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The Five Scrolls, edited by Athalya Brenner-Idan, Gale A. Yee, and Archie C. C. Lee

07 December 2018

Robin Gill looks at how new contexts shed light on aspects of the Bible

THIS striking collection is part of the new Bloomsbury series Texts@Context, which seeks, admirably, to “gather scholarly voices from diverse contexts and social locations to bring new or unfamiliar facets of biblical texts to light”. The emphasis of this series is on the present-day context, unlike, say, the excellent Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries that explore the reception history of biblical books across time.

Here a range of scholars from around the world reflects on how “five Scrolls” — Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther — can be related to particular social contexts today.

The Book of Ruth gets the fullest treatment. Scholars from Africa, Australia, South Korea, and the United States reflect variously on its relevance for: ancestor veneration; asylum-seekers; resident aliens; racial melancholia; poor and landless women; and asymmetric sexual relationships.

Just to focus on two of these, the American Korean Hyun Woo Kim sees both himself and Ruth as a marginalised, post-colonial “resident alien” (in the American sense). And, in their thoughtful article, Gerald West and Beverley Haddad of the University of KwaZulu Natal link the asymmetric sexual relationship between Ruth and Boaz — asymmetric, that is, in terms of age and wealth — with the asymmetric relationship between a “sugar daddy” and a teenage woman in modern Southern Africa.

A tragic, and deeply disturbing, consequence of the latter is that young women compared with young men in Southern Africa today are disproportionately open to HIV infection: their sugar daddies offer them the prospect of economic security and emotional maturity, together with a serious lifetime risk of developing AIDS.

Cheryl Anderson from the US and Mercedes García Bachmann from Argentina explore Song of Songs powerfully — the first from a womanist perspective, embracing the erotic even in a context of AIDS, and the second in the vexed context of gender violence.

On Ecclesiastes, Huang Wei from Shanghai offers a comparative analysis with a Buddhist text, while Jione Havea from New Zealand relates Ecclesiastes 3.9 to people threatened by climate change and exploitation in the Pacific islands. Lamentations and Esther also evoke significant responses: for example, Archie Lee, from Shandong, reads the former alongside a Chinese story of Lady Meng’s Tears; and Ora Brison, from Tel Aviv, relates the latter to women-only ceremonies in modern Israel.

Bloomsbury will, I hope, bring out this rich collection very soon as an affordable paperback. It demonstrates admirably that biblical reception is alive and well — empowering people from different continents to enrich their specific social contexts with scholarly readings of the Bible.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at Kent and Editor of Theology.

The Five Scrolls
Athalya Brenner-Idan, Gale A. Yee, and Archie C. C. Lee, editors
Bloomsbury T&T Clark £85
Church Times Bookshop £76.50

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