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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States

 

Israelites & Israel

Today's Israel and Palestine are irrevocably linked in terms of their history. The former was carved out of a large proportion of the already-expanded latter from 1948. Before that though lies four thousand years of history, sometimes recorded, sometimes alluded to, and sometimes a complete mystery. Unpicking it to establish a relatively stable story has been the work of decades, and even today there are differences of opinion regarding many of the details.

The region in which both names came to be created was Canaan, the long Mediterranean coast between ancient Syria and Egypt which today is known as the Levant. Various independent or united Semitic-speaking city states formed in this region from around 3000 BC onwards, reaching a peak of independent development in the second millennium BC. It was during the climate-induced social collapse of the late thirteenth century BC that both a state known as Israel and a region known as Palestine emerged, giving both terms similar founding dates (very approximately), with the Phoenicians emerging to the immediate north during the same period.

Then came the Jewish Diaspora and the age of great empires in the form of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Eastern Romans, Islam, and the Ottomans, until the twentieth century saw the most recent phase of empire-building come to an end and individual sovereign states emerge.

The term 'Israelite' is often used interchangeably with the terms 'Hebrew' and 'Jew', but these terms are not strictly interchangeable. The specific term 'Israelites', or 'people of Israel', is best used only for periods after the followers of Yahweh undertook their exodus from Egypt. It can also be used conveniently for the earlier period in which these people were subject to patriarchs (approximately between the eighteenth and sixteenth centuries BC).

The term loses its accuracy after the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon divided into the kingdoms of Samaria and Judah around 927 BC. The Old Testament tends usually to use the term 'Hebrew' for the entire period before 1000 BC, but it is best to avoid it here due to controversy surrounding its origins (regarding whether it descends from 'Eber', the ancestor of Abraham, or habiru, a general term for brigands and the dispossessed).

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Sean Bambrough & Wayne McCleese, from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran (1992), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

Israelite Judges (Canaan)

The period in which the judges governed the early Israelites was described in the Old Testament book of the same name. These judges were nominal rulers who were possibly priests. Not referred to as kings, they held only temporary authority over the twelve Israelite tribes at various times. The tribes were normally governed by councils of elders but, during periods of turmoil or emergency, the elders temporarily appointed judges to deal with the situation. The city of Tyre in the sixth century BC also had a - somewhat brief - period in which it was governed by judges, termed shoftim. It is likely that the old system of patriarchs no longer worked with a settled - and spread-out - group of tribes.

Even so, given that the judges did 'rule' in a fashion, they were rarely accepted by all of the twelve tribes at the same time. They were usually charismatic leaders who led military campaigns as the newly-arrived Israelites took control of further Canaanite territory in the later part of the twelfth century BC, following a short reversal of fortunes when the Philistines dominated around 1150 BC. Grant highlights the point that the judges were marked by Yahweh's intervention.

Their 'reignal' lengths are as described in the Old Testament, but it is impossible to calculate consecutive dates of office for them without going back to the exodus period, at which time the elders (notably Moses) were still leading the tribes. With this in mind it seems much more likely that, as mentioned above, they only led some of the tribes, not all of them, and their periods of office often overlapped, making any calculation of reignal dates impossible. One theory has been proposed which places each of the early judges at the head of a single tribe, and governing only that tribe, simultaneously at the start of this period. This would certainly explain why, overall, their reignal lengths are far to long for the period as a whole.

At the time, Semitic-speaking Canaan was nominally under the fading governance of Egypt, being preoccupied with repulsing incursions by the Sea Peoples. The Israelite 'conquest' which is proposed by the Old Testament was formed from a series of independent battles by the separate tribes for their own independent portions of land (although the book of Joshua attempts to portray it as a unified conquest, something which is generally considered to be a later ideological reconstruction of events). The position in the list of a judge known as Shagmar is open to debate, and it is just as possible that he was an oppressor of the Israelites as one of its judges.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), from Early Israel and the Surrounding Nations, A H Sayce, from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from The Cambridge Ancient History, John Boardman, N G L Hammond, D M Lewis, & M Ostwald (Eds), from The History and Archaeology of Phoenicia, Hélène Sader (SBL Press, 2019), from Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from History of Tyre, H J Katzenstein (Jerusalem, 1973), from The History of Ancient Israel, Michael Grant (Macmillan, 1984), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

fl c.1140s BC

Othniel ben Qenaz / Kenaz

First of the judges. 40 years.

c.1140 BC

The Israelites in the north are apparently under the rule of Aram-Nahara'im for eight years, until its king, Cushan-Rishataim, is defeated by Othniel. Other areas of Israelite territory remain dominated by Eglon of Moab for eighteen years following the latter's military victory around 1150 BC.

Medieval German manuscript depicting Shagmar of the Israelite judges
The third of the Israelite judges is Shagmar or Shamgar ben Anath, who slaughters six hundred of the Israelites' enemies using an ox goad, as depicted in this medieval German manuscript

fl c.1130s BC

Ehud ben Gera

Of the tribe of Benjamin. 80 years.

c.1130 BC

Ehud ben Gera assassinates the Moabite leader, Eglon, and defeats his army in battle. The result is a complete about-face in fortunes as Moab is now conquered by the Israelites. A period of peace follows.

fl c.1130s BC

Shagmar / Shamgar ben Anath

Led the Israelites against the Philistines. 10 years.

fl c.1120s BC

Deborah

Guided her commander, Barak, to victory. 40 years.

c.1125 BC

The Israelite tribes are temporarily subdued by Jabin, 'king of Canaan', who rules his Canaanite coalition from the northern city of Hazor, 'head of all those kingdoms'. Roused by Deborah to rebel, the Israelites fight Jabin's associate, Sisera, routing him in battle at Merom.

Hazor itself is sacked and burned, possibly by the Israelites themselves who then annexe it to their still-tribal state (although the archaeological evidence points to Hazor having been burned a century before this, between about 1250-1220 BC).

Ruins of Hazor
During the second millennium BC, Hazor was one of the region's largest cities, including the upper city and the lower city, and extending to about eight hundred dunams in size

However, the Israelites are themselves defeated and subjugated by the Philistines who maintain vassal kings to dominate the Israelites. Jerusalem is possibly freed from Israelite control at this stage, as David of the kingdom of Israel is forced to re-conquer it in 975 BC.

fl c.1120s BC

Gideon / Jeubbaal / Jerubbaal

Defeated the Midianites. Declined kingship. 40 years.

c.1120 BC

The Israelites are again subdued, this time by the Midianites who sit to the south of the Israelite territories. This is said to last for seven years until Gideon leads the fight against them to restore Israelite independence. At Mount Tabor, the Midianites employ a military innovation, the use of camels. Gideon is still able to rout them with surprise guerrilla tactics and the skilful use of terrain. For his victory he is offered the trappings of kingship without the title, but he apparently declines the honour.

Upon the death of Gideon, his son Abimelech - by his Canaanite concubine from Shechem - self-proclaims as king. One of his first acts is to murder his brothers, seventy in number, 'on one stone', at Ophrah. Only one of them by the name of Jotham escapes, while Abimelech dominates territory around Shechem.

The ruins of Shechem
When taken over by Israelites in the eleventh century BC, Schechem was allocated to the territory of the tribe of Ephraim

The name Ambilech is repeated more than once in relation to the Philistines and their predecessors, especially in connection to the city of Gerar, and seemingly in reference to multiple kings. It is thought to mean something along the lines of 'superior [man], father (as in 'superior') who is king', and could be an obscure title used in the region, rather than a name - the local equivalent of 'pharaoh'.

To back up this suggestion, the Hebrew text, the Haggada, mentions 'Benmelech' (another title, this time referring to the seventeenth century BC crown prince of Gerar), 'son of [Abi]melech', who becomes ruler himself and changes his 'name' to Abimelech.

fl c.1120s BC

Abimelech

Son. Killed by his own people at Thebez. 3 years.

Abimelech is an unprincipled, ambitious ruler, one who is often engaged in war with his own subjects. However, when engaged in reducing the town of Thebez following its revolt, he is mortally struck on the head by a millstone which had been thrown by a female defender from the wall above. Perceiving that the wound is mortal, he desires his armour-bearer to thrust him through with his sword so that it might not be said he has perished by the hand of a woman.

Gerar
The hilltop remnants which are usually associated with the city of Gerar lie approximately midway between Hebron and Raphia, for which two successive kings known as Abimelech ruled

fl c.1120s? BC

Tola ben Puah

Minor judge. 23 years.

fl c.1120s? BC

Jair / Yair ben Segub

Minor judge. Of the tribe of Manasseh. 22 years.

fl c.1120s? BC

Jephthah

Leader also during peacetime. 6 years.

c.1115 BC

The Israelite tribe of Menasseh defeats Og the Amorite and conquers the Syrian city of Bashan. This victory, when combined with another one over Sihon the Amorite in Ammon gives them possession of the country east of the Jordan, from Arnon to the foot of Hermon.

fl c.1110s? BC

Ibzan / Ivtzan

Minor judge. Of Bethlehem. 7 years.

fl c.1110s? BC

Elon

Minor judge. Of the tribe of Zebulun. 10 years.

fl c.1110s? BC

Abdon ben Hillel

Minor judge. Of the tribe of Ephraim. 8 years.

fl c.1110 BC

Samson ben Manoah

Of the tribe of Dan. Died freeing Israelites. 20 years.

c.1110 BC

The first recorded event in Samson's life is his marriage to a Philistine woman of Timnath. An unblessed marriage, his wife is soon taken from him and given 'to his companion'. In echoes of modern Levantine politics, Samson takes revenge by burning the 'standing corn of the Philistines'. They in turn 'burn his wife and her father'. Her death is avenged 'terribly' by Samson. And so the cycle of violence rests for a while.

Samson and Delilah
This classic view of Samson shows him about to lose his hair - the source of his power - to the knife of the deceitful Delilah

Following this, Samson serves as a judge for the Israelites for twenty years before becoming infatuated with Delilah (another Philistine), and then being betrayed by her. He meets his death leading the Israelites in freeing themselves from the control of the Philistines. During his destruction of the temple of Dagon at Gaza which results in his own death, he also kills Achish, ruler of Gath.

fl c.1100s? BC

Eli

High priest & judge. Neck broken in an accident. 40 years.

fl c.1070 - 1040 BC

Samuel ben Elkanah

Last judge with possible authority over all the tribes. 30 years.

Samuel declares that Yahweh wants the Israelites to annihilate the Amalekites, a group which is related to the people of Edom. He gradually breaks away from the priestly hierarchy and establishes as a major public force a group of prophets. They will come to be recognised as messengers of Yahweh and successors to the judges.

c.1050 BC

Shiloh is a Canaanite town which has become the central sanctuary site of the Israelite confederacy during the period of the judges. Following the Israelite takeover of Canaan, the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant had been installed in Shiloh, but the Ark is now captured by the Philistines during a battle at Ebenezer (site unknown), and Shiloh is soon afterwards destroyed.

Ark of the Covenant
The Israelite Ark of the Covenant is the stuff of legend, but it does figure noticeably in the early centuries of Israel's history and, despite being captured by the Philistines around 1050 BC, it seems that even they couldn't hold onto it for long

Excavations at Khirbat Sayūn in modern Jordan during 1920-1932 suggest that Shiloh remains a ruin for several centuries. The Philistines decide to return the Ark after about seven months.

By now a weakened Egypt is losing its remaining imperial possessions in Canaan and Phoenicia, partially at least to the empire-building Assyrians. Coastal cities such as Tyre are beginning to enjoy their newfound freedom by founding trading colonies or forming permanent outposts along the western Mediterranean coast, including that of Utica in North Africa.

c.1040 - 1035 BC

Joel & Abiah

Sons of Samuel. Judges in Beersheba only.

c.1035 BC

The misconduct of Joel and Abiah is a pretext for the Israelite elders to demand a king, according to one Old Testament version of the story (Encyclopaedia Britannica). A version which is presented before that has Yahweh prompting Samuel to promote Saul, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, to the rank of king in order to establish a unified military command to defeat the Philistines.

Samuel presents Saul to the still-comparatively weak Israelites at Mizpah in Benjamin, and they agree. The Canaanite-Israelite kingdom of Israel is formed around territory which is still held by the individual tribes. It also includes the captured city of Hazor, and a capital at the small walled city of Jerusalem.

 
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