Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Wilderness

Parshat Matot-Masei

To close out the book of Bamidbar, we'll look at at the wilderness stories from a fairly high level view.  First we'll look at a very common hypothesis in academic circles which suggests that the worship of the Jewish God, YHWH, originated from a group of people who lived in this region and later migrated to Canaan with their religion.  Second we'll look at the wilderness story as it appears in the various prophets to try to get a feel for when and why it may have been formulated.

YHWH of the Wilderness

Academic scholars have always been puzzled about where the God, YHWH, came from.  Except for one possible sketchy reference, he doesn't appear to be a member of the Canaanite pantheon as expressed in the writings of Ugarit.  Yet, he was clearly an important deity to the Israelites from the very beginning of what we can construe as history, i.e. the monarchial period.  There we see theophoric names using YHWH alongside other names with deities such as El or Ba'al, known Canaanite deities.  Eventually YHWH would supplant Ba'al and merge with El to become the supreme deity of the entire world, but that occurs much later.  First we want to know where this deity came from.

In the biblical story, Moshe (Moses) first encounters God at the burning bush in the land of Midian, in the midbar (here translated as wilderness, but could also mean desert).  Later all the Israelites "encounter" God in the desert as well, which is where, the Torah says, the religion known as Judaism is founded.  Academic scholars have looked at this story and wondered if there was some actual historical knowledge passed down here.  Maybe YHWH came from the Midianites, and an Egyptian/Israelite named Moshe learned about this deity from them.

Also, some of the older verses of the Torah seem to indicate an origin of YHWH in the desert.  For example in Moshe's blessings, verses considered to be old (Deut. 33:2)
And he said: The LORD came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came from the myriads holy, at His right hand was a fiery law unto them.
These places, Sinai, Seir, and Paran are all desert locations. Or in the Ha'azinu song (Deut 32:10)
[God] found him in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness; He compassed him about, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye.
Or from the song of Devorah (Judg 5:4)
LORD, when Thou didst go forth out of Seir, when Thou didst march out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens also dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water.
So, a lot of the old songs seem to place YHWH in the south, the wilderness.  However, the evidence isn't entirely from the Tanach.  The earliest extra-biblical references to the deity come from Egypt.  There are two references from the 14th and 13th centuries which refer to "YHW of the land of the Shasu."  The Shasu were desert wanderers that occasionally stopped by in Egypt to graze cattle when drought hit their normal pastures.  These references alone have led to a lot of scholars hypothesizing that the desert nomads were the original worshipers of YHWH, long before the Israelites ever came on the scene.

Another much later inscription from the 9th-8th centuries comes from Kuntillet Arjud.  The references are are to YHWH of Samaria and his Asherah, and to YHWH of Teman and his Asherah.  Teman, generally means the south, but perhaps specifically in this context is a reference to Edom, implying that they too worshipped YHWH.

Prophetic Wilderness Accounts

As we did with the patriachs we'll go through the prophets in chronological order.  Yishayahu (Isaiah) doesn't really mention the wilderness narrative.  Hoshea (Hosea) mentions idolatry at Ba'al Peor (Hos. 9:10)
I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness, I saw your fathers as the first-ripe in the fig-tree at her first season; but so soon as they came to Baal-peor, they separated themselves unto the shameful thing, and became detestable like that which they loved.
 And later, Hoshea associates the wilderness to the Egyptian exodus (Hos 13:4-6)
4 Yet I am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt; and thou knowest no God but Me, and beside Me there is no saviour. 5 I did know thee in the wilderness, in the land of great drought. 6 When they were fed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was exalted; therefore have they forgotten Me. 
Similarly, in Amos where the 40 years are mentioned. (Amos 2:10)
Also I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorites.
And again (Amos 5:25)
Did ye bring unto Me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?
None of the later smaller prophets mention the wilderness, so we turn to Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) and Yehezkel (Ezekiel).

First the earlier Yirmiyahu.  We start with (Jer 2:2,6-7)
2 Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus saith the LORD: I remember for thee the affection of thy youth, the love of thine espousals; how thou wentest after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.  6 Neither said they: 'Where is the LORD that brought us up out of the land of Egypt; that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt?' 7 And I brought you into a land of fruitful fields, to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled My land, and made My heritage an abomination.
But it's really Yehezkel that focuses on the wilderness period (Ezek 20:9-13).
9 But I wrought for My name's sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, among whom they were, in whose sight I made Myself known unto them, so as to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt. 10 So I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. 11 And I gave them My statutes, and taught them Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them. 12 Moreover also I gave them My sabbaths, to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them. 13 But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they walked not in My statutes, and they rejected Mine ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them, and My sabbaths they greatly profaned; then I said I would pour out My fury upon them in the wilderness, to consume them.
There are multiple more appearances in Tehilim (Psalms), with specific references to desert locations like the waters of Meribah, but it is very difficult to determine a date for those verses.  What we can conclude is that the idea of a desert wilderness period was around in the earliest prophets, and was already part of the Israelite narrative.  They traced their origin to Egypt followed by a stint in the desert, whether they actually came from there or not (probably not, for most of them at least).


There is a lot of speculation on the origin of the desert origin story.  It seems likely that there's some truth to the idea, that there was some group of people, who probably worshiped YHWH, who came into Israel from the desert.  Perhaps this group was a group of ex-pats fleeing Egypt.  Or maybe, a group of ex-pats combined with some YHWH worshiping nomads before entering Canaan.

