“Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible” edited by Saul M. Olyan

RitualViolenceSaul M. Olyan (editor). Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible: New Perspectives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 190 pp., $74.00 (hardcover).

Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible: New Perspective applies theoretical models of violence to the Hebrew Bible in the underexplored study of ritual violence in the Hebrew Bible. Various contributors approach ritual violence with three aims: to consider the phenomenon more broadly, what the ritual might accomplish socio-politically, and providing more interdisciplinary theoretical models to the study of ritual violence by means of the Hebrew Bible.

Debra Scoggins Ballentine (Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at Rutgers University) explores the ends which may be achieved via ritual violence. Her contribution analyzes the murder of Eshbaal in 2 Samuel 4 and David’s response. In short, she demonstrates how “ritual acts of various sorts”, including ritual violence, “involve transformation of both physiology and status”, which in the case of 2 Samuel 4 also includes “movement away from an idealized [physical] state, primarily wholeness” (10). Her analysis notes how David’s response changes the status of his relationship with Saul’s house and his punishment for Rechab and Baanah is bodily mutilation and separation. Ballentine analyzes from the perspective of the text’s world; however, I believe her argument could be strengthened by exploring what she deems to be”regular violent killing” (12) by Rechab and Baanah as acts of ritual violence. This would more accurately depict the text as it would recognize that acts of ritual violence tends to conflict each other. How do acts of ritual violence engage in conflict? While I fully agree that the text presents the murder as socially wrong, their action within the socio-political context of David’s house versus Saul’s house is just as much an act of ritual violence. The means of Rechab and Baanah is the murder of Eshbaal and the end is the solidification of Davidic rule. David’s ends and means with ritual violence are merely different than Rechab and Baanah.

Chapter Two, by T. M. Lemos (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College) focuses on the issues of population growth, land and resource scarcity, and genocide through comparison of ancient Israel and the genocide at Rwanda. By briefly exploring various factors, such as population increase and land scarcity, she demonstrates a potential reason for the emergence of some forms of ritualized violence, such as herem. She clearly demonstrates the similarities between Rwanda and ancient Israel, both of which were results of  resource scarcity, high poverty, and scapegoating of the Other. These elements resulted in the formation of group identity which sought to enact genocide, a sort of ritual violence, against the Other. Within the Hebrew Bible, as Lemos notes, “the authoritarian and centralizing agenda of Joshua rests upon starkly drawn boundaries between Israelite and outside” (44). Whether or not ancient Israel had means to actually complete this genocide is besides the point, for Joshua established precedents that would be followed by future generations. Her contribution is extremely valuable, especially as it relates to ritual, genocidal violence in Joshua. Yet there are a few contours which are undeveloped, perhaps contours open for future analysis. In his discussion of Joshua’s presentation of the Israelite and Other via the theory of genocide, she doesn’t take into account the roles of the Gideonites, Rahab, and the sin of Achan. These three images complicate her seemingly clear theoretical application of ritual violence as clear ethnic boundary markers. Additionally, there lies a question as to what cultural baggage is carried into Joshua when a genocidal framework is applied to it. Brief coverage and discussion of the cultural baggage of genocide would have made her argument more concise and clear.

Mark Leuchter (Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Jewish Studies at Temple University) analyzes Joshua’s destroying of Bethel and the priests therein to determine the ends of the means, regardless of whether or not Josiah actually performed such a campaign against Bethel. Even though Josiah’s destruction of Northern sanctuaries finds parallels in Ashurbanipal’s conquests, it is very different because Josiah does not claim hegemony and control over the land. Thus, his actions were not politically oriented. Leuchter deems the account to be an “ethno-mythology” in which ethnic borders are established through mythological imagination. As he states, “the Bethel account and its resolution with the return to Jerusalem”, a divine warrior feast of Passover, “follows the mythic pattern to a tee” (75). Furthermore, the shrines in Northern Israel and Bethel, and the priests, were not merely Yahweh worshipers, but cosmic enemies to Yahweh. The account o Josiah’s demolition of Bethel in Kings is a projection of history through a mythological paradigm. Consequently the mythologizing of this account “contributed to new outlets for recruiting the language of violence to draw distinctions” (80). All things said, this is one of my favorite contributions. His use of the divine warrior and cosmic battle motifs avoid the pitfall of becoming a clear-cut distinction of “Chaos versus Order”. While he does at time employ the term “Chaos”, it is not meant as a cut-and-dry juxtaposition to “Order” (see Debra Ballentine’s The Confict Myth and the Biblical Tradition, Oxford University Press 2015).

In Chapter Four, Nathaniel B. Levtow (Associate Professor of Religious Studies int he Liberal Studies Program at the University of Montana) merges cognitive science and anthropology to analyze the phenomenon of iconoclasm and, more with a more explicitly biblical orientation, idolatry. His new examination of idolatry concludes that “biblical iconoclasm is parasitic on the power of images for the stable transmission of aniconic doctrine” (106). Aniconist’s doctrine is transmitted through ritual violence, namely ritually violent iconoclasm against iconists. In terms of of imagistic mode of transmission of beliefs, “Deuteronomistic iconoclasm may… be described as strategic violence…, the goal of which was to foster durable group cohesion around a theologically correct royal aniconic cultic core of Judahite social formation within a West Asian iconic imperial framework” (102). While Levtow does not provide any extensive analysis of the Hebrew Bible, his model provides a unique and exciting avenue for future analysis of ritual violence in the Hebrew Bible as aniconists transmitting their doctrine through iconoclasm.

Susann Niditch (Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College) observes the manners in which the exchange of women in the Hebrew Bible are often accompanied by ritual violence as components of social transformations.Genesis 34 and Judges 19 demonstrate this as they allow men to participate in violence as means of protecting their own boundaries. In Genesis 34, male cultural power is protected by killing the Shechemites who threaten the masculinity of Simeon and Levi. Likewise, in Judges 19 thugs kill a woman who has been exchanges for the life of man, thereby rendering the man in the story “womanized, made weak” (118). As spoils of war, Deuteronomy 21, Numbers 31, and Judges 21 all involve ritual nuances. In each instance, woman are tokens intrinsically connected to acts of ritual violence by men.. Niditch’s contribution is well argued, prompting two responses. First, she notes that approaching these situations as ritual violence “urges [her] to see ways in which the authors of these texts implicitly express doubts about the exchange of women, guilt, worries about legitimacy, perhaps offering critique of the very system that they are perpetuating in myth and ritual” (123). Although this is often studied, the focus on ritual, an integral part of the authors life, is intriguing because it challenges me as the reader to question what I perpetuate whilst offering my own criticism. Second, her statement that thus “threaten the traveling Levite with homosexual rape” (117) is methodologically problematic. As Martti Nissinen has demonstrated, “homosexual” comes to much 21st century cultural baggage (See Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, Fortress Press 204). A better term for Niditch would be “homoerotic”, a term which more accurately depicts the scene in Judges 19.

Chapter Six, written by the editor Saul M. Olyan (Samuel Ungerleider Jr. Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University), briefly engages with ritual violence involving corpses. Ritual violence against corpses are somatic in nature and “serve various strategic ends ” by “[inverting] or [contrasting] with other practices, and their meaning is very often context dependent” (126). Saul’s severed head, for example, is ritual means by which the Philistines communicate “the reality of wholesale defeat and loss of leadership”, and likewise with Saul’s corpse on the city wall. Olyan’s thoughts provide great framework for future analysis. Because of scholarly tendency to focus on corpse abuse as punitive and intimidation, his route to corpse abuse as ritual violence opens up new avenue for analysis of the Hebrew Bible and even cuneiform texts.

Rüdiger Schmitt (Associate Professor of Old Testament at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster) utilizes the concepts of liminality, communitas, and social drama to read rituals of war, warfare, and social conflict. For Schmitt, the city gate functions as a place of public ritual, where loyalty, sovereignty, and status change occur, all of which are constructed as social drama. The gate is also a liminal place that procuces “normative commmunitas among the king, the army, and the population in situations of political crisis” (144). With regard to his support, I appreciate his interdisciplinary approach, utilizing archaeological evidence and literary evidence from the Hebrew Bible. It places his theorizing about ritual violence as one of the best because it grounds the theory into the real world, rather than restricting itself to the world generated by the author of the text.

