The World of Ancient Israel: Sociological, Anthropological and Political Perspectives

Written by R.E. Clements (ed.) Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

The British Society for Old Testament Study occasionally publishes books designed to provide the reader with an updated guide to critical scholarship in its various guises. The last appeared a decade before the present volume (G.W. Anderson (ed.). Tradition and Interpretation, Oxford: Clarendon, 1979). These books are written by members of the Society. SOTS also publishes volumes of collections of articles dealing with specific topics, such as D.J. Wiseman (ed.), Peoples of Old Testament Times (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975). These are written by an international group of specialists. The present volume lies somewhere in between these two types of productions. It is a specialist volume insofar as it relies largely upon social science analysis to understand the OT. However, it is primarily written by British OT scholars rather than by those who research and lecture in the social sciences. The result reflects the difficulties and the importance of cross-disciplinary approaches.

Three introductory essays set out general thoughts on Israelite history and culture (R.E. Clements), and on the disciplines of anthropology (J. W. Rogerson) and sociology (A.D.H. Mayes) as applied to the OT. Clement’s review of the last 200 years of the study of Israelite history is an enormous task to squeeze into 11 pages. Still, why are Albright, Noth and Bright omitted? Is it because their historical approaches are viewed by Clements as discredited? We are not told, and yet they have a considerable impact upon past and present understanding of OT history. Rogerson addresses several presuppositions in OT studies which have been altered in the last two decades: Israelite self-understanding of their world, the social context of Israelite prophets, the varied fortunes of Israel’s origins, and emic/etic categories for looking at other societies. Mayes divides the sociological literature into Weber’s conflict model and Durkheim’s functionalist approach.

The second section looks at Israel at various points of its history and from a variety of perspectives. The study by F.S. Frick, the only contributor from a non-British institution, is filled with data on Palestinian ecology and includes summaries of works by Hopkins, Borowski and Stager regarding agriculture and settlement patterns. The latter must now be updated by reference to I. Finkelstein’s analyses of Israelite surveys. J.D. Martin considers some Hebrew words for ‘tribe’ and ‘family’. His review of theories regarding Israel’s origins leads him to conclude that the biblical texts are unreliable for reconstructing early Israelite history and that these should be replaced by archaeological data read through social science models. However, he includes a caution concerning the reliability of sociology at the end of his essay. K. W. Whitelam presents an essay which surveys (1) the economic, ecological and political factors which may have given rise to kingship in early Israel, and (2) the ideological expressions of the biblical literature which provide a religious legitimation to Davidic kingship. He argues that comparative sociology and the literary artistry of biblical texts can establish conclusions about their historical worth. H. G. M. Williamson’s essay examines how the usage of the term ‘Israel’ altered in pre-exilic, exilic and post-exilic literature. Of special interest are his observations of how Persian administration and policy influenced the separatist tendencies which characterized Judaism under Ezra. Coggins identifies the Jewish diaspora in the OT and considers how the legal and prophetic literature shaped and was shaped by this phenomenon.

B.S. Jackson introduces the section on ‘Fundamental Institutions’ with a survey of biblical texts which describe written materials and their publication. R.P. Carroll’s study drives home the invidious problem of assuming editorial layers in the prophetic books, i.e., how does one draw the line where redaction ends and the original prophet begins? This, combined with a critique of the use of sociological models, balances the usage of such methods elsewhere in the book. R.N. Whybray’s essay on wisdom may come closest to the sort of analysis done in previous SOTS literature. P.R. Davies argues for a relationship of apocalyptic literature (most of what he examines lies outside the OT) to Mesopotamian mantic traditions. P.J. Budd considers recent contributions of structural anthropology to the study of Levitical categories of holiness and of sacrifice, omitting mention of G. Wenham and J. Milgrom. G.H. Jones’s study of holy war opens with a comparison to Ancient Near Eastern practices. The remainder argues the widespread concept of holy war and attributes the Israelite view on the subject to Deuteronomistic redaction. R. Davidson summarizes the history of the discussion of covenant ideology in the OT. E.W. Davies demonstrates the theological importance of land in the OT, tracing its usage in the legal, prophetic and historical literature. G.I. Emmerson examines women in various aspects of Israelite literature and life, although space allows for only a fraction of the scholarly literature to be considered. M.A. Knibb considers some OT passages on life and death, arguing that belief in any continued existence after death emerged only in post-exilic Israel.

As is so often the case, a collection of essays such as this one will have mixed appeal and value for anyone using it. I learned most about the history of scholarship and relevant issues in the essays by Rogerson, Frick, Whybray, Davies and Davidson. I gained new insights to the subjects dealt with by Whitelam, Williamson and Carroll. Some scholars constantly reappear in the discussions, e.g. Gottwald and Lemche in essays touching on early Israel, and one wonders whether it would have been useful to allow them to write the articles on their subjects. As it stands, the volume presents a useful, if partial, measurement of the state of OT critical scholarship in Britain.

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver