Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review
In this book—the author's Habilitationsschrift at the University of Zürich—Leuenberger discusses the theme of blessing and its theological development in ancient Israel. He begins with an outline of spheres of blessings in ancient Israel and concludes with a presentation of modern horizons for a theology of blessing in a post-modern Christian context. Leuenberger opens with a very systematic outline of the methodology and scope of this study followed by a comprehensive review of scholarship, beginning in the early 20th century with the contributions of the history of religions movement. In the dominant, analytical part of the book he examines occurrences of the lemma ברך in the Hebrew scriptures as well as epigraphic evidence. The third part of the book offers both a synthesis of results in terms of a theological development of the concept of blessing as well as trajectories for further discussion.
On the most fundamental level, Leuenberger's analysis is informed by a very rigorous grammatical and syntactical analysis of textual references to blessing. He notes that in its basic constellation a human or divine subject blesses (ברך) a human or divine object, sometimes with reference to a divine sphere of activity (ל + deity) (p. 107). The epigraphic examples he employs in his study are based on discoveries at Kuntillet Ajrud, Khirbet el-Qom, Ketef Hinnom, and blessing formulas from various other sites. In these examples, textual evidence is frequently supplemented by iconic components (naked goddess, nursing animal, tree, goat/antelope) that he analyzes separately. His biblical evidence is concentrated on four distinct textual groups: the patriarchal narratives of Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Priestly source of the Pentateuch, and the book of Job. The selection of these four groups is statistically justified by the rate of occurrence of ברך.
There are two hierarchical distinctions that are central to Leuenberger's study, the first is his differentiation of primary (epigraphic) and secondary (biblical) texts, while the second is an anthropological distinction between primary and secondary religion or religious experience (he somewhat awkwardly but consistently uses the expression Religion(serfahrung)en). The first of these distinctions may be simply a matter of taxonomic description, although one may question the usefulness of attaching hierarchical labels to different sets of evidence. However, the second distinction raises more serious, methodological questions. In his analysis primary and secondary religion correspond to simple, small-scale and more complex, large scale societies respectively. The use of such distinctions in an hierarchical and evolutionary context is not as common in the social sciences as it once was, and his differentiation between the two categories is at times rather rigid. Unfortunately, his use of anthropological or social scientific methods does not extend far beyond this distinction.
Leuenberger arranges his data on a grid with four segments (p. 110): Primary (epigraphic) texts associated with either primary or secondary forms of religion and secondary (biblical) texts also associated with either primary or secondary religion. He assigns the evidence of Kuntillet Ajrud and the group of various blessing formulas to the realm of primary religion, while Khirbet el-Qom and Ketef Hinnom offer more possibilities of diachronic comparison and the observation of a theological evolution from primary to secondary religion. The development he sees in his epigraphic evidence is a move from localized religious practice to universality, an increasing focus on YHWH as the provider of blessing, and a transformation of the content blessing from general well-being in this life to include blessing in the afterlife.
Regarding his analysis of biblical evidence, Leuenberger sees a similar development from primary to secondary religion in the patriarchal narratives and in Deuteronomy, but places P and Job exclusively in the domain of secondary religion. His evolutionary perspective on Genesis and Deuteronomy is based on his redaction critical breakdown of each book into 5 distinct layers. In Genesis, which he divides into 9th/8th century, late 8th/early 7th century, late or post-Josianic, priestly, and post-priestly strata, he notes a development from a quasi-magical transfer of an elementary, this-worldly and supra- or trans-personal life force (p. 285) involving specific individuals to a more abstract blessing of the people and their descendants. There is also a general decrease in concerns with agricultural fertility. The final redactional layer exhibits a greater number of conditional formulations of blessing, probably under the influence of deuteronomistic theology. Deuteronomy, which he divides into source texts, Josianic, late/post-Josianic, late-exilic expansions, post-exilic redaction, exhibits an increasing sense of historicization and perhaps surprisingly an elimination of conditional formulations in its latest redactional layer. Since the P source is itself a compositional or redactional stratum, it does not exhibit a comparable diachronic transformation. Instead, the Priestly theology of blessing is developed literarily as the narrative develops from vertical blessing relations (primeval narrative, patriarchal narrative) to divinely sanctioned horizontal interpersonal constellation (patriarchal narrative, exodus-sanctuary). Leuenberger also applies a more basic redactional breakdown to the book of Job (3 layers, poetic portion, narrative portion, combination of both portions), but his most significant observations focus on the euphemistic use of ברך in the book, which reflects the critique of the action-reward/punishment schema that is fundamental to the book of Job.
In the third part of the book, Leuenberger offers a synthesis of his analysis by outlining the theological development of the concept of blessing in ancient Israel. Although his conclusions are nuanced and certainly not restricted to a single, linear line of development, such a strong evolutionary perspective is perhaps somewhat surprising in today's scholarship because many of his conclusions about the development of the concept of blessing are dependent on redactional divisions that have been increasingly challenged in recent years. One may wonder if the kind of detail of Leuenberger's division of compositional layers is in fact realistic? Furthermore, there is a growing tendency among some scholars to date all biblical texts significantly later than previously assumed and the challenge whether any compositional sources can really be assigned to the early or even middle part of the monarchic period is hardly a new one. Leuenberger's study would be stronger if he had addressed these challenges. Finally, it should not be forgotten that the body of evidence is for all intents and purposes relatively small. One may wonder if e.g. classical historians would accept a chronologically evolutionary system of this kind based on the minimal amount of evidence provided by the Hebrew Bible and several epigraphic discoveries.
Leuenberger concludes his study by pointing out several possible impulses of his study for modern or rather post-modern understandings of a theology of blessing. A need for blessing (Segensbedürftigkeit) is evident in today's society, and a discussion of biblical ideas of blessing can and should inform modern theological discourses. His outline of possible trajectories of discussion is a most welcome contribution, although Leuenberger could do more to establish the connection between his historical and literary analysis of the ancient context and the contemporary situation.
Despite some methodological problems, this book contains a great amount of well organized information and highly detailed analysis and as such should form the basis for much future discussion of the topic. Unfortunately, Leuenberger's writing style is often unclear and unnecessarily complex, making this study less accessible that it could be.