Archive for the ‘Response’ Category

The Semites at War

August 31, 2014

Civil war in Iraq is dominating the headlines, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I has just passed, and the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II (in Europe) — is tomorrow, as I write.   Naturally, I’ve been thinking about the Sumerians and the Akkadians.

 

Who were the Sumerians and the Akkadians, you ask? Well, they were the Mesopotamians, the ancient inhabitants of the country we now call Iraq. As many people know, that modern political entity was created in the aftermath of World War I. T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) played a role, albeit a somewhat ambiguous one, in the British campaign that ultimately led to Iraq’s creation. As Lawrence writes:

 

I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts. So high an aim called out the inherent nobility of their minds, and made them play a generous part in events: but when we won, it was charged against me that the British petrol royalties in Mesopotamia were become dubious, and French Colonial policy ruined in the Levant.

 

There’s a new book out about Lawrence, and an interview on Fresh Air with its author and (especially) a review of it in the Jewish Review of Books by Hillel Halkin led me to Lawrence’s memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I found it very strange, not least because of its constant discussion of the racial characteristics of “the Semites”:

 

If tribesman and townsman in Arabic-speaking Asia were not different races, but just men in different social and economic stages, a family resemblance might be expected in the working of their minds, and so it was only reasonable that common elements should appear in the product of all these peoples. In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.

 

Later he writes:

 

Its birth in Galilee had saved it from being just one more of the innumerable revelations of the Semite. Galilee was Syria’s non-Semitic province, contact with which was almost uncleanness for the perfect Jew. Like Whitechapel to London, it lay alien to Jerusalem.

 

And there is this gem:

 

The Jew in the Metropole at Brighton, the miser, the worshipper of Adonis, the lecher in the stews of Damascus were alike signs of the Semitic capacity for enjoyment, and expressions of the same nerve which gave us at the other pole the self-denial of the Essenes, or the early Christians, or the first Khalifas, finding the way to heaven fairest for the poor in spirit. The Semite hovered between lust and self-denial.

 

Human nature doesn’t change over the years, but a book like this is a good reminder that the superficial trappings of thought can change radically. The history of human conflict can be summarized in the slogan “them and us,” and one hundred years ago—not just for Lawrence—the Semites were very definitely “them.”

 

And that’s where World War II comes in. From the German perspective, of course, that war was to be the culmination of a great racial struggle between the Semites and the Aryans. But I’m a scholar of Bible and the ancient Near East. Just a couple of weeks ago subscribers to Jack Sasson’s Agade e-mail list—which once inspired a Facebook group called “Jack Sasson is filling up my inbox”—received an e-mail announcing that the Netherlands Institute for the Near East was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding, on August 17th, 1939, just two weeks before the war broke out. But there’s a more significant scholarly 75th anniversary this year as well, that of a remarkably timely article published by a young Danish scholar who would become one of the most famous Assyriologists of the 20th century: Thorkild Jacobsen.

 

In the final issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society, dated December 1939, Jacobsen published an article called “The Assumed Conflict between Sumerians and Semites in Early Mesopotamian History.” As my teacher Tzvi Abusch wrote in his appreciation of Jacobsen, written for a volume published in his memory, this was a time not merely “when the Nazi threat hung over Europe” but also “when racist categories were normal in the academy.” As Jacobsen wrote:

 

According to accepted views the early history of Mesopotamia is essentially the history of a racial conflict; its events represent stages in a deadly struggle between two inimical racial groups, Sumerians and Semites. In that struggle the Semites, who could draw on racial reserves in Syria and Arabia, came out victorious.

 

He notes that in Breasted’s Ancient Times of 1935 (then, of course, a recent book) every phase of Mesopotamian history is “presented in terms of racial conflict.” He writes of a war between the Sumerian (and thus non-Semitic) King Lugalzagesi of Uruk (now Warka; biblical Erech) and the Semitic King Sargon of Agade, and asks:

 

Does this war represent a long-brewing decisive clash between the two races which formed the population of Babylonia, Sumerians and Semites, or is it merely a fight between purely political units, two city-states vying with each other for power and influence?

 

The short answer is that Lugalzagesi’s statue has an inscription in Semitic, and Sargon’s own inscriptions attribute his victories not to Semitic gods but to Sumerian ones.   Moreover, the later history of the conflict shows “no vestige” of racial feelings. After the Semitic kings had fallen in their turn, a Sumerian writer recording the details shows

 

no animosity, not even indications that the Agade kings were considered strangers, their hegemony different from the previous hegemonies of Kish and Uruk. And indeed, this total lack of hatred or even animosity is shared by all other Sumerian texts known to us and is obviously incompatible with the idea of a racial struggle.

 

Jacobsen’s article directly confronted not just the racist categories of contemporary culture, but the anti-Semitism was setting Europe on fire as he wrote.

 

According to Bendt Alster, in the same memorial volume, Jacobsen “always considered himself—with his own words—a scholar working ‘in the Danish tradition.’ He talked of the University of Copenhagen at the time when he studied there, around 1920, as ranking among the finest universities in the world. Today there is no commonly recognized ‘Danish tradition’…” The sad denouement of the story is that there is indeed a Danish academic tradition today, one called “the Copenhagen School,” whose focus on denying that the Bible is a historical document sometimes bubbles up into antagonism to modern Israel. I can still remember my shock—widely shared, if my recollections are right—when a biblical scholar named Keith Whitelam (from the University of Sheffield, the English fellow-travelers of this school) came out with a book explaining “that the Jewish version of the Old Testament is a fiction designed to legitimise Israel and that the history of the Palestinian people has been silenced.” It is the reverse of anything Jacobsen would have thought of as “the Danish tradition.”

 

Meanwhile, the millennia-old series of wars in the Near East is still continuing. These days, with the possible exception of the Kurds, it is all-Semitic all the time. (The Gaza war is particularly internecine, especially if — as my teacher Moses Shulvass once said to me — “The Ten Lost Tribes? They are the Palestinians.”) And we no longer think of international political conflict as racial, unless you want to interpret the North-South divide in that fashion. The struggle between the races was succeeded by the battle between the economic systems of “capitalism” and “communism,” a picture which has now given way to a paradigm of religious conflict or, more starkly, a clash of civilizations. This too will, no doubt, be followed by still another us-vs.-them distinction, equally obvious and equally transitory. But the ancient Near East will continue to resonate as the historical and also the imaginative background to today’s news. Unhappy with the government? The ancients felt your pain long ago.

 

Jacobsen concluded his paradigm-shifting article this way:

 

We must accordingly abandon the idea of a racial war. The Semitic population was very likely to a large extent formed through constant filtering in of single families from the desert. It is obvious that such single families, settling and adapting themselves to life in the city or on the farm, would very soon feel as citizens of the city-state to which they had happened to immigrate and where they had become established. They would not constitute a common group, united across existing political boundaries. Semites and Sumerians lived thus, according to all the texts teach us, peacefully side by side in Mesopotamia. The wars which shook that country and the aims for which its rulers fought had nothing to do with differences of race; the issues were purely political and were determined solely by social and economic forces.

 

It bears repeating that Jacobsen’s article was scholarship, not politics. I saw Jacobsen in person only once, when he came back to Harvard from his retirement home in New Hampshire to give a talk. As I saw him then, he was an old fellow with a tie as wide almost wider than it was long. But he himself was a man of great and warm vision. Jacobsen was an Aryan in the categories of his own day. But while he was working on this article he was also working to bring Jewish Assyriologists who had to flee Nazi Europe to his then academic home at the University of Chicago. As Tzvi Abusch writes about him, Jacobsen “saw an alien and distant human life as something that not only existed in its own terms but also mattered very deeply for our own cultural, spiritual, and personal lives, indeed, for the enduring human spirit.” And he saw the same in his own time. It’s a worthy example to follow.

 

2016 update:  See now, similarly …

http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/spring-2016/article/burial-sites-show-how-nubians-egyptians-integrated-communities-thousands-of-years-ago

Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth

November 20, 2013

This time I’m writing in response to an article that just appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature, the flagship journal of the Society of Biblical Literature, the organization of academic biblical scholars.

The article, by Andrew R. Davis, is called “The Literary Effect of Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth.” Here’s what the author writes in his abstract summarizing the article:

In the book of Ruth there are numerous instances of disagreement in gender between a pronoun and its antecedent. Without discounting the various philological explanations that have been given for this disagreement, this article argues that the gender discord is also a literary device that makes an important contribution to the book’s narrative design and its development of characters. The laconic style of Hebrew narrative usually offers no glimpse of characters’ inner lives, but by recognizing the concentration of discordant forms in Naomi’s speech, we can appreciate how they characterize her grief and her ambivalence toward Ruth. The discord also highlights the theme of gender reversal in the book of Ruth. However the examples of gender discord might be explained grammatically, they also play an integral role in the characterization of Naomi and her relationship with Ruth.

Ordinarily this is the kind of explanation I love: A grammatical difficulty in the text, of the kind usually explained linguistically or simply written off as an error, is shown to be a deliberate choice by an author of literary skill. And if anyone in the Bible has demonstrated that skill, it’s the author of Ruth.

But I can’t accept this one. Here’s why. As Davis explains:

A survey of gender discord in the book of Ruth reveals two striking aspects of its distribution: first, nine of the ten instances of gender discord occur in ch. 1, and, second, the first seven instances are words spoken by Naomi.

If all the occurrences of gender discord were in Naomi’s own speech, it would be possible, even necessary, to explain them as a literary effect. But since two of them — Ruth 1:19 and 1:22 — suddenly appear in the words of the narrator, and the last (long after we have forgotten this issue) only in Ruth 4:11 (in the words of the townspeople and the elders), Davis is forced to make these latter three examples “work” in ad hoc fashion. This is midrash, not something that can be explained as a deliberate choice by a writer.

Moreover, there is an example of “gender discord” that Davis does not mention. In Ruth 2:1 the narrator informs us,

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a man of substance, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.

“Kinsman” is מודע (according to the Qere, or reading version; the word is מידע according to the Ketiv or written version). Whichever version of the word we follow, this is clearly masculine. Yet in 3:2, when we read,

Now there is our kinsman Boaz

“kinsman” is מודעתנו, where the ת clearly marks the word as a feminine form. This is Naomi speaking to Ruth; it would certainly not be hard to write another “gender midrash” to explain why she altered the form. But the nature of midrash is that one starts with a preconceived notion and demonstrates how a peculiarity in the text provides an opening for it. It does not work in the larger context; that’s what makes it midrash. Davis’s examples, like this unusual form, fall into this pattern.

There are some examples of a very deliberate gender reversals that do match the overall literary pattern of the book. The most obvious is this one:

Ruth 1:8
  But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house.”

Naomi’s two sons have died, and she is returning alone to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah have started out to accompany her, but she wants them to go back. In the Bible, the “natural” place for a woman to go when she is widowed is back to her father’s house; Naomi reverses this (one of several things in the book that suggest it was written by a woman).

There’s another, more complicated case of gender reversal in the book that also has a literary purpose. It works this way. Just as Boaz arrives in the field, Ruth is on her way off; the boys who are working as harvesters have been harassing her. (I’ve discussed this in three different articles, none of which are available online; but the third should appear when the Bible Odyssey web site launches next spring. I’ll link to it here when that happens.) Here’s what happens next (in the NJPS translation but with my emphasis):

Ruth 2:8
  Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen to me, daughter. Don’t go to glean in another field. Don’t go elsewhere, but stay here close to my girls. 9 Keep your eyes on the field they are reaping, and follow them. I have ordered the men not to molest you. And when you are thirsty, go to the jars and drink some of [the water] that the men have drawn.”

Boaz uses the word נערותי, “my girls.” When Ruth gets home to Naomi, however, she tells her (in 2:21):

He even told me, “Stay close by my workers [הנערים אשר לי] until all my harvest is finished.”

That’s the masculine form. Naomi — no fool — replies this way in v. 22, using the feminine form again:

It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls [נערותיו], and not be annoyed in some other field.

And indeed v. 23 tells us:

So she stayed close to the maidservants [נערות] of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished.

Naomi’s remark in v. 22 is subtler than the NJPS English translation implies. The Hebrew has her enthusiastically agreeing with Ruth — but changing the gender of the word Ruth uses. Ruth may have used the masculine form casually; in Hebrew it can also imply both sexes. But one of the themes of the book is the many moments when history could have taken a different turn and prevented King David (Ruth’s great-grandson) from being born. In this case, we are wondering whether working all summer with the same group of guys might lead Ruth to a relationship with one of them instead of with Boaz. Naomi sets things straight right away, and both Ruth and the narrative follow the path she has laid out.

