Reality of ancient Israel

January 19, 1996

Keith Whitelam explains to Simon Targett that the Jewish version of the Old Testament is a fiction designed to legitimise Israel and that the history of the Palestinian people has been silenced. Israel Finkelstein (right) disagrees

Keith Whitelam's main argument, that the study of ancient Palestine should be liberated from the burden of the study of biblical ancient Israel, is not new. Whitelam's study joins a growing number of deconstructionist works of recent years, led by Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas Thompson and others, who call for a separation between the studies of ancient Palestine and ancient Israel. His specificity, though, is to unveil these works' hidden agenda - linking present politics with research of the past.

There are two main questions. The first is whether ancient Israel has been "invented" by scholars in the image of a modern European state. Whitelam is right in arguing that the study of the rise of ancient Israel has been formulated by western, Christian and Jewish theologies. Yet ancient Israel could not have been invented. It was there, among other territorial, nation-states of the Levant - Ammon, Moab and Edom. Ancient Israel is mentioned as a significant political power in extra-biblical texts, mainly Assyrian, from the mid-9th to the early 6th century bc. Hence, for those interested in the history of Palestine in the Iron Age, or for that matter in one of the early roots of western civilisation, ancient Israel is a real and important historical, political, social and ideological phenomenon. This should not be forgotten in the heat of the debate over orientalist and western academic discourses.

The second question is whether biblical studies, dominated by western scholars, helped to "devalue" the Palestinian past and the past of Palestine. (The name Palestine, derived from Philistine(s), was the name of the country in Roman times, centuries before the Arab conquest. It equals the Hebrew "Land of Israel" and the Christian "Holy Land").

Concerning recent history and the role of modern orientalism, the reader should be aware of the fact that Edward Said's views, on which Whitelam's work is based, is fiercely contested by another great school, led by Bernard Lewis. In any event, the torrent of recent work on the history of medieval Palestine and the Palestinian peasantry (including works by Israeli deconstructionists) disprove Whitelam.

Regarding ancient Palestine, that is, Palestine of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the reader is led to think that most if not all treatments of the past deal with the rise of biblical Israel. This is not the case. Equally important are studies on topics such as the rise and fall of urban, pre-Israelite societies, ups and downs in Egyptian domination in Canaan prior to the rise of early Israel, the migration and settlement of the Sea People, and the culture of Canaan in the third and second millennia bc - to mention a few.

I think Whitelam is wrong regarding the main theme of his work - the study of ancient Israel. He appears to ignore the impact of the most important emphases in recent scholarship (including his own 1987 book with Robert Coote, The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective): the long-term perspective in historical research (Fernand Braudel's longue duree), and the ethno-historical research, studying pre-modern societies of the Middle East in the attempt to shed light on historical sources and archaeological finds. Much of the history of Palestine in the fourth-to-first millennia bc was neither evolutionary nor progressive, but rather cyclic: rise and fall of urban societies, expansion and contraction of settlement activity in the frontier zones etc. The inevitable conclusion is that ancient Israel emerged from the indigenous population of Palestine of the second millennium bc. These new approaches to the history of Palestine/Canaan/Israel tend to undermine the construction of Whitelam's arguments, at least concerning present scholarship.

It is conventional wisdom that each scholar works in a given ideological, philosophical and political environment. This is true for all European, US, Israeli and Arab writers, Edward Said and Keith Whitelam not excepted. The subjective environment threatens objectivity and excellence of scholarship. The question is whether a scholar dealing with the past can free himself from the burden of the present.

Israel Finkelstein is professor in the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Tel Aviv.

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