Jacob Wright, Hebrew Bible
Faculty Distinction Fund Recipient

 


What role does war play in shaping the identity of a people and the memories of a nation's history? Jacob L. Wright, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible, is exploring this question for the case of ancient Israelite society.

Using the tools of biblical interpretation, anthropology, and archeology, Wright is examining the specific ways war affected early Israelite state formation, social stratification and mobility, cultural and technological developments, and, not least, group solidarity and identity. Says Wright: "War generated, as it still does today, a capacity for change in the ancient world by virtue of its double-edged potential to both destroy and create. War served as a social catalyst. It could bring people together, just as it could tear them apart." He studies this "unique potential" of war in the history of ancient Israel and in her memories formed in biblical and post-biblical literature.

Wright's first book, Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers (2004), examined the ways in which the small province and people of Judah constructed a new collective identity under the Persian world empire of the 6th-4th centuries BCE. He showed how the Judeans relied on the constitutive power of the Temple, Sabbath, marriage, and language to reinforce and reinvent ethnic, religious, political, and cultural self-understandings. But above all, it was ancient writings, such as the Torah, that became authoritative scripture, demarcating many of the same social-political boundaries formerly defended by Israel's kings and armies.

Wright's current research builds on these findings. He shows how the scripture that was transmitted and composed after the downfall of Israel's monarchies draws on memories of wars as a strategy for constructing an identity. Wright describes this identity as one able to withstand the centrifugal forces and "multiculturalism" characterizing the rise of major world empires (the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans). His research is not confined to interpretation of the biblical record: Wright also examines texts and the material culture preserved in the archaeological record of the land of Israel and her neighbors. "In keeping with war studies from various sectors of the humanities, my aim is to offer a multifaceted perspective on war in ancient Israel," he says.

Asked why he decided to undertake this study, Wright observes that for the historian as for the novelist, war provides incomparable material with which to work. "It is not surprising that so many of the great stories in world literature are set in battles or times of war," he says. "During war, anything can happen. And after a war, nothing is the way it was before. It is this unpredictable, fortuitous aspect that renders war such a rewarding course of inquiry into the human spirit."

Wright comes to Emory after a decade of living in Europe, where he helped initiate several long-term, nationally-funded research projects, served as managing editor of a major reference work, and won an award for excellence in teaching and research. He spent the last three years teaching at the University of Heidelberg in one of the most prestigious institutes for Old Testament research. At Emory he teaches in the Candler School of Theology and the Graduate Division of Religion, and is a member of the core faculty of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. Wright says he was drawn to Emory for its "exceptionally strong" Hebrew Bible program. He was also attracted by the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students - including seminary students preparing for Christian ministry, graduate students training for scholarly careers, and undergraduates who are just beginning to find their voices and embark on their intellectual journeys.

In the classroom at Candler, Wright highlights the history of interpretation and the "ethics of reading" in conversation with Jewish and Christian approaches to the Bible. He assists students in cultivating critical tools for interpretation and in grappling with difficult biblical texts. This semester, in addition to an introduction to Aramaic for PhD students, Wright is teaching 'Texts of Terror,' which examines what are for many modern readers the most troubling passages in the Hebrew Bible. These texts include such stories as the tale of Jephthah, who sacrifices his daughter as a burnt offering to God in fulfillment of rashly-uttered vow. "Instead of evading such accounts, we are facing them head-on," he says. "Together we develop strategies for placing them in historical context, as well addressing the problems they pose for the students' own faith communities."

He also is developing strategies for introducing Emory students to the material culture of ancient Israel. Each summer, Wright joins his colleagues from the universities of Tel Aviv and Heidelberg to continue excavations at Ramat Rachel. This site just outside Jerusalem was first settled during the Judean monarchy in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, and was then periodically resettled during the Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic periods. Active with the dig since its inception, Wright oversees Ramat Rachel's university consortium that makes it possible for students from a wide variety of countries to participate in the dig.

Wright feels confident that his scholarship will contribute to the university-wide strategic initiative 'Understanding Religions and the Human Spirit.' In turn, this initiative assures him that he will thrive here. "The Hebrew Bible originated as a locus for negotiating individual and communal identities, and for many it still serves as such." It thus has much to contribute to the conversations at the center of the Emory community. "Religion and ethics really matter here," he says. "Emory is a place where difficult questions about faith and identity are asked and energetically debated. I look forward to participating in the conversation."