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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.

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.


Blogger etzba ketana said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

It's an interesting theory, but I'm not sure what your basis is for saying that the Philistines didn't have the wherewithal to prevent us from working iron. The verse says "Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears". Clearly, the Philistines didn't want us doing that. But it doesn't say "Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears of iron".

7:38 AM  
Blogger etzba ketana said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:33 AM  
Blogger respondingtojblogs said...


OK, this week has kept me quite busy and I wanted to find some quiet time to respond to you.

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."

This will rapidly devolve into a debate of whether science can ever be "trusted" because a consensus concerning a given topic can shift as methodology and technology are perfected. But there is no reason to think that Hammurabi was later than mattan torah. You don't cite anyspecific evidence for that proposition. Nor is there anything in the Bible to suggest otherwise. In debates over other scientific facts, such as the age of the universe, scientific consensus conflicts with the written word. There is nothing in the Torah that should give one an extra-scientific reason to believe a later dating of Hammurabi.

You write:
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.

Again, I am not aware of any Judaic reason to think of Hammurabi living after 17?? BCE. 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.

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

A word on skepticism. Skepticism, to me at least, means questioning a proposition until evidence demonstrates whether or not it is true. Being skeptic of a religious claim is not symmetric with a scientific claim, because a religious claim will most often never have evidence proving (or suggesting) it is true. You can wait until the cows come home and you will never be able to verify a religious claim. That's why it is called "faith."

Now onto the broader context of this discussion. My post did not hinge on dating Hammurabi. It was concerned with a broader question: Is the Bible a product of the culture in which it arose. I cited four specific instances that seem to suggest that the Bible contained a code of morality that was either in sync with, or a polemic attack on, the surrounding civilizations of that period.

At the end of the post I posed the question:
My point in all this is that it is increasingly difficult to see oneself as the keeper of a Mesorah that stretched back to Moses. It is far easier to see oneself as the heir to a cultural record of people who prided themselves as separate from their neighbors, but who were a product of their cultural milieu nonetheless. Any greenhorn apologist can point out how vastly superior the B’nei Yisroel were as compared to their neighbors. Indeed it is not hard to read the Bible as a magnificent testimonial to the high morals of the B’nei Yisroel. But of what import is that today? It is this normative claim that becomes much more difficult in the face of considering Judaism no different than any other culture- it creates myths and legends to further it communal interest. Given early Judaism’s desire for separateness, it is no mystery that we have maintained a cohesive identity for so long. But is it true? Is there deeper meaning to be culled from a cultural document?

My textual criticsm focused on the four instances, only two of which dealt with Hammurabi. My higher cirticism looked beyond on those and asked whether or not the Bible is a ecord of Ancient Mid-East dwellers. Even if Hammurabi was later than MT, that question still remains. Peoples of similar cultures tend to reflect the culture of other component peoples.

As an ilustration, you can look at the difference in sexual mores between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. For Ashkenazic Jews, the idea of polygamy is an anathema, because their culture developed in Europe and is in in sync with Western attitudes. Sephardic Jews who developed in the Middle East have (a least not until recently) such taboos, because they developed among cultures that condone polygamy. Both communities, then, are product of surrounding culture. 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.

7:24 PM  
Blogger BZ said...

Nothing substantive to add here, but it's the Group W bench in Alice's Restaurant.

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the last several years I have done an extensive study of all the Bible Characters. One of the major points to the study was to find out about Tribes of Israel . This study included researching the contemporaries of the time in secular history, the Hebrew meanings of the the individuals name and trying to find out what was going on in secular history at the time of each Biblical character. You may find this information useful in your own study. You can check this out at http://www.BibleFamilyTree.com .

10:48 PM  
Blogger Jan Henriksen said...

Thankyou for your comment- I am beginning to write a Bible history and back before CE there is MUCH confusion. Your answer fits. There seems now two types of science - experimental and forensic. Unfortunately the second hangs on the laurels of the first. Archaeology is clearly forensic. And the older the crime scene (history)the more unlikely we are to find what the culprits did or even when they did it. All textual evidence (including the Tanakh) is valuable. They did not always write the date (but the Tanakh unique in ancient history has a mostly unbroken line and one happy to include the bad as well as the good. The Egyptians are notoriously unreliable with monarchs wiping out history and re-writing it. So unless Hammurabi did write the date how can we be sure? As for pots to date a civilisation, as you say they could have imported old pots -we do! What would our rubbish show in 2000 years time?

10:30 PM  

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