Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Russell, Stephen C., The King and the Land: A Geography of Royal Power in the Biblical World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). Pp. 304. Hardcover. US $99.00. ISBN 9780199361885.

Russell's book is a disciplined exploration of how power strategies by biblical kings evoke and utilize spatial expressions to influence, enhance, or impact political and religious narratives. The study is appropriately informed by probing questions that draw from anthropology and Hebrew Bible studies, covering a variety of texts with unique literary and historical contexts. Primarily, Russell applies questions of space and the political power of human kings to four biblical test cases: David's purchase of the threshing floor in 2 Sam 24, Jehu's destruction of Baal's temple in 2 Kgs 10:10–28, Absalom's political manoeuvring at the Jerusalem gates in 2 Sam 15:1–6, and Hezekiah's construction work in Jerusalem's water supply system in 2 Kgs 20:20 and 2 Chr 32:2–4, 30.

Chapter 1 offers some general frameworks and lenses to think through the issues of spatial politics. The disciplined approach of Russell is immediately on display by not getting weighed down by an overly saturated methodology section. Rather, Russell draws broadly on different theorists to set a foundation for the discussion, while those theories do not constantly limit the discussion in later chapters. Thinkers like Max Weber, Anthony Giddens, and Richard Blanton, provide ideas like the duality of a structure, and for Russell, how spatial politics communicate ideas in a given society.[1]

But equal to select methodological lenses, Russell consistently attends to both biblical scholarship and especially the ancient Near Eastern context, both textually and archaeologically. Therefore the work is also a good example for how comparative Hebrew Bible/ancient Near East work can be done. For the biblical evidence, Russell is clear that: “I situate myself within a scholarly tradition that seeks to recover monarchic-era content in this post-monarchic collection” (p. 8). This all relates to the dating of biblical texts, which is always a notorious task. But Russell lays out a reasonable accounting of Noth and revisions to it (p. 9), and dates biblical texts by change in language over time, inscriptional evidence, and the portrayal of political life (pp. 10–13).[2] As such, the work is concerned with broadly describing the cultural matrix in which the biblical texts are best situated, without assuming particular textual borrowing or Israelite scribal knowledge of any specific textual tradition in the surrounding cultures. Therefore, the broad descriptions of the ancient Near Eastern context provide a helpful lens through which to view and interpret the biblical texts. This is a mature approach. Russell shows multiple times how a robust description of an ancient Near Eastern feature or theme helps to temper conclusions regarding biblical texts. These are broad observations across cultures that contribute to the overall thesis.

But it is in the examples where Russell's ability to move through relevant material, but keep the discussion brief, shines through. In the first example of chapter 2, Russell works through David's purchase of Araunah's land, subsequent building of a temple on that land and dedication of it to YHWH in 2 Sam 24. Issues of military sacrifice and military purity become central in the analysis. Russell is also not afraid to probe and work through necessary text critical details when needed.

Here though, Russell shows that census and ritual are tied. Some Mari material helps to do this. But in a longer discussion of the limitations of royal power (pp. 24–31), Russell demonstrates how such limitations are a common feature in the Hebrew Bible (1 Kgs 21; 2 Kgs 8:1–6; Gen 23) as well as in extra-biblical materials: such as in a legal text from Alalakh or in a threshing floor ownership slave from Ugarit (RS 16.145). The limitations of royal ownership across the ancient Near East demonstrate that David is left no choice but to buy the land if he attempts to spread his power, because the theme of the king's limitations shows David likely had no right to the land (p. 30). Russell then applies the ancient Near Eastern king descriptions of dedicating land to the gods. This forwards the discussion in texts like a transfer of land to the deity during the reign of Adad-nirari III. That act protects the land against future claims and enhances the monarchical legitimacy further solidifying David's actions as part of a larger trope. Further examples from Neo-Assyrian kings, Assurbanipal, Sargon II, and attušili III of Hatti (1267–1240 BCE), all show mutual obligations between the king and the deity. In this context David's dedication of the land to YHWH shows why David makes the land cultic, further solidifies his power through spatial politics, and thus makes David into an ideal ancient Near Eastern king through these literary techniques.

