Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Mills, Mary E., Urban Imagination in Biblical Prophecy (LHBOTS, 560; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2012). Pp. xii + 252. Hardcover. US$130.00. ISBN: 978-0-567-1141-8.

Urban Imagination in Biblical Prophecy by UK scholar Mary Mills is concerned with the spatial aesthetics of biblical texts. In particular it aims “to explore…the embedded urban setting of written prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament” (p. ix). Mills draws on some of the theoretical resources of cultural geography to investigate the symbolic cityscapes depicted by biblical prophetic literature. In particular, the concept of the “urban imaginary” taken from the field of psycho-geography enables her to highlight “the varieties of city life which are constructed by an imaginative response to an urban environment” (p. ix).

In the short Introduction, Mills explains her rationale for using a modern discipline such as cultural geography to explore biblical urban concerns. Despite the considerable difference between modern and ancient cities, both are spaces that are constructed by means of imaginative responses to a particular environment, and, suggests Mills, her findings regarding biblical cities may offer insights for contemporary readers into modern urban life. The rest of the book falls into four parts: the first and fourth parts are concerned with establishing frameworks and parameters for the analysis, whilst the middle two parts comprise exploration of a number of biblical cityscapes. The work concludes with a bibliography, index of references, and index of authors.

Part 1 elaborates on two approaches drawn from cultural geography that are central to Mills's task: urban psycho-geography and the notion of urban “flaneur” or “drifter” (ch. 2). In chapter 1, cultural geographer Steven Pile's book Real Cities, with its emphasis on the role of imagination in examining urban identity, is used as a lens through which to read prophetic depictions of the city.[1] Chapter 2 develops the idea of the prophet as flaneur, drawing on the work of cultural critics Walter Benjamin and Peter Ackroyd.[2] Here, the focus is on the way in which a city is depicted from the perspective of one who is both part of the community, yet separate from it, exemplified in the prophetic ministries of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

In Part 2 of the book, the role of space and place in the prophetic imagination is discussed, with particular regard to the twin icons of city and temple. Chapter 3 focuses on the cosmic and political models of the city in a range of prophetic texts and the tensions between divine and human authority that are depicted through the texts. In chapter 4, Mills draws the work of social thinker Gaston Bachelard into dialogue with the prophet Ezekiel's two tours of the temple, resulting in a more subjective analysis of the role of spatial tools for evaluating human urban existence.[3] The book of Joel is the subject of chapter 5, which examines the role of religious ritual in the restoration of temple-city culture, and in the transformation from fear to hope.

Part 3 moves on from the wider considerations of the first two parts to offer three individual case studies of the prophetic treatment of city-space, namely the great city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah (ch. 6), the simulated visionary city of Zech 1–8 (ch. 7), and the symbolism of death, memorial, and graves in the Minor Prophets (ch. 8). In each case, Mills draws on the work of contemporary cultural geographers and philosophers to inform, and interact with, her reading of the biblical texts.

In Part 4 we return to more a conceptual analysis of certain issues pertaining to the book's overall theme of prophetic imagination. Chapter 9 examines nature imagery and the theme of creation in prophetic books, drawing on geographer Denis Cosgrove's approach to the interplay between vision and geography.[4] The final chapter (ch. 10) brings together several elements from the rest of the book and asks whether the various individual urban portraits already considered constitute a single reality, namely the city in biblical prophecy. Mills concludes that, although there is no one blueprint for all cities in the prophetic books, a number of themes dominate. These include the importance of the urban temple to provide a link between urban space and cosmic space, the depictions of violence and the destruction of the city, and the prevalence of the imagery of fertility and abundance functioning as a critique of urban society.

This book draws on an impressively wide range of studies in cultural geography and related disciplines and makes the case for using them to illuminate the biblical text. However, as with many studies that aim to relate the ancient to the postmodern, some of the links are more tenuous than others, and it is not always easy to see how text and theory connect. The reader's imagination as well as that of the biblical prophets is in demand to make sense of what is often a confusing interplay between disparate worlds.

Hilary Marlow, University of Cambridge

[1] Steve Pile, Real Cities: Modernity, Space, and the Phantasmagorias of City Life (London: Sage, 2005). reference

[2] Walter Benjamin and Peter Demetz (eds.), Reflections, Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (trans. Edmund Jephcott; New York: Shocken, 1978); Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (London: Penguin, 1993). reference

[3] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (trans. Maria Jolas; Boston: Beacon, 1994). reference

[4] Dennis Cosgrove, Geography of Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World (New York: I. B. Taurus, 2010). reference