Craftmanship: A Jewish Tradition Part I - The Archaic Period

Fact Paper 13-I

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

image of a sculpture
The sacred Menorah being plundered by Roman legions from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The sculpture appears on the Arch of Titus in Rome's forum, one of three great structures dedicated to the crushing of the Bar Khochba revolt, the other two being the "Temple of Peace" and the great coliseum in Rome. Judaic slaves were deliberately employed to erect the monuments to their own defeat. The menorah and all the treasures looted from the Temple were housed in the Temple of Peace. A conflagration destroyed the building and its contents, and the superb examples of Judaic art and craftsmanship were lost forever.

Origins of Artisanship

Artisanship was a prime factor in the development of society from the time humans became tool-makers. As human society advanced from the "hunter-gatherer" stage to one of agronomic and urban society, artisanship became critical to its advance. The progenitors of the Jews stemmed from the sector of Mesopotamia in which such a civilization was born. (Fact Paper 14).

The antecedents of the Jews include the Akkadians, of which nation Abraham is biblically said to have belonged. The antecedents of Abraham came from Arameia, as Biblical accounts make clear, and as the etymology of the language Abraham spoke confirms. Abraham and his entourage come to and settled in Canaan, and thereby the tribe became Canaanites. The descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Israel, were, of course, the Israelites, and after the creation of the state of Judah, they could be termed Judahites, i.e., "Jews."

The record is clear that the Jews stemmed from a civilization that first domesticated wild grains, that first made the axled wheel, that first created a written language, and that first passed from the ages of stone and copper into the Bronze age, and from the Bronze to the Iron Age. They carried the knowledge and the skills gained in the cradle of civilization into the Diaspora, and were significant disseminators of those creative disciplines throughout the three millennia of their existence.

The "Hebrews" appear on the ancient scene as artisans and traders. They meld obliquely into the Judaic genealogy.

"Hebrews" and Artisanship

Who were the earliest Hebrews? The Bible does not provide a foundation which would identify the Hebrews as a distinct people, or even as a distinct tribe. The Israelites are clearly defined as the descendants of Israel. The appellation "Hebrew" appears at times to be interchangeable with "Israelite." At other times a sharp distinction is drawn between the two groups.

There are some tenuous linguistic explications of the anomaly. The Hebrews are held by some to have been the descendants of the Biblical Eber (Gen. 10:21), an ancestor of Abraham; but then the Arabs must also be covered by the Hebrew umbrella, a fact that is patently negated by later Biblical considerations. The citation of names similar to "Hebrew" in ancient texts recovered from as far back as third millennium BCE Ebla, and from Mari, another ancient Mesopotamian site, tender tenuous connections, based only on a similarity of sound.

A bronze axe head from an early Israelite site at Hazor. Israelite pyrotechnology was the most advanced in the world at that time.. Iron as well as bronze implements were produced by the early Israelites. The Iron Age was born in the newly-established Israelite villages in the Canaanite hills. Photo courtesy of Prof. Yadin and the Hazor Archaeological Museum

The term "Hebrew" can be readily interpreted as a sociological rather than a tribal or ethnic appellation. The Hebrews of the Bible cannot be defined as a distinct group even after they become associated with the Israelites in Canaan. The term first appears in Genesis in the sense of migrants, or of displaced slaves, servants or artisans who served a deity who was with them wherever they went. Such a deity was distinguished from the gods of the city-states, whose gods were specifically attached to and protectors of particular city-states. YHWH is alternatively referred to as the God of the Hebrews and the God of the Israelites (Exodus 5:1,3).

The early references to "Abram the Hebrew" (Gen. 14:13) uses the term to characterize Abraham as a "wanderer," relating to the fact that he had left his country, Akkadia, the Biblical Shinar. Before he left he was an Akkadian of Aramaic origin, as was his father, brother and cousins, who remained behind after they had returned to their ancestral Aram-Naharaim. God informs Abraham that "his seed shall be a stranger in the land that is not theirs" for a period of four hundred years, and fixes the status of Abram’s descendants as "servants" through this period. (Gen. 15:13).

The Hebrew label is applied demeaningly when it is used by an upper class member o a subordinate. For example, the rejected wife of Pharaoh Potiphar, strikes back at (Israelite) Joseph by complaining to her husband about "the Hebrew servant." In Exodus, "Hebrews" refers specifically to a group alien to Egypt while serving as artisans in that country. That the "children of Israel" in Egyptian servitude were the migrants ("Hebrews") of Exodus and Genesis seems well established; but after the Israelites settle in Canaan, designated both as "the land of the Canaanites" and "the land of the Hebrews," other Hebrews appear!

Thus, the Hebrews who were with the Philistines are distinguished from the Israelites. It is recounted that when the Israelites Saul and Jonathan put up a resistance to the Philistines, the Hebrews who were with the Philistines left the Philistine camp to join the Israelites. It os likewise recounted that when other Israelites hidden out on Mount Ephraim heard that the Philistines were being routed, they came out of hiding. Thereafter the Israelites and the Hebrews joined forces in the battle of Michmash . The narration sites them as being two distinct groups.

Hebrews and the Huabiru

A rationale can be made for the identification of the Hebrews with stateless groups referred to as the Habiru. They appear contemporaneously with the Biblical Hebrews in archaeological texts as widely dispersed as Amarna in Central Egypt, Byblos on the northern Canaanite coast, and in the heart of Mesopotamia in the cities of Mari and Nuzi.

The parallels are not simply linguistic. These documents refer to the Habiru as bands of artisans or as mercenary soldiers who maintained allegiance to no state. They are, in fact, consistently depicted as fiercely independent anti-authoritarians. Almost all of the references to the Habiru are relegated to the period between the sixteenth and the eleventh centuries BCE, but they were a distinct part of the Mesopotamian scene as far back as the Third Ur Dynasty, c. 2150 BCE.

image of a painting
ABUSHEI IN EGYPT. Half of a 40 ft. long depiction of a group of 37 artisan/traders in a 19th c. BCE Egyptian tomb. The inscription identifies them as "Habiru." The chief is named Abushei, a distinctly Hebraic name (also the name of David's top general). The other half of the painting shows donkeys carrying an anvil and a bellows, identifying the Habiru as metal-workers. Still another member is carrying a lyre, indicating that they also performed as musicians.

The question of whether the Habiru should be equated with the Hebrews may be resolved by the proposition that the equation was sometimes, but not always true. Before the establishment of the states of Israel and Judah, the Israelite Hebrews may be termed Habiru, but it is clear from both the Biblical and archaeological contexts that not all the Habiru were Israelite Hebrews! Both appellations, Hebrew and Habiru, appear to have begun as sociological rather than tribal designations. The assumption that both terms then referred to displaced persons and not to any specific ethnic or national group satisfies both the manner in which the Habiru are referred to in archaeological texts and in which the Hebrews are alluded to in the Bible. The Biblical shifts from :Hebrew" to "Israelite make sense only if the definition of Hebrew as "migrant" or "alien" (stranger) is taken for granted.

In archaeological texts, the Habiru were always referred to as an underclass, sometimes as enslaved or exploited artisans, and at other times as insurgents who banded together and lived by brigandry. They were commonly depicted as outcasts and rebels who had served as artisans or as mercenary soldiers while zealously maintaining their identity and a measure of autonomy. As soldiers they were invariably treated as foreigners who became adjuncts to a particular army. Many references concern problems arising from their unauthorized emigration or immigration. Although they were consistently depicted as stateless peoples, they were not regarded as nomads. In Egyptian iconography, for example, all ethnic and national groups are depicted in distinct dress. On a wall in Karnak, the Israelites are distinguished from the Nomads (termed the Sashu), and both are distinguished from the Habiru.

The term Habiru, meaning "migrant" or "foreigner" is also differentiated from "deserter." a distinction made abundantly clear in various tablets from Mari. In one such document, for example, the subject, an elite soldier who was accused of defection from another city-state, defended himself by proclaiming that he was no deserter (p’t,eru) but had migrated (verb: Hubaru) four years prior to his registration. Another Mari document cites the case of a Babylonian overseer who was accepted into the Mari army together with his entire band. The overseer’s answer to the demand by the Babylonians for their extradition was that he was a Habiru (belonged to no state), and therefore was not subject to extradition.

The Habiru were likewise differentiated from runaway slaves or indentured workers, for whom the term munnabtu applied. Thus it is clear that the Habiru were regarded as independent people who enjoyed the prerogative of moving around with relative freedom unless they were under contract as artisans, soldiers, and in some cases, musicians. The fact that they continued to exist and function despite having no organized means of defending their freedom prompts the question, "What factor accounts for their remarkable resilience?"

The Huabiru as Artisans

The frequent characterization of the Habiru as skilled artisans explains the deference with which they were treated despite complaints about their effrontery. In the Near East of the second millennium BCE, most workers and farmers were palace dependents whose socio-economic status depended on the skills they possessed. Scribes, physicians, musicians, diviners, and artisans with specialized skills enjoyed a status and privileges denied to the less skilled; They were sometimes even able to bargain collectively for favorable conditions of employment.

An Astarte glass pendant, 16th c. BCE or later. The Semitic Goddess of Fertility was worshipped by Terach, father of Abraham. Glassmaking technology was then confined to Akkadian progenitors of the Jews such asTerach. Photo courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass.

Typical of such quasi-guild relationships between those endowed with special skills and the upper classes of Mesopotamia were agreements drawn in the city of Eanna between the carpenters, metal engravers, goldsmiths, jewelers, and "all of the craftsmen" with their employers, wherein the artisans agreed to perform their specialties and the employers specified their obligations toward the artisans.1

Several factors led to the transformation of craftsmen into refugees. The turbulence of the mid-second millennium BCE, brought about by interdynastic rivalries and interstate aggressions, led to a considerable displacement of mercenary soldiers and artisans. The rapacious incursions of the Egyptian Warrior Pharaohs disrupted the fabric of any city-state that did not submit to tribute and control. The devastation of a city-state in war resulted in the escape of artisans and soldiers who could market their skills elsewhere, or to their capture or enslavement, in which case they sought an opportunity o escape. "One of the tangible results of the conflicts between the city-states was the emergence of various kinds of refugees."2

Metalworkers, especially the smiths, were traditionally itinerants who hired themselves out for the production of weapons and tools. The industrial requirements of smithing were quite different from that of the farmers, potters, weavers, brewers of beer, and other proletarians whose skills were easily acquired or widely distributed. Glassmakers were far fewer in number and even more elite, because their art did not merely consist of specialized skills but also the secrets of the art. These and other technologies requiring lengthy apprenticeship or special knowledge for the acquisition of the necessary skills, were jealously confine to closely-knit family groups that were dispersed throughout Canaan and Mesopotamia.. Glassmaking families appear to have succeeded in maintaining the secrets of their discipline for an astounding three millennia!

Additionally, it appears that certain merchants, whose knowledge of sources and other unique commercial skills, especially literacy. Were likewise to be found in the ranks of the Habiru. The allegiance of these traders to enterprise prevailed over their fealty to a particular polity, for their services were eagerly sought by rulers. The etymology of the term Habiru, in fact, appears to have been originally a reference to caravaneers, for it derives from a root meaning "Dusty Ones," an apt description for the traders "trudging behind long lines of donkeys."3 The Akkadian word apiru/epru (as it appears in Egyptian Amarna tablets), is also the source for Efer, the Hebrew word for "dust" employed by Abraham.4

The Biblical Hebrews fit the Habiru mold to perfection; They were not farmers in Egypt, but a work force of alien artisan families who performed the technological tasks required in that land; They were the stone-cutters and the sculptors, the bricklayers and the carpenters, the metalworkers and the weavers, the potters and the lapidaries, the bakers and the cooks, the scribes, the musicians, and the dancers.

The Bible makes manifest the technological acumen of the Hebrews, for it is written that after providing a constitutional framework with which a humanitarian society could be constructed, God set up a project in which a comprehensive array of technological disciplines is engaged; His instructions can only be carried out by the most knowledgeable and the most skilled of artisans:

* The sculptors are engaged to produce two magnificent Cherubims for the ark of the covenant: "And the Cherubims shall stretch out their wings on high..."(Exod. 25:20).

* The weavers were instructed to "make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, and purple and scarlet, with Cherubims of cunning work" (Exod. 26:1).

* The carpenters are instructed to join the boards of the tabernacle with tenons: "Two tenons shall there be in one board, set in order, one against the other." (Exod. 26:17).

* The silversmiths are told to secure the tenons with sockets of silver. (Exod. 26:19)

* The goldsmiths are given explicit, intricate details of the candlesticks they are to produce: "...Six branches shall come out of the sides of it... three bowls made like unto almonds, with a knop and a flower on one branch" (Exod. 25:31,33).

* The brass workers, the lapidaries, the dyers, the tailors, the engravers and other artisans are likewise enjoined to apply their particular and unique talents.

In addition to the ten commandments, a comprehensive legal structure of 613 laws is created which provide for social justice within a new, progressive, kingless social order. Labor is provided with dignity and laborers protected against abuse.

The establishment of limitations on slavery and parameters of employment reflect the conditions under which the Habiru indentured themselves. Slavery is sharply differentiated from servitude: six years is set as the limit of indenture. The "Hebrew" servant is not to be regarded as the property of the master, but as an employee under contract, after which he is free to leave unless he chooses otherwise. The conditions of employment are that the worker is to be an equivalent of a family member and protections against abuse are incorporated in the Law: If a man smite the eye of his servant, or of his maid, and causeth it to perish, he shall let him go for the eye’s sake."

The stateless status of migrant workers is recalled in the proscription against treating them without compassion. "Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, seeing that you were among the strangers in the land of Egypt."

image of a dyptich
A WOODEN DYPTICH, recovered from the wreck of a Canaanite vessel of the 14th c. BCE. Semitic traders wrote on wax pressed into the hollows of the two leaves. The Aleph-beth was invented in this period, attesting to the high degree of literacy of the Semites of this time. The Greeks adopted the Aleph-beth six centuries later. Photo courtesy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology

Sympathy and support for those escaping onerous servitude and seeking refuge among the Israelites are prescribed, recalling the many references in Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts regarding the treatment of escapees: "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where he liketh it best; thou shalt not oppress him."

After the formation of the states of Israel and Judah, the term Habiru disappears from all the literatures of the times! The term "Hebrew" likewise diminishes in its Judaic application: "When the phenomenon of the Habiru/Hebrews entirely disappeared from daily reality, the term "Hebrew" was restricted, in the colloquial language, to individual Israelites who were either migrants or slaves."5

"The latter stage opened the way for the post-Old Testament use of the ethnicon ‘Hebrew,’ in which all traces of the original meaning disappeared, and the name simply became another term for the Israelites."6

"Jews" and "Hebrews,"of course, have become alternate names for the descendants of the Israelites of the ancient states of Israel and Judah, and of the Huabiru among them. The names incorporate the heritage of artisanship, literacy and specialized knowledge which the Jews carried with them from the cradle of civilization throughout the Diaspora.


Note: This Fact Paper is a digest of material in chapter 1, chapter 8, and chapter 9 of The Eighth Day: The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, in which the subject is treated in greater depth and an extensive bibliography is provided. The book is available [see Catalog of HHF Literature] from the Hebrew History Federation Ltd.

  1. Carlo Zaccagnini, "Patterns of Mobility Among Ancient Near East Craftsmen, Journal of Near East Studies, 42:4 (October, 1983, 261.
  2. Alberto Soggin, A History of Ancient Israel, From the Beginnings to the Bar-Khochba Revolt, A.D. 135, trans. John Bowden, Westminister Press, 1965, 15.
  3. William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology, Historical Analogy, and Early Biblical Tradition, Louisiana State Un. Press, 1966, 40.
  4. Albright, Ibid., 39
  5. Nadav Na’aman, "Huabiru and Hebrews; The Transfer of a Social Term to the Literary Sphere," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 45:4, October 1986, 288.
  6. Na’aman, Idem.