The Bible as Ethnography ~ 01 ~ Introduction

As a child in Catholic school, and later in public school and being sent off to "release time" religious instruction, I had the opportunity to read most of the Old and New Testaments of the standard bible. Later, in junior high school, I became interested in comparative religion, and read it all again, together with some other texts that are not normally considered part of the Bible. Then all that fell to the wayside as I went off to do different things.


In graduate school, I was lucky to have Irv DeVore as my primary advisor (eventually ... it did not start out that way). In fact, I was his the last student for which he was primary advisor. I learned a lot of things from Irv (still do now and then). One of the unique aspects of DeVore, who is famous for his Hunter-Gatherer studies, and before that, his seminal work with baboons, is that he comes from early beginnings as a child preacher and student of religion. Largely because of this religious training, DeVore tends to make use of the bible as a source of metaphor and aphorism. (In other words, it is a text with which he is familiar, so he uses it.)

One day we were co-teaching a class on Africa, and in lecture he held up a copy of The Maasai, an ethnography written as a PhD thesis by a woman who herself was a Maasai, but "off the reservation" and pursuing an academic career. Irv noted the fact that this book read lot like the bible ... it contained origin stories that held together key aspects of the modern Maasai culture, and it documented the key patrilines (so and so begat so and so, and so on) relevant to the modern socio-political landscape among the Maasai. DeVore pointed out that much of the bible (Old Testament) is actually

an ethnography of a pastoral nomadic people. Indeed, much of the course we were teaching (and pretty much making it up as we went along) involved investigation of kinship systems in various societies, and we ended up making quite a bit of reference to the Old Testament (Levirate marriage, and so on). To this day, I use this reading of the bible on a regular basis.

Later, while working in South Africa, I spent some time with Tom Huffman, an archaeologist who has worked in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Tom has put together ethnographic and historical information gleaned form the Shona and Venda people (and elsewhere) and developed compelling interpretations of the architecture-rich sites of Great Zimbabwe and contemporary settlements.

As I learned more of the ethnographic record, and did more work in African archeology, the very apparent fact loomed that archaeologists in general and to some extent other scholars had a habit of drawing a line, somewhere in Egypt typically, and treating "sub-Saharan" Africa as a reality unto itself, largely unrelated to Eurasian prehistory and history. This included shelving all apparent innovations on the African continent as some kind of Eurasian introduction. It also included ignoring the fact that one of the largest (geographically), longest run, and in many ways most impressive "civilizations" to emerge on this planet was an African one .... in Ancient Egypt, and that this was part of a larger set of phenomena that did not find that boundary... between Black Africa and Non-Black (or Less-Black, anyway) Eurasia, to be a factor.

I began to formulate a new way of thinking of prehistory in the region that explicitly ignored any racial or perceived cultural, or modern political, boundaries. I began to see a region, running from somewhere in India, across the Middle East and a little bit of Eastern and Mediterranean Europe, across the northern Sahara, and down the coast of Africa, for some periods in prehistory, as a single (yet internally diverse) continuum of cultural form and ecological adaptation, with certain things held in common, including: 1) The interior/hinterland relationship to the Indian Ocean Basin, as a trade route, route of movement of people and ideas, and movement of technology; 2) A region where the keeping of cattle tended to be common, with varying degrees of nomadism, and ancient, and a diversity of relationships to non-cattle keeping people; and 3) A common set of climates, dominated with grasslands and interspersed forested highlands. There was a certain degree of linguistic continuity, with a couple of language families dominating, and a great abundance of key mineral resources, such as iron ore and gold, as well.

Taking all of this together, it occurred to me that a good chunk of the old Testament is telling a story about nomadic pastoralists much like the Shona that Tom Huffman had worked with. My saying (or repeating what DeVore said) that large parts of the Old Testament is an ethnography of a nomadic cattle keeping people is not a very new idea. What is new is the particular link between the Southeast African cultures, which are documented ethnographically, and the biblical model of society. There is not a one-to one-correspondence between the two, and in fact, they are very different, but there are some important commonalities.

This has allowed me to reinterpret parts of the bible in a new way. I won't make this into a mystery novel: The single most important aspect of this interpretation is one that most people will find odd and perhaps startling, and if you happen to accept the bible as the word of god, and god as your deity, you will find this blasphemous. So if that's going to happen, stop reading now, and go somewhere else on the Internet! (You can even have your price of admission back, in full, if you just fill out this form...)

The idea is simple. God existed, alright, but he was a king. In this African tradition, the royal lineage lives apart and speaks a separate language from the rest of the people. There is a second special lineage of interpreters, people who learn the language of the king, which is essentially a sacred language, as well as the language of the people, and who acts as a go-between. No one speaks to the king. You only speak to the interpreter. Most of the time, the interpreter is delivering the word of the king, with a certain amount of communication the other way round.

In this interpretation, Moses, for instance, would be a member of the interpreter's lineage.

This is the traditional Shona way, and it also happens to be the way of Pharonic Egypt, give or take a detail or two. It's an African thing. I am always very surprised how learning that the bible may be about an African thing drives people nuts, even the non-religious. Sorry if I'm driving you nuts but, well, that's what I'm here for.

There's more, but it is not as easily described or concise as the idea that the biblica god was a king, and Moses is a mouthpiece. Also, I don't think god works out as a king in all of the biblical texts. In fact, I think the Torah can be divided into a few different parts, with genesis literally being the origin story for the people ethnographically described in Numbers and Deuteronomy. Exodus is the "civilization story" for these people, and Leviticus is the law. In other words, the Torah is a Social Studies Curriculum, running from origins, to history, including law, and contemporary society, for a social studies class taught in the time of Moses.

My long term goal is to write something intensive and extensive on this view of the Old Testament. My short term goal is to write a series of posts for this weblog, a blog epic (which should be said with a French Accent ... Le Blog Apeec) on the topic. And you have just read the introduction to it.

The Bible as Ethnography Posts

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As a child in Catholic school, and later in public school and being sent off to "release time" religious instruction, I had the opportunity to read most of the Old and New Testaments of the standard bible. Later, in junior high school, I became interested in comparative religion, and read it all…
In Genesis 4, we see specific reference to herdsmen and farmers as distinct groups, represented by Abel and Cain, respectively. God indicates a preference for the results of herding over planting, and the sibling troubles that ensue result in the world becoming a difficult place to farm, and…
In Genesis 4, we see specific reference to herdsmen and farmers as distinct groups, represented by Abel and Cain, respectively. God indicates a preference for the results of herding over planting, and the sibling troubles that ensue result in the world becoming a difficult place to farm, and…
It seems like everybody in the Old Testament is either married, about to get married, or was recently married but something went terribly wrong. This may be becasue the bible is about marriage. The Old Testament is a history, it is a set of laws, and it is an enthnography, and the themes themes…

This is really interesting, Greg, and not a theory I've heard before. The answer I gave for the Old Testament being an allegory was an oversimplification, and I think there could be many other interpretations. I saw a program on PBS a few months ago (I think it was NOVA, but I'm not sure) suggesting the Israelite nomads were actually a hodgepodge of different ethnic groups that just reinvented themselves as a homogeneous, monotheistic culture right as Canaanite culture was on the decline. Not only was it fascinating, but I was surprised to find out that the Israeli government is funding much of the excavations, which seemed like a massive conflict of interest to me!
Thanks for the link, and for these interesting things to ponder. For the record, I am not at all offended by your take on things, but appreciate your respectfulness. I'm going to start reading your blog now!

By mousegirl (not verified) on 11 Feb 2009 #permalink

It is interesting to contemplate that because of its vastly greater age the OT may in some strange way be more of a "real" document than the NT, but of course not about details, but rather, general patterns of life and culture at the time.

Very interesting idea. I wondered some time ago whether the sky-god notion, i.e., the non-physical deity, might result from two people, with their roughly compatible religions but separate languages and cultures, encountering each other and trying to find some common ground, e.g., in trade.

Now to connect with your hypothesis: If we imagine these two people, with their respective god/kings, having a war and one side clearly winning, that poses a problem not just to the losing god/king but to the concept of god/king as omnipotent. After all, the next war might depose the current winner, so why stick with him through thick and thin? In this case, as a ruler it's probably safer to prop yourself up as chief interpreter and servant (pontifex maximus or "first servant of the state") rather than as absolute and omnipotent god/king. That way, you keep your ruler-ly freedom of decision but divorce yourself from any lingering doubt in divine-kingly omnipotence. And the loser's supporters were not not-supporting The God/King (TM), they were just supporting the wrong take on Him/Her/It. There's always the possibility of redemption, if they choose The Right Way (TM). Of course, if they don't, they're not just not-supporting any more, they're not just errant any more, they're actually Evil, because they don't go with you even though you have clearly won. [Side benefit: The Right Way needs to be commonly defined, and not just as whim of the ruler; hello, Rule of Law!]

OK, so now that I have explained monotheistic religion and good and evil, what score do I get on the anthropology-of-religion crackpot index? ;-)

Looking forward to the next installments.

By Ben Breuer (not verified) on 11 Feb 2009 #permalink

Greg, it is an interesting what-if but it seems to not match well with the text itself. For example, this doesn't explain why the text would have contained creation accounts. Certainly by the time the major redactor came along the texts were already seen as talking about a supreme deity with strong henotheistic elements. So this hypothesis in order for it to be remotely credible would need to apply specifically to J,P,E or D as a separate source. The hypothesis fails for D for obvious reasons, and seem very unlikely for P given the content. This leaves only J or E. J has a creation story which makes it hard to reconcile. So just E? Which parts of E then?

This overall an idea that while sounds good simply doesn't fit well with what we know about the text.

As I recall 'The Martyrdom of Man' by Winwood Reade (last read over 40 years ago), he suggested that the gods, including the Biblical one, came from chiefs that gradually became more remote. It always seemed a very reasonable suggestion to me. I don't recall that he made any suggestions about where it arose. I think he considered it a general tendency.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 11 Feb 2009 #permalink

The most interesting part of your thesis for me is the geographic one running from India to parts of Africa and including the Middle-East. I think that has a lot of merit and certainly counteracts some assumptions that are Eurocentric in how to look at history and archaeology. The god-king thing I think less so because it doesn't really fit the narrative (voice in the burning bush not really a palace). However it could have echoes from other stories the way that cultural traditions, history, folklore etc flow from one place to another. Ethnography--yes. But as someone else pointed out there are a number of different traditions cobbled together in the bible. The two peoples thing is a theory I'm familiar with and has some evidence for it: a pastoralist and an agricultural tradition, which is one explanation for the combination of customs and traditions around Shavuot and the counting of the omer, which relates to the barley harvest. I took a course on the bible as literature, with those kinds of considerations(archaeology, language, the JEDP thing, the historical context), back in the ancient days when I was in university. It was taught by a rabbi whom I encountered again many years later and he had a much more interesting life than I'd realized back then. I'm interested to hear what comes next in your series.

The two peoples thing is a theory I'm familiar with and has some evidence for it: a pastoralist and an agricultural tradition,

I've always wondered about the source of the Cain and Abel story. Why would God shun the only sacrifice that Cain could offfer (being a farmer,) and set up Abel to be murdered? Would there at one time have been a pastoral society that sought ascendancy over an agrarian society and used this story as a warning about how nasty those farner people are?

"Watch out for them, kids, they're a bunch of murderin' scoundrels."

One theory is that the early "Hebrew" people (the name, also rendered as Ibaru, apparently meaning something like "outcasts", "riff-raff", or "hillbillies") were those who ended up in the rocky and undesirable hills west of the Jordan river. They were a mishmash of those who had left other tribes from surrounding areas, and scratched out a living however they could: farming when the climate permitted it for a generation or two, then going nomad with herds of sheep and goats for a few generations when necessary.

It must always be remembered that the Pentateuch underwent a major rewrite during the time of King Josiah (he whose priests suddenly "discovered" the "true" writings in a back room of the temple detailing a "historic" Exodus invasion path much like the one Josey apparently intended to follow in a planned conquest of Canaan).

See Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts and Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, for details.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 12 Feb 2009 #permalink

I've never really read the bible but the god as king hypothesis would certainly explain monotheism and taking no other gods.

By Aaron Luchko (not verified) on 12 Feb 2009 #permalink

Greg, may I suggest a reading of the book by the brothers Sabbah, Roger and Messod. They are able to give an Egyptian basis for most of the stories in Genesis. They tie the Masai to the police force of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and they also show how the Hebrew alphabet came form Egyptian hieroglyphics. A seemingly difficult thing to do for sure but it hasn't got much traction here in the U.S. (they are French) because of the biases that you mention. All of it is very thought provoking and fascinating, much more than I can describe here.
Of course, later after the Babylonian exile, much of the Egyptian origins of scripture where eliminated due to not wanting to be associated with enemies of Babylon. They described themselves as victims in order to obtain better treatment by their captors. This is where more of the middle eastern flavor of the stories become prominent.
It definitely promotes your idea of god as king, and shows how it was likely accomplished.

I believe that's Messod Sabbah, Roger Sabbath and Art and Lois Banta (as translators). (That does not contradict what you said, but the language can be ambiguous!)

I've not read that but I've seen it and may even have a copy around somewhere... I was guessing it to be odd ball alternative history woo-ish stuff. But then again, maybe that's what I've got as well.

But it does give me an idea ...

"In this African tradition, the royal lineage lives apart and speaks a separate language from the rest of the people."

Sorry, it wasn't clear to me. Are you drawing analogies to an African mythological tradition, or are you talking about an honest-to-goodness people whose chieftains couldn't communicate in the language of the tribe?

I'm speaking of an actual tradition, but not one in which anyone was incapable of communicating with others in their own city or set of city states. Rather, the kingly lineage had a special language and they did not normally communicate with the commoners except through the translator.

Can you, please, recommend a book that takes an ethnographic approach to the Bible / Genesis? .

By Tawm Tawmsen (not verified) on 02 Jul 2017 #permalink

You know what you could write Greg?

You could write down any rules you may have regarding which versions of which words someone can or can't use on your blog...this way, when they get a warning without any explanation, they could check your rules and figure out which version of the word they used was inappropriate.
They can also look to see if any other commenters used the same words and were never warned, indicating either a lack of oversight on your part or perhaps just plain bias, which of course I know would never be the case..

No need to warn me for the suggestion, you're welcome.

Waaaah Waaaah! Waaaaa! Waaaaaaaaaaah!

Drink some milk Wow...

Yet more tantrum squealing from the toddler in the corner. Think it unfair? Leave.

Wow - "Think it unfair?"

I wouldn't know, there was never a reason so how would I know what is unfair and what isn't?

Besides, I thought you were all about fairness and equality Wow? Chalk up another moment of hypocrisy on your part I see.

Now, if only I could get you to stop whining about my inquiry...

So despite all your proclamations of how bad this site is, you don't care, you love to come here. Evidently the problems you claim are not problems at all. Or they're even reasons for you to come here and post and read, meaning that they aren't problems, they're benefits of the site.

I come here for you Wow...

I believe that the more I expose your lies and hypocrisies, the more you will realize you're not alone in the will always have your lies and hypocrisies to keep you company.

Pick up your pacifier, batshit. Or ask a grown up to help.

"I believe that the more I expose your lies and hypocrisies,"

Thereby proving the idiocy of batshit. When you call Obama a retard for no reason whatsoever, you "believe" you're being unfairly persecuted in being told to mind your manners.


Because you have none.

And when you claim to expose my lies and hypocrisies, you're again lying.

Because you can.

Sorry, snowflake, you're entirely deserving of being roasted.

Wow - "When you call Obama a retard for no reason whatsoever"

Doubling down on your lies only makes you double the liar Wow.

I like it.

And yet you still sit in your piss-soaked swaddling and scream that you are soaking wet.

No thanks, I'll just keep pissing on you...