The Reforming Kings: Cults and Society in First Temple Judah (JSOT Supplement 120)

Written by R.H. Lowery Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

This revised Yale PhD dissertation attempts to survey relevant studies and to express the author’s own view of the Southern Kingdom’s monarchy and how it made use of the political and religious world of its time. In his introduction Lowery reviews various interpretations of the Deuteronomistic history and of the Chronicler’s history. He argues that neither can be trusted completely for a history of the monarchy due to their ideological bias. As might be expected in a dissertation directed by R. Wilson, this study achieves integration through the application of political and economic theory and models.

Lowery discusses Palestinian agriculture as a prelude to his argument that an economic shift took place between the early and late monarchy. The traditional patrimonial estates of the farming Canaanite/Israelite population were gradually usurped by the monarchy. The latter increasingly developed a redistribution economy (after Polanyi) in which a central élite controlled the production and use of resources. Although this central authority publicly respected the patrimonial inheritance system, so that an event like Ahab’s outright acquisition of Naboth’s vineyard was an exception, it tacitly claimed ownership of all the land through its right to tax and to levy statutory (but paid) labour.

Lowery’s study of key Deuteronomistic texts, and their evaluations of pre-Assyrian Judean kings, leads him to argue the following: Deuteronomism did not exist before Assyrian intervention into Judah; Asa’s so-called reform was actually a Deuteronomistic interpretation of a domestic power struggle; and Jehoshaphat’s judicial activities reflect an ongoing reform throughout this period. Lowery ties the economy to the cult. For him, the high places were tax collection centres and non-sacral temple prostitution was widespread among socially marginalized women. He also ties the cult to politics. Thus, Amaziah’s deportation of Edomite deities to Jerusalem was a political move to establish Judean hegemony over Edom.

Lowery finds depictions of the apostasy of Ahaz in 2 Kings 16 and in 2 Chronicles 28–29 to be literary devices designed to show how the cult reached a nadir just before the glory of Hezekiah. The Assyrian tribute which Ahaz paid increased the poverty of the Judean countryside and the corresponding instability of the land. Lowery follows Spieckermann in his rejection of Cogan’s thesis that cultic requirements varied according to whether a nation was a vassal or a province of Assyria. He believes that the degree of imposition of the Assyrian cult varied positively according to the rebellious attitude of the peoples, i.e. more rebellion, more imposition. Except for Hezekiah’s reign, Judah remained loyal to Assyria and thus there was no imposition of an Assyrian cult. Ahaz’s own importation of Assyrian worship was in continuity with cultic syncretism which had existed since the Solomonic age.

According to Lowery, Hezekiah and Jerusalem were spared by Sennacherib in order to enhance political stability in the region. Hezekiah’s cult reforms are plausible. By closing the high places, he removed the local collection centres for the tax which would go to Assyria. This is supported by Deuteronomic legislation (14:22–27) which effectively gave the tithe back to the people. By removing cult vessels from the high places, Hezekiah prevented the invading Assyrian army from taking them away and claiming that Yahweh had deserted the nation. Thus he guaranteed Yahweh’s continued support of Jerusalem.

Lowery’s study is useful in its integration of sociology and literary critical research, its critique of accepted conclusions with other research (cf. Spieckermann and Cogan on Assyrian cult), and its stress upon the economic and political implications of the cult. His weakness lies in his acceptance of the assumptions of much of this research which builds possible interpretive models one upon another. We do not have evidence for the function of high places as tax collection centres. We do not know that the condemnations of Ahaz and Manasseh are merely stylistic devices designed to enhance the golden ages of Hezekiah and Josiah. We really cannot say whether reforms such as Josiah’s were politically driven or whether the reforms themselves energized the consequent politics of Judah.

However, the importance of this study should not be minimized. Its bold attempt to take stock of the variety of available data and methodologies and to generate a plausible reconstruction render it a fresh and useful perspective in the ongoing discussion of the history of the First Temple Period.

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver