Concluding Sparks’ Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel

I finished Kenton Sparks’ Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel.  Here are two items:

1.  Regarding Abraham, Sparks states on page 327:

“The Abraham figure first appeared in the book of Ezekiel as the forefather of the Judean remnant community.  This tradition existed alongside the Exodus origin tradition and was quickly appropriated by the exilic community, which transformed Abraham into an exile returning to Palestine and integrated him into the previously existing patriarchal and exodus origin traditions.”

Abraham is mentioned in Ezekiel 33:24.  There, the inhabitants of the wastes of the land of Israel—those who are left in Israel after the Babylonians have ransacked the land—are saying that the land is their inheritance.  After all, they point out, Abraham was one, and he inherited the land.  But they are many, so how much more will they inherit it!  But Ezekiel tells them not to comfort themselves, for God does not like their sin.

So, according to Sparks, we see that Abraham first appears as a person who inherited the land of Canaan—and he was considered the forefather of the “Judean remnant community.”  Later on, however, Abraham was made into a nomad from Mesopotamia—and this occurred during the exile, when there were Jews who were in Mesopotamia and wanted to go to Palestine.  But that point doesn’t excite me too much, to tell you the truth.  I just mention it because it might be important for me to know.

What I really want to talk about is Sparks’ discussion on pages 308-309—about such juicy topics as the new covenant and Abraham’s justification by faith in Genesis 15.  Jeremiah 31:31-34 predicts a new covenant in which God will write his law on the hearts and the minds of the people of Judah and Israel.  According to Sparks, Isaiah 51:1-2, 7 has been associated with this new covenant.  There, God says “hearken to me” to those who pursue and know righteousness, and, in v 7, they are said to have God’s law in their hearts—which sounds like the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34.  Isaiah 51:1-2 tells these exiles to look to Abraham their father, and, for Sparks, what we see here is that Second Isaiah is making Abraham into a paradigm of the new covenant.  Sparks then refers to Genesis 12 and 15—which, together, say that Abraham was declared righteous because he trusted the LORD’s promise that he would have children and a homeland.  But Abraham had to leave Mesopotamia to receive the fulfillment of these promises.  And that is what Second Isaiah was encouraging the righteous exiles to do: to leave Mesopotamia (which was an act of faith), return to Palestine, and receive God’s blessing of progeny, a homeland, and prosperity.

Sparks’ discussion here interests me because of the ways that Christians have handled the new covenant and Genesis 15.  Some say that Abraham believed in God apart from works and God declared him righteous—and, similarly, when we trust in the work of Jesus Christ, God justifies us, even before we have done good works.  Then, God gives us the Holy Spirit, which is the means by which God writes his laws on our hearts and our minds.  Others argue that we do not believe in order to become spiritually regenerated, but that spiritual regeneration precedes faith—since sinful human beings cannot turn to God without God’s work of regeneration inside of them.

What I see in Sparks’ discussion is that God talks to those who are already regenerated—who have God’s law on their hearts—and he encourages them to take an action of faith—which is not apart from works, but which is expressed by works.

What to do with this, I do not know.  I’m not a big fan of Lordship Salvation, to tell you the truth, for I’d like to believe that God loves me and accepts me, even when I don’t have too many good works to my name or am too timid to step out on faith.

2.  On my list of comps readings, Sparks’ book is under “Sociological and Anthropological Approaches”, and so I should probably talk about Sparks’ interaction with sociology and anthropology.  I’ll do this by drawing from his summary on pages 328-329, as well as other parts of Sparks’ book when necessary.  Sparks praises F. Barth’s ideas regarding ethnic boundaries, and he defines those on page 3, where he states that Sparks considers ethnicity to be “a social boundary that partitions population groups on the basis of one or more of the following distinctions: (a) genealogical characteristics; (b) cultural traits such as language, religion, customs, shared history; and (c) inherited phenotypical characteristics, with the first of these three being the primary carrier of ethnic sentiment.”  As examples of ethnic markers, Barth refers to “skin tone” and “the ability to participate in the community’s in-group discourse” (Sparks’ words on pages 3-4).  But Sparks states that ethnicity is not the same as culture, for culture does not “necessarily include social identities that are rooted in a perceived genealogical connection between the group’s members” (page 5).  Consequently, Sparks thinks that archaeology is useless for identifying ethnic groups, for we can, say, identify a distinctive type of pottery in a location, but we cannot conclude from that pottery that the people in that location saw themselves as ethnically related.

While we’re on the issue of ethnic markers, I want to note something that Sparks says on page 272, where he is evaluating the E. Theodore Mullen’s treatment of the Book of Deuteronomy’s view of Israelite ethnicity.  Among the “issues that are integrally related to ethnicity”, Sparks lists “Questions about the forefathers, the patriarchs, ‘brother theology,’ holy war, and ethnic separatism”, and Sparks criticizes Mullen for not exploring those issues.  We see here what Sparks regards as significant in identifying an ethnic consciousness: Is there a belief in common ancestry?  Does the nation distinguish itself from other nations?

Back to page 328, Sparks says that Israelite ethnicity does not emphasize “language and phenotypical appearance.”  As far as language goes, the Israelite language overlapped significantly with that of other people-groups in Palestine and the Transjordan.

What was the origin of Israel’s ethnic consciousness?  Sparks refers to a variety of factors.  Competition for resources intensifies ethnic consciousness.  Wallerstein said that “ethnic sentiments appear and intensify when peripheral social modalities fall under the domination of a core imperialist power” (Sparks’ summary)—which Hosea demonstrates (and Hosea was ethnic because he referred to a common ancestor for Northern Israel and a common history, as well as sought to protect Israel’s uniqueness by opposing her practice of foreign religious customs).  But Sparks argues that Wallerstein is not entirely correct on this, for Isaiah was responding to Assyrian imperialism, and yet we see in his work, not an intensification of ethnic identity, but rather of religious identity.  Isaiah, after all, does not radically separate Israel from the nations, but envisions the day when all nations will worship the LORD.

Another thinker Sparks discusses is van den Berghe, who argues “that ethnicity is a natural extension of kinship” (Sparks’ summary).  Deuteronomy’s attempt to posit a brotherhood between Northern Israelites and the people of Judah is an example of this.

Overall, I enjoyed Sparks’ book.  I have heard that he wrote another book, God’s Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship.  I may read that at some point, since, right now, I’m not sure how I can reconcile critical scholarship of the Bible with faith.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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