The Problem of Nationality in Antiquity

Biblical Ideas of Nationality: Ancient and Modern. (Eisenbrauns, 2002)

By Steven Grosby
Professor of Religion
Clemson University
June 2003

     The problems of the philosophy of history, specifically the difficulties involved in the formation of the categories employed in historical analysis, should always be taken up with reluctance because their consideration runs the risk of being a distraction from (or even worse, a substitute for) substantive, detailed historical research.1 However, there are times when such problems and difficulties cannot be avoided, when methodological and categorical problems arise as a roadblock to the researcher as a consequence of his or her investigation. In such an instance, the researcher has no alternative but to reflect upon the justification for the categories that he or she employs. In so doing, the researcher must consider the possibility that he or she may be captive to the often frivolous, scholarly fashions of the day. One such problem that confronts biblical scholars and historians of the ancient Near East is the term gôy, together with its apparently related cognates, such as the Akkadian gāyum, and likely related categories, such as bīt PN/bītu PN. How should one understand such terms? And what is philosophically involved in our understanding them?

    This is the historiographical problem. On the one hand, history is always a history of the present insofar as 1) the historian or the comparative social scientist approaches his or her material under investigation with the insights and categories of the present; and 2) the researcher has his or her own language and vocabulary. Thus, the historically understood past, as a mode of understanding in the present that differentiates the present from the past, is not the past itself, for the latter, as it was, is forever gone.2 There can be no definitive history of any past. Each generation will write its own history of a past culture. To fail to recognize this element of the present in the historical mode of understanding results in the most naïve historicism. It was once the case that this naïve historicism was understood to be an expression of romanticism, as one found in a contradictory fashion in the work of Herder. Today, it lurks, unacknowledged as such, under the guise of scientific rigor (that, nonetheless, uncritically embraces the category “modernity”) where the researcher seeks to examine the alien culture putatively on its own terms, perhaps attempting to limit himself or herself to describing certain structural characteristics of that culture, thereby trying to insulate the analysis from our own (transhistorical) categories.3

    This apparent “tyranny” of the present is not a sanction for a narrative of capriciousness because, on the other hand, 3) it is only a relative “tyranny” as the analysis of the historian is shackled by the currently available existence of the meaning-bearing survivals from the past. This is the historian’s evidence; and, given our understanding of historical analysis, it is the historian’s duty, qua historian, to elucidate rationally that past in the interest in truth. The explicit criterion of the task of the historian to approach his or her material critically, that is, the recognition of the distinction between facts and fancies—what was referred to in the previous sentence as the historian’s obligation to elucidate rationally the past in the interest in truth—is the legacy of Herodotus, even if Herodotus’ History is itself an obviously ambiguous example of the obligation of the historian. (See, for example, Herodotus, The History, 7.152, 8.119-120, 8.133.) The existence of self-consciously critical methods in the evaluation of evidence is what distinguishes Greek historiography and our own from that of the ancient Israelite.4 In pursuit of this obligation, 4) the historian does what he or she can to immerse himself or herself into the alien culture through learning that culture’s language, institutions, religion, and so forth.

    There are philosophical implications involved in the very process of historical analysis and in the depth and success of such an immersion. It seems to me that the very act, let alone the necessarily qualified success of such an Einfühlung, as Herder put it, represents, in fact, a repudiation of a belief in a putatively ubiquitous and entirely protean character of humanity; it assumes a common human nature between the historian and those from the past being investigated by the historian.5 Implicit here in the possibility of forming such a relation between the present and the past is the recognition of certain fundamental human problems, for example, how death is viewed (as may be expressed in burial customs), the relation between man and woman, the relation of the individual to his or her collectivity, the relation of the individual and his or her collectivity to the universe, and probable functional prerequisites for any society to exist, that are expressed, to be sure, in culturally variable forms; and, as such, they may be subjected to productive comparative analysis.6

