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Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context [Paperback]

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Item Description...
Relying on archeological artifacts and anthropological study, George Mendenhall re-tells the story of Israel's history and faith. While careful not to move beyond the evidence, Mendenhall also provides an account of the theological dimensions of Israel's history.

Publishers Description
The author's magisterial survey leaves no scholarly stone unturned and no discipline disregarded. Findings from anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, historical analysis and social theory are all combined to paint a complete picture of Ancient Israel - a picture that is detailed and nuanced, yet presented in an accessible style. While careful not to move beyond the comprehensive evidence he has assimilated, the author does not shy from providing an account of the theological dimensions of both of Israel's history and the beginnings of the Christian faith.

Item Specifications...

Pages   284
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.29" Width: 7.54" Height: 0.89"
Weight:   1.3 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Jun 1, 2001
Publisher   Westminster John Knox Press
ISBN  0664223133  
EAN  9780664223137  

Availability  0 units.

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1Books > Subjects > History > Middle East > Israel   [1452  similar products]
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Reviews - What do our customers think?
A general, easy-to-read, history of Israel up to the Roman Period  Mar 31, 2007
While the mid-east is probably the most excavated area on the planet, there is only a very very small amount of information available about the ancient days. The best anyone can do is to take that and propose what must have actually happened. The difference in the history of Israel is the existence of the Bible, a source which, depending on the reader contains a lot, some, or no historical information at all. All archaeologists, all people fall somewhere on the scale from the extreme maximalist who sees the Bible as 100% accurate to the extreme minimalist who see it as 100% fiction. Personally, I think both positions are untenable.

Since I am not an archaeologist, though, it doesn't really matter what I think. The authors of this book appear to be close to the middle (a totally objective position) or slightly toward the view that the Bible contains some useful information and an effort should be made to dig (no pun intended) it out.

SO, that gives us a history of Israel and that region that seems to be fairly mainstream. There are some added features though. The author writes consistently about the problem of a social coercion and how it doesn't fit in with true religion. He also explains the cycle of phases that religions experience. The prologue, formative, adaptive, traditional and reform periods comprise this cycle. He begins with the important prologue period and emphasizes the importance of understanding its contribution to a cultures religion. He takes us through the formative and traditional periods and ends with a discussion of reform. He links Christianity closely to Judaism through this cycle.

This text is written for the general reader. By design, there are no footnotes but, as the author indicates, there is a well-organized suggested reading list at the end of each chapter. And each of those sources offer more sources for the interested person.

Overall, this history is easy to read and for most read, fairly non-controversial. The Biblical places, times and events of the Hebrew Bible that are supported by archaeology are pointed out and so are those that are not. Anyone not at one extreme or the other should learn from this book.
Pleasant but lightweight  Jun 15, 2002
This book appears to be designed as a text book. Each chapter has a section which outlines further reading and the book is full of illustrations and diagrams.

The book deals with a difficult subject but is generally pleasant and non dogmatic. It is reasonably short and easy to read.

To put the book into context, some years ago it was thought that the bible was an accurate historic record of both Israel and the Jewish people. Modern archeology has created some big doubts about the historical accuracy of the bible.

For example the book which discusses Abraham mentions the use of camels. It would appear that in the relevant period camels had not been domesticated. An examination of Egyptian records shows no mention of the tribes of Israel as a captive source of labour at any time in its history. There is no mention of their escape and the destruction of an Egyptian Army in the Red Sea.

The bibilical account of the conquest of the holdy land by Joshua describes the siege of larged walled cities such as Jerico. An examination of the historical record shows that these cities to the extent that they existed were small and unfortified. Lastly it would seem that there is no real evidence that the Davidic Kingdom existed as descibed in the bible.

These findings have led to a number of schools of thought. One school suggests that the books of the bibal which purport to be a historical record are in fact things which were written centuries after the occurance as a means of providing a rallying call for the state of Judah. That the writtings were more of a form of propoganda to inspire the present than being a record of the past.

Mendenhall's book is an attempt to find a sort of middle way, which can reconcile parts of the biblical record with the historical record. He thus suggests that the basis events in the bible occured but they have been subsquently exagerated. Thus the exodus did occur but it would have been a smaller group. There would have been some form of Davidic Kingdom but it would have been smaller.

One interesting part of the book is the section on the ten commandments. Mendenhall argues convincingly that instead of being "laws"these were more commitments that would identify individuals as the members of the religous group.

In general terms a pleasant book, but one in which the basis of the writting is one of faith rather than hard evidence.

An Unbiased look at Biblical Archeology.  Feb 10, 2002
Written mainly from a Near Eastern context and an archeological perspective, this is one of the few texts that are written about the historical elements of the Bible that does not attempt to fictionalize the stories within. Although, the author clearly does not take each piece of scripture literally this book should not offend anyone but the most stubborn. So if your convictions are rigid, you will not like this book. However, if you are open to other perspectives outside the Christian dogma, you will find this text educational and not offensive.

The three main points that lead me to recommend this book are; 1. The author's exposition of the Ten Commandments which will surprize most Christians but not Hebrews. He mainly confirms the reason why Hebrews refer to them as the "Ten Utterances," or as the author prefers, the "Ten Commitments." He does so with a comparison to the ancient treaty construction which I found refreshing. 2. His basic outline of how and in what order religion evolves. What I appreciated most concerning this was his treatment of Christ as a reformer and not some revolutionary with some brand new religion as he is mainly portrayed by most even within the Church. All of which, fall right into line with those Christians that understand their Hebraic roots. 3. The diversity of those involved with the Exodus and the subsequent nature of the kingdom. All of these points are widely misunderstood among Christianity.

Unfortunately, although not necessarily uncalled for, the author provides ample evidence of Israel's idolatry. I'm not quite sure why this isn't common knowledge and I'm not sure why this idolatry necessarily negates a principle faith in God, but it does in some people's minds and therefore this exposition is probably necessary.

The only real disagreement I had with the author is the assumption that the Bible teaches a massive invasion and subsequent wipeout of the indigenous people of the land. For instance the Bible makes it clear that God would allow the Hebrews to conquer the land gradually as shown in Exodus 23:29-30. Although the author prevents evidence to support these verses, his assumption is that the few instances of Joshua's utter annihilation were the norm, or at least perceived to be the norm. If his assumption is the former, I strongly disagree, if the later I can appreciate the manner in which his case was made.

Overall, this is a well written text written in a non-combative style that is a nice change from most of the other archeological texts concerning the Bible.

Excellant overview of the topic.  Nov 29, 2001
When I studied ancient near eastern history years ago, one of the more frustrating regions to gain insight into was the Levant. The area was rife with petty and ephemeral kingdoms contending for supremacy among their peers and for survival in the face of the imperialistic enterprises of the mightier rulers on their world scene. Rarely were these more than infrequently mentioned names. The notable exception was, not surprisingly, ancient Israel whose history, mythology, and culture are still known to most of us through the mechanism of the written work popularly known as The Old Testament. Though it contains information about many of the players in the political drama played out in the region over several thousand years, it is not an easy document to use. Dr. Mendenhall in his book Ancient Israel's Faith and History has done a superlative job of presenting the material in a very clear, organized, and informative manner.

One of the problems with studying the Bible as a historical document lies in the fact that it has such a diverse history of its own. The authors of various portions of it had their own motives, information sources, and world view, the redactors their own set, modern day interpreters theirs, etc. As Dr. Mendenhall writes in his preface, "Through the ages, whether through ignorance or malice, the Bible has frequently been misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misused (p. xvii)," and he notes that the "scribes were less interested in understanding their own history than they were in exploiting it (p. xviii)."

Nor are the motives of ancient scribes the only source of difficulties. Modern day scholarship has also lent it`s particular spin to Biblical interpretations. Again in Mendenhall`s words, "Modern biblical scholars--who should be in the best position to help our understanding--are themselves frequently hamstrung by the enormously broad range of requisite knowledge (including ancient history and languages) and by the inability or unwillingness to separate their scholarship from the presumptions and orthodoxies of their peer groups (xvii)."

Dr. Mendenhall does not seem to suffer from any such problem. According to the forward by Gary Herion, the gentleman has an extensive knowledge of ancient languages, a first hand knowledge of modern day local cultures in the Middle East, and a knowledge of the archaeology of the area. In reading the book, I would also add to this list, that I found very little to indicate a religious bias of his own to defend. He approaches the subject with the objectivity and organization of one who is fond of puzzels and their solution.

In writing his book, which bears clear signs of its origin in lecture notes, Dr. Mendenhall has methodically begun at the beginning. The introduction to Ancient Israel's Faith and History begins, not with the biblical narrative, but with a description of religion itself. He asks and answers five questions: What is one`s religion, what are religious communities, what does religion actually do, how are religious values transmitted, and how does a religious system change over time? He also enumerates and describes five key "observations" or "laws" about religion: The law of transference, the law of functional shift, the law of elaboration, the law of contrast, and the law of finality. And finally he sets out how religions develop: The prologue to the religion, the formative period, the adaptive period, the traditional period, and the reform period. Armed with this instructive information, the reader is able to follow the author's progress through the various books--and by them the history--of ancient Israel and its religion.

Of most interest to me was the formative period of Israel's post exilic years of which he provides a very cogent discussion. Anyone who has studied the Bible as history knows of the Habiru, of the Hyksos, of the Merneptah stele, and so on, but Dr. Mendenhall brings these early years into far greater perspective. Certainly his discussion of the Ten Commandments as ten commitments makes the history of the Exodus and its later effect on Israel's development and ultimate collapse as an ancient state clearer.

Of some significance is the pertinence of the work to modern day events in the Middle East. In his discussion of the meaning of some of the commandments in the historical context of their development, Mendenhall makes some very important points, especially with respect to values. When one realizes that what one values most and fears the loss of most is what is "worshipped" in one's culture, one can see why those with a stricter sense of "godliness" and commitment, like the members of the Taliban community or of Bin Ladin's followers, would find the western world's habit of valuing possessions to be godless behavior, and to some extent it is.

Of importance too, at least to me, is the gentleman's inclusion of a short bibliography at the end of each chapter which provides the reader with sources of further information. Although Dr. Mendenhall is himself now retired, the bibliographical entries vary widely in date. Included are works like Gurney's The Hittites, Samuel Noah Kramer's The Sumerians, and John Wilson's The Culture of Ancient Egypt, all dating to the 1960s. Later works like Sheler's Is the Bible True? (1999) and Frerichs and Lesko's Exodus: the Egyptian Evidence (1997), suggest that he has kept his overall knowledge base current. Journal articles, however, seem to be 1980 and earlier, which suggest that he may be falling behind in the venue of the professional literature.

Overall I found this a very readable, informative and interesting book. I would recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in the history of the ancient world, in Biblical history, or in the history of the bible itself. It would make a nice gift for a religious person who enjoys studying the bible and who is able to do so with an open mind. For those who are inclined to view the Bible and religion from a more rigid perspective, I suspect it would offend their sense of Divine Word.

A Masterwork of Biblical History  Aug 16, 2001
George E. Mendenhall has been described by eminent students of the Bible as one of the most creative American scholars of the ancient Near East in the twentieth century. Yet his fundamental work is largely unknown outside the guild of professional historians, philologists, and archaeologists. Now a comprehensive account of his reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel is available in a beautifully edited, attractively produced form. It can be understood and appreciated even by those who haven't mastered the technical tools of the professional scholar.

His pre-eminent interest, studied over a period of some six decades, has been the origins of ancient Israel. In Mendenhall's view, it is in Israel's origins that we find the essential clues to the interpretation of all subsequent Israelite history-including the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christian Church some 1200 years after the time of Moses. A brief review such as this cannot hope to do justice to the enormous wealth of material in this superb book. I will attempt only a sketchy summary of each chapter.


First he posits several illuminating general principles for understanding the phenomenon of religion, which are applied throughout the following chapters to Israel's particular historical phases.

Abraham to Moses

Then Mendenhall surveys the later part of the Bronze Age (2500-1200 B.C.) in the Eastern Mediterranean, covering the rise and fall of empires. He also characterizes (the main thrust of the chapter) the emergence, from at least 2000 B.C. onward, of numerous groups of "Apiru"--people who altogether disavowed political loyalties. He cites linguistic reasons for associating "Apiru" with "transgressor" or "outlaw." Apiru groups, lacking any legal protection, survived via banditry, mercenary militarism, or by converting agricultural assets to movable livestock and escaping to uninhabited regions inaccessible to political authorities. The less fortunate among them were prey to enslavement as state laborers--as were thousands of Apiru in Egypt.

Moses and the Exodus

Moses' leadership of the "exodus" of a few hundred Apiru from Egypt is tied in Biblical tradition (correctly, in Mendenhall's view) to two revolutionary religious innovations: monotheism in which the defining characteristic of God ("Yahweh") is ethical concern; and the use of a new form for the mediation of this Yahwism--the Covenant, derived by analogy from the forms and functions of international suzerainty treaties in use already for a millennium.

The Twelve-Tribe Federation

Mendenhall continues his historical reconstruction to the formation in two stages of the Twelve-Tribe federation of ancient Israel, created and sustained by the Mosaic Covenant, which put into practice the seemingly exotic notion of a state-less society.

David and the Transition to Monarchy

The federation functioned for about two centuries; pressure by Philistines accelerated the decline in morale and prompted desires for the institution of a political state capable of dealing more effectively with them. Samuel himself foresaw this move as the repudiation of Yahweh and the Covenant. Mendenhall illuminates the ingenious strategy then employed by David and the pagan bureaucrats inherited from the defeated Jerusalem to construct a synthesis of Yahwism and paganism, for which he adopts the term "Yahwisticism".

The Legacy of King Solomon

With King Solomon the "re-paganization of Israel" reached new heights. Mendenhall relates how Solomon's building program--involving the imposition of the corvée labor from which the Apiru slaves had escaped with Moses!--provided a new Phoenician Temple for the theologians and a swell Hittite palace for the king. "Yahweh," once the repudiator of coercion, had become merely the new "Baal," the Bronze Age hypostasis of state legitimacy and power. Mendenhall limns the intricate, unscrupulous struggles among Solomon's successors, and correlates the poetic oracles of Hosea and Amos to the ongoing upheavals of state, bringing into relief their invocation of the old covenantal elements.

Josiah Reforms the Imperial Religion

Mendenhall next turns to the fate of the kingdom of Judah and the biblical literature catalyzed by its history. He presents the historical preparation for Josiah and the latter's reforms. He also offers insights into the perverse consequences of the failure of Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem during Hezekiah's reign (the unwarranted confidence that Yahweh's highest priority was the protection of Jerusalem and its Temple).

Destruction and Exile: The Creative Reform of Yahwism

The destruction of Jerusalem predicted by Jeremiah (and Ezekiel) was a catastrophe for Israel-as-Davidic-Dynasty and produced enormous suffering for countless hapless individuals. Meditations on it by some of the greatest religious geniuses of history are enshrined in various Biblical writings, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel; Job (the book is worth having for this section alone); and "Second Isaiah." But the universalizing re-expression of Israel's covenant faith by these writers was just one response to the Exile. With the return of the exiles to Palestine under the Persian Cyrus, Ezra and Nehemiah wrote another new chapter in the evolution of Yahwism.

Jesus and the New Testament Reformation

Reading the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament makes it clear that Jesus' message hearkens back to the Covenant faith and the inspired re-expressions and adaptations of it by the great prophets. In a word, it was a creative reformation movement within the tradition of Israel's faith. Mendenhall throws a flood of light on "the Kingdom of God," "Messiah," "Law," and on "covenant" itself as it reappears in the Christian Eucharist.


This magnificent book by one of the towering figures in Biblical scholarship throws an arresting new light on the universal significance of the ancient ethical-religious vision of Moses and pre-monarchic Israel. It shows how, despite the ever-changing vicissitudes of Israel's history, this vision reappears, creatively readapted, in the prophetic legacy, in the Exile, in Jesus and the early Church. It is well worth having just for the fascinating word-studies to be found throughout the text. No one who takes its insights seriously can look at either the Bible or the surviving religious institutions in the same way. I believe it should be read and deeply pondered by all who are committed to the life of faith.


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