Rethinking Religion and Economics in Ancient Israel

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

In: Horizons in Biblical Theology
Author: Amy Erickson1
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Roland Boer marshals Marxist economic theory to stage an intervention designed to do nothing less than unseat neoliberalism as the regnant economic model in the study of ancient Israel. This response to Boer raises questions about the Boer’s treatment of the sacred and the notion of embedded religion. It also suggests that Bourdieu’s notion of “doxic” ideology can provide a balance to Boer’s voluntaristic model.


Roland Boer marshals Marxist economic theory to stage an intervention designed to do nothing less than unseat neoliberalism as the regnant economic model in the study of ancient Israel. This response to Boer raises questions about the Boer’s treatment of the sacred and the notion of embedded religion. It also suggests that Bourdieu’s notion of “doxic” ideology can provide a balance to Boer’s voluntaristic model.

Roland Boer marshals Marxist economic theory to stage an intervention designed to do nothing less than unseat neoliberalism as the regnant economic model in the study of ancient Israel. After clearly and forcefully explaining how neoclassical economics depends on a dialectical relationship between reductionism and imperialism (thereby leaving us with a theory that is fully individualized, desocialized, and dehistoricized), Boer goes on to show us how Soviet-era Russian scholarship and Regulation theory can help us put the communal, the social, and the historical back into economic analysis and debunk the idea that we all are—and always have been—capitalists at heart.

When he is at his best, Boer proceeds by identifying a common misguided assumption (at least among biblical scholars) before offering his own proposal as a more compelling reading of the data. I realize I’m risking an embarrassing public display of my own ignorance, but for me Boer’s book was full of “Ah-ha!” and “Who knew?” moments, some of which I will point out along the way of this review.

The sacred economy is made up of a number of institutional forms: subsistence survival, kinship-household, patronage, what Boer cleverly calls (e)states, and tribute exchange. These forms are like building blocks that can be variously configured to create different constellations or economic regimes. Boer identifies three such regimes: subsistence, palatine, and plunder. Each regime has a dominant mode of production and reveals an economic pattern that is either allocative or extractive. The subsistence survival, kinship-household, and patronage forms generally co-exist with allocative patterns, while (e)states and tribute exchange are extractive.

One of the weaknesses of previous studies of Israel’s history, according to Boer, is that they have tended to isolate one institutional form (such as kinship-household) and used it to explain how the entire social, political, economic system works. This amounts to a false universalism: taking a particular feature out of the context of the whole and using it to proffer an explanation of the entire system (38-9).

By contrast, Boer’s flexible framework gives him the equivalent of a box of Lego bricks and a few colorful mats decorated with different layouts. These bricks and layouts enable him to build and account for a remarkably diverse array of scenarios. Because a block or a mat from a previous scenario almost always appears in the next one he builds, no economic situation emerges ex nihilo. Change does not rely on revolution or on the import of foreign ideas; rather, it emerges largely from a reconfiguration of the blocks, sometimes on a new mat.

Boer sets up his study with a concise and sophisticated review of the theory that informs his analysis of Israel’s economy. However, before he persuades us that Marxist theories are well suited for discerning “amid the chatter of the data, deeper economic patterns,” he succinctly and emphatically disavows us of our capitalist impulses by pointing to the inadequacies of a neoclassical approach to economics (4).

This introduction to Marxist theories brings us to the first assumption of the unreflective capitalist that Boer takes to task, namely, humans have an innate propensity to exchange things with one another (13). Boer exposes what is nonsensical about neoliberalism’s “common sense” economic narrative, in which human economies evolve toward capitalism. This story, told most enthusiastically by Adam Smith, begins with the division of labor, which leads to people acquiring surpluses and bartering with one another to get things they didn’t make or grow themselves. Exchange leads to the invention of money, and finally, we arrive at the capitalist’s nirvana: banking and credit. While this version of history pervades economic textbooks, it is not supported by facts or empirical evidence; there are no examples of societies that evolved in this way. In response to his own sarcasm-soaked question, “Where is this mythical village?” Boer is unequivocal: “No such village will ever be found” (13-14).

In Boer’s analysis of the southern Levant, surpluses did not infuse producers with capitalist desires for stuff. Settled agricultural communities and pastoral nomads did not trade their surpluses with one another in order to build wealth or to acquire preciosities. Rather, whatever small surpluses they managed to eke out were consistently stored in order to see them through the next inevitable bad harvest, drought, or animal disease. Surpluses were not produced to get more stuff or better stuff. On the contrary, Boer asserts, “planning for surplus is . . . a response to ever-present uncertainty rather than a strategy for profit” (67).

The first part of the book (chapters 2 and 3) is devoted to an analysis of agriculture and allocation in the Levant. Boer argues that they are “inseparable for understanding the sacred economy” (53). I will spend the bulk of my remaining time engaging these chapters because I found them fascinating.

As an institutional form in Israel’s history, subsistence farming proved to be remarkably enduring and resilient. Geographically removed from the political and economic centers of the ancient Southwest Asian world, Israel was occasionally subject to the ruling empire’s extractive rapacity, but much of the time it flew below the radar of the looters and plunderers. When the powerful were distracted, Israel reverted to the habitus of subsistence survival.

This discussion of subsistence survival leads us to another commonly accepted idea that Boer challenges, namely, that economic stability is the norm and instability and crisis need explaining. Boer impishly asks, “Are all economies concerned with the management of crisis, or does that apply only to capitalism?” (36). In subsistence regimes, he shows that crisis was the norm, “so much so that it becomes the desired situation for subsistence practices and moments of greatest creativity” (36). The cultivation of creative, adaptive responses to regular economic crises extended to Israel’s land- and family-linked “religious” practices and beliefs, which, he argues, were less “an effort to make sense of a senseless world and more a creative engagement with it” (57).

Boer describes those involved in this allocative economic pattern as adaptable, responsive, resilient, and deeply connected to the land. If all of this has you fantasizing about dropping out and making artisan goat cheeses, keeping heirloom apples alive, and raising chickens, Boer warns that subsistence survival can be “a brutal and unforgiving process” (81). The biblical vision of a subsistence survival lifestyle is “no festival of equality” (81). Even if these agricultural communities were skilled navigators of economic crisis and environmental change, they were not flexible about their customs, religious beliefs and practices, and social hierarchies.

Boer’s title, The Sacred Economy, announces that he has rejected the idea that religion and the economy are separate spheres. In his introduction he writes, “at the most basic level, the determining ideological framework of this ancient economy was the sacred.” As in the rest of ancient Southwest Asia, in Israel, “the language used, the thought forms, the framework in which human beings inhabited the world—all were understood in terms of the sacred” (8). Boer acknowledges that the terminology of “the sacred” is problematic, in that it relies on opposing the categories “sacred” and “secular.” In an attempt to dissolve this binary, Boer insists that “the sacred saturated daily life, especially agricultural life. What appears to us as ‘secular’ was imbued with all manner of assumptions that were also sacred. So also with economic life” (8).

The idea that in the ancient world, the sacred—or religion—was embedded in daily life represents an important corrective to the modern Western tendency to impose a Christian, Enlightenment concept of religion—which assumes a sharp division between the sacred and the secular and between religion and economics—onto ancient societies.1 While I appreciate that Boer wants to foil our modern instincts to compartmentalize, there is something vague about the idea that everything is sacred (more or less).

Brent Nongbri, in his recent critique of the idea of “embedded religion,” puts it sharply:

the rhetoric of “embeddedness” permits scholars to pay lip service to the complications involved in the cross-cultural application of the category of religion while making only the most minimal adjustment in our vocabulary and in our conceptual theorizing about ancient cultures. “Embedded religion” allows us to weakly imply that there is no such thing as a well-defined “ancient religion” but to keep talking as though “it” existed.2

Nongbri calls our attention to this problem, which comes up over and over again for scholars of ancient religions, but he doesn’t really offer up a solution.

Boer is acutely aware of this problem. Throughout the book, Boer signals that he is limited by terminology such as “religion” and “the sacred,” and he consistently points to the anachronisms he must resort to for explanatory purposes. Boer carefully walks the line between (on the one side) acknowledging the complexity of his task and the insufficiency of his inherited categories, and (on the other) describing the practices of everyday agricultural-religious life.

Boer’s work raised many interesting questions for me. Many of them are scribbled in the margins of my book: What is “the sacred”? If religion is pervasive, how can you analyze it or even describe it in ways that could possibly be specific enough to be interesting? What does the relationship between what he calls the “capricious spirits and gods” and humans look like? Are the gods actually “gods” (as in completely other-than-humans), or are they more like members of the household? How do these beings interact? How is the sacred identifiable as such? Again, what is the sacred? Does using this anachronistic language—which depends so heavily on ill-suited, pre-conceived but diluted labels—end up maintaining the fiction that these areas of life are, in fact, best conceived of as separate spheres? Does it pre-dispose us to classify first and therefore inhibit our ability to describe what we see in front of us? In the allocative forms, the sacred is “more or less present.” As a result, religion is everywhere and nowhere; it tends to flash then vanish from view before we can really figure out what’s going on.

In Boer’s analysis, religion in the extractive forms is more readily identifiable; it is clearly allied with the interests of the plundering state. In Israel and in ancient Southwest Asia, political myths and priestly ideology are constructed to promote particular self interested agendas. Such a voluntaristic conception of ideology is consistent with a Marxist perspective.3 However, it may be worth thinking not only about what the ruling classes do (intentionally) with religion—if that’s what we’re to call it—to shore up their power, but also about how religion ends up shoring up the economic and political power of the ruling classes (a not-entirely conscious process).4

The notion of doxa, advanced by Pierre Bourdieu, highlights this unconscious aspect of ideology. Doxa, which lives in “the universe of the undiscussed,” is held in common between the dominated and dominants, but neither group sees it clearly enough to question it.5 Jacques Berlinerblau distinguishes doxa from propaganda in this way: “Doxa is what everyone in a social body ‘knows.’ Ideology (or propaganda), as the voluntaristic conception conceives it, is what one group or class knows and wants others to know as well.”6

A doxic reading of the intertwining of religion and the economy need not replace a more voluntaristic view of ideology. Instead the two might complement one another. In particular, one might consider temple ideology from both a voluntaristic and a doxic perspective. In Boer’s reading, the priests—as non-producers—“justify” their extraction of goods from producers by connecting the sacred to extractive forms. By insisting that the capricious gods need professionally-administered sacrifices in order for the land to remain fecund, the priests simultaneously sanction their non-productivity, their extraction of goods from the farmers, and their elite status. Boer suggests that in the “increasingly elaborate theological-ideological-economic system that emerges, ‘the tithe’ becomes a “reallocation of produce to the most important locus: the temple and its workers” (142). The re-deployment of a familiar form in a different economic regime makes for a powerful theological sales pitch.

If we take this analysis in a doxic direction, we might wonder if this particular form of the sacred economy also relies on the assumption that human righteousness and divine blessing are connected. As doxa, it pervades the collective unconscious; it makes up the assumptions of the priests and farmers alike. Although this link between a group’s riches and god’s favor does not go unchallenged in the Hebrew Bible, I think it is a persistent enough idea that in most times and in many circles, it could have functioned as doxa. The end result might be the same (support for the rule of the dominant), but doxa helps to explain why the dominated might be persuaded by this linking of religion and the extractive economy that so clearly benefits the ruling classes. It might also help to explain how the dominants come to believe their own ideologies—brimming with confidence that they are entitled to what they are getting—and how they are continually shaped by them.

Boer has given us a rare thing: a truly exciting, mischievous, and compelling book. I often tell my students that I became an academic because I love the jolt of satisfaction I get when something I assumed to be true turns out to be not sotrue. I found reading Roland Boer’s book to be a tremendously enjoyable experience because it challenges so many of the assumptions that pervade the field of biblical scholarship.

1 Polanyi’s work showed that the idea of “the economy”—as a phenomenon distinct from other spheres of life—is not something that has always been or that came about naturally. Rather this way of thinking about society emerged alongside capitalism.

2 Brent Nongbri, “Dislodging ‘Embedded’ Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope.” Numen 55 (2008): 440-460 (454).

3 Jacques Berlinerblau, “Ideology, Pierre Bourdieu’s Doxa, and the Hebrew Bible,” Semeia 87 (1999): 193-214.

4 Berlinerblau points out that Marxist theorists have not always insisted on a link between ideology and consciousness. He cites Althusser, who states, “A philosopher thinks in it [i.e., ideology] rather than thinking of it” (“Ideology,” 200).

5 Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 168.

6 Berlinerblau, “Ideology,” 169.

  • 2

    Brent Nongbri, “Dislodging ‘Embedded’ Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope.” Numen 55 (2008): 440-460 (454).

  • 6

    Berlinerblau, “Ideology,” 169.

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