Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources

Written by Richard S. Hess and Bill T. Arnold, eds. Reviewed By Matthieu Richelle

This copious volume contains twelve essays spanning all of Old Testament history: the Genesis narratives (R. S. Hess), the Exodus and wilderness narratives (J. K. Hoffmeier), early Israel and its appearance in Canaan (L. G. Stone), the period of the judges (R. D. Miller II), the move to monarchy in archaeological (S. M. Ortiz) and comparative (D. Bodi) perspective, the divided kingdoms until the end of the ninth century BC (K. Greenwood), the eighth century (S. Richter), the seventh century (B. E. Kelle), the sixth century (P. van der Veen), the fifth and fourth centuries (A. Lemaire), and the Hellenistic period (D. A. deSilva). In addition, two chapters are respectively devoted to an overview of covenant (S. Greengus) and of prophecy (J. K. Mead) in the Old Testament as well as its ancient Near Eastern context, while the introduction headlines the book with a useful history of research on ancient Israel (R. S. Hess). Although the objective of the editors was only “to provide a current state of research on issues relative to the history of ancient Israel” (p. v), they have actually succeeded in providing a comprehensive, multi-authored history of Israel which deserves to take a place alongside the most useful volumes of this genre.

Space limitations prevent a detailed assessment of each essay, but three lines of observation will give an idea of the main orientations of the book. First, on the wide spectrum of current approaches to the history of ancient Israel, spanning from maximalism to minimalism, it seems fair to situate this book as moderately and cautiously conservative, in the spirit of the Institute for Biblical Research. As the editors write in the Preface, they “assume neither a negative stance toward the biblical literature nor a naive fideism on difficult issues” (p. v). Because this book follows the OT’s own historical outline and includes chapters on the patriarchs and exodus, it will appear too conservative to scholars who regard almost the entire biblical narrative referring to the second millennium BC as fictive. Conversely, more conservative evangelicals might find that the authors sometimes distance themselves too much from the biblical text. Yet all kinds of readers will benefit from the richness of the information catalogued here.

Second, as should be expected in such a volume, there is some diversity. This is partly due to the disparity in extant historical documentation. In some periods, for example, it is possible to attempt a detailed historical reconstruction; for others, only a discussion of issues and open questions is possible. But several other factors add to the unevenness. Some chapters are masterful, detailed, and thorough treatments of all the main issues (e.g., the analyses of the appearance of Israel in Canaan and Yehud in the fifth and fourth centuries BC). The much-debated tenth century BC (especially the reigns of David and Solomon) even receives special attention as the subject of two distinct chapters. Alongside an up-to-date comparison of the tenth-century archaeological record with the biblical narratives about the united monarchy (S. Ortiz), one finds an innovative chapter on the era of Saul, David, and Solomon which adopts a comparative approach with Mari sources (D. Bodi). By contrast, the chapter devoted to the Genesis narratives is an interesting but brief survey of issues, the author being content, for instance, to refer the reader to other studies regarding the Egyptian elements in the Joseph narratives (p. 44). This narrow focus is certainly consistent with the objectives of the book, but by comparison with the breadth of other chapters is somewhat unsatisfying.

Third, the comprehensiveness of the book, in terms of accuracy in the treatment of sources and of historical information, is very good. Inevitably, though, one can find lacunae here and there. For example, L. G. Stone mentions the inscription on a column base from the time of Ramses II, published by M. Görg, as bearing a “broken name-ring which can plausibly be restored as ‘Israel” (p. 143). However, it would be more accurate to say that this identification is disputed, as in the divergent opinions of J. K. Hoffmeier (“What is the Biblical Date of the Exodus? A Response to Bryant Wood,” JETS 50 [2007]: 225–47) and P. van der Veen, C. Theis, and M. Görg (“Israel in Canaan [Long] Before Pharaoh Merneptah? A Fresh Look at Berlin Statue Pedestal Relief 21687,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 2 [2010]: 15–25). Overall, what is most lacking is an engagement with the influential hypotheses made by scholars who drastically revise the biblical presentation of the history of Israel (e.g., M. Liverani, I. Finkelstein). Their arguments are sometimes addressed in the course of the discussion, but these brief treatments do not necessarily answer all the methodological questions they are asking, notably because the present volume begins with the OT and the discussions follow the biblical chronology. Nevertheless, the amount of historical information about Israel that one finds in this book is astonishing.

In summary, this volume is an outstanding resource. Not only have the editors fulfilled their objective to provide a snapshot of current research, they also offer us one of the best one-volume surveys on the history of Israel, to which I will often refer my students, and which will also be extremely useful for pastors and scholars seeking to update their knowledge of this fast-changing discipline.

Matthieu Richelle

Matthieu Richelle
Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangélique
Vaux-sur-Seine, France

Other Articles in this Issue

Stephen Williams raises a number of concerns with the book, Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin...

The book of Job is an obvious place to turn when a Christian suffers, but it is not easy to discern what God means to teach his people through this difficult book...