The word Hebrew has been associated with the word Hiberu and Apiru, described in Wikipedia as ” the name given by various Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, Mitanni, and Ugaritic sources (dated, roughly, from before 2000 BC to around 1200 BC) to a group of people living as nomadic invaders in areas of the Fertile Crescent from Northeastern Mesopotamia and Iran to the borders of Egypt in Canaan.” They are “variously described as nomadic or semi-nomadic, rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, and bowmen, servants, slaves, migrant laborers, etc.”
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, sophisticated craftsmanship or a written language. Like other nomadic herders, they were tent dwellers — as Abraham is described in Genesis 13:3. And, as was common among herders, the Hebrews had a masculine god of the sky and weather. 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.
Typical of pastoral peoples, Hebrews saw vengeance as necessary for justice — an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They believed in collective guilt: that an extended family, clan, or tribe was responsible for the acts of one of its members — a view that was to color their picture of divine acts of vengeance. Like other peoples, the Hebrews saw their god of the sky as concerned with them rather than as a god for all peoples. Genesis 15:18 describes their god as making a covenant with Abraham, saying:
To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.
Similar to other pastoral peoples, the Hebrews had a portable sacred box, which they called the Ark of the Covenant, described in the Old Testament as about 3 by 2 feet, with poles along its sides. And, as did other peoples, they carried their sacred box into battle, believing that it would bring divine intervention and victory.
The Hebrews had a god like the gods of others, a god with powers to be feared, a god with human characteristics such as anger and a capacity for pleasure, a god pleased by gifts — gifts created by sacrifices. Like others, the Hebrews believed that a ritual killing of an animal sent the animal as a gift to the invisible world of the gods. And, according to Chapter 22 of Genesis, Abraham was at least familiar with human sacrifice. There he is described as having been tested by the Lord’s command that he make an offering of his son Isaac.
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 as “probably uprooted peasants, displaced or escaping from the brutal feudal system in the towns and villages of the lowlands.” (David and Solomon, p. 45)
Among the critics is Michael Coogan, editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible.
Mark S. Smith, a scholar in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, begins Chapter One of the Second Edition of his book The Early History of God as follows, with extensive details for each of his notations not included here:
Early Israelite culture cannot be separated easily from the culture of “Canaan.”1 The highlands of Israel in the Iron Age (ca. 1200-587) reflect continuity with the “Canaanite” (or better, West Semitic2) culture during the preceding period both in the highlands and in the contemporary cities on the coast and in the valleys3.
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 Hebrews practiced agriculture. Some had become tradesmen, and they became involved with the caravans that carried spices, ointments and resin across Canaan. Others were herders and wandered with their flocks to and from desert watering places. During the dry seasons some of these herdsmen migrated to the greener pastures of Egypt’s Nile delta and then returned 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 and Samson
The great migrations that pushed against the Assyrians and overran Asia Minor and the Hittites around 1200 BCE also pushed on some seafaring people from the region around the Aegean Sea . These people — described as “Sea People” by the Egyptians — threatened Egypt during the reign of pharaoh Merneptah while he was warring with the kingdom on Egypt’s western border. Egypt under Merneptah 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 were literate people with 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 great migrations of around 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. 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 began. He rode the clouds and brought rain. And 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 described in the Old Testament narrative 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 Yahweh. Chapter Six of the Book of Numbers describes the Nazirites as engaged in ecstatic frenzies and abstaining from wine, strong drink and 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, the Philistine woman Delilah learned from Samson that he was a Nazirite and 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 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, according to the legend, pushed on the pillars, bringing the roof down, killing himself and all the Philistines in and on the building.
The Hebrews disrupted Philistine caravans bringing goods from the desert, and the Philistines established military outposts between their cities and hills occupied by the Hebrews. Around the year 1050, the Hebrews combined their forces for the first time and confronted an army of Philistines near the Philistine outpost at Aphek — the Philistines with iron weapons and horse drawn chariots, the Hebrews riding into battle on donkeys. According to 1 Samuel 4:2, the Hebrews lost the battle. Hebrew elders wondered why Yahweh had allowed this, and they sent for the Ark of the Covenant, proclaiming that it would “deliver us from the power of our enemies.” As to when the books of Samuel were written, Wikipedia writes that “Modern scholars consider that the text is clearly not the work of men contemporary with the events.” Finkelstein writes that “According to many scholars, the Deuteronomistic History [Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings] appeared in substantially its present form in the late seventh century BCE,” (David and Solomon, p. 13) the gap of centuries allowing for intrusions of raw imagination into the Biblical narrative to suit the priestly scribes doing the writing.
Returning to that narrative, the ark came to the camp of the Hebrews, but the Hebrews were defeated again. The Philistines captured the ark and took it with them to their city, Ashdod. But, according to the Old Testament, this angered the Lord and he “ravaged and smote” the Philistines of Ashdod and its territories with tumors.
After the Hebrews had lost two battles, another Nazirite rose as leader among them. This was Samuel — a holy man, an oracle and a soothsayer. Samuel’s military units managed to remain outside Philistine control. Samuel, perhaps at the urging of Hebrew elders, arranged the making of a monarch for the Hebrews: a warrior king to better unite the Hebrews. The monarch they chose was Saul, who had been a leader in politics and religion. Saul’s kingship was a common form of rule and the kind of kingship that the Canaanites had, but for the Hebrews it was a new institution.
The First Book of Samuel, 9:15, describes Saul as the Lord’s choice. And in Chapter 10 of the First Book of Samuel, Saul is described as one of Yahweh’s prophets. 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). Also, one of Saul’s Benjamite clansmen was Bealiah (which meant Yahweh is Ba’al).
Saul successfully engaged the Philistines in at least three battles, which were followed by the Philistines withdrawing their garrisons from around Hebrew territory. With Saul was a former shepherd boy named David, who was attached to Saul’s court as a musician and shield bearer. A Philistine named Goliath stepped forward from a Philistine army that was challenging Saul’s army, and Goliath, according to 1 Samuel 17:4, was six cubits (nine feet) tall. As was custom in ancient times, David believed in the power of the god of his people. The Bible describes David as saying to Goliath, “I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” The size of a man often led people to ignore his vulnerability. Not so David. According to the story he took up the challenge and slew Goliath with a rock to the forehead, and the rest of the Philistine army, perhaps suddenly believing in the power of David’s god, withdrew. David rose in standing as a warrior and in further warfare exceeding that of Saul. As reported in 1 Samuel 18:6,7:
When David returned from killing the Philistines…the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy and with musical instruments. And the women sang as they played and said: “Saul has killed thousands. And David tens of thousands.”
According to the Old Testament, King Saul was jealous of David and tried to kill him, and 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, wealthy herdsman. This marriage brought him more local support. And for more advantage David allied himself with the Philistine king of Gath, Achish.
At a battle beside Mount Gilboa, overlooking the Plain of Jezreel, the Philistines apparently lured Saul and his army down from the high ground, and the Philistines, with their chariots, horsemen and Canaanite allies, overwhelmed Saul’s forces. In the battle, three of Saul’s sons were killed, and, rather than be taken prisoner, Saul fell on his sword. When the Philistines found Saul, they cut off his head and posted it for display in the temple of their god, Dagon. They fastened his body to the wall at the town of Beth-shan. And the Philistines took possession of the greater part of Canaan.
Saul was succeeded by his fourth son, Eshbaal, who ruled over territory that had been greatly reduced in size by the Philistines. War between the forces of David and those of Eshbaal ended with Eshbaal dead and David anointed priest-king in place of Eshbaal. From Hebron, David and his army ventured out to make his rule over Israel a reality. David captured the Amorite town of Jerusalem and various other towns.
When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king of Israel, they turned against him. David triumphed in his war with the Philistines, succeeding where Saul had failed. By force of arms, David expanded his rule — while the great powers of Assyria and Egypt were too preoccupied to challenge his expansion. According to the Old Testament, he conquered Edom, which extended south to the Red Sea, David gaining its mines of copper and iron. He conquered Moab, rich with cattle. He conquered Ammon, and he conquered northward to Damascus and beyond to the Euphrates River — which bordered the Assyrian Empire. And, like other conquerors, as David conquered he took booty and demanded tribute.
Neo-Hittite: someone having the Hittite culture that survived the disappearance of the Hittites.
Written centuries after the events describes, the Biblical narrative puts David’s rule between 1048 and 1007 BCE. A consensus among scholars today puts David’s rule as sometime between 1005 to 965 BCE.
According to the Old Testament, David’s subjects prostrated themselves in his presence. Like conquerors before him, he claimed to be the agent of his god. David called himself the son of Yahweh. He acquired the trappings of a potentate and ruled 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, [note] and soon Bathsheba was to be the mother of David’s son: a child named Solomon.
In the Old Testament, David is described as bringing to Jerusalem the Ark of the Covenant and proclaiming his intention to build in Jerusalem a temple to house the ark, connected to the worship of Yahweh. But David, like Saul, appears to have been close to the worship of the Canaanite god Ba’al. He gave one of his sons, Beeliada, a Canaanite name. 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 no evidence exists that David, Saul or others influenced by Canaanite religion knew of the commandment said to have been given to Moses that “You shall have no other gods before Me.”