Monday, 8 December 2014

David and Solomon

After Joshua the narrative of the Deuteronomistic History continues with the book of Judges, which tells us more about the process whereby the Israelites settle Canaan. Along the way it introduces some memorable stories and characters such as Deborah the prophetess and Samson and Delila. The two books of Samuel and of Kings describe the events of the next few centuries up until the disaster of conquest by Babylonia.

The rise of kings

The ‘judges’ who rule Israel are charismatic religious leaders who must defend the Israelites from their enemies. Society is chaotic, without a central power. The main message of Judges is summed up by one recurring lament:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. [Judges 17:6]

The Israelites fail to exterminate the indigenous Canaanite peoples, as they were meant to. They forget their unique destiny and start adopting Canaanite gods and rituals. To put a stop to this corruption, Israel needs a king: it is not possible to organise a state without a strong central power.

In 1 Samuel, the elders of Israel demand that the judge Samuel appoint a king. He warns them of some of the perils of monarchy, but fails to dissuade them. The first choice is Saul, who violates God’s instructions. His replacement is David, a young shepherd from Bethlehem, who proves his worth when he defeats the Philistine champion Goliath armed only with a sling.

If Saul is the failed attempt at monarchy, David is the ideal. Under his kingship, told in the two books of Samuel, Israel is transformed from an alliance of theocratic tribes into a nation state. He fights a series of wars against the Philistines, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and Arameans, turning Canaan into a strong Israelite empire with its capital in Jerusalem, the ‘city of David’. For the Biblical writers, he is the Messiah (mashiach) or ‘anointed’:

the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the sweet psalmist of Israel. [2 Samuel 23:1]

David is succeeded by his son Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, fabulous wealth and construction projects – it is Solomon who builds the first Temple (1 Kings 6). His fame is so widespread that the queen of Sheba travels over a thousand miles to pay her respects (1 Kings 10) [1].

This period, when Israel was a single kingdom under a single king, is known as the United Monarchy, the golden age of ancient Israel. (When the kingdom later splits into Israel and Judah, that unity is lost.) King David is a central figure in both Judaism and Christianity. Yet paradoxically, the personal lives of David and his family are cruel and dysfunctional. David is repeatedly guilty of transgressions, such as adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed. His eldest son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar; in revenge, David’s other son Absalom has Amnon killed. Absalom goes on to rebel against David, raping his concubines.

Solomon too is less than ideal. As the son of Bathsheba he is illegitimate. He has 300 concubines, as well as 700 wives who lead him into idolatry. His reputation for great wisdom is openly contradicted by what happened after his death – the Israelites were so discontented by his regime and the prospect of being ruled by his son Rehoboam that the ten northern tribes seceded and formed a new kingdom, dividing the mythical empire of David for good.


The main narrative of the Bible, from Abraham’s journey to Canaan to the Exodus and Joshua’s conquests, are probably entirely fictional. Only from the advent of the monarchy does archaeology begin to vaguely support the Bible narrative. The earliest evidence is a stele found at Tel Dan, dating to the second half of the 9th century BCE, that mentions the defeat of a king of the ‘house of David’, which at least suggests that someone at the time believed he existed, and is pretty good evidence that there was a historical David and a Davidic dynasty.

However, neither David nor Solomon is mentioned in Egypt or Mesopotamian records – both empires were in decline at that time but the absence is still surprising... until we look at contemporary Israelite culture more closely.

David’s empire as described in the Bible.
Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.

If we accept that David and Solomon were in fact historical figures, they probably ruled between c.1000-930 BCE. The Bible describes a huge territory with its capital at Jerusalem and stretching from the Red Sea to the Euphrates, with a number of nations such as the Philistines, Moabites and Aram-Damascenes becoming client or vassal states. The archaeology from that period, by contrast, suggests there was an Israelite culture of some extent but there is no sign of the infrastructure, literacy, wealth, or population necessary to support an empire.

The historical David was probably an exceptional and memorable leader, but only in a small pastoral community. The kingdom of Judah was barely populated and impoverished, with no significant towns: even its capital, Jerusalem, appears to have been a simple village rather than a major city. As for Solomon, with his reputation as a builder of cities, the archaeologist Yigael Yadin caused excitement by claiming that gates and stables excavated at Megiddo, Gezer and Hazor might have been part of Solomon’s building programme. But archaeologists now think the structures were built a full century too late. Solomon’s crowning achievement, the first Temple in Jerusalem, may have been obliterated by the works of Herod, or lie hidden under the present Temple Mount where political sensitivities preclude excavation. But any big building leaves physical remains behind, and none have been found for any of Solomon’s supposed great projects.

The location that did have monumental buildings and a strong king in the 10th century was Samaria, seat of the Omride dynasty and capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Unlike its southern neighbour, this kingdom was strong, fertile, prosperous and internationally connected.

The culture of David and Solomon doesn’t register in the historical records because it wasn’t worth registering. There is virtually no physical evidence of any sort, outside the Biblical text, of either man. Historically, they were probably local folk heroes whose importance was wildly exaggerated by later myth-makers – they were certainly not great kings.

Judah, Israel and Josiah

As we saw in our last article, the Israelite culture seems to have emerged in about the 12th century BCE from sparse pastoral communities, responding perhaps to pressures created by the Bronze Age collapse. Canaanite towns ruined by the turmoil of the period were rebuilt as Israelite towns. The two Israelite kingdoms of Israel and Judah arose in the same period. In the more fertile north the population grew, agricultural output increased, there was specialisation and literacy. In the south, a remote, highland country poor for agriculture, Jerusalem remained a mere village in a weak state.

This relationship was turned on its head when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom in approximately 722 BCE. (We have explained the unfolding of these events on a previous occasion.) A few years later the Assyrians returned, but after destroying Lachish, they pulled back from a siege of Jerusalem upon receipt of a heavy tribute and Judah survived. With the northern kingdom of Israel defunct, not only did Judah become the centre of Israelite culture, it also ended up writing the histories. For this reason, the United Monarchy is approached in the Hebrew Bible from the southern point of view. The northern Omrides are castigated by the Bible as decadent and – the ultimate crime – polytheistic:

[Ahab the son of Omri] took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him. [1 Kings 16:30-31]

A common interpretation of the passage is that the famous queen Jezebel is responsible for bringing the cult of Baal to Samaria, when she ought to have submitted to Israelite customs like the exemplary Ruth. Later, in 1 Kings 18, she has prophets of Yahweh killed.

Finkelstein and Silberman argue that in the Judah of King Josiah in the 7th century BCE, the story of the empire of David and Solomon was transformed into a prophecy of a united kingdom of Israel. In the Deuteronomistic History, which was probably written at that time, the wealth of the northern kingdom is transferred, by the magical stroke of a pen, to the house of David. It imagines an era when the northern and southern kingdoms were one mighty state, and supplies a narrative about how they became separated. The reasons for this feat of literature were geopolitical: with Assyria in decline, Josiah saw an opportunity to conquer the territory of the former northern kingdom, under one king of the Davidic dynasty, based in Jerusalem. Josiah would be a new David who would reunite the Israelites:

And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. [2 Kings 22:2]

The book of Joshua describes the boundaries of the territory Josiah wished to take over, and David and Solomon were projected as kings of all Israelites, based in Jerusalem, a model of the power and luxury that would be enjoyed if Josiah succeeded. All Israelites would be united under a Davidic king, and all Israelite cult would be united in a single Temple. To realise this, the Israelites had to obey God’s laws as laid out in the Torah, a policy that had the happy effect of allowing Josiah to centralise power and ideology from the royal palace in Jerusalem.

But as so often, the grandiose promises ascribed to Yahweh by one earthly authority or another would be proved hollow:

In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him, and Pharaoh Neco killed him at Megiddo, as soon as he saw him. [2 Kings 23:29]

The great leader was snuffed out, and his son Jehoahaz was put in bonds by the Pharaoh “that he might not reign in Jerusalem”.

It should be pointed out that there is little direct evidence to support Finkelstein and Silberman’s interpretation. It is constructed from the (often scanty) archaeology and from cautious readings of the Bible. We cannot prove, for example, that King Josiah even existed, let alone that he introduced religious reforms, or ordered the writing of key texts. But for me, this is for now the most convincing account of what might have happened all those centuries ago to produce those Bible texts.

The label of ‘anointed one’ or Messiah, previously a comment on the legitimate succession of the Davidic line to the throne in Judah, now changed its meaning. From an imminent historical event, the coming of the Messiah was put off until a vague time in the future: one day, a leader would appear who would realise the divine mission to create a kingdom of the Israelites. This myth became one of the bedrocks of Judaism.

The Jews are still waiting for their Messiah. Another world religion thinks he has already come: the myth survived into the Roman age and helped to define Jesus of Nazareth.

[1] Scholars generally agree that Sheba was the Arabian kingdom of Saba in modern-day Yemen.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The dubious conquest of Canaan

When the Israelites travel north from Sinai and reach the borders of Canaan, they send spies to scout the land (Numbers 13). They are so disheartened by the strength of the cities there that God curses them for lack of faith, condemning them to continue to wander the deserts until a new generation has replaced the old. Finally the Israelites return to the promised land, and on the plains of Moab the elderly Moses reveals the laws his people must obey if they are to inherit Canaan. He warns of the evils of idolatry, as well as laying down various social rules and insisting they worship in a single sanctuary (Deuteronomy 26:2). The fate of Israel depends upon its obedience to the covenant.

Moses, who is the dominant figure among the Israelites for four of the Torah’s five books, dies on the border and never enters Canaan. This is surprising because he was especially favoured: one of the few who got to speak to God face to face. An explanation is given in Numbers 20, where we see the Israelites in the wilderness of Zin without water. Yahweh tells Moses to gather his people and “tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water”. Instead he strikes it twice with his stick, saying “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” The water flows, but Yahweh immediately says:

Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Numbers 20:12)

Moses and Aaron have gravely offended Yahweh. Firstly, Moses uses his stick instead of speaking to the rock as he was told. Secondly, by claiming to be ones bringing water out of the rock, they are forgetting that the power is Yahweh’s not theirs. If Yahweh’s punishment seems harsh, it is entirely consistent with his brutal character, which is nowhere clearer than during the genocidal conquest of Canaan.

Moses’ death ends both the book of Deuteronomy and the Torah. The books that follow, known as the Deuteronomistic History – Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings – relate the ongoing history of the Israelites from the conquering of the promised land, through the kingships of David and Solomon, to the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile.

The Israelites march around the walls of Jericho.
The new leader is Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, who was one of the twelve spies sent into Canaan in Numbers 13. He and Caleb were the only spies who did not return full of pessimism, which is why Yahweh allows them to enter the promised land instead of letting them die out like everyone else. The book of Joshua is in two parts. The first twelve chapters report the invasion and conquest: once the Israelite multitude has crossed the River Jordan, Joshua leads a military campaign to conquer the new land, which belongs to seven relatively small nations. The Israelites give these nations the option to clear out, the price of refusal being annihilation. The reason for this ethnic cleansing is that the Canaanites could corrupt the Israelites with their sinful, idolatrous ways. The great kings of Canaan refuse, and Joshua smashes them to fulfil Israel’s national destiny. This process includes the famous episode of the destruction of the walls of Jericho, after which the Israelites turn their genocidal rhetoric into practice:

Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword. (Joshua 6:21)

The Israelites take Ai, then are tricked into a treaty by Gibeon. Five Amorite kings join forces (chapter 10) but their forces are crushed, aided by huge hailstones from heaven. Joshua’s army takes the cities of the south then turns north to take Hazor. Eventually, Joshua takes “the whole land” – Yahweh’s divine promise is fulfilled, and the Canaanites are (mostly) annihilated. The land is then divided between the twelve tribes. The seven years of conquest are followed by seven more of settlement. In the last few chapters, Joshua calls the tribes together to renew the covenant, after which he dies and leadership of the Israelites passes to a set of leaders known as judges.

Joshua vs history

According to the Bible, Joshua’s army exterminates several terrified populations of Canaan as it captures city after city, a saga that makes much more entertaining reading than the dreary edicts of Deuteronomy. As it is taken as historical truth by many Jews and Christians, it’s tempting to ask if any of it really happened.

Many of the cities reportedly smashed by the Israelites – Jericho, Ai, Gibeon, Lachish, etc – were real places that have been found and excavated. We would expect to find clear evidence of Joshua’s campaign in the form of destroyed settlements, new site names, changes in pottery styles, and so on. The invasion’s likely date, leading on from our timescale for the Exodus, was the late 13th century BCE, and in some cities there is indeed evidence of fire damage inflicted during that century. But many of the sites, such as Ai and Gibeon, weren’t even inhabited – including Jericho, which at the time didn’t have any walls. The exception is the important town of Hazor, which shows evidence of a catastrophic fire in the late 13th century BCE. It’s possible that Israelites caused this. However, we must remember that this is the period of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a major crisis that left the ancient Near East in ruins. The major attack on Egyptian hegemony in this time came from the Sea Peoples, who are at least as likely to have burned Hazor. We don’t know who the Sea Peoples were, or precisely how much destruction they were responsible for, but the wrecking of the Canaanite cities happened over a century, not in one seven-year campaign.

It seems unlikely that the Israelites, a ragbag of former slaves with no military experience, could have fought a triumphant war against strong Canaanite cities equipped with forts and chariots. What makes it even more unlikely is that the region was not a series of independent cities. We know that from the 15th to the 12th centuries BCE, Canaan was controlled by Egypt, and guarded by Egyptian garrisons. The king in the late 13th century was Ramses II, a strong king unlikely to tolerate any military challenge in the region, and the Egyptian presence continues after the supposed date of Joshua’s conquest. It is unthinkable that the Egyptians would leave such a huge attack against their Levantine possessions unrecorded, yet the only mention of the Israelites is on the Merneptah stele, which records they were crushingly defeated [1].

There are more problems. If we are to believe Numbers 26:51, the Israelites had over 600,000 fighting men at their disposal. With an army of that size, Joshua could not only have conquered Canaan, he could have carried on to conquer the entire known world. Alexander the Great probably commanded less than a tenth of that figure. Then there is the claim that the Israelites conquered Canaan in a single campaign in which no indigenous person or animal was spared.

Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. [Joshua 22:43-44.]

However the narrative of struggle against surrounding peoples continues in later books after Joshua’s death, indicating that the colonial process actually took much longer, and that many Canaanites survived Joshua’s campaign. The very first verse of Judges has the Israelites asking: “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” Even Joshua contradicts itself by noting that Joshua failed to conquer certain peoples and regions. One example is the Jebusites in Jerusalem; according to 2 Samuel that city was not taken until King David’s time.

The Bible therefore, as we already knew, is highly unreliable. Not only is it a poor match for the facts, but even its own account is not consistent.

For something more substantial we must turn to archaeology, which tells us that around 1200 BCE a series of hilltop villages started to spring up on the outskirts of existing Canaanite towns. These small settlements were remote and self-sufficient, with little or no social stratification, and their cultural remains (such as pottery) suggest a semi-nomadic people who became farmers. As productivity in Canaan failed, pastoralists had to grow their own grain, and settle. The Israelites therefore were probably a culture indigenous to Canaan, possibly growing from a merging of local peoples who began to establish farming settlements during the Bronze Age Collapse. Hebrew for example is really just a dialect of Canaanite, and Israelite material culture is Canaanite.

Finkelstein and Silberman argue that the historical evidence directly contradicts the Bible:

The emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan – they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people – the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were – irony of ironies – themselves originally Canaanites!

If they were Canaanites themselves, why did the Israelites’ texts promote these myths about conquering the region from outside? Genesis and Exodus too reinforce the idea that the Israelites were not native to Canaan, claiming they originated in Mesopotamia, then colonised Canaan only after escaping from a long period in Egypt. The narrative seems to want to obscure the Israelites’ Canaanite origins, perhaps as part of forming their identity: the myths say who you are, but also who you are not. In part the Israelites may have been flattering themselves as triumphant warriors. More importantly, the myth emphasises their distinctiveness, perhaps to strengthen their sense of solidarity and to encourage them to obey the Torah rather than Canaanite pagan traditions. The Israelites had invented the concept of a single all-powerful god, in a context where the peoples around them worshipped several gods. By posing as outsiders, they distanced themselves from the idolatrous cultures. The story of their servitude in Egypt is a distortion of the likely truth that the early Israelites were subservient to Egypt in Canaan.

The wickedness of the indigenous peoples – i.e., worshipping their own gods, not Yahweh – supposedly justifies the genocidal campaign that mostly wipes them out. However, the book that follows Joshua, Judges, warns us:

“And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals.” (Judges 2:10-11)

Yet again, the Israelites quickly forget about the god who has manifested himself directly in their history, and fall into the very corruption that the genocide was meant to obliterate.

Joshua’s narrative of the Israelites’ national origins is not history. It is a myth of the establishment of a state, strewn with brave deeds and impossible episodes such as the stopping of the sun. It was probably put together from a variety of sources: king lists, tribal histories, misrememberings of real events, and folk memories from distant and troubled times, recrafted for literary reasons into a single book of stirring war stories. The general message is clear. When the Israelites obey God’s laws they are victorious; when they don’t, they are punished with setbacks.

