“A History of Biblical Israel” by Ernst Axel Knauf and Philippe Guillaume

Ernst Axel Knauf and Philippe Guillaume. A History of Biblical Israel: The fate of the tribe and kingdoms from Merenptah to Bar Kochba. Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing, 2016, pp. 266.

Grappling with and reconstructing a history of ancient Israel and Judah is a particularly difficult task. The data is challenging to work through due to things like the scarcity of relevant inscriptions and the redaction of biblical traditions and literature. Knauf and Guillaume, though, attempt such a reconstruction. They do so by framing the history within a timespan: Merenptah to Bar Kochba. Thus, they reconstruct a history between c. 1208 BCE and 136 CE. Guillaume and Knauf break up the timeframe by dividing it into three segments: pre-history of biblical Israel, formation of biblical Israel in the Persian period, and fragmentation of biblical Israel (Hellenistic and Roman periods).

Furthermore, Knauf and Guillaume continue by defining terminology for significant words: Israel (covers realities from various time periods), history, and history of Israel. On the point of history, they offer a helpful introduction to how the discipline of history can function. To explain one aspect of it, they choose for focus on conjonctures, “a French word meaning circumstances used mainly in economics” (4). So, in their reconstruction of ancient Israel, one major focus is the wave of circumstances especially in relation to the resources and wealth of the region. Additionally, regarding history of Israel, Guillaume and Knauf are careful to note the issue of bias with primary texts, whether the Hebrew Bible or Babylonian Chronicles. Consequently, they choose to position themselves between minimalists and maximalists. This positioning, though, does not offer a method for delineating between what may be a more accurate representation of the past and what may be narrative flourishes written by the texts editors.

Guillaume and Knauf then define four more notions: time (especially chronology); space (i.e. topography, altitude, geography, etc.); peasants, urbanites, and nomads (dependent on the conjoncture, time, and space); toponyms; and epochs/conjonctures. Regarding the fifth notion, the periods tended to be constructed by the elite class and do “not reflect socio-political phenomena, which are characterized by continuity rather than by clear-cut period” (22). As a solution, they suggest organizing history into century categories, each reflecting about a 100 year period. For Israel, 796 BCE – 734 BCE is a “short” eight century, while 734 BCE – 609 BC is a “long” seventh century. This way to categorize periods, though, is somewhat convoluted. It lacks explanation and does not offer further evidence for why such categorization is valuable. Additionally, they choose to place Israel’s history within the “macron-history of the Mediterranean systems through  braudel’s economic conjonctures” (23). In other words, they utilize trade and economy within the Mediterranean world in order to draw on the conjonctures of each period. This is one of the strongest points of the method, namely utilizing economic patterns throughout the Mediterranean as a broader economic framework for the history of Israel.

In Chapter One, Knauf and Guillaume argues that ancient Israel emerged in a context of shasu and ‘apiru who began to display more formal clan organization. With the climate change in the LB Age, a power vacuum enabled various tribal units to form, such as the Philistines. Furthermore, they suggest that the cultural memory of Exodus may be derived from a tendency of Canaanite groups to be captured on Egyptian “slave-hunting” expedition or to migrates to Egypt in times of famine. Chapter Two works through the rise of proto-Israelite tribes. After offering a theoretical approach that “rural and urban populations adapted to economic and politic changes by alternating between one mode and the other” (43), namely between more nomads and urban. They support this theory by considering the small tribes in Palestine in context of the Pax Aegytptiaca, in which economic development of the region was encouraged through trade networks with Egypt. They further attempt to figure out from where various tribes may have emerged; however, this portion lacks substantive arguments and is highly conjectural. Finally, they offer some thoughts on the religious background of Israel.

Chapter Three situates the successful rise of Saul and state formation in the copper production and trade routes of Midean, Edom, and various other iron or copper centers. Although highly conjectural and only based on possible correlation between biblical texts and the ‘Arabah copper mines, they claim that Saul’s son, Eshbaal, was the one who expanded the wealth and power of the tribe of Benjamin. This entire argument, though, is based on a particular reading Samuel. It lacks any real argument of substance. David, father of the tribal state of Judah, may have attempted to destabilize Saul’s rule. Uprisings by Absolom illustrate the fragility of David’s rule, though. For the remainder of the chapter, Knauf and Guillaume work through the biblical representation of Solomon, Jereboam I, the revival of Egyptian influence, and religion and literature of the period. Again, though, the use of the Hebrew Bible is problematic. Many references to it seems to function more as a way to support a pre-constructed thesis. This goes back to an earlier point that the book lacks any sort of method, or actual examples, or working critical through texts in the Hebrew Bible.

