Review of “A Biblical History of Israel”, Chapter 1

While I have been reading George Grena’s “Evolution Science”, I have also been reading a book I have had for some time; Provan, Long, and Longman’s “Biblical History of Israel”. As I found its history quite pedestrian, I had put it aside. It was only my writing of my first part of my “Non-Biblical History” that prompted me to begin reading its large part on methodology and historiography in the beginning.

The history begins with a review of the ideas of the minimalists, most notably, K. Whitelam. He has reviewed P&L&L’s book here. I agree with all his review except for a few minor points and the entirety of the last two pages (Zionism isn’t a scary monster under the bed!). The authors describe his ideas and offer a few objections to them, seemingly asserting that ideology need not contradict historical motive, that non-Biblical histories of Palestine have their shortcomings (e.g., conflicting interpretations of the evidence, reliance on biased sources, inevitable historian’s bias), that minimalists are guilty of selective skepticism, and that non-biblical sources are subject to ambiguous interpretation and cannot write a history of Iron Age Palestine on their own. The trio also points out that Phillip Davies is seemingly a bit too reliant on the now (as of 2008-12)-shown-to-be Hasmonean Ezra-Nehemiah on his reconstruction of how Genesis-Kings was composed.

While the points P&L&L make about the limits of non-Biblical history are correct, this does not mean we should pretend that the Biblical account of history is not mostly fiction.

The trio then writes an excellent denunciation of Soggin, Miller, and Hayes; those who arbitrarily set a point at which Biblical history becomes a reliable source of tradition. Miller and Hayes set that point at around 1 Kings, while Soggin sets it at Judges. The trio have a field day with pointing out the hypocrisy of those who would disqualify Joshua as useful for the reconstruction of the history of the West Bank in the Late Bronze Age while qualifying Judges as useful for the reconstruction of the history of Palestine in the Iron I or 1 Kings as useful for the reconstruction of the history of Palestine in Iron II. Needless to say, the trio use the argument against this hypocrisy for their own ends, making themselves look like the utmost of maximalists. The biblical traditions tell us not necessarily about the history of Palestine, the minimalists (and I) claim, but about the traditions that existed about the history of Palestine during the time of the composition of the Biblical text. External evidence may help us pinpoint the origin of these traditions, but we should never use tradition as our guidebook for the reconstruction of the history of Iron Age Palestine.

The trio also criticize Wellhausen for his hypocrisy in regards to rejecting the historicity of the Patriarchs while continuing to accept a historical Moses and Joshua. Needless to say, fewer authors make not more historicity.

The trio then write a moderately long ‘history of historiography’ from the 19th century even unto this day, describing the descent of the role of tradition in history, seemingly implying that this is somehow not a good thing. Imagine if we could use 19th century Palestinian Arab folk traditions to write a history of Palestine from the Bronze Age even unto this day. The trio then discusses the sillier formerly widely-accepted ideas of Martin Noth, pointing out that more authors does not necessarily indicate more historicity.

On a side note, Whitelam quotes this hilarious statement from Provan in 2000: It’s from Chapter 2 of the book.

“we generally regard it, indeed, as a sign of emotional or mental imbalance if people ordinarily inhabit a culture of distrust in testimony at the level of principle, and most of us outside mental institutions do not in fact inhabit such a universe.”
-Needless to say, Provan has never been to Detroit, read a tabloid, or used Google. I’m still certain, though, that he applies his childlike naivete regarding testimony very selectively-how else could he survive reading a magazine ad section? Does Provan think The Onion is a real news source? That internet ads are something to be clicked on? That Iraq really did pose a threat to the United States in 2002? It is a great mystery. Whitelam writes of how Provan may justify Baalam’s talking ass as historical by using the old quip “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (a claim that is only true under some circumstances).

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

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