Monday, December 5, 2011

Abrahamica: Chapter Three


This chapter addresses issues raised by the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. By and large, the chapter does not deal with the history of later Judaism, the subject of Chapter Four.


For some years news has been seeping out about the iconoclastic work of the minimalist scholars concerning the historicity of the Hebrew Bible. While the term “minimalist” was not chosen by these researchers, it has taken hold as a convenient way of designating their approach. Boldly, these scholars question the reality of several key elements, including the Exodus story, the Patriarchs, and the so-called United Kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon. Some doubt that the last three persons ever existed.

The new view offers the following insights. From at least as early as the first half of the fourteenth century BCE, Palestine’s central highlands were home to the Apiru, a marginal group made up of runaway serfs and others from the small city-states in the plains and valleys of Palestine. In these redoubts they lived as outlaw bands of freebooters. As new settlements appeared in the highlands over a century later, at the start of the Iron Age, they embodied new political structures emerging among those same groups. These Iron I settlements attest a return by those groups to a settled, agricultural lifestyle, and the start of a retribalization process. Ancient Israel was the end-product of this flight and reconstitution.

Some minimalists hold that the Hebrew Bible as we know it was written as late as the Persian or Hellenistic periods. For example, the Danish scholar Niels Peter Lemche argues that in its present form the Hebrew is a Jewish-Rabbinic amalgam that was put together no earlier than the second century BCE. This conclusion challenges the traditional early chronology, which fixes the culmination of the composition process in the sixth century, when the editors incorporated prior versions or traditions that were even earlier, ostensibly dating from as far back as the tenth century.

What was the origin and purpose of the Hebrew sacred texts? The Bible stories may be compared to, say, Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar.” The play is based in real history, but was not written to provide a complete or authoritative account that history; instead, it is an composite that fuses bits of historical truth with invented or imaginative adjuncts. This comparison suggests that the Bible narrative is more akin to literature rather than to history as the term is usually understood. Yet while literature is designed to achieve an aesthetic purpose, for the most part the Bible has no such intention. Its plot and set of characters serve a theological theme concerning the purported covenant between the people of Israel and their God. It is a kind of spiritual propaganda. In this light, minimalism treats "biblical Israel" as an ideological construction rather than an objective presentation of reality.

Among the leading scholars of the minimalist trend are Philip R. Davies (University of Sheffield), Niels Peter Lemche (University of Copenhagen), Thomas L. Thompson (University of Copenhagen), and Keith W. Whitelam (University of Sheffield).

Somewhat similar are the views of the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein (Tel Aviv University), who is critical of the claims of earlier generations of investigators, with their assertions that excavations confirmed the biblical narratives of settlement, conquest, and empire. He has demoted the Jerusalem of the tenth century--reputedly the time of David and Solomon--to the status of a mere village or tribal center. Still, Finkelstein parts company with the hard-core minimalist chronology that places the composition of the Tanakh in the Persian or Greek period; instead, he argues that much of the Hebrew Bible was indeed written during the period from the seventh through the fifth century BCE.

How did the minimalists reach their conclusions? A revealing example is Thomas L. Thompson’s experience. Having undertaken graduate work at a major German university in the nineteen-sixties when that country was still the main center of Bible scholarship, Thompson was disconcerted to find that his doctoral dissertation had been rejected, even though it was a solid piece of work.

A setback of this type should cause alarm bells to go off. Kept out of a teaching job, for a time Thompson had to make his living as a house painter. German Bible scholars were scarcely fundamentalists, as they came from a school that had dare to question many assumptions cherished by Christian denominations (see Chapter One, above). What was it that Thompson said that was so frightening to the Old Testament establishment? Perhaps they had reason to be scared, as their views were in fact under threat. Today in fact the old guard seems to be fading away, squeezed as it is in the middle between two extremes. What is left are the adepts of inerrancy and Creationism, on the one hand, and the minimalists, on the other.

Thompson’s book The Mythic Past (1991) presents the findings of the new school to a lay audience. The following paragraphs summarize his approach and that of his minimalist colleagues.

The standpoint has roots in the nineteenth century. At the same time as the findings of the Higher Criticism were coming into view, major discoveries were arriving from the Middle East. Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics and the cuneiform documents could at last be read. From this material it developed that there were three major empires—Egypt of the Pharaohs; the Assyrians; and the Hittites. This triad had come to dominate the Middle East during the time to which the Biblical patriarchs were thought to have flourished. After all, the Exodus story purports to tell of the relationship between the children of Israel and one of these empires. Following the occupation of Canaan it seems that the Israelites established a polity of their own, the United Monarch of Saul, David, and Solomon. Covering a large territory--or so we are told--this state could boast of cultural achievements seemingly on a par with the others. Among these accomplishments were Solomon’s imposing Temple and the earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible.

There followed a search for archaeological evidence to flesh out these assumptions. Excavations took place at a number of historic sites; archaeologists worked out stratification sequences; and masses of pottery, amulets, and other items of material culture came to light. While this material is indeed tangible, prior to the seventh century none of it can be directly correlated with the narrative of the Hebrew Bible. As a result, in the areas when its help would have been most useful the discipline of Biblical Archeology has not delivered. In particular, it has failed to turn up evidence for the supposed great state of the United Monarchy. No one has found the archives and monumental inscriptions, the bureaucratic directives, and diplomatic correspondence, that one would expect. Yet these appurtenances were standard equipment, even for such middling states as Mari and Ugarit. So it looks as if the United Monarchy of ancient Israel is a phantom.

The larger context is as follows. In the eyes of scholars, the Hebrew Bible went from being the inspired word of God to mere amalgam of the contributions of a number of differing religious writers. What is it now? Some would still say that Scripture retains fundamental value. To be sure some parts, e.g. the ethical admonitions of the prophets, the poetry of Psalms and the Song of Songs, and the skeptical insights of Job and Ecclesiastes, may have this quality. For the most part, however, the Hebrew Bible is, with all due respect, a chauvinistic compilation designed to advance the interests of a particular people. Call it the Higher Madison Avenue.

Many Christian exegetes, of course, continue to hold that the Old Testament (as they term it) is a teleological construction forecasting the coming of the Messiah, known as Jesus Christ. In reality there is nothing to support this assumption. The Hebrew Bible is a Jewish book--nothing more, nothing less. Of course it has come to mean much to non-Jews, but in like fashion the Buddhist and Confucian writings been influential among those who are not Indian and Chinese. To understand the Israelite writings, we need to acknowledge their national setting. Even so, the Hebrew Bible differs from those Asian texts in that it does not merely arise from an ethnicity, it strives to establish an ethnicity.

The previous paragraphs have offered a preliminary sketch of the work of the minimalist scholars. Their demolition of early Israelite history as narrated in the Hebrew Bible finds increasing acceptance among mainstream scholars—even if the latter do tend to drag their feet on some aspects. Such resistance is to be expected.

Powerful as the work of the minimalists has been, we are not obliged to follow them in every respect. As we have them, the texts may not be in fact as late as the second century BCE. That late dating is probably too radical. It suffices to demonstrate that the texts are appreciably later than has been generally claimed, presenting a mythical fabrication rather than a faithful historical image.

The crucial finding is that the account presented in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible is an ideological artifact, probably assembled after the return from captivity in 539 BCE. That means that the accounts of the exodus, conquest, and settlement presented in the Pentateuch, the Book of Joshua, and the book of Judges are highly unreliable. Moreover, in a thorough review of the evidence, the Egyptologist D.B. Redford has found no evidence at all for the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt (Redford, 1992).

Television is still peddling these Bible fables for a gullible public. Yet in all likelihood these events never happened in the way that we are told. The beginnings of Israelite history lie in what may be termed Greater Canaan, an area most of the protagonists never left.

The results are drastic, for almost of millennium of Biblical history--from ca. 1400 to 539 BCE--has been essentially erased. This period spans the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the so-called Monarchy period. In all likelihood, the First Temple era  .  .  .   wasn’t. Or rather the Second Temple era, after 539, was the First Temple era.

In 1999 the Israeli archaeologist, Ze’ev Herzog observed: “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai. Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people--and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story --now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people's emergence are radically different from what that story tells.” 


The vacuum in our knowledge has fostered a search for other sources of information. This quest has borne fruit through a new study of the Ugaritic evidence recovered at Ras Shamra on the coast of Syria, beginning in 1928.

Unlike the Hebrew Bible texts--known only from later copies in perishable materials--the Ugaritic documents are primary texts preserved just as they were composed in the second millennium BCE. Written on tablets of clay, these documents have come down to us just as they were left, so that there is no need to reconstruct a pedigree or chain of custody for them. To be sure, deciphering the tablets has posed serious challenges, but the task is not beyond human ingenuity.

Spanning a range of genres--from administrative and cultic documents to poetic and mythological narratives--the Ugaritic texts present a vivid picture of West Semitic polytheism, ritual religious observance, and governmental activity. As the language in them is close to Hebrew, specialists read them with some ease, noting the many parallels with their Israelite counterparts, which turn out not to be unique after all. There is one major difference, though, for the Ugaritic texts belong to the second millennium, while the books of the Hebrew Bible, long regarded as primordial, do not.

Another body of material that has been summoned to fill the vacuum consists of nontextual archaeological finds, remnants of cult sites and home shrines. There are also what appear to be images of deities. Unlike William G. Dever and Ziony Zevit, two leading researchers in this era, I am less confident of our ability to sort out the meaning of these finds. For example, Dever and others suggest that the masses of female figurines represent the goddess Asherah—or even the mythical "Great Mother." But why must these little pieces be deities at all? Archaeologists have concluded that many of the similar figurines from prehistoric Europe and Crete are not necessarily deities. They may depict worshipers. Some may even have been dolls for children. Other finds are clearly the equipment of household shrines and cult sites in the "high places." Worship was going on there, but it is rarely clear which particular deities were honored. In short, archaeological data are not mute, as some skeptics claim, but their voices are muffled.

All this material, though, suggests a religious koine, a common set of practices and symbols that prevailed throughout the northeastern Semitic area, embracing Ebla, Ugarit, the Amonites, Moab, and the ancient Israelites. In this context Israelite religion is emerging as a subcategory of a larger whole.

What are we to conclude?

First, the Israelites did not start with an untrammeled monotheism vouchsafed from Sinai under the auspices of Moses. This purportedly pure monotheism was not the later "corrupted" by polytheistic intrusions as various passages in the Hebrew Bible suggest  Allegedly this regression fostered a cascade of deviations--luckily foiled by the timely intervention of inspired prophets and just rulers. Instead, there were centuries of coexistence of a number of deities, Yahweh among them. The victory of the Yahweh-Alone party was only achieved after 539, when such exclusivity helped to restore the fragile unity of a much-troubled people.


The Hebrew Bible contains many names of God or Gods. Today, Orthodox Jews maintain that every name refers to the same God, except those terms which designate the false deities of other religions. Some of the approved names, however, are strikingly similar to the names of gods from the polytheistic religions surrounding ancient Israel.

As noted in the previous section, a major turning point was the uncovering of religious documents in Ugarit (Ras Shamra), an ancient city on the coast of Syria. At the summit of Ugaritic religion stood the chief god, Ilu or El, the "father of mankind," and "the creator of the creation." The Court of El or Ilu was referred to as the 'lhm. The most important of the other great gods were Hadad, the king of Heaven, Athirat or Asherah (familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (Sea, the god of primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction) and Mot (Death). Other gods honored at Ugarit were Dagon (Grain), Tirosch, Horon, Resheph (Healing), the craftsman Kothar-and-Khasis (Skilled and Clever), Shahar (Dawn), and Shalim (Dusk). As this enumeration suggests, Ugaritic texts offer a wealth of material on the religion of the Canaanites and its connections with that of the ancient Israelites. Professor Mark S. Smith of New York University has provided a cogent analysis of this link in several books, including his The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Smith, 2001).

Let us note some obvious parallels. In the Hebrew bible God is often designated as El, recalling the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon. Furthermore, the term Elohim, which is now thought of as merely another name of God, was in Canaanite religion a term for the whole court of El. (The original Hebrew texts not having vowels, Elohim in Hebrew is basically the same as 'lhm.) Some of the other Gods featured in the Ugaritic texts are also mentioned in the Bible, not as synonymous with the Jewish God, but rather as "other gods," which are now (by Orthodox Jews) thought to mean "idols" or false gods. For example, Asherah is mentioned in 2 Kings 18.8: “He removed the high places, and broke the images, and cut down the grove (Asherah), and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for in those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.”

Asherah figured prominently in the Canaanite pantheon, where she ranked as the consort of El, and the mother of his seventy sons. Scholars believe that Asherah was worshiped by many in ancient Israel and Judah; in fact, Jeremiah refers to her as "the Queen of Heaven."  Jeremiah 7.18 reads as follows: “The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead [their] dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.”

Another major Canaanite deity was Ba'al, who is mentioned in the Hebrew bible. Today, Orthodox Jews understand Ba'al to be a false god -- or several false gods -- yet the figure was evidently quite popular in Jeremiah's time.

In the Hebrew bible Yahweh is assimilated to El. But Yahweh may have started out in Canaanite religion as one of the seventy sons of El. The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Deutoronomy 32.8-9, agreeing with the Septuagint, reads as follows: “When the Most High ('Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance, When He divided up the sons of man, He fixed the boundaries for peoples, According to the number of the sons of El But Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob His own inheritance.”

The argument for the original polytheistic context presiding at Judaism's birth is bolstered by the name "Elohim." Grammatically, "Elohim" has the form of a plural masculine noun, and indeed is often used that way in the Hebrew bible when used to refer to "other gods." (Needless to say, the belief found among some Christians that Elohim is a reference to the Trinity is extremely unlikely.) However, the term is often treated as a singular noun, as in Genesis 1.1. Some scholars hold that the plural form of "Elohim" reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue that it originally meant 'the gods,” or the “sons of El,” the supreme being. They suggest that the word may have been recast as a singular noun by later monotheist priests who sought to erase evidence of worship of the many gods of the Judaean pantheon, replacing them with their own special patron god Yahweh. This is the Yahweh-alone gambit. As we have seen, however, the erasure was incomplete.

On several occasions the Pentateuch mentions El Shaddai, usually translated in English-speaking Bibles as “God Almighty.” The expression may mean "God of the mountains," referring to a Mesopotamian sacred concept. In Exodus 6:3 the term was one of the patriarchal names for the tribal god of the Mesopotamians.

As a toponym, Shaddai was a late Bronze Ages Amorite city on the banks of the Euphrates river in northern Syria. It has been conjectured that El Shaddai was therefore the "god of Shaddai.” Since there are associations with the Abraham legend, the name may have been imported into Israel in that connection. At all events the later effort to assimilate El Shaddai to Yahweh is simplistic, for why would Yahweh need such an alias?

Acknowledging the polytheist substratum helps us to understand why there are four distinct words built on the same stem: El, Elohim, Eloah, and El Shaddai. El, the father god, has many divine sons, who are known by the plural of his name, Elohim, or Els. Eloah, might then serve to differentiate each of the lesser gods from El himself. As we have noted, El Shaddai may have been an imported cult.

This hypothesis casts light on the Elohim saying "Let US make Man in OUR image, in OUR likeness,” as well as Yahweh’s commandment to Israel, "worship no other gods [Hebrew: Elohim] before me." The fact that one can worship other gods acknowledges that they exist.

In his book The Hebrew Goddess, Raphael Patai collected various types of evidence for a feminine divine (or semidivine) principle in Judaism, culminating in the Hokma (personification of Wisdom, or Sophia) of Proverbs and several deuterocanonical books, expanded by the rabbis into the notion of the Shekhina, the feminine side of the High God (Patai, 1967). These elaborations demonstrate that polytheistic straying was not limited to the period of the formation of Judaism. It has recurred.

To be sure, the religion of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, evolved, like any other human institution. As with similar movements, adepts were unable to resist the temptation of retrojecting later convictions back into earlier centuries. So it is with Yahweh-exclusivity.

Matters were not always thus, especially as regards the ideas that formed the Torah in the strict sense (a.k.a. the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch). That set of books is laced with polytheistic remnants, as we have seen. One can say that the true religion of Judaism is the evolved version, the ostensibly pure monotheistic form of the Later Prophets. But that is not what the rabbis (beginning with the Mishnah, ca. 200 CE) have uniformly held. For them the Torah in the strict sense of the Five Books of Moses is supreme. And it is totally monotheistic--or so the tale goes.

Unfortunately, one cannot have it both ways. One must choose either Torah-supremacy or monotheism-supremacy.

The passages cited above suffice to show the polytheistic entanglements of the religion of ancient Israel. Later revisers and exegetes never completely succeeded in erasing this element. Inconveniently for the champions of the pure-monotheistic thesis, the taint of religious pluralism lingers in the received text of the Tanakh, popping up there with disconcerting frequency.

While early Israel was, so to speak, infected by polytheism, it had a somewhat skimpy cohort of deities--a kind of basic pantheon. As we know from the Ugaritic documents, the Canaanites acknowledged over 200 deities. Ancient Israelites had to content themselves with seven main ones: El, Baal, Asherah, Yahweh, and the sun, moon, and stars. Frugal as it is in comparative perspective, that heptad suffices to demonstrate polytheism, not monotheism. Moreover, with further archaeological work, the presence of other deities may come to light.

A side point is that not all the deities recognized in the slimmed-down Israelite pantheon are rooted in Canaan. Yahweh himself probably stems from a source in the south, in Edom and the Midianite region. Moreover, even if gods like Baal were hated and despised (not members of the approved pantheon), they were still widely accepted as gods. Theophoric names, such as Jezebel and Beelzebub attest this status.

Another finding of recent scholarship is the demolition of old idea of Canaanite religion as a licentious fertility cult. This notion has elicited a certain prurient interest, but its main function has been to contrast the self-indulgent Canaanites with the noble, self-denying Israelites, who bequeathed to us the supreme gift of ethical monotheism. As Dennis Pardee remarks: "The fertility cult so dear to the heart of the older generation of Hebrew and Ugaritic scholars shows up clearly in neither corpus; the sexual depravity that some have claimed to be characteristic of the Canaanite cult in general has left no trace in any of the Ugaritic texts" (Pardee, 2002).


In examining the Tanakh texts of any period one must constantly bear in mind the distinction between pure myth and legend. In Genesis the realm of myth predominates; in the four Books of Kings, legend. At all events there is no history in any consistent sense in these religious writings. Nonetheless, the veneration bestowed on these texts over the centuries requires that some receive special attention.

One verse that calls for analysis is Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image,/in the image of God he created them;/male and female he created them.” The concluding six words are generally--unthinkingly one might say--understood as presenting a binary contrast.

That is to say, gender dimorphism, the absolute contrast of male and female, is divinely ordained in this verse. Not necessarily so: it may say just the opposite. First, as the Hebrew word order allows, the phrase “male and female” may apply to every created human being. Fantastic! one may say. The previous section of the verse says that all of humankind must be created “in the image of God.” God, then must be either beyond gender or comprise both. Why not also the beings he created?

Speculation about the androgynous implications of this passage goes back to the beginnings of rabbinical Judaism. For example, Mishnah Bikkurim (ch. 4) discusses the androginos, about whom it says: “There are [legal] ways he is [treated] like men, there are ways he is like women. There are ways in which he is like men and women. There are ways he is like neither men nor women.” (M. Moers Wenig, in G. Drinkwater et al., 2009, p. 15).

Such ideas found resonance among the medieval rabbis (in general, see L. Ginzberg, 1968). However, they do not seem to address the question of how such beings became gender differentiated, as modern human beings are. Perhaps the first pair were both androgynous and gender-dimorphous.

Is this passage at least not genderqueer, to use a contemporary expression? At all events, this conundrum is a good example of the rewards of the principle of estrangement: looking at familiar passages in a new, possibly unsettling way.


There has been much discussion of the proper interpretation of the strange episode in Genesis 9:20-27, where we learn that Ham "saw his father's nakedness" because of drunkenness in Noah's tent. (“And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.”)

As a result of this transgression Noah pronounced the Curse of Ham (also called the curse of Canaan) upon Ham's son Canaan. The curse seems excessive for a mere act of voyeurism. In fact the transgression was surely more than that. The phrase "exposing or uncovering nakedness" appears several times elsewhere in the Pentateuch as a euphemism for having sexual relations. In Leviticus 18:6-19, for example, this expression occurs in connection with a variety of women in the family—one's mother, stepmother, sister, half sister, granddaughter, aunt, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law—as well as in certain specific circumstances (sex during her menstrual period, sleeping with a mother and daughter, and so forth.)

In its present state, the Noah-Ham text is cryptic, yet there is a possibility that the language conceals a report that Ham sodomized or castrated his father. In fact, Rashi, a major medieval Torah commentator, explains the harshness of the curse in this way: "Some say Ham saw his father naked and either sodomized or castrated him. His thought was ‘Perhaps my father's drunkenness will lead to intercourse with our mother and I will have to share the inheritance of the world with another brother! I will prevent this by taking his manhood from him!’ When Noah awoke, and he realized what Ham had done, he said, ‘Because you prevented me from having a fourth son, your fourth son, Canaan, shall forever be a slave to his brothers, who showed respect to me!’"

In addition, there may be a remote connection with the Greek story of Cronus and Uranus, as recounted by Hesiod in his Theogony. Cronus (identified with Saturn by the Romans) envied the power of his father, Uranus, the ruler of the universe. Incited by his mother, Gaia, Cronus attacked his father with a sickle, cutting off his genitals and casting them into the sea.

Returning to the biblical context, the curse of Ham figures as an example of the unpleasant biblical doctrine that children are burdened with disabilities based not on their personal failings, but deriving from something that has been done by a parent or some ancestor. This motif is sometimes known as the ‘”sins of the fathers.” See for example, "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me." (The text, Exodus 20:5, is part of the Ten Commandments; cf. also Deuteronomy 5:9; and Exodus 34:6-7).

For Christian theologians the prime example of the consequences of the sin of the fathers is Adam’s fall, the effects of which purportedly attach to all subsequent humanity. "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22) This theme was to become a major component of the doctrine of Original Sin. As the New England Primer (1784 edition) puts it: “In Adam’s Fall/we sinned all.”

That the notion of the concatenation of sin is not unique to the Judaeo-Christian tradition is shown by a line from Euripides (ca. 485-406 BCE): "The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children." (Phrixus, fragment 970)

One function of the curse of Canaan story was to serve as an early Israelite rationalization for Israel’s conquest and enslavement of the Canaanites, presumed to descend from Canaan. More broadly, some Christians have cited Ham’s transgression to justify racism and the enslavement of black people, who were believed to be descendants of Ham. Sometimes termed Hamites, they were thought to have descended from Ham’s son Canaan or his older brothers. This racist theory was popular among interested parties--slave-holders and their allies--during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In fact, the racial interpretation seems to stem from Jewish tradition. According to Numbers 12, Moses married a Cushite, one of the reputed descendants of Ham. Cush has sometimes been interpreted as located in Nubia, in black Africa. In consequence. a number of early Jewish writers interpreted the Biblical narrative of Ham in a racial way. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b states "Our Rabbis taught: Three copulated in the ark, and they were all punished — the dog, the raven, and Ham. The dog was doomed to be tied, the raven expectorates [his seed into his mate's mouth], and Ham was smitten in his skin." (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108b) The nature of Ham's "smitten" skin is unexplained, but later commentaries described this as a darkening of the pigment. In fact, a later note to the text states that the "smitten" skin referred to the blackness of descendants, and a later comment by rabbis in the Bereshit Rabbah asserts that Ham himself emerged from the ark black-skinned. The Zohar states that Ham's son Canaan "darkened the faces of mankind."

