Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts

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T. M. Lemos
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $80.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198784531.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

T. M. Lemos’s Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts is a provocative foray into ancient Israelite conceptualizations of personhood. In her introduction, Lemos states that she will argue “that physical violence was pivotal in this [ancient Israelite] society to the construction of a particular type of personhood, a personhood centered on domination and subordination and one in which dominant men could abrogate the personhood of others—of other men, of women, and of children—through dehumanizing rituals of violence” (3). 

Few scholars have addressed the topic of personhood in ancient Israel, particularly the “question of whowas considered a person” (19). Lemos tackles this question and goes a step beyond to connect personhood with violence. Citing ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts alongside biblical texts, she explicates the ways in which personhood could be taken away by force or through animalization, and what personhood meant to different demographics in Israelite society. Her book focuses on vulnerable groups—foreigners, slaves, women, and children—who were affected in different ways by violence, whether ritualized, regulated, or punitive. It would have been interesting to see a chapter on the group that is seen as the aggressors throughout her analysis: dominant men. In what ways were they affected by violence and how did their violent acts against others define them as persons? Such a chapter would provide a backdrop against which to then discuss vulnerable populations. A chapter on non-human animals who are accorded a kind of personhood (as seen in poetry or the story of Balaam’s donkey) would have been an equally fascinating addition, particularly as it relates to the rhetoric of violence and animalization.

Lemos’s first chapter introduces scholarship on personhood, violence, and ANE contexts. Much of her attention is focused on dehumanization through animalization. Chapter 2 examines Hebrew Bible and ANE texts relating to the treatment of foreigners: their rights and status (or lack thereof) as residents or as enemies of war. Chapter 3 deals with the status and personhood of women in ancient Israel. Lemos discusses the varying statuses of women as wives, daughters, slaves, and captive brides. She challenges the notion that “women were seen as property in ancient Israel” and argues that “rather than conceptions of property, it was patterns of domination and subordination that governed relations between husbands and wives and fathers and daughters” (68). The fourth chapter analyzes slavery in ancient Israel and compares its three types of servitude: perpetual slavery, debt slavery, and corvée labor (107).

Chapter 5 concerns children in ancient Israel. While Lemos devotes a small section to texts evidencing the value of children, later portions of the chapter seem little influenced by these texts. Lemos’s analyses of Exodus 13:2 and 22:29-30 are unconvincing in their conclusions. Exodus 13 describes the institution of Passover, with verse 2 specifying the consecration of all the firstborn. This directive is repeated and delineated in verses 11-15, which stipulate the redemption of human offspring. Likewise, Exodus 22:29-30 commands that all the firstborn sons shall be given to Yahweh, as well as firstborn oxen and sheep. While she discusses the injunction of Exodus 13:11-15 and notes that here neither donkeys nor children were suitable for sacrifices (150, n. 42), she continues to present Exodus 13:2 and 22:28-9 as instances of Yahwistic child sacrifice (146-50). From a discourse perspective, Exodus 13:2 provides a clear introduction to a topic that is fleshed out in the following verses and, it seems, cannot be taken as a command separate from the explanation that follows it (including vv. 11-15). 

Chapter 6 provides a summary of Lemos’s conclusions and several modern-day examples of dehumanization through violence that are startlingly reminiscent of the ANE. She concludes that “particular constructions of personhood . . . relate to contexts in which violence, dominance, and masculinity, too, are constructed in particular ways” (193). Despite the violence depicted in the Hebrew Bible, Lemos acknowledges that “the biblical corpus also sometimes portrays as a social and moral evil the physical, psychological, and social devastation that comes from dehumanization” (197). While she states that such texts are outside the scope of this book, this work would have benefited from inclusion of biblical texts that challenge and condemn individuals and power structures that dominate through violence. 

Lemos’s book is an important contribution to the topic of personhood in ancient Israel and violence in the ANE. The blend of anthropological and textual analyses make it a rich catalyst for discussions on law, culture, and society in ancient Israel. It is the hope of the reviewer that this book will encourage further scholarly engagement with these issues, which are of vital importance in contemporary society.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Gane Burton is an Independent Scholar in Tallahassee, Florida.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

T. M. Lemos is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College, University of Western Ontario. She received her A. B. in Judaic Studies from Brown University and her Ph.D. with distinction from Yale University in Religious Studies. Her publications include Marriage Gifts and Social Change in Ancient Palestine: 1200 BCE to 200 CE (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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