Archaeology and the Old Testament

01.28.99 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Alfred Hoerth

    A review of Alfred Hoerth's, "Archaeology and the Old Testament," by Dr. Richard Hess.

    Hoerth, Alfred. Archaeology and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998. Hardback, 447 pp. ISBN 0-8010-1129-9.

    This book is a welcome and useful text for the beginner wishing to gain an introduction to the historical, archaeological, and cultural backgrounds of the Old Testament from a conservative Evangelical perspective. Hoerth educates readers in an archaeology whose value for the Old Testament is to illuminate the text. He discusses some of the most significant methodological fallacies involved in relating archaeology to the Bible. He then proceeds to provide a sketch of both Mesopotamia, (later in the book) Palestine, and Egypt in the period before the patriarchs of Genesis. This context is useful and it form a special feature of this book that does not occur in many historical surveys of the Old Testament. Hoerth's disussion of the patriarchs takes full advantage of the cultural context in which they lived. The same is true as he traces the journey of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. This inaugurates Israel's presence in Canaan and begins the historical narrative of their sojourn there through the period of the Monarchy. Chapters on the exile, the return, and the final centuries leading to the New Testament conclude the work. There are Scripture and subject indexes.

    Each chapter begins with a summary outline and concludes with a bibliography for additional reading. The work is well written and generally easy to read. It is difficult to open the book anywhere without encountering one or more of the many photos, drawings, and maps that entertain and provide a better understanding to the work. Thus the book is a success in terms of what it sets out to do.

    If this reviewer would take issue with any of the content, it would be Hoerth's treatment of the date of the exodus. While the early and late dates for the time of the exodus are presented, the arguments for the early date are set forth as nearly conclusive (pp. 179-181). Contrary to the impression created, the Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C. and their reference to Hapiru, do not "have some connection with early Hebrew activity in Palestine". Hapiru, a sociological term, does not equate with Hebrew nor do the Amarna letters from princes at Megiddo or Shechem, or anywhere else in Canaan, describe any identifiable group or person that can be related to Israel or Joshua (pp. 216-219). Further, the city of Rameses, mentioned in the early chapters of Exodus, agrees well with the period of Ramesides and not more than a century earlier, when that name was virtually unknown. Finally, the assumption that the numbers of 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26 may be symbolic finds support in Genesis 15: 13 and 16 which appear to equate 400 years with four generations.

    There are a few typographical or other small errors that should be mentioned: p. 102, the cuneiform tablet is presented as a copy not a transcription; p. 106, names on the Old Babylonian tablet found at Hebron may suggest northern influence in the patriarchal period; p. 110, the name Abimelech does not suggest royalty but is a common name in the second millennium B.C. West Semitic world; p. 187, Sauer's 1996 article identifying the Pishon with an ancient water course in Saudi Arabia is possible whether or not he believes that the Bible is literally true; p. 212, Zertal's discovery of an "altar(?)" on Mt. Ebal is significant and it is not at all clear how "its mode of construction does not accord with the biblical picture" of Joshua 8:30-35; p. 222, where is the evidence for prevalent male and female prostitution among the Canaanites?; p. 230, the cuneiform tablet found at Hazor does not contain the name Jabin, but possibly that of Yabni; p. 250, the actual site of Gibeah and the size of the "corner" of the structure found there do not allow for the magnificent reconstruction posited by the drawing; p. 290, map 14.8 refers to the time of Solomon.

    These comments should not detract from the importance and value of Hoerth's work. It is difficult to find a competent text that provides a readable survey of ancient Israel's history and archaeology. Hoerth has written one and it can be used without apology by Christians seeking to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the Bible.

    Richard S. Hess
    Professor of Old Testament
    Denver Seminary
    January 28, 1999

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