Heroes of the desert

The Irish comedian Dave Allen has a sketch about Adam and Eve that points out the inconsistencies in the story told in the Book of Genesis. He first notices Adam’s sang froid on finding himself created: no questions like, “Where am I?”, “How did I get here?”, “Who are you?”. He just goes about the gardening as if he was created every day. Same for Eve. She’s not phased either. Then the Test: they’re told to eat of every tree in the garden but one. It’s a setup: of course that’s the one they’re going to eat from. Human nature is like that. Afterwards, no regret, no negotiation with god, no asking why. Eve is just ashamed of her sex organs. What has that to do with eating an apple?, asks Allen.

The Hebrew bible is full of anomalies like these. It is a collection of stories from many traditions, and has been edited many times in its history, ancient material respectfully retained even when leading to inconsistencies. The creation story in Genesis I, and the completely different creation story in Genesis II for example. In one, man and woman are created equal, in the other, woman is created from Adam’s rib  to be man’s helper. After the expulsion from Eden, Adam is told he must work by labouring in the fields, by the sweat of his brow. Eve is told she will bear children in pain and labour. No mention is made of the fact that neither have any idea what god is talking about. Adam hasn’t done any work, Eve hasn’t born a child. They don’t know what the concepts mean. And god is also worried that Adam and Eve might eat of the Tree of Immortality. After eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, that would make them as gods. That seems to worry god. He even says “like us”, without explaining who “us” is. So out they go. The story of Adam and Eve is a radical recasting of a myth about the gifts bestowed on humanity by the Great Mother earth, the wise serpent, mouthpiece of the goddess, conveying her wisdom through her priestess. Now it has become the story of how evil originated in the perfect world made by god. Little wonder there are inconsistencies. And this, says Allen, is the book we place our hands on in a court of law, and promise to tell the truth!

I remembered Dave Allen because I’m reading a book that attempts to deal with Hebrew mythology (among many mythologies: Joseph Campbell’s monumental and definitive study The Masks of God). The confusing thing about the Hebrew bible or Tanakh is that there are both contradictory traditions of how the texts were collected, and what they contained, as they were gradually assembled and revised and edited over the centuries. And the story the Hebrew bible tells has been seen as a consistent history of a 2,000 year period by people who ignore the fact that history of that scope was never attempted until late in the 19th century, and that the bible texts are really traditions assembled to help create a national identity for Jews in a context of continual conquest and dispersion of peoples over a wide area. Though Christians have seen the book as a prefiguration of their own religion, this is a dismissive attitude that would offend most Jews, and confuses an appreciation of just what these scriptures are to an even greater extent.

The history has to be interpreted from the traditions. But first the texts have to be seen for what they are.

The scriptures

The story in the Hebrew scriptures themselves is of a covenant abandoned. According to II Kings 22:3-23:25 (I’m quoting from Campbell) there was a brief period when what we would regard as primitive Judaism flourished, perhaps during the reign of King David, who by his military prowess succeeded in uniting the kingdoms of Judah and Israel in about 1000 BC. Before David there was a period (so it was said) of idolatry under King Saul. In earlier periods still it was said great leaders had taught the doctrine that there was a special relationship between the god Yahweh and the Hebrews, that they were the chosen people of god. Abraham was thought to have entered into such a covenant (in about 2000 BC) then Moses (about 1500 BC). But Kings makes clear these were all isolated cases. The Hebrews followed the same cults and rituals as the neighbouring tribes in Canaan for most of their history. King Solomon, David’s successor, was probably active in spreading these cults.

The story of Judaism, it appears, was a political rather than purely a religious one. The covenant with Yahweh served to unite the Hebrews, with a promise they would become a great power, and reign supreme over other kingdoms. This is contained in the promise of the Messiah also, the once and future king. It has more to do with Zionism than with purely religious matters, and bears remarkable parallels with Islam, another movement that combined political and religious aims. This is not to say that Judaism (or Islam) is not a great faith: just that both are unusual among the world’s religions as religious political movements.

