Response to Early Origins of Israel

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
March 2014

1: Concept of tribe.

The word tribe does not say anything: There are so many variations of tribal organization that it is almost meaningless. Are we talking about Acephalous tribes (tribes without leaders), or tribes with strong central organizations? There was a lot of discussion about this concept reaching back into the 1980s (e.g. Lemche 1985: 209-31).

2: Collapse of the Egyptian empire.

Are we talking about a real collapse: Something that happened within a short time? Or are we talking about a gradual decline of Egyptian control over Palestine, Phoenicia, and southern Syria? Remains of the Egyptian presence in Palestine go well into the 11th century BCE or even later. If Joshua conquered Palestine, he did not take it from the Canaanites but from the Egyptians! Just to stress how little similarity there is between the real history of the country and the biblical history as stressed by Mario Liverani in several places (Liverani 2005; Liverani 2013).

3: Consensus about the situation of Israel in the Early Iron period.

Personally I definitely consider the area around Shechem to be the core area of the earliest organization (whatever its character) called “Israel”. It makes sense, and explains why “Israelites” from Crete around 200 BCE may call themselves in Greek: “hoi Israelitai”, and refer their allegiance to the sanctuary at Gerizim (cf. the two Delos inscriptions recently discussed in different places, e.g. in Lemche 2012).

4: Ebal as the earliest Israelite sanctuary.

This must be a reference to Zertal’s excavations at Mt. Ebal, and his interpretation of the remains as an altar (Zertal 1986-7). It has to be said that not all Israeli archaeologists accepts Zertal’s interpretation (Finkelstein 1988:82-85).

5: Evidence showing that Israel came across the Jordan.

Well, I would like to have something more substantial. Not even Faust goes for this solution, at least not in any simplified form (Faust 2006).

6: Period of chaos.

Or a period of changes? Not something that happened overnight. Liverani has a recent very instructive discussion of the changes and their preconditions (Liverani 2013: 381-400). I am not sure that I am in total agreement, as his main source seems to be biblically inspired, and inspired by later European elitist ideas about pre-national histories. In many ways, Early Iron society can be seen as a development out of the Late Bronze Age societal organization (Lemche 1996).

7: Towards the end of the period Pella regained its independence and started to attack Egyptian assets (as documented by the Beth Shean stela).

I assume that this is a reference to ANET 253. It is an inscription of Sethos I (c. 1290-1279 BCE), which means that it is from before the crisis started for serious: Sethos I was succeeded by Ramses II, who would certainly not have agreed that his empire was troubled by small Transjordanian chieftains: It was still the time of the brotherhood between the great kings (Liverani 1990, esp. 197-202).

8: Villages in the LBA.

It is generally assumed that there were few villages around in the central highlands in the Late Bronze Age (cf. on the development of village structure in the Early Iron Age in various publications by Finkelstein, also Finkelstein 1988). But as I remember it, the number of villages shrunk in the later part of Iron I, and a concentration of the population in small defended cities substituted for the population of the previous undefended village system.

9: “It is generally taken for granted” that social organization was basically tribal, if not among the ruling elite, “then certainly” among the mass of the population.

No, it is not generally taken for granted. On tribal organization, cf. my note about tribal society above. I would go for a patronage model, which also explains the use of “house” in dynastic names in the Iron Age (cf. on this Pfoh 2009). Instead of operating with a model of society that consists of two layers, the ruling class removed from common people, and common people tribally organized, I would opt for a model where the ruling class includes the patrons of the society, and that common people orientated their loyalty to the members of the ruling class in a patron-client relationship. The tribe is in itself not a political organization, but it can be turned into a politically important factor because of this loyalty between clients and patrons. If Eveline van der Steen went back to her tribal societies of rather modern times, she would probably also find this system of patronage operative here.

10: The early settlements in the northern hill country of Palestine in the Early Iron Age show eastern connections, particularly in the pottery remains.

Well, a repetition of something already said. But is it really true? Taking a rather conservative (or perhaps better, cautious) archaeologist such as Avraham Faust, he does not really talk about eastern influence in pottery. Rather, his thesis is of a local kind of pottery reflecting the local society and its ideologies (Faust 2006). He may be wrong, after all, but it would be nice to hear who has recently talked about some putative “eastern connection.”

11: and “it is likely” that they came from across the Jordan as a result of population pressure and territorial struggles in the east.

One thing which I made clear in Early Israel (Lemche 1985) is that nomads do not settle voluntarily. Their lifestyle gives many more possibilities for a good life than the settled life of peasants (in principle no limits for the expansion of personal wealth). Eveline van der Steen’s argument is really no more than a rehearsal of Albrecht Alt’s ideas about the Israelite settlement (Alt 1925).

12: New settlers: the new settlers, together with the remnants of the old ‘Israel’ “may have been” the seed from which the new state would eventually emerge.

May have been! But are there not too many of these loose assumptions here? In previous scholarship on the early history of Israel, it was a universal problem that scholars did not distinguish between theories and assertions, and built happily on a foundation created by assertions without regard for the problematic character of their argumentation.

Summing up: The insistence that we should study anthropological examples of tribal societies as a way to understand life in the Levant more than 3000 years ago is very positive. But what I said in one of my first responses to Eveline van der Steen’s article still holds true: Anthropology does not provide answers, only proposals. History might have happened as envisaged by van der Steen, but nobody can say that it really did. There are several other possibilities.


Alt 1925: A. Alt, “Die Landnahme der Israeliten in Palästina,” in A. Alt, Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel, I (München: Beck, 1953), 89-125.

Faust 2006: A. Faust, Israel’s Ethnogenesis (London: Equinox, 2006).

Finkelstein 1988: I. Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Soiciety, 1988).

Lemche 1985: N.P. Lemche, Early Israel. Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society Before the Monarchy (VTS, 37; Leiden: Brill, 1985).

Lemche 1996: N.P. Lemche, “From Patronage Society to Patronage Society,” in V. Fritz and Philip R. Davies (Eds.), The Origins of the Israelite States (JSOT Supplement Series, 228; Sheffield 1996), 106-20.

Lemche 2012: N.P. Lemche, “The Greek Israelites and Gerizim.” In Tal Davidovich, in Tal Davidivich (ed.), Plogbillar & svärd: En festskrift till Stig Norin (Uppsala: Molin & Sorgenfrei, 2012), 147-54.

Liverani 1990: M. Liverani, Prestige and Interest: International Relations in the Near East ca. 1600-1100 B.C. (History of the Ancient Near East – Studies, 1; Padova: Sargon srl, 1990).

Liverani 2005: M. Liverani, Israel’s History and the History of Israel (London: Equinox, 2005).

Liverani 2013: M. Liverani, The Ancient Near East: History, Society, Economy (London: Equinox, 2013).

Pfoh 2009: E. Pfoh, The Emergence of Israel in Ancient Palestine (London: Equinoc, 2009).

Steen, Eveline van der 2014: “Early Origins of Israel.” Bible & Interpretation, March 2014.

West, Jim “The History of Israel Without Reference to the Bible: A Thought Experiment,” Forthcoming, 2015.

Zertal 1986-7: A. Zertal, “An Early Iron Age Cultic Site on Mount Ebal,” Tel Aviv 13-14: 101-65.

Comments (3)

Thank you Prof. Lemche.

Permit me to add the fine new study by Israel Finkelstein, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel. Ancient Near East Monographs: number 5 (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013)

#1 - Timothy Bagley - 03/26/2014 - 17:27

As Prof Lemche points out, with early "Israel" there are many "might have beens" and little evidence to posit fairly secure historiography.

#2 - Edward Mills - 03/26/2014 - 18:11

The term 'tribe' does seem to me to 'say nothing' or maybe only to make a rather ill-defined suggestion of a pre-literary and conflict-ridden situation inviting imperial intervention. The British system of indirect rule in West Africa comes to mind. It has ancient analogies.
I've read, as one does, the Amarna era letter from Abdi-Hepa, the Merneptah Stela, Sheshonq's account of his expedition to Palestine and Hecataeus' remark that the Jews do not want a king of their own and are happy to be represented by a High Priest, which I presume was reasonably sweet music to Ptolemy's ears. Over that 1,000 year period we seem to see a system of rule from Egypt, basically indirect rule, surviving much the same at the end as at the beginning. It must, considering Egypt's population and resources, have been rather 'natural' unless challenged from another population centre, as we know it was challenged from the direction of Iraq many times, though not with permanent effect.
Egyptian rulers from Akhnaten to Merneptah, Sheshonq, even the Ptolemies all seem to have thought that they had legitimate rights in Palestine,even if their means of enforcement varied in power and manner, sometimes more sometimes less direct. The Biblical text which has Pharaoh bestow Gezer on Solomon and Neco make a pious, though stern, speech to Josiah, seems to reflect this.
A tribal society that is drawn into an international system is a different thing, very likely with far longer periods of peace and far more cultural activity, from one existing in isolation.
There's a picture of ancient Palestine that makes it all conquest and conflict, which I think may be seriously misleading.

#3 - Martin Hughes - 03/28/2014 - 23:03

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