Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review
With this volume Halpern joins other eminent scholars, such as Hans Barstad, Hugh Williamson, Patrick Miller, and Bernard Levinson, in publishing a collection of previous published essays in the first series of Forschungen zum Alten Testament. Altogether there are twelve essays published between 1981 and 2007, each provided with a brief vignette placing the essay in a personal and intellectual context. With the exception of one of the earliest studies on Judg 45, these essays concern the social, cultural, and intellectual changes associated with the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e. in ancient Israel. The significant intellectual and cultural shifts that take place in this period of Israel's history inspires the title for Halpern's volume, From Gods to God, a broad theme around which the essays fit with greater or lesser ease.
1. Synopses of the Essays in Halpern's Volume
The first section of the book is entitled The Rejection of Tradition and contains four essays. Appropriately, given the title of the book, the first essay is Halpern's well-known discussion of Israelite monotheism: Brisker Pipes than Poetry: The Development of Israelite Monotheism (pp. 1356). Taking his cue from Kaufmann, Halpern argues for both more careful thinking about what we mean by monotheism and for the relatively early existence of monotheistic thought and practice in Israel. Virtually no major component of Israel's later monotheism is absent from the cult at the turn of the millennium, with the introduction of the kingship (p. 31). Divine beings are to be found in Yhwh's suite, but there is no cosmogonic conflict, and Yhwh is already perceived as the universal deity (Halpern rightly critiques the tendency to contrast particularism and universalism). Such monotheism is neither self-conscious nor radical. Halpern traces how this inchoate monotheism became self-conscious and radical in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah. Overall, Halpern provides a much more nuanced and careful restatement of Kaufmann's views, losing some of Kaufmann's more questionable assertions, whilst preserving many of his insights. Towards the end of the essay Halpern combines this neo-Kaufmannian take on Israelite history with Jasper's account of the so-called Axial Age. In Xenophanes we also find a Spinozian monotheism together with a strong critique of anthropomorphism and symbolic representation of the divine. Here and in Israel we find a step towards the theoretical empiricism of scientific thought and the progressiveness of Western thought.
The second essay, The Baal (and the Asherah) in 7th Century Judah: Yhwh's Retainers Retired (pp. 5797), is closely related to the first. Halpern provides a rich description of the cults of Baal, Asherah, and the host of heaven in late monarchic Judah drawing upon textual and archaeological sources. As part of this analysis Halpern examines the occurrence of baal and asherah in the biblical text. Although modern readers tend to discern here individual deities, in contrast to the one true God Yhwh, a careful examination reveals that the Baal is a collective and Yhwh himself was often called Baal. Later monotheism arose not from the rejection of alien deities, but by the rejection of the gods of traditional culture.
The third essay, Yhwh the Revolutionary: Reflections on the Rhetoric of Redistribution in the Social Context of Dawning Monotheism (pp. 98131), begins with a critique of attempts to find a redistributive socialism within the pages of the Bible. In questioning this once popular paradigm for early Israel and the prophets, Halpern holds to almost an opposite extreme by arguing that we find instead a reinforcing and even sanctifying [of] the status quo (104). The divine exaltation of the humble is most frequently deployed with respect to the Israelite king. The prophets critique the state, but support it in doing so. They are, as Talmon puts it, steam valves for the state. The second half of the essay, somewhat loosely attached to the first half, is an extended reflection of how the rhetoric of monotheism shares the same dynamic. It is the theological reflex of the social critique. Monotheism as Israel understood it entails the affirmation of one's own moral responsibility under the one God. But the logical consequence of the demise of the gods in monotheistic rhetoric is the death of all deities and humans' standing upright in their moral adulthood. Job and Qoheleth become the ancient equivalents of the Enlightenment's atheists.
The fourth essay, The False Torah of Jeremiah 8 in the Context of 7th Century BCE Pseudepigraphy: The First Documented Rejection of Tradition (pp. 13241), understands the falsification of the law in Jer 8:8 as a reference to child sacrifice, a thought that would parallel Ezek 20:2526. The law that Ezekiel and Jeremiah reject is the complex JE, with its stories about the near sacrifice of Isaac and the death of the firstborn, and its laws about devotion of the firstborn (e.g. Exod 34:19). As the old tradition is rejected, it is replaced with a new tradition: the writings of Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomistic History, and the Priestly material.
The second section is entitled Cultural Transformations and Composition, a rather broad title that incorporates some of Halpern's early studies which, especially in the essays on Judg 45 and Exod 1415, but also on the Deuteronomistic Kings, reflect his graduate education at Harvard under Frank Moore Cross. Most of these essays touch upon the question of how the biblical historiographers employed their sources. The first essay in this section, The Resourceful Israelite Historian: The Song of Deborah and Israelite Historiography (pp. 14566), is an exploration of the issues of prose and poetry in Judg 45 in which Halpern argues that the prose is an interpretation of the poetry. He explores the differences between the two chapters, such as the number of tribes and the account of Sisera's death, to see how the poem was interpreted. That the prose historian misconstrued his source is certain, particularly in reifying its metaphors, but he also sought to stay close to it, even as he added details and plugged narrative gaps.
The following essay, Doctrine by Misadventure: Between the Israelite Source and the Biblical Historian (pp. 167201), broadens out some of the reflections on inner-biblical interpretation that Halpern entertains in his discussion of Judg 45. This is done by first rehearsing his understanding of Judg 45 and then applying the same basic strategy to the Song of the Sea (Exod 15) and its narrative interpretation. The central issue that Halpern identifies is the problem of reification: the essence of the problem remains reification, the semantic depletion of metaphor, or the wilful or ignorant appeal to texts that do not mean what the interpreter means to have meant (p. 184). In this way Halpern wrestles with a shift from event to text, and the problem of literalism. In later biblical texts, such as P, we find a concern about the literal reading of earlier texts (just as we find amongst some Greek philosophers). Metaphor and anthropomorphism are avoided, the literal triumphs, and there is a preference for the reality over the symbol. As can be seen in other essays, this is the first wrestling with what has been a perennial concern for Halpern.
The earliest essay in the volume, Sacred History and Ideology: Chronicles' Thematic Structure: Indications of an Earlier Source (pp. 20227), makes a case that at certain points, most notably the Solomon material, Kings and Chronicles draw on a common source. The source that Halpern identifies was pro-Solomon and affirmed the eternal grant of the northern tribes to the Davidic dynasty. Further, Halpern argues that the source can be ascribed to someone working during the reign of Hezekiah. This is suggested by allusions to Hezekiah in the source material and by a shift in Chronicles' concerns after Hezekiah.
The following essay, The Editions of Kings in the 7th6th Century BCE (pp. 22896), co-authored with David Vanderhooft, belongs to the same scholarly tradition. In this case both authors present a clear, comprehensive analysis of the regnal accounts in the book of Kings. On the basis of this they argue for three editions in the ages of Hezekiah, Josiah, and in the exile. The case for three successive versions of the Deuteronomistic History is confirmed by additional investigations into accounts of assassinations, supplementary notes to the kings' reign, source citations, and the prophecy of Huldah. The essay ends by locating the three versions of the Deuteronomistic History in their social and cultural environment.
The final essay in this section, Why Manasseh is Blamed for the Babylonian Exile: The Evolution of a Biblical Tradition (pp. 297335), works with the differences between Chronicles and Kings in their portrayal of Manasseh. In Chronicles Manasseh's sin is part of an accumulated profanation of land and temple (cf. 2 Kgs 21:25), whilst in the exilic version of the book of Kings, Manasseh is the villain of the piece. His actions cause not only the exile, but also the death of Josiah. According to Halpern, Huldah's prophecy that Josiah would die in peace is reinterpreted by the exilic Deuteronomist as death by one with whom he was at peace (i.e. Necho). Again, then, Halpern provides us with a sophisticated account of the composition of biblical books and the re-interpretation of earlier texts.
The third section of the book is entitled The State's Rejection of Religion: Revolution and Reformation, and whilst it contains only one essay, this essay is the longest in the book and one of the most significant. Jerusalem and the Lineages in the 7th century BCE: Kinship and the Rise of Individual Moral Liability (pp. 339424) is an impressive attempt to trace the social and religious changes that resulted from Hezekiah's failed rebellion against Sennacherib. Halpern gives a richly documented account of Hezekiah's policy of hedgehog defence in which he holed himself up in Jerusalem surrounded by a defensive network of fortified towns. The massive preparations included the forced urbanization of the countryside. This strategic necessity was, in part, justified by an appropriation of the prophetic polemic against the rural cult. Thus, there was a Hezekian reform in which centralization was a crucial factor, but the stimulus was preparation for revolt against the Assyrians. Hezekiah's preparations shattered the old clan structures that had provided the locus of rural authority, judicial administration, and ancestral devotion. After the Assyrian invasion of 701 b.c.e. a bloated Jerusalem was no more than a rump state, its former territories taken over by the Philistines, Edomites, and others. In Manasseh's reign a repopulation was undertaken, but this continued to break down traditional familial loyalties, since the resettlement was undertaken by pioneer groups. Under Josiah the centralizing tendency was taken to a new extreme with all priests herded into Jerusalem and the rural cult, which had been re-established under Manasseh, destroyed.
The essay maps an enormous social transition that saw traditional loyalties broken up and a new sense of loyalty created between the individual and the state. The state's relations with the nuclear family, and more specifically with its adult male heads were direct, now, unmediatedprecisely individual (p. 410). The effects of this individualization become a springboard for Halpern's broader reflections on the social and intellectual developments within Judah and their relation to the Western religious tradition. The social shifts necessarily change perceptions of the interaction with the divine realm. Communal responsibility breaks down and is replaced with individual accountability, so Jeremiah and Ezekiel (In time, this shift will prove problematic as the lack of coordination between individual piety and divine blessing becomes clear, as seen in Job. In this way we find ourselves on the way to an idea of future reward). Alongside this individualization, or different kind of socialization relating the individual to the state, we find a shift from traditional culture to a literate culture. This brought with it a literalistic mentality that distinguished reality from representation: purity from ritual, deity from icon, the one true god from secondary intermediary deities. In these shifts Halpern finds the most suggestive parallel to be the kinds of intellectual and social shifts that took place during and after the Protestant reformation.
The fourth section is entitled The Dynamics of Cosmological Thought in Iron Age Societies and consists of two essays devoted to Israelite perceptions of the celestial world. In the first essay, The Assyrian Astronomy of Genesis 1 and the Birth of Milesian Philosophy (pp. 42742), Halpern argues that in P's creation account the sun, moon, and stars are apertures in the heavenly plates which allow the light above to shine on the earth. The view of the heavens is very similar to what we find in Anaximander of Miletus, where the sun, moon, and stars are holes in giant rotating wheels. These views represent a revolution in cosmological understandings that first arose in seventh-century Assyria. In Israel it produced a revolutionary understanding of the world, which was gradually disenchanted (the stars no longer deities that spent half their time in the underworld and half their time in the heavens), moving towards a regular, Newtonian universe. Ironically, despite Assyrian midwifery, Mesopotamia did not move towards the scientific and monotheistic worldviews that developed in the West (a Jasperian insight).
The second essay, Late Israelite Astronomies and the Early Greeks (pp. 44380), continues these reflections, but focuses rather more strongly on the impact these cosmological revolutions had on the perception of the afterlife. The stars no longer revolve under the earth and there is, consequently, no underworld or post-mortem existence. This shift in the understanding of the cosmos at the end of the seventh century is reflected in Josiah's defilement of tombs and the transformation of the Rephaim from ancient ancestors into the autochthonous inhabitants of the land.
2. Appreciation and Criticism
Taken as a whole this is an impressive set of detailed studies written with verve, wit, and erudition. Halpern's studies are like a master class in a number of fieldstextual study, history of Israelite religion, ancient Semitics, archaeology, Near Eastern studiesall in the service of a better understanding of the biblical texts, and perhaps more importantly, the history that birthed them. Halpern's ability to master such diverse fields and present them in a compelling synthesis is truly remarkable. In his own distinctively iconoclastic manner Halpern is a challenge to so-called minimalist accounts of Israelite history, providing a richly textured social and political context for a Hezekian and Josianic reformation. Any engagement with Judah in the 8th and 7th centuries b.c.e. must wrestle with Halpern's reconstruction of the history of this period.
Nevertheless, I am very uncomfortable with the larger approach that Halpern takes to Israelite monotheism, an approach broached in a number of essays (esp. 1, 3, 6, 10, 11, and 12) and articulated in the book's title and in the vignettes as the volume's metanarrative. Here, Halpern's work is strongly informed by Karl Jaspers' identification of the 9th to 3rd centuries as the Axial Age, combined with a teleological view of Western civilization. This is neatly summarized on the dust jacket:
An explosion of international commerce and exchange, which can be understood as a renaissance, led to the redefinition of selfhood in various cultures and to reformation. The process inevitably precipitated an enlightenment. This has happened over and over in human history and in academic or cultural fields. It is the basis of modernization, or Westernization, wherever it occurs, and whatever form it takes.
In particular, Halpern is concerned with the reformation element of his threefold typology. Here we have the rejection of tradition and the critique of symbols and the things they symbolize (Sprachkritik). This is essential for establishing a new take on reality, one that leads us whether in the 7th century b.c.e. or the 16th century c.e. to a more scientific and modern view of the world.
I will make my criticisms in two parts: first, I will give some general criticisms of Halpern's metanarrative; second, I will make some more specific criticisms about his use of Jaspers' Axial Age and problems with some of his particular interpretations of biblical texts.
2.1 Halpern's Metanarrative
Let me turn, first, to the general criticisms of Halpern's metanarrative. First, as with all metanarratives Halpern's represents a take on history and culture which is by no means self-evident to those who do not share it. In addition, this particular modernist metanarrative has increasingly been placed under searching critique, even and perhaps especially from those who once operated within it, broadly characterized as postmodernism. This is not the place to explore those critiques or their cogency; Halpern is widely read and can be assumed to be familiar with them, only to note that it is less common these days to find such strident expressions of this metanarrative as that offered by Halpern. He appears particularly vulnerable to the charge laid against Jaspers by O. Köhler that he is writing a secularized Heilsgeschichte. With his apparently uncritical lionizing of Westernization, though, Halpern does not seem to share Jaspers' concern to recognize the advances made by a variety of cultures outside of Western Europe and North America.
Second, it is difficult to see how Halpern's deployment of his metanarrative exhibits his concern as a historian to understand the ancients in their own terms, and his scepticism of studies with more transparent contemporary applications (p. 99). In my view, one of the most penetrating critiques of modernism has been its failure to come to terms with its own subjectivity. This means amongst other things that modernism did not perceive the extent to which its unprejudiced accounts of the past entail justifications of the present political and religious order.
Third, a constant theme within the book is a comparison between the cultural and intellectual shifts that took place across modern Europe from the 15th to 18th centuries and what took place in ancient Israel. On the one hand, this gives a great deal of colour to Halpern's writingJosiah's iconoclasm is of Cromwellian scope (p. 411); Jeremiah is the Luther of his day (p. 48); Hezekiah's garrisons are his New Model Army (p. 357). On the other hand, there is more to this than suggestive historical comparison, for it all serves to suggest that there is an essential historical continuity between the revolution in biblical thought and the events of the Reformation and Enlightenment. This convenient shunting of the intervening period, especially the Middle Ages, into the sidings begs many questions. There is, of course, no question that Western Europe was heir to the Bible, but Halpern vastly foreshortens the genealogy. Thus, when Halpern writes that the denial of significance to the stars, from Deuteronomy and Jeremiah and P on down, begot a cosmos that was Newtonian, regular, susceptible to scientific understanding (p. 441), there is a great deal being smuggled in under the words on down. I can claim no competence in the intellectual history of the modern period, but from what reading I have done it is clear that the cultural and intellectual shifts in this period were hard won and long in the making, requiring an intellectual exchange across numerous cultures in Europe that could only be achieved with improved transportation, mass printing, and the stimulus provided by the discovery of the wider world. Any comparison to the ancient world can be only heuristic and very limited.
Closely related, the problems of reading back our world and concerns into ancient Israel are well known, and it is surprising to see Halpern making such moves without critical reflection. Thus, the prophets are consistently portrayed as people who broke with tradition; they parallel the Reformers in Halpern's typology. Yet, as has often been observed since the middle part of the twentieth century, the portrayal of the prophets as radial innovators must not be overdone. They saw themselves as heirs of Israelite tradition and defenders of it, even if their reformulations of it might appear in hindsight to be significant breaks with the past. The lack of nuance in Halpern's portrayal is most especially apparent when he views the prophets as anti-ritual. Amos, we are told, assails ritual (p. 40); ritual and personal piety are contrasted (p. 427); Jeremiah accuses the Judahites of substituting ritual for real submission (p. 45); ritual is a symbol of submission not submission itself (p. 49). Thus, the opponents of the prophets are comparable to Catholics (pp. 2, 48, 53, 416), a line of argument that even a Protestant would now blush to repeat.
What Halpern sees anticipating the modern world in the Israelite prophets is the critique of symbol. Although the triumph of the literal can be problematic as it meets the symbolic in that it leads to many misunderstandings, the answer is to pursue radically the literal until the symbolic is excised. As an argument this seems to show a peculiar blindness to the continued life and application of symbols into the modern world. Even Halpern's triad, RenaissanceReformationEnlightenment, is itself a particular kind of symbolic system.
There is much that could be said about Halpern's modernist metanarrative, especially since it is so foregrounded in this book. Nevertheless, since our commitments to a particular metanarrative turn on a wide set of judgements on numerous subjects, it is necessary to set a limit to the comments made. Otherwise, we run the risk of discussing the matter at a level of abstraction that is rarely profitable for biblical studies. Consequently, I want now to turn to some more detailed criticisms of Halpern's use of the Axial Age and his interpretation of biblical texts. Rather than trying to address all the essays, I want to give particular attention to the last two on Israelite cosmology. They highlight the difficulties with an appeal to the Axial Age and also with some of Halpern's biblical interpretation.
2.2 Shifts in Biblical Cosmology according to Halpern
Halpern's argument in the last two essays is that we find in late monarchic thinkers evidence of a cosmology that can best be understood by comparison to Anaximander of Miletus. The stars are holes in the sky that revolve on huge wheels. The world is essentially disenchanted, with the gods identified as the starsnow mere holesand Yhwh seated above the firmament and no underworld below. This view of the world originates in shifts in Assyrian astronomy, but is developed in cultures at or beyond the periphery of the Mesopotamia empires. A number of critiques must be made about this proposal.
First, at various points the portrayal is synthetic. This is true on the level of the biblical texts, where Halpern combines texts from P, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah in order to piece together his cosmology. P provides us with the firmament, Ezekiel the vision the wheels, and Jeremiah the gods as broken cisterns. More problematic still, it is clear that the shape of the cosmology is provided by Anaximander's cosmology. In other words, without Anaximander's help it is difficult to imagine reading the biblical texts in this way.
Second, a number of particular expressions in the relevant texts are read in novel ways, and then made to endure more weight than they can bear in Halpern's interpretative construal. Thus, Jer 31:37 is understood to mean that the earth goes downwards infinitely and that consequently there is no underworld and no postmortem existence. Similarly, the broken cisterns of Jer 2:13 are taken to be the gods as starsholes in the heavens that allow water and light through onto the earth. It is not at all clear to me, or indeed to most other interpreters, that these verses mean what Halpern takes them to mean. Consequently, they become a rather brittle foundation for his larger interpretative edifice.
Third, the broad distribution of a common cosmology raises questions of how it was disseminated (a critique also raised against Jaspers' Axial Age). Halpern suggests that we have an international culture of deracinated elites and points to the trips of Greek intellectuals such as Hecateus and Herodotus to Egypt, and Ezekiel's captivity in Babylon. But, even overlooking some of the problems that classicists still discuss in relation to Hecateus and Herodotus in Egypt, these are quite different foreign adventures to Ezekiel's enforced captivity. In addition, Halpern holds that this international dialogue and its results were kept securely under wraps in the cultural centres of Mesopotamia (p. 443); we never see the developments towards science and monotheism that we find in Greece and Israel. This, of course, accords with Jaspers' suggestion that we find the key advances of the Axial Age taking place on the periphery of the cultural world, but absent at the center. More sceptically, though, this looks like an argument of the type heads I win, tails you lose. In other words, following Popper, how might this argument be falsified? Halpern can explain the presence and absence of this cosmology. Combine this with the tendency to synthetic portrayals and we find gaps in one place being plugged with textual evidence from another place. Altogether this means that Halpern's metanarrative of progress and Westernization can always find substantiation, for difficulties in one instance can be made good from elsewhere.
In these inspiring essays Halpern demonstrates the importance of close attention to the biblical text and the value of setting this in a broad historical context informed by the full gamut of historical disciplines. In his own way Halpern also demonstrates the seriousness with which our hermeneutical presuppositions, including our larger understandings of the world, need to be taken. Some of the importance of Halpern's work lies in its unambiguous utilization of a modernist metanarrative to structure and understand ancient evidence. In a rather stark manner Halpern demonstrates that historical study is always framed by certain pre-understandings. The answer is not to assume that we can jettison those, but rather to try as best we are able to keep them under searching critique.
The way in which Halpern has been strongly informed by the Enlightenment is an approach that I have sought to critique in a number of contexts. One way in which that paradigm tends to prove problematic is in exactly the sorts of contrasts with which Halpern's work operates. Symbol is contrasted to reality; cult is contrast to piety and ethics. These contrasts became powerful heuristic tools in the hands of Enlightenment thinkers as critiques of what had preceded. They do not make useful analytical tools, including for the period with which we are concerned. On this point a large measure of agreement could be secured, I think, between anthropologists, theologians, and religious scholars. One of the challenges facing scholars of the ancient world is that of finding better categories.
This critique of the larger framework that Halpern employs should not in any way diminish from the individual and combined achievement of this rich collection of essays. They ought to be widely read, and merit more than one reading: there are rich insights to be gained and much to be learned. If, as I believe, there are difficulties with Halpern's intellectual contextualizing, the challenge is not only to do that better, but also to do as well in the areas of historical reconstruction, where he has set the standard impressively high.
 These essays add additional color to what is already an engaging volume. My favourite is the introduction to the essay co-written with David Vanderhooft. Halpern relates how Vanderhooft's presence in our house coincided with that of two budgies, Martel and Bigfoot, the latter of whom died before he completed the MA (p. 228). One can only hope that York University awarded Bigfoot the Budgie his degree posthumously.
 These shifts are developed in a different manner by Mark Smith. Building on Halpern's analysis, he argues that the breakdown of traditional clan and family structures led to a shift in the portrayal of the divine world. The understanding of the divine world as a family (as in Ugarit) weakens, and we find a system in which individual deities correspond to individual people. A culture with a diminished lineage system, one less embedded in traditional familial patrimonies due to societal changes in the eighth through sixth centuries, might be more disposed both to hold to individual moral accountability for behavior and to see an individual deity accountable for the cosmos. [I view this individual accountability at the human and divine level as concomitant developments] Accordingly, later Israelite monotheism was denuded of the divine family, perhaps reflecting Israel's weakening family lineages and patrimonies (M. S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001], 164).
 O. Köhler, Das Bild der Menschheitsgeschichte bei Karl Jaspers, Saeculum 1 (1950), 47786 (483).
 N. MacDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism (FAT, II/1; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003); N. MacDonald, Whose Monotheism? Which Rationality? Reflections on Israelite Monotheism in Erhard Gerstenberger's Theologies in the Old Testament, R. P. Gordon and J. C. de Moor (eds.), The Old Testament in Its World (OTS, 52; Leiden: Brill, 2005), 15867.
 This review was undertaken as part of the Sofja-Kovalevskaja project on early Jewish monotheisms supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.