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.