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, secular humanist, studied comparative religion and history of religions
We have a wealth of extra-biblical evidence for the origins of the Israelites, both written and archaeological.
However, after many decades of intensive archaeological and historical studies, not a single item of direct evidence has been found to support the biblical narratives of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus from Egypt. Various hypotheses have been proposed in support of the biblical account, but they have all been discredited by archaeology, written records and by the anachronisms and contradictions created by these hypotheses.
On the other hand, there is plenty of archaeological and written evidence to say confidently that the origin of the Israelites is very different from the story as told by the Bible. Instead of being outsiders who conquered Canaan and settled in the area, the Israelites have simply emerged from the local Canaanite population, and their language, culture and religion have evolved from that of the Canaanites into a unique identity.
Please note that my answer below is a very short summary of evidence-based scholarship as presented by prominent historians and archaeologists like William G. Dever, Israel Finkelstein and K. L. Noll. Readers who are interested in more detail should read the work of these scholars.
My answer addresses two subjects:
- The biblical account and the case against it.
- The evidence that the Israelites, their culture, their language and their religion have emerged from the local Canaanite population.
The Biblical account:
The book of Genesis says that Abraham and his family were natives of the city of Ur of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), from where they migrated to Haran (on the border of modern Turkey and Syria), where they spent some time. God then instructed Abraham to go to a land which God would point out to him. God promised to make Abraham the father of a great new nation in the new land. Abraham and his family then travelled southwest to Canaan, to the area which is today known as Israel.
Image source: The Journeys of Abraham
(Note that the travel to Egypt indicated on the map above was not yet the Egyptian enslavement, but that it was only a short visit made by Abraham, described in the biblical narrative.)
Abraham was the father of Isaac and Isaac was the father of Jacob. These three are collectively known as the patriarchs. They spent most of their time in Canaan, but they also travelled to other places for example Mesopotamia and Egypt. One night during his travels, Jacob wrestled with an angel and was given the name Israel, meaning “He who struggled with God”.
Jacob had twelve sons, whose descendants were to become the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, was sold by his brothers to caravan drivers, who took him to Egypt, where Joseph became a powerful high-ranking advisor in the pharaoh’s court.
Jacob, his other sons and their families lived in Canaan until a drought and famine struck Canaan. Jacob and his family then travelled to Egypt to seek food, where they were reunited with Joseph. They remained in Egypt where their numbers multiplied and they prospered greatly. However, when they became too numerous and powerful, the Egyptians became fearful of them and forced them into slavery in the Nile delta.
After centuries of slavery in Egypt, God called on Moses to lead Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, out of Egypt and back to Canaan. The Egyptian pharaoh did not want to let them go, but God punished the Egyptians with ten plagues, including killing the firstborn of every Egyptian, and the pharaoh finally let them go.
The Israelites, numbering about 600,000 men, besides women and children, then left Egypt with their flocks and herds. Instead of travelling via the land of the Philistines on the south-east coast of the Mediterranean, God led them into the Sinai desert, to Mount Sinai in the south of the Sinai peninsula, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and made a covenant with the Israelites. The Israelites then wandered the Sinai desert for forty years, spending most of the time in Kadesh-Barnea in the northeast of the Sinai desert.
Image source: Route of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt
After forty years in the desert, the Israelites traveled north to Mount Nebo (in modern Jordan), where Moses died before he could go to the promised land. From there they travelled west across the Jordan River. Under the leadership of Joshua they conquered thirty Canaanite cities during a seven year campaign. The Israelites were finally back in their promised land.
Image source: Conquest of Canaan
When in history does the biblical narratives play off?
The Bible states that the exodus from Egypt happened 480 years before Solomon’s temple was built and that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years before the exodus. The temple was built in 960 BCE. If we go by these dates, then it place the different narratives in the following periods:
- The patriarchs in Canaan: from 2085 BCE to 1870 BCE
- Jacob and his descendants in Egypt: from 1870 BCE to 1440 BCE
- The exodus and wandering of the Sinai: from 1440 BCE to 1400 BCE
- Start of the seven year conquest of Canaan: 1400 BCE
However, there are also contradictions in the Bible, for example:
- In genealogies tracing Jacob’s descendants, Moses and Aaron are listed as fourth generation descendants of Levi, one of Jacob’s sons, while Joshua, a contemporary of Moses, is listed as a twelfth generation descendent of Joseph, another son of Jacob. This is hardly a trivial discrepancy.
- The Bible states that the Israelites have spent 430 years in Egypt, but when we work it out from the genealogies, it only comes to about 200 years, depending on which line you follow.
Because of numerous contradictions and anachronisms, other dates have been proposed as alternative. For example, because of the prominent role of the Philistines in the narratives, the mention of the Egyptian city of Pi-Ramesses in the exodus narrative and the strong presence of Egypt in Canaan during the late Bronze Age, most scholars say that the exodus could not have taken place before 1200 BCE, in other words about 250 years later than the above dates, while others place it earlier.
One scholar has even suggested that the exodus happened 1480 years before Solomon’s temple was built and that the 480 years mentioned in the Bible is a copy error. This places the exodus at 1000 years earlier, during the Old Kingdom of Egypt, in a period of strife for Egypt, which would suit the biblical narrative, because it could have been caused by the catastrophic ten plagues and the exodus. However, the further back in history, the more numerous the anachronisms and contraditions. As will be seen below, whatever set of dates we choose, it creates its own set of anachronisms and inconsistencies.
For the discussion below, note that the dates for the Bronze Age and the Iron Age in the Levant are as follows:
- Bronze Age: 3300 BCE to 1200 BCE
- Iron Age: 1200 BCE to 500 BCE
Problems with the biblical account:
There are numerous problems, contradictions and anachronisms with the biblical account, some of which I list here. Please note that this list is by no means complete:
- Chaldea only existed as a nation between the 10th and 6th centuries BCE. Abraham and his family could therefore not have been native Chaldeans as stated in Genesis 11, because they were supposed to have lived centuries before that.
- It appears that this part of the story was written after the 10th century BCE, by somebody who knew about the Chaldeans but who had no idea that they did not even exist at the time that Abraham was supposed to live.
- There is no archaeological or any other extra-biblical evidence that Joshua, Moses or any of the patriarchs were historical figures.
- The Egyptians have kept thorough records. Everything related to the administrative functioning of the empire was recorded, from major events, to the day to day running of the state. With the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the subsequent ability to read Egyptian hieroglyphs, biblical scholars were confident that they would finally find written evidence of the Egyptian enslavement and about Joseph as a high ranking official in the pharaoh’s administration, but not a single reference has been found.
- The New Kingdom of Egypt period (16th century BCE to 11th century BCE) was Egypt’s most prosperous time and the peak of its power. There is no reference in the Egyptian records of the ten plagues, some of which would have been devastating to the economy. The economy stayed strong throughout the entire period. Every Egyptian firstborn dying on the same day would have been a devastating and distressing event for the Egyptians, so one would expect it to be mentioned in their records, but there are none.
- The population of Egypt during the New Kingdom of Egypt period is estimated to have never gone above 3.5 million people. Adding women and children under 20 to the 600,000 men who are said to have left Egypt during the exodus according to the Bible, would have brought the number of Israelites who left Egypt to in excess of two million people.
- Such a large number of slaves fleeing the country would have made a large hole in the population and would have had a devastating effect on the Egyptian economy. There is no record of that, either archaeologically or written, and the Egyptian economy remained strong throughout the period.
- Probably the biggest problem for the exodus narrative is that, for more than 300 years, from the 15th century BCE onwards, past the entire period in which the bible places the exodus, Canaan was in fact an Egyptian province and part of the Egyptian empire, ruled by Egyptian governors.
- This has been proved beyond doubt by Egyptian records and archaeology in Canaan. Therefore, it makes no sense for Moses and the Israelites going to Canaan to escape the Egyptians.
- Egypt had a very strong hold on Canaan until the second half of the 12th century BCE. Egypt could easily have prevented an attack by the Israelites, yet the strong presence of Egypt in Canaan at the time is not mentioned in the biblical narrative.
Image source: Map of the Egyptian Empire
- There were many Egyptian garrisons and checkpoints all over the eastern delta, in Sinai and in modern day Israel, with a wealth of archaeological evidence. They have kept extensive record of comings and goings. There are no records of such a large number of Israelites coming into the area.
- There is no archaeological evidence of the Israelites wandering the Sinai desert for 40 years. In fact, except for Egyptian garrisons and forts along the northern coast, the Sinai desert shows almost no sign of occupation for the entire 2nd millennium BCE.
- This is despite repeated archaeological studies throughout the Sinai peninsula, including the area around Mount Sinai. Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites have spent 38 years according to the Bible, was uninhabited during the 2nd millennium BCE.
- Most of the places mentioned along the exodus route were unoccupied during that time, and were not occupied until the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Studies convincingly show that the place names along the exodus route point to 1st millennium BCE geography, instead of 2nd millennium BCE geography (when the Exodus supposedly took place).
- There were no Philistines in Canaan during the Bronze Age, when the narratives of the patriarchs, exodus and conquest of Canaan are said to have happened.
- Egyptian texts and archaeology proved beyond doubt that they settled in Canaan in the 12th century BCE during the Bronze Age Collapse.
- Yet the Philistines are very prominent in the narratives about the conquest, and even centuries earlier during the time of the patriarchs.
- Extensive archaeological surveys show that the central hill country was sparsely populated during the last four centuries of the Late Bronze Age, from 1550 BCE to 1150 BCE, and that the population of Canaan during this period was predominantly in cities in the Mediterranean coastal plain.
- Excavations of the Canaanite cities mentioned in the narrative of the seven year conquest of Canaan show that many of them (such as Jericho and Ai) were not inhabited at all during the period, or that they were insignificant villages at the time.
- Again, the geography of the narratives is consistent with 1st millennium BCE geography, instead of 2nd millennium BCE geography, when the narratives are said to have taken place.
- The Arameans feature prominently in the patriarchal narratives, but they did not arrive in the area until the early Iron Age.
The Canaanite origin of the Israelites:
There is overwhelming archaeological and written evidence that, rather than being outsiders from Mesopotamia who later became the Israelites, the ancestors of the Israelites were part of the pre-existing Bronze Age population of Canaan and that they have simply emerged out of the local population. The evidence for this is in the history of Canaan, the Canaanite language, the Canaanite religion, archaeology, and in comparing the language, religion and culture of the Canaanites with that of the Israelites. I will discuss this in more detail below.
The political landscape of Canaan:
Throughout the Bronze Age, up to the 12th century BCE, the land of Canaan contained a number of city states, some of which are indicated in the image below. The entire Canaan (the area coloured pink in the image) was under Egyptian control, but the different city states were allowed considerable self-government, each with its local Canaanite king (a petty king). They were also allowed to worship their own gods.
Image source: Canaan Map
One of these Canaanite city states was the coastal city of Ugarit in northern Canaan (modern Ras Sharma in Syria). Ugarit was a Canaanite centre of wealth and commerce. The city was destroyed around 1200 BCE, probably by the Sea Peoples, during the Bronze Age collapse. Two libraries of clay tablets, called the Ugaritic texts, were discovered during the 1920s in the ruins of the city of Ugarit. It gives us a very good description of the Canaanite language, religion and culture.
The Canaanite languages:
There were a number of Semitic languages in Canaan, with Phoenician, biblical Hebrew and the language called Ugaritic being part of the Northwest Semitic languages. According to Dr David Neiman, scholar in biblical studies and Jewish history, Ugaritic is an older language by a few centuries than biblical Hebrew, but it is not a different language. Ugaritic is an older version of biblical Hebrew, much like Shakespearean English is an older version of modern English. Just like modern English has evolved from Shakespearean English, the Hebrew language used in the Bible, which was written centuries after the destruction of Ugarit, has evolved from the language used in the Ugaritic texts.
The Canaanite religion:
The Ugarit texts describe a rich mythology that has evolved from earlier Mesopotamian polytheism. The Canaanite religion itself was also polytheistic. They had a pantheon of gods, called the Elohim (meaning “children of El”), consisting of four tiers:
- The sky god El and his wife Asherah in the first tier, at the head of the pantheon:
- El is also known as El Elyon, meaning “Most High of all the gods”. El is the creator god, the father of all other gods and humans. He is also the god of wisdom and a good-natured, beneficent being.
- Asherah/Athirat, El’s consort or wife, and the mother of the seventy gods.
- Seventy gods in the second tier. They are the children of El and Asherah, including:
- Ba’al, the storm and rain god. Ba’al’s position is elevated over that of his siblings and he shares some of the functions of his father El in presiding over the pantheon. Ba’al is the husband of the earth, and he brings fertility and impregnates the earth with rain. He also protects humanity against the destructive forces of nature, for example the sea god Yamm.
- Anat, the goddess of love, war and hunting.
- Mot, the god of death, burning and pestilence, and ruler of the Underworld.
- Yamm, the god of the sea, and Ba’al’s enemy.
- Crafts-deities in the third tier.
- Minor deities in the fourth tier.
The Israelite religion:
The origins of the Israelite religion in Canaanite polytheism is clear from archaeology, from comparison with other Ancient Near East religions and from a close comparison of the Ugarit texts with the earliest Hebrew texts of the Bible, as well as other texts, for example the book of 1 Enoch. It shows that the early Israelite beliefs involved a three-tiered pantheon, essentially the same as the Canaanite four-tiered pantheon, but with the roles of the two middle tiers collapsed into one.
There is plenty of evidence that the Israelite religion started out as a typical Canaanite polytheistic religion and a typical Ancient Near East religion in general, and that it gradually evolved into henotheism and monolatry, and finally into monotheism:
- Polytheism: acknowledging the existence of many gods and worshipping many of them.
- Henotheism: acknowledging the existence of many gods, worshipping only one of them, but allowing other people to worship other gods.
- Monolatry: acknowledging the existence of other gods, worshipping only one of them, and prohibiting the worship of other gods.
- Monotheism: worshipping only one god and denying the existence of other gods.
Polytheism in the ancient Israelite beliefs:
There is evidence (biblical and archaeological) that the early Israelites have worshipped El and his wife Asherah, as well as other gods in the pantheon, for example the storm and rain god Ba’al.
Yahweh, the ancient Hebrew war god, started out as one of the sons of El, the Most High. Yahweh does not feature in the pantheon of the Ugaritic texts, but he was a later Israelite addition to the pantheon, possibly to replace the war goddess Anat in a highly patriarchal society.
For example, have a look at this Bible passage from the ancient Dead Scrolls:
When Elyon divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the number of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, [Israel] his allotted inheritance.
– Deuteronomy 32:8–9 (Dead Sea Scrolls)
As mentioned previously, in the Canaanite religion the head god El’s full name was El Elyon (“the Most High of all the gods”). He and his wife Asherah were at the head of the pantheon called the Elohim (meaning “children of El”), with the other gods in the second tier as the sons of the gods El and Asherah.
So, the above passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls refers to El dividing all humans into 70 nations, giving his son Yahweh the nation of Israel as inheritance. This corresponds with the 70 nations that emerged after the flood in the Noah narrative in Genesis. It is also consistent with the notion of the patron god in the other ANE polytheistic religions: different gods in the second tier of the pantheon ruling over different geographical areas or nations like kings.
The meaning of these verses are obscured in later translations (for example the Masoretic text), creating the impression that it refers to the 12 tribes of Israel (the 12 sons of Jacob), while it actually refers to all humans (descendants of Adam). It also obscures the fact that it actually refers to two deities (El and his son Yahweh). Compare the same passage in the King James Version with the Dead Sea Scrolls above, with specific reference to the phrases in bold:
When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
– Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (KJV)
Other examples of biblical evidence for the polytheistic nature of the beliefs of the Israelites:
- The word Elohim (original meaning “sons of El” in the Canaanite religion), was subsequently used more than 2500 times in the Hebrew Tanakh, and was used to indicate anything from a range of gods, the Divine Assembly (see below), the god of the Bible, other gods (for example Chemosh, the god of Moab), and even kings and prophets.
- The Divine Assembly, also called the Divine Council or Synod of Gods, played an important role in the Canaanite religion, where El presided over the Divine Council. In the Hebrew Bible the god of the Israelites presided over the Divine Council. See for example Psalm 82, where God has council with the other gods in the Divine Council, accuses them of corruption and sentences them to death.
- Yahweh and the Israelites attacked the Canaanites, but they were unable to conquer them, because the Canaanites had the new technology of iron chariots. The matter of fact way in which the author relates the story is consistent with the polytheistic notion that the patron gods were not all that powerful, especially when they were on another patron god’s turf. Therefore, they did not blame Yahweh for his inability to handle the new technology, but sometimes perceived failures like this on the part of the god could lead them to doubt the power of their own god and to start worshipping one of the other gods instead.
- The Israelites attacked the Moabites, but the king of Moab sacrificed his firstborn son to their patron god Chemosh, who unleashed a burst of divine anger upon the Israelites, forcing them to retreat.
- In Canaanite polytheism, the sun, moon and stars were considered demigods in the fourth tier of the pantheon. In the Bible there are numerous examples of the stars singing the praise of Yahweh and falling from the sky, Yahweh reprimanding the morning star for trying to take position higher up with the other gods, the sun coming out of his tabernacle every morning like a bridegroom and so on.
- The origin of the name Israel in the Bible is itself also a clue to the polytheistic nature of the early Israelites. It is from a story with a rather mythological element in the Bible, where Jacob physically wrestled with either God or an angel throughout the night, after which God named Jacob Israel (Yisra’El in Hebrew), meaning “he who has struggled with El”.
Monolatry/henotheism in the ancient Israel beliefs:
There are also many examples of monolatry and henotheism in the Old Testament, for example a number of references to Yahweh as a jealous god. One example of this is at the beginning of the Ten Commandments:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God […]
References to “Yahweh and his Asherah” have been found, for example two different pottery shards dated to 800 BCE that reads:
- “I have blessed you by Yahweh and his Asherah”
- “Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!”
In other words, Yahweh had a consort or wife called Asherah, which is the same as the wife of the sky god El. This is one example of how the roles of El (the Most High of all the gods) and Yahweh (El’s son) were gradually merged together and it illustrates the evolution of the Israelite religion from polytheism towards monolatry.
I have addressed more example of monolatry, henotheism and polytheism in the Bible here:
The advent of monotheism and Judaism:
By the middle of the 7th century BCE, Israelite beliefs were still fluctuating between henotheism and polytheism, largely dependent on the political landscape and climate at the time. This much is clear from archaeology and from the Bible itself.
This changed under King Josiah, who was the king of Judah from 641 BCE to 609 BCE and who instituted major religious changes. There is a wealth of evidence, both archaeological and written, that under the leadership of King Josiah there was a strong drive towards monolatry (not yet full monotheism) for the Israelite nation, with a mainly political purpose: binding a nation together and uniting them under one god. All worship of gods other than Yahweh were declared an anathema and the cause of Judah’s ill fortune. A vigorous campaign of purging “foreign” worship was started, including destroying shrines to “foreign” gods like Ba’al and Asherah in the temple of Yahweh and in the countryside, and killing their priests.
Although much of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was written earlier, it is widely agreed by modern scholarship that the Torah reached a major part of its current form during these few decades at the end of the 7th century BCE. This was done by a group of scribes, court officials and priests, who acted as editors and redactors. Polytheistic references were removed (although not all of them) and the narratives of the patriarchs, the exodus and the conquest of Canaan (some of which have been written previously) were written to create a history for the nation of Israel and to establish their claim to the promised land.
This can be seen, for example, in the politics and geography of the narratives from Abraham to Joshua, which is almost in its entirety based on 7th century BCE geography and political landscape, instead of the 2nd millennium BCE geography and political landscape, when the narratives are said to have taken place. The people who wrote these stories in the 7th century BCE were simply not aware of the geography and political landscape of several centuries prior to that.
As part of the changes implemented by King Josiah and the leaders of Judah, the temple at Jerusalem was declared to be the only place of worship for the entire Israelite nation. Sacrifice to Yahweh was prohibited everywhere, except in the inner sanctum of the temple. The political ambitions of the leaders of Judah was to make the Jerusalem temple and royal palace the centre of a united Israelite kingdom.
This was what we can describe as the birth of Israelite monolatry, the worship of one god in one place. For some time after this the worship of the God of Israel was still accompanied by the veneration of other divine beings, and the Israelite beliefs were not yet fully monotheistic (denying the existence of other gods). However, the groundwork was laid by Josiah and the Israelites were ready for monotheism. That happened some decades later during the 6th century BCE, after the Judahites’ captivity in Babylonia and their exposure to Zoroastrianism, an older monotheistic religion. Denying the existence of other gods only started to happen in those parts of the Hebrew Bible that were written after the Babylonian captivity.
Modern scholarship agrees that we can really only start to describe the Israelite beliefs as Judaism, like we know it today, after this political drive by King Josiah in the 7th century BCE.
When did the Israelites originate as a separate nation?
We do not know for sure. The first ever extra-Biblical reference that we have to the word “Israel”, is the Merneptah Stele, which is an Egyptian account from the city of Thebes, written in the year 1204 BCE, describing the pharaoh’s victories over various groups in Lybia and Canaan.
Image source: Merneptah Stele
Towards the bottom of the stele it contains a set of hieroglyphs which the majority of scholars translate as “Israel”. Lines 26 to 28 of the stele:
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano’am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.
City states (including Askelon, Gezer and Yano’am mentioned above) are indicated with a throw stick, a sitting man and woman, three vertical lines (indicating plurality) and a mountain with three peaks (indicating fortifications). These are the “letters” on the right of the picture, with the name of the city on the left:
In the mention of Israel, only the throw stick, the sitting man and woman and the three lines are used, without the mountain. This is indicated on the right of the picture, with the name “Israel” on the left:
Image source: Real History Revealed
This latter depiction is used for foreign people who are typically nomadic, rather than city dwellers. Therefore, Israel is not pictured here as city people, but rather as a group of people without a city centre.
Not all scholars agree that the translation into “Israel” is the correct translation, but if it is, then it suggests that a small group of people, probably nomadic, known by the name Israel, was present in Canaan by the end of the 13th century BCE. This is very different from the biblical narrative, according to which Israel was at this stage already supposed to have been a much bigger nation which have captured many Canaanite city states.
Who were the Israelites?
For the last four centuries of the Late Bronze Age, up to 1150 BCE, archaeology shows that the Mediterranean coastal plain was occupied by Canaanites in a number of city states, while the central hill country was sparsely populated, but that there was a fair number of nomads in the highlands who traded with city dwellers and villagers on the plain to supplement their diet with grain.
Image source: Map of Israel’s Natural Divisions (Bible History Online)
During the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BCE, many of the cities on the coastal plain were destroyed, probably by the Sea Peoples from the west. Some of the invaders settled on the coastal plain, for example the Philistines in the south. At the same time, the Canaanite economic system collapsed and many city and village dwellers were reduced to subsistence production, unable to trade with the nomads. As a result, the trade between nomads and city dwellers collapsed and nomads increasingly started villages and farming in the highlands.
The central highlands also gradually started to fill up, not by force as suggested in the book of Joshua, but by Canaanites who fled the destruction brought by the Sea Peoples and the economic collapse of the Canaanite economy. Archaeological surveys from excavating villages and rubbish dumps suggest that their culture was initially exactly the same as the Canaanite culture, including statues showing that they worshipped the Canaanite gods. They gradually developed an identity of their own. For example, pig bones only started to disappear from rubbish dumps from 1000 BCE onwards, but gradually and not all at once.
What we have is therefore a process which is the opposite of what happened in the narrative in the book of Joshua. The emergence of the Israelites was the result of the collapse of the Canaanite culture and economy, not the cause of it.
We do not a have single extra-biblical item of direct evidence for the narratives from Abraham to Joshua. To the contrary, the narratives have been obliterated and contradicted by archaeology. Modern scholarship tells us that the narrative about the patriarchs, the exodus and the conquest of Canaan is a highly partisan human construct, started during the 7th century BCE, at a time when the nation of Israel was in turmoil.
It appears that these narratives were carefully constructed to create a history about a promised land for the Israelites, with the purpose of binding a nation together, a result of a tribal survival strategy and political ambition.
The story of the patriarchs, Egyptian enslavement and the exodus is a beautiful example of a religion created for exactly this purpose, and a brilliant product of human imagination.
However, the narrative is unable to withstand the scrutiny of modern archaeology and scholarship, which tells us a story that is at odds with the biblical account.
The Israelites have simply emerged from the local Canaanite population, gradually developed their own ethnic identity as Israelites, and later evolved their culture and religion into Judaism.
Frans you have provided an in-depth breakdown of the cultural history of the Isralites. I often refer to the Canaanite connection and EL when making a point that many Christians do not even understand the true history of their own faith but never in such detail.
The evolution of Judaism from polytheistic
Your words certainly apply to all god-based religions: “Too bad most Christians and Jews and even Muslims…will either not believe this answer (the mumbling of a hell-bound atheist) or not be concerned by its truth.” We atheists certainly are the only ones who value facts and rationality. This does not bo
Excellent answer; however, there is an argument that the Hebrew narrative had Mesopotamian influences – particularly from the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Flood narrative. Of course, an argument could be made that the Flood narrative is one that transcends borders and cultures since it appears all over the
For some reason I only saw your comment now.
I agree that the stories from Adam and Eve through to the Flood and the Tower of Babel (the first six chapters of Genesis) have parallels in earlier narratives, but the stories from the patriarchs through to the conquest (the rest of Genesis through to Joshua)
Is the story of the exodus completely without mooring in any earlier myths? It seems surprising to me that such a complex story of exile, exit, wandering, and conquest would have been created whole-cloth as a political tool. Examples like the flood myth, which have earlier myths as a jumping off point seem much more common. I don’t know if this is within your expertise, but I would be grateful for any insights you have to offer. And thank you for this fascinating essay. (Alas, no good deed goes unpunished. You offer us this delightfully hearty meal, and with bulging stomach, I ask what’s for dessert.)
I hadn’t heard that King Josiah was responsible for the change. In the documentary I saw presented by Francesca Stavrokapolou, it was being conquered by Babylon that caused the proto-Israelites to form an identity around monotheism.
Thanks for the exhaustive answer! I had s few thoughts on this for your review:
- The Rain-BOW of Genesis only makes sense if Yahweh was a warrior and hung up his bow after a particularly turbulent rage as a sign of peace. Great stuff!
- What of the common argument that the reference in Genesis to “let us make
2. The “royal we” argument referring to a single god does not make much sense to me, since we know that the Israelite beliefs were polytheistic or at most monolatristic at the time it was written, not yet monotheistic. I see it as an apologetics interpretation which is removed from what the original auth
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