How to Study Israel’s History

By Megan Bishop Moore
Wake Forest University
March 2011

In considering the future of the history of ancient Israel and its place within biblical studies and academia (see "History’s Place within Biblical Studies"), I mentioned that ongoing developments in archaeology, ancient Near Eastern studies, criticism of the biblical text, and understandings of other ancient texts seem to have had little impact on histories of ancient Israel and related publications. Thus, while these disciplines reexamine old presuppositions, uncover new evidence, and make new claims, histories of ancient Israel rarely reflect the knowledge about the past they can provide. It is my firm belief that correcting these omissions constitutes the most pressing task for historians of ancient Israel. Histories of Israel can no longer ignore the vast amount of information known about the past and be content to concentrate on what is deemed relevant to understanding the Bible.

Of course, for historians to make histories of Israel more complete examinations of the past, scholars must agree that the history of Israel is still a viable concept must. For years scholars have debated whether Israel can be a historical subject, or whether ancient Israel is an entirely modern concept not reflective of reality. At best, some say, an intellectual history of the concept of Israel can be written. But, if our concept of Israel does correspond in some way to an ancient reality, the question of whether there is adequate evidence to describe it remains, especially in light of concerns about the historical reliability of the HB/OT.

I maintain that these issues do not need to be resolved in advance for histories of Israel to be written. Rather, these should be two of the primary questions that histories of Israel address. Examinations of these questions, however, must not be purely theoretical, as have been many of the discussions of them up until now. Instead, the questions of what the name Israel did, could, and should represent must be explored within the known realities of Palestine in the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, and beyond. In other words, a history of Israel should neither assume that Israel as the Bible imagines it existed (as all do), nor assume that it did not exist, but should clarify the types of political and social structures for which we have evidence and postulate about how the concept or concepts of Israel relate to the known past. This is precisely where increased interaction with the details of our sister disciplines that study the past is crucial. Fully and responsibly delineating the first subject of our examination, the known realities of ancient Palestine, requires substantially more discussion of what archaeology, ancient Near Eastern studies, and studies of ancient texts can tell us than has ever been done in histories of ancient Israel.

When a picture of life in ancient Palestine, from the broadest social structures to the household dynamics, has been presented—in other words, when the history of ancient Palestine has been explored—then the history of Israel can be written. Indeed, this history will be a subset of Palestinian history. Yet, though placing the history of Israel within an ancient Palestinian context was a favorite minimalist position, conceiving of history of Israel as a subset of Palestinian history is not the same as making it an insignificant entity or writing a minimalist history. Fully developed histories of Israel will explore the questions of who, where, when, and why Israel and/or concepts of Israel arose, how we can understand what the Bible reports and the historical context of the Bible’s story, and what we can ascertain about how and why it was written. What they can no longer do—as the minimalists pointed out years ago—is follow the biblical storyline, examining the historicity of the HB/OT piece-by-piece, and then presenting a harmonized presentation governed by the Bible’s concern, categories, and timeline.1

The way in which individual histories of Israel work out questions of Israel’s existence, its activities, its society, and its importance within ancient Palestine will likely vary depending on intended audience. For instance, the field is ripe for sophisticated, contextual histories of Israel that address the needs of theologians and students of theology, i.e., those who wish to hear God’s word in the text, and, importantly, help their congregations integrate historical understandings and their faith. These are not, however, my concerns. As someone who regularly teaches in a secular religion department at a university that is placing more and more emphasis on the concept of “humanities,” I would be more likely to use, or perhaps write (here’s hoping) a history that situates the study of ancient Israel within this context. As a component of a humanities curriculum, a history of Palestine—the background study that takes into account entire categories of knowledge about the past that the history of Israel has ignored thanks to its interest in the Bible—will, in fact, not suffice. The move to Israel’s history takes the details of life in a distant time and place and puts these details into a meaningful and more universal context. With the Bible and its story as a touchstone, a history of Israel that situates itself in the humanities could addresses a wide span of concerns, from how the cultures that were part of ancient Israel formed, to what marked out these cultures or was similar to other ancient cultures, to why the memory of ancient Israel came down to us the way it did (i.e., in literature with certain overarching themes and characteristics), to the relevance of these cultures for understanding how humans related to their world and formed their ideas about the divine powers that controlled it.

In short, histories of Israel need to follow a new template. Rather than begin with the patriarchs or exodus or David and a discussion of the biblical story’s accuracy in whichever case, they need to start with several chapters describing ancient Palestine from a chosen early horizon (perhaps the late Late Bronze Age) with attention to archaeology, the history of religion, the ancient Near Eastern context, and the types of information that ancient texts, including the HB/OT, may provide.2 Then, while Israel may have been glimpsed within this context, Israel itself and its particular institutions and cultures can be explored. Histories’ focus would vary at that point, with those geared toward being situated among the secular humanities, for instance, exploring Israel and the many ways to understand it within the framework of ancient societies, yet with a view toward its enduring importance as the source of two major world religions. Histories that wished to explore theological lessons from Israel’s experience or their portrayal of it in the HB/OT might take a different approach. In any case, Israel is not minimally important for the study of history, as minimalists sometimes claimed. It is more accurate to say that the many ways we come to know about the past, and the information these methods provide, are maximally important for understanding ancient Israel.


1 For a discussion of current evaluations of the biblical portrayal of the past, and for further discussion of the ideas introduced here, see Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel’s Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming May 2011).

2 Mario Liverani’s Israel’s History and the History of Israel (Bible World; London: Equinox, 2005)is perhaps a harbinger of a new type of history, conceived of in this fashion.

Comments (1)

I don't see that it's such a big deal to say that the history of Israel is both a subset of the history of the larger group of people(s)among whom the Israelites moved and is also the record of something that became extraordinarily influential throughout the world. Both the history of a subset and the history of something unique. We have long know that, surely?
The unique thing is uniquely important because the Israelite subset produced a world-beating literature.
Then the importance of this literature for the rest of history makes it important to ask whether the literary record truly reveals or seriously misrepresents (or to some extent does both these things) actual experience. The actual whole experience, that is, of the wider set of Palestinian peoples, Israelites and all the others.

#1 - Martin - 03/23/2011 - 21:20

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