William G Dever
The perspective of all the biblical writers is a factor that limits their usefulness in another regard. It is no exaggeration to say that all the biblical literature – especially the historical and prophetic works – constitutes what is essentially ‘propaganda.’ The writers make no pretence to objectivity. They are openly partisan, championing the cause of extreme nationalism and orthodox Yahwism, that is, the Truth as they see it. They have no tolerance for divergent views, not even when they are held by kings, all of whom they despise except for the ‘good’ reformist kings Hezekiah and Josiah. These extremists were, of course, minority parties given the historical reality in 8th-7th century Israel. But it is they who wrote the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible, as one of my theological friends (I have a few) likes to say, is a ‘minority report.’ As we would put it today, the writers were ‘spin doctors.’ Thus the Bible is ancient ‘revisionist history,’ on a grand scale.
That observation leads me to the point, of critical importance in looking to the Hebrew Bible for a picture of Israelite religions. The Bible’s portrait throughout is an ‘idealistic’ one – not a picture of Israelite religion as it was at all, but a picture of what it should have been, and would have been if these zealots had actually been in charge. Ironically, the very condemnation of ‘folk religion’ by the editors is what reveals many of the very characteristics that I shall document here. In trying to suppress popular cults, they inadvertently confirm their existence.
In sum, the degree to which the biblical texts can be taken as reliable historical evidence is crucial to our inquiry. The ‘historicity’ of the Bible is perhaps the most hotly debated topic in biblical studies today, with ‘minimalists’ and ‘maximalists’ battling it out in the literature.
I reject absolutely the assertion of some ‘revisionists’ that the Bible is not about history at all, and only recently has anyone ever wanted it to be. The first statement is mindless: it all depends upon what one means by ‘history.’ And the second is simply not true. Until the recent fad of creeping scepticism, most people, even more liberal biblical scholars, assumed that the Bible was history in some sense. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible is obviously not history in the modern sense, that is, ‘disinterested,’ objective, balanced, academic history. In keeping with most mainstream biblical scholarship today, I shall often (though not always) regard the Hebrew Bible as ‘historicized fiction’- stories that are based on some genuine historical events, but always told in such a way as to advance the ideological agenda of the writers and editors.
In the end, this is not ‘history,’ but ‘his story.’ The story is all about God – about religion in that sense – but embodying the writers’ idiosyncratic version of Israelite religion. We have already seen, and will see again, why nearly all ancient and even modern commentators have bought into the Bible’s propaganda. But, of course, we must remember that ‘propaganda’ has its positive uses, too, and the best of it is based at least on some facts.
From Chapter 3 of Did God Have a Wife – archaeology and folk religion in ancient Israel, published by Eerdmans 2005