Ancient Israel – A Brief History (1207 – 876 BC)

Archaeologists have been excavating ancient Canaan for a century and a half. In fact, Israel, which is located right in the center of it, is possibly the most excavated stretch of land in the entire world, if you measure all the cubic meters of soil dug out per square kilometer of land area.

The reason for this fascination is obvious – this is the land of the Bible, where many stories take place that are central to the foundation of 3 major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, listed here in chronological order.

Those early diggers began by holding the Bible in one hand and a shovel in the other, looking for things they could match to the stories told in the Good Book.

For this subject has always been a touchy one. I think it was Roland de Vaux who said that the veracity of the Christian faith depended on the truthfulness of the historical accounts in the Bible (basically – on the truthfulness of the Bible), and that, if archaeology disproved them, it would mean that the faith, itself, was wrong. Israel Finkelstein diplomatically disagreed with that – he has to live here – but, as Harari has said, historical religions will forever be at odds with archaeology.

It is as big a problem for Jewish (and, I’m guessing, also for Muslim) archaeologists, for the same reason. This is why, to this day, many of them have a hard time seeing the evidence in the field for what they are. In the last few decades, the body of evidence that has been accumulated in digs in over a century, began to so obviously contradict the histories described in the Bible, that this forced researchers to rethink their paradigms and their chronologies. The result was Finkelstein’s brilliant work, titled The Bible Unearthed, which, in essence, and with some additions from other sources, I will be summing up in the following articles.

The first mention of a name, the word “Israel”, appears in an inscription made by Pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 BC. In that inscription he claims to have vanquished Israel, which had probably been a Bedouin tribe living on the outskirts of Canaan, at the time. He may have just collected tribute from them – like most if not all ancient rulers, pharaohs tended to exaggerate their victories.

This means that we can place the beginning of the ethnogenesis of the nation of Israel – one of two ancient peoples who became ancestors of the Jewish people – somewhere between the reign of Akhenaten, in Egypt (1351 – 1334 BC) and 1207 BC. Akhenaten’s diplomatic correspondence, preserved in the el-Amarna letters, makes no mention of Israel and Israel’s little sister, Judaea, formed only several centuries later, in the 10th century.

The Late Bronze Age Collapse began at the end of the Late Bronze Age, in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin (around 1,200 BC). Cities and whole civilizations – the Mycenaeans, the Hittites, to name a couple – began collapsing. Many city-states ended violently, others just suffered an economic decline and were eventually abandoned. The process took about 50 years. Sometime around the end of the 13th century BC the Sea Peoples invaded the region of the coast stretching from Egypt to Turkey, causing destruction and forming several kingdoms there. In the south those were the city states of Philistia. They – the Sea Peoples – had probably been escaping droughts or economical troubles in their part of the Mediterranean, which had probably also hit its eastern basin.

This is when groups of nomads from the east, possibly mixed with some refugees from the Canaanite cities of the lowlands, began settling the mountainous regions of Canaan, from Judaea to the mountains of Lebanon. This process had happened twice before, during intermediate periods in the Bronze Age, only in the previous settlement phases the scale of settlement had been somewhat smaller and the settlements ended dissipating as urban culture re-emerged.

In between those phases, nomads had left their mark in the hills: there are many burial sites from those periods with no remains of permanent residences nearby. When they started settling for the 3rd time, at the beginning of the 12th century BC, their villages had the shape of nomadic tent camps, made of stone. In time their architecture changed, adapting to the new, sedentary, lifestyle.

It is worthwhile to note, as Israel Finkelstein has pointed out, that populations in the middle east have maintained the knowledge and the ability to switch between a nomadic and a sedentary lifestyle at will, some well into the 20th century. This flexibility makes you better adjustable to changing conditions: a predatory new government, drought, any other disruptions. It happened on a large scale, during the Bronze Age, when serious climactic or economical upheavals affected the entire region, but it also happens on a small, local scale, and a lot more often.

Settlements were progressing from east to west (though there is no indication of an invasion from without, as we should expect, having read the story of the Exodus and of the conquista, in the Bible; the material culture in the ruined or abandoned Canaanite cities, when it resumed, in the Iron Age (12th to 1oth centuries BC, in Canaan) was still Canaanite, not something new or foreign). As the population grew it became more organized, more stratified, and eventually developed centers of political power – first Shiloh, in the 11th century, then the area of Gi’ve’ah, in the Land of Benjamin, just north of Jerusalem. This had been the Kingdom of Saul.

There is no way to verify his name, so we’ll have to take the Bible’s word for it. It becomes a relatively more reliable source beginning in the Book of Judges, since from the 12th century onward (the period covered in Judges is, roughly, the 12th-10th centuries BC) the history told in the Bible becomes based in facts and not in myth, as all the history before that – the fathers of the nation, Egypt, The Exodus, the conquest of Israel – that were mostly made up, or evolved from an early mythical source. Still, even when talking of events from the 12th century onward, the facts have been rearranged, for various political and theological reasons, and some new fantasy stories were added to the Bible, like the one about David’s conquests and Solomon’s great united kingdom.

You can see, reading the book of Judges, that there are stories there that came to us from oral traditions, some of them in the form of a summary of the full stories that had been preserved orally and are now lost to us. You can also see that they had been written – or told – by pagans, at least originally, with later editors changing the names and making excuses. The story of Gideon, for instance – the hero’s original name was Ye’ru’baal, which probably meant “fear/worship Baal”. The editors could not get rid of that name, probably because the story had been well known, so they added Gideon and then explained away Ye’ru’baal as a nickname meaning “he made Baal fear him”. This stands in contradiction with naming conventions of the time: theophoric names invoked the name of a god in a positive context, always.

Those old stories in the Book of Judges hark back to the time of the formation of the pre-Jewish kingdoms of Judaea and Israel, the settlement period (12th – 10th centuries BC). The third name, Hebrews, seems to have also come from that period. Hebrews is a variation on the word Appiru or Habiru – a Mideastern term referring to a special class of people: bandits, basically. The term had been in use throughout the 2nd millennium BC in the entire region, from Babylonia to Egypt. Appiru were usually city dwellers escaping debtors and other trouble in their home cities, banding together in the wastelands surrounding populated areas and subsisting on whatever means available to them: robbing, collecting ‘protection’ from the locals, serving as mercenaries in the various armies, and sometimes – like in the story of David, for instance, or in the story of Labayu from Shekhem (the city features a lot in the Bible, but the history of Labayu come from the Amarna letters) – conquering land and founding new kingdoms.

It appears our ancestors, or some of them, began their way as Appiru. Some other Appiru stories appear in the Bible, again, in the Book of Judges: the story of Avi’me’lekh, for instance, is a typical story of a strongman trying to carve himself a kingdom in the frontier lands. The word Hebrews, when it appears in the Bible, is always used by enemies of the nation, derogatorily, and this confirms, to a degree, the etymological connection between both words.

It would seem that, in the 10th century, the population of the settlers in the mountains of Judaea and Samaria – the future kingdoms of Judaea and Israel – was about 45,000 people, of which 40,000 lived in the area of the northern kingdom and a few thousand, with possibly a few thousand more nomads, living in what was to become the Kingdom of Judaea.

The conflicting stories of the Bible – especially those concerning David’s morality, his supposed succession of Saul, and the succession of David by Absalom – indicate, not a tendency for self criticism, as we have been taught at school, in Bible lessons, but that the people they speak of might have actually existed. The polemics – supposedly criticism of its most sacred heroes, showing them as human and imperfect – simply reflect conflicts that had existed at the time of writing or composition of those stories. Some, like the story of Uria the Hittite and that of Solomon’s idolatry in his old age, were added much later, to justify the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 BC.

The northern kingdom – Israel – had reached its maturity first, possibly already in the 11th century, to a degree. During the 2nd half of the 10th century it had become powerful enough to start expanding. Finkelstein tells the story of one of his students, in his book The Bible Unearthed, who had discovered that the destruction of certain cities to the north of the Samaria mountain range – The heartland of Israel; Samaria was also the name of its capital, from the time of the Omrides onward – happened over a period of several decades, in the 2nd half of the 10th century.

Finkelstein conjectured that this had been a sign for the expansionist tendencies of the old northern Kingdom, under Saul. In the 10th century Shoshenq I, founder of the 22nd dynasty of Egypt, was trying to retake control over Canaan, for Egypt. He campaigned to Canaan sometime in the middle of the 2nd half of the 10th century and left us an account of his victories in an inscription on a wall in the Temple of Amun-Re in Karnak. Here there is a certain discrepancy between the different accounts we have: that of the Bible and that of Shoshenq I’s inscription.

The Bible claims the Pharaoh took Jerusalem and plundered the treasures of the temple of Solomon not long after Solomon’s death which happened, supposedly, around 940 BC. according to the Bible’s version of history the great local power, at the time, in Canaan and in the Levant, had been the unified monarchy of ‘all the tribes of Israel’, founded by David, wit its capital in Jerusalem. In his inscription, on the other hand, Shoshenq I makes no mention of Jerusalem. Some scholars have tried to claim Jerusalem is one of the names missing from the inscription, which was found incomplete, but others rebut this claim saying the names mentioned in it appear in a certain geographic order and that Jerusalem, had it been a target of this campaign – one of many cities that needed ‘pacification’ – would have been mentioned in one of the surviving sections.

But the area of Benjamin, specifically, the places associated in the Bible with the Rule of Saul, are mentioned there. Archaeologists have found signs of abandonment, in that very area, dating to the end of the 10th century. It seems the area had lost most of its population around the time Shoshenq I made his campaign into Canaan.

After this there is a dark period in the history of Israel. It emerges from this darkness in 876, or so, with the rise of the Omride dynasty to power. It is said that Saul and his sons had all died in a great battle that took place in the north, on mount Gil’boa, in which Israel was defeated by its long time enemy – the Philistines.

And what about Shoshenq I? Again, Finkelstein posits that this memory of Egypt’s rule (ended around 1150 BC) and intervention (Shoshenq I, ~925 BC) had been lost by the time the Bible began being committed to paper, possibly as early as the 8th century BC. In Judaean common memory, the Egyptians had been replaced by the people who had possibly been their allies in that conflict – the Philistines, decedents of the Sea Peoples.

One more important fact that may not be quite clear from the above account is that David did not succeed Saul. He rules over a separate kingdom, small mountain kingdom. Saul ruled over the more powerful northern kingdom. The story of David succeeding Saul as the ruler of a unified kingdom with its capital in Judaea (Jerusalem) could only have been invented after the fall of the Israel – the Northern Kingdom – in 722 BC, when Judaea was claiming its old territories and seeking justifications for its claims – more on that in future article.

Before we conclude this article and wait, with trembling hearts, for the publication of its sequel (Ancient Israel – A Brief History (876 – 586 BC)), we need to say a few more words about David and his rise to power. We do not know where he came from. He might have had some connections in the northern kingdom. What we know, ‘for certain’, is that he had been an Appiru in his early days. The Bible describes him as the leader of a band of merry men, plundering and collecting protection in the then lawless hill country of Judaea, occasionally serving as a mercenary in the Philistine armies (a city is mentioned in this story that had not existed after the 10th century – Gat – which makes the story sound more authentic, preserving a real memory from the period that had been backed by archaeology). His relationship to the northern kingdom is unclear.

The Bible is concerned with justifying David’s actions and his right to rule over the whole of Israel (calling upon the imaginary united monarchy of Israel and Judaea), a thing that has no foundation in reality, since, if it had existed at all as a kingdom at the time, Judaea could only have been Israel’s Vassal. Be that as it may, David had succeeded in uniting the desert clans of the southern kingdom and erect a line of kings that had lasted for…… almost 2 centuries. When the ‘Tree of David’ (did I just make this term up?) was finally hacked down by Queen Athaliah, in 841 BC, the Bible makes up a nice story to cover this up. That mythical name had to be preserved, for it had been the source of authority amongst Jews for over a thousand years after the man’s death.


(Next: Ancient Israel – A Brief History (876 – 722 BC))

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