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Chapter 1 Israel Without the Bible Gary A. Rendsburg The Bible does not exist. That is correct: The Bible does not exist. Permit me to explain what I mean by that statement with the following background material. For most of the twentieth century there was a general consensus among scholars that the Bible is a reliable guide to the history of ancient Israel. The towering figures in the field, people such as W. F. Albright and Cyrus Gordon in the United States and Benjamin Mazar and Yigael Yadin in Israel, led the way in believing that the Bible reflected true history. In their view, everything from the Patriarchs to Ezra was real. Cuneiform tablets from Nuzi in Mesopotamia described social and legal practices that paralleled the customs reflected in the book of Genesis , including, for example, the duty of a barren wife to present her husband with a maidservant through whom the man would father children, exactly as Sarah presents Hagar to Abraham, leading to the birth of Ishmael . Egyptian material demonstrated that the customs reflected in the Joseph story fit perfectly in the environment of the Nile Valley, including the presence of certain key Egyptian words in the story, such as ’abrēk (Krba), which is derived from Egyptian ib r-k (literally “heart to you,” the equivalent of our English phrase “hail to you”), proclaimed by the Egyptian people as the new viceroy Joseph was paraded through the streets (Genesis 41:43). The story of the Exodus was real. The cities of Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11) were constructed by Rameses II using foreign slaves; and the Merneptah Stele attests to the existence of the people of Israel in the year 1210 B.C.E. The Conquest was real. Archaeological work at Bethel, Hazor, Lachish, and Tell Beit Mirsim, among others, revealed the destruction of a series of 3 Canaanite cities in the latter half of the thirteenth century B.C.E., clearly the work of the Israelites. And if these earlier periods of biblical history were real, then the later material must have reflected true history as well. David and Solomon ruled over a large empire; the kings of Israel and Judah during the divided monarchy did exactly what the book of Kings says they did; the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom in 721 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed the southern kingdom in 586 B.C.E., and both Mesopotamian powers exiled the population to the Tigris and Euphrates Valley and beyond; Cyrus the Great, the forward-looking Persian king, allowed the Jews to return in 538 B.C.E., the Second Temple was built, and Ezra and Nehemiah worked to restore Jewish life in Jerusalem at the end of the biblical period. To repeat : everything from Abraham to Ezra was real.1 This was the consensus concerning the history of ancient Israel. It was “canonized,” as it were, in the standard history of the biblical period authored by John Bright, himself a student of Albright. Entitled A History of Israel, Bright’s work went through three editions between 1959 and 1981,2 was widely used on college campuses and in seminaries, and is still in print.3 Today, however, the picture is very different. Why? What happened? Obviously, the pendulum of intellectual trends swings continually. The positive historicism of Albright and his contemporaries gave way, not only in biblical studies, but in the humanities in general, to the relativism, skepticism , and indeed nihilism that now dominates. Chinks in the Albrightian armor were already visible thirty years ago, but the chinks soon became cracks and the cracks developed into full-scale eruptions. The Conquest affords us the best opportunity to see this process at work. Already in the 1920s, the great German scholar Albrecht Alt had challenged the idea of an Israelite military conquest of the land of Canaan .4 According to Alt, there simply was no archaeological evidence to confirm the scenario depicted in the book of Joshua. For every site such as Bethel and Hazor, which clearly were destroyed at the end of the thirteenth century, there were other sites such as Ai and most famously Jericho , which not only show no destruction at this time period, but in fact little or no settlement at all. These findings led Alt to propose an alternative explanation for the emergence of the Israelites in the land of Canaan —what scholars came to call the peaceful infiltration or peaceful settlement...


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