What were the ethnic origins of earliest Israel?

It is commonly believed that the establishment of ancient Israel is substantially as presented in the Bible – an invasion of the land of Canaan by Israelite slaves, descended from Jacob and led out of Egypt by Moses. In this post, I want to lay out the picture that modern scholarship paints of earliest Israel.

Identifying what is meant by ‘earliest Israel’ is the first hurdle. The Merneptah Stele provides “first-hand evidence that an entity called Israel existed in Palestine in the years around 1210 BCE”1 This is the earliest reference to ‘Israel’ as an entity. The ‘Israel’ of the stele is mentioned in the context of a military incursion by the Pharaoh Merneptah into the Palestine area, and is identified with other locations there. “By association, therefore, one can conclude that the Israel mentioned in the inscription also was located in Palestine.”2 Miller and Hayes note that whilst other entities noted on the stele (e.g. Canaan and the cities of Ashkelon and Gezer) were lands or cities, “the scribes identified Israel not as a land or as a city, but as a people.”3


The Merneptah Stele (Source: Wikipedia)

Prior to the 1980s, the Biblical view of the Israelites as invaders of Canaan from outside was more-or-less accepted. A range of archaeological investigations rapidly changed this, most notably that of Israel Finkelstein (1988). The view subsequently developed that earliest Israel was an autochthonous development in the hill country of the southern Levant. “It is now well established that the beginning of the Iron Age saw a significant shift in settlement patterns, resulting in the proliferation of small sites in the highland regions…It is almost unanimously agreed that this wave of settlement is to be associated in some sense with Israel’s arrival or emergence in Canaan.”4 The earliest Israelites were subsistence herders and farmers.5 “Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people – the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages”6 However, Bloch-Smith adds a cautionary note: “Not a single feature of those settlements may be conclusively identified as exclusively ‘Israelite’.”7

Thus, in investigating the ethnic origins of early (i.e. Iron Age 1) Israel, we are dealing with subsistence farmers in small scattered settlements in the highlands of Palestine, who somehow came to see themselves as different from their Canaanite neighbours, and who subsequently institutionalised that difference into the monarchic Israel and Judah of the later Iron Age.

What, then, were the ethnic origins of these people? To discover this, we first need a working definition of ethnicity. Frederik Barth characterised ethnicity as the ‘social organisation of cultural difference’8 – a view of ethnicity as a social activity, rather than traits or material assets of a group. Ethnicity “becomes defined through the social interaction that occurs between groups as each constructs what it means to be ‘one of us’ and what it means to be ‘one of them’.”9 The defining feature for our purposes is that Barth’s definition focuses on “the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses.”10 Several observations are important here: A perception of ethnicity can be internal (i.e. in comparison to others inside the ethnic group) as well as external (comparison with ‘outsiders’). Also, traits and material assets are not irrelevant to the discussion; they are frequently important in defining boundaries. Finally, and most importantly in a discussion of early Israel, the boundaries are permeable. There are likely to be characteristics of ancient Israel that are also found among Canaanites, and thus not markers of peculiarly Israelite ethnicity. They are also permeable over time – Israel as a separate ethnos did not suddenly appear in 1207 BCE, just in time to be recorded on the Merneptah Stele!

Miller summarises a widely-cited list of ethnic identifiers:

  1. a common proper name, to identify and express theessenceof its community;

  2. a Myth of common ancestry that includes the idea of a common origin in time and place and that gives an ethnic group a sense of fictive kinship;

  3. shared historical memories, or better, shared memories of a common past or pasts, including heroes, events, and their commemoration;

  4. one or more elements of common culture, which need not be specified but normally include religion, customs, or language;

  5. a link with a homeland;

  6. a sense of solidarity.11

With these tools at our disposal, it would appear a relatively easy task to trace the ethnic origins of early Israel. Surely, for example, one major factor that set the earliest Israelites apart ethnically was the worship of Yahweh? Unfortunately not. The exclusive worship of Yahweh as a marker of Israelite ethnicity is a relatively late development12. Indeed, a survey of personal and place names in the earliest-identified Biblical writings indicates that Baal and El predominate. “The complete absence of the name Yahweh from early Iron Age toponyms is striking… it must be taken as a reflection of the relative unimportance of the worship of Yahweh among the early Israelites.”13 The name of the supreme god, El, is in the word ‘Israel’, the name of the people identified in the Merneptah Stele. However, El was also a god of the Canaanites, the Amorites and other Levantine cultures. El worship is not an exclusive characteristic of Iron Age 1 highland farmers.

Is there any biblical evidence that may be counted as an ethnic identifier? Is the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery and invasion of Canaan, for example, a primordial Myth of kinship; a shared historical memory? Miller notes, “Other than selected material in Judges or 1 Samuel, most scholars working specifically on Israelite ethnicity in the pre-monarchic period regard the biblical narratives portraying this era as late and historically unreliable.”14 Dever notes that the absence of defensive walls in highlands villages indicates that the newcomers were not invaders, revolutionaries or “social bandits”, but simply immigrants from elsewhere in Canaan.15 Whilst it is possible to defensively construct plausible models of ethnicity based on Biblical literalism16, this possibly says more about 21st Century American and Israeli ethnicity than 12th Century BCE Palestine.

It seems therefore that if we are to reliably discover Israel’s ethnic origins, the remaining source is archaeology.

One area where there is extensive remains from Iron 1 highlands villages is that of ceramics. Dever draws a range of conclusions regarding the ethnicity of what he terms “proto-Israel”, from primarily ceramic evidence. For instance, from the absence of imported or Philistine pottery, he concludes that the highland villages were relatively isolated from outside influence17. From the homogeneous character and absence of luxury wares, he concludes that there existed an unstratified socio-economic structure18. Not many cult vessels have been unearthed, suggesting a lack of cult or organised religious personnel19. Finally, these latter two factors are also taken to indicate that “the aesthetic and religious values of ‘Canaanite’ culture are now either forgotten or are irrelevant in a frontier society and subsistence economy. The ‘utilitarian’ character of the pottery would seem to reflect a similarly utilitarian society”20.

Overall, the differences Dever notes between these highland farmers and their urban Canaanite forebears are quite nuanced and do not appear sufficiently remarkable to qualify as indicators of ethnos. Furthermore, despite his assertion that it is not on ceramic evidence alone that he bases his conclusions, pottery is in fact his substantial foundation. Finally, it is impossible from his evidence to discern whether they regarded themselves as ethnically different from the urban Canaanites.

One potentially startling marker of early Israel’s ethnicity is a diet devoid of pork. This would be consistent with later Iron Age Israel and Levitical dietary stipulations21. Finkelstein forthrightly states that there are no pig bones found in Iron 1 highlands bone assemblages – but are found in Iron 1 deposits left by Philistines, Ammonites and Moabites22. (Tellingly perhaps, he makes no mention of Canaanites.) Opinions differ, however. Hesse and Wapnish state: “It is evident that there is no clear singular relationship that ties either pig bone abundance or its absence to social identity that we can use as a marker, because other factors can produce similar effects.”23

Another archaeological-sourced characteristic once thought to be a marker of ethnos is the 4-roomed pillared house commonly found throughout the highlands. However, this is not now considered exclusively “Israelite”24. Bloch-Smith notes in addition that this architectural feature does not continue in the collective memory (as, for example, pork abstinence does), and thus does not contribute to ethnos25.


Dig of ancient 4-roomed house (Source: biblicalarchaeology.org)

It seems that archaeology too is inconclusive in uncovering the ethnicity of Merneptah’s “Israel”. Beyond this point, we leave the realm of science (falsifiable hypotheses based on evidence) and enter the realm of educated guesses. One of the better approaches in this regard is that of Bloch-Smith. She notes the limitations of material cultural evidence: “Not until the 11th or 10th Centuries BCE did pottery, settled areas, burial practices, demographic patterns and architecture coalesce into forms continuous through to the 6th Century”26. And, it has to be added, what little can be said of primordial Israel’s ethnos is unremarkable – knowing, as we do, how remarkable it becomes!

Bloch-Smith employs what she terms a “Tell-Tale” approach, to define ‘Israel’ on its own terms. Recognising that Israelites and Canaanites shared a material culture, (as indicated by both the Bible and archaeology27) she instead looks to both these sources for ethnic factors that, over time, the Israelites themselves used to differentiate from the Philistines. She concludes that four ethnic features are identifiable: circumcision, short beards, abstinence from pork and a perception of military inferiority28. Philistines being un-circumcised and clean shaven may be inferred from Egyptian epigraphical sources29, and however unclear pork abstinence is in relation to Canaanites, there is a clear differentiation in relation to Philistines.

