Friday, January 20, 2012

The Children of Israel (speculations about Moses)

Like the song says: Don’t believe all you’re liable to read in the Bible: it ain’t necessarily so. [Ira Gershwin, 1935]

Generally, historians focus on individuals: no nuances, no details, no mention of the minions who did the dirty work down in the historical trenches. Wellington defeated Napoleon. Columbus discovered the Americas. Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.

Some famous names aren’t even real. Stalin was a pseudonym, Caesar a nickname, Moses an Egyptian title. Roman Catholic Popes rarely use their own names. Germans were never Huns, and nor were Hungarians. One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian. Foreign names are translated (or transliterated) into English for our reading convenience. Columbus was not the man’s native name.

The more ancient the record, the less certain the names of individuals and nations are. Who were the Hittites of 3500 years ago? They spoke an Aryan language: was their name a variation of “Hindu”? The two names probably shared a common origin, at least. Were the people of Amurru the Amorites of the Bible, and the people of Mitanni the Midianites? Very likely, in both cases. Who was Jacob, and why was his name changed to Israel? The Bible is the official history of the tribe that called itself The Children of Israel; why couldn’t it be The Children of Jacob?

My own speculation is that Israel was a rendition of Isuwa-ili, the suffix -ili being found in the names of some Hittite rulers. Isuwa was a buffer state bordering two famed empires: the Hittite and Assyrian – and the wild mountains of Ur, familiar to us as Ararat. Isuwa-ili is a name that might have been borne by the leader of any swarm of Isuwan refugees displaced by a clash of the empires in south-central Anatolia.

Wandering refugees are a problem for settled peoples. The makeshift tribe calling itself the “children” of Isuwa-ili or Isra-el, seems to have been refused sanctuary by the nation of Amurru; the tribe’s bitter resentment of the Amorites was added to the history recited by the tribal bards. A similar refusal by Mitanni explains the tribe’s anger towards the Midianites – who were Moses’s wife’s people, for goodness sake. Such a betrayal. The wanderers eventually found a home in “the land of Egypt”. This would not have been Egypt proper, as we see it on modern maps, but more plausibly an area of northern Phoenicia that for several generations was part of the Egyptian Empire. Its major port serviced a flourishing trading route to and from the east.

This was where the Children of Israel presumably camped as refugees, in the interval between their escape from Isuwa and their escape to “the wilderness” under Moses. 400 years was a Biblical wild-ass guess; nobody knows how long they were there. The “wilderness” would not have been Sinai, but the sparsely settled hinterland of Lebanon and Palestine. The tribal bards of later times might have taken poetic liberties with the identity of “Egypt”; but the qualifier “the land of...” betrays the truth.

“Moses” is “Prince” in Egyptian. It was a strange name for the leader of a culturally Semitic troop of refugees, especially if he wasn’t fluent in the Egyptian language (Ex. 4.10 & 6.30 KJV). Perhaps it was an ironic title, or a code to hide his identity from government spies. The “Pharaoh” with whom Moses negotiated would have been the Egyptian governor of the northern province – a newly appointed governor: “... a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.”

The Children of Isuwa-ili may not all have spoken Hebrew to begin with, by the way. Moses may have chosen that language for his new warrior-tribe in order to unite them in a cultural bond with the legendary Abraham, who really was a Hebrew, as his name indicates. But that’s for another day.