Four Documents and Ethnicity

I’m continuing my way through Kenton Sparks’ Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel.  In my reading today, Sparks discusses four texts: the Merneptah Stele, the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, Hosea, and Amos.

1.  The Merneptah Stele is an Egyptian text that dates to the thirteenth century B.C.E., and it mentions “Israel” as a people-group (not a city—which is what it calls the Canaanite locations) whom Pharaoh Merneptah defeated.  From the name “Israel”, Sparks concludes that this was a people who worshiped El.  Sparks states on page 122 that “the text provides us with the first evidence of a possible situation in which Israelite ethnicity might have emerged or intensified.”  As I said in my last post, Sparks defines ethnicity in terms of people’s belief in their common ancestry—for example, the Israelites believing that they were descended from Jacob.  But the Merneptah Stele does not mention Israel’s ancestors or contain a genealogy, so why does Sparks believe that it has anything to do with ethnicity?  The answer may be that the stele refers to Israel as a people-group, not as a city—for Sparks elsewhere argues against those who say that texts present Israel as a territory rather than a people (page 114).

2.  There is debate about the date of the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.  Sparks rejects M. Vernes’ contention that the song “was produced no earlier than the fifth century B.C.E.”, stating: “Vernes did not explain why his late author would only list ten tribes, why Judah was excepted from the list, why Yahweh came from Seir rather than Sinai or Jerusalem, or why the text is so cryptic that parts of it are almost unreadable” (page 111).  But Sparks is also skeptical about a pre-monarchic date for the song.  He refers to G. Garbini, who has pointed out “that the language of the song is, after all, not so archaic and includes features that postdate the tenth-century Gezer calendar, such as the definite article and the common plural construct” (page 112).  Sparks settles on a date between the twelfth-ninth centuries B.C.E., closer to the ninth century B.C.E.  But Sparks acknowledges that the “tradition behind the song might be older than the song itself” (and Sparks says that the tradition may even be pre-monarchical) because it does not appear to reflect the Omride period of the ninth century: “The strength of the Omride dynasty during this period appears to preclude the unstable political context reflected in the song, and the tribe of Gad, which in the ninth-century Mesha Stele figures so prominently, is curiously missing, as is the tribe of Manasseh” (page 113).

Sparks argues that this song is pertinent to Israel’s ethnic consciousness: it uses family terminology (clan, kinsmen) when speaking of some of the tribes, it distinguishes Israel religiously and politically from the Canaanite cities (i.e., Israel worships Yahweh and does not have a king), and it may reflect “ecological and economic competition” with the Canaanite city-states (page 123).  Sparks does not accept Martin Noth’s view that pre-monarchic Israel was an amphictyony of tribes uniting to defend a sanctuary, but he does think that ancient Israel may have been “a group of independent sociopolitical modalities [that] shared a common religious identity that linked them together in an effective and functional way, especially with regard to warfare” (page 121).

3.  I’ll treat Hosea and Amos as one item.  According to Sparks, both of them date to the eighth century B.C.E.  Sparks thinks that Hosea reflects an intense ethnic consciousness because it says that Israel shares a common history (the Exodus and the wilderness) and ancestor (Jacob), and it also seeks to purge Israel of foreign religion (Baalism).  Amos, on the other hand, downplays Israel’s ethnicity by asserting that God delivered other nations in addition to Israel, and by presenting Israel’s establishment as a violator of international law: the Israelite establishment treats its poor as badly as the Gentile nations treat each other.  In this viewpoint, God is over all, not just Israel.  But, unlike Hosea, Amos does not criticize idolatry, and Sparks thinks this is because Hosea was a radical in his commitment to ethnicity: Hosea held a minority position that did not quite make Amos’ radar.  But, for Sparks, the Book of Amos still indicates that there was an ethnic consciousness among certain Israelites (probably the establishment), for why would Amos seek to downplay Israelite ethnicity if people did not believe in it?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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