Collins Rebuts Grabbe

The May 2017 issue of The Ancient Near East Today (v5, #5) includes an article by Lester Grabbe, “Why 1 and 2 Kings?” I attended one of his lectures at the 2007 SBL conference, so his opinion of Holy Writ now, nearly a decade hence, doesn’t surprise me. In fact, Steven Collins (Dean, College of Archaeology, Trinity Southwest University; Director of long-term excavations at Tall el-Hammam in Jordan) distributed an excellent rebuttal via his E-mail list, & he kindly granted permission for me to re-post it here.

In the most recent edition there’s an article by Lester Grabbe which begins like this: “Why were the books of 1 and 2 Kings written? Some would affirm that they are meant to be a history of Israel in the time of the kings. Yet the Hebrew Bible is not a history book; it is a book of religion.” Seriously?

I’ll be brief with this, but let me start by saying that the historical books of the Old Testament represent the pinnacle of history writing in the ancient Near East (ANE). They, along with the writings of the Hittites of the Central Anatolian Plateau, viewed history as being cause-and-effect, forward-moving, and meaningful. Actions had consequences. They reported the good, bad, and ugly relative to everyone from patriarchs to prophets to judges to kings, even to the nation of Israel, and finally the kingdom of Judah. Not a few scholars have observed that no people concocting a fictitious history of themselves would paint so negative a picture of their ancestors! It can be safely stated that, in the category of historical objectivity, the OT writers laid a foundation for modern historiography. We write history because of the way they wrote history.

There are other facts to consider as well. One is that there is no such thing as an ancient author who didn’t incorporate his/her religious beliefs and prejudices into the fabric of writing. For example, the most detailed Egyptian battle accounts, such as those of Tuthmosis III, are full of interventions by deities. Yet scholars use those records to reconstruct Egyptian ‘history’. To say that the OT historical books like 1 and 2 Kings are merely works of religion and not historically worthwhile is to consign every piece of ancient writing to that category using the same logic. This is because religion was not a part of ancient life, it was life itself, and everything in ancient life 24-7-365 proceeded in conjunction with sacred rites, rituals, and ceremonies, from the royal to the laborer, from womb to grave. If the Hebrew history is dismissed as historically unusable because of its religious tone, then there would be no possibility of writing histories of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Anatolia.

Another fact is that most ancient accounts constitute socio-religious propaganda, particularly those of the Egyptians. Writing on monuments and in official records aggrandized the accomplishments and lives of kings and queens, often borrowing pieces of history from other rulers, expunging the careers of predecessors, even making up glorious fictions of foreign campaigns that never happened. This was particularly egregious when Pharaohs made claims of conquering “The Nine Bows,” the perceived traditional, perennial enemies of Egypt.

Yet another fact is that the archaeological record often confirms the details of the Hebrew history. I say “often” because archaeology is not an exact science by any means, and has only succeeded in investigating perhaps one or two percent of the physical remains from the ancient Near East, even less in the Levant. Archaeological data is also open to interpretation, often emended by later discoveries, and can only be declared ‘consistent’ or ‘inconsistent’ with historical records. Only multiple lines of archaeological, geographical, and other varieties of scientific evidence can collectively provide ‘proof’ of an alleged historical person or event. But such is the exception rather than the rule.

To pontificate (on the basis of what?) that 1 and 2 Kings are religious and not historical books is, thus, a breakdown in the handling of historical and archaeological data, and a failure in the application of logic and reason. It is history with a religious perspective (even agenda!) to be certain. But that in no way prevents the mining of authentic historical details from these biblical books. In terms of historiography, they stand head and shoulders above accounts written by ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian scribes.

Evidence, man, evidence! Yes, and all this collected and assessed carefully and deftly by scholars who know how to read ancient texts for embedded historical and geographical information. In this light, 1 and 2 Kings must be seen, objectively, as historical works influenced by a particular worldview (religion, if you like). They are typically Near Eastern in this regard. But to dismiss them in assembling a history of the ANE is nonsensical. Additionally, trusting Egyptian and Mesopotamian annals out of hand is woefully naïve. Favoring them over the Hebrew historical books is bias without logic or scholarly rigor.

Again, the above quotation comes courtesy of Dr. Collins, & I applaude his remarks.

G.M. Grena


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