Dan and the twelve-tribe narrative

A long-standing theory about the tribe of Dan is that it was a tribe of the Sea Peoples who became attached to Israel. There are a number of reasons for this. There was a Sea Peoples group named the Denyen according to both Hittite and Egyptian inscriptions. Alternatively, another name for the Greek Achaeans was the Danaoi.

In Judges 5 (the Song of Deborah) Dan is said to have stayed in ships (v. 17). It is very unusual for early Israelites to be associated with ships or the sea.

Also in Judges are the Samson stories which parallel the Greek stories about Hercules. Perhaps these stories derived from the tribal traditions of a group associated with Greece or the Mediterranean islands.

At Tel Dan, the mound on the site of the ancient city of Dan, excavations in the 1970s found a tomb with elaborate artistic pottery depicting a chariot procession. The style was distinctive and some claimed that they could even identify the work of the same artist in pottery found in Cyprus and Greece. A newer development is that the clay used in that pottery has now been traced to a particular place in Greece. The tomb dates to the 14th century BCE. More and more Mycenaean or Greek stuff has been discovered at the site.

David Ilan, one of the archeologists leading the Tel Dan excavations, has put forward the theory that Dan was a mercenary tribe originally from the Aegean employed by the Egyptians and based at Laish, as the city of Dan was originally named. They were a buffer against the Hittites, Mittani, or whoever might have threatened Egypt from the north. (I don’t know if Ilan points this out, but Dan as a military buffer would fit the Genesis 49:17 description of Dan as a viper in the road striking at horses.) In the wake of the late Bronze Age collapse, Egypt withdrew and left the tribe of Dan who renamed the city and became allies of Israel. See here.

People may misunderstand this. There is a headline here which implies that it means there were only eleven tribes.

Actually the whole narrative about twelve tribes seems to be late and artificial. The earliest references like the Song of Deborah don’t have twelve tribes. The song mentions ten tribes that include some that are not of the twelve–Machir and Giliad. The kingdom of Saul seems to have included among the tribes Giliad and Jezreel (2 Samuel 2:9, where Dan is absent). Giliad and Jezreel were places more than tribes and some of the other tribes seem to have originally been places more than tribes too. The very ancient Psalm 68 only speaks of four tribes (v. 27).

The tribe of Reuben, although probably important in very ancient times, seems to have almost disappeared at the time Deuteronomy 33:6 was written.

The king of Moab, according to his Mesha Stone, did not consider Gad as a tribe of Israel.

Solomon divided Israel into twelve administrative districts. I think that the 12 tribes idea came after that. So, even though they are pretty old, the blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49) and the blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 33) do not reflect the actual situation before the monarchy. It is complicated because some of the sayings about individual tribes could reflect more ancient situations. Genesis 49:5, for instance, may speak of a time when Levi was not yet a priestly tribe. But what I am claiming is that the twelve-tribe scheme is post-Solomon.

The tradition that the sons of Jacob were sires of twelve tribes is legendary and not historical. The various tribes could have quite diverse origins. Over time they joined together for religious, military and economic reasons.

So I think David Ilan is on to something.

But people are still making a lot of assumptions based on reading the twelve-tribes scheme back into the period before the monarchy. I am going to think out loud about one of them in my next post.

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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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