Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sunday Night Samuel, Biblical Criticism and Reading Biblical Narrative

I think we're quite done with wedding dinners this month, he said. Before the wedding madness starts again in July, let's skip onedotzero and have a quiet night at home.

So the quiet night was: steak pies in the oven while Artur Rubinstein's necromantic hands wrung the poetic depth out of Chopin's normally anaemic waltzes (it's whingy old Fryderyk. Therefore, not the dancey kind, Pole-dancey or otherwise) and crashed through the nocturnes. Later, cold bottles of Chimay, courtesy of some Trappist monks, fuelled an attempted demonstration of how Vladimir Horowitz might have cheekily decimated a fragile timid poofy audience with his own outrageous interpretation (and also an attempted demonstration of how the same fragile timid poofy audience might have swooned in nervous shock in their plush red velvet seats). And later still, a wedge of brie de meaux, bitty crispbreads and a good readaloud of 1 and 2 Samuel.
Brie du Meaux et Chimay Collage
Riverting stuff. Loved the dry humour. Can't wait to start the 1 Samuel studies!

The question is, how does one study the Old Testament, especially Old Testament biblical narrative?

Biblical Criticism
To reveal himself to mankind, God spoke in a human language. Had he initiated contact in the language of the angels we would have been none the wiser. He chose, rather, to reveal himself a language understood by humans, and he did so to a particular people, in particular times and circumstances in their own language, in their own dialects and slang.

So if we are to understand those messages, we must somehow seek to put ourselves back into the situation of the original recipients of the Word. We must discover exactly what the original authors of the Scriptures meant by their words. The generic term for techniques used to study the meaning of Bible passages is "biblical criticism" ("criticism" not that the reader sits in judgement over the Word but that he seeks to understand it).

Historical Criticism
In ancient times (as the reallyratherlongdeadhuman author of Samuel is fond of saying), when people drove manual cars, historical criticism was the preferred method of understanding the Bible. Historical criticism sought to investigate the origins of the Bible, the sources of the documents and determine the authorship, date, and place of composition of the text.

Gordon Wenham noted in his 1998 Griffith Thomas lecture*:
To understand the message of the Bible it is absolutely essential to have some understanding of the social setting in which its books were written. Otherwise we shall import our own twentieth-century models, impose them on the text and come up with quite a misleading interpretation. For example, Genesis 2:24 makes a very significant comment about the nature of marriage: 'For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.' But what exactly does it mean? A Westerner reading this passage might well conclude that it is endorsing our practice of setting up home independently of our parents, often indeed a long way from them. Indeed I remember reading a book by a missionary in Nigeria who criticized Nigerian men for continuing to live near their parents after they married. This he said was unbiblical and harmful to the marriage relationship! In fact what the Nigerians did was precisely what the Israelites did!! On marriage it was the woman who moved, not the man. The man stayed put, because he would succeed to his father's job and land, and the new wife moved in with him. In a literal physical sense the ancient Israelite man did not leave his family at all. So what is Genesis 2:24 really saying? Something far more profound than telling you where to live when you marry: it is talking about priorities and commitments. Before marriage a man's first obligations are to his parents. In the Ten Commandments, 'honour your father and mother' comes immediately after our obligations to God and before 'Thou shalt not kill'. In the ancient world filial duty was regarded as the supreme obligation. But according to Genesis 2:24 marriage changes this. Now a man's first duty is to care for his wife, and secondarily to care for his parents. 'He leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife.' Read in the context of OT society, rather than modern ideas, we see that Genesis 2:24 is a statement that revolutionizes the status of married women. Wives are not mere appendages or chattels of their husbands, rather the welfare of his wife must be a man's first concern.

Perhaps I may give another illustration of the necessity of understanding the social setting of the Bible if we are to grasp its intentions correctly. Leviticus 19:9-10 says, 'When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap the field to its very border....' The motive of this law is then explained: 'You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner [i.e. the immigrant].' But J. V. Taylor in his book Enough is Enough expounded this text as proof of the Bible's ecological concern, that we should not exploit the earth to its limits. And in a lecture I heard him say he was outraged at visiting an agricultural show where combine harvesters which boasted of their ability to reap right up to the edge of the field were on display. How unbiblical, he said! But he had failed to grasp the purpose of the law and the difference between our society and theirs. The law is designed to help the poor of ancient Israel, who were scattered throughout the land and could indeed easily go into the countryside and glean in the fields of their well-to-do neighbours (see the book of Ruth). But the poor of our society are in the cities, far from the fields. To leave the edges of our fields unreaped would not help them in the least. We must devise quite different welfare measures in our society to help our poor. So I believe historical criticism has a most important role to play in delineating the nature of biblical society. Without such sociological study we are liable to make terrible mistakes in interpreting and applying Scripture today.
Form Criticism
Form criticism seeks to analyse Biblical texts by first by identifying a text's genre or conventional literary form, such as parables, proverbs, epistles, or love poems by identifying the typical features of texts such, especially their conventional forms or structures. It goes on to seek the sociological setting for each text's genre; its Sitz im Leben (situation in life).

The advantage of form criticism is that it has made us aware of the conventions that guided the biblical authors. It enables us to appreciate why they arranged material in the way they did, for example in the laws, the psalms, and the epistles. Through form criticism we can be more clear about the writers' intentions: why they included certain details and omitted others. And this knowledge should keep us from misinterpreting and misapplying biblical texts today.*

Source Criticism
Source criticism is concerned with elucidating the sources used by the biblical writers. For example, the book of Kings often refers to the royal annals of Judah and Israel, suggesting that if one wants further details about the events recorded these annals should be consulted. And for a historian concerned to reconstruct the exact course of Old Testament history, source criticism is clearly very important if he wants to come as close as possible to the earliest account of events.*

Redaction Criticism
What the editors do, whether they be Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or the compiler of Kings, is also of great concern to Bible readers. By comparing their work with their source we can discover what their special interests are. We can see what they have left out, what they have added from another source, what aspects of the original they have played up, what they have played down. In this way we gain a much clearer insight into the editor's theological viewpoint and the message he is trying to convey. And this investigation, what is termed redaction criticism, has proved extremely fruitful for more clearly understanding the text.*

[Taken to silly extremes however, form, source and redaction criticism have gotten people's knickers in a twist. Documentary Hypothesis, in which the Pentateuch was thought to be a conflation of various sources – J, E, D and P, is a good example. You see, says Documentary Hypothesis, there were several sources of information out there and someone did a bit of a cut-and-paste job with them. Unfortunately for us, the final editor of the Pentateuch was so uncommonly daft that he didn't realise different sources were contradictory (eg. say, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2), and included them both! Side by side! (He also appeared to have had a singular lack of chums courteous enough to point this out to him.)

David Cline's seminal "New Directions in Pooh Studies: Überlieferungs- und religionsgeschichtliche Studien zum Pu-Buch" masterfully applies Documentary Hypothesis to the Pooh corpus to demonstrate that the text indicates the interweaving of various sources and thus the fallacy of unitary authorship of that corpus must be abandoned. Likewise, Mark Shea shares his thoughts on how "The Lord of the Rings" could not have been written by one so-called "author" named "Tolkien". ;-)]

Biblical Semantics
Linguistical studies have transformed our approach to determining the precise meaning of words in Scripture. Far too often, sermons are based on sloppy etymologies or words or phrases taken out of context, but linguistics has shown that this is quite mistaken. So quite central terms in the Bible's theological vocabulary, e.g. faith, soul, redemption, justification, may have been misunderstood by amateurs who fail to understand how language works. Modern linguistics has taught us to examine the context in which words are used rather than their etymology to determine their meaning. It has taught us to study language synchronically before studying it diachronically. In practice this means we must examine the usage of a word in a particular book of the Bible before examining its usage and meaning elsewhere. Just because a word means one thing in one writer, it does not necessarily follow that another writer uses it in exactly the same way. And once we recognise this principle we may well be on the way to resolving the apparent contradictions between different parts of Scripture, for example between Paul and James.*

New Literary Criticism
Finally, we have the new literary criticism, which focuses on the structure and plot development of stories and characterisation so that characters in the story come alive as real people not as mere names on the page.

For example, literary critics insist that repetition within a story often offers very valuable clues to the attitudes of the people involved. We must examine closely who says what, and what phrases they use: eg. after God has promised Sarah a child, she laughs in disbelief. The RSV says,"After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" And it is remarkable that such brazen unbelief should be treated so mildly by God. Think of Isaiah's rebuke of King Ahaz when he refused to believe his message (Isaiah 7:13). But Sarah apparently gets away with it. Why?

A careful examination of the phraseology here gives the answer. The narrator first of all gives an objective, almost clinical, account of Sarah's situation:"Abraham and Sarah were old, well on in years. Sarah had stopped having periods". But Sarah describes herself more colourfully:"After I am worn out, shall I have pleasure? And my husband is old too".

From her language we see her real state of mind. It is not blind unbelief, rather it is the hopelessness of a woman exhausted by life who has been disappointed so often that she dare not believe things will change. And this could be why God in his mercy treats her so gently.

In some ways this new-style literary criticism is a reversion to the older exegetical methods used before the nineteenth century. Reading the older commentaries, eg. of Calvin or the mediaeval rabbis, one sometimes comes across interpretations like this. But this new-style criticism is a great advance over these old works. Their insights rested on the imagination of the commentator, and one is therefore never really quite sure whether Calvin's interpretation would have met with the biblical writers' approval. But the new literary criticism is based much more closely on hints contained within the text itself, so I dare to hope it is indeed enabling us to recover the original writers' understanding.*

An example of how literary criticism is used in relation to Old Testament narrative is provided by Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long and Tremper Longman III in "A Biblical History of Israel":
Biblical narratives may be characterized under three rubrics: scenic, subtle, succinct...

OT narratives are scenic — not in the sense of detailed descriptions of the physical setting or scene, but, rather, scenic in the way that a stage play involves scenes. Like a stage play, the OT narratives do more showing than telling. The reader is seldom explicitly told by the narrator how this or that character, or this or that action, is to be evaluated (though this does occasionally occur). Instead, the reader is shown the characters acting and speaking and is thereby drawn into the story and challenged to reach evaluative judgments on his or her own. In other words, the reader comes to know and understand the characters in the narrative in much the same way as in real life, by watching what they do and by listening to what they say. The scenic character of OT narrative leads quite naturally to a second dominant trait.

OT narratives are subtle. As implied already, OT narrators are generally reticent to make their points directly, preferring to do so more subtly. To this end, they employ an array of more indirect means in developing the narrative's characterizations and in focusing reader attention on those aspects of the narrative that contain its persuasive power. Mention of physical details, for instance, is seldom if ever random. If we read that Esau was hairy, Ehud left-handed, Eglon fat, and Eli portly and dim-sighted, we should anticipate (though not insist) that such details in some way serve the characterizations or actions of the story. Sometimes the words or deeds of one character serve as indirect commentary on those of another character. When Jonathan, for instance, remarks that "nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few" (1 Sam. 14:6), this casts Saul's excuse in the preceding chapter — "the people were slipping away" (13:11) — into a different light than a first reading might have done. Even small changes in the narrator's commentary on events may have far-reaching implications, not just literarily but historically as well. Immediately following King David's charge to his successor, Solomon, in 1 Kings 2:1-10, the narrator registers David's death (v. 11) and remarks (v. 12) that Solomon's "kingdom was firmly established" (made emphatic by Hebrew me)od), and this without Solomon having yet done anything. There follows an account of Solomon's eradication of Joab and Shimei (vv. 13-46), persons deemed dangerous by his father, and the account concludes with another narratorial comment (similar but not identical to v. 12): "So the kingdom was establised in the hand of Solomon" (v. 46). Gone is the adverb me)od, rendered "firmly" in v. 12. Added is the phrase "in the hand of Solomon," which is better rendered in this context as "by the hand of Solomon". Without coming right out and saying it, the narrator hints that Solomon's initial efforts to secure his kingdom by his own hand have accomplished little or nothing. His early days tell "a fairly sordid story of power-politics". No wonder, then, that Solomon confesses, in the next chapter, to feeling like a "little child" who does not "know how to go out or come in" (3:7). Ironically, it will be news of the death not only of David but especially of Joab that will trigger the return of Hadad the Edomite (1 Kgs. 11:21), the first adversary raised up by Yahweh (1 Kgs. 11:14) when it becomes necessary to "chasten" the apostate Solomon with "floggings inflicted by men" (2 Sam 7:14; NIV). If such subtleties often go unnoticed by modern literary readers, how much more so do they escape historians, but they can prove essential to proper reading and reconstruction.

OT narratives are succinct. Perhaps in part because of the constraints of writing in a scenic, or episodic, mode, biblical narrators tend to be economical in their craft. They accomplish the greatest degree of definition and colour with the fewest brushstrokes. Biblical stories, although written, are "geared toward the ear, and meant to be listened to at a sitting. In a 'live' setting the storyteller negotiates each phrase with his audience. A nuance, an allusion hangs on nearly every word". The very succinctness of the biblical narratives invites close attention to detail, and all the more so because the biblical narrators were masters in drawing special attention to key elements in their texts. They use all manner of repetitions to great advantage — words and word stems (i.e. Leitworte), motifs, similar situations (sometimes called "type scenes" or "stock situations"), and the like. The effect of repetition is often to underscore a central theme or concern in a narrative, as, for instance, in the repetition of the phrase "listen to the voice/sound" in 1 Samuel 15. As the chapter opens, Saul is exhorted to "listen" to the Lord's "voice" (v. 1) and destroy all the Amalekites (man and beasts): later he claims to have done so (v. 13); Samuel responds by asking about the "voice" of the sheep and cattle to which he is "listening" (v. 14); Samuel and Saul debate whether Saul has or has not "listened to the voice" of the Lord (vv. 19-20); when Saul seeks to excuse his failure to listen by claiming to have spared livestock only in order to sacrifice to the Lord, Samuel responds that "listening to the voice" of the Lord is vastly more important than sacrifice (v. 22); and Saul begrudgingly concedes that he has "listened to the voice" of the people (v. 24). While the attentive reader can surely judge from the general flow of the passage that Saul's (dis)obedience is a central theme, attention to the literary fabric of the passage underscores and enriches this insight.

