Review: “Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine” by Karel van der Toorn

BecomingDiasporaJewsKarel van der Toorn. 2019. Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine. Yale: Yale University Press.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Elephantine Papyri were revealed to the world. Unsurprisingly, the texts were popular because they reflected the lives of Jews in exile. As early scholars expressed, they were texts from the people of the bible. Since then, scholarship on Amherst Papyrus 63 provided opportunities to revise and reconsider traditional narratives about Elephantine. A few years after van der Toorn’s critical edition of Amherst Papyrus 63, his newest book reconsiders the Elephantine community’s relation with Arameans, their origins, and the history. After the book’s summary, I will note various places where van der Toorn’s analysis could be developed, providing further considerations that build off van der Toorn’s work.

Chapter One reviews how the papyri were discovered, scholarly trends of the 20th century, and terminological choices, especially Jew versus Judean and diaspora. Notably, readers will find van der Toorn’s narrative remarkably similar to contemporary, questionable actions by the Museum of the Bible and its affiliates.

Chapter Two describes the Aramean heritage of Jews at Elephantine. First, he convincingly hypothesizes that Aramaic was present in the early history of the community. Second, he highlights the “Sayings of Ahiqar” as indicative of a link between the Aramean diaspora and the Jewish community at Elephantine. Third, on account of a papyri instructing shekels to be divided between Yaho and two Aramean gods, there is strong reason to conclude Elephantine Jews were Aramean. Fourth, drawing from onomastics and titles, he argues that the reference to Elephantine Jews as “Jews of Elephantine,” “Aramean,” and “Syenian” indicate they were viewed administratively as Arameans. Similar patterns are evident for the Iranian community. Simply put, “the Jews were technically Arameans but, in reality, Judeans.”

Chapter Three focuses on the Aramean diaspora in Egypt to figure out how Jews at Elephantine were connected to Arameans. After briefly reviewing the terms Aramaic, Aram, and Aramean, he analyzes onomastic data to suggest two Aramean groups: a Bethel group from central Syria and a Babylonian Nabu group. Having laid out these ethnic boundaries, van der Toorn highlights social links and contact between Jews of Elephantine and Syenian Arameans via mundane social interactions and military activity. Notably, his analysis clearly shows that the traditional hypothesis of Jews adopting Aramean culture is implausible.

Chapter Four attempts to identify their origins and explain practices by analyzing Papyrus Amherst 63. Describing the three sections of the text (Syrian, Samarian, and Babylonian), he draws from Ps 20, New Years references, and content throughout the papyri in order to suggest the text was compiled in the 7th century BCE. He suggests that, with the disintegration of the Neo-Assyrian empire at the end of the 7th century, Samarian Arameans began speaking Aramaic when they were becoming the garrison of Syene.

In Chapter Five, van der Toorn explores two aspects of Elephantine in light of the previous discussion: Elephantine Jews as a military colony and as a religion. First, van der Toorn contextualizes the colony, highlighting how Egypt and Persia had been hiring mercenaries since the Samarian migration to Egypt. After discussing relevant textual evidence, he concludes that individuals did not receive wages; rather, battalions held land as possessions, akin to the Babylonian land-for-service system. Due to peace on the southern front, they were relatively inactive, allowing them to work fields and develop wealth. Second, he describes religious practice at Elephantine. The temple, he argues, was not unique, providing examples of Jewish temples at Edfu and Leontopolis. In any case, in functioned as the material guarantee of Yaho’s presence. Socially, the boundary between religious and political, or sacred and secular, was porous, providing various examples of individuals who functioned as political or religious leaders depending on their social context. Finally, drawing from Papyrus Amherst 63 and the Elephantine Papyri, he offers a discussion of the gods of the Elephantine Jews: Yaho, Eshem-Bethel, Herem-Bethel, and the Queen of Heaven. Strong practices and beliefs at Elephantine show that—contrary to Babylonian Jews—there was no desire to return “home.”

In Chapter Six, van der Toorn details three phases leading to Samarian Arameans being identified as Jewish. Early on, “Judean” was a collective term for Samarians and Jews, evident in mixture of Judeans and Samarians together moving to Egypt in the 7th century without conflict, the relation between Jews at Elephantine and other places throughout Egypt, and Persian perception of “Judean,” a geographic term, into the broader notion of a Judean diaspora. For the second phase, van der Toorn highlights Hananyah’s “Passover” letter because the “salutation reflects a self-conscious Jewish identity” (122), an identity possibly creating a sort of “religious nationalism” and fueling conflict between Egyptians and Judeans. Third, political and social conflict between the Jewish Elephantines and Egyptians—namely, Egyptians destroying the Jewish temple in 410 BCE and Persia’s sympathy for them by 407 BCE—cemented Elephantine identity as Jewish, as letters from the period show their communications with Judah and Samaria. The event cementing their identity, van der Toorn argues, was not necessarily religious violence; rather, by examining social conflict at Elephantine prior to the temple’s destruction in 410 BCE, he clearly demonstrates that the conflict was more about personal gain and political choice than anti-Jewish sentiments.

The book concludes with a short epilogue and a full translation of Papyrus Amherst 63.

As a whole, van der Toorn’s analysis of Elephantine, use of onomastica, and inclusion of Papyrus Amherst 63 are extraordinary. Rather than reading like an academic monograph, Becoming Diaspora Jews is a story. It is engaging, flows relatively well, makes strong arguments, and is eye-opening. That said, rather than listing the exquisite aspects of the volume, which are too numerous to list here, I will shift into discussing the finer points of his volume, considering how different perspective could enrich our understanding of the Elephantine Jews.

First, I propose that his perspective on the Persians’ first interactions with Judeans should be more specific. He claims that “the Persians’ first encounter with these Judeans was with the community of Judean exiles in Babylonia” (120). This statement is too ambiguous. Is he claiming that the Persians met the Judeans as they were working in the fields of Babylonia or that Persians knew of Judeans via other means? The details of van der Toorn’s statement, I think, are pertinent. If Persians knew about Judeans and Al-Yahudu, the Judean community in Babylonia, via personal interactions with the community, the implication is that Persian government developed an approach to ethnic groups independent of Babylonian approaches to Judeans.

Records, though, indicate otherwise: “The Achaemenid administration inherited the administrative system and the system of taxation from their Neo-Babylonian predecessors in Babylonia” (Kleber 2015). That is, Persians transferred Neo-Babylonian methods of administration to themselves. And though conjectural, it is more likely that Persians first learned of Judeans through Neo-Babylonian documents. If this is the case, it also provides insight into how the Neo-Babylonian administration approached the Judeans of Al-Yahudu, many of whom were Samarian. Therefore, van der Toorn’s comment that the geographical term “Judean” came to be an ethnic term due to the Persian perception of the Judean diaspora should be pushed back to at least the Neo-Babylonian period. Namely, Judean was an ethnicity because the Persian administration inherited them from the Babylonians as an ethnicity.

Second, van der Toorn regularly notes the three deities present in Yaho’s temple, at least according to the papyrus: Yaho, Eshem-Bethel, and Anat-Bethel. I wonder, though, how the unique identity of Jews at Elephantine could be further defined by viewing the deities in the temple as a divine triad. That is, how do perspectives change when we view the three deities as reflective of the “structural element of Egyptian religion” to describe triads of deities (te Velde 1971, 80)? Though conjectural, it is plausible that the Judean divine triad is indicative of how they adapted to their social and religious environment.

In a similar vein, social network analysis of Jewish Elephantine deities could be used to explore social bonds between various groups in Egypt, drawing from both texts and onomastica. For example, Alstola et al. (2019) uses a computational social networking model in order to analyze the role of Ashur in the Mesopotamian pantheon during the 1st millennium. Through mapping a social network of deities throughout Egypt during the Persian periods, it may provide further socio-religious explanations for the conflict between the Egyptians and Jews [1]. That is, while van der Toorn is undoubtedly correct that events prior to the destruction of the Jewish temple at Elephantine are indicative that Egyptians did not act out of anti-Jewish sentiment, the degree to which Elephantine deities among the Elephantine community can be linked to other groups throughout the region may provide a more nuanced explanation of the events, an explanation which takes into account the degree to which social networks—themselves shaped by religious ritual, practice, and belief—created space for conflict to occur.

Another method to explore the social links between Jews at Elephantine and the region is through archaeological developments. As Müller (2016) highlights, Elephantine is settled throughout the first millennium; however, Demotic and Aramaic documentary texts only appear in the second half of the millennium. That said, it may be helpful to bring into the conversation how the archaeological sites—like the fortress—developing during the 1st millennium (e.g., von Pilgrim 2010) [2]. Though beyond the aim and method of van der Toorn, perhaps future analysis of Elephantine will further explore this issue.

In conclusion, van der Toorn’s Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine is an excellent and needed historical re-construction of the Jewish Elephantine community. More importantly, he draws into the conversation Papyrus Amherst 63, providing innovative and important insights to the Jews at Elephantine prior to their being in Egypt. Frankly, Becoming Diaspora Jews is a must-read for students and scholars of Jewish studies (broadly construed) and Egyptian history.

[1] As Wilkinson (2000) comments, “Interaction between cults also extended beyond the religious to the economic and social spheres. Though these latter areas are more difficiult to document, it seems that interaction was to the advantage of most temples, as smaller cults might profit from the prestige and power of larger ones and the larger cults could often accept their smaller neighbours as part of their own extended theological cosmos rather than as competitors” (85).

[2] As I do not have access to a library, the degree to which Rohrmoser (2014) discusses this subject is unclear. The closest access I had to it was a review by Cornell (2017).




Alstola, Tero, Shana Zaia, Aleksi Sahala, Heidi Jauhiainen, Saana Svärd, and Krister Lindén. 2019. “Ashur and His Friends: A Statistical Analysis of Neo-Assyrian Texts.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 71: 159–180.

Cornell, Collin. 2017. Review of Götter, Tempel und Kult der Judäo-Aramäer von Elephantine: archäologische und schriftliche Zeugnisse aus dem perserzeitlichen Ägypten by Angela Rohrmoser. Scandanavian Journal of the Old Testament 31 (1): 157–159.

Kleber, Kristin. 2015. “Taxation in the Achaemenid Empire.” In Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Accessed December 10, 2019.)

Müller, Matthias. 2016. “Among the Priests of Elephantine Island: Elephantine Island Seen from Egyptian Sources.” Die Welt des Orients 46 (2): 213–243.

von Pilgrim, Cornelius. 2010. “Elephantine – (Festrungs-)Stadt am Ersten Katarakt.” In Cities and Urbanism in Ancient Egypt, edited by Manfred Bietak, Ernst Czerny, and Irene Forstner-Müller, 257–270. Wien: Österreichische Akademia der Wissenschaften.

Rohrmoser, Angela. 2014. Götter, Tempel und Kult der Judäo-Aramäer von Elephantine: archäologische und schriftliche Zeugnisse aus dem perserzeitlichen Ägypten. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.

te Velde, H. 1971. “Some Remarks on the Structure of Egyptian Divine Triads.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 57: 80–86.

Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson.


Review: “Inhabiting the Promised Land: Exploring the Complex Relationship between Archaeology and Ancient Israel as Depicted in the Bible” by Margreet L. Steiner

9781789253306Margreet L. Steiner. Inhabiting the Promised Land: Exploring the Complex Relationship between Archaeology and Ancient Israel as Depicted in the Bible. Philadelphia: Oxbow, 2019.

A search on Google for “ancient Israel archaeology” yields 13.6 million results in 0.72 seconds. With so many resources readily available—many of which are questionable—it is pertinent that scholars more intentionally engage with the public. If scholars do not engage with the public in a reasonable and understandable way, they should not complain about misunderstanding or lack of knowledge. While some scholars use the internet, quite a few publish books as a means of engaging with the public. Margreet Steiner’s Inhabiting the Promised Land seeks to engage with the public.

Inhabiting the Promised Land was originally published in 2015 in Dutch (Op zoek naar… De gecompliceerde relatie tussen archeologie en de Bijbel). Oriented toward the public, the volume aims to characterize the relationship between archaeology and biblical texts in a digestible and understandable way. And as an archaeologist with extensive field experience, Steiner is undoubtedly qualified (click here for Margreet Steiner’s website and CV).

Broadly construed, the book is divided into three sections: introduction; searches for various figures based on biblical chronology; and discussion of the temple in Jerusalem and Asherah. In what follows, I will briefly summarize each chapter. Subsequently, I will reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the volume.

In Chapter One, Steiner defines key terms (e.g., archaeology, various regions, etc.), compares biblical archaeology with archaeology of the Levant, and outlines primary source materials for the history of Israel (archaeology, inscriptions, and the bible). In doing so, she also describes tradition and redaction criticism in biblical scholarship.

Chapter Two describes biblical stories of Abraham and his descendants, briefly summarizing Canaanites outside of the bible (language, religion, and ethnicity). After juxtaposing Abrahamic and Canaanite traditions, she concludes that Abrahamic traditions cannot confidently be placed into a time period. Subsequently, after describing the exodus account and the lack of non-biblical evidence, she describes the scholarly opinions about sitz im Leben: viewing the biblical texts as reflecting historical reality (maximalists), minimalists, Finkelsteins argument that texts were written in the 7th century BCE as a pious pre-history, and Liverani’s argument for an invented history after exile. Though she doesn’t say it directly, she basically implies that we don’t really know when the Abraham traditions were written, even suggesting that dismissing the patriarchal narratives and the conquest of the promised land as non-historical is “a bit extreme.”

In Chapter Three, she engages the relationship between the bible and archaeology regarding the Saul and the judges, describing various archaeological aspects: Jericho, early Iron Age villages, the Gezer Calendar, and the Merneptah stele. Presented with this information, she describes the four well-known ways about how Israel arose: peaceful infiltration, nomads, revolutions, and mixed multitude.  Though she implies that a mixed multitude is the most reasonable option, she concludes with a simple comment that the “beginning of the biblical Israel is still shrouded in clouds.”

In Chapter Four, Steiner considers the relationship between Goliath and Philistia as represented in biblical texts and archaeology. After broadly outlining Philistines as the Sea People, biblical representations, and archaeology, she describes three phases of Philistine migration based on pottery. Next, she describes Philistine culture via religion and iron use. Moreover, she briefly debunks an inscription that many viewed as evidence for Goliath and, by proxy, David. Thus, Steiner concludes that, while the Philistines migrated from Cyprus and the Aegean to the Levant during the 12th century BCE, they remain shrouded in mystery.

