Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Desctruction of the Temple
A review of Hershel Shanks, "Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Shanks, Hershel ed. Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Revised and Expanded edition. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999. xxiii + 356 pp. Hardback. ISBN 1-880317-53-2.
In 1989 the editor of the popular Biblical Archaeology Review published the first edition of this readable history of ancient Israel. At that time he enlisted numerous scholars who were experts in their respective periods to write chapters that would provide a sequential retelling of the account of Israel’s history. The volume was a success because it filled a gap of available critical histories that were balanced and readable. Given the large volume of publications, disputes and discoveries that have appeared in the decade following Shanks’ initial publication, it was appropriate that he update the original with further studies and writings. Either the original contributors were afforded the opportunity to revise their chapters or other scholars were chosen to update them. The result is the best and most recent history of ancient Israel available.
This praise does not mean complete agreement with everything that appears in the pages of this volume. In fact, in many cases earlier criticisms of the first edition were ignored and further problemmatic insertions were made. This may serve to provide access to a wider variety of readers but it also raises questions about the representative nature of the historical observations and conclusions that are presented. In particular, the first chapter, which deals with the period of the patriarchs, continues in a tradition that flatly rejects the historical reconstructions of Albright and others, and maintains instead a dominant etiological flavor for the narratives as first proposed by Alt and more recently developed by Cross and his students, McCarter and Hendel, who wrote and revised the chapter. It is not necessary to rehearse the questions and problems that were posed by Kenneth Kitchen and this reviewer in an earlier review of the first edition (Themelios 15 (October 1989) 24-29) other than to observe that they have not been answered. Nor is one impressed by rejections of personal name analyses whose results point in an opposite direction from the later dates that the authors wish to assign to the Genesis texts (p. 300 n. 23) when the same methodology is used for arguing a contrary case with a smaller statistical sample (pp. 19ff.)!
The remaining chapters were better in the original edition and retain their value in the new one. Indeed, they are enhanced by the incorporation of more recent archaeological analysis and by the indentification of some of the key points of debate in the contemporary scholarly discussion. What also appears more prominently is the caution with which many of these scholars write and an awareness of a far greater variety of views as well as less clarity in what can and cannot be said with certainty. Perhaps this is clearest in the chapters on the exodus and on the monarchy. In both cases there is a greater appeal to theological and other editorial interests by later writers who may have influenced the biblical accounts. While the effect of these comments is to compromise the presumed reliability of the biblical accounts, a positive appreciation of these observations can be gained when it is recognized that the Old Testament is a theological work and that the import of theological assumptions in the historical accounts, as well as other types of literature, is to be expected. Further, the presence of such theological or ideological tendencies should not automatically be assigned to later editors. There is too little of an awareness of contemporary ancient Near Eastern annalistic witings in this book. More incorporation of such comparative materials would help to demonstrate the theological/ideological nature of all such writing, including and especially accounts written by authors contemporary with the events that they purport to describe.
Such observations do not detract from the great service that Shanks and the contributors have performed. It is hoped that this volume will find wide use among many who seek a balanced and informed discussion of the history of ancient Israel.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament