Of Fields and Forced Labor

Roland Boer’s Materialist Criticism and the Plundering of the Israelite Body

In: Horizons in Biblical Theology
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  • 1 Yale Divinity School, New Haven, ct, USA

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Biblical narratives about ostensibly “local” barter (Abraham’s purchase of the cave at Machpelah), protection of battle spoils (Achan’s theft and subsequent execution), and commodification of labor and bodies (Ruth gleaning for hours and offering herself to Boaz) reveal much about ideologies of economic control operative in ancient Israel. The materialist analysis of Roland Boer provides a richly detailed study of Israelite agrarian and tributary practices, offering a salutary corrective to naïve views of Israelite economic relations. Highlighting labor as the most ruthlessly exploited resource in the ancient Near East, Boer examines the class-specific benefits and sustained violence of economic formations from kinship-household relations to militarized extraction. Boer’s erudite study will compel readers to look afresh at the subjugation of the poor and plundering of the powerless as constitutive features of diverse economic practices throughout the history of ancient Israel.

  • 12

    Boer, Sacred Economy, 136. He writes of the “extreme violence of the ‘axial’ age” (143) as an “excessively brutal period” (191), an essential point that is too often overlooked or understated in scholarly studies of that notion. Boer correctly observes that “the Persians were no less violent than the infamous Neo-Assyrians, but they were far more systematic, sophisticated, and covert in the way they deployed that violence” (151); he accurately gauges the function of the jubilee year as a sort of vent that allowed the systematized exploitation inherent in the debt-labor system to survive (160).

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  • 16

    See Boer, “Terry Eagleton: The Class Struggles of Ruth,” pp. 65-86 in his Marxist Criticism of the Bible (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2003). He concludes that in light of Ruth 4, “. . . the pernicious economic picture that emerges in the book of Ruth is that the Israelites—above all Naomi and Boaz—are those who do not work, who exploit and live off the surplus labour of others. Naomi, then, disappears into the world of Israelite men, owners of the means of production, whereas Ruth, Moabitess, woman and worker, is gone when her body is used up” (86).

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  • 17

    Boer, Sacred Economy, 81.

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