Wednesday, July 01, 2009

3. Genres in the Pentateuch (Critical Issues Series)

Yesterday I started with 2. The Old Testament Canon. Today I move on to 3. Genres in the Pentateuch.
A genre is a type of literature. There are both macro-genres, like biography or history. But there are also micro-genres or sub-genres, like poetry and narrative.

The Pentateuch has several genres of the more basic sort: narrative, legal material, poetry, and genealogy. For example, the stories of Abraham are exactly that, stories, narratives. Obviously the various laws of Israel are legal material. Then we have the instances where the descendents from Adam to Noah or from Noah to Abram are listed.

Issues in Narrative
A number of tools have developed in the last thirty years for analyzing biblical stories. The branch of biblical studies that approaches the stories of the Bible in this way is called narrative criticism. As we mentioned in the Introduction, "criticism" in this context does not mean "cutting down" the biblical text or taking a negative stance toward it. This is an unfortunate development in the meaning of this word over time. "Critical" in this context has to do with making sound decisions, taking an analytical stance toward the text from a particular perspective while trying to be as objective as possible.

The tools of narrative criticism apply to any of the biblical stories in either the Old or New Testaments. They can also be applied regardless of historical issues. Both the person who thinks Jonah is a "little novel" and the person who thinks it is a fair presentation of actual historical events can use narrative criticism to analyze it.

Narrative criticism breaks down the basic elements of a story into events, characters, and settings. The settings are in time and space--when things happen and where they happen. The characters are the persons and other figures that participate in the story. The events are then the individual occurrences that make up the plot, the storyline.

Of course, events do not have to be narrated in the order they occurred. A story can begin in medias res, "in the middle of the thing." Nor does the amount of time a narrator spends on a particular part of the story need to be proportional to the actual amount of time it took in the overall plot. "Story time" is usually different from "narrative time," as in a gospel like Mark where a third of the narrative is spent on one week in Jesus' life.

Narrative criticism is basically a simplified and more practical version of an earlier and more technical approach to stories known as structuralism. Nevertheless, the structuralist model does provide some insights at how plots unfold. In general, structuralism suggested that every story has a beginning, where a driving problem behind the story sets it up. A story then has an end where that problem is either successfully addressed or, in tragedy, the goal is not met. The middle of the story is then the part where the problem works its way out and the stories hero's address it in one way or another.

Narrative criticism makes a distinction between the narrator of a story and its author. For example, an author can have a narrator tell a story from a particular point of view that is incorrect. We call such a narrator an "unreliable narrator." An author can write of course from several different points of view. The author can adopt a perspective of omniscience, for example. Or an author can have a narrator tell a story from his or her own limited, first person perspective.

From the standpoint of the biblical texts, the most important point of view to find in a text is its evaluative point of view. This is certainly the perspective of God or Jesus in a particular narrative (although hermeneutically, it is worth exploring whether the Bible as a whole might have a divine evaluative point of view that supercedes the particular point of view God as character might take in a particular biblical text). For example, in Job it is the point of view presented by God at the end of the story that gives the key by which we should evaluate not only the perspectives of Job's comforters but in fact Job's own slightly skewed perspective earlier in the book.

Narrative criticism both provides some helpful tools for inductive Bible study as well as raises some concerns for it. Inductive Bible study is of course an approach to biblical texts that aims to induce meaning from the texts themselves, rather than imposing meaning on them on the basis of extraneous preconceptions. One helpful construct narrative criticism provides is that of the implied author and reader.

Christian history has left us with strong traditions about the authorship of various texts, like that Moses authored the Pentateuch, Matthew the gospel with that name, John the gospel with that name, etc. Instead, narrative criticism operates with the notion of an "implied" author and an "implied" reader. This is the kind of author and reader the text seems to presuppose.

For example, Moses is not the implied author of the Pentateuch. Indeed, he is not even the narrator of the Pentateuch. Rather, he is a character in the story, someone the story is about. Similarly, the implied author of Matthew would seem to be a Greek-speaking Jew. By working with the construct of an implied author and reader, narrative criticism provides a tool that truly helps a person listen to the biblical text itself rather than imposing extraneous categories on it.

At the same time, narrative criticism poses potential hurdles to listening to the original meaning of biblical stories when those texts have edited source material. Narrative criticism, at least in its dominant form, insisted on looking at narratives as a whole, largely bracketing questions of sources and editing. The result is that occasionally the story in itself approach can lead an interpreter down rabbit trails.

