I’m continuing my way through Niels Peter Lemche’s Early Israel. In this post, I have two items:
1. On pages 136-137, Lemche states the following:
“Nomadic societies are usually a-historical, which means that with the exception of a few rather general features they do not recall historical events which are more than a few generations old. Moreover, such memories as are preserved tend to take the form of historical legends…Nor does the village often have any clear understanding of the history of the society in question. Should one undertake to compare the sort of recollections it is possible to encounter with those preserved by other sources (i.e., sources whose origin lies outside of the village in question, such as national archives or travelogues), one soon discovers that such sources do not necessarily agree with one another.”
When I went to Israel in 2006, I listened to a presentation by a scholar, who criticized the form/traditio-critical method of such scholars as Gunkel and Noth. She argued that, in ancient societies (and maybe she was more specific about this), historical memory only lasted for 120 years, and so it’s unlikely that the Hebrew Bible contains oral legends that were faithfully and accurately transmitted for a long period of time before they were written down. Some of us were wondering where she got her “120 years” figure. It turns out that Lemche makes a similar sort of argument. I don’t know what his evidence is—though he does spend a lot of pages looking at twentieth century nomadic societies and villages. Has he actually compared nomadic stories with more official sources?
(UPDATE: On page 22 of Lemche’s Prelude to Israel’s Past, I found more information on this. Lemche cites a book by Patricia Kirkpatrick, who was actually the person I heard in Israel. According to Lemche, her claim, which is “Based upon modern data”, is that “oral traditions cannot survive for more than 150 years.”)
Where I stand on this, I do not know. I acknowledge Thomas Thompson’s argument that a story can have variations, making it questionable that we can arrive at an “ancient account.” At the same time, I’m also sensitive to the argument of people like James Hoffmeier and William Dever that the Bible contains material that looks quite ancient, in that it reflects ancient times.
2. Lemche’s book is largely a critique of Norman Gottwald’s peasant revolt model, which says that Israel was started by revolting Canaanite peasants. Although, so far, I only have pieces of Lemche’s critique, I want to mention some times when Lemche takes a swipe at Gottwald, or Gottwald’s scholarly predecessor, Mendenhall.
On page 153, Lemche criticizes Gottwald and Mendenhall for portraying pastoral nomads as peaceful, noting that they could actually be “bellicose” and “difficult for state authorities to deal with.” When the state couldn’t deal with the nomads, often what happened was that “peasant communities disintegrated and substantial areas became nomadic.” Lemche’s general model—at least what I saw in Ancient Israel—was that peasants became refugees who fled to the central hills and started Israel. Is Lemche leading us to that conclusion in Early Israel?
On pages 167-168, Lemche says that peasants do not necessarily have to revolt, which may be a critique of Gottwald in that Lemche is saying that, just because the peasants were poor and in debt, that didn’t mean that they revolted, for many peasants endure their tough situation. But Lemche also makes the point that reform and revolution are often encouraged from outside of the peasantry—by cities and elites. Is his point here that the peasants wouldn’t have initiated a revolt and started Israel on their own, for they needed outside encouragement—which they would be unlikely to have received, for why would the cities want them to leave and go to the central hills? I don’t know.
In Chapter 3, “Egalitarianism and Segmentation”, Lemche takes on two of Gottwald’s views on tribal society. First, Gottwald thinks that segmented societies—societies that are segmented into tribes and families—are egalitarian, whereas Gottwald argues that tribal societies can have ranks and authorities (although he also says that there may not be an authority to judge between the segments, which brought to my mind the kinsman justice that we see in the Hebrew Bible, in which a kinsman of a slain person takes the law into his own hands). Second, Gottwald thought that true tribal societies were exogamous—tribes forming defensive bonds with other tribes by means of intermarriage. Lemche appears to acknowledge that this happened, and for good reason, but he also says that “the Middle East is dominated by endogomous marriage practices”—people marrying only within the tribe. So Lemche is against Gottwald’s generalizations.
I can somewhat understand how Gottwald’s first characterization of tribes fits in with his peasant revolt model, for Gottwald thought that Israel was an egalitarian society—an alternative to the hierarchical Canaanite city-states. But I have no idea how his second characterization relates to his peasant revolt model.