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]

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]




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