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. Niesioowski-Span, Origin Myths and Holy Places in the Old Test...


Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Niesioowski-Span, ukasz, Origin Myths and Holy Places in the Old

Testament: A Study of Aetiological Narratives (Translated by Jacek
Laskowski; Copenhagen International Seminar; London & Oakville:
Equinox, 2011). Pp. xii + 299. US $95.00. Hardcover. ISBN

This study of aetiologies in the Hebrew Bible focuses on the mythic elements in these texts, the
probable date of their inclusion in the Bible, and the circumstances which prompted their
being written (pp. 1, 1314). While noting the thorny issues involved in the study of myth in
the Bible, Niesioowski-Span's interest lies in the social function of these mythsnamely,
what role the stories of the naming of these holy places would have had in the society for which
they were written (pp. 12). The author covers a variety of theoretical issues in his relatively
brief introductory chapter, including the complex matter of defining myth in the Bible (pp.
23), the definition of the term holy place (p. 5), and issues involved with biblical
historiography (pp. 711). Separate chapters then examine the aetiologies for Beer-sheba,
Bethel, Dan, Hebron and Mamre, Ophrah, Shechem and Gilgal, as well as holy places beyond
the Jordan (Galeed, Mahanaim, and Penuel). Each chapter lays out archaeological data for the
site in question, surveys biblical references to the site, and then discusses the myth concerning
the naming of the holy place.

Niesioowski-Span's efforts are impressive on a number of fronts. His discussions of different

holy places are densely packed with references to all parts of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the
ancient versions, Second Temple Jewish literature, archaeological finds, and ancient
historians. The author spares himself no pains in searching for every possible tradition
concerning a sacred site. Niesioowski-Span's conclusions about these myths are, however,
not always convincing, and one is left with the suspicion that he has not successfully achieved
his aim of analyzing the social function of these myths with sufficient nuance. An example will
help to flesh this out.

Concerning Beersheba (pp. 1657), after summarizing the archaeological data and other
biblical references (pp. 1619), Niesioowski-Span quotes Gen 21:2233 and 26:2333 in
full. The similarity of the aetiologies suggests to the author that the stories are duplicates (p.
20); evidence from Genesis and Jubilees is taken to imply that the story of Beer-sheba was
originally associated with Abraham, and only secondarily with Isaac (pp. 2122).
Furthermore, the presence of YHWH El Olam (Gen 21:33), a namewhich is alien to
Yahwism, suggests the derivative character of the alliance between Abimelech and Abraham
(p. 22). Despite these issues, the author thinks the importance of the well is beyond dispute (p.
23). The names for the well in Josephus, the LXX, the Vulgate, and SP are laid out next (pp.
2326). The author then examines the larger symbolic connotations of wells elsewhere in the
OT, both as places of shelter and life in the desert (p. 27) and as openings to the underworld
where sacrifices could be made to chthonic deities (pp. 2732). While this second association
may seem counter-intuitive, an impressive amount of data from the OT, the LXX, and
archaeological sources is presented in its favor. The chthonic and funeral symbolism of the
tamarisk tree in Gen 21:33 is then discussed (e.g., the burial of Saul's remains under this kind
of tree in 1 Sam 31:13; pp. 3337). Niesioowski-Span proceeds to argue for links to a ritual
for a chthonic deity in the animals used in the treaty between Abraham and Abimelech; this is
because the sheep and cattle (21:27) were used in the ritual for making the covenant, while the
lambs were apparently excluded from the ritual and used for a different purpose (p. 39). While
lambs are used in a variety of ways in Leviticus and Numbers, Nathan's parable about the
slaughtered lamb in 1 Sam 12:16 makes it possible that it is an echo of a sacrifice in which

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the lamb took the place of a human (pp. 4142). The author suspects the lamb was offered to
the god whose presence was symbolized by the wellthe gate of Sheol (p. 43).

Niesioowski-Span thus concludes that the grave connotations of the well initiated the
whole story about the beginnings of the holy place in Beer-sheba (p. 43)they are the original
elements of this myth. The covenant with Abimelech is of later provenance (p. 43). But how
much later? Understanding the claim of Beer-sheba as a holy place to refer to the times when
the town played some important role (p. 55), the divided monarchy is a possibility. But this is
rejected in favor of the Hasmonean period, during the time of Judah's territorial expansion,
when the land of the Jews stretched from Dan to Beer-sheba (p. 56). The covenant between
Abraham and Abimelech could mirror the desire of the Jewish elites to make political
alliances with the neighboring peoples (p. 56). In other words, the aetiology as we now have it
was introduced in the second half of the second century B.C.E., for it was then that the
territories of northern Negeb become of interest to the Jews of Judah and their vital interests
demanded that they regulate relations with the subject people (p. 56). The aetiology describes
the reality of the second century B.C.E. symbolically (p. 57).

A number of questions come to mind concerning this argument. For instance, it is not clear to
me that the two stories in Genesis about Beer-sheba are duplicatessuch a conclusion
necessitates importing foreign literary criteria, giving insufficient attention to the role of
repetition and similarity in ancient Semitic texts. Niesioowski-Span actually has some harsh
words for the classical documentary hypothesis: without rejecting the presence of a variety of
editorial layers to the Hebrew Bible, he describes it as arbitrary (p. 8). One cannot help but
wonder, however, if his repetition of a familiar exegetical move from that tradition is any less
arbitrary. In fact, since two of the key elements which the author focuses onthe lamb and the
tamariskare absent from the putative duplicate story in Gen 26, giving more weight to the
second Genesis text may have altered the results significantly. Why YHWH El Olam, in a
book full of different names for the deity, is alien to Yahwism is also not clear to me. The
penumbra of associations of wells and pits with the underworld is both interesting and
valuable evidencebut in itself does not necessitate one to conclude that the well at
Beer-sheba had this meaning. Why could it not have been understood as a place of life and
nourishment? The chthonic connotations of sacrificial lambs are, furthermore, tenuous.
Finally, Niesioowski-Span draws a false inference in tying the religious significance of
Beer-sheba to the times when the town played some important role (p. 55). There is no
reason why a myth about a certain place must have developed when the town played a
politically significant role. The two need not necessarily coincide.

Later chapters contain a similar wealth of detail, together with interesting and important
discussions of various elements within aetiological myths. The larger conclusion toward which
the author movesthat these stories originate from the turmoil of the Hasmonean period (or,
at least, were edited then; pp. 25052, 255, 262)is, however, unconvincing. According to the
author, such stories served propaganda purposes so that traditions of competing centres
were exploited as tools in political machinations in the second century B.C.E. (p. 263). As one
reads, it becomes clear that analysis of a myth in this book means separating stories which
were freely shaped with little attention to fidelity to reality (p. 11) from mythic elements in
them which function in ways indistinguishable from pre-Israelite Palestinian religion.
Whatever else one might make of this conclusion, it does not fit very well with the book's
stated aim of examining the social function of these aetiologies. Niesioowski-Span takes
these stories to be thinly veiled, fictive allegories for political struggles. But surely this is only
one possible way for myths to function in a larger society? Surely the social function of myth is
subject to a wide variety of permutations? One supposes it is possible that fictions about
figures important to Jewish religious consciousness (p. 253) could have wielded such great

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power that they were canonized and their fictive origin forgotten (despite the fact that this
presumes a degree of credulity in ancient peoples I find hard to accept). But is it not equally
possible that a myth (aetiological or otherwise) was recorded because it already had gripped
the religious consciousness of a group? Perhaps more thorough study of the work of
Malinowksi, the seminal figure in this kind of interpretation of myth, might have provided for
a more nuanced discussion. (Is it insignificant that the archaicand incorrectdistinction
between myth and history is asserted on p. 243?) I appreciate the author's labors, and found
some elements in its argumentation to be convincing; but the overall account of the origin and
function of aetiologies in the Hebrew Bible is not handled well.

Eric Ortlund, Briercrest College and Seminary

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