C. A. Reeder, The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Reeder, Caryn A.,The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012). Pp. viii + 216. Paperback. US$26.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-4828-9.

The dilemma of the modern reader in coming to terms with some of the more disturbingly violent passages in the Bible is the subject of this thoughtful, nuanced study. In Deut 13:6–12, 21:18–21, and 22:13–21, we encounter the requirement that families take primary responsibility in the execution of their grievously errant members. Three of Deuteronomy's five passages that involve death by stoning are to be found here.

Reeder builds her analysis on three struts—theories of identity and violence, covenant fidelity as the criterion of Israelite identity, and the role of the family in maintaining that identity. Her choices suit the text of Deuteronomy in that Israel's covenant identity is seen to be an explicit concern throughout, framed in the absolute terms of life and death. In its directives for driving out the nations, removing their lure of idolatry by destroying them, Deut 7:1–26 offers the least ambiguous expression of the demand. Since Deuteronomy projects the Bronze Age household as the primary carrier of covenant traditions, these concerns inevitably converge in the three passages at the center of Reeder's project.

To pursue such a study Reeder seeks to move beyond a facile hermeneutic of suspicion, all too easily elicited, to what Reeder calls a “hermeneutic of trust” (p. 12). Unwilling to abandon the text, or even to jettison these particular passages, she seeks to understand the laws from the viewpoint of the lawgiver. For this purpose, she adopts the concept of “constructive violence” (p. 8). As social myth, constructive violence justifies using violent means in the work of “civilizing” a people or territory. At the same time, this phenomenon masks a contradiction, given that violence is more directly destructive than constructive. This paradoxical quality permits her to adopt a sympathetic approach to the text (as “constructive”), even while personally rejecting such a practice (as “violence”). Furthermore, the contradiction involved provides her with a means of prying open a window on the uneasiness of the ancient writers concerning these very passages.

Reeder develops this notion, adapting it to the context of the household as “constructive family violence” (p. 9). In the disputed question of Israelite identity, with its ambiguous interplay of covenant and kinship, constructive family violence proves a flexible tool. Kinship as understood here ranges from households of the Bronze Age to metaphors for the Israelite “family” itself. In the case of Deuteronomy, covenant identity trumps kinship. When the idolater turns out to be a member of the household, 13:6–12 prescribes treatment consistent with that shown to the seven hostile nations (7:1), hence the title of the book. This move allows in turn an interpretation of the rebellious son (21:18–21) and the shamed daughter (22:13–21) as being analogous to the idolater in the household. Covenant fidelity being a matter of instruction and inheritance, the behavior of the son threatens the first and that of the daughter the second. Consequently, by removing risks to Israelite identity, family violence can be understood to be as much remedy as punishment.

At the same time, Reeder's approach allows her to detect ripples of dismay in the pertinent passages of Deuteronomy (ch. 2), as well as in later related writings. She discerns limits to full expression of the law in each of the three legislative passages. The context of Deut 13 places checks on what might otherwise be considered the unlimited power of the family patriarch. The unruly son of Deut 21 sets up similar limits, including the involvement of the mother in the case as well as of the father. In the case of the daughter in Deut 22, the accuser is presumed to be lying. These elements frame the passages in mitigating circumstances that signal some questions in the minds of the legislators.

Subsequent chapters look at maintaining Jewish identity in the context of Hellenistic culture (ch. 3) and in the Greco-Roman culture of the first centuries b.c.e. (ch. 4). A final investigation concerns the early Christian church (ch. 5).

Witnesses from the Hellenistic period include Sirach, 1 Maccabees, and the book of Jubilees. We see here the range of interpretation made possible by Reeder's guiding concept. Whereas Sirach is concerned with the familial structure itself, 1 Maccabees uses familial language to justify its national policies. Meanwhile Jubilees, in rewriting the Torah, retains the laws in their full severity, even while ignoring them in application. In each case we see the influence of Hellenistic cultural values while the authors struggle against them. And in each case the rigor of the Deuteronomic laws is mitigated.

The Greco-Roman period of first and second century Judaism is witnessed in the allegories of Philo and the post-Temple writings of Josephus and the early Rabbinic movement. A certain ambiguity is a common feature of their interpretations. Again, the laws are limited in their reception. Philo omits mention of the shamed daughter, Josephus omits the law of the idolater in the family, and the rabbis for their part so restrict the conditions for prosecuting the rebellious son that he is in effect pardoned.

The hermeneutic of trust provides an opportunity for a fresh analysis of the persecution of Jesus and the early church by offering a view from the other side. Constructive family violence helps to explain the opposition to Jesus, the persecutions by the early Paul, and the experiences of the disciples. In each case traditions of identity are seen as under threat. Mk 13 and Matt 10 receive particular attention. The notion of Jesus as a version of the rebellious son is particularly illuminative in light of, for instance, the accusation of his being a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34), possibly a quasi-formulaic charge against the son (Deut 21:21).

Reeder's concept of constructive family violence enters the ongoing debate concerning the markers of Jewish identity. Here in Deuteronomy, as well as in allied texts, the key to identity is covenant fidelity, with kinship taking second place. Its influence reaches across the Bible.

This study is strongly recommended for anyone wishing to understand the phenomenon of religiously motivated violence in the Bible, or elsewhere, for that matter.

Robert R. Beck, Loras College