The "Revolting Peasant Theory" of Israelite Origins

I read an interesting article by Anson Rainey (Emeritus Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University) in the Nov/Dec 08 edition of Biblical Archaeology Review.

In a nutshell Rainey was taking to task a theory very popular in Biblical Studies - what he calls 'the revolting peasant theory'. Here is a quick sketch of his argument.

In 1962 George Mendenhall proposed that, contrary to what the Bible says, the Israelites who settled in the hill country did not come into the land from east of the Jordan river. Rather, they were local Canaanite peasants from the coastal plains to the west who rebelled against the Canaanites city-states. The origin of the Israelites was therefore an internal revolt amongst the indigenous population. The Israelites were displaced Canaanites.

This theory was influentially built on by Normann Gottwald, in his book The Tribes of Yahweh, who applied a Marxist paradigm to interpret the origins of the Israelites.

William Dever provided, at last, some archaeological evidence to support the theory in 2003 and it is this evidence that Rainey is unimpressed by.

Dever says that the pottery of Iron Age I hill-country settlements is developed from that of Late Bronze Age Canaanite areas of the coastal plains. Rainey replies that the same pottery traditions can be found in Transjordan (evidence with Dever does not take into account) so Dever's argument shows nothing.

Dever notes that whilst the domestic house constructions in the hill-country differ from those on the coastal plain similar houses have recently been found on the plains. Rainey replies that they have also been found in Transjordan so Dever's argument falls short again.

Against the 'revolting peasant theory' Rainey also argues that

(a) the animal bones excavated on the plains shows that the Philistines and Canaanites kept pigs whilst the people living in the hill settlements did not (and pigs could very easily be kept in the hills). One would expect them to keep pigs if they came from a pig-keeping culture to the west. However, if they came from the non-pig keeping cultures of the east (for pigs are harder to keep in the heat and if on the move) it makes sense.

(b) Hebrew has more affinities with Transjordanian languages (e.g., Aramaic and Moabite) than Phoenician (i.e., coastal Canaanite). He discusses this point at some length. It strongly suggest that the Israelites dwelling in the hill country had come into the land from the east and had not come from the costal plains (pace Mendenhall, Gottwald, Dever).

(c) whilst the 'revolting peasant theory' was built upon the application of models from anthropology, Rainey thinks that the application of such models should have led in the opposite direction. There is plenty of evidence, past and present, of pastoralists seeking refuge in settled areas in times of stress (e.g., drought and famine). Also, at that period, there is evidence all across the eastern Mediterranean world and the Near East of massive invasions of sedentary areas by outsiders who found new homelands for their ethnic groups. Why could not the origin of the Israelites in Canaan be similar?

(d) as Dever himself notes, coastal Canaanite sites reflect a continuity of occupation from 13th to 11th C BCE with no evidence of any 'peasant revolt'.

In sum, Rainey concludes that 'there is no reason to doubt the principal assumption of the biblical tradition that the ancient Israelites migrated as pastoralists from east of the Jordan' (p. 50).

Well, I am no archaeologist and am simply not trained to assess the evidence. I have also long since learned to treat the pronouncements of archaeologists with caution (simply because the evidence is so ambiguous and the joining of the dots can be done in more ways than one). Nevertheless, at very least I think that Rainey gives us good grounds for being very suspicious of the revolting peasnat theory and that is no bad thing.

He also has the big advantage that his reading of the archaeological evidence is consistent with the traditions passed down by the Israelites. It all fits together. The attempt by some archaeologists to ignore biblical data as irrelevant to the task of constructing of a history of ancient Israel has always left me close to speechless. I mean, how absolutely ... you cannot be .... but you don't seriously mean to suggest ...





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