“I see no reference yet to perhaps the most important study of the Sargon legend—Brian Lewis, The Sargon Legend: A Study of the Akkadian Text and The Tale of the Hero Who Was Exposed at Birth.” - Hector AvalosI will attempt to fill that lacuna.
Brian Lewis’ book is a study of the seventh century BC text which purports to be an autobiography of the extraordinary birth of the famous third-millennium king, Sargon of Akkad. The text claims that Sargon's mother abandoned him on a river in a basket waterproofed with bitumen, he was pulled from the river by Aqqi the water drawer, adopted, and became a famous king. Similarities with Moses are seen. The text was first published in 1872, so it's not like scholars, both orthodox and liberal, are unaware of the story of Sargon. Its relevance is discussed in many commentaries on Exodus. Lewis discusses the text, issues pertinent to dating, traces the exposed-hero motif throughout time and across cultures, and also discusses its similarity with the birth story of Moses related in Exodus 2 in a couple of pages. Its relevance to the debate between Steve Hays and Hector Avalos, to the historicity of Moses’ birth, and Hector Avalos’s claims about the book’s significance are discussed below.
II. Methodological Issues:
A. One must admit that it is a bit odd for Avalos to appeal to Lewis’s authority given that when we go to authorities he makes claims to the effect that we do not know enough about the technical presuppositions required in order to make an informed decision about what said authority says.
This is representative of Avalos’s comments: “Can Triablogue tell you whether [what a putative expert said] is true or not? No. They would have to know enough about Hebrew/Aramaic Jewish literature in the postexilic period to evaluate this claim.”
Apparently the above, making the obvious corrections, viz., cuneiform, Neo-Assyrian, et alia, would apply to Lewis’s monograph. And so Avalos asks us to consider integral evidence to the argument that he thinks we are not in a position to consider.
Heading off one of Avalos’s major points in response to the work we have done, I fully concede my ignorance of these technical issues. I admit, in advance, that, according to Avalos’s criteria, I “cannot tell you whether what any of Lewis said is true or not.” Well, those things that require a working knowledge of Hebrew/Aramaic and Jewish literature, cuneiform, Neo-Assyrian, ANE history and languages, hieroglyphics, tealeaf reading, etc!
Along with this concession come some consequences: I cannot tell if anything Avalos says in response is true or not. No one reading this post, or any rejoinder by Avalos, can tell whether he has effectively rebutted me or not, unless they are trained specialists in the relevant areas. This includes the members of Debunking Christianity and almost any other atheist or agnostic reading this.
The upshot here is that Avalos is left playing in the sand box all by himself. Critics of this entry, if they find Avalos’s bourgeoisie posture to be cogent, must, if they are not experts in the putative fields, withhold any critique of this entry as well as refrain from heaping laudations on any possible Avalos response. Those who are not experts in the putative fields, and yet choose to comment on this entry, must also, if they are truly free thinkers, comment on the bourgeoisie posture of Avalos that disallows them to offer a critique. For if Avalos is right, then they cannot “tell whether any of [the below] is true or not.”
B. One should also pause and scratch their head at the attitude on behalf of many of the “Debunkers” concerning this entire debate, rooted in history as it is. On the one hand, many “Debunkers” were seen whooping and hollering at the (alleged) “smack down” that Triablogue received at the hands of posters like Evan and Avalos. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a “Debunker” who has been critical of Loftus’s latest book, Why I Became an Atheist. The number of existents in the set of “Debunker-cum-Loftus-critic” is the same number as the number of existents in the set of unicorns. The reason this is odd, I say, is because of John Loftus’s attitude toward history in that book. What is even more interesting is that Avalos writes one of the “Advanced Praise” blurbs on the back!
What is Loftus’s attitude toward history? What have fellow “Debunkers” committed themselves to by swallowing Loftus’s book, seemingly just as frightened to critique and find problems in it as the backwoods, hick fundamentalists they mock are too frightened to critique any of their preacher’s take on the Bible? What is the position of the book Avalos offers “praise” for, and the leader of the blog he signed up to be a part of regarding matters historical? Simply put, says Loftus, “Historical evidence is poor evidence” (Loftus, 181). Citing Bebbington he claims, “The historian’s history is molded by his values, his outlook, and his worldview. It is never the evidence alone that dictates what was written” (Loftus, 183). He doesn’t “see any problem in claiming that there is room for doubting many if not most historical claims…” (Loftus, 192, emphasis mine, he adds the qualifier “especially claims about the miraculous,” but that is irrelevant for my purposes here).
So is all of the “massive historical evidence” Avalos brought to bear on us, “poor evidence?” Does Avalos offer “solid evidence” or evidence mixed with his "values, outlook, and worldview?” Does Avalos admit that it is never “evidence alone” that dictates his acceptance of a position as “historical?” Is Avalos a postmodern historian? If so, why did he claim that, “We minimalists will only declare something historical when we find actual evidence for it.” If Loftus is right, Avalos is wrong…or at least wrong-headed. Or, given his “praise blurb” on the back of the book, did Avalos mean to say: “We minimalists will only declare something historical when we find actual evidence for it, and it conforms to our values, outlook, and worldview, for it is not evidence alone that dictates whether something is veridical history, it‘s a whole mixture of subjective and objective”?
The upshot here is that if Loftus is right, and it appears that to the “Debunkers” he is since they only offer cult-like praise, the “Debunkers” need to tone down the laudatory comments about how Avalos tanned our hide. Unless they mean that Avalos is making good historical points as long as you accept his values, outlook, and worldview. As long as you admit that, it isn’t his evidential points alone that are determinative of what is solid history in this case. However, if this outlook is the case, then it rather undercuts Avalos’s claims about our not being fellow experts in the putative fields! For we would also need to hold to Avalos’s subjective and postmodern takes on the evidence! It could not be just that we are not experts, then, that is determinative of whether we can judge whether the claims of the various experts are true or not.
Avalos can’t be tanning our hide, then. The initial question up for debate was whether the Moses story was based on the Sargon Legend. Any and all historical evidence Avalos &c brought to bear, is just, as Loftus puts it, “poor evidence” on which to believe the claim, “the Moses story was based on the Sargon Legend.” So I find it odd indeed that the “Debunkers” have been such faithful advocates of an objective and optimistic use of history and historical evidence. However, if Loftus is correct, why think the “poor evidence of history,” dripping with your subjective influences and unable to escape the grip of postmodern deconstruction, is sufficient to undercut the Christian’s claims about what happened in Exodus 2? I mean, we load our history with our own values, outlook, and worldview. Avalos just isn’t playing our language game, then. In addition, we’re not playing his. “Objective” evidence and facts are out the window. It seems we can only do what Wittgenstein said when players in different games get into a heated discussion, point your finger at the other man, call him a heretic, go home, and forget Brian Lewis’s study…
“They cite Lewis through another source, and do not address the direct quote I have from Lewis where he leaves the Legend of Sargon’s composition open to a wider range of dates. Apparently, Triablogue writers cannot afford to buy the book or find a library with the book.” - Hector AvalosThis is what Lewis says and what Avalos is referring to:
"Only the extreme limits of the possible date of composition can be determined with confidence. The Sargon legend had to be composed after 2039 and before 627 B.C....Nevertheless, a date of origin between the thirteenth and eighth centuries seems likely on the basis of internal evidence such as the use of idiomatic expressions that are first attested in the royal inscriptions of the Middle and Neo-Assyrian Kings" (Lewis, 273, emphasis mine).Lewis bases the terminus post quem for the text because the term “strong king” has its first known occurrence “in the eighth regional year of Amar-Sin (2039) of the Third Dynasty of Ur and thus follows by 240 years the end of Sargon’s rule.” The terminus ante quem is 627 due to the latest “copies” (though the use of this term presupposes that 627 is not the terminus ante quem since an autograph isn’t a copy, Lewis should have said “text“ so as to avoid begging any questions) we have being found in the “library of Assurbanipal” (cf. Lewis, 98).
However, Lewis does not think the Legend was written in 2039 (it’s just “in theory,” Lewis, 98), he thinks it “likely” that it was written “between the thirteenth and eighth centuries” (Lewis, 273). In fact, Lewis seems a bit inconsistent here. He thinks the 13th-8th century BC date likely “on the basis of internal evidence such as the use of idiomatic expressions that are first attested in the royal inscriptions of the Middle and Neo-Assyrian Kings." But didn’t he set the terminus post quem for the Legend at 2039 because the term “strong king” has its first known occurrence “in the eighth regional year of Amar-Sin”?
