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.

Canaanite Eden


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

The god Gad



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

Continue reading

Iron Age Seals from Jerusalem


The discovery of two late Iron Age seals from Jerusalem has been announced, and though we await more detailed discussion of the seals in an official scholarly publication, Christopher Rollston has provided a valuable provisional analysis clarifying aspects of the reading of the inscriptions and their script, language, and date based on examination of the available photos, as well as a discussion on the use of seals more generally in the ancient Near East and the exceptional nature of a woman owning a seal.


For myself, what is most interesting is the content of the various names found on the seals. I have elsewhere discussed the significance of personal names as a window into the family and national religion of the peoples of the southern Levant (cf. Albertz 2012, Burnett 2009). As many names contain both a theophoric element (YHW, El, Baal, Kemosh, Milcom, Qos) and a predicative statement articulating some belief about the named deity, they tell us something about how these individual deities were conceptualized at both a familial and societal level.

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Plaster Wall Inscription 4.2: El, Baal, and YHWH

I have put up a draft of my study on plaster wall inscription 4.2 from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, which offers a revised transcription, translation, and commentary. If you are less interested in epigraphic analysis, then you are welcome to skip to the commentary further below. There I present the argument that in the context of Israel-Judah the name Baal referred to El, the head of the Israelite pantheon.

Who is Baal?



According to the biblical narrative, the worship of Baal (meaning “Lord”) was the primary threat to the exclusive worship of YHWH during Israel’s life in the land of Canaan. From their first contact with Canaanite peoples, the Israelites are portrayed as irresistibly drawn to this polytheistic and iconolatrous cult. At Peor in the Transjordan they intermix with the local inhabitants and begin to worship the Baal of Peor. Hosea describes their change in cultic loyalties as almost instantaneous, “But they came to Baal of Peor and consecrated themselves to a thing of shame” (Hos 9:10). Similarly, soon after having settled in the promised land, a new generation arises after the generation of the conquest had passed on, and they, the Dtr author alleges, “did what was evil in the sight of YHWH and worshiped the Baals; they abandoned YHWH, the god of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them” (Jdgs 2:12).

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