In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel

I’ve just finished reading In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel, edited by John Day. For a fine-grained review of the book with summaries of the articles, see Joe Cathey’s review at RBL. These are just a few comments from off the top of my head.

Firstly, I have to admit that I was just a tad, a tiny little bit, disappointed by this book. Perhaps I was, entirely unrealistically I admit, expecting a bit more consistency than I should expect from a series of reworked papers originally delivered in a conference. This is a subject that really should be dealt with in detail, and which would benefit from the kind of consistency in approach that is really only possible in a work written by one author. That evenness of approach is lacking here, but, of course, is only to be expected due to the origins of the papers. If one of the authors of the works contained herein were to write such a book, based on the performances contained in this one, I would nominate, second, and inaugurate John Day for the duty.

In any case, I did find several of the chapters/papers to be especially outstanding in content as well as presentation: those of Ernest Nicholson “Current ‘Revisionism’ and the Literature of the Old Testament”, John Day “How Many Pre-Exilic Psalms are there?”, and W. G. Lambert “Mesopotamian Sources and Pre-Exilic Israel.” Day’s chapter is the prize of the book, I think. It is succint, well-argued, and, perhaps most importantly, not overburdened by too much unnecessary recapitulation of the secondary literature, a common problem in this book. Others that stand out in the Not-As-Stellar-But-Still-Pretty-Nifty Category were Graham Davies “Was there an Exodus?”, William Dever “Histories and Non-Histories of Ancient Israel: the Question of the United Monarchy”, and Katherine Dell “How much Wisdom Literature has its Roots in the Pre-Exilic Period?”

And then there are the rest of the articles, of which I only want to deal with a few in any detail. André Lemaire “Hebrew and West Semitic Inscriptions and Pre-Exilic Israel” suffers from the inclusion of non-provenanced materials from the antiquities market as “evidence.” That’s just tacky. Terry Fenton “Hebrew Poetic Structure as a Basis for Dating” suffers from a non-poet’s approach to poetry: fit the material into the appropriate pattern, everything else is extraneous. B. A. Mastin “Yahweh’s Asherah, Inclusive Monotheism and the Question of Dating” suffers from trying to avoid the explicit connotation in the pronominal suffix attached to Asherah in the Kuntillet `Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom marking it as a noun, not a name. Gary Knoppers “In Search of Post-Exilic Israel: Samaria After the Fall of the Northern Kingdom” is a mixed bag, describing the mass depopulation of most of the northern kingdom, but somehow also trying to ameliorate it for some unknown and unstated reason. Perhaps most egregiously, Bernard Levinson “Is the Covenant Code an Exilic Composition? A Response to John van Seters” takes 54 pages to say “no”. I suppose it’s rather a pet peeve of mine that we are on occasion subjected to the odious original of a thing and then recapitulation of it ad nauseam whenever a response addresses it. Once is enough!

Overall however, the volume is certainly valuable, and I’m glad I’ve read it. I’ve found much of it to be of value, though definitely not as much as I expected. I recommend it to anyone interested or involved in the “maximalist” versus “minimalist” controversy. This book weighs in, a welterweight, in the maximalist corner.

A consistent drawback I’ve noticed shared by this volume with others is that unusual theories, in this case of extraordinarily, unrealistically late datings of the biblical texts, are given validation by interaction, even by refutation. Stupid ideas stupidly posed should rather be ignored. Has anyone taken the time to write a refutation of Velikovsky’s fantasies? Why should some of these other equally unlikely peculiarities be priveleged with response? It’s a waste of preciously valuable time, and original, creative research is thereby left undone because of this dead-ending of attention on second-rate foolishness. It would be refreshing to see the main tendency in biblical studies in general return to study of the primary texts involved, that is, the actual biblical books, rather than an absurd fascination with secondary/tertiary/quaternary texts. The two are not to be equated.


  1. How strange! I can’t at all agree with you about Levinson’s article – I loved that one in particular. I think that Van Seters’ claims need exactly that sort of extremely technical, detailed examination to reveal their shortcomings. In general there is are a number of major differences between the “minimalists” and Velikovsky. Velikovsky was a maverick whose views were entirely marginal to the shcolarly community. But Thompson, Davies, Lemche, Van Seters are not only respected scholars who do sometimes have valuable contributions to make, but scholars whose theories, however stupid you may think them to be, have gained considerable influence. While some may regret that the academic agenda has gone in that direction, it is a fact that cannot be ignored, and the only sensible long-term response is not to ignore them but to carefully, painstakingly, thoroughly address the theories, dissect and dismantle them, if that is possible. I think that Levinson’s article certainly does precisely that to some of Van Seters’ claims, and the more of that we get the more Van Seters theories will be defused and disposed of.

  2. You’re hardly witless! I agree with you, of course, but 54 pages?!!! You have to admit that’s a whole lot of space just to say “no.” Gaining “considerable influence” doesn’t matter a whit to me, nor should it to you. Scholarship is not a democracy. And while we now see Velikovsky in a peculiar light, in his day he was seen quite differently, as more of a maverick scholar than a kook, quite like Thompson, et al, are currently seen, odd as that may seem to us. I personally don’t think that most such maverick stuff should be addressed in detail, as it takes far too much time away from original work. A terse rejection in a footnote is just as completely legitimate, and is how the majority of respond to those writers in any case. Should one really wish to be known for rebuttals rather than original scholarship? I don’t think so, but maybe others want to do that. It?s certainly legitimate work, but it?s just not something that I’m interested in. I don’t see it as a good way to spend my time, either in study/reading or writing. But thanks for the input!

  3. Dear Kevin, and colleagues:

    The debate here about my long article on the dating of the Covenant Code is one that I very much appreciate: and I fully understand the concerns. At the same time, with all due respect, Kevin, in this case I disagree. For scholars and colleagues whom I respect, as with friends, I consider silence a sin. If Van Seters were someone whose work was not significant–did not raise profound methodological and intellectual issues–I would then agree. But the first chapter of his book is simply brilliant, and should not be missed, for the way he challenges the models that have in the past been used to read the Covenant Code (as I stress in my article). Thus there are important contributions to be distinguished from the points that I think are much more problematic. He should also not be lumped in with “the minimalists”: the issues are quite different.

    When there are colleagues in the field whom you respect for their integrity, and who have made the kind of long-term contributions that John has, and who raise fundamental issues that go beyond details or specific points: I think then it is important–for the discipline, and for one’s intellectual growth–to think the issues through, and to wrestle.

    Part of me wonders whether, if you took a second look, some of the parts of the article that it seems to me you overlook (given the impatience of youth!) might still emerge, where I feel that there are a number of distinctive and original contributions that I am actually proud of: (1) To the best of my knowledge, no one has so extensively addressed the text-criticism of the altar law of the Covenant Code, and the way that matters for the broader reconstruction of the literary history of centralization; (2) the article provides the most comprehensive listing of the manuscript history of Hammurabi’s Code and makes a broad argument for the nature of literacy in Iron Age Israel of the NA period and this period as the most logical setting for the Covenant Code (see now David Wright’s new book); (3) there is an extensive meditation on the very concept of author and of editor in order to develop a more immanent model than had seemed to me available in the literature: much of the article’s length deals not with JVS but investigates comparative material to substantiate a new approach; and (4) the article’sconclusion moves beyond the entire scope of JVS to provide what I think is an original reading of the redactional significance of the altar law and how it functions in the overall theological logic of the Sinai pericope.

    I would not have written this long of a response to you, except out of respect for your own seriousness, and the richness of your blog.

    With every good wish,

    The article was updated and given a broader introduction in my recent, “The Right Chorale”: Studies in Biblical Law and Interpretation (FAT 54; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

  4. Dear Bernard,
    Thank you very much for that lengthy response! You’re very right about “the impatience of youth”! Delightful! And though I wrote that only nigh unto four years ago, I would certainly have a different perspective now. I’ll have to revisit a number of things that I’ve posted here, honestly, as my thinking has certainly changed.

    That “impatience” is something to work on, though. It just seems that there is so little time for anything these days, and all the incomplete projects (reading and writing, thankfully, no ‘rithmetic!) pile up. At the point that I wrote the above, I was just losing control of all that. Things that I’d begun were more easily finished prior to that, but starting up some long-term projects right about then led to less time for reading, more new books piling up on the “I’ll get to you someday” list, and so a sense of growing frustration with anything lengthy. So, I’m sorry your article (and that entire book!) were caught up in that.

    I’ll come back to History of Israel issues soon, I think. As you know, I’ve lately been focusing on the relationship of modern critical Biblical scholarship and antisemitism, and there’s a wealth of material there to get through. I’ll certainly be digging into your article again once I’m back on that track.

    Thanks very much for your comment!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *