Johanna Stiebert, The Construction of Shame in the Hebrew Bible: The Prophetic Contribution.
(JSOTS 346; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), x, 196 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 1-84127-268-X. $95
Reviewed by Timothy S. Laniak
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

The Construction of Shame in the Hebrew Bible is largely a critique of the honor-shame rubric borrowed by biblical scholars from Mediterranean social anthropology. Stiebert devotes exactly half of the book (ch. 1) to a direct criticism of the model’s applicability, challenging examples in biblical scholarship. The second half of the book is an exploration of shame language in Isaiah (ch. 2), Jeremiah (ch. 3), and Ezekiel (ch. 4), the biblical literature in which such terms are most prevalent. These books provide case studies for continued criticism of the purported honor-shame matrix. The conclusion (ch. 5) summarizes evidence against the accepted paradigm and alternatives that this volume proposes.

Stiebert’s critique is made up of several observations to which she returns throughout the book. She states that biblical scholars have not listened to voices within the field of Mediterranean studies that question the universal applicability of the honor-shame matrix and the presence of any widespread cultural continuity (e.g., M. Herzfeld on particularization and U. Wikan against honor and shame as antonyms). Stiebert also joins those (e.g., D. L. Cairnes) who criticize the assumption that cultures are either guilt-based or shame-based.

Another concern of Stiebert’s is the neglect of psychology in discussions of shame in the Bible. She notes that, with the exception of L. Bechtel/Huber, most biblical scholars define shame as a social phenomenon, a diminishing of social status. Although she approves of M. Klopfenstein’s careful consideration of shame terminology in the prophetic literature, she finds his postulated forensic setting unsatisfying. While accepting the social, objective dimension of shame, Stiebert follows T. J. Scheff in emphasizing its internal, subjective nature.

The author’s fundamental concern is with the assumption of those who take texts “at face value,” imagining that they represent actual social history (i.e., the “referential fallacy”). She sees texts rather as ideological constructs that represent social agendas embedded throughout the writing and editing processes.

After the extended critique of previous research, Stiebert provides her own relatively brief analyses of shame language in three prophetic books. In Isaiah (primarily “First Isaiah”), Stiebert finds a major discrepancy between the meaning of honor and shame terms and the expected associations provided by the accepted schema. In contrast to the Mediterranean model, Stiebert finds the presence of a strong psychological (internalized) dimension; the priority of humility over honor; the lack of a challenge-riposte pattern; and the lack of a political/gender basis for honor and shame attribution. She concludes that honor is a divine attribute and shame is the consequence of a relational breakdown between humans and God (p. 95), most often evidenced by idolatry. While some of her criticism is deserved, an anthropological understanding of contingent honor in patron/client relations (i.e., for YHWH and Israel) and an appreciation for the challenges YHWH addresses to rival deities in Isaiah would have shown links with the model she dismisses.

In the chapter on Jeremiah, the author attempts to show the inadequacy of the social scientific approach with an exercise in ideological criticism (following R. P. Carroll). She examines the use of shame language in the extended sexual metaphors of Jeremiah 2, 3, and 5 and successfully identifies in these texts an anti-foreign polemic. (Shame is consistently associated with foreignness.) In this chapter and the next, Stiebert contends unpersuasively that the association between Israel and a harlot does not reflect a gender-based perspective on shame.

In her analysis of Ezekiel, the author notes the limited value of psychological and feminist approaches to Ezekiel 16 before applying M. A. K. Halliday’s (and Carroll’s) category of “anti-language.” Although Stiebert admits that she is not sure “what is actually going on in this passage” (p. 157), she suggests that perhaps Ezekiel’s audience was being prompted to shame through this vulgar rhetorical device. The theme of (im)purity has an ethical dimension for Ezekiel, and true restoration requires an inward acknowledgement of guilt, i.e., via shame.

Stiebert is to be commended for calling the attention of biblical scholars to a neglected semantic domain and for focusing our attention on the writings in which they predominate. She has summarized important criticisms of the honor-shame rubric, appropriately asserting that models presuming cultural continuity should not be superimposed on ancient texts.

Stiebert may also be guilty of superimposing contemporary models, however. Social anthropologists have tried to integrate the study of ancient Greek social history with ethnographic research in a wide variety of modern Mediterranean societies. In contrast, writers in the field of psychology whom Stiebert cites have not made their case in terms of cross-cultural research (except, apparently, G. Piers and M. Singer, mentioned on p. 7 but missing in the bibliography). Ironically, Stiebert makes assertions early in the book about what shame is (e.g., “Shame is a self-conscious emotion,” p. 23), but her definitions come from research and analytical frames even more limited than the anthropological one. To be fair, both fields of study contribute questions to ask of the texts but neither should provide templates that control the outcome.1 The reader further wonders if Stiebert’s ideological criticism or “anti-language” constructs are any less anachronistic impositions on the prophetic texts than the social scientific ones she criticizes. In the end, the best insights of the book are the careful, lexically sensitive readings of biblical texts, the kind of work this reviewer wishes there was more of.


[1] When I was researching the topic of honor and shame for my doctoral dissertation, I was encouraged by Michael Herzfeld to disprove the reigning paradigm in Mediterranean studies. Though fully expecting to do so, I found that the text of Esther was comprehensively ordered around these two values and that they were explicated in terms quite in keeping with the honor-shame matrix as conventionally understood. For more see Shame and Honor in the Book of Esther (SBLDS, 165; Atlanta, GA.: Scholars Press, 1998).