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The Land of Canaan, to King David

Archeological work at Kebara Cave in northern Israel describes the cave as having been occupied by humans between 60,000 and 48,000 years ago. And it describes a more recent occupation between 18,000 and 12,500 BCE by hunter-gatherers, people who had by then spread through the Eastern Mediterranean area, the Levant, and the Sinai.

The area called the Land of Canaan (today Lebanon and part of Syria) was by 3200 BCE thinly populated with Amorites, whom scholars today associate with the Canaanites. The Amorites lived primarily in the hilly regions west of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan River. And living on the Mediterranean coast were the Phoenicians – seagoing traders also described as Canaanites.

Also in Canaan were those described today as Hebrews or Israelites. They were settled in the less fertile hills east of the coastal plains. Their language is described as part of a larger group of Canaanite languages (Encyclopaedia Britannica).Their alphabet is judged as derived from the Phoenicians, who had acquired their alphabet from Mesopotamia – more Sumerian influence.

There was Abraham, a Hebrew patriarch. His story, told in chapters 11 through 25 of the Book of Genesis, plays a prominent role in Judaism, Christianity. The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells of the Bible describing Abraham as having lived in the Sumerian city of Ur:

Abraham left Ur in Mesopotamia, because God called him to found a new nation in an undesignated land that he later learned was Canaan. He obeyed unquestioningly the commands of God, from whom he received repeated promises and a covenant that his "seed" would inherit the land.

There can be no biography of Abraham in the ordinary sense. The most that can be done is to apply the interpretation of modern historical finds to biblical materials so as to arrive at a probable judgment as to the background and patterns of events in his life. This involves a reconstruction of the patriarchal age (of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; early 2nd millennium bc), which until the end of the 19th century was unknown and considered virtually unknowable.

Modern scholarship has described ancient Hebrews as living in communities led by priests or military chieftains, and others Hebrews as living in Canaanite towns, including 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. Other Hebrews are described as wandering with their flocks to and from desert watering places, as migrating during dry seasons to the greener pastures of Egypt's Nile delta and then returning to Canaan when pastures there were 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.

Conflict with the Philistines

In the mid-1100s a people called Philistines arrived on the coast of Canaan. Some have speculated that they were Greeks fleeing from the Dorian invasions that ended the Greek Mycenaean civilization. In their coastal cities in Canaan, the Philistines maintained some cohesion as a people. They are described as adopting the Canaanite language, as melding their religion with Canaanite religion.

The Philistines attempted to expand against the Israelites, who were also resisting occasional attacks by camel riding nomads from the east. Philistines forced the Hebrew tribe of Dan to leave their home in the foothills and migrate northward. The Philistines established military outposts between their cities and the Israelites. And, around the year 1050, the Israelites combined their forces and confronted the Philistines near the Philistine outpost at Aphek, a little east of what today is Haifa (on the coast of what today is a northern part of Israel). The Philistines had iron weapons and horse-drawn chariots. The Israelites rode into battle on donkeys. According to 1 Samuel 4:2, the Israelites lost the battle.

In the wake of their defeat the Israelites chose a new military leader – Samuel – a holy man, oracle, and soothsayer. Samuel anointed a king to better unite the Israelites. This was Saul. Apparently the cultural diffusion that was common in the mid-East had an impact on the Israelites, for Saul appears to have been close to the worship of the Canaanite god Ba'al. He named one of his sons Eshbaal (meaning Ba'al exists) and another son he had named Meribaal (meaning Ba'al rewards).

As yet the Israelites appear as not influenced by the story of Moses and Jeohovah's admonition that "You shall have no other gods before Me." Today, scholars tell us that many Israelites thought of their god Jehovah (Yahweh) as the chief God among many gods. The polytheism of hunter-gathering times was still around. (See Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, by David Penchansky, a scholar who focuses on the Hebrew Bible at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.)

King Saul successfully engaged the Philistines in at least three battles, which were followed by the Philistines withdrawing their garrisons from around Israelite territory. With Saul was the warrior named David. He was a military hero. According to the Old Testament, Saul was jealous and tried to kill David. (1 Samuel 18-19). David fled from Saul and his agents to a cave in the "southern wilderness" near Hebron. There, David gathered around him a band of adventurers and debtors. He was already married to Saul's daughter, and now he took another wife – the daughter of a local herdsman. This marriage brought him more local support. And for more advantage, David allied himself with the Philistine king of Gath, Achish.

The Old Testament describes David as defeating the Philistines and expanding his rule. According to the Old Testament, he conquered Edom, which extended south to the Red Sea, David gaining Edom's mines of copper and iron. He conquered Moab, rich with cattle. He conquered Ammon, and he conquered northward to Damascus and beyond to the border of the Assyrian Empire. The great powers of Assyria and Egypt, it is said, were too preoccupied to challenge David's expansion, while, like other conquerors, as he conquered he took booty and demanded tribute.

David's Rule

A consensus among scholars today puts David's rule as between 1005 to 965 BCE. David's rule was part of the authoritarian and hierarchical ethos of ancient times. According to the Old Testament, his subjects prostrated themselves in his presence, and like conquerors before him, he claimed to be the agent of the gods. He is described as having acquired the trappings of a potentate and as ruling in splendor, including a large harem. In addition to Saul's daughter and the wife he had taken while at Hebron, he took wives from his conquered territories, ostensibly to help bind his empire together. Among the women he took was Bathsheba, the wife of a local neo-Hittite (a neo-Hittite being someone having the Hittite culture that survived the disappearance of the Hittites). And soon Bathsheba was to be the mother of David's son: a child named Solomon.

According to the Old Testament, David proclaimed his intention to build in Jerusalem a temple connected with the worship of Jehovah. But like Saul, David appears to have been close to the worship of the Canaanite god Ba'al. He gave one of his sons a Canaanite name: Beeliada. David's "leaping and capering before the Lord" with music accompaniment (described in Chapter 6 of the Second Book of Samuel) was part of Ba'al worship. Polytheistic outlooks acknowledged a multiplicity of paths to truth or salvation, and as with King Saul, no evidence exists that King David knew of the commandment said to have been given to Moses that "You shall have no other gods before Me."

CONTINUE READING: Israel and the "Lost Tribes" Invasion

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