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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Israel's Origins

Z Radovan, Jerusalem.

‘Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more.’ These words from the 27th line of an inscription from the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah (variously dated 1224–1214 or 1212–1202) is the earliest known reference to Israel. It indicates through its determinative (a sign that precedes a name and indicates whether the name is that of a god, or a person, or a country,) that a group organized along tribal lines is meant. Thus, towards the end of the thirteenth century BCE there existed, probably in ancient Palestine, a people that was sufficiently distinct for it to be recognized and named by a foreign invader. It is interesting that, however the first part of the name Israel is to be understood (it has been connected with sara, ‘to fight’, ‘to rule’, or ‘to heal’, or with yashar, ‘upright’), the second part is ‘El’, the common Semitic word for ‘God’. The group is thus named according to the general Semitic term for ‘God’ rather than the distinctive name for the God of Israel, YHWH, thought to have been pronounced Yahweh. The earliest non-biblical reference to Yahweh in connection with Israel is in the Inscription of Mesha, king of Moab in the first half of the ninth century BCE. Lines 17 and 18 read: ‘I took from there [i.e. Nebo] the [vessels of] Yhwh’. The inscription also indicates that the kingdom of Israel ruled by Omri (c.885–874), who is named in the inscription in lines 4–5, had outposts in Transjordan, with holy places at which Yahweh was worshipped.

To the question ‘how and when did Yahweh become the God of Israel?’ no definite answer can be given if appeal is made to non-biblical sources only. However, attention has been drawn to the occurrence of what is probably a shortened form of the name, Yhw, in Egyptian sources from the time of Amenophis III (1391–1353), one reference being to ‘Yhw in shasu-land’. This may be a reference to a sacred mountain or mountain-god, which has been tentatively located in Seir or ancient Edom. The mention of shasu draws attention to a nomadic people living in this and other regions. This information can be compared with the Old Testament claims that the name Yahweh was revealed to Moses at the mountain of God in the Sinai wilderness (Exodus 3: 1–12 ), as well as with references in poetic parts of the Old Testament to a ‘coming’ of Yahweh from Seir. Thus the ‘Song of Deborah’ states ‘Lord [i.e. Yahweh], when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled’ (Judg. 5: 4, cf. Ps. 68: 7–8 ).

Comparisons of biblical texts with extra-biblical evidence must be handled carefully. They do not prove that the biblical texts are ‘true’ in a strictly historical sense. Exodus 3: 1–12 is no doubt a post-exilic and sophisticated theoretical reflection in its present form. The comparisons do, however, provide a plausible, and necessarily provisional, larger context into which biblical texts can be placed. On the basis of the above and similar comparisons as well as recent archaeological research a tentative picture of Israel's origins can be sketched as follows.

In the second half of the thirteenth century BCE there was a migration of peoples from northern Transjordan to the central hill country of Palestine, the area of the later northern kingdom, Israel. The reasons for the migration are unknown; they may have had political or environmental causes, or both. This could well have included the entity, or part of it, that is mentioned as Israel in the Merneptah stele of 1219 or 1207. This group may have then been joined by a group of shasu who brought with them faith in a God Yahweh who had helped them to escape from Egyptian overlordship. Faith in Yahweh as the God of Israel then became one of the distinguishing features of Israel as it struggled for survival with the Canaanites and then with the Philistines in Palestine itself, as well as with neighbouring peoples in Transjordan.

An important moment of crisis in the formation of the people came with the arrival of the Philistines, who established themselves in the coastal plain in southern Palestine, probably in the last third of the twelfth century BCE. They were part of the larger movement of ‘sea peoples’ who migrated by sea and land from somewhere in the north-eastern Mediterranean region, and who are mentioned in Egyptian sources from Ramesses III. Towards the end of the eleventh century they began to expand into the central hill country of Palestine, at the expense of the tribes there who constituted Israel.

At this point another puzzle presents itself. No mention has been made so far of Judah. According to the biblical sources, Judah's first king was David, whose capital, Jerusalem, became the capital of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon. After the destruction of the northern kingdom, Israel, by the Assyrians in 722–721 BCE Judah took over the role and traditions of Israel. The origin, exact form, and meaning of the name Judah are unknown. Biblical and extra-biblical texts vary the form between Yehud and Yehudah among others. Whether the name is a personal name or a place name is disputed; suggested meanings range from ‘praise’ (Gen. 29: 35, 49: 8 ) to ‘may Yahweh be victorious’. According to the present state of archaeological research it seems that the area of Judah, that is, the southern hill country, was settled later and less densely than the northern hill country and Galilee, where Israel was established. There are good environmental reasons for this. Rainfall increases in Palestine as one goes northwards, and Judah lacks the fertile valleys that become increasingly evident the further north one goes towards the Jezreel valley. It is true that the Shephelah, or lowlands, a transitional set of hills between the coastal plain and the Judaean hills, is a much more fertile region; but the Philistines bordered, and no doubt controlled, this area. A major puzzle is how, if the biblical account is correct, this small, less-favoured region came, under David and Solomon, to dominate the much larger and potentially more powerful kingdom of Israel. It may be possible to give an answer if the biblical material is handled carefully.

photo AKG, London.

In 1 Samuel the Philistine attempt to expand into the central hill country is given as the reason for the institution of kingship in Israel, with Saul as the first king. Although this connection is no doubt too simple (Saul may have been more of a paramount chief than a king and the Philistine threat only the sufficient cause), it will serve here. The Philistine expansion destabilized the area of Judah and Israel and united their inhabitants against the invader. The emergence of a national leader from the territory most immediately threatened (Benjamin) was a natural consequence. However, an interesting feature of the narrative in 1 Samuel is the insistence that Saul had the backing of, or was even a member of, ecstatic prophetic groups that were zealous in their devotion to Yahweh. Twice comes the proverb ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’ (1 Sam. 10: 11–12; 19: 24 ), and Samuel, the apparent leader of the prophets, is instrumental in promoting and deposing Saul as king. In the final form of the tradition, Samuel has become a composite figure combining the features of priest and judge with that of ecstatic prophet. It is arguable, however, that the role of ecstatic prophet brings us closest to the historical figure of Samuel. If the association of ecstatic prophetic activity with the appointment of Saul is correct, the rise of the kingship must be seen as more than a political response to the threat of an invader. There was a strong religious element also; and the tradition in 1 and 2 Samuel, which is not exactly sympathetic to Saul in its final form, retains evidence that Saul had tried to carry out religious reforms during his reign (1 Sam. 28: 3b; 2 Sam. 21: 1–2 ).

David, who succeeded where Saul failed, is an enigmatic figure. If the genealogy of 2 Samuel 17: 24 and other pieces of information (2 Sam. 10: 1–2 ) are authentic, David's mother would seem to have been at one time the wife of the Ammonite king Nahash, who was Saul's adversary according to 1 Samuel 11 . Certainly, David seems to have taken advantage of the Philistine crisis to establish himself as a kind of freebooter heading a group of adventurers who were fiercely loyal to a man who was evidently a charismatic leader. Initially temporarily allied with Saul, David aroused the latter's suspicions and was forced eventually to desert to the Philistines. Confined to the area of southern Judah, David adopted the dual strategy of forging diplomatic links with the villagers of Judah while raiding the Amalekites in the Negev. After Saul had been defeated by the Philistines, David became king of Judah and then of Israel, before defeating the Philistines and setting up his capital in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 5 ).

These processes can best be understood if we set them in the context of a world where borders between states were not lines drawn on maps, and where rulers had little centralized control over the areas that they claimed to rule. Philistine ‘control’ of Israel would have amounted to the occupation of frontier and strategic cities from which demands for food and labour could be imposed upon the immediately surrounding villages (cf. 1 Sam. 13: 17 ). None the less, this was an affront to the Israelites and especially to the ecstatic prophetic groups. Since warfare was essentially battle for control of border or strategic towns, a charismatic leader with a small brave and accomplished group of fighters could dislodge an enemy from these sites within his own country and could even seek to expand beyond it by capturing key cities of neighbouring peoples. If David indeed created a small ‘empire’, it was in the sense of capturing border and strategic towns that enabled him to claim authority over a whole territory. The actual control of such territory would be limited to immediate areas around towns in which garrisons were installed.

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