Israel and the Nations

“Israel and the Nations”
F. F. Bruce, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan

There are very few books published today which furnish a thorough and satisfactory account of Old Testament history. The book under review is not an exception. The information on the jacket says, among other things: “This unusual history book combines a scholar’s research and a Christian’s interpretation with popular history’s readability. It is a definitive source book on the history of ancient Israel from the Exodus to the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70.”

That the book furnishes the fruits of a good deal of scholarly research I will readily grant. Especially the history from the Captivity to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 receives a good deal of attention in the book; and there is no small amount of valuable historical information furnished. The treatment of the Pre-exilic period is rather scanty, but the author admits this and explains it in his preface. Perhaps the chief merit of the book lies in the information it furnishes.

Moreover, that the book is characterized by “popular history’s readability” is also true. Dr. Bruce writes in a very readable and lucid style, one that retains the reader’s interest.

It is on the score of the claim to “a Christian’s interpretation,” however, that I must be severely critical. In fact, I believe that the book fails dismally in this respect.

One can put this matter of a Christian interpretation to a very simple test. The test is this: does the author recognize and subscribe to the miraculous element in Old Testament history wholeheartedly and without reservation? Reading the book with this test in mind, I find that it fails to measure up. Instead there is a consistent attempt to give a “naturalistic” explanation of the miraculous elements and to accommodate Old Testament history to the views and interpretations of so-called “secular” history and unbelieving historians. This is a severe criticism. I know. But if Dr. Bruce desires to escape it, he should be much more explicit in maintaining this miraculous element and in maintaining the character of Old Testament history as “sacred” history. At many stages in the book one has to remind himself that this is a history of God’s covenant people and not merely another secular history book about a nation of the ancient world.

Let me give a few examples:

“Their ancestral faith, however, was rekindled by Moses, a man of their own race. This Moses had been brought up, through a strange combination of events, at the Egyptian court; but eventually had to flee for his life to North-West Arabia when he was caught espousing the cause of his enslaved kinsmen . . . Moses therefore returned to Egypt, and led his people out of that land into the wilderness of North-West Arabia amid a series of natural phenomena in which could be traced the directing power of the patriarchs’ God, intervening for the deliverance of their descendants. And indeed, these phenomena were such as Moses in the ordinary way could neither have foreseen nor controlled; yet their occurrence just at that time confirmed the directions given to him in his vision and rendered possible Israel’s escape from Egypt in the way in which Moses assured them it would happen.” p. 14.
“Whether other gods — the vanquished gods of Egypt or the gods of the Canaanites or of other nations — might have some sort of existence was not a question about which either Moses or his followers were likely to trouble themselves: their business was to worship Yahweh their God and serve Him alone.” p. 15.

“The Old Testament record attributes the drying up of the river (Jordan) to a landslide at Adam (modem Ed-Damiyeh). some fifteen miles north of the place where Jordan runs into the Dead Sea; but the fact of its occurrence just at this time was evidence to them that the God of their fathers who had brought them safely out of Egypt was now bringing them safely into Canaan. The collapse of the walls around the citadel Jericho, which lay two miles west of the place where they crossed the river, was no doubt caused by the same seismic action as had brought about the landslide at Ed-Damiyeh.” pp. 17,18.

Or compare the Scriptural account with this: “The undisciplined body of slaves which left Egypt under the guidance of Moses had to spend a generation in the wilderness before a nation could be fashioned to invade the land of Canaan as conquerors and settlers. Some who did attempt to raid the Negev within a year from their leaving Egypt met with a costly repulse and were not disposed to repeat the experiment . . . The outward and visible sign of their covenant unity was the sacred chest, the ark of testimony, constructed by Moses, housed in a tent-shrine. The tribes thus formed what in Greek history is known as an amphictyonic league, a group of states or tribes sharing a common sanctuary which served as the focus of their federation.”

In the whole account of Gideon nothing miraculous is mentioned. He “led a small and mobile band against the invaders, took them by surprise, pursued them across Jordan and wrought great havoc in their ranks.” p. 20.

Or take this description of Saul: “The tragedy of Saul is that he was a sincerely religious man, deeply concerned to do the will of Yahweh, and Samuel’s announcement that Yahweh had rejected him as king preyed upon his mind as it would not have done if he had been an irreligious man. He became a victim to melancholia and persecution mania, and required to have his dejected spirits soothed by music.” p. 26.

Solomon’s succession to the throne is not a matter of the promise of God, but: “David had already promised her (Bathsheba) that her son Solomon would succeed him as king; and this succession would certainly be more pleasing to the people of Jerusalem, who would prefer to he ruled over by a native of their city (as Solomon was) rather than by a son born to David before he became king of Jerusalem.” p. 34.

Jeroboam is explained as follows: “But the prophetic party, which was opposed to the innovating trends of Solomon’s policy, marked out this Jeroboam as one to whom the national loyalty could be diverted; and the suggestion was sown in Jeroboam’s mind by the acted prophecy of one of their number, Ahijah of Shiloh.” p. 39.

The stroke of the angel of death upon Assyria in Hezekiah’s time “appears to have been an attack of bubonic plague.” p. 72.
And so there are many such expressions in this book which do not ring true. Israel as God’s peculiar people, the product of His grace, the wonder, faith, the promise — all these play no part in this history.

Perhaps the root of the trouble in this book lies, on the one hand, in the attempt to write what is called a “political narrative” of Israel’s history. The attempt to do this is in this reviewer’s opinion impossible. Israel was the theocracy, the Old Testament kingdom of God. To avoid this fact, and treat Israel as a nation among the nations is exactly to divest Israel and its history of its fundamental and peculiar character. On the other hand, whatever else Dr. Bruce may believe about the Scriptures, the way they are characterized in his “Introduction,” p. 11, is less than satisfying: “Yet, while these books (of the Old Testament) have come down to us as Holy Scripture, they are historical-source documents of first-rate worth. The chapters which follow are not concerned with them as canonical writings, but as material for constructing a political narrative.” This, to my mind, is essentially a denial of the unique character of Scripture as the infallible Word of God. This use of Scripture goes a long way toward explaining the presentation of this volume.

My trouble is that when I discover things like this in a history book, I lose my confidence in the author’s presentation of historical data also, and become inclined to question almost all that he writes.

Conclusion? Read the book for what it is worth; but read with extreme discretion and a good, healthy skepticism.