Friday, September 24, 2010

Meeting Irving Finkel

On the way to work from his home in south London, Dr. Irving Finkel often finds

A British Museum scholar offers a Darwinian explanation for Judaism's survival.

On the way to work from his home in south London, Dr. Irving Finkel often finds himself sitting on a bus reading the Hebrew Bible while surrounded by black church ladies studying their Bibles. "If they only knew what I was thinking," he muses.

Unlike his fellow passengers, what the Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian Inscriptions at the British Museum is thinking is that the Bible is not the literal word of God, but that it was crystallized during the sixth-century B.C.E. Babylonian exile by a displaced people from Judea who had lost their country, whose deity was invisible, abstract, and unforgiving, and whose monotheism had gone wobbly. Their decision to create "scripture," something that had never before been attempted, saved the refugees' civilization and enshrined their religious identity. The result was Judaism.

Finkel outlined his thesis in a late-February talk at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem entitled "New Light on the Babylonian Exile." He is in the midst of writing a book on the subject, and an American literary agent stands ready to help place it.

Barefoot, with his flowing white beard and long white hair offset by a tee-shirt and black jeans—which is how I found him when we sat down for this interview—Finkel looks more like an ancient Hebrew prophet than a buttoned-down London librarian.

Your job has an interesting designation.

Yes, people think an Assistant Keeper must work for the zoo. It's actually a 19th-century title.

What languages do you work in?

I read the ancient languages of Iraq: Sumerian and Babylonian in cuneiform script. They are written on clay tablets that were uncovered in British Museum excavations in the 1800's. We have roughly 130,000 fragments, some as small as your miniature tape recorder. The clay came from the river banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. They were perfect for making clear inscriptions. Miraculously, they survive in the ground unless deliberately destroyed.

What we have in our collection is a potpourri of fascinating material like the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as what amount to grocery lists.

How did you get interested in cuneiform?

Well, I always wanted to work at the British Museum and to study a difficult language. My plan was to study Egyptian hieroglyphics at the University of Birmingham, but the professor upped and died after just a day of classes. It was suggested that I switch tracks.

Just how many scholars alive today can do what you do?

All the people who can read cuneiform can fit into this living room.

When was cuneiform used?

Between 3200 B.C.E and the 2nd century C.E. In the meantime, the Semitic alphabet came into being in Canaan around 1000 B.C.E., and for a millennium the two forms existed side by side.

Only a handful of people, people in power, could read or write in cuneiform, while the Semitic alphabet was easier to learn and could be written in ink on leather and wood.

There is a misconception that cuneiform—and hieroglyphics—are primitive forms of communications. In fact, they preserve sophisticated languages capable of complex ideas, imagery, and even irony.

Have you ever visited Iraq?

I'm afraid that "Finkel" is too Jewish a name. Under Saddam Hussein and even before, visitors had to prove they were not Jewish in order to visit.

When were the ancient Judeans in Babylon?

It started during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in the early-6th century B.C.E. To hear the Bible tell it, everything regarding Nebuchadnezzar centered on the Jews. But from Nebuchadnezzar's vantage point, Judea was a minor though bothersome state strategically placed between Mesopotamia and Egypt. In 597 B.C.E, well before the Temple's destruction, he looted gold from the Temple and took King Jehoiakin captive to Babylon.

And when the Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and the city razed and the people sent to Babylon, what made their exile so different from the expulsion of the Northern Kingdom's population by the Assyrians a century and a half earlier?

The Assyrians deported the Israelites en masse, and the tribes then disappeared from history. But Nebuchadnezzar took mainly the intelligentsia, with the intention of acculturating them—of getting them to be "Babylonianized"—so that, once reeducated, they might be reinstated back home. All this is detailed in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel.

How did that go?

I've tried to visualize what happened with these displaced Judeans. Some were, let's say, ultra-Orthodox, fiercely loyal to tradition; some were proto-Zionists who starting in 538 would return to Israel under the decree of Cyrus. There were also those who became so acculturated that they would stick around forever, all the way until the rise of the modern Ba'ath party. And there were those who would marry out and disappear.

You might be describing New York or London.

That's right. I start with the idea that, fundamentally, people are no different today from what they were in ancient times. The human mind is the same, and so is the range of human intelligence and behavior.

My own approach is not to adumbrate the study of ancient religion in a way that makes it seem irretrievable and remote, but to think of it as the same as contemporary religions but with some differences. Humanity is unchanging.

Where does that lead you with regard to Jewish life?

The Judeans had been ripped out of their surroundings and dumped in a huge, complex, bewildering urban capital: the greatest city in the Near East. This people, the Judeans, were at a point of transition. They had a unique monotheistic tradition in which nobody could see God. All the other ancient gods could be seen; once an effigy was created, the god came to inhabit the space created for him. By contrast, not only was the God of the displaced Judeans invisible, He was unforgiving and He was interested only in men.

That last bit helps explain the pattern of wobbly monotheism reflected in the biblical narrative. Women were not served functionally by the austere male deity, and were therefore attracted to house gods. I believe the whole trouble confronted by the biblical prophets had to do with women—for instance, Jezebel's bringing in the cult of Baal. The sense we get from the prophets is of sexual betrayal, the betrayed party being God.

The exile challenged the Judeans to refine their ideas about their single God. Thinking of God as an elusive abstraction did not serve to maintain cohesion. To complicate matters further, there were local theologians in Babylon who were also arguing for one god: their patron deity was Marduk, and they held that all the other gods were but manifestations of his powers. We have cuneiform records encapsulating this dispute among Babylonian theologians.

As a single god, Marduk contributed to the insecurity of Jewish belief. The great fear was that the Judean flock would succumb to idol worship or to marrying out, or both. If that happened, the population would disappear just like the Northern Israelites in Assyria. This threat engendered the need for the biblical text to be finished, in order to solidify the Judeans' belief in their superior understanding of monotheism. What was needed was a theology.

So the "Jews" did something to prevent a replay of the Assyrian outcome. What they did was to produce the Bible, a work that practically screams out that it was written by humans.

Remember, the Judeans arrived already literate. They had with them the chronicles of their kings; trunk-loads of scrolls. They wove these into a narrative, while the missing bits—meaning, from the start of humanity until the point where their historical records began—they took from the local tradition and bent to fit ethical Jewish ideas.

You're referring to parallels between the Bible's flood story and the Epic of Gilgamesh?

No, not parallels. The flood story in Genesis basically overlaps with the Babylonian story. The two are interdependent, cut from the same cloth. What I mean is that the Judean intelligentsia knew Babylon's folk tales, but gave them a Jewish twist. The same holds for the similarity between the baby-in-the-bulrushes story of Moses and the story of the Assyrian king Sargon, whose mother also placed him in a reed basket.

And the rest of the Judean sources?

The whole narrative of scripture was simple and lucid: begat, begat, begat. It's like a phone book. The idea was to connect your beautiful and eligible daughter to a genealogy intended to maintain cohesion and identity.

Nothing was composed in Babylonia; they already had the foundation. But existing scripture was crafted to demonstrate that God is present. He moves the chess pieces. You get a canonization of religious identity. Monotheism is streamlined.

So Judaism as we know it was born in Babylon as a direct consequence of the exile. This experience created the Jewish people, and eventually also set the pattern for Christianity and Islam.

You are describing the evolutionary development of Jewish civilization.

What I am offering is a form of Darwinism that transforms disparate phenomena into a continuum. I am saying that the exile was responsible for Judaism. That the Judeans behaved in the way we would have expected them to behave, based on what we know about how Jews in New York or London behaved upon their arrival millennia later.

Even the intellectual approach of the Talmud is a product of the larger Babylonian culture, reflecting three generations of learning during the period of exile. The rabbinic method of taking innocuous sentences and getting them to demonstrate just about anything reflects a specific heritage of learning. We find similar intellectual exercises in Babylonian cuneiform that illuminate otherwise obscure statements. There are linguistic similarities; there is the idea of the alphabet having numerical value (gematria); there is the idea that statements can have double meanings, leading to a particular form of textual analysis. In cuneiform, each syllable has multiple meanings, so there has to be a mechanism for explanation. Thus the Judean scholars molded Babylonian concepts to the needs of their own tradition.

How do your ideas fit with those of other scholars on this period?

Frankly, I have distilled my thesis simply on the strength of my own knowledge of the Bible coupled with a lifetime acquaintance with the cuneiform sources that are relevant to the whole issue. In writing my book, I have decided simply to present my argument as a logical and lucid explanation that accommodates the diverse issues that make up the whole problem. Consequently I have turned my back on the mountains of existing writing and theorizing on different aspects of the phenomenon. As far as I know, no one has proposed this larger idea before, and I have no interest in defending it or contrasting it with other schools of thought or argument; to me it is simply correct.

-- Feb 2010

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