Sacred Economy


The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is due out by the end of the month, in the prestigious Library of Ancient Israel series with Westminster John Knox. But I have been sent (thanks Dan) the endorsements that will adorn the first pages of the book and the back cover. I must admit to being somewhat embarrassed by posting them here in shameless self-promotion:

This is a remarkable book. It is a brilliant analysis of ancient Israel in its broader historical context. Boer has a more profound and extensive knowledge of the ancient economy than any other scholar working on the ancient world. Given the prevailing neoliberal ideology in Western societies, many biblical and ancient Near East scholars looked for trade in an early capitalist market economy; but working from a profound knowledge of the history of political economic theory, Boer offers a desperately needed counter to such anachronistic analysis. In opposition to individualizing, desocializing, and dehistoricizing neoclassical theory, he investigates, explains, and documents how both subsistence and extractive economic life was embedded in social relations, cultural traditions, and institutionalized social forms. He carefully builds a flexible theoretical framework in a multifaceted analysis that is able to comprehend the many interrelated factors and institutional forms of the ancient “sacred economy.” Supplementing his magisterial discussion, his excursuses, critical comments on other approaches, and bibliography provide guided tutorials and rich resources for specialist and nonspecialist alike. Boer’s book finally sets study of economic life in ancient Israel and Southwestern Asia in general on a sound critical theoretical basis from which archaeological explorations, historical investigations, and textual interpretation can work with confidence.

—Richard A. Horsley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion, University of Massachusetts

This bold and theoretically rich economic analysis should stimulate the rereading of many biblical texts and the rethinking of Israelite life altogether. Rather than dwelling on temple, palace, and the apparatus of empire, Boer shows the economic resilience through centuries of subsistence-level households and villages. While recognizing the injustices common in kinship-based communities, he nonetheless dares to suggest that agricultural subsistence models may hold the greatest promise for the thriving of contemporary communities.

—Ellen F. Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology, Duke Divinity School

Marxism as a practical political ideology may have lost its momentum, but Marxism as an analytical method has not. Rather, this method is very precise and produces surprising results. Roland Boer’s study is a fine example of what can be achieved by a consequent use of this method. Boer distinguishes between two societal systems in the ancient Near East: the subsistence survival strategy in its various forms and extractive regimes such as states. Thus he has authored a highly readable new kind of book about the society of ancient Israel and its economic forces.

—Niels Peter Lemche, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biblical Exegesis, University of Copenhagen

Roland Boer is without doubt the world’s foremost scholar on the relation between Marxism and religion. Ste. Croix’s magisterial work on ancient Greece set the absolute standard for scholarship on the economies and societies of that part of the world; this book will set the same bar for work on the ancient Near East.

—Kenneth Surin, Professor of Literature and Professor of Religion and Critical Theory, Duke University

Roland Boer’s informative and colorful study provides a thorough treatment of the “sacred economy” of ancient Israel. Boer examines household structures, the plight of subsistence farmers, and financial exchanges. By applying the insights of economic theory, Boer is able to offer a fresh appraisal of key biblical texts. Full of interesting facts and lively prose, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the vagaries of economic life during the period in which the Bible was written.

—Samuel L. Adams, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Union Presbyterian Seminary

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is nothing short of groundbreaking. Through an unparalleled understanding of economic theory, Boer corrects two misguided assumptions in approaching biblical economies: the tendency to assume capitalist structures and the tendency to isolate economy from the rest of the social world. Boer cogently articulates how the economy of Ancient Israel was deeply integrated into its religious institutions. With lucid prose and engaging style, this book will be a welcome resource for students and scholars for years to come.

—Roger S. Nam, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, George Fox University

A masterful integration of biblical studies, archaeology, and Marxist critical theory that greatly enriches our understanding of the economics of ancient Israel in the larger context of Southwest Asia. Boer analyzes how the five building blocks of this economy—subsistence survival, kinship household, patronage, (e)states, and tribute exchange—rearranged themselves under three economic regimes to respond to different economic situations. Key to Boer’s argument is the fact that any economic crisis or collapse in the Levant, including Israel, primarily affected the upper classes, not the majority of the population. From the perspective of subsistence farmers, indentured servants, and debt slaves, the collapse of kingdoms and empires meant a reprieve from oppressive forms of extraction and the reemergence of the durable subsistence regime. A stimulating and provocative contribution that will be required reading for future investigations into the Bible and economics.

—Gale A. Yee, Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies, Episcopal Divinity School

Roland Boer offers the reader a comprehensive and exhaustive study of Israel’s economy in the context of the ancient world. He draws all sorts of economic theories and models into both use and criticism. The reader is encouraged to read through to the end, where Boer asks the question—and seeks to answer it—as to what normative patterns can be discerned for considering economic life today.

—Patrick D. Miller, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary

Boer’s growing corpus of critical work has not received nearly the attention that it merits. With this book Boer establishes himself as a frontline critical scholar whose work will be an inescapable reference point for future work. This courageous book is nothing short of a tour de force in which Boer probes the economic organization, structure, practice, and resources of the ancient Near East and ancient Israel as a subset of that culture. His study is organized around “regimes” of allocation that distribute resources and of extraction that plunder resources according to the deployment of sociopolitical power. The discussion maintains a continuing dialectic of “subsistence” and “surplus” that kept economic practice endlessly open and unstable. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this book and the sheer erudition that has made it possible. Boer’s patient attention to detail, his mastery of a huge critical literature, and the daring of his interpretive capacity combine to make this book a “must” for any who want to probe the economic substructure of biblical faith and the culture that was its environment.

—Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

Sacred Economy

One of the most derided item in Marx’s works is the idea of primitive communism. To be sure, it has some problems, such as the narrative that moves from undifferentiation to differentiation. But did Marx pinpoint something all the same?

One of the discoveries I made in The Sacred Economy was the crucial role of what may be called the institutional form of subsistence survival in ancient Southwest Asia. Given that 90% of the sparse population was engaged in agriculture, this is the key to ancient economics. How did it operate? Typically, crops were grown via a system of land shares, reallocated every year or two by means of a village council or elders (and with much debate). These were long and non-contiguous strips that were reallocated depending on a range of factors. Animal husbandry focused on flocks of 2/3 sheep and 1/3 goats, regularly milked and culled for meat, fibre, and bone. Bovines were few and far between, since they need massive amounts of fodder and water. They were used for traction and lived until they dropped. In places with more water, pigs also appear. The focus was on optimal rather than maximal use of resources. Above all, there was little sense of private entrepreneurship, and the idea of private property is simply unhelpful. If people tried that, they simply wouldn’t survive. So, it’s not for nothing that Soviet-era Russian scholars of the ancient world called this the ‘village-commune.’

What is most intriguing is that the subsistence survival regime was by far the most stable. Petty potentates might come and go, their estates might drain labour for a time, hated cockroaches (tax collectors-usurers-merchants-diplomats-landlords all rolled into one) might appear for a time. But given half a chance, people would hasten the destruction of unstable little and big kingdoms. They preferred subsistence-survival, the dominant economic form in periods of what is, from the perspective of the ruling class, called economic ‘crisis’. In the politically and economically marginal zone of the Southern Levant, where Israel appeared belatedly on the scene, subsistence survival was the persistent form.

But did this approach end some time in the first millennium BCE? Not at all. It was still present in Russia into the twentieth century, as also in Iraq, Greater Syria and Greece, to name but a few. What about now?  Recently, I was in a village in Transylvania, Romania. Here the capitalist ‘shock therapy’ of the 1990s has led to deindustrialisation and reagriculturalisation. In response, old and trusted methods have returned. My host and I came across a herd of goats and sheep. I inquired about their numbers and was told they were 1/3 goats and 2/3 sheep, with regular culls and an optimal size of about 40. And Christina sent me this link to a story from the Andalusian region in Spain, concerning the village of Marinaleda. Since the 1970s, they too have developed a village-commune, operating in terms of the long history of subsistence survival that I outlined above. Of course, it has been reconfigured in light of wider socio-economic circumstances, but the basic principles remain the same. Nowadays, the villagers call this a version of socialism.

A socialist mural in Marinaleda.

A new piece over at Political Theology Today on ‘How to Read Ancient Texts’. Obviously, I’m not the first to reflect on that perennial question, but these reflections relate directly to how one reads texts in relation to socio-economic life.

Walking around Berlin, you can’t help notice the advertisements for a new show at the Pergamon Museum, called ‘Uruk Megacity‘. While you might forgive the curators for trying to lure visitors, the question is whether Uruk was really a city, let alone a mega-city. The walls themselves at the greatest expanse in the fourth millennium encompassed 6 square kilometres. Huge? More like a country town. Estimating population is a bit like divination, so estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000 (the top end is little fanciful). A decent town, perhaps, or even a small city. Except that this is the total population of the whole city-state of Uruk, which was really a rather modest affair. At a stretch, you may want to argue that by comparison with other places, it counts as a city, where most of the few centres were around 3000 each. But ‘mega-city’ is really pushing it. Then again, ‘Uruk, Megatown’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

We have already had the garden variety domestic squabble, in which women regularly crushed their men’s testicles. Some other common features of arguments have also turned. To begin with, there’s biting from the laws of Eshnunna:

If a man bites the nose of another man and thus cuts it off, he shall weigh out and deliver 60 shekels of silver; an eye – 60 shekels; a tooth – 30 shekels; an ear – 30 shekels; a slap to the cheek – he shall weigh out and deliver 10 shekels.

No wonder they wore out their teeth so early. This one is perhaps my favourite, from the Hittite laws:

If anyone steals a door in a quarrel, he shall replace everything that may get lost in the house, and he shall pay 40 shekels of silver.

That is the first thing that comes mind if I’m in a quarrel: I’ll steal his door!

It is pretty clear that ‘prices’ in the ancient Near East had very little to do with mechanisms of demand and supply. Customary if the best way to describe them, and even the various petty potentates weighed in by inscribing such prices in clay. But there is one law of Hammurabi that I find very intriguing, since it suggests that raising your price actually lowers the value of your product. Here it is:

If a woman innkeeper should refuse to accept grain for the price of beer but accepts only silver measured by the large weight, thereby reducing the value of the beer in relation to the grain, they shall charge and convict that woman innkeeper and they shall cast her into the water.

Let’s see if we can figure out the assumption here. You walk into an inn and order a beer, plonking a bag of grain on the bar – as one does. ‘No,’ says the innkeeper, only silver here.’ She pulls out a large wight and tells you to put your silver on the scales. Wow, that’s heaps more silver than if I’d got hold of it by swapping some grain for silver first. Now, the customary relationships between grain-beer, grain-silver, and silver-beer do seem to have some connection. Fair enough, but how does asking a relatively higher price devalue the beer? Easy: you get less beer for the silver. Hence the beer is worth less.

Most law collections are pretty boring reads. Hammurabi is a snore, with grandiose claims to his achievements in bringing justice, peace and well-being to all. Not so the Middle Assyrian Laws. Here we do come up against sheer difference, for the mind can barely get around the reasons for pressing these laws into clay for all eternity to follow.

For instance:

If a woman should crush a man’s testicle during a quarrel, they should cut off one of her fingers. And if the physician should bandage it, but the second testicle then becomes infected along with it …, or if she should crush the second testicle during the quarrel – they shall gouge out both her .. [text curiously broken here]

One can only imagine what Assyrian domestic quarrels were like.

Then there is:

If a man lays a hand upon a woman, attacking her like a rutting bull, and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall cut off one of his fingers. If he should kiss her, they shall draw his lower lip across the blade of an axe and cut it off.

Perhaps the most intriguing are these two:

If a man furtively spreads rumours about his comrade, saying, ‘Everyone sodomises him,’ or in a quarrel in public says to him, ‘Everyone sodomises you,’ and further, ‘I can prove the charges against you,’ but is unable to prove the charges and does not prove the charges, they shall strike that man 50 blows with rods; he shall perform the king’s service for one full month; they shall cut off his hair; he shall pay 3,600 shekels of lead.

If a man sodomises his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall sodomise him and turn him into a eunuch.

That should stamp out sodomy.

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