Sunday, 30 July 2017

Canaanite DNA and a Failure to Read

Lonergan in his work issues a four-fold imperative: Be Attentive. Be Intelligent. Be Reasonable. Be Responsible. In biblical studies, there is perhaps no attentiveness more foundational than simply reading the biblical text and paying close attention to details. A recent article in the Telegraph, entitled "Study disproves the Bible's suggestion that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out," exemplifies what happens when such attentiveness is lacking. The article reports that a comparison of ancient DNA with that of modern populations demonstrates that modern Syrian and Lebanon populations are descended from Bronze Age Canaanites. It then asserts that this contests the biblical claim that Israel exterminated all the ancient Canaanites. The difficulty is that the biblical text never really makes this claim, and moreover is really quite explicit in stating that the ancient Canaanites were not all exterminated. Yes, as the article notes, the biblical text records the God of Israel commanding the ancient Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites, and we also find in the text assurances that he will deliver them into Israel's hands. That however is not the same as saying that it happened. If you ask me to carry out task X and say that you will help me in doing so, it does not necessarily follow that I will successfully complete task X. And indeed, the books of Joshua and Judges make clear that certain portions of the population were not wiped out, and throughout the subsequent historical writings we again and again see "indigenous" Canaanite populations and persons playing a significant role in Israelite history (the Phoenicians, for instance, are to a large extent just Canaanites in first-millennium drag). The biblical writers acknowledge that the Canaanites were not wiped out. They acknowledge, and they lament--for they see these people of the land as perhaps ultimately the single most significant external threat to Israel's existence. (N.B.: yes, I am aware that the Israelites were themselves in some way related to the Canaanite populations, a fact intimated by not only linguistics--ancient Hebrew being in fact a language of the Canaanite group--but also by an attentive reading of Genesis. I am talking here about the biblical writers' understanding of their own past, and in that understanding Israel is seen as more or less wholly distinct from the Canaanites).

Looking more specifically at the details in this study, we find that the ancient material used to produce the DNA profile came from Sidon. Now, that's really quite significant, as Joshua never reports that Sidon was destroyed, while Judges 1:31 lists it explicitly as a city that was never conquered by Israel. Moreover, Sidon appears repeatedly as a non-Israelite city throughout the balance of the Tanakh. In other words, again, there is no biblical claim that the people of Sidon were ever wiped out and in fact a biblical awareness that they weren't. Far from contesting the biblical claims on the matter, the DNA confirms them. Given what we find in the biblical text, Sidon is one of those places that we should most expect to find genetic continuity. In fact, the absence thereof would require greater explanation than the presence, if the DNA evidence is to be related historically to the biblical narrative. Confirmation of a claim rarely suffices to disprove said claim.

Although I have never made a systematic study of the matter, I am generally impressed by the extent to which various streams of data tend to cohere not just when it comes to biblical history but to ancient history more generally. My favourite go-to example is the founding of Rome. The ancient Roman accounts suggest that the city was founded sometime between the late-9th and mid-8th centuries B.C.E. (753 is the best known but not the only date that can be calculated from these accounts, but all cluster within an approximately sixty or so year range). Interestingly, recent archaeological discoveries have shown that it was at approximately that same time that Rome came into its own as an urban centre, and in fact that it is perhaps only from c. 750ish that we can properly describe it as a city at all. Of course, it doesn't necessarily follow that Romulus and Remus were real persons, nor that they did everything attributed to them, etc., but it does follow that the Romans were able to record with reasonable accuracy the foundation of their city. I have over the years become increasingly convinced that when ancient persons sought to record their history with reasonable accuracy (and of course it is not a foregone conclusion that any given group was interested in such record-keeping, although my suspicion is that such an interest tends to correlate with the movement towards urbanization), they generally had the tools to do so. The DNA evidence reported by the Telegraph seems to further support that this is the case.

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