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Biblical Archaeology Review 4:2, June 1978

Were the Early Israelites Pastoral Nomads?

A Biblical sociologist looks at the patriarchs and Exodus Israelites

By Norman K. Gottwald

The Bible relates that early Israel entered Canaan twice—once in the Patriarchal Age and a second time after the Exodus from Egypt.

Prior to 1960 virtually all commentators on Israelite origins pictured early Israel as a pastoral nomadic people who penetrated Canaan from the desert, and who, in the course of settling down on the land, underwent a massive transition to an agricultural economy. Then, slowly and unevenly, this social structure continued to develop into village organization, and finally, as Israel began to take over the major cities of Canaan, moved toward urbanization.

Both those who accepted the conquest model of the settlement and those who preferred the immigration model of the settlement were alike in positing for Israel an original socio-economic base of pastoral nomadism and an original or transitional territorial base in the desert steppes to the south and east of Canaan. The issues dividing conquest and immigration theorists had little or nothing to do with the socio-economic mode or territorial origins of the first Israelites; the disputes rather raged over the methods and timing of Israel’s entrance into and mastery over Canaan. Did the pastoral nomads who came from the desert arrive as a unified mass or in various smaller groupings which only united after entering the land? they asked. Did the pastoral nomads come as military conquerors or did they infiltrate peacefully, and only gradually gain the power to overthrow their Canaanite enemies? Naturally, the varying answers to these questions about the means of Israel’s acquisition of the land affected how the theorists conceived the process of Israelite nomadic acculturation to settled life, but that did not alter their basic presupposition: Israelites came as pastoral nomads from the desert steppes.

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