Review of M. J. Boda, D. K. Falk, and R. A. Werline, eds. Seeking the Favor of God. Volume 1

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Mark J. Boda, Daniel K. Falk, and Rodney A. Werline, eds. Seeking the Favor of God. Volume 1: The Origins of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (SBL Early Judaism and its Literature, 21; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006). Pp. xvii + 249. Paper, US$35.95. ISBN 1-58983-261-2.


This collection comprises twelve essays originally delivered at the first consultation on penitential prayer held at the Society of Biblical Literature’s meeting in November 2003. Rodney Werline opens the collection with a definition of penitential prayer (“Defining Penitential Prayer, pp. xiii-xvii), wisely emphasizing that this definition is “a starting point, not the final word” (p. xvii).

Engaged as a senior scholar, Samuel Balentine offers a review of literature and suggests possibilities for future avenues of research. In “‘I was Ready to be Sought Out by Those Who Did Not Ask’” (pp. 1-20), he suggests that more attention be given to tradio-historical analysis versus strict form criticism (p. 16), as well as to the theological impact of penitential prayer, especially as it relates to the genre of lament (pp. 16-17). He also feels that further investigation is needed into the relationship between priestly and prophetic conceptualizations of the function of penitence with respect to lament (pp. 18-19). Finally, Balentine believes the Book of Job has much to offer the study of penitential prayer, especially with respect to its relationship with priestly material (p. 19-20). These thought-provoking suggestions are taken up to various degrees by the contributors to the volume.

Mark Boda’s, “Confession as Theological Expression: Ideological Origins of Penitential Prayer” (pp. 21-50), provides a thorough analysis of how specific theologies inform the earliest penitential prayers of Ezra 9; Neh 1; 9; Dan 9; and Ps 106. Boda gives detailed attention to the intersection of strands of Priestly and Deuteronomic theologies in penitential prayer (pp. 27-34), which then inform his exploration of the theology of sin (pp. 34-39), the theology of God (pp. 39-43), the theology of people (pp. 43-45), and the theology of scripture (pp. 46-49) in penitential prayer.

In “Socio-Ideological Setting or Settings for Penitential Prayers?” (pp. 51-68), Dalit Rom-Shiloni explores the relationship between penitential prayers and communal laments and proposes that penitential prayers are the orthodox alternative that develop in opposition to communal laments (p. 52-53, 67). Rom-Shiloni perhaps places too much confidence in the strict categories of lament versus penitence, and orthodox versus non-orthodox. However, it is a very provocative suggestion, and one with which subsequent research will have to engage.

In “The Speech Act of Confession: Priestly Performative Utterance in Leviticus 16 and Ezra 9-10” (pp. 69-82), Jay C. Hogewood creatively uses speech-act theory to explore how the act of confession, mediated by the term התודה, is in itself cleansing (p. 73), and how, in the case of Ezra 9-10, it effects permanent change (p. 82). It would be fascinating to apply Hogewood’s approach to other elements of Ezra 9-10, such as the term בדל.

In “Lament Regained in Trito-Isaiah’s Penitential Prayer” (pp. 83-99), Richard Bautch challenges the notion that penitential prayer succeeded lament completely. He proposes that lament influences Isa 63:7-64:11 in such a manner that suggests that penitential prayer does not completely subsume lament. Rather, lament actively informs the structure and content of Isa 63:7-64:11. Bautch’s proposal is important, and it would be illuminating to locate a similar trend in other Second Temple texts.

In “The Affirmation of Divine Righteousness in Early Penitential Prayers: A Sign of Judaism’s Entry into the Axial Age” (pp. 101-117), William Morrow suggests that the shift from lament to penitential prayer indicates the development of new insights into God’s transcendence that ushered Israel into the Axial Age (p. 106). For Morrow, the Book of Job stands as a witness to this shift (pp. 108-113). Morrow’s categories of lament and penitence are perhaps rather rigid; however, he does a great service by placing the genesis of penitential prayer into conversation with broader social developments.

 Katherine Hayes draws upon  Aristotelian dramatic categories  in “When None Repents, Earth Laments: The Chorus of Lament in Jeremiah and Joel” (pp. 119-143). She demonstrates how the mourning of the earth in Jer 12 and Joel 1-2 functions like a tragic chorus (p. 132) by shepherding the audience into the desired communal response of acknowledgement of wrongdoing. This is an important device to recognize as older scriptural material is reapplied during the development of penitential prayer in the Second Temple Period.

Judith Gärtner’s contribution, “. . .Why Do You Let Us Stray From Your Paths. . . (Isa 63:17): The Concept of Guilt in the Communal Lament Isa 63:7-64:11” (pp. 145-163), is an important essay that demonstrates that Isa 63:7-64:11 is not an anomalous appendage, but rather a vital passage that develops key Isaianic themes and theologies and influences the entire book (p. 146). By demonstrating intra-textual fluidity, Gärtner challenges overly rigid categorizations of lament and penitence.

 In “Ezra 9:6-15: A Penitential Prayer within its Literary Setting” (pp. 165-180), Michael Duggan offers a thorough synchronic analysis of Ezra’s prayer while demonstrating how intimately it relates to Ezra-Nehemiah as a whole through links in vocabulary and theological emphasis. This extremely detailed essay will challenge those scholars who insist that Ezra-Nehemiah is not a single work.

In “Form Criticism in Transition: Penitential Prayer and Lament, Sitz im Leben and Form” (pp. 181-192), Boda calls into question the usefulness of form criticism with its emphasis on Sitz im Leben, since the danger is that categories become too rigid. He suggests that a more nuanced approach might regard the developments of prayer in Second Temple literature to be on a “continuum” (p. 187), and would explore shifts in what he calls Ausblick aufs Leben (outlook/perspective on life) (p. 189).

Samuel Balentine summarizes the collection in a brief “Afterword” (pp. 193-204). Since the relationship between lament and penitence surfaces as a central concern of the volume, Balentine’s opinion that future work should consider both together should be taken seriously (p. 198). Balentine concludes with three intriguing avenues for consideration in the continued study of penitential prayer: the problem of theodicy, continued research into the contribution of the Book of Job, and the theology of scripture (p. 202-204).

Since Balentine and Boda both offer reviews of literature (pp. 2-10 and 21-27), and suggestions for future trajectories (pp. 187-192 and 202-204), it might have been helpful to have streamlined these into a co-authored piece. However, the format of the consultation is to be borne in mind, and there is no doubt that this first volume of Seeking the Favor of God  is an indispensible resource for any researcher interested in Jewish prayer during the Second Temple Period. 

Andrea K. Di Giovanni, University of St. Michael’s College