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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

“The History of Ancient Israel”, by Michael Grant

317 pages, Scribner, ISBN-13: 978-0684180816

In The History of Ancient Israel, the late Michael Grant offers a typically clear and uncluttered – to say nothing of brief – history of the ancient Jewish kingdom from (approximately) the 19th Century B.C. (the life of Abraham) to 73 A.D. (the fall of Masada). A brief survey of the Neolithic and Early and Middle Canaanite Ages of ancient Israel, the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-36 A.D., and the foundation of modern Israel in 1948 round out Grant’s book. Israel is a light read that covers a lot of historical areas, but not in much detail, as is typical with most of Grant’s works. Grant begins his account using the Bible (as would be expected) and he does so with an admirable blend of scholarly scrupulousness and sensitivity to the religious and literary character of the text. Both believers and non-believers can, I think, rely on his conclusions due to this even-handedness. He deals with such complex problems as the historicity of the patriarchs, the sources of the Pentateuch, conflicting traditions in 1 Samuel’s treatment of Saul, the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah, Jesus’ relationship to Judaism, and so on, without oversimplifying or getting bogged down in pedantic detail. He is consistently tactful, as in this concluding judgment of Herod the Great, the brilliant, bloodthirsty Idumean: “If his domestic catastrophes are left to one side, he attained almost as much greatness as was possible for any man of his epoch who was not a Roman”. Backhanded compliments this fair are rare.

This book is not without its controversies, however, as Grant floats a number of interesting theories: Zilpah (Leah’s handmaid and a wife of Jacob and bears his sons Gad and Asher) and Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaid and a wife of Jacob and bears his Dan and Naphtali) were of “mixed race”; the tribe of Levi never went to Egypt at all; boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was a Canaanite, magic fertility rite; the possible split authorship of Isaiah, 1-39 and 40-66; among others. Grant provides a good short bibliography, helpful maps, and a table of dates, as well as appendices to handle subjects like Hebrew love poetry, short stories (the Books of Ruth, Esther, Judith, and so forth), or the minor prophets, which would have clotted up his narrative. Overall The History of Ancient Israel is an outstanding introductory study – except perhaps for conservative believers – and a superlative tool for teaching the Bible.

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