Susan Van Volkenburgh. The Stone of Ebenezer. Bloomington: Westbow Press, 2015. See here to buy the book.
The Stone of Ebenezer is a novelization of the biblical story in I Samuel 4-7. In that story, Israel’s priesthood is corrupt, and the Philistines are waging war against Israel. The Israelites bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle in the hope that this will make them victorious against the Philistines. What happens instead is that the Philistines defeat Israel and take the Ark for themselves. This does not exactly help the Philistines, however, for the Ark (or God’s presence with the Ark) knocks over the Philistine god Dagon and smites the Philistines with a plague. The Philistines find a way to return the Ark to Israel. Under the leadership of Samuel, Israel repudiates idolatry. God then smites the Philistines, and the Israelites pursue them.
Susan Van Volkenburgh’s prose in this book is beautiful. It is deep, yet it still manages to convey a realistic view of the characters and a clear, vivid picture of the events. She intersperses Hebrew words throughout the book and provides a glossary of those terms in the back. She portrays the Philistines as real people: not as sympathetic as the Israelites, mind you, but still as people with hopes, friends, and loved ones. She did historical research in writing this novel, particularly on Canaanite religion and mythology. The scenes in which the Philistines are worshiping their gods and attempting to account theologically for their misfortunes are powerful.
There are some things that could be nitpicked, in terms of her research. She draws a lot from the 1915 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, when she should have used the more recent one. Yet, to her credit, she also draws from research from the last two decades. In giving the pronunciation of Hebrew words, she is not very consistent. For some words, she tells us how they sound in Hebrew. For other words, she gives us the conventional English pronunciation.
My main problem is not with this book’s research, however. The research is rather impressive. My struggle is trying to identify what makes this book different from other works of biblical fiction I have read, particularly the works of Lynn Austin and Roberta Kells Dorr. The novels of Austin and Dorr are superior to Volkenburgh’s novel, in certain respects. I think that the difference is that Austin and Dorr focus a lot on characterization and the story that they themselves created (apart from the biblical story). Yes, the biblical story is there, but there is also a focus on other things: the characters’ thoughts, feelings, motivations, and relationships. In Volkenburgh’s novel, by contrast, the biblical story loomed much larger; Volkenburgh’s story was filler for the biblical story. Reviewers who criticize Dorr for straying too far from the Bible would probably prefer Volkenburgh’s book. One can legitimately respond that Volkenburgh did talk about the thoughts, feelings, and histories of her characters. She did, but the characters in the works by Austin and Dorr are more rounded, more complex, more dynamic.
I am vacillating between giving this book a 3 and a 4. I will give it a 4 because I did enjoy reading it.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.