Emergence of Israel
Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (April-June 1995): 145-62
and the Emergence of Israel
Eugene H. Merrill
Modern scholars are in general agreement that biblical texts, on the one hand, and archaeology and other extrabiblical data, on the other, must be employed in a symbiotic, integrative way if a proper understanding of Israel’s ancient past is to be achieved. This is particularly true of the premonarchic era in which Israel emerged as an identifiable ethnic and political entity, for it is precisely in that era that traditional and more modern, ’progressive’ views of historical reality collide. The purpose of this article is to show not only that the canonical tradition about Israel’s emergence rests on unassailable documentary evidence but also that it finds support in properly interpreted extrabiblical data as well. The integration of Egyptian and Amarna texts with contemporary sociological, ethnographic, and ecological-economic studies yields a satisfying framework within which the traditional understanding of the Old Testament narrative account of the Exodus, the conquest, and the emergence of Israel can be embraced. More particularly, the thesis proposed here is that the arguments advanced lately that Israel’s emergence is in view in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age transition are erroneous, and that the period and circumstances described by these studies best reflect the turbulent times of the judges of Israel, particularly those of Deborah, Gideon, and Abimelech (Judg. 4-9). Consequently ’emergence’ is not the appropriate term for referring to this period, but rather one should speak of disintegration and ’re-emergence.’
The major issues involved in addressing the matter of Israel’s emergence are (a) the historiographical nature and reliability of the Old Testament accounts which describe it, (b) the chronological setting in which it should be placed, and (c) the proper interpretation of both the biblical and extrabiblical data that bear on the matter. These will be considered briefly in that order.
The Historicity Of The Old Testament Accounts
Before the rise of 18th-century rationalism with its attendant historical pyrrhonism, there was little doubt that the events of biblical history took place exactly as they are recounted in the sacred text. The past two centuries have witnessed a reaction to such a priori ways of looking at the Old Testament, however, and traditio-historical presuppositions and methods have taken their place. The result is that the Bible has been divested of any uniqueness as a historical record and has come to be viewed as having the same nature and character as any other ancient text, one to be subjected to scientific historical-critical analysis. In fact, inasmuch as the Old Testament is a religious compendium, it is all the more to be viewed with a jaundiced eye, it is argued, for its very purpose is not inherently historical but theological or ideological. Its witness to Israel’s emergence, then, cannot be taken at face value but must be understood as the final stage of a redactionary process that sought some aetiological basis for Israel’s traditions of origin.
The Chronology Behind The Old Testament Accounts
The chronological problem has to do, first, with the date of the Exodus and conquest and then with the setting of the so-called ’narratives of emergence.’ To take the latter first, there is virtual consensus among modern scholars that Israel evolved from its prenational (or even pretribal) form at the time of transition from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron periods, that is, at about 1200 B.C. In fact, it is argued, the emergence may well explain some of the cultural and demographic features of the transition. However, if the postulated emergence occurred in connection with the biblical conquest traditions, a view almost universally held, the ’conquest’ itself (and the prior Exodus) must have taken place in its most intensive phase in the late 13th century. This proposal is obviously in line with the so-called ’late date’ of the Exodus-conquest, so much so that there can be little doubt that the late date itself has largely informed the entire discussion as to the most appropriate setting for Israel’s emergence.
The connection between conquest and Late Bronze/Early Iron age emergence is rendered moot, however, if the traditional 1400-1375 B.C. date for the conquest can be sustained, for the ’emergence’ of Israel as traditionally understood would have occurred at least 150 years before the close of the Late Bronze period. Evidence for emergence around 1200 B.C. would therefore have to be interpreted in some other way. There is no opportunity here to set forth the case for the early conquest date, a case that this writer has elaborated in detail elsewhere, but there is increasing evidence for its validity. What can be said is that regardless of which model of the conquest one adopts, a conquest in the 14th century has no bearing on the data recent studies have linked to the emergence of Israel, data that, as will be shown later in this article, could as well relate to the times of Israel’s judges.
Models Of Israel’s Origins
The third problem pertains to the very question of Israel’s origins and the model that best accommodates them. There are two general categories of these, the conquest and the nonconquest, the former, of course, best describing the Bible’s own version. Within each of these there are diverse approaches that must be described at least briefly.
The conquest models. The most common understanding of the conquest in precritical times was that of a violently destructive incursion of Canaan by Israel’s armies, one that in seven years or so annihilated much of the indigenous population and reduced the cities, towns, and other structures to rubble. The settlement of Israel (i.e., its ’emergence’) would then have required massive rebuilding and widespread if gradual occupation of conquered areas.
Historical-critical analysis resulted, in the early 20th century, in a view of the conquest that was indeed military and destructive in character, but one that was not undertaken by 12 unified tribes and all at once. Albrecht Alt, followed by Martin Noth, articulated the position that the conquest was long and drawn out, that it was a gradual penetration of Canaan by outside pastoralists who eventually united with each other as tribes and who also brought into their federation indigenous Canaanite peoples. Having coalesced into a system of tribes, Noth’s so-called amphictyony,they developed among themselves a set of common ancestral and religious traditions and eventually emerged as Israel, a people centered around the worship of Yahweh. This would have reached its final form by 1200 B.C., the very date of the Late Bronze/Early Iron transition. Archaeological evidences of late 13th-century destruction were, to Alt and Noth, indications of the violence sometimes associated with Israel’s struggle for tribal affiliation in the face of continuing Canaanite resistance.
A variation on the Alt-Noth hypothesis is that of Albright and Bright, the dominant view of those who espouse a conquest model. Their approach differs from the one just described primarily in their more willing acceptance of the historical credibility of the traditions that underlie Israel’s own understanding and account of her origins. That is, the formation of the tribes is taken to be essentially as the Old Testament record describes it, though such notions as the 12 tribes being physical descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob are discounted. Another difference is that the Albright-Bright school perceives the tribal federation as having come about because of a prior and common allegiance to Yahweh. Israel emerged, that is, as a collection of tribes, some indigenous and some from the outside, who confessed a common heritage and faith and who, on that basis, became a recognizably distinct people. As for the conquest, it did take place, and with violent repercussions, sometime in the 13th century. It should not be seen as an all-Israel invasion, however, but as the action of only some of the tribes who experienced Canaanite resistance to their attempts to locate within the land.
The nonconquest models. Increasing skepticism as to the historical reliability of Israel’s traditions and a resurgence of interest in the sociological, anthropological, and environmental matrix of those traditions have given rise in the past 20 years or so to explanations for Israel’s emergence that radically reinterpret or even omit from consideration the biblical witness to the event. These new approaches share in common a denial of a conquest as normally understood and opt rather for (a) a peaceful infiltration of Canaan by pastoralist seminomads who sought a sedentary life; (b) a ’peasants’ revolt’ that delivered indigenous oppressed peoples from their elitist local overlords; or (c) a population displacement, voluntary or involuntary, that, because of a number of environmental factors, removed large numbers of peoples from the plains and valleys to the highlands of Palestine. The first of these is similar to the conquest model insofar as these immigrants who became Israel came from the outside, but the violent nature of their incursion was minimal or nonexistent. By and large, this hypothesis, with the conquest model in general, has been rejected by current proponents of emergence models, primarily because the main argument on which it is based--transition from foreign, outside pastoralism to sedentarianism--is directly contrary to studies that show the movement always to be from urban or agricultural life to nomadism in times of ecological or economic crisis.
The ’peasants’ revolt’ model, most vigorously defended by Gottwald, has also fallen into disfavor after an initial flurry of acceptance. Its thesis, in line with Marxist economic theory, is that Israel originated as a rebel movement instigated by Canaanite peasants aided and abetted by outsiders such as Habiru and heterogeneous peoples who came to be known as Israel. The reason for the uprising was a set of circumstances, not all clear, that forced the rulers of the hill country city-states to impose harsh disciplines in the form of taxation, corvée labor, military service, and the like. When the situation became intolerable, revolution erupted on a wide scale and the peasants, organizing themselves along clan and tribal lines, emerged into an entity that became Israel thanks to the religious and other contributions that the proto-Israelite elements had made.
This model, as suggested, has largely been abandoned because it finds little or no basis in the Old Testament, it is based on modern theories of economic determinism for which there are no clear analogies from the ancient world, and it presupposes a violent social and structural disruption that, to advocates of a model that already precludes anything but peaceful change, renders it untenable. The revolt model, from this writer’s point of view, does have the advantage of locating the emergence of Israel in the Amarna period, that is, approximately in the time of the early date conquest, but it fails in every other respect to take the biblical tradition seriously.
The last two decades have given birth to new reconstructions of Israel’s origins, ones that feel no commitment to the biblical record, at least as a point of departure. Their common ground is analysis of premonarchic Palestine in reference to archaeological, technological, climatic, agricultural, and economic phenomena as viewed against anthropological, sociological, and economic theory derived primarily from research of contemporary societies. That is, modern systems of human interrelationship are superimposed on the environmental map of ancient times as that map is drawn from the evidence of ’hard’ science.
Differences of approach exist, of course, within this overall method. Insofar as the Old Testament traditions are concerned, the more extreme (and objective?) proponents of such models either ignore them entirely or relegate them to the periphery of their discussion. Those who encompass the biblical witness within their purview tend to reinterpret the written record in order to bring it into line with the picture derived by ecological-sociological analysis. In any event, current theories of Israel’s emergence seem little concerned about the Old Testament account except as it might coincide with conclusions based on other evidence.
Aware of the subjectivism and lack of scientific method of interpolating current socioeconomic theory into ancient settings, most ’emergentists’ are focusing on the more solid data to be recovered by excavation, surface studies, and even demographic and environmental constructs based on them and on historically documentable trends. This is as it should be and if the method is pursued with proper and acceptable canons of scientific investigation, conservative Bible scholars should welcome its results and incorporate them into their own understanding of the tradition. But part of that method is to let the Bible speak on its own terms about Israel’s origins without prejudging the case by illegitimate historical-critical analysis and/or the imposition of a heavy-handed socioeconomic gridwork that determines the outcome in advance.
The Old Testament Data
Regardless of one’s view of the date of the conquest and occupation of Canaan, the biblical narratives--the only ones extant that deal directly and unambiguously with these events--must be examined carefully in themselves and against the cultural and environmental milieu in which they took place. When the Old Testament chronology is factored in, the frame of reference is still more narrowly defined and the need for proper integration of the twin testimonies of Bible and background all the more acute. Thus there follows a brief discussion of the biblical and extrabiblical data respectively and a following attempt to find their most harmonious intersection.
The conquest narratives. The account in the Book of Joshua of Israel’s conquest and settlement of Canaan is one of the most misinterpreted texts in the entire Bible. This has come about because of inadequate attention to the technical language of military strategy throughout the narrative and understating the significance of texts elsewhere in Joshua and in Deuteronomy that bear on preconquest policy and its full implementation. The result has been the traditional view that Joshua’s conquest was destructive by design and accomplishment and that its results must therefore be archaeologically attestable. Once one understands that the <r#j@ under which Canaan stood applied only to populations and not places (Jericho, Ai, and Hazor excepted) the archaeological verifiability of the conquest is shown to be an exercise in irrelevance. All one could hope for is some indication that decimated occupants of the land were replaced by ethnically and culturally different settlers, a quest that is notoriously unfruitful.
A result of this understanding of the conquest is its lack of compatibility with the suggestion that the widespread destruction and upheaval attendant to the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age transition is to be attributed to the conquest. This is plainly and simply a misreading of the tradition, a point underscored by the proper placement of the conquest in the late pre-Amarna period, an era for which there is little or no evidence of violent cultural transformation. In fact, such clues to material devastation are few and far between even in the Amarna age, a surprising turn of events given the admittedly chaotic and disruptive picture painted by the Amarna texts themselves.
The Judges narratives. The view of most scholars, regardless of their emergence models, that the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age transition in Palestine was marked by radical, even violent, disruption is most compatible with an objective reading of Judges 4-9, the narratives surrounding Deborah, Gideon, and Abimelech. To facilitate the comparisons between what is known and/or hypothesized about the period on the basis of contemporary emergence models and the picture painted by the biblical texts themselves, the following discussion is limited to relevant occupation sites, events, and conditions.
Occupation sites. By this term is meant all the toponyms that describe population centers referred to in Judges 4-9 and that can be identified with reasonable certainty. These include Hazor, Ramah, Bethel, Kedesh-Naphtali, Taanach, Ophrah, Tabbath, Succoth, Shechem, Arumah, and Thebez. Of these only Hazor, Bethel, Taanach, Succoth, Shechem, and Thebez have been excavated with any thoroughness and therefore have any practical bearing on the problem. Scholars are generally agreed that Hazor, Bethel, and Succoth suffered major destruction at or near the end of the 13th century, but that Shechem and Taanach did not. The Old Testament account says nothing about Taanach’s fate (cf. Judg. 5:19) nor that of Bethel (4:5), but it does insist that Hazor, Shechem, Thebez, and perhaps Succoth were brought to ruin.
More recent interpretation of the Shechem data shows that the city indeed did not fall in the 13th century but, as Boling points out, ’the massive destruction debris of the early twelfth-century city . . . can only be correlated with the Abimelech story.’ Hazor, of course, was the home of Jabin, leader of the Canaanite coalition that oppressed Israel in the days of Deborah. Its destruction is dated around 1230 B.C., precisely in line with the most acceptable dates of Deborah’s judgeship. As for other places in the Deborah narrative, Bethel and Ramah appear only as indicators of her residence, that is, between the two places. They presumably stood intact until 1230 but in any case do not figure in the exploits of Deborah and Barak in any way. In fact their destruction somewhat later than 1230 is most compatible with the Bible’s own view that southern Ephraim was unaffected by the northern Canaanite oppression under Jabin but most likely did suffer greatly in the later Midianite penetration of the central and southern highlands.
Harosheth, the home of the Canaanite mercenary Sisera, probably should be identified as an area rather than a town site, and its full name ’Harosheth Haggoyim’ suggests a region outside Israelite control. Kedesh-Naphtali, the home of Barak, was not likely the town a few miles northwest of Hazor, but one on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Nothing as yet has been determined as to its cultural history. Taanach appears in the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5:19) but only as a means of specifying the place of Sisera’s defeat near the Kishon River. Whether it was under Canaanite hegemony or not is unclear but it apparently remained untouched by major destruction until late in the 12th century, after the period under study.
The only places that can currently be identified with the Midianite oppression and deliverance of 1200-1190 B.C. are Ophrah, Succoth, and Shechem, the last of which is more properly to be considered in connection with Abimelech of the next period. Ophrah, probably modern el-’Affuleh, has not been excavated and therefore is not helpful. Succoth, now linked with Deir ’Alla by most scholars, appears to have suffered destruction between 1214 and 1194 according to the excavator H. J. Franken. This is clearly in line with the chronology of Gideon and the Midianite oppression as proposed above.
Finally, the identifiable sites of the brief rule of Abimelech must be considered. Of these, Arumah, home of Abimelech (Judg. 9:41), may be linked with Khirbet el-’Ormah, not yet excavated. Thebez, taken and perhaps destroyed by Abimelech, is thought to be either modern Tubas or Tell el-Far’ah (ancient Tirzah). Tubas remains to be explored and Tell el-Far’ah yields no evidence of Late Bronze/Early Iron Age destruction, though it does show fresh construction in the Iron Age period.Careful reading of the narrative does not suggest destruction by Abimelech, however, so again archaeology cannot offer much assistance except in its very silence.
Noteworthy events. These consist primarily of sequences of oppression by Canaanites and Midianites and deliverance from them by Deborah and Gideon respectively. The Canaanite distress of around 1250 was limited to the Jezreel valley and Galilee region, though Deborah’s involvement in it may imply some impact as far south as Ephraim. It is quite clear that most of the countryside described in the stories, namely, the Jezreel plain and vicinity, was either under Canaanite control or free of such domination. In any case, Israel clearly had no foothold there.
The biblical account lacks specifics about the Midianite intrusion except to suggest that it was widespread. Gideon himself came from Ophrah, on the edge of the Jezreel plain, but all his acts of deliverance mentioned in the Book of Judges took place in the central Transjordan, mainly in and near the Jabbok valley. His communications with the rulers of Succoth imply that this area was under Israelite jurisdiction. Lack of information precludes further judgment as to the extent of Israelite control of other parts of central Palestine during the turn of the 12th century. It is safe to say that the Midianite period of Israel’s life was extremely chaotic and brought about a great many changes in social and economic life.
The abortive efforts by Abimelech to establish a monarchy left a decisive imprint in the destruction of Shechem and vicinity but the impact was otherwise ameliorated by the very limited arena of his activity. What is perhaps most noteworthy about the whole three-year episode is the climate of anarchy that allowed such an enterprise to succeed as much as it did. There is no evidence of any central authority following Gideon’s death, and resistance to Abimelech for the most part seems to have been led by elements as lawless as himself (Judg. 9:22-57).
Socioeconomic conditions. The most enlightening comparisons between the biblical texts and the Palestinian milieu as reconstructed by modern anthropological and sociological theorists may be seen in the manner of life to which both bear witness in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age transition. Politically the Judges narratives present a picture of extreme distress in the central hill country, a situation attributed to an aggressive and oppressive imposition of military power by Canaanites and Midianites in turn. The Canaanites, under Jabin of Hazor and his commander Sisera, were able to marshall nine hundred iron chariots and with such significant military advantage dominated the Israelite settlements of the Jezreel and Galilee regions for 20 years (Judg. 4:1-3). The deleterious impact this made can scarcely be imagined for it was 20 years after the decisive battle at the Kishon before Israel was finally able to remove the yoke of Jabin once and for all (4:24). For nearly the entire second half of the 13th century the north central highlands and Galilee were wracked by war and its attendant social and economic disintegration.
Such effects from previous oppression, likely that of the Arameans (3:8) or Moabites (3:13-14), may be seen in the fact that Deborah herself apparently lived in the countryside, holding court ’under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim’ (4:5). Less uncertain is the description by the prophetess/judge of conditions prevailing during and just before her own times. In her famous song she spoke of the abandonment of roads in the days of Shamgar, of a lawlessness that forced the traveler to the byways (5:6). Even worse, village life ceased and the populations presumably were driven by military force (5:8) or by sheer economic necessity to take up a different lifestyle, probably that of pastoral nomadism. Those same kinds of results must have characterized the Canaanite oppression of the north and certainly did in the still later Midianite conquest and occupation of the central highlands.
The narrative itself makes this clear in the nonpoetic description of life under the Midianites. So disruptive and onerous was the occupation of these nomadic conquerors that the Israelites again abandoned the urban life they had enjoyed and they took to the hills to find whatever shelter they could (6:2). There they tried to eke out a livelihood with marginal farming but to no avail. As soon as they planted, their crops were trampled and devoured by the desert invaders (vv. 4-5), reducing Israel to abject poverty (v. 6). Gideon himself was a victim of this outrage, living with his family near Ophrah and forced to thresh his wheat in a winepress to keep his sparse supply from the Midianite marauders (v. 11). For seven long years Israel endured the shattering social, economic, and political chaos that accompanied the occupation of their lands, an occupation that extended from at least Ophrah in the north to Gaza in the southwest (v. 4).
The ExtraBiblical Data
The extrabiblical data may be divided into two categories: (a) patterns of occupation, evidence of construction and destruction of building sites, and other cultural remains recoverable by archaeological research; and (b) hypotheses derivable from interpretation of these discoveries and from postulated cycles of population density, rainfall, temperature, and other environmental elements. Obviously the second kind of data is much less reliable, since it depends either on extrapolations and inference or on interpretation of archaeological materials that are themselves frequently ambiguous or even misleading.
Archaeological evidence. For many decades now there has been nearly unanimous agreement that the period from 1250 to 1150 B.C. was one wracked by chaotic upheaval and massive destruction in Palestine, especially in highland sites. Those who favored a late Exodus date and a violent conquest model argued, in fact, that disruption on such a wide scale and with such ruinous results could be accounted for only by the Israelite incursion under Joshua. Advocates of an early Exodus meanwhile tended to minimize this evidence and to seek for such destruction in the early 14th century. As already suggested, such a search was doomed to fail because the biblical conquest was largely nondestructive. The correct evaluation of the situation is that the destruction in Palestine that attended the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age transition had nothing to do with either conquest or Israel’s emergence but with the carnage visited on an already existing Israel by enemies in the days of the judges.
Extrapolational interpretive evidence. This way of analyzing the archaeological data arises from the current emergence models that depend not only on artifacts but also on anthropological, sociological, demographic, meteorological, and other studies that arrive at conclusions based on whatever material evidence survives and on analogies and comparisons drawn from ancient and even modern cultures with similar manner of life.
Grave liabilities attend such approaches, particularly when modern political-social theory is read back into ancient settings. One must first accept the philosophical premises of socio-economic determinism and historical inevitability before he can be confident that these parallels have any basis in fact. Moreover, in the absence of unambiguous texts any conclusions as to causation, motive, world view, and the like must be held with great tentativeness. Only as people disclose for themselves the reasons for their actions and reactions can the modern observer speak for them or even about them with any authority. Also, concepts of ecological patternism which explain the rise and fall of culture on the basis of periodic environmental fluctuation must be entertained with caution, for not only are the means of establishing their actual occurrence in a specific time and place most elusive, but also the idea of a longue durée against which to measure such things is not without its problems.
These caveats aside, one cannot deny that there seems to be a convergence of trends or movements in the transition from the Late Bronze to Early Iron Age period that made an indelible imprint on the landscape and the biblical record. The latter will enter the discussion momentarily but now attention, though all too brief, must center on some of these intersecting trajectories.
The archaeological evidence of major destruction of interior Palestinian sites at the turn of the 13th century has already been adduced as indicative of a kind of severe socioeconomic distress. Major urban sites were depopulated or totally abandoned, scores of new villages emerged in their place, and technological and agricultural measures necessary to such readjustments become clearly apparent. Though a measure of internal unrest may account for some of this dramatic upheaval, those scholars who suggest major causation in the form of inroads from outside the hill country by aggressive expansionists such as the newly arrived Philistines seem to have the better case.
Recent demographic analysis of this shift of occupation sites reveals a pattern of increased population spread across many more sites with a corresponding abandonment of Late Bronze urbanism in favor of Early Iron subsistence farming and even pastoralism. The upsurge in terracing, irrigation, and other agricultural techniques betrays a need for increased farmland to accommodate the efflux of peoples from cities to smaller settlement enclaves, much of which, no doubt, has left no identifiable material remains.
