The Forgotten Kingdom: Two Reviews

William Dever

 

Photo: William G. Dever

In a recent post, I mentioned that the Society of Biblical Literature was offering a free book written by Israel Finkelstein. The book published by the SBL is:

Israel Finkelstein, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel, Society of Biblical Literature Ancient Near East Monographs 5 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013).

Israel Finkelstein is an Israeli archaeologist who has proposed “a low chronology” for the history of Israel. His minimalist views are based on his reconstruction of the archaeological evidence and his re-evaluation of biblical history based on his reconstruction.

As a result, Finkelstein believes that there was no United Kingdom, that Jerusalem was only a little village in the 10th century and never served as the capital of David’s kingdom. In reality, at one time Finkelstein believed that David and Solomon were not historical persons. The discovery of the Tel-Dan inscription mentioning “The House of David” forced many minimalists to reconsider their view that David was not a historical person

The July/August 2014 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) has published two reviews of Finkelstein’s The Forgotten Kingdom. The two reviews appear in BAR under the title “Divided Kingdom, United Critics.” One review was written by William G. Dever, professor emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona. The second review was written by Aaron Burke, associate professor of the archaeology of the Levant and ancient Israel at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Below is a short excerpt from Dever’s review:

It is impossible to summarize Israel Finkelstein’s latest book, The Forgotten Kingdom, in a brief review because its numerous errors, misrepresentations, over-simplifications and contradictions make it too unwieldy. Specialists will know these flaws, since all of Finkelstein’s pivotal views have been published elsewhere. Here I can only alert unwary BAR readers that this book is not really about sound historical scholarship: It is all about theater.

Finkelstein is a magician, conjuring a “lost kingdom” by sleight-of-hand, intending to convince readers that the illusion is real and expecting that they will go away marveling at how clever the magician is. Finkelstein was once an innovative scholar, pioneering new methods; now he has become a showman. A tragic waste of talent, energy and charm—and a detriment to our discipline.

This book is such a good read, so drama-filled, so clever that it took me—a specialist—a bit of time to see through it. For example, Finkelstein reconstructs an early Israelite “sanctuary” at Shiloh (where he excavated) to give it the necessary prominence in Israel’s formative period (pp. 23–27; 49, 50). He makes three arguments: (1) Although he now admits that he found no archaeological evidence (as he claimed in his original excavation report on Shiloh), the Bible’s “cultural memory” nevertheless requires that there must have been such a cult-place there. (2) In Iron I (1200–1000 B.C.E.—Israel’s formative period) there “was not a single house” at Shiloh, only public buildings. (3) Shiloh was later destroyed, just as implied in the Hebrew Bible.

*****

The real point of this book is to argue that the Biblical “United Monarchy” of David and Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E. is a later fiction, concocted by the southern, Judahite-biased Biblical writers. The real “Israelite state,” according to Finkelstein, is the northern kingdom of Israel, and even this arose only in the ninth century B.C.E., that is, in the days of the Omrides (as Finkelstein has claimed for some 20 years).

Below is a small excerpt from Burke’s review:

I conclude by turning to Finkelstein’s persistent minimizing of the role played in the northern kingdom’s development by a historical David and a United Monarchy, however short-lived it may have been. Finkelstein must do this, however, to create a lacuna that can then be filled by the northern kingdom of Israel, despite the absence of evidence for any such process occurring in the northern highlands until the ninth century B.C.E. Since Finkelstein is unable to demonstrate an unequivocal basis for the indigenous origins of political power in the northern highlands, his central argument fails.

Even if one adopts a more limited view of David’s accomplishments than the Bible gives him, he remains a foundational figure of the United Kingdom. Finkelstein’s analysis, both textual and archaeological, cannot be reconciled with a founding Biblical figure (David), whose existence is already corroborated by extra-Biblical inscriptional data, that is, the Tel Dan inscription. This inscription evidences not only David’s existence but also the dynasty he established.

Both reviews are available online through “Bible History Daily.” To read the two reviews in their entirety, visit “Bible History Daily” by clicking here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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