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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.

The Peasants' Revolt Hypothesis

The third leading hypothesis to account for the emergence of ancient Israel was posed by George E. Mendenhall and elaborated further by Norman Gottwald. For them, the Israelites consisted mainly of oppressed Canaanite peasants who revolted against their masters and withdrew from the urban enclaves of the lowlands and valleys to seek their freedom elsewhere, beyond the effective control of the urban elite. In this sense, they represent a parasocial element known as the Apiru in second-millennium BCE texts from many parts of the Near East. Moshe Greenberg has characterized them as “uprooted, propertyless persons who found a means of subsistence for themselves and their families by entering a state of dependence in various forms. A contributory factor in their helplessness appears to have been their lack of rights as foreigners in the places where they lived. In large numbers they were organized into state-supported bodies to serve the military needs of their localities. Others exchanged their services for maintenance with individual masters” (The Hab/piru, New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1955, p. 88). These were propertyless persons in a state of dependency on a superior. They might be servants in a household or hired laborers. In hard economic times and periods of social disintegration, they became gangs of freebooters and bandits under the leadership of a warlord, such as Jephthah (Judg. 11 ) or David before he became king. Whether this was a revolution from the bottom up, which resulted in the new Yahwistic faith (according to Gottwald), or whether the new faith served as the catalyst for revolutionary change (according to Mendenhall), both variants of the “peasants' revolt” hypothesis consider the participants to be insiders, not outsiders—an underclass of former Canaanites who took on a new identity as they joined the newly constituted community “Israel.”

The “peasants' revolt” model and concomitant “Yahwistic revolution” have only partial explanatory power. If these farming villages were the product of this Yahwistic revolution, then how does one account for an almost equal number of “egalitarian” villages outside the confines of premonarchic Israel? They appear over a much wider landscape than even the most maximalist views of early Israel could include, ranging from Ammon to Moab and even into Edom, not to speak of those settlements within Canaan itself, where the ethnic identity of their inhabitants is in question.

It is unlikely that all these newly founded early Iron I settlements derived from a single source—whether of Late Bronze Age sheep-goat pastoralists settling down, or from disintegrating city-state systems no longer able to control peasants bent on taking over lowland agricultural regimes for themselves or pioneering new, “free” lands in the highlands. When one considers the widespread phenomenon of small agricultural communities in Iron Age I, it becomes even more difficult to explain it all by any hypothesis that would limit it to “Israelites” alone, as all three hypotheses do.

To draw the boundaries of premonarchic Israel so broadly as to include every settlement that displays the most common attributes of that culture (pillared farmhouses, collared-rim store jars, terraced fields, and cisterns), or to claim that all of these villages and hamlets on both sides of the Jordan are “Israelite” just because they share a common material culture, is to commit a fallacy against which the great French medieval historian Marc Bloch warned, namely, of ascribing a widespread phenomenon to a “pseudo-local cause.” A general phenomenon must have an equally general cause. Comparison with a similar but widespread phenomenon often undermines purely local explanations. Now that archaeologists have collected the kinds of settlement data that provide a more comprehensive pattern, the focus must be widened to include a more comprehensive explanation than the regnant hypotheses allow—whether they relate to an Israelite “conquest,” a “peasants' revolution,” or “nomads settling down.”

It would be overly simplistic to draw the boundaries of premonarchic Israel so broadly as to ascribe the change in the settlement landscape to this historical force alone. This, of course, does not preclude the use of particularistic, historical studies to elucidate aspects of the larger process. Once the results of highland archaeology need not be accounted for by an exclusively “Israelite” explanation, one can then look at this well-documented polity as a case study within the larger framework.

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