Today we are happy to introduce two more of our 100+ contributors, both very international in terms of their teaching experience and outlook: David Janzen and John Samuel Ponnusamy.
David Janzen is Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Durham University in the United Kingdom. His academic focus on violence in biblical texts has resulted in numerous works that try to grapple with that phenomenon in some of its many manifestations. These include books that investigate the traces of trauma caused by acts of great violence in biblical texts, such as Trauma and the Failure of History (2019) and The Violent Gift (2012), and ones that use postcolonial theory to show how the violence imposed by ancient empires left its mark on the worldviews of biblical writers, such as The Necessary King (2013). He has also studied the effects of the violence of the exclusion of scholars marginalized by the contemporary field of biblical studies because of their gender, race, and/or sexuality, and argues in The Liberation of Method (2021) that the discipline has a moral duty to turn to minoritized readers and follow their lead in struggles against structural oppression and violence. David is writing the chapter on Violence in the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah.
I have been drawn to the study of different kinds of violence in Ezra-Nehemiah ever since I was a graduate student, and my first monograph, Witch-hunts, Purity, and Social Boundaries (2002) used socio-anthropological theory to grapple with the forced divorce and expulsion of foreign women from the postexilic community narrated in Ezra-Nehemiah. In this biblical writing, the group who rebuilds the temple and Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile decides that its male members who have married women from outside the community must divorce them and force them and their children to leave the group. These women are permitted no speech or defence, and are demonized by the main characters of the book, all of whom are male, as a kind of cancer who must be cut out of the community if it is to survive.
My further academic reflection on violence in Ezra-Nehemiah has been deeply influenced by the two years I spent living and teaching in Guatemala, a postcolonial and posttraumatic Latin American country deeply scarred by a decades-long civil war that was driven in important part by the imperial interests of the United States. This experience, thought, and research has led me to understand that the violence directed against the women in Ezra-Nehemiah is something that cannot be dissociated from other kinds reflected in the writing. The book’s worldview is shaped by the colonial ideology of the Persian Empire, as I argue in The End of History and the Last King (2021), something that lies behind the author’s portrayal of the community as a people who should be subjects to imperial rule, and that this is the will of God, which was precisely what the Empire claimed. And when the author portrays God as violent, willing to utterly destroy the postexilic community at the least provocation, their thinking reflects a worldview shaped also by the trauma of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem that their ancestors experienced at the hands of the Babylonians.
If we hope to use the Bible as a liberative resource to confront violence and oppression, then we must be clear as to where we see such violence in the first place in biblical texts, and it can help to have some understanding as to the worldviews and contexts of the authors and characters willing to sanction it. As readers, we should aim to read in solidarity with the foreign women in Ezra-Nehemiah, but we should also search for the roots of that violence in the colonial situatedness and past trauma of the community that enacts it, one that feared a repetition of the utter destruction it experienced generations previously, who believed an imperial message that only Persian rule could help them avoid a repetition of it, and who conceived of a God who supported their imperial rulers and who would be quick to revisit past acts of destruction. Seeing these problems in the worldviews of characters in biblical books can help us look for the deeper roots of the violence of exclusion and marginalization in our own world.
Rev. Dr. John Samuel Ponnusamy is an ordained minister of the Church of South India, as well as Professor of Hebrew Bible and Dean of Doctoral Studies at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in Chennai, India, where he formerly served a term as Principal. John holds an M.Th. from United Theological College, Bangalore, and obtained his first PhD in Philosophy from Madurai Kamaraj University. He holds another PhD in Old Testament Studies from Lancaster University, UK. He is the author of the monograph Abraham and Isaac in interfaith Traditions (New Delhi: ISPCK, 2009) and has written multiple articles, several published in leading journals. Prior to taking up his present role, John served on the faculty of the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai. He has also served as Dean in the Indian School of Ecumenical Theology of the Ecumenical Christian Center, Whitefield, Bangalore, and on the faculty in Northern College, Manchester, UK. During one sabbatical year he taught at the Pacific Theological College in Fiji. John is writing the chapter on Violence in the Book of Jeremiah.
Violence has been a central theme in much of my research. I have worked on the Akedah (the attempted sacrifice of Isaac), on Holocaust theology, and on eco-theology in a time of violent environmental destruction. For this chapter, however, I will turn to Jeremiah, one of the Major Prophets. Jeremiah is the longest book in the Bible and contains a lot of violent content. It recounts violent historico-political events, abuses perpetrated against the prophet Jeremiah, and graphic metaphors. There is no shortage of things to choose from for this chapter and I look forward to getting started.