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Peoples of an Almighty God: Competing Religions in the Ancient World.
New York-London-Toronto-Sydney-Auckland: Doubleday 2002. XIV, 575 S. gr.8 = The Anchor Bible Library. Geb. US$ 36,95. ISBN 0-385-42347-0.
This lengthy book is published in the respected The Anchor Bible Reference Library series. The series is intended for the broadest possible readership, according to the General Editor. Many laypeople might struggle with this particular book because it often assumes sound historical knowledge of the ancient Near East in the first millennium BCE, and because some of Goldstein's arguments are not so easy to follow. G. is an emeritus professor of ancient history and classics from the University of Iowa and the author of well-received commentaries on I & II Maccabees.
A high percentage of the book offers a history of Jews and Babylonians and their relationships from the eighth century BCE through to the Maccabean period. It is a history seen through literary texts of these two peoples whom G. calls peoples of an almighty god. While this notion is argued and developed in the early chapters, it is virtually ignored in the bulk of the book. The expression refers to those peoples who believe that a god stronger than all other powers combined is ultimately committed to be their protector, though temporarily the people may suffer adversity (3). These two nations, along with the Persians, produced texts in reaction to their defeats and their subjugation to foreign rule. It is these texts that interest G. If that suggests G. intends to discuss the issues of theodicy and the failure of God to protect his people when in adversity, then that is a misleading impression because he does not go down those paths. In the third chapter, G. then briefly discusses Egyptians and Zoroastrian Iranians of the same period, who he believes fall into the category of peoples of a nearly almighty god, a category that is really of little value. The relation of Babylonians and Jews with Egyptians and Iranians is not at all developed in the book.
G. begins with the period from the reign of Ahaz to the accession of Nabonidus (chapter 4), continues in the next chapter with the reign of Nabonidus and the fall of Babylon, and with Deutero-Isaiah's reaction to that fall and to the policies of Cyrus in chapter 6. Chapter 7 looks at the material history of the two nations from Cyrus to Artaxerxes, and then in chapter 8 G. takes up Daniel 1-7 and looks at what he thinks are problems and strange features in that text; then he provides solutions to those problems. It is clear that this chapter is the heart of the book. It then returns to the history of the two peoples, from the death of Xerxes I to the arrival of Alexander on the scene (chapter 9). Alexander's career and its impact forms the content of chapter 10, with the reactions of Persians, Babylonians and Jews to Alexander presented in the following chapter. The last three chapters of the book (chapters 13-15) deal with the dynasties that followed Alexander, especially the Seleucids, and finally, with the Maccabean struggles. A conclusion of just one page brings the book to a rather abrupt end. The text of the Prophetic Zand is attached as an appendix; there are four very clear, simple maps, and a reasonably comprehensive bibliography.
It is assumed in the book that readers are familiar with the contents of texts such as The Speech of Marduk, the Speech of Shulgi, and the Prophetic Zand. Such texts are also assumed to be typical and accurate reflections of their contemporary opinion and thought, and that is problematic. As G. himself admits, one must be careful about generalizing from what survives by chance (62). It is a caution he himself does not always observe.
There is much to be appreciated in this book. G. offers a history of the period and of the dominant cultures from the perspectives of both Babylonians and Jews. However, the argument that both groups in their own ways had to come to terms with the failure of their almighty god to act for their deliverance is not sustained. In the end, it is questionable whether either people ever did think that their god (Marduk or Yahweh) was almighty, and so the term people of an almighty god is problematic. By G.'s own admission, Marduk did not always have total and sole allegiance, and one could sustain the argument that Yahweh also did not always have such allegiance in Israel. Nor am I convinced that the word almighty reflects the situation accurately. At best these nations were peoples of mighty gods. It is also questionable as to whether these peoples were of an almighty god for the duration of their known history. G. claims that dualism is incompatible with being such a people (65), yet there were periods in which Jews, at least, showed signs of a developing dualism.
The main contribution that G. makes is his form critical analysis of large sections of Daniel and a few passages from Isaiah. For example, he claims that Isaiah 13.2-14.27 originally dealt with Assyria and not with Babylon (83-91). So he argues, very attractively, "what happens to 14:22 if we remove the word Babylon and insert references to Assyria and her capital, Nineveh? The verse becomes a stunning double pun ..." (87), as indeed it does. The fact is that the text itself as we know it does not do that, and that also needs to be taken seriously.
The major argument is that Daniel is based on an original Babylonian text that dates from about 538-522 BCE, with surprisingly few alterations (205); that as a Babylonian text, it underwent various revisions due to the way historical events panned out, and that finally, it was adapted and revised by a Jewish author somewhere in the early to middle first century BCE. So, for example, an original Five King Version of Daniel 2 was revised to become a Four Plus Kingdom version around about 300 BCE (376). And an original Babylonian Four Beast Ten Horn version of Daniel 7 by 165 BCE had become a Four Beast Eleven Horn version (430). The textual reconstructions are certainly admirable and intriguing, but not always convincing; at some points, one has to say that they are speculative. G. claims that the names of Shadrach and Meshach, in particular, are deliberate Jewish corruptions of original Babylonians names which were originally names indicating their devotion to Marduk (207), and that the very name of Daniel is likewise a Jewish appropriation of the name Belteshazzar (227). G. often writes with self-confidence - Having solved the puzzle of the names ... (208). Elsewhere, he asserts that some texts have not been properly interpreted (413), without indicating the interpretations that have been offered.
The argument for the Babylonian original of Daniel becomes forced in some places, as G. himself sometimes implies (242). I am not convinced, for example, by his argument that the son of man figure in Daniel originally symbolised a restored, righteous Babylonian Empire, established by Marduk (243). The argument that the texts of one religion were sometimes taken over by others is feasible, but firming up the evidence is not so easily done. He makes the same argument with the Sibylline Oracles, claiming that 3.388-395, at least, was written by a Persian (326).
There are those who would take issue with G. about his reading of Daniel and Isaiah, and his attempts to construct how those texts came to be in their present form. While most scholars recognise Babylonian influences in the language and content of Daniel, there are many who believe it was a literary unity written as a whole just before the Maccabean revolt. It is a pity that G. does not acknowledge that scholarship and engage more immediately with it. I am surprised that John Collins' commentary on Daniel (1993) is not even acknowledged in the bibliography.
In general, G. interacts rarely with recent scholarship apart from briefly in footnotes, and that its regrettable, especially since the Series in which this book appears is meant for the layperson as well as the scholar. The reader is entitled to know what other scholars have to say on the issues discussed.
G.'s style can sometimes grate. He frequently uses the exhortation, Let us ..., and his use of the comma is occasionally disconcerting. But for all its idiosyncratic ideas and expressions, the book is never dull; G.'s interpretations are stimulating, challenging and likely to invigorate lively debate in future scholarship of the relevant Jewish biblical texts in particular.