Passover Acts at the Cataract

Numbers 28 lists the laws of the Passover. “On the fourteenth day of the first month the Lord’s Passover is to be held. On the fifteenth day of this month there is to be a festival; for seven days eat bread made without yeast. On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. Present to the Lord a food offering consisting of a burnt offering of two young bulls, one ram and seven male lambs a year old, all without defect. With each bull offer a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with oil; with the ram, two-tenths; and with each of the seven lambs, one-tenth. Include one male goat as a sin offering to make atonement for you. Offer these in addition to the regular morning burnt offering. In this way present the food offering every day for seven days as an aroma pleasing to the Lord; it is to be offered in addition to the regular burnt offering and its drink offering. On the seventh day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.”

Elephantine is a small island in the Nile in southern, or Upper Egypt, off of Aswan. The island may have been given its name due to its long narrow shape resembling an elephant tusk.

A cataract in a river is a site where the water is interrupted by heights that can produce waterfalls or by stones that disrupt the smooth flow of water. Elephantine is just downstream from the First Cataract of the Nile River. Cataracts could not be navigated by boat, so any traders or invaders from the south would be forced to disembark and interrupt their travel before they could continue their journey down the river. This made Elephantine a strategically important site.

In the 5th century BCE, Egypt was under Persian control. Elephantine was a fort that protected this gateway to Egypt. Amongst those in service to the Persians were Jewish mercenaries protecting the Egyptian frontier.

At Elephantine, archaeologists unearthed collections of documents and letters written in Aramaic on papyrus, known as the Elephantine Papyri. A significant number belonged to its Jewish community. These letters deal with issues of divorce, slaves, business and matters of religion.

One notable papyrus in this collection is the ‘Elephantine Passover Letter,’ which dates to 419 BCE. Only a fragment of this letter remains. Nowhere does it mention the word Passover, but it seems clear that that is its intent. The letter was sent to the Jewish community in Elephantine about how to celebrate the Passover. A reconstruction of the letter, with a suggested reading shown in brackets for missing or illegible writing is as follows: 

“[To my brothers, Je]daniah and his colleagues the [J]ew[ish] ga[rrison,] your brother Hanan[iah]. May God (the gods?) [seek after] the welfare of my brothers [at all times.]

And now, this year, year 5 of King Darius, it has been sent from the king to Arsa[mes] […]

Now, do you count [fourteen days in Nisan and on the 14th at twilight observe the Passover] and from the 15th day until the 21st day of [Nisan the festival of Unleavened Bread observe. Seven days eat unleavened bread. Now,] be pure and take heed.

[Do] n[ot do] work [on the 15th day and on the 21st day. And] do [n]ot drink [anything of leaven. And do] n[ot eat] anything of leaven [nor let it be seen in your houses from the 14th day of Nisan at] sunset until the 21st day of Nisa[n at sunset. And b]ring into your chambers [any leaven which you have in your houses] and seal (it) up during [these] day[s]. […]

[To] my brothers Jedaniah and his colleagues the Jewish garrison, your brother Hananiah s[on of …].”

This ‘Elephantine Passover Letter’ papyrus is kept at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. It can be seen via the link below:

Early Israel’s King

In Numbers 22, Balak, the king of Moab, summoned Balaam son of Beor, to curse the nation of Israel that was on his country’s doorstep. In Numbers 23, when Balaam tried to curse Israel, his words came out as a blessing:

“No misfortune is seen in Jacob, no misery observed in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, the shout of the King is among them. God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. There is no divination against Jacob, no evil omens against Israel. It will now be said of Jacob and of Israel, see what God has done. The people rise like a lioness, they rouse themselves like a lion that does not rest till it devours its prey and drinks the blood of its victims.”

Part of Balaam’s blessing of Israel is that “The Lord their God is with them, the shout of the King is among them.” The king in this instance appears to be God, not a human king of Israel. In the Torah, Israel is led by Moses, but not by a formal king.

In Deuteronomy 17, it notes that Israel did not have a king, but would only desire one after they entered Canaan and conquered it: When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses.”

The early Israelite settlers in the hill country of Canaan appear to have lived in an egalitarian society, where they were all equally poor. Their “four-room” houses were similar. Their pottery was local, unadorned and utilitarian. There is no sign of ornate burials. And they do not appear to have had a king.

No royal inscriptions have been found in hill country Iron Age I. Outside of Canaan, there is no mention of an Israelite or Judahite king in Iron Age I, as there is during Iron Age II, after 1000 BCE. The hill country Iron I villages have no large scale buildings or monumental architecture which would indicate the presence of royalty. By contrast, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Israel at Samaria, modern day Sebastiya roughly 10 miles northwest of Nablus, or Shechem, contains the remains of the Israelite king’s palace during Iron Age II.

The image above is of the palatial building at Megiddo that dates to Iron Age II. This building had a monumental entrance with a roof supported by large columns and a large ceremonial hall, something that is not found in the earlier villages of the central hill country.

For early Israel in the Bible, God was king. Over 3,000 years later, even the King himself knew who the king of kings was:

Trading on the King’s Highway

In Numbers 20, Moses asked for permission from the king of Edom to pass through his territory. “Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” The Edomite king rejected Moses’ request, so the Israelites had to bypass the area.

In Numbers 21, Israel requested passage through the land of the Amorites. “Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” The Amorites refused and in a battle, Israel conquered the Amorite territory.

In the Bible, the road Israel wanted to traverse is written literally as “Derech HaMelech,” the “Way of the King,” but it is commonly translated as the King’s Highway. The path that the Bible says Israel traveled was along an important trade route. This trade route connected Egypt to Aramean Damascus and on to Mesopotamia. The route crossed the Sinai, and then headed into Transjordan, passing through the kingdoms of Edom, Moab, Ammon, and the Aramean states.

The exact route of the King’s Highway mentioned in the Bible is not known. Ancient roads were often unpaved, so it can be difficult to determine the exact path. Assumptions can be made based on proximity to existing cities and towns, access to water, and level ground as to where a road might have passed. Satellite images can be used to find ancient paths. Other ancient roads such as the Roman via nova Traiana may have been built over a pre-existing portion of the ancient road.

Regardless of its exact location, it was an important route for trade. The settlers in the central hill country of Canaan, encompassing the Samarian and Judean hills, would have taken advantage of trade along this route. These settlers engaged in trade and were part of the larger regional economy.

However, one exception to this is pottery. The Iron Age Israelites exhibit a lack of imported pottery. Iron Age I, from roughly 1200-1000 BCE is a period of diminished trade in the ancient Near East, but trade increases in Iron Age II, from 1000-587 BCE. During this period, the absence of non-Israelite pottery in the hill country becomes even more pronounced. This may be a cultural marker, either related to an ethic of simplicity, an aversion to imagery or a function of purity law. There is no way to know this, but the absence makes it notable. Trade occurred, but for Israel, the pottery kept on riding on the King’s Highway.

The image above is from near Petra, along the route of the King’s Highway.

What a Skeleton Can Tell Us

In Numbers 16, Korah, Dathan, Abiram and On plus 250 others challenged Moses’ leadership. “The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”

Moses announced that “if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.”

“As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.”

In this story, Korah was buried alive, but burials form a unique aspect of the Iron Age I settlers in the hill country of Canaan.

Burials can be a window into ancient cultures. It can be a sign of hierarchies, as richer individuals or families can afford a more lavish burial. Family burials can demonstrate the importance of close family links in a society. An example of this in the Bible could be in 1 Kings 2 “then David rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David.” Grave goods, items that are found within a burial plot, can shed light on beliefs in an afterlife, because they can indicate that the culture believed that the deceased would need those items after death in this life. Rituals to bring goods or food to the deceased after their passing might indicate the belief in a continued relationship on earth after death.

In Late Bronze Age Canaan, tombs can be found both in the hill country and in the coastal plain. But in Iron Age I, with the influx of new proto-Israelite settlers, there is a distinct absence of burial sites. With few formal burial sites, it is believed people would have been buried in simple graves without any unique identifiers. In Iron Age II, rock-cut tombs, with square openings and benches for the deceased, along with funerary gifts, that housed the bones of multiple family members, once again appear in the central hill country.

The lack of Iron Age I graves could be a mark of these early settlers living in a flat society, without hierarchies, and their relative simplicity. It may also be a cultural marker of the early Israelites.

Dancing and talking skeletons may be in the realm of cartoons, Halloween and Jeff Dunham’s Ahmed the Terrorist comedic bit, but for archaeologists, skeletons can tell us a lot.

The image above is of a skeleton with ‘grave goods,’ once buried adorned with jewelry around its head, and now on display at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem.

Israelites as Iconoclasts

In Numbers 13, at God’s behest Moses sent spies to explore the land of Canaan, which the Israelites were set to conquer. “So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath. They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived.” The spies figured out where the different groups lived. “The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”

Three of the largest Canaanite cities in the region were Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. The Bible recognizes their significance, and in 1 Kings 9 it notes, “the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord’s temple, his own palace, the terraces, the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer.”

In Joshua 11, Joshua conquered Hazor. “Joshua turned back and captured Hazor and put its king to the sword. Hazor had been the head of all these kingdoms. Everyone in it they put to the sword. They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed, and he burned Hazor itself. Joshua took all these royal cities and their kings and put them to the sword. He totally destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded. Yet Israel did not burn any of the cities built on their mounds, except Hazor, which Joshua burned.”

Tel Hazor, the site of ancient Hazor, is roughly 10 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Historically it was important because it was along the trade route that connected the coastal roads that ran down to Egypt and the interior routes that traveled into Syria and down to Mesopotamia. Archaeology has shown that it had a long period of habitation, from the Early Bronze Age until the period of Greek rule in the latter part of the 1st millennium BCE. It reached a peak in the Late Bronze Age, and Hazor’s king features in Egypt’s Amarna Letters.

Notably in the Bible account, Joshua burned Hazor, but not the other cities.

Destruction layers are one of the most identifiable features in archaeology. A site that experienced destruction and fire might feature collapsed walls, layers of ash, burnt wood, stone that cracked in the intense heat, melted limestone and/or destroyed statues. Because a destruction layer can so clearly delineate a break in periods and explain the reason for the end of a settlement, it would not be unusual to hear an archaeologists talk about “beautiful, beautiful destruction.”

Hazor reached a peak in the Late Bronze Age, before the Egyptians seized control of Canaan. The city appears to have to have been attacked at the end of the 14th century BCE and again in the mid-to-late 13th century BCE. In the 13th century BCE layer, on the lower plateau to the north, large public structures were destroyed, as were statues of gods and kings, but small domestic structures were not destroyed. Similarly, on the tel, or mound, the large public buildings including palatial and cultic sites were destroyed.

The party responsible for the destruction in the 13th century BCE is debated. Suggestions include the Egyptians, the Sea Peoples, fighting amongst Canaanite groups, a local rebellion or the Israelite conquest. One accepted opinion is that the destruction was a local rebellion against the elites, which resulted in the destruction of the important administrative, royal and cultic sites associated with the elites.

Amnon Ben-Tor, the lead archaeologist on the site, is of the opinion that the destruction was caused by invading Israelites. To him, the decapitations of the statues of gods and kings, the destruction of cultic sites and cultic paraphernalia on both the upper and lower sites are indicative of Israelite destruction.

Polytheists were traditionally respectful of local gods, and would have traditionally been expected to respect cultic sites. In the Bible, the Israelites are prohibited from forming graven images and of worshipping other gods. Therefore, Amnon Ben-Tor and others point to the destruction as the result of deliberate actions by Israelite attackers. To Ben-Tor, the Israelites are the iconoclasts, the deliberate destroyers of images used in worship, much as the much later bust in the image above was deliberately mutilated.

Rolling East to West

This week’s parshah, Behaalotecha, covering Numbers chapters 8-12, discusses aspects of Israel’s travels. Numbers 9 tells of the cloud above the tabernacle that directed Israel’s travel itinerary. Numbers 10 contains instructions to make trumpets that will be used to signal when Israel will be traveling. The Israelites then began their journey from the Sinai Desert to the Desert of Paran. In Numbers 11 the Israelites traveled from Kibroth Hattaavah to Hazeroth, and in Numbers 12 they went from Hazeroth to the Desert of Paran.

In the Bible, the nation of Israel left Egypt and headed into the Sinai Desert. From there they went east and crossed into the area of southern Jordan. They moved north through the lands of Edom, Moab and Ammon. From there they would move from east to west and enter into Canaan.

A debate exists between archaeologists about the origins of the settlers who in the early Iron Age occupied the hill country of Samaria and Judea, the group who are believed to be the early Israelites. Some are of the belief that they were Canaanites who migrated from west to east, from the coastal plain to the hill country. On the other side of the debate are those who believe these early settlers came from the other side of the Jordan River, and migrated from east to west.

Adam Zertal was an Israeli archaeologist who undertook a survey of the land of Manasseh west of the Jordan River. The land of Manasseh encompassed the area reaching from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and reaching from roughly Beth She’an as a northern boundary to Shechem as a southern boundary.

Based on pottery types and their popularity by century, he found that these early settlers began to appear first in the Jordan Valley and along the eastern rivers in the 13th century BCE. They lived a seminomadic life, moving to better pasture by season. In the 12th century BCE, these early settlers moved to the eastern part of the hill country and into the inner valleys and engaged in farming activities. By the end 12th/early 11th BCE they had expanded to the western edge of the hills surrounding the valleys and were engaging in more complex and more settled terraced agriculture.

In sum, the result of Zertal’s Manasseh Hill Country Survey points to the early Israelites arriving in the Samarian and Judahite Hill Country, moving in an east to west direction, the direction described in the Bible.

The photo above is of the Jordan River Valley, the type of terrain the 13th century BCE settlers would have lived in. 

The direction they went, song courtesy of Disney:

Why Bother Decorating?

Numbers 5 details the ritual in the case of a man who accuses his wife of being unfaithful to their marriage, where there are no witnesses: The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”—here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

As earlier in the Book of Leviticus, clay pots have a role in the Bible’s ritual. Here, holy water is brought in a clay jar. In Leviticus 6, one bringing a sin offering in clay pot must break the pot. In Leviticus 15, regarding bodily secretion, “a clay pot that the man touches must be broken.”

The clay pots in the hill country of Samaria and Judah, the presumed home of the early Israelites, differed from the pots of its neighbors in the surrounding region. The Philistine pottery was highly ornate with a variety of images and designs. Canaanite pottery was not as advanced the Philistine pottery, yet it too was decorated. By contrast, Israelite pottery was utilitarian in nature and sparse in design. They featured no images, like the pot shown in the image above, on display at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.

This phenomenon appears during the Iron Age I, when these early Israelites had arrived in the hill country. The Israelites appear to be organized in a poor, egalitarian society. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the simple pottery of the Israelites was a result of its general poverty relative to its neighbors.

But the pattern of simple pottery continues into Iron Age II, which ran from roughly 1000-587 BCE. During this time period the kingdom of Israel had become considerably wealthier, and so poverty alone would not explain the lack of adornment of their pottery.

One possible explanation is that the lack of adornment reflects ideology. The Torah commands against graven imagery, which can be referred to as aniconism. Israel’s God is aniconic, without image, in the Bible and is largely aniconic in the archaeological record of the hill country. This is a possible explanation for the lack of imagery on the pottery.

Another possible suggestion may relate to the purity laws of pots. There are laws in the Bible that require pots to be broken if they become ritually impure. Given the potential that a jar would have to be deliberately broken it would be inefficient to spend time decorating a jar that can so easily be condemned.

Why decorate pottery if it will get the bull in a china shop treatment?

Hill Country Storage

In Numbers 4, the Kohathite branch of the Levites is given the responsibility of dismantling the traveling tabernacle and carrying it and its accessories when Israel traveled. In order not to touch the holy objects, the Kohathites are told to cover them. They are to do this for the sacred objects including the plates, dishes and bowls, jars for drink offerings, jars for olive oil and the sprinkling bowls. In addition to the physical building, jars figure prominently in the list of sacred items.

A pithos, plural pithoi, is a large storage container. One such type of large pithos in the Levant during the early Iron Age was the collared rim jar. The collared rim jar had a folded rim and a ridge along the base of its neck. It was generally over three feet tall. The collared rim jar could vary in its width and the height of the neck, and it typically had two handles near the neck.

The purpose of the collared rim jar is the subject of debate. Because it appeared in areas with little water, it is argued that it was used for water storage. But it also appeared in areas with plentiful water, so the argument goes that the jars were used for storing olive oil and wine. Elsewhere, collared rim jars were shown to store food such as lentils, chickpeas, wheat, barley and spices, acting as an all purpose storage jar. The jars were used in long distance trade, though they are not light, weighing roughly 30 pounds each.

During the Late Bronze Age these collared rim jars are found north of the Samarian hills. But in the Iron Age I, these jars become highly prominent in the Transjordan and in the hill country area of Canaan, ranging from Hebron in the south to the lower Galilee in the north. In the hill country they constitute a large percentage of the pottery. Notably, these jars are prevalent in villages where there are four-room houses, commonly an indicator of an early Israelite site. At the same time, they are rarely found in the Upper Galilee, primarily home to the Canaanites, or in the Philistine areas along the southern coastline. 

The collared rim jar, while not uniquely Israelite, does appear to be indicative of Israelite presence and an Israelite cultural marker, especially when found in combination with the four-room house.

The collared rim jars shown above are on display at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. 

The Fancy New Neighbors

In Leviticus 26, the nation of Israel is told that if they follow God’s laws they will be rewarded, but if they don’t they will be punished. “But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.”

In early Iron Age Canaan, for the Israelites, that enemy was the Philistines.

In the early Iron Age, groups known collectively as the Sea Peoples invaded parts of the eastern Mediterranean coast. They appear to have come from the Aegean Sea, around Greece, Crete or the Anatolian coastline. The Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III repelled these invaders in a sea battle off the northern coast of Egypt, but some groups successfully came ashore in southwestern coastal Canaan. They came to dominate this region and establish the Philistine pentapolis of five major cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. 

One cultural marker found in the archaeological record which distinguishes the Philistines from the Israelites in the hill country is their pottery. Pottery is not always a great cultural identifier, because it can be traded between groups, but between the early Philistines and their rivals the differences are significant.

The early Iron Age I Philistine pottery is known as Philistine Monochrome ware. It was decorated with only one color of paint and it was made using different methods than the Canaanites used to make pottery. The next generation of Philistine pottery is called Philistine Bichrome ware, and it was decorated with red and black paint.

The Philistine pottery was decorated with geometric shapes and motifs such as fish, birds, boats, and other scenes. The decorations are reminiscent of the styles in the Aegean, an indicator of the Sea People’s origins.

The Philistine pottery also features a wide array of types and shapes, entirely different than Canaanite and Israelite vessels. This include bell-shaped bowls, large bowls that are called kraters, cooking jugs, stirrup jars, feeding bottles, and strainer jugs. Some of the unique shapes can be seen in the image above, taken at The Corinne Mamane Museum of Philistine Culture in Ashdod.

Essentially the Philistine pottery was of higher quality than the pottery of its neighbors. It was better made, more ornate and had more unique craftsmanship. These were the fancy new neighbors of Israel. For an interesting look at ancient Greek pottery making, enjoy the following brief video:

The Great Escape from Egypt

Leviticus 25 discusses rules for owning slaves. “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.”  

How Israelites are to treat their own lies in contrast to how Israelites were treated by the Egyptians. In Exodus 5 Moses asked the pharaoh to allow the Israelites to take three days to sacrifice to their God. The pharaoh responded by increasing the difficulty of their workload. “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”

In the Bible, after the Israelites fled, the pharaoh decided he preferred having the cheap labor. “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!”

Papyrus Anastasi V contains another account of escaped slaves in ancient Egypt, this time from the reign of the New Kingdom pharaoh Seti II, in the 12th century BCE. Two slaves escaped, and the Egyptians sent a message to a chief in the eastern Nile Delta inquiring about the whereabouts of the escapees. “When my letter reaches you, write to me about all that has happened to [them]. Who found their tracks? Which watch found their tracks? What people are after them? Write to me about all that has happened to them and how many people you send out after them.”

The matter of escapees was not taken lightly in Egypt. In the peace treaty between Hittites and Egypt after the Battle at Kadesh in the 13th century BCE, the two sides agreed that people who flee one state for the other should not be harmed, but returned. If the terms are violated, the gods and goddesses of the country shall exterminate the king’s descendants.

Papyrus Anastasi V is held in storage at the British Museum. It can be seen via this link:

To imagine the slaves’ plight, you can think of it with this soundtrack: