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

Sandra L. Richter, The Deuteronomistic History and the Name Theology: lešakkēn šemô šām in the Bible and the Ancient Near East (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 318; Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2002).  Pp. xiii + 246 pages.  Cloth, 68.00, US$82.00.  ISBN 3-11-017376-X.

Not everyday does a linguistic parallel with cuneiform texts revolutionize our understanding of a major tenet of biblical theology.  Yet just such an upheaval is now proposed by Sandra L. Richter in her partially revised Harvard PhD dissertation (2001).

Most biblical scholars have long recognized the so called “Name Theology” as a hallmark of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History.  According to this belief, YHWH is not present in his temple in any perceivable manifestation (cult statue, radiant cloud, Šekīnāh, etc.).  Instead, he causes only his name to dwell there (škn D), essentially as a hypostasis.  This novel, supposedly less mythological or anthropomorphic conception distinguishes D and Dtr from more ancient sources, as well as P and Ezekiel which speak of God residing (yšb, škn G) in a temple enveloped by his Kavod (majesty, substance).  Richter would abandon this interpretation, claiming that it is based on a questionable theory, “nominal realism,” which she defines as (15): “the supposed perception on the part of the ancient Semite that the name of an item or person, as a symbol of the thing or person named, was in fact real, having consubstantial existence with the name bearer.”  She also indicates that the perception of “Name Theology” in biblical scholarship is based on an outmoded belief that biblical thought evolved from immanence to transcendence, the late D/Dtr revising earlier beliefs by demythologization.  Both these approaches have been challenged by others as well.

Having discarded the accepted opinion, Richter goes on to explain the terms šakkēn šēm and śîm šēm respectively as a loan idiom and a calque from Akkadian šuma šakānu (< Sumerian MU GAR) meaning “inscribe/set up a monument bearing the name and proclaiming ownership and hegemony”.  Her core claim is that šakkēn še is not an expression with a factitive D verb form meaning “cause his name to dwell”, as it should on the basis of Hebrew alone, but a loan idiom adapted from Akkadian šuma šakānu meaning “place the name”.  Proof that this is the meaning of the idiom in Hebrew comes from its replacement in Dtr by śîm šēm and even hāyāh šēm.  Equating the terms as synonyms is further strengthened by the appearance of śym šm in some Northwest Semitic inscriptions, and in particular the bi-lingual statue from Tell Fakhariyeh where Akkadian šumīma liškun appears opposite Aramaic wšmym lšm bh.  The Akkadian expression is linked to the terms šuma šāṭāru, “write a name”, and šumu šāṭru, “written name,” “monument” (see also musarrű < Sum. MU.SAR.RA), and šuma šāṭra šakānu, “place a written name/monument” and developed more or less as follows: “to place/write a name (on an inscription)” > “to place an inscription (bearing a name in a building)” > to establish ownership > to make a reputation > establish hegemony.

As a result of this two pronged argument, nothing remains of YHWH’s presence in the temple.  Instead the temple is primarily and essentially not a place of divine presence but a monument owned by YHWH commemorating to perpetuity the Divine Warrior King’s victory over his and Israel’s enemies, permitting him to claim dominion over the newly conquered land where it stands, and demand allegiance of his people whom he has freed from subjugation.

Richter’s systematically and vigorously argued proposal can be either right or wrong, with no apparent middle ground.  At the same time, it is too consequential to be accepted or rejected without serious consideration, something impossible in the scope of a brief review.  In hope of contributing to the examination which should now ensue, I offer the following preliminary thoughts.

On the positive side, there seem to be no phonological or semantic impediments to transferring the Akkadian idiom to a Hebrew context.  Moreover, the theory explains the Hebrew expressions on the basis of well attested Sumerian and Akkadian parallels with clear, well established meanings, and not on the basis of detached, ad hoc exegesis.  In addition, the Sitz im Leben of the foreign idioms is building in general, and temple building in particular, which is precisely the context of the Hebrew idioms in D and Dtr.  Finally, the new interpretation integrates the historically and ideologically significant building the temple into the “Divine Warrior” pattern of ancient near eastern mytho-historiography discussed widely by other scholars, (especially in the Harvard school).[1] Interestingly, this concludes the Divine Warrior Saga of Divine Warrior vanquishing foes and returning to take up permanent residence in a newly built temple, at the precise place where remnants of the famous Sefer Ha-yashar/Sefer Ha-shir appear for the last time (see LXX to 1 Kings 8:12-13).  Some scholars have claimed that this mysterious book was also known as Sefer Milḥāmôt YHWH (cf. Num 21:14-15), and started with the Song of the Sea (see especially Ex 15:17-18).  If this is the case and if Richter is right, then we have an interesting situation in which the Divine Warrior Saga as reflected in D-Dtr parallels what U. Cassuto called the ancient Israelite Epic.  All these considerations would make Richter’s proposal a necessary but welcome revision of long held views.

On the other hand, Richter has not convincingly ruled out the accepted “Name Theology” interpretation, so it is still not impossible. She herself admits (p. 11): “it is apparent in certain biblical contexts, to speak of the name of YHWH is to speak of the deity himself”.  Ps 20:2 (ET 1) is one such case, where we read “May YHWH answer on a day of distress; may the Name of the God of Jacob exalt/protect you”.  Another place is Ex 23:21 (tr. NJPS) “Pay heed to him (the angel)… since my Name is in him”.  In addition, the expression weśāmű et šemî ‘al benēy yiśrā’el appears in the conclusion to the non-Deuteronomistic Priestly Benediction, Num 6:27, “and they [the priests] shall put my name on the children of Israel and I shall bless them”.  What does this mean according to Richter’s theory?  Are the priests, by blessing the people using a formula containing the Tetragrammaton three times and thereby placing YHWH’s name on the people, declaring his ownership of Israel, declaring his fame, or are they invoking his presence so that he may do the honor?  There is, accordingly, no inherent philological or theological difficulty demanding that the regnant view be abandoned, and even without parallels, an ad hoc interpretation is not necessarily a wrong one.  Moreover, the Akkadian idioms adduced always refer to building inscriptions and other types of monuments, and never to the buildings or the victories themselves.  The name is put/written directly on the inscription and only secondarily on the building itself.  To be sure, no building inscription is referred to anywhere in 1 Kings 5-9.  This has prompted John van Seters to posit another questionable (?) proposal that the name placed in the Temple is the Deuteronomic Law code itself, serving as a building inscription.[2]  In addition, Richter points to no case of a deity “placing his name”, the subject of the action always being a king.  Monarchs write inscriptions; not gods. Does YHWH putting his name on the temple imply, somehow, that he is also considered the builder, thereby transferring to the historical realm a belief held in Mesopotamia and Ex. 15:17; 23:20 that the gods built their own temples in mythological times?  Richter may be undercutting herself by claiming constantly and consistently that “placing the name” refers to an inscription, and does not carry its secondary meaning of establishing a reputation.  This would mitigate, however, the advantageous coincidence of “placing the name” and building the temple.  In brief, there are several weak or missing links in Richter’s connection of the Akkadian with the Hebrew idioms which must still be addressed.

If the theory will turn out to be right, it will demand correctives in how we understand Deuteronomistic theology, and especially its perception of the Temple.  It is clear that D and Dtr have removed YHWH to his heavenly abode, but without Name Theology, the Temple on earth will be rendered completely void of divine presence, serving at most as a forwarding station for prayer and periscope into the true divine residence above.  Is it reasonable to assume that even reformers such as the Deuteronomists could deviate so far from the ancient near eastern norm as to devoid the highly esteemed place of worship of all vestiges of its original essence as a house of God?  Was there no intermediate step between the old view of the temple and the conception of the temple as a House of Prayer or a place of sacrifice of the post-exilic sources?

In conclusion, Richter’s book ably presents a tantalizing thesis which can potentially revolutionize current understanding of the Deuteronomists’ conception of the central place of worship.  The thesis is reasonable and well argued, but leaves certain gaps to fill and others may find it more problematic than I have indicated; and a final verdict can emerge only after broader dialog.  Let the next speaker now speak up.[3]

Victor Hurowitz
Ben Gurion University of the Negev

[1] The overwhelming influence of Dr. Richter’s academic pedigree is noticed throughout the book with numerous references to Harvard professors and protoges such as F. M. Cross, R. E. Friedman, B. Halpern, J. Huehnergard, J. Levenson, S. Dean McBride, P. Mankowski, and K. Slanski.

[2] J. van Seters, “‘To Put His Name There’: The Problem of Centralization in D and DtrH.” Paper delivered at SBL International Meeting, Cambridge, England, 2003

[3] A most unusual error has occurred on p. 49 fig 3 where a three line Hebrew citation from 1 Kings 9:3 has come out total gibberish.  Collateral damage seems to have also afflicted the following paragraph in English.