Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Assis, Elie, Identity in Conflict: The Struggle between Esau and Jacob, Edom and Israel (Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, 19; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016). Pp. x + 214. Hardback. US$47.50. ISBN: 978-1575064178.

Elie Assis' Identity in Conflict argues that the treatment of Edom throughout the Hebrew Bible is the result of its uniquely fraternal relationship with Judah. Everything from Deuteronomy's lenient disposition towards Edom, to the latter prophets' unabashed vitriol toward it can be explained through the lens of this vexed relationship. The Hebrew Bible's singular characterization of Esau/Edom, Assis argues, flags Edom's special role in the formation of Judean identity. Assis makes this argument by performing detailed literary analyses on each biblical passage that invokes Edom, starting with the story of Jacob and Esau, and finishing with an examination of rabbinic treatments of Edom. This project has two functions: it conducts an analysis of Edom as a topos within the Hebrew Bible and invites larger questions about the legacy and evolution of a biblical trope. How do we know when images and stories become symbolic? This question lingers at the edges of each section of this book.

Assis' analysis commences with the Jacob and Esau cycle in Genesis. Assis argues that Jacob's chosen status is not “stolen” through his initial outwitting of Isaac and Esau, but it is rather revealed or earned in stages. Assis draws Jacob's journey from and return to the land in a concentric series of hurdles he must overcome in order to achieve this election. This election is finally confirmed by the second revelation at Bethel. Assis parallels Jacob's journey towards his chosen status, and Esau's gradual loss of it, culminating in the latter's willing departure from the land. It is only at the conclusion of the story where the respective election and rejection of these brothers emerge. Even here, the justification for these fates remains unclear in the Genesis account.

Assis then addresses Esau/Edom in the preexilic literature. Assis' major claim here is that deep antipathy toward Edom does not stem from the pre-exilic period, but festers in the wake of 586 b.c.e. After Edom's relative absence in the conquest narratives, Edom surfaces in the battles of Saul and David, and in the rest of the monarchic period, as a marginal and occasional foe, regarded without the venom redolent in later prophetic texts. Similarly, Assis points out that Edom is found in the line-up of Amos' chastised nations. Yet Edom also shows up as the victim of Moab's violence, for which Moab is roundly condemned. The status of Edom as both villain and victim in Amos' rhetoric, Assis surmises, signals a general ambivalence toward Edom before the destruction of the temple. It is a familial relationship that is strained but not yet broken.

Chapters four through twelve present the other side to Assis' claims: that Judean acrimony towards Edom begins after the destruction of the temple. In texts written in this later period, Assis contends, Judah is more hostile to Edom than to any other nation. But why? Rejecting claims that Edom serves as a symbol for all hated foreign nations (an argument that, Assis rightly notes, renders the particularity of Edom irrelevant), Assis traces this vitriol to insecurity within the Judean psyche of its divinely chosen status. Edom's perceived incursion into its territory furthered deep-seated anxieties about Judah's election. Had Edom supplanted Judah at last? Such questions, Assis contends, agonized Judeans in this period. As such, it was one that the prophets sought to address, with venomous language against Edom paired with consolation for Judah.

Assis then conducts close readings of various prophetic oracles against Edom, examining how these utterances stand up to his above proposal. In nearly all of these texts, Assis finds evidence that Edom's destruction is not only a symptom of, but indeed a requirement for, Judah's redemption. In Assis' view, the latter prophets relentlessly castigate misplaced Edomite ambition to, among other things, steal Judean territory and, thus, overturn God's will. His analysis of Obadiah and Malachi serve as representative here.

Surprisingly, Assis centers most of his discussion of Obadiah in a chapter delimiting three discrete prophetic units that, he argues, make up this composite work. Assis claims, on the basis of their respective accusations, that each unit (vv. 1–9; 10–14, 15b; 15a, 16–22) stems from a distinct moment in Judean-Edom relations: before 586, during (or just after) 586, and a few years later. Assis then analyzes the composite text in light of his major interpretive claims: Edom's inverse relationship to Judean redemption, and thus, the deep threat that any Edomite triumph represents. While it is unfortunate that his redactional parsing of Obadiah overshadows his literary interpretation here, Assis' claims about the special role of Edom in Judean ideations of redemption continue to amass substance in this chapter.

Assis' analysis of Malachi in chapter eleven draws connections between the explicit rehearsal of Edomite rejection in Malachi 1 with the controversy over foreign marriage in Malachi 2. Again deploying linguistic and thematic parallels to forge this connection, Assis contends that these two oracular exchanges are dramatically linked. The first provides assurance that, in view of the inversely intertwined fates of Edom and Judah, Judah remains the elect. The second refutes what Assis sees as the correlative behavior to this fear: the breaking down of national boundaries through intermarriage with foreigners. In other words, Assis argues that despair over their election drives Judeans to intermarriage. The prophetic endeavor of Malachi is thus to reject these two comingled claims. What is striking about Assis' argument here is the correlation between insecure national identity and the collapse of ethnocentric barriers. In light of other biblical texts and in our contemporary context, we might expect the reverse: that crumbling national boundaries tend to reinforce rather than dismantle ethnocentrism. Thus, while literarily and logically coherent, Assis' correlation between rejection and universalism is surprising. Whatever the likelihood of these conclusions, the literary argument remains fresh, direct, and cogent.

Assis does well to confront one of the biggest potential counterpoints to his argument: the rabbinic literature in which Edom does become a symbol of other nations, namely Rome. Rather than undermining his argument, Assis argues that this identification reinforces his central contention: that Rome became associated with Edom precisely because of its apparently integral link with a deferred Judean redemption. Rome, Assis argues, like Edom, was perceived as a chosen nation, and after their destruction of the temple in 70 c.e., the threat they presented was not only plainly physical, but also existential, “casting Israel's sense of identity into doubt once again” (p. 179). This sense of vexed fraternal connection was compounded after the Christianization of Rome. Thus, remarkably, Assis' account of the afterlife of Edom-as-symbol reinforces its unique status within the Hebrew Bible.

This work is at once a comprehensive survey of Edomite references in the Hebrew Bible as well as a cohesive account of its role within a range of biblical ideologies. It also exposes the range of attitudes a fraternal relationship can generate: from the ambivalence of the Pentateuch and Amos, to the ferocity of the latter prophets. Assis offers explanations for all such responses in this book. As he does this, he demonstrates more generally how drastically a topos can evolve over time, how anxieties over election and identity hum latently beneath prophetic fury, and how familial intimacy can produce the bitterest of enemies.

Laura K. Carlson, Yale University