Between Hearing and Silence
A Study in Old Testament Theology
- ISBN: 9781481313766
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: April 2021
John Kessler’s Between Hearing and Silence: A Study in Old Testament Theology is a heartfelt exegesis of silent moments in the Old Testament. The book is primarily addressed to Christian theologians but is approachable for biblical scholars and other scholars of religion. I am not a theologian of the Old Testament, so I cannot judge its rigor in respect to Old Testament scholarship. I have written on theories and methodologies of silence, so the evaluation herein will center on the book’s theoretical sophistication. That said, with my level of theological training, I can assert that the book feels like attending a great seminar where one learns something academic and personal. Theoretically, the book engages scholarship on silence outside of the study of religion yet falls behind on some of its own pivotal assertions about silence’s dimensions.
The book’s structure and length is manageable, with chapters under twenty pages and content pages totaling about 160. Each chapter is readable and focused on one species of silence in the Old Testament, allowing one to sit with its ideas or assign to a seminar meeting focused on one of the chapter’s passages. As a scholar of silence, I also found it refreshing to find the boundaries of a chapter’s concept of silence well defined linguistically, theoretically, and sometimes narratively.
For example, Chapter 5, “Silence as Security,” focuses on words and passages that can translate as stillness and that convey faith, confidence, and calm while surrounded by chaos. Kessler carefully articulates why the original Hebrew could be interpreted as this kind of stillness, whether it be words, context, or narrative location. Some might argue that creating one’s own definitions of silence unnaturally lumps terms and passages. However, I support Kessler’s choice because the alternative of sticking to one word’s etymology and interpretations would provide a set of alternate readings that might confuse exegesis; “stillness,” for example, has several readings, not just security. In this way, having a well-articulated boundary guides the reader through functions of silence and represents the author’s work to detangle the possibilities.
To decode silence’s meanings, Kessler looks to theories of silence outside of the study of religion. This makes sense, since silence is a multidimensional phenomenon. For example, Kessler references Adam Jaworski’s work on paralinguistics (communication just outside of words, like body language). This move acknowledges silence’s existence in multiple dimensions, such as space, time, body, and the social. With a view to its multiple dimensions and connections, one conclusion of the book is that silence and sound form a dialectic that represents varying qualities of human-divine relationships.
However, this attention to other dimensions takes the reader outside of the page, leading to largely unanswered research questions about the realities of silence. For example, for a silent ritual of repentance, one might ask whether the silence involves other dimensions like physical restrictions, isolation, or judging community leaders. One might also consider how a biblical passage itself has been ritualized and whether the silence is treated in the same way.
While Kessler provides this research occasionally, he seems to acknowledge the overall dearth of multidimensional research with one, non-exegetical chapter. Chapter 6 summarizes anthropological research on silence and the afterlife, which helps to explain the bodily dimension of certain silences—namely, the deathly and sacred realms make the body feel engulfed by loss and majesty, respectively. Armed with this information, the reader can revisit other chapters for deeper readings of silences that reference these realms.
For example, two chapters earlier, Kessler analyzes Psalm 51 and argues that David is not praying for forgiveness for killing, but rather for deliverance from the realm of the “silence of death” (58-61). His interpretation involves a textual dimension of silence: the key linguistic difference between killing and realm is middamim and middumam, which is a switch in reading consonants. However, the chapter does not explain the body’s experience of silence that can be found in the musicality of the psalm and for the feeling of dread that necessitated the psalm’s prayer for divine release. The anthropological detail in the later chapter makes one understand that David’s body is fleeing from the silence of loss, unfulfillment, and meaninglessness. However, this process of reading back and forth disturbs the tightness of each chapter and makes it evident that the book’s exegesis is less embodied than it could be.
Furthermore, the productivity of this outlier chapter begs the question of what other dimensions of silence have not been fully explored. For example, Jewish sacred oral traditions, which include engagement with texts not read by Christians, might explain the book’s articulated dimensions of silence and provide more dimensions, like tradition and community. In fact, the book concludes by considering silences in relation to sounds, forming a dialectic that informs the sacred relationships of people to sacred places and realms, the sacred community, and the divine. These are essential to Jewish oral culture, so Jewish theology seems an important starting point of research instead of a conclusion.
Here, I am not evaluating the field of Old Testament theology’s choices, but am showing the book’s weaknesses in theory and method of silence. Between Hearing and Silence provides carefully organized and analyzed forms of Old Testament silence, including readings of complex silences, like god’s silence in Job. It expands the reader’s point of view beyond the page and into dimensions of space, time, relationships, and politics. For those who have not paid attention to silences, this study will be eye-opening and immerse the reader into the emotional realm of biblical characters. For those interested in the theoretical sophistication of the analysis of silence, the book provides an example of how the multiple dimensions of silence can challenge biblical hermeneutics. However, the book’s revelations seem incomplete without a few of silence’s key dimensions and their manifold meaning—essentially, information about how they are lived. In this light, the book’s best utility is as a supplement to a living tradition of silence, where Kessler’s study can bring new appreciation and depth to the tradition’s already existing reverberant silences.
Brett J. Esaki is an assistant professor of practice in East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.Brett J. EsakiDate Of Review:July 27, 2022