The Nonbiblical History of Ancient Israel

ancient-isrealThe Oxford Research Encyclopedia’s article History of Ancient Israel offers a good survey of what we know about Israel from sources other than the bible. Here’s my summary:

The Origins of Israel

The name Israel first appears on a stone slab (stela) of the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (1208 BC) where he boasts of his victories in the middle east:

Canaan is plundered, Ashkelon is carried off, and Gezer is captured. Yenoam is made non-existent; Israel is wasted, its seed is not; and Hurru has become a widow because of Egypt.

On it, the name Israel carries a written sign which indicates that it refers to an ethnic group rather than a geographical location, and therefore refers to Israel before it became a state, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges.

Some historians believe that a single monarchy emerged in the 10th century BC, to which they date the city gates and casemate wall structures at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. They claim this is evidence of the planning of a single Solomonic state in the 10th century (see 1st Kings 9:15). Other scholars believe that these buildings should be dated to the 9th century and attributed to the Omride dynasty, that this period marks the effective start of Israel as a nation, and that Jerusalem could not possibly have been large or strong enough to support the kind of empire that the Torah ascribes to David and Solomon.

By the time Israel appears again in non-biblical sources in Aramaic, Moabite, and Akkadian, it refers to the northern kingdom of Israel, which later became Samaria. According to the Torah, this kingdom was established after the death of Solomon and lasted for about two hundred years until it was conquered and completely eliminated by the Assyrians in 720 BC.

Evaluating the Evidence

The God of Israel, Yahweh, is definitely not an indigenous Canaanite deity. We now know a lot about the religion of Bronze Age Canaan from the Ugaritic texts of ancient Syria. Deities known from the Torah like El and Baal are prominent the Canaanite pantheon, but Yahweh or any deity like him is absent. A number of early Israelite texts indicate that Yahweh came from well south of Judea (see Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4–5; Psalm 68:8; and Hebrews 3:3, 7). These claims are supported in one of the 9th or early 8th century BC inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud, in the Sinai Peninsula, that refers to “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah.” If Yahweh came from outside Judea, some of his devotees must have done so too, and it was their religion, adapted to accommodate the Canaanite religion of the region, which eventually prevailed.

During the first Iron Age (1300 – 1100 BC), Israelite society in the highlands became increasingly complex, interdependent, and more hierarchical. A specific catalyst probably occurred to make the change to a monarchy. This makes the account of Saul’s rise to prominence in response to a threat from Ammon (1st Samuel 11) plausible. The resulting unification of formerly disparate tribes in the highlands would have attracted the attention of the Philistines to the west. Previously, they had been untroubled by their neighbors to the east, but now inevitably they had to take steps to counter the rise of this new threat.

Recent archaeological finds in Jerusalem like the massive Middle Bronze Age (2100 BC – 1550 BC) towers defending the Gihon Spring, the stepped stone structure, and other public buildings nearby, all indicate that it was more than just a remote village at that time. The liturgical traditions of the Jerusalem temple, especially those known from the Psalms, show that many aspects of the religion were shared with the north, and use terminology that it is hard to believe was invented in the south alone. There are no known references to a God of Judah alongside the familiar God of Israel. These conservative religious traditions testify to a sense of profound cultural unity that transcended the political establishments.

Every king who is ever mentioned in a non-biblical source always has the correct name and period in the biblical lists. The lists are accurate at least from start of the divided monarchy, since the reference to an invasion by Pharaoh Shishak in the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign (1st Kings 14:25–28) is corroborated by Shishak’s own account in the temple at Karnak in ancient Thebes. It is certain that some form of written records were kept from earliest times, making it most unlikely that the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon just a few years before could have been wholly fictional.

Personal names and other details suggest that at least some of the stories in Joshua, Judges, and the first half of 1st Samuel may rest on historical memories.  The time of the early monarchy, when disparate groups of Israelites were first given a sense of strong political and religious unity, would likely be when these sacred memories were collected.

As mentioned, some archaeologists ascribe a number of fortifications that were traditionally ascribed to Solomon to the Omrides. If correct, this raises the possibility that there never was a unified monarchy under David and Solomon. The main second Iron Age (1000 – 600 BC) fort at Jezreel was certainly built in the time of the Omrides (and incidentally, confirms the details of the narrative of Jehu’s coup in 2nd Kings 9–10). A distinctive form of pottery found there is very close to what was found in Megiddo Stratum VA/IVB, which was previously attributed to the time of Solomon. If they are contemporary, then the Megiddo material, and similar material at Hazor and Gezer, is contemporary with the Jezreel finds. On the other hand, some archaeologists claim that this type of pot was in use for many centuries, so that not every layer that contains it need be dated to the same decade or two. That is, the pottery may be early at Megiddo and simply still in use centuries later Jezreel.

