The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect
By William G. Dever
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), x + 436 pp., $25
Reviewed by Eric H. Cline
The venerable Bill Dever has become a writing machine, publishing four semi-popular books on ancient Israel in just over a decade. In this, the most recent, he undertakes a discussion of the lives of ordinary people, focusing especially on the eighth century B.C E.
Semi-popular books are extremely difficult to write, entailing a necessary and delicate balancing act between including enough detail to satisfy advanced undergraduate and graduate students, not to mention one’s professional colleagues, and leaving out enough specifics so that the layperson is not overwhelmed and hopelessly lost. Publishing one such book in a decade is no mean feat; publishing four in that same time period, as Dever has done, is nothing short of miraculous. But, has he succeeded in this latest high-wire act?
In the opening paragraph of the preface to this book, Dever notes that he has written it primarily for the nonspecialist, but that technical details for colleagues can be found in the notes and bibliography at the end. This is certainly one means by which to satisfy all comers, but, to be honest, the book is still fairly heavy going, for it is essentially a textbook for upper-level undergraduate and graduate students, not a trade publication to be purchased in an airport for light summer reading. There are other books on the topic, such as Philip King and Lawrence Stager’s classic volume Life in Biblical Israel1 that may be more accessible for beginners.
Dever begins the book with two chapters that discuss not ancient Israel, but rather the difficulties involved in writing history and, specifically, the challenges of writing a history of ancient Israel. Nonspecialists will want to skip these chapters and begin with Chapter III (“The Natural Setting”), for the material contained in these two early chapters will make sense only to those who have been following the past two decades of acrimonious academic debates about what constitutes a proper history of Israel. The second chapter in particular continues Dever’s now-one-sided debate with the so-called “minimalists” at the universities of Copenhagen and Sheffield; two previous reviewers of this book,2 Diana Edelman who teaches at the University of Sheffield and Aren Maeir who does not (he teaches at Bar Ilan University) are both in agreement that the polemics in this chapter are not only unnecessary, but are out of place in such an introductory book.
After finally warming to his main subject in the third chapter, Dever moves in subsequent chapters to a consideration of the available data, ranging from large cities like Megiddo, Lachish, Hazor and Gezer to smaller towns and villages, and begins his ruminations on everyday life. The remaining chapters touch upon socioeconomic structures, religion and cult, Israel’s neighbors and warfare, principally as they relate to Dever’s main theme of the lives of ordinary people. Along the way, he includes material on either side of the eighth century, for which both Edelman and Maeir have castigated him, but this is slightly unjustified because it serves to put the material into context. Admittedly, however, all would have been resolved if Dever had simply said that he was going to consider life in Iron Age Israel and not just specifically the eighth century B.C.E.
Edelman is also correct in pointing out the lack of discussion or references to household archaeology. This is ironic in a book on the lives of ordinary people and is especially ironic insofar as two of Dever’s former students, Jennie Ebeling and Laura Mazow, have co-edited (with Assaf Yasur-Landau) a volume on exactly this topic.3 However, many of her other complaints, such as noting that Dever has failed to take into account Jeff Zorn’s redating of several strata at Tell en-Nasbeh, would be justified if this were a strictly scholarly volume, but are excessively critical in this instance.
Certainly in my class on the archaeology of ancient Israel, I will now assign both Dever’s volume and the King and Stager volume, as well as Oded Borowski’s Daily Life in Biblical Times.4 However, I will also assign the critical reviews by Edelman and Maeir, for studying scholarly disputes and criticisms is part of learning the field and is also a surefire way to initiate invigorating classroom discussions.
Overall, Dever’s book will be of principal use and interest to undergraduate and graduate students, rather than to those with no previous knowledge of the subject. In terms of a semi-popular balancing act and approach to the topic, he has here leaned more toward “semi” than “popular,” but this latest book is of interest and use, and it is vintage Dever.
1. (Westminster, 2001).
3. Household Archaeology in Ancient Israel and Beyond (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
4. (Atlanta: SBL, 2003).
Eric H. Cline is chair of the George Washington University’s department of Classical and Near Eastern languages and civilizations. He is also author of Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009).