Israel and Empire: A Postcolonial History of Israel and Early Judaism

Written by Leo Perdue and Warren Carter Reviewed By Daniel C. Timmer

Postcolonial studies have become quite popular over the last few decades, reaching into a number of disciplines including biblical studies (see, for example, B. Crowell, “Postcolonial Studies and the Hebrew Bible,” CBR 7 [2009]: 217–44; A. Runesson, Exegesis in the Making: Postcolonialism and New Testament Studies, BIS 103 [Leiden: Brill, 2010]). While at first glance its focus on identity, difference/otherness, and power may seem to have little to do with more traditional theological topics, a closer look will show that a postcolonial optic, if used adroitly, can further our understanding of numerous biblical themes.

The present volume is co-authored by L. Perdue and W. Carter. Perdue contributed an introductory chapter on postcolonial theory and its relation to biblical and related historiography, as well as chapters dealing with Israel and Judah under Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. Carter contributed the last two chapters on Judea and Israel under the Greek and Roman empires, respectively. Because Perdue’s health worsened during the writing process, C. Baker edited Perdue’s chapters, which are each noticeably shorter (35, 32, 37, and 22 pages) than Carter’s (87 and 75 pages). Still, both primary authors offer insightful and detailed analyses of their subjects.

The five chapters focused on Israelite/Jewish history share a relatively consistent format, beginning with a brief historical introduction before focusing on the metanarrative of the empire in question and the varied experience of Israelites or Jews under its domination. The Assyrian metanarrative, for example, covers kingship, imperial administration and provincial rule, economics, state religion, culture, imperial use of terror, and colonization. Perdue’s decision to examine the relationship between Judah/Israel and Assyria in Hosea (pp. 49–63) is rather curious, since Hosea is the only prophetic book that contains no oracles against foreign nations and gives very little attention to them as a whole. The choice of Jeremiah and Isaiah 40–55 in connection with early Jews’ experience of the Babylonian empire is easier to understand, and among other things Perdue demonstrates how Isaiah (largely composed, on his view, during the exile) subverts the empire’s metanarrative by designating Cyrus, not a Babylonian monarch, as Yahweh’s anointed (p. 98), while Yahweh, not Nabu (Isa 46:10), possesses all wisdom (p. 104).

Perdue observes of Persia that, although the Achaemenid rulers “conceived of a unified world order under their hegemonic control . . . cultural unification was not part of this ideology” (p. 109). He identifies two dominant responses to the Persian empire’s propaganda of religious tolerance and beneficent governance, one in which “living with the empire was the primary option” (e.g., Ezra, Nehemiah; pp. 123–26) and another in which Persian power will be disrupted by Yahweh’s rule as manifested through various messianic figures (e.g., in Haggai; despite appearing in the section heading, Zechariah is not discussed here on pp. 126–27). Presumably due to Perdue’s deteriorating health, this chapter is the shortest and most lightly documented of his contributions.

Carter’s study of Jews under Greek control seeks to assess Alexander’s accomplishments within the grand scheme of history. In such a metanarrative, the king as the just representative of the gods dispenses justice through his military feats and demonstrates his glory through conquest of new territory and the wealth that yields (pp. 139–42). This leads to the question of Alexander’s interest in deification, which Carter argues is discernable behind many of his actions. Carter treats the Ptolemaic and Seleucid periods separately, describing the distinct metanarratives for each (pp. 162–66, 190–98) and distinct Jewish responses to each (pp. 166–72, 198–210). The analysis of Jewish responses to Ptolemaic rule focuses less on Josephus than on 1 Enoch 1–36 and Ecclesiastes, which he dates around 250 BCE, while that dealing with responses to Seleucid power focuses on 1–2 Maccabees, Daniel (dated to the Maccabean revolt), The Apocalypse of Weeks of 1 Enoch, and 1 Enoch 83–90. The Apocalypse of Weeks, for example, encourages its readers to live justly, to “uproot or cut off the roots of oppression,” and (in an eschatological setting) to “exercise YHWH’s righteous judgment on earth” (p. 204). Also on this page, Carter sees “the fantasy of victory” and “the vision of a different future” as means by which the author could “decolonize subjugated minds, shape a different identity, and craft a third space” between the present and an eschatological consummation.

Finally, Carter’s analysis of the Roman Empire attends to its “ideological domination that utilized a set of convictions and/or a metanarrative that justified and expressed elite opposition, privilege, self-benefiting rule, and societal inequality” (p. 222, explored on pp. 227–41). To these, Rome joined material domination (via land ownership, labor practices, taxation, etc.) and status domination (class, rank, status, etc.), which are explored in turn. Carter examines the varied responses to this situation as exemplified by the Psalms of Solomon (especially Pss 1, 2, 8, and 17), four of the Qumran Pesharim that refer to the “Kittim” (4QpNah [cf. Nah 2:12], 4QpIsaa [cf. Isa 10:33–34], 1QpPs [cf. Ps 68:30–31], and 1QpHab [cf. Hab 1:6–11, 14–17), and 1 Enoch 37–71.

Although its analyses sometimes remain on the level of social phenomena and do not clearly connect to Scripture’s full storyline, this volume will still prove useful to those attentive to the ways in which human power is used (and more often abused) in the Bible and related literature. Whether trying to understand the prophets’ insistence on the culpability of the nations around Israel/Judah or the damning condemnation of Rome in Revelation, this volume ably exposes, particularly in the “metanarrative of empire” sections, precisely that—the epistemological and ideological matrices developed and aggressively implemented by the empires of the day (and, often, by Judah/Israel as well). In redemptive-historical perspective, these metanarratives promote these groups’ autonomy, free from any overarching commitment to the well-being of the “other” and from any clear perception of Yahweh’s unique status as creator, judge, and redeemer.

The only substantial shortcoming of the book, as evaluated within the limits of what its authors set out to accomplish, is a lack of synthesis in the five historically focused chapters. While this may be due in part to the (justified) perception of diversity in Jewish responses to empire, the consistency with which the powers that dominated Israel and early Judaism claimed divine prerogative, imposed their will by force, exploited the less powerful, and exalted rulers to quasi-divine status begs for systematization and further exploration. Hopefully readers will make such connections as they read Scripture in light of the insights this volume offers.

Daniel C. Timmer

Daniel C. Timmer
Faculté de théologie évangélique
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Other Articles in this Issue

Stephen Williams raises a number of concerns with the book, Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin...

The book of Job is an obvious place to turn when a Christian suffers, but it is not easy to discern what God means to teach his people through this difficult book...