Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Socio-Historical Background of the Bible: Part 1 (Pre-1000 BC)

A New People:

Although the origins of ancient Israel remain obscure and have yet to be definitively settled by the science of archaeology, my own account of its history begins with a cataclysmic wave of migrations that changed forever the face of the Mediterranean. This event, known as the Bronze Age collapse, saw cities and civilizations topple like dominoes under the massive influx of people displaced displaced by earlier, unknown events to the north and west of modern day Israel. Little is known about who these people were, where they came from or what caused them to move (though any number of environmental and political causes have been invoked), but what we do know is that they left in their wake a wave of destruction and political upheaval that forever changed the course of near-Eastern history.

The relevance to the history of Israel begins in around 1250 BC, when some of these refugees landed on the Gaza coast and began a slow - but thorough - military campaign of destruction. Virtually all major archaeological sites from this region at this time exhibit scars of violence, and many cities were subsequently left abandoned for centuries. Again, little is known about the origin of the people responsible, but lexicographical and archaeological evidence seems to suggest a Greek, Minoan or perhaps even Balkan origin. Whatever the case, the people who descended from these invaders and settled in the region came to be known to the Biblical authors as "Philistines", the origin of our modern name for the region, "Palestine". There were two major consequences so far as the history of Israel is concerned.

The first is that the tenuous Egyptian grip on the region was severely weakened by the incursions of these "Sea People" (as they were known to the Egyptians). The loose confederacy of city states (known as Canaan and overseen by the Egyptian state) was fractured and smaller states emerged in their wake. Among them was a people known as "Israel", which - according to the Merneptah Steele - was subsequently attacked and defeated by the Egyptian Pharaoh, along with the other rebelling states who had briefly formed an opportunistic coalition against him. This can be dated to around 1205 BC and is the first archaeological evidence we have for the existence of Israel as an independent people (and the grammar of the inscription makes it clear that we are talking about a people rather than a particular geographical region). The Egyptian influence in the region was never subsequently restored to its earlier zenith.

The second major consequence concerns how the people of Israel came to inhabit the specific region that they did. With the arrival of the Philistines on the Gaza coast, the previous inhabitants (known to historians as "Canaanites", though whether they would have self-identified as such is unclear) were displaced and made refugees themselves. They were forced east from the relatively fertile lands of the Gaza strip into the rather more desolate and sparsely inhabited highlands of modern-day Israel. Such people likely came from different (though highly-related) cultures and the pressing question of how they might peacefully co-inhabit these new lands must have raised itself with great urgency very early on. Monotheism has been posited as a potential explanation for the political unification of this loosely affiliated population, but - as we shall see in future posts - there is scant evidence for widespread monotheism in Israel until around the 6th century BC, so we must look elsewhere for a solution. It is to this question - of how these displaced refugees might have come to form a new, cohesive culture in the highlands of Israel - that I turn to next.

A New Community:

The most important thing to note about the Israelite community from the time of its emergence in the 12th Century BC is not simply that it was derived from Canaanite culture, but that it was Canaanite culture. The archaeological sites from Israel at this time are almost completely indistinguishable from those of the wider cultural sphere. The pottery is the same, the dwellings are the same, the religious artifacts are the same... from the beginning, then, we must note that the earliest Israelites were distinguished from other nearby peoples in name only. What changed, then? How did the earliest Israelites come to differentiate themselves from the surrounding peoples? How did they come to be the Hebrews of the Old Testament?

This raises the wider question of what we might mean by "culture", and how it is that a new one comes into being. An important aspect of the emergence of any culture is the ability to distinguish it from others. To associate oneself with a certain culture is often, just as importantly, to distance oneself from a competing culture, and - as religious sectarianism has shown us - it is frequently those people with whom we share the most in common that we argue with most virulently. The tribalism of pre-monarchic Israel (see next post) gives fairly clear evidence of a struggle for self-definition in a region that was otherwise culturally homogeneous. To quote from this book:

Boundaries are marked because communities interact in some way or other with entities from which they are, or wish to be, distinguished (see Barth, 1969). The manner in which they are marked depends entirely upon the specific community in question. Some, like national or administrative boundaries, may be statutory and enshrined in law. Some may be physical, expressed, perhaps, by a mountain range or a sea. Some may be racial or linguistic or religious. But not all boundaries, and not all the components of any boundary, are so objectively apparent. They may be thought of, rather, as existing in the minds of their beholders.

In contrast to many other religions of the ancient Near-East, the religion of the Israelites eventually became "exclusionary" - that is, one which asserted vehemently (as a central tenet of its practice, in fact) its independence from other religions, and which steadfastly refused to adopt the gods and customs of other peoples. This is in contrast to the religions of the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Babylonians etc., which were syncretistic and adopted foreign gods and customs with relative ease. At these very earliest stages of Israel, however, such exclusionary monotheism had yet to evolve, and archaeological evidence suggests a much more pluralistic form of religious practice existed for much of its early history (see next section).

One advantage that the early Israelites had in terms of the potential for cultural differentiation relates to the physical geography of their land. Its southern regions especially were comparatively isolated, inaccessible and infertile, which seemed to spare them from the need to directly resist - or assimilate - the neighbouring cultures that may have otherwise swamped them. That is, because the land of Israel was a comparatively unattractive prospect for migratory settlement, it was possible for there to exist the kind of uninterrupted social development necessary for the eventual emergence of a distinct culture. Once this distinct culture emerged, it was buttressed enough from the wider world for long enough for it to become ingrained. Beyond this point, the culture of the ancient Israelites was able to be preserved even after the land itself was lost.

On the other hand, the land of Israel also existed at the nexus of several important trade routes, where roads to and from Europe, Africa and the Middle East have long existed. For this reason, it was seen for most of its history as a strategically important expanse of land for the world's largest empires, who passed it between themselves as they rose and fall. From Egypt, to Assyria, to Babylon, to Macedonia to Rome: Israel was occupied by them all. In many respects, the progress of ancient Israelite history can be viewed as a series of reactions to imperial conquest, much of which remains ossified in our Bibles. It's simply impossible to understand Biblical theology - both in the Old and the New Testaments - without due appreciation for the way conquered populations react to their occupation. The question of collective identity - and how it might be sheltered and expressed in the face of such massive powers - recurs time and time again in our Biblical texts, and will be a central theme in these posts.

It's this quirk of geography - inaccessible enough to preserve indigenous culture, central enough to attract the interest of much larger states - that defines ancient Israel. In an otherwise tiny and vulnerable part of the world, periodically beset by the imperial designs of the states around them, a culture was able to emerge and preserve itself for 3,000 years and counting. This stands as a remarkable feat. Yet quite how or why it was that the early Israelites came to develop such a distinct culture - centred around the increasingly parochial worship of a local God - remains something of a mystery and one deserving of some consideration. Although it is now impossible to identify precisely what happened in the region that may have led to the formation of a distinct culture in ancient Israel, some educated guesses can be offered.

For example, the uncertain and fractious political state of the region spurred the necessity of political centralisation - in the form of states - that hadn't really existed prior to the scaling back of Egyptian influence. The Bible, in the book of Judges, depicts this time as one of widespread lawlessness and petty warfare, overseen by men who might most adequately be described as tribal chieftains. While historical-critical scholarship has not been kind in its judgment of the historical accuracy of this book, what we can infer from the evidence of this period seems to paint a congruous picture of social and political fractiousness. Whatever states that existed in the region at the time were loose confederations centred around independent cities, and none has left us any signs of being particularly dominant in the region. In such an uncertain environment, one can assume that there came to be a growing necessity for the people of the land of Israel (as in other nearby regions) to coalesce around some central authority (priests, king etc.) so as to ensure social stability and protection from the chaos around them. With the centralisation of authority comes the establishment of prescribed sets of behaviours and conditions that the polity must follow. These, in turn, become reified as laws and rituals, which - in the process of differentiation from neighbouring cultures - begin to take on a unique and distinctive form.

The development of Biblical Law was a long process, however, and there is little evidence to suggest the existence of such a centralised legal system in the region prior to 1000 BC (the gradual emergence of Biblical Law will be explored in future posts). The creation and enforcement of law requires a strong, legitimised system of government, usually under the auspices of a king, and it seems unlikely that any of the pre-Israelite tribes possessed the sophistication of social organisation necessary to enforce anything but the most limited tribal laws. On there other hand, while there is an undeniable degree of continuity between the (much later) Biblical laws and other ancient near-Eastern legal systems, there was apparently the foreshadowing of some important boundaries between the Israelite population and the surrounding populations even at this early stage.

The complete absence of pig bones in early Israelite sites, for example, seems to indicate the presence of a universal cultural taboo that might be adequately described (presuming it was centrally enforced) as a "law". Such a taboo may have emerged as a mere accident of history (did the conditions of the new land make it prohibitively difficult to raise pigs, for example?) but, over time, such relatively minor and arbitrary differences become sacralised as a culture seeks to define itself in opposition to others. There needn't have been any rational reason for the emergence of the prohibition on eating pork meat, but it did come - in time - to serve as an important "boundary" separating the Israelites from their neighbours. The subsequent addition of other stringent laws - and related religious observances - would also serve as important identity markers, denoting ever more clearly the boundaries between the Israelites and their neighbouring cultures.

These Israelites were still ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from the Canaanites, though, and neither the Hebrew language nor its people ever radically diverged from those of other Semitic populations. Given these similarities - and the absence of well-defined boundaries, such kings, laws or customs at this early stage -  in what ways (beyond the taboo on consuming pig flesh) could the Israelites be said to represent an identifiably separate population in the region? One potentially unique aspect of early Israelite culture may be that of their religion. That is the topic of our next section.

A New Religion:

Like all other Near-Eastern cultures, it seems that the early Israelites were (to a surprisingly recent date) polytheistic. While the exact form of this polytheism - and the kind of practices it might have entailed - are widely disputed, we know that even well into the mid-first millennium BC the Israelites retained a belief in the existence of the pantheon of gods.

In Canaanite theology, the god "El" was the head of all the gods. He had 70 children, each of which was allotted his own land, and each of which represented the gods of different people. The earliest Israelites retained this mythology, and so the first patron god of Israel was El (as evidenced by their patronymic title Israel). It seems evident that El's wife, Asherah, was also widely worshiped in Israel at this time, though the evidence in somewhat disputed (see here for a thorough discussion). The existence of early Israelite names derived from the Babylonian God "Baal", and the Bible's persistent denunciations of his shrines, would seem to indicate that the worship of this God was also common, though perhaps not at such an early date. Similarly, we know from the Book of Kings (2 Kings 23) that a plethora of other gods - such as Molech, Astarte, Chemosh and Milcom - were being worshipped in and around Judah during the 7th century, and it would be unreasonable to assume that none of these practices originated in a much earlier period. In any case, the fact that the earliest Israelites worshiped a multitude of gods is not seriously in dispute.

Out of such plurality, however, the worship of one god over all others began to emerge. It seems that Yahweh, one of El's 70 children, came to be adopted as the patron god of certain of these pre-monarchic tribes at a relatively early date, even if this remains a far cry from the more recognisable religious system of later centuries. Yahweh's origins as a "second-tier" god - one among a much wider pantheon - are still in evidence in the Bible, for example Ps 82:1 and especially Deut 32:8-9. The earliest Yahweh worshipers would probably best be described as "henotheistic" (believing in a pantheon of gods but with the preferential worship of just one), with the practice of monolatry (much less monotheism) almost certainly not coming into effect until much later. Over time, with the decline of the Northern Kingdom and the continuing assertion of Israelite independence from the wider religious culture of the region, Yahweh would come to absorb the qualities of other Gods (for instance, Baal's role as a storm God and slayer of sea monsters), until the ultimate conflation of El and Yahweh sometime in the early first millenium BC. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Not much more can be said about the earliest strains of the Israelite religion, but we will fill in the pieces as we progress forward in time. Nonetheless, we have here already the foundations of the religious beliefs that would - over the next millenia - give rise to Judaism, Jesus and the Bible: we have a relatively isolated culture, closely related to those around it, that slowly came to realise itself as a new and distinct people, overseen by an ever more narrowly defined coterie of gods. It is to the emergence of the Israelite monarchy, the split kingdoms and the mythologies they produced that I will turn to in my next post.

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