Nor Is It Necessarily Not So, Part I
Jonathan D. Safren
yonsaf at beitberl.beitberl.ac.il
Sat Nov 6 11:05:59 EST 1999
Several days ago, Dr. Albert Naccache, on the ANE List, reproduced an
article by Prof. Ze'ev Hertzog, "It A'int Necessarily So", which had
appeared in the Oct. 29 edition of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz newspaper.
In this article, Hertzog debunked the value of the Bible as an
On Nov. 5, a retort appeared in Ha'aretz by Herschel Shanks, "Nor Is It
Necessarily Not So'. I am reproducing it on the Tanakh lists, where it
properly belongs, in 2 parts. Below follows the first part.
Jonathan D. Safren
Dept. of Biblical Studies
Beit Berl College
44905 Beit Berl Post Office
Friday, November 5, 1999
Nor Is It Necessarily Not Sso
The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not make an
exodus and did
not conquer the land; so said Professor Ze'ev Herzog in
last week. Not so, responds an American Jewish author
archaelogist ; just because we have not yet found hard
support the veracity of the biblical narrative does not
make it untrue
By Hershel Shanks
"The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert,"
proclaims my archaeologist friend Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University
("It ain't necessarily so," Ha'aretz
Magazine, October 29). He thus aligns himself with a small group of
scholars widely known as the "Biblical inimalists," although one of
their number, Philip Davies of the University of Sheffield in England,
has called this "a sneering epithet." According to the minimalists, the
Bible is worthless as a source of history for the periods it describes;
the texts were written hundreds and hundreds of years after the events
they describe and thus can tell us, at most, about the period when they
were composed, but nothing about the events they describe.
The minimalists are sometimes called the Copenhagen School because
several of their most prominent members are affiliated with the
University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Others are in Scotland, England and
the United States. Among Israeli scholars, the minimalists
are perceived as including Herzog's distinguished
colleague (and another friend) Israel Finkelstein, whom Herzog cites
approvingly in his article. While the minimalists have no
formal organization and they do differ in details, they share the basic
view that the Bible is essentially a fictionalaccount that served other
functions for the biblical authors, creating a glorious, but
false, national history at a much later time.
That the minimalists are motivated by interests other than pure
scholarship is widely acknowledged. Again, they differ somewhat from one
another. Almost all, like Herzog and
Finkelstein, are serious scholars. But most of them also have a
political agenda. Professor Avraham Malamat of Hebrew University
publicly described one of them as both
"anti-Israel and anti-Bible." At the extreme, they can even be viewed as
anti-Semitic. One of their number has written a book entitled, "The
Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing
of Palestinian History." That about says it all.
In short, just as Herzog accurately tells us that "the archaeology of
Palestine...sprang from religious motives," so the position of the
minimalists often takes on a conscious anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian
In this, it resonates with some of the recent revisionist histories of
modern Israel. It also connects with a certain current faddish lack of
pride in Israel's history, both modern and ancient, as well as a certain
embarrassment at placing any great value, for whatever purposes, on the
Bible. In Israel as well as elsewhere in the world, the Bible has
somehow become associated with the literalists, the fundamentalists and
evangelical Christians, not with
sophisticated academic scholars.
Hence, it is not surprising that Herzog alludes to the Israeli-Arab
conflict in an article otherwise about the Bible and archaeology:
Although "part of Israeli society is ready
to recognize the injustice that was done to the Arab inhabitants of the
country," he tell us, it is not ready to recognize that "the
archaeological facts...shatter the biblical myth."
Taken on its merits, Herzog's argument is simplistic and flawed. But it
is also very clever and, as one might expect from such a distinguished
archaeologist, based on an intimate knowledge of the facts on the
ground. But the arguments are much more subtle than Herzog's
quick-and-easy analysis recognizes.
A human composition
All modern critical scholars recognize that the Bible is a human
composition (although this does not exclude the pssibility that it is
also inspired). Its purpose is primarily theological, not historical.
(History cannot deal with miracles, for example.) And it is tendentious;
it exaggerates to make a point. It often speaks metaphorically when it
appears to a modern mind to be speaking factually. And, of course, given
the fact that it is a human document, it can also be inaccurate.
But it also preserves its own dissent. We often get two (or more) sides
of a story or event. Even its greatest heroes, whose history it is
supposed to serve, are human and therefore flawed.
It is in this context that we must ask whether there is any history to
be found in it. The view that simply says No is unwilling to do the hard
work that the task requires - or, for other reasons, prefers to deny the
possibility that there is history embedded in the text.
Take, for example, the exodus. We don't need Professor Herzog to tell us
that 2 million Israelites did not cross the Sinai on their way out of
Egypt, despite the biblical
implication as to this number (Exodus 12:37). And neither an
archaeologist nor a historian can reply to the question as to whether
God parted the Red Sea. It is also true that, as Professor Herzog tells
us, no Egyptian document mentions the Israelites' presence in Egypt, nor
the events of the exodus. That is really all he says to support his
grandiose lead: "The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in
the desert." Given this lead, I am surprised that he did not add the
usual canard that there is no archaeological evidence of the Israelites'
wandering in the desert.
Instead, Herzog begins to contradict himself. He admits that "many
[Egyptian] documents do mention the custom of nomadic shepherds to enter
Egypt during periods of drought and hunger and to camp at the edges of
the Nile Delta." This suggests that it is at least plausible that the
Israelites (or the Israelites in formation) were among these groups. And
Herzog fails to mention that the Egyptians tell us that these shepherds
(and others) came from Asia and
that they settled in precisely the area where the Bible tells us the
Herzog counters, however, that "this was not a solitary phenomenon: such
events occurred frequently across thousands of years and were hardly
exceptional." Does this prove that the Israelites were not one of these
groups? Hardly. Herzog's point is perhaps that the story could have been
invented years later. Of course that it is possible. But the reverse is
equally possible. He has surely not proved that Israel was not there.
Yet that is all he says to prove his
In fact, much more could be said that reinforces the plausibility of an
Israelite sojourn in Egypt. An Austrian archaeologist has identified a
so-called four-room house usually identified with Israelites that he
discovered in Goshen, the part of the Nile Delta where the Israelites
settled. A prominent English Egyptologist has noted that the price for
which Joseph was sold into slavery was the price at the time of the
supposed event, rather than the much higher price that prevailed when
the story was composed. All scholars agree that in the mid-second
millennium B.C. Egypt was ruled by some Asiatic interlopers known as the
Hyksos. All this - and much more - plausibly suggests a real, historical
prehistory of the
Israelites in Egypt.
Slaves, not kings
When people invent histories for themselves, their ancestors are secret
kings or princes or descendants of gods. Who would invent a history of
their people as slaves, if there were not some truth in it?
If you read Herzog carefully, he grudgingly admits that there probably
was an Egyptian sojourn and an exodus: "At best, the stay in Egypt and
the exodus occurred in a few
families," he concedes. That poses a different question. Now we are
really talking about how big the group was, not whether there was such a
group. Perhaps it was only a few hundred, or a few thousand. But that is
a far cry from trumpeting as fact that "the Israelites were never in
Egypt, did not wander in the desert."
Herzog admits that during the period identified with the Israelite
settlement (Iron Age I, 1200-1000 B.C.E.), "hundreds of small
settlements were established in the area of the central hill region of
the Land of Israel." He cannot bring himself to call people who lived in
these settlements the emerging Israelites, although that is precisely
the area where, according to the Bible, the Israelites settled. Citing
his colleague Israel Finkelstein, Herzog identifies these settlers as
Canaanite shepherds settling down. The implication is that Israel
emerged out of Canaanite society.
But if you read the Bible carefully, this suggestion is not at all
surprising: Ancient Israel emerged out of many groups. Some tribes, like
Asher and Dan, were associated with
ships (Judges 5:17). The polyglot nature of early Israel is reflected in
Ezekiel's proclamation: "By origin and birth you are from the land of
the Canaanites - your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite"
(Ezekiel 16:3). The Shechemites were circumcised to become part of
Israel (Genesis 34). In short, the Bible is a lot more subtle than
Herzog gives it credit for. The fact that many groups accreted and
became part of Israel does not detract from the fact that some, whose
story became the national story, came from Egypt where they had been
Certainty eludes us when we are talking about the history of ancient
Israel. We must talk about possibilities, likelihoods, plausibility and,
at most, probability. I have not proved that there was an Egyptian
sojourn and exodus. But neither has Herzog disproved it. And I believe
my case is better than his, that is, that an element of ancient Israel
came out of Egypt. For all that, however, we must learn to live with
uncertainty. When we trumpet the negative, we
only play into the hands of the worst elements among the biblical
The same kind of analysis that applies to the Egyptian sojourn and the
exodus is applicable to the other instances cited by Herzog.
Take the Patriarchal Narratives. It is true that an earlier generation
of scholars thought they had identified the patriarchal age - and they
were wrong. From this, the minimalists conclude that there was no
patriarchal age and that there is no historical truth behind the
narratives. That the earlier effort to identify the patriarchal age
failed does not mean that there was no patriarchal age. Archaeology has
not disproved the existence of a patriarchal age. It has
simply failed to identify one.
Nor has archaeology proved that the patriarchs never lived. Doubtless,
the stories contain legendary material (we come to this conclusion not
on the basis of archaeology but on
the basis of the stories themselves), but they may well reflect an
accurate historical context. As is often stated, the absence of evidence
is not evidence of absence. This aphorism is not always applicable, but
it is applicable here.
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