Ancient Israel - Book Reviews
Philip R. Davies holds a chair in Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, England. This book was first published in 1992, and reprinted in 1995 without modifications. The author has restricted himself to correcting the misprints and amending the wording slightly in one or two places where it has been kindly pointed out that he was not clear. The book has nine chapters, one preface to the second edition, acknowledgments to certain number of scholars to whom he considers to be indebted, abbreviations, and, at the end, a bibliography of cited works, an index of sources and an index of authors. The bibliography was not updated.
In the preface to this second edition, P. R. Davies says he feels that this book still makes a good case for an approach to the investigation of the Bible, its authors and creators, which is becoming more widely adopted. But he was tempted to rewrite the book, since, he said, so much of it is obsolescent and he has changed his mind on so many minor points.
In Chapter 1, “Preliminaries”, the author inform us that “this is a book about history, though it is not another ‘History of Israel’: that genre is probably obsolete” (p. 11). He shall be dealing with three Israels: one is literary, the biblical Israel; one is historical, that is the inhabitants of the northern Palestinian highlands during part of the Iron Age; and the third, ‘ancient Israel’, ever designate with quotation marks, is what scholars have constructed out of an amalgamation of the two others.
Philip R. Davies proposes that the combination of the literary criticism and social-scientific approaches of the Bible has presented in the last decades the most interesting results for modern scholarship. With the literary criticism, we have become able to accept the premise that any character or event in the Bible is in the first instance a literary character or event, conscious that nothing in a literary text is necessarily or automatically real outside the text. So, Israel, as a literary construct, is no more and no less than what the writers have made it.
On the other hand, if the reader decides to assume the identity of an historian, then it is necessary to be aware that history is a narrative, in which happenings and people are turned into events and characters: whenever we try to describe the past we indulge in story-telling. “No story, and that includes the stories our memories generate, is ever an innocent or objective representation of the outside word. All story is fiction, and that must include historiography”, says the author on p. 13. And if literature, as a form of persuasive communication, is ideology, so, historiography, as a genre of literature, is also ideology. It is not acceptable for an historian to trust the text or its unknown author: “Credulity does not become an historian. Scepticism, rather, is the proper stance” (p. 13).
About the use of the social sciences for those that write history, although criticized by many, it is necessary to say that it makes possible to examine not only the literature and the social reality of Israel, but also the underlying social forces to the production of the biblical literature, where one can distinguishes the society that is behind the text of the society that appears inside of the text.
In brief, the literary and sociological approaches have challenged the sense of transcendental reality, which has always lain just below the surface of most biblical research, because both are human-centered and non-metaphysical. Recognizing that the biblical literature is a product of human authors lays the ground for what P. R. Davies hesitates to call a paradigm shift: “We are enjoying a climate in which a non-theological paradigm is beginning to claim a place alongside the long-dominant theological one” (p. 15). Being non-theological, this paradigm must persuade by offering an alternative way of understanding the biblical literature, which is sufficiently inclusive to function as a working hypothesis. “In this book I have tried to do this”, because “there is a need for a genuine search for ‘ancient Israel’, which under the old paradigm had been taken for granted” (p. 16). On footnote 3 he says that R. Oden does the most lucid discussion of this problem in The Bible Without Theology, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1987. This book was reprinted as The Bible Without Theology. The Theological Tradition and the Alternatives to It, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2000, IX+198 pp.
In Chapter 2, “Searching for ‘Ancient Israel’”, P. R. Davies focuses on biblical scholarship to ask why it has been taken for granted that ‘ancient Israel’ is an accessible historical entity, and to examine some of the hermeneutical practices of biblical historians which arise from, and subsequently protect, this assumption. “I am suggesting that there is no searching for the real (historical) ancient Israel because such a search is not thought to be necessary; but the thesis of this book is that a search is necessary, since ‘ancient Israel’ is not an historical construct, and that it therefore has displaced something that is historical” (p. 21).
‘Ancient Israel’ is a scholarly construct, the result of taking a literary construct, the biblical narrative, and making it the object of historical investigation. This scholarly construct is contradictory, imaginative and ideologic.
Contradictory: as a scholarly construct, the ‘ancient Israel’, despite its exclusively biblical starting point, differs quite a lot from the biblical Israel. The story of the biblical Israel is mythical – it goes all the back to the creation of the world, where its institutions are already foreshadowed – but the ‘Histories of Israel’ make a rationalistic lecture of the myths and has treated it as an historical one. So, the ‘biblical period’ assumes an historical objectivity and literary figures are transmuted into historical figures. “Instead of trying to understand what is literary in literary terms, they try to give historical explanations for what are literary problems” (p. 28). But, the ‘Israel’ of the biblical literature is, at least for the most part, quite obviously not an historical entity at all, what the biblical scholars actually know. This is the case of the so-called ‘patriarchal period’, the ‘Exodus’, the ‘wilderness period’, the ‘period of the judges’.
“Yet the majority of them, while realizing that the story of Israel from Genesis to Judges is not to be treated as history, nonetheless proceed with the rest of the biblical story, from Saul or David onwards on the assumption that at this point in the sequence the obviously literary has now become the obviously historical”, says P. R. Davies at p. 26. And he asks: “Can one really leave out the first part of the literary Israel’s history, retain the second part and still proceed to treat it as an historical entity?” A history of Israel that begin at this point will have to be a very different entity from the literary Israel, which supposes the patriarchal family, the captivity in Egypt, the conquest of the land divinely donated to it and so on.
Imaginative: we study Isaiah or Amos, for instance, concerned with what Isaiah or Amos thought, what was really happening in their times, what advice they gave to the persons… as if we know their real historical contexts, that actually are only biblical literary contexts. The fact is that our ‘ancient Israel’ is “a scholarly creation deemed essential to the pursuit of biblical studies” (p. 29). It’s not a biblical literary entity, nor an historical one.
There are still two not questioned illusions: by reason of the biblical texts related about places and well-known characters, we believe usually that the events narrated about them are historical. In the same way, we think that the originators of the biblical literature lived within the period which that literature itself narrates, giving credibility to their stories. If we place the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks, the ‘biblical period’ and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, “becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fitting the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished!”, objects P. R. Davies on p. 37. And adds that the “historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this circularity”.
Ideologic: biblical scholarship is viewed as a theological discipline, most of its practitioners are theologians, Christians and clergymen and their common habitat is the seminary or the theological department of a college or university. In this milieu, ‘ancient Israel’ is “a homogeneous entity, an embryonic church, thinking religiously, sinning but ultimately justified by its ‘faith’ in God” (p. 44).
In this way, a lot of things are idealized or turned necessary, although they are historically unlikely, how, for instance, the ‘Josianic reform’, a pious legend – “possible, but extremely improbable” (p. 39) -, and the ‘exile’, presented as punishment and mercy. To the charge of circularity, R. P. Davies adds that of credulity, illustrated with these two examples.
Thus, worked at churches and for churches, it is affirmed ideologically that the community produced the Bible, mixing society and community, as if they were synonymous. To write, in that time, was function for 5% of the population and an enterprise guided by specific interests of class, generally headquartered in the courts and in the temples.
But he warns on p. 44: “My quarrel is not with individual fellow-travellers but with the structure of the discipline which Christian theology has built and which binds us together in what I see as a enterprise that falls short of being seriously critical”. And on footnote 22 he says that the reason for the deification of credulity and the abomination of scepticism in the biblical studies is in the language of Christianity, where believing is good and doubting is bad. Scepticism smacks of irreligiosity, and disbelieving should never be made systematic, at least when applied to the biblical data. The ‘ancient Israel’ is enshrined in the hearts of biblical theologians! “Such a view misses the elementary distinction between prejudice and method”, concludes P. R. Davies.
The argument that P. R. Davies shall makes in this chapter is that the biblical Israel is a problem and not a datum, when on engages in historical research. The term ‘Israel’ is used in at least ten senses in the biblical literature, and in quite a fluid way. We must ask what kind of a term this is. But, “most biblical scholars have a long acquaintance with the Bible, and its notion of ‘Israel’ has already been internalized in their minds, to the point where they take its multifarious uses to be homogeneous, its complexity to be simple and its contradictions to be invisible (…) The ‘Israel’ of the biblical literature is automatically adopted as a term appropriate for scholarly use, including all its variety and contradiction” (p. 49). So, ‘Israel’ is a people, has a religion, has its own proper god, ‘Israel’ is a land, is one kingdom under David and Solomon, is divided in two kingdoms… We must take a move which challenges our theological formation: to de-familiarize ourselves with the Bible!
Three kinds of criteria, political, ethnic and religious cover the various uses of the term ‘Israel’. But these three categories are not entirely compatible, so we cannot automatically identify the population of Palestine in the Iron Age, though also in the Persian period, as the biblical ‘Israel’. “We cannot automatically transfer any of the characteristics of the biblical ‘Israel’ onto the pages of Palestine’s history (…) We shall have to draw our definition of the people of Palestine from their own relics. That means excluding the biblical literature”, says P. R. Davies on p. 51.
Working with the definitions of ‘Israel’, ‘Canaanites’, ‘exile’ and ‘Persian period’, the author wants to show simply “that it is impossible to pretend that the biblical literature provides a clear enough portrait of what its ‘Israel’ is so as to justify an historical interpretation and application. The historian thus needs to investigate the real history independently of the biblical concept” (p. 56).
In Chapter 4 P. R. Davies investigates the historical Israel independently of the biblical literature. He uses the artifacts the peoples of Palestine left, the buildings they occupied, the inscriptions they wrote as the primary evidence.
He investigates the name ‘Israel’ in a Ugaritic text (KTU 4.623.3), in Merneptah Stele and in an inscription of Shalmaneser III (c. 853); the Israelite State in others evidences, as the inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (c. 840), the assyrians references to Israel and its king Omri and Sargon II description of the conquest of the city of Samaria; the Kingdom of Judah, that appears with Jerusalem as its major administrative center only in the 8th century BCE, since there is no extra-biblical references of the biblical ‘empire’ of David and Solomon; the religion of Israel and Judah and the evidence of several cults that existed in each kingdom, as city cults, dynastic cults and popular cults, and the most hotly discussed inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd (“I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah”) and from Khirbet el-Qôm (“Blessed be Uriah by Yahweh and his Asherah”).
He concludes: “From the above survey of non-biblical data, we can say that the name ‘Israel’ existed in Palestine from at least the beginning of the Iron Age, though whether it first belonged to any particular population group or to some area remains disputed” (p. 69). And at the end of chapter he says that the question now is: “Could what we know of Iron Age Palestine have produced the idea of ‘Israel’”? (p. 70). And the answer is that the Iron Age does not seem to provide a plausible matrix for the biblical ‘Israel’. So “we must investigate seriously under what circumstances and for what reasons this kind of construct might have emerged” (p. 71).
In Chapter 5 the author asserts: “It is during the Persian and Hellenistic periods that the biblical literature ought to have been composed, and it is within a society in this period that we shall now search for the preconditions which permitted and motivated the generation of that ideological construct which is the biblical Israel” (p. 72).
But the archaeological sources for Palestine in this period are eve more meager than for the Iron Age. So, the author keeps one eye on the character of the biblical Israel itself: “In this chapter, then, it is the profile of the literary Israel which provides the focus” (p. 73), though this seems in contradiction with what he asserts in chapter 3.
This is what the readers had understand, for he says in the preface to the second edition he give the impression “of placing reliance upon the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah” (p. 7). Doubtless he affirms on p. 77 that the conjunction of the figures of Ezra and Nehemiah is an editorial achievement, that the historicity of Ezra is an open question, that any reconstruction based on the activity of Ezra and Nehemiah is a post-redactional rationalization and that “many scholarly reconstructions of this Persian society lend too much credence to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah” (p. 82). And once again in the preface, that he views the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah “as foundation narratives of different kinds of Judaism, containing little detailed historical data that we can be certain of” (p. 7).
In his search, P. R. Davies founds seven groups where the name ‘Israel’ has persisted after the destruction of Samaria in 722 BCE: those remaining in Samaria and its surrounding territories, those forcibly immigrated into the territory of erstwhile Israel, the population remaining in Judah after each deportation, those imported into Judah by either Assyrians or Babylonians, the Judaean and Israelite deportees and refugees in Assyria, Syria, Babylonia and Egypt, those that worship Yahweh in the Persian and Hellenistic periods and, finally, the ‘Jewish’ communities through the Mediterranean area and beyond.
But, says P. R. Davies, “the literary Israel of the biblical literature is not directly a product of these groups” (p. 75). It does not seem that either in Samaria or in Mesopotamia can one finds the conditions for the biblical Israel, but the fact that these are called ‘Jews’, i. e. Judaeans, “point us to the fact that the home of ‘Israel’ and of the cult of its god was known to be in Judaea” (p. 75).
Therefore the author goes to examine the post-monarchic Judah and the Persian imperial policy. It seems there was a repopulation of Judah under Cyrus and his successors: archaeological surveys carried out in 1967-8 reveal that the surrounding territories of the northern highlands and the Arabah show a drop in the number of occupied settlements between Iron II, the monarchic period, and the Persian period, i. e., post-587, while Judah itself shows a 25% increase, says P. R. Davies on pp. 77-78. And near all the settlements are small-unwalled villages.
These results suggest an Achaemenid policy of deliberate ruralization: in line with their predecessors, the populations were transported within the empire for the purposes of economic development, either agriculture or building. “Hence”, concludes the author, “the ‘returnees’ to Yehud were not necessary Judaean ‘exiles’ coming home, beneficiaries of an enlightened policy of repatriation of wronged exiles, but subjects of transportation, moved to under-developed or sensitive regions for reasons of imperial economic and political policy” (p. 78).
And here, an inference of the author is important to understand his thesis: “Perhaps the ancestors of these new immigrants did come from Judah, as the biblical literature insists, but that should not be assumed. Perhaps they came from all parts of Palestine, or perhaps even from elsewhere (…) For whether originally from Judah or not, these people or their descendants would be likely to believe, or to claim, that they were indigenous. Indeed, the Persians may well have tried, in order to facilitate compliance with the process, to persuade these transported that they were being resettled in their ‘homeland’ (...) In fact, as I shall remark presently, some biblical stories (e. g. the Abraham stories, the Joshua conquest stories) may indicate doubt among some inhabitants of Yehud that they did inhabit the land as erstwhile natives” (pp. 78-79).
This discussion, says P. R. Davies, is based in a study of K. Hoglund, “The Achaemenid Context”, published in Davies, P. R. (ed.), Second Temple Studies, Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1991. And Hoglund cites in this study evidence that the Persian Empire sought to maintain the identity of such groups by insuring their ethnic distinction from the surrounding populations.
More archaeological data: the Persian empire constructed at this time a chain of fortress in the region, running from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, and into the Negev, following the major trade routes of the region. And Hoglund suggests that this is an intensification of the Persian military presence in the region in response to the challenge of Greece on the Mediterranean seaboard and the trade routes. “In the light of this militarization of Yehud, the mission of Nehemiah might be understood” (p. 80).
More light on the social organization of Yehud in the Persian period comes from the so-called “Second Temple” community, also called by Soviet scholars a Bürger-Tempel-Gemeinde. This is basically a social unit that arises from a union between temple personal and landowners, creating an autonomous economic system. This Bürger-Tempel-Gemeinde creates a society within a society, a restricted privileged group, not co-extensive with the wider society of the province.
The author concludes: “On the basis of the biblical and non-biblical data, the social conditions appropriate for the emergence of the biblical Israel appear to be found in Persian period Yehud” (p. 83).
From here to the end of the chapter, the author seeks to assess the main ingredients of the biblical ‘Israel’ as the creation of this new society. And they are, for instance, the exile, the Canaanites, the relationship between Yehud and Samaria and the covenant, that are all explained as elements of the Persian period. He concludes that the biblical portrait of the ‘restored Israel’ is a literary construct and its ideological character is the continuation of the idealized ‘pre-exilic’ Israel in the viewpoint of an elite.
He says on p. 89: “The connection between this society and Israel is this: the scribal class of this new society creates an identity and heritage for itself in Palestine, an identity expressed in a vigorous and remarkably coherent (all things considered) literary corpus. That identity is given the name ‘Israel’ (which now exists alongside Judah). The society itself, or more accurately parts of that society, will transform itself in the direction of becoming the ‘Israel’ of its own creation, as it accepts this Israel’s presumed history as its own, accepts its constitution, beliefs and habits as its own, and begins to incarnate that identity. That, as I see it, is a key process in the transformation of a historical society into a self-conscious ‘Israel’ with a long and magnificent history”.
All this construct of the author about “the creation of an idealized Israel in Yehud”, in pp. 84-89, seems, to me, exceedingly fantastic. But as a provocative proposal, he deserves to be read and argued by all biblical scholars. I feel that, after the lecture of this book, nobody can make “History of Israel” as before.
In Chapter 6 P. R. Davies attempts to establish with more precision the circumstances in which he believes the biblical literature must have been written and to offer an idea of the kind of institutional context in which so a corpus come into existence.
One important question is how the vast majority of biblical scholars thinks the origin of the biblical literature: as a long process of natural evolution, within an automatic process of transmission, where the oral tradition become written, and this written is faithfully copied by scribes and at times is remodeled by redactors.
So, “most students of biblical ‘traditions’ assume that at every point we have a coherent statement, sometimes amounting to a living expression of the ‘faith of Israel’, which issues finally in that definitive canon, the Bible (…) In language which thoroughly confuses the historical and the theological, Israel’s ‘faith’ shapes the ‘formation' of its ‘tradition’. As a result (…) the religion of Israel is the history of the biblical ‘traditions’" (pp. 92-93). But what is the ‘faith of Israel’? What is the ‘religion of Israel”? The formation of the canon is, however, a very late process, and before this moment when the biblical literature becomes Bible, its nature and its relationship to its authors and its society remain to be clarified.
What elements in Judah in the Persian period provoked the need for the creation of this corpus? With exception of certain amount of material, relics from the pre-exilic period, there is “no necessity to assign any part of the formation of any biblical book to the period of the historical kingdoms of Judah and Israel”, says P. R. Davies on p. 95. In the same way, other than Psalm 137 and the book of Lamentations, “there is no literature in the Bible with an ostensibly ‘exilic’ setting”, continues the author in the same page.
The process by which books are copied in the ancient world does not need a long time to have evolved, as show the Dead Sea Scrolls, where complex literary developments occurred over an apparently short period of time. So, the long time-scale assumed by the source-critical, redactional-critical and tradition-critical analyses as fundamental to the evolution of the biblical literature is not necessary.
The author deals, now, with the problem of the Hebrew language. Analyses of biblical language are frequently used to give relative dates to the biblical books, but P. R. Davies argues, based in researches make by E. A. Knauf that the biblical Hebrew does not correspond to any of the Israelite languages, as seen in the inscriptions. “Knauf concludes that biblical Hebrew is the language of a literary corpus which arose, in his view, in the exilic and post-exilic period, a Bildungssprache whose emergence presupposes the disappearance of the Iron Age Judaean state” (p. 100). There are no linguistic arguments to date the biblical literature, for instance, in pre-exilic period.
Who wrote the biblical literature? In an agrarian society, this literature is neither the product of all the society nor of isolated individuals, “but of a class or body, and arises from ideological, economic, and political preconditions” (p. 101). The biblical literature is the product of a professional class, i. e. scribes, employed by the Temple. In agrarian societies no more than 5% of the population are literate, and “we should never assume, as has often been done by biblical scholars, that popular oral ‘traditions’ naturally percolate into literature. ‘Folk literature’ in the Bible is rather more like ‘folk music’ in the works of Bartok, Janacek or Vaughan Williams” (p. 103).
And the readers? They must also be professionally literate: “The literature is not for a whole society, as supposed by many biblical scholars. It is written largely for self-consumption”, says the author at p.104. Libraries and archives were associated with temples or royal court, such as at Ugarit, Ebla, Mari, Assyrian or Tell el-Amarna. Any evidence of such archives or libraries in Yehud? It is possible, if we think in the evidences exhibited by Josephus and rabbinic sources about writings stored up in the Temple.
In Chapter 7
To be continued!
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