Since my major study, The Sacred Economy, is almost complete, I thought it would be useful to put together a brief outline. The main purpose of the book is to offer a new reconstruction of the economies of the ancient Near East, within which ‘Israel’ must be located. It argues that the perpetual state of crisis of that economy was due to a key economic tension between forces of allocation and those of extraction. These two patterns were caught in a perpetual tension: on the one hand, they produced the possibility of ancient Near Eastern economics; on the other, they were the source of constant instability and periodic collapse. Operating with the premise that it is better to be overt rather than covert about one’s heuristic framework, I draw upon sophisticated economic theory (especially the Régulation School and neglected Soviet-era Russian scholarship), a mature mode of biblical interpretation, along with extensive archaeological and textual data.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1: The Question of Theory

Chapter 2: Of Bread, Beer, and Four-Legged Friends: Subsistence Survival

Chapter 3: Clans, Households, and Patrons: Kinship-Household

Chapter 4: Feeding the Non-Producers: (E)states

Chapter 5: The Many Faces of Plunder: Tribute-Exchange

Chapter 6: The Spiral of Crises: Regimes of the Sacred Economy

Conclusion: Implications for Today

Introduction

Here I outline some basic assumptions. First, the economics of ancient Israel cannot be understood outside the ANE context. Second, “it’s agriculture, stupid” – the key to the sacred economy was agriculture, so any reconstruction must focus there. Third, since we all operate with assumed models, I attempt – as far as that is possible – to be explicit about the model I propose. Apart from these assumptions, I reflect on the situation where I find myself engaged in the scholarly fiction of operating in a descriptive mode, as if our language may approximate reality more or less, about an era for which the information is scattered and haphazard.

Chapter 1: The Question of Theory

The reconstruction comes from deep theoretical engagement and close, detailed attention to data and texts. Thus, after surveying various possibilities – world-systems theory, Marxist economics, neoclassical economics, the proposals of Polanyi and Finley – I critically develop a working model from the Marxist-inspired Régulation theory and Soviet-era Russian studies of the ANE. Basically, any economic system (mode of production) is made up of key building blocks (institutional forms) that come together in unique formations (regimes) to provide very limited stability for a time. Due to internal contradictions they easily fall apart, giving way to the economic norm of “crisis.” In those efforts at stability, a whole series of compromises have to be made, which are enabled and sustained by cultural assumptions, social forces, beliefs, and practices (mode of régulation). Since religion was woven into every facet of ancient economics and society, I speak of the “sacred economy.”

In light of this model, I outline five institutional forms in chapters 2 to 5: subsistence survival; kinship-household; patronage; (e)states; tribute-exchange. The first three may be called allocative, since their prime concern is the allocation and reallocation of agricultural labor and produce. The final two are extractive, since they function to extract produce for the sake of the non-producers (ruling class). It is worth noting here that scholars occasionally mistake an institutional form as the foundation of the whole economy. Examples include household, patronage (or patrimonialism), tribute, and exchange. This reconstruction enables one to resist the temptation of such false universals.

Chapter 2: Of Bread, Beer, and Four-Legged Friends: Subsistence Survival

Given the widespread importance of this institutional form, I devote considerable attention to it. Drawing on zooarchaeological and archaebotanical research, along with field surveys and theoretical reflections, I outline the patterns of crop growing and animal husbandry in both village-communes and among pastoral nomads. They were focused on optimal usage, concerned primarily with labor and usufruct (and not land), and developed small surpluses for tough times.

Chapter 3: Clans, Households, and Patrons: Kinship-Household

Two further allocative institutional forms are the concern of this chapter. Kinship-household is the first and more important. It provides the social determination of subsistence survival: through religion and cultural assumptions, customary law, division of labor, and social sanction, it determines who does what where and who receives what from whom. I draw upon and critique recent interests in “household” archaeology, emphasizing the flexible and fluid rhythms of clans and households (Henri Lefebvre’s “rhythmanalyse”). Although less important, patronage bridges allocation and extraction, moving in either direction depending on the prevailing tenor of the times (David and his band of armed thugs are the prime metaphorical instance of patronage).

Chapter 4: Feeding the Non-Producers: (E)states

The first of the extractive institutional forms, (e)state concerns the intersections of temple and palace estates, along with the development of the state. I understand the state as the result of intractable class conflict, the machinery of which is then seized by one class and turned into an instrument of its own agenda. This ruling class also develops agricultural estates: as non-producers they must find some way to live in the way to which they had become accustomed. These estates were administered either directly or by tenure, and laborers were indentured permanently or temporarily (corvée, debt, and so on). Given the perpetual labor shortage, the estates constantly sought to draw more laborers from the village-communes, with little concern for their viability.

Chapter 5: The Many Faces of Plunder: Tribute-Exchange

One may delineate four types of plunder: crude, polite external, polite internal, or elite. Or in the usual parlance plunder per se, tribute, taxation, and exchange. However, they are all forms of booty, since the underlying purpose is acquisition through some form of extortion. Apart from dealing with the patterns of taxation and tribute, this is the place for treatments of exchange, markets, coinage, and surpluses. I conclude that long distance exchange was in preciosities (high value, luxury items) since it was simply impossible to shift bulk goods over even moderate distances. The growth in local markets in the later part of the first millennium was due to the conjunction three factors: the need to provision ever larger armies, the invention of coinage, and the search for new mechanisms of taxation. Local markets were therefore nonprofit and byproducts of the state’s concerns.

Chapter 6: The Spiral of Crises: Regimes of the Sacred Economy

With these institutional forms in place, I explore how they were constantly rearranged in different economic situations, with one or another form dominant and determinative. Such arrangements are known as regimes. I suggest three major regimes that may be used to reconstruct an economic history: the subsistence regime; the palatine regime; the regime of booty.

The subsistence regime is characteristic of what are usually called times of economic crisis or chaos – ever-present, but notable in the third millennium, the middle of the second millennium, and in the closing centuries of the second millennium. It is the dominant regime found in the Levant and thereby of ancient Israel. I argue that it is in fact the most stable of all regimes, and usually the most creative of times – usable inventions happen during such times. The palatine regime (an extractive one) characterizes the efforts of various potentates and despots to seize control of states and support themselves and their hangers-on by means of agricultural estates. Inherently unstable, the palatine regime rises and collapses time and again, only to run completely out of steam by the thirteenth century. The regime of booty characterizes the first millennium and its large empires. It varies between crude plunder (Assyrian Empire) and the more refined forms of taxation and tribute, enabled by the use of coinage and development of markets as byproducts of the state’s over-riding concerns with provisioning its military and bureaucracy (Persian Empire). The regime of booty is also deeply unstable, and falls apart readily. The grand Persian Empire lasted barely 200 years.

Conclusion: Implications for Today

Given the intense interest that this project has generated for those who seek alternative economic models today, the conclusion reflects on the role of normative economic models. In particular, I am interested in whether subsistence survival, which was the main economic form through most of the history of the Levant, may or may not have some insights.

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