Society of Old Testament Study Summer Meeting 2018 image

Society of Old Testament Study Summer Meeting 2018

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the Society of Old Testament Study’s summer meeting. SOTS is a gathering of around 100 Old Testament scholars and PhD students (of which I am neither – but thankfully there is also some leeway for prospective PhD students) who meet twice a year to hear and discuss papers on current research in Old Testament studies. Held at St John’s College, Durham, it was a stimulating few days, both in and out of the lecture hall. There are surely (and sadly?) few other places in the world where people stop eating, mid-meal, in order to get out their Hebrew Bibles and check whether the word ‘the’ (a single consonant in Hebrew!) is present in a particular verse in Deuteronomy, but SOTS is that kind of place!

There were a number of really good papers presented over the two and a bit days of the meeting. Here are a few highlights:

Session: Brent Strawn, ‘What is missing from ancient Israelite Religion?’
Big idea: Religious experience and emotional affectivity (i.e. real feeling) have often been unfairly excluded from reconstructions of ancient Israel’s religion.

Summary: Scholarly accounts of ancient Israelite religion have often argued that what we might consider to be emotionally rich language is actually not about interior feelings but about exterior actions. So, for example, God’s love for his people is understood as his practical protection of them and their interests, and Israel’s love for God is understood simply as their obedience to him.

However, there are plenty of examples where this understanding struggles to account for the evidence. Iconography also suggests genuine emotion in the relationship between the ancients’ and their deities. Images regularly show the same body position in scenes where people are in fear before a ruler or deity as when they are in fear in the context of warfare. In the latter, the fear is surely a genuine emotional experience, and so this parallel suggests the same is true in the former.

Thus there is good evidence that the ancients had an interior life – they felt emotions – and therefore any account of ancient Israelite religion must consider the Old Testament witness to this element of life.

Session: Carly Crouch, ‘Duelling dynasties: Ezekiel’s sign-act of the two sticks’
Big idea: The two sticks in the sign-act of Ezekiel 37 represent two groups of God’s people led by the competing dynasties of Zedekiah and Jehoiachin. 

Summary: The sign-act of the two sticks in Ezekiel 37:15-22 has traditionally been interpreted as a promise that the northern and southern kingdoms, who had been separated since the reign of Rehoboam, would one day be united again under one king. In this reading the stick labelled ‘For Judah’ represents the southern kingdom and the stick labelled ‘For Joseph’ represents the northern kingdom. However, there are several problems with this reading, most notably, there is no other evidence that Ezekiel was concerned about such a reunification and the theme of reunification doesn’t figure prominently in Old Testament texts about the return to the land.

Crouch therefore suggests a new reading in which the stick ‘For Judah’ is identified with the Judahites left in the land and the dynasty of Zedekiah (the puppet king put into place by the Babylonians when Jerusalem was captured), while the stick ‘For Joseph’ is identified with the exiles in Babylon and the dynasty of Jehoiachin (the king taken into exile when Jerusalem was captured). Associations between Zedekiah and Judah (through allusions to Genesis 49:8-12) in Ezekiel 19:10-14 and the widely accepted allusions to the Joseph narratives in the account of Jehoiachin’s release in 2 Kings 25:27-30 are cited in support. This reading could also offer explanations to some of the complex textual difficulties in Ezekiel 37.

Questions following the paper highlighted some of the difficulties with Crouch’s reading: Are the exiled Judahites viewed as a separate nation anywhere else in the Old Testament? And is it really possible that Joseph could be used to refer to the southern kingdom, given his consistent association with the northern kingdom throughout the Old Testament? (Probably not, seemed to be the popular answer to both questions!)

Session: Leigh Trevaskis, ‘Credit where credit’s due: Ehud as an anti-idolatrous leader’
Big idea: Against the background of Israel making an idolatrous offering to Eglon, Ehud acts alone as an anti-idolatrous leader who kills the one to whom Israel has made the offering.

Summary: The story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3:12-30 is often read as the satirising of a foreign king. Israel, through Ehud, tricks Eglon into thinking he is receiving an offering from them, when in fact it is he who becomes the offering (or sacrifice) when he is killed. Terminology elsewhere associated with sacrifice is said to support this reading. However, v.18a seems to suggest that the potentially cultic act has been completed by this point, and it is not clear why the author would want to make fun of Eglon when he has been identified as God’s instrument for judgement against the Israelites (v.12).

Trevaskis proposes a new reading to overcome these difficulties. In vv.15-18 Israel is making an offering to Eglon as if he were a deity. (Eglon’s name could be about a calf-like divinity, or ‘bovinity’ as Trevaskis dubs it). Ehud, however, takes the offering but is already armed to kill Eglon. (Note that the offering is sent by Israel through Ehud, not by Ehud, v.15). The bracketing of Ehud’s murder of Eglon between two references to idols (v.19 ‘he turned away from the idols’, v.26 ‘he passed by the idols’) may be designed to stress his act as anti-idolatrous and the wording of both references stress that Ehud was acting on his own at this point. Thus, Ehud’s actions are not an attempt to mock Eglon by making him a sacrifice with the support of the Israelites, but rather the destruction of an idol to whom Israel has made an offering.

An interesting challenge to the reading was brought during the questions. If Trevaskis is right, this would be the only place in the Old Testament where Israel venerate a human as a god. Does this weaken the argument? Maybe, but it’s still a very interesting way of solving some of the problems of the traditional interpretation.

Session: Marian Kelsey, ‘The relenting of God in the book of Jonah’
Big idea: God’s relenting in Jonah is his merciful deferral of punishment to a later time.

Summary: Jonah’s description of God in 4:2 is a key point in the narrative. He is clearly alluding to God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7 but with a reference to God’s propensity to relent from disaster in place of Exodus’ reference to God’s forgiving of sins and not clearing the guilty. How should this difference be understood? Is Jonah saying the same thing in different words or is he perhaps seeking to correct Exodus? The best reading is that Jonah understands God’s relenting as his merciful deferral of punishment to a later time. It is therefore still true that God does not clear the guilty, though he does relent from his immediate intention to bring judgement. This could explain why, after God’s relenting, Jonah sits ‘till he should see what would become of the city’ (4:5). He was waiting for the punishment to come.

The theme of relenting elsewhere, especially in Jeremiah, provides further material for consideration. Jonah uses language very similar to that of Jeremiah 18, though in that chapter God does not relent because there is no repentance. In Jeremiah 15:6 God states that he is ‘weary of relenting’ and so is enacting judgement against Jerusalem. This may support the idea that the relenting was just a deferral of judgement.

This reading, Kelsey suggested, implies that the outlook for Nineveh is not actually as positive as the book might imply: judgement is still coming. This is supported by the prophecy of Nineveh’s destruction in Nahum, later in The Twelve (i.e. the minor prophets). It might also offer some hope to an exiled Israel. If God could relent and show mercy to Nineveh before they had been punished, then, having already enacted punishment on Israel, he might also relent and restore Israel.

Session: Suzanna Millar, ‘Dining of destruction: The pedagogical power of a metaphorical world in Proverbs’
Big idea: Proverbs employs a recurring metaphor of eating to train its readers. Those who eat evil are evil and so suffer evil. Eating evil is a ‘fate-effecting deed’.

Summary: Proverbs has a strong emphasis on the connection between acts and consequences, designed to teach readers to think and act correctly, in turn developing their character. This focus on acts and consequences can be seen in the use of eating metaphors which emphasise that if evil is consumed (i.e. internalised) it will inevitably result in experiencing evil.

In Proverbs 19:28, for example, an individual is wicked because they ‘devour iniquity’ (’āven). You become what you eat. But ’āven can also be translated ‘trouble’. So, as the wicked devours iniquity, he is also devouring trouble. The act has an inevitable consequence. The reader is thus warned away from devouring iniquity. Or take Proverbs 20:17. ‘Sweet to a man is the bread of lies’. The man has consumed and so internalised the practice of lying. ‘But afterwards his mouth will be filled with gravel’. The consumption of deception has led to a deception: what looked sweet is actually hard and harsh. Again, acts have inevitable consequences. Such dining will lead to destruction.

Millar argues that this teaching strategy is designed to warn readers against the consumption of evil and so encourage them to internalise the right ways of thinking and acting, thus forming their character.

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