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).

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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: Continue reading

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 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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.

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