[K:NWTS 3/3 (Dec 1988) 36-42]

From the Librarian's Shelf

Alex Preminger and Edward L. Greenstein, compilers and editors. The Hebrew Bible in Literary Criticism. New York: Ungar, 1986, 619pp., $65.00 cloth, ISBN: 0-8044-3266-X.

This is an important book for several reasons. First, it is a compilation of generally excellent literary treatments of Biblical persons and themes. The renewed interest in the Bible as a literary phenomena is well represented in this volume. Second, the editors have included many selections from the Hebrew school of literary and narrative criticism which have not previously appeared in English translation. A new world of generally constructive criticism of the Old Testament is uncovered in this Jewish material. Third, the volume is nicely proportioned between "theory" and "practice". More than 255 pages are devoted to the theory of literary criticism. Here we find succinct treatments of character, humor, imagery, motif, parallelism, plot, rhetoric, theme and much more. More than 340 pages are then devoted to persons, books and themes of the Old Testament: Abraham, Eden, Exodus, David, Hannah, Isaiah, Job, Joseph, Nahum, Prophets, Psalms, Saul, Tamar. Finally, the book is significant for what it does not do. The chief weakness of this volume (and of the new literary and narrative approaches generally) is the absence of theological reflection on the text. We are regaled with structural nuance upon structural nuance. All this is salient in its own right. But (from our point of view) the Bible is revelation; it is the communication of words and deeds (acts) of God. Literary structure and narrative art in the Bible are theological–indeed eschatological (because revelation is eschatological). Hence the volume under review helps us understand Scripture, but only in part. More theological–yea, biblical-theological–work remains to be done. That is the challenge of this volume.

The book has been divided into four sections: (1) the Hebrew Bible in general (pp. 1-44); (2) literary features (pp. 45-256); (3) texts (pp. 257-586); (4) Apocrypha (pp. 587-99). Each section is composed of selections from previously published material. Selections have been gathered from books and articles throughout the world. The familiar names are here: Gunkel, von Herder, Lowth, Driver, George Adam Smith, Robert Alter. Most are critical authors although for the most part the selections avoid the higher critical nonsense and concentrate on the literary heart of the text. Yet there are some friends of orthodoxy here–especially Leland Ryken; but note also Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Timothy Dwight and O.T. Allis.

The first section positions the Bible as a unique work in world literature. Its language is sublime, intense, visceral, universal. Precisely these attributes have made it a best-seller for centuries. Sections two and three will be considered below. The final section on the Apocrypha is little more than perfunctory. Four books are treated (Ecclesiasticus, Judith, Tobit and the Wisdom of Solomon), but only so briefly that one may fairly score the editors for treating the Apocrypha as a mere afterthought. Perhaps the Apocrypha are so unlike the canonical Hebrew Scriptures that they clearly have little to offer the literary critic. The 12-page section would have been better omitted and the space devoted to an index of the Biblical texts found in the preceding pages. The latter would certainly have made the volume even more useful. While the editors have done a splendid job with subject or topical arrangement (alphabetical through each of the four divisions of the book), a Scripture index would have assisted students, pastors and scholars alike.

My primary interest rests in the third division of the book–texts. As indicated above, numerous Old Testament persons, books and themes are considered. Each excerpt is printed according to its date of publication–from earliest to latest. For instance, on Abraham we are presented with material from 1959 to 1982. On the Akedah ("binding of Isaac"), from 1843 to 1983.

The excerpt from Eric Auerbach's famous Mimesis on the Akedah is superb. How dull, morose and introspective by comparison is the selection from Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. Auerbach allows the text to draw us into the event-character of the Abraham story. Kierkegaard is ultimately an introspective moralist–Abraham is the foil for a sullen Dane! Auerbach even allows that one of the chief characters of the tale is God himself. We are on the brink of theological analysis. But the excerpt from Zvi Adar dashes our hopes. Abraham becomes a semi-Pelagian moralist whose strength of character is put to the test on Moriah. The works of Abraham are the center of the narrative–not the work of God. Moriah is the moment of Israel as father-son face to face with death. It is the climax of every human hope, divine promise, ritual covenant act. Men and nation are confronted with the sentence of death and extinction. Semi-Pelagian doctrine is unable to rise from such a grave. But Abraham does–a point lost on the authors represented in our book; yet a point not lost on the author of Hebrews 11. Israel goes to Moriah because Israel believes–believes that the God of Ur, the God of Hebron, the God of the sojourning Hebrew is a God of life, not death. Abraham goes to Moriah in full confidence that resurrection is the key to the future. Hence he received it "in a figure." The father gives up his son to death; the beloved son is raised up to "new" life. It is the pattern of Israel because it is the pattern of God himself. And what Abraham experiences at Moriah is the revelation of the divine Father-Son relationship. The true Israel is the heavenly Father who surrenders his "beloved Son" to death and redeems him by resurrection.

The selections which discuss the Tower of Babel (misspelled 'Bable' incidentally, as a header on pp. 275-79) contain an excerpt from Martin Buber in which he sets forth the concept of the 'leading word' (leitworter). Subsequent advocates of narrative studies (i.e., Alter, Fokkelman, Sternberg, Kugel, Berlin, etc.) have continued to feature discussion of literary technique and structure in relation to leitworter in Biblical texts. Quite simply, these scholars are searching for development and structure as it relates to a central verbal root or stem; ergo a word study. Buber's excerpt in our volume will provide an orientation to this somewhat obvious approach to literary analysis of Biblical texts. With respect to the Tower of Babel, the leitworter is the Hebrew root lbn (cf. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, pp. 14-15). The structure of Gen. 11:1-9 is very much a ziggurat–concentric ascending and descending spirals of arrogance and confusion (cf. the structural outline from Michael Fishbane on p. 278 of the title under review).

The selections featuring the David cycle are particularly rich. Again, the piece by Auerbach is superb (p. 300). Other items by David Gunn and Zvi Adar are suggestive. I miss an excerpt from the provocative study by Charles Conroy, Absalom, Absalom (1978). But the Fokkelman selections remind us that this Dutch scholar has recently released Volume 2 of his massive 4 Volume commentary on First and Second Samuel (Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel). Volume 1 (excerpted in our volume) was subtitled: King David (1981). Volume 2 bears the subtitle: The Crossing Fates (1986). Fokkelman provides meticulous analysis of the Hebrew text drawing fresh insights at every turn. He is quite weak theologically, but we really can't expect one man to do all our work for us.

The tension present in older treatments of various Biblical books is illustrated in the selections on Ecclesiastes (Qohelet). Attempts to philosophize the Preacher as a Hebrew Sceptic or Cynic are found to be increasingly at odds with an approach that detects careful literary structure in the work (cf. the remarks of Ryken, pp. 339-40). We await a full treatment of the book from this perspective and eagerly anticipate the study of Meredith M. Kline to that end.

The Garden of Eden receives adequate treatment although Walsh's suggestion of the imagery of reversal is far more important than his excerpt develops. Rather than the rigid etiological chiastic (palistrophic) pattern suggested by Rosenberg (p. 346) for Genesis 2 and 3, I would plead for consideration of two overlapping dialogic chiasms centering in the protagonists in the narrative–God and the Serpent.

A. Serpent (3:1)

B. Woman (3:1-3)

C. Man (3:6)

D. God (3:8)

C'. Man (3:9)

B'. Woman (3:13)

A'. Serpent (3:14-15)

B''. Woman (3:16)

C''. Man (3:17-19)

D''. God (3:21-14)

We begin with the serpent, but focus on God. Then we begin with God and focus on the serpent. The progress of the narrative centers in the interrogation of the characters by the Creator. Concomitant divine judgment accompanies the interrogation. However notice that at the center of each scene is the divine initiative: God comes to the garden (v. 8); God imposes the curse on the serpent while graciously assuring the woman's seed of victory (v. 15). Even God's expulsion of man from the garden (vv. 21-24) is graciously intended to protect him from a life permanently dominated by the curse. Man is 'saved' from "stretching out his hand" to the tree of life and eating and "living forever" in the state of wrath. East of Eden lies the hope for a history of redemption.

I indicated above that the excerpts do not fully analyze Biblical narratives. They are weakest at the theological level as if our new literary and narrative scholars are content with structure for structure's sake. If Wellhausenism has been consigned to the dustbin of history, such a sterile structural approach will fare no better (cf. the cautious evaluations of narrative criticism by Carl F.H. Henry, "Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal" and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, "A Lamp in the Labyrinth: The Hermeneutics of 'Aesthetic' Theology" in the Trinity Journal 8:1 [Spring 1987], pp. 25-56). The Bible is more than literary structure(s). It is divine self-communication in word and deed. Hence literary art, narrative device and structure are part of revelation. Structure is to inform our theologizing upon the text. Narrative art is unto knowing God and his Son, Jesus Christ. The inadequacy of the mere literary approach is no more evident than in the selections on Elijah, Elisha and the Exodus. Here is literary drama breathing the power and passion of the Judge of heaven and earth, the One who is also the great Emancipator and Liberator of his elect. And yet our excerpts never arrive at the eschatological character of Elijah ( a vision grasped by the prophets and even the masses in the days of Jesus). Nor do they integrate the new exodus of the age to come into the pattern of the past (again as the prophets do). Perhaps because our book is restricted to the Old Testament era, it is impossible to finish the story. But those upon whom the "end of the ages" has come know the end from the beginning. The synoptic writers understand the eschatological significance of the Exodus. The narrative of the Exodus does not end with Moses or Malachi. It reaches into the narrative events of the Son of God.

Briefly, the temptation to psychologize the Psalmists is represented by the selection from Erich Fromm. If the Psalter is a foil for modern theories of psychological process, we are no longer listening to the voice of God when we sing the songs of Zion; rather we have demythologized these songs to reveal the Jung, Freud, Fromm, etc. in David, Moses, Asaph, etc. I suspect that the Psalter is really not about that at all.

On the book of Ruth, we are given an excerpt from Don Rauber's stimulating article on the background and narrative in chapter one. Ruth continues to delight audiences as a gentle love story. I recall how the power of this small book was demonstrated in a chapel service during my college days. The speaker simply read the book in its entirety without comment and then sat down. The drama and power of the story left an indelible impression on me from that moment. There are many new treatments of Ruth, but one wishes Rauber had finished what he began with a full narrative analysis of the entire book.

Samson is variously treated as a buffoon (p. 549-50), superman (p. 550) and Biblical Paul Bunyan (folk hero, cf. p. 552). Avraham Kariv (p. 552) has noted that the Bible's final word about Samson is not one of wrath, but favor. The truth of that observation was long ago remarked by John Milton in Samson Agonistes. But Milton gives us a Samson "made perfect in weakness" and in the spirit of the writer to the Hebrews (11:32). Milton invites us to regard Samson in the light of the eschatological deliverer.

Much contemporary work on the Song of Songs has reduced the book to a veiled piece of pornography (cf. the Anchor Bible commentary of Marvin Pope). In this way, we learn more about the private interests of modern commentators than the Biblical account. Fortunately our editors have provided a brilliant excerpt by Jacob Fichman (pp. 572-74). Here is a truly sensitive reading of this Biblical love poem. Not lurid detail, but the restraint that intimacy demands is featured by the Canticler. Not pagan fertility rituals and allusions, but genuine love.

I must move on to outline the section which describes literary features (pp. 45-256). Here are excerpts on literary conventions: metaphor, meter, personification, poetry, prosody, wordplay, repetition and style. Each section is illustrative of the particular literary device as it is found in the Old Testament. We are reminded that the human authors of the Scriptures were gifted in prose and poetry. All the elements which make up a good story are present in their literary products. We marvel at the rich and diverse genius of each one. Yet we are overwhelmed at the realization that these profound literary matters are the product of the mind of our Creator. God himself delights in imagery, parallelism, word play, plot, character, repetition and style. All the more incentive to use these approaches in thinking the thoughts of God after him.

As a tool for enriching our study and preaching of the word of God, this volume is admirably suited. It will stretch us, stimulate us, challenge us and frustrate us. But if we turn to it when treating passages and personalities corresponding to the content of its pages, we will find our language enlivened by vivid imagery; we will discover the profound richness of Hebrew narrative and poetry; we will marvel at the divinely-inspired story-character of the Bible; and our congregations will be delivered from humdrum sermons which tediously extract a "lesson" from Old Testament passages (usually amounting to a trite commonplace without Christological focus). This book will help us draw our listeners into the word of God–to help them sense that they are part of the story because in Christ Jesus the story belongs to them. While this is not a perfect book, it will assist us in the biblical-theological task and for that reason it is a book worthy of a place on our shelves.

I close with a final caveat. The publishers have priced this volume for the rich and for institutional libraries. I beg them to seriously weigh the benefit of a paperback edition, affordable by ministers and laymen alike. And when that paperback version is released, increase its usefulness by adding a Scripture index at the back. In so doing, we will turn to this volume even more frequently as we study and preach the treasures of the Old Testament.