Israel's History and the History of Israel

Mario Liverani

translated from the Italian
Equinox Publishing 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
Are we so short of histories of ancient Israel that we need one translated from the Italian? In this case I'm very glad that has been done, as Liverani's is the clearest I have read. He situates Israel and Judah in the broader Near Eastern world, politically, economically, and ideologically. And he carefully sets out the historiographical issues involved with a history dominated by a much later source.

The first half of Israel's History and the History of Israel is a "normal" history of two kingdoms in Palestine. It is normal in two senses. Firstly, Judah and Israel in this period are "not particularly important, interesting, or consequential" — or no more so than kingdoms such as Carchemish, Tyre and Gaza. Secondly, Liverani deploys the standard methodological tools of history, textual criticism and archaeology to produce "a narrated history following the order of modern reconstructions instead of the traditional plot of the Biblical narrative".

This history starts with the "caesura" at the start of the 12th century, which ended the Late Bronze Age in the region and which allowed the "ethnogenesis" of a range of populations in Syria-Palestine. It ends with the 6th century conquest by the Babylonians. Throughout Liverani gives a feel for the sources and how he is using them, but without descending into arcane methodological or theoretical issues, involved textual exegesis, or narrow archaeological details.

Liverani is not among those extreme minimalists who argue the Bible is of no use at all for understanding events that happened long before it was written, but he insists on it being used like other sources, with careful consideration of genre and context.

"As for David's rise, clues about its origin can be found in a type of monumental autobiography, in which the new king tells his own story in a fairy-tale manner: being the youngest of seven brothers, ... — these are all typical elements of this literary genre. We can therefore suggest that the data derive (via a series of processes that we cannot reconstruct) from an apologetic inscription of David himself and contain authentic information, even if propagandistically formulated and enriched with fairy-tale motifs.
The long and detailed description of David's succession to the throne is, in contrast, very suspect; in its long and developed form it cannot be dated to the tenth century and there are no sources from that time of a genre that could easily record information of that kind."

A short intermezzo covers "the axial age" of the sixth century, where Liverani finds "a second caesura" as important as the first, marked by demographic collapse and "a complete reorganization of sociopolitical relations and religious and cultural concepts" across the Near East.

The second half of Israel's History is a treatment of what is striking and unusual about the history of Israel, which is the creation, from the late sixth century onwards, following the return of Jews from Babylon, of a powerful series of stories about their earlier history.

These were driven by the concerns and agendas of a range of different groups. Conflicts between returnees and "remainees" can be seen in the stories of the Patriarchs, relations between returnees and aliens in the Conquest story, competing concepts of nationhood with and without royalty in the invention of the Judges period and the United Monarchy, priestly concerns in the invention of the Solomonic Temple, and concerns about identity and purity in the invention of the Law.

"[T]he point of view of the remainees, a policy of collaboration, the legitimacy of a plurality of cult places scattered across the land, and the possibility of mixed marriages, all seem to be the central message of the patriarchal stories."

Overall, Liverani finds a solid middle-ground between naively "accepting all the themes of the Persian period's historiographical re-elaboration as the only ones capable of making sense of earlier historical events, ... ignoring the lessons of historical criticism" and writing "a history of Syria-Palestine in Iron Age II, a topic of interest only to specialists, to professional historians".

May 2010

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%T Israel's History and the History of Israel
%A Liverani, Mario
%M Italian
%F Peri, Chiara
%F Davies, Philip R.
%I Equinox Publishing
%D 2005 [2003]
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1904768768
%P 427pp