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How useful is the Old Testament for reconstructing the history of early Israel? How accurate is the Bible's portrait of the ancient Near East over three thousand years ago? Such questions have recently dominated academic discussion and have spilled over even into the popular arena. Prelude to Israel's Past may add fuel to the fire of this often heated debate. Lemche, a scholar at the center of this debate, carefully explores the crucial questions that concern the biblical portrayal of Israel's early history. Does that portrait conform to the historical description of Bronze Age Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia that modern-day historians and archaeologists have uncovered? Did the biblical authors record the experiences of Israel's ancestors, or did these authors express their own experiences through historical fiction? Lemche's lucid answers to these and many other questions suggest that the biblical writers, like modern-day filmmakers, wrote tales that spoke to their audiences' tastes, intelligence, and (especially) needs. Consequently, the primary task of the modern student of the Bible is not to look to the patriarchs, or Moses, or Mount Sinai for historical reconstructions but to understand the theological context and purpose of these narratives. Only if we read the Old Testament in its literary and theological contexts can the Bible continue to speak to us today. The merit of this solid and stimulating work is that it gives the fullest account available in English of Lemche's assessment of the pentateuchal traditions in relation to what we otherwise know of Bronze Age Syria and Palestine in their sociopolitical, literary, and religious dimensions. He concludes that while the Pentateuch carries cultural and literary traces that would accord broadly with the world in which it is set, these features are too fragmentary and contextless to give us recoverable history. In his view, the Pentateuch's narrative intention was to provide a foundation story for the monotheistic Jewish community of a much later age. Instead of providing us information on Israel's actual beginnings, it is an exceedingly valuable window into the postexilic thought world and communal concerns of those who composed it. Happily, Lemche's argument is free of the scornful polemics that have unfortunately characterized much of the scholarly debate on these issues in recent years, allowing the reader to consider his claims on their own terms.
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