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

Wu, Daniel Y., Honor, Shame, and Guilt: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Book of Ezekiel (BBRS, 14; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016). Pp. xii+228. Cloth. US$47.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-437-6.

This book is a revision of a dissertation written at Moore Theological College. It seeks to assess critically the social-scientific approaches to honor and shame adopted and popularized by the Context Group.[1] These are by now quite common in the study of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and, considering their widespread nature, it is perhaps surprising that no book-length study of honor and shame in the book of Ezekiel—perhaps the most shame-obsessed of prophets—had yet appeared. Wu's book offers such a study in the form of a critical engagement with Context Group approaches to Ezekiel in an examination with social-scientific, semantic, and theological dimensions. This combination of approaches is fruitful but not entirely unproblematic, as will be discussed below.

First, it is necessary to applaud Wu for his attention to methodological matters. He is a critical reader of scholarship and does a more than admirable job outlining the strengths and weaknesses of social-scientific approaches to honor and shame both outside of the field of biblical studies and within it. Wu makes some very helpful suggestions about method on pp. 21–31 of the book, where he presents a “recursive” model of engagement with subject matter. According to his proposed model, one should move from approaching material from another culture from the perspective of one's own cultural conceptions (“emic A”) to imposing external frameworks to that material (“imposed etic”) to attempting to reconstruct an insider's perspective to that material (“emic B”) to then reconfiguring one's frameworks in light of that reconstructed insider perspective (“derived etic”). Finally, one must re-evaluate one's own cultural conceptions in light of this newly gained knowledge (“emic A1”) before repeating the process in an ongoing evaluation and reevaluation of one's categories, frameworks, and approaches toward both one's own cultural frameworks and one's reconstructions of the cultural frameworks of other groups. While I was somewhat surprised he did not engage with J. Z. Smith's concept of “redescription,”[2] this section was nonetheless useful and clear enough that I will likely assign it to students in advanced seminars or methods courses in the future. Wu is a very lucid writer and that is in evidence here. Furthermore, although I might take issue with minor points and omissions, his review of scholarship on honor and shame in anthropology, psychology, and biblical studies (the first fifty-seven pages of the work) is required reading for those interested in these topics. Despite a longstanding interest in shame and social status, this section did introduce me to useful scholarship of which I had not been previously aware.

That said, the book's main analysis of honor, shame, and guilt in Ezekiel did not, in my view, live up to the potential of the monograph's first section, displaying an at times infelicitous combination of social-scientific and theological methods, as well as an overall approach that was not optimal for assessing the contours of emotionality, relationality, and other cultural conceptions in Ezekiel. To take up the latter problem first, the bulk of the book consisted of semantic studies of the Hebrew words כבד ,בושׁ, and עוה. It is not clear to me, however, that word studies are the best way to approach understanding a culture's conceptions and experience of emotions. Honor and shame, as I have written elsewhere[3] are at base emotions, not “values,” and emotions are highly relational, not least of which because—as Wu cogently notes—human beings are eminently social beings even in societies that conceive of themselves as individualistic. It seems to me, then, that the best way to assess honor, shame, and guilt conceptions in Ezekiel is to explore the descriptions of relations and responses to actions, overtures, and transgressions within relationships found in the book, particularly focusing on such chapters as Ezek 16, 23, and 36. Wu does this, but as part of an examination of the meanings of the words noted, which have been commonly glossed as “honor,” “shame,” and “guilt/to be guilty,” to ascertain whether these renderings fit (sometimes they do, sometimes they do not, he concludes), as well as whether these emotions can be neatly differentiated (in his view they cannot). Because his focus is on semantics, he neglects many of the most important aspects of honor and shame dynamics in Ezekiel. For example, Wu's book says almost nothing about gender, a fact that is remarkable in light of the sexual violence described in Ezek 16 and 23. A good deal of the research on this is not even cited, arguably to the book's detriment. For example, engagement with Cynthia Chapman's The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter[4] would perhaps have kept Wu from juxtaposing theological and social-scientific approaches in the rather unhelpful manner that he does. Wu repeatedly states that social-scientific approaches to honor and shame fail in not recognizing that the status of Israelites is ultimately subject not to a public court of reputation, or “PCR”—utilizing Zeba Crook's overly wooden construct of social groups serving as arbiters of honor and shame (pp. 10–11, 14, passim)[5]—but to a divine court of reputation, or “DCR.” I suppose this is true in the minds of Ezekiel and other biblical prophets on the face of it, but whence do these prophets' conceptions of their deity derive? Chapman argues forcefully and convincingly for conceptions of Yahweh in various prophetic books having been highly influenced by ancient Near Eastern standards of masculinity. Their view of honor and shame clearly fits within this. The portrayal of Yahweh shares much in common with that of Assyrian kings, and Yahweh is depicted as having the concerns of both ancient Near Eastern monarchs and husbands. To state that Yahweh somehow stands outside of honor/shame concerns is an overtly theological stance by which Wu, it appears, attempts to sanitize the depiction of Yahweh in Ezekiel and other texts presenting Yahweh as a hypermasculinized social dominant concerned—nay, obsessed—with his status in the eyes of others. What else could Yahweh's overriding focus on his name indicate in Ezek 36 beside concerns over reputation? While Ezekiel may superficially think in terms of a “DCR” over against a “PCR,” his views of Yahweh are clearly rooted in cultural conceptions of honor and masculinity. Thus, Yahweh is subject to a “PCR” because Ezekiel cannot conceive of social status that is not tied to the view of a human audience.

