Back to In Search of Israel

Notes from Philip R. Davies: In Search of 'Ancient Israel', 1992--

The first problem in the search for ancient Israel .....

...... What do we mean by "ISRAEL"?

Davies calls for a clear distinction between actual historical Israel we find in the archaeological record, and the literary Israel we find in the Biblical texts. He points out that Biblical scholars have generally assumed that the Israel found in the Bible is in general the same Israel found in actual history, but this assumption is logically and factually flawed:
"The fact is, then, that our 'ancient Israel' is not the biblical literary entity, nor an historical one. It is a scholarly creation deemed essential to the pursuit of biblical studies, and it has come about by the simple but erroneous step of lifting one kind of thing out of a text and setting it down somewhere else. It owes everything to Bible reading, nothing to critical reflection, and very little indeed to historical research." -- In Search of 'Ancient Israel', 1992 (p.29)

It is critical to decide if the Israel in the minds of the authors of the Bible ever was the same as a real kingdom that existed in history. Another scholar has compared the stories of Israel with the fanciful medieval romances of a semi-mythical Kingdom of Camelot. How can we know if this comparison is valid?

Before looking for the Israel of history in the archaeological record, first consider exactly what was the Israel we find in the Bible. If we are going to check the archaeological record to see if we can find the Israel of the Bible, let's first check to see exactly what we are looking for. What is the Israel of the Bible? ---

The Israel of the Biblical Literature


Is it A POLITICAL GROUP? (Political groups rarely coincide with one ethnic or religious group, and the kingdom of Israel was no exception. It consisted of many diverse racial and religious groups.)

Is it AN ETHNIC GROUP? (Ethnic groups are rarely the same as political or religious groups.)

Or is it A RELIGIOUS GROUP? (These are generally mixed ethnic groups and found across different political groups.)

Or.......Can it mean ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Will it mean the same to an archaeologist studying the physical remains of Iron Age Palestine as it means to the authors of the various uses it has in the Bible?

The Israel of the Bible has at least 10 different meanings. In the Bible Israel can mean:

    1. the name of the ancestor Jacob

    2. the name of the league of 12 tribes

    3. the name of a united kingdom whose capital was Jerusalem

    4. the name of the northern kingdom whose capital was Samaria (after the above kingdom broke up)

    5. after 722 bce, another name for Judah

    6. after the exile into Babylon, another name for the socio-religious community in left in the province of Yehud

    7. the name of a group within this community, the laity (as distinct from 'Aaron')

    8. the name for the descendants of Jacob/Israel

    9. a pre-monarchic tribal grouping in Ephraim

    10. adherants of various forms of Hebrew and Old Testament religion.

We may frequently (though certainly not always) say in what sense the Bible uses the word at any particular time, but that still leaves us with the question: What sort of word is this that is so fundamental to the Bible yet so wide-ranging and flexible? In the Bible the word always has an ideological or theological meaning. It means some individual or group that at some time belongs to God whether they are God's failures and rejects or his success stories. It is a literary and theological term that changes its meaning to fit different stories. (The New Testament continues and extends the different uses of the word Israel, again with an ideological meaning.)

Should an archaeologist who is studying the remains of the population of Iron Age Palestine assume that those remains (bits of pottery, building foundations, etc.) belong to the literary world of the Bible, and immediately turn to the Bible to explain the physical evidence? If so, then we are beginning with the assumption that the Bible stories are true before we study the evidence independently. We would be like an archaeologist digging up the remains of Troy and explaining every find by some reference to the mythical poems of Homer. To be logical and fair we first need to study the physical evidence independently, and only after having done that should we look to see where it matches the Bible.

Forward to The Archaeological Evidence for Ancient Israel

Back to In Search of Israel