Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Absence of Evidence

Parshat Vayechi

I left this week blank for a while, not because there are a lack of topics, but rather because there were so many different choices that I wasn't sure what I wanted to talk about.  In the end, I decided on a discussion of a particular argument you see thrown around a lot among the Modern Orthodox, sometimes where it is applicable, but often where it isn't.  The argument is often stated as "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," and when misapplied yields to something akin to scientific nihilism.  I will demonstrate this with two contrived examples, and then follow it up with a discussion of a topic relevant to Torah historicity.

Before I begin, I will make a caveat.  This post assumes a general acceptance of scientific principles.  There can certainly be discussion on this matter, but I am far from an expert in philosophy of science or on the finer points of epistemology.  So, out of necessity, I'm going to take the accuracy of scientific methodology as an assumption.  This isn't too bad for this topic, since in general, the people who misuse "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" aren't rejecting the value of the scientific method intentionally. They're attempting to use scientific principles in a way that supports an improbable event.

President Wilbur Thwilmond

Imagine a situation where you are in conversation with me, and I state that there was once a US president by the name of Wilbur Thwilmond. You might reply that there was no such president by that name.  I will ask how you know that.  You might pull up a list of presidents, perhaps on Wikipedia, or maybe from the government website, and you'll note that the name Wilbur Thwilmond does not appear on that list.  "Ah," I'll reply, "but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  Just because the name does not appear on the list is not sufficient to prove that there was no such president."

Depending on how ornery I wish to be, the discussion can then devolve down a line familiar to anyone who ever discussed something with a conspiracy theorist.  I could bring up many possible scenarios that could have vaulted this individual to the highest office, along with lots of reasons as to why the person's name was suppressed in all historical records. I could even bring up alternate sources from other people (or myself under pseudonyms) sympathetic to the "Thwilmond Hypothesis" to bolster my claim.  Another thing I could do is "move the goalposts."  I could admit that there was no President of the United States named Wilbur Thwilmond, but there was a President of some other office.  I would redefine my original statement and claim that the essence of what I was saying as still correct.

The truth is, it is impossible to prove with full certitude that there was no president named Wilbur Thwilmond.  In fact, it's impossible to completely disprove any invention I could bring up.  Nevertheless, you'd be wise to reject my claims, and in fact, scientifically, you absolutely should reject my claims.  This is because scientific thinking never cares about one hundred percent certainty.  The next example will make this clear.

A Bag of Balls

Here's the second thought experiment.  Let's say I hand you a bag with ten balls in it.  You can feel from the outside that there are clearly ten balls.  You are allowed to take a ball from the bag, examine it, and then return it to the bag.  After which you may take another ball out.  You may never take more than one ball out of the bag, and each time you remove a ball, it must be randomly selected from all ten balls.  Let's say the first ball you take out is green.  So is the second.  And the third.  How many more consecutive green balls must you take out of the back before you can safely claim that there are only ten green balls in the bag?  Does the answer change if I tell you at the beginning that there are 9 green balls and 1 red ball in the bag?  What about, if I claim there were 9 red balls and 1 green ball?

The mathematical answer to both questions is "an infinite number of balls."  Mathematics deals in absolutes.  And no matter how low the probability goes, it never reaches zero.  That is not the scientific answer though.  Science deals in probability.  For this example, it's actually pretty easy to calculate the probability of taking N consecutive green balls out of a bag filled with 9 green balls and 1 red ball.  For example, there's a ~35% chance that the first 10 balls you take out of a 9-green, 1-red bag  are all green.  This amount falls off pretty quickly.  There's only a 1/200 chance that the first 50 balls are green.  There's less than a 1/37000 chance that the first 100 balls are green.  And if you sit through and pick 1000 balls out of the bag, there's only a 1/5 billion billion billion billion billion billion chance (6 billions = 9 millions = 1 quattuordecillion).

After 10 balls if you were to claim, "hey there's no non-green balls in here." I might reply "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  And I'd be using it correctly!  35% chance is certainly reasonable.  You have not picked enough balls to comfortably reject the red ball hypothesis.  Even at 50 balls, I might be able to get away with it, that's an unlikely occurrence for sure, but 1/200 is not outside the realm of possibility.  At 100, the phrase is misapplied, and it certainly is at 10000.  At what point have you gathered enough evidence to conclude the absence of non-green balls?

The answer is somewhat subjective.  In the scientific world everything is given with confidence intervals, or margins of error.  Often a result is stated with a 95% probability that the value is between two bounds.  In this case, it would take 28 balls to be 95% confident that there were only green balls in the bag.  Is this good enough?  It might be if you had no prior expectation of what colors of balls were in the bag.  This is where the second part of the question comes in.  If I told you there was one red ball in the bag, you might not be so confident in 95%.  You might require 99.5% (50 balls) or more.  Well, that's if you thought I was trustworthy.  If you thought I was infallible and would never lie, then you might never be satisfied, even at 1000 balls. Everytime another green ball gets pulled out of the bag, you might claim "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  But now, you have abandoned scientific principles.

Going back to the first example.  Can we say for sure that there was no President Wilbur?  No.  Can we state with a high degree of confidence that there was no President Wilbur?  Yes. Prior information, such as me saying that there is a President Wilbur, or that there is a red ball in the bag should only change the degree of confidence you need to reject the hypothesis.  If you set that degree of confidence at 100%, then you've put yourself in a situation where the scientific methodology will never produce an answer.  That's why I said above that using "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" in situations like these is akin to scientific nihilism.

Finally, the Kefirah

So now let's turn to an example of relevance.  There are no dearth of biblical claims that can be analyzed using scientific analysis, but in order to preview some topics we will discuss in future weeks, let's look at the Exodus story, one that begins at the end of Bereishit (Genesis) and culminates all the way in Yehoshua (Joshua) with the conquest of Eretz Yisrael (Israel).  The story makes several claims that appear to be testable.

The story claims a very large group of people leaving Egypt.  The number is given as 600,000 males between 20 and 60 along with women and children, giving a total number of roughly 1.5 million.  It claims a complete destruction of the Egyptian army at the time of departure.  It claims that the entire nation lived in various locations in the Sinai desert for 40 years, 38 of which were spent at one location, Kadesh Barnea.  It mentions other nations around at the time, kingdoms in Arad and Heshbon.  It mentions states of Ammon, Moab and Edom.  In the conquest, it claims that the Israelites captures many cities in a quick campaign, displacing the inhabitants.  It mentions destructions of the cities at Jericho and Ai, as well as other locations.  In a nutshell, this is the biblical claim.

We can pretend the ground is a giant bag, now with an infinite number of balls. Each ball that we pull out that supports the hypothesis can be a red ball, each one we pull out that does not support it, can be a green one.  Note, that it's not important here that the green balls contradict the hypothesis, just that they do not support it.  This analogy isn't perfect, no analogies are. In truth things aren't as binary as green and red.  But for this thought experiment, let's assume they can be.

We can temper our expectations based on location.  If we're excavating at Kadesh Barnea, and we're pretty sure we know where it is, we might have good expectations to get a red ball.  Similarly, if we're digging up Jericho.  If we're excavating in Syria, we might not expect to see much.  The type of evidence matters.  If we're trying to see the 70 individuals who went down to Egypt with Yaakov (Jacob) we might not be surprised if nothing turns up.  It's more likely than not that 70 people would get lost in the 2-5 million in the Egyptian empire.  However, with the 1.5 million that left, we would expect to see some trace.  Also, the time period matters.  Let's say we're looking for references to some of the other nation states, Ammon, Edom and Moab.  If we're looking in a period with a lot of recovered correspondence between states in the region, discussing treaties and trade details, then we might expect to see references to these nations if they existed at the time.  If we're looking in "dark age" regions with a very limited amount of correspondence, then it wouldn't be surprising to see nothing.

Just focusing on one event, the encampment at Kadesh Barnea.  The Torah claims that approximately 1 million people encamped there for 38 years.  There are two census counts in the Torah that claim this number, as well as the 600,000 count upon leaving Egypt.  An encampment of 1 million people would make this one of, if not, the largest city in the world.  We can also set bounds on the time period, loose ones for now [1].  It must occur in the middle to late bronze age, between about 1600 BCE and 1000 BCE.  Do we know where Kadesh Barnea is?  We think we do.  It is well known in later times as a trade route city between Arabia and Egypt.  It is located near an oasis, and while we could be wrong about the exact location of this settlement, cities of 1 million people are phenomenally large.  We dig in the region and what to we come up with?  Absolutely nothing.  Their are remains there from small outpost settlements much earlier, and much later, but nothing in the time frame in which the Israelites are supposedly there.  No pottery shards, no animal bones from the numerous sacrifices, no human remains from the entire generation that supposedly died there, no tombs or graves, no written records.  Every historian who looks at the archaeological result comes to the conclusion that if this account is referring to a real event, the numbers are horribly inflated. If there were indeed 1 million people here, we would not be only digging up green balls.   We would have hit at least one red ball.  We have not, despite an incredibly large number of motivated expeditions in the area, most of them by religious groups wishing to verify the biblical account and coming up empty-handed [2].

So the question I leave with, and one I won't answer here, is "How many consecutive 'green balls' would you need to pull out of the ground before you convinced yourself that there were no red balls in there.  This is something to keep in mind in future weeks, and if you do any of your own reading on the subject.  I will discuss the Exodus story in detail 3 weeks from now, and at some unspecified later point I will deal with the conquest of Israel. 

1. We'll look at the dates of the Exodus in 3 weeks (parshat Bo) and determine that it fits in no time period at all.^
2. Finkelstein and Silberman discuss the difficulty of Kadesh Barnea in "The Bible Unearthed."^

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Hyksos and the Jews

So far in this blog, I've limited myself to discussion about topics that, to the best of my knowledge, are in the academic mainstream. However, this week, I'll move a little further afield and look at a hypothesis that is a bit further outside. Or at least, we'll look at one of the pieces of supporting evidence for that theory and try to determine how it could have arisen.

Some Necessary Background
Before we get started, some history is necessary.  Specifically history of Egypt in the middle of the second millennium BCE. The fourteenth dynasty of Egypt ended with the invasion of the Hyksos in the 17th century. The Hyksos were a Semitic people and the fifteenth dynasty consists of Hyksos Pharaohs. They placed their capital in Avaris, on the eastern edge of Egypt, and ruled from that location for a hundred years or so. The 16th and 17th dynasties ruled smaller regions of Egypt in the south and west, also during this hundred year stretch. The Hyksos were expelled by the early Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty at about 1550 BCE. According to Egyptian sources, which we'll get to in a bit, the Hyksos then settled in the region of Canaan and Syria.

No records from the Hyksos themselves survive, and everything we know comes from the Egyptian side. Temple inscriptions, pharaoh lists, and other archaeological realia, including the destruction of the Hyksos capital Avaris (now Tel-el-Daba) confirm the basic story. However, there were several written accounts appearing much later. The one we'll focus on today is the account of Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived over 1000 years after the events described in the preceding paragraph, in the 3rd century BCE.

Manetho's actual writings have been lost, but they were recorded by Josephus in his work "Against Apion." The expulsion of the Hyksos in Manetho's account bears some resemblance to the Exodus account of the Torah. Indeed, the story of a group of people that left Egypt under unfriendly terms, and then settling in the Canaan region, has led lots of people to associate the Hyksos expulsion with the Exodus story [1]. Around the time of Josephus the connection was explicit, with the Hyksos founding the city of Jerusalem after the expulsion. Although, it should be noted, that Manetho himself, never seems to equate the Hyksos with the Jews.  We'll discuss more about the relation between the Exodus narrative and the actual Hyksos expulsion in a future week when we discuss the historicity of the Exodus.  For now, we'll focus on a specific detail in Manetho's account.

The Problem of False Cognates
Now that we've got the basic history out of the way.  Let's turn to the Torah.  This week's parsha includes the following verse (Gen 46:34) 
That ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.'
The idea that shepherds are abominable to Egyptians is strange, because Egyptians certainly had shepherds and practiced animal husbandry throughout their entire history [2].  Even the Torah itself acknowledges that the Egyptians kept cattle, as we see in Gen 47:6:
[Pharaoh says to Joseph] 'the land of Egypt is before thee; in the best of the land make thy father and thy brethren to dwell; in the land of Goshen let them dwell. And if thou knowest any able men among them, then make them rulers over my cattle.' 
It is true that Egyptians did not practice animal sacrifice, like the Semitic nations did, but that's not what the verse seems to imply. Where could this have come from?

The answer lies in Manetho's account. Manetho derives an etymology for the Hyksos from a combination of the words hyk and sos. Hyk he relates to the Egyptian word for kings, and sos he relates to the Egyptian word for shepherd. This is the same root that shows up in shasu, which was commonly used to define desert dwelling shepherds.
However, today, we know more about the Egyptian language of the 17th century BCE than the Egyptians of the 3rd century BCE did, and we find that Manetho's etymology was in error. Looking at inscriptions from the 17th century, we can determine that the correct meanig for sos is foreigners, not shepherds. Hyksos actually means foreign rulers. However, Manetho's etymological meaning, or wherever he learned it, became the standard in Egypt and everyone, including Josephus would translate the Hyksos as the shepherd kings.
The Torah Includes Manetho's Error
The explanation for Gen. 46:34 offered by Russell Gmirkin, in "Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and the Exodus [3]" is that the authors of these verses in the Torah were basing their writing off of Manetho's account.  Gmirkin sees the version of the Exodus in the Torah, as a reaction to the Egyptian accounts, in which the Hyksos, or proto-Israelites, were invaders and cruel tyrants, who were expulsed through valiant Egyptian military action. In the Exodus account the Jews are the ones who were treated cruelly, and they escape through valiant divine intervention. In both stories the foreign people are despised by the Egyptians.  In the Egyptian account it's because they are foreign occupiers.  The Torah, however, states that the Egyptians despised them simply because they were shepherds.

The inclusion of this false etymology, is to Gmirkin, a sure sign, that the Torah authors must have based it off of Egyptian accounts. If they had their own historical documents, completely independent from the Egyptian accounts, they would not have produced this error.  Remember that the error only exists because of a false cognate in the Egyptian language!  Gmirkin actually goes further and claims that the Torah must have been written after Manetho's account, but I don't think that's necessary or as well supported. What is more likely is that whatever source Manetho used also had this error. We don't know when people started thinking of the Hyksos as shepherd kings, and it very well could predate Manetho. However, if Jews were using Egyptian sources to frame the Exodus, then it makes sense to ascribe this bizarre statement about the Egyptians hating shepherds to a reaction to the Egyptian account.

1. See for example, Finkelstein and Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed" Simon and Schuster, 2001 p. 54-56.^

2. The Papyrus Anastasi 6.4.16 describes Egypt giving refuges to bedouins and their herds at Per Atum. Gmirkin, "Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and the Exodus" T & T Clark, 2006, p. 179, footnote 57.^

3. For more see Gmirkin p. 178-180.^

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why do we Light Hannukah Candles?

 Parshat Miketz (Hannukah)

As popular culture's favorite Jewish holiday approaches, it's a good idea to ask the question of why we light Hannukah candles. Ask any Jew today, and a good many non-Jews, and you'll get an answer which is something like, "a flask of oil was found with only one days worth of oil and it lasted for eight days, long enough for new oil to be made." But, if you asked a Jew shortly after the victory over Antiochus, would they give the same answer? What about one several hundred years later, in the first century CE? What about the rabbis of the Talmud? This is the topic of this week's post.

