Anson Rainey, ‘East of the Jordan’ is not ‘The Rest of the Ancient Near East’
Posted by NT Wrong on October 23, 2008
Anson Rainey’s article in the latest BAR (34:06, Nov/Dec 2008 ) is a confused and misleading piece of popular apologetics. The best to be said for it is that, in trying to prove a Transjordanian origin for ‘Israel’, it has managed to undermine its broader thesis (which argues that the biblical account of Israel’s origins are historically true).
Here’s an outline of Rainey’s argument, which demonstrates how he is hoist by his own petard:
1. Rainey provides evidence to suggest that there are links between the Transjordan settlements on one hand and settlements in the Cisjordan which he identifies as ‘Israelite’ on the other.
Rainey points to similarities in the pottery and domestic house construction between Transjordan sites such as Tall al-‘Umayri and the Cisjordan sites where the ‘Israelites’ are said to have settled. He also claims that Hebrew has more affinities with Transjordanian languages (such as Aramaic [sic] and Moabite) than with Phoenician (that is, coastal Canaanite).
2. Rainey says that the Bible claims that the ‘Israelites’ came from the Transjordan, that is, “from east of the Jordan”.
“The Bible is very clear. They were pastoral nomads who came from east of the Jordan.”
“The famous hieroglyphic text known as the Merneptah Stele, which dates to about 1205 B.C.E., refers to “Israel” at this time as a people (not a country or nation) probably located in Transjordan.”
“There is no reason to doubt the principal assumption of the Biblical tradition that the ancient Israelites migrated as pastoralists from east of the Jordan.”
3. But the Bible does not claim that the Israelites came from the Transjordan. To the contrary, the Bible claims that they came from the north, in Aram-Naharaim in Syria, and the distant north-east in Mesopotamian Ur. And again, to the contrary, the Bible claims that the Israelites just passed through the Transjordan in a quick conquest of that region (allowing Gad, Reuben, and half-Manasseh to settle after they dispossessed the locals).
These are completely different areas, separated by a vast distance:
4. For Anson Rainey, ‘the Transjordan’ has metamorphosised into the rest of the ancient Near East. In order to harmonize the Transjordanian archaeological and linguistic evidence with the Bible, he has had to speciously refer to the whole of the rest of the ancient Near East as ‘East of the Jordan’. But, the term ‘East of the Jordan’ is confined to the Transjordan in the Bible’s own story.
When Rainey refers to Abraham’s origin in Ur, he bends the decription of Ur to make it sound like he is talking about the Transjordan:
“Abram (later Abraham), the first Hebrew, was born in Ur, a city far east of the Jordan.”
Yeah, Ur is “far east of the Jordan”, in the same way that that you’d describe China as being “far east of the Jordan”.
And yet, Rainey has the gall to summarise the origins of Abraham in Aramean/Mesopotamian Ur, Paddan-Aram, and Aram-Naharaim as “east of the Jordan” (Note that Anson Rainey is co-editor of a biblical atlas, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World):
“The Biblical narrative is very clear as to where the first Israelites came from: outside Canaan, east of the Jordan.”
When the Bible talked about the land “over the Jordan”, it meant just that – the land which was across the other side of the Jordan from where ‘Israel’ was in the Cisjordan. But Rainey has disingenuously blurred this area (the Transjordan) with much of the rest of the ancient Near East, purely in order to try to defend the historicity of the Bible.
While on one hand Rainey produces ‘linguistic evidence’ which links Hebrew to legitimate Transjordanian sites such as Ammon and Moab, he also attempts to slip in Arameans from the distant north and north-east:
“this provides a nearly airtight case that the speakers of ancient Hebrew came from the same area as the Moabites, the Ammonites and the Arameans.”
What “same area”? The land of the Arameans is a distinct area from that of the Transjordan!
5. In conclusion, if Rainey is right about the Transjordanian origins of Israel, the Bible itself must be wrong about the Aramean origins. Hoist by your own petard, Anson Rainey!
This is probably not what Anson Rainey had intended. But, that is the effect of his article. And because Anson Rainey is very familiar with the geography of the two distinct areas, his constant attempts to conflate the Transjordan with Mesopotamia can only be viewed as disingenuous.
Update – see these other criticisms:
– Douglas Mangum, at Biblia Hebraica, looks at a number of other problems in Rainey’s article;
– Duane Smith, at Abnormal Interests, made an initial comment about the historical complexity of the topic, and now provides counter-examples which suggest Rainey’s use of comparative linguistic data is selective.
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