The Pro-Social Role of Grief in Ezra’s Penitential Prayer

in Biblical Interpretation
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This study uses a model of human experience that considers the embodied brain, religion, and social context in an integrated system of bio-cultural approaches. The study of grief and its strategic arousal in ritual contexts can highlight fundamental differences between modern and ancient religious understandings of the self, ultimately helping us to become more aware of our own scholarly biases and anachronisms. Such methods complement traditional historical-critical methods and shed light on how Ezra’s penitential prayer could have functioned in a Second Temple context. This study examines the similarities between the ritual performance of actions and discursive traditions that are said to have been performed by Ezra (Ezra 9–10) and discusses their resemblance to two passages that preserve foundational events of remaking the covenant (Exodus 32–34; Deuteronomy 9) and dedicating the first Temple (1 Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 6–7). The reenactment of scripted grief is identified as a strategy for bridging the breach between foundational events and the authors and readers in the Second Temple period.

The Pro-Social Role of Grief in Ezra’s Penitential Prayer

in Biblical Interpretation



  • 3

     P. Ekman and W.V. Friesen“Constants across Cultures in the Face and Emotion,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17 (1971) pp. 124–39; P. Ekman and W.V. Friesen Pictures of Facial Affect (Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists 1976); P. Ekman Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (New York: Times Books 2003); M.D. Pell et al. “Recognizing Emotions in a Foreign Language” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 33 (2009) pp. 107–120. While significant in its time Ekman’s studies are now critiqued throughout the scholarship on emotions.

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     B. NongbriBefore Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press2013) pp. 132–53; R.T. McCutcheon The Discipline of Religion: Structure Meaning Rhetoric (London: Routledge 2003) p. 255; see also D. Boyarin Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2004).

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     T. DixonFrom Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2003) pp. 98-134; idem “Revolting Passions” Modern Theology 27 (2011) pp. 298–312.

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     D. KonstanThe Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press2006) pp. 244–58.

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     KonstanThe Emotions of the Ancient Greeks p. 248.

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     KonstanThe Emotions of the Ancient Greeks p. 247.

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     KonstanThe Emotions of the Ancient Greeks pp. 252–53 where he cites Plato Resp. 395E12; 605C12; Leg. 958E7; Sophocles El. 846; Euripides Hel. 166.

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     NongbriBefore Religion p. 21.

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     G. Ebersole“The Function of Ritual Weeping Revisited: Affective Expression and Moral Discourse,” History of Religions 39 (2000) pp. 211–46 (reprinted in J. Corrigan [ed.] Religion and Emotion: Approaches and Interpretations [Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004] pp. 185–222); see too Harkins Reading with an “I” to the Heavens p. 39.

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     Ebersole“The Function of Ritual Weeping Revisited” p. 187.

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     Chaniotis“Staging and Feeling the Presence of God” pp. 169–89 (169).

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     Chaniotis“Staging and Feeling the Presence of God” pp. 175–76.

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     D.T. Bradford“Emotion in Mystical Experience,” Religion Brain & Behavior 3 (2013) pp. 103–118 (107). Bradford here refers to the work of I. Hausherr Penthos: The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian 1982). Bradford’s basic point about the cultural variation of the emotions reported in mystical experiences is also illustrated by C. Zaleski Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press 1987). For the cultural context of emotion see Wierzbicka Emotions across Languages and Cultures.

  • 25

     P. McNamaraThe Neuroscience of Religious Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2009). When making reference to McNamara’s work and his specific understanding of the “executive Self” I have capitalized the S in “executive Self” just as McNamara has done in his own work.

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     McNamaraThe Neuroscience of Religious Experience pp. 30–31.

  • 27

     McNamaraThe Neuroscience of Religious Experience pp. 30–31. Also see R. Sosis “The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual: Rituals Promote Group Cohesion by Requiring Members to Engage in Behavior that is Too Costly to Fake” American Scientist 92 (2004) pp. 166–72.

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     J. Henrich“The Evolution of Costly Displays, Cooperation and Religion: Credibility Enhancing Displays and Their Implications for Cultural Evolution,” Evolution and Human Behavior 30 (2009) pp. 244–60.

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     A. Mittermeier“Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities beyond the Trope of Self-Cultivation,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 18 (2012) pp. 247–65 (262 n. 10). Here Mittermeier cites J. Biehl B. Good and A. Kleinman Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations (Berkeley: University of California Press 2007) p. 6.

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     S. MahmoodPolitics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press2005) p. 147.

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     R.A. WerlinePenitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism: The Development of a Religious Institution (Atlanta: Scholars1998); Newman Praying by the Book; R.J. Bautch Developments in Genre between Post-Exilic Penitential Prayers and the Psalms of Communal Lament (Atlanta: SBL 2003); Boda Falk and Werline (eds.) Seeking the Favor of God (3 vols.; Atlanta: Scholars Press 2006-2008); M.D. Matlock Discovering the Traditions of Prose Prayers in Early Jewish Literature (London: T & T Clark 2012).

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     P. BoyerThe Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion (Berkeley: ­University of California Press1994). For a useful historical overview of this field see J.L. Barrett “Cognitive Science of Religion: Looking Back Looking Forward” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50 (2011) pp. 229–39; S.E. Guthrie “A Cognitive Theory of Religion” Current Anthropology 21 (1980) pp. 181–94; idem Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press 1993).

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     T. AsadGenealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press1993) p. 144; also important is the discussion of the adaptive relevance of emotional memories in new and changing circumstances in P. Boyer “What are Memories For? Functions of Recall in Cognition and Culture” in P. Boyer and J.V. Wertsch (eds.) Memory in Mind and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009) pp. 3–28.

  • 52

     Henrich“The Evolution of Costly Displays Cooperation and Religion” pp. 244–60.

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     Dor“The Composition of the Episode of the Foreign Women in Ezra IX–X” p. 29.

  • 61

     J.L. KugelIn the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (New York: Free2011) p. 17. The generation of this subjectivity is related to the various decentering practices that are engaged and helpfully described in McNamara The Neuroscience of Religious Experience.

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     Boyer“What are Memories For?” p. 7.

  • 64

     R.S. Norris“Examining the Structure and Role of Emotion: Contributions of Neurobiology to the Study of Embodied Religious Experience,” Zygon 40 (2005) pp. 181–99.

  • 66

     AsadGenealogies of Religion pp. 125–67.

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     BlenkinsoppEzra-Nehemiah p. 178.

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     Noted by W. Oswald“Foreign Marriages and Citizenship in Persian Period Judah,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 12 (2012) pp. 1–17 (7).

  • 69

     Chaniotis“Staging and Feeling the Presence of God” pp. 169–89.

  • 70

     AsadGenealogies of Religion pp. 125–67.

  • 71

     Sosis“The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual” pp. 166–74.

  • 73

     Henrich“The Evolution of Costly Displays Cooperation and Religion” pp. 244–60.

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