Ancient Israel

What Do We Know and How Do We Knot It? : Revised Ed.

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Lester L. Grabbe
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anyone who has pondered the Bible’s history and historicity knows that there is no shortage of opinions on these matters. Indeed, one of the most difficult and pressing aspects of biblical scholarship, both in research and teaching, is the ability to know what the Hebrew Bible is, how it came to be, and how it relates to ancient Israel and history more broadly. Opinions on these topics are almost as plentiful as the scholars who consider them. Thankfully, Lester L. Grabbe’s book Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It provides a starting place for dealing with all of these difficulties in one volume. By collecting, analyzing, and synthesizing the many sources for a history of ancient Israel, Grabbe offers both the scholar and the student a one-stop reference point for engaging not only the history of ancient Israel but the historiography of biblical studies as well. 

Ancient Israel was released as a revised edition in 2017. The revised edition of the book contains several updates and expansions. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 have been updated in relation to Egypt, the beginnings of Israel, and Israelite and Judahite kings. Grabbe suggests that the reason for these changes, a decade after the publication of the first edition in 2007, is due to the rapidly changing landscape of the study of ancient Israel. Readers who are familiar with the first edition of the book will note the raison d’etre for the volume has not changed. Grabbe describes it as a “prolegomena” for a history of Israel, not a history in and of itself (3). He succeeds in this and deserves commendation for accomplishing a difficult task. The book aims to provide scholars, students, and non-specialists with primary sources for understanding the history of ancient Israel in a clear and accessible way. One of the enduring qualities of this book is Grabbe’s sharp attention to methodological detail, vigilant interaction with social methods, and his own meticulous historiographical work. As a result, readers are left with a book that compiles information as objectively as possible and outlines all the evidence for what scholars know of ancient Israel. This structure allows the reader to make their own decisions while still providing scholarly guidance and synthesis of materials. 

Grabbe’s book provides the scholar and teacher with a useful resource for understanding not only the primary sources for the history of ancient Israel, but the major issues and debates facing contemporary scholarship. All of this is presented in a highly organized and accessible volume complete with an enormous bibliography (seventy pages) and a helpful index to biblical and non-biblical texts and inscriptions. Each chapter addresses a particular period within the time frame from the Early Bronze Age (2000 BCE) to the Iron IIC (539 BCE). For example, chapter 4 focuses on the Iron Age from 900–720 BCE. Grabbe organizes each chapter by moving from the important sources of scholars’ knowledge, including biblical and non-biblical data, to an analysis of biblical material in light of archaeological data, and finally to a synthesis of the biblical and archaeological data. While reading, one can ascertain Grabbe’s own perspectives on particular topics, such as his preference for dating certain texts to later periods (e.g., 98), but never does this tendency cloud the overall discussion. His treatment of differing perspectives is noteworthy, as are the revised first and third chapters. 

Since the second edition is a revision of the 2007 publication, I will limit my observations to one of the most important revised sections in chapter 3, entitled “Late Bronze to Iron IIA (CA. 1300–900 BCE): From Settlement to Statehood.” In the revised edition, chapter 3 is eighty-nine pages long, some thirty pages longer than the chapter’s original instantiation. Throughout these sections, Grabbe gives more discussion to the biblical materials than he did in the first edition and expands the references throughout, especially in his discussion of settlement theories (120–30). This chapter is an enormously useful resource because of the expansions and Grabbe’s overview of the major positions. 

Finally, it would be ill-advised not to remark on Grabbe’s considerations of historical method for studying ancient Israel. Grabbe’s careful methodological reflection serves him well in providing a starting place for a history of ancient Israel, and it is clearly reflected throughout the work. His conclusions on whether and how to embark on the study of ancient Israel are helpful reminders for any student of the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, his own methodology and moderated conclusions allow him to find the middle ground in the so-called “maximalist-minimalist” debates. For instance, in reference to whether or not the “united monarchy” ever existed, Grabbe asserts that a proper answer is not the goal of Ancient Israel, but that a “partial answer” may be found: “not as the Bible pictures it” (158). Grabbe’s middle-way is most welcome since, as he puts it, “most scholars do not pitch their tents at the extreme ends” of the maximalist-minimalist debate (264). This does not mean that he takes the Bible to be a primary historical document, but rather that he takes seriously its usefulness as a secondary source because of its history as a document written, compiled, and edited over a long period of time (268). 

Ancient Israel is an indispensable tool for anyone teaching a course on ancient Israel and its environs or the Hebrew Bible. While it may be a bit dense and at times difficult to read for the undergraduate, selections from several chapters would make for excellent required readings on topics common in undergraduate introductory courses (for instance, Grabbe’s introductory chapter outlining the principles and methods of historiography or his analysis of Egyptian sources as well as his discussion of the “settlement” of Canaan in section 3.2). Moreover, no instructor, perhaps not even the seasoned biblical scholar, should embark on an introductory course to the Hebrew Bible or ancient Israel without this volume on their desk. Grabbe’s book provides an accessible overview of various perspectives in the field and the evidence upon which these perspectives are based. This volume could also function as a quick reference handbook to topics in the study of ancient Israel. In addition to instructors and scholars, Ancient Israel would make for an excellent sourcebook to accompany any of the standard graduate level introductions to the study of the Hebrew Bible.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brady Beard is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Divison of Religion at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lester L. Grabbe is professor emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism at the University of Hull. He is founder and convenor of the European Seminar in Historical Methodology.


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