Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Song of the sea

Parshat Beshalach

The central moment of this week's parsha is the climactic conclusion to the Exodus account which occupies the first half of the book of Shmot (Exodus).  In the story, the escaping Israelites are trapped between a pursuing Egyptian army and an impossible body of water, Yam Suf (Red Sea or Reed Sea depending on who you talk to.)  However, miraculously, God parts the water, the Israelites pass through on dry land, and then when the Egyptians pass through afterwards, the waters return drowning the army.  After the Israelites triumphantly return on the other side, they sing the song known in Hebrew as Az Yashir and in academic circles as "The Song of the Sea."

The Song of the Sea is going to be the topic of this post.  Specifically we will ask two questions, the first is whether the song is, as academics claim, one of the oldest parts of the Torah, composed far earlier than the stories that surround it.  And second, we will look at the precise relation between the song of the sea and the story of the splitting of the sea that was synopsized above.  Specifically, we will find that the song of the sea makes no mention of a splitting of the sea and seems to be referring to a different event, now long forgotten.  The Song of the Sea takes up the majority of the 15th chapter, and all verse references will be to that chapter.

Dating Texts

Dating biblical texts is a daunting task.  Typically, one can use any of the following, (1) the type of language used, whether it uses archaic words or modern words.  (2) The type of syntax or morphology present.  (3) What spelling of words are used. (4) Where it fits in theologically in the development of Israel.  (5) Where it fits in traditionally regarding the historical views of Israel's ancestors.  And/or (6) Historical references that can constrain when it was written [1]

For now we will avoid using 4 and 5, since they are very contentious and assume at first that you know something about the historical and theological development of the Israelites.  The 6th option is not terribly useful either, it tells us for example, that it was at a time period after the Egyptians had domesticated horses, but that doesn't really help much.  Of more use are the references to the Philistines, Moab and Edom, nations that did not exist until the late bronze age at earliest in tribal form, and not as kingdoms until much later.  The third is tricky as well, since spelling corrections are the most likely corrections by later editors, and there's no doubt that the biblical texts underwent editing corrections of this type.  This leaves the first two.

On the syntax side (2), there are two aspects of the song that appear archaic.  The first is the prevalence of mo or umo endings.  These are somewhat equivalent to "eth" endings on verbs in modern day English.  They only exist in a very specific subset of texts, ones that are old, or ones that are trying to sound old.  They are used correctly here, as far as we can tell, so if someone was faking it, they did a very good job [2].  The second syntactic feature is the absence of ha in front of nouns where you would expect.  In Hebrew this means "the" and the contention is that this was a new syntactic feature of the language that appeared in the early Iron Age, similar to developments in Akkadian and Arabic [3].

For the language (1), it certainly appears that some of the words used are archaic.  Some are so old that they are hapaxes (words with no other appearances).  This makes translation difficult for one, but hapaxes aren't a sole indication of age.  They could be nonce words for example. A full discussion of the various archaic language features are given by Cross and Freedman [4].  We won't go into details, because I imagine there aren't many people that are as interested as Hebrew linguistic development as me, so I'll just quote their conclusion on the matter.
"In its metrical style and strophic structure, the poem fits precisely into the pattern of old Canaanite and early Hebrew poetry.  The repetitive parallelism, mixed meter, and the complex makeup of the strophes suggest an early date of composition."
Why Yashir and not Vayashar?

So I said I wasn't going to delve too deep into grammar, but there's one point I'd like to make.  There's a lot of fuss about the fact that the literal translation appears to be "And then Moshe will sing" i.e. Az Yashir, where you would expect something like "And then Moshe sang", i.e. Vayashar Moshe.  The answer could be just a matter of old sounding text where the yaktul form, used in modern day, and most biblical text, as a future tense, was also used in ancient Canaanite and Ugaritic as a past tense.  It is clearly an old form that had completely fallen out of practice by the time the rest of the biblical texts were composed.  This shows up in other places in the song as well, and modern translators often render those forms incorrectly as future forms [5].

The Song Itself and the Extra Verse

The song can be broken down into several parts.
  • 1-3: Introduction, praise of God.
  • 4-12: God drowns the Egyptians, who pursue the Israelites, in the sea.
  • 13-18: God brings the Israelites to Canaan and all the surrounding nations are afraid.
  • 19: A but wait there's more verse.  It mentions that the Israelites walked on dry land in the water
Verse 19 is tricky.  First of all, it does not look archaic at all, in morphology or language.  The meter is nothing like the rest of the verses.  Furthermore, verse 18 certainly sounds like a conclusion to the song.  By the time it reaches verse 19, it's already long after the song finished talking about the drowning of the Egyptians.  So it's out of place in content as well as style.  Everything seems to point to verse 19 being added, but why [6]?  What problem was an editor trying to solve that they appended this verse to the song?

How did they Sink if they were Already at the Bottom?

If you read verses 4-12 carefully you'll notice some odd features in the song that don't seem to match up with the preceding story.  In the preceding story, Moses splits the water, the Israelites travel through it, and then the waters return on top of the Egyptian army as they try to follow through afterwards.  In other words, what verse 19 is trying to describe.  In the song, the language is different.  The armies are "cast into the sea" and the captains are "sunk" in the sea (v 4), where they are then "covered by waters" and "sink like rocks" (v 5). A little bit later, (v 10) they "sink like lead" (v 10) and "the earth swallows them" (v 12).  The question is, if they were already at the bottom, then how could they sink?  These verses seem to suggest a story where God caused a violent storm or large waves that either carried Egyptian armies out to sea, or sank Egyptian vessels.

The observant reader will notice I skipped verses 5-10 above.  Some of them aren't relevant, but one is.  Verse 8, is possibly one of the most difficult verses to translate in the entire Torah.  It has archaic words, including one hapax.  It's also the verse that's used to extract the entirety of the preceding story.  Verse 8 in the JPS translation is:" 
And with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were piled up--the floods stood upright as a heap; the deeps were congealed in the heart of the sea.
Frank Cross translates it in the following way:
At the blast of your nostrils the waters heaped up. The swells mounted up as a hill; The deeps foamed in the heart of the sea [7].
For the first time in this blog, I'm going to need to include the actual Hebrew to go further: 
וּבְרוּחַ אַפֶּיךָ נֶעֶרְמוּ מַיִם, נִצְּבוּ כְמוֹ-נֵד נֹזְלִים; קָפְאוּ תְהֹמֹת, בְּלֶב-יָם
We can see the problematic words are נֵד and קָפְאוּ.  The first, ned, is the hapax mentioned above.  The only other mentions of this word are derivative from this verse, so can't be used for translation.  The JPS translation translates it as "heap."  Other translations are more brazen and use words like "column" or "wall." Cross says this is wrong, and says, that the only etymological evidence we have for this word is an Arabic cognate, nadd which means "hill" [8].

The second word, translated in JPS and most places as "congeal" is also extremely difficult.  The word occurs in 3 other places biblically.  Zech 14:6 is nearly impossible to translate based on context.  Zeph 1:12 is also difficult, but seems to be the act of precipitating dregs in wine.  And Job 10:10 has it relating to cheese.  Iyov (Job) is a difficult text to use, because it is one of those works that by all rights is late, but is purposely filled with archaisms and obscure words, often incorrectly, to make it sound old.  In Talmudic Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew, the word seems to be used as in Zephaniah to precipitate solids in liquids.  Cross seems to indicate that we should probably translate it as something like "to rise to surface," "form scum, froth or foam," or "curdle" [9].

If you buy Cross's translation of verse 8.  And you accept that verse 19 was a later addition. Then the song contains no references at all to the splitting of the sea story. Rather here we have a story in which the pursuing Egyptian army is caught in a violent squall, or possibly something like a tidal bore, and dragged out to sea and drowned.

Poem First, Prose Later

The sketch I'll present to you is one that appears many times in the Tanach when a poem seems to parallel a prose section.  Generally the idea is that the poem was written earlier, and the prose sections came after.  The same idea is suggested for the Song of Devorah (Judg. 5) and the stories that relate to the blessing of Yaakov (Gen. 49).  Here too, the poem came first, and the story came later.

So why is the story different than the poem?  There are several possibilities.  One is that the prose authors made the same translation errors we did.  After all, these words may have been just as obscure to them as they are to us, since they appear nowhere else in the Torah.  Another possibility, is that they took another story which was already known about Joshua splitting the Jordan river (Josh 3:9-17) and adapted it to this situation. They conflated the two stories, God drowning the Egyptians, with God splitting the river Jordan, and the result was the story that we all know and are left with.   There's yet another possibility.  The splitting of the sea could be used as a demonstration of God's power over the mythical sea.  This would be similar to what Marduk does to Tiamat, where he splits the carcass.

There is one possibility that supports the last reading. We mentioned above the possibility that the absence of the ha prefix in words was a possible sign of age.  Several of these missing words are with regard to Yam (verses 7 and 10).  It might be that these are referring not to the generic idea of Yam as a body of water, but as the mythical Yam, the god of chaos.  Unlike the battle with Ba'al, here it is one-sided.  Yam is not a worthy adversary for God, just another tool at his disposal.  Later biblical authors may have conflated a song with a sea element with the mythical account of splitting the dead chaos-sea-monster.  A stretch perhaps, but one worth considering.

Regardless, how you approach it.  The clear fact that the song does not seem to align with the prose sections must be explained somehow.  Especially if you think they were all written contemporaneously.  However, this isn't the end of the problems.  There are also contradictory elements in the prose sections themselves.  Unfortunately, these will have to wait for another year.

