Commentary Magazine

An Exchange

To the Editor:

Professor H. L. Ginsberg in reviewing my book, Before the Bible [October], has misrepresented what I have written. For example, when he states, that “to Gordon, buying a piece of land near Shechem to pitch one’s tent on, buying a burial plot near Hebron, and buying rations in Egypt when there are none to be gotten in Canaan, are all trading activities,” he is attributing to me something I never said. I have, to be sure, called attention to newly unearthed cuneiform texts that confirm the mercantile interests of the Patriarchs alluded to in Genesis 34:10, 21; and 42:34; but nowhere have I implied that the Patriarchs ever bought land or rations for resale or trading.

Apparently Professor Ginsberg has not yet adequately grasped what has taken place in the field covered by Before the Bible. When he states that “as is well known, the Greek and Latin alphabets were borrowed from the Phoenicians,” he is saying what every schoolboy should know. The significant thing to note is that something new has emerged, for as I wrote (on page 216), “it turns out that the Greeks learned both of their systems of writing from the Phoenicians ; first the Minoan syllabary, and then the alphabet.” In the months and years that lie ahead, this finding is certain to have an impact on our understanding of the origins of Western culture.

Ginsberg’s mode of criticism boils down to taking details out of context and then engaging in personal disparagement. Though I expressly reminded my readers that “in all comparative studies, we must beware of equating” and of implying identity in every detail just because there is a specific area of agreement (p. 286), Ginsberg makes much of the differences between a Greek passage dealing with ritual purification through washing away one’s defilement in the sea and a Hebrew text telling of casting one’s sins into the sea. Actually I offered this Greco-Hebrew parallel as one of “limited scope” (p. 12) while leading up “to a type of parallel of still more specific nature” (p. 16) concerning Mycenaean-Davidic military organization which has been accepted as sound by every scholar who has commented on it so far. Obviously the numerous parallels in my book are of unequal weight, and have been presented and used as such.

Even where Ginsberg approves of my conclusions, he resorts to petty criticism. For example, he is favorably impressed with my demonstrations that the Heroic Age of the Second Millennium evoked parallel Hebrew, Greek, and Ugaritic literary themes, but then goes on to say he would have “liked it better” had I pointed out some obvious differences between the seven-day siege in a Ugaritic text and the ten-year siege of Troy. Valid parallels are not supposed to be exact duplicates in detail. I have explained why “the parallels are worth discussing at length, and why the more numerous differences are not spelled out in detail” (p. 18). It would serve no useful purpose to obscure essential subject matter with innumerable qualifications that are nonessential in this frame of reference. On p. 55, n. 1, I told my readers where they could find a systematic treatment of Greco-Hebrew differences.

Arnold Toynbee . . . predicted in the London Observer that my “demolition of the previous partition wall between Greek and Hebrew studies will endure” (December 16, 1962). Ginsberg need not concur, because as I wrote in my book we have no “right to demand that every student of antiquity be [equally] perceptive in the field of comparative culture” (p. 134). On the other hand, he could have tried to see the forest instead of contenting himself with an astigmatic view of some of the trees. Even a casual reader glancing at either the first or last page of Before the Bible would have noticed that the book had a thesis: “Greek and Hebrew civilizations are parallel structures built upon the same East Mediterranean foundation” (pp. 9, 302). Moreover, I was specific as to what the common background was in terms of people, language, time and place. . . .

In bridging the gap between the earliest Hebrews and Greeks, I am doing the best I can. As a commentator and translator of Scripture, Professor Ginsberg is doing the best he can. It would be ridiculous and arrogant for me or anyone else to tell him to give up his current work because I happen to prefer his studies concerning Ugaritic in the 1930′s. . . . He and he alone is to decide what he should or should not do professionally. By the same token it is presumptuous of him to publish the gratuitous advice that I abandon my current work and revert to what I accomplished years ago just because he prefers it.

Every point in Professor Ginsberg’s review is answered in the book itself, provided that the latter is “read and understood as a whole” (p. 9, n. 1), not fragmentized into little bits pulled out of context.

Cyrus H. Gordon
Brookline, Massachusetts



Professor Ginsberg writes:

I wish Dr. Gordon had not made it necessary for me to repeat that there is no such thing as “a Hebrew text telling [sic!] of casting one’s [sic!] sins into the sea” but only an entreaty (Micah 7:19) that God may—figuratively—do that to our sins, which the metaphor does not even conceive of as sticking to our bodies but only as kept by God in a sealed package (Hosea 13: 12; Job 14: 17). And I cannot understand why it wasn’t enough for me to point out once that to this Hebrew entreaty, the washing away of purely physical grime from the bodies of Gilgamesh and of characters in the Iliad (here not always in the sea, as I pointed out) is not “a parallel of limited scope” but no parallel at all.

It certainly shouldn’t be hard to find “a parallel of a . . . more specific nature” than that, but the one “concerning Mycenaean-Davidic military organization” is hardly more “specific.” In the Iliad and Odyssey texts which Gordon cites in the passage of his book to which he refers me, military divisions are led by three officers each, one of whom is supreme. What is mentioned in II Samuel 23 and I Chronicles 11, on the other hand, is a single trio of Davidic fighters of whom it is not related that they ever led any division. (Of Abishai, II Samuel 23:18—19 and I Chronicles 11:20—21 inform us in a garbled text—the critical notes in Biblia Hebraic a are convincing—that he was a leader of something, but the same passage adds in crystal clear language that, pace Gordon, Abishai was not a member of the trio.) Those three soldiers of David were distinguished as “the three” or “the three fighters” (gibborim) precisely for executing all by themselves an exploit of breathtaking heroism (II Samuel 23:13—17; I Chronicles 11:15—19). When David’s army fought in two or three sections, each section was led by one senior officer: II Samuel 10:9—10; 18:2.

What I missed in Gordon’s presentation of the parallel between the Ugaritic Keret epic and the Trojan War motif was not only an admission of obvious differences which he now does not deny, but also an indication of “the doubts that attach to some of the parallel features which he represents as certain.” That Keret’s wife—or a woman for whom he had duly paid the bride price—had eloped with somebody else, is open to doubt on at least five good grounds which I cannot enumerate here for lack of space. It was therefore not petty of me to regret that Gordon represents these parallel features as certain. After all, scholars are disinterested investigators, not trial lawyers.

I for my part do not hesitate to admit that I misunderstood Gordon’s arguments from the Patriarchs’ purchases of land. His purpose was actually to show that the Patriarchs differed from the Urite merchants at Ugarit in being permitted to acquire land and to sojourn indefinitely in the host countries. But that makes his case, if anything, weaker than ever. For he doesn’t, after all, even claim to be able to cite a single instance of a Patriarch buying for the purpose of selling at a profit, but only cites instances of the Patriarchs doing things that the merchants from Ur at Ugarit were specifically forbidden to do. What, then, is his evidence that the Patriarchs were merchants? The fact, says Gordon, that Abraham was able to pay Ephron for his burial ground “400 shekels of silver acceptable to the merchant.” Since this was centuries before the introduction of coinage into the Fertile Crescent, the phrase doubtless means something like “400 shekels of silver ingots checked for full weight”; and would Ephron have accepted a payment of that magnitude from anybody—merchant or otherwise—without taking that precaution? Another proof of Abraham’s having engaged in commerce is, according to Gordon, the fact that his fortune included gold and silver as well as cattle (and slaves). As if there were no stockbreeders in Texas who have nice bank balances and whose wives wear jewelry! Be it noted that we do have four specific instances of Patriarchs receiving large accessions of wealth (including—Genesis 20:16—1,000 shekels of silver): (1) Genesis 12:16; (2) 20:14, 16; (3) 26:12—14; (4) 30:31 ff. These four instances illustrate three different methods of getting rich. Needless to say, mercantile enterprise is not one of them.

Gordon could not know that the manuscript of my review did refer to his theory that the language of certain very scanty ancient texts from Crete is Phoenician but that the editor cut that section out—because he found it abstruse and because he just didn’t have space for it. In a nutshell, I am not alone in maintaining that the said theory cannot be regarded as proved. If it were to be confirmed, it would be a shining feather in Gordon’s cap which he knows I would not begrudge him. But its implications would not be so far-reaching as he claims. For one thing, it would in no case render either those of his conclusions which are based on uncertain interpretations of Ugaritic texts less uncertain, or those (by no means exhausted by my review and this rejoinder) which are based on untenable interpretations of Akkadian, Greek, and Hebrew texts any less untenable. Now, forests consist of trees, and wholes of parts.

What I was “presumptuous” enough to do throughout my review was state what I believed to be true. I was innocent of “personal disparagement”; my—surely implicit—“advice” to Professor Gordon relates to methodology, not to field of research.



About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.