Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer, Priestly Rites and Prophetic Rage: Post-Exilic Prophetic Critique of the Priesthood (Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe, 19; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006).  Pp. xvii + 318.  Paper, €59,00.  ISBN 3-16-149059-2.

In this book, the author argues that the various post-exilic prophetic works, in spite of their differences, share a common perception that the priesthood was somehow failing in its duties to the people and to God.   These prophetic works, she posits, not only critique the priesthood but hold the priests largely responsible for the fact that the promises and blessings of Isaiah 40-55 had not yet been fulfilled (p. 2).  Moreover, she states that a critical disposition towards the priesthood is not unique to post-exilic prophecy but is in fact a feature that the post-exilic prophetic works share with many pre-exilic prophetic texts.

With the many current debates in Biblical Studies over the dating of biblical texts, it is important to state from the outset that Tiemeyer’s discussion of post-exilic prophetic materials is limited to those texts, namely Isaiah 56-66, Malachi, Haggai, and Zechariah, that the majority of scholars regard as dating to the Persian period.  She also examines the non-prophetic work of Ezra-Nehemiah, and various pre-exilic works where relevant, with Hosea receiving the most attention of the texts in that latter category.  Tiemeyer has arranged the book in a topical fashion.  She begins with a lengthy discussion of how one should delineate the passages that critique the priesthood, deals with the dating of these passages in a separate chapter, and then includes a series of chapters grouping together texts by the particular critiques they level at the priesthood; e.g., Chapter 7 deals with texts that allege the priests engage in unorthodox rites and Chapter 10 with those that attack the priesthood for their “cultic neglect.”  Certain texts are thus dealt with at various points throughout the book.

The major strength of this book is its extremely close reading of passages.  Most of the texts with which Tiemeyer deals do not actually use the words כהן or כהנים, and so the relevance of the texts to her argument and her interpretations of them often hinge on a particular phrase or the repointing of a difficult word.  While there is a certain degree of speculation involved in this enterprise, Tiemeyer’s readings are generally reasonable and display a mastery of the different manuscript traditions.  Tiemeyer’s technical skills are truly beyond question.  Her overall argument, too, is convincing.  While it is a commonplace of biblical scholarship that social critique stands at the heart of Israelite prophecy, Tiemeyer makes the case well that, apart from more general diatribes against those in power, post-exilic prophetic literature is also concerned more specifically with the behavior of the priesthood.  In this, post-exilic prophecy stands not apart from but alongside many pre-exilic prophetic texts.  Yet, the priesthood nonetheless seems to have seen itself as just and holy (see Chapter 4 for a discussion of the priests’ claim to righteousness). 

Despite the persuasiveness of her overarching thesis, there are areas where Tiemeyer could have been clearer or gone further in making her argument.  In terms of clarity, it would have been helpful for the passages in question to have been quoted more fully.  At times, her lines of argument were difficult to follow without having a copy of the BHS, LXX, and BDB on hand.  In addition, one sometimes longed for a more involved discussion of the social and political realities of the Persian period.  If one follows Tiemeyer’s argument, the priesthood was very unpopular in prophetic circles, and so one wonders how this fact might have related to the waning importance of prophecy in this period, the, in some ways, theocratic nature of post-exilic Judean society, or even the processes leading to the final redaction of the Pentateuch.   

A greater engagement with certain areas of biblical scholarship, too, would have been desirable.  This was most apparent in her discussions of Ezra-Nehemiah’s critique of priestly (and other) intermarriages (Chapter 8) and the issues surrounding priestly purity (Chapter 11 and elsewhere).  One finds it surprising that many important recent works on these topics, including those of Saul Olyan, Jonathan Klawans, and Christine Hayes, were neither discussed nor cited in the book.  Even the work of Jacob Milgrom is very sparsely cited.  In addition, Tiemeyer’s use of cultic terminology at times seems imprecise.  On p. 225, she states that impurity and holiness are opposites of one another.  While this characterization is perhaps limited to the particular situation described, she does at other points appear to use the terms “defile” and “profane” interchangeably (e.g., p. 220).  Her discussion of the relationship between sin and impurity (see p. 239 in particular) also strikes one as inadequate in light of Klawans’s recent work on the subject. 

Similarly, in her discussion of the attitudes displayed towards Gentiles in various Isaianic passages (Chapter 14), she uses the terms “convert” and “proselyte” in a manner implying that she sees the process of conversion as already having existed in the Persian period, making no reference to Shaye Cohen’s cogent argument that it was only in the mid to late Hellenistic period that religious conversion became possible.  In a related sense, Tiemeyer applies the term “convert” to foreigners who have “attached themselves” (נלוה) to Yahweh; a discussion of how that term may have related to the later usage of the word גר would have further enhanced her treatment of this topic. 

These issues aside, Tiemeyer’s work will make a valuable resource for those interested in the Persian period, prophecy, and matters of cult.  Her overall argument that criticism of the priesthood is not “a marginal phenomenon…but rather represents a consistent trend” in post-exilic prophecy is compelling (p. 4).  The seeming antagonism between priest and prophet is especially intriguing when one considers the fact that some biblical prophets were priests themselves.  Thus, in addition to bringing one much closer to understanding how prophets regarded the priesthood in this period, this book also offers insight into how some priests saw their own brethren.  It has long been postulated that the sectarianism of the Hellenistic and Roman periods saw its birth in an earlier era, and Tiemeyer provides yet further evidence that this was in fact the case.

T. M. Lemos
Boston University