February 17, 2011

"Joshua fit de Battle of Jericho"...but it wasn't the bloodbath you thought it was

I recently bought a very interesting book, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William Dever.

I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the story of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. As the story goes it's a bloody mess. Downright genocidal, in fact, and that at the command of God. That's where a lot of the "wrathful God of the Old Testament" stuff comes from. And even though I'm one of those violent Tea-Partiers, mass slaughter can get a bit tiresome!

But the odd fact is that the archeological record does not show much evidence of war and destruction in Palestine in the relevant time-period, late 13th Century to early 12th BCE.

Canaan, the region we call Palestine, was then divided up into fairly small (think 25 miles wide) city-states, under petty "kings." These were typical Middle Eastern states with a traditional pattern of agriculture practiced mostly in the flatlands and lowlands. Featuring great estates, oppressive nobles, and miserable slaves and serfs and peasants. And all of them more or less under the thumb of Egypt. However, in this period the little Canaanite kingdoms seem to have gone into decline, with fewer signs of wealth found in excavations. But not evidently suffering from much destruction or conquest

At that same time, something new was happening. Settlements were growing up in the nearby Palestinian hills, where few had lived before. Often right on a hill-top. And those settlements seem to have been egalitarian hamlets, without signs of social stratification. No big-shots, no kings, no landlords. (Continued)


The people who settled the hills were creating new land and wealth by the extensive use of technology, including terracing, silos and cisterns. There is little sign that they were fleeing attackers—they weren't building any fortifications, and few weapons have been found. Nor do they seem to have driven anyone else off the hills.

Dever feels that, despite the lack of inscriptions or distinctive pottery, these people were ethnically Israelite. The same type of pillar-and-courtyard house they built is what is considered typical of the Israelites a century or two later. That the Israelites were not conquerers from outside as much as they were a local development from out of Canaanite culture.

But remember, the Canaanite petty kings were all vassals of Egypt. So it could be said that the new Israelite culture was in fact based on escape from bondage to Egypt! Dever takes no position on the historical reality of Moses, but one can infer that if some people did indeed escape from Egypt (maybe the Joseph tribes, who play a disproportionate role in the story), their history could become the defining story for the larger culture. And the stories of bloody conquest are just what would seem natural and proper as explanations in those days. God could have worked through these people in a more peaceful way than the stories tell.

Of course Israel eventually adopted the usual organization of kings and aristocrats and standing armies and corvees. But it is interesting that many passages in the OT assume that the right way of life is one without kings or landlords, with everybody sitting under his own fig tree, etc.

There's also I think an interesting similarity to Victor Hanson's thinking in his fascinating book The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. That what really made Greece what it was was a movement during the Greek Dark Age (c. 8th Century BCE) of people leaving the old-style aristocratic grain-and-cattle agriculture of the flatlands, and "homesteading" small plots of typically about 10 acres up on the unused hillsides. They developed a diverse and intensive agriculture, with vines, olives, grain, fruit-trees, vegetables, animals. This was extremely productive, at a cost of year-round labor, and much thought and experimentation. Leading to a culture of thinking and individuality and sturdy democratic values.

Posted by John Weidner at February 17, 2011 8:01 PM
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