C. Franke and J.M. O'Brien, eds, The Aesthetics of Violence in the Prophets

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Franke, Chris and Julia M. O'Brien (eds.), The Aesthetics of Violence in the Prophets (LHBOTS, 517; New York: T&T Clark, 2010). Pp. xii + 187. US$120.00. ISBN 978-0-56754-811-5.

The Aesthetics of Violence in the Prophets is a collection of essays from the 2006 meeting of the “Prophetic Texts and their Ancient Contexts” section of the Society of Biblical Literature. The assembled essays treat the theme of the aesthetics of violence in prophetic literature by employing a diverse array of methodologies and interdisciplinary linkages. In nine essays, the individual authors appeal to comparative ancient Near Eastern studies, film criticism, and gender studies, as well as various literary approaches, in their attempt to discuss how the prophetic corpus employs images and metaphors of violence. The editors note in the introduction that the occasioning incident for this study was the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, which led them to address the question of how contemporary understandings of violence might benefit from the study of violent biblical prophetic texts (p. ix). The interplay of methodologies and approaches makes this volume a challenge to review since there is no unifying argument that underlies the entire book. The individual approaches to the overarching theme, however, are well worth discussing. Consequently, this review will comment on each of the individual essays before evaluating the work as a whole.

Cynthia R. Chapman contributes the first essay, “Sculpted Warriors: Sexuality and the Sacred in the Depiction of Warfare in the Assyrian Palace Reliefs and in Ezekiel 23:14–17.” This essay is notable for its use of ancient Near Eastern comparative analysis, bringing Assyrian iconography into conversation with the biblical text. Chapman highlights the highly sexualized nature of violent imagery in the Assyrian context, where the representations attribute highly masculine characteristics to the king as conqueror, including images of how he, his weaponry, and the weapons of his proxies (Assyrian soldiers) “penetrate” the defeated foes. She uses this to examine Ezekiel's depiction of the ravishing of Oholibah in Ezek 23, seeing how Jerusalem takes on the female role of the violated, while the controlling gaze sanctioning the attack is that of YHWH through Ezekiel, the prophetic intermediary. This essay effectively demonstrates how sexualized violence can represent power disparities between the parties. It also shows how prophetic metaphors of violence are at home in the social and cultural context of the ancient Near East.

Robert D. Haak contributes the second essay, “Mapping Violence in the Prophets: Zephaniah 2.” This essay is notable for Haak's acknowledgment of the role that his personal perspective plays in presenting the argument. His study reflects on the genre of oracles against nations and includes two ideas worth developing. First, he suggests that images of violence, whether in prophetic rhetoric or in contemporary speech, could actually reduce the level of actual violence by causing the audience to recoil if the image presented is sufficiently evocative. This argument is interesting, but one could easily assert the opposite: violent imagery targeted against a specific group also has the capacity to enflame actual violence. The second idea considers the idea of power more broadly. Haak notes the failure of powerful leaders, including the supposed “proper” king Josiah who seemed to fulfill the prophetic hope of a good locus of authority (p. 32). This leads the author to reflect widely on the history of placing prophetic hope in human leaders, which typically leads to disappointment and oppression. According to Haak, this failure should prompt biblical scholars to speak out against those who want to combine religious expectations with political structures.

The following essay by Kathleen M. O'Connor considers the book of Jeremiah through a conversation with Trauma and Disaster Studies. In her essay, “Reclaiming Jeremiah's Violence,” O'Connor suggests that the violent imagery of Jeremiah is part of a coping mechanism for a community experiencing disaster and dislocation. In effect, by using the most powerful imagery available, the text permits the victims to fully articulate the depths of their trauma and claim ownership over its effects. Texts such as Jer 13:20–27, which portray YHWH's assault on Zion, allows the community to reclaim its voice by daring to speak the unspeakable back to God. She considers violent imagery as a “momentary stay against confusion” that tries to make sense of a desperate situation (p. 49). Overall, while finding words to utter amidst disaster may be a useful coping mechanism, it would also be important to pursue this insight to the next step to see if it is possible to get beyond violent imagery in the process of healing and recovery.

The next essay comes from Carolyn J. Sharp, whose chapter addresses a flashpoint issue from the 2008 American Presidential election. Her essay is titled “Hewn by the Prophet: An Analysis of Violence and Sexual Transgression in Hosea with Reference to the Homiletical Aesthetic of Jeremiah Wright.” Sharp's work brings together prophetic rhetorical technique and Rev. Jeremiah Wright's now (in)famous “God damn America” sermon. Sharp highlights how the rhetoric of both texts works to dismember their audience's identity, swept away by the wide array of violent images that cause the hearer to shudder and recoil. Once the hold of these flawed perspectives is broken, the audience can begin to respond in the way that the text suggests. Both Hosea's portrayal of his implied audience as an adulterous woman or unloved child and Wright's savage assault of the history of the American government's attempt to shatter any countervailing myths force the audience to confront their misconceptions. This essay ably interacts with both Rev. Wright and the biblical text and provides some much needed context to Wright's sermon, which typically is reduced to just its most provocative line.

Daniel Smith-Christopher's essay is entitled “On the Pleasures of Prophetic Judgment: Reading Micah 1:6 and 3:12 with Stokely Carmichael.” He examines Micah's prophetic rhetoric in conversation with “Black Power” rhetoric and posits a significant level of connection between them. He suggests that Micah's rhetoric regarding the economic situation has a subversive intent to empower a small group of dispossessed farmers, suggesting that they might rise up against a repressive elite. The power of Micah's rhetoric corresponds to Stokely Carmichael's challenge to the established political and social structure, seeking to subvert it and to announce the possibility of radical change. Violent images thus seek to destabilize oppressive power structures and allow competing voices to break through. Smith-Christopher's argument is provocative and suggests the need for further reflection to see what other support one might find for his construal of the situation informing the rhetoric of Micah.

Yvonne Sherwood contributes the next essay, which challenges what she understands is the domestication of the text in contemporary Western thought. Her paper, entitled “‘Tongue-Lashing’ Or a Prophetic Aesthetics of Violation: An Analysis of Prophetic Structures that Reverberate Beyond the Biblical World,” takes aim at what she calls the “Liberal Bible,” which is the notion that the Bible functions primarily as a representation of benign concepts such as justice, ethics, and morality. In this configuration, the violent expressions of the text fade into the background, leaving behind only the vague sense of the Bible as a (or the) good book. She also challenges the “Literary Bible,” which is the notion of the text as a well-constructed whole that opens up space for responses from its readers and interlocutors. In response, Sherwood suggests paying closer attention to the relationship between prophetic metaphors of violence, especially the damage they inflict on the human body, and the identity of God as overwhelming, irresistible force. This permits the interpreter to see that the Bible ought not to be placed into the safe containers of the “Liberal,” or “Literary” Bibles, but instead the interpreter must grapple with the full impact of its images.

Julia M. O'Brien's essay is entitled “Violent Pictures, Violent Cultures? The ‘Aesthetics of Violence’ in Contemporary Film and in Ancient Prophetic Texts.” O'Brien explores the use of violence in movies, suggesting that “realistic” depictions of violence in movies are part of the movie's persuasive force. She draws interesting comparisons between Saving Private Ryan and the book of Nahum, arguing that one needs to get beyond the initial shock of the violence to discover what message it intends to convey. The discussion of realism as persuasive technique also brings her to imagine how Nahum could operate in a social setting removed from the one that it immediately seems to indicate. She argues against the idea that the “realism” of Nahum's violence provides a reason to believe that it is a product of the rhetorical situation that it describes. The question she leaves is for interpreters to consider what is the persuasive function of scenes of violence, pushing to go beyond description to engagement with the effect of such imagery.

The penultimate paper comes from Corrine Carvalho, entitled “The Beauty of the Bloody God: The Divine Warrior in Prophetic Literature.” Carvalho, like Haak, makes a point of acknowledging personal interest in the topic that helps to shape her interpretation. Carvalho's essay develops themes surrounding the allure of violent imagery, suggesting that they can possess an aesthetically beautiful quality. Carvalho wants to celebrate the beauty of the violence, suggesting that it does not need to be pushed into the service of some other, more tolerable purpose. This assertion is refreshing, since it effectively moves beyond an easy moralism and grapples with the allure of violent images upon their audiences. Ultimately, she asserts that the beauty of a God who is portrayed through violent images is that of a deity who is engaged in the situation of the world, not an impotent, passive onlooker. God, the Divine Warrior, is a powerful image because of the commitment that God displays when choosing to act.

The final essay is that of Mary Mills, entitled “Divine Violence in the Book of Amos.” Mills draws from the horror genre to discuss the ways in which YHWH appears as a violent character within the prophetic presentation. Mills appeals especially to the genre of vampire studies to identify God as monstrous, responding to the monstrous city of Samaria that is draining away the life of its labouring underclass. In this way, God-as-vampire is the appropriate response to the city-as-vampire. This reaches its culmination in the declaration of Amos 7, where the prophet turns from being God's spokesman to challenging God, only to be ultimately rebuffed, so that God stands as predator who will act against sinful Israel. This essay seems to conflate the categories of vampire and monster, which is slightly confusing since God's predatory activities described here do not necessarily seem to fit the idea of vampiric draining. Overall, however, the dialogue with horror categories yields results worthy of further pursuit.

In summary, the nine essays that comprise this book all bring unique perspectives to bear on the rather broad topic of violence in prophetic literature. The methodological multiplicity renders the work rather jarring since the reader has to consistently reorient her perspective and understanding of the authors' presuppositions. This book is unified, however, by the “interested” stance that the contributors take, allowing the voices of the authors to be heard alongside the words of the biblical text and various interdisciplinary dialogue partners. The audience of this book will be limited to those who have capabilities in multiple disciplines or who are willing to expand the horizon of the approaches they bring to the study of prophetic literature. As a highly technical collection of studies into prophetic imagery, this book does provide a voice for new and engaging studies into the image-world of the biblical prophets.

Joel Barker, Heritage College and Seminary