Biblical history,  homeschooling

More notes on attempting to secularize Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World.

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This is the second part of a series of articles exploring the way that Susan Wise Bauer presents Biblical stories in her Story of the World curriculum. In chapter six of volume one she presents the stories of Abraham and Joseph. In chapter twelve she recaps this briefly while talking about the Hyksos invasion of Egypt:

These enemies were from Canaan. Do you remember reading about Canaan? In your story about Abraham, Abraham heard the voice of God, telling him to go to Canaan. And do you remember what he thought? He thought, “Why would I go to a wilderness filled with strange, wild tribes?”

It is important to note that the Bible does not describe Abraham as saying that. The Bible doesn’t describe Abraham hesitating about going into Canaan or fearing the Canaanites. The Bible doesn’t describe that Canaanites as scary wild tribes. The Bible describes wars between different Canaanite leaders (Genesis 14) but it isn’t describes these as kings. Then when the Bible describes Moses as sending spies into Canaan they return saying “The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven!” The report is not of strange wild tribes but of powerful cities. One could argue that’s fine, because maybe Canaan was filled with wild tribes during the bronze age and they developed into cities by the iron age in time for Moses. However….  this portrayal of Canaanites as primitive is serious.

The Story of the World says that the Egyptians called the Hyksos the “shepherd kings.” This believe dates back to the 1st century historian Josephus, who thought the word was a Greek corruption of a Hebrew word, but modern scholars say the term Hyksos probably comes from the Egyptian phrase meaning “rulers of foreign lands.”  The Story of the World says the Egyptians thought the Hyksos were “rude, unclean and uncivilized.”

This is important. This is important because later the Bible has the Israelites entering Canaan and massacring the inhabits to make their own homeland.  This advocating of genocide is something that many Christians struggle with. Given the young age the Story of the World is aimed at, I can understand the author’s decision to skip over the genocide and simply say that the Isrealites moved to Canaan, but I cannot agree with her decision to subtly criticize the Canaanites. The message she conveys is that they are primitive, violent people whose replacement was inevitable. (Unfortunately there are zionists who claim the same thing today, about the current occupants of Israel. It is a mistake to let that be the narrative either then or now.)

Much of North American culture/history is based on the assumption that it was okay for Europeans to take this land away from the “primitive people” who lived here before, and the narrative that God wants the Jewish people to take land from primitive, violent people who lived there before is not a good one to have. People might start thinking it applies today, while land is still being fought over and the Palestinians land is being taken away to expand the Jewish state of Israel. There’s a problem with narratives that claim that land should be all-Jewish or that it was promised to the Jewish people by their god. Susan Wise Bauer’s treatment of the Canaanites as primitive feeds into that narrative.

Now neither the Hyksos murderous conquest of Egypt nor the Israelites massacre of the Canaanites is necessarily historical. The Story of the World follows early traditions in saying that the Hyksos conquered the Egyptians because they had chariots the Egyptians lacked. More modern scholarship suggests that it wasn’t an invasion but of some who lived peacefully in the area already taking advantage of the declining power of the Egyptian kings to claim the role themselves. The Story of the World is out of date here. It would be best to acknowledge that we don’t know much about the Hyksos. It would be best to not try to promote the image that Canaan was filled with primitive wild people ready to be conquered.

Chapter Fourteen

That brings us to the story of the Exodus and the Israelite Conquest of Canaan.  Chapter Fourteen of the Story of the World: Volume One recounts the story of Abraham to Joseph repeating the idea that Abraham was a monotheist, believing in only one god. The story then continues with an elaboration of the story Moses. I personally think Susan Wise Bauer’s spends too much time on the mother’s distress trying to hide baby Moses. She skips over Moses leaving Egypt, getting married or seeing the burning bush.  She skips the killing of the firstborn.  She ends with this:

This part of Israel’s history is now called the Exodus. The story of the Exodus shows monotheism winning out over polytheism, because the one god of Israel was able to conquer the many gods of Egypt. The Israelites walked form Egypt all the way back to Canaan, where Abraham had once lived. They lived in Canaan for many years and became a powerful kingdom in their own right.

