Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Stephen L. Cook, The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism (SBL Studies in Literature, 8; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004). Pp. xii + 310. Paper, US$39.95. ISBN 1-58983-098-9.

The aim of this book is to demonstrate the ancient roots, or “legitimate pedigree,” of biblical Yahwism, that is, of the theology that comes to full expression in Deuteronomy and that, in Cook's view, dominates the Hebrew Bible. He takes up this task in response to current studies of Israelite religion that posit evolutionary development from an image of deity imbued with features of Canaanite polytheistic myth to the mode of monotheistic pronouncement found in Second Isaiah. Within the wider field of Israelite religion as a whole, Cook attempts to trace the roots of a particular strain of Yahwistic belief and practice he calls “Sinai Yahwism.”

This stream of tradition was often marginalized in historical Israel, but it is dominant in the biblical canon. It is embodied most clearly in a set of biblical texts akin to the book of Deuteronomy. Among this family of “Sinai texts,” Cook argues, are the relatively early, eighth-century prophetic speeches of Hosea and Micah. Cook finds in these speeches reflections of the social customs, norms, and institutions of a village-oriented, lineage-based culture established in pre-state Israel, and it is within this culture that Sinai Yahwism was embedded and passed down. These are its roots.

Cook's concern is to correlate the biblical expression and framing of Yahwistic faith with an early historical-social scenario as a counter to theories that make “biblical Yahwism look more like revisionist history than historical-religious tradition associated with real life lawgivers and prophets in old Israel” (p. 7). Following his introduction (Chapter 1), he attempts to prove studies in this vein “wrongheaded” (p. 267) by exposition of the key biblical sources and main tenets of biblical Yahwism (Chapter 2); depiction of the monarchic reform movements of Jehoiada, Hezekiah and Josiah as instances of official promotion of Sinai Yahwism (Chapter 3); examination of passages in Hosea and Micah that demonstrate their place in this theological stream (Chapter 4); discussion of the integration of elements of Zion theology in the book of Micah (Chapter 5); presentation of a social-scientific model based in part on cross-cultural studies of lineage-based cultures that coexist with centralized state structures (Chapter 6); reconstruction of the social locations of the prophets Micah (Chapter 7) and Hosea (Chapter 8) through textual analysis; and conclusions (Chapter 9). Cook's methodology thus draws on traditio-critical, exegetical, and social-scientific approaches.

In broad terms, Cook's point that eighth-century prophetic insistence on loyalty in worship and ethical practice to Yhwh appeals to a preexistent tradition familiar to the prophetic audience and embraced by at least some of them is well taken. The book, moreover, begins on familiar scholarly ground: i.e., (1) the thematic links between Hosea, Micah, and the covenantal theology of Deuteronomy and (2) the possible affiliations between Hosea and northern circles of Levites and between Micah and the “people of the land” mentioned in connection with Judean royal reform movements in 2 Kings. The cross-cultural anthropological and sociological material Cook introduces in Chapter 6 greatly enhances his investigation of the realities of Israelite society, which at the time of these two prophets was both national/monarchic and village-/lineage-based. For this reviewer, this chapter presented the most stimulating aspect of Cook's work.

A clarification is necessary in terms of the impact of Cook's work on studies of Israelite monotheism. The book does not engage the question of the definition of monotheism, as opposed to monolatry or henotheism, taken up by, for example, Mark Smith in his The Origins of Biblical Monotheism (2001). Cook states simply that “the stress that Sinai theology lays on Yahweh alone as Israel's God amounts to a rejection of polytheism” (p. 36).

In terms of his own investigations, his attempt to create a sharply defined, high-resolution picture of the theological and social contexts of Hosea and Micah as eighth-century prophets invites questions. Although his outline of the tradition of Sinai Yahwism is broad and for the most part thematic, he strives to pinpoint its manifestation in the poetic speeches of Hosea and Micah as primary carriers of this theological stream. He cites, for example, the use of futility curses in both Hosea and Micah as indicative of the Sinai theme of conditional tenancy, noting the incidence of similar curses in Deuteronomy 28. Yet futility curses occur in a range of prophetic texts (see, e.g., Amos 5:11, Zeph 1:13, Hag 1:6). Certainly the concept of conditional tenancy in the land runs through the preexilic prophetic literature, notably in First Isaiah, whose words are set in the royal capital of Jerusalem and whom Cook takes as representative of Zion theology (pp. 103, 133).

Attention to the full palette of the biblical prophetic tradition suggests that its strands may not be traced so neatly to discrete social locations. Cook refers more than once to Patricia Dutcher-Walls's article “The Social Location of the Deuteronomists: A Sociological Study of Factional Politics in Late Pre-exilic Judah” (JSOT 52 [1991] 77-94). She argues, however, that factions cutting across and within diverse social groups were active in the reform movement of Josiah and in support of Jeremiah during the Babylonian crisis.

Cook's association of Micah and Hosea with particular social groups and institutions often seems far from certain. Can, for example, Micah's use of mourning language and imagery definitively be identified as “clan-based diction” (pp. 196-97)? Cook himself notes here the use of such diction in “urban centralized prophets” like Isaiah (pp. 197-98). Does Micah's claim in Mic 3:8 that he is filled with power, the spirit of Yhwh, and justice and strength (וּמִשְׁפָּט וּגְבוּרָה) necessarily link him with Boaz (אִישׁ גִּנּוֹר חַיִל) in Ruth 2:1 and Gideon (גִּבּוֹר הֶחָֽיִל) in Judges 6:12 as a tribal leader (p. 205)?

The ultimate question is whether Cook, by mounting a case for the “archaic heritage” of the Sinai stream of tradition, counters the case for evolution in the biblical articulation of Yhwh's relation to other gods or divine beings. The imagery of Psalm 82:1, 6-7 (a psalm of Asaph and therefore, in Cook's view a Sinai text) and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (also, in his words, a Sinai text) borrow the language of polytheistic myth in proclaiming the predominance of Yhwh above other gods. This borrowing may, as Cook claims, be intended to challenge and subvert polytheistic belief (p. 36). At the same time these verses exhibit modes of biblical expression beyond straightforward affirmation of loyalty to Yhwh and they raise, arguably, the possibility of changes in theological articulation in response to changes in the historical, social, and cultural arenas in which the biblical authors and their communities perceived the presence of God.

This book brings important questions to the foreground of current debate over the formation, shape, and expression of biblical conceptions of divinity. It thereby helps to ensure that the discussion will continue.

Katherine M. Hayes, Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY