Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Was There an Ancient Israel? A Critique of Gary Rendsburg

By Rook Hawkins


This article will review the opening section of the new publication, The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship (2008 ), specifically the viewpoints and perspectives of the neoAlbrigtian position of skewed maximalism concerning the Hebrew Bible. This article will suffice to critique the many problems of assuming Biblical historicity, specifically where archeology is involved.

Rendsburg’s Position

In the book’s first chapter, Gary A. Rendsburg remarks, to the shock of his readers, that the “Bible does not exist.” (p. 3) If perhaps the reader did a double take, he assures his readers that the position he had just stated is “correct.” The Bible does not exist, or rather; perhaps this is just Rendsburg’s poor interpretation of the minimalist position. This is made ever more prevalent as Rendsburg attempts to back up his position with a large amount of minimalist arguments. After going over several of the most basic of them, Rendsburg states, “This approach is only mildly radical.” (p. 6) He spends a few more paragraphs on what he considers to be the “most radical reconstruction” of the history of the early Israelites by modern minimalists, Rendsburg gives us the following statement:

I don’t want to give you the impression that there are no maximalists left standing today. Indeed there are, and as you probably have gathered, I situate myself firmly in their camp…I can tell you this: there is no doubt that the minimalists are the more vocal, and they are the ones who set the agenda, publish books at a very rapid pace, organize conferences to present their views (especially in Europe), and take advantage of the popular press. The maximalists, in turn, frequently are left to respond to these diatribes, often needing to take time away from their own research to counter the views expressed in many publications emanating from the pens of minimalist scholars.[1]

Rendsburg is probably not alone in thinking this. It is hard to imagine somebody viewing about fifty-percent[2] of the ancient Near Eastern scholars in the world as sensationalist Marxists,[3] publishing articles in super quantities, who believe in “radical” reconstruction ideas.[4] Rendsburg would have his readers take his word on this, while telling them the minimalist claims the Bible “does not exist” simply because there is no reason to accept it as historically accurate. After befriending two of the most prominent minimalists, Thomas L. Thompson and Philip R. Davies, and reading much of the minimalist material out there, what Rendsburg is saying here is no less than dishonest hyperbole and blanket ad hominem. I would not presume to know the mind of Rendsburg, but spending the first seven pages of a sixteen page article to misrepresent and therefore ad hoc minimalists seems like a ploy of desperation rather than an attempt at helpful dialog.[5] Perhaps it is this sort of maneuvering that has stopped conversation between minimalists and maximalists, although these tactics would not inspire much trust on the part of any scholar. Why Rendsburg feels the need to shoot from a distance—a defensive move more than an accurate and unbiased approach to an alternative theory—is something that will need to be examined at the end of this study. When one clears through the first several pages, his actual arguments reveal themselves. He makes the methods he is using known to the read upfront. Starting with the presupposition that the Bible does not exist (sic!), Rendsburg will attempt to establish a history of Israel using only the archaeological evidence. Or so he says. Rather, as will become apparent, Rendsburg will be using his interpretation of the archaeological evidence, with each point he makes relying squarely on the validity of the one he interpreted previously. As we examine his case, the problems of this personal interpretation will be obvious. Rendsburg concludes his discussion with the confident statement that:

The only aspect of the Bible’s tale that is not clearly recognizable in this picture we have presented is the United Monarchy under David and Solomon. This is not to say that that element of the Bible’s narrative is fictional. Quite the contrary: since so much else of the Biblical material is confirmed by our exercise, we have every reason to believe that the descriptions of David and Solomon in the books of Samuel and Kings also reflect actual history.[6]

Several points of contention will be raised against this closing remark acting as the foundation of this article. (1) Is the United Monarchy the only aspect of Rendsburg’s exercise that is “not recognizable” or is there more? (2) How much else does Rendsburg assume in his exercise (relative to his naïve position that exactly what is unrecognizable is exactly what it is okay to assume)? (3) Is the minimalist position just “an agenda” that is “unsupported by facts(!)” which is “not to be countenanced,” as Rendsburg claims? (p. 20) Additional arguments will come up, and new looks at old theories will be explored. But like Rendsburg, we’re going to move through his arguments as he moves backwards through the evidence.

