The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism

By Gottwald, Norman K. | Interpretation, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism


Gottwald, Norman K., Interpretation


The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism by Stephen L. Cook Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2004. 310 pp. $39.95. ISBN 1-58983-098-9.

THE CENTRAL THESIS OF THIS book is that the "dominant beliefs" shaping the Hebrew Bible have "early and deep" roots in the village system of ancient Israel. These beliefs consist of certain basic tenets. Israel is God's elected vassal by means of covenant and the land is Israel's inheritance with God as sole landlord. Israel's tenancy on the land is conditional on keeping covenant, which necessitates tempered rule by state and village leaders who keep the covenant. These beliefs, dubbed "biblical Yahwism," are widely recognized in biblical scholarship as enshrined in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua through Kings), with pronounced affinities to the Pentateuchal E source and to the prophets Hosea, Jeremiah, and Malachi.

Cook attempts to situate this cluster of beliefs within the stream of Israelite social history by focusing on Hosea and Micah, whom he studies with a literary analysis informed by social-scientific methodology. His conclusion is that this biblical Yahwistic cult and theology is older than Deuteronomy (seventh century) since it appears in writings from the eighth century that draw on a village social and religious system (as opposed to a state system), ultimately deriving from premonarchic tribal Israel. He locates the origins of these dominant beliefs at a far earlier time than do most scholars. Using comparative anthropology and sociology, Cook proposes that the village-derived theology of Hosea and Micah is grounded in their village-based roles as levitical priest (Hosea) and village elder (Micah).

Without doubt, this comparative study of traditional tribal societies, and how they respond to pressure from centralized polities, significantly illuminates the biblical texts. His perceptive explication of the socioreligious roles of rural elders and priests, as a template for understanding the social and religious settings of Hosea and Micah, exhibits a judicious joining of literary and social criticisms. Since his argument depends heavily on an exegesis of these two prophetic books, it is important that he seriously engages the text even when he views it in novel, sometimes problematic, ways (e.g., Hos 12:2-6 and Mic 5:1-6). This makes the book an exegetical goldmine for preachers and church educators. A further contribution is calling on the Psalms of Asaph (Pss 50; 73-83) as witness to a spirited articulation of biblical Yahwism in northern Israel prior to the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.E. and thus to include it as one of the witnesses to covenantal theology preceding Hosea and Micah. In his view, this commitment to exclusive Yahwism was not first introduced to the south after the northern kingdom fell, contrary to prevailing scholarly opinion. Rather, as Micah attests, it was a theology and cult common to north and south from earliest times.

Cook has shown that the village roots of covenantal theology run deep in ancient Israel. That they also run early depends on the assumption that the written accounts of premonarchic Israel provide us a reasonably authentic sketch of Israel's tribal religion. Many scholars persuaded by the trenchancy of his interpretation of Hosea and Micah may nonetheless insist that he has not shown the village-based roots of Hosea and Micah to be necessarily much earlier than the eighth century, given that the village system did not cease with the rise of monarchy but persisted in Israel as one part of a dual system. At most, some skeptics might concede a measure of plausibility to Cook's claim that the palace coup initiated by the Jerusalem priest Jehoiada (2 Kgs 11) indicates that covenantal theology can be traced back to at least the mid-ninth century.

The preceding scholarly work most nearly approximating Cook's study is Morton Smith's Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament (1971). …

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