W. G. Dever, The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Dever, William G., The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2012). Pp. x + 436. Paperback, US$25.00. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6701-8.

Dever has been a frequent participant in the debate over the historical value of the biblical texts.[1] His latest contribution focuses on eighth-century b.c.e. Israel and Judah. Despite the subtitle, his focus is on the first of the two elements, to which he gives priority over the latter; a result of this is that Dever frequently concludes that the biblical material is sometimes consistent with the archaeological evidence, but rarely contributes anything new to our knowledge of the period.

Dever begins in Chapter 1 with a brief consideration of “History and History Writing,” where he asserts the historical value of archaeology over the biblical texts, although he allows for an authentic historical core in the latter and insists that both must be critically evaluated and interpreted. Chapter 2 then turns to “The Challenges of Writing a History of Ancient Israel,” wherein he addresses the view of “revisionists” or “minimalists” such as Philip R. Davies, Neils Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson that the biblical literature is a collection of very late compositions that have no value for reconstructing the history of the period(s) in which they are set (as opposed to when they were composed); Dever accuses them of an ideological bias (they are “thinly disguised post-modernists”; p. 25), just as they have done concerning him, as well as of improper use of archaeological data. On the other side of the coin, he also critiques “conservative” and “evangelical” scholars for insufficient use of archaeology.

From there Dever turns to the actual topic of the book, with successive chapters dealing with the geography of the Levant, a hierarchy of individual sites (capitals and “other centers,” cities, towns, and villages and forts), followed by more focused treatments of “Cities and Towns” (ch. 5); “Towns, Villages and Everyday Life” (ch. 6); “Socioeconomic Structures” (ch. 7); “Religion and Cult” (ch. 8); “Israel's Neighbors” (ch. 9) and “Warfare and the End” (ch. 10). In each case, Dever begins with the archaeological data, supplemented by drawings of site plans and reconstructed buildings as well as photos from some actual sites. At times his treatment consists simply of stating the history of excavations and the finds that resulted, but more often he goes into much greater detail in terms of both the material remains and their interpretation. Part II of each chapter deals with the biblical data, surveying what the extant texts reveal about the same topic, often but not consistently using the same sub-headings. As already noted, Dever generally concludes that the information provided by the Bible can usually be extracted from the archaeological remains in and of themselves, so that the biblical texts do not provide any significant additional insights. Although they may add minor details such as the attribution of the Jerusalem water tunnel to King Hezekiah or the nature of the “house of the father” (the extended family in villages), overall the Bible adds “very little, and perhaps nothing of any importance” (p. 190; similar statements are found in almost every chapter). Nonetheless, the points where archaeology and the Bible do intersect indicate that in those instances at least the authors knew what they were talking about, which in turn demonstrates their historical accuracy in selected instances.

Dever concludes most of these chapters with an admittedly speculative reconstruction of “What was it Really Like?” (chs. 5 and 6) or “The Meaning of Things” (chs. 7, 8 and 10); there is no comparable section in chapter 9 (“Israel's Neighbors”). In keeping with his title, he focuses on “ordinary people” rather than rulers and their attendant elites. He envisions a largely rural population disconnected from the increasing social stratification represented by the capitals and larger cities, and resenting the taxes they had to pay in order to support such a system. The majority of Israel's and Judah's population derived their social identity from their family and immediate neighbors. They were preoccupied with eking out an existence on agriculturally marginal land that was dependent on the vagaries of the seasonal cycles. If the rains came then the harvest would usually be plentiful, but when the rains failed famine threatened. Even when food was plentiful, accidents and disease combined to limit the average life span to thirty or forty years, with many dying during childhood or giving birth. Their religious beliefs are more correctly reconstructed from the cultic artifacts they left behind than from the canonical religious texts that they would have been unable to read even if they existed in the eighth century b.c.e., which is unlikely. The former indicate family-centred practices focused on ensuring the well-being of its members through fertility and divine protection from harm. But this proved unable to protect them against the invading Assyrian armies that laid waste to the countryside while on their way to destroy Lachish and besiege Jerusalem.

There is no doubt that Bill Dever is fully conversant with the archaeology of ancient Israel and Judah, as this volume demonstrates for the eighth century b.c.e. in particular. He marshals the evidence from a multitude of different sites with clarity, in most cases going beyond a simple reiteration of artifactual data to evaluate the remains and interpret their meaning; the extensive illustrations (166 by my count) bring the discussion alive visually. At the same time Dever knows the Bible, extracting material that complements the archaeological evidence from throughout the canon. The result is a helpful and valuable work that sheds extensive light on “The Lives of Ordinary People in Israel.” Scholars and non-specialists alike can and should consult this volume with great profit, and the separate Indexes of Names, Subjects, and Scripture enhance that process.

That being said, Dever could have accomplished virtually the same result without reference to the Bible at all. As he says, “The biblical data contributed so little of substance that in most cases most of it can be eliminated as a truly historical source” (p. 376; emphasis in the original). Nonetheless, “the artifact…illustrates and ‘corroborates’ the texts” (p. 248). The latter will be of sufficient interest and value to some readers to justify inclusion of the biblical data.

John L. McLaughlin, University of St. Michael's College

[1] See, e.g., What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2001). reference