A Brief History of Ancient Israel

By Victor H. Matthews
Louisville, Ky : Westminster John Knox (2002). 171 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Grisanti
14.2 (Fall 2003) : 341-342

A “concise” history of Israel is a great idea to enable students of the Scriptures to gain a “panoramic” understanding of God’s dealings with his people. Matthews, a professor of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University, authored this volume to serve as supplemental for courses dealing with the OT in general or Israel’s history in particular. He attempts to deal with the most important events in Israelite history, the most important characters and places, overview a basic chronology, consider significant extra-biblical documents that relate to Israel’s history, and examine archaeology’s contribution to the “recreation” of Israel’s history (xi-xii). He has sought to be “student oriented” (xii) by avoiding lengthy recitation of scholarly arguments and by pro viding inset boxes, keyword cues, and parenthetical documentation. Words in bold print throughout the text receive fuller definition in a glossary at the end of the book. After the body of the text, Matthews provides a brief listing of key events from Israel’s monarchy period (2 pp.), a glossary (4 pp.), bibliography (17 pp.), and indices (ancient sources, author, and subject). Matthews has provided numerous useful charts, translations of relevant ANE parallel accounts, and helpful glimpses into key parts of ANE history and rulers.

Besides these helpful features, Matthews’ volume represents a mixture of good and bad features. In his introduction, he indicates his general approach to the subject when he says the writers of Israelite history use “exaggerated, propagandistic, or theological reasoning” (xiii). Although Matthews does not disregard OT historical narratives altogether, he views them as potential sources of information that are not necessarily accurate.

A few examples will illustrate Matthews’ approach to OT history. Any historical reconstruction based only on the biblical text must be viewed as tentative. As an example, Matthews’ contends that the Solomonic Temple must have been smaller than the structure described in the biblical text in light of scholarly conclusions about Solomon’s wealth (46). In several places the biblical historians inserted information about later events into accounts of Israel’s early history (56). The Septuagint text, in certain portions, is superior to the Hebrew Bible’s presentation of Solomon’s reign (57). The author introduces a statement about Solomon’s redistricting of Israel with “if there is any historical character to Solomon’s ‘district list’” (58), implying that it may not have historical validity. He suggests that the accounts describing Israel’s and Judah’s conquest of Moab (2 Kgs 3:4-27; 2 Chronicles 20) were edited long after the events they describe and contain erroneous information (67).

Although Matthews does provide helpful overviews of the interrelationship between Israelite and ANE history and a sketch of recent discussions on key issues, his view of the composition of the OT historical books diminishes the value of a number of his discussions. His work provides an enlightening (and brief) introduction to current critical discussions in the realm of Israel’s history, but it will provide little of value for the preacher of God’s Word.