In my opinion, the main challenge involved in teaching undergraduate courses about the history of ancient Israel is that it has become very difficult to know where to begin. Unless there is a prerequisite course, students often come in with little background on the basics of the Hebrew Bible itself, including what it is, and how it is organized, Meanwhile there is, in some ways, less consensus about which parts of the Bible are historically accurate, and to what extent, than ever before. Simply addressing what the Bible says about the Israelite past, and the history of scholarly perceptions of it can easily take up the entire semester, without getting into big topics like what the evidence is, where it comes from, how we should approach it, and how to build an argument from it – the issues that really engage students and help them grow as critical thinkers. These problems will, naturally, be exacerbated in courses where the history of ancient Israel is only one topic among many.
In advance of teaching my history of ancient Israel course again, I therefore decided to write a short, plain-language introduction to the Bible as a source for the history of ancient Israel for my students that would, I hoped, put us on firm ground very quickly. It discuses, in brief, typical scholarly terminology and the place of the Bible’s narratives about the past within the larger work, then divides the biblical vision of history into a sequence of nine, easily digestible ages. Finally, it addresses the growing divide between what the Bible claims and what extrabiblical evidence seems to suggest about what really happened in ancient Israel in a way that positions the course as an exercise in empowerment. Absent hard and fast answers, all students and scholars alike can do is gain enough of a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of our evidence to decide for themselves what conclusions make sense, and reaching this point is the purpose of the course.
I intend to use this piece as an early reading assignment, followed by a quiz on the nine eras of biblical history, but I suspect it may also be useful as a kind of refresher for those who may find themselves in the position of teaching about the Hebrew Bible, despite specializing in a related field.
A Short Introduction to the Bible and the History of Ancient Israel
by Andrew Tobolowsky
The Hebrew Bible is the scholarly name for the collection of books more often known as the “Old Testament,” and, in Jewish communities, as the “Tanakh.” Scholars prefer “Hebrew Bible” to these other terms, not because they are offensive or wrong, but because they make sense mainly in the context of the religious traditions that employ them. The name “Old Testament” is a Christian term, for example, because it implies the “New Testament.” Using it encourages the reader to approach the Bible in relation to the New Testament, to analyze it as a precursor text to Christian revelation, and to interpret it in continuity with the themes and messages of the New Testament. However, the Hebrew Bible was finished long before Christianity existed, or could be imagined, by people who had no knowledge that it ever would be a precursor text to another body of materials.
By the same token, “Tanakh,” the Jewish term, is actually an acronym for Torah, (the “Law”), Neviim, (“Prophets”), and Ketuvim (“Writings”) (TaNaKh). However, since many texts in the “Law” are not clearly legal and many texts in the “Prophets” are not clearly prophetic, these terms, too, imply a way of reading the relevant traditions that makes sense in the context of Jewish religious practice, but would not necessarily emerge from the texts themselves. The term “Law” encourages us to read stories about figures like Abraham and Isaac not as stories about the past but as the vehicles for instructions about how to live our lives. The term “Prophets” makes us read stories about King David and King Solomon, among others, for another kind of message. Without these terms, we might not come to the same conclusions about what the relevant compositions are.
The value of “Hebrew Bible” over these other terms, then, is that it signals our intention to attempt to read the Bible as it was originally written, and as a way of studying the people who wrote it: as a compilation of mostly Hebrew texts, produced by Hebrew-speaking peoples who lived in two historical kingdoms called Israel and Judah, between roughly 1000 and 350 BCE – “Before the Common Era,” a secular alternative to BC. It allows us to connect what we read to the ancient world without preconceptions about what we are reading. This is an essential step towards becoming a historian of ancient Israel.
Once we have defined our terms, our next problem is that the Hebrew Bible is not very easy to read. If you were to attempt to read it cover to cover, you would find that there are narratives, but that there is a lot of other stuff as well: laws, lists, prophecies, advice, and in one case, erotic poetry. The historian of ancient Israel can use many of these texts, though each presents its own challenges. Is the entirety of the book of Isaiah, say, written by the historical Isaiah or might some of it have been added in later periods? Is the book of Daniel really a depiction of the realities of the Judahite exile in the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar, or is it a later composition? Few biblical authors signed their compositions, many show signs of later editing of various kinds, and there are frequently repetitions and contradictions. We often have to decide for ourselves when we think something was written, and what we think it originally said.
Above all else, historians of ancient Israel draw on the two basically continuous biblical accounts of the history of ancient Israel in the Bible, even as we may well ask why there are two such narratives rather than one. The first, the “Primary History,” is much longer and more complex. It spans the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and it clearly is more of a compilation than a composition, combining texts from a great many different periods and contexts together. The second, the “Secondary History” spanning the two books of Chronicles, appears to be a largely unified composition, likely from the fifth or fourth century BCE.
The two histories are different from each other in a number of ways. Most importantly, while the Primary History devotes seven books to the history of Israel prior to the rise of monarchy, a period covering thousands of years (according to the biblical authors), this entire period is covered in Chronicles only through references in a lengthy genealogy of the tribes of Israel spanning roughly the first eight chapters. For the bulk of its length, Chronicles is a history of the monarchies of Israel and Judah, which corresponds to the last four books of the Primary History (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings). Compared to the Primary History, the Secondary History is more focused on the Judahite monarchy, and especially on David and Solomon, and the two often differ from each other in ways both big and small.
Still, overall, both histories present essentially the same span of time, from creation to the decades after the fall of Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and through a shared series of easily identifiable stages that can help us understand the basics. Each begins with the first stage, the “Primeval History.” This period, described in the Primary History in Genesis 1-11 and only very briefly in the Secondary History, features such well-known episodes as Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s flood. These narratives are often set apart from the rest of the history by scholars, because they contain more in the way of the unusual and the supernatural than other texts, and are overall less realistic-seeming than other sections, including people who live hundreds of years and events like the great flood and the building of the Tower of Babel. After the flood, Noah’s three children – Shem, Ham, and Japheth – become the ancestors of all humanity. In Genesis 11, we learn that Abraham is a distant descendant of Shem, from whom the word “Semitic” comes.
The second era of biblical history, the “Patriarchal Era” begins with Abraham’s journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan, in response to YHWH’s command – YHWH, or Yahweh, being the common way that biblical author spelled the name of god – and his settlement in that region. In the Primary History, it spans Genesis 11-50 and describes the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons (and one daughter). These twelve sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph) are the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. The patriarchs live in Canaan, with their families, and over the course of three generations, they grow wealthy and powerful. At the end of this period, however, famine strikes the region and the aged Jacob, with his children must relocate to Egypt where there is food. Joseph plays a key role in this narrative, as well as his famous coat.
At first, things go well in Egypt, but we learn in the beginning of the second book of the Primary History, Exodus, that, over the subsequent generations, Pharaoh has made the descendants of the Israelites slaves. After four hundred years, the third era of biblical history begins, “The Exodus,” the biblical account of which spans Exodus itself, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – the rest of the Torah. Moses, the son of an Israelite family raised by the Egyptians, leads the people Israel out of Egypt, after ten miracles, but the sins of the people are such that they are condemned to wander in the wilderness until they die, which takes forty years. During that time, Moses receives the ten commandments on Sinai, and many other laws, and the ark of the covenant is built; but eventually, like the rest of his generation, he dies before they reach Canaan.
At the very end of Deuteronomy, Moses dies and is replaced by Joshua, leading to the fourth era of biblical history: “The Conquest.” The book of Joshua, the sixth book of the Bible, describes Israel’s arrival in Canaan and its conquest of the peoples of Canaan, with YHWH’s help. Joshua 13-19 describes, in minute detail, the division of the land of Canaan between the twelve tribes of Israel, again descended from the twelve sons of Jacob – although sometimes the tribe of Joseph is described as two tribes, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who are Joseph’s own children, while Levi is treated as a priestly family outside of the tribal system. At the end of Joshua, Israel is fully settled in Canaan, divided into twelve different tribal regions.
The next phase of biblical history, the fifth, is the era of “The Judges,” the four hundred year period described in the book of Judges in which Israel remained a loosely organized confederacy in Canaan. According to Judges, Israel is frequently dominated by enemies of various sorts, but YHWH periodically intervenes and raises up a judge, often though not always a military leader, to deliver Israel for a time. Well-known judges include Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. The last judge of Israel – if indeed he should be understood as a judge – is Samuel, who delivers Israel from the Philistines.
The next era of biblical history also begins with Samuel. In 1 Samuel 8, the people of Israel ask Samuel, now an old man, to appoint a king over them, which he begrudgingly does. The first king of Israel, Saul, spends most of his reign consolidating his power and fighting the Philistines. Eventually, he is killed in battle with them, and after a brief civil war, the famous David becomes king. This inaugurates the sixth era of biblical history, the “United Monarchy.” David reigns for forty years, defeating many enemies, and upon his death is replaced by Solomon, famed for his wisdom, who also rules for 40 years. Solomon is also credited with building the great Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem, which we generally refer to as the “First Temple.” The description of Solomon’s reign spans roughly 1 Kings 1-11, in the Primary History, and is the starting point for Chronicles’ narrative account in the Secondary History. Indeed, the United Monarchy takes up a large proportion of those books, from 1 Chronicles 11 to 2 Chronicles 9.
The “United Monarchy” is so-called, however, in contrast to what comes after. Upon Solomon’s death, in 1 Kings 11, the kingdom splits into two. The smaller, southern kingdom, centered on David’s capital at Jerusalem, is now called Judah and ruled by Solomon’s son Rehoboam. The larger and considerably more powerful northern kingdom, still called Israel, is ruled, at first, by a general named Jeroboam. The two kingdoms will never again be joined, and while Judah will be ruled by the line of David for its entire history, Israel will frequently change dynasties. As a result, the reigns of Rehoboam and Jeroboam begin the seventh era of biblical history, the “Divided Monarchy,” which lasts for approximately two hundred years.
We don’t know this for sure, since the Bible never gives us absolute dates, and if it did, they would not be in our familiar BCE and CE, which did not exist in the ancient world. But we do know, from other sources, that the period of the Divided Monarchy ended in 722 BCE. In that year, the kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, a powerful empire centered on Mesopotamia. According to 2 Kings 17, the Assyrians utterly destroyed Israel and deported its entire population to Assyria, replacing them with foreigners from other parts of the Assyrian empire. According to 2 Chronicles 30, however, a number of Israelites survived the conquest and remained in what had been the kingdom of Israel. This seems more likely to be true.
Either way, the kingdom of Judah survived the fall of Israel, alone, and lasted until 586 BCE, when it was conquered by the Babylonians, another Mesopotamian empire. At that time, Solomon’s Temple was also destroyed. The Babylonians also practiced mass deportation, so 586 BCE begins the eighth era of biblical history, a short one, called “The Exile,” in which many of the elites of Judah and Jerusalem lived in the Babylonian empire. Neither the Primary nor Secondary History says very much about this period, but in both it is just about the end of the history. The last event in Kings is the release of Jehoiachin, one of the last kings of Judah, from Babylonian prison, and his elevation to a place of honor at the Babylonian court, nearly thirty years after the conquest. The Secondary (Chronicles) history goes a little bit further than the Primary History, however.
In 539 BCE, Babylon was itself conquered by Persia, a new power from the lands east of Mesopotamia. According to 2 Chronicles 36:22-23, the last verses of Chronicles, one of the first things Cyrus, the new (Persian) emperor of the region did, was issue a proclamation allowing the peoples exiled by the Babylonians to go home, and in the Judahites’ case, build a new temple in Jerusalem. This begins the ninth and last era of biblical history, the “Return from Exile,” when several different groups are supposed to have left the environs of Persian-controlled Babylon to return to Jerusalem and build what is generally known as the Second Temple. Certain events of the Persian period, including various “returns” are described not in the Primary or Secondary history but in two additional historical books, Ezra and Nehemiah. No biblical book clearly describes the Exile except for Daniel, which is probably a much later composition.
This, in a nutshell, is the biblical vision of history and for most of the twentieth century, scholarly reconstructions of Israel’s history – which is to say, what you would find if you bought a history of ancient Israel in a bookstore – looked much the same. This is not to say that scholars believed every event described in the Bible had literally happened, but from at least 1900 on, most argued that every period of biblical history corresponded to a historical reality to greater or lesser extent.
Some argued that Abraham had been a real person, for example, but even those that didn’t believed that the story of Abraham revealed that Israel’s ancestors had been nomadic Semites who had traveled from Mesopotamia to Canaan. From a study of the names mentioned in the Genesis story in extrabiblical materials, and apparent parallels to certain customs performed by the patriarchs, they deduced that this occurred between 2000 and 1800 BCE. By the same token, whether or not there had ever been a Moses, most scholars assumed that something like an exodus had actually happened and that the book of Exodus was a stylized representation of this real event. Different theories, based on different kinds of evidence from Egypt, placed the Exodus between about 1400 and 1200 BCE.
Today, things are very different, and for good reasons. The fact of the matter is, there has never been any hard evidence supporting the stories of the patriarchs, and most scholars today believe that much of the early Israelite community were Canaanites themselves. Not only is there no evidence of an exodus, but Egyptian records of the relevant periods are actually quite good and they do not mention large quantities of Semitic slaves or anything like a massive departure from the region – not to mention the fact that Canaan was part of Egypt for most of the period when an exodus might have happened.
Indeed, even the United Monarchy of David and Solomon has now become the subject of controversy. New radiocarbon studies reveal that the signs of centralized power typically associated with these kings may have appeared fifty to a hundred years too late. Monarchy itself may have appeared too late for David, and David’s capital of Jerusalem especially causes problems for traditional approaches to Israelite history. It seems to have been a fairly small settlement even into the 700s BCE and not, therefore, much of a capital for mighty kings.
Ultimately, when we begin with extrabiblical evidence – archaeological evidence, inscriptions, and records from Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt among others – we find a very different story than the one told by the Bible. Rather than 2000-1800 BCE, the history of Israel seems to begin around 1200 BCE, when Canaanite peoples from the lowlands began to establish new settlements in the highlands, in what scholars now generally call the “pre-monarchical period.” Certainly, it is there that the name Israel first appears in the historical record: on a triumphal monument from Egypt called the Merneptah stele, from around 1208 BCE. Over the next three hundred years, these early Israelites moved back down into the lowlands and established kingdoms, whether David or Solomon was involved or not.
At the same time, however, there is so much we don’t know. Very little of anything survives thousands of years, so an absence of evidence isn’t always meaningful. Ancient records are fragmentary, and often difficult to find. Many of the major sites associated with ancient Israel, especially Jerusalem, are heavily populated today, and there are many places where archaeologists are unable to do their work. We can also ask what kind of evidence would have survived from ancient Israel, given that most people were illiterate. And even for those who were literate, writing on perishable materials was common in the ancient world. As opposed to Egypt, a place so dry that papyrus survives fairly well, and Mesopotamia, where a literate scribal elite often wrote on clay tablets that were later fired in a kiln, ancient Israelite and Judahite authors may have written a great deal that was simply lost. Almost all of the relevant records and inscriptions we have for the study of ancient Israelite history are from ancient Israel’s enemies, while no narrative texts from ancient Israel and Judah survive outside the Bible. This is presumably not because Israelites and Judahites did not create such things.
Not surprisingly, then, scholars by no means agree with each other about how reliable the Bible is as history, where, and to what extent. And no matter what we think, a find might emerge in Israel, Egypt, or Mesopotamia tomorrow and upend everything we currently think we know. All this has made the job of the historian of ancient Israel - and for that matter of classes devoted to the study of that history - very complicated. In some ways this is frustrating, of course, but it is also exciting. Since no one can tell us for sure what really happened in early Israel and Judah, we will simply have to decide for ourselves.
In order to do that appropriately, however, there are many things that we have to do. We have to get a sense of what evidence we have to work with, and what its strengths and weaknesses are. We will have to decide when it is appropriate to go beyond it, and when to do so cautiously, and when boldly. We will have to understand what the main scholarly arguments are, and what they are based on, which is particularly difficult in the case of the Bible. More so than any other texts that scholars study, the Bible has attracted a lot of commentary over the years, from a wide variety of people, and for a wide variety of reasons. We will have to learn how to determine what scholarly sources to use, and which to avoid.
Finally, we will have to decide, often quite individually, how to assess biblical narratives which cannot be corroborated by existing evidence, as opposed to those that are directly contradicted by other things we know. How much should we rely on the Bible as evidence, when we have nothing else to use? And is a story that is not historically accurate for the period it describes is really worthless as history altogether or might it reveal something else: the history of the people telling the story, what they wanted from the past, and so on? Is reconstructing what really happened in ancient Israel even the most important and impactful job of the historian?
In short, the contemporary study of the history of ancient Israel is not about knowing what we can’t know for sure, but personal empowerment. It’s about doing what we need to do to be able to decide for ourselves what arguments its right to make, and how much confidence we should have in them. It’s about becoming a sophisticated consumer of the evidence that exists and growing our ability to make plausible cases out of it. It’s about learning when to be cautious, when to speculate, and when to be bold. In this, right now, we are all in the same boat.
Andrew Tobolowsky is an assistant professor in the department of religious studies at William and Mary.