The author sets out to apply anthropological analysis to data from the many archaeological excavations in the historical Land of Israel, in order to deduce when Israelite ethnicity emerged, and by what “markers” it can be identified. By using the Bible – a “problematic” source for most academics – only as a secondary source, the author hopes to avoid the criticism directed at what is now universally villified as “Biblical archaeology”. The main period to which he directs his attention is the Iron Age I period (1200 to 1000 BCE), after which time (Iron Age II, 1000 to 600 BCE) many archaeologists accept that, under the unified monarchy of David and Solomon, Israelite ethnic identity was well established. The author’s methodology is to enumerate traits – primarily from the archaeological record, but also from the Bible – that are recognized as markers of Israelite identity in Iron II, and to go back to Iron I to see which of these traits existed in that earlier period, and how they might have been “canonised” as defining Israelite identity.
Among the traits he identifies from the archaelogical record are: not eating pork (absence or scarcity of pig bones at a site), the presence of “four-roomed” houses, absence of monumental burials, Collar Rim Jars ( large jars with a characteristic collar, used for storage of both liquids and solids), undecorated pottery, absence of imported pottery, and relatively small variety of pottery. Many of these traits support the notion of an “egalitarian ethos”, a characterization of early Israelite society (i.e. before the monarchy was established) which has been used by many archaeologists. To some extent these traits contrast with those of the Canaanite sites that both preceded and were contemporary with Iron I; but the major contrast is with the Philistine sites on the the southern coastal plain. At Philistines sites, very complex assemblages are found of their characteristic monochrome and bichrome decorated pottery; a high percentage of the animal bones found are pig, and the four-room style of house is rarely found. . The other important Israelite ethnic trait – although not one that leaves its mark in the archaeological record – is circumcision; in the Bible, the Philistines are often referred to with the epithet “the uncircumcised”. The author cites many examples of how neighboring ethnic groups, who are in competition with each other for resources, avoid using artifacts or behaviors typical of the other – so-called “high boundary maintenance” – and how such habits – once lacking any particular meaning – become a group’s defining characteristics in relation to the other group. He argues that Israelite identity was forged in Iron I principally in contrast to that of the Philistines, who represented their major “other”.
Because the question of the origins of Israelite ethnicity is one that is contested by many different and sharply contrasting theories – rebel Canaanite serfs or “sedentarized” nomads from east of the Jordan, to mention just two – the author seeks to establish the independence of the “what?and when?” of Israelite ethnicity from the “whence ?” Nonetheless he also dives head first into the origins question. He comes to the same sort of conclusion as William Dever*, that Israelite identity was forged during Iron I from a number of diverse groups who had arrived in the central highlands, one of whom – perhaps the dominant one – was the “Israel” mentioned in the late thirteenth century BCE stela of the Egyptian king Mernepta. As this “Israel” is the only specific ethnic group referred to in an extra-Biblical source, the author places the burden of proof on those who would deny the emergence of an Israelite ethnicity in the central highlands during this period.
This is a very accessible book;chapters are short, and end with a useful summary of the conclusions of each. There is a certain repetitive feel to some of the arguments, probably because of the academic rigor, some of the nuances of which are lost on the general reader. The only other barrier to easy reading is the way that the narrative thread frequently dives under a mass of citations, only to re-emerge a paragraph later. The conclusions that the author wishes to reach are clear fairly early on in the book, as is the nature of his principal “other”, the Biblical minimalists. However, his methodology is very rigorous and non-polemical; he does exactly what he says that he is setting out to do – an anthropological analysis of archaeological data – and, if he cannot prove every hypothesis about Israelite ethnicity, he certainly does succeed in placing the burden of disproof where it belongs.
* What did the biblical writers know, and when did they know it? : what archaeology can tell us about the reality of ancient Israel by William G. Dever (2001)