Biblical history

Reading Nadav Na’aman’s essays on Canaanite history

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Over the last week I’ve been reading from the book Canaan in the Second Millenium BCE by Nadav Na’aman. It is a collection of essays, many based on the Amarna texts. The one I read last night has profound implications for my understanding of Canaanite history and so I’m using the break time to reflect on it.

The essay in question deals with the Akkadian word “Habiru,” which some people interpret as being connected with the word “Hebrew.” Apparently some interpret the Habiru as being the origins of the Hebrew people. Na’aman argues instead that the term was borrowed. The older term was used for uprooted migrants. Na’aman argues that the Habiru of the Amarna texts were not the Hebrews of the Bible, but that the term Hebrews was applied towards some specific groups and was only applied to the whole people we know as Hebrews until after the exilic period.

The most immediate implication is the question then of how I use the word Hebrew. I have been using that term as a catch-all phrase to refer to people of both the northern and southern kingdoms and the time before the kingdoms separated, when the term “Jewish” doesn’t really apply because the religion of them in so different to modern Judaism. I might have to consider again the alternative terms. Or not, since the modern term “Hebrew” still applies, even if the ancient term meant something different.

The other implication is that Norman Gottwald’s theory of what happened for “the conquest of Canaan” was apparently based strongly on the belief that the Habiru of the Amarna period became the Hebrews of the Bible. I have a few more essays in the book to read before getting to the one where Na’aman presents his alternative interpretation of that time period. (They’re separate essays; I could skip ahead, but I won’t.)

The most fun implication is that reading Na’aman’s theory on this means I get to reread all the sections in the Bible that use the word “Hebrew” and ask myself again what they are referring to. How does it change the meanings of the passages?

I want to learn so much more about the geography of Israel and about the different ancient cities. I was thinking yesterday about how if I referenced to “an Albertan in Ottawa” a modern Canadian might have images pop into their mind. Ottawa is the capital city of Canada. Alberta is a province that often sees the Canadian government as hostile to it. Likely the early readers of the Bible could draw such meaning when they read, for example, that Sheba ben Bichri was from Mount Ephraim.

Na’aman uses the story of Sheba ben Bichri from Mount Ephraim in his discussion. (2 Samuel 20:21). Sheba was a Benjamite but Mount Ephraim is outside of the borders of the Benjamite territory, meaning that a person familiar with the area would know he’s outside his home territory. Mount Ephraim was apparently a common place for runaways.

To me, the Bible is such a beautiful piece of literature. I want to understand the subtle nuances. I know that for all my reading – which has been extensive – I still only scratch the surface of the texts. I’ll just keep reading and reading and reading.

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