Archaeology and the early Old Testament

writings of and commentary inspired by Charles Pellegrino

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Part II : "Voyages" - from Abraham to Moses

Abraham's adventures

Abraham is said to have left "Ur of the Chaldeans" and gone to Canaan, at God's command. The Chaldeans were a tribe that ruled Ur around 1150 BC and after [not the 2350 BC that Abram left Ur, but that's explained in that when Genesis was presumably written down, in 1000-800 BC, Ur was run by the chaldeans, so it was an easy identification label]. At the reputed time of Abram, Ur was a mighty and rich city, full of libraries, courts, palaces and so forth (and with an attitude to marriage and divorce much like today's). Abram was a Semite nomad and such people long had a tradition back then of settling down in a city and several generations later leaving to go wandering again. Was there an Abram/Abraham? Well records from the time indicate that from around 2500 BC on Ibrahim (Abraham) was a very common name in the area. Perhaps around 2500BC there was a famous Ibrahim, after whom many took their name. How many David's are there today, for instance? So, there may have been an actual person called Abraham who led his family out from Ur to Canaan (with or w/o the prompting of a god) ... or "Abraham" may merely have been a symbolic person representing a period of time when several Semite families/tribes left Ur and went wandering to Canaan because of the periodic famines that plagued the Tig-Euph. area. Why Canaan? Well, there were plenty of Semites already there (the Canaanites) and if you leave the Tig-Euph plains, you either go into the desert or to Canaan. Some may have done both, but it was the ones who went to Canaan who the bible follows. Incidently, some of the practices mentioned with Abraham, such as Sarah giving her slave to him to get a child, were common back around 2500 BC. Others, such as camels, were not. Camels wern't domesticated untill 1400 BC. Presumably a more recent addition to the record. So. The court is "out" on Abraham, and may remain that way.

Then comes Lot and Sodom. According to the bible Abraham settled in Canaan and Lot went "east to dwell in the cities of the plain ... Sodom." Well, east of Canaan is mountains, desert and the plains of the Tigrus-Euphrates. So it would appear that Lot returned back to Sumeria, to a place called Sodom (Sedom in the Hebrew), and not near the Dead Sea as tradition would have it. So is there a destroyed Sodom in "Iraq"? That aside, cities "move" around a lot in the OT, so one should not take much account of where Sodom was claimed to have been located. Some references in Genesis actually put Sodom in "Shinar", a region in modern day Iraq. It also mentions "slime pits", what they called tar pits back then.

In "iraq" almost every ancient city mound that one cares to dig, one finds a multitude of layers, city built on city going back many thousands of years (Jesusalem is over 6000 years old and has many layers, f'instance, and there were many Jericho's, all built on the same site). There are a few exceptions and these are most notable cuz they are exceptions. One is Mashkan-shapir, the city of Nergal ("he" was the city "god"). This city grew to be a rich and large metropolis, before suddenly being abandoned in 1895 BC. Unlike most other abandoned cities it was not, however, abandoned cuz the nearby river shifted too far away. Actually, it's the only city of it's size to have been abandoned as suddenly as it was. So why? Despite the city being built of non-flamable materials (mud, mud and more mud) the evidence indicates that the city was abandoned after a huge fire, comparable to the firestorms of Dresden in WW2. Over most of the city everything except the mud bricks had been reduced to ash ... and tar, tar consistent with a huge oil fire. But whence the oil? Well, it is Iraq and under the city is a huge desposit of oil and gas. And while it would not have been drilled for back then, even today, it is not all that uncommon for gas and/or oil geysers to suddenly spurt out from the desert sands. Pellegrino hypothesises that one (or more) such geyser erupted within the city and was set upon fire, destroying the city by the time it ceased. Was this Sodom? It fits the biblical criteria (apart from name and location, which the bible's record isn't all that great with anyway, cf Noah). The city did die by fire, it's inhabitants did worship a satan-like deity (Nergal was the Sumerian god of mass destruction by war and plague). And on top of that, the city was the Sumerian court (as in law, not aristocracy) - it was a city filled with lawyers and judges. God does have a sense of humour, after all.

And Gomorrah? Well, the original Hebrew name was Amorah, which in cunieform (Sumerian writing) would read "Imar-at", a city mentioned as being on the Tigrus in ancient records. And Sodom? Originally that was Sedem ... and there was a Sidamu on the Tigrus and the builder of part of Mashkan-shapir was Sin-iddinam - the later is Pellegrino's prefered theory.

So, Sedem and Amorah may have actually existed, but even if they didn't, their tale was no doubt based on cities that did exist (for where there was one city destroyed that way, there's sure to have been more - the bible says 4 were so destroyed, f'instance). The only problem, Sodom was destroyed around 2300-2100 BC, depending on how one interprets events in the bible, while the city found was destroyed in 1900 BC. The implication here is that Abraham was not at the destruction of Sodom, rather as the story of Abraham was formed in the Jewish oral record, the news of the buring of a city (or several) in Sumeria no doubt got included to "spice up" the tale. As for Lot's wife turning to salt, there can never be any archaeological support for that, by definition. :)

Moses meets Atlantis

What does Moses and Atlantis have in common? The answer is Thera. And what is Thera? There was an island in the agean sea, Somewhere between Crete and Greece. In the autumn of 1628 BC the island blew up in the largest explosion in human history, at least 100 times more powerful than Krakatoa - which was heard in Sydney, created tidal waves that reached the coast of Africa and America and sent up enuf dust that it changed the earth's climate for decades after (yes, as I mentioned before, there is dispute about this date). The explosion created a hole in the earth's crust, 8 miles wide and 1/2 mile deep where the mountain had been, with cracks radiating out for more than 100 miles. In china there was a dust cloud that covered the sky and there was famine for 7 years, the climate all over the world was thrown into chaos. And all this in a relatively small sea, the eastern mediterranean. The explosion would have such an effect on any people living at the time that no historical record could have but mentioned it. The bible could be no exception.

But Moses and Atlantis? well, Atlantis first. In 1628 BC Greece was a backwater vassal state of the Minoan Empire, which was based in Minoa (Crete) and several agean islands, including Thera. When the island exploded it virtually destroyed the Minoan empire, allowing the Greeks to take over, inheriting their science and philosophy from their past masters. The Minoans had a technology and level of culture that was more advanced than anything prior to the scientific renaisance in the 15th century. Central heating, flush toilets, possibly even telescopes (lenses have been found) were in the houses of even "poor" fishermen, let alone the "rich". Minoan archaeologists say that the destruction of Thera put scientific progress back over 3000 years and some speculate that if not for Thera the Minoans would have been at our level of technology by the time of Christ. One of the most powerful and poignant "what if" in the existence of the human race.

Anyway, writing about it over 1000 years later Plato called it Atlantis (not all agree with this identification). But it was not just the Minoan's who felt the impact. The resulting tidal waves would have flooded the whole eastern Mediteranean coastline. Computer models indicated that at the Nile detla the wave would have been over 40 feet high and over 800 feet (!) along the Turkish coastline, going 30 miles inland. Atlantis ... according to Plato they were a very advanced civilisation who passed onto the Greeks their science and philosophy and were destroyed when their island home sank ... for visitors to Thera after the event, it would have looked like the island sank. An earlier record describing the destruction, which Plato used as a reference, has been matched by geologists as the Thera eruption.

But what does this have to do with Moses? The Pharoah at the time was Tuthmosis III (records indicate that in his reign the Minoan traders changed to wearing Greek clothes, the Greeks having taken over Minoa after Thera). When the ash cloud from Thera reached Egypt, there was "a cloud of blood everywhere, day was night and there was pestilence in the land ... a rain of red hot fire .. even later to a pillar of fire in the sky". So records the Egyptians in Thutmosis' time. The records, along with those seen in the aftermath of Krakatoa match the plagues of Moses. It goes without reason that Moses' plagues, if they existed in some form, would have entered Egyptian records .. and the record from the time of Thera is the only such one. So, if Moses' plagues afflicted Egypt, then they were in the year 1628 BC. And the exodus was in 1628 BC, despite Jewish (and Christian) tradition putting it at 1446 BC. What else happened at that time? The Greek historian Strabo mentions an Egyptian army that was swallowed by the waters in the Reed Sea (part of the Mediterrean), Egyptian records mention an exodus of Semite people from the land and Phonecian records (as retold by the Greeks) mention a "group" of Canaanites (Semites, possibly even Jews) who went to Egypt, there one of them married the pharoah and her great- great-grandson Danaos killed the sons of his "brother" Aegyptos (Egypt), then led his people (Semites) out of Egypt before going to Argos where the city was promptly destroyed by thunder and a tidal wave (the Theran tidal wave would have been over 400 ft high at Argos). Was Danaos actually Moses? Or the other way round? Rembering that the Phonecian record was not first hand, the tale may have "mutated" before they recorded it .. and who knows how many liberties the Greeks took when they translated it. Certainly they changed the names, or at least Greek-ified them. Does this refer to the slaying of the first born in Exodus 11?

