Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review

Boer, Roland, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Library of Ancient Israel; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015). Pp. xix + 308. Paperback. US$50.00. ISBN 978-0-664-25966-2.

In The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, Roland Boer carries on his decades-long critical dialogue between Marxism and biblical studies, in this case turning his gaze to the nature of the historical economy in the worlds behind the Hebrew Bible in Southwest Asia from the third to first millennia b.c.e. The geographic and temporal extent, as well as the relative dearth of previous scholarship into these matters, indicates that this undertaking is nothing short of monumental. One might also question the appropriateness of the title's focus on “Israel,” given that Israel plays a decidedly miniscule role both in Southwest Asia of this vast swath of time and in the book itself. This is nowhere more apparent than in the conclusion to the final historical chapter: “Where does ancient Israel fit into this picture of extractive regimes? I have already indicated that it was not a major player by any means in such regimes” (p. 214). Similarly, use of the term “sacred” might raise questions,[1] yet this is a question that Boer addresses adequately: “The language used, the thought forms, the framework in which human beings inhabited the world—all were understood in terms of the sacred” (p. 8). The concept of the “sacred”, then, includes a central aspect of the worldview that enabled that world to exist and develop as it did (also economically).

What does the book offer? After the introduction comes a well-articulated version of Marxist economic theory called Régulation Theory (ch. 1). The book then applies this theory in synchronic manner to the investigation of the agricultural foundation of the economy (ch. 2). Having established this basis, it turns to various allocative and extractive economic regimes. Chapter 3 discusses the “allocative” economic modes of subsistence agriculture appearing in kinship-household and patronage. Chapter 4 addresses the estate/state regimes that predominate in the third and second millennia but were also found in the first millennium, while chapter 5 concerns itself with plunder regimes, especially of the first millennium. Chapter 6 provides a chronological reprise of the previous chapters, and the Conclusion ventures suggestions for our twenty-first century c.e. world. A panoply of excurses, bibliography, and indices close the volume.

The introduction and chapter 1 (“The Question of Theory”) are necessary reading for those unacquainted with Marxist terminology. They provide a helpful overview with regard to the author's use of terms like economic regime, mode of production, and Régulation theory. Boer also outlines the neo-classical framework for economics, which he rejects because of its reductionism that focuses on desocialized, dehistoricized, and detheologized individuals (see p. 18). Further critiques are offered of World-Systems and Polanyian approaches before delving into the search for “deeper patterns” following Mario Liverani and Soviet scholars. According to Boer, the basic economic state is crisis rather than stability, so what needs to be explained are the eras that were relatively crisis free, rather than the crises themselves (pp. 31–32). Within this framework, Boer offers the insightful critique that most approaches to the study of ancient economies take one particular institutional form—be that patrimonialism, palatine, patronage, or otherwise—and universalize it as an explanation for the economics of the system as a whole (pp. 38–39).

Chapter 2, “Of Bread, Beer, and Four-Legged Friends,” appropriately starts the actual analysis of the economy by considering the vocation of the vast majority in ancient Southwest Asia—agriculture (Boer claims this to correspond to 90 percent of the population, p. 55). This section recounts a number of the important bases for alimentation. While there has been increased discussion in recent years of both the nature of agriculture, the realities of lifespans, and the lack of labor rather than land, reminders of the drastic differences between the “modern world” and the worlds of ancient Southwest Asia remain helpful. The chapter seems especially relevant to the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages with regard to the considerable discussion of the Habiru (e.g., p. 77), though whether farmers were as prone to join Habiru-like groups in later periods might be questioned, especially given the long periods of dedication (years and decades) necessary for olive groves and vineyards. On a minor note, it might have been helpful to consider some of the variations in crop regimes throughout the region, such as the move to a two-crop regime (barley and dates) in Mesopotamia in the first millennium.

Chapter Three focuses on the allocative institutional forms of kinship-households and patronage. The first rightly overlays the complex interrelationship (without identification) of the household with some version of the “family.” As Boer emphasizes, individuals likely did not understand themselves as individuals sharing with one another, but rather the labor and the fruits of production belonged to the collective, and this household collective was incredibly resilient due in considerable measure to its very flexibility. As a result, it exerted a power of its own within the constellation of societal forces. Patronage, while overlapping with the kinship-household structure, differed from it in that it was hierarchic by definition and did not attempt to respect family ties. Boer's prime biblical example is, of course, David. While not necessarily egalitarian, Boer is less damning of these forms because they keep the products of labor more or less within the same social-geographical realm (especially on the margins of empires, such as in Israel).

The first category of “extractive” economic forms are labeled (E)states, which are the discussion of chapter four. Boer turns to the beginnings of Mesopotamian society, Sumer, to flesh out this category in the temple-centered societies that dominated until the close of the Late Bronze Age. Its application to Israel is quite muted. Considerable effort in this chapter is spent on arguing against the complexes of trade being a sign of private economic business houses. Boer argues, quite persuasively at least for the third and second millennia, that these were, for all practical purposes, arms of the royal polities. This chapter also does scholarship a service by emphasizing that labor was the primary surplus that palaces and temples sought to extract. Boer also considers the Solomonic state an attempt to establish such a system, complete with administrators and corvée managers. Based on the Amarna Letters, there is adequate reason to believe that the workers rebelled by joining Habiru-like bands that made exploiting their labor quite difficult, at least in that era. Not every reader will be ready to accept Boer's Marxist theoretical recounting of the origins of the state, much less his retelling of its emergence in Sumer, which is all quite distant from the world behind the biblical texts.

“The Many Faces of Plunder, or, Tribute-Exchange” (ch. 5) argues that plunder, tribute, tax, and exchange in ancient Southwest Asia functioned as forms of imperial looting for the acquisition of luxury goods. While this economic regime was certainly present earlier, Boer places its dominance in the Neo-Assyrian through the Persian Empires. Linking these two “faces” of plunder and tribute together forges a helpful category for understanding the first-millennium empires as wholes. The means (soldiers vs. tax or tribute gatherers) are different, not the ends. Boer views these empires as inherently instable, even the Persian Empire, which “…lasted barely two centuries. This is hardly an endorsement for its economic credentials,” (p. 151). Surely it is a matter of perspective, but two hundred years seems quite enduring in my view. Underlying Boer's view is a conception of humans and states/empires that attempt to take all they can for the immediate short term: “The fine balance required for a modicum of stability under this arrangement assumes that human beings make reasonably rational choices for their own self-interest (as neoclassical economics would have it). … This is patently absurd.” Is it really this one-sided? Again, a two-hundred-year reign by the Persians presents fairly strong evidence against Boer's theory.

The chapter also returns to the nature of exchange, demarking the important distinction between trade in luxury items with trade in bulk. Boer argues that ancient trade was mostly of the luxury variety, a view that most adequately describes third and second-millennia traders. However, the careful records of commodity prices in Babylon by Slotsky or payments in silver and barley meant for trade in the pre-coinage Neo-Babylonian Empire are suggestive of alternative solutions,[2] but these are not directly addressed. Boer does acknowledge a development of more markets in the first millennium, but denies their prime function being profit. Readers less amenable to Boer's perspective could take this as special pleading.

Chapter 6, “Spiral of Crises” provides a summary of the book's argument, emphasizing again that crisis should be viewed as the norm and stability as an exception calling for explanation. Furthermore, Boer suggests that the periods of “collapse” (like Iron Age I) may have been the more welcomed by the villages, with the refrain “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” from Judges actually providing something of a utopian vision.

Sacred Economy is to be praised for its thorough attention to and application of a particular theoretical approach to the economies of the ancient Near East. This book offers a clear alternative to the malaise of the post-Polanyian discussions that can revitalize attention to theory when evaluating economic systems. Boer clearly knows Marxist theory well, and I am grateful for his helpful articulation of some of the various developments within Soviet scholarship with regard to economics as a whole and its application to the ancient world. In this sense, the volume is a success in the terms set by the author himself: namely, “…that it may generate new questions and areas of investigation that have not been considered earlier” (p. 10).

A second strength of this book is its critique of facile connections between texts or archaeological data and political-economic events. One example appears in the rejection of the conclusion that climate changes in the early twelfth century b.c.e. could have directly caused the collapse of the various Late Bronze empires (p. 59). Another example is the critique of seeing 1 Kgs 11 (Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) as a cipher for market exchange between Israel and Sheba.

It should be clear that this volume is much more concerned with the world behind the texts than the world in the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Boer notes (p. 51 n. 118) that the nature of the volume made detailed consideration of particular texts inappropriate—though one might query whether textual analysis could have been profitably exchanged for sections like the “Forerunners of Domestication” that provide interesting but relatively irrelevant information of the topic at hand. For the most part texts appear in footnotes or as unexplained epigraphs to various sections. In fact, the book really only directly considers credit and debt in Exod 22, as well as arguing that 1 Kgs 5; 10; and Ezek 27 concern royal luxury acquisition rather than any possibility of trade in bulk items. I would have appreciated interaction with, for example, Neh 5:1–12 or 13:15–22, which address the central concerns of taxes and exchange.

