Who were the Israelites and where did they come from? The biblical archaeologist William Dever also asked those qustions in his recent book as reflected in the title of his book: Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (2003). In recent decades, one of the most debated issues among both biblical scholars and archaeologists is the origin of ancient Israel. The Bible tells us that Abraham’s descendants escaped from the slavery in Egypt and crossed the Jordan River conquering the Canaanite cities. But there is a contradiction between the two books, Joshua and Judges. The book of Joshua reports the complete conquest (Josh 11:16-17) listing the conquered kings and cities; Jerusalem (Jebus), Hebron, and Taanach, whereas the book of Judges does not support the book of Joshua’s claim of an “all-at-once” military conquest of Canaan listing the unconquered territory (Judg 1:9); Jerusalem (Jebus), Hebron, and Taanach. How do we deal with this contradiction? In his book, What are They Saying About the Formation of Israel? (1998), John J. McDermott offers an excellent discussion on the contradiction of the two biblical accounts in which he discusses the “Three Classic Models.” It is well written, in my view, this is one of the best books on the issue of the formation of ancient Israel. I will summarize the “Three Classic Models” based on McDermott’s discussion on the models and then move to the recent scholarly view that the early Israelites were indigenous to Canaan.
The Three Classic Models
1. The Conquest Model
W. F. Albright and his students are mainly responsible for articulating the Conquest Model. Albright insisted that the Israelites were a people religiously and ethnically distinct from the Canaanites. This model most follows the biblical story: the Israelites came out of slavery in Egypt and invaded Canaan. The main process of the conquest was a successful military invasion by a unified people distinct from the Canaanites as the book of Joshua describes.
Albright cited archaeological evidences to support the historicity of the conquest. In the 13th century B.C.E., a pattern of city destructions, such as Debir, Bethel, Hazor, and Lachish, supports the conquest model. Albright attributed the destruction of those cities to the Israelites’ invasion.
W. F. Albright
(2) Evaluation of the Model
As I stated above, the literary evidence of Joshua and Judges contradict each other. Also, this model does not explain the similarlity and continuity between the Canaanites and the early Israelites because this model views the Israelites as a group distinct from the Canaanites. It is clear that the earliest written expressions of Israelite religion had much in common with Canaanite religion. The location of the new settlements (Israelite highland settlement) is difficult for this model to explain. If a group of people came in from the outside and successfully defeated the previous inhabitants, they would be expected to take over the best land.
2. The Peaceful Infiltration Model
Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth were responsible for the peaceful infiltration. According to Alt, the stories in Genesis about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob preserve some genuine historical memories of the nomadic people who became the Israelites. These nomads or semi-nomads had migrated into Canaan. They had previously worshiped different gods, who are reflected in the different titles used for the divine name in the stories of the patriarchs. At first they settled in the empty spaces away from the Canaanite cities, that is, in the highlands. With the decline of the Canaanite city-state system, they were able to occupy the lowlands as well. According to Noth, Israelites could not have been indigenous to Canaan because the location of their settlements, the hill country away from the Canaanite cities (Israelite highland settlement) and their way of living clearly indicate patterns of peaceful migration and the preservation of desert tribal traditions as reflected in the patriarchal stories (M. Noth, The History of Israel, 2nd ed. [New York: Harper & Row, 1960], 53, 68). The peaceful infiltration model appealed to people who were convinced that a more gradual process and it is also more compatible with the idea that the Israelites came from mixed background. A significant piece of evidence for this model is the presence of the shasu in the region who were mentioned frequently in Egyptian documents. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob having a similar lifestyle to the shasu, may support this model.
(2) Evaluation of the Model
The location of the new settlements (the highland settlements) is consistent with this model. Nomadic people setting down in new villages would prefer taking unoccupied land. Like the conquest model, however, this model must explain the similarities in culture and religion between the Israelites and the Canaanites because the materials of the new settlements show clear continuity with Canaanite material culture.
3. The Social Revolution
George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald were responsible for the social revolution model. According the Mendenhall, the lower-class Canaanites were heavily taxed by the Canaanite kings, so they rose up in a violent revolt. The revolt was successful, and these people then established a new decentralized, egalitarian society in the highlands. Mendenhall attested that the Amarna letters, written by Canaanite kings to their Egyptian rulers during the 14th century B.C.E., mention a group of people called the hapiru. These hapiru had politically separated themselves from the city-state society and lived as outlaws in the countryside. Thus, there was a precedent for some form of social upheaval occurring in Canaan shortly before the beginnings of Israel. When the Israelites of the Exodus entered Canaan, Canaanites dissatisfied with the rule of the cities did what the hapiru had done earlier- they withdrew, except that this time they joined forces with the Israelites.
