The Journal of Military History 69.1 (2005) 197-204
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The Military History of Ancient Israel
Rose Mary Sheldon
The publication of Richard Gabriel's latest book provides an excellent opportunity for addressing some thorny issues in the field of the military history of the Bible. Gabriel has written a military narrative for the conquest of ancient Israel by the successors of Moses with an eye to logistics, tactics, manpower, fortifications, command and control, weapons and weapons manufacture, troop leadership, and military strategy. He is correct in saying that this is the first such book to appear in English. Only Jacob Liver's book, The Military History of the Land of Israel in Biblical Times, is comparable, but that work has yet to be translated from the Hebrew. On the surface, Gabriel's book will be convincing to military historians, but only those motivated by religious belief or who are completely unaware of the last half century of scholarship on the subject.
There is no more complex issue in Near Eastern studies than who the Israelites were, how they got into Canaan, and by what means they came to dominate the area. The great French biblical historian Roland de Vaux, in his book, The Early History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster [End Page 197] Press, 1978), described the emergence of Israel in Palestine as "the most difficult problem in the whole history of Israel" (p. 475) and he was not exaggerating. The easiest way to deal with this problem is to assume that the biblical texts present history accurately. This view has come to be known as the Conquest Model. The last half-century, however, has witnessed an intense dialogue—even polemic—on the topic as two other major reconstructions of the evidence have vied for center stage. As early as the 1920s, there was already a group of scholars in Germany who rejected the Conquest Model. Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth put forward what came to be known as the "Peaceful Infiltration Model" as an alternative to the largely American fundamentalist approach. The German school discarded the stories in Joshua entirely and concentrated on modern ethnographic studies of Middle Eastern pastoral nomads who wandered over long distances but eventually put down roots as peasants or townspeople. They compared this modern phenomenon to the biblical tradition of Israel's ancestors described in Genesis as wandering, tent-dwelling shepherds. In this view, the Israelites did not fight their way in through the Sinai, but rather were part of a natural process of settling down in one place that has been going on in this region for millennia. In this view, the Israelites did not need military reconnaissance; they were simply shepherds looking for better pasture.
Finally, in 1962, George Mendenhall of the University of Michigan, a student of the famous biblical archaeologist and historian William Foxwell Albright, published an article which rejected both the "Conquest" and "Peaceful Infiltration" models ("The Biblical Conquest of Palestine," Biblical Archaeology 25, no. 1 : 66-87). Mendenhall believed that Israel did not win against its neighbors because of better military weapons or superior military organization. He believed that Israelite victory came as a result of a religiously motivated internal revolution. His theory was based solely on an analysis of internal social developments in Canaan during the Late Bronze Age. The conflict was thus not between the nomads and the settled population but between the rural population and the rulers of the city-states. Mendenhall believed that there was a peasant revolt, united in its worship of the God YHWH. The new religious movement placed its faith in a single God who established egalitarian laws of social conduct and who communicated directly to each member of the community. The hold of the kings over the community was therefore effectively broken by the spread of the new faith. The Israelite conquest was accomplished without invasion or immigration...