Excerpts from Bible as History

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16. Under Deborah and Gideon.

Israel settles down — pioneering in the mountains — peasants' huts instead of palaces — Deborah incites to revolt — clash in the plain of Jezreel — victory over the of chariots of 'iron” — Israelite crockery at Megiddo — marauders from the desert — traces of Abimelech's destruction of Shechem — Gideon's successful tactics — first battle in history against a camel-corps — a new breed of long-distance carriers.
And the Lord gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers: and they possessed it and dwelt therein” (Josh. 21:43).
Immediately after the conquest an astonishing thing happened: the tribes of Israel dug their toes into the ground they had won. They can therefore no longer have been a typical nomadic people. Canaan had experienced invasions of nomads from time immemorial but they had always been merely episodes. The tribes would graze their flocks and then one day would disappear as suddenly as they had come. Israel on the other hand became static, cultivating fields and clearing forests... “if thou be a great people, then get thee up to the wood country and cut down for thyself there” (Josh. 17:15). They gave up their tents and built themselves huts: they settled down among the ruins of the houses in the towns they had conquered. In Debir, Bethshemesh and Bethel remains of their primitive and poverty-stricken furnishings were found on top of the strata which were deposited when the towns were burned down.

This break with the past is clearly recognizable from the excavations. Where previously patrician houses and palaces of the long established feudal barons had been standing, there now arose peasants' huts and fences. The massive defense walls show signs of having had necessary repairs done to them. But what the men of Israel replaced was of the thinnest masonry. The construction of a new system of strong defensive walls would have entailed forced labor and there was nothing the Israelites hated more. They regarded themselves as freemen, as independent farmers. “But every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Jud. 17:6). Even the word generally used in Canaan meaning a bondsman was used by the Israelites in exactly the opposite sense to mean a freeman. In the feudal system under the princes of the city-states all the drudgery was done by slaves. In the case of Israel the work of the farm was done by the freeborn sons of the family. At their head stood the father, the patriarch. Countless new settlements sprang into being. Archaeologists have found traces of them throughout the highlands. But there is very little of them left. For the first building material they used was sun-dried mud bricks, and the buildings they put up in this way did not last.

Real pioneer work was done by the Israelites in the mountains. Uninhabitable areas, districts without springs or streams were opened up. Although it sounds unbelievable, what remains of a new technique used by their ancestors has been partly taken over and put into commission again by the state of Israel today. They dug cisterns in the ground to collect the rainfall, and lined the insides with a type of limestone plaster which was hitherto unknown. These fixtures were so solidly built that they have been able to withstand the ravages of time for thousands of years.

As the Book of Judges tells us, and investigation confirms, the Israelites struck roots in their new home as settlers and farmers. In continuous fighting with their neighbors and feuds among themselves they gradually gained in military power and experience. The Bible mentions disputes with Moabites, Ammonites and Aramaean tribes from the Syrian desert. It speaks of bloody civil war, when the tribes fought against Benjamin (Jud. 20) Bethel lay in the territory of Benjamin, and Albright, digging there, found strata which showed that the place had been destroyed four times between 1200 and 1000 B.C.

It was around this time too that “Abimelech fought against the city all that day: and he took the city and slew the people that was therein, and beat down the city, and sowed it with salt” (Jud. 9:45). So runs the description in the Book of Judges of the conquest of Shechem by Abimelech, the ambitious and vindictive son of Gideon who murdered all his brothers.

In 1959 at Tell el-Balata, on the site of this Biblical city which had been the first place Abraham encountered on his arrival in Canaan, excavations by American archaeologists from Drew University and McCormick Theological Seminary led by Professor G. Ernest Wright, who was following the earlier investigations of Professor Ernst Sellin of Germany, were able to confirm what the Bible has to say about the fate of Shechem. Fragments of clay jars which were scattered about among the ruins and could be identified as typical Israelite pottery put the date of the destruction of Shechem towards the end of the 12th century B.C., that is, about the period of Abimelech. At the same time the remains of the “tower of Shechem” were identified, as well as the “hold of the house of the god Berith” and the “house of Millo” which are mentioned in Jud. (9:20,46). It does seem however that all of these were part of a single building which towered above the city wall and which had been built upon the ruins of an earlier Hyksos temple.

These troubled years of the first colonists have found an imperishable memorial in three narratives of the Book of Judges: in the song of Deborah, in the story of Gideon and in the doughty deeds of Samson.

The background of these “pious tales” is made up of facts, contemporary events which as a result of recent research can be dated with considerable accuracy. When Israel entered Canaan bout 1230 B.C. it had to be content with the mountains ... for it “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron” (Jud. 1:19). It was not until a century later that the tide turned. It would seem that among the mountains of Galilee tribes which had settled there had to render bond-service to the Canaanites. Among them was the tribe of Issachar which is ridiculed in the Bible as “a strong ass.” It is accused of “couching down between two burdens” and of becoming a “servant unto tribute” (Gen. 49:14-15).

Revolt broke out in Galilee in protest against this oppression. The impetus was supplied by a woman, Deborah. She summoned the tribes of Israel to fight for their freedom. It is from her that that wonderful song, which she sang to the assembled throng, has come down to us.

Barak, one of the tribe of Issachar, became the leader. Other tribes joined in and a great army was formed. Then Barak took a decisive step. He dared to do what Israel had never previously risked, he came to grips with the dreaded enemy on the plain: “So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him” (Jud. 4:14). The scene of the encounter was the broad and fertile plain of Jezreel between the mountains of Galilee in the north and Samaria in the south — absolute and sovereign domain of the Canaanite city princes and feudal barons. Here they awaited the dangerous fighting forces of the Canaanites “…then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo” (Jud. 5:19). The incredible happened — Israel won. For the first time they had succeeded in smashing and routing a force of chariots in open battle. The spell was broken: Israel had own that it had the measure of the military technique of the Canaanites and could beat them at their own game.

Two mounds of rubble in the plain of Jezreel preserve all that is left of Taanach and Megiddo, lying about 5 miles apart. Both cities changed places several times in order of importance. About 1450 B.C Taanach was a large city-state while Megiddo was only a small Egyptian garrison. About 1150 B.C. Megiddo was destroyed and deserted by its inhabitants. For a long time it lay in ruins, and was not rebuilt and inhabited until 1100 B.C. The pottery of the new settlers there is striking. It consists of large clay preserving jars of exactly the same type as were used at this time by the Israelites. Archaeologists found them in all the other settlements in the mountains of Samaria and Judaea. Taanach is specifically mentioned in the Song of Deborah as the site of the battle. The reference to its being “by the waters of Megiddo” is presumably a more precise description of its situation. Megiddo itself, whose “water” is the river Kishon, cannot at that time have been in existence.

Archaeological discoveries and Biblical references make it possible to date the first battle against the Canaanite chariots in the period between the destruction and rebuilding of Megiddo, about 1125 B.C.

The Gideon story tells of the second triumph of Israel. Suddenly out of the East came a new, unfamiliar and sinister threat to Israel's safety. Hordes of Midianite nomads, mounted on camels, attacked the country, plundering, burning and massacring... “for both they and their camels were without number: and they entered into the land to destroy it” (Jud. 6:5). For years Israel was at the mercy of these Midianite attacks. Then Gideon appeared as their deliverer. He adopted successfully, as the Bible describes in detail (Jud. 7:20ff), a new kind of surprise tactics which routed the Midianites and apparently persuaded them to leave the Israelites in peace from then on.

It is often the lot of peaceful inventions to be used first of all in time of war. The new “invention” which made it possible for the Midianites to terrorize Israel was the taming of the camel!

Tame camels are likely to have been something quite new in the ancient world. The people of the Bronze Age probably knew nothing of them. Egyptian texts never mention them. Even in Mari, next door to the great Arabian desert, there is no single reference to them in any of that vast collection of documents. We must eliminate the camel from our conception of life in the ancient world of the Orient. References to them in the Book of Genesis must have crept in at a later date. The attractive scene, for example, where we meet Rebecca for the first time in her native city of Nahor, must make do with a change of stage props. The “camels” belonging to her future father-in-law Abraham which she watered at the well were donkeys (Gen. 24:10ff). Similarly it was donkeys that for thousands of years carried on backs all kinds of burdens and costly merchandise along the trade routes of the ancient world until the tame camel saved them.

It is not quite certain when exactly the taming of the camel took place but there are some facts which point to a general conclusion. In the 11th century B.C. the camel appears in cuneiform texts and reliefs and from then on is more and more frequently mentioned. This must be about the time of the Gideon story. Doubtless such marauding attacks with animals that had until then been regarded as wild must have come as a frightful shock.

The third challenge held the greatest and deadliest danger for Israel and threatened its very existence: the clash with the Philistines.

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