Book Review: The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel

Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Boer)In The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, Roland Boer offers an economic study intended to bring contemporary social science into dialogue with the world of Ancient Israel. Focusing on the allocation and extraction economic patterns in ancient Israel and the historic interplay between these institutional systems, Boer argues that a Marxist analysis of the economic and social world of ancient Israel reveals a sacred complexity of economic institutions and activities which existed in tension with one another. As correlative arguments, Boer pushes back against postclassical assumptions of a proto-market economy in ancient Israel, advocates for a broader application of social scientific research to biblical studies, argues for an integrated understanding of the sacred and secular in Israel, and in contrast to numerous contemporary studies contends that a complexity of institutions formed the basis of ancient Israel’s economy. Central to this study are the five building blocks of ancient Israel’s religiously regulated sacred economy—subsistence survival, kinship households, patronage, estates, and tribute exchanges—and the three regimes in which these foundational institutions developed—systems of subsistence, palatine, and booty.

Following a brief introduction, Boer’s lengthy first chapter outlines the economic theory at work in this volume. Especially important for Boer are Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems, Polanyi’s substantivist proposals, Marxist-Leninist thought, and the Régulation School of economic theory. Though not beyond critiquing these influences, the major emphasis of this chapter involves pushback against the assumptions of contemporary postclassical and imperialist economics (capitalism), especially in works on ancient Israel. This chapter offers an important overview of Boer’s methodological principles, but will likely prove difficult reading for those without some background in economics and/or Marxist thought.

Chapters two through five focus on the economic building blocks of ancient Israel. Chapter two examines the contours of agricultural subsistence survival, including the livlihoods of crop farming and animal husbandry. Especially noteworthy is reliance on zooarchaeological and archaebotanical research, utilized to argue that subsistence survival stood as a central yet ambivalent form of ancient Israelite economic activity. Chapter three considers kinship structures and patronage, two necessarily related and formative structures for social and economic interaction in ancient Israel. Because these interpersonal relationships formed the basis by which subsistence survival was able to function, many customary (i.e., Old Testament) laws engaged kinship and patronage interaction. Taken together, chapters two and three offer useful social and economic context for those desiring holistic engagement with living conditions of ancient Israel.

Chapters four and five consider the extractive institutional forms of the ancient Israelite economy: estates and tribute exchanges. Drawing on a wide variety of archaeological and biblical evidence, Boer argues that the “(e)states” of Israel included interactions between subsistence survivors and the temple, estates, and the developing monarchical state. These engagements fostered labor, class, and “axial” conflicts, which in turn led to economic tension and a shift in institutional economic forms. The final institutional form was that of tribute, where Boer contends that the many faces of plunder appeared, those ways in which the economic systems of ancient Israel became the means by which extortion occurred through forced labor and the acquisition of resources. Central to these chapters is Boer’s argument that plunder remains futile for the long-term sustainability of an economy.

Chapter six turns to a diachronic examination of Israel’s economic systems, particularly how these institutions were constantly being arranged and rearranged, negotiated and renegotiated throughout Israel’s history. Here Boer outlines the three forms of regime—subsistence, palatine (estate/temple), and booty (empire)—which interacted and ruled at various points in ancient Israel. Only the subsistence regime remains a legitimate manner of economic institutionalization, a claim Boer argues for in his conclusion, where he outlines his program for the applicability of subsistence regimes in the contemporary world. In this view, subsistence involves optimal (rather than maximal) engagement with the environment, an inclusive and diverse use of resources, and employing stable and secure forms of subsistence living. The end matter includes eleven excurses on a number of economic and social topics, a helpful glossary of terms, and an extensive bibliographic list which should form the basis for any future study of ancient Israelite economics.

The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel offers much for those engaging either the social history of Israel or economic theology. This presentation comes couched in largely easily-understood terminology, wherein Boer impressively places Israel within its broader historical and social contexts. His project provides a unique—though not entirely innovative—integration of social science and social history into biblical studies, although many will push back on which social information is applicable in ancient Isrel and how far those insights may be extended. Boer has long been one of the world’s leading Marxist scholars and currently serves as Professor at the Renmin University of China. Accordingly, his openly Marxist approach will be highly problematic for many readers, especially since Boer does little to address any long-standing critique of Marxist economics or history. His willingness to foreground these issues, however, allows this volume to remain informative even for non-Marxist scholars interested in understanding the social situation of ancient Israel’s economy.

Boer’s interactions with biblical materials are perhaps not as well-rounded as some might prefer. For example, in chapter five he decries postclassical readings of Solomon as an example of the market economy in Israel. In his engagement, however, Boer offers a minimalist response to terminological ambiguities, extrapolating from his own viewpoint without adequate consideration of additional source material and context. This serves as a good example of how this volume sometimes focuses a little too “behind” the biblical text for those interested in biblical evidence for or against an ideological reading. Such concerns aside, Boer nonetheless offers a helpful contribution to discussions surrounding ancient Israel and economic theology.


The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel. By Roland Boer. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015. xix + 308 pp., $50.00.

I received this book from Westminster John Knox Press in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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