Storytellers who could neither read or write reliably handed down hundreds of years of Israelite history.

Friday, 8/14/15

While our first reading yesterday was from Chapter Three of the Book of Joshua, today’s first reading is from Chapter Twenty-Four. In yesterday’s reading Joshua was the young man who led the people into their Promised Land. Today’s reading picks him up when he had come to old age, and he had gathered the scattered tribe leaders to listen to his dying words.

It was around the year 1250 b.c. that he led the people through the Jordan; and it was around the year 1200 b.c. that he delivered his final words. Those dates only became important a hundred years ago, around the year 1920. What happened then was that archaeologist discovered that the Hebrew alphabet was only invented a hundred years after the death of Joshua. 

In 1200 b.c the big shipping and trading people were the Phoenicians, from present day Lebanon. They operated copper mines in the Sinai desert, and for keeping records of how many hours the miners worked, and of how many tons of ore they dug, the supervisors had to use Egyptian writing. Finding that tedious, one smart man abbreviated twenty-four hieroglyphics into the alphabet. By around the year 1.000 b.c. the Israelites and the Greeks  used his alphabet to develop their own script.      

With Joshua in today’s reading giving over seven hundred years of history one wonders how his people could have kept such accurate records two hundred years before hsa people had an alphabet.

In 1920, Milman Parry, a Harvard classical scholar, was shocked at finding that archeology had proved that here was no Greek alphabet in the century when Homer composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. Now, Parry knew every line of those great works, and he was convinced that Homer had somehow composed those works even without writing them down.

Parry heard that there were pockets of ancient peoples in Yugoslavia, and that they had a small class of men who could recite epic poems as long as the Illiad and Odyssey. What is more, none of them had learned to read and write. Parry got a grant that enabled him to spend four years over there, making records of the recitations of those poets.

What he learned was that those poets, instead of memorizing individual words, strung together ancient tales by linking together set phrases. They never sung about lips or water. It always had to be “ruby-red-lips,” or ”sky-blue-water.”

Like in today’s first reading, the tribes conquered by the Israelites were the, ”Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittities, Girgashites and Jebushites.”  They were strung together in that same order nineteen times in the first six books of the Old Testament.

Story-tellers who could neither read or write reliably handed down to us seven hundred years of Israelite history from Abraham to Joshua.

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