This suggests another possible reason for why Joshua is written the way it is. If we accept Richard Elliott Friedman’s persuasive account, the book was written during the 7th century BCE during the reign of Josiah (with a further edit during the Exile). The book emphasised possession of a specific portion of land as part of Israel’s national destiny – the territories outlined in Joshua were precisely the area that Josiah hoped to conquer from his base in Judah, and rule over as the founder of new regional empire. Whether or not Joshua matches historical and archaeological reality is irrelevant to its purpose: it is not history but religious propaganda aimed at defining a nation in the service of a contemporary geopolitical project.

In recent decades, the racism and territorialism of Joshua has been served a new purpose – to provide religious legitimacy for the modern Zionist state in its colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories.

[1] “The people of Israel is laid waste – their crops are not.”

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Exodus

The last chapters of Genesis shift the narrative to Egypt. When Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, he wins Pharaoh’s favour by interpreting dreams and ends up as the highest official in the land. One dream warns that famine will strike in seven years, so he sensibly makes preparations by storing grain. When the famine comes, Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to buy food from the stores – they don’t recognise him at first, and he toys with them, but when he finally reveals his identity they are joyful and contrite. Joseph persuades his brothers to move to Egypt, with their father Jacob and his household, to live under his protection.

The second book of the Torah, Exodus, now continues the story. After Joseph’s death, the Israelites continue to prosper in Egypt.

The people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. (Exodus 1:7) 

Then a new Pharaoh [1] comes to power “who did not know Joseph.” Alarmed by the strength of the Israelite community and the threat they could pose, the regime presses them into slavery and eventually orders the male first-borns killed. Ironically, this produces their saviour. One Israelite woman saves her son’s life by sending him down the river in a basket of papyrus reeds. He is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who names him Moses (an Egyptian name) and raises him as a nobleman. Aware of his background, Moses one day kills a guard he sees hitting an Israelite slave, then flees to a town near Sinai to begin a new life as a married shepherd. God appears to him as a burning bush, declaring that the Israelites shall be freed to return to Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey”. Moses doubts himself, even pleading, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” But on Yahweh’s insistence, Moses returns to Egypt and, together with his brother Aaron, organises the Israelites and demands their freedom.

When Pharaoh refuses, Yahweh curses Egypt with ten plagues, until with characteristic brutality he kills every first-born male in Egypt (including cattle). The Israelites are instructed to paint their doorposts in lamb’s blood so that death will pass over them – this is celebrated in Judaism as Passover. Pharaoh finally relents and Moses leads his people out of Egypt, guided by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. As they reach the Red Sea, however, Pharaoh has changed his mind and is close in pursuit with chariots. There follows the famous episode of the parting of the sea: the Israelites cross to safety and Moses closes the waters to drown the pursuing Egyptian troops.

Three months later (chapter 19) the Israelites arrive at Sinai, where Yahweh descends upon the mountain in a cloud of thunder and lightning. This is the real climax of the story. Sinai is the stage for Yahweh’s third great covenant [2], in which he promises to be the protector of Israel and deliver to them the land of Canaan, provided they live according to his laws. To Moses Yahweh issues ten commandments, along with a series of further instructions on social and religious issues. Moses takes these laws to the people for their approval, writes them down, then ascends the mountain again for forty days to receive yet more instructions (chapter 24). When he returns, he finds the Israelites are worshipping a golden calf in a flagrant breach of the laws against idolatry (chapter 32). Furious, he smashes the tablets of the commandments, but persuades Yahweh not to slaughter everyone. According to very precise instructions, the Israelites build the Ark of the Covenant, and a portable dwelling to house it called the Tabernacle, and the covenant is renewed.

The book of Leviticus continues the establishment of the Mosaic covenant, with the Israelites camped at Sinai while inside the tent Moses receives a seemingly endless series of instructions from Yahweh on diet, forms of worship, social behaviour, and so on. In Numbers the Israelites scout out the land of Canaan but are dismayed at the strength of the nations there, and God punishes their lack of faith with years of wandering, long enough for the generation of weak faith to die out. In all, it is forty years before the Israelites finally settle the promised land.

The escape from Egypt, the ensuing wanderings and the covenant at Sinai are so important that they fill four of the five books of the Torah/Pentateuch. 

The escape

The ten plagues may be seen as a contest between the Israelites’ god Yahweh and the Egyptians’ gods (as personified by the ‘wise men and the sorcerers’, the magicians of Egypt). At first the two sides keep pace. When Yahweh turns the Nile into blood, the magicians ‘by their secret arts’ do the same. When Yahweh covers the land in frogs, the magicians do the same. Then Yahweh covers Egypt in gnats, and the magicians can’t match him any more [3], so he proves himself the mightiest.

Though Yahweh wants to win the Israelites their freedom, during the contest he deliberately ‘hardens the heart’ of Pharaoh to make sure he doesn’t free the Israelites too soon. The reason for this oddity is given explicitly:

But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9:16)

Christians generally try to explain Yahweh’s behaviour by pointing out that other verses (e.g. Exodus 8:15) say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, so this was broadly the same thing as God doing it; thus the fault ultimately rests with Pharaoh, who deserved it for being so cruel. It is strange that the omnipotent cosmic power Yahweh has so much concern for worldly fame, and if he had been more merciful, some of the plagues – most appallingly the execution of all Egypt’s firstborn sons – could have been avoided. Yahweh shows not only a very human interest in celebrity and creating a good story, but an excessive cruelty that is unleashed many times in the Hebrew Bible.

We see this also in the collective nature of the punishment. The suffering of the Israelites is the work of the Egyptian ruling, slave-owning class, yet Yahweh punishes the entire nation, even its livestock:

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. (Exodus 11:5)

The great majority of the victims therefore would be relatively impoverished farmers. The emphasis on cruelty rather than forgiveness, on punishing an entire nation instead of singling out the rich, are two powerful differences between the world view of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Gustave Doré’s image of the Egyptians
drowning in the Red Sea
After the Israelites have left, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends chariots after them, trapping them between his forces and the sea. Like the book of Exodus as a whole, this episode (chapters 14-15) was probably put together from different sources and has its own fascinating background.

The oldest section is generally believed to be The Song of the Sea, found in 15:1-18, sung by the Israelites after their successful crossing. Yahweh blasts wind from his nostrils and his enemies sink “like lead in the mighty waters”. In this passage Yahweh appears very like an Ancient Near Eastern storm god. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh rides in the clouds (Psalm 68), his voice is like thunder, he commands wind and rain and lightning, and he sometimes battles sea monsters (e.g. Psalm 74). These traits are shared with his Canaanite contemporary Baal, as reported in a series of stories in Ugaritic known as the Baal Cycle, as well as in Marduk, from the Babylonian Enuma Elish, two gods who in turn owe a debt to older Sumerian gods. Baal even has a palace built for himself on Mount Zephon that could be a counterpart to Yahweh’s Temple on Mount Zion.

It is possible that Yahweh, once the insignificant god of a minor, nomadic people, gradually acquired traits from the established Canaanite religions once the Israelites settled and grew in importance. He may even have been made the protagonist of stories that were not originally about him. Suppressing the cult of Baal became a priority during the first millennium BCE, when the Israelites were keen to stress the difference between themselves and the other Canaanites – it is the main target of the anti-idolatrous invective in the Hebrew Bible, since the cult of Baal was the main competitor to the cult of Yahweh.

Of course, the Bible makes Yahweh not a purely mythological figure but an actor in history. He physically delivers his chosen people from the clutches of their foes, and accompanies them across a specific and familiar landscape over a specific period of time. But like any writers of fiction, the priests drew upon the traditions of their time and place, while adjusting those traditions to their literary needs and world view.

Historicity of the Exodus

It is pointless to examine whether Biblical episodes such as the ten plagues or the parting of the seas could have really happened, and the Bible’s value as literature should not reduced to whether it is literally true or not. Nonetheless, we may ask: is there any broader historical substance to these figures and events?

There is archaeological evidence that ancient Semites did migrate from Canaan to Egypt, to trade, work, or serve as slaves. A painting in the tomb of Beni Hasan, for example, dating to 1991-1783 BCE, depicts a caravan of Semitic traders. It would be surprising if there was no relationship, as Egypt was one of the economic powerhouses of the ancient world and geographically close to the Near East. It was a stable land of plenty that kept stores for the hard times, and in which migrants could become officials or priests, so Joseph’s service as an official for the king is plausible enough. Furthermore, Egypt was a natural destination for people hit by famine or war.

For anyone seeking to prove the Exodus really happened, this seems like a good start. But we soon hit problems. Tracing individual nomads from the 13th century BCE is a hopeless task. We have already seen that it is impossible to prove the historicity of Abraham, and likewise there is no evidence whatsoever outside the Bible text that Moses, Aaron and the others were real people.

Although there is nothing in ancient Egypt’s surviving records to corroborate the Exodus story, there is tantalising evidence of large-scale Semitic migration. The Ptolemaic historian Manetho recorded an invasion by a people known as the Hyksos, which took place in about 1670-1570 BCE. The Hyksos’ Semitic names suggest Canaanite origins – their arrival was probably a gradual immigration of several peoples rather than a single invasion by one ethnic group. After controlling Lower (i.e. northern) Egypt for a couple of centuries, the Hyksos were driven out. There is evidence therefore of a major Semitic migration to Egypt, and of a subsequent expulsion. A folk memory of this upheaval might have survived a few hundred years to inspire the story of the Exodus.   

The Bible says the Exodus happened 480 years before the building of Solomon’s temple, placing it in the 15th century BCE. But our earliest evidence for the existence of the Israelites dates to only 1204 BCE: a stele erected by King Merneptah on which he boasts of having defeated in Canaan, amongst others, the Israelites.

Merneptah Stele from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo: Webscribe (licence).

This inscription is extremely important, as it is the earliest known external reference to anything mentioned in the Bible. Precisely what the text says is disputed, but it seems to confirm that there was a culture known as the Israelites in 1204 BCE. If we count back forty years of wanderings and twenty or so years for settling the ‘promised land’ before Merneptah’s victory, we have a starting date of no later than 1265 for the Exodus. The king at this time was Ramses II, who reigned 1279-1213 BCE and fostered grand building projects: it was the age of Abu Simbel, Karnak and Luxor. Exodus refers to the Israelite slaves building the cities of Pithom and Pi-Ramses. We know the latter was built no earlier than the 13th century BCE under Ramses II, and no Egyptian king named Ramses lived earlier than 1320 BCE, so this timescale makes more sense than the one indicated by the Bible. The Bible’s mention of 480 years is suspicious for another reason: its neat use of idealised numbers, 12 generations of 40 years each, implying the figures were adopted for convenience by scribes in a context where historical accuracy, as we understand it, was not especially important.

We would expect to find some mention in Egypt’s copious records of the Israelites’ epic migration, but there is none whatsoever. In fact, there is no specific mention of Israelites in Egypt at all. This becomes remarkable when we consider the sheer number of people involved in the biblical Exodus. The Bible says that 600,000 people fled Egypt – this would only be the males, so when we allow for women and children also, we are reckoning with at least one and a half million souls, more likely two million or more (and accompanied by flocks and cattle). Yet at the time, Egypt’s entire population was only about 3.5 million! [4] An loss of population on this scale would have been devastating, yet the records, in this highly organised and literary society, are silent.

The route of the exodus. Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.

In the ‘Song of Deborah’ (Judges 5:8) the number of arms-bearing men in Israel is given as forty thousand, just a century or so after the Exodus, which suggests an appalling depletion of population. It is obvious that from a historical point of view the figures are absurd. They only make sense from a literary point of view: as demonstrations of Yahweh’s power.

After their experience with the Hyksos, the Egyptians became wary and built forts along the coast of the eastern delta to observe and control people’s movements. These forts would prove a great obstacle to fleeing slaves, so it seems sensible that the Israelites choose to head south instead. But in the late Bronze Age Egypt had direct control of Canaan, making it a bizarre choice of destination for a people fleeing the Egyptians, whatever route they took.

After spending three months in the desert, feeding on manna sent from heaven, the Israelites camp at Mount Sinai and receive Yahweh’s many laws. From there, the journey to Canaan takes them north-east, passing through sites whose names provide clues for archaeologists. For example they spend 38 of their 40 years of wandering at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea, identified by archaeologists as Ein el-Qudeirat in Sinai. This oasis was excavated in the 20th century but no remains from the period were found there, or indeed in the whole Sinai peninsula. This is extraordinary given that 2 million people are meant to have wandered the region for forty years. The reality is that many of the places mentioned weren’t even inhabited until the 8th century BCE. Mention of nations such as Arad and Edom are similarly anachronistic.

According to the Egyptologist Donald Redford, the geography of Exodus is accurate for a particular time bracket, which helps us identify the book’s likely date of composition. Pithom was built not before 605 BCE; towns like Etham, Pi-hariroth and Baal-zephon were not around when the story supposedly took place, but were familiar later on. The Egyptian names mentioned were most popular in 7th and 6th centuries. It was in the 7th century that Kadesh-Barnea was occupied and a fort was built. In his view, the most likely date of composition, going by the textual evidence, is during the 26th dynasty, in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Exodus was invented from scratch in about the 7th century. There was no significant scribe activity in Israel until the 8th century, so whatever originally happened would have had to have been communicated orally over several centuries. It might have drawn upon older stories that recalled a liberation from Egypt in the distant past, or represent a shared memory of the Hyksos occupation, rise and expulsion. Another possibility is that the story took its final form during the Babylonian exile, when the theme of expulsion and a long journey back home would have been especially potent.

The Covenant at Sinai

When the Israelites are camped at Mount Sinai, Moses is summoned up the mountain to enter a covenant with Yahweh. Although it’s much less interesting than the escape from Egypt for most modern readers, this is one of the most crucial parts of the Bible, as it defines the relationship between Yahweh and Israel. The fortunes of the Israelite people will depend upon how faithfully they obey their god’s laws.

Rembrandt: Moses with the
Ten Commandments
A covenant is a kind of formal agreement or contract. Biblical scholars such as Jon Levenson have pointed out how strongly the Mosaic covenant is influenced by the tradition of Hittite and Assyrian treaties, reproducing a number of their characteristics such as preamble, historical prologue and a list of stipulations. The covenant also includes a set of curses which will befall the human signatories if they don’t obey: Leviticus 26 provides a colourful list, and others in Deuteronomy 28 are strikingly similar to curses from 7th century BCE treaties of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon.

The model is a treaty between a suzerain and a vassal: the ruler of an empire and a less powerful kingdom which must swear allegiance to him. Why present Yahweh’s relationship to the Israelites in terms of a vassal treaty? It ties the national liberation of the Israelite people to observance of an explicit set of instructions. It is interesting to consider this in the light of the probable 7th century date of composition, a time when the threat of conquest by neighbouring empires was immediate: the Israelites’ treaty with Yahweh instead of a king of Egypt or Assyria would be an act of political defiance.

It also ties them, the vassal, to one jealous suzerain, Yahweh. They may not follow any other god, which would serve the centralisation of religion under Josiah theorised by Finkelstein and Silberman. As it turns out, the Israelites are stunningly rebellious, ungrateful and unfaithful. Even after witnessing the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, the magical bread falling from the sky, and the descent of Yahweh upon the mountain with thunder and lightning – physical evidence of God’s existence that modern believers can only dream of – the Israelites seem to have trouble obeying their god. (His apparent absence throughout their 400-year enslavement can’t have helped.) As Moses descends bearing the Ten Commandments, they are already making a golden idol to false gods. They show little concern for the terrible curses Yahweh has threatened. And this pattern of Yahweh’s chosen people letting him down is repeated in the Hebrew Bible again and again. In the Torah/Pentateuch, it is only Moses’ interventions on behalf of his people that keep them from being obliterated by Jehovan lightning.


We have already seen that there is no evidence for the existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; there is also no evidence for the Exodus. Not one potsherd, campfire or tablet.

If the Exodus story was an invention of King Josiah’s time, the writers’ choice of material is puzzling. Why would people in the kingdom of Judah find a tale of distant desert wanderings so fascinating?

It’s possible that Exodus served a propaganda purpose. In the 7th century BCE, the powerful Assyrian empire retreated from the Levant to address problems in Babylonia. This could have encouraged King Josiah to entertain territorial ambitions for Judah, namely the reconquest of the former kingdom of Israel. However, Egypt was on the rise again, spreading as the Assyrians withdrew. The Exodus narrative may therefore have served as a rallying example of Israelite victory over Egypt at a time of tension between the two powers. The Israelite god Yahweh was proved to be mightier even than the superpower, and mightier than its gods. There are also interesting parallels, given Redford’s date range, with the experience of the Israelites after the disaster of 583 BCE: exiles in Babylon dreaming of a return to Judah would have felt a powerful connection to the people of Moses. Here are Finkelstein and Silberman:

According to the Biblical scholar Yair Hoffman, both stories tell us how the Israelites left their land for a foreign country; how in a rough period in exile the Hebrews/Judahites came back to their homeland; how on the way back the returnees had to cross a dangerous desert; how the return to the homeland evoked conflicts with the local population; how the returnees managed to settle only part of their promised homeland; and how measures were taken by the leaders of the returnees to avoid assimilation between the Israelites and the population of the land.[5]

Exodus was written by someone who described society as they knew it in the 7th-6th centuries, who had no access to ancient Egyptian records and no sense of historical accuracy as we understand it. Distant memories of the Hyksos, perhaps, were mixed with regional stories and contemporary conditions, transforming Josiah and Necho into Moses and Pharaoh. On the spiritual and literary level, the narrative explains the history of a people’s relationship with God. But it was very much a product of regional influences and likely to have served immediate, historico-political goals.

[1] Our word ‘pharaoh’ comes from Greek, and is derived from an epithet meaning ‘head of the great house’. It is not actually the ancient Egyptian word for ‘king’.
[2] The first was with Noah (Genesis 9), when Yahweh sets out some laws and promises never again to wipe out humanity in a flood. The second was with Abraham (Genesis 12), whom Yahweh promised to make the father of a great nation.
[3] Whether the magicians’ initial supernatural successes indicate that the gods of Egypt actually exist, and are just less powerful, is an interesting question. This would contradict the model of one all-powerful god in Israelite religion, though it isn’t the only time a slight chink appears in the Hebrew Bible’s monotheism. Another curious instance for example comes in Exodus 15:11 in the Song of the Sea: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?”
[4] With such numbers the Israelites need not have bothered migrating: they could probably have taken over Egypt. Also, it’s true that chariots were the tanks of the ancient world, but it’s hard to see how, at the Red Sea, 600 of them could have posed an existential threat to two million people.
[5] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (2001).

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Patriarchs

The story of the Israelites begins with the journey of Abraham into Canaan.

In Genesis 6-8, Yahweh is so disappointed with the wickedness of human beings that he wipes out every one of them, except Noah and his household, in a global flood. Noah’s generations repopulate the Earth, and following the episode of the Tower of Babel humanity is dispersed into groups with different languages. In chapter 12 Yahweh, who until now has dealt with humanity as a whole, chooses to enter into a special relationship with one culture, the Israelites. He appears to a man called Abram (later renamed Abraham) who is then living in Haran, and tells him to travel to “the land that I will show you”, by which he means Canaan, promising: “I will make of you a great nation.”

Abraham obeys, and becomes the founder of what would later become Judaism and, thereby, of all three ‘Abrahamic’ religions. His great-grandson Joseph ends up in Egypt and invites the Israelites there to escape a period of famine. From there the narrative continues in Exodus with Moses leading the Israelites back to Canaan. There follow a great many chapters about social and ritual regulations, boring to most modern readers, that continue through Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, but the narrative peps up again as Joshua leads the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan.

Let us begin with the closing chapters of Genesis

The Patriarchs

The Patriarchs are a dynasty of male religious leaders regarded as the founders of what later became Judaism, most importantly Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their most important wives – Sarah, Rebekah and Leah respectively – are sometimes referred to as Matriarchs.

Any Christian who likes to fulminate against immigrants or travellers would do well to remember that the chosen people of the Bible, from whom Jesus himself descended, were migrants. Abraham is originally from Ur in Mesopotamia, and his people are roaming shepherds, with “flocks and herds and tents”. We are given no reason why Yahweh picks him. Presumably Abraham is especially devout and righteous, though his faith quickly comes into question when his household finds famine in Canaan and briefly travels to Egypt to escape it – an episode that suggests a lack of confidence in Yahweh’s ability to provide. 

As the migrants establish themselves between Bethel and Ai, the followers of Abraham quarrel with those of Lot, his nephew, as “the land could not support both of them dwelling together”. They decide to go separate ways. Lot settles near Sodom; when this city and neighbouring Gomorrah are obliterated by heavenly fire for their wickedness, he is spared and heads east. Abraham’s faction remains in the west. Even though Yahweh has promised him offspring, Abraham is concerned about his lack of children, not least because his wife Sarai (later renamed Sarah) is a very old woman, so he sleeps with her Egyptian slave Hagar and fathers Ishmael (the ancestor of the Arabs). Thirteen years later Sarah, despite being 90 years old, gives birth to a son named Isaac, and Ishmael is sent away. Yahweh tests Abraham’s faith by demanding he takes Isaac to a mountain to sacrifice him. In a mighty act of devotion, Abraham obeys, only for Yahweh to stop him at the last moment.

As he gets older, Abraham sends a servant to find his son a wife, and Isaac is married to Rebekah. The couple has two sons, Esau and Jacob. By deception, Jacob robs the older Esau of his birthright and of his father’s blessing, then goes travelling to escape Esau’s wrath. Marrying the sisters Leah and Rachel (this is one of many polygamous households in the Bible) he fathers twelve sons, founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

One of these sons is Joseph, who provokes his brothers’ jealousy because he is Jacob’s favourite. When Joseph is given a gift of a many-coloured coat, the brothers take action by selling him to some Ishmaelite (Arab) traders for twenty shekels. Joseph ends up in Egypt, and rises to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. When famine strikes Canaan, he invites all the Israelites south into Egypt where he will protect them – here ends the book of Genesis. The Israelites prosper, but in time a Pharaoh arises who throws them into slavery, and it falls upon a new leader, Moses, to lead them to freedom back towards the promised land of Canaan.

The story of Abraham’s family is where the Bible shifts from mythological fantasy to a pseudo-historical saga, a grand tale of faith, family, money and betrayal. For over two thousand years, believers assumed that these characters and events were factual. Yahweh’s covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are a defining part of Judaism and Christianity. It needed to be real, as the Christian scholar Roland de Vaux noted:

If the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.[1]


To confirm the historicity of the Bible, we would need to go beyond the internal textual evidence – which suggests Abraham would have lived in very roughly 2000 BCE – and find something objective in the archaeological record.

The ‘Biblical archaeologist’ William Albright expected that excavations would confirm the truth of the Bible. He tried to place Abraham’s household in the third millenium BCE, the early Bronze Age, identifying them with the Amorite people mentioned in contemporary texts. But the Amorites could not be easily pigeon-holed as pastoral immigrants, and there was no evidence of an influx of roaming pastoralists of Mesopotamian origin. Evidence in Canaan such as pottery styles indicated a mostly sedentary population.

Tablets excavated at the Hurrian site of Nuzi, dating to about 1450-1350 BCE, seem to support an alternative, later date for the Patriarchs in the Middle Bronze Age (approx. 2000-1550 BCE). The tablets recount similar social and cultural practices to those in the Bible regarding adoption, marriage, etc – even paralleling the story of Sarai and Hagar with a case where a barren woman must provide a slave woman to bear her husband a child. Texts found at the erstwhile metropolis of Mari in northern Syria confirm that names like Benjamin, Laban and Ishmael were extant in the 18th century BCE. All this suggests that the socio-economic conditions represented in the Bible were to some degree historically accurate. However, the texts support elements of the narrative’s cultural background, no more, and similar names and customs also appear in the first millennium.

In addition, archaeology shows us that Canaan was a dense network of city states, dominated by fortified towns which aren’t even mentioned in the text, whereas the text does mention the Philistines, a people who did not even exist in the Middle Bronze Age.

In short, there is no evidence outside the Bible for the existence of Abraham and his lineage, and the world of the Patriarchs described in the Bible does not match the realities of Middle Bronze Age Canaan.

The key to understanding the text, as argued by Finkelstein and Silberman, is to trace the anachronisms. Camels were not domesticated until well after 1000 BCE. The trade in ‘gum balm and myrrh’ refers to an Arab trade route active in the 8th-7th centuries BCE. We have mentioned the reference to the Philistines – similarly, the shenanigans over Esau’s birthright are a foundation story of the kingdom of Edom, which didn’t arise until the 8th century BCE. There are many other clues such as the importance of certain cities at certain times: for example, the Philistine city of Gerar earns a mention in Genesis because although it was a mere village at first, it was a significant fortified city by the late 8th century BCE.

This evidence suggests that the text, as we know it, was written in around the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, many centuries after Abraham supposedly lived.

The German biblical scholar Martin Noth found clues of a different sort to the nature of the text. He noted that the stories of Abraham tend to be set in the hilly southern country, Isaac’s near the southern desert, and Jacob’s in the northern hill country, concluding that the patriarchal narratives may have been put together from separate regional stories of local ancestors.

Why combine these older texts into a single saga? Possibly to unify the Israelites, as part of a political project centred on the kingdom of Judah. As we have discussed, Judah in the 8th century experienced considerable expansion when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and its population flowed south. The ruling class of Judah seems to have acquired an inflated sense of its destiny, both temporal and divine, from this rapid swelling of fortunes. The combining of regional traditions into a family saga may represent an attempt to create a national history, by a feat of literature. The primacy is given to Abraham, as a representative of Judah: perhaps he is given as a hometown the prestigious city of Ur, the famed cradle of civilisation, so that Judah may bask in the glow of an excellent pedigree.

This theory seems persuasive but as yet there is no consensus. The Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna thought that portraying Abraham’s household as foreigners, whose right to the land comes purely from statements by Yahweh, was a peculiar approach for someone creating a national history. He also argued that some of the customs, e.g. Jacob’s marriage to two sisters at the same time, went against later Israelite practice – so wouldn’t the Judahites have edited them out?

Scholars are generally willing to accept the broad chronology offered by the Bible from the United Monarchy onwards, because of historical episodes – such as the destruction of Israel in around 722 BCE – that are confirmed by archaeology and by the texts of other cultures. The era of the Patriarchs however is more distant and unclear. There is no evidence outside the Bible itself that any of the patriarchs and matriarchs were real people, or that any of the events of their saga actually happened. The narrative is seen as literal truth by some, as complete fabrication by others. The reality must lie somewhere in-between. The narrative has plausible roots among the customs of the semi-nomads of the Bronze Age, leaving us to argue as best we can over what was written when, how and why. In Finkelstein and Silberman’s words, the patriarchal narratives should “be regarded primarily as a literary attempt to redefine the unity of the people of Israel in the late Iron II period rather than as an accurate record of the lives of historical characters living more than a millennium earlier.”[2]

Whether or not this is quite true, this strange collection of Near Eastern stories is too often asked to be something it is not. It is not a piece of objective history, produced to modern standards of scholarship, and has never pretended to be. It is literature that explores the supposed spiritual destiny of a people. Its writers could never have foreseen the heavy responsibility that future interpreters would place upon its ability to survive tests of accuracy. Viewed as history, it fails the scientific test. Viewed as literature, it remains as fascinating as ever.

[1] Cited in Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (2001).
[2] ibid.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Lilith: the rebel between the texts

The ‘Queen of the Night’ relief from the
British Museum, identified by some
scholars as Lilith. Old Babylonian,
1800-1750 BCE.
One of the Hebrew Bible’s many inconsistencies gave rise to an intriguing and powerful myth: Adam had a first wife called Lilith, who left the garden of Eden rather than submit to her husband.

In Chapter 1 of Genesis, Adam is created with a partner from the outset:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (1:27)

(The word ‘man’ used in this ESV translation should be understood in the sense of ‘humankind’.) In the next chapter, by contrast, Adam is created alone (verse 7) and there is a considerable delay before a female companion is created for him (verses 21-22).

To explain contradictions like this in the Tanakh, Jewish scholarship developed a system of interpretation known as the midrash, a form of rabbinic literature which used great ingenuity to resolve gaps and problems in the text. The midrash scholars felt an explanation was needed for the differing accounts above, so they proposed additional elements to the creation story. The Genesis Rabbah, a midrash of uncertain date (possibly the 5th century CE) offering interpretations of the text of Genesis, says that Eve was not Adam’s first wife. God creates a woman simultaneously with Adam as related in Genesis 1:27, but Adam finds her ‘full of discharge and blood’, so God removes her and tries again. When Cain and Abel fight, one rabbi proposes the cause of their quarrel was ‘the first Eve’.

In the Talmud, a rabbinic commentary on Judaism completed in about the 5th century CE, a character called Lilith appears, incidentally, like someone who needs no introduction. She is a succubus with long hair and wings, who steals sperm from Adam while he sleeps to sire evil demons.

The only mention of Lilith in the Bible is a single verse from the book of Isaiah which may or may not mention her, depending upon your translation. The NRSV says:

Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, goat-demons shall call to each other; there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest. (Isaiah 34:14)

The Hebrew word is liyliyth, and this is its only appearance in the Bible. Scholars don’t agree on what it means. It may refer to the Mesopotamian demon, lilitu. Other translations render it ‘screech owl’ (KJV), or varieties of night creature – ‘night hag’ (RSV), ‘night creatures’ (NIV) or ‘night bird’ (ESV) – because of the word’s similarity to the Hebrew word for ‘night’. Whatever is intended, it is very unlikely to be a reference to a supposed first wife of Adam.

The association of Lilith with the ‘first wife’ originates centuries later in the Alphabet of Ben Sira, an anonymous compilation of proverbs and stories probably dating to somewhere between 700-1000 CE. The cause of the couple’s problems was Adam’s insistence that Lilith submit to his authority:

After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, ‘I will not lie below,’ and he said, ‘I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be in the superior one.’ Lilith responded, ‘We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.’ But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name [the true name of God] and flew away into the air.

This is the first identification of Lilith as the rebel first wife of Adam.

Adam complains to God, who sends three angels to fetch Lilith back. They tell her that if she does not return, one hundred of her children will die every day. She retorts that harming newborns was the reason why she was created, but agrees not to harm any infants wearing amulets with the names or images of the three angels. God then creates Eve as a more agreeable partner for Adam. She is more subservient, for she was created from Adam’s side, not from the earth as Lilith was.

Amulet for protection against Lilith,
18th century
The Alphabet is not midrashic literature but popular entertainment: a satire that parodies Biblical characters and rabbinic lore, possibly to entertain the rabbis themselves. The key to understanding its incidental reference to Lilith may lie in the mention of the amulets. To keep child-stealing demons at bay, incantation bowls with protective inscriptions would be buried in the ground, and amulets hung round the necks of pregnant women, so the Alphabet passage may have been an irreverent attempt to explain this old practice. Whatever the truth, the story seems to have made an impression on the medieval Jewish imagination, and Lilith became part of folk tradition.

Lilith also appears in Kabbalistic literature. In the 13th century CE she appears in the Zohar, a set of commentaries on the Torah. This was presented as a discovery by the Spanish rabbi Moses de León, but the likelihood is that he wrote it himself, and that he was aware of the Alphabet. The Zohar reprises the familiar Lilith story, showing her in all three of her aspects: as primitive Eve, child-harmer and succubus. It also associates her with the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve, and thus with Satan. This folktale may have inspired the medieval and Renaissance depictions of the serpent with a female head and/or body, though it’s possible this imagery was instead intended as a comment upon Eve, implying she is a temptress by association.

The demon

The Alphabet’s author begins by reference to the existing tradition of the prototype first wife, then feeds in the Talmudic references to Lilith as a demon. This characterisation evokes earlier Sumerian-Babylonian myths about winged spirits who lurked in deserted places and preyed on humans during the night. The Sumerian lilitu and the Babylonian Lamashtu killed infants and threatened women and babies during pregnancy and childbirth. The first literary mention of Lilith may occur in the Epic of Gilgamesh by way of the poem Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree, though whether it refers to Lilith is disputed, and the ancient Israelites could easily have come into contact with such stories via the hegemony of Assyria and Babylon. The character of the Jewish Lilith therefore could be a mixture of the ‘first wife’ theory with ancient Mesopotamian superstition.[1]

We may interpret these female demons in a couple of ways. Firstly, like other gods, spirits and myths, they offered ancient people an explanation for things that happened in their lives. Why are children sometimes born dead, or suffer ‘cot death’? Why do women die in childbirth? By inventing malicious demons, people identified a cause and, reassuringly, made it possible to take action: protective objects like amulets provided a sense of control in the face of frightening and mysterious forces.

The other role of the female demons is as symbols of lust. Not only is Lilith a killer, she is a seductress. Male priests and scribes seem to have projected some of their sexual fantasies into their picture of Lilith as a femme fatale. What modernity understands simply as wet dreams were explained by superstition as the work of a female night demon or succubus, seducing men in their sleep. Through devilish intercourse, Lilith gave birth to a hundred demon children every day, populating the world with evil. This layer of negative sexual meaning has tended historically to drown out the legend’s positive aspect of female empowerment. If Lilith turned evil when she stood up to Adam, any woman who does not accept male authority could end up the same way.

Wild-haired, naked, and
intimate with a phallic
serpent – John Collier’s
19th century Lilith.
Some writers enjoy ascribing this hostility to a psychological ‘male fear of female sexuality’ but the ultimate origins of inequality are more material. During the Neolithic Revolution, men acquired a disproportionate control over social resources that were rapidly growing thanks to new techniques of farming and domestication. However, even when women are oppressed, they can still exert power over heterosexual men through sexuality – sex is an instinct with no respect for societal constructs of class and gender. Thus female sexuality has been a source of suspicion for centuries, as a weapon women can use to subdue men. The Talmudic references to Lilith’s long hair may be significant in this context, since during the Middle Ages keeping the hair covered was a convention for married Jewish women: Maimonides and the Zohar for example stress its importance. Loose, long hair has often been a symbol of sinful female sexuality.

In the 19th century, Lilith enjoyed a new phase of interest as a sexual fantasy. She made her first significant literary appearance since the Zohar in Goethe’s Faust, followed a few years later by Keats’ Lamia. In these poems she is a mysterious figure of beauty and seduction, with some of her darker behaviours removed, a trend that continued forty years later when she was painted as a luxuriantly haired narcissist by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This incarnation of a more modern Lilith, with the supernatural horror eased out for the comfort of Victorian gentlemen, opened the doors for more positive interpretations of the character.

Ironically, God’s famous exhortation to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in Genesis Chapter 1, the first thing he says to the new couple, indicates he doesn’t have a problem with sex. Chapter 2 tells us “a man shall… hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”, another strong indication that for the Bible, sex is part of human nature from the outset.[2]

The feminist

In the 20th century, the myth entered another new phase, as feminists – playing down her demonic aspect – began to claim Lilith for their own. It is not difficult to see why. Lilith is an assertive and sexually independent woman who refuses to submit to a social order defined by men. She assumes she has the right to equality with Adam, and when this is denied she insists on her independence. She escapes to the Red Sea, symbolically retreading Moses’ path to freedom, and becomes the opposite of the stereotypical supportive mother.

In 1976 a group of Jewish feminists took her as an inspiration when creating the magazine Lilith; one of its co-founders, Aviva Cantor, wrote about her in very positive terms as a role model for Jewish women:

Lilith is a powerful female. She radiates strength, assertiveness; she refuses to cooperate in her own victimisation. By acknowledging Lilith’s revolt and even in telling of her vengeful activities, myth-makers also acknowledge Lilith’s power.[3]

Cantor points out that Lilith is the ‘negative, shadow role, the flip side’ of Eve, who appears as Adam’s helper and is a more acceptable female archetype than a woman who insists on equality.

In creating the Lilith shadow role, men are telling a woman that if she is independent, assertive, free, as Lilith was, she’ll end up a frigid nymphomaniac childless witch. 

We pointed out in our previous article that Eve too was viewed as morally suspect, blamed for humanity’s fall from grace and for original sin. But Lilith was far more powerfully associated with wayward female sexuality than Eve. Various cultures have made comparisons between a ‘negative’ feminine and a ‘positive’ feminine, the Judaeo-Christian tradition included. In Christianity, all women, including Eve the sinner, were given the impossible task of living up to the example of the flawless virgin, Mary. In the Zohar Lilith is contrasted, as an unholy harlot, with the holy and wholesome Shekhinah, the divine presence of God in female manifestation.

It may seem paradoxical that a myth so adaptable to feminism was written by men. But society consists of both sexes and multiple viewpoints, and sexism is therefore never unchallenged. Contrary to the simplistic view, men are not uniformly hostile to women, and women are not uniformly submissive to men. Women of all historical periods are active members of society in spite of sexism, and the ‘rebel wife’ aspect of Lilith may be a manifestation of independent-minded women who could be found in the ancient Near East like they could everywhere else.[4]

Between the texts

As we’ve seen, the Torah was put together from a variety of source texts, and when sources are pasted together with little or no editorial smoothing-over, it can create problems. The Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman however points out that the Bible is more than the sum of its parts. The juxtaposing of texts created meanings that neither the original writers nor the redactors foresaw.

In Who Wrote The Bible?, Friedman gives the example of the Bible’s conception of God. The God of J, E and D tends to be seen in personal ways, walking in Eden and talking directly, even debating, with human beings. The God of P is very different: he tends to be remote and transcendent, and doesn’t make physical appearances or chat with his followers. The combination of these two conceptions of God, the personal and the transcendent, inadvertently created a new kind of deity: a cosmic god who could be experienced in very personal ways.

It was not planned by any of the authors. It was probably not even the redactor’s design. It was so embedded in the texts that the redactor could not have helped but produce the new mixture as long as he was at all true to his sources.

Similarly, the juxtaposition of the ‘God of mercy’ pictured by J, E and D with the ‘God of justice’ pictured by P leads to a new conception, in which justice and mercy are in tension or balance. Like a parent, God is sometimes loving, sometimes angry; he is sometimes intimate, sometimes remote. Friedman concludes:

The mixing of the sources into one text enriched the interpretive possibilities of the Bible for all time.

In a different way, Lilith too is an unforeseen consequence of the Bible’s process of construction. The mismatch of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis was essentially an accident that arose from the combination of two independent texts. But it opened a space which Lilith stepped in to fill, thanks largely to the imagination, ingenuity and sexual hang-ups of male writers in the ensuing centuries.

Whatever the precise origins of the Lilith myth, this fiction has acquired a life of its own. The prototype wife of the Genesis Rabbah – already an unattractive image of women – developed into an evil succubus, then recently became a feminist icon. The story can serve two completely different communities equally well. On the one hand, she is the first feminist, a woman who refuses to accept being treated as Adam’s unequal. On the other, she is a patriarchal warning against women who get above themselves. There is no ‘correct’ Lilith, only a multitude of Liliths, in different times and places, making her difficult to pin down. (This may contribute to her popularity in mysticism and New Ageism, which thrive upon smoke and mirrors.) Like any product of the symbolic imagination, she can become whatever successive generations want her to be.

Further reading

Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, ‘The Lilith Question’, 1976.
Amy Scerba, Changing Literary Representations of Lilith and the Evolution of a Mythical Heroine on the Feminism and Women’s Studies website, 1999.

[1] This sinister ancestry has informed more recent versions of Lilith. Through Lamashtu’s habit of sucking the blood of men and bringing nightmares, Lilith entered into vampire myth as well, appearing for example as a vampire goddess in the TV series True Blood.
[2] The image of course is heterosexual. We shall look at the Bibles attitude to homosexuality another time.
[3] Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, ‘The Lilith Question’, 1976.
[4] Karl Marx pointed out that the progress of a society could be measured by the status of its women: hopefully one day men and women will be able to relate to each other without the stupidity of sexism and superstition.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The sexual politics of paradise

Throughout the Bible, God is assumed to be male. For centuries, artists have portrayed him, when in a human form, as a patriarchal older man with a white beard. In the last few decades in particular, largely thanks to feminism, this has been challenged. After all, according to Genesis 1:27, both men and women were created “in the image of God”.

The archetypal image of God,
as imagined by Michelangelo
on the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Defenders of the Bible concede it makes no sense for a lone and absolute deity to have a sex, and the usual modern view, including among believers, is that God is actually sexless. The common argument runs that we should respect the use of male imagery and language because that is how God chose to reveal himself to the Biblical writers, and thus to humanity: either as Yahweh or (in Christianity) as Christ.

God is presented unequivocally as a male. He is referred to using masculine pronouns and his name Yahweh is of masculine gender; though he is occasionally seen through female imagery, as in Isaiah 42:14 where he says “I will cry out like a woman in labour”, feminine pronouns and names are never used. In his earlier incarnations he seems to have had a female consort, Asherah, who appears on inscriptions and votive figures. He is seen in traditional masculine roles of father, fighter and king.

I don’t intend to study the gendering of the Abrahamic god. But the Bible was written in a culture where authority was mostly male and the priesthood was barred to women, and this shaped how its authors wrote about women. For centuries, it has usually been used not to liberate women but to justify their oppression. The roots of this can be found at the very beginning of the anthology, in the story of the garden of Eden.

The making of men and women

What does the Bible say about Adam and Eve?

The first two chapters of Genesis contain two different accounts of the creation of men and women. Chapter 1 is by the source text known as P:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [Genesis 1:26-27]

God blesses them, bids them to be fruitful and multiply, and grants them dominion over every living thing on earth. There’s no suggestion that the sexes are not created equal. The ESV translation above uses the word ‘man’ as a synonym for ‘humankind’ – the Hebrew word, adam, is a noun meaning ‘earthling’ or ‘human’, though it serves as a proper name for the first man later. The adam is created both male and female, and they are both in God’s image.

So far, so good. Then Chapter 2 tells the story again, at much greater length.

The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed... The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it... Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.’[1]

The source text here is J, the Yahwist. This account differs to Chapter 1’s, e.g. things are created in a different order. The inconsistencies occur because the Torah was constructed out of several source texts with sometimes contradictory viewpoints, which were then woven together without removing the inconsistencies.

In the previous article we saw how the Mesopotamian myths presented human beings as workers created to spare the gods from toil. In Genesis humanity is the climax of creation. The text doesn’t give a reason for why Adam is created, though we could argue that he fills the vacancy for a gardener. J’s God then creates the animals, but finds no suitable companion for him from amongst them, so he creates the woman from Adam’s rib.

The phrase ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ could be read as supporting equality – it emphasises that all humans are made of the same stuff. The positive spin offered by apologists was summed up long ago by the Baptist preacher John Gill:

It is commonly observed, and pertinently enough, that the woman was not made from the superior part of man, that she might not be thought to be above him, and have power over him. Nor from any inferior part, as being below him, and to be trampled on by him. But out of his side, and from one of his ribs, that she might appear to be equal to him.[2]

But although the text doesn’t say explicitly that Eve is unequal to Adam, we can infer it. The woman is created from part of the man, which implies a secondary status (hence the title of the feminist magazine Spare Rib). Whereas the man is definitive, the female is a version of him. This time a reason for her creation is given: so she can be a ‘helper’ for the man. She doesn’t even have a name until Adam names her. As the New Testament would later interpret it:

“For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” [1 Corinthians 11:8-9]

If we want to be more positive, chronologically it is with Eve that the process of creation is complete, i.e. the climax of creation is Woman. It’s amusing to point this out, but I don’t think it compensates for what’s gone before. The Church fathers preferred to honour Adam for being created first.

The Fall

In the next scene, the first humans eat the forbidden fruit, with terrible consequences. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden in an event known to Christianity as the ‘fall of humankind’, or the Fall. It is when humanity passed from living in innocence and peace in God’s garden to becoming mortal, suffering beings. This doctrine is only an interpretation of the text, as it is not named or explicit in the Hebrew Bible.

Here’s how it happens. In Chapter 3, the serpent [3] talks to Eve about the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The fateful act of eating the forbidden fruit is described next. Incidentally, the apple, which in the West is the most famous symbol of the story, isn’t specified in the Bible. The text refers only to a ‘fruit’.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

On eating it, the two humans acquire the knowledge of good and evil, which is usually understood as the self-awareness that separates us from other animals. As a symbol of this separation, the very first thing they do is clothe themselves:

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

When they hear God walking in the garden, they hide from him, ashamed of their nakedness. Eventually they confess what they have done, and God is angry. He condemns the serpent to forever crawl on its belly [4] and live at odds with humans, and tells Eve:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Presumably Eve’s body was originally formed in such a way that childbirth would have been painless. If so, women have good cause to feel aggrieved against God for what he does with their bodies here. Then Adam is told:

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground.”

But this is not all.

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever –” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

William Blake: God Judging Adam, 1795
Eating of the fruit has given humans a god-like awareness of their moral agency: their ability to choose between good and evil. There are two trees in Eden, and God fears they will now eat from the tree of life as well. If they do, they will become immortal and truly like gods, so they are banished from the garden. Humans have let Yahweh down, and they will continue to do so – in subsequent history the Israelites let him down again and again. Symbolically, the two humans move from a state of nature, where all is good and there is no violence, to a state of culture, where life is hostile and difficult. The chapter straight after the Fall, Genesis 4, already shows Cain committing the first murder.

Only after the disobedient eating of the fruit does God say to Eve that her husband shall rule over her. We could take this as evidence that in their original state of nature men and women are equal, and that only in a state of culture is there sexism. However, the issues of the rib and Eve being a ‘helper’ seem to speak against this reading. Either way, the sexism after the Fall is explicit. There is no way for apologists to spin Eve being told her husband will rule over her. Perhaps God meant only that Adam would rule over Eve, not that all men would rule over all women. But the story serves to provide the ancient Israelites with an explanation of the world as they knew it. Why are men dominant in society? Why is childbirth so painful and dangerous? Why is it such hard work for settled Iron Age cultures to feed themselves? In this context it is fair to take Adam and Eve as symbols for all men and women. After all, God’s curse of painful childbirth clearly applies to all women, so his edict on male rule must do too.

In conclusion: although the opening passages of Genesis are open to a multitude of complex interpretations, more than I could possibly outline here, on balance they are sexist. The first woman was made from a body part of the first man; women are men’s helpers; and God decrees women’s husbands shall rule over them. Why does the Bible say this? Because it was written in a male-dominated society that took the secondary status of women as a given.

Original sin

The story of the Fall persuaded St Augustine that human nature was fundamentally sinful, and inspired the Christian Church’s doctrine of ‘original sin’. Adam and Eve’s disobedience towards God did not only lead to painful births and to laborious farming. Their descendants – the entire human species – were born inherently sinful, marked with the stain of the transgression.

Original sin is a doctrine unacceptable to Judaism.

Not every Christian believes that the Eden story is literally true. But the theme of original sin is still central to Christianity. The purpose of baptism is to symbolically wash away, in name of Jesus, that original stain. Yet there is no ‘doctrine of original sin’, as such, in the Bible. It was created for a pressing ideological reason: if humanity hadn’t fallen, we wouldn’t need a saviour in Jesus Christ. The very existence of the West’s dominant religious institution [5] is built upon this interpretation of what happened in Eden.

For Christianity, the story has been very important for defining society’s attitude to women, teaching that Eve was responsible for humanity’s ejection from paradise. The misogynist Paul of Tarsus wrote in the New Testament:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.
[1 Timothy 2:12-14]

The church fathers had the same view. The Gallic bishop Irenaeus (second century CE) wrote in Against Heresies:

Having become disobedient, she [Eve] was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race.

His contemporary Tertullian, from Carthage, was even harsher. In On The Apparel of Women he likened all women to Eve:

You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.

St Augustine’s tutor Ambrose (fourth century CE) wrote of Eve in On Paradise:

She was first to be deceived and was responsible for deceiving the man.

You get the picture. There are plenty more disparaging views about women that we could quote from the Church fathers. Passages like these established the traditional Christian view that all women bore the guilt of Eve, and that their subordination to men was a permanent divine punishment of women.

In some of these accounts Eve was not only disobedient, but an agent of the devil. In the Christian tradition, the serpent is interpreted to be Satan. The Bible never says anything of the sort, and the concept of the Devil didn’t exist when the Genesis texts were written.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. [Revelation 12:9]

The Jewish tradition has a very different view of the ‘adversary’, which we won’t go into here. In the Hebrew Bible the serpent is described as ‘crafty’ or ‘cunning’, not ‘evil’, and it is probably just a smart talking animal, of the sort that populates fables across ancient literature.[6] The serpent tells Eve:

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

And this is perfectly true. He may have an ulterior – and unexplained – motive for talking to Eve, but he doesn’t ‘deceive’ her as she later claims.

Lucas Cranach the Elder depicts Eve
feeding the fruit to Adam
As we’ve said, this episode was used by Christianity for centuries to blame women for humanity’s fall from grace. There is a tradition that Eve eats the fruit, then talks Adam into eating as well. Is it really only Eve’s fault?

Genesis 3:6 refers to “her husband who was with her”, indicating that Adam and Eve were at the tree together. Adam is present when the serpent addresses Eve, but he passively says nothing, and he eats the fruit that is handed to him without protest, although he had been warned not to by God personally. When confronted by God, Adam tries to divert the blame (just as Eve tries to blame the serpent):

The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

God doesn’t accept this and punishes them both. The commentators who laid the whole blame on Eve were wrong. And, in fairness, Christian institutions past and present have often recognised this too.

Is the Fall necessarily even a bad thing? It initiates the human race into suffering and hard labour, but also into culture, civilisation and moral awareness. Eating the forbidden fruit opened our eyes to our own moral agency – without it we would not be who we are.


As a very long and complex text, the Bible is not unremittingly sexist. There are powerful female figures such as Deborah, a prophet and the only female judge mentioned in the Bible, who leads the Israelites into battle against the Canaanites. The Song of Deborah from Judges 5 is a hymn of victory celebrating the accomplishments of two women: the other is Jael, who bravely kills the enemy commander Sisera by hammering a tent peg through his head. Other major female characters include Abigail from 1 Samuel, Esther and Ruth. Women could be prophets, such as Miriam (Exodus 15:20) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). And we have seen how some of the traditional accusations against Eve, such as her responsibility for the Fall, are questionable.

Despite this, there is no escaping sexism in the Bible. Women in the Bible are usually defined as wives, daughters and mothers, and are expected to play a subordinate role. Even when the Bible text is open to interpretation, the interpretations (by men) generally have not treated women as equals.

Given how she has been used as a justification for oppressing women, it is ironic that Eve’s ancestry goes back to the goddesses of Sumer, who were powerful, life-giving deities. Monotheism was invented during a period of history that grants males privileges over females, and the one true God of the Abrahamic religions has been presented in male terms. It is no surprise therefore that all three religions, despite the protests of their apologists, have disempowered women.

[1] The Hebrew word for woman (ishshah) sounds similar to the word for man (ish).
[2] John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testament (1746-63).
[3] The Hebrew word nachash, often translated as ‘serpent’, also has the meaning ‘the shining one’ and conveys enchantment or fascination. Whether the writer of J intended us to picture a snake is open to debate.
[4] The serpent acquires its present form only after the disobedient eating of the fruit. We can’t know what it looked like before, but the implication might be that it had legs before it was cursed. This is a detail artists have often ignored.
[5] I am generalising for reasons of space. Of course, the ‘Christian Church’ is not a single institution, nor do its many denominations agree ideologically.
[6] The other Biblical example of a talking animal is Balaam’s donkey from Numbers 22.