Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

J. Alberto Soggin, Israel in the Biblical Period. Institutions, Festivals, Ceremonies, Rituals (transl. John Bowden; Edinburgh-New York: T & T Clark, 2001),Pp. xiii, 209. ISBN 0-567-08811-1. $24.95.

This is an English translation of an Italian original focusing upon the religious practice of biblical Israel. Soggin provides in eighteen brief chapters, each containing 5-7 pages, a summary of religious institutions, practice and theology, all put into a historical frame of reference. Beginning with a discussion of the traditional version of the origins of Israel, the historical and cultural context and the sources (i.e., the Deuteronomistic history), the author seeks to illuminate the question of the historical reality (or historicity) of polytheism and monotheism in the context of the religion of Israel. Soggin maintains that there is a marked lack of reliable sources before the late pre-exilic period (pp. 26-28), basically disregarding the historicity (or even the possibility of the historicity) of the patriarchs, the tribal history of the Judges, and the early years of the united monarchy. After this rather negative outlook concerning biblical sources, Soggin goes on to describe some of the specifics of Israel's religious life, such as different sanctuaries (pp. 35-47), the covenant concept (pp. 55-73) and important elements including the cult and the sacrificial system. The author opts to mix and mingle historical discussion with theological observations. In this sense, it would appear that he aims to write a Religionsgeschichte, in the tradition of famous German OT scholars. Soggin depends on rather antiquated definitions when it comes to cult (quoting Eichrodt, Mowinckel, and others) and does not take into consideration recent discussion on ritual and cult, especially outside of biblical studies (see here, for example, the important contributions from Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice [New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992] and idem, Ritual Perspectives and Dimensions [New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997]). While referring now and again to comparative material from the ancient Near East, Soggin does not endeavor to do justice to the complex question of the nature of Israel's religion by utilizing an interdisciplinary approach. To be sure, interdisciplinary methods are the rave in current scholarship and one should not just follow a certain fad. However, looking beyond one's limited scholarly perspective may actually provoke new questions and open new horizons (see here the comments by Jonathan Z. Smith, "Religion Up and Down, Out and In," in Sacred Time, Sacred Space. Archaeology and the Religion of Israel [ed. Barry M. Gittlen; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002], 3-10). The author suggests (without offering any bibliographical support) that "in the Hebrew Bible the cult is the product of the confluence of many distinct elements, so that a neat separation from the world of the religions [of the contemporary ancient Near Eastern world] proves impossible" (p. 76). While this is a definite scholarly position, it is not necessarily "generally accepted," as Soggin suggests. This tendency to generalize, without paying adequate attention to dissenting voices, or new approaches can be found also in his repetitive use of the phrase "in reality" (pp. 9, 10, etc.), which describes an apparent juxtaposition of positions found in the text and "secure scholarly perspectives opposed to these positions." Perhaps this style is due to the intended audience, which seems to be the undergraduate market. However, it would seem that even an undergraduate audience is able and willing to see more than one opinion on a given subject, including dissenting voices.

The second part of Soggin's book describes specific festivals in Israel's religion, including the crucial Passover, the feast of Weeks, the Autumn Festival (including the Day of Atonement), Purim and Hanukkah, the Sabbath and the year of Jubilee. The final three chapters deal with general problems and characteristics of the Israelite calendar and later Middle Judaism developments. This section is mostly descriptive, basing itself upon the elements described in the biblical text as well as pointing out possible tensions between different textual strands. Soggin's treatment of ritual is rather disappointing. After reading the subtitle of the book I was expecting more detailed discussions of ritual, the specific worldview that makes ritual meaningful, and some reference to the different approaches that are used in modern ritual studies. However, none of this appears in the book. It seems that Soggin provides a good summary of what used to be the consensus position in critical scholarship. The book includes a section of essential bibliography (pp. 187-192) and three indices (names, places and cited texts; pp. 193-209).

This work is a rather mainstream introduction to the religion of Israel as understood by traditional historical-critical scholarship. It is based upon a historical reconstruction of ancient Israel that will not convince every scholar. Its tendency to late dating of original Israelite religious practice may be fashionable these days, but does not pay sufficient attention to contemporary material culture and texts, which may be useful for comparative purposes if one uses a more finely tuned methodology, such as the one suggested by William Hallo.(1) Anybody looking for a methodologically more balanced approach to the reconstruction of ancient Israelite religion should consult Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel. A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches (London-New York: Continuum, 2001), which is, however, much more expensive and also more extensive in its discussion. Soggin's work is a very readable presentation of traditional historical-critical positions concerning Israelite religion. However, I would have wished for a more open and less dogmatic approach.

Gerald A. Klingbeil, River Plate Adventist University, Argentina.


1. William W. Hallo, "Compare and Contrast: The Contextual Approach to Biblical Literature," in William W. Hallo et al, eds., The Bible in the Light of Cuneiform Literature (Scripture in Context III; Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Studies 8; Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), pp. 1-30. Back