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Biblical Hebrews in Conflict with their Neighbors

The Hebrews, to Samson and the Canaanites | Samuel, Saul and the Rise of David | Hebrew Ideology before the Time of David


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.)

map of Mesopotamia

West Asia to 1200 BCE   map of Mesopotamia, enlarged

The Hebrews, to Samson and the Canaanites

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 appear to have been semi-nomadic herders of sheep and goats and occasional farmers, without knowledge of metal working, without sophisticated craftsmanship or, if we are to believe Wikipedia, without a written language (an alphabet) until maybe around 1000 BCE. Like other nomadic herders, they were tent dwellers – as Abraham is described in the Book of Genesis 13:3.

The Hebrews organized themselves around their extended families, and Hebrew families were 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 with absolute authority over their wives and children, and they were the priests for their families, each family having its own sacred images.

The Land of Canaan

Canaan in the 1200s was a thinly populated land where Phoenicians and Amorites lived, 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. Archaeologists are not sure whether the Hebrews were latecomers to Canaan or were themselves Canaanites. At any rate, Hebrews were settled in the less fertile hills east of the coastal plains, and some were settled in the plains of Galilee. The archeologist Israel Finkelstein writes of the Apiru (Hebrews) as "probably uprooted peasants, displaced or escaping from the brutal feudal system in the towns and villages of the lowlands." note8

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.

Some Hebrews lived in tight communities led by priests or military chieftains, and others lived 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 described as practicing agriculture. Some are described as having 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.

The Philistines (Palestinians) and Samson

A great migration by Indo-Europeans that began sometime before 1200 BCE pushed against Assyrians in Mesopotamia and Hittites in Asia Minor also pushed on some seafaring people in Aegean region. Described as "Sea People" by the Egyptians, these people threatened Egypt during the reign of pharaoh Merneptah, and Egypt under Merneptah (whose reign ended in 1203) drove off these Sea People. 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. But by the time of pharaoh Ramses XI, who ruled from around 1100 to 1085, the Egyptian domination of Canaan had again ended, and along the southern coast of Canaan, in such towns as Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath and Gaza, were the Sea Peoples who had been driven from Egypt. They were to become known as Philistines, from which the word Palestine is derived.

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. In Canaan, the Philistines 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, while the Hebrews remained scattered in the inland hills. The Hebrews 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.

A legendary leader from the tribe of Dan who fought the Philistines is decribed in the Old Testament as Samson. The Book of Judges 16:17 describes Samson as a Nazirite. The Nazirites according to some scholars were originally a Canaanite fertility cult. Now they were a movement of holy men who worshiped the god Yahweh. 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 detested the Philistines for having refused circumcision.

As described in the Old Testament, Samson was both a leader in the fight against the Philistines and had 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 Yahweh worshipers about the dangers of foreign women.

Having lost his strength, 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 "the lords of the Philistines" assembled (lords as in landlords) 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.


Copyright © 1999-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.