A History of Israel: from the Bronze Age Through the Jewish Wars – Kaiser, Walter C., Jr
Kaiser, Walter C. , Jr. A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1988. 540 pp. Summary Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. , in the introduction of his book, A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars, describes how scholars have gone from generally accepting the Biblical account as historically accurate to discarding any supernatural events or anything that disagrees with their interpretation of archaeological artifacts and extra-biblical accounts.
Kaiser’s attempt to cover the scope of issues and expanse of time involved in the history of Israel takes a pointedly different approach to today’s popular attitude that, “the Bible is useless for reconstructing the history of Israel. ” (xvii) Instead of starting with the popular presupposition today that the Bible is an ethnocentristic account of history full of supernatural events that must be automatically discarded because of an anti-supernatural view of the universe, Kaiser starts with the presupposition that the Bible is trustworthy.
Kaiser begins with the fact that the Bible has been accepted as trustworthy historically for centuries, but then taking the Bible on its own terms he subjects the claims of scripture to critical methodology to see how they stand up. Contrary to Biblical minimalists, Kaiser considers the claims of the Bible to be, “reliable – until they are proven to be otherwise. ” (xii) To the biblical minimalists Kaiser has dared to do the unthinkable: “We have dared to use the Bible as a source in the construction of Israel’s history! (xii) In the first chapter Kaiser describes how there is no consensus today of how to interpret historical evidence, particularly written accounts, because any historical account is written from some biased perspective. This is thought to be especially true of the Bible, which is, “suspect as being a religious document more concerned about getting across a ‘privileged point of view’ than it is in representing fairly the real state of affairs. (2) Kaiser admits that the Bible is not meant to be a history textbook any more than it is a science textbook, and that its main purpose is indeed to reveal who God is and how He deals with man, but it does so using, “real events from the ancient Near East, against which backdrop the revelation of God was communicated. ” (3) In the first chapter Kaiser rebuts the logical fallacies, which are used to exclude the Biblical account of events as historically reliable.
The fallacy that history cannot include the supernatural or acts of God assumes that, “all historical phenomena must be subjected to an analogous explanation, i. e. , one that explains events in terms of other known happenings. ” (3) The idea that, “History cannot include anything that does not have external documentation,” is false in that our available external evidence is random and often cannot prove or disprove events that scholars generally accept as historical fact.
The fallacies that, “History cannot include narratives about individuals, but must focus on nations instead,” (6) and that, “History must not focus on individuals as shapers of the times, but on sociological factors that attempt to discover general laws and large-scale societal forces the influence historical change,” (7) seem to be largely derived from an abstract Marxist approach to sociology and history in which individuals can play only a minor role in history.
I would say that Marx’s philosophy or history has been shown to be a failure by history itself, which records the ultimate failure of nations that tried to implement Marx’s philosophies. Kaiser’s book shows numerous times how the fallacy that, “History must not give logical and necessary priority to written evidence over material culture,” (7) is weak because the interpretation of material evidence is very subjective and the more material evidence that is uncovered the more it seems to corroborate the written biblical account.
The rest of the first chapter describes how the different schools of the study of the history of Israel developed (or digressed) from the traditional approach, which goes on the assumption that, “the text is innocent until it is proven guilty by external facts,” to scholars who are, “so skeptical that it seems that skepticism has gone about as far as it can go. ” (13) The next chapter gives the geographical description of the land related to the Old Testament events. Kaiser designates four major north-south geographical divisions parallel to the Mediterranean coastline.
From west to east they are: the coastal plain along the Mediterranean Sea, the Galilee and central hill country, the Jordan Rift valley and the Transjordanian Highlands. Kaiser describes how Israel occupied a key position in the middle of what is know as the Fertile Crescent, and the role her neighbors played with Egypt to the south, Asia Minor and Syria to the north and Mesopotamia (the “land between the rivers”) to the east. Throughout the rest of the book Kaiser shows how understanding of the history and culture of the surrounding areas reveals much about the history of Israel and often reinforces the biblical account.
