“Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible” edited by Saul M. Olyan

RitualViolenceSaul M. Olyan (editor). Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible: New Perspectives. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015, 190 pp., $74.00 (hardcover).

Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible: New Perspective applies theoretical models of violence to the Hebrew Bible in the underexplored study of ritual violence in the Hebrew Bible. Various contributors approach ritual violence with three aims: to consider the phenomenon more broadly, what the ritual might accomplish socio-politically, and providing more interdisciplinary theoretical models to the study of ritual violence by means of the Hebrew Bible.

Debra Scoggins Ballentine (Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at Rutgers University) explores the ends which may be achieved via ritual violence. Her contribution analyzes the murder of Eshbaal in 2 Samuel 4 and David’s response. In short, she demonstrates how “ritual acts of various sorts”, including ritual violence, “involve transformation of both physiology and status”, which in the case of 2 Samuel 4 also includes “movement away from an idealized [physical] state, primarily wholeness” (10). Her analysis notes how David’s response changes the status of his relationship with Saul’s house and his punishment for Rechab and Baanah is bodily mutilation and separation. Ballentine analyzes from the perspective of the text’s world; however, I believe her argument could be strengthened by exploring what she deems to be”regular violent killing” (12) by Rechab and Baanah as acts of ritual violence. This would more accurately depict the text as it would recognize that acts of ritual violence tends to conflict each other. How do acts of ritual violence engage in conflict? While I fully agree that the text presents the murder as socially wrong, their action within the socio-political context of David’s house versus Saul’s house is just as much an act of ritual violence. The means of Rechab and Baanah is the murder of Eshbaal and the end is the solidification of Davidic rule. David’s ends and means with ritual violence are merely different than Rechab and Baanah.

Chapter Two, by T. M. Lemos (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College) focuses on the issues of population growth, land and resource scarcity, and genocide through comparison of ancient Israel and the genocide at Rwanda. By briefly exploring various factors, such as population increase and land scarcity, she demonstrates a potential reason for the emergence of some forms of ritualized violence, such as herem. She clearly demonstrates the similarities between Rwanda and ancient Israel, both of which were results of  resource scarcity, high poverty, and scapegoating of the Other. These elements resulted in the formation of group identity which sought to enact genocide, a sort of ritual violence, against the Other. Within the Hebrew Bible, as Lemos notes, “the authoritarian and centralizing agenda of Joshua rests upon starkly drawn boundaries between Israelite and outside” (44). Whether or not ancient Israel had means to actually complete this genocide is besides the point, for Joshua established precedents that would be followed by future generations. Her contribution is extremely valuable, especially as it relates to ritual, genocidal violence in Joshua. Yet there are a few contours which are undeveloped, perhaps contours open for future analysis. In his discussion of Joshua’s presentation of the Israelite and Other via the theory of genocide, she doesn’t take into account the roles of the Gideonites, Rahab, and the sin of Achan. These three images complicate her seemingly clear theoretical application of ritual violence as clear ethnic boundary markers. Additionally, there lies a question as to what cultural baggage is carried into Joshua when a genocidal framework is applied to it. Brief coverage and discussion of the cultural baggage of genocide would have made her argument more concise and clear.

Mark Leuchter (Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Jewish Studies at Temple University) analyzes Joshua’s destroying of Bethel and the priests therein to determine the ends of the means, regardless of whether or not Josiah actually performed such a campaign against Bethel. Even though Josiah’s destruction of Northern sanctuaries finds parallels in Ashurbanipal’s conquests, it is very different because Josiah does not claim hegemony and control over the land. Thus, his actions were not politically oriented. Leuchter deems the account to be an “ethno-mythology” in which ethnic borders are established through mythological imagination. As he states, “the Bethel account and its resolution with the return to Jerusalem”, a divine warrior feast of Passover, “follows the mythic pattern to a tee” (75). Furthermore, the shrines in Northern Israel and Bethel, and the priests, were not merely Yahweh worshipers, but cosmic enemies to Yahweh. The account o Josiah’s demolition of Bethel in Kings is a projection of history through a mythological paradigm. Consequently the mythologizing of this account “contributed to new outlets for recruiting the language of violence to draw distinctions” (80). All things said, this is one of my favorite contributions. His use of the divine warrior and cosmic battle motifs avoid the pitfall of becoming a clear-cut distinction of “Chaos versus Order”. While he does at time employ the term “Chaos”, it is not meant as a cut-and-dry juxtaposition to “Order” (see Debra Ballentine’s The Confict Myth and the Biblical Tradition, Oxford University Press 2015).

In Chapter Four, Nathaniel B. Levtow (Associate Professor of Religious Studies int he Liberal Studies Program at the University of Montana) merges cognitive science and anthropology to analyze the phenomenon of iconoclasm and, more with a more explicitly biblical orientation, idolatry. His new examination of idolatry concludes that “biblical iconoclasm is parasitic on the power of images for the stable transmission of aniconic doctrine” (106). Aniconist’s doctrine is transmitted through ritual violence, namely ritually violent iconoclasm against iconists. In terms of of imagistic mode of transmission of beliefs, “Deuteronomistic iconoclasm may… be described as strategic violence…, the goal of which was to foster durable group cohesion around a theologically correct royal aniconic cultic core of Judahite social formation within a West Asian iconic imperial framework” (102). While Levtow does not provide any extensive analysis of the Hebrew Bible, his model provides a unique and exciting avenue for future analysis of ritual violence in the Hebrew Bible as aniconists transmitting their doctrine through iconoclasm.

Susann Niditch (Samuel Green Professor of Religion at Amherst College) observes the manners in which the exchange of women in the Hebrew Bible are often accompanied by ritual violence as components of social transformations.Genesis 34 and Judges 19 demonstrate this as they allow men to participate in violence as means of protecting their own boundaries. In Genesis 34, male cultural power is protected by killing the Shechemites who threaten the masculinity of Simeon and Levi. Likewise, in Judges 19 thugs kill a woman who has been exchanges for the life of man, thereby rendering the man in the story “womanized, made weak” (118). As spoils of war, Deuteronomy 21, Numbers 31, and Judges 21 all involve ritual nuances. In each instance, woman are tokens intrinsically connected to acts of ritual violence by men.. Niditch’s contribution is well argued, prompting two responses. First, she notes that approaching these situations as ritual violence “urges [her] to see ways in which the authors of these texts implicitly express doubts about the exchange of women, guilt, worries about legitimacy, perhaps offering critique of the very system that they are perpetuating in myth and ritual” (123). Although this is often studied, the focus on ritual, an integral part of the authors life, is intriguing because it challenges me as the reader to question what I perpetuate whilst offering my own criticism. Second, her statement that thus “threaten the traveling Levite with homosexual rape” (117) is methodologically problematic. As Martti Nissinen has demonstrated, “homosexual” comes to much 21st century cultural baggage (See Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, Fortress Press 204). A better term for Niditch would be “homoerotic”, a term which more accurately depicts the scene in Judges 19.

Chapter Six, written by the editor Saul M. Olyan (Samuel Ungerleider Jr. Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University), briefly engages with ritual violence involving corpses. Ritual violence against corpses are somatic in nature and “serve various strategic ends ” by “[inverting] or [contrasting] with other practices, and their meaning is very often context dependent” (126). Saul’s severed head, for example, is ritual means by which the Philistines communicate “the reality of wholesale defeat and loss of leadership”, and likewise with Saul’s corpse on the city wall. Olyan’s thoughts provide great framework for future analysis. Because of scholarly tendency to focus on corpse abuse as punitive and intimidation, his route to corpse abuse as ritual violence opens up new avenue for analysis of the Hebrew Bible and even cuneiform texts.

Rüdiger Schmitt (Associate Professor of Old Testament at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster) utilizes the concepts of liminality, communitas, and social drama to read rituals of war, warfare, and social conflict. For Schmitt, the city gate functions as a place of public ritual, where loyalty, sovereignty, and status change occur, all of which are constructed as social drama. The gate is also a liminal place that procuces “normative commmunitas among the king, the army, and the population in situations of political crisis” (144). With regard to his support, I appreciate his interdisciplinary approach, utilizing archaeological evidence and literary evidence from the Hebrew Bible. It places his theorizing about ritual violence as one of the best because it grounds the theory into the real world, rather than restricting itself to the world generated by the author of the text.

The final contribution to this volume is by Jacob L. Wright (Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University). His programmatic essay treats the ritual violence of urbicide “in the framework of the destruction of memory” (148), especially the destruction of monuments, inscriptions, images, and texts. He covers a range of materials, including royal annals, Assyrian and Egyptian ritualistic iconography, biblical narratives, prophetic literature, Sodom and Gomorrah, and laments. In each of these categories, he demonstrates the apparent ritual violence of destruction of urban cities. He emphasizes two points: “the symbolic reversals enacted through the destruction and the symbolic and cosmologically appropriate modes of destruction” (161). Urbicide, thus, served as propaganda for rulers to conquer and subdue groups. Wright’s essay, I hope, will inspire many more to follow in his footsteps. One route he alludes to, though does not explore, is the relationship between mythology and urbicide. He notes that “mythologically and religiously grounded claims to power the king made were natural and justified” (163). While the relationship between kings and mythological justification has been explored, it would be intriguing to explore how the ritual violence of urbicide bolsters claims by kings and how mythological backdrops inspire or are used symbolically for such purposes.

All-in-all, this is an extremely valuable contribution to biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern studies. I briefly searched the term “ritual violence” in the Journal of Biblical Literature and, without surprise, only found one result by Saul Olyan, the editor of the current volume. Ritual violence is an underexplored topic, with much potential for new insights and understandings about the Hebrew Bible, ancient Israel, and ancient Near East. Although the essays in this volume are brief, they are all valuable because they provide a launchpad for future studies.

I highly recommend Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible because it is exactly what it says it is: new perspective on the Hebrew Bible through a theme that is vastly underexplored, namely ritual violence. Students and scholars alike will find this volume valuable as it aids in moving forward scholarly studies into realms that have the potentials to shift the current ideas within scholarship. Without a doubt, this volume marks a major shift in how we read violence in the Hebrew Bible.

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