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.

The individual articles are by and large interesting, the scholarship well informed and original, and the presentation focused and succinct, which is a remarkable achievement considering the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of the contributors. I may quibble with the relevance or inclusion of certain papers, whose payoff is relatively light or whose discussion is speculative/idiosyncratic and diverts from the main themes, but such diversity and inclusiveness is perhaps a strength of the volume as well, documenting a range of views (though this is certainly not an advantage in terms of book length and price!). Formation reflects the state of contemporary Pentateuchal study and is particularly valuable for its self-conscious reflection on methodological and theoretical questions.

As far as whether any bridging of the various academic schools regarding the composition of the Pentateuch has occurred here, I am more skeptical. By my reading, the neo-documentarian and non-documentarian/source-supplement approaches are still like two ships passing in the night, both sides entrenched as ever in their fundamental assumptions about the literary formation of the Pentateuch. Thus, Formation is better seen as a prelude to future breakthroughs and mutually achieved insight than evidence of any movement toward shared methodological and theoretical principles.

Regardless, in my judgement the case for a source-supplement model comes off the stronger over the course of the volume. Carr’s discussion of documented cases of transmission history shows that scribal transmission was often fluid and characterized by secondary coordination and the partial preservation of precursor materials (pp. 87-106), which renders various arguments for a neo-Documentarian hypothesis problematic. Ska notes that the sources of the Pentateuch aside from P lack real plot continuity and that there are important breaks between narrative complexes (pp. 201-222), which militates against large-scale continuous sources in non-P. Zahn employs Qumran material to argue that significant portions of a text’s compositional history may be unrecoverable because of rewriting and interventions of various kinds that leave no trace in the textual record (pp. 491-500). Kratz proposes that the evidence for revision and supplementation in reworked Pentateuchal manuscripts from Qumran provide a model for understanding how the Pentateuch developed in earlier periods (pp. 501-24). Ska compares the MT, SP, LXX, and Qumran fragments to show that copyists and scribes worked with a degree of freedom in reproducing biblical texts (pp. 567-77).

Baden’s responses are limited to a defense of plot analysis as the key to identifying discrete sources (pp. 243-51) and the argument that gaps in literary continuity do not necessarily undermine the integrity of a source as a self-standing composition (pp. 283-92). For example, “Once the plot contradictions are resolved, if we are left with a narratively coherent text, that text can, like any text ancient or modern, accommodate stylistic and thematic and theological complexity” (p. 251). However, the resolution of contradictions into a seemingly readable text is not a reliable means for identifying continuous sources, since there are potentially many, many ways to construct such a text that do not bear on its original shape and it also ignores the diachronic complexity introduced by scribal transmission and revision as discussed by Carr and others. Baden’s point that a source may have severe gaps and still have once represented a continuous document is well taken. But he fails to note that such gaps make it all the more difficult to distinguish independent J and E documents per the neo-documentarian theory because it is difficult to know on strictly literary grounds what is continuous or discontinuous with what.

Although the discussion is still highly fragmented, the future of Pentateuchal study looks brighter today because of Formation and the kind of scholarly dialogue that its organizers are encouraging, and for that they are to be thanked and congratulated.

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

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.

Review of Jeremy D. Smoak, The Priestly Blessing in Inscription & Scripture: The Early History of Numbers 6:24-26 (Oxford, 2016)

 

The Priestly Blessing in Inscription and Scripture by Jeremy Smoak is an in-depth study into the origin and background of the priestly blessing in Num 6:24-26. The argument of the book is fairly simple. Building on recent inscriptional discoveries, Smoak proposes that the language of the blessing stems from a broader NWS tradition of apotropaic formulae that were spoken and written down to protect individuals from demonic forces, and this illuminates not only the function of the blessing prior to being incorporated into the biblical text but also its meaning in its current narrative setting in the priestly source.

Chap 1 offers a translation and commentary on the Ketef Hinnom inscribed amulets containing language that parallels the priestly blessing. The amulet setting and full context of the inscriptions suggest that the blessing functioned as an incantation that could be written down on objects for protective purposes.

