Because the Bible has a spiritual point and tells a spiritual story, the context with which that story develops can seem obscure at times. Professor Bruce's effort, in Israel and the Nations, attempts to place most of the Old and New Testament within its regional political and cultural context in a very precise and clear prose style.
Bruce writes with the presupposition of the historicity of the miracles and supernatural interaction with the Hebrew people being real, but that is not his primary focus. His focus is to place the spiritual story within the larger story of the ancient near east. He does regard the the Bible to be a history source of the highest rank. The author makes no theological judgments of the events, but merely places them in time.
His story is remarkable when taken out of its familiarity: a large tribe of nomads arising from Egypt over 3500 years ago onto a cross-roads section of the Mediterranean coast, after various civil wars, economic collapses, and defeats by a string of neighboring powers, should be nothing more than a footnote to history, as much as the Hittite Empire or the Amorite. Instead, they changed the world, largely due to their struggle to keep and at times abandon their unique religious faith.
The first half of the book covers the period from the Egyptian exodus to the end of the prophets. This retelling of the history has a wonderful way of humanizing the events told in the Old Testament. The envies and strife spring from real tribal warfare, real economic crisises, and real political intrigue. The rise and fall of King Solomon and his descendants is an excellent example. Taking advantage to exploit natural resources, like copper and horses for chariots, his tribal empire grew; yet fell when tax burdens, forced labor, double-crossings of allies and enemies happened and raw nepotism and favoritism ensured the worst of combinations: weak and oppressive government, something not easily picked up by reading the scriptural narrative, but the elements are all there.
The value of Psalm 137, which tells of the joy of Judah's traditional enemy, Edom, rejoicing over their fall to the Babylonians in 587 BC has a greater ring to it when you understand the doom of the fall of Jerusalem and what that meant for relations to neighbors and what that said about the confidence of the Jewish people in years to come.
The last half of the book deals with what is known as the inter-testament period to the final fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 to the Romans and the Jewish diaspora that forever changed Judaism and his daughter faith Christianity. The exploits of Alexander the Great, his successor Greek rulers, the rise of Rome, and the Herodian dynasty are all told here from the perspective of the Jewish people and state. What readily becomes apparent is that the Jews were becoming more of a spiritual people and less of a nationalistic people, as the Greek influence after Alexander, spread the Jewish influence around the Mediterranean basin. In fact the first translation of the Bible out of its native tongue, the Septuagint, took place around 50 BC in the Jewish learning centers of Alexandria, Egypt.
This is an excellent book, not only because the story it tells is excellent, but because Dr. Bruce writes of it extremely well and concisely in under 250 pages. It would be a worthwhile read for students of the Bible.