Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel
The use of social-scientific methods as a means of illuminating the ancient information has become an essential element in studies of ancient Israelite society.
Department of Religious Studies
Much of the recent research on the history of ancient Israel has given attention to understanding the nature and development of society. When I began writing Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel, there was no single-authored general synthesis of these studies that both gave attention to methodology and covered the periods extending from the tribal period through the period of Persian domination. This volume, in Westminster John Knox’s Library of Ancient Israel series (edited by Douglas Knight), represents my attempt to provide such a synthesis.
Reconstructing the Society of Israel is organized chronologically, beginning with the question of the origins of "Israel" and ending with the Persian period. Several chapters focus on the social processes associated with major transitions in ancient Israel's history (that is, on the diachronic dimension of Israelite society), and introduce some of the processual models that have been proposed for these transitional periods. Other chapters are more synchronic, in the sense that they deal more with social institutions, social structure, and social organization. They include discussions of demography and settlement patterns, economy (subsistence strategies, patterns of labor, systems of exchange and trade, land ownership and distribution of wealth, technology), sociopolitical organization and structure, and social and political institutions (leadership, government, the judicial system, religion). Each of the chapters is introduced with a general overview of the available evidence associated with the period in question.
Writing a book like this was possible in large part because of a significant methodological shift in biblical studies over the last several decades that emphasizes a more intentional application of social-scientific methods, models, and theories as tools for reconstructing ancient Israel's social world. This development has significantly expanded the field of questions it is possible to ask about the nature of ancient societies. It has also encouraged us to view the nature and function of ancient literature in a new light. The current emphasis among Syro-Palestinian archaeologists on recovering as much material information as possible about all aspects of ancient life has also had an effect on expanding the field of inquiry. The book is thus as much about the problems and processes associated with constructing the past from the available sources as it is about the social world of ancient Israel itself. In a sense, it presents history more as an "ongoing conversation" between past and present than as what we know or think we know about past events and peoples. What follows is an abbreviated version of the introductory chapter of the book, which focuses primarily on issues relating to sources, methods, and models.
The sources available to us for reconstructing the social world of ancient Israel include the Hebrew Bible in its various early versions, other ancient Near Eastern texts and documents, and material information recovered through archaeological excavations. Although traditionally the Hebrew Bible has been the primary source for interpreting the social contexts out of which it emerged, many recent studies have placed more emphasis on archaeological information and theories and models from comparative sociology and anthropology. There is, in fact, some controversy over the relative value of the various sources, particularly with respect to the question of the degree to which the Bible contains actual historical and social information. At one end of the spectrum are those who insist that the Bible is accurate in its historical details. At the other end are those who view the overall value of the Bible as a historical source with great skepticism. Most biblical scholars fall somewhere between the two extremes, but the skeptics' voices in recent years have been loud enough that they have generated some heated responses from some who hold the middle ground or are closer to the other end of the spectrum.
I do not attempt in the book to offer any definitive solutions to these issues. Each perspective is worth considering, and reconsidering, as we engage in the task of constructing and reconstructing histories of ancient Israel and trying to look behind the evidence to catch a glimpse of what Israelite and Judean society may have been like.
Like all texts, the Bible grew out of sociopolitical realities and cannot be fully understood apart from them. Because of their relatedness to such realities, if used critically the biblical texts are potentially useful sources of social and cultural information. But, as is the case for any text, the biblical traditions are models or constructs of reality. Although they can tell us something about general cultural "notions" about reality at various times in Israel’s history, they do not record "history" in the sense that history is understood in the twentieth century. Thus the "history" recorded in the biblical narratives, whether they contain accurate information or not, should be understood first and foremost as representing notions and beliefs constructed to serve some purpose in the social and historical contexts in which they were written, edited, and arranged in their present form. Particularly in crisis situations such as political subordination or exile, or periods of rapid social change, the biblical writers in various periods would have appealed to and reinterpreted sacred history (myth) to legitimate claims about the present and to encourage others to accept these claims, with such intentions as strengthening national identity, or reaffirming or reinterpreting shared values. This type of response is well documented by anthropologists in other societies experiencing rapid culture change or crisis brought on by other factors.
Another important consideration is the social locations and intentionalities of those responsible for writing and editing the texts, and who their audiences were. For example, the authors of the biblical literature were most likely male and would almost certainly have been from a small and elite class. The literature they constructed, then, most likely reflects more the concerns of their own gender and their own class consciousness than that of the society as a whole. Different groups would have had different, often competing interests (whether these are articulated or not), and different worldviews. Such competing interests often give rise to the production of propaganda. Ruling elites in socially stratified states, for example, often seek to maintain their power through persuasion and propaganda, and propaganda is almost certainly present in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, whatever actual religion and ideology the biblical literature reflects, it is not necessarily the religion and ideology of the people outside the elite classes.
Other Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Documents
The Hebrew Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts from Syro-Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia share a broad cultural heritage as well as some common literary forms and themes. There are a number of different types of literature from ancient Near Eastern contexts that provide us with potentially useful historical, social, and cultural information—inscriptions, ostraca and letters that record information about events and political relationships; mythological literature and cultic inscriptions that reveal something about religion, worldview, customs, practices, and the like; inventories that give us a glimpse of economic systems and relations; legal texts that reflect beliefs about social values and concepts of justice.
Comparison of these texts to those in the Bible has contributed in a number of ways to our understanding of ancient Israel and its literature, history, and culture and provide us with additional information about Israel's and Judah's historical and political relations with the surrounding regions. But, as is the case with the biblical literature, these texts yield very selective kinds of information, are often ambivalent, sometimes make conflicting claims, and are sometimes simply unbelievable. It is necessary, therefore, to observe the same kinds of cautions identified for the biblical material in evaluating the historical value of this material—for example, the possibility that royal inscriptions were intended as propaganda, and thus present a distorted picture of real events and relationships.
In the past, archaeologists working in the Middle East were typically interested in illuminating the biblical text and clarifying the relationship of Israel to surrounding cultures. Thus, historians used the material remains of ancient Israelite culture revealed through excavation to supplement, and often to corroborate, the biblical texts. In recent years, however, more emphasis has been placed on the kinds of information they contribute to reconstructing the total range of ancient Israel's social world. Of particular significance in this regard is the shift in research strategy of many recent excavations, surveys, and archaeological studies—from an almost exclusive concern with the chronology and monumental architecture of large sites and sites thought to be associated in some way with the biblical traditions, to a consideration of smaller sites and the types of remains that provide us with information on everyday life. The attention now given to excavating and surveying smaller sites is especially important given the fact that rural life has not been nearly as well documented archaeologically as has city life. The past emphasis on the latter has left us with a rather lopsided view of ancient life, particularly given the fact that about 90 percent of the population probably would have lived in small towns and villages. Many types of archaeological materials that at one time would have been ignored are now recognized for their value in helping us define, for example, the economic and technological bases of a settlement or region. The arrangement and size of structures, and the distribution of resources, prestige items or valued commodities, and the like indicate something about social structure and organization and relations with neighboring groups. The patterns of settlement distribution, artifact and building distribution within a settlement, distribution of resources, distribution of artifacts among graves in a cemetery, and regional distribution of exchanged items provide insights into aspects of the social and economic structures of ancient societies that are not necessarily revealed in texts.
Archaeology, then, provides an impressive range of information that has advanced our knowledge and understanding of the physical, technological, economic, social, and intellectual life of the peoples of the ancient world, as well as how, and why, change occurs. Archaeology also allows us to reconstruct ancient Palestine's environment (for example, topography, climate, land and water resources), subsistence systems, exchange networks, settlement patterns, demography, and the like which cannot be reconstructed on the basis of texts. For ancient Palestine, it has also provided an important corrective to the biblical picture of ancient Israel's origins, the transition to a state form of sociopolitical organization, the internal structure and external relations of Judah and Israel, and the nature of society in Palestine following Judah's restoration.
Archaeological evidence is considered by many to be more reliable and accurate than the biblical texts as a source of historical information because, in contrast to the Bible, there is no intentional selectivity in what has been left behind for archaeologists to find. In a sense, there is actually some selectivity (although not intentional) in archaeological remains, resulting, for example, from such things as the arbitrary nature of human behavior and accidents of preservation, and thus potential information is lost, and the reconstructions of scholars distorted. But many, nevertheless, argue that the remains of material culture, by their very randomness, are more objective and neutral and, thus, more representative of what really happened in the past.
Archaeological information, then, is an important source for understanding the nature of Israelite society and its transformation over the course of many centuries. But, like the biblical literature and other ancient Near Eastern texts, it mediates between what actually happened in the past and what is represented through it as having happened, and thus it must be interpreted. Any resulting interpretations must be recognized as hypotheses that are subject to change as new information or different methods of interpretation are applied.
Anthropology and sociology have informed many of the recent reconstructions of ancient Israel's social world, although there seems to be a move toward more dependence on anthropology. As an academic discipline, anthropology is somewhat difficult to define, in large part because there is no clear agreement on a central paradigm for research or on the nature of the questions anthropologists should be asking. This is reflected in the variety of reconstructions that have been proposed about the character and development of ancient Israelite society.
Among the emphases in anthropology that have been useful in reconstructions of ancient Israelite society are those that focus on analyzing social structure and organization and those that are concerned with social institutions such as kinship, community, and tribe.
A more recent emphasis is on studying cultural symbols and patterns of meaning, that is, on the ways in which people think about their worlds and construct systems of meaning that are expressed through symbols, and the ways in which these influence social and cultural change. This approach to studying cultures shows a concern not only with the behavior of human populations but also with their notional models for generating behavior and for perceiving and interpreting their material environments. It includes consideration of how people generate, maintain, modify, and reproduce symbols as a way of making sense of the world and determining how to act in it. Trying to get at the shared meanings of such symbol systems can be especially problematic when studying societies such as ancient Israel whose basic concepts of time, space, and person, along with other aspects of the social order, differed significantly from our own. Contributing to this problem for the interpreter is the fact that such notions are often taken for granted to such an extent that they are never fully articulated.
Traditionally, one of the goals of anthropologists has been to develop universal "laws" of social organization or of cultural order. But many anthropological studies focus on specific societies and cultures within particular historical contexts, and thus anthropology shares many common features with the discipline of historical studies. Historians, for example, seek primarily to explain specific events, but they nevertheless rely, even if only implicitly, on sociological or anthropological conceptions about such things as the nature of religious beliefs and political relations. And although anthropologists may be concerned primarily with studying recurrent regularities in a society, their expression is necessarily related to specific historical events. Both historians and anthropologists, then, seek systematically to infer what is known or knowable about beliefs and social order.
Ethnohistory and ethnoarchaeology are subdisciplines in anthropology that combine the methods of historians and anthropologists and have been used in some recent reconstructions of ancient Israel’s social world. For the ethnohistorian, both oral traditions and traditional history are accepted as legitimate data for reconstructing cultures and their histories. Ethnohistory is a kind of documentary ethnology in which “documents” are treated as ethnographic data that can be applied to the study of human behavior within an anthropological theoretical framework. For the ethnohistorian, then, the "document," either oral or written (e.g., biblical texts), or material (e.g., archaeological information), plays the role the informant plays for the ethnologist.
Ethnoarchaeology is an approach that is similar to ethnohistory in highlighting the complementarity between anthropological and historical approaches to studying culture and society. It emphasizes integrating historical and archaeological data and using ethnographic information from contemporary societies and anthropological models as a way of illuminating this information. It operates on the assumption that some behavioral elements of sociocultural systems have material correlates. Those material correlates that are part of the archaeological record are used to develop inferences about the behaviors with which they were associated. Many of the recent archaeologically-based reconstructions of ancient Israel are essentially ethnohistorical/ethnoarchaeological in nature.
Social-Scientific Approaches in Biblical Studies
Serious ventures on the part of biblical scholars to fathom the complexities of the ancient Israelite social world began over a century ago, although most of them were oriented toward solving literary and historical puzzles rather than social ones, and they were hampered by undeveloped anthropological and sociological methods and models. But it has only been since the renaissance of interest in social-scientific approaches in the 1970s that biblical scholars have come generally to recognize the importance of relating the literature of the Hebrew Bible to its varied social contexts and of applying social scientific approaches and theories to this end. This is related to a growing awareness that this literature was shaped by social, religious, and ideological factors that were influenced by social forces as well as the historical phenomena that were emphasized in the past. The availability of a wider range of social scientific data and approaches and increased attention to methodological rigor have contributed to generating new theories with the potential of opening up new perspectives on biblical material. An especially significant development in recent studies is the emphasis on the importance of diachronic and processual studies for understanding culture and society, an orientation that is necessary both for understanding the nature of the biblical literature and the sociocultural contexts that underlie it.
The social-scientific approach as it is now applied in biblical studies is represented by a number of different methodological currents. These studies appeal, for example, to sociological and anthropological models of nomadism, tribalism, and state formation. Advances in archaeological theory have contributed to these developments by giving more attention to the use of ethnographic analogies and to such factors as settlement patterns and means of subsistence.
A number of the studies are functionalist in orientation. Essentially, the premise of functionalism is that the parts of any cultural system must be understood in relation to each other and to the overall structure of the system as a whole. Parts of the cultural system (for example, religious practices, belief structures, mechanisms for dealing with conflict) are thus viewed as contributing to the maintenance or perpetuation of the system, assuming that social systems, like organisms, have a tendency toward equilibrium. Conflict is often considered by functionalists to be a natural element in a society's development, resolving itself within the modified but coherently "functioning" unity. Although the functionalist approach is now recognized as having a built-in bias of treating societies as if they were closed systems existing at only one historical moment, making it difficult to correlate with the processes associated with transition and change, it is still considered useful as a practical framework for organizing research.
Other studies have relied heavily on conflict models. In contrast to functionalist models, conflict models tend to view social structure and change as related to the ways in which different groups within a society pursue their own interests, emphasizing the conflicts among different worldviews and ideologies rather than accepting the functionalist view of society as a self-maintaining organism. The distinction between these two approaches, which was important in sociological theory in past years, is now more blurred, and some reconstructions of ancient Israelite society have incorporated both.
Another approach that has played a part in recent developments in social-scientific reconstructions of ancient Israelite society is the historical cultural materialist approach. This approach, advocated in biblical studies especially by Norman Gottwald, developed in part as a reaction against structural-functionalism and its inability to account for social change. The emphasis is on relating social forms to their roots in a society's economy and environment and the role of economy, environment, and technology as important factors in social change.
The interdisciplinary le longue durée approach of the French Annales school of social and economic history, has been considered in recent years to be a particularly useful one among Near Eastern archaeologists. The emphasis in this school is on generalization and searching for broad insights without regard for the kind of "disciplinary territorialism" that is often allowed to control analysis.
Some recent studies have focused on institutional aspects of ancient Israelite social life, looking at offices or roles and administrative structures represented or implied in biblical texts, often with attention to other ancient Near Eastern parallels or broader comparisons from anthropological and sociological studies.
Many social-scientific analyses of ancient Israel consider particular historical periods. The period that has received the most attention is the enigmatic transition from the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age I. Both the controversy over the reasons for the substantial increase in settlements in the hill country of Palestine and the recognition that Martin Noth's amphytyonic hypothesis inadequately explained the organization of the tribes have contributed to a growing interest in appealing to social scientific models for possible insights.
Recent social scientific methods and theories have also been applied to interpreting the social world of the early Israelite monarchy. Studies focusing on the rise of kingship and the state have used anthropological theories and models on state formation to reconstruct this transitional period in Israel's history during which tribal organization began to move toward state organization and the establishment of kingship. The transition is examined in light of cultural evolution and social anthropological descriptions of the processes involved in succession to high office. Factors such as kinship, politics, religion, and economics and their contributions to the rise of monarchy are considered. Archaeological information and literary images are illuminated with comparative anthropological studies, and constructing models for using and interpreting various types of information is important in some of these recent studies. Of primary import in these studies is the recognition that factors internal to the social world of ancient Israel may have played an equal, if not more significant, role in the adoption of a state form of sociopolitical organization as such external forces as the Philistine threat emphasized in the biblical narratives.
The period of the divided monarchy is not well represented among the recent studies with social-scientific orientations, perhaps because the texts that deal with this period are generally believed to contain more accurate historical information, and thus have not drawn the same amount of attention as the transitional periods at the beginning and end of Iron Age I. This relative lack of representation may also have to do with the fact that there is little theory available that is appropriate for analyzing small, village-based states like Israel and Judah.
The social world of the Persian period, on the other hand, is receiving more attention. This may, again, be due to a relative lack of biblical information relating directly to this period. In any case, there are a number of recent studies that focus on such issues as ethnic identity, social organization, religion, demography, and the status of women.
In addition to studies associated with particular periods and transitions, there are a number of useful studies that focus on particular subjects such as the institution of prophecy, women's roles, social and religious movements, and types of leadership.
There is no general agreement among scholars about which social-scientific models are particularly relevant in reconstructing ancient Israelite society or how they should be used. But the use of models as a means of illuminating the ancient information has become an essential element in studies of ancient Israelite society, particularly in trying to understand the relationship between various types of information.
There are a number of advantages in approaching the study of ancient Israel from a social-scientific perspective. The type of comparative inquiry typical in anthropology, for example, forces implicit assumptions to the surface, providing fresh ways of conceptualizing the relations among the phenomena in question. From anthropology and sociology, biblical historians have drawn valuable information on structural and processual forms in other societies that can shed light on the social organization and institutions of ancient Israel and on the religious foundations underlying the biblical texts. Application of the "ideal type" construct—models of social roles and institutions—has helped us to understand more about the nature and social functions of such things as prophecy, charismatic leadership, and sects. The social sciences also illuminate the sociological dimensions of the interpretive process, providing ways of identifying the origins, transmission, and meanings of texts, and relating these to social roles, social groups, and social structures. They offer analogies from modern and historical societies that help us to interpret the oral traditions underlying the biblical texts and the functions of the literary forms in the Hebrew Bible. The significance of using a social-scientific approach to interpreting ancient Israelite history, therefore, lies not in providing further evidence to the biblical scholar—analysis of the text itself, and the archaeological information, must provide the criteria for supporting, disproving, or modifying hypotheses generated by anthropological material—but rather in introducing tools for analyzing and raising questions about the ancient information, and applying theories about the ways in which societies in general are organized and develop. This type of approach provides an important corrective to traditional historical reconstructions that conceive of history as the story of deliberate action on the part of discrete persons or groups of persons. It balances the tendency to concentrate on Israel's political and religious history with attention to economic, social, technological, and other aspects of daily life. It also introduces a stronger concern for the general as well as the specific, for the social world as well as isolated events and single individuals. Reconstructing social history involves consideration of the relationships between events and processes as well as the roles of individuals, a concern with the interconnectedness of events and the structure of ideas, values, and social relations.
At present, there are numerous, often conflicting, theories and hypotheses about the nature and development of ancient Israelite society. We cannot know with any certainty which of these theories and hypotheses are more or less valid. Because historians' interpretations are not scientifically testable, their hypotheses offer plausible explanations, guide further reflection, and are subject to constant revision, but they can never be "true" or "false." All we can say with any confidence is that one or another hypothesis or theory seems more or less convincing or adequate in light of the evidence, and that these hypotheses and theories will continue to be reevaluated and adjusted in the future. We must continually ask the question of what social explanation (hypothesis/model) makes the most sense of the relevant evidence, at the same time acknowledging that all interpreters approach their object of study with assumptions, dispositions, and tools of analysis that lead them to single out and emphasize particular aspects of their object of study. The reconstructions surveyed in Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel are treated as representative of the direction social world studies has taken, not as being comprehensive or definitive.
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