Israelites

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Iron Age Hebrew tribal people in Canaan

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The Israelites (/ˈɪzrəlts, riə-/;[1][2] Hebrew: .mw-parser-output .script-hebrew,.mw-parser-output .script-Hebr{font-family:”SBL Hebrew”,”SBL BibLit”,”Taamey Ashkenaz”,”Taamey Frank CLM”,”Frank Ruehl CLM”,”Ezra SIL”,”Ezra SIL SR”,”Keter Aram Tsova”,”Taamey David CLM”,”Keter YG”,”Shofar”,”David CLM”,”Hadasim CLM”,”Simple CLM”,”Nachlieli”,Cardo,Alef,”Noto Serif Hebrew”,”Noto Sans Hebrew”,”David Libre”,David,”Times New Roman”,Gisha,Arial,FreeSerif,FreeSans}בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, Bənēy Yīsrāʾēl, transl. ’Children of Israel) were a group of Semitic-speaking tribes in the ancient Near East who, during the Iron Age, inhabited a part of Canaan.[3][4][5][6]

The name of Israel first appears in the Merneptah Stele of ancient Egypt, dated to about 1200 BCE. Modern archaeology suggests that the Israelites branched out from the Canaanites through the development of Yahwism, a distinct monolatristic—and later monotheistic—religion centred on the national god Yahweh.[7][8][9][10][11] Because of this, they can be described as an ethnoreligious group.[12] They spoke an archaic form of the Hebrew language, which was a regional variety of the Canaanite language, known today as Biblical Hebrew.[13] In the Iron Age, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah emerged. The Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Samaria, fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire around 720 BCE;[14] while the Kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE.[15] Some of the Judean population was exiled to Babylon, but returned to Israel after Cyrus the Great conquered the region.[16][17]

According to the Bible, the Israelites are the descendants of Jacob, a patriarch who was later renamed as Israel. Following a severe drought in Canaan, Jacob and his twelve sons fled to Egypt, where they eventually formed the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Israelites were later led out of slavery in Egypt by Moses and conquered Canaan under Joshua‘s leadership, who was Moses’s successor. Most modern scholars agree that the Torah does not provide an authentic account of the Israelites’ origins, and instead view it as constituting their national myth. However, it is supposed that there may be a “historical core” to the narrative.[18][19][20] The Bible also portrays the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as the successors of an earlier United Kingdom of Israel, though the historicity of the latter is disputed.[21][22]

Jews and Samaritans both trace their ancestry to the ancient Israelites.[23][24][25][26] Jews trace their ancestry to tribes that inhabited the Kingdom of Judah, including Judah, Benjamin and partially Levi, while the Samaritans claim their lineage from the remaining members of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi who were not deported in the Assyrian captivity after the fall of Israel. Other groups have also claimed affiliation with the Israelites.

Etymology

The first reference to Israel in non-biblical sources is found in the Merneptah Stele in c. 1209 BCE. The inscription is very brief and says: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not”. The inscription refers to a people, not an individual or nation state,[27] who are located in central Palestine[28] or the highlands of Samaria.[29] Some Egyptologists suggest that Israel appeared in earlier topographical reliefs, dating to the Nineteenth Dynasty (i.e. reign of Ramesses II) or the Eigteenth Dynasty, [30]but this reading remains controversial.[31][32]

In the Hebrew Bible, Israel first appears in Genesis 32:29, where an angel gives the name to Jacob after the latter fought with him.[33][34][35] The folk etymology given in the text derives Israel from yisra, “to prevail over” or “to struggle with”, and El (god). However, modern scholarship interprets El as the subject, “El rules/struggles”,[36][37][38] from sarar (שָׂרַר) ‘to rule’[39] (cognate with sar (שַׂר) ‘ruler’,[40] Akkadian šarru ‘ruler, king’[41]), which is likely cognate with the similar root sara (שׂרה) “fought, strove, contended”.[42][43]

Afterwards, Israel referred to the direct descendants of Jacob and gentiles who partially or fully assimilated in the Israelite community.[44][45] Hebrew is a similar ethnonym but it is usually applied whenever Israelites are economically disadvantaged or migrants. It might also refer to their descent from Eber, the grandson of Noah. [46][47][48][49]

During the period of the divided monarchy, “Israelites” referred to the inhabitants of the northern Kingdom of Israel, but eventually, included the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah in post-exilic usage.[50]