The Period of the Dual Monarchies

The period sometimes called the dual monarchies lasted for about two hundred years. Judah survived for about another 150 years on its own after the demise of Israel, until its end came at the hand of the Babylonians in 587 BC. This is known primarily from the biblical books of Kings. The final form of these books cannot be older than the middle of the 6th century, the date of the last recorded event (2nd Kings 25:27–30). The author had his own reasons for the composition that do not coincide with those of modern historians.  Non biblical sources are no better for historical purposes. The authors of written materials, whether Moabite, Aramean, Assyrian, or Babylonian, have religious and propagandist motivations, just as the author of Kings did. Material evidence, on the other hand, requires careful dating.

Judah’s greater isolation from the major powers of the ancient Near East meant that it was less troubled by external pressures than Israel, at least to start with. Initially, Egypt to the south remembered something of its now lost status as the hegemonic power throughout the middle east in the late Bronze Age (1650 – 1200 BC), and the Philistines to the west were still influential.

With the rise of the Omrides in Israel in the 9th century, the Arameans became the dominant power in the region and exerted considerable pressure, sometimes conquering parts of the north. This gave way to closer relations between the Arameans and the Israelites when they were both threatened by the far mightier Assyrians, whose need to control the major trade routes to the Mediterranean coast and to Egypt brought them into direct conflict with Israel, through whose territory parts of those routes lay.

Cooperation with the Arameans initially allowed Israel to successfully resist Shalmaneser III (858–824 BC), including the victory of Ahab of Israel at the battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. Aram became the dominant regional power. It is likely that the Aramaens were behind Jehu’s overthrow. The discovery of an Aramaic inscription recounts the Aramean king’s defeat of the kings of the Omride dynasty of Israel, mirroring the events described in 2nd Kings 10:21–28, though in the Torah, it is the Israelite Jehu who is responsible for the deaths, not the king of Aram. In time, Tiglath-Pileser III (744–727 BC) succeeded where Shalmaneser had failed. Israel was reduced in size and became a tributary state of Assyria, until further rebellion led to its end as an independent state and its incorporation into greater Assyria.

Judah’s situation, in contrast, was initially more favorable, though economically less advanced. When the Assyrians threatened Israel, Judah became a vassal state, while retaining its independence. Twenty years after the final fall of Samaria, Hezekiah, the Judean king, led a major rebellion of small western states against Sennacherib (705–681 BC), leading to reprisals in 701 BC. Hezekiah was humiliated and forced to pay much greater tribute and much of his country was decimated, but Jerusalem was not destroyed and Hezekiah and his successors were permitted to remain on the throne.Why Hezekiah was allowed to remain on the throne remains a mystery. 2nd Kings 18–19 attributing it to a miracle. During the following century, Judah was able to recover by remaining loyal to the Assyrians.

When the Babylonians finally defeated the already weakened Assyrians in 612 BC, they inherited their empire. Judah’s position remained more or less unchanged even though under a new imperial power. However, as documented in both the Babylonian Chronicle and 2nd Kings, Judah rebelled once more and was further reduced in 597 BC and, ten years later, annihilated, with the temple and palace in Jerusalem destroyed, the Davidic king exiled, and the country becoming a mere province of the Babylonian Empire.

The Babylonian Exile

The period known as the Babylonian exile only lasted about fifty years, but its impact on the history of ancient Israel was immeasurable. After the Babylonian conquest, there was no longer any independent Israelite or Judean state. Israel had disappeared 150 years earlier, after which the name was in some circumstances adopted by Judah. With the fall of Judah, the territory became a province of the Babylonian empire, which lasted until 520 BC. The territory of Judah was greatly reduced, the southern part becoming part of Idumaea.

The descendants of the Judaean people (who became the Jews) were no longer confined to Judah. Before the exile, some Judaeans had already moved elsewhere–for example the community in Upper Egypt at Elephantine–but they were no longer recognized as Judeans. During the exile, a diaspora with strong links back to Judah developed, initially in Babylon and later in Egypt and other parts of the middle east such as Galilee. Most of the leaders of the Judean community came from Babylon, but over the centuries, major cultural developments, such as the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, occurred elsewhere. Pilgrim festivals like Passover gave a sense of unity in which shared religion transcended geographic boundaries.

Under pressure to maintain cultural identity, the Judeans developed strong social markers to replace the solidarity that had preciously been based on shared law, religious institutions like the temple, and loyalty to the king and his court. These factors became far more prominent; circumcision, observance of the sabbath, and concern for purity, especially by observing food laws, are the most obvious examples. The role of sacred writings and later scripture also became more important during this period.

The Babylonians policy that allowed exiled communities to be settled together rather than dispersed among the host population allowed the Judean identity to survive, in contrast the practices of Assyria, which had led to total assimilation over time of the “ten lost tribes”. This is known from the book of Ezekiel and confirmed by Akkadian tablets from al-Yahudu (meaning “the city of Judah”) and Nashar. They include many personal names, about eighty of which are Yahwistic (about 15 percent of the total). This helps explain how the Judeans maintained social cohesion and developed new forms of leadership. Without a king, and with sovereignty in the hands of foreigners, priestly authority grew, and lay authority reverted to extended family leaders (i.e. “elders”).

In Judah itself, the center of gravity moved north from Jerusalem to the old tribal territory of Benjamin, centered on Mizpah, where the destruction was less severe there than in the rest of Judah. Centers like Jerusalem were destroyed, and no more than a handful continued to live there. Over time this had an inevitable effect on the demographic spread in Benjamin itself, but life certainly continued, and there is evidence, such as the book of Lamentations, to indicate that this did not necessarily exclude all cultural activity.

Scholars who think that the name “Israel” was first used for the northern kingdom believe that this is the period when the name, with it all the religious and social baggage, was adopted by the people of Judah, who had never previously considered themselves part of Israel. The intermediary role of Benjamin features prominently in this story. The direct evidence for this theory is thin, and it is not believed by those who favour the existence of an earlier unified Israel that split after the death of Solomon.

The Persian Period

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Persian was welcomed into Babylon by the elite who were disaffected with the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus inherited the Babylonian Empire, and he and some of his Achaemenid successors added to it, so that at one point the empire stretched from India to Egypt. Despite revolts at the start of the reign of Darius I (522 – 520 BC), the disastrous attempt to take Greece, revolts in the middle east in the 5th century BC, and the in-and-out status of Egypt, the empire was relatively stable until its sudden collapse in face of Alexander the Great’s invasion in 334–331 BC. Whether in Judah or elsewhere, the large majority of Judeans/Jews lived within the same empire.

There is no consecutive account of this period; nothing like the books of Kings. Much of the Hebrew Bible came to its final form during these centuries. The books that relate directly to the period (Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah 56–66, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) record some individual events like the building of the temple and the first year of Nehemiah’s governorship. Following Nehemiah’s work, the sources dry up completely. Josephus provides information about one or two incidents, but their dates are controversial.

The archaeology of Judah during this period was heavily damaged by later Hellenistic and Roman building. Very few written sources relate to Judah in this period—mainly a few seals and coins. In neighboring regions, such as Idumaea to the south, there are more, though there are no historical narrative texts, and there are few even for the heart of the old Babylonian empire itself. Old Persian occurs in only a few monumental inscriptions, and the bureaucracy was administered from Elam (in what is now south western Iran).

Judah was a very minor province within the Satrapy Beyond the River, and had its own governors from the start of the Achaemenid period. In every case for which there is evidence, they were Jewish. Judah was therefore able to administer its internal affairs as it preferred, though the satrap could intervene if wider imperial concerns were threatened. By the time the province of Judah emerged from the dark 4th century, its inhabitants could legitimately be called  Jews.

Key milestones of the period include the several returns of exiles from Babylon, who welcomed at first, but caused severe tensions later on because the understanding of the fundamentals of the Judean religion differed between the two groups. The rebuilding of the temple, the restoration of Judean self confidence under Nehemiah, and the increasing importance of biblical law as the basis for ordering society, are described in the book of Ezra. All the major leaders of reform and restoration are said to have come from Babylon, depicting the development of Judaism as being one of exile-and-restoration or death-and-resurrection. Social identity was no longer based on narrowly political considerations but on a religion that had begun to transcend geographical (though not ethnic) boundaries.


About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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