Ramses III in the context of Egypt’s decline and Israel’s rise

This morning we had a power outage for several hours.  I did not know whether I would be able to get online today or not.  So instead of reading more of G. K. Beale, I read a paper I had recently downloaded from this site, but had not had time to read yet.  It is Decoding the Medinet Habu Inscriptions: The Ideological Subtext of Ramesses III’s War Accounts by Scott M. Peters.

It deals with Pharaoh Ramses (spellings vary) III’s account of his wars. Ramses III ruled Egypt during the time of the Late Bronze Age collapse–the time when I think Israel was establishing itself in the highlands between Jerusalem and Shechem.

Archeology together with the skeptical, post-modern approach to history have tended to cause modern scholars to wonder if Ramses III’s inscription describes real events at all.  Especially his claims to have mounted an expedition into Syria (Amuru) are questionable.

Peter’s argument is that the Pharaoh’s purpose was not to record history but to claim legitimacy for himself as one who established ma-at.  Ma-at was central to the legitimacy of Egyptian rulers the way law and order or economic growth might be important for the political claims of leaders today, only more so.  It meant order, truth, harmony and had to do with the general welfare of society.  It was also a religious concept.  One way to claim ma-at was to insure the proper worship of the gods and the support of the temples and priesthoods.

Peters shows the ideological purpose of the inscriptions in the context of what was probably a shaky regime with much internal opposition.  After all, Ramses III was finally assassinated due to a conspiracy in his own harem. There were food shortages, a strike by the workers who built the royal tombs, and a growing dependence of the dynasty on the priesthood of Amun and other elite groups.

Ramses III’s struggles may not have actually been against foreign enemies but against internal foes.  These were foreign in the sense that immigrants from Libya and Syria had become very prominent in the Nile Delta where they had settled and perhaps had rebelled.  Ramses used ideological and mythological motifs in his inscriptions to suggest that his struggles against these foes were a part of restoring ma-at, and thus established his legitimacy.

I agree with this only in part.  The annals of ancient rulers were usually exaggerated, sometimes wildly so.  But people knew enough about what was going on that the events reported had to have some factual basis.

Baruch Halpern has called this the Sennacherib principle.  That Assyrian king had his hunting exploits recorded.  It is improbable that he personally killed all the game reported.  But that he went out on hunting expeditions that resulted in many kills for his parties is likely.  The chronicles of ancient kings often followed this principal to exaggerate and glorify the royal exploits.  But this does not mean the record is entirely cut off from facts.

Peters uses the skepticism about the historical reality of Ramses III’s wars to change the focus to the ideological purpose the inscriptions served.  This is valuable because it is likely that the king is trying to cover up what was a pretty unstable internal situation in Egypt.  But he still probably fought against external enemies as well.

One detail that interested me was that Peters says that among the unsettled people in Egypt that were part of the growing cultural diffusion were the habiru. Now many try to make the habiru practically identical with the Hebrews.  But Peters is talking about people in Egypt later than any Exodus.

Habiru were people who fled their villages, usually because they could not pay their taxes or had accumulated some form of debt. Viewed as robbers and thieves, the habiru lived on the fringes of society, and despite their being recruited as mercenaries to defend the palace complexes, relations between them and the settled people were mostly antagonistic.  During Ramesses‘s rule, both Egypt and the wider Near East recorded a significant rise in the habiru population. . .(p. 19).

Peters paints this as part of a vicious spiral where lower agricultural production caused the elites to raise taxes, which led to even lower agricultural production.

While all this was going on in Egypt and other failing Near Eastern states, I would point out that there was an explosion of village settlements in the central highlands of Israel.  This is where we should look for the Hebrews.  Of course, habiru could have been one component of the central highland settlers.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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