Bill Arnold and Richard Hess: “Why We Wrote Ancient Israel’s History

Why We Wrote Ancient Israel’s History
by, Bill Arnold and Richard Hess.

Ancient Israel’s History grows out of a need we noticed many years ago when we were students together at Hebrew Union College. We benefitted from handy up-to-date resources incorporating current research on multiple fronts related to the study of ancient Israel. We especially appreciated scholarship that adequately considered the evidence of the biblical text itself. In our days as students, works by Albright, Bright, Hayes and Miller, and others fulfilled this role with varying degrees of success.

More recently the challenge has grown exponentially. Not only have there been huge amounts of information appearing on every front in the related fields of social sciences and literary studies, but the various theories of interpretation have also grown in number and diversity. Recent years have witnessed the publication of some outstanding resources that survey the field at the introductory level. Many dictionaries and some multi-volume reference works have sought to detail the information available to the scholar.

Cover ArtHowever, little has been produced that attempts to dig more deeply into the historical questions relevant to specific areas of Israel’s history, to make full use and evaluation of the relevant evidence, and to do so within a handbook that surveys that entire history.

When we agreed to do this project, we recognized the difficulties, even the impossibility, of one or two scholars writing an entire work that would succeed in this endeavor. We decided to enlist scholars of the highest academic quality; we knew that their expertise included the areas we asked them to address in this book. We believe that this work will accomplish three goals.

First, it will provide a comprehensive survey of the field for the advanced undergraduate student and for the graduate student. Rather than merely retelling the stories of the Bible, our book attempts to survey the major events in and outside the Bible and to introduce and evaluate the variety of sources outside the Bible that become relevant. At the same time, we attempt to provide a review of the major issues that scholarship has identified for each period and to draw reasonable conclusions based on the evidence.

Second, Ancient Israel’s History attempts to provide a useful resource for the scholar who wishes to understand the diverse perspectives in historical questions of this period and related issues of culture. While each writer presents the evidence from their period, we also do not pretend a total objectivity. The book does not try to demand complete uniformity with respect to directions and possible solutions for various problems of interpretation. However, it does begin with the overall premise of a respect for the various witnesses of the biblical text as well as the contemporary written and material remains from each period. Recognizing that complete objectivity is impossible, we attempt to address the subject with integrity and to appreciate the variety of views that we survey in the book.

Third, our book attempts to provide prolegomena, or preliminary steps, to the study of Israel’s history. In the introductory chapter, Rick traces the contributions of others in the field and explains our goal of striking a balance between biblical and extrabiblical sources. In the next chapter, Bill uses the narratives of Genesis to explain that scholars working on historical realities of the ancient world must be willing to discern between conclusions that are proven, those that are probable, others that are plausible, and finally, conclusions that are merely possible. It is in this assumed context that we attempt to make a contribution that steers a via media between, on the one hand, the retelling of the biblical account with some interesting archaeology thrown in for good measure and, on the other hand, a reconstruction of the Holy Land in the second and first millennia BC that avoids or ridicules the biblical source altogether.

We hope Ancient Israel’s History will provide readers with a valuable guide to this most important story of the people, society, and events that shaped the faith, the culture, and the values of their time and that have informed our history and have formed who we are today. In this respect we invite you to undertake the serious study of the history of ancient Israel and to use this text as a guide and resource in your exploration of one of the most fascinating and significant periods in human history. Personally, this is the book we wish we had read as students and in our early days of research and writing. It would have introduced us to the scholars, the questions, and the evidence most necessary to understand and evaluate the field.


Bill T. Arnold (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is Paul S. Amos Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author or editor of twelve books, including Encountering the Book of Genesis, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, and a commentary on 1 and 2 Samuel.

Richard S. Hess (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado, and editor of the Denver Journal. He is the author or editor of more than twenty-five books, including Israelite Religions, Song of Songs in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, and the commentary on Joshua in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series.

For more information on Ancient Israel’s History, click here.