|Journal of Hebrew
Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review
M. S. Smith, Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century (Peabody, MA.: Hendrikson, 2001), Pp., xx + 252 pp. ISBN 1-56563-575-2 (cloth). $ 29.95.
There was a long-running advertisement on British television for Heineken lager, "the beer that reaches parts other beers cannot reach." This volume is Heineken's counterpart in the area of West Semitic studies, at the interface of Ugaritic and biblical studies. If the recent Handbook of Ugaritic Studies edited by Wilfred Watson and myself (Leiden 1999) may be regarded as regular ale, performing a useful duty of delivering statements of the state of the art in Ugaritic studies, the work under review may be considered a fine complement, reaching all the interstices which a standard handbook simply would not cover (cf. p. 6), such as thumbnail biographies of many leading characters in the story, discussion of some of the rivalries which impinged on the development of the discipline, a fairly detailed account of the development of the discipline in the main centres of learning from its inception to the present day, with working examples of areas of contention and conflicting interpretations of various issues.
In this program the volume is eminently successful. It gives a human face rather than merely an intellectual façade to the birth and early development of a discipline, which will prove particularly helpful to younger scholars, for whom the wood and the trees are sometimes hard to distinguish. It probably has some surprises in store for older readers too, such is the relative lack of communication between the various locations in which Ugaritic studies are pursued.
There is a natural bias towards North American coverage in this book, as the author concedes in a candid account of his procedure; this is certainly treated most fully; but developments in Europe and elsewhere are not neglected. Whether a balance has been achieved will be considered below.
The study is divided into four temporal periods, 1928-45, 1945-70, 1970-85 and 1985-99 (though tipping over into the 21st century with some 2000 references). Each period is subdivided into different aspects, beginning with brief bibliographical notes, followed by descriptions of developments in each era, and surveys of scholarship by location (universities and research institutes). The biblical aspect indicated in the title is not neglected; for better or worse, Ugaritology will long continue to develop in a symbiotic relationship with biblical studies, and while this relationship has not always been kind to the former, it has at its best greatly illuminated the latter, and helped dispel some of the prejudices all too often present among practitioners. Generally the significance of Ugaritic for the understanding of biblical issues is well-balanced, and the evaluation of its broad impact judiciously evaluated (see the useful summary, p. 135). However, I can only characterize the description (p. 60) of the "enormous impact" of Ugaritic studies in England (I think he probably means Scotland too!) as wildly optimistic. Seen from the perspective of these islands (the reviewer teaches in Edinburgh) one could only wish that there had been a greater impact. Perhaps the discussion of reactions to Dahood's work (pp. 163-165) explains this in part.
What of the balance between North American and other regional scholarship? Presumably one of the factors behind the information given was the use of electronic mail, a very user-friendly medium, as well as conventional postage, to elicit information. It seems that American colleagues were simply more forthcoming in disclosing all kinds of semi-autobiographical information, to say nothing of nice little bits of scandal, which allowed a considerable filling out of the general picture, and allowed a rounder view of each stage in the development of the discipline. I suspect that European scholars were simply altogether more reticent, apart from the fact that there are still areas where scholars are reluctant to use email to any great extent. This results in an imbalance that cannot be blamed on the author. Having said that, it may be asked whether the detail of some of the North American anecdotal accounts (such as Albright's health problems, p. 25, or his cruel observation on Obermann, p. 27) really contributes much to the coverage of the discipline, and in the case of the rather sour relationship between Speiser and Gordon, which finally becomes simply boring, whether it might not have been better left unsaid. In one of the few cases of similar detail being offered for a European scholar, we are told (p. 59) that James Barr's father was a member of Parliament from 1924 to 1931 and from, 1935 to 1945! Is this really necessary? Furthermore, some of the detailed discussion of American scholars' views borders upon the hagiographical, a genre that is out of place in such a volume. An example of the appearance of an imbalance in coverage may be seen in chapter 1, where after the initial account of discoveries, two pages (pp. 20-22) are devoted to early scholarship in Europe and Palestine, and fifteen (pp. 22-36) to the same period in the United States. The following chapter achieves a much better balance, though again the European entries are altogether scanter on detail than American ones.
The voluminous notes, amounting to 83 pages, contain a wealth of useful bibliographical information, but it would have been a far more user-friendly strategy to list this as an alphabetically arranged bibliography, rather than scatter it over such a large area. References are somewhat haphazard in style, which makes checking full details of some rather tiring. It also wastes the opportunity to provide a representative historical bibliography of the discipline.
Smith's comments (p. 54) on the use of competing reference systems is welcome. For too long rival systems have been in use, and we still have the perverse use (sometimes exclusively) of only site references (RS) by some members of the Mission de Ras Shamra. The use of the logical and extensible KTU system, which has now been available for a quarter of a century, is to be thoroughly commended. The fact that it is neither a French nor an American invention should not be held against it.
Errors, usually of a minor nature, include Editio Princeps (p. 54): read Editiones Principes. Less excusable perhaps is the prefix "(in)"- added to the description of Dahood as "famous" (p. 69). While his contribution remains controversial in some respects -- but hardly more so than de Moor's on theological matters, and he gets a far more sympathetic treatment -- and is later subjected to a balanced discussion (pp. 144-146, 159-165), Dahood surely deserves better. On p. 88 we read of "sympathetic marriage," which presumably should be "sympathetic magic." On pp. 216-217, a discussion of Ugaritic yd correctly distinguishes the two radicals underlying the form in different contexts, *wdd, "love" and yd, "hand." It is then rather perverse of Smith to write on p. 217 that yd "is sometimes a euphemism for penis," when he has just demonstrated that it is simply another lexeme, and more so to go on to claim (same page) that "it is evident that... the original semantics of love and hand had merged." On the contrary, what we have is two homographs. We certainly cannot even be clear that the two words bore the same vocalization, though they appear to have done so in Hebrew. On matters of fact, my volume Serving the Gods (p. 190) is not yet written, let alone published in 2000, while Lloyd's Ph.D. dissertation was not published, and plans for this are abandoned (p. 232, n. 100).
Something of a curate's egg, then, is this reviewer's assessment of the volume under discussion.