The new issue of Biblical Archeology Review has two reviews of Israel Finkelstein’s latest book. The book is called The Forgotten Kingdom. Finkelstein has repeated in previous works a fairly radical thesis that there never was a divided kingdom as the Bible claims. Judah and the northern kingdom, known to history as the domain of king Omri and his successors, were separate kingdoms. Judah was an insignificant chiefdom. David and Solomon were minor warlords. Judah only came into prominence after Samaria was crushed by the Assyrians and northerners fled southward. Judah then fabricated a history for itself that included the biblical idea of a united and then divided kingdom.
According to Finkelstein the kingdom that has been forgotten is that of Samaria or northern Israel. He tries to reconstruct the history of the northern kingdom based on archeology and his own unconventional chronology of events.
Both of the reviews in BAR are in strong disagreement with Finkelstein. The first one is by William G. Dever, a well-known American archeologist. I already knew that Dever disagrees with Finkelstein. I was surprised at how acrimonious this disagreement has become. Dever is not just sarcastic, but disdainful in his rejection of Finkelstein’s ideas. He rehashes his disagreement with Finkelstein’s chronology (which departs from conventional chronology by as much as a hundred years). He also slams Finkelstein’s claim that archeology shows there was an ancient northern Israelite cult center at Shiloh. It is interesting that in this rare instance where Finkelstein agrees with the biblical text, Dever thinks he is wrong.
Dever’s review made some good points, but its tone was personal attack. He says the book tells us more about Israel (Finkelstein) than about Israel. Since I have not read the book, I had an uneasy feeling that the review was not fair.
Fortunately, BAR published another review along side Dever’s. This one is by Aaron Burke who teaches at UCLA. I learned more about Finkelstein’s book from this review. Apparently, Finkelstein tries to trace the polity in northern Israel all the way back to the warlord, Labayu, who sent some of the Amarna letters. Because Labayu was returning to Shechem when he was assassinated, we assume he was ruler of Shechem. So Finkelstein assumes a polity emanating from Shechem and dating to the 14th century B.C.E. He proposes that this forgotten kingdom has some continuity going all the way back to Labayu.
Burke says that Finkelstein realizes that he is on shaky ground here. Burke agrees and says that whole book, then, is based on a speculation. Finkelstein replaces the biblical account of the origin of Israel with a difficult conjecture.
“Finkelstein makes allowances in his reconstruction for an early Iron IIA polity in the north, but he is unwilling to do that for the southern highlands. This is a major weakness in his work” (BAR July/August 2014, p. 41).
Neither Dever nor Burke deal with the newer finds at Khirbet Qeiyafa. The claim is that this site shows a 10th century administrative and military center for a powerful Judah. I have been skeptical. But this site certainly is relevant to the problem of polities in the ancient Levant.