This week, we turn from the Bible itself to the historical backgrounds in which, and about which, the Bible was written. The complication here, of course, is that we want to use the biblical texts as a source for history — to the extent that’s possible — but we also need to understand them as a product of the history that produced them.
The book I’m recommending on this topic is A History of Ancient Israel and Judah by J. Maxwell Miller & John H. Hayes. This quickly became a standard history when it first appeared in 1986; it should be again now that it has been updated with a 2nd edition in 2006. Those who would like to compare the two editions can have a look at my online review of the 2nd edition.
People whose exposure to the Bible is limited to what they read and hear in churches or synagogues may not realize that the history of ancient Israel is an extremely divisive topic in the academic world today. This is because of the emergence of the “minimalists” who insist that the Bible is propaganda and not history. The phenomenon is to some extent driven by contemporary anti-Zionism, edging into anti-Semitism — but by no means entirely.
There are two points that have legitimately changed the discussion of Israelite history away from where it was even as recently as 30 years ago, when John Bright’s History of Israel was still often the standard text:
• the realization that what happened in the land previously called “Canaan” involved other peoples than just the Jews, and need not be told only from an Israelite perspective; and
• the growing understanding that not all the statements in the Bible about events of the past were meant journalistically. In some texts, the facts had been woven into legend. Others recorded history as shaped by a political or religious program. Still others may have been intended as historical fiction.
Miller & Hayes’s book, especially in its relatively new 2nd edition, does (in my estimation) a solid job of weighing the evidence, literary and archaeological, to find out what happened in “ancient Israel and Judah.” It is still structured more or less by the biblical story, since that is the reason for most people’s interest, but it’s an honest attempt to find out “what really happened” within that framework. It seems to have found a middle place on the spectrum between fundamentalists on one side and minimalists on the other.
For further reading on this subject, you might wish to look at:
• Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, edited by Hershel Shanks — Here, each chapter was written (and in the 2nd edition, revised) by scholars of that particular period. For unexplained reasons, it’s now surprisingly expensive.
• The Creation of History in Ancient Israel, by old friend Marc Brettler — A more detailed and more technical “How to Read,” focusing just on the historical sections.
• The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel, by Thomas L. Thompson — An example, and perhaps even the manifesto, of history as told by the “minimalists” (those who believe there is next to no actual history in the Bible).
• The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman — A more responsible example of the “new” biblical history, with a close focus on archaeology.