Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Ancient Israel

One of the biggest issues in scholarly circles today is the nature of the people called Israel in the Old Testament.  The question debated by scholars is how to evaluate what the Bible says about ancient Israel in relation to the history of the other nations of the Ancient Near East.

Scholars are divided between two groups popularly known as “minimalists” and “maximalists.”  Although the use of labels can be misleading, these labels reflect the polarized debate among Old Testament scholars.

Those scholars who are labeled “minimalists” generally question the historical value of the narratives found in the Old Testament.  These scholars deny the historicity of the patriarchal narratives, Israel’s exodus from Egypt, and the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan.  According to them, these stories are fiction created by the post-exilic community in order to justify their seizure of the land by those returning from their exile in Babylon.  One good example is Mario Liverany who calls the biblical narratives “The Invented History of Israel.”

The “maximalists,” on the other hand, believe that the Old Testament provides valuable information to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel.  These scholars believe that Israel came out of Egypt, that the land of Canaan was conquered by Joshua, and that David established a kingdom in Jerusalem.

The debate, however, continues unabated.  In order to clarify some of the historical and archeological issues related to this debate, a conference was held in Louisville at The Southern Baptist Seminary in January 2004 to present an evangelical response to the criticism that the Old Testament is worthless in the reconstruction of the history of Israel.

The papers presented at this conference have been revised and updated and published in a book.  The book, Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), was edited by Daniel Block.  The book contains fifteen essays, all of them (except one) were presented at the conference.

Since space does not allow me to comment on every article, I will list the articles and their authors and comment on the book in general.  The essays are as follows:

Daniel I. Block, “Israel–Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention?” pp. 1-8;

Alan R. Millard, “The Value and Limitations of the Bible and Archaeology,” pp. 9-24;

John M. Monson, “Contextual Criticism as a Framework for Biblical Interpretation,” pp. 25-55;

Joel Drinkard, “North-West Semitic Inscriptions and Biblical Interpretation: Issues of Provenance,” pp. 56-77;

Daniel E. Fleming, “From Joseph to David: Mari and Israelite Pastoral Traditions,” pp. 78-96;

James K. Hoffmeier, “Major Geographical Issues in the Accounts of the Exodus: The Pitfalls and Promises of Site Identification in Egypt” pp. 97-129;

“Harry A. Hoffner Jr., “Slavery and Slave Laws in Ancient Hatti and Israel,” pp. 130-155;

Alan R. Millard, “Were the Israelites Really Canaanites?” pp. 156-168;

Richard S. Hess, “Syria and the Bible: The Luwian Connection,” pp. 169-184;

Alan R. Millard, “David and Solomon’s Jerusalem: Do the Bible and Archaeology Disagree?” pp. 185-200;

Gerald L. Mattingly, “Who Were Israel’s Transjordanian Neighbors and How Did They Differ?” pp. 201-224;

K. Lawson Younger Jr., “Shalmaneser III and Israel,” pp. 225-256;

Simon J. Sherwin, “Did the Israelites Really Learn Their Monotheism in Babylon?” pp. 257-281;

Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Did Persian Zoroastrianism Influence Judaism?” pp. 282-297;

John H. Walton, “Interpreting the Bible as an Ancient Near Eastern Document,” pp. 298-327.

The book contains a Name Index (pp. 329-336), a Subject Index (pp. 337-341), and a Scripture Index (pp. 342-346).

I enjoyed reading this book.  These essays present a solid foundation for understanding the world in which Israel lived and how the history, culture, and laws of the nations of the Ancient Near East provide basic information for understanding the history, culture, and legal tradition of Israel.

Block, the editor of the book described the purpose of the lecturers in the introductory essay.  He wrote: “Their aim is to situate the texts of the Old Testament in their historical and cultural contexts, and to demonstrate how awareness of the extra-biblical world can open new doors into the collection of books we hold to be sacred” (p. 6).

These essays do not try to prove the Bible, rather these essays make an attempt to place the biblical narratives within the historical and cultural context of the world in which Israel lived.  This effort in summarized in Monson’s essay, the only essay not presented at the conference. Moson appeals to the reader to “consider the geographical, historical, cultural and literary contexts out of which the biblical texts have emerged and to which they originally spoke in the establishment of the authoritative meaning of biblical texts as Scripture” (p. 7).

Each essay provides a wealth of information about the world in which Israel lived. Alan Millard’s essay on the value of archaeology discusses how archaeology sheds light on Nabuchadnezzar’s command for people to present an offering and incense to Daniel (Dan. 2:46), how Assyrian documents help identify the three Assyrian dignitaries in 2 Kings 18, and how bullae and seals help illuminate historical events.

Hoffner’s essay on slavery in Israel and among the Hittites concludes by stating that although the Old Testament never abolished slavery, Israelite laws command the people of Israel to treat their slaves humanely and with compassion because they too were bearers of the image of God.

A view commonly held by many Old Testament scholars is that the Israelites were really Canaanites who had revolted against their overlords and moved from their cities to the highlands of Canaan and became the Israelites of the Bible.

In response to this view, Millard asked: “Were the Israelites really Canaanites?”  He says that although there was some continuity between the material culture of the Canaanites and Israelites, the Israelites’s view of God and their moral conduct differentiated them from their Canaanite neighbors.

Millard wrote: “This distinction between the Israelites and the Canaanites and other nations was to lie in their behavior and their attitudes to God and to other people, rather than in their houses, their tableware, their dress, or their language. . . . Clearly, many Canaanites converted to Israel’s faith and became Israelites, but I would maintain that the Israelites were not really Canaanites” (p. 168).

I recommend this book to people who are interested in learning more about the origins of Israel and how their history, culture, and legal tradition are closely related to the history, culture, and legal tradition of the nations of the Ancient Near East.

I would like to thank B&H Academics for providing the book for review.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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1 Response to Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Ancient Israel

  1. Pingback: Ancient Israel: A Historical and Archaeological Perspective | Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament

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