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.