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In the Beginning Guiding Dreams in Slumber

Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?

By William G. Dever

Eerdmans, 280 pages, $25.


Both Jews and Christians, brought up in their respective religious traditions, might be surprised by the title of this new book by William Dever, a veteran Near Eastern archeologist. They read the Hebrew Bible, which relates a saga of origins and early adventures that appears to be coherent on the surface of it, notwithstanding occasional gaps and discrepancies. Who were the ancient Israelites? According to the Hebrew Bible, they were the descendants of Abraham, who hailed from far off Ur of the Chaldees in southern Mesopotamia, and who sojourned in Haran of ancient Syria. There, Abraham received a call from the one true God to betake himself to the land of Canaan. Three generations of patriarchs and their clans dwelled in Canaan. The last of them, Jacob (Israel), and his sons descended into Egypt during a time of famine, and after prolonged bondage, experienced the dramatic exodus from that fertile land. These Israelites, who had multiplied in Egypt and were now organized into tribes, wandered for 40 years until they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, most of which they conquered and settled. While in the wilderness of Sinai, and under the leadership of Moses, the first prophet, they entered into a covenant with God, and received a revealed, monotheistic way of life, with commandments and teachings.

In utter contrast to traditional readers and scholars, modern and postmodern archeologists, historians and critical students of the Hebrew Bible consider the origins and identity of the ancient Israelites to be complex and elusive. True to their method, they tend to emphasize differences among the various biblical versions of Israelite history rather than harmonize them. There are biblical narratives that show no awareness of the patriarchs, even of Moses and the exodus from Egypt, for instance. In a single chapter, Numbers 21, a victory ballad has the Israelites marching from north to south through Transjordan, whereas the accompanying historiography has them proceeding from south to north. One who has just finished reading in Joshua through Judges that the Israelites had completed the conquest of Canaan will encounter subsequent chronicles reporting on wars within Canaan. Once unfettered by traditional constraints, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible will confront differing traditions on the matter of Israelite origins, and these divergences must be addressed directly.

The older generation of archeologists — including William Foxwell Albright and G. Ernest Wright of America, and Benjamin Mazar and Yigael Yadin of Israel — were, nevertheless, conservative even in their critical approach to Scripture. From their differing backgrounds, they considered the biblical account to be rooted in historic reality, if not accurate in every respect. In fact, they were motivated in no small measure by their desire to corroborate the biblical record through archeological discovery, and tried to trace the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan by focusing on the Late Bronze Age (circa 1450-1200 BCE), the period of transition.

Most of the elder biblical scholars were likewise positive in their overall evaluation of biblical historicity, irrespective of their many disputes over the precise dating of various documentary sources, and their acknowledgement that these had undergone serious editing and reflected theological or ideological tendencies. Such scholars surely regarded the Hebrew Bible, with all of its complexities, as primary and central to any historical investigation of the early Israelites.

All of this has since changed, and there is now an eagerness in some scholarly circles to be liberated from dependence on the Hebrew Bible, to assign primacy to the archeological record and other sorts of external evidence. Such approaches are not entirely new, but they have come to the fore during the last several decades, as open rebellion has broken out against the “biblio-centric” mentality that had long prevailed. There is, however, a major problem in attempting to use archeological evidence alone to reconstruct Israelite history, and it is the paucity of inscriptional material uncovered through archeological activity in biblical lands. Only written remains would allow us to identify with certainty the ethno-cultural identity of the builders, owners and manufacturers of the many artifacts and edifices that have been uncovered in various regions of the Holy Land, and such sources unfortunately are scarce. Even if we assume that changes in architectural and artistic style point to the introduction of a new population in Canaan, we cannot identify precisely that new population as Israelite. Furthermore, archaeologists are no longer sure that there was major population change in Canaan at the time the Israelites were supposed to have arrived there.

This radical change in mood has not been limited to archeologists. The innovative studies of George Mendenhall, a leading Bible scholar and specialist in ancient Near Eastern languages, generated further skepticism even regarding one issue on which all biblical traditions agree: the idea that the Israelites were not Canaanites, and that they had come from elsewhere. Mendenhall classified them as none other than Canaanites, once disenfranchised and now recapturing, in a prolonged peasant’s revolt, some of the city-states and rural areas from which they had been driven. Whereas not too long ago biblical scholars disagreed on such alternatives as migratory settlement versus military conquest, the argument now has been recast as indigenous versus foreign origin with respect to the Israelites.

In the present study, Dever, who has excavated at numerous major biblical sites, attempts to come to terms with this recent upsurge of interest in Israelite origins and identity, seeking middle ground in the process. He begins with a chapter titled “The Crisis in Understanding the Origins of Early Israel,” and proceeds to take up pivotal issues in the reconstruction of early Israelite history. These include the historicity of the exodus and conquest narratives, covering both Transjordan and Canaan west of the Jordan. He analyzes the very limited epigraphy unearthed in archeological excavations, and summarizes the evidence provided by surveys and excavations, including assemblages of pottery. All the while, Dever provides reliable information on the various social models and research methods being used at the present time, and offers a reasoned critique of them. His style is perhaps too colloquial at times, and he pays a disproportionate amount of attention to theories that even he regards as highly unlikely, diverting attention from his own methodology and argumentation. He partially makes up for this in an appended section entitled “Some Basic Sources,” where he provides what amounts to a classified bibliography of recent works that is extremely helpful in directing the reader to the relevant literature.

It is not until chapters 11 and 12 that Dever begins to clearly formulate his own conclusions. He is fairly confident in identifying at least one large group of inhabitants of Canaan during the early Iron Age (circa 1200-1000 BCE) as “proto-Israelites,” the direct antecedents of the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible. He bases his findings on what he calls “convergences” between text and artifact — namely, areas in which the biblical and archaeological evidence point in the same direction and seem to corroborate one another. In this spirit, his concluding chapter is titled “Salvaging the Biblical Tradition,” and indeed, he successfully “salvages” a good deal of it. In essence, Dever accepts the historicity of the ancient Israelites as a people, and the reality of their religious, social and political experience in Canaan. His discussion of the House of Joseph traditions is particularly enlightening for tracing the emergence of the early Israelites, as is his treatment of the victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, a remarkable text from the late 13th century BCE attesting to the early presence of a group called “Israel” in central Canaan.

On the other hand, Dever finds no evidence on the ground (or beneath it) to indicate that the Israelites arrived from elsewhere to invade Canaan, or that they migrated to the land. Hence, he considers the exodus saga to be more mythic than real, a metaphor of liberation. As for the various attempts to identify the Israelites either with the Shasu nomads of the southern interior, or with the ‘Apiru of ancient Syria to the north, he correctly regards them as highly speculative. Dever more or less follows Mendenhall in this regard, concluding that the Israelites were Canaanites, alternately combating other inhabitants of Canaan and coexisting with them, much as we would gather from a close reading of the book of Judges.

It must be conceded that Dever makes a sincere attempt to go beyond the evidence of material culture, discussing many of the ethnographic proposals that have been advanced in an effort to synthesize “text and artifact.” And yet, there are dimensions of the historical problem that receive little if any attention in this book. Dever only briefly notes that in the early Iron Age there was extensive migration, and group formation in the eastern Mediterranean and ancient Syria, but he fails to explore the potential relevance of these phenomena to the question of Israelite origins.

The best case for the non-Canaanite, foreign origin of the Israelites is actually socio-cultural and historical, rather than archeological, in the strict sense. The Israelites may have been one of those groups who migrated southward from Syria following the fall of the Neo-Hittite Empire and the kingdom of Amurru, much like the contemporaneous Amorites of whom the Bible speaks. As more and more textual evidence is uncovered in the Middle Euphrates region, between the river and the sea, the dots are being filled in between Late Bronze Age Syria (circa 1450-1200 BCE) and later, Israelite Canaan. The archives of Ugarit, Emar, Nuzi and Alalakh, level V. are rich sources of information on what may well have been the parent cultures of biblical Israel. There are similarities that reach into cultic regimens and poetic forms, social organization and the definition of leadership roles.

Admittedly, there is no direct evidence to support this derivation, no charted routes taken by “Israelites” from sites in Syria to those in Canaan, and there is also a gap in time that must be accounted for. Such a tracing of Israelite origins would, however, correlate well with biblical traditions linking the Patriarchs to the Arameans of ancient Syria. The patriarchs preferred marriages with wives of their ancestral clan in Syrian Haran (see, for example, Genesis 24), and Israelites were required to acknowledge their Aramean lineage (Deuteronomy 26), and to memorialize their former habitation of Syria, west of the Euphrates (Joshua 24). After all, the Hebrew Bible itself depicts the land of Canaan during the early Iron Age as being populated by diverse, foreign groups, perhaps the best-known being the Philistines who came from Crete.

However we approach the question of Israelite origins, problems will arise, and it solves very little to dismiss entirely the range of biblical traditions by unanimously denying a non-Canaanite origin for the early Israelites in favor of a theory of internecine upheaval within the Canaanite population itself. There may be some theoretical model for this reconstruction, but no immediate evidence whatsoever. Just because archeologists cannot yet demonstrate adequately that an identifiable Israelite group penetrated Canaan at the expected time is no reason to conclude that no core of historic truth to this effect exists in biblical traditions. The biblical authors were undoubtedly trying to convey a message of great importance by stressing consistently that the Israelites came to Canaan from another land. We ought to keep trying to decode that message and to confirm this tradition, rather than giving up on it. Only in this way can we achieve a deeper understanding of the Hebrew Bible, which remains a most worthy endeavor, even if some biblical scholars and archeologists — not Dever, to be sure — seem to have lost interest in the effort.

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