the so-called “Senate” (a particularly inappropriate term)? Why does the chief political power in Hellenistic Jerusalem, the High Priest never appear in Deuteronomy at all? In fact, although Aaron is a key player in cultic matters, the term High Priest (כֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל) appears in only one passage of the whole Pentateuch – Numbers 35:25-28 (in what looks like a late passage in the latest book of the Pentateuch). A number of the Pentateuch’s rifts (particularly in Numbers) seems to represent deep ideological tussles over the role of Priests/Levites/Elders. Some of these strata may very well date to the early-mid Hellenistic period, during a struggle for ascendancy that finally resolved itself in favour of the High Priest (with a consultative, judicial Gerousia). The pre-Priestly material however reflects an earlier Yehud, when that was not the case: in the Persian period the political authority was the Persian appointed Governor, not the priest – which might explain Moses’ non- or supra-priestly characterisation in most of the Pentateuchal texts.

              4. I think Gmirkin was citing Josephus stating that Deuteronomy was the “Jewish constitution”. But the Pentateuch predates Josephus, of course — and the argument (not only Gmirkin’s) is that it was the collaborative work of Judeans and Samaritans. Hence the ambiguities.

              5. You’re absolutely right. Josephus did say it was the constitution but my point still stands: this constitution doesn’t adequately describe the constituion of a precisely Hellenistic polity – as far as we can make it out from other sources.

                I agree wholeheartedly that there must’ve been Samaritan-Judean collaboration, and also think that the diachronic approach should try to identify that provenance more clearly. Stafan Schorch’s essay on Deuteronomy goes some way to looking at that issue (though we don’t have to necessarily agree with his chronology).


                But I think the strata and rifts are too complex to be the result of a simple, binary, Samaritan/Judean collaboration. It’s much more complex.

  3. Dear Austendw (my real name is indeed “Carlo” 😉 ),
    I’m sorry and I’d apologize for my “fundamentalistic”, but in my mother language – Italian – “fundamentalistic” is no strongly depreciative a word as it is in English… Perhaps, Your “conservative” should have been used…
    Just “to wit” : the problem where to locate, or how to understand or to correct “Muṣri / Miṣrayim” is an ancient one : You can check the works of Hugo Winckler and – especially – Thomas Kelly Cheyne, who was literally obsessed with his “Jerahmeelite-Muṣri Hypothesis”…

    1. For my part, I would also suggest all of the contributions of Łukasz Niesiołowski-Spanò.

      Concerning Emmanuel Pfoh’s review, its conclusion is very praiseworthy : “… a critical history of Israel in ancient Palestine […] must be written without depending on the biblical chronology or the Bible’s own testimony of Palestine’s peoples.”

      But Biblical Criticism “à-la-Garbini” is always a “must”. For example, the same Pfoh mentions Kenneth Anderson Kitchen’s book “On the Reliability of the Old Testament”. This same Kenneth Anderson Kitchen is a world-famous luminary in egyptology – and yet, about him, Wikipedia says : “Kitchen is a biblical maximalist and has published frequently defending the historicity of the Old Testament. He is an outspoken critic of the documentary hypothesis, publishing various articles and books upholding his viewpoint, arguing that the Bible is historically reliable.[12] Kitchen has also published articles for the “Biblical Archaeology Review” including, ‘Where Did Solomon’s Gold Go?’ (1989),[13] ‘Shishak’s Military Campaign in Israel Confirmed’ (1989),[14] ‘The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?’ (1995)[15] and ‘How we know when Solomon ruled’ (2001).[16]” !
      Note that “Where Did Solomon’s Gold Go?” is the same “historical” problem that haunted the catholic egyptologist Abbé Étienne Drioton in the ’30s …
      As for the need of a critical stand when we are confronted with the Massoretic text of the O.T., I simply have to mention the lectio of the Qumran Isaiah Scroll in Is. 65:3b vs the Massoretic text, and… what was Isaac doing when he first met Rebekah in Genesis 24:63 ? (A hint : Rendsburg, Gary A., ‘lāśûaḥ’ in Genesis 24.63, Vetus Testamentum 45/4 [1995])…

  4. Could Damascus being the seat of Abraham be the source of Saul/Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus. The permit claimed in scripture makes no sense as the Jerusalem officials should not be sending “police” to another country to enact their laws.

    1. Indeed, that is what Garbini “suggests”. Check the last paragraph in the above post:

      The journey of Saul to Damascus (Acts of the Apostles 9:1-25) is quite significant and indirectly confirms the tradition…..

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: