Factors Relating to State Formation in Ancient Israel
Reading the biblical account of the emergence of the monarchy while simultaneously considering social-science models of state formation has led recent investigators to reassess the role of the Philistines. The accounts of both Saul and David in 1 and 2 Samuel are replete with war stories, and most scholars followed the lead of the biblical texts in linking the establishment of a kingdom with the Philistine menace. But is this an accurate portrayal of what happened in Iron IIA Palestine?
The Philistines were a group of people from the Aegean who arrived on the southern Palestinian coast at about the same time that the Israelite tribal groups were forming in the highlands. Portrayed in the Bible as aggressors, the Philistines are the quintessential “bad guys” in the narratives of the early monarchy. Hence their name has entered modern languages as a derogatory designation for someone lacking in culture, or whose interests are conventional and materialistic. The biblical texts describe them as commanded by warlords, as terrorists raiding Israelite settlements, as ruthless conquerors of tribal centers, as the villainous destroyers of the important religious shrine at Shiloh, and as the captors of the sacred ark, a symbol of Yahweh's divine presence among the people. According to the biblical narrative, the pressure of Philistine expansionism became so great that the people of Israel approached Samuel, the priestly prophet and judge whose leadership extended beyond his territorial home in Ramah, requesting that he appoint a king as his replacement. According to the biblical text, the Israelites perceived that he was aging and had no worthy successor. Passages such as 1 Samuel 9.16 explicitly connect the establishment of kingship with the Philistine threat. God, this passage reads, promises to provide the beleaguered Israelites with “a man from the land of Benjamin [Saul].…He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines; for I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me.”
Such language, although widely understood as part of a later tradition of dubious historical value, has deeply influenced modern histories of ancient Israel. The Philistines have achieved the status of prime mover in the story of Israelite transition to statehood. Standard histories thus do little more than restate the biblical tales. Even scholars who pioneered social-science approaches to pre-state Israel tend to contrast an egalitarian tribal period with an exploitative monarchic one. This glaring contrast is attributed to the external threat of Philistine domination: if only the Philistines hadn't been around, tribal Israel would have survived in an idealized egalitarian form.
But the process of state formation is more complex than the biblical text and its traditional interpreters have led us to believe. Military pressure is only one of a constellation of internal and external stimuli, stemming from both environmental and sociopolitical conditions, that produced a new political form—the state. The territorial state in Israel was a system that could effect changes in technology and in the organization and behavior of people in order to meet the pressures not only of external aggressors such as the Philistines but also of internal crises in resource management. True, the early Israelite state is linked to the need for military forces that could deal with Philistine incursions. It also had to repel the raids of such groups as the Ammonites (1 Sam. 10.27 ) and Amalekites (1 Sam. 30.1 ), and perhaps meet threats from neighboring Moab, Edom, and Syria (1 Sam. 14.47; 2 Sam. 8.1–14 ). But conflict was not the only factor involved in the rise of the Israelite state.
Understanding state formation in early Israel thus means recognizing the convergence of complex variables, in addition to conflict, that required new organizational structures. Identifying those variables begins by considering the physical environment of the premonarchic settlements generally identified as Israelite.
Before the Iron Age, settlements in Palestine had for millennia been concentrated along the coast and in the major intermontane valleys. The beginning of Israel in the Iron I period (ca. 1200–1025 BCE) is associated with the establishment of new sites, mostly tiny agricultural villages, in the highland core of Palestine. Those sites occupied a marginal ecological zone. Uneven landforms, irregular stretches of fertile soils, and the lack of stable year-round water supplies made the establishment of viable farm communities a challenging enterprise. The cropping cycle in most of the better econiches of the highlands dictated that some months required labor-intensive efforts. At such times, having an adequate labor pool was the key to survival. The self-sufficient individual household was the primary economic unit of these highland villages; and an ethos encouraging a high birthrate and thus enough children to ensure a satisfactory labor supply for each household unit emerged as an important adaptive element.
Enlarging family size, as several biblical texts exhort, met with some success: Israel's population grew. At the same time, the early Iron Age villages found relief from Late Bronze Age plagues, one of the waves of epidemic disease that periodically decimated premodern peoples. Furthermore, the agrarian settlers of the highland sites were probably joined by a small element of pastoralists who were taking up a sedentary lifestyle. Although a few human societies maintain a demographic equilibrium that keeps them at or below the ability of the environment of a settlement to yield enough foodstuffs to sustain the population, more often populations move inexorably toward overpopulation. The highland villages of pre-state Israel were no exception.
The most obvious solution to the problem of overpopulation is birth control (or infanticide), for which there is no evidence in early Israel. Alternatively, kinship-based societies can increase their agricultural productivity by developing new technologies or by putting existing ones to more extensive use. Highland villagers both expanded their acreage and raised their productivity by increasing use of agricultural terracing and cisterns. This agricultural intensification, however, required more labor, which in turn reinforced cultural sanctions for increasing family size. Thus there arose a self-perpetuating spiral of growth that eventually required other adjustments.
The unpredictable rainfall patterns of the region complicated this cycle. Agricultural intensification alone could not always provide a growing population with a secure food supply in the face of periodic water deficiencies. The highlands of Palestine as a whole are a medium-risk environment with respect to rainfall variability; periodically there occur years with subnormal amounts of rainfall, defined as more than 30 percent below average. Typically three successive subnormal years will occur twice in a forty-year span, with such three-year droughts bringing an average farming household to the brink of disaster (see 2 Sam. 21.1 ). Even a delay in rains in a normal year can reduce the productivity of the soil as much as does an actual drought. Clearly the average highland farm family lived insecurely.
Increased family size and/or diminished rainfall, even with measures of intensification, characteristically require changes in the way resources are made available. Such changes appear in the organization of society above the village and kinship level. In precolonial African chiefdoms, redistribution of agricultural products was one of the ways in which a more complex sociopolitical structure could respond to increases in population density and periodic shortfalls of food supplies. Such redistribution, however, implies an altruism that may not be easily institutionalized in a centralized power structure. Other kinds of redistributive mechanisms that were part of the emergence of centralized governance may have dealt with such problems in other ways.
Another remedy by which agrarian societies have tried to deal with the rise of population above the land's carrying capacity is out-migration. Usually the emigrants are second and third sons who cannot inherit a large enough plot to support a new household. Such sons move to unsettled lands, usually as near as possible to their own family's village but sometimes in a neighboring lineage's territory. This solution is viable, of course, only while new lands are available and allow for a proper balance of cropping. Constraints in either or both of these solutions create pressures for other, larger-scale adaptive measures.
The thorough archaeological survey of the highland territory forming part of the area occupied by the traditional tribe of Judah—in the area east of but not including Jerusalem—provides data about settlement patterns that seem to reflect out-migration. As a whole this region has a marginal character, although some areas are more hospitable to balanced agricultural productivity than others. In the Iron IIA period, from the late eleventh century well into the tenth century, settlement in the Judean hill country almost doubled compared to any earlier period. The thirty-four Iron IIA sites represent an increase of about 90 percent over the Iron I period; and the total amount of settled area increased about 80 percent, from 19.5 hectares (47.7 acres) to 33.5 hectares (83 acres).
Equally important to this radical demographic change is the distribution of sites by size. Several prominent sites (ca. 3 hectares or 7.5 acres each) lie in the most favorable environments, and five second-level sites (1.5–2 hectares [3.75–5 acres]) are distributed throughout the region. These in turn are surrounded by even smaller settlements. The range in site size and their configuration suggests “central places,” larger sites that interact with smaller ones in the exchange of goods and services. The necessity for differential site size in relation to the expanding population of this region arises in part from the location of new settlements in less fertile areas of the Judean hills. The environmental niches most conducive to cultivation had been settled in the Iron I period. But out-migration by the expanding population of those sites, which had reached the limit of what their usable lands could support even with technological innovations, led to the settlement of less productive areas. So too did an influx of people from nearby areas just to the north. The biblical and archaeological record of the destruction of Shiloh at about this time shows how the Philistine conquests caused the displacement of segments of the hill country population.
Whatever caused the population explosion in the Judean hills, clearly many of the new settlements occupied ecological niches that did not allow for balanced cropping. Such balance is essential for the characteristic Mediterranean pattern of “grain, wine, and oil,” supplemented by occasional animal protein provided by small herd animals. If a given econiche cannot provide a sufficiently varied set of food crops, its settlers must trade for them. For example, a subregion more suited by terrain, soil types, and water supply to the growing of grain would intensify its cereal production so that its surpluses could be exchanged for the surpluses of other communities in nearby econiches with different cropping potentials. Such exchanges, in the absence of a true market economy, probably took place through religious activity. Regional ritual events, which we know involved the collection of offerings, allowed for priestly redistribution of commodities.
The groupings of Iron IIA sites in the Judean highlands suggest intraregional commodity exchange. Intensive surveys elsewhere in the central highlands, especially in Ephraim, the hill country north of Jerusalem, reveal the same pattern of sharp increases in the number of settlements as in the Judean hills, and also their expansion into subregions not suitable for the regular self-sufficiency of producing households. An increase in population density was clearly not a localized Judean phenomenon in the Iron IIA period; throughout the tribal lands there arose a need for adaptive mechanisms that transcended the activities of local, related kinship groups.
Agricultural intensification, local exchanges or redistributions, and the introduction of technological changes are all features of emergent states that are responsive to internal pressures (“integrative features,” social scientists call them). Centralized political systems not only can offer their subjects protection from military threats; they also can coordinate and organize large numbers of people cutting across tribal or geographic divisions to provide access to resources.
In addition, states can establish the social stability that local leaders lack the power to provide. As a population expands in a finite territory with limited agrarian potential, internal conflicts over matters such as land and water usage become increasingly difficult for village or even tribal leaders to resolve. A centralized judicial system, enforceable by the greater authority of a royal official, becomes necessary to deal with incidents that disrupt community life. In just such terms did the DH evaluate premonarchic conditions: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg. 21.25 ). And note also the prominence in the David traditions of the king's role as the font and purveyor of justice: “So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and equity to all his people” (2 Sam. 8.15; see also 2 Sam. 15.5; 23.5 ).
A need for centralized organization grew out of another feature of the technoenvironmental setting of the emerging monarchy, particular to the eastern Mediterranean in the early Iron Age. The very name Iron Age points to the issue. Although archaeologists and historians have long dated the inception of the Iron Age in Palestine to around 1200 BCE, that date does not mark a significant transition from bronze to iron as the dominant metal used for tools and weapons. For reasons that historians of technology do not yet fully understand, the copper and tin needed for the production of bronze implements were disrupted at the end of the Late Bronze Age. International trade, essential to the distribution of the raw materials and finished products of bronze-producing metallurgy, was severely limited during the early centuries of the Iron Age. Iron ore was likewise scarce. New procedures for smelting iron, in which carbon was introduced to produce a metal stronger and more durable than bronze, did emerge with the advent of the Iron Age. Yet these techniques were not widely used for everyday purposes until the tenth century, partly because of a lag in the diffusion of the new technology and partly because trade disruptions precluded the wide availability of ores.
The population expansion in Iron IIA in the Palestinian highlands increased the demand for agricultural implements. Iron by then was preferred, especially for plow tips: its greater durability made it better suited to the rockier soils of the marginal lands settled in the out-migrations and population shifts of the late eleventh and tenth centuries. Although Palestine has iron ore deposits, most are of poor quality and were never mined in antiquity. Only the organizational and distributional potential of centralized government could ensure security to the trade networks through which raw materials flowed and the population centers where the specialists who produced agricultural tools lived.
Population increase, shifting areas of settlement, and new technologies thus became intersecting variables creating the need for international trade and occupational specialization, features widely associated with state systems. Along with integrative and military functions, the emergent Israelite state provided necessary access to technologies and raw materials critical for the growing population in diverse highland environments.