Philip F. Esler, ed. Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in its Social Context
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006). Pp. xvii + 420. Cloth, US$35.00, CAN$54.50. ISBN 0-8006-3767-4.
Reviewed by Patricia Dutcher-Walls
Vancouver School of Theology

This volume is a collection of papers presented at the St. Andrews Conference on Old Testament Interpretation and the Social Sciences in 2004, along with two introductory chapters. Within the wide range of authors, topics, and biblical texts reflected in the collection, the common thread is an application of social scientific models and perspectives to the interpretation of the Old Testament. The two introductory essays accomplish respectively a general defense of the use of social scientific models in biblical research and an excellent brief survey that reviews three periods in the history of such interpretation and the major practitioners in each period. These two essays ably set the context for the papers that follow in the volume. The papers are then arranged in three sections: “Themes,” which covers broad social scientific topics such as “tribalism” and “wealth;” “Texts,” in which the papers focus on particular books or passages using social scientific approaches; and “Hermeneutics,” which raises questions of interpretive issues in the use of such methods.

The seven papers in the “Themes” section explore aspects of their named topics and do not attempt a definitive characterization. Some of the essays, however, succeed in giving a needed broad or fresh discussion of the topic. For example, “Tribalism” by Coote offers an excellent discussion of the possible definition and limits of the concept using anthropological and sociological perspectives. “Polygyny” by Leeb uses cultural anthropology in the study of polygyny in rural Haiti to clarify possible meanings of these types of social relations in ancient Israel. Other essays in the section critique or extend social scientific models currently in use in biblical studies. Grabbe on “Prophecy” uses a study of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith to suggest broadening the possible prophetic models used to understand the phenomena. Neufeld examines how trance/ecstasy studies help understand women’s strategic behaviours in his essay on “Barrenness.” Destro and Pesce study “Sacrifice” in an essay that could make clearer its use of social scientific methods. Crook on “Reciprocity” critiques the use of client-patron model in favour of a “covenant exchange” model that better fits the types of reciprocity and exchange in the Hebrew Bible—a refinement in the model that could apply helpfully to the very next article in the section, on “Wealth” by Stansell.

Each of the eight papers in “Texts” articulates a particular model drawn from the social sciences that is then used to read a particular text or book. In this section, the wide range of sociological and anthropological models currently used by biblical scholars is evident, as are the range of insights and analyses possible when appropriate models are used, and the range of texts that have come under scholarly study. In some cases, such a method clarifies the results of other critical methods, as when Chaney on Micah 6 uses social dynamics models to unravel text critical questions and reveal repeated paronomasia; or Hagedorn uses ethnicity theory to read the redactional layers in Nahum; or Aguilar uses the anthropology of warfare to complement the theological reading of war in 1 Maccabees; or Elliott uses cross-cultural sociolinguistic studies of euphemism to understand a particular law in Deuteronomy. In other cases, the use of social science models re-reads well-studied texts to reveal new insights, as when Esler reads 2 Samuel 10–12 using anthropological studies of challenge/response and patron/client or Pilch reads Ezekiel 1–3 through the lens of “altered states of consciousness” examined by cultural anthropology and cognitive neuroscience. Some papers employ social scientific models to produce valuable new readings of texts. DeMaris and Leeb read the Jephthah story through the lens of ritual theory and honour/shame culture to demonstrate how its otherwise disturbing outcome can be a socially integrative result in its context. Jokiranta uses social identity theory to suggest that the “teacher of righteousness” in the Qumran pesharim might be understood not as a historical or unique individual but as a figure who functions as a prototypical group member.

The last and smallest section, “Hermeneutics,” contains three papers that variously consider more general hermeneutical impacts of the use of social sciences in biblical studies. Oakman’s paper on “Biblical Hermeneutics” suggests that social science models of cultural development provide generative analyses of contemporary interpretive stances, from fundamentalist to critically reflective, and possibilities for informed discussion about biblical theology. Malina uses information about the New Testament social world to critique the anachronistic use of group identity labels in a Vatican document in “Interfaith Dialogue.” And Mayes investigates the impact of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism to give insight into the shaping of tradition within groups from archaic memory.

The papers in this volume, taken together, present a portrayal of the lively use of social science methodologies in Hebrew Bible studies today. However, the overall impact of the volume is signaled in the title of the final section—the impact for hermeneutics. This book asks us to consider the differences for biblical interpretation demanded by the fundamental recognition created through the use of social science methods, i.e., the recognition that the Hebrew Bible emerged from, was shaped by and in turn shaped its particular ancient social contexts and that those ancient social contexts are radically different from the contexts of interpreters today.