Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By William G. Dever

Countless books have been written about ancient Israel. But this work is the first mainstream history of ancient Israel to be published in English in 40 years. It also differs from previous scholarship by attempting to prove an alternative, archaeological based history, or as the title has it, a “portrait.” I am a veteran of more than 50 years of fieldwork and research in the archaeology of Israel, with hundreds of publications. Even so, I believe that a portrait is the best that I, or anyone, can offer. 

The distinguishing feature of this book is the employment of a rich array of archaeological data on ancient Israel and her neighbors as the primary evidence for illustrating the origins, the settlement horizon, and the monarchy, ca. 1300-586 BCE. In each chapter the biblical texts are brought into the picture only secondarily, and then only to compare and contrast their idealistic narratives with the “real-life” portrait that archaeology now provides. 

William G. Dever

Plan of typical Israelite village (all images courtesy of the Society for Biblical Literature)

In each chapter’s conclusions, every purported incident in the Deuteronomistic history and the relevant prophetic works is evaluated in the light of the archaeological data. The account is then ranked along a multi-tier continuum from “proven” (rare) to “disproven,” with several intermediate categories in accord with the nature and extent of the archaeological evidence.

The model here is borrowed from jurisprudence: “presumed innocent unless/until proven guilty”; “the preponderance of the evidence”; and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In some cases, the biblical writers and editors can be shown to be substantially correct, suggestive that they had good sources, or simply did not skew the story at this point to suit their biases. In other cases, it is obvious that they got it wrong, or they have been oblivious to anything beyond their idealistic, theocratic agenda.

Whatever the case, perhaps as much as 80% of the historic detail fleshing out the story in this book would have been unavailable to us except on the basis of the vast information that archaeology has accumulated in the past generation or so, much of it synthesized here as truly historical data for the first time.

Plan of the 10th century site of Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon.

The 750-page volume has more that 130 charts and illustrations and some 700 references in the bibliography. The hundreds of extensive footnotes are grouped at the end of each chapter in order to keep the narrative flowing. The body of the book is written in the third person, with my personal reflections on the Hebrew Bible’s moral relevance and that of ancient Israel’s history as now understood confined to the conclusion. 

The first long chapter deals with historiography and traces the development of scholarship on Israel’s history, from its heyday in the 1950s to the recent malaise and current half-hearted emphasis on “cultural memory.” Several Excurses deal with the “European Seminar on Method in Israel’s History” and its often postmodern agenda; Israel Finkelstein’s idiosyncratic “low chronology”; and failed models on early Israel in recent scholarship.

Map of 10th century sites.

Comparison of tripartite temples.

This volume, while innovative in many respects – especially as a short of unique “history of Israel without the Bible” – is intended primarily as a handbook for scholars. But it is nevertheless accessible to many other readers interested in archaeology and biblical studies. The summaries in each chapter, amounting to more than 250 pages in total, could easily stand alone as a refreshingly different “real-life” history.

Readers and reviewers of this book may find it stimulating, but some will have misgivings. In particular, can an archaeological portrait, if it only has “anonymous” actors, really produce history, that is, without texts and identifiable characters? Some may admire the effort, but conclude that an objective synthesis of such vast and complex archaeological data is now impossible. (And it might quickly become obsolete, which is why few would attempt it.) Finally, would a team work approach – combining the efforts of a Biblicist and an archaeologist not be more productive, more comprehensive?

Reconstruction of the 9th-8th century site Khirbet el-Marjameh

Iron I and II seal impressions.

Major structures on the acropolis of Samaria.

In the conclusion (as in the Forward) I acknowledge that this is not the history of ancient Israel, but only a provisional portrait – or, as I put it, a “phenomenology.” But perhaps it will help to rejuvenate history-writing as a legitimate and rewarding pursuit for both Biblicists and Levantine archaeologists.

William G. Dever is Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Arizona.


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