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Kirkus ReviewsAn overly brief but very well organized and informative overview of Judaism's formative stage during the 13th to 5th centuries b.c.
Bible scholar Niditch (Religion/Amherst Coll.) focuses on the worldview expressed in the Hebrew Bible. She devotes chapters to four aspects of that worldview: the experiential, the mythical, the ritual, and the ethical-legal, largely basing her analysis on close readings of biblical texts. Sometimes, though unfortunately not often enough, she uses insight garnered from archaeological findings or the texts of other ancient Near Eastern religions. Niditch's greatest strength is her succinct, accessible prose; there is solid scholarship, but no academic pretentiousness or jargon here. She is particularly good at capturing and evoking an aspect of ancient Judaism in a sentence or a phrase. For example, after exploring the Yom Kippur ritual of the scapegoat that is prescribed in Leviticus, she observes how it is linked to other biblical rituals involving uncleanliness and danger, then concludes that "sin, like the seductive personification in the story of Cain and Abel, the one who crouches at the door, is real and visceral, a contaminant which makes impossible a healthful continuation of the covenant community." Also enhancing her book is an excellent bibliography. The work's only weakness is an occasional penchant for deriving conclusions from insufficient evidence. An example: Niditch states that the context and content of the ritual of redeeming the first-born son (see Exodus 22) "seems to be support that child sacrifice was indeed a thread in ancient Israelite religion." Far more evidence is needed for this spectacular claim.
On balance, though, this is a first-rate introduction, for undergraduate and graduate students and all serious students of Judaism, to the social, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual underpinnings of the Hebrew Bible.