A Short Non-Biblical History of Palestine from the 13th C BC to the 11th C BC

Or, the Chronology page of this blog in narrative form, Part 1.

As I have recently stumbled upon the idea (which I think false, for archaeological reasons), that the Pentateuch was composed almost entirely around 270 BC and the pre-Exilic material found in it was preserved at Mizpah (partially due to the seamless blending of Babylonian and Late Iron Age Judahite tradition in the Primary History), I have discovered the need to write a truly extrabiblical history of Iron Age Cisjordan (Israel, Judah, and Philistia). While I do think that it is impossible to write a good and comprehensive history of Iron Age Cisjordan without use of the Bible, a wholly extrabiblical history would certainly be useful to compare with the Biblical one.

Part 1: The Collapse of the Imperial Order and the Return of the Sovereign City-State

I shall start a little earlier, in the Bronze Age, specifically the LB IIB. The context was one of what seemed to be next-to guaranteed perpetual peace. The treaty ending further military conflict between the Egyptian and Hittite empires had been accepted by both parties only a few decades before. Needs for defense were next-to nonexistent. A few hundred Egyptian troops could crush any existent foe of the Empire. Maritime trade in what would later be the Eastern Roman Empire was experiencing its greatest period of prosperity ever seen in the Bronze Age. Ivory carving in Cisjordan was witnessing its greatest use in the whole Late Bronze Age. Canaanite scribes were beginning to use the Alphabet, an invention whose advantages had been unnoticed by Eastern Semitic and Egyptian scribes alike.

Yet, all was not well with this imperial order. The Late Bronze IIB was a golden age, indeed, but only for two major classes: those dependent on taxes and those transporting goods between those dependent on taxes. The Forgotten Man was benefited only by the security of this state of affairs, which, more often than not, was only security for his expropriators and those dependent on them. The Forgotten Man could accept this state of affairs, as he did in Egypt, or, as he did in Palestine, Syria, and the Balkans, become to the established authorities a nameless, faceless enemy of civilization and imperial progress. Thus, the Amarna letters reveal the hills of the West Bank (as well as any hilly area in the Egyptian empire as far as northwest Lebanon) were endemically plagued by wandering bands of ‘apiru. Indeed, these bands might have been responsible for the destruction of some Late Bronze Canaanite cities (such as Megiddo VIII) known to not have been destroyed by Egyptians or by Sea Peoples.** Though some (such as Anson Rainey) have taken pains to distinguish the ‘apiru and the shasu, the former subsisting on stolen property, the latter on herded sheep, it seems to me that both are two faces of the same coin. Much like in the modern West Bank, where unemployment is over 20% and looting is endemic, the ancient West Bank was a place where much surplus labor remained untranslated into surplus productivity.

Thus, when the name ‘Isrr’, very likely to be connected with the later-mentioned land of “Sir. ‘i. la. aa“/”Israel” by historians, first appears in the historical record as one of Egypt’s “Nine Bows”, I see it as best connected with the Shasu (“nomads”) mentioned here, rather than with the Canaanites mentioned here, for “Israel” is unknown as the name of a settled Canaanite group. As far as we know, the political power of Shechem declined significantly after the Amarna era (Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, page 186) and Beitin continued to remain an important city (and probably a city-state) until the early 12th century BC. Hazor declined and fell sometime in the reign of Ramesses II. The condition of Jerusalem is uncertain, though it remained small, poor, and unfortified. The most prosperous city-states were in the Jezreel Valley (led by Megiddo) and Phoenicia. Egyptian fortresses existed at Joppa, Beth-Shean, and Gaza. The Beersheba basin was completely unsettled. Lachish remained an important place in the southern Shephelah, as did Azekah. Gath remained a modest-sized city (as of yet undiscovered by archaeology? cf. the Amarna letters), less significant than Gezer, and Ekron was nothing more than a small village. Khirbet Rabud dominated the Hebron hills. Ashdod was a major town. In short, the territorially large town-states in the hills of the West Bank were far more sparsely settled than were the city-states of the lowlands. This political order depended on and was monitored by Egypt. It had sustained itself for over two and a half centuries. It was, however, to come to an end in the 12th century BC.

The inability of the Late Bronze IIB economic order to absorb excess population manifested itself not just in the abundance of nomads in the Levant, but in the abundance of nomads in the Balkans and coastal Anatolia as well. Thus, even Merenptah had to combat Sea Peoples, groups of pirates that dominated the Aegean. The very likely unsuccessful and much-discussed Sea Peoples invasion mentioned in the Medinet Habu reliefs and Papyrus Harris had important consequences, among them being the near-cessation of the importation of Aegean goods into Palestine and the construction of several Egyptian fortresses along the Via Maris (possibly to be seen as way stations to make the journey of Egyptian troops defending the Levantine coast easier). See the Chronology page on this blog for sites likely destroyed during this first invasion.

Eventually, during the reign of one of the lesser Ramessides, when Egypt was collapsing due to the rising High Priesthood of Amun and invading hordes of Libyans, the Philistines, a tribe of Sea Peoples mentioned by Ramesses III, successfully conquered and settled Philistia (and Tell Tayinat, probably earlier). The Sikils settled Dor, a fact the Tale of Wenamun attests to, though the archaeology of Dor shows less lasting Sikil influence in Dor than Philistine influence in Philistia. One may, in a sense, call the Sea Peoples who settled Canaan, especially the Philistines, the first Crusaders. Numerous towns in the Jezreel valley suffered destruction after the Egyptians left, though probably not at the hands of the Sea Peoples.

The Philistine takeover of Philistia led to the collapse of Egyptian rule in the rest of the Levant. The Canaanite population of Philistia was displaced to the eastern edges of the Shephelah. Lachish VI was destroyed, its population probably fleeing to Tell Beit Mirsim (to the NW of the W. Bank village of Beit Mirsim). Philistine influence continued to expand throughout the 11th C BC (again, see Chronology page) until around 1040 BC. The chief Philistine cities were Ekron (which more than quadrupled in size after the Philistine conquest) and Gath. Tel Masos and Khirbet en-Nahas began to flourish after the fall of Timnah (in the Aravah, not the Sorek) to fill the copper supply vacuum left by the collapse of maritime trade in the Late Bronze III. By the mid-11th century BC, some Canaanite town-states in the Jezreel began to flourish once again.

The most important phenomenon here unmentioned so far is the rise of hundreds of small new settlements in the Cisjordanian hills, with centers (see TBU, p. 116) around Gibeon, Shiloh, and the region between Shechem and the Jezreel, sometime in the 12th-early 11th centuries. This settlement is almost certainly related to the collapse of Egyptian rule in Canaan, and the corresponding collapse of the old, poor, petty, sparsely-settled town-states supported and dominated by Egypt. These settlements show no sign of being made by migrants from outside Cisjordan. Indeed, the most likely candidates for their original inhabitants are the hordes of ‘apiru and shasu that roamed across Canaan in the days of Imperial Order (and, of course, the formerly settled Canaanites displaced by the collapse of Imperial Order)*. The first of these settlements were poor and imported little. This settlement began in the eastern hills of the modern-day West Bank and slowly moved westward. The successors of these settlements would become the core of the later Kingdom of Israel. Settlements in Galilee similar to those in the hills of what would by the Persian period be known as the land of Samaria also appear.

Eventually, the first non-Sea People-ruled cities in Iron Age Cisjordan began to appear in the Jezreel Valley (at Megiddo and Beth-Shean), in the Galilee at Chinnereth, in Benjamin at Gibeon, at Beth-Zur in the Hebron Hills, and at Qeiyafa in the Shephelah. Beth-Shemesh also became a thriving town in this period. The ‘proto-[monarchical] Israelite’ communities of the hills of the northern half of the West Bank began to produce olive oil to meet the needs of the city dwellers. Needless to say, the re-formation of city-states led some of them to attempt expansion of their territories.

To be continued.

*Part in parentheses added 1:11 PM, Jan 20, 2013.
**This sentence added 2:07 PM, Jan 20, 2013.


Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

8 thoughts on “A Short Non-Biblical History of Palestine from the 13th C BC to the 11th C BC”

  1. This is great – thanks!

    One question – is it demographically reasonable for nomads to settle on such a scale? Won’t such a large nomad population (a) leave archaeological evidence and (b) require vastly larger territories than when settling into an agricultural lifestyle? I’d suggest a wave of immigration from the East would fit both the settlement growth pattern and the more plausibly-authentic portions of the Exodus. (This suggestion is not really based on extensive knowledge – I’m floating it here in hope of feedback.)

    Thanks again,

    1. Finkelstein does not talk population numbers in “The Bible Unearthed”. According to him

      In fact, this weakened and less populous countryside-and the consequent drop in agricultural production-may have played a role in the collapse of urban culture. But it surely could not have supplied the energy behind a vigorous new wave of settlement in the highlands. Finally, even after the end of the Late Bronze Age and the destruction of the Canaanite urban centers, most of the the lowland villages-few as they were-managed to survive and continued their existence much as before.

      -TBU, p. 105
      William Dever views the nomad-sedentarization theory as demographically impossible. Observe the statistics Dever gives as being Finkelstein’s 1980s estimates on pg. 157 of the above link. Notice that Finkelstein considers the population of the central hill country to have been 165,000 at c. 750 BC and 54,000 at c. 1000 BC (by the High Chronology; see p. 60 of this article). When one remembers this was before Finkelstein began to develop his Low Chronology, the population growth of the central hill country in the 12th-11th centuries does not seem all that extraordinary when compared to that in the 10th-8th centuries. In any case, Egyptian political domination of Canaan presented a limiting factor on the growth of Canaan’s population. When that limiting factor was removed, population began to significantly grow. The main problem with your idea that the settlement of the central hill country in the 12th-11th centuries BC was a result of migration from Transjordan seems to me that Transjordan wasn’t exactly teeming with people either (correct me if I’m wrong) and seems to have experienced similar population growth as in the Cisjordanian hills. See this book for an analysis of Transjordanian sites in Iron I.

  2. Thompson also says that the ‘Apriu and the Shasu were already in the central highlands. Pottery findings would suggest that the Philistine settlement was AFTER the Egyptians had finally gone.

    1. I view the Philistines as driving out the Egyptians from Philistia, and, thus, the rest of the Levant, Philistia being Egypt’s gateway to the rest of the Levant, in the late 12th century BC. I see no reason for the Egyptians to have left before the successful wave of Philistine settlers to Canaan arrived in the late 12th century BC.

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