Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Shanghai

Turn of the century Shanghai was a hotbed of imperialist engagement, capitalism, revolutionary politics, crime, and intellectualism. Therefore, it is no coincidence that it was in Shanghai that the 1905 anti-American boycott was conceived, and that it was in Shanghai that a work of American literature gave Chinese intellectuals a new vernacular.

The United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This Act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years, and required every Chinese person traveling in or out of the country to carry an ID. In 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, making re-entry into the United States after a visit to China impossible, even for long term US residents. In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, extending exclusion for another ten years, and in 1902, Congress extended Exclusion Act indefinitely while expanding it to cover both Hawaii and the Philippines in addition to the mainland US.

This Act, combined with the humiliating treatment Chinese immigrants and laborers received once on American soil, were met with widespread anger in China. On May 10 1905, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott of American goods. They sent telegrams to merchant guilds across China urging them to take part. The boycott officially began on July 10, 1905. It received an enthusiastic response as Chinese merchants ceased to order or sell American goods.

The boycott was not merely a creature of the merchant class. People of all levels of Chinese society partook. Students, writers, artists and intellectuals turned to literature to illustrate and find new ways to understand the suffering of Chinese in the United States.

In 1901, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into Chinese and titled “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.” By 1905, “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” was so popular in Shanghai that it existed in multiple reprints, was included in numerous anthologies of fiction, was frequently referenced in other works, was adapted into an opera, and performed by traveling theater groups.

The story gave Shanghai-based Chinese intellectuals a language to use to understand and discuss American imperialism, race-based oppression, and European imperialism. Through the plight of the characters in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens,” they saw the struggle of their countrymen and women. Through the treatment the characters received as a result of their skin color, they saw their own treatment under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Historian Meng Yue refers to this as “compassionate association.” This association, however, was part of a larger pattern. Chinese intellectuals looked to the experience of Indians under the British Raj, the diasporic Jews, the Poles under Russian rule, and the Cubans under American rule to understand the experience of their own overseas. The boycott lost momentum by September 1905 as the Chinese government feared that it would turn into an anti-government, rather than an anti-American, movement, and it was over by the early months of 1906. However, as the boycott died, the language of compassionate association only grew stronger.

“Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” traveled from Shanghai to Japan, where an amateur Chinese theater group performed an adaptation of the story in Tokyo in 1907. Not only was the performance praised by Japanese journalists, writers, and critics, but it was quite possibly the vehicle through which Japan first encountered the story of American blacks. It was through these performances that the language of compassionate association first nurtured by intellectuals in Shanghai traveled outside of China.

It is interesting to note that Japan declared an imperial protectorate over Korea in the same year as the Chinese anti-American boycott, and officially annexed the peninsula five years later. I can’t help but wonder what those Tokyo based writers and critics thought of this imperialist aggression in light of the new language the Shanghai actors introduced to them in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.”

Ban Zhao: Women’s Education Advocate, Historian, Educator, and Librarian

Confucian thought, in its most simplistic form, holds that the balance of the universe rests upon the upholding of relationships—the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, parents and children, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mother and daughter in-laws, and reverence of elders and the deceased. Each relationship has a dominant and a subservient half, and if one half begins to act outside of their role, then the order of the universe is disrupted, plunging the world into chaos. Within these roles, wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law functioned as the subservient halves.

This said women, were able to achieve great status and power even within their assigned roles. Ban Zhao (45-116 CE) is one of these women. She is the first known female Chinese historian, and was an influential advocate for the education of women and girls.

Born to Ban Biao, a successful official and respected intellectual, she married Cao Shishu at the age of fourteen. Though her husband died when she was very young, she was known at court as Venerable Madame Cao. She never remarried, devoting herself instead to a life of scholarship.

Her father died in 54 CE, leaving his life’s work, a history of the Western Han dynasty, unfinished. Ban Zhao’s older brother Ban Gu took over the project, but he too left it unfinished when he died in prison in 92 CE. The emperor then called on Ban Zhao to complete the work.

She not only completed it with distinction, but began to teach the palace women—one of whom was Empress Deng Sui—subjects such as the classics, history, astronomy, and mathematics. When Deng Sui became the regent of the empire in 106 CE, she often turned to Ban Zhao for advice on government policy.