In literature of the Second Temple period, “Israel” included the members of the united monarchy, the northern kingdom, and eschatological Israel. “Jew” (or “Judean“) was another popular ethnonym but it might refer to a geographically restricted sub-group or to the inhabitants of the southern kingdom of Judah.[51] [52] In addition, works such as Ezra-Nehemiah pioneered the idea of an “impermeable” distinction between Israel and gentiles, on a genealogical basis.[45] Other scholars argue that the distinction is based on religion.[53]

In Judaism, “Israelite”, broadly speaking, refers to a lay member of the Jewish ethnoreligious group, as opposed to the priestly orders of Kohanim and Levites. In legal texts, such as the Mishnah and Gemara, ישראלי (Yisraeli), or Israelite, is used to describe Jews instead of יהודי (Yehudi), or Jew. In Samaritanism, Samaritans are not Jews יהודים (Yehudim). Instead, they are Israelites, which includes their Jewish brethren, or Israelite Samaritans.[54][55][full citation needed][56]

Biblical narrative

Mid-20th century mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel, from the Etz Yosef synagogue wall in Givat Mordechai, Jerusalem

The history of the Israelite people can be divided into these categories, according to the Hebrew Bible:[57]

Pre-Monarchic Period (unknown to c. 1050 BCE)
The Israelites were named after their ancestor, Jacob/Israel, who was the grandson of Abraham. They were organized into 12 tribes: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph (or Tribe of Ephraim and Tribe of Manasseh) and Benjamin. Originally, they went to Egypt after a famine in Canaan but were enslaved by the Egyptians.[58] They escaped and organized themselves as a kritarchy,[59] where they followed laws given by Moses. Afterwards, the Israelites conquered Canaan and fought with several neighbors until they established a monarchic state.

United Monarchy (c. 1050–930 BCE)
As a monarchic state, the Israelite tribes were united by the leadership of Saul, David and Solomon. The reigns of Saul and David were marked by military victories and Israel’s transition to a mini-empire with vassal states. [60][61] Solomon’s reign was relatively more peaceful and oversaw the construction of the First Temple,[62] with the help of Phoenician allies.[63] This Temple was where the Ark of the Covenant was stored; its former location was the City of David.[64]

Divided Monarchy (c. 930–597 BCE)
Map of the Holy Land, Pietro Vesconte, 1321, showing the allotments of the tribes of Israel. Described by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld as “the first non-Ptolemaic map of a definite country”[65]

The monarchic state was divided into two states, Israel and Judah, due to civil and religious disputes. Eventually, Israel and Judah met their demise after the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions respectively. According to the Biblical prophets, these invasions were divine judgments for religious apostasy and corrupt leadership.

Exilic Period (c. 597–538 BCE)
Map of the twelve tribes of Israel (before the move of Dan to the north), based on the Book of Joshua

After the Babylonians invaded Judah, they deported most of its citizens to Babylon, where they lived as “exiles”. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and established the First Persian Empire in 539 BCE. [66] One year later, according to traditional dating, Cyrus permitted the Judahites to return to their native homeland.[66] This homeland was re-named as the Province of Yehud, which eventually became a satrapy of Eber-Nari.[66]

Persian Period (c. 539–331 BCE)
In 537–520 BCE, Zerubbabel became Yehud’s governor and started work on the Second Temple, which was stopped.[67] In 520–516 BCE, Haggai and Zechariah goaded the Judahites to resume work on the Temple. Upon completion, Joshua became its high priest.[67][67] In 458–433 BCE, Ezra and Nehemiah led another group of Judahites to Yehud, with Artaxerxes‘s permission. Nehemiah rebuilt the temple after some unspecified disaster and removed foreign influence from the Judahite community. [68][69] That said, some Judahites elected to stay in Persia, where they almost faced annihilation.[70][71]

Model of the Tabernacle constructed under the auspices of Moses, in Timna Park, Israel

Historical Israelites

Efforts to confirm the biblical ethnogenesis of Israel through archaeology has largely been abandoned as unproductive.[20] Many scholars see the traditional narratives as national myths with little historical value but some posit that a small group of exiled Egyptians contributed to the Exodus narrative, for instance.[a] William G. Dever cautiously identifies this group with the Tribe of Joseph, while Richard Elliott Friedman identifies it with the Tribe of Levi.[75][76] Josephus identifies them with the Hyksos.[77][78] Other scholars believe that the Exodus narrative was a “collective memory” of several events from the Bronze Age.[79][80]

In addition, it is unlikely that the Israelites overtook southern Levant by force, according to archaeological evidence. Instead, they branched out of indigenous Canaanite peoples that long inhabited the region, which included Syria, ancient Israel, and the Transjordan region.[81][82][83] Their culture was monolatristic, with a primary focus on Yahweh (or El) worship,[84] but after the Babylonian exile, it became monotheistic, with partial influence from Zoroastrianism. The latter decisively separated the Israelites from other Canaanites[81][7][8] but they retained the Hebrew language, which is the only surviving dialect of the Canaanite languages.[85][86]

Origins

Ramesses III prisoner tiles depicting precursors of the Israelites in Canaan: Canaanites from city-states and a Shasu leader.[87][88][89]

Several theories exist for the origins of historical Israelites. For example, scholars believe they descended from raiding groups, itinerant nomads such as Habiru and Shasu or impoverished Canaanites, who were forced to leave wealthy urban areas and live in the highlands.[90][28] The prevailing academic opinion is that the Israelites were a mixture of peoples predominately indigenous to Canaan, with additional input from an Egyptian matrix of peoples, which most likely inspired the Exodus narrative.[91][92][93] Ancient Israel’s demographics were similar to the demographics of Ammon, Edom, Moab and Phoenicia.[92][94][page needed]

Besides their focus on Yahweh worship, Israelite cultural markers were defined by body, food and time. To elaborate, the Israelites differentiated themselves based on male circumcision, their avoidance of pork consumption and their perceptions of time (i.e. marking time based on the Exodus, the reigns of Israelite kings, Sabbath observance etc.). The first two markers were observed by neighboring west Semites besides the Philistines, who were of Mycenaean Greek origin. This might explain the frequent references to Israelite intermarriage in the Hebrew Bible, which usually occurred with other Semites.[95]

The Mount Ebal structure, seen by many archeologists as an early Israelite cultic site

Genealogy was another factor that differentiated the Israelites. It was a matter of cultural self-identity rather than biological descent. For example, foreign clans could adopt the identity of other clans, which subsequently changed their status from “outsider” to “insider”. This applied to Israelites from different tribes and gentiles.[45][95] Saul Oylan argued that foreigners automatically became Israelite if they lived in their territory, according to Ezekiel 47:21–23.[96] That said, Israelites used genealogy to engage in narcissism of small differences but also, self-criticism since their ancestors included morally questionable characters such as Jacob. Both these traits represented the “complexities of the Jewish soul”.[95]

In terms of appearance, the Hebrew Bible records figures, such as David, Esau and the lovers in the Song of Songs, as being “ruddy”,[97][98] “white and ruddy” and “clear as the moon”,[99][100] which aligned with descriptions of Levantine phenotypes in ancient Egyptian and Greek sources.[101][102][103][104][105] Rabbis, on the other hand, described the Biblical Jews as being “midway between black and white” and having the “color of the boxwood tree”.[106]

Israelite men, like other western Semites, have full, round beards according to Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions. In contrast, their neighbors, such as Babylonians and Egyptians, have long beards and chin tufts respectively but this was an upper-class custom. Joseph’s act of shaving (Genesis 41:14) was thought to resemble the Egyptian custom.[107] Merneptah‘s Karnak reliefs indicate that the early Israelites dressed like other Canaanites, in terms of attire and hairstyle, compared to other groups like the Shasu.[108][109][110]

Early Israelite settlements

In the 12th century BCE, many Israelite settlements appeared in the central hill country of Canaan, which was formerly an open terrain. These settlements lacked evidence of pork consumption, compared to Philistine settlements, have four-room houses and lived by an egalitarian ethos, which was exemplified by the absence of elaborate tombs, governor’s mansions, certain houses being bigger than others etc. They followed a mixed economy, which prioritized self-sufficiency, cultivation of crops, animal husbandry and small-scale craft production. New technologies such as terraced farming, silos for grain storage and cisterns for rainwater collection were simultaneously introduced. [111]

These settlements were built by inhabitants of the “general Southland” (i.e. modern Sinai and the southern parts of Israel and Jordan), who abandoned their pastoral-nomadic ways. Canaanites who lived outside the central hill country were tenuously identified as Danites, Asherites, Zebulunites, Issacharites, Naphtalites and Gadites. These inhabitants do not have a significant history of migration besides the Danites, who allegedly originate from the Sea Peoples, particularly the Dan(an)u.[111] [112]Nonetheless, they intermingled with the former nomads, due to socioeconomic and military factors. Their interest in Yahwism and its concern for the underprivileged was another factor. Possible allusions to this historical reality in the Hebrew Bible include the aforementioned tribes, except for Issachar and Zebulun, descending from Bilhah and Zilpah, who were viewed as “secondary additions” to Israel. [111]

Monarchic period

United Monarchy

Part of the gift-bearing Israelite delegation of King Jehu, Black Obelisk, 841–840 BCE.[113]

The historicity of the United Monarchy is heavily debated among archaeologists and biblical scholars: biblical maximalists and centrists (Kenneth Kitchen, William G. Dever, Amihai Mazar, Baruch Halpern and others) argue that the biblical account is more or less accurate, biblical minimalists (Israel Finkelstein, Ze’ev Herzog, Thomas L. Thompson and others) argue that Israel and Judah never split from a singular state. The debate has not been resolved but recent archaeological discoveries by Eilat Mazar and Yosef Garfinkel show some support for the existence of the United Monarchy.[21]

From 850 BCE onwards, a series of inscriptions mention the “House of David“. They came from Israel’s neighbors.[114][115]

Kingdoms of Israel and Judah

“To Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah” – royal seal found at the Ophel excavations in Jerusalem

Compared to the United Monarchy, the historicity of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah is widely accepted by historians and archaeologists.[116]: 169–195 [117] Their destruction by the Assyrians and Babylonians respectively is also confirmed by archaeological evidence and extrabiblical sources.[118][119][120][121]: 306 [122][123]

Later history

Many scholars believe the Cyrus Cylinder confirms the biblical narrative of Cyrus initiating the Return to Zion[124] but others disagree.[125][126] That said, the returnees showed a “heightened sense” of their ethnic identity. [127] The Judeans who stayed in Babylon similarly experienced a “national awakening”. For example, many Judeans in Nippur suddenly gave their children theophoric names in the mid 5th century BCE. [128] Circumcision was no longer a sufficient marker of Israelite identity, with the identity being re-defined by genealogy or faith alone.[129][130]

This marked the time where Second Temple Judaism and Samaritanism split from Yahwism and by extension the split between Jews and Samaritans as ethnoreligious groups.[131][132] Samaritanism became the religion of Samaritans, who were loyal to the temple at Mount Gerizim.[133] Their ethnonym originated from Guardians/Keepers/Watchers [of the Law/Torah], or the region of Samaria.[134] Second Temple Judaism became the religion of the Jews, who were loyal to the temple at Jerusalem. Their ethnonym originated from the Kingdom of Judah and the region of Judea.[135][136][137][138] Some scholars prefer the older ethnonym of “Judean”, since they see it as a more precise and ethical translation of Ioudaios,[52] but others differentiate between the two. I.e. Judean refers to inhabitants of Judea whilst Jew refers to Israelites who adhere to Judaism and their descendants. Converts are included.[139]

Despite significant overlap in material evidence between Jews and proto-Samaritans,[140] Samaritans were commonly believed to be descendants of foreign settlers who arrived after the Assyrians conquered Israel. Most scholars affirm the Samaritan tradition that they were indigenous northern Israelites but acknowledge that some of them intermarried with the settlers. [141][142][143][144] Jews, on the other hand, show evidence of being influenced by Idumeans (or Edomites), in terms of religion. The Idumeans significantly assimilated in Judean society during the Hasmonean era and later, founded the Herodian dynasty, who shaped Judea, Jerusalem and the Second Temple.[145][146][147] The Jews also re-populated Galilee, which was devastated by the Assyrians, but there is evidence of other ethnicities, including northern Israelites, Assyrians and a population associated with the Phoenicians, living there. [148][149][150][151]Nonetheless, the issue on whether Jewishness was strictly a matter of religion or nationality/ethnicity, and whether converts could be truly Jewish, was notably divisive, which was believed to cause the split between Christianity and Judaism.[152][153][154][155]

Genetics

A Samaritan elder participates in Passover prayer services held on Mount Gerizim

A 2004 study (by Shen et al.) comparing Samaritans to several Jewish populations (including Ashkenazi Jews, Iraqi Jews, Libyan Jews, Moroccan Jews, and Yemenite Jews) found that “the principal components analysis suggested a common ancestry of Samaritan and Jewish patrilineages. Most of the former may be traced back to a common ancestor in what is today identified as the paternally inherited Israelite high priesthood (Cohanim), with a common ancestor projected to the time of the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel.”[156]

A 2020 study (by Agranat-Tamr et al) stated that there was genetic continuity between Bronze Age and Iron Age southern Levantines, which included the Israelites and Judahites. These southern Levantines could be “modeled as a mixture of local earlier Neolithic populations and populations from the northeastern part of the Near East (e.g. Hurrians, Caucasians etc.)”. Reasons for the continuity include resilience from the Bronze Age collapse, which was mostly true for inland cities such as Tel Megiddo and Tel Abel Beth Maacah.[157]

See also

Notes

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  1. ^ “While there is a consensus among scholars that the Exodus did not take place in the manner described in the Bible, surprisingly most scholars agree that the narrative has a historical core, and that some of the highland settlers came, one way or another, from Egypt …” “Archaeology does not really contribute to the debate over the historicity or even historical background of the Exodus itself, but if there was indeed such a group, it contributed the Exodus story to that of all Israel. While I agree that it is most likely that there was such a group, I must stress that this is based on an overall understanding of the development of collective memory and of the authorship of the texts (and their editorial process). Archaeology, unfortunately, cannot directly contribute (yet?) to the study of this specific group of Israel’s ancestors.”[74]

References

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  2. ^ “Israelite”. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary.
  3. ^ Finkelstein, Israel. “Ethnicity and origin of the Iron I settlers in the Highlands of Canaan: Can the real Israel stand up?” The Biblical Archaeologist 59.4 (1996): 198–212.
  4. ^ Finkelstein, Israel. The archaeology of the Israelite settlement. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1988.
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  7. ^ a b Mark Smith in “The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel” states “Despite the long regnant model that the Canaanites and Israelites were people of fundamentally different culture, archaeological data now casts doubt on this view. The material culture of the region exhibits numerous common points between Israelites and Canaanites in the Iron I period (c. 1200–1000 BCE). The record would suggest that the Israelite culture largely overlapped with and derived from Canaanite culture … In short, Israelite culture was largely Canaanite in nature. Given the information available, one cannot maintain a radical cultural separation between Canaanites and Israelites for the Iron I period.” (pp. 6–7). Smith, Mark (2002). The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel. Eerdmans.
  8. ^ a b Rendsberg, Gary (2008). “Israel without the Bible”. In Frederick E. Greenspahn. The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship. NYU Press. pp. 3–5.
  9. ^ Gnuse, Robert Karl (1997). No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel. England: Sheffield Academic Press. pp. 28, 31. ISBN 1-85075-657-0.
  10. ^ Haran, Menahem (1996). Texts, Temples and Traditions. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 978-1-57506-003-3. It is also clear that there were polytheistic Yahwists in ancient Israel who worshiped YHWH along with other deities
  11. ^ Collins, Steven; Holden, Joseph M. (18 February 2020). The Harvest Handbook of Bible Lands: A Panoramic Survey of the History, Geography, and Culture of the Scriptures. Harvest House. ISBN 978-0-7369-7542-1. At its inception, early Yahwism had animistic and polytheistic elements
  12. ^ Sparks, Kenton L. (1998). Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expression in the Hebrew Bible. Eisenbrauns. pp. 146–148. ISBN 9781575060330.
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  19. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 61: “A few authorities have concluded that the core events of the Exodus saga are entirely literary fabrications. But most biblical scholars still subscribe to some variation of the Documentary Hypothesis, and support the basic historicity of the biblical narrative.”
  20. ^ a b Dever, William (2001). What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It?. Eerdmans. pp. 98–99. ISBN 3-927120-37-5. After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible ‘historical figures’ … archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit.
  21. ^ a b Thomas, Zachary (22 April 2016). “Debating the United Monarchy: Let’s See How Far We’ve Come”. Biblical Theology Bulletin. 46 (2): 59–69. doi:10.1177/0146107916639208. ISSN 0146-1079. S2CID 147053561.
  22. ^ Lipschits, Oded (2014). “The history of Israel in the biblical period”. In Berlin, Adele; Brettler, Marc Zvi (eds.). The Jewish Study Bible (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 2107–2119. ISBN 978-0-19-997846-5. Archived from the original on 9 April 2023. Retrieved 16 May 2022. As this essay will show, however, the premonarchic period long ago became a literary description of the mythological roots, the early beginnings of the nation and the way to describe the right of Israel on its land. The archeological evidence also does not support the existence of a united monarchy under David and Solomon as described in the Bible, so the rubric of ‘united monarchy’ is best abandoned, although it remains useful for discussing how the Bible views the Israelite past. … Although the kingdom of Judah is mentioned in some ancient inscriptions, they never suggest that it was part of a unit comprised of [sic] Israel and Judah. There are no extrabiblical indications of a united monarchy called ‘Israel’.
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  157. ^ Agranat-Tamir, Lily; et al. (28 May 2020). “The Genomic History of the Bronze Age Southern Levant”. Cell. 181 (5): 1146–1157.e11. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2020.04.024. ISSN 0092-8674. PMC 10212583. PMID 32470400. S2CID 219105441.

Sources

Further reading

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