“Not a ‘History of Israel’ in the Usual Sense” (From William G. Dever’s Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel)

The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel
The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel
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William G. Dever is professor emeritus of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona and one of the world’s most highly respected Near Eastern archaeologists. (He’s also, by the way, our featured author this month on Eerdmans.com.)

In the following excerpt from The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect  he introduces his newest book and describes his groundbreaking approach to ancient history.

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This book attempts to provide a new, original, lavishly illustrated handbook for students of the Hebrew Bible. It is written primarily for the nonspecialist, but technical details for colleagues will be found in the notes and in the bibliography at the end.

This book is not a “history of Israel” in the usual sense. For one thing, it confines itself to roughly the 8th century B.C.E.: from the end of the Aramean incursions in the north toward the end of the 9th century, circa 810, to the Neo-Assyrian campaigns in Judah in 701. One reason for this limited scope is that this century or so is well defined as a discrete era chronologically. Another reason is that this period is exceptionally well documented archaeologically. The current disputes over the 10th-9th centuries need not distract us; the 7th century is ruled out simply because there is no longer an “Israel.” It might be desirable to expand our coverage earlier and later. But that would make for an unwieldy work, since we now have a superabundance of recent data.

What I intend to do here is to construct a parallel history of one era in ancient Israel and Judah — a sort of “secular history” of Palestine in the Iron Age — to supplement (and perhaps to correct) the portrait we have in the texts of the Hebrew Bible. But the archaeological data, not the textual data, will be the primary source initially. To be sure, the textual data will be considered later, in Part II of each chapter, wherever they can be shown to be historically accurate beyond reasonable doubt. But the biblical texts will be subsidiary and will often prove to be of minimal importance. In this sense, the present work will almost be “a history without the Bible,” at least for the most part, even though some have declared this impossible. In Part III of each chapter, I shall move beyond facts to admitted speculation, in an attempt to ask what a good historian must ask: What was it really like in those days? That will help us to illustrate the lives of ordinary people, who are almost entirely invisible in typical histories of ancient Israel. . . .

My credentials for writing an archaeologically based history of ancient Israel are that I am a professional archaeologist, although I originally had extensive training in Old Testament studies, or what I shall call here studies of the Hebrew Bible. I have spent nearly fifty years in archaeological fieldwork in Israel, and I have published extensively on the relation of archaeology to biblical studies. In many ways this lengthy experience seems to have constituted a prolegomenon to the present work. I want to stress, however, that I am a secular humanist, with no theological or other axe to grind. That is why this is a secular history. Although as a historian I must deal ultimately with the issue of truth in our historical sources, I gladly leave theological propositions to others.

Click here to order The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect by William G. Dever.