“The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel” edited by Susan Niditch (Part 1 of 3)

WileyBlackwellSusan Niditch (editor). The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016, 567 pp., $195.00 (hardcover).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Wiley Blackwell for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Additionally, primarliy due to the many contributors and secondarily the lengthy nature of this work, I will be posting the complete review through three blog posts.

The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel is one of Wiley Blackwell’s several companion books. Aimed at producing “a multifaceted entry into ancient Israelite culture”, each article addresses a unique scholarly focus in the study of ancient Israel, complete with brief scholarly history and current trends. The twenty-eight chapters of the book are not only well fleshed out introductions about various topics but support each other through an web of internal references. For example, when discussing priestly theology in the final form of the Pentateuch, Stephen A. Geller simply references David Carr’s contribution to the volume. Consequently Geller is able to continue with his discussion while not ignoring or dismissing a certain aspect in the study of ancient Israel, aspects which David Carr covers. Scattered throughout the volume are internal references, creating a web that allows the volume to stand on its own as an authoritative introduction and companion to ancient Israel.

The volume is divided into three parts: methodology, political history, and ancient Israelite themes. Each Part contains sub-divisions with more specific elements. As a whole, the layout of the book is great as each article fills in valuable components to understanding ancient Israel. Because the book contains twenty-eight short, detailed essay introductions, the following will provide a succinct summary of each article along with note of any strengths and shortfalls.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith (Archaeologist) considers the high value of archaeology as it offers an alternative historical perspective about ancient Israel when compared to the biblical representation of history. As an introductory essay, her contribution is important as it encourages students to engage with the material history of ancient Israel rather than limiting study to and assuming historical realities of the Hebrew Bible.

Song-Mi Suzie Park (Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary) examines biblical authors envisaged their identity through brief analysis of how the authors represent neighboring nations like Moabites and Philistines. Her introduction the ancient Israel’s neighbors and how they are represented provides a platform for students and scholars to consider ancient Israelite identity.

John R. Huddlestun (Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston) presents three varying conclusions regarding how ancient Egypt related to and potentially influenced Israel. This contribution is unique because it presents three arguments and implicitly encourages the reader to engage with options, not just accept them as fact.

Steven Weitzman (Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania) briefly introduces a history of hermeneutical approaches and methodologies. His contribution is necessary especially for students because it is a concise and well-detailed introduction to how scholars have addressed the relationship between the biblical witness and historical reality. For its focus on methodological issues, this is one of the best contributions to the volume.

Susan Niditch (Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College) challenges students and scholars alike to approach the Hebrew Bible as ancient Israelite folklore because it offers nuanced ways to approach what source criticism attempts to explain through focus on the artists and their audiences. Although Niditch does not focus on a variety of methodologies, her focus on Israelite traditions as folklore allow the Hebrew Bible space to speak as artistic representation of ancient Israelite culture. Indeed, viewing Israelite traditions as folklore opens ancient Israelite culture to the modern reader; however, the lack of explanation as to how a folklorist perspective compares to other methodologies makes it difficult to fully appreciate the distinct views that folklorists offer.

David Carr (Professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary) introduces scholarly history about how the Hebrew Bible was formed from oral traditions to revised texts, with special focus on how manuscripts were joined, blended, expanded, and counter written. For non-specialists, this contribution is extremely valuable because it encourages readers to engage with the Bible as a multi-voiced document which has been adjusted throughout history.

Ohad Cohen (Semitic linguist and Hebrew Bible scholar) tackles the dating of biblical literature through linguistics via recognition of language influences in the Hebrew Bible (Persian, Aramaic, and Mishnaic) and brief analysis of 19 verses to demonstrate internal, diachronic linguistic developments. For such a technical field of linguistic dating, Cohen’s introduction is valuable in at least helping the reading to grasp how it operates.

Christopher A. Rollston (Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University) focuses on epigraphy in the Levant during the Iron Age, illustrating the varieties of literature throughout the region and introducing important texts – monumental inscriptions and ostraca – that influence scholarly understandings of language and ancient Israel. Specificity about inscriptions, yet also his willingness to choose only representative inscriptions, permits the reader to attain a solid, basic comprehension of epigraphy in the Levant without overwhelming them with information.

*Click here for Part II of my review. Also, if you enjoyed what your read, please follow or subscribe to my blog for more reviews and musings about biblical literature.

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