“The Responsive Self” by Susan Niditch

Susan Niditch. The Responsive Self: Personal Religion in Biblical Literature of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, vii + 190, (hardcover).

*I would like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Susan Niditch, Professor and Chair of Religion at Amherst College, explores the various self-expressions of lived religion in the Jewish, post-exilic environment. With research interests and works in the ancient Near East, early Judaism, and the body in ancient Judaism, Niditch’s exploration of lived religion in ancient Israel during the post-exilic period is an excellent study in continuity with her interests and previous publications.  The Responsive Self is a prime example of solid scholarship which draws out the personal and lived elements of ancient Israel.

Niditch’s work emerges from Lived Religion, the work of  sociologist of religion Meredith B. McGuire, and McGuire’s discussion regarding the complex dynamics between concrete practice, diversity, official and unofficial. Her analysis and case studies of lived religion are guided by five bearings: physical environment, authorial declaration about material culture, “non-Judean Jews”, the role of Persian culture to Yehud,  and chronology.

The first case study is based on a folkloric and contextualized reading that demonstrates the theodicy focus  and innovative approach to lived religion dealing with sin in the works of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In its engagement with Job and Qohelet, Chapter Two analyzes their appropriation of conventional wisdom, with special regard for death, and illustrates how their critical self-evaluation exemplifies lived religion, rather than communal or balance, in a post-exilic context. Chapter Three’s examination of lament as means of incantation traces the self-representative trajectory from incantation to autobiography in Jeremiah’s confession and Nehemiah’s memoir. With regard to vowing and personal religion, Chapter Four discusses personal, lived religion and its dynamics between personal and public religion in Nazirite and votive offerings.

In the following chapter, Niditch presents post-exilic burial art and graffiti, symbolic visions of Zechariah, and sign acts of Jeremiah to illustrate the lived religion of ancient Israel through materials. Chapter Six examines prophetic encounters with the divine realm, which paradoxically reflects cultural conceptions of religious experience and personal reflection, and the concurrent and interactive dynamics of official and unofficial religion. Chapter Seven draws out the self-characterization in Ruth’s narrative, as opposed to Tamar’s narrative, and the book of Jonah, both of which express thoughts of emotion rather than ritual reflective of emotion. Her work, thus, explores the patterns of culture and humanities capacity to adjust traditions to their sociohistorical setting and skillfully draws out the complexities between the communal and individual, material and meta-physical, and self-expression in religion as lived.

One of the most praiseworthy successes The Responsive Self is her ability to make significant the religious lives of ancient authors. Rather than subjecting texts to critical analysis to the end of critique, Niditch draws out the humanity of the post-exilic texts. For example, regarding nonbiblical incantaion, she notes that “these texts implicitly offer reasons for life’s challenges and testify to the human need for such explanations” (54). So beyond mere textual analysis, her work demonstrate the breadth of human experience, a most notable and consistent aspect in her work.

With regard to analysis, the only point which should have been more fully explored how allusions to the combat myth seen in the raging Sea contributed to the self-expression of the book of Jonah. As Debra Ballentine has recently explored, the combat myth is appropriated by a variety of audiences and is not necessarily universally under the banner of Chaoskampf. Were Niditch to consider this in her analysis of Jonah, it would have demonstrated better how authors utilized older traditions innovatively to express the self.

Apart from the minor issue with analysis about the book of Jonah, Susan Niditch expertly, skillfully, and creatively explores the dynamics of lived religion in the neo-Babylonian and Persian periods, drawing out a variety of approaches to lived religion in the post-exilic period. Her work will be beneficial especially to scholars of Jewish studies, humanities and religion, and even world literature. Rather than restricting herself to academic analysis in a manner limited to academic audiences, she opens up the world of the post-exilic period to readers. In drawing out the variety of approaches to life and religion, any person can read her work and know that 2,500 years ago people wrestled with the same issues people do in the modern era. To know that one is within the constant stream of human thought allows Niditch’s work to act almost as a catharsis for readers: humanity is not alone in non-understanding of why, but is always united in non-understanding of why.

“Ruth” by L. Daniel Hawk

L. Daniel Hawk. Ruth. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, August 2015, 158 pp., $24.00 (hardcover).

*I would like to express my gratitude to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a review copy of Ruth.

