Life, love and conflict in the hill country around 1200BC
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In a Milk and Honeyed Landon
Far from the Spaceportson

Richard Abbott

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The Background

A rather curious episode is related in chapters 9 and 10 of the book of Joshua in the Hebrew bible. It describes how four Canaanite towns — Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim — decide to trick the oncoming Israelite army, with a tale of having travelled huge distances specifically to establish a treaty. The nearby Canaanite towns see this, with some justification, as a betrayal of local solidarity and march against the four towns, who then appeal to Joshua to rescue them. A battle follows in which various miraculously arranged natural phenomena including a hailstorm help the Israelites to achieve complete victory. Unsurprisingly, the bible tells the events solidly from the Israelite perspective and does not explore the preceding actions or motives of the Gibeonites, other than to suggest that they feared the approaching invaders.

The episode leaves a lot of loose ends. Why would the inhabitants of these four towns take the initiative to arrange the peace treaty? Why not remain in league with their former allies? Why would the Israelites believe this rather improbable story and go into the alliance, if they were as confident of victory as they claimed? Scanning through later books and chapters of the bible reveals that these Canaanite towns, especially Gibeon, were to feature prominently in Israelite religious life over the next few centuries. For a long time, Gibeon was a more important holy place than Jerusalem. Clearly a fascinating untold story lies largely hidden behind the rather brief account left in the book of Joshua. The novel In a Milk and Honeyed Land is an attempt to recreate this hidden story. Unlike Joshua, it is written taking the perspective of the inhabitants of the towns, and in particular those in Kephirah — Kephrath. It is not written to defend the Hebrew bible in general or Joshua in particular, nor with the assumption that the bible account is necessarily accurate. It is an attempt to look at the Israelite arrival from the opposite perspective. The two accounts overlap in places, like two very different views on a complicated and confusing sequence of events.

Prior History

For those interested in the historical and cultural background to these events, here is a very brief overview. The story is set around the year 1200 BCE. There is a great deal of currently unresolved scholarly debate as to when and how the Israelites became the dominant force in the hill country. This story simply short-circuits this whole fascinating and lively debate, and picks a date that has quite good evidential support. Archaeologists call the thousand years leading up to that time the Bronze Age. After that comes the Iron Age, though in fact for a great many years bronze remained the preferred metal of choice. During most of the Bronze Age, especially the last three or four centuries, large and powerful states such as Egypt ruled the region, controlling by treaties a collection of vassal buffer states adjacent to their borders. Early in the Iron Age many small local states and kingdoms sprang up to challenge and in most cases replace the former system. There have been many explanations offered as to why this happened, often with contemporary echoes—new military technology, displaced groups of refugees, social disintegration, and climate change have all been suggested. This story is set at a time when the old social order is still very vigorous, but the winds of change are starting to blow with increasing strength.

During what is called the New Kingdom, from about 1500 BCE or so, Egypt controlled the region from her own borders all the way north to what we now call Syria and Lebanon. North from there was under the control of the Hittites, whose homeland was in modern Turkey. Egyptian control was focused almost entirely on the wealthier regions along the coast road and valley routes, and the hill country was largely neglected except for collection of tribute and occasional armed raids to enforce loyalty of local rulers. The Egyptians seem to have had very little interest in the land east of the Jordan River. Their political strategy was largely based on the principle of ensuring that separate towns and cities did not combine into larger or more powerful groups, and prohibiting towns from building serious defensive structures. This period of Canaanite life reveals fierce competitiveness between different groups, and a persistent habit of gaining favour with the Egyptian overlords by denouncing actions of other rulers that could be seen as treacherous. The most important documentary collection is a group of letters written from various rulers in Canaan and beyond to the Egyptian Pharaoh around 1350 or so, revealing a constant turmoil of intrigue and inter-city conflict. These are collectively called the Amarna Letters, from the location in Egypt where they were found.

Canaan, then, was a patchwork of small-scale cities and regions unable or unwilling to establish successful long-term relations with each other. It was also a place where people of quite different origins had come to live. Some groups had been settled in the region for a long time, and many settlements show great cultural continuity over hundreds of years. However, other groups had come into the region from the north. In some cases they formed a ruling elite that simply took control of cities by force of arms. In other cases whole tribal groups seem to have migrated together. We can trace these movements by noticing the use of names that are not Canaanite in origin, but reveal a different heritage. Gradually these differences disappeared, so that by the year 1000 or so, use of the distinctive northern names had almost vanished, either dying out or being absorbed into the mainstream of Canaanite life. In a Milk and Honeyed Land and related stories adopt the theory that the inhabitants of the four towns were one of these migrant groups, and retained a memory of this in their collective memory and in some family names.

Names of groups and individuals

The names of groups of people have been deliberately chosen as close imitations of the ancient names, rather than their modern equivalents. This is intended to help the reader meet these people on their own terms rather than through other lenses, whether modern ones or out of the bible. So the Canaanites here are called Kinahny, the Israelites are called Ibriym, and the Egyptians Mitsriy. Anyone familiar with the modern middle east will find many of the personal names of men and women in the story recognisable. The major liberty that has been taken is with the Ibriym, who have been given names that blend Egyptian and Hebrew elements. The bible suggests that the Israelites had been living in Egypt for many years prior to their arrival in Canaan, and it seems reasonable that they would have absorbed some Egyptian habits of speech. So one of the Ibriym is called Natan-Netjer, blending the Hebrew name Natan (‘gift’) with the Egyptian word netjer (‘god’). So the name as a whole means ‘gift of god’, rather like the later Hebrew names Nathaniel or Natanyahu. The Israelite war leader is not called Joshua, nor the closer version Yehoshua‘ (which means ‘Yahu is salvation’, Yahu being one form of the divine name used in the bible). Instead he is called Yahusharar, blending the same divine name with the Egyptian word sharar, meaning a son or small copy; the name as a whole therefore means ‘son of Yahu’.

Later history of the Gibeonites

The later history of the four towns can be deduced from two sources—results from archaeological digs, which are only available for some periods of time and small parts of the area, and accounts preserved in the Hebrew bible, which by nature only cover a limited range of topics and are presented from a single point of view. Of the four towns, we can be confident of the location of Gibeon, cautious about that of Kiriath Jearim, and have only a rough idea of the other two.

Archaeology confirms that Gibeon was a place of major importance from about 1200 BCE onwards, with substantial water supplies and a thriving wine industry to generate prosperity. Since the nearby track down to the coast has always been an important arterial route, it is likely that trade has always fed wealth into this region, and that information from earlier times simply has not yet been identified.

The bible records that various people in key military and religious positions in the early stages of Israelite history came from the four towns, so the inhabitants were evidently trusted with high rank in spite of being of foreign origin. Perhaps even more surprising are the times when the towns played a key role in the religious life of the nation. The ark of the covenant, at one time the most sacred relic, was stationed at Kiriath Jearim for a number of years — possibly even a number of decades — before being moved to Jerusalem. When, much later, Solomon succeeded to the throne and wanted divine confirmation of his fitness for the post, it was to the great high place of Gibeon that he went to seek a prophetic dream. We do not know if Joshua — Yahusharar — ever took up Damariel’s similar offer, but it is possible. Over time, Gibeon and the other three towns became more completely integrated into the nation, and we read less about particular events that took place there.

As for Damariel’s hope that he might one day be counted as a relative of Yahusharar, this was fulfilled in part. Although the inhabitants of the four towns are clearly identified as foreigners, and some of them have names of northern, non-Israelite origin, some of the later genealogies connect them with the Israelite tribes of Judah and Benjamin. This probably has more to do with geography than blood relationship, but also shows a willingness to grant the Gibeonite people a legitimate place in the hierarchy of the Israelite nation.

Whatever the true history of the four towns in this era might have been, the inhabitants were evidently much more than the enslaved wood cutters and water carriers which is how they are left in the book of Joshua. In both religion and poetry, they have left a lasting Canaanite impression on the ancient middle east.

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