The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction

  • J. David Pleins
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Pleins, J. David The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. xii + 592 pp. $39.95 pb. ISBN 0-664-22175-0.

In one sense, the title says it all: the goal of this volume is to present the various (and diverse) ethical perspectives and social programs of the different parts of the Old Testament. The particular contribution of Pleins, who teaches at Santa Clara University in California, is his attempt to identify the particular historical context and social groups that generated each of these strands. This task of historical reconstruction is guided by appeals to source theories and sociological research. His conviction is that only an honest grappling with the very real conflicts of ideology and theology, which he believes can de discerned within the text itself, can allow the Bible to be properly appropriated in today's pluralistic and complex world.

The first chapter begins by presenting a brief summary of some work done early in the twentieth century that tried to get at the social institutions and life of ancient Israel (Weber, Bizzell, Causse, and Wallis). Pleins then lays out his own methodology. Even at this stage it is telling to observe the influences that will mark this study. For example, he follows those scholars who argue that most of the Hebrew Bible is the product of the postexilic period, while at the same time continuing to hold to certain critical theories (such as the Documentary Theory of Pentateuchal origins) that are increasingly being questioned. In other words, his reconstruction is based in large measure on a complicated amalgam of classical and more recent criticism (pp. 24-27). In addition, even though he desires to take sociological data seriously, he will side with those who have been critical of the text's historical reliability (like Van Seters and Thompson), as over against those archaeologists who might provide him with the kind of solid evidence that one would think he would need to fortify and control his historical interpretations (note, e.g., his criticisms of Stager, p. 32 note 21; and Carol Meyers, p. 35 note 76; cf. his comments on Kitchen, an Egyptologist, p. 30, note 4; p. 37, note 112). As the reader begins to work through this book, therefore, there is the lingering suspicion that some of what follows might fall prey to speculative hypotheses.

Some of Pleins's reconstructions include the following:

  • The Covenant Code (Exod. 21-23): This set of laws "might more plausibly be read against this background as a social charter designed to regulate a state of affairs in which the members of the small farming communities of the tribal federation had begun to suffer severe dislocation and sought in law a framework for exacting justice for their constituency" (p. 53). This set of laws, although containing earlier material, Pleins believes, arose in the North during and after the Omride period (9th century). In its present role within the Pentateuchal narrative this code was part of the program of those in the postexilic period that desired to shape the people into a law abiding community (such as was the case with Ezra and Nehemiah).
  • The Deuteronomic code (Deut. 12-26): This legislation would reflect a change from a rural to an urban perspective, which was developed by landowners and the royal court, probably during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE). This corpus represents a deliberate reworking of the Exodus and legal material in and for that new context.
  • Deuteronomistic History (Deut.-Judges, 1 Sam-2 Kgs.): The central concern of the DtrH is the monarchy: its theological basis and evaluation, and its historical rise and demise. Pleins proposes that this was the historical work of landed elites in postexilic Palestine, who desired the return to a monarchy (perhaps in the persons of Jehoiakin and Zerubbabel; cf. Haggai and Zechariah).
  • "P": The cultic and social legislation of Leviticus and Numbers represents an alternative view of society to that of the Deuteronomic History and arises in a time after the return from exile when the temple has been rebuilt and the priests have a controlling influence on affairs. "P" offers a semi-utopian vision of an ordered and pure society mediated by the cult and the priests, since the hope of a restored monarchy had failed.

Some of these and other postulations are debatable. Instead of isolating specific pieces of the book to critique, however, I offer several general critiques. One misgiving has already been mentioned: the dependence more on hypothetical literary-theological reconstructions and sociological possibilities than on hard historical and archaeological data. Second, Pleins on occasion admits that his efforts cannot be taken with absolute certainty in light of the difficulty in isolating the various sources from the final, postexilic, canonical form (e.g., p. 27) or because of his understanding that much of what is in the text is myth and not historically accurate (pp. 145-50). If so much within the text is hidden under layers of tradition and is questionable for his purposes, then the detail of his reconstructions is surprising... and tenuous. Much of his theorizing is more creative and suggestive than convincing.

Third, in spite of all the details of his arguments and his championing of a sociological approach, Pleins falls into simplistic sociological analysis. His presentation assumes that each subset of ideological-theological producers had distinct points of view. This, of course, is never true. Ideologies are permeable and changeable; they are not neat hermetically sealed entities, that can be easily assigned to specific classes or communities of certain well-defined contexts and that collide with one another in nice sequential time frames like some sort of billiard balls.

Fourth, even though throughout this volume-from the Introduction (pp. 24-27) to the Conclusion (pp. 518-21)-he contends for the necessity of getting back to the various historical layers and sources, the lingering problem that Pleins will have to deal with is that the text is one canon and its compliers would have had it read in that way. Yes, it does have several ethical points of view contained within its pages, but it is received today as a single corpus. He bemoans the fact that oftentimes the text is read as flat-that is, over-systematically. Pleins does well to celebrate the Bible's diversity, yet he never grapples adequately with its final canonical shaping. Somehow both realities must be held together.

Finally, the end result is a bit disappointing. In the Conclusion Pleins rehearses the imperative to recognize the multiple ethical voices within the Hebrew Bible. He then discusses the contributions of four "trajectories" of these inner-biblical debates (pp. 523-28) and then reviews the perspectives of the legal material, narratives, the prophetic literature, and wisdom (pp. 530f.). What this reviewer found striking was that none of what he says required his particular historical and sociological reconstructions. In fact, the details of where each strand was supposed to have originated are never mentioned... and are not missed. One is left wondering to what degree an ethically sensitive reading of the Old Testament, that is attuned to its ethical variety, must rely on such speculative reconstructions.

These observations are not meant to imply that one should dismiss this work. There is much here that is valuable. To begin with, this reviewer applauds Pleins for a well-organized argument. Each chapter opens with an outline and an introduction to the following discussion and then closes with helpful summaries. The endnotes to each chapter are a rich resource of further discussions and bibliographic information. It is obvious that the author is well informed.

Moreover, Pleins clearly has read the biblical texts very carefully, and so-however one might evaluate his historical reconstructions-his chapters are full of interesting observations and details (note, e.g., his comparisons of the legal material in the Covenant and Deuteronomic codes [pp. 54-58; p. 85, note 29; p. 87, note 50], of the Pentateuchal sources [pp. 119-38], and of the various prophetic books [213-416]).

What is more, the efforts by Pleins to take the social locations of the biblical data seriously can offer positive lessons. To begin with, his meticulous work can help dispel commonly held (but superficial) generalizations. A case in point is his apt criticism of those that too easily go to the prophets to highlight the Hebrew Bible's concern for justice, when the various law codes all reflect some vital commitment to care for the poor in their social programs (pp. 42, 70, 78). Second, the attempt to discover the social realities behind the biblical text yields concrete socio-ethical readings that can stimulate reflection on its strident moral character and content.

Lastly, this volume does force the reader to appreciate the richness and complexity of the Bible's ethical material. Anyone who does desire to use the Hebrew Bible as an ethical source should be attuned to its many points of view and the differences in emphasis and concern within its multiple genres. While one may not agree with all of Pleins's reconstructions, it is important to heed his clarion call of appreciating the Hebrew Bible's many social visions.

M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary