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Tribes and the State at the ASOR and SBL Conferences

The Death of Lawerence of Arabia (

Once upon a time not that long ago, tribes were very fashionable in biblical studies. From Julius Wellhausen in Arabia to Lawrence of Arabia to the amphictyony, tribes garnered a great deal of interest for the understanding of early Israelite history. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, visitors to the Holy Land consistently spotted the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs in the present in a timeless and unchanging land.

Lately states have superseded the tribe in interest. The focus has become on the attributes of the state: the king, the temple, the capital city, and the royal ideology in art, architecture, literature, and writing. Tribes have taken a back seat to the state. It’s almost as if before Israel became a monarchy there was no Israel since there was no Israelite polity. How did the Israelite people even survive for centuries without a king? Biblical scholars tend to ignore that whatever it was that made people self-identify as Israel occurred before Merneptah claimed to have destroyed them. Israel existed for about as long as a tribal people as the northern kingdom of Israel existed or as Judah from Hezekiah to destruction so it behooves biblical scholars to consider what was said about tribes at the recent conferences.

This review will be divided into three parts. This post will focus on the recent archaeological developments in the Arabah related to copper production in the tenth century BCE. The second post will focus on the non-Israelite tribe SBL presentations on the Kenites, and Amalekites and their use in biblical narratives as forces of cosmos and chaos. The third post will focus on the tribe of Dan Fleming…I mean Israelite tribal presentations on Deborah and Benjamin by people who frequently can trace the genesis of their SBL presentation to the NYU professor who was chairing the sessions.


Archaeology has forced a revaluation of the Edomite people and by implication of Israel as well. It has done so in two ways; (i) first by demonstrating what a tribal people can accomplish without a king thereby pushing back the Edomite story to the Iron I period centuries before the traditional Edomite kingdom origin in Neo-Assyrian times; (ii) second, by raising the issue of its contacts with the Israelite/Judahite polities in the tenth and ninth centuries BCE.

William Ondricek (Tel Aviv University; University of the Holy Land), Assaf Kleiman (Tel Aviv University), Sabine Kleiman (Tel Aviv University), and Erez Ben-Yosef (Tel Aviv University), “Early Edomite Fabric and Cultural Interconnections: New Studies on Pottery from the Early Iron Age Copper Production Sites in the Timna Valley” (ASOR 5C Archaeology of the Southern Levant II)

The dramatic change in our understanding of the absolute chronological framework of copper production in the Timna Valley, which fixes the peak in activity there in the tenth century B.C.E., necessitates a reassessment of the pottery found in the main smelting sites in the region. Reevaluation of pottery found by Benno Rothenberg and the Arabah Expedition, as well as substantial new ceramic assemblages uncovered recently by the Central Timna Valley Project, sheds new light on several important questions. This includes the involvement of Egyptians and people from the Hijaz (“Midianites”?) in the Arabah copper industry, the characteristics of local pottery traditions, population overlaps with nearby regions, trade connections with Philistia and other regions, and more. Our ongoing research has yielded important corrections to errors caused by the previous “Egyptian paradigm,” while providing substantial new insights on a formative period in the emergence of a local, nomadic, Edomite Kingdom.

The disruption in Late Bronze Age trading patterns led to the diminishment of copper from Cyprus.  In response, copper production rose in the Arabah by nomad tribes independent of Egyptian control and peaking in the tenth century BCE. When combined with the archaeology of the 11th-10th centuries covered in the previous blogs, Where Is the Tenth Century BCE?: The ASOR and SBL Conferences and The Tenth Century BCE and the SBL Conference, one sees from combining these various presentations that quite a lot was going on then. The reference to “Midianites” raises the questions of how these people self-identified, by what name these copper-producing people would have been known to Israel in the tenth century BCE pre-Sheshonq, and whether that identification would appear in the biblical narrative.

Thomas E. Levy (University of California, San Diego), Mohammad Najjar (University of California, San Diego), Brady Liss (University of California, San Diego), and Erez Ben-Yosef (Tel Aviv University) “The Iron Age Industrial Revolution in Southern Jordan—Thoughts on Punctuated Equilibrium and Technological Change” (ASOR 12H Interrogating Cultural Change – Punctuated Equilibria Models in Near Eastern Archaeology and Egyptology II.)

How does exponential change in technological systems occur, the kind of transformation that promotes rapid social and economic change? While this question is highly relevant today in a world where Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other technological giants dominate our lives, technology has played a definitive role in social evolution throughout prehistory and history. This paper looks at rapid technological change in metallurgy during a relatively short period of less than two centuries during the Iron Age (ca. 1200–500 B.C.E.) of the southern Levant based on excavations by T. E. Levy and M. Najjar at the copper production site of Khirbat en-Nahas in Jordan’s Faynan district, analyzed in collaboration with E. Ben-Yosef and B. Liss. The utility of applying Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibria is explored.

This presentation reiterated the material of the previous one. Ignoring the punctuated equilibrium aspects addressed in a previous post, Lessons from the ASOR Conference: Punctuated Equilibrium and the Writing of the Hebrew Bible, Levy concentrated on the archaeology of the mines, smelting sites, slag, and the protecting fort at Khirbat en-Nahas. One additional note was the discovery of a Sheshonq sacrab. Once again as with Tell Hesi presentation previously described, we have an example of pre-Sheshonq activity which he disrupted. What does all this mean for biblical scholarship? For that we have turn back from this presentation in the final time slot at ASOR to the first time slot.

Erez Ben-Yosef (Tel Aviv University), “Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater: On a Prevailing Methodological Flaw in the Treatment of Nomads in Current Biblical Archaeology” (ASOR Archaeology and Biblical Studies I 1B)

The aim of this paper is to highlight a methodological flaw in current biblical archaeology, one which became apparent as a result of the recent research in the Aravah’s Iron Age copper production centers. In essence, this flaw, which cuts across all schools of biblical archaeologists, is the prevailing, simplistic approach applied to the identification and interpretation of nomadic elements in biblical-era societies. These elements have been typically described as representing only one form of social organization, which is simple and almost negligible in historical reconstructions. However, the unique case of the Aravah demonstrates that the role of nomads in shaping the history of the region has been underestimated and downplayed in the research of the region, and that the total reliance on stone-built archaeological features in the identification of social complexity in the vast majority of recent studies has resulted in skewed historical reconstructions. Recognizing this “architectural bias” and understating its sources have important implications on core issues in biblical archaeology today, as both “minimalists” and “maximalists” have been using stone-built architectural remains as the key to solving debated issues related to the genesis of ancient Israel and neighboring polities (e.g., “high” vs. “low” Iron Age chronologies), in which—according to both biblical accounts and external sources—nomadic elements played a major role.

The bold added to the abstract state make the point quite clearly without requiring additional elaboration. The tenth century BCE is in play now. Ben-Yosef built on these points at his SBL presentation.

Erez Ben-Yosef, Tel Aviv University On the Possibility of an Early Iron Age Nomadic Monarchy in the Arabah (Early Edom) and Its Implications on the Study of Ancient Israel (SBL S18-122 Archaeology of the Biblical World Theme: Bronze and Iron Age)

Since its early days, the common perception of nomads in biblical archaeology has been of people that could not form strong political entities, and whose influence on the course of history was marginal. Biblical scholars and archaeologists alike have constantly equated the biblical-era nomads to the modern Bedouins of the Southern Levant, further enforcing the interpretation of these groups as simple tribal societies that existed in the geographical and historical periphery of the settled land. Similarly, almost any discussion on the formation of the Southern Levantine Iron Age kingdoms, including the United Monarchy of Ancient Israel, has been based on the fundamental assumption that such political organizations could not have developed prior to complete sedentarization; consequently, the identification of these kingdoms in the archaeological record has been dependent on the existence of substantial stone-built remains. However, new archaeological evidence from the Arabah, including the recent excavations by the Central Timna Valley Project of Tel Aviv University (https://, challenges this fundamental assumption. In this paper I argue that we have sufficient new data to support the reconstruction of an early (Iron I) Edomite kingdom, which achieved a complex social organization and ultra-regional impact prior to the sedentarization of its (semi-)nomadic (agro-)pastoralistic tribes. This has significant implications on our understanding of the other emerging Southern Levantine kingdoms, including Ancient Israel, as all of which have a nomadic background that is attested for in biblical as well as external sources.

If Ben-Yosef is suggesting that Israelite kingdom in the tenth century BCE might have been a nomadic monarchy then here I part ways with him. The archaeological data presented at these conferences suggest that a “substantial stone-built” kingdom in the tenth century BCE was feasible. Parts of it have been excavated. The story of the Israelite kingdom is very much an urban-based story. It would be more appropriate to consider Israel in the Iron I period prior to it becoming a kingdom and when the tribe was more important. Also, I am not clear from these presentations how one would define or differentiate a nomadic kingdom from a nomadic chiefdom.

Secondly, I would keep open the possibility that the people engaged in the copper-producing activities self-identified as Midianites. Such an identification helps to understand the Kenite/Midian connection in the biblical narrative and it is the Kenites at the SBL that will the subject of the next post.