Her experiences teaching the court ladies inspired Ban Zhao to begin her advocacy for female education and to write arguably her most influential work: Admonitions for Women. In this work, she objects to the fact that families teach their sons to read while neglecting the education of their daughters, while urging women to be submissive to her husband and male relatives. She emphasizes what she perceives to be the inherent differences between the natures of men and women, and advises her readers that nothing is more worthy than obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice, especially in marriage.

Her advocacy for female education, then, came from the view that an educated woman could serve her husband—and thus the realm, if we keep her Confucian socialization in mind—more effectively than an uneducated woman would be able to. Admonitions became one of the most commonly used texts in the education of girls, and remained popular for centuries as a guide for women’s conduct.

In addition to teaching, history writing, and educational advocacy, Ban Zhao also worked as a librarian at court. As such she supervised a staff of assistants, and trained younger scholars; she rearranged and edited Liu Hsiang’s Biographies of Eminent Women in the course of her library work. She maintained a lifelong interest in math and astronomy, and was also known for her varied writings.

Upon her death Empress Dowager Deng Sui dressed all in white to mourn her passing.

Enheduanna: the First Author

In the Ancient Near East, religious appointments were political appointments. Thus, as the High Priestess of the Moon God Nanna, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) was a very powerful political player in the cities of Ur and Uruk. She was appointed to the post by her father, King Sargon of Akkad, in order for him to consolidate his power in the above two cities.

And indeed, Enheduanna was a political, cultural, and literary force to be reckoned with. She was the writer of protest literature, and is recognized by Assyriologists as the creator of the theology associated with Innana; in fact, her authorship of these compositions make her the first identifiable author in world literature. Her writings were so well loved that copies of her work have been found throughout the Near East, many of them dating to hundreds of years after her death.

Me who once sat triumphant, he has driven out of the sanctuary.
Like a swallow he made me fly from the window,
My life is consumed.
He stripped me of the crown appropriate for the high priesthood.
He gave me dagger and sword—‘it becomes you,’ he said to me.

It was in your service that I first entered the holy temple,
I, Enheduanna, the highest priestess. I carried the ritual basket,
I chanted your praise.
Now I have been cast out to the place of lepers.
Day comes and the brightness is hidden around me.
Shadows cover the light, drape it in sandstorms.
My beautiful mouth knows only confusion.
Even my sex is dust.

-Enheduanna, after her first removal from her post

After her father’s death, the throne of Akkad was taken by her brother Rimush. He was not a strong ruler, and she was expelled from her position in the turmoil surrounding his rule. Though she was eventually reinstated as High Priestess, the experience affected her enough to compose the narrative The Exaltation of Inanna.

After Rimush came the rule of her nephew, Naram-Sin. Naram-Sin, understanding the political advantages of having a daughter installed as High Priestess of Nanna, expelled Enheduanna from her post, and installed his own daughter instead. In her anger and fury over her expulsion, Enheduanna composed the Curse of Akkad, in which Naram-Sin is cursed and cast out of Akkad by Enlil.

Though we can only hear her voice through her writings, those writings give us a clear idea of the woman she was: a woman who, after losing her place in life, refused to fall quietly into obscurity, and instead struck back with a damning literary response.

Assurbanipal(King of the Universe, king of Assyria)’s Library

The other day I was walking into my apartment with a friend, excited to introduce her to the masterpiece that is Summer Heights High, when all of the sudden a name popped into my head: Assurbanipal. And I was like “Why is an Assyrian-sounding name popping into my head?” It was clearly a sign.

Assurbanipal (685 BCE– 627 BCE) was the last great emperor of the neo-Assyrian Empire. Despite his popularity amongst his own people, he was known for the brutality he showed to his enemies; he once put a dog chain through the jaw of a defeated king and forced him to live out the rest of his life in a dog kennel, and he celebrated his conquest of Elam by displaying the head of the defeated king Teumann in the port of Nineveh. However, this is not a post about Assurbanipal’s military activities and regional hegemony; this is a post about something way more awesome: his library.

Assurbanipal was a highly literate collector of texts and tablets. Though Assyrian rulers before him had begun to build a library, he was responsible for the most active and aggressive collecting; in the year 648 BCE alone he accessioned more than 2000 tablets into his collection. He sent scribes into every corner of the empire to collect texts from temples and vassal states, and he used his violent reputation to acquire texts from unwilling donors.

He collected all kinds of texts, including royal inscriptions, mythological/religious texts, legal documents, medical documents, administrative documents, grants, decrees, incantations, and so forth. Included in the library were such texts as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, the story of Adapa, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Descent of Ishtar. He also collected textual commentaries.

He was not merely a collector, but he devised a standard format and script for all of the texts within his collection. Though he had the originals of the majority of the texts he collected, he had his scribes re-copy each text using a standardized cuneiform script and layout with each text ending with an identification stating that the text belonged to the “palace of Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria.” The scribes doubled as translators when the originals were written in languages, such as Sumerian, which had died out of usage.

Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Scythians, and the Medes in 612 BCE. They burned the palace, and instead of destroying everything as they had intended, the heat from the fire baked the clay tablets on which the majority of the texts in Assurbanipal’s library were recorded, ensuring their preservation.

According to Persian and Armenian tradition, it was Assurbanipal’s library which inspired Alexander the Great to create his own library. Though he died before he could put his plans into motion, his friend and successor Ptolemy I began work on it, and that project grew into the great Library of Alexandria. Of course, this is arguable as Alexander was active after the destruction of Nineveh, but it is possible that the memory of the library was still active in the region, or that it Alexander had access to the ruins.

Either way—and sadly unlike the Library of Alexandria—Assurbanipal’s library remained intact within the ruins of Nineveh until it was discovered at the site of Kouyunjik (located in modern Iraq) first in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard, and then in 1852 by Hormuzd Rassam (Layard’s assistant).

Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations in the Ancient Near East were conducted by wealthy young “adventurers” who were searching for Biblical sites. They tended to treat archaeological sites like their own private playgrounds, and remove artifacts as they saw fit with no record of layers, excavation order, or immediate provenance. Upon their arrival in Europe, the tablets taken from the Kouyunjik site were so thoroughly mixed up that is has proved nearly impossible to reconstruct the original order.

The majority of these texts are held in the collections of the British Museum. Information regarding ongoing work with this collection by the museum in cooperation with the University of Mosul in Iraq may be found here: The Ashurbanipal Library Project.

Anna Comnena: Historian, and Chronicler of the First Crusade

“Whenever one assumes the role of historian, friendship and enmities have to be forgotten.”

Anna Komnene/Comnena (1083-1153) was a brilliant scholar. Her writing remains the most important source of information we have about the twelfth century Byzantine Empire and the First Crusade.

She was born in 1083 to Emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina. When she was born it was assumed that she would inherit the throne, and she was given access to an amazing education in order to prepare her for this. She was trained in history, math, the sciences, and philosophy; she had been forbidden from studying ancient poetry, as her parents objected to their often sexual themes, but she studied it in secret with a court eunuch. As a result, Anna was one of the most brilliant and educated women of her time.

Because she was presumed to be the heir at the time of her birth, she was betrothed in her infancy to Constantine Doukas, the son of Emperor Michael VII—because the Komnene family had obtained the Byzantine throne under decidedly questionable circumstances, it is likely that this betrothal served to legitimize the family’s rule.

However, in 1087 a son named John was born to Alexios and Irene, and Alexios favored John for the throne over Anna. Soon afterwards, Constantine died, and Anna was instead married to a nobleman with claims to the throne called Nikephoros Byrennios at the age of 14. Byrennios was a respected politician and historian. The marriage lasted until Byrennios’ death 40 years later, and produced four children.

John’s birth and status was a major source of conflict between Anna’s parents; Irene supported Anna’s claim to the throne while Alexios supported John’s. When Alexios fell ill in 1112, it seems as though things were going to work out in Anna’s favor. Irene was put in charge of the government, and she put Byrennios in charge of administrative duties. It is probable that she put him in charge in order to pave the way for Anna’s assumption of power.

However, John decided to take matters concerning the throne into his own hands. The story goes that one day John visited his sick father. While embracing him, John removed the emperor’s ring from his father’s finger, and when Alexios died in 1118, John used the ring to back his bid for the throne. It worked, and John was crowned emperor in the same year as his father’s death.

As John was crowned and proclaimed the new emperor, Anna felt that she had been cheated out of the throne. She took part in several plots which aimed to murder or overthrow him, however, those plots came to nothing and she was forced into exile along with her mother.

Byrennios died in 1137. After his death Anna entered and spent the rest of her life in a convent founded by her mother. She was 55 at the time of her entrance.

Anna was not alone in the convent; she surrounded herself with some of the most brilliant minds of the time and was praised by many, including the Bishop of Ephesus, for her brilliance. Despite this, her writings show that she experienced loneliness and isolation, saying that, though she was hidden from view at the convent, many hated her, and that she in turn hated the isolated status that had been forced upon her.

It was in the isolation of the convent that Anna began her life’s work. Byrennios had begun to write a series of essays called Materials for a History–which focused on the reign of Alexios I. Before his death, and Anna picked up the writing where he left off. Eventually this chronicle of the reign of Alexios I and the history of the Comneni family grew into the 15 volume work we know today as The Alexiad.

Anna, understanding the importance of objectivity to the writing of history, attempted to remain objective in her writings on her father and mother. However, despite her best attempts, because of her fondness for her parents, and because many of the events she spoke of in the work occurred in her youth, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the The Alexiad is equal parts journalism, memoir, and history.

All of that aside, her account of the First Crusade in The Alexiad is the only Hellenic eyewitness account of that event available. And truly, her point of view is indispensable to our understanding of the First Crusade, and to our understanding of medieval Europe. In addition to its status as an invaluable historical resource, The Alexiad also gives us an extraordinary insight into the experience of elite women in the twelfth century Byzantine Empire.

Enuma Elish: the Babylonian Epic of Creation

Enuma Elish is a straight-up cosmology, or creation story. It is also known as the Babylonian Epic of Creation, the Babylonian Genesis, and the Seven Tablets of Creation. It was composed in the early second millennium BCE, either under the rule of Sumula-el (reigned 1936 -1901 BCE), or of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE).

It opens with the line, “When skies above were not yet named nor earth below pronounced by name, Apsu, the first one, their begetter and maker Tiamat, who bore them all and mixed their waters together, but had not formed pastures, nor discovered reed-beds.” First there is nothing, but then land and sea are created by Apsu and Tiamat.

This initial creation is directly followed by the breakout of war amongst the gods; the outbreak of divine warfare on the outset of creation is highly prevalent within the corpus of Near Eastern cosmologies. The battle eventually comes down to a showdown between Tiamat and Marduk, the king of the gods and patron of Babylon.

This divine warfare is absent from Genesis 1, and for good reason as the Hebrew Bible was trying to at least keep up a pretense of monotheism. However, hints of this warfare are scattered throughout other sections of the Hebrew Bible. For example, Psalms 74:13-14 reads “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.”

Cylinder seal depicting the battle with Tiamat

Marduk wins the battle with Tiamat—who would take a serpentine form in myth and artistic depiction—and from her corpse, or “her waters,” he creates the land and the earth and the sky. The Psalms passage and the pertinent segment of Enuma Elish are hardly identical, but they both refer to the killing of a serpentine monster, and the splitting of waters in relations to that killing. I don’t think that it is a coincidence.

Another interesting parallel can be found in the original Hebrew. In both Enuma Elish and Genesis 1, the fact that a primeval watery chaos existed before all else is emphasized. In Enuma Elish, this watery chaos is personified, or perhaps deified, in Tiamat. In Genesis 1, that chaos is described with the word te-hom. The clear relation between the name “Tiamat” and the word te-hom, the influence of Babylonian language and culture on the rest of the ancient Near East, and the fact that they both refer to the same pre-creation chaos indicates a connection between these two stories which extends far beyond parallel content and narrative structure.

