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Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? Hardcover – 18 Jul 2003


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  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co (18 July 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802809758
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802809759
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 16 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,193,846 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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* "William Dever treats Israel's origins as no one before him ever has. This unique, lively synthesis of the archaeological and textual data will shape our understanding of Israel's emergence for years. " - Baruch Halpern, Pennsylvania State University --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

William G Dever is Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona, USA. He is the author of 25 books including What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? published by Eerdmans. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Until modern literary-critical biblical scholarship began to emerge in the mid-to-late 19th century, the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament was regarded as Scripture, as Holy Writ. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Mrs Brown on 15 Oct. 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
William Dever presents a very methodical, balanced and interesting assessment of the archaeological evidence for the origins and identity of the early Israelites, backed up by extensive biblical and historical references. It is a fascinating book and my only quibble would be that the maps are not that easy to follow. For anyone interested in the Old Testament, for whatever reason, this is an excellent read.
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Amazon.com: 38 reviews
175 of 183 people found the following review helpful
Early Israelites 8 July 2003
By L C Sheppard - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
If one must rely on a single source relating to the historicity of the Old Testament Professor William Dever's latest book is the one. "Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?" effectively makes use of his concept of "convergences between artifacts and texts." He brings to bear archaeology, history, mythology, scripture and tradition on the people he calls the proto-Israelites, the forebears of the nation in ancient Canaan we have come to know as Israel of the Iron Age through Roman times.
Notably much of what he writes is based upon his enormous experience in archaeology and more importantly his own fieldwork. His incredible breadth and depth of knowledge and insight pour forth onto the pages of this book.
Revisionists and minimalists who allege the Old Testament contains no history of Israel and say it was not composed until the Persian or Greek periods will not like this book. Likewise conservatives and fundamentalists who interpret the scriptures literally will gain no encouragement here.
Doctor Dever's scholarly account of the stated positions of all the participants in the debate is of enormous help in sorting out the real issues and putting in perspective the biases and spin being inflicted upon us. Further by explaining how the entire mass of scientific, scriptural and other inquiries illuminates the origins of the Israelites he gives the definitive elucidation. His authoritative conclusions are astute, well thought-out, broadminded and evenhanded.
Future discoveries may yield additional knowledge about this important era and exciting subject. However it is unlikely that any results will alter drastically what Professor Dever has written in this excellent, eminently informative and readable tour de force.
Dedication of this book to Sean William Dever is especially poignant. It was the loss of the son that prompted the father to focus on a "journey" as the means for dealing with sorrow. I feel that the spirit of the son was in large measure the driving force in the achievement of a superb outcome, "the destination."
Louis C. Sheppard, Ph.D., D.I.C.
63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
A reasonable approach to a difficult subject 30 Sept. 2004
By David Oldacre - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The Introduction and Chapter I - "The Current Crisis in Understanding the Origins of Early Israel" contain some very important statements about the purpose of this book. Professor Dever addresses the question of the historical basis of Israel's origin in Egypt and Canaan:- that is the Exodus and the Conquest. He defines his methodology as using archaeological evidence as a control (not proof) in rereading biblical texts, and argues that there are at least 5 basic approaches for doing so, ranging from
a) Assume the biblical text is literally true, and ignore all external evidence as irrelevant
b) Hold that the biblical text is probably true, but seek external corroboration
c) Approach the text and external data with no preconceptions, single out the convergences, but remain sceptical about the rest
d) Contend that nothing in the biblical text is true unless proven by external data
e) Reject the text and any other data because the Bible cannot be true
He holds to the middle ground because he thinks that truth is most likely to be found there.
This is an absorbing book, and one which seems to use "The Systems Approach" for describing his position - i.e. What is the problem and its significance, what are the facts, what are the alternatives, and what is the most appropriate solution. Having clearly stated the problem, Professor Dever reviews the account of the Exodus, the Conquest of Transjordan, and Conquest of the land west of the Jordan, identifying the problems with these accounts, and the inconsistencies with the archaeological evidence. This is followed by a thorough review of the current state of archaeological facts, and a summary of the material culture of Iron Age I.
From there he proceeds to review the various attempts at a synthesis of textual and archaeological data over the past 40 years, which includes a review of the work and position of scholars from the Older Israeli Biblical Scholarship, the German School, the American School Biblicists, Histories of Israel, The Biblical Revisionists, and the Israeli and American Archaeologists. He devotes a separate chapter to the works and views of Israel Finkelstein
His closing chapters on the Ethnicity and Archaeological record of the early Israelites, and Salvaging the Biblical Tradition are masterworks of analysis in arriving at a balanced conclusion on the origins of the Ancient Israelites
This is a very thorough and well reasoned book, and one that should be read by anyone who is interested in the subject of Israel, past or present. Whatever category you place yourself in the five approaches above, it is worth it. What category am I in? Probably somewhere between (b) and (c) and I definitely need to read it again before I read another book about Israel!
86 of 99 people found the following review helpful
Superb synthesis 14 Aug. 2004
By Atheen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although the book is mostly a review of the last 100 to 150 years of scholarship on the subject of origins, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From offers a fine critique for the student or interested reader. The author, William Dever, is a professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona, an institution noted for its on going work in the Middle East in collaboration with other institutions of higher learning, (including site work in Egypt under the directorship of Otto Schaden, with whom I studied Egyptian hieroglyphics years ago). With some thirty years of experience in the field, he is able to interlace his discussion of current theories with insights of his own taken from this perspective.

One of the points that I admire most about the book is the author's lack of rancor. Knowing as I do that the field of Biblical studies can present a minefield of controversy to anyone who professes any point of view, and that the journals can fairly smoke with comments and counter-comments to the editor, I find his openness laudable. The author does have his disagreements with the proponents of other theories, but he seems able to give them a fair and balanced airing and credit where credit is due. This isn't always easy in a field where contention rules, reputation is made by going against the current, and tenure may be given to those who successfully unseat their elders.

Part of the contention also arises from a peculiar need to justify the biblical narrative, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it all "really happened" and is therefore "true." Like proving the existence of God, this is essentially a non-question. The religious reality of the Bible and its stories is a matter of faith; one either accepts it or doesn't according to ones own light. To the devout, proof is unnecessary as the author himself notes in his introductory chapters.

The modern political ramifications of Israelite origins is another embarrassing stone for the scholar to trip over, one of which Dever also makes note. The charge that Israelite origins or even the reality of its monarchal state was a fiction created to serve the political interests of their creators, and even more inflammatory, the possible suppression of "Palestinian history" by the modern state of Israel have made the issue of "historic reality" a major political problem that is not likely to go away anytime soon. With so much at stake both personally and nationally, any definitive statements in whatever direction are likely to be seen as an attack by someone.

With the above caveats, I tend to agree with Professor Dever's assessment of the situation. It seems highly probable that the later state of Israel arose from an indigenous source with small exogenous groups providing origin stories that were useful to later redactors to whose efforts we owe the modern version of the Biblical narrative. Whatever the motivation of these latter individuals, those of the earliest population or of the early monarchy were effected by conditions current during their own time. It is thus to these conditions and to this historical setting one must look to make sense of the record. Dever makes it quite clear from his discussion of the local infighting presented in the Armarna texts that conditions for the average citizen were deteriorating in the area during the Late Bronze/Early Iron age. Climate may or may not have been a factor in the Levant itself, but it most certainly had an effect on more northernly populations, since massive population movements occurred from there into the Near East. Change was almost unavoidable. With incursions of outsiders putting pressure on available land, increase in the number of lawless dissidents harassing the cities, quarrels between monarchs over control of their mutual boundaries, an unfair division of resources, the peasant population might well decide to cut its losses and run for it. It might also assume to develop an identity of its own irrespective of the ultimate origins of its constituent members.

In assessing the soundness of such a proposal, one might well benefit from the less emotionally charged example of the Anasazi origins and from research on the effects of climate on population movement and cultural change. To begin with, David Stuart's excellent account of the effects of climate change on the rise of the corn growing cultures of the four corners region of Arizona and surrounding states, makes a good parallel. In Anasazi America, the Professor suggests that the earliest inhabitants changed from a condition of transhumanescence to one of settled existence when climatic conditions made it necessary. With decline in resources, cultivation of multiple areas by people who considered themselves "kin" was a good way to spread risk widely. A need for organizing labor for water and land management probably led to a centralized authority, a class system of sorts, large scale architecture, in-group religious institutions, and an inequity in resource allocation. When climate changed again and the privileged elite were unable to manipulate conditions by their connections with nature or their management abilities, the sparsity of resources and inequity between classes became too pronounced for the culture to endure. The rural population disbursed. It had nothing to lose by doing so. Heading to the empty upland frontiers, they established architectural and technical hall marks suggestive of small family freeholds linked by obligations of shared risk, but the buildings and cultural menagerie did not arise from nothing; it arose as a derivative of what had been used in the area before.

The topics of climate and culture and climate and the rise and fall of polities are dealt with in very clear terms by Brian Fagan in The Long Summer, Harry Thurston in Secrets of the Sands and Richardson Gill in The Great Maya Draughts. In all four of the above books, there is ample data to support Professor Dever's thesis of an indigenous origin for the early Israelites.
79 of 91 people found the following review helpful
Hodegpodge 28 Mar. 2007
By Alnitak - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Read at least one other book close to this subject first--The Bible Unearthed by Silberman and Finkelstein is a good choice--since this could be subtitled "A reply to Finkelstein." After Dever's movie review (he says Yul Brynner was better than Charlton Heston) there comes a host of detail, mixed confusingly with reviews of the literature from other archeologists, many of whom are cited at length but with little context to make it clear why any of it matters. Dever finally warms up to a complicated theory about the origins of the Israelites that may be true but doesn't have much support, and is a little hard to distinguish from Finkelstein. There are also a few divergences into, for example, possible origins of Moses the man, or natural explanations for the plagues in Egypt, and several other biblical references.

There are lots of maps, drawings, pictures and tables, but not much explanation of them; he seems to assume they are self-explanatory. As he says, "Virtually everyone is familiar with the basic outlines of the biblical story" so he doesn't bother to tell it. Dever admits to dashing off this text, and it shows. This is one of those books that desperately needs editing.

Finkelstein insists that the scientific results must hold sway over the biblical text, while Dever claims to give them equal weight; in fact the two scientists end up rather close together. Dever is responding to Finkelstein's glibness, saying "Hey! Not so fast!" and does offer some balance to the facile Silberman and Finkelstein treatment.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
TEN STARS! This book is a must for those who wish to know 24 Feb. 2005
By Steve Reina - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The Bible originated with the Torah and the Torah originated with the Israelites. Therefore, where the Israelites came from is a foundation upon which all that follows rests.

It's a fascinating topic and Dever makes all the answers available in this short and easy to read book. In early chapters, Dever talks about the history of the archeology relating to this issue and the range of opinions which have developed. He also frankly discusses the modern fad of minimalism wherein some academics and non academics have advocated that Bible/Torah stories are just myth.

A veteran of field research in Israel, Dever shares the pertinent information from various digs to develop a picture of what was a mass population explosion in 12th/13th century BCE Canaan. In quantifying the findings from these digs, Dever introduces us to the people who lived in the Judean foothills at roughly the same time Pharaoh Merneptah was touting a victory stele which claimed: "Israel is laid waste; his seed is not."
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