November 19, 2008

Israelite Origins

PBS had a great episode of Nova last night, The Bible’s Buried Secrets (BBS). Not surprisingly, it dealt with the origins of the Israelites, scripture and especially how the idea of monotheism was able to spring up in the most unlikeliest of places. It is two hours long but you can watch individual chapters. The reenactments are interesting but the CGI in recreating villages for example is outstanding. Anyways, given that it was a two hour show, there is no way I can fit in all the arguments they made, but hopefully, just touch upon the new theory as to the origins of the ancient Israelites and they god. I would like to start by first quoting William Dever in this interview (as well as the show).

We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That's a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.

I wonder if James Kugel would consider him an apologist. From reading his site, I get the impression that he says one needs to understand the bible as they, the ancients thought that every incident in scripture ACTUALLY happened as written and any interpretation or meaning came later. Seems to me, Dever is saying from the very get go, the stories themselves were interpretations of events. But I could be wrong. Anyways, I feel that is an important quote given that sometimes people judge the ancients based on how WE would write a text.

Where I want to begin is where the episode discusses the conquest of Canaan. Tradition of course says, that Joshua led the people and conquered city after city in a relatively short amount of time until the country was taken. BBS takes us to one of these cities, Hazor. Like Jericho and AI—two other cities that tradition says Joshua conquers—Hazor has significant evidence of destruction. An idol was even found that had been decapitated. The archeologist on site believes that the only real candidate for this destruction is the Israelites. They are the only ones with a tradition of it happening an no mention of Hazor is mentioned in any of the Egyptian records. It would seem to be good news in favor of our tradition. The problem is, archeologists say that its not so cut and dry. The biggest problem is one of dating. Archeologist date the destruction of Ai to 2,500 BC, the destruction of Jericho to 1,500 BC and Hazor to 1,250 BC. This is over 1000 years and nowhere near what the book of Joshua allows for. The other problem is that most of these sites do not show any signs of a war. Interestingly, the archeologists discuss and important find. They found that Hazor was a city state built on two “levels.” The lower level was mainly inhabited by the serfs and slaves while the top level was inhabited by the elitists. What they found was that the lower level had been abandoned and the top portion of the city started seeing crumbling in its infrastructure. According to the archeologists, this was a time of great upheaval in the entire region, not just in Canaan. They conclude therefore, that Hazor was not destroyed from the outside, but from the inside. A rebellion of sorts as the entire region was crumbling. These freed peasants eventually scattered and created their own identity…the Israelites. More evidence is given from the pottery that has been found within Israelite dwellings. These pottery bare an amazing resemblance to those of the Canaanites

So now we have where the Israelites come from, but where does this odd idea of one god come from? For this, we have to go back to Egypt. Egyptian records tell us that King Seti I (1,300 BC, father of Ramses. Also, this date is close to the rebellion in Hazor) enslaved a group of people called the Shasu. These people come from an interesting place. It is called YHW, and it is located around the area the Torah calls Midian. Could these Shasu people have worshiped a god called YHW or YHWH?

Archeologists in the show are hypothesizing a new theory built on all this information put together. They believe there in fact WAS a group of freed Canaanite slaves leaving Egypt, but on their way back to Canaan, they entered the land of the Shasu and were inspired by the the God YHWH. This God, they believed was the one that had freed them from Egypt.

As they re-entered the land of Canaan, they were greeted by the newly freed slaves (now the Israelites) that had settled the land after the Canaanite states crumbled. The returning Canaanites from Egypt taught this new God that they learned about from the Shasu to the people. Slowly, as these brand new Israelites spread in the land, so did this brand new idea of one God. It inspired them and gave them meaning. As centuries passed and the populations grew the stories became exaggerated to give more meaning. It wasn’t just a small band of freed Canaanites that were freed from Egypt, but that EVERYONE was from God in Egypt. And so, the idea of one God for everyone, was formed. But clearly, old habits are hard to break and that would account for the large amounts of idols found in Israelite cities.

The show earlier discussed a rock that was found in Israel. This rock had the entire Hebrew alphabet on it and was also dated to about 1000 bc. Archeologists now believe that writing was possible long before they had previously thought. In fact, at this time they believe, the writing down of the “Israelite Story” may have begun. Different stories, myths and songs until it took its final form centuries later, the Torah.

I highly recommend watching all the chapters that the site offers. At the very least, it is interesting to get many powerhouse names in archeology in one show giving you the main essence of evidence and theories rather than having to go out read dozens of books. Though I like reading too :) I didn't finish wathcing the whole thing. There is still more discussing the united kingdom, but I just wanted to touch up on this one issue. Let me know what you think. Strengths? Weaknesses? Did I miss anything?