Mini-Book Review: Sivertsen’s The Parting of the Sea

Book: Sivertsen, Barbara J. The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Looks like: Sivertsen - Parting of the Sea

Subject matter: largely the connection between tectonic and volcanic factors, like volcanic eruptions in western Arabia (the ‘harrat’) and dual eruptions of Mediterranean volcanoes (one, famously, the huge eruption of Thera/Santorini in the Aegean Sea about 1600 BC), and…

  • The plagues of Egypt described in Exodus 7-11;
  • The Red Sea crossing;
  • Events surrounding Mount Sinai, described in Exodus 19-24 and beyond;
  • Other wilderness experiences;
  • The defeat of Jericho, and other events related to the (now much-disputed) conquest of Canaan associated with Joshua;
  • And thus, to resolve the question of the dating of the Exodus events.

Pluses:

  • Solid research in the relevant fields, as it seemed to me, including studies in Exodus, OT historiography and the geology of the region of Palestine
  • Awareness of what I think is a real factor in Israel’s history as described in the OT, that is, the place of tectonic/volcanic events. These seem to be a rich source of OT metaphors (e.g. in Psalm 46, or early in Micah 1), which suggests some real experience of such events by Israel or her ancestors.
  • An instinct for integrating disparate facts into a coherent whole
  • An at times apt feel for the way cultures may represent past experiences in story form
  • The courage not to abandon, as many biblical scholars have, any quest for real historical background to the earlier narratives of the OT. It is difficult, admittedly, to clarify the historical scenes lying behind the narratives of Exodus, or Numbers, or Joshua. But it represents a kind of cowardly resignation, if that isn’t too strong, to simply declare these narratives utterly unrelated to history. It’s a petulant alternative to having to admit to not knowing as much as we’d like to know.

Minuses:

  • An inclination to utilize almost exclusively naturalistic explanations. I think to do justice to OT presentations of the ‘signs’ of God’s dramatic work on his people’s behalf, we must neither prohibit natural factors, since I don’t think that biblical writers drew a sharp line here the way we do, nor limit ourselves exclusively to natural factors, since they certainly didn’t do that either. I felt as if Sivertsen was undertaking a program of demythologization.
  • A desire to explain too much, i.e. to leave no overlap of mystery. I’m always a little suspicious when a scheme presents as removing all mystery from what must, at such a historical remove, remain somewhat mysterious. It comes out too ‘neat’ in my opinion.
  • A complex explanation, of “two volcanic eruptions and two exoduses related to the Exodus found in the Bible” (p. 148)
  • A speculative explanation, that relies too much on a hypothetical reconstruction of events that is difficult to either verify or falsify.

Outro: a great book for introduction to the issues involved in seeking historical connections, causes and explanations for the narratives of Exodus to Joshua. You can learn a lot from Sivertsen’s solid grasp of the data, but I would advise caution about accepting her conclusions.

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No Connection between Ahmose’s ‘Tempest Stela’ and the Exodus

A perennial question when we are reading Exodus is the possible connection with natural phenomena. The eruption of Thera (=
Santorini) in the eastern Mediterranean often comes up in this context, since it was a noteworthy natural disaster occurring in the mid-2nd millennium BC with the potential to affect Egypt and its inhabitants. This forms part of a larger question: do we allow natural explanations to impinge on our interpretation of the marvels described in Exodus at all? Should we on theological grounds prohibit such explanatory reference to natural phenomena? Do they diminish miracle? Are the stories of the plagues and Sinai all that historically grounded anyway? Does finding some local, on the ground connection for something like the ‘manna’ eaten by the Israelites help us to understand the passage, or hinder our appreciation for the power of God? Big questions.
For my part, I’m a little more open to considering such connections than I think George Athas is in his post, but recognise too the need for care and caution. There is a major study brewing in my mind about tectonic/volcanic phenomena as they affect the Old Testament story broadly, but it isn’t ready to come to birth just yet! For a very recent article on this as it affects Mt. Sinai, i.e. whether it was a volcano, or whether we should even ask this question, see: Dunn, Jacob E. “A God of Volcanoes: Did Yahwism Take Root in Volcanic Ashes?,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 38/4 (2014), 387-424.

With Meagre Powers

A few days ago, Simcha Jacobovici made the claim that ‘there’s a dramatic scholarly breakthrough linking archeology to the Biblical Exodus.’ Jacobovici is best known for his TV specials, such as the one in which he claimed to have found the family tomb of Jesus—a claim that the vast majority of specialists in the field evaluated and rejected. In this most recent claim about ‘proof’ for the Exodus, Jacobovici points to the following article:

In this article, Egyptologists Ritner and Moeller examine afresh an ancient Egyptian stela that has been known for some time: the ‘Tempest Stela’ of Ahmose I.

The ‘Tempest Stela’ of Ahmose I

Previously, this stela was interpreted in one of two ways—either as a description of a localised natural disaster during the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose I (16th…

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Distribution Chart for an Unusual Hebrew Pronominal Suffix (Technical)

“Hey Mo, don’t you worry ’bout goin’ down south,

I’ll be sayin’ every word that comes outta your mouth,

Just be doin’ your best, and pray that it’s blessed,

I’ll take care o’ the rest.”

– Keith Green, “He’ll Take Care of the Rest”

Noticing that Psalm 2 had in common with Exodus 15 (the Song of Moses) and a range of other texts an unusual form of the 3rd masc. plural (usually) pronominal suffix, ‘מוֹ’ (-mo), I became interested in just where those endings turned up, why they might exist, and whether any significant implications stem from these features.

So let me offer an Excel chart that shows their distribution and specific references:

Distribution Chart for -mo 3mp pronominal suffixes

 

-mo suffix chart image

The distribution of these endings is interesting.  It shows clusters of its use on verbs (esp. Exod 15), nouns (e.g. Ps 2:3) and prepositions (normally ‘עַל’ or ‘לְ’, once ‘אֶל’, Ps 2:5).  For instance, Exodus 15 features seven such suffixes, exclusively on verbs, whereas all the prophetic uses are on prepositions, and then only in Isaiah and once in Habakkuk.  A few more observations:

  • The suffix is normally plural but occasionally singular, as in the Genesis references.
  • The suffix can occur in parallel construction with the regular 3mp ending, as in Ps 49:11.
  • The form is almost always found in poetry, though the poetry/prose boundary is difficult to identify in prophetic discourse (affecting the Isaiah references).  Exod 23:31, however, is a prose use.

A point of interest for me is whether this is an archaic form or instead an ‘archaizing’ form, a stylistic touch implying traditional authority or fidelity, e.g. continued use of archaic English forms by churchgoers reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Psalm 49 instance might suggest a stylistic use.  I suspect that some clusters are genuinely archaic, including Exodus 15.  Isaianic  usage probably reflects use of this suffix largely restricted to prepositions in the middle of the Old Testament period.  Some of the Psalms uses, especially later ones, occur in proximity to references to Israel’s distant past, e.g. 78:24, 66; 83:11; 99:7.

It is challenging to find where secondary sources discuss this phenomenon, but see Gesenius/Kautsch/Cowley #32m (pp. 107-8 in my edition), #58g (156-7) re verb suffixes, #91b, h, l (255-258) re noun suffixes, and #103f, o (301-2, 305) re suffixes on prepositions.  #91l debates the implications of such forms for dating, in the authors’ case, denying that they can be relied upon to be genuine signs of archaism, while those of the Albright school (e.g. Cross, Freedman) might take them as betraying the archaic nature of a poem like Exodus 15.  (See Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 86, for a sample reference to Exodus 15 and the beginning and ending of Deuteronomy 33 in these terms.  You’ll notice that all feature this suffix abundantly.)

I would assume that ancient Hebrew language like any other has a history and a course of development, and that it must be possible to arrive at some conclusions on the basis of phenomena such as the one mentioned here.  I believe that the authors behind Miller-Naudé, Cynthia L., and Ziony Zevit (eds.). Diachrony in Biblical Hebrew (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012) would advocate this position, though I haven’t yet read the volume.  With the same proviso, I understand that the opposing position is put in Young, I., R. Rezetko, and M. Ehrensvärd. Linguistic Dating of Biblical Texts (London: Equinox, 2008).  Let’s all check them out!