Middle ground on the Bible

There is an enormous gap between how many academics , on the one hand, and lay people, preachers and teachers at the evangelical Bible colleges, on the other hand, view the Bible.

Academics are aware that the Hebrew Bible as a written collection came together after the exile in Babylon. This leads to a wide-spread assumption that the narratives, poetry, laws and so on were products of the Persian and Greek periods. Many scholars think the seemingly historical accounts of events about the patriarchs, the Egyptian sojourn and exodus, the conquest, the era of judges, and the monarchy were invented. In other words, they are fiction.

The position held in the churches and Bible colleges and promoted through evangelical radio, television and publishing is that Moses wrote the Torah a thousand years before the Persian period and that the events described are literal and historical.

The ideas of many of the academics are corrosive to Jewish and Christian faith. This is the reason for the extreme on the other side. There is the idea of a slippery slope. If you do not hold to the absolute historicity of the events all the way back—if you give an inch to the critics—some think you will end up with a very insecure faith based on invention.

One of the things I note about evangelical culture is stress on writing. You take a written Bible (on paper or, more and more often, on your phone or tablet) to church or study group with you. You get a written outline of the sermon. You are encouraged to take written notes. The sermon is oral but Bible quotes get projected onto the screen.

You could analyze this as a case of Protestantism having arisen in parallel to the invention of the Gutenberg press. Protestants are supposed to read the Bible for themselves. They project this focus on written text all the way back into the Old Testament. It matters a lot to them to take a traditional view of who wrote the text.

I remember a sermon from a couple years ago when the guest preacher laid much emphasis on the notion that Samuel wrote the books of Samuel. This position suffers from the fact that Samuel dies part way through the narrative. Nevertheless, traditional authorship is seen as a guarantee of the truth of the story.

It takes some imagination for us to put ourselves in a world where hardly anybody had access to written texts. Stories were told aloud or often repeated orally in song or chant as part of worship. Someone who was not necessarily the author told the story or led the worship. People may have had no idea and given little importance to who wrote the material.

The idea of David Carr that ancient scribes often wrote texts to support oral performance is important. Writing was not for most people to read. Carr compared it to written music. Few people will sit down and silently read a music score. The purpose of written music is to support those who perform for other people who listen. So with much writing in ancient times.

I suspect that much of the material that went into the collection of writings that Jews assembled after the exile, was of this kind. The pre-exilic prophets like Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah spoke in poetry. Scholars speak of scribal schools that recorded the oracles of the prophets. Jeremiah, for instance, had Baruch as a scribe.

However, it seems to me that it would be very hard to speak off the cuff in the kind of poetry they used. Perhaps the oracles were written down beforehand, not just as records of what the prophets had previously said.

Some documents probably existed in royal archives. Books of laws, proverbs, and the exploits of kings were likely of this kind. But much of the material existed for the use of storytellers and liturgists. Some of this may have been archived at shrines.

Much of it may have been used in processions, rather than static worship at a particular place. For instance, it seems that the feast of Tabernacles likely included a procession that started at a tent camp in the Transjordan and crossed the river. The dwelling in tents and crossing the river acted out the drama of the wilderness experience and settlement accompanied by the people chanting parts of the story.

The idea of a book written by Moses does not really fit this setting. One should note that not only does the Torah assume and record the death of Moses it also (1) is written from the perspective of dwellers of the West Bank, which Moses never was, (2) records kings of Edom who lived long after Moses in Genesis 36, (3) contains laws that apply to Israel’s settled life in Canaan, not to nomadic existence in the wilderness, (4) and frequently uses the phrase “until this day” implying a time of writing after the settlement of the land.

However the idea of four documents, J, E, D, and P also puts too much burden on written documents. Law codes, like the Covenant Code in Exodus 20 ff. and the priestly rules of Leviticus, no doubt existed as archived documents. The book discovered in the Temple during Josiah’s reign was probably a copy of an early version of Deuteronomy. But most of the material surely existed in a less fixed form that amounted to strands of tradition, rather then documents.

Some kind of written collection may have been put together in the late monarchy under Hezekiah or Josiah. I think that the final collection of written books by Ezra and others after the exile did not involve fictional invention, rather it was a putting into new form of prophetic, legal and worship material that had long existed.

So I don’t think I stand on a slippery slope. Although the Bible developed in a way that people embedded in a culture that exalts the written word would not have expected, it is still an authoritative tradition that conveys the word of God.

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David Carr’s big book

I know my posts have become few and far between. I am having a series of eye surgeries this summer. My hope is that in September, with the surgeries over, I will get new corrective lenses to relieve the eye strain that reading has been causing me.

