Biblical Israel, as an element of tradition and story, such as the Israel of the murmuring stories in the wilderness, or the people of the stories of II Kings who are faithless as their kings are faithless, or the lost Israel, which is the object of prophetic diatribe in Isaiah and Amos, is a theological and literary creation. This Israel is what I have called ‘old Israel’. It is presented as the polar opposite of an equally theological and literary ‘new Israel’, which is the implicit voice, for example, of II Chronicles, the Book of Psalms, the Damascus Covenant and the gospels. (p. 78 of The Mythic Past, Thomas L. Thompson)
The Bible is a theological book with literary creations to illustrate its theological messages. It bears little resemblance to the material evidence of actual history. (The quotations and notes here — up until the last paragraph — are taken from Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past.)
Israel in the Bible . . . stands in sharp contrast to the Israel we know from ancient texts and from archaeological field work. (p. 78)
We first encounter the name in the Bible when it is bestowed on Jacob after he wrestled with God himself. He became the father of twelve sons who each became the father of one of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. This eponymous hero named Israel is a character of fiction, based on an assumed existence of a later Israel comprising of twelve tribes.
Few biblical scholars would doubt this today. Such ‘eponymous’ figures of story have a life of their own, quite apart from any real or assumed past. Odysseus’ struggle with the Cyclops need not have anything to do with a known past and hardly gives us cause to believe in historical Cyclopses in the Aegean’s past. Similarly, Israel’s tribes need not have been either twelve or tribes in reality.
Names in both history and tradition tend to have very long lives. They change over time and can come to have a variety of references.
The Bible built its fiction of ‘old Israel’
out of traditions, stories and legendary lore from Palestine’s past. Some of the sources for such ‘knowledge’ are very old, and it is useful to take a look at how such knowledge changes over time.
The variable name ‘Israel’
The earliest known usage of the name “Israel” is in an Egyptian inscription from the thirteenth century bce, the Merenptah stele. Pharaoh Merenptah boasts that he has destroyed, in the land of Canaan, among other peoples, “Israel’s seed” and that “Israel is no more”.
This is clearly not the Israel that was later known from Assyrian inscriptions or from the Bible’s stories. The Bible speaks of Israel leaving Egypt with enough strength to threaten Egypt itself; Joshua’s Israel is opposed to the people of Canaan and is the conqueror of various peoples there. In II Samuel and I Kings biblical Israel controls the whole of the southern Levant and stretches as far as the Euphrates River. Assyrian inscriptions speak of Israel as a kingdom in the highlands north of Jerusalem.
Outside of this narrative in Genesis–II Kings and the related books named after the prophets, the name Israel is a constant of biblical literature especially in the form the ‘children of Israel’, with reference either to the patronage states of Jerusalem and Samaria, or to later groups of Jews, Samaritans, Galileans, Idumeans, Christians and still other religious groups who understood themselves with the theological metaphor of a ‘new Israel’. (p. 79, my emphasis)
(Philip R. Davies has identified ten different meanings for the word ‘Israel’ in the Bible: http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/davies4.htm)
The variable name ‘Hebrew’
The name ‘Hebrew’ refers to the language of the Bible but its use as a name for a people goes back much farther and refers to a class or a type of person. Similar or related terms appear in Sumerian, Assyro-Babylonian and Egyptian texts (e.g. SA.GAZ, Hapiru, ‘Apiru).
These terms refer to individuals and groups who were not accepted within the accepted political structures of patronage alliances and loyalties that governed society. These ‘Hebrews’ were both literally and figuratively ‘outlaws’, not terribly unlike such legendary characters in story as the David of I–II Samuel or the Abraham of Genesis 12 and 14, where they are called ‘Hebrews’.
The variable name ‘Amorite’
In the Early Bronze Age (3500 – 2400 bce) the name ‘Amorite’ first appears in cuneiform texts in the form amurru and is a geographic signifier — meaning ‘western’ regions. As a name it came to refer to the people of and from this region.
By the Late Bronze Age (1600 – 1300 bce) it is found as a name for the region of Syria.
A similar-sounding but unrelated name, ‘Amw, originally referred to a throwing stick used as a weapon by these people and was later found in early Egyptian texts to refer generally to the peoples of Asia — especially to the Semites and related groups living in the desert regions and Egyptian Delta.
The Bible uses ‘Amorite’ as a variant of ‘Canaanite’ — that is, as the name of an indigenous population of Palestine.