1. F.M Cross "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic" Harvard Univ. Press 1973 p. 121^

2. Cross and Freedman, "Song of Miriam," J Near Eastern Studies, Vol 14, No. 4, 1995 p. 237-250^

3. Kugel, "How to Read the Bible," Free Press, 2006, p. 227 and see footnote 24.^

4. Cross and Freedman, "Song of Miriam."^

5. F.M Cross "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic," p. 125. This interpretation might be problematic since first verse isn't actually part of the song. It could be an example of improper use.^

6. See the previous discussion on Sukkot and the additions accredited to Ezra.^

7. F.M Cross "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic," p. 128.^

8. Ibid, see footnote 58.^

9. Ibid, see footnote 59.^

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Historicity of the Exodus

Parshat Bo

This week will focus on the historicity of the Biblical Exodus.  There is no doubt that the Exodus is one of the most inspiring stories in all of history.  The idea of a redemption of a distressed people in a foreign land who rise up and defeat their masters has inspired any group under similar situations, whether it be African slaves in America, or, as we'll see, the Jews themselves a millennium later when they were in exile in Babylon.  However, trying to pin the story of the Exodus to any specific time period is futile.  In order to demonstrate this, we're going to spend a lot of time, probably way too much time in fact, going through the history of Egypt and Palestine over roughly a millennium and a half.

The way I'll structure the post is to describe a particular period in time, and then afterwards discuss the various aspects of the Biblical story of the Exodus that seem to fit into this time period.  I'll consider the Exodus in this case, as one chunk of text that begins with Joseph's descent into Egypt and ends with the confrontation at Yam Suf (Reed Sea).

Before we start, I must impress upon you that the material is far vaster than can be covered in a single blog post.  Every paragraph below probably has at least one book discussing the topics contained therein.  It is an impossible task to cover every possible angle.  Nevertheless, I will attempt to be as thorough as I can.  Also, as a completely unrelated side note, Parshat Bo, was my bar-mitzvah parsha.

The Century of Hyksos Rule

The very first event [1] that seems to be related to the Exodus, and perhaps, the primal seed of the whole story, is the rule of the Hyksos kings.  We've already seen the Hyksos in a previous week, but I'll recap the basics of the historical period.  The Hyksos were a Semitic people who invaded Egypt, and ruled from about 1650 to 1550 BCE.  The Hyksos capital was at the city of Avaris, in the Easternmost branch of the Nile river.  In 1550 they were expelled by the Pharaoh Ahmose who claims to have chased them all the way into Canaan, where they settled.  Knowledge of the Hyksos is known from some inscriptions of that period. Also, excavations of Avaris, modern day, Tel-el-Daba, indicate Semitic elements in the Middle Bronze Age, as well as a destruction layer after which the Semitic elements vanish.

The Hyksos invasion and expulsion is the only historical event in which a large number of Semitic people exited Egypt and settled in Canaan, and for that reason alone it is very tempting to relate it to the Exodus story of the Bible.  However, there are even more reasons to draw connections.  The Jewish people in the Exodus are said to have settled in the land of Goshen, which is traditionally in the Eastern Nile region, the same area that the Hyksos ruled from.  The Hyksos invasion came from the Middle East, and the Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies from the east planning a conquest.  Also, astonishingly, the name of one of the Hyksos kings is Yakob'Har, which is essentially the same as the Biblical patriarch, Yaakov (Jacob).

However, the actual Hyksos event also differs significantly from the Exodus, to the extent that in many ways they are opposite stories.  The Hyksos are invaders; the Jewish people settle in peace with Pharaoh's blessing.  The Hyksos rule over Egypt, perhaps even cruelly.  In the Exodus story, the Jews are oppressed by the Egyptians.  The Hyksos are expelled by the military might of the Egyptians.  In the Exodus story, the Egyptian army is destroyed completely at Yam Suf.  The Hyksos raided Egyptian valuables and brought them to their capital at Avaris.  In the Exodus, the Egyptians voluntarily give their gold and silver to the Jews.  If the Exodus is a description of the Hyksos event, then it must be interpreted as a later account with a pro-Hyksos spin, meant to counter the Egyptian stories about the cruel Hyksos rule.

The New Kingdom - 18th and 19th Dynasties

The first two dynasties of the new kingdom, extend from the end of the Hyksos rule at about 1550 BCE to the beginning of the 12th century BCE.  These two dynasties represent the high point of Egyptian strength and might.  It contains the reigns of the most well known Pharaohs, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Ramses II, and even the Pharaoh known only from his well hidden tomb, Tutenkhamen.  After the expulsion of the Hyksos, the Egyptians took control over the entire Levant region, including the land contained in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  The land was populated by small vassal states.  The other great power at this time was the Hittites.  Egypt and the Hittites often vied for control, but at other times had an uneasy peace.  The Hittite sphere of influence went south from modern day Turkey and into modern day Syria.  The area between the Egyptian control and the Hittite control, in Southern Syria and away from the coast were a bit of a no-man's-land.

