Prelude to Israel’s Past
A review of Niels Peter Lemche's, "Prelude to Israel's Past: Background and Beginnings of Israelite History and Identity," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Lemche, Niels Peter. Prelude to Israel’s Past: Background and Beginnings of Israelite History and Identity. Translated by E. F. Maniscalco. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1998. xvi + 247 pp. Hardback. ISBN 1-56563-343-1.
This book is a translation of a 1996 German work in which the author wrote the first volume in a series designed to describe ancient Israelite history for the benefit of theological schools and students. It represents the first book length discussion of general Israelite history (as opposed to his volume specifically on the Canaanites) by the author in more than a decade. During that time Lemche has been recognized by many as a leader among the minimalist school of the historical interpretation of ancient Israel. This book thus provides a more complete statement of the author’s views on the early history of Israel than was available previously.
Lemche does indeed affirm his position that all of the material in the Pentateuch is without value in terms of historical reconstruction of Israel’s history in the second or even first millennium B.C. His preference is to view this material as written in the Persian or Hellenistic period and reflecting the needs and concerns of Judaism at that time. Thus it is ideological literature, written to provide an identity for the Jewish people and to create a historical consciousness where no written history existed.
In order to accomplish his goal, Lemche divides his book into four sections. The first retells much of the biblical narrative account from the Pentateuch. He thus provides the story of the Pentateuch. Since Lemche finds no historiography or any reliable traditions dating back to the second millennium, he must keep this account separate from a reconstruction of an actual history of Syria and Palestine. This subject he addresses in the second section of his book. Here he uses both material and written evidence from the second millennium to reconstruct a history of that age. Especially focusing on the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, Lemche provides what is one of the best historical surveys of this period available in English. The third section synthesizes reflections on the Pentateuch and its theological emphasizes. The fourth sections concludes the book with reflections on the purpose for writing the Old Testament, the historical and intellectual background to the modern concern with the Bible as an accurate historical record, and the value of the Bible after it has been found to be void of historical truthfulness.
There is much of interest in Lemche’s book. Helpful historical summaries of the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age periods (3000-1200 B.C.) of Palestine and Syria are at the top of the list of important contributions. There is also much to criticize. This reviewer will limit himself to two general areas of criticisms.
First, there is a systematic ignorance of and refusal to deal with facts and authors that do not prove Lemche’s point. In this he resembles Van Seters whom he repeatedly cites with approval and who also refuses to interact with his critics or the evidence they present. There are in the Pentateuch both general and specific points where the Bible agrees with events of the second millennium B.C. but not that of the first millennium B.C. An example is the covenant/treaty form. This treaty form is attested in Hittite archives many times. The suzereignty/vassal form of it always contains both a historical prologue and blessings clauses. This also occurs in Deuteronomy and the covenant established there between God and Israel. These elements do not occur in first millennium B.C. vassal treaties. Yet this is nowhere mentioned. In his discussion of treaties (especially pp. 76, 159-161) the view that Deuteronomy must be early (at least in structure) is dismissed because there are also first millennium B.C. treaties. However, the fact that these do not contain elements common to both Deuteronomy and Hittite vassal treaties is not discussed.
Second, there is a dichotomy set up between the reality of history and the miraculous where the divine intervenes. This is clearest on pp. 52 and 53 where Lemche writes, of the Sinai revelation, “Such a revelation simply goes beyond what is from a historian’s point of view acceptable, because God cannot be the subject of historical reflection.” Again, of the manna feeding Israel in the wilderness, “God provides for his people! Literature can handle miracles, history cannot.” These comments suggest what is borne out consistently elsewhere in the book. The real issue is not the contradictions between the Pentateuch and second millennium B.C. history and culture – contradictions that are not in any case irrefutable. Nor is it the ability to write big books with a variety of genres (pp. 218-219, 223-225), which Lemche does not find before the late first millennium B.C. No, embedded beneath these many important observations lay the key concern, the inability to reconcile the presence of a God who appears, speaks, and acts in historical space-time reality. God is by definition excluded from history. Therefore the Pentateuch cannot be historical. There can be exciting and interesting stories but they cannot have historical value or worth because they relate events that are not within the author’s definition of what can occur in history. This is not a new definition of history; it is a popular scholarly one. However, it is no more valid than the view that regards the actions and words of a deity or a whole divine realm as a normal part of the world; now, in the future, and in the past.
There is much in Lemche’s volume that is of value, especially in the second section where he deals with the history of Syro-Palestine and its neighbors in the Bronze Age. However, other parts of the volume should be balanced by scholars and books on the Pentateuch and the period that Lemche does not mention; as for example may be found in the annotated Old Testament bibliography of this journal.
Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Holy Week 1999