Defining the Problems: Where We Are in the Debate

By Hershel Shanks

We’re going to hear today from three world-class scholars on what may be the hottest topic in biblical studies—the rise of ancient Israel—or, as the scholars like to call it, the emergence of ancient Israel—a little fancier term.

Where did the people who became the nation of Israel come from? And when? By what process did they become a nation? What were their religious roots? How did they find their God Yahweh?

Scores of scholars are struggling with these issues. Some of the disagreements are intense. Our speakers today are among the leaders in the debate. We may hear from them whether any kind of consensus is emerging.

My job is simply to provide the mise-en-scène, to set the stage, so that the scholars who follow me will be able to leap into their subject with an assuredly knowledgeable audience. For many of you, what I say will be elementary; for some of you, it won’t, and I want to bring everybody up to speed.

By the time I finish, you will be able to distinguish very easily between the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age (laughter), you will know what the Merneptah Stele is, you will be able to talk about a four-room house and a collared-rim jar and the three models of the Israelite emergence in Canaan.

I’m also going to try to provide a little context for you, so that you’ll have in mind the larger picture, the basic framework within which the more focused discussion of the next three speakers will take place.

In doing that, I will weave back and forth between the biblical text and the archaeological materials. Because, as some of you know, I shun controversy (laughter), I will present to you only what is unequivocally true and acceptable to everyone. So, what I say, therefore, you can accept. When the next speakers get up, you will hear the more controversial and iffy research. (Laughter.)

Let’s begin with the Bible.

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