Who Were the Ancient Israelites?

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As you can see I’ve been writing a number of book reviews and recommendations recently. I plan to do this on an on-going basis. Because I read a lot of history and people seem interested in getting recommendations on good reads. But I’m starting for the moment with what amounts to a backlog of some of what I think are the best books I’ve read in the last five or six years. The one I wanted to talk about today is Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William G Dever, a now retired biblical archeologist and historian.

This book isn’t necessarily what I would call a page turner, at least not in the conventional sense of a galloping narrative. It’s more an investigation and I found it irresistible. It’s also one of those books that changed or profoundly advanced my understanding of a key topic or question.

As we’ve learned over the last century or more, a great many things that happened in the Bible, or more specifically the Torah or ‘Old Testament’, did in fact happen or have their basis in history that can be confirmed by archeological or related field investigation. This doesn’t touch the supernatural or theological dimensions of what’s in the Bible. Things didn’t necessarily happen just when or how the Bible describes. But many of the broad outlines are things we can confirm.

But there’s one thundering exception: the exodus from Egypt. There is very little or really no evidence that it happened. At least, to put this more specifically, there is very little evidence for the conquest of the land of Canaan in anything like the way it was described in the Bible, particularly in the Book of Joshua. War, particularly the storming and destruction of cities, tends to leave a clear archeological record. But it’s simply not there, not at any time that can be squared with any timeline we can derive from the Bible. In some cases, there’s no evidence of destruction at the time in question – very late 2nd millennium. In other cases, there was simply no city there at the time at all. Notably, people and places seem to fit if we look at the time when the narratives were committed to writing or edited to their final form. In other words, the writers seem to have projected the geography and ethnography they knew from the present into the past.

This is, to put it mildly, a pretty big theological problem for orthodox or literalist Jews and Christians because these are historical religions, by which I mean they are based on promises and actions which God made or did in history. If Jonah being swallowed by a whale is myth or some improbable aquatic misunderstanding, that’s manageable enough. But if one of God’s principal interventions in human history simply never happened, the whole edifice becomes quite shaky.

It is of course hard to prove a negative. It is possible that there was a much smaller in-migration that was dramatized and expanded over time and then projected onto a larger group of people. It’s also conceivable that the evidence simply hasn’t been found yet. But as you can imagine, archeologists, both theologically inspired and not, have looked for such evidence very, very hard for something like a century. It does not appear to be there and a great deal of disconfirming evidence has been uncovered.

So setting aside the possible theological implications for believers, if the Israelites were not invaders who came in from somewhere else, where did they come from exactly? Who were they?

This is the central question in Dever’s book. And one of the mysteries of this book for me is that the author delves into rather specific and technical discussions of debates with other scholars – particularly the Israeli archeologist Israel Finkelstein. And yet, I was entirely engrossed and fascinated. I think it’s because the book works on two different levels – both as an unfolding history of the period in question as well as the emerging debate among scholars making sense of the period and its central questions.

Since there is little question among academic archeologists that the Exodus and Conquest are not historical events, the people we’re talking about must have emerged from within Canaan – in other words, from within the area we now call Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and patches of land in the bordering states. But where and how? Were they nomads from east of the Jordan River who became sedentary farmers? Or were they people who abandoned the collapsing Canaanite civilization of the coastal plain for a more egalitarian, primitive existence in the hill country?

Dever argues for the latter scenario. The early Israelites were part of the native population of Canaan from the coastal plain who withdrew into the hill country and developed a distinct group or national identity based on the egalitarian economy and culture of the hill country over against the more economically stratified and rigidly governed cultures of the coastal plain. There is a good deal more to his explanation. I’m just trying to give you the most general sense of where he comes down on the question.

As a side note to this, entirely unrelated to this book: this is one of the great ironies of Zionism and the Israel/Palestine of today. The fact that the early Israelites were the product of the hill country isn’t Dever’s contention. That’s the story of the bible itself. This is not in any question. The irony I’m getting at is that Zionism ended up putting down its deepest roots in the coastal plain rather than in the hill country. That history defines the conflict to this day. Israel proper, where Jews are the clear majority, is defined by the coastal plain. It’s the hill country, broadly but not entirely coterminous with what we now call the West Bank, where the people we now call the Palestinians are the dominant population. Even West Jerusalem, which is an undisputed part of Israel proper constitutes a sort of salient on the map jutting up into the Judean hills. Again, this book is entirely unrelated to the current conflict. Nor is my point is to get into any of the contemporary politics; it is simply an irony of the Israel-Palestine of today.

As I said, it’s not your typical work of popular history. But if the topic interests you, I strongly recommend it. You can click here to find out more.

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