Religion, class struggles, and revolution in ancient Judea

Jack Conrad examines Ancient Israel (supplement)

During Victorian times, prompted by the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures, with their recurring stories of backsliding kings and the constant attempts by fiery prophets to uphold the ancestral faith, Christian thinkers rejected the claim that religion evolved from animism, to polytheism, to henotheism and finally to monotheism - an idea first popularised by Auguste Comte (1798-1857). It was, they said, the other way round. That in prehistory all of humanity held to a belief in the one true god, but that over the generations this was obscured and corrupted by the cults of lesser sacred beings.

Yet despite occasional lapses, such as their worship of bronze serpents and golden calves, the chosen people stayed faithful to the god of Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Joseph and Moses. Through continuing, deepening and universalising this tradition, Christianity supposedly allowed humanity to rediscover or recall the first revelation of the deity.

The most influential advocate of this theory of devolution from what has been called primitive monotheism was Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954), an Austrian Catholic priest, who was also a respected linguist and ethnologist. In his view the original object of worship was a creator sky god. Apparent similarities between the supreme sky deities of preliterate cultures and the single godheads of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism were cited as proof.[1]

Suffice to say, this religious comfort blanket has long been discarded by serious scholarship. As I will show, it was only following the return from Babylonian exile after 538 BCE that the Jewish religion assumed a form that we would recognise today. In fact, the aim of this three-part study is to locate the main internal and external factors involved in bringing about the Jerusalem temple cult described in the New Testament, in which, of course, Jesus and his party participated and sought to purify through their audacious actions. Necessarily, that means evaluating competing theories advanced by academics and seeing what contribution Marxism has made.


The Torah, the so-called five books of Moses in the Old Testament, offers tantalising glimpses, albeit through cracks in the officially constructed account, of the period prior to the general crisis of the late Bronze Age: ie, before the 13th century BCE.

 Patriarchal social structures, pastoralism, recurring vendettas and routine banditry combined with an unmistakable animism. Strange spirits roam the earth, including nephilim, or the “sons of god”. They “took to wife” the daughters of men who bore them children - the gibborim.[2] Elsewhere, the Bible talks vaguely of rephaim, ancestor or clan gods, and in all likelihood nature deities: “Your fathers lived of old beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor; and they served other gods”[3] ... “the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the river”.[4]

From such tiny literary fragments, numerous archaeological digs, anthropological studies and wide-ranging socio-economic theorisation scholars have put together a credible socio-economic picture of the ancient Hebrews and their religion.

To bring about symbolic cohesion, the appearance of social oneness, herding peoples carried their clan gods with them in the form of sacred objects - peculiarly shaped stones or pieces of wood. Biblical references to the ‘ark of the covenant’ - a sacred box which contains the god - surely recall these times. Worship took place in a special tent (tabernacle). So the specifically Hebrew gods were, we would guess, fetishes; a thesis reinforced by the story of Jacob’s wife, Rachel, who stole her father’s “household gods”, as she and her husband fled away towards the “hill country of Gilead”.[5] Such objects, or teraphim, brought divine protection, much needed rain and military victory.

A further insight can surely be gained by looking at contemporary pastoralists. Such peoples not only pay minute attention to their flocks and herds: whether reindeer, horse, yak, llama, camel, sheep, goat or cattle. There is a symbiotic relationship between them and their living factories on the hoof. According to Canadian anthropologist John Galaty, one animal is usually “culturally dominant” - crucial for subsistence and also a means of exchange and measure of status and wealth. Furthermore, the dominant animal comes to be “an object of emotional interest and symbolic elaboration”.[6] Pastoralists internalise the image of their dominant animal. It becomes part of a herder’s sense of inner self and a “lens through which the world is perceived and understood”.

In a public display of affluence, religious devotion and community solidarity, the herder offers a correspondingly fitting gift to the gods. They sacrifice their most prized animal: a pared down version of the system of total exchange which characterised primitive communism[7] and its ‘don’t eat your own kill’ taboo.[8]

From the Bible, and what can readily be deduced from other sources, the ancient Hebrews primarily relied on sheep and goats for their livelihood. According to the Bible they also sacrificed bulls. So maybe there were those amongst them who once tended substantial numbers of cattle and worshipped a god represented by a golden calf. But, whatever their main outward manifestation of wealth, for patriarchal heads of important families, status stemmed from the size of their flocks and herds.

That also went for gaining women. Wealthy men in effect purchased brides through exchanging them for sheep, goats or cattle. Because they could accumulate large numbers of animals they could accumulate multiple wives. With a ratio of say 50 animals to one wife, that could realistically mean four or five wives. Women became a form of private property; and, of course, brides moved away from their kin and instead joined the husband’s family (not the other way round, as in primitive communism). And, as the Bible shows, if her husband died she was expected to make herself available to marry one of his brothers or another close relative. Property was retained through such means.

Preliterate cultures develop elaborate religious systems, which explain not only ancestral origins and gender relationships, but the workings of nature. Life demands of such peoples an intimate knowledge of the alternating seasons and the geographical features and properties of the landscape they inhabit. This is achieved, remembered and transmitted through ritual, art and myth rather than rational investigation, testing and the peer-reviewed papers associated with modern science.

Nature in each of its elemental aspects is considered the realm of a particular self-willed god or the dwelling place of this or that spirit. Clouds, rain and the winds; the sun, moon and the stars; caves, trees and springs are anthropomorphised: given distinct personalities that must be engaged with and propriated. Religion thereby comes to provide a cosmology, which serves to grade, interpret and open up a deeper understanding of the environment.

It is an elementary mistake to dismiss the religions of preliterate peoples as worthless, half-formed or childish compared with those of classic antiquity, high feudalism and rising capitalist societies. Nowadays, most specialists in the field agree with the noted French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Despite his structuralist anti-evolutionism and the prime place he assigned to the mind and moody, introspective contemplation about humanity’s place in the universe - What is the purpose of life? Is there free will? When we die what follows next? - Lévi-Strauss rightly argued that in the myths and rituals of preliterate peoples we see not an inferior intelligence, but a common need by all human beings to classify the world.[9] These men and women were not, and are not, less intelligent; rather differences in thinking are simply the outcome of the input of different data upon which human logic operates.


Back to the ancient Hebrews. The current balance of scholarly opinion is firmly against the wandering children of Yahweh, who after departing from Abraham’s ancestral land of Haran journeyed to and fro around the Middle East; whose 12 tribes descended from Jacob’s 12 sons; who entered, prospered, multiplied and then sank into servitude in Egypt; who, led by Moses, escaped, hotly persuaded by the pharaoh’s chariots and cavalrymen; and who, after spending decades roaming the inhospitable wastes of the Sinai and Arabian deserts, seized Canaan under Joshua. All carefully manufactured myth.

Pastoralists, it must be stressed, cannot travel hither and thither in the manner described in the Bible. Water and pastureland are prime but always limited resources and are vigilantly guarded. Each tribe, clan and even constituent extended family group has its recognised watering holes and territorial range, within which it regularly relocates, according to routine and carefully observed seasonal indicators. Those who stray into another’s terrain, either by intention or unintention, will quickly find themselves meeting a fully armed reception committee.

Pastoralists must always be prepared for war and if strong enough will exact brotherhood taxes on caravan trains which pass through their customarily established space. Pastoralists also engaged in what was closely associated - armed raiding on near neighbours.[10] Palestine, let us note, lay strategically located between the great civilisations of the ancient Middle East and straddled the east-west Mesopotamia and Egypt trade route and the south-north trade route joining India, the Yemen and the Red Sea with Phoenicia and Anatolia.

Because pastoralists regularly turn to protection rackets, intimidation and outright robbery as a means of gaining an extra income, inevitably theories arose of an eternal conflict between warmongering keepers of herds and flocks and peaceable villagers. Roman, Islamic and French imperialists each in turn depicted themselves as protectors of civilisation against desert barbarians. Though possessing impeccably progressive credentials, the historian, Fernand Braudel (1902-85), even wrote of “the clash between two economies, civilisations, societies and arts of living”.[11] Nowadays, however, most scholars consider such stark formulations badly misconceived.

Pastoralism is not a self-contained socio-economic mode of production. Invariably there is a close, usually subordinate, relationship with settled village agriculture. In the case of Bronze Age Palestine this would, under ‘normal’ circumstances, situate the pastoralists within the penumbra of the tribute system of the Canaanite city-states.

Winter rains allow pastoralists to fan out far and wide in order to exploit the grasslands that suddenly appear. However, once the dry season comes round and the grass withers and dies, they head back to settled areas. Water and feed for herds and flocks must be secured. After the summer harvest had been gathered in from the peasants’ fields the remaining stubble would have been an obvious place to graze them. The animals would in turn supply much needed fertiliser.

Such a metabolic exchange must entail gaining the cooperation of the sedentary population. This is achieved through a negotiated business transaction, which might see pastoralists working as temporary farm labourers; military domination by either side; or intermarriage and forming a farmer-herder family joint venture. So nomadic pastoralists in the Levant are, in fact, much better thought of as being semi-nomadic.

Nor, incidentally, should it be assumed that pastoralism and semi-nomadic modes of socio-economic life predate the beginnings of seed-crop agriculture in the Middle East. On the contrary, the domestication of goats and sheep either came after the establishment of villages, the farming of cereals and pulses and the construction of irrigation systems or, at least, developed side by side with them as part of a combined agricultural package.[12]

There was in all likelihood a political factor at play too. Besides searching out new economic opportunities, those turning to semi-nomadic pastoralism may well have been trying to put themselves at one remove from the grasping hand of Canaanite state control. Till this day mobile peoples show not the slightest enthusiasm for schemes to settle them (and thereby subject them to taxation, wage-slavery and state control). Various accounts of conquest by barbaric nomads that come down to us from ancient sources could therefore be reinterpreted as possible violent returns by rebellious, freedom-loving exiles.


Hence, as the reader might have expected, we arrive at the well known account of Joshua. The Bible relates how with the death of Moses a new Hebrew commander-in-chief arose. Joshua served as a “minister” under Moses and it was he who appointed him as his successor. So nothing much in the way of a democratic culture on display in this instance. Underlining the point, anyone amongst the Hebrews tempted to rebel against Joshua’s word is promptly threatened with “death”.[13]

Yahweh tells the newly installed Joshua to issue orders for the 12 Hebrew tribes, the Israelites, to immediately prepare for the much delayed crossing of the river Jordan so as to take possession of the land long ago pledged to them. Of course, Joshua does as he is told. Ominously, given present-day Israeli politics, the territory is described as stretching from “the wilderness and this Lebanon” to the “great river” Euphrates and all the lands of the Hittites to the Mediterranean, the “Great Sea”, and “toward the going down of the sun”.[14]

Headed by Levite priests carrying the ark of god, the invasion of Canaan begins. Yahweh miraculously stops the flow of the Jordan to allow the Israelite men-at-arms to safely cross along with wives, children, animals and other possessions. Encamped on the left bank of the river, Joshua oversees the circumcising of all uncircumcised males (a practice that seems to have lapsed during the 40 years spent in the Sinai and Arabian deserts). The Hebrews are sworn to exterminate the entire indigenous population of Canaan, to uproot every trace of idolatry and to exclusively worship Yahweh.

Everyone surely knows the next episode in the story. Jericho is besieged and Joshua sends the ark, accompanied by seven priests marching around the city each day. On the seventh they noisily blow their trumpets of rams’ horn and - hey presto - Jericho’s stout walls crumble. The city is torched. There is much booty and much bloodshed. Both “men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and asses” are slaughtered.[15]

Next, the story moves to Hebrews who kept looted treasures from Jericho for themselves. Guiltily they confess and are swiftly dispatched: stoned or burnt to death. These transgressors are blamed for a frustrating setback in battle. Yahweh had decreed that all gold and silver were his and his alone. Suitably purified, the Hebrews then target the city of Ai. Joshua carries out a clever military ruse. Once again there is total destruction and mass killing. Fearing the same fate, the people of Gibeon sue for peace. They plead that being foreigners they are not due to be exterminated. Joshua believes them and agrees terms. When their lie is exposed, the Gibeonites are spared, but cursed to be “slaves, hewers of wood and drawers of water” in perpetuity.[16]

The Hebrews go on to rout the combined might of the five kingdoms of the Ammonites - Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon. Yahweh rains deadly hailstones down upon them from the heavenly heights. And, so as to provide sufficient light for the almost industrial extermination of the terrified Ammonites, the sun and the moon are made to stand still. Joshua proceeds to sack, burn, massacre and terrorise his way through the rest of Canaan. Finally, the city of Hazor was taken and, again obeying Yahweh, the Hebrews “did not leave any that breathed”.[17]

Looking at passages such as this, the modern reader cannot but be struck by an eerie resemblance that exists between Yahweh’s genocidal programme and Adolph Hitler’s ethnic purity laws and his crazy plans, flagged in Mein Kampf, to remove the entire Slavic populations to the east - that or reduce them to slavery - so as to provide his beloved German yeoman farmers with labour and Lebensraum (living space).

Anyway, though there were still unexterminated Canaanites within their borders and god-sanctioned conquests to the west, north, south and east remaining to be accomplished, the tribes are each allotted their carefully delineated territory - being otherwise privileged, the Levite priesthood has to make do with burnt sacrificial offerings and pastures and towns specially put aside for them in the midst of other tribes.

So comes into being the post-conquest social order described in Deuteronomy, Judges, Ruth and Samuel. From the death of Joshua to the inauguration of the monarchy the loose confederation of Hebrew tribes was advised, guided and on countless occasions rebuked by the so-called judges. They acted as military leaders and a kind of collective conscience for the whole people.

Religiously sanctioned measures, presumably designed to prevent extremes of poverty and wealth, were put in place: “there will be no poor among you”, confidently proclaims the book of Deuteronomy.[18] In order to keep a due sense of proportion, it is worth adding that the same book contradictorily admits, just a few lines down, that “the poor will never cease out of the land”.[19]

Nevertheless, the egalitarian ethos is clear. Every 49 years, more likely every seven, a jubilee happened. A year of release from the chains of debt and indentured labour. Enslaved Hebrews were to “go free” and be furnished “liberally” with grain, wine, sheep and goats. Elsewhere we read about land and property. Each seventh year the land had to remain fallow and property was to be returned to its original owners (or heirs). Though slavery and debt bondage was a constant danger for the poor, given the period we are talking about, the people of Israel seemingly enjoyed a quite extraordinary social settlement: “In those days there were no kings in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”[20]

We actually have no hard evidence that the Israeli inter-tribal confederation ever existed (or whether it was a much later biblical invention). “It is extremely difficult any longer to assert that it did”, remarks a doubting Thomas Thompson.[21]

Quite conceivably the general crisis of the Bronze Age produced social chaos, along with a myriad of highly localised strong men and rival tribal chiefdoms, before the re-emergence of state formations. But the fact is that Deuteronomy, Judges, Ruth and Samuel contain a strong egalitarian strand. And radical scholars have understandably made much of such passages and descriptions.

Three examples. George Mendenhall presented a groundbreaking case for a revolutionary anti-monarchist Israel founded on a direct treaty between each individual and Yahweh.[22] Another American, Norman Gottwald, maintained that Hebrew society under the judges was “revolutionary and egalitarian”.[23] Along the same lines, but with undoubted hyperbole, at least in my opinion, Jan Dus, a Czech theologian and anti-Stalinite dissident, even claimed that the judges oversaw the “first ideologically based socio-political revolution in the history of the world”.[24]

Damning archaeology

More about such ideas below. At this point in the discussion we shall, however, investigate our subject from another direction. The traditional dating for the Hebrew conquest of Canaan is between 1230 and 1220 BCE.* This neatly fits with the claimed flight of the Hebrews from Egypt and references in the book of Exodus to Ramesside pharaohs. Yet, though there is an Egyptian victory stele of the pharaoh Merneptah mentioning a group called Israel in Canaan, which is believed to refer to the year 1207 BCE, the whole narrative of Joshua’s invasion and the destruction of its native population is now widely doubted - to put it mildly.

The eradication, or driving out, of the indigenous population, and its replacement by another, completely fresh people, was once widely presumed to reflect the general pattern of ancient and early medieval history. Eg, Romano-Britons being physically supplanted by Anglo-Saxons. Nowadays such versions of history are disputed across a whole range of disciplines. Of course, there were genocides. The Athenian assembly voted in 416 BCE to put to death all male captives on the small Aegean island of Melos. On a much bigger scale the Mongol horde, under Genghis Khan, carried out massacres in a string of cities - eg, Ghazni, Herat and Merv - during the 13th century. In most instances, however, conquerors would much rather take over the exploitation of the native peasants than kill them off as if they were vermin: time-consuming and economically counterproductive.

Let us get down to specifics. The archaeology is damning. There are “abundant records” from Egypt in the late Bronze Age (1550-1150 BCE) which show that the Canaanite city-states - and beyond them to the north the great Phoenician trading ports and from there into south-west Syria - were vassals.[25] Clay accounting tablets, temple engravings and diplomatic correspondence prove that the pharaohs regularly issued orders and were in receipt of a steady flow of tribute. More than that, Egyptian administrators, Egyptian troops and Egyptian-paid mercenaries were stationed in towns and strong points in Canaan. And yet the book of Joshua completely fails to mention Egyptians outside the context of Egypt itself.

Perhaps because of gouging Egyptian tribute, perhaps because of hobbling Egyptian decrees, Canaanite cities were unfortified, much diminished and presumably pretty shabby at the time. No tall towers or intimidatingly thick walls, as alluded to in the book of Joshua. Nor did they command vast armies. In fact they were “pathetically weak”.[26]

The pharaohs built an empire, which included not only Canaan. Their domains reached into Libya and incorporated the whole of Nubia down to the fourth cataract. Tribute also flowed in from Cyprus, Crete and Syria. The Egyptian sphere of influence had hardly ever been so extensive. Visit the temple complex at Abu Simbel on the shores of Lake Nasser and stand before the four colossal statues of Rameses II (reigned 1279-1213 BCE) and you will appreciate something of the confidence, wealth and ego of its rulers.

Though its hold over Canaan was steadily weakening, this late Bronze Age superpower would have experienced no particular trouble in dispatching necessary reinforcements, if needed, through their well-managed and well-fortified Sinai coastal road into Canaan - had there been any sort of serious armed incursion by Hebrews (leave aside whether or not they were refugees who had fled Egypt decades before). Not surprisingly Merneptah’s stele reports that Israel was crushed. Apart from that, Israel and the Israelites go unmentioned in what Egyptian records we have available to us from the period.

Except from the Hittite empire in the north, Egyptian domination of Canaan met no strategic challenge. And Egypt came to a stand-off agreement with the Hittites despite the bruising a youthful Rameses II received at the battle of Kadesh (1274 BCE). Taking cognisance of this geo-political balance of power, the idea of a raggle-taggle Hebrew population, who had been scratching out a precarious existence in the desert wilderness for 40 years, storming their way through an Egyptian-dominated Canaan is simply not credible.

Circumstances were different in the middle Bronze Age. Then there was indeed a system of affluent, tribute-gathering and militarily powerful Canaanite city-states - despite their independence one from another they were linked by alliances and shared a common culture. But during the late Bronze Age they fell into decline. Jericho, Ai and Megiddo were abandoned. Other urban centres were destroyed: eg, Ashdod, Aphek and Hazor. Nowadays this is not put down to Joshua. Rather explanation is sought in ecological degradation, disease, social revolt due to overexploitation and the raids and dislocation caused by the so-called sea peoples.** Doubtless there was a combination of factors at play. But all that was happening several centuries before Joshua was supposed to have marched Yahweh’s chosen people across the Jordan.

The late Bronze Age general crisis hit the whole of the eastern Mediterranean during the close of the 13th century BCE. Archaeological excavations in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt reveal a “stunning story of upheaval, war and widespread social breakdown”.[27] The collapse of the western Roman empire in the 5th century AD was nothing in comparison. In the Roman case there was the severing of vital trade connections; a breakdown, fast or slow, of the tax system in successor states; a general decline in material production; and widespread depopulation (not that the reduction of the tax burden on the immediate producers should be discounted here - freed from gross exploitation, peasants would no longer need to maximise their biologically generated labour force - instead they would have arguably practised restrictive family planning in its various available forms[28]). Anyway, population laws aside, at the most extreme, Britannia fragmented into numerous petty chiefdoms, which culturally stood roughly on a par with what the remote island managed to achieve during the late Iron Age.[29]

Back to the main thread of the argument. Though it survived the Bronze Age general crisis, Egypt was left a shadow of its former self, being stripped of all vassals. Tribute dried up; so did international trade. The production of bronze must have become problematic - tin and copper being rare metals in Egypt, the kingdom relying heavily on “importation”.[30] Presumably Egypt resorted to metallurgical cannibalism. However, the other superpower of the day, the Hittite empire located in Turkey and northern Syria, disappeared entirely. Related tribute-gathering palace economies were likewise extinguished. Mycenae, the city of the famed Agamemnon, the overlord of all the Achaeans in the Iliad, was overrun and destroyed. Subsequently Greece experiences a prolonged dark age. There was a loss of writing and rapid depopulation; and not only in the few remaining cities, but in the countryside too. Sites in Crete, Cyprus and the Levant share the same characteristic blackened archaeological strata, indicating conflagration and a violent end - excavators find ash, charred wood and slag formed from melted mud bricks - and above that the replacement of a materially rich culture by one that is noticeably impoverished in terms of objects.

As an aside, Robert Drews argues that it was new military techniques which tilted the balance against the palace economies. Bowmen and infantry throwing javelins, protected by packed lines of men carrying long spears and large, round shields, ended the military dominance previously enjoyed by hugely expensive, aristocratic chariot warfare.[31]

The Bronze Age general crisis certainly left behind many enigmatic ruins scattered throughout Canaan. The German biblical scholars, Albrecht Alt (1883-1956) and Martin Noth (1902-1968), reasoned that local stories peopled with legendary heroes and villains must have sprung up which gave meaning to those gigantic wrecks. Both men thought that there was also the likelihood of genuine folk memories. Namely, victories scored by hill-country militias over the declining Canaanite city-states, which had till then dominated and exploited them. The book of Joshua was, they concluded, a stitching together of these accounts into a single and much elaborated epic. It ought to be added that both Alt and Noth drew inspiration from the “documentary hypothesis” approach to the Bible developed by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) - who was himself unmistakably influenced by the explicitly atheistic writings of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72).


Now let us ask an obvious question: who were the Israelites? Intriguingly, apart from the lone Merneptah stele directly mentioning Israel, there are records of two other named groups who are of obvious interest here. People who lived on the margins of Canaanite society “between the desert and the sown”.[32]

The first is the Shosu. They kept flocks and herds and appear to have been something of an all-round nuisance. An Egyptian report tells of a punishment raid on their tented encampments, from which they took away cattle “without number”.[33]

The other group was the Apiru (or Habiru). A term that crops up throughout the Middle East in the Bronze Age, but - and this is obviously significant - it does so especially with reference to Canaan. They seem to have been an amorphous collection of escapees from, or rebels against, war, taxation, famine and state power. Disparagingly, the Apiru are portrayed in official sources as criminals, brigands or mercenary soldiers ready for hire. Contending state formations loathed, dreaded and yet might choose to cynically use them. Surely, however, the Apiru would have had their own programme and ideology. An ancient combination of the Luddites, the Sicilian mafia, Nestor Makhno’s Black Army and the Peoples Temple of Jim Jones perhaps. Anyone familiar with Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive rebels (1959) will get the point. Such honourable outlaws, self-defence associations, religious dissenters and bands of social avengers can arrive at the point where “class conflicts are dominant”.[34]

Various writers have speculated about a linguistic connection between the words ‘Apiru’ (or ‘Habiru’) and ‘Hebrew’ (the Israelites). Opinion is still divided. Nevertheless, even if there is no direct join, both Shosu and Apiru might provide a clue about who the Israelites might have been.

