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Religion, Gender, and the Liberation of Bodies

A Response to Roland Boer, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015)

In: Horizons in Biblical Theology
Author: Alice A. Keefe1
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  • 1 Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, Stevens Point, wi 54481, USAakeefe@uwsp.edu
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This response to Roland Boer’s Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel focuses on the categories of religion and gender and how these relate to the issues of power politics and economic oppression in ancient Israel which Boer explores in detail. Concerning religion, Boer’s use of a Braudelian frame for reconstruction ancient Israelite religion is highlighted, and theoretical concerns regarding the materiality of religion are explored. Concerning gender, Boer’s attention to the symbolic links between political/military power and hegemonic masculinity are highlighted, and theoretical concerns about the origin of patriarchy in relation to the origin of private property are explored.

Abstract

This response to Roland Boer’s Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel focuses on the categories of religion and gender and how these relate to the issues of power politics and economic oppression in ancient Israel which Boer explores in detail. Concerning religion, Boer’s use of a Braudelian frame for reconstruction ancient Israelite religion is highlighted, and theoretical concerns regarding the materiality of religion are explored. Concerning gender, Boer’s attention to the symbolic links between political/military power and hegemonic masculinity are highlighted, and theoretical concerns about the origin of patriarchy in relation to the origin of private property are explored.

Roland Boer’s book Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel sets a new standard of precision for any future attempts to describe the socio-economic forces which forged the world of the ancient Levant. My response to this intriguing work is shaped by my academic background as a feminist historian of religion, trained in comparative religion with a focus on gender symbolism in ancient Israel. In what follows, I’ll consider how Boer works with the two categories that have most engaged my scholarship—religion and gender.

This book works with the category of religion in a manner informed by Marxist theory. Key to Boer’s thinking about religion is its place within the theory of Régulation. According to this theory, any economic system or “mode of production” is made up of a set of institutional forms that come together in unique formations or regimes, providing continuity and stability for a limited time. But because these regimes are shot through with internal contradictions, they are always tending towards crisis and disintegration. Religion is one key factor in a constellation of the “social, institutional, and ideological factors” that arise within a regime to help it hold together.1 This implies a theory in which religion derives from the socio-economic relations and serves to legitimate and sustain them.

This definition of religion locates Boer on one side of a debate that has characterized modern theorizing about religion. On one side of this debate are the social scientists, who see religion as determined by social and economic factors. On the other side are the phenomenologists, who see religion as arising from experiential apprehensions of some transcendent reality—that which is perceived to be “wholly Other,” as Rudolf Otto would say. Undoubtedly, the influence of Marxist thought on theories of religion has been profound—no longer can religion be considered as originating and operating apart from the material conditions and economic structures shaping life in a particular time and place.2 But phenomenologists of religion insist that this does not mean that religion can be adequately treated as an epiphenomenon, that is, as a product of socio-economic worlds, as if these worlds themselves were givens, rather than already creations of the human symbolic imagination.

My own thinking about religion has been much shaped by my studies with the Chicago historian of religion Charles H. Long. Long’s theorizing about religion, building on the work of both Joachim Wach and Mircea Eliade, bridges the divide between social scientific and phenomenological approaches to religion.3 For Long, religion is about orientation to matter. Religious consciousness arises in the encounter with matter, in the human encounter with the sky and the sun, with water and mountains, with the seed and the soil, with the animals and the landscape, with our dimorphic bodies and the mysteries of sex and procreation, and with the systems of exchange within which material goods are produced and circulated.4 In these encounters with materiality, the forms of the sacred are revealed, providing loci of orientation for the constitution of human worlds of meaning. Matter may be a given, but its meaning is not; religion is the creative process of generating worlds of orientation and meaning in relation to the material conditions of existence. From this perspective, religion can neither be reduced to materiality, nor abstracted from it.

Within such an understanding of religion as an orientation to matter, the kind of Braudelian analysis which Boer offers us is the essential starting place for any effort to think about ancient Israelite religion.5 Such an analysis begins by attending to the longue durée, that is, it begins with geography, with the relationship of human beings to their natural environment, its resources and constraints. We must begin here because the forms of materiality in a specific geographic location profoundly shape the social worlds and forms of religious consciousness which arise in a specific time and place. By attending to the longue durée of the ancient Levant, Boer is able to offer a richly detailed and nuanced picture of the materiality of the world of ancient Israel, opening up a space for reflection and debate on the forms of religion arising within that world.

