- Spies of the Bible: Espionage in Israel from the Exodus to the Bar Kokhba Revolt
Rose Mary Sheldon's new book Spies of the Bible paves the way for a road not yet traveled: the study of ancient intelligence and espionage in the land of Israel. In this book, Sheldon, one of the pioneers of the study of intelligence in the ancient world, seeks to examine the region where, according to her, "Intelligence wars have raged for three millennia" (p. 13).
For many years, the study of the military history of the land of Israel suffered from neglect and tendentiousness. On the one hand, Christian theology damaged the objectivity of the field out of a desire to minimize Jewish military abilities in the post-Temple, early Christian era. On the other hand, as Sheldon points out in the context of the Bar Kochba revolt (p. 198), the field was harmed by the emergence of the modern Zionist movement, which adopted those events as sources of inspiration and ignored external criticism.
Because of the late (though modest) flourishing of the study of the modern military history of the land of Israel, the niche of intelligence, among the wealth of [End Page 547] military topics, remained orphaned and marginal until the appearance of this book. This is sufficient to explain the importance of Sheldon's new book to the field of land of Israel studies.
It is precisely because of this that readers who are engaged in the study of ancient intelligence or the history of the land of Israel will experience something of a letdown because of the way in which things are presented. In her book, Sheldon has chosen to analyze two distinct historical eras in the history of the Jewish people: the first being the biblical era, the days of the kingdoms and the First Temple, and the second the Second Temple era, from the Hasmonean revolt until the Bar Kochba revolt. While it is true that these are chronologically consecutive eras, nonetheless, because of the significant gaps between the types of sources and the over-abundance of matters relating to intelligence in these periods, it is impossible to go into sufficient depth on the subject.
It would seem that to a certain extent, Sheldon's interesting intelligence analyses and ideas pay the price of too ambitious a project, only managing to scratch the intelligence surface, while the major portion of her work deals with the general background and the setting of the study.
For example, in the first part of her book, in accordance with the title she chose, Sheldon begins by focusing on bible stories as a source for espionage affairs during the First Temple era, and there follows a long, convoluted, and simplistic explanation of the significance of biblical criticism (pp. 21-37). This discourse adds nothing to the study of the intelligence of the ancient period, other than affirming the premise, also presented by Sheldon, that what is under discussion is a factual-literary perspective to the text (p. 36), and not a historical base. It would have been enough to note that modern scholarship is split on the subject of when the various sources were composed and tends to attribute them to the First Temple era and later, instead of presenting the reader with a summary of a not-yet resolved debate. Also, in her treatment of the Hasmonean revolt, and late on in her study of the Great Revolt and the relationship between Rome and Judea, Sheldon wraps her ideas on intelligence in layers upon layers of general information and military analysis, and does not devote sufficient space to the treatment of intelligence it self.
It is worth noting the modern military glasses through which Sheldon views ancient battles. She manages to sketch a clear picture of relative strengths, and to handle wisely the difficulties of the asymmetrical wars in the land of Israel. However, it is precisely this...