The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel. Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect. By William G. Dever. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8028-6701-8. x and 436 pages. Paper. $25.00.
Dever is the leading American archaeologist of Syria Palestine of our time, and this book enables him to showcase his expertise in “what it was really like” in ancient Israel. His primary focus is on archaeological data from the 8th century B.C.E., and he frequently argues that the Bible has little to contribute to our knowledge of ancient reality (p. 376).
His chapters describe cities, towns, villages, and farms, as well as the general geographical conditions. He investigates socioeconomic structures (palaces, everyday houses, literacy, economy, and trade) and cult and religion. Unfortunately, the temple area in Jerusalem cannot be excavated so the data on cult and religion come from sites like Arad, Beersheba, Kuntillet-ajrud, Khirbet el-Qom, and household shrines. He reviews what we know about Israel’s neighbors from archaeology and about how Israel fought and defended itself. Some gleanings: A family of six in antiquity would spend four hours a day milling grain. The “palace” in Samaria measured 55 by 32 feet and contained 1,800 square feet. The average American home has 2,500 square feet. No more than one percent of the population was literate. All this is fascinating “new information” gleaned from the last century or so of archaeology.
Mixed with this good stuff is Dever’s tiresome polemic against revisionists and postmodernists. I too find some fault with the so-called “minimalists,” but Dever calls postmodernism a failed value-system and finds it repugnant because of its “arrogance, cynicism, relativism, and nihilism.” That, as they say, is a bit one-sided. Some modern critics think we should analyze what texts say rather than what the authors intended, but Dever claims that for them the text can mean anything the critics wants it to mean. That is hardly a fair and balanced observation. He is defensive about the charge that archaeological data are mute, and counters with the charge that the biblical texts are mute. His book is full of obiter dicta, that may be true, but I failed to see the data to support many of his generalizations. Here are some examples: “The inherent insularity and conservatism of rural folk everywhere” (p. 204). Everywhere? Most ancient Israelites had never seen the Temple or met an official Levitical priest (p. 251). The soldiers at Arad would have been moved to appeal to any gods they knew (not just Yahweh (p. 262). The failure of the biblical writers to describe in detail the fall of Lachish and Sennacherib’s capture of forty-six Judean towns disqualifies these writers as anything like reliable historians (p. 367).
Dever, who once was a Christian minister, now identifies himself as a secular humanist. He eschews theology, and when he ventures into theological discussion it is usually disastrous. E.g.: “If religion had anything to offer in coping with reality, it had to deal with the ultimate reality: survival” (p. 204). When Jerusalem barely survived Sennacherib’s invasion, it must have seemed to many that God was dead (p. 367). Or did people express their laments to Yahweh or consider switching to another god? I thought it was the fool in the Bible who said there was no God. Or again: “The separation of faith from history advocated here will be particularly unsettling to Protestants, even those of liberal persuasion, for whom the motto has been sola scriptura [Is it I, Bill?]….Genuine religion should be more about ortho-practice, moral earnestness, than orthodoxy” (p. 378). Is that really an either-or?
Stick to the “good stuff,” and you have a very interesting and rewarding read.
Ralph W. Klein
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago