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

Davidson, Steed Vernyl, Empire and Exile: Postcolonial Readings of the Book of Jeremiah (LHBOTS, 542; New York: T & T Clark, 2011). Pp. 240. Hardcover. US$140.00. ISBN: 978-0-567-43704-4.

Davidson's volume, Empire and Exile: Postcolonial Readings of the Book of Jeremiah, had its genesis in his doctoral dissertation, Finding a Place: A Postcolonial Examination of the Ideology of Place in the Book of Jeremiah. Davidson's writing is informed by, yet not controlled by, his experience of growing up in the country of Tobago. Tobago has a long history of European colonization, stretching back to 1498, including the British merger of the island with Trinidad in 1889. Although Davidson grew up after the islands were made politically independent from Britain, the cultural effects of colonization have influenced his intellectual and theological thinking.

In the current volume, Davidson adopts a postcolonial approach to the text of Jeremiah in conjunction with traditional strategies such as historical-critical and literary-critical approaches. He notes that inclusion of the historical-critical method is appropriate because a postcolonial reading “…forces an historical perspective on any analysis” (p. 9). Davidson is successful in integrating various approaches, “…not as competing disciplines, but as complementary to illuminating both the ancient world for modern readers and understanding modern readers who read the ancient world” (p. x). His emphasis upon the situations and concerns of present-day readers and those of various “traditioning communities” give rise to powerful readings of the Jeremiah text.

In Chapter 1, “(Dis)Locating Location,” Davidson gives attention to two major issues, first describing the differences between “place” and “space” and secondly, delving into locations for reading. Davidson begins by elucidating the present day reality of globalization. He then claims that the experience of territorial displacement is relevant to readers of Jeremiah. For Davidson, these readers may or may not identify as displaced, but they live in places characterized by the displaced (p. 2). This is a situation that resonates with the experiences of the residents of ancient Judah. Davidson sees Jeremiah as a “text of resistance to imperial power,” precipitated by the entwined motifs of empire and exile. The question of who controls the land is front and center. By making a case for “place” (a de-centered center for religious and cultural identity) versus bounded space controlled by the imperium, Davidson describes a way that the ancient Israelites might have resisted the geopolitical power of empire without the loss of identity.

In Chapter 2, “(Dis)Locating Interpretation,” Davidson explores the identity(s) of Jeremiah. This chapter provides a useful review of recent Jeremiah scholarship, focusing upon the identity of the prophet. Davidson accounts for the competing “Jeremiah as Historical Figure” and “Jeremiah as Literary Figure” schools of thought before aligning himself with Rainer Albertz's “third way.” For Davidson, Albertz presents not only a historicist view of the material, but additionally provides information regarding the “traditioning communities” who read and shaped the final form of the text (p. 34).

In Chapter 3, “The Book of Jeremiah in Postcolonial Perspective,” Davidson elaborates upon the intersection of postcolonial theory and biblical studies; the book of Jeremiah in imperial context; and continues the discussion of place. Davison succinctly states that “…postcolonial theory serves as a method of literary enquiry about geo-political power and its implications in everyday life” (p. 38). This may be heavy reading for biblical scholars accustomed to traditional approaches, but careful attention to the well-formed argument will repay itself many times over when reading the following chapters.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 are the heart of the work. Each of these chapters contains a highly detailed exegesis of one section of the Jeremiah text and a proposed postcolonial interpretation. In Chapter 4, “Saving Home: Jeremiah 32.1–15,” Davidson explores the first main issue, the disruption of “home.” Here, while being held in the court of the guard in Jerusalem, Jeremiah buys a field from his cousin Hanamel. While this event has traditionally been viewed as a sign of hope for the future, Davidson demonstrates that when read from a postcolonial perspective, the symbolic action is colored by the recourse to ancient laws and provides a way to circumvent the current imperium. While the imperium may hold control over the physical land (space), the Israelites maintain control over the described psycho-social and religio-political “place.” In Chapter 5, “The World in the Home: Jeremiah 40:1–12,” Davidson discusses a second main idea, that of marginality and center. Jeremiah 40:1–6 describes Jeremiah's release and subsequent experience with Gedaliah at Mizpah. Finally, In Chapter 6, “(A)Way from Home: Jeremiah 29:5–7,” Davidson takes on the issue of migrations, both voluntary and forced. In Davidson's capable analysis, the characteristic issue of building and planting in diaspora take on a nuanced meaning. While reading from “above,” in other words, from the perspective of the imperium, this text appears to be practical advice for getting along in a new environment. However, when read from a postcolonial viewpoint, from “below,” or the perspective of the deportees, the text becomes a way to maintain identity and gain a sense of “place.” The text (and actions described therein) becomes an avenue of resistance.

Finally, Chapter 7, “Conclusion: Reading Between Exodus and Exile,” provides an excellent synopsis of the work. Here Davidson discusses the ramifications of joining the concepts of exodus and exile as a reading strategy. Davidson notes that both exodus and exile raise the topic of empire, yet the trajectory of the Israelites from exodus to exile also affects the understanding of diaspora and “…frames the theo-political context for reading the book of Jeremiah” (p. 173). Davidson is particularly interested in reframing the exodus story, which often has been conceptualized in a triumphalist fashion. Rather, along with Jon D. Levenson, Davidson sees that liberation from Egypt entails more than liberation from slavery: indeed, the Hebrews were liberated for Yahweh.

Davidson's Empire and Exile: Postcolonial Readings of the Book of Jeremiah proves to be a substantial contribution to Jeremiah studies. By differentiating between bounded physical space and “movable” sociological and religio-political “place,” Davidson demonstrates that the loss of land and monarch need not define the Israelites' standing as a group capable both of (covertly) resisting the imperium and of defining their own identity in exile. Davidson clearly shows that a postcolonial reading that takes into account both the figure of Jeremiah and the concerns of the traditioning communities that formed the text provides a richer understanding of the text than approaches that seek to defend Jeremiah as either an historical figure or a literary figure alone. Davidson's detailed and nuanced exegesis of chs. 32, 40 and 29 simultaneously mirrors the “disarray” that is the final form of the Jeremiah text, on the one hand, and provides a cogent analysis of the Israelites' relation to the land on the other. Finally, his postcolonial reading strategy of joining exodus and exile provides a corrective to overly triumphalistic interpretations of the exodus alone. This frees readers to delve into what it means to be called for Yahweh: freedom to engage in a relationship with the divine. By choosing to view his combination of historical-critical, literary-critical and postcolonial approaches as complementary rather than competitive, Davidson has modeled a gracious way of reading biblical text. He has taken a challenging approach and made it inclusive rather than exclusive. In this way, he has opened the way for productive engagement by a variety of interpreters. This volume will be of interest both to Jeremiah scholars and to students of biblical interpretation, for whom the clearly articulated details of postcolonial engagement will be valuable indeed.

Elizabeth R. Hayes, Fuller Theological Seminary