Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

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

CHAPTER FOUR
THE ISRAELITE CONCEPT OF THE STATE

1. Israel and the various Eastern notions of the State

WHEN the Israelites conquered Canaan, the land was divided into a host of principalities. Jos 12: 9-24 records the defeat of thirty-one kings by Josue, and this list is not a complete inventory of the towns on the political map of Palestine. Two centuries earlier the Amarna letters reflect the same state of affairs and show that Syria too was divided into principalities. It was the form the Hyksos domination took in these regions, but it dates back still further: Egyptian decrees of banishment witness to it at the beginning of the second millennium B.C. These political units are confined to a fortified city with a small surrounding territory. Each was ruled by a king, who at the time of the Hyksos and in the Amarna period, was often of foreign birth, relying on an army drawn from his own people and reinforced by mercenaries. Succession to the throne was normally on the dynastic principle. The same idea of the State is found in the five Philistine principalities on the coast. It is true that these formed a federation ( Jos 13: 3; Jg 3: 3; I S 5: 8), but this was true of the four Gibeonite towns also ( Jos 9: 17), without counting the apparently ad hoc alliances between the Canaanite kings ( Jos 10: 3f.; 11: 1-2).

In contrast with these pygmy states, there were vast empires: the Egyptian, which for centuries counted the petty kings of Palestine and Syria as its vassals, then the Assyrian, the Neo-Babylonian and the Persian Empires. These were highly organized states, uniting heterogeneous populations across vast territories won by conquest. National feeling was hardly developed at all, and the army which defended the territory and made the conquests was a professional army embodying mercenary formations. The authority was monarchical and the succession, in theory, hereditary.

At the end of the second millennium B.C. some national states made their appearance. They bore the names of peoples--Edom, Moab, Ammon and Aram. They were confined to the territory where the nation lived, and at first made no attempt to spread by conquest. The country was defended, not by a professional army, but by the nation in arms, by calling to arms all the menfolk in time of danger. The government was monarchical, though not necessarily hereditary. From the list of the first kings of Edom ( Gn 36:31-39),

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