Today, though, I want to call your attention to the fact that David Carr has now published a big book on the origin and authorship of the Pentateuch and other scripture: The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction 1st Edition. It was actually published ten years ago. But I had not previously noticed its availability.

I have read and posted about two of Carr’s books: Writing on the Tablet of the Heart and Holy Resilience.

The first was about Carr’s take on ancient scribes and writing. He suggested that writing, unlike modern authorship and publishing, was often in the service of oral performance. He compared it to written music. Music is written for musicians to help them perform. It isn’t written for the general public to read.

My understanding of this is that ancient scribes produced texts for story tellers who then performed those works, sometimes improvising. Another use may have been for worship leaders. Priests took up a text and used it to help a congregation sing, chant, or recite liturgy.

Holy Resilience was about trauma related to scripture. Carr wrote about some of our new understanding of trauma and PTSD. He suggested that several biblical works came about in order to help ancient people cope with traumatic events. For instance, the brutal Assyrian conquest of Samaria and assault on Judah were events that prophets like Hosea and Isaiah preached about to help people face.

Surprisingly Carr also thought that Josiah’s reforms and centralization of worship was a traumatizing event for Israelites who had long mixed their worship of Israel’s God with fertility magic. Also rural Levites and those who worshiped at their “high places” were now deprived and disoriented. Later, the Babylonian conquest traumatized Judah. Much biblical literature seems to take up these traumas.

There is an interesting review of Carr’s book by Andrew Giorgetti here. A couple of quotes from the review show that Carr reflects some of the themes from the two books.

“. . . Carr provides evidence of a writing-supported process of memorization and performance for the transmission of the Hebrew Bible.” This applies particularly to the kind of “long duration” sagas that we find in the Pentateuch.

Also, “Carr draws on trauma studies to buttress his argument that the exile was the impetus for development of pre-monarchical stories of origins as found in a post-Deuteronomistic Hexateuch and a Priestly “counterwork” to it (pp. 255–303). However, this period exhibits more scribal coordination of earlier texts than direct creation of new ones.”

The trend in recent decades has been for critics to see most of these “stories of origins” invented or constructed during the Persian period after the end of the exile. Notice that Carr goes against this trend. He is talking about editing and coordinating stories, not the unsourced invention of new stories. ”. . .his reconstructions present a challenge to scholars who contend that most or all of the Hebrew Bible was produced largely whole cloth in the Persian or Hellenistic periods.”

Carr sees much scribal activity in the Neo-Assyrian period in the eighth century. But he even sees some of it in the early monarchy—ninth or tenth centuries. Some of the Psalms and Wisdom literature come from this period, he thinks.

With regard to the Pentateuch, Carr joins those who think the JEPD documentary theory assumes too much. I am not sure when or if I will get to read Carr’s new book. For now I will be satisfied with thinking about this sentence of his, which I found here: “Though academic biblical scholars do disagree on numerous points, most have agreed for the last 200-plus years that the Pentateuch was formed through a combination of a Priestly layer, a non-Priestly layer most evident in the Tetrateuch (Genesis through Numbers), and a core portion of Deuteronomy.”

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The elusive biblical timeline

1 Kings 6:1 puts the coming out of Egypt of the “children of Israel” 480 years before the beginning of Solomon’s temple. If the “children of Israel” is a metaphor for the people Moses led out of Egypt (literally, the children of Israel would be the tribal patriarchs who were the children of the man, Israel/Jacob) then the claim is that the Exodus happened in about -1446 when Thutmose III was pharaoh.

The problem with that is that we know that from the time of that pharaoh until after -1200, Egypt considered Canaan its territory, which it controlled and largely depopulated. Egypt repeatedly sent troops into Canaan in those centuries, sometimes every year. They claimed to have carried a huge number of captives back to Egypt. The hill country in what became Israel experienced a sharp decline in population (see here where there are good graphs to show what happened). So, if the Exodus was in -1446, where in the Bible do we see Egypt intervening in Canaan during the period of the Conquest and the Judges?

Often people supporting this early date for the Exodus use the ‘apiru mentioned in the Amarna correspondence. Their theory is that although the Bible does not mention Egypt’s presence during this period, the Canaanites were complaining to Egypt precisely about a Hebrew invasion.

I have argued several times that the ‘apiru were not the Hebrews. But even if they were, I do not understand the timeline.

The reason for the -1446 date is a precise adherence to the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1. However, the Bible also puts the beginning of the Conquest forty years after the Exodus. Thus, the Amarna era should have begun before -1400. But that is not when it was. Most articles about Akhenaten put his reign in the mid 14th century, starting in about -1353.

But correlation with recently translated Hittite documents is causing a lot of scholars to shorten the reign of Horemheb from 29 to only 14 years. Assuming the -1279 installation of Rameses II, this moves the Amarna period and everything else in the 18th dynasty forward. So the Amarna era probably did not start until the -1340s. Either way, it was many decades too late to fit the ‘apiru theory.

The advocates of the early date have a reasonable case that 1 Kings 6 means 480 years, not just 12 generations. But numbers in the Bible are tricky. Sometimes they have meanings connected with the worship and legal calendar of Israel–festivals, sabbatical years and jubilees. One suspects there might have been some esoteric priestly calculations regarding the foundation of the Temple that have a more ritual than historical meaning.

But also there may have been several exodus-like events in which some Israelites came out of Egypt that preceded the Exodus of Moses. If you adjust for the shortening of Horemheb’s time, -1446 falls just about when the aunt of Thutmose III, Queen Hatsheput, died and Thutmose III came fully to power. Hatsheput said that she expelled some Semitic peoples (see my documentation of this here). So there may have been an exodus-like event somewhere around that time.

There is one biblical event (Genesis 50) where the literal children of Jacob came out of Egypt to bury their father.

So maybe something of historical significance did happen in or near -1446.

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Korah’s rebellion for flower children

Even those who doubt the JEDP documentary theory still usually believe that in the five books of the Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy) there is a Priestly strata. Instead of speaking of the Yahwist (J) and the Elohist (E) as sources, they may just speak of P and non-P.

In Numbers 16 P and non-P are clearly present. There is a story about a rebellion by members of the tribe of Reuben that seems to have been combined with a story about the rebellion of the priest, Korah. Korah’s rebellion deals with priestly concerns. The Reubenite rebellion doss not have anything to do with the priests. I have a post here with some speculation about that. And I have a post here about James Hoffmeier’s interesting take on the rebellion of Korah. He thinks that both Aaron and the Korah priests might have been actual Egyptian priests who came out of Egypt with Moses.

About the same time in 2018 that I was writing these posts about Numbers 16, I also spent a little time with Jason Gaines’ book, The Poetic Priestly Source (see here). He found that although P has lots of boring lists and details about priests and their duties, their clothing, and their rituals; it also has some poetic narrative. It has, for instance, the exalted account of creation in Genesis 1.

Gaines admitted that this was not poetry in the sense that the Psalms are poetry. Nevertheless, there are poetic characteristics. At the time I characterized this quality as “lyrical”. The more I think about it, though, I think the better word for Gaines’ Poetic P might be liturgical. It was probably language used at festivals to recount the mighty acts of God. It seems, though that, in Gaines theory, these liturgies would have been supplemented over time by priestly scribes.

Now I have come across an article by Gaines where he applies his insights to Numbers 16,

Here is a summary of what he says: When you take out the non-P material, you have a narrative that reads like a single story. Moses tries to appoint Aaron as high priest. But Korah, with the support of 250 chieftains, objects. Moses proposes a test using firepans and incense. When they ignite the incense there is a terrible conflagration and all except Aaron get burned to ashes. Then the general population complains and God sends a plague upon them. Aaron uses incense to turn back the plague. Then God confirms Aaron’s high priesthood by making his staff to bloom as a flower (this is in Numbers 17).

But, to continue the summary, there are signs that this account was supplemented by building upon a simpler original story. In the original story Korah brings some community leaders to protest that Moses and Aaron are inappropriately exalting themselves. Moses responds by proposing an appeal for a divine sign. All the leaders pile up their staffs. The next day the staffs are examined and it is determined that God has chosen Aaron by making his staff bloom.

Gaines proposes that the fire and plague have been introduced into the story later by the Holiness School (he refers to Israel Knohl’s theories about the Holiness School). One of the problems with the original story for the Holiness School priests was that it seemed inconceivable to them that their would not be more severe consequences for questioning the authority of Moses and Aaron. So the story now details such consequences.

Gaines believes the original narrative was gentler. His article title is “Korah’s Poetic Rebellion and God’s Flowery Response”.

That makes the story a little too tilted toward sentimentality. However, Gaines makes several justifiable points about the difference between the poetic/liturgical aspects of the text and the more prosaic aspects. The idea of the incense blowing up like napalm has always seemed a stretch.

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Moses and the well

I have been taking a video course in biblical Hebrew. I have never before gotten into Hebrew much beyond learning the alphabet and how to use study aides to determine what individual words mean. The course has given me a better understanding of how Hebrew hangs together. For instance, it is much easier for me now to see why the word elohim in the first verse of Genesis means God and not gods. Although the “im” ending is plural, the form of other words in the verse require a singular meaning.

Still I am mostly working on the meaning of individual words. We are accustomed to certain translations that have been carried on in English from the KJV through all the various revisions: the American Standard, the Revised Standard, the New American Standard, the English Revised, and the New Revised Standard. Even translations that are not supposed to be revisions tracing back the the KJV often adopt traditional translations.

