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HABIRUThe Rise of Earliest Israel
By Gary Arthur Thomson
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Gary Arthur Thomson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIsrael began at Shechem
And so, slowly, reluctantly, I have been driven back to my starting-point, like a man who at the end of a tremendous journey is told that he has been sleepwalking. —Lawrence Durrell
In ordinary times and circumstances the comely city of Shechem sat like a beautiful queen amid the foothills of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Her sand colored cyclopean walls and towers glistened in the morning sunlight as the city faced eastward over the Plain called by her name. In regal splendor Shechem sat enthroned in the vale between the two sentinel-like peaks. Commercial traffic from Beth-Shan, Damascus, Haran, and other markets in Aram (Syria) and Mesopotamia flowed into her Northeast Gate. Caravans from the Phoenician coastal cities entered by the Western Gate. Traders from Bethel, Beer-Sheba, the Negev and Egypt passed by the ancient Well of Jacob and through the South Gate. Strategically situated in this central mountain pass at the junction of mainly traveled highways, the royal city of Shechem formally awaited the coming of soldier, merchant, ambassador and priest. When first seen by a weary traveler, the splendor of her stately walls and gates must have inspired awe. The largest fortress-temple in Palestine loomed high above the city. Its quiet reserve and dignity would strike reverential fear in babbling priest and humble saint alike. Even the later temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem was not to surpass its gigantic size and height.
On an unnumbered day in a year approximating 1230 BCE, the stately city of Shechem was suddenly disturbed out of her reserved formality, her closely-watched market, her liturgical inner temple routine, her orderly sentinelled turrets. A flood of people from every direction poured into her gates and thronged her narrow streets. The highways were crawling with visitors. Brightly colored tents had sprung up over the little foothills and even up on the plastered glacís of the earthen moat which skirted the city walls. The queenly city was being adorned for festival in the costumes of her guests. Inside and outside the gates, the festive spirit prevailed.
The people thronging the royal city were not princes and nobles. There were no regal processions on the program. No long parades of soldiers, trumpeters, and dignitaries.
Instead, there were just ordinary people—excited people in the mood that something great was about to happen. It was a colorful milieu of simple well-dressed clansmen, and dour priestly ascetics who peered suspiciously at one another in the hot temple marketplace.
Shechem was located in the central hill country of Palestine. It was the chief city of the region claimed by the Tribe of Manasseh. Ephraim and Manasseh were brother tribes of the mighty House of Joseph. These descendents of Joseph had evidently lived in the Shechem area for a long time. Probably they migrated to Palestine from Egypt. Amorite (Semitic) peoples had controlled Egypt from about 1750 to 1550 BCE. Following the rise of Imperial Egypt about 1550 BCE, these Amorite peoples were largely expelled. Under duress, some remained in Egypt—later to become slaves. So the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh perhaps acted as hosts at the Shechem festival. Proudly they directed visitors to the Tomb of Joseph on the outskirts of the city.
Some of the visitors were Asherites who had settled on the Mediterranean coastal plain north of Mount Carmel. Undoubtedly, they had contacted the newly rising culture of Phoenicia. Perhaps the Asherites wore Mediterranean styles showing the effect of the Phoenician knack for trading.
Other tribes had picked up the strong covenant traditions of the Hittites for whom central Palestine was a border region. The Hittites about 1650 BCE had fortified Shechem itself when its massive cyclopean walls were erected. The Hittites were first to make treaties or covenants with other nations in order to implement the peace after war.
Most of the seventeen or eighteen tribes thronging into Shechem on that extraordinary day in 1230 BCE were descendants of the legendary Jacob who was also called Israel.
The most dominating and enthusiastic tribes present that day had recently escaped from slavery in Egypt. They had been prisoners at work camps at Rameses and Succoth—storehouse cities in the northern Egyptian delta. These later tribes were zealously devoted to the mountain god, Yahweh, to whom they credited their miraculous escape.
Yahweh, they reported, had led them as fugitives along a circuitous wilderness route avoiding highways patrolled by Egyptians. These escaped slaves espoused the mighty House of Judah as their stock and tribe. On their wilderness journey throughout Jacob's homeland, they reconnoitered with Calebites, Simeonites, and Kenites. The Kenites were coppersmiths of the Sinai region. The father-in-law of Moses, leader of the escapees, was a Kenite. As a Kenite priest, Jethro had introduced Moses to the god, Yahweh, and a knowledge of the world's earliest alphabet found inscribed at copper mines at Serabit el-Khadem.
The Calebites, the Simeonites, the Kenites, and lately the House of Judah were all devoted to the mountain god, Yahweh. The tribes aligned with the House of Joseph who had recently escaped from Egypt were grateful for the desert hospitality. Together, these spirited tribes stirred up the enthusiasm to nettle the House of Joseph to call the tribal assembly at Shechem. Until this festive day at Shechem, most of the settled northern tribes had been somewhat isolated and unrelated. Unaligned and unallied, they had eked out a barren living on the fringes of the prosperous Canaanite city-states. Disconnected and insecure, they felt the need of alliance to stabilize their unprotected settlements in the unoccupied wilds of central Canaan. Even the zealous newcomers—the Judahites, the Calebites, the Simeonites, and the Kenites—had staked out claims in the southern hills that were cut off from the northern tribes by a row of fortified Canaanite cities—Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, Kiriathjearim, Harheres, Aijalon and Shaalbim.
All of the motley tribes that came en masse to Shechem in 1230 BCE had one thing in common. They all claimed to be descendents of the legendary matriarchs and patriarchs—Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Leah, Rachel and Jacob. This was their campfire oral tradition. This was the thread of the stories that their bards told and retold.
Sarah and Abraham had caravanned into the Land of Canaan and looked upon the barren hills as a possible place to settle. Several centuries had passed since then. It was recalled that Abraham built an altar at Shechem by a sacred oak. Shechem came under Hittite suzerainty and the Hittites built a temple there. In the earlier time of Sarah and Abraham there was no temple or fortified city. The sacred area was simply a high place. It was also remembered that Jacob's family had made a covenant in that same spot. At the tribal homecoming in 1230 BCE, the sacred precinct could still be defined. It was the scene of hallowed legends and memories. It was the holy high place for the Shechem festival in 1230 BCE.
Chapter TwoThe Shechem Covenant
When an eye-witness sets down in narrative form some extraordinary occurrence which he has witnessed, that is news—that is the news form, and its interest is absolutely indestructible; time can have no deteriorating effect upon that episode. —Mark Twain
Israel's official beginning happened something like this. All of the tribes had arrived for the Shechem festival. Big houses like Ephraim, Manasseh and Judah. Little tribes like Caleb and Gad. Half-castes like Dan and Asher. Negev desert clans like the Jerahmeelites and Kenites. And there must have been other interesting kinfolk, runaway slaves, discontented Canaanites, unidentified strangers within the gates.
A qahal—an assembly was called in the courtyard of the huge fortress-temple at Shechem. A qahal was a very early nomadic assembly of people called together to decide what action should be taken about a situational problem that had arisen. The earliest meaning refers to a caravan encamping. Numbers 33:25. One notes that the caravansary of Sarah and Abraham rested for the first time in the Land of Canaan at Shechem. The author was present when some Middle Bronze II pots were archaeologically excavated from this caravansary site.
The sacred precinct was called a maqom. Archaeologists have located Shechem's maqom within the fortress-temple itself. The early material in Genesis is cultically oriented to at least five centers—Shechem, Bethel, Mamre, Beer-Sheva, and Moriah. Each has a sacred precinct or maqom.
Joshua called the assembly to order. He is the pivotal figure at the Shechem festival. Joshua seems to have come from Timnath-heres in the hill country of Ephraim about 15 miles from Shechem. Six centuries later, Deuteronomist propaganda portrayed Joshua leading a massive invasion of Canaan wiping out every man, woman, and child. In reality as seen in the Book of Judges 24 and Numbers 11:28, Joshua was highly regarded Ephraimite leader. Joshua had shown his extraordinary leadership skills at Shechem—the central city of the northern settlements. As a northerner, Joshua shared in the espionage of southern tribes to overcome the chain of Canaanite fortress cities in the Shephalah region. Therefore when the northern House of Joseph hosted the assembly at Shechem, Joshua was probably the best local leader who could rise to the occasion.
The fortress-temple was called a migdol. The massive migdol at Shechem is the largest in Palestine superseding the biblical references to the size of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. It was constructed about 1650 BCE by the Hittites and destroyed about 1100 BCE. A masabah—a sacred pillar and an elah—a sacred oak were located inside the temple area. The central white pillar is the spectacular object in the maqom. It was unearthed in 1926 by Ernst Sellin. It is implicitly connected with the Shechem Covenant.
In Abraham's era, Shechem was little more than a caravan station. The simple village had no walls or temple. Abraham worshiped on a high place at a sacred pillar under a sacred oak. In 1230 BCE the more formal setting, Joshua presided over a ceremony that covenanted Yahweh with the disparate assembled tribes. The passionate devotees of Yahweh probably carried the day with their fervency. They hailed what Yahweh had done for them in their exodus out of Egypt. But Joshua maintained order in setting forth the choices before the people. He appealed to the deeper traditions of all of the tribes represented at the assembly. Citing their heroic past as what they had in common, Joshua was able to conciliate and overcome hostility and distrust. Unlike a royal dynasty passing from father to son, the acclaimed leadership in early Israel was non-hereditary. In many ways like the Arab Spring of 2011, leadership emerged somewhat "democratically" from the people. Like Joshua, these early leaders were called shophetim. A shophet was primarily a deliverer, a military champion, a spontaneous heavyweight!
Carefully and clearly, Joshua framed the covenant in terms evidently understood by all the tribes. He used the Covenant Formula used by Hittite kings and queens in relating to other nations like Egypt. The Hittites were the first Europeans by virtue of the fact that they were the first Europeans to write about themselves. European history begins with this written record. The Hittites adopted cuneiform—the world's first writing system from the Sumerians who invented it. Cuneiform—"wedge-shaped" syllabic sound signs—was used longer that the alphabet to write various languages of the Ancient Near East. The alphabet was invented in southern Canaan within the same time frame of the Israelite settlements in the land.
The Hittites used the vocalizations of the Sumerian syllabary to record the sounds of their own spoken language. In 1915 Bedich Hrozný, a Czech archaeologist and linguist, determined that Hittite was an Indo-European language. The study of Hittite has provided significant information about the early Indo-European sound system and the structure of the Proto-Indo-European parent language.
Needless to say, the Israelites were familiar with Hittite culture and language. In war and peace, the Hittites were the first to implement the peace with carefully crafted treaties or covenants. The Israelites patterned their Covenant with Yahweh on the model of the Hittite Covenant.
By the sacred pillar beneath the sacred oak, all the tribes had pledged themselves to keep the Covenant. Each year they returned to the shrine at Shechem to renew their Covenant with Yahweh and with each other in the Tribal Confederacy of Israel.
The basic text of the Covenant is found in the Book of Joshua 24. Other fragments are found in Joshua 8:30-35; Deuteronomy 5:6-21; 6:21-25; 11:30-35; 26:5-9; 27:10-13; Psalm 136:4-22.
V. Korosec did the original form analysis of Hittite texts of covenants and treaties. He distinguished between parity and suzerainty treaties—between equals and between unequal's. The Covenant that Yahweh made with Israel was suzerainty. Yet as prophets like Hosea point out, it was Israel not Yahweh who often broke the Covenant of unequal's which they had no right to break. George E. Mendenhall has done more recent literary form studies of the Covenant.
The English translation used here is the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
Chapter ThreeThe Land
In the hearts and minds of the people, the grapes of wrath were growing heavy for the vintage. —John Steinbeck
Centuries before the Shechem Covenant, the Land conjured up an important image in the evolving mind of the habiru. Long before the transient tribespeople ever conceived of themselves as Israel, there was a yearning amongst these nomads for a place to settle down. This wistfulness about The Land lurks in the legends of the matriarchs and patriarchs—Sarah and Abraham and their children from one generation to another. Centuries later at the Shechem confederation ceremonies, the habiru stand in awe as the promise of land is fulfilled. Each tribe represented at Shechem feels an ownership of its allotted territory even though in most cases the allocations were still in Canaanite hands.
The Land they yearned for was not especially valuable. Rough and rocky, it was a land that earlier prospective immigrants had left largely vacant. Most of the sparse Canaanite population lived in villages in the fertile valleys. In Palestine, the age that archaeologists call Middle Bronze II 2200-1950 BCE was a period of gradual immigration and settling. A catastrophic decline occurred about 1950 BCE. Very few settlements seem to have survived what is thought to have been a military purge or an economic depression. The military and economic politics of the rising Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt were certainly related to Palestine's decline and are reflected in the Egyptian Story of Si-Nuhe; the narrative describes an Egyptian official living in Syro-Palestine at this time.
Excerpted from HABIRU by Gary Arthur Thomson Copyright © 2011 by Gary Arthur Thomson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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