Bernhard Lang, The Hebrew God: Portrait of an Ancient Deity.
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), x, 246 pp. ISBN 0-300-09025-0. $38.00
Reviewed by Brent A. Strawn
Emory University

Bernhard Lang, Professor of Old Testament and religious studies at the universities of St. Andrews and Paderborn, organizes his portrait of the Hebrew God under five images: the Lord of Wisdom, the Lord of War, the Lord of the Animals, the Lord of the Individual (the “personal God”), and the Lord of the Harvest. After an introduction, where he discusses this “new approach to the Hebrew God” (p. 1), Lang offers a chapter on each image. He concludes with an epilogue dealing with the origins of Yahwism, monotheism, and Christology, and two appendices: the first on “the names of the Hebrew God” (pp. 198–208) and the second, a brief overview of the ancient Near East ca. 3400–500 bce (pp. 209–215). The book is rounded out with an itemized bibliography and fullsome subject index.

Lang’s five-image schema is actually an expansion of an originally tripartite theory proposed by the anthropologist Georges Dumézil in several works on Indo-European civilizations. Dumézil applied his version—comprising only three “gifts” (wisdom, victory, and life)‚ as a heuristic tool to understand social, religious, and institutional aspects of the cultures he studied (Indians, Scandinavians, Germanic peoples, Greeks and Romans, etc.). But Dumézil himself only touched on Israel and the Hebrew Bible here and there in passing. Lang has therefore picked up where Dumézil left off, and, finding Dumézil’s portrait too limited for the Hebrew God, has expanded the third gift to include three divine roles: protector of wild animals and giver of productivity (Lord of Animals), giver of life and well-being to persons (Lord of the Individual), and provider of rain and abundance (Lord of the Harvest). Lang proceeds to unpack this typology by recourse to various type of data, but with methodological emphasis given to 1) the ancient Near Eastern context of Israelite thought and 2) anthropological theory (p. viii). As testimony to the latter, Indian religion and myth are frequently discussed (e.g., pp. 43–44).

Lang’s five-fold schema is a clear advance over Dumézil’s three-fold typology, which is slightly reductionistic. Of course, given the highly varied presentation of God in the Bible, one might well wonder if even a five-fold typology will prove flexible enough to accommodate this God’s portrait(s). Whatever the case, Lang’s special attention to the third function and especially his focused attention on the Lord of the Animals motif are important contributions to the field. Lang also proves himself savvy by appealing to a wide range of resources, including images (thirty-seven illustrations are included) as well as the full chronological gamut of texts. One will find, for instance, Etana cited in the same context as Sirach and Ezekiel the Tragedian, Adapa next to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (pp. 20–22), or even Mesopotamian traditions treated with reference to Plutarch and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (p. 128)!

The strengths of the book, then, lie clearly in its synthetic approach and its (Dumézil’s) system of categorization. This book covers much ground and a large amount of useful information is contained here. Still, syntheses can sometimes be insufficiently detailed and categorizations too inflexible. There is no doubt that certain readers will find this to be true for this book as well. Part of the difficulty in the present case seems to be the nature of the book’s genre. It is obviously meant by its publisher (not necessarily its author!) to be a popular volume. This is clear from the two appendices, especially the first one, which overviews divine names and epithets (see especially p. 209). The popular genre, however, does not fit with the level of detail and reconstruction found throughout the book, and in the bibliography and notes, which while trimmed down, still number ten pages in a double-column format. The problem with having a technical argument such as Lang’s forced into a popularized format is twofold: on the one hand, the genre prevents the author from fully documenting or arguing some of his more debatable points. As a correlate, the non-specialist reader is not made aware of the tenuous and/or speculative nature of several points made in the book. Two brief examples, one more significant than the other, must suffice:

First, Lang’s dating schema are sometimes idiosyncratic. Those familiar with his earlier work1 will not be surprised at his interpretation of Wisdom in Proverbs 1–9, nor his dating of this material to the 8th century, making it—in his view—possibly “the oldest extant piece of Hebrew literature” (p. 26; similarly pp. 214–215). Specialists will, however, expect arguments supporting such claims, especially given recent linguistic treatments.2 Similarly, lay readers should be made aware that there is at least some debate about points like these.

Second, at several points in the book—indeed, in both the wisdom and war functions—Lang argues for a type of initiation ritual that went on in ancient Israel (e.g., pp. 9–10, 15, 18–20, 24, 41). A ritual of enthronement is, of course, a well-known trope in the secondary literature, especially since Mowinckel, but its speculative nature is never admitted, nor is reference made to more recent scholarship that has raised doubts about such a ritual in Israel. This becomes still more problematic in the warrior initiation ritual that Lang propounds (pp. 53–54).

Let me be clear: Lang’s suggested reconstructions are not impossible; but further data, support, and argument are needed to convince. And, in my judgment, that holds true for both specialist and non-specialist readers alike. Nevertheless, despite these problems—which may have more to do with marketing strategies in large university presses than with the author himself—Lang has been able to cover a remarkable amount of ground in a short space, and he does so at a significant level of detail. Interested readers will benefit on both counts.

One final comment: at several points it struck this reader that Lang’s portrait of the Hebrew God actually had little to do with God in Scripture per se. While different functions of the Deity are mentioned, very little divine speech is referenced or even speech about the Deity as that is found in the Bible. Instead, the book is replete with discussions (and reconstructions) of Israelite ritual and practice, compositions and their tradition history, and so on and so forth. But in a book about Israel’s God it would seem that what Israel said God was like, what Israel said God said, what Israel said God did, and how Israel said God was or did these things would be quite important, if not preeminent. The fact that they are not so here may be a reminder that, as important as the methodological tools that Lang utilizes are, theology is ultimately not reducible to anthropology.


[1] Bernhard Lang, Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs: A Hebrew Goddess Redefined (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1986).

[2] See, e.g., Christine Roy Yoder, Wisdom as a Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 1–9 and 31:10–31 (BZAW 304; Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2001).