James C. Scott is a distinguished scholar who works on multiple topics and diverse eras. At Yale, he holds the intriguing title of Sterling Professor of Political Science, Anthropology, Forestry, and Environmental Studies. Even he might be surprised, though, to find himself cited on matters of Biblical history and archaeology. He may well offer a provocative and surprising angle on the origins of ancient Israel – and even of contemporary mission history.
In 2009, Scott published The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, a study of various ethnic groups in South-East Asia. What these groups have in common is that they live on the margins of the highly civilized empires and states that have dominated those regions for millennia. They especially live in upland areas of marginal value to agricultural empires, and they have proud traditions of defending themselves ferociously against outside invaders. Surveying many similar societies scattered far apart, Scott finds enough common features that he classifies them all as part of Zomia, a term coined in 2002 by Dutch historian Willem van Schendel to describe fringe highland societies. Examples of such peoples would include India’s Nagas and Mizos, the Hmong of Vietnam, Myanmar’s Karen and Chin. Worldwide, perhaps a hundred million people today live in Zomian regions.
Anthropologists have long studied such communities, but Scott offers a surprising, and controversial, take on how they came into existence. The conventional view is that these tribal communities never succeeded in making the leap to organized society or statehood, with all its characteristic institutions, all its political complexity and social hierarchy. For whatever reason, history left them behind. In the language of Victorian anthropology, they never progressed from barbarism to civilization, and that is their (tragic) loss.
Scott, in contrast, sees the “primitive” ways of the Zomians as a deliberate choice, rather than a sad failure to launch. Rather than failing to evolve civilization or statehood, they actually had early experiences of these conditions, but these were so traumatic that they vowed never to repeat them. In earlier eras, groups and tribes had lived under the rule of civilized states, who had oppressed them ruthlessly, particularly with harsh taxes, crushing debts, and forced labor. At some point, the tribes fled, literally taking to the hills, where they established new communal structures.
Beyond merely rejecting states, they consciously framed their customary laws and social mores to prevent themselves ever again facing such dreadful circumstances. If that meant accepting disorganization rather than single rule, fragmentation rather than unity, communal poverty rather than wealth, luxury and stratification – so be it. If outsiders dismissed them as primitive and anarchic, their opinions were irrelevant. Zomians were happily anarchistic. Scott even claims that Zomians deliberately gave up literacy, because they associated writing with bureaucracy and state oppression.
As Scott writes,
Not so very long ago, however, such self-governing peoples were the majority of humankind. Today, they are seen from the valley kingdoms as ‘our living ancestors,’ ‘what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism and civilization.’ on the contrary, I argue that hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.
Corvée labor means work that the state demanded from poor subjects, especially on roads and public work projects. I’ll come back to “maroons” in a moment.
Not every scholar accepts the thesis of The Art of Not Being Governed, which has been the subject of lively controversies. They argue with some of Scott’s specific claims, and see his overall thesis as romanticized. But for present purposes, let’s accept that Scott is broadly correct. Now, can anyone else think of an ancient society that met these criteria?
It claimed to be founded by escaped slaves fleeing outrageous oppression and forced labor.
It consecrated that experience of escape and flight in its scriptures and ritual life.
For centuries, it tried to avoid the rigid political order implied by having a king.
In its religious and legal texts, it placed tight restrictions on creditors’ ability to enforce debts, so that debts would be canceled in specified years.
So hostile was this society to memories of slavery that it specified years in which those bonds would be thrown off.
So sensitive was it to the threat of oppression by great landowners that it laid deadly sanctions against moving boundary stones.
Ancient Israel, in fact, sounds thoroughly Zomian.
The historicity of the Exodus has long been subject to scholarly debate, but contemporary scholars do see the creation of earliest Israel in terms of people fleeing the oppression of the great civilized empires. (The following account is based on my 2011 book Laying Down the Sword).
Were it not for the various biblical texts, many contemporary archaeologists would reconstruct the story of ancient Israel something like this. Through the Bronze Age, Palestine and southern Syria were home to a flourishing culture of small city states, whose inhabitants were the Canaanites. By the thirteenth century, Egypt dominated this region, though it faced a constant rivalry from the ambitious Hittite Empire to the north.
Late in the thirteenth century, older social structures were devastated by the general unrest then afflicting the whole Middle East. As cities and trade declined, pastoral and nomadic ways of life grew in significance. The crisis forced enough Canaanites to take to the hills to cause a population boom in that area. New communities emerged in the poorer hill country, roughly the West Bank area of Palestine.
Possibly these communities represented a conscious defection or withdrawal from the Canaanite mainstream, a rebellion against oppression by wealthy elites. What these people were fleeing can be perfectly summarized as “slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.” Among these defectors, according to William Dever, were urban dropouts, social bandits, refugees and displaced peoples from the troubled cities, and pastoral nomads. There may well have been some former slaves who had fled from Egypt. This last group brought with them the stories of exodus and liberation that the whole society would later adopt.
After a period of coalescence on the margins of Canaanite society, these groups emerged in later history as the people of Israel, who first made their historical appearance in an inscription by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah in 1207 BC. Even then, their numbers might not have been huge—perhaps a few hundred extended households. As Dever says, “Some were born Israelites; some became Israelites by choice.” But something called Israel certainly did exist.
In understanding this new community, we can usefully compare other upland societies around the globe – other Zomias – that existed tenuously on the fringes of nearby states and empires. Some of these societies became refuges for escaped slaves, who created enduring communities.
Certain languages even commemorate the linkage between escape and geography. When the Spanish conquered the New World, they invented a special word for a fugitive slave, which was cimarrón, a person who lived on the summit (cima) of a mountain. (In turn, this gave rise to the English word for runaway slaves, “maroons.”) But whatever their origin, these upland societies resisted the oppressive demands of established states and kingdoms, and some looked to charismatic or prophetic leaders as their founders and liberators.
Israel, in this view, would not be an exceptional society in historical terms.
And here we come full circle. For centuries, those modern day Zomian peoples rejected the official ideologies and faiths of the great states and empires, in India, China, Vietnam and Thailand. Recently, though, Christianity has made remarkable inroads among Asia’s so-called tribal peoples – the Naga, the Hmong, the Karen – to the alarm of those states. It would be pleasant to think that, as they explored the Bible, the “Zomians” would identify strongly with their counterparts in ancient Israel, the followers of Moses and Joshua.