History in the bible

1 Pharaoh in battle

When I was little I was taught in school about religion. But it wasn’t all about god and angels and the devil and sin and the soul. We learned about the history of the world. It all began with the Garden located somewhere east of Eden, and a fruit which Eve persuaded Adam to eat. There was a fight between two brothers, Cain and Abel, then a lot of people spreading across the world, a great flood and Noah saving the world by taking all the animals on his ark. And then King David reigned, and King Solomon. Then came the Babylonian captivity. The Persians helped rebuild Jerusalem, then the Romans destroyed it.

They were all great stories. Greatest story ever told. But after a while, as I grew older, I noticed they were all about the Israelites, the Hebrews and the Jews. What about other peoples? I come from Australia, and there’s nothing about Australia in the bible. Same goes for the African-Americans and the Esquimaux and the Chinese. So how accurate is this story as history?

Then I grew up, and along the way I learned a bit about the nature of history, what it is, and how what passes as history can be just stories, legends, without proof or evidence. Perhaps containing truth, but a truth to be discerned by careful analysis, not uncritical acceptance.

Later still I became interested in comparative religion, the study of what purpose religions fill in people’s life, and about similar patterns that thus can be seen between cultures and their religions. I found that there were many scholars busy doing this with the bible, studying what it was made of and how it evolved.

2 Sumerian flood

So here are a few ideas about some things that may have happened to the Jewish people in the context of their world and times, rather than the tale we have, mainly designed to bind them together as a people. Not a detailed, complete story of course. Just a few snapshots. Not about the family of man spread neatly all over the world, each branch with an ancestor going back to Adam and Eve. Not about a people with a unique, direct relationship to god, who they thought preferred them to all the rest of his creation, and who promised they would rule over all the world. (Only the semitic faiths have this belief in world rulership. Either Yahweh wasn’t very good at making this happen, or he changed his mind, because the Jews are probably the most conquered people in history. Allah was much more successful, and for a while the Muslims looked as though they might conquer the world. Militaristic faith aside, the belief resulted in two of the world’s richest cultures, each reaching a height of civilisation the equal of the great Greek and Roman empires).

One of the things I learned was that the bible is not as old as I once thought. I once imagined some semitic scribe taking down the story of Adam and Eve at the beginning of time, and having a front row seat for the flood. It wasn’t like that. The bible is actually the holy book of a faith, Judaism, not a history book at all. So much for biblical history. And scholars actually know when Judaism started, before the existence of the bible. They know, not because of any tricky archaeology, or carbon dating or anything like that. But because the bible itself tells how itself, and Judaism, started.

3 army of Sumer

It’s in the second Book of Kings. During the reign of King Josiah, between 641-609 BC, a priest was said to have found fragments which he said were of the “law of Moses”. Josiah was a religious reformer, and some time about 620 BC he started to enforce the worship of Yahweh. The Jewish people of his time and earlier worshipped the same gods that the Canaanites, Philistines and Babylonians did, but Josiah wanted to unite his people in an attempt to expand his kingdom at the expense of the fragmenting power of the Assyrian empire in the north. He seized on a tradition that an earlier leader called Moses had worshipped the god Yahweh when he and his people entered Canaan. It was a rallying cry, and it is doubtful if the so called law really existed. But Josiah needed a national god to unify his people, someone for whom they would fight to the death. It was a rallying cry that lasted a very short time. Josiah’s ambitions were cut short by his defeat by the Egyptians at the battle of Megiddo in 609 BC, shot and killed by the pharaoh’s archers (from this disaster Revelation got the idea of Armageddon, the battle at arMageddon, or ‘tell Megiddo’). Shortly afterwards the Babylonians moved into the power vacuum caused by the collapse of the Assyrian empire. Judah became a vassal, subject state, again. But a state now with a national religion. And over the time spent in Babylon in captivity, that religion was to become Judaism.

It was in Babylon that the scribes wrote down all the stories the Jews had told of their past, and put them into order, in the process creating a history of the world, from the creation of the world to the present time, as far as the Hebrews were concerned. And according to stories that came from many different cultures. Some stories were what we call fairy tales, and some were pious legends, and some others quite accurate given the knowledge of those times. It was a book of heroes, of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, of Ezekiel,  and many others, and some parts were works of genius. It was the start of the bible we know today. So although King Josiah died before his ambitions were fulfilled, he could be said to have started something that has resulted in the creation of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith, in a very different form than he intended.

4 Fertile crescent

So where did the earlier history of the Hebrews, and of the world, that make up bible history, come from? Scholars believe that the history of the Hebrews before Josiah is largely traditional, oral history, not written down till the time of captivity in Babylon. It probably includes many stories heard from other peoples with whom the Hebrews lived over the centuries.