Some premodern Christian sources discuss the curse of Ham in connection with race and slavery. For example, Origen (ca. 185-ca. 254) stated: “For the Egyptians are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of the vices. Look at the origin of the race and you will discover that their father Ham, who had laughed at his father’s nakedness, deserved a judgment of this kind, that his son Canaan should be a servant to his brothers, in which case the condition of bondage would prove the wickedness of his conduct. Not without merit, therefore, does the discolored posterity imitate the ignobility of the race.” (Homilies on Genesis 16.1)

This view, not infrequent in early Christian and medieval opinion, persisted into modern times. According to the German Catholic mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), "I saw the curse pronounced by Noah upon Ham moving toward the latter like a black cloud and obscuring him. His skin lost its whiteness, he grew darker. His sin was the sin of sacrilege, the sin of one who would forcibly enter the Ark of the Covenant. I saw a most corrupt race descend from Ham and sink deeper and deeper in darkness. I see that the black, idolatrous, stupid nations are the descendants of Ham. Their color is due, not to the rays of the sun, but to the dark source whence those degraded races sprang.”

The story of the Drunkenness of Noah (and Ham’s transgression) figures as the concluding panel of the nine great scenes from Genesis illustrated by Michelangelo on the Sistine Ceiling (1508). No one has satisfactorily explained why the artist chose to conclude his cycle with this disquieting episode.

(For a wide-ranging study, see David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. See also, H. Hirsch Cohen, The Drunkenness of Noah. University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1974.)


These legendary cities have been traditionally located in the Dead Sea area, where they constituted two members of a pentapolis, the Cities of the Plain. According to the account in Genesis 14, 18, and 19, God overthrew four of the five cities in a rain of brimstone and fire. Over the centuries, the names of Sodom and Gomorrah, especially the former, have become proverbial. Echoes of the story recur elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and in the Qur’an, as well as in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic exegetical and homiletic writings.

A number of main features of the Sodom legend emerge from the central passages and fragmentary allusions in the Tanakh. Used with care, one can adduce also certain indications found in the Pseudepigrapha, together with the midrashic writings of later centuries.

As Warren Johansson notes in his article in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (W. Dynes, ed., 1990), “the geographical legend that sought to explain the peculiarly barren terrain around the shores of the Dead Sea. The ancient world's rudimentary science of geology correctly related this barrenness to the circumstance that the water level of the Dead Sea had in prehistoric times been far higher; the sinking of the water level had exposed the previously inundated, now strikingly arid and sterile region to the gaze of the traveler.”

Johansson goes on to observe that “the theme of sterility by which the ancient mind sought to explain the origins of this condition; to the Bedouin living east and south of the Dead Sea it suggested the etiological inference that at one time the area surrounding this salinized body of water had been a fruitful garden belt. Yet the inhabitants of the cities of the plain had even in the midst of their abundance and prosperity denied hospitality to the poverty-stricken and the wayfarer, while the luxury in which they wallowed led them inevitably into effeminacy and vice (the parallel in the Hellenistic world was the city of Sybaris, whose proverbial self-indulgence gave the English language the word sybaritic). For this reason they were punished by the destruction of their cities and the conversion of the whole area into a lifeless desert.”

Johansson surmises that underlying the story is “a Bedouin folk tale on the perils of city life, of which Lot is the hero who must be rescued again and again by the intervention of others. In Genesis 14:12 Lot is taken captive when Sodom is conquered by the four kings who have allied themselves against the Cities of the Plain; Abraham saves him by military intervention in the manner of a tribal sheikh with his retinue of 318 warriors. In 19:4 - 9 the Sodomites threaten Lot's guests with gang rape, but are miraculously blinded and repelled, and in 19:13, 15 the angelic visitors warn Lot of the imminent destruc­tion of the city so that he and his family can leave just in time to escape the rain of brimstone and fire. This underlying motif explains why Lot later ‘feared to dwell in Zoar; (19:30), even though God has spared the place as a reward for his model hospitality toward the two visitors. Over the centuries Sodom and Gomorrah, along with the Babylon of the Book of Revelation, came to symbolize the corruption and depravity of the big city as contrasted with the virtue and innocence of the countryside, a notion cherished by those who idealized rural life and is still present, though fading in twentieth-century America.”

Some gay and lesbian apologists have sought to discount the homophobic implications of the demand to “know” the two strangers, emphasizing the more general themes of inhospitality and corruption. It seems likely, however, that the motif of homosexual rape is an exemplification of those larger sins. As such. it cannot be discounted,


The Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-24) is a story in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah. In Hebrew the narration is called the Akedah or Akedat Yitzhak; in Arabic, the Dhabih.

Abraham is prepared to obey God's command without questioning. After Isaac is bound to an altar, the angel of God stops Abraham at the last minute, at which point Abraham conveniently discovers a ram caught in some nearby bushes. The patriarch then sacrifices the ram in Isaac's stead.

While it is often assumed that Isaac was a mere child at the time, some traditional sources treat him as an adult, because in Judaism one reaches majority at the age of thirteen. Departing from the Genesis account, some Talmudic sages taught that Isaac was actually thirty-seven, a calculation probably reflecting the ensuing Biblical story, which tells of Sarah's death at 127 (she was ninety when Isaac was born).

Genesis 22:14 states that the event occurred at "the mount of the Lord." In 2 Chronicles 3:1; Psalm 24:3; Isaiah 2:3 & 30:29; and Zechariah 8:3, the Tanakh seems to place the location of this event on the hill on which Solomon later built the Temple, now known as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

With the murderous outcome narrowly averted, a key problem remains: Abraham’s alacrity in preparing to carry out the atrocity. The majority of Jewish commentators hold that God was actually testing Abraham’s loyalty to see if he would actually kill his own son.

A number of Jewish commentators from the medieval era, followed by some in modern times, have challenged this view. For example, the early rabbinic midrash known as Genesis Rabbah portrays God as saying "I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac” (using the Hebrew root letters for "slaughter," not "sacrifice). Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach (Spain, eleventh century) held that God required only a symbolic sacrifice. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early fourteenth century) wrote that Abraham's "imagination" led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Speaking for many others, Ibn Caspi asks "[h]ow could God command such a revolting thing?"

Another key issue is the connection with infant sacrifice among the West Semitic peoples. According to Rabbi J. H. Hertz (who served as Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), child sacrifice was "rife among the Semitic peoples." This authority suggests that "in that age, it was astounding that Abraham's God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it." Hertz interprets the Akedah as demonstrating to the Jews that human sacrifice is abhorrent. "Unlike the cruel heathen deities, it was the spiritual surrender alone that God required." In Jeremiah 32:35, God states that, with regard to the practice of child sacrifice to the deity Moloch, it "had [never] entered My mind that they should do this abomination."

Some later Jewish writers, notably the Hasidic masters, reject the divine-test theology is rejected, regarding the sacrifice of Isaac as a punishment for Abraham's earlier mistreatment of Ishmael, his elder son, whom he expelled from his household at the behest of his wife, Sarah . According to this view, Abraham failed to show compassion for his son, so God responded by ostensibly failing to show compassion for Abraham's other son. This is a somewhat flawed theory, however, since the Bible says that God agreed with Sarah, and it was only at his insistence that Abraham actually had Ishmael leave. In The Last Trial, Shalom Spiegel controversially maintains that these commentators had a subtext, transforming the Biblical story into an implicit rebuke against Christianity's claim that God would sacrifice His own son (Spiegel, 1967).

In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews adduces the Binding of Isaac as one of a number of acts of faith recorded in the Old Law (Hebrews 11:17-19). The anonymous author (not Paul, as is traditionally held) considers Abraham's faith in God to be so great that he felt confident that if he were to perform the task requested, God would resurrect the slain Isaac, in order that his prophecy (Genesis 21:12) might be fulfilled. Such faith in God's word and in his promise have caused many Christians to regard the Binding story as exemplary.

Patristic commentators saw Isaac as a type of the "Word of God" who prefigured Christ (Origen, Homilies on Genesis 11–13). Gradually a consensus emerged that this whole episode ranks as an outstanding instance of the way that God works; the Binding was seen as prefiguring God's plan to have his own son, Jesus, die on the cross as a substitute for humanity, much like the ram God provided for Abraham. And Abraham's willingness to give up his own son Isaac is seen, in this view, as foreshadowing the willingness of God the Father to sacrifice his Son. Another theme is the parallel of Isaac's submission with Christ's, the two choosing to lay down their own lives in order for the will of God to be accomplished. Indeed, both stories portray the participants carrying the wood for their own sacrifice up a mountain. For Christians this similarity “closes the deal” (though not of course for Jews).

Christian artists have often chosen to represent the Sacrifice of Isaac. A famous occasion was the 1401 competition of Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, who produced plaques of the subject to determine which artist would execute the bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence. Ghiberti won.

Muslim tradition holds that it was Ishmael rather than Isaac whom Abraham was told to sacrifice. Some say that God would not have asked for the sacrifice after he has foretold Abraham and Sarah the glad tidings of Isaac and his offspring (Qur’an 11:71; 15:53; 37:112). Others note that Genesis 22:2, despite specifying Isaac, states that Abraham was told to sacrifice his only son, so they believe the event took place with Ishmael before Isaac was born, and that the name of Ishmael was later replaced by Isaac.

Muslims consider that visions experienced by prophets are revelations from God, and as such it was a divine order to Abraham. The entire episode of the sacrifice is regarded as a trial of God for Abraham and his son, and both are seen as having passed the test by submitting to God and showing their awareness that God is the Owner and Giver of all that we have and cherish, including life and offspring. Muslims commemorate the submission of Abraham and his son during the days of Eid al-Adha. During the festival, those who can afford it sacrifice a ram, cow, sheep or a camel. The members of the household eat part of the sacrifice meat, distributing the remaining portions to neighbors and to the poor. The festival occurs during the pilgrimage (hajj) season. The site of Marwah, familiar to Muslims, is identified with the biblical Moriah in Genesis 22:2. The belief of Muslims in the sacrifice of Ishmael and not Isaac is strengthened by the Qur’anic assertion God gave joyous tidings to Abraham of another son after his steadfastness in subjugating himself to God's will.

Modern philologists generally assign the Binding story to the biblical source E, since it generally uses the expression Elohim for the deity.

In Fear and Trembling (1843), Søren Kierkegaard offers four retellings of the story of Abraham’s Sacrifice. The Danish writer holds that the killing of Isaac is ethically wrong but religiously right. Abraham could have been resigned to kill Isaac simply because God told him to do so and because he knew that God was always right. However, Kierkegaard claims that Abraham did not act out of a resignation that God must always be obeyed but rather out of faith that God would not require something that was ethically wrong. Still, the tension between the demands of ethics and the requirements of faith made Abraham anxious. Kierkegaard argues that his retellings of the story of Abraham demonstrate the importance of a “teleological suspension of the ethical.”

In recent years several American synagogues have staged mock trials in which Abraham is arraigned for planning the death of his son.

The French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida also considered the story of Abraham’s sacrifice in his book The Gift of Death (Derrida, 2008). In a daring extrapolation, the French thinker connected religious injunctions of sacrifice to the "monotonous complacency" of modern society, which allows tens of millions of children to die of hunger and disease.

The Binding of Isaac also plays an important role in Erich Auerbach’s literary tour de force Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Auerbach, 1953). In the opening chapter of the book, the German writer pairs the Binding with Homer's description of Odysseus's scar, presenting them as two paradigms for the representation of reality in Western literature. Auerbach contrasts the Bible’s sparse account with Homer's almost obsessive attention to detail and foregrounding of the spatial, historical, and personal contexts. The Biblical account is very different: the almost cryptic concision of the story-telling keeps the context in the background or omits it entirely. As Auerbach observes, this narrative strategy virtually compels readers to add their own interpretations to the text. In this way, the reader becomes a kind of coauthor, as (s)he is not in Homer’s more explicit text.


