Over the last few days I have redone my desktop setup. I replaced my huge, noisy old tower with a four-inch by four-inch box. It is totally silent. What a difference a few years makes in technology!
Now that I’m back online, I want to backtrack a little before I finish up with Mark Leuchter’s The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity.
I read and reacted to Brian Peterson’s The Authors of the Deuteronomistic History about the Anathoth scribal tradition here , for instance. The author saw my posts and has recently commented on some of them. He was very nice. He and I disagree about the dates for the conquest and the era of the Judges. But I did find much valuable insight in his book.
My view of the history of the Levant in the late Bronze Age considers what was possible given Egyptian hegemony. Egypt cared about keeping the caravan routes and seaways open, having buffer states against the Hittites and others from the north, and receiving tribute. The city states that directly ruled the territories had some autonomy. The brief Amarna era seemed chaotic. Still, through it all, Egypt maintained administrative districts and royal estates. Every few decades the army reasserted Egyptian power.
I cannot fit either the Bible’s story of the conquest by Joshua or the stories of the book of Judges into this arrangement. I don’t understand where proponents of an early conquest think the Egyptian army was while all this was going on. Egypt would have responded.
In fact, the best explanation I have for Merneptah’s attack on Israel is that the powerful, Egyptian-aligned city-state of Hazor was burned during the dawn of proto-Israel and that the Egyptian army eventually responded. Merneptah’s inscription about his Libyan war contains that first mention of Israel. Israel is not mentioned in the Amarna letters, or the inscriptions about the campaigns into Canaan by Seti I or Rameses II. Hazor burned sometime after -1250.
Archeologists have found that there was a sudden burst of new villages in the hills of Benjamin and Ephraim a few decades after Merneptah–corresponding to the power-vacuum created by the Bronze Age collapse.
My detailed speculations about this may be wrong. But I find the idea that the habiru equals Joshua’s invasion unfounded. The Amarna era habiru seem to have been mercenaries operating out of the north, not the Transjordan. So I see no cause for thinking that Israel settled southern Canaan any time before the 12th century or the late 13th at the earliest.
This may seem impious because it takes geopolitical considerations into account more than the text of the Bible, particularly the book of Joshua. I don’t deny that I am not that pious about the historical precision of the text.
However, I do not think you can utterly dismiss specific historical references in the text. This is my problem with Mark Leuchter’s treatment of Exodus 15. The poem there talks about Egyptian horses and men thrown into the sea. Leuchter takes this as having no reference to an event near Egypt. The sea represents Yam, a god from Ugaritic mythology. The Egyptians represent the power of Egypt, but not actual Egyptian cavalry.
Having puzzled over a lot of ancient Egyptian texts, I can affirm the fact that they are full of mythological content even when they describe historical events. So given Leuchter’s way of reading, what would we make of the poetic account of the Battle of Kadesh? Rameses II ‘s scribe obviously was not giving a straight historical account. But does that mean that all the references in military histories to the greatest chariot encounter in history are wrong. Did tha Battle of Kadesh really happen or is it just Rameses II’s mythological explanation for why he made peace with Hatti?
I am not trying to be sarcastic. I am trying to understand why one would not assume that poetic and mythological language, particularly in poetry celebrating a victory, interpret an actual event. That is the way it works in Egyptian victory inscriptions. That is the way it works in the Judges 5 too.
I understand that for Leuchter the Song of the Sea does refer to a historical situation: his scenario where Merneptah drives dwellers of the plain into the highlands. But this is some steps removed from the repeated celebration in Exodus 15 of an event involving horses, men and water.