Book Journal #2: Hebrew Bible

In the second half of the Introduction to Hebrew Bible course, we looked at some books with a different timbre: archeology, sociology, and a very modern book documenting the history of a word–philology and theology wrapped up into one.

Article: Carol Meyers “Life in Biblical Israel” in Family, Religion and Culture: Families in Ancient Israel, 1997.

“When examining the period of Israelite beginnings, the study of early Israel is nearly equivalent to the study of the family.”

Unlike the previous books on the link between literature and theology, this article isn’t about the Biblical text really at all. It’s about the people who became the Biblical characters, more or less, and how they might have lived. It is based on the function of a family unit in pre-monarchical Israel. Meyers really stresses how hard life was at that time, what types of work were necessary, and how women’s, men’s, and children’s work differed. I really enjoyed this text, primarily because it gave me a new outlook on how “women’s work” fits into a larger picture. She described women’s work as highly technical and showing a significant amount of expertise, that was different to that of men’s work. Women’s work produced things and men’s work produced quantities. Meyers brought up a point that I would not have thought of otherwise, and that is the women’s tasks of preserving food required precise chemical and technical processes. These things were passed from mother to daughter, but these skills were transferable from land to land, which meant that women’s skills could move from family to family. Men’s skills, on the other hand, required a knowledge of sensibility about the land, its weather patterns and those types of things. His knowledge was not as transferable, so he could not move easily. Meyers does a lot of inferring, which can be a little iffy at times, but I don’t think she’s entirely wrong in her direction. The most interesting thing about her argument, I thought, was the potential for taking it further. She really makes a legitimate argument that there was a women’s intellectual culture that came with women’s skills and the passing on of such skills, but she doesn’t spell it out in exactly that way. Primarily she made me look at family life and family survival in a new light and gave me a lot of interesting new ways to conceive of women’s roles in the Biblical culture–which, as you of course know, I can’t get enough of.

Article: Herbert Brichto, “Kin, Cult, and the Afterlife–A Biblical Complex”, 1973.

I’m assuming that this article is a building block for Biblical scholarship, because otherwise I can’t figure out why we would read something from 1973. I was not terribly impressed with Brichto, primarily because I think he misread a pair of texts for his own purpose. His goal is to prove the relationship between kin, cult, and afterlife, with the primary point that the ancient Israelites did indeed believe in an afterlife, and that they took significant actions to assure soul’s safety in such afterlife. One of his proofs for this are the stories of Levirate marriage pertaining to Tamar in Genesis and Ruth. Levirate marriage is when a husband dies with no children. The wife, then, must marry his brother and produce someone to carry on his name. Brichto argues that the emphasis on this means that the Israelites believed that the dead husband was existing uncomfortably in Sheol, and until he had a son, he would not rest appropriately. This somewhat mirrors Chinese ancestor worship, but Brichto doesn’t mention it, nor does he mention the fact that in the Chinese circles, unhappy ancestors tended to bother the living–which does not happen in the Biblical materials. The dead husband had to achieve immortality through the continuing of a line.

My disappointment in this text was Brichto’s refusal to see the Tamar and Ruth stories as character narratives. These stories have two powerful women at their core who single-handedly save the line of their dead husbands. However, these are not just any dead husbands–these are links in a chain between Israel and David. Brichto completely misses this, and completely ignores the fact that Ruth is a later composition. I wrote my final paper criticizing this article, because I believe Brichto read his own intentions into the stories. He didn’t consider what the purpose might be for telling stories about mothers in this very important line. So I was irked.

Philip King and Lawrence Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 2001.

This book was worth it for the pictures, I have to admit. This is a text all about archeological finds and what they may mean about the religion and culture of Biblical Israel. It’s a hardcover text with glossy pages full of pictures of artifacts, excavation sites, drawings and maps. It’s a great text to buy and keep just for fun. The portion we read for class was on religious institutions and objects. Even though the information was really interesting, the way that they articulate it was kind of dry. I had a hard time focusing on all the fascinating material in the text, which was kind of a bummer. There’s lots of good information on statues, temple decorations, temple styles, and religious practices such as sacrifices, burial rituals, and mourning. It’s an interesting look on the physical aspects of ancient religion, which helps you to understand the smells and sounds and beauty of what ancient religion could be.

Gary Anderson, Sin: A History, 2009.

This is the last and most recent text that we read for the course. In it, Gary Anderson, a current professor at Notre Dame, discusses what happened to the concept of “sin” when the word made the transition from ancient Hebrew to Aramaic. His argument is that the linguistic shift put an economic metaphor into the concept of sin. From that linguistic shift came a whole system that changed the idea of sin as a physical burden into an idea of debt. This translated into early Christianity and then went even farther, becoming a principle idea for church of the Middle Ages. Anderson finishes with a discussion of St. Anselm.

What I found most interesting about this book is one of the statements that Anderson makes at the very beginning: that Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and many educated Hebrews were thus using it in the Second Temple period. I imagine that this has lots of sociological implications for portions of the Bible that switch between Hebrew and Aramaic, and it raises a whole series of questions about the significance of using “the language of power”. And, if the transition changed the word “sin” so drastically, how might it have changed other words? A fascinating read for sure.

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