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

McGuinn, Sheila E., Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan, and Ahida Calderón Pilarski (eds.), By Bread Alone: The Bible through the Eyes of the Hungry (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014). Pp. 224. Paperback. US$29.00. ISBN 978-1-4514-6550-1.

This volume, consisting of an introduction plus ten contributions addressing HB/OT and NT texts, grew out of the collaboration of the Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics Task Force of the Catholic Biblical Association, beginning at the CBA's 2008 meeting. Given the paltry amount of publications addressing questions of hunger in biblical studies, this volume's contribution of additional voices to the conversation represents a welcome development.

The editors describe the purpose of the volume's essays as an attempt “…to help the contemporary, first-world reader develop a different field of vision for the biblical texts—one that sees and hears those who hunger, both those mentioned or intimated in the texts and those in our own world today” (p. 6, italics original). This approach draws on the foundation laid in the first essay, Kathleen O'Connor's “Let All the Peoples Praise You: Biblical Studies and a Hermeneutics of Hunger” (a previously published presidential address of the CBA), which adopts the notion of “double-contextualization” of the value of the biblical texts only when the reader keeps their own sociopolitical situation in view (p. 11). Furthermore, the essays adopt a confessional stance that influences their approach with regard to the importance of the biblical texts for contemporary political action.

I found the description of the process behind the publication (described in the Introduction, pp. 3–4) quite intriguing. Given that the majority of academic work takes place in relative isolation, the concrete communal engagement addressing biblical exegesis offers a positive experiment into possible ways forward with regard to the practice of interpretation. Much of the rest of the Introduction attempts to move beyond a hermeneutics of suspicion to a “hermeneutics of hunger,” which allows for a sense of hope, summed up in the quote of Dorothee Sölle, found on p. 11, “the hermeneutic of hunger is in search of nourishment.”[1]

As noted already, the first essay, Kathleen O'Connor's “Let All the Peoples Praise You: Biblical Studies and a Hermeneutics of Hunger” is a reprint of her 2009 presidential address to the Catholic Biblical Association. The essay proposes a higher degree of theological interest in biblical exegesis to accompany modern developments in historical-critical methodology. The “hermeneutics of hunger” offers one such form of this theological investigation. As an example, the essay then considers several divergent modern historical-critical interpretations of Gen 11:1–9, all of which O'Connor views as claiming too much, in that they claim to articulate the point of the text (p. 27), something Gen 11:1–9 thwarts. Instead of taking this conflict of interpretations to indicate the futility of historical-critical exegesis, O'Connor advocates for a plurality of contextualized (rather than abstract) voices. Specifically, Babel stands for many things—positive and negative—in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the problem comes when “The city and tower with its head in the heavens tries to impose false unity…,” a situation O'Connor applies metaphorically to the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, this essay has little to do with hunger, at least directly, instead using the image in a metaphorical sense. One question that does arise from my reading is how O'Connor's proposed hermeneutic draws some boundaries for appropriate or felicitous interpretations. While she does employ some textual analysis and affirms the “cross-cultural conversation” rightly highlighted by the historical-critical approach, she does not articulate with any precision how this classic approach melds together with more recent audience-centered perspectives.

J. L. Manzo's “Feeding the Poor in Isaiah 58:1–9a: A Call to Justice, Mercy, and True Worship” addresses one of the key texts about hunger, fasting, and justice in Israel's Scriptures. “The essay will study the theological meaning of feeding the poor as it is developed with the themes of ‘fasting and worship’ in Isa. 58:1–9a,” (p. 36). While the essay walks through Isa 58 section-by-section, in an unfortunate turn Manzo assumes that Isa 58 bases its critique on the view of the land as a covenantal gift, without demonstrating any awareness within Isa 58 of particularly covenantal themes or language. The essay especially relates the prophetic critiques to Deuteronomy's legal tenets for treating debt slaves and society's liminal groups. Such a reading misses the message of Isa 58. While concern for one's “brother” is central in the received text of Deuteronomy, fasting is not part of Deuteronomy's vision and the key irony of the Isaiah passage between fasting and sharing bread with the hungry (vv. 6–7) offers little terminological similarity with Deuteronomy.

Carol J. Dempsey attempts to bring together a prophetic description of drought and modern experiences of water depletion in “From Drought to Starvation (Jer 14:1–9): A National Experience, a Global Reality.” While not clearly stated in Jer 14:1–9, nor in some of the cross references mentioned such as Gen 12; 26 (neither of which even mentions a drought!), Dempsey implies that people's violation of covenant generally lies at the root of the famines/hunger and droughts in biblical texts (pp. 52–53). Given that no cause appears in Gen 12 and 26, and that Jer 14 does not state this connection either, the relationship between human action and drought/famine in such cases could benefit from more detailed discussion. More compelling is Dempsey's unpacking of the lament imagery in vv. 2–6, which includes symbols of social (“covering heads”), geological (cracking ground), and biological features (does abandoning their young). The latter part of Dempsey's essay turns to modern times. There is some inconsistency here: she states that “drought conditions have adversely affected agriculture, resulting in…dwindling reserves” (p. 59), but she then provides a quote that begins “While grain harvests have reached record levels…” (p. 59) without reconciling the discrepancy. Similar calls for careful analysis and articulation could strengthen the remainder of the argument as well.

The next contribution, “War, Famine and Baby Stew: A Recipe for Disaster in the Book of Lamentations” by Lauress L. Wilkins argues “…that starvation is intentionally used against the besieged city both to decimate Zion's people and to demoralize the city's leaders and defenders. This rhetoric, furthermore, challenges the moral authority of YHWH the Divine Warrior…” (p. 68). Wilkins finds the contemporary purpose of such a description in that “The book of Lamentations offers chilling reminders of the suffering of war victims and strong support for the church's continued demand for social justice, human rights, and the dignity of all people…in our war-torn world” (p. 69). She begins with a helpful demonstration of the longstanding tradition in the ancient Near East of hunger language in Mesopotamian city-laments. Wilkins then highlights the very terminology and imagery of hunger vs. consumption in Lamentations, allowing the importance of this theme to emerge from the language of the book itself. To take one example, her reading of Lam 4:9–10—where mothers performed acts of compassion in boiling their children (“Happier were those pierced by the sword than those pierced by hunger. The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.”)—provides an insightful interpretation of a tragic text (p. 81). As a result of her attention to the biblical texts, Wilkins establishes a solid foundation both to bolster modern Catholic condemnations of war due to their effects on the civilian populations and to critique the absence of Lam 1–2; 4–5 from the Catholic lectionary, which results in the muting of the voice of suffering.

The final essay concerning OT/HB texts comes in Bradley C. Gregory's “Social and Theological Aspects of Hunger in Sirach.” He sets out to show that Ben Sira's elite status does not limit his concern to his own demographic. Instead, earlier biblical traditions concerning poverty and social justice influence the book's views on hunger. Gregory notes how Ben Sira advocates moderation for the elite, though one might dispute this given the advice of Sir 14:14 not to deprive oneself of daily delights—hardly moderation. The most helpful connection in the essay appears in demonstrating how Ben Sira goes beyond the provision of Deut 24:14–15's for the poor in Sir 34:25–27, equating the withholding of wages with murder.

As the remainder of the contributions address New Testament texts, they will not be addressed in this review.

In summary, the volume addresses an under investigated topic within biblical studies in considering hunger. Given the ongoing plight of too many individuals, families, and communities in our current world, I can only applaud the authors and editors for attempting to address the issue with the biblical resources at our disposal. However, the contributions vary in their level of success in bringing together the “double-contextualization,” often eschewing the details of the biblical texts, perhaps out of the praiseworthy desire to address the modern situation. Yet it appears to me that the most successful contribution in addressing the contemporary world was the very essay that accorded the most attention to the particularities of the biblical text. In the end, the volume demonstrates the perpetual Scylla and Charybdis of overemphasis on either past or present in the practice of biblical exegesis.

Peter Altmann, University of Zurich/Hope Center for Spiritual Formation

[1] Dorothee Sölle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (trans. Barbara Rumscheidt and Martin Rumscheidt; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 51. reference