Whereas archaeological superstars such as William Albright and Yigael Yadin believed they were proving, illustrating, filling in the fine details of the biblical account contained in Joshua, long before them an iconoclastic Albrecht Alt argued, beginning in the 1920s, that the Israelites did not originate in northern Mesopotamia. Nor did they wander round the Middle East before their spectacular invasion of Canaan. Hence Alt not only rejected the biblical account. He rejected the standard academic model of grand people movements - a nationalist assumption which dominated history writing from the late 19th century onwards, when dealing with the ancient world.***

Alt put forward the idea that the Israelites were modest pastoralists, a loosely organised independent group of Shosu-like people, who regularly shifted between the Transjordan plateau and the Jordan valley. At the end of the Bronze Age they began to relocate, clearing areas in the next-door, heavily wooded, sparsely inhabited central highlands of Palestine. Given the lack of direct state control by the Canaanite cities, this sedentarisation - the voluntary settling down to a farming way of life - proceeded, in Alt’s model, without large-scale battles, prolonged sieges or mass slaughter. Instead he proposed a gradual process of peaceful infiltration.

As the population of the highlands steadily increased, the corresponding scarcity of land and water led the Hebrews down into the coastal plain. Only then came serious military conflicts with the Canaanite city-states. Here, or so concluded Alt’s theory, was the real background to the recurring struggles between the Israelites and neighbouring peoples vividly described in the book of Judges.

In the 1960s and 70s Alt’s peaceful-infiltration theory was increasingly disputed. I am not talking about Christian or Zionist fundamentalists; that almost goes without saying.**** No, I refer to serious critics. Tellingly, a range of biblical scholars, anthropologists, historians and sociologists pointed to field studies which showed an intimate connection between semi-nomads and village farmers in the Middle East. Not unreasonably, Alt’s critics, friendly and hostile, argued that in ancient times the pastoralist population who regularly headed east from the fertile northern section of the Jordan valley with the coming of the winter rains, and those practising peasant agriculture, were quite possibly one and the same ethnic entity. More than that, while pastoralists might opt for a settled life - for example, because of climate change - once conditions allowed, they returned to their old ways. Semi-nomads certainly do not exhibit Alt’s land hunger. They are reluctant peasants.

An alternative set of theories inevitably arose. George Mendenhall, like Alt, discounted the historicity of the biblical account of Joshua’s conquests. Yet, despite his background as an ordained Lutheran minister, Mendenhall developed a groundbreaking, class-conflict thesis. For Mendenhall there was neither violent invasion nor peaceful infiltration. Rather, he contended, internal conflict pitted the rural lower classes - those who called themselves, or were called, Hebrews, or Israelites - against the exploiting “network of interlocking Canaanite city-states”.[35] Mendenhall thought in terms of a religiously motivated peasant movement and the gaining of control over an established political economy.

While he hardly discounts social relations, Mendenhall’s hypothesis ultimately rests on theological explanation. In the beginning came the idea. Yahwehism made Israel and in that spirit its operational precepts are conceived of as being nearer to Mahatma Gandhi than Thomas Müntzer. Mendenhall argues that the Israelites withdrew from the Canaanite system “not physically and geographically, but politically and subjectively”. Through that inner refusal, an increasing swathe of the population no longer felt “any obligation to the existing political regime”.[36] Legitimacy drains away (perhaps along with tax-gathering powers). And, though their final religious war swept away the latifundist-trading Canaanite ruling classes, this did not involve mass extermination by the Israelites. In percentage terms the aristocracy was, of course, insignificant anyway. Furthermore, Mendenhall insisted, the old society was not simply taken over intact. A radically novel, anti-monarchist social order was constructed, centred on a covenant between Yahweh and those who were prepared to believe in him.

Symbolically, land ownership passed from the Canaanite aristocracy and was nominally given over to Yahweh. In practice one would hazard that there would have been something akin to what in Russia was called a ‘black redistribution’. A shattering division of the great agricultural estates into numerous smallholdings. The socio-economic foundation of Israelite society was therefore constituted by a mass of independent peasant farmers. Politically there was a matching rejection of centralised power. In religious terms this ‘regulated anarchism’ correspondingly enacted rules forbidding graven images. That is, images of kings and gods, and of gods giving authority to kings.

Others took over the baton from the “pioneering work” of Mendenhall.[37] The most notable being Norman Gottwald. Like Mendenhall he is convinced that there was an Israelite revolution which finished off the Canaanite ruling classes (apart from the Philistines). Hence Joshua is treated not as history, but myth. Gottwald successfully synthesises Mendenhall and Alt by painstakingly constructing a theory which has at its core ideologically motivated escapees colonising the frontier lands of Canaan. Gottwald argues that these people played a role analogous, not to America’s westward-moving settlers,[38] but Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army.[39] The frontier constituting a base area from where a revolutionary return was carefully prepared, not a safety valve which attenuated class antagonisms.

Gottwald’s monumental study, The tribes of Yahweh (1979), is a paradigm-shifting work; it historically/theoretically reconstructs Israel as a “major sub-system”. Crucial is the understanding of religion as a “social phenomenon”, related to other social phenomena, “within the system”.[40] The influence of Marxism is unmistakable and acknowledged from the outset. The riches, complexities and contradictions of the Yahwehite religion are therefore derived from social circumstances. Not the other way round.

Gottwald fully accepts Mendenhall’s idea that pre-monarchical Israel embraced a primitive anarchism, though he prefers to call it a peasant communitarianism or an “inarticulate tribal socialism”.[41] Despite Gottwald stressing extensive common ground with Mendenhall, he refuses to subscribe to what he calls his philosophical idealism. Pointedly, he chides Mendenhall for not pursuing class and social relations far enough. Unfortunately, this produced an infuriated, but sadly conventional, reply by Mendenhall (not further development of his original insight). Gottwald was accused of forcing “the ancient historical data into the Procrustes’ bed of 19th century Marxist ideology”. A banal charge endlessly thrown against Gottwald by the academic establishment, which insists for its own reasons on gutting the history of ancient Israel - and virtually everywhere else, for that matter - of class struggle content. Technological determinism, piecemeal evolutionary change and state teleologies are always preferred over real historical movement (which is always complex and involves dialectical contradictions, class conflict and revolutionary breaks). However, as Gottwald painstakingly shows, the facts tend to support the peasant revolution thesis.[42]

Gottwald argues, crucially in his magnus opus, that the Israelites originated in the Canaanite lowlands. He depicts them as a revolutionary political movement which retreated from the stifling oppression and exploitation of the Canaanite ruling classes (and the Egyptian tribute system). These social revolutionaries organised a short march eastwards into the lawless uplands. Gottwald’s physical withdrawal could only have included relatively small numbers, especially to begin with. And probably the attempt to establish a secure base area had to be repeated by one expeditionary group after another before decisive implantation was finally achieved.

Gottwald’s ideologically inspired settlers were aided, he contends, in gaining a tolerable living for themselves, in this otherwise uninviting area, through two crucial developments: iron tools***** for hewing cisterns out of the rock to hold winter rainwater; and new plasters, which sealed cisterns and terraced hillsides. Not, it should be stressed, that Gottwald’s theory primarily relies on technological determination.

No, quite rightly, his main determination is class: eg, the “broad-based grievances and restiveness in the direction of an alternative political economy and society had deep roots in the Canaanite heartlands”.[43] The peasant mass would have looked for leadership to those who established the initial rebel foci against the Canaanite system. What must have been a permanent, smouldering class struggle between peasants and elite would, however, only have triggered a full-scale social revolt because of deep fissures opening up in the existing Canaanite ruling system. Civil wars and foreign invasions are the classic causes.

Anyway, perhaps after a number of failures, the Israelite community finally establishes itself in the highlands rising from both banks of the Jordan river. Free at last, they align themselves with the semi-pastoralist population and constitute a beacon of liberty. Welcoming a steady trickle of those “yearning to breathe free” heading out from Canaan, the Israelite revolution steadily expanded its political, military and economic base area. The ruling classes would surely have included this dissident body under the pejorative term, ‘Apiru’.

Supporting his lowland origins thesis, Gottwald cites what he considers the best archaeology. Eg, William Dever was one of his “informants” in the mid-1970s. He had shown that pottery and buildings discovered in the Palestinian highlands exhibited a similar style to lowland finds of the same 13th and 12th century BCE date.[44] For Gottwald observations such as this provided archaeological validation for his liberation theory (interestingly the philosophically “pragmatic” Dever agreed).

Not that Gottwald ignores the active role of ideas. His “liberated Israel” adopts, fashions or perfects Yahwehism. An ideology which provides the cohesion, fervour and popular appeal to raise the Israelites from peasant discontent to the tipping point delivering state power - despite seemingly impossible military odds. Theological inspiration for the Israelite revolutionary movement comes, according to Gottwald, from an exotic intellectual elite, which inherited/carried with them doctrines of the kind that lay behind the monotheism of Akhenaten in the 14th century BCE.


Let me close part one of this study with a brief detour. Akhenaten was the young pharaoh, beginning his reign as Amenhotep IV, who inaugurated a strict monotheism in Egypt by demanding the exclusive worship of the god Aten during year five of his rule. Egyptologists, it can usefully be mentioned, trace the roots of this monotheism back to the notions of a chief god put together by the high priests of Thebes and Luxor in the 16th century BCE.

Egyptian pharaohs, those whose rule went far beyond the narrow confines of the Nile (their tribute-giving subordinates included Nubia, Libya, Canaan, Crete, Cyprus and Syria), could not content themselves with the medley of national gods. With their foreign realms, soldiers, subjects, concubines and wives came the need for a religious universalism. The giddy polytheism of the early and middle kingdoms therefore gives way to the henotheism of Amun-Ra.

As a new kingdom monarch, Akhenaten is therefore to be distinguished from his contemporaries not because of adherence to a supreme god. Rather Akhenaten is to be distinguished because he imposed an uncontaminated, systematic, harsh and intolerant monotheism.

Linking Akhenaten and early Israel is a constantly recurring theme. Take Sigmund Freud. Admitting a reluctant intellectual debt to Otto Rank (1884-1939) and his writings on world myths and legends,[45] quoting a select range of biblical critics and making use of the “application of psycho-analysis”, he proposed that Moses was an Egyptian with an Egyptian name.[46]

In his slim study Moses and monotheism (1939), Freud saw the story of Moses paralleling, in whole or part, those of Karna, Gilgamesh, Semiramis, Telephus, Heracles, Amphion, Paris, Cyrus and Romulus. All of whose birth, childhood and surrounding “family romance” are purportedly derived from Sargon of Akkad, the famous conqueror of the Sumerian city-states and widely credited with being the founder of the world’s first empire (circa 23rd century BCE).

Freud contended that Moses was a high-born aristocrat and a committed Atenite priest who had fully immersed himself in its doctrines and methods. After the death of his master, the pharaoh Akhenaten, and the suppression of the Aten cult, Moses led a small group of servants, scribes and close followers out of Egypt - the original Levites. He intended to found a glorious new Atenite empire to the east. Energetic and driven, Moses wins influence over the desert-dwelling Midian tribe and then attempts to foist the Atenite religion upon them. But Moses is murdered by his “stubborn and refractory people”.[47] Possessing a higher culture, however, the Levites assert their authority, albeit through agreeing a religious compromise. After their prolonged, frequently interrupted but never fully completed takeover of Canaan, the god they promoted was a composite of Aten and the Midian volcano deity called Yahweh. Or so says Freud. He derives the later Jewish yearning for a messiah from latent psychological feelings of collective guilt over the killing of Moses. Jesus being a substitute Moses.

Freud deserves a prize for creativity. But historically his thesis finds little or no justification. Moses is likely a much later mythic invention. Hence in the 14th or 13th centuries BCE it would have been rather difficult to have killed or regret killing him. I think it can reasonably be said that Freud’s thesis falls at the first hurdle.

The archaeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, provide a much more convincing explanation. Moses has real foundations as a constructed story. Instead of being a flesh-and-blood historical individual, he, Moses, personifies the fabricated back-story of two related, but entirely separate, states. Moses was a politically moulded founding father who symbolically joined together Judea and Israel.

Not that the Moses story was spun out of thin air. There is evidence of Canaanites drifting into Egypt and establishing themselves in the Nile delta around 1800 BCE. Later, for a hundred years, their elite ruled Egypt as the 15th dynasty during the period 1670-1570 BCE. A resurgent Egyptian ruling class finally drove them out. These Canaanites were the Hyksos (foreign rulers). Their domination of Egypt and violent expulsion doubtless created an enduring folk memory in Canaan that echoed down the generations. Raw material for later myth-makers of the kind that produced the wonderful fables of Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, Guinevere and the triumphant Romano-British resistance to the Saxon invasion. Except that the Hebrews converted defeat not into victory, but heroic escape.

One thing seems certain though. There was no exodus of 600,000 Hebrews under the leadership of a man called Moses during the 14th or 13th centuries BCE.[48] The numbers are simply impossible. On top of that, biblical descriptions reflect not those centuries, but Egyptian monarchs, place-names and geo-political realities of the 7th century BCE. A sure sign of politically expedient invention rather than real history.

What of Akhenaten’s elevation of Aten into the one and only godhead? Consciously or unconsciously, this innovation was, in my opinion at least, just as much about secular calculation as high-minded spirituality. The pharaoh almost certainly wanted to further enhance his autocratic status by subordinating Egypt’s phenomenally rich, politically strong and numerically bloated priest caste to his will.

Thomas Mann touchingly depicts Akhenaten as a dreamy, if flawed, other-worldly saint in his novel Joseph in Egypt (1936). A constantly repeated artistic motif. Yet, as the noted American Assyriologist, William Moran (1921-2000), conclusively showed through his translation of the ‘Amarna letters’, the pharaoh took a keen interest in politics, including international relations.[49] Not surprisingly then, Akhenaten expects his instructions to be promptly carried out by vassals. They in turn expect him to meet requests for military help.

Gottwald’s identification with late 20th century Christian liberation theology clearly influences his assessment of Akhenaten, whom he admiringly considers to be a spiritual revolutionary.[50] But the appearance of monotheism in heaven surely reflects the concentration of earthly political power into a single pair of hands. Not people’s power or the highest revelation of divine truth. “Nobody knows thee but I, thy son Akhenaten” - that was Akhenaten’s self-description contained in his ‘sun hymn’; and ministers, scribes, priests and other flunkies dutifully promulgated the bombastic message originating from the new capital city Akhetaten (modern Amarna).[51] A recipe for an unbrookable monocracy that finds an echo in the status, claims and powers of Byzantine emperors, Islam’s caliphs, Japan’s mikados, Russia’s tsars and Roman popes.


  1. From 1912 to his death in 1954, Schmidt published his 12-volume Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (The origin of the idea of god).
  2. Genesis vi, 2, 4.
  3. Joshua xxiv, 2.
  4. Joshua xxiv, 15.
  5. Genesis xxxi, 19.
  6. www.newint.org/issue266/dreams.htm
  7. See M Mauss The gift London 1954.
  8. See C Knight Blood relations New Haven 1995, pp88-121.
  9. See C Lévi-Strauss The savage mind London 1966.
  10. Merchant and robber were until recently synonymous. Not only Hebrew, Phoenician and Arab merchants engaged in raiding caravans or coastal settlements as a means of adding to their wealth. So did Elizabethan privateers and their royal stakeholders. English merchant seamen peacefully traded combs and bracelets with African and American natives; they also regularly engaged in piracy. Spanish and Portuguese treasure ships were particularly prized.
  11. F Braudel The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II Vol 2, London 1975, p180.
  12. Hunter-gatherers would have supplemented their diet by tending wild gardens and protecting young animals. See S Mithen After the ice: a global human history 20,000-5,000 BC London 2003, pp40-45. Also DR Harris (ed) The origins and spread of agriculture and pastoralism in Eurasia Abingdon 1996.
  13. Joshua i, 18.
  14. Joshua i, 4.
  15. Joshua xi, 21.
  16. Joshua ix, 24.
  17. Joshua xi, 14.
  18. Deuteronomy xv, 4.
  19. Deuteronomy xv, 11.
  20. Judges xxi, 25.
  21. T Thompson Early history of the Israelite people Leiden 1992, p45.
  22. home.earthlink.net/~cadman777/Law_Cov_Mendenhall_TITLE.htm
  23. NK Gottwald The tribes of Yahweh Sheffield 1999, pxxxv.
  24. J Dus, ‘Moses or Joshua?’ Radical Religion No2, 1975, p28.
  25. I Finkelstein, NA Silberman The Bible unearthed New York 2002, p77.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid p83.
  28. Late marriage, sexual abstinence, abortion, infanticide, etc.
  29. See C Wickham Framing the early Middle Ages Oxford 2006.
  30. www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/egypt/dailylife/mining.htm
  31. R Drews The end of the Bronze Age Princeton 1993.
  32. Jeremiah ii, 2.
  33. I Finkelstein, NA Silberman The Bible unearthed New York 2002, p103.
  34. E Hobsbawm Primitive rebels Manchester 1959, p4.
  35. G Mendenhall, ‘The Hebrew conquest of Palestine’ Biblical Archaeologist Vol 25, 1962, p72.
  36. Ibid.
  37. N Gottwald, ‘Two models for the origins of ancient Israel’ in HB Huffmon, FA Spina, ARW Green (eds) The quest for the kingdom of god Eisenbrauns 1983, p5.
  38. In 1893 the American historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, put forward his thesis of American development, explaining its democratic institutions, individualism and isolationism through the existence of the western frontier and free land. Kautsky elaborated and significantly deepened these ideas in his writings on America.
  39. See NK Gottwald The tribes of Yahweh Sheffield 1999, part 8.
  40. Ibid p233.
  41. Ibid p473.
  42. See NK Gottwald, ‘Two models for the origins of ancient Israel’ in HB Huffmon, FA Spina, ARW Green (eds) The quest for the kingdom of god Eisenbrauns 1983.
  43. Ibid p14.
  44. WG Dever Who were the early Israelites, and where did they come from? Michigan 2003, p53.
  45. Otto Rank was once exceedingly close to Freud intellectually, but the two men fell out.
  46. S Freud Moses and monotheism London 1939, p15.
  47. Ibid p59.
  48. See DB Redford Egypt, Canaan and Israel in ancient times Princeton 1992.
  49. Note, much of Egypt’s diplomatic correspondence was conducted at the time in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the near east during the late Bronze Age. Akkadian originated in the Mesopotamian region and includes Assyrian amongst its four main identified dialects - hence the role played by Moran. See WL Moran The Amarna letters Baltimore 1992.
  50. Gottwald has many co-thinkers when it comes to applying the insights and values of liberation theology to the Bible and ancient Israel. See N Gottwald, R Horsley (eds) The bible and liberation New York 1983.
  51. JT Sporry The story of Egypt London 1964, p192.

*Accurately dating the history of the Bronze Age is notoriously difficult and still subject to much academic dispute. There are those who question the standard chronology - which is based on Mycenaean dates and lists of Egyptian monarchs. But revisionist opinion is itself divided. Some want the chronology shifted upwards and some downwards. Difference between them and the standard chronology can amount to ±200 years. Meanwhile, carbon 14 dating and dendronchronology (tree-ring dating) help archaeologists to statistically estimate the dating of particular sites, objects and events. But the margin of error is still quite considerable. Eg, timber which is already 100 years old can be re-used. So Bronze Age chronology is quite clearly as much an art as it is a science. Plenty of wriggle-matching goes on.

**The mysterious sea peoples were an ethnically mixed group who attacked and rampaged throughout the eastern Mediterranean in the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. Various hypotheses about who exactly the sea people were have been advanced. None particularly satisfactory. Some argue that they were a confederation of rootless sailors, dispossessed peasants and adventurers. Others that they were Aegean migrants forced to move from their various homelands by social collapse and agricultural failure. Apart from being depicted on triumphant Egyptian carvings, a few fleeting mentions in diplomatic correspondence, appearances on lists of defeated enemies, etc, there is little documentary evidence about them. However, the sea peoples, given the small numbers that would probably have been involved, were unlikely to have put cities under sustained siege, let alone to have conquered whole states.

***The French Egyptologist, Gaston Maspero (1846-1916), is largely responsible for initiating this highly dubious but very influential conjecture. In his book The struggle of nations (1896) Maspero depicted whole peoples - men, women and children of all classes - migrating hundreds or thousands of miles before settling down. Thus the Libu were not simply Egypt’s neighbouring Libyan people. They originated in the Balkans, where they were displaced by incoming Illyrians (along with Dorians and Phrygians).

Leaving the Balkans behind them, the Libu apparently trekked through the length of Europe, arriving at Gibraltar, then crossing into Africa and turning sharply eastwards. Having been sent packing from Egypt by pharaoh Merneptah’s forces, the Libu retraced their footsteps westwards, where they finally halted and gave their name to Libya.

Each people were conceived by Maspero as a solid national unit and moved from one location to another: for example, when pressed by another people. Of course, there were long-range movements by warrior chiefs and their followers in ancient times: eg, the Visigoths. Originating in eastern Europe, they were recruited into the Roman army and subsequently went on to sack Rome in 410 and found kingdoms in southern Gaul and Hispania before going down to defeat by the Umayyad Muslim forces in 711.

However, though Maspero’s claims for generalised mass people migrations still has its advocates, nowadays it is widely doubted (see R Drews The end of the Bronze Age Princeton 1993, chapter 4).

****Those who  insist on the literal truth of the Old Testament hubristically celebrated each discovery by prove-the-Bible archaeologists as a vindication of their doctrines, agendas and convictions. Yet, once the balance of archaeological opinion decisively titled against biblical literalism, they behaved like ostriches. Heads were buried further and further into irrationality, leaving exposed that part of the body which fundamentalists normally talk through.

*****Gottwald, as with Mendenhall, believes that iron working was introduced into Palestine from the north and played a decisive economic role in raising agricultural productivity. Steel weapons weigh slightly more than their equivalents fashioned from bronze. However, they are considerably stronger. And, whereas bronze is made from constituent elements, especially tin, which is not commonly found in the Mediterranean, iron and charcoal (carbon) were readily available. Once the high temperature smelting techniques had been invented and widely mastered, Gottwald believes the result would have been a dramatic class shift in warfare. Bronze weapons favoured the aristocracy. Iron weapons were in comparative terms democratic - a thesis advanced in the 1940s by V Gordon Childe.

However, archaeological finds of iron weapons in the 12th century BCE have proved to be exceedingly rare. It is now thought that the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the eastern Mediterranean spanned the entire period from the 12th to the 9th centuries BCE (see R Drews The end of the Bronze Age Princeton 1993, chapter 5).