History and Ideology in Ancient Israel

Written by Giovanni Garbini Reviewed By A. R. Millard

Giovanni Garbini of Rome University is well known among Semitists for his essays and monographs on Semitic languages and inscriptions. They are characterized by crisp, stimulating argumentation and readiness to take an independent position. During the past ten years he has also turned his attention to the OT, and in this volume he presents several essays setting out his arguments and conclusions. It is a tour de force.Regrettably, it is tour de force of ill-founded and unjustifiably sceptical reasoning. Only in order to alert readers of Themelios to some of its failings does the reviewer comment on it.

On the first page of his Introduction, Professor Garbini reveals his starting-point: reading Exodus 32, ‘I was struck by the detail that the tables of the law were written on two surfaces … and were broken so easily by Moses. Although it is said that they were of stone, these tablets seem to have been the small terra-cotta tablets on which the Babylonians wrote. And given that cuneiform tablets had disappeared from Egypt and Palestine by the end of the thirteenth century bc (they were only reintroduced by the Assyrian administration), the story of the golden calf, written by someone who was familiar with such tablets, must have been composed by an author who was or had been in Babylon.’ On p. 104 the Golden Calf narrative is dated to the Exile. Two fallacies are immediately evident. The first is a logical one. The author assumes the stone tablets are transformations of clay ones inscribed in cuneiform because he apparently does not know of stone tablets of suitable type in the ancient Near East. This is a simple example of the ‘I don’t see it, therefore it does not exist’ argument. In the second place, while it is true that cuneiform writing on clay tablets did disappear from the Levant soon after 1220 bc for 400 hundred years or so, no one supposes Moses lived after that date (cf. p. 155 ‘thirteenth century bc’), so whenever the present account was written it could preserve correctly a memory from that time. However, there is no compulsion to envisage Moses writing cuneiform; all the other scripts current in the second millennium bc could be scratched on stone, and that was the most readily available writing material given the circumstances of the story. (Moses was not called to climb the mountain with a papyrus scroll, pen and ink!) The alleged absence of comparable examples is no proof of non-existence; the fact, in Egypt apprentice-scribes often did their writing exercises on flakes of stone which could be held in one hand and would shatter if dropped on a rock.

Equally unsatisfactory is Professor Garbini’s treatment of ‘Hezekiah’s Siege’ (pp. 44–47). His several criticisms of the biblical narrative require an essay in reply. To be noted are his inadequate arguments for the contrast between Hebrew and Aramaic being anachronistic for the eighth century bc. His position is astonishing: ‘It is obvious that the whole episode presupposes a linguistic situation in which Aramaic had become an international language, known to the educated class throughout the Near East; but what we call ‘imperial’ Aramaic seems somewhat anachronistic in 701 bc, when the Jerusalem court must have been more familiar with Phoenician than the Aramaic’ (p. 46). Since ‘Imperial Aramaic’ is the term Semitists apply to the language of the Persian Empire, its introduction here is misleading. Aramaic was already widely used in the Assyrian Empire by Assyrian government officials. In the palace of Sennacherib’s father, Sargon II (c. 721–705 bc), have been found mace-heads belonging to some of them, with their owners’ Assyrian names engraved on them in Aramaic letters (see Iraq 45 (1983), pp. 101–108). Other Assyrian kings received letters from provincial governors in Aramaic, one being from the governor of Tyre to the same Sargon or an earlier king (see H. W. F. Saggs, Iraq 17 (1955), pp. 130, no. 13). To say ‘the languages neighbouring on Hebrew were Phoenician, Moabite and Edomite but not Aramaic’ at the end of the eighth century bc and that Hebrew only came ‘directly up against Aramaic’ after 586 bc (p. 46) is to misrepresent the situation quite badly. Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz, visited Damascus, the former Aramaean capital, for an audience with the Assyrian king (2 Ki. 16:1ff.), and Israel was absorbed into Assyria’s provincial system after 720 bc. It is impossible to believe no one in the Jerusalem court had a working knowledge of Aramaic, unless it can be shown that Hezekiah and his courtiers lived in almost total isolation from the rest of the Near East!

These examples of failure to take adequate account of ancient textual sources illustrate the nature of this book. There are many more like them, as well as numerous unsubstantiated assertions about the biblical texts. While it is valuable to have long-accepted theories questioned and the scholarly consensus challenged, there is no value in mounting such attacks without sound reasons and watertight arguments. Professor Garbini is free to doubt ‘whether a historical history of Israel can be written at all’, but in this work he does not make a case in favour of his view which can command any assent. History was certainly understood by the OT writers from a particular standpoint or ideology; that does not mean their reports are therefore factually incorrect or tendentiously constructed to mislead. Any who read this book using their brains with an open Bible, as recommended on the back cover, should be able to detect its special pleading and flawed reasoning on page after page.

A. R. Millard

University of Liverpool