Chapter Five explores David and Solomon outside of biblical texts, discussing the Tel Dan inscription, debated subjects like the stables at Megiddo, the problem of ‘discovering’ King David’s palace in 2005, and Khirbet Qeiyafa. For this period, Steiner makes clear that whereas biblical texts indicate a Golden Age, the stories of David and Solomon appear to be fictive when put into conversation with archaeology.

Chapter Six explores Jezebel and the house of Omri, describing the biblical narrative, various extra-biblical sources, and Omride building projects. After discussing these materials, she highlights that (1) Jezebel is not attested in archaeology and that (2) the House of Omri, especially Ahab, was historically a mighty king, not merely a fictive construction.

Chapter Seven discusses Mesha of Moab, engaging with the Mesha inscription, Moab in the bible, and Moabite religion. She also describes the adventure of how the Moab inscription was discovered and recovered. She concludes that king Mesha—though represented distinctly in biblical texts—did exist as a power competing with Israel.

Chapter Eight turns to Jehoiachin and the exile, examining Neo-Babylonian records, biblical texts, and the Yehuda texts from Babylon. As such, she clearly demonstrates the presence of Judean exiles in Babylon, though admits the picture is somewhat hazy. Subsequently, she provides a brief discussion on how Judean’s seeing a ziggurat in Babylon may have influenced the biblical story about the tower of Babel.

Chapter Nine focuses on Balaam from the Deir Alla plasters in Jordan. After describing the story of discovering the text and the archaeological context, she provides Hoftijizer and Van der Kooij’s translation (1976) and briefly discusses it. She then contrasts the Deir Alla plasters with Balaam in biblical texts. She suggests that editors of the Hebrew Bible knew of Balaam traditions and incorporated them into their narratives.

Chapter Ten shifts to a contentious topic in Levantine archaeology and biblical studies: the goddess Asherah. After describing evidence for Asherah in biblical texts, Astarte, the Queen of Heaven, Kuntillet Ajrud, Khirbet el-Qom, cult stands, and figurines, she concludes that it is not yet clear how or if she was venerated in ancient Israel.

Chapter Eleven concludes with discussion of the temple in Jerusalem, engaging a broad range of data: temples in the Levant and Egypt, a history of the Jerusalem temple and Solomon’s temple according to biblical texts, the ivory pomegranate forgery, Solomon’s temple as a myth, and Herod’s temple. Though unrelated to Solomon’s temple, she subsequently describes various forged inscriptions through stories.

As a volume engaging with the pubic, Steiner’s work is a welcome addition. Covering such a broad range of archaeological data—from Late Bronze age archaeology up to the destruction of Jerusalem—and biblical texts is challenging and admirable, a feat few successfully attempt. In particular, I appreciate how she encourages readers to push against news heralding that archaeology has confirmed the bible. Instead, she encourages readers to acknowledge that the relationship between archaeology and biblical texts is complex. As such, folks should not be too quick to assert that certain archaeological finds support biblical texts.

Regarding her writing style, she writes in a conversational tone. I suspect this may be because it was originally published in Dutch. Presumably, the mood, flow, and tone of the text is culturally inflected. This is, however, a weakness of the volume depending on the reader. Personally, I enjoy German style writing more—sharp, concise, to the point, and not flowery. Her book is not that style. That said, it isn’t a problem so much as personal preference and a note to potential readers.

A few issues are worth addressing. Broadly construed, my criticisms have to do with the degree to which general audiences can interacted with Inhabiting the Promised Land, representation of biblical scholarship, and the books organization.

First, while the book is sometime understandable, she regularly uses language that the average reader does not understand. For example, when discussing the Philistines, she uses technical terms:  for pottery (e.g., monochrome, bichrome, Cypriot pottery, and Mycenaean pottery), Semitic root (most people don’t know what a ‘root’ is), and European Urnfield Culture (I only learned about this recently). Though only a small selection, it suffices to demonstrate that Steiner falls into a trap most academic writer fall into when writing for the public: they forget that while much of their language register is second nature, and the audience has no context or understanding of certain terms and ideas.

Second, Steiner’s volume is disconnected from biblical scholarship. From the outset, she notes that she is not a biblical scholar but an archaeologist of the Levant. As such, her description of the bible and how scholars us it for history is limited, discussing only redaction criticism and tradition criticism. Likewise, in briefly describing the book most relevant for Israel’s history, she only includes the Torah, early prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), and the “historical books” (Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah). By excluding a vast portion of biblical texts, she cuts out pertinent literature, such as Jeremiah and Isaiah. In other words, her investigation into the history of ancient Israel and Judah is limited from the outset because she ignores evidence central to reconstructing the history of Israel and Judah.

Similarly, while she defines the goals and questions for Levantine archaeologists, she does not detail the goals and questions of biblical scholars. Undoubtedly, this is a difficult to do due to diversity in the field. Even so, more thorough treatment of biblical scholarly aims would have contributed positively to her overall presentation of the bible and archaeology. It would have also (potentially) impacted some of her conclusions and discussion.

Third, the book’s organization is questionable. Chapters one through eight are arranged by biblical time period; chapters nine through eleven are topical, addressing Balaam, Asherah, and the temple of Jerusalem. The three topical chapters, though, are pertinent for the evidence, archaeological and textual, in chapters one through eight. Moreover, by arranging the chapters by “biblical chronology,” even though she admits that the chronology isn’t always supported by strong archaeological evidence, she does little to provide a new framework to general audiences for thinking about Israelite and Judean history. Had the book been organized as a historical construction of ancient Israel and Judah based primarily on archaeology and then put into conversation with biblical texts, it would have been more helpful by providing a new framework for thinking about history in the region.

Even with these criticism, Margreet Steiner’s Inhabiting the Promised Land is a welcome addition to the small, yet growing, corpus of books related to Levantine archaeology and biblical studies that are written for general audiences. And though the book is imperfect and, in some cases, inaccessible to general audiences, few scholars attempt to engage the public. For this reason, I personally appreciate Steiner’s work and look forward to see how she continues engaging the public.

Review: “A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions, Second Edition” by Walter E. Aufrecht

978-1-57506-344-7md_294Walter E. Aufrecht. A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions, Second Edition. University Park: Eisenbrauns, 2019, pp. 648. 

To state the obvious, A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions (henceforth CAI) remedies flaws from the 1st edition. In the preface, Aufrecht highlights some notable changes. First, five inscriptions from the 1st edition were re-numbered: 1→1b; 30a→30b; 54a→54b; 78a→78b; and 148→183. Second, the 2nd edition include new and reclassified inscriptions, including three which are not included in the glossary or appendices (CAI 246, 247, and 248).

The introduction initially lays out general notes. First, he aims to provide “a complete biography for each inscription” (2). Second, he aims to describe the physical location of all ostracon. Third, the 2nd edition includes new photographs, drawings, impressions, and bibliographic material. Fourth, the glossary is not of the Ammonite language—some words in texts may not be Ammonite.

Subsequently, Aufrecht addresses his five criteria for identifying Ammonite texts: provenance, language, onomastics, paleography, and iconography. First, because provenance depends on non-universal, unstable standards, he only refer to Israelite/Judean/Sidonian/Byblian “when citing their use by another author” (3). Second, CAI does not present the Ammonite phonological system; rather, he selects the earliest possible word forms. Notably, he vocalizes /ā/ as [о̄], acknowledging the south Canaanite vocalic shift in Ammonite. Third, concerning onomastics, he suggests that the theophoric element and hypocoristica “provide information on Ammonite religion” (7). Additionally, he translates all hypocoristica as ‘Il. Fourth, regarding paleography, Aufrecht explicitly provides no list of inscriptions by date of writing because scholars propose so many dating schemes. Fifth, regarding iconography, though a pertinent matter for Ammonite religious and social history, Aufrecht offers no analysis, instead directing readers to Collon (1990) and Avigad and Sass (1997). Finally, he excludes the Dayr Alla plaster texts because they have been discussed so extensively in previous publications.

After presenting the corpus, Aufrecht provides multiple appendices: matres lectionis, texts he identifies as Ammonite, onomastic features, iconography, alphabet seals, non-seal inscriptions, numerals, dissertations, and a glossary. As previously mentioned, readers should always be aware that CAI 246, 247, and 248 are not in the glossary or appendices.

Unsurprisingly, the corpus of CAI is replete with updated bibliographic, philological, onomastic, and cultural data. Worth noting, though, is that while Aufrecht provides a clear overview of scholarship around each inscription, he often avoids providing his own perspectives, whether about paleography, onomastics, or anything else. His voice would be a helpful contribution to ongoing debates. Second, beyond the details, a broad overview of the value of CAI would be valuable, succinctly analyzing and synthesizing the 200+ inscriptions regarding history and culture. Unfortunately, this is not present. Third, an appendix regarding seal provenance would be helpful for analyzing the data set.

In terms of methodology, his comment that hypocoristica provide insight into Ammonite religion is true to a degree. The role in extracting religion—whatever he means by that term—from onomasticon must be more closely nuanced, though. Using onomastica as a primary means for describing religion, though, is a skewed and problematic enterprise. For example, though he translates hypocoristica as ‘Il, the approach favors a particular deity among the pantheon. As such, it may skew the data. For understanding Ammonite religion, it would be better not to translate hypocoristica unless clear reasoning and evidence is provided, such as cases where the patronym matches the patronym from another seal.

As for content, I have one comment regarding CAI no. 220. In his review of Deutsch and Lemaire’s Biblical Period Personal Seals in the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection (2000), Puech suggests that what they transliterate as m is doubtable, suggesting instead (2002, 428). Alternatively, though, k is plausible, resulting in the name ‘Ilrak from the root rkk or ‘rk (cf. no. 59a ṣdyrk).

Additionally, the volume has multiple copyediting and typesetting issues, though I do not fault the author for this and only a few of them my cause significant confusion (copyediting and typesetting issues listed below). Even so, CAI 2nd edition is a fine and welcome update and contribution to the ever-developing fields of Levantine, biblical, and Semitic studies.

Copyediting and typesetting issues: “et” should be “ḥet” (32); “lnnyh b” should be “lḥnnyh b”; “et” should be “ḥet” (144); text justification issue (210); missing in transliteration (215); text justification issue (244); missing (262); missing (311); possibly type of “pseudo-script” (347); text justification issue (353); CAI 149, 151, 152, and 160 refer to the wrong photograph (no. 148); “lḥnn” instead of “ḥnn” discussing the personal name ḥnn (no. 162)

*I’d like to express my gratitude to the publisher for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion

Review: Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations by Elyze Zomer

Elyze Zomer. A Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations. Wiesbaden: Harrassowtiz Verlag, 2018. 470 pp.

Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations (henceforth CMBMAI) is a systematic analysis of the MB and MA incantation corpus. Chapter One addresses standard questions and issues: types of incantations, historical setting, previous scholarship, and the scope of the study. Here, two details are central. First, Zomer’s incantation typology is based on paratextual comments (ÉN; KA.INIM.MA; etc.) and distinguishes between incantation prayers and regular prays via paratextual comments (ÉN vs. uninnuteslītuikrubu, etc.). Other incantation prayers are based on recitation in a ritual or medical agenda and incantation prayers with 1st millennium parallels. Second, she excludes non-Mesopotamian, local incantations. As for incantations presented in an edition, she only include particularly relevant texts and previously unedited texts.

In Chapter Two, Zomer classifies all 184 tablets and 336 incantations according to whether they are single/collective, part of a ritual, therapeutic text, diagnostic omina, lexical list, or other. Next, expanding on Wasserman’s (2014) OB text classifications, she divides texts into tablets (with multiple sub-divisions), amulets, cylinder seals, prisms, and cylinders. Though less emphasized, Zomer notes various types of drawings on tablets. Finally she identifies a variety of rubrics for incantations.

In Chapter Three, Zomer describes the geographical settings and archival contexts for texts, dividing her discussion as texts from the Mesopotamian heartland and texts from peripheral areas.

In Chapter Four, Zomer addresses problems of the social settings of incantations. She establishes magic and medicine as “two complementary strategies in the healing of a patient” (60). Though she draws from the traditionally authoritative works by Ritter (1965), Biggs (1995), Heeßel (2009), and Scurlock (1999), more recent theoretical discussions on magic would be beneficial for her overall presentation. Likewise, though I think she is right to claim that incantations were not really effective and clients/experts would create excuses, this notion should be substantiated via brief comments on cognitive dissonance. Next, she notes how magico-religious texts represent magic experts and how they are represented outside magico-religious texts in the heartland and peripheral regions, the notion of magic experts as scholars, and iconography of magic experts. For the receiving end, namely clients, she identifies public clients and private clients, evidenced in amulets or incantations for domestic spaces. The relation between expert and client is evident in the way incantation texts involve clients. Finally, she describes how incantation texts function for private contexts (burial, foundation deposits, domestic contexts, necklaces), reference work contexts, incantations for curriculum, and texts as spoils for war.

Chapter Five details texts by thematic grouping, bilingual and unilingual incantations, and local scribal influences, wherein she addresses paleography and orthography of provenanced texts.

In Chapter Six, Zomer explores issues of standardization and serialization of Mesopotamian texts and how 2nd millennium Assyrian and Babylonian incantations fit into the picture. First, though Assyriologists sometimes refer to texts as canonical, Zomer uses standardization (following Rochberg-Halton 1984) to highlight the common form without any official edition. This relates to content. On the other hand, serialization refers to the established sequence of tablets of a text. Second, drawing from Esagil-kīn-apli’s colophon on SA.GIG, a colophon of hemerology (KAR 177), and previous scholars, she suggests serialization and standardization began in the Kassite era or Second Isin period. Her suggestion, though fails to consider such colophons as literary constructions. That is to say, colophons are not necessarily historical. Third, she defines essential terms: forerunner, though admittedly a problematic terms, “denotes an earlier stage (i.e. precursor) of a text that was later standardized.” Forerunners may be canonical, “those incantations which show distinct similarities with their counterparts in later standardized series and can be designated as an antecedent version” (180), or non-canonical, “a group of incantations that are thematically-related to later series, but were not incorporated as such” (180). Stock-incantations “denote the interchangeability of incantations between various series” (181) . Finally, she discusses all forerunners from the 2nd millennium BCE.

Chapter Seven offers a selections of text editions. Chapter Eight is a catalogue of all Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian incantations.

As a whole, CMBMAI is a welcome addition to scholarship, this being the first comprehensive study of the corpus. Most notably, her attempt to identify and discuss forerunners to ritual-series and compendia is admirable. Additionally, in Chapter Four, wherein she describes the social setting of the incantations, Zomer lays out multiple contexts for them: private, reference works, curriculum, and spoils of war. Such categories are particularly helpful for understand how incantation texts functioned socially.

Even so, a two aspects of the volume raised questions, namely her discussion of standardization (Chapter Six) and magic (Chapter Four). First, Zomer acknowledges problems with terms like ‘canon’ or ‘canonization,’ indicating a preference for the term standardization; however, in order to discuss forerunners, she uses the terms canonical and non-canonical. This discontinuity results in muddled terminology and definitions.

Moreover, Zomer does not establish clear standards for what constitutes a canonical or non-canonical forerunner. As a result, she makes unsubstantiated claims about Akkadian compendia and what constitutes a forerunner, whether canonical or non-canonical. For example, in discussing Sag.gig, she makes the following claim: “As for Emar, the small fragment Emar 732 is clearly concerned with Sag.gig and its incipit recalls Sag.gig I/a, where it is stated that the Sag.gig-demon comes from Ekur, whereas in Emar 732 it is said that the Sag.gig comes from the Netherworld, what can be further read of Emar 732 does not correspond to incantations known from the Sag.gig-series, hence Emar 732 is here considered a non-canonical forerunner” (208). Though she provides surface level reasoning about why Emar 732 is a non-canonical forerunner to the Sag.gig-series, her reasoning is relatively weak and should be further substantiated. Issues similar to this exist, I suggest, primarily because she does not clearly define how to identify what constitutes non-canonical forerunners as opposed to canonical forerunners.

Second, Zomer’s discussion about magic lacks important historical and theoretical considerations. Concerning magic and the division between the āshipūtu and asûtu, she rightly notes the well-known works by Ritter (1965), Stol (1991), Biggs (1995), Scurlock (1995), and Heeßel (2009); however, her perspective on the relationship between magic and medicine, if these terms are even helpful, would be significantly strengthened by more recent theories on magic (see references and discussion in David Frankfurter (ed.) 2019).

Aside from the content, I found multiple typographical errors throughout the volume: missing quotation marks (76) and missing indent (80). Other errors are mainly misplaced commas and similar issues, not worth noting here in detail.

In conclusion, Corpus of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian Incantations is highly recommended, with the caveats of Zomer’s underlying theory concerning magic and the lack of clarity concerning forerunners. As the first comprehensive analyses of Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian incantations, it fills an important lacuna within the field of Assyriology.

Review: Kings of Israel (board game)

Overwhelmed by hordes of invading nations – and a series of corrupt kings – the fate of Israel is balanced on a knife’s edge! The Northern Kingdom’s only hope is that a band of prophets can cleanse it of evil and idolatry before the wrath of God does so – permanently.
Kings of Israel is a cooperative game that places two to four players in the role of prophets struggling to save their nation from threats both internal and external. Do you have what it takes to overcome the forces of evil?  Or will you let Israel succumb to its own destruction? – Description of Kings of Israel by Funhill Games

Typically at The Biblical Review, I write books reviews; however, when I came across the board game Kings of Israel, I couldn’t resist writing a review. So, in what follows, I’ll briefly describe rules and goal. Subsequently, I’ll comment on features which I enjoyed, found confusing, and found concerning. On the basis of the preceding, I will suggest that, though a fun and somewhat enjoyable game, it should not be used for any teaching purposes.KingsOfIsrael

Game Play

Kings of Israel (2-4 players) is framed in the time period of the ancient Kingdom of Israel (c. 1050 – 721 BCE). At the beginning and throughout the game, Sin Cubes and Idols are placed on the map. Players win by building a certain number of Altars (depends on number of players). If a Sin Cube or Idol needs to be placed on the board and there are no more, the players lose.

At the beginning of the game, each player receives an ability card, such as Merchant, allowing a player to hold up to eight Resource Cards, or Determined, allowing a player to remove Sin Cubes or Idols after building an altar. After distributing sin on the locations of the map based on cards drawn and receiving a few Resource Cards, the rounds of game play begin. Each round is defined by the reign of a particular king. While Saul, Ish-Bosheth, David, Solomon, and Jehu are considered good kings, the rest are bad kings.

So, if if the king is good, players draw a Blessing Card; however, if the king is bad, players draw a Sin & Punishment Card. Next, the number of Location Cards equal to the number of players are drawn. Players place a Sin Cube onto each location drawn. Third, players take turns moving with four actions: move prophet, preach to Israelite (remove Sin Cubes), destroy an Idol (appears after three Sin Cubes appears at one site), acquire resources, build an altar (where sacrifices can be made in order to clear Sin Cubes at surrounding sites), or give resources to another play. Each player in the round takes four actions. At the end of the round, the Timeline Marker moves down and the next round begins.

Though there are far more nuances in the rules, this is, more or less, the basic game play. In what follows, I’ll further define aspects of the game and provide commentary.

