The Problem with an Early Date for the Hebrew Bible

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

by Neil Godfrey

Imagine digging down through centuries of layers at an archaeological site and suddenly finding an old smartphone. You would know it must have been planted there by some trickster. You would know that it could not be more than a few years old despite uncovering it in a layer supposedly centuries old.

I believe it can be shown that a similar problem faces us when we try to place the earliest writings of the Bible back into the times of King David and Solomon. Further, if we try to check how old the Biblical works are and use in principle the same type of reasoning as we intuitively use for dating the approximate era of the smartphone, we default to the Hellenistic period. That is an extreme comparison but in principle it is a valid one. I will try to demonstrate its validity by quoting (in translation) the words of the scholar who was the first to assign the earliest works of the Bible to the time of King Solomon.

Gerhard von Rad

I am referring to Gerhard von Rad. (I introduced von Rad in a post outlining the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis.) The chapter of his that I am using is Collected studies on the Old Testament (= Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament), specifically his 1944 chapter, The Beginning of Historiography in Ancient Israel (= Der Anfang der Geschichtsschreibung im alten Israel pp 148-188)

Von Rad begins:

For the modern peoples of the West, historiography is one of the most natural intellectual activities. It seems to us to be absolutely essential for a more intensive understanding of existence. In this respect, the peoples of the Western culture are students and heirs of both Greek and biblical historiography.

Does that opening not set off alarm bells? I am writing in the context of earlier posts addressing works of Niels Peter Lemche, Philippe Wajdenbaum, Russell Gmirkin and others who argue for dating the origins of the Hebrew Bible in the Hellenistic era. Von Rad begins by pointing out that the only comparable historical writing to the Bible is found among the Greeks.

It is easy to see that most ancient peoples did not achieve this form of a more intensive understanding of existence. . . . [T]hey didn’t produce any historiography.

Not the Egyptians?

The ancient Egyptians were characterized by a striking inability to think historically in the sense described above. Eminently conservative, eminently fond of writing, they always focused their reflections on the past in an antiquarian way on details and were unable to grasp larger contexts.

Nor the Mesopotamians?

But the cultures of Mesopotamia, no matter how eventful the history in this area was, did not create a representation of history that went significantly beyond individual documents of the type mentioned above. At best, one can speak of an attempt to grasp the course of historical events in a uniform manner using list science. But their strength failed when faced with the task of presenting and interpreting national history in a unified manner.

But what of the Hellenistic era Greeks?

It was only Berossus who attempted to write their history, long after the great empires had left the stage of history. But this only happened under Greek influence. . . . There are only two peoples who really made history in ancient times: the Greeks and, long before them, the Israelites.

Some of us will be reminded of a work that argued for the Hebrew Bible using the Hellenistic era work of Berossus as one of its sources:

Interestingly, Gerhard von Rad noted that we do not have earlier primitive precursors to the historical writing we read in the Old Testament. The OT comes to us without known Hebrew forebears. It appears in a mature form, as if (my addition here) its forebears lay outside Palestine.

The “emergence” of ancient Israelite historiography cannot be described. It is there at a certain point in time, and it stands there before us in its most perfect form.

How to explain this sudden emergence of the historical writings — Genesis through to 1-2 Kings — of the Hebrew Bible? Von Rad posits three causes:

1. Israelites applied origin stories (etiologies) not only to local phenomena (e.g. various ethnic groups, an altar of stones, a deserted village) but to more universalistic themes: the place of women, why suffering, and so forth. This attention to “the basic facts of human existence” is thought to have given Israelites an edge in seeing the bigger picture of past events.

2. Israelites had an “overarching give of narrative exposition”. They could write simply yet powerfully.

3. Israelites, uniquely, had a monotheistic belief in a certain kind of God, a God who controlled all major human events. It wasn’t left up to demons or lesser sprites to direct human affairs but Yahweh himself.

You will probably be thinking that the above three explanations are really just other ways of describing what is begging for an explanation: why is it that historical writing as we see it in the Bible originated with Israelites, supposedly before the rise of Greek historical writing? The “explanations” also seem to suggest that the “Israelites” had qualities that set them apart from the rest of common humanity in their time.

My personal copy – a favourite

For von Rad, it was particularly the religious beliefs of the Israelites that was the key factor. Their god was imagined to have a position over humanity that no other god in the minds of other peoples had — with the exception of the later Greeks.

The Israelites came to thinking about history and then to writing history from their belief in the power of God to make history. For them, “history is an event of God. God sets the movement in motion with his promise. He sets the target according to his will and he watches over her… All history comes from God and occurs for God” [quoting Regenbogen, Thukydides als politischer Denker]. We can already see here: it is a very unique historical thinking that we are now approaching, because the focus of events is not at all on the earthly stage; neither nations, nor kings, nor glorious heroes are the actual actors; and therefore, in the ultimate sense, they are not the subject of the representation. And yet all the immanent events are followed with breathless interest and the highest inner involvement, precisely because it is the field of activity of divine action. Herodotus also knows “metaphysical powers that have a moving effect on the world of earthly events through a diverse apparatus of signs, prophecies and dreams” [quoting Regenbogen]. . . . 

For Herodotus it was the god Apollo who was overseeing and guiding the course of events in the struggle between the Greeks and Persians. Apollo’s oracle at Delphi functioned in a similar way to Yahweh’s Jerusalem. I once posted a brief outline of what other scholars have observed are overlaps between Herodotus’s Histories and the Bible’s “Primary History”: Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel.

Von Rad is always quick to try to point out where the Greek histories are unlike those in the Bible. I could discuss what he posits as significant differences but I want to focus here on the similarities and may do so in the near future. For example, he observes that the role of the divinity in guiding history is not as explicitly pervasive in Herodotus as it is in the Bible. I think such a difference is one of degree, not of kind.

Von Rad zeroes in on the biblical account of the rise of David to kingship and the rule of King Solomon as if that narrative is a historical record. He cannot conceive of it as fiction. It was written by a man full of godly character who is obviously documenting true events, so von Rad suggests:

We do not know the historian who described these events to us. He must have been a man who had precise knowledge of the circumstances and events at court. His descriptions breathe a closeness to life that makes any doubts about the reliability of his portrayal disappear. This author is characterized by a penetrating knowledge of human nature; His attitude towards David himself is particularly impressive. The figure of the king is everywhere drawn with warm sympathy and great reverence. However, the author has retained his freedom of judgment in the most unbiased manner. He never covered up the king’s guilt and failure. But even when he reports dark and ugly things with his “heroic truthfulness” that is unique in the Orient, he does not give in to the lasciviousness of gossip, but always remains chaste and noble. This leads us to the most important question, namely that of the theological and ideological content of his historiography.

The biblical description of the kingdom of David and Solomon is assumed to be historically valid: recall von Rad informing us of the ability of the biblical historian to write simply yet powerfully!

Von Rad explains that this history of David is told as a “secular” narrative with only three passages alerting us to God’s role behind the scenes. (He seems to be coming close to contradicting his earlier point that it was the theological emphasis that distinguished the Biblical historiography from that of the “more secular” Herodotus.)

[W]e have highlighted [in the account of David] the peculiarly secular way of presenting this historiography, for example in comparison to the naive belief in miracles in the heroic legend. This view of history and God’s actions in history must have been nothing short of revolutionary at the time.

King Solomon’s Court — Edward Poynter, 1890

And so we return to discovering the archaeologist unearthing a smartphone in a layer centuries old.

But to make this view of when the biblical history was written sound more plausible von Rad smooths out some of the edges of the idea of it being totally “revolutionary at the time”:

No matter how much one praises the originality and theological genius of our author, such a show also had to have its intellectual-historical prerequisites for the time, because in every historiography an “overall cultural consciousness” is presupposed.

Creativity does not arise without debt to preconditions of some kind.

