Jan-Wim Wesselius, The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible.
(JSOTS, 345; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press/Continuum, 2002), xi, 175 pp. Hardcover, ISBN 1-84127-267-1. $95.00
Reviewed by Louis H. Feldman
Yeshiva University

This challenging book presents two major theses: (1) that the entire Primary History (that is, the biblical books of Genesis through Kings) as we have it was probably the deliberate creation of one highly talented anonymous historian who most likely lived among the intelligentsia of Nehemiah’s Jerusalem in the second half of the fifth century bce; (2) that this author had an intimate knowledge of Herodotus’ Histories and had profoundly contemplated their structure and contents. This work thus continues the bold attempt to see a connection between the Bible and Herodotus, as seen particularly in S. Mandell and D. N. Freedman, The Relationship between Herodotus’ History and Primary History (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993) and F. A. J. Nielsen, The Tragedy in History: Herodotus and the Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).

Wesselius’ major accomplishment is that he offers considerable and convincing evidence of the basic unity in motifs, in rhetorical style, and language of these historical books of the Bible. The biggest test of this theory is the apparently contradictory accounts of the first meeting of David and Saul, to which Wesselius devotes ten pages (pp. 151–160). In 1 Sam 16:14–23 we read that King Saul suffers from melancholia and asks Jesse to send to him his son David. We hear that Saul loved David very much and made him his armor-bearer and that David soothed Saul by playing his harp. In the next chapter (17:12–22) we are introduced to David as the son of Jesse as if we have not met him previously. The fact that the two versions agree rather precisely in key words and phrases leads Wesselius convincingly to conclude that these are two conflicting and competing versions of narrated reality. We may here suggest that the conflict is alleviated once we realize that the composer lived in a society that was primarily oral and that he records the accounts as he heard them, each one focussing on a different aspect of David’s achievements, each one complementing the other.

The biggest problem, and a real contradiction, appears in the fact that in 2 Sam 21:19 we read that a certain Benjaminite named Elhanan struck down Goliath, whereas in 1 Samuel 17:49 it is David who killed him. Wesselius recognizes that in 1 Chronicles 20:5 we read that Elhanan smote Lahmi, the brother of Goliath, but he rightly asserts that the text in 1 Samuel presents us with a great problem. We may suggest that there are many cases in the Bible where the text is written one way but where the traditional understanding and reading is different. In view of the reading in 1 Chronicles we should add one word and understand that 2 Samuel 21:19 should be read “struck down the brother of Goliath.”

It is the parallels between the Bible and Herodotus that raise the biggest questions. Thus Wesselius (pp. 16–18) finds a similarity between Herodotus’ account of the war waged by the Median Cyaxares, the great-grandfather of Cyrus, against the Lydians and the war of Abram, who, he thinks, significantly was the great-grandfather of Joseph, against four petty kings. Both are said to defeat foreign invaders who make strikingly comparable forays across a large part of the Near East. Both complete a great project of their fathers. Both fight a nightly battle against their enemies. Both are the only members of their family who receive foreigners hospitably. When, however, we examine these parallels we find significant differences. In the first place, the war waged by Cyaxares against the Lydians is hardly comparable to the war of Abram against the five petty kings. True, Abram pursued the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah as far as Damascus, but this was merely to take back his kinsman, Lot, and his people and possessions. Again, in the biblical passage there are no foreigners making comparable forays across a large part of the Near East; rather, these are four petty kings fighting against five petty neighboring kings, with no indication that they are foreign invaders, whereas in Herodotus (1.103–6) the Scythians invaded Asia from afar with a mighty army. As for completing the projects of their fathers, Cyaxares had died before completing his military goals against the Assyrians, whereas Abram’s father, Terah, had no military goal at all; we hear (Gen 11:31–32) only that he left Ur to go to Canaan but never got beyond Haran. Moreover, Abram fought against the enemy at night, whereas when Cyaxares was fighting against not the Scythians but the Lydians it was not at night but during the day that had turned to night (presumably during an eclipse). Furthermore, it is incorrect to say that Abram was the only member of his family who received foreigners hospitably, since Abram’s nephew, Lot, was likewise hospitable (Gen 19:2) to the two strangers who came to him in Sodom.

This reviewer has gone through the many other parallels cited by Wesselius. They are always interesting and novel and challenging, and Wesselius certainly deserves great credit for bringing them to our attention, even if they are often less than convincing.