Chap 2 describes a number of Phoenician and Punic inscribed amulets whose language overlaps with Ketef Hinnom and the priestly blessing. The lexical and syntactic similarities leads Smoak to identity the blessing as belonging to a broader NWS tradition of apotropaic ritual, which was closely linked to mortuary contexts.

Chap 3 moves to an analysis of the priestly blessing itself, arguing that its placement within the legal material in Numbers reflects an understanding of the blessing as ritually effective language employed by authorized priests. The phrase “they will put my name on the Israelites” in the instructions evokes the practice of carrying apotropaic blessings on one’s body in the form of amulets.

Chap 4 discusses the significance of the reference to YHWH’s face in the blessing. The divine face is a poetic trope closely associated with temple worship in the Bible. So the allusion to the divine face in the blessing connected the goal of personal protection to communal temple imagery

Chap 5 refers to examples of blessings having been written for the purpose of public display at cultic sites. Because of this linkage between blessing and physical temples, the placement of the priestly blessing prior to the dedication of the tabernacle in the priestly narrative may have been intended to accomplish something similar, establishing effective ritual blessing within the literarily imagined world of the temple.

A conclusion reviews the major findings of the study.

I found Smoak’s general thesis to be well-argued and supported. The book represents a significant contribution to the study of apotropaic ritual/magic in Israel-Judah, which will be of interest to both biblical scholars and students of ancient Near Eastern religion. The careful use of material culture and inscriptions from the broader region so as to illuminate the thought-world of the biblical texts is exemplary, building a historically-informed hermeneutical context without forcing the evidence.

A few points of criticism:

First, Smoak acknowledges that apotropaic formulae were likely directed against demonic and death-dealing influences, but he almost completely avoids any discussion about the nature of this demonic evil opposed by YHWH. The translation of hrʿ in the Ketef Hinnom inscriptions as “the Evil” or “Evil” seems awkwardly abstract and undefined, more plausibly it refers to a personalized “Evil One.”

Second, in chap 2 I think it would have been helpful to provide more discussion on the divine iconography that often accompanied apotropaic formulae on Phoenician and Punic amulets. Inscriptions associated with particular iconography often tend to be mutually illuminating.

Third, I didn’t find the discussion about the dating of the priestly blessing and associated instructions to be entirely convincing. While the blessing itself may be pre-exilic in origin or relatively older than its surrounding literary context, this tells us nothing certain about when it was taken up and incorporated by the priestly authors. The use of the infinitive absolute of ʾmr “to say” as a command in the instructions hardly requires a pre-exilic date (p. 86). Smoak also doesn’t sufficiently explain why the imagery of the divine face would only make sense “against the background of the ritual language associated with the temple in the pre-exilic period” (p. 83).

Fourth, the correlation of the priestly blessing to the centralizing reforms of Josiah depicted in biblical narrative is problematic and appended to the discussion almost as an afterthought (p. 110). The various versions of the blessing do not mention a specific temple where the divine face was located, and neither can I detect any hints at a centralizing or aniconic ideology (p. 139). The mention of a divine face could easily be consistent with the worship of cult statues, icons, or standing stones.

Aside from these fairly minor weaknesses, Smoak’s book is certain to move the scholarly discussion on apotropaic ritual/magic in ancient Israel-Judah in productive directions.

 

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

Review of Le-ma‘an Ziony: Essays in Honor of Ziony Zevit, ed. F. E. Greenspan and G. A. Rendsburg (Wipf and Stock, 2017)

 

Throughout his career Ziony Zevit has distinguished himself as an independent thinker, educator, wide-ranging scholar, and promotor of collegial discussion and debate. In my own interactions with him I have been impressed by his candor, wit, and humility, willing to reconsider his own views in the face of new analyses or evidence. So it is not surprising that this Festschrift dedicated to him reflects not only something of the diversity of his own intellectual interests but also a diverse assortment of scholars.

The book includes 21 contributions divided into three sections, “History and Archaeology,” “Bible,” and “Hebrew and (Aramaic) Language.” Overall I found the individual contributions to be thought-provoking, even if not equally persuasive. In the interest of time, I will only comment on a few that relate more directly to my own biblical studies interests:

Dever (ch 1) claims that previous histories of ancient Israel-Judah are deficient in their lack of incorporation of material culture, dilates on the cause of this lamentable state of affairs, and then introduces his new book “History from Things”: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. His argument for treating archaeological data as a primary source for history-writing about Israel-Judah is certainly reasonable, and I look forward to any insights his book may contain. But I found his polemical tone, dismissal of revisionist history, and diatribe against postmodernism to be off-putting and even confusing, since he ultimately concedes the ideological and socially-constructed nature of the Bible.

Meyers (ch 6) revisits the issue of the interpretation of disc-holding pillar and plaque figurines, building on her previous work with JPFs. In line with her understanding that JPFs are human rather than divine symbols, she argues that disc-holding pillar figurines should be interpreted similarly, with the disc identified as a drum. By contrast, she concludes that disc-holding plaque figurines represent a deity while the discs should be identified as bread loaves. For my part, I didn’t find her argument particularly convincing, since it lacks a theoretically nuanced discussion of the iconographic criteria for identifying deities and also it seems unlikely that a disc would hold such oppositional meanings moving from plaque to pillar form in clay.

Schniedewind (ch 7) argues that Kuntillet ‘Ajrud may have been occupied for a much longer period than previously assumed, from as early as Iron IIA.

Berlin (ch 8) provides a new reading of Ps 122 that situates it during the Second Temple and understands the pilgrimage motif as a virtual pilgrimage to the First Temple. As such, it touches on “two major themes of postexilic thought: the re-establishment of the united kingdom and the restoration of the Davidic monarchy” (154).

Lewis (ch 12) presents a fascinating study of blasphemy in Lev 24, which he explains as an attempt to “wield effectual words against God with the intention of doing lethal harm” (213). While his interpretation of the severity of blasphemy is for the most part convincing, the digression situating Israelite belief in YHWH as a god who lives forever within a context of Near Eastern anxiety about the permanency of the divine is sketchy and more problematic. Further, I don’t see any grounds within the text for thinking that blasphemy against YHWH was an attempted appropriation of YHWH’s power against himself, unless we attribute a very rigorous, internally consistent, and philosophically abstract theological monism to the biblical author.

Van der Toorn (ch 14) offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between Ps 20 and Amherst Papyrus 63, XII, 11-19, arguing that the latter represents an earlier compositional form. This is a must read for those interested in identifying heuristic principles for the historical analysis of texts that develop over time. The main aspect of the discussion I found to be less than satisfactory was the conclusion that the Aramaic hymn had its origin in Israel or the Northern Kingdom because YHW and Bethel are identified.

Friedman (ch 16) argues that we translate the emphatics of biblical Hebrew into English with exclamation points and italics. His discussion of the infinitive absolute in this regard is excellent.

 

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

Some methodological guidelines for the dating of biblical texts

One of the central preoccupations of modern biblical scholarship has been the dating of individual texts to particular historical situations or relative to other texts, as well as reconstructing their diachronic development from earlier stages to the final forms that appear in various text traditions/translations (LXX, Qumran, MT). And while I think this is a worthwhile endeavor and ultimately necessary to explain the complex literary quality of the Bible, too often hypotheses have been advanced based merely on vague historical correlation, the desire to find kernels of great antiquity, and the assumption that biblical scribes were for the most part simply editors or tradents handing down earlier tradition. At the same time, the traditional dating of biblical texts has tended to lack engagement with holistic literary and ideological analyses or fail to entertain the possibility that the scribes responsible for large-scale compositions were simply inventors of tradition.

I have a lot more I could say about this, but in the interest of encouraging more methodological rigor and self-criticism in the dating of biblical texts I thought I would offer a few basic guidelines:

1) The burden of proof is on those who would date a text earlier than its surrounding literary context;

2) Such proposals also move on a sliding scale, the earlier one dates a text relative to the major contexts for the production of the Bible (Persian and Hellenistic periods, late Judahite monarchy) the more speculative and tenuous the argument becomes;

3) To demonstrate literary discontinuity requires a higher bar of evidence than continuity, i.e. on principle readings that make sense of the text at a synchronic level are to be preferred over diachronic readings.

Review of Mark Smith, Where the Gods Are: Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World (Yale University, 2016)

In Where the Gods Are Smith addresses the timely topic of deities in relation to space in the ancient world and the Bible. Building off and drawing on previously published material, Smith presents an admirably concise and yet broad comparative discussion on the issues of divine representation and anthropomorphism, clarifying the various strategies and means by which humans mediated divine presence in their social and political world.

 

Chap 1 offers a typology of biblical YHWH’s body, whose physicality and size varies depending on the literary context. Chap 2 discusses how the temples in which deities reside partake of and express their superior status. Chap 3 suggests that divine anthropomorphism is complex, combining anthropomorphic, theriomorphic (animal-like), and natural imagery so as to distinguish deities from humans. Chap 4 explores the meaning of bull-calf imagery as applied to YHWH in the Bible and the possible significance of singular and plural references to calf images. Chap 5 reviews evidence for the localization of divinity in broader territorial contexts with particular focus on how different cultic manifestations related to and influenced one another and the development of a centralized cult at Jerusalem that excluded divine fragmentation. Chap 6 examines the royal city as an integrated sacred space and proposes that divine anthropomorphism stimulated the personification of Jerusalem as wife and mother.

 

Considering the narrow length of the book, Where the Gods Are covers an impressive amount of material, ranging widely over the literature and iconography of the ancient Near East and synthesizing it into a coherent, if bibliocentric, narrative. The writing is clear, accessible, and well-organized. Irrespective of whether one agrees with specific aspects of his argument, the discussion is brimming with insight and learned interconnections, representing the fruit of years of study and close interaction with ancient religious texts. As is his custom, Smith provides extensive and up-to-date bibliographic detail, allowing the reader to get a feeling for the state of the scholarly conversation as it stands in contemporary research.

 

In general, I thought his account of the complexity of anthropomorphic discourse and the need to instantiate deity in relation to human society and on analogy thereto was convincing. Concepts of deity are integrally related to human experience and imagination and therefore necessarily change and evolve over time. However, I found some of the specific literary-historical arguments advanced in the course of the book to be insufficiently supported and/or problematic. Here I will mention two, including the notion that YHWH in the Bible has three typologically distinct bodies and the second that the varying numbers of calf images in biblical tradition point to divergent iconographic backgrounds.

 

With regard to the first, Smith claims that in the Bible YHWH is associated with three types of bodies (chap 1). He refers to these as the “natural human body,” which is physically anthropomorphic and manifest on earth, the “liturgical body,” which is superhuman in size, nonphysical, and manifest on earth, and the “cosmic mystical body” located in heaven (14-24). However, while it may be the case that YHWH’s body is depicted with varying degrees of size and physicality and that some imagery is more consistently associated with certain locations or settings (cf. Sommer 2009), it is much more questionable whether they can be divided into these particular categories or if we have sufficient information to typologically distinguish one representation of the divine body from another.

 

The main evidence for a “natural human body” consists of Gen 2-3, 18-19, and 32, all of which attribute behaviors to deity consistent with an anthropomorphic physical body. Yet in Gen 2-3 the narrative suggests that YHWH is imagined to have a superhuman rather than human-sized body. The statement “YHWH-Elohim took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden” (v. 15) implies that the deity was large enough to pick the man up and move him to another location. If this is the case, as Smith admits, then it seems rather arbitrary to separate this presentation from the so-called “liturgical body,” which also hinges on a supersized body. In addition, many scholars have noted that the Eden story takes place on a cosmic mountain near the divine abode, thus further undermining the differentiation of this deity from the “liturgical” category of deity, which Smith describes as belonging to the “constellation of themes associated with the deity’s temple-palace located on the holy mountain” (18).

 

In the case of Gen 18-19 and 32, while both passages refer to deities who have a human-like body and in the present form of the tradition at least one is identified with YHWH, it is not clear that they were originally identified as such and therefore are entirely relevant to defining the first category of divine body. As is well known, Gen 18-19’s description of the three men who visit Abraham exhibits significant literary tensions. The narrative begins with the introduction “YHWH appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre…” (v. 1) and then immediately moves to the narrative report that “He looked up and saw three men standing near him” (v. 2). Because the juxtaposition implies that one of the men is YHWH, it is highly odd that the narrative should initially fail to distinguish among them. Why the awkward YHWH appeared > Abraham saw three undifferentiated “men”? For the most part, the men are treated as an integral group throughout the narrative: “wash your [plural] feet… your [plural] servant… They said… before them… They said to him… Then the men set out from there…” Considering that later two of the men are portrayed as destroying angels who have been sent by YHWH to bring judgment on the people of the plain (19:1, 13), it seems reasonable to assume that they were all originally mediating second-tier deities in a larger pantheon structure, one of whom has been secondarily identified with YHWH. Michael Hundley has noted that one of the main ideological goals of the Genesis-Exodus narrative is “exclusive worship. In order to accomplish this goal, the text squeezes out the middle gods, either demoting them into the lower servant tier or pushing them out of the market entirely” (2016: 17). This understanding of the mysterious figures would explain why they tend to function in the narrative as a group, rather than YHWH and two subordinate angels. They are all of comparable divine status, sent by a higher authority. In the genre of epic literature heightened anthropomorphism and direct interaction with humans would also be more consistent with mediating figures than a cosmic high god such as El.

 

Similarly, the deity that wrestles with Jacob in Gen 32 is not explicitly identified with YHWH. Although the man is recognized in the narrative as divine (vv. 28, 30), his identity is unknown to Jacob, who demands that he inform him of his name (v. 29). By contrast, in Hosea 12:3-4 the figure seems to have been identified with El, which may reflect a relatively late anti-El redactional layer (cf. Chalmers 2008). The failure of Jacob to recognize the man and the fact that he engages with him in combat strongly militates against the suggestion that he is his personal god, which in an Israelite context would have been El or YHWH. It is simply inconceivable that Israelite tradition would have memorialized a story about its founding ancestor having defeated his own personal god, undermining notions of divine power, benevolence, and serviceability. Rather, because the man is of divine status, fights against Jacob, appears only in the nighttime, and is warded off by the morning sun, he can only have signified a hostile demonic figure. He strikes Jacob in the loin area, suggesting an attempt to destroy his virility and posterity (Gevirtz 1975; Smith 1990).

 

The situation is reminiscent of the bizarre incident between YHWH and Moses in Ex 4:24-26, which also concerns the male sexual organ and occurs at nighttime. The narrative reports that at the place where Moses and his family were sleeping YHWH comes out of nowhere and tries to kill him, which Zipporah averts by placing blood on his penis and pretends to have circumcised him. Comparative and biblical evidence indicates that in the Canaanite-Israelite world circumcision had an apotropaic/propitiatory function and was associated with sexual maturation, marriage, and fertility (Propp 1993; 2010: 236-237; Olyan 2004; Flusser 2009; Wyatt 2009). In the Damascus Document circumcision is thought to protect from the figure of Mastema, the father of evil and angel of disaster (6QD 16:4-6), and in the Book of Jubilees it is Mastema who tries to kill Moses (48:1-4). So Ex 4:25 would seem to be another case where a demonic deathdealing figure has been obscured in the tradition and assimilated to normative mono-YHWHistic ideology.

 

The next category of body, the liturgical body, is supported by Ex 24:10, 33:22-23, Isa 6:1, and 1 Kgs 6:23-28. Here YHWH is thought to be superhuman in size and nonphysical in substance. Yet in Smith’s first example there is no reference to the deity’s size or physicality, only a mention of his feet, presumably resting below a throne. While it may be the case that YHWH is envisioned here as gigantic in size and nonphysical in nature, it is important to emphasize that the passage itself does not provide any direct indication of this. In the other passages YHWH is indeed portrayed as larger than life, or at least implied to be such. This is especially clear in Ex 33:22-23 where YHWH places Moses in a cleft of the rock and covers him with his hand, which recalls the depiction of deity picking up Adam and moving him with his hand in Gen 2:15. With regard to the deity’s physical nature, Ex 33, Isa 6, and 1 Kgs 6 are more ambiguous. Does “glory” in Ex 33:22 refer to something specifically nonphysical, or is it a circumlocution for YHWH’s body, whatever substance that may be? Kabod is elsewhere used in Hebrew to denote the substance of a human body (Sommer 2009: 60). To say that the description is not as naturalistic as Gen 2-3 because YHWH is said to “pass by” rather than “walk” is somewhat tenuous, since “to pass by” could easily be used of a human as well. Similar questions may be asked of Isa 6:1. Does Isaiah envision YHWH to be a physical or nonphysical being? Does he literally “see” him sitting on his throne in the Jerusalem temple, or is this a prophetic vision reflecting the happenings of a heavenly-mountain temple? The conceptual overlap between these spaces makes it difficult to know for sure.

 

The “cosmic mystical body” is found in Isa 40:12, 66:1, and Ezekiel 1, which is cosmically large, located in or above heaven, and apparently nonphysical. Yet here again we encounter problems. First, the statements in Isa 40:12 and 66:1 are highly rhetorical, evincing a concern to magnify the transcendence of YHWH over human cultic affairs. These passages are not philosophical or straightforward descriptions of the divine, but employ hyperbole and metaphor to highlight the greatness and supreme authority of YHWH. They both may well presuppose the tradition that YHWH’s body was gigantic in size, not so different from Gen 2-3 and Ex 33. It is also seems fairly clear that whatever the size of deity in the theophany described by Ezekiel he is not cosmically large, since the throne-chariot rises and moves about in the air. Second, it is unclear to what degree the localization of deity in these presentations should be distinguished from the concept of YHWH or El dwelling on the cosmic mountain in Gen 2-3, Ex 24, and 33. In Canaanite culture Mount Zaphon had long been conceptualized as the home of deity because it was close to heaven. The one reached into the other and so the spaces were closely bound together. It is certainly true that in later prophetic and apocalyptic material God’s home is universalized and pushed higher into heaven, but even in Ezekiel 1 the transition to a purely heavenly cosmic locale has not yet been effected. In Ezek 1:4 the prophet reports that he saw the throne-chariot proceed from Zaphon, or the North, which cannot but allude to God’s home on the cosmic mountain of El. Third, the passages cited fail to provide any direct information about the physical nature of YHWH’s body, aside from indicating that it was anthropomorphic. In Ezekiel the material substance of the divine body is left purposefully ambiguous, though aspects of the presentation of the throne-chariot would certainly allow for some kind of substantial embodiment (cf. 1:24).

 

In sum, there appears to be more continuity among the different representations of the divine body in the Bible than Smith has acknowledged. YHWH or El is generally perceived as being superhuman in size and having some kind of physical or material nature.

 

Smith also attempts to shed light on the singular and plural references to calf images in the Bible (chap 4). Sometimes the biblical text refers to only a singular calf icon worshipped at sites in Israel, but in a few cases a plurality of calf icons are mentioned (1 Kgs 12:32; Hos 10:5-6). Smith speculates that the divergence in numbers reflects distinct iconographies or backgrounds in the cult at Bethel, with the singular referent pointing to the use of a single calf icon as an object of focus and the plural referents including a double calf pedestal for an anthropomorphic statue and votives or cultic masks.

 

In order to explain the biblical forms, Smith interweaves textual and iconographic evidence from across the Near East, starting from the assumption that the variation between singular and plural numbers points to separate underlying cultic realities. However, while some of the proposals made here are ingenious, I found the general line of argumentation to be unconvincing for several reasons.

 

First, the plural reference in 1 Kgs 12:32 is a rather thin foundation upon which to build his thesis. From the literary context, the plural “calves” is most easily read in connection to the pair of calves mentioned in 12:28. The narrative specifically reports that Jeroboam made two calves of gold and placed one at Bethel and the other at Dan (vv. 28-29). Then it speaks about calf-worship as a national sin, as well as the construction of plural bamot sanctuaries across the countryside (v. 30-31). So when we come to the plural “calves” in v. 32 it would be natural to suppose they refer to the same two calves located at Bethel and Dan, not that the calf icon population at Bethel had suddenly increased. Of course, the main difficulty with this reading is that Jeroboam’s sacrificing to the calves appears to be localized at Bethel with the statement wyʿl ʿl hmzbḥ kn bbytʾl “he went up on the altar, thus he did at Bethel” in the MT (v. 32b), and according to the LXX, “he went up onto the altar that he had made in Bethel,” which reflects the use of a relative ʾšr rather than the particle kn. But the statement in v. 32b “he went up on the altar, thus he did at Bethel” is suspiciously similar to v. 33a “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel,” especially if we follow the more syntactically intelligible phraseology of the LXX. The use of the adverbial kn immediately after the clause “he went up on the altar” is awkward and the verb ʿśh is used in the surrounding context in the sense “to construct, make, appoint,” not “to do.”

 

In addition, the occurrence of the localizing information “in Bethel” in this clause creates further literary tension, since it is repeated in v. 32c “he set up in Bethel the priests of the bamot he had made” and then again in v. 33a “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel.” In other words, the repetition of Bethel is excessive and unnecessary. It seems reasonable to conclude therefore that the statement “he went up on the altar that he had made in Bethel” in v. 32 is a secondary addition and that the sentence originally read, “Jeroboam appointed a festival on the fifthteenth day of the eighth month (like the festival that was in Judah) to sacrifice to the calves that he had made,” that is, the calves at Bethel and Dan. The intention of the addition was presumably to clarify where Jeroboam was celebrating the festival in preparation for the following narrative about Jeroboam and the man of God (chap 13). V. 32c would also represent a closely related addition about the priests of Bethel. The earlier form of the narrative would have moved from a general national orientation in v. 32, with Jeroboam appointing a festival in Israel to sacrifice to the golden calves, to the specific setting of Bethel in v. 33.

 

Second, the explication of 1 Kgs 12:32 by means of Amherst Papyrus 63 also faces challenges. Steiner’s proposal to read the name “Yaho, our bull” and the divine title “lord of Bethel” is very uncertain, as Smith himself admits (61-62). Bethel is elsewhere in the document a title of the supreme god Mar, so the construction r.byt.rm is more sensibly read as a reference to the same deity. The passage about kissing bulls in Col V, 12 is far removed from the above supposed allusions to the Israelite Bethel cult and unfortunately the text at this point is broken, making it difficult if not impossible to situate these statements in their literary context. In any case, there is no clear indication that the background to the community responsible for the liturgy was Israelite. I think it more plausible to follow Kottsieper that they were a Canaanite group from south Syria somewhere in the general vicinity of the Lebanon (1997; 2013). In addition, because the significance of the bulls and calves is unclear from the context, it is premature to assume that they are invoked in synonymous parallelism, suggesting that the terms had come to overlap semantically and to symbolize a single god, comparable to biblical YHWH. In order to buttress this claim, Smith argues that šwr “ox” and ʿgl “calf” are used parallel in Ps 106:19-20. However, the full context of the passage shows that this understanding is questionable: “They made a calf at Horeb and worshipped a cast image. They exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass.” The mention of šwr is not used exactly parallel to ʿgl; the term is qualified with the adjectival phrase “that eats grass,” indicating that “ox” here functions not as a synonym but as the general animal category to which ʿgl belongs. In Hebrew ʿgl is normally used to denote a younger bull-calf, and I have argued that YHWH is depicted as a young bull-calf in the pithos A painting from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, consistent with his identification as “the calf of Samaria” (Thomas 2016).

 

Third, it is difficult to imagine that scribes in the biblical tradition would use a single lexeme to denote so many different iconographic realities, the singular meaning one thing and the masculine and feminine plural meaning something else. This kind of philological ambiguity would have created substantial potential for confusion and miscommunication in the tradition on an item of major importance in the development of biblical attitudes toward aniconism. Certainly later scribes responsible for the transmission of the Bible understood that the singular use of ʿgl referred to a calf icon or idol, so they would be unlikely to have introduced a totally new sense for the plural. Beyond that, it is particularly doubtful that Hebrew scribes would have employed ʿgl to designate a statue corresponding with the animal on the one hand and a composite image in which bovines were only the pedestal of an anthropomorphic deity on the other. In the latter case, the most important aspect of the icon would have been the anthropomorphic divinity, not the pedestal animals. To call a calf icon an ʿgl would accurately capture its material form, whereas the same would not be the case for an anthropomorphic statue.

 

Finally, while the feminine plural spelling ʿglwt in Hos 10:5 is morphologically anomalous and deserving of an explanation, I think it very unlikely that its cultic referent should be sharply differentiated from the calf icons polemicized against elsewhere in biblical tradition. From the immediate literary context it is clear that ʿglwt refers to a singular masculine entity, “for its/his people will mourn over it/him, its/his priests will wail over it/him” (v. 5). So whatever the origin of the feminine ending in the text, it does not function as a regular plural. Further, the ʿglwt is depicted as a cult statue of YHWH, since not only is it associated with human worshippers and priests, it is said to have a kabod, went into exile, and is brought as tribute to Assyria (vv. 5-6), all pointing to an enlivened and personalized cult manifestation. Thus the literary context would seem to exclude seeking for some specialized iconographic background or cultic utility for the unique ʿglwt, such as votives or masks. Smith’s analysis highlights the dangers of a narrowly philological method that focuses on individual words as the locus of historical information, rather than paying adequate attention to literary matters of context and interrelationship.

 

Despite my disagreement and concern with aspects of Where the Gods Are, the book makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion on concepts of deity in the Bible and generally models an open, fair minded, and non-dogmatic consideration of the issues.  

 

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

 

Bibliography

 

Chalmers, R. S. 2008. The Struggle of Yahweh and El for Hosea’s Israel. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix.

 

Flusser, D. 2009. Judaism of the Second Temple Period: Sages and Literature. Trans. A. Yaddin. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

 

Gevirtz, S. 1975. Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford. Hebrew Union College Annual 46: 33-54.

 

Hundley, M. 2016. Of God and Angels: Divine Messengers in Genesis and Exodus in their Ancient Near Eastern Contexts. Journal of Theological Studies 67: 1-22.

 

Kottsieper, I. 1997. Anmerkungen zu Pap. Amherst 63. Teil II-V. Ugarit-Forschungen 29: 385-434.

 

—. 2013. El. Das wissenschaftliche Bibellexikon im Internet. https://www.bibelwissenschaft.de/de/stichwort/17172/. Accessed 9/25/16.

 

Olyan, S. 2004. Israel: Rites of Passage. Pp. 442-444 in Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, ed. S. I. Johnston. Cambridge: Harvard University.

 

Propp, W. H. 1993. That Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus IV 24-6). Vetus Testamentum

43: 495-518.

 

—. 2010. Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB 2. New Haven: Yale University.

 

Smith, S. H. 1990. ‘Heel’ and ‘thigh’: The concept of Sexuality in the Jacob-Esau Narratives. Vetus Testamentum 40: 464-473.

 

Sommer, B. D. 2009. The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. New York: Cambridge University.

 

Thomas, R. 2016. The Identity of the Standing Figures on Pithos A from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud: A Reassessment. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 16: 121-191.

 

Wyatt, N. 2009. Circumcision and Circumstance: Male Genital Mutilation in Ancient Israel and Ugarit. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33 : 405-431

 

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

800px-adam_and_eve_driven_out_of_eden

 

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.”