Archaeology, Anthropology and the Importance of the Pre-Exilic Period for Israelite Identity

These political and economic changes, wrought on the southern Levant as a result of the Assyrian empire’s interests in the region, meant that the inhabitants of Judah were exposed to outsiders in a much more significant way during the late eighth and seventh centuries than they had been previously.

See also: The Making of Israel: Cultural Diversity in the Southern Levant and the Formation of Ethnic Identity in Deuteronomy (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

By C. L. Crouch
Lecturer in Hebrew Bible
University of Nottingham
August 2014

When did Israel become Israel? For the most part, discussions of this question have focused on two periods: a very early one, in which a group recognisable as Israel emerged in what had been Canaan, and a rather late one, during and after the exile, in which many of the characteristics which typified early Judaism were developed by the Judahite elites deported to Babylonia and by their descendants who returned to live in Yehud. Much less attention has been paid to the middle part of Israel’s history, during the united and divided monarchies of the northern and southern kingdoms.[1] It would be absurd, however, to think that Israel’s identity was static during these intervening centuries of its history. In fact, these centuries represent an important period in the development of what it meant to be an Israelite, paving the way for the interest in and prioritisation of Israelite distinctiveness which later helped the community survive deportation and diaspora.

What made these monarchic years so important for the formation of Israelite identity? To answer this question it helps to have an understanding of the sorts of circumstances which tend to make people think about their own and others’ identities. Perhaps the most important element of this process is difference: that is, when people become aware that there are different ways of living life, other than their own way. Most of the time, a community develops a particular way of living and particular ways of doing things – worship, marriage, eating, celebrating – which are more or less unconscious: these are cultural habits which develop over time in response to the circumstances in which the group finds itself, rather than being deliberately designed to distinguish its members from others. If a group comes into contact with another group, however, with different ways of doing these things, the encounter may provoke an important realisation: the group’s own ways of going about life are not as obvious, not as ‘natural’, as they might have previously assumed. In response to this challenge, the group may set about rationalising or justifying their way of life, emphasising how it differs from these newly discovered alternatives and why its members should follow their own traditions, rather than adopting the new ones. This can be especially difficult to achieve when the two groups are actually very similar, so the most stringent efforts towards differentiation arise in these types of cases in particular.

The discovery of different ways of living life is thus an important trigger for the conscious development of group identity. In practice, this usually occurs when there is a significant change in the political or economic circumstances of a group’s existence: a change which brings the group into contact with others in a more extensive or more sustained way than that to which they had previously been accustomed. One common trigger for change is a major shift of political power, insofar as such a shift affects the economic and social interactions of the territories under its influence and control and exposes the inhabitants of those territories to each other in new ways.

The expansion of the Neo-Assyrian empire into the southern Levant in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. represents one such shift of political power, with consequences for Israelite identity. The northern kingdom’s response to the experience of Assyrian domination is unfortunately largely lost; the southern kingdom, however, has left behind suggestive hints. Judah’s exposure to the empire would have been much more noticeable after the fall of the northern kingdom in 721, when that area was turned into a province governed directly by Assyria. Over the next few decades, Assyrian intervention in Philistia and in Judah itself meant that Judah’s population could hardly have been unaware of the empire’s political and military interests in the region.

Equally if not more important for the development of Israelite identity, however, were Assyria’s economic interests in the southern Levant. A prosperous vassal state or province could deliver more tribute, so the Assyrians had a vested interest in encouraging the southern Levant’s economic success. One of the biggest changes in the southern Levant as a result of the Assyrian empire’s expansion, therefore, was a major increase in the region’s commercial activities.

Evidence of these economic developments are plentiful in the archaeological record across the southern Levant, as well as in Judah. In Philistia, which served as the Assyrians’ main access point to trade routes to Egypt, Judah, the Transjordan and the Arabian peninsula, a number of new cities were built to facilitate increased trading activities. The city of Ekron is especially remarkable: it transformed from a small site of local olive oil production to the largest oil production centre known from the entire ancient Near East. It and many other Philistine sites preserve material cultural remains – ceramics especially, but also religious objects, weights, jewellery and other luxury items – which indicate the presence of foreigners in these towns and cities, either permanently or in passing, as well as the influence of these individuals on the local population’s own material culture. In the Transjordan there is a similar picture, with the material diversity of the archaeological record suggesting a growing diversity in the inhabitants of and visitors to the area. The increasingly heavy traffic on the trade routes from the Arabian peninsula left its mark in the Transjordan as well as across the Beersheba and Arad valleys of the Negev, as these routes worked their way towards the Philistine ports.

Judah is also marked by an increased level of interaction with outsiders during this period. Politically, much of the Shephelah was given over to Philistine control after 701; the area also turned westward economically, with the regional oil industry focused on the growing centre at Ekron. Both of these shifts are reflected in the material record, with an increased diversity in the ceramic record overall and an especially strong Philistine component in these and other material remains. It is important also to recall that all of the trade routes from Arabia and the Transjordan ran through Judah: east to west through the Negev, or south to north through Jerusalem. Sites such as Tel ‘Ira, Tel ‘Aroer, Horvat Qitmit, Tel Beersheba, and Tel Malhata have strong Transjordanian connections, as well as links to Phoenicia, Philistia, Egypt and Assyria, as the economic atmosphere intensified activity along the routes from Arabia in the late eighth century. Ceramics, religious objects, seals and scarabs, and iconographic and epigraphic finds all contribute to the picture of a region with a diverse range of inhabitants, both permanent and temporary. Jerusalem and the settlements in its vicinity reveal Assyrian and Egyptian influences on architecture; luxury goods from or influenced by Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia; Greek and/or Arabian inscriptions as well as Egyptian hieroglyphics; faunal remains attesting to trade with the Mediterranean and Red Sea; and weights and ceramics from all across the ancient Near East.

These political and economic changes, wrought on the southern Levant as a result of the Assyrian empire’s interests in the region, meant that the inhabitants of Judah were exposed to outsiders in a much more significant way during the late eighth and seventh centuries than they had been previously. This interaction with outsiders and their many different ways of life is just the sort of experience which provokes an increased awareness of a group’s own ways of living and, in turn, an interest in defining and distinguishing the group’s identifying features from those of others. Recognising the importance of this experience opens up the eighth and seventh centuries as a significant period for discussions of the development of Israelite identity.

How might such attempts to define – and defend – Israelite identity against the alternative cultural habits of other southern Levantines have taken shape? Here anthropological insights into the formation of ethnic identities are also helpful. Accounts of the group’s common origins are often a focus of these efforts; these can include narratives of a shared historical tradition as well as claims about the group’s genetic unity using familial language and imagery (although it is important to remember that such claims may not be based in reality). Members will often emphasise the importance of endogamy (marrying only other members of the group) and, in a similar way, try to discourage social interactions with outsiders. Religious practices in particular can be helpful in creating this sort of feedback loop for the group’s shared culture, effectively blocking out the alternative ways of living presented by outsiders. In a physical manifestation of the same objective, a group may also try to gather members together in a common space, circling the wagons against outsiders. Differences within the group are also often eliminated: everyone must worship, eat, celebrate and live in the same ways.

One text for which the recognition of pre-exilic concerns about Israelite identity has the potential to be especially significant is the book of Deuteronomy, in which identity issues have tended to be highlighted by arguments favouring an exilic date. With the foregoing in mind, however, its core deuteronomic material’s interest in identity may be understood as a response to the sweeping economic and political changes occurring in late pre-exilic Judah. Faced with outsiders in a more extensive and more sustained way, a strong interest in defining and protecting Israelite identity would have been a natural response.

Indeed, many aspects of the deuteronomic interest in Israelite identity are typical examples of practical mechanisms for forming and defending identity which have been described by anthropologists. These include the book’s diverse attempts to isolate the Israelites from non-Israelites, at the same time as it tries to bring them together, especially for worship, as a specifically Israelite community; the legislation of a number of distinctively ‘Israelite’ practices (and a corresponding prohibition of practices of dubious pedigree); and its recurring emphasis on the importance of the Israelites’ common historical and genetic origins – the idea that Israel is an extended family with a shared history.[2] Israel’s identity is articulated and defended in both ritual (religious) and kinship terms, fixing Deuteronomy’s efforts in this quarter squarely in anthropological observations about the ways in which groups go about justifying and protecting their distinguishing features.

Undoubtedly the most prominent feature of this deuteronomic identity project is its focus on the exclusive worship of YHWH. This relationship sets the Israelites apart, both by their particular identification with their own deity as well as by their peculiar worship of only one god, rather than several. ‘Other gods’, associated with non-Israelites (real or imagined), are emphatically banned. The worship of Israel’s particular god at a single, centralised cultic site brings the Israelites into a shared space where they worship and eat together, strengthening community bonds and reinforcing the Israelites’ differentiation and separation from outsiders. The community’s shared present is derived in turn from its shared past in Egypt, out of which their own god brought them in the critical act of ethnogenesis.

In addition to its emphasis on the importance of an exclusive devotion to YHWH for what it means to be an Israelite, the deuteronomic material is keen to distinguish a whole range of other ‘Israelite’ practices from the practices adopted by non-Israelites. Israelites, for example, communicate with their (one) god through prophets, while non-Israelites communicate with their (many) gods through other kinds of technical diviners. Certain kinds of cult officials are prohibited on the grounds that these officials have non-Israelite associations and therefore might blur the boundaries between Israelites and non-Israelites; certain kinds of cult offerings are banned for similar reasons.

In addition to trying to distinguish the Israelites from others, the law is also attentive to the importance of protecting them from outsiders. Several laws are concerned with endogamy, seeking to keep it all in the family by either explicitly prohibiting marriage with outsiders or exhorting members to act in order to prevent the exogamous marriage of vulnerable Israelite women. The law of the king, who must not be a foreigner or engage in activities which might bring him into contact with foreigners; the war laws, which demand the elimination of non-Israelites from Israelite space; and the rejection of ethnic outsiders from the Israelite community all work to segregate the community from those which might present a challenge to its particular ways of living. Also creating a clear dividing line between Israelites and non-Israelites is the book’s use of brother language: the laws often exhort their audience to obedience by appealing to a sense of familial obligation, as well as legislating favourable treatment of fellow members of this Israelite family when contrasted with outsiders.

Though concerns about what it meant to be an Israelite are not the only issue on Deuteronomy’s agenda, they are a prominent feature of the text. Understanding the major political, economic and social changes in Judah and the southern Levant which arose in the late eighth and seventh centuries as a result of the Assyrian empire’s interests in the area help us to make sense of these concerns. In a new and unavoidable fashion, the politics and economics of this period led to more intense interactions between groups and, most importantly, led these groups to a greater awareness of and interest in their own peculiar characteristics. Though often forgotten, the events of this period had a lasting impact on notions of Israelite identity.

Further Reading

M. Banks. Ethnicity: Anthropological Constructions. London: Routledge, 1996.

A. Cohen. Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: A Study of Hausa Migrants in Yoruba Towns. London, Routledge, 1969.

C. L. Crouch. The Making of Israel: Cultural Diversity in the Southern Levant and the Formation of Ethnic Identity in Deuteronomy. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 162. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

C. L. Crouch. “The Threat to Israel’s Identity in Deuteronomy: Mesopotamian or Levantine?” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 124 (2012): 541–54.

L. G. Herr. ‘Archaeological Sources for the History of Palestine: The Iron Age II Period: Emerging Nations’. Biblical Archaeologist 60 (1997): 114–183.

S. Jones. The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present. London: Routledge, 1997.

D. A. Nestor. Cognitive Perspectives on Israelite Identity. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 519. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

C. A. Reeder. The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2012.

L. Stuhlman. ‘Encroachment in Deuteronomy: An Analysis of the Social World of the D Code’. Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (1990): 613-632.


[1] Quite how the northern and southern kingdoms related to each other during this period, and why people in the southern kingdom of Judah were calling themselves ‘Israelites’ (rather than ‘Judahites’, which might seem the more obvious choice), is still a matter of significant uncertainty and debate.

[2] It is important to remember here that what constitutes an ‘Israelite’ is under contention during this period; an ‘Israelite’ and a ‘non-Israelite’ are not already established and clearly distinguishable entities but entities which the deuteronomic text is trying to define. The ‘Israel’ which the text defends, in other words, is not already historical reality, but an ideal which it is trying to construct.

Comments (5)

Isn't there some tension between the ideas a) of a population living in an area full of trade routes and presumably living on the trade in question and b) of a population intent on, being committed to religious teaching which demands, keeping others out of its space?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 09/11/2014 - 20:02

Martin: It's that tension which often creates the drive to more strictly define identity in the first place. The rise of nation-state nationalism in the 19th century was in many ways a direct result of (and reaction to) the spread of capitalism and the early colonial empires in the 15th-18th centuries. The Catholic-Protestant conflicts of the 16th-17th centuries were an even earlier example--the increasing awareness of the "wordliness" (read: cosmopolitan wealth) of the Catholic Church hierarchy among Northwest Europeans, along with the spread of the printing press to spread such ideas among groups kept away from this wealth were the conditions of possibility for the explosion of Protestant sects during this period.

More recently, see the rise of populist ethnic nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms as a result of economic and cultural globalization and the anxieties it creates.

Defining the self requires an Other. Awareness of the Other increases in times of economic integration, and the boundaries between "us" and "them" often become paradoxically more rigid as "we" are forced to confront the reality of "them" in increasingly intimate ways.

#2 - Robert M. Jennings - 09/12/2014 - 05:21

Thanks for the article. Discussions of identity formation already have an important place in biblical studies and greater attention to discussions in the broader anthropological literature are a welcome sight.

The idea that the social, political, military, and economic pressures that the small polities of the Levant faced under the Assyrians pushed them to greater "nationalistic" definition makes sense to me, but can we say anything else about the mechanisms by which those pressures make a more rigidly defined identity important?

#3 - Craig Tyson - 09/12/2014 - 20:26

An interesting article. The emphasis on the exclusive worship of Yahweh is correct, to which one could add the use of a specific dialect. The importance of personal names, especially of theophoric ones both from biblical and extra-biblical evidence should not be overlooked. Richard Hess and others wrote on this subject.

A legitimate question though unresolved so far is how did this pre-exilic situation evolve? One can ask the same question about the Moabites, Ammonites, etc.

The problems of ethnicity and nationality apparently defy analysis. See what goes on in Scotland right now.

Uri Hurwitz

#4 - Uri Hurwitz - 09/13/2014 - 23:37

I am not sure that anyone has found a way to profit from trade routes by excluding traders. That secret was certainly not discovered in the free-trading nineteenth century to which Robert alludes. Maybe many people have wished that they could have it both ways but that's a different thing.
I find it hard to believe that people in the times of the Assyrian Empire were in real fact living lives as prescribed by Deuteronomy, therefore hard to see a reason for regarding Deuteronomy as a product of those times in the sense of being actually obeyed then. Of course the whole weight of Biblical testimony concerning those times is that the laws of exclusive religion etc. were neither widely obeyed by popular commitment nor sufficiently enforced by kings who should have known better. Thus God a reason to take angry action.
We could regard Deuteronomy as a protest against the faithlessness of those times. But that view does not in itself imply that it was contemporary with what it overtly or implicitly denounces. It could, on that showing, just as well be a later reflection/idealisation. It is certainly a complex literary work, conveying down the generations a sense of what moral choice and divine judgement are.

#5 - Martin Hughes - 09/16/2014 - 15:28

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