Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Religion of Israel I: Issues, Canaanite Origins

To this point we have, with related digressions, been discussing 1) Eliade's theory of archaic ontology, 2) the development of human thought through history based on archaic ontology and 3) reactions to perceived inadequacies in archaic ontology. This study has not been exhaustive, of course, and has focused on models largely provided by Christopher Dawson in his Progress and Religion. For example, we have noted that, in what Dawson calls the “World Religions” (the classic civilizational traditions of India, China, Persia and Greece), there arose a reaction to archaic ontology that focused on the issues of human mortality and the problem of evil. The archaic traditions had sought to explain these problems through variations on the myth of reincarnation--essentially an expression of faith in a solution at the same time that it was a recognition of the inability of human reason alone to provide a definitive answer. But these mythic explanations proved unsatisfactory for many, leading to the rise of movements such as Buddhism and Taoism, to cite two examples, which are properly understood as attempts to short circuit and escape the cosmic cycles that had come to be taken in a literal manner. Needless to say, the failure of these new salvific doctrines to address the nature of mythic expression was a serious weakness, one which was attacked by new movements of thinkers who had discovered and been intoxicated by the power of formal logic but had failed to understand its limitations (the Greek Sophists are one famous example).

We will turn now to Israel as an example of a response to these problems that approached a clear break with myth, without definitively achieving such a break. This in turn will lead us, after returning once more to Greek thought, to the Christian solution.

In studying Israel we will rely on the work of William Dever--especially What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (What, When) and Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From (Who, Where)--and those of Mark S. Smith: The Early History of God (EHG) and The Memoirs of God (MG). In doing so we will rehearse in somewhat more detail the findings of modern scholarship in order to place this whole topic in perspective. As Dever has written:

Whenever I give popular lectures, I find that one of the principal concerns of laypeople is the question of the “Exodus and the Conquest.” Anyone even remotely acquainted with Jewish and Christian traditions instinctively grasps that these are fundamental issues, as they have to do with the origins, as well as the distinctive nature, of the people of the Bible. People rightly ask, “If the story of the Exodus from Egypt is all a myth, what can we believe?” (Who, What, p. 3)

Israel Finkelstein, in The Bible Unearthed (BU, p. 34), likewise quotes the famous French Dominican Roland de Vaux, who stated that “if the historical faith of Israel isn't founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.” So, as we have noted in previous posts, this is a problem not only for lay people but also for the Church at its highest teaching levels. We will therefore be concerned, as before, with the answer to de Vaux's problem: in what sense, if any, is de Vaux correct?

The starting point for understanding the religion of Israel must be Israel itself, by which we mean the people who identified themselves as Israelites. The overwhelming consensus of scholars is now that Israel as a culturally identifiable entity came into being in the course of the 12th and 11th centuries B.C. as the result of developments that were indigenous to the land area known as Canaan. More specifically, Israel appears to have first become a recognized ethnic entity in the Central Highlands, the area later known as Samaria. Modern archaeological studies have shown that this new ethnic identity, Israel, was composed of elements that were culturally indigenous to Canaan--in other words, Israel did not arise as the result of an invasion from outside, as is portrayed in the book of Joshua.

What exactly do archaeology and history tell us? Dever (Who, Where) summarizes the facts conveniently. Toward the end of the late bronze age, the 13th century B.C., Canaan was dominated by lowland, coastal city states under Egyptian tutelage, but these lowland area was nearing social and economic collapse for a number of reasons. The late bronze age was a period of turmoil, largely having to do with foreign invasions from the sea. In contrast, the highland areas--what later came to be known as Judea, Samaria and Galilee--were sparsely settled and had no major cities. This situation changed during the 12th and 11th centuries B.C. Beginning at the end of the 13 century B.C. numerous (nearly 300) new settlements were established in the highlands. These settlements were quite small, with populations typically numbering between 100 and 300 inhabitants. The highlands, and most particularly the central highland area that we know as Samaria, underwent a veritable population explosion, while Judea and Galilee remained, by comparison, relatively sparsely settled. From a base population of approximately 12,000 there was an expansion to around 55,000 highland dwellers by the 12th century and 75,000 by the 11th century. As Dever notes, such an explosion "simply cannot be accounted for by natural increase alone, much less by positing small groups of pastoral nomads settling down." (What, When, 110). The beginning of an explanation for this phenomenon lies in the fact that these settlements show a marked cultural continuity with the late bronze age Canaanite culture of the lowlands.

What we find is that the highland settlements were small and agrarian in nature. There is no evidence of defensive fortifications of any significant kind nor of military organization--there is a notable lack of weapon finds for this period. Moreover, the settlements are by and large totally new--they are not built on the ruins of older settlements. They do, however, exhibit certain new features. One distinctive feature is the type of house, the U-shaped house form which was unprecedented in Canaan and remained characteristic of Israel throughout its history. This alone identifies the inhabitants of these settlements as Israelites. These settlements were typified by a subsistence farming economy and a loose tribal social organization, lacking either an aristocracy or a proletarian underclass and also lacking monumental structures such as forts or temples. Social resources appear to have been organized for agrarian purposes: construction and maintenance of extensive terracing, necessary for the agricultural exploitation of the highlands, as well as silos for food storage and cisterns for water storage--both new developments. Implements that have been discovered are of a very simple agricultural nature and, as noted above, not a single weapon has been found from this period. Clearly, however, these early Israelites were skilled farmers who brought their skills with them. Without such skills they could not have made a living in the inhospitable highland environment.

Culturally, there are several additional factors that illustrate the continuity between lowland Canaanites and the settlers in the highlands. A 12th century find shows that a Canaanite script was in use and that the language in use was a form of West Semitic Canaanite, related to Ugaritic. Moreover, the population was, from a ceramic standpoint, identical with the Canaanite lowlands, although as is to be expected from such simple communities its pottery is generally simple and utilitarian. This contrasts with the Mycenaean influences to be found in Philistine areas on the coast, influences that extend to a wide variety of cultural features. The only cultic item that has been discovered from this early period of Israel is a bronze bull figurine, clearly related to the worship of the principal male deity in the Canaanite pantheon: Bull El.

Dever identifies this period, 12-11th century, characterized by cultural continuity together with innovation, as Proto-Israelite. As to the center of this new culture, Dever refers to the Victory stele of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, dating to about 1210 B.C. The text on the stele lists the various states and peoples who were defeated by the Egyptians on a sweep through Canaan--including "Israel." It is noteworthy that the Victory stele characterizes "Israel" as a people rather than as an organized state, thus accurately mirroring archaeological data from that period. By a process of elimination, utilizing known peoples and cities and the Egyptian description of the route traveled, it is clear that the central highlands is the location of this new people known to the Egyptians as Israel.

To summarize, the archaeological evidence from the highlands of Canaan reveals that there is both backward and forward continuity. The culture of these regions is in significant respects a new development and displays, at a period identified by Biblical sources as Israelite, convincing continuity with the known Israelite monarchical period beginning in the 10th century B.C., yet at the same time the important continuities with the Canaanite culture of the lowlands are unquestionable. There is no evidence whatsoever for either an earlier or later beginning of Israelite culture. The conclusion is inescapable: Israel as an ethnic and cultural entity derives organically as an indigenous development of Canaanite origin.


  1. Very interesting piece. I haven't read your source books so I'm grateful for the summarised conclusions!

  2. You're very welcome. I've tried to arrange posts in a progressive, logical order.