Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review

Olyan, Saul M. (ed.), Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible: New Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Pp. xii + 190. Hardcover. US$74.00. ISBN 978-0-190-24958-8.

There is no doubt that Saul Olyan has provided scholars of the Hebrew Bible a seminal work in the field of ritual violence. Although much ink has been spilt with regard to general themes of violence in the Hebrew Bible, such as the ḥerem, the conquest of Canaan, and war, the study of ritualistic violence has remained until now almost entirely neglected. Enter Olyan and company. Growing out of a Ruth and Joseph Moskow Symposium at Brown University in May 2013 entitled “Theorizing Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible,” this volume acts not only as a practical introduction to the study of ritual violence but also will meet the needs of specialists who are interested in up-to-date theories and practices.

The book itself is comprised of an introduction and eight chapters, each addressing a different form of ritual violence. In the introduction Olyan details the three-fold objective of the book which is 1) to bring into focus the many forms of ritual violence in the Hebrew Bible, 2) to consider what these acts of violence might accomplish for those conducting the violent act, and 3) to offer a platform for the contributors to employ theoretical models from the social sciences to the Hebrew Bible. Next, Olyan addresses the definition of ritual violence but acknowledges that there are disparate conceptions of what constitute acts of “violence,” not to mention “ritual violence.” Some scholars consider only physical acts to be acts of violence whereas others consider violence as any act that leads to negative psychological impact.

In chapter 1 Debra Scoggins Ballentine addresses the possible aims of ritual violence. To answer this question, Ballentine takes up the case of Rechab and Baanah in 2 Sam 4. The importance of this passage is that the nature of the acts in the passage allows for the comparison of “ritual violence” (the killing and mutilation of Eshbaal) versus “normal violence” (the killing of the Rechab and Baanah) and of “violent ritual” (the violence done to Rechab and Baanah's corpses) versus “nonviolent ritual” (the burial of the recovered head of Eshbaal). Ballentine proceeds, then, to theorize the rhetorical function of these acts; she believes, for example, that these acts are depicted in such a manner so as to depict David in a positive light despite the fact that he orders not only the killing of two men but also the exposure of their bodies. In the final evaluation, Ballentine offers a thoroughly insightful essay that may prove to be worth the price of the book.

In chapter 2 T. M. Lemos takes up the issue of dispossessing nations, specifically, the seven tribes of Canaan. To address this important topic she finds trends in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and then identifies similar trends in the dispossessing of the nations of Canaan depicted in the Hebrew Bible. However, not only is this approach anachronistic—an accusation she attempts to overcome through finding similar themes in the Mesha Inscription (9th c. b.c.e.)—but her argument neglects texts within the Hebrew Bible that offer explanations for the conquest of nations that counter her own conclusions. Indeed, the reader may wonder at the effectiveness of comparison between acts in the Hebrew Bible that are understood to represent ritual violence and acts of a similar nature in the modern era. Although this comparison is not impossible, the failure of Lemos's particular argument is that she uses the biblical text to demonstrate the importance of genocide for the writers of the text but fails to seek reasons for this emphasis from the Hebrew Bible. This selective use of the texts is unconvincing. Instead, she uses here findings from the Rwandan genocide to provide the reasons for the genocide of the Canaanites.

In chapter 3 Mark Leuchter takes up the ritual destruction of Bethel by King Josiah in 2 Kgs 23. Approaching this important text as a testimony to Israel's ethno-mythology, Leuchter concludes that Josiah is acting as a representative of YHWH when he destroys Bethel. More than that, however, Bethel is seen not as a competing sanctuary of YHWH but as a place devoted to YHWH's cosmic foes. Moreover, it is for this self-same reason that the priests of the northern kingdom were slaughtered. Leuchter's understanding of the mythology standing behind the narrative events in 2 Kgs 22–23 is insightful, and those interested in these important chapters in the Hebrew Bible will no doubt find his discussion illuminating.

In chapter 4 Nathaniel Levtow takes up the issues of iconoclasm from the perspective of cognitive science as opposed to the oft-employed idolatry polemic. For this reason the reader should not expect Levtow to interact with the biblical text. Rather, Levtow remains at the level of theory, engaging with Harvey Whitehouse's modal theory of religious transmission.

In chapter 5 Susan Niditch addresses several cases of violence against women, including the rape of Dinah in Gen 34 and the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter in Judg 11. Niditch's great insight is that these texts use women as an element in the complex relationship between males which leads to more violence. In the case of Gen 34, the rape of Dinah leads to a severe case of ritual violence by the sons of Jacob against the men of Shechem. In the case of Judg 11, Niditch believes that this account of violence against a daughter is more acutely about the relationship between Jephthah and God.

In chapter 6 Saul Olyan offers a very insightful discussion of ritual violence against corpses. As he demonstrates, there are many reasons that individuals in the biblical narrative found it expedient to perform violent acts against the dead. For example, decapitation of a corpse both proves death and identity; or one might wish (as depicted in 1 Sam 31) to display the naked, decapitated body of one's defeated enemy, an act that both proves death and results in great humiliation. Olyan's article, though disappointingly terse, proves his insight and the benefits to biblical studies of studying ritual forms of violence.

In chapter 7 Rüdiger Schmitt analyzes textual and archaeological evidence to argue for the importance of the city gate to ritual acts relating to violence. The evidence shows that the kings of both Israel and Judah utilized the city gates for ritual performances for many purposes, including preparation for war as well as proof of loyalty. Although these acts are not explicitly violent, Schmitt's insights are helpful for a thorough understanding of the common interrelatedness of ritual and violence.

In chapter 8 Jacob Wright offers an exciting and thorough treatment of urbicide, the targeted destruction of cities. As Wright points out, his is one of the first essays to develop this theme from the perspective of the ANE. For this reason alone, this is an important essay to the topic of violence in the Hebrew Bible. To develop his argument that targeted, ritual violence against cities is indeed present within the Hebrew Bible, Wright addresses iconography, biblical narrative, the prophetic writings, and laments. His discussion is thorough and might well prove to be a catalyst for further study of biblical urbicide.

This volume brings together an excellent collection of essays that will prove useful for experts as well as for anyone desiring an introduction to the study of ritual violence in the Hebrew Bible. In addition to the wide-ranging topics represented in this volume, perhaps the greatest benefit is the fresh insight that the contributors provide to violent texts such as Judg 19–21; Gen 34; Judg 11; 2 Sam 4 and 2 Kgs 22–23.

By way of critical evaluation, it becomes evident to the reader that, as Olyan intimates in the introduction, there is no full agreement among the scholars of ritual violence regarding what constitutes a violent act. This disagreement over the meaning of “violence” seems to be an indication of the relative youth of this field of study, an obvious problem that will hopefully be resolved in due course. Furthermore, the present reader found that the articles were regrettably brief, several being fewer than ten pages excluding endnotes. Despite the understandable limitations on the contributors who first gave these essays in oral form, the editor's desire to present a ground-breaking collection of essays might naturally lead one to expect a volume longer than the one presently offered. However, this volume is not the last word on ritual violence; it will hopefully only increase the scholarship on this important topic.

Stephen D. Campbell, Durham University