I have long been a fan of William Dever's scholarship. This is not to say that I agree with all of his interpretations or his conclusions; on the contrary, there is much that I disagree with in regard to this part of his work. However, I never fail to learn something new, and never fail to be presented with new interpretations and possible explanations for the archaeological and historical data being presented. Taken together with other scholarship (Dever would be one of the first to encourage further research and reading beyond his own works), it helps to give insight into possible alternatives, and a fuller sense of the history and society behind the Biblical texts.
In this book, Dever looks more specifically at the phenomenon of folk religion that existed in ancient Israel prior to and during the time of the Hebrew biblical times. In the first few chapters, Dever explores what is meant by the term 'folk religion' and how this fits with more modern ideas of religion and theology. Dever also looks at the issues of historical method and content - this includes an overall assessment of previous scholarship in the field. Dever also looks at the issue of sources - how is it that we know what we know (or what we think we know), and what are the limitations of using these sources? In particular, Dever concentrates on the sources of the Biblical text, the extra-biblical texts that have survived from the same period, and archaeology. Dever highlights the limitations of archaeological method, and decries any attempts at complete objectivity ('not since the death of 19th-century "positivism" have any respectable historians been naïve enough to think that they could be entirely objective'), and any attempts to foist 'objectivity' upon others.
Dever delves into an area of keen interest for many scholars in looking in detail at the issues of early polytheism in Israelite culture (that there were issues can be highlighted in the first of the commandments, and that the major and minor powers surrounding and penetrating ancient Israel were polytheistic), and the early cults of the Asherah. The biblical text itself alludes to if not directly references many instances where the 'official' religion and political powers had to crack down on continuing folk influences in the land - with the advent of several new kings, the beginning of their reigns announced 'the cutting down of asherah poles' (which means, of course, that during other reigns or times, the asherah poles kept being rebuilt).
Dever explores the development of monotheism as an idea, and it is perhaps here that his work becomes the most controversial. Dever states that when he was a graduate student, most biblical scholarship taught that monotheism was an early dominant idea in Israelite religion, but that current scholarship sees monotheism as a later development; the idea that Israel had and was to have one god did not mean there were not others. 'Monotheism did not arise out of folk religion, out of common practice, but rather out of theological reflection after the fact. This reflection on experience, including disaster, is what informs the Hebrew Bible.'
Dever seems to invite controversy by making statements like, 'The Bible is thus "revisionist history", revised on the basis of the lessons that the authors presumed to have drawn from their own stormy history.' Perhaps there is a portion of this that begs the question - any history is necessarily selective, and any history can thus be counted as revisionist to some extent. However, Dever sees a theological purpose behind the writing and redaction of the biblical text, which makes the Bible for him an intentionally revisionist text, and Dever calls upon us to understand what that intention was to better understand what the text means, and the society and culture that produced it.
This is a book more for students or general audiences than for scholars. It is very spare with regard to footnotes/endnotes. It has a basic bibliography and basic indexes (author, subject, biblical citation/reference), but these not in great depth.
William Dever is professor emeritus of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He is the author of numerous books and articles on archaeology and biblical studies, and is a frequent contributor to magazines, newspapers, and television programmes on archaeological and historical topics. Apart from this volume, his major works include a four-volume analysis of excavation projects at Gezer in Israel, and major books entitled Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research and Recent Excavations in Israel. Recent book in addition to this one include 'What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel' and 'Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?'