The historical study of Ancient Israel, in particular the interpretation of material remains and literary records, has degenerated lamentably in recent decades into name-calling and the spirited defense of one’s own ideology. Indeed, in a manner similar to the landscape of partisan politics, the discipline has engendered “camps,” with names such as “fundamentalists,” “nihilists,” “maximalists,” “minimalists,” and others besides. In the pages of popular press, journals and books, and most disheartening at academic conferences, the central figures in the debate over Ancient Israel plead their cases, often with a tendency to utter definitive conclusions that they hope will stop debate.
Into this acrimonious academic atmosphere comes Lester Grabbe’s most recent book, the most important feature of which is, oddly enough, not its arguments or conclusions, but its mood. While on occasion Lester Grabbe presents his own considered interpretation of the data, the mood of the book is dispassionate, slow, and careful. This book does not contain his own reconstruction of the history of Ancient Israel; rather, this book is, in his words, a prolegomenon for such an effort: “an attempt to discuss the issues relating to writing a history” (p. 35).
With that purpose in view, Lester Grabbe lists these principles that guide his work (see pp. 35-36):
1. “All potential sources should be considered. Nothing should be ruled out a priori.”
2. “Preference should be given to primary sources... This means archaeology and inscriptions.”
3. “The context of the longue durée must always be recognized and given an essential part in the interpretation.” [Reviewer’s note: longue durée concerns those factors of geography and climate that remain constant over millennia.]
4. “Each episode or event has to be judged on its own merits.”
5. “All reconstructions are provisional.”
6. “All reconstructions have to be argued for... The only valid arguments are historical ones.”
In his opening chapter (“Principles and Methods”), Lester Grabbe reviews the general issues that affect any historical analysis, such as the evolution of the field of archaeology, considerations about the longue durée, and the problem of forgeries. In the subsequent chapters, Lester Grabbe proceeds through the second and first millennia, beginning with Middle Bronze Age I (ca. 2000-1800 B.C.E.) and concluding with Iron Age IIC (ca. 720-539 B.C.E.); thus he ends his study at the beginning of Persian hegemony over Mesopotamia and the Levant. His analysis of each phase during this 1500-year period occurs in three moments:
* Detailed description of all relevant primary evidence;
* Critical analysis of all sources, plus engagement with other experts;
* Synthesis of all data, including relevant Biblical texts, so as to reconstruct the life of Ancient Israel during that period of time.
This book admirably fills a gap in the scholarly discussion of the history of Ancient Israel. Lester Grabbe brings forward all of the relevant evidence—structures, epigraphy, inscriptions, material remains, literary records—and walks the reader carefully through all aspects of them. The vast bibliography—running 54 pages!—identifies the in situ origins of the material and the subsequent scholarly discussions. The book, then, serves as a vademecum for historical analysis, and it can serve as a model for illustrating how historical inquiry of any subject should be conducted. The occasional conclusions proposed by the author are not as important as the experience of thinking along with an historian.
My only complaint is that his methodology can be too strict at times. For example, concerning the presence of Egyptian details in the Biblical account of the Exodus, Lester Grabbe insists (p. 86), “Some have argued that elements within the text fit the period of Rameses II (Hoffmeier 1977), but this is not sufficient; one must show that they do not fit any other period in history” (emphasis mine). Such a strict criterion for historicity assumes that artistic representations and assumptions cannot perdure in a culture and, proposed as an a priori principle, would severely limit the merest likelihood that a Biblical datum would be historical.
A pedagogical reflection: I used this book as a required text in an upper-level undergraduate Theology course at my institution, hoping that it would train students—only a few of whom are Theology majors—in how historians actually think and work. All of the students had already completed at least two courses in English Composition, two courses in Theology, and two semesters of our version of a “Great Books” program, so my hopes were high. I regret to report that the experiment did not succeed, and so perhaps this book would work better in an M.A. program in Biblical Studies/ Theology/ Religion Studies/ Ancient History.