The Old Testament in Archaeology and History, edited by Jennie Ebeling, J. Edward Wright, Mark Elliott, and Paul V. M. Flesser

Though initially daunting in size, once into the reading, the chapters are page-turners. After reading the final chapter (Killebrew’s Philistines), my text had become so marked up and dog-eared, the spine cracked in several places, that the book itself is a mute testimony.

Written to the serious student, each chapter requires a certain reading level, and assumes a working knowledge of the basics in archaeology and the Bible, while at the same time is careful to both cite claims and offer further reading. This makes it perfect for those interested in historical background and an understanding of what can be confidently proposed concerning the Ancient Near East’s peoples, cultures, and histories.

My only real beef with some of the writers was a tendency to aver claims when tentative language would be more appropriate. An example is the Elliott/Wright claim the Genesis stories “are not historical in any modern sense of that term. (p213)” I might have said, “seem less historical than the modern reader might assume.” There is no reason to alienate the reader with personal biases!

It was a pleasure to see some women archaeologists among the chapter authors, and many names were recognizable as stellar in their fields. Kudos to the editors for drawing from both maximalist and minimalist leanings, and particularly for placing them side-by-side in some instances (thinking, for example, of chapters 8-11, interspersed as they are with a variety of stances on the origins of Israelites in Canaan). Requiring summary paragraphs was genius, as were the “further reading” suggestions, and aided in processing the content.

Of particular help were the “Archaeological Ages” and “Historical Timeline.” Not only did they prove invaluable references while reading, interspersing the historical anchors within that latter timeline provides great historical continuity adjacent to the biblical text.

When I first got this book, I appreciated the suggestion to power through the first five chapters in one sitting. Though they provided a crucial foundation for rest of the book, they were less engrossing on their own, and it might have taken a much longer time to work through them if I had not committed to read it that afternoon.

Trust me, this is a worthwhile way to begin!

Ear-marked are the pages on the Canaanite pantheon (p205, need to read more Jill Baker), Ahab’s palace ivories (p446, you will see this research in my series on Amos), and the Persian Period Prophets (p541, all this shows up in my other minor prophets posts). I loved Baruch Halpern’s chapter 13 (dog-eared p362) and Eberling’s chapter 16 (I ended up ordering her book, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times, and reviewed it a couple of months ago). 

New terms and thoughts for me: 

  • Flesher’s “Tribes of Rachel,” (p304), which I would like to pursue further (possibly DeGeus’ “The Tribes of Israel). This ties into a more matriarchal approach to the ancient Israelites, which would, in turn, help to explain marital custom as described in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (NRSV)
  • Aniconism, in Ebeling’s fascinating chapter, which explains so much about Israelite cult centers (p415). The term means “no icons.”
  • Heterarchy, which blends better with Schüssler-Fiorenza’s term ‘kyriarchy,’ rather than the more traditionally understood patriarchy. (p417) Heterarchy describes a system where there are areas or domains of expertise and therefore authority. An example would see food storage, preparation, and allotment as the matriarch’s domain, where she has expertise and authority.

Everyone eats whatever she has prepared, when she has made it ready, and in the amounts she serves. In a subsistence culture, everyone must be ready to do whatever is needed. This had women out in the fields and even hunting small game, and it had men involved in the production of ground, roasted, and baked grain. Each respected the other’s authority in their domains.

  • Significance of the four-room house (as explained throughout the book). The four-room house is often called the Israelite house, but really is more accurately viewed as the Canaanite house, as the material culture between people groups was almost indistinguishable in the Bronze and early Iron Ages.
  • Much larger Israelite presence remaining after the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles (chapters 19-20). Conquering empires did not leave lands desolate, but rather populated as colonies or vassal states to the empire. Though nobility, metallurgists, certain other craftsmen, and mercenaries were taken away, those who could farm, dress orchards and grape vines, tend beehives, herds, and flocks were left to keep the fertile land productive.
  • Tribute versus Taxes is a nuance I did not understand until reading that liberators such as Cyrus received tribute in gratitude, where as conquering kings levied taxes against their subjugated vassals.

Although the Hebrew scriptures write of female deities (albeit in extremely negative terms), archaeology has shown how truly widespread worship was of such goddesses as Astarte, Asherah, and even the war goddess Anat. The cultural milieu allowing for women in positions of authority, at least as prophets and wise women, locates stories such as Deborah’s and Jael’s as more normative than the typical Bible reader might think.

The scriptures do not hide the size and resource differences between the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, but archaeology highlights the immense wealth of Israel compared to the relatively humble means of Judah. Such cities as Megiddo were much grander than Jerusalem, even with its temple.

A lot has been unearthed and examined in the last fifty years, even the last twenty or thirty years. Archeobotany, archeometallurgy, disciplines in chemistry and biology all have added so much to the body of archeological knowledge. Published in 2017, this masterwork brings that knowledge up-to-date.  

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