February 05, 2013

Ancient Israel

I'm fascinated by ancient Israel- not for religious reasons but because for religious reasons documents have survived from a very ancient civilisation and from some quite interesting people in that civilisation.  William Dever's book on the origins of Israel is really interesting, not primarily because of its theological content. It basically argues that one story in the Bible (the Exodus story) is less likely to be true than another story in the Bible (Judges) when it comes to explaining who were the Ancient Israelites. That's interesting because it sheds light on a question that I think is important. If we exclude for a  moment theological explanations about why the idea of monotheism arose, and leave those as beyond the bounds of this article: we are still left trying to account for why monotheism arose and what the inspiration for the religious literature of the Bible was in historical terms.

Dever's account basically argues that the people we call Israelites- he calls them proto-Israelites- were Canaanites. If you imagine the ancient world in the second millennia BC- you are imagining a world that has been hit by economic crisis. We know that many of the great ancient states of that era were disturbed: Egypt was invaded by mysterious 'sea peoples', the Myceneans vanished never again to rise. Dever posits that all this stuff had an impact on Canaan. Falling farm yields, rising prices, rising inequality: these are all the attributes of crisis. And in letters from the Kings of Canaan to the Egyptians we can see these crises impacting on Canaan in those ways.

So the story he puts together goes like this. Groups of people in the Canaanite towns became frustrated and irritated and moved. They moved up into the hills around the coastal areas- into the hills near Jerusalem and began farming there. They elected their own chiefs. These chiefs fought with the Canaanite states below. He suggests this makes sense of the archaeological evidence which describes an increase in population in this hill country (and shows no record of the kinds of conquest that Joshua is said to have made)- and of Egyptian evidence which names Israel as the hill country. He devotes a lot of time to proving this- and I don't have either the expertise or the patience to rehearse the argument.

The implications though are really fascinating. Firstly they suggest that the Bible's attitudes to wealth and poverty are very much the attitudes of peasant farmers who were faced with inequality and mounting debt. The problem of debt slavery- so intrinsic to later societies right up until and beyond colonial Africa- is not unknown in the Bible and reflects this kind of societal transformation. Secondly the Bible's model of statehood must be influenced by this early history: so the Book of Judges becomes a very interesting text because it shows a movement from poverty and chieftenship to Kingship.

6 comments:

edmund said...

Interesting. Not sure how one could tell an invasion had happened or not. One thing worth noting though is that quite a bit of that theiss fits the bible pretty well-ie it's quite clear that Cannoninites and Israelistes are in lots of ways the same people if one reads the biblical narrative carefully (e.g the procedures for conversion where Joseph came from etc)

Gracchi said...

I think its largely evidence of city destruction or rather that there is no evidence of city destruction from the period of Joshua which implies there were no sieges hence no invasion.

edmund said...

a) that wouldnt' necessariy show no invasion (though might have implications for details of the invasion accounts ) but also you would always get evidence of a sege / burning down of a city after 3 thousand years9with peole using bits of cities ? I'm rather sceptical!

Gracchi said...

Hmmm I think there you and I disagree- you see there is plenty of evidence of city destruction across the ancient world. For example we can pinpoint city destruction at Troy in 1300 BC. We've been able to discern burnt cities around Troy right back to 1900 BC. So the fact that there is very little record of destruction suggests I think that the invasion story as told is highly unlikely.

Gracchi said...

Oh to tackle A- I think the point is that you would be unlikely to have an invasion without any evidence of city destruction- and the account is largely about city destruction

edmund said...

I think there's a difference between it being possible for city destruction to leave archeological remains and it being inevitable- not sure i agree on latter. As i understand it the efvidence is based a lot on the prescence and abscence of certian types of pottery which again is open to loads of problems (comprhensive looting etc)