Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)
Chapter 7 - The People, from the Early Bronze to the Early Iron Ages
MANETHO, the Egyptian priest-historian of the third century B.C., writes of Egyptian history in terms of dynasties. Modern historians, without abandoning Manetho's pattern, prefer broader designations of Protodynastic, Old, Middle and New Kingdoms to mark periods of outstanding prosperity and development, with "Intermediate Periods" to designate eras of weakness.
During the Protodynastic period (c. 2900-2700 B.C.) widespread commercial interests brought Egypt into touch with Syria and Mesopotamia, resulting in interchange of products and skills. Now a new concept of monarchy developed in united Egypt. The pharaoh was recognized as a god; consequently, Egyptian government became a pharaoh or god-centered bureaucracy with a powerful priesthood. Memphis, near the junction of Upper and Lower Egypt, was the capital and nearby Heliopolis the headquarters of the priesthood. Godship and immortality are closely linked concepts; hence increasing importance was placed on the burial of the Pharaoh. Royal tombs of the first dynasty were underground pits lined with brick and roofed with timber and matting. About the central chamber, small offering rooms were clustered, and adjacent to the royal tomb were graves of servants. In time a superstructure, a rectangular shell with sloping sides called a mastaba (platform), was added.
During the Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2200 B.C.), which encompasses the third to sixth dynasties, the great pyramids were built. For Djoser, the first monarch, a royal mausoleum was erected by the gifted priest-magician-engineer-architect, Imhotep. Five mastabas of diminishing size were imposed one upon the other to form the famous step-pyramid. Succeeding monarchs built larger and smaller pyramids. Egyptian territorial control was extended to Nubia in the south and Palestine and Syria in the north and east, and the resultant trade and inflow of products and wealth brought higher standards of living and better education to the common people. Schools of wise men produced aphorisms similar to those preserved in the book of Proverbs. However, huge building projects, expensive military forays, and perhaps royal indolence brought Egypt to a point of weakness and foreigners, possibly Amorites,l gained control of the land. This dark page in Egypt's history is classified as the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-1900 B.C.). Despite the "darkness" of the era, or perhaps as a result of it, a remarkable literary document "A Dispute Over Suicide" was written.2 A man, weary of life, argues with his soul the merits of self-destruction after a fashion that calls to mind the unhappy lot of Job and the philosophy of Ecclesiastes.
In Mesopotamia, the Early Bronze Age embraces both the Early Dynastic (c. 2800-2360 B.C.) and the Old Akkadian (c. 2360-2180 B.C.) periods. Such great cities as Shuruppak, Eshnunna and Erech were founded in the Early Dynastic era. Writing developed away from pictographic forms and a tremendous literature was produced. Shortly after 2500 B.C., a chronology of rulers known as the Sumerian King List cataloged kings who reigned before and after the great flood.Reigns of tremendous length (43,000 to 18,000 years) were ascribed to the eight antediluvian monarchs, a familiar literary device by which "history" is extended into the distant past and vast periods of time encompassed by simply listing names (cf. Gen. 5). The flood is reported next, after which kingship was again established at Kish. At first, post-diluvian dynasties embrace vast periods of time (24,510 years), but as the period in which the writing was composed is approached, more reasonable figures begin to appear (100, 99, 491, 25 years).
A GRANITE BOWL FROM THE EARLY PROTODYNASTIC PERIOD. Long before men learned to form vessels out of clay and bake their products for lasting hardness, they worked the hard stone to form vessels of simple form and beautiful shape. Similar stone vessels have been found in Palestine.
A Sumerian flood story relating the adventures of Ziusudra, a priest-king who escaped in a boat, was later incorporated in the Gilgamesh Epic as part of a literary struggle with the issues of life and death. Gilgamesh (another Sumerian hero-king) hears the story from Utnapishtim, who has replaced Ziusudra as the hero of the flood.3 Other myths relate stories of gods and goddesses and, with hymns and prayers, provide valuable insights to religious beliefs and practices.
Additional documents record business affairs, the building of temples, legal issues, and taxation problems. Earliest Sumerian cities appear to have had a form of "primitive democracy," according to Thorkild Jacobsen.4 Everyday business affecting the community was handled by a committee of elders, but major issues were voted upon by the adult free men. In an emergency, one person could be appointed leader pro tem. The unwieldy nature of this arrangement yielded to the centralization of authority in one individual, a leader or governor, who was recognized as the representative of the particular god of the city. In this capacity his duties included concern for religious matters such as sacrifice and temple building and for community welfare, which involved maintenance of irrigation channels and a protecting army. The will of the gods was sought in all matters.
Graves of common people were pits into which the body, wrapped in matting or placed in a wooden or clay coffin, was placed, usually on one side in the sleep position with a cup placed before the face. So-called "royal" burials at Ur were most lavish. Huge underground pits in which a stone burial chamber for the "king" or "queen" was erected contained the bodies of guards, servants and animals. Within the tomb chamber, the royal bodies were lavishly attired, and large quantities of gold and silver household items, weapons and personal jewelry were placed nearby. Because the names of these monarchs are not found in any list of royal personages known to date, it has been suggested that they may have been individuals appointed king or queen for sacrificial ceremonies of fertility rites. Artistic talent is demonstrated in exquisite work in stone, copper, silver, gold, electrum and lapis lazuli. Harps and lyres indicate enjoyment of music. Sculpting was highly developed. The Early Dynastic was a period of great art and literature.
The Old Akkadian period began when Semitic peoples, who had been moving into the area for many years and whose names began to appear with greater frequency in Sumerian documents, assumed kingship. Only minor cultural changes took place and Sumerian customs were continued, but the Semitic tongue was the language of the land, although a Sumerian cuneiform script was used. Sargon, the Semitic king of Agade, brought Mesopotamia under his domain in a series of conquests and extended his kingdom through Syria to the Mediterranean. His dynasty ended with the invasion of the Gutians, a people from the eastern Caucasus about whom little is known. Their control lasted for only 100 years, then Sumerians resumed power and introduced a short-lived cultural renaissance lasting until about 1960 B.C.
The corresponding period in Palestine is the Early Bronze or Early Urban period (c. 3300-2000 B.C.), a time when villages became walled towns encircled by cultivated fields and grazing grounds, each with its dependent hamlets. Beth Yerah, Megiddo, Beth Shan, Shechem, Gezer, Lachish, Jericho and Ai were among the powerful centers. Well built homes, large public buildings and granaries were protected by heavy walls of stone or mud brick. No single power united the land, although much of the time, Egyptian garrisons with petty princes controlled key cities. Canaanite, a Semitic language, was written in a syllabic script influenced by Egyptian writing. Egyptian influence can also be seen in pottery patterns. A unique pottery with a red and black burnish of unusual beauty, known as Khirbet Kerak ware after the site where it was first found, reflects the intrusion of a people from the north whose identity is not yet known. Of religious beliefs, little is known. At Megiddo a large circular stone altar was uncovered (see photograph) upon which pottery fragments and animal bones were found, suggesting a place of offering. A large rectangular temple was found at Ai. Burial caves, often containing between twenty-five and fifty entombments, suggest family tombs utilized over long periods of time. Jugs, juglets and bowls found in the graves may have contained food, liquids and unguents.
AN OPEN-AIR CANAANITE ALTAR FOR BURNT OFFERING FOUND AT MEGIDDO. The huge circular altar comes from the last years of the Early Bronze Age and is twenty-nine feet in diameter and six and a half feet high. At the base of the six steps that lead up to the altar, animal bones were found. An adjoining sanctuary can be seen in the lower right hand portion of the photograph with a square altar with four steps.
The final years of this period in Palestine are marked by the same decline noted in Egypt. Waves of desert people swept into the land, and battles decreased the number of city dwellers. Established patterns were abandoned and new pottery, weapons, architecture and burial customs were introduced. The newcomers are usually identified as Amorites. Having destroyed the towns, these pastoral nomads were content to dwell in unwalled communities. Family-tomb burials ceased and individuals were interred in local cemeteries. Variations in funerary practices indicate that the newcomers represented different tribal groups with individualistic customs.
