Finally, I have been able to begin to read Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity.
My readers may have noticed that I have had a focus on the Israelite priesthood in my reading and posting for a while. I have been trying to figure out the nature of the priestly communities that gave us various parts of the Hebrew Scriptures and later writings like those found near the Dead Sea at Qumran. When did these communities exist, but more importantly, what kind of communities were they? Books that I read do not necessarily have exactly this concern. So sometimes my reading may look at things that were not the author’s main concern. Keep that in mind.
I am going to skip over most of Leuchner’s introduction, which is about method. He opposes historical positivism that uses the Bible as a face-value source of history, yet he believes those who think the Hebrew Bible is useless for history before the 8th century are wrong. He talks about how to discern genuine memory within mythological accounts.
Rather than bore you and myself with a discussion of method, let us look at a remarkable example from his first chapter.
He gives a unique reading to the famous Israel or Merneptah inscription (about -1209). This is victory inscription with the first non-biblical attestation of “Israel” at its tail end. The Pharaoh claims victory over a series of enemies in Canaan. His scribe says “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” Now, unlike the other enemies Merneptah claims to have whacked, there is a sign in the hieroglyphics that shows Israel as a people rather than a location or city.
Leuchter says that the Pharaoh is deliberately claiming that he has deprived Israel of a location or a place. When he says “his seed is not”, it is a double poetic reference to both seed as offspring and seed as grain. The Egyptians have taken away Israel’s capacity to produce crops and, therefore, the capacity to have a posterity. Thus Israel is just a people with no location or usable land.
Leuchter points out that all through the Hebrew Bible there is evidence that Israel understood the gaining of land over against Egyptian power as formative for its history. Thus Israel’s myth of wilderness survival and conquest of land, has a basis in actual historical circumstances
This suggests that both Merneptah and Emergent Israel took up a common ideology, but in dramatically different directions. Thus the status of both Merneptah’s Israel and Emergent Israel hinges upon the concept of a thriving agrarian culture: one is defined by traditions that affirm it as a cornerstone of identity, and the other is defined by its outright denial (p. 40).
This is a gripping interpretation. It helps us grasp the fact that when we talk about mythology in the Ancient Near East, we are talking about the way people presented their world views. We might use myth to mean something untrue, but for people then myth was the way you presented what you claimed to be true, whether it was or not.
I have a doubt about Leuchter’s attempt to locate Merneptah’s Israel. He uses the boundary marker called the “spring of the waters of Nephtoah” in Joshua 15:9 and 18:15 to argue that Merneptah’s troops took the more fertile lowlands from Israel but stalled at the edge of the central highlands. This would put Merneptah’s Israel in central Canaan.
Even if “the waters of Nephtoah” is a corruption of the waters of Merneptah, the reference is probably to Seti I who was known as Seti Merneptah, the man of Set.
The juxtaposition of Israel with Yenoam possibly puts Israel somewhere around the Sea of Kinneret (the New Testament’s Sea of Galilee) or the Hula Valley. This would fit with my speculation that Israel emerged in the late 13th century either because it helped cause or benefited from the downfall of Hazor (-1250–1220).
Possibly the settlement of the central highlands, which seems to have occurred after Merneptah’s campaign, was a matter of dispossessed people resettling.
But this is a small quibble. I am grateful for the new insights Lauchter has given me.