Response to “Reply to the Richard Hess’ review of Old Testament in Archaeology and History” by Mark Elliott and Ed Wright

A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Richard S. Hess

February 22, 2020

I thank the authors for their interaction with my review of their book (see the following entry) at

Because these editors devote all their attention to three of the twenty chapters that appear in the book, I will focus my response on what they write about these chapters.  Their observations are thus not concerned with my overall positive review of their book as a whole.  Instead, they are concerned to show how “he misrepresents what we say, or is simply mistaken in his critiques” of the three chapters that they contributed. 

In the first chapter where they critique my observations, they begin by misquoting me.  I nowhere state that they ignore any critique of Pentateuchal criticism.  Therefore, their comments in the first paragraph, citing various scholars who critique aspects of Pentateuchal criticism, are not relevant to my critique.  I do suggest that the “sweeping generalizations” they make in this chapter ignore the balance of both sides of the question.  Indeed, their comment that “Hess simply doesn’t accept critical assessments” is another example of such generalizing.  For more than a decade my Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Baker, 2007) has illustrated how I do “accept” a variety of critical positions but I also have my own interpretation.  The value I place on accurately recording and reviewing opposing views is not found in the editors’ generalizations.

It is in this context that I criticized the generalization that the dating of Hebrew is a long way from consensus.  There are important works that would argue this point with more certainty than suggested here.  When one tries to find evidence for the lack of consensus, the only reference the editors give is “(Tigay 2005, xii).”  However, this reference does not appear in the bibliography at the end of the book nor in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the end of the chapter.  Where is the evidence?  If “a majority of scholars would find that paragraph to be an honest and fair assessment,” why does the single bibliography item to support this statement direct the reader to a dead end?

Another generalization of the editors occurs in their comment: “Conservatives often maintained that no scholar was worthy of undertaking an investigation of Holy Writ until there was some acknowledgement of its divine qualities and its inerrant nature” (p. 74).  Again, the statement attacks “conservatives” with no evidence to support it.  The editors’ “Reply” ignores this quote.  In attacking “conservatives” for not providing evidence for their assertions, the editors do not bother to provide evidence for their attack.

Regarding my comments on the Merneptah stele, I was not criticizing S. R. Driver.  As a scholar writing well over a century ago, his reputation and scholarship are not in question anywhere in my review.  Rather, it is the decision of the editors to juxtapose the Merneptah stele with a quote from Driver that appears to dismiss the importance of the find, without commenting that many later scholars, with the benefit of decades of careful study of the work, would see it differently.  While respecting Driver and his contribution, I would nevertheless see here a major piece of evidence for the existence of the Israel of the Bible before the tenth century. 

When the editors write, “Just what was the archaeological evidence that verified the events in the books of Joshua and Judges that Hess is referring to that should have been known to Driver in 1899,” they distort my comment in two ways.  First, I do not criticize Driver.  I criticize the editors with my comment, “Yet the books of Joshua and Judges would place Israel in the land by the late thirteenth century BC, in agreement with the Merneptah stele.”  Second, it is not my concern where the state of studies was one hundred twenty years ago.  It is my concern that today the analysis of the Merneptah stele supports evidence for the existence of the people of Israel at approximately the same time (pre-tenth century) that the books of Joshua and Judges purport to situate the people of Israel.  Perhaps this is not a fact for the editors; but they should at least address this rather than trotting out a false charge of criticizing Driver and obfuscating the issue.

The editors move to their chapter 8 where they cite comments I made about Jacob’s stone pillar described as a memorial.  The term, “simple memorial,” is one invented by the editors and applied to me.  I suspect the biblical concept of a memorial has deep, perhaps sacramental, significance.  However, the text describes an exclusive relationship to the God Jacob worships, not to another deity.  Citing texts from elsewhere in the Pentateuch about worshiping other deities does not change the Genesis text.  Genesis 21:33 and the reference to a “tree” may indicate the worship of a different El deity as the authors maintain.  This view follows Alt’s position but it is not the only possible interpretation of Genesis 21:33.  The point is that Asherah is not identified here (nor is Astarte nor any other goddess).  The tree is described using a distinctive term not associated with other forms of worship in the Hebrew Bible.  Its other occurrences have no explicit religious association (1 Samuel 22:6; 31:13; 1 Chronicles 10:12).  If the story intended to portray an Asherah tree one would expect to see it so named.  The fact that it is not and that a different term is used for the tree suggests that the story sought to move as far away as possible from a description of a separate El deity or of a goddess.

For camels, I attempted to note the presence of evidence for these animals much earlier than stated by the editors.  In addition to what I cited (especially Heide’s article), there is the evidence collected by Caroline Grigson, “Plough and Pasture in the Early Economy of the Southern Levant,” pp. 245-68 in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land, ed. T. Levy (New York: Facts on File, 1996).  On p. 259 Grigson notes the discovery of camel bones in Bronze Age Arad, Be’er Resisim (central Negev), Tel Jemmeh, and Timna.  She writes, “All these finds are peripheral to the southern Levant and probably represent animals used in the transport of goods to and from Arabia…”  The peripheral nature of the animal (e.g., as opposed to donkeys who are central to transport) and the connection with southern places concurs with what is found in Genesis.   

The editors insist “Hess appears to have missed Anne Killebrew’s chapter in our book on the Philistines.”  See my positive review of Killebrew’s chapter and note that the chapter is titled, “The Philistines during the Period of the Judges” and not during the period of Genesis.  The fourteenth century BC world of Canaan as portrayed by the Amarna letters bears witness to many, in some cases a majority, of rulers throughout all the major regions of southern Canaan (except the coast) as possessing non-West Semitic names.  There is no need to posit an invasion and most scholars studying this period have not suggested an invasion.  It is rather an example of cultural influence begun and sustained by trade, with a gradual movement into various regions by people from the Syrian and Anatolian areas, regions far away from southern Canaan.  Such could have been the case with one site named Gerar in the biblical text and with trade from the Mediterranean Sea.  Because this could have been the case does not mean that it was (contra the editors’ charge against my statement). 

As we move to ch. 9 of the book, once again expectations of what I think become the premise to attack me; rather than the use of facts.  The questions about inventing an origin in slavery is a good question to consider.  Rather than using it as evidence for validity to the exodus tradition, I note (in addition to the Merneptah stele) (1) the association of Tell ed-Dab’a with Pi-Ramesses of Egyptian New Kingdom texts and with Ramesses of Exodus 1:11; and (2) the apparent reference to Yahweh in the fourteenth century Egyptian toponym, “the land of the Shasu of Yhw.”  The editors are silent on these matters in their Reply. 

The editors attack my use of “decry” to identify their handling of the exodus account and that of Joshua.  Webster’s first definition of “decry” is “depreciate.”  I don’t see this as an inaccurate portrayal.  Thus, the editors argue that the absence of the mention of Egypt is an example of the lack of substantial historical value to the traditions of Joshua.  That is depreciating the historical value of the traditions behind Joshua.  The evidence of Amarna stands because it demonstrates how politically contemporary documents originating out of Canaan did not mention Egypt or the pharaoh.  My point has nothing to do with whether the editors discuss the Amarna letters in three pages.  To say that the comparison with the Amarna correspondence is inappropriate overlooks the fact that this is the single major extant corpus of literature from pre-Hellenistic southern Canaan outside the Bible.  To say that the comparison is impossible because the authors of Exodus are unknown overlooks how many of the Amarna letters are not preserved with named authors.  To say that the comparison is impossible because the composition of Exodus spanned generations and even centuries is a non sequitur.  On that basis no comparison with any extra biblical literature would be possible. 

My observations regarding sites on itineraries (and elsewhere) in the Pentateuch stand as they are.  Edom and Moab are mentioned in Ramesside itineraries.  Edom’s lowland sites such as Khirbet en-Nahas did have occupation extending early into the Iron Age. Site names do shift (as in the case of Jericho) and Jalul, Umayri, Tall Jawa were occupied and experienced destruction in Iron I.  No one denies that some scholars do not agree to a possible habitation of Moab and Edom.  However, the evidence here reflects common approaches to historical geography, approaches that are diverse in method but based on textual and archaeological witnesses. 

Five times the editors invoke the scholarly “consensus,” and three times elsewhere cite the “vast majority.”  They maintain that the scholarly consensus affirms that the Pentateuchal narratives date from the ninth or eighth centuries.  But this is not true.  There are major European and American interpretations that do not accept this date, preferring a later one.  These include Davies, Thompson, and Van Seters, to cite a few of the better known names.  None of these scholars would date many of the narratives of the Pentateuch to the centuries that the editors prefer.  Sadly, the final comments of the editors project psychological (“comforting”) and other motivations (“grasping at straws”) for those (such as myself) who challenge their views.    

Distortions of my position, dead end citations, and the addressing of facts with generalizations do not make a case.  My purpose in the original review was to suggest that there are alternative ways to look at the text and archaeology.  These are not limited to “conservative” scholars; they reflect the wide and diverse community of those who study these disciplines.  To insist that one cannot critically evaluate the views of others because those views are the “consensus” of the “vast majority” is to guarantee that scholarship will not progress.  

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
February 2020


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