I’ve just published a new video on my YouTube channel — this time about the story of Joseph. It’s based on this article I wrote a while ago, but as usual, it has some new material and a new approach to some issues.
Although a small minority of scholars still argue that the story of Joseph was written in the monarchic period, the modern consensus seems to be that it dates to post-exilic times and is linked somehow to the Jewish diaspora in Egypt. The canonical narrative begins and ends with a focus on the twelve sons of Jacob who are to become the twelve tribes of Israel; but as we know, the twelve-tribe motif is a fictional reinvention of Israel’s history that emerged quite late, and you don’t find individuals with those names in ancient inscriptions, ostraca, et cetera. At the very least, any part of the story involving the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel cannot be so ancient.
However, the name “Joseph” does seem to be older than most of the other names. Even in the Bible, there are places where Joseph is listed as a tribe or house that is distinct from other Israelite tribes, including Manasseh and Ephraim—oblivious to the verses in Genesis and Numbers that “replace” Joseph with Manasseh and Ephraim in the twelve-tribe framework.
Two questions I pondered while I was revisiting the Joseph story were (1) could there be an older core of the story that concerns only the Joseph character, and if so, (2) what, in historical terms, did Joseph originally refer to? Was it just another name for the kingdom of Israel, or did it represent something else?
In the middle of a genealogy about the descendants of Noah in Genesis 10, the author inserts a brief and obviously incomplete narrative about a great king named Nimrod who founds and rules several of the great cities of Babylonia and Assyria. The story cannot be described as historical, of course. No ruler named Nimrod can be found in the archaeological record, and the cities in question — to the extent that they can be identified — were established at different times over the span of several millennia.
It might seem strange that ancient authors would invent or tell stories about fictitious founders of great cities, but this was, in fact, common practice. Ancient Greek authors were particularly interested in the founding stories of Nineveh and Babylon, even though they possessed very little reliable knowledge about those cities and their histories.
There is a mysterious set of words that appears in graffiti, inscriptions, amulets, and other forms all across the ancient Roman world. Commonly known as the Sator Square, it is a Latin palindrome — a phrase that reads the same forward and backward — arranged as a square of five rows and columns, and comprised of five words that are each five letters long. Because it reads the same regardless of which corner and which direction (horizontally or vertically) one reads it in, it is also a two-dimensional palindrome. There’s no consensus regarding its exact meaning and purpose, so that’s what we’ll be looking at in a moment. Here’s what it looks like:
This ancient enigma, normally little more than a footnote in history books, has been thrust into the popular spotlight by the entertainment press¹ due to the upcoming (we hope) July release of a new film by writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose previous body of work includes Memento, Inception, Interstellar, and the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan’s films often use unconventional, nonlinear storytelling techniques, including nested stories (Inception) and even narratives that proceed backwards (Memento), to explore the elusive nature of reality. We can probably expect another unique perspective on reality in his next movie — called Tenet — which apparently involves espionage and time travel.Read More »
Few biblical characters are as obscure as Shamgar ben Anat. To be sure, there are many names that appear just once or twice in the genealogies, but Shamgar is a character whose actions distinguish him within the biblical narrative, and not just a forgotten name on a list. Although he is mentioned in only two verses, he is supposedly one of the judges of Israel who was remembered for a mighty feat in battle. However, I knew practically nothing about him beside the name before I set about writing this article, and I chose him as an experiment to find out how much biblical studies could tell me about such a marginal character.Read More »
Few literary sources about the early religion of Israel are available to us. There is the Old Testament of course, and although many of its stories and traditions are old, the text itself comes to us through redacted manuscripts produced by Judean scribes at a fairly late date. From archaeological evidence and careful analysis of some of the Bible’s earliest passages, scholars have developed a view of early Israel that was much more polytheistic right from its origins than the traditional story would have us believe.
In the early 20th century, a collection of Aramaic papyri discovered in Egypt opened a new window on Israelite religion. They consist of letters, legal documents, and literature written by and for a colony of Israelites and Arameans who were apparently recruited as mercenaries to guard the southern frontier of Egypt at what is now Aswan. Dated to the fifth century BCE, these papyri are far older than any biblical manuscripts we possess, and unlike the Bible, they are original documents with no opportunity for editing and revision over the centuries. Although Yahweh is frequently mentioned in the form “Yaho” (YHW or occasionally YHH), the letters also mention the god Bethel and the goddesses Anat-Bethel (i.e. Anat consort of Bethel), Anat-Yaho, and the Queen of Heaven in association with people who are clearly Israelites. There seems to be a clear implication that these were other deities venerated by at least some Jews and Israelites. Can we find other evidence that such was the case? For this article, I am particularly interested in Bethel, but others may occasionally come into the picture.Read More »
Tucked away amidst the genealogies of Chronicles almost no one reads, the tale of two cattle-rustling brothers from Ephraim might just be the most obscure story in the Bible. Like many such tales in the Old Testament, this one is brief and contains only the most essential details:
The sons of Ephraim…Ezer and Elead. Now the men of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him. He went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son; and he named him Beriah, because evil (beraah) had befallen his house. His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. (1 Chr. 7:20-24)Read More »
In 1967, inscriptions written on a crumbled plaster wall were discovered during the excavation of Tell Deir ‘Alla in Jordan. Dated to the early 8th century BCE and written in a local Canaanite dialect, the inscriptions drew great attention when their title, written in red ink, was translated and found to say “Text of Balaam son of Beor, seer of the gods.” This remarkable find provided independent attestation of local tradition about a seer named Balaam who was already well-known to us from the Bible, and deciphering the fragmentary texts has been an ongoing task of archaeologists and linguistic experts since then.
The biblical Balaam passages are not without their own difficulties. The main story of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 is contradicted by other brief references in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, as well as three mentions of him in the New Testament. The importance of Balaam to the development of Christian theology is also remarkable, as we shall see once we untangle the development of the Balaam legend.Read More »
No scene in the Old Testament characterizes the Israelites’ frequent apostasy more vividly than the Golden Calf incident in Exodus. Like so many other biblical stories, however, this tale reveals a complicated history of development and other problems that render its intent ambiguous.
The Golden Calf story does not stand in isolation, for 1 Kings tells a very similar story about the creation of two golden calves by king Jeroboam, and there are additional references to the golden calves in Hosea, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and elsewhere. The two incidents appear to be related, but how exactly?
The situation becomes more complicated still when we bringing historical and archaeological evidence. Having skimmed several dozen books and articles that discuss the golden calves of Exodus and 1 Kings, I will attempt to summarize the most widespread academic views. Read More »
The God of Israel is referred to by a number of names in the Old Testament. The two most significant are “El” (with its variants) and “Yahweh”. Thanks in large part to the religious libraries uncovered among the ruins of Ugarit, a Bronze Age city-state to the north of Israel, we now know a great deal about El as a distinct Canaanite deity who was regarded as the most high god in Ugarit, as he would be later in Israel.
It is generally understood that the cults dedicated to Yahweh and El originated independently of each other before their eventual merger — a process still not completed when much of the Old Testament was written. But determining how Yahweh came to be the patron deity of Israel and Judah is not so simple. The lack of archaeological evidence has required Bible scholars to rely mostly on the text of the Bible itself.
The theory known as the Kenite hypothesis is one that has been around since the 19th century, initially proposed by the theologian F. W. Ghillany in 1862. According to this view, Yahweh was originally the God of the Kenite tribe prior to the Israelite settlement of Canaan. The Kenite hypothesis lost momentum as modern biblical studies undermined some of its key premises, but it seems to be making a comeback thanks to newer findings and a reassessment of the biblical texts.Read More »
The Old Testament is full of names used to describe various ethnic groups of the Promised Land and the lands they occupy. Some of these names are well-attested from other archaeological and historical sources; others are obscure and remain a mystery to this day.
Throughout the Pentateuch and historical books, the Promised Land is frequently referred to as Canaan, and its non-Israelite inhabitants as Canaanites. Other terms used fairly often for the land’s indigenous inhabitants, though less frequently than “Canaanite”, are “Amorite” and “Hittite”.
What, in historical terms, was a Canaanite, a Hittite, an Amorite? How did ancient sources outside the Bible use these labels, and what comparisons can we draw with the Bible? The answers may help us to understand the times and places in which the biblical authors wrote, as well as the idealogical framework they were working from.Read More »