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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Pastoral Nomad Hypothesis

In 1925 the German scholar Albrecht Alt articulated the second regnant hypothesis to explain the appearance of early Israel. Alt used texts to compare the “territorial divisions” of Canaan with those of the Iron Age. From this brilliant analysis, made without the aid of archaeology, Alt concluded that early Israel evolved from pastoral nomadism to agricultural sedentarism.

This interpretation, which has held sway especially among German scholars, accepts the biblical notion that the Israelites were outsiders migrating into Canaan from the eastern desert steppes as pastoral nomads, specialists in sheep and goat husbandry. These clan and tribal groups established more or less peaceful relations with the indigenous Canaanites, moving into more sparsely populated zones, such as the wooded highlands of Palestine or the marginal steppes—areas outside the domain of most Canaanite kingdoms and beyond the effective control of their overlords, the Egyptians. These pastoralists have sometimes been identified specifically with a wideranging group called the Shasu in Egyptian texts dating from 1500 to 1150 BCE. They appear as mercenaries in the Egyptian army, but more often they are regarded as tent-dwelling nomads who raise flocks of sheep and goats. Their primary range seems to be in southern Edom or northern Arabia (known as “Midian” in the Bible). In Merneptah's time, Egyptians recognized the “Shasu of Edom.” A Dynasty 18 list mentions among their tribal territories the “Shasu-land of Yahweh,” perhaps an early reference to the deity first revealed to Moses at Horeb/Sinai in the land of Midian (see below).

Recent anthropological research has rendered obsolete the concept of the pastoral nomads who subsist on the meat and dairy products they produce and live in blissful solitude from the rest of the world. Equally outworn is the concept of seminomadism (still embraced by too many scholars of the ancient Near East) as a rigid ontological status, marking some cultural (pseudo-)evolutionary stage on the path to civilization, from desert tribesman to village farmer to urban dweller: in archaeological parlance, the “from tent-to-hut-to-house” evolution.

Scholars of the ancient Near East are only recently rediscovering what the great fourteenth-century CE Arab historian Ibn Khaldun knew well. In his classic Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, he observed:

Desert civilization is inferior to urban civilization, because not all the necessities of civilization are to be found among the people of the desert. They do have some agriculture at home but do not possess the materials that belong to it, most of which [depend on] crafts. They have…milk, wool, [camel's] hair, and hides, which the urban population needs and pays Bedouins money for. However, while [the Bedouins] need the cities for their necessities of life, the urban population needs [the Bedouins] for conveniences and luxuries. (p. 122; trans. Franz Rosenthal, abr. and ed. by N. J. Dawood, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967)

The Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has adapted and updated Alt's nomadic hypothesis to explain the hundreds of new settlements that have been recorded in archaeological surveys. But it is difficult to believe that all of these new-founded, early Iron Age I settlements emanated from a single source, namely sheep-goat pastoralism. In symbiotic relations the pastoral component rarely exceeds 10 to 15 percent of the total population. Given the decline of sedentarists in Canaan throughout the Late Bronze Age, it seems unlikely that most of the Iron Age settlers came from indigenous pastoralist backgrounds.

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