On the Problems of
Pre-Hellenistic Israelite (Palestinian) History
“historical-critical” school that created a universe of its own dubbed
“ancient Israel” has dominated the last two hundred years of biblical
studies. The texts of the Old Testament—in some circles called “the Hebrew
Bible”—were believed to refer to an “ancient Israel” thought to be a
historical reality. Already at an early stage of the development of
historical-critical methodology scholars accepted that the Old Testament was not
simply a history book—or textbook—that told the truth and nothing but the
truth about ancient Israel. In accordance with developments within the field of
general history this was not considered an insurmountable problem to biblical
scholars. Historians began in the early 19th century to develop methods of
source criticism that enabled them—or so they believed—to make a distinction
between real information and secondary expansion. In the words of the leading
historian of this period, Johann
Gustav Droysen (1808-84), the historian had to distinguish between “Bericht”,
that is story or interpretation, and “Überreste”, that is, what is left of
historical information. In every part of the historical narrative in the Old
Testament, it would, according to this view, be possible to make a distinction
between information that originates in the past, and additions and commentaries
to this information from a later period.
Let me quote as an example of such a source analysis the story about
Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.:
Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them. And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish, saying, I have offended; return from me: that which you puttest on me will I bear. And the king of Assyria appointed unto Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasures of the king’s house. At that time did Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord, and from the pillars which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria. (2 Kgs. 18:13-16; KJV)
This story that can be found in 2 Kings 18-19 opens with notes about
King Hezekiah’s reign, how he behaved well in the eyes of the Lord and how he
revolted against the Assyrians and smote the Philistines. The narrative about
King Hezekiah is broken off by a short interlude explaining how King
Shalmanasser of Assyria besieged and conquered the city of Samaria—an event
already mentioned in the preceding chapter. After this break, the narrative
continues with a description of Sennacherib’s attack on Hezekiah’s fortified
cities. While the Assyrian king rests at Lachish, King Hezekiah gives in and
surrenders to the Assyrians and pays a handsome tribute to mollify his overlord,
the king of Assur. After this tribute has been paid, the Assyrian king sends his
general to Jerusalem. There is the famous Rabshakeh incident, when the Assyrian
officer stands in front of the gates of Jerusalem and delivers a harsh speech
that intends to scare the inhabitants of Jerusalem and its king that they may
surrender to the Assyrians. Hezekiah in great distress turns to the prophet
Isaiah who promises the assistance of God against the Assyrians. The Assyrian
general returns to his master now with his army at Libnah in order to move
against an Egyptian army trying to outflank the Assyrian army. Rabshakeh sends a
letter to Hezekiah repeating many of the threats against Judah already delivered
in his speech in front of Jerusalem. When he receives this letter, Hezekiah
approaches the Lord in order that he might help him against the Assyrian army.
As a result the avenging angel of the Lord kills 185.000 Assyrian soldiers
during the night, whereupon Sennacherib returns to Assyria in dismay, only to be
murdered some time later.
Already a casual reading of these chapters makes it certain that the
narrative does not constitute a homogenous description of the events of the
fateful year of 701 B.C.E.. The Rabshakeh incident is clearly superfluous as
Hezekiah had already surrendered and paid his tribute to the king of Assyria,
before Rabshakeh moved to Jerusalem in order to deliver his speech. There was no
reason for the Assyrian king not to return home since he already achieved his
goal, to stop the rebellion in southwestern Palestine. In the text, however, a
letter from Rabshakeh to Hezekiah that includes the same themes as his speech
provokes the intervention of Isaiah and leads to God destroying the Assyrian
army. It is as if the author of this narrative prefers to present his scenes in
pairs. However, from the modern historian’s point of view, it should be
possible in 2 Kings 18-19 to distinguish between—in Droysen’s words—Bericht
and Überreste. Such a historian would primarily look for historical
information in the short description of Sennacherib’s campaign at the
beginning of the narrative in 2 Kings 18-19 rather than in the literarily
elaborated passages which follows. Most historians would say that after the
paying of Hezekiah’s tribute, the remaining part is a Bericht,
i.e. a reflection from a later date of the events of 701 B.C.E.
Now we actually possess another version of this campaign of Sennacherib,
in Sennacherib’s royal annalistic report of the campaign.
In Sennacherib’s version, the campaign opens with a diversion to Phoenicia, to
Sidon, in order to clear any obstacles that may arise behind the frontline and
to safeguard the route of retreat. The Sidonian the king flees before the
Assyrians. The main aim of the campaign is, however, to settle matters in
Palestine where the Judaean Hezekiah (Sennacherib’s wording) has interfered
with loyal Assyrian vassals including Padi, the king of Ekron, who is kept as a
prisoner by Hezekiah. Hezekiah and his allies had also approached the king of
Egypt and an Egyptian army had already arrived and had prepared for a battle at
Elteqeh. The Egyptian army was no match for the Assyrians and Sennacherib could,
after having dismissed the threat from Egypt, continue to settle matters along
the coast of Palestine. Here he conquers the cities of Elteqeh and Timnah and
attacks and occupies Ekron. Hezekiah is evidently (Sennacherib does not say how
it happened but we may guess why) persuaded to set Padi of Ekron free and return
him to his city, where he is reinstalled as an Assyrian vassal. Hezekiah does
not yield any further but Sennacherib devastates his country, destroys 46
fortified cities and shuts Hezekiah in his city of Jerusalem, like a bird in a
cage. The devastated parts of Hezekiah’s kingdom are handed over to the
Philistine cities. Hezekiah gives up the hope of fighting the Assyrians and pays
a heavy tribute that is delivered by his envoys to the Assyrian king in Nineveh.
There can be no doubt that the biblical narrative and Sennacherib’s
annalistic report are two reflections of the campaign of Sennacherib that ended
when Hezekiah gave in and paid the tribute which the Assyrians demanded
including his daughters. There are many differences between the biblical and the
Assyrian version, but they also agree on several important points. Hezekiah
rebelled against the Assyrians. Sennacherib attacked his country and destroyed
many cities. At the end Hezekiah paid a tribute, but Jerusalem remained in his
hand unharmed. The astonishing fact claimed by 2 Kings that the Assyrians did
not conquer Jerusalem is obviously a historical fact. Otherwise the differences
have mostly to do with chronological details and numbers such as when and where
did Hezekiah send his tribute and how big was this tribute? These are minor
points. Basically the two accounts are in agreement.
When these two versions are compared it is obvious that the Rabshakeh
incident may have been invented by the author of 2 Kings in order to create the
impression that Sennacherib did not conquer Jerusalem because the holy city was
saved by its God. Rabshakeh’s actions
follow the payment of the tribute. The Assyrians had already closed the case of
the rebellion. Although this section includes one piece of historical
information: the appearance of an Egyptian army in Palestine, it is a safe guess
to conclude that there is nothing historical about the Rabshakeh incident. The
biblical narrative that follows the payment of the tribute is invented history
or simply fiction.
This example may count as an easy one. Other examples are less obvious.
Among them, we may mention the story about the campaign of the kings of Israel
and Juda against King Mesha of Moab in 2 Kings 3. The story opens with a note
saying that Mesha paid a heavy tribute to Israel but also that he had revolted
against his master after the death of Ahab. The king of Israel accordingly
invited his colleague in Jerusalem to join him in a war party against Moab. The
party also included the King of Edom. The campaign opens with a seven day-long
march but it is halted because of lack of water. The kings turn to the prophet
for help, and on the prophet’s instructions rites are performed and water made
available by a miracle. The prophet also delivers an oracle predicting the fall
of all of Moab. The following battle between the Israelites and Moabites ends in
disaster for the Moabite army, and Mesha retreats to his city of Kir-hareseth.
After an unsuccessful breakout from Kir-hareseth, Mesha sacrifices his son on
the wall of his city, “and there was great indignation against Israel” (KJV)
or better “there was such great consternation among the Israelites” (REB)
that the Israelites lifted the siege and returned home.
Now is this a historical report? The central part of the story has to do
with the water miracle and the Moabite misinterpretation of it that brings
disaster upon their head. Miracles are certainly out of focus in a historical
report of events that really happened, and very impractical for the historical
analysis. It is safe to say—from a historian’s point of view—that it never
happened. Does it mean that this narrative in 2 Kings 3 is totally devoid of
historical information? Hardly, because we are in possession of not only one but
also two inscriptions carrying the name of Mesha, king of Moab. One of them is
only a short fragment, the second probably the most important royal inscription
from the southern Levant ever found.
Also Mesha has a story to tell. In his version, he describes how Omri
oppressed Moab for forty years in all of his time and the half of his son’s
time. Mesha, however, attacked Israel and destroyed it forever. Most of the
inscription is devoted to a description of the cities retaken—in Mesha’s
words—from Israel and the rearrangement prepared for them by Mesha, all of
this made possible by Kemosh, the god of Moab.
