The enduring value of frontier dynamics in the study of the southern Levant and questions pertaining to the emergence of Israel

A recent analysis of Iron Age faunal remains confirms the inconclusive nature of the data, even within the context of Philistia itself (presence in urban sites vs relative absence in rural sites). Pig husbandry seemed to have been governed more by ecological (e.g., greater need for water than goats and sheep) and subsistence strategies than ideological concerns during the Iron I period.

See Also: Thomas D. Petter, The Land Between the Two Rivers; Early Israelite Identities in Central Transjordan (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014).

By Tom Petter
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
South Hamilton, MA
June 2015

The frontier evokes many images in our minds, depending on the regions of the world with which we are familiar: The closing of the frontier in the American West; the frontier beyond the Great Wall in China; or, in my native land of Switzerland, it is pretty much the whole land subdivided between the Jura mountain range in the North, the plateau in the middle, and the Alpine ark in the south, which represent a combined picture of interrelationships between Germanic groups (Eastern and central Switzerland), Italians (south of the Alps), and Francophones (Western Switzerland). Traditional religious lines were equally fluid in the 16th century ferment of the Reformation, where cantons became Protestants, while others retained their allegiance to Rome. Some areas became transitional zones within the larger ones, where Catholics villages coexisted with Protestants ones. Further East in central Europe, Tyrol (both Austrian and Italian), Carinthia and Slovenia likewise functioned as frontier zones in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Perhaps the most striking example in “tribal” Europe remains the Alsace region in France. The area changed hands five times between France and Germany within a period of about 75 years (1871 and 1945). Inhabitants traded citizenships accordingly, which for some occurred more than once in their lifetime!

Thus, frontier dynamics where cultures, languages and religions co-exist, merge and sometime clash in violent confrontation seem to be a fact of life (witness the current situation in Eastern Ukraine). The same was true in antiquity. Ever since the pioneering research of Leon Marfoe in the Biqa Valley of Lebanon (1979), the region of the southern Levant as a whole has been viewed as a frontier zone. In his programmatic and still influential essay, “Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel” (1985), Larry Stager popularized the idea of the Cisjordanian Highlands as frontier. His seminal work branched off into many studies connecting the frontier to the southern Levant, including the region of Transjordan (LaBianca and R. Younker, 1995)

To view the Transjordan under this light represents a common approach in constructing the socio-historical realities of the region during the multiple phases of its settlement (Harrison 1997). However, this sense of general consensus has failed to create a similar alignment regarding the historical question of the emergence of Israel in Canaan. One significant model (a sort of revised version of the old Albrecht Alt’s peaceful infiltration model) has perceived the population movement to the highlands as essentially localized—but without denying the presence of foreign elements -- to form the highland material culture that will be known as Israelite (Dever-Killebrew model). Whether the process reflects a ruralization movement from the Late Bronze Age cities to settle the highlands frontier, or a movement from pastoral-nomadism to sedentarization, the period and nature of the material culture that accompanied the de novo settlement of the highlands is clear: it occurred during the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age I (13th-12th cent. B.C.) and diagnostic features such the four-room house and the collared-rim storejars are its most famous representatives. Another significant school of interpretation has denied the reality of an Israelite presence before the Iron II. Accordingly, “Early Israel” remains essentially a literary construct crafted by Iron II, Exilic, and/or post-Exilic writers of the Hebrew Bible, who were seeking to write a history of Israel’s past based on incomplete historical data (e.g, Van Seters 2013). In addition, a more traditional school, very much in line with the consensus of a previous generation of scholarship (Albright-Yadin-Cross model) continues to look to the origins of Israel outside Canaan (even Egypt) and seeks to connect the archaeological ferment of the LB-Iron I in Canaan to the Israelites as described in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. In sketching the field with such broad strokes, it is important to underscore that within these three “schools,” considerable variations exists so one would need to further nuance many of these viewpoints.

It is fair to state that many discussions have tended to describe the situation within the traditional boundaries of Israel, with less attention paid to the context in Transjordan. Between the Two Rivers (ie, Jabbok and Arnon) focuses on the particulars of frontier dynamics in the central highlands of Transjordan during the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron I transition with a view to address the question of the ethnic identities present in the area at the time (late 13th cent.- early 12th cent. B.C.

Contested Territories and Histories of central Transjordan

One of the enduring principles in ancient frontier settings is the presence of several aspirants to the territories, along with several “versions” of events that are developed in support of the competing claims. Oftentimes, matters are settled on the battlefield, and the deity is given credit for the outcome (both in victory and in defeat). This seems to be reflected in the available documentary evidence pertaining to the histories of northern Moab (the region north of the Arnon/Wadi Mujib and south of the Jabboq/Wadi Zarqa) that are available to us in biblical and extra-biblical documentary sources. Numbers 21 in general and the context of the “Song of Heshbon” in particular (Num 21: 27-30) speak of the region changing hands several times in periods preceding the emergence of nations during the Iron II (10th -9th cent. B.C.), with the presence of several protagonists: Amorites, Moabites, and Israelite tribal groups. When the account in Judges 11 (Jephthah’s story) is taken into consideration, Ammonites should also be added to the list of interlopers. Our chief Moabite documentary source, the Mesha Inscription (9th cent. B.C.) weighs in further from a distinctly Moabite perspective and recognizes the presence of the “man of Gad” (line 10) in the area from “times immemorial.” As one can imagine, the interpretation of line 10 is disputed and sharply divided: for some, “Gad” cannot be related to the Israelite tribe of Gad and must therefore be related to the people of Moab (Weippert 1997). However, the point Mesha seems to be making is that he has re-conquered the land from Israelites. To mention that he was able to dislodge Gad, an Israelite fixture in the land of Chemosh from long ago (i.e, the time of early Israelite settlement in the region before the monarchy), would represent, as it were, a feather in Mesha’s cap. This point seems particularly important in the context of warfare by herem (devotion of one’s enemy to destruction as a form of “offering” to the deity, which in the case of Moab is Chemosh [Mesha Inscription, line 3 “Omri was the king of Israel and he oppressed Moab for many days, for Chemosh was angry with his land”; see also Num 21:29]). In this context, Israelite Gad represents evidence that Chemosh has restored his favors to the land via Mesha’s faithfulness. Thus, the nuanced and historically multi-layered nature of this contested region gives us a window into a scenario where the land changed hands several times among the competing tribal groups. From a longue durée (long-view) perspective, it is a given that the land will be contested, claimed by competing groups who write their own histories to legitimize their claims (Andrew Shryock’s work among the modern tribes of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan provides invaluable ethnographic background to this idea, 1997). In addition, in the ancient context, deities tended to be fully vested in the dispute since they claimed the land to be theirs. These broad patterns reflects social realities that transcend one particular historical period which in turn can be contextualized for different settlement phases, including periods that precede and follow the Iron Age. In this regard, the model also works for scholars who place the history of conflict in North Moab place in the 9th cent. B.C. rather than its traditional pre-Iron II setting (a significant school of interpretation).

Fluid Tribal Identities

Second, frontier dynamics also imply fluidity in identity. Anthropological theory regarding ethnic identities (both in past cultures and modern contexts) has wrestled with the two poles of fixed primordial traits (“bloodlines”) and fluid instrumental traits (“social choices”). Leaning especially upon the theoretical work of S. Jones, I place Israelite identities on a dynamic continuum that includes the very primordial notion of ancestry (within the patrimonial social context of tribal Israel) and the more instrumental ideal of religious identity, reflected via Yahwism and Canaanization, both concepts which play a central role in texts related to early Israelite religious consciousness (see Judges 2 and 3). On the basis of several examples (Ruth, Jael [Judges 4-5] and Jephthah [Judges 11]), the available Biblical data point to notions of ethnic identity that include both instrumental and primordial elements, which vary according to the particular social setting. While I focus on examples situated by the writers in pre-monarchical settings within a Transjordan context [except for Jael], forays into the history of Israel and Judah during the monarchy suggests equally fluid notions of identity (e.g., Uriah “the Hittite” who is the nobler, and evidently more faithful to Yahwistic ideals, than king David himself in the drama of 2 Samuel 11-12).

With respect to material culture, a one-to-one relationship between ethnic groups and material-cultural traits (e.g. the famous four-room house/Israel equivalency) remains a possibility. In this regard, the Philistine material culture nicely overlaps with ethnic identity on the coastal plain. However, because of the fluid nature of the region East of the Jordan, and the equally shifting commitments of the Israel tribal groups of central Transjordan in the documentary sources (Reuben and Gad; see Judges 5:15-17), any firm claim that the available material assemblage (mostly at the site of Tall al-`Umayri) inevitably belongs to a particular larger Israel group must be so qualified that it loses quite a bit of its explanatory luster. In the case of the four-room house/Israel equivalency, the distributional presence of this type of architecture (with its sub-types) extends beyond the traditional borders of ancient Israel. While some continue to make the covariance case (Faust 2006), another way to view the data connects this generic layout (which has Late Bronze Age antecedents) to the variegated elements of the population. These groups, found on both sides of the Jordan River, in turn adopted and adapted the four-room house for their own purposes.

