History is a sequential and systematic reconstruction of the past. The Old Testament presents a continuous history of the people of Israel from its earliest beginnings until the events leading to the rise of Judaism. Until recently, the biblical books were accepted as presenting an accurate description of the history of Israel. However, two issues have been raised regarding the biblical text. The first issue is whether the text of the Old Testament is a reliable source for the reconstruction of the history of Israel. The second issue is whether the text provides an accurate account of Israel’s past.
Modern-day historians make a genuine effort to present an accurate account of the events of the past. With the invention of the printing press, the preservation of records became easier and the reconstruction of historical events became more accurate. However, in ancient societies, writers had fewer written records and thus had difficulty in making a critical evaluation of their sources. For this reason they passed on what they had received from others or reworked their material in order to communicate their message.
Historiography is the presentation of history based on the examination, evaluation, and selection of past historical events in order to communicate a message to a specific audience. In studying the history of Israel, the reader must understand the manner in which the writers selected, combined, and arranged the written and oral traditions of Israel in order to express theological concerns and religious emphases.
Thus, in writing their history, the writers first selected the material that would provide support to their ideological views, evaluated their material in light of their intended aim, and produced their work to communicate their views. This combination of the written and oral traditions, which gave birth to the narratives of the Old Testament, is the result of the theological purpose of the writers which shaped the collection of the material and the conclusion of their work. Thus, the writer or writers are the interpreters of their material, and they selected and put together as a literary unit only those materials that gave meaning to their concern.
In the English Bible the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are classified as historical books, but the Hebrew Bible classifies them as prophetical books. These are commonly known as the Deuteronomistic History. The Deuteronomistic History is a good example of historiography.
First, the writer or writers of the Deuteronomistic History had a purpose: The Deuteronomic History is a prophetic interpretation of Israel’s life from the period of the settlement in Canaan in the days of Joshua until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. The purpose of this history is to show that Israel was in exile as a result of their violation of the demands of the covenant (see Deut. 28:47-52; 28:63-64).
Second, the writers of this history of Israel used several written sources: the Book of Jashar (Jos. 10:13; 2 Sam. 2:18), the Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41), the Books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (1 Kings 14:19), and the Books of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:29). In using these sources, the writers only used the material that was relevant to their purpose and those which proved their thesis.
Third, the writer or writers of the Deuteronomic History had a message which they desired to communicate to their audience. The Deuteronomistic History should be understood as history seen from prophetic eyes, the eyes of faith. This history does not report national and international events for the sake of recording history for posterity. The Deuteronomistic History seeks to penetrate the meaning of events and explore their religious significance.
The writers of the Deuteronomistic History sought to provide a theological explanation for the destruction of Israel and Judah. The Deuteronomistic History shows that from the conquest of Canaan through the end of the monarchy Israel had violated the covenant and that violation demanded divine punishment.
According to the writers, the political destruction of the nation was not the result of divine weakness but was a demonstration of the power of Yahweh. Yahweh had sent his prophets to warn the people of their violation of the covenant, but the people did not listen and as a result Samaria was destroyed in 722 B.C.E. and Judah in 587 B.C.E. ( Deuteronomy 28:15, 36-37, 49-52, 64-65; 2 Kings 17:7-23; 23:26-27).
The Book of Deuteronomy serves as an introduction to the Deuteronomic History and provides the theological and ideological foundation for the proper understanding of the history of Israel. According to the Deuteronomistic historians, Israel’s rejection of Yahweh had brought the nation to its tragic end. Israel had violated the two stipulations of the covenant: Israel had abandoned Yahweh to serve the gods of Canaan and Israel had oppressed members of the community in violation of the demands of the covenant.
Since historiography represents the ideological views of the writers, many scholars wonder whether a true history of Israel can be written today. In some circles, the ideological presuppositions of the writers become more important than the historicity of the text or of the sources used.
The tendency among some scholars is to deny the historicity of most biblical narratives unless they are substantiated by external evidence such as archaeology or extra-biblical documents. This skepticism derives from reconstruction of the archaeological evidence or from theories based on literary analysis or the social scientific models.
The writers of the Old Testament had their theological and ideological biases, but this does not necessarily mean that they were fabricating history or that their writings are without any factual basis.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary