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Biblical Archaeology Archives - varnamvarnam
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Tag Archives | Biblical Archaeology

God’s Wife and Competitors

Baal (via Wikipedia)

(Baal, right arm raised. Bronze figurine, 14th-12th centuries, found in Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit img via Wikipedia)

We know the three Abrahamic religions as monotheistic: there is an all powerful unique male god with no equivalent. The popular perception is that Israelites have been monotheistic from the beginning and the traditional view holds that Abraham made a pact with God to worship only him and his followers continued that practice. Thus Joseph took this belief to Egypt, Moses bought it out of Egypt and Joshua went to Caanan and wiped out the polytheists. The monotheists also believe that the polytheistic world is a lie and the eventual destination for them is hell.

A new BBC documentary by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou steps out of the theological realm, looks at Bible as literature and comes up with the conclusion that the monotheists themselves were polytheists; they worshipped divine beings, quite similar to the ones in the Indian and Greek pantheon of gods. God himself had a competitor and the documentary also makes the revolutionary claim that the God of the monotheists had a female companion.

Once you stop reading the Bible with the preset monotheistic mindset, it reveals many secrets, even though the humans who wrote them attempted to conceal this information. Thus Baal, the Caananite god, was a competitor to the God of the Israelites. Baal was a warrior god, often seen in representations raising his hand to use the thunderbolt weapon. He was the Indra of the Middle East and was important for the people of Caanan who depended on the rains. But in the Bible, Baal and his prophets are ridiculed and in the documentary and Francesca argues the reason is that people were straying from the idea of monotheism and it was necessary to put down other gods.

There is archaeological evidence for the worship for Baal as well as another deity El, who was the Chief Caananite God. El was the head of the pantheon and one who maintained order in the world, like Varuna in the Pre-Upanishidic era. In this pantheon, there were gods for Dawn and Dusk much like other cultures around the world.

While the Biblical God is called Yahweh, he is called El in some places. Jacob calls El, the god of Israel. He is also the god of the Exodus. El tells Moses that he had revealed himself to Abraham as well, similar to what Krishna tells Arjuna in 4.1. A rabbi on the program explains that all these variants are the name of the same God and it indicates what attribute God wanted to reveal to the devotee. The rabbi then agrees that you could read polytheism into it, but that is not the traditional understanding.

For Francesca, in ancient Israel, polytheism was the norm, not the exception and there are clues all over the place. God is mentioned sitting on a throne with diving beings on his right and left. According to Psalm, “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods”. According to Genesis, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image” and in Exodus, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?.” Thus in Israelite theology, Yahweh managed a council of divine beings, quite similar to the Caananite theology.

For the Caananites, El had a wife named Asherah, who was considered the goddess of fertility. She had an erotic representation with huge breasts and a pubic region marked with a tree of life motif. Many figurines excavated in Jerusalem and dated to the peak of the Israelite period show that Asherah was still worshipped. Francesca shows that if you skip the translations and read the Bible in Hebrew, Moses refers to God arriving with goddess Asherah. In fact evidence shows that she was even worshipped in the Temple of Jerusalem. An inscription discovered in a shard (dated to 8th century BCE) in Sinai mentions God along with Asherah. Thus God having a female partner maybe a minority position among believers, but not among scholars.

This polytheism is not surprising since the scholarly view is that Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. Following a social collapse in Caanan, Israel rose and was made of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people. They created a new identity, adopted the stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua and came up with the idea of a monotheistic God from a desert people called Shashu. Thus these people with new identity could have co-existed alongside the polytheistic Caananites and shared some of their practices.

So what happened to Baal, El, Ashera and the divine council of gods? Why were they removed, ridiculed or concealed? The purge of polytheism followed the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem which happened during the time of Buddha in India. The Israelites were defeated, their temple destroyed and their all powerful God could do nothing about it. This would have been sufficient for most groups to lose their culture, but the Israelites persisted. During exile, while trying to make sense of their defeat, they wrote the Bible. Those authors transferred the power of Caananite gods to Yahweh, blamed the defeat partly on polytheism, and created new myths and histories. According to the NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets:

Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.

It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.

This re-write during exile was responsible for dis-empowering women, demonizing other gods and eradicating polytheism which was common till the 6th century B.C.E.

Postscript: You can watch the documentary in four parts on YouTube

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Noah's Raft

Few years back there was a PBS documentary titled Walking the Bible, which was based on Bruce Feiler’s book. In the documentary Feiler climbs Mt. Ararat in Turkey in search of Noah’s Ark: Bible literalists believe that an actual Ark came to rest on top of this mountain.

The Noah’s Ark story is of course an adaptation of the Sumerian epic – the Atra-Hasis.

In this epic, the gods want to destroy humans because they have become noisy and the gods can’t get sleep. They try various tricks – plague, famine, and, drought; nothing works. The gods then take the draconian step of unleashing a flood. Again the dossier containing the plan gets leaked to Atra-Hasis by one of the gods, Enki. Thus Atra-Hasis builds a boat, carries animals and survives the flood which lasted seven days. [Noisy Epics]

If you want to see how Noah’s Ark looked like, here is a replica built by some folks in Netherlands. Here is a cartoon version and here is another. The Ark is imagined to be a large ship since as per Genesis 6:13-16, it 300 cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.

