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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Social World of the Old Testament

David L. Petersen

The Old Testament presents a world full of compelling characters. Personages like Jacob, David, Jeremiah, Sarah, Miriam, and Abigail continue to capture the imagination of readers, so much so that the Old Testament has been understood as literature that focuses on characters as they carry out their lives in dialogue with God. That same Old Testament, however, conveys something less visible but equally important: a world of social realities which constitutes the matrix in which these characters act and which, in powerful ways, determines what can and cannot happen to them. There are, in fact, two social worlds of the Old Testament. There is a social world in the Old Testament, namely, the network of relationships depicted in the text, and a social world which produced the Old Testament, the “real” world of ancient Israel. Though obviously related, these worlds are not always identical.

Old Testament scholars have long recognized the importance of this latter social world. In recent years, however, there has been a virtual explosion of research devoted to the social world of ancient Israel. For example, scholars have recently argued that it is better to use the model of peasant culture than that of nomadism to understand certain features of early Israelite society. Further, it seems preferable to view Saul using the notion of a chief rather than a king. Finally, the very idea of family has now been subjected to a rigorous analysis that has distinguished the household unit (those who dwell together) from the lineage (those who share an ancestor) as distinct entities. Such redefinitions represent a refinement in social analysis which is a part of contemporary study of the social world of ancient Israel.

Whether one focuses on the social world depicted in the Old Testament or existing behind the Old Testament, it is clear that there are numerous subsidiary worlds: the world of genders (the different worlds of male and female behavior), the world of the household, the world of the extended family, the world of the local community (whether city or village), and the world of the state. And it is also clear that these worlds vary over time and according to region. The chronological period that has received special attention in social world studies is the time just before and then during the inception of monarchy. There has been a predominant regional focus as well, on the so-called central highlands, in part because it is relatively easy to identify material cultural remains of the aforementioned period in this area. This world was palpably different from that of the household located in Josiah's Jerusalem, from Ezekiel's house which was not far from Mesopotamian Nippur, or from Nehemiah's dwelling in rebuilt Jerusalem. The variables of region, chronology, and size of social unit require one to speak of various social worlds that lie behind the Old Testament.

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Oxford University Press

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