Review of Mark Smith, Where the Gods Are: Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World (Yale University, 2016)

In Where the Gods Are Smith addresses the timely topic of deities in relation to space in the ancient world and the Bible. Building off and drawing on previously published material, Smith presents an admirably concise and yet broad comparative discussion on the issues of divine representation and anthropomorphism, clarifying the various strategies and means by which humans mediated divine presence in their social and political world.


Chap 1 offers a typology of biblical YHWH’s body, whose physicality and size varies depending on the literary context. Chap 2 discusses how the temples in which deities reside partake of and express their superior status. Chap 3 suggests that divine anthropomorphism is complex, combining anthropomorphic, theriomorphic (animal-like), and natural imagery so as to distinguish deities from humans. Chap 4 explores the meaning of bull-calf imagery as applied to YHWH in the Bible and the possible significance of singular and plural references to calf images. Chap 5 reviews evidence for the localization of divinity in broader territorial contexts with particular focus on how different cultic manifestations related to and influenced one another and the development of a centralized cult at Jerusalem that excluded divine fragmentation. Chap 6 examines the royal city as an integrated sacred space and proposes that divine anthropomorphism stimulated the personification of Jerusalem as wife and mother.


Considering the narrow length of the book, Where the Gods Are covers an impressive amount of material, ranging widely over the literature and iconography of the ancient Near East and synthesizing it into a coherent, if bibliocentric, narrative. The writing is clear, accessible, and well-organized. Irrespective of whether one agrees with specific aspects of his argument, the discussion is brimming with insight and learned interconnections, representing the fruit of years of study and close interaction with ancient religious texts. As is his custom, Smith provides extensive and up-to-date bibliographic detail, allowing the reader to get a feeling for the state of the scholarly conversation as it stands in contemporary research.


In general, I thought his account of the complexity of anthropomorphic discourse and the need to instantiate deity in relation to human society and on analogy thereto was convincing. Concepts of deity are integrally related to human experience and imagination and therefore necessarily change and evolve over time. However, I found some of the specific literary-historical arguments advanced in the course of the book to be insufficiently supported and/or problematic. Here I will mention two, including the notion that YHWH in the Bible has three typologically distinct bodies and the second that the varying numbers of calf images in biblical tradition point to divergent iconographic backgrounds.


With regard to the first, Smith claims that in the Bible YHWH is associated with three types of bodies (chap 1). He refers to these as the “natural human body,” which is physically anthropomorphic and manifest on earth, the “liturgical body,” which is superhuman in size, nonphysical, and manifest on earth, and the “cosmic mystical body” located in heaven (14-24). However, while it may be the case that YHWH’s body is depicted with varying degrees of size and physicality and that some imagery is more consistently associated with certain locations or settings (cf. Sommer 2009), it is much more questionable whether they can be divided into these particular categories or if we have sufficient information to typologically distinguish one representation of the divine body from another.


The main evidence for a “natural human body” consists of Gen 2-3, 18-19, and 32, all of which attribute behaviors to deity consistent with an anthropomorphic physical body. Yet in Gen 2-3 the narrative suggests that YHWH is imagined to have a superhuman rather than human-sized body. The statement “YHWH-Elohim took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden” (v. 15) implies that the deity was large enough to pick the man up and move him to another location. If this is the case, as Smith admits, then it seems rather arbitrary to separate this presentation from the so-called “liturgical body,” which also hinges on a supersized body. In addition, many scholars have noted that the Eden story takes place on a cosmic mountain near the divine abode, thus further undermining the differentiation of this deity from the “liturgical” category of deity, which Smith describes as belonging to the “constellation of themes associated with the deity’s temple-palace located on the holy mountain” (18).


In the case of Gen 18-19 and 32, while both passages refer to deities who have a human-like body and in the present form of the tradition at least one is identified with YHWH, it is not clear that they were originally identified as such and therefore are entirely relevant to defining the first category of divine body. As is well known, Gen 18-19’s description of the three men who visit Abraham exhibits significant literary tensions. The narrative begins with the introduction “YHWH appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre…” (v. 1) and then immediately moves to the narrative report that “He looked up and saw three men standing near him” (v. 2). Because the juxtaposition implies that one of the men is YHWH, it is highly odd that the narrative should initially fail to distinguish among them. Why the awkward YHWH appeared > Abraham saw three undifferentiated “men”? For the most part, the men are treated as an integral group throughout the narrative: “wash your [plural] feet… your [plural] servant… They said… before them… They said to him… Then the men set out from there…” Considering that later two of the men are portrayed as destroying angels who have been sent by YHWH to bring judgment on the people of the plain (19:1, 13), it seems reasonable to assume that they were all originally mediating second-tier deities in a larger pantheon structure, one of whom has been secondarily identified with YHWH. Michael Hundley has noted that one of the main ideological goals of the Genesis-Exodus narrative is “exclusive worship. In order to accomplish this goal, the text squeezes out the middle gods, either demoting them into the lower servant tier or pushing them out of the market entirely” (2016: 17). This understanding of the mysterious figures would explain why they tend to function in the narrative as a group, rather than YHWH and two subordinate angels. They are all of comparable divine status, sent by a higher authority. In the genre of epic literature heightened anthropomorphism and direct interaction with humans would also be more consistent with mediating figures than a cosmic high god such as El.


Similarly, the deity that wrestles with Jacob in Gen 32 is not explicitly identified with YHWH. Although the man is recognized in the narrative as divine (vv. 28, 30), his identity is unknown to Jacob, who demands that he inform him of his name (v. 29). By contrast, in Hosea 12:3-4 the figure seems to have been identified with El, which may reflect a relatively late anti-El redactional layer (cf. Chalmers 2008). The failure of Jacob to recognize the man and the fact that he engages with him in combat strongly militates against the suggestion that he is his personal god, which in an Israelite context would have been El or YHWH. It is simply inconceivable that Israelite tradition would have memorialized a story about its founding ancestor having defeated his own personal god, undermining notions of divine power, benevolence, and serviceability. Rather, because the man is of divine status, fights against Jacob, appears only in the nighttime, and is warded off by the morning sun, he can only have signified a hostile demonic figure. He strikes Jacob in the loin area, suggesting an attempt to destroy his virility and posterity (Gevirtz 1975; Smith 1990).


The situation is reminiscent of the bizarre incident between YHWH and Moses in Ex 4:24-26, which also concerns the male sexual organ and occurs at nighttime. The narrative reports that at the place where Moses and his family were sleeping YHWH comes out of nowhere and tries to kill him, which Zipporah averts by placing blood on his penis and pretends to have circumcised him. Comparative and biblical evidence indicates that in the Canaanite-Israelite world circumcision had an apotropaic/propitiatory function and was associated with sexual maturation, marriage, and fertility (Propp 1993; 2010: 236-237; Olyan 2004; Flusser 2009; Wyatt 2009). In the Damascus Document circumcision is thought to protect from the figure of Mastema, the father of evil and angel of disaster (6QD 16:4-6), and in the Book of Jubilees it is Mastema who tries to kill Moses (48:1-4). So Ex 4:25 would seem to be another case where a demonic deathdealing figure has been obscured in the tradition and assimilated to normative mono-YHWHistic ideology.


The next category of body, the liturgical body, is supported by Ex 24:10, 33:22-23, Isa 6:1, and 1 Kgs 6:23-28. Here YHWH is thought to be superhuman in size and nonphysical in substance. Yet in Smith’s first example there is no reference to the deity’s size or physicality, only a mention of his feet, presumably resting below a throne. While it may be the case that YHWH is envisioned here as gigantic in size and nonphysical in nature, it is important to emphasize that the passage itself does not provide any direct indication of this. In the other passages YHWH is indeed portrayed as larger than life, or at least implied to be such. This is especially clear in Ex 33:22-23 where YHWH places Moses in a cleft of the rock and covers him with his hand, which recalls the depiction of deity picking up Adam and moving him with his hand in Gen 2:15. With regard to the deity’s physical nature, Ex 33, Isa 6, and 1 Kgs 6 are more ambiguous. Does “glory” in Ex 33:22 refer to something specifically nonphysical, or is it a circumlocution for YHWH’s body, whatever substance that may be? Kabod is elsewhere used in Hebrew to denote the substance of a human body (Sommer 2009: 60). To say that the description is not as naturalistic as Gen 2-3 because YHWH is said to “pass by” rather than “walk” is somewhat tenuous, since “to pass by” could easily be used of a human as well. Similar questions may be asked of Isa 6:1. Does Isaiah envision YHWH to be a physical or nonphysical being? Does he literally “see” him sitting on his throne in the Jerusalem temple, or is this a prophetic vision reflecting the happenings of a heavenly-mountain temple? The conceptual overlap between these spaces makes it difficult to know for sure.


The “cosmic mystical body” is found in Isa 40:12, 66:1, and Ezekiel 1, which is cosmically large, located in or above heaven, and apparently nonphysical. Yet here again we encounter problems. First, the statements in Isa 40:12 and 66:1 are highly rhetorical, evincing a concern to magnify the transcendence of YHWH over human cultic affairs. These passages are not philosophical or straightforward descriptions of the divine, but employ hyperbole and metaphor to highlight the greatness and supreme authority of YHWH. They both may well presuppose the tradition that YHWH’s body was gigantic in size, not so different from Gen 2-3 and Ex 33. It is also seems fairly clear that whatever the size of deity in the theophany described by Ezekiel he is not cosmically large, since the throne-chariot rises and moves about in the air. Second, it is unclear to what degree the localization of deity in these presentations should be distinguished from the concept of YHWH or El dwelling on the cosmic mountain in Gen 2-3, Ex 24, and 33. In Canaanite culture Mount Zaphon had long been conceptualized as the home of deity because it was close to heaven. The one reached into the other and so the spaces were closely bound together. It is certainly true that in later prophetic and apocalyptic material God’s home is universalized and pushed higher into heaven, but even in Ezekiel 1 the transition to a purely heavenly cosmic locale has not yet been effected. In Ezek 1:4 the prophet reports that he saw the throne-chariot proceed from Zaphon, or the North, which cannot but allude to God’s home on the cosmic mountain of El. Third, the passages cited fail to provide any direct information about the physical nature of YHWH’s body, aside from indicating that it was anthropomorphic. In Ezekiel the material substance of the divine body is left purposefully ambiguous, though aspects of the presentation of the throne-chariot would certainly allow for some kind of substantial embodiment (cf. 1:24).


In sum, there appears to be more continuity among the different representations of the divine body in the Bible than Smith has acknowledged. YHWH or El is generally perceived as being superhuman in size and having some kind of physical or material nature.


Smith also attempts to shed light on the singular and plural references to calf images in the Bible (chap 4). Sometimes the biblical text refers to only a singular calf icon worshipped at sites in Israel, but in a few cases a plurality of calf icons are mentioned (1 Kgs 12:32; Hos 10:5-6). Smith speculates that the divergence in numbers reflects distinct iconographies or backgrounds in the cult at Bethel, with the singular referent pointing to the use of a single calf icon as an object of focus and the plural referents including a double calf pedestal for an anthropomorphic statue and votives or cultic masks.


In order to explain the biblical forms, Smith interweaves textual and iconographic evidence from across the Near East, starting from the assumption that the variation between singular and plural numbers points to separate underlying cultic realities. However, while some of the proposals made here are ingenious, I found the general line of argumentation to be unconvincing for several reasons.


First, the plural reference in 1 Kgs 12:32 is a rather thin foundation upon which to build his thesis. From the literary context, the plural “calves” is most easily read in connection to the pair of calves mentioned in 12:28. The narrative specifically reports that Jeroboam made two calves of gold and placed one at Bethel and the other at Dan (vv. 28-29). Then it speaks about calf-worship as a national sin, as well as the construction of plural bamot sanctuaries across the countryside (v. 30-31). So when we come to the plural “calves” in v. 32 it would be natural to suppose they refer to the same two calves located at Bethel and Dan, not that the calf icon population at Bethel had suddenly increased. Of course, the main difficulty with this reading is that Jeroboam’s sacrificing to the calves appears to be localized at Bethel with the statement wyʿl ʿl hmzbḥ kn bbytʾl “he went up on the altar, thus he did at Bethel” in the MT (v. 32b), and according to the LXX, “he went up onto the altar that he had made in Bethel,” which reflects the use of a relative ʾšr rather than the particle kn. But the statement in v. 32b “he went up on the altar, thus he did at Bethel” is suspiciously similar to v. 33a “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel,” especially if we follow the more syntactically intelligible phraseology of the LXX. The use of the adverbial kn immediately after the clause “he went up on the altar” is awkward and the verb ʿśh is used in the surrounding context in the sense “to construct, make, appoint,” not “to do.”


In addition, the occurrence of the localizing information “in Bethel” in this clause creates further literary tension, since it is repeated in v. 32c “he set up in Bethel the priests of the bamot he had made” and then again in v. 33a “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel.” In other words, the repetition of Bethel is excessive and unnecessary. It seems reasonable to conclude therefore that the statement “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel” in v. 32 is a secondary addition and that the sentence originally read, “Jeroboam appointed a festival on the fifthteenth day of the eighth month (like the festival that was in Judah) to sacrifice to the calves that he had made,” that is, the calves at Bethel and Dan. The intention of the addition was presumably to clarify where Jeroboam was celebrating the festival in preparation for the following narrative about Jeroboam and the man of God (chap 13). V. 32c would also represent a closely related addition about the priests of Bethel. The earlier form of the narrative would have moved from a general national orientation in v. 32, with Jeroboam appointing a festival in Israel to sacrifice to the golden calves, to the specific setting of Bethel in v. 33.


Second, the explication of 1 Kgs 12:32 by means of Amherst Papyrus 63 also faces challenges. Steiner’s proposal to read the name “Yaho, our bull” and the divine title “lord of Bethel” is very uncertain, as Smith himself admits (61-62). Bethel is elsewhere in the document a title of the supreme god Mar, so the construction r.byt.rm is more sensibly read as a reference to the same deity. The passage about kissing bulls in Col V, 12 is far removed from the above supposed allusions to the Israelite Bethel cult and unfortunately the text at this point is broken, making it difficult if not impossible to situate these statements in their literary context. In any case, there is no clear indication that the background to the community responsible for the liturgy was Israelite. I think it more plausible to follow Kottsieper that they were a Canaanite group from south Syria somewhere in the general vicinity of the Lebanon (1997; 2013). In addition, because the significance of the bulls and calves is unclear from the context, it is premature to assume that they are invoked in synonymous parallelism, suggesting that the terms had come to overlap semantically and to symbolize a single god, comparable to biblical YHWH. In order to buttress this claim, Smith argues that šwr “ox” and ʿgl “calf” are used parallel in Ps 106:19-20. However, the full context of the passage shows that this understanding is questionable: “They made a calf at Horeb and worshipped a cast image. They exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass.” The mention of šwr is not used exactly parallel to ʿgl; the term is qualified with the adjectival phrase “that eats grass,” indicating that “ox” here functions not as a synonym but as the general animal category to which ʿgl belongs. In Hebrew ʿgl is normally used to denote a younger bull-calf, and I have argued that YHWH is depicted as a young bull-calf in the pithos A painting from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, consistent with his identification as “the calf of Samaria” (Thomas 2016).


Third, it is difficult to imagine that scribes in the biblical tradition would use a single lexeme to denote so many different iconographic realities, the singular meaning one thing and the masculine and feminine plural meaning something else. This kind of philological ambiguity would have created substantial potential for confusion and miscommunication in the tradition on an item of major importance in the development of biblical attitudes toward aniconism. Certainly later scribes responsible for the transmission of the Bible understood that the singular use of ʿgl referred to a calf icon or idol, so they would be unlikely to have introduced a totally new sense for the plural. Beyond that, it is particularly doubtful that Hebrew scribes would have employed ʿgl to designate a statue corresponding with the animal on the one hand and a composite image in which bovines were only the pedestal of an anthropomorphic deity on the other. In the latter case, the most important aspect of the icon would have been the anthropomorphic divinity, not the pedestal animals. To call a calf icon an ʿgl would accurately capture its material form, whereas the same would not be the case for an anthropomorphic statue.


Finally, while the feminine plural spelling ʿglwt in Hos 10:5 is morphologically anomalous and deserving of an explanation, I think it very unlikely that its cultic referent should be sharply differentiated from the calf icons polemicized against elsewhere in biblical tradition. From the immediate literary context it is clear that ʿglwt refers to a singular masculine entity, “for its/his people will mourn over it/him, its/his priests will wail over it/him” (v. 5). So whatever the origin of the feminine ending in the text, it does not function as a regular plural. Further, the ʿglwt is depicted as a cult statue of YHWH, since not only is it associated with human worshippers and priests, it is said to have a kabod, went into exile, and is brought as tribute to Assyria (vv. 5-6), all pointing to an enlivened and personalized cult manifestation. Thus the literary context would seem to exclude seeking for some specialized iconographic background or cultic utility for the unique ʿglwt, such as votives or masks. Smith’s analysis highlights the dangers of a narrowly philological method that focuses on individual words as the locus of historical information, rather than paying adequate attention to literary matters of context and interrelationship.


Despite my disagreement and concern with aspects of Where the Gods Are, the book makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion on concepts of deity in the Bible and generally models an open, fair minded, and non-dogmatic consideration of the issues.  


[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]




Chalmers, R. S. 2008. The Struggle of Yahweh and El for Hosea’s Israel. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix.


Flusser, D. 2009. Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Sages and Literature. Trans. A. Yaddin. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.


Gevirtz, S. 1975. Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford. Hebrew Union College Annual 46: 33-54.


Hundley, M. 2016. Of God and Angels: Divine Messengers in Genesis and Exodus in their Ancient Near Eastern Contexts. Journal of Theological Studies 67: 1-22.


Kottsieper, I. 1997. Anmerkungen zu Pap. Amherst 63. Teil II-V. Ugarit-Forschungen 29: 385-434.


—. 2013. El. Das wissenschaftliche Bibellexikon im Internet. Accessed 9/25/16.


Olyan, S. 2004. Israel: Rites of Passage. Pp. 442-444 in Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, ed. S. I. Johnston. Cambridge: Harvard University.


Propp, W. H. 1993. That Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus IV 24-6). Vetus Testamentum

43: 495-518.


—. 2010. Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB 2. New Haven: Yale University.


Smith, S. H. 1990. ‘Heel’ and ‘thigh’: The concept of Sexuality in the Jacob-Esau Narratives. Vetus Testamentum 40: 464-473.


Sommer, B. D. 2009. The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. New York: Cambridge University.


Thomas, R. 2016. The Identity of the Standing Figures on Pithos A from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud: A Reassessment. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 16: 121-191.


Wyatt, N. 2009. Circumcision and Circumstance: Male Genital Mutilation in Ancient Israel and Ugarit. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33 : 405-431


Canaanite Eden


For those who are interested, I thought I would summarize some of the implications of my study with regard to the Garden of Eden:

1) The Eden story is an authentic myth with roots in the landscape and religious sensibilities of ancient Canaan/Palestine. As with origin myths of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, it is a story that evolved over time and was adapted to particular hearings and audiences and whose purpose was to explain from whence humanity and its relationship to the gods and cosmos. It was not conceived as history, there was never a real Garden of Eden that could be located in real time or space and neither was there an actual Adam and Eve who once lived there.

2) Although the Garden of Eden was a mythical place, it was nevertheless anchored in the real world to the extent that it was commonly believed to be located in the lush, forested, mountain gardens of Mount Lebanon. These high mountains were the home of the gods and in particular El, the chief of the Canaanite pantheon. Just as human kings had their royal palaces and gardens, El had his own royal abode and garden, magnificent and impenetrable, towering over all the land.

3) The biblical narrative about Eden in Gen 2-3 has undergone substantial editing and adaptation from the time of its original writing, in order to develop the image of God or deity to fit later Israelite-Jewish religious conceptions and to obscure the location of Eden in the Lebanon. Traces of the polytheistic and Canaanite origins of the myth are detectable at numerous points in the narrative, for example, in the fountain or “flood” that breaks forth to water the garden.

4) Efforts by biblical scholars to locate Eden somewhere in Mesopotamia or Armenia far from the land of Canaan are most likely misplaced (e.g. Ziony Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? 2013; John Day, From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1-11, 2014; Marjo C.A. Carpool and Johannes C. de Moor, Adam, Eve, and the Devil: A New Beginning, 2015), not taking into account how the biblical tradition has developed literarily and conceptually and that El’s home was originally in the Lebanon.

5) This analysis underscores how biblical and pre-modern concepts of God and sacred history can be traced back to numerous, contingent, micro-developments in the literary heritage of ancient Israel-judah. God or the divine is an idea that is ever changing and on the move.

Chaoskampf, the Garden of Eden, and the Mountains of Lebanon



I have a new paper up on the Garden of Eden that explores its mythological background in Canaanite-Israelite mythological tradition. Among other things, I argue that the mysterious ʾēd that comes up to water the ground in Gen 2:6 is correctly translated “flood” and that the motif hearkens back to an ancient Canaanite myth in which El created the world through defeating the primordial Sea monster. This discovery then leads me to reconstruct how the biblical Garden of Eden story has evolved over time, with particular emphasis on the identity of YHWH-Elohim and the original mountain location of Eden in Canaan. I show how at an earlier stage in the narrative the divine protagonist was likely El rather than YHWH-Elohim and that the site of Eden has been adapted from Mount Lebanon to a non-defined place somewhere on the eastern horizon.

Review of The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, ed. John Barton


Of the making of biblical introductions there is no end. John Barton has produced another significant work whose goal is to bring the latest insights in biblical scholarship to a broader audience, The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (Princeton 2016). Only in contrast to other guides or introductions the material is here presented thematically, including essays on the historical and social context of the Hebrew Bible (part I), the major genres of biblical literature (part II), its major religious themes (part III), and finally reception history (part IV). The choice of organization is interesting, as it leads to a more theologically-oriented discussion as the heart of the book in part III, whereas parts I and II are more historical and literarily-determined in the vein of traditional introductions to the Bible.


Overall I thought the individual discussions were competent and well-grounded, reflecting the diversity of scholarly views, assumptions, methods, and topics of inquiry in contemporary biblical research. In addition, the writing is accessible and uncomplicated, clearly aimed at the non-specialist over the scholar, and substantial bibliographic information is helpfully appended to each essay. Because of the theological orientation of the book, I would say that The Hebrew Bible is especially useful for people coming from a religious background and who want to engage biblical scholarship at a level that is sensitive to faith concerns.


However, I did want to mention a few quibbles I had with the book.


First, I’m not sure that subtitling the work A Critical Companion was the best choice. While the essays present and engage with “critical” scholarship of various kinds, the theological interests that come to the fore at many points throughout the book make it something more than this and indeed complicate the use of this label. In my view, the term “critical” should be reserved for scholarship that attempts to describe rather than prescribe or reinscribe certain religious or theological convictions.


Second, the essays reflect significant disagreement on a number of substantive issues, which could easily create confusion in the mind of a reader. For example, the existence of the united monarchy is assumed by Barton (pg. 4) and yet rejected by Stavrakopoulou (pg. 39). Stavrakopoulou expresses skepticism toward the idea of an historical exodus or that Israel originated outside of the land of Canaan, while Frendo argues in favor of a historical exodus (pg. 95) and Gillingham distinguishes Israel from the people of Canaan (pg. 207). Frendo claims that Israel was officially bound to monolatry (pg. 93) and Sommer that Israel was actually monotheistic (pg. 241), whereas Kratz suggests that mono-YHWHism arose in the post-monarchic period (pg. 140) and Stavrakopoulou that it was an ideological construction of the biblical authors retrojected onto the past (pgs. 30-32).


Third, some of the contributions have an apologetic character. For example, Frendo states, “And yet, a close reading of these Old Testament narratives has allowed scholars to conclude that we can glean from them ‘archival and other details’ that can be linked with the results of archaeological research in Palestine and which in no way militate against the structure of the events assumed by the biblical narrators” (pg. 100). Against the emerging scholarly consensus, Sommer argues that Israelite religion during the monarchy was actually monotheistic and distinct from the general polytheism of the ancient Near East, running roughshod over a variety of complex biblical and extra-biblical evidence (pgs. 243-262). While monotheism is certainly evident in the final form of the biblical text, I highly doubt that it can be retrojected so easily onto the monarchic period.


Despite these concerns, I recommend the book as a convenient and stimulating overview of current academic study of the Bible, just as long as one remembers that some of the views articulated herein are somewhat idiosyncratic and nonrepresentative.

[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]

Review of Debra Scoggins Ballentine, The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition (2015)



I wanted to make a note of a recent publication that deserves more attention, The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition, by Debra Scoggins Ballentine, which is a revision of her dissertation from Brown University. The book presents a comprehensive review and functional analysis of the mythological motif of combat with the Sea/Dragon in West Asia, spanning a period of almost three millennia. She sums up the basic thrust of her argument at the beginning of the first chapter:

This study explores how the theme of divine combat was meaningful for particular authors in particular contexts, that is, how it was useful for saying things about, responding to, portraying, and shaping socio-political realities. The conflict topos was employed in part for ideological purposes in various historical situations, as the following chapters demonstrate through analysis of both whole narrative articulations of the conflict topos and examples of the conflict motif used outside of a narrative context. Ancient West Asian stories of divine combat generate a narrative hierarchical relationship among their characters, and the taxonomy of those mythical characters was consciously projected onto historical persons and polities for ideological purposes. Those aligned with the victorious deity are validated and endorsed by association with that deity. Those aligned with the sea or dragons are, the authors hope, destined for defeat, invalidated, and delegitimized.

The analysis is thorough, theoretically sophisticated, and very well done. For anyone interested in exploring more deeply a theme of crucial generative significance for a variety of narratives in both the Old and New Testaments, The Conflict Myth is a must read. Ballentine not only illuminates the flexibility, variation, and consistency of the conflict motif over a wide geographical and temporal frame, but she powerfully demonstrates how the study of the ideological function of myth can enrich our understanding of familiar stories from the Bible.

Perhaps most provocative is her conclusion that the various enemies featured in the conflict myth are not “agents of chaos” but should rather be understood as “agents of an alternative divine power structure.” Accordingly, she pleads that scholars avoid using “chaos” or “Chaoskampf” with reference to the conflict theme. On the one hand, I think that Ballentine is absolutely right that “chaos” as a descriptive label has been overused and abused, that all the enemies defeated by warriors gods should not be simply homogenized together or decontextualized and in some cases their ontology and status is portrayed as not substantially different from other deities. Yet to my mind to characterize the theme of divine combat with the Sea as merely conflict between competing power structures also hardly does justice to its mythological resonances. One needs to differentiate between specific creative articulations of the motif as attested in specific literary sources (Yam in the Baal Cycle, Tiamat in Enuma Elish) and its more basic underlying mythological structure and conceptual background, which originally seems to have been closely tied to cosmogonic creation and some sort of conflict with primordial “chaos.” In the eastern Mediterranean where the myth appears to have developed the basic idea was that a god had defeated a primordial Sea monster at the beginning of time and established his mountain throne 0n top of it, in the process creating a well-ordered cosmos, with sea, dry earth, mountains, fresh water, and sky. The myth is reflected in numerous biblical and extra-biblical texts and also makes sense within the local topography of the region (Batto 2013; Kottsieper 2013; Ayali-Darshan 2014).

That this primordial Sea monster can accurately be associated with a concept of “chaos” or “Chaoskampf” is supported by various considerations: 1) this Sea monster is primordial or pre-creation and is the stuff upon which the cosmos are established; 2) it is portrayed as monstrous in form, suggesting it is unlike other more benevolent anthropomorphic deities; 3) it is associated with the watery deep and sea, which are inherently chaotic and dangerous; and 4) it is located at the periphery of the cosmos from the perspective of humans and thus occupies a pole opposite from the ordered center (Smith 2001: 27-33).

I would therefore argue that the terminology of “chaos” and “Chaoskampf” is still useful as a description for some versions of the West Asian conflict topos, and even in those cases where the enemy of the warrior god is not identifiable or coterminous with chaos per se, such as with Yam at Ugarit in the Baal Cycle, resonances of the chaoskampf theme nevertheless lie in the background and inform how ancient readers would have inevitably approached the narrative, e.g. when El sides with Yam and calls him his “beloved” for kingship, it only makes El look thoughtless and foolhardy, since the Sea was formidable and dangerous and could not be a worse choice for rulership over the gods on mount Zaphon.



Ayali-Darshan, N. 2014. The Question of the Order of Job 26,7-13 and the Cosmogonic Tradition of Zaphon. Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 126: 402-417.

Batto, B. 2013. The Combat Myth in Israelite Myth Revisited. Pp. 217-236 in Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis, ed. J. Scurlock and R. H. Beal. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Kottsieper, I. 2013. El. Das wissenschaftliche Bibellexikon im Internet. Accessed 9/25/16.

Smith, M. 2001. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. New York: Oxford University.


אל קנה ארץ: Creator, Begetter, or Owner of the Earth?


I have a new article up on the meaning of the verb qny in the divine epithet qny ʾrṣ, variously translated “Creator,” “Begetter,” or “Owner of the earth.” I argue that the verb never means “to create” in West Semitic and that all attested usages can be explained on the assumption that they derive from a single root with the basic meaning “to acquire, come into possession.” The correct translation of Hebrew qnh šmym wʾrṣ in Gen 14: 19, 22 is “Owner of heaven and earth.”

Review of Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity, ed. Ingrid Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson

In recent decades historical study of the Hebrew Bible has experienced a number of interpretive shifts as a result of developments in the broader social, intellectual, and academic environment, which has led many scholars to view the narratives of the Bible as more literary construction than authentic sources for the history of Israel-Judah. At the forefront of this movement has been a collection of scholars loosely associated with Copenhagen and Sheffield, often decried as biblical minimalists, who have pioneered new perspectives on the relationship between the Bible, history, and myth and provoked greater methodological introspection and rigor in the field as a whole.

The present volume Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity (Routlege 2016) represents the latest contribution by some of the key figures in this discussion, which gathers papers on a variety of topics that attempt to address the question of the nature of the biblical literature, as well as a valuable introduction that offers a brief overview of the minimalist-maximalist debate and a concluding theological homily about the relevance of this scholarship to religious lay people.

For this review I will summarize the main argument of each paper and then offer a brief assessment:

1. With his typical eloquence, P. R. Davies offers a postmortem on the old biblical archaeology (e.g. Albright et al) and outlines some general principles on a historical approach to the Bible that integrates insights from archaeology, anthropology, and critical exegesis along with some individual case studies. His central point is that archaeological research without critical literary-historical analysis of the Bible is flawed from the start.

Davies’ contribution is a must-read, if nothing else for his broad historical perspective and penetrating criticism about how biblical scholarship got to where it is today.

2. Building on recent scholarly trends, F. Poulsen deconstructs the traditional interpretation of the exodus from Babylon as the central theme of Isa. 40-55 and highlights the metaphorical and figurative nature of the language, as exemplified in Isa 49:8-12.

The article is well argued. While understanding prophetic literature as having originated in a metaphorical framework presents challenges for interpretation, because the language cannot be correlated straightforwardly to a certain historical context, attention to metaphor opens the way to a reappraisal of the meaning and intention of this literature.

3. T. Hasselbalch offers a new approach to the problem of composite traditions by paying close attention to how constituent parts of a text function on a symbolic and social level, with a case study of 4QMMT. She draws an important distinction between representational and non-representational meanings reflected in a text, that there is often an audience within an audience, and that the particular shape of a text often serves to reinforce ideological positions and sustain cultural identity and memory.

This study has important implications for the study of various biblical traditions, but unfortunately her contribution does not go beyond a treatment of 4QMMT itself.

4. N. P. Lemche revisits his earlier thesis that the Old Testament is a Hellenistic book.

Although provocative and worth reading, I didn’t find his specific arguments that the Old Testament was produced in a diasporic context and that the history of Israel was modeled on Greek literature very convincing. The claim that the Persian period is unlikely to have been the setting for the composition of much biblical literature sits somewhat in tension with Davies’ position advanced earlier in the volume.

5. In line with Lemche, P. Wajdenbaum argues that the biblical literature is dependent on classical sources such as Homer, Herodotus, and Plato.

This presentation was less than satisfactory, for Wajdenbaum adopts a rather synchronic approach to the Pentateuch, rejecting the findings of literary-historical criticism, and speaks of parallels in generalities without demonstrating dependence per se.

6. R. Gmirkin surveys Greek and Hellenistic literary genres in biblical literature without supposed ancient Near Eastern parallels in order to advocate for the Hellenistic origin of the Hebrew Bible.

Many of the parallels that Gmirkin notes are interesting and worth studying, but unfortunately his discussion of literary influence and dependence is plagued by the same methodological issues as in Wajdenbaum. If this article is any indication, Gmirkin does not seem to have paid much attention to the widespread criticism that his previous book on Berossus and Manetho received.

7. M. Müller discusses the new scholarly assessment of the Septuagint as a distinct and independent witness to the Old Testament of early Judaism.

The ideas expressed in the article are not new or unfamiliar, but the account of the history of Septuagint scholarship would nevertheless be valuable to someone interested in a short review of the subject.

8. F. Cryer argues that the community of Qumran did not know any integral canon of the Hebrew Bible that corresponded with the later MT text.

The article is dated and was first published in 1996.

9. G. L. Doudna presents an archaeologically-informed argument that Qumran Ib and II should be distinguished from one another and that the main period of Qumran was Ib when the site was closely associated with Jericho. Because the Qumran biblical texts are pre-stablization in the form of the MT and may be dated  to the end of Qumran Ib, then this implies that “the stabilization of the biblical text seems best dated late in the first century BCE or early first century CE, perhaps related to the new temple of Herod” (p. 148).

The article is among the most intriguing contributions in the volume. The reconstruction represents a real challenge to the status-quo thinking on the history of Qumran and the development of the Hebrew Bible, so it will be interesting to see how Qumran scholars respond.

10. The conclusions of J. Hogenhaven are largely in the negative: the evidence of the Qumran library yields little information about or interest in canon formation.

Again, the scholarship is not new or innovative.

11. F. A. J. Nielsen explores how missionary work and the propagation of the Bible in Greenland contributed to the creation of a unique native Christian identity.

Interesting, but of marginal relevance to the theme of the book.

12. J. West closes the volume with a sermon-like discussion that argues for the contemporary theological value and relevance of work produced by “minimalists” (T. Thompson, K. Whitelam, N. P. Lemche, P. R. Davies, and J. van Seters) for the life of the Christian church.

Although West’s presentation is idiosyncratic in some respects, one the one hand suggesting that the church should not be afraid of investigating the mythical dimension of scripture and on the other adopting a qualified position on biblical inerrancy, it is refreshing to see someone openly grappling with the theological implications of contemporary historical-critical study.

In sum, the volume Biblical Interpretation Beyond Historicity provides a welcome consideration of a variety of topics relating to the nature and origin of the Bible, though the quality of discussion is unfortunately very uneven and the emphasis on Greek influence and canon formation was rather confusing. I was particularly disappointed that the contributors did not devote more attention to the question, “If the Bible is not history, what is it then?” Highlights were the Introduction, Davies, Poulsen, Hasselbalch, Doudna, and West.

[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]

Review of R. Kratz, Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah (2015)


Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah, by Reinhard Kratz, is a revised and enlarged English edition of a work that originally appeared in German. Following in the footsteps of the bold 19th century exegete J. Wellhausen, Kratz aims to clarify the relationship between the Israel of history and the “Israel” of the Bible and to reconstruct the historical evolution by which the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament came to be an authoritative tradition for Judaism and Christianity. The work is divided into three sections that build on one another: first, a survey of the history of Israel and Judah until the destruction of the Second Temple as the context in which the biblical tradition arose (part A), second, an investigation into the formation and literary development of that tradition (part B), and lastly, a consideration of the role of scribal archives as the setting in which biblical literature was produced, edited, and transmitted (part C).


Although some of the content has appeared elsewhere separately, the book represents a notable contribution by one of the foremost scholars in contemporary Hebrew Bible study. It succinctly summarizes a wide range of historical and textual research, provides a comprehensive and original synthesis of the data, and could easily function not only as an introduction to German critical scholarship but as an entree to salient discussions and primary resources by means of the thorough and up-to-date footnotes and bibliography. Historical and Biblical Israel is clearly the work of a seasoned scholar who has distilled a vast amount of learning into a rather slim and compact volume.


What distinguishes Kratz’s reconstruction of the origin of the Hebrew Bible from other treatments is the degree to which he critically contextualizes it in the larger sweep of political, religious, and cultural history, from the earliest attestation of Israel to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The outline of history in part A allows him to see the biblical tradition as largely the product of a period subsequent to the destruction of the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms, when the biblical authors sought to found a new cult and religion, namely biblical Israel/Judaism. In part B the identification of pre-biblical written sources based on historical and comparative considerations is then used to determine how individual traditions were transformed over time into the books of the Bible, which process is dated according to major epochs and caesuras in Israel and Judah’s own history. Finally, in part C Kratz discusses epigraphic evidence from known centers of scribal literary production to suggest that the tradition of biblical Judaism did not become widely authoritative in Palestine or the diaspora until after the Maccabees and Hasmoneans established it as their official religion. The upshot is that while we can trace biblical tradition back to its monarchic-era roots, this religious tradition was of marginal significance in terms of its cultural impact and coexisted with the Canaanite milieu of ancient Israel and Judah that remained dominant in the region until well into the Second Temple period.


I think in general Kratz’s analysis is strong and well-reasoned. His integration of the Bible with primary source material is methodologically circumspect, if at times slightly optimistic about the value of the biblical narrative as a historical source. Although different scholars may not find his reconstruction to be altogether convincing, his conclusions are balanced and judicious. Kratz carefully weighs interpretive options, guides the reader through the steps of his argument, and often acknowledges when the available evidence prevents firm decision.


Of the various sections, part B will probably invite the most criticism, since it is here that Kratz relies upon the very complex and hypothetical enterprise of literary-historical criticism of the Bible. He does not provide detailed argumentation for his reconstruction of literary development, but only refers to previous publications, which is perhaps understandable considering the nature of the book. Nevertheless, I thought there were a number of assertions and claims made in this section that lacked persuasiveness. For example:


  • The biblical books’ authors and copyists arose from scribes who worked outside of state-sponsored institutions (p. 63). The criticisms leveled at the court and temple in literature set in the monarchic period in my view do not necessitate the assumption that they rejected these institutions or were unconnected with centralized institutions in the post-monarchic period. The scribal archive at Qumran seems an inadequate model for thinking about the origin of the biblical tradition.
  • The legal collection of the Covenant Code originated apart from the early Exodus narrative through a process of oral tradition (pp. 67-68, 84). As it stands, the Covenant Code appears to be a literary composition integral to the larger narrative context. Nowhere does Kratz engage with D. Wright’s proposal that the Covenant Code is literarily dependent on the Code of Hammurabi.
  • The concept of a conditional relationship with God was first developed by the prophets (p. 76). This suggestion is obviously dependent on Wellhausen, who characterized the prophets as religious innovators and the discoverers of ethical monotheism. But it can no longer be taken for granted that the books of the prophets reflect the historical situation they describe or preserve authentic original teaching. In general, the prophetic books appear to have been constructed by a later readership and so presuppose external religious development.
  • The stories of Genesis originated from oral traditions of different tribal groups in ancient Palestine (p. 81, 108). Kratz tends to assume that literary depictions of ancestral figures or regional heroes stem from a long chain of oral/written tradition. But in fact we have little evidence that this was the case, and I think this approach to tradition-criticism underestimates the ability of scribes to function as creative authors who invent tradition.
  • The exodus-conquest story is exclusively Israelite (p. 81). In the fiction of the narrative the people of Israel is inclusive of Judah (cf. Josh 7:1, 18), so the emphasis on Israel seems an inadequate basis upon which to literarily differentiate the story from the Genesis narratives.
  • The Deuteronomistic history originated around 560 BCE (p. 86). Kratz does not explain why a date immediately after the end of the monarchy is more plausible than a setting during the Second Temple, and neither does he devote much attention to clarifying the identity and origin of the Dtr authors.
  • Wisdom literature was progressively theologized (p. 91). The idea that wisdom sayings in Proverbs were originally secular and became theologized over time seems circular, since it requires judging the theological elements of the sayings as essentially secondary.
  • The redaction responsible for the primeval and patriarchal narratives is distinct from that of the exodus narrative (p. 97). While this view is common enough in European scholarship, it would have been helpful to provide more substantiation for this thesis. At least in my mind, it seems less than obvious that the patriarchal, Joseph, and exodus narratives in their earliest literary form would have had separate origins. Too often the tradition-historical approach assumes diverse origins as the only viable solution to the problem of literary fractures.


Despite these disagreements over literary history, Kratz can only be offered fulsome praise for his daring attempt to produce a synthetic reconstruction of the origin of the Hebrew Bible and to make it available to a broader readership. His writing is compressed and yet clear and accessible, and the glossary at the end of the book will assist those less familiar with the technical terminology of academic biblical studies. Finally, although the book is strictly historical in its interpretation of the development of the biblical tradition, the author ends with an eloquent postlude directed at those who may have concerns that the conclusions reached in the book undermine religious faith.

[Note: I received a free review copy from OUP]

The god Gad



The cult of the god Gad in ancient Israel is at first glance obscure. As a god identified with good fortune (the word gad means “fortune, happiness”), the divine name is attested sporadically in the Bible as well as in personal names and inscriptions from the larger Syro-Palestinian region. The laconic quality of personal names provides few hints about his character and identity, while the single literary text in which the divine name occurs is highly polemical and of limited use (Isa 65:11). Further complicating matters is that not only was there a god in the southern Levant known as Gad, but the noun gad was also commonly used in personal names in its appellative sense to identify a particular god as a source of good fortune. During the first millennium it seems a variety of gods could be described as a source of gad, as reflected in the personal names gdmlqrt (“Melqart is fortune”), gdʿštrt (“Astarte is fortune”), gdnbw (“Nabu is fortune”), gdyhw (“Yahu is my fortune”), gdyʾl (“El is my fortune”), mlkmgd (“Milkom is fortune”), ṣlmgd (“Ṣlm is fortune”). Eventually the name gad was generalized and came to be used as a title for patron deities of cities, tribes, and localities in the Graeco-Roman Near East (Höfner 1965: 438-39; Lipiński 1995: 62-64; Kaizer 1997; Ribichini 1999: 340).

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