Friday, February 4, 2011


Giovanni Garbini, Letteratura e politica nell'Israele antico. Studi biblici. Brescia: Paideia Editrice, 2010. Pp. 219. ISBN 9788839407719. €24.80 (pb).

Reviewed by Chiara Peri (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The volume contains several essays published by the author between 1977 and 1997. Most of them are related to Biblical literature, but Garbini deliberately uses the more general definition "ancient Hebrew literature" to underline that the texts are taken in consideration as literary works, independently from the fact that they were included in the Biblical canon.

The essays follow a traditional order, from chapter 1, examining Genesis 1 in relation to Phoenician cosmogony, to chapter 8, devoted to the Song of Songs in the context of ancient Near Eastern love poetry. The following chapter is a study about the Genesis Apocryphon, while the last chapter offers a more general picture of the last phases of ancient Hebrew literature.

In the introduction, the author gives a clear indication of his position on the much-debated matter of the chronology of Biblical texts. According to Garbini, the final redaction of the organic complex which includes the Law and the Prophets can be dated to the years immediately following 159 AC. The so-called Priestly redaction involved a quite heavy intervention on the existing texts, creating to a certain extent a new literary product. Also, though it is highly probable (and widely accepted) that most of Biblical narrative was written during the Persian Period, it is also very hard to distinguish precisely between that period and the following Hellenistic Age, when many texts were reworked and rewritten. Garbini underlines the role played by Greek culture in the story of the Hebrew texts. One interesting example is found in chapter 5, devoted to the relation between literature and political power: the author indicates how some passages of the Book of Psalms reflect the struggle between opposed currents within Hellenistic Judaism, with a part of it strongly influenced by Gentile philosophy, Epicureanism in particular. Another "trace" of Epicurus is found by Garbini in a difficult passage of the Book of Job (38, 22-38): the parallelism established between the Hebrew text and the Letter to Pythocles, which contains explanations of various celestial phenomena (see chapter 7 part 2: "Job's Meteorology"), is remarkable. The direct influence of a Greek text on a Jewish author, the strong debate resulting from Greek philosophy in Palestine after Alexander the Great, is a very interesting approach to some still unclear Biblical texts.

Dating the texts in a quite precise way does not exclude, of course, the use of more ancient material and sources. The Near Eastern context is, in fact, particularly present in the book, thanks to the long experience of the author as expert of Semitic epigraphy. The key to interpretation of the Song of Deborah, one of the most ancient texts included in the Bible, may be allusions to Philistine mythology. Also in the study devoted to the narratives concerning the kings of Israel (chapter 3), the author's confidence with Near Eastern sources, from Mesopotamian royal literature to the Panamuwa inscription, adds value to the literary and philological analysis of the Biblical passages.

One of the most characterising aspects which emerges from Garbini personal reading of ancient Hebrew literature is the ideological resistance to monarchy. In chapter 5 the author underlines that in all the Jewish literature we have (in three languages) we cannot find even one single pro-monarchic author. fitting with the almost complete lack of royal inscriptions in North-West Semitic epigraphical documentation. Ancient literary sources such as annalistic texts were heavily reworked in a strongly anti-monarchic perspective, most probably already during the exile. The last king of Judah, Zerubbabel, looked for and obtained the approval of the prophetic milieu. (Garbini indicates some relevant passages which originally referred to Zerubbabel as restorer of Davidic monarchy: Haggeus 2, 20-23; Zechariah 3, 8-10; 4, 6-14; 6, 9-15.) But, when after his return the king fell victim to a priestly conspiracy, even the texts were corrected, adding or substituting to Zerubbabel's name the name of one of his major opponents, Joshua the High Priest.

This little volume is stimulating reading, even for those who disagree with Garbini's dating of the texts or with his text restoration methods. The main weakness of the work is probably the excessive quickness in the exposition of the author interpretations. The reading remains always very smooth, but the scholar is sometimes disappointed by the lack of longer and more detailed argumentation, especially on the most problematic passages. This particularly plain style is probably due to the fact that many of the essays collected in the volume were previously conferences, and also to the choice of the editor, who intended to address a larger public of non-specialists.

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