Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Becking, Bob and Dirk Human, eds, Exile and Suffering: A Selection of Papers Read at the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the Old Testament Society of South Africa OTWSA/OTSSA, Pretoria, August 2007 (Oudtestamentische Studiën 50; Leiden: Brill, 2009), Pp. xvii, 280. € 99.00, US$ 159.00 ISBN: 978-90-04-17104-6.

This volume collects 15 papers from the 2007 congress held at the University of Pretoria between the Oud-Testamentische Werkgemeenschap (OTW) and the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA). In the preface of the book, Dirk Human provides some information about the history of Old Testament scholarship in South Africa along with a brief overview of the content of each paper. Human notes that the biblical theme of exile and suffering was chosen because of its current relevance both to the situation of the African nations and the situation of South Africa more specifically. The contributions are divided into three sections corresponding to the three sections of the Hebrew Bible: Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings. In addition, there is a fourth section entitled “Ancient Near Eastern and Contextual Perspectives.” In this review I will focus on the material in the first three sections and discuss the material in the fourth and final section in my concluding thoughts on the content of the volume.

The Pentateuch section contains three articles. The first of these is by Gerda de Villiers (“Sin, Suffering, Sagacity: Genesis 2-3”) and discusses the Garden of Eden narrative as a theological response to the exile. Jurie Le Roux's article (“Suffering and Hope during the Exile”) looks at the earliest redaction of Deuteronomy. Le Roux proposes that the purpose of this redaction was to give hope to the exiles after the fall of Jerusalem by reaffirming the idea that the covenant at Horeb was still in effect in spite of Israelite infidelity. The last article in this section (“Suffering from Formlessness: The Ban on Images in Exilic Times”), written by Matthais Köckert, examines the history and development of aniconism (the prohibition of cultic images) in the Hebrew Bible. Köckert notes that the loss of Yahweh's cultic image, due to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, was initially lamented in early exilic theology (as evidenced in the prophetic literature). Over time this loss was accepted, leading to the formation of a theology centered around the “deliberate concealment” of Yahweh as expressed in later exilic writings.

The Prophets section, which is the longest of the three, contains seven articles. L. Juliana M. Claassens' article (“Interrupting God-Language: Rethinking the Image of God as Liberator in Isaiah 42”) deals with the juxtaposition of warrior and maternal language in Second Isaiah. Claassens argues that such language was used by the prophet as a means of consoling the exiles, showing them that God was both the powerful warrior and the mother about to give birth to a new, restored Israel. Second Isaiah is also the subject of Hendrik Bosman's article (“Myth, Metaphor or Memory? The Allusions to Creation and Exodus in Isaiah 51:9-11 as a Theological Response to Suffering During the Exile”). Bosman critiques the earlier scholarly view that the Exodus motif was central to the prophet and instead suggests that this motif was one of many themes (such as creation) used by Second Isaiah to emphasize God's salvific acts for God's people.

These two articles on Isaiah are followed by two articles focusing on the book of Jeremiah. Eric Peels examines Jer 40:7-41:18 in his article (“The Assassination of Gedaliah”) arguing that this passage serves the purpose of showing that new hope for Israel can be found neither in the remnant of Judeans in Judah nor those in Egypt but only among the remnant in Babylon. Raymond de Hoop's article (“Perspectives after the Exile: The King, עבדי, My Servant' in Jeremiah”) offers a detailed comparison of the views of the exile found in the MT and LXX versions of the book of Jeremiah. De Hoop ultimately concludes that there is little difference between the two versions concerning their respective understandings of exile though the LXX, in contrast to the MT, contains no hope of restoration or salvation.

The last three articles in the “Prophets” section deal with the minor prophets and various theological issues within the prophetic corpus in general. Gert Kwakkel's article (“Exile in Hosea 9:3-6: Where and for What Purpose”) addresses the question of whether the prophet Hosea's reference to a return to Egypt should be understood literally or metaphorically. For Kwakkel, both meanings are intended since Egypt is the place to which a segment of the exilic community flees to as well as a symbol of Israel's miserable existence apart from God's liberating power.

Klaas Spronk's article (“Perverse Delight: Some Observations on an Unpleasant Theme in the Old Testament”) examines the notion of delight over one's enemies as found throughout the prophetic writings. Spronk looks at three particular examples of “perverse delight”: the downfall of the king of Babylon in Isa 14, the downfall of Nineveh in Nah 2-3 and the fates of various Canaanite and Moabite kings in the book of Judges. He concludes that at times the suffering of persons and groups is justified in the Bible, particularly when it reflects the suffering that the afflicted party or persons have caused others. The last article in this section (“Exile and Pain: A Chapter from the Story of God's Emotions”) by Eep Talstra proposes a new understanding of the attributes of God that goes beyond the traditional wrathful vs. merciful dichotomy accepted by most biblical theologians. He argues for a much more complicated view of God in which God is seen as displaying a variety of emotions including disappointment, conflict, and hurt.

The Writings section contains essays on the Psalms, Lamentations and the Chronicler's history. The first article by editor Bob Becking (“Does Exile Equal Suffering? A Fresh Look at Psalm 137”) compares the famous Psalm to what epigraphic and archaeological evidence tells us about the exile. Becking concludes that there is no correlation between the physical suffering mentioned in the Psalm and the prosperity of the exilic community in Babylon indicated by the epigraphic data. Becking does suggest that in spite of this material prosperity the exiles may have suffered emotionally as reflected in Psalm 137.

Yehoshua Gitay's article (“The Poetics of Exile and Suffering: Memory and Perceptions - A Cognitive Linguistics Study of Lamentations”) addresses the question of why Lamentations is read by Jews on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Ab rather than a historical account of the fall of Jerusalem (e.g. 2 Chronicles). Gitay suggests that the language of poetry is much more explosive and emotional than historiography and that this is the main reason a poetic text was chosen as the national memory of the fall of Jerusalem. Louis Jonker argues in his article (“The Exile as Sabbath Rest: The Chronicler's Interpretation of the Exile”) that the Chronicler's account of the fall of Jerusalem was intended to be primarily theological and not historical. Jonker notes that unlike other accounts, the Chronicler does not emphasize the suffering of the exiles but how the Sabbath rest provided by exile leads to restoration and the creation of a new Israel. In this respect, the Chronicler intends for his readers, living under Persian rule, to understand the exile in a positive sense.

As Human notes in the preface, the essays in Exile and Suffering were written in an attempt to address current theological issues and concerns by means of examining the theology of the biblical writers. The results of this effort are mixed. One of the more successful examples is Frances Klopper's excellent article on the biblical lament (“Lamenting the Loss of Lament, The Language for Our Times”) where she encourages the church to recover a theology of lamentation as a means of responding to suffering. She looks at several examples of lament taken from the Bible (Job, Numbers, Jeremiah), ancient Near Eastern texts, and more modern works such as African American Spirituals. However, in general, the writers do not effectively address the issue that they claim to be most concerned about, namely how biblical theology, particularly notions of exile, relate to the situation of South Africa specifically. Even Klopper, in looking at modern examples of lament, chooses the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 in China rather than an African example.

The last article in the volume, by Gerald West (“Interpreting ‘the Exile’ in African Biblical Scholarship”) does attempt to provide an understanding of exile relevant to the situation of post-colonial South Africa. However, West's article is at times highly philosophical, drawing heavily on the work of Draper, Bultmann and Ricoeur and as such might be difficult for readers to follow, especially those who are largely unfamiliar with the writings and ideas of these thinkers. I would have liked to have seen a more accessible and practical model for applying the concept of exile to modern Africa. In closing, the essays in Exile and Suffering are at their best when they deal with historical-critical issues but are less successful in their endeavor to relate exegesis with praxis.

Adam Oliver Stokes, Princeton Theological Seminary