Hittites, Canaanites, and Phoenicians

The world of western Asia and the Mediterranean basin was packed full of civilizations in ancient times. I have already written about Egypt and about the Minoan civilization on Crete. The latter might have produced the Philistine civilization that bordered upon Israel for many centuries. Further east in Mesopotamia were the cities of Sumer, one of the world’s earliest civilizations. One of the world’s first empires, the Akkadians, arose in northern Mesopotamia and conquered all the Sumerian cities. Later the Sumerians were displaced by Semites, who adopted the Sumerian system of writing (“cuneiform”) and other Sumerian traditions. Hammurabi, famous for codifying the laws of Babylon and publishing them to be read by Babylon’s cities, was Semitic. So was Abraham, who left the city of Ur in Mesopotamia and traveled to Canaan because of commands and promises that were given to Abraham by the Lord.

To the north of Mesopotamia, in the land now called Turkey, arose an empire known as the Hittites. (Turks would not arrive in that part of the world until much later in history. At this time, the Turks were in central Asia, neighbors of China.) During the Enlightenment, skeptics mocked conservative Christians for trusting the Bible’s accounts of early history. The Bible mentioned the Hittites, but no other evidence could be found to prove that Hittites ever existed. That changed in the nineteenth century when archaeologists discovered remains of Hittite cities and began to coordinate their discoveries with unidentified nations mentioned in Egyptian and other records. More than three thousand years ago, the Hittites ruled a powerful empire. For some generations, they were among the rivals of Egypt and other ancient empires. Like the Sumerians and other ancient nations, they lost political power and blended into the moving populations of the world. No one knows today whether he or she has any ancestors who were Sumerian or Hittite. But from the time of Abraham until the time of Samuel, the Hittite Empire was important in west Asian history and culture.

Of course in Canaan, Abraham met the Canaanites. Like the Sumerians and the Greeks, the Canaanites maintained a confederation of separate governments, each in its own city, while sharing among themselves a common culture, language, and religion. The Lord found the religion of the Canaanites especially offensive. Not only did the Canaanites worship false gods; their worship included human sacrifice and ritual prostitution. Canaanite religion, in some ways, appears almost a deliberate mockery of God’s plan of salvation—a plan which centers around the sacrifice of his Son, and a plan in which the Son of God claims God’s people as his Bride. The descendants of Abraham were told to remove the Canaanites from the land. The Israelites were God’s tool to bring punishment upon the Canaanites. Israel was warned not to imitate Canaanite religion, but the people of Israel did not heed that warning. Therefore, the Lord eventually used Assyrian and Babylonian armies to punish his people as he had used his people to bring judgment on the Canaanites.

One nation, closely related to the Canaanites, escaped God’s wrath and punishment, at least for a time. The Greeks called them Phoenicians, and the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet for their own use. This adaptation developed into the Latin alphabet still used today in English, Spanish, French, German, and many other languages. Reading skills in these languages are called “phonics,” in memory of the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians did not compete with the Israelites, because the Israelites focused on the land the Lord had promised to Abraham, but the Phoenicians focused on commerce and settlements throughout the Mediterranean world. Not only did the Phoenicians trade with Egypt, Minoan civilization (before it fell) and the emerging powers in Greece; it also established colonies in southern Europe and northern Africa, all the way to Spain and Morocco. Important Phoenician cities near Israel were Tyre and Sidon. Kings David and Solomon had friendly relations with the king of Tyre. Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel, came from Tyre. One of their famous colonies in north Africa was Carthage, which would become Rome’s greatest rival in the western Mediterranean, leading to the Punic Wars (again, deriving their name from the Phoenicians).

Later prophets spoke against the wealth and arrogance of the Phoenicians. Ezekiel’s sermon about the king of Tyre includes descriptions that are often applied to Lucifer, the fallen angel who became Satan, chief among God’s enemies. That famous sermon of Ezekiel is echoed in Revelation 18 and 19, in which the fallen city is called “Babylon,” but represents false religion throughout the world.)

 Tyre, built on an island, withstood many sieges before the city finally was captured by Cyrus, the Persian Emperor. Alexander the Great also conquered Tyre, and it has since been part of great empires including the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks. Since the World Wars in the twentieth century, Tyre has been part of the small country of Lebanon. The region has seen repeated episodes of turbulence and violence, much of it related to the wars against Israel fought by its neighbors. Such conflict reminds the historian that, as much as politics and technology seem to change, some things about people remain the same since ancient times. J.

Minoan civilization

Before Greek civilization developed in the northeastern Mediterranean basin—thus, long before the important Axial Age that happened about twenty-five centuries ago—an island civilization centered in Crete flourished for many generations. They traded products with their neighbors, including the Egyptians and Asians on the Mediterranean coast. They built large cities, complete with palaces and temples. They developed a plumbing system—always an indication of advanced civilization. They produced beautiful artwork. They had a written language, mostly untranslated, although a few inventory lists have been deciphered. Modern historians call this the Minoan civilization, since we have no idea what they called themselves.

Hints of their relationship with early Greeks are revealed in Greek mythology. The story of Theseus tells of a time that young men and women were taken from their home cities in Greece and brought to a foreign capital, where they were imprisoned in a Labyrinth and eventually killed and eaten by a monster—half-bull and half-human—called the Minotaur. Artwork in Crete suggests a slave class of entertainers who were not fed to a monster but who entertained the wealthy and powerful by gymnastic feats. They leapt over a live bull and performed maneuvers on its back, rather like the gymnastic routines involving the vaulting horse and the pommel horse, except that the ancient entertainers used a live animal.

Some Greek records also describe a civilization called Atlantis. Plato says he learned about Atlantis from Egyptian historians. Atlantis was said to be a rich and powerful nation, but the pride of its people led to its downfall—Atlantis was destroyed by natural forces, including earthquakes and floods, and fell into the sea. The legend of Atlantis may reflect the reality of Minoan Crete, although Plato’s Atlantis was larger than Crete. It was located west of Spain and Morocco, in the ocean that now bears its name. Greek historians even insisted that the Atlantic Ocean was not navigable because the wreckage of lost Atlantis made the waterway too shallow for boats.

Much evidence indicates that a massive volcanic eruption—one which caused earthquakes and tsunamis—occurred in the Mediterranean Sea about the time that the Minoan civilization collapsed. Historians cannot agree on the date—even the century—when the volcano erupted, but such an event would have impacted the Minoans on Crete and on nearby islands. Many of them would have died. Some would have tried to rebuild—and, in fact, after its collapse, the Minoan ruins were repaired, but eventually the depleted kingdom was added to the growing Greek civilization. Yet others would have sought a new home, and that also appears to be the case. Once again, though, historians do not agree on the details that appear to follow the destruction of Minoan cities.

Egyptian records describe a group of would-be settlers who tried to make a home for themselves in the Egyptian delta. Egyptian force resisted their settlement, and they moved up the coast until they found a land they could call their own. Archaeological evidence from Canaan indicates that various invaders forced their way into Canaan. Some of those invaders were, of course, the twelve tribes of Israel. But another group became established in southwestern Canaan around the same time. They built five cities, demonstrating skill they brought with them from their earlier home. Although at first the Israelites had some success clearing the land promised to them by the Lord, they later shared the land with Canaanites and other cultures. The five cities of the Philistines remained long after the time of the Judges, dwelling on land that had been assigned to the tribe of Dan (which chose to relocate to the north, according to the Bible) and to Judah and Simeon.

This history does not end in Biblical times. When the British Empire laid claim to the western Asian lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea after the First World War—land that had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before the Great War—they called that land Palestine, a corruption of the earlier name Philistine. The Palestinian natives were of mixed ancestry, including Arab and other ethnic origins; perhaps some of them are descendants of the Philistines from long ago. After the Second World War, the British divided the land between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Israel had to win a war against its neighbors to preserve its independence, and in the process the government of the Palestinians collapsed. Rule of their land was taken by Jordan for almost twenty years, but in the 1967 War Israel captured that land and held it for military security. In all the years since 1967, Israel has not fully incorporated its captured land and its population. Israel is a democracy, and fully incorporating the Palestinian land and people would make the Jews a minority in their own country, apt to be voted out of power. Instead, they have negotiated some autonomy for the Palestinians living in the Gaza strip—that piece of land on the coast of the Mediterranean that once included Gaza and four other Philistine cities. So the tension between Israel and its neighbors that was known under Samuel and David remains a reality down to the present. J.

The Axial Age and Israel

As I reported in this post, religious scholars tend to fall into two groups: some see religions as evolving over time, coming to more mature positions of faith, while others see religions as beginning with a common truth but straying from that truth in various directions. After choosing between those two options, scholars tend to interpret religious writings and practices according to those assumptions. They even assign dates to important events and writings based on those assumptions. The traditional dates given to writings and events in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) are rejected by advocates of evolutionary religion; they are far too early to fit the pattern that supports the evolution of religion. Redating allows evolutionary scholars to fit traditional and prophetic writings within their own historic pattern, thus perpetuating a circular argument in which the theory determines the dates and the dates support the theory.

According to the figures given in the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus from Egypt occurred about 1446 BCE. The Israelite conquest of Canaan began forty years later, about 1406 BCE. This allows about three hundred years for Bronze Age Israel under Joshua and the Judges, culminating in Samuel and his anointing of the kings, Saul and David. David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it in 957 BCE. From there we can trace the kings of Israel and of Judah, leading to the fall of Samaria (the capital of Israel) in 722 BCE and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE.

If the Exodus happened in 1446 BCE, then the monotheism of Pharaoh Ikhnaton came in the aftermath of the Exodus and was a response to the preaching of Moses and to the battles God fought against Egypt and its gods. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Ikhnaton came first and that Israel imitated his monotheism. If Zarathustra lived in Persia during the Axial Age, then he might have learned about monotheism from exiles displaced from Israel. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Zarathustra’s ideas contributed to the growth of monotheism among the Israelites and Jews. Many of the prophetic writings—even many of the writings attributed to Moses—are redated by evolutionary scholars to be created in the Axial Age. According to the traditional dates, only Ezra and Nehemiah (along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) belong to the Axial Age. Moses and Elijah and Amos and Hosea and Isaiah preached and wrote earlier; even Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel land just before the emergence of the Axial Age in China, India, Persia, and Greece.

Individual responsibility and personal accountability are important marks of Axial Age thinking. Earlier religious movements tend to be corporate instead of individual; they see gods working with families and clans and tribes and nations and with all of creation rather than stressing individual relationships with the gods. The Hebrew Bible presents a blend of corporate religion and individual spirituality. Throughout Moses and the prophets, God sometimes deals with his people as a whole but sometimes works with people as individuals. Scholars dissect writings attributed to Moses and the prophets, trying to place some writings before the Axial Age and others within or after the Axial Age. This dissection often overlooks the structure of the texts, ignoring the unity and organization of the writings to assign their ideas to different times and communities and to insist that the final form of these writings was achieved relatively recently by anonymous editors.

The real impact of the Axial Age in Israel can be found only after the time of Ezra. The priest Ezra helped to gather the Jews around God’s Word while Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt. He read the writings of Moses to the Jews and led them in observing God’s commands. Ezra may be responsible for some of the editorial work that gathered and united the book of Psalms. He may have also gathered the writings of the Prophets and organized them into the books that are read and studied today. Ezra demanded faithfulness to God, faithfulness expressed in both communal and individual ways. Reading the ancient books of Moses, Ezra assured the Jews that these commandments and promises were as important to God’s people at his time and place as they were to the Israelites following Moses centuries earlier.

After Ezra died, Axial Age influences began to seep into the Jewish community. They were not isolated: they were first part of the Persian Empire, then part of Alexander’s Empire, then part of the Hellenistic world, encamped on the moving border between the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in Syria. Hellenistic thought was Axial Age thought, strongly flavored by Greek philosophers and scientists. Jewish scholars studied the writings of Moses and the Prophets, and they began to apply them to individual life, separating them from the shared life of the community of God’s people. They took requirements out of the Temple—such as priests who washed their hands before offering sacrifices—and applied them to life in the Jewish home. They took the requirements of the Sabbath Day and established detailed regulations describing what is allowed and what is forbidden on that day. What they were doing, they described as “building a fence around the Law.” They remembered how their ancestors had violated the covenant God made with his people on Mount Sinai. Seeing themselves as living under the same covenant, they tried to ensure that they would not displease God as their ancestors had done. Instead, they would earn his favor by careful observation of all his rules.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the midst of this Axial Age restatement of the holy covenant between God and his people. Jesus disagreed with the interpretations offered by the Hellenistic Bible experts among the Jews, people called “Pharisees” in the New Testament. Jesus demonstrated that Moses and the Prophets involved more than rules and regulations for God’s people: they offered the promise of a Savior, a personal visit from God, who would redeem his people, crushing the enemies of sin and evil and death. Jesus also claimed to be that promised Redeemer, a personal visit from God, come to claim his people and to bring them out of the wilderness into a Promised Land.

Many Jews trusted Jesus and followed him. Gentiles also came to faith in him. Experts in the Law opposed him. They resented his rejection of their interpretations of the covenant. They especially resented his promise to forgive sins, to be the Redeemer who rescues God’s people. They tried to destroy Jesus. Instead, they worked to fulfill the promises stated in Moses and the Prophets. Followers of Jesus, called Christians, preserved the Hebrew Bible, but they included with it writings of apostles who said that Jesus had fulfilled the promises of God and had created a new covenant to replace the one that was broken.

Christianity is not an Axial Age movement. In some ways, Christianity is a reaction against Axial Age thought. It restores the concept of a people of God, a community that is now called the Holy Christian Church. Yet Christianity also stresses individual responsibility and a personal relationship with God. Like Moses and the Prophets, Christian faith covers both sides of life, offering its members citizenship in God’s kingdom but also personal status as royalty in that kingdom. This new teaching, according to Jesus and his followers, is as old as the timeless plan of God, a plan of salvation that goes back to the very beginning of creation. J.

Let’s talk about the Golan Heights

“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability,” President Trump tweeted earlier this week. As with everything else the President has said and done over the past two years, Trump has been greatly criticized for those words. But is he right or wrong in what he tweeted, and how much does it matter?

Golan is mentioned four times in the Bible. It is in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan River. Under Moses the Israelites captured Bashan, and the land was allotted to the tribe of Manasseh. Golan was designated a city of refuge, where a person guilty of manslaughter (but not of murder) could live in safety according to God’s law.

As the kingdom of Aram (ancient Syria) grew in strength, the Golan Heights became contested territory between Aram and Israel. Even before the development of modern weapons, the Heights had significant strategic military value. Like much of western Asia, the land eventually became part of the Assyrian Empire, then moved through the hands of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Eventually the land was captured by Muslims, under whom it was ruled first from Baghdad, then from Egypt, and finally from the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart after the First World War, Syria (including Golan) was made a French protectorate, although the British seem to have been more involved than the French in developing the modern state of Syria. The country first declared its independence in 1941, but over the next thirty years several Syrian governments rose and fell before the Assad family rose to power in the 1970s.

After World War II, European governments gradually gave full independence to their Asian protectorates. The British divided the land along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Palestine, basing ownership of each section upon whether the residents were primarily Jewish or Muslim. (They had previously done a similar division of land between India and Pakistan, based on whether the residents were primarily Hindu or Muslim. Neither division has worked well for the residents of those countries.) Almost immediately war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. The result of that war was the end of Palestine as an independent nation: some parts were captured and claimed by Israel, and other parts were assimilated by Jordan. In 1967, almost twenty years later, a second war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. During that war, Israel captured two-thirds of the Golan Heights, recognizing their strategic value. After a third war in 1973, Israel and Syria were persuaded to negotiate their borders in the Golan Heights region and elsewhere. The negotiations, overseen by American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, involved a detailed study of the region. Kissinger spent nearly the entire month of May 1974 working with both governments. He describes the process as “grueling,” adding that “the long shuttle produced an accord that, with all its inherent complexity, fragility, and mistrust, has endured….”

Shortly after he wrote those words, in 1981 Israel announced that it was annexing its occupied portion of the Golan Heights. Syria protested, and the United Nations deemed the annexation null and void, without international legal effect. Until this week, all people speaking for the United States government on this topic have agreed with the United Nations ruling.

The involvement of the United States in the wars of 1967 was largely—but not entirely—conducted with an eye aimed at the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States was one of the first nations to recognize Israel in 1948, and the Soviets tried to draw Muslim countries in Asia and north Africa into the Soviet sphere of influence. Syria and Egypt particularly benefited from Soviet military equipment and advisors. When they nearly overwhelmed Israel’s forces in 1973, President Nixon did all he could to resupply Israel. One result of his action was an Arab boycott of petroleum sold to the United States and its allies, followed by a massive increase in the price of petroleum. This threw the United States into an inflationary recession for the rest of the decade. But Israel survived the war, and shortly thereafter Egypt threw out Soviet advisors and welcomed the United States as an ally.

The Iranian revolution of 1978 demonstrated that more is involved in foreign relations than a cold war between two superpowers, as the new government in Iran was equally opposed to both the United States and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991; but terrorist attacks on the United States ten years afterward demonstrated that America still had powerful and determined enemies. In response, President Bush announced a war on terror, one which included attacks upon Afghanistan and Iraq. The primary goals of those attacks were to confront terrorists on their home ground and to eliminate their access to weapons of mass destruction. Another hope was that governments could be established in those countries that would include western values of freedom and democracy. It must be noted that Israel, during all these years, remained the only true democracy in the region; all its neighbors, even allies of the United States, were under dictatorships.

Years later, while the United States was still struggling to build democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, citizens of Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets and effectively overthrew their dictators. In what was being called the Arab Spring, it seemed at first that a wave of freedom was moving through the Muslim world. When the people of Libya rose against their dictator, Khadafi used his armed forces to try to remain in control. In response, the United States intervened with military force to keep Khadafi from killing his own people, and he was overthrown and killed. Assad in Syria seemed to be the next tyrant to topple, but the United States did not help the people of Syria as it had helped the people of Libya. Even when it was demonstrated that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons against citizens, they received from the United States little more than a frown and a scolding.

What makes Syria different? One difference is that Assad has maintained ties to Russia in spite of the change in government there since the 1970s. Vladimir Putin does not want the Russian people to hear of dictators being overthrown, so he has provided much support and help to Assad’s government in Syria. While the United States under Barack Obama temporized over Syria, pro-American forces were weakened and an Islamic State was declared. Problems also arose in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as western freedom and democracy did not emerge as expected.

Donald Trump promised that he was going to do things differently. He showed this after the election but before his inauguration when he spoke with the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Ever since Mao’s revolution in the 1940s, American leaders and diplomats have joined the rest of the world in maintaining the fiction that China is one country and has only one legitimate government. From Truman to Nixon, the Communist government was treated by the United States as the illegitimate government, but Nixon opened communication with the Communists, and President Carter recognized the Communist government as legitimate. (All American Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, have made it clear to the Communists that a military taking of Taiwan would not be permitted.) President Reagan once spoke of “two Chinas,” but backpedaled from that position. Not speaking to the President of Taiwan was part of that diplomatic fiction which Trump chose to eschew.

Now he has recognized the reality that the Golan Heights belong to Israel and not to Syria, something which has been practically the case since 1981 (and since the occupation of the Heights began during the 1967 war, fifty-two years ago). As he does on many matters, President Trump has openly recognized reality rather than clinging to polite fictions. After all, the United States has no reason to appease Syria; its government is no friend of our government. Describing reality in blunt terms sometimes is the beginning of solving problems between nations. About the only reason to protest Trump’s statement about the Golan Heights is the reflex assumption some people make that, if Trump did it, it must be wrong. J.

Advent thoughts: December 20

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1—read Hosea 11:1-9).

According to Matthew 1:15, Hosea was talking about Jesus when he uttered the words, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” Looking at Hosea’s prophecy, it is not easy to find Jesus. The prophet seems to be talking about the nation Israel, not about Jesus. God speaks of his kindness to his chosen people, describes their sin and the punishment they deserve, but concludes by describing his warm and tender compassion. Though they deserve judgment and punishment, God will not pour out his wrath on his people. He will treat them according to the new covenant of grace and not according to the old covenant.

The new covenant is only possible because of Jesus, but Matthew’s point is more profound than that simple fact. In taking God’s words about Israel and applying them to Jesus, Matthew is showing Jesus to be the new Israel. In the days of Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, the descendants of Abraham moved to Egypt to escape famine in the Promised Land. At first, they were honored guests, but they later became slaves. God raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He brought them first to Mount Sinai, where God made a covenant with the nation. Then they started toward the Promised Land. When they heard about the strength of the people living in Canaan, the Israelites lost their nerve. They doubted God’s promises to give them the victory. Therefore, the Israelites who had left Egypt wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they all had died. The next generation then followed Joshua across the Jordan River and conquered the Canaanites as God had promised.

The journey of the Israelites under Moses and Joshua was delayed because of sin and doubt. God called Israel his son, but Israel was a disobedient son. When the right time arrived, God sent his Son to retrace the steps of Israel. Like Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons, Jesus was born in the Promised Land. But, like Jacob and his family, Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt for a time. When they returned to the Promised Land, they did not doubt God’s power to protect them. Although they relocated to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, they did not hesitate in the wilderness.

When he was a man, Jesus returned to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The Israelites led by Moses sinned repeatedly against the Lord in the wilderness, but Jesus did not sin. He said no to every temptation from the devil. He remained faithful to his Father, trusting his promises and obeying his commands. Through his obedience, Jesus was able to establish a new covenant between God and his people. Jesus bore the wrath of the old covenant so God’s people could be spared that wrath. Jesus suffered to become victorious over all evil. Jesus died to defeat death. Jesus rose to share his victory and his new covenant with all people.

We are children of God, adopted into his family through the new covenant. In Baptism we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We are also his Church, the body of Christ. Therefore, in a sense, we traveled into Egypt with Mary and Joseph and Jesus. In a sense, we retraced the steps of the ancient Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. In a sense, we got it right along with Jesus, even though our predecessors on this path got it wrong.

Because of the new covenant, God’s compassion for us grows warm and tender. He will not execute burning anger at us or come in wrath against us, because that anger and wrath was poured out on Jesus on the cross. Because Jesus suffered and died and rose, we will not be destroyed. Thanks be to God! J.