Thursday, January 04, 2024

The Evolutionary History of the Jews in the Levant Up to 1914

The current military conflict between Hamas and Israel should be understood in the context of the deep evolutionary history of the Jews in the Levant.  Knowing that evolutionary history will also help us understand Israel's Declaration of Independence as compared with the American Declaration of Independence.  

For me, the three books that are most helpful in sketching this history is Martin Gilbert's Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (10th ed., 2012), the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, with editorial notes and commentary by John Walton and Craig Keener (2016), and John Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (2018).

There are three interrelated themes in this history--Jewish theology, Jewish ethnicity, and Jewish militarism.  The survival and identity of the Jewish people as a people has depended on their defining themselves as the chosen people of the God Yahweh (as distinct from the other gods in the ancient Near East), who is the God of their ancestral ethnic group (the "God of the fathers," the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob"), and also the God of Battle who defeats the deities of the enemy, although Yahweh can also fight against Israel when they became unfaithful to Him.

Archaeological evidence of Paleolithic human and hominid species in the Levant suggest that the primary route for the migration of human ancestors out of Africa and into Eurasia over one million years ago went through the Levant.  The oldest Neolithic agricultural settlements are also found here, dating from around 20,000 to 9,000 BC.  So, it is probably here that human hunter-gatherers first shifted from foraging to farming.  Later, the first small towns and cities (such as Uruk) appeared from 5,000 to 3,000 BC.  We also see the rise of agrarian states and their evolution up to global empires (Liverani 2014).  I have written about this in previous posts.  The Jewish people emerged out of this genetic and cultural evolution of humanity in the Levant.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the Jews originated as the children of Abraham, who was born around 2166 BC in Ur in southern Mesopotamia (what is now southern Iraq).  Abraham had been born into a family that was polytheistic and did not worship Yahweh (Jos. 24:2,14).  When Yahweh appeared to Abraham, Yahweh did not demand worship or rituals.  Rather He made an offer to Abraham.  Yahweh told Abraham to migrate to the land of Canaan with the promise that there his people would someday become a great nation:

The LORD had said to Abram, "Go from your country, your people, and your father's household to the land I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:1-3).

In effect, John Walton has observed, in one of his notes in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Bible, Yahweh was offering Abraham a grant of land that would secure the survival, flourishing, and identity of his family and extended ethnic group:

"God's covenant with Abram targets the most essential elements of identity in the value system of the ancient Near East.  Land was connected to one's survival, livelihood, and political identity (more so than self).  Inheritance fixed one's place in the family and ensured that the generations past would be remembered in the present and future.  When Abram gave up his place in his father's household, he forfeited his security.  He was putting his survival, his identity, his future and his security in the hands of the Lord."

Yahweh had said: "Go from your country, your people, and your father's household." Walton explains:

"One reason God may ask Abram to leave these behind is because it is in these three connections that one related to deity.  The gods one worshiped tended to be national or city gods ('country'), the clan god ('people'), or ancestral gods, i.e., ancestors who have taken a place in the divine world ('father's household').  As Yahweh severed the ties Abram would have had with other deities, he then filled the resulting void as the only God Abram would need" (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Bible, 33).

I have written previously about how Walton's account of the "cultural context" of the Hebrew Bible supports the position of theistic evolution as advocated by Deborah Haarsma, Francis Collins, and others.  These are believing Christians who argue that Christian theism and Darwinian evolution are compatible because God has acted through genetic and cultural evolution.  Walton's contribution is in showing how God revealed Himself in the Hebrew Bible by conveying His message through the language and ideas of ancient Near Eastern culture while gradually correcting the mistakes in that culture.  And, thus, Walton explains: "One of the main reasons God makes a covenant with Abram is in order to reveal what he is really like--to correct the false view of deity that people have developed.  But this is projected to take place in stages, not all at once" (34).  Of course, Jews will not agree with the Christian claim that the prophecies of a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible are fulfilled in the New Testament's revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

According to the Bible, Abraham lived in Canaan for a hundred years--from his arrival in 2091 BC to his death in 1991 BC.  But then, within a little over one hundred years after his death, his descendants migrated to Egypt, where they lived for over 500 years.

Having become enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites escaped from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and entered the Desert of Sinai around 1446 BC.  They camped for almost a year at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses received Yahweh's law for His people.

Then, just before starting their 40-year march through the desert on their way to Canaan, Yahweh ordered Moses to take a census for the purpose of military conscription--counting every man 20 years old or more in each of the 12 tribes of Israel.  Yahweh then ordered the arrangement of the tribal camps and the marching orders of the tribes (Numbers 1-2, 10:11-33).  The people of Israel were then ready to move through the desert and into Canaan as a well-organized army.

Their divine wars of conquest were brutal: they were commanded "in the towns of those peoples whom Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.  Completely destroy them" (Deu. 20:16-17).  So, for example, when the Israelites conquered the Midianites and killed all the men, Moses was angry that they had allowed the women and children to live; and he commanded: "Now kill all the boys.  And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man" (Numbers 31:17-18). 

Remarkably, modern Jews and Christians (such as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have condemned the divinely sanctioned violence of the Hebrew Bible.  Is it possible that the Jews misinterpreted Yahweh's message?  Or was such violence justified in the circumstances the Jews faced?

After 40 years of wandering in the Sinai desert, the Israelites entered Moab (around 1406 BC) on the eastern banks of the Jordan river, where they could see Canaan.   Moses died, and the leadership of Israel passed to Joshua.  Yahweh told Joshua that he must cross the Jordan River and begin the conquest of Canaan, which would fulfill Yahweh's promise that all of this land would belong to Israel (Jos. 1:1-6).  The fall of Jericho became the first victory in Joshua's military campaign of conquest.

Around 1375 BC, Joshua died.  At his death, there were still large areas of Canaan that had not fallen to conquest by the Jews; and so, they were still at war with their enemies.  

Israel was governed by the elders of each tribe who exercised the senior leadership in making judicial and administrative decisions in the towns and tribes.  The assembly of elders represented the people in making major decisions.  These ruling councils of elders were common in the ancient Near East.  I have written about this previously as showing the early evolution of "council democracy" in Mesopotamia and among many tribal societies such as the Huron of Canada that John Locke had studied in his reading of Gabriel Sagard.

In time of war, the elders could ask someone they trusted to become a judge to lead them in war.  Unlike the English term "judge," judges in the Biblical book of Judges did not exercise judicial activity.  Rather, they were military chieftains.  Whenever the people of Israel fell away from Yahweh and worshipped other gods, Yahweh allowed the people to be defeated by raiders in war.  Then, the people would cry for help, and Yahweh would raise up a judge to lead them against their enemies (Judges 2:6-19).

For example, when the Israelites began to serve foreign gods and no longer served Yahweh, he allowed the Ammonites to attack them.  Then, the Israelites asked Yahweh to rescue them; and the elders of the people sought for someone who would become their leader in attacking the Ammonites.  The people and their elders made an agreement with Jephthah, who was a mighty warrior, to become their judge, their head and commander.  Jephthah then challenged the Ammonites:  "I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me.  Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites" (Judges 11:27).  And, indeed, Yahweh did allow Jephthah to defeat the Ammonites in battle.

Like many of the other gods in the ancient Near East, Yahweh was seen by the Israelites as a divine warrior who decided whether his people won or lost their battles with their enemies.  But the Bible also indicates that Yahweh was not so all-powerful that He could decide by Himself the outcome of any battle.  His followers won their wars only when they were well-trained, well-armed, and guided by military leaders who were shrewd in their tactics and strategy.

Consider, for example, the stories of Ehud and Deborah.  After being under the oppressive rule of Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years, the Israelites cried out to Yahweh for help.  He gave them Ehud as a deliverer (Judges 3:12-30).  The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon.  Ehud had been trained as an ambidextrous warrior, so that he could be equally effective in holding weapons with either his left or his right hand.  He made a double-edged sword, which would be good for stabbing straight into a man's body.  He strapped the sword to his right thigh so that it was hidden under his clothing.  Since most men are right-handed, and they wear their sword on their left side, Ehud's dagger hidden on his right side would probably not be noticed by Eglon's bodyguards.  After Ehud had presented his tribute to Eglon, he told Eglon: "I have a secret message for you."  The king told his attendants to leave the room.  

"Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his palace and said, 'I have a message from God for you.'  As the king rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king's belly.  Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged.  Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it.  Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them."

By the time the servants had unlocked the room and found the king dead, Ehud had escaped.  He then gathered the Israelites for a surprise attack on the Moabite soldiers, and they killed them all.  Moab was then subject to Israel, and there was peace for eighty years. 

Later, however, the Israelites fell under the oppressive rule of Jabin king of Canaan for twenty years.  Jabin's rule over them was enforced by his army, commanded by Sisera, which had "nine hundred chariots fitted with iron" (Judges 4:1-3).  Once again, the Israelites cried to Yahweh for help.  At the time, Israel was being led by Deborah, a prophet, who spoke for Yahweh.  She sent for Barak and told him to organize ten thousand men for an attack on the Canaanites.  

But she knew it would be difficult to fight against Sisera's "chariots fitted with iron."  Years before, Yahweh had led the men of Judah against the Canaanites: Yahweh "was with the men of Judah.  They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron" (Judges 1:19).  Although chariots are useless in the hill country of Judah, they are formidable weapons in the valleys and river plains.

Deborah devised a plan to blunt the effectiveness of the chariots.  She lured Sisera into moving his chariots and troops to the Kishon River where Barak's men were prepared for battle.  She anticipated that because of recent rains, the Kishon River plain would be flooded, and thus the overflowing river would create a muddy battlefield in which the chariots would be bogged down.  As a result, Sisera's army was utterly destroyed (Judges 4:4-17, 5:4-5, 20-21, 31).

And yet, after over 300 years of being ruled by judges acting as military leaders, the people of Israel and their elders decided that they wanted a king to rule over them, so that they could be like all the other nations with kings.  They asked the prophet Samuel to appoint a king.  Yahweh told Samuel to warn them about how oppressive kingly rule would be.  "But the people refused to listen to Samuel.  'No!' they said.  'We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.'  When Samuel heard all the people said, he repeated it before the LORD.  The LORD answered, 'Listen to them and give them a king'" (1 Samuel 8:19-21).  

Yahweh revealed to Samuel that Saul was to be anointed the king.  "Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul's head and kissed him, saying, 'Has not the LORD anointed you ruler over his inheritance" (1 Sam. 10:1).  Later, David became the second king when the people of Judah anointed David king over the tribe of Judah (2 Sam. 2:4).

So, what's the significance of the "anointing" of the ruler?  Walton observes: "Anointing is known from Hittite enthronement texts . . . . It is possible that anointing represents a contract between the ruler and the people, hence the anointing of David by the people in 2 Sa 2:4.  Texts from Nuzi show individuals anointing each other when entering a business agreement" (476).  Understanding anointing as a contract between ruler and ruled might explain the recent anointing of King Charles III.

The Israelites established an independent kingdom under the kingly rule of first Saul, then David, and then Solomon (1050-930 BC).  This Kingdom of Israel had the most extended territory that Israel would ever have.

John Locke thought this Biblical history of Israel under the rule of their judges and first kings showed how political societies originally evolved in human history out of the state of nature by the consent of the people who needed a military leader.  The story of Jephtha illustrates this.  The people selected him as a judge because they needed his military leadership against the Ammonites: "And the People made him head and captain over them, Judg. 11. 11, which was as it seems, all one as to be Judge" (ST, 109).  Locke also sees in the dispute between Jephtha and the Ammonites the need for what Locke called "an appeal to Heaven."  When there is a dispute, and the question is, who shall be Judge?, then if there is no Judge on Earth, "the Appeal lies to God in Heaven," and God will judge by the clash of armies in a battle.  Jephtha appealed to Heaven by fighting the Ammonites and defeating them (ST, 20-21, 109).

For Locke, this becomes a general principle for settling political disputes about ultimate authority--such as when the people believe their ruler has exercised absolute, arbitrary power to which they have not consented.  To the question, Who shall be Judge?  The answer is, The People shall be Judge.  And the judgment of the people will be expressed by their violent resistance to unjust power.  So, the appeal to "God in Heaven" is actually an appeal to the People, who are willing to fight for their rights (ST, 232, 240-43).

have written about how this Lockean idea of the Appeal to Heaven entered the American Revolutionary War in the "Appeal to Heaven" flag.  As far as I can tell, Locke coined this term "Appeal to Heaven."  Although he derives the idea from the Biblical story of Jephtha, the phrase does not appear in the Biblical text.  (Amazingly, there are reports now that in recent years, American Christian Nationalists have adopted the "Appeal to Heaven" flag as their banner!)

Locke also sees that the establishment of a kingship in Israel was by consent of the people: "the Children of Israel desired a King, like all the nations to judge them, and to go out before them, and to fight their battels, 1 Sam. 8. 20.  God granting their Desire, says to Samuel, I will send thee a Man, and thou shalt anonit him to be Captain over my People Israel, that he may save my People out of the hands of the Philistines, c. 9. v. 16.  As if the only business of a King had been to lead out their Armies" (ST, 109).  The people of Israel wanted a king, for the limited purpose of leading them in war, and God granted their desire.

Vox populi, vox Dei?  In fact, in the early 18th century, some Whig pamphlets in England adopted this slogan as an implied Lockean teaching: an appeal to Heaven is actually an appeal to the People, because the voice of the People is the voice of God.

Around 930 BC, after the death of King Solomon, a tribal civil war split the kingdom into two independent kingdoms--the northern kingdom of Israel (or Samaria) and the southern kingdom of Judah--which covered most of the Southern Levant, except for the Philistine settlements in the southwest (from Jaffa to Gaza) and the Phoenician settlements in the northwest.


Around 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Empire.  In 586 BC, the Southern Kingdom fell to the Babylonians, who conquered Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon's Temple, and sent many if not most of the Jews into exile in Babylon and elsewhere.

In 538 BC, Babylon fell to the Persian Empire.  The Persian King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the Second Temple.  For that, Cyrus was said to be anointed by God to save the Jews (Isa. 41:1-7, 44:28-45:7).  But many of the Jews chose to remain in Babylon or scatter elsewhere.

It might seem strange that Cyrus is identified as Yahweh's "anointed" one, because the Hebrew word for "anointed" (mashiyach) is the word for "messiah."  As I noted in previous posts, the New Testament cites these Old Testament references to the "messiah" as prophecies of the coming of Jesus; but the context for these Old Testament references usually make clear that they refer to political leaders like Cyrus.  This is odd because Yahweh actually says to his anointed Cyrus: "you do not acknowledge me" (Isa. 45:4-5).  Cyrus did not worship Yahweh.  So, how can Cyrus be the Messiah?  (Surprisingly, some of Donald Trump's Christian supporters have identified him the new Cyrus--the political leader anointed by God to be the Messiah for America!)

Walton explains that while the Hebrew term "messiah" developed "an eschatological significance in Israel of a promised deliverer," it also had a more ordinary political significance as the anointing of a leader such as a priest or king.  So, even though Cyrus assumed the "anointed" role of the Davidic monarchy in restoring the people of Israel to their land and rebuilding the Temple, he was not the eschatological deliverer, although he was God's deliverer of the Jews from the Babylonian exile.

To explain why Cyrus chose to become Yahweh's messiah for Israel, Walton points to the text on the "Cyrus Cylinder" that is now held in the British Museum.  (Just a few months ago, I saw the Cyrus Cylinder at the Museum for the first time.)

                         The Cyrus Cylinder in Room 52 of the British Museum in London

The Cyrus Cylinder is a clay barrel with a text in Akkadian cuneiform attributed to Cyrus the Great.  It was found in 1876 at the ancient site of the Mesopotamian city of Babylon.  It dates to the 6th century BC.  A translation of the text can be found in James Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1969, 315-316).  The text is Cyrus's account of how he conquered Babylon, restored the Babylonian worship of Marduk, and freed the people in Babylonian exile to return to their native lands and renew their religious traditions.

Although the text makes no reference to Israel or to Israel's God, Walton thinks the text confirms what Isaiah says about Cyrus in releasing the Jews from exile.  Cyrus claims to worship Marduk, and he acknowledges that other peoples worship different gods who control their own people.  Cyrus is willing to seek the support of those other gods.  Walton explains this as a mutually beneficial arrangement:

"In a polytheistic system, adding deities is not a theological problem.  In fact, in claiming support from a new god, the theologically neutral becomes an economic and political advantage.  Cyrus thus had no problem in recognizing Yahweh, though he would not have personally worshiped him, since such recognition cost nothing but gained the support of Yahweh worshipers through their tribute and allegiance.  Polytheistic priests of the newly recognized god would also likely expect royal support for their religious endeavors, so they also benefited" (1190).

Some people today have seen the Cyrus Cylinder as an early document of "human rights" that upholds the natural right to religious liberty and toleration.  Even if that's an overstatement, there might be some truth to it. 

Some Biblical scholars have argued that from the evidence of the Hebrew Bible and recent archaeological studies of the Levant, we can infer that it was in response to the catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Solomon's Temple that the Jews were led to Biblical monotheism.  Originally, Yahweh was one of many gods in the Ancient Near East.  The people of Israel adopted Yahweh as their premier god or divine patron, but they also worshipped other gods (Deu. 29:24-28).  Then, after their exile from Jerusalem, they explained this as Yahweh's punishment for not obeying his laws.  And if Yahweh had the power to use Cyrus as the Messiah for the Jews, that proved that Yahweh was all-powerful (2 Chronicles 36:11-23; Ezra 1:1-11). In this way, the Jews moved from seeing Yahweh as one god to seeing Him as the only god: Yahweh became the exclusive and unitary, invisible, transcendent, and universal God.  Yahweh was the particular God of the People of Israel, but also the universal God over all humanity.  

Some Biblical scholars have called this the "the invention of God" (Romer 2015).  But the theistic believer (Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) can say that this shows how God revealed Himself by communicating to Israel through the cultural context of their time and gradually drew them out of their familiar polytheistic theology until they recognized Him as the only God.

For more than a thousand years, before the Arab conquest in 636 AD, the Jews were the main settled population of Palestine.  Although they were often conquered, they had long periods of political independence, such as the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom (165-63 BC).  In 70 AD, in response to a Jewish revolt against Roman rule, the Romans captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and the city, and took many Jews as captives to Rome.

From 637 to 1099 AD, the Jews in Palestine were ruled by Arab Muslims, who tolerated the Jews and their religious practices, although the Jews were sometimes badly treated.  From 1099 to 1291, the Jews were persecuted and killed by Christian Crusaders.  The Jews fought on the side of the Arabs against the Crusaders.  The Muslim Mameluks expelled the Crusaders in 1291, and ruled until 1516.  During this time, many European Jews moved to Palestine to escape persecution in Europe.

After 1517, under the Ottoman Turks, Palestine continued to be a place of refuge for persecuted Jews.  Sometimes they were badly treated by the Ottoman rulers, but at least the Jews were better off in Palestine than in Europe.  Jerusalem became a center of Jewish learning.  And by 1880, the majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish.  In four Holy Cities in Palestine--Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed--there was continuous Jewish settlement from Biblical times.

From 1880 to 1914, as the Zionist movement gained influence, there was increasing Jewish migration into Palestine.  Jews developed land that they had purchased from European, Turkish, and Arab landlords.  Tel Aviv became the first town founded entirely by Jews.  By 1914, the population of Palestine was about 500,000 Arabs and 90,000 Jews.  During this period, there was growing violent conflict between Arabs and Jews, with some Arab leaders demanding that Constantinople prohibit Jewish migration and settlement.


Gilbert, Martin. 2012.  The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 10th edition. New York: Routledge.

Liverani, Mario. 2014. The Ancient Near East: History, Society, Economy.  New York: Routledge.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.  2016.  Edited with Notes and Commentaries by John Walton and Craig Keener.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Pritchard, James B., ed.  1969.  Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.  3rd edition.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Romer, Thomas.  2015.  The Invention of God.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walton, John. 2018. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible.  2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

1 comment:

Roger Sweeny said...

Razib Khan put up a good piece on December 28, 2023, "More than kin, less than kind: Jews and Palestinians as Canaanite cousins: The cold facts recorded in Jewish and Palestinian genetics today and historically"