Benjamin Sommer on Historical Reductionism

By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs,

and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the LORD’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand forget its skill!

Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

It is without question that the exile had a significant impact on Israel’s theology; questions arise when we attempt to discern the extent to which it shaped Israel’s thinking. We can see the scars of exile most obviously in the literature that reflects on Judah’s life in and after exile. But since the time of Wellhausen it has been widely agreed that even Israel’s “earlier” memories bear the scars of exile. This has lead some to posit that the entire history of Israel was born in Babylon/Persia. Mainstream scholarship recognizes a pre-exilic Israel, but in attempting to speak more definitively about what and whom, one will quickly acquire many critics.

This does not hold back Benjamin Sommer, who, in his recent work The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, challenges those who would attempt to use the exile to explain (away) Israel’s “past.”

In arguing against those who seem unwilling to interpret perceptions of divine immanence as anything other than reactions to a particular historical event in the sixth  century B.C.E., I am influenced by Moshe Idel and, more broadly, Mircea Eliade. Following these thinkers, I maintain that an interpreter should first of all at least consider the possibility that we can understand a religious text as manifesting religious intuitions that are essentially timeless. Attempts to portray religious ideas as reactions to historical factors often avoid grappling with these ideas’ deep humanistic significance. From a methodological point of view, this sort of historicist reductionism represents (and here I introduce a technical term that is not used frequently enough in discussions of method in religious studies) what we may call a cop-out. Indeed, this book really consists of one long protest against the historicist reductionism so common among modern biblical scholars, a reductionism that does a disservice both to the Bible and to historicism. (97)

In a nearby endnote, Sommer enlists the aid of Balentine (The Hidden God) to reinforce his argument:

Finally, we should note that the view according to which we must date Israelite texts that regard God as distant to some point after the catastrophe of 586 B.C.E. is simply preposterous from the point of view of the history of religions. As Balentine, Hidden God, 170-1 points out,

In view of the .  . . laments about the deity’s aloofness which can be found in Sumero-Akkadian psalms [dating to the second millennium], it can no longer be assumed that this was a problem which Israel confronted for the first time in the sixth century BC . . . . It is not wise therefore to imply that there was in the sixth century a sudden, unprecedented shift in Israelite confidence in the presence of God. In point of fact the experience of God’s hiddenness appears to have been an integral part of Israel’s faith from an early period. Specific crises may have led to deeper awareness of the extent to which God would withdraw himself, but to focus on such experiences in isolation from the larger framework of which they are a part is to distort the picture. (239-40, n.63)

One area where Sommer resists historical reductionism pertains to the tabernacle. If one assumes that texts containing the tabernacle are written relatively late in Israel’s history and betray the concerns of the exilic or post-exilic community, it becomes easy to see the tabernacle as an exilic or post-exilic fabrication. As Waldemar Janzen summarizes such theology:

Was the tabernacle and its worship intended: 1) As a temporary solution for continuing worship after the loss of the Jerusalem Temple? 2) As a critical alternative to the Temple, now destroyed by God’s judgment? 3) As the center of a gathered religious community after a return from exile, a community that could exist under Persian overlordship? 4) As the program of an Aaronide priestly group, suppressed during the monarchy, but revived in exile? or 5) As a vision for a sanctuary in an unidentified (eschatological?) future? To many scholars, the tabernacle program seems to address these and other questions faced by the exilic or postexilic Jewish community. (NIDB 5:442)

Sommer, in contrast, would have us evaluate P texts (in which we find the tabernacle) “on their own, without starting from the presumption that they date from the period after the events of 586 or, for that matter, before them.” When he does this, he follows the lead of Menahem Haran who

points out that the priestly tabernacle most closely matches the Solomonic temple as described in 1 Kings 6-7, whereas it differs in significant ways from the Jerusalem temple known from the time of Ahaz, Hezekiah, and later, which had been subject to some renovations and additions; that is, the priestly tabernacle closely resembles the Jerusalem of the early First Temple period, not of the latter First Temple period.” Sommer then concludes, “This datum has considerable significance for our dating of the priestly documents” (237 n.42).

Of course, it could be argued that “the tabernacle is nothing other than a symbol of the temple retrojected back into the period of the wandering in the desert.” In response, Sommer goes on to argue that

“the tabernacle’s plan is closer to that of a genuine ancient Semitic tent shrine than to Solomon’s temple. Ancient Semitic tent shrines known from Arabia and Syria held betyls (that is, the presence of the god), traveled through the desert, and were made of red leather (as opposed to the usual black tent of Semitic nomads). Similarly, the priestly tabernacle held Yhwh’s kabod, traveled through the desert, and was covered with red leather (see, e.g., Exodus 25.5, 25.23, 26.14, 35.7, and 36.19). The use of acacia wood rather than olive or oak for building the ark and various elements of the tabernacle calls a desert setting to mind, because it comes from a tree common in the deserts south and southwest of Canaan. (93)

What prompts this inquiry into the tabernacle in Sommer’s book is not an apologetic defense of the Biblical history per se, but rather Sommer’s observation of a duality within the priestly vision of sacred space, a duality that he understands as being deeply rooted in Israel’s pyche.

This inner-priestly incongruity does not simply result from multiple layers of composition (though there can be little doubt that P is a complex amalgamation of traditions). Further, it does not result from the recasting of older texts in the era after the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 586 B.C.E. Rather, it reflects a particular religious sensibility, a certain way of struggling with conflicting perceptions of the divine. (95-6)

I will not here go into these conflicting perceptions of God; perhaps I will save that for another post. Suffice it to say, I believe Sommer provides a credible challenge to a particular kind of historical reductionism that does little justice to the text on its own terms. Whether or not one ultimately agrees with his thesis, Sommer will undoubtedly prove a worthwhile read.

While this is far from a review of Sommer’s book, I hope this post will spark your interest in Sommer’s work.

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