Friday, April 8, 2016

Tribes of Israel
When I was a young person, in Sunday school in our small town church, I liked the old maps of Bible lands. They were the kind that were mountaineer on a stand, like an old-fashioned screen for watching home movies, only you moved each map page up and over whenever you wanted to stay each map. In my young mind I connected them to the folded maps, free at filling stations, in the glove compartment of our family car. Having a map helped you know where you're going, and in serious Bible study, that seemed true as well.

Here is a helpful site, with a map, that discusses the Tribes of Israel: The book of Joshua is a difficult book, full of violence and destruction. In the Deuteronomic theology of the book, the peoples of the Land were so wicked they had fallen under God's judgment, and so the advancing Israelites were instruments of God's wrath---like the fires of Sodom or the flood waters of Noah---as well as inheritors of God's promises. But it is interesting to me to see how the Joshua text locates the land allotments among the tribes, including the trans-Jordan tribes Gad and Reuben and a portion of Manasseh. 

That site also indicates some important things about the various sacred sites of the Bible. Here's a quotation from the middle of that article: "The confederation of the twelve tribes was primarily religious, based upon belief in the one 'God of Israel' with whom the tribes had made a covenant and whom they worshiped at a common sacral center as the 'people of the Lord.' The Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant were the most sacred objects of the tribal union and biblical tradition shows that many places served as religious centers in various periods. During the desert wanderings, 'the mountain of God,' that is, Sinai or Horeb, served as such a place, as did the great oasis at Kadesh-Barnea where the tribes remained for some time and from where the tribes attempted a conquest of the land. 

"Many sites in Canaan are mentioned as having sacred associations or as being centers of pilgrimage. Some of these, such as Penuel, where Jacob received the name Israel, Beth-El, where the Ark rested, and Beer-Sheba, go back to patriarchal times. Jacob built an altar at Shechem and the tribes gathered there 'before the Lord' and made a covenant with Him in Joshua's time. Shiloh enjoyed special importance as a central site for the tribes. There they gathered under Joshua to divide up the land by lot, and it was there that they placed the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant. Eli's family, which traced its descent from Aaron, the high priest, served at Shiloh, and it was to Shiloh that the Israelites turned for festivals and sacrifices.

"The multiplicity of cultic places raises the question of whether all twelve tribes were actually centered about one amphictyonic site. It may be that as a tribe's connections with the amphictyony were weakened for various reasons, the tribe began to worship at one or another of the sites. Possibly, different sites served the several subgroups among the tribes. Beer-Sheba and Hebron, for example, served the southern groups of tribes; Shechem, Shiloh, and Gilgal were revered by the tribes in the center of the country; and the shrine at Dan served the northern tribes. The likelihood of a multiplicity of shrines is strengthened by the fact that clusters of Canaanite settlements separated the southern and central tribes and divided the central tribes from those in Galilee. It is possible that various shrines served different tribes simultaneously, while the sanctuary which held the Ark of the Lord was revered as central to all twelve." 

As this site indicates, the multiplicity of worship sites became problematic once Israelite worship was consolidated in Jerusalem. By that time, Shiloh had long since been destroyed. 

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