07 Review: Isserlin, The Israelites.

Benjamin Clark, ,


Isserlin, B. S. J., The Israelites, (Minneapolis, U.S.A.: Fortress Press, 2001) 304 pages. ISBN: 0-80006-3426-8. $18.40 (US) from the publisher

When one comes to read about the Israelite nation it is difficult to look through the colouring of all the pre-conceived notions built up over years of being involved with religious communities. As the three great monotheistic religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all, in some form or another, are the progeny of this Middle Eastern tribal culture, and each subsequently reveres it in the formation of their various religious groups, disentangling the ‘religious’ from the ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ becomes increasingly complex. Isserlin, in his fluid and comprehensive work, The Israelites, has come the furthest in creating a coherent picture of the Israelite nation as a social, political and cultural organism.

Isserlin’s stated aim quite ambitious. He writes that his aim is to ‘offer as concise a picture of Israel and her intellectual and material culture as emerges from the combined study of the Bible, extra-biblical texts and archaeology, in light of recent scholarship’ (p. 9). While this might appear easier said than done, Isserlin, in limiting himself to the period where Israel was actually appears in history as a coherent entity, roughly from the late thirteenth century BC. to the fall of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC, allows himself enough flexibility to project an image of Israel that meets with his stated aim. Also in stating up front that although the sources are often extremely limited, an investigator should not be deterred from attempting to recreate the image of the ancient society in question, Isserlin demonstrates an attitude of both earnest scholarship and intellectual maturity.

The Israelites is split into three main sections. Part One covers ‘The Stage and the Player’ and highlights the geography of the ancient Middle East, the history of the Israelite people (as seen from their perspective) and social structure and internal government. Part Two investigates ‘The Material Culture’ of the Israelites and looks at the architecture, industry, agriculture and modes of warfare. Part Three outlines ‘The World of the Spirit’ and covers the language, writing, texts, religion and art of the subject group. Liberally dispersed throughout the volume are maps, pictures and line-drawings which illustrate archaeological discoveries, hypotheses, boundaries of land and much more. Despite the paucity of information available, Isserlin draws upon every available source to paint a vivid picture of the ancient world.

As it is a reference work, the reader could quite easily become lost in the extraordinary detail provided by The Israelites. However, Isserlin’s style, which is flowing and engaging, allows the reader to steadily progress through the work. Each section is treated holistically, drawing a meta-view of social, cultic and community life. In both its scope and lucid style there is nothing that immediately springs to mind available in the field of archaeological or Judaic studies that even compares to the coverage Isserlin brings to his study. As such The Israelites is a work to be highly recommended. Personally I wish such a work had been available to me when I was studying the Israelite nation in my undergraduate studies. Now that it is, I will be sending enquiring students to this text as their first port of call for serious scholarship.

Benjamin Clark

© Southern Cross College, 2004