Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expressions in the Hebrew Bible

by Nili S. Fox
Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expressions in the Hebrew Bible
Nili S. Fox
Journal of the American Oriental Society
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 Reviewed work(s): Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expressions in the Hebrew Bible by Kenton L. Sparks Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expressions in the Hebrew Bible. By KENTON L. SPARKS. Winona Lake, Ind.: EISENBRAUNS, 1998. Pp. xiv 344. $37.50. This book is the outgrowth of K. Sparks' doctoral dissertation written under the guidance of John Van Seters. As implied by the title, the author's primary objective is to elucidate evidence of ethnic consciousness in biblical Israel. In utilizing the Hebrew Bible, the most comprehensive collection of written sources on ancient Israel and Judab, Sparks adopts a "minimalist perspective" (p. xiii), though one far less so than most other biblicists associated with this trendy school of thought. Sparks endeavors to bypass certain controversies surrounding the dating of biblical material, such as the Pentateuchal narratives most concerned with issues of ethnicity, by deriving his basic data from sources datable with relative certainty. These include the prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the book of Deuteronomy. To this corpus he adds the Song of Deborah and, with some reservation, the Egyptian Merneptah Stele. This well written and organized volume is divided into seven chapters. Chapter one, the introduction, not only outlines issues pertinent to a study of Israel's ethnic identity, but tackles head on the task of defining "ethnicity," the key concept prevalent throughout the work. Sparks rightly recognizes the value of ethnic studies in general to an investigation of ancient Israel in particular. He introduces two popular anthropological theories dealing with the development of ethnic sentiments in society: I. Wallerstein's core/periphery model (The Capitalist World-Economy [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979]) and P. L. van den Berghe's kinship model (The Ethnic Phenomenon [New York: Elsevier, 1981]). In subsequent sections of the book he applies and tests these theories. Chapter two is a brief comparative study of concepts of ethnicity and identity as manifest in the records of first-millennium Assyria, archaic and classical Greece, and Egypt. From the outset, Sparks contrasts the notions of ethnic consciousness in Assyrian and Egyptian societies with those of Israel. At the same time, he stresses the similar role that ethnicity played in group identity in the ancient Greek and Israelite societies.  Chapter three focuses on the two earliest witnesses reflecting Israel's ethnic distinctiveness: the Merneptah Stele and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). Although Sparks does consider the mention of "Israel" as a people in the late thirteenth-century text of Merneptah as evidence for the group's ethnic identity, he wavers in his conviction that this early Israel is equivalent to biblical Israel. On the other hand, he deems the Song of Deborah to be perhaps the most ancient example of Israelite ethnicity expressed for the purpose of distinguishing the Israelite group from certain Canaanite groups. Sparks dates the song to no later than the ninth century but sees it as reflecting older, perhaps premonarchic, traditions. Chapters four, five, and six examine Israelite and Judahite ethnic sentiments reflected in the prophetic writings and Pentateuchal sources spanning the period from the eighth through the sixth century. Sparks maintains that the solidification of an ethnic consciousness in the eighth century, both in Israel and Judah, is the direct result of political circumstances, that of "peripheral" communities under the "core" domination of the Assyrian empire. His application of Wallerstein's theory in this case is insightful and convincing to a degree. Missing, however, is a comparative analysis of expressions of ethnic identity prior to the era of Assyrian dominion. This is a consequence of the author's adoption of a late dating for the J/E sources and some of the Deuteronomistic histories. In reference to the Deuteronomic movement, Sparks, following Berghe's theory that ethnicity is a natural extension of kinship, points to an intensification of ethnic sentiments manifest in the development of a "brother theology." T he Israelite community, while open to the assimilation of non-Israelite outsiders, required that they accept the distinguishing feature of the group, "Yahwism." Finally, for Sparks, it was in the exile that ethnic boundaries became most clearly defined. Rituals connected with purity, the rite of circumcision, and Sabbath observance helped to identify those who were "in" from those who were "out." These conclusions, though partially valid, are, like others arrived at by Sparks, dependent on the correctness of a late dating of the Pentateuchal sources, an issue still hotly debated in scholarly circles. Overall, Sparks presents a meticulous investigation of the manifestations of Israelite ethnic sentiments, an engaging and significant subject in the ever-growing study of ancient Israelite society. Nonetheless, the reader recognizes certain methodological flaws, As already noted, the author works under the assumption that much of the biblical text heretofore dated early is in fact rather late. Being strapped into that straitjacket ofttimes prevents Sparks from exploring alternate interpretations of key issues. For example, a recurring hypothesis in the volume is that common ethnographic interests reflected in the Greek and Hebrew written records, such as a focus on eponymous forefathers and kinship connections as well as ancestral migrations, are a factor of cultural exchange mediated via the Phoenicians beginning in the eighth century. [1] If an argument for Aegean influence is compelling at all, then why ignore the potential role of the Philistines several centuries earlier? It is quite baffling that cultu ral contacts between this well-documented group of sea-people and early Israel can so easily be overlooked. Furthermore, as Sparks himself notes, conditions other than cultural diffusion can account for analogous ethnographic interests. Yet he does not entertain the possibility that similar expressions of ethnic identity may harken back to the tribal/clan social organizations common to these societies in their formative years. This oversight is striking since the author mentions parallel ethnic sentiments expressed by the semi-nomadic and village-dwelling Haneans of the Old Babylonian period and by Israel. Despite the aforementioned weaknesses, some of which may actually be considered strengths in certain circles, Sparks' work is a serious attempt to grapple with an aspect of biblical studies that has not received adequate attention but certainly deserves it. (1.) In his conclusions Sparks introduces the possibility that these ethnic models originated with the Phoenicians and were disseminated by them to the Greek and Israelite worlds (p. 321). This, however, seems to be an afterthought, for the author never pursues it. COPYRIGHT 2001 American Oriental Society

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