Major Book Reviews -- the Hebrew Bible in Its Social World and in Ours by Norman K. Gottwald / Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE by Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin

By Dearman, J. Andrew | Interpretation, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Major Book Reviews -- the Hebrew Bible in Its Social World and in Ours by Norman K. Gottwald / Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE by Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin


Dearman, J. Andrew, Interpretation


THESE TWO VOLUMES are examples of a methodological emphasis in biblical studies on the "social world" of the Bible. The term even appears in both titles. Identical terminology, however, does not lead necessarily to identical methodology, as a comparison of the volumes demonstrates. The volume by Gottwald is a collection of previously published papers and book reviews, combined with written versions of class and public lectures delivered during the last twenty years. The subject matter includes the origins of Israel, the prophetic literature, social theory in biblical studies, and even the significance of Jesus' death in light of studies concerning human sacrifice. It is arranged under two primary categories: (1) The Hebrew Bible in its Social World and (2) The Hebrew Bible in our Social World. Matthews and Benjamin follow a topical approach to their subject, while citing a number of social science studies, and they seek to interpret daily life in Israel during the premonarchic and monarchical periods. They, too, arrange their material under two primary categories: (1) Ancient Israel as Villages and (2) Ancient Israel as a State.

An earlier volume by Norman Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E. (1979), was a massive, ground-breaking work, combining sociological analysis and Marxist theory in an investigation of Israel's origins. It is clear in retrospect that some of the conclusions reached by Gottwald in that volume are now held by a number of scholars in the field (e.g., that early Israel was a tribal society indigenous to Palestine, that there was no military conquest of Canaan by early Israelite tribes). Approximately thirty percent of the essays in the newly published volume concern the origins of Israel explicitly, and several other chapters presuppose his conclusions on the matter when evaluating another subject (e.g., the prophets). The reader will see Gottwald at work, patiently engaging both supporters and detractors alike in his continuing efforts to understand the emergence of Israel in Canaan and the social changes the biblical communities would undergo in subsequent years. Chapter 2, for example, is Gottwald's review of the third edition of A History of Israel by John Bright (1981). Some of Bright's conclusions, he writes, are better reserved for the theologian or philosopher and are not properly historical judgments (even so, Gottwald calls the work "the best overall account in English" [p. 26]). Moreover, in spite of the fact that Bright was cognizant of the theory of Israel's revolutionary origins, Gottwald concludes that Bright's work "will only become the full-bodied synthesis he aims for when he discovers that the social revolutionary 'key' turns the covenantal religion lock" (p. 26).

In reading Gottwald's essays, one recognizes why some scholars did not previously, and do not now, assess the relevant evidence the way Gottwald does; in large part, they believe his methodological presuppositions drive his historical analysis and dictate many of his conclusions. To turn around Gottwald's criticism of Bright (or others) for failure to recognize the social-revolutionary key, perhaps it can be said of Gottwald that he has locked ancient Israel into the role model of proletariat consciousness-raising. …

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