Hannukah in the Book of the Maccabees

The best source we have about the events concerning Hannukah are in the book of the Maccabees. There are several versions online. Here's one in English. The English is just as good as Hebrew here, since the original Hebrew is lost, and both would be translated from the surviving versions in Greek. There are several books of the Maccabees, but the first one is the important one. Let's see what it says about the rededication of the temple, the original Hannukah.

The rededication is described in 1 Mac. 4:36-61 and is too long to quote here in full, but feel free to read it in the link above. The menorah is mentioned exactly once in the rededication in verses 49 and 50. (It's also mentioned earlier when it gets carted out along with everything else by Antiochus.)  The two key verses are:
49 And they made new holy vessels, and brought in the candlestick (menorah), and the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. 50 And they put incense upon the altar, and lighted up the lamps that were upon the candlestick (menorah), and they gave light in the temple.
As is obvious upon first reading, there is no mention about difficulties regarding lighting the Menorah.  No talk about kosher oil, and miraculous long burning oil.  They recaptured the menorah, brought it into the temple, and lit it.  C'est fini.

In addition to 1 Maccabees, there is also the book of 2 Maccabees, which describes the creation of the holiday. A version of the text in English can be found here. The orginal was written in Greek, probably in Alexandria, and like most of the works of the Egyptian Jews, it is not held in high regard by Jews today. Nevertheless, it also describes the events of Hannukah, and is one of our early sources for the observance of the holiday in the years immediately after the event. The purification is in chapter 10 and is similar to what is in 1 Maccabees. Some excerpts are given here.
3 They purified the sanctuary, and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they burned incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence... 5 It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. 6 And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 7 Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. 8 They decreed by public ordinance and vote that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.
As you can see, there is no mention about the miracle of the oil in this one either. In both places the holiday seems to resemble Sukkot both in length and in practice.  As far as these books are concerned, the eight day length is chosen to mimic that holiday. If the writers of the books of Maccabees knew about this miracle, they declined to mention it at all. It's not clear when exactly the book of Maccabees was written, but it's certainly the earliest references we have to Hannukah.

Hannukah in the First Century CE

At this time, the holiday had already been established. We know this because of the writings of Josephus who testifies to the practice. He writes about it in Antiquities 12.7.6-7. Again some excerpts.
"So he chose some of his soldiers and gave them an order to fight the men that guarded the upper city until he has purified the Temple. When therefore he he had carefully purged it he brought in new vessels -- the menorah, the table and the incense altar, which were made of gold, and hung up the veils at the doors and restored the doors themselves. He also took down the altar and built a new one of stones that he gathered together, and such as had not been hewn with iron tools. And on the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, which the Macedonians call Apellaios, they lighted the lights that were on the menorah, and offered incense upon the altar, and laid the loaves upon the table, and offered whole burnt offerings upon the new altar...Indeed, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs and, after so long a time, having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this, which we call the Festival of Lights, because, I imagine, beyond our hopes this right was brought to light, and so this name was placed on the festival. (my emphasis)
Josephus mentions that it was called the festival of lights, but makes no mention about the lighting of candles for the holidays, or indeed the miracle of the oil.  He even makes a guess as to why it's called the festival of lights, and the guess has nothing to do with the menorah that he mentions earlier!  Furthermore, Josephus was a sympathizer and supporter of Judaism.  If Josephus wanted to de-emphasize the insurrectionist nature of the holiday, which would prevent the Roman from cracking down on it, basing the holiday on a miraculous reestablishment of candle lighting seems like it could provide an innocuous reason for celebration.  It seems clear to me, Josephus did not know the story about the magical oil, or if he did, he didn't think much of it.

Hannukah in Talmudic Times and Later

The first reference we have to the miracle we all know about comes all the way in the 5th century CE. It is from the Hebrew commentary to Megillat Ta'anit, which can be read here.  There are a couple reasons mentioned for the Hannukah observance.  My translation from the Hebrew commentary is as follows:
"When the Greeks entered the temple, all the oil had been made impure, and when the Hasmoneans overcame them, and drove them out, they checked and did not find but one jar of oil that had the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest) that was not made impure and not used. It had but one day, but a miracle occurred and it lasted for eight."
So there we are, the origin of the stories. The same story appears, essentially verbatim in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b)  But there's more in the text of Megillat Ta'anit. It also asks again why eight days, and it gives a different answer. The answer (again, my translation):
"In the days of the Greek kings, the Hasmoneans entered the temple, and built he altar, and cleaned it, and built tools, and it took them eight days. And how did they light the candles? In the days of the Greek kings, the Hasmoneans entered the temple, with seven spears of iron in their hands and they grabbed wood with them and lit with them the Menorah."
Later on, in the 9th century CE, the Pesikta Rabbati (ch 2) asks the same question. My translation is as follows:

"And why do we light candles on Hannukah? In the time when the children of the Hasmonean high priest defeated the Greek kings, as it is written, "I will stir your sons, Israel against your sons, Greece (Zech 9:13). they entered the temple, and found eight iron spears and they fixed them and lit in them."

So it seems that even relatively late, at the end of the 1st millennium CE, it was unclear to people what was the correct reason for lighting candles!  The Pesikta Rabbati thinks that it should be eight days because they used eight iron spears as a makeshift menorah.

Where did the Practice of Lighting Candles Actually Come From?

Based on the above sources, it seems very unlikely that there was a tradition of lighting candles on the holiday immediately after the event.  It seems from the sources above, that the tradition of lighting candles came first, it's mentioned in Josephus, and the explanations of the practice in light of Hannukah miracles came later. But where could the practice come from. For this we turn back to the Gemara.

The section in masechet Shabbat mentioned above is the only section in the Talmud which clearly references Hannukah, but there's a passage in masechet Avodah Zarah that should catch your attention. Page 8a (my translation):
"Rav Hanan bar Raba said, Kalends is 8 days after the turning (solstice), Saturnalia is 8 days before, this is symbolized by, 'from the back and from the front you have afflicted me (Psa. 139:5).' Our Rabbis taught, when Adam saw that the days were getting shorter he said, "Oy vey, maybe because I messed up, the world is getting dark, and it will return to chaos, and this is the death, decided for me from heaven." He then made an 8 day fast, when he saw the turning of Tevet, and saw a day that was longer, he said, 'It's the way of the world', and he made an 8 day holiday. In the following years he made each of them festivals. He did it for God, but they (Romans) do it for idolatry."
This idea of a festival to mark the time when the days start getting longer is common. Many cultures have solstice festivals around the new year, and Romans were no exception. The Talmud's Rabbis were not quite accurate with their understanding of Roman culture. The Kalends were the first day of the new month, and there was one for every month. They were not an eight day holiday. Similarly, Saturnalia varied in length from three to seven days, but never eight. What was eight days long and at this time of year?  As we've seen earlier, the original Hannukah celebration was eight days. Why would the Rabbis make such an obvious connection between Saturnalia and Hannukah?

Perhaps we can glean some more info if we look at the Roman festival of Saturnalia itself. Fowler in his book "Roman Festivals" (p 272) describes the giving of gifts on the Saturnalia holiday. He says:
"...among [the gifts] the wax candles (cerei) deseve notice; as they are thought to have some reference to the returning power of the sun's light after the solstice."
So the Romans had a holiday, around the solstice, in which special candles played an important role. He also describes the holiday as incredibly popular quoting Seneca (p. 270) as saying, "All Rome would go mad on this holiday."

