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Saturday, May 18th 2013


Egypt: The Eighteenth Dynasty, part 7

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: somewhat foggy, but good

We're back home after a quick out-of-state excursion. Glad we made it back before last night because on returning I found out that my interview on "Theology Matters" with Melissa and Devin Pellew was scheduled for last night; for some reason I had it down for next week. It was a radio/podcast interview on the topic of "Radical Islam." We had a good conversation covering a lot of ground. To hear it or download it, please click on the picture of our good friends from Charlotte.

Devin & Melissa Pellew


Workshop LogoSo, Anson F. Rainey states that

"the plethora of attempts to relate apiru (Habiru) to the gentilic ibri are all nothing but wishful thinking."[1]

Let me explain that ibri is "Hebrews" in Hebrew ( though strictly speaking it should be ibrīm), and that the word "gentilic" has nothing to do with being either gentle or a Gentile, but that it refers to the regular residents of a particular area. His point then, if I understand it correctly, is that the Hebrews were already resident in the Levant prior to the Amarna era, and that, therefore, they do not qualify as "Habiru." If they came after the Amarna era, "gentilic" would be just plain a wrong word.

This statement illustrates nicely my advice for writing scholarly papers (which blog entries are not): one is better off understating one's conclusions than to state a conclusion with so much weight that it becomes indefensible. Here we have a case in point. The evidence for a Hebrew presence in Canaan prior to the Exodus and Conquest is minimal, and if it can even be demonstrated (of which I'm not sure), it can easily be accounted for by the fact that, once having come down to Egypt during the drought under Joseph, not every Israelite stayed tied down there. It would be a while before they were enslaved, and, prior to that time, some Hebrews moved back and forth between Canaan and Egypt (see 2 Chronicles 7:20-23). But furthermore, this is a good opportunity to consider a "heads-I win; tails-you lose" argument. This is the kind of argument in which you grant the skeptic all that he asks for that is not just plain absurd--hypothetically and for the sake of the argument. Then you show that, even on such a minimalist basis your case still stands up. Gary Habermas, from whom I'm borrowing the name for this kind of argument, has applied it to confirm the historicity of the resurrection, as has Mike Licona, though (without wanting to rehearse the entire debate at this point) unfortunately Dr. Licona did not distinguish sufficiently between what should have remained hypothetical and what is actual. But, having acknowledged others who have used a similar form of argumentation, let's see what minimal information we have that still shows that the people who defend the classification of the Hebrews among the Habiru are not simply engaging in wishful thinking.

  • Merneptah StelePharaoh Merneptah (ruled 1213-1203 BC) stated in his famous stele recounting his alleged victories: "Israel is laid waste and his seed is not." We can, therefore, infer that a people known as Israel were present in Canaan by that time. "Israel" constituted a unit, whether as a collection of cities or allied nomadic tribes we can leave open here (for the sake of this argument); the point is that the term had a specific referent; it was not a general collective word. The phrase, "Israel is laid waste; his seed is not," does not refer to people being killed, but to the destruction of their fields and their grain. Now, I understand that the hieroglyphics used to designate Israel in this case are more often than not used to refer to nomadic people. However, from my limited knowledge, I believe that they can also mean "foreign" or, in an extended sense, "newcomer." In fact, they had better mean something that allows for some permanency, because you can have nomadic people or you can have grain-growing agricultural people, but you can't have nomadic agricultural people. In short, by the time of Merneptah's adventures, if Israel was growing crops, Israel was settled in the land.
  • But where were they before Merneptah? It doesn't matter what explanations one may want to bring up, they must have been somewhere. From a purely logical point of view, they either had been residing permanently in Canaan as a recognizable group, or they were wanderers who entered Canaan at some time as a group with its particular identity.
    • The first option, that of Israel being long-time permanent residents of Canaan by the time of the Amarna letters leaves us with the problem that, outside of the highly ambiguous and unexplained references to ibrīm, there is nothing to go on in support of that notion. They did not reside in any cities or hold any territories that we know of. They would had to have existed anonymously under an invisibility cloak, as it were, and that's not a good hypothesis. The best that we can do is to say that they must have been among all of the various nomadic groups that came and went in Canaan, though apparently eventually they came and didn't go.
    • And thus, we have no choice but to place them right back among the Habiru by definition. This is not wishful thinking; it is purely a matter of trying to account for the fact that, they were unknown at one time, and then at some time or another (still going with this minimalist argument) they showed up as a political unit. Now, as we read the Amarna tablets, we find that some of the Habiru took over some of the very cities that the Hebrews conquered. In fact, as I stated earlier, one cannot get away from the fact that at least some of the Habiru of the Amarna tablets were very different from the usual Habiru because this group was nomadic only temporarily. They very definitely intended to take over land and cities and to settle down, and so they did.
  • Thus, contrary to Rainey's claim, apart from the invisibility-cloak theory, we really do not have much of a choice but to recognize that some of the Habiru mentioned on some of the tablets must have included some of the Hebrews.

