Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review
This volume by Nathaniel Levtow is a welcome addition to the discussion of the nature and role of aniconic ideology in ancient Israelite and Judean cultic traditions. While the primary focus might at a cursory glance seem to be the reading of icon parodies in exilic and early post-exilic texts, Levtow seeks to understand the social and cultural realities which underlie and are in turn transformed and shaped by these satires. In his analysis of this material, he draws together well-attested and clearly-understood textual and iconographic motifs from Israelite and ancient West Asian traditions to provide fresh insights into the icon parodies as well as setting these pieces into a broader contextual grid. While the analysis of the icon parodies is helpful, the argument Levtow develops on the basis of a reconsideration of these texts concerning iconic politics is the heart of the analysis and is most definitely worth consideration.
In his introductory remarks Levtow argues that, ironically, the icon parodies drew on the power of cult images as symbols of the deity to convey their message. Developing the argument that icon parodies constitute political acts of power due to the inseparable nature of ritual and politics in ancient West Asia, he describes the icon parodies themselves as textual representations of ritual (51). As such, these texts serve to undermine the iconic cults so closely associated with Babylonian royal and religious institutions. By claiming that Babylonian cult images were dead and powerless, these Israelite authors delegitimized for their audience the mythic traditions, social power relations, and roles of practical mastery that were actualized by Babylonian iconic cult. By claiming that Yahweh was the only living and powerful deity, they simultaneously legitimized the social formations configured through their vision of Yahwistic cult (32).
After introducing the reader to this essential argument, Levtow's next task is a close reading of the primary biblical texts ridiculing cult statues. He describes Jer 10:1–16 as weaving together two originally distinct literary strands, a hymn and an icon parody, and he understands this section to be in part or in its entirety an addition to Jeremiah from the exilic or early post-exilic period. Next, Levtow turns to the icon parodies in Second Isaiah and views these as deriving from the same exilic context and as sharing a basic approach to the crisis of loss and the means of constructing a new identity. Isaiah 44:9–20 is chosen for thorough examination as the most complete and detailed of these icon parodies which Levtow views as insertions into the text of Second Isaiah. Finally, he considers Psalms 115 and 135 which, like the Jeremiah text, combine Yahwistic hymns with icon parodies.
Having scrutinized these biblical exemplars, the final section of the chapter, Israelite Icon Parodies, draws together the observations from and analysis of these texts to review their function in redefining the social and cultural roles of the exiled community. Rather than merely serving as passive denouncements and ridicule of Mesopotamian power and practice, these works imagine a renewed place and purpose for the exiles. As such, Levtow argues, the iconic parodies served a powerful political function, declaring the enthronement of Yahweh above all other deities, and redrawing the lines of victory and power in the political events of deportation and exile.
Turning to Mesopotamian traditions, Levtow reviews the mīs pî (washing of the mouth) and pīt pî (opening of the mouth) rituals to describe the ideology of iconic ritual, before turning to an overview of the significant role played by the capture and defacing, as well as the restoration and sponsorship of divine and royal images in a variety of political and religious contexts over several millennia. Using multiple textual examples, Levtow describes a clear ideology of the symbolic use of images. The gods of vanquished enemies were often decapitated, carried into captivity, or destroyed; in short, they shared the fate of the people who worshiped them. The defeat of the people was thus associated with the overcoming of the god. On the other hand, the deity might be understood to have given up her city and its people, her image and its shrine, to punish or humble her devotees. Clearly, this could give way to understanding the restoration and return of cult images as a display of sovereign power by the god. On the other hand, a conqueror might use the refurbishment and return of a cult image to solidify and legitimate continuing rule as a state is restored within a new political configuration. The author provides a wide range of Mesopotamian examples dating from as early as the third millennium, through the particularly rich ideological motifs presented in Neo-Assyrian historiographic texts and iconographic traditions, and culminating in Neo-Babylonian and Persian instances. The well known presentation of the conqueror Cyrus as saviour of Babylon sent by Marduk (123) is perhaps the most familiar in a long sequence of such ideological representations.
While the review of these literary and iconographic motifs is fascinating in its own right, Levtow does not lose sight of its contribution to the larger agenda of the book: The corpus of ancient West Asian literature on icon abduction, mutilation, repair, and return illuminates the degree to which Israelite authors, through their polemical representations of cult images, participated in the iconic political traditions of their wider environment. The clearest example of this in the Hebrew Bible is the Ark Narrative of 1 Samuel 4–6 (118).
We now arrive at an important argument near the heart of Levtow's thesis. Building on his observation that dialogue with iconic ideological systems can be demonstrated in Israelite materials composed in both Judean and Babylonian contexts, and from both before, during, and after the exile, Levtow develops the argument that such iconic political rhetoric was not a unique exilic phenomenon but is to be located within a long tradition of Israelite and wider ancient West Asian iconic discursive practices (131). Levtow describes the icon parodies' close association with a larger group of biblical traditions that focus on iconic cult and respond to it to construct an alternate view of Israel's situation. Levtow discusses 1 Samuel 4–6, 2 Kgs 19:15–19 and Deut 4:24–25 and Ezekiel as representatives of the argument that this oppositional approach to iconic ritual was employed as an important rhetorical tool in Israelite political discourse. This can be clearly seen in exilic texts where: Faced with the threatening perception that they themselves were living in an impure land (Ps 137:4; Ezekiel) as heirs to a dethroned deity, Israelite exilic authors turned the tables on their victors with a precision attack against the efficacy of the very ritual that empowered their cults and kings. The response was cultically oriented and sociopolitically directed (100).
Levtow acknowledges that it is not clear that Israelite authors knew the literary traditions associated with Assyrian and Babylonian cultic and royal ideologies, but contends they would have been keenly aware of the iconic ritual practices that dominated the culture of the land in which they found themselves as exiles. The fact that these texts were not written for a Babylonian audience, but were intended for Israelites meant that a detailed comprehension of the background on which Mesopotamian iconic traditions drew was not required to benefit from the iconic parodies. Their intended goal of restructuring the Israelites' view of perceived religious and political power structures was achieved by their claims that Yahweh remained sovereign in spite of appearances to the contrary, and that Babylonian claims to power were delusional and fully dependent on the Israelite deity's choice to allow the current state of affairs to persist. The classificatory discourse inverted the power and dominance of Babylon and its deities, giving the exilic community a new perception of their place and status as beneficiaries of Yahweh's incomparable power.
Having examined the use of these ideas in Israelite texts, and in particular in the Deuteronomistic account of Israel's history, the viewpoint articulated in the icon parodies with its reclassification of ritual practice becomes normative for Judeans following the Babylonian exile, to such a degree that, Levtow argues, it becomes the conventional view of Israel's past and future. The power of the Deuteronomistic classification of ritual and reality is attested by its influence in significantly defining the canonical, biblical representation of the Israelite way in ritual and society. This act of classification came to be accepted, it seems, as the natural order of truth and reality, among the social groups that first received these traditions and among later interpretive communities as well. This includes traditions of modern historical and archaeological scholarship that accept the Deuteronomistic classification of ritual systems and the Israelite way as a reflection of Israelite social formations and not as an act of social formation itself (149–150).
Whether or not the reader ends up subscribing to Levtow's views, the volume is an interesting read which offers new insights and proposals to some well trodden ground, and is definitely worth consideration. In summary, this volume is a welcome addition to the burgeoning library of studies which draw upon ancient West Asian literary and iconographic traditions to provide fresh readings of familiar texts, and insightful contextualization of Israelite traditions within their broader cultural world. Levtow is to be commended for a volume which offers both these advantages.