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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.

Conclusion

The nature of the evidence makes it impossible to determine with certainty the makeup of Israel at any point in the period of the judges, but a few elements are dependable, from both literary and archaeological evidence. Archaeology suggests that the central hill country of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin was the core of early settlement, with occupation of parts of Naphtali, Zebulun, and Asher coming either contemporaneously or soon after. These results accord with the picture presented in Judges 4–6 , although it is not yet clear what the status of Issachar was in the earliest settlement. Moreover, the book of Judges reports various assortments of northern tribes capable of concerted effort—Zebulun and Naphtali in Judges 4 ; Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh, Zebulun, Naphtali, and Issachar in Judges 5 ; Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali in Judges 6 , with Ephraim also volunteering. These are precisely the areas at the center of Israel's earliest existence. With the exception of the Deuteronomic frame and the model story of Othniel in Judges 3.7–11 , Judah (and its subgroup Simeon) is largely missing from the stories of the early judges, and this, too, is not surprising since Judah was apparently settled late in the pre-monarchic era. Judah is prominent in the stories set at the end of the period: the Samson stories; several times in Judges 17–21; 1 Samuel 11.8 and 15.4 , where Judah is listed separately from Israel; and in the stories of David. There is as yet no way to tie the settlement west of the Jordan River to that in Transjordan, and at the same time to observe ethnic differences between later Israelite Transjordan and later Moabite or Ammonite Transjordan. Whether any of these assortments of tribes argues for smaller, pre-Israel confederations is impossible to say, except to exclude the far southern tribes (Judah and Simeon) from the earliest conception of Israel and to note that Dan was never securely enough situated in the south to be of much help to its Israelite neighbors.

What then was the earliest confederation that was called “Israel”? Perhaps it comprised Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, Naphtali, Zebulun, and Asher (and possibly Issachar); and perhaps it also encompassed the southern Transjordanian area north of the Arnon (thus Gad, and Reuben as long as it existed). Such an answer, however, begs several questions: whether a tribal Israel existed prior to the Iron I settlement of the central highlands and similar areas in Transjordan; whether the people in what became Israel can be separated from the other Iron I tribal societies that sprang up at the same time and in the same way, such as Moab and Edom; whether those who settled the eastern side of the Jordan were tied to Israel in Iron I, or to Moab, or to neither. In other words, did the people who moved into these marginal areas in Iron I already conceive of themselves as tribal confederations, with names and languages that tied some of the tribal groups together into larger entities (say, Israel or Moab, speaking Hebrew and Moabite) and at the same time separating those larger groups from each other? Or were they agriculturalists and pastoralists looking for free land in which to make their living—the withdrawal of Egyptian power at the end of the Late Bronze Age having opened up such possibilities, with structure at the tribal and larger levels coming only after they had settled in their new niches?

The southern Transjordanian area shares its material culture with the settlements west of the Jordan, but it also does with Moab, for instance. So there is no archaeological way to tie the southern Transjordanian areas exclusively with the area west of the Jordan in Iron I. By the ninth century BCE, the Mesha Stela assigns the area in question to the Gadites, but we cannot prove that a tribe Gad (much less Reuben) held this territory in Iron I, or that whoever held the territory was related by covenant to contemporaneous settlements west of the Jordan. The languages and dialects of the entire area in question were close enough to each other to have been mutually understandable.

The idea of a covenant or a confederation of tribes bound to each other and to a particular deity by treaty/covenant is not something archaeology can test, whether the question be about “Israelites” east and west of the Jordan River or about the hill country and Galilean settlements. We do know, however, that settlement of the central hill country west of the Jordan and the southern valley east of the Jordan began to flourish at about the same time at the beginning of the Iron Age, that they were part of later Israel, and that they were remembered as forming coalitions for defense based on their common adherence to the religion of Yahweh.

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