Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Petter, Thomas D., The Land between the Two Rivers: Early Israelite Identities in Central Transjordan (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2014). Pp. 154. Hardcover. US$44.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-291-4.

In this concise and elegant revision of his 2005 doctoral dissertation written under Timothy P. Harrison at the University of Toronto, Thomas D. Petter examines the “ethnic identity” (p. xv) of those residing in the central highlands of Jordan during the early Iron Age I. He traces tribal settlement in the region during the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age transition, but urges caution in designating that presence as “Israelite.” He argues instead that early Iron Age tribal groups in central Transjordan held shifting identities and affiliations.

Petter develops his theses against the background of two critical trajectories. On the one hand, an older generation of scholar, typified by Frank Moore Cross, argued strongly for an early Israelite presence in Transjordan, going so far as to identify that presence as Reubenite and positing a movement of Israelite groups from east to west, as hinted at in the biblical settlement traditions. On the other hand, in recent decades, several scholars have voiced strong skepticism about the possibility of reconstructing Israel's earliest history. Petter offers a sensitive reading of the evidence that occupies something of a middle ground between these scholarly approaches.

Petter notes the increase in sedentary settlement in the Madaba Plateau Region in the early Iron I and examines the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age transition at Tall al-‘Umayri and Tell Madaba. He pays particularly close attention to archaeological traces of “religious ritual behaviour” (p. 94), which he regards as the most promising marker of ethnic identity. The archaeological data, Petter argues, points to a tribal presence in central Transjordan in the early Iron Age I.

In light of anthropological work on tribal frontier zones, Petter urges caution in describing this tribal presence as “Israelite.” Following the lead of several scholars, he applies to the southern Levant the shifting frontier model developed by O. Lattimore in his study of the lands beyond Imperial China's Great Wall.[1] The model “presupposes a high degree of social, economic, and ultimately, political fluidity” (p. 1). Petter posits that the region is best understood as a “contested tribal zone” that “witnessed a dynamic process of shifting ethnic identities” (p. xv). He argues that such shifting identities are discernible in the earliest biblical traditions about the region, including the Song of Heshbon in Num 21:27–30. “While some of the inhabitants of Transjordan may have been connected to Yahwism and Israel, they probably maintained their local distinctiveness…primordial ties with the larger Israel group could easily be severed…these tribal groups could also reintegrate with the Yahwistic community and even gain circumstantial preeminence, signalled by ḥērem victories over tribal enemies” (p. 74).

A strength of the volume is Petter's effortless command of the anthropological and sociological literature related to the questions he takes up—from the paradigm-establishing work of such towering figures as Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu to more directly relevant models such as Carol Kramer's work on ethnicity in the archaeological record and Owen Lattimore's work on shifting frontier zones.[2] His engagement with empirical studies of the texts and archaeology of the region is equally impressive. Throughout, Petter carefully avoids extreme positions, finding common ground in the several debates he outlines. He develops his theses from parallel, converging lines of evidence. The result is that even though one might quibble with one aspect or another of his reading of the data, the main arguments of the book remain robust. At the same time, I would have welcomed Petter's engagement with recent monographs that take up the significance of the Transjordan in biblical tradition[3] and with recent work on the implications of epigraphic evidence for dating biblical historiography.[4]

Sympathetic to the arguments Petter advances here, I would nevertheless go further and join Daniel E. Fleming in questioning the usefulness of ethnicity as a category for analyzing earliest Israel.[5] Fleming's reconstruction of early Israel is informed especially by his analysis of the Mari archives, which have given us a remarkably clear picture of the interactions between tribal and monarchic strategies of political action in the ancient Near East.[6] With Fleming, I understand the term “Israel” in the earliest biblical traditions to designate a political body rather than an ethnic group. Collective political action—for example, decisions about going to war, or about what affiliation a town might hold—is traceable in the biblical record (e.g., Judg 5; Judg 19–21; 1 Sam 11). Israelite “ethnicity,” on the other hand, is much more difficult to pinpoint in any biblical text that might arguably reflect traditions from the Iron Age I. To my mind, Petter's definition of “Israelite ethnicities” as “localized expressions of shared ideals of eponymity and covenantal Yahwism within a broader Israel group” (p. 57) is more usefully applied to later periods, after the growth of the conflict between Israelites and Philistines in the pre-monarchic and early monarchic periods or perhaps even after the rise of exclusive Yahwism in the late monarchic and early post-monarchic periods.

This wonderfully clear and judiciously argued volume is sure to be welcomed by historians and archaeologists who work on the central highlands of Jordan. Additionally, Petter's approach here may serve as a model for those exploring Israelite origins in Cisjordan. The Cisjordanian evidence for Israelite origins may prove amenable to an analysis that accounts for the kind of fluidity that Petter traces here for central Transjordan.

Stephen C. Russell, John Jay College, CUNY

[1] O. Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers in China (Boston: Beacon, 1962). reference

[2] Max Weber, Economy and Society (ed. G. Roth and C. Wittick; 2 vols.; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977); Carol Kramer, “Pots and Peoples,” in L. D. Levine and T. C. Young, Jr.(eds.), Mountains and Lowlands: Essays in the Archaeology of Greater Mesopotamia (Malibu: Undena, 1977), 91–112; Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers. reference

[3] Daniel A. Kirsch, “The Importance of Looking East: A Study of the Domestic and Foreign Policies of the Kings of Israel and Judah with Regard to Transjordan” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2003); David V. Santis, “The Land of Transjordan Israel in the Israel Age and Its Religious Traditions” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 2004); Jeremy M. Hutton, The Transjordanian Palimpsest: The Overwritten Texts of Personal Exile and Transformation in the Deuteronomistic History (BZAW, 396; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009); Stephen C. Russell, Images of Egypt in Early Biblical Literature: Cisjordan-Israelite, Transjordan-Israelite, and Judahite Portrayals (BZAW, 403; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009); Rachel Havrelock, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). reference

[4] Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009). reference

[5] Daniel E. Fleming, The Legacy of Israel in Judah's Bible: History, Politics, and the Reinscribing of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). reference

[6] Daniel E. Fleming, Democracy's Ancient Ancestors: Mari and Early Collective Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). reference