Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
THE FREE POPULATION: ITS DIVISIONS

I. Social evolution

IN a nomad civilization there are simply families. They may be rich or poor, but the tribe is not divided into different social classes. Some tribes are 'nobler' than others, but all Bedouin regard themselves as 'noble' compared with the settled cultivators. Even slaves do not constitute a class apart: they form part of the family. From all that we can discover it was the same with Israel so long as it led a semi-nomad life.

Settlement on the land, however, brought about a profound social transformation. The unit was no longer the tribe but the clan, the mishpahah, settled in a town which was usually no more than a village. Social life became a life of small towns, and it is relevant to note that the old, and basic, framework of Deuteronomy is largely municipal law: e.g. the rules about the cities of refuge ( Dt 19), unknown murderers (21: 1-9), rebellious sons (21: 18-21), adultery (22: 13-28), and the levirate (25: 5-10). This organization, based on the clan, survived to some extent trader the monarchy,1 and was still a Living force at the return from the Exile ( Ne 4: 7; Za 12: 12-14).

The centralization of the monarchy, however, brought about important changes.

The king's officials, civil or military, whether grouped in the two capitals or posted in the provinces as representatives of authority, formed a kind of caste, detached from, and sometimes opposed to, municipal interests. Above all, the play of economic life, business deals and the sale of land, destroyed the equality between families, some of whom became very rich while others sank into poverty. But it would be a mistake to see in ancient Israelite society the contrasts found in other societies, past or present, between 'nobles' and 'plebeians', 'capitalists' and 'proletariat'. In Israel, there never really existed social classes in the modern sense of groups conscious of their particular interests and opposed to one another. It is to avoid such misleading comparisons that we prefer to speak here of 'divisions of the population'. But it is not so easy to define them, owing to the variety and uncertainty of the vocabulary in use.

____________________
1
Cf. p. 138.

-68-

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