Life in Biblical Israel

By Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager
Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox (2001). xxiii + 440 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
13.2 (Fall 2002) : 287-289

 Beautifully illustrated (242 illustrations), well-written, and superbly documented (592 footnotes and 518 bibliographic entries), this volume should be the textbook of choice for college and seminary courses in manners and customs of ancient Israel. Focusing on the Iron Age (1200–586 B.C.; xix, xxiii), King and Stager have produced a very usable and valuable reference work for the practical application o f archeological data to a descriptive study of life in ancient Israel.

The major sections of this volume are: “Introduction: The Importance of the Everyday Life” (1-19), “The Israelite House and Household” (21-84), “The Means of Existence” (85-200), “Patrimonial Kingdom” (201-58), “Culture and the Expressive Life” (259-317), and “Religious Institutions” (319-81). The order of the volume is patterned after a “three-tiered patrimonial model of Israelite society” (5) “based on a series of nested households” (4): “house of the father,” king as paterfamilias (“house of David,” “house of Omri”), and Yahweh as “the supreme patrimonial lord” (5). Using the house of Micah (Judg 17–18) as their foundation, the authors provide an imaginary description of “A Day in Micah’s Household” (12- 19). “Dress and Adornments” (259-85) offers the reader an excellent example of the detailed description and illustrations marshaled by King and Stager throughout the volume.

Many sound observations are made with regard to the nature of modern archaeological methodology. Archaeologists are paying more attention to evidence that might have been ignored in the past: “Human parasites found in coprolites (fossilized excrement) provide valuable information on disease, diet, and nutrition in antiquity, while also pointing to a low level, by modern standards, of sanitation and hygiene in biblical times” (73). Attention to detailed analysis of biological data provides a better understanding of the anointing of someone’s head with oil as in Psalm 23:5. Archaeological finds indicate that this may have been a way to eliminate lice by “smearing the hair with oil; this treatment prevented oxygen from penetrating the head and caused the lice to suffocate” (74).

One of the most surprising observations made by King and Stager relates to a Pre-Pottery Neolithic wild-olive processing site. They explain that the site on the sea floor at Maritime ‘Atlit south of Haifa was “inundated in the mid-sixth millennium, probably by a worldwide flood, after the olives had been processed” (96).

This volume provides up to date information. Many scholars scoffed at biblical descriptions of deepwater shipping in ancient times. Yet, in 1999 a team led by Robert Ballard and Lawrence Stager found two 2,700-year old Phoenician vessels with cargos of amphoras. They had sunk in 400 meters of water some 50 kilometers west of the seaport of Ashkelon 2,700 years ago (179, 185; pictures, 180-81).

As with most reference works in biblical studies, however, Life in Biblical Israel must be read and used with care. For example, under the heading of “Children,” King and Stager define na’ar as “an unmarried male not yet a head of household” (40). Such a definition ignores the use of na’ar for Absalom in the account of his demise when he was already a married man with four children (cf. 2 Sam 18:5 with 14:27). In addition, the treatment of Scripture indicates a rejection of biblical inerrancy and a decidedly liberal bent to interpretation. This can be detected in the claim that prostitution was tolerated in Israelite society, but “the biblical writers have ambivalent views about it, and the laws are inconsistent” (52). Likewise, King and Stager state, “The preposterous patriarchal ages are the ideal, certainly not the reality” (58). In an implicit denial of supernatural intervention, the reader is told that the illness of Sennacherib’s army (2 Kgs 19:35; Isa 37:26) “was probably dysentery, a common ailment with soldiers in the field” (69).

By dating Ecclesiastes to 300–200 B.C.E. (40), King and Stager reject Solomonic authorship. They explain Abraham’s offering of Isaac as something that was expected with regard to firstborn children (48), ignoring the text’s claim that Abraham had received special revelation concerning this sacrifice. Their suggestion that Deut 5:21 “may reflect an advance in Israelite thinking” (49) over Exod 20:17 reflects their documentary leanings. They also believe that Exodus 32 “may have been intended as a subtle attack on Jeroboam I for setting up the bull cult in the northern kingdom” (322-323). This is a clear denial of Mosaic authorship of that passage.

Sometimes the volume lacks adequate evidential support for some of the authors’ opinions. One such example is the suggestion that “The mekônôt [wheeled copper stands for small lavers] of the Jerusalem Temple inspired the vision of Ezekiel 1 and 10, not the markabôt designated in later tradition as the throne of God” (343).

In one place “soap” (bôrît; Jer 2:22) is termed “an anachronism, since it came into use only in the Hellenistic period (ca. 300 B.C.E.)” (71). However, elsewhere in the volume, the authors explain that “bôrît designates a vegetable alkali, not soap in the strict sense” (15 9). In other words, it appears that it is the English translation that is anachronistic, not the biblical text itself. A clearer explanation would have been helpful to the readers.

Due to the heavy paper utilized in the printing of Life in Biblical Israel, the binding has a tendency to split. The reviewer’s copy deteriorated rapidly with but little wear. The publishers would do everyone a favor by improving the binding so that this beautiful volume may be used often without experiencing such a breakdown.