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Meet the Fellows: 2016 Newcombe Fellow William Reed

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This is one of a series of posts featuring Fellows from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation network.

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph. D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2016 class of Fellows includes William Reed, a doctoral candidate in near eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. Below, Mr. Reed recalls how childhood games evolved into a research motif:

I watched a lot of cartoons as a child. Growing up in the 80s, my early childhood was filled with magical weapons that bestowed fabulous powers upon their wielders. The ability to change into something more than myself was a powerful part of play. Grabbing hold of a plastic sword was enough for me to become a mighty hero ready for adventure. One of my fondest memories is of the time my cousin and I discovered an old rusty machete in the woods. For us, it was as if we had stumbled upon the secret location of Arthur’s Excalibur. Although I grew out of wearing capes and swinging plastic swords, I never lost my interest in the transformative power of a weapon.

To my great surprise, much later I discovered similar weapon motifs in the literature of the ancient Near East, which went back to some of the earliest recorded royal rhetoric in human history. These examples often encapsulate the heroic view of war, in which the king is always on the side of good and the enemies are always in the wrong. Unlike the cartoons of my youth, however, the violence implied in the weapon bestowal motif was very real for enemies of the king.

Yet, when I turned to the Hebrew Bible, I found something unexpected. The motif of empowerment through divine weapon was conspicuously absent among the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah. Instead, Yahweh’s sword is connected to the tragic violence of exile and not the glorification of warfare. Though my focus is on an ancient society’s struggle with trauma, it is my hope that the fruits of my work will be applicable to people suffering in similar situations today.

Mr. Reed’s dissertation title is Yahweh’s “Cruel Sword”: The Manifestation of Punishment and the Trauma of Exile. For more information on the 2016 Newcombe Fellows and to see a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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