“The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel” edited by Susan Niditch (Part 2 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.

Part Two focuses on the political history of ancient Israel. Following this are succinct summaries of each article accompanied by any strengths or critiques.

After briefly tracing the history of Israel’s emergence in scholarship and the subjective nature of ethnicity with regard to archaeology, Avraham Faust (Professor of Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University) presents his analysis of ancient Israel’s ethnogenesis, analysis taken and updated from his book Israel’s Ethnogenesis (Equinox, 2006). While archaeology is certainty subjective, Faust’s thoughtful consideration of Israel’s ethnogenesis through archaeology provides a stable starting point for research about the origins of Israel’s political history.

Brad E. Kelle (Professort of Old Testament at Point Loma Nazarene University) considers the early monarchy, primarily focusing on the scholarship trends from the mid-1980s to the present. While he offers no innovations or additions to trends, he offer a well-balanced record of scholarship, presenting and critiquing trends like state formation theory. For study of the monarchy in ancient Israel and frameworks for interpreting it, Kelle’s work is a great place to begin.

J. J. M. Roberts (Princeton Theological Seminary’s W.H. Green Professor of Old Testament Literature Emeritus (retired)) illustrates the history of ancient Israel from the divided monarchy (922 BCE) up to the second capture of Jerusalem (586 BCE). His preliminary focus on how to read DtrH is especially important because it directly indicates how students should engage with the Bible as a source of history. Likewise, his presentation of ancient Israel from 922 BCE to 586 BCE is detailed – whilst concise – and provides an important framework for reading the Hebrew Bible historically.

Examining the Persian and Neo-Babylonian influence upon Israel, Charles E. Carter (Professor of Religion at Seton Hall University) suggests three strategies to studying the “exilic” period (territory, imperial context, settlement and position), refocuses on the presence of Judaean cities along with their economic and social situations, and discusses the socio-religious reforms. Highlighted throughout his article is the importance of avoiding terms such as “exilic” and “postexilic”, which he claims “accepts the would-be dominant gola ideology. Terms such as Neo-Babylonian and Persians… are more accurate” (236). While I agree that “exilic” potentially subscribes to gola ideology, Neo-Babylonian and Persian accept the dominance of imperial rule. Thus, his suggestion for different terminology in these period is important in recognizing inherent ideological bias. It is also problematic, as any terms selected for representing the period will carry some sort of ideological baggage – in his case imperial ideological baggage. .

Matthew J. Goff (Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Florida State University) discusses the Hellenistic Period, focusing on the broader advent of Hellenism up to Jewish Apocalypticism. Unlike many treatment which consider ancient Israel, Goff’s treatment is unique and fantastic for students because it illustrates Jewish Hellenism as a progressive cultural exchange and development in the midst of the greater movement of Hellenism. Essentially, he does not overemphasize how Jewish thought was influenced; rather, echoing the approach of Martin Hengel, he focuses on social influence through political, socioeconomic, cultural, and religious factors. Consequently, his illustration of Hellenism in Judea and the Diaspora communities is filled out, highlighting how Hellenism propelled forward and interacted with Judaean and Diaspora ideas through social, cultural, religious, and economic factors.

*Part III will be posted 1/15/2016. Also, if you enjoyed what your read, please follow or subscribe to my blog for more reviews and musings about biblical literature.

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“The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel” edited by Susan Niditch (Part 1 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, primarliy due to the many contributors and secondarily the lengthy nature of this work, I will be posting the complete review through three blog posts.

The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel is one of Wiley Blackwell’s several companion books. Aimed at producing “a multifaceted entry into ancient Israelite culture”, each article addresses a unique scholarly focus in the study of ancient Israel, complete with brief scholarly history and current trends. The twenty-eight chapters of the book are not only well fleshed out introductions about various topics but support each other through an web of internal references. For example, when discussing priestly theology in the final form of the Pentateuch, Stephen A. Geller simply references David Carr’s contribution to the volume. Consequently Geller is able to continue with his discussion while not ignoring or dismissing a certain aspect in the study of ancient Israel, aspects which David Carr covers. Scattered throughout the volume are internal references, creating a web that allows the volume to stand on its own as an authoritative introduction and companion to ancient Israel.

The volume is divided into three parts: methodology, political history, and ancient Israelite themes. Each Part contains sub-divisions with more specific elements. As a whole, the layout of the book is great as each article fills in valuable components to understanding ancient Israel. Because the book contains twenty-eight short, detailed essay introductions, the following will provide a succinct summary of each article along with note of any strengths and shortfalls.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith (Archaeologist) considers the high value of archaeology as it offers an alternative historical perspective about ancient Israel when compared to the biblical representation of history. As an introductory essay, her contribution is important as it encourages students to engage with the material history of ancient Israel rather than limiting study to and assuming historical realities of the Hebrew Bible.

Song-Mi Suzie Park (Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary) examines biblical authors envisaged their identity through brief analysis of how the authors represent neighboring nations like Moabites and Philistines. Her introduction the ancient Israel’s neighbors and how they are represented provides a platform for students and scholars to consider ancient Israelite identity.

John R. Huddlestun (Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston) presents three varying conclusions regarding how ancient Egypt related to and potentially influenced Israel. This contribution is unique because it presents three arguments and implicitly encourages the reader to engage with options, not just accept them as fact.

Steven Weitzman (Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania) briefly introduces a history of hermeneutical approaches and methodologies. His contribution is necessary especially for students because it is a concise and well-detailed introduction to how scholars have addressed the relationship between the biblical witness and historical reality. For its focus on methodological issues, this is one of the best contributions to the volume.

