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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.

A Ruralization Hypothesis

From the changing settlement patterns in the Levant and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, it seems that the pattern of deep, structural change had more to do with the process of ruralization than revolution. In the Late Bronze Age there must have been acute shortages of labor in the city-states, where attracting and retaining agricultural workers was a constant problem. Evsey Domar (Capitalism, Socialism, and Serfdom, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) has isolated a set of interrelated variables that may help explain the proliferation of agricultural villages in frontier areas, where such entities as Israel, Moab, and Edom are already found in thirteenth-century BCE Egyptian sources. According to this formulation, only two of the three following variables can coexist within the same agricultural regime: free land, free peasants, and nonworking landowners. In the Late Bronze Age city-states, free land (in the highlands and marginal regions), nonworking landowners, and “serfs” existed. With the decline of some city-state systems, there would have been a centrifugal tendency for peasant farmers to settle beyond areas of state control, especially in the less accessible mountain redoubts.

So long as the Late Bronze Age markets and exchange networks were still operating, the sheep-goat pastoralists would have found specialization in animal husbandry a worthwhile occupation. However, with the decline of these economic systems in many parts of Canaan in the late thirteenth to early twelfth centuries BCE—when “caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways” (Judg. 5.6 )—the pastoralist sector, engaged in herding and huckstering, may also have found it advantageous to shift toward different subsistence strategies, such as farming with some stock-raising. This group undoubtedly formed part of the village population that emerged quite visibly in the highlands about 1200.

Especially in marginal “frontier” zones, the trend was toward decentralization and ruralization, brought about by the decline of the Late Bronze Age city-state and, in certain areas, of Egyptian imperial control. It is in this broader framework that we must try to locate the more specific causes that led to the emergence of early Israel.

Israel developed its self-consciousness or ethnic identity in large measure through its religious foundation—a breakthrough that led a subset of Canaanite culture, coming from a variety of places, backgrounds, prior affiliations, and livelihoods, to join a supertribe united under the authority of and devotion to a supreme deity, revealed to Moses as Yahweh. From a small group that formed around the founder Moses in Midian, other groups were added. Among the first to join was the Transjordanian tribe of Reuben, firstborn of the “sons of Jacob/Israel.” Later, this once powerful tribe was threatened with extinction (Deut. 33.6 ). But by then many others had joined the Mosaic movement scholars call Yahwism.

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