Review of Brian Schmidt, The Materiality of Power: Explorations in the Social History of Early Israelite Magic (Mohr Siebeck, 2016)

 

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).

 

Schmidt begins in chap 1 with a discussion of the utility of “magic” as a conceptual label for describing a range of ancient ritual practice, emphasizing the degree to which modernity has invented the category as a matter of self-definition with the past. Nevertheless, he seems to suggest that magic is something that can be intuitively identified: “In other words, one cannot stop speaking of magic when one cannot avoid encountering the abundance of evidence for its existence. However fragmented the material evidence may be at times, ancient magic’s light still shines through” (p. 9). In the end, Schmidt favors an approach that treats the material dimension to magic.

 

Chap 2 offers a reevaluation of the drawings, inscriptions, and archaeological context bearing on cult and apotropaism at KA. Schmidt argues that there were multiple cultic installations at the site as well as several favissae for the disposal of cult paraphernalia and that the decorated pithoi demonstrate evidence of multi-stage use, initially as drafting surfaces in preparation for the painting of the plaster walls and later as objects of cult in themselves. With regard to the interpretation of the drawings and inscriptions, he identifies a number of integrated scenes on both pithoi A and B, explicating the use of gender marking, overlapping of elements, and correlation of text to image. By identifying the central figures on pithos A with the Egyptian protective deities Bes and Beset, he postulates their association with YHWH and his Asherah in the context of KA, which he avers to have been culturally hybrid.

 

Chap 3 discusses archaeological and epigraphic evidence for apotropaic magic in Israel-Judah more generally, specifically the role of amulets and the Ketef Hinnom (KH) and Khirbet el-Qom (KQ) inscriptions. The numerous uninscribed amulets recovered from archaeological sites are linked to cultic and mortuary practice and taken to presuppose the existence of a world of demons in opposition to YHWH. This amuletic ritual practice provides the context for interpreting the KH and KA inscriptions, which Schmidt examines in detail, providing new readings and exploring their archaeological context, life setting, and magical-apotropaic features.

 

Chap 4 turns to textual data in the Hebrew Bible, including Deut 32 and 1 Sam 28. The divine world reflected in these texts is argued to have been populated by numerous daimons or supernatural beings, including El, YHWH, the divine council, shedim, and demons such as Reshef and Qeteb.

 

The conclusion in chap 5 returns to some of the issues addressed in chap 2 to strengthen the case for identifying the female Bes-like figure on pithos A with Egyptian Beset and the supposed convergence of YHWH and Asherah with Bes and Beset. Schmidt offers various possible rationales why Beset, a motherly figure in Egypt, would have been paired first with Bes on the pithos and then later with YHWH by means of an attached inscription. He also points to some comparative parallels for the phenomenon of a local deity having been identified with Egyptian Bes. Ultimately, apotropaic magic is regarded as a defining feature of the unique cult practiced at KA. The inscriptions from KA, KQ, and KH as well as biblical tradition in Deut 32 provide clear testimony to the activity of multiple benevolent and malevolent supernatural beings in the cultural world of ancient Israel-Judah, which corresponds with the widespread use of apotropaic magic.

 

I was excited to read Materiality as it deals with a number of topics that are directly relevant to my own research interests. I have already published studies on the suggestive and mutually illuminating iconography and inscriptions from KA and KQ (Thomas 2016; 2017), and Israelite demonology is a subject I plan to treat in greater detail in the future. Schmidt has made a number of significant contributions to the study of Israelite religion and his analysis is generally critical and thought provoking.

 

In some important respects, Materiality did not disappoint. The book is packed with new ideas, proposals, and tentative probes, interweaving comparative, archaeological, and biblical data, and reflects deep engagement with diverse fields of scholarship. Even if one fails to be convinced by the particulars of his argument, the discussion is well researched and generally dispassionate. I was also gratified to see that many aspects of his treatment of the iconography and inscriptions on the pithoi from KA “converge” with my own, e.g. linking the Bes figures to the inscription mentioning YHWH and his asherah and noticing various integrated scenes in the paintings.

