The annual Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting offers an opportunity to hear from a broad variety of scholars addressing hundreds of topics serving an overflowing smorgasbord of interests. Sessions relate to every conceivable part of the Bible, along with archaeology, culture, social concerns, and some ideas so abstruse or pretentious as to leave ordinary folks in wonderment that anyone could come up with such notions — and get paid for it.
This year’s meeting is being held in Boston, where sessions are spread over several huge hotels and the adjoining Hynes Conference and Convention center. The hardest part is choosing which of the many options to attend.
On Saturday, I started the day in a session on “Israelite Religion in Its West Asian Environment.” There Anne Marie Kitz discussed the development of the Semitic root yahway and what that might say about the meaning of the name YHWH (possibly pronounced as “Yahweh”), the name God revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus.
Kitz argued, based mainly on comparative developments in East Semitic verbal roots, that yahweh was almost certainly not a hifil (causative) stem, as often suggested, but a regular G-stem form that probably means “he is present.”
Robert Miller, from Catholic University, spoke at length about the desert/wilderness as an “uber-metaphor” for harshness, danger, and wildness beyond human control – and thus a fit image for a place to find God. He cited several texts connecting Yahweh with the southern deserts of the Near East in presenting a paper on “Why Yahweh Comes from the Mythic South.”
Kerry Sonia took a different tack, discussing “Biblical Necromancy and Competition Among Religious Specialists in Ancient Israel.” She began with 1 Samuel 28, the story of the famous “witch of Endor” who called up Samuel from the dead so Saul could consult him. Sonia argued that since Samuel was a prophet of Yahweh, this constituted an instance of divination by Yahweh, despite such texts as 1 Chr. 10:13-14 and Ps. 8:18-19 that insist that Yahweh does not countenance such acts. Her paper raised the question of whether the biblical antipathy toward spiritists and mediums arose mainly from conflict with Israel’s prophets and priests, who considered themselves the only legitimate means of communication with Yahweh.
I’m not as convinced as she that the narrator regarded the episode as an acceptable practice of Yahwism. He does not condemn the practice, but had explained Saul’s desperation by saying that the king had inquired of God by legitimate means, but God would not speak to him, either through dreams, through Urim (Priestly lots), or through prophets. When he could not get an answer from God through any of the available front doors, Saul took matters into his own hands and went around to the back door – the same type of practice for which he was consistently condemned.
I had planned to attend an afternoon session on the books of Samuel until I stopped by the HarperOne booth in the exhibit hall and noticed that Richard Elliott Friedman had a new book out: The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters. In the book, Friedman disputes those who claim that (a) the Exodus never happened and (b) it doesn’t really matter so long as we learn the lessons intended by the authors.
Friedman offers an array of evidence to support a belief that there really was an Exodus, though much smaller than the biblical account. He argues, in fact, that the Exodus group consisted mainly of Levites, and that the traditions have clearly grown in the telling.
HarperOne had sep up a panel discussion, with well known scholars Jodi Magness and Amy Jill Levine offering reviews of the book and raising questions about some of Friedman’s conclusions. One of the things I like about Friedman is that he has a sense of humor, and listening to him banter with Magness and Levine was entertaining as well as educational.
Next up, Deuteronomy!
More to come.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.