The Bible definitely depicts the Israelites facing seemingly overwhelming Philistine forces (for example the David and Goliath story). However, archaeological support for Bloch-Smith’s fourth contention (in the form of smithing facilities in villages, metal weapons recovered, etc.) is mixed. Nonetheless, Bloch-Smith constructs a not unreasonable picture of early ‘Israel’: Pressure and incursions from Philistines forced progressive abandonment of the unwalled villages and increased highlands self-identity as ‘non-Philistine’. “Perceived vulnerability, expressed in terms of military inferiority, may have been an aspect of the confederation’s circumstantial self-identity”30. Putative primordial kinship was similarly evoked to spur cohesion in the face of the threat, and a supreme commander “bold enough to initiate battle by killing a Philistine prefect” (1 Sam 13:4) was appointed to attain sufficient military organisation31. This commander later became king – a “shared institution” perpetuating group identity32. Concurrently, the most high god El increasingly converged with the war god Yahweh as the latter was invoked in the face of military threat. This later coalesced into a state religion, an additional “shared institution”33.

The ethnic origins of earliest Israel remain an enigma. The Merneptah Stele inscription provides a time and a place for “earliest Israel” and demands that we fill in the blanks. The Bible is expansive on how late monarchic and exilic Judah perceived its ethnos, and furnishes a fantastic, captivating image of how that society viewed its origins, but its story is largely inconsistent with the discoveries of recent archaeology. The latter tells us that the early Israelites were highland farmers whose population exploded in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age. It tells us they didn’t feel threatened enough to wall their villages, and lived a fairly basic lifestyle, without the luxury items of urban Canaanites – and that they abstained from pork. But archaeology is silent on the crucial question of how they themselves perceived their difference from their Canaanite ancestors, and this essential point may be lost to time.


Barth, Fredrik (1998), Ethnic groups and boundaries: the social organization of culture differenceWaveland Press, Illinois

Bimson, J.J. (1991), ‘Merneptah’s Israel and Recent Theories of Israelite Origins’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 49 3-29.

Bloch-Smith, E. (2003), ‘Israelite Ethnicity in Iron I:  Archaeology preserves what is remembered and what is forgotten in Israel’s history’, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 401-435.

Dever, William G. (1995), ‘Ceramics, Ethnicity, and the Question of Israel’s Origins’, Biblical Archaeologist 58 200-213.

Finkelstein, I. (1988), The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement: Israel Exploration Society, Jerusalem.

Finkelstein, I. and Silberman, N.A., (2001), The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts, Touchstone, New York.

Miller, James C. (2008), ‘Ethnicity and the Hebrew Bible: Problems and Prospects’, Currents in Biblical Research 6.2 170-213.

Miller, J.M. and Hayes, J.H. (2006), A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, SCM, London.

Provan, I., Long, V.P., Longman, T. (2003), ‘A Biblical History of Israel’, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville.

The Bible (New International Version) (2006), Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois.

1 Bimson (1991), p. 13.
2 Miller & Hayes (2006), p. 40.
3 Ibid, p. 40.
4 Bimson, (1991) p.4.
5 Finkelstein & Silberman (2001), p. 110.
6 Ibid, p. 118.
7 Bloch-Smith (2003), p. 402
8Barth, Frederik, book title
9Miller, J.C (2008), p. 172
10Ibid, p. 172.
11 Ibid, p. 174-175. I have amended (2) to include the word “Myth” with a capital “M”. Miller and others (e.g. Bloch-Smith (2003)) are prescriptive as to the fictive nature of such myths. I disagree that they need necessarily be fictive.
12 e.g. Isaiah 45:5-6
13 Van der Toorn (1996), p. 241.
14Miller, J.C. (2008) p. 176
15Dever, p. 208
16 e.g. Provan, Long & Longman, p. 143-146.
17 Dever (1995), p. 204
18Ibid, p. 205
19Ibid, p. 205
20 Ibid, p. 205
21 Leviticus 11: 7,8
22 Finkelstein & Silberman (2001), p. 119
23 Hesse and Wapnish (1997), discussed in Miller (2008, p. 179). Also Bloch-Smith, p. 407.
24 Bloch-Smith, p. 407
25 Ibid, p. 407
26 Ibid, p. 411
27 Ibid, p. 412
28 Ibid, p. 415
29 Ibid, p. 415
30 Ibid, p. 421
31 Ibid,
32 Ibid.
33 Ibid.
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One Response to What were the ethnic origins of earliest Israel?

  1. Michael says:

    Interesting article that brings much-needed scientific approach to a topic that is too often debated from ideological standpoints.


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