Now we can try to piece together the origin of the Hannukah candle-lighting custom, putting all the evidence together with a bit of reasonable speculation. Just like during the actual time of Hannukah under the Greeks, some Jews probably adopted some popular Roman cultural elements (we saw this earlier with the attempt to make fake foreskins).  It seems reasonable to assume that many Jews participate in the most popular holiday, Saturnalia. It's also possible that the Saturnalia celebration rivaled the normal Hannukah celebration, already established around this time. This, did not sit well with the Rabbis, as you might imagine. But, it would be difficult to abolish such a popular Saturnalia celebration by fiat. So instead, they merged it with Hannukah. Alternatively, it's possible that popular culture did the merging and the Rabbis just had to provide an explanation of why Jews are now lighting candles.

Nevertheless, having a holiday that originated among the pagan Romans was anathema to the Rabbis, so they produced their own stories about why candles are lit. This explains why the stories about finding a magical jar of oil or lighting eight spears are so much later than the rest of the Hannukah story. The Rabbis even went a step further, taking the Jewish version of Saturnalia and projecting it back to Adam, thereby justifying the observance of even that.  Also note that this reason for an eight day holiday has nothing to do with insurrection against a ruling power.  Something the Rabbis sitting under the thumb of Rome were definitely cognizant about.

Judaism has a long history of adapting stuff from the cultures around it. It was really only after the Talmud was written that things started being set. Even then there were changes, but they were lesser in magnitude. This adaption and merging, or to use the academic word, syncretization, of other cultures is one of the themes I've been attempting to bring out in this blog. And we'll see even more examples in the future, I'm sure.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Story or Stories of Joseph and the Pit

Parshat Vayeshev

Up until this point I've only vaguely mentioned the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), which is among the leading hypotheses to explain the creation of the Torah, and is taught in every secular biblical course at the university level. I have mentioned that different paragraphs were probably written by different people at different times. I've also mentioned the most agreed upon statement that Deuteronomy (minus the last three chapters) was written by a different author or authors than the other four books. However, these kind of claims are more general than the DH. They can be attributed to many other hypotheses about the writing of the Torah.

What is unique to DH is that it states that the Torah existed as separate complete or near-complete documents, and that these documents were merged together by a redactor. One piece of evidence for this process appears in stories which are repeated in separate places, like the stories of Avraham (Abraham) and Yitzchak (Isaac) passing off their wives as sisters in foreign lands. Another piece of evidence, and the focus for today, are stories that look like they were spliced together from two distinct sources. When the sources are separated, various inconsistencies and contradictions vanish, and you are left with two complete stories. This is a very difficult procedure to do for any standard writing you would pick up, and its repeated success in many stories in the Torah should at the very least provoke some serious thought as to why the Torah was written in this way.

As an example of this process, we'll look at the story a the beginning of this week's parsha which deals with Joseph's brothers throwing him into the pit.

Problems in the story

The story of the selling of Joseph appears in 37:18-36 and is pretty convoluted. It's probably a good idea to pause and read it now. If you've read it you'll notice a very strange sequence of events. in 37:28 Midianites pass by, and "they" drew Joseph out of the pit and "they" sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for silver, and "they" brought Joseph to Egypt. Then later in 37:36, the Midianites sold Joseph to Egypt. In order for the surface reading to make sense, Rashi interprets the first they, the people who bring Joseph out of the pit as the brothers, even though the previous sentence had the subject as the Midianites. He also interprets the second they as the brothers, and says that the brothers sold them to the Ishmaelites, who then sold them to the Midianites. Rashi does not specify which group was responsible for bringing Joseph to Egypt, but presumably it's the Ishmaelites, which means the second "they" in verse 28 refers to them, even though they haven't appeared yet in the story!

There's another bizarre wording issue in the text.
21 And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: 'Let us not take his life.' 22 And Reuben said unto them: 'Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him'--that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father.
When I used to read it, I would read the second sentence as elaborating on the first. However, there are problems with this reading. First, the second sentence repeats Reuven said, where the Torah usually would  use something like "And he said" when the speaker does not change. This is a small problem. The bigger problem is later in the text it is Yehudah (Judah) who is responsible for taking him out of the pit and not killing him. Where was Reuven? Later he comes back to the pit and no one is there, and he's distraught.

Breaking into Two Stories

Now let's see what happens when we split this story into two. The first story looks like this:
19 And they said one to another: 'Behold, this dreamer cometh. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say: An evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams.' 21 And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: 'Let us not take his life.' 25 And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. 26 And Judah said unto his brethren: 'What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.' And his brethren hearkened unto him.  28b and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt.
And the second one:
18 And they saw him afar off, and before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him 22 And Reuben said unto them: 'Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him'--that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father. 23 And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colours that was on him; 24 and they took him, and cast him into the pit--and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. 28a And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, 29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. 30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said: 'The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?' 31 And they took Joseph's coat, and killed a he-goat, and dipped the coat in the blood; 32 and they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said: 'This have we found. Know now whether it is thy son's coat or not.' 33 And he knew it, and said: 'It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces.' 34 And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: 'Nay, but I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.' And his father wept for him. 36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, the captain of the guard.
The Documentary Hypothesis puts authors to these stories

According to DH, the top story is by J, which I would describe is something like "tales and legends of the southern kingdom". Notice how in this version, Yehudah (Judah) is the one who takes control of the situation. He is the one who steps up, the leader. This will be true throughout the Yosef saga, Yehudah is the head of the tribes. In the second version, the version attributed to E, which could be read as "tales and legends of the northern kingdom," Yehudah is not relevant at all. Here it's Reuven who is the one who saves Yosef, and Yehudah isn't even mentioned! Also, splitting into these two stories makes the surface reading clearer as far as Reuven returning to the pit. In this version, the brothers threw him into the pit, left to eat, the Midianites took him out, and then when Reuven returned to rescue him, Yosef was gone. In the patched together version, Reuven must have wandered off somewhere when the rest of the brothers, led by Yehudah, sold him. None of the other brothers even felt the need to inform him that Yosef isn't actually dead, just sold to Egypt?

Splitting the stories resolves all the textual problems. The two consecutive sentences that begin with "Reuven said," the convoluted selling chain, the narrative inconsistencies of Reuven knowing or not knowing that Yosef is alive. To me it's pretty clear. This is one of many instances were separate stories were cobbled together to create a single harmonized reading.

In general, I think DH oversells its claims, but it's foolish not to recognize where it does admirably well.  This is just one example of a situation where it works extremely well to clarify a biblical story.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Parsha Vayishlach

I imagine that some people will be turned off at the title of this week's post. After all, it's no secret that Jews have been victims of some of the most vicious propaganda in the last 2000 years.  Jews have been accused of being murderers of Christian children, shadowy riggers of world markets, and polluters of wholesome societies. However, propaganda is very old and very effective, and there are lots of stories in the Torah that really seem like propaganda.  We'll look at few of the ones that occur in Bereishit (Genesis) this week.

Rival nations

The nations of Yehuda (Judah) and Yisrael (Israel) were surrounded by other nations, sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly. In each case the Torah gives a description of the origin, sometimes positive, sometimes cautious, and sometimes negative. Always though, the other nations are inferior in some way to the two Jewish nations. 

Esav (Esau) who is the progenitor of the kingdom of Edom, is treated cautiously. Similarly, Lavan (Laban) who is a stand-in for the northern neighbor Aram. The etiological tales about them make Esav come off as a bit dim-witted, and Lavan as conniving, but both are treated with grudging respect.  Not so the two nations between them, Ammon and Moab. The stories about their origins is dripping with contempt. Bereishit (Genesis) 19:31-37 recounts the story. 
31 And the first-born said unto the younger: 'Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth. 32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.' 33 And they made their father drink wine that night. And the first-born went in, and lay with her father; and he knew not when she lay down, nor when she arose. 34 And it came to pass on the morrow, that the first-born said unto the younger: 'Behold, I lay yesternight with my father. Let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.' 35 And they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose, and lay with him; and he knew not when she lay down, nor when she arose. 36 Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father. 37 And the first-born bore a son, and called his name Moab--the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day. 38 And the younger, she also bore a son, and called his name Ben-ammi--the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.
Both nations were bastards born out of incestuous unions, things that would put you on the bottom of society in the Iron Age Ancient Near East. Indeed Devarim (Deuteronomy) 23:4 makes it clear that the Ammonites and Moabites are not welcome as converts.

It is also known, both from the Tanach and through the Mesha Stele that Moab was a vassal to the kingdom of Israel for some period of time. The Mesha Stele describes how the Moab kingdom broke free from their vassalage to the kingdom of Israel. It is easy to imagine how stories about these kingdoms, claiming that they are a bunch of half-breeds could lead to justifying political and military conquest and subjugation.

By far though, the tribe with the biggest propagandistic hit attack is the Amalekites. Here, the Torah commands nothing short of genocide of everyone.  Deut. 29:19:
Therefore it shall be, when the LORD thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget. 
And lest you think that this doesn't mean the actual wholesale slaughter of the Amalekites, as is popular in modern commentaries who wish to distance Judaism from genocidal commandments, 1 Sam. 15:1-3 can put that idea to rest.
1 And Samuel said unto Saul: 'The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over His people, over Israel; now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. {S} 2 Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'
Why this hatred? The story is that the Amalekites attacked the Jewish people as they were fleeing Egypt. Did this actually happen, or is this used as a justification for killing all of them and taking their land?  Also, remember, that by the time Shaul (Saul) and Shmuel (Samuel) get around to slaughtering the Amalekites, something like 300 years have passed since the supposed actions of their forebears. Even if the story wasn't invented, should the people dwelling there now be judged for the actions of their ancestors? As members of a people that have been the victims of propaganda induced genocide, stuff like this should elicit concern.  It is easy to notice propaganda when you are the one being targeted. It is much more difficult to recognize it when someone else is the victim. 

Propaganda is powerful, and it can be used to justify all sorts of heinous acts. Propaganda is often necessary to rally citizens to go to war with other people that they might otherwise not want to fight. It deepens divisions between peoples and nations. It's something we should all be vigilant for. How sure are you that the Torah is the inspired word of God commanding genocide, and not the desire of a very human king to destroy a rival kingdom?  Would a divine author even use such tactics?

Propaganda for Land Claims

There are a slew of examples in Bereishit of propaganda providing land claims.  The land given to Avraham by God, going from the Nile to the Euphrates (Gen 15:18) was far larger than any Jewish nation every actually possessed, and could give justification for any Israelite aggression against a nearby nation.  There's the famous story of Avraham buying the cave of Machpelah in a way that makes it clear that this land is property of the Jews (Gen 23:1-18).  The monument that Yaakov set up with Lavan that we looked at last week, is a way for the Israelites to mark off territory (Gen 31:44-54).  There are many more examples.

Propaganda to Elevate

Propaganda also can be used to elevate one group or individual.  The stories of David, for example, are filled with propaganda, or at least stuff that really really seems like propaganda.  For example, there are several stories that make it clear that David absolutely did not kill Shaul.  He could have but didn't (1 Sam 24:1-7, 26:1-14),  and Saul definitely was killed another way, he killed himself (1 Sam 31:4) or was killed by an Amalekite (2 Sam 1:10).  Why so many stories of this sort?  Could it be the transfer of power was messy and David was implicated in a coup?  Who knows.  These stories seem to be designed to clear his name and head off any suggestions of dirty business.  The propaganda worked, David is seen as the head of the Judean dynasty to this day, and is beloved by Jews everywhere.

We also see propaganda with respect to Jews themselves.  Jews are "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Exod. 19:6)"  Jews are a holy people chosen by God as his treasure (Deut. 7:6).  I certainly remember being taught in Yeshiva, that we Jews were better than everyone else, simply because we were Jews, and the Torah tells us that we're better.  These things aren't said in polite conversation, but this idea of superiority is another form that propaganda takes.

There are many instances of propaganda, or things that really look like propaganda in the Torah and Tanach.  It's definitely something one should keep in mind whenever a story speaks negatively about another individual or nation.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Parshat Vayetze

Why the book of Bereishit (Genesis) was written, is a question that scholars and rabbis both ask. Prolific medieval commentator Rashi poses it in Bereishit 1:1, offering the option that the Torah should begin partway through Exodus when the first mitzvot are written.  Traditionally, Jewish commentators have attempted to extract moral, and sometimes disastrously, scientific and historical lessons from the various stories.  We will provide one alternative reason for various stories in Bereishit.  We'll note that one reason cannot suffice for all the stories, many of which may have been written at different times for different purposes.  This week we will look at etiological reasons, and next week we will look at another reason, which I'll leave for a surprise.

Etiology, in the context I'm using it, basically means explanations for why things are the way they are, usually with mythical or historical reasons. These are sometimes used to explain why things are named the way they are. For example, Homer describes the naming of the Greek city of Delphi as arising because of the transport of people to the city on dolphins (the actual origin likely has to do with a similar sounding word meaning womb.) Sometimes, these stories are used to explain why certain religious activities are performed. An example here could be the Aztec belief that the sun was a deity that required continual human sacrifice to be sustained or he would fail like the four previous suns did.  The story of the four previous suns gives an etiological reason justifying the current human sacrifice ritual.  Sometimes these explain physical phenomena, an example from the Torah would be the explanation of why rainbows exist at the end of the flood story.

The Torah furnishes lots of examples of etiological stories. These stories are present in pretty much every culture that has provided us with a record of beliefs.  It's not surprising that the ancient Israelites would provide us with their stories also.

The naming of places

In this week parsha, we have etiological examples of place naming. After Yaakov (Jacob) has his famous dream with the ladder to the heavens, he wakes up and says: (Gen 28:17-19),
17 And he was afraid, and said: 'How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God (beth elokim), and this is the gate of heaven.' 18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. 19 And he called the name of that place Beth-el, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
The Torah tells us how the city of Luz got the name of Beth-el. It's because Yaakov associated it with the house of God, beth elokim.  Beth-el actually gets named a second time, also by Yaakov (Gen 35:7), for a different reason.  And furthermore, it seems to have already had this name by the time Avraham came through (Gen 12:8).
This parsha also informs us of how all the tribes got their names, providing etiological explanations for all of them. Just one example will suffice (Gen 29:32)
And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said: 'Because the LORD hath looked (ra'ah) upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.'
The name Reuben is explained to derive from the root ra'ah, to look. The other tribes are named similarly.  These etiological origins for names are all over the Torah, sometimes in cases that make no sense.  For example, Moshe (Moses) is a well known Egyptian name, but in the Torah etymology, she is named by an Egyptian princess with a pun that only makes sense in Hebrew.

At the end of the parsha we are given one more example of an etiological naming, the area of Gilead, is explained as to have arisen from the words Gal Ed, literally, monument-witness. This is because Lavan (Laban) set up a monument as a witness for a non-aggression treaty with Yaakov.

Ritual explanations

Unfortunately, this parsha doesn't furnish us with an example of an etiological reason for a ritual, however, next week's does, so we'll look ahead a little.

The story of Yaakov's wrestling with a mysterious man provides us with lots of etiological reasons for things. It gives an explanation of why Yaakov is also known as Yisrael, because he "strove" (saritah) with God (or gods) (elohim). It tells us why the river is called Yavok, because a man "wrestled" (vayeavek) with him. It explains why the place gets the name Penuel, because Yaakov saw God face (panim) to face. And lastly, and relevant to this topic, it explains the religious restriction on not eating a particular part of an animal (32:33).
Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.
The beginning phrase of this sentence, here translated "therefore" is in Hebrew al cain, and is often written in the Torah prior to an etiological reason for a specific practice. Similarly the phrase "until this day" is used in a lot of etiological contexts. The simple way to interpret these phrases is something like, "this is the way these things are at the time of writing, and here is why."

Natural Phenomena

Most of the Torah's examples of etiological explanation for natural phenomena occur in the first two parshiot. We learn why it rains from the sky (there's water above that's kept there by a rakiah, a firm boundary). We learn why women have pain during childbirth, and why agriculture is so darn hard. We learn why there are rainbows, and why it's impossible to understand the weird speaking neighbors to the east.  At least we learn the mythological stories that the ancient Israelites invented over the course of many years to explain these things. We actually know the real reasons for these phenomena nowadays, and many religious Jews interpret these stories allegorically, because the etiological explanation have since been proven false. 

There is one example from a recent parsha of a natural phenomenon with an allegorical explanation.  Normally regions surrounding bodies of water are lush areas, full of plant an animal life.  However, the region near the dead sea is the exact opposite, it is completely devoid of life, a barren wasteland.  The sea itself has a salt concentration far higher than what life can thrive in.  How did this region become so?

The Torah's answer was that it once was fertile, just like every other body of water.  But it was wicked and was turned into what it is today as punishment from God, and all the population were killed.  Just like the stories earlier in Genesis, we know today that there was no catastrophic geological behavior in this region in the last 10,000 years.  This is another example of the ancient Israelites inventing explanations for the world around them etiologically.

Understanding the World

Etiology is a manner in which many ancient people used to understand the world.  This is a great human desire from the dawn of time, and it's no surprise that every culture has these kinds of stories.  One question to ask, for people who hold the Torah to have some special divine value, is whether the Israelite stories differ in style or verifiability from the many other stories that have been passed to us from other cultures.  Having read a lot of these stories, it is my opinion that there is no noticeable difference.  However, perhaps you have a different view.  I'd love to hear. 

Next week we'll talk about another, sometimes overlapping reason, for why the book of Bereishit was written.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Patriarchs in the Nevi'im

Parshat Toldot

One of the main differences between how I studied the Torah as a religious Jew and how I approached it as an atheist is the relative weight given to the prophetic writings versus the Torah. In the religious world, the Torah is paramount, and the rest of the Tanach is of far less importance. The Torah came first, was written directly by God, and the rest was written later, and was more subject to human error. However, these assumptions are not clear from the biblical text itself, and indeed, modern academics argue that many of the prophetic writings predate the Torah and represent an earlier view on these topics. If you remove the assumption that the Torah is earlier, it may be possible to recreate how various stories developed by looking at how the prophets viewed them, and only afterward, do you decide which timeframe best fits the composition of the Torah itself.

This week we'll look at the prophets for clues on how they related to the early patriarchs.  We'll note, that as we discovered last week, Yaakov (Jacob) is associated with locations in the northern kingdom, while Avraham and Yitzchak (Isaac) are associated with locations the southern kingdom.  We also noted that the stories with Yitzchak were much fewer than with Avraham and Yaakov. We come in with the expectation that the northern kingdom prophets will focus more on Yaakov while the southern prophets will focus more on Avraham. 

The early prophets

There are four prophets that self-proclaim the dates of their composition to be in the late 8th century BCE, making them the earliest of the prophets which left writing.    The four prophets are Hoshea (Hosea), Amos, Michah (Micah), and Yishayahu (Isaiah). Yishayahu is a bit of a problem, since modern academia is pretty confident that everything from at least chapter 40 onwards was written by later authors and appended to the text, and therefore falls under the term "pseudopigraphia". We won't discuss the reasons for that this week, but we'll only consider chapters 1-39 as the relevant chapters of Isaiah for this exercise.  We'll look at these prophets in turn.

Hoshea, was a northern prophet, who focuses mainly on the north. He prefers the term Ephraim for the northern kingdom, but also uses Yaakov (Jacob) as a synonym for Yisrael (Israel). Hoshea seems familiar with the basic outline of the story of Yaakov. He writes (Hos. 12:3-5):
3 The LORD hath also a controversy with Judah, and will punish Jacob according to his ways, according to his doings will He recompense him. 4 In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and by his strength he strove with a godlike being; 5 So he strove with an angel, and prevailed; he wept, and made supplication unto him; at Beth-el he would find him, and there he would speak with us;
12:13 also mentions Yaakov fleeing to Aram. Hoshea does not mention Avraham or Yitzchak at all.  He is either unaware of them, or does not think they are relevant.  Out of all the prophets Hoshea is actually the only one with what looks like clear references to biblical stories, the event at his birth, the wrestling with an angel, and the sojourn in Aram.

The next prophet to look at is Amos. He is a bit of an oddity in that he was born in the southern kingdom but appears to have spent most of his time in the northern kingdom. Amos is the only prophet to mention Yitzchak, however he spells the name differently with a sin instead of a tzadi. To Amos, Yitzchak is a synonym for the kingdom of Judah (Amos 7:9, 7:16). Like Hoshea, and indeed nearly every other prophet, Yaakov is used a synonym for the northern kingdom (Amos 3:13). Amos makes no mention of Avraham, although he does mention Yosef (Joseph), and associates him with Bethel (Amos 5:6).

Michah is the third prophet. He was a southern prophet and spoke in the south. The very last sentence, 7:20, is the only mention of Avraham. Yitzchak is not mentioned at all, and Yaakov is associated with the north (1:5) specifically Samaria.  Incidentally, Michah also is the only prophet in this set to mention Moshe (Moses), Aharon (Aaron), and Miriam (Mic. 6:4).

Yishayahu is by far the most prolific author in this group.  He is a southern one prophesying in Judah. Although in all 39 chapters that are clearly attributable to him, Avraham is only mentioned once (29:22) and Yitzchak not at all. Like the others Yaakov is a synonym for the north.

Looking at these four as a group, we see that only the purely northern Hoshea makes no mention of Avraham. Only Amos, a southern transplant to the north, knows about Yitzchak. Everyone seems to know about Yaakov, but mostly this is a name for the north, synonymous with the kingdom of Israel (not necessarily the person.)  Only Hoshea, a northern prophet, mentions things that reference the Patriarchal stories that we are familiar with in Bereishit (Genesis).  

This fits very well with the conclusions from last week based on the locations where each patriarch was most associated with. Avraham and Yitzchak were associated with southern locations, with Avraham having a much more extensive story. Yaakov is associated with the north, and indeed in nearly all the prophetic texts it is synonymous with the northern kingdom, often to the exclusion of the southern kingdom, which is usually Yehudah (Judah).

Prophets after the Destruction of the Northern Kingdom

In the period after the destruction of the northern kingdom, but before the southern kingdom (722 BCE - 586 BCE), there were several prophets.  The most prolific was Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), but also we have Zephaniah, who unfortunately mentions none of the Patriarchs in his short work.

Yirmiyahu mentions Avraham and Yitzchak exactly once, and this mention is in a string that includes all three Patriarchs in the correct order.  He is the first prophet to mention all three.  Verses (Jer.) 33:25-26 read:
"25 Thus saith the LORD: If My covenant be not with day and night, if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth; 26 then will I also cast away the seed of Jacob, and of David My servant, so that I will not take of his seed to be rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for I will cause their captivity to return, and will have compassion on them."

This is the earliest we can claim for certain that all three Patriarchs were known and ordered together.  Although even in these verses, Yaakov is also mentioned as a synonym of the north, here contrasted with David, who represents the south.

Patriarchs in Exilic and Post-Exilic Prophets

The towering figure in this era is Yehezkel (Ezekiel), who wrote in the time of the Exile.  He makes no mention of Yitzchak, and only mentions Avraham once, but in the role of a Patriarch (Ezek. 32:34).
 Son of man, they that inhabit those waste places in the land of Israel speak, saying: Abraham was one, and he inherited the land; but we are many; the land is given us for inheritance.
Even in the relatively late date of Yehezkel, Yaakov is associated with the north specifically, usually in exclusion of the south.  For example, 39:25
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD: Now will I bring back the captivity of Jacob, and have compassion upon the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for My holy name.
and 20:5
and say unto them: Thus saith the Lord GOD: In the day when I chose Israel, and lifted up My hand unto the seed of the house of Jacob, and made Myself known unto them in the land of Egypt, when I lifted up My hand unto them, saying: I am the LORD your God;"
For other post-exilic prophets, the only one worth mention is Malachi who mentions that Yaakov and Esav (Esau) are brothers in his opening sentence.

There are further mentions in the books from Yehushua (Joshua) to the end of Melachim Beth (2 Kings), however the dates of composition of these works are by no means certain.  Unlike the prophets, the author is not identified.  There are also a few mentions in the remaining prophets that do not give a time stamp, but most of these works are short, and the absence of a Patriarch has minor meaning.

What Does it all Mean?

If all you knew about the Patriarchs came from Nevi'im (excluding Yehushua - Melachim which are traditionally grouped in Nevi'im, but are clearly different styles of work), you would produce a picture that placed Yaakov as the name of the northern kingdom, along with Yisrael, and sometimes Ephraim.  You might conclude, at least from Hoshea, that there was a actual person by this name, but this wouldn't be too surprising considering that most Israelite works assume that nations are named after human founders (a poor assumption in reality.)

You would then probably relate Avraham to the southern kingdom, and conclude that Yitzchak was a minor character, only playing a significant role in one of the prophets (Amos).  This is exactly the same as the hypothesis we had last week from looking at the Torah alone.

You'd also then be hard-pressed to come up with a time period when Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov were considered the Patriarchs of both the southern and northern kingdoms.  While, you might get as much from Yirmiyahu, the later Yehezkel, clearly associates Yaakov only with the north.

For these reasons, and for the reasons we discussed last week, many academic scholars see the final codification of these stories, the ones that appear in the Torah, to post-date the Exile.  The actual time period varies greatly depending on scholar from around the Exile to all the way into the Hellenistic period.  It's possible that individual narratives existed much earlier, at least we can glean as much from the stories of Hoshea which seem to be aware of some of the stories in Bereishit.  But none of the other stories, especially the ones of Avraham seem to be known, or at least were not important, to the prophets.

As a final note, there's an important point in that last sentence.  Assuming the prophets were writing for an audience, and were prophesying to the people of their time, then one might expect them to reference popular stories from the Torah.  The Rabbis in our shuls certainly do this in their weekly sermons.  This is especially poignant in that these references are powerful.  God promises things to Avraham and Yitzchak in various visions.  If these stories were known, one might expect prophets to refer to them when trying to convince the Israelites to keep up their end of the bargain.  But they don't.  They are not found at all, except for some brief mention in Hoshea.  This is very peculiar, and it seems to indicate that the stories of the patriarchs, one that are known to almost all Jewish and Christian children, were not well known at all when the kingdom of Israel and Judah stood.  The fact that the prophets do not refer to the Patriarchal stories, makes the traditional timeline extremely unlikely.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Wanderings of the Patriarchs

Parshat Chayei Sarah

This will be a two part post, split into two weeks. In the first week, we'll look at the various wanderings of the patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak, (Isaac) and Yaakov (Jacob), throughout the book of Genesis. We'll focus on the places that they went to, and we'll notice that even though the patriarchs are supposed to represent all Jews, both in the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah, the patriarchs tend to be leave their mark exclusively in sites near the north (Yaakov) or the south (Avraham, Yitzchak), and only travel to the other region for story continuity reasons.  This is a topic we'll pick up next week where we will get more support from this hypothesis from the prophets.

Additionally, we'll discuss some of the reasons that academic scholars think that multiple traditions, or indeed multiple authors, are represented in these stories.  There are multiple stories in which the same patriarch, or a different one, travels to the same place and does the exact same thing, with some slight alterations, and no indication that there ever was someone that did this previously.  We'll also briefly touch on some of the historical anachronisms in the stories, which are indications that they were written much later than traditional thoughts, and represented a world closer to the 1st millenium BCE rather than the 2nd millenium BCE.

When I started researching this topic, I wasn't exactly sure what I would find.  This type of approach, where you are unsure of the answers, and you accept whatever answer the data give, is more in line with a scientific type of thinking.  This is completely different from the theological type of thinking in which the answer is already determined, and the verses are interpreted to support it.  Personally, I find the scientific approach much more satisfying.

All verses, unless otherwise noted, are from Bereishit (Genesis)

Abraham, wanderer of the South

On the fairly poorly made graphic below, I've attempted to plot out the paths of the patriarchs, starting with Avraham in red and continuing with Yitzchak in green, and finally Yaakov in blue. Avraham begins his journey well off the map in Ur Cashdim far in eastern Mesopotamia. He winds up in Haran in the northeast of Israel where God tells him to go into Canaan (12:4). This is the red dashed line on the plot. Avraham passes briefly through Shechem (12:6), and his first encampment is between Beth-el and Ai (12:8).

 Poorly made graphic of the wanderings of the Patriarchs.  Red represents Avraham, Green is Yitzchak, Blue is Yaakov. 

After this Avraham, makes a trip to Egypt because of famine, and we encounter the first story of a patriarch journeying to a different land and telling the ruler that his wife is his sister.  This causes trouble for the ruler who then takes the matriarch as a consort and is punished for it (12:10-19). After Egypt, Avraham returns to the camp between Beth-el and Ai briefly (13:3) where he splits up with Lot. Then Avraham travels to Elonei Mamre which later verses indicate is in Hebron (13:18). This is the home base of Avraham from here on out, and he remains here all the way until Chapter 20.

In 20:1 Avraham travels to the Philistine city of Gerar (an anachronism) and repeats the wife-swapping misadventure with a new king. Avraham dwells somewhere in that land when Yitzchak is born, the place is not indicated. However, 21:33 places him in the vicinity of Be'er-Shebah and a story is given for how that place got its name.

The last adventures of Avraham begin with Akedat Yitzchak, the sacrifice of Isaac, which is not placed explicitly in the Torah, but traditionally occurred in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). As such I've put his path there. Afterwards, Avraham returns to Hevron where he is buried (25:9).

The most important points to note in the travelings of Avraham is that the vast majority of the places he visits are southern locations. He very briefly passes near Shechem, and camps near Beth-el for a short time, but there are no real events that occur there.  Beth-el was a very important city on the border of the two kingdoms, but in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel. Most of the events of his life occur in the south, in Hevron, Be'er-Shebah, Egypt, and even possibly Yerushalayim. Peripheral events, like the adventures of Lot in S'dom and Amorah (Sodom and Gemorrah) are also southern locations.

The wanderings of Yitzchak

Yitzchak gets the least attention out of the three Patriarchs, and he never leaves the southern areas. He starts at Be'er Lahai Roi (25:11) a place that is somewhere in the Negev, but otherwise not well known. He repeats his father's adventure in Gerar, where he tells the same Philistine king, with the same captain of the guard, that his wife is his sister, and similar bad things occur (26:1-17). Afterwards, Yitzchak digs a bunch of wells in the desert, culminating at Be'er-Shebah (26:33) where Yitzchak seemingly has forgotten that his father named the place in the past, renames it with the same name, but for a different reason! Presumably, Yitzchak settles here, because at this point the focus of the story switches to his son Yaakov.

The wanderings of Yaakov

Yaakov begins his adventures proper when he leaves his childhood home of Be'er Shebah (28:10), traveling to the north, to Aram. He makes a pit stop in Beth-el where he has the famous dream with the ladder (28:11-22) and at this point he names the place Beth-el (28:19). That verse also mentions that the previous name of the place was Luz, which is somewhat confusing, because when his grandfather Avraham passed through, the place was called Beth-el and not Luz.

Nevertheless, Yaakov, reaches Aram, and lives there for 20 years, siring 12 of his 13 children. Yaakov leaves in chapter 31, and has an encounter with Laban somewhere in Gilead, and the Torah gives an explanation for why that area got its name. On his return home, Yaakov has adventures in multiple places mostly on the east side of the Jordan river (transJordan). The first adventure is in Mahanaim where he encounters a bunch of angels and names the place accordingly (32:3). He then has the famous encounter with the angel at Penuel, near Nahal Yabbok. (32:22-32), providing names for both of those places, as well as giving the reason why Yaakov is also known as Yisrael (Israel). Yaakov then travels to Sukkot (33:17) and explains the naming of that place, finally winding up back across the Jordan in Shechem (33:18) where he remains for a while.  He never makes it back to Be'er Sheba.

In 35:1 God tells Yaakov to go to Beth-el. The Torah informs us again that the place was once called Luz (35:6) and Yaakov names it Beth-el a second time, again for a different reason (35:7). Afterwards, (35:9-10) God changes his name to Yisrael, even though it was already changed in the past. The final travels of Yaakov has him going to Beth-lehem, where Rachel is buried (35:19) and then he buries his father in Hevron (35:27-29). Chapter 37 opens with the Torah giving no more specific location of Yaakov than that he was in Canaan. At this point the story shifts to focus on his children, mainly Yosef (Joseph).

If Avraham is the hero of the south, then Yaakov is the hero of the north. He is strongly associated with the city of Beth-el, an extremely important city of the northern kingdom of Israel. Not to mention that he shares his adopted name Yisrael, with that of the northern Israelite kingdom. Other cities like Shechem, and the various locations east of the Jordan river, are in the territories of Israel.

Geographical Associations

Looking at where the patriarchs spent their time, we have Avraham, who starts far in the north, but spends all of his adult years in the south, with his northernmost location near Beth-el. Yitzchak who never leaves the south at all. And Yaakov, who begins far in the south, but spends all of his adult life in the north, before returning to the south in order for the story to connect with that of Yosef which occurs in Egypt. Each one is associated with specific places, Avraham with Hevron, and Be'er Shebah, Yitzchak with Be'er Shebah, and Yaakov with trans-Jordan locations, Shechem, and most importantly, Beth-el. 

From here we have the basic framework of our first hypothesis.  Avraham and Yitzchak, were the patriarchs of the south.  Yaakov was the patriarch of the north.  They were essentially separate stories, but at some point, the two stories merged into one.  A good guess for when this happened was after the northern kingdom was destroyed in 722 BCE, and residents of it fled to the south.  With the merging of the stories, the patriarchs became a single hereditary line: Avraham - Yitzchak - Yaakov. For continuity's sake, they then had to live in the other's territory at the beginning and ends of their lives.  

Based on the data, this is the hypothesis I've come up with.  But in order for it to be believable, it needs support from writings outside the Torah. We'll test the hypothesis next week when we'll look at some supporting information from this from the prophets.  We'll see that the prophets strongly associate Avraham and Yitzchak with the south, and Yaakov with the north. 

Repeated Events (Doublets)

Also, we see that the Torah repeats events. There are three stories of a patriarch trying to pass a wife off as a sister, and bad things happening to the king who is taken by the ruse. It also gives multiple explanations for place names, each one seemingly unfamiliar with previous explanations.  There are two separate explanations for the naming of Be'er Shebah, and similarly, two separate instances for the naming of Beth-el. It is these features that have led academic scholars to hypothesize that these various stories represent different traditions that were later compiled together. A hypothesis called the Documentary Hypothesis which we've already hinted at, but will deal with in more detail throughout the year, goes a step further.  It states that there were actual separate documents that were redacted together and relates these documents to specific historical time periods in different locations. Scholars who aren't comfortable with multiple documents, hypothesize that these stories arose from multiple conflicting oral traditions that existed at the time that the author was writing the Torah, and that author wished to incorporate as many of the conflicting oral traditions as possible. Either way, the presence of these duplicated events create huge problems for traditional readings, and traditional explanations require tortured readings of the text.


One of the most glaring anachronisms in the Patriarchal stories is the presence of the Pelishtim (Philistines).  Both Avraham and Yitzchak visit the lands of the Pelishtim, and live there for several years.  They also feud over territory in the south, in the vicinity of Beer-Shebah.  In later years, Pelishtim were rivals of both kingdoms throughout the monarchial period.  They controlled the coasts, including lucrative trade routes, and fertile lands by the Mediterranean, while the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were relegated more to the inner highlands.  However, the Pelishtim were not always there.

In the beginning of the 12th century BCE, the "sea peoples" arrived and destroyed many lands.  They were responsible for the destruction of Ugarit in the north.  And they also took control of the coastal regions from the Egyptians, who then retreated back to Egypt.  Before the arrival of the Sea Peoples, Egypt controlled all of Canaan.  After this, the "sea peoples" settled in the cities and built new ones.  Their arrival is attested archaeologically by the destruction of various cities, and the presence of new Aegean pottery which was found starting at this time at key cities of the Pelishtim.  Furthermore, Rameses III mentioned the Pelishtim as one of the Sea Peoples [1].  So we are pretty certain that the Sea Peoples included the Pelishtim, and thus, the Pelishtim could not have been in Israel before 1200 BCE.  Therefore, these stories must have been written much later, after all memories of the arrival of the Pelishtim were forgotten.  [2]
The city of Gerar as the capital of the Pelishtim, is even more problematic. 
Quoting Finkelstein/Silberman,"Gerar is today identified with Tel Haror northwest of Beersheba, and excavtions there have shown that in the Iron Age I [~1200 - 900 BCE] - the early phase of Philistine history - it was no more than a small insignificant village.  But by the late eighth and seventh century BCE, it had become a strong, heavily fortified Assyrian administrative stronghold in the south, an obvious landmark. [3]" 

And on the choice of cities that the Patriarchs visited, they say the following:
"The Middle Bronze [~2000-1500 BCE, a traditional dating for the Patriarchs] was a period of advanced urban life.  Canaan was dominated by a group of powerful city-states, ruled from such capitals as Hazor and Megiddo.  These cities were strongly fortified by huge earthen ramparts with massive gates.  They had great palaces and towering temples.  But in the biblical text we do not see this at all.  True, a few cities are mentioned, but not necessarily the most important ones.  Shechem (as a city) is not there, nor are Bethel and Jerusalem - all three were massive Middle Bronze strongholds.  And in the plains we should have heard about Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer, not Gerar.  The biblical story of the patriarchs is clearly not the story of Middle Bronze Canaan. [4]"

Now, some caution is in order when dealing with specific dates, as Finkelstein's proposed dating system is not universally agreed on.  However, the disagreement usually run in the order of about 100 years, and we're talking about discrepancies of over 500.  The conclusion is inescapable.  The authors of these stories were living in a time much later than the supposed events, and did not know what the land looked like at the distant past time period in which they chose for the setting.  Rather they placed them a mythical nomadic past, which may have been accurate at some points in the history of Canaan, but not at the time they chose! 

Ok, that's enough for this week.  Next week we'll look at what the Nevi'im have to say about the patriarchs

1. Redford, "Egypt Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times" Princeton Univ. Press, 1992, p. 246. ^

2. For more on this see Finkelstein and Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed," Simon and Schuster, 2001, p.86-90. ^

3. Ibid. p. 38.^

4. Ibid. p. 323.^