Origins and Early History of Israel: An Introductory Note

The ancient 'Habiru' people depicted and named on the wall of a 19th century BCE Egyptian tomb

The subject is Option 2 in the HSC History Extension Course, with the following syllabus description:

Principal focus: students investigate changing interpretations of the evidence relating to the origins and early history of Israel.

Students examine the approaches to history and interpretations (including recent historiography) that have resulted in historical debate in the areas of:

– origins and naming of the Hebrews

– conquest or settlement

– emergence of the monarchy and the kingdom of Israel

– textual problems of the biblical narratives (sources, dating, authenticity, inconsistencies)

– the impact of archaeological evidence

The topic is not the only subject in the history extension course to extend an historical challenge to the religiously committed, standing as it does alongside “The Historicity of Jesus”.

The Biblical Narrative

As the only sustained literary source, the Hebrew Bible, described by Christians as the “Old Testament”, has to be the inevitable starting point for the historical investigation required by the syllabus.

Of course the Biblical account is both much more and much less than historical narrative, and the central issue posed by the topic is the extent to which the Bible represents a core of historical reality. It is an exercise which requires a consideration of the internal evidence in the Biblical text, the external archaeological evidence, and the historical context derived from other sources.

The Biblical references might very shortly be outlined as follows:

The emergence of Abraham and the Jewish Patriarchs in the Land of Israel.

Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy
Enslavement in Egypt, the Exodus and journeys in Sinai and Trans-Jordan.

Joshua and Judges
Invasion and settlement in Canaan-Israel.

Samuel, Chronicles and Kings
Detailed accounts of the emergence of the monarchies of the united Jewish Kingdom and the successor states of Judah and Israel.

Obviously students will require a reasonably comprehensible modern translation. This writer prefers the Revised Standard Version, which retains much of the traditional English poetic force, but teachers and students will have their own preferences.

Naming of the ‘Hebrews’

The Jewish people are described by three alternative names, as Hebrews, Israelites and Jews.

The word ‘Hebrew’ – ‘Ivri in Hebrew – first appears in the Bible at Genesis 14:13, where it is used as a straightforward ethnic description:

“One who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshcol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram.”

According to the traditional view, the ethnic descriptor, like the origin of the names of many of the other nations referred to in Genesis, is directly derived from the list of the descendants of Noah, where ‘Eber is listed as the ancestor of Abraham. This view is repeated by the Christian commentator R. Laird Harris, in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament:

“The biblical record quite definitely indicates ‘Ibri’ is derived from ‘Eber’, the name of one of Shem’s sons (Gen 10:21; 11:14, 16). Abraham is identified as a descendant of Shem, of Eber’s line (Gen 11:26). ‘Ibri’ is used of the descendants of Eber, through Abraham.”

(The apostrophe indicates a consonant in the Semitic alphabets, which is silent in most, but not all, pronunciations. “B” is also interchangeable with “V” in the Semitic language group.)

Another view would be that the story in Genesis probably came into existence after the national identifier was already established, and as an “explanation” of that identifier. This would allow for an alternative hypothesis, that it may have been used by non-Israelites as a term derived from the linguistic root ‘abar with the connotation of “crossing over”, conveying the idea of “stranger” or “immigrant” etc.

A related issue arises with the mention of the Habiru in the Tel El-Amarna Letters. The letters are in the form of tablets, discovered in an Egyptian royal archive which includes letters from the Canaanite city states seeking Egyptian protection against the marauding Habiru.

(The letters are written in a Cuneiform script in the Akkadian language, which was apparently the diplomatic language of the time, despite the fact that the dynasty of Akkad, situated in southern Iraq to the north-west of Ur, had come to an end over 700 years before. It is an interesting parallel to the use of Latin in Western Europe long after the demise of the Roman Empire.)

There is a difference of opinion whether the word Habiru (sometimes transliterated as ‘Apiru) in the Semitic Akkadian language, is related to, or even identical with, the Hebrew word ‘Ivri. (See for an interesting on-line discussion.) One widely held view, certainly not universal among the scholars, is that both words do in fact have the same Semitic consonantal root which implies an element of “crossing over”.

The diplomatic correspondence was discovered in 1887 by Egyptian villagers in the remains of the city of Akhetaten, the capital established by the “monotheistic” sun-worshipping Pharoah Akhnaten, and abandoned after his death. In addition to the archive of Akhnaten, the letters include material from the transferred archive of his predecessor Amenophis III, and are therefore dated quite precisely from the Egyptian King lists at between about 1370 and 1336 BCE.

This coincides with the traditional chronology of the Exodus calculated from the Biblical record, which provides a date of 1446 BCE for the Exodus, and a date of 1406 BCE for Joshua’s invasion. On the basis of this dating the Habiru could well be the Israelite tribes of the Book of Judges.

On the other hand, a current archaeological view is that the destruction of the Canaanite cities ascribed to Joshua occurred in about 1200BCE, long after the Tell el-Amarna letters were written. If this is so, then the word Habiru could not be identical in meaning to the word ‘Ivri. Indeed the present academic opinion seems to be that the word Habiru in Akkadian was a general term for invaders, rather than the name of any specific national group.

The name ‘Israel’ – ‘he who struggles with God’ – appears in Genesis 32.28, after Jacob figuratively wrestles with an angel:

“Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Henceforth the descendants of Jacob are described as the “Children of Israel”, and the promised land is the “Land of Israel”.

The word ‘Jew’ – Yahudi in Hebrew – originates in the name of the Roman province of Judea, which in turn was derived from the Kingdom of Judah, named for Judah, the eldest of Jacob’s twelve sons, and founder of the tribe of that name. The description came into use after the Roman conquest began with the invasion of Pompey the Great in 66BCE.


Depiction of the Biblical Abraham

The Biblical account of the origins of the Jewish people has two basic elements, the stories of the Patriarchs in the Book of Genesis, and the story of the Exodus.

We are told that in about 1900 BCE Abraham was born in and emigrated from “Ur of the Chaldees”, in southern Iraq. The story then continues with Abraham’s sojourn at Haran, near the present Turkish-Syrian border, his arrival in Canaan, and the interaction of the three generations of the Patriarchs with the local city states. Then, some 400 years later, there is a second originating moment, with the escape from slavery in Egypt, the journey in the Sinai desert and the return to the Land promised to the Patriarchs.

The Patriarchs
Leonard Woolley’s Excavations at Ur does not particularly verify the Abrahamic claim to Mesopotamian origins. The excavations reveal a non-Semitic Sumerian city, which was a major port on the Persian Gulf during the period ascribed to Abraham, with a population which would have made it one of the world’s great cities at the time.

The only Biblical references emerging from the excavation were a small ornate figure of a ram standing on its hind legs next to foliage, which Woolley named “the ram in the thicket” in reference to the binding of Isaac, and the step pyramid described as the “Ziggurat of Ur”, recalling the Tower of Babel in the “plain of Shinar”, the Hebrew equivalent of “Sumer”. The religion, worship of a moon-goddess, appears to have no resonance in Judaism, apart from the adoption of the Babylonian lunar months in the Jewish calendar.

On the other hand, according to E.A. Speiser (editor of Genesis in the Anchor Bible) the culture of the Patriarchs as described in Book of Genesis bears a striking resemblance to the Hurrian culture of the Haran region as described in texts found in Urkish, Mari and Ugarit. This would verify the special relationship recounted in the Biblical stories of the marriages of Isaac and Jacob, both of whom made a point of seeking their brides in “Paddan-Aram” in the same region as Haran. The stories of Abraham and Isaac describing their wives as sisters to ensure their safety in Egypt have also been traced to Hurrian customs. Of course this does not make the Jews a part of the Indo-European non-Semitic Hurrian people, but merely a people influenced by their culture, with Laban described as an “Aramean” in the Talmudic literature.

The ancient and modern city of Beer Sheba, the “Well of the Oath”, symbolising the treaty of friendship between Abimelech and Abraham, boasts “Abraham’s well” at its centre, and the remains of a 4000 year-old temple on its outskirts, with a horned altar of the kind described in Genesis.

Abraham is also blessed by Melchizedek, king and high priest of Jerusalem, the city whose ancient origins are confirmed by both the Tel El-Amarna Letters and the excavation of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem by Kathleen Kenyon between 1961 and 1967.

The Exodus
The temples of Karnak and Luxor both have a number of bas-reliefs showing Semitic captives in the reigns of Seti I and Ramses II., all attesting to the glory of the reigning Egyptian monarch by the extent of the humiliation of those whom they have defeated. One powerful image shows a giant Ramses II holding up a score of captives by the hair as he raises his club to smite them.

However the Biblical description of massive numbers, including some 600,000 men of fighting age, escaping miraculously from centuries of enslavement, does not appear in the records of the Pharoahs, who make no mention of military defeats or the escape of tribes of slaves. There is however the “Merneptah Stele” recording the victories of Ramses’ son in about 1220 BCE, on which “Israel” is mentioned by name.

