The story of David and Nathan is one of the most dramatic in the Hebrew Bible. Even as one reads the words, one can see the figures in one’s mind. There is no mention of Nathan extending his arm in the direction of David, yet we see it. There is no mention of Nathan pointing a finger at David, yet we see it. There is no mention of David’s physical reaction to the words and gestures of Nathan, yet we see it. Only when Nathan is telling his parable, does the storyteller mention an emotion, the anger of David. The story teller leaves it to our imagination to visualize David’s appearance after Nathan’s exclamation.
This story exemplifies the oral nature of biblical storytelling. It cries out for a physical performance. Undoubtedly, that was how most Israelites originally experienced the story – not read silently alone but as a public display. The op-ed pieces of yesteryear were performed in ancient Israel.
One key ingredient in the story is frequently overlooked. It is not the historicity of the story but its believability. There is no sense in the story that it lacks validity. The story is not one of science fiction, fantasy, or even dreams. It is a presented as a real world event that the audience easily could believe as true. There is no surprise in the display of truth to power. There is no sense that it defies all credulity that someone could call the king to task. There is no astonishment about the actions of Nathan. The only uncertainty is in the reaction of the accused.
That credibility extends beyond the prophet denouncing the action of the king to his face. Just as Nathan’s declaration garners no surprise, neither does David’s reaction. The king’s repentance is presented in just as routine a manner as Nathan’s charge. As far as the audience is concerned, it is expected that a prophet would call a king to task. It is equally expected that the king would respond positively when he heard the words of the prophet and repent his wrongdoings.
In ancient Israel, the word of someone sent by the Lord trumped the power of the king. Part of the uniqueness of ancient Israel was the belief that an individual, or at least a prophet, could confront the king. Can you imagine someone standing before Sargon the Great and bellowing “Thou art the man!”? How about before Hammurabi? Sargon II? How about before Pharaoh? With Pharaoh, it actually is easier to imagine. There is a major story from the ancient Near East precisely involving a person sent by the Lord to exclaim “Thou art the man!” The person is Moses, the prophet of prophets in the biblical tradition.
The origin story of Israel in history and celebrated to this very day involves an individual confronting a person in power. Time and time again, the Israelite tradition told the story the prophet challenging the power of the king in the name of the Lord. Such occurrences were not isolated incidents but part of an ongoing pattern:
Samuel against Saul
Nathan against David
Ahijah against Rehoboam and Jeroboam
Elijah against Omri and Jezebel.
The independence of the prophet reaches a point where a king can even make of fun of it while not ignoring it:
1 Kings 22:8 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, Micaiah the son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.”
So how is that Israel was so different? Was it something in the water? Did the landscape or ecology render Israel different? Did Canaanite kings act the same way only we do not have their stories? The obvious answer is “no.” The difference is a cultural one that needs to be understood within Israel’s history. Can you imagine Russia or China televising to the world a direct challenge to a nominee of the political leader of those countries? The idea is absurd. On the other hand, the United States was born in a declaration levied against a king who was compared to a Pharaoh. Truth to power is in the American DNA.
What about ancient Israel? What is it in the history and culture of ancient Israel whereby a prophet could challenge a king and a king was expected to adhere to the word of God expressed through this non-royal person?
One important consideration is the first expression of the “Thou art the man!’ syndrome. In order to challenge someone’s abuse of power there needs to be someone in power. The time from Merneptah to monarchy was two hundred years. During that time Israel did not have a king. To say that Israel had no king, no taxes, no corvée, also means no one was in a position to abuse power. Once the monarchy started, so did the challenges to the king, to the person in power.
Did the sudden appearance of the monarchy in Israel give rise to the prophetic tradition of challenging the person in power?
Or was the tradition of challenging the person in power always part of the Israelite tradition from its beginning? Was it simply dormant until such time as a person was in a position to abuse power?
As noted according to the biblical account, Israel’s origin in the Exodus derived from an individual challenging a king for an abuse of power…and that person himself was challenged in the wilderness after the departure from Egypt by the very people he led.
And as with the story of Nathan and David, the idea itself of Moses challenging Pharaoh is presented as a believable part of the story. It is not a miracle that he stood before Pharaoh. It is presented to the audience as something which could occur. But how in the real world could anyone do that? There is nothing in the Egyptian cultural construct that suggests such a challenge was possible. The Egyptian tradition despised the hot head, it did not make a hero of one who waxed hot with anger before king. When Sinuhe returned to Egypt from the land of Canaan is was to be reunited with Pharaoh so he could die and be buried as an Egyptian. That was the Egyptian ideal. Israel’s version was quite different. It was legitimate to challenge the authority of the king who had abused his power.
Once you realize that the Levites were Hyksos, it makes it a lot easier to understand Israel’s origins in defiance of Pharaoh and how that tradition of truth to power became part of the Israelite DNA. The origin of the Israelite tradition of truth to power exclaimed by a prophet to a king occurred with the origin of Israel when it left Egypt.
The current biblical paradigms are inadequate to reconstruct the history of early Israel and the origin of the Hebrew Bible. In a series of recent posts, three significant developments not part of current biblical scholarship were identified related to this issue. Individually and collectively, they indicate a revision to the current paradigms is necessary. On the other hand, I may just be a crackpot with some weird ideas that are out of touch with the real world. You be the judge.
Below are the three items with links to the original posts that explain them in more detail.
Let’s start at the very beginning a very good place to start and take it one step at a time. In the beginning, Hyksos Levites were the leaders of the people who left Egypt against the will of Ramses II and became Israel. The recognition of this historical reality enables one to create a coherent straightforward historical narrative consistent with natural law that encompasses the most facts, dots the most “I’s,” and crosses the most “t’s.” It permits a real world understanding of the event that is the basis for the Israelite identity.
Egyptologists will have a comparatively easy time accepting this proposition. They are not threatened by it any way. Egyptologists already are familiar with the concept of a Hyksos-Exodus connection of some kind. The Levites as Hyksos will enable Egyptologists to develop a fuller understanding of the Hyksos, 19th Dynasty history, and Egyptian-Canaan relations (see 400 Years a Slave).
The biblically-interested general public like the BAR readers also will have a comparatively easy time accepting the proposition. Instead of having to deal with a below-the-radar departure by a few obscure people or Israel didn’t leave Egypt, Egypt left the land of Canaan, they will have a real-world above-the-fold front page departure with educated leaders familiar with the world stage as it existed then. True, the special effects will be missing, but in exchange there is a story that is compatible with history standards in public schools.
These developments are part of what made Israel different from its neighbors.
Saul was the catalyst for the development of the alphabet prose narrative. Israel did not invent the alphabet prose narrative and Israel did not invent the political polemic. It did bring from Egypt the concept of political polemics, stories that are set in the past (or among the gods) but which are really about the current political situation. Abiathar developed the alphabet prose narrative in response to Saul’s efforts to become king of Israel and usurp the position of the Levite priests of Shiloh. These stories were secular in nature and not communicated during a feast or sacred occasion although it is quite possible the threshing floor was the site of the story telling.
Abiathar provides a unique opportunity to understand the development of writing in ancient Israel. Like modern biblical scholars, Abiathar did not write only once during his lifetime. Just as American historians may write over the course of multiple presidents, so Abiathar wrote over the reign of multiple kings – Saul, David, and Solomon. By excavating his writings it is possible to gain insight into the history of each of these three kings as well as to witness how Abiathar developed his writing skill over time (see also Archaeologists Confirm Ancient Famine: Déjà Vu Joseph All Over Again and Historical David and Goliath: Lessons from the Utah Senate Race).
Once one realizes that Hyksos-Levite Abiathar wrote throughout his life, it becomes possible to identify other writers as well. One would expect a Benjaminite (Aaronid) writer to respond to the writings of the Abiathar by amending (supplementing) his stories, by writing a new story, or both. Similarly one would expect a Jebusite (Zadokite) writer to join the mix of writing once Jerusalem became the capital of the Israelite kingdom but with a distinctly Canaanite perspective. One might also realize that once the Shiloh priests were out of power that the tone of the writing might change as well. Whereas Abiathar was closely associated with David, his successor Ahijah had no such relationship with any king. One may see here the origin of the prophet narrative. This process is what I call the J Documentary Hypothesis. I apply it my book Jerusalem Throne Games: The Battle of Biblical Stories after the Death of David to six stories from Gen. 2-11 that supplemented the original royal narrative.
These developments are part of what made Israel different from its neighbors.
Israelite kings had the same right to strut their stuff as Mesopotamian or Egyptians kings…especially the first one who ruled all the land of Canaan from his new capital city of Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar I who returned the statue of Marduk, commissioned Enuma Elish, built a ziggurat, and celebrated the akitu, was a model.
I call this Israelite royal narrative the King David Bible (KDB). It was performed over the seven days of the fall New Year festival. It was not part of the Baal grape festival. It probably was performed only once since no king after David had the charisma and power to succeed in it. It probably was recited a few times under Solomon before being consigned to the archives not to be taken out until northern prophets brought their version with them to Jerusalem after Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom.
The KDB differs from the current paradigms in other ways.
2. Garden to Zion was a single story spread over seven days. Normally stories were limited in time. The expansion of the story to encompass garden to Zion was a conceptual breakthrough that transformed that state of the art information system of its time. Undoubtedly this same mental prowess contributed to David’s political and military success. It enabled him to see in time. He was playing four-dimensional chess while others struggled at checkers.
This conceptual temporal development meant everything was connected, an intricacy in the biblical narrative biblical scholars can become well aware of even when trying to understand the shortest of pericopes. An attempt to understand a story limited to literary techniques misses too much. Think of what is being missed when the analysis is restricted to the literary:
– who was performing in the role?
– in what other roles did the person perform?
– what was the physical setting?
Without this knowledge, one’s understanding of a scene from the KDB is severely curtailed.
The KDB was a work of genius that changed the course of human history…although it took centuries to do so and did in a way beyond the awareness of its creator. Without the KDB there would be no peoples of the Book. While much would be added to the KDB, it provided the undergirding to what became the ennead, the narrative from Genesis to Kings.
These developments are part of what made Israel different from its neighbors.
Imagine you wanted to compare the DNA of human beings to chimpanzees or orangutans. Now imagine that you were unaware of or ignored the DNA that differentiated human beings from our “cousins.” The result would be the conclusion that human beings are just another form of chimpanzee or orangutans. This is the present state of biblical scholarship. It ignores or is unaware of what differentiates Israelites from Canaanites. Too often too many biblical scholars conclude there is no difference, Israelites are just Canaanites who for reasons unknown, by abilities never previously exhibited by anybody, as a powerless people of minimal social infrastructure concocted a very long narrative that has no counterpart in the ancient Near East and found an audience who would accept it as gospel for some reason in Persian times.
There is no place for individual genius in biblical scholarship. By contrast, American history abounds in the biographies of giants in every domain of human life. Perhaps there is some unconscious screening process at work. If you love to write about great individuals in human history, you turn to American history. Don’t become a biblical scholar.
To illustrate the issues raised in these posts, I leave you with an easy yet important question: why did Abiathar write the story of Samson and Bathsheba when the temple was built?
400 years is in the news. The time period has been the topic of some tweets and interviews by Kanye West in relation to slavery in the United States. Putting aside the Emancipation Proclamation, the 400 year time period of Middle-Passage blacks in America calls to mind other 400 year periods in American history.
In 1893, America celebrated the Columbus quadricentennial one year late in a famous exposition in Chicago
In 2007, Jamestown celebrated its quadricentennial including a royal visit from England
In 2009, New York, Vermont, and Canada celebrated the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson and Samuel Champlain including a royal visit from the Netherlands
In 2011, Protestants especially in the United States and the United Kingdom celebrated the quadricentennial of the publication off the King James Version of the Bible.
400 year anniversaries are a big deal. They involve long memories and cultural continuity.
In biblical terms, the 400 year time period is well known and for its connection to slavery:
Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13).
But is not the only 400-year period known from ancient times. As it turns out there is another memory of a 400-year period and from Pharaoh Ramses II, the traditional pharaoh of the Exodus. Ramses II honored the legacy of the Hyksos in Egypt commemorating their sojourn in the land in year 400, month 4, season 3, day 4 on an artifact appropriately called the Four Hundred Year Stele. The idea that there is a connection between these two 400-year traditions from the 17th to 13th centuries BCE involving West Semites in the Delta in the time of Ramses is not new. The connection between the two cultural memories was the subject of my paper last November at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research (to be published as “The Hyksos and the Exodus: Two 400-Year Stories,” in Richard Beal and Joann Scurlock, ed., What Difference Does Time Make? [Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns]).
Let’s examine the significance of the number and then turn to the issue of connections. To begin with there is the number four. Assyriologist Piotr Michalowski observes:
Not to be content to be kings of Sumer and Akkad, these [Akkadian] rulers added still another forceful epithet, “king of the four corners of the universe,” or, in Sumerian, “kings of the heaven’s four corners,” in a sense driving home the notion of “everything.”1
This sense of “everything” through the use of “four” continued across the millennia in Mesopotamian times from Akkadians to Assyrians.
Four certainly is known in the biblical tradition and in the same cosmic sense. There are the four rivers of the garden encompassing the world (Gen. 2:10). There are the four cities Nimrod rules encompassing the empires from in the beginning to the present of the author if one dismisses Egypt (Gen. 10:8-10). There are the four kingdoms of chaos who are defeated by the warrior-shepherd(/king) of Hebron in this version of the cosmos and chaos tradition (Gen. 14). And there are the four kingdoms in the Daniel tradition (Daniel 7:2-7) thereby raising the perennial question of who would be the fifth kingdom. These examples all attest to the cosmic dimension of the number 4 and its sense of completeness.
Raising the number four by a factor of ten continues the metaphorical not literal dimension of numbers. Forty also is number well-known from the biblical tradition in a variety of examples and settings. It rains for forty nights and forty days (Gen. 7:4, 12, and 17; 8:6). Israel wanders in the wilderness for forty years (Ex. 16:35; Num. 14:33-34; 32:13; Deut. 2:7; 8:2, 4; 29:5; Josh. 5:6; Neh. 9:21; Ps. 95;10; Amos 5:25; Acts 13:18; Heb. 3:9, 17). Moses and Elijah were on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:18; 34:28; Deut. 9:9, 11, 18; 10:10; I Kings 19:8). There are additional examples of the use of forty as well.
The extensive use of the number 40 across a wide range of times, people, and circumstances suggests some intrinsic value was associated with the number 40 beyond a literal meaning. My sense of the usage is that 4 x 10 also implies a totality, the completion or fulfillment of a measure of time, a way of marking periods or cycles, and is not to be taken literally. It signifies the right amount in time or for an action. God forbid Hazael should have brought 41 camel loads (II Kings 8:9) or Moses and Elijah should have remained on the mountain top for only 39 days and nights. Those actions would have disrupted the cosmic order. The audience expected 40.
The number 40 also is attested outside the biblical narrative. In the Mesha Stele, Mesha, the king of Moab, declares that Israel had ruled over the land of Moab for forty years.
Omri had taken possession of the land of Medeba, and dwelled there his days and much of his son’s days, forty years.
The more challenging question is to determine how it came to be that Mesha used the same number used so frequently in biblical accounts. In this regard, the task is similar to that between the two usages of 400 by Ramses and the story of oppression in Egypt ending with Ramses. The idea that there is no connection between the biblical 40 and 400 and the non-biblical usages by Mesha and Ramses would be considered farfetched in any discipline other than biblical studies.
Ramses didn’t only use 400 years in the appropriately named “Four Hundred Year Stele.” He also used 4 for the day and the month. He probably would have used four for the season too except Egypt only had three. Egyptologist James Hoffmeier characterizes this dating as “odd, raising the possibility of some sort of symbolism.”2 The stele commemorates the action of his father Seti I infusing the Baal-Seth identity in the new Egyptian capital at Avaris at the birth of the new dynasty. In a sense, the action officially demarcated the cessation of the Amarna Era (chaos) and the primacy of the Baal-Seth deity at Avaris (order) over the Amun-Re deity at Thebes in the 18th Dynasty. All these machinations automatically have political overtones. While the politics of the birth of the 19th Dynasty are beyond the scope of this post, one should remain cognizant that those developments form the backdrop to the Four Hundred Year Stele.
Again my sense is this higher factor of 4 and 102 signifies a unit of completion or perfection. In this case, Ramses is referring to a period of time or cycle that presumably has now concluded. I propose that in the Four Hundred Stele, Ramses sought to merge the two traditions as his father had. The time of the onset of the new Egyptian dynasty was the time of the completion of a period in history. He integrated the Hyksos timeline into the Egyptian one. Instead of the Hyksos ruling during an “intermediate period” as in Egyptology today, the Hyksos were the beginning of a cycle which concluded with the post-Amarna restoration. What had been separate now became one. Baal began both periods in history. From this point forward, the two peoples were chronologically merged into a single timeline in Egyptian history. It was morning in Egypt. Here comes the sun on a new day in Egyptian history. Ramses had delivered a political message in his present through the metaphorical values of the numbers he chose to publicly proclaim in the organization of temporal epochs.
Egyptologist Hans Goedicke dates the Four Hundred Year stele to shortly after year 34 in the reign of Ramses. He asks:
Why should Ramses in the second half of his reign suddenly have an urge to foster the legitimacy of his rule and that of his family, after they had occupied the throne for more than fifty years?3
I propose that the origins of the stele are to be found in the aftermath of the Battle of Kadesh during the reign of Ramses II.
This famous battle between Egypt and the Hittites in Year 5 of the reign of Ramses II is famous for important reasons:
the size of the armed forces in a Bronze Age battle was huge and rare
the numerous descriptions of the battle in image and text by Ramses II
the existence of an alternate vision of the battle by the Hittites
the ineptitude of the new Pharaoh in falling into a trap
the rescue of Ramses by a Semitic military contingent
the motifs used by Egypt which could be appropriated by others for their own purposes.
Just as Waterloo and D-Day live on in the cultural memory of western civilization so too Egypt’s two main battles in the Levant, Thutmose III at Megiddo and Ramses II at Kadesh lived on in the cultural memory of the Canaanites.
There were geopolitical consequences to the battle. Egyptologist Donald Redford claims that after the battle of Kadesh:
Headmen of Canaanite towns, vassals of Egypt, were impressed by what they divined as inherent weaknesses in Pharaoh’s forces: poor intelligence and a tendency to panic. Rebellion was possible; Egypt could be beaten….In the wake of the retreating Egyptians, all Canaan flared into open revolt….It was Ramesses’s darkest hour.4
Redford limits this awareness to Canaanites in the land of Canaan. Redford is correct about Canaanites revolting in the land of Canaan following Ramses’s poor performance as commander in chief. The destruction in Hazor is simply the most prominent example of the “Canaanite spring,” the unrest Ramses now had to face in land of Canaan.
Meanwhile, all was not quiet on the home front either. As Thomas Thompson astutely comments on the significance of the battle of Kadesh beyond the battle itself.
After this defeat, Ramses II’s army was racked with revolts. It had borne the brunt of the cost of his expensive misadventure….Civil unrest and religious opposition at home was doubly encouraged….A series of plots and intrigues by court factions bitter over the military failure at Kadesh effectively paralyzed royal authority and its control of import groups within the army.5
One might take issue to the extent to which unrest and intrigue occurred, but the basic thrust of the observation appears valid. Kadesh exposed the shortcomings the leader of the country and people responded to that weakness. Thompson has honed in on the precise time when the potential for disruption of ma’at in the political arena had occurred.
I propose that that it was this very disruption which led to the two 400-year traditions in Egypt and Israel. Baruch Halpern suggests that if the Israelites scribes knew the 400 Year stele, that such knowledge is evidence of the portrayal of Israel as Hyksos and the identification of Ramses as the Pharaoh of the Exodus. He asserts the Israelites linked themselves to the memory of the Hyksos in Egypt probably during the time of Solomon when relationships between the two countries were good and monuments were being relocated from Goshen/Avaris to Tanis where the 400-year stele ultimately was found.6 He does not appear to consider the possibility that the some Hyksos actually led the people who left Egypt in the time of Ramses II and that therefore these linkages were always part of the Israelite cultural heritage right from the start. After his failure at Kadesh and the departure of Hyksos Levites and others to liberate the land of Canaan from Egyptian hegemony, Ramses sought to shore up his support with the Hyksos who had remained in the land with the Four Hundred Year Stele. The Hyksos Levites who had left Egypt after the Battle of Kadesh and then became Israelite later incorporated that event into their own cultural memory. After all, they too had been in the land of Egypt for 400 years before they left. Once you realize that the Levites were Hyksos all the pieces fall into place.
Piotr Michalowski, “Masters of the Four Corners of the Heavens: Views of the Universe in Early Mesopotamian Writings,” in Kurt A. Raaflaub and Richard J.A. Talbert., ed., Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-modern Societies (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 147-168, here 153.
James K. Hoffmeier, “What Is the Biblical Date for the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood,” JETS 50 2007:225-247, here 238n.74.
Hans Goedicke, “Some Remarks on the 400-Year Stela,” CdE 41 1966:23-37, here 24.
Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 185.
Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 153.
Baruch Halpern, The Exodus from Egypt: Myth or Reality,” in Hershel Shanks, William G. Dever, Baruch Halpern, P. Kyle McCarter, The Rise of Ancient Israel: Symposium at the Smithsonian Institution, October 26, 1991 (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeological Society, 1992), 86-117, here 98-101; and Baruch Halpern, “Fracturing the Exodus, as Told by Edward Everett Horton,” in Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider, and William H. C. Propp, ed. Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience (New York: Springer, 2015), 293-304, here 299.
Were the Levites Hyksos? Both the Levites and the Hyksos garner their fair share of attention in their respective disciplines, biblical scholarship for the former and Egyptology for the latter, but never the twain shall met. The association with the Hyksos, the West Semitic warriors from across the river with a 400-year tradition of being in Egypt at the time of Ramses II, with the Exodus is millennia old. As recounted by 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus, the Egyptians already had a centuries-old tradition linking the Hyksos to the Exodus. The idea of their being some relationship between at least some Hyksos and the Israelites is more acceptable in Egyptology than in biblical studies. It would mean real people in the real world in a real political context of some kind left Egypt and settled in Canaan, ideas that are unacceptable to biblical scholars.1
The Levites are better known the Hyksos and their role in Israelite history and the writing of the Hebrew Bible is much more acceptable. Tracing their involvement over time in the writing by biblical scholars is considered a valid and legitimate academic undertaking. But even given this connection between the writing of the Hebrew Bible and the Levites, there is still something which doesn’t quite sit right with biblical scholars. 2
One would be remiss in this investigation of the Levites to Israelite history and biblical writing if one ignored that sometimes the Levites themselves were the subject of stories that portray a distinctly non-priestly picture of them. Typically one thinks of priests in ritualistic settings. They offer sacrifices, maintain the holiness of the sanctuary, and perform rituals at the sacred times. But with the Levites, there is a legacy of violence associated with them as well. The verses typically cited to illustrate that aspect of their identity are:
Genesis 34:25On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took their swords and came upon the city unawares, and killed all the males.
Genesis 49:5Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. 6 O my soul, come not into their council; O my spirit, be not joined to their company; for in their anger they slay men, and in their wantonness they hamstring oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.
Exodus 32:27And he [Moses] said to them, “Thus says Yahweh God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.
Deuteronomy 33:8And of Levi he said, “Give to Levi thy Thummim, and thy Urim to thy godly one, whom thou didst test at Massah, with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; 9 who said of his father and mother, ‘I regard them not’; he disowned his brothers, and ignored his children. For they observed thy word, and kept thy covenant. 10 They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law; they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt offering upon thy altar. 11 Bless, O Yahweh, his substance, and accept the work of his hands; crush the loins of his adversaries, of those that hate him, that they rise not again.’”
Exactly how it came to be that the Levites and violence are so closely linked is not clear. 3
Biblical scholars have endeavored to plumb this facet of this violent attribute of the Levites, priests of Moses or Mushites. For example, in Mark Leuchter’s oral presentation on “The Fightin’ Mushites” two years prior to his published paper, he stated in his abstract:
The priestly line founded by Moses (the “Mushites” following [biblical scholar Frank M.] Cross and others) stands out most prominently in this regard in premonarchic tradition and, subsequently in the northern kingdom…But how did the Mushites establish themselves as a dominant priestly house, and at what point did Moses himself become a typological symbol of the Levites more broadly. 4
Leuchter finds his answers in the violent Mushite legacy of Moses slaying the Egyptian taskmaster who beat a Hebrew:
One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Ex.2:11-12).
Following that event, Moses flees to Midian where he marries Zipporah and they have a son Gershom. Leuchter dismisses the biblical “stranger in a strange land” explanation for the name of Gershom as its true meaning. Citing various scholars, Leuchter links the shared root GRSH (גרש) to the action of the shepherds who “drove away” the women watering at the well before Moses turned the table on them. Thus the son was named after the action whereby his parents met. Leuchter then suggests that term Gershom was less a name than a title signifying a Mushite who acts to defend the weak be it the Hebrew man in Egypt or the Midianite women in the wilderness. In the remainder of the article, Leuchter elaborates on the continuity of this marital prowess tradition. 5
Richard Elliott Friedman, author of the recent The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters, pushed the Levite identity back to the origin of Israel into Egypt itself. In his earlier book Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman suggests that perhaps of the people who became Israel only the Levites had been slaves in Egypt. He cites the Egyptian names of key Israelites such as Moses and Aaron=s grandson Phinehas as part of this Egyptian heritage. Since the Levites in Egypt were mere slaves, Friedman does not address the writing or literacy skills of these marginalized people. Nor does he speculate on how these Levites acquired their violent image if they were slaves in Egypt. Years after that 1987 publication he returned to that subject online and promised a forthcoming book about it now published. But even though he has identified the Levites as critical to the writing of the Hebrew Bible, the now-published book does not address the writing legacy these Levites brought with them when they crossed over the river Nile to the promised land or the origin of their violent heritage. 6
It is possible to put these pieces together to suggest the critical role of the Levites in the origin of Israel and the writing of the Hebrew Bible. For violent Semites in the land of Egypt there are two realistic choices: the Hyksos and the n’rn. N’rn is a Semitic word. In Egypt, they were the soldiers who rescued Ramses II when he marched headstrong into a Hittite trap on the Orontes in Syria in Year 5 (1274 BCE). They appear out of nowhere without explanation and are depicted as Egyptians in a battle relief. Even more amazingly, Ramses credits them for the “victory” at Kadesh, a battle he also claimed to have won all by himself! The n’rn also appear in the Karnak Inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, the son and successor to Ramses who claimed to have destroyed the seed of Israel. Generally, the n’rn are considered to be Canaanites from multiple locations now fighting on behalf of Egypt, but their ethnicity is under debate among Egyptologists. However, the Karnak Inscription clearly differentiates the n’rn from the victorious Egyptian troops even as they are likened to each other. One might even inquire why Merneptah chose to compare his Egyptian troops to the n’rn in the first place. Evidently their fighting reputation was well-known. 7
The Hyksos are an intriguing piece in the puzzle. There is no inherent reason why Hyksos could not have been included in the n’rn who rescued Ramses or their commanding officers. According to Manfred Bietak, the excavator Avaris/Pi-Ramesse, the capital city of both the Hyksos and Ramses:
The end of Hyksos rule in Egypt from the historical point of view is a subject rarely addressed in Egyptology….In Egyptology, the impact of Hyksos rule on Egypt has been largely neglected in research if not ignored….[I]t is only logical to postulate that the presence of several ten thousands people of Western Asiatic people in north-eastern Egypt over a period of over 300 years (c. 1830-1530 BCE) must have had an impact on successive New Kingdom culture. 8
Levite n’rn would have a military heritage but not the writing and cultural experience of the Hyksos who had once ruled Egypt and remained a more elite and educated group. Either way, Friedman’s violent slave Levites make more sense if they had a military background.
I suggest that the missing link in all these musings is the recognition that the Levites were Hyksos. I am not claiming that all the Hyksos became Israelites nor I am claiming that all Israelites were Levite. I am claiming that the Levites who left Egypt provided the leadership for the people who became Israel. They were literate. They were warriors. They were aware of the world picture. They were known to Ramses who honored the Hyksos collectively for their 400-years in Egypt in the appropriately named 400 Year Stela. 9 They were the right people in the right place at the right time to contemplate leaving Egypt to liberate the land of Canaan from Egyptian hegemony under the leadership of the Levite Moses. Recognizing that Levites were Hyksos who became Israelites in opposition to Ramses means the Exodus occurred in the real world. By contrast biblical scholarship takes pride in having freed itself some such myths as an historical Exodus. Ironically, it will be easier for Egyptologists to deal with a real world Exodus than for biblical scholars.
1. For the Hyksos, see Bietak, Manfred, “The Aftermath of the Hyksos in Avaris,” in Rakefet Sela-Sheffy and Gideon Toury, ed., Culture Contacts and the Making of Cultures: Papers in Homage to Itamar Even-Zohar (Tel Aviv: Unit of Culture Research Tel Aviv University, 2011), 19-65; Bietak, Manfed, “On the Historicity of the Exodus: What Egyptology Today Can Contribute to Assessing the Sojourn in Egypt,” in Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider and William H.C. Propp, ed., Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience (Heidelberg-New York- Dordrecht-London 2015), 17-36; Marée, Marcel, ed., The Second Intermediate Period (Thirteenth-Seventeenth Dynasties): Current Research, Future Prospects (OLA 192; Leuven: Peters, 2010); Oren, Eliezer D., ed., The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives (Philadelphia, 1997); Redford, Donald B., “The Hyksos Invasion in History and Tradition,” Orientalia 39 1970: 1-51; Redford, Donald B., and Weinstein, James, “Hyksos,” Anchor Bible Dictionary III: 341-348; Ryholt, K. S. B., The Political Situation in Egypt During the Second Intermediate Period c. 1800-1550 B.C. (Copenhagen: K.S.B. Ryholt and Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997); Van Seters, John, The Hyksos: A New Investigation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).
2. For the Levites, see Cohen, Martin A., “The Role of the Shilonite Priesthood in the United Monarchy of Ancient Israel,” Hebrew Union College Annual 36 1965:39-98; Frolov, Serge, “’Days of Shiloh’ in the Kingdom of Israel,” Biblica 76 1995:210-218; Halpern, Baruch, “Levitic Participation in the Reform Cult of Jeroboam I,” Journal of Biblical Literature 95 1976:31-42; Polk, Timothy, The Levites in the Davidic-Solomonic Empire,” Studia Biblica et Theologica 9 1979:3-22; Rehm, Merlin, “Levites and Priests,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary IV:297-310; Robinson, Robert B., “The Levites in the Pre-Monarchic Period,” Studia Biblica et Theologica 8 1978:3-24.
3. Joel Baden, “The Violent Origins of the Levites: Text and Tradition,” in Mark A. Leuchter and Jeremy M. Hutton, ed., Levites and Priests in Biblical History and Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 103-116; Richard Elliott Friedman, “Levites and Priests in History and Tradition,” paper presented at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, San Diego, November 24, 2014; Mark A. Leuchter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” Vetus Testamentum 62 2012:479-500.
4. Mark A. Leuchter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” paper presented at the Columbia Hebrew Bible Seminar, March 17, 2010. The published article dates the presentation to February, 2010.
5. Leucheter, “The Fightin’ Mushites,” 492-494.
6. Richard Elliott Friedman, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters (New York: Harper, 2017); Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?,(New York: Summit Books, 1987), 82; Richard Elliott Friedman, “The Historical Exodus: The Evidence for the Levites Leaving Egypt and the Introduction of YHWH into Israel,” The Torah: A Historical and Contextual Approach, undated, http://thetorah.com/the‑historical‑exodus/ and “The Exodus Is not Fiction: An Interview with Richard Elliot Friedman” Reform Judaism, undated, http://www.reformjudaism.org/exodus‑not‑fiction. See also Richard Elliott Friedman, “Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?,” BAR 40/5 2014:48-52.
7. For the role of these Semitic soldiers in the showdown with the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh, see Goedicke, Hans, “Considerations of the Battle of Kadesh,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 52 1966:71-80; Kitchen, Kenneth A., Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II (Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1982), 60; Manassa, Colleen, The Great Karnak Inscriptions of Merneptah: Grand Strategy in the 13th Century BC (YES 5; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 53; Morris, Ellen, The Architecture of Imperialism: Military Bases and the Evolution of Foreign Policy in Egypt’s New Kingdom (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 362-366; Obsomer, Claude, “La Bataille de Qadech de Ramsès: Les n’arin, sekou tepy et questions d’itinéraires,” in Christina Karlshausen and Claude Obsomer, ed., De la Nubie à Qadech: La Guerre dans l’Égypte/From Nubia to Kadesh: War in Ancient Egypt (Brussels: Safran Publishers, 2016), 81-168; Schulman, Alan, “The N’RN at the Battle of Kadesh,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 1 1962:47-52; Schulman, Alan, “The N’RN at Kadesh Once Again,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 11 1981:7-19; Spalinger, Anthony, “Notes on the Reliefs of the Battle of Kadesh,” in Hans Goedicke, ed., Perspectives on the Battle of Kadesh (Baltimore: Halgo Inc., 1985), 1-42, here 3; Zudhi, Omar, “Benteshina and the N’rn Division,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 8 1977-1978: 141-142.
8. Bietak, “The Aftermath of the Hyksos in Avaris,” 20-21.
9. Peter Feinman, “The Hyksos and the Exodus: Two 400-Year Stories.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research, November 16, 2017, publication forthcoming Beal, Richard and Scurlock, JoAnn, ed., What Difference Does Time Make? (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming).
Portions excerpted from Jerusalem Throne Games by Peter Feinman