As for the rest of the Epic and its parallel content, Marduk creates land, then sea, then sky, then heavens, day, night, the sun and the moon, agriculture, and finally, man (who, like Atrahasis) was created from the blood of a god. In Genesis 1, God creates first water, and then the sky and heaven and days and nights, and then land, sea, agriculture, the sun, the moon, life, and finally, man. Creation in Enuma Elish spans over seven tablets, while the creation in Genesis spans over seven days.

You can find a full translation of Enuma Elish here. A link to the next tablet can be found at the bottom of the page.

Adam and Atrahasis

Adam’s divine origins, like those of Eve, are hinted at in his name; where the name “Eve” indicates divinity and life giving, the name “Adam” is derived from the word adama, or “from the ground.”

There is an 18th century BCE Babylonian epic you may have heard of called the Epic of Atrahasis. It begins with creation, and ends with a flood. In the beginning, Enlil, the head god in charge, makes all the other, lesser gods do intensely laborious agricultural work for thousands of years. Eventually they get sick of it and form a lynch mob to take out Enlil. However, Ea (Enki’s Babylonian counterpart) intervenes and suggests that they create humans to do the chores instead.

To create the humans, the gods decide to slaughter a god and mix the flesh and blood of that god together with clay from the ground. Ea enlists the help of the womb-goddess Belet-ili (another name of Ninhursag; she has many) in this procedure. It is proclaimed that “a god and man will be mixed together in clay…let a ghost come into existence from the god‘s flesh, and let her (Belet-ili) proclaim it as his sign.” All went according to plan, and man was created and the gods no longer had to do their chores.

So, Ea and Belet-ili create the first man from the blood of a god and clay from the ground in order for the man to tend to the earth. Genesis 2:5-7 reads “No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up…and there was not a man to till the ground…Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Both Adam and Atrahasis are created through the union of god and earth for the purpose of carrying out agricultural labor.

I will address the fact that Genesis 1-3 contains two distinct accounts of Creation in a later post.

Enki, Ninhursag, and Eve

I wrote my undergrad thesis in part about the historical context of Genesis 1-3, and part of that included examining the parallels between those chapters of Genesis and much earlier Near Eastern stories.

There is a Sumerian paradise myth known as Enki and Ninhursag; Enki is the Sumerian water god, Ninhursag is the Lady of Life, and it takes place in the paradise of Dilmun. The main action begins when Enki impregnates Ninhursag. Ninhursag has a daughter called Nimmu, who Enki then impregnates, who has a daughter called Ninkurra, who Enki impregnates, who has a daughter called Uttu.

At this point, Ninhursag realizes what Enki is doing, and tells Uttu what Enki is up to and tells Uttu to blow him off unless he offers her a gift of cucumbers, apples, and grapes. Of course, Enki finds out about this, brings Uttu the fruit, and sleeps with her. Ninhursag then gets super-pissed off, takes Enki’s semen from Uttu’s womb before she can conceive, and uses it to grow eight plants which she forbids Enki to eat.

Enki, being Enki, decides to eat the plants (grown from the semen with which he impregnated his great-granddaughter), causing Ninhursag to pretty much lose her shit at him. She curses him, saying that, “Until his dying day, I will never look upon him with life-giving eye,” and promptly disappears.

Enki starts to die which upsets the other gods, so they send a messenger to find Ninhursag and convince her to restore Enki to life; she returns in time to save him. To heal him, she orders him to lie with his head against her vulva, and tells him to name each body part which is causing him pain. For each part he names, she causes a deity to be born in order to heal it. The second to last part named by Enki is his rib, or ti in the original Sumerian. To heal his rib Ninhursag creates the goddess Ninti, or Lady of the Rib. When Ninhursag is finished, Enki is cured.

The original cuneiform tablet on which this story was found.

Though the plot of this story is very different from that of the story found in the first three chapters of Genesis, I am sure there are parts of it which made you go OH. ORLY. I

There are quite a few significant parallels between this story, and the one found on Genesis. The first is that both stories involve a woman created by or for the rib of a man. Genesis 2:21-23 reads “And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man…He took one of his ribs…And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made He a woman…And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’” In the Enki and Ninhursag story, the pertinent passage reads “‘My brother, what part of you hurts you?’ ‘My ribs (ti) hurt me.’ She gave birth to Ninti out of it.” In Genesis a woman is created from the rib of Man for Man by God; in Enki and Ninhursag, a female deity is created by another female deity to save the life of a male deity via his rib.

