Susan Van Volkenburgh. The Stone of Ebenezer. Bloomington: Westbow Press, 2015. See here to buy the book.
The Stone of Ebenezer is a novelization of the biblical
story in I Samuel 4-7. In that story, Israel’s priesthood is corrupt,
and the Philistines are waging war against Israel. The Israelites bring
the Ark of the Covenant into battle in the hope that this will make
them victorious against the Philistines. What happens instead is that
the Philistines defeat Israel and take the Ark for themselves. This
does not exactly help the Philistines, however, for the Ark (or God’s
presence with the Ark) knocks over the Philistine god Dagon and smites
the Philistines with a plague. The Philistines find a way to return the
Ark to Israel. Under the leadership of Samuel, Israel repudiates
idolatry. God then smites the Philistines, and the Israelites pursue
Susan Van Volkenburgh’s prose in this book is beautiful. It is deep,
yet it still manages to convey a realistic view of the characters and a
clear, vivid picture of the events. She intersperses Hebrew words
throughout the book and provides a glossary of those terms in the back.
She portrays the Philistines as real people: not as sympathetic as the
Israelites, mind you, but still as people with hopes, friends, and loved
ones. She did historical research in writing this novel, particularly
on Canaanite religion and mythology. The scenes in which the Philistines
are worshiping their gods and attempting to account theologically for
their misfortunes are powerful.
There are some things that could be nitpicked, in terms of her
research. She draws a lot from the 1915 International Standard Bible
Encyclopedia, when she should have used the more recent one. Yet, to
her credit, she also draws from research from the last two decades. In
giving the pronunciation of Hebrew words, she is not very consistent.
For some words, she tells us how they sound in Hebrew. For other words,
she gives us the conventional English pronunciation.
My main problem is not with this book’s research, however. The
research is rather impressive. My struggle is trying to identify what
makes this book different from other works of biblical fiction I have
read, particularly the works of Lynn Austin and Roberta Kells Dorr. The
novels of Austin and Dorr are superior to Volkenburgh’s novel, in
certain respects. I think that the difference is that Austin and Dorr
focus a lot on characterization and the story that they themselves
created (apart from the biblical story). Yes, the biblical story is
there, but there is also a focus on other things: the characters’
thoughts, feelings, motivations, and relationships. In Volkenburgh’s
novel, by contrast, the biblical story loomed much larger; Volkenburgh’s
story was filler for the biblical story. Reviewers who criticize Dorr
for straying too far from the Bible would probably prefer Volkenburgh’s
book. One can legitimately respond that Volkenburgh did talk about the
thoughts, feelings, and histories of her characters. She did, but the
characters in the works by Austin and Dorr are more rounded, more
complex, more dynamic.
I am vacillating between giving this book a 3 and a 4. I will give it a 4 because I did enjoy reading it.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.