(2) Evaluation of the Model
This model says that the Israelites did not come in from the outside but were Canaanites themselves. Therefore, the evidence of continuity supports this model. Like the conquest model, however, this model does not explain why the new settlements were located in the poorer land. If these people successfully defeated the Canaanite kings, why did they not take over the best land? This model also need to explain why the Bible tells such a different story.
After the analysis of the three classic models, McDermott asks two major questions on which they differ: (1) Were the early Israelites indigenous to Canaan, or were they people who came from elsewhere? Both the conquest and peaceful infiltration models maintain that they came from elsewhere, while the social revolution model holds that they were Canaanites; and (2) Was the beginning of Israel mainly a violent or a peaceful process? Both the conquest and social revolution models say that it was violent, whereas the peaceful infiltration model says that it was mainly peaceful. I think that these two questions lead us to new theory that the indigenous origins of the early Israelites.
The View that the First Israelites Were Canaanites
Regarding the identity of the Israelites’ ancestors, there is a basic agreement among some scholars that the early Israelites were Canaanites. McDermott divides the scholars of this view into three groups: (1) the views of William Dever, Niels Peter Lemche, and Gösta Ahlström; (2) the view of N. Gottwald; and (3) the view of R. Coote. Among these three categories, I will summarize the views of scholars in the first category who describe a complex resettlement of Canaanites from the cities and rural areas into the new settlements of the highlands.
1. William Dever
William Dever maintains that the conquest model should be ruled out (William Dever, Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research [Seattle: University of Washington, 1990], 56-61). He also disagree with the peaceful infiltration model because the material culture of the new settlements shows clear continuity with the Canaanite material culture.
Dever agrees with Volkmar Fritz (“the symbiosis model”) that many of the early Israelites (“the proto-Israelites”) could have been people who lived near the Canaanites for a long period of time (William Dever, “How to Tell a Canaanite from an Israelite,” in The Rise of Ancient Israel: Lectures presented at a symposium sponsored by the Resident Associate Program, Smithsonian Institution October 26, 1991 [Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992], 30). Based on Fritz’s argument, Dever concludes that it is best to see Israel as emerging from various backgrounds, namely, those of urban and rural Canaanites, some nomadic people, and a small number of escaped slaves from Egypt. Thus, the emergence of the Israelites should be seen as part of a transformation within the Canaanite society.
2. Niels Peter Lemche
Niels Peter Lemche
Niels Peter Lemche sees that the beginning of Israel as an internal change within the Canaanite society (Niels Peter Lemche, Early Israel: Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society Before the Monarchy [Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1985]; Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society [Shefield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990]). He discusses the social and economic situation of Late Bronze Age Canaanites in the cities and on the farmland controlled by the cities. Like Dever, Lemche uses an internal process to explain the origin of the Israelites showing the continuity in material culture. According to Lemche, apart from the Sea Peoples on the coast, there is no direct evidence of waves of immigrants coming into Canaan. Lemche argues that the new settlements that became Israel as consisting mainly of the peasant farmers around the cities, who would have made up 90 percent of the population of Canaan.
3. Gösta Ahlström
Gösta Ahlström discussed the identity of the first Israelites in his 1986 book, Who Were the Israelites? and in The History of Ancient Palestine (1993). Ahlström rejected the three classic models, maintaining that the first Israelites were mostly Canaanites from the cities and rural lowlands. He drew information from the Merneptah Stele (See Ralph W. Klein’s (my teacher) explanation on The Merneptah Stele).
He pointed out that the names of the defeated peoples listed on the mounment are arranged in a ring structure. The first and last places are large regions; the next ring inside includes Canaan and Israel, representing smaller territories; at the center of the structure, individual city-states are mentioned- Ashkelon. Gezer and Yeno’am. Canaan and Israel, therefore, represent the two parts of Palestine. The word Canaan normally refers to the urban lowlands, then the use of the term Israel must be a designation for the highlands. Additionally, Israel is written with the sign for a people rather than a city or nation, meaning that this group of people was seen by Egypt as more loosely organized. Robert Coote also argues that the reference of Israel is the indication of people rather than a state. Coote discusses that Israel must have been a tribal organization that existed alongside the city-state of Canaan. Ahlström concluded that the pottery and architecture of the Israelites is in continuity with Canaanite material culture. The following chart shows the ring structure (chiastic structure) of the Merneptah Stele as Ahlström argued:
Ring Structure of the Merneptah suggested by Ahlstrom
Callaway, Joseph A. Callaway and J. Maxwell Miller, “The Settlement in Canaan: The Period of the Judges,” in Ancient Israel From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Revised and Expanded Edition (Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999).
McDermott, What are They Saying About the Formation of Israel? (New York, Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1998).
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