The Question of the Patriarchs: Cahill v. Finkelstein

Thomas Cahill presents his work The Gifts of the Jews as a celebration of Jewish influence on thought and history, partially by presenting what he calls the "striking new idea" the Jewish people developed in their earliest stages as a civilization: "enlightened henotheism", where one god was praised as transcendent above all others. He uses as the basis for this conclusion the evidence he gathers from textual analysis of the Bible as a historical work, taking for granted (as many Biblical historians continue to do) that the Bible's presentation of social and individual life in the time and place it claims to represent has been repeatedly confirmed by the archaeological evidence and its analysis. This assumes that the written form of the Pentateuch is a fairly unchanged relation of oral traditions from prehistory. However, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, two Israeli archaeologists, present strikingly different conclusions in their work The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel. They offer weighty evidence that the Pentateuch in its current form was a work largely written in and for the seventh century BCE, during an age of growing power for the southern kingdom of Judah. Its contents indicate its formalization as a prophetic work designed to offer support for King Josiah's planned unification of the northern and southern kingdoms under Judah's rule, with the intention of portraying the planned conquest of Assyrian territory as "re-unification" of a land that, in days of yore, had been securely held by a powerful Judahite monarchy. Archaeological findings allow Finkelstein and Silberman to introduce a new understanding of what Judah and Israel were like in the age of the Pentateuch and the Biblical chronicles, in some cases very separate from the picture painted within those books. Cahill's "new idea" faces serious challenge from this archaeological method, both as a historical reality and as a true reading of what was most important about early culture within Israel.

Both Cahill and the two authors of The Bible Unearthed take the earliest parts of Genesis to be a creation myth; they hardly merit mention in Cahill's work, as the author is primarily concerned with the conceptual development of the Israelites as a historical people. The second book explains the archaeological consensus on the construction of the Pentateuch from two main sources: the "J" or Yahwist source, which uses the tetragrammaton (YHWH) to represent the God of Israel, and the more fragmentary "E" or Elohist source, which uses the plural "Elohim" to refer to the same god. The first text is concerned primarily with the tribe and territory of Judah; the second mostly with the northern kingdom of Israel, especially the tribes of Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh. These two sources, combined with an unknown priestly source primarily concerned with ritual law and religious observance, make up most of the first four books of the Bible as we know them. The traditional interpretation has been of the "J" source as the oldest, and thus the most historically accurate, written account of the events of Jewish prehistory, and of its creation as a complete oral tradition occurring in the tenth century BCE, during the era of David and Solomon. The fifth book of Deuteronomy, and the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, are generally regarded as linked to the harsh religious reformation in seventh century BCE Judah, and are known collectively as the "Deuteronomistic History", due to their strict connection "linguistically and theologically" to that work (although whether the main act of compilation occurred during the reign of King Josiah in 622 BCE or during the exile a few decades later remains a point of controversy). From this Finkelstein and Silberman break ranks with traditionalist colleagues: they claim that

". . .archaeology has provided enough evidence to support a new contention that the historical core of the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History was substantially shaped in the seventh century BCE . . . we shall argue that much of the Pentateuch is a late monarchic creation, advocating the ideology and needs of the kingdom of Judah, and as such is intimately connected to the Deuteronomistic History."

The traditional rendition of the history of the Jews begins approximately at Genesis 11:31, relating the departure of Avram (Abram in modern English translations) to Canaan with his cousin Lot and father Terah, from the historical city of Ur (placed in Genesis as within Babylonia). Following a series of mystical experiences, in which a god appears to him and promises the entire land of Canaan to his progeny, Abram changes his name to Avraham (or Abraham; both names ultimately mean "father of nations"). Abraham fathers Ishmael by his servant Hagai, and Isaac by his wife Sarah. Isaac gives birth to Esau and Jacob at Negev; Jacob, after attaining his brother's birthright as firstborn, flees to Haran and there bears twelve sons. Joseph, son of Jacob, is sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers and rises from the rank of foreign slave to the exalted position of grand vizier of Egypt, where he is in a position to aid the brothers who rejected him. In the last words of Genesis, the dying Jacob grants his son Judah the royal birthright. The children of Israel remain in Egypt until the book of Exodus begins, by which time they have grown into an entire nation.

In the more conservative circles of traditional Biblical archaeology, the Genesis story has been and still is received as dependable in its historicity, at least from Abraham onwards; the actual timeframe in which it took place has, however, been greatly debated (anywhere from the Middle Bronze Age of 2000-1550 BCE - the time which Cahill suggests - to the Early Iron Age of 1150 BCE, suggested by Mazar; this is quite a wide range of dispute!) According to the analysis of the Torah provided not only by Cahill but by historians before him, accurate descriptions of early nomadic pastoralism and the mention of major Mesopotamian cities such as Ur point to historical accuracy in describing both the times and the people present at the beginning of the creation of Israel's national identity.

