Stephen L. Cook-Why this book is important

As I said in my first post about Stephen L. Cook’s The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism, I think it is an important work.  I am confused by some of his terminology.  I am not convinced by all of his arguments.  But here is why I think the work is important.

First, it goes against the common and seductive theory that Israel’s religion results from an evolution in thought from polytheism to monotheism.  I believe in biological evolution.  But evolution of ideas is more Hegel than Darwin, and a little bit of critical thinking often calls it into question.  In this case there is an awful lot of evidence that there was a very old tradition of — if not monotheism per se–at least loyalty  to the one God of Israel’s ancestors.  As Cook acknowledges, for a long time this was not a majority position or a state-sanctioned one.

Second, although many scholars have seen a common tradition in the (supposed) Elohist, Hosea, Deuteronomy, and Jeremiah; Cook breaks new ground by arguing that Micah and the Psalms of Asaph also belong to this tradition.  This means that the tradition was more diverse than some have thought.  For instance, it existed for centuries in the countryside in both Judah and the northern tribes.

Third, he develops a new sociological model for understanding religious conflict in ancient Israel.  By looking at what happened when someone imposed a more centralized state on tribal peoples in other parts of the world (he never mentions recent history in Afghanistan), he is able to argue that something similar probably happened in Israel.  His model is that a dual-system society develops.  The older village or clan-centered system continues to function even while overlaid by a central state.  This creates tension between state officials (e.i. Micah’s “princes of the house of Israel”) and village elders, who still do their jobs at a local level.  In the same way, priests or ceremonial functionaries who inherit their positions (like the Levites) may come into conflict with new government-appointed clergy.  He brings forth much evidence that this model operated in eighth-century Israel.

Here is what I take as the money quote from this book:

“My case for the ancient pedigree of biblical Yahwism does not rest on the evidence of archaic texts, such as the poem in Judges 5.  It rests on the evidence of traditional social assumptions  in the Sinai theology of the classical prophets, Micah and Hosea.  Micah and Hosea can only express their Sinai convictions in language bound up with norms and customs of an older, prestate way of life.”

“Many remnants of this village-based, lineage-based lifestyle long survived in Israel, but they clearly did so in the face of an ever stronger, centralized organization of society that increasingly rendered older assumptions and institutions peripheral, impractical, or irrelevant.  By Micah and Hosea’s times, it sounded practically irrelevant to hear them referring to a twelve-tribe confederation, to the institution of land apportionment among clans, and to ad hoc military leadership by judges.  But they do make these references” (p. 271).

Of course, he does not really argue that this Sinai theology was a revealed theology, a vehicle for the word of God.  That would go beyond a sociological model or scientific analysis.  The self-understanding of prophets like Hosea and Micah was that they spoke from God.  I am sure Professor Cook agrees and thinks that the shaping of the Bible by the Sinai theology was providential.  But this is an academic study so he doesn’t go there.

At the end he suggests some further lines of inquiry.  One of them has to do with the Aaronic priesthood.  The Zaddokite line in Jerusalem was lineage-based like the Levites, but took a different theological direction.  I would like to know what Cook thinks of the Isaiah-Holiness theology posited by Israel Knohl and discussed by me in November

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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