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

K. L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction (The Biblical Seminar, 83; London: Continuum, 2001), Pp. 331. Pb. ISBN 1841272582. $ 49.95. Hardback ISBN 184127318X. $ 125.

Motivated by frustration with existing introductory textbooks and by the rewarding interaction with his own undergraduate students, Noll has crafted a unique introduction to the ancient world of Canaan and Israel. The focus of the book is primarily on the history of Syria-Palestine, but the narrative is peppered with discussions of archaeology, society, and religion. The book is quite readable and accessible to an undergraduate audience. The ease with which complex academic subjects are explained attests to Noll’s teaching skills. Unfortunately, the target audience for this introduction is probably limited. The book gives little attention to the biblical texts (except as source material for writing history or understanding Israelite religion), and the scope of its historical narrative is too broad to be suitable for most introductory Bible courses. I used the book in a history of Israel course and it worked well as a supplementary textbook. It introduced many of the key issues of the course, but its discussion of the history of Syria-Palestine lacked the depth needed for this non-introductory course. In the end, Noll wrote an excellent introduction for the kind of course he teaches, which could be emulated by others, but it might not be suitable for the courses that are regularly taught in university Religious Studies or Theology departments.

Noll begins the book with a geographical and chronological overview. He gives careful attention to define the complex terms “Canaan” and “Israel.” Canaan, he notes, is principally a geographical term, whereas Israel is mainly a social and political term. Both terms, however, shift in their meaning over time and during changing circumstances.

The methodological foundation of the book is laid out in chapters 2 and 3, which deal with defining the genre of history and exploring whether such a genre existed in the ancient Semitic world. Noll defines history as simply a narrative about the past. This is, of course, the common academic understanding of history. The strength of Noll’s presentation is that he is able to explain clearly how this view of history differs from the popular view that history is the past. By emphasizing that all history is interpretation, Noll prepares the reader to address the troubling question regarding the truth of history. To clarify further the meaning of history, Noll discusses three distinct genres of history: positivist history, humanist history, and ideological history. Although perhaps better termed paradigms than genres, discussion of these distinct ways of telling about the past illustrates how history does not present the reality of the past. Indeed, Noll could have taken this opportunity to discuss how the biblical history is similar to ideological history, but he chooses another approach. Noll ends the second chapter with an overview of the tools for studying the ancient past: archaeology, epigraphy, and philology.

In chapter 3 Noll approaches the nature of biblical (and other Near Eastern) history writing through the lens of Greek historia. Although he argues that the Bible resembles historia only in 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles, and then only superficially, Noll’s approach here is helpful because the characteristics of historia serve to highlight how very different biblical history writing was from modern approaches to history. Historia was characterized by “investigation” or “inquiry,” but the Greek historians rarely evaluated their evidences as do modern historians. Rather, they relied largely upon what seemed reasonable, and they developed a variety of rhetorical practices to persuade their readers of the truth of their account. Truth in this context, however, is not such that it corresponds to what really happened in the past. The truth of historia lies in the message (usually moral in character) that is being communicated through the telling of the past. A similar truth is found in the biblical history. Noll ends his discussion of historical methodology by examining the problematic dating of the Exodus and Conquest. The biblical history, of course, provides no help here. He concludes: “Is the Bible true? Yes indeed! But it is not history” (81). Unfortunately, Noll’s concern to demonstrate that the Bible is not history (in our sense) leaves the reader with little help to understand how the Bible is indeed true.

In six of the remaining seven chapters of the book, Noll traces the history of Syria-Palestine from the beginning of our planet (approximately four and one half billion years ago) through the Roman Period (in the seventh chapter Noll presents a “tour” of the religions of Canaan). The scope of this history means that much of the presentation is quite cursory. Noll also gives brief overviews of the history of Mesopotamia and Egypt in order to put the history of Syria-Palestine in context. Most attention, as one would expect, is given to the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. Noll’s presentation throughout avoids the polemics of the recent minimalist-maximalist debates, and opts instead for a judicious assessment of the literary and archaeological evidence. Although most of his historical conclusions can be found in the recent scholarly literature, Noll’s approach to the material is creative and original and he does make a few new suggestions. For example, he suggests that if there was a region-wide kingdom during the tenth century, then Gezer rather than Jerusalem would be a more likely choice for its capital. However, there is little to commend this interpretation other than Gezer’s monumental six-chamber gate.

Noll’s best discussion is on the tenth century and the problems surrounding the United Monarchy, to which he devotes an entire chapter. Recently, the Bible’s portrait of a United Monarchy under David and Solomon during this period has been the subject of heated debate. Noll cuts through the polemics and even-handedly presents the case for a United Monarchy and the case against it. He places the burden of the argument on those who embrace a large regional monarchy; they must convince others that the thesis of a United Monarchy makes better sense than the null hypothesis that the larger Iron II states (Israel first, then Judah) emerged gradually from the decentralized political units of the Iron I period. The case for the United Monarchy is not strong, and the thesis is unnecessary to understand the history of the region. In the following chapter Noll argues that Israel emerged in the ninth century as a result of Phoenician investment in the region (the result of a core-periphery relationship). Noll also gives close attention to the role of patron-client relationships in the political (and religious) structures of the Iron Age, though they are often ignored in the scholarly literature.

In this volume, Noll has presented an excellent introduction to Canaan and Israel, especially in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. His approach and writing style attest to his expertise in teaching undergraduate college students. Although the reader might not agree with all of Noll’s assessments of the evidence or his conclusions, the reader will nevertheless benefit from the clarity of his arguments and the heuristic value of his approach. This book is worth the read.

Ronald A. Simkins, Creighton University