Briefly Noted: ‘Friendship in the Hebrew Bible’

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Just as I post from time to time in my ongoing Theological Primer series, I’d like to start a new continuing series called Briefly Noted (with a nod to The New Yorker). Instead of focusing on systematic theology, this series will deal with books, particularly new books (or relatively new). While there is great value in a substantive book review, there is also much to be gained from a brief survey of a book’s main idea in a matter of paragraphs instead of pages. By limiting myself to 500 words, I’ll be able do more than simply mention the book in a couple sentences (ala Book Briefs), while readers can still glean several important takeaways in just a few minutes.

Friendship in the Hebrew Bible (Yale University Press, 2017) is an examination of friendship in the Old Testament and in the wisdom text of Ben Sira (i.e. Ecclesiasticus). With the advent of conferences like Revoice and movements like Spiritual Friendship there is renewed interest among evangelicals in the biblical idea of friendship. While this scholarly work does not seem to have any of these wider conversations in view, it is still a useful tool for beginning a careful examination of friendship in the Bible.

It should be noted at the outset that this is not an evangelical book. The author, Saul Olyan, is a professor of Judaic studies and professor of religious studies at Brown University. He is also a gay man (he thanks his husband in the acknowledgements). Those who view the Bible as inspired and inerrant, as I do, will have to look past assumptions about documentary layering and issues of historicity that are typical among liberal scholars.

But once you know this is the sort of book you are reading, you can appreciate the scholarly work Olyan has done to synthesize Old Testament themes on friendship.

Throughout the book, Olyan argues against maximalist readings of friendship texts, suggesting that the language of “love” or “clinging to” are common in all sorts of relationships (like Ruth clung to Naomi but also clung to the harvesters in Boaz’s fields). Some portrayals of friendship have an emotional component, but this cannot be assumed. Much of the friendship language has to do with typical Ancient Near East treaty formulas. In other words, while it’s true that some friendships were formalized through treaties or covenants, these were usually political alliances.

Olyan is restrained in not arguing for too much from David and Jonathan, but he does think that 2 Samuel 1:26 probably has “homoerotic overtones” (111). He doesn’t do anything with that claim, but it’s one that—I think it’s fairly safe to conclude—would have been scandalous, if not unthinkable, among pious Jews in the ancient world. Better to see David’s language about Jonathan’s love surpassing that of woman as a reference to Michal’s hard-heartedness.

Of particular interest, given the assertion by some that friends can enter into lifelong covenantal relationships akin to marriage, is Olyan’s conclusion that although friends are often compared to relatives and share many of the same expectations and terms, friendship and family in the Hebrew Bible differ fundamentally in that friendship is “voluntary and more easily terminated” (115). Friends do not share the same obligations as family members (like the role of Levir or kinsman-redeemer) and more easily enter or exit the story of one’s life. Biblical friendship is important, Olyan argues, and often overlooked, but in the Old Testament it ranks below familial relations.

One final note: Olyan observes, “One combination of friends that is not attested in biblical representations of friendship is friendship between men and women” (113). Olyan is not arguing for or against friendship between the sexes; he simply notes that outside of the family unit, when men and women relate closely in the Hebrew Bible it is not as friends but as romantic partners.

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