Kephrath and a matrilineal society

I have been asked a couple of times why I chose to make the society that lived in Kephrath and the other three towns in In a Milk and Honeyed Land a matrilineal one. As Damariel says to the Egyptian priest Senenptah while in Gedjet (Gaza) “we reckon descent through the mother”. But more than that, houses in the four towns are the property of women rather than men. It is not the same as a matriarchy, where women rule the culture, though the two may in some places have gone hand in hand. The book makes clear that the four towns were customarily ruled by a male chief, and that those who served as seers and priests did so as married couples. Both sexes play key parts in the day-to-day organisation of the towns, but nevertheless households are defined by the oldest woman there, not the oldest man.

There are a couple of answers to this, depending if one is talking about the historical basis or the narrative purpose. History first. It seems clear from numerous archaeological findings, chiefly religious amulets and the like, that women in the Middle and Late Bronze Age (about 1800-1200BC approximately in the ancient near east) were regarded with much more equality and played a much more significant role in social decisions than was the case in the Iron Age (1200BC through to Roman times). So, since I am writing about a society that was still living in a Late Bronze style, I wanted the place of women to be recognised as crucial by the townspeople themselves. In this sense, chief Mahur-Baal’s desire to turn the four towns into a male-dominated kingdom was a little ahead of his time – by about the year 1000BC similar kingdoms were in place all around the region, including ancient Israel, and judging from archaeological relics, women then occupied a much more subordinate position.

We have no specific evidence as to whether the Gibeonite towns really did have a matrilineal society, and such detailed evidence is unlikely ever to be brought to light. The accounts in the Hebrew Bible of Jacob’s trip out to Mesopotamia contain some hints that this was the practice further east, at least in some places. For example, Jacob moves into his new wife’s house to live there, rather than setting up his own household or taking her back to his own father’s home. But the details here can only be seen through the editorial choices of the later scribes who collated earlier traditions into what we now call the Bible, and the process has left us with only some of the information we would like.

From a narrative point of view, the choice presented some challenges. First and foremost, it meant making sure that I stayed true to that particular vision of the society, and avoided slipping into a “normal” perspective. There were a great many times when I found that I had written that someone went to “his” house rather than “her” house. So the choice involved a lot of self-discipline, and discovering just how entrenched some verbal habits can be.

As well as that, keeping the roles of both men and women central as regards the culture of the four towns – while also keeping their roles quite different in other ways – has always seemed to me a key ingredient of the description of the land as ‘flowing with milk and honey’. The phrase evokes a setting of lavish and unashamed femininity, and serves in the Bible as a balance to what seems to some people a very male-centric world view. To make the land flow with milk and honey, I chose to have the four towns live in a way that defines the family households in terms of women.

So the choice seemed to me to be a credible one in terms of the history of the Gibeonites, and was definitely one that fitted the vision of their society that I wanted to portray. Let me know what you think! To buy In a Milk and Honeyed Land in kindle and other ebook formats, or in soft-cover and hard-cover, check out

KindleGen – turning word processor documents into kindle format

Something a little different – rather than a post on the ancient world today, here is something on the modern technologies that can be used to support authorship.

I guess it is fairly common knowledge now that authors can completely bypass the traditional publishing route and put their own content up on Amazon and other online retailers directly. There are huge debates – some would say arguments – as to the merits of this process of universalisation. I don’t propose to go into these, except to say that I don’t think that selection by a major publishing house necessarily confers literary merit (just think of all those series of airport romances one encounters), nor that going your own way necessarily shows independence of spirit and dedication to a cause (after all, it is true that some indie books have not been edited as carefully as they might, and some are not very good).

Nor am I going to go into a step-by-step account as to how to set up your files to download and then use Amazon’s KindleGen. There are some great tutorials out there and the world does not really need another one.

What I am going to do is talk a bit about my experiences of using these tools. The basic principles are easy – you take the document from your favourite word processing package, export it to HTML, then feed it into KindleGen on your favourite computer, and out comes a nicely produced mobi file. If you really want to short-circuit the process, you just take your word-processing file and throw it as-is into Smashwords and let their software do the work for you. What can go wrong?

Well, as ever, it is the little touches that make some of the difference. Personally, coming from a programming development background, I want to be in control of the process as much as I can. So the Smashwords approach (“just give us the Word document and we’ll convert it”) fills me with unease, even if I can then review the finished product. I am very happy to accept that it has been an enormous benefit to a lot of people who do not have the time, energy, and training to use a geeky tool like KindleGen. Geeky it certainly is! There is almost nothing in the way of online help, and whilst it does indeed have a sound inner logic, my guess is that some people find the raw listing of errors and warnings a bit intimidating. This, however, is just up my street!

I also like the way KindleGen allows you to get more pedantic and proper about the process as you learn more. So personally I would always split off my text styles into a central css file, and put supporting image files in their own folder. I prefer keeping my definition file logically separate from my content files, and both of these separate from the table of contents. That makes good sense!

But it has to be said that it is still a slow process. I have been working on two projects – a short story entitled The Man in the Cistern, which is set in the same world as In a Milk and Honeyed Land, and my former PhD thesis Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian. Both of these will see the light of day before long… but both have raised interesting problems. There are some common things – just how much geeky metadata does one need? What about getting an ISBN number? Just how many of the optional fields do I really need, and where to they appear in the online listing? When I look at it using the Kindle Previewer does it show up how I would like? In passing, this is another essential app, and one that encourages you to think about multiple different target devices rather than just the one you happen to own!

The thesis has been much the harder, partly because it is substantially longer, but mainly because the content includes funny fonts (well, Hebrew and Egyptian among others), together with lots of tables and diagrams. I have learned that things that work just fine in a word processor really do not work on kindle without a lot of fussing. I do think the effort is worth it – after all, if you are going to self-publish then you are denying yourself the expertise (and the cost) of professional layout. So you have to put in the thought and time yourself. Diagrams that look pretty good in a word-processor document have a tendency to go really weird in HTML and hence in kindle format.

Do I think it’s worth it? Definitely yes, even though my initial guess as to how long it would take has had to be revised upward quite significantly. And yes, I would happily go through the process again… once these two projects are finished and uploaded. For that, continue to watch this space…

While you’re waiting, remember that In a Milk and Honeyed Land is already for sale in kindle as well as other ebook formats, soft-cover and hard-cover. Check out for details.

BlueInk review for ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’

Here is the complete text of the Blue Ink review I received a few days ago for In a Milk and Honeyed Land. Of course I don’t agree with the reviewer that the beginning was slower than need be, and I was a little disappointed that there was not some more recognition of the embedded poetry in the book. However, it was gratifying to get a positive review from Blue Ink, with some great little snippets for me to use in publicity material: “…the author is an authority on the subject, and it shows through the captivating descriptions… the story grabs hold of the imagination… eventually satisfies as a love story, coming-of-age tale, and historical narrative“.

All in all I was happy to get this endorsement of the book and hope to get many more positive reviews like it!

Set 3,000 years ago in ancient Canaan, In a Milk and Honeyed Land tells the story of a young priest, Damariel, and his small village tribe, as they learn life’s lessons of love, loss, sacrifice, and growth. The story follows Damariel from boyhood to adulthood, as he is trained for and then becomes the village seer, taking him through romantic relationships and travels to nearby cities filled with the cultural diversity of the era. A narrative of everyday life as it might have been for early settlers in what is now Israel and Palestine, the story seamlessly mixes history with fiction.

Like The Red Tent, this book aims to complete a missing story in the Hebrew Bible, that of the very beginnings of Israeli settlement. With a Ph.D in Old Testament and Egyptian poetry, the author is an authority on the subject, and it shows through the captivating descriptions of the ancient rituals, songs, village life, and even a battle scene. A confusing introduction of the villagers, their professions, and their connections at the start of the book slows the plot in a way that keeps it from taking root at first. However, as Damariel grows and the characters become familiar, the story grabs hold of the imagination. Despite a sluggish beginning, In a Milk and Honeyed Land eventually satisfies as a love story, coming-of-age tale, and historical narrative.

Anyone unfamiliar with ancient Middle Eastern history should read the postscript before starting the book, as it includes a brief history of the time period and the common names for the ancient terms used in the book, which are helpful to a reader’s understanding and enjoyment of the book.

This novel is likely to appeal to those interested in historical fiction, especially Middle Eastern and Biblical history.

(Reviewed: June 2012)

I don’t yet have a direct link to this review, but the Blue Ink home page web address is

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

Book review – “Michal’s Window” by Rachelle Ayala

This is a book review I placed on Amazon (UK) and Goodreads for the historical novel “Michal’s Window (A Novel: King David’s First Wife)”, by author Rachelle Ayala. I got some good feedback for the review, including the comments “What a beautiful review… You’ve definitely summarized it very well :)” and “This is one of the best reviews I’ve read”. I enjoyed both reading the book and writing the review!

The Kindle book link is
The Kindle book link is

“Powerful and passionate, and going to be read more than once”
I am very happy to have read “Michal’s Window” and to unreservedly give it five stars. It’s set a little bit later than the time my own writer’s heart is given to, but all the more enjoyable for that as I could imagine how the descendants of my characters could fit into Rachelle’s world! The task she sets herself is an intricate one – how to weave the various snippets of information regarding David, Michal and the others, scattered among several biblical books, into a coherent and compelling narrative. The underlying biblical clues and hints are mined for possibilities and recombined into new patterns in a creative manner.

Some of the people she fleshes out in this book are decidedly minor players in the original David Story, and so in these cases the source material she works with is very flat – but they emerge as rounded individuals in the process. Likewise, although the books of Samuel (the primary source for the account) are very often nuanced and equivocal in their moral evaluations, some other biblical sources (like Chronicles) are not. She has chosen to follow the original design by extending and making ever more tangled the moral and ethical uncertainties faced by the central figures. I suspect that the author of 1 and 2 Samuel would have approved of this. If you like your heroes and villains simple and uncomplicated, this is not a book for you – here the people struggle both outside and inside their souls with issues of abuse, violence and conflict alongside desire, faithfulness and love. The world in which the kingdom of Israel emerged was small and highly inter-connected, and Rachelle captures this nicely in the way that people keep re-encountering one another, often despite their best efforts to keep apart.

The narrative style of sticking in any given scene to one of a few specific personal points of view is one that I enjoy – it allows for versatility of how events and interpersonal relations are depicted, and at the same time enforces the comparative isolation of people throughout so much of history. There was no way that a person could see “over the horizon” to know what was happening or who was coming towards them, and the frustration and anxiety that this creates is brought very much home. The central characters of this book struggle to see over their personal horizons, and consistently fail, and the choices they make because of this failure drive much of the plot. It also adheres faithfully to the style adopted by the authors of the Hebrew Bible – they may have been describing a God who could see all things, but the narratives they wrote, and the people they wrote about, were confined to a deliberately limited viewpoint.

On a purely historical basis I had a few minor reservations. I don’t share Rachelle’s confidence that both David and Michal would have been able to read and write as youths, nor that Michal would have been able to casually wander around the garden clutching the scroll of the Book of Ruth. Michal’s literacy is explained later on the basis of personal tuition by the priest Elihu, but the main plot purpose is to show the possibility of both connection and disappointment inherent in writing, and this is achieved admirably. The choice of Ruth is, I suspect, a piece of splendid irony – as well as it being the Hebrew Bible’s best known love story, the final half dozen verses (which could not have been written at the time Michal was young) are one of the more overt legitimising assertions of the Davidic dynasty, and were probably penned by the kind of individual Michal might have later despised.

Some of the religious events owed, I felt, more to later Judaism or to Christianity than to the probable worship of the age. But again, I think that this is a deliberate choice on Rachelle’s part. Her writing borrows not just from sources in the Hebrew Bible, but also later Jewish midrash and Christian typology. To get what she is doing with this, you have to read her own words in the appendix. It is interesting to see how different people tackle the thorny problem of the divine name – Rachelle has chosen to follow later traditions by setting it as LORD, except for a couple of deliberately stylised moments. I strongly suspect that this was not part of religious observance around 1000BC. But this is tied to her use of an older traditional Bible translation for quotations, and it would have seemed disjointed to use the old vocabulary in one place and something more fluid and contemporary in another. Finally, I have serious doubts that the Davidic kingdom reached anything like as far as suggested by the gamut of goods that the queens have at their disposal! At any rate, my historical reservations are all calmed by the wider sweep and purpose of these apparent intrusions, and I am very happy to overlook them since the narrative flow as a whole is gripping and emotionally credible.

It definitely passed my major test of a good book – it made me want to get back to writing something myself – and it joins the collection of books that I intend to re-read over the years to come. Warmly recommended, and I hope Rachelle returns to this era in writing at some stage in the future.

Kindle edition now released

Yes, the Kindle edition is now out!

In a Milk and Honeyed Land eBook: Richard Abbott: Kindle Store

— or — Kindle Store

I will update the main page later today

Book review – “Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel”

This is a book review I placed on Amazon (uk) for Christopher Rollston’s fine book. The complete title is in fact Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age but that seemed a little too long for the post title!

The link to this book is:

I was very happy to give this a 5* review, and here follows my comments…
I thoroughly enjoyed this book by Christopher Rollston, and would happily recommend it to anyone interested in the subject of ancient near eastern writing. Anyone who has been following Rollston’s academic publications or blog articles will find few surprises, but a wide range of his ideas on iron age writing are gathered together in a convenient way. It has also provided the opportunity to give up to date (as at c.2010) descriptions of the relevant archaeological finds, many of which include line drawings of the items.

The book has two main sections, followed by a short discussion of the difficult issue of how to (and when not to) make use of pieces acquired from unknown or unidentified locations – an issue Rollston has campaigned on for some time now.

The first main part describes the collection of relevant source materials, from the eleventh century through to the sixth BCE. The geographic range is from Phoenicia through Israel to trans-Jordan. This section includes brief forays into topics which Rollston has investigated in more depth elsewhere. For example, there is a short passage outlining his disagreement with Sass concerning the date of the Phoenician royal inscriptions. Now, this highlights one of the minor weaknesses of the book. If you were interested in this matter (and it affects the reconstruction of the chronology of the ancient near east) you would not find enough in this book to satisfy you. There are plentiful references to help you find out more, but the summary in the book itself is so short that if you had not known about the issue previously, you could easily pass it by without realising its import.

Also in this first main section, there is a great deal of description, with diagrams, of the evolutionary development of particular letter shapes. This is in support of Rollston’s main contention, that Hebrew did not emerge as a distinctive written script until the ninth century. He is careful to separate this from the question of when Hebrew might have emerged as a distinct spoken language, and gives several examples of how one written script may represent several spoken languages (for example, all of the many contemporary languages which use the Latin alphabet). But about written Hebrew, his ideas are very clear. For example, he says that before the middle of the ninth century BC “there is nothing distinctive of Old Hebrew… the Old Hebrew script had not yet been developed“, and again, “Old Hebrew became a distinct national script during the ninth century… [it’s creation was]… a nationalist statement, not merely an evolutionary development.” He argues that the early written items which predate this and have been found within the borders of Israel use the Phoenician script, not Old Hebrew, but without that fact having a necessary connection to the ethnicity of the writer.

This will again come as no surprise to those who have followed his work, and Rollston is careful to point out those scholars who disagree with him, and give the main reasons for both positions. He comes over throughout the book as a fair and generous debater, though methodical and determined as regards his own views.

The second main section looks at the social position and training of the scribe, and the general level of literacy skills in the population at large. Once again his arguments will surprise no-one who has read his previous work. Writing, he holds, was the province of a skilled elite, trained in a variety of necessary talents. He is prepared to accept the existence of a wider group of people with very low levels of skill, perhaps able to read a few key words related to their job, or to roughly scrawl their name. However, he does not accept the older view that literacy was commonplace in an iron age society using an alphabetic script. Drawing on modern insights into the process of how literacy develops in childhood, as well as the ancient record itself, he argues his case persuasively. To be literate in the ancient world, whether using the newer alphabetic or the older syllabic scripts, required mastery of a range of skills, and demanded accuracy and consistency of production. This took time, and training.

This naturally flows into his high view of the office of scribe itself, which is best expressed in his own words: “the Old Hebrew epigraphic record reflects depth, sophistication, and consistency… most consistent with the presence of a mechanism for the formal, standardized education of scribal elites in ancient Israel.

To sum up, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel is clearly written, and engaging in its range of topics and presentation. It seems to me to be highly accessible to a general audience, and readers who are not interested in the specific details of letter shapes can still readily follow the basic arguments that these support. Some readers may be disappointed that there is not more new material contained in its 171 pages, or more speculative advance into some issues relating to the production of complex and extensive literature in the first half of the first millennium BC. However, it is a very convenient and well-resourced summary of his stance on matters that interest him – and indeed me. I am very happy to have purchased it and have no hesitation in recommending it to others.

On a personal note, readers of my (fictional) work In a Milk and Honeyed Land will recognise that many of the assumptions there about the role of the scribe, and the general level of literacy, owe a great debt to Rollston’s work. I am very happy to see that he has reaffirmed and indeed strengthened his position on these matters in this book!

‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ and ancient poetry (3)

The last two blog entries looked at examples of parallel coupleta, starting with:

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary made the sweet

This is called parallel because matching words are placed at the same place along each line – Joe and Mary, cooked and made, and main course and sweet. We made this more interesting last time with some variations, including chiasmus, in which parts of the second line – called the B-line – are crossed over, rather like the following example

Joe cooked the main course
    The sweet was made by Mary

What is there beyond the couplet? Well, the obvious next step is to add another line to form a triplet. This will be today’s subject, and the last in the present series about ancient poetry styles. The use of triplets allows several possibilities, depending on how the poet chose to integrate the new line. The simplest way is just to have the third line also parallel:

Joe cooked the main course
Mary made the sweet
Their parents brought the wine

This pattern is often called AAA, as all three follow the same basic shape as the first.

More inventive is a form where one of the lines is deliberately not set in parallel, but provides a way to either set the scene (ABB pattern) or sum the situation up (AAB). So we might have:

The day drew to its close –
    Joe cooked the main course
    Mary made the sweet.

This is ABB, and is an example of forked parallelism. Other ABB forms are called staircase and climactic parallelism, depending on the details of how the lines are developed.

Joe cooked the main course
Mary made the sweet
    And soon the meal was done.

This is an AAB example.

These patterns can quite easily be found in ancient near eastern poetry from different nations, and are often used at key points of the overall design. So we may well find them at the start or end of the whole work, or marking an internal division of ideas. At Ugarit, the ABB form was often used to introduce direct speech of a person or god.

There’s a lot more that could be said about this, which can wait for another day. Check out my online article Forked Parallelism in Egyptian, Ugaritic and Hebrew Poetry, which was published in the journal Tyndale Bulletin in 2011 and discusses the forked pattern in more detail.

In In a Milk and Honeyed Land, triplets make an appearance in several places. An AAB pattern example may be found in the closing lines Damariel speaks at the ceremony when his brothers Baruk and Bashur are buried:

So proclaimed most mighty El,
So spoke the lord of the earth:
    His judgement is true.

Much nearer the end of the book, at the point where the townspeople are deciding to confront the chief, we find:

Fourteen fathers in these hills begotten,
    fourteen fathers: all now overthrown
    and shattered lies the covenant of stone.

This shows how the ABB pattern can be used in a way that reverses the expectation of the starting line, and has been called climactic parallelism. This particular pattern was quite popular in Canaan and Israel in some parts of history, but was apparently not used in Egypt at all. Perhaps poets or their audiences in that country did not like unpleasant surprises!

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ and ancient poetry (2)

The last blog entry looked at a simple example of a parallel couplet:

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary made the sweet

They are called parallel because matching words are placed at the same place along each line – Joe and Mary, cooked and made, and main course and sweet. This time we’ll look at some variations of this simple pattern that poets in the ancient world used to give flexibility and interest to their work.

One way was to drop the verb from the second line, and use the “extra space” gained by doing that to add some description for one or other of the remaining words. The technical term for this is “verb deletion”.

So we could have

Joe cooked the main course
    Mary the special sweet


Joe cooked the main course
    Skilful Mary the sweet

In both cases the logic of parallel lines means that you do not really need the verb made on the second line – the pattern of the first line makes it obvious what is going on. The use of an adjective here means that something more of a background story can be hinted at. So the second of those examples suggests that the two of them divided up the jobs because Mary was particularly adept at desserts. But if instead we said:

Joe cooked the main course
    Time-pressed Mary the sweet

then the background issue is not that of skill, but of opportunity.

Perhaps the most important ancient world variation on the parallel couplet is called chiasmus, from a Greek word with the broad meaning of crossing over. To do this, we reverse the order of the second line:

Joe cooked the main course
    The sweet was made by Mary

Now, instead of corresponding parts being in the same place on their lines, they swap over. Joe is at the start of the first line, Mary at the end of the second. Main course ends the first line, sweet starts the second. If you were to join the matching pieces of each half of the couplet with straight lines, then a simple parallel couplet would have these lines going vertically down the screen or page. With chiasmus, the lines form an X on the page or screen, the Greek letter chi (as in chi-asmus).

As well as giving some variation for the sake of interest, and avoiding an endless series of parallel couplets, chiasmus also gives the poet a chance to give some overall shape to the poem. It is quite common to have a couplet using chiasmus at the centre of a poem, or at some other logical place where there is a turning point of mood or action. Perhaps if we were to write the rest of the Joe and Mary poem, the first half might be all about Joe, and the second half all about Mary, with the chiasmus helping to make the changeover. In this way, the poet can also indicate more serious changes, such as from defeat to victory, sin to repentance, despair to hope, and so on. It can be a very compact and versatile way to indicate a change of situation. Sadly, many modern translations of the Hebrew Bible and other ancient poems do not keep the particular pattern of chiasmus, but change the word order back into direct parallel lines.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land includes some fragments of poetry using these variations. Both kinds can be found in the oath that Damariel swears to Nepheret shortly after they set out towards Kephrath. He starts with chiasmus:

Listen, all you gods of the nations,
    in the divine assembly take note.

He then moves on to verb deletion, omitting the verb in the second half of the following couplet and lengthening the description of himself to a short phrase:

Record the words of Damariel,
    the oath of the son of Yeresheth.

He completes the verse part of his promise with another chiasmus:

Nepheret’s freedom was bought for her pleasure,
    and for her own delight has she been released.

Of course, these words were not supposed to be carefully crafted and designed poetry, but part of a promise he made up on the spur of the moment outside Gedjet (modern Gaza). I have assumed that the habits of speech and rhythm that he knew in his “professional” life would spill over into parts of conversation that he might consider to be formal, such as this promise.

There are actually a great many examples of chiasmus scattered through the book, as it is a literary device that I am very fond of. Some, like the examples above, are embedded in a poem or portion of direct speech, but many others can be found in the descriptive text. Still others can be found on a larger scale again. See how many examples you can find where chiasmus is used to steer and shape the plot.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

Writing, ancient and modern