The History of Bronze and Iron Age Israel

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Victor Harold Matthews
Essentials of Biblical Studies Series
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2018.
     200 pages.
     $19.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190231156.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Victor H. Matthews The History of Bronze and Iron Age Israel analyzes archeological and textual evidence from the early Canaanite settlements to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BCE. While including an appropriate amount of biblical exegesis, the scope of this text is limited to social, political, and—in the fifth and final chapter—military histories. 

Matthews’ methodological reflections are evident throughout the text, with judicious interrogations of memory studies (chap 2), and the gray area between “tradition” and “history” (141) necessary to the work of historical reconstruction. Matthews emphasizes that all ancient records are propagandistic in nature. Commemorative steles place the Ancient Near East (ANE) kings who commissioned them in the best possible light. Yet the propagandistic aims of the biblical compilers are somewhat different. Matthews identifies five themes around which the Hebrew ancestor narratives are structured, including the covenant theme and Canaan’s particularly volatile situatedness on the international scene. Given the contract between YHWH and the whole of the Hebrew people, emphasized much more than the military might of any single commander, the biblical editors could explain the demise of Samaria (721 BCE) and Jerusalem (586 BCE), not as “the failure of a national deity” (152), but as the failure of the Hebrew nation to honor the everlasting covenant with their national deity. To maintain their storyline, the Deuteronomistic editors obscured important facts, such as the imperial presence of Egypt in Canaan, and Ahab’s successes in the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE. Their aim was not to brag or set the record straight, but rather to produce a “theological survival mechanism” (62) that could help audiences endure repeated foreign oppressions—apropos to their geographical location—and end-time events.

The strengths of this book include the handy reference tables—such as a comprehensive list of Hebrew kings, and a list of corroborating extra-biblical documents. After discussing the importance of geography in the opening chapter, Matthews treats the reader to several engaging descriptions of the region, including the East-West zones in Canaan. These masterful descriptions would have been greatly enhanced with maps, a resource which is altogether absent from this book. In light of this oversight, this reviewer consulted a helpful substitute: Google Earth.

Matthews’s analyses of early Hebrew social structures are also sensitively fashioned. For example, he discusses the village heterarchies that developed in the Canaanite highlands in which all shared basic work, and “experts” stepped up to handle specialized tasks resulting in “variability of leadership” (77). 

Matthews also finds that David’s kingdom was, more likely, a “politically fragile” chiefdom (110). From such humble origins, a form of monarchy seems to have developed from the coincidence of several favorable factors, but “verifiable” Hebrew history does not begin until the Omride Dynasty, c. 880 BCE (141). Struggling to survive in a hotly contested region, the Hebrews transitioned from a struggling new state, to divided vassal states, to a conquered and dispersed peoples within the course of a few centuries. 

This process explains the motivation of the Deuteronomists’ Exodus narrative, the discussion of which is the most satisfying feature of the book. If there was an early time—undocumented in Egyptian history—when Western Semites were enslaved in Egypt, as some scholars believe, or whether the story is symbolic of overall freedom from Egyptian hegemony as the Third Intermediate Period began, and thus, “it is not necessary to set the exodus in Egypt at all” (51), as other scholars posit, the social force of the Exodus story, insofar as it contributes to “the creation of a national ethos” (119), cannot be overstated, and has a history of its own.

Of a trifling number of quibbles, this reviewer finds only one other worth addressing. Matthews states: “[w]hile better articulated in legal statements (Exod 22:21-27; Deut 24:12-15, 17) and in wisdom literature (Prov 14:31; 19:17), concern for the powerless and the poor in society has its precedents in the ancestral narratives as well” (47). This assessment overlooks the most important sapiential passage relating to the matter—Psalm 82—wherein YHWH sets a precedent for these values while castigating the other assembled deities. This is surely a mythological or religious concern rather than an historical one, and, as such, suggests a still-important distinction between general history and religious studies. For the religious historian, then, as a companion to other works focusing more on mythology, theology, and cultic practices, The History of Bronze and Iron Age Israel is highly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Belcheff is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Victor H. Matthews is Professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State University.

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