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Reviewed by:
  • The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism
  • Victor H. Matthews
The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism, by Stephen L. Cook. Studies in Biblical Literature 8. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004. 310 pp. $39.95.

The basic premise of this volume is that the Sinai covenant theology has its origins in the early history of the people of Israel and can be identified in the [End Page 184] Psalms of Asaph and in the prophetic speech of Micah and Hosea, as well as in the editorial work of the Deuteronomistic Historian. In his contention that "the religious norms of the Hebrew Bible and the actual practice of Israelite religion are not synonymous entities or part of one unilinear, evolutionary continuum" (p. 11), Cook takes on "revisionist scholarship" and "developmentally oriented theorists," and truly seeks to uncover ways in which Biblical Yahwism co-existed with Canaanite religious practices and other popular forms of worship (p. 18). It is his further argument that the biblical traditions centered on Sinai are tied to "specific societal groups, not geographical locales" as has been done in the past (p. 19) and therefore he refers to them as "Sinai theology."

In his recitation of the basic characteristics of Sinai theology, Cook posits an ideal "that Israel was one 'people'" and that "God desires a bilateral, committed relationship with them" (see Exod 19:5 and Ps 50:16–21; p. 21), which results in God, as an historical act, bringing the chosen people into the land after their election. The people then hold the land "in fee" with Yahweh as their "landlord" (p. 30). This relationship is chronicled in the prophets, who tell the people that "Yahweh may withhold the land's fertility to demonstrate God's sole control of it" (Hos 2:9–12; Jer 3:2–3; p. 35). A further distinction between polytheistic worship and Sinai theology is its aniconism (see Ps 80:1).

In contrast to the Zion theology that glorifies Jerusalem and the monarchy, Sinai theology, according to Cook, espouses a "limited and tempered monarchy" (see Deut 17:1420), and this further suggests its roots in pre-state, pre-monarchic Israel (p. 43). Of course, this means that during most of the monarchy Sinai theology represents a minority tradition. Following Norman Gottwald's lead, Cook points to the "people of the land" as representatives of pre-state Judah, but these elements of the population are submerged socially and politically except during the reformist efforts of kings Hezekiah and Josiah, the former perhaps influenced by transplanted people from the northern kingdom after 721 BCE (see pp. 52–57).

Having established a case for the existence and latent potency of the various elements of Sinai theology in early Israelite culture, Cook then explores pronouncements in Hosea and Micah as indicators of its expression in the eighth-century prophets, and he continually compares the language in these texts to that in the Psalms of Asaph. For example, he discusses the idea of "conditional tenancy" as it appears in futility curses (Hos 4:10) and judgment oracles (Mic 6:9–16), and in other treaty language (pp. 95–106).

In a subsequent section (chap. 5), the mixed use of elements of both Zion theology and Sinai theology in Micah are examined, and the conclusion is drawn that Micah is simply being sensitive to his constituency, "the people of the land." These people, victims of the oppression and taxation of the Jerusalem [End Page 185] establishment, are willing to accept the more positive image of David as "shepherd and reconciler," who might rule in the more limited terms of the Sinai theology.

Cook then uses this examination of Micah as a springboard (chap. 6) to advocate a social scientific analysis of the "overlapping societal systems" that existed in the eighth century. For instance, he points to evidence of "Israel's traditional way of life" (i.e., pre-state) emerging in the monarchy period in such legal pronouncements as Deut 15:1–2's protection of an extended family's inherited land, and the championing of kingship solidarity in Prov 17:17 and 18:19 (p. 153). Kin rights to territory are further evidenced in the listing...


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