Symposium Introduction

American Academy of Religion 2016 Book Award

Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Textual Studies
David A. Lambert, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
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With the publication of James Barr’s book The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961) biblical philology entered a season of deep suspicion toward any attempt to draw sharp lines between the primitive “Hebrew mind” and its later “Greek” counterpart. One of the primary antagonists in Barr’s book was Thorlief Boman, who published his book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek 1954 (1960 in English). Boman’s book followed the hybrid tradition of armchair anthropology and linguistics that extended back through Johannes Pedersen (Israel: Its Life and Culture) and early anthropologists such as Lévy-Bruhl (How Natives Think and Primitive Mentality). For Boman, the route into the Hebrew mind was grammar. For instance, because Hebrew has only two verb tenses, this suggested to Bowman that the Hebrew mind was less interested in fine details than the whole pattern of reality. Because the Hebrew dabhar could mean “word,” “thing,” or “deed,” he believed that the Israelite mind focused on the concrete actions that were expressed in words, rather than abstractions.

Barr’s critique of Boman was devastating. Not only had Boman mistakenly equated Greek thought with Platonic thought, and radically distinguished Hebrew thought from ancient Near Eastern thought in general, but he had also made a fundamental mistake in moving directly from grammatical structure to thought structure.

But Barr’s Semantics has also introduced a kind of paralysis in the field of philology—or at least, it sent many philologists scrambling to mop up the remaining Hebrew hapax legomena (words only occurring once). As David Lambert writes in his recent article “Refreshing Philology,” “Barr’s thoroughgoing critique of philology’s specious appropriation for theology has left many justifiably skittish about employing it to any significant effect.”1 Lambert positions his work as an attempt to return to a more robust use of philology, but rather than repeating the sins of the past, or walking on eggshells for fear of Barr returning to write one more withering critique, he turns the spotlight on the way that careful diachrony can illuminate the meaning of basic words and expose the theological and philosophical assumptions of ancient authors and modern interpreters.

Lambert’s award-winning book How Repentance Became Biblical thus sits broadly within the philosophical and historical approach introduced by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things, albeit within a single field. Foucault examined the way that historical change brings about shifts in cultural epistemes, or the a priori necessary for knowledge and discourse within a given historical era or context. In an analogous way, Lambert explores the development and eventual emergence of “repentance” in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Rabbinic literature, allowing the historical breadth of his project shine light on the concept of repentance, but even more broadly the conceptions of the “self” that create the conditions for the concept’s very emergence. For much of the biblical period, Lambert suggests, repentance was not an operative category for biblical writers, in part, because the necessary discourse around the self had not yet developed. Lambert’s book thus also shines a light on the Bible’s readers, who because of their own theological commitments and attentiveness to the interior life “find” repentance in Scripture.

Lambert’s book brings a wide range of responses from our panel. Joel Kaminsky responds critically from a literary perspective, arguing that repentance is indeed an appropriate category for many of the texts from which Lambert draws to sustain his argument. Kaminsky and Lambert then engage in a fascinating and fruitful discussion about those specific texts and the cultural assumptions that inform the interpretive task.

Susanne Scholz responds to Lambert’s book by examining its epistemological and methodological assumptions. She questions the book’s commitment to the historical-critical project, and wonders whether it is adequately self-reflective about its attempt to create what she considers “objective, universal, and value-free.” Scholz finds Lambert’s efforts to interrogate modern reading strategies attractive, but not sufficiently critical of modern religious studies.

Reed Carlson focuses on Lambert’s discussions of the self. Drawing on the insights of Carol Newsom and Anja Klein, he suggests that ancient Judaism had a notion of the self, which nonetheless differed from modern conceptions. He questions whether Lambert’s discussions of the ancient sources (especially Second Temple texts) are perhaps overly focused on the lack of interiority that they miss the subtly different ways that the concept of the self exists.

Finally, Jeffrey Stackert draws out the benefits of Lambert’s book for understanding a book like Lamentations. This was a helpful choice on Stackert’s part, and he suggests that Lambert’s work offers a potentially powerful way to reframe Lamentations away from “the penitential lens.” Stackert also raises the important issue of continuity and discontinuity between Israelite religion and Judaism. Stackert finds Lambert’s book to be a helpful critical check against cases for significant continuity—as in Benjamin Sommer’s recent book Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. While generally appreciative, Stackert also poses some challenging questions for Lambert to address.


  1. Lambert, “Refreshing Philology: James Barr, Supersessionism, and the State of Biblical Words,” Biblical Interpretation 24 (2016): 332–56.

Joel Kaminsky

Response

Is Repentance Biblical?

I regularly urge my students to consider the possibility that what they, with their modern mindset, think a given biblical text says may be quite distant from what that text might have meant in its ancient context. David Lambert’s important monograph provides just such a contextual lens, and it should lead scholars and lay readers alike to rethink many long-held understandings of the biblical text. Yet this does not mean I found all aspects of Lambert’s thought-provoking argument equally convincing.

 

To my mind, Lambert’s overarching thesis bears a conceptual resemblance to a novel idea propounded by Klaus Koch over a half a century ago. In his essay titled “Gibt es ein Vergeltungsdogma im Alten Testament?” (translated into English and published as “Is There a Doctrine of Retribution in the Old Testament?”), Koch argued that in much if not all of the Hebrew Bible it is wrong to speak about a concept of divine retribution. Rather, what exists is a kind of physics of sin in which the sinner becomes caught up in the consequences that flow somewhat automatically from the sin. Often, God just brings the deed and consequence together (or transfers the consequences elsewhere, perhaps to the children of the sinner), but rarely if ever does God act in a juridical fashion weighing and then dispensing justice. Patrick Miller penned a short monograph titled Sin and Judgment in the Prophets that acknowledges that Koch had certainly made a number of important points. But Miller went on to argue, convincingly in my view, that Koch’s arguments were often overstated and frequently Koch interpreted the language used in various biblical passages in a very narrow fashion. Koch tended to read much of the biblical verbiage he examined in a very literal manner, stressing the root meanings of words. Miller showed how when read in their larger contexts many of the passages upon which Koch based his thesis maintained what can fairly be called a notion of divine retribution. Still, Koch’s ideas advanced the discussion by showing that not all biblical texts describe divine retribution in the same manner.

 

Turning to Lambert’s book, he has clearly demonstrated that full-blown notions of repentance that include all the markers he lists are indeed found only in certain rather late biblical and para-biblical or postbiblical texts. He also provides strong evidence that fasting and petitionary prayer need not signal an interior penitential turn, but may rather be ways of either acknowledging one’s sin or one’s diminished status. However, at times Lambert’s argument felt strained to me for the following reasons: (1) Lambert defines repentance rather narrowly and by doing so he creates a greater distance between the totally full-blown concept of repentance found in certain late texts and other earlier texts he examines that may contain some but not all the markers of what he sees as the penitential mindset; (2) Some of the passages Lambert discusses are treated in a rather atomistic and isolated fashion, rather than examined in their larger contexts; (3) Lambert has too starkly separated ritualized behavior / legal procedure from questions of interiority/intention/self-perception. While I will not be able to treat all these issues equally well in my initial comments, I hope to flesh my thoughts out as our dialogue continues.

 

To sharpen the focus of my comments I would like to explore Lambert’s contention that very few if any of the early texts he discusses contain any psychological interiority and therefore they cannot signal a penitential turn. I will begin by testing some of Lambert’s claims about biblical narrative instances that others have read as exhibiting repentance and interiority. Lambert’s analysis of select parts of the Joseph story can only be sustained if one reads them in an atomistic fashion. Thus the verses he hones in on when separated from the wider narrative of Genesis 37–50 can be interpreted as reflecting little if any psychological interiority. I think his strongest argument on this front is his reading of Judah’s short speech exonerating Tamar in Gen 38:26. However, his reading of the brothers’ dialogue and Reuben’s response in Gen 42:21–22 as involving only an act of confession that exhibits no interior psychology or any mark of repentance was much less convincing. Lambert never asks why when Joseph accuses the brothers of being spies they so quickly confess that they are twelve sons of one man with one back home and one no more. This response points to the brothers’ latent feelings of guilt (an idea Lambert rejects), signaling more psychological interiority than Lambert allows. While he criticizes Alter for importing contemporary concerns into this text, Lambert fails to note that Alter’s reading hinges on what Alter labels “delayed exposition.” In Gen 42:21–22 we are given a much fuller account of what occurred back in Genesis 37 when the brothers placed Joseph in a pit, leading the reader to view all the previous chapters in the Joseph story in a new light and supporting Alter’s contention that the brothers had all along been racked by guilt.

 

In his treatment of Judah’s extended speech in Genesis 44, Lambert again seeks to play down a penitential reading. But to do this he must fully sever Judah’s experiences in Genesis 38 from the character we find in 44. Yet many readers quite understandably tend to forge links between Judah’s personal loss of his own two sons in Genesis 38 and his realization that he cannot return to Jacob without Benjamin. Furthermore, Lambert’s view that “the force of events compel Judah to offer himself as [a] slave in Benjamin’s stead” (57, emphasis his) gives short shrift to the complexity of this passage. Particularly questionable is Lambert’s claim that Judah acts to “preserve his standing” in his father’s house (57). In fact, when Judah makes this speech he in effect gives up any standing he might have (or will ever again have) in Jacob’s house and surrenders to what he thinks is a lifetime of servitude in Egypt. Equally important is that Lambert quickly passes over the larger contours of Judah’s speech. Judah spends a good deal of verbiage revealing that he has come to terms with Jacob’s special favor toward Rachel’s two children, going so far as to admit that from Jacob’s viewpoint he and the other children of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah are not really Jacob’s children in the way that Joseph was and Benjamin is. In my view, Gen 42:21–22 and Judah’s speech in Genesis 44 suggest that the brothers had engaged in deep psychological introspection, had experienced feelings of remorse, and that Judah in particular had arrived at a new way of seeing the special bond between Jacob and Rachel’s children. In short, there may be more of a penitential turn in this narrative than Lambert grants.

 

Let us now turn Lambert’s discussion of repentance within non-narrative contexts. On p. 72 Lambert argues the following: “In direct connection to the phrase ‘return to YHWH’ we do not find a sense of a prior state of closeness, a current state of distance, or the possibility of renewed closeness with YHWH.” This seems difficult to argue when prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah utilize the marital and parenthood metaphors to describe the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Lambert solves this problem by emptying these metaphors along with Jeremiah’s call for the people to return to YHWH of any interiority or notes of penitence and in truth of any affective dimension at all. “To construe this movement toward YHWH as an expression of inner sentiment, regret for former ways, or, even, as a declaration of intent to follow certain religious imperatives is . . . to impose our own more obvious set of concerns around interiority and obedience” (84). Even if Lambert were correct that such language is primarily about Israel’s cultic fidelity to God, I remain unclear why such cultic behavior cannot countenance or even inspire an affective emotional dimension. In any case, I found this argument strained and unconvincing based on what I perceive as the affective interior dimensions implied by passages like Jer 4:4 where the prophet speaking for God calls on Judah and Jerusalem to circumcise themselves to God and to remove the foreskins of their hearts.

 

Lambert explores this language of circumcision of the heart in his discussion of Deuteronomy. There he correctly notes that in Deut 30:1–10 circumcision of the heart is done by God and does not reveal any repentance by the people. But, as far as I could see he never mentions Deut 10:16 which calls on Israel to “circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” This passage associates human agency with circumcising one’s heart in a manner quite similar to Jer 4:4 mentioned just above. Both passages suggest interiority and to my mind a call to repentance. Furthermore, Lambert’s view that Deuteronomy has little room for repentance or for interiority seems even more unlikely when one widens the lens and looks at passages like Deuteronomy 8 or 15. These chapters contain elaborate sermons that probe the potential psychological resistance of the listener in order to guide the audience toward proper devotion to God and proper care of one’s impoverished neighbor respectively. Note for example the language used in Deut 8:17: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’”; or similarly Deut 15:9’s sentiment: “Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.”

 

As a final example, let us explore Ezekiel 18, a passage that Lambert believes is concerned with the removal of sin right now and not at all with inner intention or motive. I have argued at length in my first book (Corporate Responsibility in the Hebrew Bible) that Ezekiel 18 contains a two-part sermon. In stage one the prophet wants the people to stop blaming their plight on their ancestors’ sins. Having rhetorically accomplished that goal he now faces another predicament. If the current state of affairs is due to this generation’s own sins they are left equally helpless to change things. To solve this problem Ezekiel 18 makes an imaginative argument in which he posits that God wants repentance so badly that he in turn will judge the people only on their current behavior. If they repent now, it is not too late for God to reverse course and for Judah to avert exile. But the truth is, elsewhere in Ezekiel the prophet recognizes that when punishment comes it is for this generation’s as well as for previous generations’ sins (note the way that Israel’s exile is declared even before the entrance into the land in Ezekiel 20) and that the guilty and innocent all suffer together (see Ezek 21:4). I agree with Lambert who follows scholars like Baruch Schwartz that Ezekiel paints a very dark portrait of Israel’s ability to overcome its sinful tendencies. Yet, even in this very dark book one finds exceptions to this tendency. Ezekiel 18 from beginning to end seems to allow space for Israel to repent. Chapter 18 opens with a call to eradicate the use of a proverb that implies Israel suffers for earlier generations’ sins. If God is actually going to be successful in eliminating the use of this proverb Israel will need to acknowledge their culpability, a truth the people had previously evaded. This would seem to require some type of interior change, a reading that receives support from the passage’s crescendo in 18:31 that calls for a collective act of repentance and interior change: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”

 

Lambert has done a great service by showing how ideas around repentance evolved over time and how too often scholars and lay readers alike have imported much later developments of repentance back into earlier texts that may in fact speak in a different register. But, Lambert has at times driven too much of wedge between the earlier texts and the later texts he discusses so that he is unable to see that some aspects of the later more developed views of repentance may have arisen quite naturally from a holistic reading of many of the earlier biblical texts in which he finds no markers of repentance.

 

  • David Lambert

    David Lambert

    Reply

    Response to Joel Kaminsky

    First of all, I’d like to thank Joel Kaminsky for taking the time to offer such an extensive and exegetically rich response to my recent monograph, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture. For the sake of ease, I will respond to Joel’s points in the order in which they were written.

    Joel begins with a reflection on pedagogical practice, characterizing my book as in keeping with his own process of urging students to consider the possibility that they are imposing a modern mindset “distant from what that text might have meant in its ancient context.” This concern for anachronism is not an inaccurate depiction of the book, but it falls short somewhat of the book’s full intention with important implications for the rest of what Joel has to say. Joel’s concern is formulated as an attempt to uncover the original ancient context of the biblical texts. My concern is that we should come to learn deeply about the exact ways in which we read texts today, what we impose upon the Bible and how we use it, and then ask whether we have alternatives available that can challenge and enter into dialogue with our dominant presuppositions. I prefer this language of dialogue, because I believe that imagining we can free ourselves from mistakes in our existing mindset condemns us to doggedly repeating them. In the case of repentance, Joel casts the chief concern of the book as whether or not there is repentance (however, that is defined) in the Bible. He then seeks to defend its presence. On the contrary, I begin from a different starting point. I’m interested in what the use of the concept of repentance among readers reveals about how contemporary forms of biblical interpretation seek to valorize the inner life, render most forms of communication as pedagogical or moralistic, and accentuate forms of human agency. Along the way, I show alternatives to these readings as they present themselves. We certainly share some goals with regard to our study of antiquity, but not the language of positivism for getting there. For me, “repentance” does not exist as a set concept, an absolute universal, and it is therefore not a meaningful statement to declare whether it is or is not in the Bible. Rather what’s interesting here is to turn continuously to the question of how we read and how we use a certain “concept” like repentance to help us engage in our readings. While I am grateful for Joel’s sense that my analyses should lead readers to “rethink many long-held understandings of the biblical text,” I find that Joel’s own exegetical analyses remain excellent examples of the type of hermeneutical lenses, what I group under the term the “penitential lens,” that dominate biblical studies. I appreciate those readings, but I also believe that there are an alternative series of presuppositions with which we might proceed that would produce a very different looking Bible for those who are ready to receive it.

    Joel begins his review by critiquing another, much older study, that of Klaus Koch. Koch makes important observations but is a nice example of how I would not go about examining such an issue. Is there divine retribution in the Bible or is there a more mechanistic sense of punishment following sin? I think Koch’s question is the wrong one. Instead, I would start out by describing the nature of divinity among the communities of interpreters who have defined what the Bible means, showing how their presuppositions about divinity (especially their preoccupation with divine omnipotence, omniscience, and justice) inform their interpretations and then look to see if alternatives present themselves, cracks in our present day readings that cannot be readily filled within the existing paradigms (in this case, a more mechanistic, decentralized system of distributing justice). In short, Koch’s critique is substantive, and we need to recognize the dueling interpretive horizons that it points to without resorting to binary forms of argumentation.

    Without further ado, I would like to consider some of the passages that Joel discusses. Again, he wishes to contend that “Lambert’s contention [is] that very few if any of the early texts he discusses contain any psychological interiority and therefore they cannot signal a penitential turn.” That way of framing the issue is appealing because it makes any interpreter who does not accept its presuppositions—the centrality of interiority to the biblical narrative—simply seem narrow, dull, or atomistic. In fact, “Lambert’s contention” is not a contention at all but the demonstration of a certain interpretive sensibility, the contemporary concern to infuse interiority into ancient biblical texts through recourse to a concept of repentance, which is assumed to be universal or, at the very least, biblical, and to juxtapose it with alternatives. (In a sense, the direction of the argument is the exact opposite of the one suggested. I use repentance to show how interpreters impute interiority, not deny interiority in order to deny repentance.) Let’s see how this works through Joel’s reading of the Joseph narratives. The key to Joel’s reading is the idea that the brother’s various speech acts upon their initial encounter with Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 42) can be explained through the psychological concept of “latent feelings of guilt.” Now, I have to admit that, when I read this, I had to suppress (repress?) the feeling of being back in my grandparents’ prewar Vienna or, even more pertinent, the postwar Freudian psychoanalytic circles in which my grandmother participated in New York. What’s extraordinary about attributing certain actions to guilt, speech or otherwise, is that it is very hard to prove wrong. But let’s see what else the text offers us. Joel first contends that the brothers’ response to Joseph’s accusation that they are spies includes the extraneous information that they have one brother and another that is no longer. Joel wants to see this as latent guilt. That’s what our (some of our?) version of humanity today looks like. But there are, of course, other possibilities. The best response to an accusation of spying is to reveal your lineage. Furthermore, it is essential in terms of how the plot develops that they reveal the existence of an additional brother. As for the brother that is no longer, isn’t the irony of his standing there enough to explain the narrator’s choice to formulate matters thus? The guilt-bubbling-over narrative seems a bit much. It’s as if, no, it is the case according to this argument, that the first stranger to come across their path and cause trouble provokes them to blurt out: “We did it! And we feel terrible about it!” What I proposed was, I think, a subtler reading and closer to the available wording. The brothers realize, through Joseph’s irrational actions, that their goose is cooked. Some deity, some hidden power, is against them. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. That’s why Reuben’s first impulse is to shift blame in Gen 42:22: I told you not to do it but you did it any way and now נדרש הנה דמו, literally: “his blood is being sought.” This is not an outpouring of latent feeling; this is a process of connecting the dots. They are in trouble because of what they did, which they then proceed to spell out; they are doomed because of their past actions toward Joseph. You can call that an atomistic reading, but I think the more striking move here is the insistence on imputing interiority and avoiding reading the actual words used in the passage. This is not to deny interiority. Did they feel badly? Sure, perhaps. They’d be stupid not to. After all, their action got them into a lot of hot water. They’ve got to regret it now. But that’s not what the text chooses to focus on in its own words, and yet we choose to focus on something else.

    And then we arrive at Judah’s speech, which for Joel, demonstrates the brothers’ engagement in “deep psychological introspection,” a term that brought me past Freud right into the nineteenth-century mussar movement. In Genesis 44, when Joseph threatens to imprison Benjamin, Judah pleads with him to take him instead. For Joel, that means that Judah has experienced remorse for his actions toward Joseph and has reconciled himself to Benjamin. In other words, he’s doing it for love of Benjamin and guilt over Joseph. But, again, that reading requires us to not read what Judah actually says. Judah gives two reasons for his plea: (1) the well-being of his father: if you take Benjamin away from him, he’ll die, and (2) the fact that he’s made an oath to his father to return Benjamin to him: “Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’” Now, of course, that guilt would have long-term implications not only for him, which doesn’t matter as Joel points out because he’d be in prison, but for Judah’s progeny as well. But let’s take a step back here. What Joel’s saying is that Judah’s feelings are what matter the most here. What I’m asking is why we can’t take Judah’s commitment to the well-being of their father, as well as commitment to his own word, seriously enough to accept them as the likely explanations for Judah’s actions when Judah himself explains his actions that way and not in terms of guilt? The answer is clear. We’re much more focused in today’s world on our own private moral status than filial piety or any commitment to a pledge we may have made, and so we interiorize this passage and do away with both. If he has learned anything from the sale of Joseph and Jacob’s refusal to accept consolation, it is that he better get Benjamin back to his father or his father really will die this time, and Judah will risk the sort of fate that befalls Jacob’s three other prodigal sons—Reuben, Simeon, and Levi—all of whom by right of birth should have received Judah’s blessing, but who end up being cursed instead.

    With regard to the phrase “return to YHWH,” I argue that it is possible to see a threefold development in its usage that has hitherto been neglected in favor of what I argue is its postbiblical identification with the concept of repentance. In the first stage, the key term shuv appears in vicinity to other terms of appeal and focuses on matters of loyalty. To whom do you turn when in trouble? That is how it is used in Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah. Jeremiah innovates and sees it as an offer extended by YHWH to return to a productive relationship with him. Later on in Ezekiel and other exilic and postexilic texts, the actual phrase changes, becoming negative, as in “turn away from sin,” and here we see a stepping stone toward the eventual concept of repentance as it ultimately emerges in the late Second Temple period. My claim is that our commitment to interiorization and moral, pedagogical readings has prevented us from seeing this differentiation. This hardly requires “emptying these metaphors” as Joel suggests. Jeremiah uses them productively. The father invites the son to return. Hosea doesn’t use the metaphors of marriage and parenthood in connection to the phrase “return to YHWH.” He uses the phrase instead, as stated above, in the context of political alliance. Will Israel turn to Egypt and Assyria for help, or will they turn back to their old loyal deity, YHWH? Joel’s reading is an essential part of the Bible’s reception history. Both Jews and Christians identified the prophets’ phrase “return to YHWH” with the idea of repentance. In fact, the Rabbis invented their term for repentance, teshuva, on the basis of this phrase, but that doesn’t mean that we can only look at the biblical text on the basis of that homogenization.

    For passages discussing “circumcision of the heart” language and related phrases with Israel as agent, I would refer the audience to p. 212n21. There are two more substantive issues in Joel’s comments, however, both of which require further thought and exposition. One is the view of Deuteronomy as sermon literature designed, in Joel’s words, to “probe the potential psychological resistance of the listener.” I find this to be a fascinating framework for reading Deuteronomy, one that is very much in keeping with the later phenomenon of public moralistic teaching. It works fairly well with Deuteronomy but other subtler possibilities present themselves. Some of this is explored in chapter 6 where I show that the earliest readings of Deuteronomy did not view it as instructive moralistic sermons but rather as predictions of what was to befall Israel and why. In that view, the many charges to Israel in Deuteronomy to “serve,” “love,” “fear,” etc., the deity would serve to justify and explain Israel’s eventual exile. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that, for years now, very strong arguments have been put forward to understand this seemingly psychological terminology on the basis of covenantal agreements as primarily concerned with loyalty and obedience. That consideration awaits further study as does the question of the meaning of “heart” in biblical Hebrew, which underlies what I take to be Joel’s psychological rendering (in this case in keeping with standard translations) of Deut 8:17 and Deut 15:9. Indeed, I don’t believe that “heart” in biblical Hebrew, as in English, is meant as a way of focusing on interiority. The emphasis in these passages is not so much on Deuteronomy’s attempt to ferret out improper thoughts, as it is in prohibiting certain kinds of private plans, i.e., depriving others of material benefit because of the approach of the seventh year or claiming to have accrued wealth through one’s own agency. Again, the concern here is not with what you are thinking as much as what you are doing in private or what you are claiming in private, whether you are properly marking your wealth as the product of YHWH. In short, as my book claims and as these examples suggest, psychologization is not just a matter of how certain overall passages are read but how particular words are read as well. I treat this further with additional examples in a new study, “Refreshing Philology: James Barr, Supersessionism, and the State of Biblical Words” (Biblical Interpretation 24:3 [2016], 332–56).

    Problems with our usual rendering of biblical lev addressed in that article are also relevant to the importance Joel attaches to Ezek 18:31’s supposed interiority on the basis of its use of the term “heart.” In any event, it seems quite clear, contrary to Joel’s suggestion, that the concern at the heart (if I may) of Ezekiel 18 is the cessation of sin, not the experience of guilt, which is not alluded to at all. As long as you stop, you can live. If you don’t stop, don’t blame your ancestors, it’s your fault that you’re going down. More importantly, as I suggest in a discussion of Ezekiel 18 and related material in chapter 5, the significance of these passages needs to be measured against Israel’s ultimate failure and exile. In terms of the transmission of the book of Ezekiel as a whole, such passages serve to reinforce the reasons for Israel’s exile. They sinned, they were warned, they failed to act, and therefore they were punished. Again, my argument here is not that there are no passages in Ezekiel where the prophet seems to call on the people to change their ways, but that we have overemphasized their role because of our own moralistic preoccupations. In context of the book as a whole, they served much more the purposes of theodicy, explaining ow YHWH could have let his people down and allowed them to be sent off into exile.

    Ultimately, what I want to suggest lies between my readings and Joel’s is the place that the Bible occupies in our lives. For Joel, it seems to be vitally important that it accords with many of the basic principles of humanity that he believes to be fundamental to our functioning as human beings. I respect that but I believe in trying to use the Bible to generate a contest or dialogue between moral ideals. I recognize the strength, the fascination, and the history of our penitential readings of the Bible. At the same time, I believe that we have arrived at a place in our contemporary lives where we are able to start to see some of the cracks, some of the apparent failures, of such a framework. What emerges is a different notion of the human, of human agency, and of the relationship to the divine, one, for instance, that focuses more on the body, moving away from the standard dichotomy between mind and body, as well as one that moves away at times from the strong Enlightenment sense of human beings as free moral agents. The implications of such a move remain to be fully worked out but are hinted at in the pages of my book. It is my hope that the book will yet enable us to become critical of our own presuppositions, to recognize their control over how we read texts and, indeed, the world around us, which hardly means, however, that we must abandon the moral commitments that lie behind them or the biblical readings that undergird them. Instead, we are free to relocate those readings temporally and recognize that they too are part of the Bible, but only via the communities of interpreters that for millennia have given the Bible its meaning.

    • Joel Kaminsky

      Joel Kaminsky

      Reply

      On Overstating the Case

      First I would like to thank David for his insightful and trenchant critique of my take on his recent book. In certain ways, we are speaking past each other. To begin, I did not bring up Koch’s work to indicate that Lambert’s treatment of the issues or his interpretive lens is identical to Koch’s. Rather, I want to suggest that both Koch and Lambert have honed in on ways in which careful attention to the Bible’s language may reveal that the text says something quite different from what most current readers had assumed. However, in each case, these authors attempt to apply their insights across a very wide array of biblical texts from a variety of historical periods, in my view at times forcing the data uncomfortably into their frameworks.

      What I find particularly unhelpful in David’s response to my comments is his tendency to slap labels on those who find aspects of his thinking implausible or wrongheaded. I have an old friend who is a hard-core Marxist. It is impossible to present him with a piece of evidence that can change his mind because either you agree with him or you have a form of bad faith. I felt echoes of this type of thinking when David pigeonholed me as various things: a Freudian seeking hidden unconscious motives everywhere, a positivist, a crypto-member of the mussar movement, et al. In actuality I am quite eclectic in how I approach differing biblical texts. I do not start out deciding whether a particular reading is right or wrong but instead try to evaluate how effectively it may illuminate the text and account for its history, theology, details, etc. In fact, I did indeed find Lambert’s reading of many parts of the Hebrew Bible to be quite insightful and compelling. Thus his analysis of King David admitting his guilt in the wake of Nathan’s condemnation of the Bath Sheba episode was quite convincing. I think Lambert’s notion that a wrongdoer in ancient Israel might display their diminished state publicly and, so to speak, exhibit their coming punishment in advance also helps explain King David’s somewhat odd behavior when Shimei issues his curse in 2 Samuel 16 (an episode Lambert does not discuss, but that nicely fits his hypothesis). Similarly, I think Lambert’s discussions of texts like Joel 1 are spot on.

      That said, I find many of his other readings much weaker and some of them highly implausible. More specifically, even accounting for his detailed response to my initial critique, his reading of the Joseph story remains quite flat and highly atomistic; it is not able to account for a host of the details in the text. Lambert’s response focused on Reuben’s attempt to exonerate himself, highlighting the final three Hebrew words in Gen 42:22 “his blood is being sought.” But this reading ignores Gen 42:21. Here the brothers do not simply report that they wronged Joseph (in the E version likely by placing him in a pit). Rather they recall a vivid memory of how they ignored their brother Joseph’s distress as he pleaded with them. Why are we given this vivid glimpse of their feelings and how can their words not indicate psychological pain?

      Lambert rejects my contention that the reason that the brothers reveal they are twelve sons of one man suggests their latent guilt and instead offers that the best way to answer the charge they are spies was to explain their lineage. The difficulty here is that this same episode comes up later in the narrative three more times and there are variations in the way the story is told (Gen 42:29-34; 43:1-10; 44:19-21). In the report recorded in Genesis 43:1-10, Judah tells the story quite differently, claiming “the man” questioned them carefully and inquired whether they had another brother. When we read the story in a holistic manner, it suggests that the brothers in chap. 43 are obscuring the fact that they mentioned Benjamin and Joseph on their own, instead here attributing this fact to the careful interrogation they experienced. This apparent half-truth suggests the brothers have no good reason to have mentioned Joseph and Benjamin at all, and this strongly reinforces the likelihood that they blurted this out because of latent guilt over how they treated Joseph.

      Then in 44:20 Judah, speaking unknowingly to Joseph retells the episode adding yet further significant details. In particular, we learn the following: “My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead; he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him’” (44:19-20). Judah goes on in to great detail, demonstrating that he has attained a level of empathy for Jacob and come to accept that Jacob loves Benjamin in a way that is no doubt upsetting to him and the other brothers, but such is the mysterious bond between Jacob and Benjamin, which is linked to Jacob’s special affection toward Rachel. If, as Lambert wishes to argue, this speech is primarily about Judah’s honoring his oath to Jacob or even Judah’s concern over his father’s wellbeing, there is no need for Judah’s speech to be as lengthy and elaborate as it is. Why do we need to know Jacob loved Benjamin? Why do we need to know that from Jacob’s viewpoint his wife Rachel has special status and he considers only her children fully his? Why not have Judah simply request that he serve in place of Benjamin because as his youngest child Jacob has a special affection for Benjamin? Furthermore, Lambert’s unwillingness to see any interior psychological change in Judah and the other brothers ignores additional details, such as the fact that Benjamin received five times the meal portion of the brothers (43:34), or that even after Joseph reveals his identity, he gives Benjamin a much more lavish gift than the other brothers (45:22). Nor does Lambert’s reading recognize that Judah may have gained some empathy for Jacob’s position because, like Jacob, Judah himself experienced the loss of two sons, Er and Onan. It is the cumulative effect of all these and a host of other seemingly extraneous but important details that bolster a psychological reading of the Joseph story and suggest that the characters do indeed undergo interior changes.

      To keep things focused and not go too lengthily, I will only briefly touch upon a few other of David’s responses to my initial reflections on his book.

      David’s reading of Deuteronomy continues to strike me as too restrictive and quite implausible. Why does Deuteronomy harp so frequently on the notion of choosing the proper path if the book is nothing but a justification of Israel’s eventual exile? The introductory and concluding chapters are literarily set as Israel is about to cross the Jordan and enter the land. This suggests the book is at least as much about how to get it right in the future as about how Israel got it wrong in the past. More to the point, David’s contention that he is sure exactly what the book of Deuteronomy meant in its ancient context strikes me as much more positivistic than any observations I made about the book. And my reading of interiority in passages like Deuteronomy 8 and 15 can stand whether heart is the organ of emotion or refers more to the will or the mind, or whatever. The point I was making is that these texts are sermonic and they mentally walk the reader through hypothetical scenarios to help guide listeners toward the correct path and away from sinning. They do so by revealing the kinds of ways we delude ourselves. I, like most other biblical scholars, grant that Moran was correct to point out that the use of love terminology in Deuteronomy has strong covenantal overtones. But, as David notes in his recent essay on “Refreshing Philology,” scholars debate whether such covenantal language may also carry in its wake an affective dimension. It certainly need not preclude an emotional aspect and may well be intended to evoke such emotions, even if the root of the relationship rests on a covenantal basis. From my reading of David’s book, he too often tends to take a dichotomized approach, seeing things as either residing in the world of ritual, law, covenant, etc., or having an emotional resonance, as if a choice between the two must be made. It is true that many today tend to think we mourn when we are sad in contrast to ancient Israelites who engaged in mourning rites when certain situations arose regardless of their emotional disposition. But it seems highly probable that ancient Israel’s mourning rites were designed to evoke or induce emotions of sadness. The idea that they did not affect mood but were simply rote rituals with no emotional dimension is quite far-fetched and unrealistic to human experience.

      I found it quite odd that David, who frequently fragments the text and examines small components in depth, critiques my reading of Ezekiel 18 because on a holistic reading of the book it must be mistaken. I will simply say that I do not believe Ezekiel 18 only serves to indict ancient Israel and protect God’s reputation. Texts in the Tanakh continued to speak to ancient Israelites and can still speak to Jews and Christians today partly because already within the Tanakh they were often partially unmoored from their original settings. The fact that Ezekiel’s earliest audience may have failed to heed his plea here and in turn been punished does not preclude the possibility that those encountering this passage who lived in post-exilic ancient Judah may have heard the text suggesting that they could indeed alter their fate. Do we have evidence that such passages were only recited as part of total readings of Ezekiel? It seems to me that even on a reading of the whole book, which then has to include chaps. 40-48, Ezekiel 18 could speak to future generations, even while it was situated in one that failed to heed its call. I agree with David that the vast bulk of Ezekiel does not see Israel repenting and ultimately restoration relies solely on God’s intervention. However, even here there are interior psychological elements present. Note that Israel is to feel loathing and shame in the wake of God’s restoration (Ezek 36:31-32). This may not be penitence, but it has resonance with it and suggests more psychological interiority than David allows.

      In spite of his current protestations to the contrary, Lambert does indeed argue that the vast bulk of the Tanakh did not contain a notion of repentance, and then he seeks to explain how, if this is the case, such a reading became so widespread. In David’s view, those who impute this idea to the text are reading an idea into the text and failing to hear what the text meant in its ancient Near Eastern context. He goes on to acknowledge that reading through the penitential lens is perfectly fine, as long as one recognizes that it belongs to the history of biblical interpretation and does not impute it to the biblical text itself.

      My contention is not that Lambert is wrong, but that he overstates his case at times and that he fails to see places in the Tanakh that contained the antecedent elements that gradually gave rise to the penitential lens he has identified. In my view Lambert tends to lengthen the distance between the Tankah’s worldview and that found in the rabbis in a number of ways. The yardstick he uses is the full-blown rabbinic view of repentance along with the use of the word teshuvah. Of course, the mere fact that a word did not exist does not mean the idea behind the word was absent. There is no special word for wife in biblical Hebrew, but no one suggests wives did not exist in ancient Israel. The word theodicy was invented by Leibniz but it is common to speak of Job addressing questions of theodicy. It is no surprise that the full blown rabbinic idea of teshuvah did not exist in the Tanakh. The question is, what elements of the Tanakh gave rise to the rabbinic notion of repentance? Here I think David and I have real disagreements. I believe he is under-reading the biblical evidence that gave rise to what he calls the penitential lens. In my view, Lambert’s book employs one of the two most prominent ways academics construct their arguments: Pursue a novel hypothesis in a totalistic manner. Such arguments are helpful in that they test the limits of a given hypothesis. The difficulty with such a strategy is that those pursuing it are often unwilling or unable to recognize what may be the strongest aspects of their argument as opposed to those elements that are weaker, or possibly even only marginally plausible at best. That is where other scholars come in and produce the second major model of academic scholarship, balanced assessments that weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a given hypothesis over against other possibilities. My guess is that in the long run David’s book will be seen to have made a significant contribution to reframing how scholars understand the Hebrew Bible but it also will be critiqued for significantly overstating the case he attempts to make.

    • David Lambert

      David Lambert

      Reply

      Final Comments

      I am afraid that Joel and I do appear to be talking past one another. I think the root of the problem may be that I’m trying to approach the study of the Bible in a quite different manner than is customary on a number of accounts. My interest is in developing a critical history of our interpretive assumptions and how we read the Bible. I should make clear that this is not meant in the traditional manner of biblical scholarship as a critique of any single scholar or series of scholars. Rather, it is a much broader observation about how we have come to read texts in the West in light of developing notions of the self. Such broad observations will surely be challenging but they are hardly personal.

      Joel seems to frame the book differently than I do. My chief point is that biblical scholarship has exhibited marked tendencies to read the Bible in terms that tend to emphasize interiority, agency, pedagogy, etc., using the concept of repentance as a rubric for introducing these concerns. Therefore, the question of whether there is “repentance” in the Bible, indeed, how we would even establish a definitive definition of such a term, is of interest to me largely for how it reflects back on biblical scholarship itself. What matters most are the kinds of readings and concerns that are introduced through scholars’ use of the term, however they define it. Joel instead sees my book as a positivist claim that there is no repentance in the Bible and construes my interest in how we interpret as merely an attempt to show how we got to a penitential reading if, in fact, it was not original to the text. I think there is a subtly different claim being made here.

      I actually have great respect for what Joel describes as his eclectic approach. But what I am attempting is a critical reading of how we interpret cultures, texts, especially texts, especially ancient, biblical texts, in light of present notions of the self. As a methodological point, I would assert that none of us are free from the cultures we currently inhabit and that it is an important and valid exercise to examine how those cultures shape our interpretation. The reading tendencies that I’m talking about are not a matter of a particular approach, ideology, or movement that we happen to ascribe to but part of a much broader pattern of reading interiority into the Bible.

      What Joel dismisses as “atomistic” (a label that I find problematic) is actually an attempt to develop an alternative vocabulary based on a close reading of the language of the biblical texts themselves for describing or glimpsing what might have been something like the premodern state of the self in the time of ancient Israel. As such, for the purpose of the exercise of this book, I find it more productive to help my readers discern discontinuities rather than pointing to the very real ways in which one could make an argument of continuity (not sameness) between, say, the shuv of Ezekiel and that of the Rabbis. Joel and I may indeed disagree about the extent of the continuities between the biblical world and the rabbinic, but, as I suggested in my concluding comments, I think that reflects deeply different desires in connection to what we want to do with the Bible. Do we want to identify it as an actual source of something like contemporary morality, or should we instead see it as a resource for discerning otherness, value systems that predate our own but that we have overwritten with our own concerns? We can talk about Job as theodicy, but we can also ask: what do we impose upon the biblical text when we talk about it in the terms of Leibniz as theodicy? (On that particular topic, see my recent article, “The Book of Job in Ritual Perspective,” JBL 134:3 [2015], 557-575.) We could talk about “wives” in ancient Israel, as Joel suggests, or we could talk about ways in which the concept of the intimate bonds between a man and woman in the institution that we today call “marriage” may differ from ancient Israelite conceptions. Both are legitimate approaches, and both can produce readings that are compelling for those who operate within those approaches. That said, I think biblical studies can and should do more to grapple with the implications of the distance between the contemporary language we commonly use to analyze biblical texts and the Bible’s own language. That is why I take the approach in this book that I do. In that sense, I recognize the subtlety and interest of Joel’s readings, even as quite different readings present themselves to me when I try to distance myself from what strikes me as the dominant hermeneutic that has developed as a result of the course Western intellectual history. Actually, I find Joel’s comments more readily dismissive of my positions. My aim would be to develop a hermeneutic that envelops and accepts his reading as a legitimate approach to the biblical text, albeit one that proceeds with certain assumptions that I then attempt to explain. And, at the same time, I attempt to expound upon alternatives that have emerged from not (what I would call) an “atomistic” reading but a very close reading of the biblical text that, as a methodological matter, favors its own material self-representations, its actual words, more seriously over other considerations. I would like to see this as a dialogue but to create a dialogue we must recognize that we approach the Bible from very different standpoints with a different series of presuppositions, and we must study those presuppositions. That said, throwing ourselves into the reading of specific texts can be quite illustrative. So, with Joel, I will return below to one of the texts we’ve been discussing.

      I’d like to clarify one more point, however, before doing so. Joel suggests that I see no interiority in the Bible and that I am therefore committed to a view of ritual as rote. Nothing could be further from the truth for me personally or as a scholar. Instead, I see the biblical world as occupying a place in which these categories are simply not operative. Did the ancient Israelites feel feelings as we do today? Of course. But did they analyze them as feelings or did they have a different vocabulary for emphasizing various aspects of the range of reactions and relations that we group under the category of “feeling” today? I believe so. Thus, in the book, I emphasize how mourning demonstrates a diminishment of the self or confession establishes the being as existing in a condemned state vis-à-vis one whom they have wronged.

      The written format can be somewhat cumbersome for any good exegetical discussion, which, perhaps, could be best done face to face in a sort of partner learning environment (Joel, perhaps we could really find a format in which to do this soon?), but the case of the Joseph stories is, nevertheless, an extremely important one that warrants a general discussion because it addresses the kind of overall perspectives within which “narrative” readings of the biblical text tend to work. In general, they depend much more on the unstated: why would he say this if he didn’t mean that? Why would the narrator mention this detail if it didn’t have that significance? Why would this speech go on for so long if it didn’t have that hidden meaning? I tend to focus much more on the actual language of the biblical text for the sake of developing what we might call emic categories. “Atomism” could be a way of characterizing that approach but in its present context the term seems to me to be overly dismissive and hardly represents an attempt to understand the alternative reading sensibility set forth here. In fact, what we have here are legitimate methodological differences that themselves correspond to different notions of the self with the narrative approach tending to reproduce something like the concept of an individual who grows over a period of time. We can go through details of the argument again. For instance, I think the details revealed in Gen 42:21 regarding the specifics of Joseph’s death are significant, not because they express hidden guilt (it doesn’t say that), but because they compound the charge against them. Joseph, their brother, was in trouble, crying out for his life, and they committed the sin of ignoring the plight of the needy. That is the worst possible form of guilt. That is why this hidden guilt is coming after them now, they realize. The category of the needy is extremely important in the Bible. Wronging them is particularly problematic, as is ignoring their pleas, a fact that the psalms depend on in their frequent portrayal of the petitioner as one in desperate need with the walls closing in upon them and God, as a God of mercy, as all but obligated to respond. We could rehearse more details of the story and go back and forth with it, no doubt, for quite some days, but, in the end, I find the overall form of our argumentation to be what is more interesting here. Another hallmark of the narrative reading, in addition to an interest in what is unstated, is the juxtaposition of large-scale narratives themselves, the use, for instance, of Genesis 38 to unpack details of later stories that don’t explicitly allude back to it. Did Judah grow? I must say I’m personally enamored of that reading. But I can also see why it makes sense according to contemporary notions of “growth” (which itself is a strikingly modern term) and that there are compelling alternatives that proceed within a different framework of obligation and social relation, namely the one that I suggested Judah actually talks about and which he exists in vis-à-vis his father.

      I’d like to think that we can get to the point where we can recognize the depth of the existing dominant reading, while also recognizing the assumptions that such a reading makes, the ways in which it relies on what is left unstated (innuendo, character development, etc.) and that, if we approach the text with a new openness to its words, we could arrive at an alternative hermeneutic. These moments where we see beneath the current readings, become aware of what they assume and impose, and glimpse alternatives is what I refer to as “cracks in our contemporary presuppositions.” In other words, some readers (I’m not the only one) no longer seem to find the current narrative reading to be compelling because of what the text presents to us. No doubt, this has to do with shifts in contemporary culture. I would argue that we should let the text speak to us in this alternative voice, try to glimpse its alternative approaches to what it means to be human. My book is essentially a collection of such moments, such cracks, where dominant readings around the larger complex of interiority seem to fall somewhat short, where a reader such as myself is surprised when they don’t seem to quite fit. It’s for that reason that I’ve protested strongly against Joel’s characterization of the book as making an absolute claim. It’s quite the opposite; I’m looking for ways in which our contemporary claims about the Bible have started to seem like they fall short. As such, as a methodological point, not a positivist claim, I suggest that we banish the carefree use of such loaded, non-native terms as “repentance,” so that we can understand what we have imposed upon the Bible and whether alternatives are possible. Then we can go back and say that, yes, there are clear points in the Bible that are possible to compare to later conceptions of “repentance.” But we are also now in a position to delineate some areas of difference between the biblical and postbiblical expressions. Chief among them, in my view, is the sustained interest in the interior dimension of repentance in postbiblical texts, the focus on “regret,” as opposed to the more material focus in the biblical texts on the evacuation of all evil/wrongdoing from the midst of the community.

      I will just add a final note about Ezekiel. I agree with Joel that it is perfectly plausible that Ezekiel uttered an oracle in which he told the people that they better clean up their act or punishment awaited. As I establish in my book, it often fell to the prophet or other leadership figures to command the people to remove evil from the midst, so that punishment would not befall them. What I argue against in the book is a more sustained image of the prophet as a preacher of repentance, as well as the idea of prophetic oracles as a form of sermonizing. Instead, I think they are more profitably compared to cultic commands in this regard, and I used the example of a letter from Mari to demonstrate how that works. So, in the case of Ezekiel, it would be a mistake to judge other oracles of his that do not allude to the cessation of sin as actually a form of preaching just because they mention the people’s sin and their impending punishment. Instead, I suggested such passages primarily serve to explain to the people why disaster befalls them. Furthermore, I suggested, that it is clear in some of Ezekiel’s oracles as well as those of Jeremiah that in fact the command to cease from sin was not taken up. That is clear, furthermore, from the larger context of the book. In that event, one must wonder: why include a prophetic oracle commanding cessation of sin when it is already established that they people did not respond? I think the answer here is clear: it further establishes their guilt. They were warned and still did not cease from sin. So to conclude, I believe that we have imposed upon the prophets, on the basis of a few passages, a broader image of them as preachers of repentance that actually derives from much later models of sermonizing. Did they command cessation of sin and its removal? Yes, clearly at times. (Think of Moses’ destruction of the Golden Calf, for instance.) But that was part of a much broader series of functions that can be obscured by our concern to define the Bible as a penitential, moral text.

Susanne Scholz

Response

No Repentance of the Quest for Original Biblical Meaning

Epistemological and Methodological Considerations of David Lambert’s How Repentance Became Biblical

This book pursues an utterly modern project. In fact, the author, David Lambert who is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, aims his study to be more rigorously historical than traditional historical critical approaches to the Bible. He wants to historicize “not just the Bible but also its readers” (189). Importantly, Lambert believes that his book participates in the paradigm shift currently taking place in biblical studies. Wanting to take seriously the role of readers, Lambert asserts that his work aims “to develop further our understanding of the composition and its readers by examining what overall interpretive tendencies lie behind their renderings” (3). His test case is the concept of repentance. Yet ultimately Lambert, claiming to foreground “the prejudgments of readers” (3) and developing an “alternative mode of reading” (189), privileges “the [biblical] texts themselves” (189). He seeks to uncover the original biblical meanings, excavating and freeing them from centuries of readerly biases and projections of what biblical texts really meant by what we call repentance today. Lambert thus digs through a morass of the interpretation history. He tells us that, in the end, all of these interpretations import “certain categories—interiority, agency, moral transformation, pedagogy” into biblical texts that originally viewed repentance very differently. What could be a more modern project than that?

In his study Lambert distinguishes adamantly between the “original” biblical meaning and the postbiblical interiorized, individualized, and religious concept of repentance. He examines diligently and extensively how the readerly imports into the Bible have naturalized, essentialized, and totalized Jewish and Christian notions of repentance over the past two millennia. In fact, according to Lambert, the postbiblical imposition that developed in the formative years of Judaism and Christianity during the Hellenistic era still shape contemporary understanding of repentance. Elaborating on the difference between the postbiblical and biblical constructs, Lambert states:

What emerges is repentance as a sort of “spiritual exercise” or “technology of the self.” It utilizes the resources of the self to operate upon the self, all the while developing what that very notion of “self” is. “Cessation of sin,” on the other hand, is not an act of any such self. It operates in a different environment with a different set of presuppositions. One could label “cessation of sin” as a biblical conception of or precursor to repentance.” (154)

Thus the biblical notion of repentance, so Lambert, is best characterized as “cessation of sin” whereas the postbiblical view is oriented toward the inner and emotional level of the individual. Accordingly, the postbiblical view characterizes repentance as “an act, a discrete event,” “a mental act,” “a retrospective mental act,” “an emotion of sorrow” that requires “the existence of an agent” and emphasizes “autonomy”; it also assumes “as its object a specific sin or series of sins,” and it accepts “that the righteous . . . can repent of their infractions” (154; emphasis in the original). Such complicated ideas about interiority, individuality, and religiosity are thoroughly absent in the original biblical meaning. For Lambert, such readings are later projections onto biblical texts. The book’s seven chapters detail the genealogy of repentance with an emphasis on the biblical and immediate postbiblical literatures because, according to Lambert, the Hellenistic era serves as the origin for ideas regarding repentance still prevalent today.

Yet ultimately, Lambert’s goal is much bigger than recovering the original biblical meaning of repentance. He wants to show that biblical readings are always already anchored in Western notions about religion, valuable insight. Comprised of the concepts of rites, language, and pedagogy, religion needs the Bible as its foundation; at least, this is how Lambert, relying on various historians of religion, argues for his genealogy of repentance. Lambert organizes parts 1 and 2 of his book accordingly, explaining: “These [i.e., rites, language, and pedagogy] become not just ways of representing Scripture and its contents; they serve more broadly as components, as it will be recognized, of our very notion of religion” (121). The book’s third part is entitled “Religion,” in which Lambert explains how repentance became part of a naturalized, individualistic, and totalizing discourse in Judaism and Christianity. In his view, repentance had to turn into a universal discourse, independent of particular power relations, for it to become part of Jewish and Christian vocabulary. The exposure of this hermeneutical dynamic is the task for historians, Lambert asserts. Without a doubt this is a modern agenda.

So what makes his project so seductive to contemporary religion scholars that it receives the 2016 AAR Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Textual Studies? I would like to suggest three possible reasons. First, Lambert’s book leaves intact not only the dominant conviction in biblical studies that considers the historical quest as the most valid project, but it also locates this quest within the US-American scholarly project of a particular branch in religious studies. This project is divorced from its origins in Christian theological discourse and defines the task of religious studies as exclusively historical and rooted within modern epistemological assumptions. It rejects entanglement with any religious tradition and defines the scholarly task as being objective, universal, and value-free. The intriguing twist is that Lambert wants to open up the academic study of ancient texts, i.e., biblical studies, to the analysis of readers as an integral part of the academic study of the Bible’s history. This is an irresistible offer for those religious studies scholars who dismiss much of biblical studies as a theologically normative, politically situated, and thus academically unsound endeavor. For these scholars, Lambert provides an alluring approach. He adheres to modern epistemological principles of a religious studies paradigm that dismisses normative claims and political convictions as subjective, biased, and non-scholarly while offering a path out of those readerly oriented studies that challenge the modern rigors of scientifically defined knowledge. Thus, predictably, Lambert’s book maintains the academic air of descriptive neutrality. It aims to explain what the ancient texts meant originally and how various early Hellenistic interpreters projected non-original ideas back into the Bible that are still taken for granted today. To Lambert, the notion of “penitential selves” is a Hellenistic invention and the postbiblical concept of repentance is based on “collective nonsense” (191). In short, the historical impetus of Lambert’s project places the task of biblical interpretation within the field of religious studies so that biblical studies becomes part and parcel of a particular understanding of religious studies.

Second, another possible reason that makes Lambert’s project so appealing to contemporary religious studies scholars might have to do with the very topic of the book, repentance. It is a safe topic that stands in sharp contrast to the many contemporary issues of our era, such as religious fundamentalism, the refugee and immigration crisis, the endless wars and the ongoing militarization today, poverty, mass incarceration, capital punishment, sexual violence, or ecological devastation. Repentance seems removed from the daily barrage of violence in the world, even though Lambert recognizes that here and there some figures in U.S. popular culture and politics perform public acts of repentance (2). Repentance is just not such a big deal anymore, as it apparently once was according to Lambert’s study. The topic seems safe and yes, private, individualized, and pious. In addition, an academic investigation of a safe topic that distances meaning into the past does not threaten anybody, especially not when the author declares two thousand years of interpretation history as a projection onto the Bible. I think we can live with that reprimand, but would this also be the case for more challenging topics such as rape? Would we also nod in agreement that two thousand years of reading rape into the Bible was “collective nonsense” (191)?

Third, yet another possible reason for the popularity of Lambert’s book might derive from the study’s comprehensiveness. Covering a lot of ground, it includes not only Hebrew Bible texts but also the New Testament, Deuterocanonical works, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, the Mishnah, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmudim, midrashim, early Christian church literature, and Greek and Roman literature. In fact, one could argue that Lambert limits the interpretation history to “readers” of that era’s literatures. Only indirectly and usually not by name does Lambert mention more recent readers and scholars. Their names appear mostly in the footnotes, if at all, and perhaps the reluctance to directly engage scholarly readers is a strategic decision that aims to alienate no one.

The study’s comprehensiveness makes for a traditional reading experience. For instance, the discussions on shuv begin with a linguistic explanation (73–75) followed by summarizing descriptions of the eighth-century prophetic biblical literature (Amos, Hosea Isaiah). They are followed by considerations on shuv in Jeremiah during the late seventh and early sixth centuries and “late biblical texts” (85) that include Jonah, Nehemiah, and Ezekiel. Lambert covers a lot of textual ground to propose that

in the oracles of Jeremiah, there does appear to be a change. Now, the turn to the deity for support is seen along abstract lines as an overall change in state, a resumption of a prior relationship. Most striking is the change of formulation in exilic and postexilic texts, from the positive “turn to YHWH” to the negative “turn away from sin.” This alteration moves shuv away from its anthropomorphic basis in appeal to a focus on cessation of sin, properly part of the justice track. In so doing, however, it should not be seen as effecting a revolution in thought, but as part of a systematization of an existing paradigm. This notion of “cessation of sin” still differs significantly from the later notion of “repentance,” . . . particularly for its lack of interiority and its denotation of an overall change in state rather than the act of an agent. (88–89)

Source after source illustrates to Lambert that repentance became part of the still ongoing “collective nonsense.” He even references “John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul” (143) as examples for the scholarly tendency to “read repentance into biblical and, as it turns out, postbiblical texts” (149). Lambert charges that “New Testament scholarship has sometimes failed” (150) to distinguish between the various levels of discourse on repentance, importing notions about agency, individual genius, or particular religious movements into biblical literature, including Pauline letters and the Gospels. Lambert makes these claims without specific examples from the contemporary scholarly literature, except to mention obvious failures such as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (181). Traditional biblical scholarly chronologies of texts structure most of the book’s chapters that are dominated by content summaries of the ancient literatures under consideration. In these summarizing descriptions Lambert refrains from a systematic, detailed, or comprehensive analysis of readerly approaches to these literatures.

In sum, Lambert’s book offers a very modern study of a comprehensive list of biblical, extrabiblical, rabbinic, and early Christian literatures on the topic of repentance. The volume promises to “participate in a broader paradigm shift” (189) taking place in biblical studies. But under closer scrutiny it fails to engage voices outside the biblical and immediate postbiblical eras. Lambert’s study of readerly approaches is thus limited to early Jewish and Christian interpretations, and a systematic analysis of scholarly readings on the topic is lacking. Consequently, the analysis of the Bible is again reduced to historical positivism while issues of power, hermeneutics, and social location are sidelined. Generalizing references to Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, or Jonathan Z. Smith do not change this serious limitation of the book.

  • David Lambert

    David Lambert

    Reply

    Response to Susanne Scholz

    Susanne Scholz engages none of the specific points in How Repentance Became Biblical, but she does our collective endeavor to reflect on the book a service by raising broader questions of not just methodology but of the place and definition of biblical studies. As these issues of disciplinarity very much animate the book and, in particular, its introductory chapter, I welcome the opportunity to discuss them further. At stake is the fundamental question of how we are to proceed in biblical studies in a time in which we have come to recognize some of the problematic aspects of the modernity in which much of biblical criticism has been bound up. I find her comments to be both profound and well written, though, as we shall see, we have very different responses to the place of the modern in the postmodern.

    “The Historical Quest”

    Susanne operates with a clearly negative view of the tradition of biblical studies as pursued in the United States and Europe. What is wrong with the historical critical enterprise? “This project,” i.e., “the historical quest” that is biblical criticism, “is divorced from its origins in Christian theological discourse.” Furthermore, it “defines the scholarly task as being objective, universal, and value-free.”

    Now, I suspect I find myself a bit closer to Susanne in certain respects in our assessment of historical criticism than many people in the field of biblical studies, but I do think that a few words in favor of biblical criticism are in order just to put things into perspective. To begin with, biblical criticism has produced incredible and fascinating insights into the text and world of the Hebrew Bible. Whatever its effects or limitations, it is safe to say that it has stoked our imaginations and given us novel, creative discoveries. In that sense, it is not so very different from a field such as, say, modern-day physics. Here too, we have an absolute explosion of knowledge since the Enlightenment that has produced amazing discoveries but also generated some of our most disturbing present-day realities, such as the production and deployment of nuclear weaponry. Furthermore, the study of physics and other “hard” sciences have helped to generate, at times, a one-sided dominant narrative through their claims of objectivity and totality that can make continued adherence to religious tradition seemingly outdated and incoherent. That said, it seems hard to imagine a postmodernism, even one aware of the limits of modern-day science and its own historicity, that should want to turn back the clocks and operate completely without it, as if that would even be a possibility.

    Furthermore, modern-day biblical studies has enabled people like me, by which I mean, Jews, to participate in the field. It’s actually an extraordinary accomplishment of this “objective, universal, and value-free” endeavor that is “divorced from its origins in Christian theological discourse” that it has given us a mode of talking about the Bible that holds out the prospect, at least, of inclusivity. My ancestors used to discuss the Bible with their Christian counterparts as part of medieval disputations, with the fate of their entire community in the balance. But now, Jews attend the Society of Biblical Literature and openly discuss matters (such as some of the Christian bias that remains in biblical studies, a chief concern of my own volume) without fear of retribution, even while many of the jobs in the field remain closed off to us because we lack a Christian affiliation. Of course, this is not only about Jews versus Christians, but most Christian denominations as well would hardly be able to talk with one another if they took their own faith claims and authoritative interpretations seriously without the platform that, historically, was provided by the “objective, universal, and value-free” endeavor of biblical criticism. Indeed, I marvel every year as two hundred forty undergraduates shuffle into my Introduction to Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Literature course and are able to engage in respectful shared discourse around the Bible based on an interest in its historical, ancient Israelite contexts as well as the history of its later interpretive frameworks.

    Finally, what modern biblical criticism has generated, again, despite its difficulties which I will consider below, is a space for critique, a possibility to differ from dominant narratives, precisely the space that is now occupied by so many strands of biblical studies that stand against both modern biblical criticism but also strictly traditional forms of interpretation.

    On the Possibility of Freedom

    If modern biblical criticism has failed it is because it has reproduced some of the prejudgments of traditional readers, e.g., supersessionist tendencies, while laying claim to being an “objective, universal, and value-free” endeavor. The possibility of such an endeavor, it is now clear, is a chimera. Even more importantly, it ultimately produces results that are of interest to no one, a field of biblical meaning that doesn’t accord with the very modes of meaning making employed by those communities of Jews and Christians who have made this collection of ancient Israelite texts the Bible. Certainly, Susanne’s depiction of my motivations as an attempt to “free” the biblical text and “uncover original biblical meanings” are so far from what I associate with my own motivations that I wonder at the nature of the hermeneutic with which she was reading my text.

    Years ago, I had a chance to envision myself in the terms with which Susanne describes my work, but it rang hallow. At the time, I was a graduate student at Harvard and had just finished a deceptively straightforward seminar paper with the title “Was Fasting a Penitential Act in the Hebrew Bible?” In it, I surveyed the biblical material where I discovered something surprising. Despite the longstanding association between fasting and penitence in Judaism and Christianity (whether as an expression of contrition, e.g., Yom Kippur, or as an atoning act, e.g., sacrament of penance), fasting didn’t really seem to go together with repentance in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it appeared consistently alongside forms of appeal. In short, it seemed to be a way of manifesting distress so as to attract the attention and sympathy of the deity. What happened next threw me into a tailspin. My professor said he liked the paper, that I should publish it, and that he would take me on as his advisee.

    The problem was that, while I recognized I had moved biblical studies forward through my series of observations, I failed to grasp why it mattered. I had “freed” the biblical text from “years of prejudice” but so what? What of value was left in this restored Bible when we are done mourning our slain prejudices, for the penitential reading (at least at first) certainly seems grander? That we should dance around in sackcloth and fast when we are in distress so as to get the deity (or our advisor’s) attention? That the ancient Israelites did? No, if this was success, it was not enough. I started exploring other career options.

    But I also started to read. I looked for volumes that sought to put critical history to some use for the purposes of the present: Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, but, in particular, lots of Nietzsche and Foucault. Indeed, Nietzsche’s “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life” seemed to be a way of playing out my exact concerns and with the “critical” mode, history as an untimely meditation on the present, it seemed to point toward a way out of my difficulty.

    What was of real interest in my account of fasting was not the rejection of prejudice, the prejudgments of readers, but their very study. What went into a penitential reading of fasting and, for that matter, the Bible as a whole—a series of interpretive strategies that I came to label the “penitential lens?” What view of the human, society, and religion did such readings both reflect and bring forth? As I write in the introduction to my book, “In this account, the Bible makes its contribution to humanistic inquiry as the West’s most definitive interpretive object, a chaotic mass, whose current form stands to reveal much about those who, by taking it in their hands, have given it shape.” Is the attempt to understand the non-inevitability of present presumption thoroughly “modern?” Perhaps, but if so the task seems so crucial that I would be ready to shoulder that charge. After all, I’m hardly one to believe that we can escape the frameworks that produce us.

    As I state in my introduction, I do not believe that my readings of the biblical text are genuine “retrievals,” but are rather alternatives to dominant readings that cracks in present presuppositions allow us to glimpse. In fact, what unfolds over the pages of my book is ultimately a contest of contemporary values. Do we want to continue the project of imagining the divine as a benevolent pedagogue or to recognize the very real discourse of power that runs throughout prophetic literature? Should we continue to deny the centrality of body and material forms of affliction by continuing our dualistic readings of ritual as outward expressions of inner emotions, or should we give voice to accounts of our beings that allow for more profound portrayals of the body and the potential of its transformation to define our beings? Do we want to see confession as a drama surrounding the interiority of the victimizer, a view that allows for a maintenance of current power relations, or to recognize it as an act of submission whereby the victimizer subjects themselves to the victim, “I have sinned against you,” allowing the victim to impose some form of restitution. Is this a “safe” project as Susanne suggests? Overturning tens if not hundreds of our conventional readings of the Bible certainly didn’t feel safe as I was developing my insights, nor did countering dominant notions of the self that are deeply engrained with contemporary senses of morality or piety. I think reactions to both of those aspects of my work are reflected in readers’ responses to this symposium. More to the point, I think there are specific interventions in contemporary politics and ethics that can be made my mining my research for alternative conceptualizations of matters such as sin and forgiveness. I have only begun to embark on that project but an initial example can be seen in my opinion piece for Religion Dispatches (http://religiondispatches.org/repent-trump-the-problem-with-apology/), where I specifically take on the role apology has played in the current presidential campaign, arguing that apology can ultimately become the tool of enabling the privileged who abuse their power to develop a narrative whereby that power is maintained. I contrast the present preoccupation with apology with the sort of the model of the actual substantive diminishment of the person that I believe can be found in the biblical texts.

    Clearly historical criticism has significance as a sort of language game that we can play with ancient texts, a game that allows us to have glimpses of alterity, genuine differences that we can use to critique ourselves in a manner that has not yet been done by biblical scholars who have otherwise turned to the Bible as a source of values. Can the Bible be both a source of our values and at the same a critique of them? That suggestion does not sound to me like a modern proposition. Should postmodernism be an utter abandonment of all modernism in a vast re-embrace of Christian theology? Or can it allow for an embrace of the Bible in its totality, allowing for both affirmation and critique?

    Two Further Clarifications

    My reference to a “paradigm shift currently taking place in biblical studies” with the increased focus on historical readers refers, as noted in the footnotes, to the work of extremely productive scholars such as Michael Fishbane and James Kugel, who have helped open up biblical studies to the study of the history of interpretation, as well as the field of late Second Temple Judaism.

    My reference to “collective nonsense” in the postscript of my work should not be taken out of context as a negative judgment of how readers have read the Bible. Instead, I’m paying homage there to Judith Butler’s notion of “pastiche.” In the same way that drag, in Butler’s argument in Gender Trouble, parodies the essentialist view of gender through showing the potential variability of its boundaries, so too the process that I engage in the book of parading before us various reading moments in light of the “penitential lens” as not inevitable, natural, and inherent is aimed at revealing the potential for thinking through alternative notions of self through our biblical readings.

Reed Carlson

Response

To Renew a Right Spirit Within

In this fine book, Lambert draws critical attention to the category of repentance, a prevalent interpretive framework supporting a great deal of contemporary interpretation of biblical texts. For scholars, recognizing conceptions of repentance in biblical literature can serve as a means to determining literary development and/or provide a helpful anchor for understanding other, supposedly more cryptic aspects of these texts. For contemporary communities of faith, the idea of repentance is often a mode of familiarizing biblical figures and communities: Though the patriarchs and disciples lived long ago and in an ancient fashion, a shared religious experience, repentance, is a tantalizingly familiar and poignant phenomenon to share, not just with ancient predecessors but also potentially across religious traditions. Despite these useful functions (or perhaps because of them), Lambert questions repentance’s prominent place in the Bible’s interpretive tradition, ultimately arguing that the category be best understood as an imposition on the ancient texts by latter readers who utilize what Lambert terms the “penitential lens” (to be discussed in greater details below).

The following review proceeds in two parts: First, I begin a brief summary of the book’s major arguments, highlighting those points I perceive to be most significant and/or controversial. Second, I critique one aspect of Lambert’s claim for the dramatic discontinuity between latter religions (Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity) and earlier traditions in regards to repentance. Specifically, I investigate his case against a notion of the inner “self” in biblical texts and Second Temple Judaism, a pervasive critique in the book, which does not reach full expression until the postscript.

Refracting the Penitential Lens

In terms of breadth and scope, How Repentance Became Biblical is to be praised for how fluidly (but not sloppily) it moves between bodies of literature and eras, in tracing an idea that is neither entirely unified nor presumed to be inherently unique. In this regard, Lambert self-consciously positions himself in a tradition of recent scholars (his examples: Klawans, Anderson, Levenson, Hayes, and Rosen-Zvi) who focus on long-term trends across multiple subfields. This approach allows Lambert to touch on a variety of literature, from Aqhat to the Community Rule to Tertullian. While his treatment of New Testament and early Christian texts is relatively thin compared to his discussion of rabbinic literature, his strategy is successful in drawing comparisons that will prove interesting and provocative for those working in both traditions.

A brief but crucial introduction prepares readers for Lambert’s strategy. Methodologically, Lambert draws heavily from figures outside of biblical studies like Foucault, Gadamer, and Geertz and he presents only the fruits of his theoretical work in the main text, burying his roots in the endnotes. While some may desire more prolonged discussion along these lines the result is a very readable text accessible to an audience who is educated but nonspecialized in the study of religion more broadly.

Much of Lambert’s work in this book is refracting or redirecting the “penitential lens” with which so many scholars have been trained to read the Bible. We utilize the “penitential lens” when we read biblical texts and import notions of: (1) interiority, the idea that human activity is merely representative of more important inward phenomena; (2) agency, that individual free choice dictates behavior; (3) moral transformation, that biblical accounts of admonishment/punishment/remorse occur to illicit personal moral transformation; and (4) pedagogy, that the chief aim of these texts is to improve persons—those in the story, latter readers, or both.

Moving between phenomena usually on a text-by-text basis, Lambert offers examples of modern and premodern misreading that utilize one or more of the above aspects. Fasting and prayers of appeal, for example, were not originally penitential acts but means of prematurely deploring the self so as to elicit sympathy from the deity. Thus they functioned independently of the subject’s supposed interiority. Similarly, the articulation of sin was less a confession designed to initiate moral transformation and more a realization of the speaker’s state of liability towards the hearer. An extended philological discussion of the Hebrew verb šûḇ (often translated as “repent” and perceived to be “preached” by biblical prophets with pedagogical intent) is best understood in its earliest usage as a “turning” towards appropriate sources of power and away from rebellious, sinful behavior. Lambert also criticizes both those who would see in the preexilic prophets preachers of repentance and those who would prefer social reformers. Instead, building on Westermann’s portrait of the prophets as “messengers,” Lambert emphasizes the role that the prophets played as articulators and instigators of the conflict between God and Israel.

Overall, Lambert presents a compelling case that episodes in the Bible commonly associated with repentance are a great deal more complicated than many modern readers recognize. They are often grounded in different assumptions about human nature and the relationship of gods to mortals, as well as devoid of any modern notions of individuality. In this, Lambert offers an important corrective, particularly for those who overstate the Bible’s interpretive unity, either at a supposed origin or in its development.

The “Self” in Early Judaism

A significant component of Lambert’s thesis is emphasizing the severity of the transformation that took place with the advent of Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity in regards to repentance. The final two chapters of How Repentance Became Biblical focus on Second Temple Judaism, and Rabbinic Judaism / Early Christianity respectively. The former is characterized as a period when non-penitential theologies still persisted. It was only in select Hellenistic Jewish works that emphasize individual piety (e.g., Ben Sira, Tobit, Judith) where repentance begins to emerge. Thus, Lambert fosters a sense of overall discontinuity between the latter religious traditions and the texts of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism. (In regards to Christianity, the division is apparent even within the New Testament, most prominently between the historical Jesus and the latter redactors of the Gospels).

Lambert outlines two primary forces that drove this dramatic transformation. First, there is the tampering of Greek thought. In an exploration of the word metanoia in contemporary sources (155–60), Lambert sketches a network of Greek understandings of repentance that were eventually incorporated into interpretation of biblical tradition including the notion that internal anguish can create positive change in individual behavior. Throughout his discussion, Lambert is resistant to characterizing any Judeo-Christian notion of repentance as a joint semitic/hellenistic project. Thus, for example, a “vision of rabbinic judaism” utilizing the concept of tᵉšûḇâ in one regard is

in truth, a kind of Hellenistic movement, a religion born of a period of thorough Greek and Roman political and cultural control, not borrowing selectively from a supposed Greek background but simply prioritizing a concept that happens to originate in Hellenistic moral philosophy. (178)

Lambert’s appraisal of Early Christianity defers similarly to Greek influence. For instance he calls the “pedagogical” posture of Luke-Acts “ultimately” a “Hellenistic framework” (184).

The second cause for the penitential innovation brought on by Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity is political expediency. The notion of individual repentance was a helpful category for the rapidly institutionalizing religions in late antiquity, religions that nevertheless, still lacked political clout:

What “repentance” does, is to instill a mode of internal discipline and initiation that allows for identification with growing religious communities without reliance on the presence of external force. Practitioners govern themselves from within themselves. (187)

This political interest is exemplified in latter Jewish and Christian drifts away from apocalypticism, which, Lambert argues, puts emphasis on God’s recreation of human nature rather than on repentance (185).

Is this divide between Rabbinic Judaism / Early Christianity and earlier forms of Judaism as dramatic as Lambert makes it out to be? I would like to explore this issue by investigating briefly one aspect of the innovation that Lambert highlights: the concept of the “self” in Early Judaism.

Carol Newsom has done some research into this issue, including an essay in a forthcoming collection. Newsom criticizes genealogical schemes for the development of the Western notion of the self that trace its origins only from Greco-Roman sources without also acknowledging the influence of Second Temple Judaism. Newsom argues that postexilic Judaism did indeed see notions of the self develop—in large part because of the experience of exile. These ideas likely started around questions of moral agency (a stance that Lambert critiques, see ch. 6, specifically p. 140). Newsom points to certain texts of the Second Temple Period wherein aspects of the self become objectified in new ways. Often, these aspects are problematized and othered, thus creating a sense of “self-alienation.” Resolution is found only in the rejection and/or transformation of these problematic aspects of the self—a kind of hardware upgrade. In Early Judaism, these upgrades are accomplished almost always through God’s impetus.

Utilizing Newsom’s concept of problematizing aspects of the self, we can see this phenomenon beginning already in the Hebrew Bible, in particular Deut 30:6; Jer 24:7; 31:31–34, and Ezek 36:26–27. Another important example is Psalm 51, wherein the psalmist problematizes his own heart/mind beyond repair, entreating God to “create” (bᵉrāʾ) a pure one to replace it (v. 8a). In parallel, the psalmist also requests that God renew a steadfast spirit within (v. 8b). Lambert reads Psalm 51 as another example of a plea for help, wherein the psalmist’s confession of sin functions not to divulge a posture of penitential regret but to maximize his own suffering in the eyes of God (39). But this does not do justice to what I read as a genuine sense of the self in Psalm 51—beyond the mere identification of an inner desperation that might cry out to God (see, e.g., Ps 42:2). Rather, in Psalm 51, there is something genuinely wrong within that results in sin without.

When searching for native language for notions of the self in biblical and parabiblical literature, “spirit” occurs to me as a potential candidate. Returning to Psalm 51, we may ask who, whose, or what is the “willing spirit” rûaḥ nᵉdîḇâ in v. 14 that the psalmist prays will sustain him? As Anja Klein argues in a compelling essay, the “willing spirit” in Psalm 51 alludes to the voluntary offering (e.g., Exod 35:5), suggesting that the psalmist desires a voluntary spiritual disposition that is pleasing to God. Klein then traces a relationship leading from Jeremiah 31, to Ezekiel 36, and to Psalm 51, ultimately showing how exegesis of this literary tradition contributed to the self-understanding of the communities behind 1QS. The participial use of the same root for “willing” as a self-descriptor in the Community Rule portrays a community that conceives of its members as voluntary sacrifices to God. Returning now to Lambert’s thesis in light of Klein’s essay, I would argue that the repeated use of “spirit” in the Community Rule functions as the interior location where such aspects of the self can take hold, whether the spirit be “willing,” “holy,” “upright,” “wicked,” or otherwise. The possibility that such a spirit within could be a foreign element does not disavow a notion of the self in ancient Judaism, but only reiterates how this notion of the self is different from our own.

Speaking more broadly than just the Community Rule, I believe that a fuller investigation of “spirit” language and “spirit possession” phenomena in Second Temple texts and communities might reveal a much more nuanced and complicated notion of the self than Lambert allows. How Repentance Became Biblical comes close to these issues at various points (see, e.g., 124–26; 130–32) but its self-restraint in attempting to discern any kind of inner state behind these ancient texts (190) always prohibits further investigation.

Overall, How Repentance Became Biblical is an impressive, erudite discussion of a complex and varied issue across multiple eras and literatures that I have already highly recommended to friends and colleagues. If Lambert at times overstates his thesis, it is only because a corrective was due and a better informed discussion of repentance and its prominence in biblical interpretation can now take place.

  • David Lambert

    David Lambert

    Reply

    Response to Reed Carlson

    I want to thank Reed Carlson for his careful engagement with my book. I would like to offer several points of clarification before taking up his important query regarding the nature of the self in late biblical and Second Temple Judaism.

    On “Misreading”

    Reed uses a variety of terms to describe the “penitential lens,” the tendency of interpreters of the Bible to import categories of interiority and agency bound up in the concept of “repentance,” normative within Judaism and Christianity, in their reading of the Hebrew Bible, that I do not use: “misreading,” “imposition,” and “tampering of Greek thought.” The choice, on my part, is deliberate and, I believe, important to understand. I speak of the tendency to read repentance into the Bible as an interpretive “lens” rather than as a mistake. It has its own legitimacy, based on how the Bible has been configured by (literally) millennia of Jewish and Christian communities. Furthermore, it is coherent and produces readings that are profound and, for many, compelling. It is also largely inescapable, as I think some of Reed’s own comments, discussed below, will reveal. Finally, to declare the “penitential lens” a “misreading” is to deny that all readings, even those that would challenge this particular dominant mode of hermeneutics, are themselves the product of what Gadamer would refer to as the interpreter’s own horizon.

    On the Use of Theory

    I also want to take up a very brief comment of Reed’s, because I think it has significant implications for how we envision the field of biblical studies and, in particular, its relationship to theory: “He [i.e., Lambert] presents only the fruits of his theoretical work in the main text, burying his roots in the endnotes.” The image, of course, only works so well. I have “fruits,” I have “roots,” but where is the tree? That points though to a larger problem with the place of theory in the field. We see theory as a beginning point. It is supposed to ground you methodologically and determine the interpretive framework with which you will proceed. However, I don’t think this is the way reading works, at least, not good reading. Reading, rather like ethnography, is an encounter. It is an encounter in which all sorts of things can occur, based on an individual’s training, background, and assumptions, as well as the contours of the text itself. It is scarcely an encounter that we can or should control. It’s an encounter that gets interesting precisely when it produces insights, realizations, or intuitions that differ from what others before us have seen. It’s at that point that it comes to be important to explain why. Why have I as reader seen this text differently than others? What defines their hermeneutics and what defines mine? Can I relate my observations to other sorts of developments and insights transpiring elsewhere within the humanities today to understand what lies behind my own reading predilections? I, therefore, see theory more as “fruit” than “root.” It’s the moment where we look at what we have done, what we have seen, and formulate our insights in a manner that takes them beyond the immediate stage of the text that we have been examining to engage the points of connection with the encounters of others.

    On the Self

    I should lay down my cards right away. I believe that all ideas are the product of their own time and place. They are part of the discursive possibilities of the present. They are not an essence that travels through times as such. When people relate to previous texts, they may take certain language with them, but they are reconstituting it for the purposes and needs of their present. I am therefore not sure what it would mean to call “repentance” a “joint semitic/Hellenistic project.” Such a label, it would seem to me, does more for our own sense of belonging as contemporary interpreters than speak to the historical origins of a concept that we might call “repentance.” Clearly, there is an extensive and significant discourse around “repentance” in both early Christianity and Judaism. In many of its particulars, that relates to what must have been an equally vibrant discourse around “repentance” in Greek moral philosophy, traces of which are clearly present in Philo, Plutarch, and a variety of other Hellenistic sources. Within Judaism and Christianity that discourse around “repentance” makes claims for itself by maintaining that “repentance” can be found, in fact, already in the Bible and adducing biblical language in support of a biblical origin for the concept. That is part of the naturalization of the concept as a part of Judaism and Christianity.

    In a sense, Reed and, perhaps, Carol Newsom, though the article he refers to is not published so I haven’t seen it, are engaged in a similar endeavor, trying to make a case for the biblical origins of this concept. I’m skeptical of that endeavor because I see it as part of an overall trajectory of trying to ground concepts and their validity through recourse to the Bible and because I find specific differences between the way the discourse of “repentance” situates itself in the postbiblical period and between the sort of language that it claims for itself from the Bible. What we have, I think, is a new form of discourse that is engaged starting in the late Second Temple period within the broader context of Hellenistic culture, where key features are shared among Greek “pagans,” Christians, and Jews. For this discussion, I also believe that my comments in response to Jeffrey Stackert’s review with regard to continuity and discontinuity are relevant.

    Before spelling this out further in the context of Reed’s argument about the nature of the self in the late biblical material, it seems necessary to point out that, while doing a great job of summarizing and engaging much of my book, Reed does not seem to have engaged the chapter that is most relevant to his interests, namely, chapter 6, “Agency and Redemption.” There is, first of all, his statement that “his treatment of New Testament and early Christian texts is relatively thin compared to his discussion of rabbinic literature.” My discussion of early Christianity spans two chapters, chapter 6 and chapter 7. By my count, I published fourteen pages on the New Testament and early Christianity and only ten on rabbinic literature. In any event, the problem becomes more paramount in his subsequent discussion of the self, where he adduces evidence for a self that is front and center after exile, “aspects of the self become objectified in new ways,” a self that requires a “hardware upgrade,” and notes that “in early Judaism, these upgrades are accomplished almost always through God’s impetus.” Well, this is precisely the point of chapter 6. Yes, we have the emergence of an interest around the self, that I never deny, but it is an interest that looks at the self as an object requiring divine intervention or what I label divine re-creation. My claim in that chapter is that scholars have failed to recognize what Reed properly recognizes, namely, that the agent of change in these scenarios is almost invariably God. By describing these transformations with the concept of “repentance,” they consistently impute a degree of agency to the texts that doesn’t seem to be there. So I think we’re quite in agreement on the matter of agency.

    That also brings front and center what might be another source of confusion. As I mentioned, I never deny the presence of a vibrant sense of self in the Bible. Rather, I question whether it can be properly comprehended according to the modern dualism of mind and body with its peculiar privileging of interiority. Is such a privileging present in the biblical material, even the late biblical material? Indeed, sometimes Reed seems to conflate a sense of self with interiority, assuming that one must entail the other, which is precisely the assumption that I’m trying to free us from through the idea of the “penitential lens.” Reed’s case revolves around Psalm 51, the locus classicus for such claims. Interestingly enough, his claim also revolves around the phrase the “willing spirit,” which is based on the Hebrew root, נדב. What’s unusual about that choice is that I specifically engage that verb and its use, particularly at Qumran, and understand it as a way of indicating an inherent compulsion, as opposed to an outside external force, but not necessarily an actual concept of “freewill” (135). My understanding has been recently upheld by the eminent Hebraist Menahem Kister in a recent article of his. The point of Ps 51:14 would seem to be that the psalmist is asking to be made into the sort of being (“self”) that readily and easily does God’s will. Surely, this is an important and vital sense of self that is exhibited in this late psalm, but it’s not clear to me why categories of interiority help us in rendering its sense.

    In fact, I applaud Reed’s suggestion that a broader study must be done on “spirit” language and “spirit possession,” which I hope indeed is something he’s considering, but I must object that it is likely to turn up a “much more nuanced and complicated notion of the self than Lambert allows.” What my study is meant to do is to free further study from the constraint the overwhelmingly dominant language of interiority and the dualism that attends it has imposed upon us. So, often, in contemporary Judeo-Christian discourse, the focus on interiority is simply assumed to be the “more nuanced and complicated notion,” because it is considered to be essential and inherent to the particular form that a life of piety has taken within those traditions. But actually, once you recognize with me the existence of the “penitential lens,” now the exciting work begins of being able to rethink the self in new ways by engaging in an encounter with this rich collection of ancient texts. The claim that I make is that we tend to impose interiority, that “interiority” is a modern category, and that we ought to search for new language, modifications, or better yet, new formulations, to give voice to the complex and multifaceted sense of such a term as “spirit” (רוח). I would encourage Reed to look for such vibrant formulations of the “self” without presupposing that they must be located “inside” to be meaningful and profound. Again, the claim is not that there is no interiority in the Bible, but that we have a committed hermeneutic whereby we find it there. As for the Bible itself, it may speak in a different language altogether, one which we might continue to comprehend with the rubric of interiority, but, ultimately, one that does not seem to lend itself to this sort of dichotomous thinking when we allow it to speak to us anew.

Jeffrey Stackert

Response

Repentance and Religion: Then and Now

 

David Lambert’s new book, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture, is an ambitious book, and in several ways: it works across several areas of study that are oftentimes treated apart from each other in the academy (Hebrew Bible, ancient Judaism, New Testament and early Christianity); it seeks to offer an argument that is thoroughly situated not only textually but theoretically; and it attempts to be accessible to a broad audience (as evidenced, for example, in its consistent translation of non-English text and use of only the Latin alphabet). With each of these features, How Repentance Became Biblical stands as a challenge to longstanding scholarly trends toward hyperspecialization, atomization, and inaccessibility. It is perhaps no wonder that Lambert finds himself in a department of Religious Studies, where such interdisciplinarity is (presumably) prized; his work is a model of accessible sophistication and has obvious appeal to those working in the various subfields he addresses. In terms of evaluation, I needn’t hold my cards close: I think How Repentance Became Biblical is a very smart book that makes an impressive contribution. Moreover, even when I have found myself in disagreement with Lambert, he has pushed me to think about topics he addresses in new ways. I could hardly ask for more.

In my comments here I will focus on two issues. I will first discuss Lambert’s arguments in relation to the biblical book of Lamentations. I will then turn to the relevance of Lambert’s study for thinking about the continuity or lack thereof between ancient Israelite religion and Judaism. The Lamentations discussion will draw especially on the first part of Lambert’s book (chs. 1–3), while the discussion of continuity and discontinuity will engage parts 2 (chs. 4–5) and 3 (chs. 6–7) as well as the book’s postscript. In my concluding remarks, I will also raise a few specific questions.

Lambert and Lamentations

I first read How Repentance Became Biblical as I was preparing for a course on the biblical book of Lamentations that I taught in the spring of 2016. Though Lambert treats texts from Lamentations only very briefly in the book, the major concerns of his study—repentance, the underlying conceptualization of religion that attends it, and alternatives to this conceptualization—are central issues in the study of Lamentations, both within the primary text itself and in the history of its interpretation. I thus assigned How Repentance Became Biblical to my class.

Immediately striking to the reader of Lamentations are its unflinching descriptions of suffering. Yet Lamentations includes only rare and brief references to transgression, and in those instances when its speaker does refer to sin, s/he offers much less than a full-throated statement of penitence. These features together call into question the application of what Lambert terms “the penitential lens”—an interpretation focused on sin and repentance—to this text and raise anew the questions of how to understand its rationalization of suffering (or lack thereof) and the larger intent of its laments.

In the first section of his study, Lambert focuses on the rites of divine appeal (e.g., fasting, prayer, confession) and shows the extent to which such rites perform and even constitute the hierarchy of divine-human relations and, concomitantly, the centrality of hierarchy in biblical constructions of the deity Yahweh. What emerges from this analysis is a new perspective on biblical religious language and performance conventionally read through the aforementioned “pentitential lens.” Specifically, Lambert emphasizes the communicative value—and thus externality and materiality—of fasting, prayer, and confession in contrast to the interiority conventionally assigned to these acts as features of Jewish or Christian repentance. (Incidentally, as a few of my students also pointed out in their interactions with How Repentance Became Biblical, it would have been useful to have Lambert’s full definition of repentance in the book’s opening rather than only reaching it in the last chapter [153–55]. This is no denigration of the definition itself; it is simply a comment on the book’s structure.)

I find Lambert’s observations on rites of appeal helpful not only in the few verses in Lamentations that he ably treats (e.g., 1:8, 20; 3:41–42). They also offer insight into the basic religious notions that underpin the scroll’s five poems and their potentially conflicting perspectives. For example, the speakers in Lamentations detail at length the depths of destruction suffered by Jerusalem and its inhabitants, a destruction that they credit to Yahweh himself. At the same time, these speakers call upon Yahweh to take note of their helpless position, as if he did not cause it himself or did not care about their sorry state (1:9, 11, 20; 2:20; 5:1). Each of these features accords well with the royal characterization of the deity assumed in the scroll as well as the schema of performativity that Lambert describes for biblical rites. The power and exalted status of the deity are underscored by assigning to him the devastation wrought in Jerusalem (e.g., 1:21; 2:1–8); indeed, this is an outcome that not even Judah’s enemies imagined possible (4:12). Power is likewise foregrounded in the appeal to Yahweh to intervene. Judah is so debased as to be irredeemable (2:13); an appeal to Yahweh is thus a plea to accomplish the impossible—and, by extension, to enjoy the acclaim of such a feat. In each of these capacities, Yahweh’s supremacy is imagined and accomplished. Even the references to sin in Lamentations fit this schema: as Lambert observes regarding Lam 1:8, “In context, allusion to sin seems to serve to deepen the sense of the people’s diminishment, rather than communicate contrition” (44). Thus, like its discussion of suffering and appeal to Yahweh, the discourse of sin in Lamentations underscores the asymmetry of the divine-human relationship and in so doing serves to entice the deity to act on the plaintive’s appeal. In concert with the alternative genealogy for repentance that Lambert proposes, his description of biblical rites of appeal offers a promising reframing for the Lamentations scroll away from the penitential.

Lambert and the Question of Continuity in Biblical Religion

When I first read How Repentance Became Biblical, I was also reading Benjamin D. Sommer’s new volume, Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition. In the one case explicitly (Sommer) and the other implicitly (Lambert), these books make contrasting claims regarding the continuity of lack thereof between ancient Israelite religion and Judaism. This question of continuity vs. discontinuity is an old one, and as many have noted, it has an especially fraught politics. Within modern, critical scholarship, the question can be traced back at least as far as W. M. L. de Wette, who famously diagnosed a rupture between Israelite religion (his Hebraism) and Judaism at the time of the Babylonian Exile:

The sojourn in a foreign land under a foreign people of a completely different outlook and religion, in addition to the impact the destruction of the state had upon the people, must have been of decided influence upon their religion. This influence was so great that we must view the nation after the Exile as a different one, with a different world-view and religion. We call the people in this period Jews, and in the period before Hebrews; and what belongs to the post-exilic culture is called Judaism, while in the pre-exilic culture it is called Hebraism.1

The same view was subsequently taken up by Julius Wellhausen, among others, and employed as part of a devolutionary religious schema that denigrated Judaism while exonerating and even commending Christianity.2

Sommer rejects such a break between ancient Israelite religion and Judaism, either in the Babylonian Exile or the Rabbinic period or any other time, as part of his argument for the relevance of historical criticism for modern Judaism. If the authors of the Torah sources, for instance, were as Jewish in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods as were the rabbis, medieval commentators, or modern Jewish thinkers like Buber and Heschel, their ancient compositions should be recovered and given a voice in contemporary Jewish debates. Accordingly, Sommer identifies what he calls a “participatory model” of revelation in the pentateuchal Elohistic source and advocates the legitimacy and relevance of this model for modern Judaism.

Viewed against the backdrop of earlier assertions of a break between ancient Israelite religion and Judaism, Sommer’s claims do not simply make a case for the modern religious relevance of historical criticism. They also provide a rebuttal to the totalizing historical reconstructions of nineteenth-century Protestant biblical scholarship—a rebuttal that is entirely salutary in its aim. Yet the question may be posed, what is the cost of this gain here? Though treating a different topic, How Repentance Became Biblical cautions against strong assertions of continuity like Sommer’s. As Lambert notes in his postscript, “There is no small advantage to revealing the historical contingencies behind certain purported essences” (190). Put differently, the claim to the real, the original, and their equivalence is a powerful rhetoric that can obscure as easily as it clarifies; what’s more, such arguments are rarely able to bear their claims’ weight. The acknowledgment of historical difference is thus a thesis that may enjoy a different, more thoroughgoing explanatory power, even if it must relinquish the grandest of claims. With regard to repentance, I would note in particular the strong philological evidence that Lambert adduces, namely, the differences in semantics for the verb שו׳׳ב and the related, postbiblical noun תשובה, demonstrated especially in their appearances in combinations with different prepositions (אל, מן, עד) and/or verbs in different time periods (71–88, 174–75). These differences are not small and, taken together with full presentation of data that Lambert adduces, seem to support an argument for rupture rather than internal development.

There are, of course, a host of ideas and practices attested in biblical texts and subsequent Jewish and Christian traditions that undergo substantial diachronic change. There is an equally substantial bibliography of work focused on the question of the origins of Judaism, much of which focuses on the centuries surrounding the turn of the Common Era. Lambert’s study adds a particularly compelling example to the list of ruptures that may be identified in the long history of “biblical” religion, and it, like other studies, points to the late Second Temple Period as a moment of distinct creativity and change.

On the question of continuity vs. discontinuity, then, I find myself siding with Lambert: the evidence in favor of change is too great to maintain the continuity thesis. Yet what Lambert’s study also shows (once again) is that the discontinuity thesis can be properly separated from the anti-Jewish arguments to which it was once tethered. Indeed, Lambert demonstrates the extent to which, at least on the topic of repentance, Judaism and Christianity stand in substantial agreement with each other and in distinction from ancient Israelite religion. Lambert himself briefly addresses the issue of Christian supersessionism in the interpretation of repentance texts and underscores that Judaism and Christianity come to agree on the contours of this religious idea (181–87).

Questions

By way of conclusion, I would like to raise two specific questions. The first relates in part to the foregoing discussion of continuity, albeit with a different focus. I find Lambert’s engagement with Hebrew Bible texts to be deep and incisive; I appreciate the way that he “thinks inside” texts to identify their major concerns while also contextualizing their claims both literarily and historically. But it is in regard to contextualization that my question arises. Though highlighting the issue of diachronic development in the biblical material in his discussion of Jeremiah (esp. 83–88), much of the rest of Lambert’s discussion tends toward a synchronic treatment of biblical texts. To cite one example, in discussing Moses in the Exodus plague narrative, Lambert reads Exod 7:27; 8:1; and 8:4 together as part of a unified composition (104). Yet these verses are not easily attributable to a single hand. Lambert admits as much by citing the source division of William H. C. Propp (who divides these verses between different sources) and by referring to the “priestly writer” in the following paragraph. I wonder to what extent Lambert’s argument would be affected by a more thoroughgoing diachronic analysis of the biblical texts he treats.

The second question I would raise concerns situating Chronicles in the historical schema that Lambert proposes. Lambert does address briefly a few Chronicles texts, but I am especially interested in the Chronicler’s practice of adding prophetic confrontations of sin to the narratives from Samuel and Kings that he rewrites. This practice strikes me as bearing at least some similarity to the God-given “opportunity to repent” that Lambert cites from Wisdom of Solomon 12:10, a feature he associates with an interiority discourse (158). I would thus ask Lambert for more reflection on the place of Chronicles and its innovations in the historical narrative that he proposes.


  1. Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik Alten und Neuen Testaments oder kritische Darstellung der Religionslehre des Hebraismus, des Judenthums und Urchristentums. Zum Gebrauch akademischer Vorlesungen (Berlin: G. Reimer, 1813), 52–53 (cited here from the 3rd, rev. ed., 1831); translation from James Pasto, “Who Owns the Jewish Past? Judaism, Judaisms, and the Writing of Jewish History,” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 1999), 95 (with minor adjustment).

  2. For detailed discussion of these issues, see Jeffrey Stackert, A Prophet Like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • David Lambert

    David Lambert

    Reply

    Response to Jeffrey Stackert

    I want to thank Jeffrey for his rich and insightful response to my book. He raises several points of interest that are worth pursuing further on their own terms.

    How Are We to Write about Religion in the Hebrew Bible?

    Jeffrey notes that the book is aimed at a broader academic audience than mere specialists in the various subfields that today comprise biblical studies and that this mode of writing relates to my working within the context of a department of Religious Studies. The book does indeed aim at an interdisciplinarity of sorts, but it also useful to explain why. I believe that biblical studies as a field has lurked for too long in the shadows of certain kind of antiquarianism: this given observation about a specific text is inherently interesting because it is about something ancient / because it is about the Bible. Rather than merely aiming at a more “popular” audience, we, in biblical studies, need to seek to establish for ourselves, by addressing others as well, the justifications for what we do and how we go about doing it. In other words, the topic of our disciplinarity, rather than interdisciplinarity, needs to be addressed. Of course, to situate the field, we must step outside of it at times. What I have tried to emphasize is biblical studies as a certain mode of reading that stands to run counter to many contemporary ontological and interpretive assumptions, biblical studies as offering the potential for an “untimely meditation” upon the present. For that reason, I have avoided, for instance, referencing biblical scholars in the body of my text, preferring to show my sources and conversation partners in the footnotes instead. The aim is to give a sense to the reader of my text that he or she, indeed, is coming face to face with himself or herself as a reader. How have we tended to read this text, and how else might we imagine it using the various contextual tools of biblical criticism? It asks readers, in conversation with the text, to find within themselves this sort of potential for productive dialogue. Citing other biblical scholars as authorities would not allow us to shift our gaze in this way.

    Lamentations, Suffering, and Hierarchy

    I was particularly pleased to see that Jeffrey found my observations about the material and theurgical elements of appeal in ancient Israel to be useful for the light they shed on the biblical book of Lamentations, which I, otherwise, only attend to in a few, scant paragraphs in the book. And, again, this sort of application is particularly important to my project because I see myself ultimately as trying to teach a sort of alternative reading sensibility—one that stands out against the dominant interiorizing tendencies of modern-day notions of the self—rather than merely making an argument about a few specific texts.

    I’d like to add two further observations or areas for further thought to Jeffrey’s own points about Lamentations. One has to do with the word “suffering,” i.e., Lamentations as a book that includes descriptions or expressions of “suffering.” I may have used this word myself at times in the book, and, in general sense, it is hardly inaccurate. But it’s important to be specific about what we mean by it and, perhaps, to shift to a newer vocabulary to rectify a potential error. Lamentations, strikingly, is not about a people’s pain; it is about a city’s diminishment. Unlike in contemporary modes of filming, photographing, and otherwise capturing the suffering of others, these biblical accounts do not focus on individual subjectivities. We do not hear about the pain of hunger or the sorrow of mothers in the face of their dead children, though lack of food and the death of children are all addressed. We do not know how humiliation felt to the elders with dust strewn upon their heads. What comes into view, instead, is a society that has been decimated, cut down, diminished. Again, we are asked to consider entities and their status, rather than the projection of subjective states that lies behind our concept of suffering. This is a fine line, but I think it goes a long way toward explaining why repentance doesn’t figure in these texts in the manner that we might expect. The city and the people have been utterly reduced. It is their hope that the verbal performance of mourning that is bound up in these lament texts will present such a desperate, deprived image of the people before their god that he will have to respond. Of course, such an appeal presupposes that their god is justified in his prior actions, hence their occasional reference to their sin. They must have sinned for their appeal today to be effective; the alternative is a powerless or unjust deity. In that sense, an element of justification may be more prominent than one of hierarchy in the book.

    Continuity between the Biblical and the Postbiblical

    I found Jeffrey’s discussion of continuity versus discontinuity between the biblical and postbiblical periods, along with his comparison of my work to the recent work of our colleague Benjamin Sommer to be most insightful, and I thank him for making a conversation that was only implicit in my book more explicit. I would only add one additional point. For me, looking over the expanse of biblical and rabbinic literature, in the manner in which I have been trained, I see both similarities and divergences. Most of us could agree on that. But, I think that, to a certain extent, we’ve been working with the wrong theory when we try to process these observations. Ideas, traditions, and, even, texts are not essences that travel through time. Rather like human beings who pass away and must replenish themselves through reproduction, they must be copied, transmitted, and ultimately reconstituted as a part of new forms of discourse to survive at all. It is certainly true that Jewish forms of discourse have continually turned to and employed biblical texts. This use of the past can certainly give the impression of continuity, but, in many respects, on a fundamental level it is not. The situation has changed; the use has changed; and, therefore, the meaning has changed. In other words, they are part of a discourse situated in the participant’s present, not a genuine retrieval from the past.

    Synchronic versus Diachronic Presentation of Biblical Material

    Jeffrey is right that my book tends toward a synchronic presentation of the biblical material. As he points out, this does not stem from any opposition per se to the Documentary Hypothesis or other source critical theories. This choice proceeds from two different angles, both of which are worth exploring. (1) The inherent uncertainty surrounding source critical distinctions should not deter us from serious study. However, we should be clear in each and every case whether the inquiry at hand necessitates staking out a position on matters of uncertainty. In the case of Jeremiah, questions related to my own study made it productive and indeed necessitated a consideration of a common source critical theory regarding the book, one which I felt my observations affirmed. In other instances, I did not find these distinctions to be intimately connected to my argument, and, therefore, while acknowledging division, I did not choose to go beyond its recognition in my argument. So, in short, I think the consideration of source criticism should depend on the type of argument that we are running and that we should always strive to present an argument in relationship to the body of texts with which we are working that requires as little speculation as possible, while not denying the inherent fractured nature of the text. To put it differently, I don’t believe that all analysis should proceed with a master theory of biblical literature, but rather that analysis should become an avenue to consider specific aspects of the history of biblical composition in light of the particular insights produced by our analysis. (2) The Bible, as a text, draws from an incredibly diverse range of sources, a complexity that we should not deny. However, as I write in the introduction, “The aim [of my approach] is not to address individual agendas, that is, each text’s difference, but to use large-scale comparisons to perceive broad, previously unobserved divergences with contemporary practices” (7). In other words, the kinds of basic differences that I am trying to highlight, that is to say, completely different constructions of the self, reveal themselves most readily through a broad-based comparison between different sorts of readings practices around ancient texts. Undoubtedly, other differences exist between the texts, but these are sometimes overplayed in scholarship that is hyper-focused on the biblical period alone, while the comparison with the contemporary is left out, with the result that contemporary forms of analysis are unwittingly imputed to the text.

    Chronicles and Its Prophets

    Jeffrey’s question about the apparent similarity between the Wisdom of Solomon, in which “an opportunity to repent” is offered to miscreants, and Chronicles, where prophets confront kings with their sin, is certainly apt. The prophet declares, for instance, “You have abandoned me, so I am abandoning you to Shishak” (2 Chr 12:5), and the king and his retinue then “submit” themselves to YHWH and are given a reduced form of punishment. The non-penitential meaning of this process of submission (נכנע) is addressed in the book and need not detain us here, but it’s the pattern that’s interesting. I would suggest, however, that here too, as in prophetic literature in general, we find an insistence first and foremost on explaining events, why destruction falls upon the king and why, as well, he is not entirely destroyed by Shishak. After all, the prophet’s statement is, first and foremost, an explanation, not a plea to “repent,” which isn’t to say that it doesn’t invite a submission to the deity as a way of mitigating punishment, in precisely the same way that the people are ultimately made to submit to Shishak. So, what’s at stake, at least in this instance, is the deity’s assertion of his power over his vassal king, Rehoboam.

    Defining Repentance

    Finally, I note, in response to the question raised by Jeffrey’s graduate students, that I avoid defining “repentance” in the beginning of the book, because my interest there is how it figures in current readings of the biblical material. In other words, my emphasis was on how we read, hermeneutics, rather than a historical positivist claim that the thing we call “repentance” is not in the Bible. As such, I allowed those who have read the Bible according to a broad series of practices that I label the “penitential lens” to speak for themselves. My aim was then to show that these various strategies, which ranged from imputing interiority into texts to attributing agency to ancient actors, can be roughly collected under a rubric labeled, for heuristic purposes, the “penitential lens,” even while their own definitions of repentance differ to some degree. Later in the book, when I discuss the emergence of repentance as part of a certain discourse within Judaism and Christianity, I find that the sources themselves are quite interested in a relatively defined sense of what “repentance” is. It’s at this point, when repentance figures as part of a coherent discourse that I find its strict definition to be meaningful. I hope that helps! I can see why this particular theoretical stance could be frustrating or difficult for the reader, but it’s the only way forward that I found for dealing broadly with the full range of reading practices.

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