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How Israel Became a People

How Israel Became a People

by Ralph K. Hawkins

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How did Israel become a people? Is the biblical story accurate? In what sense, if any, is the biblical story true? Are the origins of these ancient people lost in myth or is there hope to discovering who they were and how they lived? These questions divide students and scholars alike.

While many believe the "Conquest" is only a fable, this book will present a


How did Israel become a people? Is the biblical story accurate? In what sense, if any, is the biblical story true? Are the origins of these ancient people lost in myth or is there hope to discovering who they were and how they lived? These questions divide students and scholars alike.

While many believe the "Conquest" is only a fable, this book will present a different view. Using biblical materials and the new archaeological data, this title tells how the ancient Israelites settled in Canaan and became the people of Israel.

The stakes for understanding the history of ancient Israel are high. The Old Testament tells us that Yahweh led the Hebrews into the land of Canaan and commanded them to drive its indigenous inhabitants out and settle in their place. This account has often served as justification for the possession of the land by the modern state of Israel. Archaeology is a "weapon" in the debate, used by both Israelis and Palestinians trying to write each other out of the historical narrative. This book provides needed background for the issues and will be of interest to those concerned with the complexity of Arab-Israeli relations.

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How Israel Became a People

By Ralph K. Hawkins

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-5543-9



At ten o'clock in the morning of the day following the events I have described, the trial of Dmitri Karamazov began in our district court.

I hasten to emphasize the fact that I am far from esteeming myself capable of reporting all that took place at the trial in full detail, or even in the actual order of events. I imagine that to mention everything with full explanation would fill a volume, even a very large one. And so I trust I may not be reproached for confining myself to what struck me. I may have selected as of most interest what was of secondary importance, and may have omitted the most prominent and essential details. But I see I shall do better not to apologise. I will do my best and the reader will see for himself that I have done all I can.

—The narrator of The Brothers Karamazov, upon beginning his account of the trial of Dmitri Karamazov

When I first began teaching courses in the history of Israel or in biblical archaeology, I would devote considerable time to reconstructing the Israelite settlement in Canaan. Each time, students would ask, "Why do we need to reconstruct the history of the Israelite settlement? Doesn't the Bible give us an exact historical report as to how the Israelites came into Canaan?" Each semester, as I sought to begin teaching on the Israelite settlement, someone would inevitably raise their hand and ask these questions. It did not make sense to these students why we needed to make a full-blown historical and archaeological reconstruction of the "conquest" when we have accounts of the process in the books of Joshua and Judges. Over time, I added an entirely new component to these classes, preceding any discussion of the "conquest" itself, in which the question of why one must reconstruct the Israelite settlement was addressed. The answer has to do with the intent of the biblical writers. Were they trying to write a full, comprehensive history? Or were they doing something else? And if so, what was it? In this chapter, we will explore these questions first by reviewing the history of biblical archaeology and the "conquest," followed by an examination of history and historiography, and then by looking at the book of Joshua itself.


A crisis in Israelite historiography has been percolating in recent years. That the crisis may have reached a boiling point may be indicated by the recent publication of a volume of essays by European scholars who seek to address the question of whether it is even possible to write a history of Israel. Many of the contributors to this volume say no. The current skepticism seems to be a swinging of the pendulum away from the Biblical Theology Movement of the 1940s through the 1960s, which was made up of North American and European Protestants who, while they acknowledged the legitimacy of historical criticism, held strongly to the concept of divine revelation in history. In line with its conscious orientation to reading the Bible for the church, those associated with the Biblical Theology Movement sought to recover the Bible as a theological book, emphasize its unity, make central God's revelation of God's self in history, and stress the distinctiveness of the biblical perspective. G. Ernest Wright established himself as one of the major representatives of the Biblical Theology Movement with his monograph God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital, in which he argued, "In Biblical faith everything depends upon whether the central events actually occurred," and, "To participate in Biblical faith means that we must indeed take history seriously as the primary data of the faith." Wright believed "the Bible, unlike the other religious literature of the world, is not centered in a series of moral, spiritual and liturgical teachings, but in the story of a people who lived at a certain time and place." If those events did not happen, then the biblical faith is erroneous. It was his understanding of the importance of the historicity of biblical events that led Wright to place such an emphasis on archaeology. He explained, "The intensive study of the biblical archaeologist is thus the fruit of the vital concern for history which the Bible has instilled in us.... Biblical theology and biblical archaeology must go hand in hand, if we are to comprehend the Bible's meaning." Another of Albright's disciples, J. Bright, went as far as to argue that the locus of authority for the interpretation of Scripture had shifted from theological approaches to the "one admissible method for arriving at the meaning of the biblical text: the grammatico-historical method," which Z. Zevit has correctly understood to have "included control of data from excavations."

This approach led to what some have perceived as a parochial and reactionary character in archaeology that became preoccupied with the idea that "archaeology confirms biblical history," and nowhere was this application of biblical archaeology seen to be more apropos than with regard to the "conquest." In the middle of the twentieth century, English language scholarship on ancient Israel was dominated by W. F. Albright, who promoted what came to be known as the "Conquest Model," which will be discussed in detail in the next chapter. Suffice it to say here that this is the theory that the Israelites gained their homeland in Canaan solely as the result of war. In 1935, Albright synthesized the archaeological evidence available at the time and made the case that enough evidence was available to reconstruct a chronological outline of the Israelite conquest. By 1937, he concluded that the archaeological evidence clearly demonstrated that the Israelites had carried out a wholesale conquest of the land of Canaan at the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E. This view was adopted by Albright's disciples, especially G. E. Wright. Both Albright and Wright later acknowledged a somewhat more flexible interpretation of the book of Joshua and the conquest, but they continued to defend the Conquest Model with the trowel, and it reigned while they were alive. The Conquest Model has often been accepted by noncritical biblical students and by many biblical scholars as the "biblical view" of how Israel emerged in Canaan, and it has continued to garner some support among evangelical scholars even today.

In about the mid-twentieth century, however, cracks began to show in the Conquest Model as discrepancies began to emerge between the account of the conquest in the book of Joshua (as perceived by adherents to the Conquest Model) and the archaeological evidence. Wright himself acknowledged that those who had sought to "confirm the Bible" with archaeology had been guilty of "overstatement," and the use of archaeology for this purpose contributed to the demise of the Biblical Theology Movement, beginning in the late 1950s. By the late 1960s, leading biblical archaeologists seemed to be seeking to distance themselves from Wright's empiricist position. W. G. Dever claims that by the 1960s, the Biblical Theology Movement was dead. Indeed, by the 1970s, both European and American scholars began to criticize the American school's use of archaeology in the reconstruction of Israelite history, the archaeology of "conquest" had fallen out of favor, archaeology came to be seen as contradicting the book of Joshua, and the text of Joshua came to be read in ways other than as a straightforward historical report of Israel's lightning- like entrance into Canaan. In order to reach conclusions about how the book of Joshua ought to be read and understood, we must first consider how history and historiography were understood in the ancient world.


Should the events recorded in the Hebrew Bible and, more specifically, in the book of Joshua, be regarded as having actually occurred? Did the author or authors intend for the reader to view the contents of the work as historical, or are modern readers naïve if they assume that? In this section, we will consider the meaning of the terms history and historiography, how historiography developed and was understood in the ancient world, and how to determine whether a text is historiographical in nature.

Defining Terms

Historiography is among the most difficult subjects in biblical studies to define. In the study of historiography, a distinction is generally made between the terms history and historiography. B. T. Arnold notes, however, that "history is itself a word needing clarification, and historiography is inherently ambiguous." Generally, we could say that "history" is the past itself, while "historiography" is the recounting of that past.

Since the Enlightenment, historiography has been evaluated more and more by the criteria of modern historiographers. In the nineteenth century, Leopold von Ranke, a Prussian historian often considered to be one of the key founders of modern source-based history, staked out the parameters of history as a discipline whose primary interest was in history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist ("as it actually occurred"). Arnold notes that, ever since the days of von Ranke, "Modern standards of history writing have routinely been applied to ancient authors, assuming the ancients thought about history and wrote history in a way similar to modern historians." In 1956, for example, R. G. Collingwood defined history as "a kind of research or inquiry" that is conducted through the analysis of evidence, and that has as its goal the acquisition of "human self-knowledge." Collingwood's scientific definition obviously precludes the categorization of Mesopotamian or biblical texts from being categorized as history. M. Z. Brettler notes that his definition is "unnecessarily restrictive" and "reflects a modern bias toward scientific history, a bias which reflects the relatively recent growth of history as a university academic discipline. Few, if any, premodern works would be categorized as history if we rigidly followed Collingwood."

In the 1960s, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga defined history as "the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of the past." Already in the previous decade he had defined the parameters of history. He explained that

History adequate for our culture can only be scientific history. In the modern Western culture the form of knowledge about occurrences in this world is critical-scientific. We cannot surrender the demand for the scientifically certain without damaging the conscience of our culture. Mythic consolidations of the past can still have literary value for us as a form of play—but for us they are not history.

Huizinga's remarks lower the biblical text to the level of something produced in the toddler's playroom, unworthy of even being considered when reflecting on the ancient past.

John Van Seters adopted Huizinga's basic definition of history in his major study, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History, which continues to be one of the most significant studies of ancient Near Eastern history writing in modern times. In this pioneering work, Van Seters sought to illuminate the origins and nature of Israelite historiography through a comparison of it with the historiography of other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Drawing on Huizinga's definition, Van Seters argues that history must be nonpragmatic and nondidactic, and, consequently, he eliminates much that others would recognize as historical. Ultimately, Van Seters understands history to be an intellectual form of corporate self-understanding, or "national history," and concludes that this kind of historiography did not develop in Israel until the sixth century B.C.E. and was the invention of the so-called Deuteronomist. While one may or may not agree with Van Seters's conclusions, "his work serves as an essential and important corrective, which has placed biblical history writers in their proper perspective as ANE (Ancient Near East) authors, and compels us to read their works on their own terms." In order to appreciate the nature of the biblical history, we, too, must consider the history, development, and nature of ancient Near Eastern historiography.

The History of the Development of Historiographical Writing in Antiquity

Owing to the wealth of ancient Near Eastern texts that have become available in modern times, we can now reconstruct at least a partial picture of the development of historiography in the ancient world. In ancient Mesopotamia, the raw materials for historiography began to appear early, in the early third millennium B.C.E. The Weidner Chronicle contains a narration of events from the Early Dynastic period of Sumerian history (the first half of the third millennium B.C.E.) down to the reign of Shulgi (2094–2047 B.C.E.). The purpose of the narrative is to show that those rulers who failed to provide fish offerings for the temple Esagil struggled while those who did flourished. A. Kirk Grayson observed that Babylon and its temple Esagil did not become important enough to warrant such special attention from Mesopotamian rulers until the first dynasty of Babylon, which led him to suggest that "certainly his or some previous writer's imagination was the source of the information about each monarch's attitude towards the provision of fish for Esagil" by the rulers in the early periods. The text, therefore, is a "fanciful portrayal of the history of the cult of Esagil" and "a blatant piece of propaganda" intended to caution future rulers about the importance of Babylon and the need to adhere to its cult. The Assyrian Annals are similarly propagandistic, which prevented their authors from inquiring seriously about the past. The most important Babylonian contribution to the historiographic genre is The Babylonian Chronicle Series, for which extant copies survive from the reign of Darius I (521–486 B.C.E.). These texts do not restrict their content to positive information but include negative information as well, including occasions when gods failed to be brought to religious festivals or were stolen from their temples. The texts also exhibit an interest in the politics of other nations and even report occasions when Babylon was defeated. The Babylonian Chronicle Series seems to reflect "a genuine intellectual interest in the history of Babylon itself."

In Egypt, the oldest known example of historical research is the Palermo Stone, the text of which is similar to other annals, but appears like a chronicle to have been composed at one sitting through gathering information from a range of sources. Another collection, the Annals of Amenophis II, is comparable to the Palermo Stone. Egyptian historiography reached its peak with the Annals of Thutmose III (1479–1425B.C.E.), which includes an extended narrative and a clear plot line and even utilizes source citations, both of which are features shared with biblical historiographic texts. The Victory Stela of King Piye weaves together an assortment of sources, and even preserves some of their style.

The history of Egypt written by Manetho (third century B.C.E.) was basically a list with an assortment of epigrammatic stories and extended narrative occurrences woven into it. While Manetho's reasons for writing his history are not entirely clear, he does reveal a clear apologetic purpose in a statement about his desire to correct some of Herodotus's misrepresentations of Egypt. Finally, various records that report the defeat and expulsion of the Hyksos have survived, and these can be compared with an interesting New Kingdom tale of the conflict which incorporated elements of fable and tradition into the story.

In Hatti, historiography developed along the same lines as in Assyria, commencing with royal inscriptions and reaching its fruition with annalistic historiography. Early texts, such as the Anitta Text, which dates to the Hittite Old Kingdom, are basically assemblages of royal inscriptions. An advance in the development of Hittite historiography occurred with the publication of the Annals of Hattusili I (seventeenth century B.C.E.), which contained a year-by-year narrative of the king's heroic deeds. The Ammuna Chronicle (sixteenth century B.C.E.) marks another step forward, in that its author seems to have avoided blatant propaganda in an attempt to give more temperate historical reports. Hittite historiography burgeoned with the Annals of Mursili II (fourteenth century B.C.E.), which has survived in two different editions, the Ten-Year Annals and the Comprehensive Annals. The Ten-Year Annals contain a carefully organized commemoration of the first decade of Mursili II's reign. The Comprehensive Annals, which were more thorough in every respect and represent a highly developed level of historical thought, marks the high point of Hittite historiography, despite the clear intention to honor the king. Similarly, the later Apology of Hattusili III (thirteenth century B.C.E.), which contains a long historical review of Hattusili III's ascent to the throne, was also designed to exonerate the king.


Excerpted from How Israel Became a People by Ralph K. Hawkins. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ralph K. Hawkins (Ph.D., Andrews University) is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Averett University in Danville, Virginia, and is a research associate with the Horn Archaeological Museum in Berrien Springs, Michigan. (as of 5/25/12 KA)

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