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David A. Baer
- Published on Amazon.com
Building upon his The Religion of the Landless: The Social Context of the Babylonian Exile (Meyer Stone, 1989), the author has produced a thoughtful work on a central biblical concept that is both historical and theological. Works on biblical theology are almost compelled to begin with an apology for the method employed. Smith-Christopher does not fail to do so ('Biblical Theology: On Matters of Methodology', 1-26), signalling in his comment upon post-modern metaphysical critiques that he does not intend to allow a hyper-critical or hyper-sceptical critique to claim exclusive legitimacy in the conversation. While attempting to be critical of his own assumptions, Smith-Christopher is persuaded that both history and theology can be carried out with integrity, especially when focussing upon a discrete theme like exile. 'Discrete', however, does not mean `miniscule', for the author is convinced that one must see the exile of Judah not only as human catastrophe-its actual happening can be defended on historical grounds-but also as an event that engendered significant new social and theological enterprises. Smith-Christopher writes from his own participation in an historical 'peace church' and finds a promising correlation between the 'stateless existence' that was the destiny of the Jewish exiles and the kinds of church community that is praised by some Christian theologians. As a result, he is eager to question both Constantinian and Wellhausian views of 'exile' as an intrinsically negative socio-religious matrix that lost something essential.
Nevertheless, Smith-Christopher is wary of seeing the experience or model of exile through rose-colored glasses, wanting with E. Said not to 'belittle its mutilations'. The author proposes reading exilic texts-it was after all a premier period for literary brilliance-'with the presumption of resistance, but not necessarily a resistance based on nationalist aspirations'.
Contrary to recent trends, Smith-Christopher argues for the historical trauma and severity of the exile ('Violence and Exegesis: The History of Exile', 27-73). Against C.C. Torrey and his intellectual heirs, Smith-Christopher is convinced that the exile was a very big event indeed, not an insignificant incident that well served a political agenda that has been described more recently as 'the myth of the empty land' (Barstad, 1996). To the contrary, Smith-Christopher argues that the events were 'catastrophic and transformative for Hebrew existence'. Here Smith-Christopher comes to his original and exceedingly useful contribution: '(T)he impact of the Babylonian exile must make far more use of nonbiblical documents, archaeological reports, and a far more imaginative use of biblical texts read in the light of what we know about refugee studies, disaster studies, postcolonialist reflections, and sociologies of trauma' (emphasis mine).
Smith-Christopher believes that evidence for the benign role of the Persian empire vis-à-vis its dependents has been overstated, not only by the Heidelberg school and its 'Persian authorization' view of the Pentateuch's composition, but also by a number of non-aligned critics who have perhaps been too taken in by Persian propaganda, centuries hence. Attuned to the generally unchronicled resistance of those who have no other option, he is warm to M. Root's observation that '(t)he world was at peace on the walls of Persepolis as it never was in actuality.' Smith-Christopher executes a reading of Ezra-Nehemiah that rings true to that 'culture of permission' which represents neither `gratitude nor warmth' towards the imperial powers, but rather the barely repressed hostility of those who live by the conqueror's whim.
Reading, say, Lamentations, Smith-Christopher finds-as Barstad does-eloquent and complex poetry. Whereas Barstad considers this an argument for a complex society still present in 'exilic' Judah, Smith-Christopher suggests not only that such pathos-filled writing does not require much of an infrastructure, but also that it is fallacious to proceed as though the quality of the writing helps us to reconstruct history when we are not prepared to take the content (Smith-Christopher: 'subject') of the writing seriously. This is to say nothing of an archaeological record that can be read to evidence massive destruction and dislocation at the time of the 'exile', though that record-per Smith-Christopher and, say, W. Schniedewind-is more than prepared to speak. With regard to the various empires that held Judah under their sway, Smith-Christopher does not believe the evidence gives the moral high ground to any one of them: '(I)rrespective of the very real differences between the political and ideological regimes from before 587 BCE until, and after, 164 BCE, we must always attend to the stubborn similarities of ancient imperial designs toward power and control over wealth, territory, and human resources. On this, there appears to have been little diversity and practice in results.'
When Smith-Christopher adds to the literary and archaeological evidence for widespread and wrenching dislocation during the exile the shared experience of refugees in the history that lies nearer to us, he discovers a mosaic that speaks coherently of a devastation very much like that which the exilic books of the Bible present. In the light of the probabilities as he measures them, his choice to read the pertinent texts with 'empathy' makes eminent sense. Though Persian rule was likely relatively more amenable to Jewish life than its Assyrian or Neo-Babylonian antecedents, Nehemiah was not merely inventing a self-justifying ideological construct when he recognized that 'we are slaves in our own land' (Neh. 9.36-37).
Smith-Christopher attempts to take seriously not only the historical indications that unsavory conditions and forced labor were characteristic of exile in the period in question, but also to attend to the 'lexicography of trauma'. This latter dialect uses rich layers of metaphor-`bonds', 'fetters', 'release of the prisoner(s)' and the like-in a way that quite likely builds upon literal bonds, fetters, and imprisonment. Smith-Christopher's empathetic reading of the texts reminds one of the literature emerging from the Soviet Gulag that A. Appelbaum so poignantly brings to light in Gulag: A History. The comparison is pertinent because Smith-Christopher alleges a certain dreary sameness about history's litany of exile(s) that refugee and catastrophe studies have only recently suggested.
Having justified the seriousness with which he intends to hear the biblical voices of exile as just what they purport to be, Smith-Christopher turns to the task in his second chapter ('Listening to Cries from Babylon: On the Exegesis of Suffering in Ezekiel and Lamentations', 75-104). Smith-Christopher reads these books-one claiming to emerge in the Diaspora and the other from ruined Jerusalem-through the lens of `state-sponsored terrorism' as this is defined in refugee and disaster studies. He is particularly attentive to the difference in refugee settings between the official transcript (used in communication with the authorities) and the hidden transcript. One could, for example, reconstruct an ambience more positive than is warranted by reading the official communications afforded by Ezra-Nehemiah as a naive description of the community's situation. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also mined for the understanding it might bring to a reading of Ezekiel, whose 'author' claims to be negotiating the meaning of Jerusalem's recent fall. If PTSD studies lend verisimilitude to the historical claims of the book of Ezekiel, then a realization that stereotype does not negate the possibility of a historical referent provides plausibility to the presumed traumatic background of Lamentations (and to the curses of Deut 28). Modern refugee studies suggest that stereotyped language is sometimes an entirely appropriate expression of grief in known cultural matrices. 'Stereotypical literature of suffering', writes Smith-Christopher, 'is not literature that can somehow be "decoded" to mean that the exiles actually lived in Babylonian comfort.'
Smith-Christopher next turns to the Deuteronomistic History ('Shame and Transformation: On Prayer and History in the Diaspora', 105-123) in an attempt to sketch out a social history of this epic story. Characteristically, he gives credence to the experience of the community that might have generated DtrH:
(E)ven if 'pre-exilic' (in the sense of the period 640-587), the Deuteronomistic History is clearly the product of a seriously declining political independence and a growing awareness that the people of Israel are becoming pawns in the conflicting interests of large-scale Near Eastern empires ... Clearly, one wants to construct a history that serves a purpose under these conditions.
Smith-Christopher finds a clue to the Historian's (or Historians') motivation in the 'post-exilic prayers' embedded in the DtrH. The temple, often mentioned, has become `emblematic of reconstruction' (cf. Ezek 40-48) in these prayers, more as a place of prayer than of sacrifice (cf. J. Levenson). These 'diaspora prayers par excellence' appeal to God as the only ruling authority, perhaps an indication that they emerge in the context of land- and powerlessness. For Smith-Christopher's appraisal of the social function of shame, these prayers are an exercise not of spirituality but of politics, a corporate recognition of the consequences of a too close identification with a destructive past. They are 'narrative repair' and a re-embracing of Mosaic ideals.
Smith-Christopher's discussion of Second Isaiah's portrayal of the nations is satisfyingly nuanced. He is aware that the classic 'reversal of fortunes' motif, with its consequent humiliation of the nations, is only part of the presentation. Other images are not necessarily negative. He asks whether 'the "humbling of the enemy" (is) to be contrasted with the positive imagery, or is it an integral part of the new reality of a transformed relationship?' Having posed the question in this illuminating manner, he opts for the latter alternative. I am sure he is correct.
Smith-Christopher then traces this motif of 'transformation through humbling' in the book of Jonah, a work whose vaunted universalism is not-argues the author-about forgiveness of one's enemies, but rather about the transformation of the enemy. As evidence of a post-exilic change of mood, Jonah can be read as 'a kind of midrash on Isa 49:6 and other universalist inclinations of Second Isaiah'.
