“A History of Biblical Israel” by Ernst Axel Knauf and Philippe Guillaume

Ernst Axel Knauf and Philippe Guillaume. A History of Biblical Israel: The fate of the tribe and kingdoms from Merenptah to Bar Kochba. Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing, 2016, pp. 266.

Grappling with and reconstructing a history of ancient Israel and Judah is a particularly difficult task. The data is challenging to work through due to things like the scarcity of relevant inscriptions and the redaction of biblical traditions and literature. Knauf and Guillaume, though, attempt such a reconstruction. They do so by framing the history within a timespan: Merenptah to Bar Kochba. Thus, they reconstruct a history between c. 1208 BCE and 136 CE. Guillaume and Knauf break up the timeframe by dividing it into three segments: pre-history of biblical Israel, formation of biblical Israel in the Persian period, and fragmentation of biblical Israel (Hellenistic and Roman periods).

Furthermore, Knauf and Guillaume continue by defining terminology for significant words: Israel (covers realities from various time periods), history, and history of Israel. On the point of history, they offer a helpful introduction to how the discipline of history can function. To explain one aspect of it, they choose for focus on conjonctures, “a French word meaning circumstances used mainly in economics” (4). So, in their reconstruction of ancient Israel, one major focus is the wave of circumstances especially in relation to the resources and wealth of the region. Additionally, regarding history of Israel, Guillaume and Knauf are careful to note the issue of bias with primary texts, whether the Hebrew Bible or Babylonian Chronicles. Consequently, they choose to position themselves between minimalists and maximalists. This positioning, though, does not offer a method for delineating between what may be a more accurate representation of the past and what may be narrative flourishes written by the texts editors.

Guillaume and Knauf then define four more notions: time (especially chronology); space (i.e. topography, altitude, geography, etc.); peasants, urbanites, and nomads (dependent on the conjoncture, time, and space); toponyms; and epochs/conjonctures. Regarding the fifth notion, the periods tended to be constructed by the elite class and do “not reflect socio-political phenomena, which are characterized by continuity rather than by clear-cut period” (22). As a solution, they suggest organizing history into century categories, each reflecting about a 100 year period. For Israel, 796 BCE – 734 BCE is a “short” eight century, while 734 BCE – 609 BC is a “long” seventh century. This way to categorize periods, though, is somewhat convoluted. It lacks explanation and does not offer further evidence for why such categorization is valuable. Additionally, they choose to place Israel’s history within the “macron-history of the Mediterranean systems through  braudel’s economic conjonctures” (23). In other words, they utilize trade and economy within the Mediterranean world in order to draw on the conjonctures of each period. This is one of the strongest points of the method, namely utilizing economic patterns throughout the Mediterranean as a broader economic framework for the history of Israel.

In Chapter One, Knauf and Guillaume argues that ancient Israel emerged in a context of shasu and ‘apiru who began to display more formal clan organization. With the climate change in the LB Age, a power vacuum enabled various tribal units to form, such as the Philistines. Furthermore, they suggest that the cultural memory of Exodus may be derived from a tendency of Canaanite groups to be captured on Egyptian “slave-hunting” expedition or to migrates to Egypt in times of famine. Chapter Two works through the rise of proto-Israelite tribes. After offering a theoretical approach that “rural and urban populations adapted to economic and politic changes by alternating between one mode and the other” (43), namely between more nomads and urban. They support this theory by considering the small tribes in Palestine in context of the Pax Aegytptiaca, in which economic development of the region was encouraged through trade networks with Egypt. They further attempt to figure out from where various tribes may have emerged; however, this portion lacks substantive arguments and is highly conjectural. Finally, they offer some thoughts on the religious background of Israel.

Chapter Three situates the successful rise of Saul and state formation in the copper production and trade routes of Midean, Edom, and various other iron or copper centers. Although highly conjectural and only based on possible correlation between biblical texts and the ‘Arabah copper mines, they claim that Saul’s son, Eshbaal, was the one who expanded the wealth and power of the tribe of Benjamin. This entire argument, though, is based on a particular reading Samuel. It lacks any real argument of substance. David, father of the tribal state of Judah, may have attempted to destabilize Saul’s rule. Uprisings by Absolom illustrate the fragility of David’s rule, though. For the remainder of the chapter, Knauf and Guillaume work through the biblical representation of Solomon, Jereboam I, the revival of Egyptian influence, and religion and literature of the period. Again, though, the use of the Hebrew Bible is problematic. Many references to it seems to function more as a way to support a pre-constructed thesis. This goes back to an earlier point that the book lacks any sort of method, or actual examples, or working critical through texts in the Hebrew Bible.

Chapter Four considers the consolidation of Levantine kingdoms as a consequence of shifting economic and power structures. Judah, Knauf and Guillaume suggest, was drawn into  the “revival of Mediterranean trade” through peace with Israel and marriage to the daughter of an Aramean (possibly) king, namely Omri. Omri vied for power via a military coup. Now in power, Assyrians considered Omri to be the founder of the kingdom of Israel. Within this dynasty, the Omrides may have placed the Canaanites into forced labour (Judges 1:27-28). Throughout Chapter Four, they outline the victories of losses of various leaders up to Jereboam II. Notably, Hazael is given a special place in the chapter for how he shook off the Assyrian hold. Finally, they review religion in the 9th century BCE, religious expansion by Jereboam II, and religion in the 8th century BCE. Like previous chapters, there are many interesting tidbits; however, for the most part, the writing in convoluted, difficult to follow, and does not thoroughly engage with the primary source material. If one is to be between a minimalist and maximalist, one must also explain how to decide what reflects the past and what does not.

Chapter Five highlights the climax as Judah and it ideology in Deuteronomistic literature by considering the integration of Judah and Israel into the Neo-Assyrian empire. Contextually, Phoenician  trade between Tyre and Sidon decreased, while Philistine trade increase. Consequently, Judah strengthened, while Israel declined. They further detail the how the Neo-Assyrian military functioned and how the military incorporated Israel and Judah into the empire. Finally, they outline important religious developments and literature in the late 8th and early 7th century. While the history reconstructed is helpful, there are many claims which are not substantiated. For example, Knauf and Guillaume use Ps. 82 as evidence that Yahweh was replacing Ashur as the highest deity; however, Ps. 82 references El, not Ashur. In other words, they use a support text without explaining why it supports their point. Likewise, they suggest that Manasseh’s shedding of innocent blood may “reflect the suppression of an opposition group that held the kind of anti-Assyrian ideas that inspired the… politics of the last kings of Judah” (120). While this may be the case, they offer no convincing  explanation for how or why this may be the case, save for the Chroniclers revision of Manasseh. In short, they often reference the Hebrew Bible; however, there tends too be little to no critical discussion of the texts.

Chapter Six discuses Judah during the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He focuses on the three deportations of the elite from Judah to Babylon. From these deportations, he suggests that they produced four rivaling Judean groups: an ultra-conservative group focused on the absence of Yahweh (Ezekiel in Babylon), a group focused on the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty (Books of Samuel-Kings), the prophet-poetic tradition (Second-Isaiah), and the Jeremiah group which remained in Yehud (Jeremiah). The traditions from each of these groups “reflect the controversy over the correct policy under Babylonian rule regarding the concrete political demands of the Judean elite towards their Babylonian overlords” (141). This division is a valuable division of traditions. Thus, it is helpful for making sense of how the Judean population dealt with the new rule of the Neo-Babylonians. Chapter Six is, I think, one of the stronger chapters in the work. It offers the most thorough discussion of texts and draws from a variety of textual records.

Chapter Seven focuses on how the shift to the Persian Empire impacted Judean identity. The religious conflict which occurred during the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus, they argue, contributed to the movement towards monotheism. This was further reinforced by Cyrus’ capture of Babylon. Whether worshippers of Marduk, Sin, Ahuramazda, or Yahweh, they construct a history in which a supreme deity is becoming the norm. Between 582-525 BCE, Judean population decreased, they argue, because commerce shifted away from the Philistine controlled coast. Thus, many people migrated in order to find more favorable economies. Although a diverse group ideologically, Knauf and Guillaume suggest that Cyrus’ capture of Babylon may have reinforced the idea that Marduk and Ahuramazda “were other names for YHWH” (155). While one may claim that those were names for deities below YHWH, it seems far-fetched to claim that they were other names for Yahweh. Following, working through the period in which Jerusalem exiles returned to Yehud, they suggest that the re-establishment of Jerusalem may have been a strategic move. This move would enable the Persians to defend the Palestinian land bridge. This movement enabled Darius I to organizes the Persian Empire. This government, religious, and social organization is briefly explored in relation to the broader historical conjoncutres and Yehud. One difficult with Chapter Seven was clarity. The majority of it is convoluted. And it is oftentimes difficult to follow a single train of thought or logic.

Chapter Eight works through how conditions in the Persian Empire and Yehud may have given rise to an identity based on biblical Israel. Drawing primarily from Ezra-Nehemiah, Knauf and Guillaume reconstruct the conflict between Nehemiah and other groups. They are careful to note that the importance of these conflicts should not be exaggerated. Based on the social unrest represented in Nehemiah, they suggest that the Persian Empire may have desired returnees to Yehud in order to strengthen the economy. By strengthening the economy, the region would be enabled to supply Persian troops moving towards Egypt. This would only occur through increased manpower, which would come from the elite returnees. South of Yehud, the colony at Elephantine exemplifies the similarities and differences as Judean immigrants. In an awkward shift, they discuss the economic and political situations of Arabia and Idumea. Returning to Yehud, they offer a brief overview of the conflict between Samaria and Yehud, a conflict which reinforced an identity as biblical Israel. Regarding Ezra, they claim that the Torah, a collection of traditional material, was (1) serving to legitimate every Jew across the empire and (2) endorsed by the Persian administration as a sort of “Imperial Religious Police Department.” While point two is valuable, I doubt that the Torah necessarily legitimated every Jew. After all, to what extent can we view Ezra as an accurate representation of the past? Following, Knauf and Guillaume briefly illustrates how Torah’s demand for sacrifice served to strengthen Judean identity, both in terms of ritual practice and language. It seems, though, like they assume that all Torah traditions are rooted in the Persian period, which is not necessarily true. Their discussion of the role of Torah in forming Judean identity is, I think, almost too convenient and also convoluted. Finally, the discuss the other literary developments, the legacy of Bethel, and the newfound rule of Alexander. This chapter, like others, is often time convoluted. It is not always clear what Knauf and Guillaume are trying to do or where they are trying to take the reader.

Part III conclude works from the Ptolemaic administration in Alexandria, Egypt until the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. Chapter 9 briefly describes how Greek rulers only permitted Jerusalemite elite to act as tax collectors. Then, it briefly describes the various Hellenistic biblical texts. Chapter 10 outlines how Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire permitted more autonomy to Yehud and how books like Tobit and the Books of Sirach exemplify Hellenistic influence upon Judeans. Based upon this autonomy granted to Yehud, they construct a history of the Maccabean revolt as a type of Jewish civil war. After the Seleucid empire collapsed, John Hyrcanus, Aristobulus I, and Salome Alexandra led the new nation of Judah. Throughout Chapter 10, though, Knauf and Guillaume offer a few places where a book “may” have been composed (i.e. Maccabees in the court of John Hyrcanus, Esther during the reign of Queen Salome, etc.). These possibilities, though, are not substantiated. Less conjectural thoughts and more substantial arguments would strengthen this chapter. Finally, Chapter 11 outlines the social, political, and economic conditions which led to the eventual rebellions and formation of Rabbinic Judaism.

As a text attempting to reconstruct a history, I had one major issue: it never attempts to offer a critical readings of the multitude of texts from which it draws. Particularly with regard to biblical texts, Knauf and Guillaume rarely took the time to work through the text which purportedly supported, or contributed to, their construction of history. Time and time again, they reference biblical texts without any discussion of the particular text. For example, they suggest that Marduk makes a veilded appearance in Gen 1:1-8 via the appearance of Tehom (Tiamat) (p. 148). Whether or not tehom references Tiamat, though, is not conclusive or agreed upon within scholarship. In other words, they utilize the text without approaching it critically.

Additionally, the book was somewhat convoluted. While the flow of some arguments was sometimes clear, it was sometimes difficult to follow the logic of the text. For example, Section 8.3 (p. 177-78) discusses the role of the Elephantine colony. In particular, the difference between biblical social standards and those of Elephantine is being addressed. Section 8.4 (p. 178), though, suddenly shifts to the impact of the Egyptian rebellion upon Persian rule in Arabia. The lack of continuity between 8.3 and 8.4 is obvious, as the ideas fail to connect in any logical way. This problem occurs consistently throughout the work. As a result, it is very difficult to understand what they are trying express.

On a more positive note, I did appreciate how they approach their reconstruction with particular regard to the conjonctures. Were the book primarily concerned with that, I may have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, its aims and scope may have been too broad for its own good.

In conclusion, I do not recommend this book for research purposes. As an introduction, I tentatively recommend it. As a basic outline of ancient Israelite history and development of religious thought, there are some little tidbits which are valuable. For the most part, though, it is intertwined with unsupported claims and uncritically examined ideas. Thus, an inexperienced reader may fail to recognize the differences between substantiated claims and conjectures with no support.

UPDATE (6/26/2017): I forgot to mention one important detail. Throughout the book, Knauf and Guillaume make reference to various images, iconography. They fail, though, to engage with the iconography as things which need to be interpreted. Just as the Hebrew Bible requires a interpretation, so do the image from the ancient world. Thus, discussion of iconography would have strengthened their arguments.


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