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Book Review

Kenneth E. Bailey

Jacob and the Prodigal

How Jesus Retold Israel's Story

ISBN 1-84101-358-7

BRF, Oxford, 2003, 12.99

(price at publication of review)


Reviewed May 2005; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2005


This book is an extended exercise in intertextuality.  The author argues that in addressing the parable of the prodigal son to the Scribes and Pharisees, and through them to the nation of Israel as a whole, Jesus 'offers his people a revised identity story with himself at its centre.'  A comparison with other treatments of the Jacob saga within Judaism adds weight to the contention that, rather than merely putting his own slant on the old story, Jesus is telling a new story which interacts with the old one but offers a better outcome: a gloriously full reconciliation achieved solely by the Father's extraordinary compassion, humility and grace.


Fifty-one dramatic elements allegedly common to both saga and parable are meticulously compared and contrasted.  Having lived and taught in the Middle East for forty years, Kenneth Bailey has gained an impressive familiarity with Jewish culture and Arab Christian traditions.  The insights he makes available to us from both are the real gems.  For example, his explanation of the Kezazah ceremony whereby any Jewish son who lost his inheritance to Gentiles was ostracized added to my understanding of the parable; likewise, the Eastern interpretation of the prodigal's restoration but outstripped by the Father's love.  The conclusion drawn is that our acceptance of being found becomes the model of true repentance since our changes of heart are so dubious.


Less easy to read than Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son, this is nevertheless a valuable theological companion to that more subjective meditation.  It made me want to preach on these texts, and to pray.


John SSF


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