Commentary Magazine

At the Dawn of Civilization: A Background of Biblical History, edited by E. A. Speiser

Before the Beginning

At the Dawn of Civilization: A Background of Biblical History.
by E. A. Speiser.
Rutgers University Press. 388 pp. $17.50 (The World History of the Jewish People, First Series: Ancient Times. General editor B. Netanyahu. Jewish History Publications Ltd.)

This is the first volume of a projected “all-inclusive” and “authoritative history of the Jewish people from its beginning to the present time.” Each of the volumes is to follow the plan of the first in offering a series of essays by eminent scholars relating to the central theme of the book—in this case the environmental and cultural setting for the birth of ancient Israel. One cannot take issue with the conception and intention of the work. From time to time, it is probably important to undertake an exhaustive history, and it is especially appropriate to venture on a comprehensive Jewish history at this particular juncture, after a cataclysm which seems to render inadequate all the various perspectives in which the Jewish past has been viewed. I feel certain that a project of this scope was not embarked upon simply out of the desire to bring new historiographic methods to bear upon previously available material, or even to present new materials, but that a deeper need was felt for taking stock. But while concurring in the desirability of the endeavor, I can only lament that it is off to so poor a start.

In the preface, B. Netanyahu, who is the general editor of the entire series, explains that in planning the overall strategy of the project, the editorial committee studied previous works of similarly comprehensive scope—such as the Cambridge Historical Series, Hanotaux's Histoire de la Nation Française, Menéndez Pidal's Historia de España and Oncken's All-gemeine Geschichte—in order to determine both their strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, this first volume at least, of The World History of the Jewish People stands as testimony to a common experience: it is possible to be aware of all pitfalls, take note of all methodological and conceptual problems, study past attempts at solutions and analyze their failings, and yet in the end produce something which contains many of the very defects one has so painstakingly identified in other works.


There was, to be sure, a special problem in structuring the first volume: it deals with a period in which there are as yet no Jews, though there is a land that will become Jewish by the time volume II is reached, and there are various peoples, a few of whom will become Jewish, and most of whom will continue to create their own civilizations. The task, therefore, is to provide the perspective for understanding the subsequent emergence of ancient Israel. But the method chosen for this purpose works very badly: the editor farmed out individual areas to acknowledged experts, apparently with the simple instruction to write-so-and-so many words about the flora, or so-and-so many words about the climate. One cannot, it must be admitted, quarrel with the choice of experts: H. Polotsky takes Semitics, William F. Albright prehistory, M. Avnimelech geology, F. Simon Bodenheimer fauna, John A. Wilson Egypt, etc. Yet what these eminent scholars have produced is a series of uneven essays which fail to address themselves to the fundamental and really interesting questions: what led to the development of the remarkable complex of early high civilization in the Near East?; and within this civilization, what led to the birth of Israel? It may well be that these questions, and the other questions they imply, cannot be answered satisfactorily, but they must nonetheless be raised. Was the Near Eastern neolithic an entirely local and independent achievement, or do its roots lie far to the north and/or south? Whatever else the ancient Near East represented, it was also an enclave of plow-using farmers whose economy, in which domestic plants and animals were functionally integrated, constituted a true peasant complex. Northward, deep into Eurasia, extended pastoral nomadic regions, and to the south, beyond an intermediate pastoral zone, there was a large zone of tropical cultivation. It is only recently that this pattern has begun to be modified.

There are those who argue that agriculture was invented in the Near East, and that the specialized herding patterns of Eurasia and the cultivation system of the tropics thus represent later specializations. Others, however, contend that the mere fact that the oldest known evidence for domestication and farming is to be found in the Near East is no proof of priority in time, and that the cultural upsurge took place because the area was a contact zone between a much older nomadic realm and a realm of tropical cultivation.

The investigation of this question involves the whole problem of cultural diffusion, which is largely neglected in this volume. It is, to be sure, a difficult problem. For one thing, it is hard to identify objects and traits which originated outside the area under study, but which have undergone such modifications or changes of function that they appear as a local achievement. Then, too, it is only to be expected that archaeologists will tend to confine their attention to their own sites and thus remain unaware of the relationships between their local discoveries and those found in remote places. Finally, there is a danger in emphasizing cultural diffusion as well as in neglecting it. That danger consists in connecting the artifacts of long-dead cultures with similar ones found in present-day primitive cultures, and too facilely ascribing the conditions of the latter to the former.

