The History of Ancient Israel

A Guide for the Perplexed

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Philip R. Davies
Guides for the Perplexed
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , October
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over the past few centuries, as scholarly fields have developed increasingly sophisticated methods and means of researching humankind and its history, many pre-existing notions about the past have been subject to questioning, reinvestigation, and scientific inquiry. Perhaps one of the most challenging of these areas is the history of ancient Israel and, of course, its relation to the stories, figures, and events narrated in the Hebrew Bible. The contributions of the humanities and social sciences—particularly the field of archaeology—to our understanding of the history of ancient Israel has left the modern reader with a plurarlity of possible Israels from which to choose. The question left unanswered for those who dare tread into the topic of Israel’s ancient history is which version of that history is most correct, and what is the evidence for this?

As part of Bloomsbury’s Guides for the Perplexed series, the goal of Philip R. Davies’s History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed is to help the reader make sense of the topic at hand by clearly and concisely introducing the issues, themes, and ideas that may complicate one’s understanding. Davies makes the case that such complication lies in the fact that “literary and archaeological and sociological narratives of the past . . . have each a different character, ask different questions and produce different kinds of stories about the past” (139). This observation explains not only the extreme range of answers to the question of ancient Israel’s history, but it also explains why understanding ancient Israel is a difficult task, even for the expert.

Davies begins History of Ancient Israel with a discussion of the terms “history” and “historiography” throughout which he focuses on the ideological gap between modern definitions of history and what ancient authors were actually doing when they recorded events. From here, Davies continues with a discussion of the plurality of Israels portrayed in biblical literature itself, as well as in scholarship. This acts as a segue into a discussion of the contributions of the social sciences toward a renewed understanding of the history of ancient Israel. Davies then concludes with a few suggestions for further inquiry before offering a bibliographic review. In the conclusion, Davies clarifies and discloses that his own position is that of a “minimalist,” meaning that his default perspective is that “unless we have evidence other than a biblical story, we cannot accept any claim for historicity, because in themselves, the narratives do not prove anything about their content” (141).

The strength of History of Ancient Israel is in the sheer breadth and depth of Davies’s knowledge on the topic: he moves seamlessly from discussion-to-discussion, from text-to-text, and issue-to-issue. If the reader is not familiar with Davies’s previous work on the topic, his position as a senior scholar with a decades-long specialization in the history of ancient Israel soon becomes apparent. Davies is a natural choice for an author of such a volume, and he certainly brings his years of expertise to this Guide for the Perplexed.

However, the breadth and depth of knowledge that Davies brings to this volume are hampered by its overall lack of structure, the absence of complete citation, and poor copyediting. While the chapter headings provide a sensible framework for History of Ancient Israel, the content of each chapter meanders, with only the occasional parenthetical and generic citation (e.g., “Cline, 2009”), and without a clear thesis or set of arguments (until perhaps page 139). This results in repetition (e.g., 67-68 and 109-110), numerous grand-yet-unsubstantiated claims, questions posed and then not answered, and a general uncertainty as to how History of Ancient Israel may be used to guide the perplexed. Davies assumes a readership with a high level of familiarity with the Hebrew Bible, and the history of ancient Israel and Judah, as he moves quickly from one biblical citation, figure, century, or geographic area to another. The readers’ comprehension is also affected by numerous errors in copyediting, which force the reader to pause and reread regularly.

History of Ancient Israel is less a Guide for the Perplexed, and more a loosely arranged summary of the ideas that inform Davies’s minimalist position—aimed at those already initiated into the field of biblical studies. With Davies’s decades of expertise on the subject of the history of ancient Israel, this guide is capable of achieving a higher level of clarity and utility than it does. A second edition with a strong, clear framework, and a more general audience in mind, would be a highly welcomed addition to any biblical studies collection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy L. Balogh is Program Manager and Lecturer at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip R. Davies is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, UK. 



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