“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?