Revisiting The Tribes of Yahweh

Norman Gottwald has written an interesting article in which he evaluates the impact of his opus magnum, The Tribes of Yahweh.  In a previous post, I wrote about the influence Gottwald has had in my academic formation and the impact his scholarship has made in my own understanding of ancient Israel.

In this article, published some time ago, Gottwald reviews the contribution The Tribes of Yahweh has made to biblical studies and the impact of the book in promoting the social scientific study of the Hebrew Bible.

Below are a few excerpts from the article.

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.

As always, Gottwald challenges his readers to look at ancient Israel from a different perspective.  This article is no different.

You can read “Revisiting The Tribes of Yahweh” here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary



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2 Responses to Revisiting The Tribes of Yahweh

  1. Pingback: Revisiting The Tribes of Yahweh « Feeds « Theology of Ministry

  2. Pingback: » Revisiting The Tribes of Yahweh | Dr. Claude Mariottini … Church Leadership

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