August 29, 2003

Berlin’s Poetics

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Last night, I finished reading Adele Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. In some ways, the book was a disappointment. Berlin focuses primarily on characterization and point of view, and what she says about them seems sound. But it also seems fairly obvious. Some characters are complex and fully developed, some are depicted in ways that make them (stereo)types, and some are merely agents, there because they play a role in moving the narrative forward but not described in any detail (e.g., Abishag). Well, yes, but that just seems to be the case for any narrative.

With regard to point of view, Berlin points out how the biblical narrative indicates a change with regard to point of view. For instance, the word hinneh often (but not always) introduces a new point of view. For instance, when Jael has killed Sisera, we then read about Barak arriving at the tent, and hinneh there’s Sisera, dead. Hinneh here suddenly switches us to Barak’s point of view, his surprise at what he suddenly sees. All of which seems to be true, but again it also seems to be fairly obvious.

Berlin’s discussion of “naming” is helpful. The way characters are referred to tells you something about the person doing the referring or about which of the person’s many relationships is important at this particular moment. When Joseph’s brothers are plotting to kill him, Reuben intervenes and Reuben keeps referring to Joseph, not as “Joseph,” but as “the boy.” Michal is David’s wife, but when she shows contempt for David’s dancing, the narrator (whose naming and whose point of view is always authoritative) calls her “the daughter of Saul.” She’s acting Saul-like at this point, opposing David.

At times, Berlin does make some interesting and potentially helpful comments about particular biblical narratives. I’m not convinced by her reading of the connection between David’s relationship to women (Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Abishag) and David’s public life (p. 33), but the possibility of such a connection is worth thinking about. Is there a connection? Does the narrator show us David’s relationship with women (the private sphere) as a way of characterizing David’s relations in the public sphere?

I’m also not convinced by some of the elements in Berlin’s reading of Ruth (chapter 4), and in particular I find it hard to swallow her interpretation of Ruth’s nighttime visit to Boaz. Naomi had romance in mind (on Berlin’s read, it sounds like seduction), but Ruth misunderstood:

She [Naomi] wanted Ruth to approach Boaz after he had eaten, when he had just lain down, but before he had actually fallen asleep — just at the time that “his heart was good” and he would be most receptive to Ruth’s visit. But Ruth waited too long. She did not realize that her mission was a romantic one, thinking rather that she was there on secret legal business (p. 91).

I grant that the procedure in Ruth 3 is a bit hard to figure out, but that Ruth thought she was up to some legal business and that it involved sneaking up to Boaz alone when he was lying down and uncovering his feet (on Berlin’s view, “legs” as a euphemism for genitals) and lying down with him? As Maxwell Smart’s enemies always said when he tried to bluff, “I find that hard to believe.”

In the last major section of the book, Berlin takes on source criticism and form criticism. Source criticism tries to determine the original sources that (on this view) went into the making of the text we have today (e.g., verses 1, 5, 6a, and 8 are from one source and they’ve been stuck together rather badly with verses 2, 3, 4, 6b, and 7, which were originally a different story). Form criticism builds on source criticism and wants to trace how the story developed from the original version into the version we have today, gaining bits and losing bits along the way. In both source criticism and form criticism, repetition, (apparent) inconsistencies, and doublets (the same story told twice or even similar stories) all indicate different sources (source criticism) or later developments in the story’s history (form criticism).

Berlin shows, however, that both source criticism and form criticism operate at odds with the findings of rhetorical and literary criticism. The rhetorical and literary critics show that there are good reasons why the author (or final editor) included repetitions. Repetitions and apparent inconsistencies (or real inconsistencies between what the narrator has said and what a character says) and such things are in the text for a reason, not because someone edited some earlier sources badly.

To be sure, there are gaps, inconsistencies, retellings, and changes in vocabulary in biblical narrative, but these can be viewed as part of a literary technique and are not necessarily signs of different sources. The whole thrust of source criticism is toward the fragmenting of the narrative into sources, while, at the same time it ignores the rhetorical and poetic features which bind the narrative together (p. 121).

I recall Rev. VanderHart in seminary telling us how the earlier critics — source critics and form critics — got upset with the newer, younger literary critics at the Society of Biblical Literature meetings. The earlier critics wanted to take the wall of the Bible and break it all down into bricks and mortar and once they had destroyed it all, they thought they were done their exegesis: “See? The whole thing looks like a unit, but it really isn’t. It’s all a bunch of stories that some rather stupid editor stuck together badly.”

But now the newer critics are coming along and challenging the older view. Sure, the newer guys often grant that there may be a bunch of sources underlying the text of Scripture as it stands, but they aren’t interested in that and they question whether the existence of those sources can even be proven. What they’re interested in is the text of Scripture as it stands right now. The author (or perhaps editor) wasn’t stupid. Even if he edited a bunch of sources, they point out, he put things together deliberately.

To say, “The story about Judah and Tamar is clearly from a different source and we know that because it’s right in the middle of the Joseph narrative where it sticks out like a sore thumb,” isn’t exegesis. It’s the refusal to exegete. It’s the refusal to notice the literary function of that text in the whole narrative as it stands right now. Unless we assume that the author/editor was stupid, we should suppose that he thought the Judah story fit where he placed it and played a role in the whole narrative of Genesis. And it seems to me that it’s more likely that the source critics are the stupid ones here.

In the end, however, Berlin’s book was disappointing. While I grant much of what she said, much of it also seemed obvious, though it wasn’t bad to see it spelled out (e.g., the function of hinneh). Her demolition of source and form criticism was fun, but not especially helpful, since I’ve never bought into either. Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative was much more helpful for interpreting the narratives of Scripture. Any other books on narrative you’d especially recommend?

Posted by John Barach @ 4:41 pm | Discuss (0)

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