The phrase, “what every x needs is a y,” is a rather clichéd but nonetheless effective ploy that can be used to recommend to those who identify with the value defined by x the product or service that is defined by y. In the present instance, those who are invited to identify with the value represented by x are teachers of introductory courses on the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, whose students have little or no prior knowledge of the broader historical and cultural context against which the biblical text needs to be read in order to make sense; and the product or service represented by y is an accessible introduction outlining the main sequence of events during the biblical period insofar as that sequence can be reconstructed from various sources of evidence—archaeological, biblical, epigraphic, to name but a few. Finding himself in the position of an x as thus defined, and encouraged by other such x-es, Victor Matthews set out to produce a y, which he has entitled A Brief History of Ancient Israel. And I for one would be happy to complete the initial equation by saying, what every teacher of introductory Old Testament/Hebrew Bible courses needs is A Brief History of Ancient Israel.
The treatment of the history is indeed brief—from Patriarchs to Ptolemies in a mere 127 pages—but brevity does not mean superficiality or reductionistic summarising. The treatment is abbreviated but nuanced, and although the book sets out to provide an historical backdrop for the events described in the Old Testament, it does not shy away from discussion of the issues in areas where questions of historicity are a major bone of contention among scholars. Take, for example, the question of historicity in the patriarchal and Exodus narratives. Here, the alternative views are canvassed sensitively, and even if one might wish to disagree with the (historically speaking) relatively sceptical position finally adopted, it cannot be said that no other views have been represented, or that there is a sense of unseemly prejudice either for or against particular views. In the case of another controversial area, that of the early monarchy, there is an attitude of greater certainty that the narrative is in some way reflecting actual historical events, although as before the nature of that relationship is not shown as straight-forward one-to-one correspondence. Here I have more reservations about the overall treatment, as it is not always clear whether the text is being treated as an historical source or a theological construct. For example, there is a link drawn between the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7 and the stability of the southern Davidic dynasty, which contrasts strongly with the northern kingdom’s frequent coups (pp. 51–52); but it is unclear whether Matthews regards the Davidic covenant as the cause or as the effect of the stability. The implication is that he regards it as the cause; but this would seem to require the somewhat dubious move of accepting 2 Samuel 7 as a factual account of some kind—or at least, no alternative explanation is given of how the Davidic covenant ideology might have come about. Nonetheless, despite the possibilities for disagreement on individual positions, there is constant reference throughout the book’s discussions to scholarly literature, much of it dated within the last decade, in order both to support the point of view adopted in the text and to encourage readers to explore further for themselves. Thus, though this book is by definition in no sense a minimalist approach to Israelite history—it starts from the assumption that there is a history against which the Old Testament was written and which is to a greater rather than a lesser extent open to reconstruction—neither is it dogmatically maximalist.
Several features of the book’s presentation are aimed particularly at the beginner or non-specialist. There are highlighted sections within the text that contain quotations from ancient sources such as Enuma Elish, the Gezer almanac, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, the annals of Sennacherib, and the Cyrus Cylinder, in order to illustrate points that are being made in the main narrative. There are also boxes (“Figures”) that give digests of relevant information, such as summaries of important plot elements in biblical narratives, comparisons between related biblical passages, parallels between biblical and extra-biblical sources, and outline sequences of events that are derived from a variety of sources. Add to this a series of maps, a glossary of technical terms and a wide but not overwhelming bibliography, and the student-friendly features of this book are clear. Altogether, it is a most useful orientation aid that functions rather like a map with a route marked out on it: you can certainly follow the marked route if you like, but there is also sufficient information on the map to allow you to follow other routes. Given that students will ultimately have to find their own way through the Old Testament and the mass of scholarship that surrounds it, to provide them with a model such as this for how it might be done can only be beneficial.