Addressing such a large block of time and space necessarily means that one cannot delve as deeply into the details of particular empires. However, one of the fundamental problems with Boer's portrayal of the first millennium “mode of régulation” of tribute-exchange is his use of evidence. While the scholarly publications on economics of the first millennium empires in the ancient Near East are admittedly sparse, instead of turning his attention to the results of these studies, Boer instead transports forward many sources that focus on the second millennium, especially on Ugarit, Uruk, and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. Boer's arguments could have proven more convincing had he engaged with the various publications by, for example, Karen Radner, Alice Slotsky, and Michael Jursa for the debated role of exchange and prices in the Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and Persian Empires—for which there is considerably more evidence in the Mesopotamian heartland.[3] Neither does he consider the vast and very economically oriented administrative records from Persepolis (Treasury and Fortification Tablets).

As one example of the result of his lack of interaction sources from the first-millennium empires, one might consider his view of the market and the use of coinage in the Persian Empire (p. 187):

This reconstruction is not without some merit, yet can one state this so dogmatically when it remains a considerable crux for scholarship? I find it telling that the evidence Boer draws for this statement comes first from the importance that Stalin placed on supply lines in World War II and then from the practice of the later Roman army. Also, does the postulation of the “origin” of coinage and its usage really explain the resulting mentality (cf. pp. 188–90)? Even if Boer's reconstruction were correct, if coinage becomes a vehicle of commercialized trade in bulk items, this does not mean that individuals or “classes” in society were not driven by a motive for profit. Furthermore, in addition to largely omitting discussion of the widespread use and acceptance of coinage first among smaller Greek states, Boer leaves out discussion of the relative lack of importance of coinage throughout much of the Persian Empire, seemingly suggesting that coinage developed from the movement of Persian armies. He repeatedly states (pp. 192, 209, 212–13) that coinage was widespread and thereby used in taxation. However, the prime example against this proposal is that coinage was not used in Babylonia, an economic powerhouse region of the sprawling Persian Empire. Neither does coinage appear to have been used much beyond the eastern edge of the Persian Empire until the fourth century, which seems quite striking if “…the new levels of abstraction were enabled by the widespread use of coinage (from ca. 500 b.c.e.) in taxation…” (p. 212). Returning to Babylonia, Boer does not consider documents that indicate, among other things, a considerable rise in hired labor (often paid in a bulk commodity and not in silver or coinage!) from the Neo-Babylonian period on.[4]

While this volume may not present the final word on the structures or functioning of the economy in the ancient Near East, much less in ancient Israel, it makes an important contribution. The emphasis on agriculture and the description of various dynamics at play in the rhetoric and power struggles in economic spheres should serve to raise the awareness of biblical scholars of what kinds of questions should continue to be asked when considering economics in ancient Israel and the broader Near East.

Peter Altmann, University of Zurich

[1] The author has addressed this previously in the eponymous article, R. Boer, “The Sacred Economy of Ancient ‘Israel,’” SJOT 21 (2007), 29–48. reference

[2] A. L. Slotsky, The Bourse of Babylon: Market Quotations in the Astronomical Diaries of Babylonia (Bethesda, MD: CDL, 1997); F. Joannès, “Prix et salaires en Babylonie du VIIe au IIIe Siècle avant notre ère,” in Économie antique: prix et formation des prix dans les économies antiques, (ed. J. Andreau, P. Briant, and R. Descat, Entretiens d'archéologie et d'histoire, 3; Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges: Musée Archéologique Départemental, 1997), 313–33. reference

[3] E.g., K. Radner, “Hired Labour in the Neo-Assyrian Empire,” SAAB 16 (2007), 185–226; Slotsky, The Bourse of Babylon; and the very thorough study by M. Jursa, Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium bc: Economic Geography, Economic Mentalities, Agriculture, the Use of Money and the Problem of Economic Growth (AOAT, 377; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010). reference

[4] P.-A. Beaulieu, “Eanna's Contribution to the Construction of the North Palace at Babylon,” in Approaching the Babylonian Economy: Proceedings of the START Project Symposium, Held in Vienna, 1–3 July 2004 (ed. H. D. Baker and M. Jursa; AOAT, 330; Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2005), 45–73. reference