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.

[Repost from]

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.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • LinkedIn

0 thoughts on “The Bible as Ethnography ~ 01 ~ Introduction

  1. It’s a nice theory, but the Israelite religion around the time of the formation of the Bible had a strong connection with the Ancient Near East (Read: Iraq) – just as strong if not stronger than it did with Egypt and Africa. Mesopotamian civilization goes back to at least 3000 BCE.

    In Mesopotamian culture there is a large pantheon – the gods interact with the kings (who certainly exist) but are clearly separate from him. The gods created, but are separate from, humanity.

    The Bible makes much more sense as a polemic against kingship than it does as a reading where God is an actual king.

    Read some Sumerian literature (Gilgamesh stories, Atrahasis epic) and you will quickly see that the Biblical author shares a common history and culture with those authors. I’d be happy to give you some references if you’d like.

  2. Moses is a royal Egyptian name, like Thutmoses etc.
    (I believe I read that in Freud’s _Moses and Monotheism._)
    That comparison could not be made before the translation of the Rosetta Stone in the early 19th century

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.