Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Nations That Know Thee Not

Robert Goldenberg.  The Nations That Know Thee Not: Ancient Jewish Attitudes Toward Other Religions.  New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Robert Goldenberg’s The Nations That Know Thee Not is largely about ancient Jewish views on Gentile religions.  There was the view that there is only one God, and the view that other gods existed and God permitted the Gentiles to worship them.  There was the view that idolatry was foolishness, and the view that it was wicked and immoral.  There was the view that Gentiles could worship their gods, and that what was important was that they be moral people.  There was a strong Jewish desire to uproot idolatry from the holy land.  However, there were devout Jews who may not have participated in idolatry, but they were not phobic about pagan temples or pagan people.  Overall, ancient Jews were attempting to navigate their way through a world in which they were vulnerable, and that shaped their interaction with Gentile idolatry.

I was hesitant to write a blog post about this book, not because I disliked it (since I did like it), but rather because I had already read and blogged about other books that pertain to Jewish views of Gentiles and Gentile religions: Terence Donaldson’s Paul and the Gentiles has an excellent section about this topic, which I blogged about, and I also blogged about Louis Feldman’s Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, David Novak’s The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism, and Shaye Cohen’s The Beginnings of Jewishness.  Overall, the data in Goldenberg’s book is the same as the data in the other books, although Goldenberg does disagree with how Novak applied the data, at times.  There were some new things that I learned from Goldenberg’s book, however: how the ancient Israelites who worshiped gods in addition to YHWH were trying to make themselves secure by getting more of the pantheon on their side; devout Jews who felt no compunction about hiding in pagan temples or making pagan items for Gentile worship; Hellenistic Jewish literature that appears to have no problems with Gentiles worshiping idols, just so long as they are moral people; reasons that Philo believed that God forbade Jews to blaspheme other gods (i.e., doing so would desensitize them to blaspheming the true god); statements in Josephus and the Jerusalem Talmud about representatives of Temple authorities going out and collecting tithes from Israelite farmers; and the list goes on.

One concern that I had in reading Goldenberg’s book is that I saw that scholars do not always interpret statements in an absolute, straightforward manner.  When an ancient Jewish text says that God is the only God, does it mean that God is the only God, or is that rather a sign of enthusiasm, nationalism, or devotion, not an absolute theological statement?  When Jephthah in the Bible was acknowledging to a Gentile nation the existence and power of its god, did that truly reflect Jephthah’s beliefs, or was that diplomatic maneuvering on Jephthah’s part?  It is difficult for an Aspie like me not to take what people say at face-value, and I wonder what boundaries there may be once one does not.  Yet, who can deny that humans are complex creatures, and that there is more behind what they are saying than their actual words?

There is a part of me that wishes that Goldenberg’s book had more historical explanation.  I can understand why someone would take issue with me on that, for Goldenberg does discuss important aspects of historical context: how Gentiles viewed Jews and Jewish religion, both negatively and positively; the impact of Hadrian’s decree against genital mutilation; Christian fears of Judaism winning Gentiles over, alongside Jewish reluctance to proselytize, etc.  I cannot exactly say why, but there is a part of me that does not think that Goldenberg was diachronic enough, but rather was referring to different Jewish stances on Gentile religions, without mounting a sufficient historical explanation for those stances.  Maybe I was wishing that he would make the connections between the stances and the history more clear and linear than he did (according to my impressions).

Good book, though.

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