It is also arguable that the Biblical account of Joseph and the subsequent migration of Jacob and his family coincide with the reign of the Hyksos Pharoahs – all with Semitic names – who ruled Egypt between 1658 and 1570 BCE. On the basis of this chronology, the Pharoah “who knew not Joseph”, and enslaved the Jews, represented the restoration of a native Egyptian New Kingdom, founded by Ahmose I in 1570. This is the theory advanced by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, in The Antiquities of the Jews, which he wrote in Greek in Rome in about 80 CE.

Invasion, Settlement and the Monarchy

The Invasion
The Book of Joshua describes a military invasion by a unified army, opposed by various Canaanite city states, and assisted by occasional miracles.

The historical setting for the story is verified by archaeological finds. The oasis of Jericho is possibly the world’s most ancient continuing city, with the remains of a central tower dated by archaeologists at 7000BCE, and a number of walls destroyed many times.

The excavations at Hazor in northern Galilee verify the existence of a city state which could well have led the northern Canaanite alliance against the Israelite conquest. The archaeological investigation is gradually revealing a large city, gaining its wealth from domination of the Damascus-Acre road, with remains going back to 2700 BCE and Bronze Age artefacts imported from Egypt and Greece.

Excavations in 2006 have uncovered the remains of a palace on the acropolis, constructed of large mud bricks faced with polished basalt slabs with the appearance of black marble, and above the remains of the palace there is a fill of potsherds supporting subsequent Israelite structures.

From the dating of its destruction, it is claimed that this might well be the palace of King Jabin which Joshua destroyed by fire. It might also have been the centre for the dispatch of the forces led by Sisera, defeated by Deborah at Mount Tabor, some 30 kilometers to the south, as described in the epic poem in Judges.

Settlement and conquest
The events in the Book of Judges, following Joshua, are now centred on the experience of the various Israelite tribes establishing themselves separately in different parts of the country, and finding themselves in conflict with Philistines, Canaanites and Sidonians. It is interesting that most of the sections of the Book end with a note recording the anarchy of the times: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes”, which implies that it must have been written after the establishment of the kingdoms, about a hundred hears later.

One archaeological discovery which refers to the events in the Book of Judges is the excavation at Dan, which stands on the border of modern Lebanon. This is the city captured by the tribe of Dan, after being displaced from the centre of the country. One of the finds is an inscription which includes a reference to the “House of David” in Cuneiform script. Another is the remains of a large temple, which may be the alternative religious centre referred to in Chronicles which Jereboam set up in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem when he established the northern Kingdom.

The Emergence of the Kingdoms
In the First Book of Samuel, 8: 10-19, the prophet attempts to resist the popular call for the appointment of a king to lead the Jewish defence against the Philistines.

“Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking a king from him. He said,

‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.’

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.'”

And so Saul does become the first king, and he is anointed by Samuel with divine authority.

(It is interesting to compare the custom of anointment with the sixteenth century concept of a ‘Divine Right of Kings’. It is upon this Biblical precedent that England’s James I, for instance, claimed absolute power. It is also the basis of present British custom by which the Archbishop of Canterbury crowns the monarch. And it is of linguistic interest that the word ‘messiah’ – ‘mashiach’ in Hebrew – simply means ‘anointed one’.)

In the Biblical account, the bodies of Saul and Jonathan are hung by the Philistines on the walls of Beth Shean, on the Jordan river to the south of the Sea of Galilee. The remains of that Canaanite-Philistine fortress still stand on the acropolis high above the excavation of the Byzantine city.

In the Books of Kings and Chronicles, succeeding kings of the united Jewish kingdom, and then the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, rule in a state of tension with the Prophets. The Prophets demand righteousness and submission to the Law; property rights for the citizens and the protection of widows and orphans.

The early city of Jerusalem, captured by King David from the Jebusites in about 1000 BCE, and known as the “City of David”, was excavated by Kathleen Kenyon between 1961 and 1967, with the details recorded in her Digging Up Jerusalem in 1974. It stands on a steep hill to the south of the Temple Mount in the midst of the Arab village of Silwan (“Siloam”). In the precipitous valley beneath it gushes the Gihon spring, diverted into a water tunnel constructed by King Hezekiah after the Assyrian invasion of 722 BCE, which discharges into the Pool of Siloam, next to a monastery at the foot of the hill.

All that remains of Solomon’s Temple is the retaining wall which supports the Temple Mount, with architectural features suggesting a vanished bridge, and the remains of ancient residential areas excavated in the vicinity. Excavation on the Mount itself, with the Dome of the Rock and the El Aqsa Mosque, is of course forbidden.

It has also been suggested that the massive “Solomonic” gates uncovered at Meggido, Gezer and Dan, verify the Biblical descriptions of King Solomon’s fortresses.

The capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel was constructed by King Omri in 880 BCE on the hill of Samaria, later named Sebastia, near the city of Nablus (originally Neapolis) on the West Bank. The royal citadel has been uncovered, revealing the splendid court of Ahab and Jezebel, with numerous artefacts, including delicate imported ivories.

The Moabite Stele, discovered in 1868, which now stands in the Louvre, carries an inscription of thirty-four lines. The text commemorates the defeat inflicted on the kingdom of Israel after the death of Ahab, shortly before 842 BC. The stele was erected at Dibân, capital of Moab, in modern Jordan near the Dead Sea, by “Mesha, son of Kamoshyat, King of Moab.”

And of course the Assyrian bas-relief in the British Museum depicting the capture of Lachish, south-west of Jerusalem, in 701 BCE, fits precisely with Isaiah’s description of Hezekiah’s negotiation with the Assyrians after that event.

The Composition of the Bible

The traditional Jewish view is that the first five books of the Bible are divine – “from the mouth of the Lord to the hand of Moses”. However this is interpreted by Conservative and Progressive Jews as referring to divine inspiration. The remaining books of the Bible are accepted by all as human in origin.

It is also apparent that before the first written versions of the earlier books were collated, probably between about 1000 BCE and 650 BCE, much of the Bible was developed through oral traditions, with poetry and narrative refined and perfected in a process of recitation and story-telling from generation to generation. By definition such ancient works cannot be conclusively dated, and scholars have to rely on surviving manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts, as well as deductions from the text and from external sources.

Examples of manuscript evidence include the Septuagint, a Greek translation ascribed to a group of seventy scholars commissioned by the Macedonian rulers of Egypt for the Great Library of Alexandria, and written in the second century BCE; and the Dead Sea scrolls, which verify the existence of some of the books as at the first century BCE.

The nineteenth century saw the beginnings of an academic discipline of biblical study described as “higher criticism” and originated by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a German Christian professor of theology. The Christian scholars noted the existence of differing versions of the same stories in the Biblical text, often with different styles and terminology, much as scholars have noted the differences in the narratives of the Synoptic Gospels.

One obvious example is the existence of two entirely different stories of the Creation in Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. Adam and Eve, for example, appear in the first story at Genesis 1:27 :

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Then, in Genesis 2, not entirely inconsistently, but apparently as part of a different narrative:

“[7] then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being…

[21] So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh;
[22] and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”

It has also been regarded as significant that the word ‘God’, appearing in Chapter 1, is a translation of the Hebrew ‘Elohim’, meaning ‘God’.

On the other hand the words ‘the LORD God’ appearing in Chapter 2 translate the Hebrew ‘YHVH’, four letters symbolizing the name of God which may not be pronounced by any person except the High Priest once a year in the Holy of Holies. The four letters, described by academics as the Tetragrammaton, are generally pronounced in Hebrew by the use of another word altogether, meaning ‘my Lord’.

The German scholars therefore concluded from the numerous examples of variations of style and narrative that the first six books of the Bible (they included the Book of Joshua) were the work of three different authors or traditions. One they called the “E” source, from the word “Elohim”; one “J” from the Tetragrammaton, and one “P”, referring to a “priestly” source. They then argue that the three sources, all of equal sanctity, were later combined by unknown editors.

Other analyses of the Biblical text concern the dates of composition. The story of King Josiah’s discovery of the “Book of the Law” in about 650 BCE is particularly significant:

“Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the House of the Lord.'” (2 Kings 22:8 RSV)

“And when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he rent his clothes. And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying, ‘Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this Book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this Book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.'” (2 Kings 22:11-12 RSV).

Traditionally the Book found in the Temple was just the Book of Deuteronomy. However, the vehemence of Josiah’s reaction would seem to imply that the other books prescribing the Law were also unknown at the time of the discovery. On the other hand the depth and complexity of the work is such that it seems impossible that it was composed and found in a single generation. Also the other books which concern the historical origins of the people might well have existed in written form.

Generally the secular academic view appears to be that most of the early Biblical works which record the origins of the Jewish people came into existence between about 850BCE and 650 BCE, with some elements, such as the song of Deborah, being composed at earlier dates.

It will be appreciated that this article represents merely an introductory overview of some of the issues which continue to be debated in the pages of journals such as the Biblical Archaeological Review, as competing scholars engage in the interpretation of texts and archaeological explorations which by their nature are necessarily inconclusive. However I would wish students and teachers the best of luck in a fascinating enterprise.

© Ian Lacey AM 2008