Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Love Your Neighbor and other assorted laws

Parshat Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

Before we get started, this week (and next) will probably be a little shorter and lighter than my usual post.  Vayikra is indeed the "doldrums" of the Torah, and I've already exhausted a lot of the fun things to talk about in the book.  However, lest you think that I'm running out of steam, I have a lot of great stuff in the works for Bamidbar and Devarim.

This week's double parsha is one that is quoted an outsized number of times in both modern religious and atheist proclamations.  It is home to the commandment forbidding homosexual relations (Lev 18:22) often quoted by the Orthodox Jews and more commonly evangelical Christians as justification for social policies.  Atheists who like to ridicule Christians like to point out the prohibition of sha'atnez (Lev 19:19) found a little bit later, where you are forbidden to wear garments containing wool and linen. They often attempt to ascribe hypocrisy to evangelicals for focusing on homosexuality while ignoring this law (seemingly unaware that Orthodox Jews do take this commandment very seriously.)

There really is a random sampling of commandments in these sections.  Some of them seem quite good and I agree with their morality.  Commandments such as, not cheating a customer in a business transaction (Lev 19:36) and commandments regarding leaving some of your crops for the poor (Lev 19:9).  It also contains some that I don't agree with, like punishing practitioners of arcane magic with death (Lev 20:27).  It also contains "silly" prohibitions like the commandment against shaving the "corners" of your head (Lev 19:27).

It also contains the favorite quotable commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18) which later, to the credit of the biblical author, gets extended to apply to gayrim, which biblically means non-Israelites (Lev 19:34).  This is the Jewish version of the golden rule, and it's actually, in my opinion, a reasonably good moral principle to follow.  It doesn't work in some edge cases, like the situation where you are a masochist, and there are probably better ways to formulate it, but the intention is good nonetheless.  Also credit should go to the Rabbinic teachings which state that this is the most important part of the Torah.

A lot of people like to focus on "love your neighbor" as an example of Biblical morality.  In doing so they imply that there's something special about the authorship of the Torah in that it was able to specify such a law.  However, on the contrary, some form of "love your neighbor" seems to crop up in nearly every society.  If anything, it's representative of a universal moral law that pretty much every religious or societal infrastructure has produced.  For example, from the Analects of Confucius:
Zi Gong asked: “Is there a single concept that we can take as a guide for the actions of our whole life?”
Confucius said, “What about ‘fairness’? What you don't like done to yourself, don't do to others.”
From ancient Egypt we have the concept of Maat, which essentially is justice.  The story of the Eloquent Peasant has possibly the earliest version of the golden rule, in a form that presumably is difficult to translate:
Do for the doer, to cause him to do
More explicit versions appear contemporaneously to the probably dates of composition of the Torah [2]:
That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.
In India, the golden rule is no less prominent. The Mahabharata says:
One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one's own self. This, in brief, is the rule of Righteousness. 
Later Hindu works, namely the Padma Purana, elevate this commandment to the most important, just like Confucious and the Jewish Talmudic Rabbis did.

The end result of all this is clear.  Love your neighbor is a good ethical commandment, but it's one that is found pretty much everywhere in humanity.  It would be somewhat shocking if Judaism did not have such a commandment.  Nevertheless, it would be folly to ascribe a divine nature to the Torah because of the presence of such "good" commandments mixed in with the rest.

1. Jansow, R. A Late Period Hieratic Wisdom Text p.95 avaiable here (pdf) ^

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Counter-apologetics: Egyptian History and the Biblical Record: A Perfect Match?

Since I have a couple light weeks coming up (looking at you Acharei Mot-Kedushim and Emor), I decided that I'd respond to an article I was sent regarding the historicity of the biblical narrative with regard to Egypt.  The article, by a creationist pseudonym author Daniel Anderson, can be read here.  Before I begin, I'll note first that I wrote quite a bit on my take of the historicity of the Exodus narrative, which can be found here.  I'll also say that this article is an example of "bad" apologetics and really demonstrates a horrendous lack of scholarship.  If you are partial to the biblical narrative and want someone who actually knows what they're talking about, I recommend reading James Hoffmeier or Kenneth Kitchen, both Egyptologists who write about the accuracy of the Biblical narratives.  I have issues with both of them, but at least they demonstrate an in depth knowledge of the topic at hand.  However, this article is mainly meant to appeal to people who really don't know anything about the topic and are unlikely to question some blatantly wrong statements.

This will be quite long, but it will also be off the cuff.  Where I have readied references, I'll quote them, but otherwise, I'm just going to respond with what I already know.

I'll now respond to the article in full, quoting heavily.  We begin with: 
For years, the popular media has mocked the biblical accounts of Joseph, Moses, the Passover, and the Exodus as being completely incompatible with standard Egyptian chronology. Year after year, we have been told by numerous scholars that events recorded in the books of Genesis and Exodus are nice legends devoid of any historical or archaeological merit.
Popular media does not mock the biblical account.  If anything it accepts it at face value.  It's only among students of history and academics that the stories are viewed as ahistorical. And there is good reason for that as we'll see.  This paragraph does set up a nice myth of persecution.  You'll find similar things stated in fringe views all over the place.
However, a new wind is blowing. An emerging pool of scholars, representing diverse backgrounds, has been openly calling for a drastic reduction in Egyptian chronology.  Such a reduction would serve to line up the historical and archaeological records of Egypt and the Old Testament. Surprisingly, there is a substantial amount of evidence to warrant a significant reduction of Egyptian history. And by doing so, the reliability of Genesis, Exodus, and the entire Old Testament will have to be reconsidered as a viable source of historical truth.
Who are these scholars?  No footnote is given.  Why are they calling for a drastic reduction of Egyptian chronology?  Anderson claims that there's a lot of evidence but scant evidence is presented here, and no footnote is given for where the other evidence might lie. The editor sort of answers it in an additional editor's remark where the answer is that the chronology is reduced solely because then it fits better with the biblical story.  This isn't scholarship, it's apologetics, and bad apologetics at that. 

But enough for the intro, let's get to the meat, the little of it that is there.
Those who advocate a revision of orthodox Egyptian chronology are admittedly in the minority, but their credentials and scholarship are highly esteemed. David Rohl, author of Test of Time, suggests ‘Ramses II should be dated to the tenth century BC—some three hundred and fifty years later than the date which had been assigned him in the orthodox chronology.’
Here's the first name he trots out.  Rohl does indeed argue for a alternate chronology that adjusts the 19th through 25th dynasties, with the explicit purpose of causing certain Biblical figures to align with Egyptian figures.  However, his chronology is not accepted by nearly any Egyptologist.  The reason is that there's no external evidence except for the Torah, and a lot of good evidence for the more conventional chronologies.  The same can be said about the next few authors.
Peter James and four other scholars published the book Centuries of Darkness. They claim that the dates of Egyptian dynasties need to be reduced by hundreds of years, specifically Dynasties 21–24. Dr Colin Renfrew, professor of archaeology at Cambridge University, wrote a foreword to this book:

"This disquieting book draws attention … to a crucial period in world history, and to the very shaky nature of the dating, the whole chronological framework, upon which our current interpretations rest…the existing chronologies for that crucial phase in human history are in error by several centuries, and that, in consequence, history will have to be rewritten."
Actually going through and checking these sources is a fair bit beyond what I care to do for this.  I'll just note that carbon dating results are accurate to about 100 years.  I don't know if these results were available in 1992 when these authors were writing, but they are now.  These provide an entirely independent check.  We'll look at that in more detail, in a bit.  Next the author quotes Alan Gardiner, and he must be desperate indeed if he needs to go back 50 years ago to find support for his view.

Lastly Anderson mentions Down and Ashton, which provide the vast majority of the references for the rest of the article.

Reasons for questioning the traditional Egyptian timeline

Astronomical assumptions

Supposedly, lunar and solar eclipses have been discovered to perfectly match the established dates of Egyptian chronology. This is simply untrue. The concept of astronomical fixation is not based on celestial eclipses but on the ‘Sothic Cycle’. However, the Sothic Cycle is mentioned nowhere in Egyptian texts. There are references to ‘the rising of Sothis’ which has been assumed to have been the sighting of the bright star Sirius. The real issue is that many modern scholars theorize that the ancient Egyptians were slightly off in their calendar keeping, and when corrected in light of modern science, the dates line up accordingly. Yet the Egyptians were able to orient their pyramids to within a fraction of a degree to the north, south, east, and west. It is more likely that the Egyptians were meticulous timekeepers. Thus, in Centuries of Darkness, James and his four fellow scholars write, ‘…There are good reasons for rejecting the whole concept of Sothic dating as it was applied by the earlier Egyptologists.’
The argument is curious, the Egyptians were meticulous in record keeping so we shouldn't expect small errors in their astronomical calculations, but we can expect errors in the order of centuries from their kings lists?

Manetho’s maze

Another reason for questioning the traditional timeline is Manetho, an Egyptian priest who wrote a history of Egypt in the third century BC. Many consider Manetho’s writings to be indisputable fact. He was skilled at deciphering the hieroglyphs and had access to inscriptions, documents, and other valuable artifacts. However, two problems emerge. First, Manetho was writing hundreds, even thousands of years after many of the actual events. Second, none of Manetho’s writings exist. The only source we have for Manetho’s writings are some of his statements that have been quoted by much later historians such as Josephus, Africanus, Eusebius, and Syncellus.
First of all, Manetho is not considered "indisputable fact."  Such a characterization is a strawman.  Rather Manetho, as quoted by Josephus and others, is used as another source to reconstruct Egyptian history.  Just like you shouldn't rely on it fully, you are also not allowed simply to throw it away because it contradicts your ideas.

As far as I can tell, these two arguments are the only ones that Anderson mentions to support a revision.  The first argument is that the Egyptians were too accurate astronomers to make small errors, and the second is that one of the sources is untrustworthy.  Neither of these actually support a revision of the date, they are just questioning the reliability of the conventional chronology.

However, there are also numerous other supports for the chronology.  There is the carbon dating mentioned above that results from excavations of important Egyptian sites like Tanis and Avaris.  There is the records of the Apis Bulls that help us gain confidence in the chronologies of certain eras.  There are records of international relationships with other kingdoms, most relevantly for this period, the Hittites, the various rulers of the Levant recorded in the Amarna Letters, and the Sea Peoples.  More on the Amarna letters later, as these singlehandedly dismantle the entirety of the argument.  In other words, there needs to be a very good reason to overthrow all of this, and "it fits the Bible better" is not a very good reason.

Historical sources for Egyptian chronology

The Egyptian evidence consists of numerous inscriptions, texts, papyrus documents, and artifacts. Although it is very helpful, this evidence provides an incomplete picture of Egyptian history.
Because of the discordant nature of Egyptian chronology, it is impossible to present a comprehensive list of dates, pharaohs, and dynasties. Sir Alan Gardiner wrote, ‘Our materials for the reconstruction of a coherent picture are hopelessly inadequate.’ As a result, we must cross reference the Egyptian accounts with other accurate historical sources. Biblical and Assyrian chronology offer highly consistent dates that can be utilized to rectify many of the ambiguities of Egyptian history. In other words, if Old Testament and Assyrian historical records significantly overlap, then a revision of Egyptian chronology would be perfectly logical in order to harmonize with two independent reliable sources.

I should note that absolutely no Assyrian records are discussed, nor are they terribly relevant for the vast majority of the time in question.  Of far more relevance are Hittite and Sumerian records.  Regardless cross-referencing Egypt against other sources is a good idea.  This article does not do that.

As far as the Tanach is concerned, it certainly can be used as a historical document but it is only reliable in certain areas.  In others it is horrendously unreliable.  Over most of the region that this article covers the Tanach is not a reliable historical witness.  I've explained why many times in this blog, but I'll do it again for each topic as they arise.

Note again the reference to Gardiner who wrote in the 60s before carbon-dating was a known method for analyzing sites.  We have a lot more confidence in dates than we did fifty years ago.

Noah’s link to Egypt

The Hebrew name for one of Noah’s grandsons is Mizraim (Genesis 10:6). It is no coincidence that modern Egyptians call themselves Misr, which is a derivative of Mizraim. According to the Book of Genesis, Noah’s grandson, Mizraim, is the father of the Egyptians. In a revised chronology, Egypt comes into existence soon after the dispersion from Babel, around 2100 BC.
Where to begin?  First the author describes a Babel dispersion and a historical flood, neither of which are historical.  Both of these would have clear markers in many societies in the region (or perhaps the world).  Those markers are missing.  I've discussed in a previous post why the "Table of Nations" that Anderson references appears to be a 7th century (or later) reconstruction of a mythical past, since it references other nations (e.g. Lydians) that did not exist before this time.  Second, it places a date for Egypt at 2100 BCE which is hopelessly off.  The revised chronologies offered above do not change many of the "old dates" instead focusing on changes to the New Kingdom.

Just using wikipedia because I'm lazy, early Neolithic settlements in Egypt began in the 6th millenium BCE, about 3000+ years before the supposed flood.  The Old kingdom started in the middle of the 3rd millenium BCE.  Anderson suggests that this date is off, and everything should be moved about 1000 years later or so, mainly because of the unreliability of Egyptian historical records.  But it's not historical records that allow us to date neolithic and old kingdom monuments.  It's carbon dating and archaeological stratographic techniques.  Carbon dating is generally accurate to about 100 years.  There's no way it's off by 1000.  To support his statement Anderson quotes Eusebius who is clearly basing his comments on the Tanach.  After that, Anderson states:
In the traditional chronology, a pre-dynastic period of approximately 2,000 years precedes the first Egyptian dynasty. Genesis establishes a much shorter period of time. In addition, the 1988–1989 annual report of the Oriental Institute of Chicago published a summary of extensive archaeological research by Bruce Williams. Williams re-examined discoveries related to the pre-dynastic period and concluded:
Both articles are part of an expanding body of evidence that links the period once known as ‘predynastic’ so firmly to the ages of the pyramids and later, that the term should be abandoned. 
Williams has published several articles in archaeology journals, and his modern research appears to confirm the Genesis account.
It's not clear to me where Anderson gets the 2000 year dating from, because to me it looks more like 500 years before the old kingdom for the "predynastic" period, and another 500 years until Anderson's date of the flood.

As far as the William's quote, I dug it up, and we have another example of a Creationist blogger taking something horrifically out of context to make a false point.  Let's look at the full quote, that I found here.
The first article dealt with objects that were late (Dynasty 0, c 3200 B.C) and monumental, the second with images that were early (Naqada I, c. 4000-3800 B.C.), small, crude, and magical; both articles are part of an expanding body of evidence that links the period once known as "Predynastic" so firmly to the ages of the pyramids and later, that the term should be abandoned.  A generation ago such a proposal would have seemed inconceivable, but pioneer work...has gradually taken up a cause proposed by Helene J. Kantor in 1944 to find Egypt's origins its [sic] own earlier periods.  It can now be foreseen that the comparison of images, objects, and even contexts from this early Naqada period will produce a network of evidence dense enough to extend our knowledge of Egypt's historical culture backward several centuries.
Williams is saying that the Egyptian culture that produced the pyramids was already present 1500 years earlier in archaeological realia.  He wants to abandon the "predynastic" term because to him it's exactly the same as dynastic Egypt. Williams makes no comment about altering the chronology, nor did I see anything in the small sampling of readings I did that "appears to confirm the Genesis account."  If anything he's proposing a far earlier date for the emergence of Egypt!  Anderson provides no examples of additional confirming points, and if this was the best example he could come up with, it is quite telling.

I'd also note that I've seen this same tactic used by creationists all the time.  It's a very specific and egregious use of quote mining.  What they do is take a work from some eminent biologist who is critiquing a specific technique or finding and excise the quote removing all context.  Then, often by implication, but sometimes brazenly, they take that quote and apply it to the entire scientific field altogether.  Here Williams is critiquing the artificial cultural distinction between the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom and the predynastic period, and Anderson takes it to criticize all of Egyptology in general!  Even if you are partial to Anderson's ideas, these tactics should piss you off.

