Ancient Israel (the United and Divided Kingdom)


Along with the reemergence of Iron Age hierarchies and complex societies came the restoration of literacy and recursive institutions throughout the Near East. Written testimony about the social experiences and evolving world views of inhabitants survives for a number of societies. While many Ancient Near Eastern societies labored to reconstitute and to remodel themselves according to the values of the previous era, the written testimony of one society, ancient Israel, challenged traditional concepts of political legitimacy, human rights, and polytheism. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the history of ancient Israel is based largely on one source, the Old Testament. From a historical perspective this massive work contains strands of information set to writing as early as the reign of King Solomon (961-922 BC). Most of it was probably compiled, however, during the Babylonian Captivity (586-539 BC) or later. In its eventual form the Old Testament contained an historical account of the rise and fall of the United Kingdom of Israel, a body of law received by Hebrew prophets (material that was ultimately formulated into a broad based code of ethical requirements or laws known as the Pentateuch or the Torah), and the poetry and prayers of various Hebrew prophets. It is unnecessary to stress that the purpose of the Old Testament was religious. Its contents were assembled first and foremost to teach the Israelites about the covenant between the god Yahweh and themselves. According to the Old Testament, Yahweh chose the Israelites to serve as human agents to his plan of salvation. The Old Testament stresses that Yahweh was consistently faithful to his promises to the Israelites and that he expected them to remain faithful in their devotion to him in return. This much was believed and accepted as faith by the Israelites. Difficulties arise when we try to distinguish genuine historical information from matters of faith, particularly when there is little external information to corroborate the particulars of the Old Testament narrative. As we have already seen with respect to the Stele of Merneptah (1204 BC), when external source material does surface it tends to confirm the general historical outline, however minimally. Besides that document additional inscriptions, such as the Mesha and the Tel Dan Stelai, have surfaced in Dibon (Jordan) and Tel Dan. Each of these is contemporary with the Era of the Divided Kingdoms (9th century BC) and each refers to the polities of Judah and Israel as the House of David or the House of Omri, respectively. These demonstrate not only the names by which these polities were known to their neighbors, but also that the two kings, David and Omri, were historical. Both texts, in fact, recount plundering expeditions conducted by neighboring kings (Mesha the king of Moab and an unnamed king of Aram, possibly Hazael) in the territories of Israel and Judah, respectively. Apart from furnishing external corroboration for their existence, therefore, the texts provide a decidedly contrasting perspective to the narrative presented by the Old Testament.  In addition, Israel and Judah were both repeatedly mentioned as subjugated territories in the annals of the Assyrian Empire, including one inscribed relief that portrays King Jehu of Israel (c. 841-814 BC) bowing before the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III.


These points need emphasis because they help to place ancient Israel within the context of wider Iron Age Near Eastern developments. Insofar as specific details about the history of Israel and Judah are concerned, we must rely almost exclusively on the narrative of the Old Testament itself. As one scholar has observed, were it not for that document we would probably know far more about less celebrated polities such as the kingdom of Sam’al in eastern Cilicia (where several long royal inscriptions have survived) than we would about Israel or Judah. Without the benefit of the Old Testament, in other words, the place in history of Israel and Judah would be reduced to those of other tributary states that succumbed to the expansion of early Iron Age empires, alongside the Aramaeans, the Moabites, the Philistines, and the Edomites. We would know nothing, moreover, about earlier aspects of the Hebrew narrative, including the eras of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, or the Wanderings in the Wilderness.


In order to illuminate the historical path of the ancient Israelites we are compelled to parse the narrative of the Old Testament carefully.  To do this, biblical historians rely on three competing strategies. Some insist, for example, that archaeological research in Palestine and the Near East has revealed and will continue to reveal material and textual evidence to confirm the fundamental historicity of the Old Testament. Some of this evidence we have alluded to above. Opposing scholars are quick to observe that some of the emerging archaeological evidence actually contradicts the Old Testament narrative or is chronologically too imprecise to furnish suitable corroboration of recorded events. Some sites allegedly conquered by the Hebrews in Canaan, for example, appear to have been unoccupied at the presumed time of the invasion (ca. 1200-1100 BC). A second line of reasoning posits, therefore, that the Old Testament was crafted exclusively as a religious and literary document. It neither furnishes nor was it ever intended to furnish accurate historical data prior to the time of the monarchy, at which time its compilers were sufficiently familiar with events to describe their state as a historically definable entity.  According to this argument, the Old Testament tells us far more about the intellectual prism through which later Israelites viewed their origins and crafted their narrative than it does about history per se. A third perspective holds that some of the themes presented in the Pentateuch – the primeval history, the stories of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the revelation to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and the Wanderings in the Wilderness -- resemble short credo-like recitations of recollected experience. These were probably organized within the framework of cult practices perhaps as early as the time of the Judges (1200-1000 BC). Fundamental as they were to the recursive process of preserving cultural memory, these themes emphasized a reiterated belief that Yahweh had worked through history to save this people. From this perspective the purpose of the narrative was to reinforce belief in Yahweh’s efficacy by emphasizing the need for sustained devotion. Apart from certain themes that were expressed in broadest possible terms – for example, that the Israelites eventually settled in Palestine, that their tribes became located in particular areas, and that the nascent society underwent a process of state formation, the Old Testament narrative preserves little that is historically recoverable or definable. While each of these perspectives holds merit, the main issues remain confused. Scholarly debate about these matters has significantly diminished our ability to rely on the Old Testament as a basis for historical reconstruction. Matters long taken for granted, such as when and how the Hebrews arrived in Canaan and where they originated, remain open questions. The Stele of Merneptah and its associated relief at Karnak indicate, for example, that the Israelites were a people (not a place) inhabiting Canaan, dwelling in tents and fighting on camel back ca. 1204 BC. However, they do not confirm the narrative of a flight from Egypt, the Wanderings in the Wilderness, or even the tradition that the Israelites invaded Canaan at this time (as opposed to having resided there all along).


Rather than attempt to sift through the narrative of the Old Testament for random kernels of historical authenticity, it seems wiser to explore its value as a general interpretation of Iron Age social and cultural transition, not only in Israel but throughout the wider region.  In many ways the patterns discernible for the Israelites in the Old Testament narrative apply equally to neighboring societies such as the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites, the Philistines, and the Canaanites. Many of these peoples exhibited common attributes, including associated languages and social origins and similar experiences during the process of state formation. In fact, the emergence of these states was to some degree a product of their immediate proximity to one another and the inevitable consequence of encroaching territorial claims. Another factor to consider was their common emergence from the upheaval provoked during the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. If we recall that the wider region of Late Bronze Age Canaan was overrun by such diverse elements as the Sea Peoples, the Habiru, the Israelites, and the Aramaeans, we should expect to see common patterns of societal development occurring across the landscape. The archaeological evidence indicates, for example, that Late Bronze Age Canaanite urban communities such as Hazor, Lachish, Debir, Bethel, Gezer, and Beth Shean were destroyed and replaced by a pattern of dispersed rural settlements.  As urban societies reemerged, it is safe to assume that they did so with populations representing an amalgam of previously settled and newly arrived inhabitants, again, not merely in Israel but throughout the region. Given the lack of recursive institutions during the interim, attempts to explain the complexity of these settlement origins would have been challenging for any of the emerging hierarchies. The idealization of so variegated a past required a process of simplification. However, to hold validity with its intended audience, the Old Testament narrative also needed a semblance of historical plausibility. In other words, the reliance on strategies for survival, such as pastoralism, farming, warfare, and the formation of centralized hierarchies needed to convey a sense of lived experience, as opposed to literary invention.


When examined from this perspective the narrative of the Old Testament appears to reflect the challenges endured by a number of Iron Age societies that transited from pastoral roots to settled urban existence. Perhaps as a result of the time spent in the Babylonian Captivity, the compilers of the Old Testament reflected on this process more than others, closely examining its costs and its benefits. If so, the value of this reflection lies more in its interpretation of a fundamental change in lifestyle than in its account of any specific historical experience. Regardless of the complex origins of the Israelites, in other words, they as a people witnessed their society’s transformation from a stateless population of dispersed, tribally based, rural elements to nucleated urban populations with a centralized hierarchy. They then witnessed the suppression and defeat of this hierarchy by those of larger, militarily stronger powers. In this textbook we have referred repeatedly to the acculturation of newly arrived migrant populations, such as the Akkadians, the Amorites, the Hurians, the Kassites, the Hittites, and the Mycenaeans. However, the process by which cultural assimilation was achieved has never truly been explained. By devising a sense of trajectory for this experience and by subjecting it to the scrutiny of recalled memory, the writers of the Old Testament were able to articulate their experience as a process of gradual enlightenment. Apart from matters of faith, this explanation of the repeated ancient Near Eastern transition from herding to farming, from rural to urban settlement, from tribal chieftains to centralized monarchies, is elucidated more effectively by the Old Testament narrative than by any other source.


Before addressing these matters, a brief outline of events as recorded by the Old Testament (and other relevant sources) needs to be presented, despite its potentially limited historical value. Even the dates must remain approximate. The cultural significance of the cultural tradition will be explored in a later section.


Historical Outline – the Era of the Patriarchs, ca. 1850-1000 BC

According to the Old Testament the Hebrews began their history as a tribally based pastoral element migrating through Mesopotamia and surviving along the margins of urban societies such as Sumer, Akkadia, and Babylonia. Around 1850 BC, Abraham led his following 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 communities 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 conducted the Exodus from Egypt. Based on the testimony furnished by the Stele of Merneptah in 1204 BC, and allowing forty years for the Wanderings in the Wilderness, the Exodus is presumed by many to have occurred during the reign of the New Kingdom Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II. This would be consistent with other destabilizing developments of the Late Bronze Age, mentioned above. The Stele of Merneptah allows for the possibility that the Hebrews (referred to specifically as the Israelites) invaded Canaan. If so, during the next two centuries their populations gradually adapted to settled agricultural existence. They lived side by side with surviving elements of native Canaanite population and in close proximity to competing, highly militaristic neighbors, such as the Philistines, the Aramaeans, and the Phoenicians.


The Period of Judges and the Settlement in Canaan (1200-1000 BC)

Hebrew society at this point was organized according to a loose confederacy of twelve tribes, ten in the north, two (Judah, Benjamin) in south. Each tribe was ruled by tribal warlords referred to as judges or Suffetes. Their populations remained highly segmentary with each regulating its own affairs. Within each tribal population there were also sub tribes and smaller kinship-based communities. The Hebrew tribal confederacy was centered on a commonly held sanctuary (something referred to in Greek as an amphyctyony, or an association of neighboring states organized to defend a religious sanctuary). Although the sanctuary was relocated several times (Shechem, Bethel, Gilgal, and Shiloh), there was ever only one at any given time. According to the book of Joshua, the confederate tribes first accepted the cult of Yahweh at Shechem and became united to each other and to Yahweh by a covenant. Some have interpreted this to mean that Shechem was where the Yahweh cult was initially conferred on the northern tribes by those who had migrated out of Egypt. The fact that it had to be conferred or accepted indicates, however, that the cult had many competitors, most particularly the Phoenician Baal cult, but others as well, including that of the love goddess Asherah. It is worth nothing, for example, that the names of several Israelite kings express variations of the name, Baal.


The Period of Judges was one of deep internal dissension among the Hebrew tribes. The population was geographically scattered and lacked anything remotely resembling a unifying central hierarchy.  This weakened the effectiveness of the Hebrew confederacy and exposed its constituent elements to attacks by neighboring peoples. Repeated military losses to the Philistines compelled reluctant tribal leaders to appoint a king named Saul (1020-1000 BC). According to the Old Testament, there was no precedent for kingship among the Hebrews, and the decision to create a central hierarchy was regarded as the option of last resort. Saul’s administration suffered, accordingly, from a lack of legal-administrative framework. He had to build his royal hierarchy essentially from scratch. To do this, King Saul constructed a fortress-palace at Gibeah, he assembled a royal militia of some 3000 warriors, and he attempted to govern the unruly tribes via his immediate family members and household attendants. To sustain this hierarchy, he appears to have depended entirely on gifts and war booty. The idea of imposing taxes was simply out of the question.  As Saul’s military success diminished, his authority was challenged by one of his officers, David of Judah. Saul eventually turned against the tribal leadership: he purged the standing priesthood (the one unifying institution prior to the creation of the monarchy), and otherwise provoked internal dissension and rebellion by his heavy handed demeanor. Although Saul managed to expel David from Judah, he himself was defeated by the Philistines at Mt. Gilboa and committed suicide. Resentful subjects then refused to recognize the legitimacy of his son and successor, Ishbaal, eliminating him as well. Having already been proclaimed king of Judah, David successfully obtained recognition of the northern tribes to emerge as the second king of all of Israel (ca. 1000-960 BC).


The United Kingdom (1000-922 BC)

David quickly defeated the Philistines and established the United Kingdom (1000-922 BC). As a military commander of remarkable ability, he conducted successful campaigns along the entire coastal strip from Gaza to Phoenicia. He ultimately 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 territorial extent of Israel and was later recalled as a “golden age." David established his capital at the former Canaanite citadel of Jerusalem, which lay conveniently on the northern border of Judah, close to the northern tribes. Using this fortress as his base he successfully established a strong central authority. Among other things, he relocated the Yahweh cult to the capital, bringing it into closer association with his regime to enhance his own legitimacy. He also attempted to distribute the costs of his administration among the tribes, although most of his funding probably still arose from war booty and external tribute payments. David was succeeded by his son King Solomon (961-922 BC). Solomon was not as active militarily as David, but he was gifted in trade and diplomacy. He forged alliances with Phoenician kings, Egyptian Pharaohs, and Arab sheikhs along the Red Sea. Solomon set about the construction of the palace and the temple in Jerusalem. He also extended the reach of the central hierarchy throughout Israel. He imposed taxes and established garrisoned fortresses or store cities at the center of each tax district. Along the frontiers and the trade routes of the kingdom the remains of fortified complexes (such as Megiddo) appear to date to this era. Each displays a uniquely designed six-chambered monumental gateway. To construct his monuments, Solomon resorted to conscript labor, or the prytany system. Each tribe was compelled to send laborers one month per year to work for the king. Many scholars believe that Solomon imposed tax districts only in the north, and that the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were exempted from taxes as well as from conscript labor. If so, this would have fostered resentment among inhabitants of the northern tribes. Solomon also relied heavily on dynastic marriages to secure alliances with neighboring polities (allegedly amassing 700 wives and 200 concubines). Numerous foreign princesses settled in the palace at Jerusalem along with sizable entourages of priests, attendants, and dignitaries. These immigrants brought their native cults, particularly the Phoenician Baal cult, to the emerging temple / palace complex at Jerusalem. The forced labor requirements and cosmopolitan character of Jerusalem caused dissension among Israelite citizens, particularly among the northern tribes, and support for the dynasty soon eroded. At the demise of Solomon this resentment erupted into open civil warfare.




Depiction of the City of David with the Palace Complex in the Background; Illustration by John Hill


The Divided Kingdom (922-721 BC)

Within a matter of decades the United Kingdom dissolved into the two separate kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Open conflict erupted ca. 922 BC when Jeroboam, the former supervisor of Solomon’s forced labor gangs, challenged the authority of Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, The latter was attempting to impose arbitrary labor levees on the northern populations while continuing to exempt the inhabitants of Judah. In this effort Rehoboam was supported by a prophet named Ahijah of Shiloh. Aided by neighboring polities such as Aram (Damascus) and Edom, the northern tribes broke away to form their own separate kingdom. Jeroboam, who now assumed the throne as the King of Israel, not only established a new capital in the north (Samaria) but he installed new sanctuaries for the national cult of Yahweh at Ethen and Dan, cities that were situated on the southern and northern borders of his kingdom. These acts essentially rendered the secession irreversible. Of the two kingdoms Israel remained the more populous and urban and was more closely connected to the ruling houses of Phoenicia, Damascus, Moab, and Edom. Judah remained more rural and more isolated. Its people adhered to the legacy of rule by the ancestral House of David as well as to its claim to the temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem. Scholars have argued that the separation was probably inevitable and that the United Kingdom was a temporary development resulting largely from the success of David and Solomon. Although conditions in Israel remained more tumultuous than those in Judah and were punctuated by repeated instances of rebellion, mutiny, and intrigue, few really questioned the authority of the king. Kingship remained charismatically based and dependent on evidence that the king personally enjoyed the support of Yahweh.


Under King Omri (885-874 BC) Israel became a significant regional power. Omri constructed the fortifications of Samaria and forged a crucial alliance with the King of Tyre by marrying his son Ahab to the Tyrian princess Jezebel. Ahab (873-852 BC) continued his father’s work, establishing Israel as one of the strongest states in the region. He contributed the second largest contingent of troops and chariots to the military coalition that confronted (unsuccessfully) the Assyrian forces of King Shalmaneser III at Kalkar in 853 BC. This and other defeats combined with Ahab’s encouragement of Tyrian religious practices at Samaria (particularly the cults of the Phoenician deities El, Baal, and Asherah) incited a kingdom-wide rebellion instigated by the prophet Elijah. Elijah persuaded Ahab’s general Jehu to overthrow the dynasty, eliminating the entire family of Omri in the process. Although set in motion by external developments, this struggle has often been interpreted as a religious dispute between more tolerant Israelites (such as the ruling class) who were willing to pursue a more inclusive form of Yahwism -- one that did not prohibit the worship of outside gods -- and others like Elijah who insisted on a more exclusive worship of the Hebrew deity. As we shall see, the pattern of this conflict appears to have repeatedly colored the perspective of the Old Testament narrative. From here on the kingdoms of Israel and Judah became vulnerable to the advances of the expanding extraterritorial states to the east, including the Assyrians, the Neo-Babylonians, and the Persians. The kingdom of Israel joined in the repeated rebellions of its northern neighbors against the Assyrians and was punished with increasing harshness. The rapid succession of dynastic usurpations that occurred between 745 and 722 BC probably reflects the unhappiness of the Israelite population with the hierarchy’s acquiescence to Assyrian authority. In 722-721 BC, the Assyrian Kings Sargon II and Esarhaddon conquered Israel and deported the ruling hierarchy (the royal family, the nobility, and the warrior elite) to Urartu (ancient Armenia), replacing them with settlers from other regions. In Urartu the deported Israelites gradually merged with the native population to become the "lost tribes.” After the collapse of Assyria the Neo-Babylonian Empire extended its authority into the region and compelled the surviving dynasty in Judah to accept tributary status. In 601 BC the King of Judah, Jehoiakim, unwisely seized the opportunity of a momentary Chaldean setback in Egypt to stage a rebellion. When Jehoiakim died suddenly in 597 BC, the burden of resistance suddenly fell to his 17-year-old son, Jehoiachin. King Nebuchadnezzar quickly took the city, plundered its historic treasures, replaced King Jehoiachin with his uncle Zedekiah, and carried off the rest of the royal family to Babylon, along with thousands of the kingdom’s wealthiest residents. Most of the exiles including prophet Ezekiel were settled near Nippur, but the former king was kept at Babylon itself. As noted earlier, archaeologists have actually recovered cuneiform tablets listing rations assigned to Jehoiachin and his family in the excavated remains of that site. Despite this tragic example, King Zedekiah mounted yet another rebellion in 587 BC. After an eighteen-month siege, King Nebuchadnezzar’s forces successfully took the city, destroying its monuments and deporting King Zedekiah and thousands of other inhabitants to Babylon. This event is traditionally designated as the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity (586-539 BC), the period when the canonical Hebrew literature was presumably compiled.


The Restoration of Judah and the Emergence of Judaism

In 538 BC King Cyrus of Persia released the Babylonian captives and allowed their leaders to return to Jerusalem to restore Judah as a Persian client state. The process proved daunting, however, and required repeated Persian assistance over the next century. When Sheshbazzar (referred to as the Prince of Judah) was dispatched by Cyrus to serve as governor of Judah and to rebuild temple of Yahweh, he encountered Jerusalem in ruins. Squatters were occupying the properties of the exiles, and his returning exile families lacked the necessary resources to restore the settlement. Various neighboring peoples such as the Idumaeans and the Samarians (many of whom were descended from foreigners settled there by the Assyrians) saw little advantage to the restoration of the polity of Judah in their midst. Internally, conflict emerged between those Judeans who had not been deported during the Babylonian Captivity and the returning descendents of the exiles. The latter tended to regard themselves as the legitimate worshipers of Yahweh and the non-deported inhabitants as heretics, much like the settlers in Samaria. Little progress was made during the initial wave of returnees, accordingly. In 520 BC, Zerubbabel, who was possibly the grandson of the former King Jehoiachin, was dispatched by King Darius I of Persia along with the high priest Jeshua to attempt a second program of resettlement. Although they managed to rebuild the temple, Jerusalem remained a ghost town. During the reign of King Artaxerxes I (465-424) a third pair of leaders, Ezra (apparently a Jewish scribe) and Nehemiah (referred to as a cup bearer to the king) were commissioned to stabilize the province’s social and religious situation. This time King Artaxerxes gave them the necessary funds and materials to restore the Yahweh cult, but more importantly they brought with them a copy of the Pentateuch or Torah. They used this document to legitimize their program to initiate a renewed covenant with Yahweh and to impose strict new religious prohibitions. Not only did they demand strict adherence to biblical law, observance of the Sabbath, and tithing to support the priests and the temple, but they also prohibited intermarriage between Jews and non Jews and required proof of genealogical descent from exiled families as the basis for citizenship. These prohibitions arose naturally enough from concerns about the lingering effects of religions syncretism and cultural assimilation that had occurred among the non-exiles. Many Judeans, for example, had married non-Hebrew spouses or had abandoned the Hebrew language altogether. The issue of foreign spouses, particularly among elite families, raised the prospect of veneration of foreign deities in the temple. Much like the stance taking by Elijah during his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel, in other words, these leaders pursued a more exclusive religious policy. While their measures insured the purity of both the Yahweh cult and the Jewish people, they initiated the formation of an ethnically and religiously closed society. Scholars point to the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah as the inception of Judaism per se. The return from Babylonian Captivity and the restoration of Judah during the Persian Era also marked a transition from an earlier experience in which Israel was viewed as a Hebrew territorial state to a later phase in which cultural identity was based exclusively on Jewish religious ideology.


Along with Palestine Judah and Samaria remained subject to larger empires in the Hellenistic Era (particularly the Seleucids of Syria). The revolt of the Maccabees ca. 166 BC brought them some measure of autonomy; however, Judah was ultimately suppressed by Pompey the Great of Rome in 63 BC. From then on the history of Judean dealings with the Romans proved decidedly uneven (friendly relations with Julius Caesar; however, the inhabitants were despised and terrorized by the Emperor Caligula). Ultimately the remaining Jewish population in Palestine rebelled against Roman authority and was crushed violently by the Roman Emperors Vespasian (64-73 AD), and Hadrian (132-136 AD). Their experience with Roman imperium proved disastrous and largely unavoidable.


Cultural Analysis of the Hebrew Experience

Regardless of the complexity of their origins, the cultural narrative of the Hebrew Old Testament clearly portrayed the people’s heritage as one firmly rooted in pastoralism. As such, the narrative could apply to the settlement pattern of any number of non-urban agro-pastoral societies dwelling along the margins of Mesopotamian urban states. The Old Testament insists that the Hebrews were essentially a nomadic people at least until the period in which they conquered and settled in Canaan ca. 1200 BC. It is useful, therefore, to compare its description to that of other known pastoral societies.


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, for example. Most often they employed livestock grazing patterns known as transhumance. Typically herders rotated their animals between two or three points in a narrowly conscribed landscape (perhaps 150 km in extent) that combined highland summer pastures, lowland winter pastures, and springs, watering holes, or oases along the midland access routes. The most important component to transhumance was access to highland “top lawn” or pelouse meadows during summer grazing season. Especially in highlands above the Mediterranean tree line (ca. 1500 m elevation) top lawn grasses furnished the animals with four times the available nutrient of other grazing landscapes along their route. For this reason, herders tended to drive their flocks into the mountains as soon as the snow melted and would keep them there for a considerable part of the year. This is where herds would be fattened and gleaned before returning to the coastal and desert lowlands for the winter. Lowland pasturing was frequently furnished by field stubble outside the walls of cities. Seasonal proximity to cities enabled nomads to exchange livestock and by-produçts for tools and equipment that they could not manufacture themselves. Abraham, for example, began his experience outside the city of Ur. Pastoralism represented an alternative, complementary component to settled agricultural existence, therefore. It expanded the economic capacity of urban societies by utilizing the least productive terrain of the surrounding hinterland. In modern day Afghanistan some 30% of the population continues to engage in pastoralism in the rugged terrain of that country.


Living predominantly out of doors in tents 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 character of existence and exposure to the elements profoundly influenced the trajectory of pastoral societies. In contrast with urban lifestyles, pastoral existence entailed the following:


Nomad Austerity was 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 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 main camps. From the perspective of religious observances these individuals maintained the capacity to pray to their gods as individuals. Pastoral cultures tended not to have priestly hierarchies, therefore; each person communicated with divine entities on his or her own. Religious practices needed to be accessible to all worshipers from one generation to the next. Accordingly, pastoral societies tended to construct an assemblage of rituals, rules, and laws, common to the entire community so that the devout could worship individually. As a society ancient Hebrews owned few material possessions, made minimal sacrifices, had no priestly hierarchy, and worshipped their tribal god, Yahweh, as individuals, families, or clans. 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 Yahweh. It is interesting to observe, for example, that neighboring pastoral peoples such as the Edomites similarly recognized the importance of prophecy. Something charismatic about prophets, such as the ability to speaking in tongues, or the experience of epileptic seizures, convinced their contemporaries that they had been touched or "blessed" by a deity. Prophets could not be trained or appointed; rather, 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 seem evident about the Hebrews at the time of the Exodus and the migration into Canaan (again based on the narrative preserved in the Old Testament). Their society had no tradition for kingship, colleges of priests, or other urban forms of social hierarchy beyond clan or tribal leaders who frequently emerged as prophets. During the period of Judges Israel existed as a loosely composed federation of tribal populations dominated by patriarchal councils of elders (suffetes) and little more. The existence of a college of priests purged by King Saul indicates, on the other hand, that collective hierarchies with recognized tribal authority were emerging in Hebrew society as it adapted to settled existence, possibly due to the unifying influence of the amphictyony. Resistance to the institution of kingship suggests that there was a potential conflict between those persisting in the austere traditions of pastoralism and those wishing to engage in the material benefits of more complex society. Historically, pastoralists were highly averse to the imposition of administrative procedures requiring census counts, property records, or tax assessments.


As we have seen, ancient Near Eastern pastoral elements tended to venerate 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 god as a savior deity 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 emphasis on Assur, not to mention the patron deities of numerous Mesopotamian city states. 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 interpret 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 BC). As such the Old Testament appears to contain numerous disparate particles of previous oral communication concerning Yahweh. 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 community. Conceivably, this one more closely reflects the laws obtained by Moses on Mount Sinai.

THE DECALOGUE OF 'J' (10th Cent. BC; Old Testament, Exodus 34.14-28)


1. Thou shall worship no other god.

2. Thou shall make thee no molten gods.

3. The feast of the Passover thou shall keep.

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

5. None shall appear before me empty.

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

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

8. Thou shall 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 shall bring unto Yahweh, thy God.

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

The language of this code would appear to reflect moral requirements conceived for a pastoral people residing in a wasteland such as the "Wilderness," or migrating along the margins of settled agricultural communities such as Canaan. It exhibits henotheistic tendencies (“Thou shall worship no other god”) and a profound emphasis on livestock as the economic basis of the community. Again, this seems very much in keeping with the narrative of the Old Testament.


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 monuments at Jerusalem, not least of which the palace and the temple. Under David and Solomon Israel experienced eighty years of powerful centralized authority. Along with territorial expansion through military conquest, the kings imposed a more sophisticated administrative and tax system. To assume its place as an emerging Near Eastern polity, they recruited talented outsiders, including skilled artisans, diplomats, courtiers, merchants, and financiers. Gradual but substantial social transformations accompanied urban growth. As the flow chart below indicates, a stratified society gradually supplanted the traditional tribal system. At the top stood the king and his court (including wives and concubines, mercenary generals, and priests), officials dependent on royal favor stood just below these, and other people engaged in commerce and industry likewise resided in the cities. Presumably the largest proportion of the population consisted of ordinary Israelite peasants farmers who lived in the countryside. Wealthier landowners also employed slave agricultural labor.


INSERT TABLE 7: Flowchart of the Israelite Hierarchy























As urban centers developed, a considerable non-Israelite population is likely to have dominated their populations. A foreign princess at the palace was naturally accompanied by a sizable entourage of priests to venerate her native cult (the Phoenician Baal cult in particular), not to mention, attendants, servants, business agents, and courtiers. 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 fulfill skilled labor tasks and to fill voids in the emerging economy, with the inevitable result that they attained greater affluence and higher social status than the Israelite inhabitants themselves. In short, the attempts of Kings David and Solomon to construct an administrative hierarchy and to elevate the newly founded kingdom of Israel to the level of neighboring polities inevitably induced social and economic dislocations that placed ordinary Israelite citizens at a disadvantage. Such problems were not unique to Israel, to be sure, but they were clearly incorporated into a narrative that portrayed Hebrew society as one divided between a foreign urban hierarchy and a native rural peasantry. Conditions changed little during the Era of the Divided Kingdom. Both states, Israel and Judah, experienced prosperity until the late 8th century BC, although the gulf between rich and poor continued to widen with many independent farmers losing their land and falling into agricultural dependency. The literature of the reforming prophets refers repeatedly to economic difficulties characteristic of subsistence farmers trapped at the bottom of a transforming economy, such as land shortages, indebtedness (including debt bondage), and the abandonment of the poor. Indebtedness and heavy mortgages on land resulted in insolvency, not to mention, legal proceedings initiated by wealthy creditors (particularly foreign moneylenders) against overburdened farmers. The resentment felt by Israelite citizens against these proceedings is demonstrated by the complaints preserved in Isaiah and elsewhere of "corrupt judgments" rendered by judges acting in the interest of the hierarchy. In the period of the United and Divided Kingdoms, in other words, a formerly pastoral society that viewed its destiny inextricably linked to the implementation of the will of its god Yahweh was confronted head on with the inevitable consequences of complex societies, including widening social disparities, tax burdens, and economic inequality.


To make matters worse, the kings themselves were viewed as the agents most responsible for having recruited these foreigners and for having elevated them to positions of importance. Since the hierarchy was essentially a product of the kings’ own devices, it effectively eliminated them as credible arbiters in disputes concerned with social justice or 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 pursue Near Eastern models of urban growth and centralized political hierarchy. Redress by Israelite citizens was obtained by turning instead to the leadership of the reforming prophets.. As we noted earlier, most of the prophets were revelationally inspired individuals. Amos, ca. 760 BC, was allegedly a Judean sheep farmer who moved to Israel; Hosea, ca. 740, was a baker likewise dwelling in Israel. 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. Visionaries, such as Elijah and Elisha (ca. 860 BC), Amos and Hosea (ca. 760 BC), and Isaiah, elevated the complaints of Hebrew citizens to the level of religious redress. 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 (the Decalogue of J) to contemporary needs of settled agricultural society in the Divided Kingdom. By focusing rather on the moral implications of the Hebrew covenant, the reforming prophets were able to adapt its expression to 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 eighth to sixth centuries BC). Certain features to the more familiar 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 residing in a remote wasteland and appear much more to reflect the challenges confronting the Israelites at the time of the urbanized kingdoms.



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.


As fresh components to the narrative, therefore, the prophets expressed the heightened pattern of alienation that emerged between the foreign dominated hierarchies of the cities and the rural peasantry in the countryside. In the process they redefined the moral requirements of the Yahweh cult insofar as these pertained to settled agricultural existence. The reforming prophets decried the social inequities and institutional corruption of the kingdoms by interpreting these as offences against Yahweh. They challenged the religious tolerance of the foreign dominated hierarchy by insisting on exclusive worship of Yahweh. Even at the time of the Divided Kingdoms this idea was not as popular as one might think. Epigraphical data demonstrates, for example, that many inhabitants of Israel and Judah continued to venerate Yahweh in henotheistic terms, including the pursuit of cult practices that associated Yahweh and Asherah as divine consorts. In the Old Testament narrative the reforming prophets assumed an important role, therefore, in crystallizing religious thought in monotheistic terms. Since they lived and preached in an era in which the two kingdoms grew increasingly vulnerable to the threats of neighboring empires, the prophets employed the general sense of foreboding and anxiety with the kingdoms’ declining political and military status as proof of the society’s religious fall from grace. The narrative thus articulated a history of a pastoral society whose experience underwent the long trajectory from the margins of urban society to the center, from periphery to core. The Hebrews’ future was insured by a covenant with Yahweh so long as their veneration remained exclusive. By accepting this covenant the Israelites’ fortunes advanced and enabled them to become a world power. However, Yahweh’s favor declined as the people adapted to settled urban existence and experienced the various complexities this transition required – cultural and religious diversity, social stratification, political and social inequality, monetarized commercial practices, and the emergence of rich and poor. Having lost the favor of their deity, the Hebrews became vulnerable to conquest by the Assyrians, the Neo-Babylonians, and the Persians. The reforming prophets not only predicted these calamities but they reinterpreted the moral code to make it applicable to the new conditions of settled urban existence. They insisted that the calamities themselves were the product of a failure in religious behavior.


In the post-exilic period the role and influence of Israelite prophets declined. Given the existence of a written testament bearing the word of Yahweh, the inhabitants of the restored kingdom of Judah no longer expected Yahweh to speak directly to them as in the past. Instead, the roots of a rabbinical tradition that reinterpreted the law and applied it to new situations came into being. Eschatological belief in a final judgment likewise appears to have germinated among Jews who remained in Babylon. In this regard they were probably influenced by exposure to Zoroastrian concepts that appeared to answer basic questions raised by monotheism. New strains of thought argued that a fallen angel similar to Ahriman was responsible for all evil and injustice in the universe. The divine forces of good and evil would confront each other in a cosmic battle to be won by a Messiah at the end of time. His victory would lead to the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment for all time. These ideas first appeared in Jewish writings in Hellenistic era but they most probably were introduced during the Babylonian Captivity. For many centuries they were accepted by a small minority. However, following the success of Maccabees the eschatological view became increasingly popular in Judaism and profoundly influenced both Christianity and Islam.


Despite the limitations of the Old Testament as a historical source, three clearly and consistently articulated concepts emerge from this distillation of the Hebrew experience. The first of these is monotheism. As the reforming prophets railed against the kings and their foreign hierarchies, they increasingly came to express their concerns in monotheistic terms. In doing so they drew on a cultural tradition of nomad austerity, of purity of religious observances, and hence of an indifference to and ultimately a rejection of materialism and polytheistic religious practices.  By doing so at the expense of urban social hierarchies, they reasserted the primacy of the individual in the religious, moral, and social order. Equally important, the expressions recorded in the narrative of the Old Testament articulated a resounding denial of the divine right of kings. Ancient Israel represents the first culture on record to articulate such a opinion. Again, it was easier for the Israelites to assert this principle because their segmentary, tribally based origins lacked a tradition for kingship. Since kingship came relatively late in the development of Israelite society, it lacked the legitimacy of ancestral institutions such as prophecy. In addition, Israel was a relatively small kingdom that placed a higher premium on preserving the security of its property-holding citizens. These citizens 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 argument to challenge the authority of the social hierarchy in the interest of ordinary citizens. Accordingly, the narrative of the Old Testament articulated for the first time the principle of the dignity of humankind. Put simply, citizens of a given society possessed rights that were inalienable, even before the authority of a king. The problems incumbent to the emergence of  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 their place, they proposed a monotheistic moral order based ultimately in the responsibility of the individual. In this respect, they assumed their place alongside Zoroastrianism, Greek Rational Thought, Buddhism, and Confucianism as innovators of an Axial Age.