The book of Joshua describes how the Israelites entered the land of Canaan led by Moses’ successor Joshua. They crossed the Jordan River near the city of Jericho. The narrative relates that when the priests stepped into the water carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the river stopped flowing at a place called Adam, approximately thirty kilometers north of Jericho. Joshua commanded that one man from each tribe should take a stone from the river. These stones were arranged in a special manner to create a holy place, a place of commemoration and worship.
Erecting stones was part of religious symbolic language in the Ancient Near East. The erected stones (called matsevot in Hebrew) sometimes symbolized the people who worshipped; sometimes they represented divinities. They always marked a holy place, a sanctuary. While the Joshua narrative does not use the term mazzevot, the Israelite memorial stones were probably of this type.
The Israelites erected the stones at a place called Gilgal, at the point where the people had crossed the river. The people camped for some time at Gilgal, and there they planned a military campaign to conquer the land of Canaan.
The first chapter of the book of Judges reports that Judah conquered the south of Canaan with the help of the tribe of Simeon. The tribe of Ephraim, representing the house of Joseph, conquered the central hill country north of Jerusalem. Other Israelite tribes, such as Manasseh, Asher, and Naphtali, conquered areas north of the plain of Jezreel. The tribes of Reuben and Gad and part of Manasseh remained in the area to the east of the Jordan River.
The areas captured by the Israelites were usually already well developed. At the time of the Israelite settlement, the Canaanite population to the west of the central hills lived in many small villages surrounded by cultivated fields and terraces. The text of Deuteronomy chapter six describes it in this way: “cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not put in them, cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant.”
Much of the land of Canaan was hills with only small valleys in between. This left relatively few flat areas that could be planted. The amount of land suitable for planting could be greatly increased by making terraces on the hillsides. The horizontal terrace could catch the rainwater that would otherwise run off. Terraces were especially good for planting olive trees but could be used also for small amounts of grain or other crops. The preparation of terraces involved the building of walls and filling in layers of different kinds of earth that would retain the water. It was a labor intensive process, and a whole family had to work for a year in order to prepare about 1000 square meters of terrace. Terraces have always characterized the western slopes of the land, where the rainfall was adequate for such farming.
In addition to the many small Canaanite villages, there were also a few larger settlements, sometimes called cities or city-states. These terms may be misleading to the modern Bible reader, as even these larger settlements rarely had more than a few thousand inhabitants. Unlike a village, which was an open grouping of small homes, a city had both dwellings and public buildings, and it was all surrounded by a wall for protection. While a village was only inhabited by farmers, the city could also include craftsmen and traders and officials. At the top of the social order of the city was a ruler, usually called a king. While cities varied widely in area, the average size was about twenty hectares, equal to a square about half a kilometer on each side.
There was never a unified nation of Canaan in ancient times. Instead there were many small city-states. Many of these Canaanite city-states are mentioned in the Old Testament, including Hazor, Shechem, Gezer, Megiddo, Lachish, Gaza, Ashkelon, Laish (which was later called Dan), and Jebus (which was later called Jerusalem). Many of the Canaanite city-states were situated along the Way of the Sea or Via Maris, which linked Egypt with Syria.
The largest and most important of the Canaanite city-states was Hazor .It controlled the northern section of the Via Maris through the Galilee. The king of Hazor dared to call himself “king” in his correspondence with the great king, the Pharaoh of Egypt. All other Canaanite kings called themselves dogs. The king of Hazor commanded a great army that fought the Israelites under Joshua. Joshua defeated him and the other kings, and Hazor was completely destroyed by fire.
City layout and defense
To make the city easier to defend, it was usually built on a hill or at least on elevated ground. A wall surrounded the city. To enter the city you had to pass through a gate. While the design of city gates changed over the centuries, they were all built to make it more difficult for an attacker to break through the gate. One method was to make the gate complex much thicker than the wall, and to design it so that attacking soldiers had to pass through a relatively narrow opening while being vulnerable to attack from above.
When an ancient walled city came under attack from an enemy, the weakest point of the defenses was the gate. In order to increase the ability of the citizens to defend the gate, it was constructed in a special way. Soldiers carried a weapon in their right hand and a shield in their left hand. This meant that the right side of the body was less protected than the left. Gates were often constructed with an immediate left turn. As the attacker entered the gate and turned left, the right side of his body was undefended. Now the defenders could shoot or throw objects at him from the inside of the gate.
City walls were sometimes constructed of two walls with a space between them. This is called a casemate wall. The space between the walls might be filled in with rubble to make one thick wall. In some cities people built their houses in the space between the two walls.
The elders of the city often met inside or near the gate complex to discuss city affairs and make legal rulings.
The inside of an ancient town was made of a network of streets. Where these streets met there was formed a wider space, called a square. Like the streets, the square was usually dirt, only sometimes paved with stones. The square was open to the sky and often served as a gathering place for the inhabitants of the city. One of the squares of a town usually served as a marketplace, a central location for bartering, buying, and selling. The market square was often just inside the city gate.
In the excavations at the site of the Israelite city of Dan, archaeologists made a remarkable find, an ancient gate constructed of mud bricks. A similar Canaanite gate was found in the excavations at ancient Ashkelon. The city of Dan and this gate date back to the time of the Canaanites, roughly six hundred years before the coming of the Israelites. The name of the earlier Canaanite city was Laish. The tribe of Dan was originally given a small territory on the seacoast, but they were eventually forced out of their tribal area, and they had to migrate north, where they captured Laish and renamed it Dan.
The first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, Jeroboam I, built sacrificial altars at Dan in the north and at Bethel in the south. In other parts of the country he also built new places of worship, called “bamoth” in Hebrew, singular “bamah.” The bamot built by Jeroboam werecondemned by the biblical writers. The one excavated at Dan is quite large, 19 meters long and 8 meters wide. While the word bamah has often been translated as “high place,”it is easy to see that a bamah was not necessarily located on a hilltop.
Outside of the northern gate of Dan archaeologists found a small platform with a base on each corner. The bases may have supported a kind of canopy to give shade to whoever sat underneath it. It is possible that the king sat here at the gate to judge cases brought to him by the people. Another possibility is that this platform was a kind of small high place which was sometimes located at the gate of a city. Near the same gate was also found a long bench that may have served city leaders as they conducted their business.
As the buildings of a city were destroyed or fell into disuse, new buildings were built on top of the debris from the previous city. Over the centuries this process had the effect of creating an artificial hill, called a tell. The tell was surrounded by walls and piled up earth embankments, called ramparts. Sometimes the wall was formed by the outer row of houses, built next to each other. This seems to have been the case with the house of Rahab in Jericho in the time of Joshua.
Archeological evidence suggests that Jericho was not a large city. The Bible tells us that the city fell after a special ritual performed by the Israelites. For six days they marched one time each day around the city led by priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. On the seventh day they marched around seven times. When seven priests blew seven rams’ horns and the people shouted, the walls of Jericho collapsed. Nothing can be seen of Jericho’s walls today, and little of the ruins of the city itself.
In Joshua 18.1 we read that “the whole congregation of the sons of Israel assembled themselves at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there.” The tabernacle remained in that location for well over two hundred years, and the place continued to be an important religious site for the people of Israel even after the Temple was built.
Topography and geography
Cultures and languages vary widely in their understanding of certain terms that describe landforms. It will be useful to see what certain landforms looked like in the land settled by the Israelites.
The Hebrew word “har,” often translated as “mountain,” is used by the biblical authors with a wide range of meaning. Mount Hermon in the far north and Mount Sinai in the far south do indeed reach high elevations and can even be covered with snow. However, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal near Shechem or Mount Tabor in the Galilee are not very high at all, and Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where the Temple stood, was lower than most of the area surrounding it. Many of the elevations called “harim” in Hebrew would only qualify as hills in many cultures. Mount Carmel, in the northwest of the country in the tribal area of Asher, only reaches an elevation of some 550 meters or 1800 feet. The general area where Jesus is thought to have given his “sermon on the mountain,” near the Kinneret Lake or Sea of Galilee, actually stands below sea level.
Several Hebrew words indicate a flow of water throughout the year. The word “ye’or”is usually used of the Nile River in Egypt. The most frequent word, “nahar” does indicate a year-round flow, but it says little or nothing about the actual size of the watercourse. The Jordan River, for example, is never more than a few meters wide and two or three meters deep. It is the largest river in the land of Israel. In fact it is one of the few rivers in the land that flow all year long. In contrast, there are many places where water only flows right after a rainfall. The land has hundreds of these “ravines” or “wadis” or “seasonal streams,” known in Hebrew as “nachal.”
Many times the Old Testament refers to events happening in the “hill country.” This term could easily describe most of the land, and it is often accompanied by a specific identification, such as “the hill country of Ephraim.” Most frequently it refers to an area somewhere along the central ridge that runs north and south .
The largest valley in the land is the Jezreel Valley. It is bordered by the Galilee hills on the north and the Gilboa hills on the southeast.
The city of Megiddo sat at its western edge. Megiddo was one of the strong city-states of the Canaanites. The Israelites captured it, and later King Solomon fortified the city.
On the east end of the Jezreel Valley stood the city of Jezreel, which played an important role in the history of the kings of the northern kindgom of Israel. Jezreel controlled an important pass on the Via Maris that linked Egypt with Syria and Mesopotamia.
The wilderness or desert plays an important role in the biblical narrative. The best known wilderness story, of course, describes the time spent there by the people of Israel after leaving Egypt. However, the wilderness figures in many other biblical events. It became a symbol of major importance for the prophets.
The wilderness or desert of the Bible lands is not usually a wide, flat expanse of sand dunes. In fact the wilderness has a great variety of forms. The Sinai desert, for example, is characterized by mountains broken up with valleys. The highest of these mountains, today called Mount Catherine, rises to an elevation of over 2600 meters or 8600 feet. The area is properly called a desert because of the extremely low annual rainfall, less than 100 millimeters per year. Because of this low rainfall, little vegetation grows in the wilderness.
To the north of the Sinai desert is the region of the Negev, a name that means simply “dry.” While the Negev does not cover as much territory as the Sinai, it tends to be flatter. Many of the events connected with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob took place in the Negev. The word “negev” in the form “negba,” meaning “to the Negev,” indicates the direction of south.
As we move northward, we will begin to encounter gradually higher levels of rainfall. Lying on the edge of the true desert is the wilderness of Judea. While there is more rainfall, it is generally not enough for the growing of crops but only for grazing animals. This wilderness is bordered on the east by the Dead Sea and on the west by the central ridge on which stood the cities of Jerusalem and David’s hometown of Bethlehem.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth. Its water is almost ten times as salty as the water in the ocean. It is referred to in scripture as the Salt Sea or the Sea of the Aravah. The sea is fed by the water of the Jordan River and a few streams that flow into it from springs. Where these small streams flow, oases are formed. One such oasis is En Gedi. In this area David took refuge from King Saul.
David fled to the Judean wilderness when King Saul wanted to put him to death. On one occasion we read of David and Saul speaking to each other as if they are separated by only a small distance. This may seem strange when we consider that Saul and his men were trying to capture or kill David. The wilderness of Judea, especially in the area of Ein Gedi, is often broken up by deep, narrow wadis which have been formed by the runoff from flash floods. While it would have been easy for David and Saul to speak to each other without even shouting, it would have taken Saul’s men a long time to go around to where David stood.
While the wilderness is a barren, often inhospitable place, it appears in scripture in several positive contexts. As in the case of David, it is frequently a refuge from danger. When Hagar flees from Sarah, the wilderness is also a place where God supernaturally supplies her needs. This theme of provision is repeated when Israel is in Sinai, when Elijah flees from Jezebel, and in other cases. Perhaps more than any other location, the wilderness is depicted in scripture as the place where God speaks to people.
The dry southern regions of the country are indicated primarily by two names, the Negev and the Aravah.The Negev is an elevated plateau with deep canyons. The Aravah is a flat valley stretching to the south of the Dead Sea east of the Negev. In scripture the name Aravah can also indicate the valley north of the Dead Sea and even some of the area just to the west of the Jordan River. Both the Negev and the Aravah are extremely dry, and only limited agriculture was possible.
The time when the Israelites settled in Canaan coincides with the end of what is called the Bronze Age. Archaeological periods are named after the materials from which people made tools and weapons. During the Bronze Age, weapons and tools were made of bronze, which is copper mixed with tin. Starting around 1200 BC people learned how to make implements from iron, which is harder than bronze. This begins what is called the Iron Age.
Iron technology was introduced into the land of Canaan by the Philistines.
The Philistines were one of several non-Semitic groups known as the Sea Peoples. They invaded Canaan from the sea around the year 1200 BC, about the same time the Israelites were entering the land from the east. The Philistines organized themselves into a league of five city-states, composed of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron. In the course of time they expanded their territories deeper into Canaan and came into direct conflict with the Israelite tribes, especially Dan and Judah.
Between 1200—1000 BC, the period of the Biblical Judges, the Philistines controlled the coastal plain from Gaza north to the small stream called in scripture Mei-Yarkon.
Until the Israelites learned how to prepare iron, its use was controlled by the Philistines.
The use of iron in farming tools greatly increased the efficiency of farming and made the work easier. For preparing the soil for planting the farmer used a plow. The plow itself was made of wood, but the point that pushed through the hard ground was covered with an iron sleeve. Another iron tool was the mattock, a kind of hoe for chopping the soil. It could serve also as an axe for cutting wood.
The pruning hook was used for cutting branches that were out of reach.
For cutting the standing grain at harvest time the farmer used a sickle with an iron blade.
Farming tools and their use symbolized a time of peace. The prophets sometimes use this symbolism—and the fact that some of the farm tools looked similar to weapons—to speak of coming times of peace when weapons would be reshaped into farming tools. However, when the prophet Joel wants to call the people to war, he uses the opposite image, beating farming tools into weapons.
Cultic objects, tools, and pottery used by the Philistines show that they originated in the islands of the Aegean Sea. However, their culture was gradually influenced by the Canaanites, and they eventually adopted the culture of the Semitic world. This can be seen in the transition in pottery styles. The early Philistine pottery, called monochrome because it was decorated with only one color, is similar to ancient Greek and Aegean styles. The later pottery, decorated with two colors and so called bichrome ware, is closer in style to the pottery of the Canaanites.
Without a doubt the item most commonly found at the archaeological excavation of any biblical site will be pieces of broken pottery. Most storage containers and dishes in the average house were made of pottery. But pottery, made of fired clay, broke easily, and things had to be replaced frequently.
First of all the clay had to be prepared by kneading it repeatedly until it was pliable and had a uniform consistency.
The most common way of manufacturing pottery in biblical times was on a turning wheel. A lump of clay was placed in the middle of a small round table. This table was connected by a rod to a heavy wooden or stone wheel below. The potter turned the lower wheel with his foot and shaped the clay with his hands. If he was not satisfied with the way a vessel turned out, he could simply squeeze the soft clay into a lump and start over again.
When the pot was formed to the potter’s satisfaction, it was set out in the sun to dry for a few hours. But clay dried in the sun would still break easily. It had to be placed into a special oven where it was baked until it was hard.
Because pottery vessels were such common, everyday objects, they are frequently used by biblical authors in a symbolic sense. Sometimes the symbol is the ease with which the potter can shape the clay. For example, Jeremiah quotes God as saying: “like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
At other times the symbol comes from the fragile nature of clay vessels.
Isaiah 41 speaks of the potter treading out the clay with his feet before he brings it to the potter’s wheel to work with it. Here it is a symbol for military conquest.
Even Philistine religion became more and more like the religion of the Canaanites. Philistine divinities mentioned in the Bible, such as Dagon, Ashtaroth, and Baal-Zebub, have names that were being used in local Canaanite religions. A Philistine temple has been excavated in the northernmost city of the Philistines, a site that is now known as Tel Qasile.
Philistine temples were built in such a way that the ceiling over the central hall was supported by two large wooden columns. The stone bases for such columns can be seen at Tel Qasile. According to the account in Judges, Samson had himself placed between the columns and then pushed them off their bases, causing the roof of the temple to collapse.
During the time of the Judges, the Israelite tribes lived in the hilly regions of south, central, and north Canaan, as well as in the trans-Jordan area of Gilead. They did not live in cities, but in small villages spread over large areas. Members of the same extended family or clan lived together in a village, and members of the same tribe stayed together in the same region.
The league of Israelite tribes was actually quite ineffective. Groups of villages or clans or tribes only acted together on rare occasions. This happened in times of emergency, when a charismatic war leader arose to unite the diverse groups against a common enemy, such as Moab or Ammon. These leaders were the biblical Judges. The book of Judges 4-5 describes an exceptional case when Barak and Deborah united a larger group of tribes against the king of Hazor. This story shows that the plains were still firmly under the influence of the Canaanite city-states.
Faced with pressures from Canaanites and Philistines, the Israelites chose themselves a king to lead a united army. The first king of Israel was Saul from the tribe of Benjamin. At the beginning of his reign Saul won several victories in battles against the Philistines, the Ammonites, and the Amalekites. These successes consolidated his power over Israelite tribes other than his own, even though he was never king of a unified kingdom. It is not clear from the text just how long Saul reigned. In a later battle with the Philistines, Saul and three of his sons were killed on Mount Gilboa, and Saul’s body was hung from the wall of the city of Beth Shean.
After Saul’s death, the elders of Judah crowned David, a man from their own tribe, as their king. David began his reign in about 1000 BC. The northern tribes remained loyal to the house of Saul, but gradually David gained influence over all the tribes of Israel. About seven years after Saul’s death, David was anointed king again, this time by the northern tribes. For a time all the tribes of Israel were united in the person of King David.
The ceremony for installing a new king included pouring olive oil over his head. This was called anointing. For the Israelite kings anointing was a sacred act, carried out by a prophet, or, in one case, a priest. The oil was usually poured from the horn of an animal. Possibly for this reason the horn is often a symbol of power and authority in the Bible.
David managed to break the power of the Philistines. His most important military success was the conquest of Jerusalem, the city of the Jebusites. The city he conquered was small, located on a hill just to the south of another hill called Zion. Jerusalem provided no natural resources, not even a very significant source of water. Even so, David chose to make Jerusalem his capital. This was a wise choice: the city was in neutral territory, not belonging to any of the tribes, and its strategic position in the center of the area settled by the tribes of Israel was of great importance for the process of building a nation.
David made Jerusalem the cultic, administrative, and military center of Israel. In the course of his reign he added large areas to his kingdom. He took control of the valley of Jezreel and brought under his rule all of Galilee and a large portion of the Trans-Jordan area. He subdued the Ammonites and the Moabites, who occupied the Trans-Jordan plateaus, and made them pay large yearly tributes. The book of Kings describes the siege of Rabbat-Ammon, the capital of Ammon, which was taken by David’s general Joab.
David also extended his kingdom southwards into the Negev, where he came into conflict with the Edomites. He defeated the Edomites and placed military garrisons in their country.
In a relatively short time David had established a kind of mini-empire, but it did not last long. His son Solomon did not make any military advances or conquer more land. Instead he profited greatly from diplomatic advances and trade. Solomon also became known as a man of wisdom and culture. His building program was impressive. Solomon received help from his ally and trading partner Hiram, who was king of the Phoenician city of Tyre. For over twenty years Solomon sent Hiram wheat and olive oil from Israel in exchange for timber and building expertise from the Lebanon. In fact all the architects and chief craftsmen designing and constructing the buildings in Jerusalem were Phoenicians. Solomon converted the area of the small fortress of the city of David into a royal capital by adding to it the temple mount, which his father David had already purchased.
This hill, known variously as Zion or Moriah, became the acropolis or sacred upper part of the city. It is frequently referred to, especially in the Psalms and with purposeful religious exaggeration, as the “holy mountain.” The prophets sometimes refer to it as “the mountain of the Lord.” The temple and the royal palace were situated on a raised platform on this hill. By creating this structure the king was also symbolically elevated above all his people. The houses of the residents of Jerusalem were all situated at significantly lower levels.
Solomon expanded the area of the capital from about 12 acres to 30. The total population is estimated to have been around 1500 during his reign.
After Solomon’s death the empire split into two kingdoms and collapsed. The southern kingdom continued to be ruled by descendants of David and was called Judah. The larger northern kingdom was sometimes called Israel, sometimes Jacob or Ephraim. It was ruled at first by Jeroboam, who had rebelled against the Davidic rule.
Jeroboam I constructed two huge open air altars, one in the south of his kingdom at Bethel, and one in the north at Dan. In both places he set up images of golden bulls. The bull was a major symbol of the Canaanite god Baal. Baal, the god of storms, rain, and fertility, was the chief god of the Canaanites. They believed that his power made it possible to defeat Mot, the god of death, in a battle that was repeated each year with the coming of spring.
The Bible often refers to the female deity Asherah. She was a goddess of fertility and may have been the female companion of Baal.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel suffered from political instability until approximately 800 BC, when the line of Omri began to rule. King Omri founded a new capital on a strategically situated hill that he bought from a man named Shemer. The city was called Shomeron or Samaria, possibly from the name of its original owner. Samaria became a beautiful and wealthy city, the capital of the powerful kingdom of Israel.
There are numerous references in the Bible to the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon. Phoenicia is the Greek name for the northern coastal area of Canaan. The name means dark red after a certain dye produced by a sea snail. This dye became a famous export commodity of the Phoenicians.
Phoenicia consisted of a number of city-states. The most important of these was Tyre, which was built on an island just off the coast of Northern Canaan. Tyre normally dominated the other Phoenician cities, such as Sidon and Byblos.
In the first millennium BC Tyre was the biggest port in the world. It had two port facilities, the Egyptian port and the Phoenician port. Tyre was renowned for its luxury and liberal lifestyle. It was a melting pot of cultures and a center of civilization. The famous wood from the cedars of Lebanon was transported from here to Egypt and to the west. In the time of Jesus there was a beautiful Roman city on the site. Divers still bring to the surface small statues of Phoenician soldiers and Egyptian women.
The Phoenicians were famous in the ancient world as sailors. With their wooden ships they could transport many people and large amounts of cargo. Two means of propulsion were used: sails attached to a mast caught the wind and so moved the ship; in some ships oars were used to row when there was insufficient wind or when it was necessary to maneuver the ship in a confined space. The ship was steered by one or two oars that projected from the back of the ship. When the ship was in port or stopping off shore, it was held in place by an anchor attached to a rope. Anchors could be made of iron, but they were often a large stone with a hole in it.
Byblos was the most ancient of the Phoenician cities. It was situated on an island and surrounded by walls. In Byblos the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. Through the many commercial contacts of the Phoenicians, this most important of inventions spread throughout the Mediterranean world. On the sarcophagus of King Hiram of Byblos we have the earliest writing to be preserved in an alphabetic script, dating from about 1000 BC.
The main enemy of the Northern Kingdom of Israel was the king of Aram with his capital in Damascus. After the death of King Ahab, Israel became weaker and weaker. King Mesha of Moab rebelled against Israel and refused to pay the annual tribute.
King Jehoram of Israel made an alliance with King Jehoshaphat of Judah, and together they attacked Moab. Threatened with defeat, King Mesha sacrificed his son to his god Chemosh on the wall of the city of Kir-Hareseth. When the armies of Israel and Judah witnessed this desperate act, they became completely discouraged and returned home without taking the city. The biblical account does not relate the outcome of the campaign. It is quite possible that it failed and that Moab did liberate itself from Israel.
In 1868 a German missionary discovered a meter-high stone containing a Moabite account of the revolt of Moab against Israel. It is called the stone of Mesha or the Moabite Stone. The text is a song of praise to the Moabite god Chemosh, who had delivered his people from Israel. It lists all the successes of recapturing former Moabite cities from the Israelites. It does not mention the human sacrifice of the prince.
Part of the text reads: “And Chemosh said to me ‘Go, take Nebo from Israel.’ So I went by night and fought against it from daybreak until noon, taking it and slaying all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and maid-servants, for I had devoted them to Ashtar-Chemosh.”
The prophet Amos foresaw the expansion of the Assyrian Empire, which became stronger and stronger in the 8th century BC. The Assyrians, indeed, became the most powerful nation in the Near East and kept that position for almost one hundred and fifty years. The backbone of the Assyrian economy was the king’s grain fields in the heartland of the country around Nineveh and Nimrod.
The first capital of Assyria was Asshur, a city named after the main god of the Assyrians. The Assyrians moved their capital further northwards, closer to the grain fields. Nimrod, Khosabar, and Nineveh all served as capitals of the great Assyrian Empire.
Nineveh was an extremely large city. The book of Jonah says that one needed three days to walk across the city. Nineveh had twelve gates, each one dedicated to and named after one of the Assyrian gods.
When the Babylonians and Medes besieged the city in 612, the Assyrians thought they would be safe behind their great defensive walls. However, the Babylonians managed to divert the water of the Tigris and other rivers towards the city walls. The water softened the ground under the wall, and after some months the wall collapsed allowing the invading army to enter. The prophet Nahum hints at this event: “the river gates are opened; the palace melts away.”
If a conquered state rebelled against Assyria by not paying tribute or by making an alliance with another state against Assyria, punishment could be swift and harsh. In the extreme case, the Assyrians made the rebellious state into a province of Assyria and deported part of the population. This is what happened to the northern kingdom of Israel. They rebelled against Assyria and even formed an alliance with Egypt. The Assyrians punished them in 722 by transferring some of the people to other parts of the empire.
On the other hand, the kingdom of Judah resisted all pressure to rebel. This resistance was strengthened by the prophet Isaiah, who advised Ahaz, king of Judah, to be firm and not to give in to pressure. Isaiah prophesied that the rebellious Damascus and Israel would soon be destroyed and that Judah would be spared. It happened just as Isaiah had prophesied.
Nevertheless, the successor of Ahaz, King Hezekiah, changed the policy of Judah. He cleansed the Temple of statues of gods and other forbidden sacred objects, including an altar for the worship of Asshur. In the Ancient Near East, subject kings were obliged to worship the god of their overlord. For Hezekiah, purifying the Temple of foreign cultic objects was a religious act, but it was also a political act of rebellion against Assyria.
Hezekiah also repaired the walls of Jerusalem, built new walls around new residential areas, and improved systems of supplying water to the city by constructing a pool and a tunnel. He did all this shortly before the attack by the Assyrians. Jerusalem numbered about 20,000 inhabitants in those days.
Archaelolgists have uncovered this portion of Hezekiah’s wall, built in the eighth century BC. Even this small section gives some idea of the massiveness of the protective wall of an ancient city. This one was about seven meters wide, but some could be even wider. Hezekiah built this wall in preparation for the invasion by the Assyrians.
In another operation to make the city less vulnerable to attack, Hezekiah blocked off all access to the spring outside the city. He then constructed a long tunnel to bring the water inside the walls of Jerusalem. The tunnel was over half a kilometer long.
While Hezekiah’s building programs were impressive, he had miscalculated the political situation. It was not long before the Assyrians came and conquered Judah.
Krijn van der Jagt, 2002. Anthropological Approaches to the Interpretation of the Bible, UBS Monograph Series, No. 8.
Ancient Near Eastern Societies
In order to gain an understanding of Ancient Near Eastern societies we can make use of models that have been developed in sociology and anthropology. These models are limited and cannot be considered entirely adequate for our description of the realities of the ancient societies. I am aware that the use of these models may lead to oversimplification. However, they form solid bases for interpretation purposes and, realistically speaking, we have no other alternatives. First, I would like to make use of the models of tribal society and peasant society.
The model of tribal society can be applied to a vast number of ancient societies in the Near East. The tribal societies of the Ancient Near East were egalitarian in nature. All the members of this type of society shared the same ancestors, were under the same customary laws, and were ruled by a council of elders. In a tribal society, there is hardly any division of labor. For instance, all the members of a given tribal society may be either shepherds or farmers. Thus, there are no distinct social classes and all people are socially equal.
In the Ancient Near Eastern tribal society family, allegiance was of high importance. Ancestor worship and small-scale communal ritual related to the worship of local gods were the basic religious forms. Each village had its local shrine where people brought sacrifices to the local patron god of the village and to the ancestors. The people lived on the land in small settlements or villages and blood ties related all the individuals within the village or settlement to one another. People of one extended family lived together in a village. Members of one particular subtribal unit occupied a larger geographical area.
Israel as a nation did not exist until the time of King David. In the premonarchic period, there were a number of tribal societies; for example, the tribal society of Benjamin and the tribal society of Judah. The kings of Israel and Judah developed monarchies in which different tribal societies were integrated. The imposition of new political institutions by the kings often caused tension with the traditional political structures, such as the council of elders. I will deal with this problem in greater detail later in this chapter.
However, we cannot describe Ancient Near Eastern societies by relying solely upon the egalitarian tribal society model. In addition, we also need to examine a different type of society, namely, the peasant society.
The peasant society model can be applied to a number of societies in the Ancient Near East. With the urban revolution, a new type of society emerged in the Ancient Near East. The foundation of city-states in Southern Mesopotamia in the second half of the fourth millennium B.C. created a new type of society. This new society was non-egalitarian in nature and was formed by peasants and city people. The peasants lived on the land and survived off its produce. The city people and the peasants were often of a different ethnic group. Family allegiance was not the cement of the peasant society as opposed to tribal society. The city dwellers and the peasants were bound together by their social contract. A peasant could not be considered an entirely free person. He was obliged to sell or donate his crop surplus to the city dwellers.
The peasant society was a class society; the peasants formed the lowest class and the city dwellers were of a higher class. Also, in the city there were different classes. Division of labor stratified the peasant society of the Ancient Near East. In the city one could find merchants, craftsmen, soldiers, priests, scribes, and officials and each group formed a social unit. These units were not based on kinship but were based on economic interest and the possession of privileges and skills. The members of the highest class of the city dwellers had power over the peasants. In general, the peasants in this type of society were dependent on goods and services provided by the city people.
The religious systems of peasant societies were symbolic expressions of the power structure. This was true for the Ancient Near East where peasants were forced to worship the powers of the city; thus their religion reflected dual allegiance. Their prime allegiance was to the powers that protected the family, the clan and the tribe at large; the second allegiance was to the gods and kings of the city.
In the Ancient Near East, all cities were temple cities since the temple was the central social and economic institution. The social and political life was attached to the temple of the god of the city, who was, first and foremost, the god of the ruler. The palace-temple complex served as a system for the redistribution of wealth. The temple and the king received the products from the land and, consequently, redistributed services and special commodities, as well as titles of honor, privileges, and last, but not least, protection against foreign powers.
The relationship between the peasants and the people living in the cities was unequal. The city dwellers, the king, the priests, and the members of the elite considered the peasants of lower status. Despite this inequality, there was a bond between the unequal partners. This bond is termed a patron-client relationship in sociology. A patron-client relationship is a personal bond between two socially unequal partners.
In the city-states in the Ancient Near East, the palace, the temple, and the elite of the city owned the land. The peasants did not own land and the members of the elite or the lords maintained a personal relationship with the individual peasants who lived on their land. The peasants had to donate a certain percentage of their crops to their lord in the city and the latter protected their interests in return. Their relationship was a personal bond based on loyalty and reciprocity.
The patron-client relationship existed in various forms and at different levels in the Ancient Near Eastern societies. Also, the lord-vassal relationship bciween rulers of different cities was similar in character. A vassal had to pay tribute to his overlord and received protection in return. The institute of patronage was very important in the socio-political life of the Ancient Near East.
In the Hebrew Bible, we find a very specific vocabulary that reflects the basic structure of this patron-client relationship. Hebrew words like chesed, meaning loyalty, faithfulness or love, and tsedek, meaning correct behavior or generosity, refer to qualities of relationships between people who are not biologically related and socially unequal. Also, the vocabulary of the covenant theology in the Hebrew Bible mirrors the patron-client relationship, being a bond between two unequal partners based on loyalty and reciprocity.
Household and Market
The models of tribal society and peasant society cannot cover all aspects of the ancient societies. An additional model is needed in order to relate to the socio-economic life in ancient times more adequately.
The household-market complex, described by Daniel C. Snell (1997:154-158), proves to be a useful model to refer to the dynamics of the socio-economic forces of the societies of the Ancient Near East. A household is a group of people who regard themselves as members of a production unit. In the Ancient Near East, societies were made up of large households. These units consisted of direct relatives, in-laws, and others such as distant relatives, slaves, and servants. Members of a household did not get paid for the labor they contributed to the household. Instead, they received a variety of material and immaterial benefits in lieu of their services. However, it must be stressed that they never received money. The Abraham narratives in the book of Genesis portray life in a household in ancient times.
To a large extent, households are independent and self-sufficient. A household’s degree of autocracy depends on the wider society it is part of. Households can produce for and profit from markets. A market is a system of pricing goods and labor. This system makes exchange of goods and labor between households possible. Goods can be sold and bought, and people can hire workers and be hired. The Ancient Near Eastern societies developed market economies. Markets are volatile; they can expand and shrink over time as they are subject to a great number of social, political and other factors. The household is a stable unit; its participation in markets can vary from time to time. The household-market model proves to be a useful tool to describe the realities of Ancient Near Eastern societies.
Ancient Israelite Society 1250-586 B.C.
Israelites lived in small villages in the central part of Canaan, beginning around 1250 B.C. The inhabitants of a village form a community of people who live together in one location. A village community is an effective social group. The members have frequent contacts, share resources, and cooperate on a daily basis. They normally maintain good relationships, and when peace is broken, they restore peace through judicial means.
The heads of all households meet together in the village council and decide on all village matters. They also act as judges.
A village community is a territorial group. Membership is not necessarily determined by kinship, but by proximity of location. The families who form the village community have chosen to live together. In ancient Israel blood ties related most inhabitants of a village. The households of a particular village were often from the same extended family (beth-‘av in Hebrew) or the same clan (mishpachah in Hebrew). In the larger villages and towns, the households were from the same clan or at least from the same tribe (matteh in Hebrew). Extended families, clans, and tribes are kinship groups. Blood ties determine membership in these groups. Common ancestors are the binding element of these groups. All members of these groups are obliged to support one another. They all share the sacred duty to defend the cause of the kinship group; that is, to protect the lives of all, to ensure resources to sustain the group, and to maintain an acceptable position for the group on the scale of honor. The household and the village were the effective social groups an ordinary Israelite lived in. Daily life was determined to a high extent by social interactions within these groups.
The Israelite kinship groups were patrilineal. Only sons inherited from the father, daughters did not inherit. The eldest son was the main heir. Marriage was patrilocal, girls moved to the households of their respective husbands after the marriage ceremonies were completed.
The household is a social and economic unit. It is a wider group than the kinship group family. The Hebrew term beth-‘av, literally father’s house, is used both to refer to the patrilineal kinship group and the household. The patrilineal group formed the backbone of the household. We should understand that family and household do not totally overlap. In-laws, wives, slaves, and servants could all be members of the household, but they did not all belong to the patrilineal family.
A household could consist of the following persons: a head of the household, who is the father, his wives, his younger brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, slaves, and strangers. When children were born in the household, they had to be adopted by the mother of the household, the first wife of the head of the household, in order to become legal children of the household.
