AUSTRALIAN BIBLICAL REVIEW
BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 67, 2019
JONATHAN S. GREER, JOHN W. HILBER, JOHN H. WALTON (eds.), Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018). Pp. xix + 615. Hardback. US$49.99.
Greer, Hilber, and Walton have brought together a diverse group of authors in order to bring to life the world in which the Old Testament was composed and lived. Divided into ten sections, along with a very brief (3 pages) introduction and much longer bibliography, scripture, ancient works and author reference (101 pages), this work is divided into three parts of the “drama that is the Old Testament, which is then further divided into ten sections, and then further into sixty-six chapters. The first part describes the “elements” (geography, archaeology, ancient Near Eastern literature and ancient Near Eastern iconography); the second describes the “acts and scenes” (approaches to the historical contexts); and the third, taking up almost half of the book, walks through the “themes” of the drama (Israelite religion, family networks, economic contexts and social organisation). The dramatic approach to the naming of parts and sections is cute and sets the scene, but while it doesn’t necessarily add too much, it doesn’t detract and helps the reader mentally categorise the parts.
This book is intended as a reference work, where students would be directed to read one or several chapters on a particular topic from a specialist in that area. Occasionally this means some authors will assume too much (for instance the dating of archaeological periods) while others will dumb things down too much. Also evident is a lack of communication be-tween the authors of related chapters, where advice of caution from one author will be ignored by another who goes out on a limb. One example of this is Chapter 42 (Walton: “Interactions in the Ancient Cognitive Environment”) where, of the multiple models of interaction between the ancient Near Eastern texts and biblical authors, “diffusion” is the wisest and most cautious approach. Contrast this with the following chapter (Matthew J. Lynch: “Monotheism in Ancient Israel”) where the author posits a very definite polemical relationship despite the caution suggested in the previous chapter.
Some chapters in this book described subjects from specialities many may never have imagined existed: Historical Geography (Chapters 1–4), Levantine Earthquakes (Chapter 39), Metallurgy (Chapter 57), Ancient Technologies and Food Preparation (Chapters 58–59), Social Stratification in the Iron Age Levant (Chapter 63). Many chapters demonstrated holistic methodologies, incorporating geography, archaeology, iconography, non-biblical and biblical texts. Some chapters, although not enough, showed how this worked in practice and enabled the reader to approach the biblical text from a fresh perspective that properly takes into account the “scenes” in which it originated and described.”
There were some good uses of diagrams and pictures (although grey-scale diagrams in Chapter 4 provided colours too similar to be of help, and the number of pictures of Cyprian women making pots (Chapter 58) were more than ample). Generally, sketches of icons and texts were appropriate and served their purpose well.
There were some sections, which could have been arranged differently, or parts of a chapter later in a section that would have fitted better in an earlier chapter in a separate introductory chapter. For example, the closest we have to a diagram of the “traditional four-room house” comes finally in Chapter 58 (a diagram of a five-room house), even though a working knowledge of such a dwelling is assumed back in Chapter 9. Similarly, the working definition of the ranges for the bronze and iron ages come in Chapter 8 but are assumed in Chapters 5–7. So too the description of the family tree of Semitic languages comes in Chapter 16 but should probably have preceded Chapter 12 for context.
One chapter which really needed to be in “Section V: Acts: Integrated Approaches to Broad Historical Contexts” was inexplicably absent. The section moved dutifully through the Ancestral Period (Chapter 23), the Egyptian Sojourn and the Exodus (Chapter 24), through to the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the West and Persian-Period Yehud (Chapter 30) but then skips the entire Greek period, jumping straight to the Maccabean Revolt and Hasmonean Statecraft (Chapter 31). Although Alexander the Great and Hellenism (Chapter 41) does get a mention in “Section VI: Scenes: Integrated Approaches to Event-Based Historical Contexts,” the approach there is from a different perspective and is really an inexplicable absence in this otherwise comprehensive book. A discussion of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires and their impact on the Levant is of inestimable importance and its absence is perhaps the book’s most glaring flaw.
The best chapters included those which provided clear overviews (in particular, Chapters 1, 5, 11, 19, 42, 53), while the final three chapters (“Law and Legal Systems in Ancient Israel,” “Wisdom Traditions in Ancient Israel,” “Warfare in the World of the Bible) were perhaps the most engaging and finished the book well. These, along with multiple others, will be perfect set-reading for students as they are taught to approach the Old Testament in its world and with an increased awareness of all that is going on behind the scenes.
DOUGLAS R. FYFE