Ł. Niesiołowski-Spanò, Origin Myths and Holy Places in the Old Testament: A Study of Aetiological Narratives

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Niesiołowski-Spanò, Łukasz, Origin Myths and Holy Places in the Old Testament: A Study of Aetiological Narratives (Translated by Jacek Laskowski; Copenhagen International Seminar; London & Oakville: Equinox, 2011). Pp. xii + 299. US $95.00. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1-845-53334-2.

This study of aetiologies in the Hebrew Bible focuses on the mythic elements in these texts, the probable date of their inclusion in the Bible, and the circumstances which prompted their being written (pp. 1, 13–14). While noting the thorny issues involved in the study of myth in the Bible, Niesiołowski-Spanò's interest lies in the social function of these myths—namely, what role the stories of the naming of these holy places would have had in the society for which they were written (pp. 1–2). The author covers a variety of theoretical issues in his relatively brief introductory chapter, including the complex matter of defining myth in the Bible (pp. 2–3), the definition of the term “holy place” (p. 5), and issues involved with biblical historiography (pp. 7–11). Separate chapters then examine the aetiologies for Beer-sheba, Bethel, Dan, Hebron and Mamre, Ophrah, Shechem and Gilgal, as well as holy places beyond the Jordan (Galeed, Mahanaim, and Penuel). Each chapter lays out archaeological data for the site in question, surveys biblical references to the site, and then discusses the myth concerning the naming of the holy place.

Niesiołowski-Spanò's efforts are impressive on a number of fronts. His discussions of different holy places are densely packed with references to all parts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the ancient versions, Second Temple Jewish literature, archaeological finds, and ancient historians. The author spares himself no pains in searching for every possible tradition concerning a sacred site. Niesiołowski-Spanò's conclusions about these myths are, however, not always convincing, and one is left with the suspicion that he has not successfully achieved his aim of analyzing the social function of these myths with sufficient nuance. An example will help to flesh this out.

Concerning Beersheba (pp. 16–57), after summarizing the archaeological data and other biblical references (pp. 16–19), Niesiołowski-Spanò quotes Gen 21:22–33 and 26:23–33 in full. The similarity of the aetiologies suggests to the author that the stories are duplicates (p. 20); evidence from Genesis and Jubilees is taken to imply that the story of Beer-sheba was originally associated with Abraham, and only secondarily with Isaac (pp. 21–22). Furthermore, the presence of “YHWH El Olam” (Gen 21:33), “a name…which is alien to Yahwism,” suggests the “derivative” character of the alliance between Abimelech and Abraham (p. 22). Despite these issues, the author thinks the importance of the well is beyond dispute (p. 23). The names for the well in Josephus, the LXX, the Vulgate, and SP are laid out next (pp. 23–26). The author then examines the larger symbolic connotations of wells elsewhere in the OT, both as places of shelter and life in the desert (p. 27) and as openings to the underworld where sacrifices could be made to chthonic deities (pp. 27–32). While this second association may seem counter-intuitive, an impressive amount of data from the OT, the LXX, and archaeological sources is presented in its favor. The “chthonic and funeral symbolism” of the tamarisk tree in Gen 21:33 is then discussed (e.g., the burial of Saul's remains under this kind of tree in 1 Sam 31:13; pp. 33–37). Niesiołowski-Spanò proceeds to argue for links to a ritual for a chthonic deity in the animals used in the treaty between Abraham and Abimelech; this is because the sheep and cattle (21:27) were used in the ritual for making the covenant, while the lambs were apparently excluded from the ritual and used for a different purpose (p. 39). While lambs are used in a variety of ways in Leviticus and Numbers, Nathan's parable about the slaughtered lamb in 1 Sam 12:1–6 makes it “possible” that it is an echo of a sacrifice in which the lamb took the place of a human (pp. 41–42). The author suspects the lamb was offered “to the god whose presence was symbolized by the well—the gate of Sheol” (p. 43).

Niesiołowski-Spanò thus concludes that the “grave” connotations of the well “initiated the whole story about the beginnings of the holy place in Beer-sheba” (p. 43)—they are the original elements of this myth. The covenant with Abimelech is “of later provenance” (p. 43). But how much later? Understanding the claim of Beer-sheba as a holy place “to refer to the times when the town played some important role” (p. 55), the divided monarchy is a possibility. But this is rejected in favor of the Hasmonean period, during the time of “Judah's territorial expansion,” when “the land of the Jews stretched ‘from Dan to Beer-sheba’” (p. 56). The covenant between Abraham and Abimelech “could” mirror the desire of “the Jewish elites to make political alliances with the neighboring peoples” (p. 56). In other words, the aetiology as we now have it was introduced “in the second half of the second century B.C.E., for it was then that the territories of northern Negeb become of interest to the Jews of Judah and their vital interests demanded that they regulate relations with the subject people” (p. 56). The aetiology describes “the reality of the second century B.C.E. symbolically” (p. 57).

A number of questions come to mind concerning this argument. For instance, it is not clear to me that the two stories in Genesis about Beer-sheba are duplicates—such a conclusion necessitates importing foreign literary criteria, giving insufficient attention to the role of repetition and similarity in ancient Semitic texts. Niesiołowski-Spanò actually has some harsh words for the classical documentary hypothesis: without rejecting the presence of a variety of editorial layers to the Hebrew Bible, he describes it as “arbitrary” (p. 8). One cannot help but wonder, however, if his repetition of a familiar exegetical move from that tradition is any less arbitrary. In fact, since two of the key elements which the author focuses on—the lamb and the tamarisk—are absent from the putative “duplicate” story in Gen 26, giving more weight to the second Genesis text may have altered the results significantly. Why “YHWH El Olam,” in a book full of different names for the deity, is “alien” to Yahwism is also not clear to me. The penumbra of associations of wells and pits with the underworld is both interesting and valuable evidence—but in itself does not necessitate one to conclude that the well at Beer-sheba had this meaning. Why could it not have been understood as a place of life and nourishment? The chthonic connotations of sacrificial lambs are, furthermore, tenuous. Finally, Niesiołowski-Spanò draws a false inference in tying the religious significance of Beer-sheba to the times when the town “played some important role” (p. 55). There is no reason why a myth about a certain place must have developed when the town played a politically significant role. The two need not necessarily coincide.

Later chapters contain a similar wealth of detail, together with interesting and important discussions of various elements within aetiological myths. The larger conclusion toward which the author moves—that these stories originate from the turmoil of the Hasmonean period (or, at least, were edited then; pp. 250–52, 255, 262)—is, however, unconvincing. According to the author, such stories served “propaganda purposes” so that “traditions of competing centres were exploited as tools in political machinations” in the second century B.C.E. (p. 263). As one reads, it becomes clear that “analysis” of a myth in this book means separating stories which were “freely shaped… with little attention to fidelity to reality” (p. 11) from mythic elements in them which function in ways indistinguishable from pre-Israelite Palestinian religion. Whatever else one might make of this conclusion, it does not fit very well with the book's stated aim of examining the social function of these aetiologies. Niesiołowski-Spanò takes these stories to be thinly veiled, fictive allegories for political struggles. But surely this is only one possible way for myths to function in a larger society? Surely the social function of myth is subject to a wide variety of permutations? One supposes it is possible that fictions about figures important to Jewish religious consciousness (p. 253) could have wielded such great power that they were canonized and their fictive origin forgotten (despite the fact that this presumes a degree of credulity in ancient peoples I find hard to accept). But is it not equally possible that a myth (aetiological or otherwise) was recorded because it already had gripped the religious consciousness of a group? Perhaps more thorough study of the work of Malinowksi, the seminal figure in this kind of interpretation of myth, might have provided for a more nuanced discussion. (Is it insignificant that the archaic—and incorrect—distinction between myth and history is asserted on p. 243?) I appreciate the author's labors, and found some elements in its argumentation to be convincing; but the overall account of the origin and function of aetiologies in the Hebrew Bible is not handled well.

Eric Ortlund, Briercrest College and Seminary