Continuing on to the next section:
Abraham visits Egypt
The biblical date for the Exodus is approximately 1445 BC. and tell us that the Lord made a covenant with Abraham 430 years earlier, around 1875 BC. Not long after this date, Abraham traveled to Egypt to escape a severe famine in the land of Canaan. Abraham’s visit did not go unnoticed, as Pharaoh’s officials reported to their king that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was extremely beautiful. Out of fear, Abraham told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. As a result, Pharaoh temporarily inducted Sarah into his harem and paid Abraham many expensive gifts. However, the Lord struck Pharaoh’s house with plagues causing him to release her upon discovering that she was actually Abraham’s wife.
We'll get to the Exodus later, but I should note that most modern day scholars who support a historical basis for the Exodus, think it happened in the middle of the 13th century, not 1445.  There are reasons for this and we'll get to them later, along with the problems of this date, but first let's talk about this specific story.

There are in fact 3 stories in Bereishit which discuss a patriarch visiting a foreign land and pretending his wife was his sister.  Avraham and Yitzchak (Isaac) visit Egypt, and in another story Avraham visits the Philistine king Avimelech in Gerar.  Anderson doesn't mention this other story about the Philistines, and it's obvious why.  The story is hopelessly anachronistic.  There were no Philistines until at least the 13th century BCE, and Gerar wasn't the capital until much later.  If the story of Avraham visiting the Philistines is obviously ahistorical, why should one believe that the same exact story with the site changed to Egypt is historical?  We shouldn't.
Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees. From 1922 to 1934, Sir Leonard Woolley discovered it to be the first civilization with a superior knowledge of astronomy and arithmetic. In addition, the Sumerian civilization invented writing, composed dictionaries, and calculated square and cube roots. Woolley’s discoveries appear to corroborate the writings of Josephus concerning Abraham’s visit to Egypt Josephus writes about Abraham:
He communicated to them arithmetic, and delivered to them the science of astronomy; for before Abram came into Egypt they were unacquainted with those parts of learning; for that science came from the Chaldeans into Egypt.
Note the date of the quotation, 1922 to 1934.  This is hardly current knowledge.  But also notice how Anderson completely avoids the chronological disaster he just proposed.  I'm not sure whether he's completely oblivious to it, or just expects you not to know enough to question it.  The Chaldeans (Hebrew: cashdim) don't exist until the 6th century BCE.  This is about 1000 years after the proposed timeline.  And while they were known to be astronomers, they were hardly the first.  Anderson sneaks in a comment in the footnote, which says that they were the first civilization with a superior knowledge "after the flood."  But that makes no sense either in this conquest since he's implying that Avraham got info from them in 1800 BCE and transmitted it to Egypt, which is still over 1000 years before they existed.

Other historical travesties exist here also.  The Sumerian civilization, while certainly one of the oldest, did not invent writing.  Many civilizations invented writing independently.  Nor were they the first.  Both the Indus valley civilization and the Egyptian civilization have writing that predates it.  Also the original Sumerian writing was not an alphabet as we would later recognize as cuneiform, it was pictographic symbols on clay tablets.

However, the Sumerian civilization is not synonymous with the Chaldeans. 
In a revised chronology, Abraham would have visited Egypt when Khufu (aka Cheops) was Pharaoh. Before Khufu, the early Egyptian pyramids were fantastic architectural structures, but they were not perfectly square or exactly oriented to all four points on a compass. However, when Khufu built his masterful pyramid, there appears to have been an explosion of astronomical and mathematical expertise. Khufu’s pyramid was perfectly square, level, and orientated to the four points of the compass.
When placed in the proper dynasty, Abraham’s visit to Egypt may have been the catalyst that sparked an architectural revolution in Egyptian history.
This is nonsense.  Here you can find estimates of the dates of various Egyptian structures.  Anderson is proposing a 700 year error in the date of the Giza Pyramids with absolutely nothing to support such a drastic shift.  Also note how fluid his chronology is.  Here he's 700 years off, earlier it was 1000, later he'll be 300 years off.  Basically, he's just randomly picking dates to align with a biblical narrative.  This isn't confirming the Bible with Egyptology, it's mangling Egyptology to conform with the Bible.

Continuing to the next section:
Joseph rises to power in Egypt
Dynasty 12 was one of the high points in Egyptian history. By a revised chronology, Joseph would have risen to power under Sesostris I during this dynasty.  According to Genesis, Joseph was one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Out of jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sold him to Midianite traders and these traders sold Joseph to an Egyptian officer named Potiphar. Eventually, through a period of trials and tribulations, the Lord enabled Joseph to rule over Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.
Sesostris I or Senusret ruled from 1971 to 1926 in the standard chronology.  Note how here Anderson shifts it so that he's ruling 300 years later, since Yosef should be in Egypt around 1650 BCE.  Remember just a paragraph ago he was proposing a 700 year shift.
Sesostris I is known to have had a vizier, or prime minister, named Mentuhotep who possessed extraordinary power. Egyptologist, Emille Brugsch, writes in his book Egypt Under the Pharaohs, ‘In a word, our Mentuhotep…appears as the alter ego of the king. When he arrived, the great personages bowed down before him at the outer door of the royal palace.’ Brugsch’s description appears to corroborate Joseph’s status in, ‘He (Pharaoh) had him ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried out before him, ‘Bow the knee’: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.’
The idea of bowing down to an important vizier appears all over the Biblical corpus, from Daniel to Esther.  But that's not so important.  The shakiness of the comparison should be obvious.  A pharaoh had an important vizier, it must be Joseph!  Forget that the names are different, that's unimportant.
Joseph’s ultimate claim to fame was his ability to interpret dreams. The Egyptians attached significant importance to dreams. Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh’s perplexing dreams to mean that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of the most severe famine. Convinced by Joseph’s interpretation, Pharaoh appointed Joseph to supervise the gathering of grain during the seven years of plenty.
Two clues from Egyptian inscriptions appear to confirm the Genesis account. First, a large relief on ‘Hungry Rock’ states, ‘…Because Hapy [the river god] had failed to come in time in a period of seven years. Grain was scant, kernels were dried up, scarce was every kind of food…'
Again Anderson assumes you are ignorant or too lazy to check his results.  Because if you weren't, you might know that the Famine Stela was written over 1000 years after the reign of Senusret and specifies a time period of Djoser III, which is 700 years earlier.  Now he's off by 700 years again! 
Second, a tomb belonging to Ameni, a provincial governor under Sesostris I, says:  No one was unhappy in my days, not even in the years of famine, for I had tilled all the fields of the Nome of Mah…thus I prolonged the life of its inhabitants and preserved the food which it produced.
The tomb specifically says that there was famine all over Egypt except in one district.  It also does not specify a length of time.  Besides that nothing resembles the Joseph narrative.  There were likely many famines in the 2000 year history of Pharaonic Egypt, the fact that we have some records of some of the famines should not be viewed as extraordinary.

Now, there are plenty of things that do resemble the Joseph narrative in Saite period Egypt, as I've noted in the Exodus post linked above (and sourced from Redford).  The names of the characters (potiphar, zaphnat-paneach, asenat) reach their peaks of popularity during that period.  Also there is the Papyrus Rylands which records the concentration of land underneath the Egyptian cleargy, similar to how Pharaoh buys all the land in the Egyptian narrative.  It also even describes the 20% tax!  These details are far more impressive than the list that Anderson provides.  He doesn't mention them, because they imply that the Joseph story was written 1000 years after it supposedly occurred.

In the next section, which I won't quote, Anderson talks about the presence of Semitic slaves in Egypt during the 12th dynasty.  This corresponds to a 200-400 year shift in chronology, assuming the Israelites were slaves between about 1800 and 1445 BCE.  The vast majority of the "evidence" arises from the city of Kahun, the capital during that time period.  He even points to the discovery of coffins of children and claims it must be a part of the Pharaoh's decision to kill the Hebrew babies.  In doing all this, Anderson ignores one of the very specific pieces of information that the Torah tells us about the biblical time in Egypt, namely that they settled in the land of Goshen.  While not specifically known where exactly Goshen is, the Torah tells us it's in the east.  Kahun is west of the Nile.  The Torah is notoriously vague about most of the details regarding the Exodus, but that means when it does supply some, like the location of the Israelites, you should probably use that information.  However, if you did, it would make all the discussion of Kahun irrelevant.  The Torah also mentions the cities that the Israelites built, namely Pithom and Ramses.  Anderson doesn't mention these cities because they don't fit in at all with his chronology.  The city of Ramses or Pi-Ramesses didn't exist until the Pharaoh of that name.  How could Israelites living in Kahun have built a city named for a Pharoah who wouldn't live for another 600 years?

I'll also note, that it's likely that there were Semitic slaves in Egypt during all periods of Egyptian history.  But there was never a point where the Semitic slaves represented a significant part of the population, as the Torah claims.

Moses is born

According to the Book of Exodus, the baby Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter while she was bathing at the river. His parents defied Pharaoh’s order and left his destiny in the Lord’s hands, placing him in a basket to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. Many consider this to be a nice story, but completely unrealistic. After all, what Egyptian princess would adopt a Hebrew slave child and offer to make him the next Pharaoh?
I've written about the probably origins for the Moses story here.  Note how the details line up much better than the circumstantial details that Anderson says.
However, if you place Moses in the 12th dynasty, the family history of the Pharaonic court appears to line up. Amenemhet III had two daughters, but no sons have been positively identified. Amenemhet IV has been proposed as the son of Amenemhet III, but he could just as easily have been the son of Sobekneferu, one of the daughters of Amenemhet III. Amenemhet IV is a very mysterious figure in Egyptian history and may have been a co-regent of Amenemhet or Sobekneferu...
This chronology is at least somewhat consistent.  The distance from Senusret I to Anumnehet III is about 100 years.  Which, if you have Yosef in Egypt in about 1650 BCE, and an Exodus date of 1445 BCE, you have Moshe born at 1525 BCE.

The rest of the story isn't really worth commenting on.  It's basically just inventing an Egyptian succession story so that the Biblical story could be grafted onto it.  There is absolutely no evidence of any of the things Anderson is saying. 
Exodus from Egypt

In a revised chronology, Neferhotep I was likely the Pharaoh of the Exodus in the 13th dynasty. Exodus 7:10 tells us that Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh ‘… and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent.’ Pharaoh was not impressed ‘… so the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. For every man threw down his rod, and they became serpents.’ In the Liverpool Museum there is a magician’s rod that hails from this same period in Egyptian history. The rod is in the form of a long cobra Perhaps the magicians practiced some form of hypnotic power that transformed the cobra rods into the appearance of real snakes, or applied sleight of hand to substitute a real cobra for the rod.
The first thing to point out is that this is the only, even somewhat related event that is placed in the period that the author thinks is the time of the Exodus.  The second thing to note is that the snake was an important symbol in Egypt and it appears in many places.  It was also an important symbol in Judaism, but that's a topic for another time.  The third thing is more humorous than anything else.  The author assumes that the Egyptian magicians couldn't make a rod into a snake, but all the other miraculous things said in the bible definitely happened.  Why doesn't he take the bible at its word?  The Egyptian magicians made their rods into snakes just like Aharon did.  Presumably he invents "optical illusions" for the Egyptians because anything else would conflict with the modern theology he's attaching to the Torah.
The ten plagues are probably one of the most famous aspects of the Exodus story. If the plagues were historical events as recorded by Moses, then there should be some fragment of evidence describing their catastrophic consequences. In fact, there is a papyrus in the Leiden Museum in Holland which provides a graphic portrayal eerily reminiscent of the biblical account. There is no consensus among archaeologists as to when it was originally penned An excerpt reads:
… Plague stalks through the land and blood is everywhere … Nay, but the river is blood. Does a man drink from it? As a human he rejects it. He thirsts for water … Nay, but gates, columns and walls are consumed with fire…Nay but the son of the high-born man is no longer to be recognized … The stranger people from outside are come into Egypt … Nay, but corn has perished everywhere…Everyone says ‘there is no more.’
When I opened the article, the first think I searched for was Ipuwer.  Having read enough of these types of posts, I know that finding out whether the authors mention the Admonitions of Ipuwer or the Ipuwer Papyrus or not is a good metric to finding out whether they are worth paying attention to.  The good scholars (like Hoffmeier above) don't mention Ipuwer, for the reasons I'll explain in a little bit.  The ones that do, do so because they don't expect their audience to know what it's about.  At first I was relieved that Ipuwer didn't appear in the search bar.  However when I got to this paragraph I realized it was far worse than I thought.  Not only does Anderson mention Ipuwer, but he doesn't even tell you what it is so you can find it easily yourself.  And he mangles the quotation so much that you don't realized that these are essentially random strings taken completely out of context over many pages, most of which has clearly nothing to do with the Exodus narrative.  That last one is standard fare for anyone who brings up the Ipuwer Papyrus as evidence.

The Admonitions of Ipuwer can be read in full here.  Most Egyptologists that I've read think it has no real historical worth, and that it is more of a moral message. Let's take a closer look at the "river = blood" part quoted in Anderson.

Indeed, [hearts] are violent, pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere, death is not lacking, and the mummy-cloth speaks even before one comes near it.
Indeed, many dead are buried in the river; the stream is a sepulcher and the place of embalmment has become a stream.
Indeed, noblemen are in distress, while the poor man is full of joy. Every town says: "Let us suppress the powerful among us."
Indeed, men are like ibises. Squalor is throughout the land, and there are none indeed whose clothes are white in these times.
Indeed, the land turns around as does a potter's wheel; the robber is a possessor of riches and [the rich man is become] a plunderer.
Indeed, trusty servants are [. . .]; the poor man [complains]: "How terrible! What am I to do?"
Indeed, the river is blood, yet men drink of it. Men shrink from human beings and thirst after water.
Indeed, gates, columns and walls are burnt up, while the hall of the palace stands firm and endures.
First of all, it should be somewhat more clear what the Admonitions are talking about.  A general upheaval of society which is portrayed in a very negative light.  As far as the river being blood, the reason is clearly stated a couple verses previous, a section that is conveniently left out by every apologist who quotes from it.  The river is blood because they buried the dead in it!

The only way you get something that looks like the Biblical Exodus from Ipuwer is to grab quotes completely out of context and then make an assertion (without evidence) that it dates to the period of the Exodus.  As we've seen before this date can be moved around anyway to suit whatever piece of Egyptology Anderson wants to hold up.  Let's continue,
The final plague cut Pharaoh to the heart. The Lord struck down all the firstborn in each Egyptian family at midnight. The Hebrews were warned of this horrific disaster and Moses ordered them to kill a lamb and splash its blood on their doorposts. The Destroyer would pass over every home with the blood of the lamb. It is quite significant that Neferhotep’s son, Wahneferhotep, did not succeed his father on the throne. Instead, Neferhotep I was succeeded by his brother Sobkhotpe IV ‘who occupied the throne which his brother had recently vacated.’ To this day, historians are unable to pinpoint the reason why the son of Neferhotep I did not succeed him. Perhaps a closer look at the biblical account is necessary.
There were a great many Pharaohs who were not succeeded by children.  One of the obvious reasons for this (in retrospect) was likely the fact that inbreeding was extremely common among the Egyptian royalty.  It should also be noted that monumental inscriptions and the like are not very high for the 13th dynasty.  Wikipedia doesn't supply dates for the Pharaohs.  It's probably that Anderson went down the list of 13th dynasty Pharaohs until he found one without a son, and then placed the Exodus there.  I should also note that poking around on wikipedia indicates that Wahneferhotep was probably the son of Neferhotep anyway.  Anderson says a closer looks at the biblical account is necessary, but of course he doesn't do that.  He jumps to another topic right away.
Another piece of very interesting circumstantial evidence is the sudden departure of Kahun’s inhabitants. Dr Rosalie David writes:
It is evident that the completion of the king’s pyramid was not the reason why Kahun’s inhabitants eventually deserted the town, abandoning their tools and other possessions in the shops and houses …The quantity, range, and type of articles of everyday use which were left behind in the houses may suggest that the departure was sudden and unpremeditated. 
The evidence appears to confirm Exodus 12:33 which states, ‘And the Egyptians urged the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste…’
Except as noted above, Kahun was nowhere near the region where the Jews were supposed to live.  I can't speak any more about the abandonment of the city or what might have caused it without some digging (pun not intended, but noticed on proofreading).
But what happened to the mighty Egyptian army? According to the Bible, Pharaoh pursued the fleeing Israelites with his army as they miraculously crossed the Red Sea. However, the Egyptian army ended up at the bottom of the Red Sea. It is no coincidence that the mummy of Neferhotep I has never been found.
Wait, from the fact that we haven't found one Pharaoh's tomb, Anderson concludes that he must have died in the Red Sea.  This is despite the Bible not saying that the Pharaoh himself went to the sea, and the fact that we haven't found tombs of many Pharaohs, especially in the 13th and 14th dynasties.  Presumably the fact that we have never found any remnants from a drowned Egyptian army doesn't faze Anderson.

The Hyksos mystery solved

Also, archaeologists and other scholars have long puzzled over the rapid occupation of Egypt by the mysterious Hyksos without a military confrontation. Those scholars advocating a revised chronology have identified the Hyksos with the Amalekites, who attacked the Israelites fleeing from Egypt. It is plausible that the Amalekites flowed into Egypt without resistance because of God’s decimation of the Egyptian army under the Red Sea.
Except this makes no sense in the Biblical account in which Amalek is known to live in the South and to spar with Israel during the period of the Judges and the early monarchial period. But whatever, this is just a minor point of silliness in a whole sea of misinformation.

Now, until this point I have only briefly mentioned the biggest problem with the entire chronology presented here.  And that is we have quite a lot of evidence from the Amarna period of Egypt, which in the standard chronology stretches from the 14th century to the early 13th century.  In Anderson's chronology, this would be later, but that's not terribly relevant.  What is relevant is that this period occurs, according to Anderson, after the Exodus.  After the Israelites have passed through the desert and settle in Canaan.

The Amarna period is important because it furnishes us with a huge array of correspondence between the Egyptian pharaohs and the various vassal kingdoms in the Levant.  During this time, Egypt controlled the southern Levant, with the northern half, namely northern Syria, being controlled by the Hittites.  There are over 300 letters here, and you can see a list on wikipedia. A bit of searching can bring up some of the full letters so you can get a taste for what's in them.  They're mostly pretty standard stuff with kings sucking up to Pharaoh and asking for assistance.

The takeaway here is that the world described in the Amarna letters has absolutely no overlap with the world described in the Tanach.  And certainly no overlap with the Judges or Monarchial periods over which it would fall in Anderson's chronology.  None of the kings mentioned in the Amarna letters are found in the Tanach.  Many of the nations mentioned in the Tanach don't seem to exist in the Amarna letters either.  Just to belabor the point, the Amarna letters aren't a single papyrus with an unknown date, and an unclear interpretation (like the Admonitions of Ipuwer, Anderson's smoking gun), they are official style correspondences with a known time period and clear historical worth.  They are the most important primary source for Egyptian-Levant relations during this era.  This isn't an "absence of evidence" argument, it's the presence of a significant amount of positive evidence that complete annihilates the possibility for all the speculations and shaky conclusions in Anderson's article.  Any article like this that attempts to describe an Exodus prior to the Amarna period must reckon with the fact that the Israelites are absent in the letters.  Failure to do so is dishonesty.

The conclusion from the Amarna letters is loud and clear.  If there was an Exodus which was the primary foundation for the Israelites, it must have happened in the period after the letters were written.  This is why I said above that the serious scholars who argue for some historical exodus think that it happened in the middle of the 13th century BCE. The Amarna letters are just that strong of a data point.


There is a story of an older, well-respected archaeologist digging next to a young archaeologist at Gezer, Israel. The young archaeologist was mocking the historical reliability of the Bible when the older archaeologist quietly responded, ‘Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t rubbish the Bible.’ When the young archaeologist asked ‘Why?’ he replied, ‘Well, it just has a habit of proving to be right after all.’
To close, Anderson quotes Clifford Wilson, a young earth creationist, who he describes as a well-respected archaeologist.  He has almost no publications that I can find, but I did find a biography, in which you can see that he is trained as a religious educator, not as an archaeologist.  Wilson may be respected among Creationists, but among the rest of scholarship, not so much it seems.  Regardless, Anderson's quotes makes it appear as if modern archaeological discoveries are producing a historical pictures closer to the biblical narrative.

Let me finish by my own quotes, to refute this assertion.  I will provide two, the first by the John Bright, the student of the "father of biblical archaeology" William Albright.  John says in 1950 (quote from Moore and Kelle, Biblical History and Israel's Past, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011, p. 62):
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were clan chiefs who actually lived in the second millennium B.C.... The Bible's narrative accurately reflects the times to which it refers.  But to what it tells of the lives of the patriarchs we can add nothing
So according to Anderson, if we look at the students of that particular school, we should see something that indicates an even stronger trust in the biblical narrative.  The later voice I will bring in is William Dever, who is probably the best representative of the Albright school today.  There's no true representative, and we'll see why when we read his quote.  If you look above, you'll see Anderson quotes Clifford who participated in the Gezer excavation.  Dever was director of three separate excavations at Gezer.  Anyway he says (What Did the Biblical Writers Know, Wm. B. Eerdman Pub. Co. 2001, p.98):
After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible "historical figures."  Virtually the last archaeological word was written by me more than 20 years ago for a basic handbook of biblical studies, Israelite and Judean History.  And as we have seen, archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit.  Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness.  A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late 14th century B.C., where many scholars think the biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose.  But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite religion.
When Anderson says more archaeologists are looking at the Bible as a credible historical document today, he is lying.

I hope you've enjoyed this.  If you have more apologetics that you'd like a response to, send them over, and provided I have time, I'll see what I can do.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Center of the Torah

Parshat Tazria-Metzora

This week's post is superficially about various claims about where the center of the Torah lay, but more deeply it's about the importance of having a skeptical view on unsubstantiated claims.  This is something that everyone struggles with, as we all find it very easy to accept information that agrees with what we already think is true.  However, when we come across something we disagree with, or that conflicts with what we already know, we tend to look at it more skeptically.  Anyway, we'll see that later.  For now let's get to the topic at hand.

Where is the Torah's Center?

There is a somewhat famous Talmudic passage in Kiddushin 30a, which states (my translation):

"Therefore the Rishonim were called sofrim because they would count (sofrim) all the verses that were in the Torah, and they would say: The vav of gahon (Lev. 11:42) is the midpoint of the letters in the Torah,  darosh darash (Lev 10:16) is the midpoint of words, vehitgalach (Lev. 13:33) is the midpoint of verses....Rav Yosef asked, which half does the vav of gahon belong to?  They said, bring us a Torah and we'll count.  Didn't Rav Bar Bar Hannah say, they did not move until they counted them all?  They said to him, they were knowledgable about full and missing spellings*, we are not (implying they can't count it) Rav Yosef asked, how about the verses, which half does vehitgalach belong to?  At least we can bring a Torah (and count).  With sentences we are also not knowledgable.  In the west (Israel) they split the verse "behold I come before you in a cloud" into three.  There are 5888 verses in the Torah, Psalms has 8 more and Chronicles has 8 less."
 *The full and missing spellings are when you have an extra vav or yud in the vowel.  The grammar of these weren't set fully until the time of the Masoretes (see below).

It's true that there might be some errors in defective spellings and this could alter the movement of a letter by some amount, and make it impossible to determine which half the middle letter belongs to.  Nevertheless, the Rabbis of the Talmud made it clear that they were unwilling or unable to check the previous generation's work.  I don't really blame them.  The Torah is large and it would take a long time to count it by hand.  And even then you're pretty likely to make errors, because these kinds of tasks are ones that humans are bad at.

Nevertheless, there was a later attempt in the 10th century by the Masorete Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher, famous for setting the version of the text with all the cantillation notes we use today.  In this work, called, Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te'amim (Grammar or Analysis of the Accents), he also compiles lists of various quantities in the Torah, including verse amounts, word amounts and letter amounts along with letter counts for each letter.  In his count there are 5845 verses in the Torah, a significant difference from the Talmud's count of 5888.  I should mention that one of the main purposes for Ben Asher's work was to elucidate the grammatical rules of biblical Hebrew and thus standardize the spelling and pronunciation of the text.

Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher also calculated the midpoints and came up with answers that were very different from the Talmud's.  He found the midpoint of letters to be in Lev 8:28, 4829 letters off from the Talmudic count.  The midpoint of words is in 8:26, 743 words off, and the midpoint of verses is Lev. 8:8, 164 verses off.  Furthermore, the skew is very strange, where the Talmud's calculation have the midpoints of words and verses three chapters off, this calculation has them differ by only 18 verses (in the other direction).  For the Talmud's calculation to be correct, the first half of the Torah would have to be full of long sentences with a lot of words.  Even if the Talmudic Rabbis made a bunch of errors in defective spellings and verse distribution, they would at least have realized that something was way off had they actually sat down to to the work.  Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher's results can be found here, along with some apologetics which we'll get to in a bit.

We'll get to these problems in a minute, but since the theme is checking other people's work, why not do it myself?  So I did just that, using unicode text from mechon mamre and python to parse the text.  My calculation for verses is 5844, or one less than Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher.  My letter count is also very close, with 4 more letters.  My word count is considerably different, as I have almost 150 more words.  I also have considerable differences with the alphabetical makeup of the Torah, and some differences in what the middle letter, word and verse is.  Nevertheless, my middle values are much more consistent with Ben Asher's than they are with the Talmud's.  At the end I'll post the output of my code so you can see where the differences are.

Why is the Talmud so Far off?

There are three possibilities for the discrepancies of the midpoints mentioned in the Talmud.  They are.

1) The text that the Tana'im and Amoraim were using were significantly different from the text we have today.  This difference would have to be larger than can be accounted for by defective/full spellings which would not affect word or verse count anyway.

2) The Rabbis in the Talmud (Tana'im) erred in their counts.

3) The Rabbis in the Talmud (Tana'im) actually meant something else entirely and were misinterpreted by the Rabbis of the Gemara (Amoraim).

Answer 1 does show up sometimes in various sites.  For example, this criticism of Judaism, seems to imply that this is the most likely answer.  However, I actually find it a bit unlikely that the Torah in the time of the Talmud would differ by that much compared to current day.  If this were true, we would expect to see many more differences in the verses that the Talmud quotes, and we see hardly any.  I think it's pretty likely that we are working with fundamentally the same text as the Talmudic Rabbis were.

Answer 3 is one commonly used by apologists.  They say that what the Tana'im actually meant with regard to the central letter was that it was really counting the big and small letters of the Torah, in which the vav of gahon is the 8th out of 16 (note that there's no actual "middle" one).  They bolster this claim by noting that the middle letter claimed for Tehilim (Psalms) in the Talmud is also the middle big/small letter, but not the actual middle letter. Similarly, with regard to the middle word of the Torah, it claims that darosh darash is the middle "double word" of the Torah.  We'll examine both these claims in a bit.

I actually think the apologists are on to something, but not quite what they intend.  As I'll explain now.  I actually think the second approach is the most likely, and I think it goes a bit further than the Tana'im just making an error.  I think this goes very much to the way Chazal approached questions of this type, questions with definite answers.  Instead of verifying it in the scientific way we think of today, they just assumed an answer they heard was correct, or just chose one that seemed good and then it became the answer due to what is essentially an argument from authority.  The answers quoted in the Talmudic passage all seem good.  Why?  It's exactly what the apologists explain, except they get it backwards.

The vav of gahon is a big letter.  There are a few such large and small letters in the Torah, the actual amount differs between versions.  One of them is the vav in question, and another one (the next, 9th) is the gimel in vehitgalach the first word in the supposed middle sentence.  It's very likely to me that the thinking of Chazal went something like this:

"This vav is big, why?  Well it's roughly in the middle of the text, it must be the middle letter!"  "But wait, this gimel is also big, and also near the middle, maybe it's the middle letter."  "Well, the gimel is in the first word of the sentence so maybe it's the middle verse instead."  "Cool, and what about a middle word?  There's no other weird letters nearby."  "How about the nice double word darosh darash wish essentially means to really learn about, that sounds like a great middle for the Torah."

Admittedly, this is rampant speculation, but if you've read enough Talmud, this type of argumentation should be familiar enough to you to be plausible.

Returning to the apologist explanation, it's worth looking at it a little more deeply.  It's clear that the Amora'im who are doing the conversing in the Mishnah are not talking about big and small letters.  The conversation of them not being able to count because of confusion over extra vavs and yuds makes no sense in that context.  So this must mean that the Amora'im misunderstood what the Tana'im where saying about the middle letter.  However, this is also problematic if you're one of those people who relies on the integrity of the oral tradition.  If they make such a blatant misunderstanding here, where else did they err?

Rather, this form of apologetics is a blatant way of saving face for Chazal.  But another question to ask is are the apologists even correct?  We'll look at the double word issue, since the large and small letters differ between versions.  From the apologists site, the claim is that there are 77 double words of which darosh darash is the 39th, or middle one.  They give two examples for double words, lech lecha, and avraham avraham.  The first example is important, since lech lecha is actually two different words entirely that just happened to be spelled the same way.  So we're looking for consecutive words that are spelled the same, but may not be pronounced the same.  I searched through this and counted 91, of which darosh darash was the 47th (not the middle).

All the verses with double letters will be included on a separate page here.

The count of 77 is wrong.  No doubt about it.  To make darosh darash the middle set, we would have to discount 2 instances in the first half.  Perhaps you can argue this by eliminating Exod. 7:17 which is actually one that straddles verses (verse markers post-date the Torah though, although based on the passage in the Talmud they had some form of marking).  7:16 ends in coh and 7:17 begins in coh; Perhaps you can also eliminate Exod 15:25 which is sham sam, two words that are spelled with the same written characters, but you can differ between the shin in the first word and the sin in the second.  I'm not sure how they got the count of 77. Even if you discount all the words that appear across broken phrases, these would be: Gen 6:9, 11:10, 11:27, 25:19, Lev 13:38, Num 14:34 it does not remove enough, and the middle count would then be more wrong.  So it's not clear to me that the answer offered here to validate Chazal's claims makes any sense anyway, and it's also done by people who were also very sloppy in their calculations.

What Else Have I Learned From This?

So the cool thing about these sort of exercises is you actually see new things that you didn't expect.  One thing I noticed, when looking through all the double words was the relative rarity of them in Devarim (Deuteronomy).  There are only 7 double words in Devarim, and the 7th appears in Ha'azinu, which is sort of a special case being poetry.  Furthermore, when going through the words for the middle three books, a very large number come from the phrase ish ish, which literally means "man man" and idiomatically means, "each or every person".  This phrase is completely absent in Deuteronomy, despite having a lot of similar legislative style content.  Similarly, several of the double words in Vayikra (Leviticus 11:41-43) come from the "kosher" passage which talks about unkosher animals using the phrase hasheretz hashoretz, a phrase that's completely absent when Devarim talks about kosher animals, (it actually doesn't mention insects at all in those kashrut laws!)  When people talk about differences in the way the books were written, this is what they are talking about.

Again, the full output of my code including verse counts, and the location of the double letters can be found here.  If you actually want the python code used for analysis, send me an email and I'll be happy to provide it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

David and Shaul

Parshat Shmini

This week we'll look very tangentially at the haftorah which is a touching story of the friendship between David and Yonatan (Jonathan) the son of Shaul (Saul), which is read anytime that Shabbat precedes a Rosh Chodesh (new moon).  In the story, Yonatan tells David to hide away while he tries to determine whether his father means to kill David.  After Yonatan decides that his father does want David's life, he is able to secretly warn him to flee.  The actual story is a little silly as they hatch an elaborate warning system with arrows, and then meet up and talk to each other face to face after anyway, but that's besides the point.  This week we're going to look at the stories that preceded this one, how David and Shaul met, and why at this point, Shaul wanted to kill David.

Once Again: Multiple Traditions

Just as we've seen in the Torah itself, in the stories that span from 1 Samuel 16-18, just like in many places in the Torah, it appears that multiple storylines are present that can be separated into individual narratives.  Once separated, numerous contradictions are resolved and seemingly repetitive statements are eliminated.  I won't explicitly do the separation here, but at the end of this post, I'll point you to where you can find them (actually I'll point to the inspiration for this post, which does a thorough job of delineating them).  Instead, I'll briefly mention the various contradictions in these chapters.
  • 1 Sam 17:12 introduces David, even though he was already introduced in the previous chapter
  • 1 Sam 17:17 has Yishai (Jesse) send David on a mission to the battle site, even though in the previous chapter he was employed as the royal musician in Shaul's court.
  • 1 Sam 17:28 has David's older brother Eliav get angry at him for not tending to the flocks even though he's actually in the employ of Shaul and was previously anointed as the new king by Shmuel (Samuel) in the sight of his siblings in the previous chapter.
  • 1 Sam 17:49-51 has very repetitive phrasing of David prevailing over Galyat (Goliath).
  • 1 Sam 17:55 Shaul has no idea who David is!  Neither does his commander Avner.  Again David was Shaul's personal court musician.  The only one who could play well enough to soothe him. 
  • 1 Sam 18:13 Shaul appoints David as a commander, even though he already did this in 18:5
  • 1 Sam 18:17-29 David is reluctant to enter into Shaul's family by marrying Merav but seems eager to marry his other daughter Michal.  (Perhaps this can be explained by Merav being ugly...)
  • 2 Sam 21:8 Michal, the daughter of Shaul is described as having bore 5 children to Adriel ben Barzillai, even though it was Merav who married Adriel in 1 Sam 18:19
When I read through the Tanach on my own, the blatant contradiction of Shaul not knowing who David was jumped out at me as something very strange in the story.  Indeed, of the issues mentioned above, it's the only one (along with the Merab/Michal problem) that appears to be a blatant contradiction.  The rest can be explained with some deft maneuvering.  However, it turns out that you can actually separate out two consistent story strands that resolve all of them.

A Common Complaint

One of the common complaints that many people have with the Documentary Hypothesis is that there are no versions around of a single document.  There are no separate J and E documents for example.  Their existence is implied from the final form.  They will say, "Show me a strand of a J document, and I'll change my mind." This isn't a ridiculous objection, although religious people lean on this because they know how unlikely it is to find a single document of such old age.  However, perhaps if you could show a separated document for one section of the Tanach, you could gain confidence of the application to other sections.

It turns out that this story, with David and Shaul actually has a version that exists today with only one of the story strands.  The version is the Septuagint, and you can read the relevant chapters here.  Before we go further, we need to briefly state what the Septuagint is.

The Septuagint is a version of the Tanach that was translated into Greek by the Egyptian Jewish community in roughly the third century BCE.  The name derives from a legendary story about how 70 rabbis translated it independently and came up with the exact same translation.  It's clear that the translators of the Septuagint either had a slightly different version of the Tanach or made some very bizarre decisions in addition and subtraction.  For example, we saw in an earlier week that the Septuagint translation of Esther had additional sections.  Also, the book of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) is significantly shorter in the Septuagint, and various chapters are shuffled around.  In the past, scholars had thought that the Septuagint was a later alteration, and that the Masoretic text written in Jewish books and Torah scrolls today was a more authentic version.  However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some of these opinions have been revised, and it appears that the Septuagint was translated from an earlier version of Tanach, and that both versions probably had different changes in the intervening years.  In some books (like Esther) the Septuagint likely has additions, and at other points (like here) the Septuagint represents an earlier version of the text.

The presence of an alternate version of a biblical story which preserves a single account is a huge thorn in the side of critics of the Documentary Hypothesis who argue on the grounds that such a combination of different source texts is unlikely.  Furthermore, it makes some of the common apologetic or academic explanations with regard to resolving contradictions less likely.   

The post that inspired this one, and is a more detailed and thorough read from what I wrote above can be found here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Origins of Pesach


The actual origins of Pesach are fairly murky, but by looking closely at the Torah and taking a bit of information from extra-biblical sources, a hypothesis can be formed that indicates two separate festivals that were later merged, and then equated with the Exodus.

The timing of the holiday is a key time in the lunar calendar.  It occurs at the first full moon following the vernal equinox.  Just like Sukkot which falls on the first full moon after the autumnal equinox.  It is not a surprising time for a holiday for any ancient society.

The Festival of Matzot

Pesach has two biblical names, one is Pesach itself and the other is the festival of Matzot.  A couple weeks ago we discussed some possible early forms of the ten commandments in Exod. 23:15
The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep; seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib--for in it thou camest out from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty;
and Exod 34:
The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.
In both of these places, the holiday is called specifically Hag HaMatzot, the festival of matzah, or here translated as "the feast of unleavened bread".  Pesach is not mentioned.  Both of these sections describe the holidays in purely agricultural terms, both also equate Hag HaMatzot to the Exodus from Egypt.

These point to one version of the holiday, an agricultural one, that focuses on the eating of unleavened bread, matzah.  The Torah provides a reason for the eating of matzah, which is that the Israelites had to leave quickly from Egypt and didn't have time for the bread to rise, Exod 12:39
And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual.
This story seems strongly etiological, if not for the sole reason that the festival of matzot was already commanded just a few verses earlier Exod 12:14-15, before this event occurred.
14 And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. 15 Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; howbeit the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.
The real reason for eating unleavened bread probably had more to do with leaven being a sign of impurity.  For example (Lev 2:11):
No meal-offering, which ye shall bring unto the LORD, shall be made with leaven; for ye shall make no leaven, nor any honey, smoke as an offering made by fire unto the LORD.
Just like Sukkot, the holiday of Pesach probably started with different origins and was only later related to the Exodus.


The second form of Pesach is the offering of the Paschal lamb.  Like the festival of matzot, this was probably a separate holiday, possibly followed by nomads and herdsman, as opposed to agriculturalists.  The holiday might have included slaughtering a lamb and using its blood as a way of warding off evil.

Also, the story in the Exodus about the Pesach lamb being used to indicate which houses were Jewish and which were Egyptian also looks etiological.  For one, the root פסח does not usually mean "pass over" as it's used in that context. It usually means something like limping.

Furthermore, the story itself has internal contradictions.  We are told repeatedly that the Israelites settle in the land of Goshen, which was spared several plagues.  For example with regard to the hail (Exod 9:26):
Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail.
This is a contradiction because if the Israelites were already separate in Goshen, why would they need a distinctive marker on their houses? At different places in the story the Israelites lived entirely separate from the Egyptians in Goshen and in others they lived in mixed company with them.  But I digress from the main point.

So here we have a second version of the holiday, one observed by shepherds and pastoralists, in which the holiday was centered around animals.  Later these holidays would have been combined, possibly when the pastoralists and agriculturalists united under a single kingdom.  The two holidays then merged.

Separation in the Torah

Right now, this looks like a fine hypothesis, but it seems speculative.  However, some support can be found from the Torah itself.  If we look closer at chapter 12 of Exodus we see that the holidays appear to be separated.  It talks about Hag Hamatzot and then it talks about Pesach but never together.  It's worth reading on your own to prove to yourself what's going on, but I'll summarize:
  • God tells Moshe about the Paschal lamb (Exod 12:1-13)
  • God tells Moshe about Hag HaMatzot (Exod 12:14-20)
  • Moshe tells the elders about the Paschal lamb, but not about Matzot (Exod 12:21-28)
  • Plague of the firstborn occurs, the Israelites are commanded to leave (Exod 12:29-36)
  • The Israelites leave, they don't have time to bake bread, (but did have time to go around asking the Egyptians for valuables just a couple verses earlier) (Exod 12:37-42)
  • God tells Moshe more stuff about the Paschal lamb (Exod 12:43-50)
  • God tells Moshe more stuff about Hag HaMatzot (Exod 13:1-10)
Amazingly, the Torah never mentions the two ideas, unleavened bread and Matzot in the same sentence, or even the same section.  It talks about one and then later it talks about the other. In fact in other sections of the Torah that talk about the holiday the same separation appears to be in place.  Although none talk about the holiday in more depth than this section.

The Passover Papyrus

There are a bunch of papyri that have survived from the Jewish community at Elephantine.  This is a very interesting community and we'll talk about them more later.  But for now, I'll quote the text (retrieved from here) of a papyrus discussing the holiday of Pesach

[To] my [brethren Yedo]niah and his colleagues the [J]ewish gar[rison], your brother Hanan[iah]. The welfare of my brothers may God [seek at all times]. Now, this year, the fifth year of King Darius, word was sent from the king to Arsa[mes saying, "Authorise a festival of unleavened bread for the Jew]ish [garrison]". So do you count fou[rteen days of the month of Nisan and] obs[erve the passover], and from the 15th to the 21st day of [Nisan observe the festival of unleavened bread]. Be (ritually) clean and take heed. [Do n]o work [on the 15th or the 21st day, no]r drink [beer, nor eat] anything [in] which the[re is] leaven [from the 14th at] sundown until the 21st of Nis[an. For seven days it shall not be seen among you. Do not br]ing it into your dwellings but seal (it) up between these date[s. By order of King Darius. To] my brethren Yedoniah and the Jewish garrison, your brother Hanani[ah].
Now the papyrus was heavily damaged, but it sure is curious that they make no mention of the Paschal lamb offering, only mentioning the unleavened bread.  It's probably not wise to lean too much on this papyrus.  For one, it was heavily damaged and it's possible that we do not have the lacunae correct.  But also, it is fairly late, in the 5th century BCE, which is probably long after the holidays should have been merged.  Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I didn't mention it in the discussion.


Pesach occupied a prominent place on the agricultural calendar.  It occurs on the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which was the time of the new year in the biblical calendar, and in other nearby cultures.  It was probably the chief festival in this region of the ancient near east, and it's origins are probably very old. 

Later when the Israelites were unifying into a single kingdom and their mythologies were coalescing, the agricultural festival of Matzot and the pastoral festival of Pesach merged, and gained (along with Sukkot) additional meaning with respect to the national founding mythology.  Today, Judaism knows nothing about the agricultural or pastoral holidays, we only know celebrate the later mythology that was grafted onto them.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Notes on the Seder


Before we start, I'd like to mention that I've been reading some really persuasive arguments about the correctness of the Jewish tradition and the divinity of the Torah, and that it's really causing me to consider jumping back on the derech.  Ok, now that we've gotten the obligatory April fools day joke out of the way, let's begin.

This week we'll look at some interesting things to think about during the seder.  Next week, we'll look at the origins of the Pesach holiday itself.

Leaning to the Right

One of the four questions is about leaning to the left.  The Haggadah doesn't actually give an answer, but you've probably heard some of the common ones.  Perhaps you heard that it's a sign of luxury to lean.  Or maybe you've heard something about it being easier to swallow if you lean to the left rather than leaning to the right.  This post I read a long time ago hits the mark on the relation between the Seder and the Greek Symposia

The luxurious people you are imitating are the Greeks and Hellenized Romans, the dominant culture at the time where these rituals were being formed.  Why do you lean to the left, because if you lean on the left, it means you are eating with your right hand.  If you leaned the other way, you would have to eat with the left hand, which was generally viewed as unfortuitous.  (Left = sinister).  The relation to the Greek symposia also explains the origin of the term Afikomen which is equivalent to the Greek Epikomon, a post symposia entertainment.

Lavan tried to Destroy us all

The following passage in the Haggadah always seemed strange to me:
Go forth and learn what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh had issued a decree against the male children only, but Laban wanted to uproot everyone - as it is said: "The Aramean wished to destroy my father; and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation - great and mighty and numerous."
The verse in question is Deut 26:5.  Here is the JPS translation:
And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
Note the difference between "The Aramean wished to destroy my father" and "A wandering Aramean was my father".  The first translation is similar to what Onkelos wrote.  However, the second translation, the one in JPS, is correct.  The Hebrew is אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי and both modern commentators and ancient ones note that the translation known from the Haggadah cannot fit with biblical Hebrew grammar.  The correct translation is found in Sforno among others.

When I was first looking at some modern commentaries, I saw lots of references to "My father was a wandering Aramean," and I had no memory of this verse.  This was because the Haggadah's interpretation that I grew up with, was the way I'd always read it.  With the proper translation, is it possible to consider that this represents a deep memory about the true origins of the Israelites?  Were some portion of them originally Arameans?


One of the main ideas about myth generation and propagation is that they tend to grow over time and with each retelling.  Unknowingly, the Haggadah gives an ironic example of this with regard to the plagues.  I'll paraphrase:
Rabbi Yossi: The Egyptians were struck with 10 plagues in Egypt and 50 by the re(e)d sea.  Since the finger is described with regard to the plagues in Egypt and the hand is described at the re(e)d sea.
Rabbi Eliezer: Each plague has four parts.  Thus, the Egyptians were struck by 40 plagues in Egypt and 200 by the sea.
Rabbi Akiva: Each plague has five parts.  Thus the Egyptians were struck by 50 plagues in Egypt and 250 by the sea.
Could it be possible that the actual Exodus story grew from a story about a small group of slaves making a risky escape from Egypt and reaching Canaan, to the amazing display of divine power and miracles, based on the same type of exaggerations?

God: Kindly kill all our Enemies

We will make a big display about spilling wine when mentioning the plagues as a token of respect to all the innocent Egyptian lives lost in the divine wrath.  One might get the impression that we Jews are a civilized people who would never wish misfortune on our enemies, and feel immense sadness at their suffering.  Later in the evening we also perform a heartwarming ritual where we'll open the door for Eliyahu (Elijah) beckoning him to join us in our Seder.  And then, while the door is open, we'll say the following awful prayer:
Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You, and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.  Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of Your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord. 
If it looks like hypocrisy and it smells like hypocrisy...

Idol Worship

One of the passages of Hallel includes the following verses (from Psalm 115):
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but they cannot hear; they have a nose, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they can utter no sound with their throats. Those who fashions them, whoever trusts them, shall become like them. Israel, trust in the Lord! God is your help and shield.
I've always found this humorous for two reasons.  The first is that the same sort of criticism that the author is leveling at the idols is the criticism that atheists level at God.  As far as I can tell, God is about as effective at smelling, speaking, walking, etc, as a chunk of wood.

The second part I find humorous is that this demonstrates a major misunderstanding of the purpose of idols.  It's essentially a strawman argument.  People don't actually worship the idols themselves.  They never did.  The idols are just a way to encourage focus for the actual deity that the person is worshiping.  Judaism does the exact same thing with symbology.  The only difference between Judaism and the other religions at the time, is that Judaism was (mostly) strictly aniconic (no images) with respect to worship of their God.  It's not that big of a difference in retrospect, and it makes the kind of argument presented by these verses really silly.

The Unbroken Chain

Judaism likes to make a strong claim of an unbroken chain of tradition between Moshe (Moses) and today.  If this chain actually existed, the observance of Pesach would be the one place where we would expect to see it.  Why?  Because the Torah specifically commands that fathers tell their sons all the laws.  We see this in the Haggadah with regard to the four sons where it quotes the following verses. In Exod 13:6-8
6 Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day shall be a feast to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten throughout the seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee, in all thy borders. 8 And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.
and a few verses later (Exod  13:14)
14 And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: What is this? that thou shalt say unto him: By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage;
It seems that Pesach would be a good test of the strength of this type of chain.  A lapse in the observances of Pesach would probably indicate that such oral chains are unreliable.  So what should we make out of this (2 Kings 23:21-23) ?:
21 And the king commanded all the people, saying: 'Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant.' 22 For there was not kept such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah; 23 but in the eighteenth year of king Josiah was this passover kept to the LORD in Jerusalem. 
The Tanach admits that there was a huge gap of time in which Pesach was not observed in the proper manner, and it was only after Yoshiyahu's (Josiah) priest "discovered" an ancient "Torah" with the laws written down, did people start celebrating it again.  Even in the one specific commandment where the Torah repeatedly tells you to teach it to your children, it was seemingly forgotten.