“The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel” edited by Susan Niditch (Part 3 of 3)

WileyBlackwellSusan Niditch (editor). The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016, 567 pp., $195.00 (hardcover).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Wiley Blackwell for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Additionally, primarily due to the many contributors and secondarily the lengthy nature of this work, I will be posting the complete review through three blog posts. Click here for Part I and Part II.

Part III covers a wide variety of theme in ancient Israel.

Neal Walls (Associate Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Wake FOrest University School of Divinity) introduces prominent deities in ancient Israel’s region and how Yahweh is represented within the ancient near Eastern environment. His contribution is helpful because it primarily focuses on regional deities, providing a thorough background of regional deities for the reader. Problematic, though, is the historical distance between Ugaritic mythologies of El (12th century BCE) and various representations of Yahweh. Acknowledgement of the distanced history would be helpful and easily solved by referencing the reader the Avraham Faust’s contribution about the emergence of Israel in the second-half of the 13th century BCE. In doing so, he would demonstrate why Ugaritic mythology and representations of Yahweh can be compared.

Mark Smith (Skirball Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University) reviews modern issues surrounding the term monotheism, history of Yahwism contextualized in the ancient Near East as monotheistic tendencies developed, and aptly discusses how monotheism in reshaped ideas of what constituted divinity. Smith’s contribution contains two valuable elements. First, his assistance in drawing out baggage of the the popular term monotheism provides important information about a term that may impact terminology and methodology of students. Second, while many realize the novelty of Judaean monotheism, I appreciate his focus on how the development completely redefined divinity in general.

S. A. Geller (Irma Cameron Milstein Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary) introduces the Priestly Theology (henceforth PTh) of the Tetrateuch, especially focusing on the priesthood, cult, and sacrificial system. While is introduction to the textual data is fairly thorough, I have one major contention with his contribution. Geller seems not to put enough focus on the material reality of ancient Israelite ritual. For example, when discussing the function of blood rites upon the Holiest Place, he notes that “How this unique blood rite attains atonement is not stated. On the contrary, it essential that it remain a mystery of faith” (302). Likewise, overall his representation of the PTh tends to focus purely on literary effects of certain choices. Although literary analysis of PTh is important, it is just as valuable to recongize that the PTh was also within a material reality. I also took issue with his representation of Zadok. Some scholars have pushed against the historicity of Zadok (MacDonald, 2015; see also Alice Hunt, Missing Priests: The Zadokites in Tradition and History, 2006); yet, Gellder presents the Zadokite priests as if they were a genuine historical group of priests.

Robert R. Wilson (Hoober Profesor of Religious Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Yale University) engages with the phenomenon of prophecy, providing its history of scholarship and operative function and source within ancient Israel. For a basic introduction to prophecy in ancient Israel, this article is an excellent choice, as it presents a basic picture and doesn’t make any significant arguments about prophecy.

John J. Collins (Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University) introduces apocalypticism with attention to the development of it from Persian prophecy. Most beneficial about this article is its attentiveness to the historical development of apocalypticism rather than just attempting to pinpoint what is and is not apocalyptic literature.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Professsor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter) examines household materials to provide a snapshot of how religion function in ancient Israelite households. Stavrakopoulou’s clearly presents religion of ancient Israel homes without utilizing biblical texts as the foundation for her portrayals, consequently constructing an important image for readers to understand the average person from ancient Israel.

Raymond F. Person Jr. (Professor of Religion at Ohio Northern University) considers the transmission methods of education and traditions in ancient Israel. His article is important to understanding not only the methods of transmission, but also the ways in which they overlapped within the culture, namely via literary and oral transmission.

T. M. Lemos (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College at Western University) traces the social history of Israel, with special regard for kinship, community, and society, from its emergence in the 13th century to Judea in the Hellenistic period. Her contribution does well in tracing ancient Israelite society as a non-static, fluid people group and should be used to demonstrate to students ancient Israel’s social fluidity over time.

