A BIBLICAL HISTORY OF ISRAEL, by Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III

Published on February 24, 2016 by Todd Scacewater

Westminster John Knox, 2015 | 548 pages

Reviewed by James Adcock

Iain William Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III have contributed in a second edition (2015) to a very helpful resource for students of the Bible who wish to interact with mainstream, secular scholarship concerning the historicity of biblical Israel. Iain Provan, a British scholar, currently lectures at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. There he serves as the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies. Provan holds degrees from the University of Glasgow, London Bible College, and the University of Cambridge. Phil Long (V. Philips Long), likewise, is part of the teaching faculty at Regent College. He has received education from Wheaton University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and his doctorate from the University of Cambridge. Tremper Longman holds degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Yale University. He currently teaches at Westmont College, located in Santa Barbara, California.

The second edition of 2015 differs little from the first edition of 2003, generally speaking. One finds minor revisions and various updated information appraised since the prior printing, such as, most especially, that of the excellent appendix (Pages 413-441). The small changes to the book serve to clarify its arguments and omit discussions that interrupt the flow of thought. Thus, one finds some chapters which have been arranged differently under various new section headings. Moreover, there are also some new sections added with substantially original material, such as chapter 3’s “Does the Old Testament Mean to Speak about the Past?” (62-64), and chapter 4’s “‘Historiography,’ ‘Cultural Memory,’ or Both?” (118-124), as well as other brand-new subdivisions. Geographical and political maps have been added (XIX-XXV), mostly from the Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible. Furthermore, the latest archaeological evidence pertinent to the text’s discussions has been provided by means of much textual references and bibliographic information.

Provan, Long, and Longman each give substantial chapters to methodological and hermeneutical issues of interpreting the history presented in the biblical text. The structure of the book favors, or gives prominent emphasis to historiography and the philosophical questions raised by scholars when attempting to define biblical history. Thus, one notes that nearly half of the book is given to “Part 1: History, Historiography, and the Bible” (pages 3-152). Only the second half of the book, “A History of Israel from Abraham to the Persian Period” (155-411) actually gives a reconstruction of the history of Israel proper, although material in these chapters also discusses tangential issues surrounding the interpretation of the biblical narrative. Provan, Long, and Longman all divided the writing task amongst themselves, with the majority of the chapters (1-3, 5, and 9-10) being Provan’s, chapters 4 and 7-8 being Long’s, and chapters 6 and 11 being primarily Longman’s.

The first chapter reads simply as a response to Keith Whitelam’s pronouncement of the death of “biblical history” and other literature of similar influence or sentiment. Chapters two and three predominantly criticize the governing assumptions of scholars skeptical of deriving much history in scriptural narratives. These two chapters present a justification for a “biblical” epistemology when interpreting historical accounts in the Old Testament. Provan’s first three chapters, thus, address contemporary challenges to biblical historiography and its validity for historical reconstruction of the past. Shunning the subjectivism and agnosticism of such scholars as that of T. L. Thompson, Provan claims: “All knowledge of the past is in fact more accurately described as faith in the interpretations of the past offered by others, through which we make these interpretations (in part or as a whole) our own” (page 57). To sum up Provan’s first three chapters succinctly, he writes: “We do not require ‘positive ground’ for taking the biblical testimony about Israel’s past seriously. We require positive grounds, rather, for not doing so” (99).

Chapter four’s “Narrative and History: Stories about the Past” attempts to “explore further and more positively just how the Bible testifies to the past – how it reflects history” (102). Long compares other narrative histories with the biblical accounts and notices that scholars are giving more credence to history written in narrative form. Chapter five’s “A Biblical History of Israel,” written by Provan primarily, gives six guidelines for the volume’s notion of biblical Israel’s history. These points are paraphrased as the following: 1) The history will be biblical or based on the Bible. 2) The history will be about Israel. 3.) Primary sources will be taken seriously. 4.) Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the biblical history will be taken seriously. 5.) Archaeology will be incorporated where helpful in writing the history. 6.) Anthropology and sociology will also be incorporated (135-142).

Chapter six’s “Before the Land,” written by Longman, recounts the history of the Patriarchs until the time of Moses in Egypt. Chapter 7, “The Settlement in the Land,” written also by Longman, walks through the Exodus, the Conquest, and period of the Judges until King Saul. Long’s chapter eight, “The Early Monarchy,” defends the essential historicity of both Saul and David as actual kings. Provan’s chapter nine, “The Later Monarchy: Solomon,” gives a general overview of the life and times of Solomon. He also discusses the chronology of the Israelite kings as established essentially by Edwin Thiele. Provan’s chapter ten, “The Later Monarchy: The Divided Kingdoms,” discusses the history of Israel and Judah from the time of Rehoboam and Jeroboam until the time of the conquest of Jerusalem and exile of Judah to Babylon. Finally, Longman has chapter eleven, “Exile and After,” to cover the time after the fall of Jerusalem and subsequent exile. Thus, chapter 11 discusses the Persian period up to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The appendix, entitled “In Praise of Critical Thought: A Response to Our Critics” (413-441), provides an updated response to scholarly interaction with the first edition, and also justifies the purchase of the second edition in contrast to the original print. This section begins with a discussion of the nature of criticism, which the first edition received much of, and argues that many scholars ignored the book’s essential arguments. Thus, the appendix complains of colleagues who misuse labels when describing the first edition’s contents. Various sections address specific debates initiated by certain scholars, such as Niels Peter Lemche (414-17), Lester Grabbe (418-21), John Collins (422-24), etc. The appendix ends with a section entitled “An Unhealthy State of Affairs” (439-41). In this part, the authors plead with other scholars to adopt several resolutions or methodological objectives for a future scholarship on the biblical history of Israel (440-41).

In summary, A Biblical History of Israel satisfies a needed niche for students and scholars who wish to read a scholarly defense of the viability or feasibility of taking the biblical evidence for ancient Israel at face value. Thus, Provan, Long, and Longman defend the philosophical and epistemological assumptions necessary for taking the biblical literature as reflecting genuine, historical information. This reviewer found little to quibble about in the book’s contents that would present issues with the intended audience of university and seminary students. However, there is not an annotated bibliography at the end of the book, nor at the end of each chapter, which would provide a welcome tool for the reader. Instead, one finds the “Index of Scholars Cited” (452-71) and the “Index of Select Topics” (472-86), which both require one then to look up the pages referenced for the bibliographical information needed. Unlike the first edition of 2003, there are welcome footnotes at the bottom of each page of the second edition, instead of being placed in the back matter. There is also the useful “Index of Biblical Passages” (443-51) to help guide readers. This reviewer particularly enjoyed the appendix (413-441) and the book in general for accomplishing the argumentation in the manner of its stated goals (135-52 and 440-441), while not being too technical in the process. I highly recommend this volume for an academic, evangelical audience.
James “Seth” Adcock has a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Textual Criticism from the University of St. Andrews.

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A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd ed.

Westminster John Knox, 2015 | 548 pages

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