What anthropology tells us about the period of the Biblical Judges
As Katz writes, ethnographic anthropologists concern themselves with the living, while archaeologists prefer the dead. And while archaeology extends the time frame of human cultures into the distant past, anthropology provides valuable comparative and interpretive tools that archaeologists can use to better understand past cultures.
The most important of these is ethnographic analogy. A basic definition, according to Katz, is the use of ethnography—the study of a living people—to infer how another group may have lived long ago. In other words, by looking at behavior observed among peoples in more recent times, archaeologists can better understand an ancient group that lived in a similar fashion.
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Unfortunately, as Katz notes, the field of Biblical archaeology has been relatively slow to adopt ethnographic analogy and other anthropological methods. Most debates in Biblical archaeology focus on issues of proper dating and arguments over historical issues such as whether or not King David was an actual king. While these are indeed important issues, they rarely incorporate ethnographic analogy or anthropological methods that make up an “archaeological toolkit.” Once the conversation between the two disciplines begins, however, Katz believes anthropology and Biblical archaeology scholars will discover that they have much to share with each other.
For example, in her study of ancient Israel during the period of the Biblical Judges (c. 1200–1000 B.C.E.), Jill Katz found that ethnographic analogy offered a useful way to investigate the nature of pre-monarchic Israelite “tribal” society. In looking over ethnographic parallels, Katz determined that during the period of the Biblical Judges, Israel appears to be what anthropologists call “Big Man” societies—that is, small, autonomous, village-based agricultural communities where leadership emerges from charisma and personality rather than inheritance.
That leadership was conceived of as informal during the period of the Biblical Judges is expressed most clearly in the story of Gideon. After a successful campaign against Midian, the “men of Israel” specifically request that Gideon and his children become permanent leaders: “Rule over us, you, your son, and your grandson as well” (Judges 8:22). Gideon rejects the offer on behalf of himself and his children in the spirit that the “Lord alone shall rule over you” (Judges 8:23).
This passage makes explicit that the Biblical Judges did not pass on their leadership from generation to generation. But it is only through the use of ethnographic analogy that we can see just how difficult it is to be a leader without any formal claim to authority.
To continue learning about anthropological approaches to Biblical archaeology, read Jill Katz, Archaeological Views, “An Anthropologist’s View of Early Israel,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2012.
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