The survival of Egyptian influence in Canaan

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Another portion of the author’s notes from Scenes from a Life. This one briefly explores some issues surrounding the survival of Egyptian influence in the province of Canaan, after the collapse of the New Kingdom.

At one time scholars thought that Egyptian involvement collapsed extremely quickly, within a few decades after 1200 BCE or so, leaving essentially no Egyptian presence in Canaan. More recent careful investigation has shown that the actual situation was more complex. Egyptian rule in any direct sense was certainly over, and standing garrisons of troops were recalled. However, Egyptian influence remained considerably longer in the form of buildings, styles of pottery, and writing.

The author’s main interest is in the written word, and here we find several fascinating issues. Firstly, the style of Egyptian writing we now call hieratic survived in the former province of Canaan for a long time, especially for technical information like weights and measures. In Egypt herself, writing style evolved from hieratic to demotic, but the older form remained in the province. The obvious conclusion is that the style was learned during the period of occupation, and stayed in use after that had ceased – it is like a fossil relic of this earlier time.

Now, learning hieratic is a process that needs good teachers and a scribal tradition. We do not have direct evidence for schools of this kind in the form of buildings or monuments. However, these little marks of numbers and letters, scratched into the surface of various everyday artefacts, show that scribes trained in the Egyptian manner were still carrying out their trade in the province. The novel uses phrases such as “quick scribal signs” for this writing style. This is in contrast to what Makty-Rasut calls “proper writing” – hieroglyphic – which would be used back in Egypt for official or ceremonial purposes.

Next we have the evidence of the rather later biblical psalms. Several critics have noticed that one group of these, those which are petitionary pleas for help in time of trouble, bear strong resemblance to earlier letters written by subordinates to their political superiors. A writing style originally used in the secular sphere for addressing someone of higher rank, was adopted for religious use addressing gods. This would seem quite an obvious idea for someone who has been trained in official protocol and is then asked to create spiritual songs.

British Musuem - one of the Amarna letters
However, the resemblance is stronger than that. Specific kinds of phrasing, and specific kinds of appeal for help, turn up in political letters from around 1350 BCE, and also in the earliest psalms from around 1000 BCE or so. Moreover, they do so in the same geographical location – Jerusalem (Shalem in this story). This again suggests that there was a continuity of tradition that spanned those years.

In Scenes from a Life it is suggested that this link was set in place by an Egyptian scribe who found reasons of his own to move out to the province. Scribal teams in Egypt were well coordinated, with clear specialisation of skills, and it is easy to imagine that such a person would be able to organise and motivate a group of people in Jerusalem, whether Egyptian or native-born.

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