Finishing Lemche’s Israelites in History and Tradition

I finished Niels Peter Lemche’s The Israelites in History and Tradition.  Here are some points:

1. In my opinion, the main point of Lemche’s book is on page 155: “The only thing that remains is the tradition of two tiny states of Palestine in the Iron Age, which were long after their disappearance chosen as the basis of a history of a new nation to be established on the soil of Palestine in the postexilic period.  The tradition may have been preserved by descendants of the people who were really carried into exile by the Assyrians and Babylonians, or by others, who simply inherited the tradition and re-created it as their own story.”

The following from pages 165-166 also summarizes Lemche’s argument: “It is one of the theses of this book that the Israel found on the pages of the Old Testament is an artificial creation which has little more than one thing in common with the Israel that existed once upon in time in Palestine, that is, the name.  Apart from this not insignificant element, the Israelite nation as explained by the biblical writers has little in the way of a historical background.  It is a highly idealized construct created by ancient scholars of Jewish tradition in order to legitimize their own religious community and its religio-political claims on land and religious exclusivity.  This literary society has been built up around a model of the league of twelve tribes of Israel, almost as borrowed from Greek tradition, and has been provided with the necessary features to make it appear to be for a people.  It is, however, so far removed from the sociopolitical and religious realities of Palestine in the Iron Age that it can be difficult to find anything of relevance except in the name of the god Yahweh.  The home of this god may have been to the south of Palestine, but he was in the Iron Age clearly a very popular deity in most of Palestine, in contrast to the biblical Yahweh, however, related to the female deity Asherah in some way.”

For Lemche, there is no evidence that there was an ancient Israel that was a national religious community in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages, as we encounter in the Hebrew Bible.  The Merneptah Stele mentions an “Israel,” but how do we know that this is the Israel of the Hebrew Bible, which extends from Abraham to after the exile?  Ancient primary sources refer to the “House of Omri,” but how can we be sure that what the Hebrew Bible says about Omri and his line is historically-accurate, especially when it was written long after the time of Omri?  Many have tried to identify an Israelite material culture or evidence for a Solomonic kingdom, pointing to a specific house-type, or collared-rim storage jars, or a six-chambered gate.  But these things also exist outside of the land that supposedly was Israel.  The house form is in the Transjordan, and a six-chambered gate is in Ashdod, in Philistia.  So they’re not proof that there was a nation called Israel in the Iron Age, for they exist elsewhere.  (As far as I could see, Lemche doesn’t interact in this book with the argument that the absence of pig bones in the central hills is a cultural marker of ancient Israel.)  The people in the central hills, for Lemche, were not different from their neighbors—even the language was roughly the same (as the Hebrew Bible mostly depicts)!

So how did there emerge the notion that there was an Israel that was a sort of national church, intended by God to be separate from the pagan nations?  Lemche believes that the history of Israel was a post-exilic creation, either by those who went into exile from Samaria and Judah, or by people claiming the identity of the people who once inhabited that land.  They gave themselves a constitution, and the Conquest was a story justifying their claim to the land, expressing their hope that its other inhabitants would die.  They sought to be separate from other nations, and yet they recognized that interaction with other nations would occur, and so Genesis 17 discusses the circumcision of foreigners.

Lemche refers often to parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Greek legends.  My favorites are when Lemche compares the wilderness traditions to what we find in Greek literature.  On page 119, Lemche says that “The desert is, like the Greek ocean, a dangerous place where every sort of danger can be encountered.”  And he notes on page 207 that, in Odyssey XII.260-450, Odysseus is prevented from reaching his home because of a deadly sin committed by his men, the abduction of the oxen of the Helios…”  As in the Pentateuch, Greek legends have stories about traversing a large, dangerous area, and of sin having an effect on how long one spends in that area.  But I’m not sure if Lemche is positing dependence on the Greek traditions on the part of the biblical authors, for he says that there are similarities between biblical tales and “the traditions of King Arthur and the Round Table or of Charlemagne’s heroes” (153), and he mentions the Egyptian Middle Kingdom legend of Sinuhe, who experienced exile and return to his land (page 207).  But Lemche does believe that parts of the Hebrew Bible reflect Greek times, for he holds that Numbers 24:24 is describing the Macedonians, and thus dates to the “late fourth or third centuries B.C.E.” (page 160).

2.  On pages 156-157, Lemche discusses a French biblical scholar from over a century ago, by the name of Maurice Vernes.  Vernes dated the biblical literature late—to Israel’s post-exilic period.  Vernes argued that we should start “from a relatively late date, when there can be no doubt about the existence of this literature”, and then work back in search of “fitting circumstances which may form the background of the individual books.”  Vernes’ conclusion is that the Hebrew Bible comes from “great schools of theology which flourished in Jerusalem between 400 and 200 B.C.”, and that “The composition of it lasted about two or three generations.”  Vernes contends that there is a “uniformity of thought in biblical literature”, although there is freedom in expressing that dogma.  The dogma is “a monotheism on a high moral and spiritual level, and [it] confirm[s] that the deity among all the nations of the earth has elected the people of Israel in order to overwhelm it with his gifts if it follows his laws.” (These are from quotations of Vernes in Lemche’s book.)

But Vernes’ name became lost in the history of biblical scholarship, after his views were dismissed by the respected Danish scholar Frants Buhl, who (in Lemche’s words) “claimed that according to Vernes the Old Testament came out of the late postexilic period like a shot out of a pistol.”  Yet, Vernes’ ideas resembled those of the later revisionists, among whom Lemche includes himself.

3.  I like what Lemche says about Genesis 3 on page 210: “It is up to humanity itself to decide its future, as happens when it decides for knowledge against eternal life (Genesis 3).”  What is the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3?  Perhaps it is our ability to make decisions—to obey God and to be blessed, or to disobey and to be punished.  But the choice is ours.  When Adam and Eve ate from the fruit, they opened the door to have to make moral decisions on a continual basis, decisions that would affect their fate.  They no longer had the security of the Garden (even though, of course, the Garden had the moral dilemma of the Tree of Knowledge itself, along with the tempting serpent).

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Finishing Lemche’s Israelites in History and Tradition

  1. Very interesting 😀


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Yesterday, I got one of Lemche’s books for a cheap price from Christian Book Distributors!


  3. I am looking forward to reading your thoughts on it! 🙂


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