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Isaac Asimov may be best known for his extensive science fiction works, but he also wrote on many other subjects that drew his interest, and fortunately for us the Bible drew his interest. His commentaries analyze almost everything in the Bible that merits further attention, asking questions, re-evaluating meanings, discussing the context from many angles including historical, linguistic, archeological, and other scientific views. If you want a history of Alexander and the four generals that divided his empire or have questions on any "unsolved mysteries" from the Bible like the Star of Bethlehem or why various apochrypha (books like Enoch that were left out of the official Bible) were disputed, Asimov covers such topics. He does so in great detail, requiring two separate books on the Old and New Testaments of the Bible - but I am reviewing the pair as one because they go hand in hand and most readers interested in one will also want the other.
One item that really got my attention was his theory on Noah's Flood. On pages 40-42 of his Old Testament commentary, Asimov discusses the possibility that it was not all from rain: "There may have been a sudden rise in the water level of the Persian Gulf... It has occurred to me recently that a possible explanation for such an invasion of the sea would be the unlucky strike of a large meteorite in the nearly landlocked Persian Gulf..." He points out Genesis 7:11 notes that "'the fountains of the great deep [were] broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.' A tidal wave plus rain, in other words." Later he suggests: "The tradition that the ark came to rest in Ararat some six hundred miles northwest of Sumeria again speaks in favor of the tidal-wave theory of the Flood.Read more ›
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I bought this book on a lark: Isaac Asimov the science fiction writer? A secular history of the bible? Riiight...
Actually, Asimov was a very accomplished scientist, philosopher, and writer of both fiction and non-fiction. His 2 volume book set on the Bible is, as he makes it clear from the start, NOT a criticism of the Bible nor is it new work. It is a scholarly exploration, chapter by chapter of the most up to date (at the time) understanding of the history of the Ancient Middle East and how that relates to the English language version(s) of the Bible. Exquisite detail is used to identify, explain, and cross-reverence the empires, nations, battles, names, etc, necessary to make sense of these complex histories/stories. He swiftly sums up, without judging, several confusing differences in spelling and dynasty orders that clog up part of the OT. Dozens of maps help to make locations and relationships between nations much more clear. Even when he points out that a story cannot be historical, he does so with straightforward explanations and direct references to previous parts of the volume itself where they were discussed. Where appropriate he also compares different translations, book/chapter titles, and canon versions.
Personally, I found his exploration of the "apocrypha" most enlightening. He does not waste time on why something was included or not included by goes directly to whether it has anything to teach us about history or the societies that wrote it an criticized it.
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I have been reading Dr. A's work for decades. I sincerely mourned his passing, and with that passing a mind that could have grasped some of the archaeological research bearing on the Bible in the last 25 years. But I hope he would also have taken advantage of other Bible related studies which blossomed in that same period.
The issue being that Dr. A's book is outdated and he's not here to fix it. In 1995 Ebla's archives were discovered. In 1992 Axel Olrik's seminal Principles of Oral Narrative Research was published in English for the first time. A little before that Ronald Whybray published Making of the Pentateuch. And the field of Oral Traditions study made great strides in those 25 years.
Since 1976, archaeology has new perspectives on some of the assertions in this book. Two of the Cities of the Plain have been identified in Ebla's archives, and their possible site has been located through satellite imagery and a dig shows they were destroyed before 2300 BCE. Archaeologists have determined that camels were domesticated about 2700 BCE instead of the date used to show that Avraham was invented during the monarchic period. Digs show that Pi-Tum had at best ambiguous signs of habitation during the reign of Ramses II, whom most people probably identify with the pharaoh of the Exodus. Pi-Tum was its name at the time of the Babylonian Captivity; it was inhabited during Hyksos times as was Avaris, later renamed for Ramses and now known as Tell El-Daba. Pi-Tum's modern name is Tell el-Maskhuta which corresponds amazingly to the Hebrew name given in the Bible: Sukkot.
These finds help up-end the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP), a cornerstone of this book.Read more ›