A new translation of a 3700 year old tablet tells a different story about the Ark – the one in Atra-Hasis: It was not a boat, but a circular raft.

“In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it,” said Finkel. “But the ark didn’t have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It’s still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods.” [Relic reveals Noah’s ark was circular]

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New Exodus Theory

Then comes the major event of the parting of the Red Sea. It seems the Hebrew word, Yam Suf was mistranslated as Red Sea while it actually means Reed Sea. Instead of looking for the sea scholars should have been looking for a lake. Based on the new evidence, the film makers find the location of the Reed Sea, a lake currently dried up, due to the Suez Canal. Again, the parting of the lake is attributed to the seismic activity.[Exodus Decoded (1) | varnam]

Besides this, archaeology too has not found any evidence of the Exodus, in the scale mentioned in the Bible.

That is one of the conclusions of the two hour NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets, which aired on PBS on Nov 18th. This conclusion is not revolutionary; it has been suggested before, most recently by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist.

The Exodus, the most repeated story in the Hebrew Bible immortalized by Charlton Heston, suggests that about six hundred thousand men and their families escaped Egypt and reached the promised land. A century of archaeological work has found no such evidence but has found that during the time of the Exodus, dated between the Merneptah Stele (1275 B.C.E) and the Zayit Stone (1208 B.C.E), the promised land, Canaan, had just 25 settlements with 3000 – 5000 inhabitants.[Bible’s Buried Secrets (1/2) | varnam]

Still that has not prevented people from coming up with theories of the partition of the Red Sea.

Accepting the biblical account as a “possible ‘qualitative’ description of an event,” Florida State oceanographer Doron Nof set out to investigate whether the parting of the Red Sea is “plausible from a physical point of view.” Using a common phenomenon called wind set-down effect, he found that “a northwesterly wind of 20 m/s blowing for 10-14 h is sufficient to cause a sea level drop of about 2.5m.” Such a drop in sea level, Nof speculates, might have exposed an underwater ridge, which the Israelites crossed as if it were dry land. Although the event is plausible, Nof estimated that the likelihood of such a storm occurring in that particular place and time of year is less than once every 2,400 years.[La scienza e i miracoli dell’Esodo]

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The Imaginary Essenes?

The History Channel documentary on the Lost Years of Jesus mentioned a possibility that the concept of baptism came to Jesus when he and John the Baptist lived among the Essenes and that later the Essenes moved to Qumran in the West Bank from Jerusalem due to the fear of Romans. The documentary also suggested a theory that Jesus was a revolutionary fighting the Romans and those activities have been left out of the Bible since it would be difficult to circulate such a document while being governed by the Romans due to which there is no mention of what he did between the ages of 12 and 30.

We know that the Essenes consisting of about 75 men, moved to Qumran, a desolate desert site, sometime between 130 and 100 B.C to escape Roman persecution. It is believed that they lived in a monastery, whose ruins are present even now, and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the only surviving texts of the Hebrew Bible written before 100 AD.[The Virtual Qumran | varnam]

According to John Marco Allergro, a Biblical scholar, who had access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus was a “personification of the Messianic expectations of the members of an extremist Jewish sect of Qumran in the first century of Christianity.”The Essenes, besides sharing a messianic belief, lived in a community embracing poverty and abstinence from worldly pleasures.

So far so good.

Now according to one Biblical scholar, the Essenes never existed: they were fabricated by the 1st century historian Flavius Josephus.

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome, “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren’t all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature.”

As Elior explains, the Essenes make no mention of themselves in the 900 scrolls found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947 in the caves of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. “Sixty years of research have been wasted trying to find the Essenes in the scrolls,” Elior tells TIME. “But they didn’t exist. This is legend on a legend.” [Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed – TIME]

So if Essenes did not write the DSS, then who did it? According to Elior, it was written by Sadducees, a sect descending from the high priest Zadok. Another scholar, Norman Golb, too has claimed that the DSS were not written by the Essenes. He also claimed that other scholars are trying to silence him.

Instead of an imaginary group called Essenses, a priestly class wrote it. So what’s the big deal you may wonder. The problem is with the behavior of the group: while Jews are asked to “go forth and multiply”, this group violated that by remaining celibate. This contrarian behavior, by thousands, never found any mention in Jewish texts of that period.

Then it was pointed out that Philo of Alexandria who lived a generation before Josephus and Pliny the Elder, who was a contemporary, too wrote about Essenes. Elior responded.

Are any Essenes mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls? The answer is: no.
Are any Essenes mentioned in this name in contemporary literature written in the Land of Israel (other then Josephus/philo/pliny written elsewhere) such as the Apocrypha, sages, or the New Testament? The answer is: no.

Is it reasonable to assume that thousands of people had lived as celibates in the Land of Israel for many generations, as the well-known Greek and Latin sources suggest, while no reference to this prohibited existence, which contradicts the first biblical law of “be fruitful and multiply”, will be found in any Hebrew or Aramaic text?

Is it possible that thousands of people had lived in communities of communal residence and communal money with no private property and not a word will be found about it in any Hebrew source? [Rachel Elior Responds to Her Critics]

A new book – Memory and Oblivion – coming out next month, will give more details than what can be gathered from the press reports.

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