Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Book of Joshua Isn't Fictional

Christians who have studied the Galileo case like to point out that what the church condemned him for was not so much for denying the literal words of Scripture as for denying the natural-philosophical doctrines, stemming ultimately from Aristotle, that had become attached to these words. I don't know if that is true but if it is, it is a very nice metaphor for what happened to the historicity of Joshua. The process of proving the Bible through archeology inevitable results in a kind of amalgam of Scriptural words with archaeological / historical / sociological commentary. Within this amalgam it is generally the commentary that has proven most amenable to criticism and refutation. The Joshua event as a case of nomadic invasion dated to 1225 BC, or as a case of peasant revolt in 1225 BC -- what have proven most vulnerable in these formulations is the date (1225 BC) and the sociological model (nomadic invasion or peasant revolt) -- not the idea of a massive destruction of Canaanite/Amorite cities connected with a Canaanite Exodus (voluntary or involuntary) from Egypt.

One must also insist that models cannot be allowed to dictate what happened. Nomadic invasions may be rare in the Bronze Age, as are peasant insurrections. But can we really eliminate the possibility of either? Given the diversity and unpredictability of human affairs, what matters is not what probably, or even plausibly, happened -- because so much of our history is not probable, or even plausible -- but what did happen. Think of the Mongols building the world's largest land empire in the Middle Ages: how probable, or even plausible, is that?

I have just finished Donald Redford's Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, which is vigorously contemptuous of Biblical religion. Here's an example a propos my previous post on Exodus vs. Joshua. He'll have none of this Exodus good, Joshua bad business -- it's all bad:

One final irony lies in the curious use to which the Exodus is put in modern religion, as a symbolic tale of freedom from tyranny. An honest reading of the account of Exodus and Numbers cannot help but reveal that the tyranny Israel was freed from, namely that of Pharoah, was mild indeed in comparison to the tyranny of Yahweh to which they were about to submit themselves. As a story of freedom the Exodus is distasteful in the extreme . . . (p. 422).

As (despite his disclaimers) a rather fanatic partisan of Egypt, he twice suggests that Canaanites sold into slavery in Egypt or captured as prisoners of war were happy to be enslaved, because at least they had food (pp. 53, 221).

OK, so he doesn't like the Yahweh cult and its worshipers. But he makes a vigorous case that the basic structure of descent into Egypt-sojourn in Egypt in high status-enslavement-Exodus matches roughly the historical sequence of Canaanites moving into the late Middle Kingdom Egypt (c. 2025-1803), the Hyksos ("Foreign Ruler") domination of Egypt (c. 1720-1575) based in the Nile Delta, the conquest of Egypt by the Theban (Upper Egyptian, far southern) 17th dynasty, and the consequent expulsion of the Hyksos kings and the Canaanite population. Archaeology has shown how a basically Canaanite culture was established east of the Nile Delta after the Middle Kingdom, and lasted until the 17th dynasty when the cities therein were burned; Canaanite elements subsequently disappear from the material remains (see pp. 100-102, 114-15, 128-29).

Not only that, he even notes Egyptian records of strange events accompanying the expulsion of the Hyksos: "a roar was emitted by the Majesty of this god [Seth]," "the sky rained" (this is Egypt, remember, raining is not normal), and in an inscription from the reign of Ahmose (c. 1550-1525) which may refer to the same event:

The sky came on with a torrent of rain, and darkness covered the western heavens while the storm raged without cessation . . . . [the rain thundered?] on the mountains, louder than the noise at the 'Cavern' that is in Abydos. Then every house and barn where they might have sought refuge was swept away, . . . and they were drenched with water like reed canoes . . . and for a period of [. . .] days no light shone in the Two Lands (p. 420; cf. p. 128).

As he also admits:

Nearly every major town in Palestine and southern Syria is found, upon excavation, to have undergone a violent destruction sometime after the close of MB [Middle Bronze] IIC -- that is, the cultural phase roughly contemporaneous with the last stage in the Hyksos occupation of Egypt (p. 138).

This is usually attributed to Egyptian arms, but he points out there is no record of Egyptian sieges being so effective, even in the powerful 18th and 19th dynasty empires. After noting the complete absence of contemporary written sources on this catastrophic event, he speculates that this may actually have been due to a movement of Mitanni and the Hurrians south from the area between Assyria and the Euphrates River (roughly the area on the Syrian-Iraqi border today) -- despite the fact that there is no evidence of any such violent irruption. (There is evidence that Mitannians and Hurrians were not in Canaan around in 1600 and were in 1450, so his speculation is not completely arbitrary.) But a connection with the Joshua narrative is quite as plausible. So in broad outline, one could say that Redford himself sees something like the Exodus event found in Egyptian records and archeology and that the Joshua events are also plausibly associated with archaeological events.

The missing event here is the "Sinai event," that is, the reformation of the Canaanite culture by the Yahweh cult into a new Hebrew culture. (Hebrews and Canaanites were basically identical in material culture and language; what made them different was religion alone, kind of like Dutch and Flemish, or Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats.) Redford himself believes that this descent to Egypt-Exodus-return to Canaan had nothing to do with the origin of the Yahweh cult, which he finds originated a century or two later in the Edom-Midian area (modern southwest Jordan). Around 1425 B.C., 150 years after the Joshua event had smashed the Middle Bronze Age cities, there is an Egyptian record of a shrine to YHWH in the land of the Shasu ("Nomads") around Seir (the older name for Edom).

This reference to YHWH stands alone; there is no direct record of how this cult relates to the Hebrews of Israel. But in the Bible the association of YHWH with the mountains to the south of Israel (not just Sinai / Horeb, but occasionally Seir / Bozrah, cf. Judges 5:4, Is. 63:1) is common. (Cf. also Jethro/Reuel, the priest of Midian -- also southeast of Israel --, and his son Hobab, and the Kenites, who who join the tribe of Judah and seem to be natural Yahwists.)

Redford hypothesizes (note that word! this is a theory based on one enigmatic passage) that the Hebrews as nomads moving into Canaan in 1225 or so, about two hundred years later this reference to "YHWH of the Shasu." (Basically he goes back to the nomad infiltration thesis, but separated from the "conquest", which actually happened much earlier.) Only as the "utterly barbaric" Yahweh cult (his term, p. 276) became nativized in Canaan, and absorbed the distant descendants of the expelled Hyksos, did they adopt their legendary version of the Exodus-Joshua story, merging it with the Sinai legend.

One may have noticed that I have phrased things in a way which no one adhering to the orthodox dating and view of the documents would follow: e.g. "but a connection with the Joshua narrative is quite as plausible." Obviously if the Joshua story was an inerrant account written by Joshua himself, the connection is not just "plausible", but certain and obvious.

This brings up the whole status of the documents (Torah-Former Prophets) in which the Biblical narrative is recorded. If the Torah is by the pen of Moses, then the historicity of the events he records is beyond question. (Theoretically the narratives of the patriarchs could still be legendary). Likewise if the book of Joshua was written by Joshua, the traditional attribution. This would be so even if one did not accept these books as inspired. Let us say Joshua was an evil conqueror; if we had an evil conqueror's first hand view of his actions, we would understand his conquest far better than most historical events of the ancient Near East.

However, the traditional attribution is accepted by essentially no scholar today without a prior theological commitment to inerrancy. And Redford most certainly is not such a one.

This is the point Redford addresses insistently: what is the dating of the Biblical documents? And given their dating, what can they be expected to be accurate on?

Answering this brings up the whole question of what it means to place the Bible in the context of history. And that's another big issue.
(to be continued)

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