A frequently told tale

Ignoring archeological findings, Norman Gelb’s ‘Kings of the Jews’ is merely a skillful retelling of the Bible.

June 11, 2010 21:40
3 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

water shaft 311. (photo credit: Eilat Mazar/Bloomberg)

In the interests of full disclosure, I should start by pointing out that the Jewish Publication Society published my first book, a historical novel of Masada, in 1970. It is difficult to convey adequately my gratitude for this, so it is with considerable regret that I find myself criticizing this prestigious imprint for a book that demonstrates a total lack of familiarity with the latest historical, critical and archeological work in the field.

Norman Gelb, the author of several popular works of modern history, has in this case simply failed to do his homework. A book subtitled “The Origins of the Jewish Nation” has to be considered as a historical account, as distinct from a statement of religious faith. For Orthodox Jews, of course, the Bible is the word of the creator; the Torah, at least, was dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. Others, even many believers, have learned to take a more critical view.

Gelb treats the stories of the patriarchs, the exile in Egypt, the exodus, Moses and the 12 tribes as straightforward history. Thus his narrative begins with Abraham and continues with a retelling of the biblical version. Only when he comes to the purported conquest of Canaan under Joshua does he show some awareness that the biblical account is not clear-cut. Like several eminent scholars – although not iconic figures such as William Albright and Yigael Yadin – he favors the gradual infiltration version in Judges over that of the conquest depicted in Joshua. He seems unaware that both these interpretations have long been superseded.

True, there is no absolute consensus today, and controversy about the biblical account still flourishes, but most modern scholars accept that the earliest biblical books containing historical material are the books of Samuel. Archeologist Israel Finkelstein, historian Nadav Naaman and a host of other scholars, historians, critics and excavators have argued convincingly that the emergence of ancient Israel was the result of internal processes that occurred in Canaan in the 12th century BCE, when semi-nomadic tribesmen, originally expelled by an external conqueror, probably Egypt, began to resettle in the hills of Judah and Samaria. Incidentally, this version of events is a strong historical argument for Zionism, as it depicts the original Israelites not as invaders, but as natives of the land of Israel.

Although a sprinkling of “minimalist” historians have expressed doubts even about the early Israelite rulers, King David was almost certainly a historical figure, as indicated by the discovery of the ninth-century House of David stele in the Tel Dan excavations in 1993, but the extent of his kingdom, and that of his son Solomon, was infinitely smaller than that described in the biblical account. The archeological evidence indicates that Israel did not become a significant regional power until the ninth century, 200 years later than David.

Gelb’s account of David and Solomon greatly exaggerates their historical significance. Although they were indeed important for the creation of the Israelite entity, their impact on the region was minimal. The depiction of Solomon as ruling over a minor superpower is simply inconsistent with the facts unearthed by the archeologists. So, for the first part of his book, that dealing with the period up to the death of Solomon, author Gelb cannot be awarded with even a passing grade.

Even subsequently there is no indication that the author considered sources other than the Bible for his description of the kings of Israel and Judah. No serious scholars today accept the narrative of the “lost tribes of Israel.” After the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom in the eighth century, it is clear that those wishing to maintain their faith and culture migrated south into Judah. Moreover, a century later, when the Babylonians conquered Judah, only a very small proportion of the population was exiled to Babylon.

Gelb’s account of the Hasmonean revolt also hews to the traditional version, presenting it as a heroic rebellion of the few against the many, when it was initially a Jewish civil war between traditional Jews and modernizers, who wanted to adopt Greek culture. This uncritical approach continues right through to the Roman defeat of the Jews under Bar Kochba.

Gelb is a talented storyteller, with a talent for synthesizing complex history into a coherent narrative. Nevertheless one can only recommend this book to readers who are prepared to forgo critical historical research in favor of a skillful retelling of the Bible, the Books of the Maccabees and the works of Josephus and Cassius Dio. Don’t look for original insights, enlightenment about the latest scholarship or information about the revelations of recent archeological excavations.

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