Nevertheless, the evidence for cultural dispersal from earliest times on is overwhelming. There are astounding congruences in such items as plastered and modeled shell-eyed skulls found at Jericho, in Anatolia, in the interior of New Guinea and in the Marquesas. In the past, these similarities have often been dogmatically treated as independent creations of a human psyche that is everywhere equally constituted (although the reverse—that cultural dissimilarities prove the unequal character of the human psyche—is never argued). But, as Gräbner observed, independent inventions cannot be proved; connections can.


Quite apart from its failure to deal with these issues, At the Dawn of Civilization is unsatisfactory even within its own limited framework. Although the volume is expensive and lavishly produced, the text itself is not long. Within a comparatively brief space, it attempts to cover Near-Eastern prehistory, the rise of Egypt, and the evolution of the integrated civilization of Mesopotamia. Such a presentation entails a more than ordinary need for careful selectivity. It certainly should leave no room for scholarly polemics that can be comprehended only by those who have themselves inhaled the dust of Shanidar, Jarmo, and Teleilat-el-Ghassul for years; yet that is precisely what is necessary for understanding some of these essays. Thus it becomes dif-cult to determine the audience to which the book is directed. The essay on prehistory by Albright, for example, is a summary by one expert telling other experts where he stands on such questions as whether the Zarzian of Kurdistan is related to Miss Garrod's Lower Natufian, or to the Kebaran, as Howell maintained. This is fascinating for the specialist, but more appropriate for a professional journal. And one is puzzled as to what to make of information such as that offered in Dov Ashbel's chapter on climate: “On a summer's day the daily mean of radiation received on a square meter of horizontal surface is about 7½ million gram calories; on a bright winter's day it is about 3 million gram calories, whilst on a dull overcast day it is no more than 0.7-1 million gram calories.” Conceivably, such facts are relevant to the dawn of civilization in the Near East, but what their relevance might be is not made clear. Perhaps the dawn was on a bright day? Climatic change, on the other hand, an important and highly relevant subject, is not even discussed. And the chapters included under the topic, environmental setting”—notably those on geomorphology, geology, flora, fauna—as well as the regional sections on Syria and Mesopotamia, so entirely fail to focus on the main subject of the book as to be no more than encyclopedia entries.

Moreover, the book perpetuates a regrettable convention of historians in that it provides introductory sections on geographic background which are not integrated with the material that follows them. The assumption seems to be that once the “geographic setting” has been described, geography can be put aside while history takes over. Surely this assumption should have been abandoned at least as long ago as Bernard Varenius, for the land is not static but reflects the cumulative impact of its interaction with life. As Peter Heylyn wrote in 1621: “Geographic without Historie hath life and motion, but at randome and unstable. Historie without Geographie, like a dead carkasse, hath neither life nor motion at all.”

The absence of any maps worthy of the name is inexcusable in a book of this purpose, makeup, and price. The primitive sketches one does find are not keyed to the text and sometimes they are actually absurd. Thus, Alexandria appears on a location “map” of “Ancient Egypt”; Jericho sits on the Dead Sea; the Red Sea is shown with its modern coast line, not as it was, reaching in the northwest to the Bitter Lakes; the upper course of the Litani is reversed to flow into the Orontes; there are no indications of scale, longitude, or latitude; most of the numerous archaeological sites of Syria and Mesopotamia to which the text refers are not even shown. With all these defects, it is perhaps superfluous to complain about the lack of morphology and soil maps to show such things as the progress of salinization in Mesopotamia.


Nevertheless, At the Dawn of Civilization is by no means a total disaster; there are individual chapters which are very good. Indeed, the essays in Parts Two and Three on “Ethno-linguistics” and “The Cultural Factor” are for the most part excellent. Professors Speiser and Wilson have described the evolution of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization compactly and comprehensively; both of them provide something of the holistic approach so sadly missing in other parts of the volume. The excellence of these sections makes it all the more evident that the basic failure is an editorial one.

There are still many volumes and many years before The World History of the Jewish People will come to an end. (Indeed, at the rate these things progress, the end of the Jewish people and/or of world history may come before all the volumes are written.) The problem of focus which has beset the first volume should not be so crucial in later volumes, when the Jews will provide the focus. Thus there is still ground for hope that this series will become a significant contribution to history.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.