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The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect

The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect

By William Dever. Pp. x + 436, figs. 168. William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 2012. $25. ISBN 978-0-8028-6701-8 (paper).

Reviewed by

Dever’s book is a mature Alterswerk in the truest sense of the word: a “late work” gathering the fruits of Dever’s long-term research in the archaeology and history of the southern Levant.

The aim of the book is “to provide a new, original, lavishly illustrated handbook for students of the Hebrew Bible. It is written primarily for the non-specialist, but technical details for colleagues will be found in the notes and in the bibliography at the end” (vi). The fundamental question that Dever intends to answer is: What was it really like in ancient Israel? To answer this question, the book follows a clear structure: various topics (e.g., domestic houses) are investigated primarily on the basis of archaeological sources and secondarily concerning textual references in the Hebrew Bible. As a third step, for each topic a reconstruction is given of “what it was really like,” according to Dever (cf. 10, 142).

Dever’s fundamental question and the book’s structure are very clear—the genre of the book is less clear. Is it a history of ancient Israel, as the author continuously repeats (e.g., vi)? Or is it a methodological hermeneutics about biblical archaeology, as the subtitle of the book implies? Or is it an illustration of everyday life and household archaeology, as the title promises? Any review of the book will easily conclude that it is not a history of ancient Israel. It does not attempt to investigate the diachronic developments regarding the historical entities of Israel and Judah from their beginnings to their final stages. Rather, it is limited to the eighth century B.C.E. (vi), and instead of describing the historical developments of this century, the period is taken as a synchronic cross-section to serve as a snapshot of “what it was really like.” Reviews of the book will likewise recognize without difficulty that it is not a methodological hermeneutics of biblical archaeology. Very few definitions and theoretical considerations are given, and references to the relation between archaeology and the Bible are limited to harsh polemics against the so-called minimalists (cf. 13–16).

Therefore, regarding the genre, the book should be taken as it is indicated by its main title: an illustration of the lives of ordinary people in ancient Israel. In fact, the chapters of the book that are directly related to this goal prove to be very fertile and represent the book’s richest fruits: “The Database: Sites and Hierarchies” (ch. 4), “Cities and Towns” (ch. 5), “Towns, Villages, and Everyday Life” (ch. 6), “Socioeconomic Structures” (ch. 7), and “Religion and Cult” (ch. 8). In these chapters, Dever is able to bring together his rich archaeological experiences and research to create a lively picture of everyday life during the eighth century B.C.E. in ancient Palestine. In doing so, he clearly demonstrates the significance of archaeological sources to reconstruct everyday life.

Both “students of the Hebrew Bible” and “non-specialists” (vi) can learn much from the book if they aim to study the world of the Bible. Indeed, with respect to the quality of the book as true Alterswerk, I would recommend concentrating on learning from it instead of criticizing its shortcomings. However, I would like to mention three aspects that readers might consider to complement their studies.

First, it will be productive for further studies of the topic to define the basic terms. What is “everyday life”? And who belongs in the category of “ordinary people”? Different definitions of these fundamental topics are feasible, each having major consequences for the manner in which the world of the Bible is to be understood. For example, a religious celebration might be seen as contrary to (based on the differentiation between normal and exceptional phases of life), or as an integral component of, everyday life. The same is true for extreme situations such as natural disasters or destructions from warfare. Above all, the question of whether death should be understood as belonging to everyday life is a very revealing consideration in this context. The fact that Dever’s book incorporates cult and religion (249–83), tombs and burial practices (283–93), and warfare (320–67) in his study shows that he includes these events in everyday life, but no methodological foundation for this is given.

Second, future studies of everyday life in ancient Palestine will benefit from observing both the history and internationality of research. For instance, about 50 years ago, a book appeared, already in its fourth edition, that attempted to reconstruct everyday life in Israel/Judah on the basis of different sources (M. Noth, Die Welt des Alten Testaments: Einführung in die Grenzgebiete der alttestamentlichen Wissenschaft. 4th ed. [Berlin 1962]; cf. R. de Vaux, Les institutions de l’Ancien Testament [Paris 1958–1960]). Domestic houses (128–33, 146–69) were investigated by Braemer in his fundamental study L’architecture domestique du Levant à l’âge du fer (Paris 1982), and palace architecture (206–23) was intensively studied by Nigro (Ricerche sull’architettura palaziale della Palestina nelle Età del Bronzo e del Ferro: Contesto archeologico e sviluppo storico [Rome 1994]). For the reconstruction of religion on the basis of archaeological sources (249–83), see the groundbreaking project of Keel and Schroer (Die Ikonographie Palästinas/Israels und der Alte Orient: Eine Religionsgeschichte in Bildern [Fribourg 2005]). Readers of Dever’s book may add all these studies (and others of the kind) to the bibliography (382–421), which is very comprehensive on the one hand but somehow limited on the other hand.

Third, it will be enriching for future research to make use of the whole range of sources for the reconstruction of everyday life. Instead of contrasting exclusively archaeology with the Bible, all groups of sources need to be treated equally: archaeological, textual, epigraphical, iconographical, and ethnological sources, as well as natural scientific investigations (e.g., paleobiological analysis). The last will become more important in the future, as can be seen from the auspicious approach by Sasson (Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation [London 2010]).

These remarks are only a selection of topics stimulated by the book, and it should be present in all libraries concerning the archaeology of the Levant and biblical studies. The author deserves our gratitude for his long-term research and for bringing aspects of this work together in this volume.

Institute of Biblical Archaeology
Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen
72076 Tübingen

Book Review of The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect, by William Dever

Reviewed by Jens Kamlah

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 1 (January 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.Kamlah

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