A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Anthony Lipscomb
The Bible took shape millennia ago in the ancient Middle East, but for many readers of the Bible this fact—let alone its implications for interpretation—goes unrecognized. Many other readers are well-aware of the Bible’s antiquity but lack access to information about the Bible’s ancient contexts and often would not know where to begin even if they did. Fortunately, this picture is changing. More than ever, scholars are producing resources with the express purpose of communicating the ancient world of the Bible to a broad readership.
The recently edited volume, Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, is one such resource that offers a helpful starting point for learning about the ancient world of the Bible. Behind the Scenes covers six fields of contextual study: geography, archaeology, literature, iconography, history, and culture (in this order). The volume is designed as a classroom supplement to the usual resources one would utilize for an introductory Old Testament/Hebrew Bible course. With sixty-six brief chapters, Behind the Scenes introduces the reader to the history of scholarship and the current state of each represented field.
Structure of the Volume
The metaphor of theater organizes the sixty-six chapters into three parts, each part comprising multiple sections, each section containing at least three chapters. The theater metaphor also implies a helpful way to conceive of the relationships of each field of contextual study to each other and to the biblical text.
Part One: Elements of the Drama
Historical Geography (“I. The Stage”), Archaeology (“II. The Sets and Props”), Literature (“III. The Scripts”), and Iconography (“IV. The Frames”) constitute the four sections of Part One. Unique to Part One, each section opens with an introductory chapter that lays the theoretical and methodological groundwork for the accompanying chapters while also outlining the relevant history of scholarship.
For historical geography, readers will learn about the natural environs of the Middle East and its relationship to biblical history. As for archaeology—one of the most important resources for the historical reconstruction of life and events of the biblical period, five chapters cover six historical periods that span biblical history (Late Bronze Age, Iron I, Iron II, Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods, and the Hellenistic Period). Each chapter, to varying degrees, touches on the relevant debates surrounding the interpretation of archaeological data in relation to the Bible. The reader will benefit from the explanations of archaeological method, will come to understand better the challenges that attend biblical (or Syro-Palestinian) archaeology, and will encounter major contributors to the field.
The section on ancient Middle Eastern literature, arguably the most illuminating resource for understanding the ideologies of the biblical world, introduces readers to the impressive writings and writing cultures of the ancient Middle East. The chapters cover Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Early Jewish literature, as well as Northwest Semitic and ancient Hebrew inscriptions. Generally, each chapter describes known genres and introduces and summarizes texts that have significant touchpoints with biblical literature. Extra-biblical texts with the most direct bearing on the Bible are discussed in detail in Part Two.
Three chapters on iconography detail images (e.g. wall reliefs, drawings, seal impressions, figurines) known from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel-Palestine that help scholars reconstruct the life and ideologies of the biblical world. Curiously, a chapter on Syrian-Anatolian iconography is not included.
Part Two: Acts and Scenes of the Drama
The first section (“V. Acts”) draws upon the fields of study addressed in Part One to contextualize broad periods of biblical history. Questions of the historicity, or at least the historical plausibility of narrated events in a given period, are certainly discussed, especially for the periods before the divided monarchy of Israel-Judah (i.e., Ancestral Period, Egyptian Sojourn and the Exodus, Settlement Period, and the United Monarchy). But other concerns, such as politics, economics, and social structures, are also outlined.
The second section (“VI. Scenes”) looks at specific Bible-related events and people that either appear in or are informed by extra-biblical sources. For example, K. Lawson Younger Jr. discusses the Tel Dan Inscription, a 9th-century BC Aramaic royal inscription, which contains the only explicit extra-biblical attestation of the Davidic dynasty (bēt dawid), and which also names the kings “Joram son of Ahab” and “Ahaziah of Judah.” “Scenic” chapters like Younger’s, which are attentive to the many interpretive challenges and possibilities posed by ancient sources, demonstrate for the non-specialist the scrutiny that should attend efforts to integrate extra-biblical data with readings of the biblical text.
Part Three: Themes of the Drama
Part Three deals with four major cultural themes of the biblical world: Religion (“VII. God”), Family (“VIII. Family”), Economics (“IX. Sustenance”), and Social Organization (“X. Governance”). The chapters that deal with these themes exhibit a mixture of sociological, historical, and ideological analyses of specific aspects of a given theme, depending on the nature of the available sources. At times, archaeological data serves as the best objective source for reconstructing life in the ancient world, as in the case of Gloria London’s chapter on “Ancient Technologies of Everyday Life.” In contrast, Paul Overland’s chapter on “Wisdom Traditions in Ancient Israel” relies heavily on Mesopotamian and (to a lesser extent) Egyptian textual sources for describing the culture of ancient scribes and sages. But there are cases where a combination of archaeological and textual data can and should be consulted, as in the case of Carol Meyers’ chapter on “Women in Ancient Israel.”
Considering the limitations of a single volume, these four broad themes incorporate a tremendous amount of relevant discussion. So, for example, the theme of God/Religion includes chapters on comparative method, monotheism, temple, priests, worship and sacrifice, prophecy and divination, family religion, and death and burial rites. The theme of Family explores the nature of tribes and nomads in the Iron Age, women in ancient Israel, and family and inheritance in the biblical world. The section on Sustenance/Economics includes chapters on agriculture, commerce, slavery, local economies, metallurgy, technologies, food preparation, feasting, and music and dance. And finally, the theme of Governance/Social Organization takes interest in kingship and the state, social stratification, law, wisdom traditions, and warfare.
The individual chapters keep footnotes to a minimum and prefer brief in-line citation of important scholarly publications. For cited sources, the reader can consult the cumulative “Reference List” located in the back, where Scripture, ancient text, and modern author indices are also located.
The editors, Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton, have assembled an outstanding team of international scholars. While the editors and several of the contributing authors are evangelical, the project includes experts of various confessional and non-confessional affiliation. Depending on the scholar, some chapters give the sense of a more positivistic view of the historicity of the Bible, others less so, and some scholars exhibit greater comfort with historical-critical theories than others. The editors perceive this diversity of scholarly representation as a pedagogical value: “serving diverse readers in different settings and allowing instructors the opportunity to identify, discuss, and evaluate these different perspectives… Indeed, these men and women represent some of the best scholars currently working on many of these topics, and we are honored to include their contributions in this work” (xviii). This diversity is a value, but evangelical readers, and especially students, will want to be aware of the authors’ diverse views of Scripture.
Behind the Scenes is a welcome starting point for anyone wanting to begin learning about the ancient world of the Bible. Its accessible language, brief chapters, and intriguing topics make the learning experience manageable, even for self-study, while also conveying the reality that productive study of the Bible’s ancient contexts is not a simple matter.
Anthony Lipscomb is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East at Brandeis University.
Buy the books
BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT: CULTURAL, SOCIAL, AND HISTORICAL CONTEXTS, by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton, eds.