Critical Issues in Early Israelite History

Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, Paul J. Ray Jr., editors Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN November 30, 2008
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David Merling’s foreword to this collection of essays correctly makes the point that “one of the most frequently discussed issues among archaeologists and biblical scholars is the origin of the Israelites” (p. vii). Other writers in the volume propose (as does this reviewer) that it is the “hot button” topic in current Old Testament scholarship and has been for nearly two decades. Hess, Klingbeil, and Ray have therefore assembled an excellent cadre of experts in different aspects of the issue who present a strong conservative alternative to the reigning theories in mainstream scholarship concerning Israel’s emergence as a nation.

The twelve essays in the book fall into three parts: textual studies, archaeological studies (broader context), and archaeological studies (regional contexts). A number of constraints forbid exhaustive treatment of each of these worthy contributions, so the following comments must be selective.

K. Lawson Younger, whose work on the Conquest narratives has rightly received praise, builds on his previous research in his essay “The Rhetorical Structuring of the Joshua Conquest Narratives.” Because of his own constraints, he is able to discuss only Joshua 10:1–43 and 11:1–15. The rhetorical and structural parallels he draws are convincing and add considerably to an understanding of the accounts. He is noncommittal as to the date of the Conquest, focusing only on the literary aspects of the text.

Richard Hess (“The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua”) reviews the research devoted to each of these sites, arguing that in the case of the episode about Jericho “it is appropriate both to the context of the ancient Near East of the Late Bronze Age and to the context of the opening chapters of the book of Joshua” (p. 44). As for Ai, Hess offers no guess as to its location (see the essay by Wood herein), but he does raise the necessary question about its capacity to house twelve thousand men (Josh. 8:25). His solution is to read πl,[, as a term meaning clan or military unit, not a thousand, thus permitting a greatly reduced number. Whether this time-honored solution is correct or not, Hess rightly draws attention to a crux (here and elsewhere) that continues to beg for elucidation.

Michael Hasel focuses on “Merenptah’s Reference to Israel: Critical Issues for the Origin of Israel.” Addressing the Conquest date he concedes that “one must admit that if the biblical data are taken at face value—the death of a king while Moses was in exile and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness following an exodus from Egypt—the late date [thirteenth century] cannot easily be accommodated” (p. 56). This of course is correct, but Hasel refuses to commit to this obvious fact, at least by remaining silent on his own position. (By way of a passing comment, it is striking in a volume devoted to Israel’s origins that the critical chronological data of 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26 are missing from the index of Scripture.)

Efraín Velázquez II (“The Persian Period and the Origins of Israel: Beyond the ‘Myths’ ”) responds to the so-called “Minimalist School” by showing that “Israel did not originate in the Persian period. The arguments used to sustain this position are not convincing and can be labeled myths” (p. 76). Ray surveys the primary Conquest models of the past half-century (“Classical Models for the Appearance of Israel in Palestine”) and rejects them in favor of a straightforward reading of the biblical texts. He posits no suggestion as to dating and other such matters. Patrick Mazani (“The Appearance of Israel in Canaan in Recent Scholarship”) provides an excellent overview of the current stage of investigation, concluding for himself, largely on the basis of the Merneptah stele, that “it is possible that Israel was settled in Canaan for a considerable time before Merneptah’s military campaign” (p. 108). Klingbeil’s contribution, “ ‘Between North and South’: The Archaeology of Religion in Late Bronze Age Palestine and the Period of the Settlement,” concentrates on whatever evidence may be accessible regarding the religious milieu in the Late Bronze-Early Iron era. While helpful in providing an understanding of the general religious climate of the time, the very elusiveness of the actors involved limits the essay’s attempts at precision regarding historical Israel.

Mark Chavalas (“The Context of Early Israel Viewed through the Archaeology of Northern Mesopotamia and Syria”) displays an impressive grasp of the literature addressing his topic but contributes little (by his own admission, p. 151) to the question of Israel’s origins. To the contrary, Ralph Hawkins focuses on the possibility of Israel’s origins rising out of indigenous peoples in Manasseh (“The Survey of Manasseh and the Origin of the Central Hill Country Settlers”). He builds on the work of Adam Zertal but rejects much of Zertal’s conclusions regarding indigenaity, preferring to view Israel’s emergence in the Bible’s own terms—a people entering Canaan from the Transjordan (p. 179). Daniel Master revisits Joseph Free’s early work at Dothan (“Israelite Settlement at the Margins of the Northern Hill Country: Connections to Joshua and Judges from Tell Dothan”). He concludes that the site has little or nothing to say about early Israel (p. 189). Steven Ortiz (“Rewriting Philistine History: Recent Trends in Philistine Archaeology and Biblical Studies”) challenges revisionist ways of looking at ancient Philistia in view of early (and late) Israel. His survey of Philistine scholarship is superb, but he neglects to address Israel’s origins in any meaningful way.

Bryant Wood (“The Search for Joshua’s Ai”) leaves no stone unturned (literally and figuratively) in his attempt to disqualify all the traditional candidates for Ai’s location in favor of his own suggested site at Khirbet el-Maqatir. His documentation is painstakingly detailed and comprehensive, ranging from the analysis of hundreds of pottery samples to careful attention to biblical criteria for site locations. To his credit, whether or not he is correct, he maintains his stance with regard to the early Exodus and Conquest dates (1446 and 1400 B.C., respectively), basing his conclusions on both sound exegesis and expert archaeological method.

This well-edited work (except for the misspelling of “Deuteronomistic” on p. 191) includes over seventy pages of relevant bibliography and helpful indexes to authors and Scripture. The publisher, editors, and contributors have made an important contribution to the thorny issue of Israel’s ancient past.

—Eugene H. Merrill

October 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2009 vol. 166 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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