Reviews of

The Archaeology of Israelite Society in Iron Age II

In Ancient Israel, Archaeology, Avraham FAUST, Eisenbrauns, HB/OT, Iron Age II, Kurtis Peters on January 27, 2014 at 6:34 pm


2014.1.1 | Avraham Faust, The Archaeology of Israelite Society in Iron Age II. Translated by Ruth Ludlum. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012. pp. xviii + 328. ISBN: 978-1-57506-179-5).

Review by Kurtis Peters, University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to Eisenbrauns for providing a review copy.

Avraham Faust has provided those of us in Biblical Studies with a gift. For decades, biblical scholars have tried to make sense of the society (or societies) represented in the biblical texts. What were they like? How was their social structure organized? Were there significant cultural differences among various regions within the kingdoms of Israel and Judah? These questions were usually answered by appeal to the Bible – whether the things it said or the things it left unsaid – or by appeal to basic synopses of archaeological and ethnographic studies on the matter.

Looking at the archaeology itself was usually outside the remit of biblical scholarship. What makes Faust’s book different is that, although an archaeological book for archaeologists, it is accessible to non-specialists. Faust is both clear about the archaeological data he presents and plain about how he explains them, to the point that the data could be straightforwardly applied to any general study about the society behind the Bible.

Faust’s first two chapters are dedicated to rehearsing the history of scholarship in both Israelite history and Israelite archaeology respectively. It is in the third chapter, detailing the nature of urban society, where Faust first begins to draw the reader into his perspective. Here he discusses the nature of cities in both Israel and Judah (keeping each separate). The size of houses, their quality of make, whether they share walls with other buildings – all these things are partial indicators of wealth and status in Iron II Palestine. By comparing the various buildings with one another in a settlement and by comparing that body of data with the data collected from other sites, Faust makes interesting conclusions on the wealth distribution in the urban areas of Judah and Israel. Both states demonstrate a wide spectrum, with extreme wealth and extreme poverty, but Judah’s cities tend toward an emptier gap in between the two, whereas Israel seems to have had a somewhat larger middle class as well (pp.115-116).

Chapters four and five take the discussion to the rural areas of the respective kingdoms, areas that are often overlooked in archaeology. Houses in the rural sector tended to be larger and more egalitarian (pp.159ff). Moreover, the difference in house size and arrangement led Faust to conclude that the extended family was more operative in rural areas than in the cities, where houses in the latter would only adequately hold a nuclear family. Faust here also spends time discussing the nature of forts and fortresses in rural areas, and their interaction with small settlements built up at their foot.

Chapters six through nine take some of the data from the earlier chapters and apply them to several case studies and persistent problems in archaeological studies. Chapter six is dedicated to describing the differences between the south and north, Judah and Israel, specifically in the Iron Age II. He claims, based upon wealth distribution and state organization that Israel should be understood as an advanced agrarian society, whereas Judah was a simple agrarian society. Israel had more economic diversity, a wider range of city sizes, and more evenly distributed social stratification, whereas Judah was dominated by Jerusalem, by the elite who resided there, and the vast bulk of society was otherwise quite poor (pp.197-204).

Chapter seven takes the reader through the tortuous debate of the nature of the so-called ‘four-room house.’ Faust surveys the various proposals for why the four-room house was so dominant – whether it was based upon ethnicity, function, ideology or something else. In the end, Faust very reasonably surmises that the house may well have developed out of agricultural functionality, but that it nevertheless came to be associated with the Israelite people and was used even when that agricultural function would have been meaningless (in palaces and the like).

Chapter eight is concerned with the nature of non-Israelite settlements in the northern kingdom and in what ways the archaeological record can illuminate our understanding of them. It seems as though the architecture, lacking the four-room house dominance, and the other material culture can provide insights into the different patterns of life among Canaanites who remained in the land that came to be dominated by the Israelite state. Faust’s major contribution here is demonstrating that looking for Canaanites and their lifestyle in urban settings is futile, whereas finding them in small rural settlements lacking four-room houses and distinctive Israelite pottery is much more fruitful.

The ninth chapter is where Faust spends his time laying out the process of urbanization throughout the Iron II period. Many of the rural settlements of Iron I had been abandoned and, as Faust argues, people tended to move to the urban centres of the newly established state(s) (pp.256-258). In the lowlands, where new urban centres were being created, social stratification intensified more rapidly than in the hill country, where familial structures were more firmly in place (pp.264ff). This chapter is followed by Faust’s epilogue, restating the major conclusions of the monograph and making suggestions for the future of this kind of research.

For many reasons Faust’s new thesis-turned-monograph should be appreciated and well accepted. For those readers in biblical studies, Faust has offered a very simple way to engage with critical archaeological scholarship in a way that is otherwise rare. He compromises neither the archaeology nor the accessibility. However, Faust deserves praise not only for his accessibility. His readers will quickly find that his insights into the archaeology of Iron Age II have immediate traction for those of us who ask questions about the nature of Israelite society and how that affects our reading of biblical texts. Though we have long thought that the prophetic books indicated that there was a large gap between the elite and the rest of society, here we have strong archaeological evidence for such a suggestion. However, that evidence is nuanced. Judah seemed more deeply divided than did Israel. Also, Faust’s chapter on rural settlements shows that the rural population may have, through larger family structures, maintained a higher quality of life than the average city dwellers. There likewise may have been tensions between these smaller towns and the relatively massive metropolis of Jerusalem – as may be gleaned from the prophet Micah. These conclusions, and many more, are vital to any study of the inhabitants of Palestine in the Iron Age II and we would do well to incorporate them into our nuanced exegesis of biblical texts. Finally, credit for the success of this volume also belongs to Ruth Ludlum, who translated this fine work from Hebrew into very readable and enjoyable English.

Kurtis Peters
University of Edinburgh
kurtis_peters [ at ]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: