BY FRANCOISE MIRGUET
by David A. Lambert
Oxford University Press, 280 pp., $74
In Leonard Cohen’s 1992 song “The Future,” a prophetic voice that introduces itself as “the little Jew / who wrote the Bible” proclaims imminent disaster: “I’ve seen the future, brother / it is murder.” In the song’s refrain, the voice repeatedly sings, “When they said, ‘repent, repent’ / I wonder what they meant.” But how could “the little Jew who wrote the Bible” fail to understand that—isn’t the Bible filled with calls for repentance?
In his new book, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture, David A. Lambert argues that repentance, as we understand it today, is, in fact, absent from the Hebrew Bible; it only emerged in the Second Temple period, in the broader context of Hellenistic philosophy. From that time on, repentance has been retroactively read into the scriptural texts through what Lambert calls a “penitential lens”—which feels natural to the post-biblical reader. Lambert aims to “denaturalize” the concept, while at the same time unearthing what scriptures really mean when they say—at least what they’ve been read as saying—“repent, repent.”
Repentance, in Lambert’s analysis, is a mental act, which occurs at a specific moment “within” the self and is often accompanied by sorrow. This implies that the self can successfully act upon itself: It reflects on its past from the distance of the present, feels regret, and decides to change. Repentance is thus part of a righteous life—an effort of self-reflection to identify and abandon unwanted behavior. But is this not what the biblical texts call for?