Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 20 (2020) - Review

Grabbe, Lester L. (ed.), Israel in Transition: From Late Bronze II to Iron IIA (c. 1250–850 b.c.e.). Vol. 2: The Texts (LHBOTS 521; New York/London: T&T Clark, 2010). Pp. xi + 260. Hardcover. ₤ 70.00. ISBN 978-0-567-64948-5.

The book under review here is the second of a diptych, whose first part from 2008 was already reviewed in JHS ( While the first volume focused on the archaeological sources for “Israel in Transition” from the Late Bronze age to the Iron IIA period (ca. 1250–850 b.c.e.), the present work concentrates on the textual sources from the same time period (including a few side-glances to other sources). Besides analysing primary texts outside the biblical corpus, the main issue investigated here consists in assessing whether and to what extent “any biblical texts [are] relevant” for historical reconstruction (p. 3), as Grabbe states upfront. And indeed, this issue turns out to be the golden thread running throughout this second volume. Most of the contributions originated as presentations for conferences in 2006 and 2007, but have been reworked and expanded to a greater or lesser extent for the present publication.

In addition to introducing the main question mentioned above, Lester Grabbe’s Introduction provides an apt summary of all articles in the second part of the book, allowing for quick navigation through the volume (pp. 4–12).

A. Graeme Auld focuses on the Deuteronomistic History with his discussion, “Samuel, Sources, and Historiography” (pp. 15–24). In contrast to the usual approach of identifying sources in the text, Auld starts with a few case studies concerning David and Goliath (in MT and LXX), Davidʼs loyalty to Saul, the ark narrative, and other examples as well. A comparison with Chronicles (pp. 17–18) allows—according to Auld—the reconstruction of a shared text dealing with “(all or most of) the successors of David and Salomon” (22), which is the “oldest and largest source for the books of Samuel and Kings” (18), dating to the time of Josiah at the earliest. This stands in marked contrast to other positions within a historical-critical approach, such as especially those advocated in the present volume by Marc Brettler, on the one hand, and John Van Seters, on the other.

Marc Z. Brettler does not treat “The David Tradition” as a whole (pp. 25–53), but rather selects a test-case: David’s flight from Saul and his refusal to touch Saul (1 Sam 24 and 26). Having evaluated recent historiographic discourses in general (pp. 29–30) and with regard to ancient Israel in particular (pp. 31–7), Brettler analyses 1 Sam 24 and 26 in a methodologically transparent and cautious way, demonstrating the priority of chap. 26, which is itself, however, “highly ideological” (p. 47) and dependent on a lost source. Brettler therefore states, in a well-balanced conclusion, that “it is not prudent to use any part of these chapters in any way to reconstruct a real set of events where David is fleeing from Saul” (p. 47).

In “The Beginnings of the Kingdom of Judah,” Philip R. Davies discusses the famous inscription from Tel Dan mentioning a [ml]k bytdwd: “[kin]g of the house of David” (pp. 54–61). Acknowledging its authenticity, there still remain a number of difficulties related to the textual reconstruction of this inscription. Davies focuses on the meaning of bytdwd. In light of Assyrian (“House of Omri”, “Judah”) and biblical (“House of David”—but not designating the Judahite kingdom) references, he questions whether bytdwd refers to “a kingdom of Judah” (p. 55, see further pp. 58–59) and argues instead that it designates “a vassal chiefdom of the kingdom of Israel” (p. 60).

Lester L. Grabbe presents an up-to-date overview of the evidence pertaining to the origins of Israel in “From Merneptah to Shoshenq: If we had only the Bible…” (pp. 62–129). In contrast to later periods (starting with the Neo-Assyrian presence in the West), he remarks that there are only very few extra-biblical texts for the period in view here that may be contrasted with archaeology to yield significant data (see the overview on pp. 63ff. with a short introduction to the debate on chronology). The biblical traditions about the exodus, the wanderings in the wilderness, and the conquest of the land cannot be archaeologically or historically corroborated (pp. 87ff.). The same holds true for most parts of the Saul and David material, although a comparison exhibits “points that emerge from a look at the Saul and David traditions” (p. 110, see further the discussion on pp. 110–11); on the other hand, apart from the temple building tradition, he “can find little in the Solomon story that looks on the face of it to be historically reliable” (p. 112). On the whole, therefore, Grabbe confirms a broader trend which identifies more historically reliable information in the Bible beginning with the Omrides in the North and with even later stages in the South (see, especially, pp. 67, 107–8 and 115ff.).

In “History in Joshua” and “History in Judges,” E. Axel Knauf examines both of these biblical books (pp. 130–9, 140–9). Based on a literary-critical evaluation, he locates the oldest kernels of Joshua in the late 7th century (Josh 6*; 10*) and of Judges in the 9th century (Judg 5*, followed by Judg 3–9 and 12* from the late 8th or early 7th century). They include, however, older memories which stand beside younger additions. Following the different epochs, Knauf evaluates memories of city names, clans, events, and “books.” He also identifies “possible” or even “probable” elements (p. 130) that are likely to have originated in the pre-exilic and Persian periods (see pp. 136–7 for Joshua, and p. 140 for Judges).

In his contribution to the volume, Niels P. Lemche addresses the question, “How to deal with 'Early Israel'” (pp. 150–66). According to his well-known minimalist approach, he argues that there is “not much” new to discover (pp. 150–1) from Iron I and IIA, as is evident in recent studies concerned with writing a history of Israel, in archaeology, in social anthropology, in reading the biblical texts themselves, and in debating the kind of history of Israel that can be written. In short: “The Old Testament only distorts the interpretation of whatever information we have from the Early Iron Age” (p. 151).

To the third field mentioned by Lemche, namely that of social anthropology, Robert D. Miller II contributes an essay with the title, “A 'New Cultural History' of Early Israel” (pp. 167–98). After a broad introduction to the state of research in new cultural history (reflecting inter alia on social categories and the definition of culture and artifact), he discusses concrete thematic issues concerning the reconstruction of “possible pasts” for Israel (p. 167). Regarding settlements, he starts with the four-room-house, but then widens the perspective to town design and the interaction between social roles and settlement patterns according to archaeological and biblical sources (pp. 174ff.). Also, further artifacts such as pottery types (to be classified according to which categories?) and texts can be mapped, but interpreting the findings raises a number of difficulties (pp. 179ff.). A very similar case is when we base our understanding of a given religion on “religious” or cultic artifacts and places, including also mortuary evidence (p. 184ff.). He therefore pleads for scholars' conclusions to remain very cautious, reconstructing a “plausible past that may approximate truth” (p. 189), but without being able to delimit “distinct cultures” in early Israelite areas.

John Van Seters, in his contribution on “David the Mercenary” (pp. 199–219), focuses on “the references to mercenaries within the story of David” (p. 200). According to Van Seters, the depiction allows—against the backdrop of Ancient Near Eastern mercenarism beginning in Neo-Assyrian times and peaking in the Persian era—for a dating in the late Persian period of the 4th century. The narrator's “knowledge and understanding of the life of a mercenary … is quite remarkable and realistic when judged against the background of the social milieu of the 4th century b.c.e.” (p. 217). This has consequences for the whole David narrative because, according to Van Seters, these references “cannot be removed by means of … redaction-criticism” (p. 217).

The third and final part of the volume part contains first of all a summary, “Reflections on the Discussion: Text and Archaeology” by Lester L. Grabbe (pp. 223–39), which intends “to bring the data of the two volumes together and consider what the entire debate tells us about the historical methodology of ancient Palestinian history” (p. 223). To this end he briefly evaluates—in conversation with the articles from the second section of the book—the relevant sources, the use of social sciences, the historical value of biblical texts, and finally the historical reconstruction of central thematic issues such as the kingdom of David and Salomon, the books of Joshua and Judges, and the exodus from Egypt.

The last thematic issues are taken up, finally, in an Appendix by E. Axel Knauf, “Exodus and Settlement” (pp. 241–50), which constitutes an excerpt from his recent commentary on Joshua. He considers it “probable that in the first half of the 12th century a group of refugees form Egypt arrived in Canaan” (p. 242) and claimed, “The God Yhwh led us out of Egypt”—a claim which was “bound up … from the beginning” with the figure of Moses (p. 243). This tradition, then, “was received by the tribes” (p. 242). In contrast, the entrance of Israel into Canaan gained relevance only after 720 b.c.e. (pp. 243ff., a section which also addresses various issues in connection with the concept of “Canaan”).

The book is completed with indices of references and authors (pp. 251–60). As a whole, this second volume presents a broad set of methods, themes and up-to-date evaluations of sources and issues, documenting the present spectrum of scholarship on Israel's history in the period from the Late Bronze age to the Iron IIA. Together with its earlier volume, this work provides a good starting point for contemporary reflections on, and reconstructions of, the history or the histories of early Israel—or rather, as the editor would term it, “Israel in Transition.”

Martin Leuenberger, University of Tübingen