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The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel



This theme of disobedience brings me to the second tension, which is between the ruling-class nature of the man and woman within the garden and their peasant status outside. As a result of following―in mediated fashion―the crafty advice of the serpent, the man is cursed to till ground full of thorns and thistles. Any food produced will now be the result of hard labor, by the sweat of his brow as the older translations would have it (Gen. 3:17–19). Ruling-class status has suddenly become peasant life. This transition may be read as simple propaganda in favor of estate labor. In the perpetual drive to draw more labor into the estates from the village communities, the text of Genesis 3 may be seen as an advertisement for the easy life of estate labor in contrast to the back-breaking work of the village



See Also: The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).



By Roland Boer
Religion and Theology
University of Newcastle
January 2015


The following is a summary of part of my argument of The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, which will be published early in 2015 in the Library of Ancient Israel series with Westminster John Knox. The main purpose of the book is to offer a new reconstruction of the economies of ancient Southwest Asia. Within that context, the “little kingdom” of Israel appeared late,[1] flashing briefly in the early part of the first millennium BCE before becoming an imperial province for most of its existence. Israel’s marginality – economically and politically – is crucial for understanding its function within the wider economic dynamics of ancient Southwest Asia. In what follows, I offer a brief outline of economic patterns in the southern Levant of the first millennium, which is followed by an example of how biblical texts respond in metaphorical fashion to such a situation.

Estates versus Village Communities

I propose that the constitutive economic contradiction in the southern Levant of the first millennium was one between palatine estates and the agricultural labor of village communities (Diakonoff 1982; 1999, 21–55). Estates were initially a feature of temples (as in fourth-millennium Sumer with its en, or supreme priest), which formed the focus of activities in more powerful towns or “little kingdoms,” as they called such places themselves (Diakonoff 1991b, 37; Liverani 1982, 250; 2005, 7). Soon enough, the estates were subsumed under the power of the palace. The basic purpose of the estates was the supply of “goods for a minority” (Diakonoff 1999, 36), that is, to supply those who were not gainfully employed—priests, monarchs, and their perpetual dinner guests—with food, alcohol, and textiles. After all, they needed to live in the way to which they had become accustomed. Estates were therefore established in the vicinity of temples and then ruling centers, administered either directly by functionaries or by tenure to landlords. Those who labored on them were indentured permanently or temporarily (corvée, conquest, and debt-labor). Given the perpetual labor shortage, the estates constantly sought to draw more laborers from the village communities, with little concern for the continued viability of the latter.

Why not simply tax the village communities instead of establishing estates? Two reasons are relevant. First, the power of the petty despots tended to be intermittent and uncertain. They might make grandiloquent claims concerning the vastness of their lands (1 Kings 4:21), but the reality was quite different, for without elaborate administrative apparatuses, clear borders, and the ability to police the territory claimed, the real power exercised was quite weak. For this reason, the ability to tax villages regularly was not within their power. The farther away a collection of villages was from the capital, the weaker was the power. If villages found the burdens of corvée labor or taxation too onerous, they would simply move out of harm’s way—to a distant place or even into the mountains to join the ever-present Habiru. Second, villages were taxed at 10 percent, while estates supplied between one-half and two-thirds of the produce going to the temple or the palace. Estates were clearly the better economic option, for they enabled higher yields and could be policed reasonably consistently.

As for the village-communes themselves, the diverse and versatile mechanisms of animal husbandry (with 2:1 ratios of sheep and goats) and crop growing (Sasson 2010; Hald 2008, 44–121; Hole 1991) are of less interest on this occasion than the social determination of economic life. That life was centered on what Soviet-era Russian scholars called the extended-family household commune or a village-commune (Diakonoff 1974; 1975; 1982, 35; 1991a, 88; 1991b, 34–35; Jankowska 1969; 1991, 253; Vasil’ev and Stuchevskii 1967, 28–32; Bartlett 1990), and what Western scholars have dubbed musha‘ farming (Wilkinson 2003, 2010; Guillaume 2012, 28–42). It designates a strikingly persistent approach to subsistence agriculture, largely because it has been tried and tested. Typically, farmers lived in a village cluster, with a population of 75 to 150 and coterminous with the clan, although smaller settlements often had less than seventy-five (Knight 2011, 122–123). From here, farmers would go out to the fields to work, as archaeological investigation of such settlements and their pathways indicates (Wilkinson 2010, 56–57; 1994; 2003; Casana 2007). But those fields were not held in perpetual possession by the farmers. Instead, noncontiguous strips of land were allocated to each household for cultivation. In the Bible, this is the ḥelqat haśśādeh of Genesis 33:19–20; Ruth 4:3; 2 Samuel 14:30–31; 2 Kings 9:21, 25; Jeremiah 12:10; Amos 4:7 (cf. the verb ḥlq, “apportion,” in Jer 37:12). These were social units of measurements rather than clear demarcations of land for the purpose of ownership. They would usually be of considerable length (up to one kilometer, or along the twisting path of a terrace in areas such as the Judean highlands), but with a width of a few furrows. At set times, usually annually or biannually, those strips were reallocated on the basis of need, fertility, labor power, and so on. The means of such reallocation varied, whether by lot, by all the adult males, a council of elders, or perhaps a village headman. Needless to say, the process involved all manner of unwritten rules and much argument, but the outcome was that the strips were reallocated.

Collective activity was inescapable within the village and between villages that were two to four kilometers apart, for the individual was helpless in the face of natural and social disaster, needing cooperation and reciprocal aid to survive (Diakonoff 1976, 66; Hopkins 1985, 256). Thus, kinship, both highly flexible and embodied in the patriarchal household, was crucial. A further factor was the advantage of combined labor, whether with plough teams, sowing, or harvesting. Finally, the close-knit village-commune, with its headman and council of elders, was also advantageous for protection and defense against raiders. We may, following Roberts, describe these three factors as the communality of assent, of economizing, and of enforcement (Roberts 1996, 35–37).

The Estate of Eden

With this proposed reconstruction in mind, let me turn to a biblical text that responds metaphorically to this situation: the two myths of Genesis 1–3, in which the underlying pattern is the ordering of domesticated agricultural space. Thus, the deity “planted a garden in Eden, in the east” (Gen. 2:8), in which he puts the being—Adam—just created. The specific task of this being is to till the garden and keep it (Gen 2:18). Genesis 1 reinforces this image, with mention of “plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it” (Gen. 1:11–12; see also Gen. 2:9, 16). Of course, this agricultural landscape is extended somewhat to include the whole of nature, more so with the animals than the plants. While the animals include “cattle” (hēmah) as a generic marker for domesticated types, they also include creeping things, animals of the field, wild animals, birds of the air, sea creatures, indeed every kind of living creature (Gen. 1:20–22, 24–25; 2:19–20). These are all under the dominion of human beings, a dominion that is marked by the act of naming (Gen 2:19–20). The created world is ideally an agricultural one; domestication is the norm. At this level, the domesticated agricultural space is ultimately the deity’s own creation, a divine ordering of the world for the sake of human flourishing. That act of domestication turns uncultivated land—which is formless and void—into what is cultivated. Here we may detect a trace of that perpetual problem in ancient Southwest Asia of vast stretches of uncultivated land. Given the smallness of the population and the continual shortage of able hands, the issue was not the shortage of land but the ability to cultivate that land.

The question remains as to whether the agricultural space in question applies to the village communities or the estates. Generically, it would seem to be both. Yet, other signals in the text lean toward estates rather than village communities. The tasks of keeping and tilling the land are mere tokens of labor, for the deity is the one actually responsible for making the plants grow and the animals flourish (Gen 1:11–12, 24–25, 29; 2:8–9; see also Gen 9:3). Everything seems to grow of its own accord, so that all the first human beings need do is avail themselves of the abundant produce. Here we find metaphorical traces of a ruling-class perspective on estates. From this perspective, estates do seem to produce of their own accord. The actual labor is effaced, for the productiveness of estates is attributed not to human labor but to divine abundance. Sitting in palaces and temples and towns, estates may well appear as such. Food, textiles, and luxury items seem to gush forth from the estates, mediated perhaps by landlords. But in classic style, the labor involved in their production somehow disappears—as if there were no labor in estates. For this reason, the differentiated man and woman (out of the undifferentiated “Adam”) appear very much like royalty (Brueggemann 1972). They are the apex of creation (Gen.1:26–28), needing only to avail themselves of the abundant produce that simply hangs from trees or from the stalks of seed-bearing plants. For these reasons, I suggest that gan, which is usually translated as “garden,” should actually be translated as “estate.”

Now tensions begin to appear in the myth, of which two are important for my argument. The first is that despite the effort to universalize the agricultural estates, a distinction still applies between the domesticated and the wild. Apart from the differentiation between domesticated “cattle” and other animals, the one who causes trouble in the garden is specifically designated as a “wild animal” (Gen. 3:1). The very unpredictability of such animals was a source not only of omens but also of potential danger (Foster 2002, 274; Scurlock 2002, 364–367; Albertz 2008, 101). Further, the garden in question does have an outside, signalled by the burly cherubim with the flaming sword (Gen. 3:24). This distinction is also marked by the need for discipline and obedience within the estate (Gen. 2:17). Obedience ensures the continued existence of the estate, or at least the continued presence of the man and woman within the estate, while disobedience signals what lies outside. This theme of disobedience brings me to the second tension, which is between the ruling-class nature of the man and woman within the garden and their peasant status outside. As a result of following―in mediated fashion―the crafty advice of the serpent, the man is cursed to till ground full of thorns and thistles. Any food produced will now be the result of hard labor, by the sweat of his brow as the older translations would have it (Gen. 3:17–19). Ruling-class status has suddenly become peasant life.

This transition may be read as simple propaganda in favor of estate labor. In the perpetual drive to draw more labor into the estates from the village communities, the text of Genesis 3 may be seen as an advertisement for the easy life of estate labor in contrast to the back-breaking work of the village communities. However, I suggest that the text’s tensions give voice to the deeper ideology of palatine estates. The village communities become the hard lot of peasants, who are despised, while the estates are zones of ease and plenty. Little is to be gained from village life, while estates are clearly the better option—if you happen to be one of the functionaries of the palace and the temple. The catch is that Genesis 3 also unwittingly expresses a fear of the precariousness of such an easy life. It takes little to turn even the most comfortable ruling-class life into one of hard labor, pain, and death. After all, one is subject to a capricious deity.



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Notes

[1] “Little Kingdom” is the term used in ancient Southwest Asia. By “Israel” I mean the small state or states (if one holds to the idea of two states) that appeared at some time in the first millennium after the long economic “crisis.”





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