This is why the story of Judaism is one of great leaders and kings who establish a power base, defeat other states, unite the Hebrew people, and promote the national faith in the Hebrews as the chosen people. The Hebrew bible is also the story of how seldom this happened, of a people in exile who hoped to be united again.

The account in II Kings tells of how a powerful king, Josiah, wished to once again unite his people. When the priest Hilkiah, engaged in conducting a survey of assets for the king, found fragments of an early scripture in the Temple, Josiah seized on the text and used it to promote a religious reform throughout the kingdom. The Passover, he found, had not been celebrated for 300 years. We can apparently date the reign year exactly: it was 621 BC. Scholars believe the newly discovered text was contained, eventually, in what we know now as the Book of Deuteronomy. Kings tells us that at this stage there was no Hebrew bible but this. If this is true, then the legends of Abraham and Moses are no more than that, legends, from a period where the stories of the Hebrews were part of an oral culture.

It apparently took exile in Babylon, in fact several periods of exile from the sixth century onwards, for the bulk of the scriptures to take shape. Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers date from the Babylonian exiles the experts tell us. In particular, some later codification and formation of scriptures is associated with the priest Ezra about 397 BC. The great prophets and their intensely moving laments were also a creation of exile. Judaism was born of a need to make sense of a mysterious dichotomy: the Hebrews were chosen of Yahweh, yet the promise made by god of a reign over other kingdoms ended only in defeat and dispersion, again and again. And so the Hebrew bible was created, to reiterate the story of the covenant, and to define what a Jew was in readiness for that day when the covenant would be fulfilled. Probably this dichotomy and its solution was what appealed to Christian writers faced with a similar problem: the one god incarnate as Christ had died an ignominious death on the cross. So they adopted “the old testament”.

The history

Archaeologists tell us the Jerusalem of David, if identified correctly, was a small town of no great extent or magnificence. The Hebrew peoples were among tribes of Semitic peoples who entered Canaan and moved towards the towns of the coastline in Syria and Lebanon in many waves of migration, over a thousand year period or more. They likely came from the area of Turkey, but also from the south, Jordan. They were desert herders who supplemented their labours by regular raiding on settlements. They had their tribal heroes, and told stories about them, and legends coalesced to form epic cycles. One cycle was the journey of Abraham. Another was the story of Moses. When they settled they were not numerous, nor rich. But their stories were.

The period between Abraham and Moses was the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. And at the time these stories of the Hebrews were taking shape, another group of peoples, Indo Europeans, were entering southern Europe and Turkey, conducting raids there, and celebrating great heroes such as Akhilleus and Odysseus. Tales of heroes grow in the telling. Small towns known from archaeological investigation such as Troy were magnified as great and rich cities, raids of a few hundred tribesmen became the exploits of a great army, seasonal conflicts of a few weeks became a ten year war. Around the same time, or slightly earlier, as the Hebrew legends were being codified and written down from 621 BC, a great poet in Greece called Homer was doing the same with the legends of the Achaeans.

Unlike the heroes of the Greeks, the heroes of the Hebrews were not all great warriors. They had great warriors, such as Joshua, Samson, David, kings and heroes who conquered their enemies. The story of the Hebrews in Canaan is a bloody one. Those who think twice at the plentiful slaughter and murder in the Hebrew bible can take comfort that, like all legendary tales, the stories were exaggerated to bestow glory on the Hebrew leaders. Homer gives gruesome depictions of just what a bronze sword can do to the human body, but it’s all to extoll the gigantic strength and valour of Ajax or Hector or another great hero. Many inscriptions survive from Hittite, Assyrian or Egyptian kings celebrating the havoc they caused their enemies. This exaggeration for honour’s sake was a Bronze Age value, and should be taken in perspective in the Hebrew scriptures when we find it there.

The Hebrew people, according to Kings, and other books such as Chronicles, appear little different to rival peoples of the time such as Mitanni, Philistines, Hittites. They worshipped Baal, Asterath and Moloch, through such rites as temple prostitution and human sacrifice. They celebrated prowess in battle in the same way Homer’s Achaeans did.

The myths

Which makes the story of Abram, or Abraham, all the more remarkable. The difference in names in different parts of the Hebrew bible is explained by scholars as arising from different regional traditions. An author from Israel preserving traditions from about 800 BC referred to god as El or elohim (plural), the sacred mountain as Horeb, and tells the story of Abraham. Another author, from Judah, and preserving traditions from slightly earlier, around 900 BC, refers to Yahweh, Sinai and Abram respectively. By 700 BC a tradition had arisen which conflated these two earlier ones, and added the Laws ascribed to Moses and the regulations found in Leviticus. We know from the account of the reign of Josiah in II Kings that these books did not survive in manuscript form, but in an oral tradition.

The period in which Abraham lived is thought to be the end of the second millennium, about 2000 BC. It was an unsettled time of great movements of peoples to the south. The Hurrians from Anatolia moved down towards Iraq, only to be conquered by an Indo European people called Mitanni. Southward they found the Mesopotamian empires of Elam and Akkad, and many disunited groups of semitic nomads. The Semitic Akkadians under Sargon became supreme over all these peoples, forming the empire of greatest extent then known. All the cities of Sumeria were overrun, including Ur on the Persian Gulf. On Sargon’s death or shortly after, from about 2,200 BC, his empire began to break up: stability was not to come again until the formation of the Hittite empire about 1750 BC. The semitic tribesmen of the desert took this opportunity to form alliances with remnants of some of these peoples, including the Indo European Mitanni, and systematically pillage the settled towns of the former empire, moving steadily from both north and south towards the more fertile areas of the coast into Syria and Lebanon. One of these raiders was probably the patriarch Abraham and his tribe.

Probably not much survived of the story of the original Abraham. But some things were remembered. He had come all the way from Ur, under the guidance of god, to Canaan and Judah. God had promised him he would found a great nation, though he and his wife Sarah were elderly. He (as later was Moses) was taken in captivity in Egypt, yet released. These oral traditions were recalled in the sixth century, during periods of Babylonian captivity. His story taught the Hebrews that despite distance, foreign captivity and even probability, they could still be the chosen of god.

The Hebrew people created a new kind of hero. Not a great fighter like Joshua or David, not a wise man like Solomon, a legislator like Moses. Abraham became a precursor of what the exiled Hebrews hoped would be their destiny, overcoming all the calamities which defeat and exile had oppressed them with to reunite in Judah as a chosen people once again. Abraham’s story was what is properly called a myth. Myths are stories used in religious rites to affirm the faith of the worshippers; they give solace and comfort to believers. To try and call these stories history is to misunderstand and trivialise them.

The Hebrews assimilated many myths known to the peoples they lived among as they began to assemble what became the Tanakh. Many were stories that had been told among the tribes for centuries. It should be remembered that nomads preserve traditions orally, and distinctions such as tribal descent. Travellers in Arabia in the 19th century were impressed for example at how many Bedouin could give their ancestry, in a form found in the Hebrew bible recounting the births of the patriarchs. As tribes were often at war with one another, it was vital to know with whom one could form bonds of trust. Many tribesmen could tell the early European travellers they encountered how they were related, to third or four cousins and further.

Much of this was eventually written down, and forms a tedious (to modern readers) part of the scriptures. Even when impossible to verify, as for instance in the case of the ‘lost’ tribes who were dispersed in Babylonian captivity and never returned to Judah, it was continued.

The stories of the flood were probably invented by the Sumerians, the first people to build cities in the land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, the first people to see the devastation that rising water levels could inflict on the canals they had carved out of the desert. Other peoples adopted these stories, the Assyrians and Babylonians, and so did the Hebrews. Like many myths they adopted, the Hebrew writers of the scriptures added a distinct flavour of their own. The flood was transformed, and became a punishment for the sins of mankind. Against all probability, a holy man called Noah was selected by god to survive.

