Review: Economic and social relations in the Israelite-Jewish empires - Arkady Erusalimsky

Историк-марксист Аркадий Ерусалимский

Review of a 1927 booklet on ancient Jewish empires by Moishe Lurje.

Studies in the history of economic and social relations in the Israelite-Jewish empire(s): from immigration into Canaan until the Babylonian exile. M. Lurie (see note below). Gießen: Verlag Alfred Töpelmann, 1927, p. 64 (published in German):

Reviewed by Arkady Erusalimsky in the journal Историк-марксист ("Historian-marxist"), nr. 11, 1929, pp. 182–84.

The peculiar fate of problems, connected with history of the Jewish people, is determined by the fact that a type of constant and, perhaps, sometimes even for the researcher himself inconspicuous presumption is extending the problem to the emergence of Christianity. And if the problem of Jewish history, which has become the object of a truly immense literature, in its formulation has been determined by interests for early Christianity, then its resolution and treatment received a quasi theological striving. Thereby history of the Jewish people, which was interesting, mainly, as history of the Jewish religion, acquired traits of distinct significance. The grandiose work of Protestant critique was not still able to overcome this basic presumption: "Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte" of the greatest representative of this school, Julius Wellhausen, has as its concluding and quasi crowning chapter – "Gospel."1 How great and strong the tradition of the, so to speak, "Christian-centric" view of Israelite history is, can be seen from the fact that it impacted even Kautsky's Marxist attempt to solve the question of the origin of Christianity. Through the present expansion of problems and attraction of new methodological postulates the old problem of Jewish history gets a new light: with the analysis of economic and social relations, developing in Jewish history, all "Christian-centric" presumption crumbles, theological strivings lose all ground from under them, the picture of the development of Jewish religion takes a proper place and becomes understandable, and historical-religious convergence, taken in the context of determined social and economic relations, becomes material for broad sociological generalizations. In this area there has not been done too much, and therefore everything new induces interest.

Our author states himself as Marxist – for epigraph of his work he puts: "The history of all previous society is the struggle of classes."

The book under review does not give a full consideration of the history of economic and social relations. Before us are only Stücken (pieces), attempts through close and painstaking study of the material to highlight some features of these relations and identify the main lines of their development. Almost all previous work by formal criticism of the source, the necessity and importance of which is understandable to anyone engaged in this area, lies outside, beyond the presentation. Beginning his research with the analysis of agrarian relations, the author entirely correctly notes the very early differentiation of classes. The sources indeed provide sufficient evidence in this respect, and if we approach the issue from the perspective of the distribution of land ownership, it will be possible to make adjustments to the old picture about a supposedly long prevalence of social equality. The prevalence of private property for ancient Israel is, of course, without doubt, and the author only clarifies this once again, based on the analysis of some institutions, inevitably connected with the development of property. But further the author tries to restore on the basis of later facts remnants of collective ownership. If the author has succeeded in this, then the point of view of Max Weber, which relies on analysis of the ancient "Law," would be shaken. In any case, the listed, although also quite meager material, indicates that in this question there is some possibility for further study.

In this case the author does not mention Max Weber; however, in the reviewed work the impact of the latter turns out to be quite strong.

For example, in considering the question of the origin of land ownership, the author proceeds from Max Weber's conception, and from the by the latter established six ways of "appearance of lords' property" (cf. Wirtschaftsgeschichte 1923, p. 60 et seq.) four ways he mechanically tries to slid into the Israelite-Jewish empire. However, from this he makes fully acceptable conclusions, in particular on the question on the genesis and social nature of royal power: "what else was Saul, than a chief of the aristocratic Kish family?" (p. 11) This is all the more important to note, since in old literature the strengthening of big landed aristocracy usually is referred to a later period, approximately, to the era of independent existence of the northern and southern kingdom. And if, on the one hand, the author suggests that remnants of collective ownership (Gemeinbesitz) can be related to quite late times, then, on the other hand, – and this sounds more convincing, – class differentiation, occurring based on emerging private property, – he finds earlier in time.

