By James Bleckley
Oldest StoriesFeb 24, 2021
OS 127 - Israel's First Historical King
Today we look at King Ahab and the Battle of Qarqar, or Karkar, a hugely important event in which we see the emergence of a large number of new peoples and things who will come to play a role in the near east for a long time to come. The Arabs, cavalry, and of course the Assyrians themselves burst onto the scene in a big way, and we finally get a chance to compare biblical numbers to the sorts of things being claimed by the historical powers of the region.
OS 126 - Israel's Great Confusion
Today we examine no fewer than three types of confusion in ancient Israel. First is the very standard political confusion of unsettled times, as king after king gets assassinated and wars of all sort rage. Next is the standard for biblical scholars confusion of what events can and can not be taken as history, ranging all the way from the extremely plausible wars and assassinations all the way to "One Million Ethiopians". Finally, we look at the most interesting confusion of all, the uncertainty as to what god the Israelites and Judahites were worshipping, and whether or not monotheism was actually a thing at this point in history. We look at kings Abijah/Abijam and Asa down in the south, and Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, and Omri up in the north.
OS 125 - Israel's Divided Kingdoms
Today we talk about God's opinion of ecumenicism, the historical issues around prophecy, and also the careers of Jeroboam, Rehoboam, as kings of Israel and Judah, the now divided kingdoms. Much of our history at this point is exclusively religious, but there are still things that we can pull out that give indications of how these small kingdoms are doing in the wider context. We finish out with an exciting military invasion, except mostly exciting for the enemies of God, because Shishak, or Shoshenq, of Egypt, may or may not have invaded one or more countries at this time in history.
OS 124 - Israel's Wisdom and Wealth
OS 123 - Israel's Great High Priest
OS 122 - Israel's King David
OS 121 - Israel's Favorite King
OS 120 - Israel's Habiru King
OS 119 - Israel's Young Shepherd
We begin the tale of young David's rise to power, looking at the three origin stories of the young shepherd, warrior, and poet, and then noting that as he began to rise in fame and power, Saul was absolutely not insane to be jealous and worried of him rebelling and usurping the throne. After all, that is exactly what he ends up doing. But in addition to just the narrative of King David's rise, we take a nice long look at some of the historical and archeological issues surrounding this entire period. We contrast the traditional and historical perspectives of this period, and consider what archeological evidence we would need to validate either of them.
OS 118 - Israel's First Failed King
Today we get some serious military history as we look at the main chunk of King Saul's reign. We deliberately avoid David as much as possible today, because it is far too easy for King Saul to get upstaged in his own chapters by history's favorite king, and so we end up with a surprising amount of often quite detailed military history, and a bunch of interesting details about the time period itself. Finally, we get to see how Saul is super desperate to be a good Yahweh worshipper, and then we read his final eulogy and hear that the bible writers blame his death on failing to pursue God, which seems a bit unfair, but sometimes life is just that way.
OS 117 - Israel's First King
Today we properly start the career of King Saul, or at least Saul as he makes his bid for kingship. This story is important as a piece of ancient literature, it is important through the question of whether or not the bible is valid as history, but most of all it is important because this is one of the only windows we get in the entire near east for military history details during the crucial transition from late bronze age chariot warfare to the massed imperial warfare of the iron age. Thanks to both the text itself and its extensive commentary traditions, we can pull out some really interesting details about how armies equipped themselves and the grander picture of how warfare and tactics contributed to ancient kingship that will play into our wider story even past the Israel section.
OS 116 - Israel's United Monarchy
Today we look at the lead up to King Saul, and how Israel made the transition from a collections of tribes to a unified kingship. Why is the Old Testament so ambivalent on the matter of kingship? Most interestingly, there is a universally applicable political lesson here, in what may be history's earliest commentary on the nature and source of effective governance. Also, why do the Israelites cut up animals as messages so often in this period? We look at Gideon, Abimelech, Micah and the Danites, and the Benjaminite war.
OS 115 - The Place of Faith in Biblical History
Just to give an overview of this episode to see if you want to listen all the way through, the topics I am going to discuss are: Why do I believe that Israel entered Canaan as outsiders violently invading, when so much of academia believes that these invasions never happened, and that the Isarelite emergence was largely peaceful? Why do I believe that the bible, as we have it today, is a worthwhile historical record, at least worthwhile enough to go over it so extensively on a history podcast? Why has my perspective on the historical tale of the bible not changed even though I began studying as an atheist and am now studying it as a fairly conservative Christian? How can I, personally, continue to have faith in the religion revealed in the Bible when I have vehemently argued that certain fairly important parts of the Old Testament are meant as history, and yet false? Why does God's story so often occur inside gaps of our knowledge, and why does the revealing light of science never reveal God's hand? And finally, what is the meaning of analyzing the various books of the bible through the lense of genre, why does that matter for understanding some biblical problems, and why does that make other problems even worse? Why does history matter at all, particularly Israelite/biblical history?
OS 114 - Israel's Judges and Defeats
The institution of Judges, as described in the book of Judges, is an English translation of the word Shofet, a political position which doesn't really exist in modern times, and as such is often poorly understood even in the study bibles and commentaries that I have read. And yet, there are reasons to think that whether or not the stories themselves within this book are true or not, there really was a class of Shoftim prior to the monarchy. That, plus issues of chronology among the judges, get hashed out a bit. And also we talk about the fact that the bible really doesn't like to talk about Israel getting defeated in times when it is theologically inconvenient, yet was probably getting kicked around like a rented mule around this time.
OS 113 - Israel's Settlements and Philistine Neighbors
Today we go full archeology on everyone, looking at what makes a settlement more or less likely to be Israelite as opposed to Canaanite or whatever based purely on the archeological record. Also, a brief overview of the entire history of the Philistines, because I introduced them as a brief tangent and ended up telling their entire story all at once. Archeology by itself is just a bunch of broken clay pots, and serious archeology really has a tendency to put me to sleep, especially once they start listing of subvariants of pottery, but understanding the evidentiary foundations is crucial especially in a hotly debated area of history. Even more important is getting a sense of how these evidences map onto various interpretive frameworks to build the idea that we actually do start to see a distinctive and probably Israelite people emerging in the Levant during the bronze age collapse.
OS 112 - Israel's Conquest and Integration in Canaan
When did Joshua conquer Canaan for Israel? Did Joshua even exist, as described in the Book of Joshua? We continue our march through the Old Testament as the people of Israel march through Canaan. We spend some good time discussing the Canaanite genocide in the context of ancient warfare, and the things that are and are not remarkable about it. We look a bit at settlement patterns in archeology and destruction layers and what they mean for the entry or emergence of Israel in the holy land. Also, we talk a bit about the meaning of Herem and the idea of Devoting to Destruction.
OS 111 - Israel's Wandering and Settlement
What does it mean that the people of Israel are the biggest whiners in recorded history? It may mean that a lot of the people were not actually on board with the theological mission of the Yahwist religious leaders. It may also mean that we are knee deep in the book of Numbers. My favorite Old Testament story, Balaam son of Beor, gets a mention here, as does some points where the people of Israel may well have left some actual historical evidence. And finally we get to the first actual mention in non-biblical history of the people of Israel, recorded in the Merneptah Stele around 1207 BCE.
OS 110 - Israel and the Hebrews
Today we obsess over the word Hebrew and go deep into what it means, who was and was not a Hebrew, whether it was a social or ethnic designation, what that implies about the religious and cultural mission of Israel, and what that might mean for the historicity of the Bible. In a sense, this is kind of a tangent from our wider story, but I think this is one of the really core issues that most people either wonder about, or are ignorant of and should be wondering about. If you really want to skip this, the short version is that there is a theory that the word Hebrew comes from 'Apiru, or Habiru, and while there is quite a lot of back and forth on the topic, I happen to think this is surprisingly likely, for reasons that go way beyond linguistic matters. But we also look at the other possibilities and what I think about them as well.
OS 109 - Israel's Numbers Problem
Today we look at possibly the oldest section of the entire Bible, Exodus chapter 15, the Song of Moses, as well as the issues with the census listed in Numbers and what that might mean for biblical historicity. These are some pivotal chapters today, not so much for the narrative itself but for keying in how we are going to interpret the bible and a whole in historical context. I think one of the most important questions for our own personal understanding of the bible is "How would this look in a movie", because how it plays out in our imagination, in terms of things like how many people there are in the scene, really affects who we can and can not consider plausible later on.
OS 108 - Israel's Formation and the Historical Exodus
We begin our big series on the historicity of the bible with Genesis. Unfortunately, nearly the entire book is beyond the purview of history, for reasons we will discuss. But with the tale of the Exodus, we have a narrative which could, in theory, have left some historical evidence to confirm its existence. Unfortunately, we don't actually have any evidence of the exodus narrative. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absense, and the far more interesting question is what we can look at to not refute or affirm, but merely to support or weaken the narrative as presented in the bible.
OS 107 - The Bible as History and Skeptical Views
Here it is, the part of ancient Near Eastern history that excites the most passion and interest. There is no doubt that there were kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and there is no doubt that after they were conquered by the Babylonians there was a class of Judahite priests who assembled the collection of texts we now call the Old Testament, but before that pretty much all bets are off. Today begins what will be a bit of a series on Israel, and we will go over briefly the four main points of view on Israelite history, which I call the Biblical Literalists, the Accomodationists, the Pure Archeologists, and the Radical Skeptics. Then we will look in a very bare bones way at what is the bare minimum we can say about pre-kingdom Israelite history to set the stage for future episodes.
OS 106 - The Fate of Anatolia
After the Hittite Empire fell during the bronze age collapse, Anatolia became a Mad Max style wasteland with tribes crossing the hills and fighting for survival. Amidst all this, we have the fateful arrival of the mysterious Sea Peoples, and out of this mess emerged not a whole lot for a long time, but eventually we get the Phrygians in the northwest and the Neo-Hittites in the southeast, as well as a whole host of more peripheral people who will merit more mentions as our story progresses. The Phrygians we will look at briefly, but the Neo-Hittites, who are the same as the Biblical Hittites, are fascinating and poorly understood, and we will emerge from our time with them still fascinated and still not understanding much, but maybe a bit more than we started with.
OS 105 - Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad
Animals in ancient Mesopotamia. From sheep, goats, horses, and other domesticated animals to wild beasts like lions, elephants, insects, birds and fish, the ancient world was surrounded by animals. But in our history we are usually so focused with humans that we don't get a chance to focus on the four legged companions of the ancient world. So today we rectify that with an overview of all the animals that the Old Babylonians cared about and a look at how they interacted with each.
OS 104 - Arameans Everywhere
Today we look at pretty much everything we know about the Mesopotamian dark age following the bronze age collapse, and manage to cover about 120 years of history in about half an hour. After that is a discussion about chronologies and why we know when all these things happened, with a reference to lost time and other alternate chronologies, both legitimate and silly.
OS 103 - The Babylonian Aristotle, Esagil-Kin-Apli
Today we are going to look at the reign of Adad-Apla-Iddina, the fact that he was hit by some brutal Aramean invasions and that he built a ton of stuff despite the times being pretty awful. But the star of our show today is the first great scientist in human history whose name reached great levels of fame. Esail-Kin-Apli may be forgotten now, but for a thousand years after his own time his name carried the same cachet as Einstein does to a modern lay person. It isn't wholly clear that he existed, or that he wrote the whole corpus with which he is credited, but there is a chance that he really did write the great catalogs of wisdom which constitute the first great body of scientific knowledge under a single known author. The significance of him as an historical figure and what his scientific catalogs looked like are discussed here. This episode is long, because I got a little too excited about the theoretical foundations of Babylonian thought.
OS 102 - A Bit More Tiglath-Pileser
This week, Tiglath-Pileser is going to kill more people, just like last week. But now he is going to branch out into killing animals, too! But when he pauses to catch his breath between killing, he is also going to build up Assyria domestically and fund a bit of an intellectual renaissance. Then he will die and things will get grim again for a while. But that is the rollercoaster of ancient Mesopotamia, it is great.
OS 101 - A Short Assyrian Burst of Activity
Today we see Assur rise mightily with Tiglath-Pileser I, and we see the seeds of another century of decline sown in the climate change that drives the Aramean invasions. Meanwhile, Babylon has to deal with the same set of problems, but without the same sort of vigorous leadership.
OS 100 - The Babylonian Theodicy
For a Babylonian polytheist, the gods are worshipped with the explicit expectation that divine veneration will avert bad fortune and attract good fortune. Yet as long as there have been people, we have seen that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and sometimes good fortune finds bad people. Religious explorations of this are called Theodicy, and we have already see a number of Mesopotamian attempts to wrestle with this, back in Episodes 26 and 53. The genre appears to culminate in one of the most impressive technical and philosophical works of ancient Mesopotamia, in the Babylonian Theodicy. Also, after looking at the Theodicy, we compare it to another Babylonian writing from an old man who is simply miserable with life.
For more on this, check out episode 26, where we discussed the Sumerian "A Man and His God" and episode 53 where we discussed the Old Babylonian "Poem of the Righteous Sufferer", both of which are thematic precursors to this and almost certainly were at least indirect references for the author of the Babylonian Theodicy.
OS 99 - The Legend of Nebuchadnezzar
Nabu-Kudurri-Usur, the first Nebuchadnezzar, rescued the statue of Marduk from Elam after a grueling adventure beset by intense heat, low supplies, and enemies on all sides. And yet, even though this event would be celebrated in later generations, it is unclear if it was highly celebrated in his own lifetime. Today we look at the cult of Marduk, how it may have developed within the city of Babylon, and some more of Nebuchadnezzar's life.
OS 98 - Nabu-Kudurri-Usur
In Babylon rules Nebuchadnezzar the first. He isn't the Nebuchadnezzar that we remember today, but he was certainly the more famous king of that name for most of Babylonian history. His great accomplishment, the retrieval of the stolen statue of Marduk from the Elamites, would inspire poets and leaders until the end of Babylonian history, and even a bit beyond. That one campaign has some exciting detail, but he is more than just that, and today we will look at this first Nebuchadnezzar in extensive detail.
OS 97 - Ashur-Dan and the Isin Dynasty
Welcome to the iron age. Though the international system of the late bronze age has collapsed under the weight of countless invaders, the Babylonians and Assyrians in their much diminished empires still have eyes only for each other. For them, no era has really ended, the great struggle between the two Mesopotamian power centers has been ongoing for over a century now, and will continue for centuries more. Though the founding of the Isin dynasty in Babylon is shrouded in the mists of poor documentation, and the long lived Ashur-Dan has few surviving records, there are still things to look at as we kick off Season 2 of the podcast.
An Overview of Bronze Age Mesopotamia
This is a summary of the bronze age in ancient Mesopotamia, covering the years about 3000 BCE to 1200 BCE. This is a review of about 119 episodes of the oldest stories podcast, covering all of season 1 before we move into season 2, which will cover iron age Mesopotamia and their near eastern neighbors. Notes for this episode online at oldeststories.net
Industry 5 - The Bronze of the Age
Today we have a history of metals, mining and metalworking in the bronze age near east. The story telling style of the last few industrial episodes didn't really work out here, so it is more of a bird's eye overview. We cover mostly copper and bronze, but also look at the history and production of gold, silver, and iron.
Industry 4.5 - Last Century's Fashions (pt 2 of 2)
This is part 2 of our look at clothing and how it was manufactured in the bronze age near east. If you haven't yet listened to part 1, The Fabric of Civilization, I recommend that you check out that episode first. In this episode we will look at going from the thread to full on clothing, and what that clothing looked like. For references on weaving and visual aids to what the clothes may have looked like, check out the oldeststories.net post for this episode.
Industry 4 - The Fabric of Civilization (pt 1 of 2)
Clothing is foundational to civilization. In the bible, it is humanity's first invention. In Mesopotamian philosophy, it is the thing which separates humans from animals. But as we will see today, even the simplest of cloth garments were the result of an extreme amount of work and technical skill, built up over countless generations of mostly women working in already very busy households. This is part 1 of a two part episode, part 2 will be releasing in two weeks.
Shamash, the Sun
Nowadays we tend to give Shamash, the Mesopotamian sun god, a bit less respect than he is probably due. After all, for modern folk, the category of "sun god" is the height of pagan foolishness. After all, why would anyone worship an object which has been held in common by all humans throughout all of history, whose power is so great that even with modern advanced science we still can't touch it, and which is literally the ultimate source of all life on the planet? But even among sun gods, Shamash takes on a character of his own, becoming more than just a guy carrying a big ball of fire, or maybe just being the big ball of fire, and becoming a stand in for the cosmic order itself, something that was hugely important in the ancient world. Today we look at how he was worshipped, mostly in the words of his actual worshippers.
Passionate Daughter Ishtar
Ishtar, the passionate goddess of love and war from ancient Mesopotamia has had a long life, historically speaking, and she continues to be a popular object of fascination for historians and of reverance for pagan revivalists. Today our focus is on Ishtar as she was worshipped in the ancient world. Less here about myth and far more about the ideas that Ishtar worshippers kept in their minds about their goddess. We are going to read a lot of hymns and praise poems, which do lose a bit in the transition from Akkadian into English, but still often have powerful imagery and are interesting as both examples of ancient literature and as windows into ancient religion.
Industry 3 - Liquid Bread
Our tale of daily life continues. The harvest is over, but the work continues, as there are many steps required to transform boring, nutritious grain into delicious, nutritious beer. Online at oldeststories.net
Industry 2 - The Stuff of Life
Today we are talking all about the sort of industry that would have occupied most of the attention of most of the people of the ancient world. That is to say, beer making. But to talk about beer, you have to start with grain, and to talk about grain you have to start with a farmer. So today we will look deep into the life of a generic farmer, we will call him Ea-Rabi, and follow him step by step as he gains land, prepares a field, and grows barley, in preparation for next episode, where he turns that barley into bread and beer.
Industry 1 - The Earthen World
Perhaps the defining material of ancient Mesopotamia was dirt. Buildings were made by mud brick, and those buildings were filled by clay pottery of all sorts. Today we are going to look at the people who made these things and how they made them. It will necessarily be a bit of a summary, sort of taking the whole region and period in generic form, since it is quite difficult to nail down too specific of a picture from any one time or place. From the mud collectors to the brick makers to the builders to the ways in which those buildings were used, this episode is a comprehensive overview of the construction industry in bronze age Mesopotamia.
A long time ago I asked for listener questions, and also posted a call for questions over on tiktok, and here they are finally getting answered. This is theoretically the hundredth episode special, but depending on how you count it, we are either on episode 97 or on episode 110-ish. It is a grab bag of stuff, all related to the ancient near east. If you still have any questions, check out the contact page over on oldeststories.net and send me a note.
Sumer in Genesis
Here by popular demand and my own personal interest, an overview of the first eleven chapters of the biblical book of Genesis, alongside the ancient Mesopotamian stories that existed in parallel. The interplay between the two traditions is complicated and fascinating, and all the harder to untangle because both exist in fragments and summaries, but we can still tease out important aspects of the self-identification of Mesopotamians and ancient Hebrews through these comparisons. These comparisons can be examined in multiple ways, both faithful and secular, and provide fascinating lessons of the ancient world however we want to look at them. Our focus today is particularly on the tales of Adam, Cain and Abel, the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the war in heaven. Hatemail and charges of heresy can be sent in through the contact page at oldeststories.net
Canaan 9 - Baal and Mot
Today we conclude the Baal cycle with the epic final confrontation between Baal Hadad, rightful lord of the Canaanite heavens, and Mot, the deity whose name literally means Death. How can a god fight against death itself? What were the Canaanites smoking when they came up with these stories? What are the theological implications of death facing the prospect of its own death? None of these questions will be answered, and many more questions will go unanswered as we conclude the greatest and strangest epic of the city of Ugarit.
Canaan 8 - The Feast of Baal
Songs 1 - Ancient Akkadian Love Songs
Valentine's Day Special. This is a bunch of love poetry from the Mesopotamian bronze age, as well as some magical love spells. Translation by Benjamin R Foster in his book "Before the Muses". Some of the original text is damaged, and I have gone in and filled the missing bits with what seems appropriate to make it flow better in audio format. This is mostly reading with very little commentary.
Canaan 7 - The Baal Cycle
Today we begin perhaps the most significant of the surviving myths from Canaan, the Baal cycle. In the Baal cycle, we look at Ba'al Hadad, the mighty storm god, as he battles various foes in a great contest over the kingship of heaven. It is a subject we have seen before, but of course the Canaanites do things a bit differently than their neighbors. In this, the first of three major sections, Baal fights against Yamm, the god of rivers and seas. The story is sadly very damaged, but there is still a good bit of interesting things here, even if it does get a bit of the character of a radio show fighting against the static to be heard.
Canaan 6 - Aqhat and Daniel
Daniel, sometimes called Danel, depending on your translation, is a figure of great wisdom who even gets name dropped in the bible. In this, the main story we have from him, we will see very little of that wisdom on display, as a series of events will occur with very little narrative motivation that will witness a lady grow jealous for no clear reason, every bird in the world ripped apart for no clear reason, and an unsatisfying conclusion. It is going to be a lot of fun. Also, I think I may have had covid while I recorded this, so make sure you wear your mask and and sit at least six feet away from your audio device while listening.
Canaan 5 - The Legend of Kirta
The Legend of Kirta, called Keret in some translations, can be a bit hard to understand, especially for a modern audience used to things like the three act structure and protagonists who fit neatly into any sort of moral categories at all. This is the first of our stories from Ugarit, and we are starting with one that we don't even know if it is meant as tragedy or farce. What all these stories hold in common is that they are deeply strange, stranger even than many of the tales from the Hitties or Mesopotamians, and the many missing sections from the text do nothing to edify us. I will be reading them more or less straight, with a bit less commentary than usual, because just putting the story in front of you should be enough to get you pondering. Online at oldeststories.net
Canaan 4 - Ugarit's Final Century
The final century of the Canaanite city of Ugarit is by far the most well documented, and sheds light not only on how things were going in the city, but also on what other Canaanite cities likely looked like. We also get a novel and interesting perspective on how the great powers of the late bronze age looked to their many tiny vassals as the bronze age collapsed around them. Online at oldeststories.net
Canaan 3 - The City of Ugarit
The Canaan history series continues as we finally look at the city of Ugarit, its rise and significance both in Northern Canaan and in archeology. Ugarit is really fascinating, sitting at the edge of multiple great empires, from the obscure Eblaite empire to the Egyptian, Mitannit and Hittite empires. It is a great window on the Canaanite region and the history of the levant in general.