Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in Its Social Context

By Philip F. Esler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Tribalism
SOCIAL ORGANIZATION IN
THE BIBLICAL ISRAELS

Robert B. Coote

The recent occupation of Iraq by U.S. and British forces and the subsequent dif-
ficulties in restoring peace have brought the continuing importance of tribes
within that country to a wide audience. In his look at tribalism in Ancient Pales-
tine and the Hebrew Bible, Robert Coote argues from the view that historical,
anthropological, and sociological sources make it possible to generalize by anal-
ogy about the nature of tribalism in the ancient Near East. Tribal relations took
shape in the interface of tribe and monarchic court, and neither sphere, insofar
as they were separate, could speak about tribes without dealing with the other.
An understanding of tribalism informed by social research into modern and
recent tribal phenomena is essential for understanding the ideologies and
rhetoric of tribalism in the Bible.

The extraordinary nature of the Bible notwithstanding, we have reached the point where we can view the history of Israel in comparative terms and expect to find little or nothing out of the ordinary. In all probability, Israel emerged in the late Bronze Age as a tribal coalition near or on the border between the great powers Hatti and Egypt. The Merneptah Stele suggests that Israel was the main, if not sole, rural power in this region.1 The strength and effect of this coalition are made clear by the spread of highland villages in Palestine in the early Iron Age. These villages were located mostly on virgin sites not associated with new urban growth sites. In one sense this settlement was an extraordi-

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