The RBL Review of Arnold and Hess, Ancient Israel’s History
A Denver Journal Review Article by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Richard S. Hess
Emanuel Pfoh, review of Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess, eds., Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources, Review of Biblical Literature (2017).
Emanuel Pfoh has been chosen to provide the RBL review to our edited volume, Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources. In his first paragraph Pfoh indicated that he will “attack” the procedures of history writing in this volume where there has been “hardly any epistemological progress in the shaping and construction of the past.” This is important because in it Pfoh reveals that he will not review the book in terms of what it attempts to do, which is to examine the sources for understanding the world of ancient Israel, including the Bible and extra biblical works. Rather, he assumes that his progressive epistemology is correct and that any deviation must be wrong.
Thus Pfoh cannot find his version of “epistemological or methodological discussion” in my introductory chapter. He insists that there is no examination of the nature of the Bible as a source for writing history nor any discussion as to how to interpret the biblical data. Only four pages of my introduction are devoted to history writing and they do not discuss “these important issues.”
In fact, the casual reader will discover that 19 of the 22 pages of introduction are devoted to these issues. On the nature of the Bible as a history source and on how to interpret it, I point out, among other things, that:
- their sense of the past gave Israel an identity (p. 1),
- history was an essential expression of Israel’s faith (p. 2),
- the text reveals virtues and vices of its characters (p. 3),
- the current work will accept the Bible as potentially a legitimate source for the study of history (p. 4),
- Wellhausen contributed to historical understanding and interpretation in his sequencing of the Pentateuch’s literary sources (p. 5),
- Gunkel developed an awareness of shared genres (p. 6),
- Albright introduced a disciplined approach to archaeological study of the Holy Land (p. 7),
- questions of higher critical assumptions emerged in the views of histories developed in the 1970’s and 1980’s (p. 8),
- Soggin illustrated the use of records, lists, and administrative documents in the Bible for the identification of historical sources (p. 9),
- historical value and literary quality are not necessarily related (p. 10),
- with Younger we do not see ideology in the Bible as necessarily propaganda (p. 11),
- the discovery of mention of the “house of David” on a late ninth century BCE stele from Dan is relevant for biblical history and the Davidic dynasty (p. 12),
- Thompson’s argument that there was insufficient population to support the United Monarchy’s existence is a position without evidence (p. 13),
- Ahlström’s basic trust in archaeological evidence (at least after 1000 BCE) in relation to the Hebrew Bible revealed a position of critical orthodoxy (p. 14),
- Finkelstein and Silberman’s approach extolled their views but did not mention or interact with alternative approaches (p. 15),
- along with Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament six volumes of papers address the Copenhagen school’s approach from which Pfoh builds his case (p. 16),
- the comparative evidence of texts recently published from Emar, Ugarit, Mari, Neo-Assyria, and Luwian sources provide important insights into the world of ancient Israel (p. 17),
- van Bekkum’s method allows the biblical text and the archaeological evidence to speak for themselves before comparing and contrasting them (p. 18), and
- a recent example that synthesizes the two without doing injustice to either is the work of the late Anson Rainey (p. 19).
Pfoh is unable to find these 19 points on the first 19 pages. Perhaps he thinks they do not address what he would call the nature of the Bible and the interpretation of history. I will let the readers decide for themselves. However, to contend that the matters are not discussed is to ignore what we have written. Pfoh does this repeatedly. Thus he states that Arnold does not distinguish between biblical Israel and historical Israel in discussing Genesis. Yet that is exactly what Arnold does on the first page of his chapter when he asserts the need to identify and discuss the distinctive genre of literature from the history that it may or may not contain. It is true that in doing so on the following pages Arnold does place Pfoh’s position, that the Bible does not exist at all in terms of the usefulness of Genesis as containing historical traditions, at the extreme end of the spectrum (pp. 25-26). But that is where it belongs in current historiographical approaches. If Pfoh wishes to challenge this, then he should address the issues and evidence discussed, not pretend that distinctions are ignored.
The careful work of Stone in reconstructing the period remembered in the book of Joshua is dismissed as a “rationalistic paraphrase.” This expression is a favorite phrase among those who minimize the value of the Bible’s traditions for any historical use. If one incorporates in any way the witness of Scripture, one can be ignored by this name calling. Such nicknaming also justifies overlooking the evidence in favor of Pfoh’s “metatheory.” Interestingly, Pfoh does not challenge the identification of the people group in Merneptah’s stele as Israelites, a ploy sometimes taken by people who share his disdain for historical evidence but one that is linguistically implausible. Instead, he argues that simply because the Egyptians called Iron Age I people Israelites “does not equal a self-conscious ethnic group.” For Pfoh, the people were called Israelites but they did not realize they were Israelites. “Israelites” is not a social class like the apiru, whose name appears repeatedly and is applied to chronologically and geographically diverse groups. It is a name that appears once in the midst of known cities and places. To cast doubt on such a distinct people group would normally require evidence. Pfoh does not feel compelled to supply any.
Bodi’s literary (topos) approach and Ortiz’s archaeological approach to the United Monarchy are again tarred with the same brush of following the biblical narrative, rather than discussed critically in terms of the evidence they present. Greengus’ chapter is understood as having been placed where it is in order to support a second millennium BCE date for covenants in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Pfoh is happier with his conclusions that argue for a later date for Deuteronomy due to Neo-Assyrian treaty influences. This may be the only point about which Pfoh has anything positive to write.
Pfoh asserts that writing a history of Israel without the Bible is a key question (or group of questions) that needs to be asked. He represents writers who approach the history of Israel in this manner. I discuss them in the first chapter (see the section on “Suspicious Histories”) and explain that this is not an approach that the book will take. So, for Pfoh, the evidence presented in this book has no appeal or interest because it does not match his pre-conceived paradigms that have now become the “traditional” ones in some circles. However, the scholars chosen for this volume represent those who actually work with the extra biblical sources, as well as the biblical ones. So Pfoh’s review demonstrates the degree to which he rejects any approach that regards the biblical text seriously and finds points of intersection between it and other (especially recent) evidence and studies. It does not succeed in explaining why any of the proposals should not be accepted. Like the term, byt dwd, on the Tel Dan stela, the assumption that it cannot mean “house of David” as found in those texts of the Hebrew Bible that claim to date from its time and earlier, but rather must describe a temple or even be a forgery, is a counsel of desperation for those who cannot see the evidence through their metahistorical models.
*Thanks are due to Bill T. Arnold for reading and commenting on these comments.
Dr. Richard S. Hess, PhD
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament