When did Israel come into being as an ethnic group?
That is the question Avraham Faust is dealing with in Israel’s Ethnogenesis.
Modern anthropology has looked at and developed a vocabulary and some methods for exploring the ethnicity of peoples. Ethnogenesis is the study of the formation of ethnic groups. Faust applies some of this to Israel in the early Iron Age.
Most scholars used to think that an ethnic group was a culture-bearing unit. Archeology could partly uncover the culture of a people by looking at graves, pottery, temples, and other artifacts that had survived. A newer way to see an ethnic group is as a form of social organization. Whereas a style of pottery, for instance, might tell you something about a group’s culture, it does not give as much clue about the social organization of a people.
For this reason, archeology seems less helpful. Ethnicity now seems more complex. It has to do with what distinguishes one group from another, not just with characteristics shared within a group. So archeologists look for markers that point to boundaries between ethnic groups. This is why Faust thinks that when written texts are available they help to give context to archeological finds.
Ethnic groups usually compete with one another. So archeologists can look for signs of competition. This may not only mean economic and military competition. It can include competition for social and psychological rewards as well. Such competition may motivate the formation of ethnic groups.
Ethnic groups also are ethnocentric. We today might call this bigotry, but historically it has been a feature of ethnic groups. They see other groups as inferior. They give more respect to groups that have some common characteristics with themselves and less respect to groups that are more distant. Ethnocentrism helps form the boundaries of group identity.
Ethnic groups tend to share some kind of a power structure or hierarchy. It can be a loose clan confederacy or a central state. These power structures vary a lot, but they determine the relation of members of the group and the degree that boundaries with other groups get enforced.
Israel seems to constitute an ethnic group. But how did it arise in the early Iron Age, and how did they distinguish themselves from other groups?
Faust is going to start with the Iron Age because he correctly understands that in the late Bronze Age Canaan was an Egyptian province. The hill country villages that most now see as early Israelite may have begun during the Bronze Age, but he thinks the formation of ethnic identity is mostly an Iron Age process.
So this sets the stage for Faust’s discussion in the rest of the book. He will use the tools of archeology and the framework of anthropological discussions about ethnicity along with biblical and other written texts to attempt an answer to the question of how Israel came to be as an ethnic group.