William Dever’s Beyond the Texts is a wonderful book. You need to read it if you are going to pursue a real, verifiable history of Israel, whether as a layperson or a historian. A catchier title might have been Beneath the Texts, but either way the point of the title is noteworthy, and the rest of the title is most significant of all: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah.
This review will contain praise at the beginning and challenges at the end. Dever says, “This book is intended primarily as a handbook for Biblical scholars, historians of the ancient Near East, and nonspecialists interested in the Biblical world.” Dever is justly critical of our field’s published histories for often merely restating the Bible’s own stories in current idiom to make them sound more sophisticated and “historical.” His view by the end of the book is: Archaeology is “better than any more paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible.” He’s got that right.
So here is a history through archaeology’s lens. For that, there’s no one better than William Dever. His marshaling of data is thorough and impressive: site by site, pot by pot, age by age, stratum by stratum, 750 pages, more than 130 charts and illustrations, and 700 references in the bibliography. He knows the sites, and he knows the big picture. He knows the periods, and he knows the longue durée. He engages in serious interaction with current anthropology, especially on state formation. Dever makes a solid case, now well known, against his frequent challenger Israel Finkelstein and especially against the writers known as minimalists.