Narrative in the Hebrew Bible

by Diana V. Edelman
Narrative in the Hebrew Bible
Diana V. Edelman
Journal of the American Oriental Society
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 Reviewed work(s): Narrative in the Hebrew Bible by David M. Gunn; Danna Nolan Fewell The book reads as a defense of newer, ahistorical readings of biblical texts over against traditional historical-critical methods. It does not engage the newer forms of historical-critical investigations, which share the view espoused by the two authors, that texts are stories or interpretations of the past and not a simple reflex of actual events. In this sense, it does not accomplish the task of the series to deepen understanding of the wider historical issues with which the Bible is concerned. The final chapter addresses some elements of the historical issue by suggesting that story details and views of the world that are culturally specific to the ancient Judahites and Judeans and not shared by modern society can be given new meaning by "reading against the grain" (p. 201), i.e., by highlighting silences or gaps and by reading through the eyes of a marginal character rather than the hero. It does not deal with the issues of the history of the transmission of the text and how the reader determines which text to use, nor with the history of individual books or the canon, with the recognition that the final form is only a final stage and that books may have had different meanings in earlier stages and contexts. There is a recognition that texts are ideological products, but no discussion about how various layers of ideology are to be determined. The authors embrace reader-response ideology and so argue that, ideally, every reading of a text is equally valid. As a result, they cannot reject traditional approaches in principle. In their review in chapter one of two thousand years of interpretation of Genesis 4, they are reduced to a mockingly humorous tone in their reports of various readings that they do not find personally inspiring. It would have been helpful if they had chosen Genesis 4 as their text to follow chapter one so that readers would have been able to judge how their reading of the text differed from those of the others they described. At the same time, however, the authors admit that "we must depend upon some tacit agreement with our larger reading community about reading conventions (method) and broad values if our interpretations are to be taken seriously by anyone but ourselves" (p. 9) and that ". . . we believe that interpretation becomes increasingly tenuous as it loses touch with the surface of the narrative" (p. 30). Thus, they recognize the need to posit some means by which to weigh the relative merits of a given reading and allow the ranking of readings, or the rejection of some interpretations in favor of others. It is unfortunate that they did not go on to delineate what specific method(s) and broad values they had in mind and why. This is a crucial issue that needs to be confronted within biblical studies.  Even though reader response is the principal approach endorsed by the authors, they employ rhetorical criticism regularly in their close readings, even though they do not label it as such. Thus, they seem to recognize that authorial intent and structuring of narrative to convey meaning is an important aspect of reading. Within the chapters that present selected readings, there is a confusing shift between levels of audience. Most of the observations deal with the narrative audience, but less frequent observations about writing technique deal with the intended authorial audience. No attempt is undertaken to deal with the actual ancient audience, but the final chapter addresses some problems of the gap between the ancient text and an actual modern audience. A discussion of the complexity of these various levels of readers and how they affect a given reading would have been very welcome in chapter one. The volume succeeds in its appointed task of selecting narrative passages from a number of biblical books to illustrate main principles of narrative technique. It also addresses theological issues in raising the possibility that YHWH is not always to be read as a kind, selfless deity. The book is not intended to be a new handbook discussing in-depth principles and devices used within biblical narrative. It could have been stronger had the points raised above been addressed or handled differently and if the authors had chosen to discuss the approaches being used by the new generation of scholars asking historical questions of the text. Instead, they simply caricature older historical criticism. DIANA V. EDELMAN JAMES MADISON UNIVERSITY COPYRIGHT 1996 American Oriental Society

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