In popular modern Christian teaching, the ancient citizens of Israel were an indivisible body, an undivided unit, a single entity also known as the Jewish nation. While it is admitted that they were described as twelve tribes, this is usually considered an unimportant and unenduring mere geographical term. The emphasis today is on their unity as the people of God. This unity is often referred to theologically as an “amphictyony.”
“The New Thesaurus” defines amphictyony as “an association of neighboring states or tribes in ancient Greece; established originally to defend a common religious center.” In ancient Israel, however, before King David’s conquest of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem there was never a common religious center of worship. Worship was conducted in numerous cities and rural altars called “high places.” Diverse worship practices continued after King Solomon’s death.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines amphictyony as “an association of neighboring states for their common interest.” However, there was no unity of tribes in Biblical Israel except during the reigns of the three unusually dominant kings—Saul, David, and Solomon—who exercised transitory rulership over all twelve tribes due to their personal power and leadership capabilities.
Another resource, “Dictionary.com” says “in ancient Greece, any of the leagues of states, especially the league at Delphi, united for mutual protection and the worship of a common deity.” Interestingly, during the time of the Judges, the number of tribes included in their temporary leagues was ever changing. As an example, in Judges Chapter five the number of tribes listed is ten, with no Judah!
In his book, “Ancient Israel,” Harry Orlinsky, Professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College in New York, stated, “Except for occasional brief emergency alliances, the Israelitish tribes maintained complete autonomy during the Period of the Judges and recognized no central capital or shrine for all Israel…It is significant, further, that no amphictyonic league ever met at a shrine to decide a course of action or to pick a ‘judge’. One will go through all twenty-one chapters of the book of Judges and fail to find mention of Shiloh, or Shechem, or Bethel, or Ramah, or Beth-shean, or Gilgal, or any other shrine, at which a confederacy of two, or six, or twelve, or any number of tribes met as an amphictyony… When Sisera and the Canaanites attacked Israel, neither the poetic nor the prose version of this crucial event, in chapters 4—5 of Judges, makes mention of any central shrine, any religious focus, to which the Israelite tribes gathered for amphictyonic consideration.” (pp.58, 70)
Dr. Orlinsky adds, “there was no central authority in the land, and when each Israelite group did whatever it wished, without recourse to any central authority, religious or political” (p.70). The land was filled with anarchy, which is a prime reason why the people demanded a king to rule over them. Judges 17:6 says, “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” This indicates that there was no central government, no central shrine, and no centralized league to unite them.
Perhaps this is why “A Dictionary of the Bible” reveals that amphictyony is, “A word borrowed from institutions in classical Greece and applied by some historians of Israel to its supposed organization before the monarchy as a confederation of twelve clans. It was suggested that there was a central shrine at which a cultic object was a shared responsibility among the twelve. But the amphictyony theory has now been generally abandoned.”
That is, it has been abandoned by reputable Mideastern scholars, but not by Christian pulpit theology! John Bright, in “Early Israel in Recent History Writing,” (Studies in Biblical Theology v.19, p.84 says, “That the Israelite amphictyony with its Yahwistic faith was a going concern in the period of the Judges is, of course, beyond question…”
It is indeed beyond questioning in our modern pulpits, where sermons on “God’s Israel people the Jews” mixes up the two distinct houses of Israel and their separate prophecies into one unvarying tribal state, a Jewish amphictyony.
Professor Daniel E. Fleming of Cambridge University says, “the unified character of an early Israel that included Judah cannot be maintained by texts convincingly dated to a United Monarchy. Instead, even our earliest biblical material appears to come to us through the social boundaries of two separate kingdoms: Israel and Judah…it is urgent to understand better the separate characters of Israel and Judah. Although these may intersect at diverse points in history, they cannot be treated as a single entity, two flavors of the same cultural or ethnic product.” (The Legacy of Israel in Judah’s Bible, p.12) This exactly addresses a popular misconception in our church pulpits today: the teaching that Ephraim-Israel and Judah are the same cultural or ethnic product with the same history, prophecies and promises.
It is common thinking that the Jewish people are the Old Testament counterpart of the New Testament Church, and just as the Church is a body of New Covenant believers unified spiritually, so we are told the Jews are a body of Old Covenant believers unified physically. Yet it stands to reason that if Judah is a physical people, the House of Israel must be a physical people also! And, if the twelve tribes were not united into an amphictyony, a single people and nation, where are they in the world today?
In a study entitled, “Was the Destiny of Israel’s Tribes Fission Or Fusion?” posted on the main page at www.angloisrael.info, I addressed the question of whether all twelve tribes remained separate or coalesced into one people, the Jews: “You might expect that the children of Jacob, being close relatives with a common religion, would certainly fuse into a tightly united nation when encountering strong, armed opposition from numerous Canaanite and Philistine tribes already established in the Promised Land. It is a common and sensible adage that there is strength in unity, and “united we stand, divided we fall.” The circumstances they faced emphasized the need for unity instead of division, fusion instead of fission, and yet Jacob’s twelve sons instead became progenitors of twelve entirely separate and distinctive tribes. These tribes even have fully separate and distinctive prophecies relating to their individual futures in the “latter days” (Gen. 49; Deut. 33), indicating their continuing separateness throughout this age. Further, Bible history records that these tribes often displayed a definite disinterest in coming to each other’s aid when in distress (See as an example, Judges 5).”
The prophecies speak of latter day Israel becoming a company of nations (Gen. 35:11), many nations (Gen. 17:5-6). They were to be “as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore” for multitude (Gen. 22:17). They were to be a thousand times greater in number than the approximately three-quarters of a million who came out of Egypt in the Exodus (Deut. 1:11). The modern pulpits ignore all of these wonderful blessings and much more, due to their failure to see the divinely-ordained separateness of these tribes in history and prophecy. The definitive book, “Symbols Of Our Celto-Saxon Heritage,” by W.H. Bennett (available from CBIA at www.migrations.info) details in full color illustrations the Israelite symbolism in dozens of families, cities, counties and nations in our world today. The individual and separate twelve tribes over time grew in numbers to become individual and separate nations. It was only in this way that they could fulfill their divinely decreed individual and separate tribal prophecies.