Habiru, the verb

My opinion, contrary to a lot of people who want to find Israel present in Canaan in the 14th century B.C.E., is that the habiru of the Amarna letters are not Hebrews.  The equation of the two seems like wishful thinking, because you really have to stretch things to make the accounts or atmosphere in Joshua and Judges fit the Amarna letters. Some habiru may have affiliated with Israel at some time, but there is no connection between the word “habiru” or, more correctly “apiru”, and Hebrew.

What the discussions about the habiru often never mention is the verb form of the word.  In the Mari documents (3rd and early 2nd millenia B.C.E.) there is a verb which means to migrate or immigrate. So you could say that a habiru is someone who habirued, who became displaced and left their home.  At Mari there was a legal distinction between a habiru and a deserter or run-away slave.  There was a legal obligation to extradite deserters and run-away slaves.  But, if you could establish that you were merely a habiru refugee, then you could stay.

Later on, closer to the Amarna period, treaties began to include clauses requiring the return of refugees as well as deserters and run-away slaves.  Harboring refugees was sometimes a cause of war.  The reason for this is that refugees often became governments or even armies in exile and returned home to make trouble.  These refugees came from city states–not so much from bedouin-like tribes.

The Idrimi  inscription (about 16th century B.C.E. events) contains an example of this. This inscription was found on a statue buried in a temple in Alalakh in far northern Syria.  Idrimi was the founder of a dynasty of vassal kings at Alalakh.  His story sounds similar to the biblical stories of Joseph and David.  He was a younger brother exiled in another country who made good (as a fortune-teller interpreting the flight of birds and the innards of sheep) and became a ruler.  There is reason to think that the statue came generations after Idrimi’s time and that it is what I would call prestige literature. That means we should look out for exaggeration and spin.

However, it is based on some facts.  It tells how Idrimi spent years in exile among the habiru in Canaan.  He found among them other refugees with similar political interests.  He gathered them around himself and built ships and raised an army in order to take power in Alalakh.

This kind of development probably accounts for the fact that at Mari the attitude toward the habiru is mostly neutral or favorable, while in the Amarna letters it is always hostile.  The habiru had become dangerous because they were interested in the overthrow of established regimes.  They made alliances with other troublemakers.  In the Amarna letters the habiru seem to be anti-Egyptian and acting as supporters of the interests of the Hittites and the kingdom of Amurru.

They were likely displaced from Canaanite city states, people banished from their cities by previous Egyptian military campaigns who hoped a rising Hittite power would check Egypt and allow their restoration in Canaan.

I just don’t find anything in the biblical texts to put Israel in this context.  Israel seems to have a more pastoral and nomadic background.  Also the kinship system of habiru was weakened.  They became more individualized and held more fluid loyalties. Israel seems to arise from strong clans.  The biblical picture is that exiled strong men sometimes used habiru troops (Judges 9:4, 11:3 and 1 Samuel 22:2).  But these displaced people were outside the Israelite mainstream.

About Mari and the habiru: The Akkadians and the Habiru and Letters from Mesopotamia.pdf.

A translation of the Idrimi inscription: Idrimi.pdf

Posted in Ancient Israel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

minimalist and maximilist

I was surprised to find this article by Eugene H. Merrill on an evangelical apologetics site. It is a moderate article and contains good information.

This is the way he explains the minimalist and maximalist schools of assessing the historical nature of ancient Israel:

1. Scholars inclined to assign little or no historical or cultural validity to the Old Testament narratives suggest that either those narratives are late, retrospective renditions of traditions that enjoyed wide currency in Israel’s larger milieu, or that the alleged commonalities between the textual evidence from the ANE and the OT are illusory, coincidental, or derived from common stock.

2. On the other hand, conservatives of many varieties have largely embraced the findings of archaeological research and have employed them heuristically, apologetically, or even polemically. Sadly, the extremes of both positions have resulted, in the first case, in an even stronger denial of any independent historical reality to OT texts (a position known as “minimalism”), and in the second case, a naive, uncritical “proof’ of connections between archaeology and the Bible which, in fact, are incorrectly perceived or illegitimately employed to make a case for the reliability of the OT where no such case can be made on those grounds (misguided “maximalism”).

Merrill is probably more conservative than I am, but I share his desire for a way that avoids both disregarding the text and jumping on supposed proofs.

Further down in the article he gives a short summary of several major archeological finds that impact biblical studies.  I felt that he gave a fair evaluation of these.

Posted in Ancient Israel, Bible | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Levenson-God’s command “Love me!”

I am going to reverse Jon Levenson’s final chapter in his The Love of God and start at the end. The chapter is about the problem of how the love of God relates to modernity. He discusses how more modern Jewish philosophers have dealt with modernity. He is dissatisfied with each philosopher he discusses. At the end he offers an analogy (which he credits to Wilfred Cantwell Smith) that he thinks may offer a way forward.

His analogy is that of listening to music. You can listen to the noise made by a particular instrument, the boom of a drum, for instance. You can hear it as just a device that makes a sound. But there is a second level at which you hear the sounds of the instrument as the self expression of a performer. If you are listening to a band or an orchestra, there is another level where you listen to the combined work as the production of a team, as social contribution. But if the music has been written by a great composer–say Mozart–then there is another level where you are listening to him, even though he is long gone, through the combined performance of the musicians.

These are levels of transcendence. To listen to the music at the highest level as an expression of Mozart does not deny the reality of the instrument, the performers, or the social unit of the band. The reductionist error and the error of much of modernity is to narrow down the Bible and other old texts to their literary units, authors and editors, and social context as though those things meant that they could not convey revelation from God in the same way a piece from Mozart can convey a revelation from his mind. (I think Levenson’s concept of revelation might include the discussion of rabbis and philosophers down through the ages and even allow for Christian and Muslim contributions).

Revelation is important to Levenson because he has stressed that in Jewish tradition the love of God derives from a particular kind of treaty or covenant used in the Ancient Near East. The temptation of modern people is to treat this in a reductionist way, to see it as the product of historical contingency, and so to dismiss its relevance.

It is this that causes Levenson to disagree with Martin Buber’s personalistic reformulation of Jewish thought. Buber thought that the laws of the Torah were the product of accidental historical situations. So in his I-Thou-I-It classification of relationship, he classified an individual’s relationship to the law as an I-It relationship. He did not think you could take ancient laws and apply them today unless you went through some existentialist gymnastics to make them subjectively authentic to you.

Franz Rosenzweig could not agree with his friend and correspondent, Buber. He thought there was a way to keep the law as an expression of love for God even when the law came to us in a very human way. Levenson quotes from the difficult work of Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption:

God’s first word to the soul that is opening itself up to him is “Love me!”. And everything that he may yet reveal to the soul in the form of law turns without more ado into words that he commands it “today.” It turns into execution of the one and first commandment: to love him” (quoted on p. 190).

Levenson appreciates Rosenzweig’s approach, but thinks it is still too individualistic. He wants something that takes more into account the social and communal nature of the Jewish response to God’s love.

So he brings up the music analogy and the need to pay attention to all the aspects of the love of God. We need to receive this message as it comes to us from ancient sources without reducing it down to just literary, or historical, or social data. In the matrix of all of this, God speaks to us.

I want to point out that I have seen a similar musical analogy before in Israel Knohl’s idea of the Bible as a “divine symphony”. For Knohl this allows for the validity of all the historical-critical insights about variety of thought within the scriptures without blotting out the word of God that comes through it. Knohl’s emphasis is different, but I appreciate the concept of the word of God transcending human contingency in both cases.

To see what Levenson is talking about here in more concrete terms I thought of the issue of circumcision. Just poking around a little on the internet, I notice a great deal of hostility to the practice. Some of this comes from people who, wrongly I think, equate male circumcision with female genital mutilation. But part of it comes from the idea that this is something that your family or community does to you without your consent. In other words, the objection comes from modernity’s idea of us all as isolated choosing individuals.

Levenson, I would think, might see circumcising your sons, if you are Jewish, as a response to God’s word, “Love me!”.

Levenson’s book on the love of God has gone down a very different track than the Christian discussions about God’s grace and whether Christianity rejected a legalistic Judaism. I don’t think Judaism excludes the grace of God at all. It does understand it differently than an influential branch of Protestantism does.

Levenson concludes:

In the case of the love of God we have explored in this book, some will believe they hear only the voice of ancient, medieval, or modern Jews whose writings we have discussed, speaking exclusively within the historical worlds of their own time and place and having nothing to say to our day. Others though, may believe they hear the genuine tone of the ancient commandment “Love me,” and act accordingly (p. 195).

