Magi Mike's Blog

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The Utility and Whereabouts of the Lost Ark of the Covenant

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Tudor Parfitt is a London University Hebrew scholar who likes to write astonishingly unscholarly potboilers about the myths of the Jewish scriptures. The reason they are unscholarly is that they pretend that the Jewish myths are real so that he can gad around the world solving alleged mysteries like this one—“Where is the Lost Ark of the Covenant?”. The real mystery is why does everyone think the old Jewish folk tales, like this one about the Ark of the Covenant, are somehow true when other ancient folk tales from the Grendel to Tiamat, or the Midas touch to the Elixir of Life, are accepted as the myths that they are. Children of all ages like mystery and fantasy, but scholars are not expected, these days, simply to accept tales like these as being true uncritically, and even to write books about their phony wild goose chasing scholarship supposedly in search of non-existent mysteries often aimed at misleading the general public to part with their hard earned cash. For such is the “Lost” Ark of the Covenant.

The Christian and Jewish scriptures are full of utterly impossible tales—donkeys and burning bushes that talk, rivers and even seas that open up to let the Chosen People pass them dryshod, storms being quelled, and even people who come back from the dead!—yet are believed because they have been given—by no one who knows—the caché of being written by God Himself. The well known amateur encyclopedia on the internet, Wikipedia, in its article on the Ark of the Covenant, complains that “this article needs attention from an expert on the subject”.

Professor Parfitt, the Indiana Jones of London University’s SOAS, can, perhaps, claim to be more of an expert than those of us who only comprehend English. For he purports to be an expert in Hebrew and so can read the actual Hebrew originals, if, indeed, they were originally in Hebrew. Yet this is an ideal subject for an amateur encyclopedist because there is only one source of information about the Ark of the Covenant and everyone has access to it. It is the Jewish bible. There are no contemporary references to the Ark outside of the Jewish scriptures. In fact, there are no references to most of the content of the Jewish scriptures outside of their own scope.

Over a hundred years ago, the higher critics of the bible realized that there were several authors with their own characteristsic in the early parts of the Torah. In one called J because God is most commonly called Yehouah (Jahweh) the Ark is hardly important, whereas in a parallel series of passages called E because God is most commonly called Elohim, the Ark has an important role. The two sets of passages are reconciled with the hypothesis that essentially the same myths were told by two sets of people, some of whom called God Yehouah while the others called God El. This division matches the bible in that the people chosen by God lived in two separate kingdoms in the biblical myth, the northern one, Israel, at some stage calling God El, while the southern one, Judah, calling God Yehouah.

In fact, there is little independent evidence of Judah until Israel was on the verge of destruction, so it seems that Israel was actually the only country involved for most of the period of independence of the Israelites, Judah being set up by the Assyrians as a puppet breakaway to destabilize Israel prior to annexation, rather as the USA today favors “rebel” governments to destabilize modern states whose governments they do not like.

More probably, the earliest colonists sent into Judah by the Persians, the ones who failed to set up a suitable state, worshipped El and had no central sanctuary, but instead had a movable one—the Ark of the Covenant—which travelled in procession from Shiloh to Shechem to Jerusalem and other local centers with the intention of centralizing worship on the Canaanite high god, El, but rivalry and dissension disunited the state. Then, in the fifth century, the Persians sent in a determinhed body of colonists expressly to set up a united temple state for Jews, worshippers of the god, Yehouah, centered on Jerusalem. The older—failed tradition of the movable Ark dedicated to El was incorporated into the newer myths devised to unite the people of the new state.

By the time that the temple state of Jerusalem was set up, the Ark was already history, had probably already been destroyed in the inter cultic violence that had gone before, but which was mythically placed in the inner sanctum of the temple to establish continuity and preserve unity between Elohists and Yehouists. So, in the Jewish myths the Ark plays no part after the time of Solomon, when it was placed in the Temple. While the Ark figures in Deuteronomy, the book of the law brought by Ezra, a Persian chancellery minister, that was mythologized as the law of Moses, and in the later priestly legislation, devised to benefit the temple as a cash cow, it did not actually exist. The Holy of Holies of the temple was allegedly empty. And, indeed, the Ark never appeared among the treasures of the so-called “second temple”, certainly in actuality the first temple to Yehouah. The victorious Romans took away the treasure of the Jewish temple but no Ark was among it. Biblicists—not “historians” as they are often called by other biblicists— have decided that the Ark was destroyed or captured by Babylonian when Jerusalem fell in 586 BC. It simply shows how they patch the Jewish myths to hide the rips in the fabric, the gaps and incoherence of “sacred history”.

Critics of the bible, from the close examination of the text called higher criticism, have concluded that many of the present biblical stories were rewritten long after the originals. Thus they might say the tales about the Ark were set down “long after the Exodus”. But the Exodus itself is a late addition to the biblical corpus. Why otherwise are Jews in the bible never called Moses? It is simply because Moses was invented almost at the end of the cycle of mythicization that yielded the Jewish scriptures, probably only in and after the second century BC, and perhaps then only in Greek initially.

Who was responsible? it was the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt who were collecting the great Alexandrine library. They it was who first wrote the scripture in essentially the form we have it today. The earlier, Persian historical tale about the Ark as a mobile sanctuary preceding the establishment of the temple state expanded, the Ark being described as one of the similar shrines known in Egypt, and therefore suitable for the story they invented of the Israelites being products of Egyptian culture. Sacred processions involving Arks, boats, or mobile shrines were popular among the Egyptians, and are illustrated on the walls of temples and described even in the Rosetta stone. The Ptolemaic Egyptian priests who rewrote the bible in the third century added a deal of Egyptian flavoring to support their propaganda that the Jews were once Egyptians. It has been believed ever since.

Anyway, the “scholarship” of professor Parfitt led him to conclude that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant was some sort of weapon of mass destruction which was simultaneously a musical instrument—a drum, an astonishing hybrid.

Parfitt follows a trail from Palestine to Yemen to East Africa and eventually to Zimbabwe trying to find this WMD. He found an African tribe called the Lemba who have among their traditions some, such as circumcision, and some Semitic sounding names. Well, of course, they must be one of the lost tribes of Israel! Parfitt has written about the lost tribes of Israel, and often sounds a lot more skeptical than he does in this potboiler, showing, if anything, how cynical he is.

Well, this tribe has a legend that they came from a distant city called Senna. They travelled by boat to east Africa founded a city of the same name, then gradually moved inland to Zimbabwe. Curiously, the migrants were all male, so by breeding with African women, they have ended up loooking African, but have retained some of their Jewish culture, for these men were Jewish priests, Kohanim, apparently expelled from the Yemen. At one time, the Yemenis took to Judaism as their official religion, and retained it for 200 or so years before the Moslems took over. So, the Lembas could conceivably have come from Yemen originally.

Now, the male Y chromosome obviously cannot belong to a woman. In like fashion, the Kohanim were necessarily male. So any genes in the Y chromosome that are characteristic of the Kohanim would pass down the male line and can be seen still. Tests of the Lembas show that many of them do indeed have a set of genes characteristic of many Jews bearing the name Cohen or its cognates. Thus Parfitt and his scientific co-workers have shown that the legend of the origin of the Lemba is feasible.

It is not certain though. Many Cohens do not have the supposed characteristic genes and some are not Jews! And any male that had the genes would pass them on to their male offspring. Moreover, the Canaanites themselves were believed by the ancients to have originated in Africa, so some Jews might have had the genes from their African origins. Supposed aspects of Jewish culture, like circumcision, could have been adopted from contacts with Moslems, or even ancient Egyptians, and Semitic names could have come from contacts with Arabic Moslems too.

What, though, of the Ark of the Covenant? Needless to say, Parfitt finds it in a museum in Harare as an unspectacular exhibit. It is a drum, not a boat or a box, but a musical instrument of a sort, and it is damaged! The damage shows it was a WMD! Seriously! Carbon dating, however, showed it was made of wood that was only 700 years old, not the necessary 3,200 years for the Mosaic Ark. Well, naturally a drum that was a WMD, could not have lasted all that long, so when it was used in warfare, it had to be replaced, but always by incorporating a core of the older one.

Maybe Parfitt’s novelistic scholarship can be justified as an innocent way of earning a crust, but it hardly rests easily with any claims he has to being genuinely scholarly. Pseudohistorians can get away with it because readers accept they have no real pretensions at scholarship. They are indeed closer to novelists, exploring the fringes of history and psychology via speculative fiction. Parfitt’s book has been admired as a combination of travelogue and history, but a novel is a better description. He is the center of attention in his Indiana Jones role. He stereotypes his characters rather as Dennis Wheatley, the author of occult novels half a century ago, did. Wheatley painted the rich as scented, noble and elegant—the typical Englishman—and the poor as scruffy, smelly criminals or halfwits—the typical Welshman, and any other human type unless they are nobility—and Parfitt effectively does the same. He has friends among Zionistic Jews and and anti-Semitic Moslem Arabs, and makes it plain whom he prefers. He has fabulously sexy girlfriends, and has sexy maidens or whores throw themselves at him—for a dollar or two—and he implies he has shady connexions with intelligence services.

It is all very comic strippy, like Indiana J himself, a giggle maybe but infantile as fiction, morally doubtful, and, in itself, quite ignoble in its prejudices. Is it impossible, these days, for scholars to be humble and honest in their devotion to scholarship? Must everyone be a Flashman? Can universities take more care whom they employ, or must we put up with rogues everywhere?

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