Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods by Victor Matthews (Part 2)

Literary Approaches

Regrettably, literary approaches, which include both critical study of the Bible and the use of ancient Near Eastern literature for comparative study are viewed with suspicion. This is unfortunate as such approaches can provide considerable insight into problems that are commonly advanced as reasons to doubt the integrity of the biblical narrative. An example that readily comes to mind is the recognition that the conquest narratives in Joshua which refer to a near-complete annihilation of the Caananites (and in the process contradict other parts of Joshua and Judges which show the land to be very much alive with Caananites) are best read as the genre of conquest narrative, which frequently employed hyperbole to describe victories irrespective of the scale of that victory.

Again, the problem here is a failure to recognise that we are not the original audience of the Bible, and are separated by time, language, and culture. By reading the narratives literally and through a modern concept of historiography, at best we will be severely distorting aspects of its message. At worse, we generate eisegesis and create contradictions that are an artefact of inappropriately reading the Bible. As Matthews warns, the worldview of the Bible differs from ours, and we will ultimately be approaching the Bible as outsiders

Given this situation, modern readers and scholars must reconcile themselves to examining these stories from an “outsider” (etic) perspective. Ultimately, we cannot claim to have a “lived” knowledge of ancient Israel or ancient Mesopotamia. Instead we employ a variety of critical approaches to these ancient texts and to the archaeological data supplied by excavating ancient cities and villages, and we openly recognize our limitations. These methods, in turn, allow us to apply social categories to the events described in the narratives and, hopefully, to make those stories come alive for modern readers.[1]

Commendably, Matthews does not launch immediately into a detailed review of historical critical methods such as textual, literary, source, and form criticism which to be honest would overwhelm the neophyte, but offers a practical approach which for many readers will probably suffice

I suggest therefore that one start by reading through the narratives that are already familiar but with a closer eye to detail and with a pen in hand to jot down questions as they arise. A study Bible may suggest parallel passages that will expand interest in the way traditions are echoed or reused in various parts of the Bible. And a good translation of ancient Near Eastern texts that have parallels with biblical narrative and law allows one to see the bigger literary picture.[2]

Having said that, the serious student will eventually need to understand the critical approaches used to understand the genre of the Bible text, its setting, and why it was written. Unfortunately, the term ‘critical scholarship’ evokes considerable unease among theological conservatives who infer from the term ‘critical’ a hostile or negative intention. Rather, as Matthews notes,

this term does not imply a negative attitude or intent. It merely indicates that the method or criticism is designed to ensure careful analysis and study of the biblical text.[3]

Matthews briefly covers twelve major critical approaches,[4] of which three – textual criticism, source criticism, and form criticism – are most likely to be known to the average Christadelphian Bible student.[5] Textual criticism’s value in allowing one to restore the most likely form of the original text hardly needs explaining, whereas the other critical approaches arose from attempts to explain redundancies, inconsistencies, and differences of emphasis in the text:

The legal materials found in Exodus 21–23 (Covenant Code) represent an earlier stage in the cultural history of Israel than those found in Deuteronomy 12–26 (Deuteronomic Code). Furthermore, the Holiness Code found in Leviticus 17–26 is clearly associated with the priestly community of the postexilic period (ca. 500 BCE) and shares only the category of “law” with earlier codes, not their social and historical context. An example is the shift in the village law on debt slavery (Exod. 21:2–3), which probably dates to the tenth century BCE and originally set the term of only six years of service, but adds a stipulation in the later version (Deut. 15:12–15) enjoining the creditor to provide “liberally” out of his bounty so that the slave can make a fresh start. The text also adds the typically Deuteronomic (sixth-century) explanation for this change, citing Israel’s slavery in Egypt and God’s redemption and care for them.[6]

A full elaboration of critical scholarship would of course require several books, let alone a single chapter, so Matthew’s description is at times tantalisingly incomplete, but as he concludes, his goal is more to outline the many tools available to the scholar:

I do not want to give the impression after surveying these various methods of interpretation that the biblical narrative is too complex for the casual reader or new student to understand. These many paths of interpretation are simply  venues to explore aspects of the world and the intellectual traditions of ancient Israel. Some may be useful and others may not. What I am advocating is that the serious student of the Bible should become an informed reader. Acquire the tools, both intellectual (a basic knowledge of historical geography, archaeology, social theory, and historiography) and mechanical (atlas, study Bible, etc.), that will make reading a richer experience and that will demonstrate more clearly the value of biblical studies for the reconstruction of the world of ancient Israel.[7]

Social Sciences

Given the chasm of time, language, and culture that separates us from the world of the Bible, we will always be approaching it as aliens who will never be able to interview members of that long-vanished culture in order to completely understand that world. The task is not completely hopeless as Matthews notes:

What I hope to demonstrate is that even though we cannot fully understand the ancient Israelite emic [insider] perspective on beliefs and actions, there is still a possibility of deriving insights into what the insiders can tell us about their world. Again, I must note that although I will draw on materials from several ancient Near Eastern cultures, much of the discussion in this chapter will center on the biblical narrative because of its basic familiarity to readers and its importance to a social reconstruction of the world of ancient Israel.[8]

Commendably, given the degree of uncertainty that will exist in trying to reconstruct a long-vanished cultural world, Matthews reminds the reader that no one model has a monopoly on reconstructing the past, and that using modern cultures to build a social model of the past has its dangers. Instead of trying to fully reconstruct the past, Matthews aims to guide the reader into asking pertinent questions about the social context in the narrative, and “make the reader more conscious of the cultural code of these ancient Israelite writers.”[9]

Matthews cites the story of David and Goliath as a test case of the merit of using social models to draw out information. He notes the following:

  • Physical setting: the Philistines were camped at Socoh within Israelite territory, while Saul’s army was in the Elah valley which opened onto the Philistine-controlled coastal plains. The battle therefore took place in a boundary area, “which would be an appropriate locale for a battle that will determine who will control the Shephelah and dominate the commerce between the Hill Country and the Coastal Plain.”[10]
  • Cultural signpost: the one-one-one challenge was alien to Israelites, but was quite common in the Iliad, suggesting an origin of the Philistines in Greek culture. Therefore, this “was not only a physical clash, but a cultural clash as well, and a contest between gods”[11] and one that terrified the Israelites.
  • Labelling: the insults and taunts David and Goliah hurl at each other are an example of verbal jousting, which serves to reinforce insider-outside status
  • Shaming speech: the insults both hurl at each other are chosen to maximise shame. Goliath threatens to leave his opponent’s body unburied, curse that “makes sense only if [David’s] culture values proper burial (compare Elijah’s curse of Ahab in 1 Kings 21:21–24).”[12]

In asking specific questions based on social interpretation, Matthews covers subjects such as (1) gender roles and marriage patterns (2) inheritance customs (3) patterns of association (reciprocity and mutual obligation), (4) patron-client relations, and (5) covenant relationships between YHWH and Israel. The growing interest in how ancient honour-shame and client-patron relationships[13] show that Matthew is hardly alone in emphasising the value of the social sciences in understanding the Bible.

History and Historiography

In studying ancient Israel (or any ancient civilisation), we are ultimately trying to create a history of ancient Israel, so it is appropriate that Matthews concludes with an overview of history and historiography. All four areas previously covered by Matthews when appropriately used allow us to reconstruct as accurately as possible a history of ancient Israel.

This is likely to elicit no little confusion from fundamentalist readers who read the Biblical narrative through a decidedly modern historiography, assuming the Biblical narrative is a ‘just the facts’ account of the past that needs no interpretation. However, even when we read the Biblical narrative in isolation, the distinctive differences between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles when narrating the same events, not to mention the tension between Joshua 9-12 and Judges remind us that we make a huge mistake when we read the Biblical narrative as a disinterested, neutral retelling of ancient Israelite history. As Matthews notes:

It is virtually impossible to write a completely objective history because of the social filtering that has taken place both at the point when historical records were first produced and at each point when these records were reviewed and pieced together into what is considered a coherent “history” of related events. Special care must be taken to ensure that the historian is at least aware of the forces that will influence and can complicate the process of working with historical records, since “he cannot do his work at all without assumptions and judgments” (Finley 1975: 61). As a result, when examining ancient sources, modern historians have to learn to recognize and take into account such things as self-serving propaganda, theological justifications for the decisions that were made in the editing process, and the culture-centered masking of real intentions. After this, one can then analyze the reasons why this material so often contains a programmed, agenda-based viewpoint on events.[14]

Of course, there is a distinct difference between history written with an agenda, and a fictionalised history created from whole cloth. Matthews is rightly sceptical of minimalists that deny the historicity of ancient Israel

In recent years, the historical value of the biblical narrative has been questioned by some scholars, who have chosen to dismiss the biblical account as a fabrication of the postexilic or even the Hellenistic period (Thompson 1992; Lemche 1988; 2001; Whitelam 1996). However, their hypercritical, minimalist attitude can block interpretative paths by dismissing a whole body of data (Laato 2005). Admittedly, the editing process that contributed to the systematic compilation of much of the biblical record did take place in the period after 600 BCE. That does not, however, negate the likelihood that portions of this record predate that period and in fact represent earlier traditions and accounts. Simply because the Deuteronomistic Historian or the Chronicler chose to shape Israel’s narrative history in a certain manner, including certain details, literary genres, and subplots (e.g., the “sin” of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:25–33 as the basis for national degradation), does not mean that this is all fictional material or that it did “not spring from earlier traditions” (Barstad 1997: 57–58).[15]

Ultimately, our understanding of ancient Israel will always be an approximation to reality, given both the limitations of literary and archaeological data, and the agenda of the ancient historians. In short, as Matthews puts it, our understanding of the past will always be incomplete:

What our examination of this biblical narrative in dialogue with extrabiblical texts and archaeological remains suggests is that our picture and our understanding of the events described in these texts is incomplete. That is exactly the point that needs to be made—not that our sources are without merit, entirely fictional, or intentionally misleading. The potential interpretants available to us from existing data allow for a variety of interpretative paths, some more credible than others. It is the task of the historian of ancient Israel to gather all available information—including the biblical text (Miller 1991b)—piece it together in a variety of ways, and posit an interpretation based on clearly defined research methodologies that do justice to the data while keeping in mind the potential for shaping of the material both in antiquity and today.[16] (Emphasis mine)

One of the most important things to keep in mind is to avoid reading the ancient text through a modern historiographic lens. On this point, Matthews will help keep the student from making this fundamental error.


Matthews has written an accessible, informative text that achieves its goal of introducing the Bible student to the tools required to understand ancient Israel. Its main virtue is that he steers clear of editorialising and refuses to enter into debates unless they diverge significantly from the scholarly mainstream. Some of the terminology may be unfamiliar to the beginner, but Matthews takes care to fully explain terms (such as emic and etic) that are likely to be new to the reader.

The section on literary approaches is somewhat spartan, with the overview of critical approaches being at times almost threadbare. Given the restrictions of an introductory volume, some brevity is to be expected, though a little more elaboration would have been appreciated. Another limitation is the focus on monarchical Israel. Granted, this is likely a function of the paucity of information on pre-monarchical Israel, and the reader, after reading the book will be in a better position to tackle the aspects of Biblical history not covered in this text. Given these minor caveats, this is a book that comes highly recommended and fully deserves its place on any student’s shelf.


  1. ibid, 93
  2. ibid, 97
  3. ibid, 104
  4. Textual, literary, source, form, tradition, narrative, structural, rhetorical, reader-response, canonical, social-scientific, and ideological.
  5. Textual criticism is also known as lower criticism, as contrasted with higher criticism, which includes source and form criticism. While the former has not been met with the same degree of hostility in conservative circles as the latter, it is worth observing that the distinction between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ criticism at times can be blurred into irrelevancy, a point Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Eugene Ulrich notes, “Ulrich, in agreement with Talmon, sees that line between “higher criticism” and “lower criticism” as vanishing. He interprets many instances provided by the scrolls’ new evidence as revised literary editions of a previous form of a book, and thus sees the literary process still at work and frequently overlapping with scribal variants typically treated as part of textual criticism.” Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible (Brill, 2015), 313.
  6. Matthews, op cit, 108
  7. ibid, 121-122
  8. ibid, 125-126
  9. ibid, 132
  10. ibid, 133
  11. ibid, 133
  12. ibid, 135
  13. deSilva, David Arthur. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
  14. Matthews, op cit, 161-162
  15. ibid, 184
  16. ibid, 196-197

Author: Kenneth Gilmore