Early Origins of Israel

See Also: Near Eastern tribal societies during the 19th century: Economy, society and politics between tent and town (Sheffield: Equinox, 2013).

By Eveline van der Steen
School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology
University of Liverpool
March 2014

The early origins of Israel are still shrouded in the mists of time. The transition from the Late Bronze to the Iron Age is a period of collapse, of chaos in the area in which these origins are to be found. The previous period, defined largely by Egyptian control of the region is relatively well documented, but then written sources disappear, and we are dependent largely on archaeological remains to give us an idea of what happened.

There is a consensus that the heartland of early Israel is on the westbank of the Jordan, in the northern hill country, where the earliest evidence of settlement is found, and where Mount Ebal is located, considered by some to be the earliest Israelite sanctuary. Archaeological evidence, particularly of pottery, suggests that this settlement wave originated east of the Jordan, coinciding with the biblical narrative that the Israelites crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land.

The collapse of the Egyptian Empire in Palestine and Jordan was followed by a period of chaos. This period is well documented in the east Jordan valley. Here was the Late Bronze Age sanctuary of Deir ‘Alla, a gateway in the Egyptian trade (Franken 1994; van der Steen 2004:296-98). The Egyptian trade route crossed the Jordan, originally by Beth Shean, guarded on the east side by Pella, which was then under Egyptian control. From Deir ‘Alla the trade route went through the Zerqa valley to the plain of Ammon, and from there further east and north.

Towards the end of the period Pella regained its independence and started to attack Egyptian assets (as documented by the Beth Shean stela). In response the Egyptian trade route moved to a ford further south, and built the fortress at Tell es-Sa’idiyeh to protect it. This activity in the Jordan Valley generated a concentration of small settlements, which played a supportive role in the maintenance of the gateway sanctuary and the trade.

The end of the Late Bronze Age saw the disintegration of the Egyptian Empire. The trade route and supporting infrastructure collapsed along the line. On the plain of Ammon, while most villages and centres disappeared or shrank, the town of Sahab suddenly grew beyond its walls. This population influx may well have been triggered by the growing insecurity in the region, and attacks by marauding tribes from the surrounding countryside. The archaeological evidence in the Deir ‘Alla region suggests that groups of people from the Plain migrated into the Deir ‘Alla region. The pottery repertoire from this period resembles the pottery from the Baqah plateau.

The influx of new people into a region that was already relatively densely populated, caused territorial stress, and a change in the settlement pattern in the region. New sites sprang up, many along the banks of the Zerqa. Some older sites disappeared, notably villages and hamlets occupied since the first half of the Late Bronze period.

This is also the period that saw the first influx of settlement west of the Jordan, and pottery styles resembling those from the east. I suggest that these new settlers were refugees from the chaos that followed the collapse of the trade network, into the heartland of what was to become early Israel.

In order to understand the dynamics of change in the transition from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron Age we need to look at the way society was organized. It is generally taken for granted that social organisation was basically tribal, if not among the ruling elite, then certainly among the mass of the population. However, it is usually less clear how such a ‘tribally organised’ society functioned in practice, because the written sources of the time are mostly concerned with elite politics, rather than with the daily lives of the population.

There is, however, an invaluable source of information about the functioning of tribal societies in the Levant in the 19th century AD. The southern domains of the Ottoman Empire, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula were virtually independent and ruled by powerful Bedouin tribes, such as the Anaze, the Shammar or the Beni Sakhr. At the same time it is a period of discovery and exploration in the Levant, which has been recorded extensively by numerous explorers and travellers. The tribes they encountered controlled a network of client-patron relationships and protection schemes involving smaller tribes, villages and towns, whilst at the same time competing with each other for territorial and economic control. The economy of the region, based largely on pastoralism, agriculture and trade was embedded in this social framework. Many explorers felt they had stepped straight into the world of the Bible (e.g. Porter 1891:18).

This society has now largely disappeared, and while tribal societies and tribal organisation can still be found in Near Eastern society, they are politically marginalised or incorporated into modern local and national governments.

Therefore, even though a straight comparison of 19th century tribal societies with those of much earlier periods is full of pitfalls and must be treated with care, it will provide a better, more reliable picture of a society where the social, political and economic organisation is along tribal lines, than any modern ethnographic studies of tribal societies can.

Territorial conflict is endemic in tribal societies, particularly in relatively densely inhabited areas. The lands east of the Jordan, in particular the Belqa, was contested territory in the 18th and 19th centuries. It had been inhabited by the Beni Mehdi since the 14th century, but in the first half of the 18th century they were expelled by the Adwan, a warlike tribe, that used the fertile Belqa soil to practice agriculture. The Beni Mehdi fled to the Jordan Valley, but were further pursued by the Adwan, and eventually they fled across the Jordan. During the course of the 19th century, a relatively new tribe in the area, the Beni Sakhr, entered the scene. Their origins lay in the Arabian Peninsula, from where they moved north gradually, in search of pasture, and fleeing the Wahabi expansionism. Eventually they took over the Belqa, chasing the Adwan out and into the Ajlun region, but the conflict between the two tribes over the contested territory lasted until well into the 20th century.