According to Lewis, “Three idiomatic expressions … are attested only in the late Middle Assyrian or neo-Assyrian periods” (Lewis, 100). Therefore, Lewis correctly notes, the occurrence of these expressions “provide the strongest available evidence that the Sargon Legend was composed in its present form at a much later date than previously thought. An idiom compound of belu and saparu … is first attested in the royal inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian kings, Aassurnasirpal II (883-859), Sargon II (721-705), and Sarandon (680-669).” So why wasn’t the terminus post quem set at 883 if the previous terminus post quem was set at 2039 for the exact same reasons Lewis offers for a late date? Indeed, why would Avalos postulate anything past a date of 883 for the Legend given his minimalism? Didn’t he proudly tell us that, “We minimalists will only declare something historical when we find actual evidence for it”? And so how can you declare a date before 883 B.C. “historical” when you have not “found actual evidence for” the use of those idioms before 883 B.C? Didn’t Avalos say of Moses: “The Moses story appears in manuscripts no earlier than the 2nd-3rd centuries BCE. We have NOTHING about Moses before this” (emphasis his)? And so likewise: “The [idioms] appears in manuscripts no earlier than 883 BC. We have NOTHING about [the idioms] before this” (emphasis his).
In line with the above, we must ask Avalos to be further consistent in his reasoning. I don’t even need to be an expert here. Wasn’t it Avalos who told us: “If Triabloguers had read The End of Biblical Studies, they would realize that some arguments are based on simple logic, and they don’t require more than a good logical mind to examine them. No other expertise is always required”? Now, I admit that I have not read Avalos’s book, but it seems one could “realize that some arguments are based on simple logic, and they don’t require more than a good logical mind to examine them,” without having read Avalos’s book. Certainly some critical thinking books would serve this area too, no? And so we can thank Avalos for conceding that I can inspect his reasoning while also dismissing the antecedent of his conditional as nothing but a shameless, self-serving plug for his book.
One aspect of Avalos’s reasoning comes into play when we take what he says about the similarities between Moses’ birth and the distilled exposed-hero motifs, and what Lewis says about the similarities between the reign of Sargon II and what we find in the Legend. Avalos writes,
“In judging literary dependence, one must address these parallels listed by Lewis (The Sargon Legend, p. 255):Though I will address literary dependency below, my purpose here is to point out “similarities between the Sargon Legend and the career of Sargon II that might suggest a possible connection” (Lewis, 105). Lewis mentions four similarities between the career of Sargon II and what we find in the Legend. The third point is broken up into three sub-points, and so we could count six similarities. The similarities are:
I. Explanation of abandonment
II. Noble birth
III. Preparation for exposure
V. Nurse in an unusual manner
VI. Discovery and Adoption
VII. Accomplishment of the hero
The Sargon and Moses story share ALL elements except number V (Sargon legend lacks this). Of course, there are differences, but one must ask the likelihood that two people independently would experience six of seven events in this sequence. One could say it was coincidence, but this is statistically improbable.”
I. In the legend, Sargon conquers Tilmun. Prior to Sargon II’s mention of Tilmun, the only known occurrence of Tilmun in Assyrian royal inscriptions comes during the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I. However, this “probably reflects no more than a vague awareness of Tilmun’s ancient ties to Mesopotamia. It is only in Sargon II that we have hard evidence of a resumption of diplomatic contacts with Tilmun. Interestingly, the tradition that Sargon conquered Tilmun is attested in a Neo-Assyrian text, the Geographical Treatise, which may have originated during the period of Sargon II” (Lewis, pp.105-6, also see n.78, p.120).
II. In the Legend Sargon captured Der, Sargon II won a victory at Der over the Elamites (Lewis, 106).
III. There is the use of two idioms in the Legend and the concept of using copper sticks to build roads through rocky terrain. I discussed the idioms above; the cutting through mountains with copper and bronze sticks is mentioned in inscriptions of first millennium B.C. kings, including Sargon II. Interestingly, the name of Sargon II pops up in connection with something in the Legend and its only being found in first millennium B.C. inscriptions quite frequently. In fact, Sargon II has much more in common with what we find in the Legend than does even Sargon I, closer in time to the original Sargon of the Legend (cf. Lewis, p.104). So, Sargon II inscriptions use idioms and mention his cutting roads through mountains that are also found in the Legend (Lewis, 106).
IV. In the Legend, Sargon founds his own city (Agade), so does Sargon II (Dur Sarrukin) (Lewis, 106).
And so, “Of course, there are differences, but one must ask the likelihood that two people independently would experience six of these events. One could say it was coincidence, but this is statistically improbable.”
The impression one gets from reading Lewis is that the best arguments are for a late date (see especially pp. 99-101), and that the question of “why was the text written?” which “would go a long way to solving the problem of dating” seems to be that, again, the best arguments favor that it was written during the reign of Sargon II as a “product of his later years. The most likely motive would be to glorify Sargon II by showing that he was a worthy successor to Sargon of Akkad. At the same time, this would help to explain the selective lists of exploits attributed to the Akkadian king in the Legend, for at least some of these correspond to the actual experiences of Sargon II” (see Lewis, pp. 104-107). Of course there is nothing here that “in themselves proves the case” (Lewis, 106, emphasis mine), but that (italicized) multifarious term is quite ambiguous and means little, especially in the context of historiography. There is certainly nothing like a sound deductive argument, but there is a fairly good cumulative case argument. It is certainly reasonable, given the evidence and arguments, to see Sargon II as the era of composition for the Legend.
I am not alone in this reading of Lewis. There is Mark Brettler. Brettler's aim is to show that much of the claims of the Old Testament are "inaccurate or untrue." He aims to show that Israel was influenced by other sources (see back flap). So, this isn't a "conservative" scholar. He's more-so on Avalos's side. Brettler states: "A likely case is the Sargon birth legend, concerning Sargon of Akkad, but probably written under Sargon II; see Brian Lewis: The Sargon Legend: A Study of the Akkadian Text and the Tale of the Hero who was Exposed at Birth, esp. 99-107..." (Brettler, 180, n.84). In addition, Millard: “Some scholars suggested that the story was written to glorify him. Indeed, a few scholars still maintain this position…Gaston Maspero supposed that the Legend of Sargon projects the deeds of Sargon II into a remote past and says nothing about an earlier king (The Dawn of Civilization [London: SPCK, 1885]), p. 599. See Lewis, Sargon Legend, pp. 101–107, for a similar view.”
The late date arguments also better fit in with Avalos’s stated minimalism. The very claims he’s made about minimalism, evidence, Moses, the dependency of Moses on the Sargon Legend, etc., require him, if he is to be consistent, to assign a late date to the legend. Indeed, given that in his liberalism he would like to give Exodus as late a date as possible, if he accepted some of Lewis’s arguments for an early date he would also have to do the same for the birth story of Moses! Avalos has tried to make much hay of the ana ittisu law codes allegedly found to be operating in the story of Moses’ birth. He states, “In deciding whether an Egyptian or a Mesopotamian origin for the Moses wet-nurse was more likely, I cited a parallel with the Sumerian-Akkadian ana ittishu legal texts.” The point here is that Lewis includes the fact that the Sargon foundling adoption follows closely the foundling adoption laws outlined in the lexical series ana ittisu as an argument for an early date for the Legend. However, if Exodus is assigned a late date even with the inclusion (so says Avalos, this point is debated. See e.g., Enns, p.63) of ana ittisu laws, why can’t the Sargon Legend?
It’s also not clear that Avalos was entirely forthcoming with what we see in Lewis. At any rate, the Christian can reasonably hold that Exodus was written before the Legend of Sargon since he can be both reasonable in holding to an early date for Exodus and a late date for the Sargon Legend. In this case it would be impossible that Exodus was dependant upon Sargon. But, it is still possible that the Legend was written before Exodus; even so, that would not be enough for dependency. “Before, therefore, dependant,” doesn’t seem like a good inference. Indeed, it’s a non-sequitur. At this point, we can look at the specific arguments for dependency and what Lewis has to say in this regard. I suggest Avalos will again be seen to have been quite selective in his appeal to Lewis, easy to do when dealing with an out of print book, with sparse copies running around $100.
As I said above, one needs the Sargon Legend to predate Exodus to get off an argument for dependency. Though mere priority is not sufficient to establish dependency, it is necessary. Avalos realizes this and in the process of trying to establish early dates for the Legend, he makes some interesting claims. For example, he makes this statement: “The Sargon legend is in actual manuscripts from the seventh century BCE. We can trace crucial elements of this legend hundreds (or even thousands) of years before that.”
This is an odd claim on several fronts. First, (the historical, original) Sargon existed in the 24th and 23rd centuries BC. But according to Avalos, we have “crucial elements of [Sargon] hundreds (or even thousands) of years before … the seventh century BCE.” And given that Avalos says we can apply logic to his arguments without being an expert in ANE history and language, I’ll also assume he will allow the little people to use elementary mathematics in analyzing his claims, all without being an expert in ANE history and language of course. So when you add “thousands of years” to “the seventh century BCE,” you come up with a terminus ante quem of the twenty-seventh century “BCE.” So in Avalos’s haste to undermine the Bible, driven by ideology as he is, he has “crucial elements” of people’s lives existing before they existed!
Second, one wonders what “crucial elements” of the Legend we have before “the seventh century BCE?” One would think the “crucial elements” we have should fit those “crucial” exposed-hero motifs Lewis details, viz., Explanation of abandonment; Noble birth; Preparation for exposure; Exposure; Nurse in an unusual manner; Discovery and Adoption; and Accomplishment of the hero. And some of these can even be removed. On page 253 Lewis himself lists “crucial elements.” The “single most important element” is the “exposure” story (Lewis, p.247). Lewis admits that most of the other “crucial elements” are not found in any earlier traditions, viz., “birth, preparation for exposure, and adoption,” (cf. 274).
Certainly mere mention of Sargon of Akkad and his reign as king, his possible association with date growers, and being beloved of Ishtar, don’t count as “crucial elements” that would provide an early date for the Legend. As Lewis himself states: “Of course the presence of old traditions in a late copy of a literary text (i.e., the Legend) does not prove that the work is as old as the material it contains.” Indeed, on this assumption Exodus is likewise earlier than the copies since it mentions demonstrably older traditions than the date of the oldest manuscripts we have!
At any rate, when one reads the summaries of the various Sargon references Lewis offers on pages 110-112, one is hard pressed to find the existence of “crucial elements” of the Legend. In addition, all that matters for purposes of dependency is if we find the existence of those “elements” Moses (allegedly) shares with the Sargon of the Legend. Lewis goes over the references to Sargon from the third millennium BC down to the first. With claims like this: “During the old Babylonian period, Sargon became the subject of Epic literature. As a consequence, his figure is more remote and impersonal. Because of the fragmentary condition of the Sargon-Lugalzagesi Legend, we cannot be completely sure of the picture it draws of Sargon” (Lewis, 110), it seems it would be an overstatement to claim that we find “crucial elements” of the Legend “hundreds and even thousands of years” before the Legend was written in the “seventh century BCE.” And what we do find are claims like this, “Enlil gave him no rival,” “Sargon overthrew Uruk,” “Sargon was calm and reflective,” “the king decides to undertake the campaign without concern for the hazardous route,” hardly inspiring confidence in Avalos’s claim that “crucial elements” of the Legend are found “hundreds and even thousands of years” before our 7th century manuscripts.
Third, Lewis does speculate about the existence of an early version of the Legend from which the author of the Legend may have drawn off. But all of this is hard to square with Avalos’s stated minimalism. Recall Avalos stated: “We minimalists will only declare something historical when we find actual evidence for it.” This is hard to square with Lewis’s qualified and tentative language. For example, the Legend “seems to be based, at least, in part, on folk traditions” (Lewis, 263, emphasis mine). But where’s the “actual evidence?” And just because the Legend is so sparse in its information of the birth and exposure account of Sargon, “this seems to suggest that the author of the Sargon Legend drew on or adapted an older, more elaborate account of the abandonment of Sargon for use in his composition” (ibid). But where’s the “actual evidence?” In response to the argument that the exposed-hero tale was adapted to Sargon at the time of the composition of the Legend (like an argument based on the good cumulative case for a Sargon II period composition in order to legitimize his reign), the response is “we think this less likely” (ibid). “Less likely” because some other “folk tales and legends have been known to arise during or soon after the life of a great hero," there is a possible awareness in the Sumerian Kings list “linking Sargon to a member of the date-growing profession,” and there seems to be an “interest in Sargon’s origins” in an early source (ibid). Not only are these not “crucial elements” (even according to Lewis, 247, 274), but where’s the “actual evidence?” Much of this is admitted speculation based on highly generalized vague references, and the fact that an early myth development (one to two hundred years) is possible. There’s no “actual evidence” because the existence of an actual folktale “prior to the composition of the Legend seems probable” (ibid). (As a side note, and as a defense of oral tradition and reliability in the Christian tradition, Lewis even claims that the original folktale may have been oral. This means that the “telephone game” must be more reliable than skeptics admit, or else there’s no point in trying to say the Legend accurately represents the original! (Lewis, 263)).
The upshot here is that Avalos’s claims about the existence of the Legend “hundreds or thousands of years” before our “seventh century BCE” text(s) is overstated in light of what Lewis claims, and is inconsistent with his stated minimalism. As Steve Hays has told us, “Avalos is a minimalist about Moses and a maximalist about Sargon.” It’s obvious that “ideology” is driving him rather than the “actual evidence.” Thus, what Avalos said in response to Hoffmeier: “That would mean that my claim about the Sargon story predating the Moses story has been vindicated by Triablogue’s own expert,” is overreaching on Avalos’s part. The only way Avalos can claim the Sargon story predates “the Moses story” is by giving Exodus a date before the “seventh century BCE.” His minimalist criterion for an earlier date for Exodus precludes him from claiming an earlier date or development of the Sargon Legend. If he accepts much of the evidence Lewis offers for an early date, that gets Exodus an earlier date. Therefore, he must take the highly liberal position on Exodus to maintain the Legend’s literary priority. Needless to say, this argument isn’t going to be very convincing or cogent to any one other than a liberal minimalist.
So much for the priority of the Legend over Exodus issue. Let’s now look at Lewis’s actual argument for dependency. Avalos’s position on dependency is vague. Says Avalos,
“I am not arguing that the Moses legend is copied directly from the Sargon legend. However, the similarities are too many to posit that two people experienced so many similar things independently. We have one reasonable explanation, and that is that there was some literary relationship, even if indirect, between these stories.”What does “copied directly” mean? That the author of Exodus had the Legend sitting off to the left of his manuscript and copied it much like a child copies a friend’s homework assignment? That there is a one-to-one correspondence between the two? This is so absurd one has to wonder why Avalos even mentions it. Everyone, and I mean everyone, admits that there are plenty of differences between the two stories. The Exodus scribe would have to be the worst copiest ever. What does “some literary relationship” mean? Indeed, an indirect relationship? In addition, why think that we only have “one reasonable solution?” Didn’t Loftus tell us in the book Avalos offered the “praise blurb,” that “there is always the possibility that the evidence leading to different conclusions did not survive or was destroyed, especially the farther we go back in time … [there are always] several alternative conclusions…” (Loftus 192). Loftus spent much of his time arguing against the idea that some historical event happened “just the way” people said it did. Since there are always other possible ways things could have gone, Loftus feels he can reject any historical claim. He didn’t much like the “one reasonable solution” arguments from Craig, Moreland, &c. So would Avalos care to debunk Loftus’s approach to history, or is protecting the sheep and making them feel like they have good reasons to disbelieve the number one priority in atheism?
I will now turn to Lewis and see if we can shed any light on Avalos’s claims.
Lewis sees both Sargon and “the Moses story” as examples of a broader legend, “the exposed hero legend.” Lewis finds over 70 of these legends throughout history. He even includes Jesus as an example (Lewis, 164). The motifs that emerge in the exposed-hero tales are:
I. Explanation of abandonment
II. Noble birth
III. Preparation for exposure
V. Nurse in an unusual manner
VI. Discovery and Adoption
VII. Accomplishment of the hero
Not all of the stories have all of the elements. In fact, some even do not include some of the most “crucial” elements of the exposed-hero folklore, yet they are included (cf. 244). And one of them even excludes “the most crucial element of the tale-type,” exposure, yet it is still included as a type of exposed-hero tale (Lewis, 247). “Other versions … have altered the normal form of the exposure element so that it is hardly recognizable” (ibid), yet they are included. There are also thirteen other “miscellaneous details” that are not included in the core (Lewis, 250-253), yet you don’t even need to have the most crucial element(s) to be included. This seems somewhat arbitrary since a couple of the miscellaneous details have over 30 representatives. Lewis also postulates an archetype, “the Ur-form or ultimate archetype” (Lewis, 260), of the exposed-hero tales. This has less than the VII elements above, and will be discussed further below.
As Lewis notes, there are many differences between the Legend and the “Hebrew story” (Lewis, 264). Lewis lists five “innovations” on the exposed-hero motif, but there are more. For example, Sarna states, “The supposed close affinities between this folkloristic composition and our Exodus narrative are fanciful. In fact, the story of Moses’ birth departs from the Sargon legend and from the genre in general in so many significant respects that one almost gets the impression of a conscious attempt on the part of the biblical narrator to disassociate this narrative from the features otherwise characteristic of foundling hero motifs” (Sarna, 30-31).
George Coats notes another very interesting difference. Coats notes that “by having the sister watch over Moses and the mother nurse him, the family is fully present in contrast with that of Sargon’s family” (see Coats, Moses: Heroic Man of G-d, cited in Finlay, 237, emphasis mine). Therefore, this might not even be a real abandonment. What is important on this is that Lewis himself claims that the Egyptian story of Horus is “not truly a version of the exposed-hero tail” because, Horus has his mother present with him (Lewis, 265)!
