Book Notice: Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel

Chalmers, Aaron. Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel: Priest, Prophet, Sage, and People. Exploring Topics in Christianity Series. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2012.

By Graham Scott (Crossway College)

Exploring the Religion of Ancient Israel is a concise and well-written introduction to Israelite religion. Chalmer’s analysis devotes key chapters to each of the three key roles in Israelite religion: prophet, priest and sage. The final chapter rewards the reader with a fascinating examination of the common people of Israel. Old Testament students will particularly enjoy the depth of information and analysis packed into this book. Pastors and laypeople will also enjoy the clarity with which these key figures in the Old Testament are presented. A highlight for many readers will be the succinct insights from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures and archaeology that further explicate the biblical text. These are well illustrated with photographs and diagrams.

This book also includes a larger number of ‘panels’ or pull-outs that appear throughout the text. These are typically short and are used to ‘go deeper’ into the main discussion, to pose further questions suggested by the scholarly literature, to introduce readers to key Old Testament scholars (eg. Wellhausen, von Rad, Alt), to illustrate ANE parallels with the Old Testament text, and to provide archaeological insights into the text. These panels serve to break up the page, giving the book a reader-friendly look; as well as keeping the main text focused.

For this reviewer the final chapter examining the everyday life of ‘average’ Israelites was the highlight of the book. Most of the Old Testament deals with the lives, words, and events of the leaders of Israelite society, and there is typically little attention given to the lives of those who comprised the bulk of the population, and of whom we have such fleeting glimpses in the biblical text. An illustration of a multi-house compound thought to be typical of an Israelite village immediately brings to mind a rather different notion of ‘neighbour’ that Western suburban dwellers could ever have. And so the emphasis in Deuteronomy on right relations with neighbours is cast in a different light. And whilst today the idea of entering your neighbour’s house to retrieve the lawn-mover when they are out seems ridiculous (à la Deuteronomy 24:10), if only because of the high fences, fierce dogs, tight security, and the enshrined individuality of suburbia; for ancient Israelites retrieving property from another’s house makes complete sense in communities that lived in adjoining multi-dwelling compounds.

This is a well done, user-friendly, and highly readable book. The decision to situate the bulk of the discussion in the period after 1000 B.C., whilst understandable, seems to create a division between the Israelites’ earlier experience of religion (eg. as nomads in the days of the Patriarchs or in the wilderness in the years following the Exodus) and their later more urbanized and settled reality. Similarly, the presentation of differing data regarding the roles of priests in Deuteronomy and Leviticus begs for a comment to guide the reader towards understanding the tension inherent in the diversity of the Old Testament text. The addition of an orienting chapter to help readers navigate through the historical ‘developments’ of Old Testament religion would be a worthy addition to the text. In this regard, in some ways the final chapter on the life and faith of everyday Israelites might be a good place to start reading.

This book will be a welcome addition to theological college libraries, as well as to the shelves of students of the Old Testament, pastors and church libraries. (That it is arriving in Australia at an affordable price for an illustrated and hardcover text makes it even more attractive). Reading this book alongside careful consultation with the biblical text will guide the reader into a deeper appreciation for the complexity and variety of Old Testament religion, and will heighten sensitivity to the nuances of the text. It will undoubtedly prove to be a valuable resource for readers to re-visit regularly.

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