It is not my intention to give a detailed account of the life and thought of the Jewish people or the people of Israel before the time of Samuel. The purpose of this post is to provide enough material to link up with the times of Samuel. Without such an introductory survey, my next post about Samuel and the first Israelite King would be incomplete.
In the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, you must have read of Abraham who was called by God to migrate from Mesopotamia, where his home was, to Canaan (this land of Canaan later became known as Palestine, after the philistines). Abraham, referred to in the Bible as ‘the Hebrew’, obeyed God’s call, and in about 1750 B.C. left his home and people and went to Canaan, stopping first at Shechem. It was in Canaan that Abraham died, and was succeeded by his son Isaac. When the latter also died, he was succeeded by his (Isaac’s) son Jacob whose twelve sons bore names that came to be the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Certain family troubles followed, resulting in the selling of Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, by his brothers to Egyptian slave dealers who took him to Egypt, a country which, for many centuries before the time of Joseph had a very advanced civilization. Later on, famine drove Jacob’s family also into Egypt for food, by which time Joseph had risen to a very responsible position in the Egyptian king’s administration. Joseph was thus able to help his family and to settle them comfortably.
The initial favour enjoyed by Jacob’s family was due to the fact that their migration into Egypt took place at a time when Egypt was being ruled by a certain people called Hyksos. The name Hyksos, in the Egyptian language meaning ‘rulers of foreign countries’, was given by the Egyptians to some foreign invaders who entered Egypt a little before 1700 B.C. The Hyksos were really not all from one race – they were a collection of various races, but many of them were from the race of Semites, to which race Jacob and his family also belonged. This would account for the fact that the family of Jacob found hospitality so readily in Egypt.
This good fortune did not last indefinitely, however. A little after 1600 B.C., well after the death of Joseph, the Egyptians carried out a revolution and succeeded in overthrowing the Hyksos. This defeat of the foreign rulers of Egypt marked a change in the fortunes of the Hebrews (descendants of Abraham ‘the Hebrew’). They lost favour with the Egyptian rulers and entered a period of slavery when they suffered many humiliating things at the hands of the Egyptians. Indeed, the Egyptians were so determined to stop the Hebrews from multiplying any further that they decreed that all Hebrew baby boys should be drowned.
This was the time when Moses was born, of Hebrew parents. He was, however, saved from the fate of many Hebrew babies and was in fact brought up in the household of the Egyptian king or the pharaoh himself. His life in the palace, comfortable and luxurious as it was, did not prevent Moses from identifying himself with his own people the Hebrews, who were being used as slaves by the Egyptians. Indeed, when as a young man he saw one of his race being maltreated by an Egyptian, he did not hesitate to strike down the oppressor.
Realising that his real feelings about Egyptian oppression could no longer be hidden, he fled from Egypt to Midian which was south of Canaan. It was while in this region that God made himself known to him and chose him to be instrument by which the Hebrew people would be released from their slavery in Egypt. When after some hesitation Moses accepted the responsibility, he found on his return to Egypt that the Pharaoh was not willing to let the Hebrews go, since they provided cheap labour for public building projects in Egypt. For about a year, the dispute remained unsettled. Finally, however, convinced that certain disasters which the Egyptians had experienced were the work of the God of the Hebrews, the Pharaoh let the Hebrews go. The Hebrews took to the desert on their way to the promised land. This was about 1300 B.C. They were so relieved that on the eve of their departure they celebrated the passover to mark their release from Egypt. Indeed, ever afterwards they had this joyful feast every to recall their delivery from slavery (see book of Exodus).
It is most important to remember that the Hebrew people understood this exodus or departure from Egypt as an action initiated by God. The exodus was to them not merely a political event involving the escape of people from slavery; it was a religious event, showing God as the savior of the oppressed. This is why Hosea the prophet speaks thus:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (Hos. 11:1)
Hosea’s words emphasise the fact that right from the time of their enslavement in Egypt God considered the Hebrew people as standing in a special relationship to him. In the course of the journey across the desert on the way to Canaan, this relationship was given special prominence when a covenant ceremony involved the killing of an animal whose blood was collected in a basin. Part of the blood was dashed upon the altar which had been set up on purpose, and part was dashed over the people – all this being meant to show that Yahweh was their God, and they were his people.
The Hebrews wandered on the desert for a quite number of years, enjoying the friendship of the Kenites, and experiencing the hostility of the Amalekites, and all the time accompanied by the holy Ark which was made of wood and so constructed as to be easily carried by four people. According to one tradition, the Ark contained the two tablets of stone on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Many years after the desert period the Ark was installed first at Shiloh, then in the temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem.
The wandering Hebrews entered Canaan at last, but not under Moses, who had died within sight of the promised land. It was under Joshua, Moses’s successor, that the wanderers finally entered the land of Canaan.
The promise land, Canaan, was nothing like the great land of Egypt. From its northernmost to its southernmost points it measures not more than one hundred and fifty miles, and its greatest width is not more than half its length. Although a small country, its situation repeatedly drew it into the affairs of that part of the world. It was a bridge between Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, on one hand, and Egypt on the other. Thus to go from Egypt to Mesopotamia it was natural for Egyptian soldiers to pass through Canaan.
One of the physical features of the land is the coastal plain along which ran the highway between Egypt and Mesopotamia. This feature of the land includes the area where the Philistines settled not long after the arrival of the Hebrews from Egypt; hence part of the coastal plain is often referred to as plain of Philistia. It was in this plain that the philistines established their five principal cities, Ekron, Ashdod, Gath, Gaza and Ashkelon.
Immediately to the east of the coastal plain is the central backbone of highlands. This hill country is cut in the area of Mount Carmel by a valley known as Jezreel or Esdraelon and south of this valley is Mount Gilboa. Jezreel was both military and commercial importance, since it was along the highway between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The third feature of the land is the Jordan valley which runs from north to south; along this valley runs the river Jordan which rises from the Lebanon mountains to the north of Palestine, and flows through the sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. This sea (the Dead Sea) has no outlet; its waters are extremely salty, so salty in fact that the sea does not support life – hence its name.
The last geographical division is a high plateau on the east of the river Jordan. This plateau is cut by four rivers – the Yarmuk, the Jabbok, the Arnon, and the Zered. North of the Yarmuk lay Bashan, a very fertile area between the Yarmuk and the Jabbok lay Gilead; between the Jabbok and the Arnon the country of Gad and Reuben, which country was to suffer at the hands of the Ammonites. Between the Arnon and the Zered lay Moabite territory, and south of the Zered Edomite country.
The whole land is bounded on the west by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east by the Arabian desert, on the north by the Lebanon mountains, and on the south by barren country referred to as the Negeb (or dry country) of Judah. Evidently, the land of Canaan is not uniform – it has various natural barriers, such as rivers, hills and valleys. Not surprisingly, it would be difficult to bind its inhabitants together into one political unity, with one central organisation. In fact the Canaanites, the original inhabitants of the land, lived in walled cities, each with its own king.
These Canaanites lived in the better parts of the country, such as in the plains, while east of the Jordan the Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites, themselves settlers, had already occupied sections of the land. The Canaanites, comprising various peoples such as the Jebusites had a civilisation which was more advanced than that of the Israelites. Unlike the Hebrews, who, until their settlement in Canaan, had been more or less a wandering people, the Canaanites were used to settled life. They tilled the soil, they lived in walled cities, and they had chariots which they used in war. The invading Hebrews, possessing no such implements of war, would evidently be no match for the Canaanites in the plains – they would be easily be defeated.
The Hebrews, therefore, decided to attack in the hill areas, and this they successfully did in the thirteenth century under Joshua. When it came to fighting in the plains, this was another matter. Indeed, the biblical record notes: And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron (Judg. 1:19).
It is true that further conquests were made, but the Hebrews were not able to subdue the whole Canaanite population. Long after the settlement, King David had to make war against the Jebusites in order to acquire Jerusalem for his capital. Eventually the invaders became masters of the land, but this did not come about through some conquest alone – they learnt to live together and to intermarry with the Canaanites.
This living together of the Hebrews (or Israelites, or Jews, as we shall also be calling them) and the Canaanites had certain consequences. The Israelites were worshippers of the God of their fathers who was known as Yahweh. It was Yahweh who had been with them all along and who had brought them victory over their enemies. Him they worshipped, with music and offerings and prayers in recognition of his power. Indeed, the only factor which made the various tribes of Israel conscious that they were one people was their common faith in Yahweh; so that, even though in the early days of the settlement in Canaan, the Israelite tribes were scattered about without a central political organisation, they recognised their unity in the one God whom they all worshipped.
The Canaanites, on the other hand, did not worship one god – they had many male deities called baals. It was their belief that each section of the land was ruled over by one of these baals, who, being the real owners of the land was made possible by them, they thought, and the growth of vegetation and crops, of course, depended on the fertility of the soil.
Thus, here we have one very important difference between Israel’s religion and Canaanite religion – while the former centred round one God Yahweh, the latter knew many gods. In other words, one was a monotheism (from Greek, meaning one God), and the other was a polytheism (also from Greek, meaning many gods). Moreover, the worship of the baals involved some wicked practices. Since the Canaanites believed that the baals, who were male, had their female companions (goddess), and that fertility of the soil was the result of sexual relations between the baals and their goddess, they had in the baal temples prostitutes, both male and female, whose immoral activities were supposed to be a copy of what took place between the baals and the goddess.
This strange Canaanite religion, with its immorality and human sacrifices, did not fail to have an effect on the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel. As the Israelites learnt to cultivate the soil in Canaan, they tended to believe that unless they recognized the authority of the baals who were supposed to have charge of the land, their seeds would not grow, and they would have no food. As late as the time of Hosea the prophet, that is in the eighth century B.C., some Israelites worshipped Yahweh in the way the Canaanites worshipped the baals, in order to have the blessings of fertility; they even called Yahweh Baal (see Hos. 2:16). The religious leaders of Israel repeatedly warned them against this impure worship, but the temptation to worship in the Canaanite way always remained, and was not always successfully resisted, as will be seen in the chapters to follow.
All this is of importance for understanding the story of the people of Israel. A special word must now be said about the philistines, who, as I have already indicated, arrived in Palestine not long after the arrival of the Israelites. By the twelfth century B.C. the Israelites under the Judges (see the Book of Judges) had warred over and over again with Canaanite tribes and others from outside Canaan. But between the thirteenth and twelfth centuries a new threat to Israel was posed by the people called Philistines. The Israelites, organised into twelve tribes, were surely gaining the mastery over their enemies, but the arrival of the philistines threatened to destroy their power altogether. The Philistines were a seafaring people who were driven from their home somewhere in Europe by other warlike peoples; they were therefore looking for a place to settle. They tried to settle in Egypt, but under the Pharaoh Rameses III the Egyptians drove them off. As Egypt at that time considered Canaan to be one of her subject territories, the Pharaoh permitted the philistines to settle on the mediterranean coast of Canaan; this was shortly after 1200 B.C.
They were a very aggressive people, with skills in the manufacture of iron implements of war which they began to put to use. Sensing that Egyptian authority over Canaan was not strong enough to hold them in check, they began to make their way steadily inland from their coastal settlement. Inevitably, there was bound to be a clash between these new invaders and the Israelites who had got a greater part of the country under their control. As a matter of fact, there were several clashes. In connection with the name of Samson, that Israelite hero, we hear of how the Israelites sought to prevent the Philistines from taking over the whole country.
However, the philistines were not content to provoke the Israelites now and then; they decided to make an all-out effort to gain complete mastery over the whole land, that is over the Israelites as well as the Canaanite peoples; their chief target, however, was the Israelites.