Until recently, most pastors and seminary students were exposed to the history of Israel through books that described and summarized the biblical events as they appear in the Bible. One good example is John Bright’s, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980), a classical work which summarizes the history of Israel from the period of the patriarchs to the rise of Judaism.
In the past two or three decades, the method of writing a history of Israel has shifted from using the biblical text as a basic outline to develop a history of Israel to an approach that begins with the premise that the biblical text has been highly influenced by an ideology of the post-exilic community of the Persian period.
This volume by Mario Liverani, professor of ancient-Near-East history at the University of Rome, summarizes the views and perspectives of this new approach to understanding Israel’s history. Liverani believes that most of the history of Israel found in the Old Testament is a creation of the post-exilic community written to justify the resettlement of the people who returned from the exile in Babylon during the Persian period.
Liverani’s book is divided into two major parts, with an intermezzo. Part I, which is composed of nine chapters, deals with “The Normal History” of Israel. This section uses the results of archaeology to discuss what was actually happening in Israel and in the nations surrounding Israel during the Iron Age. The Intermezzo discusses “The Axial Age,” “The Diaspora,” and “The Abandoned Landscape.” The Axial Age is his discussion of several events in the sixth century that contributed to the formation of Israel’s basic religious traditions.
Part II of the book deals with what Liverani calls “The Invented History of Israel.” The history of Israel from the days of the patriarchs to the end of the United Monarchy was invented to justify the occupation of the land by the “returnees,” the people who returned from exile after the decree of Cyrus, king of Persia, in 537 BCE.
According to Liverani, the biblical text is not actual history, but it is historiography, an ideological rereading of the past in order to under gird political realities in post-exilic Judah. This invented history served as a strategy to implement a program of national recovery at the end of the exile. The result of this process of national recovery was the rewriting of the history of Israel based on the text of the Deuteronomic history that begins with the exodus and the conquest and includes the period of the monarchy.
Liverani believes that the first section of this history, from the conquest under Joshua up to the united monarchy under Solomon, is mostly folkloristic and legendary, chronologically vague, and historically not very reliable. Then, from the divided monarchy after the death of Solomon until the deportation of Judah in 587 BCE, the historians had official documentation at their disposal which proved to be reliable sources of information.
The returnees are called “Zionists.” They were the elite who had been deported while the remainees were the poor people who were left behind to cultivate the land after the fall of Jerusalem. The returnees called the remainees “the people of the land” and used this pejorative term to define the people who had neither been deported nor emigrated as well as the non-deported Israelites from the North.
According to Liverani, the biblical stories are foundational myths written to justify the legal possession of the land: the returnees had property rights but the remainees actually occupied the land. Since the returnees did not have a justification to take possession of the land from those who occupied it, they needed authoritative traditions assigning possession of Canaan to the tribes of Israel and identifying the returnees, not the remainees, as the legitimate heirs of those tribes and of the promises to the patriarchs.
The foundational myth most appropriate to show the rights of the returnees were the promise made to the patriarchs and the conquest of the land. Thus, the archetypical migration of Abraham from Babylon illustrates the plight of the returnees from Babylon. The migration of Abraham reflects the situation the returnees would encounter as they returned to Canaan. The promise Yahweh made to Abraham represents God’s legitimation of the returnees to take possession of the land of Canaan, as discussed in Chapter 13: “Returnees and Remainees: The Invention of the Patriarchs.”
Although the returnees had rights to the land, for them to actually acquire the land in its totality, they needed another model. The Exodus from Egypt serves as the foundational myth that provides legitimation of the possession of Canaan by the arrival of a group of people from the outside that seek to conquer the land in fulfillment of the divine promise. The conquest of Canaan serves as the foundational myth for the occupation of the land by the returnees during the Persian period. Joshua becomes the archetypical leader in the post-exilic community. (See Chapter 14: “Returnees and Aliens: The Invention of the Conquest.”)
Liverani’s history of Israel is a typical example of the minimalist approach to the biblical text, understanding that the Bible does not provide any reliable historical information for the reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel. Rather, Israel’s history was an invention of the post-exilic Jewish community. They also believe that since the biblical narratives do not provide reliable information for reconstructing the history of ancient Israel, scholars must rely on evidence provided by archaeological discoveries and on information derived from anthropological and sociological models.
Liverani’s book provides valuable information synthesizing the work of archaeologists, but it is a book for scholars who are interested in the academic discussion of the origins of ancient Israel and the formation of the biblical traditions. The minimalist view may be an acceptable issue for discussion in academic circles, but their views have nothing to say to pastors and seminary students who accept as a matter of fact that God has entered human history and made his presence known in the historical events that gave birth to biblical Israel.
Previous Posts on Mario Liverani:
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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