Review of E. Ballhorn, Israel am Jordan

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Ballhorn, Egbert, Israel am Jordan: Narrative Topographie im Buch Josua (BBB, 162; Bonn: Bonn University Press im Verlag Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011). Pp. 520. Hardback. €64.90. ISBN 978-3-89971-806-5.

This book is a close reading of Joshua focusing on the aspect of “narrated space.” After the presentation of the book's layout (“Introduction,” pp. 13–21) and a digression into “historiography within cultural science” (pp. 23–71), the author diligently explains his concept of space and narrated space, culminating in Foucault's construct of “heterotopy.” If I understand it correctly—one is never so sure when it comes to Foucault—this is some sort of a “sacramental” interpretation of space. For example, a church has geographical coordinates that can be read from any GPS; it is, as architecture, part of a material cityscape; and, at the same time, a location in which God is present—a spatial feature not indicated by the GPS. Ballhorn briefly discusses concepts of space (like the opposition of center and periphery), which he does not use in his analysis (“From Historiography to Topography: ‘Spatial Turn,’” pp. 73–134). Thus prepared, he (and his readership) embark on a journey through the “narrated space” (or “the space of narration,” created by the narrative) of Josh 1–21 (pp. 135–346). The reading is holistic, a very necessary antidote to the redaction-critical tradition in Joshua (or rather, “Former Prophets”) studies, but never harmonistic. Ballhorn is very sensitive to the plurality of views and voices to be encountered in Joshua, and he highlights the “subversive” contradictions (e.g., Josh 2 and 9) to the proclamation of “all the land” becoming “all Israelite” (Josh 10:40–42; 11:16; 21:43–45). The fifth and central chapter focuses on Josh 22, “Israel at the Jordan” (“at the Jordan again,” the reviewer would like to add; pp. 347–472), including a section on Josh 23–24. The conclusion (“Israel's Land as a Space for Torah,” pp. 473–97) is well prepared by the preceding chapters. The progression of Ballhorn's argument is careful and slow, also slowing down the reader to a pace that is much more appropriate to ancient Hebrew scripture than the hasty perusal for “content.” The slower one moves, the more one sees. Alois Musil, who moved through Transjordan on camel back, saw the landscape in more detail than Nelson Glueck, who moved by car. This is also the case for reading, so some repetition is welcome to accustom the audience to the new point of view, and new art of viewing.

Joshua transforms the real land of Canaan into a “landscape of memory” constituted by “places of memories” that are produced by the narrative implementation of Torah. The “land” is only half the focus of Joshua, the other half is Torah, or the interpretation and application of Torah; it is amazing how Ballhorn brings the two together. From beginning to end, the author argues on a very sophisticated theological level, which, of course, is a challenge rather than a turn off for the theologically-engaged reader. The language is unpretentious. As far as I am informed, Ballhorn is the first to point out with equal precision how decentralized Israel in the book of Joshua appears; probably because the usual reader (and commentator) likes (or would like) to jump from Josh 12, if not 11, to Josh 22, if not 24. Ballhorn's observation links Joshua in quite an unexpected manner to Judges and hones the reader's sensibility to the basic difference between Joshua and Judges: Joshua “inculturates” the Torah into the memory of the land; Judges presents a land that had expelled or forgotten Torah.

Contrary to the assertion on p. 374, I do not think that Josh 22:1 is consecutive to Josh 21:43; the narrative sequence is broken by ʾaz yiqtol (long form) at the beginning of 22:1. It is of course true that Josh 21:43 necessitates Josh 22 insofar as the Transjordanian tribes cannot return to their eastern possessions unless formally dismissed from the duty imposed on them by Moses in Num 32. Thus, Josh 22:1 is an example of non-linear narrative, jumping back in narrated time to Josh 21:42: with the distribution of the Levitical cities, the conquest of the land is now really, verily, totally completed, and the Transjordanians may go.

If I have any problems with this splendid book, it is Ballhorn's use of the term and concept of “historiography.” He is well aware of the “mythical elements” in “biblical historiography,” but it takes him a while to concede that “biblical historiography” is not identical with “secular historiography” (p. 47; as if, in the secular world of the 21st century c.e. inhabited by all academic disciplines there were another option available). “History,” which serves as the foundation of “the future” (p. 442; the physical present is pregnant with a very high number of possible futures, of which only one will be realized), or “history, which is fundamental for obligations that shape the present,” (p. 460) is myth, and there is nothing bad about myth in religion: without myth (and song), religion would be speechless (as it actually is in large parts of Europe, where religion has long since been replaced by theology). The interpretation of Torah and Former Prophets as “historiography” is based on an Hellenistic misunderstanding (already implicit in Chronicles) and inherited by Christianity. We would do well to learn from midrash that Abraham could meet Nebuchadnezzar, because in the mythical world all figures are potentially contemporary. This is not to deny that some sources from Samuel–Kings did qualify as (ancient Near Eastern) historiography, but the prophetic books Samuel and Kings do not.[1]

The bibliography is somewhat Eurocentric. At several points, various articles by Nadav Na'aman would have been helpful, and M. Halbwachs[2] would have deserved more consideration than his German popularizer, if not vulgarizer, J. Assmann.

Notwithstanding these and other minor details, this is the best book on Joshua that I have read so far. It is a prime example of sober and decent narratological analysis; it shows ways of “doing theology with the Bible” beyond unfounded historicism on the one hand and unlimited religious subjectivism on the other; and it should prove seminal for studies of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and perhaps Judges in the same vein.[3] Egbert Ballhorn did an excellent job “mapping” the narrative space of Joshua, helping and inviting future travelers to that region. I am deeply impressed.

Ernst Axel Knauf, University of Bern

[1] The aspect of “myth in Joshua” (and in theology) is well treated by D.S. Earl, Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010), 14–48.reference

[2] La Topographie légendaire des évangiles en terre sainte. étude de mémoire collective (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1941); in German Stätten der Verkündigung im Heiligen Land (trans. S. Egger; Edition discours 21; Konstanz: UvK, 2003).reference

[3] On Deuteronomy there is now Michaela Geiger, Gottesräume. Die literarische und theologische Konzeption von Raum im Deuteronomium (BWANT 183; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2010)reference