The Reality of Ancient Israel
William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? (Eerdmans, 2001)
The archaeology of the territory centered on the small ancient states of Israel and Judaea has been contentious ever since archaeology began. For Christians and Jews, that area is the “Holy Land”, and, in the public mind, the primary reason for investigating its material past is to verify or confute the historical sections of the Hebrew Bible. Since the truth of Biblical history is of great moment to hundreds of millions of people and arouses intense passion, objective scholarship was no easy accomplishment.
In recent years, new layers of controversy have been added. Syro-Palestinian archaeology has come under fire from Palestinian nationalists, who see it as a Jewish plot to “silence” the historical Palestine, and from post-modernist academics, who scoff at its methodology as outdated and irredeemably “Western”.
These political and academic influences have joined to produce dramatic revisions of Israelite history, many of which are slowly gaining public attention despite general scholarly disdain. At their most extreme, the revisionists, often called “Biblical minimalists”, deny that Israel and Judaea existed in reality. The whole narrative of Israelite history from the calling of Abraham through at least the reign of Solomon was, it is asserted, invented after the Babylonian conquest of Palestine, perhaps as late as the Hellenistic period (i. e., in the third century B.C.), to furnish an ersatz history for a new-fangled monotheistic cult.
The revisionists are, for the most part, literary scholars rather than archaeologists, but their theories intimately involve archaeology. They find support in the supposed failure of archaeological research to confirm the truth of the conquest narratives (the Biblical books of Joshua and Judges) or the reality of the kingdom of David and Solomon. Evidence that appears to support the Biblical account is dismissed as tainted with pro-Israeli political bias or, at times, by fraud.
William G. Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona, is a veteran of 35 years of field work in Israel and of almost that many years of controversy with revisionism. In What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?, he seeks to inform the general public about this debate and to vindicate the position that, from roughly the period of the Judges onward, the Biblical and archaeological accounts converge and reinforce one another.
Unlike most defenders of “the Bible as history”, Professor Dever comes to the data with no religious predispositions. He announces himself as a secular humanist who has rejected the fundamentalist Christianity in which he was raised and does not regard his adult conversion to Judaism as having religious significance. He also has no hesitation about doubting the Hebrew Bible where it diverges from the archaeological data. Thus he regards the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua as historically valueless and thinks that Judaism was basically polytheistic under the Monarchy.
His central argument is that, viewed in the light of archaeology, the Old Testament’s historical and prophetic books are (i) consistent with the facts on the ground and (ii) credibly dated to the period before the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions. Those conclusions do not prove that the Bible contains no legendary material. No excavation will ever demonstrate that David slew Goliath or that Ahab and Jezebel deserve their sinister reputations. On the other hand, if Professor Dever is correct, these accounts cannot have been composed at the late dates assigned to them by the revisionists. They include too much that later writers did not know, and it strains credulity to imagine a continual series of lucky guesses.
Professor Dever finds the earliest convergence between the Old Testament and the archaeological record in the 13th century B.C. At about that time, the population of the central hill country west of the Jordan River and south of the Sea of Galilee began to expand rapidly, rising an estimated five-fold in the course of a century. The settlements that provide evidence of this “population explosion” differ markedly from nearby Canaanite centers, with distinctive house styles and new technologies, such as intensive terracing and stone-lined grain silos. The most startling difference, though, is that pig bones, common in other areas, are almost completely absent. There is no zoological reason why the settlers should not have kept swine, and Professor Dever takes this apparent aversion as a marker of a “proto-Israelite” ethnic group. He adduces other parallels, too, between this archaeological assemblage and the society depicted in Judges and Samuel, as well as a small bit of confirmatory data from a non-Biblical text: A famous stele erected by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah in about 1210 B.C. describes a campaign against Canaan, mentioning a people called “Israel” among those defeated. The stele contains enough geographical information to make it likely that this “Israel” was located in the same area as the new hill country assemblage.
Where the proto-Israelites came from cannot be discerned by archaeology. Professor Dever sees no evidence that they arrived after an exodus from Egypt and much that contradicts the Book of Joshua’s tales about how they conquered Canaan. There is room for at least partial disagreement here. The skeleton of the Exodus story - migration of an ethnically distinct clan from Canaan to Egypt under the pressure of famine, a sojourn in that country, and an eventual return to their original homeland - is not at all implausible. Also plausible, though hardly provable by material remains, would be their falling under the influence of a prophet from whom they acquired a new set of religious beliefs. It would be natural for such a group to gravitate toward a relatively empty territory. Also natural, if they had become devoted to a militant and expansionist god, would be military clashes with Egyptians and Canaanites, later piously recalled as mighty victories.
Professor Dever continues by describing in detail the archaeological evidence for the existence of a centralized state in the Israelite territory in the 10th century (the time of David and Solomon) and, more cursorily, the consistency of Biblical and extra-Biblical evidence for the period of the Divided Monarchy down to the deposition of the last king of Judah c. 597. He also examines offhand references in the Bible to weights, measures, household items and objets d’art, showing how these correspond to objects unearthed by excavation.
The point of this exhaustive (and occasionally, to the reader, exhausting) study is that the Old Testament writings display knowledge that had vanished by the post-Exile period. If they were late historical romances, they ought to contain anachronisms, erroneous guesswork and prima facie falsehoods. In fact, the one portion that pretty clearly was written in the Hellenistic era, the Book of Daniel, does have those characteristics. But they are hard to discover anywhere else.
The line of argument just summarized is central in two senses: It is the heart of the book, and it also comes in the middle. Preceding and following are what amount almost to two separate books, neither of them quite so interesting.
The first third of the text concentrates on methodology, especially on the relationship between archaeological and literary evidence, while the concluding chapter presents the author’s amateur ideas on the secular uses of the Bible. The methodological discussion deals with important issues, but the treatment is too abstract and ponderous for the layman (at least, for this layman). Moreover, Professor Dever’s thesis - that artifacts and written documents are complementary sources of historical information - is what laymen intuitively believe. Expounding it at length appears to belabor the obvious.
The last chapter is weak, an amalgamation of polemics against post-modernism - admirable in intention and soundly argued but wholly derivative - and foggy ideas about how the Bible can be valuable without being true. The author reduces Scripture to a series of jejune allegories, in which he believes that secular humanists can find something transcendent. For example, the story of Abraham -
is a universal story about faith as risk - daring to set out for a Promised Land. Again, this Promised Land is not to be found on any map, for it is a condition of the mind and the soul. And I believe that the biblical story was originally read in this way by many in ancient Israel - certainly so by the later rabbis. Is the story “true”? Of course it is, whether literally or not.
Of course it is - just as any trite and banal reading is true, or at least unfalsifiable.
So Professor Dever is not going to win a place in the ranks of modern philosophers, but no one will pick up this volume for its philosophy. Its main subject is well summarized by its subtitle, “What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel”, and there it makes an up-to-date, informative and convincing case against the minimalists.