Why have you forsaken us?

20 December, 2009

When the Babylonians and Medes destroyed Nineveh they heralded the end of the Assyrian Empire. Splitting its provinces between them they inherited a huge swathe of land across the Middle East. The Babylonians were in no doubt as to why the mighty Empire had fallen. The Assyrian King Sennarcherib had destroyed the city of Babylon to remove any doubt as to where the Gods favour lay. Just as the Romans looked back to the Greeks with an admiration for their culture, so too had the Assyrians looked to the Babylonian city states as the source of their religion. This gave the Babylonians too much power in Sennacherib’s eyes, and so he razed the city and enacted the great rituals and festivals in the heartlands of Assyria. His son rebuilt Babylon and restored the Gods to their rightful place, but this was not enough it seemed, and when the Empire collapsed the blame was squarely on the defilers of the Gods, Sennacherib.

It’s easy to invoke the Gods when you are on the winning side, but what happens when those same Gods don’t defend you? The Assyrians had already broken the Kingdom of Israel and deported much of the ruling population. When the Babylonians inherited the Empire they continued the practice of moving troublesome populations around. Most famously the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II tore down the Temple in Jerusalem, installed a governor to look after the Kingdom of Judah and brought its leaders, including the young King, to Babylon where they would remain in exile for decades. How did the people of Judah reconcile this catastrophic event with their all powerful god, Yahweh, who was supposed to look after them? Some no doubt turned to other Gods who would be seen as more powerful, others realised that it couldn’t be Yahweh that was at fault, so it must be the people themselves who were to blame. By not being pious enough, by not performing the correct rituals, by not being good enough people, these were the reasons that Yahweh had turned from Judah – more than this, Yahweh himself had caused the Exile to show his anger just as he had hardened the Pharaoh’s heart in order to show his power in the story of Exodus. Great Empires were at the beck and call of Yahweh, but that was no guarantee that the people of Judah would be safe.

The prophets of this period (Jeremiah and Ezekiel) were not the first to come up with this sort of explanation. Half a millennium before Nebuchadnezzar II brought destruction to Judah, his namesake, Nebuchadnezzar I ruled in Babylon. One of Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest victories was recovering the cult statue of Marduk from the Elamites who had plundered it decades before. A prophecy was written around the time of Nebuchadnezzar stating that a good king would arise and destroy the cities of Elam, bring back the statue and make the land whole and good. The prophecy talks of the three times that the statue of Marduk had been stolen by invading armies. In each case it does not describe the plundering as something that Marduk didn’t want – after all how could that be since he was the supreme God? When the Hittites captured Marduk around 1600 BCE it was described in the prophecy as a journey to the lands of Hatti in order to establish trade and make the lands known to the Babylonians. After 24 years he returned in the hands of a Babylonian King. When the Assyrians stole the statue around 1200 BCE it is described in the prophecy as Marduk travelling north to bless the people of Assur.

His final journey, to Elam (around 1150 BCE), is not described so positively in the prophecy. Marduk declares that he has decided to abandon Babylon, that he has sent the other Gods away and no sacrifices will be enough to lure them back. The land is cursed, and only the rise of the good king will return happiness to Babylon. Unlike the books in the Hebrew Bible which go to great pains to explain why Yahweh abandoned them, there is no such explanation in the prophecy of Marduk. He simply asserts that he will go, and so he does.

“I am Marduk, the great Lord. I went to the land of Elam – all the Gods went with me – I myself commanded it. The offering of the temple I myself withheld. People’s corpses block the gates. A brother eats his own brother. Evil lies across the land.”

“A King of Babylon will arise: he will restore the wondrous temple. He will take my hand and bring me to my city Babylon forever. Brother will love his brother. The marketplace will thrive. He will keep evil in line.”

It is up to Nebuchadnezzar to bring back their God, and as in all good prophecies, he does just that.



14 December, 2009

Around four and a half thousand years ago the warrior king Sargon established an Empire amongst the city states of southern Mesopotamia. His grandson, Naram-Sin, expanded the Empire to the north, defeated rebelling cities and was declared a God by the people. As a God, Naram-Sin was allowed to sport some fancy horns which can be seen in the image on the right. Naram-Sin ruled at the height of the Akkadian Empire. It quickly collapsed in his successors reigns but the idea of the Empire resonated for centuries. The language that it spread was the lingua franca of the ancient world for centuries afterwards, only finally dying out two and half thousand years later. When people remembered the Empire they also remembered its two most famous Kings, Sargon and Naram-Sin. One they associated with its meteoric rise, the other with its collapse. Naram-Sin became a literary figure more than a historical one. An ancient story tells of how Naram-Sin defied the Gods, was defeated in battle, realised the error of his ways and changed for the better.

At the end of the tale there is a message for the reader. It says that if you are a wise King you should heed the advice of the story, those who don’t will suffer the wrath of the Gods. It also reminds the ruler to pass on their knowledge, as this story does. Those who don’t will doom future generations. An example of just such a king is given at the start of the story.

Enmerkar was King of Uruk, but he disappeared. Diviners had told him of the Gods’ will, but he disregarded their advice, whatever that was. A council of Gods cursed him, Shamash in particular demanded harsh penalties on Enmerkar and his descendants. His ghost would not receive prayers, and his memory would not be preserved. Even his offence would not be known. So it happened, and Naram-Sin bemoaned the fact that Enmerkar left no record of what he had done wrong, other than to disregard the diviners. This was a lesson to all Kings – make a record of your triumphs and mistakes so that others can learn from you.

This story was copied down many times by scribes who no doubt liked the moral that writing was good for a King (it kept the scribes employed too). It is somewhat ironic that Enmerkar, a King about whom we know nothing, indeed his point in the story is that we know nothing about him, nonetheless still lives on as a character, a warning to others. His name is now immortalised by the nameless scribes of Naram-Sin. Of the billions of humans who have ever lived, Enmerker the Unknown, by dint of having his name recorded, may well be one of the more famous.

Nazareth and Bethlehem

18 December, 2008

nazarethOut of the four gospels in the New Testament only two of them have any detail on the birth of Jesus. Each story, the one in Matthew and the one in Luke, are quite different but contain the authors attempts to explain two bits of information. The first is that the Messiah (the anointed one) would be born in Bethlehem. The second is that Jesus was known as Jesus the Nazareon/Nazarene/Nazerite. The author of Matthew takes the view that the family have always lived in Bethlehem, and then they have to flee when an evil king attempts to kill all the young children in the land. They finally end up in the town of Nazareth. The author of Luke takes a different approach. He postulates that the family originally came from Nazareth but were forced by the Romans to visit Bethlehem where the birth took place. So why did the authors feel the need to create stories about these two facts? One possibility is of course that there was a historical Jesus and people knew that he had been born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth. But there are other possibilities too.

Bethlehem was known for being the birthplace of the Israelite hero King David. The monarchy that ruled Judah for hundreds of years claimed descent from David and euphemisms were used to describe people who were part of this family. Of the Root of Jesse (David’s father) was one, and Born of Bethlehem was another. After the fall of Judah many prophecies were made about the return of a King of Judah and it was expected that it would be a member of the royal household who would take up the reign. And so the prophecies predicted that the Messiah (the anointed one, or King) would be of the Root of Jesse, or Born of Bethlehem. So when Jesus was declared the Messiah some thought it necessary to show his credentials. Both Matthew and Luke give long (differing) genealogies to show how Jesus was literally descended from King David. But they also both took the idea of being Born of Bethlehem literally and placed his birth in that city.

This brought up a problem though. Jesus was supposed to have lived in Nazareth. Or was he? Nazareth had existed in ancient times but had been abandoned for many years by the time Jesus was supposed to have lived. It was only repopulated around the middle of the first century, decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection were placed. So why did people think he lived there? It could have something to do with the name, Jesus was known as a Nazorene, which could mean someone for a particular Jewish sect. In modern terms it would be like saying Jesus the Methodist, or Jesus the Sunni. As the incarnation of God Almighty it seemed strange to later generations that Jesus would be from a particular sect. And so the solution was to place his hometown as Nazareth thereby changing Jesus the Nazarene to Jesus of Nazareth and allowing him to be sectless and someone everyone could worship.

Ideas about Jesus were varied from the get go, and the gospel authors attempts to explain these ideas were often as varied as people’s attempts to reconstruct the early church and Jesus’ life today.

Dear Reader,

13 September, 2008

The oldest examples of writing we have are documents that are concerned with money, goods and trade. Records of taxes pre-date even the most ancient of stories. In the near east the development of cuneiform writing was a major boon to the city states who needed to keep track of a complex administrative system. The writing that developed in southern Mesopotamia was used throughout the near east for thousands of years. Eventually scribes were writing in languages that were no longer spoken but were preserved through the schooling that all scribes undertook. Many of the most ancient documents we have are texts used by scribes for learning. These tablets contained what are called lexical lists, long lists of words which belong to the same category. So for instance one list may be The Standard List of Professions, while another may list animals or objects.

Later developments in writing include long king lists – records that were used to legitimise a new ruler to the throne. Stories about ancient kings and heroes such as Gilgamesh were also written down. Eventually the written word was put to use beyond tax collection, story recording and the creation of praises to the local king. It was only a matter of time before writing was used for communication between people across large distances. The first letters had arrived.

Many letters that we have today are royal correspondences. A large cache of these were discovered in Amarna, the capital of Egypt during the notorious reign of Akhenaten. These letters were written in several languages but mainly in cuneiform. They contain fascinating insights into the people as we see how they dealt with each other rather than how they wished to be recorded for all eternity. The rulers of the so-called ‘Great Kingdoms’ of the time (Egypt, Hatti, Assyria, Mittani, Babylonia) referred to each other as ‘brothers’ and sent gifts as well as letters. These gifts were very much a sort of trade as can be seen by the whining that occurs when the great rulers felt they deserved more than they had received. “You have sent me as my greeting gift, the only thing in six years, thirty pounds of gold that looks like silver” wrote the King of Babylon to the Pharaoh. The King of Mittani wrote “In my brother’s country, gold is as plentiful as dirt.“. When the King of Assyria neglected to send gifts to the King of Hatti, Hattusili III wrote: “When I assumed kingship, you did not send a messenger to me. It is the custom that when kings assume kingship, the kings, his equals in rank, send him appropriate gifts of greeting, clothing befitting kingship, and fine oil for his anointing. But you did not do this today.

Letters were also exchanged between the Great Kings and their vassals, kings of smaller regions or city-states. The subservient minor kings still liked to complain of course and had ready excuses for why taxes and tributes were late: “Tell the king, my lord, my Sun; Rib-Adda, your servant, says: I fall at the feet of my lord seven and seven times over. Let the king, my lord, know that Pu-bahla, the son of Abdi-Ashirta, has taken the city of Ullassa by force … What can I do? I cannot go to Sumur … They would attack me and I could not get out. Byblos would be joined to the Apiru.“. Various other servants would send information about diplomatic treaties that were being agreed to – or not agreed to. And of course the treaties themselves would become letters with copies kept by all involved parties.

But it wasn’t just Kings who wrote letters. In the early second millennium the Assyrians had established a trading outpost in central Anatolia (modern day Turkey) called Kanesh. In Kanesh were discovered many letters sent by wives left back in Assur to their trader husbands who were living in Kanesh. Often the wives would be in charge of the household at home and responsible for creating the goods that were being sold in far of Kanesh. And sometimes they weren’t happy about their husbands performance. Some examples of wives writing to their husbands:

Tell Pushuken; Lamassi says:
Kulumaya is bringing nine textiles to you, Iddin-Sin three. Ela has refused to take care of textiles while Iddin-Sin has refused to take care of five more. Why do you keep on writing to me: “The textiles that you send me are always of bad quality!” Who is the man who lives in your house and criticizes the textiles that are brought to him? I, on the other hand, keep on striving to produce and send you textiles so that on every trip your business gains ten shekels of silver.

Tell Innaya; Taram-Kubi says:
You wrote to me as follows: “Keep the bracelets and rings that you have; the will be needed to buy you food.” It is true that you send me half a pound of gold through Ili-bani but where are the bracelets that you have left behind? When you left, you didn’t leave me one shekel of silver. You cleaned out the house and took everything with you. … Why do you keep on listening to slander, and write me irritating letters?

Irritating the letters may be but they provide an insight into the ancient world that we do not get from monumental inscriptions and praises to the Gods. A far more down to earth vision of daily life is revealed. Indeed it says a lot that a king of Babylon was less praised for performing the sacred ritual that would ensure good crops than for cancelling everyone’s debts when the economy was going sour. Sometimes, especially through peoples words to each other, the ancient world can seem very familiar.

[See My Dearest Sister for an example of an ancient epistolary story!]

The Younger MemnonNear them on the sand, half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies…

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Europe was in turmoil. Napoleon had marched his army across the continent and in 1798 had invaded Egypt. The French had marveled at the Pyramids and looked on the antiquities that seemed to be everywhere in this ancient land. It became a matter of national pride to ‘rescue’ much of the ancient gold and gemstones from this barbaric land and bring them back to Europe. Meanwhile in Italy, the French had taken Rome and a young Italian by the name of Giovanni Belzoni fled north to escape being drafted by the French army. He studied hydraulics in the Netherlands before moving to Britain in 1803. It was here that he met Sarah Banne who was to become his wife, and here that he embarked on his career in the circus.

Belzoni (known as The Great Belzoni on flyers for the circus) was a great showman. He performed many strongman acts and his prodigious strength and size served him well in attracting the crowds. He also acted (including a stint as Macbeth), played the glass harmonica and went on stage with a live bear. After over a decade of entertaining in Britain Belzoni, his wife Sarah, and their servant James Curtin left England to seek a better fortune. Belzoni was drawn to Cairo where he built a new and efficient water-wheel which he presented to the Pasha. His demonstration did not go well – the wheel was deemed ‘too dangerous’ after some locals played a prank with the machine which nearly killed James Curtin. Looking for work again, Belzoni was employed by the British Consul to travel up the Nile to Luxor and retrieve the head of a statue that no one had been able to move.

The head and upper torso of a once complete statue had broken off long ago and lay in the sand near a temple complex. The head, known as “The Younger Memnon” by those who had recently found it, weighed over 7 tons – one of the reasons no one had been able to move it. The French a few years ago had bored a hole into the chest of the statue and planned to use dynamite to separate the head from the torso, but fortunately they did not go through with the plan. The French were still in Luxor when Benzoli arrived in 1815 and one in particular, Bernadino Drovetti, the French Consul-General and antiquities collector, was to become a rival of the strongman. Belzoni set to work on transporting the head – hiring local workmen proved difficult, but eventually a team was assembled. Moving the statue required reusing ancient techniques – a wooden sledge was built on top of logs and the statue pushed over onto the sledge. Then the sledge would be pulled over the logs in a painstakingly slow process. After much work and many trials (labour shortages, bribery, blackmail) the head was brought to the Nile and ready for transport.

The temple where the statue had lain for thousands of years was once visited by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who wrote in the first century BCE about one of the statues in the area:

It is … marvelous because of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of its stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not one single crack or blemish to be seen. The inscription on it runs: ‘King of Kings I am, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass my works.’

Not much was known about this Ozymandias even in Belzoni’s time. But Belzoni now had a few weeks on his hands before the boat would arrive to take his statue back to Cairo and on to the British Museum. Searching the local area for more finds for the Museum was proving difficult – Drovetti had claim to almost anything that appeared – so instead Belzoni and his wife traveled even further south. They passed beyond the ancient temple at Philae and into Nubia where, on a tip from the explorer Burckhardt, they found the ancient Temple of Abu Simbel. And it was here that Belzoni went further than Burckhardt and managed to uncover the entrance to the Temple which had been buried by sand for hundreds of years. Previously only the tops of 20m tall statues were visible. Inside was truly a masterpiece of engineering. It had been built to celebrate the military victory of the same Pharaoh who was represented by the Younger Memnon statue. At the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun shines right through the massive Temple, which was carved out of the rock-face itself, and illuminates three gods sitting in the depths of the building. One of these gods is the Pharaoh himself. The greatest of all the Pharaohs, he built and restored temples, made war and forged peace treaties with other superpowers, and reigned for longer than any other known ancient Egyptian ruler. His works had been forgotten for thousands of years, but now he would be revealed to the world. Ramses the Great had returned, brought on the back of a circus strongman.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The Levites

10 April, 2008

Prince Sechem approached Jacob. He had abducted Jacob’s daughter and married her without Jacob’s consent. Now, deeply in love with his newly taken bride he came to ask for peaceable relations between his people and those of his wife. Levi, one of Jacob’s sons hid his fury with Sechem. He was disgusted by this foreign Prince who had humbled his sister. With a forked tongue he told the Prince, “Of course we can be at peace, we can intermarry, only… in order to be a true husband to my sister you must of course be circumcised. And in fact all of your people must consent to be circumcised. Then we shall truly be as one and you can marry our women folk and we can marry yours.” The Prince loved Levi’s sister so much that he instantly agreed to some state wide genital mutilation. His people were less impressed with the idea, but he was the Prince after all. After an afternoon of much cutting and slicing, the men of Sechem lay down to recover from their impromptu surgery. It was then, in their weakened state that Levi and one of his brothers fell upon the people of Sechem and slaughtered them to a man. They took back with them the spoils of their victory, the herds and asses, the wealth of Sechem, the children and the widows.

Years later, when Jacob lay on his death bed he gave out prophecies to his children. To Levi he said, “Because you were deceitful with Prince Sechem your descendants shall be scattered amongst the tribes of Israel.” And so they were, the Levites lived with all tribes and in all places.

The above is just one story of the origin of the Levites from the Hebrew Bible. Traditionally said to be descendants of one of the sons of Jacob they were nevertheless different from any specific ethnic group. In other part of the bible they are treated more as people holding a job rather then being a family. What was that job? In general they were priests of the Temple in Jerusalem. But in some stories they are specifically not part of the priest overclass, the ones who got the meat, and coin from sacrifices. Instead they were the musicians and dancers, the performers who would enact rituals. If the Ark of the Covenant was about to be wheeled out into battle you can be sure some Levites would be in the procession signing praises to Yahweh who would be sat invisibly on top.

In another story of their origin, during the Exodus many people turned from Moses to follow the Golden Bulls and Aaron. Upon returning from a trip Moses found a group of young likely lads and sent them to kill all those who had followed the Bull. They did so with gusto, killing even members of their own family. In blood they were forged and from then on became the Levites, the zealots of the priesthood.

But perhaps the real origin of the Levites is missing from the books we have left. Enough clues are left behind to point to a possible origin that would not sit well with later generations. We know from the bible that Moses (identified as a descendant of Levi himself) used a staff, given to him by Yahweh, to show the wonders of his god. When facing Egyptians who sent snakes towards him the staff changed into a mighty Serpent which devoured the Egyptian snakes. Later in the wilderness there was a plague and Moses crafted a staff with a bronze Serpent coiled around it. All that saw this Serpent were healed. The Levites were not originally priests of Yahweh, but of a Serpent God. Leviathan.

Leviathan was a primal being, made of chaos. Only Yahweh could tame (or destroy, depending on the story) this seven headed sea creature of the depths, and in doing so Yahweh became the King of the Gods.

But just as there were priests dedicated to the Storm God Yahweh, and priestesses devoted to his wife Asherah, so too were there priests of the ancient enemy. Chaos itself was one to be watched and placated. The Levites were up to the task – zealous killers, loyal brothers, dancers, musicians, and perhaps the ones who kept the seven headed beast safely away from Jerusalem.

The Documentary Hypothesis

29 February, 2008

scrollGenesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy form the first five books of the Bible. They are known collectively as the Torah, and also as the Pentateuch, and as the Five Books of Moses. Traditionally they were said to have been written by Moses himself and include creation accounts, folk tales, ancestry listings, place name etymologies and many, many laws and codes of behaviour. It is clear to anyone who reads the books that they cannot have been written by Moses himself. Deuteronomy 34 includes some accounts of Moses’ death and includes phrases like “And no man knows his burial place to this day” and “And a prophet did not rise again in Israel like Moses”. So either Moses was ghost writing much later, or he was writing about his upcoming death. Neither of these makes as much sense as the idea that some other author was writing these lines. But who was this author?

This question was asked in the nineteenth century and from careful study of the text a theory grew up which is now called the Documentary Hypothesis. The basic idea is that the Torah we have today (and indeed have had for over two thousand years, it hasn’t changed much since the earliest versions we have) is composed of various documents that were spliced together by editors (redactors). These source documents could be isolated within the text by following clues within the text. Much of the bible seems contradictory, but this is only because it is, in fact, contradictory. By looking through the text it was possible to see that these contradictions went hand in hand with each other, and that if the text is peeled apart and broken into different strata, each layer of text works as a coherent whole.

The four main documents that make up the Torah are designated J, P, E and D (There is also JRE, Dtr1, Dtr2 and R, but we can leave those aside for now). In the J stories, God is always called Yahweh (Jahwe in German , hence J source). Yahweh is anthropomorphic, will chat to humans and is full of mercy. In the E stories God is called El, or Elohim, until his name is revealed to be Yahweh to Moses. In the P stories (the priestly source), much is made of the Aaronite priesthood. God is depicted as being Just rather than merciful. The only way to get into God’s good graces in the P stories is by bringing sacrifices to the priests. The D stories take up most of Deuteronomy and are mainly law codes with a framing story about Moses.

There are various clues within the text which show which of the source documents any particular part of the Torah came from. What is amazing to see is how much of the inconsistency disappears when each of these sources is read on its own. The time of writing can also be roughly placed. J was writing sometime before the 7th century BCE, as was E. The P and D sources were written later, and all four were before the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE (with later editing making up a small part of these books). By looking carefully and critically at these books, and seeing where the different sources place their emphasis we can get a glimpse of the early disagreements within the Hebrew community. Just as with early Christianity there is a wealth of difference visible in the texts we still have, indicating that the ideas of Judaism were varied and rich and not as narrow as some would have us believe.

Moses didn’t write the first five books of the bible. Nor did any one single person. The Documentary Hypothesis sheds light on the origins of the bible and also saves us from having to posit a schizophrenic as it’s author.