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Revisiting The Tribes of Yahweh[1]



The year 1999 was the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Tribes of Yahweh. The occasion was recognized at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (USA) by a panel of scholars “re-reading” Tribes and its place in biblical studies. The organizer of the panel described Tribes as a “classic”, by which he meant that it belonged “to that rare collection of critical texts that have not been superseded or fallen by the wayside of criticism”[2].

He went on to say that “classics take on new roles in different situations, answering and responding to new sets of questions. Thus, the classic is never the same as in the moment of its emergence, for it is seen in different ways in varying situations”[3].

The seemingly extravagant claim that Tribes is a classic is based, I judge, on the far-reaching challenges that it has posed to traditional biblical scholarship, challenges that are as pertinent today as thirty years ago. These challenges were not delivered in the abstract but as part of a large scale re-conceptualization of early Israel that “shook up” dominant assumptions about its formation and identity. To be sure, many of the particular claims and hypotheses about early Israel mounted in Tribes were, and continue to be, controversial and problematic. What has outweighed the controversial status of those arguments, distinguishing Tribes as a seminal contribution to biblical studies, is that the framework in which the inquiry was pursued and methods employed have helped to open pathways to multiple fruitful ways of using social scientific lenses to enrich our understanding of the Bible.

But that is not all. This ponderous academic tome has had unforeseen impact on the interpretation of the Bible in ecclesial and para-ecclesial circles, and even in some secular quarters, far beyond the audience of professional biblical scholars for which it was explicitly written. The “afterlife” of Tribes has flowed into and merged with new literary, cultural, ideological, and feminist studies and with liberation and political theologies, to open up the Bible as a resource for engagement with the social, political, and religious issues and conflicts of our time.

Thus it may be said that there are “two Tribes”, or more precisely, “two faces of Tribes”, the one turned inward toward biblical studies and the other turned outward toward the wider world and the social mission of the church and synagogue.


The Inward Face of Tribes

The single most significant impact of Tribes within biblical studies has been to encourage and promote social scientific theories and methods, contending not only for their legitimacy but also for their indispensability in achieving a well-rounded view of ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible. Increased familiarity with the range of methodological and theoretical options in the social sciences has prompted biblical scholars to employ a plethora of social scientific strategies for accessing and processing the biblical data. One can now speak of an ongoing sub-discipline of social critical biblical study that is building agreed upon practices and protocols within the framework of a community of discourse. The most quoted sentence in Tribes declares that “only as the full materiality of ancient Israel is more securely grasped will we be able to make proper sense of its spirituality[4]. The aim of most of these social critical inquiries is to grasp the “materiality” of ancient Israel, namely, to visualize its people in all the dimensions of their lives and not simply in the religious and political spheres which were the primary scope of previous studies. One might even speak of an Israelite “material spirituality”, or “earthy/mundane spirituality”.

As for the substantive argument of Tribes, a number of its claims have gained widespread credence among scholars. Especially persuasive has been the contention that early Israel was indigenous to Canaan and that its cultural and religious identity is not adequately explained by an invasion or infiltration of pastoral nomads from without. The emphasis of Tribes on the agrarian roots of Israel has been greatly elaborated in subsequent studies, drawing in particular on archaeology and studies of peasant societies. The insistence in Tribes that early Israel was not marked by an initial cohesive ethnic identity, but was in the process of developing slowly toward such an identity. has won a sympathetic hearing. Likewise, many scholars now agree with my insistence that a simplistic polarization of Canaanite vs. Israelite does not do justice either to the biblical data or to the archeological data and the probabilities suggested by social and political anthropology. In other words, what we see in the tribal period is Israel-in-the-making, as Canaanite peasants in the highland begin to distinguish themselves as “proto-Israelites”. The matrix for the emergence of Israel was a combination of socio-economic and religio-cultural elements, including the cult of Yahweh. This emergence of Israel out of a Canaanite milieu is analogous in some ways to the continuities and discontinuities evident in the emergence of early Christianity out of proto-Judaism and to the development of Protestantism out of Roman Catholicism.

To be sure, certain arguments in Tribes remain problematic or have acquired new formulations. My argument for the social equality of Israelites was muddled and imprecise, since there is evidence of status and wealth differentials, but the society was clearly less hierarchical than in the surrounding states and it provided extended family and clan-based “social safety nets” for those in greatest need. I have since come to speak of Israel’s tribal society as “communitarian”. Setting aside the mistaken notion that a peasant revolution is a dramatic one-shot event that succeeds or fails in one stroke, it may be reaffirmed that Israel was a peasant movement cast in opposition to city-state hierarchy and struggling for independence from outside control. The extent to which the social and political difference between Israel and it city-state neighbors can be called “revolutionary” depends, I believe, on how intentional the Israelite peasants were in pursuing and exploiting their independent manner of life. A great deal hinges on the extent to which the tribes of Israel were simply the haphazard result of a breakdown in dominant Canaanite institutions and the extent to which the tribes of Israel were consciously formed or shaped as an alternative to oppressive social and political institutions. My own belief is that there was both a breakdown and an intentional movement of peasants in the midst of that breakdown. Alternatively, the tribal system of early Israel may be conceived as a “devolution” from hierarchic society, facing backwards to a pre-state mode of life, or it can be conceived as both an “evolution” and a “revolution,” facing forwards in anticipation of modes of social and political freedom that were not yet realizable or sustainable under the conditions of antiquity.

Presently the greatest challenges to any hypothesis about the origins of Israel is twofold, the one literary and the other religious. Many biblical scholars date the textual sources about early Israel late in the exilic and post-exilic ages and dismiss the likelihood of forming any reasonably accurate notion of Israelite beginnings. The grounds for believing that we can grasp the socio-political contours of pre-state Israel have to be argued anew, as I have tried to do in my most recent book, The Politics of Ancient Israel[5]. Also, it is now abundantly clear that the cult of Yahweh in preexilic times embraced beliefs and practices deemed “heterodox” from the point of view of the postexilic compilers of the Hebrew Bible. Archaeological and textual studies have revealed beliefs and practices in preexilic Yahwism that were later ruled out of bounds in the developing monotheism in restored Judah. Among these eventually forbidden elements were ancestor veneration, necromancy, divination, iconography, fertility rites at local shrines, and even a likely consort for Yahweh. These religious features, once thought of as Canaanite “corruptions” of true Yahweh worship, are now seen as having been accepted among many, if not all Yahwists, in preexilic times. So it looks as though the cult of Yahweh was only one form of early Israelite worship, that it took diverse forms, and that it was an uphill battle for Yahwism to supplant other forms of worship as the primary basis for the ideological unity of the Israelite tribes.

The argument of Tribes denies a conquest as described in Joshua and, although it allows for the possibility of a small group of Israelite refugees from Egypt; it does not depend on an exodus of any sort. It remains the case that, apart from the biblical text, we possess no evidence whatsoever for an exodus from Egypt. Nevertheless, it must be asked: if the exodus lacked historical basis, why did the tradition arise and why does it bulk so large as the fountainhead of Israel’s existence? I believe the answer lies in the intimate bond between the Egyptian overlordship of Canaan at the moment of Israel’s emergence and the struggle of the Israelite hill people to be free of foreign hegemony. The Merneptah stela, dating ca. 1207 b.c.e., reports that in the course of trying to maintain control over its Asiatic empire, the Egyptian army defeated an opponent in Canaan called Israel. Without implying that this Israel was identical with any particular textual construct of Israel, the stela does attest to Egypt as the ultimate threat to Israel, standing behind the Canaanite city-state princes who were the immediate threat to Israel according to Joshua and Judges.

In time, the Egyptian-Canaanite mantle of dominion passed to the Philistines. Thus, in the late 13th and the 12th-11th centuries, Israelites faced a hegemonic threat that they visualized as embracing Egyptian, Canaanite, and Philistine components. In the formation of Israelite tradition, what seems to have happened is that all these hostile relations with Egypt and with Egyptian surrogates in Canaan were caught up into the paradigm of a single mass captivity in Egypt, and similarly, all the successes of Israelites in eluding or checking Egyptian-Canaanite-Philistine control were bundled into the paradigm of a single mass deliverance from Egypt. In this manner, any and all of the actual defeats and victories of Israelites could be symbolized by the group-reinforcing bondage-exodus scenario. This scenario served as a root metaphor designed to bond together tribes of diverse origins and traditions. This tradition would have functioned in much the same way as the motifs of “exodus” from the “bondage” of European monarchies served to strengthen the notion of a single American peoplehood among colonies with differing origins and self-images. This symbolizing genesis of the bondage-exodus scenario allows of course that there may have been some group of Egyptian refugees who joined Israel in Canaan, even as the vast majority of Israelites experienced the heavy hand of Egypt in Canaan, either directly or through the aegis of Canaanite or Philistine rulers[6].


The Outward Face of Tribes

The second face of Tribes is its extraordinary reception in sectors of church and society committed to social justice Traditional academic study of the Bible had explained the motifs of social justice in early Israel either as a function of its culturally undeveloped pastoral nomadism or as the miraculous “spin off” of its revealed religion. With theology put to one side, an actual Israelite society could be seen embarked on an intentional quest for corporate justice, a project to which its innovative religious “ideology” lent critical support. Biblical notions of social justice were no longer simply rootless “ideals” but beliefs and practices “at home” and “at work” within actual communities. In sum, Tribes encouraged left-oriented Christians and Jews to reclaim biblical tradition as a relevant resource for their own hopes and endeavors for positive social change. Particularly liberating was the claim of Tribes that not only did early Israel not annihilate Canaanites en masse, it never even sought to do so. Israel’s quarrel was with the ruling classes of Canaan and not with Canaanites at large, for after all Israelites were themselves Canaanites of a marginal socio- cultural stratum. So if Tribes is correct on this point - and I continue to believe that it is - the conflicts in early Israel were much more a matter of inner-societal strife or peasant resistance than they were a conquest and subjugation of one people by another.

Moreover, the characterization of early Israel as a peasant society seeking relief from economic and political domination was felt to resonate profoundly with the socially and politically oppressive conditions of many “third world” countries in which many of the most engaged readers of Tribes lived and worked. For readers in such baldly oppressive conditions, there was often an instantaneous grasp of the plausibility of the depiction of early Israel set forth in Tribes. I treasure some especially vivid memories of such encounters with Tribes. There was the Catholic nun working with base communities in Colombia who made flip charts of Tribes for Bible instruction and reported that “even quiet people spoke up” when she used them. I have heard much the same from justice seekers in places such as India, Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand, South Africa and from many parts of Latin America, not to neglect sites of social resistance in the United States and Canada. I even know of instances where Tribes was read and pondered by people imprisoned for their audacity in opposing unjust power. I attribute this extraordinary impact of a heavy scholarly tome on ordinary Christians, not to the skill of its author, but to the intrinsic power of the biblical text when it is liberated from the strictures of tradition and reaction.

Now amidst all the praise that has been heaped upon Tribes and all the rejection it has experienced from others, there is one development that I believe must be recognized and vigorously resisted. It is a perfectly understandable tendency that one of the scholars in the 1999 panel identified as “the reification of Tribes,” its “thing-ification”, hardening its concepts and claims into fixed and unchanging objects of adulation or of scorn. In some ways, the tendency to take Tribes, not only as a finished work, but as a work that “finishes off” the issues it raises, is the biggest problematic haunting the reception of the volume because that attitude of “closure” threatens the ongoing fruitfulness of its accomplishments by undercutting or abandoning efforts to correct its errors and shortcomings in the pursuit of the critical issues Tribes addressed. This reifying urge to isolate and fixate on the argument of Tribes is at work both among those who praise it and those who dismiss it. On the one hand, there is the temptation for advocates to canonize Tribes and the portrait of early Israel that it hypothesizes but to their own theoretical and practical detriment. On the other hand, its detractors may accept some of the book’s methods and topics as scientifically valid for “normal” biblical studies, while insisting that the factual errors and blinding ideology of Tribes invalidate the social critical project as a whole and thus eliminate the need for ongoing research and theorizing in a social critical fashion.

Advocates, detractors, and uncommitted readers alike may thus miss the link between theory and praxis that is the driving force of Tribes and a large part of the subsequent work I and others have done in a social critical mode. Instead of a highly instructive but fallible beginning in the theorizing of Israel’s social history as a resource for the church’s social mission, Tribes is vulnerable to being displayed as a quaint museum piece or venerated as a near sacred text, which in either case is no longer likely to be read in all seriousness since its message, true or false, has been delivered with finality.

In his book Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida, who is often accused of being an unhistorical and socially indifferent postmodernist, speaks of Marx as the founder of an entire discourse absolutely tied to a praxis. Derrida describes this discourse as “a day of justice in history”, and as a praxis “ seeking this day of justice”[7]. At the moment, this discourse and praxis of justice-seeking are institutionally and intellectually suppressed or derided throughout Europe, North America, and elsewhere among those in commanding positions of political and economic power.

Since I have been repeatedly charged with an excessive idealism and unreality in my evocation of ancient Israel, I would like to reflect on the day of justice as a historical possibility, specifically in the case of early Israel. Commenting on my account of early Israel in Tribes, one of my graduate students made the following poignant remark. “It was satisfying to have a historical reconstruction well explained that I actually desire to have existed, an ‘elsewhere’ that I like!”

So I ask: where is this “elsewhere” of the day of justice to be located? Is it a “utopia” that is literally “no place” at all, or is it an “elsewhere”, a time and place that is “not yet” but “has been” and “could yet be”? This hoped and longed for day of justice is in my view ever present as the hidden possibility of every moment. It is first and foremost in the hearts and minds of people, in their hopes and aspirations, and it is concretely present in their multiple life struggles. But the vision of a day of justice is not restricted to any single lifetime or any single era. Because we have curiosity and memory and the capacity to reason across time, this elsewhere, this day of justice lies “behind” us as well as “within” us and “ahead” of us. It is not a mere specter. It has tangible embodiment that did not begin with Marx, or even with the Bible, or with anyone in the course of recorded history. We can trace the site of this day of justice back to the millennia of human social life that preceded the rise of the state and of civilization five thousand years ago.

In his work, The Sources of Social Power, Michael Mann points out that there is ample prehistoric archaeological evidence that human communities repeatedly developed social organization up to a ranking level, with strong redistributive chiefdoms, but time and again refused the further plunge into centralized political power. No general social evolution took place beyond that neolithic horizon of dispersed social power. In other words, the state did no arise as a “natural” growth out of ranked societies. It appeared at a few select points in space-time and then spread through imposition and imitation[8]. The ultimate hope is that this “iron prison” of state and social class will be transcended in the long run. This is the source of the “quiet optimism” that some readers find in Tribes.

Even today there are remnants of that less hierarchical pre-state phase of the human story. These remnants constitute “the others”, derisively labeled as “primitives,” people who lack our civilizational history but have a coherent culture and ethos of their own. In some cases we know a fair amount about the social structure and history of these prestate or substate societies. I have surveyed a number of these societies myself, including the Hopi and Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico, the Sioux Nation of the Dakotas, and in Europe, the Swiss Confederacy. Two of them I have studied in greater detail: the Icelandic Commonwealth[9]. and the Iroquois Five Nations of New York State[10]. I need to emphasize that I study these societies without any illusion that they provide blueprints of early Israel. I view them rather as comparative evidence for the likelihood that roughly analogous societies or sub-societies were present in the ancient Near East, largely overlaid by state organization, but attested to in early Israel through the happenstance of its preservation in the Hebrew Bible.. Furthermore, I study them for clues about the preconditions and circumstances for such societies to take shape and thrive, even in adverse circumstances, not only to illuminate early Israel and its transition to statehood, but also to provide one resource for understanding the preconditions and structural arrangements conducive to our current quest for the day of justice.

Finally, was early Israel actually an instance of elsewhere and the day of justice, or in thinking so, are we deluding ourselves with wishful thinking? It is my judgment that such an elsewhere, such a day of justice, was approximated in early Israel, whatever social organizational label we wish to give it. We know it less well in its details than we know the Hopis, the Iroquois, or the Icelanders. But we do know it, artifactually through archaeology and imaginatively through literary texts that are vivid and eccentric departures from what Persian-age Jewish monotheists might have contrived. This approximation of the day of justice in early Israel can be appreciated without idealizing it as a lost golden age., or without thinking that Israel was alone in cultivating such a society. The standard of living in early Israel was low, the technology rudimentary, the cultural options minimal, the artisitic creations modest, and the internecine bickering and bloodshed considerable.

When David Clines introduced the concluding session at the British Society of Old Testament Studies in 1996, he asked what we thought about the quality of life in early Israel. Somewhat to my own surprise I replied, “I would not have wanted to live there!”. My reply was shorthand not only for the impossibility of resuscitating the life style of early Israel, or of any other past elsewhere for that matter, but because it would be undesirable if we could do so! We look backward in order to look forward with a clearer sense of direction, drawing on the early Israelite and other similar pasts as a resource for asking and answering what peace and justice require of us in a situation of technological and social complexity where outmoded and injurious political organization and rampant economic greed are despoiling humanity materially and spiritually. Because these partial manifestations of the day of justice are an actual part of our past, and especially because early Israel lies at the historical roots of our religious traditions and moral consciousness, these elsewheres and days of justice are not dismissible as idle dreams but weigh upon us as open-ended historical possibilities.




[1] Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA, Estados Unidos.

[2] Roland BOER, «Introduction: On Re-Reading THE TRIBES OF YAHWEH» in Tracking “The Tribes of Yahweh” On the Trail of a Classic”, ed. Roland Boer. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, p. 1.

[3] BOER, Tracking, p. 2.

[4] Norman K. GOTTWALD, The Tribes of Yahweh. A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999 reprint, p. xxv.

[5] Norman K. GOTTWALD, The Politics of Ancient Israel, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001, pp.39-45, 159-172.

[6] GOTTWALD, Tribes, pp. 214-15, 417, 508-9; «The Exodus as Event and Process: A Test Case in the Biblical Grounding of Liberation Theology», in The Future of Liberation Theology. Essays in Honor of Gustavo Gutiérrez, ed. M. H. ELLIS and O. MADURO, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989, 250-60; and The Politics of Ancient Israel, pp. 166-67, 298-90 nn. 21-23.

[7] Jacques DERRIDA, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York/London: Routledge, 1994, 21, cited in David Jobling, “Specters of Tribes: On the ‘Revenance’ of a Classic,’ in Tracking, pp. 10-11.

[8] Michael MANN, The Sources of Social Power. Vol. 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to 1760, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 34-72.

[9] Norman K. GOTTWALD, “Icelandic and Israelite Beginnings: A Comparative Probe,” in The Labour of Reading: Desire, Alienation, and Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honour of Robert C. Culley, ed. F. C. Black et al., Semeia Studies. Atlanta: Scholars Press, pp. 209-24.

[10] Norman K. GOTTWALD, “Structure and Origins of the Early Israelite and Iroquois Confederacy”. Paper to be presented in the program unit, “Hebrew Bible and Political Theory,” at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, Washington D.C., Nov. 18-21, 2006.


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