The Hebrew Bible from Below and Beyond

The Hebrew Bible serves as the foundation of several modern religions, from Judaism to Lutheranism. The study of this ancient text is a complex and multi-layered discipline, embracing methodologies from a variety of fields and drawing influence from as many places as it reaches. Bias in biblical scholarship is widespread, affecting both scholarly training and commonly used sources, meaning that certain viewpoints are often privileged over others. In particular, scholars of the Hebrew Bible often overlook the role of Egyptian historical actors and non-elites of the ancient world. One way to ensure the inclusion of such traditionally marginalized voices  is to employ socio-anthropological and historical-critical methods in biblical scholarship.

A green and blue map of the regions of ancient Israel with each location labeled in French.
The regions of ancient Israel (labels in French). Wikimedia Commons.

Scholarship of the Hebrew Bible focuses primarily on analysis of the Bible as a composite text,  a collection of originally independent stories combined into one document long after the historical period each tale claims to describe. One theory used to describe the text’s composition  is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis posits the existence of four independent, original sources known as the Jahwist (Yahwist), Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly texts, which were later combined within the Pentateuch to form the Hebrew Bible as it is known today. Scholars argue that each of these original source texts contains a specific agenda and a particular perspective. In order to determine the cultural context which informs each individual text, scholars must choose what kinds of comparative evidence to foreground in their research, introducing another layer of bias into the study of the Hebrew Bible.

Many biblical scholars approach their research from the standpoint of either archaeological or textual evidence. The refusal to integrate the two approaches often means that scholars lack a complete picture of a particular text’s history, which might be achieved by using all the available evidence. Due to the standard path laid out for a biblical scholar-in-training, the most common sources for comparative evidence, both textual and archaeological, include Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and eastern Syria), and the Levant (modern Israel, western Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and southeastern Turkey). This choice of geography, made by generations of scholars, is predictable. Textual comparisons between the Hebrew Bible and ancient Mesopotamian literature, for example, are numerous. Yet the refusal to integrate archaeology and textual criticism into biblical scholarship, as well as the continued focus on comparisons with the Ancient Near East, has meant that the Bible’s connection to other ancient cultures remains under-scrutinized.

The author with a scaraboid he excavated at the Iron Age site of Tell Halif, Israel
The author with a scaraboid he excavated at the Iron Age site of Tell Halif, Israel

While textual comparisons with Mesopotamian materials are useful, it is important to recognize the potential biases of Mesopotamian authors. These writers likely represent elite scribal and political classes, with the requisite wealth and status to be exposed to language learning in an advanced professional position. But what about the non-elites? Do their lifestyles reflect the influence of the conquerors of their land coming from far-off Mesopotamia? To untangle this complexity, we must incorporate comparative materials from other cultures bordering the Levant and Mesopotamia to elucidate the lives and beliefs of the non-elites within ancient Israelite society. If the texts reflect upper-class biases, how can we discern elements of the lifestyles of non-elites, particularly those that are influenced by a foreign entity?

Foreign powers in the ancient world tended to display tactics of political imperialism, economic imperialism, and cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism can be used as a lens by the historian to examine the impact of a foreign culture upon all levels of society. In modern terms, cultural imperialism is most commonly used to describe the influential media of world powers, such as the United States, infiltrating daily lives and influencing cultures across the globe. For instance, the term was used recently by the president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in regard to Netflix. The term can, however, be used to discuss the ancient world, and provides an important framework for examining how foreign powers outside of Mesopotamia exerted great influence over the Levant during the biblical period.

My work on multiple archaeological excavations of Iron Age Israelite sites (c. 1000-586 BCE), primarily domestic areas far from ancient cities, suggests the value of new perspectives. Early on, I was struck by the absence of material culture in these sites related to Mesopotamia, in comparison with fairly regular finds of Egyptian, or Egyptianized, objects. While Mesopotamia is cast as the enemy in the literature of the Israelite period (c. 1000-586 BCE), the Levant was under Egyptian control during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1200 BCE) and is simply closer to Egypt than to Mesopotamia. Why, then, do we continue to rely almost solely on Mesopotamian materials in comparative work when the archaeological evidence frankly demands a focus on Egypt? The reality is that, by the time the Hebrew Bible was being composed, Egyptian rulers had lost much of its influence in the region and was not a political threat in the minds of the biblical authors, except for a brief period in the late seventh century BCE.  Remnants of Egypt’s powerful distant past remain in the minds of the authors, represented in stories such as the Joseph novella.  Unfortunately, arguments about Egyptian influence on the Hebrew Bible tend to lead to meaningless debates, resulting in the few new perspectives regarding the impact cultural contact with Egypt and other neighboring societies on the people of the Levant and on the content of the Hebrew Bible.

The author at the Late Bronze Age Egyptian Governor’s House at Beit She’an (Stela is a replica)
The author at the Late Bronze Age Egyptian Governor’s House at Beit She’an (Stela is a replica)

I argue that Israelite cultural identity is more closely related to that of Egypt, especially at the lower echelons of society. In fact, Egyptian-style scarabs, scaraboids, and Bes figurines are central to local Israelite domestic religion and culture. This is in stark contrast to the portrait of Israelite culture painted within the Hebrew Bible, which displays a gradual shift to centralized worship of YHWH in Jerusalem, particularly under the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. This shift is, in my opinion, solely textual, based on the specific religious and political agendas of the scribes who authored these biblical texts. As members of the Jerusalem elite, the scribal school saw as its enemies the Neo-Assyrians and, later, the Neo-Babylonians of Mesopotamia, who threatened to overtake their position in Israelite culture. At the same time, however, Israelite domestic life amongst the populace continued to function as it had for several centuries. This continuation represented not the Mesopotamian culture that threatened the elites but rather a local identity that reflected many aspects of neighboring Egyptian culture, lingering after years of Egyptian rule.

The archaeological record displays Egyptian cultural imperialism reaching down even to the lower rungs of society. The prevalence of Egyptian, or Egyptianized, material culture, like the examples mentioned above, points to influences from the Israelites’ Egyptian neighbors which is not echoed by political powers in Mesopotamia. While biblical scholars will likely continue to use Mesopotamian material as a key point of comparison, we must be aware that influences from other powers such as the Egyptians and the Hittites may not always be reflected in the textual record.

I identify as a historian and scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, though many in my field would avoid such a title. Employing both literary and historical methodologies provides a framework for incorporating additional evidence into the study of this ancient text. I study the complex creation of the Hebrew Bible in conjunction with a variety of textual and archaeological evidence in order to reconstruct the historical, social, and political realities of the period. This extra-biblical evidence is extensive, including texts written in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, multiple stages of the Egyptian language, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and other languages that range in time period from about 3,000 BCE to the 1st millennium CE. By incorporating this additional material, I seek to understand groups that are often overlooked in traditional analyses but have important perspectives to offer on the historical context of the Hebrew Bible’s creation. Rather than continuing to search for comparative evidence in the literature of Mesopotamian elites, we must recognize the global character of the Ancient Near East as well as its deep local social networks of actors. Drawing on historical methods like cultural imperialism and focusing on traditionally overlooked cultures encourages scholars to think about the Hebrew Bible from below and beyond.

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