ReViews: Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?
Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?
The recent debate over the historicity of the Bible has generated heat from both the scholarly community and the general public. The debate involves much more than a quest for a better understanding of the past, however. It has strong political and cultural overtones and implications. Of special significance is the attempt by the Biblical minimalists—those who think the Bible has little or no historically reliable information— to erase “ancient Israel” from the map. Over the last decade, the questions of “who were the Israelites and were did they come from?” have therefore turned into one of the most hotly debated issues in archaeology and Biblical studies.
Interestingly, archaeologists have usually refrained from writing books of this type—because of the debate’s political overtones, which most Biblical/Near Eastern archaeologists tend to avoid. This, however, is just where William Dever’s book steps in. Dever sees the current crisis, provoked by the minimalists, as a threat to the “Western cultural tradition.” His book is an explicit attempt, from an archaeological perspective, to face this threat head on. Dever has worked in the region since the 1960s and is one of its most influential archaeologists—and among the few who could write such a comprehensive treatment of the subject.
The book seeks to make this seminal debate, and Dever’s views, “accessible to the average educated reader.” Dever therefore avoids extended references and footnotes, and even “indulge[s] in some oversimplifications.” Most of the book, however, provides the reader with background data; it does not deal at length with the minimalists. It is structured to lead the reader through the relevant theories and data, and culminates in Dever’s presentation of his own views.
He begins with a review of the current crisis, and then critically summarizes and describes previous research and theories on the Exodus, the conquest of Transjordan and of “the land west of the Jordan.” He then turns to the archaeological data from both excavations and surveys. This is followed by a summary of the material culture of the Iron Age I “settlement sites” (Dever’s proto-Israelites) and by a chapter devoted to a critical assessment of previous theories on the Israelite settlement in Canaan. Dever then devotes a chapter to a critical evaluation of what has become one of the most prominent theories regarding the Israelite settlement, as developed mainly by Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, probably the most influential scholar of the early Iron Age, according to which seminomads settled the area.
Dever, however, rejects Finkelstein’s view and then presents his own synthesis. Dever views the Iron Age I settlers as “agrarian reformers with a new social vision.” He believes that most of the settlers (not all of them, though) were local sedentary Canaanites who settled in the highlands and, with other people, coalesced into a new social entity. Dever also considers the complex question of ethnicity in the archaeological record and whether the Iron Age I settlers comprised an ethnic group. Dever’s answer to this question is basically positive. Still, the highland population was not heterogenous at the time, and “not all groups should be labeled Israelite, nor should the early hill country colonists simply be equated directly with the Israel of the Hebrew Bible,” Dever writes. He continues, however, that “these were the ancestors—the authentic and direct progenitors—of these who later became the biblical Israelites.” He therefore suggests the term “proto-Israelites” for these people (as he has advocated for over a decade).
Dever’s argument also includes an extensive discussion of the nature of the Israel mentioned in the 13th-century B.C.E. hieroglyphic inscription known as the Merneptah Stela.
The final chapter closes the circle and explicitly discusses the question of history and myth in the Biblical tradition: Why were the stories written? What are they based on? In an attempt to examine the historicity of the Biblical narrative, Dever looks for “convergences,” that is, “points at which the two lines of evidence [textual and archaeological], when pursued independently and as objectively as possible, appear to point in the same direction and can be projected eventually to meet. At these points we may be reasonably sure that we have facts upon which an adequate history of ancient Israel can be based.”
Dever then attempts to decide which aspects of the Biblical tradition can be “salvaged.” He examines why and how various traditions developed and describes a fascinating scenario for the development of the Exodus tradition (and its relations to the “house of Joseph”).
Dever’s attempt to “salvage” the Biblical tradition and confront the political and cultural implications of the current debate is both innovative and thought-provoking. While he explicitly rejects the new minimalist trend, he rightly asserts that his position cannot be labeled “conservative,” either. His position will not be welcomed by readers who view the Bible as accurate history. Dever calls his view the “middle ground.”
While Dever’s views are expressed throughout the book, he does give credit to others, and overall the presentations are thorough and fair.
This book will probably join Finkelstein’s The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (1988) monograph and Finkelstein and Nadav Na’aman’s edited work From Nomadism to Monarchy (1994) as a major reference work on the “Israelite settlement” in Iron Age I. Dever’s own views provide the reader with in-depth insights regarding the settlement and the motives of the settlers. He goes beyond the usual discussion in an attempt to understand the early Israelites’ cognitive world. This is relatively rare in Near Eastern archaeology and presents cutting-edge scholarship.
While I am sympathetic with most of Dever’s conclusions (and aims), they are not without problems. Some of the data, for example the evidence regarding the sedentary background of the settlers, can be interpreted differently than Dever does. For example, Dever believes that the widespread use of agricultural technologies, such as terraces and cisterns, indicate that the settlers were of sedentary origins. However, even if these were constructed early in Iron Age I—and the lack of fine chronology within this period doesn’t allow us any precision—then 060advanced agriculture can be “adopted” rather quickly when necessary and doesn’t automatically indicate that the settlers (or their ancestors) used such technology before. Furthermore, these technologies were not widespread in Late Bronze Age Canaan, so their existence cannot be used as an indication that this is where we should look for Israel’s origins.
Other issues need to be elaborated. Why did the “Canaanite colonists” who settled the highlands become a separate and new ethnic group? Why did they choose to be part of a large and complex Canaanite society?
Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? will serve as a stimulus for further research and debate, and is therefore most welcome.
The recent debate over the historicity of the Bible has generated heat from both the scholarly community and the general public. The debate involves much more than a quest for a better understanding of the past, however. It has strong political and cultural overtones and implications. Of special significance is the attempt by the Biblical minimalists—those who think the Bible has little or no historically reliable information— to erase “ancient Israel” from the map. Over the last decade, the questions of “who were the Israelites and were did they come from?” have therefore turned into one of the most […]