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.

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]

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 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.


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]