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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

A Note on Sources

As these introductory remarks imply, re-creating so tempestuous a period calls for critically reading a variety of sources. Their assessment, combined with sound judgment and a modicum of imagination, stands modern historians in good stead as they face knotty questions, including the ever-so-many undocumented years during the century of Assyria's domination.

Our most important sources, in addition to the Bible, are the texts recovered from the mounds of the ancient Near East. In several instances these texts supplement the Bible by reporting events or specifying dates that biblical writers did not include in their accounts. When they overlap with a biblical account, the nonbiblical texts provide a valuable comparison with the views expressed by Israelite writers, even though most of their comments are restricted to matters of war and its aftermath. In the end, however, for Israel and Judah—especially in light of their relative insignificance from a geopolitical perspective—the Bible remains the main and often the only resource at the disposal of historians.

Two historical works, the book of Kings and the book of Chronicles (later divided by tradition into two books each), survey the monarchic age in Israel. Kings is by and large a product of the late seventh century BCE, whereas Chronicles seems to have been written in the fourth century, toward the close of the Persian period—some three hundred years after the last king reigned in Judah. Each bears the distinctive stamp of its author(s), and of the two, Chronicles is less serviceable, being a didactic explication of Kings with little in the way of additional documentary material from preexilic days.

Not to be slighted are the large prophetic collections of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as the smaller tracts of Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Obadiah. Their rich lode of inspired preaching and reflections on the moral state of Israelite society pose serious problems for modern historians. Questions of source evaluation hinder our every step. How are we to distinguish between the authentic words of the prophet and those of his disciples and of the later editors and compilers responsible for the final shape of the prophetic “book”? In only one instance do we learn how a prophet's words were collected: Jeremiah dictated them (from memory or from written notes) to his scribe Baruch, the son of Neriah (Jer. 36.4 ), under circumstances and with an outcome that are discussed below.

The relevant source material from Assyria consists of historical inscriptions and administrative documents, originally deposited in the state archives in the capital, Nineveh, whose recovered items number in the tens of thousands. Annalistic texts record the victorious military pursuits of Assyria's monarchs, at the same time praising their loyalty to the gods and their good works in building temples and palaces. These annals may be classified as royal propaganda, highly selective in their presentation, careful to justify the king's deeds before both the gods and his subjects. For modern researchers they open a window into the world of the court scribes, their goals and techniques, and are suggestive of similar literary phenomena in Israel. Complementing these “official” texts is the vast correspondence received by the palace from all corners of the empire, together with business and judicial records and oracular and magical texts, to name just a few of the types of texts available. This wealth of material adds to our understanding of the daily pursuits of those who lived at the center of the vast and imposing Assyrian empire.

From Babylonia, the most valuable historical source is the Neo-Babylonian Chronicle Series, only a small portion of which has been recovered. It presents the summary record, year by year, of the major military undertakings of the reigning king, with little editorial bias. The Babylonian scribe, unlike his Assyrian counterpart, could describe the defeat of the sovereign without apology, and often does. (The Assyrian scribe turned every setback of the imperial army into a victory.) As for Egypt—that ever-present threat to the Mesopotamian powers lying just beyond the Sinai Peninsula and the Nile Delta—relevant source material is rare. When available, it focuses on internal affairs, so that it is only from non-Egyptian sources that we know of even such key moves as the appearance of Egyptian forces in fulfillment of pledges of aid to Israel and Judah against Assyria and Babylonia, or Egypt's support of Assyria itself.

Finally, archaeological remains from Israel during the latter part of the Iron Age (Iron IIC, ca. 722–586 BCE) illuminate aspects of life not touched on by written sources. Out of the jumbled ruins of destroyed cities emerge the outlines of rooms and buildings, streets, walls, and gates, together with the artifacts that served their dwellers. These are the silent witnesses to ancient life that await interpretations and integration into the historical picture. To our delight, embossed Assyrian wall reliefs preserve contemporary illustrations of several cities in Israel and Judah. From the palace of Tiglath-pileser at Nimrud, depictions of the attack on the city of Gezer in the foothills of Judah and on Ashteroth in Transjordan have been recovered. And from Sennacherib's “palace without rival” at Nineveh are the wonderfully detailed reliefs of his siege of Lachish, from which we learn not only about the techniques of ancient warfare but also observe the very exit of Judeans from their city on the long road to exile. Their story and that of their compatriots follows.

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