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

Niditch, Susan, The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). Pp. 200. Hardcover. US$49.99. ISBN: 978-0-300166-36-1.

In The Responsive Self, Susan Niditch explores the privatization and personalization of religion through the biblical literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. Her broader goal is to better understand the representation of the self in this literature, which she argues is richly and broadly attested in the periods of increased literary production following the periods of exile under Babylonian and Persian domination. “Upheaval and instability,” she begins, “are wellsprings of personal and cultural creativity” (p. 1). Niditch adopts two primary methodological frameworks for interrogating this representation: “lived religion,” based primarily on publications from Robert Orsi and Meredith McGuire, and the related “material religion,” drawing mainly from the research of Colleen McDannell.[1] The former deals with religion as practiced by the individual as opposed to the community or state (although this is a spectrum, not a dichotomy), while the latter engages specifically with the material dimension of the practice of religion. Both frameworks shift attention from the “official religion” of institutions and nations to the “personal religion” of individuals and families.

Following the Introduction, Niditch's exploration is divided into seven case studies that employ particular frameworks for understanding the conceptualization and representation of the individual. The first, entitled “Sour Grapes, Suffering, and Coping with Chaos,” uses two references to “sour grapes” that cause the teeth of children to “twinge” (Ezek 18:2; Jer 31:29) as a springboard into a discussion about the genre of the māšāl and how it may have informed contemplation of the problem of evil on each side of the division between the individual and the community. Niditch suggests the authors were concerned with both the corporate and individual dimensions of sin and suffering. (This straddling of both ends of the spectrum of “personal” and “official” characterizes many of the literary conventions from these time periods.)

The next case study, “Personal Religion in Ecclesiastes and Job,” further explores the problem of evil by interrogating the representation of the individual within two of the Hebrew Bible's most thorough meditations on theodicy, Ecclesiastes and Job. Taking both books as integrated wholes, Niditch is concerned with their reflection of conventional wisdom regarding the world, death, and fairness, and particularly how they represent individual perspectives on those themes. Each book makes extensive use of the first person, of self-reflection, and of corporeal and visceral imagery related to suffering and to death. This is indicative, for Niditch, of a “rich engagement” with the experiences of the individual (p. 52).

In her third case study, “From Incantation and Lament to Autobiography,” Niditch applies a form-critical framework to the genres of incantation and lament to tease out additional autobiographical features of the literature composed in the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. Niditch dwells only briefly on Aramaic incantation bowls, but they are plotted with Job and the lament genre along the trajectory to autobiography. All three groups of texts reflect on and respond to the misfortunes and trials of the human condition. The majority of the chapter focuses on the lament, and particularly the way conventional literary imagery is employed in the expression of individual distress and anguish. While these laments “lack particularity” (p. 60), one can sense that the experience of the individual is straining against the stock literary frameworks of earlier periods.

The fourth case study, “The Negotiating Self,” interrogates the practice of vows and vowing, which Niditch argues sits at the intersection of the “private and institutional dimensions of religion” (p. 73). Examining vows during war, votive offerings, and (in the lengthiest section) Nazarite vows, she argues that vowing crossed borders of class and gender to empower the individual to establish a personal channel of communication with the deity. Niditch focuses on the way the biblical text represents the use of the vow by women, particularly as an assertion of religious power. Priestly classes, however, were not far behind in seeking ways to limit that power.

Niditch's fifth case study looks at the material dimensions of the personal religion of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods. Other chapters have touched upon the materiality of lived religion, but here Niditch gives the framework center stage. The clearest data are those associated with burials and the instruments and objects left behind. However, Niditch also focuses on the material dimensions of writing and drawing, dedicating most of the chapter to the graffiti and inscriptions of Khirbet Beit Lei, and particularly to the way they may have converged with other material aspects of the site to enrich the personal religious experiences of its visitors. Niditch then briefly examines the uses of materiality in the symbolic acts and performances of the prophetic texts of Zechariah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. A short conclusion discusses the historical context of symbolic visions and sign acts. Niditch wonders if the reemphasis on, and innovations of, these motifs reflect new approaches to the suffering of Judah and the distance and hiddenness of God during the exilic period.

The penultimate case study, “Experiencing the Divine Personally,” uses a diachronic approach to the theme of theophany to examine the overlap between “official” and “unofficial” religion and to make the case that a “diversity among modes of religious expression” undermines the traditional dichotomous understanding of the two domains (p. 107). Also in view is the relationship of literary convention to personal experience, with the divine council serving as an illustration of the development toward a more personalized use of the type-scene. Isaiah 6, Ezek 1–4, and Dan 7 trace this trajectory, described as the movement from publicly available prophecy to apocalyptic vision sealed up for the select few.

The final case study, “Characterization and Contrast,” argues that late-biblical narratives display more concern for the development of their characters and their stories. Niditch first contrasts the stories of Ruth and Tamar, who are both childless widows who shrewdly navigate their patriarchal contexts to facilitate offspring. While Tamar—the earliest story—is characterized as a trickster whose story progresses in short and rapid segments, Ruth's story is a much slower narrative about intimacy and personal motivations. Jonah provides another example of late-biblical narrative, and there the author draws heavily from the prophetic genre, but uses the associated conventions in unexpected ways—pairing them with lament, for instance—to paint Jonah as an anti-prophet in a much more nuanced, personalized, and even amusing story about human relationships and the need for empathy.

In her Conclusion, Niditch summarizes the findings of her case studies, identifying several features that recur within the late-biblical literature under discussion, including imagery of embodiment, use of first-person speech, challenges to conventional ideas about suffering and sin, focus on character interiority in narratives, and others. These considerations contribute to the thesis that the Babylonian exile and Persian domination catalyzed periods of extensive literary creativity and production. These compositions made use of traditional literary conventions in responding to the crises of exile, but in novel ways that served growing interest in the embodied, material, and experiential dimensions of religious life.

The Responsive Self is ultimately concerned with the way different aspects of personal religion can be teased out of the fuzzy boundaries that mediate the traditional dichotomies that biblical scholarship has constructed to simplify the study of the Hebrew Bible. While not directly engaging the modern construction of the religious/secular dichotomy—or indeed the reification of the concept of religion itself—Niditch's study does engage a dizzying array of considerations that could each be unpacked into their own volume. While leaving the reader wanting more, Niditch's methodological sensitivity and precision constitute a master class for junior scholars and offer up a variety of topics for further development, including the appropriation of conventional literary forms for the rhetorical overturning of conventional themes, the interrogation of the material dimensions of text, and the role of gender in crossing traditional ideological boundaries.

Daniel O. McClellan, University of Exeter

[1] Robert Orsi, “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live In?” JSSR 42.2 (2003), 169–74; Meredith B. McGuire, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). reference