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]

SBL paper proposal accepted


My paper proposal “Reconstructing the pantheon of Judaean Elephantine” was accepted for the 2017 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in the Social Sciences and the Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures unit. Here’s an abstract:

Despite the fact that documents recording aspects of the daily life and religion of the Judaean colony at Elephantine during the Persian period have long been known and available for analysis, no consensus has emerged about the number of gods worshipped in the local cult, to what degree the gods were Judahite-Israelite in origin, and especially how the gods were thought to relate to one another and to YHW. Were the gods conceptualized in the conventional model of a familial, hierarchically arranged pantheon as known from throughout the ancient Near East? This paper critically assesses the evidence for a pantheon at Elephantine by reflecting on the cognitive science of religion and its implications for reconstructing ancient forms of polytheism, offers a new synthesis of the data regarding the structure and coherence of the Judaean pantheon as it was apparently known there, and finally considers the relevance of the situation at Elephantine for questions about the nature of Israelite-Judahite polytheism more generally.

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.

Why study the Bible as a topic of humanistic inquiry?

Over the years I’ve dedicated quite a bit of time to research and writing on the Hebrew Bible, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people have wondered why I do this, given that I’m not personally invested in the topic as a matter of religious devotion. Well, I think I would respond by asking, if you had the opportunity to be an astronaut who could explore foreign worlds light years away from ours, would you do so? Would you do this for the sheer joy of exploration, to expand our understanding of the universe and ourselves, and for the potential benefits that would accrue to human civilization? In a way, I think of myself as a kind of astronaut or rather detective-explorer, but instead of probing the universe through space I travel back through time, venturing into worlds very different from our own, worlds sometimes as foreign and alien as a distant planet. Why? Because this ancient literature and its fervent assertions, politics, questions, and controversies are still very much with us and profoundly influence contemporary culture. Because aspects of the Bible’s theological politics should be emphatically rejected as ethically dubious, while the full range of wisdom contained in these books has not yet been fully plumbed. Because the literature is incredibly rich, multivocal, and all too human. Because if you want to understand how we got to where we are and where we may be going, it helps to go back to the beginning where it all started, or at least one salient beginning. Because knowledge is power and enables one to ask questions and envision new forms of society and culture. Because if we want to build a better future for humanity we need to learn how to assimilate the messiness of our past, with all its arbitrariness and contingency.