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Books in Brief–Historical Essays; The Early Biblical Period, Philip J. King, BAR 12-06, Nov-Dec 1986.

king-solomonThis new volume appears at a time of explosive activity in the study of ancient Israelite history. Indeed, it is only the latest of at least a dozen histories of ancient Israel that have been published within the last six years. Some of them, like the third edition of John Bright’s A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), are updatings of earlier works. Others are entirely new productions: J. Alberto Soggin’s A History of Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985) and Henk Jagersma’s two volumes, A History of Israel in the Old Testament Period and A History of Israel from Alexander the Great to Bar Kochba (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983, 1986).

The present volume is one of the new productions, and it commands immediate attention because of the two scholars who have written it. J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, colleagues at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University, Atlanta, are already well known in Biblical studies, not only for their specialized articles, but even more for a series of volumes introducing and/or synthesizing important areas of the Biblical field for a wide range of readers. Some of these were composed individually, with Hayes emphasizing literature and theology (e.g., An Introduction to Old Testament Study [Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1979]) and Miller, history, geography and archaeology (e.g., The Old Testament and the Historian[Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976]). But on one occasion they worked together, editing a survey of scholarship on ancient Israelite history, which has become the standard professional handbook on its topic (Israelite and Judean History [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977]).

A History of Ancient Israel and Judah is intended as a sequel to the authors’ earlier survey volume, offering Miller and Hayes’s own version of the course of Biblical history.

It does this in a way that is accessible to nonprofessionals as well as professionals. Chronologically, the book proceeds from the putative beginnings of ancient Israel through the generation of Ezra and Nehemiah and the subsequent fall of the Achaemenid Persian empire. Thus, it covers the “classical” period of Israelite history, in what are often called its pre-Exilic, Exilic, and early post-Exilic phases.

The work is essentially a narrative history, an attempt to tell a chronologically continuous story of the political events and wars in which ancient Israel was involved. So considered, Israel turns out to have enjoyed very little unity in the course of its existence, the principal exception being the united monarchy period of David and Solomon; and even then, as Miller and Hayes point out, the fissures were never far from the surface. Indeed, “the fact that Solomon was able to hold the kingdom together throughout his reign was one of his major accomplishments” (p. 199). Now, since the two main divisions in the community were between the northern tribes of Israel and the southern tribes of Judah, the authors have decided to take the matter seriously enough to title their book A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, following their earlier edited survey on Israelite and Judean history.

These titles are something of a rarity for modern histories of ancient Israel, though the problem of tribal division they highlight is acknowledged by the broad range of Biblical scholarship. In tracing the history of this division, Miller and Hayes do not begin where the Biblical account begins, in the patriarchal period. For them, as for the current majority of scholars, if the patriarchs constitute a period, it is one for which the possible sources—Biblical and non-Biblical alike—are so flawed as to put it beyond any real recovery by the modern historian. The subsequent Exodus and “Conquest” periods, in the view of our authors, are only slightly more amenable to the historian’s probing. On the one hand, they agree, again in line with a developing scholarly majority, to reject the idea of a violent conquest from the outside as the sole or dominant cause of the appearance of Israel in Palestine. Instead, they suggest, very tentatively, that there were many causes—many different groups, some already in Palestine and others not, that joined together in Palestine to make up what came to be understood as Israel. But beyond this tentative suggestion, Miller and Hayes are unwilling to go. “We decline any attempt,” they assert, “to reconstruct the earliest history of the Israelites … and begin our treatment with a description of the circumstances which appear to have existed among the tribes in Palestine on the eve of the establishment of the monarchy” (p. 79). In other words, the history of the divisions of Israel and Judah, as the history of the community overall, can only be studied from the period of the later “Judges” on.

In presenting their version of this history, Miller and Hayes have made a major effort to be stimulating, easily understood, and yet not simplistic. They clearly explain technical arguments so that nonprofessionals can appreciate them. They provide a variety of aids to illuminate their narrative: maps; photographs; charts summarizing key Biblical sources and the chronological succession of key persons and events in Israelite, Judean, and related Near Eastern history; and translations of important extra-Biblical documents bearing on Israelite history. These translations, taken from James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969) and other standard collections, are an unusual feature, not found in any recent history of Israel except for the modest selection in the French work of Henri Cazzelles’s, Histoire politique d’Israël des origines a Alexandre le Grand (Paris: Desclee, 1982).

Miller and Hayes also want their readers to understand how they know what they report about Israelite history, and so they begin each chapter by evaluating the structure and reliability of the relevant Biblical texts and, where necessary, of extra-Biblical sources also, both written and unwritten. The presentation here is not aimed at the scholar so much as at the layperson, since it takes very little for granted. The sources are first summarized in a rather straightforward fashion, and then analyzed in nontechnical language according to their underlying components.

With this concern for sources, it is not surprising that Miller and Hayes refuse to be imprisoned by the Biblical text; indeed, they understand the need—and the risk—of going beyond a narrow, surface reading of it for the reconstruction of Israelite history. Thus, in discussing the period of the Judges, they skillfully demonstrate that the relevant Biblical sources did not, originally, describe a community of all 12 Israelite tribes, as they do now, collected together in their present form by later Israelite editors. Rather, the sources originated in several disparate tribal traditions, reflecting localized tribal groupings, the bulk of them connected with Ephraim and its immediate neighbors, Benjamin, Manasseh and Gilead, while a smaller and separate set of texts concerned the southern tribe of Judah.

Even more dramatic is the treatment given certain of the sources for the Omri and Jehu dynasties, which ruled the northern kingdom of Israel during the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. The principal problem here involves the reports of three battles between the Israelites and Arameans in 1 Kings 20, 22:1–38 and the stories about the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 2, 4:1–8:15. In their present position in the Biblical narrative, both the battles and the Elisha accounts are associated with Omride rulers: the battles with Ahab and the prophet Elisha with Jehoram. But as Miller and Hayes lucidly argue, building on detailed studies of Miller himself and others, this narrative association is probably the result of misunderstandings by later Israelite or Judean editors. The original, and more suitable context for the battle and the Elisha stories is the reign of Jehoahaz, a king of the Jehu dynasty, which followed the Omrides. In this period, Miller and Hayes observe, Israel was weak and vulnerable to Aramean attacks, as the stories indicate, and the Aramean leader was Ben-hadad, again as in the stories. The earlier reigns of Ahab and Jehoram, on the other hand, seem to have been a period of Israelite strength vis-à-vis the Arameans, whose leaders then were Hadadezer and Hazael, but not Ben-hadad.

Whether ultimately correct or not, the above analysis is certainly provocative, and along with the other features already noted, testifies to the many good things offered in this new history. And yet, one must confess, the volume is not everything it could have been. There are, to begin with, the occasional slips that befall any work of this scope: for example, the continued affirmation (p. 432) of William F. Albright’s old view that the seal of “Eliakim, steward of Yaukin” belonged to an official of the deposed Judean king, Jehoiachin (= Yaukin), in the years between the first and second Babylonian deportations from Judah (598–586 B.C.). The correct context, as Frank Moore Cross, David Ussishkin and others have shown, is about a century earlier, during the reign of Hezekiah. Similarly, Cyrus of Persia, in conquering Babylonia, is not recorded to have destroyed “the ancient city of Akkad” and its population, as Miller and Hayes suppose (p. 439). The Babylonian chronicle to which they refer here has “Akkad” not as the name of the city, but as the name of the country, that is, as a synonym for Babylonia itself, in a well-known usage of the area.

More generally, one must fault the decision by Miller and Hayes to dispense with bibliographic and other notes to their text. They reason (p. 19) that readers who need the documentation of their views will find it easily enough either in the list of books and articles given at the end of the volume, and arranged there by the volume’s chapter headings, or in their edited survey,Israelite and Judean History. But the cross-checking this requires is needlessly clumsy and at times even unavailing, especially for the lay reader. The latter may not realize, for example, that the studies on which Miller and Hayes base their skepticism about Solomon’s mines (p. 214) are not listed in their chapter bibliography (pp. 483–484); they are to be found, rather, only indirectly, in a general book noted in that bibliography, E. W. Heaton’s Solomon’s New Men, under note 45 on page 188!

One can also wonder about Miller and Hayes’s willingness, in what they regard as the interests of their lay readers (pp. 19–20), to skip over important results of the modern scholarly study of the Biblical text. There is, thus, no mention, apart from Deuteronomy (pp. 393–397), of the “Documentary” sources of the Pentateuch, nor of the “Deuteronomistic History” of Joshua–2 Kings. Rather, these are all grouped together as “the Genesis–II Kings account” (p. 20), whose ancient editors are said to have assembled it out of various sources. Yet how such an approach makes things easier for lay readers is not clear, given that Miller and Hayes do not shrink from source analysis of particular portions of Genesis–2 Kings, indeed can carry it out in a very detailed way (e.g., for the three battle accounts and Elisha stories, referred to above). The reductio ad absurdum of all this is that at one point Miller and Hayes feel compelled to discuss the “Deuteronomistic History,” yet steadfastly refuse to call it such, using only the colorless label, “Joshua–II Kings” (pp. 377–378), and never explaining how it came to be part of the larger “Genesis–II Kings account.”

Finally, there will be some disappointment with our authors’ use of archaeological evidence, both written and unwritten. When they discuss, for example, the clash between the Philistines and Israelites in the pre-Davidic period, they rely almost entirely on the Biblical text (e.g., pp. 100, 124–128, 144–145). Hardly any mention is made (a small exception is on p. 84) of the large corpus of artifacts, which, if these cannot be associated with particular events narrated in the Bible, have much to say about crucial historical processes taking place in the period: the nature of the Philistine expansion over Palestine, Philistine connections with other eastern Mediterranean groups, the decline of Philistine power, etc. The too brief look at Tobiah, Sanballat, Geshem, and the citizens of Ashdod, who opposed Nehemiah’s reforms in post-Exilic Judah (pp. 470, 471, 472), again uses just the Bible, taking no account of the diverse artifactual and architectural data for these figures now available, which do much to clarify their activities (e.g., the Samaria papyri and the Jordan site of Araq el-Amir). And the treatment of Sennacherib’s attack against Judah (pp. 353–363), while it does consider a number of artifacts and extra-Biblical inscriptions, leaves out others that are far from unimportant: the archaeological evidence for Sennacherib’s devastation, say, from Lachish (level III) and Beer-Sheva (level II); and the famous Assyrian reliefs of the siege of Lachish, which offer valuable information on such subjects as the techniques of warfare, fortification of cities, and Judean dress and family life at the end of the eighth century B.C.

One should not exaggerate the import of the examples just discussed, for Miller and Hayes are by no means unappreciative of archaeological evidence. Indeed, they can treat it at points rather attentively (e.g., pp. 354, 356), and raise thoughtful questions about its relevance to historical study (pp. 72, 85). One must also add that in a volume like this, which surveys all of “classical” Israelite and Judean history in only a medium compass, it is not reasonable to expect every piece of archaeological data to be noted or explored. Archaeology cannot, as Miller and Hayes fully recognize, be allowed to crowd out a focus on the Biblical text, without which no historian of ancient Israel and Judah could work.

These considerations notwithstanding, I am still surprised that the authors did not deal with archaeology more generously, all the more because of Miller’s own keen involvement in the field, both as excavator/surveyor and as analyst. Perhaps at bottom the problem is that they have not simply focused on the Biblical text, but succumbed to it and its critical evaluation as the arena for defining and solving all essential questions of Israelite and Judean history. In this perspective, then, archaeology is secondary, only really useful, as the authors indicate, when it clarifies “matters of historical detail” (p. 160); that is, when one can see “a correlation between a specific item in Biblical history and the archaeological record” (p. 189).

That archaeology, however, can sometimes be the leader and not the follower, that its potential informativeness reaches beyond its role as an external confirmation of Biblically narrated events is suggested by the last example that may be cited, of which Miller and Hayes are themselves aware. In their short second chapter on the origins of Israel, they observe perceptively that there is nothing in the artifactual record of Iron I Palestine, the period of the Biblical Joshua and Judges, which distinguishes Israel from other groups in the area. The artifacts, rather, all “belonged to a commonly shared culture throughout Iron I Palestine” (p. 72). Yet this fact need not be seen, as Miller and Hayes do, only in a negative light. It has the important positive role of pointing to the crucial and indissoluble link between emergent Israel and the broader Palestinian environment; and thus of alerting us to Biblical passages we might have downplayed, which indicate the same link (e.g., Gideon’s father and his worship inJudges 6). If we must look, then, for the element or elements that distinguished Israel in its origins, the indistinguishability of the material culture suggests this ought to lie in a realm not easily traceable physically. In other words, the element may well be ideological—or, in terms that bring us back to the Bible itself, religious!

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