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Tag Archives | Hebrew Bible

Noah (2014)

In 2010, a group of Turkish and Chinese evangelicals found Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. The liberal NPR once aired a program titled Walking the Bible based on Bruce Feiler’s book. In the program Feiler climbs the same Mt. Ararat in Turkey in search of Noah’s Ark since Bible literalists believe that an actual Ark came to rest on top of this mountain. What these literalists fail to acknowledge is that the Ark story is basically an adaptation of an earlier tradition present in the region. The Hebrew Bible did not exist in a vacuum; it was influenced by the culture and traditions of the Ancient Near East. The flood story of the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 6-9 is simply an Israelite version of the Mesopotamian Epic of Atrahasis and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh

However, it isn’t just the similarity between the biblical materials and the Ancient Near Eastern sources that is important to us. In fact, in some ways it’s the dissimilarity that is remarkably important to us, the biblical transformation of a common Near Eastern heritage in light of its radically new conceptions of God and the world and humankind. We’ll be dealing with this in some depth, but I’ll give you one quick example. We have a Sumerian story about the third millennium BCE, going back 3000 — third millennium, 3000 BCE. It’s the story of Ziusudra, and it’s very similar to the Genesis flood story of Noah. In both of these stories, the Sumerian and the Israelite story, you have a flood that is the result of a deliberate divine decision; one individual is chosen to be rescued; that individual is given very specific instructions on building a boat; he is given instructions about who to bring on board; the flood comes and exterminates all living things; the boat comes to rest on a mountaintop; the hero sends out birds to reconnoiter the land; when he comes out of the ark he offers a sacrifice to the god — the same narrative elements are in these two stories. It’s just wonderful when you read them side by side. So what is of great significance though is not simply that the biblical writer is retelling a story that clearly went around everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia; they were transforming the story so that it became a vehicle for the expression of their own values and their own views.[Lecture 1 – The Parts of the Whole]

Thus even though the stories look similar, the rationale for the flood in the Hebrew Bible was written to spread a different theology. In the new movie, Noah gets dreams of the flood and after consuming some hallucinogens at his grandfather Methuselah’s place, finds the answer: build an ark. He builds the ark and along with his family — wife  Naameh, sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, Shem’s wife  Ila — and his nemesis Tubal-cain, take off as the floods hit the earth. Oh, before that there are some scenes involving rocks which also shape shift like Optimus Prime who protect Noah and help him escape.

While the animals lie sedated, there is lot of drama on board the ark. There is Tubal-cain tempting Ham to murder his father because Noah did not get a woman for Ham. Then there is Ila, who springs a surprise on Noah, when he thought that she was barren. Finally there is the psychopathic Noah, who eagerly waits the birth of his grandchildren so that he can murder them. Finally, all ends well. Tubal-cain is murdered by Ham. Ila delivers twin girls and as Noah goes to murder them, he has a change of heart and unlike Abraham who was willing to kill his son, he spares his grandchildren. The flood stops as well and the human race is saved.

While the director claims that he has stayed true to the Bible, the Christian conservatives have found numerous issues with the film based on the Hebrew Bible. According to a creationist, “Noah is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah and, most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible.” One of the issues is that Noah has a problem with carnivores. It is Tubal-cain, who argues to the contrary that God had given dominion over the entire planet to humans.  The suggestion that the movie is pro-environment, pro-vegetarian had many in knots. But then in Genesis 1, God had commanded humans to eat plants and it was only after the flood that they were permitted to eat meat. As Prof. James Tabor suggests, if only people read the Bible.

For example, the film never mentions God and referrers to him as the Creator.

I have heard this objection repeatedly this weekend, particularly on FOX news and Talk Radio outlets, and it is blatantly false and ridiculous. The very word translated “God” in Genesis is not a name but a generic reference that might be translated as “The Powers” (Elohim). One can only imagine the uproar had Aronofsky chosen to call the Creator “The Powers”–which would have been quite biblical. In the Noah film this nameless One is constantly referred to as “the Creator,” but used in a very personal way by all the characters in the film–good and bad. According to Exodus 6:3 God did not make Himself known by His personal name Yahweh (YHVH) or “the LORD” until the time of Moses. The references to God as “the LORD” in Genesis 6-9 in the Flood story are accordingly anachronistic—so it turns out, ironically, that Aronofsky’s designation of God as “the Creator,” is more biblical than his critics have imagined.[Bashers of the Noah Film Should Re-Read Their Bibles]

What is not depicted in the film is that some of the animals who hitched a ride on the ark did not have a good life. After he got on land, “then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.”

For the Turkish, Chinese and American evangelists, this movie may have been offensive, but for people interested in the history of how the Hebrew Bible was written, this is good time to watch or read the transcript of this lecture which talks about the contradictions within the Bible as well as within the flood story. Did the Creator ask Noah to bring two pairs of each living being or seven pairs of pure animals and one pair of impure animals and seven pairs of birds? In some  places the flood was for 40 days and few lines later, it was for 150 days. All of this, for a historian, leads to the documentary hypothesis, with multiple authors and revisions.

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Camels and ashva, Hebrew Bible and Rig Veda

(by Martin Allen)

(by Martin Allen)

Archaeologists from Tel Aviv university, who were investigating the date when camels first appeared in Israel discovered something interesting. Here is the gist:

Now Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’sDepartment of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures have used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant, pushing the estimate from the 12th to the 9th century BCE. The findings, published recently in the journal Tel Aviv, further emphasize the disagreements between Biblical texts and verifiable history, and define a turning point in Israel’s engagement with the rest of the world.[Finding Israel’s First Camels]

This is interesting because the Genesis mentions the camels but those events in the Genesis, according to this new evidence happened before the camels arrived on the scene. For example, among the living beings that Abraham acquired, there were  sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. There are further mentions of a servant going from Northwest Mesopotamia to the town of Nahor on camels, providing water and food to the camels and an explanation of why one should not eat a camel.

If camels were not present in Israel while these events supposedly happened, then how did it appear in the text? There are two possible explanations: (1) The events happened not in an earlier period, but later after the camels appeared or (2) The events happened in the earlier period, but was written down in a much later period by scribes when camels were also present and camels were back projected to earlier events.

The New York Times had an exchange with an expert who suggested this answer

“One should be careful not to rush to the conclusion that the new archaeological findings automatically deny any historical value from the biblical stories,” Dr. Mizrahi said in an email. “Rather, they established that these traditions were indeed reformulated in relatively late periods after camels had been integrated into the Near Eastern economic system. But this does not mean that these very traditions cannot capture other details that have an older historical background.”

Moreover, for anyone who grew up with Sunday school images of the Three Wise Men from the East arriving astride camels at the manger in Bethlehem, whatever uncertainties there may be of that story, at least one thing is clear: By then the camel in the service of human life was no longer an anachronism.

There was no dissenting voice here; there was no scholar arguing against the historicity of the events. Compare that with the response in The Guardian. This also has to be contrasted with the relation between another animal and another text. The Rig Veda uses the word ashva over two hundred times, and according to some, horses arrived with the invading Aryans following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Thus the Vedic culture could have occurred only after the arrival of the Indo-European speakers to North-West India. According to Wendy Doniger in The Hindus, “No Indus horse whinnied in the night. Knowing how important horses are in the Vedas, we may deduce that there was little or no Vedic input into the civilization of the Indus Valley or, correspondingly, that there was little input from the IVC into the civilization of the Rig Veda.”

Most of this argument has been analyzed by Michel Danino and found to be suspect. Various scholars — linguists, archaeologists and historians — are proposing a higher chronology now. That debate is one with no end in sight. But will any scholar stick out his head and say that based on the evidence from Saraswati, the Vedas were composed much earlier than we thought when ashva was not around, but it may have been altered later and the ashva was added. If you do that the Wendytva proponents will be up in arms.

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Collapse of the Israelite Invasion Theory

"The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan" by Gustave Dore (d. 1883)

“The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan” by Gustave Dore (d. 1883) (via Wikipedia)

The sixth book of the Hebrew Bible, The Book of Joshua, explains the the invasion and conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. According to the text, Joshua first sends spies and then later crosses the Jordan river. The Battle of Jericho follows and finally he attains victory at a place called Ai. There are other military campaigns and Joshua leads the confederation of twelve tribes completing the task started by Moses. The book gives credit for all this to Yahweh, for it was he who divided Jordan and broke down the walls of Jericho.

According to Biblical chronology, this destruction of Canaan should have happened in the 13th century BCE, but archaeologists found no evidence of extensive conquest and destruction. Some sites were not even occupied during this period and there were no walls in Jericho during the time of Joshua.

They have found really no evidence of extensive conquest and destruction in thirteenth and twelfth century archaeological layers. Some of the sites that are said to be destroyed by Joshua and the Israelites weren’t even occupied in this period, the late Bronze Age, beginning of the Iron Age; the Iron Age begins around 1200. Excavations at Jericho and Ai indicate that both of these towns were laid waste at least 200 years before the probable time of Joshua; so there weren’t even any walls in Jericho at the time of Joshua. Of 20 identifiable sites that were said to be conquered or captured by Joshua and the next generations, only two show destruction layers for this time, Hazor and Beth-el. And yet interestingly enough, Hazor’s capture described in Joshua is contradicted elsewhere in the Bible, because in Judges 4 and 5, it is still a Canaanite city. It is said there that it is still a Canaanite city and Joshua failed to take it.[Lecture 12 – The Deuteronomistic History: Life in the Land (Joshua and Judges) [October 18, 2006]

Since archaeology disproved the invasion theory, the next best bet was a migration theory. The 13th century BCE was a period of disruption in the Western world. Mycenaean Greece was collapsing; Trojan wars were happening; Hittites were moving to Anatolia and people were migrating from Greece to Egypt,  Phoenicia and Canaan. One set of people who arrived by the sea were the Philistines and they settled in what is now the Gaza strip. According to the immigration model, the Israeli settlement happened around the same time as the Egyptian power weakened.

Archaeologists found new settlements all over the region, mostly in the hill country dating to the 13th, 12th and 11th century in the regions which the Bible identifies as Israeli strongholds. This could mean that a new layer of occupation (in the archaeological sense) was created. Also the Merneptah Stele,  dating to this period, mentions Israel. There was one problem though: the material goods used by these people were not different from the Canaanites, except for the lack of pig bones. There was no evidence of invasion which could mean that these settlements could have been established peacefully and could have been established not by outsiders, but by from within, just like what happened in Crete with the Minoans.

If the Israelites were insiders, there are two models to explain that. According to the Internal Revolt model, they were locals who triggered a social revolution. In the 14th century BCE, there are letters written by Canaanites to the Pharaoh complaining about people called Haribu or Aribu. The Israelites escaping from Egypt joined these people and established a Yahweh worship based system. This was proposed by the documentary Bible’s Buried Secrets as well.

According to the Gradual Change theory, Israelites were simply Canaanites who, for some unknown reason, developed a separate identity and moved into the central highlands. There is no explanation also as to why they switched to the cult of Yahweh. The were not a united people, but were joined Egyptian slaves and  local foreigners. One of these groups, brought with them the the worship of Yahweh and maybe another brought the story of Exodus.

If migration, local revolt or gradual change could be the reason how Israel got control over Canaan, then why does the Bible talk about conquest and destruction? Like the writers of any other ancient text, the Bible writers were trying to tell a story within an ideological framework; their goal was not to accurately record what happened. If they were a group of people who were different from the Canaanites, who had taken to a different lifestyle and a different god, it was important to distinguish themselves clearly. To keep the new group, which consisted of diverse set of people together, the old group had to be put down. Centuries later Christians used the same techniques against the Jews.

Another point is that, the Bible was eventually written down during the Babylonian exile, six centuries later.

Consider the position of the Israelites in the sixth century, the time of the final editing of the Deuteronomistic history. The Israelites are sitting in exile in Babylon. They are trying to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen them, the loss of their land. Consider how a text like Joshua 23 and Joshua 24 would go a long way towards explaining their fate while retaining faith in Yahweh.[Lecture 12 – The Deuteronomistic History: Life in the Land (Joshua and Judges) [October 18, 2006]


1. Introduction to the Old Testament, Lecture 12 by Prof. Christine Hayes, Yale.

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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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