How did Jewish leaders, writers, and prophets deal with the theological questions raised by the destruction of Jerusalem in the first half of the sixth century BCE? How did the disaster affect their perception of God and God’s place in the universe? Orit Avnery reviews Dalit Rom-Shiloni’s book God in Times of Destruction and Exiles, which grapples with these questions.
How is the “status” of God affected by a period of national crisis? What do the leaders, writers, and general Israeli public have to say about God when large-scale disasters befall them?
Such questions are the focus of God in Times of Destruction and Exiles by Dalit Rom-Shiloni. The book deals with the destruction of Jerusalem in the first half of the sixth century BCE and is likely to serve as a basis for discussion regarding other periods of Jewish crisis.
Rom-Shiloni examines the writings of prophets, kings, historians, poets, and ordinary people in the face of the disaster inflicted on the Jewish people by the Babylonians. She classifies the religious thought of that era into several main categories of interest: God’s role in causing destruction and exile, the connection between God and His people during and following the destruction, and the question of theodicy or divine justice.
The first part of the discussion deals primarily with God’s role in causing the destruction. Rom-Shiloni demonstrates clearly that there was no unanimity of thought regarding God’s role in bringing about the disaster or whether it was the responsibility of the nation’s enemies. The range of views spans an axis of responsibility and meaning between man and God.
One end of the axis emphasizes the role of human activity–the enemy fighting against the nation. The other pole attributes responsibility to God’s actions–God alone fights, whether as a savior or an enemy. Rom-Shiloni’s primary claim is that the purpose of prophecy such as “God fights alone” in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel is polemical. Adopting such an approach to explaining the destruction implies an expectation that God will redeem His people from the Babylonians while at the same time dealing with the notion that destruction is seen as entirely human and as a sign of the weakness in the God of Israel.
The middle of the axis harmonizes the historic event with the theological interpretation. The basis of this approach is that God is involved in events because He summons armies and is responsible for their activity. The author describes the attitude to victory and defeat according to this model while focusing on destruction, the theme of the book.
The core of the theological discussion is a deep engagement with the question of God’s attitude towards His people. The book discusses a broad cross-section of literature in which theodicy is the moving force behind the understanding of God’s ways with His people. The military and political defeats, the loss of independence and homeland, and the destruction of God’s Temple presented serious questions about God’s power, His part in the destruction, the justice of His ways, His presence and involvement in the life of His people.
According to Rom-Shiloni, God’s actions during the time of the destruction are strongly personified in literature. God serves three functions: ruler, fighter, and judge. An additional layer is the relationship between God and His people, described by metaphors taken from the life of the family. The author demonstrates how the two worlds intersect. By analyzing the sources dealing with each of the functions that God fulfills and by describing His relationship with His people during the destruction and following it, the author sheds light on essential differences between prophetic and non-prophetic sources in Jerusalem’s last years and in the early days of the exile. While everyone seeks an explanation of God’s ways in a time of crisis and an answer to the question of His involvement in the fate of the Jewish people after the destruction, non-prophetic sources are filled with complaints and dogmatic utterances to the effect that the crisis indicates the absence of divine providence. On the other hand, the prophets make serious efforts to explain God’s continued presence and involvement in the fate of the people before, during, and after the destruction. According to the author, the multiplicity of voices and standpoints are evidence of vigorous debate on religious thought in Judea and in exile.
Beyond the methodical discussion of Biblical texts, the book also deals with an additional layer of essential questions to which the difficulty of the destruction is but a point of access: how does one define the relationship between the different voices arising from the Biblical texts? Is it appropriate to distinguish between “official” and “unofficial” voices or between “centrist positions” and “marginal positions”? Where does one place the prophets? Do they represent opposition to both the “national religious circles” and “the official Yahwist religion”? Who held traditional positions and who innovated religious thought at the beginning of the sixth century BCE?
The author concludes that the prophetic sources are part of the official voice of Jewish religious thought during the first part of the 6th century BCE. Their themes and justifications of God’s ways are similar to the position expressed in the Book of Kings. In the author’s opinion, the prophets should not be viewed as the opposition to “the official Yahwist religion” but rather as its faithful representatives even in the first part of the 6th century BCE. In Rom-Shiloni’s assessment, the non-prophetic sources do not represent “national religious circles” nor marginal or folk positions in Jewish religious thought and do not involve expressions of arrogance or attacks on basic principles of belief in the God of Israel (as other scholars have claimed). She rejects distinctions that comprise a hierarchical evaluation of the “folk” positions versus “developed” or “refined” prophet positions. Both sets of positions are deeply rooted in religious tradition and, generally speaking, reveal great fidelity to the God of Israel.
Through these disagreements, many lines of similarity emerge that serve to enhance the intensity of the discussion, sometimes even turning it into a life-and-death argument. The nature of prophetic writing is to present the prophets as innovators in the world of religious thought. They quote their contemporaries’ statements in order to grapple with voices asking tough questions and to find new answers within the boundaries of religious thought. However, on the basis of theological discussion, one may conclude that most of the arguments are firmly set within a single world of thought and therefore reflect a discourse among equals. It would seem correct to describe the theological discourse of the first part of the sixth century BCE as an ongoing, difficult, agonized movement between the points of the theodicy triangle. Prophets, kings and their ministers, poets, and commoners all move in different, colliding paths, all trying to find a way to come to terms with the suffering of the people and the basic belief that God is just, good, and generates goodness, the omnipotent and omniscient God of history.
The great contribution made by God in Times of Destruction and Exiles is its in-depth analysis of the texts and in the insights it shares about Biblical literature and theology. This is a heavy scholarly tome, which is liable to be off-putting to some readers. Therefore, despite the great importance of its first part, which lays the methodological foundation for the discussion, readers interested in the discussion of the text and its significance for different views of God can certainly embark on the exegetical journey the second part of the book offers.
Readers concerned with theological questions, the books of the Bible discussed (especially Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Lamentations, and Psalms), and those interested in editing the Biblical text in the presence of different voices in Biblical literature will find God in Times of Destruction and Exiles to be a highly valuable source. The book not only presents the zeitgeist of a particular era but is a close and very precise reading of the texts themselves providing a serious, in-depth exegesis of them.
God in Times of Destruction and Exiles is a link in the chain of books providing readers with an experience of true learning, making intelligent use of the various sources and scholarly research about them. More importantly, it allows readers latitude in examining and formulating their own positions about the interpretation and innovations presented within.
Orit Avnery is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, and a Tanakh lecturer at Midreshet Lindenbaum.
God in Times of Destruction and Exiles by Dalit Rom-Shiloni was published by Magnes Press.