Scholarly books should be a boring read. After all, they're not written for a large audience, deal with tremendous amounts of facts and are composed to prove a point, not thrill a reader. Yet every so often one finds such a book that combines rigorous academic information with an engaging style that allows one to read through a complex subject and actually enjoy it. Such a book is On the Reliability of the Old Testament by Professor K.A. Kitchen.
One of the major advantages of the book is the recent date of publication. In archeology, like any field of science or history, changes occur on a regular basis. Yesterday's accepted truths are today's disproved theories. Thus the more recent the book, the more accurate the analysis, at least until the next one comes out. Because of the recent date, Prof. Kitchen is able to analyze the current state of archeological knowledge of the Middle and Near East and provide a compelling analysis as to the truth of the historical accounts in the Old Testament.
Another thing that makes this book valuable is that it reminds the believing Jew to go back and look at the straight pshat of the Biblical text. So familiar are we with the aggadot and various mephorshim we sometimes forget what the text says and what it actually does not say. While studying the Tanach from a religious perspective requires such ancillary sources, analyzing it from an academic and historial perspective is actually hampered by it. One of the strength's of the book is its insistence on examining the unvarnishing, uninterpreted text to show how it testifies to its own validity.
The book is organized in a reverse historical fashion, starting with the era of the Babylonian exile and, chapter by chapter, working its way back in history towards the beginning of civilization. Each chapter deals with its chosen historical era in a systematic fashion:
1) Looking at what the Biblical text says and what it does not say
2) Looking at what external sources say about the same events and the degree to which they corroborate the Tanach
3) Looking at the current archeological record to see what lights they shed on the Biblical text
In each and every chapter, Prof. Kitchen unforgivingly and thoroughly sets down the following facts which he shows cannot be disputed. Firstly, there is no archeological or historical evidence that disputes any accounts in the Bible. The best a Sinai-denier can do is say that there is no positive evidence on the record for those accounts but there is no evidence that events described in the Tanach did not happen. This is the foundation for his analysis since it is self-evident that if there were such evidence, the Tanach could easily be discredited by it before any deeper study was conducted.
Secondly, Prof. Kitchen shows how both external sources and the archeological record confirm many details of the Tanach's narratives throughout every era of Jewish history. Although a full recounting of all his examples would make this post unbearably long, a few examples will suffice.
In his analysis of the era of Yehoshua and the invasion of land o' Canaan, he focuses on a literal reading of the text. Too many people, he remarks, have read the book superficially and come away with the impression that Yehoshua invaded the land, conquered all the Canaanites and burned the whole place to the ground. But the text itself denies that account! Careful reading shows that less than half a dozen cities were actually burned. What's more, most attacks on Canaanite strongholds were followed by a return of the Israelite army to the home base in Gilgal. In other words, Yehoshua conducted non-occupying raids more than anything else. Interestingly, this fits with Chazal's statement that Yehoshua was punished for dragging out the conquest in order to extend his life. At the end of the book, Prof Kitchen notes, is an admission that the only real zone of occupation for our ancestors was a narrow strip of land from Gilgal north to Shechem.
And what does the archeological record show? That right around that time four major Canaanite cities were burned to the ground or otherwise collapsed, exactly at the text describes. What's more, our ancestors used pottery and had dietary habits that were distinct from the pre-existing Canaanites and evidence of such appears in those strata that correspond to the time period the Tanach says we entered Canaan. In conclusion, no negative evidence against Yehoshua, plenty of evidence in favour of the text.
A second example is the story of Creation. A rational person will admit there is a great difficulty with a literal reading of the first eleven chapters of Bereshis. Recorded human civilization is over 10000 years old so a time line ending 5770 years ago is untenable. Kitchen examines this and brings some amazing ideas, based on external source comparison.
The first is that the account of Creation down through the Flood matches in style and some content most other contemporary accounts of the Creation of the World. The Sumerians and others all worked along a standard temple - Creation of the world, creation of man, society builds up, Flood, then rebirth of humanity. However, one significant difference is that the non-Tanach sources put the Flood further back in history than the geneologies in Bereshis. Kitchen solves this problem by noting that in the ancient world geneological records were never complete. "A" begetting "B" didn't always mean that A was B's actual father but that after A, B was the next significant person in the family tree. Thus A's anonymous descendants were part of his begetting B. This means that A begetting B at, say, 100 years of age, might mean A begetting the son who was the next generation on the way to B being born. Further, the extended lifespans may hint that the next significant generation was born that many years after A started his begetting (BTW, I love that word!). So if A lived 840 years after begetting, that could mean B was born 840 years later. In this light, a significant amount of time can be added to both sets of geneologist, bringing them in line with contemporary non-Tanach accounts.
One theme that also repeatedly appears through the book is the reminder that the ancients did not have the same approach to history that we do. With our broad knowledge of the development of civilization, we can see and understand how life has changed over the millenia. The ancients, on the other hand, did not have this approach. What was current for them was what always was and it was difficult for them to understand that things might have been very different long before. Further, archeologist was not a known field of knowlege in the ancient world. If city X was destroyed in 1400 BCE, people in 1200 BCE might never have heard of its existence! Thus mentions in Tanach of cities that were known to have been destroyed long before the Babylonian exile or the Greek-Roman period are proof of the antiquity of the text. As Kitchen repeatedly shows, there is no other explanation for how the city of Ramses, which was an obscure memory to only the most educated Egyptians by the time of the Babylonian exile, could have been conjured up by supposed the post-exilic redactor. Again, we see evidence of this in the writings of Chazal where time and time again Biblical settings are described in then-contemporary terms. Standard to the time, Chazal simply imagined that the Avos and others in the Bible lived exactly like they did, had the same daily routine, etc.
It is the final chapter, however, that I found most entertaining. Having proven his case for the validity of the Tanach over and over and over again the preceding chapters, Prof Kitchen turns his attention to the various Sinai-deniers who have made careers out of trying to make the Bible into a fraudulent document. One after another, he shows how their best arguments are based on conjectuve, willful misinterpretation of existing data or simple ignorant bias. It was quite entertaining to see Prof Kitchen take all the best arguments of the so-called Biblical criticism school as well as the work of other, less-accomplished archeological scholars and demolish their so-called proofs. The impression I was left with was: If those are the strongest arguments against the validity of the Tanach, why on Earth does anyone believe them?
The answer is wilfull revisionism, something Prof Kitchen helpfully fights against. I strongly recommend this book for those who wish to see the Tanach from an unusual and very deep perspective.