Friday, June 26, 2015

Bonus Post: Judaism and Homosexuality

I actually didn't have a post planned for the topic of homosexuality. However, since it was a topic that was extremely important for my transition away from Orthodox Judaism, I decided, in the wake of today's Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that establishes the right for all couples, gay and straight, to be legally married across the United States, that I should probably make a post on the topic to share my thoughts on the issue. 

A Clear Prohibition

The position of the Torah on homosexual relations is very clear.  It does not mince words.  Amidst all the laws regarding improper sexual activities it states (Lev 18:22):
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.
The prohibition is upheld throughout all strata of halachic law, up to and including today.  Homosexual relations are forbidden by Modern Orthodox (MO) Judaism and every branch to the right.

A Moral Quandary

The prohibition of homosexual relations led to a moral quandary that I wrestled with as I was struggling with Judaism.  Growing up, I had very limited associations with gay individuals.  It is possible that I did know several, but the repressive nature of the culture at that point in time made it unlikely that I knew who exactly was gay.  However, that changed when I enrolled in (a secular) university, and encountered individuals of varied cultures and backgrounds, individuals that have had a profound impact on the way my moral compass developed even though they are likely completely unaware of it!  Before we get to that, I should take a second to talk about how homosexuality was treated in my MO high school.

When the topic of homosexuality came up in various religious settings, a common argument was often proffered.  This argument is now completely out of vogue, for good reason.  It's almost insulting to write it down, but alas it is necessary.  Inevitably, the Rabbi discussing the topic would admit that a gay person will have same sex attraction that is completely out of their control.  I did not belong to the ultra-right wing, or the conservative Christian camp that viewed homosexuality as a choice.  No, they agreed that the gay person did not choose to be gay, it was who they were.  Then, they would inevitably compare a homosexual individual with either a pedophile or a rapist, another individual with sexual desires that they didn't choose.  They'll note that just as a pedophile is given an unfair struggle to overcome their unusually strong yetzer hara (evil inclination) on this matter, so should a gay person.

Of course in making the analogy they pass over a key difference.  Child molestation and rape is asymmetric.  You cannot act on pedophilic urges with a child in a way that is consensual.  A child cannot legally give consent, nor are they able to understand biologically what is going on.  One party, in this case the child, is invariably harmed by the encounter.  Rape is obviously in the same boat.  However, homosexual relations can be consensual between parties.  Neither party is harmed in any way.  In fact, it's certainly the case in many relationships that both parties benefit greatly from it.

The argument always stuck in my craw.  I accepted it at the time, because I wasn't offered anything else.  The Torah clearly forbids it.  Chazal (the ancient Rabbis) concur.  What other possible explanation can there be.  To date, there has never been any acceptable explanation for the prohibition of homosexuality that wasn't ground in religious reasoning.  I was grasping at straws for an explanation, and this was the offered straw.  It was a shitty straw.

As I alluded to before, when I got to college things changed.  It's easy to hold negative views of homosexuals when they are the "other," when they are people you don't know, some mythical creature.  However, once I made friends with several it was abundantly clear that the comparison between a gay individual to a rapist is patently absurd.  Not only that, I was able to witness the tangible harm that the religious prohibition of homosexual relations was having on real people.  People that were forced to deny who they were because otherwise they would be thrown out of their religious community.  I'll also note that the documentary "Trembling Before God" came out at this time.  The problems of the Jewish community and their treatment of homosexuality were actually being aired.

Homosexuality was not the only moral issue that I struggled with, but the Torah's prohibition of it lent credence to the hypothesis that it was a man-made document, and not a divine one.  It was impossible for me to imagine a deity who would make individuals gay and then forbid them on acting on it with no good reason available.  Such a deity would be purposefully cruel and not worth worship.  It was very possible for me to imagine multiple situations where men would prohibit that activity.  It's very easy for you to prohibit someone from engaging in something that you have absolutely no desire to do yourself.  I will talk more about some of the other moral issues later in the year.  It's probably good to move to today.

The Future Quandary

I read the OU's statement on today's supreme court decision.  It can be found here.  The following quote struck me:
[W]ill the laws implementing today’s ruling and other expansions of civil rights for LGBT Americans contain appropriate accommodations and exemptions for institutions and individuals who abide by religious teachings that limit their ability to support same-sex relationships?
That bold phrase made me stop and remember, and indeed it prompted me to write this post.  The way it's phrased makes it sound to me like they recognize that the prohibition against homosexuality is ridiculous, and possibly even morally wrong and harmful to individuals.  Yet, they can't do anything about it.  The Torah forbids it, their religion forbids it, they can't change it.

Perhaps I'm projecting.  I'm reading too much into this statement, because this was exactly how I felt almost 15 years ago when I was struggling with this.  All signs pointed to the prohibitions of homosexuality being morally wrong, yet what could I do about it? Nothing. Unless, of course, I wanted to leave Orthodoxy. 

