Excerpts from Bible as History

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13. Under desert skies.

Sinai — 150 miles to Kadesh — two springs at the chief halting-place — scouts sent out to Hebron — the bunch of grapes was a vine — foreign races — peasant woman finds the Amarna Tablets — letters from Indo-Aryan Canaanite princes — scouts' report leads to a new decision — the “wilderness” of the Bible was steppe.
And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai” (Num. 10:12).
Israel had pledged itself to believe in one God and his laws. The portable palladium that they had constructed for him — the Ark of the Covenant — had been made out of acacia wood (Ex. 25:10), which is still indigenous to Sinai and widely used.

For almost a year they had lingered at Mt. Sinai. Now they set out again, heading north for Canaan. Kadesh, the next stage, which is a landmark in the long desert wanderings of the children of Israel, lies 150 miles from Sinai as the crow flies.

This stretch too can be accurately traced on the basis of the very precise topographical details given in the Bible. The route lies along the west side of the Gulf of Aqabah to the “ Wilderness of Paran” (Num. 12:16) — now Badiet et-Tin, i.e., “Wilderness of Loneliness” — and then continues along its eastern edge. Among the halts made on this journey (Num. 33:16-36) Hazeroth and Ezion-Geber can be identified with certainty. Hazeroth is the present-day Ain Huderah, which lies near the Gulf. Ezion-Geber lies at the topmost point of the Gulf of Aqabah and is the place which was later to become a centre for shipping and industry in the days of King Solomon (1 Kings 9:26).

As they made their way along the shores of the Gulf the “miracle” of the quails was repeated. Once more it was springtime, the time of bird migration, and again the description is true to nature: “And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp” (Num. 11:31).

“And they removed from Ezion-Geber, and pitched in the wilderness of Zin which is Kadesh” (Num. 33:36).

Below Hebron the hill country of Judah falls away into a fairly flat plain, the southern part of which, towards the frequently mentioned “Brook of Egypt,” which is a ramification of wadis, is always very poorly supplied with water (Num. 34:5; Josh. 15:4; 1 Kings 8:65). This is the Negev, the Biblical “Land of the South” (Num. 13:17). Amid innumerable wadis — dried-up river beds which only run with water in the rainy season during the winter months — lies Kadesh. The old name Kadesh is preserved in the name of the little spring “Ain Qedeis,” from which passing Bedouins water their cattle. But this trickle of spring water can hardly have been sufficient to provide for 6,000 Israelites and their flocks for any length of time. Only about 5 miles to the north-west of Kadesh, however, lies the most ample supply of water in the whole area, “Ain el-Qudeirat.” Wadi Qudeirat has this to thank for its fertility. It was from here that the children of Israel saw in the distance the land that had been promised to them, of which as yet they had been able to form no clear picture. It may be that their hasty departure from Egypt had prevented them from finding out about it before they left.

Palestine was so well known to the inhabitants of the Nile country that anyone who was lacking in detailed knowledge of it was reckoned to be lacking in proper education. Aman-Appa, a “commissioned scribe of the army” under Ramesses II, was even ridiculed for his ignorance about Palestine. Hori, an officer of the royal stables, replies to a letter from him in an extremely satirical vein and puts his geographical knowledge to the test: “Your letter is overloaded with big words. You have asked for it and you shall have it — and more than you bargained for. What we say is: If what you say is true, come and let us test you. We shall harness a horse for you which will bring you as fast as any jackal can run. Let us see what you can do. Have you not seen the country of Upe near Damascus? Don't you know its peculiarities, or those of its river? Have you not been to Kadesh? Have you never found your way to the Lebanon where the sky is dark in broad daylight? It is overgrown with cypresses, oaks and cedars which rise sky-high. I shall also mention a mysterious city, Byblos by name. What does it look like? Tell me too about Sidon and Sarepta. They talk about another city that lies in the sea, the port of Tyre is its name. Water is carried to it by ship. If you go to Jaffa you will find that the fields are green. Go... and look for the pretty girl who is in charge of the vineyards. She will accept you as her mate and grant you her favours.... You will be drowsy and indolent. They will steal... your bow, your knife, your quiver. Your reins will be slashed in the darkness... your chariot will be smashed to pieces. But you will say: Bring me food and drink, I am happy here! They will pretend they are deaf and pay no attention. Come with me south to the region of Akka. Where is the hill of Shechem? Can this clever scribe tell me how to get to Hazor? What is special about its river? Now let me ask you about some other towns. Tell me what Kjn near Megiddo looks like, describe Rehob to me, give me a picture of Bethshan and Kiriath-El. Let me know how to get past Megiddo. How does one cross the Jordan? You see,” concludes Hori, officer of the royal stables, “I have taken you through the whole of Palestine... have a good look at it, so that in future you will be able to describe it properly, and... you will... be made a councillor.” Government officials, soldiers, merchants had at least some clear notion of Palestine. Moses, who belonged to a poor shepherd folk, had first to find out about this country. He sent out scouts.

