Studying the Ancient Israelites

A Guide to Sources and Methods


By Victor H. Matthews

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007, 240 pp.

Reviewed by Robin Gallaher Branch

In Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Victor H. Matthews presents a well-documented, thoughtful approach to the world and peoples of the Old Testament. Readers will find here a helpful educational tool that provides background material in a scholarly, engaging and concise manner. Benefiting the layperson, professor and student alike, the Guide presents the sources and methods needed for understanding the worldview and evolving circumstances of peoples portrayed in the Old Testament. Consistent with its even-handed approach, the Guide also provides a summary of both earlier and current Biblical scholarship.

Matthews, a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, is the author of Old Testament Turning Points (Baker) and A Brief History of Ancient Israel (Westminster/John Knox). This new work will help professors lay a coherent groundwork for Old Testament study, and many will find it a useful tool in augmenting their lecture material. Indeed, the Guide is a handy, up-to-date resource for professors in preparing those crucial introductory lectures on the Old Testament. For their part, students will find that the Guide helps to both refine and direct their imaginations as they study the Biblical text. For these reasons, Matthews’ book is also an excellent resource for the casual reader looking for tools with which to approach the Bible. Contributing to the user-friendly format is the organization of the text; Matthews allocates the book’s five chapters to Historical Geography, Archaeology, Literary Approaches, Social Sciences, and History and Historiography.

Mindful of the need to acknowledge a broad scope of Biblical scholarship, the Guide’s references section contains a selection of standard authors and their seminal works. These include Yohanan Aharoni, Brevard S. Childs, James Pritchard, Kyle P. McCarter, Jr., John Van Seters, Norman Gottwald and David Ussishkin. Newer works from authors such as Louis Jonker, Carol Newsom, Carol L. Meyers, Gale A. Yee, Lester L. Grabbe, and Emanuel Tov are also included, in addition to 15 of Matthews’ own works and co-authored works. Given the potent combination of authors and scholarship represented in this volume, the Guide could supplement a hermeneutics class as well as support a text that introduces the Old Testament book by book.

Throughout the Guide, Matthews seeks to be objective and consequently makes few if any references to faith. Letting the text speak for itself, he instead explores passages that hint at value judgments. For instance, he looks in depth at Absalom’s Revolt (2 Samuel 15-17) and finds not only that places carry historical memory, but also that “geography becomes particularly important to the plot of the story.”

The story itself has fascinated generations. Absalom, scheming for his father David’s throne, uses Hebron as a rallying point for his forces and his march to Jerusalem. Hebron’s importance, Matthews asserts, goes back to Abraham and Sarah, for it contains the ancestral burial cave at Machpelah (Genesis 23; 25:10). Indeed, David himself governed from Hebron for seven years (2 Samuel 2:1-11). In a masterful move Absalom was able to position himself as David’s successor by using a site connected with covenantal significance and family heritage.

The continuation of the story sees David fleeing from Absalom by crossing the Jordan and journeying to Mahanaim. Matthews asks why Mahanaim would be David’s ultimate destination when he notes that Mahanaim occupies a strategic position along the primary north-south routes, and is also close to the Ammonites, David’s allies at the time. Mahanaim also figures prominently in the Book of Genesis as the site where Jacob and his brother Esau are reconciled, and Jacob gains free title to covenant lands (Genesis 33:1-7). Furthermore, Mahanaim is a Levitical city (Joshua 21:38) and, as Matthews notes, “David has a previous history of seeking out Levitical support.”

For this reviewer, the most interesting and lively portion of the Guide is the chapter on historical geography, and its success is largely due to visual and layout techniques that help to focus the reader’s attention quickly. In this chapter, through the use of separate text and graphic boxes, Matthews tries to think like an Israelite and exhorts his readers to do the same. For example, via a box listing Israel’s major cities—Shechem, Shiloh, Bethel, Jericho, and Hebron—he provides a connecting link among them: their distance from Jerusalem. In another diagram, he orients both Bethel of Israel and Jerusalem of Judah with respect to their neighbors to the west (Tyre, Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza) and to the east (Damascus, Ammon, Moab, and Edom). This diagram helps a reader “see” the neighborhood and perhaps visualize the importance, both past and present, of a country’s defenses.

In his archaeology chapter, Matthews uses similar techniques to promote even-handedness in archaeological interpretation. Using material adapted from an essay by Thomas W. Davis, Matthews presents a box that visually balances archaeology’s strong and weak points and notes that archaeological findings “may not accord with what we consider to be logical and may require continual reinterpretation.” He goes on to add that while it is inappropriate to force the Biblical narrative to conform to an archaeological model, it is equally improper to limit archaeological information so that it is forced to conform to the Biblical narrative.

In the chapter on social sciences, Matthews cautions the reader to consider context when using modern tools to shed light on the emotional, intellectual, cultural and political world of the Old Testament. He draws attention to certain sociological and anthropological terminologies and notes that these terms may have a different meaning to the modern reader than they did to the people of Biblical times. For example, concepts such as honor and shame could be applied not only to individuals but to entire households, while the concept of kinship involved not only immediate familial relationships but also political and economic alliances.

Matthews also notes that the Old Testament was not written in a socio-economic, environmental or political vacuum. Many factors, such as geography, environment, rainfall, existing literature, warfare and famine all served to influence the authors of the Biblical text. The stories contained in Biblical narrative were written by specific people who lived within specific periods and who quite likely had specific agendas—or at least their editors did!

Matthews advises readers to be aware that the Biblical text in its present form in all likelihood went through rounds of editing, and he argues that much of this editing was done in order to serve the needs of the faith community. The faith community, in turn, incorporated these narratives as part of their religious rituals and used them in the creation of the community’s identity. Rather than presenting an obstacle to the study of these Biblical narratives, Matthews observes that all “this editorial activity adds to the layers of the text” and offers a cultural foundation that can be explored.

The history and historiography chapter demonstrates how the Israelites participated in the world community of their day. Matthews discusses seals, administration documents at Mari (and, alas, the lack of a similar finding of Israelite documents!), as well as relief panels at Nineveh depicting Judahite refugees. He compares Sennacherib’s annals of a campaign against King Hezekiah to the Biblical account and concludes that the Assyrians exaggerated (2 Kings 18).

Matthews describes how archaeology has contributed to our knowledge of Omri, the father of Ahab and founder of a significant Northern Kingdom dynasty. Using 1 Kings 16 as an example, Matthews points out that when Omri purchased the estate of Shemer and founded Samaria, oil and wine proved influential. Omri’s economic alliances helped create a united front against shared enemies.

The Guide’s style and layout significantly contribute to its accessibility. Matthews writes in short, clear sentences, primarily in the active voice. The book contains diagrams, headings in bold-face type, graphs, black and white photos, and shaded boxes; all these aids are student-friendly and help make finding references easy. The layout is clear; the font size is good for reading, and ample margins (good for notes and observations) grace each page.

Matthews’ systematic provision of scholarly methodologies and definitions adds to the book’s value as a teaching text. An axiom in Biblical scholarship is that the methodology certainly influences, and may even determine, the outcome of a person’s study. Matthews addresses this by delineating the major critical approaches to the examination of Biblical texts.

In addition to an ordered presentation of current methodologies in Biblical studies, Matthews takes care to provide definitions for the neophyte in Biblical studies. When discussing the roles of various types of critics in Biblical scholarship, he defines each clearly. He defines, for example, a text critic as one who carefully examines surviving manuscripts and textual fragments. Literary critics are those who comment on the literary and historical aspects of the text. Source critics see, hear, and study various voices in the text; they see the name of God and cultural and geographic aspects of the text as important. Social-scientific criticism seeks to explain the Biblical narrative’s social dimensions, such as the effect of Absalom’s revolt against his father David. Feminist criticism, Matthews continues, identifies the forces in society that suppress a woman’s ability to participate fully in Israelite society; he also points out that feminist criticism examines the impact of women such as Abigail (1 Samuel 25), whose voices offer wise counsel over the foolish responses of men.

Matthews calls his volume “a sort of hybrid.” He strives to focus on Biblical and ancient Near Eastern sources as well as the anthropological, geographic, historical, literary and sociological methods that will make a study of the ancient Israelites more complete. In this, Matthews successfully achieves his purpose. He is able to offer his readers tools that enable them to evaluate the Biblical text so that students, readers and scholars alike can “draw their own educated conclusions about a world that has vanished and yet lives on in its sources and in the echoes that it has produced in our own world.”

Robin Gallaher Branch is Professor of Biblical Studies at Crichton College in Memphis, Tennessee.


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