Ancient Near East in the Bible – Excerpt from the forthcoming “The Bible Trial”

Rabbi Joseph Reinman has been kind enough to allow us to post selections from his forthcoming book – The Bible Trial. The following is the fourth in a series of excerpts that we will be posting. Stay posted!


The judge looked to the plaintiff’s table. “Mr. Marsh, earlier you reserved the right to call more witnesses. Do you wish to exercise that right?”

Dexter stood. “Your honor, we wish to call another rebuttal witness.”

“Go right ahead, counselor. Call your witness.”

“Your honor, the plaintiff calls Dr. Allen Graves.”

An old man with sparse white hair and sparkling blue eyes that were anything but grave ambled to the witness stand and smiled at the jury.

“Can we have your full name and occupation, sir?” said Dexter.

“Allen Pinkerton Graves. I am Professor of Ancient Oriental Studies at McMaster University in Toronto, Ontario. That’s in Canada.”

“Dr. Graves, how old is the field of ancient Oriental studies?”

“Oh, I’d say about a hundred years old.”

“Is the field of biblical studies older?” asked Dexter.

“Yes, quite a bit. The hypotheses of the Bible critics were fairly full-blown when ancient Oriental studies were still in their infancy. They knew very little about the life and customs of the ancient world.”

“Did this lack of knowledge influence their perception of the Bible?”

“Without a doubt,” said the witness. “You see, the more we learn about the ancient world in the second millennium b.c.e. the more we realize we ‘e looking at the world of the Old Testament. The spirit, the customs, the way of life, the feel of the times point straight at the Old Testament. I’d venture to say that much of the dry information we have derived from other sources comes to vivid life in the Old Testament. Yes, without a doubt the Old Testament has the resounding ring of truth.”

“I would like you to explain to the jury how this lack of knowledge of the ancient world affected the development of biblical studies.”

“Of course,” said the witness. “You see, the early biblical scholars were working in a vacuum, so to speak. They found anomalies in the Bible, and according to their nineteenth-century German perception of literature, they came to the conclusion that they were looking at an anachronistic amalgam of different source documents put together centuries after the fact. Wherever they found inconsistencies with their theories or text that didn’t seem to make sense, they felt free to make emendations. They deleted text. They changed words. They saw scribal errors. They took liberties with the text, because they didn’t know any better. They didn’t recognize the literary style and standards of the Patriarchal era. They didn’t understand the language in the context of the other languages of the time, because they knew nothing about them.”

“And this is all wrong?” said Dexter.

“It’s not just wrong,” said the witness. “It’s scandalous. They showed no respect for the ancient texts.” He pulled an index card from his pocket. “Look, an Egyptian funeral papyrus from about 1400 b.c.e., quoted in Cerny’s Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt, bears the following certification at the end of the document: ‘[The book] is completed from its beginning to its end, having been copied, revised, compared and verified sign by sign.’ Look at the meticulous care with which Egyptian scribes prepared a simple funerary papyrus. Do you think Hebrew scribes were less careful with the preparation of their sacred literature? Is it conceivable that they put together the Bible without copying, revising and comparing it letter by letter? Horsefeathers!”

“So let me ask you a question, Dr. Graves. When the flow of information from ancient Oriental studies increased, why didn’t these biblical scholars abandon their earlier theories?”

“Because they were accustomed to their ingenious reconstructions. They were mentally conditioned in one direction. As you phrased it during your cross-examination of Dr. Winemaker, many of them became academic fundamentalists. They saw only one pathway, and they followed it blindly. But you’ll be happy to hear that in recent years the old discredited preconceptions are slowly crumbling into the ash heap, where they belong.”

“So you think, Dr. Graves, that the study of the ancient Near East corroborates the historicity of the Bible?”

“I do. William Albright wrote in Archaeology and the Religion of Israel that ‘the Mosaic tradition is so consistent … so congruent with our independent knowledge of the religious development of the Near East in the late second millennium B.C. that only hypercritical pseudo-rationalism can reject its essential historicity.’”

“Those are strong words.”

