When the Menorah Built the Symbol of Rome

This week’s parshah discusses the tabernacle and the objects that would fill it. One such object is the seven branched menorah. Exodus 25 declares: “Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other…then make its seven lamps and set them up on it so that they light the space in front of it.”

Perhaps the most famous depiction of a menorah is the one on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which shows Roman soldiers carrying the menorah. The scene itself was recorded in Josephus’ writings: “Spoil in abundance was carried past. None of it compared with that taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, a golden table many stones in weight and a golden lamp stand, similarly made, which was quite unlike any object in daily use. A center shaft rose from a base, and from the shaft thin branches or arms extended, in a pattern very like that of tridents, each wrought at its end into a lamp. There were seven of these lamps, thus emphasizing the honor paid by the Jews to the number seven.”

The Arch of Titus was a unique structure for its time, and became the template for later arches. That this structure memorializing the menorah’s capture was built in the first place reflects the politics of the time.

The First Jewish Revolt against Roman rule erupted in the year 66 CE. There were long simmering tensions between the Roman rulers and Jewish population that exploded and burned out of control. The Roman emperor Nero sent his armies to suppress the revolt, led by the general Titus Flavius Vespasianus, better known as Vespasian.

Nero himself was not particularly stable. He had his mother murdered, burned Christians alive and according to legend, played the fiddle during a great fire in Rome. A revolt erupted within the Roman Empire and Nero committed suicide. This set off a scramble for leadership and the year 69 become known as the Year of the Four Emperors.

According the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56, When [Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai] reached the Romans [and General Vespasian] he said, Peace to you, O king, peace to you, O king. [Vespasian] said: Your life is forfeit on two counts, one because I am not a king and you call me king, and again, if I am a king, why did you not come to me before now?…At this point a messenger came to him from Rome saying, Up, for the Emperor is dead, and the notables of Rome have decided to make you head [of the State].

In his book The Jewish War, the Jewish historian Josephus offers up his own version of the story. Josephus tells Vespasian “although you suppose you have taken captive a forsaken Josephus, I have come as a messenger of great tidings…You are to be Caesar, O Vespasian, and Emperor, you, and this your son.”…”When he had said this, Vespasian at that time did not believe him, supposing that Josephus came up with this as a cunning trick to save himself. But after a little while he came to have faith in this.”

Vespasian did return to Rome to become emperor, and his son Titus took command of the armies suppressing the Jewish revolt. Titus captured Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, leading to the confiscation of the menorah to Rome.

Ordinarily the defeat of a localized rebellion would not have justified a massive building campaign in Rome. But the new Flavian Dynasty, led by Vespasian, may have sought to establish their credentials and authority as a new family at the throne.

Following the fire that consumed Rome during the emperor Nero’s reign, Nero took a large area in the center of Rome for himself, added an artificial lake and a colossal statue of himself. The newly victorious emperor Vespasian returned this land to the people by building the Flavian Amphitheatre, known today as the Colosseum. The Colosseum was an amphitheater that could seat as many as 80,000 people, and was host to public spectacles such as gladiatorial games, animal contests and public executions.

An inscription at the Colosseum was deciphered to read “Imp. T. Caes. Vespasianus Aug. Amphitheatrum Novum Ex Manubis Fieri Iussit,” meaning “The Emperor Caesar Vespasian Augustus had this new amphitheatre erected with the spoils of war.” The only known war this could refer to was the Jewish Revolt. And the spoils of war included slave labor from Jewish captives and the seven branched menorah.

When Vespasian’s son Titus died, or was murdered by his brother Domitian, Domitian continued the building spree. Domitian built the Arch of Titus, commemorating the suppression of the Jewish Revolt. Building an arch for his brother may have had the dual purpose of establishing the family’s legitimacy by connecting it to a military victory and providing Domitian cover for the murder of his brother.

The Arch of Titus is located at the Roman Forum. On one side of the arch, Titus triumphantly enters Rome. On the other, the menorah is carried aloft. This structure became the template for later arches, including the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the arch at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and the Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village, NYC. The photo above is of the image on the Arch of Titus at the Roman Forum, in Rome. Professor Steven Fine of Yeshiva University “colorized” the Arch of Titus in Rome, based on paint residues. The re-creation can be seen in this video link:


Imagining Social Justice in the Shephelah

This week’s parshah marks a departure from the narrative that began with Genesis, as it lists a series of interpersonal and religious laws. Biblical scholars often refer to this week’s portion as the Covenant Code, marking it as different than the surrounding texts.

The laws in this week’s parshah show the Torah’s concern for ‘Social Justice,’ as opposed to ‘survival of the fittest.’ Demonstrating God’s stress on these laws, Exodus 22 reads: “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”

One of the certainties in archaeology is that most everything is uncertain. For almost every piece of evidence that is found, there are disagreements about the interpretation of the find. Oversimplifying matters, there are numerous disagreements between archaeologists at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and archaeologists at Hebrew University (HU) in Jerusalem. Reflecting the natures of secular Tel Aviv and religious Jerusalem, those at TAU tend to argue against the biblical account while those at HU more often argue that the evidence supports the biblical account.

One such argument relates to the presence of ‘six-chambered gates’ at the Canaanite cities of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. These were important cities on the trade route to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Archaeology has shown that had a unique gate system that provided an added layer of security at the entrance to their walled cities. The question is, who built these gates?

1 Kings 9 states “Here is 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.” Ezekiel 40 says of Jerusalem, “Inside the east gate were three alcoves on each side; the three had the same measurements, and the faces of the projecting walls on each side had the same measurements.” What Ezekiel is describing is a ‘six-chambered gate.’

Scholars at HU argue that these gates at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer were built by King Solomon, supporting the biblical account. Scholars at TAU argue that these gates at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer were not built by Solomon, but rather are from the next century kings of the northern kingdom of Israel.

With this disagreement, attention about the nature of King Solomon’s rule has shifted to another site, Khirbet Qeiyafa. Khirbet Qeiyafa lies in the Shephelah, the lowland hills between the coast and the Judean Hills, on the frontier between the Philistine cities that were on the coast and the Israelites in the hill country. The question is, who controlled this site?

One of the unique features of this site is that there are two gate systems leading into and out of the city. Most walled cities only have on entry and exit point. For this reason, some have identified Khirbet Qeiyafa as the ancient biblical city Shaaraim, meaning ‘two gates.’ This would be the Shaaraim of 1 Samuel 17: “Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath and to the gates of Ekron.”

There are factors that suggest the site may be related to a kingdom led from Jerusalem. Its location between the coast and the hills would be of strategic value. Only a state powerful enough to marshal the resources could build a fortified city. Pig bones are prevalent in the coastal Philistine cities, but are absent in the Samarian and Judean Hills, reflecting the different diets of the two populations. At Khirbet Qeiyafa, one does not find pig bones in the 10th century. Another piece of evidence may be the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon.

The Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon is an inscription written on a clay fragment. Its language and meaning are debated. The words on the inscription are not clear, leaving it subject to interpretation. The Philistines are believed to have come from the Aegean or coastal Anatolia and spoke an Indo-European language. The Israelites and the Canaanites spoke closely related Semitic languages. This ostracon is written in a Semitic language. Some argue that a number of the words such as asah and avad are unique to the Hebrew language, and so it would be from Judah or Israel, and would not be Canaanite. This would support the idea that this site is the biblical site of Shaaraim and was attached to a kingdom in Jerusalem.

The reading of the text is also debated. As the picture above shows, the writing is not clear, so interpretation requires some imagination. One possible reading is that it implores justice for the widow and the orphan and concern for the poor and the slave. If this were a correct reading, it would mirror the Bible’s concern for the same. There is no agreement if this a Judean site, if it is Shaaraim, if the inhabitants were Canaanite or Israelite, but it leaves open the possibility for that there was a concern over social justice in the Shephelah.

The Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon, pictured above, is currently on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Thou Shall Not Be An Atheist

The Ten Commandments warn, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

The English term aniconism refers to the belief in not using or worshipping images of deities. The archaeological record shows that the commandment against graven images was taken seriously in Israel and that God was aniconic.

The Merneptah Stele from Egypt demonstrates that there was a group known as Israel in the Judean and Samarian Hills at the end of the 13th century BCE. Theophoric names are names that contain a god’s name within a personal name, and the use of these names can be an indicator that a specific god was worshipped in that area. Israel is a theophoric name, as it contains God’s name El. Theophoric names with the Y-H-W-H, or the Lord, are common in the Tanakh, and are also found in the archaeological record. The 10th century Gezer Calendar, found at Gezer in Israel, is written by Abijah, with the suffix -jah here a shortened version of God’s name. The 9th century Samaria Ostraca include theophoric names such as Shemaryahu and Gaddiyau. The 9th century Mesha Stele, a monument by a Moabite king recognizing his defeat of Israel, mentions that he took the vessels of the Lord. The theophoric names plus the Mesha Stele all demonstrate that in the Judean and Samarian Hills people worshipped the Lord.

It is established that El/Y-H-W-H is worshipped by Israel in Israel. While the Egyptians and Canaanite gods were depicted with images, the God of Israel largely does not appear in any form. Even when the Bible says that the people sinned by worshipping other gods, the practice of not showing God in any form continued. The prophetic books inveigh against those who worship the gods Baal or Asherah. This can be seen in the archaeological record because Baal figurines and Asherah figurines are very common in Israelite sites. Even at a time when Israel is not maintaining strict loyalty to God, and worshiping Baal or setting up Asherah posts, God still is aniconic.

After the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem and the return from exile in Babylon, the Baal and Asherah figurines do not appear in Judean sites. But the commitment to refraining from using imagery continued. The Persians, Greeks and Romans who ruled Israel all featured images of gods or humans on their coins. When given the opportunity to mint their own coins, the Jews avoided doing the same. The Hasmoneans who defeated the Greeks minted their own coins and used images of objects from the temple, but no human imagery or images of God. During the First Jewish Revolt of 66-70, which culminated in the destruction of the temple, and the Bar Kochba Revolt, which ended in catastrophe, the Jews minted their own coins as a show of their independence. Again, the coins featured religiously significant objects but no human imagery.

In antiquity, the practice of having an invisible God in part led to charges that Jews were atheists. In his book Against Apion, Josephus writes that Apollonius Molo accused the Jews of being atheists. But aniconism was not a denial of God, and over the course of history people stuck to God’s laws against imagery. The lack of imagery affirms Israel’s belief in God and his laws, and demonstrates that they were not atheists.

Ancient coins from Israel survive in abundance, and are on display in many museums. One place to view Israel’s history of aniconic coins is at the Bank of Israel Visitor Center in Jerusalem. Due to renovations, the exhibit will be temporarily on display at a Bank of Israel Visitor Center in Tel Aviv.

Beloved vs. Beloved

In this week’s parsha, God delivers the Israelites to safety by first splitting the sea and then returning the waters onto the pursuing Egyptians. Moses and Israel sing in praise of God, “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea…” Moses’ sister Miriam took a tambourine and led the women in song, “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.” Miriam is a Hebrew heroine, but her name is Egyptian.

Power in ancient Egypt vacillated between centralized power and regionalized control. Kingdoms ruled over both southern Upper Egypt and northern Lower Egypt for stretches of time. When centralized power could not hold, different dynasties ruled parts of Egypt in what are referred to as Intermediate Periods. When the Egyptian Middle Kingdom collapsed, the Second Intermediate Period followed. When a ruler was again able to establish centralized control over all of Egypt, the New Kingdom emerged.

The rulers of the New Kingdom came from the city of Thebes in Upper Egypt. Reflecting the new center of power, a local god of Thebes called Amun was elevated in prominence. The god Ra was a highly significant god in the Egyptian pantheon, and the god Amun was merged with Ra to form the new most important god in the Egyptian pantheon, Amun-Ra.

Egyptian kings were given more than one name. During the New Kingdom, pharaohs were given five names, each of which contained multiple names. Ramesses II was a New Kingdom pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty. Some of Ramesses II’s names translated to ‘The strong bull, beloved of Ra,’ ‘Protector of Egypt who curbs foreign lands’ and ‘Rich in years, great in victories.’ Ramesses II’s Birth Name in Egyptian was ‘Ramessu mery Amun’. The word ‘mery’ in Egyptian has its root in the word ‘mr,’ meaning ‘love.’ Mery translates to ‘beloved of.’ Mery with Amun means beloved of Amun. Moses’ sister Miriam thus has a derivation of this name: Mery-Am(un).

The Torah does not mention the personal name of the pharaoh of the exodus, which makes figuring out who he was guesswork. The Merneptah Stele, which records the battles of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah contains the first certain mention of a group called Israel in the land that is today Israel. Ramesses II was one of Egypt’s longest reigning kings and he proceeded Merneptah. For this reason, some scholars place the exodus during the reign of Ramesses II.

In 1979, Kramer vs. Kramer won the Oscar for Best Picture. In 1997, the Wildcats defeated the Wildcats to win the NCAA basketball championship. And if Ramesses II were in fact the pharaoh of the exodus, then both the Egyptian pharaoh of the splitting of the sea and the central female character in the story of the splitting of the sea have the same name, Mery-Am(un).

Given Ramesses II’s long and successful reign, there are many statues and monuments of Ramesses II in museums outside and inside Egypt. The Brooklyn Museum has a Funerary Figurine of Ramesses II on display on the 3rd floor, accession number 08.480.5.

What’s in a Name?

Moses is the central character of the exodus story. Despite being raised in the Egyptian pharaoh’s household, he became the savior of his oppressed nation of Israel. Just as Moses himself had connections to both the Egyptians and Hebrews, the provenance of his name also has Egyptian and Hebrew roots.

Earlier in Exodus, the pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses in a basket floating in the reeds of the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter named him Moses, or in Hebrew “Moshe,” because “I drew him out of the water.” Here the pharaoh’s daughter uses the Hebrew term to give Moses his name. How the pharaoh’s daughter would know the Hebrew terminology to give this child a Hebrew name is a question for the commentators, but the Torah is clear, that this name had Hebrew roots.

Moses’ name also seems to have Egyptian roots. In the Egyptian language, the word Mose means “… is born” or “child of…” The name Mose could be appended to the names of gods. Names containing ‘Mose’ are found over a long time period, and were given to a number of prominent pharaohs.

Dedumose I was an Egyptian pharaoh during the Second Intermediate Period, the time period during which there was no centralized rule, between the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. The founder of the New Kingdom and the 18th Dynasty of Egypt was the pharaoh Ahmose I. This name blends the name of the moon god, pronounced Aah, Iah or Yah, with ‘Mose’. The New Kingdom pharaoh Tuthmosis III extended Egypt’s borders further than any pharaoh before or after him. His name was comprised of the god Thoth appended by ‘Mose.’ Thoth was a prominent god in the Egyptian pantheon, a god of equilibrium in the universe and in the underworld, commonly depicted as a human with an ibis’ head. A large granite statue of Thutmose III, taken from the city of Thebes and dating to the 15th century BCE, is on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is on view in Gallery 131, Accession Number 14.7.15.

In Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet lament that they carry the names of their warring families. Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” In the same vain, it is interesting to note that the ‘Mose’ is carried by two of the most prominent pharaohs in all of Egyptian history, and by the most important figure in the Torah. And Egyptian name or Hebrew name, Moses led his nation out of slavery in Egypt.

The Great House

Throughout the stories of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, Moses and Aaron approach the pharaoh to ask for Israel’s release from servitude. The pharaoh is always unnamed, written with his title only and none of the five personal names the Egyptian king was typically given. The lack of a personal name complicates efforts to figure out who the pharaoh of the exodus was, but is in line with the use of the term ‘pharaoh’ in the 2nd millennium BCE.

The University of Michigan’s football team plays its home games at the ‘Big House.’ The title ‘pharaoh’ has the same connotation. The Egyptian words Pr-aa, which give us the word pharaoh, translate to ‘Great House.’

Over the course of its history, Egypt was ruled by various kingdoms and dynasties. Just as the dynasties changed over time, the use of the term pharaoh changed over time. In the early 2nd millennium BCE Middle Kingdom, the term pharaoh was used in a blessing for the broader palace and kingdom. The ‘Great House’ was more literally referring to an actual building. By the mid-2nd millennium New Kingdom, the term pharaoh refers to the king of Egypt himself. The first known appearance of the term being used in this way may come from the reign of the Egyptian king Thutmose III. But it is clearly used that way in copies of a letter that were found at Gorub, about 100 miles southwest of Cairo. The letter addresses the Egyptian king Akhenaten, “’Pharaoh, all life, prosperity, and health.”

At the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE, the title pharaoh starts to become appended with the personal name of the Egyptian king. This will eventually become common practice. It first appears in southern Egypt in the Karnak Priestly Annals, when it refers to the Pharaoh Siamun. It continues this practice elsewhere with Pharaoh Psusennes, Pharaoh Shoshenq and subsequent pharaohs.

The Bible also follows this pattern. The stories of Israel’s slavery in Egypt take place in the mid 2nd millennium BCE, and the pattern of referring to the Egyptian king as a pharaoh, without a personal name, matches the Egyptian use of the term pharaoh. In the later historical books, the pharaohs are mentioned by their given names. 1 Kings chapter 11 mentions a Shishak, who is commonly associated with the Pharaoh Shoshenq. 2 Kings chapter 23 refers to Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt.

The Torah’s silence about the personal name of the pharaoh has created a cottage industry of historians and theologians attempting to identify the Egyptian king in the exodus story. But the silence on the names seems less about obfuscation and more in keeping with the practice of the times in referring to the ‘Great House.’

The first mention of a pharaoh followed by his name can be seen in the Karnak Temple in Luxor. In the Akhmenu, the Festival Hall of Thutmose III, the Karnak Priestly Annals show a priest who dates his term to the reign of Pharaoh Siamun.

Brooklyn in the House

In this week’s parasha, the Israelites are forced into slavery by a new pharaoh. Ever fearful of the Israelites rising population numbers, the pharaoh told the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill the male Hebrew babies.

While the most prominent ancient Egyptian artifacts are stored in Egypt, Paris and London, this week Brooklyn, NY gets in on the act.

The Egyptian Middle Kingdom period lasted for the first few centuries of the 2nd millennium BCE. During this period the use of slaves is well established. The Papyrus Brooklyn from that era shows that there were also Asiatic Semitic slaves. Meaning, there were slaves with Hebrew sounding names, from an area outside of Egypt that was likely the region consisting of Israel and Syria. This is not necessarily the same period in time in which the Bible says that the Israelites were enslaved, just that it demonstrates the practice.

The Papyrus Brooklyn is written in a hieratic script, different from the more recognizable hieroglyphic Egyptian script. It mentions the city of Thebes, which is in southern, or Upper Egypt, numerous times so it is believed that these slaves were held in southern Egypt.

The papyrus lists a large number of servants belonging to a certain Egyptian woman named Senebtisi. The majority of the servants’ names are non-Semitic , but a sizeable number are Semitic. Most of the servants are female, and they have feminine versions of recognizable names: Menahema, Ashera, the Jacob sounding ‘Aqoba. One name on the list is Hy’b’rw, which looks very much like Hebrew. Another name on the list is Shiphrah, an identical name to the midwife in this week’s parshah.

This artifact is catalogued as Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446. A fragment is displayed at the Brooklyn Museum, in the in Old Kingdom to 18th Dynasty, Egyptian Galleries, on the 3rd Floor. It can be viewed in the following link (https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/3369) or on a chol hamoed trip.

In honor of Brooklyn’s getting in the game, I leave you with this Old School rap classic: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6F4tU8F2YRs)

Reeds-Door Bolt-Mouth-Reed-Vulture-Mouth & Israel

In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with a man, who informs Jacob that he will now be called Israel. In Genesis 35, God himself tells Jacob that he will now be called Israel. In Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his twelve sons, who will become the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel.

In ancient Egyptian history power swung between kingdoms that were able to unify both Upper and Lower Egypt and intermediate periods during which there was no centralized authority. In the 16th century BCE, the New Kingdom unified Upper and Lower Egypt, and was led by dynastic kings. The 19th Dynasty included one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs, Ramesses II. Ramesses II was followed by his son Merneptah, who reigned from 1213 BCE until 1203 BCE.

In his fifth year as pharaoh, Merneptah defeated the Libyan king and had a large stone monument, a stele, built to commemorate his victory. As the Merneptah Stele reads, “His victories are published in all lands, to cause that every land together may see, to cause the glory of his conquests to appear; King Merneptah, the Bull, lord of strength, who slays his foes, beautiful upon the field of victory…”

While most of the monument is focused on his Libyan victory to the west, at the end it turns its focus to the northeast: “The princes are prostrate, saying: Mercy!…Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer; Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;”

The Merneptah Stele, from 1209 BCE, contains the first clear mention of an entity called Israel outside of the Bible. Merneptah boasts that he wiped Israel out entirely – “its seed is not.” But this appears to be an exaggeration, as Israel clearly was not laid waste, and its seed was.

The hieroglyphs indicate that Israel refers a people, and not a land mass, suggesting that they had not been settled for a long time. And the time frame falls within a window in which some estimate an exodus from Egypt could have occurred. If Israel was already in the land, and wandered for 40 years before getting there, an exodus could have occurred during the previous pharaoh Ramesses II’s reign.

Egyptian hieroglyphs could represent an entire word, a syllable, a letter or be a determinative that indicated meaning. In the case of Israel, it is constructed of letters.

The name Israel can be read from the image above, taken from the Merneptah Stele. Starting at the right, the two reeds represent the letter Y. The line to the left of the Y is a door bolt and the letter is Z. Below that is a mouth, the letter R. The single reed is an I. The vulture is an A, and the mouth is an R. The man and woman sitting are determinatives, to show that Israel is a people, not a land area, and the three scratches below explain that this is a sizeable population, not just a small group.

Together the letters spell Y-Z-R-I-A-R.

At this point in time, Egyptian hieroglyphs did not have a letter for L, so the R at the end functions in its place. Just as the Japanese today do not have the letter L and use an R in its place, so too the Egyptians replaced the L with an R. Just as the American Godzilla is Gojira to the Japanese, Israel was Yzriar to the Egyptians.

The Merneptah Stele is on display at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, also known as the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, Egypt. It is cataloged as JE (Journal d’Entrée) 31408.

Quiet Son, Loud Tribe

In Genesis 44, Jacob’s sons are in Egypt, and the youngest son becomes a pawn in his brother Joseph’s game. There are three distinct versions of the Torah that survive today. The Masoretic Text (MT) that is used by Jewish communities, the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Samaritan Bible. In the Samaritan Bible, Jacob’s twelfth son is Benjamim, with the letter M at the end. In the MT and LXX, it is Benjamin with the letter N.

Benjamin is pronounced Binyamin in the MT. While Binyamin is an individual in the Bible, Binu-Yamina first appears as a tribal group in the archaeological record.

The ancient city of Mari was discovered near the modern city of Tell Harir in Syria, west of the Euphrates River. The city was a trading center, bringing goods to and from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. The ancient city flourished in the 3rd millennium BCE, and peaked in the 18th century BCE, when it was destroyed by the Babylonian king Hammurabi. In the 1930s, a French run excavation of the site unearthed a massive palace complex that has produced over 20,000 documents, primarily in the East Semitic language of Akkadian.

Tablets found contain tribe names that begin with a logogram, a character that represents a word, for the word “son of.” The word could be read one way in the Mesopotamian language Akkadian, or as Binu in the Northwest Semitic language. There were two rival groups, the Binu-Sim’al and the Binu-Yamina.

The Binu-Yamina was a confederation of five Northwest Semitic speaking Amorite tribes: Yarihu, Amnanu, Rabbu, Yahruru and Uprapu. Geographically, they were spread from Mesopotamia to southern Syria. They began as nomads. One text describes the Binu-Yamina as ‘the one who digs up mushrooms at the foot of the mountain…who eats uncooked meat, who in his lifetime does not have a house, who one the day of his death will not be buried.’ Eventually the Binu-Yamina settled.

It is interesting to note that while the Benjamin character in the Bible is silent, the Benjamin tribe in the Bible is amongst the noisier ones. When Joshua leads the nation of Israel across the Jordan, his first attacks are at Jericho and Ai, both within the territory of Benjamin. In the Song of Deborah, in the Book of Judges, Benjamin is the second tribe praised for joining the fight. Israel’s first king was Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin. And the temples of the southern Kingdom of Judah and the northern Kingdom of Israel were in Jerusalem and Bethel, directly adjacent to Benjamin’s territory.

The Mari tablets are catalogued as Archives Royales de Mari (ARM). The vast trove of Mari tablets, including the Binu Yamina tablets, are held at the National Museum of Aleppo, the National Museum of Damascus, and the Deir ez-Zor Museum in Syria. Consult with the U.S. State Department for travel plans.

He Whom the Sun God Gave

In Genesis 39, Joseph was sold to into slavery to Potiphar, one of the pharaoh’s officials. In Parshat Miketz, Genesis 41, the pharaoh gave Joseph the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On, to marry. The names Potiphar and Potiphera can be viewed as being one and the same, as Egyptian writing does not always indicate vowels. Notwithstanding the similarities between the names Potiphar and Potiphera, and the similarities between the roles of slave master and father-in-law, the name Potiphera has significance.

Potiphera translates to “He whom Ra gave.” In the Egyptian pantheon, Ra is one of the, if not the, primary god. The Egyptian pantheon varied by location, with certain gods predominating in various locations, but Ra was commonly associated with the most important gods. In certain locations Ra was considered the creator. When the Egyptian New Kingdom rose to power, Ra was merged with a southern Upper Egyptian local god Amun to become the supreme god, Amun-Ra.

Ra was important for the Egyptians, as it was Ra who traveled by boat nightly taking the sun across the underworld. Without Ra, the sun could disappear under the horizon and never return. In Egyptian art, Ra is often featured with a human body, falcon head and the disk of the sun above his head, as is shown in the image above.

Understanding the importance of Ra in the Egyptian pantheon sheds light on a later story. When God punished the Egyptians with the ten plagues, the ninth plague was darkness. Darkness was not just an inconvenience. Darkness was a challenge to Ra, the Egyptian god who should have been able to deliver the sun and its light every morning.

The Stela of Potiphar is the first known mention of this specific name. It indicates that Potiphar/Potiphera was a prominent Egyptian official, keeper of the storehouse of Ptah, another Egyptian God. This monument dates to the 21st Dynasty, in the 11th or 10th century BCE. This is well after the date of the Joseph story in the Bible, but it is possible the name could have existed earlier. Comparable names with ‘Potipe-‘ followed by the name of another deity are known from the earlier 18th Dynasty. And the Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen argues that a version of “given of” a particular deity exists during Middle Kingdom Egypt, around the time of the Joseph story.

The Stela of Potiphar is held at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It is catalogued as Cairo JE 65444.