Thursday, December 4, 2008

SBL: Rainey's "Levantine Literary Reservoir"

Back at SBL on 11/22, I was sitting in the Ugaritic Studies & Northwest Semitic Epigraphy Section from 9:00-11:30 am. The third presenter was Anson Rainey, and his presentation seemed to be a continuation or elaboration of his recent BAR article on Israelite origins. (To keep my Guild membership intact, I must confess that I only read BAR to find things to debunk and argue with.) I covered that article back in October and raised several issues that Rainey addressed in the SBL talk such as the Canaanite shift and the relationship among the NW Semitic dialects in the area.

In his SBL presentation, Rainey immediately reiterated his position that Hebrew was not a Canaanite dialect. It is most closely related to Moabite and Aramaic. Only Phoenician is Canaanite. This seems to be just playing with terminology and forcing a split among what were otherwise closely related people groups in terms of language and material culture. Remember that Rainey himself had brought up in BAR the evidence for continuity of pottery styles from the Canaanite coast to the central hill country to the Transjordan. In this presentation, he appealed to work by D.N. Freedman who had concluded that Israelite Hebrew was a Canaanite dialect, but Judean Hebrew was not. Rainey claimed that the isoglosses connecting Israelite Hebrew and Phoenician were also found in Moabite and Old Aramaic.

He was trying to strengthen his case for the origin of Hebrew in Transjordan. In my response to his BAR article, I pointed out that the affinities between Hebrew and Moabite are likely the result of Hebrew influence on Moabite, not evidence of common origin in Transjordan. Rainey, however, used this occasion to assert that the Israelites came from pastoralists migrating westward, not disgruntled Canaanites moving eastward from the coast. My main concern with his theory is the fact that it was constructed precisely to provide this sort of counterpoint to the indigenous Canaanite "peasant revolt" version of Israel's origins.

The purpose of the SBL talk was to develop an explanation for how the Hebrew Bible came to have such strong links with Canaanite literature if in fact, they were not Canaanites.

He began by distinguishing Ugaritic from Canaanite. Ugaritic is not Canaanite, but they share a parallel culture. There is no chance that later writers had Ugaritic tablets in front of them, so there must be another explanation for the parallels between Ugaritic texts and Hebrew poetry, especially Isaiah and Psalms. Rainey's answer is that these traditions were inherited from the "Levantine literary repetoire." (He used repetoire and reservoir interchangeably in this phrase.) This body of literature must have existed by 14th century BCE in Canaan.

So, the story goes - the pastoralists migrated in the 12th century BCE into the hill country of central Canaan. There are parallels of pottery and culture between Transjordan and the rest of Canaan and Phoenicia during the Iron Age. (At this point, I was wondering what specific evidence we have, material or linguistic, for making fine distinctions between people groups and language groups during the Iron Age.) Then, they adopted the Phoenician alphabet and started writing.

At this point in the discussion, Rainey addresses the problem of the Canaanite shift. He discusses examples from 15th century BCE Amarna letters and the 13th century Papyrus Anastasi to move the date of the Canaanite shift much later. The only positive evidence he offers comes from the 10th and the 7th centuries. One problem with his attempt to re-date the Canaanite shift is that most of his evidence comes from transcriptions of West Semitic names into Akkadian or Egyptian. How reliable are place names for dating sound change? Proper names tend to be insulated from sound change and preserve an older pronunciation longer. I believe Rainey's Canaanite shift theory was related in some way to the accented syllable, but he kind of lost me there as I was contemplating whether or not names were good evidence.

He appeals to the story of Elijah at Carmel from 1 Kings 18 to show that Elijah could be alluding to things that were generally known about Baal (known because of the common literary heritage of the area). The story is used to show the approximate timing when the Levantine literary corpus could have influenced Israelite literature. Rainey believes the 8th century texts of the Hebrew Bible have the closest parallels with Ugaritic literature. Therefore, this is likely the most fruitful period of Phoenician literary influence. His examples included Isa 22:15, Isa 27:1, Psa 74, and Isa 51. There are parallels even though they didn't know about Ugarit because of the shared literary tradition in the Levant. Hebrew writers are borrowing from the Cisjordanian literary reservoir at a time when diplomatic cooperation with the coastal Canaanites is high and one could only expect the stories to be shared among people working closely together. In this way, Rainey has explained the parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Canaanite literature without requiring the Israelites to have originally been Canaanites. The borrowing was based on areal influence, not genetic relationship.

I actually have no problem with the theory that there was a body of shared literary tradition known among the literati of Syria-Palestine. I'm not sure how it bolsters the case of Transjordanian Israelite origins, but during the questions following the presentation, it became clear that what Rainey really would like to prove is that the ultimate origins of Israel are with some proto-Aramean group in the Middle Euphrates region of Mesopotamia, not Transjordan at all.

I do have a problem with Rainey's subtle attempts to re-draw the map of the dialect geography of Syria-Palestine and to re-date the Canaanite shift. I'm pretty sure there's evidence of the Canaanite shift before the 10th century that he must have forgotten to mention.

1 comment:

  1. Doug,

    Thanks for posting on this for those of us who couldn't make this session.