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

Ko, Ming Him, The Levite Singers in Chronicles and Their Stabilizing Role (LHBOTS, 657; London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2017) Pp. 278. Hardback. US$102.60. ISBN: 9780567677020.

Ming Him Ko divides his study into two parts “corresponding to the two research questions posed at the outset”:

1) The Jewish engagement in the Neo-Babylonian royal court during the Babylonian exile probably created a social condition for influencing and providing insights into the ongoing intra-Jewish reflection on the temple as counterpart and music. The identity-making process of the temple community in Yehud, centered in Jerusalem, further deepened this ongoing reflection. This provided a theological frame of reference that affected and reaffirmed the Chronicler's choice of inner-biblical traditions in his literary depiction of the Jerusalem temple and the Levite singers. (p. 9)

2) Levite singers in Chronicles sought to foster and promote cosmic stability in covenantal terms by exercising a threefold role: education, scribal, and liturgical. The Chronicler's portrayal of their role suggests that he wished to characterise these singers as socially comparable to the Mesopotamian scholar-singers, in order to promote and legitimise the theological primacy and authenticity of the Jerusalem temple cult. (p. 9)

Ko first focuses on scholar-singers in Mesopotamia, especially “lamenters” (Akkadian kalû). Aspirants of kalû-priesthood underwent a two-stage curriculum consisting of learning relevant texts, musical theory, and rhythmic conventions. Thereafter they acted as apprentices, whereupon they in turn became teachers. The priests and their scholars were “responsible for transmitting ancient traditions in an oral-written interface.” The priests were also involved in cultic singing. Moreover, “Enūma eliš, which featured the basic training curriculum of most Neo-Babylonian scholar-singers, constituted the traditional Babylonian temple ideology,” which “conveyed the fundamental concept of the temple as counterpart” (pp. 59–60).

The investigation of scholar-singers in Mesopotamia concludes with a connection made to post-exilic biblical theology (i.e., the ideas of heaven-and-the-earth; the God-king figure; the heavenly temple and template; and YHWH's glory and presence, holiness and purity) said to be generally accepted by scholars as “probably” representing theological reflections on the exile. The preceding investigation shows that these had strong Mesopotamian roots. Nevertheless, they were also widely shared in Israelite pre-exilic traditions, but the adaptation of them “in exilic and post-exilic traditions suggests that the experience of the exile led to a strong reflection and reworking of the pre-exilic Israelite traditions, and this reaffirmed some literary traditions” (p. 61). How this exilic reaction materialized is to be examined and Ko “suggests” that the deported king Jehoiachin of Judah is the key person (p. 61).

The chapter on Jehoiachin “argues that the influence of the Mesopotamian scholar-singer context increased when Jewish deportees engaged in intensive social interaction in Babylon” (p. 62). This influence should, however, not be expected to manifest as direct literary borrowing. The aim is to “explore the probable interaction between Jews and Babylonians, and the Jews' probable reaction to this interaction” (p. 62; my italics). Jehoiachin was “probably” the leader of Jewish communities in Babylon, which can be verified by epigraphic discoveries. Nevertheless, Ko writes about his “most important argument,” an Akkadian cuneiform tablet, that this is “tantalisingly elusive and can only provide limited information on the actual life of the exiled people in Babylon” (pp. 65–6). It is further “historically probable that Jehoiachin participated in the social setting of the royal court during the exile” (p. 71). His scribes and officials “were most likely involved in the social life of the Babylonian royal court, in which the scribal-musical culture of Mesopotamian scholar-singers…dominated social interaction” (p. 71). “Jehoiachin and his elite professionals were probably subject to strong syncretism” (p. 71, 103; my italics). This is thus the basis for Ko's theory of a Babylonian influence on the Chronicler's theology.

Concerning syncretism, in my judgment we should observe that circumcision and Sabbath became mandatory during the exile as markers of Jewish identity, thus separating the Jews from their Babylonian environment. This contradicts the idea of syncretistic tendencies.

The topics dealt with thus far form Part I of the study. In Part II Ko approaches the second research question in the light of the insights obtained from Part I. It consists of four chapters dealing with Temple as Counterpart as the Pre-Understanding of the Chronicler; Music and Prophecy in the Educational Context; The Shaping of YHWH's Hymns in the Scribal Context of Levite Singers; and Song and Sacrifice in the Liturgical Context of Levite Singers. As for the temple as counterpart, in Chronicles it was believed to be the place where wrath was averted, which arose from a divine template and which reached heaven and became the source of life. This “provides a theological frame of reference for understanding the Levite singers within the worship system of the temple” (p. 150).

Concerning the Levite singers Ko declares the particular contribution of his study to be “an understanding of the Chronicler's characterisation of Levite singers in relation to the social, political, and theological agendas of the citizen-temple community and the prominence of music in the Mesopotamian scholar-singer context” (p. 151). According to him, “the social status and the professional profiles of the Levites were upgraded to be comparable with those of the Mesopotamian scholar-singers” (p. 151). The last-mentioned statement is repeated several times, but it rests too heavily on Ko's conclusions in Part I of the study, which are made under the reservation of being probable. Another problematic item is the statement that the Chronicler presents a father-son apprenticeship in 1 Chr 25:7–8 (p. 165). This is built on the expression מֵבִין עִם־תַּלְמִיד. Ko refers repeatedly to this assertion, which has an apparent connection to his description of the Father-Son Apprenticeship of kalûtu in Part I (pp. 37–9). His own translation of the expression reads “teacher (one who is skillful) with pupil” (p. 159). Nothing indicates that we are dealing with fathers and sons, and therefore this statement appears conditional upon Ko's thesis of the connection between the kalû-priests and the Levitical singers.

At the outset of the chapter “The Shaping of YHWH's Hymns in the Scribal Context of Levite Singers” Ko writes: “We are fortunate to see that this scribal recontextualisation happened through two parallel transmissions of biblical psalms: (1) the compilation of the Psalter and (2) the insetting of psalms in Chronicles” (p. 183). In both of them, the experience of the exile plays a decisive role (p. 183). His conclusion is “that the Chronicler and the editors of the Psalter were related in many theological issues with shared scribal conventions” (p. 212).

Ko ascribes 1 Chr 16:4 particular importance, rendering הַלְוִיִּם with “singers and priests” (p. 193). Sara Japhet, the second most referenced source for Ko, comments on this verse: “The phrasing of the verse is carefully chosen. Those appointed by David are ‘of the Levites,’ and not ‘of the singers,’ the terms being clearly differentiated.”[1] As this far from indisputable non-verbatim rendering is important for Ko, he should have corroborated it with more than a two-line footnote.

In the conclusions to Part II I again remark on the frequency of “probably/likely”: three of four numbered conclusions are labeled with this reservation. The general conclusions of the study also bear this label. To be sure, rarely are we dealing with empirical facts when it comes to biblical history; nevertheless, I find this disturbing. An exegetical study should offer more solid findings, which, of course, can be amplified by suggestions that are more tentative.

Ming Him Ko is to be credited for many important observations concerning the hallmarks of the Chronicler's theology gained by careful comparison with the Deuteronomists. The question of the nature of the theological implications of the exile visible in the Chronicler's work is important, and at the same time elusive. Assessing the value of Ko's conclusions on this point is affected by this very same elusiveness.

Risto Nurmela, Abo Akademi University, Abo (Turku), Finland

[1] Sara Japhet, I & II Chronicles: A Commentary (OTL; London: SCM, 1993), 315. reference