Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

de Hulster, Izaak J. and Joel M. LeMon (eds.), Image, Text, Exegesis: Iconographic Interpretation and the Hebrew Bible (LHBOTS, 588; London: Bloomsbury, 2016). Pp. 256. Hardcover. US$110.00. ISBN 9780567669568.

Izaak de Hulster and Joel LeMon, both central figures in the current school of biblical iconographers, have brought together this volume in an attempt to offer a multivocal rumination on the theory, methodology, and practice of iconographic interpretation. As they indicate in their introduction, they structured the volume to begin with essays that probe interpretive modes, with later essays focusing increasingly on the relation between text and image. This volume thus self-consciously attempts to mark a step forward in the presentation and self-reflection of iconographic interpretation.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith (“Acculturating Gender Roles: Goddess Images as Conveyors of Culture in Ancient Israel”) begins the volume with a thoroughly art historical analysis of images of female divinities in the Bronze and Iron Age southern Levant, which she suggests offer a basis on which to interpret the plethora of Judean Pillar Figurines (JPFs) from ancient Judah. Making use of a particular type of iconographic analysis, Bloch-Smith suggests that nudity—in contrast with nakedness—plays a central role in the identification of goddesses in ancient art. When turning to the analysis of the JPFs, however, she fuses her iconographic analysis with a broader based analysis of the physical and functional (i.e., non-iconographic) features of the JPFs. She concludes by suggesting that nudity in the iconography of goddess representation functions to reify traditional gender roles of women in ancient Israelite society.

Rüdiger Schmitt (“Mixed Creatures and the Assyrian Influence on the West Semitic Glyptic Repertoire”) attempts to determine the extent to which Assyrian religion influenced private and family religion in Judah in the first millennium b.c.e. by analyzing the assimilation of Assyrian iconographic motifs in the West Semitic corpus of glyptic art during that period. With regard to certain mixed creatures—such as the ugallu-demon, the standing winged-bull, and the girtablullû—Schmitt is willing to grant an “adoption” (p. 23) of the visual motif, but not the religious significance that the motif might have had in Mesopotamia. Schmitt concludes that Mesopotamian religion influenced belief in astral deities by means of its impact on the West Semitic glyptic corpus, but not apotropaic figures to any significant extent.

Meir Lubetski (“The Function and Meaning of myʾmn on Hebrew Seals in Light of Accompanying Iconography”) proposes that the ambiguous myʾmn found on Hebrew seals is not a personal name, as has been often assumed based on a formulaic reading of Hebrew seals, but rather a Hebrew adaptation of an Egyptian phrase meaning “beloved of Amun” (pp. 30–31). Lubetski goes on to interpret the single known exemplar of a seal with myʾmn accompanied by an image of a scorpion as a seal belonging to an administrator who held a position within the treasury run by the Judean government.

Amy Rebecca Gansell (“The Iconography of Ideal Feminine Beauty Represented in the Hebrew Bible and Iron Age Levantine Ivory Sculpture”) considers feminine beauty in the Hebrew Bible and in the iconography of Iron Age ivories from the Levant by first analyzing inner beauty then proceeding to outward beauty. Gansell treats the Hebrew Bible and the ivories as two different manifestations of a common ancient Near Eastern notion of feminine beauty.

Jackie Wyse-Rhodes (“Finding Asherah: The Goddesses in Text and Image”) takes up the question of Asherah veneration in ancient Israel. Wyse-Rhodes follows Izak Cornelius and Paolo Merlo in their re-evaluations of the iconographic features of Asherah imagery, which she couples with an equally skeptical review of the biblical and epigraphic attestations of Asherah in ancient Israel. She concludes by suggesting that “Asherah” in ancient Israelite text and epigraphy may have been nothing more than an attempt to make use of an antiquated West Semitic goddess from distant memory to represent the rival goddess cults that competed with the cult of Yahweh.

Brent Strawn (“The Iconography of Fear: Yirʾat Yhwh [יראת יהוה] in Artistic Perspective”) investigates what he calls the “double use” of ירא as a term for “real” fear as well as “religious” fear (p. 93). After offering a brief taxonomy of approaches taken by previous scholars, Strawn highlights how the iconography of fear in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Syro-Palestinian art mimics the “double use” known from textual examples from the same places. In the iconographies of these localities, postures used to depict “worshipers, adorants, or tribute-bearers” is essentially identical to those used to depict individuals who fear for their lives. Strawn concludes by suggesting that the religious and real uses of fear are not disparate uses of the same term, but rather are closely related experiences.

Martin Klingbeil (“‘Children I Have Raised and Brought Up’ [Isaiah 1:2]: Female Metaphors for God in Isaiah and the Iconography of the Syro-Palestinian Goddess Asherah”) opens his essay with a rumination on the relationship between images and literary imagery, which fuse together in the “cognitive image domain” (original emphasis, p. 134). Klingbeil then proceeds to offer several “female metaphors” in Isaiah, mostly from Isa 40–66. In the second portion of his essay, he reviews the “image profile” of the goddess Asherah, primarily following Izak Cornelius's 2004 work. Klingbeil concludes by proposing an intentional difference between the iconography of Asherah and the metaphors in Isaiah, despite their seeming similarity.

Thomas Staubli (“Images of Justification”) begins his essay by offering a definition for the term “justification” that is thoroughly theological: “having the right to stand before God” (original emphasis, p. 159). Staubli then proceeds to discuss justification in the Hebrew Bible, employing a tradition-historical approach making use of a typology of justification through four basic patterns: divine or human intercession, sacrifice, sonship, and divine virtue. He grounds his tradition-historical approach to each pattern by employing something akin to an iconographic example to which each textual example might be compared.

Meindert Dijkstra (“The Ivory Beds and Houses of Samaria in Amos”) begins his exploration of the relationship between the accusations weighed against Samarian “ivory beds and houses” in Amos with the archaeology of Samaria by reviewing and critiquing previous analyses of the Samarian ivories, especially in light of other archaeological sites where ivories were discovered in large quantities (i.e., Arslan Tash, Megiddo, Nimrud, and Zincirli). Based on his fresh analysis, Dijkstra offers a new summation of the iconographic repertoire at Samaria, which includes newly proposed image constellations based on original fragmentary reconstruction. Based on this new re-evaluation of the Samarian ivories, Dijkstra concludes that Amos's condemnation of Samaria's use of ivory was less about the religious significance contained with the iconography of the ivories than it was about the cultural estrangement that such opulent luxury items represented.

Michael J. Chan and Maria Metzler (“Lions and Leopards and Bears, O My: Re-Reading Isaiah 11:6–9 in Light of Comparative Iconographic and Literary Evidence”) offer a reconsideration of the tranquil animals text in Isa 11 in light of two easily discernible rubrics of literary and artistic images of kings and beasts in the ancient Near East—display and domination. The authors present both rubrics of display and domination in text and image as displays of royal power and control, which Isa 11 contravenes by negating the aggression which requires control, thus obviating the need for control. The result is the absurd menagerie of Isa 11, in which every element of the scene is unexpected.

Izaak J. de Hulster (“A God of the Mountains? An Iconographic Perspective on the Aramean Argument in 1 Kings 20:23”) probes the extent to which the argument of Ben-Hadad's servant in 1 Kgs 20 assumes “a conceptual relationship between the landscape and the divine” (p. 230) that intimates Yahweh's association with the mountains in contrast with the local Aramean Hadad's association with the plain. De Hulster substantiates this claim by pointing to the lack of mountains in the iconography of weather deities in Aram as compared to the iconography of weather deities from the Levantine coast, which often contains such elements.

Hans Ulrich Steymans (“The Egyptian Deity Menkeret and Psalm 89 as a Royal Funeral”) makes an argument for a redaction history of Ps 89 based on similarity to an Egyptian visual tradition of Menkeret, which shows the deity bearing a deceased king into the afterlife. Steymans joins Egyptian iconographic evidence with evidence from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to propose that Ps 89, which he argues was originally a dirge sung at the funeral of Davidic kings, betrays a Jerusalemite royal ideology where the deceased king is lifted up and born to heaven.

In the appendix Izaak de Hulster (“Practical Resources for Iconographic Exegesis”) offers an extremely helpful guide on how to go about starting an iconographic interpretive project. De Hulster discusses several issues, about which novice iconographic interpreters might or might not know to ask, including: where to find ancient images, scholarly texts that discuss method, whether to use line drawings or photographs, how to caption images, and copyright issues.

This volume offers numerous indicative examples of thoughtful scholars employing iconographic interpretation, which often include combining such interpretation alongside other, likely more familiar, modes of interpretation (e.g., tradition-historical and literary). As a result the volume helpfully displays the potential value of viewing art objects alongside biblical texts, especially when such comparisons are performed by some of the leading scholars of iconographic interpretation of the Bible. Moreover, when such exemplars of iconographic interpretation are combined with the very helpful appendix pointing readers to primary image sources, readers are quite well equipped to begin emulating the iconographic approaches taken by the authors of this volume.

In my view the primary criticism that might be weighed against this volume is that it does not provide any sustained evaluation of the theoretical underpinnings of the iconographic approach taken by the authors or by those employing iconographic interpretation more broadly. While each of the authors seemingly employs an interpretive methodology more or less based upon Erwin Panofsky's iconographic approach to deriving meaning from the visual (hence iconographic interpretation),[1] far more often than not these interpretive methodologies are not made explicit. Thus the fundamental question of “How do we relate text and image?” often goes under addressed if not completely unmentioned. Though there are occasional references to such things as “cognitive linguistics” (Klingbeil, p. 135), “visual thinking” (Strawn, p. 127), or “intermediality” (Chan and Metzler, p. 214), de Hulster makes clear in the appendix that, fundamentally, the iconographic interpretive project, as practiced by the authors of this volume, remains a thoroughly Panofskian one (de Hulster, p. 289). The Panofskian approach, while widely employed by biblical interpreters of ancient art, has been criticized on multiple fronts by scholars of art history over the course of the last half century.[2] Thus, the question of how iconographic interpreters of biblical literature deal with criticisms of their assumed iconographic approach unfortunately goes unanswered in this volume. In this regard, while the volume triumphantly achieves one of its goals—to present excellent examples of iconographic interpretation—it comes up short of its other goal—to offer a self-reflection of iconographic interpretation.

Justin J. White, Yale University

[1] Cf. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939). reference

[2] Paradigmatic examples of art historians offering programmatic responses to Panofsky, include: Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art (trans. J. Goodman; University Park, PN: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005); W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 11–34; Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 111–21. For a thorough contextualization of Panofsky within art history, including critique, see Michael Squire, Image and Text in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 15–89. For examples of biblical scholars noting problems with Panofsky's method for biblical interpretation see Ryan P. Bonfiglio, Reading Images, Seeing Texts: Towards a Visual Hermeneutics for Biblical Studies (OBO, 280; Fribourg: Academic; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016); Annette Weissenrieder and Friederike Wendt, “Images as Communication: The Methods of Iconography,” in Annette Weissenrieder, Friederike Wendt, and Petra von Gemünden (eds.), Picturing the New Testament: Studies in Ancient Visual Images (WUNT, 2.193; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 1–49. reference