The Land Between The Two Rivers: Early Israelite Identities in Transjordan

By: Thomas Petter, Associate Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Were there Israelites in Transjordan in the early Iron Age? How would we know from archaeology? Or if not Israelites (and Moabites), who should we be looking for?

The task of plotting identities in the past is tricky business. It becomes even more problematic when opinions diverge dramatically about the value of artifacts for historical reconstruction. The question is routinely raised regarding the history of early Israel in the southern Levant whether archaeology can recover anything that speaks to identities during the Late Bronze and early Iron I periods. Over half a century of scholarship attests that answers range from a definite “no” to a definite “yes,” with a few shades of “maybe’s” in between. While my book The Land Between the Two Rivers makes an historical claim that there were indeed early Israelites present, on the basis of long term cyclical settlement patterns in central Transjordan, my goal is also to propose a model of tribal ethnic identities that could be flexible enough to be applied to other historical settings.

Map of Transjordan showing sites mentioned in the text. Image courtesy of Thomas Petter.

Mesha Stele.

Tall al-`Umayri fortification wall dating to the Late Bronze/Iron transition. Photo courtesy of Larry Herr and the Madaba Plains Project.

Why focus on Transjordan and the region bounded by the Wadi Zarqa/Jabbok in the north and the Wadi Mujib/Arnon River in the south? There are several reasons for this emphasis. First, it has the advantage of providing a cultural “micro-zone” that is genuinely transitional and marginal. Second, many recent discussions have focused on the Israelite hill-country but relatively little attention has been given to the region east of the river Jordan. Third, the available documentary sources (both biblical and Moabite, such as the Mesha Stele) suggest that vigorous tribal interaction existed there. Finally, ongoing excavations in the region also speak to the need for new syntheses of the data.

Madaba, recent excavations with remains of fortification wall. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petter.

These excavations have dramatically changed our perception of the region. Excavations at Tall al-`Umayri have uncovered monumental architecture from Late Bronze and the early Iron Age. Likewise, excavations at the urban site on the acropolis of the modern city of Madaba have now reached stratified LB/Iron I levels along with Iron II levels which includes a portion of an impressive fortification wall. Thus, the challenge issued by the late James Sauer to Nelson Glueck, the pioneer of modern excavations and surveys in Transjordan, and Glueck’s idea that there was a settlement “gap” during the Late Bronze Age has now been met. Other excavations in the area such as at Tell Jalul, along with a new expedition that is soon to start on Mount Nebo/Mukhayyat, promise to add additional detail to an already impressive picture of settlement activities preceding the better-documented rise of Iron II regional polities.

The settlement data from Umayri and Madaba along with surveys conducted in the area reveals a material cultural landscape with strong affinities with its counterpart highland culture west of the Jordan. Nevertheless, local micro-variations, such as potter’s marks on the collared rim storejars, among others, could be interpreted as signals of “ethnic” variations.

But any hope for a strong one-to-one relationship between material culture and ethnic identity is mitigated by the fluid nature of the area. As coveted agricultural land, the Madaba plateau region (the region of North Moab, cf. Numbers 21:13) is described in both Israelite and Moabite sources as contested territory which changed hands several times among varying tribal groups. As interpreted in my study, data from Numbers 21, the Mesha Inscription, as well as the Jephthah story (Judges 11) acknowledge a long history of conflict and reflect remarkable candor in acknowledging that, in spite of their claims to the contrary, no one group could really hold the land permanently.

Madaba, showing modern city above ancient remains. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petter.

Imported Myceanean pottery from Madaba. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petter.

One way to imagine identities on this “shifting social frontier” is to rethinking the nature of identity itself. Identity includes both ‘primordial’ traits (deeply embedded cultural characteristics and beliefs that cannot be changed) and ‘instrumental’ ones (those that are social choices serving a more immediate purpose). For some cultures, the “primordial” elements (the idea of ancestry being a primary area) will matter more than “instrumental” traits that are shaped by social and political conditions. For others, it might be the reverse.

Thus, ethnic badges, specific patterns encoded onto material culture such as pottery, will look different according to the particular social dynamics at play in a particular historical setting. The task, then, is to determine the predominant markers of identity in a particular culture, and whether these represent instrumental or primordial traits, or both. Such an integrative approach to ethnic research also has a keen interest in finding out a culture’s self-perceptions of identity. These can be embeddedboth in material culture manufacturing technologies and in textual sources. Moreover, each of these lines of evidence informs us regarding the other. To leave out any would result in an incomplete picture and, in my opinion, partial conclusions as well.

Collared rim pithoi from Madaba showing potmarks. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petter.

In the case of central Transjordan, the available texts describe strong tribal identities delineated by the twin tribal dynamics of “loyalty” to one another –and especially to the deity (Israel/Yahweh, Moab/Chemosh) – and “otherness,” reflected via the language of herem tribal warfare, an ideology of destruction (Israel and Moab). In addition, documentary sources also describe the deities’ “otherness” in that they would also turn against their own people in cases of “disloyalty” (Chemosh against Moab and Yahweh against Israel).

The chief index of ethnic identity in early Israel, then, revolves around both the instrumental notion of “covenant” (Yahwism) and the primordial notion of “kinship” (ancestry). In Transjordan, documentary evidence (from the book of Judges, among others) is interpreted to suggest that tribal identities could and did shift along these two primary identity markers over extended periods of time.  Such long-term social dynamics in effect mirror the well-documented settlement patterns of contraction and expansion present throughout the history of the central highlands of Jordan.  Thus, any sense that one tribe could lay claim to the territory of North Moab for any length of time and with a permanent material-cultural imprint of its own seems highly unlikely.

Four roomed house from Tall al-‘Umayri. Photo courtesy of Larry Herr and the Madaba Plains Project.

Reconstructed four room house from Tall al-‘Umayri. Photo courtesy of Larry Herr and the Madaba Plains Project.

My overall conclusion is that any hope for a strong appearance of material cultural identity in early Israel in general and in Transjordan in particular, would have to be subsumed under the larger category of a “highland” culture with strong Canaanite ties. This doesn’t mean that these cultural features (e.g.. the four-room house) weren’t adopted and adapted by Israelite groups and became their own at some point. However, the generic highland imprint upon early Israelite culture both in Israel and more so in Transjordan, makes early adoption of a specifically “Israelite” identity less likely than a later one, perhaps under the rulership of the kings during the Israelite and Judean monarchy.

As post-scriptum, this long-standing interest in ethnicity is not unrelated to my own upbringing in a French-speaking area of Switzerland with all the aspects of a cultural “transitional” zone: two languages (French and German) and two confessions (Protestant and Catholic) where three cantons intersect and overlap in what is called the “lake region” of Lac de Morat/Murtensee. My later journeys in life have also taken me to different cultures as well. This reality is reflected in my own son who can claim Swiss, Canadian and American (and little bit of Italian) identities.


Thomas Petter is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. 


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