Eyal Ben-Eliyahu. Identity and Territory: Jewish Perceptions of Space in Antiquity. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. 216 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-29360-1.
Reviewed by Tracy Ames (Vancouver School of Theology)
Published on H-Judaic (October, 2019)
Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Jagiellonian University)
This volume examines changing ideas related to perceived territorial boundaries and ethno-national identity as reflected in Jewish literature from the Second Temple period to the Roman Byzantine period. Through close readings of biblical, Second Temple, and rabbinic literature, the book focuses on the reciprocal relationship between fluctuating notions of geographic borders and differing views of identity in postbiblical Jewish society. Eyal Ben-Eliyahu presents a pioneering approach to the literary sources he investigates with the application of the spatial theory of history, widely employed in the humanities and social sciences. The central arguments of the book are that identity influences territorial perceptions and that territory, itself, is one of the factors involved in shaping identity. In addition, the treatment of ancient sources related to deliberations about perceptions of status, scope, and the nature of territory among different groups demonstrates that these issues continue to be part of internal and external dialogue about the status of the territory of Israel.
Identity and Territory comprises five chapters. Material in the first two chapters appeared previously in Hebrew in Ben-Eliyahu’s book “Between Borders: The Boundaries of the Land of Israel in the Consciousness of the People of the Second Temple and the Roman-Byzantine Periods” (2014). Chapter 1, “From Judah to Israel: Territory and Identity,” discusses the names for land and nation as reflected in literature from the biblical, Second Temple, and rabbinic periods. The author posits that the names for the geographical space reflected an evolving Jewish ethno-national identity. In the Pentateuch, the primary name for the nation is “Israel.” “Judahite” appears in the later biblical books of Jeremiah and Esther, referring to the inhabitants of the Southern Kingdom after the fall of the Northern Kingdom. During the Second Temple period, Judah came to signify the nation’s territorial boundaries. The “Judean” identity that marked the early Second Temple period came to be conceptualized as “Pan-Israelite” in the coinage from the later Second Temple period. This is attributed to the expansion of the borders of the Hasmonean Kingdom to comprise much of the area of biblical Israel. The evolution of differing uses of the names “Judah” and “Israel” to designate land and nation is traced from the Middle Ages to the present.
Chapter 2, “Borders, Space, and Identity in Second Temple Literature,” moves from the names for land and nation to examine the place of territory in the identity of the Jewish writers in the Second Temple period. This chapter considers the fluctuating ways that the borders of the land were conceived of in literature from differing periods and even in diverse ways from literature of the same period. The chapter contrasts the various notions of borders as reflected in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, all from the Persian period. Territorial orientations in the later works of Judith, I Maccabees, Jubilees, and Genesis Apocryphon, as well as Flavius Josephus, are also covered. The author suggests that the divergent approaches to territorial borders in literature were directly related to the specific national identity of each author. At the same time, notions of territory constituted a key element that shaped Jewish identity.
Chapter 3, “From Earthly Land to Holy Land,” continues the discussion of territory, looking at the literature of the religious movements that were not bound to territory and focusing on the spiritual image of the land as presented in I Enoch, Qumran texts, and 2 Maccabees, and by Philo. Christian writings of the first century CE, beginning with the Pauline movement culminating with Constantine, are also covered. This chapter concentrates on examining these movements in the context of one another, paying attention to related ideological notions in developing Christianity. In contrast to the strong territorial orientations in the literature from the Second Temple period, Ben-Eliyahu concludes that the authors discussed in this chapter tended to minimize both the importance of territory and their ethnic identities, concentrating instead on numerous spiritual notions about the land.
Chapter 4, “Land of the Sages,” focuses on the territorial dimension as it was understood in the corpus of rabbinic literature. This literature tended to characterize the boundaries of the land much like the authors of the Hebrew Bible. Rabbinic literature reveals a preference for traditional Hebrew nomenclature and a determination not to employ the Roman provincial name “Palestina.” While pointing out the differing views expressed in Tannaitic and Amoraic literature and in the rabbinic literature composed in Israel and in Babylonia, Ben-Eliyahu concentrates on the Mishnaic tractates in the order Zera’im. He concludes that based on the shifting locations of Jewish communities, the rabbis expanded and conscripted the borders of the land for various halakhic purposes, such as commandments dependent on the land. In contrast, the Babylonian Talmud rarely engages with the land and its borders. Although the Babylonian sages recognized the status of the land and the importance of dwelling in it, they concentrated on statements justifying their living in Babylonia. Rather than the land of Israel, the Babylonian Talmud, instead, relates extensively to the borders of Babylonia, mapping significant Jewish inhabited regions.
Chapter 5, “Rabbinic Literature Confronts Nonrabbinic Jewish Culture and Christianity: The Question of Holy Spaces,” moves away from the discussion of “holy land,” which occupies chapters 3 and 4, and is dedicated to the exploration of rabbinic sources that discuss “holy sites.” The introduction of the chapter discusses the conception of holy spaces in the Hebrew Bible and in Second Temple literature. The chapter moves to consider what delineated holy space in rabbinic literature, concluding that “the rabbis perceived space through the prism of their values, beliefs, and worldviews” (p. 153). Although only Jerusalem, the Temple, and the land of Israel were considered holy by rabbinic sages, rabbinic literature’s discussion of holy sites was also conditioned on polemical responses to the alternative internal ideologies that attributed sanctity to sites outside of Jerusalem, as well as the external Christian presence that sanctified spaces in the Galilee and Jerusalem. This chapter discusses Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, Hebron, Shechem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethel, Bethsaida, Korazim, and high mountains (Hermon, Gabor, and Terazim). Rabbinic and Christian sources that discuss the holiness of these locations are compared to highlight the sages’ polemical responses to contentious ideologies.
In sum, this book is highly recommended for its thorough research, the original application of the spatial theory of history to Jewish studies, its extensive notes and bibliography, and the large number of ancient Jewish and other texts that are covered.
Tracy Ames is a research associate at the Vancouver School of Theology.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Tracy Ames. Review of Ben-Eliyahu, Eyal, Identity and Territory: Jewish Perceptions of Space in Antiquity.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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