Israelites in History and Tradition

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Israelites in History and Tradition, by Niels Peter Lemche. Library of Ancient Israel, ed. Douglas A. Knight. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Pp. ix +246. $25.00.

This work's title might lead the unwary reader to believe that the author is going to present his understanding of the nature of the "historical" Israel of the Iron Age and how it compares with the literary Israel of the biblical "tradition." Such is not the case. Essentially it is an extremely long critique/debunking of the efforts of most biblical scholars (historians, archaeologists, and theologians), over the last century, including his own earlier work (Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society), to try to utilize the Hebrew texts as a source for reconstructing a history of Israel.

The book is divided into a prolegomenon, five main chapters of varying length, and a conclusion. Chapter 1, "Playing the von Ranke Game," discusses the nature of the Hebrew Scriptures as a historical source. In chapter 2, "Israel in Contemporary Historical Documents from the Ancient Near East," he discusses the major extrabiblical texts that mention Israel, Judah, or their ruling houses. Here he repeats his earlier assertions, a minority opinion at best, that the various fragments of the Bet David inscription from Tel Dan do not belong to the same stela, do not mention the House of David, and may be a forgery. Lemche derides scholars at several points for not following basic rules of historiography; yet in the case of this inscription he is guilty of the same charge. A basic tenet of historical research is always to follow the simplest solution which answers the most questions while raising the fewest problems in the process. Surely it is sounder methodology to understand the text to read "House of David" than as an otherwise completely unattested place name. Lemche seems somewhat obsessed with the fact that one of the in situ pictures of the inscription does not really show the fragment as it was found, but after it was repositioned for the photograph (p. 181 n. 25), and that this may be grounds for suspecting that it is a forgery. This sort of repositioning is a fairly common practice in archaeology, especially when the significance of an apparently innocuous object may not be realized until it has been removed from the debris and cleaned and should not be used to impugn the reputation of the excavator(s). Chapter 3, "Archaeology and Israelite Ethnic Identity," discusses the role of material culture in studies of ethnicity. Chapter 4, "The People of God," examines the historical value of such traditions as the exodus and the twelve-tribe system and asserts that while they have value as foundation myths for postexilic Israel, they have no bearing on the institutions of the Iron Age. Chapter 5, "The Scholar's Israel," critiques specifically the works of J. Wellhausen, M. Noth, J. Bright, and R. Albertz.

In some respects it is difficult to evaluate this book as the author never explicitly defines the goal of his work, or the methodology he will use to establish his thesis. In fact, the author's thesis, that the Hebrew Scriptures are essentially religious propaganda of the Persian-Hellenistic period created to justify the existence of a Jewish nation, propaganda useless for reconstructing the history of Iron Age Israel, is really only established in the last few pages of his conclusion.

In many ways Lemche's opus is only half a book. While the long critical appraisal of prior scholarship may be interesting and possibly useful, it is not the entire race. It is a barren exercise to tear down the work of others without offering a least some concrete examples of how the material should be studied, and some preliminary results of this new method. For example, while most scholars accept a Persian-Hellenistic date for the final shaping/editing of the Hebrew Scriptures, Lemche asserts that these works were composed at that time. If Lemche is going to insist that these works tell us more about the emerging Judaism of this latter period than they do about Iron Age Israel, he should offer examples of what these texts tell us about postexilic Israel. …