The resumption of the city-state marks the end of Amorite control. The newcomers who dominate the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1500 B.C.) are broadly identified as Canaanites, a Semitic people whose origins are not known.. The Amorites appear to have been content to dwell with the Canaanites, but once again new weapons, pottery and interment patterns are introduced. Heavy walls reinforced with towers protected the towns. Large dwellings, some with upper stories, were constructed. The dead were placed with pottery and bronze weapons in oblong stone lined trenches and covered with stone slabs. Pottery was fashioned in new shapes on a fast wheel, covered with a deep red slip and highly burnished. For the first time, bronze appears in abundance.
During the Middle Kingdom, which coincides with the twelfth dynasty (c. 1990-1786 B.C.), Egypt was ruled by Thebans. If Abraham's visit to Egypt is dated between the twentieth and nineteenth centuries, it occurs when Egyptian splendor was at a peak. Nubia was held by Egypt, and Sinai was exploited for metals and stone for statuary. Egyptian engineers constructed a canal linking the Nile and the Red Sea so that trade from Arabia and Mesopotamia flowed by seaway into Egypt to meet merchants and ships from the Mediterranean. Egyptian art found expression in buildings, ornaments and tomb paintings. Literary talent abounded. Coffin texts, religious documents, were written in the lids of coffins. The "Tale of Sinuhe," with its important description of Palestine and Syria, is from this era.5
The Second Intermediate period, during which art, architecture, literature and economy entered a period of decline, lasted from the thirteenth to seventeenth dynasties (c. 1786-1570 B.C.). The nation, weakened by internal political strife, was easy prey for a people of mixed stock, known as the Hyksos,6 who seized and held rule for 150 years (c. 1700-1570 B.C.). Excavations in Palestine indicate that the Hyksos built city walls of beaten earth with a sloping face, encircled their cities with dry moats, utilized the horse and chariot for rapid troop movement, and employed the composite bow and arrow. In the literature of the period, other migrations are mentioned - the Hurrians7 and Habiru (who will be discussed below) - and it is possible that some of these may have joined the Hyksos movement.8 Josephus identified the Hyksos with the ancestors of the Jews and their expulsion by Pharaoh Alimose with the Exodus.9
HYKSOS GLACIS (SLOPING RAMP) AT JERICHO. The sloping face of the Hyksos glacis begins in the lower left-hand corner of the photograph and can be traced upward to the top of the picture. When the Hyksos came to Palestine they constructed cities on the tops of ancient tells, and introduced a new structural concept in defence works. The slope of the tell was hardened by pounding and packing the earth (terre pisée) and the packed surface was coated with a thin coating of Plaster (visible in the picture) . The city wall was built at the top of this glacis making attacks very difficult.
The New Kingdom (eighteenth to twentieth dynasties) began with Ahmose, lasted from approximately 1570 to 1290 B.C., and constitutes ancient Egypt's most glorious period. Ahmose, using the new weapons introduced by the Hyksos, unified the nation and extended its borders from the fourth cataract of the Nile to the Euphrates. Once again art, architecture and religion flourished. A vigorous commercial policy brought new products from foreign nations. Royal marriages were made with foreign princesses.
A few of Ahmose's immediate successors are worthy of comment. Queen Hatshepsut, mother of Thutmose III (1490-1436 B.C.), who by law could not officially reign, donned royal robes, wore the double crown, and for eighteen years (c. 1486 to 1468) conducted affairs of state and engaged in extensive building. At her death, Thutmose III disfigured his mother's monuments and then turned his attention to the expansion of the empire, conducting campaigns into Palestine and Syria. His successor, Amenhotep II (c. 1436-1410), an athlete and warrior, held the territories and, when Amenhotep III (c. 1400-1364) became king, Egypt was at a peak of power.
Amenhotep IV (c. 1370-1353), son of Amenhotep III, served as co-ruler during his father's declining years, but altered his name to Akhenaten when he came to power and made dramatic changes in religion and government. Sun worship, central in Egyptian history, was continued, but the center of worship was moved to a new city, Akhetaten (El Amarna), thus depriving ancient worship centers of power, prestige and wealth. The various animal manifestations of the sun were abandoned, and only the sun disc (Aten) was recognized. A hymn to the sun, bearing striking parallels to Ps. 104, may have been composed by the monarch. The well-being of the nation faltered under Akhenaten, and control of Palestinian provinces, as indicated in the El Amarna letters,10 was slipping away through political intrigue and invasion by a people called the 'apiru.
