Reviewed by Anna C. Rask
Victor H. Matthews received his Doctorate of Philosophy from Brandeis University. He is currently dean of the College of Humanities and Public Affairs and professor of religious studies at Missouri State University. Along with the Cultural World of the Bible, Matthews has authored numerous books including The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World and Studying the Ancient Israelites.
This is the fourth edition of The Cultural World of the Bible, the first of which was published in 1988. Matthews comments that his motivation to publish subsequent editions was due to his awareness that not only he, but also the field of biblical studies, had evolved and still continues to evolve. Additionally, much has been learned from interpretative differences, advanced archeological studies, and there has been heightened precision in the reading of ancient texts due to the production of image-based, digital editions. These factors prompted a need for updated editions. Matthews remarks that a book which details the social world of ancient Israel is still very much needed in today’s scholarship; readers of the Bible need to learn and know the world behind the text and the context in which it was written in order to accurately interpret it.
The layout of the book is well-organized and not distracting, allowing for easy use. The book is outlined chronologically. There are five chapters which chronicle major periods of the biblical history of Israel, namely, the Ancestral Period, Exodus-Settlement Period, Monarchic Period, Exile and Return, and finally the Intertestamental and New Testament Periods. Each of these chapters discusses major topics which are listed in the table of contents under the chapter headings thus allowing the reader to more quickly find specific material. These major topics are then repeated in an outline at the beginning of each chapter which corresponds with the subsequent chapter’s headings. Matthews’ broad range of topics covered is particularly impressive. In each chapter there are selected topics which first introduce the historical and physical settings of the specific time period and outline the basic elements of the social world. Next, there are several other topics which pertain to the specific social customs of the particular time period, including: physical appearance, herding, agriculture, diet, economics, health, cities, law, weapons and warfare, social life, family, marriage, and religion.
This new fourth edition retains the best of the previous editions such as the historical summaries at the end of each chapter and discussions of everyday life, but it has been expanded with new pedagogical features. One major feature is that at the end of each chapter there are a series of discussion questions. It becomes clear as one reads the book that Matthews does not want this book to be read in isolation, but rather to be a source of group learning. He hopes these questions will bring the ancient people to life as readers bring new ideas and perspectives. Examples of questions include: “Why is the story of the exodus so important to the identity of the ancient Israelites?” “In what ways are laws and forms of justice a reflection of the culture that develops them?” “Is there a separation between health care and religious belief in the New Testament period?”
Another feature is that within each chapter there are bolded terms which are then defined in a glossary at the end of the book. For example, words such as anachronism, carbon 14, Diaspora, Mishnah, and theodicy are defined. There are also several sidebars which provide additional information about the social world of the Bible, list further insights from other ancient Near Eastern cultures, and give further information about the extrabiblical texts which are cited and referenced. For example, sidebars include excerpts from the Archives royales de Mari, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relation to the Old Testament, and another one of Matthews’ books Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Other topics addressed include: the Protocol of Hospitality, Rhetoric of Warfare, Sacred Architecture, Music, Dance, and Celebration, and Desecrating a Sacred Space. A major strength of this book is that it interacts with sources beyond the Bible ranging from ancient to modern.
The subtitle of The Cultural World of the Bible is An Illustrated Guide to Manners and Customs, thus throughout the book there are well-placed full color photos corresponding with the topics being discussed. Examples of such photos include: pictures of steles, paintings, landscapes, aerial views, reconstructions, figurines and statuettes, houses and structures, weapons, cities, altars, inscriptions, panels, and coins.
With the features listed above, Matthews argues that this book is not primarily a reference work, rather due to its revised and expanded nature it can be used as a textbook or could be supplemented with other resources. Matthews does not intend this book to be all-encompassing or exhaustive. He states that he has been particularly intentional about including as much relevant comparative evidence from other ancient Near Eastern cultures as possible so as to show that ancient Israel did not exist in isolation in a social vacuum.
Matthews applauds peoples’ efforts to read the Bible so as to have some of their questions answered, but he cautions that simply reading the biblical text is not enough, rather, one must dig deeper. He argues that the first step in studying a place and its people is to start with their physical and social environment; this is what he seeks to do in this book. The book is designed to help readers more effectively read the Bible while keeping the social world of ancient Israel in mind. Matthews strives for an emic perspective, namely one that seeks to understand the minds of those who wrote the biblical text. As a result of reading his book he wants his readers to, as much as possible, set aside their modern perspectives and allow the Bible to speak for itself; he believes that when this is done one can truly look into and behind the text so as to examine its “social scenery.” The primary audience of this work is students, but Matthews hopes it can also assist laypersons, clergy, and scholars too as they study the Bible. Ultimately Matthews hopes this book advances study of the Bible and its world.
Matthews accomplishes his goals and aims listed for this book. It indeed provides a clear picture of everyday life for the ancient Israelites, and no doubt will cause readers to want to pursue further reading and detailed study of the Bible in its various genres. However, as with any other textbook, Matthews’ book is not completely objective and unbiased, rather, there are times he allows his own personal views and opinions to enter the text. Though not a cause for concern, it is best if neophyte students to the subject matter use Matthews’ book as only the beginning of their study; they should be provoked to do their own research so as to understand and make biblical and theological decisions for themselves. Once completing Matthews’ book, readers will indeed be equipped and prepared to enter into deeper study as a result of his emphasis on entering the mind of the writers and setting aside as much as possible one’s modern perspective so as to let the text speak for itself.
Anna C. Rask is an adjunct instructor of biblical Hebrew at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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The Cultural World of the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to Manners and Customs