Jewish tradition tells that Abraham turned the world around by re-introducing monotheism and divine providence. Is there any archeological evidence of this social and theological revolution?
In his book, "The Eighth Day, The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization," Samuel Kurinsky presents evidence of a revolution of worship and traveling prophets preaching monotheism in just the area of the world where our tradition says Abraham began his work. He also describes how research into this evidence has been hampered by current political conditions in the Middle East.
I'm not in a position to evaluate all of Kurinsky's claims, but the book is thoroughly footnoted and the research seems quite rigorous. Kurinsky is a respected historian, best known for his history of glassmaking since ancient times--and that work has met with broad academic acceptance. Lorenzo Matteoli writes, "It is only in the late 1980s that the origin of glass has been correctly placed in history and in geography. The conclusive work on the subject is by Samuel Kurinsky and was published in 1991: the political correctness can now accept the history of glass as a "Jewish History"."
In the excerpt below, I've taken the liberty of omitting a few passages, but if this is something that interests you, I strongly recommend getting the book and reading through with all the footnotes. The book deals with the ancient world until and including the Hellenist era. (Kurinsky's collected research extending into the modern era can be found at http://www.HebrewHistory.info.) The excerpt below can be found on pages 19–27.
The Tablets Of Ebla: Discovery And Controversy
…Ebla was already a bustling urban community at the time Egypt first emerged from the Neolithic into the Historic period. The great city was surrounded by some three hundred villages engaged in every activity attributed to sophisticated civilization. By 2400 B.C.E. the city of Ebla had a population estimated at thirty thousand, supported by suburban communities containing no fewer than a quarter of a million farmers, herdsmen, and artisans. The sumptuous palace of Ebla provided quarters for twelve thousand functionaries.
Ebla lay buried within Tell Mardikh, about mid-way between Jericho and Harran. In 1974 the first of tens of thousands of inscribed tablets were exhumed from the archives of the ancient City. The great epigraphist Giovanni Pettinato was called in by the archaeologist in charge, Paolo Matthaie. It did not take long for Pettinato to realize the significance and magnitude of the unfolding information. A picture of a common cultural patrimony emerged relating Ebla and the Canaanite coastal communities, to that of Aramea (Padan-Naharaim) and Akkadia (Shinar). "The picture now emerging exceeds the expectations of even the most optimistic scholars," Pettinato excitedly reported, and emphasized the far-reaching implications of the discovery. "It is not only Ebla and its empire that are being recovered, but in a surprising fashion the world of the third-millennium Near East with all its interrelationships and differentiations."
The documents found in the royal archives at Ebla detail all aspects of human activity: economic, commercial, agricultural, literary, religious, and educational. Pettinato prescribes a complete revision of our concepts of ancient Semitic civilization, hitherto viewed as nomadic. "Thanks to Ebla, [we are] able to evaluate how distorted was that vision of the known world. The area previously held to be nomadic suddenly becomes a very mature center of civilization."
Among the manifestations of the maturity of Eblaite culture which most impressed Pettinato was the high level of literacy and in particular, the international character of written communication. Not only did the Eblaite students use Sumerian syllaberies, but bilingual vocabularies as well, the earliest such intercultural literature ever found. "Who would have dreamed that back in 2500 B.C.[E.] Syrian [sic] teachers and students passed their time in classrooms compiling vocabularies that the Italians would find 4500 years later? I still remember the fateful moment on that sunny afternoon of 4 October 1975 when with vivid emotion I could announce to my archaeological colleagues that tablet TM.75G.2000 was a bilingual vocabulary."
Studies of the language led philologists to branch the Eblaite language off from "Northwest Semitic" (from which Canaanite and Hebrew stemmed) and to draw a line directly from it to Aramaic and to Hebrew. Thus the biblical route which places the itinerary of the biblical journey of Abraham from Akkadia through Harran (linguistically related to Ebla) into Canaan is provided philologic substance. Pettinato translated an Eblaite creation epic:
Lord of Heaven and earth:
The earth was not, you created it,
The light of day was not, you created it,
The morning light you had not [yet] made exist.
"These words echoing the first chapter of Genesis have not been taken from the Bible but rather from a literary text found in three copies in the royal library of 2500 B.C." commented Pettinato, who could not contain his awe and added, "What profundity of thought, how much religious sentiment are hidden in the expression, 'Lord of Heaven and earth'!" Professor Pettinato proceeds to characterize Eblaite religion as essentially polytheistic, but notes that: "the preponderance of the elements IL and Ya in the onamastica, though not authorizing the term Ur-monotheism of the semitic peoples, do suggest that the Eblaites had a quite advanced concept of the divine and were very near to Henotheism, that is, special worship of some one particular divinity among the others existent."
Mitchell Dahood, in his contribution to the work of Pettinato, noted the similarity of Eblaite names to those of the Old Testament and of Akkadia, as, for example, the name of the very first man: "Till now the only attestation of 'Adam: 'man: 'Adam,' outside of the Bible appeared in old Akkadian texts from the period of Sargon the Great (circa 2350 B.C.) in the form of the personal names A-da-mu, 'A-da-mu, and A-dam-u ... Now from Ebla comes the personal name A-da-mu, one of the 14 governors of the provinces.""
"The Ebla tablets establish the patriarchs and their names as historical realities."
The revelations bursting forth from the translations of the first texts from the Eblaic trove of thousands of tablets caused a sensation. Between 1974 and 1978 both Professor Matthaie, head of the project, and Professor Pettinato, retained by Matthaie as chief epigrapher, lectured and wrote about the unprecedented lessons learned from these ancient records. The news services eagerly reported statements by both scholars. Professor Matthaie enthusiastically proclaimed: "The Ebla tablets establish the patriarchs and their names as historical realities." Again, the same Matthaie announced to the world: "We have found the civilization that was the background of the people of the Old Testament."
It is clear that all human cultures are correlated and interrelated, and it is necessary to emphasize the communality and reciprocity of intercultural development when treating with historical continuity; it is also essential to give credit where credit is due, and it is particularly important to be at least fair, if not scientifically objective, concerning the cultural attributes of any people. The roots of Jewish culture lie in great and advanced civilizations like that of Ebla. Unfortunately, they are located in modern Syria, Iraq, and Iran where unprejudiced evaluation of the findings of those engaged in the work is impossible to publicly pronounce.
The implication was obvious: sign a disclaimer of biblical connections or be dismissed.
The great philologist, epigrapher, and semeticist, Professor Giovanni Pettinato, to his bitter regret, found this unhappy fact to be true. The Syrians, incensed by the inferences, cracked down on the scientists of the mission. Matthaie abjectly acceded to Syrian pressure, backtracked to a secure position and became the Syrian whip. Pettinato also retreated, but was hesitant to deny altogether that there were historical parallels to the Old Testament and to disavow the relationship of the Jews to the ancient Eblaite culture. The Syrians set up a committee of ten whose job it was to oversee and approve translations and interpretations of the texts before publication.
The Director General of the Syrian Department of Antiquities and Museums demanded a formal "Declaration" from Pettinato outlining his position on the relationship of the inscriptions to both Syrian and biblical history. The implication was obvious: sign a disclaimer of biblical connections or be dismissed. Pettinato dutifully submitted an official "Declaration," in which he penitently wrote:
[The documents] that I have had the honour to decipher and study, always give us more evidence of the central role of Syria in the history of the third millenary (sic) ... As for the pretended links with the biblical text ... the onomastic texts of Ebla may give way to possible comparisons to similar biblical texts of periods subsequent to the historical dating of Ebla, we are not authorized to make the inhabitants of Ebla "predecessors of Israel."
The Syrian government lost no time in propagating Pettinato's "Declaration" through its publication, Flash of Damascus, asserting that it: "refutes all Zionist allegations aimed at defacing Syrian history, and emphasizes the antiquity of Syrian civilization and its wide fame."
The declaration was nevertheless insufficiently supportive of the blatantly political purposes of the Syrians. Pettinato was summarily dismissed. Conceding some errors, Pettinato nevertheless continued to maintain "possible comparisons" in subsequent writings and became subjected to vicious attacks which can only be described as a vendetta; he was accused of participation in the "Zionist plot."
In an earlier issue of Flash (October 1977) the theme had already been set with an article entitled: "Professor Matthaie refutes the Zionist Allegations About Ebla." The web closed in upon Pettinato when Mr. Tweir, the Syrian Director of Archaeological Research, made the Syrian position clear and attacked Pettinato for not kneeling wholeheartedly to it: "The Zionists ... call all studies concerning the ancient history of the whole Arab region 'biblical studies.' They faked the archaeological, historical studies of the whole region and annexed them to the Jewish traditions. [Pettinato) was not free from Zionist influence."
Matthaie and his cohorts joined the calumnious chorus. The Biblical Archaeological Review, in a "recap" of the events, concerned itself with his patently unethical posture, asking, "How far will Matthaie and other scholars go to please the Syrians?"
…The scientific community, in the main and to its shame, stood silently aside from the issue and weakly justified the use of obfuscating Near Eastern nomenclature on the basis of "convenience." Only a few voices were raised in support of the principle of untrammeled investigation and for the right of exposing both interpretation and misinterpretation to scrutiny and criticism without fear of reprisal for views that may be anathema to the prevailing authority.
Nonetheless, the Ebla tablets do provide an unmistakable link to biblical historiography and add suggestive evidence concerning the evolution of Hebraic omneitic theology. The interrelationship between Hebraic lore and the divers "Semitic" cultures of the great urban centers of Ebla, Harran, Mari, Ur, Ugarit, and Byblos becomes ever more obvious and infinitely more intriguing as the translation of the tens of thousands of documentary inscriptions proceeds. The ramifications of the appearance of a novel concept of the divine are particularly intriguing. The texts delineate the emergence of henotheism and monotheism from the morass of primitive polytheistic practices extant in all of human society of that era. The relevance of the Bible as a historical document becomes more evident in spite of the obstructionism of the countries in which such research must be conducted.
Pettinato, in possession of copies of a large corpus of the texts, continued his work in Italy. A vivid picture of progressive concepts emerges from the texts, which herald forthcoming Hebraic theology. The panoply of Eblaite gods is headed by Dagan, who assumes new dimensions. To Dagan, and no other god, a newly coined, universal term, "Lord," is applied. The fact that the Dagan is conventionally not called by name impels Pettinato to ask, "[Do we] find ourselves, perhaps, in front of a religious concept, certainly different from the Mesopotamian, at the base of which the name of God is not to be pronounced ... This question is pregnant with meaning." The manner in which the names of the Gods are listed supports the proposition that "it is permissible to conclude that the Eblaites, already in the third millennium, had arrived at a concept of divinity as an abstract entity."
The incorporation of n (or El) and Ya as hypocoristicons, or abbreviated adjunctions of forms of a god-name onto personal names, indicating a deity in the Eblaite onomastica, is the earliest such attested reference in any culture. The progression from II/El to Ya shortly after 2500 B.C.E., during the reign of a certain King Ebrium, is particularly intriguing. Pettinato, while disclaiming any intentions of equating Ya with the Hebraic "Yahwe," compiled a suggestive listing of names demonstrating the changeover from II (or EI) to Ya during the King's tenure. Typical of these switches are:
en-na-il ("show favor O EI") to en-na-ia ("show favor O Ya")
is-ma-iI ("EI has heard") to is-ma-ia ("Ya has heard")
mi-h-il ("Who is like El") to mi-h-ia ("Who is like Ya")
Whatever conclusions are to be drawn as to a possible relationship between Ya and the biblical YHWH, Pettinato leaves to the reader, but points out that the God Il/EI of the tablets of Ugarit similarly changes over time to Ya. One is left to wonder what relationship King Ebrium might bear to the biblical Ebrum.
The poem inscribed on an Eblaite tablet cited above, commencing "Lord of Heaven and earth" and designating Him creator of the cosmos and the world, of light, of morning and of day, ends with a litany of definitions and attributes of the Lord. Pettinato concludes that "the text speaks for itself; under the form of a litany the Eblaite theologians reveal their concept of God, Lord of Heaven and Earth and hence of the cosmos. God is seen as a superior being but continually present upon the earth and in daily life."
The poem was not written in the Eblaite language but in Sumerian cuneiform.
...references to itinerant prophets who promulgated a new universalist religion
The Sumerian spoken language was at this time beginning to be supplanted by Akkadian in Sumer, for it was during this period that the "Semitic" King Sargon 1 (that is, one who spoke an Amoritic dialect related to that of Ebla) established rule in Agade over Sumer. The written Sumerian language, however, remained for many centuries a medium of intercultural exchange, much as Aramaic and Latin were employed in later eras. That the concept of monotheism was being transmitted along the rim of the Fertile Crescent is born out by references to itinerant "prophets," holy men who subscribed to and promulgated ("prophesied," if you please) a new universalist religion. A reasonable tie between Ebla, Mari, Akkadia, and biblical tradition is established by references to these "prophets" in the tablets recovered from Ebla:
But the most pleasant surprise is finding attested in this early period holy men not bound to the worship of a particular god but rather representing a new type of religiosity. These are the "prophets" belonging to the category of prophesiers of the divine word. These holy men, specified by the country of origin, moved from one city to another announcing the divine message.
Existing already in the pre-biblical world, the prophets are called nabiutum from the root nb'/nby, "to call, announce," and come from Mari.
Was Abraham one such prophet?