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Schlimm, Matthew Richard
From Fratricide to Forgiveness. The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns 2011. XIV, 242 S. m. Abb. 22,8 x 15,0 cm = Siphrut, 7. Geb. US$ 34,50. ISBN 978-1-57506-224-2.
John E. Anderson
Matthew Schlimm, assistant professor of Old Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, offers a thoughtful and engaging reading of the ethics of anger in the Bible’s first book. This work is a revision of S.’s dissertation completed at Duke University under the direction of James Crenshaw.
The book is divided into three unequal parts, two methodological and one exegetical. After a brief introduction defending the value of emotion and anger as an interpretive lens for Genesis, S. commences in Part 1 with a thorough examination of the Hebrew Bible’s view on anger as a means of laying his methodological foundation. Chapter 2 wrestles with the complex issue of translating emotion, noting that while translation itself is always an act that inflicts violence upon the original text, emotion language has the added freight of cultural relativity, that is, what one culture means about an emotion in language and understanding may not align with another culture’s sense of the same emotion. Chapter 3 then addresses two fitting cautions: the Hebrew Bible does not characterize emotion as either »rational« or »irrational« (especially anger with irrationality), and therefore modern Western assumptions about emotion should not be imposed on these ancient texts. In chapter 4, S. employs prototype theory to outline what the Hebrew Bible actually says about anger, identifying the prototypical cause (perceived wrongdoing), object (other humans), subject (males), outcome (violence, separation, or punishment), and narrative evaluation (largely though not exclusively negative) of anger. Chapter 5 focuses on the specific language used of anger in the Hebrew Bible (jealousy, evil/calamity, extreme violence, fire, pouring out, contend and dispute, turn, and various qualifiers). Chapter 6 then employs conceptual metaphor as a lens for comprehending anger in the Hebrew Bible.
Part 2 adjusts the methodological focus to ethics. Chapter 7 surveys and engages the rejuvenated and blossoming field of Old Testament ethics, commending those more recent studies that have moved beyond the »narrow approach« arising out of the Enlightenment. S. argues these newer works have proven especially capable and conducive to reimagining Old Testament ethics, though they are not without their problems when applied specifically to Genesis. Chapter 8 sees S. advance his own narrative mimetic model for understanding the ethics of anger in Genesis. The bedrock of this approach for S. recognizes that emotions have narrative structure, narratives invite readers to experience emotions in the task of reading, and narrative attends »to the complexities and limitations of moral living« (120). Genesis, therefore, provides ethical guidance through four »intersecting avenues«: metaphorical transference (sharing a host of different stories about anger that cover a range of possible life intersections for the reader), imaginative experience (readers’ »vicarious experience« of emotion becoming instructive), second persona (authorial control on readers by how the narrative is focused and presented), and formative dialogue (wherein Genesis becomes a dialogue partner about the moral life).
In Part 3, S. turns in earnest to the book of Genesis with an eye toward its instances of anger. Chapter 9 establishes the bedrock for the ensuing chapters by focusing on the Cain and Abel story, more specifically, this story as the entry point for anger in the biblical narrative, coupled as it is with a choice God offers Cain: to do good (honestly address his anger) or not do good (let his anger rule over him). The significant point for S. is that there is an option; Cain can overcome his anger and choose the good, but he does not. It is this divine choice that S. sees other characters in Genesis faced with as well. Chapter 10 looks at anger among shepherds, focusing on Abram and Lot, Isaac and the herders of Gerar, and Jacob and Laban, which cumulatively suggest that peaceful separation is preferential to »conflict together«. Chapter 11 looks at Sarai/h and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Dinah’s brothers and the Shechemite males, and Joseph and Potiphar, all of which give voice to the difficulties of »disproportionate power relations« (164). Chapter 12 treats two sibling rivalries: Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Whereas the former attests to the real complexities and dangers of addressing anger, the latter provides at last an example of anger rightly overcome. S. calls Joseph »an anti-Cain« (178), thus creating a chiasm spanning the entirety of Genesis, between 4:7 and 50:20 f. Chapter 13 briefly summarizes the volume. Two appendices — on how S. arrived at his statistics for anger language in the book (A) and a fuller discussion of Hebrew words for anger (B) — round out the book.
The book is a bit uneven, being quite methodologically focused, with 132 pages treating these various issues, while only 50 address the Genesis text in earnest (a proportion that is even more uneven if one adds the two appendices, totaling 17 pages). This is not to suggest the methodological discussions are frivolous; they constitute the greatest strength of the book. S.’s ability to condense complex and diverse ideas into a clear and concise discussion is especially worthwhile. Moreover, those working in the areas of emotion and Old Testament ethics will do well to be mindful of and engage his thoughtful critiques and careful nuancing in this methodological section. The book also attests to the success of interdisciplinary biblical study, as S. marshalls conceptual metaphor and prototype theory, among others, to his task of biblical study.
But it is also this unevenness that becomes ultimately a liability. While S.’s reading of the Genesis text is insightful at many points, and his reading of the Cain and Abel narrative in chapter 9 is especially strong, S. fails to interact deeply with the complexities surrounding many of the other texts treated in Part 3; his interpretations are presented as though they are typically straight-forward and self-evident readings of the narrative. One brief example will be illustrative. S. contends at several points that Jacob is a character who changes in re-encountering Esau (166–167), yet I have argued in my Jacob and the Divine Trickster that Jacob in fact does not undergo such an ethical metamorphosis, a point slim tacitly seems to acknowledge when he (rightly) characterizes Jacob’s words to Esau that they will meet up in Seir as a »ploy« (168), and in fact continues to deceive Esau on several levels. What implications arise for reading the text this way? Imagine Esau’s potential anger at realizing Jacob has duped him again (Gen 35:29 notwithstanding). Additionally, while Joseph does ultimately overcome his anger and reunite with his brothers, he has also most certainly made them earn that forgiveness; I am unconvinced that Joseph’s actions leading up to the reunion are not in some way a manifestation of his anger (see Polliack’s »Joseph’s Journey: From Trauma to Resolution« in Genesis: Texts@Contexts). Devoting more space to the narrative complexities of the anger episodes as opposed to focusing solely on anger as though it were the dominant theme would have greatly strengthened these textual discussions.
S. has produced a careful and thoughtful study of emotion and ethics that will be of benefit to subsequent scholars who wish to engage these important and oft-ignored questions.