Posted in Bible, Theology | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Levenson-Jewish philosophers

The next chapter in The Love of God by Jon Levenson moves on from ancient biblical and rabbinic material to medieval Jewish philosophers.  This is new territory for me.

I had never heard of Bah ya ibn Pequda, an 11th century C.E. Spanish Jew.  See here. But Levenson has a long section about a work of his called Duties of the Heart.  An interesting thing about him is that he lived in a Muslim-majority region and was much influenced by the Islamic spiritual movement, Sufism.  Also, Neo-Platonic thought influenced him.

His book had ten chapters, which he called the ten gates:

1. The Gate of Divine Unity

2. The Gate of Reflection

3. The Gate of Serving God

4. The Gate of Trust in God

5. The Gate of Unification of Action

6. The Gate of Humility

7. The Gate of Repentance

8. The Gate of Self-Examination

9. The Gate of Seclusion

10. The Gate of the Love of God

These are progressive. The highest and last is the love of God.  Arriving at the love of God was the result of a journey of the mind and spirit.  The love of God was the highest state of being and to reach it you had to go through all the other gates.

He wrote in Arabic and used the word “jihad” for the struggle and the journey.  And the highest level, the love of God, is the level where you become willing to give your very life for God.  I think it is understandable that I react to this with caution because people might misuse or misunderstand this idea.

The idea of a struggle and a journey seems to tend toward what Protestant Christians might call “works righteousness”.  So it is important to note that Bah ya ibn Pequda also saw this as the gift of God.  As he envisions this highest state of being, it is not attainable by everybody, and those who do attain it do so by the help of God.

Also, although progressive, the ten gates are not exactly like steps on a ladder.  They are not only way stations on a journey, but signs of the love of God in a person’s life.

This was a very experiential approach to Jewish piety.

A much more intellectual approach came from Moses Maimonides who wrote about a century after Bah ya ibn Pequda.  I have heard of Maimonidies.  He influenced Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas.  The most interesting thing about Maimonidies is that, while he described human love for God in passionate terms, he did not speak of God’s love for us that way.  His philosophy raises the question whether a perfect God can love.   This is because he subscribed to Aristotle’s ideas about how God is beyond human passion and change.

This was in conflict with biblical descriptions of God.

Many later Jewish philosophers tried to resolve this conflict.

For Levenson the value of Maimonides is in the reality that divine love differs from human love.  They are not the same.  This fits with Levenson’s derivation of the concept from ancient treaties and covenants between unequal powers.  God loves us, but in his own way, that we may have trouble understanding.

One thing I have noticed in Levenson’s book is that it is more about our love for God. At least, it does not treat God’s love for us as a separate doctrine the way Christians might have a doctrine of God’s grace.  Human love and divine love are always in relation to each other, and because it is the essence of a grateful religion, the practical matter of expressing our love for God is at the center.

Posted in Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Levenson-sex and theology in the Song of Solomon

I continue to read Jon Levenson’s The Love of God

Levenson cannot help but discuss the Song of Solomon as he discusses the erotic or romantic metaphors the Hebrew  Bible uses for the love of God.  Some have insisted that the Song is a straightforward, explicit love song similar to the much later work of the Persian philosopher Omar Khayyam: “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and Thou”. Others have seen it as an allegory about God as the male lover and Israel as the female lover.

This has been cast in recent times into a gender wars context with the observation that in the Song of Solomon the female makes the first move and is the sexual aggressor. Writers have pointed to a contrast between this and the shaming of female sexuality in Hosea and Ezekiel.

People who are not familiar with ancient writing are often surprised by the explicit and highly charged sexual imagery in the Song of Solomon or the very idea of using sex to make a theological point.

Let me assure you that this is nothing compared to some other ancient writing.  I think that Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt made even me–who grew up watching cattle and horses hook up–blush with her description of her own conception when she imagines the god, Horus, becoming incarnate in her father and inseminating not only her mother, but the land of Egypt itself.  She was, of course, arguing that she was just as divine as a male Pharaoh.  But she goes into considerable X-rated detail to make her case.

Levenson makes an important point when he argues that a theological interpretation of the Song of Solomon does not require you to think it is an allegory.  He uses, instead, the rabbinic category of midrash.  Midrash, he says, “seeks to bring different scriptural texts into productive relationship with each other and, in the process, to bring the deeper unity of the scripture to light” (p. 132).

