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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.

Archaeology and Early Iron Age Settlement

In 1930, the German scholar Martin Noth proposed an explanation for the organization of Israel during the period of the judges that dominated thinking about the period for several decades. He hypothesized that premonarchical Israel was organized as an “amphictyony,” a confederation or league of twelve tribes centered around a central sanctuary. His theory was based on Greek examples of a later date, and helped explain why the number of the tribes of Israel in Israel's collective memory was set at twelve: in most of the lists of judges-era tribes the number was kept at the ideal twelve, even though the names and order of the tribes were not the same in each list. Noth posited that each cared for the central sanctuary one month of the year. So while tribes could die out, or could grow larger and split into two (like Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh), there always had to be twelve. Noth's proposal was based not only on the Bible's insistence that there were always twelve tribes in this period of a tribal league, but also on the evidence of other twelve-tribe leagues mentioned in the Bible (such as the sons of Ishmael in Gen. 25.13–16 and the offspring of Edom in Gen. 36.10–14 ) as well as on six- and twelve-tribe leagues of later Greece and Rome. (In the six-tribe leagues, each tribe would care for the sanctuary for two months of each year.)

Noth's amphictyonic theory of early Israel, though ingenious, depended on Greek sources that date much later than early Israel, and no archaeological evidence for a central shrine in the era of the judges has been uncovered. Nor was there much biblical evidence to support the theory: no scenes of one tribe at a time taking care of a central sanctuary to which all the other tribes, during this period, are seen to travel during festivals. Despite its heuristic power, then, the amphictyonic model has largely been abandoned. More recently the premonarchic era has been compared not to religious leagues but to tribal societies, and especially segmentary tribal societies, that is, ones composed of descent groups that are, at least ideally, more or less equal, autonomous units, without central organization.

Archaeologists now describe a gradual shift from urban Late Bronze (“Canaanite”) settlement to “Israelite” settlement in the early Iron Age. Study of settlement patterns and population estimates show the early Iron Age as an era of vastly increased settlement in the northern hill country (around Shechem and Shiloh), with an increase also in the southern hills (in the vicinity of Hebron) and in the area west of the Sea of Galilee. These settlements were mostly small, usually unfortified agricultural-pastoral villages. The regions of intensive settlement expanded throughout the premonarchic era, presumably because the settlements were thriving and population was growing. The western ridge of the central hill country became a center of population, while the settled area in Galilee grew northward and westward; in the south settlement intensified beyond Hebron and eventually even to the Beer-sheba area. These Judahite hills were settled late in the period, probably because they were more densely wooded and hence unsuitable for agriculture. Finally, at the end of this period, Israelite expansion extended to the previously Canaanite areas in the Jezreel Valley and, with David, to some Philistine settlements in the Shephelah and on the coast. It has been estimated that the population grew from about twenty thousand in the first Iron I highland settlements to about fifty thousand by the beginning of the monarchy in the late eleventh century BCE.

Assigning ethnic labels to settlements without any ancient written identification is risky. The coastal regions where distinctive types of pottery are found (Mycenaean IIIC and Philistine bichrome ware) were settled mostly by Philistines, because Egyptian texts place Philistines there at this time and because of the cultural connections, such as the pottery, with the Aegean world that we expect from the Philistines. The ascription of all the highland villages to an ethnic entity “Israel” is not so easy. It is noteworthy in this regard that remains of pigs are found in the coastal settlements and not in the highland villages, but the taboo against eating pork could have been shared by Israel and other emerging groups. An inscription on a stela of Pharaoh Merneptah, dated to the late thirteenth century BCE, plus a new interpretation of four battle scenes on a temple wall at Karnak, give a bit more information about early Israel.

The Merneptah Stela records his victory over several enemies in Syria-Palestine: the cities Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam; the lands Hatti, Canaan, and Hurru; and the people Israel. All of these entities are denoted in Egyptian with markers that indicate they are place-names, except Israel, which is designated a people rather than a land. What precisely does this mean “Israel” was in the year 1209 BCE? A group that is a people but not a land suggests that early Israel was nomadic, an interpretation that corresponds to other theories of early Israel's origin as nomads. Some assistance has appeared recently from a different Egyptological quarter. Four scenes of victorious battles, traditionally dated to the time of Rameses II (1279–1213 BCE), have recently been reassigned to his son Merneptah. The setting of one of the four is identified in an accompanying inscription as Ashkelon. Three of the four are pictured as fortified cities on mounds. The fourth takes place in open country, with no sign of a fortified city. Since we know that one of the four pictures is Ashkelon, it is possible that the four scenes on the temple wall correspond to four enemies in Palestine mentioned in the Merneptah Stela, the cities Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam, and the people Israel. Moreover, the enemy in the open countryside are pictured the same way as the people in Ashkelon and the other two fortified cities, that is, as Canaanites and not as nomads. If the battle scenes and the Merneptah Stela record the same four victories, it is possible that “Israel” was a formidable enough group to be included in Merneptah's boasts; that the Egyptians saw them as Canaanites like the people in the three other scenes, and not as nomads; but that the Egyptians did not consider them a people with definite geographical boundaries that could be called the land of Israel. This leads to the conclusion that at the beginning of this period Israel was a group of Canaanite people, self-identified as “Israel” but not occupying any territory called “Israel,” and therefore not a stable political entity. It also implies that on one occasion at least this Israel was allied with Canaanites against Egypt.

This picture resembles the impression that we derive from much of the book of Judges, and is also what we might expect from a segmentary tribal society lacking a central administration and a standing army. Segmentary tribal societies are well known from comparative social-scientific writing, and Israel's development over the course of this era from a segmentary society into a chiefdom and eventually a centralized state can be traced. A segmentary society is based on kinship relations, on segmentary lineages. A lineage is a record of relationships: a unilineal lineage is made up of a man (usually) and his male ancestors, for three or four or more generations, depending on the society in question; a segmentary lineage takes into account all the (usually male) children of each generation, so that the lineage of any man in the society reports not just his father and grandfather, but also his brothers and his father's brothers and his grandfather's brothers, in a “family tree” genealogy with all the branches. Over time, of course, some branches will die out; others will be productive and grow. Ideally, no part of a segmentary lineage is more important or more powerful than the others, but often an especially large branch will break off and form its own separate lineage, with members tracing their genealogies only as far as the nearest male ancestor from whom they all can claim descent. The new lineage thus establishes itself as of equal importance to the original lineage, and equilibrium returns.

The responsibilities and rewards of such a segmentary system are complex. While a man relates to his brothers as equals and would fight to defend them, brothers also compete for inheritance and recognition from the preceding generation. Moreover, a younger generation does not just gain inheritance and attention from an older generation, but also competes with it for power, waiting for the time when their age group will make the important decisions and monitoring the older generation's use of resources that will someday be theirs. Despite the competition, however, all trace their descent from some male ancestor, and so have obligations to each other that they do not have to outsiders. This is the “nested” nature of segmentary societies.

Segmentary societies tend not to be centrally organized over large numbers of people; rather, people in such societies often live in extended family compounds that comprise three or more generations, typically a husband and wife, their sons and their wives and children. In Israel we can identify these various groups to whom the individual owes some allegiance: the nuclear family, the extended family (Hebrew bêt 'āb), the clan (Hebrew mishpāhâ), and the tribe (Hebrew shēbet or matteh). Israel in the era of the judges is not organized centrally; people are described as living in an agricultural society, within the nuclear family or the bêt 'āb. Gideon in Judges 6 apparently lives in his bêt 'āb (vv. 15, 27 ), and Abimelech appeals to his mother's bêt 'āb and to its entire clan when he is looking for a power base ( 9.1 ); his own bêt 'āb is traced through his father, of course (v. 5 ). Jephthah in 11.2 is described as living in his bêt 'āb with his half brothers, and in his case we can see the politics of the extended family when the sons of the more prestigious wife kick him out; a similar dynamic is part of Abimelech's story. In spite of their behavior toward Jephthah, they feel they can call on his proven fighting ability in a crisis, presumably because of their kinship ties. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether bêt 'āb means a kin group or a place, as in the cases of Samson and his wife (Judg. 14.15, 19 ) and the Levite's concubine ( 19.2–3 ), but 16.31 refers to Samson's family: it is the bêt 'āb that is responsible for burying him. The bêt 'āb is mentioned in later texts as well, but not as often as in Judges, and only rarely meaning residency within the extended family.

Archaeological remains confirm that most Iron Age village dwellings probably housed only a nuclear family. These dwellings are pillared houses (also called four-room houses) with two to four rooms on the first floor and pillars set in rows to support an upper story. Part of the first floor space would have been used as stables, and low walls have been found in the remains of these houses with built-in feeding troughs. These pillared houses were not big enough to provide space for more than a nuclear family—mother, father, and children. But there are what appear to be clusters of dwellings at some sites that are made up of several individual houses built off a common courtyard, and this may be what the residential bêt 'āb or extended family dwelling looked like.

In times of crisis, segmentary societies tend to rely on charismatic leaders. In the book of Judges these are nonpermanent, ad hoc leaders who command by virtue of their personalities rather than with the authority of an office, and who ordinarily did not inherit their leadership and could not bequeath it. Despite the chronological note that a given person judged Israel for a period of time, their stories show them arising in response to an emergency, often invested with the spirit of Yahweh. These individuals lead in times of crisis not because they hold the office of “judge,” but because something about them—described by the text as “the spirit of Yahweh” (see Judg. 3.10; 6.34; 11.29; 14.19; 15.14; 1 Sam. 11.6 )—convinces others to follow them.

The fluidity that anthropologists describe for segmentary groups can be seen in the variety of names the Bible gives for the tribes of early Israel. The oldest passage with a list of tribes is the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, generally dated to the late twelfth or early eleventh century BCE. The Song lists only ten tribes (disregarding the otherwise unknown Meroz): Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali, who joined the fight; and Reuben, Gilead, Dan, and Asher, who did not. (Machir turns up in genealogies as Manasseh's son; see Gen. 50.23; 1 Chron. 7.14 . Gilead is often associated with Gad in the Bible.) Two poems generally thought to be from the eleventh-tenth centuries take us closer to the canonical lists of twelve we get in the birth narratives in Genesis and elsewhere. Deuteronomy 33 lists eleven tribes: Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph (with both Ephraim and Manasseh named), Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, and Asher; and Genesis 49 lists twelve: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph, Benjamin (see Gen. 29.31–30.24 and 35.16–18, 22–26 ).

Clearly, throughout the period of the judges the tribal “system” was undergoing change. Where the tribes lived (the migration of Dan, for instance, recorded in Judg. 17–18 ), what the tribes were called, how many tribes owed allegiance to each other, and how serious that allegiance was—all these were in flux. So, too, were the ties that bound them together. Although we can see a sort of confederation of ten tribes in the Song of Deborah, where all ten are expected on some level to respond to a crisis, the four tribes who failed to respond to the call to arms in Judges 5 are merely castigated—not cursed, as covenant ritual seems to have required. Perhaps the narrator understood that their position on the margins of the intensive settlement area of the central highlands would have made it difficult for those four tribes to participate in a purely “Israelite” battle; the Song of Deborah describes a battle involving “Israelite” tribes living in unwalled villages fighting against more urbanized “Canaanites.” Reuben and Gilead/Gad were herders, and would have been dependent on urban areas for many necessities. In the Song the Reubenites “tarry among sheep-folds” and listen to the “piping for the flocks.” Gilead “stayed beyond the Jordan.” Asher and Dan were on the coast and again depended for their livelihoods on urban areas and their trading enterprises—Dan needed ships, while Asher “sat still at the coast of the sea.” So this settlement-era tribal league, if it can be so called, apparently functioned under an arrangement for mutual defense, but did not have power to punish any members who failed to honor the arrangement.

Although ideally each segment within a tribal segmentary society like early Israel is equal and autonomous, some forces tend to push members of one segment or another into leadership positions. If people thrive under a leader, they can come to depend on that leadership and will look for ways of continuing it into the next generation. At the same time, leaders have privileges that they are often loath to relinquish at the end of a crisis. Handled well, an extended crisis allows both leaders and the led to wish to continue the pattern of leadership and can result eventually in hereditary, permanent offices, as well as a standing army if the extended crisis is military. And sheer wealth can command the same kind of dependence if the riches are shared with a society's more marginal members.

