In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel (Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar). Edited by John Day


Pp. xv, 432 . London. New York , T&T Clark , 2004 , $60.00 .

Readers of this journal will be familiar with books on the new, revisionist, approach to the history of early Israel, even with writings on whether a history of Israel can be written. It is to the credit of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar that it has taken up the challenge. The present volume consists of seventeen essays that were originally delivered as papers to this seminar between January 2001 and June 2003, and which have subsequently been revised and often expanded. The purpose of this volume is to offer a critique of various aspects of the ‘everything is late’ school of thought in Old Testament studies that has been fashionable in some circlers in recent years, not from any reactionary standpoint but from a thoroughly reasoned, critical point of view. The situation is put neatly in the outside back cover: In recent years certain ‘revisionist’ scholars have claimed that little can be known about pre-exilic Israel because the Old Testament was compiled only after the exile. It has even been claimed that the Old Testament is a Hellenistic book. This book argues that this is an extreme and untenable position and that though the Old Testament was indeed edited in the exilic and post-exilic periods, many of the underlying sources go back to pre-exilic Israel and, when critically analyzed, can shed much light on that period. This volume surveys not only historiography but also various aspects of what can be known of pre-exilic prophecy, law, wisdom and psalmody. The light shed by archaeology and ancient Near Eastern texts is also evaluated. This important work is the product of an impressive international team of seventeen noted scholars.

In the first essay Ernest Nicholson gives a lucid and masterly overview of the situation: ‘Current ‘revisionism’ and the literature of the Old Testament’. The new ‘revisionism’ is primarily associated with scholars such as Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson, and the late Robert Carroll who have in common the view the biblical literature is incorrectly classified as historiography and is best understood as ‘ideology’. Biblical Israel, for them, is a ‘literary construct’ that emerged as a political-cultural product of the Jerusalem ‘establishment’ based on the Temple there, perhaps also in the court of the Governor, and was the work of schools of state scribes during the Persian Period who sought to provide a cultural, political and ideological identity for the newly formed state of Yehud established by the Persian imperial authorities. He limits his conclusions to the work of Davies and Thompson (whose conclusion would place the composition of the Old Testament as late as the second century BCE). The concluding sentence of his essay is that attempts to limit the creation of such a literature to a largely scribal activity carried out in the interests of political propaganda or for the purpose of legitimizing a newly founded state of the Persian period or later are in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Graham Davies examines whether there was an exodus, concluding that the tradition (of a historical exodus even of some sort) is a priori unlikely to have been invented: the biblical evidence is widespread and can be followed back to a respectable antiquity, within at most two hundred years of the supposed event. The next essay by Anthony J. Frendo, on a holistic approach to the problem of the emergence of Ancient Israel, carries on the discussion, concluding from an analysis that it seems that early Israel was mainly made up of various groups of hill country villagers indigenous to Canaan. However, the evidence also indicates that a small group of Hebrews joined these villagers after having been freed from slavery in Egypt and after having picked up Yahwism in the desert areas to the south-east of Canaan. They entered the land (bringing the Yahwistic faith with them) mainly in a peaceful manner, though at times they took part in military attacks. And thus on in the remaining essays in the same vein on matters of history: the United Monarchy, the ‘Succession Narrative’, the date of the Yahwist, an eighth-century crisis?, post-exilic Israel, pre-exilic prophets and Psalms, wisdom literature, the covenant Code as an exilic composition? A response to John Van Seters. There is an essay on Yahweh's Asherah, inclusive monotheism and the question of dating by B.A. Mastin. W.G. Lambert contributes on Mesopotamian sources and pre-exilic Israel, at the end of which he turns to the work of P.R. Davies and N.P. Lemche. Their ideology, he notes, is redolent of postmodernism with a whiff of nihilism. They seem to be saying that the historicity of an ancient text has to be proved 100 per cent by irrefutable evidence and that the historical books of the Old Testament are not history but ‘literary constructs’ with a bit of history in some of them. Lemches's treatment of the Neo-Assyrian evidence is superficial and in one respect unexplained. The two final essays are on Hebrew and West Semitic inscriptions and pre-exilic Israel (André Lemaire), and Hebrew poetic structure as a basis for dating (by Terry Fenton). In his conclusion he tells us: ‘Comparison of Hebrew poetic structures with the ancient Canaanite models establishes the antiquity of those structures and the historical material associated with them. Details of contents show that the time span of the Hebrew literary tradition runs from at least the eleventh century BCE to the Persian period. There is an index of references (biblical, apocrypha) and an index of authors.