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The patriarchal clan migrations may have been the beginnings of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. However, it becomes much more than that. While we are most familiar with Joshua’s account of a sudden, bloody, and complete conquest (Joshua 1-12), the text also suggests it was a long and complicated affair (Joshua 13. 2-6; 15.13-19,63; 23.7-13; Judges 1).

The complications become evident when we find the following among the people of God; alongside descendants of Jacob there are Egyptians (Leviticus 24.10), Midianites (Numbers 10.29-32), Amorites (Joshua 6), Kenizzites (Joshua 14.6) and other fugitives. The list could be made longer but this short list is enough to demonstrate Israel was growing even while in the wilderness. Even some who did not experience the exodus were becoming converts. The text does not always tell how but does reveal God has always been interested in bringing new people into the gathering He calls His own.

John Bright tells us many of those who were grafted into the people of God had long been settled in Palestine and joined the Hebrews when they arrived from the desert. Some who were without a place in established society would have gladly joined the Hebrews. That the God who had delivered slaves from the Egyptians would include them in an inheritance of promised land would have been appealing. In such a company one could find an identity and connection they had never experienced before. Numerous conversions were likely taking place. Bright says “Clans and villages by the dozen must have been converted to Yahwism.” While this likely benefitted in military ways, it does suggest a mixed people as suggested in Exodus 12.38 “Many other people went up with them” or by Numbers 11.4 “The rabble among them.”

The fact remains that for those who resisted, conquest was bloody and brutal. This is likely part of the reason numerous towns and villages were ready to join the Hebrews. After hearing the stories, who would want to resist? Sometimes this occurred willingly, sometimes out of fear (Joshua 9). Others were likely conquered without military action but from uprisings within. Although enclaves of other peoples remained and tension continued for many years, Israel was in possession of the land they would occupy for centuries to come. Not long after this representatives gathered (Joshua 24) and made a covenant to be the people of Yahweh and to worship Him alone. It is evident this is no longer just a clan religion.

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John Bright offers a helpful picture of what life might have been like for Abraham. In A History of Israel, he portrays the patriarchs as wanderers who journeyed with flocks through Palestine and surrounding borders in search of seasonal pasture. Sometimes they may have ventured as far as Egypt. They were not Bedouin. They did not roam the desert except into places where known water supply was available. They may have frequently camped near towns and enjoyed peaceful relationships with townspeople. Occasionally, they may have settled long enough to farm (Genesis 26.12) but primarily were breeders of livestock who wandered near lands where suitable pasture could be found. This background is supported by the early tradition recorded in Deuteronomy 26.5 “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

Their ancestors were undoubtedly pagan worshippers of the moon cult and other gods. Yet, the patriarchs renounced the cults of their fathers and listened to the voice of the God who called them to a strange land. God undoubtedly got their attention with land and heirs, but there is no doubt this relationship was based on divine promise and the trust of the worshipper. Bright considers the patriarchal migration “an act of faith.”

This was not a migration of lone individuals but of clans. Bright makes a good case that these clans were headed by real individuals like Abraham. Later, Isaac and Jacob would have become similar clan chiefs. While on the surface it may appear Abraham set out with wife, nephew, and a few servants (Genesis 12.5); behind the narrative lie great clan migrations. Soon (13.1-13) we discover both Abraham and Lot are heads of large clans. The fact Abraham was able to put 318 trained fighting men into the field (14.14) suggests his clan was significant.

Each patriarch claimed the God who spoke as his personal God and as patron of his clan. The Genesis picture of relationship between individual and God is expressed by a close personal connection between clan father and God, “The God of Abraham”, “The Fear of Isaac”, “The Mighty One of Jacob.” This suggests that God’s promise had immediate personal effects. It also strongly implies corporate effects. For example, multiple members of Abraham’s clan would have been influenced along with Abraham. This suggests patriarchal religion was a clan religion. The clan literally became the family of the patron God and God literally acted on behalf of the clan.

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