Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac – human sacrifice apparently still part of the culture of his time. An angel is interfering. (Painting by Rembrandt.)
In the Land of Canaan
The word Hebrew has been associated with the word Hiberu and Apiru, names that Sumerians, Hittites, Egyptians and others gave to people variously described as nomadic, semi-nomadic, rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, servants, migrant laborers, and slaves.
The Hebrews described in the Old Testament have also been called Israelites. They appear to have been semi-nomadic herders of sheep and goats and occasional farmers, without knowledge of metal working, without sophisticated craftsmanship and, as scholars claim, without a written language (an alphabet) until maybe around 1000 BCE. note8 Like other nomadic herders, they were tent dwellers – as Abraham is described in the Book of Genesis 13:3.
The ancient Hebrews have been described as organizing themselves around their extended families and Hebrew families as combined into kinship groups governed by a council of elders that left the head of a family with a sense of self-rule. These heads of families were males said to have absolute authority over their wives and children, and they were the priests for their families, each family having its own sacred images.
Canaan in the 1200s was a thinly populated land with Phoenicians and Amorites, both of whom have been called Canaanites. The Amorites lived primarily in the hilly regions west of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan River. Israelites were settled in the less fertile hills east of the coastal plains,
Mark S. Smith, a scholar in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, begins Chapter One of his book The Early History of God claiming,
Early Israelite culture cannot be separated easily from the culture of “Canaan.” The highlands of Israel in the Iron Age (ca. 1200-587) reflect continuity with the “Canaanite” (or better, West Semitic) culture during the preceding period both in the highlands and in the contemporary cities on the coast and in the valleys.
Israelites have been described as living in tight communities led by priests or military chieftains, and others as living in Canaanite towns, including a town that was to be known as Jerusalem – described in the Old Testament as inhabited by Jebusites, a people the Old Testament describes as living also in the mountainous area around Jerusalem.
Some of these Hebrews are said to have worked at agriculture, and some had become tradesmen and involved with the caravans that carried spices, ointments and resin across Canaan. Others have been described as herders who wandered with their flocks to and from desert watering places. They have been described as migrating during dry seasons to the greener pastures of Egypt’s Nile delta and then returning to Canaan when pastures near home turned green again. According to the Old Testament, some Hebrews wandered into Egypt and stayed, and there they were despised by the Egyptians for their foreign ways.
History’s first written mention of the People of Israel
Egyptian armies led by pharoahs had been trodding through Canaan to Syria since the 1500s BCE. They had withdrawn from area in the 1300s and were soon back again with Pharoah Ramses II early in his reign in the 1270s doing battle with the Hittites. He returned to Egypt in 1270s after having established a treaty of “everlasting peace” with the Hittites, and he put slaves to work on his creation of great buildings and monuments to celebrate what he claimed was his victory. No mention of the Israelites appeared on his monuments. The first mention of the Israelites by the Egyptians known to archeologists came with Ramses’ successor, Pharaoh Merneptah, who reigned from 1213 to 1203. On a monument today called the Merneptha Stele he described his victory over the Libyans and their allies, and in the last 3 of its 28 lines of text he described a separate campaign that reads, “Israel had been wiped out…its seed is no more.” The pictogram used for Israel indicates a tribal or nomadic people lacking a centralized government.
The Philistines and their Gods
Meanwhile, during Mernetpah’s reign Egypt was threatened by “Sea People,” believed today to have been Indo-Europeans from the Aegean Sea region. Under Merneptah they were driven off. Then around 1177 BCE, in the eighth year of the reign of Merneptah’s successor, Ramses III, more raids came by the sea. Ramses III repelled the invaders, and he boasted of re-establishing Egyptian rule through Canaan as far north as the Plain of Jezreel.
The Philistines had a language that had been spoken in Crete, Cyprus and the southwestern portion of Asia Minor called Caria. And the script of this language echoed the script of the Mycenaean Greeks, whose civilization was among those disrupted by the aforementioned great migrations from before 1200 BCE. Some have speculated that the Philistines were Greeks fleeing from the invasions that ended Mycenaean civilization. At any rate, it appears that in Canaan they mixed and probably intermarried with the Canaanites. They adopted the Canaanite language. They melded their religion with Canaanite religion and gave to their gods the names of Canaanite gods.
Two of these gods were Ba’al and El. The god El was described on Canaanite tablets as The Creator, the majestic father and the king of gods and men. Ba’al was his son and a god of life and fertility in continual combat with the god Mot, a god of death and sterility. Ba’al was a god of the mountains where rainstorms were said to begin. He was described as riding the clouds that brought rain. Worshipers of Ba’al saw him dying when the dry season came and vegetation disappeared, and they saw him as resurrected during the rainy season, when vegetation reappeared.
In their coastal cities, the Philistines maintained some cohesion as a people. The Israelites were resisting occasional attacks by camel riding nomads from the east. Then the Philistines attempted to expand against them. The Philistines forced the Hebrew tribe of Dan to leave their home in the foothills and to migrate to the north.
The Samson Story
A legendary leader from the tribe of Dan who fought the Philistines is described in the Old Testament as Samson. Samson is thought to have lived between 1118 to 1078 BCE. In the Book of Judges 16:17 he is described as a Nazirite. Chapter Six of the Book of Numbers describes the Nazirites as engaged in ecstatic frenzies and abstaining from wine, strong drink and in refraining from cutting their hair. The Nazirites were zealous, and if they were strong enough they were inclined to take the lead in combating people they detested – and they are said to have detested the Philistines.
The Old Testament story describes Samson as a leader in the fight against the Philistines and as having a weakness for Philistine women. The Book of Judges describes Samson as burning Philistine crops and killing a thousand Philistines in a place called Ramathlehi, which means “the hill of the jawbone.” Judges 15:17 describes this as the place Samson killed Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. According to the Samson legend, Samson told a Philistine woman, Delilah, that if his hair was cut he would lose his strength. As Samson slept, Delilah cut his hair – a lesson for Israelites about the dangers of foreign women.
Having lost his strength, the story goes, the Philistines overpowered Samson and gouged out his eyes. They took Samson to Gaza, bound him in chains and put him to work “as a grinder.” There his hair grew back. And when “the lords of the Philistines” assembled they had Samson brought to them so they could look upon him with amusement. Watching from the roof of the building were about 3,000 Philistine men and women. The Philistines put Samson between two pillars. Samson, using his legendary strength, pushed on the pillars and brought the roof crashing down, killing himself and all the Philistines in and on the building – an act perhaps not unlike some suicide-retribution acts in the Middle East in the 21st century.