A Biblical History of Israel

Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman III Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville September 30, 2003
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There are only so many possible permutations on a title for a work on Israel’s history, each of which bears a different nuance (e.g., Bright’s A History of Israel, and Noth’s The History of Israel, with the definite article). The title of the present work says much about its approach, more perhaps than meets the eye. One could, for example, title it A History of Biblical History, meaning a history of Israel as documented in the Old Testament, but by placing the adjective “biblical” before “history” (as here) there is already a subtle polemic against the idea that Israel’s history can be written from any perspective and in any manner one wishes. This is a “biblical history” precisely because it takes the Bible on its own terms and refuses to permit postmodern or other faddish agendas to establish the platform for discussion.

In a certain sense, however, this is not primarily a history of Israel at all but a probing analysis of modern attempts at writing such a work. It is concerned to set forth the philosophical, methodological, and even theological premises that inform the task of recovering Israel’s history from both the biblical data and those of the surrounding ancient Near Eastern world. In other words it is devoted to questions of philosophy of history and the employment of sound principles of historiography so that the Old Testament, like any other ancient set of sources, might be viewed objectively and allowed to speak its own unmuffled testimony.

Conceding to the anticipation that the reader will want to know who wrote what, the authors divulge that Provain is responsible for most of the prolegomenal and methodological parts (except for Long’s chapter on narrative and history) and all three share in the writing of the history of Israel proper. Each writes with obvious competence and with clear familiarity with the thorny issues that attend the study of Israel’s history in the present day. They address these issues head on, and though they do so in an irenic spirit it is evident that they have little patience with scholarship based on hypothesis and imagination to the exclusion of the biblical text itself as a reliable (and virtually the only) literary witness to Israel’s past, especially in the premonarchial period. Were they to leave the matter at that, the authors have provided an apologetic tool that has long been lacking in conservative history-of-Israel scholarship and one that should regularly be consulted by students interested in the Old Testament as a record of Israel’s history.

Having said this, it might appear quibbling to single out matters of method and conclusion that may be problematic to some, but in the interest of caution and possible reconsideration a few of these will be noted. In recent evangelical scholarship it has become fashionable to raise questions about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Longman, while conceding there are “no good reasons … to reject this tradition,” says that, at the same time, the most that can be gained from the Bible itself is that “some of the material in the Torah extends back at least to the time of Moses,” a statement that seems almost self-contradictory (p. 328 n. 11). As for the date of the Exodus—certainly no test for orthodoxy—Longman seems to favor the late (thirteenth century) date proposed by Kenneth Kitchen and others but ignores the problems associated with it such as the reference to the pharaoh whose death after a forty-year reign or longer was necessary to Moses’ return to Egypt to lead his people out (pp. 131–32; see Exod. 2:23; 4:19; 2:15).

Long’s proposal of a twenty-year reign for Saul (pp. 199–200; 335 n. 10) flies in the face of clear New Testament evidence (Acts 13:21) and fails to accommodate Ish-bosheth’s age of forty at the time of his brief accession to Israel’s throne even though he was born after Saul became king (2 Sam. 2:10; cf. 1 Sam. 14:49).  The difficulties with Old Testament numbers are notorious, especially with forty and its multiples, but the “artificiality” of such numbers must be proved and not merely asserted. This is true of the chronologies of the divided monarchy as well. Provan takes Edwin Thiele to task for attempting to arrive at too much precision in such matters, arguing that Thiele and other scholars go wrong at times “from a belief that the chronological schema provides or ought to provide more numerical precision than in fact is the case” (p. 362 n. 20). Such a view seems strangely at odds with the thesis of this book in general, namely, that the biblical data ought to be given the benefit of the doubt unless and until there are insuperable arguments to the contrary.

Such examples cannot diminish the overall importance of this work. This reviewer has learned much from it and commends it highly to those who are committed to or open to the idea that the Bible speaks truth even when its subject is Israel’s history.

—Eugene H. Merrill

July 1, 2005
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2005 vol. 162 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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