Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Jack M. Sasson, Archie C. C. Lee, Craig Y. S. Ho, and Fook Kong Wong. Hebrew Origins: Historiography, History, Faith of Ancient Israel (Chuen King Lecture Series 4; Hong Kong: Theology Division, Chung Chi College, 2002).  Pp. xiii + 163.  Paper, $18.95.  ISBN 9627137251.

This volume comprises three lectures delivered by Jack Sasson at Chung Chi College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in February 2001.  Three Chinese scholars offered responses to each of the lectures and the text of these responses are also included in the volume after the pertinent chapter.

It appears that the main purpose of Sasson’s opening lecture (“History as Literature in Ancient Israel”) was to review the narrative qualities evident within the ancient Hebrew “historical” tradition. Because Hebrew historiography relies on “conventions,” generates “theological themes” and constructs “paradigms,” its presentation (“optimized and didactic”) of the past is not acceptable for modern historical research.  Nevertheless, at the tail end of the chapter Sasson does suggest that there is evidence of reliance on oral traditions and written records that were based on “historical reality” (27).

This final suggestion is the focus of the second lecture (“On Hebrew History”), which reviews the present status of sources and conclusions on the history of Israel.  Sasson argues that little from the Hebrew Bible can be corroborated from ancient history.  Furthermore, much of what the Hebrew Bible speaks about is outside the purview of modern historians: “historians cannot rely on historical testimony in which a deity is a major player and cannot explain historical events by assigning them to divine causes, historians must posit more mundane explanations” (42).  Sasson proceeds to note the various ways in which scholars have sought to corroborate the history found in the Hebrew Bible, before summarizing the present state of debate on the various eras of Israel until the exile of Judah.  In the end, Sasson delivers little of what he suggested at the end of chapter 1 (“this detailing of how little we actually we know or can confirm about Israel’s origins or real history,” 61) and does suggest that the way forward appears to be “to find other ways to penetrate the world of the Hebrews,” favouring interdisciplinary work, which focuses not on “what exactly happened in Israel,” but rather on “what Israel imagined happened in her past” (61-62).  At the end of the chapter Sasson does try to "defend" the Hebrew Bible with three key principles.  First, the lack of evidence does not necessarily mean the events described in the Hebrew Bible did not happen.  Secondly, one cannot entrust to historians (and archaeologists) matters which go beyond historical truths.  Finally, whether Israel’s historical writing is accurate does not undermine its ability to communicate spiritual truth, whether that be its view of God, its moral code, or its secrets of faith.  It is again this final point (and only the first point: “its view of God”) that is taken up in more detail in the third lecture.

This third lecture (“On the Origins of the Hebrew God and of the Hebrew Faith in God”) is by far the longest as it traces the development of the Hebrew conception of God throughout its history against the backdrop of the ancient Near East.  Sasson begins with a consideration of the names of God found in the Hebrew Bible and then notes connections with extra-biblical evidence.  He argues that there is no credible evidence of the worship of a god named YHWH outside of Israel’s borders.  Thus there is no clear evidence as to the origins of the god YHWH in the ancient Near East.  At the same time, the extra-biblical evidence reveals that “monotheistic faith was soft” (88), showcased poignantly in the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud votive invocation referring to “YHWH of Samaria (or Teman) and of his Asherah” (early 8th Century BCE).   Unable to locate the source of YHWH as god, Sasson looks for roots of other aspects of Yahwistic faith.  He honestly notes the many connections between Yahwism and other ancient religions (notions about the gods, shunning of idolatry, the role of the prophet, conceptions of covenantal justice and law, practice of herem), but then notes points of uniqueness related to Sabbath, circumcision, priestly codification, legal detail and female access to the deity.  The key point of distinction, however, is identified as monotheism.  After reviewing the history of debate over the view of God (accenting the evolutionary view of the late 19th century), Sasson identifies a tension in the Hebrew Bible between the prophetic emphasis on the uniqueness of God alongside the depiction of God as territorial.  He leverages the earlier view that the priests and elite of Israel held to a “henotheistic” or “monocratic” territorial notion of YHWH while the masses accepted a “less than pristine theology” which could embrace a consort like Asherah alongside YHWH.  The search for the origins of this monotheistic strain (Kenites, Assyrians [Assur], Egyptians [Aten]) came up empty handed, and led to a reconsideration of the view that monotheism must be understood against its polytheistic backdrop.

In contrast to the ancient Near East, Israel offered no explanation of the origins of their god, by opening their creation account without theogony and by making no mention of a battle between the gods.  In doing this, Israel’s theologians argued for the singularity, the transcendence and the omnipotence of God.  At the same time, Israel’s theologians carefully present their God’s creation of humanity and this, mixed with their presentation of earthly (rather than cosmic) victories of this god on behalf of Israel, reveals a God “absorbed in the creation and destiny of human beings” (106).   Such a monotheistic faith seems odd in light of Israel’s precarious existence in the ancient world: “why would Israel place its fate in one God, when that God has not been especially successful against the competing gods?” (109).

The answer to this lies in two key events connected to Jerusalem.  The first is the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE in which a significant group of elite escaped to a Jerusalem in the midst of a campaign to rid the capital of pagan worship.  These events led to a greater focus on YHWH as supreme (although not yet unique, cf. Jer 44:24-25).  The second (and more important) came with the fall of Judah in the 6th Century BCE and the subsequent returns to the land.  It was the later returns under Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th Century BCE that had the greatest influence on the Hebrew conception of God:  “fragments of the pre-Exilic theology of God integrated with new themes about that God to deliver the theology of monotheism that is familiar to us” (114).   Before the exile YHWH was seen as unbegotten, local yet transcendent, omnipotent, omnipresent, (mostly) omniscient, and universal.  To this was added in the 5th Century: unique (there are no other gods) and international.  Sasson highlights especially the Torah reading in Neh 8: “In the absence of native rule in Jerusalem and in the uncertainty about religious leadership, the conviction about the unique God and the fulfillment of his promise gained for monotheism organic coherence, constancy, structure, and goal” (115).  This is what Sasson calls the democratization of monotheism, a conception which “did not come together in 18th Dynasty Egypt or in Imperial Assyria; but they gelled in hapless Yehud, among people who had little invest except faith and blind hope” (116).

It is a rare opportunity to sit and listen to an accomplished scholar as he offers his conclusions from a lifetime of study of the Hebrew Bible and the History of Israel.  At times the lectures lack integrity, not in terms of character, but in terms of their flow.  The argument is not always constructed in clear form as we move from the beginning to the end of the lecture, nor is the purpose of some of the material to the main argument made clear (this is especially evident in the first half of the initial lecture which reviews the Bible’s origins and debates over such, even though the main thrust of the chapter ultimately is on the narrative quality of Israelite historiography). 

Sasson is very cautious in his approach to history, clearly a minimalist who accepts little as historical evidence for Israel. Such caution is a helpful reminder, but at times seems overly sensitive.  Historical study of the ancient Near East does offer us patterns of event, life and society that can be discerned within the Hebrew Bible, lending credibility to its presentation, without claiming that it is video footage of the events in view.  Sasson’s recognition of the narrative quality of Hebrew literature, does not undermine the usefulness of this literature for historical reconstruction, any more than recognition of such in other ancient Near Eastern literature undermines their usefulness.  In all cases the historian is asked to weigh the evidence carefully and fairly, noting trends that may be evidence of narrative or theological license, and even in those cases to be open to such as historical reality.  Sasson is sensitive to the broader theological issues at stake with his claims, addressing these at times in his presentation, if often as an apology or excursus, rather than as part of his main argument which is clearly historical. 

Sasson’s view that monotheism triumphed only in the Persian period is as difficult to refute as to sustain. Clearly there is early evidence for the worship of YHWH, but also early evidence within Israel’s material remains and textual traditions for the worship of other deities.  Such diverse worship is admitted and even highlighted within textual traditions that emphasize the ascendancy (if not exclusiveness) of YHWH.  This, however, does not mean that these texts are somehow compromising on monotheistic religion, only that the sociological reality defied the theological emphasis of a certain group within Israel. If one was to embrace fully Sasson’s view of the triumph of monotheism in the Persian period (and he is not unique in this), even more compelling evidence could have been drawn from the iconographic archaeological record from this period (see the debate between Stern and Niehr in The Crisis of Israelite Religion: Transformation of Religious Tradition in Exilic and Post-Exilic Times [ed. Bob Becking and Marjo C. A. Korpel; Leiden: Brill, 1999).  

After each of the lectures, a Chinese scholar responded to the material presented by Sasson.  Although Archie Lee’s response to the first lecture was poorly written he does provide space for Sasson’s fixation with historical critical methodology and his focus on “Ancient West Asian” evidence.  However, Lee is critical of Sasson for not moving from West to East Asia, from ancient to modern, that is relating his research to today’s Asian and Chinese Christians.  Unfortunately, Lee does not engage the main emphasis of Sasson’s lecture: the focus on the narrative quality of ancient Israel historiography. Craig Ho’s response to the second lecture is a solid contribution to the volume.  In his paper he engages Sasson’s material brilliantly, and struggles with the implications of Sasson’s minimalism to “evangelical” Chinese faith.  In this he deals with the crisis as personal faith and modern history collide and thus brings Sasson’s lecture to bear on crucial issues within Chinese faith.  The same can be said of Fook Kong Wong’s response to the third lecture.  Adding a bit more clarity to some of Sasson’s material, Wong largely affirms the overall thrust of Sasson’s argument.  However, he is not so confident of the triumph of monotheism in the Persian period, citing evidence from Chronicles which recognizes the existence of other gods.  Furthermore, he challenges Sasson’s assumption that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah offer us a truly a view of the common people (democratization of monotheism), for they were shaped by the elite of the Persian period.  Wong also rounds out the volume by engaging the hermeneutical validity of the kind of historical criticism showcased by Sasson throughout the lecture series.  He admits such critical thought is bound to be “nerve wracking” and possibly “painful” for Christians, but reminds us that our view of God cannot be drawn exclusively from one period of Israel’s history, but rather as Brevard Childs encouraged, should be derived from the Christian canon as a whole.

These responses are invaluable to this volume, for they bring the Lecturer into broader conversations, especially, in this case, in a majority world context that is often ignored by western scholarship.  The respondents also help the reader think through the deeper hermeneutical issues that are inevitable (and necessary) in lectureships taking place in an academic context.  This is even more important in the theological context in which these lectures had their genesis.

Mark J. Boda
McMaster Divinity College