However, what really connects the two stories in question is Ninhursag’s alternate title (she has many) of Nintu, or Lady of Life. Genesis 3:20 reads “And the man called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.” The name Eve, hawwa, is derived from the roots hwy and hyy, both of which were used in northwestern Semitic languages as roots for words pertaining to life. Said roots may be found in the Amorite, Ugaritic, Phoenician-Punic, and Hebrew languages. This signals that the name of Eve is symbolic to her status as a life giver.

With the parallels from the Enki and Ninhursag story and the linguistic evidence in mind, it appears that Eve is the successor of many Sumerian goddesses who functioned as givers of life. This is especially interesting because the rib section of Genesis has been used for millennia as a theological defense for treating women as property.

If you want to read a translation of this story, you may do so here.

The Historicity of Exodus and Joshua

January 11, 2019: This post needs some serious tightening, updates, and transitions.

As some of you may know, Passover begins soon. So, I wrote up a huge-ass post about the historical and archaeological issues surrounding the books of Exodus and Joshua because I’m that kind of dick at the seder (jk only to my mom on the way home when i’m wine drunk). But I digress.

This is an excerpt from the story of the late 23rd, early 22nd BCE ruler, Sargon the Akkad (also known as Sargon the Great):

My mother gave birth to me in secret at Asupiranu, the city of Saffron. She hid me in a basket woven from rushes and sealed with tar. My mother abandoned me on the bank of the Euphrates, the Euphrates carried my basket away. Akki, the royal gardener, lifted me out of the water; Akki reared me as his own. Akki trained me to care for the gardens of the Great King. Ishtar, my divine patron, cared for me. Then I became a Great King. I ruled the Sumerian peoples for fifty-five years.

Sargon was one of the greatest rulers of the Akkadian people, and it has been theorized that this story was written as a justification for his rule.

The similarities between Sargon’s story and the story in Exodus 2:1-2:10 are pretty glaring, so glaring, in fact, that it would be correct to assume they are not a coincidence,  but a result of literary use of common Ancient Near Eastern literary conventions.

Anyway, Moses is in the basket, Pharaoh’s daughter finds him, etc. The rest of Exodus tells the story of the enslavement of the Israelites, and of their eventual escape. Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy tell of their wanderings in the desert, Joshua details their return to the Promised Land, and Judges tells of the beginning years of their society.

Joshua is an odd book. It reads like the dramatic conclusion to the cosmology begun in Genesis,complete with a glorious return, and a successful military campaign. But that’s not the odd part. What’s odd is that it lowkey tells the same story as Judges. They both purport to document the beginning of Israelite civilization in Canaan. In Joshua, it describes them finally returning from their long wanderings in the desert and promptly destroying all the Canaanite cities and everyone in them before starting their civilization.

Judges, however, describes a loose, tribal society developing in the central hill country of Canaan. It describes that society engaging in warfare with surrounding Canaanite groups, and sometimes with each other. On multiple occasions, the Canaanite peoples at war with the Israelites are the same ones identified as having been destroyed in Joshua.

In addition, the archaeological evidence doesn’t quite add up. Though archaeologists have found Iron Age destruction levels at some of the sites identified in Joshua, most of the sites identified in that book show no signs of having been destroyed at that time (~13th century BCE). Many of those cities have much later destruction levels, or show clear signs of having been re-built soon after the destruction.

So what actually maybe might have happened? If Exodus is a story, and Joshua grandiose fiction, then where did the Ancient Israelites come from?

The answer is that they came from within Canaanite society. Nothing grand, nothing fancy; they were merely a loosely connected group of tribes that broke away from the rest of Canaanite society around 1200 BCE and began their own culture in the central Judean hill country.

The beginnings of this society are documented in the Book of Judges. If you read Judges, what you’ll see is a patchwork of stories relating to a variety of tribal rulers and their deeds. Some, like Sampson, are likely folkloric figures who were shoehorned into the Judges framework because their stories were considered important, or too popular to exclude. Some only have one line dedicated to them, indicating that they probably existed, but weren’t important enough to have anything else said about them other than that they killed someone with an oxgoad. Some, like Deborah have multiple versions of their story included in two separate literary forms.

Judges is written in such a way as make the reader believe that the stories of twelve consecutive leaders are being told, when in reality, it tells of the overlapping rules of tribal leaders and of their conflicts with surrounding Canaanite factions, and with each other.

There is no archaeological evidence that says “Yael was a bamf and staked Sisera through the head on this spot.” There is no archaeological evidence of Abimelech’s brief kingship, or of Samuel’s proto-Marxist anti-monarchic diatribe (technically Samuel was not in the book of Judges, but he was still regarded as a Judge).

What there is, however, is archaeological evidence of a new society formed in the central hill country around 1200 BCE. Without any knowledge of the Hebrew Bible or of the Israelites, archaeologists could look at sites and definitively conclude that a new culture, a new kind of society, was developing in that area at that time.

The location of those sites matches many of the locations named in Judges, and the dating of those sites matches the general time-frame which generations of Biblical scholars–both religious and secular–have set and agreed upon for Judges.

I can assume that eventually, as the years went on and as the Davidic dynasty consolidated its power, the other Canaanite groups became consolidated into Israelite culture. And then, when Israel fell and Josiah was making his reforms, the priesthood decided to connect their cosmology to their history.

The Documentary Hypothesis

The Hebrew Bible and the historical issues surrounding it is one of my major areas of study/geeking. Frankly, I am surprised that I have gone this long without talking about it in here.

The Documentary Hypothesis was founded in the nineteenth century by Julius Wellhausen. It is also known as Biblical Source Theory. This theory states that there are four main sources making up the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, ISamuel, IISamuel, IKings, and IIKings.

The four sources are as follows:

J = Yahwistic

E = Elohist

P = Priestly

D = Deuteronomistic

The J source originated in the southern kingdom of Judah. It is called J, or Yahwistic, because the J texts use “Yahweh,” or the Hebrew letters “yod hay vav hay” to refer to god. The E source originated in the northern kingdom of Israel and is called E, or Elohist because those texts referred to god as either El–the chief god of the Phoenician pantheon and the father of Ba’al–or Elohim, meaning “gods.” The implications of this will be discussed in a separate post.

When the kingdom of Israel was sacked by Assyria in 722 BCE, many of its citizens fled south into Judah, bringing their holy texts, the E source, with them. Because Israel and Judah shared the same general religious beliefs and oral traditions, J and E were easily combined into one text, which I will refer to from this point on as JE.

JE can be found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The Priestly source was written much later than JE as a theological response to said text; P objected theologically to several issues within the JE text, but mainly to the manner in which it depicted human communication and interaction with god. It was likely written in the late eighth century, and it is very possible that P intended his text to function as an alternate Torah. If this is the case, it is rather ironic; P was combined almost seamlessly with JE in the sixth century by an editor known as the Redactor. Like JE, P can be found throughout the books of Genesis through Numbers.

D is responsible for the writing of Deuteronomy through IIKings. The D source was written during the seventh century reign of King Josiah when D was charged with writing a history of the Israelite people up to that point in time. It is very likely that the Deuteronomist was drawing from much earlier historical material in his writing, but those documents are long gone. King Josiah was carrying out many religious and political reforms during his reign, and the politics embedded within the D books of the Bible reflect this.

While I feel safe saying that the books of Genesis through Joshua have no basis in historical fact, Judges through IIKings contain varying amounts of legitimate history. A good deal of the material in Judges-IIKings has been corroborated by archaeological finds, and by texts left behind by contemporary polities. There is a lot of debate about this within the scholarly community, but I attribute this more to the fact that historians, archaeologists, literary critics, and linguists have trouble working cooperatively and embracing interdisciplinary scholarship than to any other reason.

IIKings ends with the 586 BCE Babylonian conquest of Judah. A second source known as D2 wrote the last chapters of IIKings, which give the history of Judah through the death of Josiah to the fall of Judah.