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.^

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Brief History of Ancient Circumcision

Parshat Vayera

This weeks parsha begins with Avraham sitting in front of his tent after he recovers from his circumcision, mentioned at the end of last weeks parsha. It also presents the first mention of ritual circumcision on an 8 day old infant, with the circumcision of Yitzchak (Isaac). Therefore, we will spend this weeks post discussing circumcision.

This post will talk about the ancient origins of the practice. While I definitely have opinions on the moral aspects of circumcision, I will refrain from discussing them here. This post will produce a lot of speculation on the evolution of the procedure, which is hard to avoid, since there's so little information, biblical or otherwise to go on.  But I will present everything I've dug up.

Circumcision in Ancient Egypt
A common argument for Judaism is that the religion has so many bizarre and burdensome commandments, that it would be hard to convince people to uphold them if there wasn't a really good reason, such as a divine revelation of said commandments. However, this argument tends to fall apart for most of the commandments that it's used for, mainly because there's evidence of origins for the practice that began in other cultures in earlier times.  So at the very least, it doesn't take a divine commandment to get people to do it.  Presumably the other cultures who performed the same bizarre rituals didn't also receive a Torah from God outlining the practices. Circumcision is one of those commandments.  It's often upheld as a practice that would be impossible for a religious charlatan to convince a population to do.  Therefore, the argument goes, it could not have been invented by man, and must be divine.  However, as we'll see in a moment, circumcision existed in a nearby culture to the Israelites, much earlier than any date offered for Avraham in Egypt.

David Gollaher gives a rundown of what we know about the Egyptian practice in his book "Circumcision - A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery."  Most of the book deals with modern practice, which is of less interest to us this week.  But the beginning of the first chapter discusses some of the ancient history.  Gollaher says that the earliest reference to circumcision comes from a relief in the necropolis at Saqqara and dates to 2400 BC. An image of the relief is reproduced below.

 Relief of necropolis at Saqqara [1].

Among the text is written in hieroglyphics: "Hold him and do not allow him to faint (left image)". and, (circumcisee to circumciser) "thoroughly rub off what is there" [2]

Later textual descriptions of circumcision in the 23rd century BCE has an Egyptian describe himself being circumcised along with 120 other people. Furthermore, X-ray scans of mummies indicate that circumcision dates back all the way to the 4th millenium BCE.  The purpose of Egyptian circumcision is unclear. It is possible that it was restricted only to the elites. Gollaher conjectures that a likely purpose of circumcision is to eliminate the production of smegma, and restore a natural orderly flow to the body's fluids, an obsession of ancient Egypt religious ideas [3].

It is important not to read too much into an Egyptian/Israelite connection of the ritual.  For one the length of time between our Egyptian sources and the Israelite ones is very long.  Redford, an expert on Egyptology and it's relationship with Canaanite culture, does not include circumcision in the list of Israelite practices that were derived from Egypt [4].  Rather the point is merely that there were people who practice circumcision with presumably no prompting from God.  This allows for a precedent where the Israelites could also have done the same.  Whether it originated in Egypt, Israel, or native is superfluous to the main point.

Circumcision in the Torah
Unraveling the history of circumcision in the Torah is fraught with difficulties. It is a very bizarre commandment, in that it is only mentioned as a positive commandment in Genesis, and the other mentions of it are in either metaphorical terms, such as circumcising one's heart (Deut 10:16, 30:6) or in agricultural terms (Lev. 19:23-25). Additionally, while not mentioning the words for circumcision itself, the Torah marks that uncircumcised people cannot partake in the Pesach (Passover) offering (Ex. 12-48).  Lastly, there's the account of the sons of Yaakov (Jacob) convincing the population of Shechem to circumcise themselves so that the heir to the throne can marry their sister, and then summarily slaughtering them all (Gen 34).

The passage in Genesis (17:14) in last week's parsha states: 
"And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.
The phrase "cut off from his people" is a commonly occurring phrase in the laws of Leviticus and Numbers, but is entirely absent from Deuteronomy. This leads scholars to associate this passage with the authors of most of Leviticus and Numbers, all of which were relatively late in the standard chronology

In addition to the above references, there is one very confusing passage about circumcision in Exodus 4:24-26 that deserves special mention.
24 And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his (whose?) feet; and she said: 'Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.' 26 So He let him alone. Then she said: 'A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.'
This passage has led to many explanations both from Rabbis and academic scholars. The academic position is that this represents a very early account of circumcision in Israel. The idea being that circumcision is thought to have some salutary properties.  It is a way to ward off death or disease. In this way, we can posit a possible connection to the Egyptian ideas behind the practice.

The "bridegroom of blood" is very strange, as it's unclear when in the history of Israel circumcision was actually called this.  One suggestion is that the early Israelite culture performed circumcision as a prenuptial rite (in most cultures it's an adult thing, not a child thing), and that is the real origin of the phrase.  However, at this point, infant circumcision is already the norm, so the author needs another explanation for this phrase [5].
Another passage mentioning circumcision that could be argued to be early is from the book of Joshua.
2 At that time the LORD said unto Joshua: 'Make thee knives of flint, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.' 3 And Joshua made him knives of flint, and circumcised the children of Israel at Gibeath-ha-araloth. 4 And this is the cause why Joshua did circumcise: all the people that came forth out of Egypt, that were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came forth out of Egypt. 5 For all the people that came out were circumcised; but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, had not been circumcised.
Here we have a circumcision procedure done not to infants, but to adult men. Furthermore, there is the claim that circumcision was not practiced at all in the wandering of the desert.  Something very strange given the commandment that no one who is uncircumcised can partake in the Pesach offering, which certainly occurred in the desert (Numbers 9:6-8 for example). Later in the biblical chronology we see that circumcision is used as a distinction between Israel and other nations, most notably the Philistines. 

Circumcision as a Cultural Marker

The practice continued in the same way in Israel until it became a clear cultural divide between them and various neighbors. Such divides are very useful for ethnic continuity, and as such, the procedure became central to the identity as Jews.  It's not clear when it started being performed on infants, but I would guess that it was established by the time of the exile, if not earlier. One of the important issues for the Babylonian exiles, and indeed Jews in the later Persian and Hellenistic periods, was the establishment of Jewish identity. In fact, circumcision gets the most attention during the Hellenistic period when it was considered a mark of shame for many Jews, so much so that they made themselves fake foreskins!  The book of  1 Maccabees (1:15-16) relates:
15 And they built a place of exercise in Jerusalem, according to the laws of the nations: 16 And they made themselves prepuces, and departed from the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathens, and were sold to do evil." 
Here we see the power of something like circumcision as a cultural factor.  It's an inescapable mark on your body that automatically assigns you to a specific group, despite whether you want to be associated or not.  It's no surprise that all the branches of Judaism that have survived until this point consider this commandment to be extremely important.

In Summary

Circumcision predated the biblical commandment by over 1000 years, and perhaps up to 3000.  It is a very old practice, and one with origins that are shrouded in mystery.  However, it is certainly not a divine commandment given only to the descendents of Abraham, as the Torah claims.  It is found to be practiced in earlier times by cultures not derived from him.

Early references to the practice in the Tanach like the story with the circumcision of Gershom, the son of Moshe and Tzipporah, and later with Yehoshua, indicate a practice that was important, but not as a cultural marker.  If you want to claim that the origins were for some health benefits, as is popular in some circles today, the story of Gershom's circumcision lend some support.  The circumcision of Gershom prevented someone's death.

Later though, in Babylon, and under Persian and Greek control, circumcision was a key cultural marker.  It forced Jews to identify as Jews, unless you were able to craft a fake foreskin in order to properly assimilate.  It is still just as important today.

While I will eschew mentioning my own position of the morality of the practice, I will note that if the public view changes so that infant circumcision is considered highly immoral, Judaism will have a very difficult choice to make.  It seems inconceivable, to me at least, for Judaism to let go of this central practice.  But if the alternative is societal isolation?  It's hard to say.    

2. Gollaher, "Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery" Basic Books, 2000, p. 2 ^

3. Ibid pp. 3-6 ^

4. Redford, "Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times" Princeton Univ. Press, 1992, p. 383.^

5. Kugel, "How to Read the Bible" Free Press, 2006, p. 220, and sources therein.^