“And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain: and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many” (Num. 13:17-18).

Among the twelve scouts was Joshua, a man with great gifts as a strategist, as later became plain during the conquest of Canaan. They chose as the best spot to spy out the land the country round Hebron in the south of Judah. Forty days later the men reported back to Moses. As proof that they had done their job they brought fruit from the area they had scrutinised: figs and pomegranates. Incredulous astonishment greeted one gigantic bunch of grapes, cut at the “Brook of Eshcol,” for “they bare it between two upon a staff” (Num. 13:23). Posterity is equally sceptical because the narrative speaks of only one cluster. Surely it must have been a whole vine with all its fruit. The spies would cut it down with the grapes on it to keep them fresher. At all events the place of their origin according to the Bible is reliable. “Brook of Eshcol” means “Valley of Grapes”; it lies southwest of Hebron and even today this district is rich in vines. Fine heavy bunches of from 10-12 pounds are no rarity. The scouts made their report and described Canaan, like Sinuhe 650 years earlier, as a land that “floweth with milk and honey,” only “the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled and very great” (Num. 13:27-28; Deut. 1:28).

In their recital of the different inhabitants of the country they mention some we already know, Hittites, Amorites, Jebusites in and around Jerusalem, Canaanites and Amalekites with whom Israel had already come into conflict in Sinai. They also mention the “children of Anak,” which is supposed to mean the “children of the giants” (Num. 13:22-33), “Anak” might mean “long necked,” and that is as much as the experts can tell us. It has been surmised that these “giants” are possibly survivals of ancient pre-Semitic elements in the population but there is no certainty in the matter.

Actually there were people from other countries living in Canaan at that time who must have been quite unknown to Israelites coming from Egypt. Whose “children” they were, they intimated to posterity themselves on clay tablets which were accidentally discovered by a peasant woman at Tell el Amarna21 in 1887. Further investigation produced eventually a collection of 377 documents in all. These are cuneiform letters from the royal archives of Amenophis III and his son Akhnaten who built himself a new capital at El-Amarna on the Nile. The tablets contain correspondence from the princes of Palestine, Phoenicia and Southern Syria to the Foreign Office of both Pharaohs. They are written in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the second millennium B.C. Most of the writings are full of typically Canaanite words, some of them are in fact written almost exclusively in this dialect. This priceless find threw light for the first time on conditions in Palestine in the 15th and 14th centuries B.C.

One of the letters runs: “To the King, my Lord, my Sun, my God, say: Thus (says) Suwardata, thy servant, the servant of the King and the dust under his feet, the ground on which thou dost tread: At the feet of the King, my Lord, the Sun of Heaven, seven times, seven times I prostrated myself, on my belly and on my back....”

This is only the introduction. Nor is it in any way extravagant. On the contrary it is extremely formal, in accordance with contemporary protocol. Suwardata then comes to the matter in hand: “The King, my Lord, should know that the Habiru have risen in the lands which the God of the King, my Lord, has given me, and that I have beaten them, and the King, my Lord, should know that all my brothers have left me; and that I and Abdi-Kheba alone are left to fight against the leader of the Habiru. And Zurata, prince of Acco (Jud. I:31) and Indaruta, prince of Achshaph (Josh. 11:1) were the ones who hastened to my help in return for 50 chariots of which I have now been deprived. But behold, [now] they have been fighting against me and may it please the King, my Lord, to send the Janhamu, so that we can wage a proper war and restore the land of the King, my Lord, to its old frontiers....”

This letter from a prince of Canaan paints a picture which faithfully reflects the times. In these few sentences we can recognise unmistakably the intrigues and endless feuds both among the princes themselves and with the warlike nomadic tribes. The most interesting point about the letter, apart from the style and contents, is its author, Prince Suwardata. His name shows clearly that he was of Indo-Aryan descent. Prince Indaruta whom he mentions is also an Indo-Aryan. Though it may sound extraordinary, a third of these princely correspondents from Canaan have Indo-Aryan ancestry. Biryawaza of Damascus, Biridiya of Megiddo, Widia of Askelon, Birashshena of Shechem in Samaria have all Indo-Aryan names. Indaruta, the name of the prince of Achshaph, is in fact identical with names from the Vedas and other early Sanskrit writings. Abdi-Kheba of Jerusalem, who has been mentioned, belongs to the Hurrite people often referred to in the Bible as Horites.

The reliability of this tradition has recently been illuminated by the discovery of Egyptian papyri of the 15th century B.C., in which the land of Canaan is repeatedly called “Khuru” after the Hurrites, the Horites of the Bible. According to this the Hurrites must for a time at least have been widespread throughout the whole country.

“And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried: and the people wept that night... wherefore hath the Lord brought us into this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey?” (Num. 14:1-3).

The reports that the spies brought back telling of the strongly fortified cities of Canaan, “great and walled up to heaven” (Deut. 1:28), and of their superbly armed inhabitants, were not exaggerated. Turreted fortresses built of “Cyclops-walls” were to the children of Israel an unaccustomed and menacing sight. In the land of Goshen, which for many generations had been their home, there was only one fortified town, Raamses. In Canaan the fortresses were practically cheek by jowl. The country was plastered with them. Numerous strongpoints stared down from hilltops and mountain peaks, which made them look even more powerful and terrifying. Little wonder that the report of the scouts was shattering in its effect.

Israel was quite unskilled in the use and manufacture of implements of war. They had at their disposal nothing but the most primitive weapons — bows, javelins, swords, knives — to say nothing of horse-drawn chariots which the Canaanites possessed jn vast numbers. Israel was still spoilt by the “fleshpots of Egypt,” for which especially the older people among them were continually sighing and bemoaning their lot. Despite their new faith and the experiences of the Exodus which they had shared together, they were not yet welded into a community which would be prepared to risk a clash with superior forces.

In view of these facts Moses wisely resolved not to carry out his original intention of marching upon Canaan from the south. Neither the time nor the people was ripe for the great moment. They must begin their roaming afresh, the time of testing and proving their mettle must be prolonged in order to allow these refugees and land-hungry wanderers to develop into a tough and compact national group schooled to bear any privation. A new generation must first emerge.

We know very little about the obscure period which now follows. Thirty-eight years — almost a generation, and time enough to mould a nation. This was the duration of their sojourn in the “wilderness.” Frequently associated with the “miracles” of the quails and the manna, this section of Biblical chronology and topography sounds highly improbable. And with good reason, as would appear from systematic investigations, though on different grounds from those generally supposed. Actually there never was a “sojourn in the wilderness” in the proper sense of the words.

Although the Biblical data for this period are very scanty, we can obtain a sufficiently clear picture from the few places that can be scientifically established. According to this the children of Israel with their flocks spent a long time in the Negev, near the two sources of water at Kadesh. Once they went back again to the Gulf of Aqabah into the area of Midian and the Sinai peninsula. Compared with the deadly stretches of African sand-dunes in the Sahara, this tract of land has never been a proper desert. Examination of the terrain has established the fact that since neither the irrigation nor the rainfall has altered greatly, the “wilderness” must have had at least the character of steppe country with possibilities for grazing and waterholes.

The archaeological activities of Nelson Glueck of the U.S.A. have enhanced our knowledge of the general conditions of that period. According to him these regions were inhabited about the 13th century B.C. by semi-nomadic tribes who had brisk and flourishing trading and commercial relations with both Canaan and Egypt. Among them we should include the Midianites with whom Moses lived during his exile and one of whom, Zipporah, he married (Ex. 2:21).

The latest Bible research proceeds somewhat differently and is not content with the demonstration that places named in the Bible really existed and with showing that certain events related in the Bible such as the way in which Moses smote the rock causing the water to flow (Ex. 17:1-7; Num. 20:2-13; Deut. 32:51) or the episode of the burning bush (Ex. 3:2) might well have had a basis in fact. Such occurrences, however striking they may be, might after all provide nothing but the framework for a story which is mere invention. To give an example from the present day it would be perfectly conceivable to write a story in which the progress of the intrigue is completely fictional although all the details, beginning with the going off of the alarm clock in the morning and proceeding with the nerve-shattering ringing of the telephone, squealing brakes, noisy tramcars, fast tube trains and so on are correct in every respect. Whether such details are described correctly or wrongly is not, therefore, fundamentally a safe indication of the truth or falseness of the story itself. And so the account of the migration of the Israelites from Egypt has been subjected to closer examination than ever before without pausing unduly to consider details.

Rather have people asked what really lies behind this story as a whole, the account of a migration through the desert or steppe which lasted for a generation and after which the Israelites reached their goal only by very strange detours. The result of this examination was not a world shaking discovery, nothing sensational for the press. On the contrary, it was the common and for the scientist quite unsensational realization that things are somewhat more complicated than they appear to be at the outset. We, too, should have become accustomed by now to this fact. Thus, for example, the Bible mentions Succoth and Migdol (Ex. 13:20 and 14:2) as places where the Israelites halted on their way out of Egypt. Obviously these places lay on a well-known escape route used by Egyptian slaves, for an ancient Egyptian reader, which was used for instruction purposes in schools and deals with the pursuit of runaway slaves (Papyrus Anastasi V, XIX 2-XX 6), mentions the same place-names.

Certainly it was not “the whole of Israel” which left Egypt, but only a number of groups of people who — themselves or their descendants — were later absorbed in the greatness that was Israel. The Bible itself lets us glimpse the fact that it was not the whole of Israel” which was then migrating, for an 'Israelite” was plainly not exclusively the person who arrived in the Promised Land at the end of the journey. On the contrary, there were Israelites resident there already when the migrants arrived.

Thus it came about that Joshua assembled “the whole of Israel” between the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim near Shechem and quite explicitly we are told “as well the stranger as he that was born among them” (Joshua 8:33). In other words, at the time when the Israelites took possession of the land, there must have been others who had already been living there for some time. We are left to ponder whether these people had arrived with a previous migration, or, if not, what this all indicates....

Perhaps the various incidents of the migration which took place in Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula and finally in the land on the banks of the Jordan, simply reflect different traditions of these various regions which have merely been brought into harmony with one another in the Bible and linked together to form a continuous narrative thus providing a mixture of traditions. Such a mixture is usually indicated by the repetitions which occur. And such repetitions do indeed occur here. The most obvious example is the repetition of the miracle of the sea (Ex. 14) when the Israelites cross the Jordan (Joshua 3:4-17). For the second time Israel is reported to have passed dry-shod across a body of water whose waves “failed and were cut off” on the one side whereas they rose up “upon an heap” on the other. In whatever way attempts have been made to render plausible the earlier crossing of the Red Sea or rather the Reed Sea, the repetition with the crossing of the Jordan must leave us sceptical. Is it after all only fiction and not history that the writers of the Bible books are serving up to us when they relate Israel's journeyings from Egypt to the Promised Land?

Surprisingly enough quite recently we have had archaeological confirmation of two occurrences in the Biblical account of the journey through the desert which nobody would have expected in this connection. In spite of all the planning and systematic work, chance nevertheless has its part to play in archaeology and chance does not always pay any attention to what the scholars expect! In this case it enabled the Israeli archaeologist Benno Rothenberg to discover a “serpent of brass” and a tabernacle in the copper mine area of Timna (Wadi el-Arabah).

The “serpent of brass” is a serpent idol to which magical powers were attributed (Num. 21:9). It is reported that there was a similar idol in the temple at Jerusalem which was not removed until it was broken in pieces by King Hiskia (Hezekiah) of Judah, who reigned around 700 B.C. (2 Kings 18:4). The serpent idol naturally reminds us of the Sumerian serpent staff on a vase dedicated to the god of life Ningizidda. It reminds us, too, of the Aesculapius's staff of a later phase of Classical Antiquity as well as of the numerous serpents of Ancient Egypt. Already at the beginning of this century a German scholar, H. Gressmann, had asserted that the “brazen serpent” in the Bible must have been taken over from the Midianites with whom the Israelites were in contact during the journey through the desert.

According to the Bible, the Midianites were descended from Abraham's wife Keturah (Gen. 25:2-6) and Reuel (or Jethro), a priest of the Midianites, who was the father-in-law, adviser and co-celebrant “before the Lord” (Ex. 2:16, 3:1, 18:lff) of Moses. The Israelites are supposed to owe the strange cult of the brazen serpent to Reuel. It is not without a touch of dramatic effect that we note that it was at an archaeological site showing signs of Midianite occupation that Benno Rothenberg found an idol in the form of a brazen serpent five inches in length and partly decorated with gold. As though this sensational confirmation of an important part of the Biblical accounts of the journey through the desert, which have been the object of so much discussion, were not enough, this small bronze serpent was found in the Holy of Holies of a tabernacle! That really was the crowning point of Rothenberg's discoveries, for the unearthing of a tabernacle was something of extraordinary importance, as ever since the nineteenth century Biblical scholars of the most varied persuasions had expressed doubts concerning the existence of the tabernacle about which the Bible has so much to say (Ex. 25-31 and 35-39). It is true that some critics had fallen silent when a very small, transportable tabernacle was discovered on a relief on the Bel Temple at Palmyra (Tadmor). At any rate the possibility of the existence of a tabernacle was no longer completely excluded, although the details of the Biblical descriptions of tabernacles were still considered to be a back projection onto the period of the wandering in the desert of conditions in the Temple at Jerusalem. In any case, the nomads' shrine on the relief at Palmyra was extremely small and strictly speaking it is rather a representation of the Ark of the Covenant than of the Tabernacle which contained the Holy Ark.

The Midianite tabernacle unearthed by Rothenberg is quite different. Its measurements bring it much closer to the tabernacle described in the Bible. It was found on the site of an older, Egyptian place of worship dedicated to the goddess Hathor. The Midianites who, following the Egyptians, were mining copper on their own account at Timna, converted this place of worship into a shrine of their own religion and covered it with an awning of which Rothenberg found not only the holes into which the posts had been rammed at an angle but even some remnants of material.

Of course, details of the interior lay-out and arrangement of the Biblical tabernacles still remain to be clarified. Thus, for example, the altar for burnt offerings is supposed to have been equipped with brass fittings and “a grate of network of brass” (Ex. 27:1-8), but at a very much later date not even King Solomon had at his disposal craftsmen who could carry out such work. He was obliged to request them from King Hiram of Tyre (2 Chron. 2:6 and 12f). The horns of this altar in the tabernacle, as they are called (Ex. 27:2; 30:2f) did not appear, according to the archaeological find in Israel, until the beginning of the time of the kings, that is to say not until the Temple had been built. It is only in connection with the time of the kings (cf. 1 Kings 1:50f; Ps. 118 (117); Jer. 17:1; Amos 3:14) that the Bible mentions them again. Whatever the truth of the matter, after Rothenberg's discovery, there is now in principle nothing to prevent us from supposing that at quite an early date Israel possessed a tabernacle and that it was more or less like that described in the Bible.

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