Faust-appreciation and hesitation

Today I am finishing up Avraham Faust’s Israel’s Ethnogenesis. Faust is important because he cuts through a lot of assumptions to look at and interpret certain essential facts. Here is a list of some of those facts:

1. Beginning in the late 13th century and continuing into the 11th century the uplands between Jerusalem and Samaria become populated by new settlements, villages, and towns.

2. In the 10th century in this same area a nation called Israel arose.

3. Pharaoh Merneptah, in probably the last decade of the 13th century, inscribed a victory monument that claims he vanquished “Israel”, apparently understood as an ethnic group. At this time only the earliest of the highland settlements existed.

4. In the 11th century the settlers came under pressure from the Philistines, and began to abandon the villages for towns.

5. The settlers had some common markers such as a ban on pork, circumcision, pottery devoid of decoration, four-space houses, simple burials, and no temples.

6. There were some similar settlements in the hill country of Galilee and on the western side of the Jordan.

Faust’s interpretation of these facts is that Israel became an ethnic group in contrast to the Canaanite lowland dwellers who participated in a highly hierarchical, Egyptio-Canaanite system. In contrast the Israelites were anti-elitist. (Faust adopts Norman Gottwald’s characterization of them as egalitarian.)

For decades, though, the hill country settlers became segregated from the lowland system as Egyptian power diminished and the old system collapsed. During this time they lost their ethnic character and became a group of clans with symmetrical relationships. They competed with each other and may sometimes have fought with each other. Faust sees the reports in the Book of Judges of the tribes occasionally at war with each other as reflecting this period.

When the Philistines made incursions into the hill country, the settlers united and became ethnic again. Things like circumcision and the ban on pork became more intense as setting them apart from the Philistines.

The tendency of secular scholarship has been to see the settlers as displaced Canaanites. Gottwald thought they were peasants who had staged a revolution against the Egyptian-backed system and retired to the hill country. Though few completely follow Gottwald, the theory that the Israelites were former Canaanites has gained many supporters. Faust agrees that some Canaanites became Israelites. But he does not think that Merneptah’s Israel had that background.

He questions the argument that the agricultural practices of the settlers reflect a Canaanite background. The settlers used cisterns for water storage and developed terraced farming. The problem with this is that there is little evidence that the lowland Canaanites of the Late Bronze Age used these practices. Furthermore, the very earliest villages in the highlands usually had open courtyards. The villagers probably used these the enclose sheep and goats before taking them out to pasture during the day. This tends to support the idea that the earliest settlers had been herders more than settled farmers.

An important point that Faust discusses is that the common division of old Palestine into the west and east banks of the Jordan is artificial. Archeology shows that the non-Philistine populations on both sides were similar. He argues that in the Bronze Age and Iron I the ethnic differences between Israelites, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites, and rural Canaanites were still fluid. They were all what the Egyptians called Sashu.

He once used the term ‘Apiru-like for some of these groups, but he does not equate Israel with the ‘Apiru. I am grateful for this, since I have felt ever since I read the Amarna letters that the Hebrews and ‘Apiru are not the same. The ‘Apiru might be the ancestors of the Jebusites, though. I don’t have much stake in that idea, except to point out that there is at least as good a historical argument for connecting them to the Jebusites as to the Hebrews.

I think the weakest part of Faust’s case is when he insists that the Israel of Merneptah is the same as the earliest hill country settlements. But I have to admit it is possible. Mernephah could be bragging about conquering a hundred people or so. After all, he brags about conquering Yanoam, a place that must have been just a minor town.

Faust does not set his conclusions in stone. He says that some of his positions will likely be refuted by future finds. All he claims to have done is to bring his best anthropological and archeological insight to the question of how Israel became an ethnic group based on what was known when he wrote.

This book has helped me think about what we know and what we are finding out. I still tend to think that some of the development of Israel should be looked for in the Transjordan, rather than the hill country north of Jerusalem. That is more likely where a group of Yahwistic refugees from Egypt met up with proto-Israel. Also, the Negev and the Transjordan is where we find the standing stones. These unengraved stones may have something to do with the religion of a people who were anti-elitist and produced undecorated pottery. But Faust did not discuss this.

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What comes next

When I finished Israel’s Ethongenesis I was looking forward to moving about 3,000 years forward and reading Belief Without Borders by Linda Mercadante. She was a journalist and now is a theology professor. In the book she looks at the phenomenon of people who say they are spiritual but not religious (SBNR). She used her journalism skills to interview a range of these people. She used her theology training to give an exposition and evaluation of the SBNR theology or theologies.

Alas, life has intervened. My doctor has concluded it is time for me to part company with my gall bladder. He has referred me to a surgeon. So what is next now is a medical leave of absence from the blog. No one wants me trying to blog when I am high on meds. I am not going to attempt anything more intellectual than listening to classic rock and jazz and watching post-season baseball.

So I want to finish up the Faust book on Monday or Tuesday. After that look for me to return later in October. I am still going to do the Mercadante book.

If you are a praying person, I would be grateful for your prayers. I am not picky about how you pray. I have an elderly aunt who says a rosary for me every day. That is not the way I pray. But I am deeply grateful.

The surgery should not be a big deal, but I have a bit of a phobia about going under anesthesia. (Years ago I had a course of oral surgery and refused anesthesia. I said that people confessed their sins to me, so there is no telling what I might say. The real reason, though, is that I am a big baby about going into a dark tunnel without being able to see the light on the other side.)

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Faust-oscillating settlement

I continue to read and blog about Avraham Faust’s book, Israel’s Ethnogenesis.

In my last post. I asked why Faust thinks the Israelites became an ethnic group when they encountered the Philistines, but not earlier when they seem to have run up against Egyptians and Canaanites. Now I have read the next chapter and find the he has an answer. His theory is more complex than it appeared.

Some scholars have put the emergence of the village culture in the highlands north of Jerusalem into a larger context. Over many centuries that hill country oscillated between occupation and an uninhabited state. The occupation of the hill country at the end of the Iron Age was just part of a long series of occupations and withdrawals.

So the settlers had once had contact with the Canaanites. Some of them must have been Canaanites. They settled in the hill country in reaction to events in the Late Bronze Age, possibly Egypt’s attempt to tighten control over the lowlands.

Therefore Faust says that at first they were an ethnic group reacting against and removing themselves from the lowlands culture. But once they were out of contact the Egyptians and the Canaanites city-states, they became totemic rather than ethnic until they confronted the Philistines.

Faust’s view is cyclical. The highlands were empty and then went through a cycle of settlement. The people were ethnic, then totemic, then ethnic again.

He also holds to the view that Merneptah’s Israel must be the same as the hill country settlers, even though there were few settlements at the time. The result of this view is that Merneptah’s Israel is the ethnic group that existed before the highland villages became peaceful, equal and totemic.

This is all convoluted. I know he was in touch with the important data. It just seems that he sometimes rules out alternative solutions on thin grounds. Still I value his views as important input as I try to figure this all out.  Certainly the knowledge that highlands of Israel show a pattern of settlement and emptiness over centuries is worth considering.

The skeptic will say that Israel, therefore, is nothing special, just another population movement as the land went back and forth between habitation and emptiness.  But this doesn’t bother me as a person of faith.  The thing about Israel has always been the scandal that God used ordinary people going about their ordinary history to do something special and holy.   And, of course, many of the scholars who study this still believe there was that group that came out of Egypt.

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Faust-Identity and history

“As for Israel’s actual origins, it seems as if ancient Israel was composed of peoples who came from various backgrounds: a semi-nomadic population who lived on the fringe of settlement, settled Canaanites who for various reasons changed their identity, tribes from Transjordan, and probably even a group who fled Egypt” (Avraham Faust, Israel’s Ethnogenesis, p. 186).

This puts together several theories of Israel’s origins. The 2,000 or so people who occupied the villages in the high country between Jerusalem and Samaria from the late 13th-11th centuries BCE came from all these backgrounds.

At first they were a “totemic society”. This is a technical anthropological term for people who share symbolic practices that give them a common identity. It does not necessarily imply animistic worship of natural objects, animals and birds as in a totem pole. For the hill country Israelites the common practices would have included a non-pork diet, male circumcision, and some purity practices.

As a frontier society with minimal contact with the city states, they had a relatively egalitarian world view. Faust does not use these terms, but I think anti-elitist and populist might serve as well or better than egalitarian.  Our idea of equality includes gender and other implications that clearly did not apply in ancient Israel.

But after they came into military confrontation with the Philistines, they became an ethnic society. Again, ethnic is an anthropological term. What it means is that the totemic practices now became markers over against the Philistine culture, so that Israel now defined its identity as contra-Philistine. Their practices became ethnic boundary markers. There was probably a disgust that did not exist before. Eating pigs and uncircumcision became abominations worthy of the enemy.

Faust brings out anthropological studies that show a similar pattern has occurred in several other cultures. I have no expertise to judge his anthropological arguments. But I have a historical question.

Is it possible that Israel was already defining itself over against the Egyptio-Canaanite culture?

I do not think the story of Joshua burning Hazor in Joshua 11 is accurate history. Joshua was probably associated with this victory in the north just as he was associated with the conquest of Hebron in the south, even though other sources say that Calebites actually conquered Hebron.

But excavation at Hazor shows that the city was burned near the end of the Bronze Age and that both Egyptian and Canaanite idols were defaced. Who would have done this? It is at least possible that Israel or some segment of what became Israel had been in military conflict with the city-states. The Song of Deborah in Judges 5 might also point to a pre-Philistine conflict.

Both of these conflicts took place north of the Jerusalem-to-Samaria area where most of the Iron 1 villages were. However, we have also found villages with the four-room houses and other Israelite characteristics in the north and in Transjordan.

Faust does discuss the Israel stele of Pharaoh Merneptah (there are several ways to spell his name). This is an inscription on a monument celebrating the Pharaoh’s victories over a string of city-states that then also includes a victory over Israel, which is designated a people rather than a city-state. This is the earliest mention of Israel in a non-biblical source. Merneptah ruled near the end of the 13th century BCE.

Faust says that in the Late Bronze Age Canaan displayed a culture that included fancy imported pottery, elaborate burials, and many temples. All of this is in stark contrast to the hill country village culture. He admits that the Israel stele shows that Israel not only existed in the late Bronze Age, but had some significance to the Egyptians. He also admits that the growth in the number of villages in the central hill country mostly occurred after the time of Merneptah. Still he wants to associate the Israel that came into conflict with Egypt at that time with the early village culture.

So he does not really answer my question about why the conflict with the Philistines was such a special case that this alone defined Israelite ethnicity.

For the fun of it, I will state my own conjecture–guess–about Bronze Age Israel: Israel existed as a Transjordanian group which perhaps included the old tribe of Reuben (an idea of Frank Moore Cross), which shocked Egypt by sacking the powerful city-state of Hazor.  Merneptah’s army responded. Later some from this group became the Transjordanian element of the hill country settlers.

In dealing with all this from an anthropological point of view, Faust does not do much with the religious part of the story. At least, from what I have so far read, I do not know whether the worship of El or Yahweh was a part of totemism or ethnicity. If the other elements of Israel encountered in the hill country a group that had fled from Egypt, was that the catalyst for a religious reformation? What kind of religion did they have before that?

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Faust-the Philistines

I have been reading Avraham Faust’s Israel’s Ethnogenesis not just to have a reading project this month, but because I am trying to figure something out. There has been a relatively new find (since Faust’s book) in Israel which may change the way I have to understand the history of the period that corresponds to 1 and 2 Samuel in the Bible.(See here).

My theory about that period has been that Judah, which up to then had not existed as the kind of coalition of peoples that David put together, conquered the northern tribes and installed David as king. David subjugated the northern tribes. But he was either an ally or a vassal of the Philistine city-state of Gath, which was sometimes at war with other Philistine city states.

My theory is probably wrong. The newer archeological evidence from the Elah Valley seems to show Judah heavily fortifying itself against Gath. At least that is what Yosef Garfinkel,who supervised the dig, thinks.

So Faust’s take on the Philistines is of special interest to me. I have a few items about this.

One, Faust points to evidence that the population of the Israelite village culture was a something over 2,000, while the population of the coastal strip occupied by the Philistines was well over 20,000. This was at the time the cultures encountered one another.

He never considers the Philistines as anything but a monolith.  My idea that the five city-states were squabbling and sometimes warring rivals does not come up.  I admit that I might be overly influenced by the rival city-states of the Amarna period.

Two, Faust shows that the Philistine culture was the richest, best organized and most complex society in the Levant at the time. Israel, on the other hand, was very poor and not very sophisticated.

Three, Faust uses the term “Egyptio-Canaanite” for the non-Philistine and non-Israelite component of the population. I had not run across this term before. It makes sense, though. The Philistine originally carved out their territory over against the Egyptio-Canaanite culture which had existed in Gaza. When they did so, they sharply differentiated themselves over against this culture. The eating of pork and lack of circumcision may have set the Philistines over against that culture as well as the Israelites.

Four, we do not know just why the Philistines made incursions into the hill country. The Egyptians and Canaanites usually avoided doing so. Faust thinks that Israel, while still poor, was beginning to grow an agricultural surplus. The Philistines may have been seeking to grab this.

Five, we know that over time the Philistines assimilated to Canaan. Their pottery becomes less distinct. They apparently ate less pork. Herodotus, the Greek historian, says they sometimes practiced circumcision.

Faust talks about all this on his way to arguing that Israel developed its distinct ethnic markers over against the Philistine culture. The Bible refers over and over to “uncircumcised Philistines” in a way it does not for other peoples. Some of Israel’s practices preexisted their encounter with the Philistines. But in that confrontation these practices became ethnic markers. They became part of the values of a people who understood themselves as a distinct, set apart, group.

It seems to me there is some evidence that the Philistines may have begun adopting Canaanite cultural practices earlier than Faust thinks. I have always wondered about the whole relationship between the Phoenicians and the Sea Peoples. The Philistines were one of the Sea Peoples, who seem to have been Viking-like sea raiders who destroyed the Hittite Empire and greatly diminished the Egyptian Empire. But they seem to have left the Phoenicians alone. Why? Trade ties? Something else in common?

The Philistines adopted the Phoenician alphabet. I am not sure if we can tell just when they did.

The Bible says the Philistines worshiped Dagon. He does not seem to have been an Aegean deity.  He was worshiped as a fish god at Ugarit in northern Syria.  Of course, the Bible could be reading a later practice of the Philistines back into an earlier time.

In conclusion, the thing that struck me most about what Faust says is the contrast between the few, poor Israelites and the numerous and powerful Philistines. Yet Faust attributes the service of a contingent of Philistine soldiers in David’s army to David’s domination of the Philistines. Well, then the story of David and Goliath, although it is probably not literally true, is metaphorically true. David’s weak Israel managed to overpower a materially and militarily superior nation. No wonder the Israelites attributed this to God’s power.

However, the findings in the Elah Valley may mean that Israel was not quite as poor and weak as Faust implied.

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Faust-security and settlement

In the late 13th century and the 12th centuries BCE hundreds of villages and farmsteads appeared in the inland hill country of Canaan. Most scholars now identify these villages with the beginnings of Israel.

In Israel’s Ethnogenesis, Avraham Faust calls attention to the fact that most all of these villages and farmsteads seem to have disappeared by sometime in the 10th century. What can be the explanation for this?

Examining the archeological evidence more closely, Faust comes up with a four important aspects. First, people abandoned most all these rural sites that we have excavated. Second, it happened in two stages, one in the first half of the 11th century and one in the first few decades of the 10th century. Third, these stages took place in two regions. The 11th century phase happened in the core of the hill country, Benjamin and the areas adjacent to it. The 10th century phase happened in the rest of the country from Galilee to the Negev. Fourth, the abandonment of the rural villages corresponds to a growth in urbanization, especially at the time of the 10th century phase (p. 126).

There have been several explanations offered for this. Faust believes the most likely has to do with security. The rural villages were unfortified. The urban centers were walled and defended.

It is worthwhile to note that this resettlement started before the monarchy arose. So the explanation cannot be that the kings liked to build cities. It is more likely that a security threat arose first. In the biblical account the monarchy itself came about as a response to security threats for Ammon and the Philistines. So Faust’s scenario at least partly corresponds to the text.

He thinks a combination of voluntary resettlement by villagers and later forced resettlement by the monarchy explains the pattern. The area of Benjamin shows the most elaborate social organization at the earliest date. It has the most dense population and the most central towns at an early date. It was also closest and most likely to feel a threat from the Philistine city states of Ekron and Gath.

Although 1 Samuel and the Dead Sea Scrolls’ expanded (perhaps older) version of 1 Samuel say the earliest threat to Benjamin was from Ammon, Faust says that only the Philistines could have initiated this process of resettlement. He wants to rely on what we know from material culture dug up by archeology more than what the texts tell us. Indeed there are reasons to see the text of 1 Samuel as a bit confused in its account of Saul’s ascension and wars.

I was intrigued by one of ways others have explained the beginning of the monarchy and urbanization. In the clans in the hill country villages there would eventually be a problem with inheritance. After a while land could no longer get divided among a man’s sons without making plots too small for a family to live on. So their would be a bunch of displaced young men. The monarchy and the new cities offered a place to these men. They could be soldiers. They could be government officials. Maybe they could even be priests.

Although I would agree more with Faust’s idea that security worries caused resettlement, there does seem to have been a supply of displaced young men. 1 Samuel 22:2 describes the people recruited to David’s band or gang.

“And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him.”

If you look at the Middle East today you will see that failed economies there have left a whole bunch of young men with minimal prospects. They often get recruited to nasty groups like ISIS. Something similar spurs young men to join gangs in American cities. So it is not good when young men have little hope for their futures.  When that happens something in society is not working.

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Faust-Israel as the wild frontier

I am blogging through Avraham Faust’s Israel’s Ethnogenesis.

In a footnote, Faust says that Norman Gottwald may have done the idea that earliest Israel had an egalitarian ethos a disservice by associating that idea with his larger theory. His theory took Marxist social conflict theory and projected it back on ancient Israel (that is my characterization of Gottwald, not Faust’s). Gottwald’s theory was that Israel’s origins lay in a Canaanite revolt against Egyptian backed city states that oppressed them. Then these Canaanites and others rejected this oppressive social structure. This is what made them Israelites–not that they were some other race that had migrated into Canaan as per the Book of Joshua.

Faust does not buy into this whole theory. But he thinks there is evidence both in the Biblical text and in the material culture that earliest Israel indeed had an egalitarian ethos, which he sometimes calls an ideology. We have seen how he thinks their pottery and houses point to this. He says also that the lack of elaborate tombs points to this. No matter who you were, you got a simple burial. This is in stark contrast to what we find when we dig up sites from the Late Bronze Age.

The lack of Temples also points to this. We have no Iron Age I Israelite temples. This, along with the importance of prophets, probably points to there being not much in the way of an authoritative priesthood.

Even in Iron Age II, when their were kings in Israel, we do not find the monumental royal inscriptions that are so common elsewhere.

Faust points out that this does not require us to believe that Israel originated in an uprising or in class warfare of any kind. Anthropologists have studied frontier societies in various places, including the American West. These societies, it has been found, usually develop naturally with some hostility to hierarchy. If you think of early Israel as a frontier society, there is no need to read in ideas from the French or Russian revolutions.

If I remember right, Frank Moore Cross after demolishing Gottwald’s theory also used

egalitarian as a description of early Israel.

Faust acknowledges that equality in ancient Israel is only relative to other societies around Israel. There would have been a continuum from Egypt’s divine Pharaoh to less totalitarian and hierarchical arrangements. Israel had not so much a representative democracy as corporate government under councils of elders. And, just because they had an egalitarian ethos, that does not mean they always lived up to it in actual practice.

Anthropologists who have studied frontier societies note that such societies are temporary and that their egalitarianism gets replaced by more hierarchy. However, Faust argues that the egalitarian ethos may long outlast egalitarian practice.

Faust posits that at the end of the Bronze Age, a totemistic/tribal society somehow emerged in the hill country of Israel. It had to define itself over against the Egyptio/Canaanite system and eventually also against the Aegean society represented by the Philistines. Israel needed to contrast itself with these societies. So the egalitarian ethos became crucial for Israelite self-identity at this time.

He promises to develop these ideas more as the book goes along.

My reaction to his work so far is, first, that it is highly provocative and interesting.

Second, though, I have to say that I distrust terms like egalitarian, democracy, and hierarchical when applied to ancient societies. I especially have trouble when Faust seems to use the terms ideology and ethos interchangeably. It seems to me that these terms come filtered through more recent debates.

What actually existed about this time, according, for instance, to the Amarna Letters was a structure of empire and semi-autonomous city states. That Israel began in some contrast to this structure is certain. They were tribal and village based. They would have existed, though, in some kind of economic symbiosis with the cities and the caravan routes. But at some point conflict must have flared.

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