The third chapter describes what is known of the archaeological periods pertaining to the early biblical events from the Paleolithic to the Middle Bronze I periods. In particular, Kaiser discusses what some of the major finds and archaeological digs in the area of Palestine reveal about the Bible times. It seems that stoneware and tools, metal artifacts and pottery are often the most reliable indicators of the time period of the level of the site in which the artifacts are found. The type of metal alloys and technology for firing pottery are used as indicators of the technological level related to a specific time period.
It is fascinating to see how Kaiser refers to actual archaeological finds, which corroborate with what we already know from the Biblical accounts and how they often add new understanding to the culture that biblical figures lived in. For example, the ziggurats that have been discovered in the area of Mesopotamia where Abram originated from, and the pyramids and other archaeological evidence from the Egypt of Joseph and Moses’ time, give us many clues about the polytheistic cultures that they lived in.
The rest of the book guides the reader through a straight line of Israel’s history from the time of the patriarchs to the arrival of the Romans in Jerusalem around 63 B. C. The main source for Kaiser’s outline is, of course, the Bible, but he deals extensively with the other historical and archaeological evidence pertaining to each event and time period discussed. Kaiser meticulously discusses the various approaches to interpreting the data, which seem to cast doubt on or refute the biblical account and shows either new or alternative interpretations of the data that reinforce the biblical account.
It becomes obvious, after reading Kaiser’s rebuttals of the skeptics over and over, how preconceptions and the fallacies discussed in the first chapter often determine beforehand how the data will be interpreted. However, there does seem to be less need for rebuttal of liberal historical interpretations in the later chapters before the Persian period. This is probably because there is more known about the events from extra-biblical sources. There are also fewer supernatural events that liberal historians feel a need to find natural explanations for.
The first part of Kaiser’s historical outline covers the period of the patriarchs from Abraham to Joseph. Liberal scholars, such as, Julius Wellhausen who, “declared that ‘no historical knowledge’ of the patriarchs could be obtained from Genesis. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were a mere ‘glorified mirage’ projected back from later Hebrew history. ‘ (51) Kaiser’s fresh look at the Middle Bronze IIA period of the patriarchs and his rebuttal of the claim to anachronisms demonstrate that the claim of liberal scholars that Genesis is a product of Jewish historical revisionism is groundless.
For example, the assumption that Abraham fit the conception of a backwards bedouin would seem to make the reference to his use camels anachronistic for that time period because domesticated camels were thought to be rare if they were even domesticated by that point at all. However, Kaiser demonstrates that skeletal remains and illustrations of camels discovered at excavations from Abraham’s time period provide, “more than passing evidence that the camel already was domesticated by patriarchal times. (64) It is also clear simply by reading the biblical account of Abraham’s interaction as a peer with kings does not fit the backwards bedouin stereotype that some try to foist upon him. Part 2 of Kaiser’s book deals with the events surrounding Moses and the book of Exodus. As Kaiser notes, “several hundred years of relative silence separate the end of the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 from the beginning of the Book of Exodus where the story is picked up once again. However, Kaiser shows how the records of Egypt’s history during that time help to fill in the blanks and to explain how the pharaoh of Moses’ day did not know about Joseph even though Joseph had been second only to Pharaoh himself. This seems best explained by the change of power and political instability caused by a people called the Hyksos. I found especially interesting how what is known of the line of pharaohs from the Eighteenth Dynasty reinforces the biblical account of the life of Moses and the Israelites during that time.
Much hinges upon where one places the date of the exodus, but the early date fits both the biblical record and the archeological/historical record best. A big support for the early date is the fact that the chronology of the pharaohs, “identifies Thutmose III as the pharaoh who sought Moses’ life for what he had done in Egypt because he was the only ruler to live long enough to fit the pattern of the one who sought Moses’ life for the whole forty years that he lived in Arabia with Jethro of Midian. (90) The next part deals with the conquest and allotment of the land as described in the book of Joshua. Although part of the Torah, Kaiser discusses how the book of Deuteronomy is included in what is known as the deuteronomic collection along with the books from Joshua to kings. The description in Joshua 1-11 of how the Israelites conquered the land is often considered a collection of etiological stories of how Israel came to be in the land and is not given much credibility.
