Israel’s Ethnogenesis

Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance


by Avraham Faust

Great Britain: Equinox, 2006, 289 pp.
$125 (hardcover), $45 (paperback)

Reviewed by William G. Dever

One of the most heated controversies in worldwide archaeology today is the question of “ethnicity,” particularly whether it can be recognized and identified in material culture remains. Even where we have texts, many scholars—heavily influenced by postmodernist claims that ethnicity is “only a social construct” (i.e., a fiction)—are skeptical.

Avraham Faust, a rapidly rising archaeological star at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, goes unabashedly against the current “politically correct” view. His stated goal is not to reconstruct the origins of the ancient Israel peoples (as I recently attempted in Who Were the Early Israelites?1), but rather to investigate the long, complex process of their “ethnogenesis,” the evolution of self-identity, using what can be called “ethnic markers.”

In 21 brief chapters, Faust summarizes virtually all the archaeological data, from pottery to house plans to settlement patterns to statehood. But this is not simply a synthesis, however valuable that may be. Throughout the discussion, Faust employs a wide range of socio-anthropological models, making this book the most innovative and successful analysis yet of “Israelite ethnicity.”2 As Faust puts it, “The present book will seek to demonstrate that by a close examination of the archaeological record we can trace Israel‘s ethnogenesis to the Iron Age I” (i.e., the 12th—11th centuries B.C.E.).

I can hardly claim to be objective, since Faust straight-forwardly bases his approach on my 1993 “new style of Biblical archaeology,”as well as my “proto-Israelite” label, and my generally positivist approach to the question of ethnicity compared to that of the Biblical “revisionists” (and even Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University). Yet Faust’s discussion is full of original insights, all thoroughly documented. Here I can only touch on the highlights.

Faust notes, as several of us have, the absence of imported or decorated pottery in the hundreds of Iron I highland settlements in Canaan. He does not, however, attribute this simply to the general isolation and poverty of these rural settlements, but rather to “ideological, cognitive, and symbolic” factors; that is, to choice. For Faust, this is an indication of an “egalitarian ideal.” This notion was most forcibly advanced by Norman Gottwald in 1979 in his epochal Tribes of Yahweh, but at the time Gottwald had no archaeological correlates.3 I have also employed the term, but with the caveat that no known society is truly “egalitarian.” Yet that does seem to be the Biblical ideal.

Faust reaches essentially the same conclusion in a detailed examination of the “four-room house,” often considered an Israelite type-fossil.a He stresses the unusual, if not unique, form and function of this typical Israelite-Judean house, noting its uniformity and longevity throughout the monarchy. For Faust, this type of house “resulted to a large extent from an ethically specific behavior.” It reflects a peculiar socio-economic lifestyle and system of values suitable for “peasant daily life in ancient Israel.” This is very similar to my “agrarian reform” model.4

Faust examines settlement patterns in Chapter 12, beginning as many scholars have with what appears to be a shift from rural to urban configurations in the tenth century B.C.E., with the rise of the monarchy (still referring the conventional rather than the “low” chronology championed by Finkelstein). Against Finkelstein, he maintains that nearly all of the 12th—11th-century B.C.E. rural sites were abandoned in Iron Age II (ninth—seventh centuries B.C.E.). For Faust, this reflects what archaeologists and anthropologists call “state formation processes” (p. 127; see also chap. 13). This view may seem to be unfashionably conservative; but it is still mainstream scholarship. And in my view, Faust documents the change in settlement patterns sufficiently to dispose of Finkelstein’s skepticism.

Chapter 16 treats the reference to “the Israelite peoples” (sic) in the well-known “Victory Stele” of Pharaoh Merneptah, c. 1206 B.C.E. Faust agrees with me and several other scholars that the information, while scant, is sufficient to identify our “Israelites” with the Iron Age I hill-country settlers in the central highland of Canaan who are so well documented archaeologically.

In Chapters 21 and 22 Faust confronts head-on the extreme skepticism of the Biblical “revisionists,” deftly pointing out their inconsistencies, as well as the fact that they are oblivious to the archaeological data. He concludes that “their political prejudice leads them to distort both history and method.” I could not agree more.

My misgivings are few. For one thing, not all of Faust’s socio-anthropological models are equally appropriate. Furthermore, I am not as sanguine as he that ancient Israel was uniquely or in reality so “egalitarian.” Nevertheless, Faust’s admitted speculations are founded on actual archaeological data that no well-informed scholar can afford to ignore.

Faust’s bold re-examination of the vexed problem of “Israelite ethnicity” will no doubt meet with opposition and even scorn, and he is likely to be demonized for his conservatism—so “out of style.” But Faust’s conservatism stems not from any Biblical or theological presuppositions that I can detect, but rather from a principle that we share: Sound scholarship always avoids extremes and seeks to build on empirical data and consensus views.

Copenhagen’s Thomas L. Thompson, the most radical of the “revisionists,” has declared that ethnic marks such as Faust employs are “accidental, even arbitrary”; that “ethnicity is hardly a common aspect of human existence at this early period”; and that the concept of [Israelite] ethnicity however, is a fiction, created by writers.5 Thompson’s colleague, Niels Peter Lemche, declares that “the Canaanites of the ancient Near East did not know they were themselves Canaanites” (but Lemche knows that they were not).6

Faust’s most significant contribution in Israel’s Ethnogenesis is that he gives the lie to all such absurdities. The ancient Israelites knew who they were. And it is up to us to try to find that out by all means possible, especially from the material remains they left behind.




1. W.G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

2. It will inevitably be compared with Ann Killebrew’s Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity; An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel 1300—1100 B.C.E. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), but Faust’s work is both more specific and more sophisticated.

3. N.K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250—1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979). Later, Gottwald preferred a “communitarian mode of production.” See Gottwald’s “Response to William G. Dever,” in H. Shanks, ed., The Rise of Ancient Israel (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992), p. 71.

4. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? pp. 167—189.

5. T.L. Thompson, “Defining History and Ethnicity in the South Levant” in L.L. Grabbe, ed., Can a “History of Israel” Be Written? (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), p. 175; T.L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (London: Basic Books, 1999), p. 234.

6. N.P. Lemche, The Canaanites and Their Land (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), p. 152.

a. See Shlomo Bunimovitz and Avraham Faust, “Ideology in Stone: Understanding the Four-Room House,”BAR 28:04.



William G. Dever is professor emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona. A world-renowned archaeologist, he served as director of the major excavations at Gezer and has dug at numerous sites in Jordan and Israel.

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