This traditionalism sometimes misleads.

One example of this is in Exodus 2:15.

The KJV has this:

Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.”

And the NRSV is:


“When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well.”

The NRSV drops the Hebrew idiom “fled from the face of”, but otherwise is pretty much the same.

Based on this translation I have in my mind this picture of how Moses fled through a sun-parched desert very thirsty. When he finally found an isolated well, he sat down by it to draw water and quench his thirst. When it says “sat down”, I think of it as a one-time action that took place on a particular day in response to a particular situation. I imagine Moses falling asleep and waking up when Jetho’s daughters and the shepherd ruffians arrive (vs. 16) This is the impression conveyed by the traditional series of English revised translations.

However, look at the NET-the New English Translation:

When Pharaoh heard about this event, he sought to kill Moses. So Moses fled from Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian, and he settled by a certain well.”

The Modern English Version has:

Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the presence of Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian, and he dwelled by a well.”

“He settled by a certain well.” That gives a different picture and alters my imagined biography of Moses. After killing an Egyptian and perhaps attempting a slave revolt, Moses goes to Northwest Arabia—Midian–and lives there at a well or oasis until the incident where he stands up for the daughters of Jethro.

Although the Hebrew word transliterated as weyyeseb once in a while just means to sit down like a judge sitting in a case, it usually means to settle, dwell, or stay. Thus Cain settled in the land of Nod (Genesis 4:16). Abram dwelt by the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 13:18). The Israelites stayed at Kadesh (Numbers 20:1).

Particularly interesting is Genesis 19:30 where Lot leaves Zoar because he is afraid to live there anymore and settles in the mountains. Like Moses, he flees one place and settles in another.

We do not know how long the Exodus passage envisions Moses staying by the well and how long he stayed with Jethro. The timeline is that Moses spent decades in Midian. But how long did he live there before he connected with Jethro and married Zipporah?

I have been puzzled by the fact that when Moses goes back to Egypt he seems to have an infant son (Exodus 4:24-26). This is odd if he married very early in his time in Midian. So perhaps we should think of Moses’ marriage and becoming a father as something that happened late in his Midianite sojourn.

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Theologies: Liberation, Savior, or Blessing

I haven’t posted here in quite a while. There are some excuses for this. Due to the Covid pestilence I have delayed needed cataract surgery. I realize that eye strain has been causing me to avoid reading like I used to. And my writing here has leaned on my reading. Also my life has changed in that my mother’s death in late 2019 has given me some new responsibilities so that I am not as freely retired as I was before that.

But there is another reason. I am not sure how to explain it. For a long time I have been a dedicated servant of my church, but also somewhat alienated from it for both practical and theological reasons. Finally, I have moved on from the Mainline Protestant denomination I was a minister in to a more conservative and evangelical church.

This might surprise some who have read this blog and know that I am dynamic rather than literal in my understanding of biblical inspiration and tend to think outside the box about the critical-historical issues. My situation is that I am orthodox in that I would have no problem reciting the whole Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers once, but that I don’t believe in the central evangelical affirmation about the error free nature of the Bible in regard to science and history.

For a long time I put up with the wokeness of my denomination (although I was more and more irked by its increasing hostility to Israel) because I could take refuge in the autonomy of the local church where the gospel was still preached. But when I was on a search committee for the pastor a few years ago, I saw that almost all the candidates now are into Liberation theology and critical theory.

I recently read something that gave me some clarity about where the lines fall now. Ibrim X. Kendi, a figure in antiracist education, said this in a conversation at a Manhattan church, distinguishing between Liberation theology and what he calls “Savior theology”:

“Liberation theology — in other words, Jesus was a revolutionary. And the job of the Christian is to revolutionize society, that the job of the Christian is to liberate society from the powers on Earth that are oppressing humanity.
Everybody understand that?
So that’s liberation theology in a nutshell. Savior theology is a different type of theology.
The job of the Christian is to go out and save these individuals who are behaviorally deficient. In other words, we’re to bring them into the church, these individuals who are doing all of these evil, sinful things, and heal them and save them. And then once we’ve saved them, we’ve done our jobs.
And to me, antiracists fundamentally reject savior theology, that goes right in line with racist ideas and racist theology, which they say, you know what, black people, other racial groups, the reason why they are struggling on Earth is because of what they’re behaviorally doing wrong.
And it is my job as the pastor to sort of save these wayward black people, or wayward poor people, or wayward queer people.
That type of theology breeds bigotry. And so, to me, the type of theology, of liberation theology breeds a common humanity, a common humanity against the structures of power that oppress us all.”
Here is a longer live clip to help you put this in context.

So I just fundamentally disagree with Liberation theology. I do not think it is the gospel. I think it misconstrues Jesus, who was not a revolutionary in the political sense. I think it tends to falsely divide the world into an oppressor class and a victim class.

As long ago as the 1970s I made these points to James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology, when he came to lecture at my seminary.

Cone understood the crucifixion of Jesus as a lynching. I thought this was a useful way to approach it when speaking to blacks and other people who were subject to murderous treatment (the plains Indians or holocaust survivors). However, the gospels contrast Jesus to Barabbas and the insurrectionists crucified along side Jesus. So even in the context of the crucifixion, Jesus was not a Zealot or revolutionary.

I think that the notion of Jesus as savior comes much closer to the historical Jesus and the theologies of the New Testament.

Kendi is partly right and partly wrong in his characterization of “Savior theology”. I see the point about some evangelicals putting too much emphasis on cultural ideas of sin. So sin gets equated with listening to the wrong kind of music, having tattoos and piercings, drinking beer, dressing in a certain way, or cohabitation without benefit of clergy. I would note that there are even more trivial sins on the puritan left, where political incorrectness and microaggressions offend.

Many people recognize that they are held down by “behavioral deficiencies”. So addiction, consumer debt, anger management, and such are real concerns. Witness all the recovery support groups.

But Kendi may have a point that evangelicals tend to focus on behavioral sin, sometimes in an unhealthy and snobbish way.

I have long been very much aware that the correct translation of a word about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer is “debts” rather than trespasses. Even if you had never sinned through your behavior, you would still have an unpayable debt to God for the blessings of creation and life. Jesus often told parables about debt. I don’t believe this was to comment on economics. Rather, Jesus saw unpayable debt as a fitting metaphor for our standing before God.

So, if I was going to label my theology I would not label it as “savior theology”. I would call it blessing theology. Jesus came to bless us, cancel out our unpayable debt, and give us a hope in the face of death.

However, this is much closer to seeing Jesus as savior than it is to seeing Jesus as a liberator against an oppressor class that it is okay to rise up against and kill.

My old church had become obsessed with identity politics. At the national level and in the seminaries it had embraced critical race theory. It required pastors to periodically receive “antiracist” training where ideas like Kendi’s were pushed. It supported Palestinians against Israel and pushed boycotting and divesting from Israel. It was dismissive of anti-abortion concerns. And it promoted a lot of politically correct and woke silliness. Some of this was just irritating. But all together it was finally a deal breaker.

I should make clear that my break with the Mainline had little to do with the sexuality debate. I would not have left over that issue. That is one problem that truly is systemic. For decades we have rejected the human project of “being fruitful and multiplying” where childbearing is co-creation with God. Children suffer from this. They have become burdens rather than blessings.

Increased homosexuality is only one way lack of concern with procreation manifests. I hope that in the long run expansion into space brings back the need to “fill the earths” and the link between family and sexuality gets restored. In the meantime, I am not inclined to hold individuals responsible.

Now I am in a church where the worship is very compatible with my theology of blessing. Sometimes in the preaching and teaching there is some proof-texting and naive assumptions about the historical and scientific in the Bible. I am happy to just worship without pushing my messianic-gentile, or historical-critical agendas.

But Kendi’s critique of “savior theology” is a critique of a straw man, at least in relation to this church. The church is much more racially and culturally inclusive than most mainline churches. Its concern for justice includes racial reconciliation, but also unwed mothers who don’t want to abort and male victims of human trafficking. In other words, some of its justice concerns are not politically correct.

Anyway, my wife and I are happier and feel that we have freed ourselves and arrived at a place where we are divinely welcome.

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Faust-the Jebusite fortress of Jerusalem

I remember how in 2007 the news came out that Israeli archaeologist, Eilat Mazar, claimed to have uncovered the palace of King David. At the time I was still preaching. I thought about mentioning this in a sermon. Not bringing up stuff that interested me but that people who come to church don’t care about is a discipline I haven’t always exercised. But I didn’t bring this up. One reason is that preliminary claims tend to be in need of retraction later.

Mazar got a lot of criticism for her method. She took the biblical statement in 2 Samuel 5:17 that David “went down” to the stronghold to mean that David’s palace, the one built for him with the help of Phoenician builders according to 5:11, was north of the stronghold. His palace was uphill from the fort. This influenced where she decided to dig. When she did find part of a massive Iron Age building, she felt vindicated. However, her interpretation of 2 Samuel seems wrong (see here).

She did find a big, important building from what should be the era of David and Solomon, though. And she set off a spirited debate about what it might be.

