During the Christmas break I finished reading Mario Liverani’s Israel’s History and the History of Israel (London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2003). Last week I finished writing a review of the book that I will submit to a major journal for publication. The review is also part of the commitment I made to Chris Brady at Targuman to submit a scholarly work for publication during the Biblical Studies Academic Writing Month. The content of the present post is different from the review I wrote for publication and different from my previous post on Liverani’s book.
Liverani’s book is divided into three sections. In Part I, Liverani presents a description of the different archaeological periods of Israel’s history. In this section, which he calls “The Normal History,” Liverani studies the textual and archeological evidence that contribute to the proper understanding of what was actually happening in Israel and in the countries that form the land of the Bible during a time period that includes Palestine in the Late Bronze Age up to the Babylonian invasion and the exile of Judah in 587 BCE.
The second section is an Intermezzo, a section in which he discusses events that were happening in other parts of the world in the sixth century BCE, a time which he calls “The Axial Age.” In the Intermezzo, Liverani also discusses the diaspora and the myth of the empty land.
The third section, Part II of his book, Liverani discusses the “Invented History of Israel.” By invented history, Liverani means the ideological rereading and rewriting of the Deuteronomic history in order to undergird the political realities of post-exilic Judah. According to Liverani, the rewriting of Israel’s history served as a strategy to implement a program of national recovery that would provide political and religious legitimacy for the people who made a commitment to return and re-colonize Judah after the edict of Cyrus, king of Persia, allowed the exiles to return home.
Liverani makes a distinction between two groups of Jews in post-exilic Judah. Those Jews who were returning home from exile were the “returnees.” The returnees are also called “Zionists.” Those Jews who did not go into exile and remained in the land are called “the remainees.” The remainees are called “the people of the land” by the returnees. This pejorative term was used by those returning from exile to describe all those Jews who did not go into exile.
According to Liverani, the returnees needed a legal justification to take possession of the land that belonged to the remainees. Since the remainees occupied the land, the returnees needed an authoritative tradition assigning ownership of the land of Canaan to the tribes of Israel. This tradition needed to identify the returnees as the legitimate heirs of the land and declare that the remainees should be dispossessed of their land.
Thus, according to Liverani, those Jews returning from exile rewrote the Deuteronomic history and created a set of foundational myths that legitimized the claim of the returnees as the legitimate heirs of the promises of God.
The migration of Abraham from Babylon to Canaan and the promise of God to give Abraham the land of Canaan as an inheritance became the foundational myth to legitimize the returnees’ claim that God brought them from Babylon and gave them the land of Canaan. This idea is covered in Chapter 13: “Returnees and Remainees: The Invention of the Patriarch.”
Although the myth of the patriarchs gave the returnees a promise of the land, they needed another authoritative tradition that allowed them to actually take possession of the land. Thus, the foundational myth of the Exodus provided the returnees with the legitimation for a group of people from the outside to take possession of the land. The foundational myth of the Conquest provided the returnees with the legitimation to take the land from the remainees by force, if necessary. This idea is developed in Chapter 14: “Returnees and Aliens: The Invention of the Conquest.”
Thus, to Liverani, the history of Israel as presented in the biblical text is an invented history. He also deals with “The Invention of the Judges,” The Invention of the United Monarchy,” “The Invention of the Solomonic Temple,” and “The Invention of the Law.” In describing the aim of his work, Liverani wrote:
In the present work I have tried to write– at least in the form of a first draft–a new version of the history of Israel, starting from the results of textual and literary criticism as well as from data collected by archaeology and epigraphy. In doing so I felt free to change the Biblical plot, while keeping a properly historical approach.
Liverani’s history of Israel is a typical example of a minimalist approach to the history of Israel. The minimalists deny this historicity of the biblical narratives. Biblical minimalists say that the history of the patriarchs, the exodus, the conquest, the giving of the law, together with the historicity of Moses and Joshua and the existence of a united monarchy under David and Solomon are post-exilic inventions that were created to justify the political and religious aspirations of a group of Zionists who desired to take possession of the land from of group of people who had lived in the land for almost a century. So, the minimalists feel “free to change the Biblical plot” in order to sustain their presuppositions.
To biblical minimalists, the biblical narratives reflect a rewriting of history that created an ideal past in order to justify the realities as they existed in the seventh and six centuries BCE. To many minimalists, these stories were first created by the people who were involved in the reforms of Josiah in the seventh century. Others believe that some of these stories were “invented” in the sixth and fifth centuries to provide political and religious legitimacy to the post-exilic community of Yehud.
However, if Abraham, Moses, and the patriarchs never existed and if these stories were “invented” in the sixth century, how can we explain the mention of the names of some of those invented people in the prophetic literature of the eighth century?
For instance, in the eighth century BCE, the prophet Micah mentions Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and the exodus from Egypt (Micah 6:4). The Exodus from Egypt is also mentioned by Amos (Amos 2:10; 3:1) and Hosea (11:1) in the eighth century. In addition, Amos speaks of Israel sojourning forty years in the wilderness (Amos 2:10). All the eighth century prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah, mention the patriarch Jacob.
In the Elijah narratives, a source most scholars believe to be independent from the Deuteronomist, when the prophet Elijah (ninth century BCE) seeks to go back to the source of Israelite religion, he goes back to Horeb, the Northern name for Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19:8).
If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed, then it is almost impossible to understand Jesus’ words when talking about the resurrection: “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). How can God be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and how can they be alive when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never existed?
The problem with the minimalists is that they use the same approach atheists use when they deny the existence of God. Atheists say to theists: “God does not exist. Now, prove to me that God exists.” Minimalists say that these stories are invented; now the burden of proof is with those who say that they are historical.
James Hoffmeier, in his book Israel in Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 10, talks about the insistence of minimalists that a claim made in the Bible must be corroborated before the statement can be considered historical. Hoffmeier wrote: “[The] assertion that the burden of proof does not rest on the critical (minimalist) historian has become the prevailing attitude in biblical scholarship for the past several decades.”
The matter of the historicity of the biblical text is what prompts the debate between those who are called maximalists and those who are called minimalists. The minimalists accuse the maximalists of accepting the historicity of the biblical text because they presuppose divine intervention in human affairs. They demand proof of the historicity of the events narrated by the text. On the other hand, the maximalists accuse the minimalists of being skeptics and radical ideologues. They say that the minimalists reject Israel’s understanding of its own religious traditions as irrelevant because their views are based primarily on a literary interpretation of the text.
I would like to put the burden of proof on the other side. For once, I would like to see the minimalists prove that Moses did not exist.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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