In Luke's editing of Mark, for example, he has omitted the handing over of Jesus to the Roman soldiers. The educated Christian reader knows that this transference has taken place because we know the story from the other gospels. But in Luke as it stands, it seems as if the Jewish leaders themselves are the ones who go on to beat Jesus.

Issues in Legal Material
We will look at poetry when we get to the Poetic Books. For now we only want to mention a few aspects of the legal material in the Pentateuch. We might divide up this material into two general types: apodictic law and casuistic law. Apodictic law involves blanket commands such as we find in the Ten Commandments. Casuistic law is "case law." It comes in the form of "if this happens, then that happens."

Some have argued that the Ten Commandments or Decalogue, the "Ten Words," have a similar form to various Hittite suzereignty treaties. In such treaties, the sovereign promises certain things in return to the allegiance of his people. So in the Ten Commandments, God promises blessing to Israel if they will keep His commandments.

The numbering of the "ten words" differs somewhat from tradition to tradition. In the Jewish reckoning, the first word is the declaration: "I am the the God who brought you out from Egypt." Then what most Protestants consider to be the first and second commandments ("have no other gods" and "do not make graven images") are combined. The Lutheran and Catholic traditions also combine these two as the first commandment, but then split the tenth commandment ("do not covet") into two (neighbor's wife, neighbor's ox...).

It is perhaps worth noting here that the perspective of the commandments here is not strictly monotheistic but henotheistic or monolatrous. In other words, the existence of other divine beings is not denied. It is simply denied that they are legitimate to worship or serve. Israel must only worship Yahweh (monolatry) and there is only one legitimate god among the many (henotheism).

The bulk of the legal material in Exodus and Deuteronomy is case law. These two books provide interesting variations both in what the law is, in the consequences, and in the rationale for the law. In keeping with inductive Bible study method, each book should be interpreted in its own right, with a view to the whole book. A theological method that synthesizes or harmonizes the two is a different method, even if legitimate in its own right. Such a theological method, however, does not result in what these texts actually meant originally, and it imposes a new, extraneous meaning to them from the outside in rather than listening to them from the inside out.

The legal material of the Pentateuch was fully in dialog with its Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, pre-dates the time of Moses by over five centuries and already included a form of the lex talonis, the "law of retribution," an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Laws such as not to boil the kid in the mother goat's milk likely were in dialog with the practices of surrounding peoples, as were quite possibly practices such as the prohibition of eating pork. Meanwhile, they held other practices in common with their neighbors. Thus circumcision was not unique to the Jews but was also practiced by the Egyptians.

One question raised by ANE legal texts is the extent to which they were symbolic. Some have argued that these laws were not largely practiced by the peoples whose leaders created them. Rather, they would have more symbolic value. Following this line of thinking, we would wonder how common it was to stone adulterers in ancient Israel. Nor would we be surprised if we found that the legal traditions of the Pentateuch went largely unnoticed by Israel until the time of Josiah. These things are of course a matter for significant debate.

From the very beginning, Christians have faced the interesting question of how to apply the Old Testament laws to a new understanding of how God is moving in history. Of course Jews themselves have had to relate practices directly relating to the Ancient Near East to quite different contexts. Even in the time of Jesus they were facing such issues. Paul addressed the laws by saying the believer was not "under" them, but at the same time he represents them in a boiled down, less ethnocentric form.

In the second century AD, Christians began to develop lenses for filtering the Old Testament laws. These filters "work" for us, even though they are not the categories of the texts themselves. They are theological appropriations of the texts. For example, Christians tend to make a distinction between the "moral" law and the "ceremonial" law. The Pentateuch itself knows nothing of this distinction, but for us it serves to distinguish between Old Testament laws we continue to follow, such as the sexual prohibitions of Leviticus 18, and ones we discard, like the prohibitions on eating pork.

In addition, we believe the "cultic" or sacrificial laws to be fulfilled in Christ's death. Christian traditions tend to sit differently to the "civil" law of Israel. Some traditions have drawn strong support for civil legislation from Old Testament practices like capital punishment. And in general, some traditions are more oriented toward making the law of the land conform to Christian understandings, just as the law of the Pentateuch presents itself as somewhat of a "theocratic" law where the law of God is the law of the land.

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