Comparable territorial conflicts have been recorded elsewheren, for example on the Kerak plateau, where the Majali family used and manipulated alliances to remove rival tribes, and gain control of the Plateau. They allied themselves to the Beni Amr to expel the Imamiyah, then to the Hamayda and the Beni Sakhr to expel the Beni Amr from the Plateau. The Beni Amr, and later the Hamayda, after their expulsion from the Plateau, fled to the Jordan Valley, and eventually across the Jordan. Eventually the Majali managed to rid themselves of the Beni Sakhr with the help of the powerful Rwala tribe.

The river Jordan has always been a bridge between east and west, as well as a barrier. In the 18th and 19th century AD contacts across the Jordan consisted both of trade, usually conducted by Bedouin, and raids, mostly from east to west. At the same time, rebels who wanted to escape the wrath of the Ottoman administration in Palestine, fled across the river to Transjordan. When the Beni Mehdi were expelled from their territory in the east Jordan Valley they fled to the west, and the Beni Amr, who were driven out of the Kerak Plateau by the Majali, first crossed the Wadi Mujib, and then the Jordan.

The early settlements in the northern hillcountry of Palestine in the Early Iron Age show eastern connections, particularly in the pottery remains, and it is likely that they came from across the Jordan as a result of population pressure and territorial struggles in the east. They may have been a mixed bunch, consisting of pastoralists, settlers, and agricultural tribes, and groups that had been involved in the infrastructure supporting the Late Bronze Age trade.

About their relationship to the ‘Israel’ from the Merneptah Stela we can only speculate. According to the Stela ‘Israel’ was a powerful tribe, important and troublesome enough to be included in the list of enemies of the State. Even if we take Merneptah at his word, and believe that it was thoroughly beaten, remnants of the tribe must have been roaming in the area after their defeat. The northern hill country, as its territory, may well have continued to carry its name, and the new settlers, together with the remnants of the old ‘Israel’ may have been the seed from which the new state would eventually emerge.

Van der Steen, E.J.

2013 Near Eastern Tribal Societies during the Nineteenth Century: Economy, Society and Politics between Tent and Town. Acumen Publishing

2004 Tribes and Territories in Transition. Leuven, Peeters.

Comments (5)

Would be nice with a little more hard evidence. It is clearly a very "likely" scenario, but is it anymore than this?

#1 - Niels Peter Lemche - 03/21/2014 - 12:54

I realize that there is a great deal of discussion about the Stela and its import, but I think this is a bit of an overstatement of the cryptic line 27.

“About their relationship to the ‘Israel’ from the Merneptah Stela we can only speculate. According to the Stela ‘Israel’ was a powerful tribe, important and troublesome enough to be included in the list of enemies of the State.”

#2 - Timothy Bagley - 03/21/2014 - 19:40

Tribal societies are prone to fight over territory. Yes, but is there a form of human society that does not share this trait? The United States of Manifest Destiny times was not tribal exactly. I'm not sure that there is such great explanatory power in mentioning that societies at the relevant time were tribal.
As to the end of Egyptian hegemony in those very ancient days, are you sure? One of the websites I consulted about Beth Shean said that the documentation is confusing, and there could be truth in that.
One way of looking at I Kings 9:16, the Donation of Gezer, is that Egyptian domination never really ended, even if it moved towards indirect rule as in British West Africa, at least until it was challenged from Iraq, and that this basic fact was remembered.

#3 - Martin - 03/21/2014 - 22:51

The problem with Eveline's approach is that social anthropology does not explain anything, but it provides possibilities. It is as a matter of fact a very old fashioned way of doing history, assuming too much and building on assumptions. As is a kind of Alt or Noth redivivus. AS the Germans say "die grossen Hypothesenmacher"!

But I will have to get to her recent book ...

#4 - Niels Peter Lemche - 03/22/2014 - 17:49

And is it certain that Merneptah's 'Israel' was a 'tribe' - that that is the word that really throws light - rather than some other form of social grouping? The devotees of a certain cult? A group regarded as a bunch of bandits, like the Roman Bagaudae or the British/Inidan Thugs? In my wilder moments I wonder if the meaning of 'Israel' as 'one who sruggles with God' (if that is its meaning) may suggest that it was originally a disparaging term - 'immoral and violent people', rather as 'thug' has become.

#5 - Martin - 03/23/2014 - 18:09

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