Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hittites in Patriarchal Times

Parashat Hayye Sarah describes Abraham's purchase of the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron, who is a member of a group collectively referred to as "The Hittites" or "Children of Heth."

It is currently popular among scholars to dismiss this narrative as an anachronism and to claim that no Hittites dwelled in Canaan during Patriarchal times.

However, a little bit of research reveals that this difficulty was created by the scholars themselves. The suggestion was first made (by some) to identify the Hittites in our Parasha with a specific kingdom that existed in Biblical times. It was subsequently discovered that these alleged "Hittites" did not migrate to Israel until long after Abraham's lifetime. The conclusion was then drawn that the Hittite presence in Canaan, described in Hayye Sarah, cannot possibly reflect historical reality.

The link above demonstrates that the various scholarly hypotheses about the identity of the Hittites are inconclusive at best (for more details, consult Nahum Sarna's 19th Excursus in the JPS Commentary on Genesis.). In fact, there were (and are) legitimate approaches to this issue that pose no problem for the Torah's account. So there is no basis here for questioning the Tanach's historicity.

In the arena of Biblical studies, there is a marked tendency to cry "anachronism" prematurely, based on the latest unsupported scholarly conjecture. This happened with regard to the identification of Ur and the Phillistines, as well as with regard to the existence of domesticated camels in Patriarchal times.

The lesson to be learned here is that our ability to accurately reconstruct the past is limited, and that even scientific-sounding conclusions about the realities of the ancient world are always somewhat tentative.


Yehuda said...

I always loved the one about the camel. Rabbi Gottlieb has a lot of nice stuff.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Except that R' Gottlieb also has some bizarre stuff - have you looked at his articles/outlines on subjects like "Daas Torah", evolution and the age of the Universe?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Even in the article I linked to, there are inaccuracies. Biblical archaeology did not start out with a totally negative agenda to disprove the Bible - the opposite is in fact the case. R' Gottlieb actually completely distorts the truth on that point, reversing the whole history of Biblical archaeology, which is exactly the opposite of what he states.

His dismissal of the findings at Jericho is also not worthy of too much consideration. Even archaeologists looking to prove the Bible have not employed such arguments. There are other reasonable explanations for the findings, and he is right to be skeptical of the conclusions of archaeology, but the approach he takes of trying to poke wholes in particular examples is liable to lead to dead ends.

Yehuda said...

That's why I was careful to say "a lot of nice stuff" not "all nice stuff".

Baruch Horowitz said...

"In fact, there were (and are) legitimate approaches to this issue that pose no problem for the Torah's account."

I appreciate your making me aware of this.

As an aside, readers might be interested in a discussion(somewhat unrelated) going on at the Divrei Chaim blog, linked below.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


If you are interested, Sarna's excursus on the topic in the JPS Commentary on Genesis surveys the issue. But I think that the Wikipedia article does a good job on its own!