So how to explain the appearance of this smartphone? For von Rad, it is not difficult:

It is really not difficult to understand this historiography in the context of the Solomonic era, within which it undoubtedly emerged. It was only in [this] epoch . . . that the new things that had already begun under David had a cultural impact on all sides. . . . Life began on a much broader cultural basis than was possible a generation ago. We hear from Solomon that he established large-scale trade relations with distant lands. Riches came into the land; luxury and well-being moved into the court and major building activity began. This flourishing economic life was naturally followed by an intensive intellectual exchange. At no time in the entire history of this people were the regulations against the importation of spiritual religious goods so liberally applied as in this era. The court was a foster home of international wisdom, like the Egyptian courts of old. The presence of so many foreigners gave rise to obligations which were readily fulfilled; places of worship were built for non-Israelite deities. In a word, the era of Solomon was an era of enlightenment, of the abrupt demolition of the old patriarchal order of life. 

That’s interesting in a way, but it prompts me to ask what foreign influences, what other peoples of the day, contributed to this secular and broad new historiography? Herodotus had not been born yet. What were the specific types of ideas that other peoples of Solomon’s day contributed to Solomon’s court that led to such “intellectual enlightenment”?

The archaic institution of holy war, the simple form of worship at shrines with its cult legends were undermined by a flood of secular thinking. The cult legends broke away from their traditional attachment points and became literature. Don’t we also feel this cool touch of a modern, free and entirely non-cultic spirituality in our historical work at every turn

What was it, one has to ask, about other cultures that enabled the birth of a “modern, free spirituality” in the days of Solomon? I doubt anyone can point to any work of literature, to any religious concept, among Israel’s neighbours that fostered such a modern concept.

I suggest that the simpler and more obvious answer should be found in the influence of Greek culture (both literature and ideas) that swept over the Levant and beyond after the conquests of Alexander the Great.

There is an English language version of Gerhard von Rad’s essay in From Genesis to Chronicles : explorations in Old Testament theology. See pages 125ff


Four Ways Canaan Fell to Biblical Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

Canaanite (Wikimedia Commons)

In the first five books of the Bible there are four different ways God promises to give the land of Canaan to the Israelites. [I continue to write from the perspective argued by many scholars that the Bible’s narratives had multiple authors and that their respective stories did not always agree. In this post I make mention of conventional sources behind the biblical books (J, E, D…) but I do so mainly for convenience. I am aware that some scholarship has questioned the existence of these sources but my point here is that there are evidently different points of view being expressed in the Bible, however we might conceptualize them.]

Inheriting the land through natural population growth

In Genesis God promises Abraham that his descendants through Isaac will inherit the land and be a blessing to all nations roundabout. Genesis 12:2-3

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

In the previous post we saw that ….

The patriarchs served for the writers and editors of Genesis as models of tolerance and coexistence with at least some segments of the native population. (Frankel, p. 325)

For the Genesis authors and editors,

The promise of the land was thought of in terms of hegemony over peoples who would derive blessing from Israel’s dominance, not in terms of eradicating all that is foreign. Only the “enemies” who cursed the descendants of Abraham would be cursed. (ibid.)

When Jacob was passing on future blessings to his sons he condemned the violence of Simeon and Levi in destroying the Canaanite city of Shechem. Genesis 49:5-7

Simeon and Levi are brothers —their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.

While Judah is honoured for taking tribute from his enemies (Gen 49:8-10) and the descendants generally will “possess the gate of their enemies” (Gen 22:17),

There is no basis . . . for understanding these blessings as indicating that all the inhabitants of the land are destined for expulsion or destruction, as implied both in Deuteronomy’s re-use of the patriarchal promise motif and in the pentateuchal conquest laws. Rather, the military aspect is included as an additional element in the achievement of dominion in the land. The blessing of proliferation goes hand in hand with overall dominion and control in the land, not with destruction of all that is “other.” The blessing to mankind of great proliferation is analogously combined with dominion over creation, not with its destruction (Gen 1:28; 9:1–7 116 ). The very fact that the seed of Abraham will possess the gate of their enemies rather than the inhabitants of the land indicates that not all the inhabitants of the land will be “possessed” as enemies. Some inhabitants, rather, will be taken on as allies, or covenant partners in one sense or another . . . . (Frankel, 312)

I’m not saying that the Canaanites and Israelites will be equal partners in this scenario. It is an “idealistic” scenario for the twelve tribes insofar as the Canaanites in the land will honour and submit to them while receiving the blessings God promised through his people. So theoretically everybody knows their place in relation to one another and all are being blessed accordingly.

Clearly, the text speaks of supremacy in the land and not total displacement of all inhabitants. Here too, those who bless Jacob and accept his dominance will be blessed. (Frankel, 313)

Genesis as an outlier

Genesis is not like the other books in the Pentateuch, however. Unlike those other books (Exodus to Deuteronomy) Genesis is about “the establishment of the permanent order of the cosmos and the relationships among [peoples]”. Unlike in other books, God in Genesis appears as a man, face to face, walking with humans, talking with them mostly in the broad daylight, without need of an intermediary prophet. The customs we encounter in the narratives of Genesis are unique: e.g. Genesis is not at all embarrassed in the way it depicts Rachel stealing Laban’s idols or in Joseph and Jacob being embalmed as per the Egyptian Osiris cult.

Nor does Genesis allude in any way to Israel’s unique religious status. Abraham is a God-fearing, just man; but neither in the promises made to him nor in those made to his descendants is the distinction of possessing YHWH’s Torah, or the fact that Ishmael and Esau will be idolaters mentioned. The religious rift that separates Israel from the nations, so prominent in the rest of the books of the Torah, is never hinted at in Genesis. Here, Israel’s distinction is purely one of lineage; it is “lord over its brethren” (27:29). True, there is a covenant between God and Israel’s ancestors; but its promises are purely ethnic: numerous progeny, territorial possessions, and kingship. (Kaufmann, 207)

The story we read in Exodus has only the slimmest connections with the central narratives about the patriarchs in Genesis.

[T]here is no reference at all to the constantly repeated promise of increase addressed to the fathers, of which the author is obviously not aware. The situation is even more striking with the first mention of the land into which it has been proclaimed, the Israelites are to journey after they have been rescued from slavery in Egypt. The text reads: ‘I will lead you into a good, broad land, into a land that flows with milk and honey, the home of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites’ (3.8). The land is introduced here as an unknown land, and more, as a land that is the home of foreign nations; there is not a word which mentions that the patriarchs have already lived a long time in this land and that God has promised it to them and their descendants as a permanent possession. Following the terminology of the promise of the land in Genesis, those addressed here would be the ‘seed’ for whom the promise holds good. But they are not spoken to as such. (Rendtorff, 84f)

One may surely conclude that the authors behind this work were unaware of what others were writing/would write about Moses and Mount Sinai and Joshua’s conquests. (The passage in Genesis 15:13-16 prophesying of the Exodus reads most oddly out of place: it does not relate to the question Abraham has asked and that God is setting up to respond to. Many scholars see this passage as a late addition. Rendtorff’s observation (85): “This text stands in splendid isolation within the patriarchal story“.)

God will drive them out before/as the Israelites arrive

Exodus 34:11

Then the Lord said: . . . I am about to drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

Presumably the God imagines the Israelites crossing into the land before the native inhabitants have all fled so he goes on to warn his people not to make any covenants with them and to destroy all their cult statues. (This passage is said by many scholars to belong to the “J source” of the Pentateuch.)

Another passage, one scholars attribute to the “E source” within the Pentateuch:

Exodus 23:27-30

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.

So here it is God who removes the Canaanites:

The pre-Deuteronomic tradition speaks almost exclusively of the expectation that the displacement of the Canaanites would be accomplished by God. . . . The expulsion, J believed, was to have been carried out by Yhwh. . . . J imagined the promise to have been one of miraculous expulsion of the Canaanites; Israel’s only task was not to get in the way. . . .

. . . Yet in E, as in J, the actual expulsion of the existing population was to be carried out by God. In contrast to J, however, E speaks of a prediction that it would be done in stages. (Schwartz, 157)

God commands the Israelites to slaughter them all

Now we come to a strikingly different source, one that scholars call “D”. Here we find no compassion, no mercy, towards the Canaanites. The descendants of the patriarchs are expected to bloody their own hands

Deuteronomy 7:16

You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you.

Deuteronomy 20:16-17

However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you.

The Land itself will “vomit” them out

Leviticus 18:25-28

Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

Leviticus 20:22-24

Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Here the land God is handing over to the Israelites is “a land flowing with milk and honey”. But if the people sin that land will “vomit them out”.

The land of Canaan, in H’s view [H is another source discerned by scholars, alongside J, E, D above], is a fertile and bountiful land unless it is contaminated by human transgression. When that occurs, its skies withhold their rainfall, desert winds wither its grain, armies of locusts descend upon it, its trees and fields fail to yield their produce, pestilence breaks out, and wild beasts roam the countryside—and its inhabitants, impoverished and plagued by hunger and thirst, must leave in search of greener pastures. (Schwartz, 166)

As Baruch Schwatz views these two passages in Leviticus, the author is imagining that the Canaanites will already have been driven out of the land because of their sins, and that the land will be punished with drought and crop failure by the time the Israelites arrive. The Israelites will therefore enter a land of milk and honey. But they must beware lest they also commit the same sins as the former inhabitants and the abundant land turns once again to desolation and in turn drives them out.


There are many voices in the Bible. The traditional Documentary Hypothesis has worked with the view that these different voices emerged over many generations and at some stage a group of editors sought to combine them in a single narrative or collection of books with an overall narrative. Once that combined work was finished, later editors with new ideas undertook to revise that narrative even more with further additions. Hence we have a work riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, unfinished or obscure details, and so forth.

More recently some scholars have questioned aspects of the above model. Would not later editors with new ideas seek to eliminate accounts that they strongly disagreed with and produce a more coherent work? After all, that’s what the authors of 1-2 Chronicles did when they rewrote the history of the kings of Israel and Judah. Some scholars have suggested that a better explanation is that editors were attempting to combine into a single narrative multiple viewpoints of different interest groups. The technical terms are that a “synchronic” model of composition (stitching together multiple narratives from different ideological quarters, Levitical and Aaronide, Jerusalem and Samaria, etc) as opposed to the conventional “diachronic” (or multi-generational) model.

Baruch Schwartz has tackled this question in detail and in one of his areas of inquiry, the story of Joseph (Genesis 37) as a linking narrative designed to join the book of Genesis with that of Exodus, concludes in relation to that particular story (my bolded highlighting):

Our analysis demonstrates, first and foremost, that the process of composition of Gen 37 was essentially a canonical one, aimed at collecting, collating and preserving literary works already in existence. The outcome of the compilation process was determined — to the letter — by the pre-existing sources themselves. These were received by the compiler in the form of fully shaped, continuous and internally consistent written narratives, and the compiler viewed them as possessing a measure of sanctity that rendered it desirable, indeed obligatory, to refrain as much as possible from altering, detracting from or adding to them.

Genesis 37 in its canonical form shows no signs of being the result of creative narrative art, nor does it appear to be the work of ideologically or theologically motivated redactors who, having selected freely those sources and traditions that were best suited to their purposes, molded them into a new whole precisely as they wished. The compiler of Gen 37 had no say in determining either its content or its form; he was responsible neither for its themes and motifs nor for its religious teachings; he was not even at liberty to decide what to include and what to exclude. All of these aspects of literary license and creativity belong to the earlier stages in the formation of the Torah. . . .

