Monday, June 5, 2017

A People in Search of a History, Pt. 4

 Israel in Canaan
Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II
The people who are called Jews today show up in history 3200 years ago when we first see their ancestral name Israel on the Merneptah Stele.


Pharaoh Merneptah (reign 1213-1203 B.C.) made a short campaign into Canaan. On the stele that recorded his victories is this mention of Israel. It reads in part:
Plundered is Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer;
Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow for Egypt!
All lands together, they are pacified. Yinon Blog
   Scholars have debated what the reference to Israel means precisely. Does it mean that Israel was engaged and completely defeated by Merneptah, or is "seed" a reference to grain supplies that were destroyed? Is this "Israel" in the trans-Jordan east of the Jordan River or in the hill country of Canaan west of the Jordan? One scholar, Dr. Joseph Davidovits, even proposes that the stone has been mistranslated and should read that "Israel exists" rather than "is laid waste." In any case, most all agree that Israel as a people are present in Canaan in  1206 and are significant enough to be  mentioned alongside the city states of Ashkelon and Gezer.

   (In traditional Bible chronology, 1206 would be in the latter years of the period of judges.) 

   That raises a question for Bible scholars, historians and archaeologist: where did the Israelites come from?

Origin of Israel

   The biblical narrative is quite clear. The people of Israel are the ancestors of Abram (later named Abraham). And Abraham came from Ur in lower Mesopotamia (now in Iraq) in the late third millennium B.C. (circa 2100).  He migrated with his family first to Haran in upper Mesopotamia (now in Turkey). Then he moved on to Canaan where he lived as a semi-nomadic Shepherd.

   In Canaan he had a son named Isaac. This son married a woman from his extended family that remained in Haran and had two sons Esau and Jacob. Jacob married two women also from the extended family in Haran and had twelve sons. Eventually, this family, seventy in all, migrated to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. The year was about 1800 B.C.
The travels of Abraham

   After some centuries in Egypt this family had increased greatly and were eventually seen as a danger to the Egyptians who saw them as foreigners who might take sides with the enemies of Egypt (Exodus 1:1-9).  So the Egyptians forced them to work as laborers making clay bricks to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses. (If this happened prior to the time of the Pharaoh Rameses, the name is probably a reading back into the historical memory the name of the city that replaced Zoan.) Finally, Moses a Israelite who had been adopted and raised by an Egyptian princess, took the side of the oppressed Israelites, confronted the Pharaoh, and escaped with these Israelite people into the desert finally coming into Canaan in about 1400 B.C.according to traditional biblical dating.

   It is a remarkable story. It may be the oldest continuous family narrative that we have from ancient history. The story has been made into epic movies and told to countless Jewish boys and girls and Sunday school children over many centuries. But did it really happen? What can archaeology and history tells us?

   We begin with Abraham. Is it plausible that a family, Semitic people, in Ur migrated to Canaan? Some scholars say no. See California State University, Long Beach. The author of "An Incomplete History" writes:

One problem with the Hebrew history is the dearth of good archaeological evidence to support the Abraham story, and the richness of contradicting archaeological evidence. As Gary Greenburg notes, "while it used to be almost universally taken for granted that the Patriarchs and the sons of Israel where historical figures and that Genesis mixed some basic historical truths with a variety of legends, a growing segment of the scholarly community accepts that the patriarchal stories may have no historical core at all."

   The answer from history and archaeology is that it is not only plausible but that it happened. Thousands of people left lower Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C. The reason was unrest and war in Mesopotamia. First the Guti people from the northern mountains invaded and controlled the region. After they were repulsed by the Semitic inhabitants of Mesopotamia, specifically of Ur, Mesopotamia was again invaded, this time by the non-Semitic Elamites from the east. According to the author of "Mesopotamia" the result was devastating.

By 2000 B.C. the combined attacks of the Amorites, a Semitic people from the west, and the Elamites, a Caucasian people from the east, had destroyed the Third Dynasty of Ur. (Iraq: a Country Study Sam Huston State University)
   There is no record of a single mass migration. But there is textual evidence of a movement of Semitic people taking place over many years. Much of that is found in the Mari archives. More of those later.