The variable name ‘Philistine’
The first appearance was in the form of peleset in thirteenth century bce Egyptian texts. Here it referred to one of several groups of immigrants from the Aegean, or perhaps from coastal Anatolia, settling along the southern coasts of Palestine and attacking the Delta. They are finally settled and accommodated within Egyptian territory, including Palestine’s coast.
Later Assyrian cuneiform texts adopted the form of the name Palashtu to refer to the geographic area of southern Palestine.
The sixth century bce Greek historian Herodotus used the name Palestine to refer to the entire geographic area of Southern Syria. The Romans later appeared to have used the word in the same sense.
In recent times it has come to refer to the territory west of the Jordan River and in particular to the territories that are not part of the state of Israel.
As a biblical reference to a people, however, the Philistines were the pre-Abrahamic inhabitants of the southern coast and region of Judea. They are said to have originated from Crete (Caphtor) and to have built cities in Gerar, Gaza, Ashqelon and Ekron.
The variable name ‘Canaanite’
The term ‘Canaanite’ is badly used by most everyone in archaeology and ancient Near Eastern studies today, thanks to the Israeli archaeological practice of identifying the Bronze Age as a ‘Canaanite period’. Biblical archaeologists use it as if it referred to an ethnic and culturally coherent fact. Not only is the term ‘Canaan’ originally a geographic name, without a specific historically identification; it is unknown as a name of a people at this early date. It has more to do with coastal Syria and Phoenicia than Palestine’s lowlands, and does not correspond with the larger towns of Palestine even in the Bible. The sharp boundaries that the use of the terms ‘Canaanite’ and ‘Israelite’ makes possible are wholly unwarranted. ‘Canaan’ appears on the Merenptah stele and has been shown to be paired with ‘Israel’ as his spouse. They are the metaphorical parents of three towns destroyed by the Egyptian army. The only historical group known to refer to themselves as Canaanites were Jewish merchants of North Africa in the fourth century ce. It has also been well argued that the name ‘Canaanite’ is used in the Bible as a literary and fictive term to contrast the biblical Israel. It is a negative term for those who worship foreign gods, and especially Ba’al. In the stories of Genesis to Joshua, Canaanites play much the role that Philistines play in Judges and I-II Samuel, and the role that Israel itself often plays to II Kings, namely as a universal term for the enemies of Yahweh. (p. 81)
Putting this all together
The above realities do not fit the neat constructs of these terms we have come to know from the Bible’s narrative. What has happened is that the creators of the biblical narrative traditions — and picture these living in the Persian or Hellenistic eras — took names like ‘Israel’ and its counterparts that they found in fragments of Palestinian folk traditions and literature that had survived the various national upheavals of the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods and used this raw material to create the biblical narrative we know today.
This process began during the late Persian or early Hellenistic eras and was still maturing into the period of the Maccabees.
Long after the destructions of Samaria and Jerusalem, in the course of the gradual restructuring of Persia’s conquered territories by both the Persians and their Hellenistic successors, the Israel of tradition presented itself to history, like the phoenix, specifically in the form of an Israel redivivus. The true essence and significance of Israel — and implicitly its future glory — was traced in the tales of the patriarchs, the stories of the wilderness and of the judges, and the great legends about the golden age of the united monarchy. Idealistic sentiments of futuristic incipient messianism ring throughout this tradition with the recurrent affirmation of one people and one God. It is this God, the only true king of a finally new Israel, who is projected to some day come to rule his chosen remnant from his throne in Jerusalem’s temple. This idyllic reality of piety is the Israel of tradition.
This may be hard to grasp at first given how thoroughly we have been indoctrinated into believing in the historicity of the biblical myth and the myth of the return of the Jews to their land. (See my notes on what archaeology says about the bible’s myth of Israel: http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/index.htm). Picture, rather, imperial deportations to repopulate certain areas for their economic or military strategic value, inculcating as they often did a belief in those deported that they were being returned to restore the true gods of their ancestors. The people being brought into the land may in some cases have been descendants of former inhabitants, but just as likely they were not. They may have included peoples from quite closely neighbouring areas, too. Once there, they found themselves in a land already occupied by a people with different gods and customs and language, and were faced with the inevitable conflicts that would come with that. To forge a new identity their priests and scribes taught them that they were the rightful inhabitants of the land, sent from exile to restore the worship of the true god of the land, etc. Mythical tales of ancestral migrants to the land emerged, along with tales accounting for their expulsion and return. The theme of ‘old Israel’ was a theological construct that was set up as a lesson to warn each generation anew, the ‘new Israel’ — and as TLT observes in one of the quotations above, the myth extended to the identity of the early Christians.
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