The story tells us something else, too. Egypt, which had been powerful for a long time, was once again growing weak. The New Kingdom of Egypt had come close to ruling the world. But now, even a band of slaves without weapons could escape from the clutches of the Egyptian army. Egypt was losing its strength once again.

So, what are the problems with that? First:

  1.  It is presenting a Biblical story as fact.
  2. Suggesting that monotheism won in this story is really premature. The Bible continues with story after story about people worshipping other gods, so even if you take the Bible literally (which I don’t) this is problematic.
  3. Suggesting that the story of a divine being rescuing people through miracles is proof that Egypt was growing weak is kind of weird, isn’t it?

This story skips over the conquest of Canaan. The people walk back. They settle there. It sounds all nice and peaceful and spares children the burden of hearing that the Biblical god was credited with urging a massacre.

I don’t believe the Exodus did happen. I also don’t believe that the Israelite ever conquered Canaan. The material culture (the pottery and other items that have remained) suggest that the new settlements at the beginning of the Iron Age were probably of Canaanites. There are many theories, but one is that the chaos at the end of the Bronze Age, when the Hittite and Egyptian empires had to pull back their boundaries and abandon Canaan, groups of Canaanites left the cities and moved into the countryside where they learned to terrace the hills and build cistern to make up for the lack of streams or springs. This group began to see themselves as different than the Canaanites.

The rural Canaanite group in the early Iron age appear to have adopted the founding story that they had left Egypt. Perhaps Deuteronomy 26:5, which says “My father was a desperate Aramean, and he went down into Egypt few in number…” preserves the story of a family that had that experience. Perhaps the story has been expanded upon and increased, in the same way that many Americans take the story of the Mayflower and talk about it being the “First Thanksgiving” of all of them, instead of just seeing it as the very corrupted altered story of one small group of Americans, fictionalized and expanded. Perhaps the memory of coming out of Egypt comes from the Egyptian empire pulling back its boundaries, so that people who moved from a city to the hillside not far away described it as being liberated from Egypt.

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter 15 starts with:

When the Israelites walked form Egypt back up to Canaan, they weren’t moving into an empty country. There were already people living in Canaan. These people who lived up in the north of Canaan were called Phoenicians, and they were the greatest sailors in the ancient world.

It is nice that this isn’t just demonizing Canaanites. That’s good. Note that the Phoenicians were in the northern section. There were other people in Southern Canaan.

If you want to secularize this chapter just skip that first paragraph.

Chapter Sixteen

The Israelites appear in Chapter sixteen as well. The Assyrians “stampeded over Canaan and scattered the Israelites like dust; the Isralites were never allowed to return back to their own land again.” What sticks out to me first is everything we’ve missed. There’s no mention of King Saul, King David or Solomon. That could be a relief for secular people nervous about whether those people existed, but the stories do provide interesting backdrops for discussion on the ways people attempt to justify kingship. (Note that in the Bible Saul becomes king in three different ways.)

The story also skips over the division of the United Kingdom into the Divided Kingdom. We don’t have an explanation of how the Kingdom of Israel broke off from the Kingdom of Judah. This is probably more of a concern for those who want their kids to learn Biblical history than those that don’t, but to me not mentioning the division of the kingdom makes everything muddled.

The divided kingdom is where we start to have actual evidence that certain Biblical events happened. Abraham, Joseph, Moses…. those are all mythological figures. One can believe they exist as a statement of faith or one can believe they’re legends. If you want to include part of the Bible in a history book, include the names of the separate kingdoms! The northern one, called Israel, broke off from the Southern kingdom when it rejected Solomon’s son. There’s a great Bible story about Solomon’s son being asked whether he’ll make the people work as hard as his father did, and him saying he’ll work them harder. There’s even a theory I read somewhere long ago that the story of Moses fighting for liberation from the Egyptians was written as political commentary against Solomon’s son and his building projects. There’s great discussion to be had about the work involved in having a king who wants to be treated like a king, with palaces and luxuries.

Anyway, it was Isreal that was attacked by the Assyrians, and the smaller kingdom of Judah survived. Judah’s capital was Jerusalem and they were became vassals to the Babylonians. At times they tried to ally with the Egyptians against the Babylonians, and so the Babylonians attacked and took away their king and their leaders in exile.

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen uses the Biblical book of Daniel to get kids interested in the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. It talks about Nebuchadnezzar making a statue of himself, claiming to be a god, going mad and then having to recognize he’s only human. I think the best thing to do with the story of Daniel is to compare it with the story of Gilgamesh. Both stories involve a powerful king claiming too much power and a human grazing on grass like an animal. There’s great discussions to be had around those, as works of literature, not history.

Chapter Eighteen to Twenty

Chapter eighteen seems totally out of place. It is about the fall of Minoa, which took place long before the Assyrian attack on Israel or the Babylonian attack on Judah. I think Susan Wise Bauer wanted it to be taught alongside her other chapters on Greece, none of which really are relevant to my discussion on the Biblical references in the Story of the World.

Chapter Twenty-One

The review portion of Chapter twenty one is really confusing, because it goes back to the Assyrians under Shamshi-Adad, then to the Babylonians gaining more strength, then the Assyrians gaining strenth over them. Then it notes “the capture of the Jews” (again, not making the distinction between Israel and Judah). Then it mentions the Babylonians and Medes together destroying the Assyrians and taking charge. If you read this quickly it becomes confusing, particularly because they don’t mention Nebechadnezzar in the review and they had never mentioned the Medes in the chapter of Nebechadnezzar.

The chapter continues by talking about Cyrus the Great. Near the end, it says:

When Cyrus took over Babylon, he also took over Canaan. Canaan (also called Palestine) had been the home of the Jewish people, until Babylon and Assyria conquered it. The Babylonians and Assyrians had made the Jewish people leave their homes. But Cyrus was a merciful king. When he became the king of Babylon, he let the Jews go back to Palestine. And he let them worship their own god. This made him more popular. The Jews were so grateful to Cyrus that they called him, “The Anointed of the Lord”

Now Cyrus was the greatest king in the world.

This is the first the book has acknowledged that the Babylonians had made the Jewish people leave their homes, since they’re refusing to mention the kingdom of Judah but there’s other problems here. Not all the Jewish people had to leave their homes. The Assyrians cleared out a fairly large portion of the population and probably brought other people in, to try to repopulate a bit. The Babylonians took the authorites but left most of the common people. That isn’t to say the Babylonian exile wasn’t traumatic. It was traumatic because it seperated the people from their temple. With the destruction of the temple, people wondered if their God was gone. How could they connect to him? Much of the Bible deals with how they adjusted to that temple-less reality. But other people remained behind.

When Cyrus allowed people to return, it wasn’t just out of mercy. He wanted a vassal province between him and his enemies. Letting some of the Jewish elites return to Jerusalem was a political decision. They could rebuild the temple and unify the people. Except they struggled with reunifying the people, and they only had control over a small area near Jerusalem. To the north, much of the northern kingdom (Israel) was being ruled by another group of vassals-to-the-perisans. The former state of Israel was now the province of Samaria, and there was struggles Israel and Samaria and questions over who were the “real” Jews. None of this is reflected in the Story of the World, and it is kind of sad because it can lead to great discussions about how different empires worked.

Also, I wish the book would have mentioned that the word “Anointed of the Lord” was messiah. Cyrus was portrayed as the messiah.

That’s all for now. I’ll do at least one more post when I have time. If these are helpful, please consider leaving a message either here or on my Facebook page.

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