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Notes from Limmud 2012

Thou Shalt Make No Graven Image: Metallurgy, Scarcity and Image Prohibition in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Canaan

Dr David Ilan

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[This talk was accompanied by many pictures from archaeological digs. I'm not going to make any attempt to track them down here; life's too short!]

The Torah comes out strongly against worshiping idols:
Exodus 20:3–5 שמות כ ג–ה
Never make for yourself any graven image or likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth below, or in the water beneath the earth. Never bow down yourself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me, but doing kindness to the thousandth generation of those that love Me and keep My commandments. לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכָל־תְּמוּנָה אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ׃ לֹא־תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם כִּי אָנֹכִי ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵל קַנָּא פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבֹת עַל־בָּנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי׃ וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָי׃
Leviticus 26:1 ויקרא כו א
Never make yourselves idols or a graven image; nor erect for yourselves a pillar, nor set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the Lord your God. לֹא־תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם אֱלִילִם וּפֶסֶל וּמַצֵּבָה לֹא־תָקִימוּ לָכֶם וְאֶבֶן מַשְׂכִּית לֹא תִתְּנוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶם לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֹת עָלֶיהָ כִּי אֲנִי ה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
Deuteronomy 4:15–19 דברים ד טו–יט
Take good heed unto yourselves, that you saw no image on the day the Lord spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you corrupt yourselves, and make yourselves a graven image, the image of any figure, whether likeness of male or female, of any beast on the earth, of any winged bird flying in the air, of any creepie-crawlie, or of any fish in the waters below the earth. Lest too you lift up your eyes to the heavens, and when you see the sun and moon and stars, the whole host of heaven, you should be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord your God has alloted to all nations under the whole heaven. וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם כִּי לֹא רְאִיתֶם כָּל־תְּמוּנָה בְּיוֹם דִּבֶּר ה׳ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּחֹרֵב מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ׃ פֶּן־תַּשְׁחִתוּן וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לָכֶם פֶּסֶל תְּמוּנַת כָּל־סָמֶל תַּבְנִית זָכָר אוֹ נְקֵבָה׃ תַּבְנִית כָּל־בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ תַּבְנִית כָּל־צִפּוֹר כָּנָף אֲשֶׁר תָּעוּף בַּשָּׁמָיִם׃ תַּבְנִית כָּל־רֹמֵשׂ בָּאֲדָמָה תַּבְנִית כָּל־דָּגָה אֲשֶׁר־בַּמַּיִם מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ׃ וּפֶן־תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְרָאִיתָ אֶת־הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת־הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת־הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם וַעֲבַדְתָּם אֲשֶׁר חָלַק ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים תַּחַת כָּל־הַשָּׁמָיִם׃

But why were images forbidden? Judaism and Islam are the only world religions that do this. People are visual animals; it's our primary sense for getting around in the world.

[Audience member: Yehuda Levi said it's about projecting your image onto that of the god. And if you make an image of your god, you make it finite.] Jan Assman's explanation is that it was to distinguish the Israelite religion from the Egyptian one. None of these are the speaker's preferred answer.

Why does the human image disappear from the archaeological record ca. 1200 BCE, throughout the southern Levant (Jordan, Canaan, southern Lebanon)? In the second millennium BCE, people manufactured idols of stone and metal.

In the Middle Bronze Age (1900–1540 BCE) there is a great deal of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery: ivory inlays, figurines, scarab seals, mass-produced ceramic plaque figurines etc. The plaque figurines are female, nude, sexualised, sometimes holding a lotus flower: an Egyptianising image: Hathor, goddess of fertility and mines. Some scholars feel she's lying down; this may be wishful thinking. She might have been known under Canaanite names: Astarte. (Othmar Keel has suggested her headdress is actually the uterus of a cow.)

[Shows examples:]

  • A chariot krater imported from Mycenae, shown from Tel Dan Mycenaean layer IIIA, showing (probably) Orpheus and Eurydice.
  • Two images from Tel Dan, a mask with kohl eyeliner and lilistick; the dancer from Dan, more in the Mesoliotamian style. He's lilaying what might be a lute, and a robe with a thick hem, and has liointy ears—maybe a mask?
  • Gold jewellery from Tell el Ajjul
  • A mould for making a metal figurine, found in Nahariya.
  • Male figurines found in Dan and Ḥaẓor: El, or Hadad.
  • Figurines found in Lachish in a room with thousands of little ?culis or bowls, and a lot of bird figurines, with an altar next to it, with burnt animal bones, and standing stones. Looks ritual.
  • A silver-plated copper calf figurine found in the a shrine on the glacis of Tel Ashkelon.
  • Migdal Temple of Shechem, a three or four storey building, with a sickle-sword with a lotus flower at the end of it inlaid into it. This was a ritual object: it was not even sharpened.

The point is we're finding metals in ritual contexts, often monumental.

They also found in what would in Greek be called a bothros, a pit containing an offering: e.g. plaque figurine, weapons, pins. This was found deposited inside wall.

  • Now more day-to-day objects: "Toggle" pins, used for holding cloaks closed, which we can see on figurines. These Could also perhaps double as weapons.
  • A range of Middle Bronze Age weapons, manufactured locally: we have the moulds. Open mould casting; for finer work they would use lost-wax casting (like today).
  • A bit for a horse from Tell el Ajjul. It's got spikes; it would drive a horse crazy. Perhaps for chariot races, perhaps for a mule.
  • Twisted copper rings. What woud they be for? Not earrings: they'd get infected, or you'd have green ears. Too small to be bracelets. The speaker thinks they were currency (by weight).

Where do archaeologists (and tomb robbers) find metal tools and weapons? Answer: 85-90% come from burials from the Bronze Age. Examples of gold, silver, bronze.

Where is the metal coming from? There were copper sources in the southern Levant: along the Aravah: Wadi Fidan (Biblical Punon), or Feinan in Jordan, Timna north of Eilat, and in the southern Sinai. It was probably mined by children in some cases, the galleries are so narrow. They would extract the greenish ore nodules, then melt them down, tapping out the slag from the top, to leave the ingot on the bottom. Slag heaps were found where they were banging them to try and get a little more copper from the bottom.

  • Hybrid temple at Timna: some Egyptian features, some Canaanite—and a copper snake, like the Biblical Neḥushtan.
  • Serabit el Khadem, Sinai: the Hathor Sanctuary.

The major source, though, is Cyprus, which is where the word "copper" comes from, or vice versa. Big "oxhide" ingots were made, and transported throughout the Mediterranean.

Around 1250 BCE, though, the copper began to run out, at least as far as ancient techniques are concerned.

The Iron Age I (starting 1200 BCE) saw new beginnings. Circa 1200 BCE, the empires all collapsed, except Egypt, which certainly contracted in on itself. (See my notes on the speaker's origins of Israel talk.)

What happened to the copper trade? Firstly, it's played out. Secondly, there are pirates everywhere just waiting for the copper-laden boats. Bronze is even better. The tin for it, in the eastern Mediterranean, came from Afghanistan—this was the closest known source of tin at the time. Systemic collapse would stop the tin from coming through.

Tel Masos, near Beersheva, was a substantial site, because it was on a trade route between Timna and the coast.

Tel Dan was a small village, in the foothills of the Hermon at the source of the Jordan River.

Stratum V (Iron Age IA, 1150–? BCE) is a massive destruction layer a metre thick with hundreds of complete vessels. The whole site was destroyed in a conflagration ca. 1050 BCE. There are absolutely no human remains in this; the people all got out.

Stratum VI (Iron Age IA 1200–1150 BCE) has plaster floors and lots of pits (see other talk—they're grain silos), and very few buildings. How do we know what these [pits] are? Most are empty; several contain broken pots. Several have been found containing carbonised grain. Grain usually decays left to its own devices; it's only when it's burned that it is preserved.

Afterwards, people used them as rubbish bins. You know the pottery found in them is not being stored there because you don't get intact vessels: there's always 20-30% missing.

Stratum V has many fewer pits and big pithoi (storage vessels) leaning up against the walls.

  • Lots of charred vessels found inside melting furnaces: Blowpipe nozzles (tuilères). Crucibles too.

Very little slag was found. Conclusion: this metallurgy is entirely about recycling from previous objects.

Some objects have been found which are blunt or broken—source material for such recycling. Ca. 1100 BCE iron begins to creep in too. Iron was harder to work with; this is why people started experimenting with it. It had been known beforehand.

  • A corner holy of holies (cella) containing a vessel which would have contained an image, probably of Dagon/Dagan. Parallels with Kition in Cyprus.

Where are the remains of the dead at Tel Dan? Not only in the destruction layer are there no bodies, but there's no cemeteries either! It's not just Tel Dan; there are no cemeteries anywhere. A few places in the hill country continue the old practice of cave burial. The Philistines do not have cemeteries either.

So, what's the explanation? Nobody died! [Ha ha.]

How about cremation? No, the pollen profile goes up: there were more trees. Also, after ?3000 BCE there was no cremation done in the Levant.

Exposure to animals and birds? Unlikely to leave no remains, or literary evidence or imagery.

Secondary burial: shipping of ossuary contents out?

There were 100k people in the country. That means 4000–5000 people dying every year: 900,000 bodies in total in this period—but less than ten tombs have been found in the entire country!

Solution: In the Bronze Age you got buried with all kinds of stuff, that you needed for the afterlife. Now [in the early Iron Age], the dead were probably interred with the fields with nothing. The farmers would plough them up [afterwards, because the graves were not permanently marked], but didn't interpret the bones. They simply decayed.

Why did this change take place ca. 1200 BCE? Why did people's perception of death change? It goes along with the systemic collapse at that time.

If there is a shortage of metal, where do you go to get it? Answer: tombs, temples (ritual objects). Tomb robbing is documented in time of Rameses IX [ruled 1129–1111 BCE] where a police unit was set up to patrol the Valley of the Kings. But there's a problem with this: going into tombs after you've believed for thousands of years that your ancestors need all these grave goods for the afterlife! And from the texts at Ugarit we know that people are talking to the dead. (You would go to the tomb which was located under the house, and put your ear to a channel down into it, and say, "Grandpa, I want a little advice.") Remember the issue of the woman of Ein-Dor bringing up the ghost of Samuel?

Even if it's not your own ancestors you're digging up, you're still taking a big risk. Cf. Reai'm in the Bible: In Ugaritic texts these are ghosts of the dead. [I can't figure out what Biblical word is intended here; I don't think it's רְאֵם.]

The same thing applies if you go raiding temples. Look at what happened to the Philistines when they took the Ark of the Covenant from Even-Ezer (1 Samuel 5–6).

So what's the solution to the conundrum? Answer: theological innovation! The priests say, "You know what? This [worrying about retribution from beyond the grave] is all wrong theologically. You really shouldn't be bo[thered about taking metal from graves]. 'From the soil you came to the soil you shall return' [Gen. 3:15]: When you're dead, you're dead. Don't bury your dead with any stuff."

So all those [old] Canaanites were wrong. If you need [metal] stuff, go and get them. The same applies to temples. Images are wrong: that's why the old society collapsed: because they worshiped images. Don't worship them, they're just metal. Go and mine all that stuff out.

לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל וְכָל־תְּמוּנָה... but make ploughshares and swords, and fear not the manes.

(Epilogue: Images do come back, but only a couple of hundred years later, and the prohibition on idolatry is an idea that comes and goes in waves, until eventually the Jews made it stick for good. And later new copper deposits were found, but by then people didn't need so much, because most tools were being made by then from iron.)

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2013-01-13 11:55 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
Ooh. That's really interesting and I like it a lot. Thanks for sharing.

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