I will actually go a step further and make a bold prediction.  MO Judaism is doomed.  It cannot survive.  The idea that religious Jews can participate in society and live Halachic lives will be impossible.  Why do I make this prediction?  The reason is that up until very recently, MO Judaism aligned well with the majority opinion on every key moral issue.  This included the public sentiment towards homosexuality.  Now, it conflicts.  This is the moral quandary that MO Judaism faces.  What can they do?  They could isolate themselves from society, that is one option.  They could abandon the halacha, that is another option.  But if they do neither, then they are forced to come to terms with the fact that the culture they want to be a part of considers their religion immoral.  That's a bitter pill to swallow, too bitter in fact.

My prediction might be wrong.  At this point in my life, I am watching from the sidelines.  I'm interested to what goes on, but as a spectator, not a participant.

In the meantime, I look forward to the fact that all my gay friends, both current and in the past, all those individuals who altered my worldview through their personal examples, will be free to marry in all corners of the country I live in.  Now that I am free from following Judaism, I can celebrate with them fully.

Note: Usually I proofread these posts before posting them.  I don't have time to proofread this one at the moment.  So I'm going to apologize for spelling/grammar errors in advance.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Nechushtan

Parshat Chukat

This week we have one of the more bizarre stories in the Torah.  One that is bizarre to modern academics and traditional interpretations.  It is the story of the bronze serpent that Moshe (Moses) erects to cure a plague of snake bites that has broke out among the Israelites.  While we can glean some more information from archaeology, we're still left with a lot of speculation.

The Biblical Story

The story fits a trope in the biblical narrative.  The Israelites are wandering in the desert and they complain about something and god punishes them for their insolence.  In this case, they are complaining about a lack of water.  A reasonable complaint, in my opinion.  But anyway, it's not so reasonable to God, so he sends nechashim seraphim (literally, burning snakes).  The people immediately associate the plague of snakes as a consequence of their own complaints and seek penance from Moshe.  Then God gives the following command (Num 21:8-9):
8 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.' 9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.
So why is this problematic?  Because of this commandment, one of the most fundamental in Judaism (Exod. 20:3)
Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;
Here, God commands Moshe to transgress the commandment that the Torah says everyone heard at Har Sinai.  Not only that, but he then imbues this "idol" with healing powers.  Is God deliberately messing with the Israelites at this point?  I seem to remember something about putting a stumbling block in front of the blind, and how this was something you shouldn't do.  Surely, the expectation would be that some of the people would get the idea that it was really this bronze serpent that was powerful and not God.  They might even start worshiping it.  In fact...(2 Kings 18:4):
[Hezekiah] removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah; and he broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did offer to it; and it was called Nehushtan.
Traditional commentaries trip over themselves trying to resolve the problem here.  A common route they take is that the expectation was that people wouldn't pray to the serpent, but it was just be a conduit to God.  In the process, they don't really recognize that this is exactly what polytheistic idols do also.  They are reminders of the deities, not actual deities themselves.  No traditional commentaries that I know really offer a good explanation about why God would specifically command making something that clearly looks and seems like an idol.  If you have any that you think adequately explain it, I'd be glad to hear it.

Archaeology to the Rescue?

So, what can we learn from archaeology.  In a 1968 paper title "The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult," Karen Joines describes various places in Israel where it appears that there was some sort of snake worship going on.  She says:
The Israelite cult at Jerusalem was not unique in its utilization of a bronze serpent, for at least seven such serpents have come from various pre-Israelite Palestinian cities. Two were uncovered at Megiddo, one at Gezer, two in the "holy of holies" of the Area H temple at
Hazor, and two at Shechem. Most of them lay in Late Bronze Age cultic areas, but the phenomenon of the cultic bronze serpent was limited neither to Palestine nor to the second millennium B.C.
And later on, with regard to this biblical story:
Although the serpent was associated in the Ancient Near East with the restoration of life, the most prominent element in the tradition of Moses and the bronze serpent seems to be that of sympathetic magic- the belief that the fate of an object or person can be governed by the manipulation of its exact image. Thereby a representation of a noxious creature could best drive off that creature, and an adversary could most effectively be controlled by the manipulation of his exact image.
The Egyptians frequently defended themselves against the serpent by the use of its image... In Egypt a serpent-shaped amulet often was placed on mummies to prevent their being attacked by serpents and other reptiles of the underworld...
She does remark that such sympathetic usage seems to be confined only to Egypt, and similarly, the use of the serpent as a kind of fertility cult is local to the Israelite locations.  Perhaps the worship of the Nechushtan at the time of Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) was some sort of amalgamation of the two?

Speculation on What Really Happened

Using what we know about the snake cults of the Ancient Near East, we can begin to hypothesize on what's actually going on in this story.  We start, not with Moshe but at the time of Hizkiyahu.  Here, there is a group of people worshiping a bronze serpent that they call the Nechushtan, or possibly using it for some sort of fertility rite.  This bothers Hizkiyahu, who as a king, is all about the sole worship of YHWH, the Israelite God.  And specifically he favors aniconic worship, no images or statues allowed.  He views worship of this serpent as idolatry, so he removes it.

But why was it allowed in the first place?  Because there was an older story written about the serpent, possibly by the cultists themselves, possibly by someone else, that this serpent was somehow different from the other snake cults in the region.  This serpent was made by Moshe the hero of the Israelites.  And not only that, it was made by divine command.  Now we can understand one possibility about how this biblical story came to being.  It existed as a justification for the establishment of the snake cult in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem).

The early Israelites were a lot more willing to engage in iconic worship.  There are several references to Yahweh and his Ahserah in old inscriptions.  Some people say Asherah was the consort of God, others (including Mark Smith) think it's more likely that Asherah was in reference to the cultic tree that was often used for worship in the area.  This would be the same type of Asherah that the Torah repeatedly tells the Israelites to burn down.  Somewhere in the history of Judaism, likely alongside the move to sole worship of Yahweh, there was a move towards removing iconic worship.  No more Asherot, no more Nechushtan.  According to the Tanach, Hezekiah was one of the key figures in this movement.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Rebellion of Korach

Parshat Korach

At the beginning of Vayikra (Leviticus) I wrote about how the sons of Aharon (Aaron) claimed the exclusive rights to the priesthood at a fairly late date.  Throughout the monarchial period it appears that the Levites were the preferred priests, and it's only in the very late works, such as Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) that the Kohanim are explicitly defined as the sons of Aharon.  One of the stories this later group wrote is this account of the rebellion of KorachKorach was a Levite who challenged Aharon's claim of high priesthood.  His rejection symbolizes that only Aharon's children have a valid claim to the priesthood.  His rebellion was joined to an earlier rebellion narrative  by Datan and Aviram who were challenging Moshe's (Moses) leadership role. In this post, I will demonstrate that the rebellion of Korach was added on to a previous rebellion story of Datan and Aviram and was meant to discredit a rival Levite group.

What Can We Learn from the Rest of Tanach

If you've been reading a lot of posts on this blog, you'll probably know that I really like searching through Tanach for clues about how specific people or events are described in other locations.  First we'll look for Datan and Aviram.  They only appear in two places in Tanach outside of this parsha.  First in Devarim, (Deuteronomy), Moshe is recounting various miraculous events to the Israelites that occurred from the Exodus until this point.  One of them is (Deut 11:6):
and what He did unto Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, the son of Reuben; how the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households, and their tents, and every living substance that followed them, in the midst of all Israel
That is all that is said of the matter.  The second reference is from Tehillim (Psalms).  Psalm 106 is a recounting of various wilderness stories, specifically ones of rebellion.  Here's what it has to say on this matter (Ps 106:16-18)
16 They were jealous also of Moses in the camp, and of Aaron the holy one of the LORD.
17 The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the company of Abiram.
18 And a fire was kindled in their company; the flame burned up the wicked.
The account in Devarim only mentions a rebellion against Moshe and only specifies Datan and Aviram.  In Tehillim, there is specific rebellion against Aharon too, but in both mentions of the rebellion, Korach is absent.  Also of interest is that the ordering of Psalm 106 contradicts the Torah, with the golden calf story appearing after this rebellion.  But that's off topic so we won't pursue it.

So, what about Korach?  Where else does he appear?  There are two types of places where Korach is mentioned in the Tanach.  The first place is in genealogical lists.  These are not too interesting, they basically all agree that Korach was a descendent of Levi.  There's also a Korach who was a descendent of Esav (Esau) but that's probably not the same person, unless it's a much later attempt to smear the name.

The second place Korach is found is slightly more interesting.  There are several psalms, 11 in all, that are attributed to the "sons of Korach."  These are 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, 88.  These psalms are pretty much standard psalm fare, but you can read them if you are interested.  What these psalms tell us, is that there was a group who claimed descendence from Korach who were powerful enough that the psalms they wrote were recorded for posterity, and eventually included in the biblical canon.  In other words, this looks like evidence for a possible rival priestly group to the descendents of Aharon.

The Original Stories

The original story of the rebellion did not mention Korach at all, it was a rebellion against Moshe by Datan and Aviram.  As in the story of Joseph and the pit, we'll separate out this story, specifically chapter 16, into its independent strand.
1b Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; 2a and they rose up in face of Moses. 12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; and they said: 'We will not come up; 13 is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us? 14 Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.'  25 And Moses rose up and went unto Dathan and Abiram; and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 And he spoke unto the congregation, saying: 'Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest ye be swept away in all their sins.' 27b and Dathan and Abiram came out, and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, and their sons, and their little ones. 28 And Moses said: 'Hereby ye shall know that the LORD hath sent me to do all these works, and that I have not done them of mine own mind. 29 If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then the LORD hath not sent Me. 30 But if the LORD make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the LORD.' 31 And it came to pass, as he made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground did cleave asunder that was under them. 32a And the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up, and their households. 33 So they, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly. 34 And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them; for they said: 'Lest the earth swallow us up.'
This is where the story ends.  This particular strand continues with the messengers to Edom in Chapter 20.  The second story is a subversion of the first one.  Datan and Aviram are missing, instead it's a rebellion against Aharon led by Korach.  We'll look at this strand now.
1a Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, 2b [and] two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; 3 and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: 'Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?' 4 And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face. 5 And he spoke unto Korah and unto all his company, saying: 'In the morning the LORD will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him; even him whom He may choose will He cause to come near unto Him. 6 This do: take you censors, Korah, and all his company; 7 and put fire therein, and put incense upon them before the LORD to-morrow; and it shall be that the man whom the LORD doth choose, he shall be holy; ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.' 8 And Moses said unto Korah: 'Hear now, ye sons of Levi: 9 is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them; 10 and that He hath brought thee near, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee? and will ye seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore thou and all thy company that are gathered together against the LORD--; and as to Aaron, what is he that ye murmur against him? 15 And Moses was very wroth, and said unto the LORD: 'Respect not Thou their offering; I have not taken one ass from them, neither have I hurt one of them.' 16 And Moses said unto Korah: 'Be thou and all thy congregation before the LORD, thou, and they, and Aaron, to-morrow; 17 and take ye every man his fire-pan, and put incense upon them, and bring ye before the LORD every man his fire-pan, two hundred and fifty fire-pans; thou also, and Aaron, each his fire-pan.' 18 And they took every man his fire-pan, and put fire in them, and laid incense thereon, and stood at the door of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. 19 And Korah assembled all the congregation against them unto the door of the tent of meeting; and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the congregation. 20 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: 21 'Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.' 22 And they fell upon their faces, and said: 'O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt Thou be wroth with all the congregation?' 23 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 24 'Speak unto the congregation, saying: Get you up from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.' 27a So they got them up from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, on every side, 32b and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. 35 And fire came forth from the LORD, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense.
I don't necessarily expect you to read it in full, but perhaps your interest will pique you to.  If you did read it, you'll notice that I italicized two references to Datan and Aviram that appear to intrude on the Korach story.  They are somewhat out of place here.  However, instead of being a problem for the two-story theory, it's actually explained very nicely.  These names are absent in the Septuagint version [1]. As I've said in previous posts, the Septuagint was based off a version of the Torah different from the Masoretic text.  When we see revisions like this, where names appear where they are out of place, and they are absent in the Septuagint version, we can somewhat safely assume that these were a very late addition to the text, one that only appears in some versions.

Is it just a coincidence that the stories can be split so neatly between two separate narratives?  Is it a coincidence that the early stories of the rebellion only mention Datan and Aviram, and describe an earthquake but make no mention of Korach, or a divine fire?  Is it just a coincidence that this story so conveniently gives justification for the divine selection of Aharon over what appeared to be a rival priestly group led by the descendents of Korach?

How to Claim Divine Right

This story represents a good example of how to claim exclusive divine right to a particular lofty position.  This works for the original story of Dathan and Aviram in which the supporters of Moshe come out on the winning side, possibly over people from Reuven, a tribe the completely fades from importance by the time of the stories in Shoftim.  It also works for the story of Korach where the priesthood became the exclusive right of the descendents of Aharon over other Levites.

How do you do it?  You invent a story in the distant past in which people challenged the authority of your particular clan and were rebuffed by God himself.  You obviously can't do it in the present, because it's impossible to ask God for a current miracle, you must invent a past justification that can't be easily checked.  The story of Korach goes a step further, it also indicates that if you worship God and you were not the specific people who God chose, or if you don't worship in the specific way that God wants, then he will kill you.  There are other stories that bring the same point home. For example, the first two sons of Aharon are killed by God for offering incense incorrectly (Lev 10:1-7).

1. The Septuagint version can be found here but the English translation, which is not a direct translation of the Greek, inserts those names back in.  It is not difficult to verify that they are absent in the Greek though, even with little knowledge of Greek. ^

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Conquest of the Canaanite Nations

Parshat Shelach

In this week's parsha we hear about the spying out of the land of Canaan, and the description of the inhabitants of the land before the Israelite conquest.  First we'll give a brief description of the nations listed in the Torah and who they were.  Then we'll give a brief discussions of the historical problems of the conquest account which takes up the majority of the book of Yehushua.  It turns out that this post is pretty long.  Probably should have saved half for a later week.  Oh well.

The Seven or so Nations

The seven nations are described in Deut 7:1 as:
When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou;
 Another list later in Devarim states (Deut 20:17)
but thou shalt utterly destroy them: the Hittite, and the Amorite, the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee;
This list doesn't include the Girgashites.  Similarly with another list in Exodus 3:8
and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
The same list is repeated in Exod. 3:17.  A late list in Shmot (Exodus) doesn't include the Perizzites either (Exod 13:5)
And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, which He swore unto thy fathers to give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, that thou shalt keep this service in this month.
In addition the Table of Nations in Bereishit (Genesis) 10, lists the following as the descendents of Canaan (Gen 10:15-17)
15 And Canaan begot Zidon his firstborn, and Heth; 16 and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgashite; 17 and the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite; 18 and the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite; and afterward were the families of the Canaanite spread abroad.
This list has the Girgashite, and a bunch of other nations not included in the seven nations of Canaan.  Interestingly, it also is missing the Perizzites.
So it's clear that biblically there's some confusion as to which nations exactly were in the land.  But who were they?

Some of these nations are notably obscure.  These include the Girgashites.  The best lead we have for them is the city Gergasa near the Sea of Galilee.  The Perizzites are also a problem.  Yehoshua (Joshua) describes them as living between Judah and Ephraim.  We do not know them extra-biblically.  The Hivite is another nation not known except biblically, and said to live around Shechem.  Lastly there is the Jebusites, who biblically live in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) but are also only known in the Tanach.

There are two nations that are known extra-biblically, but are somewhat problematic.  The first one are the Hittites.  If the reference is to the Hittite nation we know, then this represents a historical problem.  The Hittite empire, which collapsed around 1200 BCE never extended south of the Syrian border, and certainly never covered any of the land that was occupied by the Israelite nations.  There are two possible explanations.  The first is that the author of this section consulted Babylonian sources were the entire land west of the Euphrates was named Hatti.  People read this source and assumed that the Hittites extended south into Canaan and were wrong.  This is the approach taken by Liverani.  A branch of the first hypothesis is that the Hittites were remnants of the Hittite empire who fled south and settled in the Syrian region.  These settlements were retrojected into the distant past as having always lived there.  The second hypothesis, is that this is a different nation altogether which just happens to have a similar name, and was associated with the Hittite empire due to the lack of knowledge of later biblical commentators [1].

The problem of the Amorites is similar.  The term Amurru tends to include Canaan along with several of the Mesopotamian nations. There was an Amorite ethnic group.  They were destroyed by the Hittites (the empire) around 1700 BCE and it's possible that the remnant group became the Arameans, who lived northeast of the Biblical land.  Either way, it's hard to imagine an Amorite group that matches any of the biblical descriptions in either the Torah, where the king Sichon is conquered by Moshe (Moses) or in Yehushua.

Finally there are the Canaanites.  The name Canaan itself is an old Egyptian name for the region.  The inclusion of Canaanite as a separate tribe is confusing.  There does not appear to be any historical nation of this name, and the Tanach seems to be confused about whether this is a separate nation or an appellation for all the nations together.

The Conquest - A Timeline

We'll look at the conquest of Israel story in two parts.  The first represents a broad view, giving a history of the time period and then specifically what evidence archaeologists looked for that matched or didn't match the Biblical conquest story.  Then we'll look at a few issues with specific stories of the conquest, including the conquests of Moshe, Yericho (Jericho) and Ai.

It is possible to narrow down the time that the conquest must have occurred between two historical checkpoints.  On the early end, we have the Amarna period.  I've talked about the Amarna letters several times [2], so I'll be brief here.  In short, they provide enough information about the layout of the land of Canaan that any arrival or formation of the Israelite people must have occurred after the period in which the letters were written.  They also describe a period in which the cities and kingdoms were extremely small.  I'll make special mention of the Merneptah Stele, which is a description of conquest of the Egyptian Pharoah Merneptah at the very end of this period.  It has a line in which Merneptah claims to have destroyed a people named Israel.  Unfortunately, we don't know where this people was specifically located, but it's clear that this predates the Israelite nation as a whole.  The Merneptah stele dates to around 1200 BCE.

On the other end we have the period of the Biblical monarchies.  There is significant disagreement to where this period begins, but the Torah and the "conventional chronology" puts it a bit after 1000 BCE for the reign of David.  The "low chronology" claims that no united kingdom ever existed, and that you only started getting a true Israelite kingdom at the reign of Omri a little after 900 BCE.  I don't really care to get into the details between these two models, and the 100 years won't matter too much for the conclusions anyway.

In between these two periods we had the Bronze Age Collapse, which occurred between 1200 and 1150 BCE.  During this time Egypt lost its holdings over Canaan, the Hittite empire was destroyed, their capital sacked, and the Assyrians retracted into their land.  Also, during this time, the Philistines settled along the coast, and there are clear archaeological markers for their arrival.  These markers are in the form of new Aegean type pottery, not previously found in the region, and new city layouts.  During this time period, the entire region went into something of a Dark Age.  There are few written records, and major cities appear to have shrunk dramatically in size.  It is during this time that the nation of Israel appears to come on the scene in full, growing from some small tribe at the time of Merneptah to the kingdom at the center of the region.  I'll also note that the book of Shoftim (Judges) gives a reasonable description of what this period may have looked like in reality [3].

The Conquest - Archaeological Markers

Now that we know when the conquest must have taken place, it is worthwhile to discuss what markers we might expect if the biblical narrative was accurate.  First, taking a page from the Philistines, we might expect that the Israelite major cities, Shechem, Yerushalayim, Hevron would undergo some kind of change in style as they transitioned from the previous Canaanite owners to the Israelite ones.