These are the kinds of gender reversal one finds in the book of Ruth. They fit the overall literary patterning of the book. I read the book of Ruth with my 2nd-year students at Penn every year, and often one of them thinks s/he has found “the pattern” that explains the grammatical gender discrepancies. But then another one shows up and the pattern is broken. I have to think that Andrew Davis, though his article is a worthy effort, hasn’t found it either.

Exilic Biblical Writing?

November 25, 2012

Last week, I attended the 2012 conference of the Society for Biblical Literature (held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion), this year at Chicago’s McCormick Place. This isn’t meant to be any kind of comprehensive report; those who’ve been to the SBL will know that’s impossible, since dozens of sessions are running concurrently at any one time. But there’s also no forum for reacting to conference presentations once they’re over. So I’m using this post to present a reaction to something I heard there.

The remark that caught my attention was a comment made by Thomas Römer of the Université de Lausanne. I know his work only from hearing him speak at previous conferences, where he has always sounded sensible and thoughtful. But this time I think his good sense has steered him wrong.

It was in a session on “How to Reconstruct the Literary History of the Hebrew Bible.” The discussion touched on the question of how much of the Bible was put together during the period of the Babylonian exile, following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Römer asked the rhetorical question, “When the Israelites went into exile, was their immediate reaction to start writing books?” The question drew a laugh, and a subsequent speaker also alluded to it, as if acknowledging that they obviously did not.

Now for a responsible opposing viewpoint.

We have an empirical model—more on this term in a later post—suggesting that the immediate reaction to exile might indeed be writing books that consolidate the knowledge of the exiled community.

The exile to Babylonia was not the first exile suffered by the Jews (that was in 722, when inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel were exiled to other lands by their Assyrian conquerors), and it was far from the last. The exile I want to discuss in this post is the exile from Spain in 1492, and the writer is Isaac Abarbanel.

Abarbanel (often given the courtesy title “Don” Isaac) is identified by the Encyclopedia Judaica as a “statesman, biblical exegete, and theologian,” but I would call him a politician and financier as well as a writer on religious topics. He was forced to leave Spain with the rest of the remaining Jews in 1492, but according to the EJ he was allowed to take 1000 gold ducats out of the country with him.

And here’s what happened next:

After the 1492 expulsion, Abrabanel* passed two years in Naples. Here he completed his commentary on Kings (fall 1493).

*Since the name appears most often in Hebrew characters, which do not make the pronunciation explicit, it appears in transliteration in a number of different ways. I follow the explanation by Sid Leiman (JJS 19 [1968]:49 n. 1) explaining that Don Isaac’s son Judah used the pronunciation “Abarbanel.”

Though Abarbanel was eventually able to resume political and financial activities, he also continued to write. His Bible commentaries are still used, not just read by scholars. (His Torah commentary, somewhat long-winded, is not translated into English, but you will find selections from it in my Commentators’ Bible series.)

Could some of Israel’s biblical literature have been written not only in, but early in, the Babylonian exile? The example of Abarbanel—whose commentary on Kings was finished in 1493, the year after the exile—says that it could.

What circumstances permitted Abarbanel to write his commentary on Kings?

1) He had the means, having left Spain with a bit of money.

2) He had the opportunity, since unlike a baker, tailor, carpenter or the like he could not immediately resume his financial and political occupations, but he could continue to write.

3) He had the motive, partly the same motives that had moved him to write commentaries and other religious works earlier in his career, and partly the desire to reassure himself and his Jewish contemporaries that their tradition was secure and that their ultimate fate was a hopeful one.

Could these same circumstances have existed—for someone—even during the very first months of the Babylonian exile? It would be surprising if they did not. The exilic community certainly included richer and more well-connected members (we know of a Jewish banking family in Babylonia not long after this period) and there were undoubtedly also many learned people among the exiles.

The important thing to remember is that it would only take one such person to produce a biblical book. Contemporary scholars speak of “the Deuteronomistic school,” “the priestly traditions,” and so on, but books are not written by committee—not good books, anyway. They are written by single authors, even if they subsequently change as they are transmitted through the centuries.

Römer’s question, “When the Israelites went into exile, was their immediate reaction to start writing books?” makes the very idea sound absurd. And posed in this general way, it certainly is. But there is nothing absurd about the idea that writing a book might have been the immediate reaction of a few individuals—individuals like Thomas Römer himself, and (not to put myself on the same level) like me.

So the idea that some of the biblical books were composed or compiled during the Babylonian exile is a quite reasonable one.