The final contribution to this volume is by Jacob L. Wright (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University). His programmatic essay treats the ritual violence of urbicide “in the framework of the destruction of memory” (148), especially the destruction of monuments, inscriptions, images, and texts. He covers a range of materials, including royal annals, Assyrian and Egyptian ritualistic iconography, biblical narratives, prophetic literature, Sodom and Gomorrah, and laments. In each of these categories, he demonstrates the apparent ritual violence of destruction of urban cities. He emphasizes two points: “the symbolic reversals enacted through the destruction and the symbolic and cosmologically appropriate modes of destruction” (161). Urbicide, thus, served as propaganda for rulers to conquer and subdue groups. Wright’s essay, I hope, will inspire many more to follow in his footsteps. One route he alludes to, though does not explore, is the relationship between mythology and urbicide. He notes that “mythologically and religiously grounded claims to power the king made were natural and justified” (163). While the relationship between kings and mythological justification has been explored, it would be intriguing to explore how the ritual violence of urbicide bolsters claims by kings and how mythological backdrops inspire or are used symbolically for such purposes.

All-in-all, this is an extremely valuable contribution to biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern studies. I briefly searched the term “ritual violence” in the Journal of Biblical Literature and, without surprise, only found one result by Saul Olyan, the editor of the current volume. Ritual violence is an underexplored topic, with much potential for new insights and understandings about the Hebrew Bible, ancient Israel, and ancient Near East. Although the essays in this volume are brief, they are all valuable because they provide a launchpad for future studies.

I highly recommend Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible because it is exactly what it says it is: new perspective on the Hebrew Bible through a theme that is vastly underexplored, namely ritual violence. Students and scholars alike will find this volume valuable as it aids in moving forward scholarly studies into realms that have the potentials to shift the current ideas within scholarship. Without a doubt, this volume marks a major shift in how we read violence in the Hebrew Bible.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

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“Chaos” in Study of Hebrew Bible

Debra Ballentine argues that “enemies defeated by the victorious warrior deities across ancient West Asian conflict traditions are not agents of “chaos” but rather agents of an alternative divine power structure” (2015, 186). In other words, “chaos” and Chaoskampf are inaccurate representations of traditions in the Hebrew Bible, as she demonstrates by analyzing the develop of the traditions for different ideological purposes. This is important because it marks an important shift in how agents of “alternative divine power structure” should be discussed.

Interestingly, Konrad Schmid, in his entry on Creation in “The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology” (2015 volume I, 174), describes the tehom of Genesis 1, lion in Job 38:39-40, Leviathan, crocodile, and Behemoth as “representatives of chaos”. Unfortunately such appropriation of these previous characters ignores the conflict myth consistently present through the ancient Near East that is utilized to legitimize certain ideologies through the conflict myth, a motif well explored by Ballentine.

In my view any current, and future, discussion about Chaoskampf must address the arguments of Ballentine. To do otherwise would be to do disservice to her wonderful work and dismiss it. Though perhaps it will be a challenge to leave the traditional German Chaoskampf in which so much scholarship is rooted.


I hope you enjoyed my general musing. I invite you to follow The Biblical Review for more biblical analysis and book reviews!

“The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition” by Debra Scoggins Ballentine

The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition by Debra Scoggins Ballentine. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 292 pp., $74, hardcover.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy of The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition.

The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition traces conflict myth as an ideological tool for legitimization, or de-legitimization, of political entities throughout ancient West Asia. An assistant professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Religion, Debra Scoggins Ballentine specializes in Hebrew bible and ancient Near Eastern religions.

Chapter One of The Conflict Myth introduces Ballentine’s approach to myth theory and her purpose, namely “to identify how mythological themes are used in various sorts of contexts, regardless of how scholars classify those contexts” (12). Specifically she focuses on the mythological conflict topos and “its place with respect to ideology” (13). Chapter Two introduces and analyzes the conflict topos within four extant narratives, Anzu, Enuma Elilsh, Aššur Version of Enuma Elish, and the Balu Cycle. Each summary and analysis of extant narrative draws out and focuses upon the ideological implications, especially royal ideology. Ballentine demonstrates that each narrative, though with differing divine taxonomies, utilizes the conflict topos to legitimate kings and royalty, while also de-legitimizing other deities. In effect the myth narratives “promote particular cosmic and earthy locations and royal individuals” (71). Having established the ideological nature of the conflict topos, chapter three analyzes “shorter forms of the motif in epitomes, allusions, and imagery” (72) from sources between the 18th and 6th centuries BCE. Ballentine is careful to display the unique status of various utilizations of the conflict myth through every example. Chapter four continues by noting the various adaptations of the conflict myth through innovative legitimization within eschatological frameworks, drawing on literature of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, 1st and 2nd century Pseudepigrapha, and Rabbinic literature. Chapter five explores the secondary application of conflict myth to Gamaliel, Jesus, and Antiochus IV in regard to the notion of control over the sea. The final chapter (Chapter 5) importantly argues that “Chaos” “is not an accurate characterization of the various enemies featured across the articulations of the ancient West Asian conflict topos” (186) and re-states her primary points, especially drawing out the uniqueness of each application of the conflict myth for each particular ideological intention and political environment.

Overall, Ballentine’s goal is clearly accomplished. Without a doubt she demonstrates how the conflict myth is a common theme throughout ancient West Asian culture and how cultures have, throughout centuries, utilized the myth conflict to legitimize certain ideologies. Furthermore, she elucidates how the biblical tradition is not merely a “copy” of ancient West Asian conflict myth; rather, it is utilization of a common theme by which political power could be legitimatized, either by conflict myth of the past or eschatological innovations of conflict myth in the future. Such an accomplishment is one of the strongest elements of her work, especially because it offers a different understanding to the appropriation of characters like “Tiamat, Yammu, Môtu, and Lōtanu/Leviathan as “agents of chaos” or “chaos embodied”” (196). Additionally, her approach offers answers to questions about texts, such as her suggestion that “Rabbinic combat traditions may be responding to the types of claims made about secondary divine figures… propagated in late antique Christos-centered ideologies” (170), ideologies cleaved to by early Christianity for their theological benefit to Christian theologies. Such explanation for certain factors within biblical literature is present throughout her work. Finally, she is able to demonstrate the unique status of the biblical application of the conflict motif without wrongly pushing for its total autonomy from ancient West Asian themes or its total dependence upon ancient West Asian themes.

One major weakness of her work, although it does not take away from the validity of her conclusions, is her use of the Balu Cycle. As she presents the Balu Cycle and compared it to Anzu and Enuma Elish, the Balu Cycle is far more complex in regard to how it represents conflict and therein the characters involved. Although a conflict myth is present, the complexities suggest that the conflict myth within the Balu Cycle is similar to Anzu and Enuma Elish but not the same approach to conflict myth. Such complexities are present in the Hebrew Bible and the conflict myth in the Hebrew Bible operates within a time period in which Judeans are under the control of another nation, or “deity”, indicating that some nuances of the conflict myth remain unexplored. The necessity for one deity to approve another, as in the Balu Cycle, suggests a very unique political environment, one in which ancient Judeans consistently lived. Hence, further divisions of the types of conflict myth, beyond primary and secondary application, would have bolstered her overall arguments. Specifically, developing more textually based relationships between the various sources would support her argument even more, answering the reason conflict myth in the Balu Cycle and Anzu/Enuma Elish can be considered the same ideological tool of conflict myth.

Aside from how she used the Balu Cycle and her lack of nuances about types of conflict myth, especially as they relate to ideological legitimization, her work is excellent in its presentation of the conflict myth and biblical innovations of it. Wide coverage of literature, from Ugaritic works to Rabbinic works, and thorough analysis of each occur of the conflict motif mark her work as on to be remembered for future discussion. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition provides a unique approach to conflict myth, and especially the Hebrew Bible, that may be utilized by scholars to develop a deeper and fuller understanding of biblical myth and the conflict myth.