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  • The Materiality of Power: Explorations in the Social History of Early Israelite Magic by Brian B. Schmidt
  • Gideon Bohak

Brian B. Schmidt, Gideon Bohak, magic, Jewish magic, ancient Israel, ancient magic, social history of magic, materiality, Ancient Judaism, history of Judaism

brian b. schmidt. The Materiality of Power: Explorations in the Social History of Early Israelite Magic. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016. Pp. xv + 258.

The Hebrew Bible is a very unusual book. On the one hand, it is a foundational text of both Judaism and Christianity, and is of some importance in Islam as well. As such, it is one of the most influential writings in the history of human culture. On the other hand, it is made up of many disparate texts, written by numerous people over several centuries, and stemming from a society about whose culture and religion we have very little information—apart, that is, from what these texts tell us. Thus, there is an inherent tension in the study of the Hebrew Bible between how much we would love to know about the world in which it came into being, and how little we actually know. This tension is responsible for the endless stream of studies about every aspect of ancient Israelite society, studies whose sheer volume is in inverse proportion to the quantity and quality of the archeological and historical sources on which they are based. This feature of biblical studies is amply manifest in the present volume, which is devoted to the issue of magic—or, more precisely, "the material evidence for pandemonium and apotropaism—object, image, and epigraph," in the Israelite society of 900–587 BCE (11).

The book is divided into five chapters. In the first, Schmidt briefly discusses the term "magic," which he sees mostly as a modern construct, but the implications of this claim are never fleshed out, and it does not really affect any of his subsequent analyses. The second chapter—which occupies almost half the book (15–122) is devoted to the site of Kuntillet Ajrud, on the northeastern border of the Sinai Peninsula, where a road-station of the ninth/eighth century BCE had been excavated in the 1970s. This site has [End Page 288] gained much fame for the (relative) richness of its epigraphic and iconographic finds, including what have sometimes been interpreted as images of YHWH and his female consort, Asherah. Schmidt advocates this much-contested interpretation, and stresses the apotropaic aspects of both the epigraphy and the iconography, eventually concluding that the site offered its visitors "individual opportunities to participate in rituals comprising a range of localized and more regionally wide religious and magical, more specifically apotropaic, traditions" (112). The third chapter is devoted to two burial complexes—at Khirbet el-Qom, in the hill country west of Hebron, and at Ketef Hinnom, in Jerusalem—where a tomb inscription and two silver amulets were found. One interesting suggestion made by Schmidt is that the similarities between the apotropaic formulae found in all three sites and those found in the "priestly blessing" of Numbers 6:24–26 are due not to the "trickle down" effect of the priestly cult, but to the popularity of such formulae in many different locations, which "eventually made its way to the elite sector of society as a "popularized relic" of sorts" (143). To substantiate such a claim, one would need a fuller analysis of the appearance of such formulae both in the Hebrew Bible and in adjacent Near Eastern cultures, but Schmidt's interests lie elsewhere. In the fourth chapter, he discusses several biblical passages (esp. Dt 32 and 1 Sam 28) that might shed some light on the Israelites' views of the divine realm and of the Underworld, in order to show that the belief in demons was not alien to Israelite religion. Finally, Chapter 5 returns to the debates about Kuntillet Ajrud (201–19), and offers a five-page summary of Schmidt's main claims (219–23), namely, that the ancient Israelites had a firm belief in dangerous demons, and a set of apotropaic invocations of Yahweh and of his female consort, Asherah, who would ward off these evil beings. Or, to put it...


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