Hebrew Social Organization
Descent Group Functions

We have already covered several significant functions of ancient Hebrew patrilineages in our discussion of structural characteristics of segmentary organization. In this section we will investigate more fully how they provided for their members and the place they assumed in the wider social, economic and political system. Biblical accounts of lineage activities portray them as corporate groups which strongly influenced territorial organization, political representation, religious leadership, and land ownership and established the major avenues of social continuity, property inheritance, and political succession.

Territorial Organization.

The fundamental basis of the upper levels of the segmentary system was the settlement of each tribe in a major territory exclusively under its ownership and control. Each region was named after one of the twelve tribal ancestors. The tribes' major lineage segments were in turn allotted territorial subdivisions, in which they held habitation and use rights. The Levites formed an exception to the tribal system. They were excluded from the general land allocations, and were assigned to urban centres dispersed within the regions of the other tribes.

Tribal Territories

tribal territories

Independent tribal rights to these possession are enshrined throughout the text of the Book of Joshua, which specifies the separate allotments made to the tribes and emphasizes the independent responsibilities that they assumed to expropriate them from their Canaanite inhabitants, despite the more notable descriptions of unified battles against Jerico and Air.

Accounts of the relationship between tribes and their land bases suggest that possession entailed both administrative control and agricultural tenure, although actual allocations for farming were probably organized by much smaller lineage segments. The text gives no indication of the structure of territorial administration, but allusions are made to tribal leaders, who assumed their status on the basis of familial authority throughout the period of early settlement and to some extent during the united kingdom under David and Solomon. It also describes the "judges", authority figures with more personalized and prophetic powers, who ruled primarily over their own individual tribes.( Judges).

The range of discretion that tribal leaders exercised to pursue autonomous action is of course substantially different in the periods of the judges and the kings. Before the monarchy, the territorial units organized their own armies and engaged in military and other political pursuits without reference to the other tribes or a central authority. They conducted major campaigns against Canaanite opponents, as indicated in the following table:

Exploits of the Judges
Judge Tribal Range Comment Passage
Caleb Judah Seizes Canannite territory. Partial alliance with the Simeonites Judges 1
Ehud All Frees Israel from Moabite overrule Judges 3
Deborah All A Ephraimite.
Frees Israel from Jaban, the "king of Canaan".
Judges 4
Gideon Abiezer
(a subdivision of Manasseh)
Battles against Midianite aggression with a contingent of 300 Abiez'rites.
Later asks assistance from the rest of the Manassenites
and tribes of Asher, Zeb'ulun, Naph'tali, and Ephraim
Judges 6
Abimelech Shechem
(a subdivision of Manasseh)
Son of Gideon.
Rules as king of Shechem, a possession of his mother's lineage.
Judges 9
Jephthath Gilead
(a subdivision of Manasseh)
Battles the Ammonites in the TransJordan.
Later battles the Ephraimites.
Judges 11
Samson All Delivers Israel from the Philistines Judges 13
Jonathan Dan A Levite from Judah.
Accompanies the Danites to settle a new territory
Sets up an altar for an idol
Judges 17

These accounts emphasize the autonomy of the tribal units and in three cases (Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah) of major segmentary units within them. In some instances, the tribes form temporary alliances with all or some of their counterparts, usually during periods of subjugation to a major regional power. In others, they engage in internal warfare, as during the prolonged conflict between the Benjaminites and the rest of the tribes ( Judges 20) or the pitched battle between Gilead and Ephraim after Jephthah's unaided victory over the Ammorites ( Judges 12 ). The description of this incident also provides interesting evidence of intertribal linguistic variation. The Gileadite soldiers are able to identify the routed Ephraimites by asking them to say "Shibboleth", to which they can be expected to give a variant pronunciation, "Sibboleth" ( Judges 12: 6).

Tribal distinctiveness and divisiveness are both evident in the period of the kings, which follows the era of the autonomous judges. Saul, a Benjaminite, is appointed the first ruler of a supposed united monarchy. He is challenged by David, from the tribe of Judah, and their subsequent competition is expressed in terms of tribal opposition. David is firmly supported by his tribesmen who are pitted in most accounts against the numerically inferior Benjamites, in spite of Saul's supposed claim on the full body of Israelite forces. David is later appointed king of Judah, which he uses as a base to oppose Saul's heir, Ishbosheth, and eventually to establish rulership over a unified Israel. (II Samuel 1). This coherent arrangement is short lived, lasting only through the reigns of David and Solomon. Rehoboam, Solomon's son, is immediately faced with divided realm. His own regime is restricted primarily to his native territory, Judah, and neigbouring Benjamin. The other ten tribes form a tenuous alliance within the kingdom of Israel.

© Brian Schwimmer, All rights reserved
Department of Anthropology
University of Manitoba
Created 1995