- The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect by William G. Dever
William Dever’s most recent book The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect does much more than merely recount evidence for daily life in the biblical world. In this volume, Dever, long considered an elder statesman in the archaeology of the southern Levant, takes on the complexities of biblical historiography and connects a huge amount of archaeological evidence to a conceptual framework.
In the 1980’s, Dever was one of the loudest voices in the debate about redefining the discipline of “biblical archaeology.” He successfully proposed that scholars stop using that term, because calling oneself a “biblical archaeologist” presupposes that archaeological evidence must fit into a biblically-based rubric. He advocated for more neutral terms instead, some of which, such as “archaeology of the southern Levant,” have caught on and are in use today. Dever returns to this topic in the current volume, and also confronts another major disciplinary concern that he tackled in the 1990’s—refuting minimalist (revisionist) arguments about the historicity of biblical events.
The title of the volume requires explanation, as it only reflects a small part of what Dever wants to accomplish. Other archaeologists have written about everyday life—how a household is run from dawn to dusk, how domestic cults might have functioned, how agricultural villages divided labor, etc. (O. Borowski’s Daily Life in Biblical Times and J. Ebeling’s Women’s Lives in Biblical Times both come to mind, and are cited in the volume.) But Dever has a grander aim. This is Dever’s attempt to create a picture of Israel and Judah by looking at the evidence on the ground first, and only afterwards incorporating relevant biblical texts, and then only if they fit. He uses the metaphor of a potential “divorce” between archaeology and biblical scholarship, or at least a “trial separation” (p. 369), to see if they can live without each other. They can.
Dever focuses his attention on a discrete slice of time—the eighth century b.c.e. He selects the eighth century for several reasons, but most notably because the tremendous amount of well-published archaeological evidence that dates to it, evidence which gives information on all aspects of life, from state issues, to cultic activity, to domestic activity. This archaeological material comes from both southern sites (Judah) and the northern sites (Israel). Additionally, the eighth century is a period of great political strength in Israel [End Page 445] as well as Judah, with the emergence of several consecutive strong rulers known from the Bible as well as from non-biblical sources.
In his first two chapters, Dever sets out his ground rules—specifically his plan to look at archaeology first, and only eighth century materials at that. He also reviews some theoretical concerns, especially postmodernism. In this context he outlines the main historiographic problem for ancient Israel: finding a methodology to write a history of Israel and Judah without reliance on the Bible. Here, he engages in a refutation of biblical revisionism, a position that argues that little to none of the information in the Bible is historically valuable, or even usable to reconstruct a history of the region. Dever explains how and why these arguments are not defensible for anyone who is able to parse the archaeological remains. The rest of the book is the parsing.
In chapter 3, Dever presents a traditional description of the geography and geology of the southern Levant, meant to contextualize all the following discussions. Topics include the region’s position on the trade routes, annual rainfall amounts and how that affected the populace, and other issues of setting. He illustrates these points with clear maps, some of which are from the formative (if older) work of Yohanan Aharoni.
In chapter 4, Dever presents an annotated list of approximately seventy archaeological sites to which he refers in the rest of the...