Thus Boer’s Braudelian description of the world of ancient Israel offers an alternative framework for reflection on its religion. Rather than approaching ancient Israelite religion through the lens of confessional projections,6 Boer begins with attention geographical constraints shaping the social world of subsistence agriculture, which was the persisting core of economic life across millennia in the ancient Levant. This world of subsistence agriculture was lodged in the social networks of village communities, with allocative patterns of exchange designed to maximize group survival and continuity. The religious practices and beliefs of this village world emerged in a “creative engagement” with these material conditions, marking as sacred those social networks and generative powers which sustained communal existence.7 From this focus on the longue durée of the ancient Levant, Boer’s continues with attention to Braudel’s intermediate level of history—that is, the level of social history, “the history of groups and groupings”8 in this specific geographical context. At this level of social history, Boer traces the cyclical patterns of extractive regimes which arose by exploiting this subsistence substratum, using strategies of tribute, taxation and plunder until the resources of the exploited were exhausted and the regime collapsed upon its own weight. Within these extractive regimes, new or repurposed religious beliefs, institutions, and rituals were mobilized to sanction and sacralize hierarchical power relations. This process culminates in the emergence of what Boer calls “totalizing” theological systems, “headed by singular gods that rule not the tribe or town or palace-temple complex, but that lay claim to ruling the whole cosmos.”9

Boer’s Braudelian description of the world of ancient Israel has the potential to generate new reconstructions of ancient Israelite religion. This potential can be illustrated briefly with one example. Sociologists of biblical religion have given considerable attention to the prophetic conflicts of the 9th and 8th centuries, in which resistant prophets engaged in a battle of symbols as they protested against monarchical regimes and in support of the besieged world of the subsistence agriculturalists. The eight century prophet Hosea for example deployed the symbolism of the Exodus from Egypt in his protests against Israel’s powerful elites and rejected the legitimacy of those sacred symbols which supported their extractive regime; Hosea attacks the regimes’ official altars, horned bull icons, its priesthood and its sacrifices.10 But Boer’s careful reconstruction of the longue durée and intermediate durée in the Levant suggests an important point about these prophetic conflicts that many scholars, including myself, have previously neglected—that the crucial resource, always in short supply, was not arable land, but human laborers.11 My own Hosea work on Hosea included close attention to the religious meanings which were tied up with the land, specifically the sacral relationship between the bêt ʼab and its patrimonial lands, and how the process of agricultural intensification was defiling that nexus of sacrality.12 But Boer has taught me that arable land was perhaps not so scarce as another precious commodity, vital to the growth of elite wealth and power—that is bodies, human bodies conscripted for labor on the estates. No wonder as the process of estate formation sped up after establishment of the monarchies, prophets begin deploying language about the Exodus. In the Exodus what matters is not land—the promise of the land is deferred into the future, and as we see in the overall biblical story, possession of the land doesn’t last. What matters are bodies and the liberation of bodies from extractive, oppressive systems of forced labor.

This example demonstrates that careful attention to the longue durée and to the details of the materiality of the world of ancient Israel are essential data for thinking about the history of religion in the ancient Levant. A Braudelian perspective, working in tandem with an appreciation for the creative and world-constituting power of religion, helps the historian of religion avoid the perils of reductionism on one side and of theological idealism on the other. Boer’s work thus offers a new and important framework for reflection on the complex and manifold forms of ancient Israelite religion and the relationship of those forms of religion to the literature of the Hebrew Bible.

Turning now from the category of religion to that of gender, Boer’s work raises but does not carefully explore critical issues about the relationship between constructions of masculinity and extractive regimes. More than once in his book, Roland Boer laments the puzzling inability of human beings to make economic and political choices which are in their best long term interests. Specifically, he points out that extractive regimes of plunder are unsustainable, leading inevitably to the exhaustion of resources to plunder and economic collapse, yet human beings repeatedly invest themselves in such regimes. As Boer puts it, “human beings are not often the wisest concerning their own well-being. Rather than opting for what is in their best interest, they seem to choose the worst. . . . ”13 While this view is understandable, given the witness of history, I would suggest that Boer’s bewilderment at humanity’s apparent stupidity would be lessened by more rigorous attention to the category of gender.

The militarized regimes of extraction which Boer describes are not led by human beings in general, but by elite men. While militarism, imperialism and regimes of plunder may not yield good long term results, they do immediately give successful participants that which is most desired—a stamp of status and authenticity as men of power. The ideology of masculinity at work in these ancient worlds defines male identity and status in relation to a man’s capacity to control the sexuality of dependent females, to exert power over potential competitors, and to demonstrate potency. In achieving political power and military dominance, elite males demonstrate masculinity and are shielded from the threat of being feminized, that is, dominated by more powerful men. Herein is the self-interest that drives the engines of war and empire building.

In this situation, it is hardly surprising to find that male sexual potency serves as a metaphor for political power. My favorite example from the Hebrew Bible is when the new king Rehoboam is advised to assert his power over petitioning subjects by proclaiming that “my little finger is thicker than my father’s loins” (1 Kgs. 12:10). Boer intimates a deep understanding this point in his choice of metaphors, such as when he speaks of the despot who attempts a “phallic-like extension of his powers, penetrating his neighbors and holding them under his seminal sway.”14 Elsewhere, in a brilliant article entitled “The Patriarch’s Nuts,” Boer examines the rich range of terminology, euphemisms and metaphors connected with male genitalia found in the Hebrew Bible.15 In this survey, he uncovers the operation of “a pervasive albeit inconsistent ideology of testicular dominance that has worked its way into the sinews and fibers of the language itself.”16 Arguing that language provides a window into ideology, Boer speaks of the world of ancient Israel as “an erectile economy that rivaled any in the ancient world.”17

We see here a modality of masculinity which is much more than a feature of individual psychology; it is an ideological construction of power in which male mastery over women serves as the root model and metaphor for the constitution and legitimation of political and economic power. The term “hegemonic masculinity”, coined within masculinity studies,18 is useful here; this ideology of masculinity is hegemonic because it has successfully reproduced from generation to generation for millennia, constructing elite males as “real men” who demonstrate their masculinity through the violent appropriation of power and resources from those with less power. Within such an ideological world, power, be it political power or male sexual power, is about possession, penetration and control. The eventual triumph of patriarchal monotheism in the ancient Near East is surely interrelated with this pervasive ideological complex of masculinized power and sexually aggressive masculinity.

While Boer clearly appreciates this point about the symbolic interface of sexual power and political power, the category of gender is not central to his theorizing. This lacuna may be part of the problematic legacy of Marxist theory. In his classic work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels argued that the origin of patriarchy can be traced to the emergence of private property and the desire of men to bequeath their private property to their offspring—thus women must be owned/controlled to safeguard the transmission of property from father to son. From this, Engels reasoned that if we replace private property with collective ownership, the impetus for male control of women will disappear, and patriarchy will end.19 In Engels’ theory, male dominance is a byproduct of the root problem (private ownership of property), and thus the category of gender is not theoretically central. Engels is to be credited as one of the first to propose that patriarchy is a historical product and not a universal given, but some would argue that Engels has got the causal connections reversed. In her groundbreaking work, The Creation of Patriarchy, historian Gerda Lerner argued that among archaic peoples, the traffic in women, (which included both the voluntary exchange of women between social groups and the theft of women in raiding and warfare,) led to women being thought of the property of the kin group—property that must be defended from outsiders.20 This view of women as property of the group intensified during the Neolithic revolution; as children become economically valuable as laborers, women as reproducers of these laborers were reified as objects of group control and ownership. Women then were the first “things” that were owned by ancient social groups, and it is from this reification of women that related ideas of private control of property, and private ownership of one human being by another, followed. The sexual dominance of men over women within the family then provided (and still provides) the training ground and model for class hierarchies in general. It is no wonder that archaic states invested in the maintenance of patriarchal power in order to secure the support of subordinate men; although subordinate to the king, free men were compensated by laws which secured their power over women within their households. While the relationship of patriarchy and private property may be an unresolvable “which came first, the chicken or the egg” kind of problem, I would argue that it is a mistake to discount the formative influence of patriarchal ideologies in any analysis of the root causes of systems of exploitation or in any search for its solution.

In his conclusion, Boer broaches a hope that humanity can wise up, opt for less is more, embracing a kind of subsistence regime, but one which is purified of abusive hierarchies, such as sexism and xenophobia.21 Boer believes that a truly egalitarian society would be possible only if we renounced kinship as a model of human organization, arguing that kinship systems are inevitably geared towards the patriarchal abuse of women and others. As Boer writes “kinship may provide some level of security and social cohesion in particular circumstances, but it is geared toward abuse of the young, of women, and of the elderly. Patriarchal and hierarchical, it is hardly a model for human flourishing.”22 But humans have always had kinship systems in some form, whereas specifically patriarchal kinship systems are a relatively recent invention in human history. Kinship systems are not the cause of patriarchy, and their elimination will not rid humanity of the problem of hegemonic masculinity. What needs eradication or reformation are our ideologies of gender and our gendered constructions of identity based upon dominance and subordination. Perhaps in our own time we are seeing the first movements in that direction as feminists, gay people, transgender people and others begin to deconstruct oppressive gender roles and gender polarities. Again, what is needed is the liberation of bodies, liberation not only from economic oppression, but from the ideologies that constrain and script us to conform our bodies to hierarchically ordered gender codes.

1 Roland Boer, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Louisville, ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2015), 32.

2 This point is made by Daniel L. Pals in his overview of modern theoretical approaches to the study of religion; Pals writes that “his [Marx’s] emphasis on economic realities has now made it impossible to understand religious life anywhere without exploring its close ties to economic and social realities.” Daniel L. Pals, Seven Theories of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 146.

3 For an entrée into the work of Charles H. Long, see his Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, Colorado: The Davies Group, 1999).

4 For more on Long’s theorizing concerning “the imagination of matter,” see Significations and also Charles H. Long, “Mircea Eliade and the Imagination of Matter,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 1, no. 2 (Spring, 2000), http://www.wingsoar.net/jcrt/archives.html.

5 Fernand Braudel’s historiography is showcased in his magisterial work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. i and ii, trans. Siân Reynolds (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1972).

6 For discussion of the problem of confessional or theological approaches in biblical scholarship, see Robert Oden, The Bible Without Theology: The Theological Tradition and Alternatives To It (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987).

7 Boer, Sacred Economy, 57.

8 Braudel, The Mediterranean, 20.

9 Boer, Sacred Economy, 145.

10 As I’ve argued elsewhere, the old argument about Hosea opposing a popular fertility cult totally misses the point—Hosea’s target is not the sacred world of village life, with its teraphim and asherim and cults of the dead, but the practices of the extractive class, and their attempts to shroud their practices of exploitation under the mantle of Yahwism. See Keefe, Woman’s Body and the Social Body in Hosea (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 66-103.

11 Boer, Sacred Economy, 70, 118-121 and passim.

12 Keefe, Woman’s Body and the Social Body, 191-95.

13 Boer, Sacred Economy, 205.

14 Ibid., 195.

15 Roland Boer, “The Patriarch’s Nuts: Concerning the Testicular Logic of Biblical Hebrew,” Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality 5, no. 2 (2011): 41-52.

16 Ibid., 49.

17 Ibid., 43.

18 Tim Carrigan, Bob Connell, and John Lee, “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity,” pp. 63-100 in The Making of Masculinities: The New Men’s Studies, ed. Harry Brod ( Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987). In the field of biblical studies, Susan E. Haddox applies this concept of hegemonic masculinity as she analyzes Hosea’s rhetorical attacks on the masculinity of Israel’s elites in her essay “(E)Masculinity in Hosea’s Political Rhetoric,” in Israel’s Prophets and Israel’s Past: Essays on the Relationship of Prophetic Texts and Israelite History in Honor of John H. Hayes, eds. Brad E. Kelle and Megan Bishop Moore (n.y.: T&T Clark International, 2006), 174-200.

19 The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978), 741-45.

20 Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 21-29 and 46-53.

21 Boer, Sacred Economy, 217-222.

22 Ibid., 221.

  • 7

    Boer, Sacred Economy, 57.

  • 8

    Braudel, The Mediterranean, 20.

  • 9

    Boer, Sacred Economy, 145.

  • 12

    Keefe, Woman’s Body and the Social Body, 191-95.

  • 13

    Boer, Sacred Economy, 205.

  • 14

    Ibid., 195.

  • 15

    Roland Boer, “The Patriarch’s Nuts: Concerning the Testicular Logic of Biblical Hebrew,” Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality 5, no. 2 (2011): 41-52.

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  • 16

    Ibid., 49.

  • 17

    Ibid., 43.

  • 18

    Tim Carrigan, Bob Connell, and John Lee, “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity,” pp. 63-100 in The Making of Masculinities: The New Men’s Studies, ed. Harry Brod ( Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1987). In the field of biblical studies, Susan E. Haddox applies this concept of hegemonic masculinity as she analyzes Hosea’s rhetorical attacks on the masculinity of Israel’s elites in her essay “(E)Masculinity in Hosea’s Political Rhetoric,” in Israel’s Prophets and Israel’s Past: Essays on the Relationship of Prophetic Texts and Israelite History in Honor of John H. Hayes, eds. Brad E. Kelle and Megan Bishop Moore (n.y.: T&T Clark International, 2006), 174-200.

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  • 20

    Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 21-29 and 46-53.

  • 21

    Boer, Sacred Economy, 217-222.

  • 22

    Ibid., 221.

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