Did Ancient Israel Really Exist?
One of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith concerns the unity of the Bible and the unity of the church across the Testaments. Stephen could speak in Acts 7:38 of the "church in the wilderness", referring to the people of God who had been redeemed from Egypt and called by Jehovah to follow Him. The Old Testament represents Israel as having emerged in Canaan by military conquest under the leadership of Joshua, and sees the land as a covenant pledge of God's grace. Israel was the chosen seed, upon whom God's love fell, unconditionally and graciously, in order that salvation might extend ultimately to the whole world.
It was to ancient Israel that God gave the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the prophets.Romans 9:4
Side by side with this is the revelation of the Church as the new Israel of God. The church is the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2), and according to Romans 11:26 "all Israel" shall be saved – a phrase which runs together the literal and figurative uses of Israel in the unfolding of God's programme of redemption.
This understanding of the history of salvation assumes that the documents of the Scriptures themselves are a primary witness to the history. There is a theology in the literature and a literature in the theology. God revealed himself in the facts of history, and it is to this self-disclosure that the Bible bears witness. But more than that; the Bible itself is a revelation, a historical self-manifestation on the part of God.
What is 'Ancient Israel'?
For some modern scholars, however, that is precisely the problem. The whole motion of ancient Israel is made to depend entirely upon a certain view of the Scriptures. Some have argued that this is to ignore that the Bible is a specific genre of literature, and that ancient Israel is simply a scholarly construct. Philip Davies, an Old Testament scholar in Sheffield, has questioned whether it is possible to find a historical record of Palestine outside of the biblical texts. And given the religious and theological bent of these texts, he reasons that they cannot be called as witnesses in an attempt to write the history of Palestine. The ancient Israel that arises from the religious texts of the Old Testament is simply a literary construct, which may or may not have a vague resemblance to the historical Palestine.
For Davies, the concept of ancient Israel functions merely as an academic creation, which owes nearly everything to Bible reading, nothing to critical reflection, and very little indeed to historical research.In Search of 'Ancient Israel', p31
Keith Whitelam of Stirling University has pushed this thesis further. In his The Invention of Ancient Israel he argues that the net effect of such religious reflection on 'Israelite' history has been to rob Palestine of its own history. The classic attempts to reconstruct the histories of Israel which appeared over the course of the twentieth century in particular, again employed the biblical texts as primary witnesses in this enterprise.
As a result, he argues, It is theological assumptions and biblical definitions which ultimately determine any understanding of the region.In Search of 'Ancient Israel', p51
To illustrate this, Whitelam says that if a student at a University, College or Seminary, wishes to study the history of Palestine, he or she has to do so in a biblical studies department, rather than in a history department. For Palestine, the ordinary rules of historiography do not apply. Instead of building a history on the basis of archaeological and sociological factors, the history is written in terms of the Bible's purpose and theological convictions. There is, on this reasoning, no Palestinian history to be found outside the literary and theological construct of "ancient Israel".
Whitelam's call is for Palestinian history to be reclaimed in its own right; consequently, he suggests, it will be necessary to expose the political and religious interests which have motivated the invention of ancient Israel within the discourse of biblical studies.In Search of 'Ancient Israel', p236
From any point of view, this is a radical alternative not only to how we 'do' Palestinian history (without the assumption that the biblical texts are a valid witness), but also to where we do Palestinian history (preferably out of theology departments and in history departments).
Was there An Ancient Israel?
There is a fallacy in the above arguments, of course, and it is that the literature of the Bible cannot be relied upon to illuminate or authenticate the history of Israel. Walter Kaiser has addressed this point in his recent A History of Israel, where he argues that any history which does not marshall all the available evidence – including literary evidence – is arbitrary in the extreme.
Similarly, V. Philips Long, in his The Art of Biblical History argues cogently that far from dismissing the literary (biblical) evidence as little more than a hindrance to historical reconstruction, historians should seek a closer coordination of archaeological and literary studies.Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, p375
The history cannot be reconstructed simply by a wholesale dismissal of the textual evidence. The Bible remains a primary source and a primary witness to the history of ancient Palestine.
That apart, there are other considerations for the Christian. First, faith is grounded in historical reality, and that means an intimate relationship between faith and place. Our faith was not given us in a vacuum, nor was it divorced from the circumstances of time and space in which it developed. The biblical testimony takes us to Palestine, and to Palestinian life and culture across a vast range of circumstances and a changing history. Devoid of its historical roots, the Christian faith is meaningless. And the Christian faith means walking in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham (Romans 4:12).
Second is the testimony of Christ himself. Not only did he assume the historical verifiability of the Old Testament, but he also grew up in the Palestinian world. He was aware of the history of his people, and found nothing discordant between what he understood the scriptural history to mean and what his people believed their history to be. For him, dependence on the literature of the Old Testament was no hindrance to the discovery of the history of his people. And he assumed not only the national movements of Palestine to be historically true, but also the individual stories, with all their supernatural import, such as that of Jonah, inside a fish, and Lot's wife, turned into a pillar of salt. Christ saw no discrepancy between what he read in the biblical source and what he knew from other sources about the history of the Jewish people.
Third is the modern tendency to deconstruct the textual witness, and take a minimalist approach to it. The postmodernist view that says that it is the reader, rather than the author, who imports meaning into the text, is set to do untold damage in the teaching of hermeneutics in the twenty-first century. On this view, what the original writers meant does not matter. What matters is the meaning we import into the Bible as we read it for ourselves. This can lead to the wholesale dismissal of the testimony of the Bible to ancient Israel. The Bible writers never intended to rob Palestine of its history by speaking of Israel as a community of faith supernaturally chosen and called by God to be a people for Himself. The fact of his presence was the essence of their history. The postmodernist, however can reconstruct this whole presentation, and by questioning authorial intent can argue that the contribution of the Bible to real history is minimal. This approach to biblical studies must be resisted. We must allow the Bible to speak for itself, and accept the historical credulity and verifiability of its testimony.
So if Jericho is not razed, is our faith in vain? One thing is certain: that without the foundation of God's self-manifestation in the events of history, faith has nothing upon which to lean. It is a response – the only fitting response – the God who is there, and who so interwove his revelation with the history of Palestine that issues of faith and history lie scattered across her land. Ancient Israel may be a scholarly construct, but it is no less valid because of that.