What are readers who take the prophets seriously, whether as a religious text or as a cornerstone document of Western history, to make of its attribution of frightful behavior to God? The association of religion with violence both historically and in contemporary experience makes this question acute. In this translation of her 2000 German work, Liebe und Gewalt, Baumann investigates biblical texts about a particular form of divine violence, YHWH’s abuse of his notional wife Israel/Jerusalem. More significantly, she raises the question of how today’s readers, of whatever commitment, should read these texts. Her twin-pronged approach of allowing prophetic texts “themselves to speak out of their own metaphoric background, and also to be accountable to a present-day frame of reference” (3) undergirds both a thoroughgoing description of the Israelite prophets’ use of the metaphor of violent marital abuse and a close theological engagement with (read: rejection of) the metaphor of divine marital abuse.
The book’s fourteen chapters fall into three parts. Part I (Chapters 1–5) offers an overview of the scholarly discussion of violence against women and of the hermeneutics of appropriating metaphor, in particular the metaphor of YHWH’s abuse of “his” wife. Baumann also examines here the terminology of marriage and harlotry and of covenant, as well as of the ancient Near Eastern background of the imagery.
Part II (Chapters 6–10) examines divine marriage imagery in Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Book of the Twelve (with a too brief excursus on Lamentations following Chapter 8 on Ezekiel). Baumann argues that Hosea first makes the connection between the two older themes of royal marriage to Israel and divine violence. Later prophets play out the metaphorical linkage in different ways, with Ezekiel opting for pornographic violence, the Isaiah tradition for an internationalization of the image, and the Twelve frequently locating it upon individual Israelites rather than the nation as a whole, among other recastings of the imagery.
Part III (Chapters 11–14) weaves together the threads of the previous units and offers brief reflections on the difficulties of adopting any stance vis-à-vis these texts other than rejection, precisely because they offer an unacceptable view of God and thus an appalling model for human behavior.
In assessing this work, one should note significant strengths. Baumann cuts through the passion for euphemism characterizing so much research on these texts. She unflinchingly explicates the unfolding of the imagery of YHWH’s marriage and its attendant savagery, without succumbing to strident moralizing. Frequently she sheds new light on old texts, and her analysis of the relevant pericopes is consistently careful and insightful.
On the other hand, problems do exist. Engagement with English-language scholarship could be deeper, and the discussion of ancient Near Eastern antecedents and parallels of the prophetic marriage imagery (67–81) cites mostly German secondary texts, not primary sources. Baumann notes that research on the religious dimensions of domestic violence is further developed in America, but she does not discuss the American scene.
At times, one may quibble with the rhetorical analysis of the texts under consideration, and indeed much work needs to be done to understand the rhetorical conventions and canons of persuasion of Iron Age Israel. For example, Baumann carefully examines Jeremiah 3 and 13, two notorious texts about divine marital violence, properly noting the disconnection of the imagery from the prophet’s life and thus the loss of any ability to excuse the imagery of charges of savagery. But one wonders whether the editors of Jeremiah were not themselves aware of the problem, at least to some degree. Chapter 13 leads immediately into two laments (14:1–10, 17–22) interrupted by a prose expansion in dialogue form critiquing the prophet’s lament and responding to it. Does the complex as a whole not offer some degree of qualification to the grotesque images of 13:15–27? The dialogue of Jer. 4:19–22 reflects a similar awareness of the problem. Or, in other words, while the book of Jeremiah does not explicitly contradict the image of marital violence, the larger reality of war, attributed to YHWH’s actions, does elicit the prophet’s (or redactor’s) legitimate protest.
This raises again the troubling hermeneutical question, the subject of the Baumann’s regrettably cursory last chapters. This is the most disappointing part of the book, because Baumann merely hints at solutions and sometimes pursues secondary issues. For example, she fears that males who identify with the abusive God will themselves be abusers. While such linkages between religion and violence do unquestionably exist, Baumann offers no evidence that precisely these texts play such a role. Nor does she, in the final analysis, help us move beyond the image of the violent God to an image more befitting the divine.
In fairness, such a move will not be easy. Divine violence emerges from the earliest portrayals of YHWH as the divine warrior, and the image of conquest is intimately linked to notions of creation, justice, liberation, and the constituting of the elect people. Moreover, the description of violence against Israel at YHWH’s behest reflects ancient Israelite observations of geopolitical realities (foreign powers dominated Israel) read through the mytho-theological lens of YHWH as cosmic lord. In short, the notion of divine violence lies at the heart of biblical portrayals of the divine and of Israelite modes of interpreting history.
On the other hand, Baumann’s hermeneutic of protest, with its antecedents in the prophetic corpus itself (especially Jeremiah) offers a place to begin. Her book deserves a wide circulation and appreciative reception, and we may hope that she will pursue this line of argument further. Much is at stake in our violent world.