Second, given the description of the conquest in Yehoshua and the commandments to utterly destroy the nations that lived there, we would expect to find destruction layers in the cities around this period.  It is worth a moment to discuss what I mean by this.  Destruction layers are one of the key archaeological markers that can be used to separate strata.  It turns out that in the ancient world cities were often conquered and destroyed.  In many cases they were burned, in whole or in part.  In others they were just depopulated.  At the very least, large scale structures like walls and the like were destroyed and new ones would have been built over the old foundations.  Through archaeological methods and carbon dating it is possible to determine when the cities were destroyed.  I'll gloss over a lot of technical detail which I've read far too much about and just state that these methods tend to have an error range of about 100 years, which is why there's the disagreements between the low and conventional chronologies mentioned above.

Finally, if the Israelites were a fully fledged nation of significant size, you would expect to see a population increase over the low levels in the land after the Bronze Age Collapse.  I've previously discussed the population problems, but I'll repeat the basic argument here.  If the Israelite nation came in with 100,000 people, or the 1.5M the Torah claims, we would require that there be sufficient infrastructure to support a population of this size.  Cities would have to be large enough to coordinate trade, and the land would require advanced agricultural techniques, like terrace farming, to properly cultivate the hilly countryside.  So we can look at the types of settlements that we've unearthed from this time period and see if they are consistent with a population of 1 million, 100,000, or less.

We will look at these three broad categories in turn.  First we focus on whether there was an actual material change.  The way to check this is to look at archaeological realia, pottery, cultic buildings, city layouts and such and determine similarities and differences between people and time period.  What we find is that across Israel we get a gradual change.  Furthermore, while it's fairly easy to distinguish Philistine and Egyptian cities from each other and surrounding cultures, it's impossible to determine any differences between Israelite cities and Canaanite cities.  For example:
villages we assume to be Israelite (such as Gibeah, associated with Saul) have many things in common (for example, collared-rim store jars) with neighboring 'Jebusite' Jerusalem and 'Hivite' Gibeon [4].
Now we turn to the cities.  It turns out that some of the cities mentioned as being conquered do actually have destruction layers.  These destruction layers align fairly close to the Bronze Age Collapse though, in which cities all across the region were destroyed, including the Hittite capital far to the north, and the city of Ugarit in modern day Syria.  The latter two cities were not part of the biblical conquest. So are these evidence of a biblical conquest, or are they just part of the damage of the Bronze Age Collapse?  First, the cities that were destroyed, Hazor, Aphek, Lachsih and Megiddo were all destroyed over 100 years apart, so outside the carbon dating error range.  They can't all fit into the blitz campaign of Yehoshua [5].  Even more broadly, of the 31 sites explicitly mentioned in Joshua, only two Bethel and Hazor have destruction layers [6].  Also, it's worthwhile to look at some of the cities that have significant narratives around them and we'll do that in the next section.  Before we move on to the third section, this week's parsha specifically says " the cities are fortified, and very great" (Num 13:27).  There were fortified cities in the Middle Bronze Age, around 1500 BCE, but in the Amarna period and after, cities were much smaller and no fortifications have been found in archaeological surveys.

The last point regarding the size of the population can be obtained from extensive surveys across the countryside.  Finkelstein sums up the conclusions of this survey.
There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group.  Instead, it seemd to be a revolution in lifestyle.  In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up.  Here were the first Israelites [7].
Finkelstein then describes the specific results of the forms these communities took.  These will not be included in detail here.  The results are conclusive, the population at the beginning of this time was well below 100,000, and couldn't possibly reach that amount until 1000 BCE at the formation of the monarchies.

Jericho and Ai

The first city to look at is Yericho, which has the famous story of the trumpet blasts bringing the walls down. Finkelstein sums up the problems here:
In the case of Jericho, there was no trace of a settlement of any kind in the thirteenth century BCE, and the earlier Late Bronze settlement, dating to the fourteenth centry BCE, was small and poor, almost insignificant, and unfortified.  There was also no sign of destruction [8].
The problem of Jericho has been a major thorn in the side of people who support a conquest narrative.  The issue was first brought to light all the way back in the 50s with the original excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon.   She dated the destruction of Jericho's walls to around 1500 BCE, prior to any possible biblical conquest.  This result has been verified multiple times, most recently by extensive radio-carbon dating.  There have been alternate datings offered by theologically driven historians, particularly Bryant Wood, but these have been thoroughly refuted by now.

Ai represents a similar problem.  The name of the city is interesting, in Hebrew it basically means "ruins," which means biblically it was already destroyed when Avraham wandered through and settled between Ai and Bethel.  The city was a massive city, but in the early bronze age, it collapsed long before the late Bronze Age, and was completely empty by that time [9].

Both Jericho and Ai probably had ruins that were still visible in the monarchial periods.  What likely happened is that the authors of Yehushua attributed these ruins to the conquests of their valiant ancestors.  And while it's possible that their ancestors were actually the perpetrators of that event, it was so far in the past that there was no continuity in culture or religion to the Israelites who wrote the stories.


I've used this quote by Dever before, and it's so apropos I'll use it again for my conclusion.
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 [10].
The conquest of Israel is one of the key stories in the Tanach where there is near universal agreement for the ahistoricity of the narrative.  While other stores, like those of the patriarchs have anachronisms and internal contradictions here and there, in general they're stories that are plausible.  Even the Exodus, could have occurred on a small scale.  But the idea of Israelites conquering Canaan is contradicted strongly by the archaeological evidence.

1. This is the approach taken by Redford who associates this tribe with the Syriac Khatte, mentioned by Assyrians and Babylonians as living between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE. This association is problematic for the biblical timeline, but Redford thinks these stories are from this time anyway. Redford, "Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times," Princeton Uni Press, 1992, p. 407. ^

2. See for example the post on the Historicity of the Exodus or the end of this counter-apologetics post.^

3. The previous overview is not controversial and any history book on the era will give the same story. Liverani's Israel's History and the History of Israel is a fine choice. ^

4. Moore and Kelle, "Biblical History and Israel's Past," W. B. Eerdman's, 2011, p. 132]^

5. Finkelstein and Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed," Simon and Schuster, 2001, p. 90^

6. Moore and Kelle p. 99^

7. Finkelstein p 107 ^

8. Finkelstein p. 81 ^

9. Finkelstein p. 82 ^

10. Dever, "What did the Biblical Writers Know," W. B. Eerdman's, 2001, p. 98^

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Communication with God

Parshat Beha'alotcha

I decided not to take the easy way out this week, which would have been to do a comparison between the two similar stories involving the Israelites complaining about not having meat and God providing quail and then killing a bunch of them for their insubordination.  Instead, I want to talk about a more general concept, inspired by a brief section in the middle of the quail narrative.  The topic is prophecy, and specifically, how the biblical concept differs from the kind we might imagine today. At the end we'll examine some very negative descriptions of prophecy.

Direct Communication

The Tanach often has God speaking to people.  From the beginning of Bereishit (Genesis) where God tells Adam not to eat from the trees, to the records of the prophets in the Monarchial period.  At the end of this week's parsha we see God specifically say that he speaks directly to Moshe (Moses, Num 12:6-8).
6 And He said: 'Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you (neviachem), I the LORD do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream. 7 My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house; 8 with him do I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD doth he behold; wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?'
The Torah makes it clear that most (all other?) prophets do not receive direct communication.  Instead they get some other form.  Specifically the second most common form.

Dream Prophecy

In many cases divine prophecy is given through dreams.  This includes God's covenant with Avraham (Abraham) which happened after God made Avraham fall asleep (Gen 15:12).  The famous dream with Yosef's ladder.  God "visits" Pharaoh and Balaam in dreams.

Using dreams as a mechanism of prophecy seems a bit fishy from a logical perspective.  We all have had crazy dreams.  And while in many cultures dreams were used as omens or signs, or in more modern times as windows into the depraved desires of the human psyche, we don't think dream actually serve those purposes anymore.  What exactly dreams are is beyond what I wish to discuss, and it still is an active area of scientific research as far as I know.  The question I'd like to pose is whether you'd be able to recognize a "divine message" dream from any other one.  Presumably, there was some way to know, but for whatever reason, God decided to stop communicating to people in this manner.  Or does he still do it?  How could you tell?

Prophet of the Court

The next type of prophet mentioned in Tanach is more of a court advisor than a divine communicator.  The best example of this is David's prophet Natan (Nathan).  Nathan transmits messages from God to David, telling him to take better care of the ark and reprimanding him for murdering Uriah so he could sleep with his widow.  He also schemes with Batsheva (Bathsheba) to put Shlomo (Solomon) on the throne.  Nathan represents a trusted advisor to the king.  Whether he actually is communicating with God is not clear.  The text claims that he does, but it would be impossible to distinguish his actions from a high ranking court advisor working on his own thoughts.

Other prophets also played this role.  Sometimes, when their advice went counter to the king's desires they were dismissed.  Such was the fate of Eliyahu (Elijah) who was sent into exile and Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) who was thrown into prison.

Crazy or Ecstatic Prophets

The last type of prophecy is the one that appears to be displayed in one of those sections of the Torah that doesn't make any highlight lists, but when you read it, you wonder what in the world is going on.  The segment in question is Numbers 11:24-30
24 And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the Tent. 25 And the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and put it upon the seventy elders; and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did so no more (see below) 26 But there remained two men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad; and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were recorded, but had not gone out unto the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp. 27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said: 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.' 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses from his youth up, answered and said: 'My lord Moses, shut them in.' 29 And Moses said unto him: 'Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all the LORD'S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His spirit upon them!' 30 And Moses withdrew into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.
One note before we continue, the "did so no more" is an ambiguous phrase in Hebrew.  The words are "v'lo yasafu" (וְלֹא יָסָפוּ).  It is possible to interpret this as they "did not stop."  Regardless of this we have a description of prophecy that is an example of "mass prophecy" as in a group of people are doing something called prophecy.  The second thing to notice is that it's immediately recognizable by outside people that they are "prophesying."  The third thing to notice is that Yehoshua (Joshua) thinks that this type of prophesying is something that only Moshe (Moses) should do.  He's presumably seen Moshe doing something similar before, and thinks that Eldad and Medad are encroaching on Moshe's territory.  The last thing to notice is that the prophecy begins when the "spirit of God" rests on the people. We'll see this occur in some more examples we'll look at.

What exact form this prophecy is, we don't know.  When I think of public displays of prophecy, what comes to my mind are stuff like "speaking in tongues" or the guy on the corner with the "repent sinners" sign.  The Torah doesn't tell us what kind of prophecy these people were doing.  What the content of their prophecies were.  However, there is a similar type of prophecy that appears in the book of Shmuel, specifically with Shaul (Saul).  There are three instances of weird prophecy regarding Shaul.  The first one is in 1 Sam. 10:10-13
10 And when they came thither to the hill, behold, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them. 11 And it came to pass, when all that knew him beforetime saw that, behold, he prophesied with the prophets, then the people said one to another: 'What is this that is come unto the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?' 12 And one of the same place answered and said: 'And who is their father?' Therefore it became a proverb: 'Is Saul also among the prophets?' 13 And when he had made an end of prophesying, he came to the high place.
This is sort of a generic mass prophecy similar to the one in the Torah passage above.  No information is given, about what's going on. Who are these mysterious "band of prophets?"  Were roaming bands of prophets a common occurrence? Again it is catalyzed by the "spirit of God."  The second example with Shaul and prophecy is far more negative (1 Sam 18:10-11).
10 And it came to pass on the morrow, that an evil spirit from God came mightily upon Saul, and he raved in the midst of the house; and David played with his hand, as he did day by day; and Saul had his spear in his hand. 11 And Saul cast the spear; for he said: 'I will smite David even to the wall.' And David stepped aside out of his presence twice.
The Hebrew word used for "raved" is none other than vayitnabu (וַיִּתְנַבֵּא) the same word used in the previous passage and the Eldad and Medad stories above.  Presumably the JPS translation didn't like the idea of this being referred to as prophecy also, even though it's catalyzed by the same "spirit of God," so they used a different English word "raved."  Here we see the result of "prophecy" it incites Shaul to anger.

The last example is even more curious (1 Sam 19:23-24):
23 And he [Shaul] went thither to Naioth in Ramah; and the spirit of God came upon him also, and he went on, and prophesied, until he came to Naioth in Ramah. 24 And he also stripped off his clothes, and he also prophesied before Samuel, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say: 'Is Saul also among the prophets?'
This example is the second etiological explanation of the adage, "Is Saul also among the prophets," an adage that has lost whatever its meaning was.  This explanation was apparently penned by an author far more hostile to Shaul than the earlier one, since here Shaul's "prophecy" involves him taking off his clothes and laying down naked for 24 hours.

When you look at these three stories, with a modern eye, what you might say is that Shaul is having psychotic episodes, or perhaps epileptic seizures.  These types of occurrences would look to others as being from "God" just like many people see talking in tongues as a manifestation of the divine spirit today. 

What is Prophecy?

When we piece everything together we can get a picture of what prophecy might have looked like to the ancient Israelites.  Possibly we could even speculate how it evolved over time and then vanished altogether.  In the earliest stories, like these with Shaul we see prophecy has a very public performance aspect.  You see a prophet doing his thing, you know what it is.  The effects can be anything from benign, like with the band of prophets, to ridiculous, like stripping off your clothes.  Were these people mentally troubled or perhaps epileptic?  We won't ever know.  What we do know is that they were apparently respected by the public, who thought that the episodes involved communication with the divine.

The next group of prophets to arise is the "court prophets" exemplified by Natan.  These are the prophets who don't really have public performances.  They seem to get their messages in private from God and then transmit them to the kings that they serve.  This is probably the image of what you think of when you hear "prophecy."  Although there's really no solid indication that their messages are actually divine.

When the kingdom of Judah died out, so did the prophets that served them.  So, contrary to the Gemara's opinion that prophecy died out with Malachai because that's when God stopped talking to people.  It probably died out because there wasn't any need for prophets anymore.  Of course the idea of prophecy itself, in this public form, didn't die out at all.  It's just that Judaism decided not to recognize any of these later "prophets."

This brings us back to the two types of prophecy that Moshe appears to experience.  The first type is the same as the court prophets, and it's the one we usually think of.  Moshe communes with God and then relates the information to the people.  However, in this story, we see that there was also a type of public prophecy that the Israelites associated with Moshe.  Perhaps this story comes from an earlier strata of the Torah that was written around the same time as the stories of Shaul were.

One of the things that interests me about the Tanach as an atheist, is that it gives us an insight to the thoughts of people who lived a long time ago.  We are very quick to dismiss individuals today who claim that God is speaking to them.  We send them to sanitariums.  If they were to, for example, say that God told them to kill their kids, we would remove the kids from their custody.  We know enough about the human brain to know that it can often backfire in odd ways, causing hallucinations and the like.  To the Israelites, someone who hallucinated images was probably thought to be a true prophets.  They had no way to distinguish between a mental illness and a divine prophet.  One has to wonder how many of the prophets of the Tanach were subject to mental delusions. Or alternatively, how many of them were faking it as a way to power.  Finally, a question that should trouble any theist is why God doesn't communicate in a clear manner that couldn't possibly appear to be mental illness.