Author Archives: Yair Hoffman

Yair Hoffman

About Yair Hoffman

Yair Hoffman is a Professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University.

King Solomon & His Kingdom

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

How Solomon Won the Throne

[King] David’s old age was not a happy time. As his authority declined, his sons and ministers began fighting over who his successor would be. Several revolts threatened the throne; the most dangerous, and most tragic, was the one headed by Absalom, David’s favorite son. Fearing that he would not be appointed heir to the throne, Absalom killed his brother Amnon and raised the banner of revolt. His insurrection was crushed, but the struggle continued. 

king solomon and the queen of sheba

Giovanni Demin’s
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Now the principal claimants were David’s two other sons: Adonijah, son of Haggith, and Solomon, son of Bath‑Sheba. Adonijah, supported by the old establishment–the army commander, Joab son of Zeruiah, and the priest Abiathar–tried to have himself anointed in his father’s lifetime. However, Bath‑Sheba frustrated the attempt with the aid of the prophet Nathan and several army officers headed by Benaiah son of Jehoiadah, and she persuaded David to proclaim Solomon his rightful heir.

After David’s death (c. 967 B.C.E) Solomon began to strike out at his opponents. Some were executed (Adonijah, Joab); others were banished from Jerusalem (Abiathar). The key positions in the kingdom were handed to his loyal servants–Benaiah was made commander of the army, and Zadok was installed as high priest to the Lord (and destined to become the forefather of an illustrious line of high priests).

Solomon’s Brilliant Reign

Solomon’s iron hand soon convinced potential rebels that there was no hope of undermining his absolute rule over all the tribes. Indeed, the internal stability attained by Solomon ensured his dynasty four centuries of rule in Jerusalem. The brilliance of his reign gave birth to the mythic tradition that the House of David ruled by divine will, a tradition which became an integral part of Jewish messianic expectations (and of Christ­ianity as well, since Jesus was accorded a Davidic pedigree). The transi­tion from the portable Tabernacle, associated with the wanderings of Israel in the desert, to the splendid Temple built by Solomon in Jeru­salem, enhanced the sanctity of the city and made it the undisputed capital of the monarchy.

Conquering Canaan

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

The Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy recount how the Israelites captured territories east of the Jordan River which were later settled by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh. The Book of Joshua then presents the “official” biblical version of the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land. The people of Israel, assembled on the eastern banks of the Jordan, were ready to cross the river and conquer the land of Canaan.

conquering canaanJoshua son of Nun, Moses’ successor, first sent spies and, encouraged by their report about the fear of the Canaanites, immediately decided to attack Jericho, the strongest town in the area. The miraculous fall of Jericho opened the road inland. Joshua led his people southward, then towards the hills of Judea, and later to the north, in a series of successful campaigns crowned by the conquest of Hazor–the strongest town in the north. The capture of Shechem is not mentioned, but the Bible states that once the conquest was completed, the people of Israel gathered there for a national assembly, an indication that Shechem was already in the hands of the tribes of Israel.

The historical validity of this account of the conquest is highly dubious. Analysis of other biblical texts reveals many discrepancies. The Book of Judges recounts separate campaigns by individual tribes; and, although it places the events after Joshua’s death, they constitute in fact a different version of the story of the conquest. The Book of Joshua describes a well‑organized campaign of a people united by a common national goal, while the Book of Judges reports many separate battles against Canaanite peoples waged by individual tribes or by temporary alliances of several tribes, enlarging their territories at the expense of their neighbors.

Furthermore, according to the Book of Joshua, the entire country was taken by the Israelites, while the Book of Judges reveals that one of the severe problems of the tribes was the constant struggle with Canaanite enclaves which successfully retained their independence.

Exodus: History or Mythic Tale?

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

The Book of Genesis ends with the story of Jacob going down to Egypt with his family. The first chapter of Exodus tells how the seventy members of Jacob’s s clan evolved into a large people,cruelly enslaved by the kings of Egypt. The enslavement is presented in the Bible as a crucible which forged the nation of Israel. Oppressed for several centuries, the Hebrews suffered until Moses, of the tribe of Levi, brought up in Pharaoh’s household, led them to freedom in the name of God, an omnipotent deity unknown to the Hebrews prior to their liberation. 

The Narrative

The story of the Exodus is related in a few dramatic chapters: 600,000 men left Egypt on a long trek to freedom. God punished their enemies (the ten plagues of Egypt), drowned Pharaoh’s army with its chariots and cavalry in the Red Sea, and brought them to Mount Sinai where they witnessed the revelation and received the Decalogue–God’s command­ments to his people.

exodus history or mythThe First Commandment is the essence of Jewish monotheism: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus, 20:2‑3). By the time they reached the frontiers of Canaan after forty years in the desert, the Israelites had become a strong, united nation, and were ready to conquer the Promised Land.

Is It History?

The historical validity of this narrative is controversial. Some scholars stress the lack of Egyptian evidence testifying to the enslavement of the Israelites, pointing out that very little Egyptian influence is discernible in biblical literature and in ancient Hebrew culture. Other scholars, how­ever, claim that it is highly improbable that a nation would choose to invent for itself a history of slavery as an explanation of its origins. If such a tradition exists, it must reflect an historical truth.

The Genesis of Judaism

The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.


The beginnings of ancient nations are always shrouded in mist. The social structures which gradually evolve into a “nation” do so in a slow, lengthy, and mainly unconscious process. The agonizing question “How did we become a nation?” usually finds its initial answer within the realm of myth; and it is the historian who needs to grapple with the difficult and uncertain demarcation between myth and historical truth.

The Book of Genesis offers some answers to the questions which the nascent Hebrew nation had to contend with at the time: How was the world created? Why does a woman bear children in pain? What is the significance of the rainbow? And first and foremost: Where did we come from? How did the Hebrew nation come into being?

The answers provided for the last question are all of a historical nature: “our father” Abraham, whom God promised to multiply into a great nation, begot Isaac; Isaac begot Jacob; and Jacob’s twelve sons became in Egypt the twelve tribes of Israel. How much of this story is historical fact and what part is myth? Who was Abraham? When did he live? Was he a real‑life historical figure or a mere mythological fiction?

The Torah as History?

As long as the Torah was believed to be the living word of God, queries of this kind were unthinkable; once it began to be regarded as a human document and scrutinized with modern exegetical tools, scholars needed to seek scientific corroboration. Yet even the least historically authentic biblical traditions clearly represent real events, social processes, and flesh‑and‑blood figures. More emphatically, it is precisely these traditions which convey the archaic culture of the people and contain the seeds of its future civilization.

Biblical narrative describes the wanderings of the patriarchs through the Fertile Crescent. Abraham and his clan left Ur, near the Euphrates delta (today Tell al‑Muqayyar) and, after passing through the major centers of civilization of the time–Babylon and Mari–arrived in Haran, approximately 2000 miles from their point of departure. Their destination was the land of Canaan: “Leave your own country, your kinsmen, and your father’s house, and go to a country that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).