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From Fratricide to Forgiveness
The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis
by Matthew R. Schlimm
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In the first book of the Bible, every patriarch and many of the matriarchs become angry in significant ways. However, scholars have largely ignored how Genesis treats this emotion, particularly how Genesis functions as Torah by providing ethical instruction about handling this emotion’s perplexities. In this important work, Schlimm fills this gap in scholarship, describing (1) the language surrounding anger in the Hebrew Bible, (2) the moral guidance that Genesis offers for engaging anger, and (3) the function of anger as a literary motif in Genesis.
Genesis evidences two bookends, which expose readers to the opposite extremes of anger and its effects. In Gen 4:1–16, anger takes center stage when Cain kills his brother, Abel, although he has done nothing wrong. Fratricide is at one extreme of the spectrum of anger’s results. In the final chapter of Genesis, readers encounter the opposite extreme, forgiveness. Here, Joseph and his brothers forgive one another after a long history of jealousy, anger, deception, and abuse. It is a moment of reconciliation offered just before the book closes, allowing readers to see Joseph as an anti-Cain—someone who has all the power and all the reasons to harm his brothers but instead turns away from anger and, despite the inherent difficulties, offers forgiveness.
Although Genesis frames its post-Edenic narratives with two contrasting outcomes of anger—fratricide and forgiveness—it avoids simplistic moral platitudes, such as demanding that its readers respond to being angry with someone by forgiving the person. Genesis instead returns to the theme of anger on many occasions, presenting a multifaceted message about its ethical significance. The text is quite realistic about the difficulties that individuals face and the paradoxes presented by anger. Genesis presents this emotion as a force that naturally arises from one’s moral sensitivities in response to the perception of wrongdoing. At the same time, the text presents anger as a great threat to the moral life. Genesis thus warns readers about the dangers of anger, but it never suggests that one can lead a life free from this emotion. Instead, it portrays many characters who are forced to deal with anger, presenting them with dilemmas that defy easy resolution. Genesis invites readers to imagine ways of alleviating anger, but it is painfully realistic about how difficult, threatening, and short-lived attempts at reconciliation may be.
Publication date: 2011
Bibliographic info: xiv + 242 pages
Trim Size: 6 x 9 inches
Schlimm is to be congratulated for a well-researched and interesting work. I sincerely hope that he has more to teach about both Genesis and the study of emotions in biblical literature. He succeeded well in asking large and wide-ranging questions concerning the ethical implications to be drawn from the presentation of anger in the narratives of Genesis and, simultaneously, being willing to engage in close textual study to make limited and provisional answers to the questions he posed. Such balance between larger vision and execution is praiseworthy. — Phillip Sherman, Review of Biblical Literature (2013)
This is a well-written and thought-provoking study that nicely summarizes current trends within a host of fields that Schlimm draws upon (e.g. the study of metaphor, a cognitive linguistic approach to biblical anger; recent approaches to biblical ethics), while moving the discussion surrounding the narrative analysis of Genesis forward in a productive direction. The twin strengths of Schlimm?s monograph are: (1) his careful examination of the numerous ways anger is experienced and dealt with by various biblical characters; (2) his forceful critique of idealistic readings of Genesis that view all expressions of anger negatively and seem to subscribe to the unrealistic notion that anger is an emotion that humans could totally avoid. . . . Schlimm has produced a thoughtful and engaging book that deserves to be read by those interested in biblical ethics as well as in the narrative theology of Genesis. — Joel Kaminsky, Journal of Theological Studies (2013)
This book . . . is a carefully argued and clearly conceived study of anger in Genesis. . . . [It] is a model of hermeneutical care, paying attention in particular to cultural assumptions, linguistic pitfalls and key conceptual metaphors. . . . There is a practical wisdom in Schlimm's interpretations throughout, which mark this book out as worthy of attention from a range of angles, both for what it argues and how it argues it. This is a fine achievement. — R. S. Briggs, SOTS Booklist 2012
Matthew Schlimm's From Fratricide to Forgiveness is a thoughtful and thorough study. Schlimm's work examines the moral and ethical dimensions of human anger as revealed throughout the book of Genesis. Prompted by what the author considers an unheeded topic in recent research, Schlimm accompanies the reader on a journey, quite literally, from fratricide to forgiveness—showcasing the uncontrolled and impenitent anger of Cain toward Abel (Gen 4), followed by the unrestrained forgiveness of Joseph towards his brothers after several episodes of anger and abuse (Gen 50). The result is an instructive presentation of the moral complexities and ethical intricacies inherent to the experience of human anger as displayed throughout Genesis. . . . The . . . final section furnishes an overview of Genesis as valuable as any available to date. Presented as a commentary on the story of Genesis, the closing chapters walk the reader through each episode of anger in Genesis, honing in specifically on ethical and moral instruction visible in the narrative bookends of fratricide (Cain and Abel) and forgiveness (Joseph and his brothers). . . . Whether used for professional or leisurely study, Schlimm's work will be received as a well-rounded and reputable contribution to the growing conversation surrounding the biblical characterization of emotion. — Justin Boreland, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (2013)
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