Hebrew Scriptures & History
Text and Tablet: Near Eastern Archaeology, the Old Testament and New Possiblities by Arthur Gibson (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Theology & Biblical Studies: Ashgate) Polymath Gibson turns his natural (and high cultured) ebuillent curiosity on the way our historical understanding and theological approaches to Near Eastern studies have become moribound in a too thick discription biased by theological assumptions found in the massive exgetic industry of textual commentaries of OT. In Text and Tablet Gibson shows how considering in greater depth the evidience of Near eastern libraries and archaeology can show new possibilities. Like his widely admired and controversial cosmology, God and the Universe, (see our review) Gibson mind is fecund with suggestive and detailed ways to see old questions in fresh and astounding ways. This work is exceptionally important for academic and seminary collections with a focus on OT exigesis and Near Eastern Archeology. The work also addresses the philosophical issues in such interdisplinary work.
The ancient Near East mirrors or exhibits many phenomena that various specialists, and philosophers, do not understand. Carefully composed analyses by biblical scholars can inadvertently obscure an unpredicted ancient world. Sometimes retrojection and regression simulate journeys to the past that unknown to us have no corresponding source. Fresh discoveries can have unexpected effects on current views and future possibilities, as can the new possibilities assigned to old sites.
Conversely, at some levels, the Old Testament and Near East tablets and narratives are known fixed bodies of data, though scholars variously assume that, for example Old Testament books, have has lost weight, become obese, or are the product of cloning. The body is also replete with externally clustered or cloistered interpretations. There is always a danger in both subjects that external perception may be treated as a property internal to the body. Groups of interpretation congregate around, say theological, presuppositions or their negation or contraries. And we do not always know what a contrary is, nor what it is to be contrary. Such ignorance as we embody complicates attempts to discuss and assess ancient narratives, not least the Old Testament, in repulsive or attractive relation to its putative external historical references. A reason for this is that our perspectives can cut against the grain of fashion that construes itself as progress. This would be an odd reaction from those poststructuralists who prioritise difference, not progress, while their criticisms of protectionist conservative interpretation often are progress. Such is the universality of relativity. This book supposes that we may need a new blend of such elements whose sublime sum is an identity different from these sublimated parts.
Exposure of hidden, or partial, assumptions in archaeology sometimes leads to the need to re-interpret its own complexified life. The paucity and random unevenness of the discovery of sites, specific empirical data, or matching inscriptions render generalisation a perilous affair. In view of these problems, scrutiny of notions of inference, or the absence of them, in Old Testament studies and archaeology for assessment of the conjunction of these two unmatched mates, is a perennial task. A theoretical study burdened with methodology would not only be tedious; it would not relevantly assist with the interpretation of pragmatic issues. Nevertheless, significant progress has been made in recent years in archaeological general theory, logical analysis of narrative, literary study, and other areas such as historical analysis. It is important to assess the problems associated with introducing, suppressing, or unwittingly assuming measuring languages or criteria for empirical data, be the target empirical site or theory of language. At the side of such points stands the fact of the massive and exciting progress that has been made in excavations
By way of reflection on the foregoing variety of considerations, we allow that we cannot always know how typical examples do affect, or could be countered by, unknown archaeology and undiscovered texts. Still, attempting to allow for this problem, a way to develop these issues in the present book is to encourage a sense of new typicality to emerge from those cases which attract, occasion agreement, and those that attract dissension, in relation to fashionable or traditional consensus. This provides a means to provoke fresh reflection on archaeology and the Old Testament, though in a framework of multiple perspectives. An attempt to choose examples employing the foregoing diet of concerns could be fraught with difficulties. It could also readily trigger undue moderation that would be prejudicial to a strong sense of adventure, and to traditional conceptions. Rather, this book boldly considers interpretations of a range of unstable exotic yet substantial issues, as well as (the perhaps recently neglected) strengths in familiar stabilised interpretations. These are integrated to contribute to the initial development of original synthesis for the engagement of four stately partners: archaeology, the Old Testament, Near East literature, and philosophy. Their involvement here varies, depending on many factors contingent on the uneven ancient world and our Third Millennium states of affairs. It proposes a rapprochement that develops multidisciplinary syntheses. The book amounts to a preliminary scenario for a new conception, one partly contextualized and expressed by an emerging string of other works (for example, see Gibson, 2000a).
Archaeological excavations expose only extant, static phenomena. But these phenomena are, in multiple senses, intentional products: they have internal properties of identity that are themselves often-unconscious interpretations or mirroring conceptions. They are constructs of a complex equation between their originators' consciousness and unconsciousness. People lived there; their lives are the dynamics which archaeology tries to retrieve from their static leftovers. There are remains that such people did not intend as an account of themselves (the contents of a rubbish tip, a building fallen in siege and never rebuilt). In contrast, there are excavated writings, inscriptions and material religious symbols, and distinct yet intentional artefacts such as walls, which societies leave behind. These latter products are not invariably communications that were intended as an explanation of the people who produced or composed them.
Killen's (1985) analysis of the Greek Linear B tablets is an exercise in detective inference to show, among other things, that the Mycenaean economy was an `Asiatic classical bureaucracy'. The accountant writers of the tablets did not intend to communicate this insight-they were themselves ignorant of the fact, and they were unaware that their records would continue to exist beyond the end of the financial year; but the tablets were preserved because of military destruction of their societies. So here is a case concerning which we know more about an ancient society than, in these relevant respects, they did, as a result of our inferences operated on their data. Consequently-though we should assess the probable measure of our ignorance-surprisingly clear and forceful, albeit provisional, conceptual insights can be gained into the ancient world. For example, this can be accomplished by examining often quite apparently unpromising and crude inscriptions, in a framework derived from semantic theory, literary analysis harnessed to psychoanalytical theory, general archaeological theory, and culture theory.
If we place together two sets of evidence from two sites in separate civilisations to construct a parallel, we can use the resulting conclusion to generalise the foregoing argument. This benefits both the student in search of particular knowledge of a society and a person interested in archaeological general theory. Chapter 6 below demonstrates that one narrow aspect of the Linear B archives (tablets An 261 and As 1516) matches at relevant points the narrative accounting style in Joshua 12. This shows that Killen's derivation of parallels between Minoan and Near Eastern economic systems is enhanced to complement some analysis of aspects of Near Eastern Semitic societies, and some Aegean notions of origin can be traced to the Levant.
There is also the pertinent question, addressed below in Chapter 6, concerning the possible date of the original composition or source(s) found in a site or text. For example, in the latter class, the book of Joshua is usually consigned to a period much later than circa 1250 BC. Yet destruction of the Mycenaean Greek society that employed customs that are depicted in the Linear B tablets, have accounting parallels with the book of Joshua, which presents its allegedly firsthand contact with customs in Canaan, at a time significantly prior to the standard form-critical dates (which are after 1000 BC). Clearly, this could have been diachronically mediated, though the Bronze Age 11 existence of the linguistic data obviously supports in principle contemporary practice for Joshua; also, the absence of parallels in other Levant literature does not augur well for arguments that this approximately synchronic relation between Joshua and Minoan Linear B societies exists because of mediation through Canaanite customs. This illustrates how literary, as well as historical, inferences can be devised for two distinct cultures by placing archaeological discoveries in a refined analytical framework to achieve a decision-procedure for likely interpretation. Cultic symbols often intertwine with religious inscriptions and narratives. Although the meaning of semantic sign may arbitrarily be given that meaning in ancient society, yet it can be employed to convey a definable meaning, as Renfrew (1985:13-14) proposes. This point follows on a number of grounds. One of them is that, though the meaning of an inscription may be arbitrary, its internal linguistic and external empirical relations are not. For example, a proper name is a determinate thing, while its referent may not exist or may be incoherent. And, as Chomsky (1995) points out, a concrete referent, such as a city, is often constituted by not only physical constructs, but also inheres as complex abstract series of properties and relations. This sort of mixture of functions enables one in principle to tackle and resolve what a text means, within approximate limits, and yet the arbitrary content of a text prevents construction of a mechanical decision-procedure while description and logic can yield one.
