Peasant socialism and the persistence of polytheism

Jack Conrad continues his survey of Ancient Israel in Supplement II

In Norman Gottwald’s account, The tribes of Yahweh,[1] the revolutionary highland vanguard of Israel successfully mobilised the lowland rural masses to overthrow the ruling classes in Canaan using Yahwehism (which, as we have seen in the first part of this study, he believes found initial inspiration in Egypt’s monotheistic Atenist religion).

Like good multiculturalists, Israel then positively encouraged collective recruitment. For Gottwald there is nothing exclusive about the worshippers of Yahweh in the late Bronze Age. Indeed whole peoples seek entry into the newly established social order. After a prolonged period of fluidity this arrangement eventually hardened into the 12 tribes which Gottwald argues were finally institutionalised by king David (or maybe before him by Saul) and then given bureaucratic “rationality” by Solomon with his monthly rotation of officials.[2] Gottwald draws inspiration on this particular subject from the pioneering 19th century American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, and his classic study of the Iroquois confederacy of tribes.[3]

Albeit vastly more ambitious, wide-ranging and sophisticated, the central thesis advanced by Gottwald essentially corresponds with his fellow bible scholar, George Mendenhall. Israeli peasant socialism was a deliberately segmented social formation. Mutual aid, confederal relations, tribal intermarriage, tribal military levies, small-scale patriarchal landholdings and universal male cultic assemblies were, taken together, an anti-aristocratic, anti-imperialist defence mechanism, constructed for the twofold purpose of keeping free from Egypt and preventing an internal revival of Canaanite aristocratic landlordism.

Following Mendenhall, Gottwald describes the new order as uniquely “progressive”, compared with “contiguous” and “antecedent” social systems in the region.[4] I have already mentioned in part one the possibility of a general land redistribution, the jubilees and textual indications of egalitarianism. Gottwald holds that Israel’s “inarticulate traditional socialism” overthrew the Canaanite tribute system without afterwards reproducing its steep social contours. That would indeed make Israel exceptional.

Peasant revolutions have happened throughout history.[5] Two successful Chinese examples: one ancient the other modern. Liu Bang (circa 256/47 BCE - 195 BCE) - born into a humble Chinese peasant family, he led a rural insurrection and in 202 BCE founded the Han dynasty, which began by freeing slaves and reducing taxes. Mao Zedong’s peasant-based People’s Liberation Army broke the power of landlords in the villages it held and, after taking Beijing in 1949, Mao’s regime set about liquidating the landlords as a class. Between 1951 and 1952 they were expropriated. Peasants, in their turn, were encouraged to organise themselves into cooperatives.

The subsequent pattern is, suffice to say, sadly familiar. Despite lavish egalitarian promises, social stratification quickly re-emerges, as revolutionary cadre are forced to oversee, learn or mimic socially necessary functions. During the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age those functions would have included: supervising irrigation work; maintaining grain and other vital common reserves; drafting legal decrees; negotiating with foreign diplomats; serving as military commanders in order to protect against invading armies; etc.

Gottwald is convinced that, though there were tribal chiefs, priests and generals, Israel was a “self-governing community of free peasants” which provided “dignity and livelihood for all members.”[6] That is why he feels able to call the mode of production “communitarian”. The ‘big men’, he says, did not exercise coercive powers. Hence, apart from the surplus production customarily given over for religious purposes and social aid for the needy, peasant labour did not support any kind of elaborate state machine. Tribal chiefs, priests and generals were probably better off than others in their immediate locality, but not by much. And, it should be added, even if their power positions were heritable, there would have been an obligation to give away any surplus product they had at their disposal to those around them because of the rules outlined by Marcel Mauss in his classic anthropological study, The gift (1950). Without doing that power would have drained away from the power-holders. Other leaders would have been found. Hence, we can safely conclude, there existed no socially embedded drive to constantly raise production. That is characteristic of peasantries facing high, or increasing, tax demands. Marginal land thereby coming under the plough. Understandably, peasants, in general, prefer to do as little necessary work as possible. Nor would a compulsion to accumulate be forced on the better off. Surpluses that have to be given away are always limited. An absence of forts, palaces and grand public buildings and the presence of small farmsteads throughout the highlands is cited by Gottwald as an archaeological clincher.

Nor, says Gottwald, did Israel pay tribute to Egypt, or any other imperial empire. Prefiguring ‘socialism in one country’, he believes Israel cut itself off from what survived of the tribute gathering system of the day. It should be remembered that, though it survived the late Bronze Age general crisis, Egypt had been profoundly weakened.

As always, periods of independence for small countries such as Israel were brief and resulted less from heroic internal class struggles, and more from the contraction and retreat of big powers. That said, an egalitarian religious ideology almost certainly played a key role in mobilising Israel’s late Bronze Age peasant revolution; if it happened (and I believe it did, with literary clues and fragments surviving in the Bible). However, claims of an extended non-hierarchical peasant socialism have to be treated cautiously. Peasant rebel armies are often mobilised with all manner of fantastic millenarian predictions, egalitarian legal decrees and even substantial measures that seem to embody those ends. Popular passions are thereby ignited, directed and sustained.

However, if established, there is the constant danger that outside powers will invade the peasant utopia in order to plunder, exact tribute and enslave. Hence the necessity of maintaining well drilled military forces, which are, needless to say, costly and inherently hierarchical. There is an unavoidable chain of command in all armies, with those who issue orders and those expected to obey them. And those who habitually issue orders can easily be tempted to establish themselves as privileged rulers. Military coups are as old as armies.

Nor are peasants best placed to resist. They are subject to the tyranny of isolation. Their overall way of life is disaggregated. Peasant familiers are separated one from another, as they work the land.[7] Each peasant family also strives to be self-sufficient, consumption being obtained more through an exchange with nature than complex relations with wider society. Not just the case with food. Spinning and weaving would be done by the women of the household and, once the harvest had been gathered in, men would take up brewing, leatherworking, carpentry, smithing and building work. Then there is the tyranny of time. If starvation is to be avoided there is no choice. Soil must be ploughed, seeds sown and crops harvested according to the endless circular rhythm dictated by the seasons. And to the degree peasant families are uninvolved with the urban centres and are fixed on the daily routine, they are incapable of enforcing common interests.

Independent action by peasants is therefore notoriously transient when it comes to high politics. That helps explain the cutting remark contained in the Communist manifesto about the “idiocy of rural life”.[8] The Athenian meaning of ‘idiocy’ referring to a citizen who fails to attend the popular assembly, who is separated off, and who views political life from a detached, individualised and parochial viewpoint. By youthful training Marx was a classical scholar, of course.

Nor do peasants really constitute a single class. Peasants are divided into different strata, each with antithetical interests. At one extreme are those granted, holding, owning or renting considerable lands and who regularly employ auxiliary labour. At the other extreme are those languishing deep in debt and who possess less than nothing. These paupers must hire out their ability to labour (even sell themselves or their wife and children into slavery). So the peasantry includes exploited and exploiters. Even within the peasant family - the basic unit of production - that is the case. Male patriarchs ruthlessly take advantage of dependent relatives and relations.[9]

Unless established over a pocket-sized territory, peasant democracy proves impossible to maintain for long. Work, seasons and divergent interests tear solidarity apart. The peasant’s instinctive hatred of taxation and centralised authority - peasant anarchism - resolves itself into the acceptance of, or search for, a saviour, prophet, king or god who will deliver them from disorganisation, internal conflicts and foreign threats, and send them “rain and sunshine from above”.[10] Anti-statism thereby becomes statism.

I am more than prepared to accept that a late Bronze Age peasant revolution massively reduced and then institutionally maintained flattened social contours in Palestine. The most convincing way in my opinion to explain the surviving traces of an egalitarian ethos in the Bible. The social elite was confined to religious leaders and military commanders, who were in all likelihood related to their congregations and fellow fighters through ties of friendship, marriage or blood. In other words, social relations were ethnical, or personal, not those of political society (a distinction taken from Henry Morgan).[11] Israel could therefore be legitimately described as a non-state, or post-state, peasant society.

Here, I can usefully cite the historian, Chris Wickham. In his acclaimed study of the early Middle Ages, he shows that there were many local and possibly larger regional examples of what he calls the “peasant mode of production” following the end of the Roman empire in the west.[12] Social gradations were flattened, taxation broke down and in extremis there was no state, properly speaking.

However, peasant socialism does not - and it needs emphasising - equate with a higher level of material civilisation. While the Israeli social revolution removed the vampirish fangs of exploitation from the neck of the peasant household, there was an undoubted loss. Social flattening went hand in hand with cultural shrinkage. Merchants, musicians, shopkeepers, poets, doctors, painters, perfumers, dancers, architects, dressmakers, jewellers, sculptors, etc - those whom we would now call the middle classes - found that the social surplus needed to support them in those occupations full-time evaporated.

Since they were primarily reliant on aristocratic-driven demand, there was bound to be a downward spiral. Falling numbers of peasants from one generation to the next and a reduction of the overall social surplus surely sealed their fate. And it comes as no surprise that mainstream archaeologists, seeing the past through the prism of material objects as they do, write of a darkness separating bronze and iron civilisations.

Yet, though remarkably successful - and lasting a couple of centuries, according to Gottwald - the Israeli system of peasant socialism eventually proved militarily inadequate when it came to meeting the growing menace posed by Philistine imperialism. To save egalitarianism, egalitarianism had to be sacrificed. Hence, mourns Gottwald, the retreat into monarchy and centralism with Saul (and then David). Yahwehism, he says, had to be continued, so popular was it, but was effectively turned onto its head. Whereas kingship had been rejected because of Yahweh, now the king became Yahweh’s anointed representative on earth.

The criticism of pottery

The archaeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, are eager to distance themselves from Mendenhall and Gottwald. Philosophically they are liberal evolutionists. But their disagreements actually turn on what are secondary matters. Peasant revolution is disproved, Finkelstein and Silberman maintain, because: (a) new pottery and archaeological styles “could easily be imitated or borrowed”; (b) the highlands had long been populated; (c) there is a clear continuity in the lowlands between the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age; (d) rural Canaanite society lacked the social impulse to colonise the highlands. All of which might well be true, but hardly “shatters” the idea of a peasant revolution.[13]

It is worth elaborating upon the arguments of Finkelstein and Silberman. As we noted in part one, Gottwald had approvingly cited the American archaeologist, William Dever, and his discoveries of lowland pottery and building styles suddenly appearing in the Palestinian highlands. The assumption being that this proved or at least indicated a movement by masses of people from the lowlands into the highlands. This approach is quite rightly disputed. The appearance of an unaccustomed new style - whether that be clothing, jewellery, weapons, architecture or pottery - does not necessarily announce the arrival of an incoming, ethnically or culturally distinct people. An archaeological cliché. Most often a new style represents nothing more momentous than humdrum imitation or importation via normal trade connections. Eg, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Honda cars being driven on the roads of London, Los Angeles and Berlin does not equate with a mass influx of Japanese migrants. Nor does it signify that Japanese has become the dominant culture.

Finkelstein and Silberman confidently maintain that the Palestinian highlands have known periods of settlement dating back to the early Bronze Age (3500-2200 BCE). As for the introduction of waterproof plaster technology cited by Gottwald, it first began hundreds of years prior to the rise of Israel. Crucially, lowland society, was, they believe, in unmistakable decay long before the claimed late Bronze Age entry into the highlands. Hence their conclusion that there was not the social energy for a settlement movement from the lowlands.

Finkelstein and Silberman argue that those who came to call themselves Israelites were, in fact, themselves Canaanites. But semi-nomadic Canaanites, who lived on the margins of that society. When political conditions allowed, these people shifted their main socio-economic focus. Highlanders then went on to slowly take over a depopulated coastal plain. They would easily have merged with the traditional inhabitants with whom they had long associations. Clearly a process that happened in the wake of the late Bronze Age general crisis and the sacking and abandonment of Canaanite cities. Instead of a swift conquest under the command of a god-inspired hero, Finkelstein and Silberman are of the view that ancient Israel emerged gradually from the debris of collapse. Israel is depicted as taking over what remained and slowly rebuilding various state formations in the region. In other words, a variation on the peaceful infiltration theory first advanced by Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth in the 1920s.

Yet the fact of the matter is that Finkelstein and Silberman do not really focus on the central question of how the Bronze Age general crisis weakened the Canaanite city-states and what agency (or agencies) brought about their final demise. Finkelstein and Silberman are more concerned with what replaced the Canaanite tribute-gathering social formation. There is, of course, no logical reason to opt for an ‘either this or that’ solution. What philosophers call the fallacy of the excluded middle. The biblical scholar, Mark Smith, tellingly comments that detailed studies of regional variations within Palestine “call into question the viability of a single master thesis”.[14] Peasant revolution, violent urban unrest, pirate raids, Apiru rebels, plague, taxation flight and a highland movement into the lowlands are conceivably, and probably were, all elements that contributed to Canaanite collapse and replacement.

Suffice to say, the main polemical thrust of Finkelstein and Silberman is against the old archaeological orthodoxy (and by inference the various political projects that have hidden behind it). Eg, marshalling the archaeological evidence, the historicity of the biblical Abraham, Moses and Joshua is comprehensively demolished. Hence, while Finkelstein and Silberman develop a theory of Israeli origins which is pleasingly original, they unmistakably continue within the critical-historical tradition personified by Wellhausen, Alt, Noth, Mendenhall and Gottwald.


Let us move on. How did the monarchical counterrevolution happen? Biblical accounts blame the common people because, sinfully, they slid back into worshipping other gods. Yahweh, therefore, withheld his divine protection. That put foreigners, especially the Philistines, at a distinct military advantage. As described in the first book of Samuel, the Philistine armies twice routed the combined tribal levies of the Hebrews and on the second occasion they “captured the ark of god” (in which Yahweh himself dwelt).[15]

Thanks to heavenly intervention, the tribes recover their sacred box after seven months. Nevertheless, because of this military humiliation, plus corruption and self-seeking, the days of the judges were finally coming to an end. The Hebrew elders insisted that they needed a king and a centralised state “like all the other nations”.[16]

The aged prophet, Samuel, issues what must surely be the most powerful anti-monarchist warning contained in the Bible: a king who rules over you “will take the best of your fields, olive orchards and vineyards”; he “will take a tenth of your grain and of your vineyards”; he will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers; he will take your sons “to run before his chariots” and serve as soldiers, armourers or forced agricultural labourers; he will turn you into “his slaves”.[17] Despite Samuel’s eloquence, and foresight, the “people refuse to listen”.[18] More than that, Yahweh too insisted upon a king. Samuel, naturally, felt obliged to fall in line. Saul, from the northern tribe of Benjamin, was duly elected by lot and is anointed by Samuel.

Tall, handsome and charismatic, Saul proves militarily successful. He defeats the Ammonites, Amalekites and Philistines. But Saul is depicted as religiously suspect. When Samuel tells Saul Yahweh has bidden that the Amalekites must be exterminated, he does as he is told … up to a point. The exact instruction was to “utterly destroy” them and all they have. Yahweh not only wants every man, women and child killed, but every “ox, sheep, camel and ass”.[19] Following orders, Saul puts the Amalekites to the sword. However, he spares their king, Agag … and the best of the lambs and oxen and “all that is good”.[20] Yahweh is furious. And, though Saul hacks his royal captive to pieces, Yahweh rejects him and promptly informs Samuel that another king must be found.

Now, of course, we arrive at the story of David. Few readers will not know the basic outline. David, the youngest son of Jesse, comes from the southern town of Bethlehem. Samuel anoints him and the spirit of Yahweh “came mightily upon him”.[21]

Yahweh torments Saul, he suffers bouts of severe depression. For consolation Saul gets David to play his lyre. This brings respite and a temporary return of mental stability. David enters into Saul’s service and wins the love of his son, Jonathan. The Philistines once again launch themselves against Israel. Their champion, the giant Goliath, challenges anyone in the ranks of Saul’s quaking army to single combat. Even though still a callow youth and working for his father as a humble shepherd, David volunteers. He kills Goliath with a single sling shot. David cuts off his head and the terrified Philistines flee.

David is acclaimed by the people as a national hero. This provokes the murderous jealousy of Saul. To save his skin David seeks refuge amongst the Philistines. Then the Moabites. But the prophet Gad advises him to go back to his native Judea.

Heading a band of 400-600 outlaws, David harries the Philistines, engages in a bit of extortion, saves various village folk and distributes booty. Hidden away in his mountainous stronghold, he manages to avoid capture by Saul’s forces. Once again, however, David exiles himself amongst the Philistines. As one of their vassals he is granted a ‘city’ and serves in their army. David and his followers raid neighbouring lands. In short he behaves like a classic Apiru chief.

After “a badly wounded” Saul commits suicide on the field of battle, and three of his sons, including Jonathan, are slain by the Philistines, David is proclaimed king of Israel. As with the deaths of Saul and his sons, David is shown in the Bible to be blameless in the killing of Jonathan’s crippled child Mephibosheth and Saul’s close lieutenants. There is a son who succeeds Saul. But we are told Ishbaal is assassinated by the Gibeonites.

It hardly takes a Hercule Poirot to work out that in all likelihood David would have spared no effort to “root out” Saul’s male line.[22] Incidentally, Stefan Heym’s novel, The king David report (1973), provides a brilliant satire on David’s lying, treachery, cheating and serial murdering. David is shown as a real shite.

Anyway, the Bible then tells how David cleverly seizes Jerusalem and establishes an extensive realm, “for the lord, the god of hosts, was with him”.[23] During his dotage David behaves ever more appallingly; he drives his son, Absalom, to revolt and descends into sexual depravity. Yet, despite such religious transgressions, he is succeeded by one of his many sons, Solomon, who extends the kingdom to the banks of the Euphrates and the borders of Egypt.

Unheard of riches flow into the royal treasury. The magnificent Jerusalem temple is built along with numerous other impressive public works throughout the realm. Internationally Solomon is proclaimed the wisest and most admirable of rulers. Prestige brings exotic visitors to the king’s palace from far and wide. A golden age for Israel. And yet, like his father, in his later years Solomon succumbs to temptation. Breaking divine commandments, he “loved many foreign women”: we are told he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. As Yahweh had warned, they “turned away his heart”.[24] Solomon introduces the worship of foreign gods and goddesses: Ashtoreth, Milicom, Chemosh, Molech, etc.

For the sake of David, his father, Yahweh’s retribution is delayed till after Solomon’s death and the succession of his son, Rehoboam. But once he is enthroned, subject peoples rise up. Rehoboam foolishly wanted to introduce harsh levels of extra taxation. Disastrously the core kingdom then cleaves into two. The 10 northern tribes break away and call themselves Israel. In the south the Judean kingdom is left to struggle on alone. And yet Yahweh promises that David’s throne - ie, his royal line - will last “for ever”.[25]

Few historians, biblical scholars and archaeologists nowadays hold that this and other such stories are an accurate description of early Israel. Those who do are somewhat generously called maximalists. Yet, going back to the 15th century, the most advanced literature has cast doubt on Bible-derived Christian historical assumptions. The Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1466/49-1536), is usually credited with being the first to study the Bible in a critical way.

Very little in the Bible can, in actual fact, be taken as incontrovertible. Indeed, today, there is a school of thought which totally discounts David and Solomon and considers them pure invention. Exactly when the scribes are meant to have been given starting orders to begin their work of highly colourful fiction varies greatly - from the 6th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Niels Peter Lemche proposing the most recent dating.[26] However, it is agreed, proceeding from nothing more substantive than a vague folklore, the political elite wanted a glorious past created as a popular focus for nationalist aspirations. This is the minimalist approach.[27]

Others take what I consider to be a more realistic approach. Because of the sheer abundance of stories, place names and personalities contained in the Deuteronomic books, the argument is that this reflects a real underlying history (or, in other words, the Bible has some real documentary value). Though it does not decide the matter conclusively, a much valued basalt block was discovered in 1993 by the archaeologist, Avraham Biran. Fragmented, written in Aramaic and consisting only of 13 remaining lines, the Tel Dan stone, carved in roughly 850 BCE, explicitly refers to the “House of David”. Hence its significance. Dan, it should be mentioned, was located in the far north of the ancient kingdom of Israel - presumably the place therefore frequently changed hands. The chiselled script boasts of [Hazael], king of Syria, Damascus, having [killed], the “son of” [Ahab], the “king of Israel”, and [Ahaz]iahu, son of [Jehoram] of “the house of David”. Interestingly, the second book of Kings reports that Ahaziah, king of Israel, and Jehoram, king of Judea, were simultaneously killed - though this is put down to a coup by the Israelite general, and later king, Jehu.[28] Anyway, the triumphant Syrian monarch, the one whom the Tell Dan stone celebrates, goes on to turn [Ahaz]iahu’s, towns and “land” into [desolation].

This, and accumulated indirect evidence, has helped to undermine the ultra-minimalists. There was, it seems, a monarchy which traced its lineage back to David (a real or imagined person) some one hundred years after his death in the generally agreed biblical chronology. That is, the kings of Judea, as opposed to those of Israel, of course.

The best book I have read on this subject is David and Solomon (2007), jointly written by Finkelstein and Silberman. According to the two authors, there is no material evidence of a strong centralised state formation in Judea - not least based on Jerusalem - till towards the end of the 8th century BCE. That is, more than 250 years after David in the standard biblical chronology. Archaeological digs - including those designed to illustrate the historical fact of the biblical accounts of David’s imperial capital and his son’s huge temple - reveal nothing more impressive than a modest hilltop settlement in Jerusalem.* A minor chief’s political-religious centre, doubtless, but certainly not a city boasting a world-renowned temple.

Other critical-minded archaeological authorities - those whom we might call the centrist school - agree. Eg, Dever writes of a real temple in the “age of Solomon”, built along Phoenician lines by Phoenician architects, “craftsmen and artisans”.[29] But he too considers Jerusalem to be a modest affair. Hence Solomon’s temple is described as a “royal chapel”.

Finkelstein and Silberman are more than willing to countenance David as a real historical figure and founder of a royal line. An Apiru chief who managed to carve out, or gain control of, a kingdom which had Jerusalem as its capital. However, not only was Jerusalem no more than a glorified township at the time (and for many years thereafter). The surrounding realm was diminutive and confined to the dry, rugged Judean hill country. Framed by the Dead Sea, the kingdom included Bethel, jutting slightly to the north, Aroer on the borders of the Negev desert in the south, but to the west it stopped short with the hills of Shephelah, where it met the Philistine coastal strip. In other words, Judea amounted to little more than the highland area rising to the west of the Dead Sea.

So Finkelstein and Silberman feel confident in discounting biblical claims that David ruled over a territory that roughly equates with modern Palestine. Solomon’s empire - stretching from the Mediterranean coast to the Euphrates and to the borders of Egypt - is put down to much later bombastic invention.

Finkelstein and Silberman go on convincingly to show that David’s kingdom was economically poor and militarily weak. The entire population is estimated to have amounted to 5,000 people.[30] If true, small even by the Lilliputian standards of the day. Judea’s only advantage, when it came to the imperial ambitions of outsiders, was its uninviting terrain and economic unimportance.

The real Israel (Samaria) was in these times located to the north. Once again centred on the rugged highlands, this kingdom did though contain the fertile upper Jordan valley. Its population is thought to have been some eight times bigger than Judea’s and included the genuine cities of Samaria, Shechem and Megiddo. Israel really did enjoy a substantial influx of tax and tribute, which allowed the construction of imposing fortifications and marbled temples - wrongly attributed to Solomon by maximalist theology, history and archaeology.

Many gods

Before proceeding further, and presenting the likely circumstances in which the Deuteronomic history was composed, we must once again backtrack. Let us ask a few closely related questions. What was the religion of Israeli peasant socialism and, following that, the kingdoms of Israel and Judea? Was Yahwehite monotheism universally accepted and woven into the social fabric? Were there only temporary and, to all intents and purposes, minor deviations from strict orthodoxy?

In the King James Bible - the ‘authorised’ English version - the ‘divine name’, or ‘Tetragrammation’, is more or less consistently rendered as ‘Lord’ or ‘God’ (often printed in upper case). Same goes for earlier Greek and Latin translations. It should be added that biblical scholars freely admit that these titles substitute for the Hebrew letters IHVH, in English translating into YHWH, which, of course, stands for Yahweh (the vowels being omitted). The practice of replacing Yahweh for an altogether vaguer term such as ‘Lord’ began “before the Christian era”: ie, with the Jews. As the preface to the revised standard version of the Bible (1973) further explains, this avoided using the proper name of “the one and only God as though there were other gods from whom He had to be distinguished”. That would be “entirely inappropriate for the universal faith of the Christian Church”.

Yet the Tanakh has numerous passages which simply take for granted the existence of other gods. The first commandment instructs the Israelites: “You shall have no other gods before me.”[31] In other words, the various authors of what Christians call the Old Testament did think that Yahweh had to be distinguished from other gods. Indeed, evidence of an older, polytheistic, tradition still remains within the book of Genesis, albeit in negative form: eg, the attack on Baal and “idolatrous priests” in Zephaniah i,4; the mocking of stone and wooden idols in Habakkuk ii; the spirits mentioned in 1 Kings xxii,19; denunciations of Baal and Asherah in 2 Kings xxi and xxiii.

Such references to Yahweh’s arch-enemy seem “to reflect Israelite worship of this god”.[32] In the Bible an emotionally oversensitive Yahweh rages against those making offerings to Baal. He specially selects prophets to extinguish his cult. And yet the Bible contains many revealing stories telling how the chosen people repeatedly turned to Baal. Eg, 1 Kings xvi, 31-33. The Israeli monarch Ahab “went and served Baal and worshipped him. He, Ahab, erected an altar for Baal, in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria.”

Not that the southern kingdom was immune. 1 Kings xiv, 22-24, reports that the Judeans “also built for themselves high places, pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree. They did according to all the abominations of the nations which the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.”

Despite the various theories of Israel originating in the desert margins, worship of Baal indicates a clear orientation towards arable agriculture. Baal symbolises fertility and has been anthropologically categorised as a “dying and rising god”. In The golden bough (1914) James Frazer coined that particular designation, abstracting from his forensic studies of Osiris, Tammuz and Adonis: all male gods representing nature’s cycle, who “annually died and rose again from the dead.”[33]

Whether Baal died and miraculously sprung to life again or simply disappeared and then returned to view is still a matter of debate amongst scholars.[34] However, in the Ugaritic Baal cycle we read the following lines: “Baal is dead! What will return him to life; whereupon all nature blossomed again and El proclaimed: ‘Baal the conqueror lives; the prince, the lord of the earth, has revived’?”[35] Baal is shown locked in an epic life-and-death struggle with Yam (god of stormy seas and chaos) and Mot (god of death). Yam kills Baal, but the tables are then reversed. Mot reluctantly submits to the risen/returned Baal.

Seemingly the Baal cult involved orgiastic ceremonies and human sacrifice carried out at special sites called tophets. We are informed by the writers of antiquity, including Plutarch, about Carthage (a Phoenician colony) and the religiously prescribed, and redeeming, practice of roasting babies alive. If that happened - and most historians and archaeologists are convinced that it was not Roman black propaganda - such state-sanctioned infanticide would surely indicate a social crisis of some kind; but that way Baal was gratified and brought on side.

The Bible itself contains stories both condemning and condoning child sacrifice. Jeremiah vii,31 has Yahweh rejecting the “abomination” of those who “burn their sons and daughters in the fire”. But that must be set against a theological background where Exodus xxii,29 commands that “the first born of your sons shall be given to me.” Also in Exodus, this time xxxiv, we read: “All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem.” Nor does Yahweh show the slightest compunction in cynically testing Abraham with the instruction to sacrifice his son, Isaac.[36] In Judges the Israeli war leader, Jephthah, does kill his unnamed daughter and only child. Hubristically, Jephthah had vowed to Yahweh that, if granted military victory over the Ammonites, he would give as a “burnt offering” whomsoever first greeted him when he returned home.[37]

Working out the broad outlines of the original Hebrew religion does not rely on exegesis alone. Over many decades excavators have unearthed an impressive range of objects - amulets, carvings, seals, statutes - which show that ancient Israel/Judea was “thoroughly polytheistic”. Many of the figures depicted are thought to be gods and goddesses - though we cannot be sure - not mere mortals. Artistic interpretation thereby coming to the fore amongst contending academics.[38]

Then there was a wall painting and inscription found at Kuntillet Ajrud, in the Sinai, dated 850-750 BCE. It referred to the gods El, Baal and Yahweh … and “his Asherah”.[39] An archaeological bombshell.

We are, however, provided with another, much wider, background picture of ancient Israel through the Ugaritic texts; several libraries of clay tablets first brought to light in 1929 at Ras Shamra (located on the coast of Syria about 100 miles north of Beirut). At the height of its prosperity the emporium city of Ugarit is variously estimated to have had a population ranging from 3,115 to 13,555.[40] At either margin impressive for the Bronze Age. Ugarit and Israel were closely related culturally. Eg, Ugaritic and Hebrew constitute branches on the same linguistic tree. There is a distinct religious similarity too. Tell-tale parallel sayings, poems and stories crop up in the Bible and the Ugaritic texts.

As revealed by the Ras Shamra material, the Ugaritic pantheon has four distinct levels. At the summit sits the supreme god and his wife (El and Asherah). Below them their 70 divine children (including Yam, Mot, Baal, Astarte, Dagon, Tirosch, Horon, Nahar, Resheph, Kotar Hosis, and Anat, as well as the sun-goddess, Shapshu, and the moon-god, Yerak). The stars of El. Then comes Kothar wa-Hasis, the chief minister. Finally lesser servants, those whom the Bible calls angels (in other words, messenger-gods). Outside the divine household the Ugaritic religion was inhabited by numerous evil spirits, devils and a Satan figure (Shachar).

Frank Cross (following Albrecht Alt) lists the various names of the main god of Genesis and Exodus, as they originally appeared: El-Shaddai, El-Elyon, El-Olam, El-Bethel, El-Elohay-Israel, El-Roi.[41] Yahweh comes to dominance in other books. But many of El’s attributes, titles and relationships are assumed, or transfer, to him. In 1 Kings xxii,19-22 we read of Yahweh meeting with his “host of heaven”. Then there is Asherah. In the Old Testament she is the wife of Baal. But, as we have already mentioned, archaeological evidence shows that at least amongst some Judeans, the goddess Asherah was considered Yahweh’s co-ruler and spouse. A marital join continued in the ditheistic belief system of the Hebrew mercenary community based in Egypt down to the 3rd century BCE. Papyrus found on Elephantine - a little strip of an island located just above the first cataract in the Nile river - shows that they were worshipped as a couple.[42]

In terms of this discussion the Hebrew word for death, ‘metu’, is instructive. Linguists say it is derived from Mot, the Ugaritic god of death. The word for sea, ‘yam’, is even more revealing, being an exact match for the Ugaritic sea god. Scholars have also noted that names such as Daniel, Ishmael, Michael and Israel are “theophoric in form” - that is to say, the suffix reproduces the divine name, in this case the god, El.[43] Israel meaning something like “God rules” or “may god show himself as ruler”.[44]

In all likelihood, as tradition dictated, Israelite clans continued to venerate their own particular family gods or goddesses (statues, etc are often clearly female and big-breasted). Numerous intimate shrines are thought to have existed, located within houses, villages, caves and groves of trees. The cults associated with these sites would seem to have involved an annual calendar of events: eg, “feasting, dancing and betrothals”.[45]

While the topmost pantheon has been considerably reduced in biblical references, the evidence shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the religion of ancient Israel closely matched those of neighbouring peoples in the Levant - including the opulent and sophisticated civilisation of Phoenicia. We know that hilltops and mountains were considered especially holy - the Bible contains many hints: Bethel, Gezer, Jerusalem, Arnon, Bamah and Gibeon were, we can gather, all important religious centres.

Saul, David and even Solomon are shown as patrons. Presumably, during visits to high places, they would have paid generously to have had sex with cult prostitutes, sacrificed animals or children, and sought favours from one or another of the “host of heaven”: El, Yahweh, Asherah, Baal, Yam, Mot, Astarte, Dagon, Shapshu, Yerak, etc.

There was also an unmistakable religious-cultural borrowing from Egypt. Looking at the various objects photographed or drawn by archaeologists that are reproduced in books and journals or placed on the internet, one is instantly struck by an extraordinary similarity between Pharaonic depictions of humans, animals and gods and those of ancient Israel/Canaan. Hardly surprising, though, given the prolonged periods of Canaanite vassalship to Egypt.

That aside, I think we can conclude with some considerable degree of assurance that notions of an exclusive Yahwehism providing the ideological inspiration for the Israelite peasant movement, and then constituting the monotheistic religion of a liberated Israel, are simply not credible. Ditto, notions of the early monarchs as defenders of an exclusive Yahwehite faith (albeit ideologically reversed).

Mark Smith has charted how Yahwehite henotheism slowly begins to emerge from polytheism (both modern concepts, of course, that would not have been understood by anybody in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age). The four heavenly levels went through a successive series of narrowing modifications. To begin with, Yahweh was merely one of El’s and Athirat’s children. El dividing the world “according to the number of the divine sons”. Supposedly there were 70 nations, with Israel going to Yahweh, of course. Later redactors, it is suggested, “evidently uncomfortable” with the polytheism expressed in the phrase “according to the number of the divine sons”, alter it to read: “according to the number of the children of Israel” (neatly, its patriarchal family heads are also said to number 70).[46]

Psalm lxxxii shows the first surviving biblical narrowing of the divine family. It relates how the god El presides over a divine council/assembly, in which Yahweh stands up and makes his accusation against the other gods. Here the text shows “the older theology” which the passage is “rejecting”.[47]

By the 8th century BCE, during which the Israeli state and monarchy comes to a shuddering end, it is “evident that the god El was identified with Yahweh”. As a result Yahweh-El becomes the husband of the goddess, Asherah-Athirat. As I have shown above, this is supported by archaeological evidence of a joint cult. Not surprisingly then, there are also biblical condemnations of the presence of her statue in Jerusalem. Ezekiel xiii,10 reports that the Jerusalem temple was full of “the idols of the house of Israel”.

In henotheistic form, the religious devotion to Yahweh puts him in the role of a divine king ruling over the other deities. This arrangement appears in psalm xxxix,6-8, where the “sons of god”, or “heavenly beings”, are called upon to heap praise upon Yahweh alone. Between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE other gods are increasingly depicted as adjuncts of Yahweh’s power: that or they turn into devils or disappear altogether.

Narrowing the hierarchy of heaven follows, or represents, albeit in idealised form, the emergence of kings from amongst the Israeli tribes. Smith argues that there were associated “traumatic” changes occurring in the legal framework; the individual becomes a legal personality, next to and alongside the extended family.[48] He cites Deuteronomy xxvi,16; Jeremiah xxxi,29-30; and Ezekiel xviii. Presumably old tribal structures and egalitarian relationships were collapsing, or undergoing rapid decay, and being subsumed by class interests and property rights. Smith highlights an increase in social stratification. The poor got poorer, the rich richer.

Others write along similar lines. Rainer Albertz says that with the “formation of a state” there came deep structural changes, including the creation of “large landed estates, from the crown downwards” and the subordination of the peasantry to market-orientated surplus production. The old “egalitarian ideal” was corrupted or simply forced “aside”.[49] In fact, the poor steadily lost their land, fell into debt and into a permanent state of dependence. Wage labour, debt bondage and slavery grew correspondingly.

Numerous passages in Micah, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah can be cited as evidence. Eg, Micah: “Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil upon their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covert fields, and seize them; and houses they take away; they oppress a man in his house, a man of his inheritance.”[50]

What is undeniable, though, is the role of external factors. The rise of the Israeli kingdom into a regional power and the existence of an independent Judea to the south was due almost entirely to a strategic power vacuum in the Middle East. Egypt had been thrown into crisis and temporarily weakened by the general crisis of the late Bronze Age. Likewise Mesopotamia. However, the 8th century BCE saw a revived Assyria rebuild a huge empire. At its furthermost extent neo-Assyria reached down to the Arabian gulf, and to the west the Mediterranean coast and the Nile.

Records of the Assyrian monarchs testify to the terrorist methods employed. One describes the gory punishment meted out to those who dared rebel: “With battle and slaughter I assaulted and took the city. Three thousand warriors I slew in battle. Their possessions I carried away. Many of their soldiers I took alive; some of them I cut off hands and limbs; of others the noses, ears, and arms; of many soldiers I put out the eyes. I devastated the city, dug it up, in fire I burned it; I annihilated it”.[51]

Israel fell under Assyrian domination. In 738 BCE Tilath-Pileser III made the kingdom his vassal and he demanded substantial tribute. A thousand talents of silver was paid over, reports 1 Kings xv,19. Pro- and anti-Assyrian factions formed and fought for influence in the northern court. Doubtless, though, there was political overlap and considerable fluidity, given changing internal and external factors.

When the anti-Assyrian faction momentarily gained the upper hand, Israel’s monarch, Pekah (reigned 735-32), attempted to force the southern kingdom of Judea to join his rebellion - that would have involved recognition of northern leadership, something which the southern king, Ahaz, was less than willing to do. The anti-Assyrian coalition united Israel and Syria, but both had to sue for peace when the king of kings once again entered the Levant with his army. There was a heavy price to pay for the so-called Syro-Ephraimite[52] war of 734 BCE in loss of territory and payment of extra tribute.

Pekah is then murdered by the pro-Assyrian faction and replaced by Hoshea. He was favoured by the Assyrians. However, with the death of Tilath-Pileser, the anti-Assyrian faction once again gains the upper hand and Hoshea, this time allied to Egypt, makes another independence attempt. He is soundly beaten by the new Assyrian king, Shalmaneser V, who besieges and takes the city of Samaria during his campaign of 727-25 BCE. A few years later, perhaps in 720 BCE, Israel made a last independence bid. It revolted against either Shalmaneser, or his successor, Sargon II (the records are unclear). But once again there was failure. The Assyrians dismembered the kingdom. And to ensure that nothing of the like happened again there was a social decapitation. The Assyrians deported the local elite - the great landowners, priests and the most wealthy. Their records boast of 27,290 people being marched off into exile. Thereafter the northern kingdom became an object of Judean expansionism, but disappeared from history as a political actor. Later its common people became Christian and later again Muslim. Many of the Palestinian Arabs of today are surely the descendants of these ancient Hebrews.


  1. NK Gottwald The tribes of Yahweh Sheffield 1999.
  2. JT Sporry The story of Egypt London 1964, p368.
  3. See LH Morgan Ancient society Gloucester, Mass 1974, chapters 2-5.
  4. NK Gottwald The tribes of Yahweh Sheffield 1999, p66.
  5. See R Hilton Bond men made free London 2003; ER Wolf Peasant wars in the 20th century New York 1969.
  6. NK Gottwald, ‘Early Israel as an anti-imperial community’ in RA Horsley In the shadow of empire Louisville Kentucky 2008, p9.
  7. According to Chris Wickham, this is especially so with “Mediterranean dry farming, which involved little structured cooperation (unlike stock-raising, which is often on common land, or the more collective cooperation assumed by irrigation, or by the north European open fields). See C Wickham Framing the early Middle Ages Oxford 2006, p390. See also P Horden and N Purcell The corrupting sea: a study of Mediterranean history London 2000.
  8. K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 6, New York 1976, p488.
  9. For a horribly evocative description of the day-to-day brutalities of peasant life read Emile Zola’s novel Earth (1887).
  10. K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 11, London 1979, pp187-88.
  11. See LH Morgan Ancient society Gloucester, Mass 1974, chapter 1.
  12. C Wickham Framing the early Middle Ages Oxford 2006, pp530ff.
  13. I Finkelstein, NA Silberman The Bible unearthed New York 2002, pp333-39.
  14. M Smith The origins of biblical monotheism Oxford 2001, pxxvi.
  15. 1 Samuel iv-v.
  16. 1 Samuel xiii, 5.
  17. 1 Samuel viii, 10-19.
  18. 1 Samuel xiii, 19.
  19. 1 Samuel xv, 3.
  20. 1 Samuel xv,9.
  21. 1 Samuel xvi, 13.
  22. B Halpern David’s secret demons Cambridge 2004, pxv.
  23. 2 Samuel ix, 10.
  24. 1 Kings xi, 3.
  25. 2 Samuel vi, 16.
  26. See NP Lemche , ‘The Old Testament - a Hellenistic book?’ Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament Vol 7, No2, pp163-93.
  27. See P Davies In search of ‘ancient Israel’ Sheffield 1992 and T Thompson Early history of the Israeli people Leiden 1992.
  28. 2 Kings ix, 14-27.
  29. WG Dever Did god have a wife? Grand Rapids 2005, p278.
  30. I Finkelstein, NA Silberman David and Solomon New York 2007, p68.
  31. Exodus xx,3.
  32. www.Bibleinterp.com/articles/MSmith_BiblicalMonotheism.htm
  33. J Frazer The golden bough Ware 1993, p325.
  34. TND Mettinger, ‘The “Dying and rising god”’ in BF Batto and KL Roberts (eds) David and Zion Eisenbraums 2004.
  35. www.bible-history.com/resource/ff_baal.htm
  36. Genesis xxii.
  37. Judges xi,31.
  38. See O Keel, C Uehlinger Gods, goddesses and images of god in ancient Israel Minneapolis 1998.
  39. Ibid p1.
  40. See W Randall Garr, ‘A population estimate of ancient Urgarit’, available at www.jstor.org/pss/1356929
  41. See FM Cross Canaanite myth and Hebrew epic Harvard 1997. Also WG Dever Did god have a wife? Grand Rapids 2005, pp257-60.
  42. There have been other archaeological discoveries pointing to a widespread belief in Asherah and considerable growth of academic literature on the subject. Eg, see O Keel, C Uehlinger Gods, goddesses and images of god in ancient Israel Minneapolis 1998; N Wyatt Serving the gods Sheffield 2000; J Day Yahweh and the gods and goddesses of Canaan Sheffield 2000; and WG Dever Did god have a wife? Grand Rapids 2005. The pinnacle of this line of research is the landmark volume, Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible (K Van der Toorn, B Becking, PW Van der Horst (eds), Michigan 1999).
  43. See M Magnusson BC - the archaeology of the Bible lands London 1977.
  44. R Albertz A history of Israelite religion in the Old Testament period Vol 1, London 1994, p76.
  45. WG Dever Did god have a wife? Grand Rapids 2005, p96.
  46. I have tried to discover the origins of the significance of the number 70 for the Hebrews. But I cannot say I have got very far. Nevertheless, I have to thank Fabio Salva for pointing out to me that there might be a clue in the fact that Egyptian sky-watchers observed that the bright star, Sirius, disappeared from view for 70 days of the year - darkness being ritualistically charged since the earliest times culturally. Sirius was certainly hugely important for the Egyptians. The goddess, Sophis, was directly linked to the star and the Egyptian calendar was based on its movement. The helical rising of Sirius marked the beginning of their new year and the onset of the vital Nile floodwaters. Canaan was, of course, heavily influenced by Egypt. Apart from that, it seems that the ancient Hebrews not only counted seven days for a week: they had a long cycle of seven weeks-of-years and 10 weeks-of-years. Beyond that I cannot work out why 70 was such a special number for them. Help would be welcomed.
  47. M Smith The origins of biblical monotheism Oxford 2001, p49.
  48. See M Smith The early history of god Grand Rapids 2001.
  49. R Albertz A history of Israelite religion in the Old Testament period Vol 1, London 1994, pp159-60.
  50. Micah ii,1-2.
  51. Quoted in H Webster A history of the ancient world London 1955, p57.
  52. Ephraimite after the main Israeli tribe.

*Many desperately want to believe otherwise. And they are willing to pay handsomely for it. Religion is the nationalism of fools. In 2005 the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered a well organised archaeology forgery ring, which for decades manufactured splendid ancient objects, including from Solomon’s temple. The forgers targeted “key spots of interest to Israel at the moment” - there is, of course, a politically driven Zionist need to prove an ancient claim to the land (The Guardian January 20 2005).