Book Review: Early Israel And The Surrounding Nations

Early Israel And The Surrounding Nations, by A.H. Sayce

One’s appreciation of this book is increased if you know a little bit about the author ahead of time. A.H. Sayce was an early Assyriologist of the late 19th century who became legendary for his brilliant insights into the Hittite Empire and its early texts, as well as his skilled work in translating cuneiform tablets from Babylon and other areas [1]. His diverse work appears to have been born out of a combination of physical delicacy and immense intellectual skill, and many of his hunches (like the site of the Hittite capital and the existence of a massive Hittite capital and the syllabary nature of the Hittite language) appear to have been spot on. Given his sagacity when it comes to his guesses, it would stand to reason that his comments about the relationship between Israel and its neighbors is pretty strong as well.

That would be an accurate judgment, based on the contents of this book. The author seems to have an approach similar to authors like K.A. Kitchen [2] in not being an obvious religious believer but having a high degree of confidence in the historical worth of the Bible because of his firm knowledge of the history and literature of the ancient Near East. As a strong opponent of higher criticism based on firm empirical knowledge, this author draws his case for the legitimacy of the biblical worldview from a strong knowledge of the source material that was available at the time he wrote, which included the Tel Amarna letters, some Hittite treaties, the Moabite stone, some of the early Assyrian texts, the Babylonian creation and flood myths, and the like (many of which are included as an appendix to the text). This writing demonstrated to the author the clear historicity of key events, including the mysterious battle of Genesis 14 [3], in which the author identifies Abraham as a contemporary of Hammurabi, and further guesses that it was Abraham’s victory against that army that allowed Hammurabi to break free from Elamite domination. Likewise, the author offers some sound judgments on the influence of Egypt and Babylon on the biblical worldview in ways that are sensible, if somewhat unusual.

This is not to say that this book is without its quirks. The author clearly belongs to that 19th century tradition of making provocative racial claims that would be considered highly offensive for academics in the present age. Two sets of comments, made often, would not tend to pass muster with contemporary racial mores. The first is a tendency to ascribe certain characteristics to ethnicities (including Egyptians and Arabs). This was an entirely acceptable manner of speaking when Sayce was alive, and he was not even particularly hostile in doing so–he seems to have an attitude of respect towards other people, but as a historian of ancient times he is clearly interested in looking at the endurance of cultural traits among people, some of which are not particularly flattering. The other trait is his insistence on the superiority of mixed races to “pure” races in their success. This would seem to be an argument against the racism that was endemic in his society, under the rubric of eugenics and social Darwinsim, but his argument, even if it is sensible, is not something that would pass muster with today’s concern about national and ethnic politics that seek to privilege supposedly pure minority peoples. For those who are not bothered by this sort of commentary, this book offers some intriguing commentary about Israel in the context of its neighbors and provides a general historical context for evaluating and highly regarding the historical claims of scripture.


[2] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History, Middle East and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Book Review: Early Israel And The Surrounding Nations

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