From Abraham to Napoleon:  4000 Years of Ethnic Conflict, Part I

This seems a good time to republish revised version of an essay from the book Peace in the Promised Land, published in 2005.  I am by no means an expert on most of the periods discussed, but I have tried to grapple with the sources and with modern scholarship.  

Now the Lord had said to Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from they father’s house, unto a land I will shew thee; 

And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing;

And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee all families of the earth be blessed.  [Genesis 12.1-3]

The land promised to Abraham was called Canaan in the Bible and in Roman times was referred to as Palestine, the land of the Philistines.  It is an ill-defined area that included the land lying between the Mediterranean Sea on the West and the Dead Sea and the Jordan River on the East (though it sometimes included land across the Jordan).  It extended from Phoenicia (to the Northwest) and stretched southward to Gaza.  The natural border to the North was the Orontes River, which divided Canaan from Syria, though the demarcation of Palestine from Syria often makes a distinction without a difference. 

Though Eretz Israel (the land claimed by ancient Jews) was the greater part, Canaan comprised land that now belongs to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.  Geography, though setting only approximate borders, did fix the destiny of Palestine: As a bridge between Egypt and the Middle East and a border between arable land and desert, tiny Palestine would be fought over by great imperial armies of Egyptians and Assyrians, Persians and Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, and Muslim Arabs, all of whom have left behind traces of their blood and folkways upon the land.

The Promised Land, then, is quite extensive, but whom does it belong to today?  Much blood has been spilled and is even now being spilled, in attempts to answer that question.  Some Evangelical Protestants in the United States have a simple answer: The promise made to Abraham now extends to the state of Israel, which has the right to occupy not just Israel, as it existed between 1948, when it achieved independence, and since 1967, when it occupied Jordanian and Egyptian territories in the six day war, but the whole of ancient Palestine.  This is, as many Israelis know, a recipe for unending war, the extinction of the Israeli state, and a second Jewish holocaust.  It is also based on a very insubstantial historical foundation that is a product of Christian myth-making and nationalist ideology.

Before Israel

The oldest human remains found in Israel date back 70-90,000 years, and in the period between 10,000-8000 B.C., the basis of an agricultural civilization was laid and cities were founded.  Although the region contains some of the earliest remains of cities (notably in Jericho), it was something of a backwater in the great days of the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Egyptians.  By Abraham’s time, the city-states of Sumer had risen and fallen to rise again under Ur and had fallen again to an invasion of Amorites and Elamites.  In the Third Millennium, many of the principle cities of Canaan were established, often as hilltop fortresses.  This rapidly developing Bronze Age culture probably reflects the presence of newcomers to the region.  

The promise (geographically unspecific) made to Abraham, that he will be ancestor of a great people, is found first in Genesis, whose composition most scholars date to a period between the 10th and the 6th centuries (B.C.), that is, about 1000 years after the event, and during time of the Jewish kingdom (and its collapse) when the concept of a “nation,” which would have been quite alien to the mind of a tribe of wandering  nomads, would have become relevant.   Although there is no means of testing or validating a divine promise,  the promise, even taken literally, extends not only to Jews but also to Arabs (as descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael) and  even to Christians (as inheritors of the promise), and each group has used Scriptural texts to justify its right to dominate the land.  Since each of the three claims contradicts the other two, religion in the Holy Land is an instrument more of war than of peace.

By the time Abraham entered Canaan, some time after 2000 B.C., it was already a land dominated by peoples (such as Amorites and Phoenicians), speaking languages that belong to the Northwest branch of Semitic.  By 2000 the entire region had been occupied by a people whom the Greeks later called  Phoenicians but who called themselves Can´ani or Canaanites.  Amorites, speakers of another Northwest Semitic language, invaded Syria and Palestine about 1900, and, although they sacked many cities of Canaan, the Amorites settled down principally in Syria.  In the Old Testament, we also hear of other, non-Semitic peoples, such as Hurrians and Hittites and, a little later, of the Semitic Aramaeans, who took over Syria about 1200 (in the Northwestern part of Canaan).  These Aramaeans are linked  by Deuteronomy (26:5) with the Hebrews: “A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.”  

The early centuries of the Second Millennium witnessed the triumph of the Amorites in Mesopotamia.  They overthrew the Kingdom of Ur and eventually, from their capital in Babylon, ruled the land between the two rivers (Mesopotamia).  They had been a wild nomadic people, despised by the Sumerians for their lack of civilization.  Their way of life could not have been much different from that of the patriarchs, though once they had settled down into Mesopotamian cities, they quickly adopted the common culture of the Sumerians and the Semitic Akkadians.  

According to the Book of Genesis, Abraham had gone from the Sumerian city of Ur (anachronistically called “Ur of the Chaldees”) to Haran to Canaan--all places, by that time, associated with Amorites.  Canaan itself was under the rule (sometimes only nominal) of Egyptian pharaohs of the 11th and 12th dynasties of the Middle Kingdom (in the early centuries of the 2nd millennium), though Egyptian control of Canaan was challenged by the Mittani and later by the Hittites.  Chariot-driving newcomers, however, entered Palestine, where they built extensive fortifications, from which they infiltrated Egypt.  Scanty Egyptian sources describe an invasion of the so-called shepherd kings,  the Hyksos, who took over  Lower  Egypt.    Although the Hyksos' take-over of northern Egypt has been described as an invasion, modern scholars now prefer to see it as a series of migrations that led to a coup d’état.  

These Hyksos appear to have been a mixed lot. Though the nucleus may have included some Hurrian or Iranian warriors, most of the members of this loose confederation seem to have spoken a language that was a dialect of northwestern Semitic (like Amoritic and Canaanite).  The loose Hyksos “confederacy” would have included the nomadic clans sometimes described in ancient texts as habiru (or abiru or apiru), and this word—not an ethnic designation but a descriptive term often applied to nomadic brigands--has been connected, not improbably, with the Hebrews.  The Hyksos rulers and warriors were driven out of Egypt, by the end of the 18th century, by Ahmose, the founder of the 18th Dynasty.  He and his successors followed up this victory by invading and subduing much of Palestine, though they still had to content with the powerful kingdom of Mitanni, which was only defeated in the 15th century by Thutmose III. For a time Canaan became a cultural and economic province of Egypt.  Although the wars and rebellions devastated some of the cities of Palestine, the overall level of culture and prosperity improved. 

Even after the expulsion of the Hyksos,  some Semitic tribes remained in Egypt, including (it seems probable) the ancestors of the tribes that would become known as Israel, who might easily have been regarded as a painful reminder of Egyptian subjugation.  There have always been two ways of dealing with a problem of this nature.  The first is to try to induce the alien populace to assimilate and thus join it to the body of the nation.  The other, more frequently applied though often ‘counter-productive’ approach is the subjugation of the alien elements.  The Egyptians chose the latter method.

The story of the Israelites’ occupation of Canaan is one of the most famous—and most debated—stories of ancient history.  There is no consensus among historians and archeologists.  One group accepts the Old Testament account as an historically based (though inaccurate) framework; another dismisses the entire story of Moses and Joshuah as a later invention.  In any version of events, however, some of the Semitic tribes must have remained in Egypt, including (it seems probable) the ancestors of the tribes that would become known as Israel, and they might easily have been regarded as a painful reminder of Egyptian subjugation.  Since the invaders formed a distinctive class of the population, those who chose not to assimilate would have naturally been subjugated by the resurgent Egyptians. 

 It would have been during this period (the 14th and 13th centuries) of persecution and flight that Hebrew tribes, under the charismatic leadership of Moses, found a common identity in the worship of their one God.  In Exodus (3:6), written (like Genesis) some three centuries after the trek from Egypt, the promise of Canaan is repeated. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Josh Doggrell says:

    This issue has been much on my mind lately. I am going to go back and re-read this for reflection and understanding. Much appreciation.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, I have seen some rather foolish debates on FB lately, justifying any crimes or inhumanities committed by “the Jewish state”–which is not, as my friend Rabbi Neusner used to point out, a “Judaic state.” I have more questions than answers, but those who insist on reading the Old Testament into the New–instead of doing what Our Lord and his Apostles did, discovering the New in the pages of the old–will always find the means of justifying what we know to be evil: polygamy, wars of conquest, persecution of outsiders, murder of the innocent. In this essay, I tried to bring out, in a non-technical fashion, some of the historical evidence that bears on this question, and I welcome your comments on this and succeeding installments.