The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel

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The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel. By Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar. Edited by Brian B. Schmidt. Archaeology and Biblical Studies 17. Atlanta: SBL, 2007, x + 220 pp., $24.95 paper.

This book originates from invited lectures delivered in October 2005 at the Sixth Biennial Colloquium of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Detroit, Michigan. Despite the title, the book is not really a debate per se, but is more like a "four views" book, but without the two "extreme" views or the responses. According to the writers, the two views presented are "centrist," falling in between the conservative extreme of Kitchen and the revisionist extreme of Thompson and Lemche. The two authors are leading Israeli archaeologists, and their well-articulated views are widely influential and must be rightly understood by evangelical teachers of the OT today.

The book is divided into six parts, with the first and last serving to introduce and conclude the discussion, and the middle four surveying Israel's history from the Patriarchs to the divided monarchy. Each part begins with a "summary assessment" by the editor, Brian B. Schmidt, followed by essays from Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, respectively. The "summary assessments" are quite good in capturing the main points of each author, though Schmidt provides little in the way of evaluation.

Of the four periods treated, the two authors share the most in common at the ends of the historical timeline-the time of the patriarchs and the divided monarchy. Greater disagreement exists over the nature of Israel's origins and settlement, and the debate is most pointed concerning the tenth century BC, the time of Israel's united monarchy. For the most part, the disagreement merely concerns how large the "kernel of truth" behind the biblical account is.

According to Finkelstein, anachronisms in the patriarchal stories betray a seventh century BC date of composition. He notes as well what "we should have heard about" it if the stories actually took place in the second millennium (p. 45). He argues the patriarchal stories were written in the time of Josiah to demonstrate Judah's superiority over the northern tribes. Mazar finds some support for historical memory in the early biblical accounts in analogous Egyptian records from the same time period.

Finkelstein consistently identifies the motives of the seventh century bc biblical writers, but he fails to note glaring problems with his proposals. For instance, he describes the stories of Jacob and Esau as giving divine legitimacy to the political relationship of Judah and Edom, without explaining what motivated the writers to invent the flaws of Jacob or how the reconciliation of the two brothers should be understood. Many biblical stories simply cannot be explained as originating from a "powerful expression of seventh-century Judahite dreams" (p. 50). At times Finkelstein makes farreaching conclusions on literary matters, though the archaeological support is lacking.

Concerning the origins of Israel, Finkelstein rejects the three major models of the twentieth century, instead arguing that the twelfth-century bc settlement of nomadic peoples in the highlands was simply another recurrence in an age-old cycle of sedentarization and nomadization. What was unique was not the settlement of Canaanites in the twelfth century bc but the formation of a state in the ninth century BC. …