Category Archives: OT Archaeology & Literature

Why the Sun, Moon, Stars Were Created So Late in the Week

One of the oddities for us moderns of the Genesis creation account is that the sun, moon and stars are not created until the fourth day of the week even though light was created on the first day and vegetation on the third.

How can light exist without the sun? That’s our first thought. (If you are like me you long ago trained yourself to read that God did not actually create the sun and moon and stars on the fourth day but only moved the clouds and mist aside so that they appeared to a non-existent observer on earth for the first time. But that’s not what the story says.)

So what was going through the mind of the author of Genesis 1 when he set out the following detailed sequence:

. . . Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. . . .

Then . . . there was light. . . . and God divided the light from the darkness.

Then . . . God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament . . . And God called the firmament Heaven. . . .

Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” . . . . And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. . . .

And the earth brought forth grass, the herb, and the tree  . . .

Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. . . .

  • Darkness, then light,
  • then the vault or sky to separate the waters above from those below,
  • then the separation of the land and seas, with the land being covered with greenery,
  • then the sun, moon and stars to separate the seasons and years, periods of time generally, and mark significant events.

Our first instinct is to compare the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma elish, in which the solar deity, Marduk, cuts in two the sea monster, Tiamat, so he can put one half of her body above to become the heaven and the other half below, the earth. But despite similarities it’s not quite the fit for Genesis. In the Babylonian myth the sun, moon and stars are created before there is any sign of the earth and its vegetation.

But if we move west to the Greeks we do find creation accounts that more closely match Genesis 1.

For example, Hesiod’s Theogony, lines 116-132

At the first Chaos came to be, but next wide bosomed Earth. . . . From Chaos came forth . . . black Night; but of Night were born . . . Day . . . . And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell . . . .

Out of chaos we have night followed by day, and the earth appears to simultaneously give birth to the starry heaven and the wooded hills and valleys separated from the sea.

Relief representing Anaximander (Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano). Probably Roman copy of an earlier Greek original. (Wikimedia)

But then we come to the philosophers attempting to arrive at a more “scientific” or “natural” explanation. Here what we know of the cosmogony of Anaximander of Miletus is of particular interest.

We begin with all the elements — fire (hot), air (cold), earth (dry), water (wet) — in chaotic confusion. An infinite power that encompassed all set in motion the chaos and began the process of separating each of the elements, the hot from the cold, the earth from the water, followed by a more orderly combination and arrangement of these elements.

As the chaos turned the lighter elements increasingly flew to the outer limits while the heavier ones move to the centre. Hence the fiery elements were on the circumference with the earth in the centre.

Picture a sphere or shell of a fiery element surrounding the air around the earth, “like bark on a tree”.

So hot is separated from the cold. And heavier still, towards the centre of this great turning mass of elements coming to find their “natural places” we have the earth and oceans.

The Hot moves out to the circumference and becomes incandescent, forming a spherical sheath of visible fire, enclosing the cold moist core of the nucleus. In place of ‘the Cold’ we now hear of ‘the air (mist) encompassing the earth’. Presumably the core is still humid throughout — a dark cold mist enveloping a somewhat denser watery mass at the centre.

The process then goes on as follows: as the cold core differentiates further, the second pair of primary opposites, Wet and Dry, become distinct. The watery mass of earth is partly dried by the heavenly fire. Dry land becomes distinct from water, and the seas shrink into their beds. At this point the Hot, already differentiated into fire, acts as cause, evaporating some of the moisture and drying the earth. So, finally, the four popular elements have come to fill their appointed regions. The next stage is the formation of the heavenly bodies. (Cornford, pp. 163f)

That “spherical sheath of fire” replaces the firmament in Anaximander’s system. The fiery shell around the air and earth itself began to break up into separated hoops.

When this (sphere of flame) was tom off and enclosed in certain rings, the sun, moon, and stars came into existence.

The heavenly bodies came into being as (each) a ring of fire, separated off from the fire in the world and enclosed by mist (‘air’). There are breathing-holes, like the holes in a flute, at which the heavenly bodies are seen. Hence eclipses occur when these breathing-holes are blocked; and the moon appears now to wax and now to wane according as the passages are open or blocked.

The separation of Dry Land from Ocean is followed by the formation of the sun, moon and stars — just like the Bible says!

What we are seeing in Genesis (as in Greek ideas) is the increasing separation of the elements followed by their more orderly relationship with one another as they find their natural places and settle into the proper mixes or blending of their respective forms.

Subsequent Greek philosophers restored the firmament that Anaximander had displaced. Is one meant to imagine, biblically, the firmament providing holes to let the waters above fall down as rain from time to time and also peak holes to see portions of the fiery hoops in the form of the sun, moon and stars?

Scholars back in the 1950s who published the above view that the author of Genesis 1 was influenced by Greek views of origins justified their proposal by pointing out that the “priestly account” of the Genesis creation was composed after the Babylonian captivity and more likely in the Persian era. This chronology removed any difficulty in Genesis being influenced by Greek ideas.

–o–

I am wondering if I first read of the above explanation in more recently published either by Russell Gmirkin or Philippe Wajdenbaum or another and have momentarily forgotten the references. If so I do apologize for not acknowledging them in this post. As far as I am presently aware I learned of the above explanations by reading an article and related references by C. F. Whitley (see below).

(There are a number of other interesting connections between the Greek ideas and details in Genesis 1 but they will have to wait till I find more time to get on top of some of the slightly difficult readings first.)

 


Burnet, J. (1920). Early Greek philosophy (3rd ed.). London, A. and C. Black. Retrieved from http://archive.org/details/burnetgreek00burnrich

Cornford, F. M. (1952). Principium Sapientiae. The origins of Greek philosophical thought. Cambridge University Press.

Whitley, C. F. (1958). “The Pattern of Creation in Genesis, Chapter 1.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 17(1), 32–40. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/542501


Exodus, part 3. Israel and Yahweh in Canaan

This series of posts has been following the most recent publication on the archaeology and history of the Old Testament — The Old Testament in Archaeology and History (OTAH) — and has now reached the point of the earliest historical evidence for the presence of Israel and her God Yahweh in Canaan.

The previous two posts:

Earliest Historical Evidence for Israel in Canaan

In 1896 W. M. Flinders Petrie, excavating a temple in Luxor, Egypt, discovered an inscription on stone that said “Israel is wasted, its seed is not.” The inscription or stele belonged to Pharaoh Merneptah and was dated 1207 BCE. That’s roughly 207 years before the time of David and Solomon. There is no biblical account of Egyptian forces destroying Israel according to the claims of the Merneptah stele. For context, here is the relevant section of that inscription. It is describing an Egyptian military campaign into Canaan.

The (foreign) chieftains lie prostrate, saying “Peace.” Not one lifts his head among the Nine Bows.
Libya is captured, while Hatti is pacified.
Canaan is plundered, Ashkelon is carried off, and Gezer is captured. Yenoam is made into non-existence; Israel is wasted, its seed is not; and Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.
All lands united themselves in peace. Those who went about are subdued by the king of Upper and Lower Egypt… Merneptah. (COS 2:41) (OTAH, p. 256)

At this point the chapter in OTAH is disappointingly lacking in citations for readers to follow up. It makes the following points:

  • Some scholars (who? a few citations, please!) argue that Merneptah brought Israelites into Egypt as captives.

(It’s that word “argue” that confuses me. What are the arguments? That’s why I’d like to see some of the secondary source material identified so I could follow up the “arguments”. Or are they really only speculating that the Pharaoh at this time brought the Israelites as captives back to Egypt with him? Perhaps I will find the arguments in sources cited in other contexts in the chapter as opportunity might arise for me to dig deeper.)

  • Presumably on their trek to Egypt these Israelites encountered the nomadic Shasu from Edom, the earliest known followers of the god “Yahweh”.
  • About 1190 BCE (around at most 20 years later than the Egyptian campaign into Canaan) “the Semite Bey instigated a revolt and chaos reigned throughout Egypt. The revolt failed but provided the opportunity for groups of Semites including Israelites to escape and return to Canaan. . . ” (OTAH, p. 257)
  • Egyptian power in the Canaan succumbed to challenges by the Philistines and others. “The Israelite believed that God had brought their people out from Egypt, as indicated in Exodus 18:1. (Though not in total agreement, see Knauf and Guillaume 2015, 36.)” (OTAH, p. 257)

That is far from being anything like a “historical reconstruction” of the biblical story in my view. But let’s continue with the chapter.

Around this time the reader is informed that “there was a dramatic population increase in the central highlands of Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age”. That’s around 1250 to 1050 BCE according to the timeline on page xvii of OTAH.

It is possible—some scholars would say highly likely—that these new settlers were the people Israel, or at least a “proto-Israel” (see the next chapter). Despite this, the common material culture of these sites—plastered cisterns, terracing, olive orchards, collar-rim jars, cooking pots, four-room houses, storage facilities like silos, and unfortified settlements—has few links to Egypt. The most common house form in these sites is known as the “four-room house,” and it is distinctive to them. (OTAH, p. 257)

A paragraph discusses the maverick claims of one scholar, Manfred Bietak, who “argues, however, that there is evidence for the four-room house in Egypt” after all. (Bietak’s chapter is found in Israel’s exodus in transdisciplinary perspective : text, archaeology, culture, and geoscience, a work that is not readily available to me.)

Where does Yahweh come from?

We return to those nomadic people known as Shasu. Egyptian records place them in the region of Edom (including Seir, the mountainous region of Edom) and the Negev. Those same Egyptian records also portray them as undesirables, “robbers and brigands”. Sometimes the Egyptians allowed the Shasu into their delta regions to water their cattle; other times we read of conflicts with the Shasu throughout Canaan, and even at one point of being spies for the Hittite enemy of Egypt.

But the most important point about the Shasu lies in their worship. A papyrus list from the time of Ramesses II mentions “the land of the Shasu of Yhw” — a clear reference to “the name of the Israelite god ‘Yahweh’ ” (Redford 1992, 273). This is our earliest evidence of the worship of Yahweh, and it is important to note that it is established outside of Canaan. (OTAH, p. 258, my bolding)

read more »

Exodus, part 2. Habiru, Rameses II and the problem of Pithom

These posts for most part are following the argument of Wright, Elliott and Flesher in “Israel In and Out of Egypt”, a chapter in The Old Testament in Archaeology and History (2017), edited by Jennie Ebelilng, J. Edward Wright, Mark Elliott and Paul V.M. Flesher.

For Part 1 — see Exodus, part 1. Semites in Egypt

In Part 2 we look at the state of Egypt between the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE.

Canaanites enter Egypt

In the previous post we saw that it was Egyptian weakness that allowed Asiatics to enter Egypt, often as unwelcome guests. In the Late Bronze Age, however, it was Egyptian strength that brought Canaanites into their homes.

Egypt was at the height of its power in the fifteenth century, especially under pharaohs Thutmose III and Amenhotep II of the eighteenth dynasty.

Thutmose regularly raided Canaan eventually to establish Egypt’s undisputed hegemony there. The crucial battle was at Megiddo in 1482 BCE.

One of the Canaanite place-names Thutmose had inscribed was Jacob-El. So the biblical narrative is not totally alien to this era.

Canaanites during this era of Egyptian domination became commonplace in Egypt. Canaanites brought tribute to Egypt; many were taken as hostages, especially as children, to be reared in Egyptian values before returning as loyal subjects to their original home cities.

Amenhotep boasted of transporting 89,000 people from Canaan to Egypt.

Perhaps there is an archaeological correlation; the population in the hill country in Canaan was drastically reduced during this period. Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE) records that his temple was filled with “male and female slaves, children of the chiefs of foreign lands of the captivity of His Majesty.” (Wright, p. 251)

Pharaoh Akhenaten

Many of us know the story of Amenhotep IV (1353-1336 BCE). He changed his name to Akhenaten in honour of his new god, Aten, the sun-disc. Many consider him the first monotheist. He was certainly a monolatrist, exalting his one god above all others as the only one truly worthy of worship and sole creator of the universe. He removed himself from the old capital dominated as it was by priests and temples for the old order and its chief god, Amen, and established a new city as the capital with new forms of art and architecture, and a new religion. Inscriptions and images of the old god, Amen, were erased from public monuments, temples and tombs throughout Egypt.

With his death his religious reforms also died and soon his own monuments to Aten suffered the same fate as he had inflicted on Amen. The old religion and its priesthood was restored.

Did Akhenaten’s religion influence the Israelites?

Even though Akhenaten’s monotheistic changes took place less than a century before an Israelite exodus could have happened, there is no indication that their religion was influenced by his activities. (Wright, p. 252)

Canaanites call on Egypt for help

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Exodus, part 1. Semites in Egypt

When did the Exodus happen? 

1 Kings 6:1

And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel . . . 

Solomon’s rule is said to have begun around 970 BCE.  If we follow the 480 years reference in 1 Kings 6:1 then the Exodus took place around 1450 BCE.

When did the Israelites enter Egypt? 

Genesis 15:13

Then He said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.

Exodus 12:40

Now the sojourn of the children of Israel who lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

Adding 400/430 years to 1450 brings us to 1880 to 1850 BCE.

The Hyksos Connection

Linking the Hyksos to the Israelites in Egypt

Hyksos is an Egyptian word meaning “foreign rulers”. The “Hyksos” entered Egypt along with Semitic groups from Canaan and even managed to rule northern Egypt from around 1670 to 1550 BCE. Their capital was Avaris in the Nile Delta.

One of the Hyksos kings was Y’qb-HR, or Jacob Har. Sounds familiar.

Josephus tells us that the third century BCE Egyptian “historian” Manetho referred to these foreign rulers in Egypt as shepherds. Josephus further identifies these Hyksos as the Israelites and cites the rule of Joseph over Egypt as support for this, and equates the eventual expulsion of the Hyksos with the Exodus of the Israelites.

How some scholars interpreted the above data

Some biblical scholars followed Josephus’ conjectures and argued that if this hypothesis is correct, it provides evidence of the “biblical version of the Hebrews sojourn in Egypt” (Orlinsky 1972, 52). In this view, when the native Egyptians overthrew the hated Hyksos and chased them out of Egypt, the Israelites lost their protectors and became enslaved, along with the remaining Semites in Egypt. Earlier biblical scholars had understood this situation as parallel to the biblical record: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. . . . Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor” (Exod 1:8,11). (Wright, J. Edward, Mark Elliott and Paul V.M. Flesher, “Israel In and Out of Egypt,” in The Old Testament in Archaeology and History, edited by Jennie Ebeling, J. Edward Wright, Mark Elliott and Paul V.M. Flesher, p. 248. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017)

Those scholars placed the Exodus, then, in the fifteenth century BCE (the 1400s BCE) just as the good book in 1 Kings 6:1 said.

The evidence for a Hyksos link to Israel’s Exodus

None. Neither archaeological nor biblical.

The evidence against a Hyksos link

Thutmose III

Exodus 1:11

Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses.

The building projects refer to the time of Pharaoh Rameses II who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BCE.

We don’t need to assume the reliability of that biblical claim but what we do have to accept is that its authors placed the Exodus event centuries after the time of the Hyksos. The same Rameses date is also centuries later than the date indicated by I Kings 6:1.

In the fifteenth century BCE Egypt was ruled by Pharaohs who are renowned for their extraordinary power: Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE) and Amenhotep II (1427-1400 BCE) of the great Eighteenth Dynasty. These rulers repeatedly invaded Canaan.

There is no evidence that either lost control of Canaan to a massive Israelite invasion. Indeed, the book of Joshuas stories of the conquest of Canaan never even presents the Egyptians as opponents in battle. (Wright, Israel, 249)

-o0o-

Semites in Egypt

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Postscript on Rome’s and Israel’s foundation stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing the Rome’s and Israel’s Foundation Stories, Aeneas and Abraham

Weinfeld compared the Abrahamic promises that prompted his emigration from Mesopotamia to Canaan with the similar destiny prophesied for the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas at the outset of his travels: much as the descendants of Aeneas would someday found Rome (Homer, Iliad 20.307; Virgil, Aeneid 3.97-98), so Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation and rule many peoples (Gen. 12.3; 17.5; 27.29).

— Russell Gmirkin, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, p. 238

I took the bait and the following post is an outcome: Weinfeld’s points of comparison between the biblical narrative and the Aeneid. Weinfeld’s proposed explanations for the similarities follow.

But first, a note for those who would dismiss the relevance of any such comparison on the basis that Virgil’s famous epic clearly postdates the biblical narrative and is far from likely influenced by anything in the Pentateuch:

It should be clear, first of all, that the Aeneas legend and the stories associated with it are quite ancient and may be traced back — as the various paintings on archaeological artifacts show — to the seventh century B.C.E. That these stories actually belong to the genre of “foundation stories” about foundations of cities by single heroes has been noted by F. B. Schmid, who surveyed the foundation legend of the Greeks, and observed that the Aeneid epic was patterned after them.[39(Weinfeld 1993, pp. 16f)

 

A Man Leaving a Great Civilization and Charged with a Universal Mission

Aeneas leaves the famous city of Troy

Abraham leaves the great civilization of Mesopotamia, Ur of the Chaldaeans

with his wife, father and son — Creusa, Anchises and Ascanius with his wife and father — Sarah and Terah
in order to establish a new nation in order to establish a new nation
Virgil calls Aeneas “Pater” (2:2) Abraham was known as the father of the nation
Aeneas delays in Carthage Abraham delays in Aram
which later becomes Rome’s great enemy which later becomes Israel’s enemy
“An important theme in the Aeneid is the tension between Rome and Carthage. There is a danger that Aeneas will marry Dido, the queen of Carthage, and thus that the message of Latium could fail; the gods of Aeneas, therefore, work to bring the hero back on track toward Rome.

“Mercury, the messenger of the gods, is sent by Jupiter to warn Aeneas not to forget the promise that his mother, Venus, had held out for him, and to urge him to sail at once to his destined land (4:219–37).

“After Aeneas’s delay, Mercury is sent to him again, this time in a dream, and warns him once more to leave Carthage (4:554–70).”

“A similar situation may be discerned in the Jacob stories. There is the danger that Jacob will stay in Aram Naharaim, where he journeyed to flee from his brother Esau and to marry Laban’s daughters. Had he stayed, he would have abandoned his mission to the promised land.

“Therefore, Jacob is called to return to his native land, and the call is made, as in the Aeneid, twice: the first time through direct revelation (v. 4)

“and the second time through revelation by dream (v. 11).”

“Although in the final stage of Genesis (ch. 31) Jacob is said to leave Aram because of his quarrel with Laban, an older stratum (Elohistic?) in the chapter (vv. 10, 12a, 13) creates the impression that the affluence of Jacob (vv. 10, 12a; cf. 30:43) might have caused him to stay in Aram, necessitating the divine call to return to Canaan.”
Finally, his son Ascanius reaches Lavinium, and later his son gets to Alba-Longa. His descendants reach Rome, which is destined to rule the world. He reaches Canaan, the Land of promise, out of which his descendants will rule other peoples.
Weinfeld points out that the traditions of Aeneas were applied during the time of Augustus to the Roman Empire so that Aeneas became not only the father of Rome itself but also a prefiguration of the ruler of the entire world. The prophecy of Poseidon in the Iliad 20:307 that Aeneas will rule over the Trojans, (cf. Homeric Hymns, AD Venerem 3:196–97), is indeed recorded (reinterpreted) in an oracle in Aen. 3:97–98 saying that the house of Aeneas shall rule “over all lands”: hic domus Aeneae cunctis dominabitur oris. Weinfeld believed the story of Abraham originated during the time of King David and served to justify Israel’s aspirations to “rule … an empire, stretching from the Euphrates to the River of Egypt (Gen. 15:18).”

(I would add that Paul interpreted the promises given to Abraham as indicating that the entire world would belong to his heirs.)

“In both cases we have examples of an ethnic tradition later developed into an imperial ideology;

“in both, we are presented with a divine promise given to the father of a nation who later becomes a messenger for a world mission.”

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How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?

I have been posting insights from Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible (archived here) in which he argues that both many core and peripheral features of the text of the Hebrew Bible bear closer similarities to Classical Greek writings and practices than to what we find in ancient Mesopotamian and Levantine culture. Gmirkin’s hypothesis is that the authors of the biblical texts shared the wider intellectual ethos of the Hellenistic era with its interest in exploring ideal constitutional and legal systems. The Great Library at Alexandria, Egypt, was a repository of these ideas and resources that Judean scribes were known to access as freely as any other scholar of the day.

Another scholar who has argued for a Hellenistic provenance of the Biblical literature is Niels Peter Lemche, although his proposals have pointed Mesopotamia and Syria as possible centres where Judean scribes were exposed to Greek ideas and writings rather than Egypt. No doubt Judeans were exposed to Greek culture throughout the Middle East but Russell Gmirkin focuses on the Alexandrian library because we know that specific Greek texts (e.g. Plato’s Laws, Aristotle’s Politics) that contain some striking echoes in the Biblical literature were housed there and we further know that Judean scribes worked there.

In this post I thought it worthwhile addressing some of the context to Gmirkin’s book by reference to a chapter by Lemche from 2001, “How Does One Date an Expression of Mental History? The Old Testament and Hellenism” in Did Moses Speak Attic? Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Period edited by Lester L. Grabbe, pp. 200-224.

Lemche begins by reminding readers of the traditional circularity of the way scholars have dated the texts:

I have set out in table format the fundamental circularity underlying the scholarly arguments for not only the dating but also for the historicity of the Biblical narratives as argued by P.R. Davies (1992) at vridar.info.

A text that seemed to include historical information might well belong to the age when this historical referent seemed likely to have existed. At least this was the general attitude. The historical referent was the decisive factor. If the information included in the historical referent was considered likely or even precise, the text that provided this information was considered more or less contemporary with the event—that is, the historical referent—although the only source of this event was often the text in question that referred to it.

In those days, everybody knew and talked about the ‘hermeneutic circle’. It was generally accepted that the study of ancient Israel was from a logical point of view based on a circellus logicus vitiosum, a false logical circle, but nobody within biblical studies believed that it was possible to avoid this logical trap. (p. 200)

But there are ways to recognize general cultural matrices of certain texts. Intellectual topics come and go like fashions, to somewhat oversimplify the point. I was reminded of this point when recently listening again to the Foucault-Chomsky debate: scientific progress, they agreed, is not linear but lurches in fits and starts as new ideas arise and old problems that once preoccupied the community are simply forgotten.

Every period in the history of humankind will give birth to a number of questions— within philosophy, religion or simple politics—that are specifically related to this period, hot subjects for a while and then forgotten. (Lemche, 2001, p. 207)

Lemche illustrates with micro-references to the scholarly dialogues of recent generations: read more »

Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws

After the introduction (covered in my previous post) Russell Gmirkin divides chapter three of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, “Biblical, Ancient Near Eastern and Greek Laws” into thematic sections:

  • laws relating to homicide,
  • laws relating to assault,
  • to theft,
  • to marriage and inheritance,
  • to sexual offences,
  • to slavery,
  • to social legislation (concerning resident foreigners, widows, orphans, the poor, disabled persons, etc.),
  • to livestock,
  • to property crimes and agricultural law,
  • to commerce,
  • to military law,
  • to treason,
  • to “religious” or laws concerning the sacred,
  • and finally general ethical laws.

Each section documents details the three sources of laws — biblical, ANE and Greek — and concludes with a comparative discussion.

Near Eastern law codes included Hittite laws, the law codes of Eshnunna (LE), Hammurabi (LH), Ur-Nammu, Neo-Babylonian and Middle Assyrian laws and palace decrees and the Telepinu Edict. Points of Greek law are drawn from the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Lysias, Demosthenes, Xenophon, among others including Aeschylus and Andocides.

The chapter extends to 109 pages and includes 369 endnotes and a bibliography of over 140 titles.

This post looks at one of the above sections and Russell Gmirkin’s observations on the extent of the biblical laws’ similarity or otherwise to counterparts in the Near Eastern and Greek worlds.

All three geographical regions unsurprisingly stress the importance of lex talionis, of vengeance and deterrence as intended purposes of their legislation with respect to murder or even accidental killing.

But there are a number of significant points Greek and biblical law share that are nowhere found among our surviving evidence for laws in Mesopotamian and Asia Minor civilizations. These Greek-biblical similarities include

  • the recognition of different psychological states in determining appropriate punishments
  • the idea of blood pollution in the land
  • the responsibility of the relatives of the victim to initiate prosecution of the murderer
  • the possibility of at least temporary sanctuary in a temple
  • and the option of exile
  • stoning by the community
  • the killing of an animal responsible for killing a person
  • killing a burglar entering a house at night was justifiable homicide (ANE law required the execution of such a burglar but it is not stated that a house-owner himself could justifiably kill the burglar in the act)

“State of mind”

On the first point, the recognition of “state of mind” factors in determining penalties, Gmirkin writes:

Plato’s Laws contained an innovation on the Athenian laws for intentional homicide by distinguishing premeditated and unpremeditated homicide. Plato held that those murders committed with cold premeditation received a greater punishment in the form of a longer term of exile than those commit ted on impulse with no forethought, despite an equal degree of malice (Plato, Laws 9.866d-869e; cf. Chase 1933: 168-9,171-2; Loomis 1972: 93—4; MacDowell 1978: 115; Gagarin 1981: 35).

Here is part of Plato’s explanation:

For murder is committed in passion by those who, on a sudden and without intent to kill, destroy a man by blows or some such means in an immediate attack, when the deed is at once followed by repentance; and it is also a case of murder done in passion whenever men who are insulted by shameful words or actions seek for vengeance, and end by killing a man with deliberate intent to kill, and feel no repentance for the deed. We must lay it down, as it seems, that these murders are of two kinds, both as a rule done in passion, and most properly described as lying midway between the voluntary and the involuntary. None the less, each of these kinds tends to resemble one or other of these contraries; for the man who retains his passion and takes vengeance, not suddenly on the spur of the moment, but after lapse of time, and with deliberate intent, resembles the voluntary murderer; whereas the man who does not nurse his rage, but gives way to it at once on the spur of the moment and without deliberate intent, has a likeness to the involuntary murderer; yet neither is he wholly involuntary, but bears a resemblance thereto. Thus murders done in passion are difficult to define,—whether one should treat them in law as voluntary or involuntary. The best and truest way is to class them both as resemblances, and to distinguish them by the mark of deliberate intent or lack of intent, and to impose more severe penalties on those who slay with intent and in anger, and milder penalties on those who do so without intent and on a sudden. For that which resembles a greater evil must be more heavily punished, that which resembles a lesser evil more lightly. So our laws also must do likewise. . . . .

Examples follow:

If a man with his own hand slay a free man, and the deed be done in rage without deliberate intent, he shall suffer such other penalties as it is proper for the man to suffer who has slain without passion, and he shall be compelled to go into exile for two years, thereby chastising his own passion.

Compare Exodus 21:13

12 “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. 13 However, if he did not lie in wait [i.e. there was no premeditation], but God delivered him into his hand [i.e. indicating this was an instance of intentional homicide], then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee.

The explanatory phrases I have added are from Gmirkin’s endnotes.

Exile

We also have in this example a reference to exile as a form of penalty, something unknown in our records of ANE laws. read more »

Well I never knew that was in the Bible

Circle of Juan de la Corte (1580 – 1663)
Title: The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army

Despite having been familiar with the Bible for many years I have had to confess that much of my understanding has been at a layman’s level and only sporadically informed by more thorough scholarly insights. One assumption that most lay readers are likely to bring to the Bible is that it speaks with a uniform voice about a future time when a Messiah figure descended from King David will once again restore Israel to a power exceeding the comparable status she held in the days of King Solomon.

So I was taken aback when I read that one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah had no such vision about a future Davidic messiah, but on the contrary accepted that David’s dynasty had finished, been terminated. But don’t we read in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 that God promised an everlasting dynasty for David? Did our Isaiah writer not know of this prophecy? How could that passage be included in the canon if it contradicted other “sacred scriptures”?

Part of the answer emerged when I recollected my earlier post, How Bible Contradictions Began. Notice what our author does to God’s eternal promises.

That second Isaiah was keen to reinterpret what he could of Isaiah’s oracles can be seen in his handling of the Davidic convenantal tradition. Though political realities would not allow him to simply repeat Isaiah’s promises to the Davidic monarchy, he skillfully actualizes this tradition by “democratizing” it, and applying the Davidic promises to the entire nation (55:1—5). (David Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon, 1986. p. 34)

Again 5 pages later,

We already saw how the Davidic promises were applied by second Isaiah to all Israel (55:1— 5).

If you’re confused by the above reference to “second Isaiah” then understand that scholars have long believed that the 66 chapters of our book of Isaiah are a composite of different writings: “first Isaiah” wrote chapters 1-39 during the time of the Assyrian empire; “second Isaiah” wrote the rest at the time of the Babylonian empire. Some even add a “third Isaiah” responsible for chapters 55-66.

The New Living Translation of the key passage: Isaiah 55:1-5 read more »

How God “Spoke” to the Prophets

I post here an interesting snippet from my recent reading where I learn at least one way God spoke and revealed messages to the prophets of old, or at least those who wrote in the names of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. When they wrote they could declare that their revelation was the word of God as God himself spoke to them, or even as God himself speaking. Yet scratch the surface and we find that what the author has done has in fact studied Scripture, thought about it, and reapplied it to his own or a future day, and then presented it as a new direct revelation from God.

In fact, not all of the prophetic revelation was derived from an oracular source. Not only did the prophets interpret their own encounter with the divine, they also demonstrate a mark of “inspired” reflection on the traditions they had received. C. Buchanan has demonstrated that even some oracles described as “visions” or the “coming of the word” are in fact the result of an “inspired” midrashic examination of earlier traditions. (Meade, David G. 1986. Pseudonymity and Canon: An Investigation into the Relationship of Authorship and Authority in Jewish and Earliest Christian Tradition. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.)

Sadly I don’t have access to Buchanan’s article but fortunately David Meade tells us what passages Buchanan cites as evidence:

He cites 2 Isaiah’s midrash on Exodus 15:1-16 (cf. Isa 42:10-13; 43:14-17; 51:9-10) and Jeremiah’s midrash on Deut 28:26 (cf. Jer 7:32-33), Deut 28:64 (cf. Jer 9: 16), Deut 27:26; 4:20; 7:12 (cf. Jer 11.3-5), Deut 30:15 (cf. Jer 21:8), and Deut 4:9 (cf. Jer 29:13-14).

I set out those passages below to make it easier to see how this process of revelation works:

read more »

On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beit_alfa02.jpg

My reflections on reading the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac as a children’s story brought to mind a more mature understanding of the Bible’s narratives discussed by in The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel by Thomas L. Thompson. (The same book is published under the title The Bible in history : How Writers Create a Past, so don’t be fooled and buy both books like I did!)

Most Christians and Jews do read the story of the “Binding of Isaac” or Akedah as it’s more technically called correctly, though perhaps not always realising it. What I mean is that most readers do not really take it literally with all its psychological horror. Most readers, correctly at the story level and as the narrator evidently intended, admire Abraham for his faithfulness and obedience. The problem, the horror, descends only when we treat it as literal history and a genuine account of a real God, and give our minds over to that same God.

Here are some of Thomas L. Thompson’s more realistic explanation of the story. By realistic I mean reading it the way the narrator presented it and no more.

The first reference comes as a comparison with the story of Saul who fails God’s test by sparing the lives of the cattle after killing the enemy soldiers. read more »

How Bible Contradictions Began

Even ancient scribes had problems with some of the laws that were decreed from the mouth of the Almighty himself. Take the commandment against idolatry thundered from Mount Sinai:

You are not to make yourself a carved-image
or any figure
that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; 
you are not to bow down to them,
you are not to serve them,
for I, YHWH your God,
am a zealous God,
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, to the third and fourth generation
of those that hate me….

(Exodus 20:4-5, Everett Fox trans)

Poor unlucky great-great-great grandchildren.

Fortunately for those innocents scribes or priests knew how to subvert God’s command.

But since they are playing with God’s own words they need to be clever enough to avoid detection.

The first rule they followed was to remain anonymous. Mustn’t make it easy for God to identify the culprit.

Just as there is not a single law in the Bible that Israelite authors do not attribute to God or his prophetic intermediary, Moses, so is the converse also true. In the entire Hebrew Bible, not a single text, legal or otherwise, is definitively attributed to the actual scribe responsible for its composition. Except for the prophets, biblical authors never speak explicitly in their own voice. Instead, they employ pseudonyms or write anonymously. Proverbs, for example, is attributed to Solomon by means of its editorial superscription (Prov. 1:1), while Ecclesiastes is similarly ascribed to “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Qoh. 1:1). Neither of these attributions withstands critical examination.28 Such attributions seem rather to function to lend greater authority or prestige to a literary composition by associating it with a venerable figure from the past . . . (Levinson, Bernard M. (2003). “You Must Not Add Anything to What I Command You: Paradoxes of Canon and Authorship in Ancient Israel”, Numen, 50.1, p. 15)

It was a different matter if laws were merely “man-made”. What one mortal decreed another mortal could strike out and replace. So it was, for example, with ancient Hittite laws as we see from the following case:

If anyone blinds a free person or knocks his teeth out, formerly they would pay 40 sheqels of silver, but now one pays 20 sheqels of silver. . . (Hittite Laws #7, cited in Levinson, 2003)

Inflation or the greater need to allow for knocking out the eyes and teeth of undesirables required a change in the law and it was effected as simply as the above example shows.

But one can’t be so blunt if the laws have been divinely revealed from heaven.

Before showing how the literate class managed to nullify God’s eternal words let’s see where the idea of punishing future generations originated. It did not begin with God, but God picked it up from his reading of Near Eastern treaties. read more »

Some preliminaries before resuming Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

I originally wrote the following as an introduction to my next post on Russell E. Gmirkin’s new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. On reflection, it was too long to be part of a post addressing the book so here it is a separate introductory post instead.

Our historically conditioned deafness to oblique [and not so oblique] allusions in the Bible can sometimes lead us to doubt their very existence. — The New Moses (1993) p. 18

That was written by Dale C. Allison when he was arguing that the evangelist who composed what we know as the Gospel of Matthew was inspired by the story of Moses when he composed his particular Jesus figure. If it is difficult for many readers to accept that the figure of Moses was woven into the lineaments of Matthew’s Jesus, how much more difficult might it be to accept that much of the Pentateuch and other works in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament were modeled on the literary, philosophical, political and cultural worlds of the Greeks?

If that sounds like too much to take in at first consider the following:

The Religious Tolerance website lists the following evidence for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch:

There are about two dozen verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and one dozen in the Christian Scriptures which state or strongly imply that Moses was the author. Consider the following passages from the New Living Translation (NLT):

  • Passages in the Pentateuch itself:
    • Exodus 17:14Then the Lord instructed Moses, ‘Write this down as a permanent record…‘”
    • Exodus 24:4Then Moses carefully wrote down all the Lord’s instructions.”
    • Exodus 34:27And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down all these instructions, for they represents the terms of my covenant with you and with Israel.‘”
    • Leviticus 1:1The Lord called to Moses from the Tabernacle and said to him, ‘Give the following instructions to the Israelites…‘”
    • Leviticus 6:8Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions…‘”
    • Deuteronomy 31:9So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests.”
    • Deuteronomy 31:24-26When Moses had finished writing down this entire body of law in a book…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures:
    • Joshua 1:7-8…Obey all the laws Moses gave you.
    • Joshua 8:31-34He followed the instructions that Moses the Lord’s servant had written in the Book of the Law…
    • Joshua 22:5…obey all the commands and the laws that Moses gave to you.
    • 2 Chronicles 34:14…Hilkiah the high priest…found the book of the Law of the Lord as it had been given through Moses.
  • Passages in the Gospels which show that Jesus and John the Baptizer believed Moses to be the author:
    • Matthew 19:7-8…why did Moses say a man could merely write an official letter of divorce and send her away?”, they asked. Jesus replied, Moses permitted divorce…‘”
    • Matthew 22:24Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children…‘”
    • Mark 7:10For instance, Moses gave you this law from God…
    • Mark 12:24…haven’t you ever read about this in the writings of Moses, in the story of the burning bush…
    • Luke 24:44…I told you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true.
    • John 1:17For the law was given through Moses…
    • John 5:46But if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. And since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?
    • John 7:23…do it, so as not to break the law of Moses…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures:
    • Acts 26:22…I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen…
    • Romans 10:5For Moses wrote…

The earliest books of the Bible themselves tell us that they were written by Moses. See the side box for details. But we are not children so we do not blindly believe everything we read, although even children sometimes want to know how we know certain claims are true. The Book of Enoch testifies that it was written by the “seventh from Adam”/the great-grandfather of Noah and it was quoted faithfully in the New Testament (Jude 1:14 and elsewhere) as the true words of Enoch by the same kinds of people who believed Moses wrote the Pentateuch. The self-witness alone of any document or literature requires some form of independent testimony before we know how to interpret its historical value:

. . . . only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

Those words are from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher. If you want something more recent, try Philip R. Davies in his ground-breaking 1992 work, In Search of Ancient Israel. I have outlined his essence of his argument at The Bible – History or Story? Or if you don’t want to skip to another page then read on. Davies, himself a biblical historical critic, goes for the jugular of traditional biblical historical criticism when he writes of the circularity of its methods:

This circular process [that is, assuming a self witness of a document is true and then arguing the document is true on the basis of its self-witness] places the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks. This is precisely how the period to which the biblical literature refers becomes also the time of composition, the ‘biblical period’, and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fining the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished! If either the historicity of the biblical construct or the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken. But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline—and render it invalid.

The panoply of historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this basic circularity. (Davies, 1992, p. 37)

Anyone can write a story pretending its narrator really lived in a time long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons . . . Testing the claims of our sources is not hyper-scepticism: it is the most fundamental rule of historical inquiry.

In other words, anyone can write a story pretending its author really lived in a time long, long ago. This can be done for any number of reasons ranging from entertainment to philosophical or religious instruction. Every witness in a court of law is required to establish its credibility, first at the outset by pointing to verifiable independent external witness and/or then under cross-examination. That’s not “hyper-scepticism”. Testing our source documents is common sense and the most fundamental rule both of any form of detective work and historical inquiry. It is also fundamental to basic literary analysis and criticism.

Or even more recently, move forward to 2001 and Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter, “The Bible – A Hellenistic Book”, in Did Moses Speak Attic: Jewish Historiography and Scripture in the Hellenistic Era:

It seems obvious to most scholars that our estimate of the age of a certain book of the Old Testament must be founded on information contained in the book itself and not on other information, and the estimate should certainly not be based on the existence of a historical background that may never have existed. Although seemingly self-evident, this method is not without fault, and it may easily become an invitation to ‘tail-chasing’, to quote Philip R. Davies. By this we intend to say that the scholar may soon become entangled in a web of logically circular argumentation which is conveniently called the ‘hermeneutical circle’ . . . .  Another point is that it is also supposed that the reading of a certain piece of literature will automatically persuade it to disclose its secrets — as if no other qualifications are needed.

The first point to discuss will be the circular argumentation that is based on a too close ‘reading’ of the biblical text. Here the first example will be the books of Samuel [containing the stories of Kings Saul and David]. Some assume that these books must be old simply because they say that they are old. The exegete who claims that the books of Samuel must perforce be old will . . . have to accept the claim of the books themselves by either rather naively assuming that Samuel could be the author (as the later Jewish tradition did proclaim) or by more sophisticated argumentation, for example, of the kind formerly often used to prove narratives like the ‘Succession Story’ to be old because only an eye-witness would have been acquainted with the particulars of the family of David.

How to escape this circularity?

In order to escape from the trap created by this circular method of argumentation and the rather naive understanding of the biblical text that lies at the bottom of such claims, it will be necessary to go further and find arguments not necessarily part of the biblical text itself but coming from other sources. Such information alone will be able to disclose to the reader that the books of Samuel were composed, not at the moment when Israel got its first king, but at a much later date. (pp. 292-94, my emphasis)

Scientific procedure or its reverse?

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament [Gospels] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294, my emphasis)

The Book of Daniel likewise claims to set in the time of the Babylonian empire but few critical scholars, I believe, would accept this narrative claim at face value. No doubt that’s mostly because this book gives the game away too easily by making prophecies that can be followed in our history books right up to the third century BCE. (There are historical anomalies that also betray the fiction, but alone I suspect that those anomalies would be “less persuasive” for many.)

So after the above preliminaries hopefully those for whom the idea that even the Pentateuch and other books in the Old Testament could possibly be late Hellenistic works appears to be outlandishly novel are a little more amenable at least to its possibility. I have presented aspects of the opening chapters of Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in previous posts; one more will follow soon.

 

 

Archaeology as Manufacturer and Destroyer of Historical and Contemporary Identities

I’ve been struggling with a virus since returning from my recent o/seas trip and unable to focus on blogging after work hours these past two weeks but a Jerry Coyne blog post has roused me from my lethargy:

The anti-Semitism of UNESCO

The visceral illogic of his post leaves me somewhat dismayed. Does he really believe — is he even aware that he is saying — that present-day cultural monuments of devotion for one religious and historical identity should be replaced by monuments to ancient myths that have not existed in the land for millennia in the interests of an opposing religious and historical identity? Is he really oblivious to the politics of archaeology, to the way archaeology has long been used as an ideological and nationalistic propaganda tool?

Did he even read in full the Unesco draft decision [link is to pdf] that he curiously declares to be “anti-semitic”? (I’m reminded of yesterday’s debate. If something goes against X, X always says it is because it was “rigged”.)

I will probably delete any comment that expresses an view that clearly demonstrates a failure to have actually read the UNESCO document which I copy in full below. I’m interested in informed discussion. read more »