Friendship in the Hebrew Bible

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Saul M. Olyan
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Friendship in the Hebrew Bible Saul Olyan discusses the topic of friendship as depicted across the Hebrew Bible and in the book of Ben Sira. This monograph represents one of the first sustained treatments of the topic. Olyan presents his analysis in accessible, concise, and nuanced language, attentive to the complexities of interpretation, and the temptation to be overly reductionistic in one’s conclusions about such a sweeping concern. Oylan’s style is engaging, bringing an eclectic set of texts together to create a vivid and complex construction of friendship in the Hebrew Bible.

In his introduction, Olyan carefully addresses the scope of his study in terms of technical vocabulary and the “idioms of friendship” (3) that are represented in the Hebrew Bible. He explicitly states that his study explores friendship as reflected in the biblical texts, without attempts to provide historical reconstructions of the ideal at various stages in the history of ancient Israel. He also helpfully observes dating the numerous Hebrew Bible texts that relate to friendship is extremely difficult and uncertain, so that a synthetic analysis is preferable to a diachronic one that is dependent on such assumptions about relative chronology (3-4). Olyan outlines the relevant vocabulary and idioms, emphasizing the ambiguity of the terms themselves and how the same words or phrases can carry the implication of friendship—or not—depending on the larger context in which they are used. Therefore, attention to the wider context is essential in determining whether friendship is, in fact, present in a particular text; however, the context itself might not always be as clear as one would hope in this regard, and decisions must be made by the interpreter. Olyan next summarizes the extent to which such concepts appear across the various genres contained in the Hebrew Bible—prose narratives; prophetic texts; legal materials; psalms, especially those of individual lament; “nonpsalmic lyrical texts” such as David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1:19-27; “pre-Hellenistic wisdom collections” such as Proverbs and the poetic sections of Job; and the Hellenistic-era wisdom book of Ben Sira (9-10).

In his first chapter, Olyan anchors his investigation in the concept of social relationships, comparing and contrasting the depiction of friendship with the construction of family, familial relationships, and expectations. While some of the virtues of family and friendship overlap, Olyan offers numerous examples from across the Hebrew Bible that distinguish between friends and family in terms of expectations of loyalty and the responsibility of kinship, including formal treaty or covenant arrangements.

In the second chapter, Olyan examines the common theme of failed friendship that is particularly evident in psalms of individual lament and the wisdom literature. As with the previous chapter, Olyan helpfully compares and contrasts these expectations with those of family members, and those in treaty/covenant relationships. He concludes that the voluntary nature of friendship seems to include the labeling of the failed friend as an enemy, something rare in the context of family (59).

In his third chapter, Olyan discusses the depiction of friendship in selected narrative examples: Ruth and Naomi (Ruth); Jonathan and David (1 Samuel); Job and his Friends (Job); Jephthah’s daughter and her companions (Judges 11:29-40); and Ammon and Jonadab (2 Samuel 13). Here Olyan observes that these narrative presentations, even if brief, are often more complex, with characters who are more developed and less flat or stereotypical than representations of friendship in the poetic and wisdom texts. Especially important is the depiction of friendship between women, which presents friendship norms in terms similar to those between males (85). Finally, Olyan notes that status, wealth, and life stage have little impact on the expectation of “behavioral parity” between friends who do not adjust friendship responsibility or ideals on the basis of differing positions between friends (85-86).

In contrast to previous chapters which survey multiple texts, the fourth chapter is devoted to friendship in Ben Sira, a topic that has received much scholarly attention in both articles and books. The direct and more detailed discussion of friendship in this book, along with its clear dating to the second century BCE, has contributed to increased research, especially in light of Greek ideas about friendship, and particularly, in the writings of Aristotle. While Ben Sira clearly uses earlier materials from the Hebrew Bible—such as Proverbs—or common terms of friendship along with Egyptian wisdom literature, Ben Sira also contains a significant amount of material that could more easily be connected with Greek sources and the influence of Greek thought. Olyan’s chapter works to explore these distinctions and similarities, walking carefully between extreme views on the amount of influence it receives from sources other than the Hebrew Bible.

The brief conclusion provides a succinct and engaging summary of the previous chapters, outlining major points and questions for further research. Olyan has done the reader a service with this well-written overview and many will want to read this final chapter first—before enjoying the rich details and arguments in the preceding ones. Friendship is a helpful resource for those interested in the topic of friendship in Antiquity, and what the Hebrew Bible in particular, contributes to that picture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Schweitzer is academic dean and professor at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Saul M. Olyan is the Samuel Ungerleider Jr. Professor of Judaic Studies and professor of religious studies at Brown University. He serves on the editorial board of the Anchor Yale Bible series. He lives in Providence, RI.



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