    The bearing of these previous remarks on the question of the application of our category “nation” to antiquity and, in particular, to ancient Israel is as follows. Ancient Israel is described in the Hebrew Bible as a trans-tribal collectivity (for example, Joshua 3-4), the existence of which is dependent upon the occupation of a territory, with relatively precise demarcated boundaries (Numbers 34), that was believed by the ancient Israelites to be their own. Without that land, it was believed that Israel, qua Israel, would face death (Deuteronomy 30); it would become a “byword” among all the “amim” (“peoples,” 1 Kings 9:5-7). I have, of course, presented this description in summary fashion. The details and complications involved in the biblical description of Israel are presented and discussed in Biblical Ideas of Nationality: Ancient and Modern. For our purposes here, I note that this relatively categorically neutral presentation of the biblical description has not been able to avoid our categories and concerns, specifically “tribe,” “territory,” and “boundaries.” This recourse to our categories, however much one seeks to restrict it, cannot be avoided. The problem is how are we to understand the evidence of the biblical material brought into the present and, as such, subjected to our consciousness; specifically, how are we to understand the terms ‘am, gôy, kol-yiśrā’el, and, indeed even bĕkol gĕbulkā and ’erets?

    Certainly the researcher can be quite justified in turning to his or her own insights, concerns, and categories in the attempt to elucidate the past rationally in the interest of truth; but one does so in response to the evidence. As a consequence, no one today should continue to entertain the Heideggerian-influenced assertion that bounded territories are exclusively a post-Cartesian phenomenon of “modernity.” Two chapters of Biblical Ideas of Nationality, “Borders, Territory and Nationality in the ancient Near East and Armenia” and “Territoriality,” present some of the evidence, for example, the phrase bĕkol gĕbulkā, substantiating the existence of bounded territories in antiquity. In any event, the category that we employ today to describe the kind of collectivity portrayed briefly in this selected biblical material referred to above is “nation.” Whether or not it is legitimate to characterize the description of such a collectivity as a description of a nation must depend upon an examination of the current state of our evidence, such as it is; but to entertain the possibility of applying the category “nation” to ancient Israel and other societies of the ancient Near East is not merely an example of our current concerns riding roughshod over the conceptions of different cultures from the past. Genesis 10: 5, 20, 31 are surely justification enough for entertaining the possibility: these verses indicate the existence of a conception of collectivities that conjoin land, language, populations, and kinship.

    Clearly, such a description of ancient Israel appears to be the product of the perspective of the Deuteronomistic historians. Today’s historian and biblical scholar thus face a number of complications: 1) to what extent does such a description conform to the reality of the collectivity at that time; 2) to what extent was such an understanding to be found in the northern kingdom of Israel, and, thus, the implications of our use of the category “nation” given the relations, at times belligerent, between northern Israel and Judah; 3) to what extent would the nature of the worship of Yahweh, which, if at some time was monolatrous (even with the worship of Asherah), have contributed to the formation of Israel as a nation, with Jerusalem as its center; and 4) to what extent is this understanding an accurate representation of the prevailing view during the reign of Josiah?

    To be sure, such complications might lead the researcher to conclude that the application of our category “nation” to the history of ancient Israel is illegitimate. However, one must proceed here with caution, for no nation exists “fully formed” as if it were a sculpted piece of stone, manufactured in a shop. There will always be a number of factual cross currents and conflicting attachments that indicate both a relative stability and a heterogeneity in the formation of any human relation. Thus, all of our categories of human relation, for example, civilization, ethnicity, even friendship, are ambiguous abstractions. Most certainly, the nation is no exception.

    Today, such a heterogeneity complicating one’s use of the category “nation” can be viewed in what social scientists call “regionalism,” for example, Quebec in Canada. Regarding ancient Israel, this much is fairly clear: 1) there was an image of a trans-clan, trans-tribal collectivity; 2) there was an image of a land; 3) there was an understanding that this land was bounded; 4) there appears to have been an understanding that the law of Israel was or should be a lex terrae; 5) there, thus, appears to have been an understanding of ancient Israel as a territorial collectivity of kinship—a territorial contamination of the blood, if you will, that indicates a national perspective. That is how some today understand the character of the nation. Of course, one must employ the category “nation” with self-awareness, as one must do with all categories of historical analysis. Nonetheless, if there is merit to these arguments and if there is evidence, complicated though it is, to support these arguments, then the burden rests with those who refuse to translate gôy as nation to justify their refusal. Are we to write our histories without recourse to our own vocabulary?!

    The heuristic merit to our use of the category “nation” must be further justified by its application to other collectivities in antiquity. This does not mean that nations are to be found everywhere and at all times! Clearly much of Mesopotamian history is a history vacillating between city-states and empires. Moreover, the difficulties of the application of the category “nation” to Sumerian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, and Armenian history are obvious enough.7 However, in point of fact, similar problems confront the modern historian, indicating how misleading it is to characterize, as is often done, even the 19th and 20th centuries as the age of the nation, for one finds during this period the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the Soviet Union. Moreover, how one should characterize the collectivities today in sub-Saharan Africa, in much of the Middle East, and in Southeast Asia remains a categorical problem.

    This does not mean that our category of the nation should not be employed; in our attempt to understand Sumeria, Assyria, Moab, Edom, ancient Egypt, and so forth, it is heuristically useful for our understanding and our concerns to ascertain in what ways such societies may or may not have been nations. This may mean that recourse must be made to the recognition of partial developments of “elements of nationality” in our attempt to understand the existence, or lack thereof, of a considerable degree of the territorially constituted, relative sociological homogeneous characteristic of nationality. What is at issue comes down to this. In antiquity, can the worship of a monolatrous deity, the emergence of a political center, certain legal developments that approximate a lex terrae, linguistic differentiation, and other cultural phenomena—not least of which is war—result in a significant degree of a relative sociological homogeneity such that one is justified to classify a society as a nation in the absence of such factors as modern means of communication and transportation and modern conceptions of citizenship?

    As we seek to understand the evidence from the ancient Near East and as one mind engages through time the achievements of another mind of a different culture, one finds repeated examples of what I have referred to as “the territorial contamination of the blood,” the formation of kinship beyond that of the family and seemingly different from some forms of city-kingdom: gôy, gāyum, bīt PN, and perhaps the Aramean ’aram kulloh. And here, note the biblical and evidently legal category ’ezrach hā ’ārets! Not all of these terms refer to collectivities that correspond roughly to the nation. However, they all seem to indicate the existence of territorial forms of kinship, one example of which is the nation.8


[1] For these problems, still useful are Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1949); the methodological introduction to Weber’s Economy and Society (Berkeley: The University of California, 1978); and Heinrich Rickert, The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science: A Logical Introduction to the Historical Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[2] See Michael Oakeshott, On History and Other Essays (Totowa: Barnes and Noble, 1983).

[3] One sees an example of such an attempt in the otherwise quite good article by Bruce Routledge, “The antiquity of the nation? Critical reflections from the ancient Near East,” Nations and Nationalism 9 (2), 2003, 213-233.

[4] See Arnaldo Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); and Studies in Historiography (New York: Harper, 1966)

[5] See Herder’s Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menscheit; and Steven Grosby, “Herder’s Idea of the Nation” in Athena Leoussi, ed., Encylopaedia of Nationalism (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2001).

[6] See Hans Freyer, Theory of Objective Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Culture (Athens: University of Ohio Press, 1998). For a recent work on burial customs, see Rachel Hallote, Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2001). For recent examples of a comparative analysis that employs such transhistorical categories as “primordial” and “axial age,” see S.N. Eisenstadt, Japanese Civilization: A Comparative View (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and The Origin and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986). The classic example of comparative analysis remains Max Weber’s works on ancient Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Protestantism.

[7] But for Assyria, see Peter Machinist, “Assyrians on Assyria in the First Millennium B.C.” in Kurt Raaflaub, ed., Anfänge politischen Denkens in der Antike (München: R. Oldenbourg, 1993). For the problems of applying the category nation to ancient Greece and Rome, see Frank Walbank, “The Problem of Greek Nationality” and “Nationality as a Factor in Roman History” in Selected Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); for “all Aram” and ancient Armenia, see the relevant chapters in Biblical Ideas of Nationality. See also Anthony D. Smith, The Nation in History, The Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2000).

[8] For the “tribe” of the ancient Near East as a territorially constituted collectivity, see the articles by M.B. Rowton on “enclosed nomadism.” For the bearing of the apparent, historically perennial expression of territorial forms of kinship on early Christianity, see the chapters “The Category of the Primordial in the Study of Early Christianity and Second-Century Judaism” and “Nationality and Religion” in Biblical Ideas of Nationality.

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