Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Conclusion: Why We Dig

We concluded our dig season nearly two weeks ago.  I have been somewhat absent from blogging since then, but I think it is about time that I write a short conclusion to our dig experience in Israel.  What an experience it was.  I believe that to offer an appropriate conclusion, I must start with the present and work back over the course of the past two weeks.

Since I have returned to the States, I have begun working again in the Judaic Studies Department at Duke University, doing different jobs each week ranging from updating databases to helping Dr. Eric Meyers prepare pictures for publication in an upcoming book.  In each job, I have found a new sense of appreciation that did not exist before our dig in Israel.  What appeared to be menial, tedious work before going to Israel has now become work toward which I look forward to each day.  Having stood in the actual locations from which archaeologists and volunteers uncovered the artifacts and features that I look at each week on my computer screen has given a physical context to all of those lists of numbers.

During one of our last nights in Israel, three professors led a discussion concerning the question, "Why do we dig?"  I hope to address this question in this post both on a collective level and also on a personal level. When we ask the question of, "Why do we dig?" we must first seek an understanding of what the verb "dig" encompasses.  When we dig, we participate in archaeology.  We may define this specific example of participation in archaeology as, "The controlled destruction of material remains of the past."  The act of digging is an act of destruction.  Once we move an artifact or feature from its original place in the ground, we have shifted its context.  We can never place it back in its exact location, and no one will ever be able to uncover it in its exact location again.

We participate in this controlled destruction out of a desire for understanding.  We dig not only to learn about the past, but we dig to understand the present.  The people whose physical remains we excavate possessed the same gift of life that we currently enjoy.  This connects us to them in somewhat of a spiritual way.  We may live in different times and in different places, but we share the gift of life.  Along with the the gift of life, we share common struggles that come bundled as part of that gift.  Struggles for food and shelter, struggles of co-existing with others, and the penultimate struggle of death.  If we learn how our brothers and sisters experienced both the joys and struggles of life, might we learn how better to experience our own joys and struggles?

Our time excavating at Huqoq was incredible.  I miss the friends, our time together, and even getting up at 4:30 a.m. to dig in the dirt.  I would encourage anyone who reads this to take a trip to Israel at some point in their life.  Regardless of faith or adherence to a religion, Israel served as a main stage upon which our brothers and sisters from the ancient near east and antiquity began acting out the culture that continues to influence our twenty-first century, American lives today.  Thanks for reading.

The dig team for our area

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day 26: A Return to the Cistern

When I arrived at the site this morning at 5 a.m., I expected to spend a day measuring and drawing features of the two squares in our area.  Thirty minutes later, I was face first in a dirt filled tunnel, wriggling to get my body through the narrow opening of a system of cistern far underground.

Shortly after our arrival at the site, an area supervisor requested our area to help his area move a small pile of stones.  Many hands make light work, so after about 10 minutes of work the pile had been moved.  We were begrudgingly resolved to return to our square to begin the tedious (but necessary) task of drawing the minutiae of our squares.  Dr. Matt Grey, the area supervisor who we had helped, invited us first to tour his squares and look at what likely is a wall of an ancient synagogue.  As we watched, a Jewish man named Enon approached us and became very excited to see the exposed stones of a wall of a possible ancient synagogue.  After the excitement died down, our two areas were made aware that Enon was at the site for the day in order to explore and document the ancient cisterns and tunnels running below the site.  Dr. Jodi Magness asked to two volunteers to aid Enon and every hand in the area shot up.  In a somewhat lame vie to be selected, I spoke up that I was not at the dig for credit and therefore would not want others to go down who needed to submit square drawings as part of their final grade.  With a look of disgust from many hopeful volunteers and a slight look of approval from Jodi, Jodi selected me along with Jessica, a girl with whom I had explored the cisterns once before.
Toward the end of our time in the cistern.
My clothes were clean when I went in.

Once we were able to contain our excitement we spoke with Enon and learned that we would spend the entire morning clearing tunnels just wide enough so we could squeeze through an see what was on the other side.  The prospect of what would be a claustrophobic's nightmare only excited us more as we donned hard hats and head lamps in preparation for our decent.

I cannot remember exactly, but I believe Enon went first down the ladder, which stretched approximately five meters (only a guess), Jessica went second, and I went third.  Once in the bottom, we surveyed the situation as Enon developed a plan of attack to clear selected tunnels--tunnels that no one may have entered in nearly 2,000 years.

At the bottom, in what I will call the main cistern, we could see three tunnels from our perch upon a vast pile of dirt.  The tunnel on the left was cleared enough for people to slide through.  This was the tunnel that Jessica and I had explored upon our first journey under Huqoq.  This tunnel and open room were not our focus this morning, however, for a second tunnel existed directly in front of us and a third on our right.  Our first task would be to lie on our stomachs and venture through the narrow opening of the tunnel on our right to allow us to explore the enclosed room that we could just make out on the other side.

In order to get through this tunnel, I filled a few buckets of dirt to make my way easier.  After passing the buckets back to be emptied, I shimmied through the narrow opening into what would be a large room if it was not nearly filled to the top with dirt and mud.  I had just enough space to turn around if needed, but not enough space to rise to my knees.  I stayed on my stomach as I crawled around and explored.  On two of the walls, I spied (after Enon had told me to look for them) indentions that had once held ancient candles or oil lamps.  This room had been large and had once housed people.  Where the people were there for digging or for hiding during the First Jewish Revolt (as Josephus attests to) will be a question to be pursued in the future once we are able to bring pottery out of the cistern.  For now though, our goal was to explore and to map what we saw.

Once in this dirt-filled room, I spied two tunnels.  One directly to my left and one on my right.  I could barely squeeze into the tunnel on my right, but the dirt fill quickly prevented any further exploration.  Jessica then crawled into the room with bucket in tow, and I again filled buckets until enough space existed that I could fit my body through the narrow tunnel.  This tunnel went up toward my right for about a meter before turning sharply to the left.  I continued to dig, both with my hands and with my trowel that I had brought with me, as I inched my way forward.  I eventually cleared enough to dirt to crawl my way into a third small room.  In this small room, I could squat on my legs, but I could not do much else for it was extremely small.  On three sides, I was surrounded by limestone walls, but on the wall across from me, stones appeared to be stacked on one another with a type of mortar between them.  At this point, I yelled back at Enon and reported what I was seeing.  He yelled with excitement and told me that I could come back whenever ready.  After five minutes of wiggling, shimmying, and any other verb that involves crawling on your stomach with progress measuring by the centimeter, Jessica and I maid it back to the main cistern and to Enon.

Enon went in after us and after a few minutes, he too had reached the room in which I had just been.  Yells of excitement commenced immediately.  Upon Enon's return to the main cistern, he told us that where we had been was likely a chimney of sorts in which individuals in antiquity were able to climb in and out of the cistern and its vast array of tunnels.  Enon then said that he believed we were in a network of tunnels likely used during the First Jewish Revolt during the first century CE.  (This is only a hypothesis for now.  We must find evidence of this early dating and even more evidence for this use.)

After the excitement of discovering this "chimney room" began to subside, we began work on clearing a second tunnel--the one that sat across from us upon our arrival from the surface.  We spent at least 30 minutes with trowels and hoes clearing dirt to make the tunnel wide enough for a person to get through.  Enon volunteered to go first, because no one had yet been through this tunnel and what could be on the side was a matter of imagination.

The middle, skinny tunnel.
So happy not to be stuck!
After his first attempt, the tunnel proved too narrow so we again began digging.  Several attempts later, Enon disappeared as his head lamp grew dimmer and dimmer in the tunnel ahead.  A few minutes later, we heard a shout of acclimation, "Wah Wah We Wah!" as Enon found something that he had hoped to find--plaster floors.  Enon reappeared and invited us to go in.  I volunteered to go first and shortly regretted that decision.  The walls of this tunnel were as wide as my shoulders.  In fact, I had to place my arms fully in front of my body for my shoulders to fit.  Just enough space existed above my to fit my head if I dragged my nose in the dirt below.  I raised my knees and inch, moved my body forward an inch with my hips, and repeated the process countless times.  At one point, I was sure I was stuck and that I would need Enon and Jessica to pull me out by my legs.  I continued to try to technique however, and after about five minutes of being cramped on all sides, the tunnel opened up.  I could not believe what I saw.  The two meters of narrowness opened up to about ten meters of a fully plastered tunnel.  This palster was very different from the plaster in the other rooms (it was a whitish red, while the others were gray), and pottery stuck out from within it at certain junctures.  This second section of the tunnel was wide enough for me to squat, which I was more than happy to do.  I moved forward slowly, trying my best not to damage the damp plaster below me as I attempted to take in all that I was seeing.  I followed the tunnel to its end only to come to a fork in which both divergences were filled with dirt, mud and rocks.  I turned around and took the same time and care exiting the narrow tunnel as I had getting in.  Jessica then went and returned as we began to develop a game plan hopefully to remove some of the dirt from one of the tunnels of the collapsed fork.

Right after we had gotten out!
Unfortunately, 8:45 a.m. had rolled around which meant breakfast was being served.  We began our climb back to the surface after spending two and a half hours exploring underground.  When I had entered the cistern, my clothes had been clean (and in fact, recently washed).  Coming out, however, I was covered in slick mud from head to foot (not to mention the many slugs that had adhered themselves to my shirt, shorts and skin).  We emerged from the depths of Huqoq just as a group of 40 students and professors from another ongoing excavation in the Galilee were touring our site.  They looked at us somewhat in amazement and somewhat in surprise.  A few fellow volunteers from Huqoq applauded our reemergence and quickly grabbed cameras to take pictures of our filth.  We wore our dirt and filth as a read badge of courage--a testament to the work we put into exploring the site below the site.  After many pictures and much laughter, I realized that I could not eat breakfast with how filthy I had become.  I walked down to a spring at the base of our site and submerged myself, washing both my shirt and my shorts.

Taking a dip in the natural spring.
After breakfast, we decided to take a break and two other students went down to begin drawing a map of the tunnels and open areas that we had uncovered.  These two students came back to the surface shortly before the day ended, and the four of us decided to take another dip in the spring to clean all of our clothes.  We also realized that with soaking clothes, we would probably not be able to ride back on the bus, so we decided to walk back to the kibbutz which was only a mile across some fields from the site.  We spent a good twenty minutes playing in the fresh water before we began our journey back.

An intersting side story.  Two Jewish men came to the spring as we began to pack our things to leave.  I spoke with them briefly and they said that the were submerging themselves in the natural water for the sake of purity.  One of the men told me that this spring was the traditional spring from which the prophet Habakuk had drank.  I spoke with them for a few more minutes until they began their ritual bath and we began our trek back to the kibbutz.

Archaeology is a lot of tedious, meticulous (but rewarding) hard work.  It is not often that an opportunity arrises that invites archaeologists to explore such well preserved and long abandoned channels and tunnels.  Enon was very firm on how fortunate we were to be able to do what we were doing while were underground.  The time and effort it took to clear tunnels wide enough for us to squeeze through was well worth what waited on the other side.  We only explored a small portion of what might exist below Huqoq.  With only two days left on the dig site, I am unsure if we will be able to return underground to explore the dark and mysterious depths of Huqoq again.  If we are in fact unable to return underground this season, our imaginations will serve the role of exploration until we (or others if I do not return to this site) are able to venture back below next season.  Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Days 16-19: Our Journey South, Part 2

I know that I am nearly a week late, but I will conclude our journey south this past weekend with a sharing of my favorite part of the trip--our time at Masada.

We awoke slightly earlier than we had the previous day to prepare for a trip to Masada and to the Dead Sea as we meandered our way back to the Galilee.  I awoke earlier than I intended, but I grabbed a book and planted myself in a hamock just outside the room to read until others began to stir.  I did not rest long before a friend came by and asked me if I cared to join her and another guy for a walk.  I put my book up and we ventured forth into the morning happenings of Kibbutz Lotan.

Our path drew us to the goats of the kibbutz.  We stood outside and watched a couple of people milking and feeding the goats.  After a few moments, one of the men invited us inside to watch more closely.  Upon entering, we met a couple of other people from our group who had had a similar idea.  It was a fascinating short period of time in which we met three different men with three very different stories.  When we felt the hunger pains of breakfast calling us away, one of the young men asked us to help fill the goat feed with him.  We complied with excitement, for now we could say that we had partaken in the socialist inner-workings of an authentic Israeli kibbutz.

We ate breakfast quickly and then boarded the bus for our two hour ride to Masada.  Masada derives from a Hebrew word meaning "fortress."  And to look upon its sheer cliffs, I doubt that I could name it any better.  Masada sits high above the Dead Sea with cliff sourrounding three sides.  The fourth side, I would still classify somewhat as a cliff, but a small winding road somehow manages to snake its way the very top.  (Both today and in ancient times, this skinny path is and was known as "the way of the snake.")

One of Eighteen Cisterns
The original fortress of Masada harkens from the Hasmonean times, the period of Jewish autonomy between Hellinistic rule and Roman rules.  This original Hasmonean fort has never been excavated, however, for upon Herod the Great's ascension to the Jewish throne as a client king of Rome, Herod not only expanded but nearly teraformed the top to mold Masada's features to his likings.  Herod's vast building project included two palaces, giant cisterns (when I say giant, I mean huge!  One cistern contained enough water to quench the thirst of a thousand individuals for over a year), bath houses, and nearly any other convenience a Roman citizen could name.

Herod built Masada along with four other fortresses near the border of his kingdom in order to disuade any Jews from rebelling.  Herod's claim to the throne was weak, as he was only Jewish on his father's side and he originally had no connections with the Hasmonean throne.  Masada stood as a testament of Herod's power and as a reminder to Jews that Herod was their king.

One of the Legionnaire Fortrs
Masada is most known for the role that it took following Herod's reign during the first Jewish revolt.  The story comes to us through the ink of Flavius Josephus, a client of the emperors Vespasian and Titus.  Josephus writes that a group of rebels took Masada and that these rebels were joined by more in the year 70 CE after Jerusalem had fallen.  Rome, not wanting to leave a hint of rebellion in the land, left a contigent of 5,000 soldiers (2,500 legioares and 2,500 axuliary troops) to besiege the fortress.  Rome quickly realized that the Jews could far outlast the Romans in a siege, for the Roman supply line was thin and expensive while the Jews above cast water below, taunting the Romans with their comfort and abundant supplies.  At this point, we are not sure how long the siege lasted but it is guessed to have taken place between two to six months.  In this time, the commander of the Roman contingent, Lucius Flavius Silva, built a circumambulation wall and a series of eight fortresses surrounding.  This wall completely encircled Masada, allowing no on to enter or no one to leave unless the Romans approved.  (This was standard practice in any Roman siege.  It worked tactically as well as psychologically.  Can you imagine looking down and seeing Roman camps surrounding a vast wall, lit aflame, demeaning any thought of escape or survival?)

The Romans then began the last phase of the siege, the construction of a giant ramp to the fortress.  The purpose of the ramp was to allow siege weapons (think things like battering rams) easy access to the walls of the fortress.  The Romans constructed large wooden boxes, placed them next to Masada, filled the boexes with rocks, packed earth upon them and repeated until a massive ramp formed before them.  At this point, the archaeology and history blends with myth as we rely on Josephus to recount what happened next.

According to Josephus, the Jewish rebels accepted their fate around this time during the siege.  The leader of the rebel contingent, Elazar ben Ya'ir, convened a group of men who decided that a mass suicide would be a kinder end than serving as slaves to the oncoming Romans.  After the decision had been made, the group of men went forth and slew the women and children.  The men returned to cast lots.  Ten men were chosen to kill the remaining men.  After they had accomplished this deed, each man turned to kill one of his companions, leaving a lone man at the end to commit suicide (so in the mass suicide, only one person actually commited the Jewish sin of suicide).

The story continues that a couple of women hid a cistern and eventually survived to tell the tale of the brave warriors fate.

A View from the Top of Masada,
looking down at the Snake Path
Masada is an insanely interesting tale from antiquity, riddled with mysteries both archaeolgically and historically.  I have studied the site several times, beginning with an archaeolgoy class that I took in college.  Nothing could have prepared me for actually standing where these events occured.  The scale and size of Herod's building projects loomed larger than anything I could have possibly imagined.  The pictures I took while there fail to encompass the majesty and horror of Masada's history.  But maybe that is for the best.  Seeing the world through the lens of a camera can sometimes be a dangerous thing.

I am very far behind on blogging.  In every dig, there is somewhat of an emotional slump.  It hit hard when we got back from our trip and just lifted in the past couple of days.  It was a period when no one can really remember when we began the dig, and the end still seems to far away.  This past week was a lot of sleeping, a lot of digging, a lot of eating, and not a lot of much else.  A few highlights, however, I will write about later.  These include a trip to Migdal on Tuesday (the home of Mary Madgalene) and a special trip to Sepphoris with Dr. Byron McCane and his Wofford students.  I will write more about this hopefully later today or tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Days 16-19: Our Journey South, Part 1

I want to delay writing this blog because I have no idea where to begin.  Whatever I write will most doubtedly fail to convey the vast sense of amazement from our trip this weekend.  That being said, I might as well attempt to put it all into words.  Here it goes.

We took off an hour early on Thursday so we could return to the kibbutz and begin our trip to southern Israel by 2 p.m.  Our normal bus driver was home resting and preparing to drive us south while another bus driver, one we have had a few times before, picked us up.  Like every other time he has driven us somewhere, he has played an eclectic mix of music.  One of the songs being this one:  (watch/listen at your own risk).  After listening to this song several times before this on the bus, a few of us decided to join in.  We sang for a few seconds before Dr. Byron McCane grabbed the microphone and joined our cacophony. Needless to say, the drive loved it and replayed the song.  This time, the entire bus rose in one voice as we belted the tune.  This was the start to our trip.

We will fast forward the next bit.  It involves getting on a bus and driving for 5.5 hours to Kibbutz Lotan.  On the way, we drove through the West Bank, alongside the Dead Sea and in between archaeological sights on all sides.  More on these sites later.

Kibbutz Lotan is an authentic kibbutz, meaning that it holds to the socialist origins from which it began.  Most things on the kibbutz are communal and the kibbutz is financially self-sufficient.  It's mainstay is a vibrant dairy farm comprised of many many goats.  We spent the first night at Lotan in "Club Kibbutz," Kibbutz Lotan's local, socialist dance club.   DJ Comrade, as we called him, played his music under a painted hammer and sickle.  It was awesome, albeit a copious amount of reggae music (including, of course Matisyahu).

The solar powered stove.  Intense.
The next day, we arose and started with a tour of Kibbutz Lotan.  Incredible.  Kibbutz Lotan is at the forefront of the eco-village / green movement in Israel (at least that is my understanding).  Our host took us around areas of the kibbutz where a converted antenna dish was used as a stove top, human waste was combined with straw to produce soil, and a natural water filtration system.  Kibbutz Lotan offers summer classes, and if I have time during my next trip to Israel, I would love to take one.

After our tour, we headed to the beach tourist town of Israel:  Eilat.  Eilat, at least the part we saw, was comprised of hotel after hotel and a gigantic mall that sits on the Red Sea.  I had a debit card snafu and wound up running around town with a friend for a majority of the day trying to get it to work to no avail.  After I admitted defeat, we met up with some others and spent the last hour of our time snorkeling along the coral reefs of the Red Sea.  We saw a vast array of fish and other sea creatures (including a snake!).  To describe it all would take too long.  But it was incredible.

Pat and James on our camel, Jafar.
We completed our day with a two hour camel ride.  For those of you who followed my trip last year might remember that our group at 'Ayn Gharandal went on a nine hour camel trek through Wadi Rum.  This was far shorter and far easier.  There were not enough camels for all, but we paired up in threes and traded off where two people would ride the camel at first and a third would lead it in line with the others.  We went out to a beatufil look-out over the Great Rift Valley (stretching from Turkey to South Africa), which exists as a valley due to the pulling apart of the Asian and European tectonic plates.  From this vantage point, we could see Kibbutz Lotan, and far in the distance, the area of 'Ayn Gharandal in Jordan.  It was a breathtaking sight and worth the ride out.

We returned to the kibbutz just in time for Shabbat dinner.  We arrived in the dining room just in time for everyone to join hands and wrap arms around each other to sing a blessing over loveas of bread and bottles of sweet wine on the tables.  The first song was a song for the sweet wine, which at the conclusion we each took a small sip from our glasses.  The second song was for the bread, which at the conclusion we broke bread and shared with one another.  A feat poured forth from the kitchen.  We were served rice, fish, beef, and much much more as we sat around our table and discussed our exciting day and the prospect of tomorrows exciting visit to Masada.  With that in mind, a few of us stayed up long enough to journey yet again to Club Kibbutz before finally calling it a night.

It is almost dinner time here and I am not sure if I will be able to finish the remainder of the trip in one post.  I will cut it short here and try to recount our Saturday trip to Masada and Dead Sea after dinner or after we get back from the dig tomorrow.  Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day 15: Omrit and Exploring the Cistern

Yesterday we went on a field trip to a fellow Galilean archaeological excavation to a site known as Omrit.  The partnered universities (I cannot remember their names) have continually excavated the site since 2000. So far, a majority of their work has focused on excavating a large temple that went through three phases of building.  The phases span from before the time of Herod the Great to the Byzantine period.  As to whose honor the temple was built remains a mystery, but one that the excavating team hopes to uncover as soon as possible.  One interesting idea (but one that cannot yet be soundly academically supported) is that the second phase of the temple may have served as a a building project of Herod the Great in honor or Augustus.

Today Mickey, one of the Israelis working on the site and main go-to-guy for anything that needs to be built or fashioned on the site, allowed Jessica (a fellow student working in our square) and I to explore a cistern that was uncovered the first day of excavations.  Each day this past week, Mickey has led two students down the cistern to explore below the site.

During our breakfast break (at 8:30 a.m.), Mickey grabbed Jessica and I and equipped us with head lamps and hard hats.  We pulled back a protective covering that blocked the entry to the cistern.  At first glance, I did not think that I would be able to make it.  A ladder extended into the darkness below in a hole about the width of my shoulders.  Mickey assured me that it would be an extremely tight squeeze but that I would be able to fit.  Mickey went first and after a yell from the bottom of the cistern, I began mine.  As I slowly climbed into the depths below, masoned rocks quickly turned to limestone walls that maintained the hint of plaster from ages past.  My shoulders and back squeezed against the stone with each step as I pressed my stomach and chest against the rungs of the ladder.  After some work and a few minutes, I broke into the first chamber of the cistern.  The walls widened tremendously as I was able to kneel upon a pile of dirt that has amassed over the centuries.  After a few more minutes, Jessica made it down and Mickey began pointing out some interesting features of the main chamber of the cistern.

Preparing to crawl back to the main cistern
After a minute, mickey directed his head lantern toward what appeared to be another pile of dirt.  Mickey told us that a tunnel existed at its based to another cistern located a few meters away.  After Jessica and I made it over to the side of the main cistern we saw the incredibly small tunnel, about one meter in diameter.  As per Mickey's instructions, I laid flat on my back, feet first, and began to shimmy and slide my way down the tunnel.  After about a minut of work (and begin covered in mud, dirt, and slime), I the tunnel opened into an immense cistern, much larger than the first.  I was able to stand up completely take 6-8 large steps before I reached the other sides.  Jessica was behind me shortly as we began to explore our new environemnt.  It only took us a second to look up and see the numerous families of slugs adorning the limestone walls of the this cistern.  We decided to avoid them, needless to say.  We snagged a few pictures, poked around a bit more, and then prepared to leave.  Jessica went first back through the narrow tunnel, and I was soon behind her.  As we were able to slide down on our backs the first time, we were forced to crawl on our stomachs with our faces pressed into the dirt and mud mixture on our way back.  After quite a bit of struggling on my part, I returned to the main cistern where Mickey was waiting.  Mickey pointed to another cistern whose tunnel was completely filled with dirt and mud, suggesting future adventures for future archaeologists after it is cleared.
A view of the entrance to the cistern.  For scale, count the
number of rungs on the ladder above.

Josephus writes of cisterns such as ours being used during the First Jewish Revolt as hiding areas for rebels.  Who knows if our cistern was ever used for such a purpose, but regardless of the cistern's use, our journey today was an incredible adventure and one of the most exciting experiences of my time in Israel this far.

Tomorrow we leave for southern Israel to the town of Eilat, where we will take a long weekend to explore the Red Sea, Masada, and Qumran.  I do not believe that I will be taking my computer with me, so expect a post detailing our adventures on Sunday.  Thanks for reading. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Days 9-14: Tiberius and Gamla

In the past week, we have visited Tiberius (a modern city just down the road) and Gamla (an ancient city up in the Golan Heights).  We went to Tiberius last Thursday, and two other guys and I went off the beaten path a ways.  We eventually wound up at a nargilah (hookah) bar where we spent an hour and a half surrounded by people who only spoke Hebrew.  With my limited Hebrew knowledge, I was able to pick up on a few phrases that were often directed toward us (like, "Those people don't know any Hebrew!").  Two of the patrons (one was an owner we think) got into a heated sudoku contest which was an endless source of entertainment for us.  After we left, we made our way to one of the main streets to get some falafel before getting back on the bus to head back to the kibbutz.

The definite highlight of the week was our trip to Gamla this past Saturday.  Gamla is in the Golan Heights, which is a region of Israel to the east of the Sea of Galilee (I wrote about it briefly last week).  The Golan Heights exist as a flat plateau at the top of the very hilly area of the Galilee.  As we were told while we were there, whoever controls the Golan Heights controls what is below (the reason for Israel's occupation of the area since 1976).

The site that we visited was Gamla, which means "camel" for it is a town on a hill shaped much like a camel's hump.  In antiquity, Gamla was a town that fell to Rome during the First Jewish Revolt in 67 CE.  After first remaining largely indifferent to the rising rebellion throughout Roman occupied Israel, Gamla eventually joined due to the influence of the massive number of refugees seeking shelter within the city walls.  Upon joining the rebellion, the city enlisted Flavius Josephus to build a wall to protect the city from the expected attack from Rome and Rome's allies.  Josephus came and built a wall along one of the slopes (for the other sides were high up from the ground, protected by steep ravines).  Herod Agrippa II  laid seige to the city for several months in 66 CE, but he did so to no avail.  Rome eventually sent the then general Vespasian with his son Titus to subdue the growing revolt.  Vespasian and Titus (soon to be  emperors of Rome) are reported to have arrived with three legions (30,000 troops), who surrounded the cliffs in the middle of which sat the minimally protected Gamla.  Vespasian's men were pushed back at first, but ultimately were able to breach the citiy's fortifications.  The Roman soldiers were reported to have taken to the roof tops of the city to have a better angle from which to attach the Jews.  This proved fatal, however, for buildings began to collapse and many Roman soldier's parrished in the debacle.  The Jews forced Rome to retreat, which is not something the Romans were used to doing.  Vespasian and Titus concocted another plan, and this time, sent a small number of men to tunnel under a tower in the wall's fortifications.  The Roman soldiers snuck undetected below the tower and accomplished their upon the towers collapse (the tower had been built hastily and the builders had not dug a foundation).  It did not take the Romans long to flood the city and quickly subdue all of Gamla.

We know of this story from Josephus, the same man who had built the wall at Gamla.  Before the Roman siege of Gamla, Rome had captured Josephus and likely used him as a source of information.  The head archaeologist of Gamla believes Josephus writes such details about Gamla because Josephus was likely present in the Roman encampment when Rome launched its siege against Gamla.

The amount of information gained from this trip was immense and all of it fascinating.  Above is a small snippet.  We are about to go on another field trip within the hour, and I wanted to write a bit about what we had done before everything started to run together.

The dig is going well, and we are making progress in our square.  We still only have ideas of what we are excavating, but we expect to have firmer ideas within the next couple of days.  Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Day 6-8: Groundhog Day

Crouching in the cellar of the Umm El-Qanatir Synagogue
In the past three days, our square has closed two squares and has now opened a third.  What this means is that we have weeded, sectioned off a 5 m x 5 m square, and excavated a 10 cm level of top soil three times in three different places (one guy in our square named our area the "Groundhog Day Square" because we seem to be stuck on repeat).  The reason our square has moved so frequently is that after two days of digging in our first two locations, our square supervisor and dig supervisor realized that we were digging in a relatively modern trash dump (from the 1940s).  While it was interesting, our goal was not reach the 1940s but to excavate a section of the late Roman / early Byzantine town.

Like all the other days, we arrived at the site by 5 a.m. and began clearing a large sections (about 10 m x 20 m) of weeds.  To visualize these weeds, imagine a field of wheat in which the wheat contained very sharp thorns and scorpions and poisonous centipedes ran rampant between the stalks.  Today, we only encountered one of each but it was more than enough than I would have cared to come across (I lifted a rock and the centipede crawled on my shoe and then when i kicked it off, the scorpion scuttled across from the other side).  After three hours of clearing weeds and thorns, our site was clear enough to put up shade and begin digging in our new area.  I am excited to see what we come across tomorrow.

On Monday, we visited Umm El-Qanatir, a sixth-century, Galilean synagogue located in the Golan Heights of Israel (the area of land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee taken from Syria by Israel in 1967 in the Six Day War).  Jesus (or Yeshu), the lead excavator, has rebuilt a large portion of the synagogue from its original stones.  It is an incredible building with a majority of its Torah shrine still intact   Even more exciting was that a few stones were removed from the floor and an ancient cellar was accessible.  Of course several of us had to crawl down and explore (see picture above).

All in all, it has been a good week so far.  This Saturday, we are returning to the Golan Heights to visit another site and of course go for another swim.  That is all for today.  Thanks for reading.  

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Day 5: More Dirt

For today's entry, I think I will briefly go over our daily dig schedule.  Today was much like our day two days ago and I am sure our future days will be similar.  Below is the basic schedule:

4:30 a.m. - Wake up
5:00 a.m. - Leave for the dig site
5:20 a.m. - Arrive at the dig site and begin digging
8:30 a.m. - One hour break for breakfast
9:30 a.m. - Back to work
1:00 p.m. - clean up and head back to the kibbutz

When we get back to the kibbutz, we eat lunch and usually take a nap until a lecture just before dinner around 5:30 p.m.  (or if no lecture, then hang out until dinner).

As for the dig today, we managed to go further down and may be on the verge of entering a new locus tomorrow.  But due to tiredness and lack of any new exciting information, I am signing off for the day.  Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Day 4: Exploring the Galilee

"Bros at Bet She'an" (as James ,one of the other guys,  titled it)
Our weekly day off from the dig proved as tiring as any day on the dig, but it also proved just as rewarding.  Today. we first visited the ancient city of Bet She'an, which was a member of the Greco-Roman league of cities known as the Decapolis.  The Decapolis, as it name suggests. was a league of ten cities that boasted fierce ties to Greco-Roman (or Hellenistic) ideals.  Bet She'an was the cities Hebrew name.  It's Greco-Roman name was Scythopolis, meaning "City of the Scythians."  This city sits at the crossroads of two main thoroughfares of ancient Israel.  We explored the ancient city and eventually climbed the summit of the large "tel" that sits at the middle of the ancient city.  The "tel," or mound, exists due to a fortification system implemented during the Bronze Age ("patriarch era").  The fortification boasted large sloping walls that successive civilizations then built within.  Over time, these layers of civilizations piled up within the original Bronze Age fortification system, creating a large mound.  Some key highlights of this visit were the bath house with triclinium and the public latrine (luckily no longer in operation).  A whole host of stories exist with the latrine, but the one fact I will share is that ancient Romans would often wipe with a public sponge attached to a stick.  I'll let your imagination fill in any unanswered quandries.

Our next trip was to a 6th century CE Galilean synagogue known as Bet Alpha.  I will write more about this later because we will be visiting more Galilean syangogues in the upcoming weeks.  It was very interesting!

Our final trip was to a series of three hot-springs (known as "sachna"--at least I believe).  We spent two and a half lounging around, swimming from spring to spring.  It was relaxing and wonderful.  We returned from our trip and headed to dinner, which turned into an interesting experience.  We started with salad and soup, and after 30 minutes, we thought that this was all of which dinner would consist.  We left the kibbutz dining hall only to have the chef follow us out, yelling that we had only had the beginning of the meal.  We returned to french fries, baked fish, and pasta.  All of which was delicious.  We were also gifted with Shabbat wine, which most people detested.  It was extremely sweet, almost like sangria.  I would compare it to communion wine.  I found it delicious.  Now it is pushing 9 p.m., and I better turn in for the night for 4:30 a.m. will come all too soon.  Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Day 3: Our first Shabbat

Today ends the second day of the dig and begins our first sabbath while on the dig.  Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until sundown on Saturday.  Though we will not be taking a Sabbath for religious reasons, we will be taking our one day off each week on the sabbath.  Even though we are only two days into the dig, I am definitely ready for a respite.

As I said in my previous post, our square yesterday spent a majority of our eight hours on site clearing an area roughly 15 m x 20 m so that we could open up two 5 m x 5 m squares today.  We are digging on a slight - semi steep incline that until yesterday, was thickly covered with thorny weeds.  Though we cleared a majority of the brush before breakfast, we spent the remainder of the day clearing the thin layer of top soil  of roots and rough earth.

The last thing we did yesterday was to tie off our two 5 m x 5 m squares with string so that we would know where to begin digging.  I am working on the west square which only suffers from a slight slope.  The east square is directly below us, seperated by a 1 m baulk (an area of earth left un-excavated to serve as a way to view the different levels of earth through which we dig).

Today when we arrived at the site (around 5:15 a.m.--we get up at 4:30 a.m. each morning), we (to my great enjoyiment) errected a shade tent over our squares.  Though the temperature only gets into the upper 80s or lowers 90s, the sun can be brutal.  The shade almost made it feel like I was on vacation, if that vacation was spent hauling wheelbarrows full of dirt to a dump site about 25 yards away.  The majority of our day was spent peeling back the first 10 cm of earth in our square so that we could get rid of "contaminated" soil--soil that, due to rain and erosion, had become very mixed with the layers below and the top soil.

What started as a weed-pullers nightmare yesterday has now turned into an archaeologists dream (or at least an amateur archaeologists dream).  The work on the site is progressing nicely, and I look forward to getting back to work on Sunday.

Tomorrow, we are visiting Beth She'an in northern Israel, a city of the Decapolis (meaning "ten cities") from antiquity.  We are then taking a trip to an ancient Galilean synagogue, followed by an afternoon swim and lunch at some local hit springs.  Archaeology makes for a pretty hard life, no?

I unfortunately left my camera back in my room, but I will definitely post pictures tomorrow (or maybe later tonight).  Thanks for reading! 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Day 1-2: The Sea of Galilee and Our Site

My battery has nine percent battery left, so this will be a quick post about our time yesterday at the Sea of Galilee and our first day at the dig today.  Let me begin our discussion of the Sea of Galilee by saying I now understand why Jesus walked on it and Peter tried to--it is rocky and those rocks are sharp.  We spent a majority of our afternoon there swimming and lying around on rocks while we discussed our hopes and dreams for the upcoming dig.  It was a great time and very relaxing.

Today was our first official day on the dig.  I am still not over the jet lag and unfortunately woke up at 11:30 p.m. (I went to bed at 9 p.m.).  I then laid in bed until 4:30 a.m., when our room got up and we made our way to the bus by 5 a.m.  We arrived on the dig site and began work immediately.  I have been placed in a square that is digging a Roman/Byzantime village.  We spent our entire day clearing brush and then further clearing the top layer of soil.  It turns out that the temperature in northern Israel is much more mild than the temperature in southern Jordan.  The temperature has held to the 80s-90s, and even better, tomorrow, we are placing shade over our square.  My battery is about dead, I will post pictures and more details tomorrow, including all the nerdy information that I love to share.  Have a great day!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Day 0: Arrival

After nearly a day of travel, we have made it to the kibbutz out of which we will be operating for the next month.  The trip was not too difficult.  In fact, for the first time on any international trip, I fell asleep for more than 10 minutes on the plane.  The secret turned out not to be sleeping medicine, but instead watching (or attempting to watch) The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button.  This was my third attempt at watching the movie, which was subsequently my third time falling asleep within the first 10 minutes of watching it.

Joking aside, the trip went well.  We made it to the kibbutz around 8:30 p.m. (Israel is seven hours ahead of EST).  Tomorrow we are relaxing a bit and going to the Sea of Galilee.  Our portion of the dig begins the day after.  I am tired, so this will be the end of the post for the day.  I will post pictures tomorrow.  Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day 0: The Journey Begins

I have not posted to the blog in over a week due to a hectic schedule.  Traveling home, work, and getting prepared to leave for Israel happened to be a little more time consuming than I had thought.  Anyways, I am posting now, and this post will be the first of many to come throughout the next 30 days.  This post will serve as a transition from my pseudo-studios posts about personal items of academic interest to a travel blog  covering my time in Israel.

I fly out of Raleigh-Durham tonight to Newark, where I will be catching a direct flight into Tel Aviv.  Once there, the other students and I will make our way to our dig site where we will begin work the next day (or at least orientation--I am still a bit fuzzy on the schedule).  We have wireless internet at the kibbutz where we are staying, so I hope to be able to post daily.  I will do my best to convey the dig experience while at the same time discussing issues in the field of modern biblical archaeology (for any other biblical or archaeological nerds like myself!).  If you have any questions, please feel free to ask at anytime.  The next time I post, I will be in Israel, and I will hopefully have more to share.  Thanks for reading!  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Apocalypse Now

With all the hullabaloo concerning the supposedly imminent apocalypse, I thought that we would take some time to explore apocalyptic literature.  In this post we will examine the advent of apocalyptic literature and then turn to the book of Daniel in order to see how apocalyptic literature functions in history.

Michelangelo's Daniel
To begin, the English word 'apocalypse' is a cognate of the Greek verb apokalypto, meaning "to reveal" and "to make known."  We may understand the phrase 'apocalyptic literature' then as literature that makes known that which is unknown.  A basic definition of 'apocalyptic literature' in the context of Jewish and Christian Scripture that we may work from in this post is literature that depicts the culmination and summation of God's hidden work in history.

Our paradigmatic example of apocalyptic literature appears in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible with a second example coming in the book of Revelations in the Christian New Testament.  A third, readily available example, is the "The War Scroll" found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I will not be able to discuss this scroll here, but a simple search on Google should take you to an online English translation (it is definitely worth a read).  For this post, we will examine the book of Daniel in order to understand both the context out of which apocalyptic literature arrises and the objective to which apocalyptic authors write.

The book of Daniel spans 12 chapters and breaks prosaically between chapters 6 and 7, which suggests Daniel existed as two separate works prior to its final redaction.  We ascertain this prosaic break due to the fact that Dan 6 concludes with the character of Daniel prospering during the reign of the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great (placing the character of Daniel at some point between 559-530 BCE), while Dan 7 begins with the character of Daniel serving the Babylonian king Belshezzar during the first year of Belshazzar's reign (placing the character of Daniel around the year 553 BCE).  So the narrative of Dan 6 historically ends after the narrative of Dan 7 begins, which alludes to each narrative as being separate at one point in the history of the compilation of the book of Daniel.  (In addition to this, Dan 6 ends with a common semitic ending while Dan 7 begins with a common semitic introductory formula.)

Another interesting feature of the book of Daniel is that Dan 2-7 appear in Aramaic, a linguistic descendent of Hebrew that was widely used during the Second Temple Period of Israel (539 BCE - 70 CE).  This linguistically places the compilation of Daniel to some point following the return of Israel from the Babylonian Exile.  To place the book of Daniel more firmly in a historical context, we will very briefly examine key features of Dan 1-6 and Dan 7-12.  

In Dan 1-6, we read about the character Daniel working alongside his three friends in the Babylonian royal court.  While we do not know to what extent foreigners worked in the Babylonian court, we do know that foreigners did work in the court of the Ptolemies of Egypt (Ptolomy was a general of Alexander the Great who, after Alexander's death, set up a dynasty in Egypt that melded Egyptian and Greek culture around the year 323 BCE).  These foreigners, it is believed, served as famuli (singular:  famulus)--in this context, meaning 'attendants'--in the royal court of the Ptolemies (similar to the story of Joseph and Potipher in Gen 40-41).  So while the serving of the character of Daniel in the Babylonian court appears odd, if we place the writing of Dan 1-6 during the Ptolemaic rule of Israel, we find a historical basis for a foreigner serving in a royal court.  Our interpretation of Dan 1-6, therefore, views the apocalyptic prophecies made throughout Dan 1-6 as a distant / non-imminent memory of Israel's past.

In Dan 7-12, we enter a much more imminent narrative where the character of Daniel foretells the continual rise and fall of foreign rulers that will ultimately bring Israel to the "abomination of desolation" in which a foreign ruler will profane the Temple of Jerusalem (Dan 9:27, 11:21 and 12:11).  We know that this "abomination of desolation" to have taken place historically during the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Dynasty (Seleucus was another general of Alexander the Great who gained control of much of what had formerly been the land of Babylon, and he established his own dynasty).  While Antiochus IV Epiphanes was busy dealing with a possible war with the Ptolemies in Egypt, a rumor spread that Antiochus IV had been killed in a battle.  Jerusalem then revolted, only to learn that not only that Antiochus IV was alive but that Antiochus IV had come to Israel.  Antiochus IV quickly supressed the rebellion and then decided to strengthen his grasp in Jerusalem.  To do so, Antiochus IV replaced the worship of God at the Temple in Jersualem with the worship of Zeus (including the sacrifice of pigs--an unclean animal in Judaism).  Many Jews who were more inclined to Greek culture were fine with this, but Jews who were loyal to the worship of Israel's God immediately rebelled, launching Israel into a civil war.

This "abomination of desolation" that the character of Daniel said would occur in Jerusalem's Temple fits perfectly with the establishment of Zeus and the sacrifice of pigs in the Temple by Antiochus IV.  This allows us to place the composition of Dan 7-12 at some point during Antiochus IV rule in the second century BCE (or during the onset of the Maccabean revolt, which was a Jewish insurgence that ultimately expelled Antiochus IV and culminated in the cleansing of the Temple).

Where we ultimately arrive is one book that contains two styles of apocalyptic literature.  Daniel 1-6 presents us the first style in which an author looks back through history and makes the audience aware of God's hidden work throughout that history.  Daniel 7-12 presents us with the second style of apocalyptic literature in which an author understands his or her present as God's culminating and near-completion of history.

We do not possess two separate literary works but the one, canonical book of Daniel.  For this reason, we must read the narratives of Dan 1-6 and Dan 7-12 in conjunction with one another.  To do this, I believe that we must not use apocalyptic literature primarily to understand the past or to predict the future, but we must use apocalyptic literature to understand the present.  For the past is more like an ingredient of apocalyptic literature than a foundation; and all future predictions made within apocalyptic literature are the expectations of how God will draw history to its end.  The present is not only the literary focus of the authors of apocalyptic literature, but the present is the reality in which the authors of apocalyptic literature lived.  If the present is what drew these apocalyptic authors to reveal God's work in the history of the past and the history of what is yet to come, why do we so fervently focus on using apocalyptic literature to decode the past or to attempt to predict the future?  I do not have an answer, but I would like to end with a final question:  How are we to read and to experience apocalyptic literature in our present, today?

Note:  To stave confusion, I have included a map of the present-day Middle East following the war of succession following the death of Alexander the Great.  Note that Antigonus first laid claim to the land of Israel, but during the time period discussed above, the land of Israel was continually contested and fought over between the Ptolomaic and Seleucid kingdoms:

Also, if you are interested in further study of apocalyptic literature, The Apocalyptic Literature by Dr. Stephen Cook is a wonderful introduction.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Israel: What's in a Name, Revisited (Part 2)

Yesterday, we briefly discussed the origin of the word "Hebrew" as it appears in the Hebrew language:  ivri.  Today, we will examine the literary and linguistic origin of the word Israel.  The prosaic account that introduces the Torah's audience to the name "Israel" is one of the most fascinating narratives in Genesis.  In the narrative, we read of Jacob's wrestling with a mysterious figure who after struggling with him throughout the night, renames Jacob "Israel," which in English translates to "He struggled (with) God."

We will first examine this account from a literary perspective and place this literary account within the context of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture.  We will then examine the linguistics of the Hebrew word "Israel"and attempt to understand how the Torah's ancient audience may have understood their own identity.

I doubt that I could tell the story of Jacob's struggle with the mysterious figure any better than the account found in Genesis, so I have posted it below:
The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle. (Gen 32:22-32)
We are immediately clued into several interesting items found within the text.  First, Jacob wrestles with a "man" until daybreak who we are only told later is God.  Second, Jacob demands to know God's name but God does not divulge this information.  Third, God renames Jacob "Israel."  Fourth, the author recounts this story later, which we aware from the introductory formula of "Therefore to this day..."  Each of these items reflects an intriguing cultural location from ANE religious beliefs and practices, and for this reason we will discuss each item (in brief) individually.  We will begin with God's renaming of Jacob into "Israel," and we will then discuss the remaining items of interest in order to place this narrative within an ANE context.

The mysterious figure with whom Jacob wrestle's tells Jacob, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."  The name Israel is a combination of two Hebrew words:  sarah (שרה) and el (אל).  Sarah is a verb meaning, "to struggle," and the conjugation in which it appears in Israel indicates a third-person, pronominal suffix meaning "He has struggled."  The word el in Hebrew often refers to God, and it more specifically refers to the Canaanite god El who served as the head deity of the Canaanite pantheon.  Most often in classical Hebrew, we find el in the plural form as elohim in reference to the God of Israel.  So, Israel literally means "He has struggled (with) God."  Of interest is why the nomenclature el was used to name Jacob as opposed to the personal name in which Israel knew its God:  YHWH.  In fact, I cannot think of a single instance in which Israel's name for God was used instead of the Canaanite name for God (Other examples include Samuel and Daniel; please correct me if I am wrong).

The use of the deity el in renaming Jacob allows us to place this story (or at least the oral origin of this story) during a time prior to the monarchial period of Israel when the deity el was worshipped in Canaan.  Several other factors in the story also to this earlier date.  The first is that Jacob wrestles with the man until daybreak, which plays nicely into the belief that the Canaanite gods came to the earth at night but went away with the light of day.

The second factor is that Jacob demands to know the mysterious man's name (the inclusion of "please" in English does not truly reflect the sentiment of the Hebrew).  In the ANE, learning one's name or demanding to know one's name often expressed a desire to possess mastery over that individual.  In the context of our story, then, Jacob demands to know this mysterious man's name in order to exert power over him.  What happens, however, is that instead of revealing his name to Jacob, the mysterious man renames Jacob--reversing the paradigm of power.  If this narrative was an ancient story that predated Israel and the knowing of God as YHWH, it is no wonder why the ancient authors and editors of Genesis identified this mysterious man as God.

The last factor that we will examine is the author's inclusion of the phrase, "Therefore to this day, the Israelites don't..."  In this phrase, we learn that a later author is recounting a story in order to explain a practice of modern Israel.  When could this modern author be writing?  Most likely during Iron Age II (during the monarchial period), during the Babylonian Exile, or just following the return of Israel from the Babylonian Exile.  Though the story was not written until this period it is likely that the oral tradition extends much further into Israel's past.

In conclusion, when we read Jacob's story of wrestling with the mysterious man, we read a narrative that spans centuries.  What likely began as a local religious myth at some point during the Early to Middle Bronze Age, meets its final casting during Iron Age II under the providence of Israel's God YHWH.

Again, as in earlier posts, my goal is not to bring people's faith into question but to illuminate items of interest.  The same story that likely developed over centuries in antiquity is the same story that continues to develop in the Jewish and Christian canon today.  When approaching the story of Jacob's wrestling with the mysterious man, we bring with us our own narratives and stories, just like the Jewish authors who cast the story of Jacob's wrestling under the providence of their God.

Though the story of Jacob's wrestling with the mysterious man may not be native to ancient Israel, ancient Israel recognized the story's significance and decided that the mysterious figure who struggled with Jacob was in fact their God.  A question we may then ask today is, "Is Christianity any different than ancient Israel in Christianity's interpretation of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 as Jesus Christ?"  Is Christianity not playing into the very tradition out of which it arose?  And finally, should this bring comfort or concern?  Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Israel: What's in a Name, Revisited (Part 1)

Yesterday, on the way to the airport, a roommate of mine asked, "Where do you think the name, 'Israel' originates?"  My roommate already knew the answer--that biblically the name "Israel" originates from within the story of Jacob's struggle with God in Gen 30:22-30; and that linguistically the name Israel derives from the combination of two Hebrew words.

The root of his question, I believe, stemmed from a desire to explore how the very name by which both we and ancient Israel knew the people of the Hebrew Bible instructs our and ancient Israel's interpretation of those people and their narratives within the Hebrew Bible.  The discussion between my roommate and I unfortunately ended abruptly upon our arrival to the airport.  Though our discussion may have ended my thoughts on the matter haven't, and I have decided that over the next two days I am going to continue our discussion on this blog.  Over the course of the next two days, we will explore the origin of the two names of Israel as presented in the Hebrew Bible.  In today's discussion, we will address the first mention of Abraham as a "Hebrew" in Genesis, and tomorrow, we will discuss Jacob's struggle with God and subsequent renaming as Israel.

In Gen 14:13, we read of a people known as "Hebrew" for the first time:

Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner; these were allies of Abram.
The biblical authors of Genesis here refer to Abraham (while he was still known as Abram) as a "Hebrew."  What we translate as "Hebrew" in English appears in Hebrew as ivri (עִבְרִי), which derives from the Hebrew verb meaning, "to cross over."  (Note that we arrive at the English word "Hebrew" from a transliteration of the Greek and Latin words Ἑβραῖος and Hebraeus, respectively.  The origin of the Greek and Latin designation of Israel as "Hebrew" is unknown.)  In more conservative circles, I have heard that the naming of the peoples of Israel as ivrim (plural of ivri) originates from the narrative of the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus.  Although this hypotheses plays wonderfully into the Exodus narrative, this hypotheses fails to explain why Abraham is already known as an ivri in Genesis.

Ideas abound but answers are few:  Others could have referred to Abraham as ivri for he came from a foreign land (thus he would have "crossed over" to get to ancient Palestine); surrounding cultures during the Iron Age (from the supposed monarchial period of Israel) may have perceived ancient Israel through the Exodus narrative that Israel told and the surrounding cultures therefore knew Israel as ivrim; and lastly, Israel may have adopted this name upon return from the Babylonian Exile which would have involved a crossing of the Euphrates River (what better way to embody the story of the Exodus than to live it?).

Each of the above hypotheses places the writing of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) in a different time:  the first hypothesis places the writing of the Pentateuch in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1500-2000 BCE; prior to Israel's monarchial period), the second hypotheses places the writing of the Pentateuch in the latter part of the Iron Age (1000-540 BCE, prior to the Babylonian Exile), and the final hypothesis places the writing of the Pentateuch during the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (550-330 BCE, following the Babylonian Exile and just prior to the conquest of Alexander the Great).  For the purposes of our discussion, I believe it is reasonable to posit that an early oral tradition of Abraham and the other Patriarchs as ivrim during the Iron Age became a form of self-identity for the people of Israel following the return from the Babylonian Exile.

For this hypotheses to be true, then, the Pentateuch, though likely existing in written fragments prior, did not exist as the fully edited written corpus as we have it today until following Israel's return from the Babylonian Exile.  To explore this idea further would be to step outside the intentions of this post.  I will redress this topic in the future through a further exploration of the text and an exploration of Bronze Age and Iron Age archaeological remains.  For now, however, it should suffice to say that the name ivri defined a people who crossed into the land of Canaan, whether that crossing took place in the figure of Abraham in Genesis, the figure of Moses in the Exodus, or in the return of Israel from the Babylonian Exile.  The literary idea and subsequent embodiment of "crossing over"--a movement from an "outsider" to an "insider"--exists as a strong narrative throughout the Hebrew Bible.  We will begin again with this narrative tomorrow as we explore Jacob's struggle with God and Jacob's subsequent transition into Israel.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?"

Few questions possess more mystery within Christianity than how could the invulnerable God have hung vulnerably from a cross.  While I realize that early church fathers and early church councils mulled over this question so that we would not have to do so, I am going to border on the heretical and break from tradition.  I do so out of a desire to examine Jesus' resounding cry of, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" found in Mk 15:34 and Mt 27:46.

To begin,  Dr. Donald Hagner (in Word Biblical Commentary for the Gospel of Matthew), says that Jesus cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" on the cross "is one of the most impenetrable mysteries of the entire gospel narrative." (Hagner, 845).  If a renowned scholar cannot provide an answer to the question posited in this post, I will not be as presumptuous to believe that I could do any better.  I will, however, attempt to place Jesus' cry on the cross within a possible context of first-century and second-century Roman Palestine.

One last item to consider before entering our discussion is, "Did Jesus really say these words upon the cross?"  For the purposes of this post, we will answer that Jesus in fact did cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  The reason being that we will examine Jesus' cry as "insiders" within the gospel narratives as presented by the authors of Mark and of Matthew.  It is a very real possibility that Jesus never said this and that the gospel writers attributed this phrase to Jesus in order to offer Psalm 22 as an interpretive lens through which to understand Jesus' crucifixion.  We will approach Jesus' cry upon the cross as authentic, for the authors of Mark and Matthew likely intended this hermeneutic construct.

So, here we are.  Three paragraphs in and ready to breach the topic of what Jesus may have intended when crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Two main streams of thought exist on this topic (there are likely more, but I am only aware of two).  First, that Jesus saw himself as personifying the deep, personal lament as exists within the first half of Psalm 22; and second, that though Jesus uttered the first verse of Psalm 22, Jesus was actually expressing the praise and thanksgiving that conclude Psalm 22.  In other words, in the first view, Jesus expressed a true feeling of abandonment by God; and in the second view, Jesus expressed hope.  Each view could make sense depending with whom you were speaking.  I wish to remove our discussion from merely the realm of Psalm 22 as it exists today, however, and move it to the realm of Psalm 22 as it may have existed in the first and second centuries of Roman Palestine.

With the return of Israel from the Babylonian Exile, the Hebrew Bible became a central focus in certain circles of Jewish life.  The interpretation of what the Hebrew Bible contained then became of great interest.  By the first century CE, circles of interpretation had likely arisen which later developed into a body of literature known as midrash (which derives from a Hebrew word meaning, "to inquire").  In midrash, a Rabbi reads a passage in order to expose the story as it exists plainly and also as it exists "behind-the-scenes."  Rabbis often play a wonderfully imaginative game when compiling midrashim (plural form) for a verse.  One verse will often lead a Rabbi to another verse, which will then lead to another verse, which will then drawn the Rabbi back to the original verse.

For the midrash concerning Ps 22:1, the Rabbis read, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" as first referring to Isa 10:17:  "The light of Israel shall be for a fire, and His holy one for a flame; and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day."  What we read in Isaiah as historical prophecy referencing the Assyrian invasion of Israel and Judah, the Rabbis read as referring to characters in the book of Esther.  The Rabbis say, "The light of Israel means Mordecai; His holy one means Esther; and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers means that Haman and his sons shall be devoured."(Nemoy, 298-299).  (Note that the written midrash for the book of Psalms is relatively late, but evidence suggests that the oral tradition originated in antiquity.)  In this brief characterization of Esther's key characters through the perspective if Isa 10:17, the Rabbis create an interpretive lens through which we are able to view Psalm 22 and even possibly Jesus' cry upon the cross in Mk 15:34 and Mt 27:46.

Each character above is representative of Jesus on the cross in some way.  In the book of Esther, Mordecai greatly laments; Esther's very name in Hebrew means "the hidden one" (as the Rabbis note in the midrash and could possibly reflect Jesus' secretive nature in Mark); and Haman is hanged from a tree.

If Jesus did in fact have Esther in mind (even if only partially), then what other parallels might we draw between Jesus' crucifixion in Mark and Matthew and the book of Esther?  One interesting parallel to consider is that the book of Esther lacks the name "God."  If this parallel is intentional, then the lament portion of Psalm 22 and the book of Esther reach a similar objective but on two separate paths.  The psalmist expresses God's absence through declaring God's abandonment of the psalmist in the first verse of Psalm 22.  The author of Esther likewise expresses God's absence but through the omission of God's name in the book of Esther.  In this light, we might interpret Jesus' cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" in a very real and actual sense.  Jesus did not utter these words in order to convey the praise and thanksgiving that conclude Psalm 22, but Jesus uttered these words in order to express a true sense of separation and depravity.

The goal of this post was to explore the question of what Jesus could have meant when crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  I admit that our viewing of Jesus on the cross as a type of live-action exegesis of Esther is not likely and possibly flat-out wrong.  I maintain, however, that it is an important exercise to approach biblical studies with an imaginative mindset, for it is through imagination that we are able to relate to the sages of the past with whom provide us texts born out of an imaginative spirit.

Sources Cited:

Hagner, Donald.  World Biblical Commentary:  Matthew 14-28.  Dallas, World Books, 1995.

Nemoy, Leon, ed.  The Midrash on Psalms.  New Haven:  Yale U, 1959.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

-22 Days: Preparations for Israel

In addition to writing about archaeological and historical items that interest me, I will be using this blog also to write about my participation on the first season of excavations at Huqoq in the Galilee.  Huqoq is located approximately 2 miles from the Sea of Galilee and is just over two miles from both Migdal (located to the south and the hometown of Mary Magdalene) and Capernum (located to the north and where Jesus and his disciples began their ministry).

The amount of specific information that I will be able to share from the dig site will be minimal.  Because Huqoq is a new site, this means that our excavation will be geared towards eventual publication.  I do not have the rights to the information that we uncover.  I will be able to speak in generalities, however, and look forward to sharing my experiences, particularly what life is like on a dig.  If you have any questions about archaeology, field methods, or life on a dig, please feel free to ask.

If you would like to read about my experience last summer working at the 'Ayn Gharandal Archaeology Project in Jordan, please click the following link to the travel blog that I kept:

I am still 22 days away from leaving, and for now, I am just making a list of things that I need to take with me and am trying to locate items (like my trowel) that I have packed away.  My passport was luckily easy enough to find this year.  As our departure date of May 30 draws nearer, I will write more about the region in which we will be digging and some of the activities that we will be doing away from the dig.  Thanks for reading.

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology, Part 3

In this post, we will discuss and place the remaining three days of creation of Gen 1:1-19 in an ancient Near Eastern context.  I will try to be brief, and I will try to move quickly.  I will be referring to this graphic throughout the post:

Gen 1:6-8 narrates the second day of creation and reads: 
And God said, 'Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.' So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
In this brief passage we come across an intriguing detail that we often overlook:  God separates the "waters from the waters."  When I came across this detail of creation while growing up, I attributed it to a mistranslation from the Hebrew text or to an ancient person's misunderstanding of why the sky appears blue.  As it turns out, neither of my childhood hypotheses were true (though the second could have possibly yielded credence to why the ancients believed what they believed).  I eventually learned that we view the universe very differently today than an ancient person would have several thousand years ago.

The picture posted above gives us a glimpse into how an ancient perceived reality.  In relation to our account of creation in Genesis, the ancient world believed a primordial water to pre-exist creation.  It is for this reason that God's spirit hovers above the "deep" in Gen 1:2 just after the creation of the heavens and the earth.  God's creation of the earth was, according to an ancient mindset, the creation of a disc-like firmament that was set amidst these primordial waters.  So at the advent of this second day of creation, the earth existed with water below it, water around it, and water above it.  In Gen 1:6, when God creates a dome to separate the waters, we arrive at the picture posted above:  a living space with water above (the sky) and water below (oceans, rivers, seas, etc).  If we continued to explore the waters below the disc-like firmament, we would eventually run into pillars that keep the firmament from sinking back into the primordial water.  In Hebrew, the word for pillar is amud, and it is amongst these pillars (or just above these pillars, depending on which ancient Near Eastern culture you are reading) that Sheol / the Underworld exists.

As for the water above the dome, a type of heaven exists ("heavens" in Hebrew literally means "sky") wherein God / the heavenly court open and close types of windows in order to release rain upon the earth.  Just as pillars held the earth, so too pillars held the heavens.  God and the heavenly court exist above this level of primordial water.  As a side note, our understanding of the primordial waters of creation as existing both above and below the earth within the ancient Near Eastern understanding of the cosmos impacts our reading of the story of Noah and the Flood:
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. (Gen 7:11)
The waters that flooded the earth were the primordial waters both below and above the dome that God had created on the Second Day.  Our reading of Noah, therefore, should understand the flood as a specific act of de-creation wherein God reverses the act of creation in Genesis.

The remaining two days of creation further reflect the ancient Near Eastern cosmology as discussed above.  On the Third Day, God gathers the waters that remain within the dome, and God fashions with them seas and waterways, from which spring forth vegetation.  On Day Four, God sets the stars, the moon and and the sun upon the dome to give light to the earth.  (It is interesting to note that the creation of light and darkness occurred prior to the creation of the stars, the moon, and the sun.  Possibly another discussion for another post.)

As in yesterdays post, the purpose of historically examining Genesis is not to debunk faith but instead to elucidate items of interest that allow us to visit the culture from which the Genesis text originated.  The above account of creation (as found in Genesis) is not native to the Hebrew people but shared with ancient Israel's neighbors and also with ancient Israel's predecessors.  Key elements of difference exist, however, between the Genesis account of creation and the other ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation.  In Genesis, God purposefully speaks creation into existence, and God does so alone.  (There is strong literary evidence that suggests God had a heavenly court, but the text appears clear that God alone serves as the divine, heavenly authority.  See Gen 1:26.)  I would like to propose, therefore, that instead of getting hung up on the similarities between Genesis and other similar creation accounts from the ancient Near East, we should celebrate the differences between these similar accounts.  For it is in the differences that we meet the unique and creative God of Genesis who creates from a relational desire to know intimately creation.

In the upcoming days I will try to write a little about my upcoming trip and get the travel portion of my blog going.  I think in the next post we will discuss the infamous "James Ossuary," which surfaced in 2002 and was heralded as a type of game-changer in biblical studies.  Since 2002, however, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has declared the ossuary a forgery and the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, is facing a wide array of criminal charges.  Golan's trial is about to reach its conclusion, which means that the James Ossuary will likely reappear in the news fairly soon.  So, until next time, feel free to comment or ask any questions below.