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Notes from Limmud 2014

Deities, Diets and Dietary Laws

Rami Arav

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This talk came with lots of photos, none of which I am attempting to track down for here; go read the speaker's publications if you want to see them!]

Most Biblical scholars use the toolbox of text: the Bible and documents of the surrounding peoples. These speak a language and tell a story; the disadvantage is that we don't know when the Biblical text was written, or exactly to what period it pertains; how many hands the story has gone through before it reaches the point we have it now.

Archaeologists are mostly exempt from these questions. The only bias is in the mind of the archaeologist.

Bethsaida is located on the north side of the Kinneret. This was the capital of a very small Aramaean kingdom mentioned in the Bible called Geshur. They had a good relationship with King David. King David married Maachah the daughter of King Talmai of Geshur; their children were Avshalom and Tamar. When Avshalom killed Amnon, he fled to Geshur until King David called him back.

When Avshalom was killed, his daughter Maacah married Solomon's son King Rehoboam. According to Chronicles, she was the most beloved of his eighteen wives and sixty concubines. She was also the Queen Mother of King Asa, who led a religious reformation in Jerusalem.

Why was this kingdom so forgotten? The speaker thinks it is because they had a good relationship with the Kingdom of Israel: compare the Philistines, and the reputation of being considered a philistine today.

Consider the capital cities of the area from the archaeological point of view.

We know nothing about Damascus from this period of time, because the city was rebuilt and redestroyed so many times; likewise Tyre and Rabbat Ammon. Samaria we know very little about, as King Herod destroyed almost all of the earlier city; we only have a few remnants. Jerusalem from the time of Kings David and Solomon yields very little archaeology. Dibon, the Moabite capital, we don't even know where it was. Likewise the Edomite capital.

The only exception is Bethsaida, which was preserved almost in its entirety from this period. We have pottery and shards which can help us date it, and imports from Cyprus. Some fishermen lost their signet seal, which we now have.

The King of Assryia Shalmaneser III visited Bethsaida twice, in 842 and 838 BCE. He destroyed and looted the city.

Later, in 850-732BCE we have an Iron Age layer. We have the gate area and the palace. The city at this point covered 28 acres. The gate area is the largest and best one ever preserved in the southern Levant (Damascus to Cairo). It's preserved to a height of 3m. The reason for this is because we have such little archaeology from the other capital cities. The city gate was the heart and the soul of the city in Biblical times; city gates are mentioned over a thousand times in the Bible. The city was destroyed by Tiglath-Pileser III one summer day in 732 BCE. That's when the pottery found in the city gate today dates from.

A jar was found labelled לשם "to the name of", followed by a symbol thought to represent the moon good. The sacrifical high place in the gate had a basin in front with a stele of the moon good. Inside a basin there, a three-legged cup was discovered all perforated. This was thought to be for libation.

Next to a statue of a crouching bull at the high place was a pit filled up with the remains of sacrificial animals, which were all kosher species: sheep, goat, bovine and fallow deer. How come these all complied to the laws of Leviticus when the people who lived there hadn't even read Leviticus? They weren't Israelite; they had their own moon god, along with other idols which have been found! Indeed, 8% of the Geshurites' meat consumption was pork. (They also consumed catfish.) So why did their sacrifices comply with the Levitical laws?

This phenomenon is not unique to Bethsaida; the same phenomenon has been observed at Dor and Ugarit.

Baruch A. Levine suggested that these laws are a "prerequisite for attainment of holiness". He advocates an anthropological explanation that the laws have social objectives of group identity and are supposed to mainain "a distance beteeen their neighbours". However, the discoveries in Bethsaida, Dor and Ugarit, and the fact that also the Canaanites partially refrained from pork (they had a consumption of around 8% pork, compared with around 45% amongst the Philistines, but the same is true at Israelite sites) may reject the boundary identity explanation.

Jacob Milgrom suggested an interesting theory of taxonomy which reflects the values of the society.

His model is built on three concentric circles which is entangled with [lacuna]. As regards people, the three concentric circles are:

  • The Lord
  • Israelites
  • Everyone else
As regards land:
  • The Temple
  • the Land of Israel
  • Everywhere else
Within the Temple
  • The porch (אוּלָם)
  • The hall (הֵיכָל)
  • The Holy of holies.

This explains the results, but not the cause! How did we get to this?

We have a division into two types of gods:

  • The "upper gods" have:
    • Responsibilities: weather, storm, rain, sun, justice, law and order.
    • Sacrifices: Good, goat, cattle; never pigs or rabbits
    • Offerings: cakes, beer, wine.
  • By contrast, the chthonic gods have:
    • Responsibilities: death, rebirth, fertility
    • Sacrifice: pigs, doves, fish, [look away now, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m] rabbits*
    • Offerings: pomegranate

* ETA: Actually, there were no rabbits in Israel in ancient times; the species in question must have been hares, or possibly hyraxes.

This division goes back to the start of recorded history, 5000 years ago.

In a polytheistic context, you can offer to multiple gods, but at different places.

Nobody knows why the upper gods don't like pigs. The speaker thinks maybe digging with their tusks is seen as communicating with their gods.

In the process of imitatio dei the worshiper sacrifices to the gods their dietary foods and consumes it together with the gods.

In the monotheistic reformation when the Israelite god assumed the upper god duties, his followers assumed his dietary food. (The Israelite God took on a few of the attributes of the chthonic gods (you cannot be left alone without fertility, or the realm or death!), but mostly the upper gods. He is אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, which is not superlative [as normally translated, "God Most High"] but comparative: "Upper God".)

The biblical phrase that concludes these laws is explicit saying: "Be holy for I am holy." Meaning: Eat my sort of food and become holy like me.

Jewish learning notes index

Kosher animals

Date: 2015-01-27 08:40 am (UTC)
my_torah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] my_torah
But doves and fish are kosher....so how does this work? Doves are sin offerings. Fish are not on the offerings list (- perhaps we are not a coastal religion. By time time you got it to Jerusalem the fish would have gone off!)

Re: Kosher animals

Date: 2015-01-27 08:41 am (UTC)
my_torah: (Default)
From: [personal profile] my_torah
And why is "Good " in your list of animal sacrifices?

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