2017.03.06 | Don C. Benjamin. The Social World of Deuteronomy: A New Feminist Commentary. Cascade: Oregon, 2015. ISBN: 9781498228701.
Review by Mark Glanville.
Don C. Benjamin’s commentary on Deuteronomy, The Social World of Deuteronomy: A New Feminist Commentary (2015), is one of a number of recent commentaries on this book, including those by Daniel I. Block, (2012), Jack R. Lundbom (2013), and Eckart Otto (German, 2012-17). Benjamin’s commentary is unique, first, in that its primary methodology is to bring insights from the social sciences to bear upon the text, and, second, in that a feminist hermeneutic that is sensitive to the voices of women and other populations that are given a “small voice” in the text of Deuteronomy strongly shapes both the interpretative method and the content focus of the book.
This review will first outline the content of the book. It will then describe Benjamin’s approach and offer a brief assessment of the book to conclude. One quarter of the book is taken up with the Preface and Introduction (the text, proper, is 189 pages). In the twelve-page Preface, Benjamin outlines the feminist hermeneutic that he will adopt through his commentary. While most commentaries attend to the dominant male voices that are both within and behind the text, Benjamin attends to the ‘small voices’ of women, children, vulnerable people, outsiders, and nature (1). The Preface includes a section titled “My Intellectual Autobiography,” in which Benjamin describes his own experiences, worldview and values, “so that,” he writes, “readers can decide for themselves just how well or poorly I have avoided imposing Christian, male, Western European and North American worldviews and values on my interpretation of Deuteronomy” (4).
The Introduction of the book is unique, shaped in order to prepare readers to interpret Deuteronomy in the light of the social history and social institutions of Syria-Palestine. The first section of the Introduction, regarding literary patterns of Deuteronomy, discusses in turn Deuteronomy as Moses’ ‘last will and testament’, the covenant, case law and apodictic law, legal instruction, and the law codes. The second section, regarding social settings, discusses in turn mothers of village households, royal scribes, Levites, and prophets. Then, the social historical settings for Deuteronomy are discussed, namely the Iron I period as a narrative setting for Deuteronomy and the Iron II period as a starting point for the literary development of Deuteronomy. The third section of the Introduction explores the goals of Deuteronomy, which Benjamin takes to be, for the original Deuteronomy, preventing the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by returning the people to the covenant. The primary goal of exilic Deuteronomy is to guard against assimilation into Babylonian culture.
Following the Introduction is a brief commentary on the whole of Deuteronomy, which structures the book into eight sections. Understandably in light of the length of this book, the text of Deuteronomy is not printed. An indicative example of Benjamin’s evocative style is this short excerpt from the commentary on the festival calendar, Deut 16:1-17. “Meals celebrated the renewal of life support. Priests and fathers hosted these meals, but women prepared them” (118). Naturally, there will be aspects of the commentary that a reader may query. For example, Benjamin states, “Eating together defines social status. Whoever is invited to meals, where they sit, when they are served and what they are served are all markers of social status” (118). Benjamin does not observe, however, that in this text the absence of certain common ancient Near Eastern feasting motifs and the presence of others has the effect of diminishing the distinction between the paterfamilias and vulnerable participants, tending toward mutuality. The host’s contributions for the feast are not enumerated, rather, generosity is ascribed to Yahweh. Also, signifiers of status are missing such as seating arrangements and the host’s cup. And, common motifs for hosting a banquet are missing, such as the expression “to give to eat/drink.” Notwithstanding these inevitable lacunas, the commentary is well researched.
The detail of the commentary fades at the conclusion of the law corpus, chapters 26-34 receiving only 14 pages. Finally, a substantial bibliography and an index is provided. Throughout the book, substantial footnotes, which also include pointers for ‘further reading’, are a useful resource.
Benjamin’s approach in The Social World of Deuteronomy is unique enough to warrant another short commentary on this book. While some other commentaries that purport to adopt a social-scientific approach may be barely distinguished as such, Benjamin’s decades of learning in the social-scientific approach have equipped him to produce a distinctive volume. His method is also eclectic, drawing from archaeology and ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian texts. An example is Benjamin’s appeal to a Mesopotamian trail record from an assembly of mothers in order to illustrate the practice of modifying punishments. His intention here is to demonstrate that, “Deuteronomy may not instruct assemblies to punish women more severely than men” (143). Other aspects of Benjamin’s method are that exegesis is limited, due no doubt to space, and, while Benjamin interprets Deuteronomy in reference to social-historical contexts, namely the late Iron Age and the exilic period, there is little historical-critical analysis.
Benjamin states that he adopts a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ (4). This approach results in exegesis that is especially sensitive to the lives and agency of women and other often-silenced partners as well to the male authorship of the text. Nonetheless, the approach is not sceptical, showing little concern for the class interests of the biblical writers, for example. So, while Mark Sneed argues that Deut 10:17-19, concerning ‘loving the stranger’, legitimises Yahweh’s reign as the patron of the vulnerable while paradoxically reinforcing the status quo,1 Benjamin interprets this passage as restructuring kinship in order to establish a “whole new world” (91).
Consistent with the commentary’s innovative methodology is the insertion throughout of contributions by other authors, appearing in text boxes. These contributions range from a scientist, Laura Kelley, a writer, Christie K. K. Leung, Feminist author and activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, scholars of the Hebrew Bible such as Victor H. Matthews and M. Daniel Carroll R., and justice-seeking contemplatives, Betty Campbell, Emilia Requenes Garcia, and Graciela de la Rosa Cedillos. These contributors, bar three, are all women. Such intertextuality enhances the impact of Benjamin’s book by evoking a sense of fellowship, collaboration, compassion, and lived-reality—all of which are relevant for Deuteronomy.
Benjamin is clearly conversant in the major areas of research in the study of the Hebrew Bible, also having superb command of the scholarship that is relevant for this study. The Social World of Deuteronomy is a highly innovative approach to the genre of biblical commentary that will also be a very helpful lens for students of this book. By no means has this book exhausted the ways in which the social sciences can enhance our understanding of Deuteronomy, and it is hoped that Benjamin’s contribution will spur further research of its kind.
Vancouver, British Columbia
markrglanville [at] gmail.com
1 Mark Sneed, “Israelite Concern for the Alien, Orphan, and Widow: Altruism or Ideology?” ZAW 111 (1999): 498-508, at 502-03.