I was originally undecided on whether to rate Alt's *Essays* 4 or 5 stars. The collected essays (5 of them) are cleverly argued, detailed, and weighty. This German giant was a master of the material. He also had this sort of anti-climactic yet provocative style where he builds up to a certain conclusion or states with apparent confidence the viewpoints of other scholars only to immediately or somewhat later demonstrate its inadequacies or tear into it with his own insight. It isn't too conspicuous always, but it's enough to detect the trend. With due props to R. A. Wilson the read isn't difficult, although there are a few untranslated Hebrew and Greek expressions. This should apprise laymen that the book isn't generally for them.
But I forbore a 5-star rating on account of what I perceived the first time around as flaws. For a scholar of Alt's standing these otherwise venial oversights and examples of carelessness really can't go unscrutinized...Besides, I just feel like being a tough critic. :)
I felt Alt mused over a lot of conjecture at points, building from only the tentative or admittedly hypothetical. At other points it seemed he dismissed as unhistorical what doesn't dovetail with his theoretical schemes. One instance involves Solomon's policy of forced labor which in Alt's view was only imposed on the northern state even though the texts in question read 'all Israel'. (nn. 137, 140, 158 in the essay 'The Formation of the Israelite State') He contradicts himself in acknowledging that even under the United Monarchy Israel and Judah were distinct entities, but he later states that mention of them as independent before the division following Solomon's death is an anachronism (contrast p. 208 & n. 114 with p. 273 & n. 91); and moreover he says this even when he makes the acuminious observation that the break after Solomon was really more of a repristination to earlier times, since Israel and Judah had always been in some sense 'divided'. (see pp.308-9) I could go on, but one final mistake I'll mention is Alt's confusion between the sacral cities of refuge in the Code of the Covenant (see Exo xxi.13-14) and the evidently secular cities of refuge, owing to its idiosyncratic centralization law, in Deuteronomy. (see nn. 65-6, p. 139-40) These are some of the reasons why I can't give *Essays* a perfect score, but the 4 remaining stars are well-earned.
In my opinion the best essays are the first two: 'The God of the Fathers' and 'The Origins of Israelite Law'. It might not be contingency that these chapters make the most ingenious use of form-critical methodology. In the first Alt dismantles the layers of later tradition in the relatively late text of the Pentateuch to lay bare the pre-Yahwistic religion of Israel. Apart from the local 'Elim' or local deities at the sanctuaries founded by the patriarchs according to their narratives, there is the distinguishable tradition of the 'gods of the fathers': individual deities of the pre-literarily separate patriarchal epics assimilated to Yahweh by the three sources of the Tetrateuch and forming the bridge between Israel's ancestral religious past and the later national Yahwism. Alt's conclusion is that it's 'impossible to doubt that the Israelite tradition of the God of the Fathers presents us with a type of religion that was a living force among other Semitic tribes both in the desert and for centuries after their settlement' (p. 58)
In the second essay Alt again utilizes form criticism to uncover pretextual stages of Pentateuchal law and its origins. He starts out enunciating the essential correctness of the theory of the conflate, conflicting, and multi-provenient literature of the Pentateuch; then he marks off two kinds of its laws: the casuistic, a form adopted from the Canaanites, and the apodeictic, peculiarly Israelite. The casuistic is earlier but both, Alt states, go back to before the settlement or soon afterward. (p. 175)
The third essay, 'The Settlement of the Israelites in Palestine', is the most difficult and will be an exercise in tedium for those not interested in matters like Egyptian suzerainty in Palestine and the effects of climate and topography on its territorial divisions and politics. Anyway, it doesn't seem the independent study Alt attempts of the history of Palestine's territorial divisions contributes too great a deal to the history of the Israelite settlement. Maybe I missed something...
The fourth (named earlier) and the fifth, 'The Monarchy in Israel and Judah', which was originally part of the fourth, are the least best argued in my opinion, but the last is the shortest and has no footnotes, which I liked in this case.
The *Essays* is a valuable addition to any OT library.