“And more recently, Dr. Henri Blocher wrote in Révélation des Origines: Le Début de la Genése that ‘the critics, when they judge the internal phenomena [of the Bible], project into it their customs as modern Western readers and neglect all we know today of the writing customs of biblical times. The taste for repetition, the structure of a global statement, repeated with development, the replacement of a word by its synonyms, especially the change of a divine name in a text (e.g., the names of Osiris on the Ikhernofret stele), are well attested characteristics of ancient Middle Eastern texts … The Biblical text, as it is, agrees with the literary canons of its time.’”

“Can you give us a few examples?”

“Glad to. I’m going to give you examples of obscure features of the ancient world during the early parts of the second millennium b.c.e., features that would not be known to people living hundreds of years later unless they were archaeologists.” The witness winked. “And there were no archaeologists in the ancient world.”

Dexter smiled. “Go ahead.”

“Take the customs of inheritance, for instance. In the Book of Genesis, we find a number of curious customs that are unfamiliar to modern readers and must have been equally unfamiliar to readers of the Bible in the middle of the first millennium b.c.e, the time the Bible was allegedly produced. First, we read in Genesis how the childless Abraham laments that his servant Eliezer will inherit his wealth if he has no sons. Strange. Why should his servant inherit rather than nephews? Well, behold, we find on cuneiform tablets unearthed in Mesopotamia at Ur and especially at Nuzi – discovered in 1935, by the way – that it was the custom during the Patriarchal age for childless couples to designate their servants as their heirs.”

“Remarkable. What else?”

“We find among the customs of that period that a childless wife could produce an heir by proxy, so to speak, by giving her handmaiden to her husband. Indeed, that is what Sarah did. She gave Hagar to Abraham, and the son born, Ishmael, became Abraham’s heir. But when Isaac was born to Sarah, he immediately replaced the servant and the handmaiden’s son as Abraham’s heir. This again was the ancient custom of those times. The customs further dictated that when a principal son was born the handmaiden and her son should be allowed to remain in the household and not driven away. Understandably, we find Abraham distressed that Sarah wanted to drive Hagar and Ishmael out of his home; only a divine command makes him accept the expulsion.”

“Go on.”

“Then we have Esau, Jacob’s older brother, who sells his birthright for a bowl of soup. Selling a birthright? Who ever heard of such a thing? Yet this is exactly what Tupkitilla of Nuzi did. He sold his birthright for three sheep. A bit of a better deal than Esau got, wouldn’t you say? But other than at that time, we find no record, not in the legal codes and not in the chronicles, of anyone selling a birthright. You can’t make up stuff like this.”

“Makes you think, doesn’t it?” said Dexter.

“The realism of the Patriarchal narratives is extraordinary. Let’s move on to property taxes. After Sarah dies, Abraham attempts to buy the Cave of the Machpelah in Hebron for an ancestral burial ground. The owner is a Hittite named Ephron. All Abraham needs is the cave, but in the end, we find that he buys the entire field in which the cave is located. Why should he buy the whole field if he has no need for it?”

Dexter pretended to consider the puzzle. “All right,” he said at last. “I give up. Why?”

“Because there is a Hittite law that if the owner of a property sells only part of his field, he remains liable for the taxes on the entire field, even the part that no longer belongs to him. But if he sells the whole property, the new owner pays the taxes. Ephron didn’t want to sell off only the cave, because he would have to continue to pay taxes on it. He knew he had Abraham over the barrel. Abraham’s dead wife was lying there, waiting to be buried. Abraham was under pressure, so Ephron forced him to buy the whole field. It makes perfect sense once you know Hittite law, but those nineteenth-century German scholars didn’t even believe there had ever been a Hittite people. They had no idea that in the next century a vast Hittite Empire would be discovered.”

“Really interesting,” said Dexter. “What else do you have for us?”

“The lex talionis.”

“The lex talionis?” said Dexter. “What is that?”

“It’s Latin for the law of retaliation. Let me backtrack a little bit. In the Book of Exodus, we are told that if an ox gores and kills someone the ox’s owner must pay a stiff fine. Then we are told that ‘if it should gore a son or gore a daughter, the same rules apply.’ What’s the point? What’s the difference if the ox gores a boy or a girl?”

“All right, tell us.”

“It is a clear challenge,” said the witness, “to the Code of Hammurabi.”

“Who was Hammurabi?”

“He was a great Babylonian king who lived about 1750 b.c.e. He formulated a code of laws that was not discovered until the twentieth century. The code consisted of two hundred and eighty-two laws, most of which survive on cuneiform tablets. Listen to these. Laws 209-210. If a man strikes a free-born woman so that she loses her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss. If the woman dies, his daughter shall be put to death. Laws 229-230. If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death. If it kills the son of the owner, the son of that builder shall be put to death. There’s your lex talionis, your law of retaliation. You kill a woman, your daughter is put to death. You kill someone’s son, your son is put to death. So the Bible says, No way. No matter if the ox gores a son or a daughter, the owner is assessed a fine. His son or daughter is not put to death.”

“This is very interesting,” said Dexter. “So you are saying that the Bible must have been aware of the Code of Hammurabi?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. The Code of Hammurabi was in effect during the second millennium b.c.e., and the Bible goes out of its way to contradict it. But by the first millennium the Code was no longer in effect in Mesopotamia. By the middle of the first millennium b.c.e., most people had never even heard of the Code of Hammurabi, and surely, no one at all was familiar with its laws. So how could these alleged late composers of the Bible write about an ox goring a son or a daughter when they probably never even heard of the Code of Hammurabi? And even if by some miracle they had knowledge of Hammurabi’s laws, why would these alleged late writers compose laws to contradict obsolete and forgotten laws?”

“Why, indeed,” said Dexter.

For the next hour, Dexter led Dr. Graves through a number of other striking reflections in the Bible of ancient cultural mores long forgotten by the middle of the first millennium b.c.e.

“So can you sum up for us, Dr. Graves?” said Dexter.

“Of course, the more we learn about the ancient Near East, the more we see how perfectly the Bible fits into that setting – in the customs, the laws, the lifestyles, the treaties and covenants, the language, the historical picture. When we read the Old Testament, we are transported back to the second millennium b.c.e., and the times and societies come alive before our eyes. For scholars in my field and even for ordinary laypeople, it is an incredibly exciting journey of discovery. In my opinion, the Bible is one the most priceless historical treasures in existence.”

“Thank you, Dr. Graves. No more questions.”

The judge wrote something down and then looked up at Calabrese.

“Do you wish to cross-examine?” she said.

“Yes, your honor,” said Calabrese.

He clasped his hands behind his back and approached the witness.

“Dr. Graves, just a quick point. You quoted Dr. Henri Blocher that the Bible conforms to the literary canons of its time. Does Dr. Blocher teach in a university?”

“He is a professor in Wheaton College in the Boston area.”

“Is he a professor of biblical studies or archaeology or ancient Oriental studies?”

“No. He is a professor of theology.”

Calabrese’s eyes opened wide. “Theology? Is Wheaton a Christian college?”

“Yes, it is.”

“And you accept his opinion as objective and unbiased?”

Dr. Graves seemed surprised. “Of course I do. I don’t discriminate against religious scholars. I evaluate their work on its own merits, and Dr. Blocher’s work is excellent.”

“No doubt,” sniffed Calabrese. “I have no more questions for this witness.”

“The witness may step down,” said the judge. “Do you wish to present a rebuttal witness on these issues, counselor?”

“A rebuttal witness?” Calabrese arched his eyebrows. “For what? No, I’m finished here.”

“Very well,” said the judge. “Mr. Marsh?”

Dexter looked at the jury and then back to the judge.

“Your honor,” he said, “the plaintiff rests.”

The judge banged her gavel. “Court is adjourned until Monday morning, when we will begin hearing closing statements from the plaintiff and the defense.”

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1 Response to Ancient Near East in the Bible – Excerpt from the forthcoming “The Bible Trial”

  1. Dina says:

    Very interesting!

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