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Ancient Jewish History: The Occupation of Canaan

(c. 1250 - 1050 BCE)

When the Hebrews arrive at Canaan, the land promised to them millenia earlier when God told Abraham at Shechem that the land would belong to his descendants, they they begin the long, painful, and disappointing process of setting the land. There were, after all, people already living there. These people, the Canaanites, were a Semitic people speaking a language remarkably close to Hebrew. They were farmers, some were nomads, but they were also civilized. They used the great Mesopotamian cities as their model and had built modest imitations of them. They had also learned military technology and tactics from the Mesopotamians, as well as law. So the Hebrews, uncivilized, tribal, and nomadic, found themselves facing a formidable enemy. Even the accounts of this period in the Hebrew bible, the books of Joshua and Judges paint a pretty dreary picture of the occupation.

After a few spectacular victories and some impressive territorial gains along the coastal plains, the Hebrews are eventually driven out of these areas and settle in the central hill country and a few places in the Jordan River valley. While they held their own against the Canaanites, a new player had arrived on the scene. These people, the Philistines, had rushed down from the north and overwhelmed everyone in their path. They had chariots and iron weapons and few could stand against these new technologies.

So the Hebrews found themselves living in the worst areas of Canaan, spread thinly across the entire region. The balance of power constantly shifted as local kingdoms would grab and then lose territory, and the Hebrews would find themselves first under one and then another master.

The Judges and the Deliverers

All during this period, the Hebrews rarely if ever organized into a single group. They were divided, rather, into separate tribes which administered themselves using tribal logic. There was no center of Yahweh worship (as there would be in later years), and no central government. There are, however, two types of figures that regularly dominate the landscape: the judges and the deliverers.

The judges are a curious sort and we're not sure what the office involved. What we do know is that they exercised some authority over all the tribes of Israel and were generally recognized by all the tribes. While the translation of the term, "judges," seems to imply judicial activities, that is, deciding disputes between tribes, the word in Hebrew, "shopetim" (-im is the plural), implies legislative duties as well. So its possible that these "judges" exercised some kind of legislative and judicial control over matters involving all the tribes of Israel. Unlike the patriarchal age in which the "father" was the ruler, "judges" weren't gender specific. The most important "judge" of this period is, in fact, a woman: Deborah.

The deliverers (in Hebrew, "moshia") were specifically military commanders. They organized intertribal armies and led them into battle against foreigners: Philistines, Canaanites, Moabites, Ammonites, etc. They arose in times of the greatest oppression of the Hebrews and, in the Hebrew account of them, specifically elected by Yahweh to free the Hebrews from oppression. Most of the names are familiar: Gideon, Samson, etc.

The Hebrews themselves, however, do not seem to have settled comfortably into the Yahweh religion. According to Hebrew history, the Hebrews regularly abandon the Yahweh religion for local cults, particularly Canaanite cults. The Canaanite religion focussed on the god Baal, and the Hebrews frequently disassemble their Yahweh altars and build Baal altars. Those Hebrews that settle in the Canaanite cities literally disappear into the Canaanite religion; the Yahweh religion seems to have been largely maintained among the nomadic groups in the hill country.

Uncertain of their future, wracked by constant warfare and even civil war, and barely holding on to their Yahweh religion, the Hebrews would eventually long for the identity and stability of a unified nation and a monarchy. This act of disobedience towards Yahweh (according to the Hebrew account) would turn this scattered group of tribes into a briefly glorious kingdom and empire.

Sources: The Hebrews: A Learning Module from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.