 

Overall, I found the general thesis of a vibrant world of the demonic-daemonic and corresponding apotropaic magic in Iron Age Israel-Judah to be persuasive. The evidence of the archaeological and biblical sources marshaled by Schmidt in his case studies are each in their own way reflective of the need to defend from malevolent supernatural forces, and are likely only the tip of an ancient iceberg. There has all too often been a tendency among biblical scholars to diminish, marginalize, or ignore material data such as amulets that sit uncomfortably with assumptions about the monolatrous/non-dualistic nature of Israelite-Judahite religion.

 

However, despite my general sympathy for Schmidt’s project and historical-comparative approach, I think Materiality is nevertheless flawed in several ways:

 

First, the theoretical introduction seems overly abstruse and lacking in clarity/focus. Although Schmidt demonstrates familiarity well enough with issues surrounding the use of “magic” as a modern etic descriptor, his discussion left me somewhat confused with regard to how he understands magic to be something distinct from religion. His definition of materiality-based magic includes the following three elements, borrowed from Anthony Wilburn (2013):

  1. Magic was firmly founded in ritual actions, including spoken or written words and the manipulation of objects. These rituals typically are performed with the expectation of a particular result.

  2. Magic may draw on religious traditions for both efficacy and exoticism.

  3. Magic is frequently a private or personal activity, although certain practices might be undertaken in the public sphere. (p. 11)

 

The second of these elements assumes that magic is somehow separable from religion, but taken on the face it is difficult to see how ritual action and the manipulation of objects in private or public are to be distinguished from religious practice more generally. I also thought it strange that there is no mention of how the discussion of magic has evolved within the discipline of Hebrew Bible study, for example, no mention of Rüdiger Schmitt, Magie im Alten Testament (2004).

 

Second, Materiality often tries to accomplish too much. For example, after chap 1 introduces the theme of apotropaic magic and demonology, chap 2’s extended focus on the archaeology of KA and drafting function of the pithoi drawings feels digressive and unnecessary. To me these issues deserve their own independent treatment rather than inserting them into a discussion about apotropaic magic. Further, the line of argumentation in the book is sometimes convoluted and meandering, moving back and forth between topics, presupposing interpretive decisions that are addressed only later, and repeating arguments but with new qualifications, as if Schmidt’s interpretive decisions on salient issues evolved over the course of writing the book (e.g. pp. 201-216). After reading Materiality, my impression is that what Schmidt wanted to say could have been presented in less space and in a more tightly organized manner.

 

Third, although Materiality spends a lot of time showing how various inscriptions, iconography, amulets, and biblical texts presuppose the existence of a pandemonium in ancient Israel-Judah, it fails to address the crucial theological questions of how this demonology functioned and gained intellectual coherence in the face of the larger cultural system of Israelite-Judahite religion. What was the shape of this demonology as well as the gods/angelology that opposed it? Can we say who were the major players? What is the difference between gods and angels? How can the shedim be supernatural beings but not gods? Why is there no mention of Mot, seeing as he was historically the most prominent demonic figure in Canaanite religion? As it is, after reading Materiality one is left with a sense of vagueness about what this population of demons consisted of or how they related to one another and to YHWH.

 

Aside from these general issues, I think that many of the novel proposals that he makes in the individual cases studies are problematic and open to criticism by themselves. As it would be impossible to treat all of them here, I will only select a few from chap 2.

 

1) I didn’t find his proposal for multiple cultic installations and favissae to be very convincing. The chief diagnostic indicator that he draws upon to establish the existence of these installations is the evidence of decorated pithoi, whether drawing or inscription, fragments of which were found in multiple locations across KA (including locus 6 of the bench room, locus 8 of the south storeroom, locus 19 of the courtyard, and locus 161 outside building B). Yet the relationship of the decorated pithoi to cultic practice is not entirely clear—were they used as an object of cult in themselves such as a cult image, or rather an available surface upon which to leave votive inscriptions and/or drawings?—and some of the pieces are so fragmentary that it is uncertain how their function should be related to other better preserved pithoi (e.g. his C, D, E). Neither can we assume that the processes by which decorated pithoi ended up in their respective find spots are always a reflection of cult practice restricted to the immediate vicinity. For example, the various objects and material found accompanying the pithoi remains in loci 19 and 8 were not distinctively of a cultic nature, including storage jars, cooking pots, bowls, juglets, grinding stones, loom weights, flask, large sieve, etc. Were the decorated pithoi transferred to a new location after an earlier stage of use? Does “fragment A” actually belong to pithos A, which implies some post-depositional interference? Does the discovery of pithos B in the central courtyard apart from a favissae necessarily imply ritual movement? Are there other potential means by which it could have arrived there? Was the large stone basin in locus 8 positioned there to block the eastern entrance in the course of the abandonment of the site, as suggested the site excavators (Meshel and Goren 2012: 48)? In the absence of strong evidence for multiple discrete cultic installations, it seems more plausible to simply admit of the strong religious and cultic ambience of the site of KA as a whole.

 

2) The argument that the pithoi were used as drafting surfaces in preparation for painting the plaster walls is unconvincing as well. Schmidt’s evidence includes the close parallelism between the seated figures on sherd Z and wall painting no. 9, the combination of inscriptions + human heads on pithos B and wall painting no. 11, and similarities in content and style shared between inscription 3.9 on pithos B and wall inscription 4.1.1, as well as a general overlap in the motifs used on pithoi and walls. However, this thesis, while interesting and provocative, faces a number of challenges. First, the parallelism between the content on pithoi and walls is mostly of a general nature; none of the above examples provide unambiguous support for a draft vs. finished product reproduction. For example, from what remains of the chair of the seated figure on sherd Z it appears to have been conceived differently from the chair seen on wall painting no. 9. That inscriptions were complemented with paintings of humans on both pithoi and wall paintings shows only that image was combined with text on both kinds of surfaces, not that pithos B functioned as a draft. With regard to the supposed parallelism between inscriptions 3.9 and 4.1.1, it is true that some features of inscription 3.9 are reminiscent of 4.1.1, particularly the general 3rd person invocation of divine beneficence. But not only is the preserved content of the inscriptions entirely different, but the first part of inscription 3.9 that would have contained the blessing proper has not been preserved, so it is not possible to positively determine with Schmidt that

 

neither of these texts contain the intimate and personal elements that characterize the graffiti 3.1 and 3.6 where personal names are mentioned and close relationships between the one blessing and the one blessed is clearly conveyed (3.6), nor do either convey a blessing via the active voice of the verb BRK or the use of the first or second persons in the singular (“I” and “you”). Instead, the blessings are more generally conveyed by means of the third person and in alternating singular and plural numbers (“he” or “they” as subject, and as object, “him, “them”), making them readily applicable to any who might have read, heard, viewed, or otherwise experienced them (p. 49).

 

The blessing could have very well been articulated in the active voice and directed toward a human object.

 

Second, all the available evidence suggests that the inscriptions and drawings on pithoi were constructed for purposes of display, their central placement on whole pithoi, writing of text so as to be read upright, and intentional correlation of text and image, as I have discussed previously (Thomas 2016). They were not apparently constructed as a means to another artistic/decorative end.

 

Third, the comparative parallels cited for artisan drafting from Egypt have little in common with the pithoi from KA. The former were made on cheap ostraca or stone flakes as a practical writing surface that could be carried and manipulated. The former also do not exhibit the tendency for text-image combination.

 

3) Schmidt accepts that the two Bes figures on pithos A are associated with YHWH and his asherah by virtue of the gender marking and attached inscription, which he sees as secondary though nearly contemporary. Yet he intentionally describes this association as a “convergence” of separate deities, Israelite YHWH and Asherah with Egyptian Bes and Beset, to be distinguished from identity. This description is problematic for several reasons, first, because it treats Bes symbolism as diagnostic of a discrete Egyptian deity imported into the Levant, when the comparative evidence suggests rather that it was a kind of divine imagery that was applied and adapted to many different deities throughout the ancient Near East. I have already argued that Bes symbolism had probably been applied to YHWH in the context of Israel-Judah from a relatively early date (Thomas 2016). Second, Schmidt fails to pay attention to how the animal (bovine) symbolism of the Bes figures on pithos A diverges from conventional Egyptian Bes symbolism. Third, the Beset identification of the female Bes-like figure is to be excluded on iconographic and contextual grounds (Thomas 2016: 132, n. 13). The proposal that the pair on pithos A are in the attitude of dancing also seems unduly speculative.

 

4) Schmidt offers new translations of a few inscriptions from KA, including 3.6 (pp. 77-78) 3.9 (pp. 47), and 4.1.1. (pp. 48-49). However, these are based not on independent analysis of the inscriptional texts themselves, but only the readings provided by Ahituv, Eshel, and Meshel in the final report. In addition, the interpretation is idiosyncratic at various points, diverging from the commonly accepted syntactic and lexical analysis of previous work on the inscriptions, sometimes in very questionable ways, e.g. the reading of ytnw as plural Qal passive, the translation of the lamed prefixed to “YHWH and his asherah” as “by”, the elimination of the welfare inquiry from inscription 3.6, and the identification of the “people of the Lord” as the subject of the verb in the last clause.

 

5) Repeated at several points in the book, Schmidt assumes that the absence of divine imagery on pithos B comparable to pithos A is suggestive of empty-space aniconism, “such that any observer of the scene, having read or heard the caption 3.9 read aloud, would mentally and/or perceptually ‘fill in the gap,’ with locally conventional images of YHWH and Asherah who are inscribed in the caption 3.9” (p. 89). Yet the absence of explicit divine imagery in front or above the worshippers hardly necessitates such an abstract and theologized notion as aniconism. The graffito may simply focus on a number of Israelites in the attitude of worship. I have also argued that at least one symbol of YHWH is present on the pithos in the form of the bull, which has been overlapped by inscription 3.6 precisely with the name YHWH (Thomas 2016: 160-61).

 

One final issue that I feel a need to disclose relates to a personal concern, which is that I shared with Brian a pre-publication version of my article published in JANER (2016) when he was in the process of writing Materiality, and although his discussion of the iconography of the Bes-like figures on pithos A echoes mine, at a few points fairly closely, and chap 5 seems to be interacting with my criticisms of the interpretation of the Bes-like figures as Egyptian Bes and Beset, he does not provide a single reference to my article, despite the fact that we had a rather detailed conversation over email. He refers to me by name only once to thank me for bringing another article to his attention (p. 208). The absence of any reference to my work at all is disconcerting. Perhaps he thought because his approach to the Bes figures diverges from mine in significant ways that it wasn’t necessary to acknowledge having interacted with my work?

 

 

 

 

 

 

———-

Meshel, Z. and A. Goren. 2012. Architecture, Plan and Phases. Pp. 11-59 in Kuntillet Ajrud (Horvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah Sinai Border, ed. Z. Meshel. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.

 

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

 

—. 2017. The Meaning of asherah in Hebrew Inscriptions. Semitica 59: 157-218.

 

Wilburn, A. T. 2013. Materia Magica: The Archaeology of Magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus, and Spain: New Texts from Ancient Cultures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Review of Jeremy D. Smoak, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture: The Early History of Numbers 6:24-26 (Oxford, 2016)

 

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.

Chap 1 offers a translation and commentary on the Ketef Hinnom inscribed amulets containing language that parallels the priestly blessing. The amulet setting and full context of the inscriptions suggest that the blessing functioned as an incantation that could be written down on objects for protective purposes.

Chap 2 describes a number of Phoenician and Punic inscribed amulets whose language overlaps with Ketef Hinnom and the priestly blessing. The lexical and syntactic similarities leads Smoak to identity the blessing as belonging to a broader NWS tradition of apotropaic ritual, which was closely linked to mortuary contexts.

Chap 3 moves to an analysis of the priestly blessing itself, arguing that its placement within the legal material in Numbers reflects an understanding of the blessing as ritually effective language employed by authorized priests. The phrase “they will put my name on the Israelites” in the instructions evokes the practice of carrying apotropaic blessings on one’s body in the form of amulets.

Chap 4 discusses the significance of the reference to YHWH’s face in the blessing. The divine face is a poetic trope closely associated with temple worship in the Bible. So the allusion to the divine face in the blessing connected the goal of personal protection to communal temple imagery

Chap 5 refers to examples of blessings having been written for the purpose of public display at cultic sites. Because of this linkage between blessing and physical temples, the placement of the priestly blessing prior to the dedication of the tabernacle in the priestly narrative may have been intended to accomplish something similar, establishing effective ritual blessing within the literarily imagined world of the temple.

A conclusion reviews the major findings of the study.

I found Smoak’s general thesis to be well-argued and supported. The book represents a significant contribution to the study of apotropaic ritual/magic in Israel-Judah, which will be of interest to both biblical scholars and students of ancient Near Eastern religion. The careful use of material culture and inscriptions from the broader region so as to illuminate the thought-world of the biblical texts is exemplary, building a historically-informed hermeneutical context without forcing the evidence.

A few points of criticism:

First, Smoak acknowledges that apotropaic formulae were likely directed against demonic and death-dealing influences, but he almost completely avoids any discussion about the nature of this demonic evil opposed by YHWH. The translation of hrʿ in the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions as “the Evil” or “Evil” seems awkwardly abstract and undefined, more plausibly it refers to a personalized “Evil One.”

Second, in chap 2 I think it would have been helpful to provide more discussion on the divine iconography that often accompanied apotropaic formulae on Phoenician and Punic amulets. Inscriptions associated with particular iconography often tend to be mutually illuminating.

Third, I didn’t find the discussion about the dating of the priestly blessing and associated instructions to be entirely convincing. While the blessing itself may be pre-exilic in origin or relatively older than its surrounding literary context, this tells us nothing certain about when it was taken up and incorporated by the priestly authors. The use of the infinitive absolute of ʾmr “to say” as a command in the instructions hardly requires a pre-exilic date (p. 86). Smoak also doesn’t sufficiently explain why the imagery of the divine face would only make sense “against the background of the ritual language associated with the temple in the pre-exilic period” (p. 83).

Fourth, the correlation of the priestly blessing to the centralizing reforms of Josiah depicted in biblical narrative is problematic and appended to the discussion almost as an afterthought (p. 110). The various versions of the blessing do not mention a specific temple where the divine face was located, and neither can I detect any hints at a centralizing or aniconic ideology (p. 139). The mention of a divine face could easily be consistent with the worship of cult statues, icons, or standing stones.

Aside from these fairly minor weaknesses, Smoak’s book is certain to move the scholarly discussion on apotropaic ritual/magic in ancient Israel-Judah in productive directions.

 

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

Review of Le-ma‘an Ziony: Essays in Honor of Ziony Zevit, ed. F. E. Greenspan and G. A. Rendsburg (Wipf and Stock, 2017)

 

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:

Dever (ch 1) claims that previous histories of ancient Israel-Judah are deficient in their lack of incorporation of material culture, dilates on the cause of this lamentable state of affairs, and then introduces his new book “History from Things”: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. His argument for treating archaeological data as a primary source for history-writing about Israel-Judah is certainly reasonable, and I look forward to any insights his book may contain. But I found his polemical tone, dismissal of revisionist history, and diatribe against postmodernism to be off-putting and even confusing, since he ultimately concedes the ideological and socially-constructed nature of the Bible.

Meyers (ch 6) revisits the issue of the interpretation of disc-holding pillar and plaque figurines, building on her previous work with JPFs. In line with her understanding that JPFs are human rather than divine symbols, she argues that disc-holding pillar figurines should be interpreted similarly, with the disc identified as a drum. By contrast, she concludes that disc-holding plaque figurines represent a deity while the discs should be identified as bread loaves. For my part, I didn’t find her argument particularly convincing, since it lacks a theoretically nuanced discussion of the iconographic criteria for identifying deities and also it seems unlikely that a disc would hold such oppositional meanings moving from plaque to pillar form in clay.

Schniedewind (ch 7) argues that Kuntillet ‘Ajrud may have been occupied for a much longer period than previously assumed, from as early as Iron IIA.

Berlin (ch 8) provides a new reading of Ps 122 that situates it during the Second Temple and understands the pilgrimage motif as a virtual pilgrimage to the First Temple. As such, it touches on “two major themes of postexilic thought: the re-establishment of the united kingdom and the restoration of the Davidic monarchy” (154).

Lewis (ch 12) presents a fascinating study of blasphemy in Lev 24, which he explains as an attempt to “wield effectual words against God with the intention of doing lethal harm” (213). While his interpretation of the severity of blasphemy is for the most part convincing, the digression situating Israelite belief in YHWH as a god who lives forever within a context of Near Eastern anxiety about the permanency of the divine is sketchy and more problematic. Further, I don’t see any grounds within the text for thinking that blasphemy against YHWH was an attempted appropriation of YHWH’s power against himself, unless we attribute a very rigorous, internally consistent, and philosophically abstract theological monism to the biblical author.

Van der Toorn (ch 14) offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between Ps 20 and Amherst Papyrus 63, XII, 11-19, arguing that the latter represents an earlier compositional form. This is a must read for those interested in identifying heuristic principles for the historical analysis of texts that develop over time. The main aspect of the discussion I found to be less than satisfactory was the conclusion that the Aramaic hymn had its origin in Israel or the Northern Kingdom because YHW and Bethel are identified.

Friedman (ch 16) argues that we translate the emphatics of biblical Hebrew into English with exclamation points and italics. His discussion of the infinitive absolute in this regard is excellent.

 

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

SBL paper proposal accepted

 

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.

Some methodological guidelines for the dating of biblical texts

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.

Why study the Bible as a topic of humanistic inquiry?

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.

Review of Gard Granerød, Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period: Studies in the Religion and Society of the Judaean Community at Elephantine (de Gruyter, 2016)

 

In recent years the study of the ancient Judaean community at Elephantine has come into its own, with more and more scholars treating its religion and society as subjects worthy of independent investigation and not merely as biblical comparanda. When the literary remains of this Judaean mercenary colony living along the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt were first discovered and translated, it was soon realized that these Judaeans practiced a form of religion that diverged sharply from the Judaism authorized and promoted in the Bible. For example, they had their own temple where sacrifices were made, worshipped other deities alongside YHW, and acknowledged the cultic reality and potency of local Aramaean and Egyptian deities. So the question naturally arose, how did this form of Judaean religion relate to the religion practiced in the homeland of Samaria-Judah, both in the Persian period and earlier?

 

In Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period: Studies in the Religion and Society of the Judaean Community at Elephantine, G. Granerød, Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies at the Norwegian School of Theology, tackles the Elephantine question anew, building on the scholarship of R. Kratz and others and using the compilation of documents already published in Porten and Yardeni (TADAE) to provide a fresh and methodologically balanced overview of Judaean religion as practiced at Elephantine and to consider its implications for understanding lived Judaean religion more broadly during the Persian period.

 

Chap 1 begins by noting the difficulties associated with using the Bible as a source for reconstructing Judaean religion in the Persian period and proposes instead that we approach the issue via Elephantine in the diaspora, for which we have relatively abundant documentation. Granerød then defines what he means by “religion” in the context of the study and adopts N. Smart’s multidimensional model of religion, which allows him to organize his presentation of religious culture in a holistic and non-hierarchical manner. After this introduction, the next five chapters treat the social, material, ritual, mythic, and ethical dimensions of religion at Elephantine. Chap 2 discusses communal identity, social  organization, law, religious specialists, economy, and sacred time (24-80). Chap 3 explores textual and archaeological evidence relating to temple worship (81-127). Chap 4 examines traces of ritual in the extant texts, including sacrifice, mourning, prayer, the festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread, and Sabbath (128-208). Chap 5 describes the myths and religious narratives that may have been current within the community, including traditions about creation, the antiquity of the temple, sacral kingship, and the local Judaean pantheon (209-258). Chap 6 reflects on miscellaneous topics related to ethical thinking at Elephantine (259-323). A conclusion and recommendation for future research rounds out the book (324-340), followed by bibliography and useful indices.

 

The task that Granerød set for himself was ambitious, considering the limited and fragmentary nature of the evidence preserved from Elephantine, the wide disagreement among scholars over salient issues of interpretation and historical reconstruction, and not least the complex nature of “religion” as a topic of humanistic inquiry. It would be easy to get bogged down by any one of these factors so as to deter one from making the attempt. Yet in my view Granerød has largely succeeded in synthesizing the various data regarding religious practice at Elephantine for a new generation of scholars. His theoretical discussion is pragmatic and critical, developing an innovative and flexible approach for exploring the topic of Judaean religion in the Persian period without framing the issue in biblio-centric terms. He deals with almost all of the major issues that have been debated in the study of Judaean Elephantine over the years, and his analysis is generally thorough, cautious, and fair. Through close reading of the literary remains of Elephantine and attention to fine detail within a broader comparative-historical context, he is able to draw a much richer and nuanced picture of religion as practiced there, once and for all debunking the tendency of biblical scholars to exotify and otherize this important Judaean diaspora community.

 

I can briefly mention a few points of criticism:

 

-I think it would have been worthwhile and even necessary to put more effort into critically analyzing the readings of Porten and Yardeni in TADAE, at least in some cases. When dealing with fragmentary inscriptions for the purpose of reconstructing ancient religious practice or ideology, this is simply a sine qua non.

 

-There were occasional instances where engagement or reference to previous scholarship was surprisingly lacking. For example, no reference to Becking’s (2011) proposal that the tradition about the first temple at Elephantine existing in the time of the Pharaohs was an invented tradition (89, 216-219), or engagement with van der Toorn (1992) on the identities of Bethel, Ashim-Bethel, and Anat-Bethel/YHW (248-256).

 

-Rarely Granerød advances claims that are only weakly substantiated, e.g. that the cult of YHWH at Elephantine was aniconic (112), or adopts dubious models as a means of explaining features of the cult, e.g. YHWH’s cult presence is likened to the later Jewish concept of the Shekinah (105, 107, 126).

 

-I think the section devoted to elucidating the Judaean pantheon at Elephantine was somewhat thin, considering all that has been written on the subject, for example, nothing on the figure of Ashim-Bethel or his relationship to YHW/Bethel and Anat-Bethel.

 

-The use of “Yahwism” as a term interchangeable with Judaean religion is somewhat problematic if, as seems likely to be the case, the Judaeans at Elephantine worshipped more deities than YHWH alone. It unfortunately has the potential to obscure or hinder the reader’s understanding of the particular flavor of polytheism at Judaean Elephantine.

 

Despite some points of weakness, Dimensions of Yahwism was well conceived, well written, and tightly argued. Granerød is to be congratulated for having produced a work that will certainly contribute not only to advancing the discussion on Judaean culture and society at Elephantine, but to analyzing the complexity and diversity of Judaean religion in the Persian period more generally.

 

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