The Quest for the Historical Israel: Reconstructing Israel’s Early History

Written by George W. Ramsey Reviewed By D. J. Wiseman

The Professor of Religion at Presbyterian College, South Carolina has packed into 124 pages summaries of a wide variety of hypotheses and historical and theological interpretations relating to the patriarchal period, exodus, covenant and settlement. The rest of the space is taken up with footnotes (useful) and a selected bibliography (less useful as run of the mill) through which the author’s own views of approbation even of some conflicting viewpoints can be glimpsed. ‘Fundamentalists’ are mainly condemned throughout as opposed to ‘careful historians’ and no evangelical scholars who would be classed by us as ancient historians are considered.

This volume has already been rated as ‘haute vulgarisation of the very best kind’ by a liberal reviewer. It will be much used by students seeking a brief synopsis of views, major and minor, of a period of history in which there is certainly no over-all agreement among scholars.

The title underscores the primary aim, which is to examine the historian’s art. This is the subject of much current concern for the ancient Near East as a whole (see, e.g., The Cambridge Ancient History (second edition revised, 1970–1982) to which no reference is made here. The surveys include the role of ‘historical … critical’ study in the understanding of the Old Testament writings in the light of the times in which they were produced. For Ramsey this was usually long after the event they describe, any gap being filled by oral transmission. This runs against the evidence of the rest of the world around Israel and no indication is given that records normally survive only from the last two generations of occupancy of any territory. He stresses inconsistencies and conflicts in differing versions of an event without always giving the possible explanations which can be put forward within his own stated criteria of good historiography. Nor are we reminded how comparatively rare are the examples of such possible ‘inconsistencies’ beyond the few he cites.

The basis of this handy book is really the study of historical methodology. Since the Old Testament is the main source for this period (as opposed to the first millennium history) Ramsey argues that much is ‘biased’ by the author’s special interests. What written history is not? He seems to disallow any selection of events and considers that witnesses frequently distort the past. How can this be known apart from comparative and contemporary data? Ramsey rightly reminds us that there is much we do not know as yet but generally follows the new trend to belittle archaeology and its interpretation. This book betrays little first-hand experience of battling first-hand with extra-biblical data. As a survey of the theories of historiography I find it less satisfying than D. Bebbington’s excellent Patterns in History (IVP, 1979). Ramsey is right to warn against oversimplification and often misleading statements, i.e. not to go beyond the evidence (p. 11). Despite this and his lack of emphasis on archaeology and ancient Near Eastern studies in general he praises argument from analogy, common sense judgments and cross-cultural studies!

Ramsey’s own bias comes through strongly in the review of recent study of Israel’s early history which largely follows Thompson and van Seters on the patriarchal period and their argument for the lateness of the tradition. While it is true that some comparisons of ancient customs with Genesis 11–22 may have been overstressed, the whole of this line of evidence cannot be dismissed, as is shown by M. J. Selman in A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman (eds.), Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (IVP, 1980, pp. 93–138). It is in any case difficult to use such comparative data for chronological purposes unless there is a proven local and periodic restriction in its occurrence. On patriarchal names he argues without supporting data ‘that the evidence permits location of the patriarchs in the second millennium’. However much one may agree with the conclusion it has not been reached here on the basis of historical reasoning and debate within his own terms for this. Ideas that the name Abram is identical with the later Abiram still lack convincing proof and much of the debate relies on comparison with extra-biblical sources of which only about a fifth of the relevant data is published. Ramsey’s summaries on the patriarchal modes of life, the Amorite migration theory are brief but useful.

‘The Exodus and the Covenant’ (ch. 3) centres on the majority theories as to date concluding that ‘on balance the case for the unity of the exodus-Sinai-conquest is stronger than the case for separating the experience among separate groups’. For the Hittite (in fact a Mesopotamian genre) covenant-treaty forms he accepts, then questions, Mendenhall’s analysis and adds his own comments to the effect that ‘the influence of the treaty genre in Israel occurred primarily in the first millennium bc’ (p. 58). Thus the Sinai tradition has to be a later theological reshaping under the influence of that pattern and the Decalogue a product of several stages of development. Thus this section is weak by avoiding a wealth of non-biblical linguistic and historical evidence.

The settlement in Canaan (pp. 65–98) reflects Rowley’s complex pattern of events and dissents from the Albright school. He well warns against equating a particular biblical report with a given archaeological ‘destruction level’, but the validity of this cannot yet be ruled out in every case (e.g. Lachish), nor do changes in archaeological interpretations themselves necessarily provide evidence against the historical validity of an early tradition. His summaries of the theories of the early versus late date for the conquest are remarkable for the space given to Bimson’s recent work advocating an earlier date (pp. 73–77). However, he dislikes Bimson’s acceptance of the biblical chronology at face value and finds ‘his arguments from the bible very weak’. It would have been fairer to have given reasons for such a stricture, though he does finally conclude that ‘his work merits attention’! Alternatives for the entry into the promised land—peaceful, piecemeal or revolutionary—are well summarized except for the omission of Gottwald’s The Tribes of Yahweh (apart from in a bibliographical note).

Ramsey’s major clash with ‘fundamentalists’ (nowhere defined) comes in the section on ‘The Theological dimension of the Quest’, i.e. If Jericho was not razed is our faith vain? (This precise example is stated but not argued.) He aims to show that in the Old Testament story or fiction are still valuable as showing what they believed and that is how the Old Testament is to be read. He dislikes arguments for revelation in history and accepts Albrektson’s History and the Gods unaware of the criticism of it by W. G. Lambert and other cuneiformists. His strongest remarks are directed against Montgomery, Clark Pinnock and Schaeffer for demanding that ‘the theological claims of the Bible can and must be checked and verified by historical methods’. Yet this is what he has set himself to do within the philosophy behind his book. For Ramsey ‘the fundamentalists let the witnesses off easily, not challenging their accounts’. Reading this book makes one feel that the same can be said of the author in his ready acceptance of so many hypotheses. This book should also challenge every evangelical scholar to seek to contribute answers to the many problems it raises.

D. J. Wiseman