Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

B. J. S. Isserlin, The Israelites (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), Pp. 304. ISBN 0800634268. $ 23.


Isserlin has directed archaeological fieldwork in Jaffa and Mikhmoret, Israel, as well as in Sicily, Greece and Spain. In marshaling his archaeological expertise, Isserlin's work is much like W.G. Dever's Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research (1990) and R.L. Harris's Exploring the World of the Bible Lands (1995). That is to say, Isserlin's primary interpretive lens through which he interprets Israel is that of archaeology. He is very conversational with past and present archaeological work and often cites the most current excavation evidence of particular cites, interacting with the work of Israel Finkelstein, James Pritchard, Yigael Yadin, et. al.

The objectives of this book are as follows: "A book on the ancient Israelites must, accordingly, keep in mind the different needs of two kinds of readers: those interested mainly in the elucidation of the Bible, and those concerned primarily with Israel as an ancient Near Eastern nation. Our aim in what follows will be to offer as concise a picture of Israel and her intellectual and material culture as emerges from the combined study of the Bible, extra-biblical texts and archaeology, in the light of recent scholarship" (p. 9). In general the author succeeds in this stated purpose, yet at times he does stray too far a-field into archaeological complexities and terminologies.

Isserlin begins his study of Israel in the late 13th century, dismissing the patriarchs because "they cannot at present be convincingly documented within the framework of what is known from historical sources" (p. 9). And yet he does marshal some convincing arguments for taking the patriarchs as real people. "Such skepticism is, however, balanced by recent arguments showing that there are points in favor of a patriarchal age datable to the first half of the second millennium BC" (p. 30). The survey ends with the exile in 586 BCE. Chapters include geography, government, architecture, agriculture, industry, economy, warfare, language, religion and art.

The section on geography may serve as an example of the work. Isserlin states that Deuteronomy 8 mentions that iron and copper could be dug in the hills of the Promised Land. "The latter is known to occur in significant quantities only in the Nubian Sandstone on the flanks of the Arabah, especially in Edom" (p. 29). Again, the author notes that it would have taken Jonah 45 days to walk from the Mediterranean Sea to Nineveh and it is conceivable that Jonah 4:11 is no exaggeration when Nineveh is credited with 120,000 inhabitants. One more example will suffice: "Peaceful or warlike, however, travel in the country was not time-consuming: to get from Dan to Beersheba might take above a week, on to Elath, another, while traversing the country from east to west was only a matter of three to five days" (p. 46).

Consistent interaction with other ANE countries and cultures makes the book penetrating and insightful. However, at times Isserlin fails to synthesize the material, making the work read more like an encyclopedia than that of a book. The work is enhanced with numerous black and white pictures, charts and maps invaluable resources for teachers and professors. Those familiar with the Westminster/John Knox series entitled "The Library of Ancient Israel" with its focus on archaeology, anthropology and sociology will appreciate Isserlin's work as a summary of this series. Moreover, if the average reader of Biblical Archaeology Review wants to purchase a single reference work, it would be this one.

A side-note: in several places Isserlin equates "Tarshish" with the Guadalquivir region of southern Spain. However, the recent work by Andr Lemaire, ("Tarshish-Tarsisi: Problme de Topographie Historique Biblique et Assyrienne," in Gershon Galil and Moshe Weinfeld, eds., Studies in Historical Geography and Biblical Historiography: Presented to Zecharia Kallai [Leiden: Brill, 2000], pp. 44-62) cites insurmountable problems with the identification of Tarshish with Spain. On the contrary, it seems more logical to look for Tarshish somewhere in the area of the other peoples mentioned in Gen 10:4. In addition, Isa 66:19, and Ezek 27:12-14 also point in the same direction, i.e., Asia Minor.

While not a minimalist that is, one who believes that the Old Testament texts were written largely in post-exilic Yehud and portray a largely "fictional" history of Israel, thus driving a wedge between the literary works of the Old Testament on the one hand, and archaeology and history on the other Isserlin is certainly not a maximalist one who attempts to reconcile the biblical account with archaeology. When pressed to decide on an issue, more often than not, he sides with the interpretations of archaeology against the biblical text. In doing so, Isserlin takes the line that the biblical evidence exists as a one-sided view, largely representing the views and literary conventions of the intelligentsia. One example of this overstatement of archaeological finds is as follows: "Archaeologically, the tradition about Mount Sinai and the desert wanderings remains unsupported" (p. 53). But, one may counter, nomads are, as a rule, "archaeologically invisible!" On the other hand, Isserlin is able to distinguish himself from some of the more radical interpretations of Israel's history. For example, he breaks from Norman Gottwald's sociological emphasis on class struggle as foundational to understanding Israel. Isserlin writes: "Nor must we forget that individuals could shape events decisively: Israelite as well as non-Israelite sources point to this in cases of such rulers as Omri or Hezekiah. Models which do not acknowledge this do not fit Israelite history" (p. 110).

These reservations aside, if one is looking for a synthesis between the Old Testament text and Israelite history, archaeology and society, this is your book.

Reed Lessing
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO