Monday, January 23, 2012

The Egyptian Background to the Ark

Next after the astounding "Sodom and Gomorrah" session with the notorious "heat event," the most interesting presentation I attended at this past Society of Biblical Literature was Raanan Eichler's paper on the Ark of the Covenant.  Eichler did a fabulous job of presenting the Ark against its ancient Near Eastern (especially Egyptian) background.  Although I had read about this aspect of the Ark before, Eichler had collected the best visual documentation I have ever seen of ancient Egyptian ritual vessels comparable to the Ark in size, shape, and construction.  He showed how study of these Egyptian objects clarified aspects of the textual description of the Ark in Scripture that have remained obscure for centuries.


Here's the abstract of Eichler's talk:


The Ark in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context
Program Unit: Egyptology and Ancient Israel
Raanan Eichler, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The Ark is the primary cult object in the Hebrew Bible. A central question in research on the Ark is as follows: as what type of ancient Near Eastern object, if any, can the Ark be classified? In other words, what is the Ark? The two answers to this question most widely accepted by scholars are (a) that the Ark is a tent shrine comparable to the qubbah, a pre-Islamic bedouin structure, and to later variations of the object; and (b) that the Ark is a footstool for the deity, whose throne is provided by the cherubim above it. It is argued in this paper that both answers are unjustified. A third approach is presented, which takes as its starting point the characteristics of the Ark agreed on by multiple biblical traditions. These suggest a classification of the Ark as a portable (Numbers 4:15; Deuteronomy 10:8, 31:25; 2 Samuel 15:24; etc.) wooden (Exodus 25:10 = 37:1; Deuteronomy 10:1, 3) container (its name; Exodus 25:16, 21 = 40:20; Deuteronomy 10:2, 5; 1 Kings 8:9, 21 = 2 Chronicles 5:10, 6:11) with carrying poles (Exodus 25:13-15 = 37:4-5 + 40:20; I Kings 8:7-8 = II Chronicles 5:8-9). This is a richly attested type of ancient Near Eastern object; hundreds of portable wooden containers and depictions of such objects from ancient Egypt, several of them equipped with carrying poles, are extant. Examination of these containers and related objects reveals parallels to every major element in the detailed description of the Ark in P (Exodus 25:10–22, 37:1–9, 40:20–21), including the use of proportion and dimensions based on the cubit, acacia wood construction, inside-and-out gilding with pure gold, the use of wooden carying poles slid through metal rings attached to the object, and the addition of an ornate, removable lid with sculptures of winged creatures affixed to it. Additionally, the investigation leads to the solution of several difficulties in the Priestly description of the Ark that have received much attention but no satisfactory answer. First, why is it casually mentioned that the Ark has "feet" (Exodus 25:12, 37:3), when no instruction to fashion them is given? Second, how can the Ark's poles be "set in place" in preparation for transport (Numbers 4:6), when the poles are never to be removed from the Ark to begin with (Exodus 25:15)? Finally, what exactly is the zer attached to the Ark (Exodus 25:11, 37:2)?

Of course, the Ark is one of the focal points of the "Priestly" material of the Pentateuch.  Wellhausen and the other 19th-century Germans who shaped the modern study of the Old Testament considered the ark a fantasy made up by Jewish priests in the post-exilic period (after 500BC).  That whole hypothesis never made sense to me, even before I learned about Egyptian parallels to the Ark: why would post-exilic priests make up the existence of a sacred object, make it the focal point of their liturgy, when they didn't have it anymore?  Would the elaborate descriptions of the Ark tend to make their own post-exilic, Ark-less worship seem invalid?  The same point could be made about the Tabernacle.  Why would post-exilic priests make up the Tabernacle?  It doesn't validate the Temple: in fact, it could potentially undermine the validity of the Temple.  There's even a canonical reverberation of the awkwardness of the transition from Tabernacle to Temple: see 2 Samuel 7:5-7.  The whole late-P thing doesn't work for me. 


12 comments:

Michael Barber said...

John: Thanks for this important and provocative post. Great stuff!

Nick said...

So the Ark is a sign or reminder of Israel's salvation out of Egypt?

Nicholas Hardesty said...

Dr. Bergsma ... would it be possible for you to quickly answer the three questions raised at the end of the abstract, or would that be stealing Dr. Eichler's thunder?

John Bergsma said...

Hey Nick: Actually, I can't remember what Eichler said about those issues! I remember he showed how the Egyptian "arks" had feet, and the way their poles were configured explained the "set in place" command, but I can't remember how exactly or what the zer was.

Nicholas Hardesty said...

Do you have access to the full article that he wrote on this? I would love to know more, especially about those three questions, but I don't want you to worry about it if it would take up too much of your time to look it up. Definitely interesting stuff.

John Bergsma said...

I'll see what I can do.

Joseph Gryniewicz said...

Is this the sort of thing that would lend credence to the exodus account, or is it just as likely an example of cultural exchange from a distance?

John Bergsma said...

The correspondences seem so precise, that it seems to reflect a first-hand experience of Egyptian practice. Plus, if I recall, Eichler's closest points of comparison were with late-second millenium artifacts, which is the usually suggested time for the Exodus. It is hard to imagine that the connections were concocted at a distance, say in Mesopotamia in the 500's, which is a typical provenance for the P materials in the critical tradition.

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