Many societies in the ancient world practiced polygamy, or more accurately polygyny, since it was usually men who had several wives, rather than men who had several husbands (polyandry, much less common).

The Hebrew Bible indicates that polygyny was commonly practiced by the ancient Hebrews. It was probably class-based, in that only men of a certain wealth and social status could afford to have several wives. Still, polygyny was not particularly unusual and was certainly not prohibited or discouraged by the Bible. The Bible mentions approximately forty polygynists, including such prominent figures as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, David and King Solomon. The texts offer little or no further remark on their polygyny as such: it was taken for granted. Many have raised an eyebrow at the exaggerated claim that Solomon had 1000 wives, but the practice of having a number of wives occasioned no particular disapproval.

The Pentateuch includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygyny. Exodus 21:10 states that multiple marriages are not to diminish the status of the first wife, while Deuteronomy 21:15-17 states that a man must award the inheritance due to a first-born son to the son who was actually born first, even if he hates that son's mother and prefers another wife. Somewhat quixotically, Deuteronomy 17:17 states that the king shall not have too many wives. (How many is too many?).

Since the eleventh century, Ashkenazi Jews have generally followed Rabbenu Gershom's ban on polygyny. In all likelihood, this change reflects the influence of Christian monogamy. The situation has been quite different for Sephardic Jews, some of whom have retained the practice of taking plural wives down to the present.


The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) is so called due to its repeated use of the word Holy. Modern biblical scholarship has isolated it as a distinct unit, noting that the style differs markedly from that of the main body of Leviticus. In contrast to the rest of Leviticus, the many laws of the Holiness Code tumble forth in a closely packed mass.

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Holiness Code represents an earlier text that the editors shoe-horned into the priestly source material (P) of the Pentateuch. Leviticus 26 strongly resembles the conclusion of a law code, despite the dangling presence of further laws afterward, giving the Holiness Code all the earmarks of a single distinct unit.

A key issue among evangelical Christians is how much of this biblical material might be binding today, as the Levitical priesthood and animal sacrifices ended with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Some of these groups see all these laws regarding sexuality as being applicable today; some of them are reiterated elsewhere in the Bible, notably in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. For their part, Orthodox Jews continue to observe many of the practices, generally regarding precepts not in current use as being in temporary abeyance until a Third Temple can be built and the observances restored.

Figuring among the many laws pertaining to sexual ethics are two that have been particularly significant in shaping Jewish and Christian attitudes to male homosexuality. These are “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (18:22); and “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” (20:13; NRSV).

These two religious carbuncles have proved particularly troublesome to observant gay and lesbian Jews and Christians. Various devices have been employed in the effort to detoxify them, with (in my view) scant success. Sometimes we hear that the prohibition of same-sex relations is of only transient significance, recalling the ban on wearing clothing made up of two different materials or eating shellfish. Yet this kind of mockery misses its target, because the second prohibition (in Leviticus 20) has the unique distinction of being both an abomination (to’ebah) and a capital crime.

Sometimes we hear that the prohibition applies only to the Canaanites, who were thought to be guilty of particularly licentious erotic practices. With the more careful interpretation of the Ugaritic documents that has recently taken place, this caricature of the Canaanites no longer passes muster. At all events there is no mention of that people in the passages in question. They are clearly directed at the ancient Israelites themselves.

It has been suggested that the passage refers only to anal penetration. In this view, a gay Orthodox Jew could have homosexual relations provided that they did not go beyond the oral stage. However, it may be that the implicit reference to anal behavior is only exempli gratia, a signal instance pointing to a larger complex of misbehavior (as with the Sodom story). As Mary Douglas has emphasized, many of the prohibitions in the Holiness Code have to do with boundary crossing, a purported confusion of realms (Douglas, 1966).

A further consideration has to do with one possible origin of the prohibition, which may implicate Zoroastrianism. Once powerful, today the religion of Zoroaster survives mainly among the small Parsi community in India, counting also a tiny remnant in Iran, where persecution continues.

Although it reached its apogee during the Achaemenid Period (ca. 550-330 BCE), the roots of Zoroastrianism reach much further back into Persian religious traditions relating to nature worship and good and evil spirits, and beyond these to primordial Indo-European mythology with its division of celestial beings into two warring classes. The prophet Zoroaster (from a Greek version of Zarathustra) is commonly believed to have lived about 630-550 BCE, though quite possibly earlier.

Zoroastrians were encouraged to seek piety by leading pure lives and doing good works. This would lead to a victory of good over evil in their personal lives and in the world. This dualistic world view, which can be detected as early as the sixth century BCE, influenced Judaism (especially as seen the Essenes), the Greek and Roman Stoics, the early Christian gnostics, the Manichaeans, and the Mithraists, a hero cult which competed with early Christianity. It has even been argued that the emphasis on sexual purity in early Christianity may stem ultimately from this Iranian source.

Under Cyrus the Great (d. 529 BCE), the Achaemenid family established the Persian Empire, which conquered most of western Asia, including Judea, homeland of the Jews. Darius I (d. 486 BCE), the first Persian ruler certain to have been a Zoroastrian, placed Jews in positions of power and encouraged the restoration of their destroyed main Temple and the adoption of a statute book to govern their reorganized community. Significantly, this document may have included the Holiness Code subsequently incorporated into Leviticus.

The result is striking if we compare Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 with the following passage from the Zoroastrian Scriptures: "Who is the man who is a Daeva [evil spirit]? . . . Ahura Mazda answered: 'The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as a woman lies with mankind, is the man that is a Daeva, this one ... is a female paramour of the Daevas, that is a she-Daeva.'" (Vendidad, Fargard, V:31-32). As Tom Horner remarks, “[n]oteworthy here is the equal guilt of both parties, unusual for the ancient world, and the ascription of femininity to the guilty. The same chapter prescribes 800 stripes for involuntary emission of semen. Elsewhere in Zoroastrian tradition permission is given for the killing of a homosexual man caught in the act (Commentary on Fargard, VIII, VD3:74).” (T. Horner, in W. Dynes, ed., Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, 1990).

While the possibility is intriguing. this Persian derivation of the Israelite taboo on male homosexuality must still be regarded as speculative. It is a truism that texts do not migrate of their own accord. Someone, for some reason must bring them from one tradition into another. So the question remains: why would the ancient Israelites should wish to adopt such a drastic prohibition of male homosexuality?


With increasing clarity scholars of history and religion are coming to perceive a disturbing trifecta--a bond that links monotheism, intolerance, and violence. Today the Islamic jihadists are the leading exponents of this noxious triad. As will be seen below, however, the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is where it all started.

To be sure, violence is a human universal. To take an extreme example, consider the wars waged by the Aztecs to procure victims for their rituals of human sacrifice. These conflicts were bloody, but they were not undertaken to maintain and extend an intolerant monotheistic faith. The Aztecs were quite content to leave the polytheistic beliefs of their neighbors, just as they were. After all, they were polytheists themselves.

Matters were different among the ancient Israelites. As the Egyptologist Jan Assmann notes: “[t]he accounts of the Exodus from Egypt, violently forced upon Pharaoh by God-sent plagues--and even more so the conquest in Canaan--depict the birth of the Israelite nation and the rise of monotheism (these two being aspects of the same process) in terms of extreme violence.” (Assmann, 2010). The prominent place of these motifs in the historical memory of the people who created the Hebrew Bible makes them highly significant. In addition to the glorification of violence, these narratives demonize the Egyptians and the Canaanites. And demonization is often a prelude to aggression.

Violence also figured as a technique for internal control, among the Israelite population itself. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode, some 3000 individuals were slain, or so we are told (“each man kill his brother, and each man his fellow, and each man his kin”; Exodus 32:27-28). In another passage death is prescribed for those who might dare even to suggest a return to idolatry: “you shall strike him and he shall die, for he thought to thrust you away from the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 13:10).

Violence is also visited on those who would fraternize with neighboring people. For the crime of associating with Moabites and Midianites, 24,000 were purportedly slain (Numbers 25 1-11).

Extreme violence marked the campaign against the cities of Canaan, where nothing was to be left alive. The ancient Israelites invented ethnic cleansing.

All in all, scholars have identified some 600 passages linking violence with the origin and propagation of Israelite monotheism. As we have noted above, minimalists and others have questioned the historicity of of these accounts. To cite a recent essay by Niels Peter Lemche: “The exodus has a long time ago passed from history into fiction. It never happened. Neither did the conquest ever happen. Several biblical scholars including myself have made this clear. From an historical point of view, the Israelites could not have conquered Canaan by destroying Canaanite forces, for the simple reason that the Egyptians still ruled Canaan when Joshua is supposed to have arrived, i.e. shortly before 1200 BCE. Secondly, there is no trace of foreign immigration, and thirdly, even the biblical account about the conquest is contradictory (compare Joshua with Judges 1).” (Lemche, 1998).

Granting (as I think we must) these points, there remains this question: why would any people seek proudly to remember the atrocities I have just cited--and many others--parading them seriatim in their most sacred text, the Torah? And of course, some details of the accounts are likely to have been true. For the victims it looks very much as if the Torah scrolls were the scrolls of agony.

The conclusion is inescapable. This tangle of violence, intolerance, and monotheism bears a clear stamp of origin: Made in Ancient Israel. Some seek to mitigate this harsh judgment by observing that after the rise of Christianity and Islam--the hyperpowers of monotheism as it unfolded in the course of history--Jews did not engage in these types of repression. Just so. But was it because they wouldn’t, or because they couldn’t?

Now Jews do have power in the state of Israel, and it is a very powerful state indeed. The Israeli government has been drawing on the ancient prototypes, by practicing violence and ethnic cleansing on the Palestinians. Ethnic cleansing? Well, what else can one call the massive land grab in the West Bank? To be fair, Israeli peace groups have been at the forefront of documenting and opposing this misbehavior. They represent the best aspects of the prophetic movement that has also radiated throughout the Abrahamic traditions. But the fons et origo of the trifecta is clear.

One must also acknowledge that today secular Jewish scholars are at the forefront in exposing the sorry record of monotheism in these realms. An outstanding work is the book of Professor Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (University of Chicago Press, 1997). This hard-hitting monograph stems from a question posed to Schwartz when she was teaching the Bible to undergraduates: "What about the Canaanites?" In her view, biblical narrative has been a singularly powerful form of social memory. Too much theological reflection, Schwartz believes seeks simply to close the “old monotheistic” book, and leave things as they are. After all, we are told, the Bible is the word of God. (“What kind of God?” is of course a question too rarely asked.) In a positive message, Schwartz seeks to open the scriptures to the possibility of multiplicity so that, as she puts it, "new books may be fruitful and multiply." Hers is an invitation to an ethic of possibility, plenitude, and generosity, a welcome antidote to violence. In this way her study is as important for its insights into memory, identity, and place as for its criticism of monotheism's violent legacy. Jonathan Kirsch, an attorney and book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has written God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism (Viking 2004). In this wide-ranging survey Kirsch points out, correctly, that the earliest impulses toward monotheism can be found in Egypt with pharaoh Akhenaten's forceful attempt to move the nation to the worship of one god, the Aten. Yet this reform lasted at most seventeen years, and efforts to connect it with Moses remain problematic. In fact, Akhenaten’s religion left no progeny; the Israelite project definitely did.

After reviewing the evidence from the Hebrew Bible, Kirsch demonstrates that monotheism gained momentum with the development of Christianity which became dominant in the Roman empire under the emperor Constantine. Interestingly, Kirsch shows that the conflict between the worship of many gods and the worship of one true god never disappeared from the lives of Israelites, Jews, or Christians, despite many historians' claims to the contrary.

Conventionally and obsessively, monotheists decry polytheism (“paganism,” “heathendom”). One reason for such dismissals may be that in some ways polytheism is more reasonable, making it a dangerous rival. "At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice," he asserts, the opposite of monotheism's dangerous "tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god." (Kirsch, 2004). Kirsch’s comparison is perhaps overdrawn, but it is worth pondering.

While he does not claim originality for his research, Kirsch clearly shows that monotheistic religions have too often used the worship of one god as a pretext to persecute those who do not share such beliefs. He demonstrates the ways in which this conflict gave rise to the tensions that ravage monotheistic religions today.


Sacred prostitution or temple prostitution is the practice of engaging in sexual intercourse with clients for a religious or sacred purpose. As with secular prostitution, a fee is usually charged, though in this instance a portion is remitted to the temple or to the religious authorities. A person engaged in such behavior is sometimes called a hierodule. Given the religious and cultic significance of the practice, modern connotations of the term prostitute may or may not be appropriate.

Various forms of temple prostitution have been found in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, ancient Greece, pre-Columbian America, modern India, and elsewhere. Because of the importance of the Bible in our civilization, the following discussion takes as its primary focus the references embedded in the Tanakh.

We begin with the Qedeshim or Kedeshim, the male hierodules that figure in the Hebrew bible--so often neglected in favor of their better-known female counterparts.

Let us review the facts that have been generally accepted, at least until recent years. Qadesh (pl. qedeshim) is a Hebrew term that literally means "holy or consecrated one." Formerly rendered "sodomite" (as in the King James Version), it is more accurately translated as "male cult prostitute" in modern translations of the scriptures. It is a key term for understanding a major aspect of same-sex behavior in ancient Israel. The word occurs as a common noun at least six times (Deuteronomy 23:18, I Kings 14:24, 15:12 and 22:46, II Kings 23:7, Job 36:14). According to Warren Johansson (whose analysis in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality I follow in the succeeding paragraphs), it can also be restored on the basis of textual criticism in II Kings 23:24 (= Septuagint of II Chronicles 35:19a) and in Hosea 11:12. These passages all ostensibly designate foreigners (non-Israelites) who served as sacred prostitutes in the Kingdom of Judah, specifically within the precincts of the first Temple (ca. 950-622 B.C.).

That these men had sexual relations with other males and not with women is proven by Hosea 4:14, which castigates the males exclusively for "spending their manhood" in drunken orgies with hierodules, while their wives remained at home, alone and unsatisfied, and by the reading of Isaiah 65:3 in the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) manuscript: "And they (m. pl.) sucked their phalli upon the stones."

Their involvement in Canaanite polytheism, an obvious rival of the monotheistic Yahweh religion, fostered the biblical equation of homosexuality with idolatry and paganism and the exclusion of the individual engaging in homosexual activity from the "congregation of Israel," an exclusion persisting in the fundamentalist condemnation of all homosexual expression to this day.

To understand that the condemnation of the qadesh was a cultic prohibition and the self-definition of a religious community, not a moral judgment on other acts taking place outside the sphere of the sacral, it is necessary to place the qadesh or male hierodule (with the qedishah as his female counterpart) in his historical and cultural setting, as a part of West Semitic religion as it developed on the territory of the Kingdom of Judah down to the reforms of King Josiah (622 B.C.). The commandments forbidding male same-sex activity on pain of death in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) were, in all likelihood, added only in the Persian period (specifically, the first half of the fifth century BCE). Critical scholarship generally dates the Holiness Code to the beginning of that period, but Martin Noth in his influential commentary on Leviticus (Noth, 1965) ascribes this part of Leviticus to a time slightly after 520 BCE, when the new and reformed Jewish religion set about throwing off all the associations believed responsible for the catastrophe of 586, the destruction of the first Temple and the exile of the bulk of the population of Judah to Babylon. The proof of the later origin of the verses indicated above is the prophetic reading ("haphtarah") for the portion of the Torah including Leviticus 18, namely Ezekiel 22:10-11, a comparison of which shows that Ezekiel was alluding to a text which in the final years of the First Commonwealth began with Leviticus 18:7 and ended with 18:20, as if to say "You have committed every sexual sin in the book."

Derrick Sherwin Bailey, in his Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London, 1955), argued that the qedeshim "served the female worshipper.” However, it is unlikely that women were admitted to the Temple, then or later, and all parallels from the religious life of antiquity, from Cyprus to Mesopotamia, involve male homosexual connection. Designations for the male prostitute in Hebrew and Phoenician are "dog" {kelebh) and "puppy" (gar), notably in Deuteronomy 23:17, where the kelebh is set in parallel to the zonah "(female) prostitute." In Isaiah 3:4 the word ta'alullm is rendered effeminati by St. Jerome; it means "males who are sexually abused by others. Another likely reference is Isaiah 2:6, the closing hemistich of which Jerome translated et pueris alienis adhaeserunt, while the Aramaic pseudo-Jonathan Targum euphemistically renders the text "And they walked in the ways of the gentiles," in which the Hebrew verb has an Arabic cognate that means "they loved tenderly." In Hosea 11:12 a slight emendation, together with comparison again of the Arabic meaning of the verb in the first half of the parallel, yields the meaning "And Judah is still untrue to God/but faithful to kedeshlm."

The preceding analysis, deriving from the careful scholarship of Warren Johansson, is somewhat technical. Yet Johansson goes on to pose some more general questions.

“How could male prostitutes fit into the scheme of Northwest Semitic--specifically Canaanite--religion during the First Commonwealth? Foreign as the notion is to the modem religious consciousness, the worship of Ishtar and Tammuz was a fertility cult in which union with the hierodule consecrated to the service of the goddess was thought to have magical functions and powers. Such hierodules could be either male or female, and the singular qadesh in I Kings 14:24 is to be taken as a collective, meaning ‘hierodules as a professional caste’ who were ‘in the land,’ practicing their foreign rites. The males may even have been eunuchs, though the context of Job 36:14 ‘Their soul dieth in youth, and their life at the hierodules' age’ suggests that they were adolescent prostitutes [not unlike] the bar or street hustler of today. Furthermore, place names containing the element Kadesh, such as the one in Genesis 14:7, which also was called Enmishpat "Spring of Judgment" indicate the locales of shrines whose personnel had both erotic and mantic functions. This is independently confirmed by the glosses on the Septuagint renderings of qadesh and qedeshah in Deuteronomy 23:18.”

I turn now to the broader context, which is succinctly detailed in the Hebrew Bible itself. Deuteronomy 23:17-18 warns: “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a kedeshah, nor shall any of the sons of Israel be a kadesh. You shall not bring the hire of a prostitute (zonah) or the wages of a dog (keleb) into the house of the Lord your God to pay a vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.”

Here the two sacred prostitutes, male and female, are brought into parallel. Similarly, with their secular counterparts. Diagrammatically, the whole forms a perfect chiastic square.

In my view, nothing could be clearer. Nonetheless, during the last few decades several schools of revisionism have arisen that strive to deny the historicity of sacred prostitution in the ancient Middle East.

Robert A. Oden (The Bible without Theology, Urbana, 1999) maintains that the concept of sacred prostitution is an invention, a kind of slander without foundation, designed to embarrass the Israelites' neighbors. This claim recalls the controversial assertion of William Arens (The Man-Eating Myth, 1980) that the ascription of cannibalism to tribal and early historical peoples is simply a manifestation of prejudice. In his view, there is no evidence supporting the widespread belief that cannibalism has been a socially accepted practice in certain cultures. Let us not mince words. Arens' claim is clearly absurd. As the years have gone by, archaeologists and anthropologists have presented masses of evidence that has surfaced showing that all around the world there have been societies in which cannibalism has been a commonplace ritual practice. Arens’s denialism seems to have been motivated by a kind of political correctness, one that seeks to reject any aspersions that might be cast on cultures that were formerly thought to be savage, but are now hailed as paragons of third-world virtue. Similar motivations seem to lie behind the denial of the reality of sacred prostitution in ancient Israel.

The most massive assault on the idea so far stems from the classical scholar Stephanie Lynn Budin in her book The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2008). On page one she states her thesis in peremptory fashion: "Sacred prostitution never existed in the ancient Near East or Mediterranean.”

Most reviewers are inclined to accept Budin’s contention that some of the of the classical (Greek and Roman) texts commonly cited as referring to sacred prostitution actually do not do so. These texts may have something to do with prostitution, but not the special form of it being considered here. That is the case, it seems, with texts by Pindar, Strabo, Klearkhos, Justinus, Valerius Maximus, which Budin parses in great detail.

But so what? These texts stem from classical antiquity, where sacred prostitution has never been held to be of central importance. The key area is the ancient Middle East, and here Budin falls down. She relies on the renderings in Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts (revised ed. published in 1969) as a point of reference. Yet this outdated publication has been replaced by other, more accurate translations, which she seems not to have consulted. She does use the standard Sumerian and Akkadian dictionaries, but cherry-picks the evidence so as to omit judgments by other scholars that terms in those languages do in fact refer to sacred prostitution.

There are more general problems. Budin narrowly defines sacred prostitution as always requiring a direct quid-pro-quo: a specified portion of the money received must be rendered to the deity. However, sacred prostitution has not always worked this way, as evidence from modern India suggests. One observer reports, for example, having encountered a male prostitute who frequented the precinct of a Hindu temple at Khajaraho. This man suggested that, because of the setting, sexual congress with him would partake of the sacred, but there was no question of his tithing to the temple.

Another dubious technique Budin employs is the argumentum e silentio. Because excavations and other research have not found uncontrovertible evidence, she thinks that the practice did not exist. This claim is hardly persuasive: no archaeological evidence has been found to confirm or deny the existence of Saul, David, and Solomon but most laypeople--and quite a few scholars--stubbornly continue to believe in their existence. In fact archaeology does not respond to questions of this kind.

Space does not permit further review of these revisionist arguments, which are proliferating. Ir is my view that, as regards the Hebrew Bible, they fail completely.

However, let us play devil's advocate. If sacred prostitution was a myth, why was it invented? The Early Christians did indeed have a motive to cast aspersions on pagan decadence. However, the revisionists (taking their cue from Edward Said) ascribe the main element in the supposed invention to nineteenth-century Orientalism, which ascribes strange erotic practices to the Middle Eastern “Other.”

One may acknowledge that such prejudices played some role. However. they must be set aside in a dispassionate examination of the issue. For their part, the revisionists have not done this.

What, one may ask, are the reasons underlying the insistent denial of today’s revisionists in this field? One, I suspect, is simple prudery. It is much nicer to regard the qedeshot and qedeshim (female and male hierodules)as harmless functionaries and bureaucrats than to acknowledge their profession as sex workers remitting a portion of their earnings to the temple. Feminist concerns also seem to play an important role. Sex-trafficking is an ugly reality in the world today. It should be stamped out. But nothing is gained in this cause by denying historical realities.


A friend used to make his living partly by delivering talks on Bible animals to church groups. At the Anglican Cathedral of New York, near my home, there is a charming garden displaying Biblical plants. Such efforts reveal a widely felt wish to visualize the world of the Scriptures.

Since the fourth century CE, Christians have been undertaking pilgrimages to the Holy Land in order to see the places where the Lord and others stood. Jews go them one better by actually immigrating to Israel. One of the motives is to witness in person the major sites of the Bible.

This practice responds to a sense that pondering the texts, together with engaging in prayer and religious ritual, are not enough. One must seek to forge a tangible link with the revered figures and events. Ultimately, this meant visiting the loca sancta, the places where the revered figures actually walked and lived in the Middle East. For Christians (who during the Middle Ages and afterwards could not easily make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land), relics fulfilled a similar purpose.

In the nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire drew to a close, undertaking visits became more practical and inviting. At the sites, one could obtain guidance from dragomans and cicerones, who would sometimes offer embroidered accounts. Thus assuaged, but only partially, the desire grew to learn more. This thirst for knowledge could be addressed by going beneath the surface, through excavation. Hence, the appearance of Biblical Archaeology.

In fact this approach had roots outside the Middle East. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the catacombs became accessible in the city of Rome. Under the patronage of the popes, much was done to recover objects that had been lost to view for a thousand years or more. This was done under the umbrella of Christian Archaeology. In some ways this was not an objective discipline, as it was conducted with the aim of documenting Catholic claims, especially those that pertained to the presumed apostolic foundation of the church.

In the nineteenth century, excavations at sites of Biblical interest began in the Middle East began in earnest. Sponsored by several types of institutions, these were the special preserve of any particular confessional allegiance, as the Roman ones were. Yet another subtext intruded, a political one. We know that the excavations of Sir Leonard Woolley, T. E. Lawrence, and others in the Middle East served as a cover for British imperial reconnaissance. With this background it is not surprising that subtexts should intrude in excavations that more specifically targeted Palestine.

In many ways the emergent discipline of Biblical Archaeology came to be personified by William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971), an energetic American protestant scholar. As editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research between 1931 and 1968, Albright exercised deep influence over both biblical scholarship and Palestinian archaeology, an influence greatly advanced by his prolific writing and publishing (over 1,100 books and articles). His lead was followed by his students George Ernest Wright, Frank Moore Cross, and David Noel Freedman. That the latter was Jewish seemed a happy augury that the Albrightian program would be a broad, objective one.

Alas, this impression is incorrect, and Albright’s conclusions, especially those relating to biblical archaeology, have been overturned by developments after his death. While William F. Albright was not a Biblical literalist, in many ways his views seem naive today. He saw the archaeologist's task as being "to illuminate, to understand, and, in effect, to ‘prove’ the bible." In this approach Albright's American Evangelical upbringing--he was the son of two missionaries-- was clearly apparent. He insisted, for example, that "as a whole, the picture in Genesis is historical, and there is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the biographical details" (that is, of figures such as Abraham and Melchizedek). Similarly he claimed that archaeology had proved the essential historicity of the book of Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua and the book of Judges. Nothing today is left of this approach amongst mainstream archaeologists. As one observer noted, "[h]is central theses have all been overturned, partly by further advances in Biblical criticism, but mostly by the continuing archaeological research of younger Americans and Israelis to whom he himself gave encouragement and momentum. . . The irony is that, in the long run, it will have been the newer "secular" archaeology that contributed the most to Biblical studies, not ‘Biblical archaeology’."

The Albrightian consensus collapsed in the 1970s. Fieldwork, notably Kathleen Kenyon's excavations at Jericho, had failed to support the conclusions the devout archaeologists had drawn, with the result that central theories squaring the biblical narrative with archaeological finds, such as Albright's reconstruction of Abraham as an Amorite donkey caravaneer, faced rejection by the archaeological community. The challenge reached its climax with the publication of two major studies. In 1974 Thomas L. Thompson's The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives reexamined the record of biblical archaeology in relation to the Patriarchal narratives in Genesis and concluded that "not only has archaeology not proven a single event of the Patriarchal narratives to be historical, it has not shown any of the traditions to be likely." In 1975 John Van Seters' Abraham in History and Tradition reached a similar conclusion about the usefulness of tradition history: "A vague presupposition about the antiquity of the tradition based upon a consensus approval of such arguments should no longer be used as a warrant for proposing a history of the tradition related to early premonarchic times."

At the same time a new generation of archaeologists, notably William G. Dever, had begun to criticize the older generation for failing to take note of the revolution in archaeology known as processualism, which saw the discipline as a scientific one allied to anthropology, rather than a part of the corpus of the humanities linked to history and theology. Biblical archaeology, Dever said, remained "altogether too narrowly within a theological angle of vision.” He held that it must be abandoned, to be replaced by a regional Syro-Palestinian archaeology operating within a processual framework.

Dever was broadly successful. Arguably most archaeologists working in the world of the Bible today do so within a processual or post-processual framework, even though few explicitly so describe themselves. The reasons for the retention of the old nomenclature are complex, but are connected with the link between excavators (especially American ones) and the denominational institutions and benefactors who employ and support them. Repeatedly, the link between the Bible and archaeology has been shown to be tenuous at best, yet few seem willing to explicitly disavow it. Such frankness could be a career-destroying move.

In 1956 Albright and his associates launched the Anchor Bible Commentary Series. Although a range of views is presented, the center of gravity of the series is Albright’s views, which have been basically reaffirmed by the editorship of his disciple David Noel Freedman, the general editor. Now consisting of some 80 volumes, it is unfortunate that this series represents the most advanced scholarship in the eyes of the unsuspecting. (I gave away most of my volumes.)

Today the Biblical Archaeology Review conveys much useful information to the general public. The editors have not retained the outdated approach of Albright. Sometimes reading between the lines, we learn that archaeology has not “proved” that the Bible was right, but actively undermined its credibility. To their credit the BAR editors have given a place to the radically corrosive findings of the so-called minimalists, whose views are become increasingly mainstream.


After several generations of intense archaeological investigation, the hard evidence for the early Israelites remains very sparse. Notable are the absence of any sign of royal archives or remains of monumental buildings, such as the original Temple of Jerusalem. Significantly, the steles discussed below were not erected by the ancient Israelites themselves. They all stem from Israel’s enemies: Egypt, to the south; Moab, close by in the east; Assyria, northeast; and (probably) Damascus, to the north. Of these states, only tiny Moab, occupying a small strip of land in what is now Jordan, felt any threat from Israel--also apparently quite tiny.

These stone monuments represent the only evidence we have in these centuries paralleling the much-edited text of the Hebrew Bible itself. As such, they offer only the most limited corroboration, tending to support the strictures of the Minimalist scholars concerning early Israel.

1. The Merneptah Stele is an inscription by the Egyptian king Merneptah (r. 1213-1203 BCE), which appears on the reverse side of a granite slab erected by an earlier king, Amenhotep III. Flinders Petrie discovered it at Thebes in 1896. The stele has become famous for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Isrir" or "Israel." It is also, by far, the earliest known attestation of the term Israel as the name of a people (ethnonym).

The mention of Israel and Canaan is brief, for most of the stele concerns Merneptah's campaign against the Libyans. The final two lines of the inscription note a prior military campaign in Palestine (Canaan) in which Merneptah boasts that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam, and Israel among others. This is what the text says: “Canaan is captive with all woe, Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed.”

The Merneptah stele provides no evidence of an actual sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt--a claim scholars increasingly discount--but simply of Egyptian military activity in Palestine.

2, The Mesha Stele (sometimes known as the "Moabite Stone") is a black basalt slab bearing an inscription by the ninth-century ruler Mesha of Moab. The inscription was set up about 840 BCE to commemorate Mesha's victories over "Omri king of Israel" and his son, who had been "oppressing" Moab. It bears the earliest known reference to the Hebrew God Yahweh.

3. The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (a king of Assyria who reigned from ca. 858 to 824 BCE) dates from 825 BCE. Scholars believe that the obelisk depicts either Jehu son of Omri (a king of Israel mentioned in 2 Kings), or Jehu's ambassador, paying homage to the Assyrian ruler. The depiction ranks as an early, possibly the earliest, surviving picture of an ancient Israelite. The inscription identifies "the tribute of Jehu, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] spears." The obelisk is now kept in the British Museum in London.

4. The Tel Dan Stele is a black basalt slab discovered in 1993-94 during excavations in northern Israel. Erected by an Aramaean king, the Tel Dan stele contains an Aramaic inscription commemorating victories over local ancient peoples including “Israel” and what seems to be interpretable as the “House of David. Its author is unknown, but may have been a king of Damascus, Hazael, or one of his sons.

The discovery of the inscription generated excitement among biblical scholars and archaeologists because the letters 'ביתדוד' seem to correspond to the Hebrew for “house of David”--even though the stele is written in Aramaic. If these letters do indeed refer to the Davidic line then this is the first time the name “David” has been found at any archaeological site.

The inscription has been dated to the ninth or eighth centuries BCE. The eighth-century limit is determined by a destruction layer identified with a well-documented Assyrian conquest in 733/732 BCE.

If the inscription was created as late as 800 BCE--as seems likely--it would date from almost two centuries after the presumed lifetime of king David (traditionally he died ca. 970). The text would not attest his actual existence, but only the fact that at that time some believed that Israel was ruled by descendants of the legendary David. Compare the ancient Greek expression “the House of Atreus”; this conventional expression offers no assurance that Atreus actually lived. Another comparison is with the Tudor kings of England, who claimed descent from king Arthur. The claim is dubious, and Arthur, like David, may never have existed.


On August 4, 2005 the Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced the discovery of a building she believes to be the remains of King David’s palace as recorded in the Book of Samuel.  The Large Stone Structure, as it is commonly known, is a big public building located south of the Old City.  Artifacts found at the site suggest that it belongs to the tenth or ninth century BCE, but no definitive evidence has been obtained to link it definitively with King David.  To put the matter bluntly, Mazar seems to have been the victim of wishful thinking.

In 2013 a team of Israeli archaeologists claimed to have discovered the ruins of another palace belonging to King David, but other Israeli experts dispute the claim.  "Khirbet Qeiyafa is the best example exposed to date of a fortified city from the time of King David," said Yossi Garfinkel, a Hebrew University archaeologist, suggesting that David himself would have used the site. Garfinkel led the seven-year dig with Saar Ganor of Israel's Antiquities Authority.

Garfinkel said his team found cultic objects typically used by Judeans, the subjects of King David, and saw no trace of pig remains. Pork is forbidden under Jewish dietary laws. Clues like these, he asserted, were "unequivocal evidence" that David and his descendants had ruled at the site.  In fact this is quite a stretch.

Critics said the site could have belonged to other kingdoms of the area.  For example, the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University conceded that Khirbet Qeiyafa is an "elaborate" and "well-fortified" 10th century B.C. site, but said it could have been built by Philistines, Canaanites or other peoples in the area.

The consensus among most scholars is that no definitive physical proof of the existence of King David has been found.


The previous segments have shown the failure of “Biblical archaeology” to support the traditional understanding of Israelite origins. In the early, optimistic days it was thought that these investigations would “close the sale.” The bible was right after all! Alas, things did not turn out that way.

While some of the artifacts and architectural forms recovered in digs in Israel and nearby countries have a modest intrinsic interest, their larger impact is minimal. Such bric-à-bric provides a backdrop, and a very partial one at best. Archaeological discoveries have failed to provide any confirmation of the biblical narratives themselves. Unsupported by any concurrent outside evidence, our venerable scriptures are being increasingly exposed as a series of mythical constructs rife with later interests and assumptions. They are simply not history in any meaningful sense of the term.

Despite much earnest searching, no evidence has emerged thus far for the existence of a great empire under David and Solomon. In fact there is no inscriptional documentation that would affirm that either of these worthies actually existed. (As has been noted above, there is one text that has been claimed to refer to David, but probably does not).

Yet hope springs eternal. According to Matti Friedman, an Associated Press writer, “[a]n Israeli archaeologist has discovered what he believes is the oldest known Hebrew inscription on a 3,000-year-old pottery shard--a find that suggests Biblical accounts of the ancient Israelite kingdom of David could have been based on written texts.

“A teenage volunteer discovered the curved shard bearing five lines of faded characters in July in the ruins of an ancient town on a hilltop south of Jerusalem. Yossi Garfinkel, the Israeli archaeologist leading the excavations at Hirbet Qeiyafa, released his conclusions about the writing Thursday after months of study.

“He said the relic is strong evidence that the ancient Israelites were literate and could chronicle events centuries before the Bible was written.”

Note the use of the modal construction “could.” As the text has not yet been fully deciphered, no one knows what events it might hypothetically chronicle.

There are several steps in a chain of wishful thinking. A single pot sherd, written by who knows whom, demonstrates that the ancient Israelites were literate. How many of them were? And how many of these were engaged in “chronicling events” in formulations that made their way eventually into the Hebrew Bible? It is all a texture of coulds, woulds, and ifs. What is revealing about this speculation is its role in contemporary political discourse, serving to reinforce, however dubiously, the claims of the current regime to control “Eretz Israel.”

Although we are told that the find is the earliest Hebrew inscription, it is in fact written in characters known as proto-Canaanite, not in Hebrew letters. Since many other Canaanite documents are known from the earlier Ugaritic finds, the writing on this shard would scarcely be unique.

In responding to the find, prominent Biblical archaeologists have been warning against jumping to conclusions, and rightly so. Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar noted that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far. "The differentiation between the scripts, and between the languages themselves in that period, remains unclear," he said.

While the find may add another small item to the historical record, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University said that the enthusiastic claims being made about it went beyond the strict canons of science. Finkelstein warned against what he said was a "revival in the belief that what's written in the Bible is accurate like a newspaper." [I remark that in that case the bar is not very high.]

In short, the inscription may turn out to have some epigraphic and philological interest, but there is no way--based on what we have learned at present--that it could serve to bolster the pseudo-historical narratives found in the Hebrew Bible.


We sometimes hear religious conservatives proclaiming that the “Ten Commandments are the basis of our law.” This assertion is factually incorrect. The basis for legal system in the United States is the English Common Law as modified by the Constitution and the legal enactments of our Congress. Many other countries observe Civil Law traditions, deriving ultimately from the Roman codification of law. Neither of these stems from the Ten Commandments (otherwise known as the Decalogue), or indeed from any of the collections of laws and precepts found in various books of the Hebrew Bible.

What is the nature of the laws that appear in that Bible? Before proceeding further, one must set aside the common extension of the term “law” to cover the entire Pentateuch, or Torah in the strict sense. This umbrella approach is frequent among Jewish scholars, who write grandly of the “Laws of Moses” (a person who almost certainly did not exist). To be sure, laws are prominent in the Pentateuch, but so is much other matter--including myth, legend, folk tales, poetry, and pseudo-science.

Many believers, Jewish and Christian alike, regard the law passages of the Hebrew Bible as sui generis. They are, after all, the word of God, are they not? If so, God was rather busy in this sphere in ancient times, for modern scholarship has shown that the Israelite laws are part of a vast cultural and legal landscape of the ancient Near East.

This broader contextual approach, which is essential, depends on the decipherment of the cuneiform script. Here the decisive step was taken by Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British army officer, who published his interpretation of the Behistun inscription in 1851. Not unlike the Rosetta Stone, this monument was trilingual: Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. Gradually, other languages, including Sumerian, Urartian, Hittite, and Ugaritic, were deciphered.

Sometimes the term Cuneiform Law is used to refer to any of the legal compilations (commonly, but inaccurately known as “codes”) written in cuneiform script,that were developed and used throughout the ancient Middle East among the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Elamites, Hurrians, Kassites, and Hittites. Why are these documents not codes in the true sense of the word? The answer is that they lack the comprehensive scope and systematic arrangement that characterize such later achievements as the Justinian Code (sixth century CE) and the Napoleonic Code (nineteenth century). Instead, these Near Eastern legal corpora are florilegia, that is, compilations that probably grew gradually by accretion, but never extended to embrace the full range of prevailing law, much of which remained oral. As such, this type of law was transitional between the informal law customs of tribal peoples, of necessity oral because of lack of literacy, and our own comprehensive systems of written law.

That being said, the so-called Code of Hammurabi is the best known of the cuneiform laws. Discovered in December 1901, it contains over 282 paragraphs of text, not including the prologue and epilogue. As with the Flood story, and other Near Eastern motifs, striking similarities were discerned with similar material embedded in the Pentateuch. However, these one-to-one similarities must not be exaggerated, for it is important to situate Israelite law (as we know it) in the broader context of Near Eastern law and jurisprudence.

In 1934 the German biblical scholar Albrecht Alt took a decisive step forward. In a paper published in that year he distinguished between two types of laws found in the Pentateuch. The first, or Casuistic type, is characterized by the formulas “If such, then ...”, “When such, then .. , or “Supposing, then. ...” These laws are of frequent occurrence in the so-called Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22 - 23:33), situated immediately following one of the redactions of the Ten Commandments. Here are two examples pertaining to livestock. “If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide.” “When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” (Both NRSV). Formulated in this way, such laws are well suited to the actual operations of a court, because the fulfillment of the opening condition triggers the application of the law. Absent the condition, there is no cause of action, as contemporary lawyers say.

The second type of law, in Alt’s classification, consists of Apodictic laws. These dispense with the opening clause, flatly forbidding or commanding a certain sort of behavior. We are familiar with one category of these in utterances of the “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” type. An example, which has crept into the Book of Covenant noted above, is the notorious “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (KJV; Exodus 22:18).

Alt held that only the second type was distinctly Israelite, while the legal precepts of the first type were borrowed from the Semitic environment, specifically (he conjectured) from Canaanite law. Later scholars have offered some refinements, noting that the formal distinction of the two types is less clear cut than the German scholar had assumed.

There are also difficulties--and this is a key point--in localizing the sources of the two laws. Although major discoveries of Canaanite texts (the Ras Shamra finds) were being made at the very time that Alt was writing, no actual body of Canaanite law has been found. In all likelihood, the Casuistic laws were derived from several Near Eastern sources.

There remains the problem of the origin of the Apodictic laws. It is tempting to regard these as a distinctive hallmark of early Israelite culture, items that were hammered out in the harsh school of the desert. Yet since the whole exodus story is nowadays generally discounted, these laws were most likely created in the territory of ancient Israelite itself, as those who became Israelites gradually enucleated themselves from the Canaanite environment in which they had been originally embedded. It may be observed that one can easily obtain an Apodictic law by lopping off the opening conditional clause of a Casuistic law. Apodictic laws are then simply condensed, or (if you will) mutilated forms of Casuistic originals. I confess that I do not know how Biblical scholars would respond to this hypothesis.

At all events, a further question intrudes. Are the Apodictic pronouncements (including the Ten Commandments) actually laws? In fact they are better regarded as simply formulations of taboo, intended more for the observant than for the courts. As such, they are precursors of the vast compilation of 613 obligatory precepts developed by the rabbis. A harsh judgment would be that taken as a whole, such adjurations are a manifestation of a collective and transhistorical case of the Obsessive-Compulsive Syndrome.

At all events, the idea that is currently fashionable among Christian evangelicals and other conservatives--namely, that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of our secular law--is untenable. It does not correspond to what we know of the history of the common law and statute law in this country. Moreover, the Ten Commandments could not be a source of law, because they are not laws at all, but a list of demands and prohibitions.

POSTSCRIPT. Here are some examples of law collections from the ancient Near East:

* ca. 2350 BCE - Reforms of Urukagina of Lagash - not extant, but known through other sources
* ca. 2060 BCE - Code of Ur-Nammu (or Shulgi?) of Ur - Neo-Sumerian (Ur-III). Earliest legal florilegium of which fragments have been discovered
* ca. 1934-1924 BCE - Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin - With a typical epilogue and prologue, the law deals with penalties, the rights of man, right of kings, marriages, and more.
* ca. 1800 BCE - Laws of the city of Eshnunna (sometimes ascribed to king Bilalama)
* ca. 1758 BCE - Code of Hammurabi
* ca. 1500-1300 BCE - Assyrian law


I asked a well-informed friend to say, off the cuff, what the expression “wisdom literature” suggested to him. He responded that it would include things like Plato, Aristotle, Dante and so forth. In other words, the great books. In an era in which the classics are struggling for survival, this seems as good a definition as any. We read these perennial works because we hope to find wisdom in them. And if one persists, one is rarely disappointed.

Yet the actual nature of the genre of wisdom literature, as the term is employed by historians of literature and religion, is more modest. The works in this category tend to be relatively short and as a rule do not aspire to any great literary heights. Nor do they posit any highly developed philosophical system, though some have a distinct religious tincture. These writings are nonetheless significant as distillations of guiding principles and motifs that may be discerned in daily life. The category of wisdom literature is in fact very ancient, going back to the roots of our civilization in pharaonic Egypt and the ancient Middle East.

The concept of wisdom literature is something of a loose, baggy monster. Still, we may hazard some general principles. Standing over against the Euclidean ideal of systematic presentation that progresses from the simple to the complex, the arrangement tends to be casual, almost random. As in life itself, contradictions may occur now and then. The individual items are generally short and pithy. Some maxims comprise a distillation of experience, while others are precepts proffering advice. The aim is to help the individual to live better (or at least more honestly), and to avoid pitfalls along the way.

By far the most important repository of ancient wisdom literature stems from Egypt of the pharaohs. These texts, which seek to inform, teach or persuade, were called sebayt or "instruction." The genre includes maxims, such as Ptahhotep’s; complaints, such as the Eloquent Peasant; laments, such as Ipuwer; prophecies, such as that of Neferti; and testaments; such as that of King Amenemhet.

Texts of wisdom literature come from all periods of ancient Egypt; in fact, more compositions of this type have been recovered than any other form of Egyptian secular writing. The crucial period, however, was the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650), when intellectuals began to reflect on the disasters that had befallen the country during the preceding First Intermediate Period.

Some texts were popular as school texts; others were copied by scribes for their own pleasure. In this way earlier texts continued to be prosper as classics down through the centuries.

A major subcategory consists of maxims and advice for living. Sometimes the author (e.g. Ptahhotep) records his counsel to his son as to how lead a proper and successful life. The maxims proffer a range of advice, from correct behavior in social situations to proper conduct toward superior and subordinates. Their overarching purpose is the transmission of Ma’at, justice, including right and proper behavior, both for its own sake and as the key to a happy and successful life. The individual who follows this path is often described as "the still man" or "the silent man" – that is, the calm and effacing person – or the knowledgeable man, as opposed to the fool. The opposite of the "silent man" is the "heated man." The silent man is not so much taciturn as thoughtful, temperate, and judicious, one who insists upon taking a moment or more to reflect upon the situation before responding to the words and actions of the hothead who confronts him.

One of the most significant landmarks of the genre is the Instructions of Amenope, composed in the New Kingdom. The author advocates a life of devotion to moral conduct and public service, grounded in religious belief. One section admonishes, "Something else of value in the heart of god is to stop and think before speaking… The hot-headed man … may you be restrained before him. Leave him to himself, and god will know how to answer him." A key passage in the book of Proverbs (22:17- 24:22) is purloined from this Egyptian text, vividly demonstrating the general indebtedness of the Hebrew bible’s wisdom literature from this ancient Egyptian genre.

In the Hebrew Bible,several books rank, as a whole or in part, as wisdom literature: Job, Proverbs, Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), Psalms, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus). The latter two are deuterocanonical and generally omitted from Jewish and Protestant Bibles.

In both tone and content, these texts are markedly different from the Yahweh-saturated portions of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, they acknowledge the plethora and instability of human emotions as we experience them in daily life. Avoiding any facile discouragement of the interplay of such emotions, wisdom texts highlight these human responses to life. The task of reconciling them with divine providence is not always easy, as the book of Job famously demonstrates. While the wisdom writers treat the miracles of the ancient times as historical facts, they say nothing about a miraculous element in the lives of their own time. In fact the authors of these texts regard God as standing outside the world of physical nature and man, so that he is to a significant degree hidden and inscrutable. This sense of distance has given rise to a modern notion that these texts are religiously skeptical. They are not, but they are questioning.

For a fuller analysis, I turn now to one of the shorter books of this genre, Qohelet or Ecclesiastes. The main speaker in the book, identified by the name or title Qohelet (“the one who assembles”), introduces himself as "son of David, and king in Jerusalem." The work includes some personal or autobiographic matter, at times expressed in aphorisms and maxims set forth in terse paragraphs with reflections on the meaning of life and the best way of life. While Qohelet clearly endorses wisdom as a means for achieving a well-lived earthly life, he is unable to ascribe a transcendental significance to it. In the light of the overarching senselessness, he suggests that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's work, which are gifts from the hand of God.

Modern scholars have established that the work has no possible connection with King Solomon. Since it contains Persian loan words, it must date from after the return from the Babylonian captivity, that is after 539 BCE. The language of Qohelet is a late form of biblical Hebrew, coming close to postbiblical Mishnaic Hebrew. Accordingly, most critical scholars today assign the book’s composition to between 300 and 200 BCE--to the Hellenistic Period.

The book has always sat somewhat uneasily in the canon of the Hebrew bible, though it is generally accepted by Jews--and by Christians following them. During the first century CE its standing was challenged. Arguments against the inclusion of Qohelet were alleged opposition to statements in Psalms, internal incoherence, and heresy (supposed Epicureanism). However, those who favored its candidacy eventually prevailed.

Illustrating the commonplace that “the bible is full of quotations,” Qohelet includes a number of set pieces that have sunk deep roots in our culture. At 1:2, for example, we find: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (KJV).

In accord with the general purposes of wisdom literature, Qohelet's stated goal is to find out how to ensure one's benefits in life. For Qohelet, the inevitability of death necessarily overshadows any such quest. Pessimistically, Qohelet concludes that life (and indeed everything) is senseless. But we must not despair, for Qoheleth advises his audience to make the most of life, to seize the day, for there is no reliable means of securing favorable outcomes in the future.

The word conventionally rendered as vanity may be more accurately translated as “senseless.” In the Hebrew this word is hevel, הבל, which literally means vapor or breath. Clearly, Qohelet uses the expression metaphorically, and its precise meaning has been extensively debated. As has been noted, older English translations often render it vanity. Because in modern usage this word has often come to mean "self-pride," losing its Latinate connotation of emptiness, some translators have abandoned the word. Other translations include empty, futile, meaningless, absurd, fleeting, evanescent, or senseless. Some versions prefer the literal rendering vapor of vapors, leaving further interpretation to the reader.

Another famous set piece is the passage that “everything has its time (ch. 3): “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die,” and so forth (NRSV).

Verse five contains the earliest known metaphor for sexual release that is characterized as “getting one’s rocks off.” There is, the texts informs us, “a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” The sexual interpretation of this verse has been denied, but in my view it is clearly present.

Reading the bible offers all sorts of unexpected satisfactions.


We have seen abundant evidence that what has come to be known as the Hebrew bible is a very heterogeneous collection of documents. While scholars disagree about the dates to be assigned to the individual books and parts of books, it is clear that they must have originated over a period of several centuries, reflecting changing political and social circumstances. In addition, some texts bear the stamp of intensely local concerns, while others are meant to have a broader import.

Moreover, the ensemble known as the Hebrew bible shows a remarkable range of genres, including mythopeia, epic, legendary history, law codes, diatribes, and poetry (including erotic poetry). See Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction (New York, 1966) for an comprehensive account.

There are also many differences in theological perspective. One attempt to show this diversity has been made recently by Jack Miles in his tour de force entitled God: A Biography (New York, 1996). This writer holds that the sequence of the books as found in the Hebrew canon or Tanakh was designed to show an evolution of the idea of the godhead. However this may be, his account is one useful way of looking at the complexity of the texts. The overall pattern, Miles believes, is one of a gradual waning of God's direct involvement in the world. Yet there is no waning at the outset, where the deity appears as brutal, direct, and inescapable--a hoodlum, in short. [Hoodlum? Yet how else can one describe a capo who tried to kill his most faithful follower, Moses, as he slept? (Exodus 4:24)] After this not-so-heroic phase, though, God gradually matures and “grows up,” but he also becomes more aloof.

Beginning with the early anthropomorphic accounts of God walking through the garden in the cool of the evening, we read many stories of God having intimate, personal dialogue with the great figures of Israelite history. Genesis portrays God in his most basic roles: Creator, Destroyer (via the Flood,) and "Friend of the Family" (the personal god of Abraham and his biological descendants).

Miles then expands on God's role as Liberator, Lawgiver, and Liege Lord as told in the remainder of the Pentateuch. Then with the story of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, one glimpses God's manifestations as Conqueror, Father (to David and his line) and Arbiter. The book of Isaiah presents two opposing faces of God: Executioner, and forgiving, restoring Holy One.

Miles regards Job as the climactic book of the Tanakh. After Job, God becomes less imposing and more ordinary, even to the point of seeming absent (the Deus Absconditus of later theology), as we see in the sequence of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and most strikingly, Esther, where the name of God never occurs. To be sure, the book of Daniel offers a final vision of a high, distant, and receding figure called the Ancient of Days.

As I have suggested, this is only one reading of the complexity that resides in the Hebrew bible as we know it. On the one hand, Miles’ view is somewhat conventional, for the texts are interpreted as literature, so to speak, without delving overly much into the findings of the historical-critical school. On the other hand, it is almost a polytheistic reading, since the roles God assumes are so diverse. Although he insists, perhaps too much, on monotheism, Miles does allow for some lingering of the actual heritage of Canaanite polytheism in the world of ancient Israel. The persistence of this heritage would account for some of the major differences in God’s personae.

Miles’ bravura account ranks as a signal instance of a number of such readings. Other, more sober observers, have come to similar conclusions. For example, the American theologian Rolf P. Knierim stresses that the Hebrew bible contains not one but several different theologies (Knierim, The Task of Old Testament Theology, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995). Some of these theologies complement each other, but others are contradictory, even within the same book.

In short, the books of Hebrew bible show diversity in date and origin, in genre, and in theological emphasis. Nonetheless, some observers have claimed to detect a common ethos, a mind-set or mentality, that suffuses the whole. The concept is akin to the modern notion of national character as a defining element in major cultural achievements. Thus, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a book entitled The Englishness of English Art (London, 1951).

Is there then a Hebrewness in the Hebrew bible?

Some have maintained such a view. The years immediately following World War II saw the rise in theological circles of a current of discourse about “Hebrew thought.” The Scottish biblical scholar James Barr has ably summarized this notion, beginning with the standard comparison with Greek thought. “The Greek mind is abstract, contemplative, static or harmonic, impersonal; it is dominated by certain distinctions--matter and form, one and many, individual and collective, time and timelessnes, appearance and reality. The Hebrew mind is active, concrete, dynamic, intensely personal, formed upon wholeness and not upon distinctions. Thus it is able to rise above, or to escape, the great distinctions which lie across Greek thought. Greek thought is unhistorical, timeless,based on logic and system. Hebrew thought is historical, centred in time and movement, based in life.” (Barr, Old and New in Interpretation, London, 1966, p. 34).

This contrast was popular in Christian theological seminaries, where it was assumed that the positive features of “Hebrew thought,” thus conceived, found their natural continuation in Christianity. Yet as Barr (a critic of the view) tartly observes, “the function of the contrast has not been the description of the ancient world but an analysis of different elements within modern culture.”

The locus classicus of the notion is a book by a Norwegian theologian, Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (English trans., London, 1960). Boman advances arguments based on linguistic features of Hebrew, including verbs and the system of tenses. A strand in European thought that goes back at least as far as Friedrich Max Müller in the middle of the nineteenth century holds there is a petrified philosophy within language. The corollary of this view is that each people or nation has its own unique social psyche, and this will be reflected in the language they employ. This approach is sometimes termed linguistic idealism. For his part, Boman claims to deduce the social psyche from the linguistic evidence; yet it seems clear that he started with a set of generalizations, and then attempted to support them with linguistic evidence.

At all events, as Barr has shown in his critique, it is impossible to demonstrate a word view simply from lexical and grammatical features alone (Semantics of Biblical Language, London, 1961). For example, French and Hungarian have very different linguistic structures; however, both peoples share essentially the same world view, which is Western European.

By and large, approaches like Boman’s have found little favor in Jewish circles. Perhaps the reason is that adherence to Judaism is more a matter of orthopraxy than orthodoxy. That is to say, the defining element lies in the realm of behavior, practice, and observance rather than in creed. For this reason Jews have integrated well into American society: they do not possess a distinctive “Hebrew world view” and so are free to subscribe to the American world view.

However, there are exceptions to this seeming indifference to the concept of Hebrew thought. Professor Menachem Alexenberg, who has served as a professor of art and education at several major universities, has indicated his adhesion to the idea. In earlier years, the Italian Jewish art historian Bruno Zevi has applied the concepts to modern architecture, seeing, somewhat curiously, Frank Lloyd Wright as an exemplar of the Hebrew mode. More recently, a talented amateur, Jeff A. Benner, who seems to be Jewish, has been conducting a charming and informative website under the auspices of his American Hebrew Research Center ( I have nothing but praise for Mr. Benner’s efforts to help readers learn Hebrew. However, I am not persuaded by his endorsement of Boman’s work.

Other attempts to establish a distinctive world view within the Hebrew bible have to do with the nature of time. As Augustine famously suggested, the subject of time is alluring, but maddeningly elusive. At all events, there is supposed to be a fundamental contrast between cyclical and linear time. Some learned writers, such as Oscar Cullmann and John Marsh, affirm that Greek thought is cyclical. In this view of time its course leads back around to the end, when the cycle starts all over again. The opposite of cyclical time is linear time. It would seem to follow that Hebrew thought is linear. However, more detailed studies have shown that much Greek thought is not cyclical and not all Hebrew thought is linear. The contrast, if it exists at all, is blurred.

That being said, I believe that Cullmann has made an important contribution to the Christian (not Jewish) concept of time by highlighting the achievement of Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Scythian monk who first established the conventional distinction between BC and AD. Chiristian thinking about time thus establishes an axial point with negative numbers used to calculate the BC years before the Incarnation. This seems to be the first calendrical system of this kind, and it is one that has enjoyed a phenomenal success throughout the world. In no way are its Christian origins effaced by the current fashion for replacing BC and AD with BCE and CE.

I turn now to a very different theme. “Corporate personality” is a term employed in the English common law. It refers to the fact that a group or body can be regarded as legally as an individual, possessing the rights and duties of such status.

In 1911 the English theologian H. Wheeler Robinson introduced the term corporate personality into biblical interpretation. In the Hebrew bible the concept was applied to where the relationships between individuals and the groups that they were part of were treated. For example, in some interpretations of the text Achan's family was collectively punished for a sin that is viewed as primarily Achan's alone. The penalty of Ham’s sin with his father Noah was passed down to his descendants.

The notion of Old Testament corporate personality encompasses four features: 1) Identification. Individuals are never considered in isolation from the groups they belong to, and are commonly treated as representatives for, or even as wholly identified with, those groups; 2) Extension. The boundaries of the individual are extended to encompass other persons who belong to that individual. This extension can be both in space, as from a king to a kingdom, and in time, as from a parent to his descendants. Examples of extension include Achan (who has just been noted), Korah (Izhar's son), and David, where a leader is dealt with by punishing or rewarding those whom he leads. 3) Realism. The relationship between the group and the individual is a real one. 4) Oscillation. There exists an oscillation back and forth between the group and the individual.

Not surprisingly, in view of its Christian origins, the concept of corporate personality has been applied to the New Testament as well. However, in Pauline theology, the notion of corporate personality is largely restricted to its representational aspect. Paul's comparison between Jesus Christ and Adam is viewed, by those theologians that adhere to the concept, as an identification of Christ as the king and those people in the kingdom that he leads. Similarly, in his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul speaks of Gentiles being blessed both "in" Abraham and also "with" him. In the latter case, though, there are some difficulties in rendering the Greek. In thee" is the is the King James translation of the Greek. More recent versions use the English translation "through you" for "ἐν σοι," on the basis that Paul is directly quoting the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, whose original Hebrew preposition "be" (which was translated to "ἐν" in the Septuagint) is more accurately rendered in the instrumental sense of "by means of." Hence "through" rather than "in.”

It may be questioned whether in its origins the idea of corporate personality is unique to the ancient Israelites, who presumably passed it on to their Christian successors. Many observers have concluded that in a number of East Asian societies the collective is more important than the individual. Certainly this idea was prominent in the former Soviet Union, whose leaders violently rejected the heritage of Judaism and Christianity. In fact the notion has since fallen out of favor with theologians.

In summary, it appears that attempts to detect a unitary world view informing the Hebrew Bible have failed. We are left with a sense of its irreducible pluralism.


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James Goodman's "But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac" - See more at:
James Goodman's "But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac" - See more at:
James Goodman's "But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac" - See more at:

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