In chapter 3, and the second major example, Russell explores Jehu's dung heap in 2 Kgs 10:18–28 as a commentary on Jehu's spatial strategy to take over King Ahab of Israel. Russell charts this example through a series of decommissioning rituals. Russell again does all the detailed exegetical work to trace seams in the text where some decommissioning rituals are Priestly and others are Deuteronomistic. Russell proposes a new structure for two editorial layers of 2 Kgs 10:18–28. This is argued through multiple verses and insertions separating out aspects like corpse exposure, non-sacral personnel in the temple, the burning of Baal's stele, and the more interesting aspect here, the function of the dung heap. Aligned by Russell as one of the Deuteronomistic features of the text, a lot of exegetical effort is placed into making a distinction between a latrine and a dung heap, thus a built structure versus a place where waste is disposed. He concludes that 2 Kgs 10:27 describes a public dumping site rather than a built structure. As such Jehu's officers do not convert the Baal site into a private luxury latrine, but into a public waste location as a spatial commentary on the location. Again, this is another example where royal power uses space in an effort to dominate cultic space.

Russell goes on to identify two layers in the story, arranges these visually with Layer A, Layer B, and additional glosses. The general argument for these layers is reasonable and takes into account all the necessary textual details. It is likely that some may disagree with some aspect of an identified layer, or identify more layers. But wherever one comes down on the issue of layers, Russell cannot be accused of not having done the necessary work to reach conclusions that are much broader, since his conclusions rest on multiple pillars of argumentation. In this case, he has demonstrated that constructions of spatial power are on the mind of these authors as they construct kingship and power in relation to the land. The reasonableness of this conclusion is fostered since Russell has reached it by using multiple tools: textual, redactional, comparative ancient Near Eastern, along with inner biblical tropes and imagery. If one critiques the results of one tool set, the conclusions still rest on the others. This reviewer finds the general conclusions, not only feasible, but convincing. Thus, I have no desire in a review to pick at something I may take differently. Rather, I find it more helpful to point out what Russell has achieved in using multiple aspects of the discipline to work towards a convincing set of conclusions. The real success throughout this study, is having achieved both depth and detail in the four main biblical examples studied, all in under 109 pages of main text. This had to have been achieved by a disciplined process, not getting distracted by every issue that arose, and was likely supported by a good editing process.

The third example in chapter 4 explores how political strategies further relate to space. The example of Absalom's gate in 2 Sam 15:1–6 is chosen as another example of the king using space to gain political support. What follows is a helpful and clear articulation of the function of city gates in the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Near East, and the archaeological record of the southern Levant. While not claiming any particular connection between biblical narrative and comparative evidence, Russell is still strategically selective in focusing on texts with a likely southern Levantine context. This is matched by an analysis of gates in the Southern Levant. Typical of Russell's abilities and skills, these sets of lenses are well balanced and illuminating for the claims made. But admittedly this chapter lacks balance from the rest. While the frame and the setup for gates in the southern Levant is as good a summary discussion as I have seen on the topic, the point of Absalom's gate in the biblical text receives three and a half pages of analysis. It is only a question of balance given this example is treated so briefly, compared to the detailed and lengthy minutiae of ferreting out what precise dung heap was implied, combined with the literary and redactional history laid out in chapter 3 (pp. 47–67). However, the tension between collective authority of the Judean town and the centralized authority of a king is well stated. And, by this point, Russell can be granted some allowance by the reader. The cases have been so well demonstrated, that by chapter 4 a reader often nods their head in agreement. The brief treatment was only surprising given what Russell had set up in previous chapters: a full contextual frame from multiple lenses. Perhaps this chapter could have been gathered into another.

But chapter 5 returns to the formula of previous chapters and contends with the issues of Hezekiah's construction projects around the Jerusalem water system. Again, one knows such a topic could dissolve into a mass of secondary scholarship, but Russell is continually detailed and disciplined in the approach. Here Russell demonstrates that these multiple texts (2 Chr 32:3–4 and 2 Kgs 20:20) make different claims about Hezekiah's power to undergo this work and are independent literary units.

Russell again goes to ancient Near Eastern examples of kings shaping water supply systems. In examples such as Sin-Iddinam (1849–1843 BCE), or various royal inscriptions from Mesopotamia, as late as Sennacherib (705–681 BCE) the detailed descriptions alone show that this is a known motif of human kings. As in chapter 4, Russell starts broad and then circles back to more regionally and chronologically aligned examples such as Levantine royal inscriptions like Mesha, an Ammonite inscription from Tell Siran, and then back to the Neo-Assyrian kings' power demonstrated by their ability to use water as a weapon. The result for Russell is two forms in which the king uses water, first as a local accomplishment, and second as a tactical or military strategy (p. 98). This distinction allows Russell to argue that 2 Chr 32:2–4 refers to Hezekiah preparing for battle, thus aligning with the latter type, while 2 Kgs 20:20 (argued as an editorial framing note) follows the domestic achievement type. This discussion leads to an even more tantalizing reading that not all these biblical texts refer to the Siloam tunnel, building off the work of Ronny Riech, Eli Shukron, Alon de Groot, and Atalya Fadida, where the Siloam tunnel may predate Hezekiah's reign. Multiple water projects may be being referenced.[3]

Overall, on the uses of space, of course many other theories could be consulted. But rather than compile a list here and pretend Russell has somehow failed in any sense, I note one that I would find most helpful to what Russell achieves. In particular, Fisher's work may be helpful if Russell chooses to develop this topic.[4] The communicative power of the spaces themselves may be another dimension to explore in this topic, and one I think Russell does inevitably contribute to while not bringing it to the fore. Russell has certainly developed a geography of royal power, but that geography is also tied to the physical structures that are manipulated. Since many of Russell's examples are not only about power but how to use that power, the representation of space and architecture in a narrative, may indeed communicate something in parallel to the political power being forwarded. This may also open more examples, which I would personally be interested to watch Russell explore with the same approach, details, lenses, and discipline.

This book is an example of the fruits gained when comparative ancient Near Eastern data is used appropriately, but never forced. Likewise, multiple methodological lenses help ask new questions, but are never a crutch nor do they dominate the conclusions. Russell's is a study where textual and linguistic analysis of biblical texts are still valued, appeal to broader biblical motifs provide weight to the analysis informed by the wider cultural matrix, detailed literary/redactional proposals are not ignored, and a responsible use of archaeological data is always at the ready. This is a convincing discussion and demonstration of how kings of the Hebrew Bible utilized spatial politics to advance their own agendas. And the discussion opens up the opportunity to explore if Russell's construction of spatial politics is resonant in other texts as well. But more interestingly for this reader, Russell's study is a fine example of the impact that well deployed biblical scholarship (and specifically comparative ancient Near Eastern studies) can have on any topic, and is a positive example of the discipline well done.

Shawn Flynn, St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta

[1] Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (New York: Free Press, 1964), 124–32; 325–392; Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Richard E. Blanton, Gary M. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and Peter N. Peregrine, “A Dual-Processual Theory for the Evolution of Mesoamerican Civilization,” Current Anthropology (1996): 1–14. reference

[2] Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (JSOTSup, 15; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981). reference

[3] Ronny Reich and Eliu Shukron, “The Date of the Siloam Tunnel Reconsidered,” TA 38 (2011), 147–57; Alon de Groot and Atalya Fadida, “The Pottery Assemblage from the Rock Cut Pool near the Gihon Spring,” TA 38 (2011), 158–66. reference

[4] For example, Kevin D. Fisher, “Investigating Monumental Social Space in Late Bronze Age Cyprus: An Integrative Approach,” in E. Paliou, U. Lieberwirth and S. Polla (eds.), Spatial Analysis and Social Spaces: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Interpretation of Historic and Prehistoric Built Environments (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 167–202. reference