Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Religion of Israel IV: Historical Overview of Ancient Israel

In the previous section we went over William Dever's synthesis regarding the origins of Israel. Dever Israelite origins as largely, although not entirely, an indigenous development of Canaanite culture, while at the same time being a reaction or protest against the same Canaanite culture from which it developed. Dever, in common with virtually all archaeologists, is willing to flatly assert that a violent conquest of Canaan simply never happened. We also reviewed some of the data that argue in favor of the view that certain non-Canaanite elements were, nevertheless, an important part of the "proto-Israelite" mix. In particular, those associated with Midian and other Semitic tribes to the southeast of Canaan played an important role in the formation of Israelite identity--crucially, perhaps, in the introduction of Yahweh as Israel's tutelary deity. We will now proceed to a brief overview of Israelite history, with special emphasis on the role that rivalry among priestly families played in the development of both the Israelite scriptures as well as in the development of Israelite religion generally. In what follows we will rely heavily on Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible (WWB) and to a lesser extent on Israel Finkelstein's David and Solomon (DS).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Religion of Israel III: Origins of Ancient Israel

Dever's Synthesis on the Origins of Israel

At this point it may be well to revisit Dever's attempt at an explanation of the origins of what he terms "proto-Israel," Israel as it developed from Canaanite culture at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the early Iron Age (Iron I). As we saw, Dever reviewed (Who Where) the archaeological data and came to the conclusion (with essentially all other archaeologists) that "the biblical tradition grew out of earlier Canaanite culture (168)." But, Dever asked, what led to this development? Dever's theory, based on the data, is that while Israelite culture grew out of Canaanite culture, at the same time Israelite culture arose as "a radical protest" against what remained of Canaanite culture at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Religion of Israel II: Archeology and the Exodus and Conquest

As we have seen, historical and archaeological study confirms that Israel, while a new development in the history of Canaan, had indigenous origins within Canaan. This is not to suggest, as we will later see, that these indigenous origins were exclusive--that no elements within Israel came from outside Canaan.  Nevertheless,  it is clear that the dominant cultural factors that gave birth to Israel as an ethnic identity were developments of and reactions to Canaanite culture and socio-political factors that were peculiar to Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age. How, then, does this square with the Biblical account of an Exodus from Egypt and a violent conquest of Canaan?

It is now universally recognized by all but fundamentalists that the Exodus and Conquest narratives in the Bible are not historical in the modern sense, although these narratives may contain nuggets of otherwise useful information regarding Israelite history and culture. The time frame for the Exodus is now definitively established as the late 13th century B.C., coinciding with the rise of Israelite culture in Canaan and the reign of Rameses II as pharaoh in Egypt. However, very little of the overall narrative can be confirmed and, of what can be confirmed, much is anachronistic.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Religion of Israel I: Issues, Canaanite Origins

To this point we have, with related digressions, been discussing 1) Eliade's theory of archaic ontology, 2) the development of human thought through history based on archaic ontology and 3) reactions to perceived inadequacies in archaic ontology. This study has not been, of course, exhaustive and has focused on models largely provided by Christopher Dawson in his Progress and Religion. For example, we have noted that, in what Dawson calls the “World Religions” (the classic civilizational traditions of India, China, Persia and Greece) there arose a reaction to archaic ontology that focused on the issues of human mortality and the problem of evil. The archaic traditions had sought to explain these problems through variations on the myth of reincarnation--essentially an expression of faith in a solution at the same time that it was a recognition of the inability of human reason alone to provide a definitive answer. But these mythic explanations proved unsatisfactory for many and movements such as Buddhism and Taoism, to cite two examples, are properly understood as attempts to short circuit and escape the cosmic cycles that had come to be understood in a literal manner. Needless to say, the failure of these new salvific doctrines to address the nature of mythic expression was a serious weakness, one which was attacked by new movements of thinkers who had discovered and been intoxicated by the power of formal logic but had failed to understand its limitations (the Greek Sophists are one famous example).

We will turn now to Israel as an example of a response to these problems that approached a clear break with myth, without definitively achieving such a break. This in turn will lead us, after returning once more to Greek thought, to the Christian solution.