Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?

  • William G. Dever
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Dever, William G. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2003 xi + 268 pp. Hardback. ISBN 0-8028-0975-8.

Dever, one of the leading Syro-Palestinian archaeologists of North America, has written a second volume with a popular title, following his What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? The earlier volume was more concerned with the philosophical movement of postmodernism and its affect on historical interpretations of the Old Testament. It was also far more polemical in its evaluations. The present volume considers the archaeology of Palestine at the end of the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 B.C.) and especially during the Iron I period (1200-1000 B.C.). It is written with a balanced tone.

Following much of modern scholarship, Dever questions any historical reliability to the accounts of Joseph in Egypt, the Israelite exodus, and the Wilderness Wanderings. He does, however, recognize the presence of West Semitic peoples in Egypt throughout these periods and observes that some of those employed in the construction projects of Ramses II (13th century B.C.) could have been ancestors of the Israelites who preserved such a tradition of building Egyptian cities (p. 15; cf. Exod. 1:11). Nevertheless, Dever (pp. 15-21) makes an important distinction between matters of faith such as the ten plagues and other miracles, and matters of history that are subject to archaeological investigation.

Dever devotes a chapter to the conquest of Transjordan in which he summarizes the archeological data. Even so it is mystifying how, on the one hand, he can recognize that Egyptian scribes of the thirteenth century B.C. and earlier could identify sites such as Dibon in Transjordan (p. 28). Yet, on the other hand, the author spends the remainder of the chapter (pp. 28-35) arguing that because there is no archaeological evidence for thirteenth century B.C. occupation of Tell Dhiban, it could not have existed. If both the biblical writers and the Egyptian scribes of the thirteenth century knew of a site called Dibon, is it not reasonable to suppose that the archaeologists either have the wrong site for ancient Dibon or have somehow missed the settlement at that site? That archaeological evidence should be used to overturn two independent textual witnesses seems unlikely.

The chapter on the conquest of the land west of the Jordan outlines the three older models (regarding Israel's appearance in Canaan) of conquest, peaceful infiltration, and peasant revolt; discusses the archaeological evidence from a variety of sites; and dismisses each of the models. However, a careful weighing of the evidence from various sites with a close reading of the text of Joshua does not support these conclusions. For one thing, the fact that Hazor is the only site with a clear burn layer that might coincide with the Israelite appearance in the thirteenth century B.C. must take into consideration Josh. 11:13 which states clearly that Hazor was the only site burned. There are no burn layers at the other sites of Joshua 10 and 11 because, whatever the "conquest" of these sites meant to the biblical writers, it did not mean that they were destroyed by burning. While many of Dever's criticisms of the various models have value, it is better to see here some truth in each one, rather than to dismiss them wholesale. One final note on this section: Ibni is not an "exact linguistic equivalent" of Jabin/Yabin (p. 68). The former represents a middle "y" root form, while the latter represents a final "y/h" root form of the verb.

Dever provides an excellent summary of the hill country culture with its cisterns, silos, terraces, collared-rim jars, writing, iron technology, and pillared room houses grouped together in villages. He is surely correct in seeing a continuity here with the Late Bronze Age and a distinctive cultural assemblage in comparison with the Philistine and Canaanite lowlands. Whether this must require that all inhabitants of the hill country were indigenous is not as clear. However, Canaanite was the dominant and defining culture. Also not as clear as he suggests is the absence of any cultic possibilities for the Mt. Ebal site. A farmhouse or watch tower would also be anomalous for this site.

In the last part of the book, Dever surveys previous historians and their views toward the question of Israel's emergence in Israel. His lengthy and detailed critique of Finkelstein is well worth reading. He systematically challenges the evidence that the Israelite settlers were nomads who settled down. In the final section he reviews the evidence of the Merneptah stele, the Egyptian reliefs associated with Merneptah, and the Iron I settlement of various regions throughout Palestine. Despite sometimes settling for traditional critical explanation of biblical phenomena with no evaluation (e.g., that the Passover festival was originally a pastoral feast celebrating the birth of new lambs, p. 200), the collection of evidence for early Israel is valuable and the most up-to-date synthesis available. Readers will not agree with everything, nor should they, but they will benefit by the critiques of various scholarly positions and by Dever's unique interpretation of the archaeological evidence.

Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary