The Semitic, Nomadic Peoples of Arabia

  June 16, 2022   Read time 6 min
The Semitic, Nomadic Peoples of Arabia
For many people over many centuries, mankind’s history before the coming of Christianity was the history of the Jews and what they recounted of the history of others.

Both were written down in the books called the Old Testament, the sacred writings of the Jewish people, subsequently diffused worldwide in many languages by the Christian missionary impulse and the invention of printing. They were to be the fi rst people to arrive at an abstract notion of God and to forbid his representation by images. No people has produced a greater historical impact from such comparatively insignifi cant origins and resources – origins so insignifi cant, indeed, that it is still diffi cult to be sure of very much about them.

The origins lie among the Semitic, nomadic peoples of Arabia, whose prehistoric and historic tendency was to press into the richer lands of the Fertile Crescent nearest to their original homes. The first stage of their story of which history must take notice is the age of the patriarchs, whose traditions are embodied in the biblical accounts of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There do not seem to be good grounds for denying that men who were the origins of these gigantic and legendary figures actually existed. If they did, it was in about 1800 BCand their story is a part of the confusion following the end of Ur. The Bible states that Abraham came from Ur to Canaan; this is quite plausible and would not confl ict with what we know of the dispersal of Amorite and other tribes in the next 400years. Those among them who were to be remembered as the descendants of Abraham became known in the end as ‘Hebrews’, a word meaning ‘wanderer’, which does not appear before Egyptian writings and inscriptions of the fourteenth or thirteenth century BC , long after their fi rst settlement in Canaan.

It is in Canaan that Abraham’s people are first distinguishable in the Bible. They are depicted as pastoralists, organized tribally, quarrelling with neighbours and kinsmen over wells and grazing, still liable to be pushed about the Middle East by the pressures of drought and hunger. One group among them went down into Egypt, we are told, perhaps in the early seventeenth century BC ; it was to appear in the Bible as the family of Jacob. As the story unfolds in the Old Testament, we learn of Joseph, the great son of Jacob, rising high in Pharaoh’s service. At this point we might hope for help from Egyptian records. It has been suggested that this happened during the Hyksos ascendancy, since only a period of large-scale disturbance could explain the improbable pre-eminence of a foreigner in the Egyptian bureaucracy. It may be so, but there is no evidence to confi rm or disprove it.
None of this would matter very much, and certainly would not interest anyone except professional scholars, were it not for events which occurred 1000 – 3000 years later. Then, the destinies of the whole world were swayed by the Christian and Islamic civilizations whose roots lay in the religious tradition of a tiny, not very easily identifi able Semitic people, for centuries hardly distinguishable from many similar wanderers by the rulers of the great empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt. This was because the Hebrews somehow arrived at a unique religious vision.
Throughout the world of the ancient Middle East it is possible to see at work forces which were likely to make monotheistic religious views more appealing. The power of local deities was likely to be questioned after contemplation of the great upheavals and disasters which time and time again swept across the region after the fi rst Babylonian empire. The religious innovations of Akhnaton and the growing assertiveness of the cult of Marduk have both been seen as responses to such a challenge. Yet only the Hebrews and those who came to share their beliefs were able to push the process home, at some point before the seventh century BCtranscending polytheism and localism to arrive at a coherent and uncompromising monotheism. The fi rst stage of refi nement was the idea that the people of Israel (as the descendants of Jacob came to be called) owed exclusive allegiance to Yahweh, the tribal deity, a jealous God, who had made a covenant with his people to bring them again to the promised land, the Canaan to which Yahweh had already brought Abraham out of Ur, and which remains a focus of racial passion right down to the present day. The covenant was a master idea. Israel was assured that if it did something, then something desirable would follow. This was very unlike the religious atmosphere of Mesopotamia or Egypt.
As the Israelite religion developed, Yahweh could be seen as transcendent deity: ‘The lord is in his holy temple, the lord’s throne is in heaven’ says a psalm. He had created everything, but existed independently of his creation, a universal being. ‘Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I fl ee from thy presence?’ asked the Psalmist. The creative power of Yahweh was something else differentiating the Jewish from the Mesopotamian tradition. He was for Israel what was later described in the Christian creed, ‘maker of all things, by whom all things are made’. Moreover, he made Man in his own image, as a companion, not as a slave; Man was the culmination and supreme revelation of His creative power, a creature able to know good from evil, as did Yahweh Himself. Finally, Man moved in a moral world set by Yahweh’s own nature. Only He was just; man-made laws might or might not refl ect His will, but He was the sole author of right and justice.
Though the biblical account cannot be accepted as it stands, it should be treated with respect as our only evidence for much of Jewish history. It contains much that can be related to what is known or inferred from other sources. Archaeology comes to the historians’ help only with the arrival of the Hebrews in Canaan. The story of conquest told in the Book of Joshua fi ts evidence of destruction in the Canaanite cities in the thirteenth century BC . What we know of Canaanite culture and religion also fi ts the Bible’s account of Hebrew struggles against local cult practice and a pervasive polytheism. Palestine was disputed between two religious traditions and two peoples throughout the twelfth century and this, of course, again illustrates the collapse of Egyptian power, since this crucial area could not have been left to be the prey of minor Semitic peoples had the monarchy’s power still been effective. It now seems likely that the Hebrews attracted to their support other nomadic tribes, the touchstone of alliance being adherence to Yahweh. After settlement, although the tribes quarrelled with one another, they continued to worship Yahweh and this was for some time the only uniting force among them, for tribal divisions formed Israel’s only political institution.

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