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Notes from Limmud 2012

How Israel Began

Dr David Ilan

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

A number of books have been written about the topic of Israelite origins: Where we come from.

Biblical Account

In the Biblical account, the Israelites, having made a detour through present-day Jordan, entered the land at Gilgal, where all the males were circumcised, to start the covenant process. Then they went to Jericho and conquer it. Following this they took Ai, a settlement up in the hill country. Within the lifetime of Joshua the entire country is conquered. The process culimates in the covenant renewal at Mt Eval, as prescribed in Deut. 27:4-8.

Deuteronomy 27:4-8 דברים כז ד-ח
Therefore it shall be when you be gone over Jordan, that you shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. There shall you build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones: lift up no iron tool upon them. You shall build the altar of the Lord your God of whole stones: and you shall offer burnt offerings thereon unto the Lord your God: And you shall offer peace offerings, and shall eat there, and rejoice before the Lord your God. And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly. וְהָיָה בְּעָבְרְכֶם אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן תָּקִימוּ אֶת־הָאֲבָנִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּהַר עֵיבָל וְשַׂדְתָּ אוֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד׃ וּבָנִיתָ שָּׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים לֹא־תָנִיף עֲלֵיהֶם בַּרְזֶל׃ אֲבָנִים שְׁלֵמוֹת תִּבְנֶה אֶת־מִזְבַּח ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהַעֲלִיתָ עָלָיו עוֹלֹת לַה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃ וְזָבַחְתָּ שְׁלָמִים וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּׁם וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃ וְכָתַבְתָּ עַל־הָאֲבָנִים אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב׃

The final result is the division of the land into tribal areas. Some tribes don't work out and have to migrate, like Dan.

The Biblical authors took great pains to organise things for us chronologically. The problem is what happens when you take other cultures' chronologies and put them alongside the Biblical one. The Book of Kings works out well with other chronologies; most of the kings are mentioned extrabiblically. Once you go back to David and Solomon it becomes dodgy, and go back any further and there's no external evidence whatsoever.

However, they still look [lacuna]

Archaeological stites from the period

The problem is that if you start with the Biblical account, your interpretations may be skewed. When Garstang came to look at Jericho in the 1920s, he was looking to confirm the Biblical account. According to the Biblical chronology, he should have been finding Late Bronze Age, but there was no Late Bronze Age at Jericho. The site was destroyed 300 years before it should have been according to the Biblical chronology.

Then in the 1930s Ai was excavated. Not only is there no Late Bronze Age there, there's no Middle Bronze Age either. The site ends ca. 2300 BCE.

Over the years, 70/80 sites have been excavated. There's a great array of sites found in this time period but which were not destroyed at this time.

So, what does this site look like? Gilo was excavated in the early 1980s (before they built a shopping mall on top of it). They found animal corrals, small structures, a little bit of pottery, dating to the C13, early C12 BCE.

The hallmark of these sites there and elsewhere was collared rim pithos rims on the jars. This was a hallmark of the Israelite settlements in the hill country. It must be Israelite, because the Bible says this is the core of the Israelite settlement area, and there's lots of sites that agree with the Bible, even if there are quibbles and quirks. Another characteristic is pillared quadripartite (four-room) houses.

In the 1980s, Shaul Finkelstein excavated a site just outside Rosh HaAyin called Izbet Sartah. It's a little bit more preserved and a little bit more urban. There's lots of stone-lined pits used as grain silos there. This is a בֵּית אָב—a patriarchal household, the building block of Israelite and Canaanite society throughout the Biblical period. The head of the household would live in the central house; the grandparents and children around the outside. The grain silos are protected in the outside, from south to north.

These appear suddenly; previously the grain would have been kept upstairs. They're indicative of defence: i.e., there's a security problem; people had to hide their grain from raiding bandits. The bandits say "give me your grain" and you dig up twenty silos, but he doesn't know about your other twenty elsewhere.

The material culture is simple and straightforward. There is very little decoration. Some [sites] show indication of a literate society. An abecedary ostracon was found at Izbet Sarteh II; this is probably a scribal exercise, probably with a child who is being trained to write.

Most of the documents written by the senior scribes would have been written on papyrus, of which they had plenty: they [papyrus plants] were probably brought into the Middle Bronze Age by the Egyptians.

At Shilo, the Israelite capital in the time of Samuel, similar things were found.

In total, the picture is that there is an intense core of settlement in northern settlement around Shechem and Shilo, and a much less dense array in the hill country to the north and south. There is also a diachronic oscillation. In the Early Bronze Age there are very few settlements, then lots in the Middle Bronze Age, then a big drop off, and then it rises again in the Late Bronze Age.

At Mt Eval, the mountain where the covenant renewal took place, a building was found which was announced as Joshua's altar. Archaeologists of course said, "Stop doing archaeology with the Bible in your hand; it's a guard tower or something."

It has all around it a series of pits containing thousands of animal bones, all from kosher animals. And the animals have been slaughtered and butchered according to the prescriptions in the Biblical texts,

There were also lots of cooking pots, and a Ramesside scarab seal (ca. 1250-1150 BCE).

Resulting hypotheses for the origins of Israel

  • The earliest proposed model is the rapid conquest model (Albright Yadin, Ben-Tor), more or less as per the Bible. 95% of scholars today say this model is dead.
  • In the 1920s, Albrecht Alt proposed that it looked more like the Bedouin: a tribal people, so there was an incursion from the east. They settled the hill country and then went on into the lowlands, and the Biblical chronoilogy, writing hundreds of years later, conflated the two. Noth expanded this theory.
  • In the 1960s/70s, under the influence of Marxist archaeology, Dwight Mendenhall, followed by Norman Gottwald, proposed that actually what happened here was a peasant revolt by the agricultural proletariat against the Canaanite overlords, who took up for the hill country and established a new society. Nobody accepts this any more.
  • In the 1980s Israel Finkelstein proposed a new model saying these people from the Middle Bronze Age, after having their civilisation destroyed by the top-heavy poliitical pyramid and Egyptian incursions abandoned their society and became nomads. People were still there, but as a nomad society they did not leave artefacts. When everything collapsed ca. 1200 BCE, they had to find a solution because nomads do not live alone; they need to live in symbiosis with city dwellers, for trade and so forth. So they settled and started producing olive oil and so forth.
  • A model from the 1960s (Callaway, Stager): ruralising peasants. They expanded from the lowlands up into the hills.

The three models still accepted today are the gradual infiltration and the last two models, and the one which will be outlined below.

In ca. 1207 we have mention of Israel in the Merneptah Stele:

The princes are prostrate, saying, "Peace!"
Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin,
    Hatti is pacified;
        The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
        Ashkelon has been overcome;
        Gezer has been captured;
        Yano'am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.

It's in [lacuna?] archaeological order proceeding ?from the north. [I think this means the stele details the conquests of Merneptah from the north southwards.] We know the reference to Israel is to a people and not a place because it has the determinative for a people.

What about the Egyptians?

At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, there are several big players in the region: the Egyptians, the Hittite Empire, Mycenaeans, the Mittani Empire to the [northeast].

Around 1450 Egyptians were the biggest player. Prior to this Egypt had been taken over by the reviled Asiatics [Hyksos], but ca. 1550 they finally managed to throw them out. Their motto was "never agsain", and part of making sure of this was conquest of the places that might invade them, so they took over the Levant.

Then, in the fourteenth century, Egypt turned inwards during the Amarna period: Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (Akhenaton). We know from the Amarna letters that things were not good: the Canaanite gocernos kept writing asking for soldiers to protect them from the Habiru, and complaining that their lettes were not being answered.

Then, after the 18th Dynasty was overthrown, and the 19th Dynasty established (of which the greatest king was Rameses II), there was a superpower confrontation between Egypt and the Hittite Empire.

At this time, the Egyptians fortified their holdings in Canaan to serve as a buffer and staging post for their armies.

[slides:] At Tel Beth Shean, there's an Egyptian palace; statues of kings and inscriptions, the Egyptian governor's residence. Lots of Egyptian material culture: it wasn't just one Egyptian overseer and the rest being Canaanites: there were Egyptians actually living there. At Tel Dan in the north there are more than thirty Egyptian cooking pots. At Beit Shean there is evidence it wasn't just Egyptians. There is an Egyptian-type coffin lid, but the picute on it does not look Egyptian; he's wearing a Philistine headdress.

There are tens of other sites. At Lachish an Egyptian temple, dating to ca. 1200 BCE. Another temple with an Egyptianising portrayal of a goddess, whether Egyptian or Canaanite or a syncretisation of the two.

The keystone event of Rameses II's rule was the Battle of Kadesh, portrayed in a number of places. It was described as a glorious victory by the Egyptians, but in the peace treaty written by the Hittites, they say they won. So it was a tie. We find it both in Hattusha, the Hittite capital and various places in Egypt.

The Hittites and the Egyptians divided up the Levant into spheres of influence. How did this impact upon the Egyptian holdings in Canaan?

In Joshua and Judges there is no mention of Egyptians whatsoever.* But there is archaeological evidence that they were there!

* Why not, then? Maybe much of the story of the time in Egypt was actually taking place in Canaan, which was Egyptian at the time. You can't get two million people in the Sinai. [MSG: So? Nobody believes it was really two million people nowadays! The word אֶלֶף is interpreted to mean either "thousand", or a military unit, under an אַלוּף (chief).]

Consider the collared rim pithos. Perhaps these settlements could be attributed to an Egyptian system conquering the hll country and producing cash crops from Israel. Since time immemorial what Egypt has needed from Israel is olive oil and wine. Eventually they did learn how to make wine and oil, but it was not very good; they preferred the superior Canaanite wine and oil. With a large population, they had an insatiable need for these. So maybe the collared rim jars were to send these to Egypt.

No: this hypothesis is wrong, because there are few collared rim jars on the coast and none in Egypt. (They're also too large to transport, fully loaded. The speaker tried, on a donkey cart, and the cart broke and the donkeys did not move. You could do it with camels, but camels didn't appear there until about 1000 BCE.)

But then in 2001 Avner Raban measured the jars and discovered all the jars were the same shape, size (within 10%) and mouth diameter. They were also found from Tel Dan to Megiddo to Bth Shean to Aphek to Lachish. In smaller sites they are in strategic posiitons, overlooking roads or near water sources. Surely this must have been the work of a directing authority. Raban didn't explicitly mention the Egyptians, but it was clear to the speaker that that is whom he meant.

If these are Egyptians, what are they doing in such large quantities in the central highlands?

The speaker suggests they did what the USAns and Europeans did in Iraq and Aghanistan not so long ago. They created a surge in the lowlands, then extended it to the hill country to pacify them following Habiru raids. How did they do this? They used the same technique that the Romans used. They said: you soldiers that were serving in the garrisons—who were not just Egyptians, but also Nubians, Mycaeneans, etc—will be granted a plot of land when you finish your service. We'll give you seed, and everthing you need to start your own homestead.

The speaker's thesis is that all these settlements, or at least the large majority of them, were instigated by the Egyptians.

The Egyptians held on to about 1140 BCE: the surge didn't work. Some scholars feel that the withdrawal from Canaan was carried out in a staged manner: some abandoned under Rameses II, and so forth until Rameses VI. But a conquering power never leaves under its own volition; there are always external factors. Here there were probably two factors: the insurgents locally, and political instability and conflict within Egypt. Eventually, probably under Rameses VI, the Egyptian crown said we can't do this any more, we have to leave.

All these people they had hired now had to decide what to do. Some no doubt went back, but what about all those who had married local women? Many people who had manned the fortresses or trading points stayed.

At this time the entire Eastern Mediterranean is in chaos. The Mycaenean Empire has collapsed; the Mitanni are long gone, pirates are roaming the seas. No one wanted to go back to where you came from; it was probably worse there. They might have sent a message to their family in Kition in Cyprus or wherever saying come here, we are armed and we have a good society here.


What is the evidence for this?

The Egyptian cooking pots at Tel Dan produced in Stratum VII are still around in Stratum IVB in 950/1000 BCE. The individual pots do not last long, but they're still being made.

Many of the Levites' names in the Bible are of Egyptian origin: Miriam = "beloved of Amu(n)"; in Egyptian: Mery-Amu. Moses = "son of" [found in names such as Ahmose, Tutmose, despite the Hebrew folk etymology given in the Bible: An Egyptian princess would not give her adoptive son a foreign name!]. Hophni; Phinehas [meaning dark-skinned one, i.e. Cushite (Nubian)]. This suggested to some scholars[who?]* that something about our early religion is Egyptian.

* [Sorry; I can't help doing this now.]

Once the Egyptiains left things became complicated: threatened security, the struggle to subsist, immigration, shifting alliances, religious transformation—subtle indications of this, to be given in a subsequent lecture. This is what the Book of Judges is portraying.

Most people think the Book of Judges is a bunch of stories, but the archaeological and historical evidence suggests the Book of Judges is actually a [lacuna, presumably realistic portrayal of the turbulence and anarchy of the era].


So, who were the Israelites?

  • There was someone called Israel and we partly came from them.
  • Some suggest one of the groups of the Sea Peoples which raided the eastern Mediterranean at this time, the Danuna, were the origin of the tribe of Dan.
  • Aegean textile weights and a stamp seal from Cyprus [turned up in archaeological sites in Canaan at this period, indicating people coming there from across the Mediterranean. (I presume this was the intended meaning—the speaker was going too fast here for me to keep up).]
  • Egyptians—the Levites and others.
  • Other ethnic groups that are mentioned in the Biblical texts, who were there originally or came with the Egyptians and stayed.

All these gradually amalgamated together to become Israel. Eventually [this led to] the coalescence* of new independent polities: Israel, Judah, Aram, Tyre, Moab, Edom, Philistia... [Further down the line we had] the formulation of borders [and then eventually] the establishment of kingship.

* [I think: the word I typed was "cpas;oeceme"; "coalescence" is a possible interpretation if my right hand was one character to the right of where it should have been. When I type this fast, my spelling goes all over the place.]

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