The Survivors Write the History: a brief book note on a new book on the Old Testament

I recently began reading The Legacy of Israel in Judah’s Bible: History, Politics, and the Reinscribing of Tradition by Daniel E. Fleming, professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. I’m glad I did; it’s a great book.

Israel began as a unified people but split into northern and southern kingdoms in 930 BC after the death of King Solomon. The northern kingdom retained the name “Israel” and the smaller southern kingdom was known as Judah, and its capital was Jerusalem.

The northern kingdom was overrun by the Assyrians in 722 BC, much of its population was taken captive, and the nation never revived. Judah, however, remained survived until 587 BC when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Only, unlike Israel, Judah returned in 539 BC to rebuild their temple and their nation.

The nation of Judah survived and the Old Testament is Judah’s story. Even though their northern counterparts certainly had written traditions that the Judahites possessed, these traditions were edited and brought into Judah’s story to reflect the story these postexilic survivors wanted to tell. The Judahites were the ones who determined its final shape and content. The flow of the long narrative from Genesis to 2 Kings culminates in Judah’s story. The prophets and the Psalms focus on Judah and Jerusalem.  The Old Testament is “Judah’s Bible.”

But the story that the Judahites tell includes Israel significantly. They present their own beginning as part of the unified nation called Israel under Saul, David, and then Solomon. It also tells the story of the northern kingdom’s rise and fall in some detail, though clearly with little positive to say about it.

The question Fleming address is this: Given that the story of Israel and Judah is told through Judahite eyes, what can we learn, through biblical and archaeological evidence, of the history of the northern kingdom Israel?

The book is about 320 pages long and is divided into 4 parts.

Part 1 Introduction: Israel and Judah. The divided nations had very different types of political organization, with Judah being more centralized and less diverse, and Israel being larger, decentralized, and more politically collaborative.

Part 2 Israelite Content in the Bible. Fleming looks at specific texts that preserve narrative content from Israel and indicate the contrasts between the two nations.

Part 3 Collaborative Politics. Fleming elaborates the collaborative politics of Israel, with the Amorites and Arameans as a backdrop.

Part 4 Israel in History. Fleming concludes with a lengthy discussion of what we can know historically of Israel, tracing Israel’s story from its 14th century antecedents through the divided monarchy.

This book is an academic volume, but not technical. It might be tough going for college students, but certainly not for seminarians or doctoral students.

I have long been keenly interested in that perennial problem of history in the Old Testament–what kind of “history” writing do we find there and how much of it? This is not simply a problem for book like Genesis, but for every part of the Old Testament, including the so-called “historical books” of the monarchy and divided monarchy. So far, I like this book a lot and I recommend it to those who have similar interests.

If anything, The Legacy of Judah’s Bible demonstrates not simply that the Old Testament tells a story from the perspective of one portion of that nation, late in time. That is assumed, for it is neither controversial or contested in scholarly circles. Rather, Fleming demonstrates–perhaps ironically for some–how much history can actually be uncovered once you recognize that the survivors told the story.


All comments are welcome–pro, con, or neutral–provided they are respectful and genuinely engage the post or a comment on the thread. Badgering comments will be deleted. Extended lecturing will be tolerated to a point. Also, rest assured I read every comment that is posted. I learn something new from many of them, as I’m sure others do, too. I wish I could respond more, and I will as time allows.

Did biblical writers understand their past? (Mark Smith part 2)
Here’s something new: Genesis is in “crisis” and if you don’t see that you’re “syncretistic”
God is Bigger than the Bible
The Old Testament as “fact-fiction” (more from Mark S. Smith)
  • Jon Altman

    My high school (1975-76 school year) World History teacher was telling us the contributions of the various Ancient Near Eastern societies. He told us to write a “Big Fat 0″ next to the Assyrians. That they were cruel warriors who obliterated the cultures of the peoples they conquered. Is this still the basic view of the Assyrians?

    • peteenns

      Yup. Pretty ruthless.

      • Eric Harvey

        Hi! To defend the Assyrians a bit, they were ruthless in war, and legally seemed to be pretty harsh (especially on women), but they actually contributed quite a bit to culture, and a lot to our knowledge of ancient Near Eastern culture. One of the most powerful kings in the Neo-Assyrian period, Assurbanipal, undertook a massive project to collect all the world’s literature. Archaeologists have found tens of thousands of tablets in the so-called State Archives of Assyria, without which we would have a lot less knowledge of Mesopotamian mythology, religion, politics, etc., etc. For example, the most complete copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh come from there. So yeah, brutal warriors, but also bookworms (tablet worms?), so give them a mark or two for that.

  • Benj

    This looks interesting. My research focuses on the legacy of Benjamin in Judah’s Bible, so to speak, and I’m realizing there’s a lot of similarities between the study of Benjaminite material and Northern material embedded within Judah- and Levi-centered Scriptures.

    On a related note, I find it fascinating that Anna the Prophetess mentioned in Luke 2:36-38 is said to be of the tribe of Asher. Whether or not such a claim is factual, it is remarkable that a Jew/Judean in the 1st century could have been understood as having such a tribal heritage so long after 722 BCE.

    • peteenns

      Have you looked at this book yet, Benj? Sounds relevant.

  • Greg

    Pete, what passages does he consider Israelite? What are his criteria for designating them as such?

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  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    This sounds fascinating! Thanks for the heads up. I realize it is not necessarily in the scope of this book, but along similar lines I have long thought that the ‘true’ prophets who predicted the captivities were, after the fact, accepted as prophets of God by the compilers of the Old Testament because the captivities happened. The ‘false’ prophets predicted otherwise and were wrong.

    It seems obvious that the kings should have listened to those who were clearly ‘true’ prophets instead of the ‘false’ prophets, but I am sure it was not so obvious at the time.

  • Paul A.

    Fascinating. I’ll have to pick this one up. Ever since I did a paper about Amos, I’ve been curious about what we can derive about Israel from Judah’s testimony about Israel. I’d imagine those northern texts (e.g., Amos) that were preserved by southern editors would be particularly helpful for such a project.

  • James

    Interesting too that all Israel (the twelve tribes) is included in Judah’s prophetic/apocalyptic literature and reunification of some sort is a given. The original covenant of promise is made to the patriarchs–Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–and Israel has twelve sons, well thirteen, if you figure in Joseph’s two sons and Levi without land. A theology of the faithful remnant (cut down to size) is also strong in Judah’s memoires. Yet there is a national sense of anticipation.

  • rvs

    Game of Thrones (the HBO show–I haven’t read the books) is making an interesting argument about history writing and conflict, revealing in several scenes the highly strategic and sometimes unseemly nature of “official history.” The show feels Old Testament–ish to me in several ways, only with more rough and tumble language.

    But, I write to note another text–Anthony Grafton’s What was History? I love the question, and Grafton asks it in order to highlight the art of historiography as practiced in early modernity. I’ve had numerous conversations with evangelical historians, and my general impression is that most of them hold to a definition of history rooted in some sort of empirical/Enlightenment paradigm.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Man, you’re making me wish I still had a book budget! Tell us more! ;)

  • Beau Quilter

    I take it from your intro that Fleming doesn’t agree with Silberman and Finkelstein’s archeological conclusion that the original United Kingdom was a fiction?

  • eric kunkel

    What if the Ten tribes, now lost wrote the history?

    Maybe Anglo-Israelism would be controlling hermeneutic?