Before Israel was a state with a monarchy, it was a society of clans and tribes, as a kinship-organized society rather than a centralized state. Pharaoh Merneptah, late in the 13th century in his famous Israel stele, described Israel as a people in contrast to his other conquests which were states.
The most unusual thing about Stephen L. Cook’s The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism is his use of anthropology and cross-cultural comparisons to illuminate Israel’s situation in the eighth century. In Cook’s scenario the old kinship society still existed and overlapped with the centralized societies centered on the royal houses of the northern and southern kingdoms. Cook looks at other societies, mostly in Africa, where kinship, clan-based society continued to function even when a centralized government was imposed over it. The examples include the Zulu, the Berber, the Ibo, the Bantu and the Ngwato societies. In a few cases the centralization was imposed by European colonial powers, but mostly it came from some clan leader imposing centralization in a way that calls to mind the project of David and other Israelite kings.
The feature of this that seems hard for us who live in modern nation-states to get our heads around is that a stable society can exist without centralization. Anthropologist show that these societies have existed. They call them “segmentary societies”. Israel in the period of settlement and the judges clearly qualifies as such a society. It existed in segments, the largest of which were tribes. Such societies structure themselves according to a “segmentary genealogy”.
“Such a genealogy expands and forms various segments, or branches, as families grow and descendants proliferate over the generations. . .These systems look like branchy, upside-down trees, with a particular ancestor (if known) at the top of each branched segment. Among the Bantu of Kavirondo in Kenya, for example, one Bantu tribal unit known as the Logoli believes that all of its clans descended from one remote tribal ancestor, called Murogoli. All of the members of another Bantu tribe, the Vugusu, believe they have descended from an eponymous ancestor known as Muyugusu. In these societies, everyone descended from a given ancestor is a member of a particular segment of the genealogical tree” (p. 166).
Israel conceived of itself this way. This had implications for land and inheritance. In many of these societies these extended family ties depend upon farmland that a particular family understands itself to control and pass down. These plots of land constitute a birth-right and an individual separated from his clan’s land is profoundly uprooted.
It is important to keep in mind that Cook’s thesis is that in the eighth century Israel as a segmentary society still coexisted with Samaria and Judah as nation-states involved in a geopolitical crisis. This overlap gave rise to the conflict we see in Micah and Hosea.
Cook’s cross-cultural comparisons give an uncommon perspective on biblical studies and seem to me to provide some fascinating insight into Ancient Israel.