Thomas Cahill describes the ideal of a god as an evolution that occurred during this time - one of Abram's tribal patron god to the transcendental God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He specifically contrasts the idea of a developing nation of one god with the recurring, dying-and-reborn nature of "recurrence" as was present in the theocratic-monarchic religion of ancient Sumeria, and in other non-Judaic pagan religions up to the Greeks and Romans, "a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical. The assumptions that early man made about the world were. . . little different from the assumptions that later and more sophisticated societies. . .would make in a more elaborate manner." "Cyclical religion goes nowhere," Cahill states, "because, within its comprehension, there is no future as we have come to understand it, only the next revolution of the Wheel." However, Abraham and the patriarchs of the Jewish people break with this tradition, according to Cahill, formulating what the author calls the "new idea" that would slowly alter the "primeval religious experience" from one centered on constant recurrence and revolution (as present in the mythology of the Sumerians and the progenitors to the Mayans, and as presented by Herakleitos, Buddha, and the like in later ages) to one centered around progress toward a goal, whether a holy land, a Messiah, or otherwise.

Key in Cahill's interpretation is the story of Genesis and the journey from the Sumerian city of Ur (like its partner city Uruk, the birthplace of Gilgamesh, "the threshold, which is from time immemorial") to Canaan - the beginning of the building of a nation out of belief in a god more transcendent than the personal type (the primeval latter exemplified by Gilgamesh's patron Lugalbanda). "Out of the human race, which knows in its bones that all striving must end in death, comes a leader who says he has been given an impossible promise. Out of mortal imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen - in the future." In these terms Cahill describes Abraham's "going-forth" as a story of a tribal leader who had faith in a covenant with a deity, a covenant that his sons would be kings in some future time, that broke from the Sumerian - and earthly - tradition that kings embodied the same identity in each generation, that of a god. The story of Abram's trip into the desert prompted by a belief in a god is contrasted with the self-centered journey Gilgamesh takes to find eternal life for himself. The experiences of the patriarchs, with Isaac's sacrifice being replaced with that of a sheep, the younger Jacob carrying the family's tradition instead of the older Esau, and both Abram and Joseph meeting and besting Pharoah, first as "the stationary god-king whom Avram ran circles around" and then as someone "given fairly high marks as a pharoah: he was smart enough to put Joseph in charge," are presented by Cahill as an evolution from one way of thought, that of the eternally recurring cycle and dependence on structure which traces its ancestry "to time immemorial", to another way, that of the journey to a holy land and progress beyond the cycle of history.

Cahill's conclusions come from his assumptions; he considers the story of the patriarchs to be a historical, linear, and oral tradition that was first completed sometime during the Solomonic period, and most importantly that it is an accurate representation of what the creation of a Hebrew identity was like. These are the main points of traditional Biblical archaeology, based in the studies of scholars like W.F. Albright, who advanced the theory that identification of bedouin lifestyles like those described in Genesis, combined with evidence of westward migration from Mesopotamia in the form of customs, names, and other cultural links, proved historicity. Following an archaeological tradition that they claim has been unusually unsuccessful at dating Genesis as history, Finkelstein and Silberman debate both these basic points. Their theory that the written Pentateuch was the creation of a 7th century Judahite movement from many early sources claims that evidence reflects the ahistoricity of the texts we have in our current "Bible" - in fact, that those texts were an attempt to forge a new identity of one Israel that would inspire confidence and justification for King Josiah's attempt at military conquest of former territories of the Assyrian empire in the years before the Babylonian exile. They concede that before the real basis of Biblical texts can be discovered, the assertions of the text must be examined for their historicity against what modern archaeology now knows about Canaan, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and their veracity as historical landmarks can only be claimed after such comparison.

Finkelstein and Silberman examine here what have become well-known archaeological anachronisms in the text of Genesis describing the time of the patriarchs, and then attempt to read these obviously ahistorical details to place the origin of the text in its actual date of creation. One of the most interesting and simple ahistorical passages is the reference to camels as beasts of burden in the caravans of "Ishmaelites" (Eastern Arabs) to whom Joseph is sold by his brothers. These camels are noted in Genesis as being loaded down with "gum, balm, and myrrh" (the main staples of Arabian commerce during the Assyrian conquest of the seventh-eighth centures BCE) for trade to Egypt. The use of camels as beasts of burden was not widespread among peoples of the Near East until well after 1000 BCE; in fact, excavations at the site of Tell Jemmeh, a point of passage between Arabia and Egypt, and Assyrian sources of the time indicate that the use of camels in this trade could not have been referenced as a mere incidental detail until around the seventh century BCE. To indicate a more potent ahistoricity in geography, Finkelstein examines Isaac's meeting with the "king of the Philistines" at Gerar - in fact, there is no evidence of Philistine activity there until after 1200 BCE, and Gerar was not a significant site until the seventh century BCE.

These observations are taken by the two authors together with the mention of a border and tenuous interaction with Arameans in Genesis (this group was not a dominant factor until at earliest the ninth century BCE), the rather amusingly vile and incestuous origins cited for the nations of Ammon and Moab (mortal enemies of seventh-century and newly-expansionist Judah), the mention of place and people names unknown or historically unimportant to Judah until the Assyrian period of the eighth-sixth centuries BCE (the descendants of Ishmael, the Kadesh oasis in the south, and the cities of the Assyrian Empire), and finally, the documents' focus on Judah as recipient of the royal birthright and on the south and its cities as the geographical capital of Israel ("as if," Finkelstein and Silberman write, "an American scripture describing pre-Colombian history placed inordinate attention on Manhattan. . .or the. . .land that would later become Washington D.C."). To the two authors, these anachronisms do not just make a Middle Bronze Age origin for the major portion of Genesis unlikely; they in fact point to compilation of the main "J" source around the seventh century BCE from local traditions, by a Judahite group that was focused on the expansion of that nation to all of Canaan proper.

Finkelstein and Silberman acknowledge their debt to the theory of German biblical scholar Martin Noth - that "the accounts of the events of Israel's earliest periods of existence - the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, and the wandering in Sinai - were. . .the separate traditions of individual tribes that were assembled into a unified narrative" to serve a purpose of political unification among heterogenous tribes in the area known as "Canaan". It is in the authors' adjusted form of this theory - that the assembly of ancient local traditions by Judahite nationalist redactors in the seventh century BCE gave us the unified Pentateuch's narrative - that the most striking challenge is given to Cahill's assumptions, and thus, his conclusions. Cahill's recognition of the "new idea" presented by Abraham's separation from pagan lifestyles and his pursuit of a goal based on faith (in a god's promise that his descendants would be kings) may indeed be valid; however, the idea itself may have origins far later than those Cahill proposes. Finkelstein and Silberman stress the importance that the unified narrative would have had for Josianic expansionists in seventh century BCE Judah, among other things the emphasis on the statement that "the Israelites were outsiders and not part of the indigenous population of Canaan. . .while ultimately stressing the superiority of Judah." The recognition of both northern sites of worship (Shechem and Bethel, at which Abraham is said to have built altars) and important southern sites like Hebron was, in the view of Finkelstein and Silberman, an attempt to incorporate Israelite holy sites (polluted with idolatry, in the view of Judahites of the seventh century) into the "original" holiness and legitimacy of Judah's god, to which the expansionist Judahite kingdom of the seventh century BCE promised a "return".

Thus, Cahill's theory is somewhat turned on its head: the "new idea" of a singular and transcendent god that ruled over others - an "enlightened henotheism" - was not something that emerged in the journey of the alien Abraham and his sons into the wilds of Canaan, but rather an idea that was born from the growing power of the kingdom of Judah. Establishing all Israel's origins in the Judah-emigrant Abraham, and its holy sites in him and his sons, was a way of presenting a "pious prehistory, before Jerusalem, before the monarchy, before the Temple, when the fathers of the nations were monotheists but were still allowed to sacrifice in other places," a "powerful expression of seventh century Judahite dreams" that put Judah at the center of Israelite civilization since prehistory (a place that it most certainly occupied in the seventh century BCE). Finkelstein and Silberman cite the fragmentary "E" source and their claim of its earlier origins in the northern kingdom which was destroyed in 720 BCE; significantly to the authors' theories, there is almost no mention of Judah within that text, which seems odd if Judah was always the religious center of Israel as the "J" source claims. The ascendance of Judah was what forged ancient tradition into the current and legendary patriarchal stories, introducing the "new idea" of a transcendent, and yet still Judahite, god YHWH, who was worshipped by all the patriarchs of Israel and local peoples, in pursuit of a "new idea" of northern and southern Israel under the control not of fragmentary local tribes but under one transcendent, and yet still Judahite, monarchy.


Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Anchor Books, New York, 1999, p. 271).

Benjamin Mazar, The Early Biblical Period: Historical Studies (Jerusalem, 1986, p. 49-62).

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001, p.12).

Albright, W.F. "Abraham the Hebrew: A New Archaeological Interpretation." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 163: 36-54. (1961)

This node has been given one of the greatest compliments I have ever received: someone thinks it's a cut and paste job. Other than having to sit here and edit out all of my own tedious footnotes, I have left it unchanged from its original form as a high-school student's essay on his PC.

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