The Israelites are the pivotal characters in the Torah of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The biblical experiences of these people shaped Judaism and Christianity while also defining the ethnoreligious identity of Jews and the nationalistic heritage of most modern Israelis. However, despite the abundance of stories in religious texts, the biblical narratives do not provide a clear and accurate depiction of who the Israelites were and where they originated, or how they became one of the influential groups of people in the ancient Near East.
Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From: Understanding the Origins of These Ancient Group of People from Canaan
The Torah and the Old Testament provide a rich account of the supposed origins of the Israelites. These religious texts describe these people as the descendants of the sons of a man named Jacob who lived in Canaan. This religious figure first appeared in the Book of Genesis and was described as the son of Isaac and Rebecca, and the grandson of Abraham, Sarah, and Bethuel. He was later given the name Israel after wrestling with a supposed divine being.
Jacob had 12 sons through 4 women. These were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. Each became the head of a clan. The clans that descended from the sons of Jacob later became the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The narratives from religious texts have noted that these tribes form the Israelite people. Jacob and the rest of the Israelites were forced to move to Egypt due to a famine in Canaan.
The number of Israelites grew to more than half a million after four generations starting from the 12 sons of Jacob. The Egyptians became alarmed. The Pharoah decided to enslave the Israelites and later ordered the death of male children. This started the long plight of Israelites to go back to Canaan whom they deemed as the Promised Land. Nevertheless, following the events of Exodus, the people established the United Monarchy of Israel under King David.
Most modern Jews and Samaritans in present-day Israel and elsewhere trace their origins to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Jews trace their lineage mainly to the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi that formed the Kingdom of Judah after the split from the Kingdom of Israel. The Samaritans claim their origin from the remaining tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi that were not exiled by the Assyrians after the fall of the Kingdom of Israel.
There is skepticism in modern scholarship about the accuracy of biblical narratives about the origins of the Israelites. There is even a doubt whether there ever were 12 Israelite tribes. Sociologist Ronald M. Glassman supposed that the number twelve was used to signify a symbolic tradition as part of a national founding myth. Most scholars also believe that biblical accounts have some historical core value but offer little historical value.
Understanding the historical origins of Israelites and appreciating further who these people were have involved depending on various fields and disciplines. One of such is ethnolinguistics. This is an area of anthropological linguistics that studies the relationship between a language and the nonlinguistic cultural behavior of the people who speak that language to link them to different cultures and societies or other ethnolinguistic groups.
It is important to note that the Israelites were one of the various tribes that inhabited an area in the Southern Levant called Canaan during the Iron Age. These people have been specifically described as one of the Semitic-speaking tribes. The population of ancient people who spoke Semitic languages lived throughout the Near East and North Africa or in areas that included the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and Carthage.
The Israelites spoke a variation of the Canaanite family of languages of the greater Northwest Semitic languages called Hebrew. This is evident from excavated writings such as the Mount Ebal curse tablet and texts that became part of the Hebrew Bible. Note that the Israelites were also called Hebrews. Northwest Semitic comprised the indigenous languages of areas encompassing the Levant or the Eastern Mediterranean region of West Asia.
Linguists also noted that the more specific Canaanite languages operate on a spectrum of mutual intelligibility with one another. Nevertheless, because of the close similarities between the Hebrew language and other Canaanite languages, the Israelite people were one of the various tribes that comprised the ancient Canaanite population. Historians describe this population as part of ancient Semitic-speaking peoples or Proto-Semitic people.
Other fields have helped in providing a more accurate historical account of the origins of the Israelites. Archeological evidence has shown that Israelite culture branched out from the larger Canaanite culture. Two polities emerged within the Israelite population. These were the Kingdom of Samaria or the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. The historicity of the United Monarchy is debated due to the absence of archeological remains.
It is also important to highlight the fact that the name “Israel” first appeared in 1209 BCE at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the First Iron Age on an Egyptian inscription now known as the Merneptah Stele. The name was written in hieroglyphics with a toponymic marker and demonymic determinative. This specifically indicated that Israel was a reference not to an area but to a group of people inhabiting a specific area in Canaan.
Several theories have explained the possible origins of the Israelites. Historian and anthropologist Ann E. Killebrew explained that these people originated in raiding groups or were infiltrating nomads who were driven out of impoverished areas to seek fortunes in the highlands. Old Testament scholar Norman K. Gottwald wrote that the Israelite people had an ethnic composition similar to the ancient Canaanite kingdoms of Ammon, Edom, and Moab.
The defining characteristic of these people was their adherence to Yahwism. The earlier Israelites once worshipped a Canaanite god called El and later replaced it with a god named Yahweh. Take note that religious worship in ancient Canaan and the greater Near East was tribal. Religion was also more related to ethnicity as it was to spirituality. This suggests that the Israelite people were a group defined by its Yahwist ethnic and religious identity.
Yahwism became central to the people of Israel although its exact origin remains uncertain. Some scholars have speculated that the god Yahweh was brought by Canaanite slaves who fled from Egypt and merged with the Israelites. This same group was posited to assimilate with the emerging Israelite group and contributed their own Egyptian Exodus story to all of Israel. Yahweh then became the national god of the Israeli people.
Additional studies within the field of genetics have pinpointed further the exact origins of Israelites. The prevailing consensus is that the Israelite people and other Canaanite groups descended from a common ancestral population that originated in the Near East. The genetic profile of most ancient Canaanites was maintained for a long time despite their dispersal across different areas within the region and interactions with other ethnic groups.
Researchers L. Agranat-Tamir et al. analyzed the remains of 73 individuals from five archeological sites across the Bronze Age and Iron Age southern Levant. Their genetic analysis specifically concluded that the ancient Canaanite population of the Bronze Age Levant descended from earlier local Neolithic or New Stone Age populations together with populations from the Chalcolithic Zagros Mountains and the Bronze Age Caucasus.
The Near East was one of the few areas that saw the birth of the Neolithic period. This period marked the beginning of human settlements following the introduction of farming and domestication of animals. The Chalcolithic period succeeded the Neolithic period and it is characterized by the increasing use of smelted copper. The Bronze Age followed the Chalcolithic period and it marked the use of bronze and the presence of writing.
Ancient Canaanites, which included Israelites, had genetic lineages that can be traced from local Neolithic populations in the Levant, the Chalcolithic populations that inhabited a long mountain range in present-day Iran, northern Iraq, and southeastern Turkey, and the Bronze Age populations of Caucasia or the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This was a product of continuing migration to the Levant between 2500-1000 BCE
Conclusion and Takeaways: Tracing the Origins of Israelites as a Group of People Who Were Part of the Ancient Canaanite Population
Remember that the Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible do not provide an accurate account of where Israelites came from nor do they provide a precise description of who these people were. The various fields and disciplines of science have suggested that the origin of Israelites can be traced back to the population in the ancient Levantine area of Canaan. These people and their culture developed as an outgrowth of ancient Canaanites.
The consensus among historians and anthropologists is that some Canaanites gradually adopted a distinct identity and religion that distinguished them from their neighbors during the Iron Age. The Israelite people were specifically a tribe of Canaanites that emerged as a distinct monolatristic culture that worshipped a god named Yahweh who further claimed that they descended from Canaanite patriarchal figures Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Nevertheless, when talking about the history of ancient Israel and the origins of the Israelites, it is inevitable to factor in the history of the ancient Canaanites. Take note that L. Agranat-Tamir et al. also showed that the Canaanite population contributed to most present-day Jewish groups and Levantine Arabic-speaking groups. These modern populations can trace 50 percent of their lineage from the Bronze Age Levant and the Chalcolithic Zagros.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Agranat-Tamir, L., Waldman, S., Martin, M. A. S., Gokhman, D., Mishol, N., Eshel, T., Cheronet, O., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Adamski, N., Lawson, A. M., Mah, M., Michel, M., Oppenheimer, J., Stewardson, K., Candilio, F., Keating, D., Gamarra, B., Tzur, S., … Reich, D. 2020. “The Genomic History of the Bronze Age Southern Levant.” Cell. 181(5): 114601157.e11. DOI: 1016/j.cell.2020.04.024
- Dallaire, H. M. 2014. The Syntax of Volitives in Biblical Hebrew and Amarna Canaanite Prose. Penn State University Press. DOI: 1515/9781575064000
- Glassman, R. M. 2017. “Israelite Tribal Confederation Enters Canaan.” In The Origins of Democracy in Tribes, City-States, and Nation-States. Springer Cham. ISBN: 978-3-319-51693-6. DOI: 1007/978-3-319-51695-0
- Gottwald, N. 1999. Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE. A&C Black
- Killebrew, A. E. 2020. “Early Israel’s Origins, Settlement, and Ethnogenesis.” In eds Kelle, B, E. and Strawn, B. A., The Oxford Handbook of the Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-026116-0.
- Römer, T. 2015. The Invention of God. Harvard University Press. ISBN: 9780674504974