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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.



Forging an Identity

The Emergence of Ancient Israel

Lawrence E. Stager

Shortly after 1200 BCE the once great Hittite empire in Anatolia and the Mycenaean empire in mainland Greece—the Trojans and the Achaeans, to use the language of Homeric epic—collapsed, releasing different centrifugal forces. Within the Mycenaean and Hittite worlds an internal process of fragmentation and ruralization began, leading to what archaeologists often call a “dark age.” This in turn triggered mass migrations by sea to the already crowded coastlands of the Levant and Cyprus, sending repercussions into the interior of Canaan as well. The Philistines were one group taking part in these migrations. Not long before, another group had appeared in the land of Canaan, although by a process that is much more disputed. This group called itself Israel, and according to the biblical story it also had arrived from a foreign land—escaping slavery in Egypt, crossing a body of water, and eventually entering Canaan from the east. This chapter focuses on reconstructing the early history of these two new groups, the Philistines and the Israelites, in the land of Canaan, insofar as the textual and archaeological evidence permits such a synthesis.

The Egyptians maintained some control over parts of Canaan until just after the death of Rameses III in 1153 BCE. By the first half of the twelfth century, Canaan had become a virtual mosaic of cultures, including Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites, and the mysterious “Sea Peoples,” of whom the Philistines are the best known. The settlement process in highland Israel began a generation or two before the Sea Peoples arrived on the coast. An event of such magnitude must have had powerful repercussions on the indigenous Canaanite population as it was being squeezed out of the plains. Some of these displaced inhabitants probably entered the frontier communities located in the highlands east and west of the Rift Valley—the polities of early Israel, Moab, Ammon, and perhaps Edom. The displacement and migration of the tribe of Dan from the central coast to the far north is symptomatic of the ripple effects of this event.

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