The pattern of Hebrew myth about Noah is similar to that about Abraham. Those who believe in Yahweh will be saved. Only those who believe in Yahweh can be truly called Jews. Despite the people’s sins and the misfortunes it brings upon them, despite all probability, Yahweh will select a holy man. Despite what he endures in the way of misfortune and exile, he will save the people, if they only observe the laws of Yahweh.

The epitome of this mythic pattern can be seen in the story of Moses. Campbell points out the peculiarity of the name ‘moses’, a standard Egyptian word for child, and a component of many Egyptian names, for example Thut-moses, which means child of Thoth. (Interestingly, Thutmoses III is thought by many to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus.) If Moses was an Egyptian (the Hebrew bible calls him both an Egyptian noble, and a Hebrew leader of desert tribes, conflating, as often, two different traditions) then that was not his full name.

Another interesting thing about Moses is his birth story, whereby he is placed in a casket and set adrift on the Nile to escape death, and found by an Egyptian princess. A similar story was also told of Sargon of Akkad. Campbell says it must have been lifted wholesale from Akkadian legend, because pitch (with which the casket was sealed in the bible story) was unknown to the Egyptians of the period. The casket in which the body of the hero was preserved was also a feature of the myth of Osiris, found and saved by Isis. It occurs in the story of the Greek Perseus, and elements of this nature are also present in the stories of other extraordinary leaders. The gospel stories of the birth of Jesus come to mind, escaping death from the evil Herod and being born in a manger.

Moses is also a lawgiver, like the Babylonian Hammurabi. Though his laws may be similar to Hammurabi’s, the important thing about Moses’ role is his relation to Yahweh. He is the chosen of god, as the Hebrew people as a whole are. He is identical, and a precursor to, the messiah. And his laws help define the Jewish people, forming the core of what became Leviticus.

Mythographers such as Campbell are content to see mythic patterns that occur across cultures such as the casket birth story or the law giving story as examples of mythic borrowings. I think the stories are myths, and myths are stories accompanying religious rites. The hero, demi-god or god is revered or worshipped in a rite that shows his transcendence from ordinary mortality. The hero’s role is to transform his people. The Christian god’s role is to save mankind from Original Sin, the Jewish hero to establish the kingdom of Judaism as supreme on earth. The Greek heroes Perseus or Theseus were able to secure the reign of the king over  the power of the Great Mother, mistress of the chthonic regions. In other words, mythic roles were pragmatic, they served a useful, even essential purpose.

The tribal stories of an ancestor who had led the Hebrew peoples from the desert into the land of plenty were many. The writers and editors of the Hebrew bible found many such stories, originating from many groups of tribes, when they attempted to organise what became the Tanakh in the fifth century BC. One such ancestor became the originator of the entire race, Abraham. Another became the leader who took the race into Canaan, Moses. These two heroes served the same purpose, much as Akhilleus and Hector did to the Bronze Age Greeks. Both these Jewish heroes endured captivity with their people in Egypt, just as the writers creating the Tanakh in the fifth century were experiencing captivity in Babylon.

Using materials from the myths of the peoples among whom they lived, the writers of the Tanakh created some of the most enduring and revitalising myths ever made. These desert peoples may have caused the persecution they continually endured because of their conviction they were the chosen people of god, destined to rule over all. Yet they created myths that ensured the survival of the people, though dispersed and persecuted for centuries. They have been an inspiration to many other cultures. A myth speaks to the spirit, while a fact of history informs only the mind. The desert heroes are with us still. They will survive, despite all the odds, for that was what they were created to do.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “Heroes of the desert

  1. Not often acknowledged, but all we say about god and religion is really about humans and their perceptions. Personally I think making a difference between monotheism and polytheism is limiting our concept of god – but what would I know. Campbell’s book acknowledges how difficult it is to treat some beliefs of Judaism as part of human culture, as some devout Christians believe it to be history.
    Thanks for your comment.

  2. thank you I am constantly searching out origins of the Bible and monotheism…this was a great and informative read…my friend did a search which led to your blog and this article… map+monotheistic+history+sumer+mazda

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