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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Book of Esther in the Light of History

In 1923, Jacob Hoschander, a professor of cognate languages at Dropsie College (later on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary) wrote a book called The Book of Esther in the Light of History.

It's a brilliant book. Despite the fact that Hoschander was an old style bible critic (though not so "old style" in the 1920s, I suppose), he actually argued very strongly that the events in the Book of Esther were historically real ones. As he writes in his preface:

THE aim of the present book is to interpret the Book of Esther from the historical point of view and to show the historical origin of the Festival of Purim. It is this historical aspect which fundamentally differentiates the present interpretation from all previous attempts at explaining the origin of the Purim Festival on which the Biblical narrative is based, as in none of them has there been suggested an historical reason, drawn from non-Biblical sources, for the danger impending over the Jews during the Persian period. The very fact, however, that outside of the Biblical narrative which attributes this danger to the enmity of a Persian grand vizier toward a single Jewish individual, nothing was known from external historical sources to account for such an event, was reason enough for doubting or denying altogether its historical character. My interpretation, however, is based upon an historical event during the Persian period, well known from non-Biblical sources, the consequences of which must have been disastrous to the Jews of the Persian empire. This event I considered of so great importance for the Jews of the Persian empire that, in investigating the subject, I felt constrained to declare, that if the Book of Esther had never been written, historians might have found out, that during that period the Persian Jews were threatened with complete extermination. The real problem is not, whether such an event did happen, but how the Jews escaped the danger, and its solution is presented, I claim, in the Book of Esther. The historical event, on which the Biblical narrative is based, is treated in the sixth chapter.

Hoschander's book has been out of print for most of a century now, and while it would have been nice had it been available a month and a half ago (in time for Purim), it's back in print now:


It should be up on Amazon.com as well, but apparently that takes a while. I recommend this book highly. Although Hoschander is, at times, very dismissive of rabbinic tradition, his core arguments are solid, and well based in archaeological, classical, and rabbinic sources.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Scratching the Wall with a Filed Down Spoon

I'm about to turn 43. This Wednesday is my birthday by the Catholic calendar (it always irks my Dad when I call it that), but it's only 4 days later by the Jewish one.

And it's not about getting old. It's just about... I don't know. I feel like I'm in a cell, and that I should scratch a mark into the wall for one more year down. That much closer to when I can get out of here. Or be eligible for parole, if I should be that lucky.

There are times when the prospect of Olam Haba simply horrifies me. I know that we don't know what it's going to be like, but I can't even begin to imagine anything that would make up for this life. My gut tells me it's just going to be more of the same, and that maybe there'll be no end to it. Imagine: no oblivion. Ever. I can't imagine anything more depressing.

The phrase "It didn't come too soon" keeps echoing in my head. I'm just so bloody tired of all of this.

Friday, April 07, 2006

More on Hammurabi and Archaeology

RespondingToJBlogs responded to my previous post by saying (among other things):

I still do not see a source, other than your assertion for a later dating of Hammurabi. Your argument basically boils down to "There is uncertainty in the field and therefore the field is unreliable."

With regards to Hammurabi, I am not saying that "There is uncertainty in the field and therefore the field is unreliable." RtJB seems to be the kind of person who automatically associates anyone who takes the Torah seriously as being in the same camp as the creationist types who say things like that, but it's a sign of the very large chip on his shoulder that he'd read it into what I wrote.

It's not exactly rocket science. Two completely different and independent sources of information that say the same thing. A period of well over a thousand years according to any reckoning, in which there is a dead match for the entire duration of the period.

No one can accuse the scholars who have painstakingly assembled the stratigraphic record of the Levant of trying to make it match the Bible. On the contrary: the very fact that they've been assuming incorrect dates for the strata all this time establishes better than anything could that there's been no fudging of the data.
In any other field of knowledge, this would be a no brainer.

  • First urban settlement
  • Brutal, violent culture
  • Fortified cities
  • Pyramid age in Egypt
  • Egypt falls apart
  • New nation appears in the Sinai and Negev and then invades those first urban settlers from the Transjordan, wiping out the first urban settlers
  • New nation destroys all the cities that the Bible says were destroyed by Israel, such as Jericho and Ai, which wouldn't be rebuilt until the Iron Age
  • New nation lives pastorally for centuries and then virtually overnight expands into an empire that stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates (the only such empire in all of human history)
  • New nation speaks and writes Biblical Hebrew and is culturally indistinguishable from the Israelites of the Bible
  • Empire falls apart in what archaeologists see as being caused by civil war and invasions from Egypt
  • Remains of empire last for a few more centuries, plagued by more civil wars and external invasions
  • Northern part of former empire is pounded to pieces by invaders from northern Syria and Mesopotamia
  • Northern part of former empire is resettled by Newer nation, which despite copying many aspects of its predecessor, is quite easily distinguishable, culturally speaking
  • Newer nation rebuilds cities like Ai, which had been in ruins for the entirety of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages.

And it's like fractals. The closer you look -- the more detail you check out -- the stronger the match becomes.
Anyone looking at this objectively would match the two. While there is nothing objective that dates the stratigraphic record as it is currently dated.

Whether we want to lower the dates of the stratigraphy or raise the biblical dates, there is no question that the records match. Independently, and deeply. And Hammurabi is dated without any "uncertainty" to the Middle Bronze Age.

As an anecdote, I discussed this debate we seem to be having with a friend of mine who took Bible classes at YU and his professor never said there was any reason to think Hammurabi was post-MT.

The point being? It's interesting that RtJB uses arguments from authority when it leads to the conclusions he wants to see. The association with YU doesn't guarantee correctness. And his professor was teaching from the book. Not everyone spends the time and energy to do research in this field.

Also, I am not using my rules of logic. I looked to scientific consensus in a field with which I have no familiarity.

What's interesting is that RtJB seems to have a definition of "scientific" that means "anything not connected to religion". Because by any reasonable standard, the various fields of ancient history are anything but "scientific". As Robert A. Heinlein put into the mouth of Lazarus Long, "If it can't be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion." And as Leonardo da Vinci wrote, "No human investigation can be called true science without passing through mathematical tests. "

I don't deny the excellent scholarship involved in these fields, but science can be replicated. You can start from primaries and derive it all. That's not the case here. Here, we have a field that's a mixture of 18th century Christian biblical interpretation, and the equivalent of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, with most of its pieces missing, that scholars have been doing their painstaking best to piece together plausably. It's scholarship, but it's not science.

Yet by referring to "scientific consensus", RtJB can make it look as though rejecting the consensus is on par with Flat Earth theories, or denying gravity.

Lastly, referring to the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, RtJB wrote:

You can imagine that if these communities were to codify their cultural norms, the documents produced will look quite different from each other, but not that different than surrounding cultures.

This idea is what causes me to be skeptical of, to quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (referring to another mythical legal concept), a "brooding omnipresence in the sky, but the articulate voice of some sovereign or quasi sovereign that can be identified." That phrase perfectly sums up how I feel about the Mesorah.

And yet, despite the cultural differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, we all agree on the halakha. We all agree on what's d'Orayta, what's d'Rabbanan, and to the extent that we have differences that came into being after the close of the Torah, we recognize those as being minor.Your focus on cultural similarities doesn't make sense. Anyone looking at Jews today would see cultural similarities between us and the people among who we live. But these are surface qualities. I suspect that RtJB is not so shallow as to be unable to see past surface details. Rather, his fundamental position seems to be a denial of God and a desire to find an excuse, any excuse, to reject the Mesorah. And that's really unfortunate.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hammurabi and the Torah

The Problem:
Over on RespondingToJBlogs, the issue of Hammurabi's laws and their similarity to laws in the Torah came up. The surprise I felt when I read this was a good indication of how long it's been since this was resolved, at least to my mind. So I wrote this whole long comment in response, and it turned out to be too long, and most of it was truncated. Which is really infuriating, because I hadn't saved it anywhere.

So rather than try again, I'm going to address the issue here and just post a link to this posting in the comments over there.

The issue is like this. Hammurabi lived centuries before the Torah was given to us, and there are laws in the Torah and laws in Hammurabi's code of law which are very similar. The obvious conclusion is that the Torah was cribbed from Hammurabi's code. This, he sees as a challenge to the Jewish understanding that God authored the Torah and gave it to us at Sinai.

