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The Origins of the Ancient Israelite States

By Merrill, Eugene H. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Origins of the Ancient Israelite States


Merrill, Eugene H., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Origins of the Ancient Israelite States. Edited by Volkmar Fritz and Philip R. Davies. JSOTSup 228. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996, 219 pp., $49.00.

The history of the study of the history of Israel provides an enlightening insight into the ironic fact that the more that is known about the world of Israel's origins the less confidence there is in the OT record of those origins, at least in some circles. It seems that the OT's own credibility has come to be viewed in inverse proportion to the wealth of data being provided from archaeological and other extra-Biblical sources. There was a time when the historicity of the so-called pre-patriarchal period (Genesis 1-11) was suspect, then the patriarchs were consigned to aetiology, the exodus and Mosaic period to legend, and the conquest and judges era to Heilsgeschichte. Now it is fashionable to challenge the historical reality of Saul, David and Solomon, and even the likelihood of a united monarchy at all. One awaits the logical conclusion that there was no pre-exilic Israelite community and that the OT is pure fiction from beginning to end.

Admittedly, the skeptical view of Israel's history that gives rise to this assessment is a minority position, but it is one vigorously argued by some of the contributors to this volume, most notably Thomas L. Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche, Philip R. Davies and Graeme Auld. More moderate points of view are promoted here by Baruch Halpern, Christa Schafer-Lichtenberger, Diana Edelman, Nadav Na'aman, Walter Dietrich and Volkmar Fritz.

In the introduction Davies addresses the charge that he and certain others are "minimalizers" in terms of their acceptance of the OT as a reliable record of history by asserting that "What 'minimalizers' are doing is minimizing the extent to which the biblical account is taken as reliable history. Nothing else" (p. 12). But he opens himself to the legitimacy of the charge by finding fault with those who take as their premise the assumption of the historicity of the Biblical account (p. 14). Surely it is not improper to grant the OT a fair hearing before condemning it as fraudulent.

Thompson's essay is mainly devoted to an attack on William Dever and his conviction (so Thompson) that "there has been no other history of either Israel or Palestine than that of a critically revised, reconstructed one from the Bible" (p. 28). It is true, of course, that Dever has vacillated in recent years over the issue of "biblical archaeology" and its role in determining Israel's history. Nevertheless, Thompson's implication that Dever is a Biblicist comfortable with fundamentalism is a serious and deliberate misreading of Dever.

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