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.

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