It appears that perceived parallels between Assyrian ideology and American foreign policy in the last few decades inspired Aarnoud van der Deijl’s recent book, Protest or Propaganda: War in the Old Testament Book of Kings and in Contemporaneous Ancient Near Eastern Texts. Sensing similarities between “the terrifying splendour of my lord Ashur” and George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq, Van der Deijl sets out to examine ancient Near Eastern war propaganda, which he sees as somewhat analogous to the work of so-called “embedded journalists” today (vii).
In this lengthy monograph, Van der Deijl undertakes a detailed study of the theme of war in the book of Kings and in ten other ancient Near Eastern (=ANE) documents in order to determine whether there was a common ANE “war practice and ideology” (661) and whether the message of the book of Kings stands out from this background (74). The method chosen for this study is narratology and as such the study is also concentrated on poetics, literary devices and characteristics of each text examined.
The book opens with a survey of scholarly opinion on the theme of war in the Old Testament, dwelling especially on Von Rad’s theory of Israelite “holy war” and its supporters and detractors. In the end Van der Deijl rejects the terminology of “holy war,” due to possible misunderstandings the term may engender (e.g., Muslim “holy war” or jihad) and the fact that since in the ancient Near East all of life was religious, singling out war in particular as holy is not helpful.
In chapter two, Van der Deijl notes four genres in the book of Kings which feature war as their theme: 1) the “framework” (regnal resumes); 2) “The chronicles” which he defines as “slightly more elaborate tales,” which feature gold and silver from the temple or otherwise (85); 3) Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8; and 4) “War stories in which prophets take action” (87). The monograph concentrates on this last genre which he delimits as: 1 Kings 12; 20; 22; 2 Kings 3; 6:8–7:20; 18–19 and notes that in these stories “we are dealing with kings of Israel rather than of Judah” (87). However, four of the six texts he examines involve a king of Judah (1 Kings 12; 22; 2 Kings 3; 18–19). As well, it is unclear why these texts are chosen as representative of the war ideology of the book of kings when 1 Kings 12 does not feature a war or battle and many other war texts which do not seem to fit into his other three genres are ignored (1 Kings 16:15–20; 2 Kings 8:16–20; 2 Kings 9; 2 Kings 14; and 2 Kings 17).
Van der Deijl begins each section on a selected biblical text with a survey of scholarly opinion regarding the origins of the text, but in each instance discounts such opinion as contradictory, arbitrary or simply inconclusive (without delving into the specific arguments with any depth) and then proceeds to simply look at the text as literature. It would perhaps have been more prudent to simply state the author’s position on such matters from the start of the book and then proceed to undertake a pure literary analysis of each text. This certainly could have helped limit the size of the monograph for which the reader would be most grateful.
After each survey of relevant scholarship on the biblical text, Van der Deijl proceeds to offer an exhaustingly detailed literary analysis of each of his selected texts, noting structure, events (forms), characters, use of time, pace and place, focalizations, repetition of sounds, wordplays, intertextuality, and the use of metaphor. This work is to be commended for its thoroughness here, though the point of this amount of detail is not always clear, as much of it does not seem to contribute to the thesis of the book. Still within these pages there is a wealth of detail which could serve as a valuable resource for further study of these texts.
In chapter three, Van der Deijl subjects ten extra-biblical texts from the ANE to the same detailed literary analysis as he had the stories from Kings. These texts are classified into five categories each representing a distinct ideology: the great king (Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal, Esarhaddon), the vassal (Mesha, Kulamuwa and Zakkur), the prophet (prophecies to Esarhaddon)/ priest (Nabonidus, Cyrus), and the chroniquer (Esarhaddon chronicle). This section is especially valuable and is largely unprecedented work. An interesting perspective concerning the justification of war in ancient times is drawn out by Van der Deijl as he notes that the role of the god(s) in war in the ANE equates to the “just war” theory of the time. However, different ideologies had different ideas of the role of the gods. For example, in great king texts every war was justified (Ashur was always on the side of Assyria), while in the vassal texts (e.g., Moab) or in the book of Kings, the god could punish his own people. While there are not many new revelations here with regard to ANE ideology, the standard positions are helpfully supported and demonstrated through Van der Deijl`s excellent literary analysis.
In his final chapter Van der Deijl compares and contrasts these five different ideologies with each other and that of the book of Kings (which he refers to as the exile). The great king ideology viewed the king as the god’s viceroy on earth, responsible to attend to the temple (“the centre of creation,” 665) and uphold the ultimate good, that is “order.” Assyria was the “police agent” of the world and all their wars were “just” wars (671). Given these presuppositions, military defeat was theoretically impossible (defeats were covered up). War in these great king texts functioned as propaganda which was addressed to subjected peoples (so that they would fear Assyria and its gods), and also to the king’s own population in order to retain their support for the wars (partly through the extensive listing of booty in these texts). Van der Deijl again notes parallels with modern American policies and the need for propaganda to keep support for their wars (672 n 7 and 8). Regarding the literary form of these texts, Van der Deijl notes the prevalence of metaphors, sound repetition and the like, concluding that they have “a very bombastic style” (674).
The ideology of the vassal texts also served as propaganda, though in a different way. Rather than confirming the world view of the king’s right to dominate the world (like the great king texts), these texts served to prove that the god had divinely elected the king and to legitimate the monarch in the eyes of his populace. Van der Deijl notes that the god took a more direct role in the wars in these texts and that the king’s function was relegated more to “construction activities.” The literary form of the vassal texts was more sober than those of the great king, with little metaphor or use of superlatives.
The ideology of the prophet/priest emphasized the divine election of the king, not to glorify the monarch but to manipulate him. These texts emphasized the responsibilities of the king (particularly in regards to maintaining the Akitu festival), given what the god(s) had done for him. The literary form of these texts is more poetic with much word- and sound-play, which Van der Deijl suggests may originally have aided in memorization for oral delivery.
The chroniquer took a more objective look at history than the others, and was distanced from the events both temporally and emotionally. Like the prophet/priest texts he was also interested the Akitu festival and how the king who supported its regular occurrence fared. Yet the chroniquer , interpreted history rather than pushed his agenda in the heat of the moment.
Finally, Van der Deijl suggests that the ideology of the exile was not propaganda, but protest. Although the author came from the background of the priest, as his concern with Temple and festival (Pesach) evince, he lived “as a deportee, an exile” writing from the perspective of “defeat” (682). The exile drew on themes current in his time, but employed them in divergent ways. The exile viewed YHWH as the great king and the Jewish people as his vassals. Contra the vassal texts, it is not the king, but the people who are divinely elected. With the prophet/priest texts the exile shared a focus on the central festival (instead of Akitu, it is Pesach). From the chroniquer, the exile shared the notion that kings obedient to god(s) fare better than those who disobey.
Van der Deijl found little use of metaphor and superlatives in the literary style of the exile and suggests that this may be because ANE kings used metaphors in their propagandistic inscriptions and the Bible wished to avoid such an ideological tone. Interestingly he finds the use of metaphor in the exile to be limited to utterances of kings and false prophets. He writes, “Apparently, the Bible writers did not intend to manipulate people with their flowery language, but to present them with a choice” (684). However, whether this comparison is questionable given the different genre of these texts (of course, the Bible does use metaphor and superlatives in other genres).
Regarding the justification for war there are significant divergences within these texts. The great king assumed their wars were justified; the vassal saw their victories as divinely vindicated; the prophet/priest supported the kings in their wars if they advanced the cult. However, the book of Kings subordinates the king’s power in war to divine ethics—“YHWH did not desire sacrifices but obedience instead” (686). The exile had a special interest in orphans, widows and strangers rather than in the heroic deeds of the king (the exile merely pointed the reader to other sources for such accounts). Van der Deijl concludes that ancient Israel did not idolize its war heroes nor did they de-humanize their enemies but instead had “a preference for the humanity of every person” (686). The book concludes with a pastoral note cautioning us to see which ideology we are closest to today, that of the great king who sees all his wars as justified, or that of the exile who is concerned with the “losers” and those “most vulnerable” (687).
Van der Deijl undertakes a worthy task in his monograph and his study bears much useful fruit. However, the greatest weakness of the monograph is the lack of rationale for the limiting of his examination of the book of Kings to his six chosen texts. While it is necessary and appropriate to limit such detailed study to certain texts in such a work, it is not clear how the conclusions drawn from these texts can be taken as representative. In the final chapter many statements based on this limited corpora are said to show the position or ideology of “the book of Kings” (686), “Jewish tradition,” the “Bible writers,” “the Old Testament,” and even “the Bible” (686–687). Such sweeping judgements made on the basis of such limited evidence are unconvincing.
The book is an informative read, though the tremendous detail is at times overwhelming. Nevertheless, it holds to high academic standards in its literary analysis. However, the same cannot be said for its literary style, which is unfortunately awkward to say the least. Originally a PhD thesis written in Dutch, this book is a very poor English translation (e.g., “one can easily lose oversight,” 2; “we life there,” 38; “questions on beforehand,” 83) frequently retaining Dutch words (“De relationship sovereign-vassal,” 26; “Amos en Isaiah,” 31; “linked the text with ach other” 685; passim), inconsistently employing strange spellings (Solomon is spelled “Salomon” about half the time; “historiografic” and “profetic” appear occasionally) and lacking innumerable apostrophes. While these make the volume a somewhat frustrating read there is still a wealth of value in its pages and Van der Deijl has made a significant contribution in his narratological study of these ANE texts.