When Smith-Christopher compares redactional levels of Torah ('"Purity" as Nonconformity: Communal Solidarity as Diaspora Ethics', 137-162), he professes to discover an evolution in communal vocabulary. For example, Deuteronomy frequently uses ja where the presumably earlier Exodus tradition(s) utilized h[r, a shift in the direction of kinship. Something similar appears to happen at the corporate level, where lhq cedes to hd[, presumed to be more communitarian in its implications. This is the most speculative portion of Smith-Christopher's book and, arguably, the weakest link in an otherwise strong presentation.
Smith-Christopher is able to execute a sympathetic reading of priestly literature and Ezra-Nehemiah by recalling the simple fact that that Ezra was a priest and by observing refugee behavior in situations of subordination. For the author, the priestly language of purity is the 'code' in which in-community and out-community issues are articulated. It is unclear whether Smith-Christopher believes that this observation mitigates the harshness of, say, Ezra's separation of Israelite men from their foreign wives, though it appears that this is what he is suggesting.
Smith-Christopher is at his unconventional best in 'The Wisdom Warrior: Reading Wisdom and Daniel as Diasporic Ethics' (pp. 163-188). In seeking a new matrix that explains the emergence of wisdom literature, the author turns several scholarly assumptions on their head. He discovers the social context of wisdom's gritty cynicism and astute silences not in the court nor in a hypothesized school nor in the apocalyptic movement nor even in the paternal/maternal instruction of the home. Rather, the generative context is the shrewd tactics of a diaspora minority that must find a way to survive over against an otherwise suffocating cultural monopoly.
Smith-Christopher's thesis of a counter-cultural minority ethics that requires a proper cynicism regarding the dominant culture and the powers it claims leaves this reader, in the end, unpersuaded. In my view, Smith-Christopher has shown that biblical wisdom is particularly useful in an involuntary cross-cultural situation where the subordinate and inferior nature of one's people is a given. However, I believe it is the protean nature of biblical wisdom to prove useful in and adaptable to a wide range of social contexts. That is why elaborate reconstructions of wisdom's Sitz im Leben have proven only marginally useful to exegesis. Having said this, one is profoundly grateful to Smith-Christopher for having given us a reading of wisdom that challenges-mirabile dictu-scholarship's conventional explanations of this beguiling literature.
Though his chapter titles do not exaggerate the fact, Smith-Christopher has in fact given us a thoughtful work of Christian theology. His eighth and final chapter ('Toward a Diasporic Christian Theology: the theology of Tobit and Daniel revisited', pp. 189-203) thus serves to cast forward some of the lines that have already been established as he has worked his way through various Old Testament literature.
In particular, the author moves forward from the 'justice and exemplary behavior' commended in Tobit and Daniel as the exilic pattern to the 'modern theological task' of raising up similar heroes in our time. Smith-Christopher criticizes the Niehburian assumption that Christian morality must necessarily be worked out in the `immoral' work of laboring in the flawed social systems that are at hand. Rather, he argues that 'engagement' can also take the form of creating alternative contexts that represent 'a revolutionary regrouping, rethinking, and restrategizing option for contemporary Christian existence.' This is the natural consequence of a social criticism that sees exile `not merely (as) a suggested paradigm, but (as) a radically sobering diagnosis for the present reality of Christian existence in the world.'
Smith-Christopher writes as one who is profoundly hopeful about this anti-Constantinian project, one which does not attempt to recreate biblical models but to learn from them as it creates its own counter-cultural-because diasporic-communities. This reader is not so hopeful and somewhat more persuaded by the need for robust Christian engagement with all of culture, including the organs of state. Still, one knows enough of emerging Christian communities around the world to understand that the challenge from the diasporic (e.g. Anabaptist) margins is critical if engagement is not to become bare compromise.
This challenge is especially well delivered when it is as self-aware of the dangers of asking others to accomplish daring feats of self-marginalization that one himself has not undertaken; for this, see especially Smith-Christopher's brilliant final pages. Even more so when the argument and the challenge are constructed upon skilled exegesis and competent social-scientific appraisal. This book does its series well (Overtures to Biblical Theology) and articulates a deeply serious concern in whose absence the conversation from this time forward must be considered impoverished.