Saturday, November 16, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 23

In this installment an entire chapter is devoted to negotiating the purchase of a burial cave, we meet some Hittites that aren't really Hittites, we discover more problems with a place-name and we see once again how Moses really enjoys repeating himself.

Genesis 23:1-20
Most likely not looking like she was a day over forty, Sarah dies at 127 years old in Hebron and an entire chapter of the Bible is devoted to Abraham’s purchase of a cave where all the Patriarchs and their first wives will be buried (sorry Keturah and Rachel, but you're not in the first wives club). Cue all the expositors offering guesses and trying to explain why the details of this transaction and burial cave are so significant. If the purpose was to show that Abraham had a rightful claim to some land in Palestine, it seems kind of silly given that it’s supposed to be Yahweh’s land anyway. If he wants to give it to Abraham and exterminate the sons of Heth/Hittites, that’s his prerogative, right? Why the need for all the described pomp and circumstance? Like I said, I'm sure someone has offered a guess that goes beyond the obvious political and cultural reasons.

Abe was going to miss his agelessly superfine sister/wife,
for she had made him quite wealthy thanks to her looks

Notice how this chapter interrupts the flow from 22:20-24 to the events of chapter 24. In that previous passage Abraham learned that he had kin that had been born to his brother still living in northern Mesopotamia. This directly connects with what occurs in chapter 24 when he sends his servant to fetch a wife for Isaac. Thrust between the set-up at the end of chapter 22 and the narrative of chapter 24 is this cave negotiation in chapter 23. The whole point of chapter 23 appears to be an expanded version of exactly how "Abraham secured the field and the cave that was in it."

Note how verses 17 & 18 from the expanded cave acquisition narrative are essentially repeated in verse 20.
So Abraham secured Ephron’s field in Machpelah, next to Mamre, including the field, the cave that was in it, and all the trees that were in the field and all around its border, as his property in the presence of the sons of Heth before all who entered the gate of his city. 
Compared to:
So Abraham secured the field and the cave that was in it as possession of a grave from the sons of Heth.
We've already seen that doublets like these often serve as clues that we might be dealing with at least two sets of source material. This does not appear to be a case of the writer stating something and then giving an expanded account of it. Note how verse 20 is a compressed version of the statement made in verses 17 & 18, not an expanded version.

Or, you know, maybe it was just Moses being his usual redundant self again ancient writing styles that you don't understand or chiastic structures or some ad hoc explanation that will smooth over the problems and allow us to entertain the remote possibility that the entire Pentateuch was written by a single author. Whatever the case, it was clearly important to at least one writer to settle beyond doubt that Abraham purchased this piece of property and was not merely granted access to it by the sons of Heth/Hittites.

Of note is that in verse 2 the writer has now informed us that Keriath Arba, the place where Sarah died, is Hebron. This is yet another place-name anachronism (see prior notes on Gen. 13:18). However, here we’re actually told what the place used to be called before it was called Hebron. We are told in Joshua 14:15 that Arba was the name of the greatest man among the giant Nephilim sons of Anak (Num.13:33). Perhaps Arba was the fourth born son because Arba means “four” or “fourth”. However, a chapter later in Joshua15:13 we’re told that Arba was actually the father of Anak. Was Anak descended from Arba or did Arba come from Anak? I know. Arba was named after his grandfather...or something. Yeah, that's the ticket.

The real reason may lie in the meaning of the name itself. Keriath Arba literally means “the city of the four.” 1 Chronicles 23:19 recounts that Hebron, the grandson of Levi had four sons: Jeriah the chief, Amariah the second, Jahaziel the third and Jekameam the fourth. Recall that Hebron was a city of refuge appointed to the Levites from this tribe (Joshua 21:13). So perhaps it was supposed that “the city of four” was a reference to these four sons of Hebron the Levite. This idea would certainly favor someone from the priestly class of Levites.

Ah, but wait! Hebron was also the name of the grandson of Caleb (1 Chron. 2:42), and you’ll recall that Caleb and his descendants from the tribe of Judah were granted this city by way of conquest (Joshua 15:13). And guess what? It turns out that this guy named Hebron also had four sons (1 Chron. 2:43). So perhaps it was supposed that “the city of the four” was named after the four sons of Hebron the Judahite. This would be something that would favor the ruling class.

There’s even another possibility. Abraham is speaking to the sons of Heth in this passage, although many translations refer to them as the Hittites. One of these sons is Ephron and that’s who owns the cave. Did Heth have four sons according to at least one tradition? We learn later that Esau takes wives from Beeri and Elon, two other sons of Heth (Gen. 26:34). A fourth is not named, but is it implied? Does one writer have in mind that “the city of the four” refers to the four sons of Heth the Canaanite?

Finally, there is yet another explanation for how this plot of geography came to acquire this name, Keriath Arba, the city of the four. Quite simply, the city sits on four hills. That's an explanation that may pre-date all the others and, quite frankly, seems to be the most likely candidate for the origin, given that it doesn't rely on story-telling or serve anyone's political agenda like nearly all of the other ones.

Through all of this one really gets the sense that there are competing traditions, perhaps between the priestly class who wants the name associated with a Levite, the royal class who wants the name associated with the tribe of Judah and some other tradition seeking to link the city to the Patriarch Abraham and establish a legitimate claim upon the land during that period. Hebron or Keriath Arba or whatever you want to call it seems to be a battleground for these various traditions within the text itself. In any case, the usage of the names Hebron and Keriath Arba in this passage both create anachronistic problems for the traditional idea of Mosaic authorship as previously noted, because both of them have etiologies linked to them that would have emerged after Moses was long dead.

Another problem is what to do with the sons of Heth or Hittites mentioned in this passage. The reader will note that several modern English Bible translations have veered away from the traditional reference to "Hittites" found first in the Geneva Bible and later retained in the KJV. There's a reason for that. Basically, the Hittites mentioned here could not be the same ones who had a vast empire extending from Asia Minor. The ad hoc solution that apologists have come up with to rescue the text is a semantic one that attempts to differentiate between these Hittites and the ones mentioned in other passages of the Bible that could refer to the historic Hittites. This solution, of course, relegates the Hittites mentioned here in this passage of Genesis (along with 41 other places in the Bible) to historical obscurity, leaving only 6 possible Biblical references to the Hittite empire that correspond to the historical and archaeological record.
The 12 Hittite gods of the underworld

What's amusing about this is that when the Hittite empire was discovered by archaeologists, it was and still is hailed as a vindication of the Bible's historical accuracy. Supposedly those  nasty skeptics had pointed out that in spite of the 48 mentions that Hittites have in the Biblical record, there was no corroborating evidence for their existence. I couldn't find too many critical scoffers who derisively mentioned it and apologists who refer to "many people" don't cite any specific sources. I did find examples of early 19th century historians who expressed doubt in the historicity of the Bible's reference to Hittites, citing absence of evidence for a Hittite civilization as portrayed in the Bible as being both vast and highly influential in Israel and Judah's history all the way from the time of the Patriarchs to the time of Ezra. This was hardly the cornerstone of any serious skeptical criticism of the Bible's historicity. Additionally, the discovery of an actual Hittite empire doesn't really vindicate the Bible any more than the discovery of the city of Troy vindicates the historicity of Homer's epics.

See, it turns out these scholars were basically correct, or at least over 87% correct. Note that apologists are faced with and have largely owned up to the fact that 42 of the 48 times the Bible mentions Hittites, it is not talking about the historical Hittites of Asia Minor, but rather some other group of people unknown to the historical record outside of the Bible and usually grouped along with other indigenous Canaanite tribes, and not invaders from Anatolia. That's why so many contemporary translations have gotten away from using the term "Hittite." The core criticism from these early 18th century scholars still stands.

What we have here is an example of some archaeological confirmation bias that seems to regularly occur with Christians. They want to focus on the fact that an archaeological finding has "vindicated" the Biblical account while ignoring that the finding often presents more problems than it solves. I just heard of one the other day that someone was using as evidence that the Biblical account of the Great Flood was true, all the while ignoring the details of the article that described an event that was nothing at all like what is described in the Bible. It doesn't help that many people just read the sensationalist headlines that confirm their beliefs and don't bother to examine things more closely.

Another example would be the Cylinders of Nabonidus. For years there was no support for the existence of any Babylonian ruler named Belshazzar as portrayed in the book of Daniel. Xenophon, Herodotus, Berossus and Ptolemy all provide source material for the fall of Babylon to the Persian Empire led by Cyrus (not Darius the Mede) and yet oddly none of those sources mentioned Belshazzar. When the Cylinders of Nabonidus were discovered they made mention of a prince named Belshazzar who had been granted a temporary regency at some point. "Ah ha!" all the conservative Bible scholars cried. "See, the historicity of the book of Daniel has been vindicated!"

Yeah, not so much. While the cylinder did make mention of a Belshazzar, it also made clear that this guy was a son of Nabonidus, not Nebuchadnezzar. It also places him as a temporary regent and not a king. Furthermore Nabonidus was a usurper and not even a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar. As expected, there are more ad hoc solutions that apologists will offer to try to rescue the text from this archaeological find, but this is a far cry from "vindicating" the Bible's historicity as it only creates more problems. But let's not focus on that. Let's call it a victory over those nasty skeptics. Score one for the good guys and ignore all those pesky additional problems. If it's a piece of evidence that doesn't agree with the Bible, it must be wrong. If it agrees with the Bible, let's hold it aloft as a shining example of how well-evidenced the Bible's claims are. Does anyone else see a problem here?

But back to our biblical Hittites. If any skeptic suggested the absence of evidence for this other group of Hittites "proved that the Bible is full of incorrect material," as these apologists claim, that skeptic would be unnecessarily hanging her hat on a rather obscure argument from silence. The Exodus from Egypt makes a far better candidate for an argument from silence and there are more than enough other examples of historical claims the Bible makes which are directly contradicted both by itself and by archaeological evidence to sufficiently demonstrate its inaccuracy in several places.

All it takes to see this is a willingness to look where the evidence points while setting aside an unhesitating creedal allegiance to the notion that the Bible is inerrant in its recounting of historical events. Sadly, many appear incapable of doing this and instead remain mired in an irrational, unwavering commitment to something that is demonstrably false. Of course, most have just never bothered to look into it at all. According to Barna's numbers, nearly 59% of Americans claim to believe the Bible is inspired and inerrant (whatever that means). In spite of this, nearly two-thirds of those same people admit they don't read it. It seems it's hard enough to get Christians to actually read the Bible, much less think critically about it.

1 comment:

  1. I love your analysis of the Bible, history, and the many contradictions within. You're doing a fantastic job and I eagerly await your installments! Thanks for pointing out the BS.