What about the Jews' persecution by Egypt? Around 1900-1800 BC a bunch of Semites invaded Egypt and took power. The bible does say that Joseph and co were refugees from famine, and came peacefully, but then they would have wanted to put themselves in the best possible light, showing that the "Egyptian persecution" was unwarrented and unfair" .. so that means little. Around 1730 BC the Egyptians staged a revolt and regained control. This lead to a century of oppression and forced labour for the former Semite "masters". Egyptian records reveal that there were "several" Semite exoduses during those 100 years, the final one coming at a time of "darkness, famine, plague and a parting of the waters" The OT may have merely combined all of these into one "big" exodus. Actually the last exodus was when the Egyptians kicked out the remaining Semites, since they were facing a famine and didn't want to feed them. Not so much Moses saying "let my people go" but pharoah saying "get lost!".

Any other evidence of Moses? Not definite, but Thutmosis III did defeat in battle a lot of Semite kings and took their sons as hostages, raising them as his own. The original Hebrew for Moses was Mosheh, Moshe in Egyptian meant "son" and Thutmosis was likely pronounced Thutmoshe. It all suggests that Moses may have been one of these captured princes - in fact is biblically consistent with Moses being raised as a son of pharoah. As for baby Moses and the reed basket, that is likely fake .. the idea of a baby found in a reed basket in the river and then being raised as a son of the king is a common legend in Egypt and Sumeria, dating back well beyond Moses' time.

So. Combining it all, the Egyptian records, the Phonecian and Greek ones, Thera ... we do have a possible scene in 1628 BC : a bunch of Semite tribes enslaved by the Egyptians, a Semite prince (Danaos? Moshe?) raised in the pharonic court as his own son but who killed the pharaoh's blood sons and fled the land, a volcanic eruption that brought plagues of darkness, wild animal behaviour, and disease (not to mention the burning of those outside during the time the ash cloud was overhead) and finally famine. Then followed by the casting out of Egypt of the last of the Semite slaves who had not fled in the previous 100 years, perhaps lead by the same Danaos who killed the pharoahs sons (that last bit combining Moses' murder of the overseer and the death of the 1st born into one incident). Was Danaos/Moshe commanded by God? Did he announce the 7 plagues? Perhaps. Of course, it's doubtful that Moses was found in a basket on the river, or that he parted the sea (the Red sea or any other) - and so given that exageration/addition to Moses' tale, there's no telling how much more of it was also fabricated.


Comments on Part II

So, what do we have? We have an Ibrahim as a common name in 2500 BC Sumeria, who may have led his family to Canaan at the command of God. But may also have represented an exodus of a bunch of Semites from Sumeria following one of the many famines that happened there. But, either way, an Abraham who could not have done everything the Bible attributes to him, the things he does being a mix of 2500 BC, 1800 BC and 1500 BC (at the earliest). And Abraham did not live 1000 years, even in the Bible. Abraham's covenant with God? Who knows.

Sodom may have indeed been destroyed by fire, especially if the name Sodom comes from it's builder's name and not the city, but not in Abraham's time. It's inhabitants were satan worshippers, even worse they were lawyers. *grin* Destroyed for their sins .. or just cuz of bad luck? Well, that's a matter for faith.

Moses and the exodus? Once again, a lot of the tales about Moses are evidently artistic license. He may have been a real person, there is some evidence. But he most likely didn't plead with pharoah and ask that he "let my people go free", he was likely an exiled Semite prince who led the last of the Semites to leave Egypt, kicked out by pharoah cuz of the famine following the Thera eruption. The parting of the sea was a tidal wave that came before the last exodus. The death of the first born may have been just the same prince killing the pharoah's (eldest?) sons some time earlier who spent some time in Argos but returned to Egypt prior to Thera.

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