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.
Lambert, “Refreshing Philology: James Barr, Supersessionism, and the State of Biblical Words,” Biblical Interpretation 24 (2016): 332–56.↩
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).↩
For detailed discussion of these issues, see Jeffrey Stackert, A Prophet Like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).↩
11.24.16 | Joel Kaminsky
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.
11.24.16 | David Lambert
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 , 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.