If we compare the biblical story in 2 Kings 3 with the inscription of
Mesha of Moab, there may be a slight degree of communality between them. Both
texts explain how Mesha revolted against Israel and reckon Mesha to be king of
Moab. Otherwise it is a hopeless affair to try to unite the information in the
biblical text with the information provided by Mesha himself. Although the
biblical text includes maybe one or two pieces of information that are
historical, it has nothing to do with Mesha’s text. Mesha has a totally
different story to tell. Mesha’s story may constitute a historical report, but
it is far from certain. Maybe it is just as much literature as the version in 2
Kings 3. Mesha is not telling the truth and nothing but the truth. It is clear
that his inscription is also to a large degree fictional and propagandistic and
includes such elements from popular literature as the proverbial period of
oppression of forty years. Mesha somehow makes a show of not knowing the name of
any king of Israel except Omri. He ‘forgets’ to mention Omri’s successor,
Ahab—after all, a very important king in his time and who is mentioned by the
Assyrians—and therefore makes Omri the oppressor of Moab also in his son’s
By introducing these two texts, 2 Kings 3 and the Moabite royal
inscription of Mesha, we have penetrated further into the problem of studying
the history of ancient Israel. There are some general similarities between
Mesha’s version and the biblical one. Mesha
was really the king of Moab and Moab was, before Mesha’s revolt, a vassal of
Israel. Furthermore, Israel was not able to subdue Moab again. Apart from this,
no extra-biblical evidence can substantiate the plot of the narrative in 2 Kings
3. The text might well be an invented and fictional piece of work that only
includes a name and a few other things to act as its historical credentials. We
cannot harmonize the information. Not even the chronology fits. According to 2
Kings 3, Mesha revolts after the death of Ahab, while Mesha speaks about
Israelite oppression that lasted for half the reign of Omri’s son who only
appears without a name in the Moabite text. Although the Mesha inscription is
usually dated to c. 850 B.C.E., the vagueness of the information included here
does not preclude that it could be later than that date. The argument in favor
of such a position is the mentioning of Omri who oppressed Moab in the time of
his son. This indicates that in this text Omri may not be Omri the king of
Israel but the eponymous king of Bet Omri,
the “house of Omri”, which in Assyrian documents of the 9th and 8th century
B.C.E. is the usual name of the state otherwise known as Israel.
Omri and Israel in the Mesha inscription are synonymous.
To conclude: The Mesha inscription does not make 2 Kings 3 a reliable
historical source, nor changes its basic genre. 2 Kings 3 remains as miraculous
and fictional as ever although it mentions a historical king of Moab and refers
to a general political situation that may have some historical nucleus.
It is nevertheless often assumed that 2 Kings 3 has a historical nucleus
that can be reconstructed by modern historians. Such historians may be of the
conviction that a distinction can be made also in this text between Bericht
and Überreste. This is a very imprudent position to take. The only
piece of Überreste in this chapter is
a name and some general knowledge of the status of Moab in Mesha’s time. It is
hardly enough to make a narrative historical. This should not surprise us.
Ancient history writing is very different from modern historical reconstruction.
When reconstructing the past, the modern historian must reject many sorts of
information found in an ancient source. To illustrate my point, I only have to
quote from Danish “national” history as told by Saxo Grammaticus who
includes a long tale about the Viking king Regner Lodbrog, who killed a dragon
to find a wife.
All kinds of legendary material are included in Saxo’s version of Regner’s
life. Such tales can easily be dismissed when we try to write a history of
Denmark’s beginnings. However, the name of Regner is historical, as this
Viking king appears in a Frankish chronicle form the 9th century C.E. as a
contemporary of the writer of this chronicle.
It is, alas, hardly evident that this historical Regner ever killed a dragon.
In biblical studies the problem is that it is almost impossible to
decide which part of a biblical narrative belongs to the genre of Bericht,
and which part includes Überreste if
we have no other information than that which is included in the biblical texts.
If we do not possess external evidence, it is the individual scholar who decides
what is history and what fiction, and this scholar will only have his or her
common sense as a guideline. This is clearly a logical problem that has to do
with historical-critical studies at large
Historical-critical biblical scholarship operates within a hermeneutical
circle that is really a logical circle. The source of information is more often
than not the biblical text that stands alone. The conversation goes between the
scholar who studies the text and the text itself. The scholar presents a theory
that is based on the text and the text confirms the theory. It is an amazing
fact that in biblical studies this has worked for almost 200 years, since the
early days of modern scholarship at the beginning of the 19th century. Although
every historical-critical scholar explains that there is a problem, it has to a
large degree been ignored when it comes to history writing. The standard
procedure is—to quote Bernd Jørg Diebner—that although we cannot prove it,
it is a fact! We cannot prove that Moses ever existed but as we cannot explain
the development of Israelite monotheism without a Moses, he must have existed.
Otherwise we would have to invent him … disregarding the possibility that
ancient writers did exactly that! When in a bad mood, one may be willing to say
that historical-critical scholarship is nothing but a bluff. The procedure—the
hermeneutical circle—is from a scientific point of view false, and a false
procedure in science will automatically tell you that the results obtained by
this method are false and can be discarded without further ado. The conclusion
that historical-critical scholarship is based on a false methodology and leads
to false conclusions simply means that we can disregard 200 years of biblical
scholarship and commit it to the dustbin. It is hardly worth the paper on which
it is printed.
It is no excuse to say that this is the only way we may obtain
historical information from the Bible. That is only a bad excuse for laziness.
It has also to do with greediness: Scholars want to say more than they can
possibly do. Since the Bible has to do with religion and most scholars have been
and still are religious people, there has been a constant pressure on biblical
scholars to produce results that concur with results obtained in other fields
such as general history. And biblical scholars have readily lived up to such
expectations. In my dissertation on “Early Israel” (1985) I presented a
number of maxims, the first of which said that the most important thing is to
acknowledge your ignorance. The second added that when you know the extent of
your ignorance, you also have an idea about what you really know.
These maxims form a kind of Procrustes’ bed on which to place all kinds of
biblical studies, because the demand is that we start our investigation by
accepting that we know almost nothing about the past and that we should begin
with the little we know.
Now, some people might object, is it really true that we know so little
about ancient Israel that we cannot reconstruct the history and religion of this
society? The truth is that from the time that precedes the introduction of the
so-called “Hebrew Monarchy” we only possess one external source mentioning
Israel. This Israel is included among a host of vanquished foes placed in
Palestine in an Egyptian inscription dating to the time of Pharaoh Merenptah ca.
1210 B.C.E.. It is likely that this
inscription refers to Israel as population group of some kind. Apart from this,
nothing is known about the circumstances referred to in this inscription, which
uses a lot of traditional language and might have less to say about historical
events in Palestine at the end of the 13th century B.C.E. than often believed.
There is a gap of more than 300 years from the Merenptah inscription to
the next references to Israel. One of these has already been mentioned, namely
the Mesha-inscription from Moab. A second inscription contains an Assyrian
reference to a battle in 853 B.C.E. in which Ahab of Sirla’a—it is
definitely a corrupted form of Israel—participated.
The third one mentions an anonymous king of Israel who is supposed to have been
killed by the author of the recently found so-called “Bet David” inscription
from Tel Dan in northern Palestine.
From the 8th century B.C.E. a small number of Assyrian texts refers to Israel
either as “the house of Omri” or simply as Samaria, i.e. the capital of the
kingdom of Israel in northern Palestine until 722 B.C.E. Most of these
inscriptions include rather short references to Israel, a few can directly be
related to information contained in the Old Testament such as Tiglatpileser
III’s regulations in northern Palestine a few years before the fall of
This Israel of the inscriptions from the 1st millennium B.C.E. is,
however, not ancient Israel but the state of Israel that existed between c. 900
B.C.E. and 722 B.C.E. In the Old Testament this state appears as one of the two
successor states to David’s and Solomon’s empire.
The second successor-state is referred to as Judah. Not before the 8th
century do Assyrian inscriptions refer to this Judah. Again most of the texts
include rather limited information, the most important being without doubt the
already mentioned report of Sennacherib’s campaign to Palestine. After the
fall of Nineveh a few Babylonian inscriptions include references to Judah or to
events that can be related to the fate of Judah in the 6th century B.C.E., the
most important being the Neo-Babylonian Chronicle that includes a report of the
Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E.
The ancient Near Eastern inscriptions that refer to Israel and Judah are
limited in number but are nevertheless important evidence. They tell us that the
names of Israel and Judah are not invented—fictitious—names, but refer to
political structures that really existed. They also mention a selection of kings
otherwise known from the Old Testament. They show that so far as we can control
the evidence the succession of these kings as well as the synchronisms that can
be established between the kings of Israel and Judah and Assyrian and Babylonian
kings are not totally misleading. Sennacherib really attacked Judah in the days
of Hezekiah and Nebuchadnezar really conquered Jerusalem and installed Zedekiah
on the throne of Judah more than a century later.
To conclude this section, it
is obvious that the history of Israel and Judah as told by biblical historians
is not totally devoid of historical information. The people who wrote the
historical narratives of the Old Testament did at least know some facts about
Israelite and Judaean history. We might even say that there is a certain number
of Überreste—i.e. historical
remains—included in the texts of the Old Testament. There might even be a kind
of coherency that binds this information together and creates a kind of
chronological framework for the historical narrative.
All this is rather
unproblematic. The problematic part is when we are confronted with the task of
deciding what is Überreste and what Bericht
when we read about events in ancient Israel that cannot be compared to external
evidence. How do we solve this problem without ending in the famous
hermeneutical circle already described?
One way would be to approach
ancient near eastern historiography in general in order to perceive how it
worked and how far it can be trusted. The first step would be to establish the
genres of historiography in the Near East in antiquity. Here two genres dominate
the field, on one hand the year-chronicle system that lists for every year its
most important events in a kind of shorthand, and on the other, more extensive
royal inscriptions such as the Assyrian royal annals claiming another Assyrian
conquest of the world.
Sometimes the authors of 1
and 2 Kings refer to the chronicles of Israel or of Judah.
If we are to trust these notes as references to something that really existed
(we must never forget that it was not uncommon in literature from ancient times
to include fictitious references in order to create confidence), these
chronicles would most likely be of the shorthand type. Such annals only included
short references to past events. They would probably not have contained
extensive narrative, not to say long reports. If we turn to the chronicles of
Assyrian and Babylonian kings, it might be possible here to gain an impression
of exactly what kind of information we should look after in order to reconstruct
this source. Again, we should not forget that the biblical author might have
invented the reference while at the same time writing in a chronistic style when
it suited his purpose.
When it comes to royal
literature of the kind found, e.g., in Assyrian inscriptions, it is much more
difficult to establish the presence of such sources in the Old Testament. A
large part of the Assyrian inscriptions contain war reports. Although it cannot
be excluded that such literature also existed in Israel and Judah in the Iron
Age, we cannot say for sure on the basis of the extant books of Kings that it
did. It must be realized that as soon as we approach this genre, we move into
literature, into the world of fiction and invention. This is certainly the case
in many Assyrian inscriptions where the acts of the king are
embellished—defeats hardly acknowledged. Such reports are always written with
a purpose and are often composed to make an impression on the gods who were to
approve the acts of the king in question. Some might call it propaganda!
Returning to the books of
Kings, it is safe to say that although minor sections may have an annalistic
background in royal chronicles, most of the literature there neither belongs to
this genre nor to that of the royal inscriptions of the Assyrian and later
Babylonian type. This is a natural consequence of the aim and scope of the books
of Kings, which are not written in order to praise the institution of kingship
in Israel and Judah or to establish an exalted position for their kings. On the
contrary, the impression gained from reading these biblical books is the
opposite, that a human kingdom represented a departure from the just rule of God
and that its human exponents were hardly heroes of the Yahwistic faith. Only
very few among the kings of Judah are praised for their piety—all of the kings
of Israel are condemned. Royal laudatory inscriptions would simply be the wrong
type of literature to quote and are hardly present among the narratives of 1 and
2 Kings. Rather than tracing non-existing historical events, we should study the
topoi of the authors of the books of
Kings. It would be the goal of such an investigation to find out whether some
kind of a pattern can be found. Already several years ago scholars realized that
the biblical books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are dominated by a series of
stereotypical topoi—each of them having a special purpose, either to recommend a
king loved by God or reject a godforsaken king.
The very character of the narrative in 1 and 2 Kings speaks against extensive
use of royal inscriptions as the base of this narrative. The authors of Kings
used some extant annalistic information but only selected what suited their
purpose. Their selection was dominated by the wish to create a generally
negative impression of the period of the Hebrew kingdom.
When a modern author writes
historical fiction, e.g. books like Robert Graves’ “I Claudius”, we do not
expect such a writer to be faithful to history. We allow this author the liberty
to reformulate history in such a way that it supports the author’s intention
to make history conform to his intended goal. Although we may be in possession
of the interpretation of the past also by professional historians, we can enjoy
and appreciate historical fiction. Now, this is quite extraordinary and contrary
to the belief of many scholars. Also people of the modern age can be more
interested in literature than in historical facts. Hollywood would a long time
ago have gone bankrupt without this human ability to disregard historical facts.
If we—having in a
scientific way studied history for 200 years—do not always think that
historical exactitude is a virtue that cannot be counterbalanced by morally
acceptable fiction literature, what about people of ancient times who never
shared our sense of history? Would they have paid attention to the historical
correctness of a narrative about the past or would they have placed more
emphasis on its esthetical and probably moral values? The answer is provided not
by ancient Near Eastern literature—we know very little about the reception of
this literature among ordinary people—but by the discussion among classical
intellectuals about the value of history. Here Cicero’s famous
characterisation of history as the “teacher of life” is important, as Cicero
on the basis of Hellenistic philosophy regards history not as a literary genre
dealing with the past but as a genre that uses the past to educate the present
and future generations.
We should not limit our
interest in, say, 1-2 Kings in order to find historical information. Such
information may only be present in short notes. We should pay attention to the
purpose of this literature, because it is a safe guess to assume that the
literature was composed to impress the present, and not to save recollections
from the past for its own sake. It is a long story that exceeds the limits of
one short article.
However, it is my thesis that the authors of ancient literature of the kind
found in the Old Testament did not care much about the historical exactitude of
their description of the past. The past was not very interesting except for the
examples of good and bad behaviour it provided for the present and future. The
past was interesting because it explained the present—even sometimes made
present arrangements seem legitimate or natural. Otherwise let the dead bury the
This is one side of the coin.
The other has to do with the claim that we should not expect ancient historical
narrative to be precise about the past or even related to it except in a
superficial way. How can I prove my case?
The easy solution to this problem is to say that it is sometimes possible to point at passages where the authors of Kings directly say that they are not interested in history. The already mentioned references to the chronicles of the kings of Israel and Judah actually tell us this. Thus king Omri is dismissed in a few verses in 1 Kings 16. We are informed that he assumed power by a coup d’état, and that he ruled Israel for twelve years and built Samaria. After this focus changes and we hear about his sins against Yahweh. The author of 1 Kings 16, however, knows that Omri was a great king but: Go and look for yourself in the chronicles of the kings of Israel (1 Kgs. 16:27)! The biblical historiographer has no intention of providing his reader with an exact report of Omri’s reign. Although he accepts that Omri was a great king—after all, after his death his kingdom carried his name for more than a hundred years—this is from the perspective of the ancient history writer absolutely immaterial. Thus this historiographer does not deny Omri’s greatness; he silences it.
A more complicated way to
solve the problem presented here will be to establish whether or not the history
of ancient Israel as told by biblical writers is exact in any comprehensive way.
I mean, this history can be split into several succeeding periods, the period of
the patriarchs, the time of the exodus, the Israelites travelling in the desert
for forty years, the conquest of Canaan, the heroic exploits of the hero-judges
of Israel, the period of national greatness under David and Solomon, impending
disaster under the kings of Israel and Judah, etc. etc. Has this anything to do
with the real past of this geographical region otherwise known as the southern
Levant or Palestine?
I have no intention of
reviewing this history in any detail in this place. I have already presented
such reviews in several publications.
Other scholars have contributed. The history of Israel as told by the Old
Testament begins with the patriarchal age. It continues with the sojourn in
Egypt followed by the Exodus and the wanderings in the desert. Then follows in
succession the conquest of Canaan, the period of the Judges, the empire of David
and Solomon, the era of the Hebrew kings, the exile, and the Persian period.
This history officially ends with Ezra’s promulgation of the Torah,
the Law of Moses, in front of the assembled inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah.
1999 represents the silver
anniversary of the final settlement—represented by the contributions by Thomas
L. Thompson and John Van Seters—with the idea that there ever was a
This is based on family stories, sagas and legends about the past, and has
nothing to do with history. The idea once formulated by Albrecht Alt that there
was a special patriarchal religion based on the belief in der Gott der Väter, “the God of the fathers”, is simply
nonsense as Alt based his argument on Nabatean evidence from the 2nd century
B.C.E. through the 2nd century CE.
The exodus has a long time
ago passed from history into fiction. It never happened. Neither did the
conquest ever happen. Several biblical scholars including myself have made this
clear. From an historical point of view, the Israelites could not have conquered
Canaan by destroying Canaanite forces, for the simple reason that the Egyptians
still ruled Canaan when Joshua is supposed to have arrived, i.e. shortly before
Secondly, there is no trace of foreign immigration, and thirdly, even the
biblical account about the conquest is contradictory (compare Joshua to Judges
In my original monograph on
the period of the judges that appeared almost thirty years ago, I argued that
the narratives in Judges about the heroic exploits of the Israelite judges were
coloured by later experience.
They were also dominated by the wish, in a paradigmatic meaning, to demonstrate
how Israel should fight its enemies, the Canaanites, the Moabites, Ammonites,
Philistines, Aramaeans etc. etc. These narratives do not allow us to reconstruct
the history of the period between the (non-existing) conquest and the (likewise
non-existing) empire of David and Solomon. The stories about the judges of
Israel belong among the genre of heroic tales that most civilizations include
among their memories of the past.
The empire of David and
Solomon believed to have existed in the 10th century B.C.E. is evidently based
on a fictional representation of the past. Many things speak in favour of this
conclusion. One of them has to do with the status of Jerusalem in the 10th
century B.C.E. when Jerusalem was at most a village or a small town.
We have already discussed the
period of the Hebrew kings. Although the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah are
historical facts, we are in possession of very little in the way of solid
knowledge about them. Furthermore, when reviewing the evidence we have in the
Old Testament and in other sources, it is evident that the Old Testament has
totally distorted our view of ancient Palestinian history. This was far more
complicated and included many more actors than just these two kingdoms. Thus the
Old Testament never explains why and how this territory got the name of
Palestine (“the land of the Philistines”). Foreigners including Assyrian
authors of royal annals and Herodotus knew the name of Palestine. Herodotus
simply states that Palestine is the part of Syria that is situated between
Lebanon and Egypt.
There is hardly time to
discuss the historicity of the exile, which might not have been as important as
described by the Old Testament. Recent investigations have shown that the
“land of Israel” was not deserted in the time of the exile and that it only
affected very few among the population of Palestine. There was no “empty
land” as postulated by the biblical books of Chronicles and other biblical
The Persian period is,
finally, a dark spot on the historical map of Palestine. We know almost nothing
about this period. Ezra, the great hero of post-exilic Judaism, is probably a
late invention (by Pharisaic authors?), probably 200 years old when he arrived
(his father was killed by Nebuchadnezer’s general, Nebuzaradan, in 587 B.C.E.—according
to the biblical evidence).
Although this review is in
some ways “reductionist”, it is nevertheless very much to the point. It is
based on a review of all kinds of evidence, not least the results of extensive
archaeological excavations in Palestine that have lasted for more than a hundred
years. I need not say that archaeology is not an exact science like mathematics
and never will be. Any result obtained by an archaeologist will include a number
of hypotheses made by this archaeologist based on the material he or she has
found. Furthermore the basis on which the archaeologist founded his or her
theories can never be revisited. All excavations include—in Kathleen
Kenyon’s words—destruction. The archaeologist destroys the evidence when it
is excavated. The original archaeological situation can never be re-established.
continually formulate general hypotheses about the development of this
geographic area in ancient times that speak against the evidence of a late
written source such as the Old Testament (which according to me and the members
of my school hardly predates the Greco-Roman Period). It is therefore a safe
guess to argue that this late source—although written—does not constitute a
historical source. It is not—to recall Droysen—Überreste,
it is definitely Bericht, a tale about
The development in Palestine
between, say 1250 and 900 B.C.E. is an example of this. Archaeology as well as
other non-biblical information about ancient Palestine will tell us that
Palestine in the late Bronze Age (roughly the 2nd half of the 2nd millennium
B.C.E.) was an Egyptian province ruled by local princes who looked upon
themselves as faithful vassals of their patron, the Pharaoh. For most of the
time, Palestine was left alone. Only occasionally did the Egyptians interfere
directly with the mundane problems of Palestine. The everlasting internecine
war-games played by the local chieftains who saw themselves as “kings” (the
Egyptian had other ideas about their importance and called them hazanu;
i.e., “mayors”) had a devastating effect on the wellbeing of the country. It
was not before the so-called “Ramesside restoration” of the Egyptian
presence in Western Asia after the debacle that ended the 18th dynasty, that
matters changed and the Egyptian presence became more dominating. Some could say
that Ramesses II created a kind of “Pax Egyptiaca” in Palestine. Now, the
Egyptian masters limited the devastating effects of the “free-for-all”
politics of the local Palestinian chieftains. The Egyptians created a situation
of relative peace in the country that might have had a positive demographic
effect as people moved from the cities to the countryside to live closer to
their fields. The late 13th, the 12th and the early 11th centuries B.C.E. were
witnessing the foundations of scores if not hundreds of insignificant and
unprotected village settlements, not least in the mountains of Palestine. Life
must have become pretty safe. From at least the 11th century B.C.E., a certain
reduction of the number of villages took place. This demographic chance was
counterbalanced by the rise of certain settlements to the status of sometimes
heavily fortified townships. Tel Beersheva with its circular walls and planned
layout is a typical example of such a settlement that may look more like a
medieval fortress than a proper city or town.
This stage may have occurred
as a consequence of an at least partial Egyptian withdrawal from Palestine
(although it now seems likely that at least in Bet Shean an Egyptian garrison
was present as late as the beginning of the 10th century B.C.E.).
Life became more dangerous and the socio-political system of the past (local
patrons fighting other local patrons) emerged again. I have once described this
development as a move from one patronage society to another patronage society,
from an old political system to a new system that was an exact copy of the
former system. This period lasted until
probably the middle of the 9th century when some of the local chieftains were
able to create large political structures that exceeded the boundaries of those
present in the Late Bronze Age, a time when most Palestinian political systems
were extremely small. Such large political structures might have existed before
the Iron Age, e.g. in the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium). Here remains of
considerable cities are found. The Middle Bronze Age might be another period
that included comprehensive political organizations although we know very little
about the exact political structure of the Palestinian society before the Late
The biblical picture of
ancient Israel does not fit in but is contrary to any image of ancient
Palestinian society that can be established on the basis of ancient sources from
Palestine or referring to Palestine. There is no way this image in the Bible can
be reconciled with the historical past of the region. And if this is the case,
we should give up the hope that we can reconstruct pre-Hellenistic history on
the basis of the Old Testament. It is simply an invented history with only a few
referents to things that really happened or existed. From an historian’s point
of view, ancient Israel is a monstrous creature. It is something sprung out of
the fantasy of biblical historiographers and their modern paraphrasers, i.e.,
the historical-critical scholars of the last two hundred years.
 This article represents my address to a symposia at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, in September 1999, and at Columbia University, N.Y., in November 1999. (To go back to main text, simply click on the relevant endnote number in this document).
 More about this in my The Israelites in History and Tradition (Library of Ancient Israel; Louisville, KY: Westminster/JohnKnox, 1998), pp. 1-21, and 22-34.
 ANET3, pp. 287-8.
 For a different look on the Rabshakeh incident as historical cf. among others Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis (SBT SS 3; London: SCM, 1967), pp. 76-93, and more recently Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 11; Garden City, NY; Doubleday, 1988), pp. 240-244.
 Cf. John C.L. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, I: Hebrew and Moabite Inscriptions (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), pp. 71-84. For an extensive analysis of the main text, cf. Andrew Daerman (ed.), Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab (ASOR/SBL Archaeology and Biblical Studies, 2; Atlanta, GA: Scholars), 1989). Although the second inscription from Kerak is broken at the beginning where to find Mesha’s name, the name of his father (kmšyt) has been so well preserved that it is beyond doubt that this is a second inscription by Mesha king of Moab.
 For a recent review of this evidence, cf. my The Israelites in History and Tradition, pp. 51-5.
 Saxo, a monk in the service of the bishop Absalon, the founder of Copenhagen, wrote his Res gestae danorum towards the end of the 12th century C.E.
 The reference dates to 845 C.E. when Regner’s army of Normans at the Seine was destroyed by a plague. He may also be mentioned in other contemporary sources as one of the main figures in the Danish process of conquering England in the second half of the 9th century C.E.
 Early Israel: Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society before the Monarchy (VTS, 37; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985), p. 414.
 ANET3, pp. 376-8.
 ANET3, p. 279.
 Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, ‘An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Tel Dan,’ IEJ 43 (1993), pp. 81-98 and ‘The Tel Dan Inscription: A New Fragment,’ IEJ 45 (1995), pp. 1-18. As to this writer’s present position on the inscription, cf. his The Israelites in History and Tradition, pp. 38-43.
 ANET3, p. 282-4; cf. 2 Kgs. 15:29-30.
 ANET3, pp. 563-4.
 E.g., 2 Kgs. 15:18.104.22.168.26.31.36.
Cf. on the possibility of information coming from royal Israelite and
Judaean archives, J.A. Montgomery, ‘Archival Data in the Books of
Kings,’ JBL 53 (1934), pp.
46-52. The question by Gösta W. Ahlström is, however, very relevant:
‘But where have these archives been preserved so that the material could
be used by later scribes or historiographers?’ (The
History of Ancient Palestine from the Palaeolithic Period to Alexander’s
Conquest. With a contribution by Gary O. Rollefson. Edited by Diana Edelman
[JSOTS, 146; Sheffield: Academic
Press, 1993], p. 661 n. 9).
 Cf. the interesting study by Peter Welten, Geschichte und Geschichtsdarstellung in den Chronikbüchern (WMANT, 42; Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1973).
Cicero, De oratore, II.ix.36.
 Cf. also my forthcoming article, ‘Good and Bad in History. The Purpose of historiography,’ in Steven McKenzie and Thomas Römer (eds.), Studies in Honor of John Van Seters (BZAW; Berlin, 2000: De Gruyter, in press).
 For Convenience, Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society (The Biblical Seminar, 5; Sheffield: JSOT, 1988) (which is after all not so new anymore).
 Cf. Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (BZAW, 133; Berlin: De Gruyter, 1974), and John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale, 1975).
 Albrecht Alt, Der Gott der Väter. Ein Beitrag zur Vorgeschichte der israelitischen Religion (BWANT, 48; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1929; E.T. [R.A. Wilson] ‘The God of the Fathers’, in Albrecht Alt, Essays on Old Testament History and Religion [The Biblical Seminar: Sheffield: JSOT, 1989], pp. 1-77).
 For a recent evaluation of the duration of the Egyptian empire in Asia, cf. Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1992), pp. 283-97. Redford dates the Egyptian withdrawal to c. 1150 B.C.E.
 Israel i dommertiden: En oversigt over diskussionen om Martin Noths ‘Das System der zwölf Stämme Israels’ (Tekst og Tolkning, 4; Copehagen: C.E.G. Gad, 1972), pp. 86-7.
 I have no intention in this place to go into a detailed discussion about the historicity or non-historicity of David and Solomon. The idea of an united monarchy of Israel/Judah died as terminology changed. Now, it is preferable to see the period from c. 1250 to c. 900 as one long intermediary period, a ‘transitionary period’, and the way to approach this period has been demonstrated by. e.g. Israel Finkelstein, ‘The Emergence of Israel: A Phase in the Cyclic History of Canaan in the Third and Second Millennia BCE’, in Israel Finkelstein and Nadav Na’aman (eds.), From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Early Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994), pp. 150-178, and Shlomo Bunimowitz, ‘Socio-Political Transformations in the Central Hill Country in the Late Bronze-Iron I Transition’, in Finkelstein and Na’aman (eds.) From Nomadism to Monarchy, pp. 179-203.
 Cf. Herodotus, The Histories, I, 105; II, 104; III, 5.91; IV, 39; VII, 89.
 Cf. Hans M. Barstad, The Myth of the Empty Land: A Study in the History and Archaeology of Judah During the ‘Exilic’ Period (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1996). See, however, also Ehud Ben Zvi, ‘Inclusion in and Exclusion from Israel as Conveyed by the Use of the Term “Israel” in Post-Monarchic Biblical Texts,’ in Steven W. Holloway and Lowell K. Handy (eds.), The Pitcher is Broken. Memorial Essays for Gösta W. Ahlström (JSOTS 190; Sheffield: Academic Press, 1995), pp. 95-149, and the discussion in Lester L. Grabbe (ed.), Leading Captivity Captive. The ‘Exile’ as History and Ideology (JSOTS, 278; Sheffield: Academic Press, 1998).
 Cf. Ezra’s pedigree, Ezra 7:1: Ezra, son of Seraiah, son of Azariah, son of Hilkiah, son of Shallum, etc. On Seraiah’s death, cf. 2 Kgs. 25:18. Hilkiah was high priest in the days of Josiah, 2 Kgs. 22:4.Of course many scholars will maintain that the genealogy is either false or telescoped.
 Cf. the short discussion by Patrick E. McGovern, ‘Beth-Shean’, ABD I, 694-5. The LBA phase of occupation continued to about 1000 B.C.E. Only after that date a new stratum reveals different layouts and culture. The city was hardly Philistine (the author of 1 Sam. 31 got it totally wrong); only a single piece of Philistine pottery has been found at the tell (McGovern, same place).
 ‘From Patronage Society to Patronage Society’, in Volkmar Fritz and Philip R. Davies (eds.), The Origins of the Ancient Israelite States (JSOTS, 228; Sheffield: Academic Press, 1996), pp. 106-20.