   The natural migration route is north along the Euphrates River. It led eventually to the lands of the west-Semitic speaking people called the Amorites whose homeland was Syria and along the coast of the Levant including into Canaan.

   At the northern-most point of the route was an oasis, the city and region of Haran. Today on a google map satellite view the area is green with crops and well water from the Balikh River, a tributary of the Euphrates. In 2000 B.C. Haran was also the location of an important city, important because it was on the crossroads between Egypt and Babylon and points east. It is there that the biblical narrative tells us that Abraham's family stopped - for a time.

   Haran was a wonderful place. But just because it was rich and on a strategic crossroads, it was also a place contested by every people group from nomadic tribes to major empires. So many of the migrating people moved on from Haran.

   Is it plausible that Abraham of the biblical narrative was among those migrating peoples? Absolutely. The biblical narrative fits so well the history of this period of time and the descriptions in the Mari texts, an archive of documents found at Mari in Syria,  that Genesis reads like a primary source for the history of the time.

   Dr. Bryant Wood writes in  Biblical Archaeology that "the findings at Mari show that the Patriarchal narratives [biblical narratives] accurately reflect the socioeconomic conditions of that time and place." Bryant Wood.

   In the Jewish Virtual Library the author writes:

The picture revealed in the Mari archives, of far-reaching tribal migrations (such as those of Yaminite groups) and caravan conditions between the Euphrates region and Syria-Northern Palestine, provides an analogy for the biblical narratives of the patriarchal wanderings between Aram-Naharaim and Canaan. Mari
In other words, the Biblical narrative and the sources outside the Bible fit together. In fact, reading the whole article in the Jewish Virtual Library we find that many of the features of life for the Israelites such as covenants, patrimony, the ban, et al. were features of the society described in the Mari texts.

   [It is difficult to believe that these could be made up 1500 years later or that the authors of 600 B.C. who the New Biblical Scholars claim to be the authors of Genesis could have access to these details and have written them into the story.]

   Is it plausible that Abraham was among these migrating people?

   It is more than plausible. The detail and the correlation between the events testified to in history and the socioeconomic conditions revealed in the Mari texts make it highly likely. The Bible is history. It is the story of an ordinary individual and a family rather than a king or official, but it is history. 

   The biblical narrative says that Abraham also moved on after a period of years, though not all his family; some of them remained in Haran. Abraham's destination was Canaan.

   Canaan was not in 2000 B.C. a wilderness as it is often characterized in Sunday school stories of Abraham. In fact, a close reading of the biblical narrative in Genesis reveals that it was well populated with towns and cities that date back thousands of years, as in the case of Jericho, and the target of raids from kings to the north and east. And Canaan was on the road - we could almost call it a freeway - between the cities and Empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

   Canaan was also, even this early, a battlefield over which the armies of the Empires of that day sought control. We might actually see Canaan as in the very center of things rather than a land protected by it remoteness.

The Hyksos

   But Canaan was also a land dependent upon rain. No great rivers Like the Nile or the Euphrates  provided water through dry seasons. Drought would bring famine, and famine drove many of these newly arrived migrant people onward toward Egypt. So as early as 1900 B.C. Egyptian texts and art describe migrating people from the east, whom the Egyptians called Asiatics, filtering into lower Egypt and settling in the water rich delta region of the Nile River. These people would later be called the Hyksos, but ethnically they were Semites.
An earlier group of Asiatic peoples depicted entering Egypt c. 1900 BC, from the tomb of a Twelfth Dynasty official Khnumhotep II under pharaoh Senusret II at Beni Hasan.
   The Bible describes just such a migration but in miniature. It was the migration of Joseph's family to Egypt. The date was around 1800 B.C. (Genesis 45). The picture above shows what such a migration looked like.