Kaiser discusses not only the archaeological support for the stories, but shows how the literary structure of the narrative itself, “is very similar to that of the Egyptian daybook tradition,” which described significant military campaigns of the pharaoh. Much of this section discusses how the archaeological finds from some of the cities (especially Jericho) mentioned in the conquests match the biblical description of the sieges. The fourth part of A History of Israel, covers the period of Judges and the Ruth account.
To explain what kept the tribes of Israel unified it has been popular among some scholars to theorize that Israel was in a cultic league that practiced amphictyonic rites associated with other cultures, such as some Greek groups, which always involved twelve tribes grouped around a central sanctuary. Kaiser states that this theory should be abandoned for, “the two environments of the Greek and Israelite groups were so different that any similarities were most unlikely. ” (176) It is clearly best to accept the biblical account of family ties and understand the twelve tribes of Israel as descendants of the sons of Jacob.
Kaiser discusses the connection of the books of Joshua and Judges and how the mention of the death of Joshua forms a literary transition between the two. Kaiser deals with the cycle of apostasy and deliverance in judges and the invasion of people, such as, the Moabites. The section ends with a brief discussion of how Ruth the Moabitess came into the lineage of King David. The next two sections of the book cover the period of the monarchies from the time of Samuel before the inauguration of Sual up until the time before the Babylonian exile.
The first of the two sections deals with the monarchies of Saul, David and Solomon. Kaiser’s treatment of the narratives is help the reader to see the transition between the various events of 1&2 Samuel and their historic significance, which might not be so readily apparent to the Bible reader without the background knowledge that Kaiser provides. For example, Kaiser emphasizes how continued oppression of the Philistines despite Samson’s victories against them was the, “straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back. (205) He also discusses the significance of relations between Egypt and Israel with the marriage of Solomon to the daughter of the pharaoh, Siamun, and the Egyptian victory over the Philistines depicted in the Tanis Relief from around that time. One of the more interesting parts to me was the discussion of David’s succession to the throne. Although critical scholars question the authenticity of the Succession Narrative, Kaiser discusses how some of their objections are raised simply because such scholars try to exclude any divine intervention, “as a proper subject for historical reporting. (227) Even more significantly to me, Kaiser points out that, atypical of an etiological history, the narrative’s, “refusal to gloss over the king’s sins or weaknesses, the family disruptions, the bitterness, the revolt, and the ignonimous deeds in David’s life all promoted the idea that realistic life and events were being presented. ” (228) I have always found the interaction of the Biblical accounts and prophecies, covered in sixth and seventh sections of Kaiser’s book, with the empires of Babylon, Assyria and other powers fascinating because they show how God is sovereign over the nations.
At the same time how the accounts the books of Kings and Chronicles fit with the prophets chronologically has always been confusing for me, but Kaiser’s treatment of both the biblical accounts and the extra-biblical records helps bring a more cohesive understanding. Kaiser discusses how Solomon’s heavy taxes and forced periods of labor helped to bring on the division of the kingdom into the northern ten tribes of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, but we also know from the biblical account that it was ultimately the result of David’s sin. Kaiser gives credit to Edwin R.
Thiele for helping to untangle the chronology of the complex system of dates of the kings given in the books of Kings and Chronicles. Although Thiele’s work has still not received universal acceptance Kaiser notes that it, “has never been successfully refuted. ” (293) Kaiser notes that the fighting during the first fifty years of the division gave way to fifty years of relative peace between the northern and southern kingdoms during the Omridian dynasty, which was represented by the strong rule of the Israelite kings Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah and Joram with Jehosaphat being the most remarkable Judean king.
During this time the Assyrian empire was reemerging and Kaiser mentions some of the interactions that Israel had with this power as well as the emerging kingdom of Syria. Kaiser states that one of the, “great ‘benchmarks’ in Israelite and Judean history,” (339) was the establishment of the Jehu dynasty, which marked the end of the Omridian dynasty. The influence of the Assyrians is interesting to follow during this time, because we know from the scriptures that God used this empire to punish Israel’s disobedience to His covenant.
King Jehu even seems to have borrowed some of the cruel ‘terror’ tactics of the Assyrians against his fellow Israelites in house of Ahab by having the severed heads of Ahab’s seventy sons piled for public display. Kaiser briefly deals with the prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jonah and Isaiah, and an interesting new fact for me was that the Nineveh Jonah preached to was one major cities of Israel’s hated and cruel enemy – the Assyrians.
In the midst of Israel’s apostasy and the judgment God brought on them through the Assyrians and the emerging Babylonians, inspiring accounts of the faithfulness of kings like Hezekiah, Josiah and the belated repentance of Manasseh (upon his return from Babylonian exile) to return the people to the worship of Yahweh and the repair of their central place of worship were all too late to avoid God’s judgment of the Babylonian exile. Kaiser discusses the archaeological evidence for the diminished role of the Judean kings as the Babylonian influence grew.
Though Jeremiah predicted the seventy-year exile and warned the regent, Zedikiah, not to side with the Egyptians and revolt against the Babylonians, Zedekiah listened instead to the false prophets with their promises of peace. Jeremiah suffered for sticking to the message God had given him before Jerusalem fell as he had prophesied. It is interesting how Kaiser points out that the exiles in Babylon had it much better economically and socially than the remnant left in Judea: “Life in Babylon was so comfortable that most of the exiles were unwilling to return to Palestine when the opportunity arose. (414) Excavations of Babylon, including the famous hanging gardens, reveal some of the grandeur that existed at the height of Babylon’s influence under Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. Nebuchadnezzar left an unstable empire and it was under the rule of Belshazzar, “that the handwriting appeared on the wall and the doom of the Babylonian Empire was predicted by Daniel and immediately enacted as the Medes and Persians entered the city…” (418) At the Edict of Cyrus (recorded by Ezra) not only the return of the exiles but also the rebuilding of the temple began under Zerubbabel.
Kaiser gives some fascinating background information about the Persian Empire and court customs under rulers, such as, Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes. Although most critical scholars deny the historicity of Esther, Kaiser demonstrates that the book does not, “contradict anything that is known from all the sources from this period that are available to us. The objections are basically arguments from silence. ” (434) After Malachi, the last writing prophet and contemporary of Nehemiah, the remainder of the book, of course, deals with historical sources outside of the Bible.
I had only a vague knowledge of some of the events of the intertestamental period that concerned Israel so this section was fascinating for me. Some of this information comes from Josephus’s Antiquities. As the Persian Empire weakened from within as rulers poisoned one another, Hellenistic culture was becoming, “a rallying cry that would unite otherwise disparate peoples against the Persians,” (450) and the rise of Alexander the Great spelled the ultimate doom for Persia. Kaiser discusses what is known of various populations of dispersed Jews and their syncretistic religions, such as, the Elephantine Jews in Egypt and the ntermarried Samaritans, who came into being as a result of the population manipulations under Assyria. The development of the synagogue is also discussed as a result of the dispersion. Kaiser also discusses the influence of Greek culture and language on the Jews as exemplified in the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into the Greek vernacular. Kaiser gives a summary of the Maccabean Insurrection as recorded in Maccabees and the Antiquities of Josephus.
Kaiser’s discussion of the Hasmonean kingdom includes the Hasidim group, “the pious,” who opposed Hellenistic influence and would eventually become the party of the Pharisees. The book ends with the arrival of Roman rule in Jerusalem in 63 B. C. Critique Kaiser’s discussion of similarities between the forms of the Deuteronomic Covenant and the Hittite suzerain-vassal treaty brings to light the interesting concept that God used and still uses the forms of contemporary culture to communicate His message to people living within that culture.
This is an important concept to those, such as missionaries, who feel God’s call to be messengers of the Gospel cross-culturally. Kaiser asserts that, “had the covenant form been drafted in any other time than the early second millennium, it would have taken a drastically different sort of arrangement of the possible component parts, such as the title, witnesses, stipulations, curses, blessings, deposit provisions, and prologue. (64) It is so easy to think that everything about the way one worships and applies theology to one’s life is Biblical, and the temptation is to teach forms from a Western Protestant tradition when seeking to plant churches among people of another culture. Forms, such as, stained-glass buildings, pews, hymns will probably hold little meaning to another culture. There are aspects of every culture that are evil and aspects that are redeemable.
The Gospel transcends all cultures so those in cross-cultural ministry should seek to follow the model of scripture by communicating the Gospel in a meaningful form for each culture without changing the message itself. Kaiser’s History of Israel demonstrates how the story of the nation of Israel is the story of God remaining faithful to His covenant promises in spite of the unfaithfulness of the people. The story of Israel demonstrates the need for believers to remain an identity of consecration to Holy God in the midst of an ungodly world.
Kaiser shows over and over how the influence of the pagan religions of the surrounding nations drew Israel away from God. A central theme throughout the book is Kaiser’s emphasis on the trustworthiness of Scripture. The believer’s faith is without foundation if the central events of the Bible did not actually occur, but Kaiser shows how critical scholars try to say that the stories of the Bible do not hold historic validity because they are meant to teach theology and not real historic events: “Why should we force the biblical evidence to purge itself of its so-called ‘theocratic point of view’ in order to qualify as ‘history’? (143) I believe that Kaiser effectively shows the double standard of these same scholars who are willing to use the religious-based documents of any other nation outside the Judeo-Christian sphere. It is interesting to note how Kaiser’s description of Assyria’s tactics of influence and control over conquered nations was similar to how Josef Stalin later used similar tactics of controlling people groups by having them deported to distant lands and replaced with other peoples.
To control populations like the Chechens and Jews, and to prevent their ability to revolt Stalin had people groups deported en-masse to far-away countries like Kazakhstan. Parallels to Assyria’s practice of national extermination also preceded the tactics of men like Adolf Hitler against the Jews of Europe. A background in archaeology and ancient history would help one to appreciate the book fuller. As far as that goes, the book would make an excellent gift for an archaeology or history student looking for an alternative to the liberal and anti-supernatural interpretations of historical evidence.
For a pastor, the book makes an excellent handbook to provide a better insight into the biblical culture and contemporary events that is useful for developing a more accurate picture in sermons of what kind of world the events were taking place. The Bible is timeless because it is God’s Word speaking relevantly to all cultures in all times, but I think the tendency of some preachers to attempt to portray biblical characters and events as odern-day as possible robs the accounts of the times that they are grounded in, and insults the listeners’ ability to relate to the biblical accounts as real events in a different time period and culture than their own. The more the preacher is able to tell them about the time and culture the more full and accurate the story becomes for the listeners. Similarly, any reader who is familiar with the old English is able to understand and appreciate the works of Shakespeare, and the more the reader understands of Elizabethan England the more he is able to relate to the characters as believable.
However, the same characters dressed in modern clothes and using modern technology would seem ridiculous speaking of bare bodkins. Kaiser states, “My hope is that this work may stimulate the interest of many others to press on in our research of the historical understandings of the people of this land and book. ” (xiii) I also would like to see Kaiser’s book encourage those in the fields of archaeology and ancient history to see the historical merit of the Bible and to be bold about using it as a source until the outside evidence refutes their interpretation of the Bible.
I am confident that there will be no final conflict with the Word of God and the historical record, and that believers among archaeologists have the distinct advantage of an infallible Source to guide them in their research. The Bible is not a history textbook or an archaeologist’s field manual, but the stories are real events set in real places. As this book hopefully stimulates such research I would also like to see a more “user-friendly” approach for the layperson. One of my main criticisms of the book is that it is slow reading, in my opinion, for the person not familiar with the terms and designations of historical research.
It is not impossible to follow the narrative, but Kaiser’s dry style makes what should be fascinating history too text-bookish. That is as it should be for a certain audience, and making the information more readable and accessible would probably necessitate a few volumes, but I think it would be an invaluable resource for any serious student of the Bible – preacher, missionary and layman alike. This kind of information is too valuable to the believer’s faith to remain inaccessible.