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In the beginnings: Israel Comes to Canaan – 4

Original Date
May 6, 2009

Peasants’ Revolt Model

The origin of the Peasant Revolt Model is found in a seminal essay by George E. Mendenhall [N] of the University of Michigan, published more than two decades ago, titled “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine [1] .” In this essay Mendenhall argued that in the late 13th century BCE—in archaeological terms the period of transition from the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age I—“there was no real conquest of Palestine at all” as portrayed in the Book of Joshua. The so-called “conquest” was really an internal uprising in Canaan itself, ignited by Hebrews who advocated commitment to, and covenant solidarity with, Yahweh, the liberating God of the Exodus. This socioeconomic revolution began in Transjordan, where Yahweh-worshipping fugitives from Egypt joined with discontented elements of the population to overthrow the Amorite kingdoms of Sihon and Og. The revolutionary ferment, however, spread across the Jordan to the west bank, where the rural population, restive under the yoke of the Canaanite city-state system, “rejected the old political ideologies in favor of the covenant community of Yahweh.”

Influenced by Mendenhall’s thesis, John Bright, the eminent biblical historian, modified his own views in the second edition of his standard History of Israel (1972). Bright still held to William F: Albright’s view of a military invasion from without, but he recognized that the Israelite occupation of Canaan was facilitated by dynamic elements within the Canaanite political and social situation and that, to some degree, the conquest was “an inside job.”

Discussion of the “internal revolt” view took a new turn in 1979 with the appearance of Norman Gottwald [N-1] ’s massive work, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250–1050 BCE. His book is monumental in the history of biblical studies because it advocates, with impressive erudition and radical consistency, a sociological methodology for interpreting the data pertaining to the origins of the people Israel. Gottwald accepted and built upon Mendenhall’s hypothesis of a peasant revolution.

Today Mendenhall and Gottwald are linked together as advocates of the hypothesis of an internal or peasant’s revolt, and they stand together in opposing the alternative views of peaceful nomadic (or “semi-nomadic”) infiltration (advocated by Albrecht Alt, Martin Noth, Manfred Weippert and others) or a decisive military invasion from outside Canaan proper (as advocated by W. F. Albright, G. Ernest Wright, Paul Lapp, Yigael Yadin and others).

Both Mendenhall and Gottwald are modern historians who appraise the biblical record critically. At the outset of his 1962 essay on the Hebrew conquest, Mendenhall put the matter clearly. The biblical record is confessional, that is, it is intended to glorify Israel’s God; Israel’s God was believed to be actively present in the unfolding story of Israel. “This biblical emphasis upon the ‘acts of God,’ ” he wrote, is difficult for us today; it seems to be “the very antithesis of history, for it is only within the framework of economic, sociological and political organization that we of today seek understanding of ourselves and consequently of ancient man.”

Gottwald’s book, The Tribes of Yahweh, is a massive commentary on that statement. Both Mendenhall and Gottwald reject any appeal to “supernatural” causation and, therefore, agree that the biblical account cannot be taken at its face value. According to Mendenhall, “From the point of view of the secular historian interested only in sociopolitical processes,” something quite different actually happened than what the Bible describes.
These scholars also agree in opposing the long-entrenched view that the ancient Israelites were pastoral nomads who emanated from the desert to the south and east of Canaan. Gottwald has been particularly effective in using a sociological method to lay this view to rest and to show that ancient Israelites were agriculturalists, as were the Canaanites. The difference between “Israelites” and the indigenous population should not be seen in terms of tent-dwelling nomads and the sedentary population. It was Mendenhall, however, who initially delivered a major salvo against the romantic assumption of “the sharp contrast between nomad and sedentary villager.” Urbanization, in his judgment, invariably “creates a deep schism between city and village,” and it was this contrast between urban and rural social life that characterized ancient Canaan, “not [the contrast] between the village farmer and the shepherd who may be typically blood-brothers.” The appearance of Israelites on the scene, in the view of both Mendenhall and Gottwald, had the effect of raising this internal tension between the city and the village within Canaanite society to the boiling point of social revolution.

Finally, both scholars are social idealists with regard to the period of the tribal confederacy, roughly the two centuries before the rise of the Israelite monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon. In Mendenhall’s view, Israelites took the lead in “withdrawing” from the “power-centered, status-centered” Canaanite society, dominated by petty, city-state kings with their monopoly of power, and constructing a society governed by the ethical obligations of the covenant. Gottwald, on the other hand, sees a social revolution, essentially a class struggle, that brought into being an egalitarian society in which all members share power and reap the harvest of their work. But both scholars view the period of the tribal confederacy as a kind of golden age that was all too soon eclipsed by the oppressive social organization (monarchy) introduced by David and expanded by Solomon.

Emphasizing the model.  The hypothesis, namely, was that Israel emerged not as a result of outsiders entering into the central Palestinian hill country from the Transjordan, but as the outcome of an internal peasants’ revolt against Canaanite overlords. This view rejected the characterization of the Israelites as either military conquerors or as seminomadic herdsmen who infiltrated the highlands in search of pasturage.[2]  Instead, Israel emerged from the melting pot of Canaanite culture in a revolutionary social movement among the peoples already in Canaan. For Mendenhall, it was a peasants’ revolt against Canaanite overlords in the cities, an internal uprising pitting the villages against the cities, “ignited by Hebrews who advocated commitment to, and covenant solidarity with, Yahweh, the liberating God of the Exodus.”[3]  This revolution began in Transjordan “where Yahweh-worshiping fugitives from Egypt joined with discontented elements of the population to overthrow the Amorite kingdoms of Sihon and Og, … and spread across the Jordan to the west bank, where the rural population, restive under the Canaanite city-state system, ‘rejected the old political ideologies in favor of the covenant community of Yahweh.” [4]

The model for this view was based on Mendenhall’s interpretation of Habiru activities in the same region a century earlier, during the Amarna age. The cHabiru rebelled against the city-states of Canaan then ruled by vassal princes appointed by Egypt. According to Mendenhall, they sought to overthrow Egyptian rule in what was essentially a political struggle between oppressed villagers and Canaanite rulers. There is no mention of a religious dimension to the struggle in the famous 14th. century BCE Amarna letters, which document this rebellion.

Gottwald, like Mendenhall, saw early Israel as an alliance of suppressed and disenfranchised elements of Canaanite society, “including peasants, farmers, pastoralists, outlaws, mercenaries, and adventurers.” [5]  Gottwald’s model, however, is the historical cultural materialism of Karl Marx, which gives priority to materialism over religion.  Mendenhall proposed that the social revolution sparked by the Hebrews was to some extent “created by the new Yahwistic religion” [6] ; Gottwald, on the other hand, contended that Yahwism was created to support the social ideals of early Israel and “arose as a function of the revolution.” [7]   For this reason, Mendenhall vehemently denied that he was the “father” of Gottwald’s theory. [8]  In both views, however, the so-called conquest of Canaan is seen as a revolution effected by populations that, with perhaps a few exceptions, were already there. There was no unified military campaign conducted by outside forces, and there was no mass killing of the inhabitants of the land.

The social revolution hypothesis is attractive because it has some parallels with movements in this century. However, both versions of the hypothesis lack tangible supporting evidence. The Hebrew Bible knows nothing of a peasants’ revolt, for example, and it would be difficult to corroborate such an event with archaeology. Thus the hypothesis is heavily dependent on social theories, which themselves may be more up-to-date than the theories upon which Alt and Noth depended but still are highly speculative.

Later developments - Mendenhall Disavows Paternity. In the mid 80 essay, Mendenhall disowns Gottwald as his intellectual progeny. He condemns Gottwald in tartly polemical terms:

“What Gottwald has actually produced [in The Tribes of Yahweh] is a modern version of the ancient myth-making mentality…. Gottwald’s ‘scientific’ account of the ‘liberated’ tribes of Yahweh consists largely of an endless series of hyphenated pseudo-social science terms (on one page by actual count there were 14 hyphens and 14 periods) foisted with limitless faith upon the hapless ancient tribesmen who unfortunately were too benighted to know that they were conforming to the canons of a nineteenth-century ideology. Gottwald’s work should have been dedicated to George Orwell, whose picture of political bureaucrats rewriting history to make it fit a political party line is remarkably apt in 1983.”

The Tribes of Yahweh, says Mendenhall, is characterized by a “total lack of historical perspective.” The concepts Gottwald uses to describe the process of the peasant’s revolt, like “retribalization” and “egalitarian” are, says Mendenhall, “absurdit[ies].”

Gottwald’s “system,” according to Mendenhall, “is a straitjacket that ignores what doesn’t fit, because his myth demands that ‘it must be so.’ ” In short, Gottwald makes “a parody of biblical studies.” Gottwald provides only “pseudo-historical propaganda…. Gottwald’s class-struggle elaboration is almost totally irrelevant to the historical processes involved in the events that ranged from about 1250 to 1100 BCE.” Gottwald’s work has had “deleterious effects. Its attempts to present us with a historical account of the beginnings of biblical history is truly a tragic comedy of errors. He has not really succeeded in projecting himself back in time beyond the late 1930s.”   Why do scholars who agree so fundamentally differ so radically?
Mendenhall and Gottwald disagree vehemently over the “ideal model” (to use Mendenhall’s term) to be used in trying to understand the fragmentary and ambiguous evidence—literary and archaeological—that bears upon the origins of Israel. The disagreement is sharpest over the issue of power. Mendenhall believes that the Israelites offered a “covenant of peace” which, in contrast to the effete Canaanite city-state system, abjured the use of power to determine legitimacy or to gain security. In his famous 1962 essay Mendenhall wrote:

“Land tenure, military leadership, ‘glory,’ the right to command, power, are all denied to human beings and attributed to God alone [in emerging Israel].”

Gottwald, on the other hand, regards this as historically unrealistic. Instead, his “ideal model” is that of a proletarian society in which power is not surrendered but is redistributed on an egalitarian basis, with the result that the people, “liberated Israel,” share the fruits of their work and live together as fellow human beings.

The two scholars also disagree over the role of religion in the social process. Mendenhall regards the Israelite religion, with its cohesive ethical obligations, as the major catalyst in the revolution that destroyed the corrupt Canaanite city-state system and created a tribal confederacy based on a covenant with God. Mendenhall draws a sharp distinction between Israel as a religious community, a kind of “transpolitical” church, and Israel as a nation-state, existing in a socio-political context. Indeed, the “faith of Israel” infused the socio-political context of ancient Canaan with a perspective, a motivation and an initiative that elude sociological or historical understanding. Gottwald, however, insists that Israelite “religion” was not a force that can be isolated from the whole social, political and economic context; indeed, he says, the Yahweh faith was “the function of sociopolitical egalitarianism in premonarchic Israel” (The Tribes of Yahweh, p. 611). In other words, says Gottwald, religion and politics were intimately related in ancient Israelite society, each reacting on the other to produce revolutionary ferment.

What is the relation between faith and ideology? We now find ourselves on sensitive ground where even academic angels—if there be such!—would fear to tread. In the view of both Mendenhall and Gottwald, Canaanite religion—so-called Baal worship—was an ideology designed to legitimate the city-state system of Canaan and, at the same time, to pacify village farmers in the countryside who lived close to the soil. The tension between “Yahweh” and “Baal,” then, was rooted in “the contrast between urban and village culture,” says Mendenhall. The question, however, is whether this critical knife cuts both ways. Did the religion of Yahweh, like the contrasting religion of Baal, also have an ideological basis? For Gottwald the answer is a clear “yes.”   To put the question directly: Is “God” (Yahweh), like Baal, only a symbol derived from, and at the same time expressive of, the dynamics of the social history of the people? Is Yahweh, something like “Uncle Sam” in the political history of the United States?

That is where Gottwald seems to come out. And that, aggravated by Gottwald’s frank preference for Marxist sociology, is what nettles Mendenhall. He is shocked by Gottwald’s bold statement in The Tribes Yahweh (p. 688): “Since the primary manifestation of Yahweh is Israel itself, any misconstruction of Israel entails a misconstruction of Yahweh.” This statement amounts to what is known as “reductionism.” It implies that Gottwald’s socialized interpretation of ancient Israel reduces its God Yahweh to a force within the social process.

This is really the crux of the argument. The manifestation of Yahweh in history—if truly a historical manifestation (as opposed to ideas or ideals that transcend history)—is inseparable from the historical experience of the people who worship Yahweh. Saying this enables one to take seriously the real presence of God in the concreteness and earthiness of the places where people live, suffer and die. The question is whether and assertion also pushes one to a conclusion that diverts Yahweh of transcendence, says except in the watered-down sociological sense that those who are bound in covenant with Yahweh have a social solidarity and historical vocation that differentiates them from other peoples. It is difficult to square this limited view of divine transcendence with the biblical witness. The witness of Scripture is that Yahweh is the Holy One who is beyond all of the categories and experiences of the human world, yet at the same time the One who has entered into the limitations and relativities of human history with saving power and ethical demand. Viewed in this perspective, the cardinal sin is the worship of the golden calf, that is, Gottwald’s attempt to identify the liberating and commanding God with anything in the realm of human culture.

Here we seem to have a theological/philosophical monster by the tail! The intra-party dispute between Mendenhall and Gottwald yields implications and reverberations that will be sensed for a long time to come, especially as the discussion is drawn into the arena of biblical theology and systematic theology.

The increasing attention to the “peasant revolt” model of the Israelite occupation of Canaan is due, in large measure, to the rising influence of sociology on biblical studies in the last two decades. Clearly, sociology seems indispensable to our effort to “seek understanding of ourselves today, and consequently of ancient [peoples],” to echo Mendenhall again. But what are the limitations of the sociological method? Is the peasant revolt model itself “a modern construct superimposed on the biblical traditions,” as one historian has recently asked? [9]

Biographical Notes - [N] George Emery Mendenhall (born August 13, 1916) is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. Mendenhall was first an ordained Lutheran minister, and during World War II he served as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy. After the war, Mendenhall obtained a Ph.D. in Semitic languages and began a long career in Near Eastern and biblical studies as well as related archeology. [N-1] Norman K. Gottwald is Professor of Biblical Studies at New York Theological Seminary and lately at Pacific School of Religion – Berkeley, CA . A leading figure in the social scientific criticism of the Old Testament, his major works include The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E. (1979), and The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction, (1985).


[1] George E. Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962), pp. 66–87; reprinted with slight revisions in The Biblical Archaeologist Reader 3, ed. Edward F. Campbell and David Noel Freeman (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1970), pp. 100–120

[2] Gottwald, “Were the Early Israelites Pastoral Nomads?” BAR 04:02, June 1978, pp. 2–7.


[3] Bernhard W. Anderson, “Mendenhall Disavows Paternity,” BR 02:02, Summer 1986, p. 43.

[4]-[5] ibid.

[6] P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “A Major New Introduction to the Bible,” BR 02:02, Summer 1986, p. 43.

[7] ibid.

[8] Anderson, “Mendenhall Disavows Paternity” BR 02:02, p. 48

[9] J. Maxwell Miller, Israelite and Judean History, Old Testament Library Series (London: SCM and Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), p 279.


BCE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - The Patriarchal Stories

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