Book review: Beyond the Texts

You can find a lot of different views on the internet about the accuracy of Old Testament history and how archaeology does, or doesn’t, support the Old Testament accounts. Minimalist historians, and internet sceptics, will tell you it’s almost all invented myth, while maximalist historians and christian apologists will tell you that archaeology supports the truth of the entire Bible.

How does an honest seeker after the truth find a way between the conflicting extremes to a fair understanding?

The best way, it seems to me, is to read an expert who is as unbiased as possible, with a slight leaning towards the sceptical. That way, I can be reasonably confident that anything the expert tells me is likely to be accurate, and maybe a little more besides.

So it was with these expectations that I purchased and read William Dever’s Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. And it lived up to my hopes.

William Dever

Academic historians and archaeologists hold an astonishingly wide variety of views about the Old Testament as history. Most agree that Genesis 1 is myth or legend, and probably most agree that accounts of the Babylon captivity and the return from exile are broadly historical. But in between is much more problematic.

Biblical minimalists generally deny any historical value to the Old Testament accounts of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph), Moses and the Exodus and Joshua and the conquest of Canaan. They accept a small amount of the stories of the early monarchy (Saul, David and Solomon) are historical, though they point out that these kings were little more than tribal chiefs. They make these judgments based mostly on archaeology (or lack of it), and place little or no value on the texts themselves.

Maximalists, on the other hand, argue for a different methodological approach. They say we should accept the texts as basically historical where they appear to be, and try to integrate the written and archaeological evidence. Therefore they accept a whole lot more of the Exodus and conquest as historical, as well as everything that follows.

The matter is complicated by apparent or alleged bias on both sides. Maximalists are accused of being Christian or Zionist apologists with an agenda, while minimalists are accused of being anti religion and anti Israel.

With this background, I chose William Dever as my guide. He is a retired Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology with 53 years of archaeological field experience, and he is the author of more than 400 publications. He is not a believer, and neither a minimalist or a maximalist, but somewhat critical of both extremes. And his methodology is more balanced (I believe) than either extreme – he relies on the archaeology first and foremost, but he considers information from the texts when it doesn’t conflict with archaeological finds.

Beyond the Texts

The book begins with several background chapters that cover:

  • His views on the objective value of archaeology over texts (which can easily report things that weren’t true) and the correct way to treat the Biblical texts (like any other text).
  • Archaeological method. You might think that you just dig and report what you find, but it is a lot more complex than that. Dever recommends an approach to analysing and reporting results called General Systems Theory, which identifies different cultural systems (political, socioeconomic, technological, etc) and looks to the interaction of these systems in allowing cultural equilibrium or causing cultural collapse.
  • The physical and cultural setting during the late Bronze Age (1500-1200 BCE) when our story begins (i.e. Dever considers Israel and Judah as nations within Canaan, and barely refers to the Exodus or earlier).

The bulk of the book is four chapters covering the following periods:

  • The emergence of Israel (1200-1000). This is the beginning of the Iron Age, and about the period of the book of Judges, and includes the decline of Egyptian power, the arrival of the sea peoples who became the Phoenicians and Philistines and only a very loose collection of settlements that would later become Israel.
  • The rise of territorial states (1000-900). This is when Israel and Judah became more established as defined states, about the time of kings Saul, David, Solomon and their successors.
  • The consolidation of the state (900-720). Judah and Israel become more established as states, with government control of monetary systems and the distribution of goods and services, and the establishment of armies, forts, planned cities and administrative centres. This is the time of the books of Kings and Chronicles.
  • The destruction of Israel and Judah (720-580). The Assyrians destroyed Israel in 701, and the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and carried off many from Judah as captives in 586.

Each chapter starts with detailed descriptions of the archaeological information – lists of sites of varying sizes that have been excavated, the layouts of the city walls, streets and buildings, the fate of the different strata on the site (many sites end with destruction in warfare and often burning) and the artefacts found (coins, pottery, figurines, etc).

Then follows a summary, using General Systems Theory, of the demographic, political, socioeconomic, technological, cultural and religious systems revealed by the archaeology.

Dever also makes comparisons with the Biblical text to determine in his view what parts of the Old Testament record can be regarded as historical, albeit generally written for other purposes. At the end of each chapter he lists which Biblical events and descriptions can be considered supported or doubtful according to the archaeology, and which cannot be determined. An appreciable number of events, from the tenth century onwards, and background information from even earlier, are supported by the archaeology.

What I learnt

I found the book fascinating. Some of the descriptions of archaeological discoveries were more detailed than I could fully take in at one reading, but there were always interesting facts to be gleaned from the mass of information. And the summaries of the systems at the end of each chapter were so interesting and revealing.

All this is just one eminent expert’s conclusions, but most of it appears to present the consensus view. And so I learnt too many interesting facts to detail here. But here are a few.

Canaan was an Egyptian colony

I didn’t know this before. In the late Bronze Age, Canaan was part of the Egyptian Empire. There were Governors, administrators and detachments of soldiers, and they extracted taxes, so much that the economy collapsed and the Egyptians eventually withdrew as the cost of fighting the Philistines and others became more than the taxation income was worth.

Demographics

The estimated population of Canaan around 1200, based on the archaeology, was somewhere about 50,000 to 100,000, increasing to 300 to 400 thousand in the next few centuries. The largest cities in the early days were home to only a thousand or two people, and most “cities” had populations of several hundred, with numbers increasing in later centuries. We can conclude it is impossible that 2 million Israelites lived there, as described in the Bible.

The exodus

Dever doesn’t address the exodus in any detail, but says there is no evidence for a large exodus and invasion, but there may well have been a smaller group or groups who left Egypt around this time and settled in Canaan. If a group did travel to Canaan and fought the Canaanites and took over some of the land, it probably happened about 1250-1200, not 1400 as many Biblical scholars conclude (in 1400 they would have come up against the occupying Egyptian soldiers).

Joshua’s conquest

The archaeological evidence doesn’t support a wholesale invasion, conquest and genocide of the Canaanites, as described in Joshua 1-12. There is plenty of evidence of fighting and destruction, some of which may have been caused by invading Israelites, but the situation was much more fluid and chaotic than described in Joshua 1-12.

Instead of replacing the Canaanites, it appears most likely that immigrant Israelites, established Canaanites, and other neighbouring peoples displaced by the Philistines all mixed to become the nations of Judah and Israel, as is described in the Bible in the second half of Joshua and in Judges.

A united Israelite people?

There is plenty of evidence to support the Biblical descriptions of the divided kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south, with its capital in Jerusalem. Dever thinks that there is some evidence of a united kingdom under David but it is difficult to be sure of the extent (in time, area and power) of this kingdom, and it was certainly short-lived.

Religion

The archaeological evidence (e.g. religious figurines, cultic places) suggests that most of the people of Judah and Israel did not revert from a monotheistic religion to paganism, as recounted in the Bible, but rather that monotheism arose as a slow refinement of the pagan Canaanite religions. Even as late as the time of Hezekiah and Josiah (seventh century), Yahweh is sometimes depicted as being worshiped together with the female goddess Asherah. But Dever concludes that Josiah’s and Jeremiah’s attempts to reform these pagan practices, described in the Bible, have a historical basis.

So how accurate is Old Testament history?

According to Dever, the accounts of the exodus and Joshua’s conquest contain little historical information, and are largely propaganda. But the situation described in the second half of the book of Joshua and the book of Judges apparently reflects the reality of a turbulent time of change, and many of the stories of the kings of Judah and Israel appear to have a historical basis, even though they were generally written up to make a propaganda, political or religious point.

Implications for christians

All this scepticism about the Old Testament accounts is disturbing for christians who believe the Bible to be “the Word of God”. What should we make of the archaeological information? These are big issues for christians, and we can expect to take time to come to terms with the evidence.

Some christians tend to respond to troubling ideas which challenge the Bible’s accuracy by saying we must continue to trust the Bible as God’s word and not question God. Even if the historical information opposes the Bible account, we should have faith that God wouldn’t mislead us.

But I feel this is a wrong response. Questioning the Bible accounts is not a questioning of God, but rather trying to ascertain what type of book God has given us. All christians know that the Bible contains letters, parables and poetry, so it is quite feasible that God has revealed himself through a series of writings that include legend, idealised and fictionalised history and propaganda, as well as genuine history.

The evidence seems to be that he did. That we have a progressive revelation, a gradual unfolding of God’s self revelation, and that this period in history is a very early stage in that revelation.

We each face some choices

Those who don’t know about the archaeology can continue to take the Bible at face value. But those of us who have taken an interest in the question can’t forget what we now know.

So we can hang onto the view that the Bible accounts are historically without error, but the evidence is strongly against this conclusion. The archaeological evidence is strongly against the accounts of numbers in the exodus and the conquest of Canaan, and the Bible itself contains two mutually exclusive accounts of the “conquest”. So we can only believe it is inerrant history if we ignore this evidence, or discredit it because it disagrees with our dogmatic view.

Better, I believe, is to accept the Bible for what it actually appears to be, an account of the gradual dawning of God’s revelation on a people that God used to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. This account records what people believed at the time and includes their re-presentation of history to communicate something they thought more important than history.

Does this mean we should doubt the whole Bible?

Some christians and some sceptics argue that once you accept one error in the Bible, it cannot be the “word of God” and therefore we must reject the lot. But this assumes we know that God’s revelation can only come through a perfect book. And we don’t know that.

Further, the Bible isn’t one book, but many, compiled together to be our scriptures. Genesis 1 may be myth and Joshua 1-12 may be fictionalised history, but that makes no difference to the gospels, which the scholars tell us are historical biography presenting reliable accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. So doubts about Joshua don’t change the source of our faith in Jesus.

My provisional assessment

Even if we accept the broad conclusions from the archaeology as outlined by Dever, there is much that cannot be determined either way, and so plenty of scope for different views on what actually happened. We can quite reasonably believe more than he can glean from the archaeology. Here are my current thoughts.

I think (based on evidence in other sources) that there probably was a group of proto-Israelites who travelled from Egypt to Canaan, bringing with them the beginnings of monotheistic religion, perhaps picked up from their near contemporary, Arkhenaten (c 1352 – 1335). And as the DNA evidence suggests, these immigrants formed the basis of the priestly Levites.

These immigrants mixed with the existing Canaanites and other immigrants to form the nations of Israel and Judah, and there began a long “battle” of ideas as the newcomers’ monotheism (or monolatry) competed with the endemic polytheism. Slowly, particularly under the influence of the prophets, belief in the one true creator God won out in Israel, preparing the way for Jesus, as God intended.

The monotheists were the ones who wrote down the oral histories and teachings that had been passed down to them, and they re-wrote them to show their belief that God had guided the whole process.

We can read the Old Testament as it was originally intended, as the scriptures that reveal God’s purposes in the world, without needing to believe that it is all history, or knowing which parts are not, and knowing that many teachings and descriptions of God are later corrected and modified in Jesus.

Why would God use such a convoluted, and easily misunderstood process?

I cannot know, but my guess is that this was his way of creating autonomous people who could choose to follow him, or not. The big bang, the evolution of life, the history of God’s people, the coming of Jesus as an apparently insignificant Galilean teacher, and the slow spread of the message of christianity throughout the world, all point to a God who has chosen to do things gradually, and mostly unobtrusively.

I find that thought exciting and explanatory.

The bottom line

This was a great book for me to read, and has led me to many new understandings and conclusions. But it presents challenges for traditional christian belief.

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