The analysis of Gen 37 reveals further that no single source served as the underlying text to which the compiler added what he deemed appropriate from the other documents. The compiler did not use E as his Vorlage, adding to it whatever portions of J and P he felt that he needed, nor did he use J as his primary text, adding to it whatever he chose from E and P. He did not stratify, superimposing portions of a later document upon an earlier one or portions of an earlier one upon a later one. The unmistakable impression one receives is that the compiler attached equal weight to the two narratives — as well as to the opening segment from P, which he placed precisely where he was obligated to place it — and so he combined them by alternating between them, adhering meticulously to the principles of composition we have identified: maximal preservation of each source, strict chronological progression, avoidance of addition and deletion and continuing the thread of each narrative as long as possible, moving to the other thread at exactly the point when it becomes necessary to do so, not a single word earlier or later.

Finally and most crucially, our analysis reveals that the result arrived at by the compiler, the composite chapter in its canonical form, is, given the method that he evidently employed, the only possible result that could have been obtained. The final form of the chapter is not a function of the compiler’s ideological agenda, theological tendencies, aesthetic tastes, or artistic abilities. His role was confined entirely to the painstaking arrangement of the existing texts in combined form. The case of Gen 37 is in no way atypical; the composite narratives throughout the remainder of the Pentateuch all yield similar results.

Russell Gmirkin’s studies have placed both the disparate sources and the final compiler of those sources into the result we see today in the Hellenistic time-setting (see Plato and the Hebrew Bible and Plato and the Biblical Creation Accounts). Baruch Schwartz, from my understanding of his works, would place those sources much earlier. I may favour the Gmirkin’s Hellenistic provenance, but the account of how we arrive at such a final text (bound by a single narrative yet riddled with inconsistencies) as outlined above by Schwartz makes a lot of sense to me.

Frankel, David. The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel: Theologies of Territory in the Hebrew Bible. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2011.

Kaufmann, Yeḥezkel. The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile. Translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.

Rendtorff, Rolf. The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch.  London; Gordonsville: Sheffield Academic Press, 2009.

Schwartz, Baruch J. “Reexamining the Fate of the ‘Canaanites’ in the Torah Traditions.” In Sefer Moshe: The Moshe Weinfeld Jubilee Volume : Studies in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, Qumran, and Post-Biblical Judaism, edited by Chaim Cohen, Avi Hurvitz, and Shalom M. Paul, 151–70. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2004. https://www.academia.edu/39296080/Reexamining_the_Fate_of_the_Canaanites_in_the_Torah_Traditionshttps://www.academia.edu/39296080/Reexamining_the_Fate_of_the_Canaanites_in_the_Torah_Traditions



How Patriarchs of the Jews Lived in Peace with Canaanites

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by Neil Godfrey

We know all about the commands in Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy ordering Israel to wipe out, annihilate, the Canaanites. The command was to tear down their altars, destroy their cities and avoid forming any alliances with them, certainly not to intermarry with them. The Book of Genesis is evidence that some of the authors of the biblical books had a very different view of how their neighbours should be treated. [I am writing from the perspective argued by many scholars that the Bible’s narratives had multiple authors and that their respective stories did not always agree.] In my previous post we saw that founding heroes were understood as models for how their reputed descendants ought to behave towards others. With that in mind, recall the following details from your Sunday School days….


— made an alliance with Canaanites and joined with them to defeat foreign invaders: Gen 14:13, 24

— restored both the material losses and the political independence of the Canaanite cities: Gen. 14:16-24

— pleaded with God to save the Canaanite city of Sodom from destruction: Gen 18:23-33

— paid tithes to the priest of the god El Elyon in the Canaanite city of Salem: Gen 14:18-20

Abraham purchases field of Ephron the Hittite, Attrib Pierter Coeck van Aelst – Royal Collection Trust

— made a covenant with Philistines, promising peaceful coexistence between the Philistines and Abraham’s descendants: Gen 21:27, 31-34

— married a presumably local (Canaanite) woman and took local concubines: Gen 25:1, 6

— built new altars but never came into conflict with the religious practices of the Canaanites: Gen 12:6-8; 13:18

— publicly purchased land from the Hittites (who respected him as a “mighty prince”) for his and his wife’s burial: Gen 23:5-20; 25:7-10

The fact that the author depicts Abraham as purchasing the burial plot in public view of the Hittites in order to guarantee his claim to it against future Hittite claims (or Israelite claims that the site is foreign?) probably shows that, in contrast to the conquest laws, he considers the continuous presence of the Hittites in the land to be both obvious and normative. (Frankel, p. 286)


— made a covenant with the Philistine Abimelech in the Canaanite city of Gerar: Gen 26:28-31

— repeatedly retreated when local Canaanite shepherds stole his well until there was enough room for everyone: Gen 26:19-22


— reacted with horror and shame at the cruelty and injustice of his sons’ destruction of Shechem whose people had made generous offers to his family: Gen 34

Many scholars have demonstrated that the story of Dinah has several inner tensions. On the one hand, one finds several strong expressions of sympathy for Jacob’s sons and justification for the sack of Shechem. . . . On the other hand, the narrative seems to go out of its way to depict the people of Shechem as being wronged innocents. . . . All of these tensions have led several scholars to hypothesize that an original story depicting the sack of Shechem in negative terms was supplemented at a later date with the intention of justifying the harsh massacre. (Frankel, pp 294f)

One wonders if this narrative was composed as a rebuke to those who wished for the destruction of Canaanite cities.


— took a Canaanite woman and chose Canaanites to be his sons’ wives: Gen 38

Frankel, David. The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel: Theologies of Territory in the Hebrew Bible. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2011.


The Age of Inventions of Mythical Histories — Greek and Biblical

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by Neil Godfrey

Some readers will be aware that I am sympathetic to the view that the books of the Old Testament were products of the Hellenistic era. I believe that sound historical methods involving critical analysis of assertions against evidence make such a late dating highly plausible. But it is also vital to be as fully informed as possible about alternative views that would date the origins of the Hebrew Bible to the Persian era or earlier. This requires looking at linguistic and textual arguments as well as archaeological studies. In coming posts I would like to address some of the readings in these areas that I have been undertaking as I have tried to catch up with old and recent publications. My aim will be to present various arguments in ways that are easily digestible for those of us with little time to study academic tomes and specialist papers.

Meanwhile, it will be of interest to some to know a little more about what the Hellenistic world was like for assessing the plausibility of works like Genesis and Exodus emerging from there.

Can we really imagine whole new histories and family genealogies being invented for particular groups of people?

Prof. Dr. Tanja Susanne Scheer, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Let’s look at how the Greek world documented and even created new histories of origins during the Hellenistic era, that is after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 330s-320s. This is nothing more than an introduction. I quote passages from Tanja S. Scheer’s contribution to A Companion to the Hellenistic World, “The Past in a Hellenistic Present: Myth and Local Tradition”. The first three subheadings are identical to those Scheer used. All bolded highlighting is my own.

Myth as History According to the Greeks

The relationship of Hellenistic Greeks to their past is shaped by much older traditions. In particular two important points characterize the relationship to the past: its genealogical structuring and its re-shaping by epic poetry. . . . Self definition as well as assessment by others are marked by genealogical connections. The past of his own family, of his home city, of his tribe defines the identity and status of the individual in the present . . . . [W]hole cities also prided themselves on their ancestors and founders. (216)

You are probably already reminded of the many genealogies and narratives to justify who’s who and where in the Bible, beginning with Genesis. Genealogies could be used to assert territorial claims but also to explain how related peoples were expected to support one another or know their respective status.

Were these genealogies historically true?

This pronounced Greek interest in ancestry and kinship was, however, not properly historical. The past was only of importance when it was marked by famous personalities or by deeds of mythical heroes. A family tree that ended with an anonymous smallholder was of little use. Even as proof of the great age of a family it could not offer much help: for great age only really began when the genealogy could be traced back to heroic times and thereby into the society of heroes or even gods . . .

