Ancient Israel (the United and Divided Kingdom)


Our knowledge of the ancient history of Israel is largely based on one source, the Old Testament. Set to written text during the reign of King Solomon (961-922 BC), this massive work contains large clusters of historical data, a body of law received by Hebrew prophets from their god Yahweh, as well as poetry and prayers of various Hebrew Prophets. The challenge arises from the need to distinguish genuine historical information from matters of faith, particularly when there is very little available external information to corroborate details preserved in the Old Testament. As we have already seen with respect to the Stele of Merneptah, when external source material does survive it tends to confirm the general historical outline of the Old Testament; it certainly offers nothing to contradict it. For our purposes it is necessary to “parse” this record effectively to illuminate the history of the ancient Israelites in economic and socio-political terms. Over all, their history reflects the challenges posed to many cultures in this region that transited from pastoral origins to settled urban existence. Unlike previous cultures, however, the Israelites reflected greatly on this transition as it occurred and questioned both its benefits and its disadvantages. By recording the trajectory of their experience and by subjecting it to the scrutiny of recalled tradition, they were able to articulate their historical experience as a process of gradual enlightenment on several levels. Apart from matters of faith, these points may be  successfully taken away from their experience.



Era of the Patriarchs, c. 1850-1000 BC

Our record of the era of the Patriarchs is legendary but it presents the plausible scenario that the Hebrews began as pastoral tribes migrating through Mesopotamia and existing along the margins of the emerging urban societies of Sumeria, Akkadia, and Babylonia. Around 1850 BC, Abraham migrated from Ur in southern Mesopotamia to Haran in northern Euphrates valley, and then to Hebron in Canaan. Sometime between 1700 and 1580 BC, Joseph led a migration into Egypt. According to the Hebrew tradition not all the related tribal elements relocated to Egypt, the Benjaminites, for example, claimed to have remained in Canaan throughout the Egyptian experience and were viewed throughout the historical era as the keepers of ancestral law. In the period 1290-1224 BC, Moses led the Exodus from Egypt. Based on the testimony furnished by the Stele of Merneptah in 1220 BC, and allowing forty years for “wandering” in the Wilderness, this can be dated to the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II and would seem to coincide with the Treaty of Kadesh, mentioned above (1258 BC). The Stele of Merneptah confirms the Old Testament tradition that the Hebrews invaded Canaan. During the next two centuries their twelve tribal elements gradually adapted to settled agricultural existence. They lived side by side with surviving elements of native Canaanite population and in close proximity to competing militaristic peoples, such as the Philistines, the Aramaeans, and the Phoenicians.


1200-1000 BC, Period of Judges; Settlement in Canaan


According to tradition Hebrew society at this point was organized according to twelve Tribes, 10 in the north, 2 (Judah, Benjamin) in south. Each tribe was ruled by councils of judges or Suffetes. Their population remained highly segmentary and their “judges” emerged among clan-based warlords. The Hebrew tribes were weakened by internal strife as well as by the military threat posed by their neighbors. Repeated losses to Philistines reluctantly forced Hebrew tribal leaders reluctantly to appoint a king named Saul (1020-1000 BC). According to the Old Testament, there was no precedent for kingship among the Hebrews, thus, the organization of a “central hierarchy” was viewed as the option of last resort. Saul ultimately made himself unpopular by turning against the hierarchy, purging the standing priesthood (the one unifying institution prior to the creation of the monarchy), and thus provoking internal dissension and rebellion. Eventually the Israelites turned to a young charismatic renegade, who assumed the throne as King David (1000-960 BC).


United Kingdom (1000-922 BC)


David defeated the Philistines and established the United Kingdom (1000-922 BC). He conquered the entire coastal region from Gaza to Phoenicia. He extended his authority to the Euphrates River in the north and perhaps as far as the Red Sea to the south. His reign represented the greatest extent of the Israelite Empire and was recalled as a  "golden age." David established his capital at the former Canaanite citadel of Jerusalem.

David was succeeded by King Solomon (961-922). Solomon was not as active militarily as David had been, but he was gifted in trade and diplomacy. He forged alliances with Phoenician kings, Egyptian Pharaohs, and the Queen of Sheba (located possibly in Yemen or Somalia). He constructed the palace and the temple on the rock butte platform of Jerusalem. He used conscript labor, the prytany system (a monthly rotation scheme), to construct these edifices. Each tribe had to send drafted free laborers one month per year to work for the king (David's tribe of Judah was alone exempt from this). Solomon enjoyed a large Harem aristocracy (reportedly, 700 wives and 200 concubines), including numerous foreign princesses who settled in the palace with entourages of foreign priests, attendants, and traders. These brought their native cults, particularly the Phoenician Baal cult, to the emerging palace/temple complex at Jerusalem. The forced labor and cosmopolitan character of Jerusalem caused dissension among Israelite citizens. At the demise of Solomon, civil wars erupted and ultimately Israel fell apart.


Divided Kingdom 922-721 BC


The Divided Kingdom was represented by Israel in the north, with a new capital at Samaria, and Judah (with its capital remaining at Jerusalem) in the south. Israel remained the more populous, more urban of the two kingdoms and was more closely connected to the ruling houses of Phoenicia. Judah/Jerusalem was more rural and isolated. Both kingdoms became subject to Assyrian domination by 850 BC, and forced to pay tribute. The kingdom of Israel joined in the repeated rebellions of the Phoenicians, and was punished with increasing harshness. In 721 BC, the  Assyrian Kings Sargon II and Esarhaddon conquered Israel and conducted a mass deportation of the ruling aristocracy to Urartu (ancient Armenia). There the ruling elite of Israel became submerged beneath the native population (the "lost tribes"). This also marked the Era of the Reforming Prophets. In 586 BC King Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and enslaved its aristocracy. Their deportation to Babylon marked the Babylonian Captivity, 586-539 BC, the period when the canonical Hebrew literature was presumably completed. Cyrus of Persia ultimately released these captives and allowed them to return to Jerusalem to organize a religious society as a client state. Along with Palestine Israel remained subjected to regional powers in the Hellenistic Era (particularly the Seleucids of Syria). The revolt of the Maccabees c. 120 BC, brought them some measure of autonomy; however, Israel was ultimately suppressed by Pompey the Great of Rome in 62 BC. From then on the history of Israel's dealings with the Romans proved decidedly uneven (friendly relations with Julius Caesar; yet they were despised and terrorized by the Emperor Caligula). Ultimately the Jewish population in Palestine rebelled against Roman authority and was crushed violently by the Roman Emperors Vespasian (69-70 AD), and Hadrian (120s AD). Their experience with Roman imperium proved disastrous and highly unfortunate.




Until this point discussion has focused entirely on urban civilizations and ancient state formation. However, this was one of several competing strategies for survival in the Ancient Near East. The experience of the Hebrews reflects the settlement pattern of numerous non-urban agro-pastoral societies dwelling within the horizon of urban states. The Old Testament makes clear that the Hebrews were a nomadic, pastoral people probably until the period in which they conquered and settled in Canaan after 1200 BC.

Segmentary or pastoral societies in the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean coastal regions exhibited certain recognizable traits. Most pastoralists did not wander long distances, but rather engaged in transhumance. Generally they rotated between 2-3 points in a narrowly conscribed landscape (perhaps 100 miles apart), combining highland summer pastures, lowland winter pastures, and watering holes or oases along the route. Lowland pasturing was frequently furnished by field stubble outside the walls of cities. Seasonal proximity to cities enabled nomads to make exchanges for tools and equipment that they could not produce themselves. Abraham, for example, began his experience outside the city of Ur. Pastoralism represented an alternative, therefore, to settled agricultural existence, and those who pursued this strategy took advantage of under-utilized highland wastelands.


Living predominantly out of doors pastoralists were and are more commonly exposed to the elements. In the Near East this meant exposure to harsh desert conditions where miscalculations could quickly result in death. The minimal nature of existence and exposure to the elements profoundly influenced the trajectory of pastoral society. In contrast with urban lifestyles, nomad existence was more austere. Constant movement limited the quantity of material possessions that could be transported. Many possessions were shared in common, including wives, as the Old Testament repeatedly demonstrates. From the perspective of religious observances, nomads lacked the material wealth necessary to conduct large sacrifices to the gods like urban peoples.


Pastoralists were also highly autonomous. The fact that nomads had to survive on their own reduced the need for hierarchy. Shepherds were frequently required to drive the herds in small bands, separating themselves for days from the main camps. From the perspective of religious observances these individuals needed the means to pray to their gods on their own. Pastoral cultures tended not to have priestly hierarchies, therefore; each person communicated with divine entities on his or her own. They exhibited an innate tendency toward individualism. Pastoral societies tended to construct an assemblage of rituals, rules, and laws, common to the entire community so that the devout could worship as individuals without the need for religious hierarchy. Priestly colleges were not required by this culture. Religious practices needed to be accessible to all worshipers from one generation to the next. Accordingly, the ancient Hebrews owned few material possessions, made minimal sacrifices, had no priestly hierarchy, and worshipped their tribal god, Yahweh, as individuals, families, or clans rather than as complex societies. The tendency of their culture to emphasize individual communication with their deity resulted in more immediate religious experiences for some, namely, the prophets, those perceived (and perceiving themselves) as divinely inspired by the deity. Something charismatic about prophets, ability to speaking in tongues, or epileptic seizures, for example, convinced their contemporaries that they had been touched or "blessed" by the deity. Prophets could not be trained or appointed; they were divinely inspired (revelational) and, therefore, represented the ascendancy of the individual in pastoral society.


If one can accepts these basic tenets, then certain fundamental features become evident for the Hebrews at the time of the Exodus and the migration into Canaan. Their society had no tradition for kingship, colleges of priests, or other urban forms of social hierarchy beyond clan or tribal leaders who were frequently recognized as prophets. During the Period of Judges Israel existed as a loosely composed federation of tribal elements dominated by patriarchal tribal councils of elders (suffetes) and little more. The existence of a college of priests purged by King Saul indicates, therefore, that hierarchies with authority over the collective tribes were emerging in Hebrew society as it adapted to settled existence. The opposition to kingship likewise demonstrates that the evolving history of the ancient Hebrews was characterized by an inherent conflict between those persisting in nomad austerity and those wishing to engage in the emerging materialism and social hierarchy of the new order, particularly after the Hebrews settled as agriculturalists in Canaan.


Ancient Near Eastern pastoral societies tended to focus worship on a particular warrior deity that warded over their tribal elements at the expense of all others. In this instance the Hebrews worshiped Yahweh. This does not mean that they denied the existence of other gods but rather that they saw their particular deity as a savior god who protected them against all opponents, human and divine. As a world view the tendency to focus on one god at the expense of all others is called henotheism. Parallels can be drawn with the Babylonian emphasis on Marduk and Assyrian one on Assur. Nevertheless, the Hebrews were able to sustain and to preserve a tradition, ultimately written, of a renewing covenant with their patron deity, Yahweh. There was the covenant of Abraham, that of Isaac, that of Joseph, and that again of Moses. This tradition enabled them to perceive their experience with Yahweh in explicitly historical terms. As they articulated it, Yahweh had a reason for leading them, for protecting them, and for using them to fulfill some larger purpose from which all humans would ultimately benefit.


Biblical scholars presume that the oral traditions of the Hebrews were first compiled and codified during the reign of King Solomon (961-922). As such the Old Testament contains numerous disparate particles of previous oral communication concerning Yahweh. Numerous "voices" are present in the Old Testament. One such example, the "Decalogue of J" (Exod. 34-14-28) appears to reflect a list of Ten Commandments consistent with the requirements of a pastoral people. Conceivably, this was the one obtained by Moses on Mount Sinai prior to the Hebrews’ adaptation to settled agricultural existence.