Now, of course, I'm willing to go much further in my belief that the Amarna tablets, among other things, provide a rather graphic Canaanite record of the Hebrew conquest, but even a minimalist assessment cannot get away from the fact that the Israelites were among the Habiru of Amarna fame.

Now, I said in the last entry that I wanted to show how "debatable assumptions" had "metamorphosed into axioms," and I also promised not to flog that horse too badly. What I meant is that I'm not going to bring up example after example of how Egyptologists have either ignored or even sought to undermine the biblical record. That's a "dog-bites-man" story, which we don't need to expand on. I'll just mention one really minor item that struck me in Cyril Aldred's Akhenaten: King of Egypt (1988), and it is probably as much subjective as objective. Aldred, once one of the leading scholars of ancient Egyptian culture, lamented extensively about the way in which grave robbers--ancient, modern, and in-between--have destroyed so much of Egyptian art. He minces no words in condemning those who did it and what they did.  Still, it caught my eye when he described the modification of an ancient tomb by Coptic Christians into a church building as a "desecration," a word that he does not use for the senseless immolations and acts of destruction carried out by others. I cracked up laughing when I saw that. Robbers apparently are bad, but Christians who convert a pre-robbed tomb into a church are worse; they are desecrators. 

But for this moment I'm most interested in the scholarly theories that may be religiously or ideologically neutral that still take on a life of their own and persist as given assumptions even after their usefulness as scientific hypotheses has been exhausted. Let me give you an example as a chip from the article I wrote; for details, you must wait for the article. A few entries ago I gave you a chart of the pharaohs of the eighteenth dynasty. According to that chart Akhenaten was succeeded by Smenkhkare, who ruled for a few years before passing on and leaving the throne to Tutankhamun. The debate about Smenkhkare's identity is going to go on for a long time. His existence as a young man who ruled Egypt for a few short years has, indeed, become axiomatic in some circles. But there is now more evidence than there had been, oh, last year around this time, not to mention thirty years ago. In my comments in the chart I said, "Mysterious successor to Akhenaten and possibly co-regent. He and the appearance of his mummy have long been a puzzle to Egyptologists. I can't wait to tell you about him!" Now I get to tell you about him.  Reading about Smenkhkare is like reading about Melchizedek in the book of Hebrews: "without father, mother, or genealogy, having no beginning of days . . ." (Heb. 7:3, amended) We know that he had an "end of days" because we know that he died, and his mummy has been found and identified, or so many people have thought. But, other than that, he's a ghost-like figure who suddenly apparates next to Akhenaten, and even becomes pharaoh for a time.  I cautioned you not to take the chart as final, which no chart of the eighteenth dynasty can be, realistically speaking, even after the addition I'm providing here.

Let me tell you the direction into which scholarship is heading with Smenkhkare. First of all, the name will not be eliminated from the succession of pharaohs. However, we need to rethink the identity of the person behind the name. Let me give you a clue: Nefertiti, Akhenaten's Chief Wife, disappeared from the records around the same time as Smenkhkare began to appear. First we see him under a different personal name (Nefertuaten), which he just happened to share with Nefertiti; then he became ruler under the epithet of Smenkhkare along with the very names that Nefertiti had also held previously. So, saving the evidence for what will be in print (or in response to personal questions), this is the theory that is becoming increasingly accepted. Smenkhkare is none other than Nefertiti herself. Contrary to what was conventional wisdom for a long time, she did not disappear in Akhenaten's last five years, but became co-regent and pharaoh herself, ruling alone for approximately four years after Akhenaten had died. During that time, the duties of "Chief Wife" befell her oldest daughter Meritaten, while Nefertiti (now Pharaoh Smenkhkare) was fairly desperately looking for a man of appropriate standing for her and Meritaten, even appealing to the King of the Hittites to send a prince. Alas, the Hittite prince was assassinated on his way down to Egypt, Nefertiti died, Meritaten became superfluous, and the throne went to the new pharaoh, Akhenaten's son Tutankhamun ("King Tut") and his lovely bride, the new Chief Wife, Ankhesenamun.

And, oh yeah, the mummy of which many people were convinced that it belonged to the mysterious Smenkhkare is most likely that of Akhenaten himself.

Please, remember once more that this is the short-short version, arising out of debates on minuscule points, and including data that are less than a year old. I trust that you have enjoyed this set of "chips from my workshop." This concludes this series unless there are questions of sufficient weight or number to warrant extending it some more.

Next time, we'll get back to Luke and other aspects of life--past, present, or future. In the meantime, if you live in north-central Indiana and don't have your weekend all planned out yet, come out to see and hear your bloggist at Cowboy Church on Saturday at 7 pm at Trinity Methodist Church in Hartford City! 


[1]Anson F. Rainey, "Unruly Elements in Late Bronze Canaanite Society," in Pomegranates and Golden Bells, ed. David Pearson Wright, David Noel Freedman, Avi Hurvitz, (Eisenbrauns, 1995), 483


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