Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thompson on the Nuzi Texts and Genesis 15

In my write-up today of Thomas Thompson's Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, I will talk some about Thompson's treatment of the Nuzi texts. The Nuzi texts are from Mesopotamia, and they contain information about "administrative, social, economic, and legal structures and practices at Nuzi and neighboring cities and towns", thereby illustrating "vividly the history and daily life of a mid-2d-millennium B.C. community in the ANE." (Here, I'm quoting Martha Morrison's article on "Nuzi" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.) There are scholars who have argued that there are parallels between the Nuzi texts and the patriarchal narratives. In their view, this grounds the patriarchal narratives in the second millennium B.C.E., the purported setting of the narratives, thereby giving them historical authenticity.

But the Nuzi texts date to the fifteenth-fourteenth centuries. How does that mesh with the scholarly claim that Abraham dates to the early second millennium B.C.E.---coinciding with the migration of West Semites from Mesopotamia to Palestine that allegedly occurred at that time? How could the Nuzi texts have an influence on Abraham in the 1900's B.C.E., when they did not exist yet? According to Thompson, there are at least two answers to this puzzle that have been proposed. C. Gordon's solution is to date the patriarchs to the fifteenth-fourteenth centuries B.C.E. E.A. Speiser, however, holds to an early second millennium date for the patriarchs, on account of the alleged "Amorite" migration, yet he believes that the Nuzi texts are still relevant to the patriarchal narratives. Speiser's solution (according to Thompson on pages 200-201) is as follows:

"Speiser...not only dates the Nuzi tablets relatively early (c. 1500 B.C.), but sees the contracts of Nuzi as representative of general Hurrian practice. His dating of this general Hurrian influence in North Mesopotamia is placed vaguely from the early part of the Second Millennium."

Speiser's point (if I'm understanding it correctly) is that Hurrian practice was around early in the second millennium B.C.E., the time of Abraham. Later, around 1500 B.C.E., that Hurrian practice was written down in the Nuzi texts. But the Hurrian practice existed before then, and could thus impact the patriarchs.

In Genesis 15:2, Abram expresses concern that his steward Eleazar Damesheq will be his heir, since Abram does not have a son. The following statement by Martha Morrison is an example of how many scholars have tied Genesis 15:2 to the Nuzi texts:

"In the story of Abraham in Genesis, Abraham adopted Eliezer of Damascus as his heir because he had no children (Gen 15:2-3). At Nuzi, slaves were adopted by childless couples."

Thompson, however, disagrees with this view. On pages 225-226, he summarizes his findings on the preceding pages. According to Thompson, Genesis 15 contradicts the Nuzi texts. First of all, Eliezer is a servant, and the Nuzi texts do not "deal with the adoption of servants", but rather with free people who can "enter into a mutually binding contract". Second, Genesis 15:4 indicates that Abraham having a son would invalidate Eliezer as an heir, but that is not how the Nuzi texts prescribed things. Rather, the Nuzi texts "guarantee the right to an inheritance portion by the adopted", even if the father has children.

So how does Thompson account for Genesis 15's reference to Eliezer? I'll refer to two ideas that he mentions.

First, on page 204, Thompson states:

"...Abraham complains to Yahweh that, since he is childless, the usurper of his property will be Eliezer; a servant born in his house is to be his successor, namely Damascus. The significance of Yahweh's answer is that not Damascus, but Abraham's own children will be the heirs of Abraham. This anti-Damascus tendency could reflect the historical antagonism between Israel and the Arameans of Damascus...This interpretation does not need an understanding of legal inheritance or adoption for its sense, and thus can be understood independent of the Nuzi customs."

Is Thompson referring to the conflicts between Israel and Damascus that existed in Israel's pre-exilic period? If so, then was Thompson not as much of a minimalist when he wrote this book, in contrast to how he is in Mythic Past, in which he sets so much of the Hebrew Bible in the Hellenistic Period, thinking that it reflects that particular historical context? I do not know. I talked recently about how Thompson---in both Historicity and Mythic Past---makes the point that the chronologies in Genesis point to the Hasmonean Period, so he may hold even in Historicity that a lot of the Hebrew Bible reflects a Hellenistic context. And yet, in Mythic Past, Thompson did acknowledge that there are pre-exilic traditions in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps (in his opinion) the conflict between Syria and Israel in the Books of Kings is one of those old traditions.

Thompson's point is intriguing: that the point of Genesis 15:2-4 is that the seed of Abraham, not Damascus, will possess the Promised Land. And, in the Books of Kings, there are times when Syria makes incursions into the Promised Land, so Genesis 15:2-4 could very well reflect that sort of situation. Either it addressed Israelites in the midst of their conflict with the Syrians, or it was from the Hellenistic Period, and reflected back on how God safeguarded Israel's possession of the Promised Land notwithstanding Syrian aggression.

Second, on pages 202-203, Thompson states:

"Because Genesis is composed of stories, these stories can be expected at times to follow not the actual customs of people but the exigencies of the narrative form which has its own traditions and context. So, for example, we cannot assume on the basis of Gen 38 alone, that the ancestors of the tribe of Judah, or anyone at all, actually used burning as a punishment for adultery. So too, the assumption that patriarchal authority is actually exemplified by Lot's willingness to sacrifice his daughters to save his guests is not adequately justified. The story is perhaps more influenced by the literary necessities of the ancestral hero offering hospitality to strangers, which hospitality is to result in his being saved. The literary form of the story is not bound to the limitations of actual legal practices, and in several cases in our Genesis stories where the motivation of the patriarchs' actions has been explained in reference to Nuzi customs, traditional literary practices appear to offer a more adequate explanation."

At least so far in my reading, Thompson has not related this insight to Genesis 15, but I can see how one could account for Genesis 15:2-4 from a literary standpoint. Abraham in the story has no children, and he needs to leave his things to someone, and so why not Eliezer of Damascus?

UPDATE: On page 295, Thompson says that the Nuzi texts can still help readers to understand the Hebrew Bible, for they "may serve well as a good basis for the understanding of Near Eastern contracts in general." But, for Thompson, they're not useful for dating the patriarchal narratives only to the second millennium B.C.E.

Concluding Women's History Month

Today is the last day of Women's History Month, and I found two good passages by Shmuel Safrai in The Literature of the Sages, Part I.

Here is the first one, which is on page 54:

"[A] detail of great interest is the presence of women at the ceremony of reading the Tora [in Nehemiah 8:3]. In preparation for the revelation of the Tora in Exod 19, the nation and the Elders are mentioned, not women. The men, however, are explicitly commanded to refrain from marital intercourse for three days in order to attend the revelation event. Thus the presence of women in Nehemiah 8 is a novel feature; it became a common phenomenon in the later synagogues, which were led predominantly by the Sages, and in public ceremonies most particularly in the circles of the Sages."

There are feminists who view the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic Judaism as far from egalitarian in terms of their treatment of women, but there was progress, in some areas.

Second, on page 168, Safrai states:

"The Halakha is a vital part of Oral Tora which, as demonstrated above, was created and even edited in the teaching situation by generations of Sages. The teaching situation, moreover, was open to questions from 'outsiders' such as the illiterate, women, and even non-Jews, and sometimes these questions brought new ideas and thus were incorporated in Oral Tora."

I like the idea of being open to learning from all people.

On that note, I have enjoyed blogging through Black History Month and Women's History Month this year! I'd like to blog through National Autistic Awareness Month (in April), as I did last year, but this will have to wait for April 2012. Right now, I have a lot of reading to do in preparation for two of my comprehensive exams. I'll probably write additional posts about my readings in my studying---both past and present. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thompson on the Execration Texts

I'm continuing my way through Thomas Thompson's Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives.

On page 113, Thompson states: "When all the above material is taken into consideration, the earliest conceivable date for any of the Execration Texts seems to be about 1850 B.C. and the latest date about 1760 B.C., though both these dates are extreme. The more probably dates would seem to be c. 1810-1770 B.C., that is, from the latter part of the reign of Amenemes III to the beginning of the Thirteenth Dynasty. On the basis of the chronology alone it becomes extremely difficult to identify the Early West Semites of the Execration Texts with either the '3mw of the First Intermediate Period of Egypt or the proposed immigrating nomads of the Middle Bronze I Period of Palestine. Such an identification would demand that we bridge a chronological gap of about two centuries...

"An examination of the content of the Execration Texts offers little confirmation to those attempts to find a process of sedentarization in Palestine at this time which developed into the Middle Bronze II culture, on the basis of a comparison of the levels of culture presupposed by the earlier and later sets of texts. Whether the Execration Texts reflect the rising power of the Palestinian city-states, or the Egyptian interest to protect their trade routes in the North, is by no means clear. That, however, there is no fundamental political or sociological distinction between the two sets of texts that can be ascertained, and that in both texts we are dealing with a settled culture centered around major population centers is without doubt."

These quotes clarified to me why Thompson was spending a lot of time arguing for a specific date for the Egyptian Execration Texts, which refer to West Semites in Palestine. I wondered what exactly Thompson's argument had to do with his overall thesis: that there is no evidence that the patriarchal narratives are historically-accurate. But the above quotes explain the argument's relevance. On page 98, Thompson says that scholars have tried to bring together Genesis 11 with the Execration Texts and the "transitional archaeological period EB IV/MB I, supported by the Egyptian records of the First Intermediate Period, the Story of Sinuhe, and the Egyptian tomb painting found at Beni Hasan." Their conclusion was that Early West Semites migrated from Mesopotamia to Palestine, as the patriarchal narratives present Abraham doing. But Thompson's argument is that the Execration Texts have nothing to do with a migration of Early West Semites, for its chronology does not coincide with the other sources, plus the Execration Texts concern a culture that's settled, not on the move.

I want to check out some of the dates that Thompson mentions. James Hoffmeier lists one of them in his Ancient Israel in Sinai. Hoffmeier dates the First Intermediate Period of Egypt to 2190-2106 B.C.E. Thompson in Mythic Past links the First Intermediate Period with the Early Bronze IV Period, which began in 2300 B.C.E. William Dever in the Anchor Bible Dictionary dates Middle Bronze Age I to 2000-1800 B.C.E. So Thompson's point appears to be that the Execration Texts (1810-1770 B.C.E.) date later than the First Intermediate Period, and so one cannot link First Intermediate Period evidence with the Execration Texts to support a migration of Early West Semites from Mesopotamia to Palestine, nor can one link the Execration Texts with the time of transition from Early Bronze Age IV to Middle Bronze Age I.

What baffles me is that scholars appear to be dating Abraham to the end of the third millennium B.C.E. rather than the second millennium. The First Intermediate Period of Egypt was in 2190-2106 B.C.E., whereas Archbishop Ussher dates the call of Abraham to 1921 B.C.E. But I may be wrong on scholarly views, for Thompson states on page 98 that scholars use "historical analogy", which appears to be their way of saying that a few centuries make no difference. But Thompson thinks that the two centuries separating the Execration Texts from the First Intermediate Period are significant. After all, would one suggest that the American Revolution and the Civil War were "roughly contemporary", even though these events were separated by less than a century?

The Feminist Shammaites?

I've been reading Shmuel Safrai's article on "Halakha" in Literature of the Sages: Part One. I'll be blogging about parts of this book for the last two days of Women's History Month. My discussion today draws from pages 193-194.

In the first century C.E., there were two houses of teaching in Pharisaic Judaism: the House of Hillel, and the House of Shammai. Overall, the House of Hillel was more lenient and less literal in its interpretation of Scripture than the House of Shammai, and some have compared Hillel with Jesus, while claiming that the mean Pharisees whom Jesus criticized were the legalistic Shammaites.

But, according to Safrai, the Mishnah presents the House of Shammai as more of a champion of women's rights than the House of Hillel was. In Mishnah Yevamot 15, for example, there is a discussion between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. The issue is this: Suppose a woman testifies that her husband died. Is she to be believed? If so, then she can "collect her ketuba (stating the amount of money to which she is entitled upon dissolution of the marriage) like a normal widow" (Safrai's words), and she can remarry. If not, then she must be an aguna, "a wife without her husband who may not remarry." Those are the stakes.

According to the House of Shammai, the woman is to be believed, even if she is the only witness. According to the House of Hillel, however, she is to be believed "only if 'she came from the harvest in the same country', since with so many other witnesses around she would be afraid to lie" (Safrai here quotes the House of Shammai). The House of Shammai gives the woman the benefit of a doubt. When the House of Hillel then agrees with the House of Shammai, the House of Shammai says that the woman may collect her ketuba in such a situation, whereas the House of Hillel says that she may not. But, again, the House of Hillel comes to agree with the House of Shammai.

In another discussion, the question is whether or not a minor girl can refuse to be "given in marriage by her mother and brothers" (Safrai's words). The House of Hillel allows her to refuse "up to four or five times" (Safrai), whereas the House of Shammai states that she can refuse once and wait "until she is come of age" (Shammai's words) or marries someone. Essentially, the House of Shammai does not want a minor girl to be pushed into a marriage against her wishes. In Mishnah Gittin 9, the House of Shammai prohibits divorce except "in a case of adultery" (Safrai), whereas the House of Hillel is more liberal about divorce. According to Safrai, the House of Shammai's position "is, taking into account the social circumstances of that age, in effect a reinforcement of the wife's position."

In Mishnah Ketuvot 8:1, the House of Shammai grants women more rights than does the House of Hillel in the area of "property that came into [a woman's] possession after her betrothal" (Safrai). And, in Mishnah Ketuvot 1:6-9, in "four disputes about the credibility of a woman's testimony regarding sexual intercourse and loss of virginity" (Safrai), Rabbi Yoshua, a disciple of the House of Hillel, proclaims that "We do not rely on her word."

The House of Shammai was more of a champion of the rights of women than the House of Hillel, according to the Mishnah. Who would've thought?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thompson on Patriarchal Names and Alleged Migrations

I started Thomas Thompson's The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives. In this 1974 work, Thompson argues against the scholarly view that the patriarchal narratives are historically-accurate, or at least have an "essential historicity," which means that there is a historical event behind them, notwithstanding the traditions' "inaccuracies, discrepancies...anachronisms" and inconsistencies with each other (page 53). In my reading today, Thompson tackles two scholarly arguments for the patriarchal narratives' historicity: that the names of certain patriarchs appear in the second millennium B.C.E., the alleged time of the patriarchs, and that Amorites (or people-groups like the Amorites) migrated from Mesopotamia to Palestine during that time, as Abraham does in the patriarchal narrative.

1. Regarding the "names" argument, Thompson argues that the names "Abram" and "Jacob" appear after the second millennium B.C.E., not just during the second millennium. This means that the patriarchal narratives could reflect a first millennium context. That is not to say that the patriarchs lived in the first millennium B.C.E., but rather that the narratives could have been composed at that time, meaning that the narratives reflect the time of the authors, not the patriarchs. Maximalists have tried to demonstrate that the patriarchal narratives authentically reflect the second millennium B.C.E., since, in the biblical stories, that is the time that the patriarchs lived. By showing that the patriarchal narratives can easily reflect later times, Thompson is undercutting their historicity, or at least showing that there are legitimate alternatives to treating them as historical. Similarly, Thompson cites a scholar who says that Haran is attested in the second millennium B.C.E., which is the time that the Bible assigns to the patriarchs. But, as Thompson points out, "there was hardly a period in which Harran did not exist" (page 18).

Moreover, in a poignant footnote on page 36, Thompson essentially says that the existence of the patriarchs' names does not prove the existence of the patriarchs: "To show that the name David is a personal name in nineteenth century England does not really support the historicity of David Copperfield; it only shows us, whatever it is worth, that Dicken's hero bore a name which Dickens and his readers considered to be a real name."

On a related note, in reading this book, I'm confronted with the same question that was in my mind as I read Thompson's Mythic Past: Does Thompson believe that the authors of the patriarchal narratives thought that they were writing history---events that happened in the past? The answer that I got from today's reading of The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives is in the negative: the patriarchal narratives don't claim to be history (pages 4, 8-9). And, as in Mythic Past, Thompson may maintain even in this book that the biblical narratives reflect a Hellenistic context, for he makes the same point that he makes in Mythic Past about biblical chronology: that it points to the four-thousandth year after creation, which is the year 164 B.C.E., the time that the temple was rededicated (page 15).

2. Regarding the "migrations" argument, Thompson's conclusion on page 96 is as follows:

"The written materials do not witness to a major West Semitic migration into Palestine in the early Second Millennium, and argue against any such migration from North Mesopotamia. The Early West Semitic names from Mari are close to but not identical to the early Second Millennium names from Palestine. This in itself precludes Northwest-Mesopotamia as the direct source of the Palestinian peoples."

So Thompson does not believe that the evidence points to any second millennium West Semitic migration from Mesopotamia to Palestine. Actually, Thompson thinks that any migration that did occur is not the sort that we find in the Bible. On page 87, Thompson states:

"[I]f movements and migrations can be seen, it is from the peripheral regions into the settled areas. No movement whatever is discernible which resembles a movement from Ur towards the northwest to [Ch]arran. If a trend is to be noticed, it is in the opposite direction! Ur, rather than being the source of these migrations, is among the prizes sought. For [Ch]arran, there is indeed evidence of a migration, but it comes from the South, from the banks of the Euphrates and ultimately from the South Arabian desert, and moves northwards to [Ch]arran. In no way does this resemble the traditions about the patriarchs in Genesis."

There is one occasion in which Thompson uses the Bible against a maximalist scholarly argument. A name similar to "Benjamin" appears in second millennium Mari, and so there were scholars who argued that Benjamin came to Palestine from Mesopotamia. One argument that Thompson uses against this is that the biblical tradition "sees Benjamin as the southern group of the Ephraim tribe and in the Stammessage sees Benjamin as the one son of Jacob who was born in Palestine" (pages 59-60).

Entering the Male Rat-Race

On pages 265-266 of Gaia and God, Rosemary Ruether states the following:

"The 'liberation of women' cannot be seen simply as the incorporation of women into alienated male styles of life, although with far fewer benefits, for this simply adds women to the patterns of alienated life created by and for men...Rather, what is necessary is a double transformation of both men and women in their relation to each other and to 'nature.' Women certainly need to gain some of the individuality that has been traditionally purchased by men at their expense. But this individuation should not be based on exploitative domination (of other women or subjugated men), but needs to remain in sustaining relation to primary communities of life. They ways of being a person for others and of being a person for oneself need to come together as reciprocal, rather than being split between male and female styles of life...Males need to overcome the illusion of autonomous individualism, with its extension into egocentric power over others, starting with the women with whom they relate. Men need to integrate themselves into life-sustaining relations with women as lovers, parents, and co-workers. They need to do regularly what they have hardly ever done, even in preagricultural societies: feed, clothe, wash, and hug children from infancy, cook food, and clean up wastes."

I've heard conservative critics of feminism who inquire why feminists want to enter the rat-race of the male world. They wonder why feminist women can't simply enjoy the domestic sphere. A Bible study leader I knew once said that being a mother is valuable, so why do feminists want what he has? What's so great about what he has? Feminism has been portrayed as a quest for selfish desires---as a group of women who want the power, prestige, wealth, and opportunities that men have.

I think that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue his or her heart's desires---to follow his or her dreams and quests for fulfillment. But I also appreciate Ruether's quote because she's saying that feminism should be about so much more than women getting the same things that men have. Rather, the whole lifestyle of egotism and exploiting and subordinating others should be questioned. What exactly has been gained by equality of rights and opportunity if it means that women just pick up the same destructive patterns that are in male culture? There should be equality of opportunity, but there should be other things as well---love, sharing of power, etc.

This is my last post on Ruether's Gaia and God. But there are two more days of Women's History Month left, so expect two more posts!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Thompson's Three Categories of Biblical Tradition

I finished Thomas Thompson's Mythic Past. In this post, I'll be looking at points that Thompson makes on pages 295-301, which was from my reading for yesterday, and I'll be tying them to points that I read in Thompson's book today.

