Texts in Context:
Darkness on the Mountains

By Gabriel Blanchard

Here we turn from "the contemplative Sphinx" and "garden-girdled Babylon"1 to a small, enigmatic people, as few in number as the stars of the heaven.

This post is part of a series on the historical context of our Author Bank; it includes introductory posts on historiography, periodization, and pseudohistory.

Out of Eden

We have hinted before at the importance which the Jews will eventually have for the history of the West. The reverse was true during the Early Iron Age: they were decidedly unimportant, so much so as to be nearly undetectable, archæologically speaking. Outside the Tanakh2 itself, only a handful of allusions to them survive predating Alexander the Great. The Tanakh says that their ancestor Abraham dwelt in “Ur of the Chaldees,” and make him an emigrant from Mesopotamia to Canaan; it also reports a sojourn of some centuries in Egypt, making themselves ex-slave refugees fleeing into Canaan. Who were these people?

A few groups have been considered as possible proto-Israelites. A group of Semitic nomads lived in Canaan and Sinai in the late Bronze Age, known to Egypt as the Shasu; a few records strikingly allude to their country as the land of the Shasu of Yhw’. There were also the Habiru, an underclass largely consisting in servants, hard laborers, and shepherds. Most scholars believe Habiru and Hebrew are unrelated terms, though a few entertain the hypothesis that a community which welcomed outcasts might eventually have been named for them. And the Amarna Letters to Akhenaten (the “heretic pharaoh” who only worshiped one god), which date to the fourteenth century BC—roughly the period implied by the Bible for the Exodus—complain that the Canaanite provinces of Egypt’s empire are under attack from local Habiru, and beg the pharaoh for military aid!

Many modern historians argue instead that the Israelites were native to Canaan. The theory is that they grew distinct from “the Canaanites” not due to ethnic origin, but by cultural practices: for example, in Iron Age tells (essentially garbage dumps), the only evidence to set an Israelite site apart from a Canaanite one is that Israelite tells have no pig bones. This theory also seems to match the linguistic situation: Classical Hebrew does not show special influence from Egyptian, which we would expect from a four-century sojourn there, but it does match up neatly with the dialects native to Canaan. However, there are difficulties in the “indigenous” theory, too. One is why the Isralites would invent an elaborate story about coming from elsewhere (twice over, if we count Abraham). Another is how and why the differences sprang up. For instance, Iron Age Phoenicians were internationally renowned for their prowess in engineering and mathematics, and were expert seafarers; Iron Age Israelites didn’t trust a boat as far as they could throw it, and were sufficiently uninterested in mathematics to use 3 as their eh, close enough value of π (which may be why, when they wanted a grandiose temple built, they got a Phoenician to do it for them).

One more surprising idea has been put forward: that the Israelites were, from the start, an amalgamated people. The twelve tribes (on this view) were not all literally descended from the sons of Jacob, but were a blend of these “Jacobite” originals with a few other peoples. This could explain a number of oddities, such as the lists of the tribes of Israel displaying minor inconsistencies,3 the Tanakh speaking of a “mixed multitude” departing with Moses, or the less-than-thorough extermination of the Canaanites commanded in the book of Joshua.

Out of Egypt

What, then, could have tied this disparate group of peoples together enough that they could in some sense regard themselves as the one nation of Israel? Escaping from slavery is a great gain, but it doesn’t amount to a national identity by itself. But the story of Exodus, and the stories of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, contain a through-line which would accomplish exactly that. All parts of this story revolve around promises made by God to a people marked out as his own by a covenant.

We don’t use the word “covenant” a lot today, and when we do, we usually think of it as a fancy synonym for “contract.” In the Ancient Near East, however, covenants were both far more common as a device for building societies, and, naturally enough, much more clearly understood by most people.

A contract is a mutual agreement between two or more parties, usually to secure an exchange of goods: e.g., one jewel containing the living light of the West in exchange for the Elven princess’s hand in marriage; one bushel of money for one storage unit they aren’t supposed to let you sleep in but they do anyway—that kind of thing. While normally put in binding terms, to give all parties confidence in the others’ follow-through, at base, a contract is just an agreement. They can be protected by any number of personal, religious, or political strictures, but (under the right circumstances) they can also be canceled by as little as a mutual agreement among the concerned parties.

LORD, when thou wentest out of Seir,
      when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom,
the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped,
      the clouds also dropped water.
The mountains melted from before the LORD,
      even that Sinai from before the LORD God of Israel.

Covenants are quite different. What they establish is not an exchange of goods, but a relation, as in familial relations. (Its gravity is less vivid to us than it was in the Victorian era, but one covenant that has remained commonplace is marriage.) This is why, though there are usually allowed to be exceptions, the rule of thumb for covenants is that they are indissoluble, not even by mutual consent. The kinship established by a covenant can be betrayed, but not destroyed, or only in the same sense that you “destroy” your related-ness to a family member by disowning them.

The Tanakh records a series of covenants between God and his chosen people. From the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12,4 all the way to the secret burial of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, the whole of the Torah is (by its own lights) a statement of the terms under which the covenant between God and the Hebrews is to be conducted. The seminal event is the giving of the Torah on Sinai; it was for this that Moses haggled with Pharaoh in the first place:

Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.’” And Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.” And they said, “The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God …” —Exodus 5.1-3

Though there are considerable disputes about how to date different sections of the Tanakh, its oldest material contains allusions to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt—God’s central claim on the Israelites’ good will and gratitude, and the basis of the covenant God then established with the Israelites on Mount Sinai.

Out of Ariel5

According to the rest of the Tanakh, Israel did not keep the Torah as they had promised when they received it. We have no time to outline First Temple Judaism (practiced from around 1000 BC for four centuries or so), but we have a little archæological evidence. The Tanakh claims two things: that God commanded the Israelites to worship only him; and that they repeatedly, all but incessantly disobeyed. Whatever the truth of the first claim, archæology offers definite evidence for the second. Many Early Iron Age Israelites were as polytheistic as anybody, making dedications to “YHWH … and his Asherah.”6 As God purportedly tells Samuel, “since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day … they have forsaken me, and served other gods” (I Samuel 8.8).

In the words of the same chapter, whether literal or poetic, God did make a king to judge them like the nations. About the year 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian Empire laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital of Judah. When the city broke, he carried off its elites to live in subjection in his own capital, Babylon, and ransacked the Temple of Sh’lomoh (in Greek, Solomōn) before burning it to the ground. It was at this point that Judaism as we will know it later started to crystallize—but, that is a story for another day.

1The quoted phrases come from H. P. Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu,” in which a poet states that “dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girdled Babylon.”
2The Tanakh, a.k.a. the Hebrew or Jewish Bible, is roughly the same thing as the Old Testament, according to the typical Protestant canon (the Catholic, Ethiopic, and Orthodox canons all embrace books not accepted as Scripture in Judaism). The books do differ: Christian Old Testaments follow an order established by the Septuagint (the first major translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek). The name Tanakh is an acrostic, representing the Judaic arrangement in three sections:
• the Torah (“Law”) or “Five Books of Moses”;
• the Nevi’im (“Prophets”): first the major histories (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) or “Former Prophets,” then the “Latter Prophets” (Isaiah through Malachi, except Lamentations and Daniel); and
• the Ketuvim (“Writings”), i.e. everything else, with Psalms at its head.
Taking those initial letters and inserting vowels (as Hebrew script habitually does anyway), T-N-K becomes “Tanakh.” The New Testament expression “the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” is likely expressing the same idea as the acrostic.
3These inconsistencies are minor—no Simeon here, “Ephraim and Manasseh” for “Joseph” there—but in one case, the Hymn of Deborah, there are striking anomalies. Two tribes seem to have been swapped out, Gad for Gilead and Manasseh for Machir (though this may be only a poetic device), and Judah, Benjamin, and Levi go completely unmentioned.
4He was technically named Abram and not Abraham at this point, yes. You’re very smart.
5Ariel, meaning “lion of God,” is a poetic name for Jerusalem (used e.g. in Isaiah 29).
6Bafflingly to the present author, the existence of artifacts suggesting that a version of Asherah was worshiped alongside YHWH are often marshaled as evidence against the veracity of the Tanakh, on the grounds that the text says the Jews were monotheists. It says no such thing: it does say that God told them to be monotheists, and then that they weren’t. This apparent lapse in literacy on the part of archæologists is strange.

Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle of seven nephews, holds a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, College Park, and serves as CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at our series on the history of ideas: we have posts on everything from magic and piety to democracy, peace (and its opposite), and technology. We also recommend our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT founder Jeremy W. Tate.

Published on 22nd April, 2024. Page image of the Tel Dan Stele, a fragmentary stone slab bearing an inscription in the Canaanite alphabet (also known as Paleo-Hebrew script) that most scholars agree includes one of the few allusions outside the Bible to the “House of David”; photo by Oren Rozen, taken in 2016, and used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license (source).

Share this post:
Scroll to Top