Avraham Faust has taken a carefully reasoned look at what we now know here. His article is called “The Large Stone Structure in the City of David: A Reexamination”

I won’t recap all the details, but his conclusion is that the very large structure that Mazar found is not the palace of David. It was the Jebusite fortress that David may have captured. David continued to use it as a fortress and probably an administrative center. (An interesting thought of mine: was Solomon’s harem here? Even if the claim of a thousand wives is exaggerated, he would have needed much space for wives, children and their servants.) So the Jebusites, not the Phoenicians, built it. His main reason for saying this is that imported pottery appears not to have been used in the first years of its existence. So it existed before David’s alliance with King Hiram of Tyre.

Faust in his work on Israelite ethnicity thinks that pots can tell us much about race and ideology. That seems to me to go beyond what containers and cooking utensils can really tell us. They do, though, tell us something about trade and commerce. You would, indeed, have expected David to be trading with coastal ports by the time he had that palace built.

It is fascinating that the Jebusites may have built the fortress in the early Iron Age. This would mean the Jebusites came after the Bronze Age Collapse. We know from the Amarna Letters that Jerusalem was ruled by a Pharaoh-appointed chief in the late fourteenth century BCE. But, if Faust is right, the Jebusites must have come to dominate Jerusalem early in the twelfth century. So they may have represented one of the displaced populations. There is some evidence that they had some connection with the Hittites.

(According to 2 Samuel 24:18ff. David bought the land for his tabernacle from someone called Araunah the Jebusite. It seems that Araunah is a word derived from Hittite. It means lord. Likely it was a title rather than a personal name. Also, I understand that building mountain fortresses was a Hittite characteristic and strategy.)

My thinking about the Jebusites recently changed with Na’aman’s cogent claim that the city of Jabesh-Giliad across the Jordan was Jebusite (see here). It looks like in the wake of the Bronze Age Collapse, various displaced groups moved into both Jordan and the higher country in Israel. These would have included Jebusites, Gibeonites and Israelites. So early Israel’s rivals may not have been established Canaanites.

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The Death of a Fool

“The nabal says in his heart, There is no God” That is from Psalms 14:1 with the word “fool” untranslated. The word “nabal” means fool.

So when we read in 1 Samuel 25 that there was a wealthy Calebite named Nabal, we should know that his real name was probably something else. Who would name their child Fool? Rather, this was probably what people called him behind his back because he was difficult and mean (v. 3).

According to 1 Samuel 25, Nabal insulted David. David had the men in his band strap on their swords. The clear intent is that bloodshed would be a consequence of the Nabal’s folly.

However, the Calebite’s wife, Abigail, intervened. David relented. But Nabal died anyway of natural (or maybe supernatural) causes within a matter of days (vss. 36-38).

Today with post-Enlightenment historical suspicion, many (for instance, Joel Baden in The Historical David and Baruch Halpern in David’s Secret Demons) have claimed that what must have really happened was that David murdered Nabal and appropriated his wife as part of a ruthless game of thrones.

The Bible shows that David clearly could be ruthless, and that David, at one point, wanted to kill the man.

Yet that Abigail’s husband suffered a stroke and went into a coma (literally “his heart died within him and he became a stone” vs. 37) after a night of heavy drinking is not implausible. To impose a modern medical perspective on an ancient story: perhaps this once-successful man had succumbed to a combination of physical and mood disorders that led to his bad reputation and death.

There are problems with the whole method of historical suspicion applied to biblical texts. One is that the authors of the texts are way closer to the events than we are. Unless we have archaeological finds that call the texts into question—and sometimes we seem to—we can only speculate. More than that, our agenda is different from the Bible’s. Its intent is to show God shaping human events, not to give us an academically referenced history.

In regard to the stories about David, my theory is that they were put together under the influence of the priest Jehoiada who had deposed the queen Athaliah in Judah (see 2 Kings 11). This was long after the time of David (David’s death may have been about -970 and Athaliah’s death about -835). Athaliah wanted to obliterate the house of David. Yet, as we know from the Tel Dan inscription, right up to the time of Athaliah Judah was called the “house of David”. So, in reestablishing the line of David, Jehoiada fell back on the strong tradition that existed before Athaliah.

Yet the court of Athaliah had probably tried to sow doubts about the legitimacy of David’s line in order to justify her murders of royal heirs and seizure of power. This probably meant questioning both David’s character and the right of Solomon to succeed him. This no doubt included the charge that David had murdered Abigail’s husband.

So the story in 1 Samuel 25 has a purpose to defend David. Yet it is not likely that the anti-David propaganda was more historical than the defense.

In staging a coup against the queen, Jehoiada also took on the need to find a counter-narrative to the attack on the house of David put out by Athaliah’s court. The Calebite clan had traditions preserved by storytellers. Although David’s time was already far in the past, it is likely that the traditions the Bible preserves about him are more accurate than the anti-David gossip.

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Heavy metal and the ancient world

a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper” (Deuteronomy 8:9b NRSV}

This description of the promised land may reflect Solomon’s mining in the area of Timna just north of the sea of Aqaba. There is nothing in the Bible that directly says Solomon had mines. Ironically, the phrase “Solomon’s Mines” comes from the title of a movie. However, since there were no copper mines in the hills of Judah, Ephraim or Galilee, the Deuteronomy passage must be assuming that Israel included a copper mining area somewhere else.

Archaeologists have dated a surge of mining at Timna in the 10th century. Someone was mining there after the Egyptian retreat from the area. Solomon is a good candidate.

It is remarkable that Deuteronomy gets it right about the availability of ores. Iron is more available on the surface. Copper has to be dug out or mined.

This is something important to understand about why we divide ancient history into a Bronze Age and an Iron Age. Iron is much more easily acquired locally. Copper came from places like Timna and mines in Cypress. It had to be both mined and imported.

More than that, to make bronze you have to also have tin. It is unclear where the tin used in Palestine came from. Ezekiel 27:12 says some of it came from Tashish. But we only know that Tarshish was a Mediterranean place far to the west. There is some reason to think it might have been the island of Sardinia west of Italy. Anyway, tin was rare. We know the Egyptians imported some of it all the way from Afghanistan.

If iron was so much more available, why was the more rare alloy of bronze used for weapons and implements for so long?

Copper becomes molten at a much lower temperature than iron. So the difference between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age is really a difference in technology. Bronze Age furnaces couldn’t get iron hot enough.

But with the breakdown of Mediterranean trade after the chaos in around -1200, the ingredients for bronze became much harder to obtain. This fact drove a technological advance in forging.

We should note that from a biblical point of view there is a theological explanation:

See it is I who have created the smith

who blows the fire of coals,

and produces a weapon fit for its purpose;

I have also created the ravager to destroy (Isaiah 54:16 NRSV).

I suppose that in our “woke” age people would find the idea of God behind weapons technology offensive. The idea that necessity was the mother of invention would be more acceptable

Smiths experimented with using carbon in the form of charcoal coals to heat with the iron to create carbonized iron. The red hot forged iron then had to be plunged into cold water. But then it had to be forged again to temper it so that it wouldn’t be brittle. It was a much more complex process than bronze forging.

The result, though, was a major advance. Not only was iron ore more readily available, but iron weapons and instruments were superior to bronze.

The Sea Peoples may have had iron weapons already in the late Bronze Age. It may be one reason their attacks on the Hittites and the Syrian city states were so devastating. One basis for thinking this is that artifacts show that the Philistines, whom we identify as a Sea People, were experts in forging iron.

That gives us the background for another passage in the Bible:

19 Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, “The Hebrews must not make swords or spears for themselves”; 20 so all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen their plowshares, mattocks, axes, or sickles. 21 The charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and one-third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads. 22 So on the day of the battle neither sword nor spear was to be found in the possession of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan; but Saul and his son Jonathan had them. (1 Samuel 13:19-22 NRSV).

Israel’s inferiority in weapons technology shows up in some other passages. Why did Shamgar have to use an oxgoad to fight the Philistines (Judges 3:31).

Judges 5:8 may ask a rhetorical question:

“Was shield or spear to be seen

among forty thousand in Israel? (NRSV)”

I say “may” because I am not confident about translations of the Song of Deborah, which was not written in standard Hebrew.

You could also ask why Israelites developed skill with the sling as a weapon (Judges 20:16 and the story of David and Goliath).

Much of my study of the ancient world has come to focus on the time around -1200 when the Bronze Age and Iron Age divide. It is good to keep in mind why we divide time like that.

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The cities of Garu

Some people might find the Amarna Letter EA 256 to have several interesting issues. There are theories that this letter mentions biblical characters such as Ishbaal or Joshua. While not seeing much worth in these, I want to point out a different possible biblical connection.

The Amarna Letters seem to be administrative and diplomatic correspondence from mid to late 14th century BCE Egypt. Many of the letters concern the Egyptian rule of Canaan (Canaan, at that time, simply meant Egyptian territory in what is today Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria)

The background of EA 256 is that the guy who was supposed to be the Pharaoh’s vassal ruler of Shechem and the hill country north of Jerusalem, Labayu, had developed an independent streak and tried to build his own little fiefdom. After he invaded the Jezreel Valley, the Egyptians had him taken into custody. But before he could be sent to Egypt, he obtained release by paying a bribe.

