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Origin of the northern kingdom of Israel


Origin of the northern kingdom of Israel

Sharing here what I’ve found of interest in an alternative view to Finkelstein’s account of the rise of the kingdom of Israel.

While Finkelstein sees the rise of Samaria and Omride dynasty in the context of cyclical demographic-economic patterns within the central hills area of Palestine and as an outgrowth of an ethnic unity and a former united kingdom, Thompson argues that a survey of a broader range of evidence (and without presuppositions of a united kingdom) suggests Samaria was built as a capital of a kingdom in response to the region being drawn into the wider world of international trade.

Finkelstein’s views are widely known through his popular books written in collaboration with Neil Asher Silberman. Hence my focus here on a digestible summary of Thompson’s views, in particular from his Early History of the Israelite People. The book isavailable free in Google books online — but legal matters prevent the publication of all its pages.

Climate change preparing the way for a northern kingdom

From around 1050 – 1000 b.c.e. the “great Mycenaean drought” came to an end. This drought period (ca 1200 to 1050 b.c.e.) forced populations from Palestinian lowlands to seek livelihoods in new areas and for the first time the highlands of “Ephraim”, (with their semi-steppe areas, fertile plateaus and valleys, and rugged western slopes) were opened up to small villages and agriculturalists and pastoralists.

This was the beginning of settlement of what was to become the kingdom of Samaria.

1050 to 850 b.c.e. sees throughout all Syria-Palestine

  • improved climate
  • population explosion
  • transformation from regionally and subregionally based markets to interregional and international markets
  • increased demand for oil, timber, wine, meat, dairy products

Part of the evidence for the above involves the expansion of population and farming in terraced areas of the central hills area that are more suited to cash crops (nuts, fruits, wine, oil) than subsistence agriculture.

[T]heir development necessarily involves regional trade. Their disproportionate expansion . . . suggests an even greater economic development of extra-regional trade, and with that an involvement in increasing centralization. (p.232)

With widening commerce comes increased importance of access to trade routes.

These were the conditions that existed before the rise of Samaria as the capital of a northern kingdom.

At Samaria, the establishment of a political base of power is logically prior to the actual building of the city. (p.408)

Rise of a Kingdom, not an imperial city-state

In my previous post I mentioned Thompson’s interpretation of Jerusalem’s late rise and expansion of power as being that of an imperial city-state coming to dominate surrounding regions. Palestine had until Samaria’s appearance known only city-states as dominant centres of power — “i.e., essentially agriculturally based market town[s] with an indigenous Hinterland supporting  . . . ” But Samaria was something new.

What was established here was new to Palestine. Moreover, the lack of geographically unifying factors in the geographical structure of the central hills, and the development of numerous subregional centers throughout the central highlands militated strongly against an expanding dominance of a single city over such a diverse population. . . . (p. 408)

The inevitable origin and fate of Samaria:

The motive force behind the development of Samaria was the end result of the rationalization of trade to accommodate the rising demands of markets external to the central hills, a development that small scale trade simply could not foster. This led to the formation of a region-wide agricultural cartel with an autonomous center free of any single subregion’s dominance. Samaria was built to monopolize and funnel oil production, timber and other products to the trade routes of the Jezreel, linking Samaria’s fate inexorably to the Jezreel and to the greater world of politics, caravans and soldiers. (pp. 408-9 – my emphasis)

Samaria was built “as a capital city with dominant public structures”, although it did additionally develop the economy of a city-state as well.

Assyrian texts provide further evidence that Samaria was the capital city “of much of the region of the central highlands”.

Thompson comments that these texts suggest that Samaria found itself in competition with Tyre and Damascus for control of the Jezreel and Galilee regions.

A Moabite text also points to a struggle between Moab and Israel (Samaria) over the Gilead area. Damascus and Ammon may also have sought influence here.

The ethnic gulf between Samaria and Jerusalem

Variable Linguistics

It’s easy to think of biblical Hebrew having been around since Adam, but Thompson addresses some interesting questions about the linguistic variations throughout Palestine in the Bronze and Iron age periods. See pp. 336-339. Biblical Hebrew is a relatively late development, and it has been argued (Knauf) that it is an artificial literary construct. Thompson refers to E. A. Knauf’s studies of the branches of Canaanite languages, and the distinction between “core Canaanite” (Phoenicea, Israel), and “fringe Canaanite” (Judaean, Ammorite, Moabite and Edomite).