So summarily stated, the idea of a successful analytical decision-procedure is straightforward in principle, even if problematic in certain contexts (or the absence of them) by which to practise: it is the application of two linked techniques-that which is paraphrasable as logical functions or accurate description, and the perceptual judgement with originality which mirror some features of the referent. The conjunction and application of these techniques is rather more complicated than the idea of them. Of course, perfection in understanding and applying these techniques is not within scholarly grasp. Yet the gap between some misuse of and weaknesses in reason/prescription of texts and what is possible, reflects a situation in which large gains can be made by attending to the needs of logical analysis and description, though one would not want to handle these elements as a fetish obsessed by 'method'. At the other extreme, confused dogmatism, obscured by unspecified assumptions, sometimes achieves the level of an implicit method. The last section-'Editorial Disagreement'-of Chapter 3 below gives an example of the effect such a 'method' has on assumptions about a decision-procedure. One type of confusion which frequently distorts a decision-procedure is the use of what is actually a random association whose randomness is disguised by it being masked with some cultural ideology. Finley (1985) criticises generalised examples in this class; John Chadwick (1985) has warned against allowing this tendency to become respected as 'the associational method'. Some of the associations of this type of method are actually superimposed functions of ideology which are conflated with (what seems to be) the empirical data. Analytical deployment of any associations should be sharply regulated by empirical knowledge and inference. But this does not in practice deny that we can achieve knowledge of that which is not always explicitly present in a symbol or artefact. For example, Chadwick mentioned the Minoan 'priestess of the winds' (a-nemo- i-je-re-ja), and infers that: 'a priestess implies a divinity, so we must add Anemoi = "the Winds" to our list of deities'. Here we can infer that there is a deity from the presence of a priestess; and we could do this even if there is no mention of the deity's `name' ('the Winds'), since a priestess presupposes a notion of a deity by the nature of her function.
Even if we adopt the idea that there is some shift of meaning or new nuance in some uses of a symbol, we have in the above examples of economic tablets and the priestess role, sets of functions that identify various, and varying, dynamic properties
of the society which left the phenomena behind. These examples also briefly exemplify how different types of data can be tackled using related or identical methods, while logical association of them in analysis produces understanding for archaeological general theory in which individual questions can thereby be answered.
Part of the difficulty of examining ancient texts is that we need to be wary of presupposing that there is to be had, or that we have, an account of the 'nature' of what meaning is. I return to this issue below in connection with linguistics and logic; but for the present context it is worth noting Skorupski's (1976) research on the structure of meaning in relation to social anthropology as well as philosophy. The extended use of 'meaning' in anthropology involves not only the senses of words, what they refer to and what they are true of; anthropological 'meaning' incorporates the associated actions (rites, etc.) which comprise the symbolic structures of social actions. There might be a problem about the prospects of identification here. It might be helpful to express it in the following way, using points from Skorupski, but developed to reflect current interests. The meaning of a symbol is under-determined in its use and associated actions. That is to say the significance an ancient religious centre that its initiates presented to themselves-its perceived priorities-was an incomplete account. This lack of completeness is not merely a matter of the need to add other sentences to fill out the description of a religious centre within a society. Rather, it is that such a function with a particular symbolic meaning does not contain a code telling us how to define and apply the symbolic meaning. (Just as if you are given a sentence describing what a priest is, then this may not enable one to go out in the street and identify a passing priest, unless you are in a privileged circumstance to observe the relevant dress or actions or testimony.)
If we have suitable contexts by which to grasp the functions of analysis and inference in application to the external world, as well as attempt to reach conclusions about the meaning of actions in cult societies, it is important that we do not thereby presuppose we have all relevant theoretical assumptions for understanding the target elements of the ancient world. We need further thought-bridges to handle the gaps between symbol and significance. That is not to disagree in principle with Binford (1983), who has used the environments in modern societies, which are parallel with ancient societies, to test and infer understanding of empirically documented practices of ancient societies. We require, however, proof external to their poststructuralist postulated theoretical counterparts to measure the relations, positions and force of such mapping claims. Analysis, that neglects the sphere covered by social anthropology, does not utilise resources for overcoming many problems in defining symbolic action. Davidson's (1980) philosophy of action, if not his theory of truth, also highlights the thesis that the correspondence between language and action is a key to discovery about the structure of action.
For example, it has been customary to ignore as unhistorical the report in the book of Daniel that Belshazzar was king of Babylon prior to its fall. Chapter 9 below attempts to expose the historical linguistics for the claim that Belshazzar was king, if we care precisely to understand aspects of the narrative's own background social anthropology. The cuneiform coronation records contain regal and religious evidence about the social dimensions of the coronation. If these are accurately linked to the language in the book of Daniel, which clearly mirrors them, we discover that the rightful king Nabonidus passed his son the `kingship' (sarru-tam, etc.) to Belshazzar his son because Nabonidus wished to remain away from Babylon. In such case we see that the ancient language corresponds to the world it represents. Occidental scholastic reductionism invents a clash between the narrative and its target. This error arose for three reasons: first, uncomprehending linguistic analysis in which `modern' imperialistic cultural assumptions masked the narrative's sense. Secondly, the anthropology of the symbolic action recorded in ancient style was a neglected inferential dimension. Thirdly, the linguistic axis was not related and integrated with the anthropological one.
Such conclusions can be produced for more elusive, mythological, symbolic action contexts. An apparently very obscure symbol can, upon examination in a general framework analyzing its contextual connections, be a key to a whole web in a complex set of relations. For example, Renfrew (1985: 23) proposes that the smiting figure position-with arm raised, which depicts a power-role, should be associated with a god, and not with a votary representation of a worshipper, in the bronze smiting figurines discovered in the Philakopi sanctuary. Such a thesis blends in well with the Canaanite and Egyptian god smiting figures. Canaanite Baal smiting god figurines (to be dealt with in Chapter 8 below, and presented in Figure 8.2) were systematically classified by Negbi (1976). He provides a refined framework for the thesis that successfully sustains a probable indirect mediation between Canaan and the type of site exemplified by Philakopi.
The smiting god figure symbol directly interconnects with another symbolic sphere. In Chapter 8 below I explain how the Baal smiting god stance is connected with the 2 Kings 6 text. This passage is perhaps one of the oddest narratives in the Bible. It recounts that an axe is borrowed; it sinks in the Jordan, and it is raised to float, by Elisha. Some of the archaeological data for determining the cultic anthropology behind this type of narrative typology were published as far back as 1949 concerning Ugarit, where a ceremonial war axe was excavated on which 'lion' and a `boar' motifs appear. Inscribed tablets were found with the axe; they provided cultic information concerning the axe's functional symbolic military and mythological significance. In this way we are suddenly transported into a world in which obscure, bizarre detail is inverted by its ancient symbolic function in which the axe was, in that Canaanite society, a constant, central to `normal life', marking also that society in its ecumenical relation to, or conflict with, surrounding kingdoms and gods.
The long history of the axe symbol and its varying detail with recurrent elements, such as the 'lion-head' mouthing the axe blade (see Figure 8.1), mirror the transmission of concepts, of symbols from Sumer, as an emblem of the goddess of fertility and war. One strand that was aired above is the Lion Gate at Hattusas. Clearly this architectural iconography is temporally remote from much of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, integrated into the old Syrian and Assyrian connections with the Hittites, who built the Lion Gate from where the motif was later mediated (see Ozguc 1980), these traditions are direct antecedents of the later Canaanite stereotyped `lion' archetype. This archetype is also manifest in the use of a lion, with its flame-throwing mouth to personify divine mountains (Amiet 1980). Such a cluster of motifs complements the remarks on the 'Rebel Lands' mountains' ur-sag (Lion Heads). These associations are typical of other later ones (see Frankfort 1939). We do not, of course, have to suppose that these items are explicitly being alluded to in 2 Kings 6 to recognise that they support an allusive tradition that is being parodied in this narrative. This is primarily because the conjunction of the contemporary employment of the archetype in 2 Kings 6 and other relevant Old Testament passages yields the same criteria of identity and thematic use of cultic material.
According to Riffaterre (1991), the forces of a literary culture's own contemporary intertext-that is to say, the group of relations between text, tablet and cultic images---draws on the collective memory. Such catastrophes as the Rebel Lands' Lion-Heads typify this thesis. If we adapt aspects of the writings of Freud, in particular as interpreted by Lacan (see Bowie 1991) in their emphasis on the external world as a mirror of the ego, we can readily position, even in a coarse-grain way, a successful interpretation to contribute to the explanation of some of these conceptual forces. The primordial Sumerian selves are projected, by transmission, onto external geophysical events, and these are mirrored back to confirm and modify the pulses of the cultic identity. Later narratives absorb and twist these features through an involuted mirror that is focused to military and fertility wavelengths.
2 Kings 6, Chapter 8 claims below, is the result of a narrative pulse that has deeply mirrored the symbolic psychology of a military and mythological cultural complex that was in unstable transition. In 2 Kings 6, grim irony decodes and decomposes some of the ancestral mythology nested in contemporary life, opposed to the worship of Yahweh. So, if readers minimise and parody the 2 Kings 6 text for being bizarre, trivial, eccentric, irrelevant or marginal, then this misses the mark of the punning focus. It is precisely the bizarre state of affairs, which is being focused for a critical attack, through pun, in 2 Kings 6. Nor would it be subtle to respond that, since it is pun, it is secondary, for many narrative themes have their identity over the disputed sense of a pun. The irritating presence of the seemingly miscast, hardly relevant, axe in 2 Kings 6 is an original narrative device which mirrors and encapsulates aspects of Canaanite mentality, prone as it is to polemical exposure. This sort of prose is peculiar, and set in a world often presupposed to be remote from modernist Europe, with its use of apparent irrelevance, that strikes many a reader as bizarre.
It is not entirely dissimilar, however, to some of, for example, Mallarme's symbolist uses of allusion and parody in his Un Coup de Des, in the way in which detail is first viewed by readers as unconnected with its context but subsequently internal to a theme. Here a presupposed type of reader is, as it were, taunted by assuming a naive or linear reading, only to discover that the parameters or relevance concerning interpretation shift. Accordingly, such a semantic texture is susceptible of fresh characterisation about the role of consciousness in relation to the putative backcloth of the narrative. The prospects of synthesis for such nuances are attractive, especially if one combines the foregoing analysis with Chapter 8 below: this attests to the explicability of the archaeological materials in the light of their anthropology and the tablets' literary properties.
On the edges of the immediate scope of this book, is the further issue in such contexts as to whether or not, and if so how, something akin to features of a modernist alienation, and the collision of monotheistic versus other ontologies, partly reminiscent of 19th-century AD Eurocentric modernisms, have parallels with some Iron Age religious confrontations as well as their more extended societal backcloth.
In this perspective, a raft of interpretations of archaeology and text can, with suitable modification, be redeployed as theory-nets to contribute to the archaeology of the mind. This complements and extends the senses that Renfrew (1982) proposed in archaeology for this type of enterprise, in the recovery of aspects of the products of ancient consciousness. In philosophy, as Anscombe (1957), Hacking (1994) and Blackburn (1998) have and variously argued, the philosophy of mind contains as yet intractable, or only partially solved, issues central to what mental is. They also consider that other problems in philosophy depend for their successful treatment on how we resolve controversies in the philosophy of mind. In this respect, then, the archaeology of mind can have a significant role to play in certain areas of research into human mentality, in particular as it pertains to the history of ideas and philosophy of history. Contiguous to these, this book displays some areas for investigation in which traceable expressions of ancient minds have informative, and frequently puzzling, resemblances to what have sometimes been assumed to be the quite other more civilised evolved cultural states of modern humanity. Although this use of 'resemblances' and other forms of measuring language themselves require further examination, yet it seems that in a variety of ways humans were always modern.
$14.00, paper, 299, notes bibliography, index, maps
This bestseller is still one of the most readable accounts. "It is a strange fact that we have never known with certainty who produced the book that has played such a central roll in our civilization," writes Friedman, a foremost Bible scholar. From this point he begins an investigation and analysis that reads as compellingly as a good detective story. Focusing on the central books of the Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--he draws upon biblical, sociological, and archaeological evidence to make a convincing argument for the identities of their authors. In the process he paints a vivid picture of the world of the Bible--its politics, history, and personalities. The result is accessible of scholarship that sheds a new and enriching light on our understanding of the Bible as literature, history, and sacred text.
Richard Elliott Friedman is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature and holds the Katzin Chair at the University of California, San Diego. He earned his doctorate at Harvard and was a visiting scholar at Oxford and Cambridge. He is the author of The Hidden Face of God.
THE RELIGION OF ISRAEL A Short History by William J. Doorly
$16.95, paper, 206 pages, notes, bibliography, index
There are two Israels. The Israel of the Bible is theological, legendary, and mythological. The other Israel is the Israel of history that produced the Bible. How and why should we distinguish between the two? The answer is the subject of William J. Doorlys provocative new work. Using literary analysis, Doorly presents the history of religious practices in chronological order, beginning with the emergence of Israel in the highlands of Canaan and continuing into the Exile with the Hebrew Bible as a primary source, he identifies idealized concepts concerning Israels past and corrects them for the purpose of obtaining a true historical perspective. Readers will come to understand that the foundations of both Judaism and Christianity emerged as a reaction to popular and official forms of Canaanite religious practice that have passed away. THE RELIGION OF ISRAEL is comprehensive, accessible, and must reading for students, Bible scholars, religious professionals.
ANCIENT ISRAELITE RELIGION by Susan Niditch
University of Oxford Press
$25.00, hardcover, 186 pages, notes, bibliography, indexes, maps
The people and culture behind the Hebrew Bible fascinate the public as never before. From Bill Moyerss PBS series on Genesis to the massive circulation of Biblical Archeological Review to such bestsellers as The Book of J and Who Wrote the Bible?, evidence abounds of an intense interest in the day-to-day reality reflected in the scriptures. Now, in ANCIENT ISRAELITE RELIGION, Niditch offers a perceptive, approachable account of the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Israelites, analyzing the complex and varied ways in which Israelites present themselves in the Old Testament.
In ANCIENT ISRAELITE RELIGION, Niditch illuminates the life and the customs of these ancient people, whose religion has so influenced human history. Drawing on the most recent literary scholarship and archaeological evidence, she gives a compelling account of how Israelite culture changed through the three great periods of their history--the distant premonarchic age, the monarchies of Israel and Judah, and the Babylonian exile and return. The heart of her book is a rich account of the Israelites religious life, as revealed in the anthology of ancient Israelite writing called the Hebrew Bible. Niditch explores how they described their experience of God, drawing out consistent themes in the Biblical stories. For example, God is often identified with fire (as in Mosess encounter with the burning bush), and several women experience annunciations--revelations that they will give birth to a male hero. Niditch offers fascinating insight into the practices of folk religion, surmising that Israelites often made contact with the dead through mediums--a practice seen in the story of King Saul, who had the spirit of Samuel conjured up. She notes that the Hebrew Bible is filled with condemnations of these and other customs, suggesting how widespread they actually were.
Niditch paints a detailed picture of the complex rituals--many centered on the purifying power of blood--that Israelite writers portray as framing their daily and annual patterns of life. Most important, ANCIENT ISRAELITE RELIGION allows us to see the world through the Israelites eyes, as she reconstructs both their habits and their larger worldview. Her insightful, subtly nuanced portrait brings to life these ancient people whose legacy continues to influence, and fascinate, the world today. This study is more bible centered and concerned with religion qua religion than Cyrus Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg historical introduction reviewed below.
Susan Niditch is Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College. She is the author of numerous books on the Bible, including War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study of the Ethics of Violence. And the soon to be reviewed: Oral World and Written Word : Ancient Israelite Literature
THE BIBLE AND THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST by Cyrus Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg (Norton, $32.50, hardcover, 345 pages, notes, index, map, ISBN: 0-393-03942-0)
A towering figure in biblical and Near Eastern scholarship teams up with a brilliant younger scholar to update a classic introduction to the Hebrew Bible in its broadest Near Eastern context. Easily accessible to the neophyte, their scholarship is also guaranteed to provide new insights even to the specialist. It is rare that first-rate scholarship is such a pleasure to read. Step into any bookstore and you are likely to find an entire section devoted to the Bible. A shelf full of varying translations reveals countless differing perspectives on the stories common to a vast number of religions and cultures. Here is a book to make sense of one of the most revered texts in an age of multiculturalism and numerous biblical translations. Two eminent scholars in their fields, Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg, reveal in a knowledgeable account the fascinating lives and cultures that created the Hebrew Bible in their new updated edition of THE BIBLE AND THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST.
Gordon and Rendsburg have kept abreast of the new discoveries that have shed light on the ancient Near East and on the Bible, most notably the recovery of ancient Elba, which not only provides us with the oldest Semitic language attested, but which also radically alters our understanding of Syria in the third millennium B.C.E., about one thousand years before Abraham. It is insights like these that make this fourth edition vital in comprehending this revered text, its creators, and its place our lives today.
Most of us know the story of Noah and his ark of the Old Testament. But how many know that this Israelite story closely resembles, and probably came from, the epic story of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian story in which Utnapishtim (Noah in the biblical version) is saved and granted immortality, not by the grace of God but by the whim of one god in a polytheistic culture, and which lacks the importance placed on morality and the covenant in the biblical version? Gordon and Rendsburg explain the ways that each story differs in addition to explaining the various reasons they believe the biblical story of Noah is actually an altered version of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh; for example, the floods in the story were not even likely to occur in the arid climate of Israel, while the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers regularly flooded their banks, causing havoc and destruction in Mesopotamia.
Yet the story of Noah is just one of the surprising stories Gordon and Rendsburg have to tell. The biblical stories that many of us know as originals were actually not the work of Hebrew poets, prophets, and priests. Rather, they had strange and diverse origins in the ancient civilizations of the Near East. Gordon and Rendsburg use the most recent linguistic and archaeological research to show how these civilizations--Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Hebrew--share common legends and characters.
In first chapter, I am impressed by the advanced methods that a knowledgeable archaeologist or linguist can use to glean information from the pieces of the puzzle that have been found, such as a piece of pottery or hieroglyphics etched in stone. From chapter 2 on we plunge into the Bible and set the early stories of Genesis in their ancient Near Eastern context. Gordon and Rendsburg introduce readers to the smaller Near Eastern societies whose impact on ancient Israel was greatest, from the predynastic Kings of Egypt, to the Intef and the Mentuhotep kings of the eleventh dynasty, to the early origins of Greek culture in the ancient Near East. Warring groups often described political wars and the succession of dynasties in various languages, giving researchers a valuable tool in discovering what actually happened.
Gordon and Rendsburg then bring us back to the Bible and the history of Israel beginning with the Nuzu tablets of Patriarchal Age, moving on to the effects of Persian dualism, which views world events as the setting for the great battle between the forces of good and evil, on to Jewish monotheism, a discussion of how the Bible was actually written down, and finally a brief discussion on the translations of the Dead Sea manuscripts of the Bible.
With the wave of renewed interest in the Bible that has begun in the last few years, this updated history of the cultures behind the Hebrew Bible has come at just the right time. In THE BIBLE AND THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST, Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg have provided the historical background by far a history centered account rather than the usual Bible centered view common to many of the titles reviewed here. Not only do they give us the facts of history, but Gordon and Rendsburg have provided an invaluable tool for knowing the cultures and the people who have created this rich and monumental text.
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