However, he had made enemies. Possibly as he was trying to return to Shechem, he was killed. We don’t know whether Egyptian authorities had anything to do with this or not
Labayu left two sons. One of them, whose name we don’t know, seems to have replaced him at Shechem. His other son, named Mut-Baal, was chief at Pella east of the Jordan. Pella controlled the fords across the river near the Egyptian outpost at Beth-Shan used as a caravan shortcut to Damascus and the Fertile Crescent. They want to avenge their father’s death and probably to bring his ambitions to completion

Egypt seems to have worried that Mut-Baal was in a position to interfere with caravan traffic. Someone had robbed of held up some caravans. Mut-Baal denies that he had anything to do with it.

The Egyptians wanted to arrest or interrogate a certain Ayyab. Mutbaal denies that he is hiding Ayyab.


One theory is that Mutbaal himself is the biblical character, Ishbaal the son of King Saul who went to war with David. This is the theory of David Rohl who has a minority opinion about ancient chronology that moves the Amarna period forward by hundred of years. It is not supported by synchronized Egyptian and Hittite chronology. And it is not supported by carbon dating. There is no reason to think that Labayu, who ruled from Shechem was the same as Saul, who ruled from Gibeah.


However, Mutbaal and Ishbaal do mean the same thing—man of Baal. Israel Finkelstein has pointed out similarities in the northern kingdom of Israel of Saul and the domain Labayu tried to carve out. However, names and places can have similarities without being the same.


There are biblical characters that correspond to the name, Ayyab, as well. But this Abbab is obviously not the same as King Ahab in Bible. Rohl speculated that he is the same as Joab in the Bible. But I am not even sure he is the same as the Ayyab of Damascus who wrote one of the other Amarna letters. It seems a common Semitic name.


The other name is one that appears in Moran’s translation as “Yisuya”. This probably means Yahweh saves. In other words it could mean the same thing as “Joshua”. There is a theory about the Amarna letters that when they tell us about ‘apiru or habiru troops, they mean the Hebrews. It is speculated that they are the same as the troops of Joshua invading the promised land in the Bible.


I have been very skeptical of the identity of habiru with Hebrews. My arguments have appeared several times in this blog. The Amarna habiru, I am convinced, come from the north, not the east.


The Yisuya mentioned in EA 256 seems to have robbed a Babylonian caravan. How Egyptian authorities were supposed to “ask Yisuya” about the location of Ayyab is a mystery. It is probably a wildly rhetorical question. Anyway he does not necessarily correspond to the biblical portrayal of Joshua.


The thing that interests me is that Mutbaal lists ten cities that are hostile to him, which he calls the “cities of Garu”. There seems to be agreement that these cities were in the vicinity of the Golan Heights northeast of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps there is some connection with the kingdom of Geshur that existed there a few hundred years later.


But what I have never seen anyone else suggest is a connection with the havvoth-jair of the Bible. The phrase means the villages or encampments of Jair:

And Jair the son of Manasseh went and captured their villages, and called them Havvoth-jair (Numbers 32:41 ESV).

And he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities, called Havvoth-jair to this day, which are in the land of Gilead (Judges 10:4 ESV).


I do not know if there could be any connection between the Akkadian “Garu” of the letter and the Hebrew “Jair”. My point is that the two are in exactly the same place, the Golan Heights.


We know that the Israel mentioned by the Merneptah Stele was seen as different from the city states that were the usual powers in Canaan. I cannot think of another entity mentioned in the Amarna letters that is like the “cities of Garu”. This was apparently a power not based in a central city. The “cities” were likely village compounds.


When Israel settled in the hill country west of the Jordan, they settled in villages. So this raises a question for me. Could the 14th century cities of Garu mentioned by Mutbaal be in some way an early manifestation of the 13th century proto-Israel of the Merneptah Stele and the settlements of the 12th century?

Here is William Albright’s 1946 translation. It isn’t the best, but it is public domain and gives you the idea:

Say to Yanhamu, my lord: Message of Mut-Bablu, your servant. I fall at
the feet of my lord. 4—10 How can it have been said in your presence,
“Mut-Bablu has fled. He has hidden Ayyab’? how can the king of Pihilu
flee from the commissioner : su-ki-ni of the king, his lord? 10-19 As
the king, my lord, lives, as the king, my lord, lives, I swear Ayyab is
not in Pihilu. In fact, he has been in the field for two months. Just ask
Ben-Elima. Just ask Tadua. 19-28 Just ask YiSuya whether, after he
robbed sulum-Marduk, I went to the aid of Astartu, when all the cities
of Garu had become hostile: Udumu, Aduru, Araru, MeSta, Magdalu,
Heni-anabi, Sarqu.* Hayyunu, along with Yabiluma, has been cap¬
tured.)“ 29-35 Moreover, seeing that, after you sent me a tablet, I
wrote to him, before you arrive from your journey, he will surely have
arrived in Pihilu And I do obey [your] orders.

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