Questioning the biblical account

Rodney Schofield

This article looks at the historical basis of what we think we know about ancient Israel. Rodney Schofield is a priest of Plymouth diocese.

Until relatively recent times Israel?s history as represented in the Old Testament was taken at face value: the migration of Abraham ? enslavement in Egypt ? the crossing of the Red Sea and conquest of Canaan ? transition to kingly rule ? invasion from the north into Israel and eventually Judah ? deportation into Babylon ? post-exilic subjugation to foreign empires, the era when ?scriptural? writings were finally edited, testifying to a faith stretching back over a thousand or more years.

The question asked today is: how far do these writings correspond to the facts on the ground? There are heroes in the Old Testament, but are their exploits to be taken uncritically? Did the settlement of Canaan happen as dramatically as the Bible suggests? More importantly, was the Yahwistic faith that motivated the scribes of 4th century BC Israel also held so strongly in earlier days? In recent decades there has been much archaeological research complementing textual and literary studies of the Bible, with a scholarly consensus beginning to emerge. Here is an extract from a publication of the Pontifical Biblical Commission:

Oral traditions about the ancestors of the patriarchal period were recovered and reinterpreted? ... in a largely theological and symbolic form. The acknowledgement of God as the Creator of all ... is the fruit of Israel?s history.1

To appreciate the ?reinterpretation? finally presented, e.g. in the Pentateuch or in the historical books, it is helpful to know some
of the evidence that has emerged. Perhaps

the earliest clue lies in the El Amarna cuneiform tablets, which comprise about 350 letters sent to the Pharaoh in the mid 14th century BC, mainly by Canaanite princes, together with some of Pharaoh?s replies. They mention a group called apiru existing on the periphery of Canaanite society, who may possibly have given their name to the Hebrews. There is also reference at this time to a God called YHW ? similar to the biblical YHWH ? to be found in shasu-land, nomadic territory south of Judaea. Comparable OT texts exist in the Song of Deborah which states ?Yahweh, when you went out from Seir ... ? (Jdg 5.4 cf. Ps 68.7-8); or again in the claim that the name Yahweh was revealed to Moses at Sinai (Exod 3.1-12). The indication may be that Yahweh had special connections with the Sinai peninsula.

The earliest known reference to Israel is found on a stele erected at Thebes around 1209 BC. The then-pharaoh Merneptah had carried out a campaign in Canaanite territories and boasted ?Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more?. It is presumably significant that this tribe bears a name with the suffix El, which was the general Semitic term for God, rather than the later distinctive name YHWH. Further, it needs to be appreciated that Merneptah?s victory was only a holding operation in terms of the region?s changing political fortunes. The arrival of Phoenicians in the coastal areas of Canaan, which for centuries been a buffer zone between empires to the north and to the south, contributed to the decline of Egyptian influence. This may have enabled those living in Canaan to develop new social and cultural patterns.??

Thus began an epoch of change: but was it a matter of Israelites escaping from slavery in Egypt, and eventually conquering Canaan in the strength of a distinctive monotheistic faith in Yahweh? The evidence is problematic.

???? Although the Egyptians were remarkable for their historical records, there is nothing in them about slaves who might be identified as Hebrews. Set against this is the ancient Song of Miriam which records the pursuing ?horse and rider thrown into the sea? (Exod 15.21)
???? There is also the curious silence in pre-exilic prophets about Moses: only in Micah 6.4 is there a single reference to him.
???? While Israel?s historical memory may have included slavery in Egypt, the accounts have certainly been exaggerated: ?600,000 men on foot? with women and children (Exod 12.37 cf. Num 1.46) could hardly have crossed the Red Sea and lived precariously in the Sinai peninsula, nor was the later population in Canaan nearly so large.??
???? Yet archaeologists are confident that during the 12th century BC, things were changing in the hill country north of Jerusalem. New village settlements appeared, populated by farmers and herdsmen. Their annual population growth has been estimated as 2%, with further villages developing south of Jerusalem as well.? Some 300 sites are known at present, suggesting a total population of 50,000 and upwards. There is nothing to suggest that the settlers came from outside Canaan, since their buildings and artefacts were in the local style. Perhaps some urban dwellers, no longer controlled by the Egyptians, moved into unoccupied hill country, where they were joined by apiru semi-nomads.

???? Villagers would have relied upon subsistence farming, with the rituals of ?folk? religion accompanying the changing seasons. Some renowned shrines may have developed at Bethel or Shechem in the north (associated in the OT with Jacob), or at Hebron in the south (associated with Abraham). This is not, however, where the patriarchs originate. They seem to have migrated from Syria: ?a wandering Aramean was my father (Deut 26.5)?
???? Perhaps real invaders came too, although the archaeological evidence offers limited support.? A number of towns were over the years destroyed and subsequently rebuilt: Jericho was among them, but at this time was already a ruin. If Joshua destroyed town walls elsewhere, the rubble at Jericho may have suggested its inclusion in the records. His conquest is described dramatically in the earlier chapters of Joshua:

??? So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded. (10.40)

??? Yet in the rest of the book and in Judges a different picture emerges, of limited success and of necessary co-existence:

Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob; but the Asherites dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out.

l??? Co-existence implies an intermingling of cultures and religions; and, while it is feasible that Yahwistic faith took some hold upon the emerging population, it was surely not complete. Even when greater centralisation had been achieved two or three centuries later, a range of religious practices can still be glimpsed in a passage from Isaiah, in which he prophesies the collapse of the established order:

??? The Lord is taking away ... stay and staff, the whole stay of bread, and the whole stay of water; the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counsellor and the skilful magician and the expert in charms. (Is 3.1-3)
The monarchic period seems to have begun in the late 11th century BC, although the evidence now points to a longer period than is suggested in the OT for the establishment of properly centralised states. The Bible exaggerates Israel?s initial territorial extent, with sites linked in scripture to Saul being predominantly to the north of Jerusalem, whereas David?s area of activity and influence is further south. David has the appearance of a bandit chief ? a typical shasu or apiru:

And every one who was in distress, and every one who was in debt, and every one who was discontented, gathered to him; and he became captain over them. And there were with him about four hundred men. (1 Sam 22.2)

He fought Philistines, but also collaborated with them (1 Sam 27.5-7).? Like most guerrilla leaders, he operated a protection racket and shared out the booty (1 Sam 25). As for his youthful encounter with Goliath there are several indications that this is a later literary construction:

???? Elhanan, a Bethlehemite, is credited with Goliath?s death elsewhere (2 Sam 21.19)
???? In his fight with David, Goliath is protected by armour like that worn four centuries later.
???? David?s chosen weapons were ?five smooth stones? (1 Sam 17.40) ? surely a reference to the five books of the Torah, implying that those who keep it will prevail over their enemies.

David certainly had greater success than Saul in deterring Philistine incursions; he also captured the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem ? although this remained a large village, not mentioned by Shishak in his later campaign (1 Kgs 14.25). To describe either leader as ?a king? is somewhat misleading.?
External political fortunes allowed the rise of Omri as king of Israel in the 9th century. The famous ?Mesha? stone, erected in 840 BC by the then king of Moab, included these words:

Omri was king of Israel and he oppressed Moab for many days because Kemosh was angry with his land.

The claim is made (1 Kgs 15.24) that Omri established Samaria as his capital, and archaeologists confirm that massive building works were undertaken there in his reign. It is Omri who had the first real Israelite court, given that the Assyrians subsequently referred to Israel as ?the house of Omri?. It was apparently the marriage of Omri?s grand-daughter Athaliah? to Jehoram of Judah (2 Kgs 8.25-29) that allowed the much weaker Judah to develop and fortify certain cities.

Religious development
Whereas Saul is linked with a band of ecstatic prophets (1 Sam 10.10-13), David is credited with bringing to Jerusalem the ark of the covenant (2 Sam 6) ? possibly to symbolise Yahweh?s warlike presence ? having been introduced to Judaean territory by shasu groups. Two formative features in Israel?s faith are evident here:

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