Legends of the Levant

Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, by Donald B. Redford – This was an interesting read. The prose was rather dry and a LOT of information was packed in, but I guess I’m putting my history degree to use. It dealt with Middle Eastern politics, specifically between Egypt and its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula, which is a complicated topic. It starts with the beginnings of civilization, and runs up through the fall of the Kingdom of Judah. Obviously a book involving Israel is going to overlap with the history as related in the Bible, and Redford’s conclusion is that it the Good Book isn’t a particularly reliable source. That’s not to say it isn’t a valuable historical resource, but it includes a lot of legend mixed in with its history. I’ve seen before the hypothesis that the Deuteronimistic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) was mostly written in the seventh century BC during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, although of course it was based on earlier oral and written material. Josiah ruled from around 641 to 609 BC, at a time when the death of Ashurbanipal meant a decline in Assyrian power, so he was able to capture some of the territory in the former Kingdom of Israel. He also was a supporter of the monotheistic Yahweh-only movement, so the priests and the prophets with those beliefs regarded him as an ideal king. The thing is, even people who aren’t total Biblical literalists, who are willing to admit that maybe Adam and Eve weren’t actual historical figures, will still go out of their way to make the evidence fit the Bible, rather than vice versa. Sure, it’s possible to go too far in the other direction and latch onto anything that seems to DISPROVE the Biblical account, but I don’t think this is as common among legitimate scholars. Redford briefly comments on the tendency that was popular in the nineteenth century of trying to explain Biblical stories rationally. For instance, there are theories to explain how the plagues in Exodus might have worked without involving anything supernatural. It’s an interesting idea, but why assume the order of the plagues was accurate but other details weren’t? That’s not to say there isn’t some historical basis for the Exodus story, but it’s unlikely it was remembered exactly after several centuries. Redford suggests that the early Biblical stories were combined from a variety of other legends, including that of Canaanites gaining power in Egypt and then being conquered, accounts of ancient chieftains like Jacob (whose existence apparently is attested to in sources outside the Bible, but that doesn’t mean he was the ancestor of the entire nation of Israel), and a hero legend about a guy down on his luck who managed to become rich and powerful. It’s interesting to me how Genesis makes a point of the Israelites being only distantly related to the Canaanites when they likely were of similar ethnicity. Much of the material in Genesis about the origins of nations and tribes is more political than genetic, however. Also, Redford indicates that Akhenaten’s monotheism wasn’t all that much like what the Hebrews practiced, a hypothesis that was central to another book I read that I found intriguing but a bit of a stretch.

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, by Bart D. Ehrman – Speaking of the Bible and inaccurate memories, that’s the main focus of this book. I generally enjoy Ehrman’s writing, which presents scholarly ideas in a format that laypeople can easily understand. Here, New Testament history is mixed in with theories of memory to explain how so many different views of Jesus arose in a relatively short period of time. Eyewitness accounts are not always reliable, and there’s no evidence that any of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses anyway. The present situation can also affect memories of the past, which could be why some of the stories in the Gospels aren’t particularly accurate to what we know of the time and place in which Jesus is generally thought to have lived, but are quite applicable to Christian communities later in the first century. He does, however, indicate that he thinks the general gist of memory tends to be correct, and the Bible likely does contain authentic memories of Jesus. Whether or not you agree with Ehrman’s conclusions, he definitely gives readers plenty to consider.

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12 Responses to Legends of the Levant

  1. Don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but the best books I’ve read on ancient Israel, Canaan and Egypt were Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos I: From the Exodus to King Akhnaton, a brilliant, controversial and involved theory that has stood the test of time (and the challenges of its critics) and been slightly adjusted and taken up by archaeologist David Rohl in his excellent book A Test of Time (aka. Pharaohs and Kings).

  2. Bryan T Babel says:

    “a hero legend about a guy down on his luck who managed to become rich and powerful”

    This reminds me of a comment made somewhere by G. K. Chesterton–who else?–that skeptics tend to disbelieve certain stories happened because–and here is the paradox–they are always happening. Lovers from two sides of a feud, a guy down on his luck who becomes rich and powerful–motifs in stories true, but really happening to real people again and again. Why not to Jacob? Why, in his case, suggest his instance be a legend, unless one a priori thinks it is?

    • Agreed. In academia, Bible stories are instantly dismissed because they’re from the Bible. I can absolutely understand healthy skepticism for the ones that have supernatural elements, but it’s now become everything. The bias is so thick you can cut it with a knife. This compartmentalization of the sciences and religion has led to a very unhealthy, stagnant, entrenched situation, which is ironically proven both unscientific and irreligious. The good news is that ground is being broken by those few who are choosing to reintegrate the two, by which I mean they’re eschewing the fundamentalism on both sides that has dominated the conversation in the public square and replacing it with an openness to undogmatic science and spirituality. I just finished a great book that talks about this re-integration, which is M. Scott Peck’s Further Along the Road Less Traveled.

      • Nathan says:

        Part of historical research is recognizing the biases in your sources, and the books of the Bible were obviously written with specific biases in mind. That’s not to say other sources weren’t as well (most histories are written with a certain point of view), but some more basic records are less likely to directly promote an agenda. And why would Biblical accounts be more likely to be true than those of other religious or mythological works? Should we regard Gilgamesh and Theseus as historical figures? If you cut out the parts about Gilgamesh losing immortality to a snake and Theseus fighting the Minotaur, you still have the outline of what could have been the reigns of actual kings, one who instituted building projects in Uruk and another who freed Athens from Cretan rule.

      • It’s a good question, and I think the answer has to do with candor. Unlike other Ancient Near Eastern texts, the Bible doesn’t promote the kings and religious leaders. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with condemnation of Israel’s (and later Judah’s) kings, judges and religious leaders, and enumerates their failings at length. Nor does it spare condemnation of the people themselves when they blindly or greedily followed their leaders into gross sin. This argues against the idea of bias and agenda, and is especially unique in a world that was ruled by unassailable, iron-clad emperors and hierarchies, in which official texts only ever lauded the achievements of the State.

        As regards Gilgamesh and Theseus, I’m all for the idea that they may have been historical personages later deified and given mythical status. Assyrian, Egyptian and Babylonian texts often ascribed to their kings mythic properties and deeds.

        Academia and the fields of archeology have become hidebound, stagnant, crippled by orthodoxy (in this case secular orthodoxy), and bereft of the ability to think outside the narrow box they’ve confined themselves in. Science still needs imagination, mystery, wonder and an openness to the possibilities. It has lost that, and everyone has suffered as a result.

      • Nathan says:

        No, the Biblical accounts wouldn’t have been GOVERNMENT propaganda, and might have been unusual for the time in that respect (although I’m not sure it would have been without precedent). On the other hand, they do seem to have been RELIGIOUS propaganda, evaluating the kings solely on how well they uphold monotheism and the temple cult, rather than their effectiveness at administration or their human rights records. You could even say they talked up the kings who were the least religiously tolerant, although that’s kind of looking at it from a modern perspective; state religions were pretty much the norm in those days.

      • Exactly! Government and religion were tied together in all the ancient Near-Eastern lands, as well as those of the Levant, Arabia and Mediterranean Basin. For a work that condemns its government to have survived, let alone thrived with the numerous copies that exist, is nothing short of a miracle. And it wasn’t subtle condemnation either. Look at these stinging criticisms: “See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—
        but now murderers! Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”

        Yet, the Old Testament ALSO strongly condemned its religious leaders and the religion itself when it failed to live up God’s standards:

        Isaiah 1:13-14: “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me.
        New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.”

        Consider how shocking those words were (and they’re echoed again by different writers in Psalm 40:6, Amos 5:21 and Micah 6:6-8). Had ancient Israel’s religious leaders written and controlled the text, like some scholars contend they did, then ALL of that would have been eliminated before anyone had the chance to read it. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

        “The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, They are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; They reel while having visions, They totter when rendering judgment. For all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place.” (Isaiah 28:7)

        “The people of Israel and Judah have provoked me by all the evil they have done–they, their kings and officials, their priests and prophets, the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem.” (Jeremiah 2:26)

        “[Jerusalem’s] prophets are reckless, treacherous men; Her priests have profaned the sanctuary. They have done violence to the law.” (Zephaniah 3:4)

        “There is a conspiracy of her prophets in her midst like a roaring lion tearing the prey. They have devoured lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows in the midst of her. Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things” (Ezekiel 22:26)

        “For the land is full of adulterers; For the land mourns because of the curse. The pastures of the wilderness have dried up. Their course also is evil And their might is not right. For both prophet and priest are polluted; Even in My house I have found their wickedness” (Jeremiah 23:11)

        “Your prophets have seen for you false and foolish visions; And they have not exposed your iniquity so as to restore you from captivity, But they have seen for you false and misleading oracles… The kings of the earth did not believe, nor did any of the peoples of the world, that enemies and foes could enter the gates of Jerusalem. But it happened because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous.” (Lamentations 2:14; 4:13)

        These scriptures and others destroy the supposedly scholarly argument that the Old Testament were codified texts designed by Israel’s religious leaders to bolster their power and authority. In fact, the majority of the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament condemned Israel’s (and later Judah’s) government and religious leaders! That level of candor is unique in the ancient world, and unlike any other ancient myth or religious writing, which underscores why so many are able to place faith in scripture as speaking honestly to the larger truths of human nature and the divine.

      • Nathan says:

        It’s certainly better to have two viewpoints instead of one, but just because there are multiple factions vying for power doesn’t mean one of them has to be right. Obviously the priests and prophets had a lot of influence that even the reigning monarch had to respect to an extent. If, as the Bible indicates, the first two kings were actually appointed by the priest and prophet Samuel, that could help to explain it. Priests and prophets also apparently weren’t always one the same side either, as when Jeremiah basically discredited the temple cult.

      • True, and one of the things I appreciate is that men like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, along with the minor prophets, weren’t men with positions of power or wealth. They spoke truth to power and had to suffer to do so. Also, their messages generally involved elevating the most vulnerable in society, widows, orphans, the poor, those commonly marginalized or victimized in patriarchal cultures by the elites on top. Critics often fail to denote how much the Old Testament is really a book of the people, and how rare that was in the ancient world.

    • Nathan says:

      Yes, there are elements to the story of Jacob and his sons that could have happened, but the whole thing is mixed in with accounts of eponymous ancestors of the tribes of Israel, the kind of thing you see often in mythology but less often in real life. If an entire tribe was descended from one guy, wouldn’t that have meant a lot of inbreeding? The Biblical account has it that the tribes all relocated to Egypt, kept the tribal system during their time there, and then each tribe took its own territory in Canaan. It somehow seems too simple AND too complicated at the same time. Also, the story was several centuries old by the time it was written down, so what are the odds that the details would be remembered exactly?

  3. Bryan T Babel says:

    True, we must try to be aware of the biases of our sources, and even of ourselves. We can’t always be sure of anybody’s biases. Do old resources pretend to be comprehensive histories? Do some records, such as certain Egyptian chronologies, leave out ignominies, or bother to delve into details that seemed too trivial or inglorious to record? And today, in the era of post-it notes and electronic media, we underestimate the capacity for the ancient world’s power of oral memorization and recall:

    “Oral recall was far more important in ancient socities, particularly Judaism, than we have commonly allowed for and the techniques used for memorization by ancient societies as a whole has a remarkable similarity to techniques promulgated by today’s “memory improvement” seminars we now pay exorbitant fees to attend…. The ideal was to recall exactly, “as detailed as possible,” though obviously the ideal would have limits. Among the Jews, rabbis were encouraged to memorize entire books of the OT, indeed the whole OT, and all of Jewish education consisted of rote memory. Students were expected to remember the major events of narratives – although incidentals could be varied, if the main point was not affected.”

    As for the the problems of the numbers of the Twelve Tribes, consider the application of this:

    “If you’re vaguely of European extraction, you are also the fruits of Charlemagne’s prodigious loins. A fecund ruler, he sired at least 18 children by motley wives and concubines, including Charles the Younger, Pippin the Hunchback, Drogo of Metz, Hruodrud, Ruodhaid, and not forgetting Hugh.

    “This is merely a numbers game. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. But this ancestral expansion is not borne back ceaselessly into the past. If it were, your family tree when Charlemagne was Le Grand Fromage would harbour more than a billion ancestors – more people than were alive then. What this means is that pedigrees begin to fold in on themselves a few generations back, and become less arboreal, and more web-like.” –Adam Rutherford

    And while endogamy seems to have been the ideal, exogamy seems to have happened quite often, even to bigwigs like Moses.

    I have no difficulty in thinking Gilgamesh and Theseus might have been real, and accreted over in legend. The oddness of the early Hebrew legends (and I’m not counting the earliest “mythopoeic” parts–I’m no fundamental creationist) is how un-legendary they seem. Almost boring, compared to a monster like Humbaba or a the Minotaur.

    • Nathan says:

      I’d heard the thing about Charlemagne before, and yes, it’s possible everyone in Israel or Judah prior to the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests could have had a common ancestor. The idea that each of his sons was the founder of a tribe, however, isn’t something for which I know of any precedent. There are a lot of myths about an entire tribe or nation being the descendants of one particular figure, and they often make that ancestor a stand-in for the tribe or nation as a whole. There’s a lot of Genesis that can be viewed that way. Hey, the Moabites and Ammonites are hostile to the Hebrews? Let’s say they were all descended from two women having sex with their father. That’s not saying that NONE of it is true, just that there seems to be a lot of later propaganda mixed in. Maybe the actual account of one particular Yahweh-worshipping Canaanite gaining power in Egypt was basically true, but saying he was ALSO the ancestor of the two most prominent tribes in early Israel strikes me as more likely to have been intended to link these tribes to a heroic figure from the past. A lot of people are descended from Charlemagne, and probably many other famous people from the past, but I don’t know of a Tribe of Charlemagne that links this to their national identity. It’s sort of like how the two contradictory genealogies in the Gospels make a point of Jesus being descended from King David, when considering how many kids David had and that 1000 years had passed, just about any Jew could easily have been a descendant of his.

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