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Lessons from the ASOR Conference: Punctuated Equilibrium and the Writing of the Hebrew Bible

Steady State versus Punctuated Equilibrium Evolution (http://thebrain.mcgill.ca)

At the just concluded American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) conference, two sessions in the last two time slots were:

Integrating Cultural Change – Punctuated Equilibria Models in Near Eastern Archaeology and Egyptology I and II.

Neither session specifically mentioned the Hebrew Bible nor do I recall any questions from the audience addressing that topic either. Nonetheless, these sessions may provide more insight into the writing of the Hebrew Bible than sessions directly addressing that topic including at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference.

The term “punctuated equilibria” refers to when “long periods of stasis and apparently uneventful continuum are broken up by brief periods of rapid and profound changes. During such ‘punctures,’ the whole social –political system is exposed to a series of vital changes that influence essentially every component (subsystem) of the society, bringing it to a qualitatively new level of development and attained complexity and texture” (from the abstract of Mirolsav Bárta, the first presenter).

The genesis of the term arose in the field of evolution. Some scientists thought the more steady-state linear evolution approach proposed by Darwin did not fit the data. Instead, they developed a hypothesis that described a series of dramatic changes following a period of comparative stability. The changes “punctuated” the status quo. The most famous name associated with this hypothesis is Stephen Jay Gould. The most famous example of a punctuation probably is an asteroid hitting the earth leading to demise of the dinosaurs and the rise of the age of mammals.

The hypothesis is descriptive in nature and not explanatory. It is a way of organizing data but not explaining it. In the initial presentation by Bárta, he proposed that five such punctuations occurred during the Old Kingdom in Egypt. These leap periods led to the establishment of the first territorial state in human history, an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus, and massive stone-build monuments among other changes. During the Q&A, I asked about a causal factor for these five leaps. The model has no set trigger but simply states that such leaps periodically occur and are quick when they do.

Perhaps the most famous political example of such a change in the lifetime of many of the attendees at the sessions was the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is reasonable to say that during the 1980s, people did not anticipate such a collapse (excluding Ronald Reagan), that when it did occur it took people by surprise, and it happened very quickly. The Arab Spring may be considered a partially aborted punctuation.

In biblical times, a significant one occurred in 1177 BCE. That year also appears in the title of a book by Eric Cline, one of the presenters in the second session. He informed us that when he started to write the book, he envisioned the Sea Peoples as the causal agent for the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. The more he investigated the subject, the more he came to realize that a “perfect storm” involving multiple factors had led to its demise.  In the end, what the Iron Curtain, the Arab despots, and the Late Bronze Age have in common is a certain fragility despite the image of great enduring strength and stability.

I first sought to apply the concept of punctuated equilibrium to the writing of the Hebrew Bible in a paper entitled “The Mesha Stele: Underutilized Key to Understanding Israelite History and the Writing of the Bible” presented at the ASOR conference in 2010.  In my paper, I wrote and said:

Therefore I wish to propose the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory in contrast to the Big Bang Theory of Writing.  This theory of writing is based on the premises that

1. We are a story-telling species
2. We tell stories through the available media about the issues that concern us
3. Ancient Israel was not a people of silence with no stories to tell, songs to sing, holidays to celebrate, or places to assemble.

In this context, I propose that in Iron II Israel a series of separate and independent alphabet prose narrative scrolls were written over the centuries primarily by the prophets as the political situation warranted. They served as the basis for the integrated narrative which would be created post-721 BCE in the kingdom of Judah.

In that paper, I did not explain how I derived the term “punctuated equilibrium” so it was quite likely that many in the audience were not familiar with it.  I employed the term to refer to the aftermath of Mesha’s destruction of the Yahweh sanctuary at Mount Nebo, home of the traditional burial site of the founder of the Israelite people. In this sense, Mesha functioned as an asteroid disrupting the life of the Levites or prophets of Moses much as temple destructions would later do to temple priests. Although I did not use the word “trauma” at that time, I suggested that the trauma led to writing as a means of coping with the event.  In this suggestion I was guided by the work of Anthony Campbell in 1986 in his book Of Prophets and Kings (1986) and later with the assistance of Mark O’Brien, Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, and Present Text (2000). In the latter, they elaborated on his hypothesis by identifying verse by verse the texts that belonged to this prophetic narrative. Mesha’s actions meant to those who believed that the sanctuary dedicated to the burial place of the founder that the Omrides had lost their legitimacy to rule.  In this regard both Jehu and Hazael could be understood as the rod of Yahweh’s anger, the staff of Yahweh’s fury, instruments of Yahweh delivering his message of wrath upon the underserving Omrides.

By coincidence, just prior to the ASOR conference, I read Self-Interest or Communal Interest: An Ideology of Leadership in the Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah Narratives by Eliyahu Assis (2005).  His analysis included Judges 6:8-10:

Judges 6:8 the LORD sent a prophet to the people of Israel; and he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of bondage; 9 and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land; 10 and I said to you, `I am the LORD your God; you shall not pay reverence to the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not given heed to my voice.”

He compared the words to the beginning of the covenant in Ex. 20:2-3:

Exodus 20:2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

Suddenly when reading this book, it occurred to me that this exchange in the story of Gideon was about something going on with Egypt at the time it was written. Frequently biblical scholars observe that the story of the golden calves (Ex. 32) relates to the time of Jeroboam I. In that story, the people say that (i) Moses brought them out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 32:1), (ii) the golden calf Aaron had fashioned brought them out of the land of Egypt, and (iii) according to Moses, Yahweh brought them out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 32:11). Evidently there was a discussion and disagreement about exactly how the people left the land of Egypt. There was no disagreement about having left Egypt, just who should be considered responsible.

The time of Jeroboam also was the time of Sheshonq’s invasion of the land of Canaan. So instead of the biblical texts simply being a tirade between the Aaronid and Levite priesthoods, was there also a debate about the very identity of Israel and responsibility for its existence?  How could Jeroboam be the new Moses if he was in cahoots with Pharaoh? Did Sheshonq’s invasion trigger a written response as the northern prophets (Ahijah) sought to cope with what it meant for Israelite identity based on having left the land of Egypt?

Consider the circumstances at the time of Sheshonq’s invasion which apparently brought him to Megiddo. It had been two hundred years since Ramses VI had left Megiddo ending Egyptian hegemony in the land after 350 years beginning with Thutmose III at Megiddo. It had been about 250 years since Ramses (Se-se-ra) III’s invasion in 1177 BCE also remembered in a song mentioning Megiddo. And it had been nearly 300 years since Merneptah had claimed to have destroyed the seed of Israel. Now Pharaoh was back campaigning in the land. For the northern prophets, this action was traumatic.

I do not claim to have the details worked out, but just as there was a prophet narrative following Mesha’s destruction of the sanctuary to Yahweh, so there might be a Sheshonq narrative in response to when he invaded the land.

As a result of these readings, musings, and sessions, I think it is reasonable to consider a punctuated equilibria approach to the writing of the Hebrew Bible. Israel wrote when it needed to in response to periodic traumas that punctuated their sense of identity. And they did so for centuries each time an “asteroid” fell.

Philistines/Creation the monarchy (10th century BCE)
Sheshonq (5th year of Rehoboam)
Mesha (around 843 BCE leading to Jehu’s deposing the Omrides)
Hazael (8th century BCE success of Jeroboam II against the Aramaeans).

Each of these threats engendered the composition of a separate scroll by the northern prophets to explain how the threat could have occurred and who was the savior (if any) who ended it. These scrolls were brought to Jerusalem and eventually combined into a single scroll that would include Judah as well. The “asteroids” for ancient Israel were the foreign kings who threated their existence and one response was an alphabet prose narrative that addressed the situation. The challenge now is to escape the Persian-fixation on the time at the end of this process and to identify the writings following each punctuation of the Israelite equilibrium.

Note: If on the Saturday overlap between the ASOR and SBL conferences I had attended the SBL conference instead of the ASOR conference as I sometimes do, this blog would not have been written.

400 Years a Slave

400 Hundred Year Stele Line Drawing (Wikipedia)

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:

  1. the size of the armed forces in a Bronze Age battle was huge and rare
  2. the numerous descriptions of the battle in image and text by Ramses II
  3. the existence of an alternate vision of the battle by the Hittites
  4. the ineptitude of the new Pharaoh in falling into a trap
  5. the rescue of Ramses by a Semitic military contingent
  6. 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.

 

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. James K. Hoffmeier, “What Is the Biblical Date for the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood,” JETS 50 2007:225-247, here 238n.74.
  3. Hans Goedicke, “Some Remarks on the 400-Year Stela,” CdE 41 1966:23-37, here 24.
  4. Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 185.
  5. Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 153.
  6. 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.