Review: Voices from the Ruins

Voices from the Ruins: Theodicy and the Fall of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible

By Dalit Rom-Shiloni
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021), xviii + 562 pp., graphs, $70 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Stephen L. Cook

Evolution of a taboo

Jerusalem’s razing in 586 B.C.E. was devastating, and conflicting cries from the tragedy echo down across the ages. In a host of Hebrew Scriptures, we hear the clash of varying voices from Judah’s smoking ruins—destroyed at the hands of the Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar II. Together with the biblical writers, we search for meaning amid such crisis. This inquiry is a perfect example of theodicy, which is an attempt to reconcile our understanding of God as good and omnipotent with the perceived existence of evil and suffering in the world. A balanced search for meaning, however, requires listening to all the voices, including those of severe doubt and protest. The dissonances between conflicting voices must clang in Bible readers’ ears, compelling serious reflection. The dissonant voices are on full display in biblical passages such as Jeremiah 21:2-5, Psalm 79:8, and Ezekiel 5:9.

As of 586 B.C.E., Jerusalem lay in ruins, and the Israelites were anxiously asking about God’s nature and character. Professor Dalit Rom-Shiloni’s magisterial work of descriptive theology, Voices from the Ruins, transports us back to the sixth century to hear the voices sounding amid the Bible’s most extreme calamity. A biblical scholar at Tel Aviv University, Rom-Shiloni is passionate about the conversation. Her biblical theology is specifically descriptive. It is not driven by Christian or Jewish concerns but attends strictly to the historical and ideological contexts that biblical texts of multiple genres engage.

The author unearths a vast, lively interplay of ideas in the sixth century and gives each voice serious airtime. The study presents a plurality of informed and pious voices sharing equal footing in a dialogue. Rom-Shiloni insists that we not automatically privilege prophetic voices that justify God’s anger, as past studies have often done. The Bible’s voices of dissent are often sincere—not ignorant, impious, or heretical. However, there is an unseen elephant in the proposed approach. It is the voice of Scripture as Scripture (i.e., the final holistic biblical corpus, which exceeds the sum of its parts in vision and purview), which should arguably be allowed a place in the discussion.

It is easy to ignore the voice of Scripture as Scripture. Like fish in a pond, Bible readers do not generally notice the water. Like others before her, Rom-Shiloni leaves out the voice in describing the argument of prophets over Jerusalem’s coming fate. The prophets Jeremiah and Hananiah famously banged heads over Jerusalem’s future (see Jeremiah 28). In presenting the clash, Scripture parts company with Rom-Shiloni and resists construing the confrontation as an even contest of equally plausible views. It notably refuses to accede to a construal of true prophets as debaters who toss out revelations at will. Instead, Scripture contributes a theocentric perspective on the confrontation, in which God and Jeremiah know the future and wait in anguish for Judah’s assured judgment and sure recreation.

As another example of this missing voice, Rom-Shiloni fails to engage the Book of Isaiah’s obvious cross-referencing of Lamentations. Lamentations, as a biblical book with a biblical context, sits in an intertextual continuum that includes Isaiah 40-55 in dialogue. Interconnections with Isaiah 40-55 bid readers step back from the heat of the historical moment—from the searing hurt out of which Lamentations initially sounded its cries of pain—and gain perspective. As the cries of Lamentations echo in the texts of Isaiah, their pain is allowed time to “breathe,” and a coming sublime intervention of God takes shape as an unexpected marvel. A theocentric perspective again emerges to open readers’ eyes to God’s ultimate fairness.

Rom-Shiloni’s impressively documented tome represents intense dialogues and debates over theodicy that together constitute a religious struggle for comprehension. More than 550 pages thick, her book is a definitive study of Israelite religious responses to the fall of Jerusalem as found in the Bible.

Stephen L. Cook is Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Virginia Theological Seminary. He specializes in Near Eastern languages and biblical literature.

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