Book Spotlight: The Enemy in the Household

This post highlights Caryn A. Reeder’s study The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond, a revision of her dissertation at the University of Cambridge. Reeder is Associate Professor of New Testament at Westmont College.

The Enemy in the Household centers on three primary texts in Deuteronomy:

  • 13:6-11 (the call for execution of family members or friends who succumb to idolatry and seek to persuade others to follow.)
  • 21:18-21 (death penalty for the stubborn and rebellious son)
  • 22:13-21 (execution of the unchaste daughter)

Enemy in HouseholdReeder notes the discomfort modern readers have with Israelite law codes calling for the death penalty of family members. Yet she resists a hermeneutic of suspicion. While affirming the value such an approach can have (e.g. taking seriously abuses of power), she believes a hermeneutic of suspicion too often leads to rejection of the text. Reeder prefers reading sympathetically rather than antagonistically. At the same time, she still keeps her eye on descriptions of inequalities or injustices.

The book covers four primary periods comprising the selected texts and their reception history:

  • Understanding Constructive Family Violence in Deuteronomy
  • Constructive Family Violence in Hellenistic Palestine
  • Enmity and Treason according to Philo, Josephus, and the Rabbis
  • Constructive Family Violence and the Early Church

“Constructive violence” is the “use of violent acts to punish covenantal transgressions in Deuteronomy” (8). Constructive violence acknowledges the intended injury, but also recognizes the injury is motivated by “the need to protect communal identity from threats” (8). Reeder proposes that the term “constructive violence” also holds together discordant value judgments: respect for the laws in Deuteronomy and a respect for the discomfort readers have with them.

In her exegesis of the three selected texts, Reeder observes the importance of family for maintaining and passing on the covenant. The children inherit the covenant, the very means of communal identity. The execution of family members should be understood within this communal concept. The covenant only persists through family inheritance. Thus, the laws are meant to be protective. Reeder also notes the text provides balance in such details as first presuming the accused daughter’s innocence, as well as legal protections for a son against patriarchal abuse. Following her exegesis in Deuteronomy she examines themes in Sirach, 1 Maccabees, Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, the early Rabbis, and the New Testament. Reeder argues that later commentary on family violence is increasingly uncomfortable with the concept. Here modern readers can find common ground with ancient writers. However, the idea of family execution is not eliminated entirely. Preservation of communal identity remains important. The self is subordinated to the needs of the community.

 Baker Publishing provided a copy of this book to Women Biblical Scholars upon request in exchange for a review (with no strings attached for a positive one). Women Biblical Scholars welcomes collaboration with publishers to help get the word out about relevant books by female scholars.

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