Our brief description of the scenic, subtle, and succinct character of biblical narratives only begins to scratch the surface. Beyond these basics, readers—even those (or perhaps especially those) whose interests are in historical questions—will profit greatly from immersing themselves Alter, Longman, and Sternberg. The key point is that biblical accounts must be appreciated first as narratives before they can be used as historical sources—just as they cannot be dismissed as historical sources simply because of their narrative form.
If this how Old Testament narrative is to be read, and it is the text that should shape the Bible study or the sermon, then it suggests exciting ways of leading Bible studies or preaching sermons on these texts (more on that here)!

Limitations of Biblical Criticism
However, before we all run off with the newest-fangled theory on how to read the Bible, we must remember that a perfect critical theory is not the end point. We as Christians are not so much interested in say, source criticism, for the sources that lie behind Scripture but in the text of Scripture itself.

And again, historicity is not everything. It of course matters whether Jesus lived, died, and rose again. But there was a Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, who believed in these facts without being a Christian. And I suppose that if the Turin shroud had proved to be genuine, it would not have persuaded many unbelievers that Jesus was indeed resurrected. It is most heartening when archaeologists find evidence corroborating the historical record of the Bible, whether it be the names of the patriarchs, the ashes of towns sacked by Joshua, the pool of Bethesda or the house of Peter in Capemaum. All these discoveries confirm our faith in the historical reliability of the Bible. But the Bible is more than a human history book. Throughout, it claims to be offering a divine interpretation of public historical events, an interpretation that is beyond the scope of human verification. Take for example the book of Kings. It ends with recording the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and Jehoiachin's release from prison. These are events that are beyond dispute because they are also mentioned in contemporary Babylonian records. However these events are not recorded in Kings just because the writer wanted to mention them as important events. He has included them because they reveal God's attitude to Israel, that he was angry with them for breaking the covenant, that he was fulfilling the warnings made much earlier by Moses. Now who can check whether this interpretation is correct? Obviously no one. We cannot telephone God to check if that was his attitude or not. We simply have to accept or reject the view of the book of Kings. We have no means of checking his view. It is beyond the possibility of human verification. But that does not make it unimportant or insignificant: clearly it was the main theological point being made in Kings that Israel and Judah were punished for their sins. So let us keep the issue of historicity in perspective. As Christians we shall wish to maintain that where the Bible is relating historical events they really happened, but let us bear in mind that it is not so important that they occurred so much as what they teach us about God and his purposes and how we should respond.*

Critical issues can easily divert us from the purpose of Scripture. Like the Jews we should be searching the Scriptures to find eternal life. Or as Paul said, "Whatever was written in former times was written for our instruction, that we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). The purpose of the Scriptures is not simply to stimulate us academically, or to provide a living for professional biblical scholars. It is to lead us to God. Biblical criticism offers us indispensable aids to the interpretation and understanding of the Bible. But often instead of being the handmaid of Scripture it has become its master. I suppose that in the last 200 years there have been more than a hundred scholarly books discussing the criticism of Deuteronomy, its date, authorship, sources and so on. But very few have focused on its theology, or the meaning of its teaching and laws for today. And there is a similar imbalance in some biblical courses too - plenty on critical theory, and little on theology and its application. Yet what is the chief concern of Deuteronomy? "Hear O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD, and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might".*

When the academic study of Scripture diverts our attention from loving God with all our heart, soul and strength, I think we should pause and take stock. We should ask ourselves whether we are using it as it was intended. The Bible is both a divine book and a human book. Because it is a human book we cannot understand it unless we employ all the types of biblical criticism to the full. But because it is also a divine book we must recognise that these tools are insufficient by themselves for us to grasp and apply its message. To do that we must have a humble mind and heart and the guidance of the Spirit.*

*"The Place of Biblical Criticism in Theological Study", Gordon J. Wenham, Themelios 14.3 (April 1989): 84-89.

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At July 02, 2006 7:27 pm , Anonymous practicum said...

Thank you for putting this up. What books do you recommend on this subject?


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