This Week In the Context of Scripture

Of particular note this week in our readings from volume 2 covering Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World are the parallels to be made between the features of the records of Egyptian military campaigns and those of Israel’s military narratives, specifically the book of Joshua. Hoffmeier writes in the introduction to The Annals of Thutmose III (2.2A):

Joshua 1-8 contain lengthy, detailed reports about the initial Israelite campaigns in Canaan, whereas Joshua 10:28-11:14 is recorded in very stylized, repetitive expressions that look intriguingly like the Tagbuchstil [daybook style]. In a comprehensive, comparative study of ancient Near Eastern military writings of the 2nd Millennium BCE, Younger (1990) has shown that features that exhibit are very similar to those found in Hebrew military reports found in the Bible. This work, along with a study comparing the Joshua narratives with the Annals of Thutmose III (Hoffmeier 1994), demonstrates that the style and structuring of Hebrew military writings was influenced by ancient Near Eastern scribal tradition rather than an Israelite innovation by the Deuteronomic Historian as some biblical scholars have opined (e.g. Weinfeld 1972; Van Seters 1990). (2:8)

Assertions like these are certain to ignite controversy. Any time a biblical “maximalist,” like Hoffmeier, makes an assertion challenging a biblical “minimalist,” like Van Seters, the conversation is sure to get interesting. We have no interest here in the debate, only in the data (which is too often a separate issue from the debates). Much more can and should be read and discussed than what I am able to provide here, but a few simple observations are in order.

It is clear from the readings that the records of these campaigns include exaggerations. Statements like the following reek of special pleading: “It is without deception and fabrication, and without exaggerated claims that I state the truth regarding that which he performs among and in front of his whole army” (2:18-9). A modern analogue to this statement would be the use of the word “literally” in the re-telling of fantastic or otherwise notable events. “That fish must have literally weighed a ton!” “The speaker literally went on for hours!” Contrary to its typical significance, the word “literally” in such statements suggests that the statement should not be taken literally. If someone tries to convince you of the truth or literality of their statement by appealing to words such as “literally” or “I swear,” you are certainly justified in being skeptical (c.f. Matt 5:34-37).

The significance of exaggeration for biblical studies should be pressed. Why would we expect the historical narratives of Israel to be any more literal (i.e. void of exaggerations) than the historical texts of the nations surrounding and interacting with Israel? Exaggerations neither prove nor disprove historicity. Who would claim that, because exaggerations are made in this stela of Thutmose III, such a historical figure never existed? Or that if he existed, he never went on military campaigns? Or that if he did go on military campaigns, those campaigns must not have been successful? Rather than recognizing exaggerated data as revealing something to us of the nature of the historical events, we should ask how this data reveals the ideological or even theological perspectives of the ancient scribe(s). Knowing that ancient scribes were prone to exaggeration allows us to see biblical data consistent with this in an entirely different light. Remember what Hallo said in the Introduction to volume 1,

The  assessment of a biblical text, so far from ending with the identification of an extra-biblical parallel, begins there.

Readings for the rest of the month appear to be very light. The schedule for next week is as follows:

16th –  Semitic Slaves on a Middle Kingdom Estate (3.11)
17th – Semitic Functionaries in Egypt (3.12)
18th – The King to Kassu in Tapikka  1 (HKM 1) (3.13)
19th – The King to Kassu in Tapikka 2 (HKM 2) (3.14)
20th – The King to Kassu in Tapikka 3 (HKM 3) (3.15)
21th – The King to Kassu in Tapikka 4 (HKM 4) (3.16)
22th – The King to Kassu in Tapikka 5 (HKM 5) (3.17)

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