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Tag Archives | Israel

3000 year old India-Israeli Cinnamon trade

An article in live science points to evidence of three millennia old trade between South India and the Israelites.

Researchers analyzing the contents of 27 flasks from five archaeological sites in Israel that date back around 3,000 years have found that 10 of the flasks contain cinnamaldehyde, the compound that gives cinnamon its flavor, indicating that the spice was stored in these flasks. At this time cinnamon was found in the Far East with the closest places to Israel being southern India and Sri Lanka located at least 3,000 miles (nearly 5,000 kilometers) away. A form of it was also found in the interior of Africa, but does not match the material found in these flasks.[Evidence of 3,000-Year-Old Cinnamon Trade Found in Israel]

Cinnamon was one spice that was a used for embalming dead kings as well as for manufacturing perfumes and holy oils. One line in that article mentions that this discovery raises the intriguing possibility of long distance trade from the Far East.  The article also mentions that this was not direct trade and could have happened using intermediaries.

In fact this long distance trade is not intriguing at all as there has been plenty of evidence for commodities from India appearing in far away places, even further back in in time. Archaeologists in Dhuwelia, a seasonal hunting site  in Eastern Jordan found cotton thread embedded in lime-plaster dating to the fourth millennium BCE. Cotton is not native to Arabia and that particular species could have come from only one place in the world: Baluchistan, where it has been cultivated since the fifth millennium. Queen Puabi, who lived in Iraq during the Mature Harappan period (2600 – 1900 BCE)  had Harappan carnelian beads in her tomb. Following her, Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2279 BCE) boasted about ships from Meluhha, mostly identified with this Indus region), docked in the bay.   This suggests that ships from the Indus region made journeyed all the way to Iraq about 5000 years back.

Burial sites in third millennium BCE Mesopotamia had shell-made lamps and cups produced from a conch shell found only in India; Early Dynastic Mesopotamians were consumers of the Harappan carnelian bead. By 2000 BCE, the trade between Africa and India intensified. While crops moved from Africa to India, genetic studies have shown that the zebu cattle went from India via Arabia to Africa.  Around 1200 BCE, among the dried fruits kept in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II was pepper which came from South India. If you are familiar with the trading hubs of the old world (1, 2), there is nothing unusual about this trade from both North and South India.

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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]

References:

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

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Who owns the Heritage Sites?

Bethlehem in 1890 (via Wikipedia)

As new nations form, an important issue is that of the heritage sites. This is especially important in Israel-Palestine area where everyone except people of Indic religions seem to have a stake.

“In any political arrangement, one side will have control of equities of the other,” Seidemann emphasised. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a conflict of territory but of identity and narratives, with archaeology and cultural heritage the physical embodiments of the narratives. Addressing these issues is critical for the stability of Israelis and Palestinians.” [Israel and Palestine: who owns what?]

As the vote for Palestinian statehood is coming up in September, there is lot of activity in the ground in West Bank.

Israeli officials have argued that heritage sites with Jewish historical connection must remain under Israeli sovereignty. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that position last year, after Unesco ruled that, despite being venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims, heritage sites in Bethlehem and Hebron are Palestinian (The Art Newspaper, December 2010, p25). He denounced the decision as “absurd”, calling it “an attempt to disconnect the nation of Israel from its heritage.”

Palestinians counter that location, not religious identification, determines sovereignty of a site. “Palestinians are proud to host a diversity of cultural heritage which is also important to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. It is Palestinian policy to respect and apply international laws concerning cultural property and heritage using a professional approach to preserve and protect the sites based on geographic location,” said Gabriel Fahel, the legal adviser on archaeology to the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit (which closed last month). He also charged Israel with violating international treaties it has signed by excavating in the West Bank and removing Palestinian cultural property.[Israel and Palestine: who owns what?]

Since none of these groups give up easily, this is going to be an interesting debate.

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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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