Wednesday, January 21, 2009

From the trenches of study: The Bronze Age Collapse

I'm sure I studied about it in seminary, but it was likely from the tangential perspective of establishing the reasonableness of the exodus. Never did I consider it from the perspective of the interconnected cultures of the Ancient World. I'm talking about the biggest historical sea change that you've never heard of: The Bronze Age Collapse.

Of course we're familiar with the disintegration of the Roman Empire (though James O'Donnell's latest book The Ruin of the Roman Empire presents the case that popular understanding about said disintegration is seriously flawed -- more on that book in another post). The Reformation radically transformed Europe, and thus the Americas. The Industrial Revolution plundered the countryside for laborers to move to cities, and certainly we're living through the turmoil and abundance brought on by the electronic information age. But the Bronze Age Collapse seems to overshadow them all.

The scenario was this: for about a millenium, villages had been coalescing into city/states and then into proto-empires. We see the rise of the great Sumerian City States, the Hittites (in modern day Turkey), the Myceneans in Greece, and of course, the granddaddy of them all -- the Egyptian Empire. By around 1500 bc, we see great powers jousting on the global scene and engaging in international trade and diplomacy. Civilization and culture were on the advance. This would be the backdrop for the Biblical Patriarchs.

And then starting in 1200, there's a collapse all around the Mediterranean. For the next 200 years we have evidence of destruction of cities from Troy (Northern Turkey) all the way down to Gaza. Egypt retreats it's armies from Syria and the Levant and Nubia. Society crumbles in Greece and Asia Minor to the point that literacy seems to have been lost for 200 years. The Mesopotamian kingdoms retreat their forces. The sparse records we do find from Egypt and Mesopotamia talk about "sea peoples" in the Mediterranean and "Arameans" in the east. We can imagine other people groups taking advantage of the chaos to plunder and claim other peoples property for their own.

This era makes the dark ages look like a twilight game of capture the flag.

And it is the historic backdrop to the Illiad and Odyssey and the books of Exodus and Joshua and Judges. Truly it could be said that this was a time when there was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Historians debate the causes behind said collapse: a natural disaster, a migration of peoples, an exhaustion of the potentcies of empire? Yet on the other side of it, new stronger political forms arose. And on the other side, we also see the establishment of the united kingdom of Israel.

Looking back we can see the hand of Providence turning the collapse of human empire into the seed bed out of which the state of Israel would arise. And perhaps in that knowledge we can find comfort for our own tumultuous times: that indeed all the nations of the earth are like a drop in a bucket; they are but dust on the scales of God. But as nations rise and fall, the word of the Lord endures forever.