Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Religion of Israel III: Origins of Ancient Israel

Dever's Synthesis on the Origins of Israel

At this point it may be well to revisit Dever's attempt at an explanation of the origins of what he terms "proto-Israel," Israel as it developed from Canaanite culture at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the early Iron Age (Iron I). As we saw, Dever reviewed (Who Where) the archaeological data and came to the conclusion (with essentially all other archaeologists) that "the biblical tradition grew out of earlier Canaanite culture (168)." But, Dever asked, what led to this development? Dever's theory, based on the data, is that while Israelite culture grew out of Canaanite culture, at the same time Israelite culture arose as "a radical protest" against what remained of Canaanite culture at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

By the end of the Late Bronze Age, Canaanite society was on the verge of collapse. Excavations of burial sites reveal great extremes in wealth and poverty. International trade, which had been thriving, had gone into a "tailspin" (probably due to disruption caused by the marauding Sea Peoples) and the economies of the coastal city states of Canaan had gone into a steep decline. Moreover, archeology shows that "a gradual depopulation of the cities" took place at this period (174-5).  Anarchy was overtaking the land: letters to Egypt from the local Canaanite authorities show that they had little control over the countryside (and probably even less control over the highlands) (177).  In this troubled environment the villagers and peasant farmers had every motive to seek a new life on the fringes of Canaan, out from under the thumb of the landlords of the coastal plains. These lower classes "were already impoverished and socially marginalized. They had nothing to lose. Withdrawing was prudent, if not necessary (179)."  A move to the highlands made sense in such circumstances. Archaeological surveys show that in the Late Bronze Age the highland settlements were "few in number, small and relatively dispersed (181)," so there was plenty of land available, and the lack of defensive fortifications around the new highland settlements indicates that life was also more secure in the highlands.

The focal point of these new settlements was the central highland area that is now known as Samaria. By contrast, Judea remained sparsely populated, so much so that Avi Ofer maintains that the archaeological data from the Judean hill country points to an Iron I population of less than 5,000. Given this lack of evidence for any significant influx of settlers into Judea, Ofer views the settlers of the Judean hills as descendants of the local Canaanite population, having no connection with any biblical tribe. Rather, he states that the name "Judah" applies to the region, not to any organized social group: "The concept of a 'tribe' for Judah [the region] lacks any concrete content, and seems to be a late, artificial application to the history of the families which settled in the land of Judah." Ofer's views are in accord with biblical traditions regarding the continued occupation of Jerusalem (and presumably its environs) by "Jebusites."

The Israelite scriptures themselves appear to contain recollections of a Canaanite origin of Israel. For example, Ezekiel, writing during the exile, has Yahweh say: "Your origin and your birth are of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother was a Hittite (16:3)." Ezekiel goes on to portray Yahweh's relationship to Israel as that of someone adopting an abandoned Canaanite baby, exposed in the fields, and making the child his own. Another well known example in which the Bible portrays the population of Israelite lands as mixed is the passage in Joshua that describes the Gibeonites and Shechemites as being absorbed into the Israelite confederacy during the (fictional) Conquest--certainly an acknowledgment that the complexity of early Israel did not fit the Deuteronomist's favored model of Conquest and Holy War ideology.

Thus, during this formative period the population in the highland areas that became known as Israel was a mixture of ethnic groups, of refugees and disgruntled, landless peasants. For this reason Dever maintains (quoting M. L. Chaney) that the persistent rhetoric in the Bible against the "Canaanites" is "less a rejection of the Canaanite gods per se as it is a radical critique and rejection of ... a corrupt landed aristocracy [that had] disenfranchised the peasant class." After all, the Bible makes few bones about the continuation of Canaanite religion among the Israelites. As further confirmation of his theory that Israel developed as a reaction to and rejection of the corruption and oppression of Canaanite city state society on the coastal plain, Dever notes that "almost everywhere in the biblical tradition the demand for social justice revolves around the land and its uses." The concern for justice for the rural population, says Dever, expressed so vividly by prophets such as Amos, has its roots in the economic realities of Late Bronze Age Canaan--the prophetic protest is the living expression of the indignation and desperation that gave birth to Israel (181-2).

In short, Dever argues that the abundant evidence (both archaeological and documentary) of social upheaval in the settled coastal areas and the concurrent massive, but notably peaceful, development of agricultural settlements in the previously sparsely populated highland area, which had a pastoral economy, "is best explained by positing a social revolution of some kind (186-8)." And this social revolution gave rise, out of the "mixed multitude" of the landless and the alienated Canaanites who sought a new life in the highlands, to a new identity and, ultimately, a new ethnicity and culture based on the ideal of agrarian egalitarianism: Israel.

Diverse Origins

While Israel developed largely from Canaanite culture, there are good reasons to believe that certain non-Canaanite elements may have been responsible for characteristics that became determinative for the Israelite identity. It has long been known that several of the nomadic tribes in what is now Southern Jordan, the Negev and the Sinai had close relations with Judah and Israel. The noted Egyptologist Donald Redford, in Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, 1992, makes the claim that Israel, in fact, derived from Shasu nomads who inhabited Moab, Edom, and the Negev at about the time that the Conquest was supposed to have occurred. Not only were these Shasu well known to the Egyptians but, as Dever notes: "There are several detailed descriptions of these Shasu, placing them principally on the semi-arid borders of Egyptian lands, particularly Moab, Edom, and into Negev. ... Several fascinating Egyptian texts make reference to a deity 'Yhw (in) the land of the Shasu,' recalling the Biblical tradition [in Exodus 3] that also derives Moses' knowledge of Yahweh from the land of Midian (150)."  While Redford's identification of Israel with the Shasu is doubtful, the fact that the Egyptians were well enough acquainted with the Shasu--perhaps through trade--and the fact that they had knowledge of Shasu religion and gods establishes another plausible link between Israel and Egypt.  Moreover, as we will see, there is additional reason to link Yahweh of Israel to the god Yhw of the nomads in these regions.

Let's approach this issue in a somewhat roundabout way. In Who Where Dever speculates about "The House of Joseph" as an "Exodus Group." First, Dever notes the disproportionate space accorded to the Joseph story cycle in Genesis, and the prominence accorded to the Josephite tribes: Ephraim, Manasseh and probably Benjamin. By the time of the Monarchy such is their prominence that the term "House of Joseph" is sometimes applied to all ten northern tribes. For example, Ezekiel 37:15ff distinguishes Judah from Joseph and "all the house of Israel." Psalm 80, too, appears to equate Israel with the House of Joseph:
Shepherd of Israel, listen,
you who lead Joseph like a flock;
enthroned on the cherubs,
shine on Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh;
rouse your strength,
come to us and save us!
Further, in 2 Samuel 3, the account of David's rise to kingship, we read that David was king over the House of Judah, while Saul's son Ishbaal was king of "all Israel": Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin. This distinction of Judah from Israel is notable and crops up time and again. Now, it is well known that Judahite sources in the Israelite scriptures tend to emphasize elements that lend legitimacy to the Davidic monarchy (e.g. Abraham's supposed association with the Judean hill country), whereas many of the traditions that are now seen as formative for Israelite religion come from the Joseph traditions: the captivity in Egypt, the Exodus/Sinai tradition, the Conquest and establishment of a cultic center at Shiloh, and the rise of a monarchy under Saul. Significantly, the Mushite priesthood, which claimed descent from Moses, was also centered in Israel--that is, in the House of Joseph.