Towards the end of the 18th Dynasty, we have the so called Amarna period, called for the location of the capital in modern day Amarna.  Excavations at Amarna have yielded a rich supply of correspondences between the Egyptian Pharaohs, and the vassals in the Levant [2].  Often these requests are for military aid from Egypt, or other boilerplate statements to accompany tribute [3].

The first Pharaoh with the name Ramses, or Ramesses, is in the 19th dynasty, and ruled for only 2 years.  Ramses II, had a much longer reign from roughly 1290 BCE to 1220 BCE.  The city of Pi-Ramses, located near the old Hyksos capital of Avaris, is mentioned in the Torah as one of the two store cities built by the Israelites (Exod. 1:11).  Pi-Ramses, was not a store city, but rather it was the royal capital of the empire [4].

Another amazing artifact from the 19th dynasty is a stele erected by the Pharaoh Merneptah, who ruled at the tail end of the 13th century BCE.  This stele describes an armed march through the Levant, and among the nations, it describes a people known as Israel, who the Pharaoh claims to have utterly destroyed.  This is the earliest extra-biblical mention of Israelites.  The exact location of the people is not known, but the hieroglyphics are clearly referring to an ethnic group, not a land or kingdom [5].

There's one other interesting aspect of this period that bears directly on the Exodus narrative.  Throughout the Amarna letters, and in other Egyptian documents, there are tons of references to people referred to as Apiru.  These Apiru are everywhere, in Egypt, in Canaan, and in Syria.  They are mentioned by the Egyptians, the Hittites, and the Babylonians.  They aren't referred to as a distinct ethnic group, rather, they appear to be something of an underclass, robbers, brigands, and people living on the outskirts of society [6].  Because of the similarity of sound, a hypothesis that Apiru is the source for the Biblical word Ivri needs to be considered.  It can't be a direct translation, the use of Apiru is clearly not an ethnic group.  However, it is certainly conceivable, that a proto-Israelite group, negatively referred to by outsiders as just another Apiru band, could have taken the pejorative term and owned it.  Sort of like how other negative terms, like Eskimo or Yankee, have been adapted by the people they were meant to once insult.  Ivri is not a common word in the Torah, there are only 34 mentions.  However, relevant to this topic, a full 20 of them appear in the Exodus narrative [7].

How does this period relate to the Exodus?  If you calculated naively using the biblical narrative, using 1 Kings 6:1 which states that Shlomo's (Solomon's) temple was built 480 years after the Exodus, you get a date of roughly 1450 BCE for the time of the Exodus. This would place it shortly after the reign of Hatshepsut, and during the reign of Thutmose III.  However, this is problematic for many reasons.  As noted above, the Torah mentions the city of Pi-Ramses which was not built until the 13th century BCE.  Furthermore, the corpus of the Amarna letters makes no mention of an Israelite group at all in the region.  Finally, the storyline of the Jews escaping Egypt and then moving to Canaan cannot be realized in this era because Canaan was entirely under the control of Egypt.  Other biblical nations mentioned in this time period don't exist yet.  This includes the Philistines, which are instrumental in discussing the next era.

The Sea People and the Bronze Age Collapse

Starting possibly as early as 1300 BCE, new settlements start appearing in the Levant, first in the north, and a hundred years later in the south.  They are attested in accounts both by the Egyptians and the Hittites.  At first they were mere annoyances, but soon that was all to change.  In the eighth year of Ramses III, corresponding roughly to 1180 BCE Egyptian records report a massive invasion of these new people.  Colloquially, they are termed as the "Sea Peoples" as an origin from the Aegean seems most probable based on the new pottery and city designs recovered from archaeology [8].

The conquest of the Sea Peoples was stunning.  The Hittite empire, previously embroiled with the Assyrians were crushed.  The Sea Peoples burnt the Hittite capital of Hattusa to the ground.  The ancient city of Ugarit suffered the same fate.  The latest archaeological remains from that city are clay tablets talking of the invasion.  Tarsus and cities on Cyprus were also destroyed.  Egypt was able to repel the invasion, but they lost all their ancient holdings in Canaan.  Cities in Canaan such as Ashdod and Ashkelon [9] see destruction layers followed by new settlements around this time.  However, the most important point for this topic is that the Egyptian records of Ramses III mention one nation among the Sea Peoples that is important to us.  They mention Paleset, in Hebrew Paleshet, and in English, the Philistines.

The resulting aftermath of the invasion created something akin to a Dark Age in Canaan.  Without a strong Egyptian presence, there were no more correspondences between Canaanite vassals and their Egyptian ruler.  In the biblical timeline this would fall into the period of the Judges, and the type of loose confederacy of pastoral nations seems historically appropriate for this time period.  But what about the Exodus, could it have occurred in this time period?

Exodus 13:17 describes the Israelites as not wanting to go the short route through the land of the Philistines.  The implication is that at the time of the Exodus, the Philistines were there.  Unless the Philistines are an anachronism here too, as they are in the patriarchal narratives, the Exodus must have occurred after this time.  Furthermore, the weakened Egypt, and the Dark Age situation with the lack of written evidence, leaves room for unrecorded events.  However, the time line is too tight for a strict historical reconstruction.  The Mernepteh stele has the Israelites already in the land prior to the Philistines settlement.  Also, in contrast to the Philistine cities which display marked destruction layers, cities supposedly involved in the conquest, like Jericho and Ai, show no destruction layers in the late Bronze.  The conquest is not the Exodus per se, but it is part of the biblical historical account.  Also problematic is that other nations peripheral to the Exodus don't show up until later.  These include the kingdoms of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, all of which seem to have arisen as kingdoms squarely in the first millennium BCE and as ethnic groups late in the second millennium BCE [10].

The time period is probably the best candidate for a limited exodus (little e) in which some number of people, possibly enslaved Semites, left Egypt and traveled to Canaan. However, it's important to note that we have no positive evidence of this.  There are no markers for sudden migration or settlement patterns in the archaeology of the time period.  Instead, we just have a vacuum in which the possibility for events that have escaped written accounts is higher.

In the Shadow of Mesopotamia

During the reign of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, they were often threatened between the two great powers.  Egypt in the south, which gradually regained its influence after the Bronze Age Collapse, and the Neo-Assyrian empire, and later, the Babylonian empire, in the east.  These powers sometimes waxed and waned, and with it their extent of control over the Israelites.  Certainly at times, Israel probably felt like an oppressed people, and a story about the divine deliverance would be resonant with them.

The story of the early kingdoms of Israel and Judah are not well known except from the biblical story.  The northern kingdom of Israel peaked around the time of the Omride dynasty, started by Omri and then his son Ahab.  During this period they led a coalition that was able to repel the Assyrian army.  The northern kingdom would not last forever though.  In roughly 720 BCE, the Assyrian empire destroyed the Israelite capital at Samaria and exiled the nobles of the nation.  From there, the Assyrian army went south, they destroyed the Judean city of Lachish and captured most of the land of the kingdom and gave it to their Philistine vassals on the coast.  They sieged Jerusalem, but were not able to conquer it, returning with a hefty tribute.  The Assyrian empire collapsed shortly after, and the brief respite allowed the kingdom of Judah some autonomy.  However, it wasn't much longer until the Babylonian empire arose following it.  The Babylonians captured the kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem, and again exiling the nobles.  Some of the descendents of these nobles would return to Jerusalem later after the Babylonian empire was conquered itself.  But for another period, the Jews, or at least some significant number of them, were subjects in a foreign land [11].

It turns out that there are some aspects of the Exodus story that fit more into a Mesopotamian background rather than an Egyptian one.  For example, in the Exodus story, the Hebrew slaves are forced to make bricks.  If they were in Egypt, you might expect references to stone quarries.  Similarly, the idea of store cities fit better in Mesopotamia than they do in Egypt [12].  The Egyptian army in the Exodus story uses three-horse chariots, something that is known in Assyria, but not in Egypt.  The big Egyptian military unit, the Egyptian archers, are entirely missing from the Exodus account.

Some other facets of the story do seem Egyptian, but fit in this late time period rather than one in the 2nd millennium BCE.  When we look at the geographical names in the Exodus, places like Migdol and Pi-Hahiroth seem to fit more in the time period of the Judean kingdom rather than an earlier time.  As Redford writes:
Whoever supplied the geographical information that now adorns the story had no information earlier than the Saite period (~685 BCE) [13]
Also, not related directly to the Exodus, but to the previous story, it is possible to guess when the Joseph story was written based on the Egyptian names present.  Just like English names, Egyptian names became more and less popular in different eras.  The Joseph story includes the names Asnat, Potiphar, and Zaphnat-Paneach.  Again quoting Redford.
Saphnath pane'ah is unanimously agreed to be the transliteration of an Egyptian name-type that means "God N speaks (or spoke) and he lives."  The type begins in the 21st dynasty [1069-945 BCE], becomes very popular in the ninth through seventh centuries BC, and thereafter peters out [14].
Redford lists numerous other facets of the Joseph story that fit in the first millennium, like the celebration of the king's birthday, the 20 percent tax on the population [15], and representing years by cows [16].

Egyptian Influences in Post-Exilic Times

Much later in our chronology, roughly in the 3rd century BCE, the Egyptian Priest Manetho recorded several stories relating to the Hyksos expulsion.  These stories were lost in later years, but preserved through the account of Josephus.  One of these, relating to the Hyksos as Shepherd Kings was discussed previously.  However, there is another story which discusses the expulsion of polluted leprous individuals.  This story also has parallels to the biblical account.  Moshe was given a divine sign where his hand becomes leprous.  Miriam contracted leprosy.  And biblical laws deal with leprosy at length [17].

Both the discussion of shepherd kings and the divine signs of leprosy seem more like a reaction against Egyptian anti-Semitic propaganda, rather than the opposite.  However, it seems unlikely to me to attribute modifications to Exodus story post-Manetho.  Rather, some of the sources that Manetho used to formulate his histories were possibly also known to the authors of the Exodus, and they manufactured pieces of the story to counter the Egyptian propaganda.