Only four other pharaohs will be mentioned. Seti I (c. 1302-1290 B.C.) conducted campaigns in Palestine and Syria. Rameses II (c. 1290-1224 B.C.) fought the Hittites in an attempt to regain Syria and Palestine, but had to be satisfied with Palestine. Both Seti and Rameses were involved in building programs at Per-Rameses (the House of Rameses) and Pi-Tum, called Raamses and Pithom in Exodus 1: 11. Mernephtah (c. 1224-1214 B.C.) campaigned in Palestine, and in his fifth year published his conquests in Canaan on a victory stele, mentioning the cities of Ashkelon, Gezer and Yenoam, and going on to announce "Israel is laid waste; his seed is not." The grammatical structure of the claim indicates that a people rather than a country is meant by "Israel." Rameses III (1195-1164 B.C.) came to the throne following a number of contenders who held brief rule after Mernephtah's death. New invaders, the "Sea People," threatened the land. Among these were the "Peleste" who settled the Philistine plain after a sea and land battle. A pictorial and verbal record of the encounter has been preserved in Rameses' mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.
The next 700 years of Egyptian history are marked by strife within the nation and decline in international power. Only for brief periods does Egypt exert real influence beyond her own borders, and because these periods affect biblical history, they will be considered in their proper sequence.
Political changes were also taking place in Mesopotamia. After the Neo-Sumerian period, Elamites and Amorites controlled Southern Mesopotamia. Of the Amorite rulers, the most distinguished was Hammurabi, a military, administrative and economic genius who united the country. His famous law code, reflecting, in part, earlier codes, contains many regulations not unlike those found in the Bible, indicating a broad common pattern of dealing with legal issues in the Near East. Administrative, trade and commercial, building and agricultural matters appear in documents of this period. A religious text contains a myth in which man is formed of clay in the image of the gods.11 Another myth relates the story of creation by the chief god of Babylon, Marduk. Representing the forces of order, he defeats the powers of chaos and forms the world and man, utilizing in part the bodies of defeated gods. The leader of the opposition forces, Tiamat, is split in half: one part of her divided body is arched to form the heavens and the other part stretched out to form the earth and sea. The sun, moon and stars are made to mark the divisions of the year. The blood of the rebel god Kingu, the consort of Tiamat, is mingled with clay and man is formed with the express purpose of serving the gods.12 During this same period, reference to a people called "Habiru" is found in diplomatic correspondence.
A LIMESTONE RELIEF OF AMENHOTEP IV (AKHENATEN) AND QUEEN NEFERTITE. The rays of the sun stream from above and terminate in hands, two of which present the symbol of life, the ankh, to the Pharaoh and his wife.
Toward the middle of the seventeenth century, Cassites from the eastern mountains overcame Babylon and succeeded in establishing a kingdom that lasted into the twelfth century. The Cassite period is most obscure, but it is clear that they were under pressure from two other peoples, Hittites and Assyrians.
The Hittite nation, centered in Anatolia, arose during the second millennium (the period of the Old Empire),13 when Indo-Europeans took control of the existing native population and established a feudal nobility under a monarch with limited powers. Some attempts at expansion were made around 1800 B.C., but it was not until the sixteenth century that the Hittites pushed into Syria and then eastward to Babylon. In the New Empire (c. 1460-1200 B.C.), Hittite power again affected Syria and Upper Mesopotamia, incorporating the kingdoms of the Mitanni14 and engaging in clashes with Egyptians. Hittite documents indicate that wars generally ended with settlement treaties which clearly reveal the use of diplomatic strategy. One contribution of these people to Near Eastern culture is the use of iron. Between the fourteenth and twelfth centuries, Hittites, used iron for weapons, holding a virtual monopoly on this product. Weakened by internal problems and by the invasion of Syria by Sea Peoples, the Hittite empire finally fell under attacks from less civilized peoples from the North. Hittite power was never again a threatening force in the Near East. After the collapse of the Hittite empire in the twelfth century, iron came into common use in Palestine, first among the Philistines, then among the Hebrews.15
THE HiTTITE WEATHER GOD TESHUB holding a hatchet (thunderbolt) in his upraised right hand and a trident (forked lightning?) in his left. He wears a short fringed tunic with a wide belt. His horned helmet is reminiscent of the bull figures often associated with him. The statue was found at Til Barsip.
The Philistines, the Peleste branch of the Sea People, settled in Palestine in the twelfth century BC. While it cannot be proven beyond all shadow of doubt, it is believed on the basis of pottery similarities that they are related to the Mycenaeans whose beginnings go back to the nineteenth century when waves of Indo-Europeans invaded Greece. During the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries, the Mycenaeans developed a tremendous export industry and their pottery was shipped to important Mediterranean centers. In the twelfth century some upset seems to have occurred in Mycenaean life, perhaps an Earthquake, disrupting normal settled life. Bands of people usually associated with Mycenaeans began to roam the seas, apparently seeking a new place to settle. These "Sea People," as they are called in Egyptian literature, first threatened the delta during the reign of Rameses II and were defeated by his successor Mernephtah. The participants are called Danaans and Achaeans, names used by Homer to designate Greeks.16 It appears that Cyprus, Ras es-Shamra, and the Hittite country, were also attacked at this time.17
A second wave of Sea People, which broke into two parts, followed the first. One group, the Tjikal or Tjeker, struck north Syria. The other, the Peleste or Pulusatu, attacked Egypt. After a bitter land and sea battle they were prevented from entering Egypt proper and were held to the area known as the Philistine Plain in southern Palestine. Here they settled in five major cities: Ashkelon. Ashdod, Ekron, Gath and Gaza, but their activities and holdings were much more extensive as revealed by excavations at Tell Qasile, Gezer, Beth Shan and elsewhere. The northern group settled the seacoast around Tyre and Sidon, an area ultimately called "Phoenicia" by the Greeks.18
We know something of Philistine dress. Rameses III depicted the sea battle in his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu and the Philistines are shown wearing kilts and armored vestments. On their heads were high feathered headresses with chin straps and they carried huge round shields, bronze swords and spears. Those who attacked by land were similarly attired and came in horse drawn chariots and carts drawn by oxen. The same feathered headdress is depicted on a sarcophagus from Tell Far'a.
It would appear that the Philistines were organized along the state pattern with local rulers for each unit. Little is known of their industry, apart from the characteristic pottery and the reference to the control of the iron industry (I Sam. 13:19 ff). Whatever their language may have been, it would appear that they soon adopted the Canaanite tongue, for they appear to have had little difficulty in communicating with the Hebrews.19 Like other peoples in Palestine, they suffered the pressures of the great powers around them, utterly disappearing from history after the neo-Babylonian period (sixth century) and leaving only their name to designate the territory they partially occupied (Palestine).20
A POTTERY SARCOPHAGUS FOUND AT TELL FAR'A, a site about ten miles inland on the Philistine plain. The lid, in the form of a human face and arms, may reveal Egyptian influence, but the high headdress suggests that the coffin was for a Philistine burial.
One other people, the Assyrians, were destined to play an important role in Near Eastern and Hebrew history. The nation was located in the foothill region of the Kurdistan mountains at the middle course of the Tigris, and both country and capital city were named after the god Asshur. Excavations at Asshur show the site to have been occupied in the early third millennium but Assyria did not begin its rise until the second millennium with the decline of power of the first Babylonian Dynasty. Language and religious beliefs were like those of Babylon. In the second half of the eighteenth century B.C. under King Shamsi-Adad, the city-state of Asshur began to develop in power and independence, ultimately to become the basis for the formation of the Assyrian Empire, which lasted until the end of the seventh century B.C. Under Tiglath Pileser I (C. 1100 B.C.), Assyrians took possession of land as far as Lake Van on the north and Syria and the Mediterranean Sea on the west. The events of the next centuries are obscure, but in the ninth century under Ashurnasirpal II, when a military machine renowned for its efficient ruthlessness was developed, Assyria again became a threat in the Near Eastern political affairs. Because Assyrian growth directly affects the Hebrew people, subsequent Assyrian history will be discussed in context.
Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968, 1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
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