Posts Tagged ‘Biblical Archaeology’

The Age of Abraham and Israel

January 3, 2008

One of the most contentious areas in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East today is the debate between the ‘maximalist’ and ‘minimalist’ archaeologists regarding the foundation of Israel. The maximalists consider that the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament – is a more or less accurate description of the history of the Hebrew people and ancient Israel. The minimalists, on the other hand, largely reject the accuracy of the Old Testament narrative, viewing it as too late and ideologically tainted to be an accurate representation of events. Thus, archaeologists like R.B. Coote and K.W. Whitelam have deliberately adopted a policy of ‘minimal recourse to Biblical texts’ in the words of another leading minimalist, Norman Gottwald. 1 A crucial part of this debate has been over the nature of the emergence of Israel in the late Bronze Age. Although most archaeologists thirty years ago considered that Israel emerged through the settlement of nomadic tribes c. 1200 BC, this consensus was seriously challenged in 1979 by the Marxist scholar, Norman Gottwald. 2 Gottwald instead considered that ancient Israel was the product of a revolution by indigenous peasants against the domination of the Canaanite city states.

In 1985 Gottwald’s ‘Peasant Revolt’ model was attacked in turn by the Danish scholar, Nils Lemche. Lemche was particularly critical of Gottwald’s assumption that sedentary farmers and nomads stood in opposition to each other. He noted several examples where some nomads settled down, so that the settled peoples and nomads of an area were actually related to each other. He also cited examples of where cities and villages were part of a continuum with mutual interaction, and concluded ‘that there is no instance in teh anthropological literature of the existence of the type of opposition between peasants and city presumed by Gottwald.’ 3

Lemche himself is certainly no maximalist, and is strongly critical of the historical accuracy of the Bible. Not all scholars share this view, however. The German scholar Udo Worschech in 1983 used the results of anthropology to argue for the historical reliability of the traditions about the patriarch Abraham. 4 Interestingly, despite his opposition to the historical reliability of the Bible, Lemche’s demonstration of the lack of a opposition between city dwellers, farmers and nomads actually supports an ancient date for the composition of Genesis.

I was discussing the date of Genesis with a friend a little while ago, who pointed out that the type of semi-nomadic lifestyle described in Genesis was typical of the type of society depicted in the Mitanni texts. The Mitanni were a people situated roughly northeast of present day Syria, whose civilisation reached its zenith between 1450 and 1350 BC before being destroyed by the Hittites and Assyrians. 5 Although some of the names of the towns mentioned in Genesis belong to a later period, the society described is the same semi-nomadic culture as that of the Mitanni, and there are technical legal terms in the Hebrew that also belong to this period. Contrary to the minimalist hypothesis, which saw Genesis as a late development projected back into the past by the Israelites to support their nationhood, the similarities between the culture of the Mitanni and the semi-nomadism of Abraham and his descendents indicates a very early origin for the book of Genesis. The accuracy of this depiction would seem to be supported by Lemche’s own observation of the lack of a dichotomy between sedentary and nomadic peoples. Thus, paradoxically, Lemche’s observations in this area could actually support the historicity of the Bible, despite his own rejection of the Bible as an accurate record of historical events.


1. J.B. Martin, ‘Israel as a Tribal Society’ in R.E. Clements, ed., The World of Ancient Israel: Sociological, Anthropological and Political Perspectives (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1989), p. 114.

2. J.W. Rogerson, ‘Anthropology and the Old Testament’, in Clements, ed., Ancient Israel, p. 27.

3. J.W. Rogerson, ‘Anthropology and the Old Testament’, in Clements, ed., Ancient Israel, p. 29.

4. J.W. Rogerson, ‘Anthropology and the Old Testament’, in Clements, ed., Ancient Israel, p. 31.

5. ‘1380-1200 The New Hittite Kingdom’ in Hermann Kinder and Werner Hilgemann, translated by Ernest A. Menze, maps designed by Harald and Ruth Bukor, The Penguin Atlas of World History – Volume 1: From the Beginning to the Eve of the French Revolution (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1978), p. 35.