Review of William Dever, The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel

Review of William Dever, The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel August 13, 2015

I mentioned in a recent post that I had been reading William Dever’s book, The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: When Archaeology and the Bible Intersect. That book (for which I am grateful to Eerdmans for having sent me a review copy) deserves more than just a mentioning in the context of Gen Con, and so I wanted to say a bit more about it. Dever’s book is actually something much more significant than the title may actually reveal: it is the first attempt to write about the way of life of ancient Israel (focusing in this instance on the 8th century BCE) initially based on archaeology alone as the primary data, and then and only then to bring the Biblical texts into the picture. It aims to produce a “history without the Bible” – but not in the sense that the Bible is excluded altogether, only in the sense that the Bible’s evidence is recognized to be secondary, as all textual accounts are in relation to archaeological data.

Dever is aware that a book of this sort could not have been written until very recently, but that the growing abundance of archaeological work has made it possible. Dever writes as a secular humanist, uninterested in either proving or disproving the Bible, and he thus finds himself disagreeing with both the revisionists and the fundamentalists (p.372). He devotes a significant amount of time to addressing the movement known as “minimalism” which he exposes as a postmodern rejection of history (p.28).

For those whose interest in archaeological and historical work precisely in relation to the religion of ancient Israel, Dever’s work on this subject, and attempt to relate the archaeological and textual data in insightful ways, yields important results. Here is a sample (pp.292-3):

For the masses it was practice that mattered, not the correct theological formulations of a few literati (including those idealists who wrote the Hebrew Bible). Thus we cannot look to the textual traditions to illuminate practical or folk religion. Only archaeology can do that…

In a harsh environment, at the mercy of the elements, surrounded by hostile foes, most people sought to placate the gods and seek their favor as best they could…

Perhaps 99 percent of the population in ancient Israel and Judah were illiterate. They couldn’t have read Bibles even if they had them. They had never met a priest of the royal establishment, nor even visited the Temple in the capital (perhaps not even a regional administrative center). Their entire life revolved around the family, the village, the clan, the world of nature, and the rhythms of the changing seasons…

Some of the upper classes in the few larger towns and cities might have been more theologically sophisticated. But for most, the household shrine was the only temple they knew: the religion of hearth and home. And women of the households – wives, mothers, daughters – were just as likely to serve in the role of ritual expert as any priest. Unless religion worked in that small sphere, it was of no use and would not have survived. It is the artifacts that people made, used, discarded, reused – not the texts of the Great Tradition – that reveal the most about the reality of their daily lives. If histories of Israelite religion are to be written in the future, they will have to incorporate the vast array of information that we now have, thanks to the archaeological revolution that Albright confidently predicted. It has come, even if with some unintended consequences.

The data Dever is referring to includes the many figurines and cult centers which the Bible says little about, except to condemn them.

This book will be too detailed and technical for the average person looking for a simple depiction of daily life in ancient times. I sincerely hope that archaeologists, historians, and Biblical scholars will not mistake this book, because of its title, for that kind of volume. It is a pioneering work of history in the way it approaches the Bible and archaeology, and whether following or challenging its example, it is a text that all future work on the history of ancient Israel needs to engage with.

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  • Tim Crow

    I think Professor Dever would like to think that it is the “first attempt” at writing about life in the Iron Age Levant, but some credit should be given to fine scholars like Professor Borowski at Emory who wrote Life in Biblical Israel way back in 2003, and who has championed understanding “everyday people” without much of Dever’s ideological rhetoric.

    • Hi Tim! Thanks for this. He doesn’t say it is the first attempt at writing about life in that period, but the first attempt to offer a historical view of ancient Israel that begins with archaeological evidence on its own, and only then seeks to relate it to Biblical texts. Have others done that before, too?

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I have often wondered what Christianity might look like if historians rather than theologians had run with it in the early centuries.

  • David Hillman

    When you say he “exposes” minimalists as postmodern, does this mean he has convinced you of this? I ask because it appears that the English language is changing and people say “I refute that ” where I would use deny, prove where they mean argue and so on. If you are so convinced I am surprised: though post modernism is a nebulous concept (a good term only for some types of architecture), if we take it to mean a denial of objectively existing truth so that any belief is equally valid, then minimalists deny any belief in this philosophy. They are indeed trying to find what probably happened, though they can’t all be right obviously since they all have different views. As far as Biblical minimalism is concerned I am more convinced of Hellenistic authoring and have always believed that a supposed dichotomy between judaistic/Hellenistic thought is overdrawn. Still it looks like it might be a useful book,alongside Thompson, and Finkelstein and other archaeologists.

    • I doubt the authors of the OT ever had much influence from distinctly Hellenistic ideas.

      • David Hillman

        Everyone agrees the wisdom writings and Maccabees did. There are good arguments that all the other books were influenced by Greek and Hellenistic writings, and mesopotamean stories (and Egyptian) mediated through Greek speaking writers.

        • Robert Eckert

          None of the canonical books were influenced by Greek writers because they were written before Hebrews had heard of Greeks except very distantly.

    • Dever shows very clearly how minimalism parallels postmodernism in detail on very specific and clear points. Have a look at p.28 in particular, but also the entirety of the first two chapters.
      People deny all sorts of things, for all sorts of reasons, and one of the important points Dever makes is that – like many postmodernists – the minimalists speak regularly about the ideological commitments of others, but rarely if ever admit to their own.

  • Joe in Australia

    I was struck by how often the author resorts to “would have …”, “could have
    …”, “would probably” and so forth. The archaeological record of
    ordinary life is so poor that this is inevitable, but it underscores the fact that the image he presents is really a projection and interpretation, rarely a documentation. Sometimes his conclusions are very arguable, like his argument for general illiteracy on p. 226: “That seals were so commonly used suggests that literacy was uncommon, and therefore the seal itself was a mark of high status. You sealed because you could not write.”

    Perhaps you sealed because you wanted an official stamp to endorse documents and bullae? People still use seals today, and it’s not because they’re illiterate.

    • Yes, it is very much the case that archaeological data requires interpretation. Seals could have been used because of widespread illiteracy, or because they were a more convenient or clearer way of putting letters into clay and other such substances, or because seals lent prestige, or, or, or…

  • Dan Pride

    I helped dig the hole that in large part made Bill Dever the preminent Biblical Archaeologist of his age, even if my work Digging up King Solomons Gate in 1971 for Dever and Yigael Yadin was little more than heavy farm labor, it was heavy farm labor on King Solomons Gate,… BIG difference. I have worked Tel Gezer under Dever, Seger and alas the Baptists. I have excavated with my friend Amon Ben Tor art Hazor, and observed the absurd politics of personal ambition at Megiddo. I have personal observations from all three digs over nearly 50 years that deserve an airing in this, the most pompous and arrogant of fields.

    Dr William Dever has no equal on the scene today despite his age. No equal from a number of perspectives, most important of all, his commitment to the scientific principle, and that searing intellect, not to mention “the voice that was meant to be obeyed” :). Dever’s digs were exciting, open, fun and yes at times frisky. I remember the pride we felt to watch Ruben Bullard do the first surfactant tests to examine the pollen record. Joe Seger’s dig was just a really good sequel to the great show. The spirit and the attitude of those digs reflected the leadership and we all tried to live up to it.

    When I was asked to return to Gezer to do its computer database I was truly excited at the opportunity. Dr Devers words “a better understanding of the pottery” had seemed like a personal call when I heard it cause I had the answer to Dr Dever’s question, and THAT was one of the most exciting opportunities of my life. The purpose of databases is to sort out details. Databases are my profession, I programmed for Intel, Apple, Liberty Mutual and a host of others (see and I threw myself into this work. I spent hundreds of hours and would have spent thousands. The results, as far as I got, before I hit a wall of ignorance and stupidity, are on line at In two years I had a full data capture ability to record the pottery piece by piece, grab its weight and extract its color values just as fast as you could throw it on a platter and click a button (see the read screens – click around turn the camera on and take a photo of yourself as a pot shard ! Thats all its being used for. ). You can click on a square and, if its entered (about half) get all the photos, locus sheets, supervisor reports etc, click a level and it reduces to show the locus, but… then you click on an object record and nothing.

    You can’t get a statistical understanding of the pottery unless you photograph it. That gives you the square inches, longest axis, shortest, axis, color profile, shape and most important of all, it is the equivalent of a drivers license photo. It shows you what the line “Iron Age Shard” refers to. You have to back up your calls with provenance and fact when it is recorded with a photo ID. Your judgement can be reliably identified and independently validated or disputed. Dever would have said “exciting – let the debate begin”. Not so the archaeologists that followed him. Once the photos were captured then the real fun would begin, all those files with massive amounts of data,…all sorts of things,… square inches of pottery by strata, by type, by material. How was the impending Assyrian invasion reflected in the pottery record or was it? More square inches of cooking pots before Pileser III ? How many after? What does that tell us? That kind of data can tell a lot about many events in history. Reconstructing a great vessel with a six inch square hole? Search the photos for similar color materials, and sizes in the adjacent squares, Nothing, try just color, color profile is a more powerful a selection factor than you are going to believe when someone actually does it properly. its an inevitable development. (Note: I have a patent in Image processing from US West #5,991,770 ).

    But it is not an advance that is mine to contribute alas,… why ? Get this,… I could not get the baptists to turn the damn camera on !!! My contribution was short stopped by personal antagonisms and ambitions as are common on every dig. i.e. “He left my square, I hate him, so lets keep everybody stupid”. Mortimer’s curse never dies in the heat, the sun, and the dust. But to not rise above it for the common good and advancement of the effort speaks volumes about the atmosphere, motivations and frankly trustworthiness of those involved. What is more important, getting some interesting facts about strata that only a computer can provide, learning everything you can about these most holy and sacred events,… or being sure that that SOB I don’t like fails. Alas it was the later. Polite requests to field Archaeologist Gary Arbino for his attributions of loci to strata were met with silence and no response and no data. Data sacrificed on the alter of childish peak.

    I lived with the shunning that only a cult like the south western baptist theological society and its ministers wives can provide cause I still hoped to get a shot. When this the last year of the Dig, the last chance of careers rolled around, I took a good look and begged off. I do not want my database involved at this point with these pressures. In the modern age when a group actively seeks to avoid photo documentation on the only level that really counts (object/shard) You have to ask why. Then you have to ask yourself if you really want to be apart of that. I don’t.

    I was interested in Science and willing to follow it wherever it went. To me that is how you understand God better. It became clear to me that if personal needs and feuds were more important than getting at facts and information, then other priorities were apriori also to be questioned. I gave them a choice, start using the camera, at least try it once, or find some other way to process your claims. I will no longer publish “Iron Age 2” without a photo to verify your claim with a timestamp and a process order that itself provides excellent provenance. They declined to use the system after 8 years of use, rather than provide proper provenance (Note: I also worked as a consultant to the Art Institute of Chicago on their provenance system for Billions of dollars of Artwork).

    The minimalist stuff as practiced by the “scientific one” (sarcasm intended) is little better than the current crop at Gezer, its deeply rooted in personal ambition and political LGBT politics that dominate the largely Gay Tel Aviv University crowd. I got to sit and hear Finkelstein repeat like a mantra “there was no Solomon”, as if it was a serious scientific argument. I had to stifle a laugh when I heard it. It seemed so outrageous and lacking all perspective or humility. I don’t know what this “advanced scientific dig” is doing these days, but in 2012 it still ran on DOS. I was flabbergasted to realize that the dig which was promoted as science itself ran on DOS in 2012 !!! Amnon Ben-Tor certainly called that one right,… “his name is already there”. There is a level of cynicism and purely personal motivations and sexual politics (the orthodox want to stone the Gays,.. so the Gays deny Solomon in response with their familiar vehemence, emotion and insistence) that Franky I find the whole thing a bit odious. Good God who cares ? In my book, it you don’t trust science, it is a sign of weak faith,… or more commonly,… none. Not to mention a weak character.

    I saw and worked in the Dever’s Golden Age of Archaeology, and saw what followed. Pitiful. Absolutely Pitiful.

    Dan Pride