I finished James Hoffmeier’s Ancient Israel in Sinai. Here are the Hoffmeier points that stood out to me:
1. In my post,Wellhausen’s Chronology of Sources, I discussed a defense of the historicity of the Tabernacle by David Heagel, which appeared in The Fundamentals during the 1920’s. Heagel argued that the Tabernacle resembles elements of ancient Egyptian religion and culture, and he also appealed to the part of the Pentateuchal story that says that the Tabernacle was made of Shittim wood, which was specific to the Negev, the Arabah, and Sinai—the location where the Pentateuchal story places the Israelites when God commands them to build the Tabernacle. For Heagel, the story is authentic in its narration of the past, for its details demonstrate that Israelites who left Egypt and dwelt in the wilderness built a Tabernacle before they entered Canaan.
Decades later, Hoffmeier goes this route as well, only with more knowledge about Egyptian language, religion, history, and culture than Heagel had. Overall, Hoffmeier does an excellent job. But I wonder how Hoffmeier’s claim that the Israelites borrowed from the culture and religion of ancient Egypt would play out among conservative Christians—who may like the way that Hoffmeier defends the historicity of the biblical narratives against centrist and liberal scholars, and yet may feel uncomfortable with the notion that the ancient Israelites got ideas from Egypt rather than direct revelation from God.
For example, on page 233, Hoffmeier argues that ancient Israel’s prohibition on eating pork most likely came from Egyptian rather than Canaanite influence, as part of his thesis that the Israelites came from Egypt, rather than being indigenous Canaanites. In Egypt, pigs were held to be unclean, even though they were eaten by a lot of people. In Canaan, however, they were just eaten, no questions asked. For Hoffmeier, Israel’s ban on pork consumption most likely was the effect of her sojourn in Egypt. Why not answer his puzzle by saying that Israel’s law against eating pork came from God’s direct command?
On page 239, he actually goes that route: answering a puzzle with “God did it.” After noticing the scholarly failure to find the origins of the name of YHWH (in Egypt, in Ugarit, etc.), he resorts to the conclusion that Israel got the name from God himself—on Sinai. He calls this the “phenomenological perspective,” which often appears to mean that he accepts the worldview of the biblical narrative, even on the issue of supernatural intervention. I wonder, though, if he extends that sort of courtesy to the supernatural claims of other religions and cultures.
There were a couple of times when Hoffmeier’s appeal to Egyptian influence on Israel actually allowed him to come up with interesting ways to explain details of the biblical narrative. On page 173, Hoffmeier asks why God commanded the Israelites in Exodus 16 to keep the Sabbath, soon after their departure from Egypt. His solution was that the Israelites were accustomed to the Egyptian week—which had ten days, eight of which were for work—and so God tried to get them on track—on the Israelite week of seven days.
On pages 229-230, Hoffmeier wrestles with the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16-17. Many scholars view this story as an Aaronic priestly attempt to put down rival Levites, but Korah does not say that non-Aaronic Levites should be priests; rather, Korah says that all Israel is holy. Hoffmeier argues that Korah is not saying that he should have special priestly privileges as a Levite, but rather that he should have them as a former Egyptian cleric—for “Korah” means “bald” or “shaved head,” which was true of certain Egyptian clerics.
I’m not sure how these arguments sit with me, but they’re interesting.
2. It was also interesting to see Hoffmeier’s interaction with scholars in this book. On pages 214-215, he cites Carol Meyers as a scholar who acknowledges some historicity behind the biblical traditions about Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, and her construction of the Tabernacle while she was there. Against those who question that the ancient Israelites had the resources or the talents to create in the wilderness a magnificent Tabernacle with all its implements (Wellhausen makes this sort of argument), Meyers notes that some nomads specialized in metallurgy, and that art and technology were known in the Late Bronze Age, the setting that the Bible may present for the Exodus (according to Hoffmeier, and perhaps Meyers). I never tagged Meyers as a maximalist, but, then again, all I’ve really read from her is her comments on Haggai and Zechariah.
On page 217, Hoffmeier combats an argument from S. David Sperling, whom I had at Jewish Theological Seminary for an excellent Genesis course. Sperling argues that Exodus 28:42 dates to the fifth century because it presents the priest in pants, and pants “are only attested beginning in the Persian Period.” (This is Hoffmeier’s summary of Sperling’s argument.) But Hoffmeier cites other examples of pants, which occur before the Persian Period: King Tut (fourteenth century B.C.E.), linen garments from New Kingdom Egypt (sixteenth century-eleventh century B.C.E.), and King Sennacherib (eighth century B.C.E.).
On page 234, Hoffmeier interacts with the scholarship of Sharon Keller, an Egyptologist whose class I took at Jewish Theological Seminary. Although she was far from conservative, she recommended Hoffmeier to me because she considered him a good scholar. Keller argues that the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:23-26 parallels a third millennium Egyptian prayer more than Mesopotamian prayers. Hoffmeier likes this because it fits well into his argument that ancient Israel was in Egypt.
Overall, I enjoyed this book.
thanks for this post. i’m reading Hoffmeier’s book. maybe he will be my professor, next year.
blessings from Brazil
That will be cool, Luiz!