Fact checking was not part of the agenda:

People were at a loss when confronted with written or archaeological discoveries from their own past, which chance had brought to light. The Greeks reconstructed the past not so much through concrete evidence from early times but rather with the help of their traditional stories, of myth. . . . Questions about the past led to heroic, not historically correct, answers . . . Already long before Hellenistic times, however, Greek logographers and historians had made the fictional events of epic the focal point of their history and accepted them as containing at least a core of truth. (217)

Ancestries of any worth always went back to the gods:

The habit of evaluating the qualities of individuals and even of cities on the basis of their ancestry understandably encouraged the desire to number the gods themselves — or at least the heroes of epic — among one’s own ancestors. (218)

Past and Present in the Hellenistic Period

There was, in addition, a moral or ethical aspect. The myths surrounding great ancestors were treated as exemplars of how their descendants were expected to behave. If Heracles had conquered Troy or Asian peoples then his descendants were expected to do the same; if Heracles had shown kindness to a city, his descendants were obligated to do likewise.

[T]he history of the family imposed an obligation. Thus the political writer Isokrates could present Herakles as a model for his descendant Philip . . . . The deeds of Herakles in the first conquest of Troy were used to legitimate, and also to oblige, Philip to carry out successful military action in the present — that is the campaign against the Persians . . . . (218)

. . . in the run up to the Persian Wars Persian envoys are supposed to have come to Argos in an attempt to win the Argives over to their side — by appealing to their mutual mythical ancestor Perseus . . . . (219)

(Some scholars have suspected the biblical stories of David’s conquests were created to justify Hasmonean conquests of their neighbours.)

The Greeks Abroad

As the Macedonians and Greeks advanced into new lands of old cultures they did not boast of “being the first” to discover these places; on the contrary,

. . . the stress was placed over and over again on familiar elements in these foreign lands: the geographical opening up of the world took place in the footsteps of great forerunners, of gods and heroes from the mythical past.

Throughout his campaign Alexander recognized Greek gods and heroes in foreign lands; he called on them pointedly and paid honour to them. . . .

In the case of Alexander’s campaigns this emphasis on the mythical past of the Macedonians and Greeks tended to integrate rather than exclude. The aim was by no means a one-sided ennobling of the Macedonians at the expense of the indigenous peoples whom they encountered. Family relationships based on myth did not have the function of an exclusive patent of nobility. Alexander and his generals endeavoured on the contrary to establish a connection between Greeks and Persians. (219)

Some will recall Russell Gmirkin’s discussion of the biblical patriarchs being at ease with local gods in Canaan, some of whom came to be identified with the Israelite deity.

Scheer notes that there was a practical power-play at work by this kind of integration of Greek and local gods:

This integrating use of the mythical past was not simply an unselfish mark of respect or recognition for non-Greek civilizations on the part of the Greeks. At stake surely was the need to prevent the Greek claim to power from appearing to the conquered as foreign rule. (219)

Note, further, that there are two different ways of treating non-Israelite locals (or Canaanites) in the Bible. Many of us know about the commands in Exodus and elsewhere to slaughter them all, or if that cannot be done then to have nothing whatever to do with them. But other narratives demonstrate the virtue of “Israel” being a blessing to foreigners, of peacefully coexisting with their neighbours. (I hope to elaborate on this point in a future post, along with the reasons for thinking that these two viewpoints were even contemporaneous.)

You will recall the stories in Genesis linking patriarchal figures to particular geographical areas where they would erect an altar or bury a family member. We might compare:

At least as important, however, was the opportunity for the Greeks to take mental possession of these new lands. In this aim the structure of the traditional stories of the Greeks was of considerable assistance. A common method of intellectual subjugation of unfamiliar lands consisted in making them accessible through eponymous heroes: every river, every tree, every region, according to the Greek view, was inhabited by local supernatural powers. Once the areas which they reached were mythically personalized, then the local family trees could easily be connected to well-known Greek heroes. . . . The foreign land was not really unknown: their own ancestors had after all once passed through it victoriously. . . . The cultivation of a mythical past was valuable for the Hellenistic present; even in the most far-flung foreign land traces of old familiar patterns could be discovered. Thus, the new world could be integrated into the old as something already familiar. (219f)

Creating Mythical Histories Continue reading “The Age of Inventions of Mythical Histories — Greek and Biblical”