The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect

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The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect. By William G. Dever. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012, x + 436 pp., $25.00.

What was life really like for the ordinary people of ancient Israel and Judah? That is the question that longtime archaeologist William Dever seeks to answer in his newest volume, which he considers to be the culmination of his life's work (p. x). In pursuit of his answer, Dever puts together a "secular history" (p. vi) of Israel in which archaeological data, rather than textual data, serve as the primary source, in order to produce a handbook that augments the picture of Israel's history found within the biblical texts.

Dever's work attempts to present the reader with a history of Israel during the eighth century BCE, written without recourse to the biblical text, and with no pretensions of total objectivity. Among his credentials for undertaking such a task, Dever notes that he is a secular humanist with "no theological or other axe to grind" (p. vii). He does not seek to prove anything from Israel's history, but only to summarize that which we can "actually know" (p. 372). Archaeology, by its nature, is best suited to produce what Dever refers to as "histories of things" (p. 377), rather than ideological histories-such as political, intellectual, or religious histories- and as such, Dever views archaeological inquiry into Israel's past as distinct from biblical inquiry into that past. The Hebrew Bible is "not history, but a testament to faith"; it is a "theocratic history" concerned not with what happened in the past, but with what past events mean within a larger, religious perspective (pp. 377-78). Dever's work, on the other hand, concerns itself with the question of what everyday life was really like for the ordinary men and women of ancient Israel.

Dever begins his work with a methodological discussion on writing history. The book is intended for students and non-specialists (p. vi), and the opening chapter serves as a good, if basic, introduction to the topic for these readers. In his chapter entitled "The Challenges of Writing a History of Ancient Israel," Dever surveys a selection of trends within the scholarship of the last twenty years that have influenced the discussion of Israel's history. Readers familiar with Dever's own work over that period of time will not be surprised to find that much of this discussion is dedicated to exposing the so-called revisionist scholars with whom Dever has previously dueled over their attempts to deny the historicity of an Iron Age reality for the Israel depicted in the biblical narratives. At times this chapter reads as a sort of personal mini-history, chronicling Dever's own debate with his revisionist adversaries, though the work of scholars outside of this limited group is occasionally reviewed (including a section on evangelical responses to revisionism).

Chapter 3, "The Natural Setting," begins Dever's discussion of the archaeological data on life in ancient Israel by placing that data in its geographical context. From this point on, the majority of chapters follow a tripartite arrangement, with sections dedicated to the archaeological data, the biblical data, and a more subjective discussion of what life was really like. In this final division of each chapter, Dever is admittedly more speculative in his writing (p. 373). He attempts in these concluding remarks to pull together what is known from the archaeological and biblical data, together with his own insights from living in pre-industrial communities in the Middle East, to provide a picture of what the common Israelite's experience may have been like.

Chapter 4, "Sites and Hierarchies," is an important foundation for the remainder of the book's discussion. Here Dever reviews the sites from which archaeological data for the eight century BC have been retrieved, and organizes them into a multi-tiered hierarchy based on size, location, and material finds. …