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Down with History, Up with Reading: The Current State of Biblical Studies[1]

By Gary A. Rendsburg, Cornell University

The simplest way for me to illustrate the title of my talk "Down with History, Up with Reading" is to present the state of biblical studies then, meaning thirty years ago when the McGill Jewish Studies Program was founded, and the state of the field today. In a word, biblical studies has gone from consensus to crisis.

Thirty years ago there was general agreement in the field of biblical studies, then dominated by the towering figure of W. F. Albright, but with a host of other luminaries, now all deceased, in accord: Theodor Gaster, H. L. Ginsberg, Harry Orlinsky, G. R. Driver, Roland de Vaux, Otto Eissfeldt, Benjamin Mazar, Yigael Yadin, and others. Of that generation of giants, the only one still alive today is my own teacher, Cyrus Gordon, still active, though finally slowing down at the age of 91.

The consensus was formed around three general issues: a) the history of ancient Israel, b) the sources of the Torah, and c) the biblical text. First, and most importantly, the history. The consensus believed that the Bible is a reliable guide to the history of ancient Israel. Everything from the Patriarchs to Ezra was real. So real in fact, that if something in the archaeological record did not quite mesh with the biblical record, then the former was accommodated to fit the latter (see below for the parade example concerning the Conquest and the book of Joshua). Some specifics:

The Patriarchs were real life people, a point which could be proved by the striking parallels forthcoming from the Nuzi tablets, a collection of legal texts from the 14th century Mesopotamian site of Nuzi, which include socio-economic and legal parallels to the stories in Genesis. A childless man could adopt a younger man as his son and heir, in the manner of Abraham and Eliezer. It was the legal responsibility of a barren woman to supply her husband with a maidservant with whom to have intercourse, thus to produce an heir, in the manner of Sarah and Hagar. One brother could sell his birthright to another brother, in the manner of Jacob and Esau. Men could enter into herding contracts, in the manner of Jacob and Laban. And so on.

Joseph was real. A great amount of Egyptological evidence was put forward to demonstrate that the customs reflected in Genesis 37-50 are an accurate reflection of life in Egypt.Semites could achieve high levels in the government of Egypt, including rising to the title of vizier. When elevated, the individual was adorned with fine linen, gold jewelry about the neck, and a signet ring for the finger. אברך was a real Egyptian word meaning "Hail to you."[2] And so on.

The Slavery and the Exodus were real. Egyptian texts referring to the > Apiru building Rameses and Pithom for Rameses II were understood as the עברים, and note that specifically this word occurs repeatedly in Exodus 1-2. The Merneptah Stele proved beyond doubt that the Israelites were in the land of Canaan by c. 1210 B.C.E., thus enabling scholars to fix the date of the Exodus to either late in the reign of Rameses II or early in the reign of Merneptah. And so on.

The Conquest was real. Archaeological work at Bethel, Hazor, Lachish, and Tell Beit Mirsim, among others, revealed the destruction of a series of Canaanite cities in the latter half of the 13th century B.C.E., clearly the work of the Israelites. No matter that the first two cities mentioned in the conquest account in the book of Joshua, namely, Jericho and Ai, revealed no settlement layer from this period. At Jericho there must have been a small settlement, the consensus held, undetected by the archaeologists, and most likely undetectable, still using earlier 15th century walls, thus explaining why tremors caused by encircling Israelites marching on foot and blasting the shofarot caused the walls to collapse. Ai existed in the early Bronze Age only, and had been in ruins for a millennium at the time of Joshua. No problem; Albright had an ingenious solution.[3] The battle described in the Bible actually occurred at Bethel, which Albright himself had excavated and which showed a clear violent destruction in the late 13th century. Over the course of time, ancient Israelite tradents had transferred the story from Bethel to Ai, given the inviting name of the latter, actually העי, literally "the ruin," equivalent to its Arabic name et-Tell. But the location of the actual historical event had not been totally forgotten, for within the Ai account in Joshua 8:17 we read, ולא נשאר איש בעי ובית אל אשר לא יצאו אחרי ישראל ויעזבו את העיר פתוחה וירדפו אחרי ישראל "Not a man was left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel; they left the city open, and they pursued Israel." That is to say, Bethel is directly involved in the story.

It goes without saying that all later biblical material was seen as reflecting real history as well. David and Solomon ruled over a large and powerful empire; the star witness thereto was the identical gate system at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer, in accord with 1 Kings 9:15, as studied by Yadin in particular. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah are well attested from Assyrian and Babylonian sources, and the Mesha Stele from neighboring Moab coordinated well with events related in 2 Kings 3. And finally, even if the Persian period documentation is relatively silent vis-à-vis the Jews of the empire, enough evidence is present to once more confirm the biblical material.

Thus the first part of the consensus, and indeed it was "canonized" in the standard histories of Israel authored by John Bright,[4] himself a student of Albright, and Martin Noth,[5] even though the latter parted company on some crucial issues such as the Conquest.

The second part of the consensus dealt with the development of the biblical books, especially the books of the Torah. As is well known, biblical scholarship in the 20th century saw the well nigh universal acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis that had been fashioned mainly by German scholars in the 19th century. An occasional serious protestation by Umberto Cassuto had no major effect on the common opinion.[6]  The theory proposes that the Torah is comprised of four major documents, at one time existing independently of one another, but brought together by an exilic or post-exilic redactor to produce the final product of Genesis through Deuteronomy. The standard approach holds that the four documents were the Yahwist source from the 10th century, the Elohist source from the 9th century, the book of Deuteronomy from the 7th century, and the Priestly source from the 5th century, or to use their abbreviations, J, E, D, and P.  An alternative approach, associated mainly with the name of Yehezkel Kaufmann reversed the order of the last two sources to create the sequence J, E, P, and D, with the Priestly source earlier than Deuteronomy, and with the entire Torah the product of pre-exilic times.[7]  The theory neatly explains the innumerable difficulties and duplicates that appear in the Torah: they are the result of the compilation of the diverse sources by a redactional process that did not eliminate such problems.  If Genesis 37 contradicts itself by mentioning three separate ethnic groups involved in the transporting of Joseph to Egypt—Ishmaelites, Midianites, and Medanites—then clearly there must be different sources. Assuming that Midianites and Medanites are variants of one another, scholars assume two sources, one attributed to the Yahwist and one attributed to the Elohist, each with its own tradition. The redactor did not attempt to dovetail the two, but rather he let the divergent data stand as he found them in his sources.

And thirdly, the text of the Bible was viewed as the product of generations of scribal activity, a process which resulted in the introduction of numerous errors in the text. If something did not look quite right, the typical reaction was simply to emend the text to make it read as it should in the eyes of scholar X, Y, or Z.  If support could be found in the Septuagint, as often it could, even better. But even without versional support, scholars felt free to handle the biblical text in any way they saw fit.

So, notwithstanding the fact that the sources themselves date from centuries later than the events that they describe, and notwithstanding the fact that the text often is in error, the Bible contains reliable historical information that had been passed down accurately from the time of Israel’s proto-history to the time of the texts’ achieving their final written form. If there are contradictions, that is a result of the variant traditions having accrued over time; such minor problems have no effect on the larger picture, for the basic storyline is trustworthy.

Thus, to continue our above example, the vacillation between Ishmaelites and Midianites is insignificant in the long run, for both groups are denizens of the desert fringe and it is easy to see how the two could have been confused (see Judg 8:24 for the classic source relevant to this problem). What is important is that both J and E know of Joseph in Egypt—and indeed of all Israel in Egypt—and that picture is historically accurate.

Thus far the consensus.[8]  Now the crisis. If all is so clear, what happened? Obviously, the pendulum of intellectual trends swings continually. The positive historicism of Albright and the others gave way, not only in biblical studies, but in the humanities in general, to the relativism, skepticism, and indeed nihilism which now dominates. Chinks in the Albrightian armor already were visible thirty years ago, and I alluded to one of them earlier, namely Martin Noth’s demurral concerning the Conquest.  But the chinks became cracks and the cracks developed into fullscale breaks.

The Conquest affords us the best example to see the process at work.  Already in the 1920’s, Noth’s teacher, the great Albrecht Alt, had challenged the idea of an Israelite military conquest of the land of Canaan.[9]  There simply was no archaeological evidence to confirm the scenario depicted in the book of Joshua.  The passage of time had done nothing to change Alt’s view, nor that of his disciples, Noth and others.  The clever solutions to the problems of Jericho and Ai that I presented earlier were simply that:  clever solutions, indeed too clever to be correct. If there was no archaeological evidence at these sites to confirm the portrayal in the book of Joshua, then the latter could not be historically accurate. Joshua must be nothing more than the literary creation of a later Israelite author desirous of presenting to his audience a piece of propagandistic material, for some political or religious end that could be debated among scholars. So if there was no conquest, then how did the Israelites emerge in the land of Canaan?  Alt proposed an alternative approach, called the peaceful infiltration or peaceful settlement model.  The main tradition of the Bible is accurate, the Israelites entered the land from the outside, from the desert fringe region, but there was no military conquest. Instead, one must speak of Israelites entering and peacefully settling open territory. As I said, the approach of Alt and Noth was but a chink in the Albrightian armor, but it set the stage for more drastic departures.

A third model developed, much more radical in its approach.  The archaeological evidence now was interpreted to demonstrate that the Israelites did not originate outside the land, but were in origin Canaanites who had shifted gears.  Israelite pottery was indistinguishable from Canaanite pottery; Israelite architecture was indistinguishable from Canaanite architecture; Israelite water systems were indistinguishable from Canaanite water systems; and so on. All of this meant that the Israelites were Canaanites, most likely former Canaanite rural peasants who had thrown off the yoke of their Canaanite urban overlords.  Class struggle, not religious revolution, is what gave rise to Israel. The arm of Marxism had spread to biblical studies.

As such, the Israelites had never been to Egypt (well, perhaps a small number of them had, but they were insignificant in the ethnic composition of the new people of Israel). The Bible’s foundational story about the Israelites as slaves in Egypt is not a reflection of any historical reality, but rather a reflection of the fact that Israel had been slaves in the land of Canaan, slaves to Canaanite urban centers, which in turn were puppets of the Egyptian empire during the New Kingdom 18th and 19th Dynasties. That is to say, the Israelites were not slaves in Egypt, but to Egypt.

The fact that the Israelites originate as Canaanites explains why there is so much polytheism present in the Bible’s description of the people of Israel.  Israel was not a monotheism or a monolatry fighting polytheistic tendencies among its people under the influence of their Canaanite neighbors, but rather just another group of Canaanite polytheists, albeit one with a small but vocal and in the end successful group of radical thinkers conceiving of the idea of one god.

Stretching further back in the Bible, if there was no Conquest, and there was no Exodus, and there was no Slavery, then clearly there was no Patriarchal Period either. Indeed, further investigation of the Genesis stories claimed that there are closer parallels to the Abraham and Jacob episodes in 1st Millennium Neo-Babylonian legal texts than in the 2nd Millennium Nuzi documents.[10]  Accordingly, the Genesis stories are the inventions of Jews during the Babylonian exile when such customs were the way of life. And why have patriarchal stories at all? Why have Abraham originating in Mesopotamia and emigrating to Canaan? Because this was part of early Zionist propaganda to get Jews to leave their homes in comfortable Babylon to make the long journey to begin a new and arduous life in the land of their forefathers.  It is clear from Second Isaiah and Ezra and Nehemiah, and from Babylonian textual remains—I refer here to the Murashu documents which describe affluent Jewish businessmen in Mesopotamia during this period—that not all Jews wanted to return to Israel. Thus was Abraham invented. He had left his home in Ur for the brave new world of Canaan, and so should you.

But wait, the reference to Ur in Gen 11:28-32 is part of the Yahwist source, supposedly from the 10th century. Not any more. The new model of Israel’s history calls for a reevaluation of the Documentary Hypothesis.  There still may be a J source, but it no longer is the product of the 10th century, within striking distance of purported Israelite memory of real live patriarchs. Instead, it is a document of the exilic period.  If this is true of J, how much more so for the whole Torah.[11]

I am not done. This approach is only mildly radical. For the approach that I have just outlined at least recognizes that the Israelites, even if they originated as Canaanites, at least existed before 586 B.C.E.  First they were organized as tribes, but eventually changed their polity to that of a monarchy.  Under David and Solomon they achieved some success, then receded in power to the minor kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  The extreme radicals go so far as to deny the existence of Israel and/or Judah before 586. Certainly there never was a David or a Solomon.  If after two hundred years of archaeological research, from Napoleon’s men discovering the Rosetta Stone in 1799 to the present day, there is not a single shred of evidence that David or Solomon ever existed, then they too must be fictional inventions. The Jews of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E. lived in world empires, under Babylonian and Persian domination, with the former Assyrian empire still a recent memory. In an effort to show that the Jews too once had power, thus was born the United Kingdom of David and Solomon ruling over conquered peoples.

The full extent of this nihilism came to the fore in 1993.  That summer, an Aramaic inscription dated to the 9th century B.C.E. was found at Tel Dan in the far north of the country, mentioning both מלך ישראל "king of Israel" and ביתדוד "house of David."[12]  The Aramean king who had erected this stela to commemorate his victory over the northern part of Israel and his direct rule over the city of Dan, knew of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, referring to the latter in fact as the "house of David." Never at a loss for creative explanations, these nihilists—once their claims of forgery were shown to be totally without foundation—began to interpret the phrase in every possible way but the obvious.  Suggestions included "house of the beloved," "house of the uncle," "house of the kettle," "house of a god named Dod," anything but "house of David." There could be no Judah, no reference to David, no biblical history that could be confirmed by any archaeological discovery.[13]

In short, the paradigm has shifted from a maximalist stance to a minimalist one. A few definitions of these terms. The maximalist holds that since so much of the biblical record has been confirmed by archaeological work and by other sources from the ancient Near East, for example, the aforementioned Mesha Stele, that even when there is no corroborating evidence, we can assume that the Bible reflects true history, unless it can be proved otherwise.  The minimalist approach is exactly the opposite. Because so much of the biblical record is contradicted by archaeological work and by other sources from the ancient Near East, for example, the lack of any conquest at Jericho and Ai, we must assume that the Bible is literary fiction, unless it can be proved otherwise.

How could we possibly have come to this present state in the field of biblical studies? And who are these people, these minimalists? As I stated earlier, the pendulum of intellectual ideologies is constantly shifting, and the last thirty years have seen the decline of positive historicism and the rise of relativism and skepticism. In my estimation, what began as a healthy and constructive enterprise, questioning the teachings of our teachers, exploring new methods, and in many cases demanding more explicit evidence before jumping to conclusions, soon devolved into an unhealthy and deconstructive project, resulting in a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. It is now clear that Albright overstated the case, but just because his vision of the conquest no longer holds that water, we need not discard the Israelite baby therewith. There clearly was an entity called Israel in the Early Iron Age, and there still is plenty of evidence to support that claim.[14]

To answer my second question, who are these people, these revisionists, these nihilists? What drives them?  To give you the names of the four best known among them, they are Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies, Niels Lemche, and Keith Whitelam. Some of them are driven, as I indicated above, by Marxism and leftist politics. Some of them are former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. Some of them are counterculture people, left over from the 60s and 70s, whose personality includes the questioning of authority in all aspects of their lives.[15]  But the two most important elements in the profile of these scholars are the following. First, almost without exception, these individuals have no expertise in the larger world of ancient Near Eastern studies. The luminaries whom I mentioned at the outset all had masterful control over a wide variety of languages and literatures, or they were the leading field archaeologists of their day. They made major contributions in the fields of Ugaritic studies, Assyriology, Egyptology, pottery analysis, stratigraphy, and so on. That is to say, their firsthand experience working with "real life" texts and "real life" material culture from the ancient world allowed these scholars to develop a true sense of how biblical texts were cut from the same cloth as ancient Near Eastern texts. True, this group later would come under attack by what their detractors would term "parallelomania," and true some of these great scholars often went too far in making connections between the Bible and the ancient world. But at the same time, their extensive and direct familiarity with the history, religion, literature, and scribal traditions of the ancient Near East in general allowed them to see, correctly in my view, that the inner workings of the Bible correlate perfectly into this picture. By contrast, as my colleague Anson Rainey of Tel Aviv University has noted, Thompson, Davies, Lemche, and Whitelam have never excavated an Israelite or any other archaeological site and they have no experience in dealing with an archive of ancient Near Eastern texts such as those of Ebla, Mari, Nuzi, Amarna, Ugarit, and so on.[16]  In short, the academy has created an intellectual environment which permits the untrained to operate on an equal par with the trained.[17]

Second, as you may have gathered, almost without exception, the scholars of this group are not Jewish. (Note that I do not call them Christians either, for most of them, I believe, would not classify themselves as such. Rather, they are part of the general secular world.) Now, at first glance, one might think that one’s religious or ideological identification would have no effect on one’s scholarship, and I too once naively thought this to be true. Frankly, I feel a bit of discomfort even mentioning the religious affiliations of individual scholars. For one would have hoped that such issues no longer mattered.  But with the current group of revisionists, as I intimated earlier, ideology, not objective scholarship, governs.  If it is not actual Marxism, it is leftist politics in general. If it is not revolution against the sins of one’s youth, the sin being once having identified as an evangelical Christian, then the issue is anti-authority culture in general. Furthermore, and I do not hesitate to use the terms, these scholars are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism.[18]  By denuding Israel of any ethnic identity, and by denying the existence of Israel in the land at an early time, and by reading the Bible as a Zionist plot by 6th century Jews in Babylonia, the picture is very clear. Ironically, the world has shown signs of progressing away from the anti-Zionism ideology that dominated U.N. politics in the 1970s, but these scholars are stuck in that several-decades-old mud.[19]

Now you may ask: why not simply ignore this bunch? The answer is, I would prefer to, and when these scholars began to revise all of biblical studies, that is exactly what I and many others like me did. I published a short article on the Tel Dan ביתדוד inscription in the Israel Exploration Journal in 1995.[20]  Soon after the article was accepted, the minimalists began their attack on the authenticity and reading of the crucial phrase, so I sent an e-mail to the editor, my dear friend and mentor, the late lamented Jonas Greenfield, asking whether or not I should add a final footnote responding to the nonsense spewing forth from the pen of these scholars.  Greenfield wrote back that my article should stand as is, that the minimalists may dominate the dialogue now, but that one day their rhetoric would pass, and sound scholarship such as my short piece would endure the test of time. So I followed his advice, which was my inclination to begin with, and the article appeared as submitted. Five years later, I am not sure that I would follow the same path again.  The minimalists dominate both in the noise that they make and in the quantity of their books. Volume after volume appears from their pens, all of it recycling the same views, all of it suspended על בלי מה "on nothingness," to quote Job 26:7.

Where have Jewish scholars been in this mix? Many of them, as you may have noted from my listing at the outset, were part of the consensus, if not officially part of the Albright school, then certainly fellow travelers: Gaster, Ginsberg, Orlinsky, Gordon, Mazar, Yadin, and others. Very few of the younger generation of Jewish scholars joined the minimalist revolution,[21] no surprise given the political agenda behind their scholarship.  But this does not mean that younger Jewish scholars have held to the old consensus either, or that they are active participants on the maximalist side battling the minimalists.

Jewish scholars over the last thirty years have moved in an altogether different direction. But first some background. The twentieth century saw the arrival of Jewish intellectuals on the American university scene, especially in the area of literary study. The names are well known: Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Harry Levin, Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, and on and on. The people of the book brought new vigor to the study of literature.[22]  And while these individuals—many associated with America at mid-century, others still active today—did not turn their eyes to the book of the people,[23] that is, the Bible,[24] eventually a new generation of scholars, almost all of them Jewish, did.

Indeed, right around the time that Albright and his contemporaries were passing from the scene, the literary study of the Bible began to develop among younger scholars. Since the generation of giants had done so much to elucidate the history of the biblical period, in conjunction with all the new information produced by archaeological discovery, and had mined ancient Near Eastern texts for parallel after parallel, there was little left for their students to do along the same lines.  So the two factors just described, the entrance of Jews into the field of literary study, and the desire for a new approach to the Bible, combined to create the field of biblical literary criticism. This development had a tremendous effect on biblical studies.

Prior to this development the term "literary criticism" was used in the field of biblical studies, but it meant something else entirely.  Mainly it referred to what we now call source criticism, the search for the sources of the Torah, the JEDP Theory that I described earlier, and related issues. For example, did any of the four sources extend into the Former Prophets? Source criticism also dealt with other books. For example, scholars assumed that the books of the prophets were created over time; the goal of research was to uncover the actual material of Isaiah or Amos or Ezekiel, and to distinguish the later material that had accrued in the ensuing generations or even centuries and somehow had come to be associated with these men.  In short, the whole enterprise was diachronic in its scope, that is, research focused on the development of texts over time.

With the rise of literary analysis, the paradigm shifted away from a diachronic analysis, that is, from worrying about different sources and how, when, and where they were written, transmitted, and redacted, to a synchronic one, that is, to an understanding that in the end the texts are exactly that, texts.  And in some way, whatever it may have been, these texts eventually achieved their final form: someone somewhere formed them as such, while others read them as such. Accordingly, since so much of diachronic analysis was so hypothetical—after all, no one had ever produced a Yahwist source, and not even those who propounded its existence could agree on its exact scope and dimensions—the enterprise took a back seat to synchronic readings.[25]

The seeds of this approach are to be found in the work of Martin Buber. This singular scholar, better known for his I and You philosophy, produced numerous studies on the Bible as literature,[26] and his monumental translation of the Bible into German (begun in partnership with Franz Rosenzweig, completed by Buber after his colleague’s early demise) reflected the same literary concerns.[27]  Buber had little influence on the European and North American scenes, but his work struck a chord in Israel among such scholars as the recently deceased Meir Weiss[28] and the recently retired Shemaryahu Talmon.[29]

Whether influenced by Buber directly, indirectly, or not at all, other scholars adopted the same literary approach to the Bible. On this side of the ocean, the most senior practioner of this method has been Robert Alter, who possesses both a knowledge of Hebrew literature from antiquity to the present and a comparative literature background.  To complete the picture, I should mention Meir Sternberg in Israel, who is closer to Alter in his professional status, that is to say, he is professor of English at Tel Aviv University, with major studies on Henry James, Ian Fleming, and other figures; Jan Fokkelman in Holland; and Adele Berlin in the U.S.

I wish to illustrate this shift in biblical studies by focusing on a single chapter in the book of Genesis. My point of departure will be E. A. Speiser’s Anchor Bible commentary on Genesis, published in 1964.[30]  I did not mention Speiser earlier, because he died a few years before 1969, that is, the year of the establishment of the McGill program, but he certainly belongs to the same group as the aforementioned scholars. Speiser’s commentary, the first to appear in the Anchor Bible series (launched under the general editorship of Albright and his disciple David Noel Freedman), was a tour de force in its day, epitomizing the trends that I referred to above, especially in its adherence to the JEDP Theory and in its use of cuneiform texts to support the essential historicity of the patriarchal narratives.  But there is nothing in that book which one would call literary by today’s standards. Speiser was totally uninterested in the literary devices and techniques which make the book of Genesis the great literary work that it is, as we shall presently see.

If one opens Speiser’s volume to Genesis 34,[31] one finds two discussions: a) a defense of the view that the chapter as a whole is a "J" text (for many scholars had suggested that there were numerous "P" and perhaps some "E" intrusions), and b) a presentation of the history underlying the story. On the former, Speiser summarized as follows:  "The whole may be attributed to J with moderate confidence, beyond such minor blemishes as are to be expected in the transmission of very old tales." On the latter issue, Speiser wrote these words: "The actual events behind the story would have to go back far enough in time to allow for the transformation into the personalized version that was handed down to J. . . . Shechem was inhabited at the time by Hurrian elements. . . . Cuneiform records from the region of Central Palestine have shown that Hurrians were prominent there during the Amarna age (ca. 1400 B.C.). . . . In later sources, Simeon is a rudimentary tribe settled in the south of Judea, a long way from Shechem; and Levi has no territorial holdings whatsoever. Evidently, therefore, a pair of once vigorous tribes had suffered critical losses in their attempt to settle in Central Palestine, losses which they were never able to recoup.  Standard tradition retained no memory of that remote event, except for the faint echo in the Testament of Jacob (xlix). . . . The period in question should thus be dated before the Exodus, and very likely prior to Amarna times." In short, for Speiser, the story is a unified whole, notwithstanding some unspecified blemishes; the locals are Hurrians, even though the text itself calls them only Hivites[32] (you need to know here that Speiser wrote the first standard grammar of Hurrian[33] and devoted his life to the study of these people in northern Mesopotamia); and the story, stripped of the traditions which accrued over centuries, reflects true history of the Late Bronze Age.

Incidentally, Gordon offered something quite specific to further the view that the text was an accurate reflection of the Late Bronze Age, though Speiser did not cite his work. Gordon noted that an Akkadian text from Ugarit presents the results of a trade agreement between the merchants of Ugarit and the merchants of Ur negotiated by the king of the Hittites, as both cities were under his sway (the latter is not the famous Ur of Sumer, but a northern Ur, most likely to be identified with Urfa in southern Turkey, the traditional birthplace of Abraham).[34]  In this text, the merchants of Ur are granted the right to trade in the city of Ugarit, but they are not permitted to acquire real estate there, nor are they allowed to settle permanently there. These are the same three rights that the people of Shechem offer Jacob and his family in Genesis 34:10: ואתנו תשבו והארץ תהיה לפניכם שבו וסחרוה והאחזו בה "Settle with us, and the land is before you; settle, trade in it, and acquire real estate in it." Thus, for Gordon, as for Speiser, the study of Genesis 34 focuses on real history.

A generation later, a whole new approach is visible. No one speaks of Genesis as representing history any more, certainly not the minimalists and not even the maximalists.  Instead, the focus is on how these stories operate as literature. In contrast to Speiser’s interests, let me present the work of Sternberg and Berlin, both of whom have written on Genesis 34 from a literary perspective.[35]  Both scholars take it for granted that the story is a literary whole; they neither enter into a discussion of the JEDP Theory, nor do they consider that the text could have any "blemishes," to use Speiser’s word, either major or minor. Instead, the story is presented as a literary masterpiece.

Emphasis is placed on the negotiations. When Hamor, the king of Shechem, offers Jacob’s family a sweet deal, he says והתחתנו אתנו בנתיכם תתנו לנו ואת בנתנו תקחו לכם "marry us; your daughters you will give to us, and our daughters you will take for yourselves" (v. 9), after which occurs the aforecited passage concerning trading rights. The brothers reply that they will agree on the condition that the Shechemites circumcise themselves. If this condition is filled,ונתנו את בנתינו לכם ואת בנתיכם נקח לנו וישבנו אתכם והיינו לעם אחד "we will give our daughters to you, and your daughters we will take for ourselves; we will settle with you, and we will become one people (v. 16). Shechem and Hamor agree and then present the case to their fellow townsmen. But note their words: האנשים האלה שלמים הם אתנו וישבו בארץ ויסחרו אתה והארץ הנה רחבת ידים לפניהם את בנתם נקח לנו לנשים ואת בנתנו נתן להם "These men are upright with us, and they will settle in the land, and trade in it, and the land, behold, it is wide enough before you; their daughters we will take for ourselves as wives, and our daughters we will give to them" (v. 21). This is rhetoric at its best. In this go-round, the Shechemite royal pair paint the picture in the most positive terms possible, including the mention of the uprightness of the Israelites and the fact that there is plenty of land for everyone. They conveniently omit the fact that they have offered the Israelites the right to acquire real estate in the city. And most importantly of all, note the reversal of the verbs "give" and take." The agreement forged between the two parties was that the Israelites would be the active "givers" and "takers," giving their own daughters to the Hivites, and taking the Hivite girls that they desired. But in the presentation to their kinfolk, Shechem and Hamor reverse the situation, making the Hivites the active "givers" and "takers"; it is they who will control which Israelite daughters are taken and which Hivite girls are given. Finally, only after all this wonderful build-up, do Hamor and Shechem add the fact, almost matter-of-factly, oh yes, we also need to circumcise ourselves for this deal to work (v. 22). And for closers, just for good measure, the king and the prince tell their people: מקנהם וקנינם וכל בהמתם הלוא לנו הם "their livestock and their substance and all their animals will be ours" (v. 23). Not Speiser nor any other modern commentator ever noticed this remarkable twisting of words in the repeated speeches between the different parties. Only with the work of Sternberg and Berlin, and others like them, with eyes trained for close reading, to use the hackneyed expression, did scholars come to realize the sophisticated nature of biblical prose storytelling.[36]

The nihilists by and large have little interest in literary matters.  But they are quick to utilize the literary approach to Bible for their own purposes. That is, they capitalize on the fact that biblical narrative prose is viewed as highly sophisticated literature, to further their view that the Bible has little historical value. But such an approach clearly is wrong. The fact that a literary work is a literary work first and foremost, with its own agenda, does not automatically mean that it lacks any historical value altogether.

The Old English poem Beowulf works well as an analogy. It is based on historical events that can be dated to the 6th century C.E., though the poem itself was written in the 8th century C.E.[37]  My colleague Robert Farrell has written as follows:

Beowulf is a work of heroic history, i.e. a poem in which facts and chronology are subservient to the poet's interest in heroic deeds and their value in representing the ethics of an heroic civilization. A poet writing in this mode does not disregard absolute historical fact, history, that is, as we know it. He rather sees it as less important than other considerations. . . . His account will sometimes mesh reasonably well with history, as in the episode of Hygelac's raid on the Frisian shore. But more often, his work will be a freely woven structure in which the characters and actions of the past will be part of an ethically satisfying narrative.[38]

The same words could apply to the Torah.  The narrative is based on historical facts known to the author, but the author is more interested in presenting an "ethically satisfying narrative." So while the author "does not disregard absolute historical fact, history, that is," these facts take a back seat to the main thrust of the story.[39]

And of course additional parallels are present every where one looks.  Shakespeare’s histories are literary creations, but one would not deny the actual existence of the kings themselves. Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible" has a 1950s agenda, but the basic story line of the Salem witch hunts of colonial Massachusetts is historically accurate. And Robert Altman’s film "M*A*S*H" and the television series which followed speak clearly to the 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam War generation, but this does not mean that the Korean War is a fictional invention of the writers.

The point is that the presence of literary style in an ancient text does not translate into fictional creation. There still can be history in these texts, even if we would not wish to create true history based on these texts alone.Obviously, the narrative cannot be taken at face value for the recovery of ancient Israelite history, and here you can see that I and many others in the field today part company with the former consensus.  But at the same time, especially when a variety of sources from the ancient Near East confirms elements of the biblical narrative, we are absolutely justified in using the Bible as a source for recovering the early history of Israel.

I want to end by taking the literary approach to Bible one step further.  As I stated at the outset, a generation ago the norm for scholars was to emend any text that did not fit into the preconceived notion of what was regular. By contrast, the literary approach has sensitized us to the workings of biblical narrative, so that today’s scholars are much more respectful of the Masoretic Text. Emendation is no longer the first resort; instead scholars seek other explanations, often tied to the literary concerns of the story.

As an example, I present to you 1 Samuel 17:38 where we read how Saul dressed David with his armor: וילבש שאול את דוד מדיו ונתן קובע נחשת על ראשו וילבש אתו שריון.  Note that only the first and the third verbs are the standard wayyiqtol form used in biblical storytelling, while the second verb very strangely is in the weqatal form.  In former days scholars regularly emended ונתן to ויתן, representing a change of but one letter, nun to yod.  Today, scholars prefer other solutions.  While considering this passage, it occurred to me that most likely the order of donning armor was first the מדים, or body-suit, then the שריון, or breastplate, and finally the קובע, or helmet.[40]  I checked with an authority on the subject, Pierre Terjanian, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in European Arms and Armor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he confirmed my hunch beyond doubt.  In the entire history of human armor, the last item to be donned is always the helmet. One of the overall goals of the author of 1 Samuel, as many scholars have noted,[41] is to show the inadequacy of Saul. The present passage should be understood as part of the portrayal.  Saul cannot even dress another soldier properly. The verb form ונתן "he placed" serves a highlighting function here. Far from in need of emendation, it is a clever literary device, a red flag, as it were, guiding the reader to see Saul’s failings, even in so regular an activity as dressing another man for battle.[42]

And with that I shall close, having begun with the Albrightian armor and ending here with Saul’s. Thank you.[43]

Please send us your comments and questions!


[1] The following is an expanded version of my 30-minute presentation at the McGill University Department of Jewish Studies Thirtieth Anniversary Conference, "The Academy Reports to the Community," May 9-10, 1999. It is my pleasure to thank Gershon Hundert for his invitation to participate in the festivities and for his warm hospitality.

[2] Literally "heart to you," Egyptian ib r-k

[3] W. F. Albright, "The Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 74 (1939), pp. 11-23

[4] J. Bright, A History of Israel, 2nd edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972).

[5] M. Noth, The History of Israel, 2nd edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1960).

[6] U. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961).

[7] Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).

[8] This is not to say that an individual scholar (among those listed at the outset) did not differ from the others on a particular issue here and there. For example, Eissfeldt accepted less of the earlier biblical material as historical; and Gordon rejects the Documentary Hypothesis. But in general, these scholars were in accord, especially in contrast to recent trends away from the consensus.

[9] A. Alt, Die Landnahme der Israeliten in Palaestina (Leipzig: Reformationsprogramm der Universitaet, 1925). An English version appeared in a collection of Alt’s essays decades later: "The Settlement of the Israelites in Palestine," Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 133-169.

[10] T. L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1974); and J. Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).

[11] Of course, the most objective criterion for the dating of texts that we possess—the evidence of language—shows clearly that the Torah is written in standard Biblical Hebrew, that is, the language of the monarchic period.  See the many works of Avi Hurvitz, most recently, "Continuity and Innovation in Biblical Hebrew — The Case of ‘Semantic Change’ in Post-Exilic Writings," in T. Muraoka, ed., Studies in Ancient Hebrew Semantics (Abr-Nahrain Supplement Series 4; Louvain: Peeters, 1995), pp. 1-10 (especially his comments at the end of the article).  See now also R. M. Wright, Linguistic Evidence for the Pre-Exilic Date of the Yahwist Source of the Pentateuch (Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University, 1998). Those scholars who wish to date the so-called "J" source, and therewith all of the Torah, to the exilic or post-exilic period, typically ignore the linguistic evidence. In the rare instance when they deal with language, the treatment borders on the ludicrous; thus, e.g., F. H. Cryer, "The Problem of Dating Biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew of Daniel," in K. Jeppesen, et al., eds., In the Last Days: On Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic and its Period (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1994), pp. 185-198. For a sound response to Cryer’s article, see M. Ehrsenvaerd, "Once Again: The Problem of Dating Biblical Hebrew," SJOT 11 (1997), pp. 29-40.

[12] A. Biran and J. Naveh, "An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Tel Dan," Israel Exploration Journal 43 (1993), pp. 81-98. A second fragment was found in 1994; this section of the text preserves portions of the names of the two kings, which easily can be reconstructed as Jehoram son of Ahab and Ahaziah son of Jehoram, respectively.  See A. Biran and J. Naveh, "The Tel Dan Inscription: A New Fragment," Israel Exploration Journal 45 (1995), pp. 1-18.

[13] For a recent sober treatment of the inscription, see A. Lemaire, "The Tel Dan Stela as a Piece of Royal Historiography," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 81 (1998), pp. 3-14. The article includes a list of over 60 (!) articles that have appeared in the mere six years since the inscription was found (pp. 11-14).  For the nihilist approach, see in particular the articles listed under the names P. R. Davies and N. P. Lemche.  For a second example, see the attempt to date Hezekiah’s Tunnel to the Hasmonean period: . Rogerson and P. R. Davies, "Was the Siloam Tunnel Built by Hezekiah?" Biblical Archaeologist 59 (1996), pp. 138-149.  This article has been answered by a series of scholars: J. A. Hackett, P. K. McCarter, A. Yardeni, A. Lemaire, E. Eshel, and A. Hurvitz, "Defusing Pseudo-Scholarship," BAR 23:2 (1997), pp. 41-50, 68.

[14] For two recent articles that treat the subject with objectivity, appearing in the same volume, see A. Laato, "Desperately Seeking Early Israel," and E. Junkkaala, "Conquest, Infiltration or Imagination? Paradigms of Research concerning the Origins of Israel," in T. Eskola and E. Junkkaala, eds., From the Ancient Sites of Israel: Essays on Archaeology, History and Theology in Memory of Aapeli Saarisalo (1896-1986) (Helsinki: Theological Institute of Finland, 1998), pp. 119-156 and pp. 157-173 respectively.  In addition, see my presentation of the primary data in G. A. Rendsburg, "The Early History of Israel," in G. D. Young, M. W. Chavalas, and R. E. Averbeck, eds., Crossing Boundaries and Linking Horizons: Studies in Honor of Michael C. Astour on His 80th Birthday (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1997), pp. 433-453.

[15] See W. G. Dever, "Archaeology, Ideology, and the Quest for an ‘Ancient’ or ‘Biblical’ Israel," Near Eastern Archaeology 61 (1998), pp. 39-52.

[16] See the two very similarly worded reviews by Anson Rainey:  of P. R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, in Journal of the American Oriental Society 115 (1995), pp. 101-104; and of T. L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People from the Written & Archaeological Sources, in AJS Review 20 (1995), pp. 156-160.

[17] Moreover, it is a shame that serious scholars must take the time away from their own productive scholarship to respond to the baseless twaddle of the minimalist camp. See, for example, the sextet of scholars who replied to Rogerson and Davies, as noted above, n. 13; and B. Halpern, "Erasing History: The Minimalist Assault on Ancient Israel," Bible Review 11:6 (1995), pp. 26-35, 47. On the other hand, treatments such as the latter are beneficial for classroom use (see especially the convenient chart on p. 30).

[18] Dever, "Archaeology, Ideology, and the Quest for an ‘Ancient’ or ‘Biblical’ Israel," p. 45, wrote as follows regarding Whitelam: "Finally, several of Whitelam’s statements border dangerously on anti-Semitism; they are certainly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel."  Baruch Halpern offered a frank evaluation of such factors driving the writings of George Mendenhall, one of the early proponents of the peasant revolt theory discussed above; see B. Halpern, "Sociological Comparativism and the Theological Imagination: The Case of the Conquest," in M. Fishbane and E. Tov, eds., "Sha‘arei Talmon": Studies in the Bible, Qumran, and the Ancient Near East Presented to Shemaryahu Talmon (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992), pp. 53-67.

[19] The most forthright work, as evidenced in its title even, is K. Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (London: Routledge, 1996). But on subtler grounds one encounters articles such as R. Drews, "Canaanites and Philistines," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 81 (1998), pp. 39-61, who argued that the Philistines are native to the land (that is, they did not originate in the Aegean) and who halfway through the article began using the term "Palestinians" for "Philistines"; thus one reads:  "‘Philistia’ and ‘Philistines’ (or, more plainly, ‘Palestine’ and ‘Palestinians’)" (p. 49). Drews’s main conclusion is as follows:"‘The Palestinians’, like ‘the Israelites’, were not a new nation that migrated to the southern Levant at the end of the Bronze Age, but a new name" (p. 57). Is there an implication here that modern day Palestinians and Israelis therefore have equal rights to the land? So that there is no mistaking my position on this point, let me state very clearly: I have no objection to one holding modern political views such as the one implied in the preceding sentence; I object only to revising history in order to justify such an opinion.

[20] G. A. Rendsburg, "On the Writing ביתדוד in the Aramaic Inscription from Tel Dan," Israel Exploration Journal 45 (1995), pp. 22-25.

[21] For an exception, see S. D. Sperling, The Original Torah: The Political Intent of the Bible’s Writers (New York: New York University Press, 1998). But Sperling’s book is significantly different from the works of the aforementioned scholars, for his analysis is firmly rooted in the actual texts of the Bible.  Indeed, I am very sympathetic to Sperling’s approach, though I disagree with him on the details. See my forthcoming review in AJS Review (published by the Association for Jewish Studies).

[22] See now S. Klingenstein, Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1990 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998).

[23] For this expression, see W. W. Hallo, The Book of the People (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991).

[24] Actually, some of the above scholars have on occasion turned to the Bible, but I must say that their efforts have been most unsatisfactory and most unsatisfying. See, for example, and perhaps most problematically, H. Bloom, The Book of J (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990).

[25] This is true not only of pentateuchal studies, but of biblical studies in general. See, for example, the recent article by A. Wolters, "Job 32-37: Elihu as the Mouthpiece of God," in A. C. Leder, ed., Reading and Hearing the Word: From Text to Sermon: Essays in Honor of John H. Stek (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary and CRC Publications, 1998), pp. 107-123. The following quotation is representative:"I take it as a basic hermeneutic starting point that a work of literature should be read as a unit, and that therefore chapters 32-37 of the book of Job should be interpreted as integral to the book as a whole.  This, of course, is the historic pre-critical position . . . to which many critical exegetes have returned in recent years" (p. 112).

[26] Many of Buber’s studies appeared in English translation in M. Buber, On the Bible (New York: Schocken, 1982).

[27] M. Buber and F. Rosenzweig, Die Schrift (Berlin: Schocken, 1926-n.d.).

[28] See most importantly M. Weiss, The Bible from Within (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1984).

[29] See the collection of studies in S. Talmon, Literary Studies in the Hebrew Bible, Form and Content: Collected Studies (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, and Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993).

[30] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964).

[31] Ibid., pp. 266-268.

[32] The LXX (Codex Alexandrinus) reads "Horite," as Speiser noted, in defense of his position.

[33] E. A. Speiser, Introduction to Hurrian (New Haven: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1941).

[34] C. H. Gordon, "Abraham and the Merchants of Ura," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 17 (1958), pp. 28-31.

[35] M. Sternberg, "'Izzun `Adin be-Sippur 'Ones Dina: Ha-Sippur ha-Miqra'i ve-ha-Retoriqa shel ha-Yecira ha-Sippurit," HaSifrut 4 (1973), pp. 193-231; M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), pp. 445-475; and A. Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983), pp. 76-78.

[36] It is important to note, however, that some of the findings of the modern literary approach to Bible are adumbrated in medieval Jewish commentators.  For some of the above, see Rashi’s comments at Gen 34:16; and see also N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1981), pp. 382-383.

[37] For details see G. Jack, Beowulf: A Student Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 1-12.

[38] R. Farrell, "Beowulf, Swedes and Geats," Saga-Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research 18 (1970-73), pp. 220-296, in particular p. 229.

[39] I have built on Farrell’s treatment of Beowulf in greater detail in Rendsburg, "The Early History of Israel."

[40] I admit to some difficulty here in rendering the terms מדים and שריון. The former is a generic word for "garment," and the latter is typically translated "body armor" or "coat of mail." In the present instance, it appears that מדים must be a body-suit with some protective function and that שריון would then be the breastplate.  Note that M. J. Fretz, "Weapons and Implements of Warfare," Anchor Bible Dictionary 6 (1992), p. 894, allowed for מד = "armor" and שריון = "breastplate."In any case, the exact designations of these terms in the present context is not the main concern here, since however one understands them, it is clear that the helmet should be donned last.

[41] See, for example, D. M. Gunn, The Fate of King Saul (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980); and M. Garsiel, The First Book of Samuel: A Literary Study of Comparative Structures, Analogies and Parallels (Ramat-Gan: Revivim, 1983); as well as the succinct remarks by J. Rosenberg, "1 and 2 Samuel," in R. Alter and F. Kermode, eds., The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 127-128.

[42] I treat this verse in greater detail in G. A. Rendsburg, "The Literary Approach to Bible and Finding a Good Translation," in F. W. Knobloch, ed., Biblical Translation in Context (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, forthcoming).

[43] I decided to devote this article to a single main issue.  A true survey of developments in biblical studies during the last thirty years would have included two other topics.  They are 1) the impact of women’s studies on biblical studies, and 2) the development of discourse analysis (also called text linguistics). For the former, see the excellent survey by T. Frymer-Kensky, "The Bible and Women’s Studies," in L. Davidman and S. Tenenbaum, eds., Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 16-39. For the latter, see the two volumes of collected studies:  R. D. Bergen, ed., Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1994); and W. R. Bodine, ed., Discourse Analysis of Biblical Literature: What It Is and What It Offers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995). Indeed, it was two articles in the former collection that directed my attention to 1 Sam 17:38; see my article cited above, n. 42, for details.


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