Thompson says that the "earliest sources of the Bible [reflect] one of three categories":

1. The first category is "surviving fragments of the past". Although Thompson interprets much of the Hebrew Bible in light of a Hellenistic context and does not believe that it reflects Israel's pre-exilic period, he does think that there are pre-exilic traditions in the Hebrew Bible. He says: "Some of these---such as a small number of sayings or prayers that have been collected in Leviticus, the Shem and Ham genealogies we find in Genesis, as well as the genealogy of Ishmael, the story in Numbers about the prophet Bileam, the dynastic list of Israel from Omri on, perhaps the dynastic name of a 'House of David' in Jerusalem, as well as aspects of the destruction account of Samaria---have known roots even as early as the Assyrian period." There are parallels between the Psalms and "poetry found on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Ugarit of Late Bronze Syria." Thompson also acknowledges that "Not only the flood story, but both the garden story and the creation account of Genesis 1 offer variants of motifs, themes and episodes closely tied to Late Babylonian traditions or to the Gilgamesh and Adapa stories of yet earlier times."

This is from page 295, which was part of my reading for yesterday. In my reading today, on page 335, Thompson says that the Book of Genesis and the Book of Jubilees did not invent the Cain tradition themselves, but rather they "take part in a common discussion about the Cain story", which, in some form, must have already existed. Genesis 4 makes the Cain story an "etiology of a divine protection", whereas Jubilees uses it to support capital punishment. So, for Thompson, the author (or authors) of Genesis did not invent everything in the book, but drew from older traditions.

What confuses me, however, is that, in Thompson's chronological chart at the end of the book, Thompson locates the Persian Period as the time of the "Early beginnings of biblical traditions." But didn't Thompson say on page 295 that there are biblical traditions that go back at least to the Assyrian period? Or is Thompson saying in his chart that the Persian Period was when traditions began to be collected (and, in some cases, invented) and consolidated into what would later become a national history for Israel?

2. The second category of traditions is the "world-view of exclusive monotheism". These traditions reject syncretism, are intolerant of "alternative religious expression", and favor an "exclusive monotheism." For adherents to this view, "Yahweh represented the sole signification of the heavenly spirit", meaning that they did not accept the notion that a god could have many manifestations, of which Yahweh was one. Thompson sees possible roots for this view in Persia's exclusion of certain "religious associations" in its attempt to "centralize the government's control over religious ideology"; in a Greek idea that gods were distinct individuals (rather than many manifestations of a common reality), which bred competition among the adherents to various gods; and in Yehud's intolerance, which "might be inferred from parts of Ezra." (On a side note: while maximalists have asked why minimalists are skeptical about parts of the Hebrew Bible that claim to narrate the events of Israel's pre-exilic history, even as the minimalists accept Ezra and Nehemiah as historical, I saw a few cases in which Thompson treated Ezra and Nehemiah as fictional as well!)

But, ultimately, Thompson appears to view the second century B.C.E. as the primary time of impetus for exclusive monotheism---or at least the aggressive promotion of it. At that time, the Seleucids were "indifferent to local Palestinian traditions of expression", and "language, tradition and God were seen to be at risk" by "traditionalists and nationalists" in Israel. This led to the Maccabean revolution and the independence of Palestine. John Hyrcanus converted certain areas forcibly, in an expression of exclusive monotheism.

This is from pages 295-297. I'll tie that with today's reading in my discussion of the third category.

3. The third category is the "world-view of inclusive monotheism". Thompson defines this as follows:

"In contrast to exclusive forms, this monotheism included many polytheistic traditions and metaphors for understanding the divine. Such traditions self-consciously understand themselves as limited human expressions of what ultimately reflects a transcendent divine. The traditions, once collected, contributed to the development of a pluralistic world-view."

Thompson includes in this category such writings as Ecclesiastes, Job, and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). But doesn't Second Isaiah lambaste idolatry? That doesn't sound too pluralistic, does it? Thompson's characterization of the "inclusive monotheism" category is more than a belief that the gods are different names for a common reality, for it also includes a recognition that various religious expressions of that reality are inadequate---that gods have "clay feet", if you will. For Thompson (if I'm understand him correctly), Ecclesiastes, Job, and Second Isaiah are all attacks on religion, and (in their own way) they draw our attention to the reality that religion is inadequate to describe. According to Thompson, "the twilight of the Assyrian empire in the seventh century BCE" marked a crisis, as people tried to deal with gods that had feet of clay. Sixth century Neo-Babylonian and Persian texts treat the king as the savior of the gods, rather than regarding the gods as heroes. The Aegean intelligentsia rejected mythology about the gods. Regarding the Hebrew Bible, Thompson states, "The God of the Old Testament is the unknown God, the silent voice of Elijah, the God that Job knew only by hearsay." And this understanding of God replaced the "old storm deity of Palestine", whom the biblical authors associated with old Israel.

This is from pages 297-301, which was in my reading for yesterday. In my reading for today, the contrast between the god of "old Israel" and the god of "New Israel" continues to be made. Regarding the akedah in Genesis 22 (and other stories in Genesis), Thompson states (on page 303):

"Don't think for a moment that the narrator of Genesis or his audience ever believed in or prayed to that kind of God. This is the world that the teller has created for his representation of old Israel, where sometimes iron does float on water, and where sometimes God is awful." For Thompson, the Hebrew Bible is promoting the birth of a new Israel, whose character has been purged by the wilderness of exile. Apparently, that entails a new relationship between Israel and God, in the eyes of biblical narrators!

And yet, in Thompson's scenario, the biblical narrators thought that even the old Israel got a preview of the new understanding of God. On page 395, Thompson says that Elijah desired the "old-fashioned God", the one who could "fracture even mountains". But the God Elijah got was the God with the "silent voice," the God of inclusive monotheism.

What's interesting is that Thompson often portrays the piety of the Hebrew Bible as a sort of unquestioning fundamentalism, whereas inclusive monotheism appears to be about challenging religious paradigms. Thompson interprets Genesis 3 as a story about how piety is better than the search for wisdom---as Qoheleth also discovered. Saul's problem was that he followed what he saw to be right, rather than God's instructions. And, as Thompson characterizes the ideology of Genesis 1 on page 360, "What is good is good as God sees it."

I want to turn now to the element of inclusive monotheism that views the gods as different manifestations of one reality. On pages 381-385, Thompson tries to support the existence of such an idea. He says that "From at least early in the Assyrian period of the empire, in what are often thought of as the polytheistic worlds of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, reflective people had well understood a clear difference between the gods themselves and the statues and images that were used to represent them." Thompson notes that the Babylonian god Marduk had fifty names, and one of them was the "name of the god Sin, the patron deity of the Assyrian city of Harran". Thompson states, "Just as all the powers of the kings of the imperial world reflected but one king's power, the power of the other gods reflected of but one deity." Syrian and Phoenician traders "readily identified specific gods of one region with the gods of similar function of another region."

"By the Persian period," Thompson contends, "the norm for Syria and Palestine" was the view that "god had many faces and many names", and yet it was recognized that these were mere "human expressions about the divine", which was "spiritual, and unknown." We see this idea in the ancient world: Plato speaks about the "One, True, Good and Beautiful"; Babylon spoke of the god Sin in some texts "in the same way as Ba'al Shamem is in Syria"; and Persia regarded Ahura Mazda as a high god---and gods of other nations as expressions of him.

Thompson believes that such an idea is in Exodus 3 and 6, in which (according to Thompson) Yahweh is presented as "a representation and expression of the truly divine" (page 321), even as "the gods of the patriarchal stories and the gods of Israel's ancestors" are legitimized as "truly expressive of the transcendent divine" (page 320). Thompson apparently believes that the patriarchs are viewed as polytheists in Exodus 3, perhaps because God refers to himself as "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," implying three gods (for Thompson, perhaps).

I don't entirely dismiss Thompson's argument about inclusive monotheism, for the Israelites did call their god "El," which was also the Ugaritic high god. But I believe that exclusive monotheism is far more prominent in the Hebrew Bible than Thompson may acknowledge. Thompson notes on page 320, after all, that, in Exodus 23, there is a contrast between the gods of "the legendary enemies of Israel" and Israel's God.

Ruether on War

For my write-up today of Rosemary Ruether's Gaia and God, I will feature two statements she makes about the first Iraq War. (Remember that this book was published in 1992.)

On pages 267-268, Ruether states:

"The United States oligarchies particularly received the end of the Cold War, not as a chance to revert to an ecologically sustainable, peacetime economy, but as a victory for 'our side,' to be used to consolidate their global hegemony. Immediately they began to search for new enemies to demonize, and thereby to justify new generations of weapons. They found one such enemy in Saddam Hussein, the leader of a middle-sized Arab country, who challenged their control over oil. And they proceeded to pulverize Iraq in a six-week air war in which they threw down upon it 50 percent more tonnage of bombs than were thrown on Vietnam over ten years. They then declared with satisfaction that the 'Vietnam Syndrome' is over; by which they meant any disposition to question the righteousness of the military way of 'solving' international disputes had been silenced."

On page 287, Ruether refers to negative effects of the U.S. bombing of Iraq:

"The effect of the pinpoint bombing of the Iraqi military-industrial infrastructure was to release an ongoing plague of diseases caused by famine, polluted water, and lack of electricity and medicines, killing tens of thousands of the most vulnerable Iraqis, especially small children. This has been further aggravated by the embargo that continues after the war, preventing Iraq from selling oil and importing food and medicines..."

Over the past few months, I've been writing many posts days before their publication on my blog. Right now, as I write this one, the United States is bombing Libya, and I do not know what the situation will be like once this post appears. I have been reading discussions about the Libya situation among my friends. Some of them think that we would do well to get rid of Qadaffi, even if our motives are impure (and some have suggested that Obama has purer motives than Bush II did for his wars), for Qadaffi has killed so many people. Others lament that we may be getting ourselves into yet another war, after we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Is war ever justified? I do not know. But I will say this: Even if we're doing something half-way moral, war comes at a terrible price. I remember the time of the first Iraq War, and I was proud when the United States and her coalition won. But I did not know about all the damage that had been done. I read conservatives who said that the Vietnam Syndrome was over---that we now didn't have to be afraid to flex our muscle to challenge aggressors. And yet, that picture was overly rosy. Not long after that, even a lot of Republicans didn't want America to go to war in Yugoslavia. Clinton sent troops to Somalia, and then he withdrew them. Then there was Afghanistan, "Mission Accomplished," and Afghanistan becoming problematic once more. And there was also the second Iraq War, which took a lot of American and Iraqi lives. The Vietnam Syndrome is not over, for war is not a light thing, by any stretch of the imagination. It has the potential to become a quagmire. And even when it doesn't become that, people still get hurt, even killed. As the Gerald McRaney character on the West Wing---General Adam Adamle---said to Leo McGarry, "All wars are crimes."

That's all I'll say about this, for the time being.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A God to Love and Trust

At church this morning, we had a different preacher, since the lay pastor is on vacation. The preacher today is the pastor emeritus.

The preacher that we had today appears to be more of a Calvinist. He didn't mention predestination, but he used such phrases as "sovereign grace," "the sovereignty of God," doing things "for the glory of God," "righteousness," and "covenant of grace." He also referred to the importance of parents teaching their children about God.

His sermon was about faith. He opened his sermon by referring to when he was a kid and went to the hospital to have his tonsils taken out. Another person at the hospital was screaming at the prospect of having to undergo an operation, whereas he was experiencing the operation with inner peace. The eighty-eight year old pastor attributed this to his faith in God. He then talked about his Sunday School teacher when he was a child---a patient and kind woman who did not have children herself, and so she poured her love into her Sunday School class.

At first, my thought was that the pastor was bragging about how much better he is than non-believers because he has Christian faith. And he did say that we should glorify God through the inner peace that comes from our faith, a concept that I disdain, since I do not always have inner peace, and I dislike the idea of having to be a walking advertisement for Christianity, when I am far from perfect. But then I had to respect the pastor for having faith for so long, through the trials of life.

Last night, I had difficulty sleeping, and I was trying to soothe myself to sleep through the "Church of James Pate's Brain," in which I tell myself about God's love, grace, sovereignty, presence, and hope. But then my mind turned to the story in the Bible about the blasphemer who was stoned to death. I've felt sorry for this guy since I first read about him in Basil Wolverton's Bible Story. He was half-Egyptian, which may have meant that he was marginalized. He was in a fight with an Israelite and profaned the name of God, and God ordered Moses to put him to death. I wonder how I can love or trust this type of God. People have told me that they experienced God when they were at their worst and God was at his best. I'd like to think that God has compassion for the marginalized, even when they are angry and say something that's inappropriate.

I suppose that's where the Gospel comes in: God loved us while we were yet sinners. I think of the scene in Pilgrim's Progress in which Moses is whipping Christian, but Jesus shows Christian grace.


For today's write-up on Rosemary Ruether's Gaia and God, I'll feature a couple of items from the endnotes.

The first item is from page 276 and concerns fundamentalist claims that the Bible is inerrant:

"Although Christians received the whole canon of the Hebrew Bible (in two versions) as their Old Testament, Pauline Christianity particularly assumed that much of the Levitical codes were no longer normative revelation. Since the New Testament is built on this selective use of Hebrew scripture, Christianity, by its very nature, cannot claim to use the entire Bible in both Testaments as equally inspired, despite fundamentalist claims to do this."

The second item is on page 288, and it concerns homiletical comparisons of marginalized people with the Amalekites, whom God commanded the Israelites to slaughter in the Hebrew Bible---leaving no man, woman, or child alive. In the seventeenth century, American Puritan Cotton Mather likened the Native Americans to the Amalekites. Martin Prozesky, a professor of religious studies in South Africa, recalls that as a child "he frequently heard the Zulus compared to Amalekites in sermons". And there are rabbinic pronouncements that compare the Palestinians to Amalekites.

I don't know if these religious leaders supported completely slaughtering the group that they considered a threat. But such a comparison certainly dehumanizes the "other," and their audience probably knew that, in the Hebrew Bible, God supported the complete extermination of the Amalekites.

The second item makes me wonder if the religious leaders' stances on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible played some role in their appeal to the biblical example of the Amalekites. As Ruether notes in her first item, there are plenty of Christians who believe that the New Testament supersedes the Hebrew Bible, and some draw contrasts between the Old Testament God of wrath and the New Testament God of love. But there are others who think that, in some way, shape, or form, the Old Testament is still authoritative. The American Puritans were like this, for they had laws that echoed the Old Testament. I'm curious as to whether or not Martin Prozesky heard the sermons about the Zulus in a Calvinist church, for Calvin believed that the Old Testament law had some authority over people, including Christians. And hard-core right-wing Jews think that the Hebrew Bible still is authoritative.

But one can believe in the authority of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and think that God's command for Israel to slaughter the Amalekites concerned the Amalekites, and them alone---not any later people-group. Moreover, there are Jewish opinions that try to lessen the severity of the Conquest. Even many Christians who hold that the New Testament supersedes the Old Testament maintain that God was still the author of the Old Testament, and so they attempt to account for his seemingly unjust acts in some manner, or they say that we should "just have faith." But they don't think that they are commanded to slaughter entire people-groups nowadays. There are many Calvinists who would say that such a command concerned the Canaanites and the Amalekites only, not anybody else. I disagree in part with Ruether's first item in that I think that conservative Christians can believe that the entire Bible is divinely-inspired, without holding that all of it is still normative for today.

A final point: In Deuteronomy 20, God distinguishes between two groups of people whom the Israelites are to conquer. The first group consists of cities outside of the Promised Land, whereas the second group consists of the Canaanite nations within the Promised Land. The Israelites are to offer the first group terms of peace. If this group agrees to serve Israel, fine, but if it doesn't, then the Israelites are to kill every male, while taking the women and children as plunder. As for the second group, the Canaanites, the Israelites are to slaughter each and every one of them---man, woman, and child. I have problems with the Conquest period, but here's a question: Why did God require the Israelites to kill the Canaanite children? The Israelites could have preserved their lives, as they were to do with the women and children of the non-Canaanite cities.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Psalm 17

For my weekly quiet time this week, I'll be blogging about Psalm 17 and its interpreters.

In Psalm 17, the Psalmist appeals to his own righteousness as he asks God to hear his cry and to defeat his enemies. According to Richard Bautch's review of Gerd Kwakkel's book, According to My Righteousness: Upright Behavior As Grounds for Deliverance in Psalms 7, 17, 18, 26, and 44 (which appeared in the December 1, 2004 Journal of Biblical Literature), "In the first half of the twentieth century, certain scholars of the psalms equated assertions of upright behavior with self-righteousness, with a deficient understanding of one's own sin; the assertions were said to anticipate Pharisaism (i.e., the mind-set of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14)."

What is ironic is that, not only do Christian exegetes struggle with the Psalmist's declaration of his own righteousness, but so do Jewish exegetes. The medieval commentator Rashi, for example, interprets Psalm 17 in a manner that essentially turns the Psalm on its head. For Rashi, rather than being David's declaration of his own righteousness, Psalm 17 is David asking God to defeat Israel's enemies, even though David realizes that he's a clear sinner. Rashi believes that the setting of the Psalm is David's fear that the Ammonites would successfully withstand Israel in battle, on account of David's sin with Bathsheba, which displeased God and could thus deprive his army and the nation of Israel of divine protection and blessing. As a result, the Philistines, the Moabites, and the Edomites would be encouraged to attack the land of Israel---and Rashi holds that Psalm 17:11b describes these enemies of Israel setting their eyes on the Promised Land, with a desire to infiltrate it.

Whereas many interpreters and translators understand Psalm 17:3 to mean that the Psalmist is asking God to test him in the night, on account of his confidence that God would find that he has done no evil, Rashi thinks that this verse is saying something completely different: that God did test David with Bathsheba and did not find what he desired (i.e., David resisting temptation), for David failed the test. Consequently, David resolved never again to transgress with his lips, namely, to claim to be sinless and invite divine testing. Rashi draws from Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 107a, which states that the Bible and the Eighteen Benedictions say "God of Abraham" rather than "God of David" because Abraham passed God's eighteen tests, whereas David failed the test that God gave him.

At the same time, Rashi does interpret Psalm 17:5 to mean that David resolved to avoid the ways of the lawless and to hold his feet firmly to God's path, and so even Rashi appears to think that David is appealing to his own righteousness, in some manner. Rashi may have agreed with the view that theologian Gerhard Von Rad would expound centuries later: that Psalm 17 and other Psalms like it are declarations of the Psalmist's loyalty to God, not his sinlessness. Moreover, Rashi thinks that Psalm 17:2b expresses David's hope that God would only look at the good things he has done, rather than his sins, which would disqualify him and his people from divine protection and blessing.

I want to make three points:

1. I am not surprised that all sorts of interpreters struggle with the Psalmist's apparent self-righteousness in Psalm 17. Not only does it appear to conflict with Judaism and Christianity, with their emphases on humility and repentance, but it also seems to contradict the sentiment of Psalm 143:2, in which the Psalmist hopes that God will not judge him, for no human being can be justified in God's sight. (I'm drawing some from the language of the King James Version.)

2. In Psalm 17:1, the Psalmist denies that his prayer is coming from deceitful or treacherous lips. I like how the preacher Chuck Smith interprets this verse:

"It is important that our prayers not come out of deceitful lips. I am afraid that many times I have prayed rather deceitfully, hoping to sort of con God. I haven't always been absolutely honest in my prayers. I have tried to make myself look better than I really am in many of my prayers. And I find that God can't deal with me until I get totally honest with Him. As long as I keep saying, 'Well, Lord, I can do it. I just need a little help.' I am not really honest, and the help doesn't seem to be forthcoming. Because if He would help me under those conditions, then I would go around saying, 'I always knew I could do it.' So it's when I get really honest and say, 'Lord, I can't do it. I need help.' Then He comes in and helps me, cause then all I can say is, 'Wow! The Lord really helped me.' And I give the credit and the glory to Him. 'Lord, You know that I get a little upset with this brother. I don't love him as much as I should. I don't have that agape for him, Lord.' That is sort of deceitful. That's not really telling the truth. 'God, You know I hate his guts. I can't stand him. He makes me sick every time I look at him. I want to punch him in the nose. God, change my heart and my attitude.' Then God can deal with me."

For Chuck Smith, the point of this verse is that we should be honest with God about how we feel---whether our feelings are good, bad, or ugly. Then, God can work with us---better than he can if we're putting on a false front.

But is Psalm 17:1 really saying that? If the Psalm is a declaration of the Psalmist's righteousness, then I would say "no." In that case, I'd interpret Psalm 17:1 to mean that the Psalmist is righteous---not a person who is deceitful or treacherous in his dealings with God and human beings---and the Psalmist wants God to know that so that God would be impressed and deliver him. But if I were to adopt Rashi's reading---that Psalm 17 reflects David's insecurity about his own sin and its consequences, as well as his acknowledgment that he has tried to walk on the path of righteousness, making Psalm 17 a window into David's complex thoughts and emotions---then Chuck Smith's interpretation of Psalm 17:1 makes more sense. Rashi presents David as transparent in Psalm 17, and transparency is what Chuck Smith is advocating.

3. I'm not surprised that Rashi can interpret Psalm 17 to mean something totally different from the interpretations of many exegetes, for the Psalm itself is quite difficult. In my study, for example, I encountered totally different translations and interpretations of Psalm 17:14. Some say it's talking about God destroying the wicked and blessing the righteous and their children, others say that it's expressing hope that God will kill the wicked people and thus leave their property to their (the wicked people's) children, and still others claim that it's lamenting that the wicked prosper.

Psalm 17:15 also highlights the difficult nature of Psalm 17. Psalm 17:15 was big in Armstrongite circles. The King James Version translates the second part of it to read, "I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness." For Armstrongites, this verse is a proof-text that the righteous will one day be resurrected as God-like beings, bearing God's likeness, as members of the God-family. But all the Hebrew has is "I will be satisfied in awakening your likeness." The verse does not necessarily say that the Psalmist will bear God's likeness. The Septuagint understood the phrase to mean that the Psalmist will be satisfied when God's glory appears, which makes a degree of sense, since the word translated as "awake" is applied in Psalm 35:23 to God stirring himself up to uphold the Psalmist's cause. But, even if the word means in Psalm 17:15 that the Psalmist will awaken, that does not necessarily speak of resurrection, for there are other interpretations: that the Psalmist will see God's glory the next morning when he goes to the sanctuary (cp. Psalm 27:4; Exodus 23:15 and 34:20---which, according to the Hebrew consonants, indicate that the worshipers will see God when they gather before him); or that the Psalmist will experience God's glory, or liberation, the next morning, after he wakes up, for the morning in the Hebrew Bible can be a time of God's deliverance and help (Psalms 17:15; 90:14; 143:8; I Samuel 11:9---this thought comes from Patrick Miller's comments in the HarperCollins Study Bible).

I agree with the Armstrongites that the New Testament has passages suggesting that believers will be like God (I John 3:2), or Christ (I Corinthians 15:49). But I disagree with imposing that view on the entire Bible, when there are alternative interpretations of certain passages.

Ruether and Animal Rights

In Gaia and God, Rosemary Ruether talks about animal rights. On page 196, Ruether says something about Rene Descartes that caught my eye, since I like animals:

"Descartes reduced animals to 'automata,' which appear to be lifelike but are actually moved by mechanical power, like clocks. This view also was used to justify vivisectional experimentation on animals, by assuring the experimenters that the cries and writhings of animals were mechanical reflexes. Since animals lack 'soul,' they cannot possibly 'feel.' In effect, Descartes severed the continuum between organic body, life, sensibility, and thought. This continuum was split into thought, found in God and the human mind, and dead matter in motion."

The words "cries" and "writhings" in that passage are quite powerful, since "cries" and "writhings" are the things that indicate that animals feel---the very things that should elicit our compassion as human beings.

Ruether talks about extreme animal rights activists. But she herself is not a preservationist. She observes in nature that there is a balance that consists of predators and prey. On page 301, she mentions an article that "showed how sentimental attachment to elephants resulted in a proliferation of these animals that virtually destroyed the huge area of the Kenyan Wildlife Park as a life-bearing habitat for elephants and any other life." She does recommend that people eat lower on the food chain, on account of the cruelty to animals that occurs through factory farming (page 223), as well as the land in Third World countries that is cleared to produce meat for the "United States and local elites, reducing the land for grain crops that feed the poor" (page 285). But she does not think that vegetarianism should be an absolute rule for everyone, for there are natural methods of raising animals for food, plus, for Third World peasants, "the occasional chicken or pig" may be an "indispensable part of an otherwise very limited diet" (page 225).

On page 226, Ruether says what she does advocate:

"The rights of sentient animals to be free of excessive pain and to enjoy a modicum of qualitative life, even if their final fate is the human dinner table; the need for 'wilderness' habitats to have a balance of predator and prey, if some animals are not to destroy their own carrying capacity; the need to preserve biotic diversity and prevent rapid extinction of species---all these are values that need to be defended."

Back when I was reading some introductory books about Judaism in college, I appreciated Judaism's compassion for animals---how Jews slaughter animals for food in a manner that causes the animals no pain. Yes, we can eat animals, but we should be compassionate for all sentient life.

But are there times when the well-being of humans may necessitate the pain of animals? I remember an episode of Quantum Leap in the 1990's, entitled "The Wrong Stuff." In that episode, Sam quantum lept into a monkey, and Sam needed to get the monkey into the space program so that his head wouldn't be smashed in a helmet testing experiment. One of the scientists was very protective of the monkeys, whereas another scientist gave an impassioned speech about how the helmet tests save pilots' lives. Some wonder if there are other ways for us to accomplish our goals, or if our advanced technology is worth the pain that animals experience.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Thompson on Historiography

I'm still in Thomas Thompson's Mythic Past. Today, I'll touch on Thompson's view on whether the biblical authors believed that they were writing history.

On page 222, Thompson talks about the contradiction between Nehemiah's presentation of an empty Jerusalem long after she was conquered by the Babylonians, and Lamentations' portrayal of Jerusalem as a city "filled with violence." Was Jerusalem occupied after she was conquered, or not? Thompson states the following:

"It is only our own historical expectations that see the image of Jerusalem as an empty and abandoned wilderness and Jerusalem as filled with violence as contradictions. For both Nehemiah and is because of sin that the desert is found. This is how Mount Zion is a wasteland...Exile is Jerusalem as a wasteland; it is the emptiness of the soul; it is to be without God. This is not historiography at all, but a metaphor of pietism...[T]he dark night of the soul (expressed biblically in the metaphor of exilic wilderness) as a time of testing and rebirth is both a central and an essential aspect of piety's self-understanding."

On pages 223-224, Thompson discusses Jeremiah 4:23-26, which describes Jerusalem during the exile using language from Genesis 1:

"In these powerful, terrible verses, the poet portrays exilic Jerusalem---this land of an ignorant people who do not know God---as an empty earth: as the world before creation...So too Jerusalem of the exile has returned in Jeremiah's vision of the desert's formlessness before God's creative and life-giving breath moved over the surface of the waters. Jerusalem is without God. It had no light; the mountains were no longer firmly held on their pillars; there was no humanity; no birds of the air. Instead of Genesis 1's divine spirit moving with its creative force, God's fierce anger governs Jeremiah's poem. It is in the face of such a wilderness Jerusalem that the poet in chapter 5 desperately searches Jerusalem's streets for a just man, that God might pardon the city."

In my reading of Thompson's book so far, I've been confused by his view on biblical historiography. Does he believe that the biblical authors thought that they were narrating events that occurred in the past? At some points, he seems to assume that the biblical stories are metaphors for a pious life. The wilderness is about the journey through life, and, in one of the quotes above, Thompson says that the exile is a metaphor for the "dark night of the soul." Thompson portrays some of the biblical authors as philosophers and theologians---who were making general points about the pious life. At other points, however, Thompson does relate the stories to a historical context, usually a Hellenistic one, as when he interprets Ahab to be a metaphor for Antiochus IV. But I do not know if Thompson thinks that the biblical authors in such cases expected their audience to take their stories as historical, conveying the message that there were similar events in Israel's past that could instruct the Jews in their current situation, or rather that the biblical writers assumed that their audience would catch on to the metaphor.

Moreover, Thompson holds that there really was a deportation of Israelites. In the quotes above, Thompson indicates that biblical writers were seeking to promote an event within history, namely, the rebirth of Israel, and so there is an attempt by biblical authors to impact their historical contexts, meaning that they weren't entirely moving within the realm of spiritual allegory. And yet, Thompson's quotes above are about how biblical authors can use spiritual allegory to comment on Israel's situation in space and time: Israel is in a spiritual desert and needs a new beginning, initiated by the creative power of God.

And then there are times when Thompson says that the biblical writers created a past for Israel, and that they wrote etiologies, stories that purport to describe the origins of certain things.

But if they were composing etiologies saying how certain things originated, does not that imply that they believed that those things originated in the manner that they narrate? Probably the closest that Thompson comes to addressing this question (in my reading of the book so far, that is) is on page 44. In Joshua 10, God rains down hailstones on Israel's enemies. Joshua captures some kings, executes them, puts them in a cave, and orders Israelites to lay five large stones at the cave's entrance. Thompson says that these are from the hailstones that God rained on Israel's enemies (but I don't see that in the text). And Joshua 10 says that the stones are at that cave "unto this day." Thompson states:

"The memorial set up at the cave, five of Yahweh's stones, is an obvious argument for the story's historicity. Such an argument is a common folktale motif, quite like the closure of Hans Christian Andersen's story of 'the princess and the pea' with its historicizing details that the pea is still in the museum...'that is, if someone hasn't stolen it'."

But Thompson then says that the author of Joshua 10 is subverting his own story: there really is no monument of hailstones unto this day, for hailstones melt! So is Thompson saying that the author expects his audience to pick up on that point and to conclude that the story really is not historical?

Nature as Holy Ground

On page 270 of Gaia and God, Rosemary Ruether states:

"We need to take time to sit under trees, look at water, and at the sky, observe small biotic communities of plants and animals with close attention, get back in touch with the living earth. We can start to release the stifled intuitive and creative powers of our organism, to draw and to write poetry, and to know that we stand on holy ground."

On page 299, in an endnote about the biblical personification of nature, Ruether says:

"These attributions of personlike qualities to nature are often dismissed as either meaningless 'poetry' or as survivals of Baalism in Hebrew scripture. Either way, they can be ignored as a serious part of the theology of the biblical God. Although they may be survivals of Baalism, I see that neither as bad nor as incompatible with Yahwism. Clearly the Old Testament authors who used such language did not either. It is important to understand that 'animism' does not mean deification of nature, but simply the recognition of personlike life in nature."

I've often had a hard time being inspired by nature. When I was a child, every Sabbath, my Dad showed us kids two things on TV: an episode of Superbook, which was an animated Bible story, and New Wilderness, a show about animals that was hosted by the late Lorne Greene. (And, come to think of it, I watched Lorne Greene on this before I even knew about Bonanza!) Then, we'd draw a picture of our favorite scene. I mostly drew something from the Superbook episode because I found nature shows to be boring. When I complained one time about my Dad having a nature show on, my Dad told me to write a paper on Romans 1:20, which says that God's attributes are evident in what God has made. My Dad's basis for showing us a Bible show and a nature show on the Sabbath was probably what Christianity calls the two books of God: God's book of Scripture, and God's book of nature. By looking at both, we can see what God is like.

In my recollection, there was one time when nature inspired me. I was at Indiana Wesleyan University for a conference on the Gospel, and I was awash in religious sentiment, after having heard some awesome messages, and having sung some fantastic praise songs. I went to a TV room early one morning, flipped on the TV, and noticed that New Wilderness was on. I watched it, and, this time, I liked it.

Why has nature bored me? A while back in biblical scholarship, there was a notion that ancient Near Eastern religions were nature-based and animistic, whereas the religion of the Hebrew Bible was different because it had a God who acted in history. Nowadays, as far as I know, that view has pretty much been discarded, for ancient Near Eastern religions have gods who act in history, and there are times when the Yahwistic religions in the Hebrew Bible talk about the natural cycle. Does nature have a personality? Does not the Hebrew Bible talk about nature doing personal things? I think that there are still many scholars who read such passages as poetic personification, meaning that they don't take them literally. But Rosemary Ruether asks why we shouldn't take them literally. Maybe we'd treat nature better if we regarded it as sentient!

But, if I had to choose between nature and history (or, for biblical minimalists, stories about humans), I'd choose the latter, for I find humans to be more interesting. I move around in a world of ideas. Looking at a waterfall or a mountain doesn't do much for me! I do like animals as pets, but I get bored by shows about animals.

Also, I wonder: Is there a sense deep down within me that learning more about nature will lead me away from God? There are ideas among scientists that appear to contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible. But, also, I am more awed by nature when I view it as beautiful for its own sake---and as something that came about through a process of development rather than instantaneously at creation. And so, somewhere in my mind, an appreciation of nature contradicts my worship of God. One reason that I have a hard time incorporating nature into my spirituality is that efforts to reconcile the Bible with science appear rather contrived and artificial to me, and so they don't exactly inspire me. Also, attempts to draw theological conclusions from nature seem contrived and artificial as well.

I'd like to appreciate nature, though. And perhaps Ruether's presentation of nature as a balanced organism can lead me to appreciate it as a work of art, and as something that sustains humans and other creatures. Interestingly, my family when I was growing up presented nature as such.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thompson on Ancient Israel and the Trans-National Worship of YHWH

I'm continuing my way through Thomas Thompson's Mythic Past. In this post, I want to talk about Thompson's discussion of two issues: the origins of ancient Israel and the worship of Yahweh in non-Israelite areas.

1. According to Thompson, there was a drought that ended in 1050 B.C.E. While the drought was still going on, shepherds moved away "from the steppe and into the better-watered highlands" (page 161), which is what many scholars have identified as "Israel." When the drought ended around 1050 B.C.E., there was a "shift to agriculture" in the central hills. Thompson states that "When the drought ended and international trade came once again into its own, Palestine's olive industry boomed", and the prominent city of Lachish "expanded its production into the Judean highlands" (page 163). The olive industry led to the establishment of the state of Israel in Samaria in the ninth century, in order that the olive producers could "control the production and harvest of olives, maintain price levels through developing of a single market that they could influence, and protect the interests of the producers"---in short, so that the producers of olives in the central hills could "establish greater control over their own markets through what might be best described as a cartel" (page 167).

On page 190, Thompson states that "No political, ethnic or historical bond existed between the state that was called Israel or 'the house of Omri' and the town of Jerusalem and the state of Judah". Thompson does not believe that there was a United Monarchy, but he appears to hold that both the North and the South were involved in olive production. Thompson says that Jerusalem only became prominent after the destruction of the dominant Judean city of Lachish in 701 B.C.E. (pages 186-187). Regarding Jerusalem in the tenth century, the alleged time of David and Solomon, Thompson says that, archaeologically, "we find a massive retaining wall, but precious little else" (page 166). Thompson concludes that "Jerusalem is not known to have been occupied in the tenth century" (page 164).

In the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on "David, City of", David Tarler and Jane Cahill overlap with Thompson in their view that Jerusalem underwent a dramatic increase in area and population in the eighth century B.C.E. But they say that there were still people in Jerusalem during the Solomonic period: 4,000-6,400. How big and populous does an area have to be to function as a capital?

2. Thompson says that other areas besides Israel worshiped Yahweh. On page 171, he says that, in the Persian Period, "In Edom, the patron deity is called both Qaus and Yahweh." On pages 175-176, Thompson gives other examples:

---In the Syrian city of Ebla in the Early Bronze Age, there are texts in which "yaw" is "included in some personal names". In the Late Bronze city of Ugarit, there are names that have "ya." But Thompson is not dogmatic about these examples, for the "element in the Ugaritic names could be read as merely a normal grammatical ending of a shortened name, without any reference at all to a deity", and there is "little reason to expect the appearance of this deity so early or so far north." And yet, he says on page 176: "That the god Yahweh may have been known over such a large geographical area during the third and second millennium---from Ebla and Ugarit of Syria to the southern desert of Edom---and that it might appear as both a tribal deity of pastoralists as well as part of a rich multi-religious environment of cities such as Ebla and Ugarit, is not as unlikely as had been at first imagined."

---New Kingdom Egyptian texts refer to "Shasu of Yahweh" in southern Edom, and "texts of the first millennium about Yahweh have been found in the Sinai." Thompson mentions the argument that "the name Yahweh in these inscriptions is used as a place name and not as a divine name", be he concludes that "It is nevertheless possible that Egyptian texts do in fact refer to a Late Bronze deity Yahweh."

---There are first millennium "Assyrian and Persian period texts that demonstrate...a geographical spread of the worship of Yahweh."

---Thompson says, "Texts from Sinai and southern Palestine refer to Yahweh as the god of Samaria", and "They mention his wife Asherah."

---Thompson states: "The second-century CE tradition of Philo of Byblos, which gives witness to the worship of the deity Yaw in Phoenicia, clearly shows that this deity continued to be worshipped in the eastern Mediterranean region until at least the end of the Graeco-Roman period."

And, although Thompson does not think that the Hebrew Bible is historically-accurate a lot of the time, he says that "The Bible frequently recognizes that Yahweh was worshipped by others than Israel", for "It understands him as having come from Midian, Teman and Seir."

My Pro-Environment Family

In Gaia and God, I found some interesting things on pages 260-261, things that relate to my family. Rosemary Ruether advocates "greatly improved insulation", which can contribute to lessening heating costs. That is relevant to my family because my Dad insulates houses. Although my Dad has conservative ideas, he's said that the Carter years were actually good for his business, since Carter was encouraging conservation. And Ruether also promotes organic foods, which is relevant to my family because my Mom and my Grandma owned a health food store for over a decade.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thompson on the Mesha Stele and Hellenistic Context

I started Thomas Thompson's Mythic Past. In this post, I will talk about two issues: Thompson's treatment of the Mesha Stele, and his placement of the origins of certain biblical narratives within a Hellenistic context.

1. On page 10, Thompson states: "Ancient inscriptions have often been found, which refer to one or other character or narrative which we otherwise know only from the Bible. Yet, even here, a confirmation of the biblical narrative, which would allow us to read it as if it were history, is still elusive."

On pages 12-14, Thompson discusses the Mesha Stele as an example of this point. The Mesha Stele "has been dated by historians to some time between 849 and 820 BCE", and it is Moabite. It talks about how Omri, the king of Israel, afflicted Moab for many days, which was an indication to Mesha that the Moabite god Chemosh was upset with Moab. When Omri's son later tried to humble Moab, Mesha defeated him. Many scholars have compared the account of the Mesha Stele to the events narrated in II Kings 3, in which Moab rebels against Israel, and Joram, the son of Ahab, tries to defeat the country. But Joram and his allies retreat when Mesha of Moab offers his own son as a sacrifice.

So is the Bible story of II Kings 3 confirmed, or at least shown to be getting at some historical event that actually happened? Thompson does not think so. I'll start with what Thompson says on page 14 and work backwards from that:

" the biblical variant of the Moabite story in II Kings 3:4-8, the two kings of Israel that are involved are not Omri and his son (namely Ahab), but rather Ahab and his son Jehoram. The motif of a king of Israel and his son attacking Moab remains constant; only the names of the characters vary. This is a pattern of variation that occurs often in stories, but in history only by mistake. It would be an error to pit the Bible against the Mesha stele in a contest of historicity. It is also wrong to date the stele by using the biblical tradition as if it were an account of an event. Nor do the roles the characters play in either version of the story allow us to understand the narratives as reflecting historical events or persons. The similarity of the Mesha narrative to the posthumous tale of Idrimi forces us to see the inscription as a monument celebrating Mesha's completed reign, and to date it somewhat later or at the very close of this historical king's reign. What we have in the Mesha stele is an early variant of the same tale that we find in the Bible. [T]he Mesha inscription gives us evidence that the Bible collects and re-uses very old tales from Palestine's past."

For Thompson, the Mesha Stele and II Kings 3 are not historical accounts of an event, but rather they're different versions of a story that was floating around. One version landed in the Mesha Stele, and another version ended up in II Kings 3.

For Thompson, the Mesha Stele itself is literary. Thompson notes that the "monument on which this inscription was written was originally erected at a sanctuary", and it resembles biblical tales about God controlling the fate of Israel and Judah and sending "enemies against them when he is angry." Moreover, the Mesha Stele appears to belong to "a substantial literary tradition" that inscribed stories about past kings---kings who had died--- and narrated the stories in the first person. These works were tributes to past kings, and some of them contained clearly legendary elements. The birth story of Sargon the Great of Akkad, for example, presents him as a baby being cast into the river in a basket, a situation from which he was rescued. We find this sort of motif "throughout ancient literature", including Exodus 2 and the story Oedipus. Other literary elements of the Mesha Stele that Thompson notes include the time-frame of forty years (which occurs also in the Bible in numerous stories, albeit not the one about Mesha), "a god becoming drunk on the blood of his enemies" (which is present also in Late Bronze Ugaritic poetry and Egyptian creation mythology), and slaughtering enemies in sacrifice to a god (which is in the Hebrew Bible). Regarding Omri in the Mesha Stele, Thompson regards him as the legendary founder of Samaria, and so he too belongs to the realm of story-telling, one "built on eponymous ancestors", the sort of thing that we encounter in the Hebrew Bible and Greek stories.

(And, on a side note, Niels Peter Lemche on page 45 of The Israelites in History and Tradition suggests that the presence of Omri in the Mesha Stele does not mean that the Stele dates to the ninth century B.C.E. Perhaps "Omri" was used as a dynastic name, the way that "David" is used for descendants of David in such passages as Jeremiah 30-33. And, even after the Omride dynasty fell, the author of the Mesha Stele could have regarded the king of Samaria as an Omride, for the Assyrians considered Jehu to be a son of Omri. Consequently, for Lemche, the Mesha Stele could be narrating events involving "any king of Israel right down to the destruction of Samaria".)

So Thompson believes that the Mesha Stele contains a version of a story that was composed after the reign of Mesha (or near the end of his reign). For him, it is literary, not historical.

2. Thompson dates a lot of the Hebrew Bible to the Hellenistic Period. I can cite many examples of this, but I will refer to only one, since I have other things to do, and I want to draw this post to an end. On page 97, he states that the pattern for the biblical story of the separation between Northern Israel and Judah was "the break-up of the Hellenistic empire, which had separated into two integral parts: the southern Ptolemies of Egypt ruling from Alexandria, and the Seleucids of the north ruling from Antioch and Babylon." When II Kings criticizes Northern Israel, Thompson argues, it is really going after "the hated religious syncretism of Antiochus IV".

Fox on the Cosmic Christ

On pages 241-242 of Gaia and God, Rosemary Ruether summarizes the views of Matthew Fox on the cosmic Christ:

"Christ is not simply confined to the historical Jesus, nor only related to human souls. Christ is the immanent Wisdom of God present in the whole cosmos as its principle of interconnected and abundant life. The cosmic Christ is not only the foundational basis of original blessing in creation, but is its telos or direction of fulfillment...For Christians, Jesus is the paradigmatic manifestation of cosmic wisdom and goodness. But he is only one such manifestation. The same wisdom and goodness [underlie] all other religious quests and [have] been manifest in many other symbolic expressions, such as Tao, the Buddha, the Great Spirit, and the Goddess...Fox also calls for dialogue with secular wisdom cultures, such as psychotherapy...The recovery of an ecological spirituality also means that we have to redevelop the 'right brain' or intuitive part of our experience and culture atrophied by masculine dominance. This means attention to the arts and liturgy, dance and bodywork, to reawaken our deadened capacities for holistic experience."

I never really understood what people meant when they said that they believed in the "cosmic Christ." In a number of cases, their point is that they believe in the cosmic Christ rather than the Jesus of traditional Christianity. But what do they mean by "cosmic Christ"? Honestly, I don't know. But I think that I understand what Matthew Fox means by the term: The cosmic Christ is the logos of John 1, who made all things and enlightens every human being who comes into the world. He is the basis for all that exists, as we see in Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1. That sounds biblical to me!

I should note, however, that a conservative Christian could point out that Christ fills all things on account of the unique work of Jesus of Nazareth, for Ephesians 4:10 says that Christ's descent and ascent occurred so that he could fill all things. Colossians 1, right after talking about Christ as creator of all things, goes on to talk about the church. So there is a specific Christian focus here. (And Ruether, citing scholar Patrick Rogers, speculates on page 232 that the stuff in Colossians 1:15-20 about "the church," "the firstborn from the dead," and "the blood of the cross" was added to an earlier hymn about the "cosmological logos.")

And yet, Colossians 1:20 goes back to a universal orientation, saying that Christ died to reconcile all things in heaven and earth to himself.

Is there a way to unite a specific focus on the Christian Jesus and church with a universal orientation, one that holds that God cares for all of humanity, interacts with it, and is somehow trying to guide it towards wholeness---even with those who may not hold to a specific Christian creed?

I recently had an interesting discussion with a conservative Christian about I Timothy 4:10, which affirms that God is the savior of all men, especially of those who believe. Martin Zender says that this verse means that God has saved all, but that those who believe in Christ are the ones who get "front-row seats." My impression is that Zender is a universalist, one who thinks that God will eventually save everybody. A conservative Christian friend of mine posted a couple of articles in response, and I was expecting them to be your typical heresy-hunting articles. I thought they'd say that Martin Zender is a heretic because he's a universalist, and then go on to make the usual conservative Christian arguments about hell being eternal.

But one of the articles did not do this. Rather, it argued that I Timothy 4:10 means that, yes, God is the savior of all men, but not in the sense that God forgives the sins of those who reject Christ. For this article, the passage is saying that God is the savior of all men in that he extends kindness (common grace) to all, both believers and non-believers. To quote the article: "In both the Old and New Testaments the term 'Saviour' is often used to speak of God's providential preservation or deliverance which extends to all men without exception. (Cf. Ps. 36:6; 145:9; Matt. 5:45; Luke 6:35; Acts 17:25, 28.)"

Not all of those passages that the article cites use the term "Savior," but they make the point that God preserves all people. And, as the article notes, there are times when salvation in the Hebrew Bible can mean physical deliverance, not forgiveness of sins or the granting of eternal life. The implication is that God cares for all, and demonstrates that care.

I can't really prove or disprove what "savior" means in I Timothy 4:10. But I like the idea that God is involved in the lives of all people. Personally, I hope that the work of Christ has something that is conducive to such an idea, rather than creating a situation in which, now, God consigns people to eternal torment because they didn't say the sinner's prayer before they died, or chooses to have nothing to do with those who haven't accepted Christ. Isn't the Gospel supposed to be a step up?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Finishing Lemche's The Canaanites and Their Land

I finished Niels Peter Lemche's The Canaanites and Their Land. In this post, I'd like to talk about Lemche's search for the origin of the Hebrew Bible's historical narrative. Let me start with something he says on page 161:

"Given the present state of Old Testament scholarship it should be quite evident that Old Testament history writing did not arise in the period of the united kingdom in the 10th century BCE. We can think of no situation so unlikely to provide the background for this narrative, according to which the relationship between Israel and its land must be considered highly problematic and likely to be broken off at any time, as the period of David and Solomon, when Israel was becoming one of the great powers of the day---at least this is the impression of this ge which the Old Testament history writers have left to us."

So, for Lemche, the notion that ancient Israel could lose its land and go into exile probably wouldn't have been written down in the time of David and Solomon (if they even existed), for that was a time of Israelite security and power.

Could the exile have been the setting for the predominant hatred of the Canaanites that is within the Hebrew Bible's historical narrative? To get a feel for Jewish attitudes during the exile, Lemche looks at Second Isaiah, which he (like many scholars) dates to the exile. He says the following on page 165:

"...the answer to the question, 'What problems existed when the historical literature was composed which could have provoked such a rejection of the Canaanites as presented in this literature?', must be looked for in the exilic or the post-exilic period. In this connection it may be an important fact that Deutero-Isaiah never mentions the Canaanites, nor does he nourish any kind of hatred against foreigners (except, of course, against the Babylonians) which can be compared to the racist bias of the history writers. This may indicate that the grudge against the Canaanites against the historical books was not a part of the heritage of the exiles but originated in conditions which perhaps only arose after the official return of the Jews to Jerusalem after 538 BCE, and, furthermore, that the answer to the question, 'Who were the Canaanites?' should be looked for in the post-exilic period and not in either pre-exilic or exilic times."

Lemche doesn't think that Israel's historical narrative originated in exile because Second Isaiah, an exilic document, does not lambaste the Canaanites, as the historical narrative does; moreover, if the historical narrative originated in exile, why does it present the Israelites coming out of Egypt, rather than Babylon? Lemche notes that Israel's post-exilic period was when the Jewish returnees from exile had conflict with the inhabitants of the land, and that's why Lemche believes that this time period was the historical context for the biblical historical narrative's hostility towards the Canaanites. But I don't want to dwell on this.

What I do want to get to is something that Lemche says on page 168, for there he offers a possible scenario for the origin of the Hebrew Bible's historical narrative:

"In this literature the two geographical centers are evidently Egypt on one side and Palestine on the other, whereas Mesopotamia proper is only the ancient starting point for the migrations of the ancestors. In favour of Mesopotamia speaks the fact that, according to the ancestral narratives, Mesopotamia was still the right place for a law-abiding Jew to look for a wife. The last point, that of correct Jewish narratives, that is, marriage alliances between Jews of Palestine (Jerusalem) and Jewish women from Mesopotamia, could, however, be adduced in favour of a location of these narratives in Jerusalem and Palestine. It would thus be possible to maintain that the ancestral narratives show that in the eyes of the Jews of Palestine, their relatives in Mesopotamia were still and rightfully to be considered true members of the Jewish community, whereas the Jews of Egypt are, so to speak, 'ordered' to return home."

Lemche thinks that Jerusalem was where the narrative was written, and one reason that he mentions on page 169 is that the historical narrative emphasizes that city. David conquers Jerusalem, after all. But the narrative also nods at Mesopotamia as a place where observant Jews can get a wife, and as the place from which Abraham came. That shows that the narrative was written after some Jews had returned from Mesopotamia (Babylon), and the reason that Jews could look for a wife there was that it was the location of other observant Jews. And what about Egypt? There were Jews there, too, and the narrative said that they should come home---to the Promised Land.

But Lemche does not appear to think that the story of the Exodus originated in Israel's post-exilic period, for he says that Second Isaiah mentions it, and that he could have gotten it from the pre-exilic prophetic writing, Hosea (page 163).

Ruether on the Jubilee

I'm continuing my way through Rosemary Ruether's Gaia and God. On page 213, Ruether discusses biblical alternatives to apocalypticism, which she dislikes because it supports the destruction of this present world, a view that isn't exactly friendly to the environment (in her view)!

One alternative to apocalypticism that Ruether likes is the Jubilee of Leviticus 25, which entails the return of land to its previous owners, the forgiveness of debt, the release of Israelite debt-slaves, and the resting of land and animals. Ruether states the following:

"[I]t is a time of periodic righting of unjust relations, undoing the enslavements of human to humans, the losses and confiscations of land, that have created classes of rich and poor in Israel. The norm of a just community is one of free householders with land equitably apportioned among them...Unlike apocalyptic models of redemption, the Jubilee vision does not promise a 'once-for-all' destruction of evil. Humans will drift into unjust relations between each other, they will overwork animals and exploit land. But this drift is not to be allowed to establish itself as a permanent 'order.' Rather, it is to be recognized as a disorder that must be corrected periodically, so that human society regains its right eco-social relationships and starts afresh."

I can sympathize with what Ruether is saying. Imbalances do need to be corrected on a periodic basis, otherwise they will perpetuate themselves. There are some families that have had a long history of poverty, extending back for generations. Racial tension in America is still attributed to situations that existed two centuries ago. According to certain environmentalists, the environment has experienced cumulative wear-and-tear over a long period of time.

And yet, although I don't treat apocalypticism as an excuse for me not to address our current problems, I do have an apocalyptic hope that God will one day intervene and set things right, for I do not trust human beings to set up institutions that will allow for periodic correction. And Ruether talks about the tendency of some biblical writers to project the "periodic righting of relationships" onto a "more absolute messianic future, although still a future within history." We see this in prophets such as Isaiah, who predict a time when God will establish justice, albeit without destroying all of nature in the process (although there are apocalyptic writings in the Book of Isaiah).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Starting Lemche's The Canaanites and Their Land

I started Niels Peter Lemche's The Canaanites and Their Land. On page 6, Lemche states the thesis of this book:

"The main thesis of this book is that the 'Canaanites' of the Old Testament are not a real nation but an imagined nation placed in opposition to the Israelites. The Canaanites of the Old Testament are the 'bad guys', hated by God and the world, doomed, and to be replaced by the Israelites." As I said in my last post about Lemche's Israelites in History and Tradition, Lemche holds that this took place in Israel's post-exilic period, when a group within Israel demonized the inhabitants of the land to justify Israel's possession of it.

But aren't there references to Canaan in the ancient Near East? The answer is "yes," and Lemche discusses those references. Here are his conclusions:

"...Canaan was never a well defined and identifiable territory and...the term 'Canaanite' meant little to the people that lived in the Southern Levant in antiquity" (page 6).

"To the scribe of ancient West Asia 'Canaanite' always designated a person who did not belong to the scribe's own society or state, while Canaan was considered to be a country different from his own. In this way Abi-Milku [of Tyre] was able to include Ugarit in his Canaan, although the citizens of ancient Ugarit never considered themselves to be Canaanites. It might well have been the case that conversely, in the eyes of the Ugaritic administration, Abi-Milku's city was situated in Canaan, although Abi-Milku himself never says so." (Page 52)

And so, for Lemche, "Canaanite" in the ancient Near East usually referred to an outsider, and my impression is that the outsider is often West Asian. But there isn't consistency within ancient Near Eastern references to Canaan about the boundaries of the land. In an El-Amarna letter from the second millennium B.C.E., Abi-Milku of Tyre notes that the Pharaoh asked him to report on events in Canaan, and he proceeds to discuss what's occurring in Ugarit. For Abi-Milku of Tyre, "Canaan embraced [the area] from Damascus in the south to the Hittite border in the north" (page 30), which is in eastern Cilicia (at the bottom of modern-day Turkey) and inner Syria. Anson Rainey has a different interpretation of the Abi-Milku passage---that it means that the Pharaoh is wanting Abi-Milku to report on events in Canaan, meaning that Tyre is a part of Canaan. But Lemche seems to argue that Rainey has a vested interest in distinguishing Ugarit (in Syria) from Canaan, for Rainey wrote an article on a text in which "a foreign merchant visiting Ugarit is described as being a 'Canaanite'" (page 31). For Lemche, the situation appears to be that Abi-Milku in Tyre defined Ugarit as Canaan, whereas Ugarit viewed a foreign merchant as a Canaanite, meaning that Ugarit lacked a Canaanite self-identification.

A Hittite text from the second millennium, however, does not treat Canaan as either Tyre or Ugarit, forit distinguishes Canaan from those areas, even as it "combines Canaan with the coastal states along the Mediterranean, indicating that according to his understanding of Canaan this country was also situated along the Mediterranean coast" (page 42). And, indeed, Lemche says that the Egyptians regarded Gaza as the center of Canaan, for, "since the early days of their sway over Asia, [the Egyptians] used Gaza as their most important base in Palestine" (page 47). A second millennium letter from the king of Babylon to Pharaoh, however, refers to a city in Canaan that may be in Galilee, in the north of what today is Israel (page 33). And Lemche says that "Canaanite" could also function as a sociological designation, for a second millennium Mari text places "Canaanite" in parallel with an Akkadian word that is often used for "brigand"---and so the text may be saying that the "Canaanites" are outlaws, or even "highwaymen of foreign origin" (which is Lemche's quote of Manfred Weippert on page 28).

Regarding the first millennium B.C.E., Lemche says that Canaan at that time goes unmentioned in Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Syrian documents, but that there is evidence that some Hellenists equated Canaan with Phoenicia.

My impression is that Lemche is saying that the Canaanites were not an ethnic group in which one was "in" or "out," and knew that one was "in" and "out." People used "Canaanite" for outsiders, usually Asiatics, but there was no group regarding itself as "Canaanite." Plus, in the texts, "Canaan's" location is rather vague.

But wasn't it the case that the Hebrew Bible defined the extent of Canaan in terms of the boundaries of the Egyptian dominance over that region, after Egypt's treaty with the Hittites in the thirteenth century B.C.E. (see here)? Lemche says that the Hittite and Egyptian versions of the treaty do not specify "the precise location of the border between the empires" (page 68), which (for Lemche) may mean that we cannot look to those treaties to learn the definition of "Canaan" in the ancient world.

I'll say a quick word about the Hebrew Bible's lists of Canaanite nations, according to Lemche. Lemche says that the Hebrew Bible is generally precise about the location of Canaan, but that it lists nations, such as the Amorites (whom Lemche locates in Syria) and the Hittites, who were not in Canaan. For Lemche, the biblical authors are tossing in some names that they know from tradition, in order to put non-Israelites into the land for their story (pages 91, 100). These non-Israelites would represent the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine in Israel's post-exilic period.

Rome, Ascetic Christians, and the Environment

I'm continuing my way through Rosemary Ruether's Gaia and God.

In my reading today, Ruether discusses the environmental factors behind the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Granted, she acknowledges other factors, such as the Roman bureaucracies draining cities of their wealth, as well as the danger of the northern "Celtic and Germanic peoples" to Rome (page 187). But she believes that there were environmental factors as well. She states on page 187:

"Three millennia of exploitation of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea also took its economic toll. The irrigation methods of farming in the Tigris-Euphrates valley caused, even in the second millennium B.C.E., a process of salinization that gradually turned this fertile crescent into a desert.

"Phoenician, Greek, and Roman use of wood as the primary fuel, as well as material for all types of construction, denuded the forests of Lebanon, Greece, and Italy. Strip-mining and quarrying also ripped the ground cover and soil from hills. These hills, stripped of their cover, then became subject to vast soil erosion as torrential rains washed away the unprotected earth. Grazing sheep and goats completed the destruction of forest life. Deforestation dried up mountain springs, and soil erosion created malaria-filled swamps. This, together with inadequate disposal of sewage, often caused epidemics in crowded cities such as Rome.

"Almost all wild herds of larger mammals were also destroyed in Greece during the Classical period, and the Roman obsession with circus games wiped out vast herds of wild animals in Africa and Asia as far east as India...Ecological destruction was certainly one contributing factor to the collapse of the empire, and one that has generally been ignored by historians."

The heroes of this story, according to Ruether, are the Christian ascetics, who disliked the "accumulation of wealth" and "created a new union of subsistence agriculture with egalitarian spiritual community" (pages 187-188). Granted, Ruether holds that there were flaws in the Christian ascetics: their "contempt for the material world in favor of life after death" and their misogyny. But she maintains that the Christian ascetics can teach us about health and "harmony with other humans as with nature", as St. Francis exemplified.

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