The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

What does it tell us that we have a large number of liturgical texts? What does it tell us that we have a large number of texts that seem to point to some sort of judicial context? What does it tell us that we have a great deal of proverbs, or wisdom material in certain parts of the Bible that we might date to a certain time? What does this tell us about society and what people were doing? Growing out of form criticism is tradition criticism.
This is a type of criticism that focuses on the transmission of traditional material through various stages, oral stages and literary stages, until it reaches its present form in the text. Now you can imagine as a story is told and then it’s retold, it is obviously changed and adapted. Tradition criticism looks at that. Looking at Ancient Near Eastern parallels is very helpful. You can see how some of those motifs and themes were changed in the process of being transmitted within Israelite culture and society, and again, to serve some sort of cultural function, or purpose.
So the present text of the Pentateuch obviously rests on a very, very long period of transmission, both oral recitation and transmission, very much like the Greek classics, Homer’s classics, the Odyssey, the Iliad: they also had a long history of oral recitation and transmission, and were transformed along the way. Tradition criticism likes to look at the way people receive traditional material, rework it in creative ways and then adapt it to their own purposes and contexts and transmit it. Sometimes that process is reflected in the Bible itself.
Traditions in one part of the Bible will be picked up in a later part of the Bible, and written rather differently with a different point of view. So Deuteronomy, for example, recounts events that we’ve also read about in Exodus, and sometimes the differences are startling. Sometimes there are completely new emphases and the story can come out to be a very, very different story. 1 and 2 Chronicles are a retelling and a reworking of much of the material from Genesis through 2 Kings, and it cleans up a lot of the embarrassing moments.
It presses its own themes in retelling those stories. Early laws are subject to reinterpretation. Ezekiel comes along and does some interesting things with some of the legal material that we find in Leviticus. This is all the kind of thing that tradition criticism looks at. Tradition criticism wants to uncover the changes that occur in the transmission of traditional material. It’s already happening – we can see it – within the Bible, and the assumption therefore is that it happens before the material even gets into the Bible. Perhaps we can figure some of that out, and it’s a process that also aids in historical reconstruction.
So you can see after classic source criticism, which came along and levelled people’s interest in anything before the tenth century, and said: all we have are these written accounts that reflect the biases of the people at the time who wrote them, you then have the rise of types of scholarship that say: we’re not satisfied with that. That’s not really how literature works. People don’t sit down and invent things out of whole cloth, particularly material of this type.
It clearly has a history, they’re clearly drawing on sources and maybe we can use analytical tools to figure out something about the period that you might think would be lost to history. So these types of criticism are emphasizing the real life historical setting of the materials that are in the biblical sources, their relationship to the wider culture, and that’s something that earlier source criticism didn’t care too much about. All of these analytical modes of studying the Bible–by analytical I mean sitting down and analyzing the features, the literary features of the text, and drawing conclusions from them all of these modes of examining the Bible most of them developed by German scholars can be contrasted with the North American tradition of scholarship which emphasized the correlation of biblical and archaeological data.
I’ve written the name Albright; William F. Albright, was a leading scholar at the American school of biblical studies, and he was an expert in the fields of Palestinian archaeology and Assyriology. He focused on illustrating the Bible with the Ancient Near Eastern sources that at that time were newly coming to light archaeological findings; and his argument was–and it’s an argument that’s to a large degree not accepted anymore but his argument at the time was that archaeology supported the basic historicity of biblical tradition.
There are some definite problems, however, with viewing the Bible as history. There are certainly problems with chronology: it’s hard to pin down dates for a lot of things. Many of the events are given more than one dates. A lot of the numbers the Bible tends to use ideal numbers; it tends to use fives and multiples of five, or multiples of five plus seven. You have ten generations from Adam to Noah. You have ten generations from Noah to Abram. These things begin to raise suspicions.
We have suspicious repetitions of events, things that happened to two or more of the patriarchs: twice Abraham goes into foreign territory and tries to pass his wife off as his sister. Isaac does the same thing. Are these three versions of one basic tradition that got assigned to different patriarchs? Are we supposed to think of these as representing three separate historical incidents? What’s the likelihood of these things happening? Is that historically reasonable?
So there are lots of reasons to feel that biblical chronologies of the patriarchal period are not accurate historical records: I use that phrase [accurate historical record] with some timidity. But in the twentieth century scholars of Albright’s school argued that many of the traditions in the book of Genesis contained authentic reflections of the historical period they claimed to deal with. And they cited a number of considerations.
We’ll take those up on Monday, but I would like you as you read Genesis 12 and forward and think about that material I’d like you to ask yourself: Is this historical writing? By what criteria do I judge historical writing? What do I think historical writing is? What makes some writing historical? What makes other writing fictional? Where do we get these genres from? Why is so important to us to figure out what this is? Think about some of those issues, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that as we turn to the texts in Genesis 12.
In general the terms exilic and post-exilic are not used with great precision in these lectures. Technically speaking the term exilic is used to refer to the period between the destruction (586 BCE) and the Restoration in the 530s BCE, while post-exilic refers to the period initiated by the restoration. However, in these lectures the term exilic is occasionally used to refer to any time from the exile on. Strictly speaking, Wellhausen placed the P source in the post-exilic period.
See on the “Optional,” the articles by Pamela Tamarkin Reis.
Friedman, Richard E. 1997. Who Wrote the Bible? San Francisco: Harpers. Habel, Norman C. 1971. Literary Criticism of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers.
Biblical Narrative: The Stories of the Patriarchs (Genesis 12-36)
(1) Gen 12-Ex 4; Introduction to Exodus (JSB pp. 102-107).
(2) “Historical and Geographical Background to the Bible” (JSB pp. 2048-2052).
(3) “Inner-Biblical Interpretation” (JSB pp. 1829-1835) Optional: Goldstein, Rebecca. “Looking Back at Lot’s Wife.” In Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, eds., Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994. pp. 3-12.
For Section Discussion: (i) Gen 22 (ii) Auerbach, Eric. “Odysseus’ Scar,” In Mimesis. pp. 1-26 (iii) Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York: Basic Books, 1981. pp. 3-22, 47-62, 178-189.
(4) Greenstein, Edward L. and Alex Preminger, eds. “The Binding of Isaac.” In The Hebrew Bible in Literary Criticism. New York: Unger, 1986. pp. 261-270.
This series continues with a review of scholarly views on the historical accuracy of the Bible. The narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs are introduced and the covenant between Abraham and God which ultimately leads to the formation of a nation is explained. Central themes of the patriarchal stories include: God’s call to Abraham, God’s promise of a blessed and fruitful nation, threats to this promise (including the story of the binding of Isaac for sacrifice). Finally, after a significant character transformation, the third patriarch Jacob becomes Yisrael (“he who struggles with God”).
So last time we started discussing the historical merits of the biblical stories of the patriarchs and the matriarchs. These are contained in Genesis 12 through 50. Scholarly opinion on this matter is seriously divided; something you need to know. Some scholars will point to internal biblical evidence for the authenticity and the antiquity of the patriarchal stories. So for example, Nahum Sarna argues that representing Abraham and Isaac and Jacob as foreigners and strangers in Canaan is hardly a convenient tradition for a people who are seeking to establish their claim to its homeland. And if this myth of origins were the fabrication of a later writer, then surely they would have written the story in such a way as to give their ancestors a less tenuous hold or claim, connection, to the land.
He also notes that some of the material in the patriarchal stories would be offensive to later religious sensibilities. Jacob is married to two sisters simultaneously. That is something that is explicitly forbidden in the book of Deuteronomy. Wouldn’t a later writer have cleaned up this ancestral record if this were in fact something composed at a later period? Also, he notes that the representation of inter-ethnic relationships in the patriarchal stories does not accord with the reality of a later period. So for example, the Arameans are considered close kin to the Israelites.
“A wandering Aramean was my father,” it says [Deuteronomy]. And spouses are always chosen–daughters for sons are always chosen by going back to the Aramean people and choosing someone from close kin. But in the period of the monarchy that’s going to be after 1000 in the period of the monarchy, there were very poor relations with the Arameans. They were bitter enemies. So why, according to scholars like Sarna, would a biblical author from that period portray the Arameans as close kin, unless they had some older tradition, established tradition that reflected that fact? So Sarna and other scholars hold that the patriarchal traditions are not entirely fabricated retrojections from a later period.
They contain authentic memories of an earlier historic situation. The patriarchs, it’s maintained, were semi-nomads. They lived in tents. From time to time, they wandered to Egypt or Mesopotamia often in search of pasture for their animals. And various details of their language, their customs, their laws, their religion, it’s argued, seem to fit well into the period of the Late Bronze Age. I’ve given you the periods at the top of the chart: early Bronze Age; middle Bronze Age from about 2100 to 1550; we date the late Bronze age from about 1550 until 1200 – the introduction of iron and the beginning of the Iron Age in 1200.
Prior to that, the Bronze Age, which is divided into these three periods. So that’s on the one hand: scholars who see these stories as reflecting historical memories and having a certain authenticity to them. Then on the other hand, at the other extreme, you have scholars who see the patriarchal stories as entirely fabricated retrojections of a much later age. And they vary significantly as to when they think these stories were written: anywhere from the period of the monarchy all the way down to the fourth century, some of them. Works published in the 1970s by authors like Thomas Thompson, Jon Van Seters, take the position that these stories are filled with anachronisms, their chronologies are confused.
These anachronisms and confused chronologies in the patriarchal stories are the rule rather than the exception in their view, and they are evidence of a very late date of composition. So you have these two extremes based on the internal evidence of the Bible itself. But you also have the same two extreme positions reflected in the discipline of archaeology. In the early days, archaeology of the region tended toward credulity. And it was explicitly referred to as biblical archaeology an interesting name, because it suggests that the archaeologists were out there searching for evidence that would verify the details of the biblical text.
We’re doing biblical archaeology; archaeology in support of the biblical text. I mentioned last time William F. Albright, an American archaeologist. He believed strongly that archaeological findings were important external evidence for the basic historicity and authenticity of, for example, the patriarchal stories. And certainly some archaeological findings were quite remarkable. Scholars of the Albright school pointed to texts and clay tablets that were discovered in second millennium sites. So you see down on the bottom the second millennium BCE, obviously going down to 1000; first millennium: 1000 to 0.
The second millennium really wasn’t longer than the first millennium, it’s just that I ran out of board! But specifically sites like Nuzi and Mari – I’ve placed them in their approximate places on the timeline – Nuzi and Mari are sites that are near the area that’s identified in the Bible as being the ancestral home of the patriarchs in Mesopotamia or on the highway from there to Canaan. These texts and clay tablets were believed to illuminate many biblical customs and institutions. So in the Nuzi texts from about the middle of the second millennium, we learn of the custom of adoption for purposes of inheritance, particularly the adoption of a slave in the absence of offspring. Biblical scholars got very excited about this.
They point to the biblical passage in which Abraham expresses to God his fear that his servant, Eliezer, will have to be the one to inherit God’s promise because Abraham has no son. Also according to the Nuzi texts, if a wife is barren, she is to provide a maidservant as a substitute to bear her husband’s children. And this is something that happens with three out of the four matriarchs, who are afflicted with infertility: Sarah, Rachel and Leah. There are other parallels in family and marriage law that correlate with certain biblical details. In the eighteenth century [BCE], the texts from Mari.
They contain names that correspond to Israelite names: Benjamin, Laban, Ishmael. So biblical scholars, buoyed up by these correlations between the archaeological finds, the texts found by archaeologists, and biblical stories, asserted that the patriarchs were real persons and their customs and their legal practices and their social institutions could be verified against the backdrop of the second millennium as revealed by archaeological findings. However, it’s been argued that some of these ancient sources have been misread or misinterpreted in an effort to find parallels with biblical institutions.
A lot of gap filling is going on to make these texts look as though they correspond to biblical institutions. And sceptics like Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters point out that many of the biblical customs which are paralleled in Ancient Near Eastern sources were still alive and well down in the first millennium. So reference to these customs in the patriarchal stories really doesn’t tell us anything about dating.
They could derive from anywhere in the second or first millennium. And for other reasons, they think it is much more reasonable to date the composition of these stories to the first millennium, in some cases, quite late first millennium. Furthermore, over time, many discrepancies between the archaeological record and the biblical text became apparent. Increasingly, practitioners of what was now being termed Palestinian archaeology, or Ancient Near Eastern archaeology, or archaeology of the Levant, rather than biblical archaeology some of these archaeologists grew disinterested in pointing out the correlations between the archaeological data and the biblical stories or in trying to explain away any discrepancies in order to keep the biblical text intact.
They began to focus on the best possible reconstruction of the history of the region on the basis of the archaeological evidence regardless of whether or not those results would confirm the biblical text, the biblical account. In fact, this reconstruction often does contradict biblical claims. We’re going to see this quite clearly in a few weeks when we consider the book of Joshua and its story of Israel’s lighting invasion of the land of Canaan.
The archaeological record just doesn’t support such a story. Still, many people have clung to the idea of the Bible as a historically accurate document, many times out of ideological necessity. Many fear that if the historical information in the Bible isn’t true, then the Bible is unreliable as a source of religious instruction or inspiration. And that’s something they don’t want to give up.
This is all really a very unfortunate and heavy burden to place on this fascinating little library of writings from late antiquity. People who equate truth with historical fact will certainly end up viewing the Bible dismissively, as a naïve and unsophisticated web of lies, since it is replete with elements that cannot be literally true.
But to view it this way is to make a genre mistake. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while set in Denmark, an actual place, is not historical fact. But that doesn’t make it a naïve and unsophisticated web of lies, because we accept when we read or watch Hamlet that it is not a work of historiography, a work of writing about history. It is a work of literature.
And in deference to that genre and its conventions, we know and accept that the truths it conveys are not those of historical fact, but are social, political, ethical, existential truths. And the Bible deserves at least the same courteous attention to its genre.
The Bible doesn’t pretend to be and it shouldn’t be read as what we would call “objective history” and see the scare quotes, you should be looking up here so you’ll see the scare quotes: “objective history” – in other words perhaps, a bare narration of events. To be sure, we do find that some events that are mentioned in the biblical texts correlate to events that we know of from sources outside the Bible.
So, for example, Pharaoh Shishak’s invasion of Palestine in 924. This is mentioned in the biblical text, it’s mentioned in the Egyptian sources – there’s a nice correlation. The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722, the capture of Jerusalem in 597, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 these are all recorded in the biblical text and they are in Assyrian and Babylonian records as well; as well as other events from the period of the monarchy.
So as a result, because of these correlations, many scholars are willing to accept the general biblical chronology of the period from the monarchy on: starting about 1000 on, they accept that general chronology; the sequence of kings and battles and so on. But ultimately, it is a mistake, I think, to read the Bible as a historical record. The Bible is literature. Its composition is influenced and determined by literary conventions and goals. Now, of course we all know that there is no such thing as purely objective history anyway. We have no direct access to past events. We only ever have mediated access in material: archaeological remains that yield information to us only after a process of interpretation, or in texts that are themselves already an interpretation of events and must still be interpreted by us.
The biblical narrative is an interpretation of events that were held by centuries’ long tradition to be meaningful in the life of the people. And to the biblical narrators, these events known perhaps from ancient oral traditions pointed to a divine purpose.
The narrative is told to illustrate that basic proposition. The biblical narrators are not trying to write history as a modern historian might try to write history. They’re concerned to show us what they believed to be the finger of God in the events and experiences of the Israelite people.
One scholar, Marc Brettler, whose name I’ve also put up here, Marc Brettler notes that in the Bible, the past is refracted through a theological lens if not a partisan political, ideological lens [Brettler 2005, 22]. But then all ancient historical narrative is written that way, and one could argue all contemporary historical narrative is written that way. With due caution, we can still learn things from texts ancient and modern.
We can still learn things about Israel’s history from the biblical sources, just as classical historians have learned a great deal about classical history, Greece and Rome, despite or through the tendentious, partisan and ideologically motivated writings of classical writers. So our discussion of the patriarchal stories is going to bear all of these considerations in mind.
We’re not going to be asking whether these stories are historically accurate. I’m going to assume they are not. And once we rid ourselves of the burden of historicity, we’re free to appreciate the stories for what they are: powerful, powerful narratives that must be read against the literary conventions of their time, and whose truths are social, political, moral and existential.
So what are these truths? We’ll begin to answer this question begin to answer this question, you’ll spend the rest of your life finishing the process of answering this question. But we’ll begin by identifying some, by no means all, of the major themes of Genesis 12 through 50. And we’re going to begin with the story of Terah and his family.
This is a story that’s marked by the themes of divine command and divine promise. Now, the biblical writer represents the emigration of Terah’s son Abram, whose name will be changed to Abraham, so sometimes I’ll say one and sometimes the other. But they represent this emigration as divinely commanded. It’s the first step in a journey that will lead ultimately to the formation of a nation in covenant with God.
First we meet our cast of characters. This is in Genesis 11:27 on through chapter 12:3. Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah, in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans. And Abram and Nahor took them wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai [who will become Sarah]; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah And Sarai was barren; she had no child.
Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai, his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; [getting confused yet?] and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. And the days of Terah were 205 years: then Terah died in Haran.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; And make your name great So that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you, I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves. So Abram is commanded to go forth from his home and family to a location to be named later, a location that remains for now unspecified. And this is a fact that has caused commentators for centuries to praise Abram for his faith. That is a virtue faith is a virtue, that is connected or associated with Abram/Abraham in other biblical contexts and also in later religious tradition.
He is seen as the paradigm, the paradigmatic exemplar of a man of faith. The command is coupled with a promise: “I will make of you,” God says, “a great nation, and I will bless you.” But, we have just learned in chapter 11 that Sarai is barren. It was a seemingly irrelevant detail, whose import is suddenly clear.
How clever of the narrator to plant the information we need to realize that Abram has to take God’s word on faith, and how perfectly the narrator sets up the dramatic tension and the great confusion that is going to run through the next several chapters, because Abram doesn’t seem to understand that the progeny will come from Sarai. You have to read these stories as if you’re reading them for the first time.
You have the great disadvantage of knowing the ending. It’s a terrible disadvantage. You have to discipline yourself to read these stories as if you don’t know what’s coming next and put yourself in the position of the character. Abram’s just been told he’s going to be the father of great nations and he has a barren wife. He doesn’t seem to understand that the progeny is going to come from Sarai, and why should he think that it would? God wasn’t specific.
He simply says, “I shall make of you a great nation.” He says nothing of Sarai, and after all she’s barren. So Abram may be forgiven for thinking that perhaps some other mate awaits him. And so he surrenders her easily to other men, to Pharaoh of Egypt immediately following this scene in chapter 11 and 12; immediately after that, in Egypt, he surrenders her. He willingly accepts Sarai’s offer of a handmaid, Hagar, to bear a child Ishmael, in Sarai’s place. How cleverly the narrator leads us with Abram to pin our hopes on Ishmael as the child of the promise.
And how cleverly is the carpet pulled out from under our feet in Genesis 17, when God finally, perhaps impatiently, talks specifics: No, I meant that you would father a great nation through Sarah. And Abraham, as he’s now called, is incredulous: “She’s past the age of bearing, Lord.” And he laughs. And God is silent. And in that silence, I always imagine that this light goes on: this click, this awful, sickening light.
And Abraham says, “O, that Ishmael might live by your favor” – sorry, that’s the actual words.

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