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.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology, Part 2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  (Gen 1:1-5)
What better place to start than in the beginning.  Today, we will briefly discuss two very interesting features of these first five verses of the Old Testament.  We will first discuss the Hebrew word that translates to "formless void" and second, we will discuss the advent of God speaking creation into existence.  To understand what makes these two features of the biblical text interesting, however, we must turn for a moment to examine the ancient Near Eastern creation account of Babylon:  Enuma Elish.

Archaeologists discovered clay tablets containing the narrative of Enuma Elish in the late nineteenth century at the Babylonian town of Nineveh (the town to which God sends Jonah in the Book of Jonah).  The tablets originate from around the seventh century BCE ("before common era," academic equivalent to "BC"), but the story of Enuma Elish dates far earlier.

Enuma Elish features the Babylonian god Marduk, who served as the patron deity of the city of Babylon and was heralded as the head of the Babylonian pantheon.  In the creation account of Enuma Elish, Marduk's great-great-grandmother, Tiamat, and her husband, Apsu, conspire to kill all of their offspring because the other gods are making too much noise, which is preventing Apsu from resting.  One of Tiamat's and Apsu's grandsons, Ea, discovers the plot and calls a meeting of the other gods.  This meeting eventually results in the overthrowing and killing of Apsu.  Tiamat decides to wage war with the remaining gods.  Marduk meets Tiamat in battle and ultimately slays her.   Marduk then stands upon Tiamat's corpse and fashions from it the heavens and the earth.

Besides giving us the paradigm of the dysfunctional family, Enuma Elish allows us to glean two key insights from the Babylonian account of creation.  First, the gods only create the world as a result of a divine family struggle; and second, Marduk creates the world from the slain body of Tiamat.  Both of these points play a significant role in the Genesis account of creation in relation to the two features of the Hebrew text mentioned above.

We read in Gen 1:2 that "the earth was a formless void."  In Hebrew, the word for "formless void" transliterates as "tohu."  Akkadian, the language in which the authors of Enuma Elish wrote, and Hebrew share a common linguistic origin.  For this reason, many words within both languages stem from a common root.  It just so happens that the root for the Akkadian word from which we derive the name Tiamat and the root for the Hebrew word that we translate as "formless void" are one and the same.  What this suggests is that the authors of Genesis possessed an awareness of the Babylonian creation account of Enuma Elish.

Please be aware that I am not trying to debase a faithful Christian reading of the Genesis text.  I am attempting to cast the text of Genesis in a light where we will be able to analyze and understand the literary movement intended by the author.  If the authors of Genesis did in fact have the story of Enuma Elish in mind, what an incredibly beautiful and profound way to declare the Babylonian pantheon as nonexistent while at the same time announcing their God as sovereign. For in saying that "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters," the authors of Genesis enlist the memory of Tiamat in order to express God's sovereignty over the face of the waters, which actually expresses God's sovereignty over the Babylonian pantheon.

In our second connection between the creation accounts of Genesis and Enuma Elish, we read that in Gen 1:3 God speaks creation into existence while in Enuma Elish a divine struggle resulting in death brings about creation.  What an incredible contrast.  The creation of the world and humanity in Enuma Elish was never a priority for the Babylonian pantheon, it was merely an unintentional result of a divine family feud.  In Genesis, however, God purposefully creates, and even more, God creates through speech.  God brings forth something--all of creation--from absolutely nothing--the complete nonexistence of the Babylonian pantheon.  In a way, we can read Genesis dually as a creation narrative for Israel while at the same time reading it as a non-creation account for Babylon.

The interplay between the Genesis creation account and the creation account of Enuma Elish continues throughout the remaining verses of Gen 1:1-19.  Reasons for the interplay between Israelite and Babylonian culture abound, and we will surely discuss some of these facets in future posts.  For the time being, though, we will end our discussion of Babylon and Enuma Elish here.  Please find below a short list of sources where you can go to read further about the topics discussed above:
Enuma Elish epic and Babylonian Pantheon (pp 362-370)

Also, Dr. Peter Enns has written a wonderful book that focuses on many of the features discussed above.  The book is called:  Inspiration and Incarnation:  Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament and can be purchased here.

As always, feel free to comment, to ask any questions, or to push back.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology, Part 1

"Is Darth Vader the father of Luke Skywalker?" our professor asked with a smile on his face. With hesitancy, our class slowly replied in unison, "Yes."

What sort of veracity does this question hold for our study of ancient Near Eastern cosmology? Well, to put it simply, everything. When we approach the question, "Is Darth Vader the father of Luke Skywalker?" we make an instant, subconscious decision. We decide to answer the question from the perspective of an "insider" of the Star Wars universe. We do not muddle our answer with questions of historical fact. We answer the question as if the Star Wars universe was our own universe, and we act correctly in doing this.

To answer this question as an "outsider"--as an unbiased observer--we would miss the entire point of the question. An "outsider" might begin by saying, "Well, Star Wars is fictional and therefore no one could truly be anyone else’s father." With this first pulling upon the thread of historical fact, the entire woven structure that comprises the tapestry of the Star Wars universe unravels. The creators of Star Wars did not create the Star Wars universe to be experienced as outsiders, for outsiders only wish to discover truth based upon their chosen criteria. The creators of Star Wars, however, created Star Wars to be experienced by insiders—to be experienced by those are able to empathize with the figures of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. To make their pain the pain of the insider and to make their joy the joy of the insider.

If you are not a fan of Star Wars, substitute any series with which you feel a connection. Maybe Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia. These literary and visual worlds, deemed fictional by outside observers, cause real emotion within us. We experience these worlds as members of those worlds. We celebrate with Frodo, we suspect Snape, and we mourn for Aslan. The "insider" does not waste time questioning historical fact like the "outsider." What happens in these worlds is true and real, for what happens in these worlds affects who we are both as an insider and as an outsider.
Similar to the question concerning Star Wars, let us now turn to the ever-popular / annoying-question-that-children-ask, "How did we get here?"

We will transpose or understanding of "outsider" and "insider" to the Jewish and Christian creation account of Gen 1. Creation myths are a very prevalent phenomenon in many, if not all, religions of the world. Several different creation accounts exist in the Hebrew Bible alone. (See Prov 8:22-31 and Job 38.) For the purposes of this post. We will limit ourselves to the creation account found in Gen 1:1-19. Genesis 1:1-19 (NRSV) can be found below:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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.

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
Over the course of the next several days, we will individually examine each day of creation found within Gen 1:1-19 in order to elucidate our understanding of the Genesis account of creation in relation to our understanding of ancient near eastern cosmology. I have posted a picture below that I will be using to help explain the ancient near eastern understanding of creation.  I hope it whets your appetite of what is to come. If you have any questions or criticisms, please feel free to post below.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's in a Name?

I have been trying to make a foray into blogging for the past year, but one little detail has held me back: a name. Not any name, mind you, but the name--a name that perfectly encompasses what I hope to achieve through a blog. Well, after a year of using my search for a blog name as an excuse for not getting started sooner, I have decided to go with the first thing that popped into my head: "Excavating Truth."

Through this blog, I plan to use archaeology and historical criticism as tools to better understand the culture of first-century Roman Palestine. Please note that I use the phrase, "to better understand," for a reason. Our goal in this blog is neither ultimately to prove nor to disprove topics that we discuss. Our goal is to elucidate items of academic interest that pertain to the Christian tradition and the culture of first-century Roman Palestine.

I will also use this space to chronicle my time in Israel this summer (May 30-June 30) while working on an archaeological dig in the Galilee.

Feel free to comment, add insight, or even push back of what I write!