Can a History of Israel Be Written?

  • Lester L. Grabbe
  • Mar 1, 1999
  • Series: Volume 2 - 1999

Grabbe, Lester L. Can a History of Israel Be Written? JSOT Supplement Series 245; European Seminar in Historical Methodology 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. Hardback, 201 pp. ISBN 1-85075-669-4.

Eight contributors make up nine essays in this volume. To a large extent the studies represent what many choose to call the minimalist approach to ancient Israel's history; that is, one in which the Bible cannot be used to recreate the history of the period in Palestine that it purports to describe. However, even this is an oversimplification and not all contributors to the volume would so position themselves; as, for example, Bob Becking and Herbert Niehr. Nevertheless, it is a significant, indeed, dominant position that is reflected by Robert Carroll, Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, and Thomas Thompson.

Lester Grabbe proposes some parameters for doing history and discussing it. Hans Barstad contributes an essay in which he emphasizes the importance of postmodernism as a guide for historical methodology. He suggests that the traditional empirical history, which is impossible to attain, should be replaced with narrative history. Bob Becking examines seals purported to come from the time of Jeremiah and asks what the probability is that some of these refer to figures mentioned in the biblical text. His suggestion that the "Gedeliah seal" (actually there is more than one) is more likely identified with the Gedeliah of Jer. 38:1-6 (rather than the governor by the Babylonians) has much to commend it. Robert Carroll concludes that there is virtually no way that the Bible can be used to reconstruct Israel's history. The use of seals, seal impressions, and other textual and archaeological evidence tells us very little and should not be compromised by attempting to relate it to the Bible. Philip Davies calls for multiple histories representing the ideological viewpoints of many different interested groups in contemporary society, all the while realizing that none of these can attain "objective historical truth." Niels Peter Lemche reviews Keith Whitelam's recent volume and affirms its key point: that the focus of ancient Israelite historiography has silenced other groups in and around Palestine who now should be heard. Herbert Niehr argues that the Bible must be understood as a secondary source, as opposed to the primary sources of Iron Age texts from Palestine and surrounding regions. Thomas Thompson reviews the work of Dever and finds it lacking in specific and original source documentation. He suggests that the idea of "ancient Israel" is a literary construct, and that of ancient Judaism is a religious construct. The texts and traditions in the Bible contain no materials that are earlier than the Persian period, and most seem to date from the Greco-Roman period, specifically the 2nd century B.C.

There is much here that is thought provoking. The work represents a recent and important summary of the positions of those who are called minimalists. In many cases these are responses to works that have appeared in the past few years. Some of these, such as the work of Keith Whitelam, are sympathetic. Most, however, are critical. They represent scholars such as William Dever, Israel Finkelstein, Amihai Mazar, Iain Provan, and Baruch Halpern. None, however, receives a more visceral response than the critiques of Anson Rainey. In particular, Lemche refers to this scholar using terms such as "malicious" (p. 142), "infamous attack on the integrity of a leading scholar" (p. 142), "bad manners" (p. 142), and "preposterous" (p. 148). Does this have anything to do with the "name-calling habit" (p. 97) that Robert Carroll accuses other scholars who are criticial of approaches reflected in this book?

The methodological approach of many of the essays assumes that the Bible cannot be used for historical purposes, at least not for information regarding the Iron Age or before. Some of the statements are broad generalizations that betray a priori assumptions that others do not share. That is, one can assume the Bible to be a useful historical source with just as much plausibility. The specifics of the evidence for or against the validity of the Bible need to be examined. Only a few statements can be reviewed here.

For example, there is Becking's criticism that the use of Yh(wh) and 'el in Israelite personal names refers to the same deity (p. 75). In order to establish that more than one deity was meant by these names in ancient Israel, the customary onomastic approach would be to find two Israelite names where one of these elements and that of another deity interchange. One example would not suffice as there may be an anomaly. Instead, as with Yhwh and 'el names where there are numerous examples of such interchange, multiple examples would be required to demonstrate the presence of more than one deity behind these Israelite theophoric elements. Becking does not present this evidence. Therefore, his suggestion is speculative.

Carroll argues that the Iron Age epigraphical evidence is insufficient for the existence of a culture that could produce extended literary narratives such as those found in the Bible (p. 90 n. 18). However, there are literary texts from this earlier period such as the Mesha stele, the Tel Dan stele, the literary text partially preserved on the ostracon from Tel Arad, and the Balaam texts from Tell Deir Alla (this one Carroll does discuss). Further, texts from the Bronze Age world out of which Israel emerged, such as the Idrimi inscription, the rhetorical and narrative qualities of many Amarna texts (especially those from Byblos and Jerusalem but also those of Abimilki, Mayarzana, and Labayu), and the great Ugaritic epics. Nor it is clear that Carroll's comparison of biblical historiography with Soviet historical literature provides an equal playing field (p. 96). For one thing, there is the question of whether the text can be trusted in places where it can be tested against outside sources. Few would affirm this of Soviet historiography; many would find it true for some biblical narratives.

There are several examples of what might be termed the fallacy of the excluded middle. For example, Carroll objects to the value for historical study of seals and seal impressions (pp. 97-100). The "principal objection" appears to be that "from such bits of baked clay he [Avigad] reconstructs the world." The picture here is that either the seals must provide almost a full biography of Baruch and others that they mention, or they must be considered useless for historical studies. Certainly, the former possibility does not exist. But that does not mean that the latter is the only alternative. Evidence of this sort is immensely helpful but it requires careful evaluation and interpretation. However, this does not mean it is useless. Again, Philip Davies appears to suggest that there are only two possibilities without anything in between when he discusses the possibility of reaching objective truth in historical study: "the notion of an objective past, an objective 'history' makes sense only if it is indivisible and universal. Such a past could not belong to anyone, and is beyond the power of any human or group of humans to conceive. It could only mean the totality, to the very minutest detail, of everything that has happened" (p. 116). Davies is right that this is impossible for any person in this world to achieve. However, that does not prove the impossibility of objective knowledge. That there was an Assyrian king named Sennacherib who invaded Judah when Hezekiah was king there would appear to be confirmed, on the basis of biblical and extrabiblical sources. No alternative history, from whatever ideological perspective, is likely to find acceptance if it denies that attested datum.

Lemche commends Whitelam in that "he shows why this country could never be the home of a great empire, irrespective of whatever claims to the contrary happen to appear in the Old Testament. Most important, Palestine does not possess any resources worth mentioning, and the population is simply too small (in antiquity probably less than half a million) to provide any Palestinian ruler with the manpower needed for creating and maintaining an empire" (p. 140). Could this also have been said of Sargon I's Agade which managed to conquer territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf? Or what about Alexander the Great's empire that began in the tiny kingdom of Macedonia?

I do not wish to belabor the point, but only to show a few examples that both the evidence presented and the conclusions argued are subject to alternative evaluation and interpretation.

Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
March 1999