Likewise, the presence of pig bones on the coastal plain at Philistine urban sites vs. their relative absence in the highlands could be a priori helpful in defining ethnic identities. It is argued (e.g., Dever 2003) that the relative absence of pork consumption in the highlands (Transjordanian Umayri does have pig bones but in much lower frequency than sheep/goat bones) would suggest the presence of a social taboo, which in turn would speak to the identity of the inhabitants: early Israelites in the highlands vs. Canaanites and Philistines in the lowlands. However, as in the case of the four-room house argument, the ecological setting may also have played a role in this regard (Hesse and Wapnich 1998), which would then make it difficult to single out dietary practices as a specific marker of Israelite identity during the Iron I. A recent analysis of Iron Age faunal remains confirms the inconclusive nature of the data, even within the context of Philistia itself (presence in urban sites vs relative absence in rural sites). Pig husbandry seemed to have been governed more by ecological (e.g., greater need for water than goats and sheep) and subsistence strategies than ideological concerns during the Iron I period (Sapir-Hen, Bar-Oz, Gadot and Finkelstein 2013). Within the framework of frontier dynamics, a more likely scenario would categorize the highland culture in generic terms so that the varying tribal groups present in the region adopted and adapted its different aspects to their own needs.

These shifting patterns of ethnicities seem to reach into other periods of Israelite history as well. During the late Judean and exilic contexts, prophets condemned Judean’s waywardness and linked the discussion to a loss of tribal identity (e.g., Hosea’s son “Not my people” Hos 1: 9; “Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite, Ez. 16:3 “). Ultimately, a permanent shift in Israelite and Judean tribal identities would occur in 722 B.C and 586 B.C. respectively. However, this period of abatement would be followed by yet another phase of intensification (not unlike the documented broader regional settlement patterns) during the restoration after Cyrus’s edict (Ezra 1).

In conclusion, I do not think it is realistic or fair to expect participants in this broader symposium on the emergence of Israel in Canaan ever to agree on principal points of historical development. However, longue durée perspectives on tribal dynamics may perhaps offer some hope for common ground, which might in turn create the possibility of fruitful venues for interaction among participants.


Dever, William. Who Were the Israelites and Where did They Come From? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

Faust, Avraham. Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance. London: Equinox, 2006.

Jones, Sian. The Archaeology of Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1997.

Harrison, Timothy. “Shifting Patterns of Settlement in the Highlands of Central Jordan during the Early Bronze Age.” Bulletin for the American Schools of Oriental Research (306): 1-37.

Hesse, Brian and Paula Wapnish. “Pig Use and Abuse in the Ancient Levant: Ethno-Religious Boundary-Building with Swine” in Ancestors for the Pigs: Pigs in Prehistory. Ed. S. Nelson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. 1998: 123-135.

Killebrew, Ann. Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel 1300-1100 B.C.E. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.

Marfoe, Leon. “The Integrative Transformation: Patterns of Sociopolitical Organization in Southern Syria.” Bulletin for the American Schools of Oriental Research (234) 1979:1-42.

Shryock, Andrew. Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan. Berkeley: University of California, 1997.

Stager, Lawrence. “The Archaeology of the Family” Bulletin for the American Schools of Oriental Research (260) 1985:1-35.

LaBianca, Øystein S. and Randall W. Younker, “The Kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom: The Archaeology of Society in the Late Bronze/Iron Age Transjordan (ca. 1400-500 BCE) in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land. Ed. T.E. Levy. New York: Facts on File. (1995): 399-415.

Sapir-Hen, Lidar, Guy Bar-Oz, Yuval Gadot, and Israel Finkelstein, “Pig Husbandry in Iron Age Israel and Judah. New Insights Regarding the Origin of the “Taboo”” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins (129) 2013: 1-20.

Van Seters, John. The Yahwist: A History of Israelity Origins. Eisenbrauns.P:, 2013.

Weippert, Manfred. “Israelites, Araméens, et Assyriens dans la Transjordanie septentrionale” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins (113) 1997: 19-38.

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