Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

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).

Inside, Outside: Where Did the Early Israelites Come From?

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.

13 Responses to “Anson Rainey, ‘East of the Jordan’ is not ‘The Rest of the Ancient Near East’”

  1. Duane said

    Nice essay. Rainey has been singing this song for a long time. And while he has written two or three popular pieces and two scholarly papers on the subject, he never seems to advance his cause in any meaningful way. I also find the highly selected Hebrew/Aramaic isoglosses to the exclusion of significant Hebrew/Phoenician isoglosses somewhat surprising for a scholar of his background and experience. I do think he means that the Transjordanian populations proper came themselves from “The land of the Arameans” and that some of these folks (also?) migrated into Cis-Jordan but I’d hate to defend this idea based on what Rainey has actually written.

  2. ntwrong said

    That’s a slightly better thesis, as I think you could support various Aramean populations settling in both the Cisjordan and Transjordan ca. 1200 BC — there’s evidence of peoples getting pushed down after the downfall of the Hittites, Sea Peoples invasions, isn’t there? He didn’t argue that, as you said, and (if he did) he would seem to want to do a 2-stage settlement from Mesopotamia to the Transjordan to the Cisjordan. What’s more, it seems to be ‘Israel’, ‘fully packaged’ already in the 13thC in Transjordan that he’s talking about. If the ‘Hebrews’ did correctly trace at least part of their ancestry properly back to Arameans, I think its likely that the make-up was both different from the 5th century BC, and much more fragmented than any ’12-tribe alliance’ (or any alliance). The eponymous ancestor story is bunkum, though. If he wasn’t so apologetic for the Bible, and didn’t express the theory via an anachronistic ‘Israel’, I’d be inclined to agree with the Aramean origins for some part of what became Judea & Samaria.

    For what it’s worth, some of the recent Jewish DNA evidence is Northern Syrian / Anatolian for 3000 BP.

    The Moab/Ammon – Judea linguistic connections are interesting. I thought he was overselling the Aramaic connections as a part of his “Transjordanian Aramaic” theory. If Moabite looks like Hebrew, perhaps the most straightforward answer is that local alliances from the beginning of the Iron Age were later forgotten. The close relationship dropped out of the picture once the political situation changed(still remembered via Lot/Abraham later on)? What do you think? It’s your era.

  3. ntwrong said

    Is ‘Ur’ a corruption of ‘U[ga]r[it]’? 😉

  4. ntwrong said

    The Iliad is an interesting comparison, isn’t it?Historically, you have large-scale invasions and disruptions in the same BA-IA timeframe, northern tribes pushing down southern tribes with flow-on effects all the way to the Cisjordan. And what do you get once the dust has settled and the scribes set up again? A story about tribes united in a war against their common enemy.

    There’s both a historical fillip and a literary result that has very little in common with it.

  5. art said

    Great analysis. I read the article and had very similar reservations about his argument. Thanks for writing this.

  6. Duane said

    I take up your most recent comments in reverse order. Once the scribes get hold of something, they do do their own thing with it. My own guess is that the scribes owned both of these stories from their beginnings.

    No, ‘Ur’ is not a corruption of ‘U[ga]r[it]‘? Ur stands for Universal Remote. I thought everyone knew that.

    I think there are a lot of worms in this fishing box. The early relationships between these seemingly different folks and their languages/dialects are, at the current state of our knowledge, nearly impossible to untangle. Garr made a valiant effort to sort all this out for the 1000-586 BCE. But despite his detailed analysis, I don’t find his few conclusions all that satisfying. And when we try to push back further things get much worse. I have thought about attempting to construct a phylogenetic tree for a set of NW Semitic languages using Markov chain Monte Carlo methods. But the effort would require several people for a year or more plus someone, perhaps a biologist, who had successfully worked with this kind of a model before. The whole thing is too big a project for my place and station in life. Such project is also be hampered by the inability to build a meaningful Swadesh vocabulary lists for Moabite and Ammonite and others. So if one wanted to consider those languages one could only work with glosses that did not involve vocabulary. That’s what Garr did in his study, but he didn’t try to build a real phylogenetic tree.

  7. ntwrong said

    Thanks Art. The Transjordanian links in the literature, archaeology, Yahweh-worship, linguistics still intrigue me. If Rainey alters his argument merely to include a Transjordanian settlement in the Cisjordan, without all this anachronistic ‘Israel’ nonsense, then I might be interested.

    But like Duane said, the answer is just too complex. The recent book by Killebrew shows the settlers come from diverse places, but the book’s religious theory of ethnogenesis is non-historical.

    A gradual influx, over 100+ years or so, of Arameans into Samaria, the north and south Trasjordan, and then Judea would probably be assimilated into the local population, so the 1980s archaeological findings in the West Bank don’t contradict such a possibility. (They don’t demonstrate it, either!) It’s a quite different situation from the Sea Peoples on the coast, who made quite a splash in the archaeological record. It makes sense of the north-south Patriarch stories which contradict the south-north Egyptian Exodus story.

    But of course, there’s no solid basis to place this speculation on. And the stories in Gen-Samuel are exercises in imagination — any odd historical hint nigh impossible to detect. Infuriating, isn’t it?

  8. ntwrong said

    Duane – bags not me on the linguistic-statistic work! But, for my own benefit, I hope you reconsider and give it a whirl.

    I thought I remembered reading a blog post on this idea by somebody who was interested in doing it. But when I searched for it, I found out it was you.

  9. rochelle said

    Hey, do remember the BAR’s intended audience… and its typically yellow journalism. Controversy sells — the more the merrier; the BAR thrives on it. And here you are, doing what the BAR wants.

    I will say one thing that contradicts Rainey’s thesis (let alone what Bishop Wrong has shown to be an irredeemable flaw) — the prosodic rhythms of Canaanite languages are quite different from those of Aramaic; too different to be more than cousins. They certainly are not siblings. Hebrew shows its sibling relationship to the Canaanite languages prosodically.

    “For what it’s worth, some of the recent Jewish DNA evidence is Northern Syrian / Anatolian for 3000 BP.”

    It is to be expected from recent research. Farming began around the Black Sea. When the pluvial period that lasted 3,000 years flooded out the farmers in ca. 7,000 (sorry NT, the flood is historic — no matter how peoples chose to remember it, and there would be desolation and no living things below the waters), the farming people took off in many directions — Europe was one area they ended up in, Mesopotamia another and the Negev was yet another.

    There is a lot of research on the Negev peoples — not too widely known, though — quite Anatolian designs on their knives, etc. — and I just love their cheese making apparatus, on an industrial scale, yet. I have to smile when I hear the amazement and head scratching at how the Negev peoples suddenly appear ca. 6,000 with full blown economy, pottery, advanced metallurgy, etc. and nothing earlier in that area. They also dug strange underground chambers — nobody knows what those chambers were used for, but if we examine the Anatolian side –my guess, FWIW, is religious: “imitation” caves/grottoes.

    Of course there will be North Syrian and Anatolian DNA mixed in somewhere along the line. A complex mixture? Quite.

    Then, don’t be too quick to dismiss wholesale those books, Bishop Wrong. I’m not too sure about the Westward-ho out of Ur re: Abraham as being totally whole cloth. Rulers are remembered – and any man with an army — and, yes, read the description, Abraham had an army (probably mercenaries)– he was a prince. So, descendants sure would remember that, at least. Then, considering how religion was THE center of Mesopotamian life — ruling everything — if some oracle told Abe to move west, leave the land of his father, then off he would go.

    There are other things that strongly indicate historic bases to the embroidered result, but this is no place to go into it. (And I am not some fanatic trying to prove the historicity of the MT — but I do know literature.)

    And, Duane, stop picking on the scribes. Scribes wrote what they were told to write. Professional scribes were NOT editors.

  10. ntwrong said

    Thank you for your informative comments, Rochelle. I very much appreciated them.

    And I think I might agree with your use of the biblical books as repositories of a number of historical facts (while being, as a whole, bunkum). What do you think of Margalit Finkelberg’s approach in Greeks and Pre-Greeks?

    Do you have an example of what you mean by prosodic rhythm in Hebrew, Canaanite vs. Aramaic?

    In the service of BAR,
    N.T. Wrong

  11. rochelle said

    I don’t think one example is sufficient to show what prosodic rhythms are all about… though I will include one in Hebrew just to illustrate what is meant by prosodic rhythms.

    Prosodic rhythms include duration, stress, and tone. These are the suprasegmentals of a language — also called the music of a language. Please bear the “music” point in mind; it is important to understand that the rhythms of a language are “music” in terms of the written record.

    Now we cannot know tone in Hebrew and Aramaic, but we can see both duration and stress written into the texts from way back when. As everybody who has examined originals or photos of originals knows, while the ancients knew what we mean by a word, they did not always write them as “words.” Both Canaanite family and Aramaic family inscriptions show this aspect and are full of duration notation.

    Duration is measured in beats (as in musical notation). When written, duration is shown by the clumping and spacing of letters — both internally (within a word) and externally (between words).

    That is, graphs to be pronounced together are ligatured in a script that normally is not ligatured. “Words” have spaces between syllables. (The Siloam Inscription, for instance, was written by an administrator and a fully literate person; it is full of duration notation.)

    An amusing short example to illustrate the concept is the name (Meremot) on Arad #50 found in the sanctuary: mr mw t

    The mr is ligatured; tiny space, mw is ligatured; large space; t. (So, post-exilic priestly family Meremoth mentioned in the MT is a piece of real history after all.)

    What we can see in that name from the duration notation is that MER (tiny space = reduced vowel) MO (strong, lengthened vowel) Taf. (3x beat)

    As you know, Hebrew has a very strong tendency towards masculine, or closed, finals. Aramaic goes for feminine, or open, finals.

    Because prosodic rhythms change depending upon aural context , this difference in open and closed forms changes the duration and stress components of the language rhythm.

    The differences in the duration (and vowel stress) part of the prosodic rhythms are quite clear. Hebrew has a 3x beat; Aramaic has a 4x beat. From the little Phoenician available, it, too, has a 3x beat.

    The Canaanite family of languages show a completely different prosodic rhythm compared to the Aramaic family.

    This does not mean that there are not mixtures floating around. Few things about language are simple. In the Dan area, for instance, (as many scholars have noted) Aramaic influences intrude into Hebrew. Then, as another example of mixtures, the language of Zincirli is a creole — it’s essentially an Aramaic vocabulary overlying the native language. (Hoftijer and Jongeling in their Dictionary of NWS Inscriptions cite “Samal” as distinct from other Aramaic speaking areas.)

    Duane will have to check out Ugaritic for its prosodic rhythms, I can’t.

    As I am in the middle of working on an article about duration notation in the Hebrew inscriptions in Paleo- from Israel and Judea, I will be able to give you plenty of examples fairly soon.

    Aramaic inscriptions are chock-a-block with duration notation, but… one thing at a time.

    I have reservations about Finkelberg’s approach. If you wish exact reasons, I’ll have to take the book out again so I can cite what disturbs me.

  12. rochelle said

    PS: Joe Zias would be fulminating at your “service.”

  13. ntwrong said

    Any thoughts on Ugaritic prosodic rhythm, Duane?

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