Mario Liverani and the History of Israel

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.

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.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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11 Responses to Mario Liverani and the History of Israel

  1. >Although I eschew the extremes of minimalism, it is not because I would put the burden of proof on proving individuals did not exist and events did not happen. In the case of having a single account of an event in the past, there is nothing wrong with a historian concluding that the event might have happened. The issue that arises is that many religious believers are not only unhappy with historians who say (for instance) king David did not exist. Many are equally unhappy using historically-appropriate language and saying “He may have existed, or he most likely existed, and it is possible that he may have done some of the things the Bible says he did. As long as a religious believer demands certainty about events in detail in the distant past, they will have problems with historical study. In my opinion, the problem in such instances is not with historical methods of study, but with the demand for certainty where such demands can never be met.There is also a reply to this post on Jim West’s blog that is worth reading.


  2. >James,Thank you for your comment. I do not have any problem with history and I do not have any problem with historical criticism. My problem is with people (like the minimalists) who insist that their view is the only true interpretation of the biblical text.Minimalists are not even willing to accept the possibility that some of the patriarchs might have existed. For them, the lack of evidence is proof they did not exist.Some people have said that David did not exist. When archaeological evidence was found that mentioned the name of David outside of the Bible, these same minimalists went out of their way to prove that they were right and that the stela did not mention the name of David.The fact is, no one can win with the minimalists.Claude Mariottini


  3. David says:

    >One very interesting feature of Liverani’s argument is the way it echoes current anti-Zionism. The notion that 6th and 5th century BCE “Settlers” are said to have “invented” the same historical arguments that modern day Zionists espouse appears to me to be more a reflection of the current zeitgeist than a reflection of events that actually took place 2500 years ago. This is comparable to the biblical theories of 19th century German biblical scholars that are now seen by many to reflect the conventional ideas of Nineteenth century Germany at least as much as they reflect the ideas of the Biblical writers.


  4. >David,Thank you for visiting my blog.I agree with much of what you wrote. Your argument that Liverani’s view may represent anti-Jewish sentiments, may have some truth to it.The view of a history invented to justify the political occupation of the land is the same view used by a lot of people who have a pro Palestinian bias.Claude MariottiniClaude Mariottini


  5. John says:

    >There are many weaknesses in Liverani’s daring global explanation of the biblical narrative and you, Claude, point out a few of them with characteristic precision.It is interesting to go and read some of Liverani’s earlier essays on affine topics. It turns out that Liverani once paid attention to details to a degree he seems to now avoid. His earlier work in which he often points out plausible historical foundations for biblical narrative is more convincing than this book.I do know enough about Liverani’s politics to know that this book and his politics are in marvelous agreement. Food for thought without a doubt.


  6. >John,Thank you very much for your comment. I am glad that you mentioned Liverani’s politics. I had an idea that behind some of his language there was a political ideology. Your statement helps me understand some of the statements he makes in his book.Claude Mariottini


  7. Joe Matos says:

    >Dr. Mariottini,I encounter the same minimalist issues regarding the Gospels. I assert that the burden of proof is on those who would make claims that the Gospels were injected with myth. My argument is based on the fact that much of past historical method had begun with a certain level of trust in the ancient documents being examined until reason(s) and evidence led to the contrary.The Gospels are no longer given the same benefit of the doubt. In response, I have heard people say that if it weren’t for the claims of the miraculous in the Gospels, then perhaps more benefit would be extended. The point is, of course, that those asserting this fail to acknowledge how their own presupposition has determined their conclusions before weighing the evidence.As Christians, we shouldn’t shy away from examining the claims of the biblical text (though many do and they only feed the stereotype of Christians as anti-intellectual); but any examination of the scriptures should be done with one’s presuppositions laid out on the table. Sadly, while claiming objectivity, both extremes are blinded by their presuppositions.Such is the spirit of the age.Joe Matos


  8. Deane says:

    >The decision to require corroboration for accounts written in biblical books–so as to assess the facticity of those accounts–rests on the soundness of the prior evaluation of those books.The nature of Genesis-Kings, in particular, is that of a collection of various sources, collected into a national narrative about the past. But by far the greatest proportion of sources are legend accounts: creation and flood stories, patriarchal, etiological and origin stories, miraculous deliverance from Egypt, heroic conquest stories, romantic court stories, with a sprinkling of miraculous prophetic stories. So the assessment of these sources is rightly and justifiably determined to be wholly or largely fictional.The same is the case for assessing Greek narratives about the past. Wherever Greek histories go back beyond the immediate time before which there are eye-witnesses, and eye-witness inquiry, reliance is made on legendary accounts. Accounts set in a time before eyewitness inquiry were based on a sense of what the heroic age ‘should’ be like, how it accorded with one’s sense of tradition (determined at the later time it was recorded). These earlier ages were generally believed to represent a ‘better age’, a ‘perfect age’, from which things had descended. Just as in Israelite narratives about the past, the Greek narratives about the more distant past cease to be reliable, or even very useful, for reconstructing facts. Even the best Greek historian can refer to the original founders of an island-state being two giants. The ancient narratives consistently changed traditions beyond all recognition over more than about 100 years of transmission. The sources recorded in so-called ‘histories’, but before historical enquiry was in fact possible, must be treated with the highest degree of suspicion. This is not the same for those periods in which the historians actually lived, if there is evidence of research carried out by them (as in, for example, Thucydides).So, given the nature of the biblical books, it is quite right to demand corroboration (from inscriptions, archaeology, etc) before any credance is given to them whatsoever. This, of course, makes any modern so-called ‘histories’ which merely paraphrase the bible nonsense. Likewise, as you pointed out, this also makes histories which try to compensate the paucity of facts with unfounded speculation into probable nonsenses.


  9. >Joe,It was nice to hear from you again. I apologize for the delay in answering your comment.I am aware of the problems New Testament scholars like you have in dealing with the Gospel narratives. It is the same problem Old Testament scholars have with the narratives of the Old Testament.We live in a very skeptical age, an age when people need evidence and proof in order to believe. Those who deny the historicity of the biblical narratives already approach those narratives with their own biases. I have come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible to convince some of these people that the biblical narratives are trustworthy.Claude Mariottini


  10. >Deane,Thank you for your comment. I am not shying away from evidence to confirm the historicity of the biblical narratives. However, even when evidence is found, some historians work hard to minimiza the impact of those evidences.For instance, take the case f “The House of David” stela. Before the stela was found most minimalists affirmed that the David of the Bible was a legendary figure. Then, the David stela was found and the same people refused to accept the historicity of David.In fact, instead of accepting that there was a house of David, they create a god called Dod to explain the inscription, even though there is not one ounce of evidence that such god ever existed.I recognize the need for evidence but some evidence for the historicity of the biblical narrative may never be found. Should we then dismiss the biblical narratives as “invented history”?Claude Mariottini


  11. Pingback: The Death of Biblical Minimalism | Claude Mariottini - Professor of Old Testament

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