I first was exposed to some of the new ideas and archaeological analyses of Israel Finkelstein as a young graduate student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and ever since then I have enjoyed repeated opportunity to engage with his voluminous and wide-ranging work and come to realize the highly significant role he has played in advancing archaeological and historical research on the Late Bronze-Iron Age southern Levant. It is no exaggeration to say that his contributions have decisively and irreversibly changed the field, not simply with regard to particular hypotheses and interpretations but also because of his elevation of critical methodology in placing the primary evidence of archaeological data before the secondary evidence of the biblical text. Few scholars have been so impactful and yet consistently original and thought-provoking. Continue reading
Because the Bible narrates that Israel first encountered its deity YHWH at Sinai after having left Egypt and before entering the land of Canaan, the question of YHWH’s historical origins has long been a topic of inquiry among biblical scholars. The claim of a non-autochthonous origin for a national god is indeed peculiar in terms of the wider ancient Near East, but in the context of the Bible is prominently and repeatedly given expression. So is it possible that a germ of truth lies behind this tradition?
The tendency in modern biblical scholarship has been to assume that the story of YHWH’s southern origins is based on very early tradition, partly because of the distinctive association of Midianites with YHWH worship and the figure Moses, but also because of a few examples of alleged early Hebrew poetry that describe YHWH coming from Edom or Sinai (Jdgs 5:4-5; Deut 33:2; Ps 68:8-9; Hab 3:3-4). During the last half of the 20th century and continuing until today, extra-biblical inscriptions that mention the name YHWH and connect it to the general area of Edom/southern Palestine have gradually taken on a pivotal role in the discussion. They are widely understood to confirm the basic picture that YHWH originated in the southern deserts outside the land of later Israel-Judah.
However, in recent years this standard view has come under strong criticism from a variety of angles, primarily within German language scholarship. This minority perspective argues that recent literary-critical and tradition-historical investigation into the development of exodus and other biblical tradition undercuts notions about their high antiquity, problematizes the interpretation of the extra-biblical evidence mentioned above, and highlights biblical material suggesting that YHWH originated as a fairly conventional Syrian-Canaanite weather god linked to developed agriculture.
The major challenge facing current research on the Pentateuch is outlined in the introduction: “In the three major centers of research on the Pentateuch-North America, Israel, and Europe-scholars tend to operate from such different premises, employ such divergent methods, and reach such inconsistent results that meaningful progress has become impossible. The models continue to proliferate but the communication seems only to diminish” (p. 3). Thus the lofty aim of the volume, “to further the international discussion about the Pentateuch in the hope that the academic cultures in Israel, Europe, and North America can move toward a set of shared assumptions and a common discourse” (p. 4).
There can be no doubt that the massive tome represents a step in the right direction. Formation has contributions from a bevy of important scholars on topics relevant to Pentateuchal study, including empirical perspectives on the composition of the Pentateuch, narrative continuity, historical linguistics and the dating of biblical texts, Second Temple literature and Dead Sea Scrolls, evidence for redactional activity, integration of preexisting literary material, historical geography, the Former Prophets, the Law and the Prophets, and theological implications, and each section is prefaced with a helpful introduction to orient the reader, some making substantive contributions to the discussion in themselves. Continue reading
Interest in the subject of demonology in ancient Israel-Judah/early Judaism has grown in recent years, and the present work represents the most recent monograph contribution to the conversation. In Materiality Brian Schmidt, who has already made significant forays into relevant topics such as Israelite mortuary cult and religion at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (KA), returns to build upon and nuance his earlier work with a special focus on apotropaic magic as evidenced in archaeological, epigraphic, and biblical sources. The stated goal is ambitious, to establish based on historical and comparative analysis the “survival and viability of a previously unidentified, yet extant pandemonium in preexilic Israelite magic” (p. 13).
A revised version of my article “The Meaning of asherah in Hebrew Inscriptions” was published in Semitica 59
The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture by Jeremy Smoak is an in-depth study into the origin and background of the priestly blessing in Num 6:24-26. The argument of the book is fairly simple. Building on recent inscriptional discoveries, Smoak proposes that the language of the blessing stems from a broader NWS tradition of apotropaic formulae that were spoken and written down to protect individuals from demonic forces, and this illuminates not only the function of the blessing prior to being incorporated into the biblical text but also its meaning in its current narrative setting in the priestly source. Continue reading
Throughout his career Ziony Zevit has distinguished himself as an independent thinker, educator, wide-ranging scholar, and promotor of collegial discussion and debate. In my own interactions with him I have been impressed by his candor, wit, and humility, willing to reconsider his own views in the face of new analyses or evidence. So it is not surprising that this Festschrift dedicated to him reflects not only something of the diversity of his own intellectual interests but also a diverse assortment of scholars.
The book includes 21 contributions divided into three sections, “History and Archaeology,” “Bible,” and “Hebrew and (Aramaic) Language.” Overall I found the individual contributions to be thought-provoking, even if not equally persuasive. In the interest of time, I will only comment on a few that relate more directly to my own biblical studies interests: Continue reading
My paper proposal “Reconstructing the pantheon of Judaean Elephantine” was accepted for the 2017 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in the Social Sciences and the Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures unit. Here’s an abstract:
Despite the fact that documents recording aspects of the daily life and religion of the Judaean colony at Elephantine during the Persian period have long been known and available for analysis, no consensus has emerged about the number of gods worshipped in the local cult, to what degree the gods were Judahite-Israelite in origin, and especially how the gods were thought to relate to one another and to YHW. Were the gods conceptualized in the conventional model of a familial, hierarchically arranged pantheon as known from throughout the ancient Near East? This paper critically assesses the evidence for a pantheon at Elephantine by reflecting on the cognitive science of religion and its implications for reconstructing ancient forms of polytheism, offers a new synthesis of the data regarding the structure and coherence of the Judaean pantheon as it was apparently known there, and finally considers the relevance of the situation at Elephantine for questions about the nature of Israelite-Judahite polytheism more generally.
One of the central preoccupations of modern biblical scholarship has been the dating of individual texts to particular historical situations or relative to other texts, as well as reconstructing their diachronic development from earlier stages to the final forms that appear in various text traditions/translations (LXX, Qumran, MT). And while I think this is a worthwhile endeavor and ultimately necessary to explain the complex literary quality of the Bible, too often hypotheses have been advanced based merely on vague historical correlation, the desire to find kernels of great antiquity, and the assumption that biblical scribes were for the most part simply editors or tradents handing down earlier tradition. At the same time, the traditional dating of biblical texts has tended to lack engagement with holistic literary and ideological analyses or fail to entertain the possibility that the scribes responsible for large-scale compositions were simply inventors of tradition.
I have a lot more I could say about this, but in the interest of encouraging more methodological rigor and self-criticism in the dating of biblical texts I thought I would offer a few basic guidelines:
1) The burden of proof is on those who would date a text earlier than its surrounding literary context;
2) Such proposals also move on a sliding scale, the earlier one dates a text relative to the major contexts for the production of the Bible (Persian and Hellenistic periods, late Judahite monarchy) the more speculative and tenuous the argument becomes;
3) To demonstrate literary discontinuity requires a higher bar of evidence than continuity, i.e. on principle readings that make sense of the text at a synchronic level are to be preferred over diachronic readings.
Over the years I’ve dedicated quite a bit of time to research and writing on the Hebrew Bible, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people have wondered why I do this, given that I’m not personally invested in the topic as a matter of religious devotion. Well, I think I would respond by asking, if you had the opportunity to be an astronaut who could explore foreign worlds light years away from ours, would you do so? Would you do this for the sheer joy of exploration, to expand our understanding of the universe and ourselves, and for the potential benefits that would accrue to human civilization? In a way, I think of myself as a kind of astronaut or rather detective-explorer, but instead of probing the universe through space I travel back through time, venturing into worlds very different from our own, worlds sometimes as foreign and alien as a distant planet. Why? Because this ancient literature and its fervent assertions, politics, questions, and controversies are still very much with us and profoundly influence contemporary culture. Because aspects of the Bible’s theological politics should be emphatically rejected as ethically dubious, while the full range of wisdom contained in these books has not yet been fully plumbed. Because the literature is incredibly rich, multivocal, and all too human. Because if you want to understand how we got to where we are and where we may be going, it helps to go back to the beginning where it all started, or at least one salient beginning. Because knowledge is power and enables one to ask questions and envision new forms of society and culture. Because if we want to build a better future for humanity we need to learn how to assimilate the messiness of our past, with all its arbitrariness and contingency.