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, even though it's not explicitly mentioned in Josephus. 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.

Edit 10/23/18: A previous version incorrectly stated that Josephus mentioned the practice of lighting candles.

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.