Book Reviews

Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From?

William G. Dever Grand Rapids 2006-03-31

One of the world’s premier archaeologists, William G. Dever, has written yet another provocative and stimulating book on the origins of Israel. As a sequel to What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), this more recent publication deals with Israel’s nascent history. His conclusions are neither minimalist (seeing the biblical record as exilic myth) nor maximalist (seeing the biblical record as historically accurate).

As the title suggests, it is an attempt to explain the origins of Israel. Dever’s theory is that Israel developed around the twelfth or eleventh century from agrarian reformers who moved to the hill country from the declining Canaanite city-state system with a new social vision. He develops his theory for three reasons. First, the archaeological record shows a long and slow enervation from the fifteenth to the thirteenth century in which the Canaanite city-state system degenerated into anarchy. Second, the Amarna Letters depict a consolidation of wealth in the hands of a small minority during the collapse of the Canaanite city-state system. Third, economic imbalance between the rich and the poor motivated the agrarian reformers to migrate to the hill country, which the hill country population growth in the twelfth to the eleventh century illustrates.

Particularly helpful, especially for the general reader, is the author’s survey and interaction with different theories of Israel’s origin. He discusses Alt’s theory of peaceful infiltration into Canaan, Halpern’s theory that Israel was a mix of some who wandered from Egypt and indigenous Canaanites, Chaney’s theory of social revolution in which Yahweh worship was later created, and Coote and Whitelam’s theory of migration to the highlands because of trade. Also helpful is his approach, like that of William F. Albright, in which he looks for convergences between the biblical world and the archaeological record. However, strangely he does not see the Exodus and the Conquest in the archaeological record.

In spite of Dever’s impressive evidence his model raises many questions. First, he does not adequately explain the Exodus tradition. Because of parallels with the Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers,” he attempts to link the Joseph cycle to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as the motivation for the Exodus motif. But this proposal is tenuous. Second, he suggests that later Jewish “romantics” embellished the bucolic origins of Israel because of a longing for peaceful simplicity, in contrast to the complexity of Judah’s politics. But this is also doubtful because the deuteronomic history interprets the period of the judges negatively (unless of course the writer of the Book of Judges was utilizing reverse psychology!). Moreover, his parallel between Jewish “romantics” and the Shakers actually weakens his point because the Shakers never made inroads with society, nor did they convincingly rewrite Christian history.

Although most evangelicals will disagree with the book’s theories (that there was no historic Exodus or Conquest, and that Israel developed around the twelfth century from an agrarian reform movement), the massive amount of archaeological data with which Dever interacts makes this an excellent resource.

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