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Thursday, February 04, 2010
  The Invention of Hebrew: Introduction
In the "Introduction" Seth lays out the four chapters, paying particular attention to the questions that will be raised, and thus providing engaging teasers drawing the reader in.

The book as a whole is situated within a framework which stresses both the direct appeal of biblical texts to their hearers ("you") and to the (usually) communal identity of those hearers ("Hear, O Israel!"). As a Baptist, inheritor of the Anabaptists, I love the stress on the way Scripture produces and moulds the community that reads it. This emphasis will be crucial to the book as a whole.

So, the first chapter will situate the discussion in the broad sweep of intellectual history, and is intended to make a case for the claim that this book aims at a significant paradigm shift to viewing language and its literatures as constituitive of social identity as well as its product.

Chapter two focuses on the Ugaritic literature that precedes and in many ways prefigures the Hebrew Scriptures. It will claim that the combination of the technological form of that writing (alphabet rather than Cuneiform syllabary), its language (Ugaritic rather than Akkadian) and its literary style (address to "you") combine to make it revolutionary. It will also trace this political consciousness back into the Mari texts as well as onward into the Hebrew writings.

With this much (hopefully) in place the second half of the book promises to trace more closely the development of these literary phenomena against the history of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. This seems to be where the book will become more than merely very interesting! In particular the notion of Assyrian vassals "pirating" the "genres of imperial sovereignty". It is here that Sanders will claim that in this process local rulers "invented" their local languages, and deliberately distinguished them. I love Seth's commentary here (6) on the opening words of the Mesha stele: "'I am Mesha, king of Moab, man of Diban.' Rather than claiming to be king of the universe [as Assyrian rulers routinely did] Mesha claims to be a native of his hometown." I resonate too with the recognition that: "Alphabetic writing, low-budget and easier to learn and produce, circulated outside the court" allowing Levantine communities to speak back to their rulers :)

The discussion of scribal culture and training sounds really exciting too, and the claim that alphabetic scribal practice (in cultures of the Levant) may not have been like that of Imperial syllabic scribal culture seems both obvious and interesting. Here Sanders' determination to deal with the datable (epigraphic) texts from the period sounds excitingly new and powerful.

Yes! I'm sold, this is a book I'll enjoy reading, but already in ways I have not had time to explore here I am aware that it will not merely confirm my prejudices but also challenge and enlighten them, not least by the way Seth intends to situate the discussion rigorously in a broader than biblical context.

This is a proud book, the first sentence under "Limits and goals" claims: "This book is not a history of biblical literature, but ... an explanation of how shuch literature became possible." (7)

[Yesterday, I planned to deal with the "Conclusion" as well as the "Introduction" today, but time is passing and thoughts of land and earth call me back to Amos...]

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