Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Religion of Israel V: Frank Moore Cross on Israelite Religion

In previous posts I've made several references to Frank Moore Cross' classic study Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (CMHE), published in 1973 and now in its ninth edition. Cross, professor emeritus in Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Languages, was a student of William Foxwell Albright who in many ways pioneered the comparative study of Canaanite and Israelite religion. (William Dever, whose work we have cited frequently, was a student of Cross.) In 1998 Cross published a collection of essays, most of which date to the 1980's, under the title From Epic to Canon (FEC). Several of these essays are relevant to our concerns and are worth considering before we move on to summarizing our conclusions concerning Israelite religion.

Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel

In Chapter 1, "Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel," Cross stresses that the notion of kinship is absolutely fundamental to a correct appreciation of ancient Israel, based as it was--in common with other West Semitic groups--on a fundamentally tribal society. I would wish to go somewhat further and point out that kinship concerns are not exclusive to tribal societies per se but are a common feature of many societies that Mircea Eliade characterizes as "archaic" or "traditional." For example, traditional Japanese society is not usually considered to be tribal, yet it is based on the mythology of common blood descent from the god and goddess on Mount Fuji. In theory, therefore, all Japanese are members of an extended family.

Kinship, Cross notes, defines "the rights and obligations, the duties, status, and privileges of tribal members." Of particular importance was the concept that an attack on one member was, given the blood tie, an attack on all members. Thus, the notion that all members were one flesh, blood, bone (Cross cites Gen 29:14, 2 Sam 5:1, Judges 9:1-4, Gen 37:27) had very practical ramifications in terms of group cohesiveness for the common defense. Rights and obligations were defined by this relationship not only for other members but also with regard to non-members.

To draw on the Japanese example once again, it is generally accepted that the vast scale of atrocities committed by Japanese forces during World War II was a function of the strength of this belief in a kinship relationship--as opposed to a common humanity--as defining rights and obligations: for Japanese soldiers there were no obligations or duties owed to non-kinship persons. This same practical effect can be seen in the concept of holy war in ancient Israel as well as among its neighbors: the genocidal slaughter of Amalek by Israel is paralleled by the claims of the Moabite king Mesha, who wrote of his genocide against the Israelites of Reuben. Thus, Cross notes that vengeance is only "proscribed within the kinship group." Leviticus 19:17-18 reflects this ethos: "Properly the bond of kinship requires that one bless those who bless one's brother, curse those who curse one's brother (FEC, 4)."

Of particular importance for our purposes is the fact that in the ancient West Semitic societies gods were commonly viewed as having a kinship relationship to "their" peoples. Examples from the Israelite scriptures are too numerous to cite, but the same relationship is envisioned in other related groups such as the Amorites and Canaanites. This means that the Divine Kinsman and his/her people have reciprocal obligations. The Divine Kinsman "leads in battle, redeems from slavery, loves his family, shares the land of his heritage, provides and protects. ... The family of the deity rallies to his call to holy war, 'the wars of Yahweh,' keeps his cultus, obeys his patriarchal commands ... loves him with all their soul, calls on his name (FEC 7)."

The kinship relationship is obvious in cases of actual blood descent, but West Semitic societies had mechanisms to bring outsiders--both individuals and entire groups--within the kinship relationship: covenant and adoption. The inclusion of a deity as "witness, guarantor, or participant" in a covenant was a widespread practice. Thus, as Cross argues (FEC 11-13), the confederation of Israelite tribes was both a kinship organization and a religious organization, in that the tribes were bound as one people Israel as the "kindred (or 'people') of Yahweh." Attendance to the cult of Yahweh was thus not solely a religious act in the modern sense; "religious practice" had important implications in the world of politics and social cohesion. The establishment of a foreign cult, that of Ba'al, as semi-official by Ahab was thus viewed as unacceptable by traditionalists not so much as a matter of monotheistic theology but because of its threat to Israelite cohesion and independence.

Cross views Israel as embodying two tendencies that were in tension with one another. On the one hand was the tradition of the covenant of the tribal league, in which Yahweh was seen as adopting the people Israel. Thus, Yahweh is seen as coming to love and adopt Israel and subsequently calling his "son" out of Egypt. On the other hand was the tradition--common throughout the West Semitic world--of kingship as adoption of the king as son of the god. This tendency was clearly embodied in "the ideology of Davidic kingship." The classic expression of this ideology can be seen in the royal liturgy preserved in Psalm 89 in which Yahweh, the Divine Kinsman, pledges his loyalty to the House of David. As Cross notes, the idea of divine sonship was completely at home in the Canaanite world. The Israelite expression of this ideology is totally compatible with Canaanite ideas and even cultic practice.

Thus, Cross sees the history of Israel as, in essence, the working out of these tensions. Tribal loyalties based on covenant were reshaped by monarchical institutions, especially in Judah. The "'high Judean' royal ideology" did gain widespread allegiance, even by the Deuteronomist. "A temple in the Canaanite mode was built in Jerusalem, compromised only by the introduction of the league palladium, the ark of the covenant, into its holy of holies, in place of a cult statue (FEC 21)." This is a matter we will deal with in further detail later, as Cross points out in his consideration of the Temple that the cherubim throne in the sanctuary was a key part of "the iconography of Canaanite 'El (FEC 89)."

Late in the monarchy there was a revival of covenantal ideology, law, and cultic practice. Drawing on surviving elements of league and kinship structures [the Deuteronomic and Priestly circles] made a stalwart effort to reconstruct and resurrect the covenantal institutions of the 'Mosaic Age,' that is, of the era of the leagues. To be sure, their efforts to recover the past were flawed, and they produced nostalgic constructs of the era conceived as normative. Their efforts were shaped by the special concerns of their own times as they drew up programs of reform or programs for an idea future. The covenantal law, for example, draws on traditional law of the old time, but it is schematized, idealized, and reformulated with the introduction of late elements alongside the genuinely archaic. (FEC 21)

The "Olden Gods" in Ancient Near Eastern Creation Myths and in Israel

Cross distinguishes two types of creation myths, using the terms theogony and cosmogony. Theogony focuses on the origin of the gods themselves, whereas cosmogony describes conflict among the gods which leads to order in the world of men--and especially to the rise of kingship among men, as also among the young gods who replace the chaotic, unruly "olden gods" of theogony. These acts of the young gods which give rise to truly human order constitute a form of creation, and so references to cosmogonic myths are common in the rites of Eliade's "archaic" man.

Cross, of course, draws the obvious comparison to Greek mythology, especially the defeat by the young Zeus of the older Cronos. For our purposes the details of Near Eastern theogonic myths are not important. What is clear is that, for the periods that interest us, El was the head of the Canaanite pantheon and presided over what could be termed a family of gods or what is also called the "council" of gods. (This is somewhat unusual, in that El appears to have been in origin a theogonic god, but one who made the transition to the cosmogonic world.) The Israelite scriptures make clear that El, under a variety of names, was the head god of ancient Israel before Yahweh became Israel's god. The question is, what is the significance of the rise of Yahweh as the national god of Israel? Does this development, described in Exodus when God reveals his name of Yahweh to Moses, reflect the usual theme of the cosmogonic myth: the rise of kingship?

First, let us closely consider Cross' description of the cosmogonic myth:
The great cosmogonic myths of Mesopotamia and Canaan were associated with the central rites of the cult and as such are of much greater importance than the theogonic myths for our understanding of ancient, mythopoeic religion. The cosmogonies recount the warfare between the olden god or gods and the young god, or gods, a conflict out of which emerges victory for the young god and the establishment of kingship among the gods, and an orderly, cosmic government. Kingship and its hierarchical institutions are thus fixed in the orders of creation , and human kingship, patterned after the cosmic government, gains religious sanction. (FEC 78)
Clearly, we are here in the world of what Eliade terms "archaic man," a world governed by heavenly archetypes: the emergence of kingship on earth is governed by what happened in illo tempore among the gods. Thus, in Canaanite myth, the young Ba'al, the divine warrior, does battle with the old gods--Sea, River, Death--and "returns victorious to the divine assembly [council], builds his royal temple on Mount Saphon [the holy mount], and invites the gods to the royal banquet. Moreover, one remembers that in biblical lore the defeat of the sea or the dragon is properly placed in time, at creation..." (FEC 80)

Before we move to an examination of the cosmogonic myth in Israelite thought, we should note, with Cross (FEC 80-81, once again rightly drawing parallels to Greek thought, the pre-Socratic Milesian thinkers, Thales, Anaximander and Anaximines), that the theogonic gods--who appear in Canaanite myth in pairs, Heaven and Earth, Sea and River, Night and Day, Mountains and Foundations, Light and Dark, etc.--survive in "attenuated form" in Israelite thought, often in the context of the "covenant lawsuit," in which the "olden gods" are summoned by the victorious warrior god, Yahweh in the Israelite scriptures, as witnesses between Yahweh and the people (Israel) "who sealed my covenant by sacrifice" (Psalm 50:5). Thus, in addition to Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 50, Cross offers the following examples:
Hear O Mountains the lawsuit of Yahweh, and give ear O Foundations of the Earth! (Micah 6:2)

Listen O Heavens, give ear O Earth! (Isaiah 1:2)

Be astonished, O Heavens, on this account, be greatly appalled O Mountains! (Jeremiah 2:12)
Similarly, Cross points out (FEC 82-81) that the account of creation in Genesis contains elements of both the theogonic myth as well as of the cosmogonic myth. In Genesis we find that, until God acts, there is nothing but a chaotic void, a watery waste corresponding to Sea and Darkness. But in Genesis the "olden gods" (in attenuated form) are not true actors--rather, God is master of all, to whose word resistance has become unthinkable. There is no conflict. God simply acts by fiat. The olden gods have become little more than abstractions, much as they were "in the cosmology of the Ionian philosophers." But the Israelite scriptures contain clues that they were not always viewed in these terms, and in order to examine these issues more closely we will refer selectively to Cross' earlier, still classic, work: Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic.

The Abode of El

Put briefly and in simplified form, El's abode is on the cosmic mountain in the north, Mount Saphon. This is the mountain where the assembly of the gods meets under El's headship, and from the base of this mountain "the cosmic waters well up." And it is at the Mountain of God that the Garden of God, Eden, is to be found. But the height of mountains and their directional location is a relative matter for the purposes of myth. As Cross notes, and as Eliade documents in detail, "the mythic pattern ... may be applied to any great mountain with springs [or] where a sanctuary of El (or Yahweh) exists." Thus, Isaiah writes: "I shall be enthroned in the mount of the council in the distant north," but this does not necessarily mean north in an absolute sense relative to Israel, for Psalm 48 identifies Yahweh's holy mountain, the cosmic mount of assembly, with Zion: "the far North." Moreover, the idea of the cosmic rivers issuing from the base of Yahweh's holy mountain is apparent in many passages, including Ezekiel 28, Isaiah 33, Joel 4 and Zechariah 14. El, and later Yahweh, preside on the cosmic mount as patriarch and creator. (CMHE 36-39)

El and Yahweh

As we hinted above, there appears to be no doubt, based on Exodus, that the original God of Israel was El, who was later identified with Yahweh. The picture is somewhat complicated by the fact that El appears have transitioned from Cross' theogonic category to become a cosmogonic god. In that role El, as for example the god of some Amorite tribes, takes on some of the attributes of the cosmogonic warrior god, founder of the cosmic order and the cosmological order of kings. At the end of the day, it seems clear that by the time of the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms El and Yahweh were identified, an issue that we will deal with later when considering the work of Mark Smith. Suffice it to say that Cross presents (CMHE 71-75) several arguments in this connection, including one that we have already discussed, namely that Yahweh was an epithet of El for the Midianite League of southern tribes that was adopted by Israel.

The Divine Warrior

In Chapters Five and Six of CMHE Cross formulates an explanation for a phenomenon that has long puzzled scholars, and that has become acute in the light of recent archaeological findings: on the one hand, the survival and use of Canaanite myth in Israelite religion is undeniable and pervasive, yet the appeal to supposed history--the Exodus, the Covenant and Conquest--is also undeniable. These historical traditions have been called into serious question by modern archaeology, but it is increasingly recognized (and Cross was an early proponent of this) that the Midianite connection is essential to an explanation. In approaching these issues, Cross appeals to the Israelite cult.

Israelite Origins Revisited and Summarized

Cross begins his analysis with Psalm 24, noting that, on its face, this psalm is clearly patterned on the cosmogonic theme of creation and kingdom. In Psalm 24 Yahweh, as also Ba'al in Canaanite myth, is celebrated as ruler of the earth--Yahweh founded the order of Earth, he founded it on Sea, created it on Rivers--all references to victory over the theogonic gods. And now, the cultic procession accompanies Yahweh--the King of Glory--up to his holy mountain of Zion (not Sinai), where Yahweh presides from his temple over the order of earthly kingship that his cosmic victory established: the kingship of the Davidic house. The climactic cry: "Lift up, O Gates, your heads/Lift yourselves up, ancient doors!" mirrors Ba'al's cry to the dispirited cosmogonic gods as he prepares to go to battle against the theogonic Sea: "Lift up, O Gods, your heads!" Nevertheless, Cross maintains that there are also elements in Psalm 24 that are discordant with this cosmogonic picture, specifically the references to Yahweh's leadership in earthly historical battles as leader of the stars ("heavenly hosts," the lesser gods: "the stars fought from heaven/from their courses they fought against Sisera" Judges 5:20) on behalf of his people (the Divine Kinsman). Other writings of the Israelite scriptures preserve this theme: Judges 5, Psalm 68, Deuteronomy 33, Habakkuk 3, in all of which Yahweh leads his gods to battle for Israel from his mountains in the south--Seir, Paran, Sinai. For Cross, this is a break with Canaanite cosmogonic myth and begins a new awareness of history ("the historical impulse became strong in the Mosaic faith," CMHE 89), as expressed in the cultic reenactment of redemption history: the Exodus and Conquest.

Now, Cross is quick to add that these cultic expressions of the "historical impulse" carried with them elements of Canaanite cosmogonic myth. In Cross' reconstruction, those mythic elements became preponderant in exalting the royal ideology, which is essentially Canaanite in inspiration: "It is this more or less subdued mythological element of the old time that breaks out afresh in the cultus and ideology of the monarchy." In later periods the prophets also took up these elements of the cosmogonic myth: Job and Deutero-Isaiah in particular are rich with references to cosmogonic myths, as also are other prophetic writings: "...the great prophets...while influenced by the royal cult and its liturgical style, recall the more austere themes of the covenant forms of the [tribal] league, its legal language and relatively minor use of mythological material." Finally, "late prophecy and remnants of the royal ideology flow together to create the early apocalyptic movement...the old mythological themes rise to a new crescendo, though even in the apocalyptic the expression of Israel's faith is still firmly controlled by a historical framework." (CMHE 89-90)

While there is much merit in Cross' basic analysis--which has been presented in only the barest outline form--he places far too much credence in the supposed historical impulse and misunderstands basic structures of myth. For example, citing Deuteronomy 33, Psalm 68 and Judges 5, Cross states: "Sinai plays a role in the march of the Conquest. It is integral to Israel's earliest traditions of Exodus-Conquest (CMHE 101)." But while it is true that these passages invoke Yahweh's march of Conquest from the south, they make no reference at all to an exodus from Egypt nor do they refer (despite Cross' reference to the "Mosaic faith") to the hero of the Exodus. As many writers have noted, the covenant at Sinai as well as the Exodus from Egypt are clearly secondary to the march of conquest and may be the result of assimilations to mythic structures of repetition (in which regard cf. Cross' remarks re the patriarchal narratives as legitimization of cultic centers at Beth-El, Shechem, Hebron and Beersheba, FEC 47). Moreover, the fundamental archaeological problem remains: if there is no evidence of a violent conquest of Canaan by a grouping known as Israel, if all evidence is that Israel was overwhelmingly an indigenous development that was leavened by southern tribal elements, what are we to make of an "historical impulse" that presents a counter-historical narrative? Psalm 68, a royal psalm, clearly portrays Yahweh in Ba'alist terms: the storm and warrior god, "He who rides the clouds," whose victories among the hosts of heaven bring victory for his people on earth. In plain fact, Psalm 68 invokes the march of conquest to pray for an archetypal repetition of this past (mythic?) event--as Yahweh once acted, may he so act again to produce a similar (archetypal) result. Whatever facts may lie behind the psalm, they have been clearly assimilated to both the mythic, Ba'alist character of Yahweh (and in that sense the psalm evokes memories of the cosmogonic myth) as well as to the basic mythic structure of archetype and repetition. The fact is, archaic man is not incapable of historical recollection, as Cross assumes--the detailed, and accurate, archives of Egypt and Assyria are evidence of that. What archaic man does is to assimilate singular historical events to the basic mythic structure of archetype and repetition, and this is precisely what we see repeatedly in the Israelite scriptures. The supposed conflict between Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic is essentially a straw man. As we will see (in considering the work of Mark Smith) the fundamental break with myth arises as the result of a clear understanding of God as creator. What Cross is describing with his analysis of the rise of apocalyptic is the eventual rise of Judaism.

Before leaving this consideration of Cross' views, it may be worthwhile to invoke his authority on behalf of theories of Israel's origins that we have already reviewed. While Cross was a defender of what he saw as the historical basis of the Hebrew epic in a more literal sense than current scholarship supports, his own profound scholarship is still respected. Thus, Cross conceded that "models of peasant revolt or infiltration into the hill country from urban centers in Canaan ... are not without merit in explaining aspects of the archaeological record ..." In line with his interest in the Midianite connections of Moses, Cross was particularly sympathetic to Finkelstein's idea of nomads becoming sedentarized in the hill country--a theory which Dever has effectively debunked. Cross' motive was to defend a particular bottom line which he believed could be "obscured" by discussion of Canaanite origins of Israel:
Traditions that link epic events to the southland, especially to Sinai, rest ultimately on historical memory. Proto-Israel or the "Mosaic group" came into the land from the south. With them came the social, religious, and military customs and institutions imported, so to speak, into feudal Canaan. (FEC 51)
In fact, as Dever and others have argued, any theory of Israelite origins needs to take both aspects into account. Cross is eager to preserve the fundamentally non-Canaanite, tribal character of Proto-Israel, arguing that the stress on holy war, extension of kinship by covenant and "the choice of [a] single patron not stem from the urban, Canaanite culture." "In short, there appears to be evidence of the importation into the Land of Canaan of social and religious institutions and ideology alien to Canaan--but with ties to the southeast [Midian]" (FEC 69).  Unfortunately, Cross is unwilling to address the full evidence that the great bulk of what became Israel was of indigenous origin, although he readily concedes what Dever and others later formulated into a coherent theory:
[T]here is a strong anti-Canaanite, patriarchal-egalitarian, antifeudal polemic in early Israel, which appears to be authentic, grounded in history. ... Surely in the consolidation of the [Israelite] league, serfs, clients, and slaves were readily absorbed into the nation, imprinting Israel with the consciousness of being of lowly origins, outsiders in Canaanite society. (FEC 69)
However, the evidence of peaceful settlement of the highlands is overwhelming, as is the evidence of Canaanite cultural continuity (evidenced, for example, in the close identity of early portrayals of Yahweh on a Ba'alist model as the cloud riding warrior god). The proper theoretical construct is not that of "serfs, clients, and slaves" being absorbed into "Israel" but rather of Israel being formed from two basic elements: 1) an indigenous Canaanite (but anti-feudal) settlement of the highlands by former serfs which brought and maintained its culturally Canaanite traditions, and 2) a small elite deriving from the southern areas of Midian which brought tribal traditions which was formative of the unique Israelite identity, but which did not simply suppress the Canaanite elements. Contrary to Cross' contention that the movement of this second grouping was one of conquest, it seems clear from all the traditions that are available that Israel's formative process was an essentially peaceful one. But here is Cross' bottom line:
[T]here is in the traditions we have been investigating historical evidence of a migration or incursion from Reuben of elements of Israel who came from the south, with ties to Midian, and whose original leader was Moses.

Archaic tradition of events in Reuben survived, as did those of Moses' Midianite connections: traditions too old and too well known to suppress and yet which have become obscure and faded. (FEC 70)

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I've put this guy on hold at the library...

    Going from a "tribal" society to monarchical institutions...

    There's this whole anthropological issue of "kinship" as defining 'whom it's okay to kill vs whom it ain't.'

    That is, people have generally lived in small groups, with tentatively-worked-out relations with the neighbors -- & could get together safely in larger groups only if they were meeting under religious auspices [trade taking place in temples or at festivals where the gods would take a dim view of cheating, thumping the Party of the 2nd Part over the head & absconding with his trade goods, etc...]

    But in ancient Roman cities (or some recent Eastern US ones, from what I heard) there'd be an uneasy peace between 'our' neighborhoods and 'theirs'. People would walk cautiously on the wrong block; & sometimes there'd be group clashes.

    Having a god 'adopt' some imposing guy to be his 'son' -- and king over the local god's whole turf -- sounds like a work-around for dealing with this phenomenon of narrow group loyalties, limits to solidarity & peaceableness....

    To the people involved -- It's going to look an awful lot like Samuel's account of What This Sort of Change Is Going To Lead To: A King will draft your sons, hump your daughters, put you to work hauling rocks and take all your goodies for his officers... and beyond what Samuel says, even worse -- you won't be able to waste some wandering Benjaminite any time you're in the mood for trouble, because he's going to be related to you via both of you being subject to the same King.

    This change of attitude is still a new idea in some of those stories we read about Saul and David's reigns. They sound like sly and cunning bastids, but everyone around them is busy setting up plots and alliances along tribal and family lines; and it's taking all their ruthless cleverness just to keep it all from falling apart -- as it does, briefly, with Absalom's revolt. Even killing the rebel leader doesn't entirely end the public disaffection...