Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Coomber, Matthew J. M., Re-Reading the Prophets through Corporate Globalization: A Cultural-Evolutionary Approach to Economic Injustice in the Hebrew Bible (Biblical Intersections, 4; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2010). Hardcover. Pp. xvii + 325. US$152.50. ISBN 978-1-60724-978-8.

Coomber's monograph, a revised version of his dissertation written at the University of Sheffield, puts forth a bold comparison between the economic developments in late eighth-century and early seventh-century b.c.e. Judah and the corporate globalization of the latter half of the twentieth century c.e. in the wake of the Brenton Woods agreements that led to the founding of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. As concrete examples from the ancient context, he chooses Mic 2:1–2 and Isa 5:8–10, while postcolonial Tunisia serves as the detailed modern scenario. Coomber argues that because these prophetic texts lack clear indicators to determine the identities of the perpetrators of economic exploitation and voices of the oppressed, the modern setting can provide a relevant heuristic comparison for understanding the ancient situation: “This book will argue, with all necessary caveats, that the use of cultural-evolutionary theory in biblical studies can be augmented by considering the tangible effects of cultural evolution on modern-day agrarian societies as they are absorbed into our current economic world-system: corporate globalization” (p. 4).

The book is split into seven chapters. The “Introduction” provides some history of interpretation of the two biblical texts, after which it lays out the exegetical positions of M. Chaney and D. Premnath. Their work serves as the basis for Coomber's own interpretation. He correctly observes that interpretations of Mic 2:1–2 focusing on wealth and poverty find little basis in the text, as there is no mention of the poor. Instead, supported by numerous more recent interpreters, Coomber argues that the thematic of power and subjugation functions as a better description of the dynamics in both Mic 2 and Isa 5. The land seizures decried in these texts take part in a wide-reaching economic change in this period, which he calls “…latifundialization, or consolidation of smaller plots of land into large estates” (p. 19). Coomber argues that this development came about in order to maximize economic efficiency in the production of exports, specifically olive oil and wine.

The second chapter, “Cultural-Evolutionary Theory and Economic Motivation,” introduces the chosen social-scientific approach of cultural-evolutionary theory, on the basis of which the author is able to ask new questions of the given data. In this chapter Coomber traces the developments of various theoretical sociological and anthropological approaches from early evolutionary models through Polanyi's substantivism and the more recent ecological views of Rappaport and Lenski. His end result consists in arguing that societies confronted with similar ecological circumstances (often) develop along similar lines, especially when they become part of world systems (p. 39). The circumstances he sets forth for the period of preexilic Judah are considerable population growth and increased market-oriented trade, which led to intensive exploitation of farmers with small landholdings.

Coomber begins “Trade and Transformation in the Ancient World” with the stark claim that “Ancient examples of interregional trade systems, such as the world system…during the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in Iron Age II, are not divorced from the current world system of corporate globalization, but are its precursors” (p. 77). He bases this contention on recent applications of world-systems theory. In order to substantiate this hypothesis, he then offers a broad discussion of the trade patterns in the ancient Near East beginning with Early Bronze Sumeria and then moving through the Early and Late Bronze Levant. These discussions serve to put various cycles of development from the ancient world on display, indicating a certain level of similarity between the developments in each period. After these introductory sections, the discussion moves to late eighth-century Judah. Key cornerstones for the argument consist of the importance of Ashkelon's port, the olive oil installations around Ekron, the population explosion of Jerusalem, and increased luxury items found in Jerusalem. The broad chronological panorama paints these developments in Judah as part of a recurring chain of events set into play when agrarian societies join interregional world systems (pp. 132–33).

“Twentieth-Century Corporate Globalization” recounts the history of the Brenton Woods accord leading to the founding of the IMF and World Bank. This chapter presents a whirlwind tour of both the stated intentions and actual practices of these institutions, detailing especially how acceptance of loans by struggling countries has led to the lowering of protective trade barriers on agriculture and abandonment of traditional methods of landownership. These policies then resulted in decreased prosperity for the small farmers and the poorest in the countries, but increased economic opportunities for multi-national corporations and some local elites. Basically, the IMF and World Bank, though theoretically giving loans to struggling countries in order to help them improve the wellbeing of all their citizens, really do more damage than good because of the conditions—usually related to structural changes—that accompany the monies from the international institutions. One helpful insight from this chapter is that it is not only the poor who suffer under the imposition of such conditions, but also those local elites whose power or wealth is tied up solely in domestic “investments.” Coomber concludes that while the modern system is vastly different from eighth-century Judah, they share similar motivations on the part of the powerful and effects on the vulnerable states (p. 154).

The fifth chapter, “Reshaping Landownership in Tunisia,” provides a closer analysis of the failed land tenure policies enacted by the Tunisian government at various points following the end of French colonialism, many of which were organized with the cooperation and approval of the World Bank and IMF. Coomber sees this investigation as relevant to his topic because postcolonial Tunisia and ancient Judah share the importance of religious-based inalienable approaches to land tenure, similar agrarian environments (i.e., climate), and finally the shared experience by the farmers in each of “…hardship as a result of increased commercialization” (p. 182). He notes the difference between the habous communal land endowments in Tunisia, which were communal lands intended for the use of whole communities administered by religious leaders on the one hand, and the more clan or family-based land tenure structures presented in the Hebrew Bible on the other. Coomber contends, nevertheless, that in both land tenure systems the goal is to see that even poor families receive enough land to ensure subsistence, and that this basic parallel between the two systems overcomes the differences between them. After laying out these similarities, the chapter traces four different land reforms, starting with latifundialization by the French, then further movement in this direction, which ended up concentrating prime land in elite hands. These owners concentrated production on export crops, thereby taking away peasant farmers' basis of self-subsistence. These peasant farmers, instead of benefiting from exports, in fact experienced a decline in their standard of living and often ended up as day laborers in their family's former fields or else in the cities. While the narrative is considerably more refined, the conclusion is that “Each phase of Tunisia's development reveals the government's motives behind modernizing Tunisia for involvement in corporate globalization, and the obstinacy with which the recurring patterns associated with such cultural-evolutionary patterns in agrarian societies emerge” (p. 226).

The chapter, “Insights to be Gained Through the Modern Context,” brings the ancient Judahite and modern Tunisian contexts together. One way in which the modern scenario helps exegesis of the ancient situation is through offering actual voices of small-scale farmers and richer holders of large farms. These added insights allow for possible explanations and ways to fill some of the gaps in the exegesis of the biblical texts and ancient Judahite context. The book ends with a conclusion, bibliography, and index.

The argument of the book addresses an important question: What are the similarities between the economic situation in preexilic Judah and more recent ones? The hurdles involved in addressing such a question are surely monumental, given the generally narrow focus of biblical studies on the ancient periods. Coombers' audacity in taking on this challenge is definitely praiseworthy, and his intention to fill the gaps in and behind the biblical text with modern voices illuminating.

As preconditions for judging this attempt successful, however, the reader must agree with several debatable points, beginning with the command economy and latifundialization model for this period put forth by Chaney and Premnath. Second, one must accept that “economic thinking,” including such features as profit maximization and efficiency, were central values in ancient Judah, and that the economic systems really are comparable. Third, the use of archaeological data assumes the late-eighth and (early?) seventh centuries can be understood as a single time period in Judah, though they are separated by the drastic invasion of 701. Finally, given the monograph's considerable interest in the events behind the prophetic texts, perhaps in his future work the author could address a broader range of biblical and other ancient texts (several directions include the Yavneh Yam inscription and Mesopotamian and Elephantine land conveyance records). Interaction with a broader number of more recent interpreters of the biblical texts and social background—W. Houston, H. G. M. Williamson, and R. Kessler come to mind—could also have allowed for “thicker description” of the biblical texts and their world.[1]

Coomber's work shares with biblical scholarship more of the riches to be found through social-scientific approaches. Specifically, the voices of twentieth-century Tunisian peasants allow (Euro-American academic) readers to juxtapose their reconstructions of ancient Judahite society with another society that is more closely related to the world of the biblical texts than their own.

Peter Altmann, University of Zurich

[1] W. J. Houston, Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament (2nd ed.; LHBOTS, 428; London: T & T Clark, 2008); H. G. M. Williamson, Isaiah 1–5 (ICC; London: T & T Clark, 2006); R. Kessler, Staat und Gesellschaft im vorexilischen Juda. Vom 8. Jahrhundert bis zum Exil (VTSup, 47; Leiden: Brill, 1992). reference