Home > E. Religion: palimpsest & reconstruction, EE. The Bible & the Z Revolution > Samaria (The Bible & the Z Revolution, Part II)

Samaria (The Bible & the Z Revolution, Part II)

The comments by Creative Isthmus on the first installment of this thread has set RT to thinking. While I started this topic because I had a hunch that important biblical sources (and their connections to regional history) are being overlooked, I am now reminded that more important questions may be at stake in this thread–above all, in what ways have the complex development of religion improved our lives? One can always point to a decline in violence as a principle benefit of the emegence of the biblical tradition–an end to human sacrifice, the prohibition of murder, and the general adoption of peace as an important goal in human affairs. But at the same time, a price was paid–the suppression of women and the adoption of the notion that only one religious perspective can be correct. How can we maintain our adherence to peace while acknowledging our respect for and committment to previously disenfranchised people? 

Samaria, otherwise known as the Kingdom of Israel, is the next stop on the way to understanding the origins of the Bible. The account given of it in Kings and Chronicles, while containing valid information, is heavily biased by political considerations, but fortunately has now been supplemented by archaeological research. The biblical writers have left the impression that the Kingdom of Israel did little except trangress the laws given by God; archaeological findings suggest a wealthy and sophisticated society. Answering the question, “Who were the Samarians?” is critical to tracing the origins of the Bible and the connection of the biblical authorship to the developing Z Revolution in the ancient Middle East.

The account of the birth of Jacob’s children is the place to begin examining the Samarians. And in fact, the bible contains not one but two accounts of their births: the Elohist (or “E”) and Yahwist (or “J”) versions. If we look at the E version (and we are supposing that E is older than J), we find that the order of birth is 1) Dan; 2) Naphtali; 3) Gad; 4) Asher; 5) Issachar; 6) Zebulon. With the exception of Gad, these are all became the fathers of northern tribes (and I think Gad may originally have been located in the north). Moreover, not only are these northern tribes, but the list starts with tribe that was located farthest north and moves steadily south from the headwaters of the Jordan. What this suggests to me is that the original conquest of Canaan was from the north–an idea supported by Abraham’s departure into Canaan from Harran, a city so far north that today it is part of Turkey.

The northern (and original) tribes of Israel carried their northern culture with them. Why did they not continue their conquest farther south, into the Negev Desert? Because they ran into the cultural boundary that cut ancient Palestine in half. To the north, the country is reasonably well watered and can support agriculture; to the south, the country is desert. The northern tribes simply did not have a technology and lifestyle that permitted them to live in the harsh conditions of the south. What is most important to realize is that the cultural boundary continued to exist throughout the history of ancient Israel, and prevented the union of the two cultures, Israel and Judah, that sprang up in Palestine (even the United Monarchy under David and Solomon apparently deepened the cultural divide between North and South).

The god that the northern tribes brought with them was probably the Semitic moon god, Sin (Harran was one of the centers of his worship); but as they passed through (or conquered) the sophisticated cities of Phoenicia, they acquired a two new high gods: El, the supreme god of the Ugarit sacred texts, and his son, Baal. Readers should take note: The cult center for Baal was Mt. Hermon (on the edge of tribal allotment of Dan); the center for El was Beth-El (in the middle of Palestine, not far from Jericho).

As if all this were not complicated enough, Yahweh, the God of Judah (and perhaps early on, of Edom) began to win adherents in the north. Based in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant had been settled after the Exodus, priests of Yahweh worked to build support in the more northerly tribes.

In sum, then: three gods had major followings in Israel: Baal, El, and Yahweh.

With this cultural and historical background in place, I think we can finally propose an answer to the question: who was the Elohist? The first thing to realize about anyone writing a sacred history of ancient Israel is that he or she was primarily concerned with integrating the diverse and competing religious communities in the nation. Most likely, the Elohist was working during the reign of a strong king, one with enough power to attempt to the unite the fractious ten tribes; but Israel produced only a few such kings–and of them, Ahab (r. circa 870-850 B.C.)-and Jeroboam II (r. circa 786-746 B.C.) seem likeliest to have attempted a religious unification in their realm.

To determine which of these monarchs sponsored the E author, we turn to an important feature of the E text–namely, it seems to have been heavily edited. In other words, there is an E-1 text, which was edited to produce an E-2 text, which was the version that made its way (one again edited) into the oldest portion of the Bible, the JE text. The most plausible date for the composition of the E-1 text was Ahab’s reign; the E-2 text, it seems, was produced by the priests at Shiloh, probably after the reign of Jeroboam II, the period when the approaching collapse of the Northern Kingdom was apparent. In short, the original Elohistic work dates to about 860 B.C.

Can we say yet more about the Elohist? I think so, but that’s for another post…   RT

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Photo: Statue of Baal (object at the Louvre Museum); WikiCmns; author: Jastrow; Public Domain.

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  1. August 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    This is so fascinating! I feel as though you are sifting through the layers of cultural context and social norms that have been slapped across the bible like new coats of paint–until it’s position as a sacred text for centuries has been so obscured to my mind it’s almost forgotten–and are uncoding, unveiling a fascinating historical perspective. This brings to mind a posit made by a professor I know who said: why do religions have codes of conduct, behavior, and cleanliness? not so much to adhere to what they believe their God wants so much as to set their boundaries as a community within a larger society.

    In your past entry (https://cathay12.wordpress.com/2011/03/26/did-jacob-climb-his-ladder/) you mention that the Elohist referred to God as “El” in the early parts of the bible. I’ve only ever heard Yahweh used in reference to hebrew readings of the bible, though I know the term “Elohim” is commonly used and I’m assuming it derives from El, no? Is there any info on when the shift from El to Yahweh occurred? Did the two ever truly merge or was there merely a watering down of language over the centuries of editing and translation?

  1. August 22, 2011 at 5:24 pm
  2. September 8, 2011 at 2:39 am

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