The bible tells, for instance, of the epic journey of the hero Abraham, the father of his people. Abraham lived in the great city of Ur in Sumer, at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as they emptied into the Persian Gulf. Ur was thought to be the largest city in the world, but was struck by a devastating drought about 2,000 BC. This may have been the reason for Abraham’s migration. He is said to have travelled north to the mountains of southern Turkey, crossed to the coast, and then travelled south, eventually reaching Egypt. It was an immense journey by ancient standards. It need not all have been made by Abraham, but might have occurred over several generations.

Abraham may have been a man of Sumer, or have come from Semitic stock, as both peoples lived in Ur in 2,000 BC. The bible suggests Abraham lived in the second millennium, but nobody really knows for sure. There is no evidence Abraham existed. The same is true for most of the people mentioned in the bible. They are just stories. Good stories. But stories, nevertheless. In any case Abraham would have worshipped Nanna, or Sin, the god of the moon, the patron deity of Ur. Nanna was the Lord of Wisdom, and the Creator, his consort Ningal, the Great Lady, his children Shamash, the Sun, and Ishtar, the star Venus. What we can be sure of is that Abraham and his tribe told each other, and the children, stories about the past. This is what nomadic people in Arabia do to this day. Abraham and his people couldn’t read. So they listened. And they heard stories that the people of Ur told. About Utnapishtim and the flood that destroyed mankind, about the strongest man, the great Gilgamesh, and his friend Enkidu, as strong, but vanquished when a woman cut his hair, and many other tales. If we had more myths of Sumer we would recognise more of the Hebrews’ early days. The earliest history in the bible must be history as the Sumerians told it.

5 Ningal

Abraham ended up in Egypt, which was the other great early civilisation of the Middle East. Both Sumer and Egypt were literate, and each had a rich culture of myths and legends, rituals and traditions. The Hebrews on the other hand were a poor, nomadic group who lived by herding and scavenging and raiding. But they loved a good story, and both Egypt and Sumer had them.

So important was Egypt to the people soon calling themselves Israelites, it might be useful to look at a bit of Egyptian history. That began about 3,000 BC, but the bit that concerns the Israelites, or could concern the Israelites, took place at a time of political and military unrest in Egypt’s history. It’s called the Second Intermediate Period, between the strong 12th dynasty and the birth of the powerful Middle Kingdom with the 17th dynasty, in the period 1650-1550 BC.

It is a story about the hero Moses. The traditional date for Moses is 1350-1250 BC; Freud dates him to 1370-1330 BC. The trouble about these dates is that there is no evidence of foreigners in Egypt in Egyptian records for that period. Jerome thought Moses was born about 1590 BC. The interesting thing about this earlier date is that there is Egyptian evidence for the presence of foreigners then.

The 12th dynasty left Egypt unstable, and it was followed by a 13th, thought to be of foreign Semitic origin, and ruling only part of the country. The following three dynasties were similar, ruling part of the country, leaving governors of nomes to form independent states. At this point Egyptian records speak of the hyksos, foreigners who successfully invaded Egypt and set up a government. The hyksos are thought to be the ‘sea people’ referred to elsewhere in records, and these perhaps to be the people later known as Philistines and their allies. The Philistines (and the Phoenicians) were people of Indo European stock who had already successfully invaded Canaan from the Turkish hills and occupied the fertile coastal regions of the east Mediterranean. The strong tradition that makes Moses of foreign stock, though born in Egypt, might well signify that his family were part of this movement of semitic and other foreigners into Egypt looking for booty to plunder. Egypt was fabulously wealthy compared to most ancient cultures, certainty to the Philistines and the semitic nomads of the desert. Moses’ grandfather was said to be the first of his family to settle in Egypt. If this was under the semitic 13th dynasty in about 1650 BC, then Moses would have been born about 1590 BC as Jerome thought, and been driven out of Egypt in 1550 BC when the strong native 17th dynasty seized control of the country and expelled the foreigners.

6 Set

Moses presents historians with a mystery. That of his name. Hebrew root of ‘moshe’ is ‘he who leads out’, which sounds clear enough. But Moses was an Egyptian. In that language his name means ‘born of’, ‘son of’. It is seen in the names of pharaohs such as Tutmoses, Thoth-moses, son of Thoth, or Rameses, Ra-moses, son of Ra. So part of Moses’ name is missing. Why? What could it be? (‘Moses’ by itself reminds me of that other name, this from the gospels, Barabbas the Zealot who was released from prison instead of Jesus. ‘Barabbas’ means Bar – son of, Abbas – his father i.e. someone who wanted to conceal his name from the authorities, fair enough for a ‘freedom fighter’).

