Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In Remembrance: The Passing of David Noel Freedman

It is with sadness that I have learned of the passing of David Noel Freedman, 1922 - 8 april 2008. I have fond memories of Professor Freedman from my time as a student at the University of Michigan. Although I was a student in the Near Eastern Studies Department, Professor Freedman had an office across campus in the "then" Religion program. This program no longer exists partly because he retired, and he "was" the Religion program at Michigan.

I remember him lecturing in the 100-level Introduction to Western Religion course. In fact, I still have the notes that I wrote down during those lectures. It was from him that I first learned about the idea of the covenant - that it is a Near Eastern treaty, and that there is a difference between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic one. Professor Freedman talked about the Abrahamic covenant as unique, because it was a covenant of divine commitment, whereas the Mosaic covenant was more common because it was a covenant of human obligation. The idea that the stronger party in the treaty - in this case God - would require nothing of the lesser party in terms of obligations was striking in terms of Near Eastern fealty. God obligated himself to Abraham, and all Abraham had to do was accept that. I still use those old notes from his lectures as the basis for my own when I cover this material in my courses.

Professor Freedman was a publishing giant. And the field of biblical studies has greatly benefited from his devotion to this area. There is one particular article of his I still find myself returning to when I teach. It was written for a general audience, but it nonetheless shows how conscious Professor Freedman was to teach difficult subjects to different audiences. It is his famous article, "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" published in The Biblical Archaeologist. It is about how literary evidence and archaeology can work together to recover a past before it got rewritten by the exilic priests. I am convinced, from the evidence in this article and elsewhere, that Yahweh was not worshiped alone in the old Israelite religion, but had a consort by his side who went by the name Asherah. I'm discussing this very topic, in fact, in my first chapter of Sex and the Serpent in Ancient Christianity: Why the Sexual Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter, which I have been working on the past couple of weeks.

So Professor Freedman, although he has passed from this life, will remain with us here. For what he taught was great, and his memory will be carried on.

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