Chapter Four considers the consolidation of Levantine kingdoms as a consequence of shifting economic and power structures. Judah, Knauf and Guillaume suggest, was drawn into  the “revival of Mediterranean trade” through peace with Israel and marriage to the daughter of an Aramean (possibly) king, namely Omri. Omri vied for power via a military coup. Now in power, Assyrians considered Omri to be the founder of the kingdom of Israel. Within this dynasty, the Omrides may have placed the Canaanites into forced labour (Judges 1:27-28). Throughout Chapter Four, they outline the victories of losses of various leaders up to Jereboam II. Notably, Hazael is given a special place in the chapter for how he shook off the Assyrian hold. Finally, they review religion in the 9th century BCE, religious expansion by Jereboam II, and religion in the 8th century BCE. Like previous chapters, there are many interesting tidbits; however, for the most part, the writing in convoluted, difficult to follow, and does not thoroughly engage with the primary source material. If one is to be between a minimalist and maximalist, one must also explain how to decide what reflects the past and what does not.

Chapter Five highlights the climax as Judah and it ideology in Deuteronomistic literature by considering the integration of Judah and Israel into the Neo-Assyrian empire. Contextually, Phoenician  trade between Tyre and Sidon decreased, while Philistine trade increase. Consequently, Judah strengthened, while Israel declined. They further detail the how the Neo-Assyrian military functioned and how the military incorporated Israel and Judah into the empire. Finally, they outline important religious developments and literature in the late 8th and early 7th century. While the history reconstructed is helpful, there are many claims which are not substantiated. For example, Knauf and Guillaume use Ps. 82 as evidence that Yahweh was replacing Ashur as the highest deity; however, Ps. 82 references El, not Ashur. In other words, they use a support text without explaining why it supports their point. Likewise, they suggest that Manasseh’s shedding of innocent blood may “reflect the suppression of an opposition group that held the kind of anti-Assyrian ideas that inspired the… politics of the last kings of Judah” (120). While this may be the case, they offer no convincing  explanation for how or why this may be the case, save for the Chroniclers revision of Manasseh. In short, they often reference the Hebrew Bible; however, there tends too be little to no critical discussion of the texts.

Chapter Six discuses Judah during the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He focuses on the three deportations of the elite from Judah to Babylon. From these deportations, he suggests that they produced four rivaling Judean groups: an ultra-conservative group focused on the absence of Yahweh (Ezekiel in Babylon), a group focused on the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty (Books of Samuel-Kings), the prophet-poetic tradition (Second-Isaiah), and the Jeremiah group which remained in Yehud (Jeremiah). The traditions from each of these groups “reflect the controversy over the correct policy under Babylonian rule regarding the concrete political demands of the Judean elite towards their Babylonian overlords” (141). This division is a valuable division of traditions. Thus, it is helpful for making sense of how the Judean population dealt with the new rule of the Neo-Babylonians. Chapter Six is, I think, one of the stronger chapters in the work. It offers the most thorough discussion of texts and draws from a variety of textual records.

Chapter Seven focuses on how the shift to the Persian Empire impacted Judean identity. The religious conflict which occurred during the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus, they argue, contributed to the movement towards monotheism. This was further reinforced by Cyrus’ capture of Babylon. Whether worshippers of Marduk, Sin, Ahuramazda, or Yahweh, they construct a history in which a supreme deity is becoming the norm. Between 582-525 BCE, Judean population decreased, they argue, because commerce shifted away from the Philistine controlled coast. Thus, many people migrated in order to find more favorable economies. Although a diverse group ideologically, Knauf and Guillaume suggest that Cyrus’ capture of Babylon may have reinforced the idea that Marduk and Ahuramazda “were other names for YHWH” (155). While one may claim that those were names for deities below YHWH, it seems far-fetched to claim that they were other names for Yahweh. Following, working through the period in which Jerusalem exiles returned to Yehud, they suggest that the re-establishment of Jerusalem may have been a strategic move. This move would enable the Persians to defend the Palestinian land bridge. This movement enabled Darius I to organizes the Persian Empire. This government, religious, and social organization is briefly explored in relation to the broader historical conjoncutres and Yehud. One difficult with Chapter Seven was clarity. The majority of it is convoluted. And it is oftentimes difficult to follow a single train of thought or logic.

