From Abraham to Napoleon, Part II

For Part I

The Conquest and the Kingdom

Few details of the story of Exodus have been securely confirmed by archeologists.  Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to suppose that nomadic Hebrews made their way out of Egypt back to southern Canaan, where some of their people appear to have been living already.  At that time, Hebrews would have hardly differed in language and culture from other peoples of the region, such as Jebusites, Moabites, and Edomites (whose descent they traced to Jacob’s brother Esau).  The children of Israel  were entering a well-developed, though politically and ethnically divided land, of thriving agriculture (“a land of milk and honey”) and prosperous cities--many of which were destroyed by the nomadic invaders, whose level of material culture was far lower than that of the natives.   Although the impression is given, at several places in the Old Testament, that the invaders exterminated the peoples they found in possession of the land, intermarriage was frequent enough to pose a problem.  But, no sooner were the wandering Israelites ensconced in their Promised Land than fresh nomadic incursions were made by Midianites and Amalekites.

Although the book of Joshua may seem to suggest the Israelite invasion was a kind of Blitzkrieg, the conquest of Canaan (as the archeological record as well as other Scriptural texts reveal) was a patchy and uneven affair and undertaken tribe by tribe and over a long period of time (two centuries, perhaps), rather than as a concentrated national invasion and conquest.  Even the identities of the 12 tribes were not actually fixed in the time of Joshua. 

Considerable intermarriage took place, and not only with the Israelites polytheistic “cousins.”  Samson, the leader of tribe of Dan, married two Philistine wives, and one prominent Israeli archaeologist (Yigael Yadin) has conjectured that the Danites and Samson himself were related to the Philistines, who may have been an offshoot of the same stock that produced Mycenaean Greeks.   King David took the wife of a Hittite, which means that Bathsheba was involved in at least one mixed marriage, while Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of the Phoenician king of Tyre.  The mixed stock of Jerusalem described by Ezekial (16:3)--“Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite”--may have been an extreme, but not exceptional case.  The archeological remains of settlements in Canaan after the conquest give evidence of great cultural diversity.  This is to be expected, since it would have taken considerable time for the various Canaanite peoples to have fused, with the invaders into the nation of Israel.

The warlike Philistines presented a serious obstacle to the conquest of Canaan.  Originally of Indo-European stock (although they gradually assimilated to both Semitic language and culture), the Philistines had been among the “Sea Peoples” who attacked Egypt.  Killing two birds with one stone, the Egyptians redirected them to Palestine, which they were to rule for the pharaohs.  The Philistines succeeded not only in challenging the divided and quarrelsome Israelite tribes for control over parts of Palestine but even, as Judges and Samuel make plain, in subjugating them.  The first Jewish national state, founded in the 11th century by Saul and David, arose during the struggle with the Philistines.

The Davidic kingdom (roughly 100-927 B.C.) was actually a multi-ethnic empire that encompassed not only Judah and Samaria, but also Galilee (in the north), some Philistines towns, as well as communities of Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites.  In attacking and subduing Aramaean (“Syrian”) kingdoms across the Jordan, he enlarged his territory and paved the way for the emergence of Aramaic, which replaced Hebrew as the everyday language of the Jews.   

David moved his capital from Hebron to the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, which he enlarged and enriched.   Solomon, David’s son and successor, built the first temple in Jerusalem and, although his kingdom was weakened by the secession of Edom and parts of Syria, he forged alliances with Egypt, Hiram the King of Tyre, and the Queen of Sheba (Saba in Yemen).  Hiram and Solomon formed a kind of business partnership in which the Israelites traded their agricultural commodities for the more advanced luxuries produced by the Phoenician cities, but the relationship between the two tiny nations was more than a commercial exchange: Phoenician cultural influence was very much in the ascendant for several centuries. 

Solomon’s building projects and ambitious foreign policy may have overtaxed his kingdom’s resources, and upon his death, the intertribal feuding (never far beneath the surface) erupted with a vengeance, when his son Rehoboam ill-advisedly responded to complaints with threats of still harsher policies than Solomon had pursued.  The northern tribes, repudiating the house of David (from Judah) invited Jeroboam, an exiled official, to rule over them.  Henceforth there were to be two kingdoms: Judah (plus the southern Benjamites) in the South and Israel, covering the ten tribes in the north.  Despite the common dangers they faced, the two kingdoms were as often in conflict as in alliance.

Deportations and Resettlements

Almost immediately the two mini-kingdoms faced dangerous foreign pressures from Egypt and the Philistines, and by the middle of the 9th century the rising power of Assyria pushed into Israel, where King Ahab was defeated by Shalmaneser III, and he and his successors were forced to pay tribute.  Shalmaneser V and Sargon II completed the conquest of the northern kingdom (about 722), driving out many inhabitants (nearly 30,000 men were recruited for the Assyrian army) and replacing them--in a standard Assyrian maneuver--with a mixed lot of foreign settlers.  Even after the settlers had intermarried with Israelites and adopted their religion (with some variations), these Samaritans were the object of bitter hatred from the Jews in the southern kingdom.

Tiny Judah lingered on precariously, saved in 735 by a timely submission to Assyria, but the fall of the Assyrian empire, at the hands of Medes and Babylonians, brought no relief to hard-pressed Judah, whose king made the fatal mistake of renouncing submission to King Nebuchadrezzar, who (in 597) conquered Judah and took the king, as well as several thousand Jewish leaders and skilled craftsmen to Babylon.  A subsequent revolt had even more disastrous consequences: The king was killed, the fiction of independence was ended, the walls and fortifications were destroyed, the temple was razed, and thousands of the inhabitants of Judah were driven from their land.  

Although the number of Jews who went into exile cannot be conjectured even approximately, the number cannot have been very great.  Nonetheless, Jewish morale would have been disproportionately affected by the deportation of much of the elite class.  During this period of Babylonian Captivity, many Jews were allowed to return to Judah and its ruined capital, ruled by an appointed governor. In Babylonia itself, the exiles seemed to have done well, and it was during this period that many Jewish scriptures were written and others began to take on their final form.  

Thomas Fleming

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

7 Responses

  1. Avatar Roger McGrath says:

    I’m curious about your take on an old historical controversy, Tom: I haven’t read or thought about this for more than 50 years but I recall there was a fairly good argument that the 10 northern tribes of Hebrews, remained in place and were never in Egypt and that it was only the two southern tribes that went to the land of Goshen in a time of famine and were enslaved.

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    The standard current view—though there is disagreement over everything—is that there was a melange of West Semitic tribes living in the area, some of whom entered Egypt with the invading Hyksos. Some left when they were overthrown and others stayed. Habiru/Hebrew seems to mean only something like nomad or brigand and was a rather generic descriptive term. The number and identity of tribes was not fixed until centuries after the return, and they did incorporate local element. The northern tribes—Israel proper—seem to have been a distinctive confederation.

    So the overall view of historians and archaeologists is that the highly schematic account of the OT partly represents a desire of the Jews to persuade themselves that they are a sort of race, not a mere conglomeration of tribes that had come together in common worship of a God above all other gods. Interestingly, the Greeks knew that Hellas was the result of a series of occupations and invasions, and a long process of assimilation by which Peslgi, Minyans, Achaeans, Dorians, Ionians found common culture, religion, and a set of Hellenic dialects they could regard as varieties of the same language. They believed strongly that their culture made them superior, but they were open to intermarriage, for example, with Thracians, and happily converted the peoples of the Middle East into Hellenes. They found the Jews to be parochial, bigoted, and misanthropic–because they had one set of rules for how they treated each other and quite another looser set for their treatment of non-Jews.

  3. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    I remember reading something years ago which said that Habiru meant something like “dusty traveler.” This description originating from the conditions which are a result of trailing behind a caravan. Or so was speculated.

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    The Egyptians appear to have regarded them as nothing but trouble. Dusty traveler almost certainly equates with Nomad, and nomad brigands were the bane of civilized life. The OT itself makes it clear that nomad patriarchs were rough customers, more like Pancho Villa than a prophet. Small wonder that, when Moses was leading his people to the Promised Land, most of the sensible peoples in the way would not grant them access. Looking backward, the authors of Exodus viewed this perfectly natural resistance as a cause of perpetual hatred.

  5. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Dr Fleming,
    Would you recommend Paul Johnson’s books on the history of Jews and Christians?

  6. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    No. not on any imaginable subject. He was glib and clever, often, but he put together his books without study or reflection. He had run afoul of Jewish intellectuals–perhaps it was something in Modern Times–and he was crazy enough to win back their esteem by churning out a book in about a year on the history of Judaism. My friend Rabbi Neusner observed it was, objectively (as the Marxists would say), an act of gross anti-Semitism. I once ventured to drop him a note when I read his statement that Proust admired Maurras but only for his prose, little realizing that though Marcel, as a half-Jew, was a Drefusard, he was nonetheless the good friend of Lucien Daudet, whose brother was co-editor of Action Francaise, and in general Proust annoyed the Left by his admiration for the old guard aristocracy. Bill Kauffman the libertarian once asked how a man could write a cultural history of America without even mentioning baseball–actually, a good point. He was a pretty good hack, a man capable of damning leftist intellectuals for not being faithful to their wives, while he was obsessively betraying his own wife with mistresses he begged to spank him as a naughty boy. His wife claims he never really was anything but a Leftist at heart. Small wonder he was the darling of American conservatives.

  7. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you, Tom. I am always suspicious of populist writers or those being touted by one side or the other. After September 11 some of my jewish acquaintances from college were quoting Belloc’s essay on Mohammedans from his little book on heresies. He of course was right about a lot of things including the significance of Sept 11 in Christian history. Yet when I recommended other works of his on Palestine and the importance of Damascus to the Holy Land, they reverted to the old canards popularized by Fox News and “conservative” media.

    Beware of the “darlings of American conservatives!”