So... What is the Exodus Story Actually Referring To

As we've seen above, there are lots of possibilities.  The Exodus story could be relating to the historical expulsion of the Hyksos who then settled in Israel, but detailed from the Hyksos side and not the biased Egyptian side.  It could be discussing the escape of a small group of slaves, possibly Levites, sometime around the Bronze Age Collapse.  It could include some Philistine accounts of battles with Egypt that took place on the sea or on the coast, in which the proto-Israelites participated.  It could be referring not to an actual Exodus, but a freedom from the rule of Egypt, when Canaan fell out of Egyptian influence during the bronze age collapse.  It could be a story of hope used to console exiled Jews living in Babylonia. 

In my opinion, there's a good chance it is all of these things.  The Exodus isn't one story recounting an individual event.  It's a general story of redemption and freedom from oppression that gradually gathered additional information from each era.  That's why when we look back at it today, we see such a hodgepodge of different time periods.  What is clear is that the literal event discussed in the Torah today is fictional.  The Exodus (big E) never happened.  However, that doesn't mean that there wasn't an exodus (little e) or multiple exoduses that helped seed the story in future years.

1. There are the occasional attempt by people to relate the Exodus plague events to the eruption of Thera sometime in the 17th and 16th centuries. But in my opinion the connections are exceedingly weak. ^

2. You can read some of the Amarna letters here.^

3. For more, see Redford, "Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times" Princeton Univ. Press, 1992, p. 192-213^

4. The other city Pithom, possibly Per-Atum,but possibly not, could have been a store city, but is less well known^

5. Kugel, "How to Read the Bible," Free Press, 2006 p. 381^

6. Kugel p. 207^

7. Kugel p. 207^

8. Redford pp. 241-256^

9. Finkelstein and Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed" Simon and Schuster, 2001 p. 340^

10. Finkelstein, p. 116.^

11. For more, see Finkelstein, ch 15-16]^

12. Redford, p. 416]^

13. Redford, p. 409. This is disputed by others, for example, Hoffmeier^

14. Redford, p. 424.^

15. This is recorded in Papyrus Rylands.^

16. Redford, p. 426.^

17. See Gmirkin, "Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and the Exodus" for more.^

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"...And my name YHWH I did not make known to them"

Parshat Vaera

This week we'll focus on a verse that had in the past troubled me a lot.  It was a question that I searched a while for an answer for, but never found a good one.  It turns out there is a pretty damn good answer to this question, but it was not one that any Rabbi was willing to offer me.

I will remark on the outset that this post will require discussion of the tetragrammaton, which I will represent by YHWH.  I realize that this must be off-putting to some religious people who might stumble across the blog, but it is far too cumbersome to euphemize the name.

The Burning Question

This parsha picks up right in the midle of the conversation between God and Moshe (Moses).  We won't go any farther than the first two verses, which read (Exod 6:2-3):

2 And God spoke unto Moses, and said unto him: 'I am the LORD (YHWH); 3 and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by My name YHWH I made Me not known to them.

Verse 3 gave the title to the blog post, as I would translate it, and is the source of the problem.  Bonus points to you if you picked up on it already. If you haven't, the problem is that this verse is a blatant contradiction with various previous stories.  God says here that he never told Avraham, Yitzchak, or Yaakov, about his name YHWH, instead appearing as El Shaddai only.

The first question to ask is does God use El Shaddai in conversations with the patriarchs?  The answer is yes.

1 And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him: 'I am El Shaddai; walk before Me, and be thou wholehearted. (Gen 17:1)

10 And God said unto him: 'Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name'; and He called his name Israel. 11 And God said unto him: 'I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; (Gen 35:10-11)

Both Avraham and Yaakov also use El Shaddai in their own conversations.  But what about the other half?  Does God use the name YHWH.  Unfortunately, for me, I remembered from being a ba'al korei (Torah reader) that he did not too many weeks ago.  There is one clear example of God introducing himself to a patriarch as YHWH.

12 And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. 13 And, behold, the LORD stood beside him, and said: 'I am the LORD (YHWH), the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. (Gen 28:12-13)

However, there are also numerous times where the Patriarchs appear to know this name.  A couple of examples will suffice:

unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first; and Abram called there on the name of the LORD (YHWH) (Gen: 13:4)

And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD (YHWH), the Everlasting God. (Gen 21:33)

And he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD (YHWH), and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac's servants digged a well. (Gen 26:25)

And he (Yaakov) came near, and kissed him (Yitzchak). And he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the LORD (YHWH) hath blessed. (Gen 27:27)

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: 'Surely the LORD (YHWH) is in this place; and I knew it not.' (Gen 28:16)

And many more.  Not only do the Patriarchs seem to be very familiar with this name, Even the wicked Lavan (Laban) seems to know it:

And Laban said unto him (Yaakov): 'If now I have found favour in thine eyes--I have observed the signs, and the LORD (YHWH) hath blessed me for thy sake.'  (Gen 30:27)

And to top it all off, we have this cryptic verse all the way back in Gen 4:26 which seems to indicate that the name was known publicly to everyone in the 3rd generation!

And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enosh; then began men to call upon the name of the LORD (YHWH). (Gen 4:26)

A Blatant Contradiction?

We have here what appears to be a blatant contradiction.  Furthermore, it's one that ancient Rabbis could not have failed to notice.  However, despite this, I was not able to find any good explanations. I'm not going to devote too much to traditional answers, if you want, you can read more about them here (Part 3).

Most of the answers in the linked article, and the ones I heard from Rabbis capable of answering the question relied on either tortured readings of the verse, or some kind of esoteric meaning of the word shem (name).  For the second explanation, it meant that it wasn't the literal name, YHWH, that God was talking about, but rather some sort of alternative concept, that could very well mean whatever you want it to, as long as it didn't make more contradictions.  This is a standard tactic in traditional explanations to resolve contradictions.  You just force an alternative interpretation on one of the verses and, voila, the contradiction is resolved.

However, there is a much better answer, but before we get there, we'll divert a bit to give some background.

How the Documentary Hypothesis was Formed

One of the first steps on the road to formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis was noticing that there were multiple stories where the same thing appeared to occur twice.  We've already seen some instances of this, such as the multiple stories of a Patriarch pretending his wife was his sister in a foreign land.  Or the multiple times Yaakov was renamed as Yisrael, or Beth-el was named [1].

However, there was another piece of evidence that was a bit curious.  It seemed that in many of the repeating stories in the book of Bereishit (Genesis), each version used a different name for God.  Some used elohim, which is a generic word for "god," and can be viewed as a sort of title.  The other used YHWH, the tetragrammaton, which was more akin to a personal name.  This discovery was made simultaneously by Astruc, Eichhorn and Witter in the 19th century [2].   The next step was to separate the stories into multiple authors or sources.  One source used one name, the other used a different name.

Chances are, if your yeshivah, synagogue, or any other religious based institution you frequented addressed the Documentary Hypothesis at all, the view they gave was one of multiple authors who just happened to prefer using one name of God or the other.  This was certainly the description I was given, and I've seen it described as such today among Orthodox Jews.  However, it's incredibly incorrect, or rather, it represents a formative view at the very beginning when they were just figuring out what was going on. The verse we were discussing provides the key as to why one author would prefer to use YHWH an another would eschew it.

What the Documentary Hypothesis Actually Says about the Names of God

What the Documentary Hypothesis actually says is not that each source just happened to pick a name of God they liked and ran with it, but rather there was an important theological reason for their choices.  One of the authors believed that the name YHWH was hidden from mankind until it was revealed to Moshe at the burning bush.  In fact, this is told to us explicitly in Exod. 6:3, quoted above.  The other author thought that YHWH was known to mankind from the beginning, or at least from Gen 4:26. 

This also explains why the name YHWH gets used frequently in all stories after Exod 6:3, including in both parts of later doublets (For example, the quails stories in Exod 16 and Num, 11).  Furthermore there are multiple other idiosyncrasies that can be used to differentiate the sources.  (Friedman or Kugel in the references link are good sources to learn about these.)   Regardless, the narrative makes sense without resorting to tortured readings provided you are ok with there being multiple storylines or traditions.

The simple story I've painted in the last two paragraphs isn't the actual opinion held today, even with the version of the Documentary Hypothesis held by proponents like Friedman.  For them there are four authors, with two authors holding the view that YHWH was not known before Moshe.  Although, one of them, does not appear much in the Patriarchal stories.  The fourth author is confined entirely to the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) and comprises the first 31 chapters of that book.

Even then, there are some cracks in this four author story (again Whybray in the references section can point out some problems.)  But the general idea of there being multiple storylines holds across nearly all modern secular scholars.  The contradictions are far too many, and the coincidences are far too strong to argue for anything else.  In a couple weeks we'll see that even defenders of traditional readings commonly quoted by religious Jews are forced to admit the presence of contradictions arising from multiple sources, even if they weren't actual written documents.

1. For example, check the posts in previous weeks here or here. ^

1. See Friedman, "Who Wrote the Bible" Summit 1987, p. 23. ^

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Baby in the Basket

Parshat Shmot

Before we get started, some self-congratulations are due.  This blog has successfully made it through one book of the Torah (and the longest one too). We are beginning the second book Shmot (Exodus) this week.  If you've been following along since then, you deserve some congratulations too. Especially if you come from a religious background!

How to Save a Child

Anyway, now that that's out of the way, today we will look at one of the more famous stories in this week's parsha.  That is the story of the birth of Moshe (Moses).  The basic storyline is probably familiar to you, but I'll repeat it anyway.  The Egyptian Pharaoh orders that all male children born to the Israelites should be thrown into the river or killed by midwives.  In order to save her baby, Moshe, Yocheved puts him in a basket and places him in a river, presumably a branch of the Nile.  The baby is found by an Egyptian princess, who recognizes that it's an Israelite, but decides to raise it herself.

Looking at this story in the actual text (Exod 2:1-5):
1 And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. 2 And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. 3 And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch; and she put the child therein, and laid it in the flags by the river's brink. 4 And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him. 5 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river; and her maidens walked along by the river-side; and she saw the ark among the flags, and sent her handmaid to fetch it.
Chances are you are familiar with this story even if you only have a passing familiarity with the Torah.  It's one of those stories that spawned countless depictions and is deeply embedded in Western culture.  The motif, of a child of consequence who is supposed to be killed but survives, somewhat miraculously, is fairly common.  One of the more famous stories is that of Oedipus.  It was prophesied that Oedipus would kill the king, so he is left on a mountainside to die.  However, he is rescued by a shepherd and raised.  Sophocles recorded the myth in Oedipus Rex, but it's likely that the myth goes back further.

However, there is another less well known myth, that is much closer in the actual details to the story of Moshe.  It is the myth of the Babylonian King Sargon of Akkad, who ruled all the way back in the 3rd millennim BCE.  The birth legend of Sargon is known from tablets from the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal dating to the 7th century BCE.  A translation is repeated here:
Sargon the Mighty King, the King of Agade (Akkad) am I. My mother was lowly, my father I knew not, and the brother of my father dwelleth in the mountains. My city is Azupiranu, which lieth on the bank of the Euphrates. My lowly mother conceived me, in secret she brought me forth. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she closed my door. She cast me into the river, which rose not over me. The river bore me up, unto Akki, the irrigator, it carried me. Akki the irrigator with [missing] lifted me out. Akki, the irrigator, as his own son [missing] reared me [footnote]... [1]
The similarities to the story of Moshe are undeniable.  The only question is which one cribbed off the other.

The Problems of Chronology

Moshe is claimed to have lived during the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE.  Sargon of Akkad, in the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, so Sargon is older by about 1000 years.  However, that's not proof that this story of Sargon dates back that far.  We know the story of Sargon existed by about the 8th century BCE, but that's the latest possible date.  From my knowledge, we cannot limit the formulation of the story any more than it was between ~2300 BCE and ~800 BCE.

It is similarly difficult to date the story of Moshe.  The earliest date for Moshe's life, by the biblical account, is about 1500 BCE [2].  For the latest date of composition, the conventional biblical analysis has this story as pre-Exilic, and appearing probably sometime around 800 and 700 BCE.  Minimalists would place it much later.  But this is only when it was written, the story could have survived in oral form for a long time previously.

So there's no smoking gun from timelines that can allow us to chronologically reconstruct which one came first.  Instead, we need to look at what was more likely.  The Babylonians borrowed from the Israelites, or the Israelites borrowed from the Babylonians.

There is a long list of things that we know went from Assyria and Babylon to Israel.  These include the block alphabet that we are all familiar with (k'tav ashuri), which replaced the older Israelite alphabet (k'tav ivri).  It also includes the Babylonian law codes, which we'll look at in a couple week's time.  The law code in Exodus appears to be based off of other similar law codes.  Here the Babylonian code, made by Hammurabi, is clearly earlier than any attested date of the Israelite one.  There also is, famously, the story of Utnapishtim, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is remarkably similar to the story of Noach (Noah) down to the fact that both sent out birds to determine if it was safe to exit their boats.  The Epic of Gilgamesh dates back to the 18th century BCE, at least, and definitely predates the composition of the Noach story. 

On the flipside, we know of no wholly Israelite, or even Canaanite, practices that were adopted by the Babylonians.  (If you know of any, I'd love to know.)  Therefore, it seems to me that it's much more likely that the Israelites copied the story from the Babylonians than the opposite.  There is a third option, that there was a third story about a third figure, now lost to time, that was the source for both, but I don't see a good reason to hypothesize a third story without any evidence.


This is the first instance we've seen of a biblical story having, if not an origin, at least a cognate in another nearby culture.  In the past we've talked about the possible cognates of the creation stories and the Exodus story of the Hyksos, but neither have the level of similarity as the stories of Sargon and Moshe.  There are many other similar things, including other stories, laws and traditions, that have versions in the other, larger cultures, nearby.  I often wonder, how many of the biblical stories are retellings and rehashings of other stories, that are now lost to time, and how many are entirely Israelite.  

1. Source from W. L. King: Chronicles Concerning Early Babylonian Kings. ^

2. This assumes that there were 400 years between the building of Solomon's temple and the Exodus. You get this number from 1 Kings 6:1 where it states 480 years passed between the completion of the temple and the Exodus. Taking that number literally, you arrive at a date around 1450 BCE for the Exodus. Moses was 80 at the time of the Exodus, so that sets this story around 1530 BCE.^