Divergent Origins

Israel developed out of the population dislocations of the great Mycenaean drought.

Judah originated out of the expansion of the olive industry (to meet demands of international trade) that brought about the enforced sedentarization of pastoralists and nomadic groups.

Assyrian Dominance: less unified than ever

It was Assyrian imperial policy to “systematically [destroy] the coherence of the population and the economic and political infrastructures  that had been the foundation of Israel’s solidarity and the source of its strength.” (p. 414)

They did this, of course, through mass deportations of populations.

Not only were the elite deported, but craftsmen, corvee laborers, women for the slave trade and men for the army, and indeed entire villages and towns were moved across great distances of the empire.


[T]he conclusion becomes difficult to avoid that just as the origin of the ninth and seventh-century states of Israel and Judah were wholly separate, they were also unlikely to have any more common an ethnic base than had any other two neighbouring states of the Southern Levant. (p.412)



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The Bible Unearthed, but still covering its nonhistorical tracks

Finkelstein and Silberman in their popular The Bible Unearthed assert that the biblical narratives of the conquests of David and the united kingdom of Solomon were fabricated in King Josiah’s time in order to build support for Josiah’s supposed dream of ruling all Israel from Samaria to Jerusalem. This interpretation is built up from two bases:

  1. the absence of any archaeological evidence for the conquests of David and the united kingdom of Solomon
  2. the belief that the bulk of biblical literature, in particular Deuteronomy, was composed before Babylon’s conquest of Judah

Unfortunately for Finkelstein’s and Silberman’s argument, there is also a complete absence of archaeological evidence for the biblical story that Josiah removed all the idols from the land, and there is no suggestion in the biblical story that Josiah had any political or military ambitions to unite the former northern kingdom of Israel with Judah under his rule from Jerusalem.

But an interesting thing happens when we do re-read the biblical narrative of David-Solomon and the succeeding kingdoms with the awareness that the story was to a large extent a fabrication, or at least with the awareness that there are no archaeological remains to indicate it really happened as told. Read with this awareness, certain narrative details jump out and tell the astute reader that the author darn well knew he was making it all up.

After having created the mythical reign of Solomon — for which there is no hard evidence in the ground — the author had to somehow bring the story back to something closer to reality as he prepared readers for a tale that took them up to their own day. Look at the fantasy balloon he had to burst:

  • a kingdom stretching from the Euphrates to the Nile (1 Kings 4:21);
  • a man so renowned the kings from all nations of the earth came to visit Jerusalem (1 Kings 4:34);
  • a kingdom of fabulous wealth (1 Kings 10:14-29); 
  • a king who worthy of inviting the very glory of God to earth (1 Kings 8:10-13);
  • 700 wives and 300 porcupines (1 Kings 11:3); 
  • idyllic peace and harmony — under a king whose name coincidentally meant “peace” (1 Kings 4:25);
  • a mathematically and symbolically  tidy 40 year reign (1 Kings 11:42).

 (It is amusing to read Israel Finkelstein’s observation that it is “the astute reader” who will notice that the story of Solomon is an idealization lying beyond the borders of reality!)

But reading on in the knowledge that there is no historical basis for this fabulous kingdom, one notices the devices the author deploys to explain away his fabrication and inform his readers why no sign of such a kingdom remains to their day.  

How to plausibly remove such a widespread and unprecendently wealthy empire from the scene and restore a narrative of a people of more modest dimensions by magnitudes?

Firstly, the northern kingdom that had in reality never been related to a southern kingdom had to be explained as an offshoot from Solomon’s empire. This was done by means of creating a story of an intrigue by one of Solomon’s servants who was also an Ephraimite (northern Israelite).

Secondly, the author brings in an anonymous prophet to make pivotal pronouncements that will tie the beginning of the northern kingdom of Israel with events in its final era.

 Thirdly, and most vitally, the narrator brought in the Egyptian armies of Shishak (or Shoshenq 1) to strip the Jerusalem of Solomon’s wealth.

 Now it happened in the fifth year of king Rehoboam, that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem. And he took away the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house; he took away everything. He also took away all the gold shields which Solomon had made. (1 Kings 14:25-26)

It goes without saying that the Egyptian monument commemorating this Pharaoh’s invasion fails to mention Jerusalem, which archaeology informs us was an insignificant village at the time.

But sure this invasion would serve to explain Judah’s poverty status in comparison with the kingdom of Egypt (and explain away the imaginative Solomonic wealth), but the author also had Syria to take care of, too. Syria also had long been known to far surpass Judah as a power. But the author takes care of  this detail by having Judah pay out all that was left after Shishak’s plundering:

Then Asa took all the silver and gold that was left of the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house, and delivered them into the hand of his servants. And King Asa sent them to Ben-Hadad . . . king of Syria, who dwelt in Damascus, saying, “Let there be a treaty between you and me, as there was between my father and your father. See, I have sent you a present of silver and gold . . . . (1 Kings 15:18-19)

With that double whammy the creator of Solomon’s empire has brought readers back to the diminutive reality of small-time Judah.

But what of Josiah’s kingdom near the time of the fall of Judah to Babylon and the story of the captivity? Here the author/redactor/compiler has saved the best for last.

Even more extensively than Hezekiah before him, Josiah cleanses the land of all traces of worship not endorsed by the Jerusalem Temple and “the law of Moses” — not only in Judah but even from among the cities of Samaria!

 4. Then the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the doorkeepers, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.
5.  He did away with the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had appointed to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah and in the surrounding area of Jerusalem, also those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and to the moon and to the constellations and to all the host of heaven.
6.  He brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD outside Jerusalem to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and ground it to dust, and threw its dust on the graves of the common people.
7.  He also broke down the houses of the male cult prostitutes which were in the house of the LORD, where the women were weaving hangings for the Asherah.
8.  Then he brought all the priests from the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba; and he broke down the high places of the gates which were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on one’s left at the city gate.

10.  He also defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech.
11.  He did away with the horses which the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of the LORD, by the chamber of Nathan-melech the official, which was in the precincts; and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire.
12.  The altars which were on the roof, the upper chamber of Ahaz, which the kings of Judah had made, and the altars which Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the LORD, the king broke down; and he smashed them there and threw their dust into the brook Kidron.
13.  The high places which were before Jerusalem, which were on the right of the mount of destruction which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the sons of Ammon, the king defiled.
14.  He broke in pieces the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with human bones.
15.  Furthermore, the altar that was at Bethel and the high place which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin, had made, even that altar and the high place he broke down. Then he demolished its stones, ground them to dust, and burned the Asherah.

19.  Josiah also removed all the houses of the high places which were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made provoking the LORD; and he did to them just as he had done in Bethel.
20.  All the priests of the high places who were there he slaughtered on the altars and burned human bones on them; then he returned to Jerusalem.

(2 Kings 23:4-20)

One would expect some evidence of such a total progrom to be uncovered by archaeologists, but no. Albright student William Dever makes this clear in Did God Have a Wife? The first time evidence “from silence” emerges to establish a land free from “idols” is the Persian period. Dever and others concede that there is no evidence for the success of these purported reforms of Josiah.

The author has once again, as he did after creating the fanciful empire of Solomon, bring the story back to realistic dimensions. In this case it was a simple matter of having Josiah killed off in mid-term in battle with the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho, and being succeeded by less worthy progeny who “did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his fathers had done.” (2 Kings 23:37)

He had used the same device in covering up the fancy of Hezekiah’s reforms. In that case the son of good king Hezekiah, Manasseh, acted as “abominably” as all the wicked Canaanites whom Israel had originally replaced in the land (2 Kings 21:2). God was so offended by Manasseh’s return to evil that not even Josiah’s reforms could mollify his anger and determination to wipe out Judah (2 Kings 23:26-27).

Israel Finkelstein reads into 2 Kings 23 some evidence that Josiah sought to expand his kingdom to include the former northern kingdom of Israel. But there is nothing in the text to suggest anything like this. The text of 2 Kings 22 and 23 is entirely about religious reforms. The entire story, from the fortuitous discovery of the Book of the Covenant in the Temple to the application of its orders throughout Israel and Judah is an attempt to establish some historical credibility for a newly written theological treatise, the Book of Deuteronomy.

In my earlier post, Forgery in the Ancient World, I referred to other case/s where a newly concocted text is claimed to be ancient and miraculously discovered in strange circumstances. We all know from the modern case of the Book of Mormon that the practice is still as good as new. So the story of the discovery of the Book of Deuteronomy, and then the soon-to-be-followed failure of its reforms, smacks every bit of an authorial invention that sought establish credibility for a newly introduced text in his own day.

I’ve outlined this argument from Philip Davies in more detail at In Search for Ancient Israel.

Two other details further speak against Israel Finkelstein’s argument that Josiah was attempting a genuine new political and social unification of Israel and Judah:

  1. One is that it makes absolutely no sense, in my view, for a ruler to attempt to “unite” peoples by clashing head on with their long-held religious customs.
  2. The other is Thomas Thompson’s argument that there is no clear or indisputable evidence that the peoples/kingdoms of Israel and Judah had at any time before the sixth century b.c.e. had any history or notion of being a united people or administrative entity. There was nothing for Josiah to appeal to. The story in 2 Kings is about justifying a new theological text at the time of the author — nothing more. Simply creating a theological story of David and Solomon (and one which even illustrates the moral theme of Deuteronomy) after the fact could hardly make a difference to “facts on the ground” in the historical time of Josiah.



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The Rhythms of Palestine’s History


whitelamThe reality of Palestine’s long history from the Bronze Age to the present has been lost behind the myths of the Bible.

Think of Palestine’s past and images of Israel displacing the Canaanites from around 1200 BCE, establishing a united kingdom, even an empire, under King David and then his son Solomon slip easily into our minds. We think of the divided kingdom: apostate Israel in the north ruled from Samaria and Judah in the south with its Jerusalem temple. We know these kingdoms were removed by the Assyrians and Babylonians by around 600 BCE and that the Jews returned once again after a period of captivity.

And they re-returned to “the land of their fathers” to “re-establish the Jewish State” as proclaimed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948. The historical right of the Jews to the land of Palestine remains evident today to possibly most Christians and anyone taught this historical outline.

Archaeological-Historical Periods in Palestine

  • Early Bronze Age 3150-2000 BCE
  • Middle Bronze Age 2000-1550 BCE
  • Late Bronze Age 1550-1200 BCE
  • Iron Age 1200-587 BCE
  • Persian 538-332 BCE
  • Hellenistic 332-63 BCE
  • Roman 63 BCE – 330 CE
  • Byzantine eras 330-636 CE
  • Early Caliphates 636-661 CE
  • Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Seljug 661-1098 CE
  • Crusaders 1099-1291 CE
  • Ayyubid and Mamluk 1187-1517 CE
  • Ottomans 1517-1917 CE
  • British 1920-1948 CE
  • Israeli 1948 – present

The question we might ask, then, is what is the history of the Palestinians? The biblical narrative leaves them no room for a history in the land. Are they late trespassers? Are they rootless Arabs with no genuine attachment to any land in particular?

Until his retirement Keith Whitelam was Professor and Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling and Professor and Head of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. His recent publication, Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past, surveys the archaeological evidence for the history of Palestine from the Bronze Ages through to the end of the Iron Ages and compares what he sees with the Palestine from more recent times according to travelers’ reports and current geo-political maneuverings.

He concludes that our Western view of Palestine’s history has been determined by the biblical narrative and conflicts with the archaeological evidence before us.

The past matters because it continues to flow into the present. However, Palestine has been stripped of much of its history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is as though Palestine only came into being with the British Mandate (1920-48) and came to an end with the declaration of the modern state of Israel (1948). The growth of towns, the shift in villages, or the population movements of three millennia before have become divorced from this ‘modern’ Palestine. (Kindle Locations 42-46).

Whereas others who have been gaining their independence from imperial domination ever since the nineteenth century and especially since World War 2 have been able to construct their own national histories as an essential part of their national identities,

what is peculiar here, and possibly unique, is that with the retreat of the European powers, and Britain in particular,the post-colonial history [of Palestine] that was written was not undertaken by the indigenous population but by a new colonial power. It was a reflection and reinforcement of what had gone before. It was a colonial Zionist narrative, which as a European enterprise in its origins, simply reiterated and reinforced the notion of external conquest and the bringing of culture and civilization to the region.

