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Reviewed by:
  • The Israelites in History and Tradition
  • Oded Borowski
The Israelites in History and Tradition, by Niels Peter Lemche. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. 246 pp. $25.00.

The book under review appears in the series Library of Ancient Israel edited by Douglas A. Knight. The author, a professor at the Institute for Biblical Exegesis at the University of Copenhagen, belongs to the so-called “minimalist” or “deconstructionist” school of thought. Their basic claim is that the Hebrew Bible is a product of the Persian, or even the Hellenistic, period, and hence none of the historical accounts can be trusted and used in reconstructing Israelite and Judahite history. In this book Lemche questions the origins and political history according to the biblical narratives. Actually, according to him, “[A]s far as ancient Israel is concerned, there can be no doubt that it is an artificial [End Page 108] creation of the scholarly world of the modern age” (p. 163). He accuses the scholars responsible for this creation, like Albright, Wright, and Bright, of being biased and incapable of understanding the true nature of ancient Near Eastern civilizations and the forces operating behind them. Furthermore, they are capable only of paraphrasing the text rather than examining it critically. According to Lemche, biblical scholars have been influenced by the humanistic studies created during the Enlightenment, and they project their own modern ideas on the text, which they read in a naive manner. Actually, modern scholars fall prey to “a highly ideological construct created by ancient scholars of Jewish tradition in order to legitimize their own religious community and its religio- political claims on land and religious exclusivity” (p. 166). Upon reviewing the histor ical background for understanding the terms “ethnos” and “nation,” Lemche would like to see whether scholars who dealt with these issues in relation to Israel “showed any independent concern about what historical Israel might have been like or whether they have just followed the ideas of nationality as developed in their own time” (p. 21). Thus, one gets the impression that Lemche would analyze biblical as well as extra- biblical materials with care and scrutiny.

Every scholar is entitled to his/her conclusions and opinions as long as the investigation and analysis are done in a fair manner. However, it seems that Lemche is more interested in slaughtering sacred cows than in reading the truth (if this is at all possible). One feels that the book is laden with a hidden agenda. There is nothing wrong in questioning again certain subjects which are already under consensus, but it should be done in an objective manner. Archaeologists admit that it is next to impossible to identify a clay vessel as Israelite rather than belonging to a so-called Canaanite. But not only the question of pig consumption cited by Lemche (p. 218, n. 7) can be treated from the ethnic point of view. What about the countless seals, seal impressions, and inscriptions containing names of individuals who can be identified with biblical personalities? To ignore this body of evidence that reflects on Israelite identity is highly questionable.

Following the “Prolegomena: Inventing the Past. Ancient Israel-Ethnicity, Nation, and History as the Mode of Interpreting Ancient Cultures” the book is divided into five chapters followed by a conclusion, list of abbreviations, notes, a bibliography, and two indexes, one of biblical passages and ancient sources and the other of names and subjects. As explained in the Preface (p. ix), the author sets out to tackle the question of the identity of ancient Israel. Were they a people, a state in ancient Palestine, or only something that existed in the biblical narratives? As part of the process, Lemche questions the historical worthiness of the historical and prophetic books (pp. 24–30); he questions the reliability of Merneptah’s Stele for reconstructing Israelite history (pp. 35–38); and he questions not only the interpretation but also the authenticity of the “Beth David” inscription (pp. 38–43, 62). In light of this inscription he questions the validity of the Mesha Stone for Israelite history (dating, royal names, etc.). [End Page 109]

I am not an expert on all issues raised by Lemche...

Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 108-110
Launched on MUSE
2001-07-01
Open Access
No
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