T&T Clark has just produced a second edition of my history textbook for university and seminary students. On occasion, people have asked me why I have written this book. My academic colleagues sometimes seem bewildered. They believe that a textbook is less important and less prestigious than a specialized monograph on a narrow topic. “Why,” they wonder, “do you waste so much of your career on a textbook?” Outside the ivory tower, a very different bewilderment is sometimes expressed. Many people do not understand the need for “yet another history” when the events discussed happened long ago. “The past doesn’t change. Why do we need more than one book about it?”
I wrote my textbook because I am keenly aware of the need for a sound, understandable, and above all, neutral presentation of this hotly contested topic: the history of Israel. When the topic is the ancient society that produced the Bible, ideological agendas often run amok. Not only are religiously motivated “historians” eager to defend Bible stories because they want to defend their own religious doctrines about the Bible, but there are secular people who want Bible stories to be true or false so that they can defend political or social agendas in the present world. In this highly charged environment, someone needs to speak on behalf of the ancient, now dead, people whose lives have nothing to do with our contemporary agendas.
I believe we have an ethical responsibility to permit the ancient dead to be both ancient and dead. Their lives are fixed and finished. They are not us, and they are not the foundation for our sense of self-identity. Their loves, their hatreds, their fears and their hopes are not ours. The god they worshiped remains bound to the ancient culture that invented that god. It is not our god, even if some among us have invented a god based partially on the Bible. We must protect the dignity of these ancient people who can no longer protect themselves. We must protect their right to be who they really were.
This ethical obligation requires sound research methods. And that is why my history of Israel differs so drastically from conventional textbooks on this topic. My focus is on the student. My goal is to enable a student to comprehend the evidence and the cautious methods that are required to evaluate those data. Mine is a textbook that asks “How do we know what we think we know?” That simple question enables us to cut through the religious and political agendas that too often plague the entire topic of ancient Israel.
While the student and I focus on evidence and method, we can discover an ancient reality that is as fascinating as it is foreign. The true and sufficient reason to want to discover ancient Israel is to discover ancient people. They were ordinary people who faced a harsh environment that was indifferent to their presence, and they found ways to cope. The ancient past is the heritage of all, the possession of none.
By K.L. Noll, Brandon University; firstname.lastname@example.org
Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion (Second Edition) is published by T&T Clark on 22nd November 2012