The archaeological evidence points to indigenous origins for the Israelites, so the majority of the population probably did not have a wilderness origin.  Yet, this story became the origin story for the entire nation by the time the prophets were writing.  How did this happen?  In some way, we will never know.  The transition occurred in a pre-literate period and we don't have any writings from this era.  Still we must wonder where the wilderness stories in the Torah came from.

As we've seen, some of the stories have clear political purposes, like the story of the rebellions against Moshe which serve to solidify power either with the descendents of Moshe in the original, or with the descendents of Aharon (Aaron) in the modification with Korach.  Some of the stories are etiological, providing reasons for various place names in the Sinai peninsula.  Others fit the narrative common in the prophets, of people getting punished for disobeying God or worshiping idols.  Those stories probably arose for political reasons.  Similarly, the story of the attack by Amalek, or the refusal of the Edomites or Amorites to allow the Israelite to pass through.  These stories could not be historical, because those nations did not exist at the time of the supposed wilderness journey.  They probably serve political propagandistic purposes that existed at the time of creation, as a way to justify Israelite aggression.

What I think happened, speculatively, is that the wilderness idea came into Israel through a small group of desert living nomads, who also brought with them the worship of YHWH.  After centuries of living together, the nomads' stories and the Israelite stories were melded together so that all of Israel identified with the wilderness narrative.  The wilderness framework then got merged with the Exodus framework to form the definitive origin mythos of the Israelite nation.  We know that this origin story was popular by the time the earliest prophets, Hoshea and Amos were writing.

Later authors used that framework to fashion various episodes and adventures that occurred in the wilderness to either further a political agenda, or provide etiological stories.  Some of these, especially the etiological ones, were probably folktales passed around by the fireside.  Eventually these were combined into the earliest strata of the Torah.  These were then added to by later authors with their own different agendas to produce the Torah we have today.  

With this we conclude the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) and move on to the last book Devarim.  I have tentatively scheduled in topics for all the weeks left in the year, but I still have quite a few to write.   At this point, I've only completed three weeks ahead of time, which is actually low for me.  When we started Bamidbar, I had written everything but this week!  So it will be a true race to the finish line.  I hope to see you there!


  1. Chazak Chazak Kefira! Too bad our ancestors wrote on parchment and not cuiniform, so we're left with speculation. I'd love to hear your understanding of Psalms 29, I think there are some very early yahwistic influences there.

  2. I think I'm mostly aligned with FM Cross on Ps. 29, that it's an original hymn to Ba'al, that was rewritten for Yahweh. The reference to far northern locations (lebanon and syria) and the strong storm-god language are what seals it. I don't agree with Cross that it's possible to reconstruct the "original" form, he takes far too many liberties in that regard.

    1. Cross definitely takes many leaps to reach his conclusions. The problem is, how can we know whether the desert references to Yahwe we're borrowed from earlier gods? Hayes and others maintain that there was no 'original' or authentic Yahwe cult, and that all of his qualities were taken from earlier pantheons.

    2. Well, it's always possible to propose older versions of deities until we get so far into prehistory that all records are lost. At some point the usefulness of this exercise is lost. What we can ask is when someone started worshiping a deity *named* Yahweh, regardless of the characteristics of that deity.

  3. Do you have anything to say about the role of Levi in all this? They're the only tribe with Egyptian names (Moshe, Pinhas, Hur), and the ones administering the cult of YHWH.

    1. It's not only Levites, but it is true that the vast majority of the Egyptian names are found in Levi. I'm somewhat partial to Friedman's idea that the exodus group *was* the Levites, although I'm not sure I would combine this with the Yahweh worshiping group. At the end of the day, these are fun hypotheses to play with, but there isn't a lot of evidence to back them up.

    2. I love the irony of that Rambam at the end of hilchos yovel that's quoted in support of kolel learning, that anyone can accept upon themselves to be like the tribe of Levi and learn Torah, based on the midrash that they were the only tribe free of the subjugation to Egypt.

    3. Eliyahu, as we've come to realize, the Rambam and other rishonim, amoraim, tanaim were doing their best to make sense of the mishmash that they were seeing in the chumash. It is a bit surprising that it took until the 1600's for someone to notice multiple authorship. Although the ibn Ezra may have, but kept it a secret.

    4. Well, there is the minority Talmudic opinion that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah.

    5. Also, Eliyahu, do you have a source for that Rambam, I could not find it in hilchot shmita u'yovel, but maybe I missed it (I was skimming).

  4. Only a true bible scholar would refer to these conversations as 'fun'! I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds it very enjoyable to hypothesize about the human origins of our God.

    1. I'm not a scholar, bible or otherwise, but still immensly enjoy these posts. Perhaps the author can compose all these posts into a book format. There's definitely a market

    2. I don't think the market is nearly as big as you might think. Posts here get at most a couple hundred pageviews. That's not nearly enough to justify the tremendous amount of work it would take to publish a long form written work.

  5. Kefira, don't sell yourself short, the blogosphere unfortunately gets only a tiny fraction of the Web traffic. Facebook would probably be a better test of how popular a book might become. I know that anonymity is lost on Facebook. Either way, your hard work is greatly appreciated.