Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition

  • James K. Hoffmeier
  • Dec 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 10 - 2007

James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xxii + 336 p. Hardback, $47.50. ISBN 0-19-515546-4.

James Hoffmeier continues his exploration of northern Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, and everything about it that touches upon the study of the Old Testament, especially the first five books of the Bible. Begun with his Israel in Egypt (reviewed in Denver Journal 1 [1998]: 0114), this volume now further traces the Israelites from their departure out of Egypt to their journey in the biblical Wilderness, which Hoffmeier largely equates with the Sinai. He begins with a review of Pentateuch criticism and rightly notes that diversity of opinions that exist in scholarship at the beginning of the twenty-first century. His plea for an acceptance of the Bible as a potentially useful historical source, rather than it�s a priori rejection, is also an important methodological starting point. Hoffmeier's investigation into the history of religion considers some of the major proponents of religious studies in the last one hundred and fifty years. This can be valuable reading although I am not sure that all would agree with the categories in which they are set. I suspect that Hoffmeier's concern with the questions of historicity regarding events and his appreciation for the phenomenological approach lead him to emphasize the work of Eliade and not to mention the important contributions of other recent scholars such as Evans-Pritchard and Geertz. It is important to note that their religious studies functioned in the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, rather than history itself. Thus Eliade's appreciation of Judaism and Christianity developed in the manner in which he understood these to push naturalistic connections into the background and to emphasize the contexts of these religious beliefs in what they understood to be historical events. The fact that the biblical religions believed in history in this manner is different from saying that the events themselves were historical. Also, it is not quite accurate to assert that the exodus tradition has no place in Mark Smith's reconstruction of early Israelite religion (p. 25). Rather, he sees it as one of the major distinctives of Israelite religion that diverges from a Canaanite heritage. What Hoffmeier does establish is that Ugarit is not the only source for the origins of Israelite religion. In many of the ways detailed here early traditions of Israelite practices have their sources in Egypt.

Hoffmeier then turns to geology, topography, and geography. In doing so he makes a unique contribution to all students of the Pentateuch by providing an up-to-date description of the Sinai peninsula that is nowhere else so conveniently available. Using ancient Egyptian and Classical sources as well as the latest studies of satellite photography and archaeological excavations, he is able to reproduce a map of late second millennium B.C. eastern Egypt and the Sinai. In particular, his application of this information to a detailed study of the region north of the Ballah lakes and south of the ancient Mediterranean coast, provide for a new understanding of the Egyptian border, the biblical (and Egyptian) Way of the Philistines, and the specifics of Israel's maneuverings as it departs from Egypt in Exodus 12-15. In particular, Hoffmeier reaffirms the identifications of Rameses and Pithom with Tell ed-Daba' and Retabe respectively. He argues that Migdol, Pi Hahiroth, and Baal Zephon are all located in reference to an ancient lagoon that existed north of the Baalah lakes and forms an inlet extending south from the ancient Mediterranean coast. Migdol lay at the southern tip of this lagoon. Pi Hahiroth includes in its second element a reference to a canal in the region.

Taking the itineraries of Exodus and Numbers (33) seriously, and comparing the relevant textual and topographical data, Hoffmeier argues for a Mt. Sinai in the southern Sinai peninsula. However, he concludes that Gebel Safsafah or Gebel Serbal is more likely than the traditional site of Gebel Musa for the mountain of God. Hoffmeier wishes to maintain a clear distinction between the various regions and deserts of the ancient biblical poems, such as Teman, Paran, and Horeb. Most important for many readers in this section will be the response to the case made by a variety of populists who place Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea crossing at the Gulf of Aqaba. This full and reasoned response needs to be read (on pp. 132-136) by every person who has watched the videos or read the books championing this idiosyncratic interpretation.

Hoffmeier examines Israel in the wilderness and concludes that, in a similar manner as other military tent camps recorded in the ancient world, Israel would have left no identifiable remains in the wilderness. Translating 'eleph as "a tribal subsection," rather than a thousand, he finds the actual number of Israelites journeying through the Wilderness as around twenty thousand rather than two or three million. He surveys a variety of topics such as the tapping of water from igneous rocks, the Egyptian ten-day "week," the migration of quail in the region, and the list of Egyptian vegetables in Num. 11:5. Hoffmeier's discussion of the role of the alphabet and its usage by early Israel could have been supported by further evidence of its use 13th and 12th century Palestine as catalogued in "Literacy in Iron Age Israel, " pp. 82-102 in V. P. Long, D. W. Baker, and G. J. Wenham eds., Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of "Biblical Israel" (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). This is now supplemented by an Israelite abecedary from the tenth century. See "Writing about Writing: Abecedaries and Evidence for Literacy in Ancient Israel," Vetus Testamentum 56 (2006) 342-46. This early period displays evidence for alphabetic writing and reading from various regions and from villages as well as larger population centers.

Hoffmeier's comparative review of the Hittite Vassal treaty and the Decalogue and Covenant Code (as well as what follows) revisits this important formal comparison that did not exist in the first millennium B.C. treaties. It remains applicable to the structure of the book of Deuteronomy as well. While this formal comparison is legitimate, it should not be forced. It is not clear that the deposition clause, known from some but not all Hittite treaties, is fulfilled by the command to build a sanctuary and its subsequent construction in Exodus 25-40.

Hoffmeier studies the Tabernacle and many details of its construction, its implements, and the priest's attire. The result is a remarkable series of comparisons with known Egyptian architectural forms, decorations, garments, and other aspects of the second millennium B.C. An additional and important biblical source is found in the personal names of many early Israelites, especially those in the priestly and Levitical lines. Hoffmeier examines these and observes how many have parallels in second millennium B.C. Egypt. Like the details of the Tabernacle, these names represent incidental data that a later author would not consciously know to insert in the documents. What is not so clear from Hoffmeier's presentation is the degree to which these names are present only in the second millennium B.C. and not later in Egyptian history. The mere fact that they are authentically Egyptian identifies an Egyptian source but not an earlier date. Further discussion in this chapter concerns the perspective of Egyptians regarding pigs (useful for food but deeply connected with evil) and the poetic backgrounds for the priestly blessing of Num. 6:24-26. However, this evidence is not so compelling. The ban on eating pork in Canaan may include a taboo among some Canaanites as well as Israelites; and this suggests something other than Egyptian influence. The use of three-line patterns in Aaron's blessing and elsewhere is hardly limited to Egyptian prototypes. However, the content of the parallel cited by Hoffmeier appears uniquely similar.

The final chapter of this work considers Israelite and Yahwistic associations with Midian, Shasu, and related peoples of the southern desert. Although much of this evidence has been published elsewhere, it is useful to have available and summarized here.

Hoffmeier has produced a worthy volume of study and reflection. His work provides new and already recognized research that has been brought together to form a unique and valuable summary of the evidence for the antiquity of the biblical traditions surrounding Israel's experience in the wilderness. It forms an antidote to the all too frequent and cavalier dismissal of this part of the Bible and forms yet one more source for the argument that the Pentateuch was not an invention of the mid-first millennium B.C.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
December 2006