Lewis also claims, “other major components of the [Horus] tale are also lacking” (ibid). And scholars like Hoffmeier, Currid, Hess, Sarna, Coats, Finlay, Enns, etc., have pointed out that major components of the Moses story are missing too. For example, many do not agree with Lewis that II is present in the Moses story. V is missing too, and with the others there may be some general agreement, but the specifics show disanalogies. For example, Lewis claims that the exposed-hero tale is a sub-type of the rags-to-riches tale. Since it is, being adopted by a commoner is probably in the original, and makes the rags-to-riches tale complete (cf. Lewis, 249). However, a princess adopted Moses. To make the general “discovery” an important feature is a bit underwhelming since it is necessary that an exposed child is discovered since if they were not there would be no rest of the story!
VII is also vague. Lewis maintains that the “accomplishments” are in some way a reference to fame or kingship. But many have noted that this is not the case with Moses. Steve Hays even mentioned this to Avalos. Hays wrote, “What about VII? Did Moses become a king? No. In fact, we have a double reversal of fortunes in Exod 2. He's spared infanticide. And he's moving up the social ladder. But then he becomes a fugitive. Moreover, Moses is even denied an opportunity to enter the Promised Land.”
For reasons like this (and there are many, many more), scholars like Finlay can note in his authoritative account of Hebrew birth stories, that “In light of the evidence, it is fair to say, that although dependence of Exodus 2 on some version of the Sargon legend is possible, it has not been definitively demonstrated” (Finlay, 238). Non-minimalists like Finlay &c claim this, why is a minimalist like Avalos not?
Continuing with Lewis’s discussion of the Exodus account and the Legend, he says that we must accept “the premise that the Hebrew author of the Moses birth legend introduced innovations to the tale of the exposed-hero” and that “[w]ere we to strip away all the obvious innovations present in the Exodus birth story, we should be left with the basic tale structure…” (Lewis, 265). The “tale structure” is the I - VII above. “After eliminating the Hebrew contributions, one finds a tale structure based on component I, II, III, IV, VI, and VII, the same pattern present in the Sargon legend and the hypothetical archetype” (Lewis, 266, emphasis mine). Even though we’ve disputed some of Lewis’s “components,” and we must point out how nice it must be to be able to slice and dice away at stories in order to get them to fit into a pre-set argument, we can see some of the problems with Avalos’s claim above.
Recall I cited Avalos as claiming:
“I am not arguing that the Moses legend is copied directly from the Sargon legend. However, the similarities are too many to posit that two people experienced so many similar things independently. We have one reasonable explanation, and that is that there was some literary relationship, even if indirect, between these stories.”But Lewis doesn’t even claim this much! First, note that what Moses and Sargon have in common, if they do, is the structure of exposed-hero tales. This, at best, shows that, if there was dependency, it was either on the Sargon Legend or the “hypothetical archetype.” But recall that Avalos came in defending Evan, without offering so much as a critical word, who had argued that “Moses was based on Sargon.” But this isn’t even demonstrable by using Lewis. Note that Avalos claims that there is some relationship “between these stories,” i.e., the “stories” of “the Moses legend” and “the Sargon legend.” But even for Lewis, there is more than one reasonable explanation, both are based on the archetype. So Avalos misstates Lewis’s case, again.
Second, Avalos’s minimalism does not fit with what Lewis claims. Lewis goes on to say that “The author of the Moses story may have known of and been influenced by the Sargon tale…” (Lewis, 266). There’s no “actual evidence” for this. It’s conjectural. It has a lot of holes.
Third, and most devastating, Lewis claims, “Of course, the Moses birth story might just as easily have derived from an unknown version of the exposed-hero tale” (Lewis, 266, emphasis mine)! To put this concession into perspective, suppose you are a jury member at a murder trial. The prosecutor marshals all kinds of circumstantial evidence to prove that the defendant, Mr. Jones, “did it.” Then, during closing arguments, after he reiterates his case against Mr. Jones, he says, “Of course, the murder might just as easily have been committed by Mr. Smith!” Would you, as a juror, ever find the defendant guilty? So how can the reader of Lewis, especially the minimalist conclude that Moses is based on the Sargon Legend when the Moses birth story could have just as easily been based on another version of the exposed-hero tale? It’s an interesting conjecture, and that’s about it. Avalos overreaches on and misstates Lewis’s significance, again.
In order to wrap this section up I should discuss Lewis’s claim that Exodus 2 was based on at least some version of the exposed-hero tale. Though I have shown some reason to doubt this, there are many who have noted that Moses’ birth story has some commonality with other exposed-hero tales or birth-legends. So, what if Moses’ birth is based or dependant or in the same genre as an exposed-hero tale?
First, would this mean that Exodus 2 was not based on historical fact? But even Lewis himself states that “one should at least consider that in the case of Sargon or any of the other historic heroes, the popular narrative of the unusual birth may have been based on some historical fact” (Lewis, 267). So the cash value for those who want to argue for Moses’ birth being based on some prior legend, and who point us to Lewis, is that they're not establishing that what was reported was simply “myth.” So Evan overreaches Avalos’s “standard” and authoritative monograph when he claims, “I think the story of Sargon being floated in a basket of reeds down the river as an infant is a myth (that predates the Moses myth).” Again, Avalos didn’t offer any critical reaction to Evan. Moreover, it seems Avalos is of this opinion too, but then why point us to Lewis as the almighty demonstrator that Moses’ birth story was not a myth? If Avalos claims that Lewis and his arguments do not prove that Exodus 2 is unhistorical, then what did he think he was doing?
Second, we know many people who seem to fit the exposed-hero tale, yet their stories are real. For example, William Appes, abandoned by his grandmother, rescued by a commoner, and later became hero and leader to the Mashpee people. Malcolm X also has an exposed-hero story. Jean-Jacque Rousseau also fits the motif.
Third, many commentators have noted the heavy connection between Exodus and Genesis. Between Moses and Noah. Between the basket and the ark. Some of the connections are: (i) the opening words of Exodus echo Genesis at several points. Exodus 1:1 recalls Gen. 10:1; 11:27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 46:8; (ii) The increase of peoples in Exodus 1:7 brings to mind Gen. 1:28; 9:1; (iii) Both Moses and Noah are placed in an “ark” (tebah) waterproofed with bitumen; (iv) both Moses and Noah are selected to undergo a watery fate; (iv) both are vehicles through whom God “creates” a new people for his own purposes; (v) Moses’ safe passage on the Nile looks back to Noah’s safe passage, and ahead to the safe passage of God’s people through the red sea. And so just as Avalos claimed that for Moses to have those tale-types in common with Sargon was “too coincidental,” we can force him to say the same of Moses and Noah. Indeed, it is obvious that the author is trying to draw our attention to Noah rather than Sargon!
Noah may prove to be a bit more involved too. Noah fits with almost all of the elements Lewis says might be in the Ur-form, representing a more “simple” form of the exposed-hero tale. Noah was exposed, prepared for exposure, had a father listed in the royal line of descent in the Bible, was 'discovered' by God and allowed to come back on land, and had his accomplishments listed. Thus there could be a case made that argues that the story of Noah is the Ur-form. This would also have the benefit of explaining any similarities between Sargon and Moses, as both might be roughly based on the tale-type. And even Lewis mentions that further investigation might involve looking into “the relationship of the birth story vessels of Sargon and Moses to the flood story arks…” (Lewis, 276). Thus, further study on exposed-hero tales that search for literary relationship or dependency could serve to bolster the overall Christian story. Lewis and Avalos might even end up unwittingly supporting Christian history. Of course, this is all speculative on my end, but not more so than a dependence of Moses on Sargon; indeed, my hypothesis might have more to say for it than does the Legend to Exodus 2.
The Christian can see that the Sargon Legend is not as hostile to the historicity of Moses as detractors might pretend. We have seen that a case for dependency rests on highly speculative and conjectural grounds. We have seen that even if there is reliance upon an exposed-hero tale structure, this does not mean the Moses birth story is false. And we have seen that there is a possible ultimate archetype that is consistent with Christian history, even having the explanatory value of explaining any “coincidences” between Moses and the Sargon Legend in structure. We have further seen that Hector Avalos was less than forthcoming and honest about the significance of Lewis’s monograph. We even saw that in the end, according to Lewis, any objective jury in the world would declare a defendant innocent of the charges leveled at him. When all is said and done, when all the arguments for dependency upon the Legend of Sargon are brought to bear, the expert in the case claims, “it could have just as easily been based on something else."
Brettler, Mark, The Creation of History in Ancient Israel, Routledge, 1995.
Enns, Peter, Exodus, Zondervan, 2000
Finlay, Timothy, The Birth Report Genre in the Hebrew Bible, J.C.B. Mohr, 2005
Lewis, Brian, The Sargon Legend: A Study of the Akkadian Text and The Tale of the Hero Who Was Exposed at Birth, Cambridge, 1980.
Loftus, John, Why I Became an Atheist, Prometheus, 2008
Sarna, Nahum, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, Schoken, 1996