Review of Gard Granerød, Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period: Studies in the Religion and Society of the Judaean Community at Elephantine (de Gruyter, 2016)

 

In recent years the study of the ancient Judaean community at Elephantine has come into its own, with more and more scholars treating its religion and society as subjects worthy of independent investigation and not merely as biblical comparanda. When the literary remains of this Judaean mercenary colony living along the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt were first discovered and translated, it was soon realized that these Judaeans practiced a form of religion that diverged sharply from the Judaism authorized and promoted in the Bible. For example, they had their own temple where sacrifices were made, worshipped other deities alongside YHW, and acknowledged the cultic reality and potency of local Aramaean and Egyptian deities. So the question naturally arose, how did this form of Judaean religion relate to the religion practiced in the homeland of Samaria-Judah, both in the Persian period and earlier?

 

In Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period: Studies in the Religion and Society of the Judaean Community at Elephantine, G. Granerød, Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies at the Norwegian School of Theology, tackles the Elephantine question anew, building on the scholarship of R. Kratz and others and using the compilation of documents already published in Porten and Yardeni (TADAE) to provide a fresh and methodologically balanced overview of Judaean religion as practiced at Elephantine and to consider its implications for understanding lived Judaean religion more broadly during the Persian period.

 

Chap 1 begins by noting the difficulties associated with using the Bible as a source for reconstructing Judaean religion in the Persian period and proposes instead that we approach the issue via Elephantine in the diaspora, for which we have relatively abundant documentation. Granerød then defines what he means by “religion” in the context of the study and adopts N. Smart’s multidimensional model of religion, which allows him to organize his presentation of religious culture in a holistic and non-hierarchical manner. After this introduction, the next five chapters treat the social, material, ritual, mythic, and ethical dimensions of religion at Elephantine. Chap 2 discusses communal identity, social  organization, law, religious specialists, economy, and sacred time (24-80). Chap 3 explores textual and archaeological evidence relating to temple worship (81-127). Chap 4 examines traces of ritual in the extant texts, including sacrifice, mourning, prayer, the festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread, and Sabbath (128-208). Chap 5 describes the myths and religious narratives that may have been current within the community, including traditions about creation, the antiquity of the temple, sacral kingship, and the local Judaean pantheon (209-258). Chap 6 reflects on miscellaneous topics related to ethical thinking at Elephantine (259-323). A conclusion and recommendation for future research rounds out the book (324-340), followed by bibliography and useful indices.

 

The task that Granerød set for himself was ambitious, considering the limited and fragmentary nature of the evidence preserved from Elephantine, the wide disagreement among scholars over salient issues of interpretation and historical reconstruction, and not least the complex nature of “religion” as a topic of humanistic inquiry. It would be easy to get bogged down by any one of these factors so as to deter one from making the attempt. Yet in my view Granerød has largely succeeded in synthesizing the various data regarding religious practice at Elephantine for a new generation of scholars. His theoretical discussion is pragmatic and critical, developing an innovative and flexible approach for exploring the topic of Judaean religion in the Persian period without framing the issue in biblio-centric terms. He deals with almost all of the major issues that have been debated in the study of Judaean Elephantine over the years, and his analysis is generally thorough, cautious, and fair. Through close reading of the literary remains of Elephantine and attention to fine detail within a broader comparative-historical context, he is able to draw a much richer and nuanced picture of religion as practiced there, once and for all debunking the tendency of biblical scholars to exotify and otherize this important Judaean diaspora community.

 

I can briefly mention a few points of criticism:

 

-I think it would have been worthwhile and even necessary to put more effort into critically analyzing the readings of Porten and Yardeni in TADAE, at least in some cases. When dealing with fragmentary inscriptions for the purpose of reconstructing ancient religious practice or ideology, this is simply a sine qua non.

 

-There were occasional instances where engagement or reference to previous scholarship was surprisingly lacking. For example, no reference to Becking’s (2011) proposal that the tradition about the first temple at Elephantine existing in the time of the Pharaohs was an invented tradition (89, 216-219), or engagement with van der Toorn (1992) on the identities of Bethel, Ashim-Bethel, and Anat-Bethel/YHW (248-256).

 

-Rarely Granerød advances claims that are only weakly substantiated, e.g. that the cult of YHWH at Elephantine was aniconic (112), or adopts dubious models as a means of explaining features of the cult, e.g. YHWH’s cult presence is likened to the later Jewish concept of the Shekinah (105, 107, 126).

 

-I think the section devoted to elucidating the Judaean pantheon at Elephantine was somewhat thin, considering all that has been written on the subject, for example, nothing on the figure of Ashim-Bethel or his relationship to YHW/Bethel and Anat-Bethel.

 

-The use of “Yahwism” as a term interchangeable with Judaean religion is somewhat problematic if, as seems likely to be the case, the Judaeans at Elephantine worshipped more deities than YHWH alone. It unfortunately has the potential to obscure or hinder the reader’s understanding of the particular flavor of polytheism at Judaean Elephantine.

 

Despite some points of weakness, Dimensions of Yahwism was well conceived, well written, and tightly argued. Granerød is to be congratulated for having produced a work that will certainly contribute not only to advancing the discussion on Judaean culture and society at Elephantine, but to analyzing the complexity and diversity of Judaean religion in the Persian period more generally.

 

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