Marie-Theres WACKER. Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah. Wisdom Commentary 31. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. Hardcover. Pp. 157 + xlvi. $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-8146-8155-8. Reviewed by Nicholas R. WERSE, Baylor University, Waco, TX 76706.
The much anticipated Wisdom Commentary series offers the first complete commentary series on every biblical book from a feminist perspective. Each volume in the series opens with a forward by Athalya Brenner-Idan and the Editor’s introduction by Barbara E. Reid, which serve to position the Wisdom Commentary series within the field of biblical commentaries (a sample of this introductory material is available on the Liturgical Press website). There are two exciting innovative features of this series. The first is the commitment to hearing multiple voices. In addition to the author of the commentary, each volume includes brief supplemental discussions set aside from the main commentary in text boxes written by other contributing scholars. These supplementary discussions offer additional perspectives or theological reflections on a given topic in the text. The second innovative characteristic is the prospect of a continually updated online bibliography for the biblical texts in each volume (as of the time of writing this review, however, the digital bibliography is not yet available on www.wisdomcommentary.org). The commentary uses the NRSV translation of the text. Wacker occasionally comments upon, nuances, or disagrees with the NRSV in sections labeled “Translation Matters.” The ensuing commentary follows a “section by section” progression (as opposed to “verse by verse”).
There has been minimal engagement with Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah from a feminist perspective (revealing the need for the present volume). Wacker approaches these texts from the perspective of their self-proclaimed literary function. Thus Wacker approaches Baruch from the perspective of its literary claim to offer healing to a broken community after the exile. The Letter of Jeremiah, similarly, presents itself in a fictitious literary context as a letter sent from the prophet Jeremiah to those being exiled to Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem. Wacker’s volume, therefore, does not devote much discussion to questions of authorship, dating, or composition, though she does reference these issues at relevant places within the commentary discussion. In addition to the “Translation Matters” text boxes, Wacker occasionally supplies footnotes labeled “Textual-critical matters” which primarily deal with the use of a given word or phrase elsewhere in the LXX or an assessment of a likely Semitic Vorlage, rather than questions of differences between manuscripts.
Wacker’s keen perception of implicit and explicit issues related to power and gender reflects her feminist and postcolonial approach in the present volume. One of the challenges to reading the book of Baruch from a feminist perspective is the seeming oversight of women all together. Wacker notes that the lack of awareness of women could allow for either their assumed inclusion or exclusion from the community. Baruch additionally contains two literary characters traditionally personified as female: wisdom and Jerusalem. Wacker notes that Baruch diminishes the female personification of wisdom, restricting the location of wisdom to God’s commands. Jerusalem retains its feminine personification in that it continues to function as mother, even though the specific designation “mother” never appears in Baruch. Jerusalem’s function as mother, however, is limited to the admonition of her sons to faithfully obey God’s commands, even in the face of death. Through these two restrictions of traditionally femininely personified entities, one sees that Baruch envisions that the path to healing for the post-exilic community lies in Torah obedience. The book of Baruch, therefore, reflects the agenda of the “sons” who wish to distance themselves from the sins of their “fathers” by way of faithful obedience to God’s commands. Wacker keenly notes that such an agenda implicitly redefines masculine power away from the physical, political, or religious power reflected by the kings and religious leaders of the past. Rather the book of Baruch redefines masculine power as “intellectual power.” The text remains silent, however, on the place of women in this redefined system of power.
The Letter of Jeremiah references women far more frequently, however, often does so in the context of constructing group identity. While Wacker acknowledges the rhetorical value of demystifying cults that rely on splendor to reinforce their claims of power, she finds the text’s satirical presentation of other groups and their cultic practices problematic in light of the modern virtues valuing respect in conversations across religious and cultural boundaries. Contrary to these modern virtues, foreign women often function in the Letter of Jeremiah as demeaning caricatures of “the other” that defines the ethnic boundaries (and ethnic superiority) of the audience.
The combined accessibility of the writing and the depth of the reflections on the text make this volume an excellent resource for all those approaching the text of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah as catalysts for theological reflection in the modern world. As such the commentary is well suited for the target audience of “clergy, teachers, ministers, and all serious students of the Bible” (xv).