At the start of the Second Intermediate Period referred to above, there were four main gods of Egypt, and countless others. Ra, Osiris, Isis and Set were the chief gods. Osiris and Set were sun and moon, creation and destruction, life and death. In other words, polar opposites who together made the world function. Each needed the other. Set was a god of composite function. God of the desert, of storms, of fire and earthquakes and eclipse, he represented destruction, necessary for creation to occur, the moon which hides the sun. He was worshipped in the desert South region of Egypt, away from the fertile Delta region of the North. He was red, like sand, represented as a strange man (or sometimes an animal) with long square ears, a crocodile snout or a falcon’s beak, red eyes and a tail. He was often the trickster god known from many other cultures. He was a jealous god, one who murdered his brother Osiris from jealousy. He spoke to his worshippers from the desert wind and from the fire. Set was the one Egyptian god the hyksos adopted when they invaded Egypt. The hyksos king Apophis worshipped Set as the only god. To the hyksos Set seemed like their mighty Baal.

7 Set animal

There is a misconception often held about early religion. It is thought that monotheism is an invention of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and that earlier religions were polytheistic. In fact many early religions included monotheistic forms of worship. They were tolerant faiths that accepted devotion to a particular god, or to god who reigned over all gods, or god who was all things and all gods, and many other concepts of god. Your belief was more important than the form it took. The ‘monotheistic’ faiths, starting with that of Akhenaton, were intolerant, and persecuted other forms of faith, because they were the one true faith. That is the main difference between the ‘religions of the book’ and ‘polytheism’.  Actually the faiths we think of as monotheistic are not. They should rather be considered as henotheistic. This is not worship of the Great Hen: ‘henos’ is a Greek word for one. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all believe in many gods, but all think their particular god, Yahweh/Allah/Jesus, is more powerful than any other. These other, lesser gods are usually characterised, in these faiths, as devils/demons/false gods/fallen angels.

So it should not be thought surprising to find Apophis worshipping one god. Could Moses too have been a worshipper of Set, like other foreigners in Egypt? Was his full name Set-moses? What we know of the god of Moses in the bible sounds a bit like Set. God appeared in a burning bush to Moses when he was a shepherd on Mt Horeb. He was a jealous god, who demanded complete allegiance from his followers. He was a god of destruction, who destroyed the enemies of his people.

Because of Set’s association with the foreigners, when the Middle Kingdom was established and the hyksos expelled, a reorganisation of the Egyptian pantheon took place. Set was discredited. He was expelled from his temples, his role in the murder of Osiris became the chief myth about him, and this was seen as evil, instead of an act that helped Osiris bring life to the world of humans. Set was almost a devil, and his iconography, with horns and tail, helped this demon image. Moses, his people, and the god Set might all have been driven out into the desert, like the scapegoat of later times.

In Canaan the Israelites found the god El. This was also one of the titles, ‘Lord’, of Baal. El became Yahweh, at first one of the gods, then the chief of the gods, then the god of the Hebrews, a national god. He went from a form of Baal, to be the only god. His wife was Asherah. One of Set’s wives was the foreign goddess Astarte. Did Moses worship Set in Egypt, and transform him in Canaan into Yahweh?

8 god of Sumer

The Israelites found a home in Canaan, not as conquerors but as vassals and irregular troops of the dominant culture of the area, of the Philistines. They would have absorbed the religion of the Philistines, including the worship of the great god Astarte, god of war, pestilence and destruction, but also of fertility, sex and birth. In Egypt Astarte had been made consort of Set. The Israelites, under their kings David and Solomon, survived as raiders on the edges of the Philistine forces. Solomon was known for his worship of foreign gods. Then they made the mistake of rebelling against the rising power of Babylon. The rest is, literally, history, for the first time in the story. In Babylon the Israelites were eventually freed by the Persians, who had conquered Babylon. They absorbed much of Persian culture. They learned about the only god, Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light, and his evil opponent, Angra Mainyu, the Lord of Darkness.

The great achievement of leaders such as Abraham and Moses was that they kept their people together. Both made epic journeys, upon which one might expect the people to disperse and be absorbed by other cultures. This is the usual case, and happened to the ten ‘lost’ tribes in Babylon. Abraham gave the Israelites the traditions he knew, the stories of Ur in Sumer. Moses gave them the faith in the one god he knew, who may have been Set. The two led what must have been a disparate, motley group of raiders on an immense journey from Sumer to Egypt, and then to Canaan. In Jerusalem Josiah built on these two traditions to create Judaism, the belief that the Israelites were the chosen of god. And then in Babylon the priests compiled the traditions from all these sources into a unified ‘history’.

9 Sumerian mask

Of course it wasn’t what we call history. It was a national faith, and it was used to hold the people together as Abraham and Moses had. When I heard the stories in school, I knew that god was powerful, and looked after his people. That was enough for me, when I was small.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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