{foot note From George A. Barton, The Religion of Ancient Israel, pp. 66, 90)

EXODUS 34.14-28: SUMMARY OF THE DECALOGUE OF 'J' (10th Cent. B.C.)

1. Thou shall worship no other god.

2. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.

3. The feast of the Passover thou shall keep.

4. The firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; all the first born of thy sons thou shalt redeem.

5. None shall appear before me empty.

6. Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh thou shalt rest.

7. Thou shalt observe the feast of in-gathering.

8. Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the sacrifice of the Passover remain until morning.

9. The firstlings of thy flocks thou shalt bring unto Yahweh, thy God.

10. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.

The language of this code would appear to reflect the moral requirements conceived for a pastoral people that had migrated in the "Wilderness," and was about to invade settled agricultural communities in Canaan. It exhibits henotheistic tendencies (Thou shall worship no other god) and the profound importance of livestock in pastoral society.

With the conquest of Canaan, the Hebrews, now referred to as the Israelites, quickly adapted to settled agricultural existence. A "yeoman" stock of citizen-soldier-farmers came to furnish the backbone of King David's army as well as the conscript labor force used by the king to construct the monumental complex at Jerusalem, the palace and the temple. To assume its place as an emerging Near Eastern polity, Kings David and Solomon recruited talented outsiders, such as skilled artisans, diplomats, courtiers, merchants, and financiers, to build the kingdom. King Solomon for example, possessed 700 wives and 200 concubines, hundreds of these being princesses of foreign kings who relocated to Jerusalem. Naturally these women were accompanied by personal entourages of priests bearing their native cults (the Phoenician Baal cult in particular), attendants, servants, business agents, and court advisers. At the head of David's army stood mercenary generals such as his good friend Uriah the Hittite, presumably an émigré from the Neo-Hittite Empire in Cilicia. Numerous Phoenician artisans, merchants, and traders migrated to Jerusalem to fill voids in the emerging economy, with the inevitable result that they attained greater affluence and higher social status than Hebrew inhabitants themselves. In short, the attempts of the kings of the United Kingdom to construct a ruling hierarchy and to elevate the newly founded kingdom of Israel to the level of neighboring world powers inevitably created social and economic dislocations that left ordinary Israelite citizens disadvantaged.



















The works of the reforming prophets refer repeatedly to the economic difficulties characteristic of subsistence farmers trapped at the bottom of a transforming economy -- land shortages, indebtedness (including debt bondage), and the failure of urban society to safeguard the needs of widows and orphans. Indebtedness and heavy mortgages on land resulted in insolvency and legal proceedings by wealthy creditors (particularly foreign moneylenders) seeking to foreclose on indebted farmers. The resentment felt by Israelite citizens against these proceedings is demonstrated by the accusations preserved in Isaiah and elsewhere of "corrupt judgments" rendered by judges acting in the interest of the hierarchy. In the period of the United Kingdom, a formerly pastoral society that saw its destiny inextricably linked to the implementation of the will of its god, Yahweh, was confronted head on by the inevitable process of adaptation to the social structure, moral constructs, and economic behavior of complex urban societies.


To make matters worse, the fact that the kings themselves were responsible for recruiting so many foreigners and for promoting them to levels of importance eliminated them as the arbiters of disputes concerned with social and judicial redress. The pressures of so many converging forces culminated in a civil war at the end of Solomon's reign and in the dissolution of the United Kingdom into Israel to the North and Judah to the South. However, the process did not end there because the ruling dynasties of both realms continued to maintain and to enhance the Near Eastern model of kingship within their kingdoms. Instead, redress by Israelite citizens was obtained by turning to the leadership of the reforming prophets. Since the moral inspiration of the prophets was unquestionable and their role in Hebrew society dated back to its beginnings, their legitimacy was unassailable even before the kings. Revelationally inspired reforming prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha (c. 860), Amos and Hosea (c. 760 BC), and Isaiah, elevated the complaints of Hebrew citizens to the level of a religious crisis. They pointed to the introduction of a monetary economy and to the recruitment of a foreign hierarchy as proof that the kings had deviated from the ancestral religion and the moral code of Yahweh. While this was certainly true, one could legitimately question the relevancy of the code mentioned above to contemporary needs of settled agricultural society in Israel. By focusing rather on the moral implications of the Hebrew covenant, the reforming prophets were able to adapt its expression to meet contemporary needs. This is indicated by the Ten Commandments recorded in their more familiar form in Exod. 20.1-17 and Deut. 5.6-21 (presumably from the 8th to 6th centuries BC):


1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image

3. Thou shalt not lift up the name of Yahweh in vain (i.e., thou shalt not swear to a lie).

4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

5. Honor thy father and thy mother

6. Thou shalt do no murder.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

8. Thou shalt not steal.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house.

Certain features to this code, such as property holding (houses), bearing false witness (as in testimony in lawsuits), and swearing oaths in vain (again as in testimony in legal proceedings) had little relevance to a pastoral society and appear to reflect the challenges confronting the Israelites at the time of the urban kingdom.


Three significant developments appear to have resulted from this experience. They are significant in part because the Hebrew experience represents the first time in recorded history where these were articulated. The first of these is Monotheism. As the reforming prophets railed against the kings and their foreign hierarchies, they increasingly exposed their concerns to their god Yahweh in exclusive terms. All entities including foreign gods and foreign threats such as the Assyrians became perceived as tools of Yahweh. In contrast to the polytheism prevalent throughout the Near East, monotheism implied the existence of logic and order in the universe. Where there is logic and order, there must also be purpose, and, hence, a right way and a wrong way in the conduct of life. That the Israelites were able to articulate this world view was partly the result of their need to resuscitate and to rejuvenate the moral code preserved from their pastoral existence. It found many of its roots in the Hebrew tradition of nomad austerity, of purity in religious observances, and hence of their indifference to and ultimately their rejection of polytheistic religious practices. More importantly, to preserve their culture in its new environment they recorded the tenets of their moral code as a set body of law made accessible to all worshipers. By doing so at the expense of royal hierarchy, they reasserted the primacy of the individual in the religious, moral, and social order.


Equally important, the expressions recorded in the works of the reforming prophets articulated for the first time a resounding denial of the divine right of kings. This is the first culture on record to articulate this principle. The repetitive character of Ancient Near Eastern empires discussed in the previous chapter demonstrates how unique a concept this was at this time. Again, it was easier for the Israelites to assume such an attitude because there was no basis for kingship in nomadic clan-based society. Since kingship was a relatively new development in Hebrew culture, it lacked the legitimacy of ancestral institutions such as prophecy. In addition, Israel was a relatively small polity that placed a higher premium on preserving the security of its property-holding citizens. Citizens of Israel were able to rebel against the practice of forced labor in ways not possible elsewhere. When the kings attempted to secure their place in wider Near Eastern society by establishing foreign hierarchies, they furnished the reforming prophets with a xenophobic basis to challenge the influence of the royal hierarchy in the interest of ordinary citizens. Accordingly, the ancient Hebrew experience articulated for the first time the principle of the dignity of humankind; put simply, that citizens of a given society have rights that are inalienable, even before the authority of a king. The problems incumbent to a subsistence agricultural society -- land and debts, corrupt judicial proceedings, forced labor, care for the less fortunate, all reflect a wider demand for social reform as articulated by the reforming prophets. By confronting these developments as religious matters, and more specifically as the betrayal of the ancestral covenant with Yahweh, the reforming prophets were able to reassert authority in Israel, not only with respect to these questions, but also with respect to religious reforms that rejected idolatry, sacrifice, and polytheism in favor of a monotheistic moral order based ultimately in the responsibility of the individual. This as well marks a departure from prevailing attitudes of Ancient Near Eastern social hierarchies.