By: Brendon C. Benz
Biblical traditions famously hold that ancient Israel was set apart from among the nations, representing a unique social and political entity in the ancient world. First and foremost, Israel is regarded as a monotheistic community, called to worship the God who delivered its people from Egypt and provided them with a code of social ethics that countered the slavery they faced there. United by a common tribal identity and the history of a bucolic way of life, Israel was prepared to establish an egalitarian community in the southern Levant that stood in direct opposition to the hierarchical polities of their polytheistic Canaanite counterparts who inhabited the land.
In spite of the overwhelming number of biblical claims to the contrary, most modern scholars affirm continuity between so-called Canaanite religion and Israelite religion, concluding that they developed out of the same “cosmic pool.” Building on these insights, The Land before the Kingdom of Israel explores points of continuity between the social and political structures of the Canaanites and those of populations that came to be identified with Israel, demonstrating that some emerged from the same “sociopolitical pool” as well.
While this parallel seems straightforward, the path is complicated. In addition to the influence that the Bible has in shaping perceptions of Israel, there are traditions in the history of scholarship that continue to influence conventional wisdom regarding the social and political structures of the ancient Near East. For instance, some appraisals of ancient Near Eastern polities continue to be influenced by Herodotus’ evaluation of the Persian wars, which he cast as a conflict between Greek democracy and “oriental despotism.” Earlier Sumerian and Babylonian literary traditions often drew a sharp contrast between pastoralists and “culturally advanced” urban populations. Though such traditions reflect the biases of literate, urban societies, many studies continue to regard these two categories of people as opposing sectors of society that remained socially and politically distinct.
Longstanding assumptions – both biblical and non-biblical – have directly influenced the way in which ancient data such as the Late Bronze Age Amarna letters, have been interpreted. As a result of this circularity, many descriptions of the Levant create a picture of critical social dichotomies, including sedentary vs. non-sedentary, state vs. tribe, and hierarchical vs. egalitarian. Ultimately, these distinctions support and are supported by later biblical traditions that set Israel in opposition to Canaan, and have resulted in the common belief that early Israel represented a unique ethnic identity associated with a particular way of life.
My study rereads the ancient data through the lens of contemporary interdisciplinary methods. Broadly speaking, these methods ask questions about the nature of social power, different types of political organization, and the relationship between “tribe” and “state.” The outcome is an alternative understanding of the Late Bronze Age Levantine landscape that changes our conception of pre-monarchic Israel.
The Amarna letters comprise diplomatic correspondence between Amenhotep III and various entities in the Levant in the mid-14th century BCE, as well as with major powers such as Babylonia and Assyria. Their evidence indicates a wide spectrum of political organization existed. At one end were entities represented by the political voice and actions of individual leaders, or kings. At the other end were cities or regions where corporate bodies or assemblies, such as the “sons of Tunip” and “the city of Irqata and its elders,” exercised political authority. Finally, there were political entities falling somewhere in the middle, like Gubla (Byblos) where a leading official and the citizens of Gubla appear to have shared authority.
There was also a range of political organization at play in the region. While many polities, like the northern coastal city of Ugarit, were centralized under the authority of a king, others were also coalitions that included cities, centralized lands, and even populations not identified with a particular urban center, most notably the ‘apiru. Though they retained local autonomy and identities under the authority of their respective kings and/or collective representative bodies, they often operated in concert, frequently for the purpose of confronting a common enemy. There were benefits to maintaining this type of organization, but the pressure of external forces – including pressure from the warring Egyptian and Hittite empires - and the actions of individual figures resulted in some regions, including the land of Amurru on the northern Levantine coast, being centralized under the leadership of a single person.
Observations such as these open the door for evaluating the biblical data in new ways. To be sure, many scholars have questioned the validity of using the Bible for reconstructing the early history of Israel. This is largely based on the mostly correct contention that it reflects the ideological and theological concerns of exilic and post-exilic Judean authors, editors, and redactors. There are, however, several striking points of continuity between some biblical accounts of Israel’s formative stages and the sociopolitical landscape of the Late Bronze Age Levant. Some are so foreign to what the Bible as a whole promotes regarding the pre-monarchic period that they reflect an alternate political reality that Judean scribes could not have fabricated.
A prime example of this is the Biblical depiction of Shechem in Judges 9, an entity that played a prominent role in the central hill country of the Southern Levant before and during the Israelite period. The core of the text revolves around an urban-centered population with both a collective governing body and a king, Abimelek and the citizens of Shechem.
While Shechem’s collective governance corresponds to early Israel’s “egalitarian” heritage, its urban setting and its monarchy are inexplicable, particularly since the story is set before the formation of the monarchy. Consequently, many scholars have regarded it as a Canaanite story that was somehow integrated into Judah’s sacred text. If, however, Israel is viewed as a variegated political entity, similar to those known in the decentralized lands of the Late Bronze Age, these features can be explained. As the heir to this political heritage, we would expect Israel to consist of a variety of independent political entities, urban-centered and not, organized according to a variety of political structures, including a collective, a king, or both. These entities, and some of their stories, were integrated into the new Israelite polity and narrative of Judah.
Reevaluating the social and political landscape of the Late Bronze Age Levant provides a fresh understanding of Israel’s origins and nature. Rather than a distinct ethnic group founded upon a unique set of social and political principles, some of its constituents emerged out of the sociopolitical milieu of the Late Bronze Age. It also sheds light on the process of centralization that occurred with the formation of the monarchy. As with their Late Bronze Age predecessors, David and Solomon employed strategies to create a national identity to cut across and reduce the impact of the decentralized identities that constituted Israel before the monarchy. Indeed, one of the greatest tools used in this process was religion, which is reflected in the construction of the temple in Jerusalem and the attribution of new divine characteristics to Yahweh. As Israel’s rejection of Rehoboam at Shechem in 1 Kings 12 demonstrates, however, though David and Solomon’s policies were temporarily successful, the struggle between the forces of decentralization and centralization – between the forces of the king and the collective – continued as it had long before the rise of the Kingdom of Israel.
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