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Knowledge, Control and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought, Culture and Worldview.

Knowledge, Control and Sex: Studies in Biblical Thought, Culture and Worldview. By MEIR MALUL. Tel Aviv: ARCHAEOLOGICAL CENTER PUBLICATIONS, 2002. Pp. xi + 582. $90.

Knowledge, Control and Sex is a vast, ambitious, complex, and challenging book. Although intended for biblicists of linguistic bent and anthropologists, Assyriologists and other students of the ancient Near East will find all or parts of it of interest.

The author's stated objective is to describe the major postulates of the Bible's epistemology through a consideration of case studies, semantic analysis, and biblical narratives within a framework of anthropological theory. Malul, best known for his Studies in Mesopotamian Legal Symbolism (1988) and The Comparative Method in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Legal Studies (1990), provides a brief introduction to the book (pp. 1-17) as well as an extensive introductory chapter, "Approach and Methodology" (pp. 19-93). There follow ten chapters in which various types of data are evaluated within different paradigms. These chapters are divided into three parts, each of which is provided with a brief introduction. Part one, Knowledge, Control and Sex: The Evidence, contains chapters treating "Presentation of the Evidence," "Cognitive Knowledge: The Epistemic Process," "Sensory Knowledge: Legal Control," and "Carnal Knowledge." Part two, The Idea of Knowledge: The Interpretation, treats "Cognitive and Sensory Knowledge: Controlling the Unknown," "Carnal Knowledge: Controlling the Unknown in Woman," and "The Status of Woman." Part three, Related Institutions, treats "Purity and Impurity: Bodily Discharges," and "Circumcision." The final section, part four, Summary, presents a chapter called "Some General Postulates of Biblical Epistemology" (pp. 417-88), and two appendixes. A fifth part contains a list of abbreviations, bibliography, and indexes of sources, terms, subjects, and authors.

This hefty, oversize volume is printed clearly on glossy paper with wide margins that make for easy reading. Characteristically, any group of pages will have an above-the-line discussion that carries forward the chapter's arguments; extensive, embedded comments on aspects of the presented material that are indented and set in footnote-size type; and below-the-line footnotes. Even footnotes, which contain comments on the text, running discussions, and sometimes blocks of analysis that could have been published independently, are quite legible. Malul often engages in seeming discussions with the reader, clarifying and augmenting his running arguments. This format conveys what I imagine to be the author's sense of intimate engagement with his subject matter, expresses his intellectual excitement, and reveals his concern that readers understand what he acknowledges to be convoluted issues.

The empirical core of the book is contained in Malul's exemplary studies of a series of semantic fields in chapter two. "Knowledge" is divided into cognitive, sensory, and practical knowledge. Sensory knowledge is broken down to verbs for sight, hearing, speech, taste, smell, touch and feel, and kinesthesis (standing, walking, digging, separating). The vocabulary studied is primarily biblical Hebrew, but Akkadian is considered throughout these analyses and elsewhere in the book (cf. the index on pp. 550-52). A second, derived study of words for "Knowledge, Control and Sex" lists words under six categories: knowledge and control, knowledge and sex, knowledge and control and sex, control and sex, control, sex. Other semantic fields that intersect this triad are "gaiety and happiness," "light," "growth and blooming," "openness," and "flow." Malul shows how these different semantic fields overlap in interesting ways and argues that their interrelationships express symbolic and cultural insights that provide a key to the Bible's worldview, the psyche of the book. (Even after reading this volume, which focuses on the Bible, a literary compendium, it is unclear to me whether or not Malul intends that readers take his descriptions as applicable to a historical people located in time and space. The term "Israel" does not appear in his index of subjects.)

Malul negotiates the move from semantics to perceptions of reality and epistemology through a series of theoretical/philosophical assumptions borrowed from "science of man" disciplines with all the problems that these entail. He accepts that it is possible for outsiders to gain insight into and sympathetic understanding of primal cultural traditions. Throughout his book, he accepts, usually without reservations, statements from a batter of authoritative, formidable scholars (such as C. R. Hallpike, M. Douglas, C. Geertz, H. Eilberg-Schwartz) about the workings of non-Western, pre-scientific, non-graphocentric, holistic, simplistic, traditional cultures. He assumes that the Bible reflects or represents such a culture.

Malul is conscientiously aware of what he is doing:
 ... the detailed reconstruction of the biblical Weltanschauung that
 unfolds throughout the following chapters ... is my own attempt to
 grasp and understand the emic of biblical culture and, though I
 follow what may be called sound scientific principles and criteria
 in divining this emic view, the resultant picture might not be
 convincing for all scholars in the field. This, however, is in the
 realm of legitimate scholarly controversies and debates which are
 the heart and fuel of the scientific enterprise. (p. 71)

Malul is particularly fond of cultural and cognitive anthropology/linguistics and is committed to some notion of the "spiritual unity of the human mind" (p. 68). Ultimately this is the move that enables him to generalize sociological and anthropological information gathered by social scientists and apply them to his project.

The author seeks explanations for the origins of the patterned overlapping noted in his semantic analyses. Since a significant homology between the epistemic and sexual processes is reflected in the semantic commingling of terminology from both fields, what is the relationship between the two types of knowing? How are they related? How is sexual knowledge related to control? What may be learned from this about the biblical worldview? Questions such as these, and the questions that they beget necessitate his turn to the human sciences for answers.

The core interdisciplinary chapters comprise part two of the book. There, Malul presents what he describes as speculative arguments to answer the above-mentioned questions. These chapters examine grammatical structures, social structure, language, thought, and mythology and conclude that biblical epistemology is based on biology, physiology, and contact with the world as well as the influence of social-symbolic knowledge of biologically driven behavior (see esp. pp. 414-15, 417-18, 422).

By the end of the book, I was disappointed that Malul's work had not yielded a greater cache of insights into Biblical epistemology, insights which I sense are just below the surface of his galloping prose, and perhaps are still there for him to ferret out. In short, the value of this book lies in the processes, described so carefully by Malul, through which he builds his objective as well as his speculative arguments and in his semantic analyses. Discussions of the nexus between language and social reality that thread through the book would have been clearer had Malul considered J. R. Searle's The Construction of Social Reality (1995), rather than adopted an uncriticized version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism for his work. However, even committed to such an approach, discussions could have been enriched and updated had some consideration been given to the work and ideas of Daniel Dennett and his opponents.

This is a book that many in the scholarly community will be able to use profitably. For Malul, however, I suspect that this is the book he had to write in order to get to the place where he can capitalize on what he learned and from which his next research project can take wing.


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Title Annotation:Reviews of Books
Author:Zevit, Ziony
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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