Within this context it is worth comparing some of what we have already seen with material that links the Mushite tradition of Israel with non-Israelite elements. We have noted Redford's discussion of the Shasu nomads of the Transjordan, Negev and Sinai, with their god Yhw. Frank M. Cross, in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (CMHE), has documented the extensive Mushite ties to other nomads of these regions, especially the loose coalition of tribes known as Midian (which included the Kenites). When Moses was forced to flee from Egypt as a young man he took refuge in Midian with a Midianite priest who provided Moses with a wife (who may have been a priestess herself, Exodus 4:24-26). Exodus 18, significantly, portrays this Midianite priest--from a people later portrayed as a bitter enemy of Israel--as offering sacrifice to Yahweh! Moreover, it was while Moses was resident in Midian that God revealed His name, Yahweh, to Moses, and the account specifically notes that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had worshiped God as El Shadday and did not know God's name to be Yahweh (Exodus 6:3). But this relationship of Moses with Yahwist tribes in Sinai does not end when he returns to Egypt. Numbers 10 states that another Kenite relative, Hobab, was Moses' guide in the Sinai. As Dever remarks, "The survival of such traditions in the face of rival traditions of utter hostility to the Midianites is remarkable and suggests that Moses' interconnections with the priestly house of Midian were too old and well established to be suppressed quietly or forgotten (229-32)."

It seems likely that in all this the Bible preserves the recollection that Yahwism, far from being indigenous to Israel, was brought to Canaanite Israel by non-Canaanite elements. Not only may Moses (whoever he may have been) have adopted Yahwism during his stay in Midian, but we learn from Judges 1:16 that Hobab, from the Midianite priestly family, later moved to Arad in the Judean Negev and established the sanctuary at Arad (some versions refer to them living with the Amalekites, supposed relatives of Israel through Esau). Judges 4:11 has another branch of Hobab's Kenite priestly family establishing itself at another sacred site in northern Israel. Just how close Israel's ties with the Amalekites, another desert tribe from the same region in the south, were can be seen from the archaic "Song of Deborah" (Judges 5). As Deborah recounts those among "Yahweh's people" who marched against Sisera, the first mentioned is "Ephraim with its roots in Amalek (MG 24)." In addition, Deborah describes Yahweh as advancing to battle from Seir in Edom, another indication that Yahweh came to Israel as a deity identified with Semitic tribes in the desert south (cf. also Deuteronomy 33:2, Habbakuk 3:3). Deborah also mentions Israelite tribes that failed to turn out but, significantly, makes no mention at all of Judah, an indication that at some point in early Israel Amalek may have been closer to Israel than was Judah!

The significance of these traditions is twofold. First, they recognize that Israelite identity was fluid and included at an early, formative stage elements of desert tribes that later were regarded as hostile (Midian, Amalek, Edom). Second, those tribal elements, while smaller numerically than the indigenous Canaanite element, played a significant role in introducing Yahweh as a deity to Israel and in establishing priestly families of Yahweh in Israel--up to that time the God of Israel had been the Canaanite El. It may even be possible to trace the Moses legends and Israel's Egyptian ties (the Egyptian etymology of the names of leading figures, including Moses and Aaron, is well known) to links between Egypt and these southern desert tribes, since the route between Midian (in southern Jordan and northern Hijaz-Arabia) and Egypt was an important and well traveled caravan route. Unfortunately, it does not appear possible to determine exactly what the nature of these relationships was and precisely why these desert priestly families exercised as much influence in Israel as they apparently did.

1 comment:

  1. Also: always there's the consideration of "How much of this got written down (or at least retold) when different issues were shaping its interpretation?"

    ie, We find, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt" in two different places. One is where we're used to seeing it: in the Exodus where Moses leaves the Israelites alone for a moment & already they want to practice some of that idolatry they've heard so much about.... and the other is in 1 Kings, where Jereboam has just let a successful revolt against the 'Egyptian'-style forced labor imposed by David's descendants' regime in Judah -- and is re-establishing the traditional practices of Israel as his own 'state religion' against the Temple cult in Jerusalem.

    So when did Exodus take its final form? Not in Moses' day...