L. Daniel Hawk’s commentary on Ruth is a valuable contribution to the study of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Megilloth.  He currently teaches at Ashland Theological Seminar as the professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. Prior to his commentary on Ruth, he contributed one commentary and an analysis on the book of Joshua. From a Christian Canonical perspective, then, Hawk seems the best option to write the commentary on Ruth for the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series. This series is oriented towards preachers, teachers, and students whilst focusing on the original text, providing a tool for the academy and pulpit. This commentary, therefore, does approach the book with a theological bias of geared for ecumenical purposes; however, the work is still valuable for those outside of a church context.

His introduction provides a framework to understand his approach to Ruth. Importantly, he considers Ruth to have been composed in a post-exilic era, between the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. He also introduces an important through line of his hermeneutic, namely the idea of Center and Periphery and of the value of Ruth for a post-exilic audience. Each chapter of Ruth is then divided into five sections: a unique translation, verse notes, form and structure, comments, and explanation. For the more advanced readers the verse notes provide higher level, scholarly notes on translations and interpretive issues. Similarly, the form and structure and comments provide discussion that is simpler, yet still somewhat challenging for the unexperienced reader. The explanation category is convenient because it, based off of the previous information, synthesizes the elements discussed in previous categories. In effect, his division of the chapters in Ruth provide the less experienced or scholarly oriented reader to grasp the  essence of his interpretations.

There are several strong elements to his analysis and interpretation of the book of Ruth. First of all, his focus on ethnicity and identity and its intricate and complex dynamics between the Other and Self, the Center and Periphery, is unique and provides clear explanation of the movement of the Ruth narrative. Secondly, he draws on many discussions from past scholars and summarizes well scholarship up to this point, making his work valuable for those even beginning study of Ruth and the Megilloth. Third, because much of his work is rooted in the historiography of Joshua, Hawk presents a full picture of how Ruth interacts with various themes through the Hebrew Bible.

There are, though, two main weaknesses of his work. First, he does not discuss, or even reference, the use of Ruth through traditions. While he does touch upon the fact that Ruth is associated with Passover, he does not explicate this point nor examine the implications for its associations with the feast. In doing so, he effectively sidelines an element and theme in Ruth which many would consider to be of primary significance (58). Second, and more significantly, Hawk assumes, and hence concludes, that Ruth is a polemic book over and against the ideas found within the post-exilic environment. He notes that “Ruth as a whole opposes law with narrative, a fixed identity with a flexible identity, and a rigid hermeneutic with an expansive one” (137). This sort of conclusion demonstrates not how Ruth understands the Law in the post-exilic context, but how he understands the Law in the 21st century. His conclusion about the book of Ruth fits in with a comment about the value of law and religiosity by Mark Elliot: “Why one seems reluctant to see law as religious and the religious as legal perhaps says more about our sensibilities” (“Atonement” in OEBT, 62). In the case of Hawk’s comment, his conclusion that Ruth opposes the law and fixed identity demonstrates his failure to see the value of law in Ruth. This is likely due to his focus on demonstrating how chapter four of Ruth connects to Jesus and the Church.

But how can the ideas in Ruth be explained in light of Ezra-Nehemiah? A solution to consider is to recognize the dialogical nature of Ruth. Unlike some biblical authors who may, more or less, disagree with each other polemically on certain points, the author of Ruth illustrates an example of lived religion whilst still operating in the confines of Law and tradition. Essentially, unlike Hawk’s understanding that Ruth is polemical against Ezra-Nehemiah’s ideas on identity, ethnicity, and law, it is better to understand Ruth as engaging in dialogue with Ezra-Nehemiah’s ideas on identity, ethnicity and law. To interpret it otherwise is to misconstrue the text into what it is not based on ones own context and understanding of the Law and its value.

In conclusion, while Hawk’s commentary on Ruth is full of depth and analysis that provide clearer comprehension of the narrative, one must wonder to what extent his purpose effect his conclusions. This concern is apparent in his conclusion which focuses extensively on Ruth’s opposition to Law in the post-exilic context. Hawk explains this by noting that Ruth focuses on the Law as means to an certain end rather than the end in and of itself (140). This still, though, demonstrates his own sensibilities about the value of performing and living Law for Ezra-Nehemiah and other anti-foreign traditions in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Thus, his conclusions about the book of Ruth as a whole are not incredibly strong or reliable as they deviate from the text and context. Yet this is no reason to dismiss the value of his commentary on Ruth. Because his commentary is the most recent on Ruth, it is valuable to scholars and students hoping to catch up with scholarship in a work that covers the form, language, and intertextuality quite well. His contribution to Ruth and study of the Hebrew Bible may not contain the strongest conclusions, but it definitely provides necessary, thorough discussion of Ruth and its study, and is easily accessible to any reader or student of the Bible.