J. T. LeCureux, The Thematic Unity of the Book of the Twelve

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

LeCureux, Jason T., The Thematic Unity of the Book of the Twelve (HBM, 41; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012). Pp. xii + 269. Hardcover. US$120.00. ISBN 978-1-907534-48-5.

In a revision of his doctoral thesis supervised by Gordon McConville at the University of Gloucestershire, Jason T. LeCureux offers a thematic reading of the Book of the Twelve that focuses upon the verb šûb as the thematic key for a coherent reading. Chapter 1 explores issues of the transmission history of the Book of the Twelve and recent (largely English language) treatments of the unification and unified readings of the Twelve before turning to a brief discussion of unified thematic readings of Isaiah as a starting point for reading the Book of the Twelve, though with important differences as well.

Chapter 2 explores a methodology of reading prophetic books thematically as the product of the author, the text, and the reader, with theme being defined as “a recurring idea, communicated by word or phrase, which supports the main thrusts of the prophecy and gives theological shape and meaning to the work” (p. 38 [also p. 234], summarizing his discussion on pp. 26–39). With reference to the Book of the Twelve, LeCureux summarizes the theme of šûb in a single sentence: “As the people struggle to turn (šûb) from covenant failure toward YHWH in repentance and receive his blessing, YHWH struggles to turn (šûb) from judgment toward his people in grace” (p. 39). The fullest textual expression of this theme comes twice at the end of the corpus in Zech 1:3 and Mal 3:7 with the phrase “return to me and I will return to you.” LeCureux explores the role of author, text, and reader in relation to thematic development in a summary and assessment of the views of Vanhoozer, Thiselton, and Eco. Chapter 3 expands the treatment of the similarities between reading Isaiah and the Twelve, focusing upon Jerusalem-Zion as the theme uniting the three parts of Isaiah.

The bulk of LeCureux's treatment (chs. 4–9) deals with his evaluation of the use of šûb in Hosea (ch. 4), Joel (ch. 5), Jonah (ch. 6), Zechariah (ch. 8), and Malachi (ch. 9), along with a single chapter (ch. 7) containing much briefer treatments of šûb in the remaining writings of Amos, Obadiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai. Finally, LeCureux summarizes his conclusions (ch. 10).

In dealing with the ways in which šûb plays out thematically in the Book of the Twelve, LeCureux looks at each example of šûb in the writings of the Twelve and explores how the meaning of the term develops across the corpus. The theme is both limited by the text and generated by the reader. The variations in the meaning of šûb are most fully present in Hosea, but the fullest thematic expression comes at the end of the corpus (Zech 1:3; Mal 3:7). Hosea uses šûb in three primary variations according to LeCureux, to represent punishment, restoration, and repentance. The three forms of šûb as punishment include recompense, exile, and miscellaneous punishment while the three types of repentance include the refusal to repent, reluctant repentance, and the call to repentance. The reciprocal nature of šûb is also bound to the idea of restoration.

The monograph has much to commend it. It takes seriously the task of developing a thematic reading strategy for the Book of the Twelve, a task complicated by the composite and poetic nature of the corpus. LeCureux's exploration of šûb is the most sustained treatment to date of the role of šûb in the Book of the Twelve. The creative reading is presented in an accessible format that shows a keen knowledge of texts within the Twelve. Despite the appeal of this work, significant questions should be raised about its awareness of relevant scholarship, the weight of the verb šûb, and the confusing use of terms with diachronic implications in what is essentially a synchronic treatment.

The awareness of relevant scholarship suffers from both breadth and depth. LeCureux does not really engage German scholarship, a significant omission in the study of the Book of the Twelve. When summarizing redactional models (pp. 6–12), LeCureux does not discuss the models of Schart, Bosshard-Nepustil, or Wöhrle, which makes his discussion of the state of research appear underinformed or derivative on these points.[1] Even more significant is the lack of Scoralick's work in the bibliography.[2] This omission is most glaring since Scoralick deals extensively with the verb šûb as well. Also, one occasionally finds concepts attributed to scholars who were not the originators of a theory. For example, LeCureux credits Thiselton rather than Gadamer as the one associated with the term “horizon of meaning” (p. 34).

While LeCureux spends the majority of his treatment on passages concerning thematic variations of šûb as the key to reading the Book of the Twelve, one wonders whether this theme can really bear the weight of carrying “the” thematic unity of the corpus. Three particular issues do not get sufficient attention to warrant speaking of šûb as “the” unifying theme.

First, LeCureux does not sufficiently eliminate other recurring motifs and themes from his discussion of possible themes to present a convincing case for šûb as the dominant theme. For example, he quickly dismisses the Day of YHWH as a unifying theme in spite of the number of works that have explored this theme as one of the major recurring themes in the Book of the Twelve (pp. 16–17). By contrast, he essentially assumes that “Jerusalem-Zion” can be readily labeled as the “dominant theme” of the three parts of Isaiah, as though that issue has been settled. Claiming to have treated this issue in detail (p. 57) after only five pages does not present a convincing case for the thematic unity of Isaiah. Relatedly, LeCureux seems oblivious to the fact that while he claims šûb is the only “theme” that occurs in every writing of the Book of the Twelve (see below), in actuality “Jerusalem-Judah” also occurs in every writing of the Twelve (if one allows the reference to temple in Jonah 2:5 [Eng. 2:4] to evoke the place). In any case, the fate of Judah-Jerusalem is at least as prevalent (especially if one considers how many of the references to Jerusalem-Judah appear to be redactionally imposed upon contexts where that focus is not inherent to the core material (e.g., Hos 4:15, Amos 1:2; 9:11–12, Nah 2:1 [Eng. 1:15]; etc). In short, so many motifs intersect with one another that claiming one dominates overplays the significance of one word like šûb (or undervalues the importance of other recurring motifs).

Second, LeCureux argues that šûb represents the only theme that appears in every writing of the Book of the Twelve, yet the dizzying array of meanings that occur with this verb make it hard to follow the sense in which the author relates these various nuances into a “coherent” picture that runs from Hosea through Malachi. This is especially the case with the catch-all chapter seven which surveys the appearance of šûb in seven writings of the Twelve.

Third, LeCureux makes much of the distribution of šûb in every writing in the Twelve, yet he must rely upon a disputed textual problem in order to make this claim since the verb šûb does not appear in the MT of Hag 2:17 (pp. 166–70). While he makes a plausible case on the text critical issue, the fact that he must do so in order to claim that šûb conveys “the” theme that occurs in every writing of the Book of the Twelve should give one pause about claims of thematic unity.

Finally, LeCureux argues for the necessity of recognizing both synchronic and diachronic issues in both Isaiah and the Twelve (e.g., pp. 11, 61), even though he focuses upon the synchronic task of thematic development. The goal is laudable, but difficulties arise with the language he uses and the concomitant necessity of trying to understand precisely the nature of the diachronic model LeCureux presupposes. On the one hand, he often recognizes editorial accretions to the respective writings (e.g., pp. 11–12, 99, 175–6), but on the other hand, he does not delineate how that editorial activity may or may not be related to the thematic development he investigates. More importantly, the language he uses for his thematic treatments is often not chronologically neutral, magnifying the difficulty of ascertaining his own sense of the diachronic process that he seems to presume. Consequently, he often refers to a thematic link between two writings in a way that implies one borrows from the other. For example, on page 105 LeCureux describes Hos 14 as the “formal introduction to the unifying concept of return” for the Book of the Twelve in a way that summarizes the use of šûb in Hosea and “look[s] forward to the clear calls to return, first partially imitated by Joel, then ultimately crystallized by Persian Period prophets Zechariah and Malachi” (emphasis mine). This statement creates a strange scenario that seems to imply Hos 14 is written for the Twelve, but is then imitated by Joel, and subsequently by Zechariah and Malachi. How could Hos 14 have been written for the Twelve if it did not yet contain Joel, Zechariah, or Malachi? This confusion is compounded on the next page where LeCureux states, “Hosea's message carries a different meaning for those who read it as part of the Twelve rather than as an independent work, if in fact the writing ever circulated apart from the Twelve” (p. 106, emphasis mine). This statement implies Hosea may have been composed entirely with the Twelve in mind. A few pages later, LeCureux refers to the point of Hosea's incorporation in a manner that would seem to imply yet a different model of composition for Hosea: “Once Hosea was brought into the Book of the Twelve, the model reader shifted” from the eighth century to the Persian period so that “Hosea's use of Israel's history must be understood from a postexilic perspective” (p. 109, emphasis mine). This statement seems to imply a model whereby an independent book of Hosea was incorporated into the larger collection, not written for that collection. Two pages later still, LeCureux speaks of Joel's “weaving together the call to return” from Hosea with the Day of YHWH theme so that Joel “has added an important dimension to the return relationship and indicated to the audience of the Twelve that these themes should be understood in light of one another” (p. 111). Statements like these, even though they speak about the reader of the Twelve, nevertheless imply certain relative chronologies to his own readers, but these chronologies are neither developed nor consistently employed across the book.

James Nogalski, Baylor University

[1] Aaron Schart, Die Entstehung des Zwölfprophetenbuchs: Neubearbeitungen von Amos im Rahmen schriftenübergreifender Redaktionsprozesse (BZAW, 260; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998); Erich Bosshard-Nepustil, Rezeptionen von Jesaia 1–39 im Zwölfprophetenbuch: Untersuchungen zur literarischen Verbindung von Prophetenbüchern in babylonischer und persischer Zeit (OBO, 154; Freiburg, Switzerland: Universitätsverlag, 1997); Jakob Wöhrle, Die frühen Sammlungen des Zwölfprophetenbuches: Entstehung und Komposition (BZAW, 360; New York: De Gruyter, 2006); idem., Der Abschluss des Zwölfprophetenbuches: buchübergreifende Redaktionsprozesse in den späten Sammlungen (BZAW, 389; New York: de Gruyter, 2008). reference

[2] Ruth Scoralick, Gottes Güte und Gottes Zorn: Die Gottesprädikationen in Exodus 34:6f und ihre intertextuellen Beziehungen zum Zwölfprophetenbuch (HBS, 33; Freiburg: Herder, 2002). reference