Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review
How do Old Testament/Hebrew Bible texts describe the status of individuals from outside Israel who turn to worship YHWH, the god of Israel? And what about the description of these individuals' relationship with YHWH as well as their relationship with the people of Israel in these texts?
In his book, JHWH-Verehrer der Völker, Volker Haarmann examines these questions through an analysis of the relevant texts from the Hebrew Bible. The texts are selected on the basis of two criteria, namely they must (a) describe an actual orientation of a non-Israelite towards the worship of YHWH rather than merely an eschatological scene such as Isa 2:1-5 // Mic 4:1-5 (see chapter 3.3), and (b) focus on individuals who worship YHWH, not on nations as a whole.
An important characteristic of Haarmann's approach is his systematic reference to the rabbinic tradition. This applies not only to his studies of certain texts, but also to his general approach to the subject: Haarmann begins his study with an exploration of the rabbinic categories ger toshav (righteous gentile) and ger tsedek (proselyte).
While he is aware of, and reflects on the difficulties of transferring rabbinic categories to HB texts, Haarmann develops the guiding idea of his study out of the rabbinic category ger toshav. He postulates that this is necessary to distinguish clearly between two different concepts. Whereas the righteous gentile is one who turns to worship YHWH, the god of Israel, without becoming part of the people of Israel, the proselyte is one who through conversion changes his whole identity and becomes part of the people of Israel. In his subsequent studies of particular texts Haarmann concentrates on the first category, the righteous gentiles.
At this point the theological relevance of the study - which is more fully developed in the epilogue of the book (chapter 6) - becomes apparent: Haarmann suggests the category of righteous gentiles who worship YHWH side by side with Israel without becoming a part of Israel as a description for the relationship between Israel and the church.
The core part of Haarmann's book is formed by chapters 2 and 3. These chapters examine examples of biblical characters who, according to Haarmann, can be described in terms of the category of righteous gentiles as defined earlier: individuals who turn to worshipping YHWH without converting in the sense of becoming a part of Israel.
Chapter 2 presents studies of the relevant narrative texts such as the stories of Jethro (Exod 18:1-12), Rahab (Josh 2), Naaman (2 Kgs 5) and the seamen (Jonah 1). In chapter 3 Haarmann analyses texts such as 1 Kgs 8:41-43 and Isa 56:1-8.
All texts are found to be postexilic and to presume a monotheistic perspective. In addition to the various functions these texts fulfil in their particular context, they also share certain characteristics: the acceptance of YHWH as the only and almighty god is in all cases described as a consequence of the knowledge of YHWH's deeds for the sake of the people of Israel. In this respect, the conversion of the foreign individuals to the knowledge and worship of YHWH is connected to the people of Israel - only through Israel and its history with YHWH can the nations achieve knowledge of and respect for YHWH, the god of Israel.
Furthermore, the foreign individuals' confession plays an important role in the texts analyzed by Haarmann. In some of the texts the individuals even begin to offer sacrifices to YHWH, either together with Israel (Exod 18:12) or on their own and in their own country (2 Kgs 5:17). In all instances they are seen as positive examples of righteous individuals who enter into a relationship with YHWH and join Israel in the worship of YHWH, but who stay foreigners and do not become part of the people of Israel.
According to Haarmann, the theological and sociological background of these texts can be found in the situation of the postexilic and monotheistic Israel with its need to newly define its own boundaries in terms of categories such as ethnic identity or confession.
In a separate chapter (ch. 4) Haarmann explores a second and contrasting postexilic model of how to deal with a non-Israelite who turns to worship YHWH. He examines the story of Ruth (Ruth 1:15-18) with its primary focus on Ruth's full integration into the people of Israel. The worship of YHWH in this context is only the consequence of Ruth's social integration and assimilation. (By presuming that this assimilation is acceptable, the book of Ruth possibly stands in contrast to the contemporary interpretation of Deut 23:4-8 found in Ezra-Nehemiah; see ch. 4.2.5.)
In his conclusions (ch. 5) Haarmann focuses on the examples described in chapters 2 and 3. He postulates that the two aspects - a person's relationship with YHWH and his/her relationship with the people of Israel - should be distinguished from each other when looking at postexilic texts. Haarmann's detailed study of the texts mentioned above led him to conclude that a concept parallel to the rabbinic category of the righteous gentile is already present in postexilic texts, although later rabbinic interpretation has often described figures such as Jethro and Rahab as proselytes and full members of the people of Israel.
The detailed studies on the relevant texts are very much worth reading. They are carried out thoroughly, using the methodologies of historical-critical exegesis with a high level of reflection. The results and conclusions are carefully and comprehensibly developed in the course of the analysis, thoroughly considering earlier scholarly works. In additon, Haarmann's study offers an interesting new perspective on contemporary attempts to redefine the relationship between Israel and the church.