Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context

By George E. Mendenhall
Louisville, KY : Westminster John Knox (2001). xx + 284 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
13.1 (Spring 2002) : 136-138

 During his thirty-four years as Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Literature at the University of Michigan, George E. Mendenhall often has been a controversial catalyst for scholarly investigation of the historical setting for the OT. He retired in 1986 and is currently Professor Emeritus. This volume consists of material presented in lectures for popular audiences in the 1980s and 1990s. Its purpose is to “provide a popular audience with a coherent introduction to ancient Israel’s faith and history” (xv).

Mendenhall sets the stage for the rest of the book by examining the nature, features, and developmental stages of religion. Decidedly evolutionary and humanistic in his approach, he identifies five stages in the development of religion (5-6). These stages are employed in the titles of the book’s eight chapters: “The World from Abraham to Moses: Prologue to the Emergence of the Biblical Tradition” (9-41); “Moses and the Exodus: The Formative Period of the Biblical Tradition” (43-72); “The Twelve-Tribe Federation: The Adaptive Period (I)—Yahweh Becomes ‘King’ of Israel” (73-100); “King David and the Transition to Monarchy: The Adaptive Period (II)—The Abdication of Yahweh” (101-24); “The Legacy of King Solomon: The Traditional Period (I)—Yahwism versus Yahwisticism” (125-52); “Josiah Reforms the Imperial Religion: The Traditional Period (II)—The Troubling Legacy of the Monarchy” (153-76); “Destruction and Exile: The Creative Reform of Yahwism” (177-202); and “Jesus and the New Testament Reformation: The Renewal of an Old Faith” (203-31).

In every chapter Mendenhall takes his readers on a tour of biblical history that, on the one hand, represents the Scriptures as containing “numerous inconsistencies, repetitions, and even contradictions” (10). Yet, on the other hand, he finds himself attempting to distance himself from biblical minimalists in his complaint that they go to an extreme in their claim that the Scriptures are fictitious (cf. 44). Such reluctance to follow them fully is revealed in the glossary entry where he states that “minimalist” is often “applied only to the most radical” (259) of those scholars holding that the Bible has minimal historical value. Mendenhall portrays himself as somewhere in the middle (115).

Even though Mendenhall is far from being an evangelical, evangelical readers will find many nuggets of information that will give them a clearer understanding of the historical background of the Bible. Nestled among the cactus spines of anti-supernaturalism, conjectural emendations, mythologizing, and minimalist revision of biblical history are occasional flowers of information like the following:

  • Goats were “an extremely efficient ‘factory’ for converting inedible cellulose (such as wilderness stubble) into human food (milk, yogurt, cheese, and meat)” (19).
  • Pharaoh Akhenaten was not a monotheist though historians often portray him that way (29).
  • “The Exodus narrative simply diverges too much from too many of the well-known conventions of ancient fiction writing” (44) to be classified as fiction.
  • A drawing of Jerusalem at the time of David with attendant explanation of its expansion from David to Hezekiah (113).
  • In the four centuries between 300 B.C. and A.D. 100 the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia ceased—including languages with 3,000 years of recorded usage (179).

Charts, illustrations, maps, chronological tables, and boxes of illustrative texts and special discussions make the volume eminently readable and delightfully information intensive. Instead of tiny footnotes at the bottom of the page or irritatingly inconvenient endnotes overly distant from the text, this volume’s “footnotes” are entered in very readable type in the left-hand margin of the page. Every chapter commences with suggested readings in the Bible, listed by topic, book, chapter, and verses. At the conclusion of Chapter One, “A Research Plan for Further Study” and “Suggestions for Further Reading” are provided. Each subsequent chapter ends with the latter. Entries in Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992) and Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 1962) dominate the suggested readings.

Ancient Israel’s Faith and Historycan be appreciated to some extent by the discerning reader for its occasional treasures and insights. For those who are ungrounded in the Word and true biblical faith, the volume is littered with land mines of historical and biblical revisionism. Its format and arrangement, though reader friendly and pedagogically sound, only serves to advance Mendenhall’s belief that the biblical record is often implausible (52, 85), garbled (71), fictitious (92, 189), and revisionist (127).