So, because the Song is part of the Bible, you have to relate it to other parts of the Bible.  To the rabbinical mind the question was not whether this was a secular love song or an allegory.  Rather, the question was “with regard to what place in the Torah was this said” (p. 132).  So rabbis argued about whether the opening stanza of the book was about Israel’s experience at the Red Sea or at Mount Sinai or some other point in Israel’s history with God.

Levenson goes into much detail about the various ways the rabbis used midrash to interpret the Song.   At the end of this discussion he says, “Ideally, when Jews involve themselves in Torah, they are singing a love song to God and responding to his love song to them.  The Torah is narrative, and the Torah is law, but within both law and narrative lies the Torah as love” (p. 138).

The problem with this was that sometimes when someone pointed out the plain, erotic sense of the words of the Song, someone else would accuse them of impiety or indecency.  Overall, though, Judaism has not been so puritanical.  It has celebrated sexual love.

I think it is interesting that the Song was ascribed to the famously polygamous Solomon.  I don’t know if this is too close to allegory, but doesn’t God have a relationship with of all nations (see Amos 9:7)?  Yet God’s favorite out of this harem is his special beloved, Israel.

There may be sixty queens,

and eighty concubines,

and young women without number.

But she is unique!

My dove, my perfect one! (Song of Solomon 6:8-9 NET Bible)

On one level the Song of Songs is about sex. But Judaism, according to Levenson, can use this as a way to transcend the purely fleshly understanding of sex.  Sex, after all, is a reaching out to the beloved.  The modern tendency is to think of sex as only an instinct or only an expression of hormone-driven passion.  But, if you believe that humans are more than physical beings, sex will  point to something higher.  He even quotes C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves on this point.

For my part, I thought of the late Leonard Cohen, whose songs are both spiritual–in a way partly shaped by his upbringing in the Synagogue–and blatantly erotic.  A verse of Hallelujah often omitted in popular performances of the song goes:

There was a time you let me know

What’s really going on below

But now you never show it to me, do you?

And remember when I moved in you

The holy dove was moving too

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Posted in Ancient Israel, Bible | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Levenson-the erotic dimension

My reading project is Jon Levenson’s The Love of God.

One of the complaints about the so-called feminizing of the church is that some contemporary worship songs are basically about Jesus as my boyfriend.  Of course, it is not just contemporary songs that do this.  Think about the Mary Magdeline reference in the popular old hymn, “In the Garden”.  “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own”

Those of us who don’t like this would find an ally in Jon Levenson, who fears “the perception that all talk of God’s love or loving God is, at base, a treacly thing that appeals only to the emotionally weak–a crutch,perhaps, to help them avoid facing the lovelessness, or some kindred deficiency, in their own lives” (p. 91).

The preeminent metaphors for God’s love and relationship to us are king-subject, father-son, and shepherd-flock.  To concentrate, as modern, romantic sentiment would entice us to do, on the metaphor of lover-beloved would detract from these.  However, the love of men and women is still a biblical metaphor for God’s love.  So Levenson has a discussion of this “erotic dimension” of the love of God.

He notes that the Bible, in Deuteronomy 7:7, it says that God has “set his heart” on Israel and that this is the same phrase used in Genesis 34:8 for Shechem’s crush on Dinah.

Today I will just deal with what he says about the metaphor in the Book of Hosea where sexual infidelity gets extensively compared to Israel’s lack of loyalty to God. God’s people figuratively become prostitutes.  Levenson points out that prostitution itself did not carry the same stigma in ancient Israel that it did later, but that for a married woman to act like a prostitute is what carried the stigma.  And this is what Hosea applies to Israel.

So the comparison between Israel and an unfaithful wife is in the covenant breaking, not the promiscuity itself.  So, unlike in modern America, the solution is not simply for the couple to break up or divorce and go their separate ways.  This is not possible because covenant includes  permanence and unconditionality in its nature.

But Hosea does not call for reconciliation by simply forgiving and forgetting.  There is no cheap grace here.

He calls on his children to renounce their mother and he apparently physically prevents her from going to her lovers.  Levenson says that it is unlikely that those who heard Hosea’s prophecy would have heard it in the same offensive way modern feminists do.  Men would not have identified with God as a vengeful husband.  They would have identified themselves with Israel as the shamed, wayward wife.

Levenson thinks that the notion that love requires equality is modern and has nothing to do with the biblical idea of a suzerainty covenant between unequal kings.  Hosea’s wife, Gomer, and God’s covenant partner, Israel, have both failed to respond with gratitude to the gratuitous love of their benefactor.  So they have committed violence against the covenant.

Yet at the end of Hosea 2, God promises to heal and renew the relationship.  God betroths Israel again and apparently pays a new “bride price” for her.

In human law Hosea could have divorced Gomer or, in literal biblical law, even charged her with a capital crime. But God calls upon him to restore the relationship with Gomer as a sign of God’s willingness to restore his relationship with Israel.  This is more profound than the schmaltzy ideas of romantic love.

The words of Hosea 2:19-20 (verses as in English Bibles) :

I will betroth you to Me forever;

Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,

In lovingkindness and in compassion,

And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.

Then you will know the Lord (NET Bible).

are in the Jewish liturgy for putting on the tefillin when wrapping them around the knuckle.  So each weekday the person observing this ritual “accepts God’s offer of marriage, pledging himself individually to faithfulness within the larger relationship of God to Israel.  The strap around the finger has become, as it were, a wedding ring” (p. 107).

Posted in Ancient Israel, Bible | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Levenson-heart, soul, and might

I am reading and blogging about Jon Levenson’s book, The Love of God.

Levenson deals with midrash and other interpretations of the Bible in rabbinic writings.  I don’t know a lot about rabbinic thought.  Some of this chapter touches on controversies and ideas that I know little about.  So I am going to just try to summarize his main thoughts and pick out some of the ideas that interest me.

One of the concerns of the rabbis was the contrast between love and fear.  In the Bible fear of God often meant something closer to awe.  But many saw fear as the dread of punishment.  So the rabbis took up the question of whether someone could love God if the motive was fear.  They often concluded that fear detracted from love, which should be pure and inspired by God’s person rather than concern about one’s own fate.  However, the rabbis also considered human beings to be imperfect.  So the motive of fear was sometimes needed.

Mostly Levenson deals with the interpretation of the command to love God with all your heart, and soul and might from Deuteronomy 6:4.

In the Bible, and often in the rabbis, the heart was not the seat of emotion.  So to love God with your heart was not understood as emotional love.  The heart was the seat of thinking.  So this kind of love meant bringing the mind to bear upon God.  This is partly behind the rabbinic idea that study and scholarship of the Torah are a form of prayer and devotion.

Also often misunderstood is the command to love God with one’s soul.  The biblical idea of the soul was that it was life.  To love God with your soul meant with your whole life.  Especially with the Maccabees in mind, the rabbis interpreted this in relation to martyrdom.  To love God with your soul was to be willing to die for God.

To love God with all your might suggested the intensity of commitment.  We might say today that you were “all in” for God’s cause.  Both love with your soul and with your might suggested the idea that love must involve sacrifice.

The rabbinical writings tended to interpret Job with this in mind.  Job was an example of fully loving God, because Job loved God in spite of his personal circumstances, in spite of whether God blessed him or not.  Also some of them interpreted Job’s impassioned questioning of God as a form of loving God will all his heart.

Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac was another passage interpreted through this lens. You need to love God more than life, even the life of your son.

This passage is one that Levenson comes back to in more than one of his books.  I remember how in his The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, he spoke of the impulse to human sacrifice in some of the Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions and how the Bible transposes this into ultimate devotion to God, while abolishing human sacrifice.

There was a good deal of rabbinic discussion about the meaning of Psalm 44:22:

Yet because of you we are killed all day long;

we are treated like sheep at the slaughtering block (NET Bible).

What does it mean to be killed all day long (or perhaps it means “every day”)?  Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya wrote that it meant that God credits the faithful with daily death, so that even the ordinary, daily life of a righteous person equals martyrdom in God’s way of figuring.

All of this is interesting and, since I have not done enough reading about rabbinic thought, I have no way of evaluating Levenson’s views.  Basically, it looks like he is saying that, even though Greek ideas like an immaterial soul and heroic death sometimes influenced the rabbis, they brought these ideas back to their authentic Hebrew base.

Posted in Bible, Deuteronomy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment