A love-hate affair with nomads

I am going to blog about a book by Kenton Sparks. But I haven’t read enough of it yet to start. I was attracted to Sparks by some of his studies of Israel’s origins. So I am going to talk about one of his on-line articles today.

Ever since I read Georg Fohrer’s work on his hypothesized Nomadic source or tradition behind the J source of the Pentateuch, I have been thinking about the relationship between nomads and early Israel. This is a topic of controversy among scholars.

The trend has been to see Israel as consisting of lowland city dwellers and farmers who moved into the hills and founded all the villages that archeologists say suddenly came into existence in 12th century BCE Palestine. But other scholar hotly contest this. They think the Israelites came across the Jordan and have roots in the nomadic world of the Midianites, Edomites and Moabites–what the Egyptians called Shasu.

Now Sparks wants to see nomadism as more complicated than people often appreciate. He distinguishes between the Amalekites, whom the Bible portrays as herders and livestock raiders, and the Midianites who seem to have been caravaneers and to have had craft guilds of pottery makers and metal workers.

Even the Amalekites had a city according to 1 Samuel 15:5. So nomadic societies included more or less settled people.

The later Israelites saw the Amalekites and Midianites as enemies. They did not seem to have had a nostalgic and idealized concept of nomadism. The Rechabites may have had such a view, but there is discussion about whether the Rechabites were pastoral nomads or a roving metal workers guild. At any rate, they did not represent the main body of Israel.

Now Sparks takes up the Israelite attitude towards the Midianites. There seems to be a positive memory in that Moses married into a Midianite group and his wife’s family made contributions to Israelite religion and law. The Kenites, whatever their relation to Midianites as a whole, continued to have a positive role in Israel’s memory.

But there is also a memory of conflict with the Midianites. The Gideon story in Judges is about a war with Midianite raiders. As early as Isaiah this was remembered as the “day of Midian” (Isaiah 9:4). And the story in Numbers 31, which is mostly unhistorical, portrays Midianites as evil and worthy of annihilation.

Sparks posits a scenario with a three step move from nomadism to hostility to nomads:

. . .if the highlands of Late Bronze/Iron I Palestine were settled by pastoral nomads who also took up agriculture, as some scholars suggest, then we should anticipate the following pattern. First, the early settlers valued and appreciated their nomadic origins. Second, because the highland settlers were both pastoralists and agriculturalists, these settlers soon developed some measure of economic independence. Third, as a result of this independence, the settlers came to view the nomads as threats to the security of settled life. One consequence of this development would have been that early affections for nomadic brethren were finally replaced by animosity toward them.

This scenario more or less dovetails with the biblical portrait of Midian. Here there is a distant memory of Israel’s nomadic origins and of its early affections for the nomads, as well as evidence of its eventual turn against the nomadic threat (from the article Israel and the Nomads of Ancient Palestine linked above).

So it seems to me that Fohrer’s N source could have existed before stage 3, and most likely would have developed during stage 2 as a backlash against the temptations that came with economic independence. But, in the final Pentateuch, the nomadic vision of some early Israelites is embedded in a work that pretty much hates nomads.

You still would find echos of the earlier days in the feast of booths, when people briefly and symbolically lived in tents again. You find it as well in a passage like Hosea 12:9:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt;

I will make you live in tents again as in the days of old (NET Bible).

It seems Hosea hoped that with the Assyrian destruction of civilized society, Israel would return to the God of the wilderness and their former nomadic existence.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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One Response to A love-hate affair with nomads

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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