Chapter Eight works through how conditions in the Persian Empire and Yehud may have given rise to an identity based on biblical Israel. Drawing primarily from Ezra-Nehemiah, Knauf and Guillaume reconstruct the conflict between Nehemiah and other groups. They are careful to note that the importance of these conflicts should not be exaggerated. Based on the social unrest represented in Nehemiah, they suggest that the Persian Empire may have desired returnees to Yehud in order to strengthen the economy. By strengthening the economy, the region would be enabled to supply Persian troops moving towards Egypt. This would only occur through increased manpower, which would come from the elite returnees. South of Yehud, the colony at Elephantine exemplifies the similarities and differences as Judean immigrants. In an awkward shift, they discuss the economic and political situations of Arabia and Idumea. Returning to Yehud, they offer a brief overview of the conflict between Samaria and Yehud, a conflict which reinforced an identity as biblical Israel. Regarding Ezra, they claim that the Torah, a collection of traditional material, was (1) serving to legitimate every Jew across the empire and (2) endorsed by the Persian administration as a sort of “Imperial Religious Police Department.” While point two is valuable, I doubt that the Torah necessarily legitimated every Jew. After all, to what extent can we view Ezra as an accurate representation of the past? Following, Knauf and Guillaume briefly illustrates how Torah’s demand for sacrifice served to strengthen Judean identity, both in terms of ritual practice and language. It seems, though, like they assume that all Torah traditions are rooted in the Persian period, which is not necessarily true. Their discussion of the role of Torah in forming Judean identity is, I think, almost too convenient and also convoluted. Finally, the discuss the other literary developments, the legacy of Bethel, and the newfound rule of Alexander. This chapter, like others, is often time convoluted. It is not always clear what Knauf and Guillaume are trying to do or where they are trying to take the reader.

Part III conclude works from the Ptolemaic administration in Alexandria, Egypt until the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. Chapter 9 briefly describes how Greek rulers only permitted Jerusalemite elite to act as tax collectors. Then, it briefly describes the various Hellenistic biblical texts. Chapter 10 outlines how Antiochus III of the Seleucid Empire permitted more autonomy to Yehud and how books like Tobit and the Books of Sirach exemplify Hellenistic influence upon Judeans. Based upon this autonomy granted to Yehud, they construct a history of the Maccabean revolt as a type of Jewish civil war. After the Seleucid empire collapsed, John Hyrcanus, Aristobulus I, and Salome Alexandra led the new nation of Judah. Throughout Chapter 10, though, Knauf and Guillaume offer a few places where a book “may” have been composed (i.e. Maccabees in the court of John Hyrcanus, Esther during the reign of Queen Salome, etc.). These possibilities, though, are not substantiated. Less conjectural thoughts and more substantial arguments would strengthen this chapter. Finally, Chapter 11 outlines the social, political, and economic conditions which led to the eventual rebellions and formation of Rabbinic Judaism.

As a text attempting to reconstruct a history, I had one major issue: it never attempts to offer a critical readings of the multitude of texts from which it draws. Particularly with regard to biblical texts, Knauf and Guillaume rarely took the time to work through the text which purportedly supported, or contributed to, their construction of history. Time and time again, they reference biblical texts without any discussion of the particular text. For example, they suggest that Marduk makes a veilded appearance in Gen 1:1-8 via the appearance of Tehom (Tiamat) (p. 148). Whether or not tehom references Tiamat, though, is not conclusive or agreed upon within scholarship. In other words, they utilize the text without approaching it critically.

Additionally, the book was somewhat convoluted. While the flow of some arguments was sometimes clear, it was sometimes difficult to follow the logic of the text. For example, Section 8.3 (p. 177-78) discusses the role of the Elephantine colony. In particular, the difference between biblical social standards and those of Elephantine is being addressed. Section 8.4 (p. 178), though, suddenly shifts to the impact of the Egyptian rebellion upon Persian rule in Arabia. The lack of continuity between 8.3 and 8.4 is obvious, as the ideas fail to connect in any logical way. This problem occurs consistently throughout the work. As a result, it is very difficult to understand what they are trying express.

On a more positive note, I did appreciate how they approach their reconstruction with particular regard to the conjonctures. Were the book primarily concerned with that, I may have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, its aims and scope may have been too broad for its own good.

In conclusion, I do not recommend this book for research purposes. As an introduction, I tentatively recommend it. As a basic outline of ancient Israelite history and development of religious thought, there are some little tidbits which are valuable. For the most part, though, it is intertwined with unsupported claims and uncritically examined ideas. Thus, an inexperienced reader may fail to recognize the differences between substantiated claims and conjectures with no support.

UPDATE (6/26/2017): I forgot to mention one important detail. Throughout the book, Knauf and Guillaume make reference to various images, iconography. They fail, though, to engage with the iconography as things which need to be interpreted. Just as the Hebrew Bible requires a interpretation, so do the image from the ancient world. Thus, discussion of iconography would have strengthened their arguments.

Notes on “Phoenicians”

The following are my notes on the following article:

Niemeyer, Hans Georg (Hamburg), Röllig, Wolfgang (Tübingen), Eder, Walter (Berlin), Müller, Walter W. (Marburg/Lahn) and Müller, Hans-Peter (Münster), “Phoenicians, Poeni”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider. Consulted online on 10 April 2017 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e922990&gt;

If you aren’t interested in reading the notes, directly below here is two paragraphs responding this article and other things.

In terms of being part of a West-Semitic context, the P. fit very well. Thus, some would claim that ancient Israel should be understood within a P. context. This approach, however, seems to draw too much on the people who descended from the P., namely the Punic ethnicity. Based on what I read in this article, the lack of archaeological support, the HB, and the inimical way in which people reported on P. culture and history, it seems that P. was an equal contender with ancient Israelian-Judean ethnicity (ethnicities?). Just like Judah was able to survive the pressure of empires more than their Northern counterparts, so Sidon was able to survive the pressure of empires more than their counterpart, namely Tyre.

In other words, the historical developments within this shaky history of P. is nothing particularly grands, just as ancient Israelian-Judean historical developments is not particularly grand. Each ethnic group was situated in a politically and religious challenging context. They each dealt with the issue in distinct ways.

I. Names and concept, sources

  • Name and idea of Phoenicians formed in Greek world
  • Referring to political/ethnic identity from LBA.
  • For Greek traders, P. was a functional designation.
  • Latin name Poeni.
    • Roman creation based in Carthage.
  • Scanty literary sources; mainly transmitted by neighbouring people.
    • P. and Punic cultures were often portrayed as inimical, and thus they distorted thier stories.
  • Archaeology contributes little to the cultural profile of P.

II.  Geography and Topography

  • Mother country defined by concrete territory, though we don’t know exact locations.
    • Included Arward, Byblus, Sidon, Tyrus.
  • Historically and geographically situated near Ugarit in the N., Samaria and Jerusalem in the S.
  • P. sought to “acquire the raw materials pressingly needed for domestic industry and crafts and for their prosperous… trading in the eastern Mediterranean”.
  • Strategic in placing settlements.
  • Large finds of exported luxury good outside of P. cities and settlements.
    • earl Iron Age saw elite position and access to raw materials; copper in Cyprus, gold in Thasos, and many other mining regions.
  • P. was not an original “resident” of ancient Mediterranean, but they were present.

III. History

  • P. is defined by representative city states because there is no comon history.
    • Josephus ref. a Hellenistic historian who wrote a P. history.
    • Philo of Byblus wrote a P. History.
    • In HB, only P. cities are mentioned, but no state of larger tribal unit.
    • Though, shared cultural things.
  • Forced to expand into Cyprus and Crete by 10th century BCE, also Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and N. Africa.
  • Political ties with Anatolia and Syria.
    • Sidon joined anti-Assyrian coalition, only to be “deported and decapitated by Asarhaddon (681-669) in 676 BCE.
  • Collapse of N. Syria political world let Byblus come to political forefront c. 1200 BCE.
  • c. 969-936, treaty with Sidonian leader Hiram I and Solomon, 1 Kings 5:26.
  • Tyre became a key player in warlike disputes c. 810-727.
    • Hiram II (739-732) participated in a revolt at Damascus.
    • Sidon retained indepndence.
    • 663 – it was besieged by Assurbanipal and surrendered.
      • Province was likely incorporated into Assyrian system.
  • Post-Assyrian fall, P. cities try to regain independence.
    • cf. Zeph 1,4
    • Egypt, and Babylon, prevented this.
    • According to Josephus, Tyre “was besieged for 13 years (Jos. Ap. 1,143).
  • Under Persian rule, Sidon again sought to regain independence after being incorporated into the Persian Empire.
    • Rose against Artaxerxes III Ochus, but surrendered.
    • Sidon received Alexander the Great in 333; Tyre tried to resist for 7 months, but failed.
  • Post  64 BCE, under Romans, P. cities lost political power.

B. Punic

  • The article has much on it; however, this is outside of what my area of focus is. I’d like to read it eventually, but not now.

IV. Archaeology and Cultural History, the P.

  • early period only attests “smallish sanctuaries of the sacral architecture in cities”
    • Astarte/Tinnit, Sarepta (8th century BCE).
    • Punic temple of Kerkounana (4th/3rd century BCE).
    • Temple of Melqart built by Hiram I, in Tyre
      • Only from literary reports.
    • Other temples from the Persian and Hellenistic periods.
  • P. architecture in early time is decorative, with cascade of leaves.
  • Sculpture.
    • god worshiped with aniconic cult images
    • 8th-6th century large sculptures from P. cities based on Egyptian models.
  • Well-known for luxury crafts.
  • P. in Mediterranean was a uniqe phenomenon.
    • location, social groups, transportation, etc. all contributed to its formation.
    • Along with other city states on Levant coast. P. was in-line with ANE Bronze Age.


Briefly, facial masks likely have a religious significance. They are monuments since at least the 9th/8th centuries BCE in P. May have held cultic and apotropaic function because they are found at graves and sanctuaries.

Niemeyer, Hans Georg (Hamburg) and Blume, Horst-Dieter (Münster), “Masks”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider. Consulted online on 10 April 2017 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e725730&gt;








Notes on “Civilizations of the Ancient Near East”

In my spare time, I am working on writing an article about ancient Israelite and Judean religion. This, of course, is a very difficult thing to do. It is difficult because saying something about ancient Israel comes with a lot of modern baggage. So, these are some notes from a large encyclopedia, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. One thing which I’d like to draw out is that even when we do speak of ancient Israelite religion, we must remember that religion and politics operated in the same social sphere. Communicating this historical reality will be one of the greatest challenges in writing this definition/article.

Administration of the State in Canaan and Ancient Israel (Vol. 1-2, Gosta W. Ahlstrom, pp. 587-603)

  • c. 1500-1000 BCE, Palestine and Transjordan was primarily a mixture of West Semitic ethnic groups.
  • 12th-11th centuries see the increase of Canaanite settlements
    • Canaanite is not an ethnic term, just about those who live in the country.
  • Majority of Israelites were originally “Canaanites”, part of that diverse group people who settled in the region.
  • KEY: Idea of twelve-tribe is a “historiographic reconstruction” (588).
    • When writing, be sure to define this.
    • Accoridn got WIliam Foxwell Albright, history through the Bible “is a pious fiction.”
    • NOTE FOR SELF: This is a good way to problematize how we look at ancient Israelite religion in the first place. It demands that we be aware the HB reflect old tradition, though usually not completely accurately.
  • Government was a tribal system; Ahlstrom claims that no institution of elected official developed. Of course. But we need to remember that as a tribal system, they did have a voice, often time over other kings in a West Semitic context. Cf. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew.
  • We could also see the old rulers as theoocratic rulers, but this is problematic as the term carries too much negative baggage when presenting to a large audience of general readers.
  • “To promote and support the ruler’s position in such as development, a kingship ideology anchored the ruler and his power in the divine will, and thus legitimized his might” (590).
    • Cf. Ps. 2:7, 45:6 (King is addressed as elohim), 89:26 (adoption formula for a god adopting a king); Is. 9:6-7 (who will inherit the dominion of Yahweh), etc.
  • Broadly speaking, this is shared throughout ANE (591).
    • King Keret was son of the god El, Assyrian king was the son of a god. Esarhaddon is the son of Ninlil and Shamash. Shulgi, a Sumerian king, is the son of the goddess Ninsun. etc.
  • In a West Semitic context especially, one individual god was usually the main god (591). He writes, “The temple was an expression of the deitiy’s cosmos and domain. Nation and religion were the same. The reality was that in order for a nation to be ruled and governed according to the deity’s will, it had to have a “deputy” divinity choisen, namely, the king (591).”
    • Cf. Sanders on this for more details unique to a West Semitic context.
  • Theological kingship was part of ancient Israel’s heritage as it emerged as a unique and long lasting contending among the various ethnic groups categorized as Canaanites. (Loosely based off of 592; I expanded the details the words of Gosta).
  • Enthronement of a king was a religious activity (593). It involved the following:
    • Selecting a king and proclaiming affirmation of king via religious oracle, anointing, victory, ride a donky to place of investitutre, born of or adopted as the son of Yahweh, proclaimed with eternal dynasty, people acclaim, and a banquet!
  • King was in charge of building a temple, as demonstrated through various inscriptions throughout Syro-Palestine (596).
    • Panamu of Sam’al, Azatiwata of the Karatepe inscription, Mesha of Moab, Solomon, kings of Israel.
    • This temple building, a religious and political activity, had economic implications. Land was bought, people were hired, and animals were sold for sacrifice (596).
  • State Cult (597-598)
    • Responsible for liturgical contact between deity, the foundation of the nation.
    • Again, “religion and state were one.”
    • Accordingly, the “king had supreme authority over the state religion and its cult” (597); however, that doesn’t mean others had a significant say in matters of religion.
    • Roles of state cult, in a West Semitic context, on behalf of people:
      • Offer sacrifices and burn incense
        • 1 Samuel 15, 1 Kings 3 (one thousand burnt offerings), 1 King 9:25 (Sacrifice 3 times per year.
      • Temple building and cult paraphernalia
        • 1 Kings 6-8 (Solomon builds temple), 1 Kings 16:32 (Ahab puts up religious symbol of a Phoenician Baal.
      • Ordering cultic meetings (?)
        • Seems unsubstantiated.
      • Organize and run the cult.
        • Jeroboam did this at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12)
  • “Realizing that kingship would not be restored, the only way to retain the kingship concept was to divorce it from an earthly king and, in agreement with an old ideology, proclaim Yahweh as king, ruling no longer throuh his deputy the eartlhly king but through the priesthood. In this way one could come to grips with the idea of being a people not governed by an indigenous king. The theogcratic ideal or dogma became anchored in a remote time in order to acquire the prestige of something primeval” (602).


Over the next week or two, I will take notes for the following chapters: Palaces and Temples in Canaan and Ancient Israel by William G. Dever (605-614), Legal and Social Institutions in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Hector Avalos (615-631), and Private Life in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Mayer I. Gruber (633-648). Part VIII of these volumes also have five other important chapters: Myth and Mythmaking in Canaan and Ancient Israel y Mark Smith (of course), Theology, Priests, and Worship in Canaan and Ancient IsraelDeath and the Afterlife in Canaanite and Hebrew ThoughtWitchcraft, Magic, and Diviniation in Canaan and Ancient Israel, and Prophecy and Apocalyptics in the Ancient Near EastArt and Architecture in Canaan and Ancient Israel may also be a helpful article to read.

Although this is a lot of reading for a single, short work on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, it is imperative that an article (especially like this) be thorough. At the same time, it is important to be able to present the nuances while, at the same time, presenting the history of ancient Israelite religion in an understandable and comprehensible way.

“Festivals and Calendars of the Ancient Near East” by Mark E. Cohen

Festivals-and-Calendars_1024x1024Mark E. Cohen. Festivals and Calendars of the Ancient Near East. Bethesda: CDL Press 2015, pp. 483, $50 (hardback).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to CDL Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

In 1993, Mark E. Cohen published his seminal work titled The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East (Bethesda, 1993). A little over twenty years later, he has now produced an entirely new analysis of ancient Near Eastern calendars and ritual. It is wrong to say “new edition”, though, because it is not a new edition based on the previous; rather, Festivals and Calendars is an entirely new work which takes into account recent scholarship (especially cuneiform tablets and other research) and offers intriguing and valuable analysis for scholars.

Because the work is primarily a nitty-gritty analysis of ancient ritual and calendars, I will primarily focus on one of his conclusions and its significance. As one actively interested in ancient Israelite practices and the Hebrew Bible, the following is of much value to myself and people within my field. Unlike in his first work Cultic CalendarsFestivals and Calendars places the first month of Emar in the spring (contra Fleming 2000). And while R. Hess and B.C. Babcock demonstrate similarities between the zukru festival and pesach, they are limited because, in their reconstruction of the Emar calendar, the calendar begins in the fall. Consequently, by demonstrating that zukru and pesach occurred in the same period and month, Cohen cogently elucidates valuable parallels between the Emar zukru festival and Israelite pesach festival:

  • They both occur at the full moon, the first month, and last seven days.
  • Both concern fertility of herds.
  • The ritual instruction is parallel
  • Both festivals involve smearing blood on the entrance (Emar) or doors (Israel). This is significant in consideration that, according to Exodus, the sacrifice and feast occur within the household. Thus, the primary difference is that one occurs on a macro scale, and the other on a micro.
  • Linguistic similarities between zkr, Hebrew for male, and zukru, for which Cohen suggests the translation as male animal.

These similarities are, of course, more detailed in his work. My point, though, is to draw emphasis on the significance of these connections. Already the relationship between the Emar zukru and Israelite pesach has garnered attention. Now, through Cohen’s analysis, we are provided with invaluable insight into possible ancient Israelite influences.

Of course, beyond this point, Cohen expands on and adjusts many previous conclusions from Cultic Calendars. Cohen has, yet again, provided scholars with an important resource and analysis of ancient Near East calendars and ritual. Although the work is fairly dense, it provides an excellent view of the multitude of rituals throughout the ancient Near East. And while most people likely won’t sit and read through the whole book as I did, it is nonetheless an integral addition to any serious ancient Near East or Hebrew Bible scholar. For the price of $50, one attains a work that should be addressed in every consideration of calendars and ritual matters. I highly recommend this work not only as a reference for research but also as an important book to your collection.

Though it isn’t nearly as exciting, I should note two typos for publisher:

“This, of cource, does not preclude a linguistic relationship…” (279)

At footnote 225 in the chapter “Standard Mesopotamian Calendar”, there is no period after the statement, “the defeat of Tiamat” (443).



Musings on “The Exegetical Captivity of the Book of Ruth”

In a recent post by Jim Gordon, he raised a point to consider regarding the nature of commentaries about the book of Ruth (Click here to read the original post). The essence of his question will be considered/answered/discussed in this blog post. Because the first question is the best summary of his post, I will quote his first question and proceed.

Question: Can a man write an adequate commentary on a book in which women’s experience is definitive and central in the story? Is gender irrelevant to how a person approaches a narrative text like Ruth?

Consideration: One point to consider is the amount of scholarship and time being placed into study of the Megilloth. My former professor, Dr. Brad Embry, currently leads the Megilloth group at the Society of Biblical Literature because it has received so little attention. Thus, the amount of people seeking to actively research the book of Ruth is dramatically decreased. This is an important factor to consider in questioning why there aren’t more female author’s.

Furthermore, the hermeneutic utilized by one significantly affects how Ruth is and should be understood. Within a recent class at Northwest University, I experienced this factor. The entire class was about Ruth and each student participated in discussion about the text as we moved through it over the semester. As we moved through the text, it became more and more apparent that each student held a differing view about Ruth as different aspects stood out to them. Interestingly enough, nobody approached Ruth as a piece of literature about women’s experience. Nor do I. To assume that Ruth is specifically about a woman’s experience is a presupposition that should be proven prior to approaching it in that manner, or else the eyes of the interpreter become tunnel visioned to that idea. In my view, Ruth seems to transcend issues of a woman’s experience. Ruth, as a character, is the vehicle through whom God acts, a vehicle which could just as well be a male. Although a male would have conjured up different allusions and spoken to the reader differently, many of the basic concepts could still have been expressed.

I view Ruth as a sort of “indie” book of the Bible (read original post here) intended to speak about issues that transcend the issues of a woman’s  experiences. Emphasis is placed upon the nature of God and the community. Ruth may even be a sort of commentary, though not polemic, regarding traditions of strict separation between Israel/nations. In essence, the hermeneutics and aim of interpretation make a huge difference as to whether or not the gender of reader is relevant in interpreting Ruth. However, that is not to disdain to the value of a female’s interpretation about Ruth as a women’s experience, for this approach yields positive results in that it separates the tangle of patriarchy and permits one to move towards the transcendent value of Ruth.

In conclusion, I pose my own questions. What is the focus of Ruth? While a woman’s experience is an element as play within the book of Ruth, is it really the focal point of the book? Or are there multiple focal points as with indie films?


Before the LORD in Leviticus 9:1-24

Sacrificial altar at Beersheba.

Sacrificial altar at Beersheba.

When examining the structure of Leviticus 9:1-24, the social and theological implications of the chapter must be examined carefully. In this post, I will argue that essentially the entire chapter is a chiasitic structure and offers insight into the societal structure of ancient Israel. The following is a small outline of the chapter.

  • 9:1-4 – Sets the time of the eighth and summarizes the commands of Moses for offerings to Yahweh.

  • A1: 9:5 – Describes the gathering of the whole community to stand before the Lord.
    • B1: 9:6 – Purpose is so that the glory of Yahweh may appear.
      • C1: 9:7 – Moses reiterates the command for sin offerings as Yahweh’s commands.
        • D1: 9:8-14 – The process of the sacrifices of the Priesthood.
        • D2: 9:15-21 – The process of the sacrifices of the common people. Verse 21 notes the sacrifices as Moses had commanded (21b is both D2 and C2).
      • C2: 9:22 – Aaron blesses the people after having made the offerings.
    • B2: 9:23 – The glory of Yahweh appears to the people.
  • A2: 9:24 – The people see the fire of Yahweh and fall on their faces.

From this outline, there are three strands which I will tug. First, the outline indicates the social structure as it relates to the Priesthood, common people, Moses, and Yahweh. Second, there is a theological indication of where all of the people stand in relation to Yahweh. Finally, one of the central themes of Leviticus is reiterated.

Social Structure

Moses is functionally tied to the role of God. Although he is below God in a theological sense, Leviticus 9 considers him to be at nearly equal status with God. Within the structure of Leviticus 9, verse 9:7 notes that Yahweh commanded. Following the completion of the sacrifices, verse 9:21b notes that Moses’ commands had been accomplished. The person who commands acts in the literature as the opening and closing parenthesis (God and Moses) to encircle the sacrificial actions. Implicitly implied is Moses’ status as the command giver, functionally equivalent to Yahweh. This is reinforced through Exodus 14:31: “When Israel saw the great power which the LORD had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in His servant Moses” (NASB Ex 14:31, italics added for emphasis). The nearness of Moses to God is also reminiscent of kingly rule within ancient Israel and Near East.

Because Moses and Yahweh circle the actions of the Priesthood sacrifices and common people sacrifices, it may further be deduced that the Priesthood and common people may be viewed as equal. While the Priesthood was responsible for maintaining the sacred space of Yahweh, Leviticus 9 places both under the command of Yahweh/Moses. In short, the importance of people within the social structure can be summarized by the following:

  1. Tier One
    1. Yahweh
    2. Moses
  2. Tier Two
    1. Priesthood
    2. Common People

Theological Implication

As mentioned previously, Leviticus 9 holds hefty theological implications. While society may be structured hierarchically, the entire chapter is focused on the glory of Yahweh. In fact, there is a striking contrast between the whole congregation standing before Yahweh (9:5, A1) and falling on their faces before Yahweh (9:24, A2). As a result of the purification rituals, the sacred space was extended as all the people saw the glory of Yahweh, glory only previously seen in relation to Moses on top of Sinai or the Priesthood within the tabernacle. Now all people are able to see the glory of Yahweh, implying a closeness which all peoples attained, no longer placing priority or special status to Moses or the Priesthood. Thus, Leviticus 9 indicates a desire for all people to enter the sacred space of God, not just the sacred few.

Central Theme

Last, but definitely not least, Leviticus 9 presents the goal and center of Leviticus: holiness. Although the chapter functionally operates with Moses/Yahweh —-> Priesthood/Common people, the theology of the chapter indicates that holiness was important for all people, not the select few. B1 introduces this as God’s will for the whole community (A1). B2 and A2 express this as the accomplishment of God’s will for the community following the description of the purification process. In reality, it was important for every person in the community to maintain holiness and purity. None were excluded. All  the people fell on their faces when they saw Yahweh’s fire and all the people were purified. The importance of holiness in Leviticus, and all of ancient Israel, is further demonstrated by the strange fire of Leviticus 10 and Achan’s sin.


Societal structure, theology, and the central theme operate together to present a unique picture of Yahweh. Although Yahweh operated within a clear social structure, his goal was oriented towards the entire community taking part in holiness, the central theme of Leviticus. In doing so, all people who are part of the community of God are able to be within close proximity of his presence, the sacred space of Yahweh. In effect, all people are provided with the potential to join with him in the establishment of Order in the cosmos.

Belief in God and His Servant

Too often I’ve heard it expressed to me that our faith is to be in God alone. And because the New Testament consistently references people faith in Jesus, Jesus must divine. While this post isn’t intended to act as a polemical argument against Jesus’ divinity, it may be perceived as so. Either way, my point in this post is to draw out a possibility of “faith” and its implications for interpreting New Testament literature in light of the Hebrew Bible.

In exploring the “believing” of Abraham in Genesis 15:6, I realized that the same Hebrew root and Greek root in the LXX are used in Exodus 14:31: “When Israel saw the great power which the LORD had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in His servant Moses” (NASB Ex 14:31, italics added for emphasis). As far as I’m aware, no person would go as far to claim that Moses was a divine being. Moses was a human who humbly served God.

Yet because people are to have faith in Jesus, it is often argued that faith placed in Jesus to God designated him as divinity. By the same argument, faith in God and His servant Moses designates Moses divinity. Perhaps my thinking is off. After all, this is a brief post intended to provoke critical thought and encourage people to engage is dialogue regarding what, who, and why they believe. What are your thoughts?