The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel now published

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel is out. Permit me to say that I like the way this book has turned out, largely due to careful and detailed attention from the people at Westminster John Knox Press. It is part of the Library of Ancient Israel series. The blurb reads:

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel offers a new reconstruction of the economic context of the Bible and of ancient Israel. It argues that the key to ancient economies is with those who worked on the land rather than in intermittent and relatively weak kingdoms and empires. Drawing on sophisticated economic theory (especially the Régulation School) and textual and archaeological resources, Roland Boer makes it clear that economic “crisis” was the norm and that economics is always socially determined. He examines three economic layers: the building blocks (five institutional forms), periods of relative stability (three regimes), and the overarching mode of production. Ultimately, the most resilient of all the regimes was subsistence survival, for which the regular collapse of kingdoms and empires was a blessing rather than a curse. Students will come away with a clear understanding of the dynamics of the economy of ancient Israel. Boer’s volume should become a new benchmark for future studies.

Sacred Economy


This is almost embarrassing: endorsements for the Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel

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

When raising prices lowers the value of your product

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.

Soviet-era Russian scholarship on the ancient Near East

A significant source for The Sacred Economy is Soviet-era research on the ancient Near East. Apart from Igor Diakonoff, to whom you will find occasional references in other works, one of the great pleasures in doing this is to include many references to people like: Iu. Semenov, G. A. Melikishvili, M.A. Vitkin, Nelly Kozyrova, K.K. Zel’in, L.V. Danilova, Ninel Jankowska, G. Il’yin, and good old Vasilii Vasilevich Struve.

How to request a couple of boat parts – ancient Egyptian fashion

The scribes of ancient Egypt certainly had their hands full with even the most simple of letters. For instance:

It is the servant of the estate Sekhsekh’s son Inetsu who addresses the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), Sekhsekh’s son Penhensu: It is in order to learn about every favourable circumstance of the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), that the servant of the estate has sent this letter. In the favour of Montu, lord of the Theban nome, of Amon, lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, of Sobek, of Horus, of Hathor and of all the gods! It is as the servant of the estate desires that they shall let the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), spend millions of years in life, properity and health, starting from today.

The servant of the estate has said: this is a communication to the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), about sending me a rudder post of pine wood, a steering-oar of juniper, and a rudder-rest of ebony for the poop of your humble servant’s sea-going galley. Moreover, it is your humble servant’s poop. It is good if the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy) takes note.

If only we wrote memos or emails like that today. The astute reader may have noticed the egalitarian thread running through this note. Another example this Egyptian virtue, along with a dash of altruism, may be found in the letter of a landlord writing home (from another location) to the servants and others concerning some food shortages that have come to his notice:

Lest you be angry about this, look here … I’m responsible for everything so that it should be said: ‘To be half alive is better than dying outright’. Now it is only real hunger that should be termed hunger since they have started eating people here. and none are given such generous rations as I give you. Until I come back home to you, you should comport yourselves with stout hearts.

Ruling class lament, or, redefining ‘crisis’

A staple of ancient Near Eastern study is the pattern of imperial and cultural collapses. Thus, the Sumerian expansion, running through from the revolution of Uruk to the elaborate and rather extraordinary organizational achievements of “The Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad” (Ur III), eventually collapses around 2000 BCE, due to a variety of causes. To continue our sample from a large collection, in the sixteenth century a “dark age” descends upon the ANE, and then later again another such age at the close of the second millennium – the Hittites’ modest achievements also collapse, as does the Creto-Mycenaean sphere at about the same time in the thirteenth century. By the first millennium it is the turn of Assyria, the Neo-Babylonians, and then the Persians. This narrative in various forms is one of the staples of ANE history (going back to Herodotus), with a consistent pattern of fluorescence and collapse, or expansion and contraction, as one despot after another attempts a phallic-like extension of his powers, penetrating his neighbors and holding them under his seminal splurge, only to find that the rush of blood does not last forever.

We need to ask: collapse and crisis for whom? From the perspective of the ruling class it is indeed collapse and the ensuing period is a prolonged time of crisis. The sources of wealth have been removed, the palaces and temples destroyed, the estate system or patterns of tribute and exchange have been dismantled, and power has been lost. In these contexts, the archaeological record begins to show signs of “crisis architecture,” “termination rituals,” and “calamity feasts,” in which the desperate rulers use up their last reserves to appease furious gods. At times, dispossessed elites do indeed produce remarkable works – the collection of texts in the Hebrew Bible is an excellent example. Yet, from the perspective of the village-communes, of the subsistence and estate laborers, of socially determining clan households, a “collapse” actually means a blessed relief from various means of extraction. We can hardly expect the peasants, laborers, and common people to sit back and wait for such much-desired collapses to happen. From the Habiru through to archaeological signals of urban destruction by the town’s own exploited class, they were more than keen to hasten the demise. Semi-nomadic pastoralists too were ready to join in, for throughout Mesopotamian history their annual and usually “peaceful” migration “could be transformed into aggressive campaigns if the power of the centralized state was weak.” The outcome was highly desirable: no longer do the young men and women have to work periodically or permanently on the palatine estates; no longer does the despised usurer-merchant-tax-collector call with his thugs to collect a debt slave or take a portion of the herd or some of the girls for his sexual usage; no longer do the temple and palace suck away the foodstuffs needed for subsistence survival. These periods were also ones of innovation: horse and chariot in the sixteenth century “dark age,” for instance, or iron technology at the end of the second millennium.

Too many secondary works unwittingly take the perspective of the ruling classes, who produced most of the records that skew our efforts at reconstruction. A case in point is the lament in the Erra Epic. Set in Babylon and during the “crisis” of the late second millennium, it purports to reflect on general chaos and collapse. Nothing could be further from the truth, for it is a lament of a ruling class at the end of its run.

He who did not die in battle, will die in the epidemic

He who did not die in the epidemic, the enemy will rob him

He whom the enemy has not robbed, the thief will thrash him

He whom the thief did not thrash, the king’s weapon will overcome him

He whom the king’s weapon did not overcome, the prince will kill him

He whom the prince did not kill, the storm god will wash away

He whom the storm god did not wash away, the sun god will carry him away

He who has left for the countryside, the wind will sweep him away

He who has entered his own house, a demon will strike him

He who climbed up a high place, will die of thirst

He who went down to a low place, will die in the waters

You have destroyed high and low place alike!