Israel’s Beneficient Dead, (Forschungen zum Alten Testament 11)

Written by Brian B Schmidt Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

In a wide-ranging book Schmidt examines both ancient Near Eastern and OT evidence to conclude that they contain no evidence that anyone believed that the dead had beneficent powers before the neo-Assyrian period. In Israel this belief was established during the reign of Manasseh, by which time it had been imported from Mesopotamia. Necromancy and its corresponding rites of self-mutilation were condemned in the exilic and post-exilic times of the deuteronomistic and priestly redactors because they blurred the distinctions between the divine, the living and the dead. This could not be allowed in a society which struggled to achieve a new identity after the cataclysm of the destruction of the first temple. Funerary, mourning and commemorative rites did exist in pre-exilic Israel on behalf of the dead, but no ancestor cult can be found. Schmidt concludes his work with the question of whether or not even the late pre-exilic introduction of necromancy is too early and speculates that all the relevant biblical texts may be purely deuteronomistic rhetoric rather than historical.

This study is an extremely useful introduction to the complex issues of the dead in Israel and their treatment. It partakes of the general trend in critical scholarship to ascribe more and more of the biblical text to deuteronomistic redaction in the exile and afterwards. While there is something to be said for appreciating the value of ideology in the rendering of the biblical narratives, the deuteronomistic hypothesis has become a ‘snowball’ that absorbs the biblical text wherever it touches it. The result is not entirely satisfying because there are too many discrete items of evidence that indicate earlier origins for forms and specific contents of various texts. If the redaction of already existing texts did take place, those texts may have been more substantial than many scholars are prepared to speculate. In fact, the whole matter is moot as there is little definitive evidence to date many of the biblical texts. Passages such as 1 Samuel 28 are especially difficult to date late, as Schmidt does. Schmidt might be too eager to discount any possible contact with the dead in early Israel, but he is certainly correct in questioning the presence of an ancestor cult on the basis of scant textual evidence and in archaeological contexts wherever kitchen vessels and other equipment are found associated with burials.

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver