The name Israel is used to designate the entirety of the people as well as the political entity formed by this people. In every instance what the term embraces is subject to historically determined variations.


“The people” is understood as the amalgamation of twelve tribes, each of which is traced back to a tribal father. Their common father is Jacob, who, as a logical consequence, is renamed Israel (Gn. 32:23–33). The Israelite people are thus fictitiously traced back to an ancestor of the same name. This construction presupposes the political union of the tribes under the kingdom; consequently, the use of the name as a designation for the people first dates from the period of the monarchy. At the same time, the name Israel is most often used for the ten northern tribes, in contrast to Judah (2 Sm. 3:10, 5:5, etc.). After the division of the kingdom in 927 BCE, the name Israel is used to designate the northern kingdom. With the demise of the northern kingdom in 722 BCE, the name is also used to refer to Judah (2 Chr. 11:3, 21:2). After the end of Judah in 587 BCE, Israel becomes a religious definition in order to differentiate the people who worship Yahweh from the surrounding peoples. [See Judah.]

In contrast to the more than twenty-five hundred references to Israel in the Bible, there are only a few extrabiblical ones. The oldest mention is found on the Israel stela of Pharaoh Merneptah (1213–1203 BCE), where the name was represented in the so-called group writing as ysr'r (ANET 378). According to Helmut Engel (arguing against Gösta Ahlström, 1986), the determinative points to the fact that, in contrast to the previously mentioned cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yeno῾am, the reference is to a population group in the region of the land of Canaan. The spelling yś'r'l in the Moabite Mesha inscription from the ninth century BCE (ANET 32off.) and the Aramaic stela fragment from Dan (Biran and Naveh, 1993) corresponds to the biblical spelling and is evidence for the general use of the Assyrian form sir-'i-la-a-a, from the time of Shalmaneser III (shortly after 853 BCE) (ANET 278ff.). [See Moabite Stone; Dan.] The name is constructed with the theophoric element El; the verbal element is formed using the root yśr, whose meaning is unclear because of a lack of evidence. In the folk-etymological explanation in Genesis 32:29, the name is linked with śrh, “to fight.” For the time being the etymology must remain open.


The name is not attested in the Bible for the prestate period; Israel as a nation-state is not historically understandable before 1000 BCE. However, the Egyptian reference shows that there must have been a population element with this name, although no closer determination is possible either ethnically or with respect to geographic settlement. The Song of Deborah (Jgs. 5:13–18) names a total of ten tribes, which to be sure did not form a political unity but were nevertheless pledged to common action in case of war on behalf of Yahweh. With two exceptions, the names are identical with those in the later system of twelve tribes: Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, Zebulon, Issachar, Reuben, Gilead, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. These tribes did not form a political unit and did not have control over a self-contained settlement area; however, they were later merged into the totality of the Israelite people.

The origin of the Israelite tribes is unknown. The biblical story of a long stay in Egypt is fiction. Locating the emergence of Israel as a people in Egypt in a time period lacking precise description shows that no unified tradition existed concerning the origin of the people. A reconstruction of Israel as an ethnic unit in the prestate period is purely hypothetical. Because the report in Joshua 1–12 of the conquering of the land is similarly not historical, two different models, with various modifications—the “revolution” model and the “immigration” model—have been developed recently to explain the occupation of the land; each also explains the origin of these new population groups, replacing older “conquest” models.

The revolution model (Mendenhall, 1962, 1970; Gottwald, 1979; Lemche, 1985) postulated a social revolution within the Canaanite city-states at the end of the Late Bronze Age. This radical change resulted in the ruling class losing power and the lower class becoming independent. The latter group then left the urban centers and founded new settlements outside the previously settled areas. This thesis explains the downfall of the city-states as a revolutionary event and identifies the population of the new settlements as Canaanites, who certainly modified their life-style and social structure but nevertheless retained their economic form and material culture. The immigration model (Alt, 1989; Finkelstein, 1988; Fritz, 1987) postulates a nomadic population outside of the Canaanite city-states, with which they engaged in economic and cultural exchanges. With the collapse of the urban centers, this symbiotic relationship of the nomadic groups and the cities necessarily came to an end. Therefore, the groups outside the cities were forced to form fixed settlements in order to feed themselves by practicing agriculture and stock breeding. Thus, a modification of the economic system was connected with a modification of lifestyle. The inhabitants of the new settlements were from elements formerly in the areas surrounding the cities, but it is impossible to determine their ethnic identity any more closely than that. Possibilities include the underprivileged groups called ῾Apiru (Ḫapiru) in sources, or the nomads also named in the texts, of which the Shasu (š3sw) were the most important group.


