Reviews on Resources for Biblical and Theological Studies


Written By: Paulson Pulikottil - Oct• 11•16

9780190249588Olyan, Saul M., ed. Ritual Violence in the Hebrew Bible: New Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pages: 190. ISBN: 978-0-19-0249588.

This volume, an anthology of eight essays (besides the introduction) is a timely contribution to the discussion about violence in the Bible. In the recent years, there has been a lot of attention on violence of all forms in the academia and the public media. A lot of discussion on the topic have focussed on the violence in the religious texts including the Hebrew Bible. However, most of the books on the subject circumvent one of the most important aspects of violence—the ritual aspect of it. This volume fills this lacuna by offering a detailed discussion of ritual violence in the Hebrew Bible.

Debra Soggins Ballentine (‘What Ends Might Ritual Violence Accomplish? The Case of Rechab and Baanah in 2 Samuel 4’) argues that ritual violence is a coded strategic version of normal acts of violence. The way David handled the violent act of Rechab and Baanah by burying Eshbaal’s head and mutilating the body of the villains had political goals as well.

T.M. Lemos (‘Dispossesing Nations. Population Growth, Scarcity, and Genocide in Ancient Israel and Twentieth-Century Rwanda’) is multi-disciplinary in its approach. He uses the case studies of violence in Rwanda and also that is described in Mesha inscription to understand violence in the Bible. The author concludes that the main reason for ritualized forms of violence in the Hebrew Bible is material scarcity. Population explosions and scarcity of land lead to violence of genocidal proportions. He also buttresses his argument by archaeological evidence. However, he doesn’t seem to suggest that it was material scarcity alone that lead to genocide in the Bible, a confluence of material, social, psychological aspects also contribute.

The third essay by Mark Leuchter (‘Between Politics and Mythology. Josiah’s Assault on Bethel in 2 Kings 23:15-20’) concludes that this act of Josiah is a more mythological re-enactment than being purely historical. However, this ethno-mythology was politicized.

The fourth essay in this volume, Nathaniel B. Lectow (‘Cognitive Perspectives on Iconoclasm’), is also interdisciplinary in nature. Levtow uses insights from cognitive science particularly, the modal theory of Harvey Whitehouse. He concludes that ‘iconism and iconoclasm are natural, durable, and inseparable forms of human thought and action.’

Exchange of women has been a practice in war times. Susan Nidtich in her essay, “‘The Traffic in Women” The Exchange, Ritual Sacrifice, and War’ studies three sets of texts that deal with violence on women. She studies (1) texts that deal with rape (Genesis 34 and Judges 19), (2) texts that deal with stealing of women in Deuteronomy 21, Numbers 31 and Judges 11 and (3) the case of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. She concludes that exchange of women is an integral component of social relationships between men.

The editor of the volume who has made considerable contribution in the area of ritual violence discusses ‘The Instrumental Dimensions of Ritual Violence against Corpses in Biblical Texts.’ Olyan’s focus is on the biblical narrative that talks about the mutilation of dead bodies (particularly severing the head) of foreign or domestic enemies or of offenders. Decapitation served as means of humiliation and also as a threat to the survivors who may plan a rebellion. Decapitation as in the case of Eshbaal by Baanah and Rechab may be a sign of changed loyalties.

Rudiger Schmitt (‘Establishing Communitas. Royal Rites of Military Loyalty and Their Socio-Religious Function’ deals with war-related ritual acts that involve violence. The main purpose of such violence is to avoid intragroup violence. Legitimization of the ruler and formation of a communitas was also the purpose of these acts.

The last essay is devoted to the destruction of cities as part of violence related to war. In Jacob L. Wright (‘Urbicide. The Ritualized Killing of Cities in the Ancient Near East’, the author surveys the ancient textual, epigraphic and iconic evidence from AWA and Egypt to study the concept of urbicide (killing/destruction of cities). He concludes that urbicide is punitive action but it is also genocide. The urbicide also had a larger purpose of killing people’s cultural memories. The aggressors not only wiped out the people but also any memory that they cherished by destroying symbols of their culture and religion.

Discussions on religious violence are usually limited to either justifying it or disowning it. However, works that elaborate on the nature, motivations and goals of ritual violence is rare. This volume is a significant contribution in this direction.

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