By Dalit Rom-Shiloni
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021), xviii + 562 pp., graphs, $70 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Stephen L. Cook
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.
This post was previously published on BHD on May 27, 2022.
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Beyond my review posted, I want to add that the title is most intriguing: VOICES FROM THE RUINS. Archaeologists always hear voices in their excavations speaking and telling. And collectors of ancient works do too. A great collector friend, when I asked what it is like to live with so many magnificent works from so very distant times replied, “Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?” VOICES FROM THE RUINS is most intriguing.
When I read Stephen Cooks’ review of Dalib Ron-Shiloni’s vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of existing evil, I have two reactions that are non-judgmental:
1. I feel being led to universal conclusions about good and evil from one POV only: writing from this uniquely singular set of texts in the Hebrew bible. And so, while being interested in this perspective, I wonder how many other bibles are out there; bibles from many other much older societies? Bibles still waiting discovery perhaps languishing in archives or still hidden. God was not just God to Hebrews we certainly know. Hieroglyphics stories adorn temples and obelisks and scrolls in Egypt that speak of God (Ra) and God’s opposite; There was the “heretic” Pharaoh Akhenaton who moved to the desert to speak more clearly to his God, Aton. Were his conclusions as conflicting about the nature of God and Evil? Obviously he so frightened the establishment with his religious conclusions that he was doomed. Where else do such marvelous questions exist in other bibles?
and my 2nd reaction is why this dissonant conclusion is conflicting or confusing? When I look at the world today I find it hard to believe in universal Good. Even Astronomy showing the latest photos from the beginning (or the end) of time photographs “evil” black holes at the end of time. There has always been the serpent in the garden, in the Garden of Good and Evil. Perhaps this opposing god is there to display goodness better to us, we who are born of two natures? Renaissance painters are best at demonstrating this eternal conflict. What will we discover when we step into the vastness of eternal?
Thank you for this wonderful review of what must be a very interesting book.