Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Schlimm, Matthew R., From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis (Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, 7; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011). Pp. xiv + 242. Hardcover. US$37.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-224-2.

Matthew Schlimm's From Fratricide to Forgiveness is a thoughtful and thorough study. Published as part of the Siphrut Literature and Theology series, Schlimm's work examines the moral and ethical dimensions of human anger as revealed throughout the book of Genesis. Prompted by what the author considers an unheeded topic in recent research, Schlimm accompanies the reader on a journey, quite literally, from fratricide to forgiveness—showcasing the uncontrolled and impenitent anger of Cain toward Abel (Gen 4), followed by the unrestrained forgiveness of Joseph towards his brothers after several episodes of anger and abuse (Gen 50). The result is an instructive presentation of the moral complexities and ethical intricacies inherent to the experience of human anger as displayed throughout Genesis.

The book has three sections, supplemented by two appendices listing terminological statistics concerning anger in the Hebrew Bible. The first section focuses on the language of anger; the second explores the recent advances in the field of biblical ethics; and the third showcases the results of a rhetorical-literary analysis of anger throughout Genesis. Each section advances Schlimm's thesis that the emotion of anger is employed in Genesis not simply as a literary device to enhance the narrative drama, but as an expression of the real moral and ethical challenges posed by human anger. In the thought world of Genesis, anger is an emotion that eludes moral platitudes and simplistic resolutions. Instead, as an “emotion that arises from one's moral sensitivities in response to the perception of wrongdoing,” human anger is presented as an inevitable and serious threat to moral life (pp. 7, 15). Rather than present hypothetical situations and ideal solutions for anger, “[r]eading Genesis is an act of moral education” (p. 179).

The author's detailed interaction with past research affords him with a solid foundation to conduct his analysis. Early on, the author attributes the wholesale neglect of emotion in past biblical research to the twentieth-century presupposition that emotions are chiefly irrational impulses that hinder reason and reveal only subjective, primitive, and even pathological characteristics (p. 3). Drawing from an impressive body of research in various fields such as neurology, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and ethnography, Schlimm allays the widespread belief that irrationality is a defining characteristic of emotional experiences (p. 39). The interdisciplinary reach of Schlimm's research safeguards his work from some of the “outdated assumptions and faulty scientific models” seen in previous investigations, and allows him to broaden his methodological horizon to include important anthropological and linguistic insights (p. 37). Driven by the core conviction that “translation is the bedrock of interpretation,” Schlimm is forthright about the vulnerability of terms conveying emotion in the Hebrew Bible (p. 19). Following French linguist Antoine Berman, Schlimm recognizes that in order to achieve a rational and discursive translation of any language, the original language is always a victim of distortion and violation.[1] Thus, “every act of translation is an act of violence” and must be treated with the utmost care (p. 21).

The difficulties inherent to translation generally are also present in the translation of emotion specifically. Because categories for emotion differ greatly from language to language and culture to culture—i.e., differences between the English “emotion,” French “émotion,” German “Gefühl,” Polish “uczucie,” etc. (p. 22)—the author goes to great lengths to read Hebrew terms for anger within their textual, cultural, and conceptual contexts. In order to identify some of the sociological assumptions that lie behind the function of emotion, Schlimm relies heavily on anthropological research concerning “emotional style,” which focuses on the taxonomy, semantics, and management of emotional experiences (pp. 24–25). A comparison with other Indo-European, African, and Micronesian languages clearly shows that words for emotion are inextricably linked to “broader issues of ideology, morality, and world view,” particularly when dealing with something as evasive as human anger (p. 26).

The first section blends the linguistic disciplines of prototype theory, associative networks, and conceptual metaphors in an effort to identify the best characterization of anger. Building on his critique of Bruce Baloian and Ellen van Wolde's categorization of biblical anger as either rational or irrational, Schlimm contends that biblical Hebrew possesses no terms that easily align with rationality and irrationality, or reason and logic (p. 41).[2] What exactly does characterize the emotion of anger in biblical texts? According to Schlimm, the answer lies in prototype theory, a linguistic method that analyzes the various layers of categorization the mind uses to organize information. In an effort to avoid some of the “erroneous assumptions and interpretive moves” of van Wolde and others (p. 52), Schlimm poses the following questions as a way to identify the prototypical script of human anger in biblical texts: What causes anger? Who tends to be angry? Who/what is the object of their anger? What do they do while they are angry? And how is anger generally evaluated by the text (pp. 53–63)? In direct opposition to van Wolde's claim that the prototypical script of anger is irrationality and uncontrollability (p. 60), Schlimm concludes that anger is usually caused by a perceived wrongdoing, results in some kind of separation (usually accompanied by violence), and that it almost always receives a negative evaluation in the text (i.e. Gen 4:6–7; Prov 11:23; p. 63).

With this prototypical script, Schlimm moves on to examine the Hebrew terms themselves. Making sure not to reinforce the “perceived dichotomy between reason and emotion” intrinsic to idiomatic expressions describing anger (i.e. ‘you're driving me nuts’), Schlimm plots a diagram showing the conceptual relationships between ten different Hebrew terms conveying anger (p. 76). Three key observations arise: first, רגז ,זעף, and צעס refer to more than one type of emotion; second, אף ,חרה, and חמה relate to the perceived physiological symptoms of anger; and third, קצף ,זעם ,עבר and שׁטם designate specific types of anger (pp. 86–87). Because most of these terms do have precise English equivalents, Schlimm concludes that “the associative networks of biblical anger pertain to the concepts of jealousy, fire, evil, extreme violence, and pouring out—far more than to the Western associations with being mad, inner fluids rising, or explosiveness” (p. 87). By attending to the textual, cultural, and conceptual contexts of each term, Schlimm reduces some of the “causalities” of translation and ushers the reader deeper into the world of the text (p. 87).

Following an exhaustive survey of the recent advancements made in biblical ethics, section two details the connections between emotion, ethics, and experience. Relying heavily on mimesis and Ricoeur's two-tiered referentiality, Schlimm locates Genesis's ethical value not in its presentation of historical episodes (first-order referentiality), but in its very real characterization of human nature (second-order referentiality) (pp. 115–17).[3] In the narrative world of Genesis, the real trumps the ideal, and ethical accuracy eclipses historicity. The prioritization of ethical instruction over historical construction renders Genesis a book into which the readers are invited to “envision themselves within its textual world and to make transferences from this world to their own” (p. 117). It is precisely the experiential component of Schlimm's exposition that engenders continuity between the world of the text and the world of the reader. By realistically depicting the anger experienced by the characters in the text, Genesis invites the reader to encounter and appropriate the ethical lessons contained therein (p. 120).

Remarkably, it is the experiential element of Schlimm's work that is, at once, its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Schlimm's contention that anyone turning to Genesis for formulaic rules for life will instead be met with a catalogue of “ ‘metaphors for life’ ” is well received (p. 132). However, all throughout, “what is to be done” overshadows “how it is to be done.” Insisting that “readers can never say they have arrived at a text's definitive, singular meaning” does not provide, ipso facto, a method for doing so (p. 123). This is compounded by Schlimm's repeated efforts to read the text “in its own terms” and “with its own integrity” (pp. 13, 17, 26, 29, 40, 45, 47, etc.). The author states plainly, yet without qualification, that prototype theory is what enables interpreters to reach “conclusions that explain anger in the Hebrew Bible in its own terms” (p. 48). Schlimm's exceptional ability to extract ethical and moral principles from the text impedes his ability to provide instruction on how to read a text “on its own terms.” In the end, it is Schlimm's quest for methodological multiplicity (i.e. cognitive linguistics, ethics, rhetorical and literary criticisms) that compromises the work's simplicity. While this does not obstruct the book's overall value, it does leave the reader questioning how one can benefit from “freedom in application” (p. 123) without plummeting into an endless free-fall of hermeneutical relativity and potential metaphorical meanings.

The third and final section furnishes an overview of Genesis as valuable as any available to date. Presented as a commentary on the story of Genesis, the closing chapters walk the reader through each episode of anger in Genesis, honing in specifically on ethical and moral instruction visible in the narrative bookends of fratricide (Cain and Abel) and forgiveness (Joseph and his brothers). In the same way that Genesis presents the anger of Cain as a “grave moral problem” and “whets readers' appetites” for ethical alternatives to handling anger, Schlimm's analysis whets readers' appetites for a deeper experience of the biblical text (p. 143). Whether used for professional or leisurely study, Schlimm's work will be received as a well-rounded and reputable contribution to the growing conversation surrounding the biblical characterization of emotion.

Dustin J. Boreland, McMaster Divinity College

[1] Antoine Berman, “Translation and the Trials of the Foreign,” in Lawrence Venuti (ed.), The Translation Studies Reader (London: New York, 2000), 284–92. reference

[2] Bruce Baloian, The Aspect of Anger in the Old Testament (Ph.D diss., Claremont Graduate School, 1989). Schlimm notes that Baloian goes so far as to suggest that “[t]he explicit demand of the Old Testament texts is to govern anger by the use of reason” (151); Ellen van Wolde, “Language of Sentiment,” SBL Forum, 5 (2007), Among other scholars mentioned are Terrence Fretheim, Walter Brueggemann, Abraham Heschel, and Hans Walter Wolff, pp. 40–42. reference

[3] Cf. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (trans. Emerson Buchanan; New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 235–6. reference