Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies

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Ken Stone
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , September
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780804799751.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies is an excellent book that offers a much-needed interface between biblical and animal studies. Ken Stone, professor of Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics at the Chicago Theological Seminary, is well known for his important contributions to gender and queer hermeneutics. In this new monograph, Stone now turns to the marginalized animal “voices” of the Hebrew Bible. The book draws from the rich multidisciplinary field of animal studies and adopts an intertextual approach to seek out the many animals inhabiting biblical texts. 

In the first chapter, Stone convincingly demonstrates how the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel’s identity are unthinkable without animals. The preservation of bibles as material objects would have been impossible without animal skins to make parchments. Stone also insists on the animals having a pervasive presence in the literature. Drawing on notions from animal studies, he employs Jacob’s story as an exemplary case: Flocks of goats and sheep are referred to as “companion species” for the Israelites. The animal/human distinction assumed in Genesis 1-3 is destabilized by emphasizing common features between humans and animals, as well as multiple differences among animals. Stone also uses Jacques Derrida’s neologism, carnophallogocentrismto think through the animalization of some humans in biblical texts. While he provides a few insightful examples of interlocking oppressive systems, I wish he had expanded a little more on the usageof animal metaphors to other women and also non-Israelites, slaves, and so on.

In chapter 2, Stone reassesses the bad reputation of biblical dogs in the Hebrew Bible. He uses an essay by Lévinas to initiate his inquiry. In Lévinas’ wake, he reads Exodus 22:30 and 11:7 together, giving a more positive impression of the dogs: they are rewarded with meat for keeping quiet while God’s last plague is decimating the Egyptians and sparing the Israelites. Stone proposes an interesting discussion of Levinasian ethics and its potential for including animals. However, he only addresses the anthropocentric tendency of the philosopher. Should we not also consider his instrumentalization of the “feminine”? Is the dog to play a similar subordinate role in the philosopher’s ethics? Biblical dogs definitely present a more interesting lead for Stone to follow. While canine metaphors are sometimes used as insults in the Hebrew Bible, the underlying assumption about dogs builds mostly on their deference and loyalty to humans. If their scavenger function can cause some uneasiness, Stone notes how their status in biblical texts is ambivalent rather than negative. He also brings to light how both packs of dogs in Exodus 11 and 22 are situated in a context—a story of liberation—where the line between animals and humans is muddled. 

Chapter 3 deals with the subject of biblical sacrifice. Stone takes Derrida’s musings on Cain and Abel (Gen 4) as his point of departure in order to explore how sacrifice rearticulates relationships and frontiers between humans, animals, and God. While the author may rely a little too much on the Derridean train of thought at first, he does facilitate a fruitful encounter with theoretical insights from religious studies, which all point to the central role of animals in sacrifice. Stone’s resort to Jonathan Klawans’s theory on sacrifice—rather than the overused Girardian theory—is especially welcome and refreshing. Klawans suggests that the principle of imitatio Dei is at the foundation of Israelite sacrifice. In the same way that God cares for and sometimes sacrifices animals from his “flocks,” so do the Israelites with their domesticated animals. Stone rightly contends that this could be a very evocative theory to reflect on human sacrifice. 

In chapter 4, Stone wishes to move from hermeneutics to ethics. The chapter is framed by Maimonides’s reflection on the abuse of animals and how we should recognize them as suffering and affective beings. Stone offers a very insightful reflection on Balaam’s donkey, especially the violence she endures and denounces (Num 22:22-35). He chooses to interpret her active presence among her biblical peers: ancient donkeys, other exceptional animals (lions, bears, and dogs), and laboring equines. Building on biblical scholarship about equine companion species, Stone insists on the role of the she-ass as divine messenger, endowed with speech, while seemingly forgetting to consider how gender affects her characterization. Stone concludes this chapter by examining the ways in which many biblical intertexts command or suggest a caring attitude for animals.

In chapter 5, using the notion of the “zoological gaze,” Stone turns to wild animals in the Hebrew Bible. First, he briefly covers lions, the main predators found in biblical texts. God is often associated with this feline, embodying its threat and using it as an emissary of punishment. Second, Stone turns to the abandoned and destroyed cities taken over by wildlife and often associated with divine punishment. He provides a detailed discussion of two of these animals: ostriches and jackals. While often symbolizing desolation and mourning, these creatures also praise God for the gift of water in Isaiah 43:19-21, embodying an unsettling hope. Third, Stone explores God’s nurturing attitude toward the wilderness. Once more, he invites us to reconsider Genesis 1 in the midst of other biblical texts celebrating God’s thriving creation, especially Psalm 104 and Job 38-39.

In chapter 6, Stone continues his reflection on God’s relationship to animals by exploring the lament psalms, where divine salvation is often inclusive of animals. Heconvincingly argues for a more zoocentric definition of biblical religion. Drawing on scholarship in theology/religious studies as well as primatology, Stone discusses “animal religion.” It gives him the opportunity to demonstrate how the Hebrew Bible challenges the idea of “human uniqueness.” Many biblical passages testify to a “multispecies context” where both humans and animals are objects of creation, judgment, and salvation. 

In the concluding chapter, Stone clarifies the context in which his book is embedded: the sixth mass extinction of species, caused mainly by humans. He calls for an ethical responsibility toward animals in the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. The anthropocentric reading of Genesis 1:28 cannot be emphasized at the expense of other passages celebrating animal diversity. In the wake of Thom van Dooren’s work, Stone a retelling of the stories of biblical animals as a commitment to their preservation. 

What Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies lacks in philological discussion, it makes up for with a fascinating and very rich interdisciplinary dialogue between critical theory, biblical, religious, and animal studies. Stone easily ventures into all of these territories. In doing so, he gives biblical texts—and animals—the opportunity to contribute to both a complete reimagining of the Hebrew Bible and contemporary debates in animal studies. This monograph is poised to become a key work in the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Létourneau is Assistant Professor at l'Institut d'Études Religieuses à  l'Université de Montréal.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ken Stone is Professor of Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics at the Chicago Theological Seminary.

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