May 3 2006
Last week I came up with the new theory about the early history of Israel. It occurred to me that Moses and Joshua did not rule over the same people in succession. Rather, they ruled over a different tribe or group of tribes altogether. Moses was a Levite and was associated with the southern "Le’ah tribes" and Joshua was an Ephraimite/Israelite and associated with the northern "Rachel tribes".
Central to our investigation is the question of the Levites origin. Unlike other tribes, the Levites did not inherit any land according to the Bible. P does make it clear that the Levites were granted 48 cities and even if we discredit this as non-historical or non-reflective of early tribal history, we still know that the Levites had some villages of their own, such as "Nob" the Priestly city (which was destroyed by Saul for supporting his enemy David) and Anathoth (which is where the priest Abiathar was banished by Solomon after he supported Adonijah and is also the birthplace of the prophet Jeremiah three centuries later). However, these were small villages scattered here and there without any strong foothold or political power over the surrounding region. In other words, the Levites did not have their own tribal political organization, their cities were not situated within a single bloc of land, and they did not engage in combat. They were politically and economically dependent upon the more powerful tribes of the region such as Judah and Ephraim. In one area they did hold a monopoly, however, and that was divination and priesthood.
Why do I mention all this? Because the Levites’ obscure origin and lack of a well-defined border in their land inheritance makes them a mysterious and enigmatic people. It is hard for us to really figure out where they came from and how they came to hold a monopoly over the priesthood in later years. In fact it is not even clear that they were a "tribe" in the classical sense. It is entirely possible that any priest was called a Levite in early days and only later was the office of passed on within the blood line and thus confined to existing Levites. This, in fact, is my favorite opinion and there is important evidence for this in the book of Judges (17:7) "Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite; and he sojourned there". How is it possible for a Judahite to be a Levite? (tribal affiliations were always patrimonial, so that a person belonged to the tribe of his father and ONLY to that tribe). Later in Judges 19, in the concubine murder story, it is a Levite from the far end (northern end that is) of Mount Ephraim who takes a concubine from Bethlehem, Judah. What is the Levite doing in the far end of Mt. Ephraim? and why is he going all the way to Bethlehem, Judah to get a concubine?
It seems to me that a "Levite" originally did not denote a tribal affiliation. Rather, it meant simply a person who is proficient at divination, priesthood and communication with God. It designated a profession, not a blood-line. Furthermore, as you see from the Pesel Micah story and the Levite Concubine-Gibeah story, the Levites were somehow associated with the town of Bethlehem (note that these are the only two instances of Levite in the book of Judges) in Judah. This demonstrates that the Levites were in early tribal history very closely connected with the Judahites and according to my theory they were actually Judahites as indicated by the verse in Judges 17:7 above. Their origin can be explained very elegantly and simply: they were a professional class of people within the tribe of Judah who specialized in priestly services. plain and simple.
Naturally, since these people earned their living through payment for priestly services (in the form of food mostly), rather than having to engage in agriculture or herding, they were not tied to the land and were encouraged to emigrate from Judah in search of "clients" elsewhere in the land. This is just like a doctor, lawyer or other professional will often go anywhere his services are needed while a factory or store owner will not. The factory owner is tied to the land; the professional is not only free but encouraged to move about in search of business. Note in the story of Samuel how he would travel around each year through the towns of Ephraim and Benjamin: Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Ramah (1Sam 7:16-17).
The "prototype" story from which we can derive (and induce) all other Levite emigrations out of Judah is actually the Pesel micah story. The verse states that the Levite was looking "to sojourn wherever he can find" (Judges 17:9). This has one and only meaning: he was looking to expand his business and find customers within the northern tribes and he actually found exactly what he was looking for. When Micah saw that a "levite" is passing through the land he hired him on the spot to officiate in his temple. Micah was happy for he acquired a "Levite" (professional priest) for his temple (Judges 17:13) and the Levite was happy for he had found what he was looking for, a job.
But the Pesel Micah story does not merely explain how the Levites came to inhabit the North; the story has much deeper significance. In my opinion this story marked the beginning of the spread of Yahwism to the North, following the Levite’s kidnapping and eventual service in the temple the Danites erected at Laish. This wasn’t just an isolated event. By appointing a Levite to the Dan temple, the Danites signaled their acceptance of Levite religious doctrine, primary of which was the unity of the god "Yahweh" and his characteristics as described in Exodus (34:6-7). Before the Levites arrived, the North probably never even heard of "Yahweh". Now that the Levites arrived, they were told to worship one and only one god and his name was "Yahweh tsebaoth". Furthermore, the entire political connection between the North and South in later generations was precipitated by this Levite migration. Since the North had accepted the religious doctrine of the southern Levites, they now shared a strong cultural bond with the Judahites of the south which allowed for political unity during the early days of Saul and during David’s and Solomon’s reign. If not for the Levite migration and the resultant sharing of a similar faith, the Joseph tribes probably would not have felt any closer to Judah than to Amon Moab and Edom (who were equally "Hebrews") and even Aram and Sidon (Phoenicia). In fact, in later years Israel sometimes aligned itself with Aram against Judah and Judah sometimes aligned itself with Aram against Israel (1kings 15:19).
Which tribes participated in the Exodus?
According to my current tentative theory there were actually two different Exodus’s. One was the Exodus of Judah and the second was that of the Jospeh tribes. These tribes were both in Egypt at some point in history for some time due to drought in Canaan. Then, when Semitic persecution in Egypt reached its peak they escaped or were expelled from there and they returned to the Semitic lands in the Levant. Judah seems to have followed a direct route from Egypt through the Sinai peninsula and to the southern sections of Canaan where it settled, while the Joseph tribes navigated around Edom and Moab and passing through the desert regions east of Edom and Moab finally reaching "Shittim" in the "plains of Moab" and crossing the Jordan from there. It seems to me that Judah experienced the Exodus first, perhaps a century or two before Joseph did.
Why did Judah settle in the south at once while Joseph passed through the transjordan deserts before returning to Canaan?
If it is true that Judah experienced the Exodus first, then it would seem that by the time Joseph emerged the southern sections of Canaan were already "taken" and they could therefore not pass through. Not only were the Judahites there but there were also the Philistines (who may not have been settled there yet when Judah arrived) on the coast, the Amalakites and the Canaanites from Arad. Naturally then the Josephites were forced east to transjordan and then north and they had to travel through desert regions longer than the Judahites before finally finding a "weak spot" in Jericho and thereby gaining access to the desirable land west of the Jordan ("cisjordan").
Who were the Judah core and vassal tribes?
Reuben Simeon Levi and Judah are the core of the "Le’ah tribes". This is reflected by the original J text concerning the birth of these eponyms (Gen 29:31-35) and also by the fact that only these four tribes inhabited the southern sections of the Levant. E or some other editor later attributed Issachar and Zebulun to Le’ah as well and he assigned Gad and Asher to Leah’s maidservant. This tradition seemingly reflects the political situation at the time of David. Issachar and Zebulun were firmly under David’s control and so they were considered regular brothers of Judah while Gad in the transjordan and Asher on the Phoenician coast were tributaries of David and thus considered descendants of Leah’s maidservant.
Who were the Joseph core and vassal tribes?
Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin constituted the core of the Northern tribal federation. These tribes occupied the central highlands of Canaan, what was later called "Mt. Ephraim", and they were extremely powerful. Their economy consisted of barley, wheat, grapevines and olive orchards, which they also traded with Sidon. Dan and Naphtali are seen as descendant from a Rachel maidservant, but it is not clear to me why. Possibly, since they never came under the dominion of David (North Dan that is, South Dan was in Central Canaan) but they did come under the North’s control either before or after David, it seemed more appropriate to classify them as Rachel vassals.
Did the other Le’ah tribes accompany Judah in its descent and later Exodus from Egypt?
No! I am convinced that Issachar, Zebulun, Gad and Asher never experienced the Exodus from Egypt. In addition to the lack of evidence that they did experience the Exodus, there is also a practical reason: these tribes inhabited fertile land that did NOT depend on rainwater as much as the lands of Joseph and Judah. Issachar and Zebulun lived in the Jezreel valley region while Gad inhabited fertile land in the Transjordan that once belonged to Sihon, the Amorite king and Asher was on the coast where rain is plentiful. Thus, if these tribes or the eponyms of these tribes already inhabited those fertile regions before their supposed descent into Egypt, then there would never have been any need to go to Egypt in the first place, for the famine would not affect their land. Also the disjunction of these tribal lands from the Judah bloc of land in southern Canaan is further evidence that those lands were not conquered/populated by Issachar-Zebulun and Judah at the same time.
Reuben, Simeon and Levi are a bit harder to figure out. In the book of Judges we see the tradition that Judah and Simeon formed a military alliance when conquering their lands, but Reuben is not mentioned. On the other hand we know that Reuben was at one point an extremely important tribe in the south superseding Judah and in the Joseph legend in the book of Genesis it is Reuben, not Judah, who comes to the rescue of Joseph and later pledges his son as collateral against Jacob’s son Benjamin, according to one ancient source. Thus, we see that Reuben also held an Egyptian Exodus tradition (assuming that the ancient source above is Reubenite) and they were very possibly the most important tribe within the southern bloc at the time of Judah’s exodus. Recall also the story of Dathan and Abiram the Reubenites, disputing Moses’ leadership. This legend possibly reflects the point in time when the Reubenite political and religious leadership of the southern bloc was replaced by Moses (from the tribe of Levi/Judah) and the Reubenites made a last-ditch effort to regain control but failed. In light of all of this evidence, it seems that all four tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah participated in the Judahite Exodus.
How long were the Judahite tribes in Egypt and how many people participated in the Exodus?
J makes it abundantly clear that the fourth generation returned to Canaan. This is stated openly (Gen 15:16) "the fourth generation will return here". You will ask me immediately "but in verse 13 it says that Abraham’s descendants will spend 400 years in Egypt?"
Some scholars have attempted to reconcile the two traditions saying that each patriarchal generation is 100 years. Indeed, Abraham was 100 years old when he had Isaac according to P and Jacob was 100 years old or close to it when he had Joseph according to the P claim that Joseph was 30 when he stood before Pharaoh and Jacob was 130 when he stood before Pharaoh (although to be exact, Jacob appeared before Pharaoh at least 9 years after Joseph did, accounting for the seven fat years and two of the seven lean years).
But there are several problems with this. For one, P says openly that Isaac was 60 when he had Jacob, so that’s much less than a full "patriarchal generation". Secondly, J rarely if ever uses precise numbers when dealing with chronology and measurements. 400 years is more of a deuteronomical or priestly expression than a J expression. Third, we know that the deuteronomist considers a generation to be 40 years. Thus, David and Solomon reign for 40 years each and Solomon’s temple is built "480" years after the Exodus, which really means 12 generations. Accordingly, P may be articulating here an entirely different tradition which holds that the Israelites were in Egypt for ten generations, not four. We already know that the priestly writer is fond of ten-generation intervals: ten generations between Adam and Noah and ten generation between Noah and Abraham. Likewise, P is continuing this tradition here and saying that there were ten generations from Abraham until the return of the Israelites to Canaan. For our purposes, however, we will ignore the P tradition and we will stick to the older and more reliable J tradition of four generations.
Why is the four generation tradition so important? Because it changes the entire picture we have of the Exodus. Instead of a major, somewhat-miraculous multiplication of Israelites from 70 to 600,000 persons in the course of several generations, we should picture a modest, natural growth occurring in the course of just four generations among just three or four tribes (depending on whether we count Levi as separate tribe). Note that even if we assume that each of 72 males entering Egypt had 12 children!! (six males and six females) there won’t be more than 15,552 people in the fourth generation. The Bottom line is that according to the J tradition, which makes it very clear that the fourth generation returned to Canaan, there couldn’t have been anything even remotely close to 600,000 people, who left Egypt according to P.
Rather, in the J tradition there were just three hebrew families, Reuben, Simeon and Judah who emerged from Egypt. I can only estimate that each of these families numbered in the hundreds (in the fourth generation), producing a total of less than 1000 people who participated in the Judahite Exodus. This scenario is also much more compatible with the fact that no archaeological remains were found anywhere in the Sinai peninsula from the period of the Israelite Exodus and the fact that there are no Egyptian records whatsoever pertaining to a mass exodus of Hebrew slaves from their country. Levi was possibly not a separate tribe, but rather the title of a priest, so that a Levite is actually also a Reubenite, Judahite, or Simeonite.
Is Moses a historical figure and if so what role did he play within the Judahite tribal alliance?
Moses is surely a historical personage. There is no reason for me to doubt that a person by this name actually existed who headed the Judahite tribal alliance out of Egypt. What is questionable rather is all the details attributed to him; the fact that he was born to a "Levite", the manner in which was hidden from the Egyptians in an ark in the Nile for three months etc.. What is also questionable is how much of the "law" that Judah and Israel later adopted was initiated by him.
In all likelihood, Moses was NOT a lawmaker. His era was too unstable to accommodate lawmaking and law enforcement. It was a tribal-oriented era in which "each man did what was right in his eyes" as was the case in the later era of the Judges according to the Deuteronomist. Nonetheless, if he was indeed a priest and a leader, then by definition he was also involved in some basic level of order-keeping and religious creativity. Certainly, however, not even a fraction of the laws attributed to him in the Pentateuch as currently formulated are really from him. It was a common ancient practice to attribute new laws to "classical leaders" in order to promote their widespread acceptance. Thus the Deuteronomical law code was "found" in the days of Josiah, meaning that it was first "invented" by his court officials who attributed it to an "old document" found in the temple, when in fact it was anything but.
What kind of shrine did the Judahites have in their early tribal days?
Note that even if you don’t believe in by budding theory that Judah entered Canaan from the south and Israel from the East at different times and without any coordination between them, you still must admit that there was a very weak bond between Israel and Judah in early tribal days. This is evident from the various episodes told in the book of Judges in which Judah is completely neglected or treated as a separate entity, when talking about "Israel". (See the story of Deborah and Barak). Thus, in all likelihood, Israel and Judah did not share a shrine and other religious tenets and artifacts. R. E. Friedman notes that the "ark of the covenant" is NEVER mentioned in E while the "tent of meeting" is NEVER mentioned in J. So we know that in Judah the Ark was a revered object but we don’t know where it was kept. I am convinced that before the ark arrived in Shiloh (Ephraimite territory) in the days of Eli and Samuel (c. 1100 BCE) it resided somewhere in Judean territory. In fact it may have even been stationed in one of the five philistine cities: Ashdod, Gazah, Ashkelon Gath, Ekron. These cities were originally under Judahite control and perhaps when the Philistines arrived on the scene (c. 1150 BCE) and started taking over territory from Judah, the Levites (who were the Judahite priests) moved the ark in a Northeast direction, finally setting up the shrine in Shiloh. Recall how the Danites were forced out of their territory due to the invading Philistines which set off the Pesel Micah story told in Judges. Note also how it is said in that story that the Danites "recognized the voice of the Levite", indicating that the Levites were common in the Danite and Judahite coastal regions later vanquished by the Philistines. I should point out that Hebron or Jerusalem were definitely not the original locations of Judahite shrines for those cities were not yet under Judahite control. (In fact, Jerusalem, then called "Jebus", lay in Benjamite territory). Also, Hebron was conquered by a "kenizzite" clan under Caleb’s leadership who only later became integrated into Judah.
Is it possible that there was more than one shrine in Judah in those days?
Not only is it possible but it is almost certain. Judahite territory was quite expansive and it would not be practical to require a Judahite to travel such long distances whenever he wished to offer sacrifices to his God. Any village in Judah mentioned as a "levite city" in the book of Joshua probably contained a shrine as well in early days, for what were the Levites doing there if not offering their priestly services to the public? Nine villages are mentioned: Hebron, Libnah, Jattir, ‘eshtemo`ah, Cholon, Debir, ‘ayin, Jatteh and Beth Shemesh (Joshua 21:13).
What did the Ark of the Covenant contain?
In those early days, writing on papyrus had not been invented yet, at least not among the Judahites. There were two ways of recording things: clay tablets and stone tablets. According to the Bible, the "Ten Articles of the Covenant" were carved into stone and kept in the Ark. Now even though the Ark seems to serve a utilitarian purpose only according to this understanding, it is possible that it gradually took on additional significance. By the time the golden Cherub statues were added to the Ark, the ark had been transformed from a mere "carrying case" to the most holy object in the shrine. There is considerable debate as to what the Cherub’s represented or even what kind of creature it is. R.E. Friedman believes they served as a pedestal for the deity; that is, the deity presumably rested on their wings. But I am somewhat hesitant to accept this because I strongly believe in that all ancient religious objects and ideas were of a concrete nature; no imagination! These people lived very simple and concrete lives anything that could not be felt with the senses did not exist. They were not capable or willing to "imagine" a deity resting upon the cherub’s wings. Rather, the cherubs may have represented angels or messengers sent down from God in heaven to guide and assist the Hebrews in their struggles.
Why is the "tent of meeting" not mentioned in J?
By the time J and E were committed to writing, the monarchy had already been divided. The southern Davidic kingdom possessed a magnificent temple in Jerusalem (or at least it was magnificent according to the biblical claim) while the North had several shrines none of which were very elaborate or permanent. I think that this very basic difference between the North and South is why the North developed or retained the idea of the "tent of meeting" while the South had no need for such tent. Another reason could be advanced in light of the fact that the Israelites, according to our theory, spent much more time wandering in the desert that Judah did. E, therefore, felt compelled to conceive of a tent of meeting as the official national shrine before they entered Canaan while J saw no such need.