Book Note: David Janzen’s “Trauma and the Failure of History”

David Janzen, Trauma and the Failure of History: Kings, Lamentations, and the Destructions of Jerusalem (Semeia 94; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

If much of the Jewish Tanakh/Christian Old Testament can be understood as apologetic for the god of Judah after the events of the Babylonian Exile, then what catches my attention are the voices of dissent. For example, the Book of Proverbs with its emphasis on wisdom can be interpreted rigidly, almost mathematically, to read that those who do well in life must be the ones who lived by the guidance of divine wisdom while those who struggle must be the fools. Then comes along the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes and overthrows that whole ideology by pointing out that it’s too simple/simplistic.

The Deuteronomistic impulse is to justify the divinity while blaming the humans for what happened during the Exile; it’s to warn how the people shouldn’t behave if they want to avoid a repeat. That impulse is found in the Book of Kings where the blame for the Exile sits on the shoulders of the people—and as Janzen observes, specifically the people, not the royalty of the House of David. But the Book of Lamentations, which sometimes tries to fall in line and echo the rationale found in the Kings, but often simply can’t, is evidence of a dissenting voice.

In Trauma and the Failure of History, Janzen presents “history” as a narrative about past events that attempts to explain them and provide a true presentation and interpretation. The Book of Kings is such a work. It narrates past events leading to the Exile as a way of explaining “how did we get here”.

But trauma can’t make simple sense of what’s been experienced. There’s no metanarrative that comforts. Trauma doesn’t explain the past because in a sense the past is present, the effects linger. For Janzen, this is what we find in the Book of Lamentations. This texts fails to explain what happened to Jerusalem because it simply grieves what happened to Jerusalem.

I highly recommend this book, especially for those who are interested in the internal conversation found in the Hebrew Bible around topics related to theodicy. It reminds me a little of a couple other books I’ve mentioned on this blog:


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