Israel Finkelstein is an Israeli archeologist who has something in common with Igor Lipovsky, the subject of several of my posts last month. Lipovsky separates the history of Israel, the northern kingdom, from that of Judah and the southern kingdom. He argues that the early history of the north has largely dropped out of the Bible’s story in order to read back into the prehistory of Israel a unity between the southern tribes and the northern tribes that did not really exist.
Finkelstein deals with a later period. But he also thinks the Bible shorts the history of northern Israel in favor of Judah.
This certainly is a real tendency. The northern kingdom’s history has almost disappeared in 1 and 2 Chronicles.
But Finkelstein’s controversial claim is that the united monarchy of David and Solomon never existed. David and Solomon probably existed, but they ruled over a small, unimportant kingdom that was never united with the northern kingdom. The northern kingdom, especially under king Omri and his successors was much larger and geopolitically important.
This claim involves shifting the chronology so that monuments and artifacts that many archeologists assume come from Solomon’s time actually come from Omri’s time. There is a furious argument about this among archeologists. The argument involves carbon 14 dating of olive pits and the obscure science of what pots and jars date from what period. I am not competent to weigh in on this. My impression is that recent finds go against Finkelstein’s chronology. But he is still vigorously defending it.
He wrote a book called The Forgotten Kingdom: the Archaeology and History of Northern Israel based on what we have dug up and the textual evidence he thinks is reliable. I have doubts about his chronology and reconstruction. But it was a valuable read.
The part of the book I liked best was his treatment of the “Shechem Polity in the Amarna Period”. As I have mentioned several times in various posts, reading the Amarna letters convinced me that there was no Israel in Palestine in the 14th century. In my view, this makes all the early Exodus and Conquest theories highly improbable.
Finkelstein uses the attempt by the Shechem city-state under Labayu to form a kingdom in central and northern Canaan as a template for what must have been a similar rise of the northern kingdom of Israel several centuries later. By failing to take Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley, Labayu came short of his ambition. He failed because of Egyptian opposition.
Egypt was no longer a factor in the time of Saul. There was Philistine opposition. But northern Israel ultimately overcame it and established a strong kingdom over the same territories Labayu had coveted.
Here is what I find most important from Finkelstein’s study:
“Territorially, Canaan of the Late Bronze II was divided into a system of city-states that were dominated by an Egyptian administrative and military system. Each city-state consisted of a main city—the seat of the ruler—and a system of villages around it (p.13).”
He disputes the notion that there were empty spaces or “no man’s land” in the highlands where proto-Israel could have been hanging out. The borders of the territories of the city-states touched each other. He maps out how all the lands of Canaan were within the borders of one city-state or another. He shows how the Amarna letters point to an attempt by Labayu to put together a coalition of these states to bypass Egyptian power.
I agree with most of this. I simply do not see a place for Israel in Canaan under this system, which prevailed until the withdrawal of Egypt in the 12th century (or perhaps, in the far north, until the overthrow of Hazor in the 13th century). I am sure there were caravaneers, traders, nomads and mercenaries who came and went. However, the city-state vassals of Egypt had the territory and political power.
So, on the one hand, Finkelstein’s views support Lipovsky’s idea that as long as Egypt was powerful in Canaan there could be no real conquest. On the other hand, Finklestein’s view does not support Lipovsky on the idea that the former Hyksos were established in out-of-the-way parts of Canaan.