Susan Niditch (Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College) challenges students and scholars alike to approach the Hebrew Bible as ancient Israelite folklore because it offers nuanced ways to approach what source criticism attempts to explain through focus on the artists and their audiences. Although Niditch does not focus on a variety of methodologies, her focus on Israelite traditions as folklore allow the Hebrew Bible space to speak as artistic representation of ancient Israelite culture. Indeed, viewing Israelite traditions as folklore opens ancient Israelite culture to the modern reader; however, the lack of explanation as to how a folklorist perspective compares to other methodologies makes it difficult to fully appreciate the distinct views that folklorists offer.

David Carr (Professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary) introduces scholarly history about how the Hebrew Bible was formed from oral traditions to revised texts, with special focus on how manuscripts were joined, blended, expanded, and counter written. For non-specialists, this contribution is extremely valuable because it encourages readers to engage with the Bible as a multi-voiced document which has been adjusted throughout history.

Ohad Cohen (Semitic linguist and Hebrew Bible scholar) tackles the dating of biblical literature through linguistics via recognition of language influences in the Hebrew Bible (Persian, Aramaic, and Mishnaic) and brief analysis of 19 verses to demonstrate internal, diachronic linguistic developments. For such a technical field of linguistic dating, Cohen’s introduction is valuable in at least helping the reading to grasp how it operates.

Christopher A. Rollston (Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University) focuses on epigraphy in the Levant during the Iron Age, illustrating the varieties of literature throughout the region and introducing important texts – monumental inscriptions and ostraca – that influence scholarly understandings of language and ancient Israel. Specificity about inscriptions, yet also his willingness to choose only representative inscriptions, permits the reader to attain a solid, basic comprehension of epigraphy in the Levant without overwhelming them with information.

*Click here for Part II of my review. Also, if you enjoyed what your read, please follow or subscribe to my blog for more reviews and musings about biblical literature.

“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.

“The Responsive Self” by Susan Niditch

Susan Niditch. The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, vii + 190, (hardcover).

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

Susan Niditch, Professor and Chair of Religion at Amherst College, explores the various self-expressions of lived religion in the Jewish, post-exilic environment. With research interests and works in the ancient Near East, early Judaism, and the body in ancient Judaism, Niditch’s exploration of lived religion in ancient Israel during the post-exilic period is an excellent study in continuity with her interests and previous publications.  The Responsive Self is a prime example of solid scholarship which draws out the personal and lived elements of ancient Israel.

Niditch’s work emerges from Lived Religion, the work of  sociologist of religion Meredith B. McGuire, and McGuire’s discussion regarding the complex dynamics between concrete practice, diversity, official and unofficial. Her analysis and case studies of lived religion are guided by five bearings: physical environment, authorial declaration about material culture, “non-Judean Jews”, the role of Persian culture to Yehud,  and chronology.

The first case study is based on a folkloric and contextualized reading that demonstrates the theodicy focus  and innovative approach to lived religion dealing with sin in the works of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In its engagement with Job and Qohelet, Chapter Two analyzes their appropriation of conventional wisdom, with special regard for death, and illustrates how their critical self-evaluation exemplifies lived religion, rather than communal or balance, in a post-exilic context. Chapter Three’s examination of lament as means of incantation traces the self-representative trajectory from incantation to autobiography in Jeremiah’s confession and Nehemiah’s memoir. With regard to vowing and personal religion, Chapter Four discusses personal, lived religion and its dynamics between personal and public religion in Nazirite and votive offerings.

In the following chapter, Niditch presents post-exilic burial art and graffiti, symbolic visions of Zechariah, and sign acts of Jeremiah to illustrate the lived religion of ancient Israel through materials. Chapter Six examines prophetic encounters with the divine realm, which paradoxically reflects cultural conceptions of religious experience and personal reflection, and the concurrent and interactive dynamics of official and unofficial religion. Chapter Seven draws out the self-characterization in Ruth’s narrative, as opposed to Tamar’s narrative, and the book of Jonah, both of which express thoughts of emotion rather than ritual reflective of emotion. Her work, thus, explores the patterns of culture and humanities capacity to adjust traditions to their sociohistorical setting and skillfully draws out the complexities between the communal and individual, material and meta-physical, and self-expression in religion as lived.

One of the most praiseworthy successes The Responsive Self is her ability to make significant the religious lives of ancient authors. Rather than subjecting texts to critical analysis to the end of critique, Niditch draws out the humanity of the post-exilic texts. For example, regarding nonbiblical incantaion, she notes that “these texts implicitly offer reasons for life’s challenges and testify to the human need for such explanations” (54). So beyond mere textual analysis, her work demonstrate the breadth of human experience, a most notable and consistent aspect in her work.

With regard to analysis, the only point which should have been more fully explored how allusions to the combat myth seen in the raging Sea contributed to the self-expression of the book of Jonah. As Debra Ballentine has recently explored, the combat myth is appropriated by a variety of audiences and is not necessarily universally under the banner of Chaoskampf. Were Niditch to consider this in her analysis of Jonah, it would have demonstrated better how authors utilized older traditions innovatively to express the self.

Apart from the minor issue with analysis about the book of Jonah, Susan Niditch expertly, skillfully, and creatively explores the dynamics of lived religion in the neo-Babylonian and Persian periods, drawing out a variety of approaches to lived religion in the post-exilic period. Her work will be beneficial especially to scholars of Jewish studies, humanities and religion, and even world literature. Rather than restricting herself to academic analysis in a manner limited to academic audiences, she opens up the world of the post-exilic period to readers. In drawing out the variety of approaches to life and religion, any person can read her work and know that 2,500 years ago people wrestled with the same issues people do in the modern era. To know that one is within the constant stream of human thought allows Niditch’s work to act almost as a catharsis for readers: humanity is not alone in non-understanding of why, but is always united in non-understanding of why.