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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.

Tribes and Tribalism in Early Israel

The tribes of premonarchic Israel continued to exist in various forms and permutations throughout the monarchy and even thereafter. One reason for this is that by the early Iron Age I, they were territorial entities with boundaries and rights established in part by the nature of their tribalism.

Some scholars see an egalitarian, kin-based tribal confederation being supplanted by a hierarchical state in which class displaces kin, and patronage dominates relationships. G. Ernest Wright (“The Provinces of Solomon,” Eretz-Israel 8 [1967], 58*–68*) suggested that Solomon's provincial system led to crosscutting kin groups by gerrymandering tribal territories in the interest of breaking up old sodalities forged through common descent (whether real or fictive) and a radical realignment based on production and service to the king and his royal household. According to Wright, this reorganization of the countryside by Solomon (1 Kings 4.7–19 ) had the beneficial effect not only of replacing old kin loyalties with royal ones but also of distributing the tax burden to each provincial unit according to its proportion of the gross national product, so that each of the twelve units (“tribes” become “provinces”) was required to provide for one month's living expenses at the king's quarters in Jerusalem.

That such a rational system never existed in ancient Israel and that the premonarchic clan and tribal allocations remained intact are partially demonstrated by the Samaria ostraca, receipts found in the capital of the northern kingdom and dated to the eighth century BCE. They refer to the collection of taxes in kind of olive oil and vintage wine, which were presented to the king by the notables or clan leaders—the local elite—who commanded enough loyalty and honor to represent various clan districts from that territory still intact more than two and a half centuries after the establishment of the monarchy. This could not have occurred if the reorganization of Solomon's kingdom had been as radical as suggested by those who believe that tribes and states cannot coexist.

Tribalism could wax and wane, sometimes depending on external circumstances and threats either from other tribes or, more often in the case of tribal Israelites, from neighboring states or alien tribal polities. At that time the symbolic systems could be reactivated and the contrast with those outside the group highlighted. Vis-à-vis the Philistines, this took the form of various contrastive rituals given the force of religious injunctions, such as circumcision and the pig taboo in food. They might assert their myth of common ancestry as a son of Jacob/Israel through genealogies. At the tribal level these function as social charters expressing allegiance through fictive kinship and the obligations that issue therefrom.

But to describe tribes as kin-based or kin-ordered groups is insufficient, especially since there are many other ties that bind these larger entities together. Notions of descent, of course, and implied kinship can be operative at the village and clan level in nontribal societies. At these lower levels, descent functions to secure property rights (in the case of Israel, landed ones) and to organize food production. On the higher and broader levels, descent as expressed in genealogies locates these smaller social units within the broader polity through the language of common ancestry. Genealogies, it must be emphasized, are charters of sociopolitical organization, not necessarily actual family trees that detail blood relations. Tribalism then becomes a political statement of group allegiance and identity. In Israel kinship expressed through common descent provided a unifying principle at the tribal level, but it was not sufficient to account for larger polities.

Commitment to the people, or kindred (Hebrew 'am), of Yahweh ranked above individual tribal affiliation. This also required a more inclusive system of beliefs, which transcended tribal boundaries, local polities, and intermeshing economic networks. Through the revelation of Yahwism to Moses came a newly constituted people or kindred. Sanctuaries sprang up during the period of the judges at central locations in the highlands, such as Shechem and Shiloh. Through these central sanctuaries, where covenant ceremonies were celebrated (Josh. 24.1–28 ), religious unification was reinforced. Thus, as in early Islam, both the confederation and the monarchy of Israel were established on religious foundations, which helped centralize authority. The political, social, and economic systems were based on beliefs informed by revelation, whether to Moses or Muhammad. During the twelfth and eleventh centuries that new entity was the tribal league; in the tenth century and later, it was the monarchy.

The Israelite 'am resembles the Islamic 'umma in that religious allegiance to a single deity, whether Yahweh or Allah, required commitment to the larger “family,” or supertribe. In the case of the early Israelites, they understood themselves to be the “children” of an eponymous ancestor Jacob (who retrospectively became “Israel”) and, at the same time, to be the “people” or “kindred” of Yahweh. It was a religious federation with allegiance to a single, sovereign patriarch or paterfamilias—Yahweh. He was the ultimate patrimonial authority, in Max Weber's formulation, for those bound to him through covenant as kindred or kindred-in-law.

The Israelite terminology of self-understanding was probably no different from that used by neighboring tribesmen and kinsmen, living east of the Jordan River, who became the kingdoms of Ammon and Moab. The J strand of the Israelite epic preserves an odd tale (Gen. 19.30–38 ) that could go back to the formative stages of these polities in Transjordan, when various tribal groups were trying to sort out their respective relations and alliances. According to this social etiology, Lot, while drunk, impregnated his two daughters, who then gave birth to Moab (the firstborn) and Ammon, thus making these two “brothers” fraternal “cousins” of Jacob. In the Bible the Ammonites are generally called the “sons of Ammon” (for example, Gen. 19.38; 2 Sam. 10.1 ) and in the Assyrian annals the “House of Ammon.” In the epic sources (J and E, Num. 21.29; also Jer. 48.46 ) the Moabites are referred to as the “kindred” of Chemosh, after their sovereign deity.

Through these familial metaphors one sees a series of nested households, which determined position in society and in the hierarchy of being. At ground level was the ancestral house(hold) (bêt 'āb). This could be small, if newly established, or extensive, if it had existed for several generations. From the Decalogue it is known that the neighbor's household included more than the biological members of the family: an Israelite was not to covet his neighbor's wife, male or female slave, ox or donkey, or anything else that came under the authority of the master of the household (Exod. 20.17; Deut. 5.21 ). At the state level in ancient Israel and in neighboring polities, the king presided over his house (bayit), the families and households of the whole kingdom. Thus, after the division of the monarchy the southern kingdom of Judah is referred to as “house of David” (byt dwd) in the recently excavated stela from Dan, and probably also in the Mesha Stela, just as the northern kingdom of Israel is known as the “house of Omri” (bīt Ḫumri) in Assyrian texts.

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