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

Ben Zvi, Ehud and Christoph Levin (eds.), Remembering and Forgetting in Early Second Temple Judah (FAT, 85; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012). Pp xiv + 360. Cloth. €99.00. ISBN 978-3-16151-909-3.

How can the field of memory research shed light on the Bible? This is an area of growing interest in biblical studies, one to which the present volume seeks to speak. The volume itself is a collection of essays from a 2011 workshop in Munich, the focus of which was early Second Temple Judah. Seen as influential in the development and formation of the Hebrew Bible, this era thus produced key texts for “construct[ing] a memory of the past that was central for self-identity and social reproduction within the community” (p. 1).

The volume contains two types of essays. The first type is the methodological and theoretical, and while there are only two such chapters, they nicely bookend the volume (Ehud Ben Zvi, “Remembering the Prophets through the Reading and Rereading of a Collection of Prophetic Books in Yehud: Methodological Considerations and Explorations,” pp. 17–44; and Francis Landy, “Notes Towards a Poetics of Memory in Ancient Israel,” pp. 331–45). The second type of essay is more applied, analyzing particular texts in light of pertinent memory research. This latter category comprises the body of the book and is divided into two further emphases: the prophetic books and “other ancient Israelite corpora.”

In the introduction and first chapter, Ehud Ben Zvi sets out the trajectory of the collection. He especially highlights the desire to focus on memory and forgetting, rightly noting that the aspect of forgetting, though just as important, is often neglected. Another important point of emphasis is the diversity of approaches by contributors. Ben Zvi summarizes this diversity as ranging from essays using memory studies merely to advance “ ‘traditional’ approaches” to ones that offer “a way to trailblaze new approaches” (p. 2).

Ben Zvi's first substantial chapter explores the issue of remembering the prophets. How and why are fifteen prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve) particularly remembered? Ben Zvi expresses well the significance of this topic:

The prophetic books were…meant to socialize their intended readers into a general, shared mindscape. One of the main ways in which they did so was to shape and evoke social memory. This shared social memory contributed much to the process of constant formation of communal identity. At the same time the particular shared social memory instilled in the remembering group ways of thinking, organizing knowledge, construing questions and ways to address them—in other words, an ideological, comprehensive viewpoint that we may call social mindscape. (p. 18)

The question Ben Zvi addresses—how the Bible itself was meant to serve as a “site of memory” for shaping Israel's identity—is of critical importance. And the fact that biblical scholars have largely neglected it only serves to highlight the question's significance. Ben Zvi's essay is therefore a helpful contribution in seeing the Bible not only as a memory product but also as a memory producer.

If Ben Zvi's essay serves to open the volume, then Francis Landy's is a fitting conclusion. Landy especially speaks to this idea of the text as a site of memory, seeking to develop a “poetics of memory” in the Bible. By this he means addressing a series of key issues concerning the text and memory, including: the thematics of memory (when is it spoken of and why?); the techniques of memorizing envisioned by the text; the relationship between semantic and episodic memory; the role of sensory and emotive elements; and the interaction between individual and collective memories (p. 342). To me these issues are crucial, though long overlooked, in the quest to understand the Bible as an agent of memory. That Landy has raised them here is both welcome and helpful. With this said, there are other areas of his essay that might give us pause. Especially in view is Landy's use of memory scholarship. As the foundation of his theoretical discussion, for instance, Landy employs Pascal Boyer.[1] While Boyer interacts widely with memory theory, his own specialty is not memory per se but rather its role in human religiosity. It is perhaps for this reason that Landy portrays some ideas as standard when they are not necessarily so (e.g., the equating of memory with imagination [p. 335 n. 20]). Instead of Boyer, one would have expected to find someone like Daniel Schacter representing the standard positions of memory theory.[2]

Despite Ben Zvi's and Landy's framing of the collection, however, the rest of the essays do not necessarily follow suit. This is not to say that the scholarship is subpar; indeed, many of the essays are fine examples of biblical scholarship. What is more, many of them identify key areas in which biblical studies might benefit from memory theory. Friedhelm Hartenstein (“YHWH's Ways and New Creation in Deutero-Isaiah,” pp. 73–89) and Christoph Levin (“Days are Coming, When It Shall No Longer Be Said,” pp. 105–24), for instance, discuss the tension between the text's seemingly contradictory exhortations to remember and not remember. William Morrow addresses the question of the enigmatic “book of remembrance” in Mal 3:16 (“Memory and Socialization in Malachi 2:17–3:5 and 3:13–21,” pp. 125–42). Diana Edelman explores the mnemonic relationship between Pesach-Massot and the exodus (“Exodus and Pesach-Massot as Evolving Social Memory,” pp. 161–93).

The problem, though, is that the essays rarely employ memory theory in ways integral to their studies. A couple of notable exceptions are the chapters by Sonya Kostamo (“Remembering Interactions Between Ahaz and Isaiah,” pp. 55–72) and Kåre Berge (“The Anti-Hero as a Figure of Memory and Didacticism in Exodus: The Case of Pharaoh and Moses,” 145–60). But apart from these one looks in vain for sustained interaction with memory scholarship and careful application to the Bible. I do not think it unfair, therefore, to ask whether the studies are truly forays into memory theory and the Bible or traditional pursuits (especially regarding editorial processes) repackaged in mnemonic language.

In the end, although the volume might not deliver exactly what one expects, it does offer several helpful aspects. The essay by Ben Zvi, for one, provides a good entry point for scholars unfamiliar with the field of memory studies. Being well versed in that field, Ben Zvi serves as a reliable and accessible guide. Furthermore, his chapter references a host of his other work on the topic of memory and the Hebrew Bible and so provides the reader with many resources. If Ben Zvi's chapter gives us a foundation for studying memory and the Bible, then Landy's shows us what our trajectory ought to be. In particular his key emphases on the poetics of memory, summarized above, ought to shape our pursuits going forward. In my opinion, it is in following those paths that we will begin to make significant gains in understanding the Bible as a “book of memory.” And finally, the remaining essays in the volume provide a good resource for identifying key textual phenomena. In offering detailed discussions of the phenomena, they would prove valuable if coupled with a poetics of memory approach.

A.J. Culp, Yellowstone Theological Institute

[1] Landy seems to rely heavily on one of Boyer's essays: “What are Memories for? Functions of Recall in Cognition and Culture,” in Pascal Boyer and James V. Wertsch (eds.) Memory in Mind and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 3–32. reference

[2] Schacter has written much on the topic of memory, but his two popular-level books are probably the best entry point: Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past (New York: Basic Books, 1996) and The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002). reference