Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Canaan resurgent

In a recent post I reported some preliminary findings from the group of scholars of ancient Israelite history known as the minimalists. At the time I felt that the jury was still out on their findings. Not so. Their demolition of early Israelite history as narrated in the Hebrew Bible finds increasing acceptance among centrists—even if they do drag their feet on some aspects. This does not mean, however, that the texts as we have them are as late as the second century BCE. That very late date probably goes too far. It suffices to demonstrate that the texts are appreciably later than has generally claimed, so that they present a mythical rather than historical image.

The crucial finding is that the account presented in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible is an ideological fabrication, probably assembled after the return from captivity in 539 BCE. That means that the accounts of the exodus, conquest, and settlement presented in the Pentateuch, the Book of Joshua, and the book of Judges are highly unreliable. Moreover, in a thorough review of the evidence (1992), the Egyptologist D.B. Redford has found no evidence at all for the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt.

Television is still peddling these Bible stories for a gullible public. Yet in all likelihood these events never happened in the way that we are told. The beginnings of Israelite history lie in what may be termed Greater Canaan, an area most of the protagonists never left.

The upshot is that almost of millennium of Biblical history—from ca. 1400 to 539 BCE has been mostly erased. This period spans the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the so-called Monarchy period. In all likelihood, the First Temple era—wasn’t. Or rather the Second Temple era, after 539, was the First Temple era.

Into this vacuum two things have come in. First, is a renewed study of the Ugaritic documents found at Ras Shamra on the coast of Syria as long ago as 1928. Unlike the Hebrew Bible these are authentic texts of the second millennium BCE. Spanning a range of genres, from administrative and cultic documents to poetic and mythological narratives, the Ugaritic texts present a vivid picture of polytheism, ritual religious observance, and governmental intervention. As the language in them is close to Hebrew, specialists read them with some ease, noting the many parallels with supposedly Israelite uniqueness. At all events, the Ugaritic texts belong to the second millennium, while the opening books of the Hebrew bible do not.

The second body of material that has been summoned to fill the vacuum consists of archaeological finds, which attest cult sites and home shrines, as well as what appear to be images of deities. Unlike William G. Dever and Ziony Zevit, two leading researchers in this era, I am less confident of our ability to sort out the meaning. For example, Dever and others think that the masses of female figurines represent the goddess Asherah—or even the mythical "Great Mother." But why must these little images be deities at all? Archaeologists have concluded that many of the similar figurines from prehistoric Europe and Crete are not necessarily deities. They may be worshippers. Some may even have been dolls for children. Other finds are clearly the equipment of household shrines and cult sites in the "high places." Worship was going on there, but it is rarely clear which particular deities were honored. In short, archaeological data are not mute, as some skeptics claim, but their voices are muffled.

All this material, though, suggests a religious koine in the northeastern Semitic area, embracing Ebla, Ugarit, the Amonites, Moab, and the ancient Israelites. In this context Israelite religion is but a branch of a larger whole. Scholars are now beginning to examine this phenomenon in this context.

Some more specific findings may be noted.

First, the Israelites did not start with a primordial monotheism brought intact from Sinai under the auspices of Moses. This monotheism was not "corrupted" by polytheistic intrusions as the Hebrew Bible suggests, with the shining purity of ethical monotheism being recovered by the work of the prophets and just rulers. Instead, there were centuries of coexistence of a number of deities, Yahweh among them. The victory of the Yahweh-Alone party was only complete after 539, when such exclusivity was needed as an ideology to establish the fragile unity of a much-troubled people.

Moreover, while early Israel was polytheistic, it had a somewhat skimpy pantheon. As we know from the Ugaritic documents, the Canaanites acknowledged over 200 deities. Ancient Israelites had seven main ones: El, Baal, Asherah, Yahweh, and the sun, moon and stars. Still, that pleiad sufficed to demonstrate polytheism, not monotheism. Moreover, with further archaeological work, the presence of other deities may come to light.

The third point is the demolition of old idea of Canaanite religion as a licentious fertility cult. This notion has attracted a certain prurient interest, but its main function has been to contrast the self-indulgent Canaanites with the noble, self-denying Israelites, who bequeathed to us the supreme gift of ethical monotheism. As Dennis Pardee remarks: "The fertility cult so dear to the heart of the older generation of Hebrew and Ugaritic scholars shows up clearly in neither corpus; the sexual depravity that some have claimed to be characteristic of the Canaanite cult in general has left no trace in any of the Ugaritic texts"—at least those that have been edited and translated.

A fourth finding, however, seems hard to sustain. For several generations of biblical scholars the kedeshim, or holy ones, have been assumed to be male cult prostitutes.

Some feminist scholars are uncomfortable with any discussion of prostitution. Yet the Hebrew Bible luxuriantly documents the custom, which provides, among other things, a major metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh. A prostitute, Rahab, played an important role in the tale of Joshua’s conquest. Another married the prophet Hosea. The bible is saturated with the phenomenon. Yet one feminist scholar has gone so far as to claim that the female counterpart, the Kedeshot, were the equivalent of vestal virgins! Others settle for the designation of functionary.

Oddly, those who advance such notions accuse the inventors of the older idea of Canaanite licentiousness of "prudery." Instead, prudery seems to infest the anti-prostitution camp.

Let us look at two pieces of textual evidence. In chapter 38 of Genesis, Judah couples with Tamar, thinking her a common prostitute (zonah). Later, he refers to her in a somewhat more dignified way as a kedeshah, traditionally rendered as a cult prostitute. It does not seem likely that he was claiming that he had sex with a "functionary." Let us take a modern example. At a drinking party a womanizer might boast of an encounter with a hooker. The following day at the office he might assert more tactfully that his companion was an "escort" or "model"—certainly not a bureaucrat. In short Judah’s verbal substitution makes no sense unless both terms refer to sexual services, though those of the kedeshah are of a higher class. This interpretation finds support in the cognate Mesopotamian term qidishtu, which refers to a cult prostitute.

Now let us turn to the male equivalents. In Deuteronomy 23:18 the matter is laid out with exemplary clarity. "No Israelite woman shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any Israelite man be a kadesh. You shall not bring the fee of a zonah (whore) or the pay of a kelebh (dog) into the house of the Lord." We have noted the kedeshah/zonah linkage. The kadesh/kelebh one parallels it. There is independent evidence that such kelebhim were male hustlers; at all events, dogs in the ordinary sense do not generally receive fees.

If one adopts the minimalist idea that the texts were written much later than they purport to be, one could dismiss this kadesh/kedeshah material as another invention. Since, however, it finds parallels at Ugarit and in Mesopotamia, and in any event is discreditable to the Yahwist party, it seems likely that these texts retain a kernel of unpleasant truth.

A possible solution begins with a suggestion by Dennis Pardee. He holds that the kedeshim of Ugarit were indeed important religious functionaries—in effect priests. Over time, however, they came into conflict with another such corps of religious servants, the kohanim. Eventually the latter, the Cohens if you will, triumphed, degrading their opponents, the kedeshim in status. Perhaps, to preserve any role, they took on the office of cultic male prostitutes. Perhaps it happened this way. Unexplained, though, is the fact that the female counterpart, the kedeshot, always seem to have offered sexual services.

As this last matter shows, there is much that remains to be settled. Along the way, we will note, as always, ideological preferences that need to be overcome if a truer picture is to emerge.

[A faithful reader asks that I append some bibliographical notes. These follow.] The best thing to start with is a good version of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. I have found the Jewish Study Bible (eds. Berlin and Brettler; Oxford UP) to be beyond praise. The notes and essays encompass a wide variety of points of view, from traditional rabbinical interpretations to the latest iconoclastic theories (or some of them at least--there are some limits). While (in my view) not strictly sound on a historical basis, the rabbinical material does help to explain aspects of Jewish ritual and piety. This volume even discusses the hypothesis that Ham sodomized his dad! Apart from the historical question, there is clearly much wisdom in the Tanakh: in the Prophets and the Psalms, in Job and Ecclesiastes. For this reason the Hebrew bible will always remain a major presence in Western civilization. The JSB volume is worth far more than its modest price. I consult it on an almost daily basis.

Now to the more specific references. There are two branches of study: the textual (using mainly the Ugaritic texts) and the archaeological. For the first, I started with Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism (2001). Despite the title, the heart of this book is a reconstruction of the Ugaritic pantheon. Another useful book is Dennis Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit.

The advantages of the archaeological method are forcefully argued in several works by William G. Dever, a convert to Judaism. A recent one is Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? To go further one can really open one's wallet and acquire Ziony Zevit's monumental The Religions of Ancient Israel. This encyclopedic work would be an honor to any field of research. Zevit can be used in tandem with another big work: Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel.

As an art historian I must own that the figurines unearthed in Israelite territory seem poor things compared to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian masterpieces. However, iconography cannot rely solely on masterpieces. Still, with relatively little textual confirmation, the identity of the pieces cannot be established as easily as Dever (eg) claims.

It must be remembered that the ancient Israelites (whoever they were) stood at the conjunction ot the two great tectonic plates of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the founders of our civilization. This whole cultural complex needs to be seen as a unit.