Wu makes clear his evangelical Christian theological interests in the book and I commend him for being forthright about his social location and worldview. One could see my critique above as coming out of the “methodological atheism” that is normative in religious studies and not bearing any weight for those who share Wu's theological presuppositions. Still, even on theological grounds, I would contest his conclusions regarding Ezekiel's portrayal of Yahweh. If, for instance, the word חֵן is not mentioned in the book, and Ezek 36 explicitly states that Yahweh is acting on behalf of his own reputation, then why apply the category of grace to this book (p. 141 and elsewhere)? Is this really an “emic B,” a reconstruction of an Israelite's perspective, or merely, dare I say it, eisegesis with an apologetic purpose? Wu writes: “…the examination of honor, shame, and guilt in Ezekiel has also been, I hope, a helpful stimulus toward further understanding the central tenet of the Christian faith: the death of Christ for us” (p. 192). But in what way does the status-obsessed God of Ezekiel, who acts “not for your sake, O house of Israel,” but only for the sake of his own name, illuminate the death of the naked, tortured Christ? In my view, it does so with the latter serving as a rebuke to the hypermasculinized violence so pivotal to empire-building both in Ezekiel's social world and the world of Jesus, a violence that the traumatized Ezekiel could not help but assimilate and project onto his deity. To put the matter even more pointedly: a theology that does not look the violence of Ezekiel's honor and shame conceptions squarely in the face is arguably one that stands very much at odds with the image of God presented by the Gospels.

In terms of method, scholars whose interests are historical rather than theological will find parts of this book hard to digest, probably for different reasons. Nonetheless, Wu is deft enough as a writer and analyst that certain parts of the book are extremely useful even for historically-focused scholars, more useful even than a good deal of the biblical research on honor, shame, and guilt, much of which is formulaic, reductive, and stereotyping of particular cultures. One must appreciate Wu's subtle, clear-eyed approach to examining the culture of emotions, an approach that leads him to significant insights. For example, he writes, “…there are no guilt cultures and no shame cultures. Or, perhaps more accurately, all cultures are shame cultures, and all cultures are guilt cultures. Thus, what differs between them (and their individual members) is not which of these dynamics they operate on, but how these dynamics are variously configured, related, and articulated” (p. 178). This conclusion is both highly accurate and very important, and I hope biblical scholars will incorporate it into subsequent studies of both Israelite texts and Israelite culture. Although some of the approaches and methods of this book stand at odds with what social historians endeavor to achieve in their work, Wu's monograph does nevertheless in certain sections present important contributions and thus should not be ignored.

T. M. Lemos, Huron University College at Western University

[1] See reference

[2] J. Z. Smith introduces this term in his essay “Sacred Peristence,” which may be found in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 36–53, and also uses it in more recent works. reference

[3] “Cultural Anthropology: Hebrew Bible,” in Steven L McKenzie, et al. (eds.), Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 157–65. reference

[4] Cynthia Chapman, The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter (HSM, 62; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004). reference

[5] Wu cites various works by Crook, but perhaps the one most relevant is “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited,” JBL 128.3 (2009), 591–611. reference