Early Israelites

From Anarchy In Action

Rebelling against bureaucratic city-states, the early Israelites established a tribal, pastoral society that, while extremely patriarchal and theologically repressive, resisted statehood for about three hundred years until they established a monarchy in the tenth century BCE. For “These early Israelites had no temple, no city, no king,” writes the Catholic Worker theologian Laurel Dyksta.[1]

A monument erected by the pharoah Mernaptha reports that the Israelites emerged as a distinct nation by 1220 BCE.[2] Although the Old Testament describes an exodus of Israelite slaves from Egypt into Canaan, archaeological findings contradict the biblical account. Cities said to have been destroyed by the Israelites were actually destroyed long before the Israelites are said to have arrived in Canaan. There is no evidence that Israelites were in Egypt, or that masses of slaves left Egypt. Some scholars say, therefore, that the Israelites were actually dissident Canaanite farmers and herders who were sick of obeying and paying tribute to city-state rulers.[3]

Norman K. Gottwald, a sociologist and biblical scholar, argues that the Israelites were indigenous Canaanites who rebelled against their rulers and creditors: “All the evidence for early Israel points to its tribalism as a self-constructed instrument of resistance and of decentralized self-rule”.[4] Early Israelites had no taxes, no rent, and no interest. People had “approximately equal access”[5] to basic resources. Israel had “no specialized political offices”[6] Political structures included extended families and their protective associations called mispahot, a citizen army, the ritual congregation, the landless Levite priests, and the Rechabite metal specialists.[7]

Peter Gelderloos emphasizes the decentralization of the ancient Israelites:

Contrary to the exaggerations in the Bible, the United Kingdom of Israel was not a state, and the level of unification it achieved was minimal, limited to the battlefield and a few acts of temple construction, the most famous being in Jerusalem, a city that at the time only had a few hundred inhabitants. [63] Perhaps only the last of the three supposed kings—Saul, David, and Solomon—actually exercised a leadership role over the whole of the confederation. Significantly, the conquest story of the origins of Israel was made up a couple centuries later by state historians who wanted to invent a militarist pedigree in which the country was founded on the slaughter of heathens. Archaeological evidence shows that in reality, the Israelites and the Canaanites peacefully coexisted.

The northern tribal confederation of Israel, which contained the majority of the Israelite tribes, rejected Solomon’s attempt to found a dynasty, so that his son only had authority in the smaller, southern Kingdom of Judah. Politogenesis actually occurred over the following century, as the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel fought each other and also waged wars against the Moabites, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the neo-Babylonians. The Old Testament reflects the Kingdom of Judah’s disdain for Israel’s tolerance of polytheism, and documents Judah’s use of monotheism to legitimate the role of a supreme monarch supported by a priestly class. The Kingdom of Israel promoted polytheism—particularly the worship of the Phoenician god Baal—partly as a way to prevent their religious-cultural domination by Jerusalem (the capital of Judah) and partly as a reflection of their greater tolerance (or weaker control by a priestly class). Though the northern kingdom was more populous and architecturally more advanced, it can be argued that they did not develop into a state until later, under the Omrides dynasty.[8]

Anthropologist David Graeber notes, “Resistance, in the ancient Middle East, was always less a politics of rebellion than a politics of exodus, of melting away with one's flocks and families—often before both were taken away.”[9] Graeber later adds, “The world's Holy Books—the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, religious literature from the Middle Ages to this day—echo this voice of rebellion, combining contempt for corrupt urban life, suspicion of the merchant, and often, intense misogyny.”[10]

Despite the pervasiveness of misogyny in the Hebrew Bible, women may have been religious authorities in ancient Israel.[11]

Archeologists have found that the ancient Israelites burned cannibas during worship.[12]

By the time of the monarchy, if not earlier, the Israelites' theology replaced animistic tribalism with a belief in an anthromorphic God who trasnscended nature. Murray Bookchin argues that their fear of God "provided an ideology of unreasoned obedience, of rule by fiat and the powers of supernatural retribution."[13]

After the establishment of the monarchy, some Israelites practiced egalitarian living. Notably, the Essenes were a communistic (and perhaps vegetarian) Jewish order.


  1. Laurel A. Dyksta, Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002), 8.
  2. Dyksta, Set Them Free, 5-6.
  3. Dyksta, Set Them Free, 6-7.
  4. Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible in its Social World and in Ours (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993), 13.
  5. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible, xxvi.
  6. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible, 11.
  7. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible, 11.
  8. Peter Gelderloos, Worshiping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation (Oakland: AK PRess, 2017). Retrieved from Anarchist Library, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/peter-gelderloos-worshipping-power.
  9. David Graeber, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014), 183.
  10. ibid.
  11. Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judeao-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 74.
  12. 'Cannabis burned during worship' by ancient Israelites - study," 29 May 2020, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52847175.
  13. Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Palo Alto: Cheshire Books, 1982), 105.