Land of the Israelites

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The historical processes for the Israelite tribes developing from the Canaanite population or from groups outside the city-states are, however, largely obscure, making it impossible to choose between the hypotheses. The archaeological remains also give no certain data regarding the origin of the inhabitants in the new settlements. The variety in settlement patterns and construction forms supports the idea of a mixed population. Thus, it seems entirely possible to combine the two hypotheses. Both forms of development are conceivable and could have taken place in a parallel fashion. Following the collapse of the Canaanite city-states, portions of the Canaanite population could very well have sought other habitation sites. At the same time, the nomadic populations in the vicinity of the cities could have been forced to occupy new settlement areas. In any case, the various elements of the population were not cut off from each other but were, rather, involved in many forms of exchange, which were continually altered in form and content. The final destruction of most of the cities, which took place no later than the first half of the twelfth century BCE, altered the previous ways of life so radically that all the groups living in the land were forced to give up their familiar way of life to found and occupy new settlement sites. Because the two hypotheses complement each other in explaining the development of the new settlements, they can also be used to reconstruct the historical processes.


In comparison with the Late Bronze Age cities, the distribution of the Iron Age I settlements presents a completely different picture. Not only has the number of settlements greatly increased, but they are also generally located outside the spheres of influence of the former city-states, in areas that were only sporadically settled or completely unsettled during the second millennium BCE. The preferred regions for the settlements, which generally had a size of only 0.5–1 ha (1–2.5 acres), are Galilee, the central hill country, the Negev desert, and the cultivated strip along the middle of the east bank of the Jordan River. However, even in layout and size, the Early Iron Age settlements are fundamentally different from the Canaanite cities because of their lack of large-scale palaces and temples. [See Palace; Temples, article on Syro-Palestinian Temples.] In addition, the settlements are as a rule unfortified, even in those cases where the houses located on the perimeter are laid out in the form of a fortification ring. The settlements are characterized by an ad hoc plan, as well as by the presence of numerous silos and cisterns. [See Cisterns.] Three types of settlement can be differentiated on the basis of their layout.

  • 1. Ring-form settlements. Houses organized in a circle or an oval, which created a central open area, are known as ring-form settlements. Examples were found at Tel Esdar stratum III, ῾Izbet Sartah stratum III, and Beersheba stratum VII.
  • 2. Nucleated villages. Settlements characterized as having been built up randomly, either with individual houses or with complexes consisting of several buildings, are known as nucleated villages. There may be streets of varying width or irregularly shaped open areas between the various units. The arrangement of the houses is completely unplanned, and the settlement is open on the perimeter. The settlements of Ai, Khirbet Raddanah, ῾Izbet Ṣartah stratum II, Tel Masos stratum II, and Beersheba stratum VI are examples of this type.
  • 3. Farmsteads. Individual buildings or a group of buildings surrounded by a wall and that may have had a certain protective function are known as farmsteads. The remains at Beit Jala and on Mt. Ebal are freestanding farmsteads.


With the exception of the architecture, the material culture of the Early Iron Age shows a strong continuity with that of the preceding Late Bronze Age period. Only the house construction—the so-called “four-room” house—shows a certain originality. Even if the construction types are supposed not to have been deeply rooted in the Late Bronze Age, the almost complete lack of courtyard houses and the development of new forms of construction give the Iron Age I a distinctive cultural stamp. Irrespective of the differences in the type of settlement, it is possible to determine the development of a few house types that became common in Iron II as well.

  • 1. Broadroom houses. While it is true that broadroom houses occur only occasionally, they are by no means restricted to ring-form settlements. Their distinguishing characteristic is the position of the entrance on the long side of the building. Originally, this type was a single-roomed house; however, it could also be divided by stone pillars along its length and was provided with small rooms separated by diagonal walls.
  • 2. Pillar houses. As rare as the broadroom house, the pillar house is a rectangular building with the entrance on the narrow side. It is divided along its length by two rows of stone pillars. Of the three long rooms formed in this fashion, the middle room is wider than the two side rooms. This part was presumably not roofed and was therefore an open courtyard.
  • 3. Three- and four-room houses. Residential architecture is primarily characterized by three- and four-room houses that often are arranged in a row next to each other. [See Four-room House.] The “four-room house” indicates a building that, like the pillar house, is divided by two rows of stone pillars along its length, but that has an additional room situated on the side opposite the entrance. The room extends across the entire width of the house. The designation “four-room house” is misleading, insofar as the central area was an open courtyard providing air and light for the other rooms. The basic conception could be varied by interior and exterior structures, as well as by changes in construction; however, the ubiquitousness of the plan shows that it was a firmly established type. The three-room house is simply a variant of this construction form, in which there is only one side room next to the courtyard.

These three forms of residential house are closely related typologically, but no clear derivation has yet been established. In spite of their courtyards, the Iron Age houses are fundamentally different from the courtyard house in their use of stone pillars and in the arrangement of the rooms. Although the LB courtyard house cannot possibly be the model for the form of the residential house in the Iron Age, in LB cities there are occasional instances of buildings divided by rows of stone pillars. Even if this form of room construction represents an exception, it is still possible in the last analysis to trace the division of rectangular rooms by stone pillars back to the Canaanite culture. However, the predominance of this construction type and its almost exclusive use in the Early Iron Age is new. The broadroom house, the pillar house, and the four-room house are all characteristic of the Early Iron Age settlements. It is striking that up to the present time there is still no evidence of cult buildings for the period. There may have been sacred structures outside the settlements, but so far there is no clear proof of any.


The ceramic repertoire of the Late Bronze Age was taken over and developed in the Iron Age. In the process, decoration with geometric patterns and mythological motifs disappeared almost completely. Slip and burnish became new techniques for surface treatment. Apart from changes in its design, the cooking pot was provided with two handles, and a pot with a narrow opening was developed from the jug. Some forms, such as the jug with a spout and the collar-rim jar were not used after the end of Iron I. [See Ceramics, article on Syro-Palestinian Ceramics of the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages.]


In metalworking as well the Canaanite tradition was carried on in the beginning; this is demonstrated especially by the Early Iron Age hoards found in the old urban centers of Megiddo, Beth-Shean, and Tell es-Sa῾idiyeh. [See Megiddo; Beth-Shean; Sa῾idiyeh, Tell-es.] However, even in the new settlements weapons and tools were manufactured from bronze using older methods and designs. As a new form, the bowed fibula was adopted from the Aegean area during Iron II. After the collapse of foreign trade at the end of the Late Bronze Age, the raw material presumably came from the only known deposits in the country, at Feinan, on the east edge of the ῾Arabah. [See Feinan.] In the case of many tools and weapons, however, bronze was gradually replaced by iron. Above all knives, sickles, daggers, and swords were made exclusively from iron from the tenth century BCE onward because the blades could be sharpened better and were stronger. The prerequisite for this changeover was the development of a new technology for tempering iron. The early manufacture of steel resulted from forging in conjunction with heating in a charcoal fire, so that the iron was carburized. The carbon gave a greater strength to the iron, making it superior to bronze. [See Metals, article on Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages.]


In the Early Iron Age villages the population most probably spoke an early form of Hebrew. It is true that long inscriptions are lacking, but the core portion of the Song of Deborah (Jgs. 5:12ff.) permits the conclusion. In any case, this song remains the only text from the prestate period. From the tenth century BCE onward, the Hebrew language is attested by both biblical and extrabiblical sources. Like Canaanite, Phoenician, and Aramaic, Hebrew is one of the northwest group of Semitic languages. As numerous other Northwest Semitic idioms, Hebrew was written with an alphabetic script that consisted only of consonants. This had been developed in the southern Levant during the course of the second millennium BCE. In contrast to the syllabic script of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the alphabetic script represented an innovation and a simplification. Based on an acrophonic principle (every symbol reproduces the sound of the first letter of the word after which it is named), it reduces the written characters to the number of sounds present in a language. The oldest documentation for this form of writing in Hebrew is the ostracon from ῾Izbet Ṣarṭah. This abecedary, or handwriting exercise, consists of five lines scratched onto a fragment of pottery (ostracon); the bottom line reproduces the letters of the Hebrew alphabet—with the exception of mem—in the sequence still used today, although ῾ayin and pe have traded places. [See Ostracon.] The letters are written by an unpracticed hand from left to right and are in the tradition of the Proto-Canaanite script, as it is attested by short inscriptions from the Canaanite cities. [See Hebrew Language and Literature.]


After the foundation of the kingdom, there was a wave of urbanization under David and Solomon that led to the dissolution of the village form of settlement in Iron II. This reurbanization continued during the course of the United Monarchy. Building the new cities corresponded to the requirements for the new state to consolidate its power internally and externally. Because different requirements governed the location of the city, there was continued development only in exceptional cases. To found a city it was necessary to have a nearby source of living water, arable land in the vicinity; and a strategic location in terms of defense and commercial and other traffic. These had been the prerequisites for the Canaanite cities, so it is not surprising that a number of Iron Age cities were founded on Bronze Age tells. Furthermore, the Canaanite settlements that had survived the collapse of the culture were included in the newly formed kingdom of David and Solomon.

Based on their layout, the cities can be divided into four groups: (1) residential cities; (2) cities with limited administrative or military function; (3) administrative or military centers; and (4) royal cities. [For details, see Cities, article on Cities of the Bronze and Iron Ages.] In spite of their differences, these various types of cities reveal a series of common characteristics. In plan they are round or oval, which is determined by the character of the topography (they were erected either on a mountaintop or on an older tell—sloping sites and or sites on spurs are rare. The city was surrounded by a strong ring of walls, where various fortification elements, such as massive walls, casemate walls, and projecting towers, could be utilized. As a rule, the city's single gate took on civil functions in the absence of other large buildings. In residential construction, the three- and four-room houses predominated, but public buildings were laid out as pillar houses; in addition there were palace structures. Numerous cities were equipped with their own water-supply systems, a significant technical achievement.

Urban foundations at the outset of the kingdom were planned. A state with the desire to expand must factor in the need for defense and take appropriate measures. The new phase of urbanization in Israel that coincided with the formation of the state reflects the strong desire to structure the country politically. The settlements were fitted inside a ring of walls in order to offer the inhabitants a certain measure of security in case of attack. The technical execution of those fortifications was adopted from the country's construction tradition and topography.


In the prestate period, as during the monarchy, the economy was based on farming and stock breeding. Agriculture was not restricted to growing grain, but included vineyards and olive groves. Sheep and goats were the primary livestock, although cattle accounted for about a fourth of the livestock raised. In any case, planting based on rainfall and a mixed economy must be assumed. The foodstuffs produced were mainly for direct consumption; any excess would have been exchanged for finished goods from craftspeople: primarily ceramics, weapons, bronze and iron tools, and jewelry.


In the Early Iron Age settlements social differences seem not to have been very marked, inasmuch as the overall construction is very homogeneous. In spite of this uniformity, a certain social stratification must be postulated. Ownership is ownership of land, and this could vary in size. For example, the story of Nabal (1 Sm. 25) shows that there were already large landholders in Israel in the prestate period. The amount of land under cultivation determined economic strength, and this in turn determined social standing. With the advent of the kingdom, the social structure was modified to the extent that the king and his entourage occupied the highest position. Responsibilities connected to administration and military obligations demanded, on the one hand, the possession of land as crown estate and, on the other, a contribution from the people in the form of taxes in goods and services. This could lead to the appropriation of the property of the individual and in the long run to an overall restructuring of all relationships relating to property. In any case, changes in ownership, in the final analysis, necessarily resulted in a change in the social order.

The king had not only political, but also economic power; possession of land, contributions, and services secured his supremacy, in which the members of his entourage shared. Farmers could make up for the necessary contributions only by cutting back on their own needs or through increased cultivation. Because only large landholders were able to increase the amount of land in production and the size of their work force, the kingdom necessarily led to a two-class society: an economically powerful, but small, upper class and the mass of small farmers whom debt could reduce to the status of slaves.

Monarchy to Exile.

Under pressure from the Philistines, the Israelite tribes formed a state by raising Saul to the kingship. In the beginning this consisted only of cooperation in common military endeavors. David was the first leader to provide the kingdom with the necessary stability by eliminating the Philistine threat and by subduing the neighboring states of Ammon, Moab, and Edom, as well as the small Aramaic principalities. [See Ammon; Moab; Edom; Arameans.] Through personal union David united not only the dominion over Judah, but also the kingdom of Israel over the northern tribes and the royal status of the city of Jerusalem that he had conquered (2 Sm. 2:1–4, 5:1–10). Under his son and successor, Solomon, there followed the consequent elaboration of the state in the realm of internal politics. With Solomon's death, the kingdom David had built fell apart because the vassals defected; its division into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah followed (1 Kgs. 11, 12). Of the two kingdoms, Israel was at first the stronger economically, and all of Judah's attempts to reestablish the unity of the kingdom failed because of Israel's military superiority. A peace arrangement was not established until the ninth century BCE, when it was sealed by the marriage of Jehoram, heir to the throne of Judah, to the Israelite princess Athaliah, one of the daughters of Ahab (2 Kgs. 8:18). In the course of the western campaigns of the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE, Israel was conquered by Tiglath-Pileser III; a large portion of the territory of the state was incorporated into the Assyrian kingdom as the provinces of Dor, Megiddo, and Gilead. [See Assyrians; Dor; Gilead.] In 722 BCE, the conquest of the capital city of Samaria meant the end of the northern kingdom of Israel. The remaining area was set up under direct Assyrian administration as the province of Samaria. In Judah, the kingdom continued to exist under Assyrian rule until the Assyrians were replaced by the Babylonians. With the seizure of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar in 586 BCE, however, the king was exiled to Babylon. With the Exile, the kingdom ruled by the dynasty David founded came to an end. After their loss of sovereignty, the populations of the states of Israel and Judah and their neighbors lived in exile both inside and outside the country under the changing rule of the great powers that succeeded each other in turn. Until its destruction in 70 CE, the Temple in Jerusalem that Solomon had founded and that was newly re-erected after the Exile became the focal point of the people.

[See Biblical Temple.]


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Volkmar Fritz

Translated from German by Susan I. Schiedel