Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Enemy in the Household

Caryn A. Reeder.  The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.  See here for Baker’s page about it.

The Torah appears to recommend and to approve of family violence, and this is disturbing to a number of modern readers, especially those who would like to take the Torah seriously as a document of religious value.  There is the command that parents participate in the execution of their rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), the law in Deuteronomy 22 about the stoning of the wife who was not a virgin when she got married, and the command for Israelites to kill any close family member who recommends the worship of other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-11).  Deuteronomy 33:9 praises the Levites for rejecting their close family members in their loyalty to God’s covenant, and that may be a reference to the story in Exodus 32 about the Levites slaughtering brothers who worshiped the Golden Calf.

Caryn Reeder’s The Enemy in the Household is about family violence in Deuteronomy, as well as the interaction with this concept within Second Temple Judaism (i.e., Jubilees, Philo, and Josephus), rabbinic literature, and the New Testament.  Her treatment of the Hebrew Bible employs a hermeneutic of trust, in which she tries to give biblical writers the benefit of the doubt and see even their troubling texts as religiously and morally instructive.  She looks for the reasoning behind the laws about family violence, as she interacts with biblical scholarship, and she believes that they are about protecting Israel from violating her covenant with God, safeguarding inheritance (in the case of the man who wants to marry a virgin because then he can be sure that it will be his children who will inherit his property), and maintaining societal order.  Reeder maintains that the value that these laws place on community can be instructive to those today who are extremely individualistic.

Reeder interacts with the history of interpretation of these laws in order to demonstrate that ancient interpreters, too, struggled with them.  Moreover, Reeder explores the other side of the concept of family violence within the Bible, since Jewish Christians according to the synoptic Gospels were actually the victims of family violence, as their families rejected them and even sought their death on account of the Jewish Christians’ commitment to Jesus.

Reeder’s discussion of the Hebrew Bible was informative and judicious, albeit repetitive.  While she does well to seek reasons for Deuteronomy’s laws regarding family violence, one can legitimately question whether she successfully defends them.  Do any reasons—-covenant or inheritance—-justify becoming so cold as to participate in the death of a close family member?  Could the same objectives have been accomplished in any other way?

Reeder’s interaction with the New Testament addressed such issues as the Jewish Christians as victims of family violence as well as the New Testament’s attempts to protect churches from false teachers, which is similar to the goal of Deuteronomy 13:6-11 (to protect Israel from apostate family members), only without the violence.  This discussion, too, was informative and judicious, but it would have benefited from a discussion of why the early Jewish Christians were persecuted: What specifically about their commitment to Jesus made them subject to family violence, especially the sort of family violence that was directed against apostates?

The most valuable part of this book, in my opinion, was Reeder’s discussion of Second Temple and rabbinic literature.  Reeder addresses the extent to which Jewish interpreters upheld family violence, as well as the extent to which they mitigated, softened, or limited it.  One point that stood out to me was her argument that the Book of Jubilees largely rejected family violence as a solution to religious apostasy, which was significant within its historical context, as devout Jews struggled with the ramifications of Hellenistic influence.  Another interesting detail in Reeder’s book was her discussion of the interrelationship between Second Temple interaction with the concept of family violence and the Roman idea that a father was lord of his family and could kill his children at will.  Reeder talks about the Romans’ own limitations on this idea, as well as Jewish criticism of it.

The Enemy in the Household is a useful work on family violence in the Book of Deuteronomy and the history of biblical interpretation.

My thanks to Baker Academic for sending me a complimentary copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

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