We can see signs of increasing centralization and of the amassing of wealth within the books of Judges and 1 Samuel. The story of Gideon/Jerubbaal is a good example of dependence on an outstanding leader. After Gideon defeats the Midianites, the people want to make him king and his family a dynasty (Judg. 8.22 ). Gideon's answer is the correct one for the time, that only Yahweh is king over Israel, but Gideon does ask for a reward of gold from the people, accepting wealth rather than a permanent position. He prospered through his life since he had seventy sons and many wives, a sign of wealth. Gideon's son Abimelech seems to assume that hereditary rulership had indeed been conferred on Gideon's family. His question, addressed to the citizens of Shechem—“Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?” (Judg. 9.2 )—assumes that some configuration of Gideon/Jerubbaal's male descendants will continue to rule over Shechem. Despite Gideon's refusal of a crown, his family and apparently the people of Shechem had come to be comfortable with professional and efficient leadership. Perhaps they preferred peace in which to grow their crops to the kind of chaos the text describes at the beginning of Gideon's story (in 6.11 Gideon is beating out wheat in secret in a winepress so the Midianites will not steal it), even at the price of installing a hereditary office that will be both permanent and outside their control. The Shechem experiment fails, but it is noteworthy that some of the minor judges also are leaders who have amassed wealth and power: the mentions of Jair the Gileadite ( 10.3–5 ), Ibzan of Bethlehem ( 12.8–10 ), and Abdon son of Hillel ( 12.13–15 ) all contain descriptions of large families and, in the first case, landed holdings.

At the beginning of 1 Samuel, both Eli the priest (see 2.11–17 ) and Samuel as judge (see 8.4–5 ) seem to be in positions that will be passed down to their sons. While the people complain about each set of sons, they do not question the understanding that the sons will follow the father as religious or political leaders of all Israel. The concentration of political power follows in part from the pressure that a decentralized system feels from constant warfare against a strong enemy with a trained, well-equipped standing army: in this case, the Philistines. We also surmise from settlement patterns, specifically the expansion of highlands and Galilean settlements, that the population of Israelites had more than doubled in the two hundred years since the beginning of the twelfth century. Centralized economies with the possibility of specialization are often superior for feeding large numbers of people, another reason people voluntarily relinquish some amount of local control in favor of a centralized government.

Traditional societies, however, often do not move directly from a segmentary tribal organization to a hereditary, permanent, centralized monarchy. Many pass through an intermediate stage known as “chiefdom,” and it is possible to designate Saul's reign and much of David's as more like a chiefdom, with Saul and David as the chiefs, than a full-fledged monarchy. The differences between a segmentary society and a chiefdom are easy to see; those between a chiefdom and a monarchy are more a matter of degree. In a chiefdom, the kinship ideal of equality between lineages and between members of the same lineage is given up, and those most closely related to the leader/chief take on increased status. A chief redistributes goods (such as spoils of war and agricultural produce) that have come to him, and those who benefit from the redistribution wish to maintain the power of the chief so that they may continue to benefit. Chiefdoms tend to encompass more population, to be settled more densely, and to have better-defined geographical borders than segmentary tribal organizations. There is no real legal system, however, to enforce the decisions of the chief, so he is still a type of charismatic leader who must prove himself in warfare, in diplomacy, and by redistributing goods to command allegiance. Chiefdoms gradually become dynastic, because people hope that whatever was extraordinary about the father will be passed on to the son, specifically the first son. Until that time, there is predictable competition for the chiefship, with bloodshed not unusual.

Saul's years of leadership did little to centralize power in one place or in one family. While Saul's family continued to have claims to the throne after David became a contender, it was still conceivable that someone outside his family (albeit a son-in-law) could rule instead of a male in the direct line from Saul (Ishbosheth, for instance, as in 2 Sam. 2.8–11 ). David's personal retinue is not only kin-based, but includes people who are loyal to David as an individual; they are also dependent on his leadership and the redistribution of booty that he provides (1 Sam. 22.1–2; 30 ). Again, a competition for David's throne breaks out among his sons, as though the principle was now established for the crown to pass to a son—but not yet any tradition backed by the rule of law that would designate precisely which son, so that the centralization and permanence of the position would be accomplished. This step is not completed until Solomon is appointed (1 Kings 1–2 ). Already during David's reign, or chiefship, a professional bureaucracy had grown up (2 Sam. 8.15–18; 20.23–26 ), a sign of a centralized monarchy. By Solomon's reign, the government is established in Jerusalem; a palace and a central temple are to be built; and the chief's occupations have become more specialized than in the time of Saul and David, both of whom performed religious functions as well as assuming political and military leadership.

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