The Merneptah Stele

Rendsburg lists the Merneptah Stele as a piece which he concludes to be a “reference to the people of Israel.” He claims that, based on this stele, Israel was a “recognized entity.” (p. 11) The people of Israel are connected with the conquest of “land of Canaan”, found on the Stele. He links the land of Canaan by way of the conquest of three cities by Merneptah, also found on the Stele.[7] These cities are distinct, per Rendsburg, from the people of Israel. The question that must be answered here is if this stele represents an account of an ethnicity, as Rendsburg seems to be implying, or does it serve some other function? Rendsburg gives us this on the Merneptah Stele:

The best guess is that the Israelites were a people within the general region of Canaan, but without a specific chunk of land for themselves. Regardless of the exact meaning of the passage in the Merneptah Stele, we are able to conclude that in some fashion the people of Israel existed as a recognized entity as early as the late thirteenth century B.C.E., sufficiently organized into a group that the powerful Egyptians took some notice of them.[8]

How Rendsburg can draw so much from one phrase on one Stele without regard for caution is astonishing. As Thomas L. Thompson and Ingrid Hjelm[9] were so quick to point out, all one has to do is turn to the ANET and read the introduction by John Wilson, where he aptly warns readers that this stele is not “historical in the same sense as two other records of that victory, but is rather a poetic eulogy of a universally victorious pharaoh.”[10] Wilson is not the only one to approach the subject with caution. Niels Peter Lemche remarks that “What this entity [Israel – ed.] precisely was is, on the other hand, not as easy to ascertain as people may be inclined to believe.”[11] So how does Rendsburg make such a brash rendering of the stele?[12] The translation of the Merneptah Stele below, or rather the part of the Stele in question, is from Thompson’s and Hjelm’s article:[13]

The kings lie prostrate, saying shalom![14]

Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.

A desert is Libya,

Hatti is scorched,[15]

Plundered is Gaza, with every evil,[16]

Carried off is Ashkelon,

Bound is Gezer ,

Yenoam is as one not existing.

Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more;

Hurru has become a widow for Egypt.

All lands are united, they are in peace;

Everyone that was in uproar is bound by King Merneptah;

they are given life like Re, forever.

There are several things that must be determined. The first of which would be whether or not Canaan is really a regional title as Rendsburg’s interpretation suggests. Gosta Ahlstrom accepts the hypothesis that it was referring to a region, mentioning that the region was mad up of both urban and cultural areas.[17] However, Niels Peter Lemche writes that “his interpretation is…based on a shaky foundation, as the Canaan mentioned here [in the Stele – Ed] most likely means nothing except Gaza, the center of the Nineteenth Dynasty Egyptian province of Canaan, which says that in this place Canaan is a name of a town, followed by other Palestinian townships.”[18] Thompson and Hjhelm agree with this conclusion, albeit also admitting that it could refer to a region, “This is either a reference to the region as a whole or to the town of Gaza, which had a port and, as the entry to Canaan, had been occupied by the Egyptians and garrisoned since Thutmosis III.”[19] While both instances are plausible, be it the town of Gaza or the region of Gaza, the hypothesis laid out by Rendsburg is started to look very thin.

Second, could it be determined that the Israelites were “organized” into a “group”, and does this reference really signify a “people?” This seems to be the makings of Rendsburg imagination rather than something derived from the historical record. While Ahlstrom plays with the idea of Canaan being a regional title, he does not accept the hypothesis that so-called “Israelites” mentioned in the stele were in any way different from other Canaanites. He writes:

The Israelites of the Merneptah stele were indigenous Canaanites fighting the Egyptian army. The battle scenes from the temple at Karnak show them dressed like other Canaanites.[20]

Ahlstrom also seems to appreciate the hypothesis proposed by Weippert,[21] where he examines the possibility that the Shasu later became known as the Israelites. However, others have gone against this idea because the Shasu are dressed differently than the Canaanites in the relief of the battle.[22] More on this further down.

Thompson and Hjelm provide a very refreshing and new interpretation: Israel as an eponym, or as they put it, Israel “as a literary reality.” (p. 13) They explain “one expects the use of ‘their’ rather than ‘his’ seed.” (p. 10) The use of the masculine singular has led to a pairing with Hurru, who has become a widow, just as Israel has lost his seed and has been laid waste. (ibid.) To Thompson and Hjelm, the stele is not literally speaking of a conquest of a region, although they admit it does contain traces of that trope. Instead, they say, the poetry of the stele is indicative of newness to the region. This newness has been brought by Merneptah who is stepping in to assume the role of Husband to the new land, the land of Palestine:

The statement of the stele: ‘Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more’ is not an exaggeration about the defeat of an enemy. The scribe is telling the truth. It is not for Israel that Hurru will bear children—the people of the land—but for the pharaoh, Hurru’s new husband. ‘Israel’s seed is no more.’[23]

This interpretation appears to me to be the most accurate representation, and I feel the eponymic interpretation is downright brilliant on the part of Thompson and Hjelm. However, it should be understood that I recognize there is still much room for discussion concerning this stele. Especially in light of the additional evidence which will be reviewed as we continue. Most importantly, however, what has been exposed in Rendsburg’s attempt to claim his interpretation as the best possible reconstruction without providing all the evidence, or even allowing for discussion, which again was his implicit intent. In his rush to assume the accuracy of his speculator account of a unified group of Israelites, Rendsburg has severely hindered his change at making a valid argument using this stele.

The Mesha Stele and the Inscription at Tel Dan

Both the Mesha Stele and the inscriptions found at Tel Dan are used several times throughout the course of Rendsburg’s article. He assumes that the mention of Israel in both of these evidences means ipso facto that there was a people known as Israelites and they worshipped YHWH. His a priori assumption here is misplaced and misleading to his readers. On the Mesha Stele, he writes:

The king of Moab, named Mesha, claims to have conquered the people of Israel, who were led by their king Omri and his unnamed son, and to have captured cultic objects dedicated to the god YHWH. This text, which makes the explicit connection between the god YHWH and the people Israel, affords us our smoking gun. The people who worship this deity are called Israel.

There are some obvious problems with these conclusions as Niels Peter Lemche pointed out a decade ago.[24]

Aside from the misleading conclusion he has drawn, there is a problem with the logic of it as well. Going by the same logical process he has used, would it also be acceptable to assume that the worshippers of Baal exist in Ugarit and that they are called Samaritans due to the archaeological evidence for Baal worship at Ugarit and also by a people calling themselves Samaritans? Or perhaps those who dwelled in Ugarit were Israelites since they too worshipped a God named Yaw, the first-tier God El’s son. This is hardly the “smoking gun” Rendsburg makes it out to be. It is a completely different caliber than the one he’ll need to make the sort of links he wants.

There is, first of all, instances where it appears the Mesha and Tel Dan inscriptions are modern forgeries.[25] There is also some evidence that suggests both stelae resemble each other, as if the person who inscribed the Tel Dan inscriptions had the Mesha inscription in mind while carving them.[26] Even if this was not the case, another problem presents Rendsburg and others who would so easily abuse the evidence so they could continue accepting these as such. The obvious problem is that a person is not a “house”, and the reference to “house of David” is eerily similar to what we see when we read manuscripts talking about the “house of Yahweh”, specifically the reference to the Temple. We see references like this elsewhere but only when discussing places of worship. Lemche proposes several solutions if indeed this inscription were true. One such suggestion, astutely put, is that there may be a link to the David euhemerized into Biblical history as once being a deity who was worshipped by the early Canaanites.[27] Another suggestion, equally plausible, is that the reference bytdwd could be a toponym of a vicinity; for example, the vicinity of Dan.[28] It could also be an object that represents a deity, such as an Asherah tree or Asherah wood mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.[29]

Regardless of these possibilities, and even if the inscription was accurate and did refer to the eponymous state of Israel, it would not follow, therefore, that there was a historical state of Israel, nor even that there was a historical David; this is so for several reasons. First, the inscription dates to the 9th century BCE, at its earliest and most conservative, putting this inscription in line with the traditions of the Israelite people and the construction of their past. In other words, this does not relay to us an actual historical witness, but rather—if assumed authentic—it can only be a witness to a tradition with no ties to history. Second, the references to “kingdom of Israel” and “house of David” are, as witnessed above, too interpretable to be of any real use. This prequels the third reason, which is that there is an underlining assumption of a “unified” inscription, when in fact the evidence is not as clear when examining the three fragments combined.[30] One should be careful, as Rendsburg is not, when allowing your presuppositions to cloud your judgment and let their notions guide the evidence, as opposed to letting the evidence guide their notions. The only smoke coming from the gun Rendsburg is holding is the trickle coming from the area where the hammer falls after it backfired.

Inscriptions in the Hill Country

Now we come, finally, to Rendsburg’s first piece of evidence for his position, remember he is trying to prove the Bible exists, which involves a look at a few hundred inscriptions. First he lists them in accordance to their theophoric values. After acknowledging the frequency of forgeries in archaeological finds purchased on the antiquities market, he reports that of those found at legitimate sites by archaeologists, 213 of 263 names contain Yahwistic suffixes and prefixes; that is, they contain Yahu or Yah at the beginnings or the ends of their names. (p. 8 ) Rendsburg views these inscriptions, found around the central hillside country in Canaan, as evidence for the historicity of the worship of Yahweh in the areas. He determines that in antiquity, the areas of Samaria, Gibeon, Jerusalem, Lachish, and Arad, consisted mainly of Yahwistic, monotheistic worship. (p. 9) Rendsburg’s main source for this information comes from Jeffrey Tigay, who collected the various inscriptions and published a catalog in 1986.[31] However convincing these arguments may seem, there are two problems that underlie this argument.

The first problem is not so explicit. It is odd that Rendsburg does not give any dates for the inscriptions compositions. This immediately should cause suspicion, especially in light of the studies that examined the findings of Tigay. One scholar noted that when the inscriptions were looked at critically, during the beginning of the so-called monarchal period, only 25% of the inscriptions are Yahwistic. “In general, their research seems to indicate…that the popularity of Yahweh may have increased over the years, since the percentage of Yawistic names increased by the end of the monarchy.”[32] Additionally, he points out that attempting to use theophoric inscriptions does not a priori mean that the whole of society worshipped the deity represented, as many theophoric names represent “personal or familial piety.” In other words, the inscriptions do not prove the authority of Yahwistic dominance in religious practices.[33] To the contrary, the inscriptions in Tigay’s study also include names containing Baal, El and Horus.[34] In a drastic, and perhaps naïve, response to the inscriptions containing El in the theophoric names, Rendsburg remarks, “At first we might conclude that these people, whom we have not identified yet, worshipped two gods, one called El and one called Yah or Yahu. But since we know that El is a common Semitic element for ‘god, deity,’ we have reason to believe that the people who lived in these mountains considered El and Yah/Yaho to be one in the same (!).” (p. 9)

One in the same? At what point does Rendsburg assume this? If one were to assume a monarchal period, of course at some point a scholar might assume a united, monotheistic belief, especially if the scholar were attempting to validate the Biblical account. However, when viewed through the lens of archeology and socio-cultural assimilation at the time of the so-called monarchal period, can one really state with sound judgment that all those living in the hill country of Palestine worshiped only one god? As if to anticipate this reaction, Rendsburg admits to an inscription containing the phrase, “YHWH and his Asherah” (ibid.) admitting to the possibility that the worshiping of more than one God should be taken into “consideration.” (ibid.) However, this does not vindicate his conjoining of El and YHWH. We’ll come back to this very important point a bit further down.

Just briefly above the subject of the Shasu was touched upon, but it was necessary to separate them from the Merneptah Stele for a very important reason. Rendsburg’s case is not very strong here, and he uses the Shasu to tie in the inscriptions above and the Merneptah Stele together as cumulative evidence for an ethnic society known Israel. His first mention of the Shasu is in reference to some lists found at Amara and Soleb documenting the “Shasu of Se’ir and the Shasu of YHWH.” (p. 11) First he assumes another connection between the two, but once more he has done so dishonestly or ignorantly.

The phrases s3sw yhw' and s3sw s'rr, ie, the territories of Yahu and S'rr which occur in Egyptian lists of the New Kingdom, have often been seen as referring to Se‘ir, ie. Edom, and thus the deity name Yahweh would also have been at home in Edom. The latter may be true. However, the Egyptian s'rr is philologically not identical with Hebrew se‘ir (where did the second r go?). The territory of s'rr was most probably in Syria because it is mentioned in connection with other peoples in the Beqa‘ and Orontes Valleys. The yhw' territory of the Shasu is then also to be sought in the same area (see M. Astour, "Yahweh in Egyptian Topographical Lists', Festschrift Elmar Edel [ed. M. Gorg and E. Push], pp. 17-33). The name Yahu is thus a toponym here, but it should be kept in mind that ‘anthroponymns could serve as toponymns’ in the ancient Near East (Astour, p. 30 n 71). Furthermore, the name of a deity, a nation and a city could be the same, the most famous example being that of Ashur.[35]

He then makes the mistake of suggesting that of the word Se’ir “nothing more” can be said because “the Bible does not exist, and the term Se’ir, which is to be associated with the land of Edom to the south of Israel, is to be known only from the Bible.” (ibid.) Only from the Bible? Even if one were to assume a link—although as Ahlstrom pointed out there is none to be drawn—we come to an additional dishonest claim. Perhaps Rendsburg should spend less time reading the Bible, once he recalls that it does in fact exist, and more time consulting the ANET. In an Egyptian list dating to the Twentieth Dynasty of Egypt, there is a summary of the Northern Wars, by which the following is said:

I destroyed the people of Seir among the Bedouin tribes. I razed their tents: their people, their property, and their cattle as well, without number, pinioned and carried away in captivity, as the tribute of Egypt. I gave them to the Ennead of the gods, as slaves for their houses.[36]

As to the “Shasu of YHWH,” he recognizes that there is no determinative, making the YHWH of the Shasu a place. Rendsburg then attempts to link the “Shasu of YHWH” to the description of them based on reliefs found at the temple of Karnak. (p. 12) This is nothing short of incredible, especially if it can be done. Unfortunately for Rendsburg, in attempting to link the Shasu to the Israelites of the Merneptah Stele with the Karnak relief causes a serious problem for his argument. Remember, the Israelites in the Karnak relief are dressed like Canaanites, where as the Shasu in the relief are dressed differently; the two are not one and the same. His link fails because once more he has misinterpreted the evidence, for whatever reason, and as a consequence additional points that Rendsburg makes assuming this link will also fail. This seems to be Rendsburg’s modus operandi.

Worshipping Asherah

In the most recent issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review (or BAR),[37] William Dever published some new archaeological evidence, specifically a so-named “House Shrine”, in which Dever claims proves the early Israelites believed that the “Israelite God, Yahweh, did indeed have a consort.” (p.55) Throughout the article, Dever presents the reader with the finds of various “House Shrines” found around Israel, particularly from the Transjordan and Palestine including Israel, said to have been sat upon by Asherah-Athirat[38] (see below). Dever suggests that these houses represent a large following—or cult—to Asherah throughout the early period in Israel.[39] The most recent house depicts a throne, in which two seats are represented. Two palm trees suspend the roof above this throne, and in front two lions are perched at the base of these trees.

How does Dever make the connections between Asherah-Athirat and this “House Shrine?” He does so with extremely compelling and supportive archaeological evidence. The palm trees are representative of the early nature of Asherah-Athirat, who was at one point the Tree Goddess of Canaan and the people who would become the Israelites. This belief was also shared by Early Egyptians, who would replace the figure of a Goddess all together with a tree which nurtured the Pharaohs (the tree had a breast which the Pharaoh’s are depicted suckling).[40] Asherah-Athirat has been depicted with a hand on the heads of two flanking lions, and many of the earlier House Shrines have Asherah-Athirat beckoning her worshipers from the steps of the shrines or just inside, and once more these shrines would be flanked by trees. According to Dever, in his recent book, some 400 of these shrines have been found in Jerusalem alone, dating to around the eighth to seventh centuries BCE.[41]

This is not the first case that has been made about Israel’s polytheistic past. In fact, the Israelites did not just worship Yahweh, nor even just the addition of Asherah, but an entire pantheon, or what has been referred to as an “assembly,” of Gods. In 1929 off the coast of Syria a collection of tablets that have become known as the Ugaritic Texts were discovered. These texts were dated to the second half of the second millennium BCE.[42] Accordingly, the texts provided scholarship with the names of Canaanite God’s which the early Israelites condemned throughout the Hebrew Bible. Finally, a complete list had been found which corroborated the accounts in the Hebrew Bible. Or so scholarship thought.

This position, however, was held in light of the false assumption that there had been an exodus from Egypt and conquest by the Israelites through the land Canaan.[43] The conclusion was held that the early Israelites condemned their new neighbor’s practices, holding to the monotheistic belief found in the Hebrew Bible that was taught by Moses, and turned away from these false Gods. However, with the initial proposal by Albrecht Alt several decades ago, the theory of a conquest began to fade. More recently—as Rendsburg alludes to—new revisionist studies based on new archaeological evidence and refreshing views of the texts of the Hebrew Bible have led to a shift in the consensus and it has become more and more evident that the Israelites were in fact native to Canaan all along, and there was no exodus at all.[44] The fact that many maximalists like Dever and Rendsburg compartmentalize these finds is more hurtful to their own studies than anything published by a minimalist. As Dever so eloquently put it, as if talking into a mirror, “These…have been largely overlooked by most biblicists and even by archaeologists, perhaps because they are reluctant to address ‘theological’ issues.” (p. 56) Regardless, however, the finds which Dever published are extremely valuable. And with great discoveries come additional questions.

The Pantheon of Gods at Ugarit

As mentioned sparsely above, a group of tablets were uncovered at Ugarit almost ninety years ago. They revealed to the world of scholarship that the Hebrew Bible was not the only compilation of texts that mention specific Canaanite Gods and Goddesses. However, it also showed several names that were near and dear to the Hebrew Bible which sparked a new outlook on the origins of Israelite religious practices. Returning to our previous discussion, Rendsburg, while acknowledging the existence of additional inscriptions containing the names of what he calls “pagan” deities (p. 8 ), ignores the value of the finds, focusing only on the Yahwistic inscriptions—specifically to prove a strong link between YHWH and the early Israelites. As was explained above, not only is his reliance on these inscriptions irrelevant and misplaced, but more problems follows close behind.

In the texts found at Ugarit, there are four “tiers” or “levels” of what Mark S. Smith calls the “household”.[45] He gives the following description of the household of the Gods:

Level 1: The Elder God El and his consort, or wife, Athirat

Level 2: The Children: Athtart and Athtar, Shapsu and Yarih, Shahar and Shalim, Resheph; and the warrior-God Baal.

Level 3: Kothar

Level 4: Divine workers, messengers, servants, and keepers (also known as angels)

In the Israelite pantheon, the tiers are only slightly different. Consider:[46]

Level 1: El and his consort, or wife, Asherah

Level 2: Children: Baal, Astarte, Shahar, Shalim, Resheph, and Yahweh—the outsider warrior God.

Level 3: Lucifier(?)

Level 4: Messengers, servants, and keepers (also known as angels)

The four tiers or levels correspond with the importance in the household. Just as a family has a father and mother at the head, El and Asherah-Athirat reign supreme over the second tier, the Divine Children. The Children of El and Asherah-Athirat represent celestial events. Athtart and Athtar represent the evening and morning stars respectively, Shapsu and Yarih are the sun and the moon, Shahar and Shalim are considered dawn and dusk. Resheph is most probably Mars. Baal, on the other hand, is only partly related to the others, perhaps by marriage. In this same instance, Yahweh in the Israelite pantheon takes the place of Baal as the warrior god, perhaps even the god of storms, which is why in kings there is a scene where Elijah and the Baal prophets go head to head over the provocation of the weather. The third and fourth levels are the lesser Gods who work within the household, such as Kothar who is considered to be a Divine craftsman.[47] For the Israelite deities, this may represent a place where Satan or Lucifer strides into place, just above the other angels but below the children; although Job suggests that Satan is indeed part of the second tier it is hard to say with any certainty, and probably more than likely not the case across the board. These traditions of multiple tiers are shared by many of the Canaanite peoples, although the names of their Gods in their own distinctive pantheon were different. The Akkadians for example had a household that resembled the following:

Level 1: The begetter Apsu and his consort Mummu-Tiamat, so-called, “she who bore them all”

Level 2: The begotten sons and grandsons: Lahmu and Lahamu, Anshar and Kishar, and Anu

Level 3: Nudimmud or Ea—also known as earth and his wife Damkina (?)

Level 4: Anunnaki (similar to the messengers and angels)

To suggest, as Rendsburg does, that El and Yahweh are one and the same does not represent what scholarship knows about the data of early Israelite worship. It presupposes the case by assuming the historicity of the Biblical account without recognizing that this is the very point he needs to prove.


Rendsburg often misrepresents the evidence in a dishonest manner, usually to validate his own feelings and insecurities on the subject. He stretches to make links and contradicts his own account on the process, leaving holes instead of filler and often times the filler he uses is just a hallow shell which appears, on the outside, to be solid rock. As the evidence indicates, the historicity of a united monarchy, of David and Solomon, is currently unknowable, and a case for its existence cannot be made by the methods employed here by Rendsburg. Nor have they been made by any scholar currently in the field and, as it stands, there is still significant reason to doubt the historicity of the Hebrew Bible.

[1] Gary Rendsburg, “Israel Without the Bible”, The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship (2008 ), p. 7

[2] Rendsburg, “Israel Without the Bible”, p. 7. This is the percentage he gave; I am not certain if this percentage is accurate or an exaggeration on his part. Even in all of the maximalist positions I have read many of them support, albeit reluctantly, at least a few of the finds if minimalists. It is odd that Rendsburg, in this paragraph, evens out the amount of minimalists and maximalists, yet on the preceding page admits that the “paradigm has shifted” (p. 6) to the minimalist position. I could be wrong, but a pendulum cannot be equal and unbalanced at the same time. Perhaps Rendsburg is inflating his numbers here?

[3] “The arm of Marxism has spread into Biblical studies.” (p. 5) Rendsburg’s analysis of a possible historical reconstruction drawn by scholars G. Mendenhall (1962) and N. Gottwald (1979).

[4] Although, minimalists everywhere should thank Rendsburg for noticing our incredible dexterity and agility.

[5] Especially since Rendsburg implicitly remarks that his intent it to generate new discussion. cf. p. 7, “Given this lack of consensus and avoidance of dialogue, how are we to proceed? I propose to do something new….”

[6] “Israel Without the Bible”, p. 20

[7] Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yemoam are the three cities listed by Rendsburg as a part of the Canaanite region conquered by merneptah.

[8] “Israel Without the Bible”, p. 11

[9] Thomas L. Thompson and Ingrid Hjelm, The Victory Song of Merneptah: Israel and the People of Palestine (2000)

[10] J.B.Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (1966), p. 376

[11] Niels Peter Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition (1998 ), p. 36

[12] One should be inclined to ask if Rendsburg has really put the Bible behind him in his interpretation. It seems more that he is consulting scripture to find the answer even while fronting the perspective that he has assumed its non-existence. It may be possible to apply Ahlstrom’s conclusions about Malamat’s interpretation of the same Stele to that of Rendsburg, that his interpretation looks “very much like a rewriting of the biblical narratives.” Gosta Ahlstrom, The History of Ancient Palestine (1994), p. 34

[13] The Victory Song of Merneptah: Israel and the People of Palestine (2000); I prefer this translation of the Stele for the reasons noted, especially without the ANET’s more Biblical locutions. However, even if one were to use the ANET’s translation it would not affect the overall intent behind the message of the Stele.

[14] ANET has this read “The Princes are prostrate, saying ‘Mercy!’” however Wilson writes that an alternative rendering could be “Peace!” I must agree with Thompson & Hjelm as to the use of shalom here in place of the English equivalents; however I am not sure we agree for the same reasons. I feel that both words hinder the Canaanite variant shalom, as the meaning seems to be lost when the word is translated into English, similar to the confusion of translating the Greek word logos.

[15] ANET reads, “Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;” Thompson & Hjelm prefer this rendering to the ANET’s based on Fecht, ‘Die Israelstele’, p. 129.

[16] Thompson & Hjelm have altered the ANET’s Canaan to Gaza for a very god reason as one will soon see.

[17] Gosta Ahlstrom, The History of Ancient Palestine (1994), p. 287

[18] The Israelites in History and Tradition, p. 37

[19] The Victory Song of Merneptah: Israel and the People of Palestine, p. 8

[20] The Israelites in History and Tradition, p. 286-287

[21] M. Weippert, “Semitische Nomaden des zweiten Jahrtausends, uber die s3sw der agyptischen Quellen”, Biblica 55 (1974)

[22] L.E. Stager, “Merneptah, Israel, and Sea Peoples: New Light on an Old Relief”, Eretz Israel 18 (1985), p. 60

[23] The Victory Song of Merneptah: Israel and the People of Palestine, p. 10

[24] Niels Peter Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition (1998 ), p. 44-46

[25] Niels Peter Lemche, “‘House of David’: The Tel Dan Inscriptions”, Jerusalem in Ancient History and Tradition, JSOTS 381 (2003); Giovanni Garbini, “L’iscrizione aramaica di Tel Dan”, Atti della Accadmia Nazionale dei Lincei 391 (1994), pp. 461-71; Frederick Cryer, “On the Recently-Discovered ‘House of David Inscription’”, SJOT 8 (1994), pp. 3-19

[26] “‘House of David’: The Tel Dan Inscriptions”, pp. 60-61

[27] ibid. pp. 59, 61

[28] ibid. p. 59

[29] ibid.; Lemche makes note of the the Mesha inscription, which suggests that king Mesha removed an “DWD-alter” from its place (1.12), inciting this line of reasoning, which is consistent in language with the Asherah’s being removed in the Hebrew Bible.

[30] ibid. 52-54

[31] Jeffrey Tigay, You Shall Have No Other Gods: Israelite Religion in Light of the Israelite Inscriptions (1986)

[32] Robert Karl Gnuse, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel (1997), p. 107. Gnuse is referring to the studies of Tigay and another scholar, J. Fowler, who published his study of theophoric names in his book Theophoric Personal Names in Ancient Hebrew: A Comparative Study (1988 ).

[33] Gnuse makes it clear that the more probable explanation for the variety of names is that they represent a growing trend of monotheistic practices among the early Israelites. Although probably true, Gnuse would probably place the transition in the so-called Monarchal period, where I would be hesitant to place such an important transition in such a specious and hotly debated period of time. Perhaps another later study, done by somebody more knowledgeable and with more experience than I, will grant us a possible answer. (op. cit.) In any event, Rendsburg’s position does not hold ground, even if we did accept the idea of a monarchal period.

[34] Gnuse also points out that in areas around Israel, many societies did not use favorite deities as parts of their names. He used the example of Asherah in Ugarit, where she was very popular; yet the corresponding theophoric names are not nearly as much as those that resemble the ones found in the hill country with Yah or Yaho. This, concludes Gnuse, further shows the irrelevancy of Fowler’s and Tigay’s studies, suggesting that it is most probable that a lot of people within the Israelite just liked to use certain names more. (p. 107-108 )

[35] The History of Ancient Palestine, p. 277 n. 5

[36] ANET, p. 262, it is interesting to note that if this account is accurate, it would make the accounts in the Hebrew Bible of Seir ahistorical, once more hurting the overall position Rendsburg is trying to present: the position that the Bible is an accurate source of historical information.

[37] William Dever, “A Temple Built for Two”, Biblical Archaeology Review Vol. 34, No. 2. March/April 2008, p. 55-62

[38] I will henceforth be using three distinctive designations for the Goddess. “Asherah,” alone, refers to the Biblical usage of the Goddess Athirat. The second designation used in this study is “Asherah-Athirat,” to refer to both the Hebrew and Ugaritic pantheons, without making any distinction which may distract the readers of this study. Thus, the use of only “Athirat” will correspond with the Ugaritic pantheon alone.

[39] I am not certain about the usage of the word “cult” here, as it implies that this is something estranged from normal Israelite belief; something similar to the use of heresy in early Christian thought. It also implies, at least it appears to me to imply, some form of orthodoxy in Israelite mythology which I do not believe is an accurate portrayal of them during this period. However, Dever brings to us an amazing find, even if it has been obtained through specious means. The fact that there are so many other archaeological finds that corroborate this one, I am not going to be as hard on Dever as some of my colleagues might.

[40] Ruth Hestrin writes, “In the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E., Canaanite deities were worshipped in Egyptian temples. This may have resulted from the influence of settlements of Asiatic workers near Egyptian cities (mainly Memphis and Thebes) where the Canaanite pantheon was worshipped. The Asiatics may have been brought to Egypt as prisoners following Egyptian military expeditions to Syria during the reign of Tuthmosis III in the 15th century B.C.E. The Canaanite gods were partly merged with the Egyptian deities when there were similarities in their functions—as so often happened in the ancient world.” (“Understanding Asherah-Exploring Semitic Iconography”, BAR Sept/Oct 1991)

[41] William Dever, Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (2005), p. 180. Dever suggests that an exact count is disputed among certain catalogs, although he has concluded some 2,711 were counted in 1977, and per Dever “…hundreds have been discovered since then.” (ibid.)

[42] Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God (1990), p. xix

[43] It should be noted here that William Dever is a maximalist, and does not accept the positions I’m about to lay out, at least not in their entirety.

[44] Thomas L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People (2000), The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1973), The Mythic Past (2000); Philip R. Davies & John Rogerson, The Old Testament World (2005); Philip R. Davies, In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ (1992; 3rd Rev. Ed. 1999).

[45] Mark S. Smith, The Memoirs of God (2004), p. 101-102

[46] Concept derived from Mark Smith, The Memoirs of God (2004), p. 106

[47] ibid.

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Et suppositio nil ponit in esse.

"You act ridiculously," said Ion, "to doubt every­thing. For my part, I should like to ask you what you say to those who free possessed men from their terrors by exorcising the spirits so manifestly. I need not discuss this: everyone knows about the Syrian from Palestine, the adept in it, how many he takes in hand who fall down in the light of the moon and roll their eyes and fill their mouths with foam; nevertheless, he restores them to health and sends them away normal in mind, delivering them from their straits for a large fee. When he stands beside them as they lie there and asks : 'Whence came you into his body?' the patient himself is silent, but the spirit answers in Greek or in the language of whatever foreign country he comes from, telling how and whence he entered into the man; whereupon, by adjuring the spirit and if he does not obey, threaten­ing him, he drives him out. Indeed, I actually saw one coming out, black and smoky in color." "It is nothing much," I remarked," for you, Ion, to see that kind of sight, when even the 'forms' that the father of your school, Plato, points out are plain to you, a hazy object of vision to the rest of us, whose eyes are weak." - Lucian, Lover of Lies