New Festschrift Honoring Dr. Samuel E. Balentine: Review

Huff, Barry R., and Patricia Vesely, eds. Seeking Wisdom’s Depths and Torah’s Heights: Essays in Honor of Samuel E. Balentine. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2020. Catalog link here.

Dr. Samuel E. Balentine is Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Professor of Old Testament and Director of Graduate Studies Emeritus. In honor of his 70th birthday and his retirement in June 2020, two of Dr. Balentine’s former UPSem students, Barry R. Huff (Ph.D. ‘17) and Patricia Vesely (Ph.D. ‘17), have edited this Festschrift. Contributors include a range of voices, from eminent senior scholars in Hebrew Bible studies, to respected mid-career scholars, to up-and-coming new voices. The volume’s interdisciplinary content and its collegial tone make it a joy to read. Throughout, the contributors follow the model set by Dr. Balentine, applying both academic rigor and pragmatic theological interpretation to biblical texts.

Of particular interest for those of us here at UPSem, Seeking Wisdom’s Depths and Torah’s Heights showcases the academic talents of many of our own faculty and alumni, whose various relationships to Dr. Balentine began or were nurtured here. In addition to the editors, Phillip Michael Lasater (M.Div. ‘11) and Heather Woodworth Brannon (M.Div. ‘19) also studied here under Dr. Balentine’s tutelage. Current faculty members E. Carson Brisson (Associate Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages) and Samuel L. Adams (Mary Jane and John F. McNair Chair of Biblical Studies and Professor of Old Testament) are also contributors, as are former faculty members Andreas Schuele (Professor of Old Testament and Dean of the School of Theology at University of Leipzig) and William P. Brown (William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary), while Mark E. Biddle (Acting Dean at Sophia Theological Seminary) is formerly of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Especially noteworthy is the fact that the volume contains the last published article that S. Dean McBride, Jr. (Cyrus H. McCormick Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Interpretation at UPSem, 1984-2007) wrote before his death in May 2020. McBride presents a study of the reception history of the book of Exodus specifically within the 1560 Geneva Bible, an annotated translation from the Reformation era that was influential on later biblical translations including the King James Version, and has had enormous significance for biblical scholarship in the Reformed tradition in particular.

Seeking Wisdom’s Depths and Torah’s Heights opens with a biographical sketch of Dr. Balentine by his friend and colleague, E. Carson Brisson. Dr. Brisson’s biography, which includes anecdotes and messages to Dr. Balentine from his wife and children and from Dr. Brisson himself, is deeply personal, nearly poetic, and it sets the tone for the whole volume. This is not merely an assemblage of new research; rather, it is a celebration of Dr. Balentine’s work by his peers, colleagues, friends, and students, and their affection for the man himself is as readily apparent as their respect for his work. The book then takes as its structural elements two areas of the Hebrew Bible that have predominated in Dr. Balentine’s own research: the Torah and the Wisdom literature, especially the book of Job. There are five essays related to Torah and six on Wisdom material, and a third short section of three articles that deal with the interface of the two: “Torah in Wisdom and Wisdom as Torah.” The presence of this third section does much to integrate the volume’s two foci and unify the collection into a coherent whole. Dr. Samuel Adams’ article is a highlight here: he explores the way the author of Sirach receives and adapts written material about Israel’s priestly figures in the Second Temple period, in order to locate Wisdom within Torah.

One striking feature of this volume is the range of interdisciplinary research that is represented. Dr. Balentine’s own work has long displayed his interest in cross-pollinating the study of the Bible with insights from other fields of study. Several of the contributors (Biddle, Schuele, and Brown, as well as Walter Brueggemann and John Barton) engage the field of ethics; this echoes Dr. Balentine’s own regular application of ethical interpretation to the Bible. Other fields of study that here become conversation partners for biblical interpretation include quantum physics (Biddle), art history (Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal Joseph Parsons, Huff), epistemology (Brannon), psychology (Brown), and dance (Vesely). Thanks in no small part to Dr. Balentine’s work, biblical scholars recognize more and more the necessity of looking beyond the written word alone in order to explore how people have interpreted the Bible in nonverbal ways. The prominent inclusion in this volume of the arts as media for theological interpretation reflects Dr. Balentine’s long advocacy for including the study of popular modes of cultural expression as an important part of a biblical text’s reception history.

Another noteworthy quality of this book is the way it models constructive, collegial scholarship. John Barton’s article is a standout here. Barton, a distinguished senior scholar of the Hebrew Bible, revisits an argument he published in 1999 about whether virtue ethics are native to the Bible, in light of the work of two younger scholars, Anne W. Stewart and Patricia Vesely. Stewart has argued in direct opposition to Barton’s position, and Barton thoughtfully considers her argument, finds it compelling, and modulates his own position in response. Barton then draws on Vesely’s work to further reinforce his points of agreement with Stewart. The article beautifully models a scholarly conversation in which new contributions are met with open-minded willingness to listen and seek common ground. Another example of constructive intergenerational scholarship in the book is the contribution co-authored by Heidi J. Hornik (Professor of Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art History at Baylor University) and her son Mikeal Joseph Parsons. The article examines how the 17th-century painting Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Paolo Finoglio, which Parsons studied as part of his college minor studies, interprets the biblical text in its use, for instance, of light and of painting techniques for cloth.

New academic insights, well argued and gleaned from intellectual rigor, are always welcome, and Seeking Wisdom’s Depths and Torah’s Heights provides them. But the book’s greatest virtue is the success with which it reflects Sam Balentine’s own career-spanning model for how to engage in constructive scholarship: cross-disciplinary pollination of ideas, fruitful collaboration, and a willingness to approach ideas (both old and new) with an open mind, in order to that the scholarly conversation might move towards points of shared consensus. In this way especially, this book honors Balentine’s exceptional teaching as much as it does his excellent scholarship.