In reading William Dever’s lecture in The Rise of Ancient Israel about how you can’t tell the difference between Caananites and Israelites, I realized that much of his theory has to do with his excavations at Gezer. He excavated that important site for 25 years. When he talks about Canaanites, he means people like those who lived at Gezer. So keep that in mind.
Dever proposes a different model than the traditional, peaceful settlement, or peasant revolt models. He calls it the symbiotic model. Apparently this means that some Canaanites vacated the city states which were breaking down at the end of the Bronze Age. Some of these Canaanites moved to the hill country and learned to use cisterns and terracing to make the land productive. They also were cattle breeders. There is little evidence that they were ever sheep herding nomads from east of the Jordan.
Pottery is a big part of this argument. While excavating Gezer he found a great deal of Canaanite pottery. He is very familiar with it. He says that he does not see the pottery found at sites that seem to be Israelite as significantly different. Israel Finkelstein excavated an Israelite site just eight miles from Gezer. Finkelstein thinks the Israelites had a nomadic background. Dever sees no evidence of this. In fact he says that the contemporary pottery found at the two sites could have been made by the same potter..
So Dever argues that there is no difference between Israelite and Canaanite material culture. Also he does not see the difference between the houses built at Israelite villages and most of the houses in Canaanite cities. Finkelstein, in his response, disagrees with this. I have no expertise that would let me judge the pottery and architecture wars.
What I suspect is that Dever is just setting a higher standard of evidence. He wants to be shown from what we have found in the material culture of the Israelite villages where we would get the idea that they came from the other side of the Jordan and had a nomadic background. He suspects that scholars who make these claims are either accepting late Judaic propaganda from the Bible or are influenced by modern studies of Bedouin tribes. He does not think either of these approaches is good science.
He also does not think that the sociological model behind the peasant revolt theory is good science. This becomes interesting because Norman Gottwald gets to respond in writing and defend an updated version of that theory.
It is kind of amusing because these two scholars, who publicly respect each other, were on opposite sides of the Cold War. Dever questions the notion that the Israelite villagers were “egalitarians”. He thinks Gottwald imposed a Marxist and utopian vision on them. Dever asks why anyone today (after the Soviet and eastern European collapse at the end of the 1980s) would want to be a Marxist. But Gottwald who dedicated his book, The Tribes of Yahweh, to the Viet Cong is unrepentant.
For all of their scholarly and political disagreement, though, Dever and Gottwald both think that the origin of the Israelites was in the Canaanite city states. Gottwald thinks they revolted and created a counter state with a new ideology. Dever thinks they lived along side the Canaanites and gradually migrated to the hills.
As to the ideological or religious distinction of the Israelites, Dever does not find evidence of that in early Israel either. He doubts the late Adam Zertal’s claim to have discovered a Yahwistic cult site near Shechem. (I am confused by Dever’s claim that the roe deer, whose bones are abundant at this site, were not clean. But Deuteronomy 14:5. Perhaps he just means they were not acceptable sacrifices in later Judaism. But this would have been around -1200 or so. So later Judaism may not be relevant.) He does think that the site near Dothan, where Mazar found a four inch high bronze bull, was an Israelite cult site. This means that the only material evidence we have of ancient Israelite religion points to it being Baal worship.
Dever is good on the kinship dynamic in the hill country villages. There you find households consisting of several generations of extended family. This agrees with the portrayal in Judges, and 1 Samuel where individuals identify themselves as of the house of X, X being the name of the clan’s father. This shows us a patriarchal social structure, not exactly egalitarian, but independent of the city-state or Egyptian hierarchies.
One of the problems with Dever is that he tends to overstate his case. Sometimes you get the feeling that he is being mean to the people he disagrees with. But Finkelstein takes it in good humor. In fact comic relief may be what Dever is going for in the lecture. Several times the transcript puts in parenthesis “laughter”. He tends to make fun of positions that do not have the strong archeological evidence he would like. Yet, at other times, he appears willing to speculate beyond the evidence as long as we are clear that it is just a consideration of possibilities.
I have another problem with the question of whether the Israelites were different than the Canaanites. This has to do with how you define Canaanite. Israelite has an ethnic, cultural and religious connotation. The Egyptians, in the Merneptah stele characterized Israel as a people. In other words, Israel does not seem originally to have been a place name.
But Canaan always seems to have been a place. Most of the Bible’s references to the Canaanites as a single race come from the prophets and later, and really just make it a synonym for Phoenician. Early references refer to several races living in Canaan, the place. For instance I think there should be a colon after Canaanites in Judges 3:5
The Israelites lived among the Canaanites: Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.
In the late Bronze Age the people, like those at Gezer, who lived within the bounds of Canaan, seem to have developed a common material culture.
But does common pottery and building styles mean anything deeper? If they all avoided eating pigs, where did that quirk come from? And even Dever doesn’t claim that all the Israelites had a Canaanite origin.