My answer to this is that there's a false premise hiding there. Hammurabi did not pre-date the giving of the Torah, which renders the whole challenge moot. RespondingToJBlogs claimed that "scientific archaeology" says otherwise, and the purpose of this blog entry is to explain to him (and others who are interested) why that isn't the case.

The Background:
Hammurabi was a member of the First Dynasty of Babylon. Inscriptions of Hammurabi were published as early as 1861, and from the very beginning, at least as early as 1888, it was assumed that Hammurabi was the king referred to as Amraphel, king of Shinar, in Genesis 14 (ref). This view isn't in vogue anymore, but it was for a very long time, and as a result, Hammurabi was dated to about 2000 BCE on biblical, rather than any scientific grounds.

There are parallels to this mistake throughout the various fields studying the ancient near east. The concept of successive world ages characterized by bronze and iron is itself an ancient one itself. Hesiod wrote about them around 700 BCE (ref), and the system of stone, bronze and iron ages was adopted formally by Thomsen in the 1820s (ref). Even today, we tend to use Bronze Age and Iron Age and the various divisions within these ages as a framework for antiquity, despite the fact that, at least in the ancient near east, metal usage was never uniform across lands. Iron, for example, was in widespread use in Asia Minor during the Bronze Age, and it didn't come into common usage in Egypt until very late in the Iron Age.

Here is a list of the commonly accepted archaeological periods and their dates in the Levant.

Nowadays, the terms "Bronze Age" and "Iron Age" in Leventine archaeology have little or nothing to do with metal usage. They're simply terms held over from a time when they were believed to be correct. A particular pottery style might be identified as belonging to Bronze IIA without any regard for or interest in what metals the potter was familiar with.

How was the border between the Bronze and Iron ages in the Levant determined? As in the case of Hammurabi, it was determined by means of biblical texts, which was pretty much the only thing people had to go on in the early days of archaeology. In I Samuel 13 19-20, it says:

19. Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said: 'Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears';
20. but all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his plowshare, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock.

These two verses were a gift to early archaeologists. Right there, in the pages of the Bible itself, was a description of two cultures living side by side, one with ironworking skills, and one without. Clearly, they thought, this was the point at which the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age. And because the passage in question took place during the reign of King Saul, who reigned, according to Archbishop Ussher (the standard for Christians at the time) around 1100 BCE.

Note that this conclusion was drawn long before archaeology could even approach being called a "science". And it remained a hidden assumption ever since. The date has been moved from time to time, but it has always remained in that general ballpark.

The problem is, that's not what the verses say at all. A "smith" isn't a blacksmith. It's simply an artisan. The Hebrew word is charash, and there are reference in the Bible to charashim of various materials. Stone, wood, etc. Nor do the verses imply that the Israelites lacked the technology. Rather, the Philistines simply would not permit them to make use of it. When Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, that didn't mean that the Iraqis were incapable of building such a reactor. Only that Israel chose to prevent it from being used.

Egyptian chronology is often used as a gauge against which other histories can be measured. But the beginning of the Egyptian First Dynasty has moved over the past century or two from 6000 BCE (!) down to 2900 BCE. That's over three thousand years. And Hammurabi has moved from 2350 BCE down to 1750 BCE. Six hundred years of uncertainty.

What We Do Know:
What we know of antiquity is based mostly on archaeological digs, and the resultant stratigraphy. Stratigraphy is the map obtained by comparing the various layers (strata) of habitation found at numerous sites. When a city was abandoned or destroyed in antiquity, it was often rebuilt, with a new city standing on the ruins/remains of its predecessor. As any real estate agent will tell you, it's all about location, and there were only so many good locations, so they were used over and over again.

If you find one layer atop another, simple logic tells you that the lower level came before the higher one. If you find a layer of ash between two layers, it takes very little to conclude that the lower (earlier) level was destroyed by fire. If you find a certain style of pottery in one layer, you can associate that style with that layer, and if you find the same style of pottery at another site, you can link the layers at the two sites and conclude that they probably existed around the same time. It's not foolproof, and certainly not "science", particularly given that the spread of a given pottery style can't be quantified. The people in one city may have felt a certain style was ugly. The nephew of the town leader may have brought some pottery back from a trip overseas. There's too little data for this to be really scientific in the strictest sense, but it's compelling, and seems to work well.

What you get when you put together the stratigraphy of the Levant is a map. But it's a map without a key. Imagine a map of the United States without a key telling you the scale. You could tell that New York is east of Chicago, but not how far east. You could tell that Chicago is closer to Boston than it is to Los Angeles, but again, that's only comparison. What you wouldn't have is any way to put numbers on the map. Stratigraphy is a lot like this. You can tell an awful lot about cultures and their movements. You can tell who came first and even a bit about what happened to them (remember the layer of ash I mentioned before). But until and unless you find written material, that's as far as you can go. And even written material can be ambiguous.

We know that Hammurabi lived during a period known as Middle Dynastic. That's a period in Mesopotamia that equates, more or less to the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, and to the Middle Bronze Age in Israel and Syria. How do we know this? Many ways. One Middle Kingdom king was named Neferhotep I. Hammurabi destroyed the palace of Zimri-Lim, king of Mari. Zimri-Lim had a golden cup that he'd received from Yantin, king of Byblos. And an inscription dating to Yantin's 5th year was found with a cartouche of Neferhotep I next to it. That's the way a lot of this works. It's like doing a jigsaw puzzle. One with a lot of missing pieces.

What we see in Israel during the Bronze and Iron Ages are three national/cultural groups. Group A settled the land at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age, and built fortified cities. They've left us no written records at all. They were destroyed at the end of the Early Bronze Age and the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age by Group B, which invaded the same way the Bible describes Israel doing under Joshua. At least two mainstream archaeologists have identified this period as matching the biblical period of Israel in the desert and the invasion of Canaan. Rudolph Cohen made this connection, but quickly backed down from actually identifying the two events. You see, archaeology and its related disciplines are a small group of fields. Small enough that you can't really argue too far against the consensus without being "cast out". Cohen saved himself by suggesting that maybe the Israelites heard the story of an earlier nation invading the region, and co-opted the details (ref - the link may take a while to come up).

Immanuel Anati found Kadesh Barnea and the remains of Israel in the desert (ref). His method of escaping censure for saying what he'd found was to suggest that the Bible dated the Exodus incorrectly, and that there is a gap in biblical history between Joshua and Judges.

The two archaeologists both found the same thing in the same period.

The Group B people (every time I type that, I can't help thinking about the Group B bench in Alice's Restaurant), dwelled in the land fairly pastorally for some time. During this time, we have a collection of documents known as the Mari letters. Let me quote from what I posted in the comments over at RespondingToJBlog:

"Do you have access to an Encyclopedia Judaica? I assume you do. Go look up the Mari letters, and read the article. I wish I had a copy here with me, but he talks about the inhabitants of Israel at the time. There's mention of a group of people called the DUMU-yaminu. DUMU is the Sumerogram (Sumerian ideogram) for "son" or "sons". When used this way, it is supposed to be rendered into Semitic. In Eastern Semitic, like Akkadian, this would be "maru". In Western Semitic, like Hebrew and Arabic, it would be "banu" or "benei". The tribe in question was located in what is now Israel, so you'd think it should be "banu". Right?

But the author of the article says that the name of the tribe should be rendered as either Jaminites or Maru-yaminu, specifically in order to avoid giving the impression that there's any connection with the biblical tribe of Benjamin.

They live in the same place. One of the letters from a local governor says that he can't perform a census of the DUMU-yaminu, because if he does, their kinsmen, the Rabayu, who live on the other side of the river, will attack them."

Note that this is the same Mari that dates to the time of Hammurabi. These letters refer to Benjaminites living where Benjaminites lived. Rabayu living where Reubenites lived. Other tribes are mentioned as living in the same area as well. But in this particular case, a decision was made to translate the names, not according to the rules by which such names are ordinarily translated, but in a way that is calculated to avoid drawing biblical parallels.

For the record, I don't think this is the norm. I find this article in the EJ to be unusual in its dishonesty and bias. I give great credit to most archaeologists, especially those like Israel Finkelstein, who say what they see without caring what people are going to think.

Back To Group B:
After centuries of pastoral living, the folks over there on the Group B bench suddenly erupted into an empire which stretched from the Nile to the Euphrates. An empire with an enormous merchant marine. An empire which used Biblical Hebrew as its language.

Archaeologists, upon finding this empire, attributed it to the Hyksos, a tribe of nomads which invaded Egypt for a time. Only there's no record of the Hyksos having ruled outside of Egypt, while most of this empire was outside of Egypt. The empire didn't go as far south as Memphis, which is where the Hyksos were said to have ruled. But what else could be done? Logically speaking, it made no sense that such an empire would go unmentioned in written history. Of course, it didn't. But Solomon was deemed to have reigned too late for this to have been his empire.

The empire created by Group B fell apart, and after a rough period of wars and invasions, most of the Group B folks in the north and the hill country were displaced by Group C. Group C came in waves of migration from Syria, after most of the land had been devastated by invaders. Just like the Samaritan tribes who were moved into Israel by the Assyrians after they'd conquered the northern kingdom.

But Back to Hammurabi:
Right. There's only one point in Egyptian history when the Exodus could have happened. And by coincidence, it happens to be at the end of the Old Kingdom, which dates to the end of the Early Bronze Age. Mainstream archaeologists have identified this time with the biblically described events of Israel's time in the desert and the invasion of Canaan. It was followed by Solomon's empire, which was just as described in the book of Kings. Step by step, point by point, it's a match. And Hammurabi is inextricably linked to the Middle Bronze Age. The time of the Judges in Israel.

Take note of the fact that there is no actual substantiation of Hammurabi dating to 1750 BCE. Assyrian and Babylonian king lists, in their various versions, don't agree with one another, and the assumption that it is a single line of kings, rather than multiple lines or overlapping reigns, is exactly what was originally done with the Egyptian kings. That's why the First Dynasty was dated as far back as 6000 BCE. While we have two maps of history that match precisely all along their duration, one of which has been stretched out of shape in order to fit a date scheme that was adopted before there was much of archaeology at all, and which has been maintained as a default without even being noticed ever since.

This isn't science. In science, you could redo the experiments or calculations from the beginning, and you'd get the same results. But you can't do that with the history of the ancient near east. Without starting with basic assumptions, all you have is disconnected data points.

To make things worse, historians know that the average reader won't understand if they're told that an artifact dates to the later part of Middle Bronze IIB,C. That's gibberish to most people. So instead, they say that it dates to c.1600 BCE. There's no attempt to deceive here. Merely an attempt to communicate. But the result is that the entire field of ancient chronology is bypassed, and an assumption is built into a straightforward statement. It isn't the artifact that dates to c.1600 BCE. It's the later part of Middle Bronze IIB,C that's being dated to c.1600 BCE. If that dating is incorrect, then maybe the artifact dates to c.960 BCE. That's not to suggest that the historian who uses the date c.1600 BCE is off by over six centuries. On the contrary; the historian has accurately dated the artifact to its archaeological subperiod. But "c.1600" doesn't really mean that date in this context. It's only a symbol representing "the later part of Middle Bronze IIB,C".

The question is, will this mean anything to RespondingToJBlogs? I suspect not. Sadly, I expect this entire issue to be ignored, or tossed off as so much biblical apologetics. But the evidence is there. Archaeology says what it says, regardless of who is reporting on it and how they do so. It's easy enough to say, as RespondingToJBlogs did:

"I'm not going to pretend to be a archaeological expert, but after your post I poked around on Wikipedia, and the date given for Hammurabi's reign is 1790 BCE, and the dates generally given to Exodus (for which there is hardly any evidence at all) is either in the 1400s or 1200s, so I am going to have to rely on mainstream scientific opinion on this one."

To give him some credit, he followed that with:

"Please point me to a source that suggests otherwise."

But I suspect that until or unless an accredited professor in the field gets up and says what I've just said, he's not going to recognize it as coming from a reliable source. Which is ironic, because the rules seem very different when it comes to Judaism. He is very willing to question or reject the official views of Judaism and to apply his own logic to the field. It remains to be seen if he's as willing to do so here, in a field that's secular. I'd really like my skepticism to be proven wrong.