Archive for September, 2018

118b1da2d9a6c0d2fa61a19bbc348d4a--the-map-ancient-egyptRecently I heard about a fascinating community of Hebrews who lived on a small island in southern Egypt around the years 495–399 BCE.

They are a tremendously important community to anyone interested in early Israelite history because of how much we have been able to learn about the inner-workings of their society, their legal codes, and their Jewish practices, thanks to the near-perfect preservation of thousands of papyrii written in Aramaic, buried when the community was wiped out, and slowly unearthed over the last century.

The presence of the community is also narrative-shattering for Jewish historians because of the fact the Hebrews there unabashedly built a temple to YHVH in a time when building any place of worship for the Hebrew god outside of Jerusalem was utterly forbidden (think of the angry admonitions by Ezra and Nehemiah—same time period).

I began reading a great scholarly book on the topic The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD and then bee-lined for Youtube hoping to find a video that might show pictures of everything I was reading. That is how I found one lone video on the topic, produced by a British video company NWTV. They pride themselves in being the first “free-to-view TV channel online”.

I must say, however, that I was quite dismayed by the casual anti-semitism and sexism of the narrator, who never identifies himself. Suffice it to say, he’s basically the kind of old white man who that gives all the decent white men of the world a bad name.

Oh Those Stiff-Necked Jews

First, our narrator  describes the destruction of the Jewish temple in Elephantine by their Egyptian neighbors with the remark, oh those “Jews often have a knack of upsetting people.” (9:20) “The Jews here at Elephantine also made themselves unpopular with their fellow mercenaries.”

At the time these events took place, around 500 BCE, there had been a fraction of the anti-Judaism that would later flourish around the world. So to suggest this is just another case of Jewish victimization is historically completely incoherent.

But what is worse is this: If the narrator were to do even the most cursory scholarly research, he would discover that there are three very simple explanations for why these two particular groups got into conflict—and none of them have to do with any notion of “pesky” Jews reigning destruction on themselves.

No 1: The act of a majority group rising up against the minority group living among them is found in every corner of every country in the world for all of human history. It is truly endemic.

Human beings are profoundly xenophobic; even today, hundreds of years after the Enlightenment and the birth of DNA and genetic science and the scientific understanding that all human beings are interchangeably the same, we humans are still killing, marginalizing, or demonizing the “other” among us, every chance we get. (Anyone care to notice what happened in the US presidential election in 2016!?!?)

The Bible is filled with stories of one group sacking another group—oftentimes it even being the Israelites doing the sacking. That’s what human societies do. Is it so hard to imagine why, for various political reasons, the Egyptians might suddenly turn on the tiny minority living among them? Of course it isn’t.

No. 2: In the case of these two groups—the Egyptians and the Israelites—there are particularly simple explanations for the enmity.

bible-archeology-Elephantine-Egyptian-papyrus-letters-Bagohi-governor-Judea-Sanballat-governor-Samaria-Delaiah-Shelemiah-Arsames-Vidranga-rebuild-YHWH-temple-site-plan-536-410BCAt the time of the temple’s destruction, the entire region was ruled by the massive Persian empire; southern Egypt was the outer-most region of its empire. We don’t have any records of what brought the Israelites to the region initially—they were probably the poor remnants who had been left behind when Babylonia sacked the Jerusalem Temple and carted the intelligentsia off to Babylon. Rather than live under severe oppression, the survivors probably fled south.

But whatever the reason for their initial migration, what we do know is that their main purpose in Elphantine was as mercenaries—hired militiamen living in a military garrison alongside their wives and children, hired to defend Persia’s rule.


The Egyptians’ Khnun Temple.

The two communities co-existed peacefully for 200 years. In time, however, Persia’s power began to wane, and Egyptian nationalism and desire for self-independence began to blossom. The Israelites were then perceived as just a “tool”—hired guns helping prop up an occupying force. Is it really any surprise, then, that the Egyptians would turn their swords against the Israelites – the hired army that was keeping them from self-independence?

Put another way: What else could the Egyptians have done, in light of these new desires? Kindly ask them to quit their jobs and just leave!?

Then there is an important No. 3: The main form of Israelite worship and practice at the time was to sacrifice animals, mostly bulls, which, in a terrible coincidence was the same animal their Egyptian neighbors revered as gods!

The book The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD explains it like this:

“It wasn’t as if the Jewish rites were easily ignored. There would have been constant activity from within the walls of its compound: smoke, blood, chants. And as if angrily elbowing their irreverent neighbors, the priests of Khnum [the Egyptian temple right next door] were expanding their own premises, pressing against the narrow boundary separating the two ritual houses …

At some point the priests of Khnum mobilized resentment against the Jewish troop as the hirelings of the Persians to be rid of their temple, if not of their soldiers and families. They compelled the “wicked’ commander of the island to act …”

Yet our narrator ignores all of this. Instead of pointing out how this was yet one more example of religious leaders using their faith as an instrument of terror, to grab land and resources from another group, instead he would have the audience believe this is just another case of those stiff-necked Hebrews pissing everybody off!

Khnoum temple

Because the settlement was so swiftly destroyed, the archives left behind have been a treasure trove for historians, much like the Cairo genizah.

The question of why Jews have been so maligned and targeted for so long in Western civilization is certainly a valid one—but it is one that is incredibly complex. Scholars have devoted many full-length books to the topic. To reduce such a complex question to little more than a victim-blaming statement akin to “Oh, those Jews are so good at making others hate them!” – well, it is flat-out grotesque.

It’s even more obscene given that the bulk of the real answer to that question rests with the scriptures that Christianity and Islam revere. For the narrator – a man I can only presume is a believing Chrisitian—to point the finger at the victims rather than his own church’s scripture and institutions—well, its gross. And inexcuseable.

“Oh What A G-I-R-L”

Given that bigotry usually goes hand-in-hand with other types of prejudice, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to hear what this jackass would then have to say about women. But alas, I was unprepared for his next verbal bombshell …

When speaking about the ability of Elephantine’s Hebrew women to divorce their husbands—a concept pretty novel for the Ancient Near East and not something their sisters over in Palestine could do—this anecdote is relayed with both dismissiveness and contempt. (22:20)


The rocks lining the Nile look a bit like elephants, hence the modern name of the island.

With a smirk on his face, the narrator recounts the case of one woman, Mitbahiah, who is reported to have married three times, making the snide remark that she “must have been quite some girl!” (22:37) Oh what a nightmare she must have been to go through so many men! he implies. (And a “girl” not a “woman” no less.)

Well Herr Jackass, Mitbahiah is also written about in the above-cited book and you have your facts wrong. Yes, she married three times, but she divorced once, not twice. Her first husband died. It was only her 2nd husband she divorced, thus leading to a 3rd marriage (the documents of which were found among the Elephantine papyrii.)

But even if she had divorced twice, what of it?! Is it so hard to imagine that a person could make a bad choice in marriage more than once?! That never happens with women who grow up in abusive households especially, right … the pattern of being abused as a child, so then you get into a series of abusive marriages as an adult. Who has ever heard of that phenomenon, right!? (And yes dude, that is SARCASM.)

The point is: Would you have EVER made such a snide remark about a man who is recorded as having divorced twice?

Of course you wouldn’t.

It’s a completely sexist double standard.

51BHqWS7Y1L._AC_US218_(Oh and one more thing: The name of the Hebrew month isn’t Chisleu—it’s Kislev. Given you English-ized all the other words from Aramaic, I can only imagine leaving the Aramaic name for the month was an editing error).

The saddest part of this video is not that the narrator alone could be so pig-headed to make remarks like these—it’s all the script writers and editors who processed this film and did nothing about it along the way. How many people went through the process of making the film and thought nothing of these bigoted statements?

I don’t know when this video was made, but it was uploaded only 2 years ago, and by NWTV itself, so it’s a reasonable guess it was made around 2016. If this were made in the ’60s, heck even the ’80s, it would be too unremarkable to warrant comment. But it wasn’t. Not even close.

Dear NWTV: You folks really need to join the 21st century. Take a serious look at your implicit biases and prejudice, because they destroy whatever credibility you might otherwise have.

Dear Readers: Run out and buy Schama’s book today. It’s a wonderful, exciting read!

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