The main outlines of already sufficiently developed agrarian relations detected, and the formulation of the next question – about social relations – assumes, of course, the determination of prevailing economic forms. For some reason the well-known scheme of Bücher serves the author as starting point for this determination. On the material of Israelite history once again is opened the negative features of this scheme, but it remains unclear – why the author needed to carry here still another outdated periodization (Antiquity, Middle Ages, Modern times). The overwhelming significance of agriculture for the ancient Jews before the era of Babylon captivity is well-known. Those facts, which are given in the second chapter of the reviewed work regarding craft and industry, are interesting (pottery industry, treatment of woolen cloth for the market and even for export), just as the information about external trade, which was conducted in the interests of the royal court and aristocracy and which laid their burden on the lower strata of the population. However, all this characterizes rather only the quantitative side of the question. It is no accident in this sense that the latter part of the second chapter is devoted to a special calculation of the population number, that, to say in passing, usually leads (as also happened even with Karl Beloch) to questionable results. Analysis of the class character of jurisprudence of the era of Kings, legal position of different social groups, allotment of a higher bureaucracy, the role and activities of officials in local management, finally, the nature and significance of the tax burden (by the way, the question of corvée in this regard is not mentioned) – all this has found its coverage in the by us considered work. However, the for a Marxist basic question – the question of the nature of these relations, remains unclear. Some features of economic and social relations are regarded not only statically, but also isolated, and of course, it is not by accident that, for example, the problem of feudalism is not even posed by the author.

By establishing that the class differentiation in agrarian relations comes from the time of the Judges, the author relates the growth of the importance of the city to later times, to the epoch of Kings, arguing in this latest question against Max Weber, who talks about the political force of "Stadtsässigen Sippen," (city sibs) of the epoch until the captivity. This question, of course, is resolved by sociological understanding of the ancient city. However, the question remains unilluminated, on the positive or negative resolution of which depends the general understanding of prevailing and developing relations: the question of the appearance, role and development of money economy relations. Quite artificial sounds the social characterisation of the urban proletariat, to which, it turns out, it is necessary to include not only day laborers, but also craftsmen and even a part of small traders. The principle of such combination is, obviously, political disenfranchisement of these groups, under conditions of personal freedom, but all this, of course, is not a Marxist treatment of the question.

However, precisely the last chapter, which begins with the section "Proletariat and slavery" and in which the author tries to give a Marxist scheme of "social movement, civil war2 and revolution," is interesting. As widespread, as incorrect is the presentation about prophets, like revolutionaries of their time, decisively rejected by the author. Prophets were, of course, not social reformers, and the author successfully emphasises, that "the rule of proletarian masses is for the prophets the greatest plague of God." (p.59) The definition is given by the negative side and therefore the social characteristics of the prophets' movement is somewhat blurred. However, in such a small sized work it is difficult to give a more detailed analysis of this peculiar phenomenon. The study ends by an analysis of certain aspects of the social legislation of Deuteronomy. And, despite the fact that the resolution of some fundamental and methodological problems remains on the sidelines or in doubt, we have before us still quite a serious attempt to highlight certain aspects of the economic and social life of Israelite-Jewish history, an attempt, which in the future under a more determined breakaway from Max Weber and with a more consistent Marxist formulation of the question can serve as basis for large scientific studies of the given section in history of the ancient East.

A. Erusalimsky

Studien zur Geschichte der wirtschaftlichen und sozialen Verhältnisse im israelisch-jüdischen Reiche: von der Einwanderung in Kanaan bis zum babylonischen Exil. (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentische Wissenschaft. 45). S. 64. M. Lurje. – Аркадий Ерусалимский


Moishe Ilyich Lurye (Моисей Ильич Лурье), alias Alexander Emel (1897–1936), Comintern agent in the KPD. In 1928 he send Riazanov his treatise on slavery in ancient Egypt. Not to be confused with another soviet historian with the same name (different middle name Львович).

Oddly I first was guessing the author could be Yuri Larin (1882–1932, RSDLP member since 1901) who published sometimes under his name M. Lurje, and whose father was a Hebrew author. Larin at the time was involved with OZET (Society for Settling Toiling Jews on the Land in the Soviet Union).

For a leftwing interpretation of the book of Exodus, cf. Moses in Red: The Revolt of Israel as a Typical Revolution. Lincoln Steffens, 1926.

Index of the journal "Historian-marxist": Issues online can be found for example at:

  • 1. "Israelite and Jewish history." An English translation seems to exist only for volume one: Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel.
  • 2. (The period that Lurje analyses starts from I Kings, 16: ".21. Then were the people of Israel divided into two parts: half of the people followed Tibni the son of Ginath, to make him king; and half followed Omri. 22. But the people that followed Omri prevailed against the people that followed Tibni the son of Ginath: so Tibni died, and Omri reigned." Civil war breaks out again under Zechariah, lasting two generations, until the destruction of Samaria by Sargon.)

Posted By

Noa Rodman
Apr 25 2016 08:53



  • The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

    Karl Marx

Attached files


Apr 25 2016 10:15

cheers for posting this, may have a look in some of the contemporary studies about the topic which I did read if there is any reference to Lurje ... a short biography of Lurje/Emel who played an important role in the KPD before 1933 in its Agitprop department in German here:

Noa Rodman
Apr 25 2016 13:38

Good link. Another couple of pages on Lurje/Emel in Wladislaw Hedeler: Zwischen Wissenschaftlichkeit und Stalinschem Machtanspruch. Schicksale der Mitarbeiter des Marx-Engels-Lenin-Instituts (1931-1938). It mentions that Riazanov apparently gave Emel's thesis on Egypt to Isaak Rubin to check it out:

Juni 1928 hatte Alexander Emel an Rjazanov geschrieben und ihm seine wissenschaftliche Abhandlung über die Sklaverei in Ägypten und Empfehlungsschreiben von Eduard Meyer geschickt. Rjazanov antwortete Emel am 8. Oktober, dass er Rubin gebeten habe, das von Emel beigelegte Material zu sichten und verwies ihn an Nikolaevskij.

I don't know the exact title of that Egypt thesis.

The present book gets some mentions in the literature. It seems there was some criticism of it in a review in a journal on Jewish Antiquity ("Еврейская старина") edited by Израиль Цинберг. Л., (1928, XII, pp. 341–42).

Apr 25 2016 13:59

haven't found the title of the thesis under his DNB entry which is strange, his phd supervisor Eduard Meyer was one of the leading Assyriologists and Egyptologists of that period, bit strange that they got on because Meyer became pretty rightwing during the 1st world war

Noa Rodman
Mar 8 2017 11:41

The Accuracy Of The Bible (1934) by Abraham Yahuda argues that the first couple of books of the bible could only have been written by (or based on an older document of) someone deeply familiar with ancient Egyptian conditions (ie someone contemporaneous, and not, as the dominant biblical criticism maintains, later invented by Hebrew priests), and that the stories are based on Egyptian mythology, not Assyrian.

btw, Yahuda criticised Freud's 1939 Moses and monotheism book:

JTA wrote:
Prof. Abraham S.E. Yahuda, London orientalist and biblical scholar, guest of honor at a luncheon of the Association of Reform Rabbis in New York City at the Taft Hotel yesterday challenged what he termed the “speculative and imaginary” theories about Moses and the origin of monotheism in Egypt which were advanced by Prof. Sigmund Freud shortly before his death a year ago.

Prof. Yahuda said that not only was Dr. Freud unqualified to advance any opinion on the subject, but that he had blindly copied and followed certain theories of Egyptologists and biblical critics, particularly of the German theologian, Prof. Sellin, who later withdrew his own statements at the Congress of Orientalists at Leipzig.

Mar 8 2017 12:30

looks that Yahuda ignores the Ugaritic texts which were published a few years earlier

Noa Rodman
Mar 8 2017 19:09

Yahuda's book Language of the Pentateuch in its Relation to Egyptian (1933) was published first only in 1929 in German (when Ugaritic was just discovered). But still in 1947 Yahuda (re-)published an article defending his viewpoint: 'Medical and Anatomical Terms in the Pentateuch in the Light of Egyptian Medical Papyri'.
On Ugaratic parallels, I found this article on the later Biblical story of Jehu:

'Jehu's Coronation and Purge of Israel', Michael S. Moore, Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 53, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 2003), pp. 97-114.

It argues that the Jehu-story was a conscious satire on the Ugaritic story of Anat.

Seems it was not the only satire in the Bible:

Moore wrote:
Even as Aristophanes parodies Herakles' "descent to the nether-world" in his play Frogs, for example, so Jonah is a parody of a prophet's "descent into the netherworld." Even as Juvenal mocks the weird religious practices of the Egyptians, so Numbers mocks Balaam's weird religious practices. Other examples include Zophar's second speech in Job, Isaiah's "dirge" over Babylon, and the famous "anti- salvation" oracles beginning the book of Amos


(On the present review's source, the soviet journal "Historian-marxist", there is an English translation of its index: A.S. Powell, Istorik-Marksist, 1926-1941: cumulative Index, Millwood, 1982.)

Noa Rodman
Mar 23 2017 16:05

Some other stuff:

Dynamics of Production in the Ancient Near East: 1300-500 BC.
Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia (editor), 2016, pp. 368.

The transition between the 2nd and the 1st millennium BC was an era of deep economic changes in the ancient Near East. An increasing monetization of transactions, a broader use of silver, the management of the resources of temples through “entrepreneurs”, the development of new trade circuits and an expanding private, small-scale economy, transformed the role previously played by institutions such as temples and royal palaces. The 17 essays collected here analyse the economic transformations which affected the old dominant powers of the Late Bronze Age, their adaptation to a new economic environment, the emergence of new economic actors and the impact of these changes on very different social sectors and geographic areas, from small communities in the oases of the Egyptian Western Desert to densely populated urban areas in Mesopotamia. Egypt was not an exception. Traditionally considered as a conservative and highly hierarchical and bureaucratic society, Egypt shared nevertheless many of these characteristics and tried to adapt its economic organization to the challenges of a new era. In the end, the emergence of imperial super-powers (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia and, to a lesser extent, Kushite and Saite Egypt) can be interpreted as the answer of former palatial organizations to the economic and geopolitical conditions of the early Iron Age. A new order where competition for the control of flows of wealth and of strategic trading areas appears crucial.


On the Chronic, whose author:

Levin wrote:
the Chronicler lived in late Persian-period Yehud, probably before the Macedonian conquest of 333 B.C.E., and the author of Chronicles is distinct from the roughly contemporaneous author of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Levin mentions Jonathan E. Dyck, The Theocratic Ideology of the Chronicler (1998), which is loosely/nominally Marxist:

This volume is a study of the ideology of the Chronicler in the context of the emerging theocratic community of Judah in the Persian period. This study breaks new ground in treating the 'purpose' of Chronicles from an explicitly social-theoretical perspective. The first two chapters examine the relationship between biblical interpretation and ideological criticism, moving from the historical critical concept of 'purpose' to the hermeneutical issues of understanding, ideological distortion and critique. Subsequent chapters are devoted to three ideological critical readings of Chronicles focusing in succession on the identity of Israel, the legitimacy of Jerusalem and the construction of hierarchy.


The story for Raiders of the Lost Ark was based on possible real event:

[..] if the Egyptian Pharaoh’s records on the Bubastite Portal match those from 1 Kings, “this would be the earliest event in Biblical history for which we have a contemporaneous reference in an extrabiblical source.”