Palestine lost it history first to the European imperial powers and then to a Zionist construction of the past which rapidly became its national narrative. The history of Palestine became embedded under two layers of imperial and colonial history; layers which are so thick that they are almost impenetrable. (Kindle Locations 48-53, my bolding and formatting in all quotations)

Since then we have heard it said that the Palestinians are an “invented people” (Newt Gingrich) and that Palestine before the modern State of Israel was a “land without a people” (Golda Meir, Joan Peters).

Whitelam recognizes the consequences of this belief:

What underlies his claim is a very important principle: the idea that a nation without a past is a contradiction in terms. If the Palestinians do not possess a past, they cannot possess a national consciousness or be a people. Therefore, they have no right to a land or a state. (Kindle Locations 69-71)

I began by outlining the images of the history of Palestine that come to our mind most readily today. Keith Whitelam’s book gives readers the reason or the historical background that explains why these images are so dominant in our culture. Ever since the eighteenth century, even back long before to the days when the early European maps were being drawn, western Christian nations have seen Palestine as “culturally theirs”, or as the land of “their religious heritage”. (See the seventeenth century map of Palestine below and Whitelam’s commentary.)

Facts that contradict this religious myth are denounced even today. The Israeli archaeologist, Ze’ev Herzog, was denounced by Israel’s Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister for undermining Israel’s security and giving aid to Israel’s enemies when he published what had become an accepted view among many archaeologists at the time: that there was no Exodus or conquest of Canaan and that at the very best the kingdom of David and Solomon was a very small tribal affair.

What our traditional view of Palestine’s history overlooks is the daily lives and routines of the ordinary people in the land through the millennia: their adaptability to maintain security of their livelihoods through the changing and often unpredictable seasons, the shifting economic fortunes of the various urban and rural centres, and the catastrophes from time to time of warfare, or natural disasters such as epidemics or climate shifts.

The so-called great men, monarchies, and imperial powers have followed on from one another in the region, attracting most attention like the froth of the waves breaking on the shoreline. Yet underlying this surface movement . . . was a substratum that moved slowly to the rhythms of time absorbing and dissipating the effect of the waves.

It is this story, an essential part of Palestine’s past, that was ignored by western visitors and scholars in favour of the events and characters described in the Bible. (Kindle Locations 302-306)

Whitelam asks us to look beyond the names of kings and conquerors through to the archaeological signs of a humanity with the same sorts of hopes, aspirations, fears that we all share.


General view of the site of Tell es-Sultan/ancient Jericho from south, with the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1550 BC) fortification works at the southern side of the tell. All photos courtesy of Lorenzo Nigro. (From

Yes, the archaeological evidence does inform us of changes to the lives of the inhabitants of the region around the 1200 BCE mark. There had been an economic collapse in the decades that mark the close of the Bronze Age. Cities no longer provided the security and income the rural populations needed so many of them moved to settle away from the plains and old trade routes and to live in smaller communities in the hills.

What one needs to notice, Whitelam reminds us, is that far from being a unique moment in Palestine’s history we are seeing events at the end of the Early Bronze Age being mirrored. The Iron Age to follow (thought of as the period of Israel’s homeland) was not unique, either, but reflected the rise of the Middle Bronze Age and foreshadowed the future revivals of Roman and Byzantine Palestine.

Signs of such shifts are part of the pattern of Palestine’s history over the millennia. As trade returns, say to the coastal cities, rural populations are again attracted to these centres; as neighbouring imperial powers encroach on the region, new economic and infrastructural realities and new trading and security priorities shift the economic and demographic patterns again. The rural peoples were adaptable and through their mix of agriculture and pastoralism they were able to adapt, even move to new areas, to survive.

Whitelam throughout the book demonstrates that there is nothing unique about the Iron Age. There is no reason arising from the archaeological evidence to interpret any of these shifts as indications of new ethnic races invading or infiltrating and replacing the indigenous inhabitants. Yes there were new migrations from time to time but there is no indication that one ethnic group ever replaced another. Yes Jerusalem did at one time rise to some prominence but so did many other cities in the region, and generally to greater dominance.

Changes in the economic fortunes of the different regions, in the demographic patterns, in the relative levels of prosperity and destitution, in political fortunes, were as “rhythmical” as the cycles of the seasons and the monthly patterns of agricultural life.

