After Strange Gods

On the right bank of the Euphrates, near the Syrian border with Iraq, was once the ancient kingdom of Mari. From the immensely rich archive in the king’s palace, found by archaeologists in the 1930s, we learn that prophets and prophecy were already known before 2000 BC. At that time divination, sorcery, augury, soothsaying, and the like were practiced in ancient Mesopotamia. But there was nothing parallel to the kinds of prophecy presented in Mari. The prophets there had a strong sense of divine mission. Through ecstatic visions, they told the king what the fertility god Dagan wanted them to tell him. Indeed the term used by the Mari to describe a prophet is akin to the word “madman,” which is also one of the terms used by the Bible to describe a prophet: “The prophet is a fool, the man of spirit is mad” (Hosea 9:7). All of this took place hundreds of years before prophets who believed they were responding to the call of God emerged among the Israelites.

Abraham is presented as a prophet in Genesis 20:7, “for he is a prophet…,” and Abraham, according to Norman Podhoretz, was a contemporary of the Mari prophets. “If we cast our lot, as I do, with the theory that Abraham actually existed, we can reasonably guess that he was born in Mesopotamia around the year 2000 BCE.” As for Moses, of whom the Bible says, “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10), Podhoretz writes, “It is Moses who is appointed by God to lead the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt somewhere around the year 1300 BCE.”

Podhoretz is taking the Bible’s account of history at face value, believing that the Hebrew Bible is “a reasonably reliable historical source for most of the period it covers.” But biblical archaeology of recent years raises large questions about taking the Bible as historically accurate. Thus, for example, we find no trace of the grandiose, imperial, united kingdom of David and Solomon anywhere in the Judean hills around the tenth century BC. Archaeological finds suggest that about 40,000 people lived in Judea at this time in rather primitive conditions. So even if we take David and Solomon as historical figures, and I don’t see why we should not, they were not as grand as the Bible makes them. The relation is not unlike that between the splendor of the Homeric Troy and the shabby Troy Schliemann found. There are of course radical skeptics who deny even the historical reality of David and Solomon, arguing that there is no independent evidence for their existence, apart from a shard of pottery found recently in Tel Dan, in which the “house of David” is mentioned. Between the two poles of uncritical acceptance of the historical truth of the Bible and unreasonable skepticism, Podhoretz, I believe, keeps bumping into the first.

It is …

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