Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel

By Paula McNutt
Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox (1999). xiv + 284 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 132-133

McNutt’s work is the latest volume in the Library of Ancient Israel series (Douglas A. Knight, ed.) and represents an excellent chronological presentation of the society of ancient Israel.

Following the standard archaeological periods (Bronze Age, Iron Age, Babylonians period, etc.) the author, professor of Religious Studies at Canisius College in New York, brings together biblical, archaeological, and extra-biblical data to describe the “social history.” By “social History,” “instead of concentrating predominately on national events, leading individuals, political institutions, and ‘high culture,’” the author has sought rather to emphasize the “broader and more basic issues such as social organization, conditions in cities and villages, life stages, environmental contexts, power distribution according to class and status, and social stability and instability” (ix). It presents a “micro” view rather than the standard “macro” view of ancient Israel society.

The author has a stimulating discussion of “sources” for this type of study, and she reserves a good part of that discussion for the status of the Scripture as an accurate and reliable source of information. The author clearly rejects inspiration and inerrancy. She views the OT as a work which was “collected and edited” over a period of time (5) and posits that the “portion of the Bible we tend to refer to as ‘historical’ . . . probably reached its final form in the context of the Jewish religious community sometime after the fall of Judah to the Babylonians” (5). However, the author is also critical of the “minimalist” view that rejects the Bible out of hand as a source document (9). Though she feigns to take a position on the controversy (ibid.), she clearly adopts a position that the information contained in the biblical text can rise to a level of epistemological reliability only when confirmed with “extrabiblical evidence.”

That being said, the author takes a decidedly problematic position in her reconstruction of the “Origins of Ancient Israel.” Here she suggests that Israel began to form in Iron Age I (1200-1000 B.C.), not in what is normally called the “Patriarchal Age” or M iddle Bronze (2000-1550 B.C.). Her opinion is that the “so-called patriarchal/ancestral period is a literary construct, not a period in the actual history of the ancient world. The same is the case for the ‘exodus’ and the ‘wilderness period,’ and more and more widely for the ‘period of the judges’”(42). She arrives at this conclusion because she finds “no extra-biblical evidence that has established any historical correlations with the biblical texts” (ibid.). In presenting her arguments, she often falls into a fallacy of the “sweeping generalization” with her repeated use of such phrases as “it is now widely agreed” (42), “it is now generally recognized” (40, 41).

In terms of format this work has excellent indexes and is well-documented, although it is devoid of references to works by conservative scholars. The type font is a bit light and hard on the eyes. The lack of maps, charts, illustrations, or photographs is also a negative feature.

Those criticisms notwithstanding, the book is a stimulating study and will prove enlightening to the discerning reader. The emphasis on “social history” is needed, though we might hope for a future work by an author who regards Scripture more highly. Readers w ill certainly want to supplement their reading in this area with Edwin Yamuchi’s Peoples of the Old Testament World (Baker, 1994).