The household was the smallest social unit of the ancient tribal society of Israel. Religion was primarily focused on the needs of the household; for example, the fertility of wives, livestock, and fields. The head of the household was the priest who took care of all the ritual actions that were prescribed by custom. The ancestors needed to be remembered through sacrificial offerings, evil spirits had to be kept away, and the local deity in charge of fertility had to be appeased.
In the early days of Israelite life in Canaan, it seems that households worshiped the god of the father, who was the patron god of the household or the village, under the Hebrew name El or Baal. These gods were mostly local deities. It is highly plausible that Yahweh gradually replaced these local deities as the patron god of households, extended families, clans, and villages.
Tribal Societies, City-States, Monarchies, and Empires
The history of Israel can be characterized as an evolution from a loose federation of small-scale societies to a province of a world empire. When the tribes of Israel settled in the land of Canaan around 1200 B.C., they had conquered territory that belonged to a number of Canaanite city-states. They also settled in areas that were not occupied or sparsely occupied.
The tribes of Israel used to live in small villages and townships. All people who lived in a town belonged to the same tribe and often they were all of the same subtribal unit. Councils of elders governed the tribes of Israel. Each area and each town had a council of elders. These councils were very important institutions, both in political and judicial matters. The elders served as rulers and judges in the society. At a certain point, the tribes of Israel felt the need to integrate the different tribes into a nation under one single ruler, a king, who, as chief of all the tribes, could foster unity among the different groups. They wanted to form a monarchy similar to some of the neighboring nations, such as Moab and Edom. Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, was the first king, but he was not successful in uniting the tribes and could not face the military strength of the Philistines.
Around the year 1000 B.C., the council of elders of Judah appointed David as king and the councils of the other tribes did the same some seven years later. David was able to integrate the tribes of Israel and other ethnic groups into a monarchy. The tribes had never had tribal chiefs before, so the appointment of a king over all the tribes was actually a novelty.
King David imposed forced labor and taxation on the tribes of Israel. He faeed strong opposition from the councils of elders, as they felt more and more marginalized. The councils of elders were an institution that was deeply rooted in the traditions of the tribes. David had to realize that he could not bypass the councils in the process of political decision-making. He was faced with a revolt led by his own son Absalom and was forced to revise his authoritarian approach in governance by involving the councils of elders in his political decision-making and legislation.
King Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon, also ran into problems with the councils of elders when he ignored the advice of the elders to reduce taxation at the beginning of his reign. This move cost him more than half of his kingdom since the northern tribes decided not to confirm him as their king. The rise of a monarchy in Israel constantly threatened the ideals of the egalitarian tribal society. We should keep in mind that the peasants in Israel were free peasants. Their freedom and independence were however constantly at stake. The kings set up a royal court and created a class of officials and professional soldiers. The city elite proved to be a potential threat for the needy peasant. Although there were no city-states in Israel according to the model of a peasant society as described above, the city of Jerusalem became a royal city with its own interests and political power.
Israel’s prophets reminded the people of Israel time and again about the ideals of the egalitarian society. They often warned the rich against the dangers of greed and corruption. When reading the book of Amos, one is left with the idea that the city of Samaria at its height became a city-state according to the model of a peasant society. The rich elite from the city were able to buy up most of the land around the city. The rich, who used false measurements and other dishonest means to enrich themselves at the cost of the poor, robbed the impoverished farmers of their income and crops.
After 700 B.C. the kingdoms of Israel and Judah became increasingly dependent on the world powers of the day. By 722 B.C. the Assyrians put a definite end to the existence of the Northern Kingdom. The kingdom of Judah continued to exist as a vassal state of Assyria and later of the New Babylonian Empire. In 539 B.C. Israel became a province of the Persian Empire and was governed by a Persian appointed governor.
Politics and religion were closely interrelated in the Ancient Near East. When the kingdom of Judah became a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, it automatically implied that the king of Judah had to submit himself to the divine powers that protected the Assyrian Empire. Submission to a foreign ruler implied a change in religion. New altars were constructed in the main temple in Jerusalem, and statues of foreign gods had to be erected. A rebellion against the overlord, on the other hand, always went together with a kind of cleaning-up operation in the main temple: images and statues of gods then were destroyed and altars torn down. We find many allusions to this type of operation in the books of 1-2 Kings (see 2 Kgs 16, 17, 20).
Religion and Society in Israel
Yahwism gradually became the central religion of the tribes of Israel. It is not easy to describe the historical process behind the adoption of Yahweh as the unique God of Israel. Was the cult of Yahweh primarily part of the religious system of the monarchy, or did it stem from the traditional tribal backgrounds? Was Yahwism originally a tribal religion of nomadic tribes outside Canaan? Should we interpret Yahwism as the religious system of nomads and peasants and assume that it had its roots in the expression of Communitas, to use Turner’s term, or should we regard it as a tool for reinforcing Social Structure?
The experience of the people who were part of the Exodus profoundly influenced the religious thought of Israel. We do not have enough data to describe in detail how this Exodus group influenced all the tribes of Israel. First of all, we are in the dark about the sociological composition of the Exodus group. Was the group a detribalized group of slaves, called Hebrews, who had fled from Egypt and mixed with other groups from Egypt in the Sinai desert? Was Yahweh originally a mountain God from the desert?
The Biblical sources suggest that groups from the Exodus group settled in the Transjordan area and in the central hill country of Canaan. The Levites, who were stern promoters of Yahwism, lived among several groups and may have acted as soldiers of Yahweh. It may be that the groups that originated from the Exodus group influenced other ethnic groups from Israelite descent living in Canaan, and promoted the cult of Yahweh in the midst of local cults. Most questions cannot be answered because we lack the hard data.
Norman Gottwald (1979) interprets Yahwism as a new religious system that acted as a uniting force, unifying several loose marginal groups in the land of Canaan around 1250 B.C., the time of the settlement. He views Yahwism as the ideology of the oppressed and downtrodden. Gottwald describes the formation of Israel as a state in terms of a revolutionary movement of peasant groups. They were originally shepherds and nomads, and were able to liberate themselves from the lords living in the cities in Canaan, around 1200 B.C. At that time the power of the Canaanite citystates declined, creating a vacuum. Thus the rise of Israel as a distinct political and cultural entity was the result of a revolt against the established powers. Yahwism was, in this respect, the common ideology that united the different groups. Gottwald speaks of a retribalization process; he assumes that the peasant societies disintegrated before 1200 B.C. and that a number of tribal groups regained their freedom from the city lords and reorganized their communities according the rules of tribal societies.
Van der Toorn (1996) views the matter differently. He regards Yahwism as the original family religion of the clan of Saul, the first king of Israel. The latter promoted Yahwism as a state religion among the other tribes of the tribal federation. Yahwism was used as a tool that reinforced unity among the tribes. It also served as an instrument to legitimize Saul’s supremacy as leader of all Israel.
The pictures Gottwald and van der Toorn present appear contradictory at first glance. However, they can be complementary and equally applicable in different contexts and periods of time. Yahwism as the state religion of Israel was instrumental as a tool to reinforce Social Structure. Yahweh was also the personal God of individuals and groups; he was the one who was concerned with the oppressed and afflicted, thus voicing Communitas. Role and Function of Yahwism in the Hebrew Bible
When reading the books of the Hebrew Bible, one becomes aware that the Biblical authors often express a tension between the features of Social Structure and Communitas. We are able to detect the voice of Communitas most clearly in prophets such as Amos and Isaiah in their criticisms of the elite in Samaria and Jerusalem.
In the Deuteronomistic works, we find a great deal of reservation with regard to the institutions of the monarchy and the temple cult. There is a strong emphasis on justice and equity, but not on sacrifice and ritual. The ideals of the egalitarian tribal society are constantly upheld. In the books of 1-2 Samuel on the other hand, we find a certain idealization of the royal house of David. There seems to be a contrast between the restrictions the Deuteronomist imposes on the king and what happened in reality. According to Deuteronomy, the king was not allowed to have many horses and wives, but David and Solomon did not follow this part of Deuteronomy. They built armies and organized harems as all Ancient Near Eastern monarchs did, yet the author of the David narrative in the books of 1-2 Samuel almost sanctifies the royal house of David. The Deuteronomistic work on history expresses a certain amount of tension between the Deuteronomistic viewpoint, which is the voice of Communitas, and the forces of Social Structure, which were operative in actual life. The Deuteronomist presented an ideal situation, yet, in reality, things were quite different.
In the Priestly work we encounter a strong promotion of the priestly ideals of purity and exclusivity. This can be seen as reinforcing Social Structure. So there are different voices in the Biblical account, and the different positions that were taken are all connected with Yahwism. It is difficult to claim that Yahwism is the religion of the peasants, as it is also doubtful to state that it was exclusively a state religion. Yahwism was instrumental in giving voice to Communitas; it also served as a tool for reinforcing Social Structure.
The New Testament
In the New Testament, the most powerful protest against the established forces came from Jesus himself. In his time the peasants living on the land were forced to give half of their crops to the landowners. Peasants were poor and often in need of basic commodities while the landowners, mostly Herodians and Sadducees, lived in excessive luxury. Jesus preached the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God to the poor people of his time. By doing so, he followed ancient traditions of Yahwistic beliefs.
The early Christian communities practiced a form of communal life. The rich sold their belongings and distributed their wealth among the poor people. In this manner the ideal of Communitas was close to realization. The inspiration for this type of life came from the ancient traditions of Israel and from the words and attitude of Jesus. It is safe to say that early Christian religion functioned as a symbolic system affirming the status quo. At the same time, it was also an instrumental force in liberating people living under oppressive regimes or powers. This means that the same symbolic system was used to express different representations of reality.
From Joshua to Hezekiah
Session One: Geography of Canaan, city layout and defense
Readings: Script up to page 3, Topography and geography.
K. van der Jagt: Anthropological Approaches to the Interpretation of the Bible, Chapter 7, pages 63-71.
Do the following:
- Define the following concepts: Peasant society, City-state
- Describe the political situation of the land of Canaan during the time of the settlement (around 1200 BC).
- How do you characterize the political structure of Israel during that time?
- Translate Joshua 11:10.
Session Two: Topography and geography, Philistines
Read the script from page 3, Topography and geography, up to page 5, Work tools.
Do the following:
- Briefly describe the topography of the land of Canaan.
- Read 1 Samuel 26 carefully. Identify the places mentioned in the narrative on a map. Answer the following question: How can the video images of the wilderness of Judah help to understand the description of the events of the narrative?
- What is the difference between the Hebrew words nahar and nachal?
Session Three: Work tools, pottery, Philistines, David and Solomon
Read the script from page 5, Work tools,up to page 8, Phoenicia.
Do the following:
- Translate Isaiah 2:4.
- In the book of Isaiah clay is often used in a metaphoric sense. Analyze the meaning of this word in the following contexts: Isaiah 10:6; 29:16; 41:25; 45:9; 64:7.
3. Give a brief history of the Philistines (1 page).
Session Four: Phoenicia, Assyria, Hezekiah
Read the script from page 8, Phoenicia,to the end.
Do the following:
- Summarize the history of the Northern Kingdom (1 page).
- Read 2 Kings 18-21. How do you interpret the events mentioned in 2 Kgs 18:1-8?
- Read the book of Nahum. Relate the events described in chapter 2 to the history of the Assyrian empire.
10 Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and struck its king down with the sword. Before that time Hazor was the head of all those kingdoms.
10 וַיָּשָׁב יְהֹושֻׁעַ בָּעֵת הַהִיא וַיִּלְכֹּד אֶת־חָצֹור וְאֶת־מַלְכָּהּ הִכָּה בֶחָרֶב כִּֽי־חָצֹור לְפָנִים הִיא רֹאשׁ כָּל־הַמַּמְלָכֹות הָאֵֽלֶּה׃
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
4 וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגֹּויִם וְהֹוכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבֹותָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתֹֽותֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרֹות לֹא־יִשָּׂא גֹוי אֶל־גֹּוי חֶרֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְדוּ עֹוד מִלְחָמָֽה׃