Review: The Invention of Hebrew, Seth L. Sanders

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Sanders argues against modern thinkers (Habermas, Anderson, and Warner) in showing that the ability to imagine and create a ‘public’ is not a new invention due to the advent of modern technology, but one of ancient origin which is still being perpetrated today. He takes the political study of texts and cultural formation to a new level, combining the two and creating a work that is well worth reading, referencing, and should serve as a catalyst of study for those who engage in the Hebrew Language and Old Testament formation.

The call of Deuteronomy 6 is “Hear, O Israel!” Between “hear” and “Israel” is a moment of recognition…. The Bible is the first text to address people as a public. It is this call that the Bible’s audiences have been answering for more than two thousand years. pg 1- Preface

While not strictly a theological book, Sanders’ work showcases the ancient Hebrew scriptures as a powerful text, itself transforming a people and political systems to the very day. This power is bound in the text because it ‘directly address a collective audience, a second-person plural “you” understood to be Israel. No literature addressed such a “you” before the bible. For biblical literature to become possible, fundamental assumptions about writing’s participants must have changed over the course of the Iron Age. (104)’ It becomes a political document in which for the first time the literature addresses not the king but the people. In doing so, the text becomes the mediator between God and humanity, almost ignoring the king. It wasn’t just Israel’s kings that God overruled, but so too those nations who were outside the land. By doing so, a collective ‘you’ was created, which is still heard today by those who read it. In other words, the text allowed the people to be under the authority of the God of the text.

For biblical students and political scientists alike, Sanders work stands as unifying work into what creates authority over a people. The author starts from the beginning by taking on Thomas Hobbs moving on to engage other current authors in the field. He acknowledges that others, such as Benedict Anderson ‘encourages us to think historically about the ways art and language help make forms of self-organization possible, without reducing them to mere ideological hoodwinking. (p34)’ Sanders has shown that because the style of address which the Hebrew Scriptures had, the bible itself contains inherent, albeit, political authority for those who have read it, either again and again or for the very first time. The speaker is God, whether through a prophet or a poet, addresses directly a people, or perhaps the individual holding a finely printed bible today, bypassing king and congress. Because of the collective you, the individual answers the call of the bible. The author writes, ‘It is this call that the Bible’s audiences have been answering for more than two thousand years. (pg1)’

A book on political authority inherent in an ancient document should be expected to be rather dry and academic, but the author’s style is comfortable. He introduces a cross-disciplinary approach to studying the ancient texts without diminishing his focus.  He writes to the collective ‘you’ as well, carrying on a conversation with Hobbs who first attempted to undermine the authority the bible and the people who heard שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד׃, engaging his reader and bringing them to the ultimate conclusion of just how important the Hebrew Scriptures are to understanding even our present political system.

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