Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?

By William G. Dever
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2003). xi + 268 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Grisanti
15.2 (Fall 2004) : 253-255

Dever, who recently retired as professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has spent thirty seasons excavating various sites in Israel. He rejects the proposals by revisionists or “minimalists” who characterize biblical literature as “pious propaganda” as well as conservatives who refuse even to question the factuality of the Bible.

In his introduction (x), Dever presents five approaches that constitute the spectrum of views on Israel’s origins: assume that the Bible is literally true (and ignore all external evidence as irrelevant); hold that the biblical text is probably true (but seek external corroboration); approach the text (and external data) with no preconceptions; contend that nothing in the biblical text is true unless proven by external data; and reject the text and any other data, since the Bible cannot be true (emphasis by Dever). Dever enthusiastically holds to the third option.

When setting the stage of the “current crisis in understanding the origins of early Israel,” he sarcastically refers to the saying: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it!” He traces the birth of skepticism and the way the public became aware of this attitude. In the face of this skepticism, conservatives maintained an unswerving commitment to the historicity of the details of biblical events.

In chapters two through four, Dever provides an overview of the scholarly debate concerning the Exodus (history or myth), the conquest of Transjordan, and the conquest of Canaan proper. His summary encompasses the debate through the 1970s. He deals with specific issues and examines a number of important archaeological sites. When dealing with the Exodus, Dever affirms that a 13thcentury date for the Exodus is “now confirmed” (8). He goes on to affirm that an early date for the Exodus is “based on imprecise and contradictory biblical schemes of chronology” and that “only a handful of diehard fundamentalists would argue in its favor” (8). In several places Dever makes sweeping conclusions based on an absence of evidence. He obviously does not place much credence on the maxim: “an absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.” When he discusses the destruction of Jericho, he does not even mention the work of Bryant Wood (who argues that Joshua led Israel in their defeat of Jericho in the late 15th century B.C.).

In chapters five through seven, Dever overviews evidence relating to Israel’s origins that has been discovered since the 1970s. He examines several specific sites where excavations have taken place and several key discoveries (e.g., the “four-room” house, the `Izbet Sartah abecedary, etc.). He also considers several “surveys” of various areas that have been conducted as well as recently discovered evidence from the Iron Age I period.

In chapters eight through ten, Dever summarizes the manner in which various scholars have sought to synthesize the textual and artifactual evidence dealing with Israel. Chapter eight treats those syntheses that were offered up through the mid-1990s. Chapter nine devotes attention to Israel Finkelstein’s proposal that the Israelites were really Canaanite nomads who were gradually “resedentarized” throughout the Late Bronze Age. These individuals had been displaced by various destructions at the end of the Middle Bronze Age and had remained nomadic through most of the Late Bronze Age. As he does in various articles and books, Dever has great reservations about Finkelstein’s methodology and conclusions. In chapter ten Dever offers his own synthesis. Certain key aspects of his proposal deserve brief mention (167-68). First, the only possible time frame for Israel’s “emergence” in Canaan is the late 13th and early 12th centuries B.C. Second, archaeology (rather than the biblical text) must be the primary source for “rewriting” Israel’s early history. Third, recent archaeological evidence for Israelites originating in Canaan (rather than coming to Canaan from Egypt) is “overwhelming.” Dever agrees with various scholars who have proposed that the Israelites were essentially displaced Canaanites. These “proto-Israelites” were dissidents from various backgrounds (and may have included a small “Exodus group” [182]) who migrated into the hill country of Canaan (which was very sparsely populated). This migration represented an “anti-statist protest” (188). Dever alleges that these dissidents left the established regions of Canaan (under the control of established rulers) and moved to the hill country “based on principles of land reform and shared agricultural production” (189).

In light of his conclusions, Dever poses the legitimate question, Is the Bible historically true or a literary hoax? (chapter twelve). He offers three alternatives for assessing the activities of the writers, editors, and compilers of the Hebrew Bible. First of all, based on adequate sources (written and oral), these “historians” told the story as it really happened, as best they could (with the expected literary flair and editorial biases). Secondly, the biblical writers and editors had some genuine sources but felt free to manipulate them to serve their own theological agenda. They were telling the “operative truth,” i.e., well-intentioned propaganda (Dever’s position). Finally, some scholars suggest that those who produced the Hebrew Bible had few if any real sources at all. They simply made it up. Sadly, Dever’s three alternatives ignore the possibility of God revealing His Word to prophetic spokesmen.

Dever is a clear writer and provides a helpful overview of the scholarly debate as it relates to the origins of Israelites. H is summary is fairly representative, even though it slights the way evangelicals answer the questions he raises. However, his treatment of the key issues does not support his suggestion that he approaches the biblical text and external data with “no preconceptions (x). A few statements will serve as adequate examples. He concludes that the “biblical texts themselves are suspect, for many reasons” and that most of Leviticus “simply does not have the ‘ring of truth’ about it” (19). After referring to Joshua as historicized fiction, Dever contrasts “more conservative biblical scholars” with evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (39-40). Interestingly, Dever regards evangelicals as more rigid than conservatives. When discussing the Conquest, he writes that “the external material evidence supports almost nothing of the biblical account of a large scale, concerted Israelite military invasion of Canaan” (71).

This volume does provide a helpful presentation of a number of key issues that relate to one’s understanding of Israel’s history. It also provides an update of the scholarly discussion on several fronts. However, its attention to critical scholarship and neglect of conservative scholarship will make it less useful to the average layperson or a person interested in understanding the details of Israel’s history from a conservative perspective.