Piles of Slain, Heaps of Corpses
Reading Prophetic Poetry and Violence in African Context
- ISBN: 9781725268302
- Published By: Wipf and Stock Publishers
- Published: June 2021
In Piles of Slain, Heaps of Corpses: Reading Prophetic Poetry and Violence in African Context, Jacob Onyumbe Wenyi reads the book of Nahum from and for his context, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), ultimately arguing that the book’s study is “essential . . . for traumatized communities” (xviii). That is, Nahum should not be set aside, as often happens in liturgical contexts, because its study creates the possibility of healing and reconciliation among traumatized peoples (xvii). Using endo-ethnography, trauma studies, iconography, and poetic analysis, Onyumbe Wenyi asserts that “Nahum’s description of God and its depiction of war . . . evoke[d] the memory of war and destruction at the hands of the Assyrians” for Nahum’s “seventh-century BCE Judahite audiences” (xviii). In doing so, the book of Nahum recreates an experience of war, which modern survivors can appropriate and “integrate into their common life” to “interpret” and construct a “new identity” (178).
Piles of Slain begins with a foreword from Ellen Davis, which helps to frame the text for American readers or those outside an African context. The rest of the text consists of seven chapters. In the first, Onyumbe Wenyi explicates his “Tripolar Biblical Hermeneutics of Reconciliation,” which extends the methodology of Jonathan Draper and Gerald West (1). In his second chapter, Onyumbe Wenyi examines his context through endo-ethnography, as he outlines the modern political history of the DRC and conducts interviews with survivors of war trauma in the DRC.
Onyumbe Wenyi then shifts from investigating his context to investigating the text using generic, form, and poetic analyses. In chapter three, Onyumbe Wenyi suggests that Nahum is not only an Oracle against a nation but also a “modified city lament” (49). Additionally, he establishes that Nahum consists of lyric poetry—a conclusion that undergirds his work in chapters 5 and 6 (80). In chapter 4, Onyumbe Wenyi considers the historical context of Nahum, particularly in light of the iconographic evidence of the fall of Lachish. Chapters 5 and 6 then examine how Nahum illustrates the presence of YHWH amidst war as a way of responding to Judah’s suffering (105). More specifically, chapter 5 examines the varied images of YHWH with which Nahum presents its readers, while chapter 6 explores the scenes of war that Nahum depicts to dredge up war memories among its Judahite audiences (133). Finally, in chapter 7, Onyumbe Wenyi begins the task of “appropriating” Nahum for the DRC (167).
The strengths of Onyumbe Wenyi’s book are manifold. Methodologically, Onyumbe Wenyi presents his Tripolar Biblical Hermeneutics of Reconciliation as an extension of Draper and West’s tripolar hermeneutic that consists of: (1) contextualization, or an analysis of the reader’s individual and communal contexts; (2) distanciation, or an opportunity for the text to “speak for itself” apart from “preconceptions”; and (3) appropriation, or the adoption of the “meaning and implications of the text” by the reader (7-8). Onyumbe builds on this framework both by including endo-ethnography as a part of the contextualization process and, more significantly, by naming reconciliation as the purpose for or end towards which he reads. Though some may suggest that a reader should not determine the goal or end point of her reading prior to encountering the text, each reader comes to the biblical text with an intended goal, whether it be reconciliation or a better understanding of a text’s sources and whether it be acknowledged or left unacknowledged. Thus, it is refreshing that Onyumbe Wenyi names his goal at the outset as he identifies the need for reconciliation among those having suffered “war trauma” (25).
Also with respect to his methodology, Onyumbe Wenyi integrates critical approaches in a manner that few others could likely accomplish—a point that Davis notes in her foreword. Given his youth in the DRC and his study in the US, Onyumbe Wenyi approaches the DRC as both insider and outsider; he knows the history and suffering of the region and can continue to learn about the context and the experiences of its people. This position, when coupled with his expertise in generic, iconographic, and poetic analyses, enables Onyumbe Wenyi to draw together critical methodologies in a distinctive manner that yields a relatively new reading of and productive purpose for the book of Nahum.
Chapters 5 and 6, which Onyumbe Wenyi refers to as “exegetical” in nature, also constitute a strength of the work (105). Building on several conclusions from earlier chapters, namely Nahum’s poetry as lyric and the paratactic nature of that poetry, Onyumbe Wenyi shows that Nahum presents multiple images of YHWH—as “jealous and vengeful,” as “iconic,” as warrior, and as universal God (110, 124, 128, 130)—and invites the reader to consider each in turn. Similarly, chapter 6 effectively explores how the book of Nahum moves paratactically among images of war that evoke Judah’s experience of the Assyrian siege. Onyumbe Wenyi then illustrates the intertwining of these divine and martial images that “awaken[s]…the memory of war” but shows YHWH “powerfully enacting justice and restoring…[the] afflicted” (166).
While the previous quotation gestures toward the appropriation of Nahum for the Congolese context, Onyumbe Wenyi’s final chapter regarding appropriation constitutes a shortcoming of the book, largely due to the chapter’s brevity. Onyumbe Wenyi offers several broad suggestions for appropriation, but those suggestions raise numerous questions. For instance, Onyumbe Wenyi notes that trauma survivors must “own” memories of war and “integrate them into their common life,” ultimately “interpreting” those memories to work towards “a new identity” (178). What might these processes entail? How might survivors integrate these memories? While Onyumbe Wenyi mentions the necessity of sitting with these memories without rushing to reconciliation and of shaping these memories into a narrative, far more could be said regarding the concrete realities of integration and identity creation.
Despite this critique, Onyumbe Wenyi’s revised dissertation is a welcome addition to Nahum scholarship and clearly illustrates one way in which overtly contextual scholarship furthers the scholarly conversation. On the whole, the monograph is accessible to and instructive for students of the bible, religion, trauma studies, and/or African perspectives.
Mary Dance Berry is a doctoral candidate at Duke University.Mary Dance BerryDate Of Review:July 5, 2022