The Land Of Purple

November 20, 2019 Category: Religion

The lexeme “Israel” has become an extremely loaded term in the post-War era.  After having undergone an onomastic metamorphosis over time, it has become especially fraught with hermeneutic quandaries.  To what, exactly, does it refer?  As it turns out, the answer to this has changed from one epoch to the next. 

We might begin our inquiry, then, with a review of the tract of land with which the label is most associated: the Levant.  In archaic times, that region was variously referred to as:

  • Kinahhu” / “Kinahni” (Akkadian / Assyrian)
  • Ka-na-na[-um]” (Eblaite / Ugaritic)
  • K[a]na’an” (Phoenician)
  • Kn’n” (Old Aramaic)

The moniker meant Land of Purplein Hittite / Hurrian.

The term appears in Amorite inscriptions not only at Ebla and Ugarit, but at Mari in Mesopotamia as well.  Those attestations were from the early 2nd millennium B.C. {30}  Not coincidentally, this is also what “phoinike” meant in Ancient Greek–a lexeme that served as the basis for another familiar moniker: Phoenicia. (Note: “phoinike” was also the etymological source for Phoenix, brother of Europa: the Phoenician princess who hailed from Tyre.)

Throughout ancient times, this particular color was often correlated with sacredness; and would later be the basis for the Judaic use of “tekhelet” in religious garments (a color designation that was rendered hyakinthosin the Septuagint). The color “hyacinth” corresponded to the gem-stone as well as the flower by that name. In Mycenaean mythology, hyacinth was associated with the homosexual hero, Hyakinthos–who later played an integral role in both Estruscan and Spartan lore.

But why purple? This distinct color was also associated with the Phoenician city of “Sur[ru]” (later rendered “Tyre”) which was known for the dye of that distinct–and highly coveted–pigment. (Hence the renown of “Tyrian Purple”, which–like “tekhelet” for the Hebrews–was correlated with exalted status.) Tyre came to play a prominent role in Greek myths about Heracles. The citys tutelary god was “Ba’al Sur” [god of Tyre] (a.k.a. “M-L-K Q-R-T”; meaning king of the city): a dying-then-rising deity who symbolized resurrection / re-birth.

Meanwhile, the archaic term for Phoenicia (“Lebanon”) came from another color: the Phoenician term for “white”: “L-B-N” (often rendered “labonah”; which eventually came to be used to refer to the coveted  spice, frankincense).  The Hebrew Bible regularly uses the moniker, “L-B-N-N”, presumably based on the Babylonian Aramaic (the script of which is a derivative of Phoenician).

Throughout Classical Antiquity, Greek sources refer to ALL residents of the region-in-question as Phoenicians–that is: people of “Phoinike” (even as Phoenicians themselves simply referred to the region as Kana’an”). That Phoenicians opted for the Canaanite moniker was taxonomically unproblematic, as–either way–its meaning was Land of Purple”.

Other Greeks referred to the land as “Palaistine”–as with the eras most renown historian, Herodotus (who referred to the region as such in his Histories”). That was in the early 5th century B.C. (during the Exilic Period). THIS label continued to be used through Classical Antiquity–as demonstrated by the Athenian geographer, Polemon of Ilium AND by the Ptolemaic geographer, Agatharchides of Knidos–both of whom wrote in the latter half of the 2nd century B.C. (the time of the ascendency of the Hasmoneans). Herodotus would have likely derived that moniker from an alternate Assyrian term for the region, “Pala-ashtu”. For THAT had been the term used by Assyrian king Adad-nirari III–as attested by the Nimrod Slab and the Saba’a Stele c. 800 B.C. “Pala-ashtu” seems to have also been widely used throughout Classical Antiquity. But where did THAT come from?

Since at least as far back as the 12th century B.C., the Egyptians had referred to the PEOPLE who lived in the Levant as the “P-L-S-T”…even as they referred to the REGION as “Retjenu” (as attested by inscriptions on the temple at Madinet Habu). It is possible that the Egyptian references to “Peleset” may have pertained to the group that came to be called the Philistines. This would be the basis for the aforesaid moniker used by the Greeks (which was later Romanized to “Philisti[n]a” / Palaestina[e]).

The term “Peleset” continued to be used by the Egyptians into the 9th century B.C., when it appeared in an inscription on the statue of Pa-di-iset, son of Apy. Tellingly, ALSO used in that inscription was the moniker, “Canaan”…as everyone seemed to know the region-in-question as the Land of Purple.

It was during the 8th century B.C. that the Assyrian moniker seems to have been slightly modified. In 735 B.C., “Pala-ashtu” was still being used–as evidenced in a letter addressed to Tiglath-Pileser. Yet in 717 B.C. it occurred as “Palistu” on a tablet describing the military campaigns of Sargon II. And then (c. 700 B.C.) it occurred as Pilista’a” on a tablet describing the military campaign of Sennacherib against Hezekiah. By the 7th century, the term had been rendered “Pilisti”–as it occurs in the treaty between Esarhaddon and a ruler known under the regnal name: Baal of Tyre (c. 675 B.C.)

Suffice to say: This moniker has a very, very long history.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Torah repeatedly refers to the tract of land west of the Jordan river as “Kena’an” (the term is used 57 times), most famously in Genesis 17:8 and Deuteronomy 32:47. It was originally the land of Amorites and Phoenicians–boasting archaic Semitic city-States like Ugarit and Ebla (wherein the earliest Semitic scripts are attested).

The land to the EAST of the Jordan river was “Aram” in the north; the rest was comprised of Ammonand “Moab”. That region was alternately dubbed Karkorin Biblical Hebrew (depending on the context / writer). The Greco-Roman terms for that area included Hauran, Per[a]ia, and Batan[a]ia (which constitute present-day Jordan). Medieval Talmudic writers referred to it vaguely as Gilead. It was originally the land of the Aramaeans–who were effectively Syro-Hittites.

Meanwhile: Phoenicia (present-day Lebanon) was called Amurruby the Amorites, Aram Zobain the Hebrew Bible, and “Itur[a]ia” by the Greco-Romans. The southern Levant was variously referred to as “Idum[a]ea” (a variant on Edom”), “Arabia Petr[a]ea”, and Pal[a]estinae Salutaris”. {30}

In sum: Throughout ancient times, the term “Israel” is never used to refer to a tract of land (i.e. in the manner we find in the reified catch-phrase eretz [y]Israel).  Everywhere the moniker is used, it is not a place, it is a people. In terms of a territorial designation, “Israel” is only used (11 times) to reference the pagan kingdom located in Shomron(Samaria). In THOSE cases, the appellation it was used disparagingly, as THAT kingdom was not Jewish. It clearly was NOT being used in the same way that it was used to reference (the seed of) Jacob: “Yisra-El”.

Prior to the Exilic Period (when the earliest elements of Judaic lore were first being formulated), the pagan kingdom in northern Canaan (that is: the Kingdom of “Israel”) was referred to as the “Bit Humri[a]” [House of Omri]–as attested by the Black Obelisk of Assyrian King Shalmaneser III (at Kalhu) from the 9th century B.C. {1} We might also note the commemoration of the victory of Pharaoh Shoshenq [rendered Shishakin Hebrew] over King Rehoboam c. 925 on the Bubastite Portal gate at Karnak, which employs the same semiotic scheme.

So yes, at one point there was, indeed, a (misleadingly named) KINGDOM OF “Israel”. Ask most people today whether that kingdom was pagan or Jewish, and most will answer (incorrectly) Jewish. The Jewish kingdom was the Kingdom of Judah to the south (in Judea). This is why the original symbol of the Jewish people was known as the Lion of Judah, not as the Lion of Israel”. {2}

Alas, the fabled Davidic / Solomonic epoch (of a unified Abrahamic kingdom) is likely more farce than history–a just so storythat would serve as a national founding myth. But, for the sake of argument, lets assume it existed EXACTLY as it did in the Hebrew Bible. EVEN THEN, we read that King Solomon honored pagan gods–including Ashtoreth, Shamash, and Molech (ref. First Kings 11).

By the time the last king of the northern kingdom (Hoshea) usurped the throne (as a vassal to Assyria) in 732 B.C., the Assyrian king at the time (Tiglath-Pileser III) gloated about that kings submission–STILL referring to the kingdom as “Bit Humri[a]”. This would have all been rather strange had the established moniker been “Israel”.

Thereafter, the Assyrian kings referred to northern Canaan as Shomron[Romanized to Samaria]and sometimes as the House / Land of Omri; not as “Israel”. Why? Because “Israel” referred to the diaspora of the sons of Isaac (spec. of Jacob); i.e. the Jewish people, who happened to be scattered across the Middle East. Meanwhile, Shomronwas the accepted name of northern Canaan in Judaic lore–as attested in, say, First Kings 20:34. (We continue to find it in Christian lore–as in Luke 17:11-20 and Acts 8:2.) Indeed, the Judaic off-shoot sect known as the Shomronim[Romanized to “Samaritans”] were named after this land from which they hailed. It was THERE that the (pagan) Kingdom of Israel was located–most notably under Omri, then Ahab, then Ahaziah. (Note the tales of the prophet, Elijah.)

And so it went: When it came to labeling the pagan kingdom in Samaria, “Israel” seems to have been a post-hoc convention. The archeological record bears this out. When it WAS used, it referred to the non-Jewish kingdom (which was in the north), not to the Jewish kingdom (which was in the south).

Throughout Classical Antiquity, the Greeks continued to refer to the northern part of the region (present-day Lebanon and Syria) as “Phoinike” (i.e. Phoenicia). The northeastern part of the region was sometimes referred to as “Aram[ea]” (i.e. Land of the Aramaeans) due to its inhabitants at the time (essentially a band of Syro-Hittites).

The Land of Purple was under the rule of the Assyrians (operating out of Nineveh) between the late 8th century B.C. and the late 7th century B.C…at which time it fell under the control of the Babylonians (c. 612 B.C.) {3} It was in the 6th century, during their time in Babylon, that the Jewish scribes composed the earliest sacred texts (in Babylonian Aramaic). Again, the Aramaic moniker for the land was “Canaan”.

The Exilic Period was a propitious period for precisely this reason: It was at THAT juncture that Judaic doctrine was formally codified. (Psalm 137 begins: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept.Obviously, that was written by Babylonian scribes during the Exilic Period, NOT by King David four centuries earlier.) However, the canonical texts would not be finalized until the Council of Jamnia in the late 1st century A.D.; and the Mishnah not until almost c. 200 A.D.

Those who make spurious claims about Judaism (and/or the Jewish people) being anything more that 26 centuries old mistake a timeline specified IN JUDAIC LORE with the timing of JUDAISM ITSELF. In other words, the etiological myth was made official at one time (the 6th century B.C.) even as it REFERS TO events that occurred in the 2nd millennium B.C. (from Abraham…through Exodus…all the way to King David). {19}  Note that if we were to use the same cockamamie heuristic for Jainism, we could say that that Faith was TRILLIONS of years old. {31}

Originally, “Israel” (as used in the moniker Beit Yisra-El”; alt. “Beth Israel) was an ethnonym, not the name of a land. That is to say: It was simply the moniker for a group of people–wherever they happened to be located. Specifically, “Israel” referred to those who, in one way or another, affiliated themselves with the Mosaic creed. It encompassed all of those who associated themselves in some pertinent way with Judaic lore (namely: the Hebrews). Hence the moniker was not the name for a particular piece of real estate; it was the name for a diaspora. {4}

This is illustrated in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20:3, and 27:9, in which Yahweh addresses his tribe thus: “Sh’ma Yisra-El” [Hear, O Israel]. Needless to say, the Abrahamic deity was not addressing a tract of land. According to the Biblical narrative, the seed of Israel(i.e. the progeny of Abrahams son, Isaac, via Jacob) existed wherever Hebrews happened to be–even in distant lands (most notably, in Egypt and Mesopotamia). {7} This is in keeping with Exodus 4:22-23, wherein the Abrahamic deity declared that “Israel” is “my son, my first-born” (that is: “my progeny”).  This was clearly not referring to a tract of land.  This is also in keeping with Hosea 11:1, where “Israel” is equated with the anointed “son” (i.e. progeny of Jacob). When Moses was addressing his fellow Hebrews at Sinai (ref. Genesis 10:16), he referred to your brethrenas the whole of Israel”.

The fact that not all of Abrahams descendants were “Israel” (only the descendants of Isaac qualified as such) would be emphasized later in Pauls letter to the Romans (9:6-7). This cadre of people could be even more narrowly defined as the people of Judah–a qualification that referred more to subjects of a certain (Judaic) kingdom than to progeny of a particular person.

And that was nomenclature used for much Classical Antiquity….and on through Late Antiquity. “Israel” referred to a people, not a place. {6} Such terminology was standard. As Shlomo Sand put it: In the uprising of the Jewish communities [against the Romans, during the Kitos War c. 115-117], which Zionist historiography refers to as the revolt of the diasporain order to emphasize its imagined nationalfocus, we find no longing for a return to an ancestral land, no trace of loyalty or connection to a faraway land of origin.As we shall see, this continued to be the case throughout the Middle Ages.

Tellingly, the House of Israelwas used in the same manner as the House of Isaac (as in Amos 7:16)…or more specifically as the House of Jacob(as in Isaiah 2:5-6)…or even more specifically as the House of David(as in Isaiah, chapter 9). That is: It was used as a way of addressing the Jewish people of the world, regardless of where they were located.

When the intent was to reference a PLACE the terminology was always different. In the event that the people-in-question lived in Canaan, the term “Canaan” was used (as in Genesis 17:7-8). When referring to the pagan (northern) portion of Canaan, it was Shomron” (alt. “Samaria). When referring to the Judaic (southern) portion of Canaan, it was “Yehud[ah]” (alt. “Jud[a]ea”). {9} This was the case long before there was a united KINGDOM OF “Israel”. Note that yet another term used for the region-in-question was “Abar-Nahara” (Aramaic)…based on the Akkadian / Assyrian “Ebir-Nari”. (Later, that would be rendered Aber-Nahra” in Syriac.)

Meanwhile, Beth-El[House of God] referred to an actual structure–first a tent (tabernacle), and then a small temple–in which it was believed the Abrahamic deity LITERALLY DWELLED. As it happened, Beth-Elcorresponded to a certain location: Luz…which was the place where the Canaanites worshipped their godhead, El. That explains why it is referenced at the beginning of the 35th chapter of Genesis. According to the tale, the Abrahamic deity instructed Abrahams grandson, Jacob ben Isaac (a.k.a. “Yisra-El”) to settle at Beth-Eland erect an altar. This Beth-Eleventually came to be associated with the city of David (Jerusalem); yet it was not necessarily INITIALLY located there (a matter I explore in my essay on Jerusalem).

Note that the focus was initially on Isaacs son, Jacob; and by implication: on Jacobs (patriarchal) lineage. In Genesis 32:25-33, Jacob was re-named “Yisra-El” (as the patriarch of the chosen people) during an encounter with the Abrahamic deity–or an emissary thereof–on the banks of the river Jabbok. This moniker was taken to mean one who strives / struggles with god. {10} In other words, “Israel” was the euphemism for Jacob; and, by implication, for Jacobs bloodline via Leah and Rachel (but NOT his bloodline via Zilpah or Bilah). This bloodline is also dubbed “B’nei Yisra-El” (sons / children of the one who struggles with god). Such nomenclature is found in Genesis 22:18 and 48:18-19, when Joseph explains that Jacobs seed shall become a people. The same nomenclature is employed when Joshua juxtaposes the Amorites with the children of Yisra-El” (10:12).

That nomenclature persisted for the remainder of the Torah. In Numbers 23, Jacobs descendants are equated with the seed of Israel(that is: the progeny of Jacob). In Numbers 24, “Israel” is encamped, tribe by tribein the Judean countryside. Numbers 15:38 makes clear that the Jewish people are the ancestors of “Yisra-El” (Jacob ben Isaac ben Abraham). Clearly, “Israel” had nothing to do with a particular location. It was a bloodline. (Note that another appellation for “Israel” included the poetic “Jeshurun”, as in Deuteronomy 32:15.)

Throughout the Torah, after the scene where Jacob is re-anointed after having wrestled with god (or with an angelic proxy thereof), “Israel” is synonymous with Jacob” (i.e. Jacob’s seed). So when Gideon speaks with the Abrahamic deity about his people (who were being starved because the Midianites were stealing their grain), the term is used thus:

God:Save Israel from the Midianites; am I not the one who is sending you?

Gideon:How shall I be the one to save Israel?” (Judges 6:12-15)

Such usage is in keeping with passages like, say, Micah 1:5.

In passages like Micah 5:3, it is said that those who have strayed from the Faith will return to THE PEOPLE OF “Israel”–that is: return to the fold of Abrahamic monotheism. The same locution is used in Second Chronicles 6:6. This was not about returning to a particular tract of land. For if that had been the case, it would have read: return to the Land of Promise(as in Genesis 32:1-2) or return to the land of Canaan(as in Genesis 17:7-8 and Exodus 15:15).

When the phrase eretz Israelwas eventually used (in the Book of Ezekiel), it simply meant a place that has been bequeathed to an anointed people (ref. 18:2 and 37:12); and could have been ANYWHERE. It could just has well have been referred to as eretz Jacob[i.e. the land belonging to (the seed of) Jacob]. In other words, it pertained to the land that god gave to Jacob” [alt. to “Israel”] (ref. 37:25)…wherever that might have been. The key to understanding this phraseology is the Biblical use of eretz. Normally interpreted as “land”, its original meaning was WORLD (alt. EARTH). In a sense, the Abrahamic deity sought to give the known world to his chosen people; and–pursuant to the Flood–sought to make ALL MANKIND Beth Israel. It makes sense, then, that in the Hebrew Bible, the promised land was often simply referred to as THE LAND–as in Exodus 32:13, Deuteronomy 17:14, and Psalm 37:29.

And so it went: The land itself was not called “Israel”; it was–purportedly–GIVEN TO “Israel”. It is Israels land insofar as one believes that it was bequeathed to Abraham and his seed through Isaac, then through Jacob (thus: to the progeny of “Yisra-El”). So to come back to “Israel” is to become JEWISH. To RETURNto “Israel” is to revitalize ones commitment to Mosaic Law, and thereby fulfill a covenant with the Abrahamic deity (rather than to physically migrate). It was a spiritual transition, not a geographical one.

Thus we are given “Yisra-El” as the exalted moniker for the Jewish people. In recognizing this nomenclature, we might recall that Jacob seized the mantle of patriarch via trickery. His name is derived from the Semitic term for uprooting(to seize / supplant). Thus “Yakub” means he who supplants(with the connotation: he who deceives). The appellation was based on the fact that this duplicitous son of Isaac (grandson of Abraham) usurped the exalted station from his favored brother, Esau (Genesis, chapt. 27). He hoodwinked his dying father, Isaac, so as to receive the requisite blessing for securing the mantle of patriarch of the lineage. Consequently the legacy of the seed of “Yisra-El” is predicated on this act of deception. (Also bear in mind that, according to Genesis 20:12, Isaac was conceived via incest; as Sarah was Abrahams half-sister via their shared father.)

Hence the very existence of Beth Israel was based on trickery. Ironically, the exalted bloodline (Jacobs progeny) could be read as illegitimate according to its own lore. Note that the deception didnt end there. Leah secretly impersonated her sister, Rachel, Jacobs preferred bride, to ensure that SHE would bear him the anointed progeny. Splendid.

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