When were the Israelites? Understanding Israelite Identity in the Pre-Exilic Period

Scholars have long asked, “Who were the Israelites?” Less frequent is the question, “When were the Israelites?” Indeed, traditional discussions of Israelite identity have focused overwhelmingly on two periods: the emergence of Israel sometime between the twelfth and tenth centuries BCE and the experience of exile in the sixth century. Histories of Israel and Judah have all but ignored the question of Israelite identity in the intervening four hundred years. This reflects the working assumption that the identity concerns preserved in the Hebrew Bible reflect the real life identity issues of the exilic and post-exilic periods.

Contrary to this common consensus, the period between the late eighth and the early sixth centuries represents a key watershed in Israel’s identity issues. During this period the southern Levant witnessed significant political, economic and social change, spurred largely by the appearance of the Assyrian empire. We observe the impact of these changes on Judah in the archaeological record and may understand their effects through the judicious use of anthropological theories of ethnic identity formation.

Map of Assyrian Empire.

Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal from the Palace at Nineveh. Assyrian. 645-635 B.C.

A pax Assyriaca under Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal made the long seventh century a period of

significant cultural interaction among the people of the southern Levant. Commercial activities in particular were encouraged and facilitated by the Assyrian empire’s enormous economic interests. In the territories surrounding Judah, especially Philistia and the Transjordan, there are abundant material remains attesting to the presence of Judahites and the transmission of their cultural paraphernalia abroad. Within Judah, the material record is similarly rich, in cultural artefacts attesting to interactions with regions as diverse as Arabia, Philistia, Phoenicia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Cyprus, and the Transjordan.

In the Negev, for example, excavations along the heavily trafficked east-west trade routes have produced pottery assemblages reflecting stylistic influences from the Transjordanian and Philistine ceramic traditions. There are personal items with origins in Phoenicia, the Transjordan, and elsewhere, with cedar beams, figurines, jewellery, and ostraca all attesting to the diversity of the area’s visitors and residents.

Scene of Assyrian troops besieging an unknown city.

In the Shephelah the differences between the late eighth century stratum at Lachish, destroyed by Sennacherib’s army in 701, and the early sixth century stratum, destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, reflect similar changes; in the wake of 701,this entire region was reoriented towards the Philistine coast and an expanded oil industry at Ekron. In the hill country there are scarabs and ceremonial objects from Egypt as well as witnesses to ceramic influences from the Transjordan, Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Assyria; Jerusalem itself has significant quantities of fish bones, attesting to regular trade with the coast, numerous personal items of Egyptian extraction or influence, imported wood and precious stones, and a full range of ceramic imports and influences. Weights calibrated to various international standards affirm the importance of trade as a driving factor in these cultural interactions.

How might the inhabitants of Judah have reacted to their interactions with increasing numbers of outsiders? Here it is useful to draw on the work of social anthropologists. Definitions of “ethnic identity” vary, but prominent in most are perception of differences between group members’ own cultural practices and those of outsiders. A critical point for the formation of group identity is when exposure to another culture challenges a group’s own way of doing things.

Assyrian troops leading captives.

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The situation in the southern Levant during the long seventh century is an excellent example. The changes in the region resulting from Assyrian expansionism translated into real terms in the form of alien individuals and groups now passing through, and occasionally resident, in Judah. The majority of these strangers would have been Judah’s immediate neighbours and trading partners, the Philistines and Transjordanians, rather than the Assyrians themselves. The anthropological analogies suggest that a common reaction to this sort of experience is for a group to try to define and differentiate itself from the outsiders and to defend the borders of the group against the people and practices that might blur them. It would hardly be surprising, in other words, for the inhabitants of Judah to become more aware of their own identity as a result of the social, political and economic changes of the seventh century and to pay special attention to defining and defending what it meant to be an Israelite.

There are a number of specific ways in which groups go about identifying, articulating, and defending their distinctive identity: reference to a unique myth of origins, an emphasis on the genetic cohesiveness of the group’s membership (whether real or imagined), the discouraging of social interaction outside the group, the development of an “endo-culture” (the reinforcement of existing values and beliefs by encouraging in-group interaction), attempts to create physical proximity among members, and the elimination of sub-cultures in favour of homogeneity.

Siege of Lachish.

Plan of Tel Miqne-Ekron showing olive oil production zones.

One important Biblical text in which such identity-formation and -protection mechanisms are employed is the core of the book of Deuteronomy, especially chapters 12-26. Identity concerns have been a focal point in arguments over the pre- or post-exilic origin of this material.

The book’s overwhelming emphasis on an exclusive form of Yahwistic worship, for example, may be understood as an attempt to homogenise Israelite ritual, eliminating a diversity of Yahwistic and non-Yahwistic religious traditions in favor of a single, unified form of worship. Centralization of the cult in Jerusalem represents efforts to establish the spatial proximity of the Israelites, who are enjoined to appear at the central cult site at least three times a year.

The repeating refrain that the Israelites are the people whom Yahweh brought out from the land of Egypt reiterates a common origins myth, uniting the group around a sense of its shared history. Alongside these, the book works to eliminate the Israelites’ interaction with outsiders: prohibiting exogamy, placing specific limitations on the king’s role, mandating the destruction of local non-Israelites, and rejecting the possibility of membership for most non-locals. Much of this is articulated in the kinship language of “brotherhood,” appealing to the supposed genetic cohesiveness of the group’s membership. In various ways, these laws reflect a deuteronomic emphasis on Israelite differentiation, reinforcing a distinctively Israelite cultural tradition and protecting it from the encroachment of outsiders.

Reconstruction of Tel Miqne-Ekron olive oil production.

Though identity concerns are not the only issue on Deuteronomy’s agenda, they are prominent. Understanding the major changes in Judah and the southern Levant between the late eighth and early sixth centuries, particularly the heightened awareness of cultural differences which this era of intensified cultural interaction provoked, is vital to recognizing it as a key period for Israelite identity formation. The period between the emergence of Israel and the Babylonian exile does not comprise centuries of ethnic stagnation. In its final stages it is a turbulent period of dramatic changes in understandings of what it meant to be an Israelite. Not every expression of Israelite identity in the Hebrew Bible should be interpreted as arising during the long seventh century, but neither can it be assumed that all such texts must derive from an exilic context in Babylonia or from the Persian period.

Carly Crouch is Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the University of Nottingham and author of The Making of Israel (Brill, 2014) andIsrael and the Assyrians (SBL, 2014).

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