   At that point in the biblical narrative in Genesis we are told that Joseph became powerful, second only to the Pharaoh, and that the family of Joseph, the Israelites, were given land in Lower Egypt. At that point the narrative ends. But we know from many Egyptian historical sources that in fact the Asiatic Hyksos increased in number in Egypt and by 1650 B.C. came to rule Lower Egypt and for a time most of Egypt. Their capital city was Avaris in the delta area. That is precisely where Joseph's family settled, Goshen.

   Over the next 100 years tensions between the Hyksos rulers and the native Egyptian rulers in Upper Egypt increased. War ensued and the Hyksos of Avaris were forced to retreat to Sharuhen, a city in the vicinity of present day Gaza along the coast of Canaan.  The battle is depicted in this mural and described by Ahmose, son of Abana, a soldier in the Egyptian army.

Ahmose, son of Abana, describes his part in the battles with the Hyksos:

Now when I had established a household, I was taken to the ship "Northern", because I was brave. I followed the sovereign on foot when he rode about on his chariot. When the town of Avaris was besieged, I fought bravely on foot in his majesty's presence. Thereupon I was appointed to the ship khaemmennefer ("Rising in Memphis"). Then there was fighting on the water in "P'a-djedku" of Avaris. I made a seizure and carried off a hand. When it was reported to the royal herald the gold of valour was given to me. Then they fought again in this place; I again made a seizure there and carried off a hand.  Then I was given the gold of valour once again. Then there was fighting in Egypt to the south of this town. and I carried off a man as a living captive. I went down into the water - for he was captured on the city side - and crossed the water carrying him. When it was reported to the royal herald I was rewarded with gold once more. Then Avaris was despoiled, and I brought spoil from there: one man, three women; total, four persons. His majesty gave them to me as slaves. Then Sharuhen was besieged for three years. His majesty despoiled it and I brought spoil from it: two women and a hand. Then the gold of valour was given me, and my captives were given to me as slaves. Ahmose biography


   In the battle of Sharuhen Ahmose I prevailed and pushed the Hyksos further back from Egypt and dispersed them.

   Was there an exodus from Egypt of the Asiatics? Absolutely.

   This exodus, however, is not the exodus described in the biblical narrative in Exodus. It is the vanquishing of rulers, not slaves. And it is earlier by traditional chronology than the biblical exodus by about 100 years. But it is virtually certain that among the Hyksos who were expelled and dispersed from Egypt there were some of the Israelite people. The Egyptians would not have distinguished between the Hyksos and the Israelites. They were of the same ethnic origins. They lived in the same area of Lower Egypt. And they spoke the same Semitic language. Some would have been caught up in the retreat from Egypt.

   But it is certain that not all the Asiatics were expelled. In fact, over 100 years later what look like Asiatics are pictured along with Nubians in this "famous painting from the tomb of Rekhmire, who served as Grand Vizier to two pharaohs in the 15th century BCE" which shows a large group of slaves making bricks as forced laborers for the Pharaoh. Stephen Tempest, Quora


 The 15th century is the time of the biblical exodus.

   It is significant that the dispersed Asiatic Hyksos who were pushed back into Canaan would be there, already aligned with the Israelites left in Egypt, and ready to merge with them as they came out of Egypt in a second exodus.

   But was there a second exodus? There is no extant evidence for it in Egyptian art or texts. However, Josephus quotes Manetho, an Egyptian historian writing in 300 B.C.  who indicates that an Egyptian priest named Osars├¬ph who after the expulsion of the Hyksos organized a revolt of the "lepers" in Avaris which was the Hyksos city in Lower Egypt. The "leper" leader (some scholars see "leper" as a metaphorical reference to people who worshiped a different God from that of the Egyptians) later changed his name to Moses.University of Chicago See lines 227-287.

   Manetho's story appeared to Josephus to be an anti-semitic rant and a fiction.  But some scholars see in it a kernel of fact. If so, Manetho may well be referring to the Moses of the biblical exodus. In that case there is a foundation for a second exodus in Egyptian history.

   We have come to the final chapter of our quest for the historicity of the exodus account. That will be the topic of Part 5 of this series.

No comments: