The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization (Volume One; Edited by Jeffery H. Tigay and Adele Berlin; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021)
This volume is an anthology of texts and objects that “represent the culture and civilization of ancient Israel from roughly the late second millennium through the fourth century BCE.” (p. xxvi). In this sense the volume includes the texts of the Hebrew Bible, archaeological discoveries from the land of Israel, as well as extrabiblical texts that were either composed in Israel or by Jews who lived outside of Israel as diaspora communities (e.g. in Egypt). Occasionally, the editors include texts or images from other ancient Near Eastern cultures that mention Israel or that help contemporary readers understand the bigger picture of the culture of ancient Israel. The content of the volume is arranged by genre and thus it conforms with the structure of the other volumes of the Posen Library. Every literary genre or category of artefacts is preceded by a concise, but helpful, introduction that seeks to familiarize contemporary readers with the history of scholarship on these cultural productions of ancient Israel.
In the introduction to the volume, the editors (Tigay and Berlin) orient the reader to the main sources that they will rely on as they represent the culture and civilization of ancient Israel. This orientation takes the reader on a quick tour through the geography of the land with special attention to how the topography and the geographical location shaped or influenced the community that lived there and the culture that they have produced. Not only does space shape what kind of culture did the Israelites develop, but also did historical circumstances shape the contours of the story of the Israelites as they have emerged and thrived in the land. Therefore, the editors offer a concise overview of the history of Israel as told in the biblical traditions and as constructed by contemporary scholars who rely not only on written sources but also archaeological discoveries. It becomes apparent that the history of ancient Israel that is constructed by modern historians is far more complex than the story preserved in the Bible which is shaped by theological perspectives. Modern historians raise questions, for example, about the historicity of the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the land, and the magnitude of the Solomonic and Davidic kingdoms. The modern construction of the history of ancient Israel draws on archaeological discoveries and archival resources from Israel and its neighboring nations such as Moab, Aram, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. The historical survey pays special attention to the Assyrian defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, and the Babylonian defeat of the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 BCE, which led to the creation of Israelite and Judean diaspora communities throughout the ancient Near East. These diaspora communities, whether they returned to the land, or remained in the places to which they were exiled, produced various genres of literature that tried to navigate the terrain of the trauma of exile. These texts witness to the resilience of these communities that thrived and maintained their identities despite the struggles of being minoritized.
After discussing the history of languages (Hebrew and Aramaic) and the development of its writing systems, a survey of issues of literacy and literary activity in ancient Israel follows. Tigay and Berlin strongly affirm the significant place of the literary products that make up the Bible when they suggest: “The writings that now form the Hebrew Bible are Israel’s greatest and most distinctive cultural achievement. They constitute the bulk of what has survived of ancient Israel’s written culture. Although many literary genres in the Bible are paralleled in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, others are, so far as we know, innovative, particularly the long prose narratives and the classical prophetic writings, which form a substantial part of what became the Bible. The literary power of the biblical writings helped to perpetuate the religious ideas for which Israel is best known.” (p. xlv). Every book of the three parts of Jewish canon (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) took a long time to reach its final form. While some traditions may precede the Babylonian exile, most of the biblical books were composed, redacted, or supplemented in the exilic and the postexilic period. “The exile and the return to Judah, major events in the national memory, provided an impetus to preserve the national traditions even as they were being revised and supplemented by new works that reflected new situations and changing worldviews.” (p. xlvi).
As indicated by the editors, the genres that are included in the Hebrew Bible form the major cultural contribution of ancient Israel. Thus, the editors compile the “Long Prose Narrative” that begins with the creation stories in Genesis, then moves to the stories of the ancestors, exodus, entrance into the land, the establishment of the monarchy, the catastrophic experience of exile, and ends with the return of the people who were exiled in Babylon under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah (pp. 1-132). Naturally, “Short Prose Narrative Books” follow, which comprise the stories of Jonah, Ruth, Esther, and Daniel (pp. 133-148). Laws and Legal Documents is a section that includes the Ten Commandments and the biblical legal traditions that are found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (pp. 149-189). The legal materials that come from ancient Israel, however, are not limited to the biblical corpus. Therefore, inscriptions that deal with legal matters that were uncovered by archaeologists, documents that relate to Israelites or Judeans from Babylon or Assyria, as well as documents from the Jewish Diaspora in Elephantine, Egypt, are all represented in this section (pp.190-200). Classical Prophetic Literature is a unique literary production of ancient Israel. These texts, which are included in the biblical books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve minor prophets, contain words of judgment and words of hope to the people of Israel and Judah during the most tumult times under the rule of foreign empires such as Assyrian, Babylon and Persia (pp. 201-282). These texts are not only unique in being extensive literary productions that employ various literary genres and motifs, they are also distinct in their ancient Near Eastern context in that they offer a model of speaking truth to power and in advancing the concern for social justice.
The survey of the literary productions of ancient Israel is interrupted by a representation of the “Forms of Visual Culture and Performing Arts” (pp. 283-378). The objects that are included in this section are divided into five categories: “architecture, plastic arts, painting, dress and adornment, and performing arts (music and dance).” (p. 283) The illustrations include high quality pictures and detailed artists’ reconstructions of the material culture, which come from different time periods (as early as Iron Age, 1200-586 BCE and as late as the Persian period, 539-332 BCE). The artifacts animate the life of the ancient Israelites because they include sample illustrations of houses, palaces, sanctuaries, tombs, altars, figurines, seals, jars, coins, containers, lamps, textiles, jewelry, and musical instruments. Every image is accompanied with a detailed description of the age of the artifact, its material, its provenance, and its significance.
The final sections of the book return to the literary productions of ancient Israel. Poetic traditions from the Hebrew Bible include ancient poems that describe Israel’s deity as a divine warrior (e.g. Exodus 15), they include love poems (e.g. Song of Songs), lamentations, and psalms of praise or thanksgiving (pp. 379-394). Prayer is discussed as a distinct literary genre, although many prayers are poetic, it is possible that the editors treated them separately from other poems because there are many prayers that are written in prose (pp. 395-413). “Sayings, Riddles, Fables, and Allegories” is a brief section that includes sample of each of these literary types that are dispersed across the different books of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 415-420). Wisdom literature includes biblical proverbial wisdom (e.g. the book of Proverbs) and reflective wisdom (e.g. Ecclesiastes and Job), and the non-biblical wisdom of Ahiqar (421-452). Blessings and Curses (pp. 453-462), Letters (pp. 463-475), Lists and Catalogues (pp. 477-495) all follow the pattern of gathering samples of these genres from the Hebrew Bible and from extra-biblical literature discovered in Israel. The anthology moves beyond the biblical genres to include Inscriptions that were unearthed from ancient Israel that for the most part were inscribed on tombs, tablets, or ostraca (pp. 498-505). Finally, the anthology ends with texts that mention Israel and that come from outside of the land of Israel. These rare examples come from ancient Egypt, Moab, Assyria, and Babylon and they range between the 13th century BCE to the 6th century BCE.
The editors acknowledge the limitations that result from arranging the material based on the literary types or genres. These limitations include the obscurity of historical development of the religious or philosophical thoughts within the culture of ancient Israel. It also isolates pieces of literature or artifacts from their historical, geographical, or literary contexts that have shaped them. In addition, genre classifications reflect modern perspectives that may very well differ from how the ancient Israelites might have thought about them. Furthermore, genres and motifs intersect in a single literary work. Take for example, the book of Job, which itself is part of wisdom literature, begins and ends with prose narrative, and entails long and extensive poetic dialogues. Despite these challenges, genre classifications enable contemporary readers to navigate more easily through ancient Israelite literary productions and material culture. The editors are to be applauded for providing helpful introductory remarks that are not overwhelming to non-specialist readers of the volume.
The anthology succeeds in fulfilling the vision of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization in showing that Jews, indeed, “possessed a civilization.” (p. xxii) By situating ancient Israel in its ancient Near Eastern context, the anthology also shows that ancient Israel’s relationship with its surrounding cultures is marked by “a measure of reciprocity.” (p. xxii). Israel influenced and was influenced by other cultures around it. One should not be oblivious to the destructive impact of ancient empires on the land of Israel or the trauma of oppression and exile. But the Hebrew Bible and other literature from ancient Israel show what it means to be resilient and creative in the face of these crises. The anthology offers a powerful example of what the Posen Library tries to do as it distinguishes between “national culture” from “nationalist culture.” This distinction can be summarized in this way, national culture defines itself in a reciprocal relationship with other cultures, while nationalist culture defines itself over against other cultures. Thus this library and this volume offer a sound model for diaspora communities that seek to write its story and for communities that are working towards constructing an identity in a pluralistic world. This work, however, whether in the volume or in the lives of these communities would be strengthened not only by embracing diversity around them, but also diversity within them. Thus, I wonder, if there should be an added “s” to the title of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture(s) and Civilization(s).
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Safwat Marzouk (PhD) is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary. He is the author of Egypt as a Monster in the Book of Ezekiel, and Intercultural Church A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration. His scholarship focuses on Christian Egyptian hermeneutics of the Old Testament and on how to read the Bible as migrants.