The Good

Overall, Kings of Israel is fun. Because all players must work together, tensions can run high as players try to figure out the most effective strategy for building Altars and ridding the game board of Sin Cubes and Idols. Unsurprisingly, as I played this game with family members, they were forced to address how they communicate with each other when tensions and stakes are extremely high (this is sort of a joke, though they did get into a really heated discussion).

Additionally, the game is remarkably similar to Pandemic, if not essentially the same. The only difference is that whereas in Pandemic players fight disease, in Kings of Israel players fight sin. I put this in the “Good” category mainly because, at least for folks who play Pandemic, it is a very easy learning curve.

The Confusing

When we first played, the instructions were incredibly confusing, seemingly haphazardly put together. In retrospect, the instruction booklet is organized by the four phases for each game round (King’s Godliness Phase; Sin Increase Phase; Prophets Work Phase; and End of Round Phase). As such, this may be a problem of formatting the text, as all of the headings look exactly the same and show no clear distinctions.

Additionally, the instruction booklet is generally imprecise. So, figuring out how to set-up and play was particularly difficult.

The Concerning

Admittedly, I was interested in this game for pedagogical purposes, wondering how I could use boards games on ancient Israel and Judah to more effectively teach in a classroom. Prior to playing, I hoped that Kings of Israel would do its best to capture notions of sin, altars, and prophets as evident in the Hebrew Bible, things which I am concerned with as an academic. That said, while the game is fun, Kings of Israel has the potential to continue asserting imprecise and inaccurate perceptions of sin, altars, prophets, and the Hebrew Bible overall.

First, the game presents prophets as eliminating sin via altars. Both historically and within the Hebrew Bible, this is not accurate. Priests, and possibly kings, would have been the primary agents in building altars and performing sacrificial rituals. As such, conflating the social actions of prophets and priests muddles the historical and textual reality. Of course, occasionally prophets make sacrifices, as is one of the goals in this game. In any case, this game still flattens the historical and textual reality.

Second, for attaining an rudimentary understanding kings in ancient Israel, the game is misguiding. In terms of the textual representation of kings, the game is off-base to a degree. In light of First and Second Samuel, neither Saul, David, or Solomon ended their kingly careers very well, though they did start off on a good foot. As such, it is questionable why the game creators chose to make Saul, Ish-Bosheth, David, and Solomon the “good” kings. My concern is that kids and adults playing this game will transpose the presentation of kingship in Kings of Israel onto their readings of biblical texts, resulting in the distortion of texts like First and Second Samuel.

Third, though I previously mentioned this in “The Good,” Kings of Israel is essentially made in the image of Pandemic. Though less concerning than a nuisance, the creators could have should have developed the game in ways that would more clearly distinguish it from Pandemic.

Final Thoughts

Kings of Israel is an enjoyable game, especially with people who are competitive. As such, I recommend the game. At the same time, due to the representation of the Biblical texts and the social functions of prophets, I would avoid using Kings of Israel for any teaching purposes. The only case where it may be advantageous is in a course or class about the reception of Biblical texts in the modern world. Undoubtedly, playing Kings of Israel to identify modern reception of Biblical texts and ideas, continuities, discontinuities, and transformations, would be a productive exercise. Thus, at base, while the game is enjoyable for its own sake apart from its representation of texts or history, its distance from textual, biblical representations make it pedagogically only valuable for investigating reception history.

NOTE: My wife commenting on the artwork: “All the prophets are super ripped, old men. And their hair flies up like Jimmy Neutron. And fire can burn behind them and they are not scorched.”

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Funhill Games for providing a free copy of this game in exchange for my honest opinion(s).


Some Thoughts on Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold, an 19th century critic, advocated for objectivity and disinterestedness in criticism: “By steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations” (692). It is, at base, free play of the mind. Though objectivity remains admirable and good, it is, in reality, near impossible, if not entirely impossible, to achieve, as more recent studies have shown. He did though criticze various journals from the time period for being driven by the political motivations. As such, I think he is right to suggest that, while each fraction of British society has an organ of criticism, optimal criticism should be non-partisan: “the notion of combining all fractions in the common pleasure of a free, disinterested play of mind meet with no favor” (693). The tension between objectivity and politically or socially inflected criticism is an ever present tension, likely to never be resolved.

Additionally, Arnold’s notion of criticism, which focuses primarily on the best of the best, is at odds with the 21st century. It risks prioritizing one social or ethnic group at the expense of another, marginalizing the other.

Finally, Arnold’s criticism essentially focuses on a sort of canon, albeit canon inflected with a 19th century English sense. Though ‘canon’ exists in time and space, the underlying justifications and reasoning for what constitutes the canon will always vary. As such, a general principal may be extracted concerning the nature of canon: canon always changes depending on the political and social situations of the time period. For example, the notion of canon in 5th century BCE Judah is very different from the notion of canon in the 1st century CE. Even at a conference today, one of the speakers spoke of how Near Eastern scholars from the 19th century essentially created a sort of “artistic” canon, failing to take into consideration the breadth of materials, texts, and images.