Thursday, April 07, 2011

Peasant Revolt Theory Analysis for SMU


Okay...something more to bore you all. At least this one is a summary and analysis of a controversial theory. Made an A on it. Included a pic of Jackson and Adia to amuse you a bit if you don't like the paper. This is a rough draft...


David C. White

Dr. Anthony Mansueto - SMU

Silk Roads and Silicon Superhighways

March 28, 2011


Analysis Paper Two The Origins of Israel: Judges Chapter Five


For centuries the origins of the nation of Israel were rarely in dispute. The Old Testament was read and studied from a literal viewpoint. According to the accounts of the Pentateuch the Israelites were descended from Abraham who migrated to Palestine from his homeland of Ur in Mesopotamia. A few generations later the descendants of Abraham, called Israelites after the Hebrew patriarch Israel, were forced, due to famine, to relocate to Egypt. The Israelites, or Hebrews, were given sanctuary in Egypt due to the fortuitous relationship one of their Hebrew brethren had with the Egyptian Pharaoh. According to the Book of Genesis the Hebrews prospered in the Egyptian delta region of Goshen for centuries.

Eventually the dynasty that sheltered the Hebrews was replaced by a new dynasty that was hostile to the Hebrews living in Goshen. Just exactly which dynasty this was in Egyptian history has long been the subject of debate. Everyone from the invading Hyksos, the Middle Kingdom Dynasties, the New Kingdom Dynasties and every pharaoh in between have been identified as possible suspects as the dynasty that turned against the Hebrews and forced them into slavery. According to the ancient Hebrew book of Exodus the people of Israel would remain in bondage for four-hundred years until led to freedom by a Hebrew leader named Moses.

The Hebrew people exit Egypt in miraculous fashion and then wander the Sinai Peninsula for forty years before moving into the Trans-Jordan region of Palestine. Led by Moses’ successor, a military commander named Joshua and related in the ancient Hebrew text of the same name, the Hebrews invade Palestine then referred to as Canaan. Canaan is successfully conquered and divided up between the twelve tribes of Israel. This was the standard understanding of the origins of Israel which was virtually unquestioned for centuries.

But archeologists, anthropologists and historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began to have doubts about the credibility of this origin narrative. First, there is little or no physical evidence that supports most facets of the Biblical account of the Israelite exodus. There is also no evidence of a large scale Israelite habitation within Egypt. There is scant evidence of a mass migration of 600,000 people out of Egypt by the Israelites and subsequent wanderings in the Sinai wilderness. The evidence of a mass Hebrew conquest of Canaan is often contradictory even within the written Hebrew accounts themselves.

One of the prominent theories, postulated by social historian G.E. Mendenhall, about the origins of the nation of Israel is known as the Peasant Revolt Thesis. Through his comparative studies of Canaanite society and pre-monarchial Israel, Mendenhall began to reject the literal narrative of the conquest theory of Canaan by the Hebrews. Mendenhall became convinced that Israel was not created by a mass invasion and conquest. He did not completely rule out elements of the Exodus story as being accurate. He theorized that a small remnant of Israelite slaves did indeed escape Israel and played a central role in the formalizing and adoption of the worship of YHWH, the monotheistic God of Judaism. The worship of an egalitarian God would serve as an attractive and unifying force for Israelite and Canaanite peasants. However, Mendenhall believed the numbers of the Hebrews escaping Egypt to be greatly exaggerated by the Exodus accounts and that they did not invade Canaan but participated in a political struggle already in process.

Much of Mendenhall’s Peasant Revolt Theory comes from his analysis of the first several chapters of the Hebrew Book of Judges. The “Song of Deborah,” found in Judges Chapter five, particularly provides insight to understanding pre-monarchial Israelite/Canaanite society. The Song of Deborah is an account of a successful Israelite military victory over the oppressive Canaanites elites. Many scholars believe The Song of Deborah to be one of the oldest texts and one of the earliest examples of Hebrew poetry in the Bible, dating back to the 12 century BCE. There are several themes that emerge in The Song of Deborah that lead toward a theory supporting a peasant revolt rather than an outside conquest.

Verse Six of the Song of Deborah indicates the land of Israel was an unsafe place to travel most likely due to banditry. Centralized authority seems to have been on the wane as the regular trade routes and highways could not be effectively policed. We are entering the story as the elites are losing their grip on power. The heavily populated valley regions are besieged by Israelite bandits coming down from the hills and attacking points of economic interest. Verse Thirteen describes the Israelite people descending from the hills into the valleys of Canaan. Mendenhall speculates that the Israelites were peasants who originally escaped into the hills to avoid the heavy tributary burdens placed on them by the valley elites. Now these Israelite peasants are coming back down in to the valley in full-scale revolt.

Verse Fourteen describes the role each of the tribes played in the battle against Sisera. However, not all the tribes seemed willing to take part in the conflict. The tribe of Reuben seemed to waffle regarding their involvement. Gilead, Dan and Asher decide against active participation and stayed in their home territories. It’s clear in the Judges account that the Israelite tribes had a great deal of political autonomy and independence. This contradicts the idea that the Israelite people were a cohesive and unified invading force.

The type of warfare described in Judges seems based on independent militia groups using guerrilla style tactics. Several leaders are named including women. Most cotemporary ancient accounts of war focus on one leader. Secondary leaders are not typically credited for their role in military victory. Disparate areas are targeted which do not seem to point to a coordinated strategy of conquest. This runs counter to the idea of a unified military command led by a unified hierarchy of generals. Plundering and banditry of camel caravans and villages are mentioned which also seems to preclude an organized conquest of cities by a heavily armed and trained military force.

There are some problems with the Peasant Revolt Theory. First, historians and scholars must resist the urge to view ancient societies through the prism of modern social theory. We cannot reliably place our conception of revolution and social stratification onto the societies of pre-modern peoples. Modern value systems, ideas of morality and ethics do not translate elegantly to the systemic structures of the Bronze Age.

Finally, although the Song of Deborah does provide valuable insight into pre-monarchial Israel it must be viewed within the context of the Hebrew poetical tradition. One cannot argue that the Exodus account is an exaggeration without Judges receiving the same critique of possible exaggeration. Hebrew poetry often was used to describe the relationship of people with their creator. It is very unlikely the Hebrew poets meant to discuss political, economic or social theory in their works of poetry. Deborah’s Song is a work of art and worship first and foremost and not necessarily an historical account.

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