What role, if any, ecological factors may have played in this social dislocation is unclear. Increasingly sophisticated methods of pollen analysis, detection of rainfall and drought fluctuations, study of the indexes of soil nutrition, and the like promise to shed increasing light on various possible historical causalities, but in the absence of texts the impact these phenomena might have had on actual socioeconomic policy must remain hypothetical. One may appeal to modern analogy as much as he wishes, but a truly scientific historiography must depend on what can be known with reasonable certainty about the specific time and place in question. This essentially limits the investigation to documents and secondarily to cultural artifacts.
The Conquest, Judges, and the Late Bronze/early iron age Transition
The thesis of this article is that the transition from the Late Bronze period to the Early Iron Age--one clearly observable in the archaeological and anthropological/sociological record--is to be associated not with the emergence of Israel no matter the model by which that is explained, but with the oppressions of Israel by hostile forces and the reaction to those by tribal alliances under the leadership of Deborah and Gideon. This presupposes a much earlier emergence, one to be construed as a conquest by an already cohesive and ethnically identifiable coalition of tribes known as Israel. But the conquest, contrary to traditional interpretations, was limited to population decimation and displacement, not material destruction, and therefore is discernible barely, if at all, in the archaeological record. The ’apiru movement of the Amarna texts may be a reflex of some of the effects of the slightly earlier conquest but it should certainly not be construed as a Canaanite version of that conquest or of any form of Israel’s emergence.
The model that best suits the biblical tradition itself is one that posits a nondestructive conquest of interior Canaan around 1400-1375 B.C. followed by largely unsuccessful attempts at occupation of the areas theoretically brought under Israelite control. The Amarna accounts provide a non-Israelite perspective on the instability occasioned by Israel’s failure to follow through on the divine mandate to possess the land. The narratives in the Book of Judges, commencing no earlier than 1350 B.C., describe some of the chaos of Amarna times (Judg. 1-2) but focus primarily on the century of greatest internal upheaval in Israel, namely, that of the judgeships of Deborah and Gideon (1250-1150 B.C.). It is that period, this writer suggests, that provides the most satisfying setting for data, both biblical and otherwise, that have been erroneously interpreted as evidence of the emergence of Israel.
The problem of the origin and emergence of ancient Israel as a historically discrete sociopolitical entity has been of interest to scholars for many years. Recently the issue has been complicated by anthropological and sociological approaches that seek to provide a milieu that best explains how Israel could have emerged as opposed to earlier approaches. These traditional approaches shared in common a basis in the biblical text, however that text should be understood, whereas more current methods seek to put the text aside in favor of scientific models of a more ’objective, unbiased’ nature. The argument is that the setting of emergence must first be established and then the biblical traditions can be understood against that setting and on its terms.
While objective analysis of this kind is generally to be applauded, in the nature of the case its application to specific historical movements or events is manifestly subjective for it forces textual data onto a Procrustean bed of socioeconomic theory for which it is often ill suited. On the other hand older traditio-historical approaches that give lip service to the text but reconstruct it in line with preconceived theories of Israel’s origins are no less subjective. To read the conquest as a conflation of traditions about peoples who, in fact, originated in ways totally alien to the witness of the account itself is no more acceptable than conclusions based on nontextual hypotheses. Even those versions that seek to integrate the biblical and sociological perspectives in terms of peaceful infiltration, peasants’ revolts, and the like come up short methodologically insofar as they tend not to take the Old Testament testimony seriously as history writing.
The most satisfying interpretation is one that is open to scientific data derived from any source, even from anthropological and sociological theory, provided the Old Testament record--the only one that exists concerning Israel’s emergence--be granted autonomy and the final interpretive word in the matter. This will result in understanding Israel’s conquest in the early 14th century to be one affecting human life alone and the acceptance of the Joshua account as the only reliable statement of Israel’s emergence. The chaotic turbulence of the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age transition will then be seen for what it really is--a witness to the devastation of highland Israel in the days of the judges because of the judgment of Yahweh on His people.
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