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Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category
Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.
The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt. Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)
Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.
The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected. read more
The idea that 3300 years ago, at Sinai, God gave Moses a Torah identical to the Torah we have today is a powerful concept, one that still resonates. But is it probable, even plausible?
Previously, to explore this idea, we have taken the text of the Torah as we have it today and looked at issues of content, language and script. We have already found that the Torah we have not only makes no claim as to its original content, but that internal evidence from the Tanakh strongly suggests that whatever Moses may have written and conveyed at the end of his life was limited in scope. Moreover, external evidence from archeological and other sources indicates that Moses’s sefer haTorah was not written in either the language or the script that a contemporary Torah is. In this post, we look at the transmission of a presumed original Torah, focusing on security for the object and textual variations.
Securing the transmission of the originally inscribed text
Let’s start with the medium of Moses’s inscription of the sefer haTorah that our Torah says Moses wrote just before he died (see Deut. 31:9, 24-26) and the security afforded the resulting work. Our Torah does not say precisely whether Moses chiseled the words into stone, wrote them with a stylus in wet clay or used a quill on parchment or papyrus. If the entire Torah as we know it was inscribed on stone or clay tablets, there must have been many of them to include almost 80,000 words containing over 300,000 letters. If one or more scrolls were used, the material involved must have been sizable as well. In any event, it is certainly hard to imagine the 120 year old Moses chiseling, pressing or writing that much text as he was about to die. read more
The Torah is the foundational text of the Jewish People. Initially, it asserts a pre-history and a purpose of the ancient Judahite kingdom to which contemporary Jews trace their emotional and often actual genetic origin, setting forth the kingdom’s legends and lore, its poetry and prose, its customs and commitments.
But the Torah is more than the purported history contained in it. When its contents were reduced to writing, text trumped tradition as the source of both political and religious authority in the Judahite world. (See generally, Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge 2004) at 91-117.)The result initiated nothing less than a textual revolution.
Moreover, in the words of Israeli writer Amoz Oz and his daughter historian Fania Oz-Sulzberger, a “lineage of literacy” followed. (See Jews and Words (Yale 2012) at 15.) Transmitted over millennia and eliciting commentary which itself then begot more commentary, the written Torah has bound and continues to bind the Jewish People together over space and across time as they read it, study it, participate in its interpretation and organic growth and act out its lessons. Here, the Torah has served, and continues to serve, as trans-national and trans-generational glue. read more
From time to time, like when an itch just needs to be scratched or a roiling cauldron must overflow, essays are written and debates ensue over the question of whether there is a conflict between Judaism and science. The direct answer to the question depends to a considerable degree on how one defines Judaism, and to a lesser degree on how one defines science. But discussions about the topic, even from Jewish perspectives, often miss that basic point.
Recently Moment Magazine asked nine rabbis the following question: “In what ways, if any, do science and Judaism conflict?” The rabbis were apparently selected as representative of, though not necessarily representatives of, various orientations and denominations. Moment even ordered their responses as if there were a spectrum of Jewish thought from Independent to Humanist, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Orthodox, and, ultimately, Chabad. (Parenthetically, whether this means that Moment believes that Reform is at the center of Jewish opinion is unknown.) The rabbis’ responses are illustrative of the problem inherent in these kinds of discussions. read more
In recent years, in certain circles, it has become fashionable to assert that the Bible is fiction, or that at least key segments of it are fictional. The assertion emanates from two camps. In one of these camps are those who have been described as new or militant atheists. Looking to recent developments primarily in cosmology and archeology, folks like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Samuel Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have created more than a cottage industry in their efforts to debunk the Bible.
But scientist and skeptics are not alone in their contention that the Bible is fiction. In another other camp are scholars of the Bible, including notable rabbis. For instance, during Passover week a dozen years ago, Conservative Rabbi and prolific author David Wolpe set off a firestorm when he spoke to his Los Angeles congregation about the lack of hard evidence for the Exodus story. According to a writer for the Los Angeles Times, after reviewing revolutionary discoveries in then current archeology, Rabbi Wolpe told them: “The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” (A subsequent summary of Wolpe’s thinking may readily be found on the Internet in a piece he authored called “Did the Exodus Really Happen?” (“Did It?”).) read more
When “Written in Stone” is More than a Phrase, and may Even be Evidence: A Gray Granite Pedestal and the Ethnogenesis of Israel
The Hebrew Bible, thanks in large part to the often literal translation of it in the King James Version, is a source of scores of English idiomatic expressions. We may not know much about biology and history, but we do know, for instance, that a “leopard cannot change its spots” and that there is “nothing new under the Sun.” (See Jer. 13:23; Eccles. 1:9.)
Someday, no doubt, if it hasn’t already, Google will track the frequency with which we use these expressions and determine the rank order of their popularity. Surely high on the list will be “written in stone.” The phrase comes from the Book of Exodus where we are told that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and received from God two stone tablets which were engraved by God with God’s teachings and commandments. The initial set of tablets was then smashed by Moses when he saw that the Israelites had fashioned an idol, a golden calf, when he was away up the mountain. God then met with Moses a second time, resulting in the production of a second set of stone tablets with the laws. (See Ex.24:12; 31:18; 32:15-19; 34:4; 34:28.)
From these references comes the notion that something written in stone is fixed for all time, immutable. The writing is a statement from and by authority, possibly even sacred, but certainly to be followed without modification. Conversely, something “not written in stone” is a statement of lesser seriousness, one subject to challenge and change. read more