Whitelam finds literary testimony to these changing fortunes in both biblical texts (Genesis, Ruth, Isaiah, Lamentations) and Canaanite literature (Armana letters, the Ugarit story of King Keret, the Gezer calendar, the fourteenth century BCE Baal poem) as well as in travellers’ reports through the ages (Ibn Battutah, Claude Conder, Rev William Thomson, Edward Robinson, Eli Smith).

Suddenly we see the growth of hundreds of small, rural villages in those regions which had been sparsely populated in the Late Bronze Age and which were removed from the direct control of the major towns. The countryside became dotted with small, unwalled villages, most newly established in the twelfth century BCE, arranged in a variety of patterns, with many located on hilltops near arable land. Again, this is not something new or unique in the history of the region. Nor is it a pattern of settlement imposed from the outside by invading Israelites. It is a privileged glimpse of important rhythms that resurface from time to time to remind us that they are ever present, even if not always visible. (Kindle Locations 776-781)

And again,

Palestine regularly suffered settlement contraction only to see a revival in subsequent periods. The Iron Age, therefore, was not a unique period in the history of the region. The revival of early Iron Age Palestine in the countryside was part of a much wider regional response by rural and pastoral groups to the decline or disruption of towns. It is part of the rhythms of Palestinian history.

The fact that we glimpse similar responses in many different areas to the general recession that afflicted the eastern Mediterranean shows that the changes in settlement in Palestine were not primarily the result of new groups coming from outside and taking over the land. That this kind of demographic shift is not unique to Palestine, but is a common response of rural communities, can be seen from the way in which populations throughout southern Europe, Greece, Anatolia, and Syria-Palestine responded to the disruptions of the Mediterranean basin at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Similar conditions elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean basin provoked very similar responses from the rural population. Central and southeastern Europe in the twelfth century witnessed a proliferation of small, rural settlements, comprising a few buildings with silos for grain storage, situated on good agricultural land and devoted to farming and herding. We see similar shifts in settlement away from the exposed lowlands to the protection of the highlands from Greece to Syria.

What we are witnessing is the struggle to survive and the harsh choices that have to be made in the face of economic recession and disruption. (Kindle Locations 1045-1056)

But what about the Israelites? If you are still asking that question, Whitelam replies:

We simply cannot know how these villagers referred to themselves and others in neighbouring villages or what the designations they used might signify. Nor are these particularly important questions. The modern nationalist obsession with such labels—the attempts to impose ethnic difference—is not appropriate for the ancient past. (Kindle Locations 1084-1086)

It is not easy to think of Palestine’s history this way. Whitelam’s descriptive powers and extensive knowledge help.

Surveying the thousands of years of stones, bones and artefacts since the early Bronze Age (from ca 3150 BCE) Whitelam enables readers to identify an integrated history of natural rhythms, a “constant ebb and flow in the fortunes of individual towns” along with the rural regions, always “in the process of growth, stagnation, or decline.”

The people of the countryside accordingly through the same periods adapted and regularly moved in order to survive. “Mobility and adaptability” have been the constant traits of the those engaged in agriculture and pastoralism through the millennia.

Zayit Stone


The discovery during excavations at Tel Zayit in 2005 of a limestone boulder inscribed with the letters of the alphabet provides a useful illustration of this point. This stone with a few inscribed letters was found embedded in the wall of a building at this relatively small rural site. It was so difficult to see that it was spotted by one of the volunteers at the excavations sometime after the wall of the building had been excavated. However, on the basis of these few inscribed letters, it has been claimed that this is evidence of widespread literacy and the development of a centralized bureaucracy and political organization controlled from Jerusalem at the time of David. The political implications are so important that even the smallest item discovered in excavations is enlisted in the struggle to establish ‘facts on the ground’. (Kindle Locations 1677-1683)


Yet the idea that the history of the land was broken by the incursion of the Israelites who established a unique, unified nation-state and world-class empire over most of Palestine and Syria is

a belief that is so deeply ingrained in western popular and political thought that it has become extremely difficult to imagine the past in any other way. (Kindle Locations 1140-1141)

It is that very scenario that would indeed

be completely out of keeping with the history of the region (Kindle Locations 1146-1147)

The very notion that such a kingdom and new civilization and ethnic group took control to break the patterns of the past should, Whitelam advises, cause us to re-examine our perceptions and the way we were reading the evidence. There is no evidence for political centralization or competing states with capital cities and highly hierarchical structures of administration

Yet this vision of the past is little more than a mirage. Little, if any, attention has been paid to the rhythms of Palestinian history. It is only as our perspective changes, as we concentrate on the rhythms of Palestinian history, that the vision dissolves.

Only then do we see how the structures of the Bronze Age towns were maintained and revived with the increase in population and the revival of the economy as the Iron Age progressed.

Rather than this being some unique turning point in the history of Palestine—a justification for Western imperial control or the current Israeli government policies of occupation—it becomes an integral part of the rhythms of Palestinian history that continue to the doorstep of the present. (Kindle Locations 1148-1153)

The biblical vision we have of Palestine founders again on the evidence for the supposed deportation of the population of Judah to Babylon in the sixth century. Population did decline in the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem but many places elsewhere there was no such decline. Nebuchadnezzar did not uproot the general population.

The end of the Iron Age again illustrates the rhythms and patterns of Palestine’s past, the differing responses of its fragmented landscape and its inhabitants to the deep seated movements of history. It is not a special period—to be set apart as though it is something unique—but one that is integral to the history and rhythms of Palestine’s past. (Kindle Locations 1638-1641)

What of today’s Palestine? How does today compare with the past?

The increasing interest taken in the region by the Assyrians, and later the Babylonians, was fuelled by the desire to control, stimulate, and exploit the arteries that carried the life-blood of trade. It is a recurrent theme, repeated over many centuries, which continues into the present day. . . . Palestine has always been of interest to those powers that aspired to global domination. (Kindle Locations 1745-1747, 1754)

Becoming aware of the “deep history” of Palestine that is found at the level of those people whom historians, focused as they are on kings and empires, have so often made invisible clarifies our vision.

An integrated history of Palestine bestows dignity on the silent voices and actions of the many: the constant movement of pastoral groups across so-called boundaries, the movement back and forth to the fields each day, the transport of goods on small craft along the coast, or the movement of flocks and herds following the rhythms of time.

If we view the mosaic that is Palestine over the centuries, despite the almost constant threat of empire, it is a region that is difficult to subdue and control, as the present demonstrates so clearly. It is ever resistant to state or imperial control, finding ways—some times through direct conflict but more often than not by subtle ways of non-participation—to maintain its local identities and autonomy.

As such, even during periods of strong central control, it has looked persistently for opportunities to throw off the shackles of empire. Despite the colonial present—the overwhelming use of force and terror to subdue the indigenous population or imperial constructions of the past— Palestine’s past can still be measured differently.

The adaptability of the inhabitants in the face of the overbearing power of fate and the hostility of civilization . . . along with the connectivity and ever-changing configurations of the different regions of Palestine have governed this history. It is the rhythms of time that have guided what the vast majority of the population have done, even up to the present. It is when we take this perspective that we can begin to see what was important in Palestinian history . . .   (Kindle Locations 1808-1819)



But to understand just how deep-seated these ideas and images are and why they are so difficult to dislodge, we need to go back a few centuries. John Speed, the English cartographer, produced an atlas in 1611 called The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain which included detailed maps of the counties of England, along with those of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. It was later expanded in 1627 with A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, containing maps of other parts of the world. Speed included a map of Palestine at the very end of the volume.

Although in the atlas he claims to be ‘presenting an exact geography of the kingdom of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Isles adjoining’, it is noticeable that his map of Palestine features the route of the Exodus, the land divided among the tribes after its conquest and an inset of Jerusalem. This is not a real place with contemporary inhabitants, towns or villages but an imagined land. He has also drawn it as though it is a typical English county.

Like his maps of the various English counties, it includes an inset of its major town and is decorated with the same symbols for towns and villages, historic events, ships and large fish. The ship and large fish is a recurrent image in these maps, alluding to the story of Jonah and the whale in the Bible. Significantly, the ship off the coast of Palestine is flying the English ensign. Speed describes Great Britain as ‘the very Eden of Europe’, a land flowing with milk and honey, and says there is no land like it except that conquered by Joshua and divided among the tribes.

In Speed’s atlas, Palestine is already part of the empire . . . .   (Kindle Locations 94-106)

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