“How Repentance Became Biblical” by David A. Lambert

RepentDavid A. Lambert. How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, & the Interpretation of Scripture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 280 pp., $74.00 (hardcover).

David Lambert (PhD Harvard University) is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina’s Department of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill. A brief view of his previous publications highlight his interest in penitential practices especially in the Dead Sea Scrolls and New Testament. In How Repentance Became Biblical, Lambert aims to draw out a common interpretive tendency among biblical critics, namely to read “repentance” into the Bible with a “penitential lens”. The penitential lens, though, is based on ontological principals thrust backward through history: human subjectivity, virtue, didacticism, and autonomy. Throughout the work Lambert highlights these ontological assumptions “to witness ourselves reading a variety of texts and… gamin insight into the interpretive forms cultural hegemony assumes” (6).  Opposing these ontological assumptions, he focuses on language, comparison, and other choices in the interpreter’s present to draw out alternatives to the penitential lens. Consequently his focus in How Repentance Became Biblical is he focuses upon three elements of texts commonly connected to penitential rites: to identify penitential readings and their ontological underpinnings, explore alternative readings, and examine developments in discourse of biblical literature which brought about “repentance”.

The book is divided in to three parts: Rites, Language and Pedagogy, and Religion. Parts I and II identity part of the Bible which tend to receive penitential treatment and provides alternative interpretations. Part III shifts to early Jewish sectarianism and the rise of repentance as a concept.

Chapter One focuses on fasting, a rite commonly associated with penitence, and suggests an alternative approach: “fasting is an integrated physical-emotional response to suffering, not an outward signifier of repetance”, and directly appeals to divine mercy (17). His modern-day example is helpful as notes fasting in the Hebrew Bible as more akin to modern-day hunger strikes, fasting as a manifestation of affliction with concrete effect on those who perceive it. Lambert effectively demonstrates a major tendency to read the Bible with a penitential lens.

Chapter Two explores prayer, aptly noting its common association as penitential. Alternatively Lambert illustrates the logic of appeal behind prayer. Prayer reinforces Yahweh’s self-interest through “a mutually beneficial relationship, between the powerful and the powerless” (35). Yahweh, argues Lambert, is more interested in constancy than  sincerity or subjective quality of faith, and sin is often times nothing more than “a rhetorical strategy aimed at defusing likely criticism” (38). Portraying cries of people as desperate rather than external expression of internal repentance, Lambert also provides a valuable reconfiguration of the Judges cycle as sin-oppression-outcry-champion, a cycle focusing more on the power dynamics, the logical of appeal, and self-interest of both Israel and Yahweh. Thus, prayer is not meant “to mitigate its pain… through control over self but through social engagement – verbal articulation” (49). As I highlighted in this summary, I greatly appreciate his reconfiguration of the pre-monarchic Judges cycle as it avoids the modern penitential lens and permits a clearer view of ancient Israelite reality.

Chapter Three demonstrates how the articulation of sin, or confession, is not always about providing a statement of repentance; rather, it may be seen from three aspects: “confession as the realization of an entity’s status, as initiation of a particular social, relational state, and as participation in a broader restitutive process” (53). Lambert suggests, for example, that Joseph’s brothers confess their guilt not due to the self in them, but as declaration of existence in a state of liability and diminishment, things implicitly connected to their social standing and reality. Even in Leviticus, articulation of sin of not about consciousness of sin but the sense of danger with the presence of sin. Even David’s confession of sin to Nathan is about recognizing his diminishment and carving out a place for Yahweh to be in power. All-in-all, Lamberts alternative reading draws out the power dynamics present through the articulation of sin.

Chapter Four sifts through uses of shuv, a term commonly understood as “repent”, by reading the term as a material return, more like an appeal with a less mediated, metaphorical understanding of the inner state of repentance. This constitutes shuv as an operative image outside of covenant, especially active in the appeal and oracular inquiry. By briefly demonstrating shuv‘s relationship to materialistic, prophetic inquiry throughout the Hebrew Bible, he demonstrates early prophetic figures, Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, utilizing shuv as a physical return to prophetic inquiry (Amos), Yahwistic cult sites (Hosea), and rhetoric of appeal to Yahweh (Isaiah). Jeremiah and the DH record a shift in shuv as a cessation of sin, a state of being rather than act of internal repentance.

Chapter Five re-frames the pedagogic evaluation of prophetic utterance by applying to the theory of divine anthropopathy to Yahweh and prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. Often times through passionate anger, Lambert argues that “oracles themselves… stake out the power of Israel’s god and the contours of his reign, his very identity, as well as the reasons for people’s current state” (101). He provides support with the Mari letters, in which the prophet’s devouring of a living lamb materializes the anthropopathy of the deity’s anger and promised devastation at the city, just like Moses’ destroying the golden calf and Samuel destroying Agag. Lambert’s analysis of Moses as Yahweh’s warrior in Exodus,  the DH rendering of prophetic words of doom with no reversal, Isaiah’s words of doom as words of power, and Jonah’s parody of prophecy effectively highlights prophecy in relation to power, namely the anthropopathism portrayed by prophets that attaches collective guilt through words of power. Problematic, though, is the historical disconnect between the letter from Mari (18th century BCE) and the historical kernels in Exodus and 1 Samuel. If Lambert is going to connect such distant literature through the phenomenon of prophecy, he must demonstrate that their was no shift or development in prophetic utterance for nearly one thousand years.

Having considered and critiqued the influence of a penitential lens through practices (fasting, logic of appeal, and articulation of sin), linguistic terms (shuv), and public address (pedagogy), Lambert proceeds to the articulation of redemptive expectations as communal definition, in contrast to tendencies to explore moral demands upon individuals in a community. Redemption in Jubilees, for example, aims not at redemption through the agent of repentance but God’s direct  transformation and re-creation of the community. Jubilees does, however, hint toward individual liability. Likewise, the community imagined by the Dead Sea Scrolls did not take on moral/religious desideratum for community, but assumed a transformation through things like the hadayot and immersion. Lambert’s analysis of the early Jesus movement compares the Gospels and Q to emphasize that the original “baptism of repentance” was about repentance as the consequence of baptism. Even Jesus’ ministry was not about repentance but “one of joining Jesus, attaching oneself to his body of followers” (147). Paul echoes early ideas of “repentance” as a consequence and begins to expand this idea with Hellenistic thought. All-in-all, the notion of divine re-creation is consistent in these texts. Lambert challenges readers of the New Testament to reconsider the penitential lens with clearly explained and explored alternative interpretation.

Finally, Chapter 7 locates the emergence of a “repentance” concept within 1st and 2nd century CE Jewish and Christian literature as an offspring of Hellenistic metanoia. Throughout the works of Philo and Plutarch, meanoia is the internal pain of mind that causes one to change or rethink. Philo and Joesph and Aseneth take the concept of repentance with hypostatization. Even terms like shuv become similar to menanoia resulting in the term as representing “repentance”. Rabbinic Judaism aquires repents, thus, as the concept of teshuva, which requires one to change via their own cognition. Early Christianity also comes to understand Jesus as the hypostatization of the figure Metanoia. From Hellenistic moral philosophy to Christianity and Judaism, repentance became an internal acts of change, and idea that is often, unfortunately, universalized.

As I hope is evident through this review, Lambert’s nuanced analysis explores the multitude of historical contours that tend to be flattened through a penitential lens. With clarity he brings to the fore problematic readings of the Bible and also offers a variety of alternative readings aligned more closely to the texts. Challenging the current presuppositions of mainstream scholarship and laypeople, his book is groundbreaking. Akin to Jeffrey Stackert’s A Prophet Like Moses, which is now cited in most books I have read about Hebrew Bible composition, David Lambert’s work has the potential to become integral to the forward motion of biblical studies. After all, he challenges the mere idea of repentance as a concept throughout the Hebrew Bible, something that has been essential to Christianity and Judaism for centuries.

Additionally, I greatly appreciate his work with regard to the history of biblical interpretation. His dissemination of discourse and development of biblical interpretation from the oldest portions of Hebrew Bible to 3rd century Rabbinic literature issue a starting point for many future studies on the history of biblical interpretation. In addition to critiquing and answer questions, Lambert’s work raises important questions that potentially undermine (challenge?) religious traditions and the frameworks within which they operate.

Finally, with regard to framework, he takes a great step forward in moving beyond theoretical issues with “religion” as a term for discussing the ancient world. He notes that “even while this Enlightenment-inflected definition [of religion] has been challenged on theoretical ground, it continues to inform interpretation” (121). His work explores the validity of repentance throughout biblical literature does, though, provide an alternative framework which does not assume that accounts of redemptive expectations are rooted in repentance. With this framework, I look forward to seeing how other scholars utilize it and, perhaps, reconfigure it to better describe ancient Israelite religion rather than re-describing with modern assumptions.

Especially for research issues pertain to biblical interpretation, I highly recommend How Repentance Became Biblical. The invigorating discussion and innovative analysis holds potential to significantly impact the field of biblical studies. Even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, at least be sure you understand the arguments and ideas set forth by Lambert, as you will likely encounter them in the future.



4 thoughts on ““How Repentance Became Biblical” by David A. Lambert

  1. In my studies, particularly when I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, I encountered the view that repentance was a later biblical concept, that, prior to that, the idea was that Israel would suffer her punishment, then God would restore her. This is different from Israel averting her punishment through repentance. It looks like Lambert goes farther than that.

    Judging from your summary of Lambert’s book, it does not seem to me that Lambert’s observations necessarily preclude the existence of repentance in the Bible. There is still an implication that sin is wrong and that people should stop doing it. Perhaps Lambert’s contribution shows that we cannot, as you say, flatten things in the Bible and make them all about that, for there may be more facets.

  2. First of all, thanks for this great review! It’s really well done, I thought. In response to James’ excellent points, yes, there is a process in the Bible of punishment for sin, followed by restoration. What I’m trying to do is to point out that a very novel concept arises in the postbiblical world for dealing with sin, namely, the concept of repentance. It involves feeling regret over past wrongdoing and is believed to be efficacious. As you know, it becomes a huge component of both Judaism and Christianity. Then, what happens is that it becomes so significant that it gets read back into the Bible. That is not to say that there isn’t the sense in the Bible that sin is wrong and has to be removed. Of course, there is, but it’s not mental and doesn’t function in other ways the same as repentance. In other words, the world over, there are multiple ways of reconciliation, but there are differences between how that works in the Bible and in the postbiblical world, where the proper notion of “repentance” really derives.

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