I decided to come back to something in Mark Leuchter’s approach to Israelite history that has become more important the further I get into The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity.
The important idea is that before the monarchy Israel was not so much a confederation of tribes, as scholars once thought, as a chiefdom.
Leuchter is drawing on the work of Robert Miller, who wrote a book called the Chieftains of the Highland Clans: A History of Israel in the 12th and 11th Centuries BC. Miller’s thesis is that the anthropological concept of chiefdom fits Israel of this period. Most of the characteristics of leaders like Deborah, Barack, Gideon, and Jepthah fit the notion of a chieftain.
Chiefdoms have become a part of how anthropologists see the pathway to monarchies and empires . Once upon a time (actually still today in some places in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands) primitive people had a system of organization we call “the big man” polity. Clans and villages structured themselves and made decisions based on the influence of charismatic people who were not formally chiefs or kings.
But then some of these “big men” declared themselves chiefs. They often claimed connection with a deity. On the one hand, they centralized power in themselves. But on the other hand, they often posed as the protectors of the weak and the upholders of order and justice.
Archeology can give us clues about how certain societies were structured, especially if we find texts like law codes. However, the most clear understanding of chiefdoms comes from observation. Chiefdoms have survived into modern times among certain groups like the Zulu, and especially, the Polynesians.
So Leuchter finds that the best description for Israel, probably including not only the Judges but the early realms of Saul and David, is chiefdom. The pattern was that elite warriors became chiefs.
However, as I read back –I missed some of this at first because was focused on the exegesis of Exodus 15—I see that he goes beyond Miller. Leuchter connects the myths at Ugarit with the ideology of early Israelite chiefdoms. Israel worshiped El who was also a sort of the head of the household for the Canaanite gods.
But Ugarit was a royal city-state, not a chiefdom. So Leuchter proposes that Israel rather drastically “abstracted and reapplied” (p. 53) Canaanite mythology to change the relationship between the gods.
Thus El takes on for Israel the role that Baal played at Ugarit. The chief assumed aspects of El, the divine warrior. But, at Ugarit it was Baal who reflected the alpha-male character of the king.
So, based on the fact that El plays a role in the literature of both Ugarit and Israel, Leuchter seems to make a big assumption about how Emergent Israel did mythology. He has to assume because the actual texts we have from Israel already assert that YHWH and El are the same.
There also seems to me to be a gap between this and the idea that veneration of the dead was a major aspect of how the El theology got practiced.
Moreover, it seems to me that the relevance of Egyptian myth gets overlooked. If the early purveyors of Yahwism were Egyptians as Leuchter accepts, then the elohim as spirits of the dead, might relate to the Egyptian cult of the dead. Is there a relation to the Egyptian idea of akh, the spirit of the worthy dead which gets transfigured so that it can mingle with the gods?
To those of us who believe in the God of Israel, even if we are not biblical literalists, academic discussions of the “concept” of God and the evolution of theologies sometimes seem cynical. We cling to the belief that God actually communicated with some of those old Israelites.