I am very pleased to have just been informed that my proposal for the Mind, Society, and Religion in the Biblical World unit of SBL’s 2017 annual meeting was accepted. My paper, which draws heavily from my dissertation, is entitled “Cognitive Perspectives on Divine Agency in the Hebrew Bible.” The abstract is below.
This paper will apply insights and methodologies from the cognitive science of religion to the study of the conceptualization of deity and divine agency in the Hebrew Bible, and particularly to the problem of the conflation of YHWH’s identity with that of the messenger of YHWH in a small number of early biblical narratives (e.g., Gen 16:7–13; Exod 3:2–6; Judg 6:11–23). The first part of the paper will argue that this conflation is a vestige of the early interpolation of the word mal’ak, “messenger,” in narratives where the deity’s interaction with humanity was considered theologically problematic. The second part of the paper focuses on the accommodation of that vestige within later biblical narratives and the cognitive mechanisms that facilitated it. More specifically, it will consider the influence of humanity’s cognitive predispositions to agency detection, teleology, and mind/body dualism on the development of mental as well as material representations of deity and divine agency in ancient Israel and Judah. Among other things, it will suggest the divine name, YHWH, functioned as a communicable vehicle for divine agency, the possession of which divinized the possessor and endowed them with the agency and authority of the God of Israel. The clearest expression of this ideology is found in Exod 23:20–21. The implications of this framework for the broader study of ancient Near Eastern instantiations of the material mediation of the divine will also be discussed.
I’ve presented related research on this topic before at SBL, but in the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible unit. Another proposal on the development of YHWH’s invisibility and incorporeality (see my previous blog post) was booted from the system because student members may only present one paper per meeting. While the accepted paper will help me refine some ideas central to my dissertation, I really would have enjoyed writing the other one, too.
The calls for papers for most sections of SBL 2017 are up, and I recently submitted the first of two proposals. This paper will be related to my dissertation, but it’s also intended to help me flesh out some tangents I’d like to explore in other publications. I submitted the paper to the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures section, which is focusing on theophany and the embodiment of God. My paper is titled “‘Now You See Me, Now You Don’t’: The Vanishing of YHWH,” and the abstract is below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This paper will engage the problem of the development of YHWH’s invisibility on two fronts. First, it will examine passages from early biblical narratives wherein the identity of the God of Israel appears to have been conflated with that of the messenger of YHWH. It will argue that the word mal’ak was interpolated early in the history of those passages and was later accommodated to the biblical worldview through the conceptualization of YHWH’s name as a communicable vehicle for divine agency, with Exod 23:20–21 representing the clearest articulation of that conceptualization.
The second half of the paper will discuss the relationship of those interpolations to the development of YHWH’s invisibility. It will argue that the interpolation of the messenger was catalyzed by three interrelated factors: (1) the de facto aniconism of YHWH’s worship, (2) increasing concern for the dangers posed by looking upon YHWH’s glorious face, and (3) YHWH’s universalization. The first factor largely freed YHWH from semiotic anchoring in material media, rendering embodiment a much more open question. Factor 2 problematized the exceptions to the rule regarding seeing YHWH that were found in the interpolated passages. The third factor problematized YHWH’s physical interaction with humanity. These factors converged to incentivize authors and editors to obscure those interactions and restrict YHWH’s visibility to oblique visionary accounts of his form. The ongoing universalization of the God of Israel facilitated the further distancing of YHWH from human form and perception.
SBL Publications has a list of titles available for free download on this page. Because you’re interested in Deuteronomy and its composition and ideological function, you’ll be particularly excited to see the inimitable Carly Crouch’s Israel and the Assyrians: Deuteronomy, the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, & the Nature of Subversion. From the introduction:
A prominent feature of attempts to ground the deuteronomic text in a historical context over the last half century has been the observation of certain affinities between Deuteronomy and ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties and loyalty oaths. More specifically, it has been suggested that the book of Deuteronomy, in some more or less original form, constituted a subversive appropriation of Neo-Assyrian imperial ideology in favor of a Yahwistic theocentricity: a text deliberately designed to undermine the authority of the Assyrian king by planting YHWH in his stead. The prevalence of this assertion has its roots in the widespread recognition of similarities between elements of Deuteronomy, especially chapters 13 and 28, and Assyrian vassal treaties and loyalty oaths, with a particular focus on the Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon, commonly referred to as VTE. . . . The following aims to go beyond the doubt cast on the nature of Deuteronomy’s relationship with VTE to question the nature of its relationship with Assyrian ideology more widely and, as a consequence, to challenge the interpretation of the book in subversive terms.
The Society of Biblical Literature is circulating an email announcing new “course packs” offered through University Readers. Basically, the packs collect a series of representative readings from publications within a specific field and allows the student to read them at a discounted rate (an article in an edited volume appears to average about $4). It appears to be aimed at instructors trying to put together curricula. Check it out.
The Society of Biblical Literature has just launched a new Texts and Resources page for members that provides access to PDFs and online versions of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), the UBS Greek New Testament (UBS4), the Rahlf’s edition of the Septuagint, and the Biblia Sacra luxta Vulgatam. Here is the page’s description:
The decades-long commitment of the German Bible Society has produced the staples that have nourished generations of biblical scholars and translators. The booklet Textual Research on the Bible highlights this work. Through a partnership with the German Bible Society, the reading texts (upper texts, without critical apparatus) of four editions are available to SBL members in several formats for download and personal use.
The PDFs of the full documents are quite large, but you can download one book at a time, or use the online version to copy and paste text into other applications. Here’s a screenshot of the page for the BHS:
I’m preparing the following proposal to submit to the SBL annual meeting’s Israelite Religion in Its West Asian Environment program unit:
“My Name is In Him”: The Messenger of YHWH and Distributed Agency in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East
This paper examines the nature and function of the Hebrew Bible’s “messenger of YHWH,” focusing particularly on the blending of the messenger’s identity with that of YHWH. It will argue that the earliest appearances of the messenger in the biblical narratives arise from the textual interpolation of the word malak in the interest of obscuring YHWH’s physical presence and activity among the Israelites. These interpolations will be shown to have predated other narrative traditions within the Hebrew Bible, but as a result of cognitive mechanisms related to the conceptualization of divine agency and its communicability that had long been in place within Israelite and Assyro-Babylonian cult practices, later authors were equipped to seamlessly adopt the notion of the mediation of a semi-autonomous divine agent who could speak and act in the very name of the God of Israel. This distributable divine agency would become conceptualized in one influential iteration as YHWH’s “name,” which could indwell architecture as well as anthropomorphic agents, extending the deity’s presence well beyond the conceptual confines of earlier tradition and cult. The implications of this understanding of the Israelite conceptualization of divine agency are far reaching.
Israel Finkelstein’s 2013 contribution to the SBL series Ancient Near East Monographs, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel, is available in PDF format on SBL’s website. It’s definitely worth a close reading.