Bernard M. Levinson (Professor of CLassical and Near Eastern Studies and of Law at the University of Minnesota) and Tina M. Sherman (Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University) introduce the major Law collections and legal literature of the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate how the “constitution” of ancient Israel was “a model of ongoing renewal of its legal and religious heritage” (412). The manner in which Levinson and Sherman present their data is interesting because it makes the law and legal literature more relevant to a modern audience. For this factor, I greatly appreciate the article.

Carol Meyers (Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University) thoughtfully considers the role of woman in ancient ancient Israelite daily life, pushing against ideas of “domestic work” formed during the industrial revolution and emphasizing the social complexities and large communal benefit of women. Beyond the scope of her contribution, I like the quesiton that she raises of the disconnect between archaeology and textual records of women (See Carol Meyers, “Double vision: Textual and archaeological images of women” in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel 4).

J. David Schloen (Associate Professor of Syro-Palestinian Archaeology in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago) focuses on the economy and society of ancient Israel during the Iron Age . As part of the volume, I greatly appreciate his contribution because economy observations need more sustained attention, especially with primary use of archaeology, made known to the public and incorporated in biblical studies and studies of ancient Israel.

Edward L. Greenstein (Meiser Professor of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University) introduces a variety of literary and rhetorical techniques commonly utilized in the ancient Near East and emphasizes their artful roles great care to aesthetic principles. Greenstein’s contribution is by far a necessity for literary studies of the Hebrew Bible. As he covers texts ranging from Mesopotamia, to the Levant, and to Egypt, the broad coverage of literature clearly demonstrates the literary environment in which ancient Israel existed.

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi (The Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion) explores literature in the Persian period, the Ketuvim (or the Writings) and highlights how the documents reflect a Persian context. Eskenazi’s focus on the human realities of the Ketuvim provides a unique perspective, one which is scholarly and also takes seriously the plight in which writers and represented audiences partook in.

Benjamin G. Wright III (University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religion Studies at Lehigh University) introduces Second Temple Period Literature; however, rather than merely describing genres as found in James Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, he introduces five different categories of Second Temple Period Literature, based on George J. Brook’s list, that both attest to the commonalities and differences within Judaism of the period.

  • use of textual antecedents as a framing device or springboard
  • implicit use of or allusion to earlier texts
  • explicit citation and use of scriptural antecedents
  • revision and rewriting of earlier texts
  • texts that relate to earlier texts but that complicate the previous categories (495)

Although these categories are extremely broad, but their use as organizing literature proves fruitful.

Theodore J. Lewis (Blum-Iwry Professorship in Near Eastern Studies at John Hopkins University) covers the interdisciplinary field of iconography and advocates for analysis of Yahweh’s representation as abstract, rather than merely assuming an anthropomorphic representation. His argument is strongly supported by his brief analysis of representation of divinity across the ancient Near East. Especially in an increasingly secularized society (I do not mean the term pejoratively in any way), the tendency is to see Yahweh, or other deities made in man’s image. I appreciate Lewis’ call to re-orient towards most abstract understandings of divinity.

Overall, I have no doubts that this volume is one of the most valuable contributions to the study of ancient Israel. Most handbooks and encyclopedias relating the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel cover a significant breadth of scholarship. This volume, though, deeply engages with 28 aspects of ancient Israel on their own terms. Furthermore, each contributors brief introduction to the history of scholarship and discussion of current trends establishes the companion to ancient Israel as one of the best places to begin any research relating to ancient Israel.

While the book is oriented towards scholars, one must determine the status of the scholar. In this case, the companion is oriented towards student-scholars. Practiced scholars with lengthy experience may find some of the articles and information repetitive for their area of focus. In contrast, certain contributions will assist them if they desire to move in a different direction and obtain a different perspective on a certain issue. More likely is that this book will be a cornerstone for serious student-scholars, as it engages the reader with a great variety of information, methodologies, and topics. I highly recommend The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel. For any student in or applying to graduate school, it is a must read because it presents a broad, succinct, and detailed snapshot of current scholarship and ancient Israel.


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