A History of Biblical Israel

knaufThis new book from Equinox is excellent.  Indeed, it is the finest history of Israel written in the last 5 decades.

There was probably only one past, but there are many different histories. As mental representations of narrow segments of the past, ‘histories’ reflect different cultural contexts and different historians, although ‘history’ is a scientific enterprise whenever it processes representative data using rational and controllable methods to work out hypotheses that can be falsified by empirical evidence.

A History of Biblical Israel combines experience gained through decades of teaching biblical exegesis and courses on the history of ancient Israel, and of on-going involvement in biblical archaeology. ‘Biblical Israel’ is understood as a narrative produced primarily in the province of Yehud to forge the collective memory of the elite that operated the temple of Jerusalem under the auspices of the Achaemenid imperial apparatus. The notion of ‘Biblical Israel’ provides the necessary hindsight to narrate the fate of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as the pre-history of ‘Biblical Israel’, since the archives of these kingdoms were only mined in the Persian era to produce the grand biblical narrative. The volume covers the history of ‘Biblical Israel’ through its fragmentation in the Hellenistic and Roman periods until 136 CE, when four Roman legions crushed the revolt of Simeon Bar-Kosiba.

ISD has sent a copy which arrived at the end of last month and I’ve read through it and offer below my thoughts on the volume.

First, it is comprised of three major divisions: The Pre History of Biblical Israel; The formation of Biblical Israel in Yehud and Samaria in the Persian Period; and The disintegration of Biblical Israel.    There are, as well, the usual preface, introduction, appendix, indices, and numerous illustrations (53 of them plus 5 tables to be precise).  The full table of contents can be viewed at the link above.

The introduction delineates the time-span of the study, defines terms like Israel, and history, and history of Israel as well as notions and ideas.  Each chapter following begins with an italicized central thought which then is fully explicated in the associated chapter.  So, for example, chapter one’s heading reads thusly:

The relations of Egypt with Canaan in the Late Bronze Age establish the framework for development in the Iron Age (p. 29).

Chapter two commences:

The rise of proto-Israelite tribes in the Central Palestinian Range is placed in the context of Canaanite revival spurred by the exploitation of copper mines in the Arabah following the collapse of the first Mediterranean economic system (p. 42).

And such brief snippets occur throughout.  Which brings me, conveniently, to the greatest feature of the present work: unlike so many ‘Histories of Israel’ this volume is not merely a dry retelling of the events of the biblical text (as though that were actual historical reconstruction).  No, here readers will discover actual history.  The who, what, when, and where of the events experienced by ancient Israel are on full, cogent, coherent display.  In short, actual history is to be found here and not the pious repetition of the biblical narrative.  John Bright, and to a lesser extent every history of Israel written in the last 50 years has done nothing more than repeat the Bible and toss in a bit of Egyptian and Mesopotamian history.  That is not the case here.  Thankfully.

Rather, then, than focusing on the biblical narrative, our authors deliver a historical reconstruction which investigates the economical and societal reasons for the shifting sands of the ancient near eastern political world and the impact those economic and social events had on the people we know as Ancient Israel.

To be sure, the biblical text is not ignored.  How could it be?  Rather, it is integrated into the social-critical approach utilized by our authors.  So, for instance,

According to the biblical scenario, 720 BCE closed the unfortunate parenthesis opened by Jeroboam I.  The “fall” of Israel only marks the end of the kingdom, but from the point of view of the biblical writers, it allowed them to ignore further events to the north of Benjamin and to turn their full attention to Jerusalem and, to a lesser extent, on the Edomites and Arabs (p. 115).

Alongside the extraordinary content the authors also offer – from time to time – pithy phrases that stick to the brain.  One of my favorite is their lovely ‘Baal allergy’ in reference to Israel’s Prophets’ attitude towards Baalism.

The bibliography at the conclusion of the volume and the appendix which offers readers a comparative table of Israelite/Judean monarchs and their dates are both very helpful.

This book, as I said above, is truly the best history of Israel written in the last 5 decades.  Readers will benefit from it and it should find its place in every biblical scholar’s library and at every institution of higher education where biblical studies or religion are taught.

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