Rethinking Israel: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel in Honor of Israel Finkelstein, ed. O. Lipschits, Y. Gadot, and M. J. Adams (Eisenbrauns, 2017)

I first was exposed to some of the new ideas and archaeological analyses of Israel Finkelstein as a young graduate student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and ever since then I have enjoyed repeated opportunity to engage with his voluminous and wide-ranging work and come to realize the highly significant role he has played in advancing archaeological and historical research on the Late Bronze-Iron Age southern Levant. It is no exaggeration to say that his contributions have decisively and irreversibly changed the field, not simply with regard to particular hypotheses and interpretations but also because of his elevation of critical methodology in placing the primary evidence of archaeological data before the secondary evidence of the biblical text. Few scholars have been so impactful and yet consistently original and thought-provoking. Continue reading

Review of The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel, and North America, ed. J. Gertz, B. Levinson, D. Rom-Shiloni, K. Schmid (Mohr Siebeck, 2016)

The major challenge facing current research on the Pentateuch is outlined in the introduction: “In the three major centers of research on the Pentateuch-North America, Israel, and Europe-scholars tend to operate from such different premises, employ such divergent methods, and reach such inconsistent results that meaningful progress has become impossible. The models continue to proliferate but the communication seems only to diminish” (p. 3). Thus the lofty aim of the volume, “to further the international discussion about the Pentateuch in the hope that the academic cultures in Israel, Europe, and North America can move toward a set of shared assumptions and a common discourse” (p. 4).

There can be no doubt that the massive tome represents a step in the right direction. Formation has contributions from a bevy of important scholars on topics relevant to Pentateuchal study, including empirical perspectives on the composition of the Pentateuch, narrative continuity, historical linguistics and the dating of biblical texts, Second Temple literature and Dead Sea Scrolls, evidence for redactional activity, integration of preexisting literary material, historical geography, the Former Prophets, the Law and the Prophets, and theological implications, and each section is prefaced with a helpful introduction to orient the reader, some making substantive contributions to the discussion in themselves. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

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. Continue reading

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

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.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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]