Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rainey's Selective Use of Evidence For Israelite Origins

I've only just had the time to read over Anson Rainey's recent BAR article on Israel's origins. I have to admit I was baffled by his selective use of evidence and his conflation of archaeological, historical, and biblical material unrelated to his primary claim.

He starts off on the wrong foot and continues down the non sequitur path. I'm sure his argument made sense in his own mind, but what he's presented is a jumble of selectively chosen facts, a false dichotomy of competing theories, and a caricature of the evidence and arguments for Israelites as native Canaanites. There are so many issues with his assumptions and use of evidence that I can't imagine taking the time to offer a complete critique.

Fortunately, I don't need to do all the work on this one. Several others have pointed out some of the issues with Rainey's article already.

N.T. Wrong gives a rather detailed critique demonstrating how confusing Rainey's use of evidence is.
"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)."
Jim West commented on it briefly a few days ago:
"Rainey paints the portrait of Israel which differs not at all from the biblical portrayal and in so doing becomes an apologist rather than an historian."
Duane at Abnormal Interests also offered some insightful thoughts on Rainey's conclusions:
"I'm not even sure that Rainey is completely wrong. What I think is that he may be seeing a part, how big a part I do not know, of a far more complex picture. He then reproduces that partial picture as if it were the whole picture."
The first thing that jumped out at me reading Rainey's article was his immediate invocation of the Bible as the starting point in his inquiry.
"The Bible is very clear. They were pastoral nomads who came from east of the Jordan."
Where does the Bible say such things? He gets there after a brief interjection admitting that the real evidence for Israelite settlement in central Canaan comes from the Iron Age.
"In the period archaeologists call Iron Age I, from about 1200 to 1000 B.C.E., approximately 300 new settlements sprang up in the central hill country of Canaan that runs through the land like a spine from north to south. Almost everyone also agrees that these were the early Israelites settling down."
From this brief factual tidbit about Iron I, he makes the jump across time and space through a mythical inter-dimensional portal to the clear progenitor of true Israel . . . Abraham.
"According to the Bible, Abram (later Abraham), the first Hebrew, was born in Ur, a city far east of the Jordan. Then the family “set out ... for the land of Canaan,” though they first sojourned in Haran, a site in the modern “Jezirah” of northeastern Syria
(Genesis 11:27–32)."
Never mind that the Bible is the only evidence for Abraham's historical existence. Never mind that even if he did exist it was likely sometime in Early Bronze IV or Middle Bronze I (ca. 2100-1700 BCE), far too early to offer direct evidence that the Israelites migrated into Canaan from the Transjordan in Iron I. Never mind that he's coming to Canaan from the northeast in Paddan-Aram (or Aram-Naharaim) and likely would not have entered from directly east in Transjordan. Never mind that he's only "the first Hebrew" because the Bible says he's "Abram the Hebrew" (Gen. 14:13). Never mind that the grandson of Abraham and his children . . . ummm . . . left the region.

The main point of departure for Rainey's logic here (you know, the part where it actually walked out on him) is the forced identification of the Israelites with Arameans. In order to prove that the Israelites were not indigenous Canaanites, Rainey must connect them with a group of pastoral nomads - some of whom could have moved in and settled central Canaan during Iron I. The strange thing is that he's trying to connect the biblical story of Abraham with Israelite settlement of Canaan that would have been the result of the Conquest (according to the biblical account). So, he mixes his evidence and oddly barely mentions the Exodus and Conquest narratives. Incidentally, there's little actual evidence of Arameans as a people before the Late Bronze Age. Making it difficult for Abraham to have been one. (To be fair, there's the odd reference here and there to Aram before LB, and there were other similar pastoral tribes around.)

Rainey's forced connection of Israelites and Arameans extends to dialects as well.
"The linguistic affinities between Hebrew and the Transjordanian languages evidence the common heritage of the early Israelites with other pastoral nomadic Transjordanian tribes such as the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites, and further east, the Arameans. This area is a single isogloss, as linguists call the area of a common dialect of languages. Coastal Phoenician (Canaanite) does not share these features.


Another significant link between Hebrew and Moabite is the use of the relative pronoun “that” (asher). It has no relationship to the Phoenician word ’is that performs the same linguistic service."
He gives a few examples of differences between Phoenician and the other Canaanite dialects like Hebrew (Canaanite is not just Coastal Phoenician). An isogloss isn't the area of a common dialect of languages. It's a linguistic feature that separates related languages and dialects. Closely related dialects have fewer distinguishing characteristics.

By sneaking the Arameans into his list of tribes, he ignores a MAJOR isogloss separating the Canaanite dialects from Aramaic - the Canaanite shift of historically long /a/ to long /o/, attested in Hebrew, Phoenician, and Ammonite. Claiming that Hebrew is more related to the Transjordanian dialects Ammonite, Edomite, and Moabite than to Phoenician does not prove that the Israelites came from Transjordan. Throwing in Aramaic to claim that they really were from the East is just a red herring. Very little is attested in those Transjordanian dialects. Yes, Moabite is similar to Hebrew. Yes, they use the same relative pronoun. But, Phoenician 'es has a lot more in common with asher than the Aramaic relative d-. Related dialects share some features and differ in others. If the isoglosses didn't separate them, they'd be the same language. So, pointing out a few differences with Phoenician doesn't make a bit of difference for the argument that the Israelites were a Canaanite people.

Rainey should know all of this assuming that he's read Randall Garr's Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine, 1000-586 BCE (Univ of Pennsylvania Press, 1985). There he would have learned that the linguistic environment of the area is a dialectal continuum:
"At one linguistic extreme of the dialect chain is standard Phoenician, and at the other end is Old Aramaic. Of the dialects known, Ammonite was most closely related to standard Phoenician. Edomite was related to Phoenician as well as to Hebrew. On this dialectal continuum, Hebrew lies closer to standard Phoenician than it does to Old Aramaic. Moabite was most closely related to Hebrew; it also possessed distincitive Aramaic features. . . . Finally, Old Aramaic lies at the end of the continuum. . . . The position of Hebrew, however, in terms of this continuum, is unclear because it did not exhibit any diagnostic Aramaic traits. Rather, its unique characteristics suggest that Hebrew was a minor linguistic center within the Canaanite domain. While Hebrew participated in those changes which took place in Phoenician, Ammonite, and Edomite, it also displayed a series of independent innovations. Some of these innovations spread to neighboring Moabite and, perhaps, to Edomite."
(emphasis added; Garr 1985, 229-230)
Basically, it's not that simple to say - Look, Hebrew's related to Moabite! The Israelites must have migrated from Transjordan. The linguistic relationship could reflect Hebrew influence on the Transjordanian dialects. Of course, Rainey tries to change the rules to make his case appear stronger.
"All this linguistic material provides a very strong argument for classifying ancient Hebrew and Moabite not as Canaanite dialects, but as Trans-jordanian languages. And 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—and not from the Canaanite cities on the coastal plain."
First, the linguistic material he provides does not make a strong enough argument for a major reclassification. He wants Canaanite to only mean Phoenician and wants to separate Canaanite from Israelite. Even in the biblical account, "Canaanite" doesn't just indicate people on the coast. The entire area is populated by Canaanites. They're ALL Canaanites.

Second, as I've already said, the close relationship of the Transjordanian dialects and Hebrew does not provide any evidence for the origins of the Israelites. The case is nowhere near airtight.

Third, he threw in the Arameans again. There's absolutely no justification for grouping Hebrew with Aramaic against Phoenician in a dialectal grouping.

Rainey also spends a great deal of time developing an argument against Gottwald's "peasant revolt" theory of Israelite origins because it was the original theory that claimed the Israelites were indigenous Canaanites. William Dever had claimed that the pottery found in central Canaan reflected coastal Canaanite traditions, so the Israelites were displaced Canaanites. Rainey says Dever was wrong and the same traditions were found in Transjordan, concluding the "new hill-country settlers acquired their pottery traditions from their life on the Transjordanian plateau and the Jordan Valley." Isn't Rainey making the same mistake? If the same pottery traditions are reflected in all three areas, doesn't that make the problem even more complex and not subject to a simple conclusion?

It seems that what Rainey wants to do - though he never spells it out - is show that the biblical accounts of Abraham's settlement in Canaan, the biblical relationship of Israel to Moab and Ammon (cousins), and the entrance of Israel into Canaan across the Jordan are rooted in archaeological and linguistic evidence. The problem is that he has to ignore the evidence of archaeological and linguistic affinity with Phoenician to do it.

A wise man once told me that it was much easier to destroy than to create. That is, it's much easier to see what's wrong with someone else's argument than to produce a coherent one of your own. The evidence for Israelite origins is so complicated - a mixed bag of biblical account, archaeological record, and linguistic evidence - that any explanation committed to a particular version of events is destined to fail. If I come up with my own theory of Israel's origins, I'll be sure to publish it. I'm neither minimalist nor maximalist, so I'm sure I'll come up with something both will hate.

Update: Duane has posted more about Rainey's selective use of linguistic evidence. I wonder if Duane noticed how Rainey tried to change the rules and undermine Garr.


  1. Excellent review and critique. I have read some others review this article and have found yours to be extremely helpful, especially in tying some of the other reviews into your thoughts.

    Well done.

  2. I'm ignorant of such things so I have nothing of value to say. But in response to one of your questions: "The Bible is very clear. They were pastoral nomads who came from east of the ordan."

    Where does the Bible say such things?

    Doesn't Deut. 26.5 count?

  3. Art, thanks for reading.

    Phil, thanks for pointing out a typo to me through your quote.

    My question was mostly rhetorical. Rainey gives many examples himself, starting with Abraham and Gen. 11. I have no argument against the facts that 1) the biblical story depicts Israel entering Canaan from the East OR 2) the patriarchs' lifestyle fits typical ANE pastoral nomadism OR 3) the claim that Abraham was an Aramean in Deut 26:5.

    However, my question was intended to reflect more on Rainey's tone and phrasing. The Bible is not clear on those things - they must be inferred. It never explicitly says as much in so many words. The same is true for virtually everything we know historically from the Bible. It has to be inferred/interpreted. When it comes to interpreting historical information out of the Bible, very little qualifies as "very clear." It would also be better for Rainey's argument to spend more time talking about pastoral nomadism of the Sojourn than of the patriarchs.

  4. You mention the "odd reference here and there to Aram before LB." Do you know any references offhand? Or do you know where I could go to find them?

    A.D. Riddle

  5. I don't know the exact references offhand. Wayne Pitard has a chapter on "The Arameans" in Peoples of the Old Testament World where he says there is no incontestable reference to them before the late twelfth century BC. In a footnote, he mentions more discussion of the disputed possible references can be found in Roland de Vaux's Early History of Israel. I will check the entry on Arameans in the Anchor Bible Dictionary for more details. I recall reading/hearing of a possible reference to Aram in the Mari texts (20th century BC), but I can't find a specific reference in the books I have available at home.

  6. FYI - I checked the Arameans entry in Anchor Bible Dictionary and found more discussion of possible early references to Aram or Arameans. But very few specific text examples were given. So, everyone talks about there being some early potential references, but their significance is disputed because it's unclear what people or region is being referred to. A more detailed discussion can be found in ABD. I think there's enough to still say there's a potential odd reference here and there to Aram, but nothing concrete until around the 12th century BCE.

  7. Doug,

    That is what I initially thought (i.e. Arameans first appear extra-biblically in Iron I), which is why I was so intrigued by the suggested of LB references. I'll check de Vaux's book anyway and see what he has.


  8. A.D.,

    ABD referred to some texts about some group called Alamu that some take to be Aram that were LB. Basically, there are possible references that could refer to Aram, but they're highly disputed. Origin is always hard to determine for these groups. There's no record until they did something big, but their origin must have been earlier. How much earlier is the question.

  9. Anson Rainey claims that the basis of his classification of Hebrew as a 'Transjordanian language' and not 'Canaanite' is supported by the Biblical account, however the opposite is the case.
    In Isaiah 19, the Hebrew language is explicitly called the 'Language of Canaan', and is directly associated with the 'Land of Judah' and the practitioners of the Judaism in the cities of Egypt.
    It is true that the Bible associates the patriarchs and Hebrew patrimony with Aram Naharaim - Upper Mesopamia, rather than Transjordania (e.g. Genesis chapters 12, 22, 24, 29, etc.). In fact in Deutoronomy 26:5, it is explicitly stated that "A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous."
    However, language and ethnic origin are two different things, and Mr. Rainey would do well to note that the Biblical account gives strong indications that the Hebrew patriarchs adopted the 'lingua franca' of Canaan after they settled in Canaan. For instance, when Jacob goes to Aram Naharaim to obtain a wife from among his own kinfolk, the linguistic divide is noted. When Laban (Abraham's nephew, Jacob's uncle) and Jacob finally make a covenant between them, they name the site of the covenant 'the hill of witness', each in his own language. Laban calls it 'Yegar Sahadutha', which is clearly Aramaic, and Jacob calls it the same thing in Hebrew/ Canaanitish, 'Gal'ed'.
    Mr. Rainey also ignores the results of centuries of lexicography and linguistic analysis into the classification of Hebrew. Hebrew displays all the main pecularities, unique features, and sound shifts that distinguish the Canaanite group of languages from the other Northwest Semitic languages. The fact that Hebrew is more closely related to Moabite than it is to coastal Phoenician is to be expected. Phoenicia, after all, was always a separate political entity from Israel and was not under Israelite domination. Linguists tend to categorize Phoenician as a 'north Canaanite' language, and Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite as 'south Canaanite'. Nevertheless, Hebrew and Phoenician are extremely similar.
    It is also to be expected that Hebrew is not identical to Ugaritic, which is not classified as a Canaanite language, but as a separate language within the Northwest Semitic group.
    Ancient Hebrew and the other south Canaanite languages do definitely display some Aramiac words and influences. After all, Aram Damascus was for a while part of the Israelite kingdom and the interactions between Israelites and Arameans were long and intimate. However, this does not make Hebrew an Aramaic language per se. The number of Aramaicisms in Biblical Hebrew is vastly less than the number of 'Latinisms' and imports from Norman French into the English language. Indeed, these imports have all but Latinized and de-Germanicized the English language. Yet, it is never doubted that English is a West Germanic, and not a Latin language.

    Jacob Davidson

  10. Still - Rainey is probably right. I do not find your objections convincing!

    I also find it annoying (I admit) the stand that if someone uses the Bible he/she is wrong (but if some other ANE source is used it is ok - why? Are those sources supposed to be ideology free?). The fact is, every archaeologist (including Finkelstein etc) eventually uses the Bible, otherwise not very much can be said about ancient Israel.

    How can we tell that the people who appear in IA I Canaan were Israelites? Well - we only have the Bible and Merneptah (Merneptah is clearly an embarrassment to minimalists etc)to try to identify these people and more and more people identify them with the 'proto-Israelites.'

    I find the Canaanite origin theory (the people decided to move to the mountains) preposterous for various reasons. All of a sudden (with no population pressure and with a fairly weak Egypt) the 'Canaanites' decide to move in the hill country and stop eating pork (the explanations I have read for not eating pork are feeble attempts to avoid the embarrassing fact that this fits again the Biblical record). Also - the evidence suggests that their burial practices are different than those of the Canaanite population (and these don't change overnight) and they have other religious centers. Contra Finkelstein - there is no evidence for an increased pastoral population in the hill country.

    I think if you pay attention to the record (and I am not talking about the Biblical record primarily) - the fact is that the LB-IA I picture of Israel looks amazingly close to the picture in the book of Judges. But - since we cannot come up with an interpretation that is in agreement with the Biblical record - the Canaanites must have decided all of a sudden to move in the hill country. By the way - can someone give a parallel development from anywhere in the world (at any time) where people living in the valleys and plains decided to move in the forested hills when there was no population pressure and great danger from a major empire? I would like to see it!


  11. Chris,

    I agree that the Bible should be accepted as a potential historical source. I also believe there was some kind of historical Exodus. The reason ancient evidence often gets preference is that it is closer in time to the events. That is, it hasn't gone through many hands over thousands of years. Most of the Hebrew Bible can only be dated within broad ranges that are little more than educated guesses. We can't really put all the books in order and say this was written in 1000 BC, this one in 900 BC, etc.

    My criticism of Rainey in this post was simply that his article was more of an apologetic for a pet theory rather than a well-composed and nuanced scholarly argument. I guess that should be expected since it appeared in BAR and not JBL.

    I have similarly criticized Finkelstein for failing to deal honestly with the evidence and clinging to his own idiosyncratic interpretation at all costs.

    I am neither a minimalist nor a maximalist. Both go to far and have dragged down the issues into polemics driven by ideology. Rainey's contributions to the study of the Bible and ANE were very important and remain valuable, so this post should not be misconstrued as a general criticism of his scholarship. However, he started pushing this novel and somewhat bizarre interpretation in recent years trying to split the long-accepted classification of Canaanite languages that seemed specifically geared toward making Hebrew less related to Phoenician. I don't think anyone besides him really accepted the idea.