Maximalism vs. Minimalism

24 09 2006

How does one reconcile Biblical ‘history’ with archaeology? How do we go about uniting different historical accounts of the same event? The second book of Kings (2 Kgs 3) relates a war that took place between Israel and Moab. The following is the account of this war as presented by the Biblical historian:

1. The Israelite king, Ahab (son of Omri), dies and the Moabites rebel against their Israelite overlords;
2. The new Israelite king, Jehoram (son of Ahab) musters his troops and heads south to unite with the Judean king, Jehosephat, and the Edomite king;
3. The three allied kings run low on water to sustain their armies and are forced to ask for assistance from the prophet Elisha;
4. Elisha miraculously produces rainfall and, thinking that the reflection of the sun in the water is the blood of the allied armies, the Moabite King (Mesha) throws caution to the wind and advances against them;
5. The Moabites are sorely routed and left with a single fortress: Kir-Hareseth;
6. Mesha sacrifices his son on the battlements, a “great wrath” comes upon Israel, and the allied armies retreat to their respective countries.

The following is the account of the Moabite king, Mesha, as engraved upon the so-called Moabite Stele:

1. The Israelite king, Omri, oppressed the land of Moab for the length of his reign and half the reign of his son (Ahab): a total of forty years;
2. During Ahab’s reign, Mesha revolts and wages war against a series of Israelite military installations to the north;
3. Mesha slaughters all of the inhabitants of some cities, taking others captive and turning them into slaves;
4. Mesha utilises his new slaves to build greater fortifications for himself, including the moving of his capital from Kir-Hareseth to Dibon;
5. There is no Israelite counter-attack.

A number of problems exist, making the two accounts difficult to harmonise. They are as follows:

1. According to the Biblical chronology, Omri ruled for twelve years and Ahab ruled for twenty-two. Omri’s reign plus half of Ahab’s reign does not even almost amount to forty years;
2. According to the Biblical chronology, Jehoram (Ahab’s son) is the ruler of Israel at the time of the insurrection, and the preceding king was his brother, Ahaziah. According to the Moabite Stele, Ahab is still the king of Israel;
3. The Biblical account has the allied armies delivering a stunning victory against Moab, while the Moabite account presents the exact opposite: the unchallenged conquest of several Israelite cities and Moab’s return to greatness on the world’s stage.

Even taking into account a king’s propensity to lie in his own favour, these difficulties are difficult to resolve, but attempts to do so are perceived to fall upon a particular spectrum. This spectrum is characterised by its two poles: maximalism and minimalism.

The maximalist seeks to ascribe historical veracity to the Bible’s account, over the accounts of other sources. They will seek to find a way to harmonise the sources and, if such a way does not present itself, assume errancy on the part of the non-Biblical text. The minimalist, on the other hand, is more inclined to view the Bible as the result of lengthy textual evolution and Biblical history as too theologically charged to constitute an accurate recording of events. Neither extremity is desirable, and both positively reek of ideology. To gain an understanding of the differences between them, the following are the thoughts of two different scholars: G. Rendsburg of the maximalist camp and P.D. Stern of the minimalists.

[Note: Neither scholar is an extremist in his views. Considerably more extreme conceptions actually exist, but they are not always worth taking seriously]

Rendsburg harmonises the accounts as follows:

1. The insurrection began during Ahaziah’s reign but, as Ahaziah only reigned for two years, it is falsely ascribed to the reign of his predecessor;
2. Forty years is a round number, designed to convey the sense of ‘a generation’;
3. Israel was weak during the reign of Ahaziah (who is portrayed by the Bible as a sickly man) and opposition did not mount until the reign of his successor, Jehoram.

This still leaves us with a problem. The Biblical account would have us believe that Israel’s retaliation was swift. How do we explain the fact that Israel did not respond to the insurrection until the reign of the following king? By inserting a passage from Chronicles (2 Chr 20) in the midst of the narrative in Kings. The following is the order of events:

1. The Moabites revolt against Israelite oppression and succeed in conquering a variety of cities to the north;
2. The Moabites then head south and conquer the kingdom of Edom;
3. The Moabites force the Edomites to fight with them and, together, they invade Judah – marching within five miles of Jerusalem;
4. Unable to conquer Jerusalem, Mesha then turns against the Edomites again;
5. The new king of Israel, Jehoram, musters his army and heads south to find support amongst the Judeans and the Edomites;
6. The war continues as per the Biblical description.

Rendsburg’s final suggestion is that the Moabite Stele was erected closer to the commencement of the insurrection and, thus, could not take into account the stunning retaliation.

The following, however, is the indictment of Stern.

1. Based upon the fact that the Bible’s concerns appear to be chiefly theological (with most of the account centred around the miracles of Elisha) and the Moabite account chiefly historical (demonstrating a profound awareness of topography and military strategy), we must side with the latter;
2. During the latter days of Ahab’s reign, Israel was at war with Aram and Assyria in the north. This was a prime time for the Moabites to revolt;
3. The route south, as taken by the (wrong) Israelite king is another example of the Biblical account being an historical fiction: according to the Moabite source, Mesha was busy conquering cities in the north. Heading south would not only have exposed Israel’s rear to Moab, it would also have exposed Israel’s rear to Aram and Assyria;
4. Further indications of the fictitious nature of the Biblical account lie in the realm of archaeology. According to finds, there was no king in Edom at the time of Jehoram, and the Moabites went on to maintain their kingdom (something that they could not have done had they been reduced to a single fortress).

The Bible’s perspective? Utterly theological: the story is brought as a means if indicating the notion that Yahweh saves and not Khemosh (the Moabite god). This is demonstrated chiefly through the use of names: “Mesha” (Saviour) and “Elisha” (God saves). The Biblical historian had no concern for actual history, and certainly did not intend their audience to interpolate stories from another text altogether in order to make sense of the events.

Neither account is perfect. Rendsburg fails to explain why the Moabites recorded the insurrection as having occurred during the reign of Ahab and Stern fails to take into account the alternative passage from Chronicles. There is no ready answer to this question, and disagreements tend to fall along the maximalism vs. minimalism spectrum. An awareness of the Bible as intended history is necessary (in the light of genre analyses that indicate that such is what much of it is), but a recognition of the process of editorial development is likewise of the essence.

While we can continue hoping for another discovery that may reveal, once and for all, what happened between Israel and Moab in the tenth century BCE, it is likely that this particular issue will never be resolved.




2 responses

6 10 2006
John Cowan

2 Kings 3:27 Then he [Mesha] took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.

Who was indignant against Israel? Chemosh, obviously.

6 10 2006

Yes, that would appear to have been the original import of the Biblical story. This is a widely discussed (and equally widely debated) area. If this passage is speaking of Chemosh then it is the sole example in the entire Bible of a foreign God expressing emotion. What is more, there are also other passages elsewhere that use very similar terminology in reference to the Israelite Yahweh – such as Numbers 18:5.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: