When biblical literary critics question the morality of biblical narratives, re-read them, and suggest new interpretations, these processes give rise to critical queries concerning their opinions about the character of these texts as well as about the interpreters’ own theology and worldview.
By Greger Andersson
Professor of Comparative Literature
Örebro University, Sweden
What does it mean to study the fascinating and yet often disturbing biblical narratives as literature, and what are the incentives for undertaking such a study? Questions like these concern the object, methods, and aim of a critical approach. In this text, I will mainly focus on issues relating to the object and the aim of biblical literary studies.
The Object of Study: A Literary Text
It could be assumed that a literary approach to the Bible implies that the Bible is read and analyzed in the same way as generic fiction, such as short stories and novels. However, this conclusion might be mistaken, because a reading of biblical literary studies gives rise to the question: Does “literary” only refer to artfulness (in the sense of craft), or does it refer to a particular purpose? The comparison with short stories and novels would, in the former case, suggest that biblical texts merely have surface forms that could be regarded as literary, while in the second case, the comparison implies that biblical texts “do what literature does.” According to a contextual approach to narratives, this distinction is important since texts that share similar surface structures might still pertain to different social activities (which I will refer to as frames), and readers’ apprehension of the frame affects their attitude and interest when reading and, hence, influences their interpretation of a text.
But what determines readers’ intuitions about a text’s frame? An interesting suggestion is relevance, that is, that readers, whether consciously or not, ask themselves: Why is this narrated to me, or what intent can best explain the particular form and content of this narrative as in, for example, the story about David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11–12)? Many literary studies of the books of Samuel appear to take for granted that the frame is history (or propaganda) or a kind of didactics (writers provide patterns to teach readers how to live their lives). Yet David Gunn suggests that the succession narrative of David (2 Sam. 9–1 King. 2) is serious entertainment. I take this to imply that some texts in Samuel are neither history-writing nor fiction (in the sense of made-up), they are neither argumentative, like propaganda (Halpern), nor didactic (Amit, Arnold), but serious entertainment. Robert Alter says something similar when he explains:
[T]he known general contours of the historical events and of the principal players are not tampered with, but the writer brings to bear the resources of his literary art in order to imagine deeply, and critically, the concrete moral and emotional predicaments of living in history, in the political realm.
Accordingly, the writer’s purpose would be to display, via concrete events, something of general concern for humans, that is, something philosophical, according to Aristotle, who holds that mimesis depicts the possible, what is general to human beings, instead of what is actual and specific. Some biblical narratives would then do what literature does: “emphasize the world’s surprising variety, its complexity and mysteriousness, its flawed and imperfect beauty.”
The suggestion that some biblical narratives have a literary purpose, and not only a literary form, is interesting since it explains both their focus on the unforeseen and the unexpected and why professional and lay readers, who approach the narratives as belonging to another frame, often are disturbed by these texts.
The Object and the Aim: The Interpretation of Well-Made Texts
Some advocates of a literary approach hold that the canonical level should be the object of study and/or that the final version of biblical books should be approached as well-made texts. The argument is either that this follows from a literary or narrative approach or that a close reading reveals that features earlier scholars regarded as mere traces of the text’s complicated history of composition are meaningful devices. The first argument is difficult to accept. The presumption that redactors reworked the texts in a skilled and meaningful way is more compelling. Yet it gives rise to an interesting issue that closely relates to the aim of a literary approach since scholars who refer to this presumption sometimes suggest new readings referring to the work of redactors or to putative literary devices. They hence argue, for example, that Samson is the worst judge, as the book of Judges displays a downward spiral; that the omission of the fact that the Spirit inspired Ehud proves that we should not sympathize with his assassination of Eglon; or that the book of Judges is ironic, dialogic, etc. For narratologists, these suggestions give rise to questions such as: Even though readers have read the final text as a meaningful composition, why have they not noticed the often ingenious structures these scholars refer to? That is, why have the suggested structures not been effective? For example, why are readers still perplexed by the fate of Jephthah and his daughter, sympathetic towards Ehud and Samson, consternated by Saul’s fate, disturbed by the stories of Amnon and Tamar and by David’s killing of the Gibeonites, and unaware that the books of Samuel are critical of Samuel and David?
A putative answer is that readers are not familiar with the poetics of the Bible or that they, for some reason, have not applied their ability to read literature and narratives when reading these texts. An alternative answer is that the structures scholars refer to have not superseded the literary structures that govern readers’ interpretation of the texts. Consider these suggestions:
- Narratives are self-contained units and their meaning is hence not easily changed if they are placed in a new context.
- All meanings and values are structural and thus determined by the narrative.
- Many narratives are shaped by their tellability qualities; they hence display the unforeseen, the uncontrollable, and life’s messiness, and they go well with neither historical propaganda nor didactic purposes.
- God is a character in several narratives and hence is neither omniscient nor unchanging.
Suggestions like these explain, even if one focuses on the final texts, why there are tensions between narratives and between narratives and the larger texts in which they have been placed.
The Object and Aim: To Interpret the Reference Level or the Discourse Level
Narratologists commonly distinguish between story (content) and discourse (presentation) and analyze the relationship between these levels. However, in fiction, there is, in fact, no story level. The story is abstracted from the discourse. Nevertheless, it is often assumed that readers construct an image in their minds of the world the text supposedly refers to and are immersed in this world. Nonfictional narratives, like most biblical narratives, on the other hand, aspire to be based on actual events. This opens up three options: to interpret people, events, and entities as motifs in a composition and to accept that all meanings and values are structural; to interpret the world the text refers to, that is, to fill it out and speculate about it but still accept the restrictions of the text; and to interpret the reference level and come up with new versions of what took place. There is a discussion in literary studies concerning the first two options, while the third is regarded as a historical approach. Biblical literary scholars, however, often alternate between alternatives two and three. When Joel Rosenberg claims that 1 Samuel recounts “the gradual deterioration of Saul’s mental state under external and internal pressure” and explains that it “bears the earmarks of both depression and paranoia,”—or when J. P. Fokkelman explains, commenting on 1 Samuel 1:6–8, that we “get through to his subconscious when we observe that Elkanah, who wants to be victorious, puts himself in a row of children. This inadvertent association, which ignores the generation gap, I interpret as a sign that Elkanah is not at all sure of his excellence, and in his heart wants to be told by her that he is her darling little boy”,—it is hence not clear if they imply that these are the actual reasons for Saul’s and Elkanah’s actual condition or that this is the intended meaning of the text. Consider these options:
- Saul and Elkanah are motifs building up themes in a literary narrative; the scholars explain the meaning of these motifs and their function in the story.
- The narrative “refers” to Saul and Elkanah, and the interpreters fill out the narrative, restricted by the text. Their suggestions deepen but do not change the text’s meaning.
- The scholars present as modern readers their versions of what actually happened to Saul and Elkanah.
This lack of clarity regarding the object of interpretation explain why biblical literary critics at times oscillate in their reasoning between arguments that presume different frames, that is, between interpretations of the text and the persons and events the text is supposed to refer to.
The Object and Aim: General and Specific Poetics
An important aspect of biblical literary studies is poetics, that is, the study of conventions and literary techniques in a group of texts. Such studies have rendered salient results concerning characterization, reticence, the external perspective (which gives little insight into the characters’ inner life), the focus on encounters and words, the fact that even “simple” people can encounter the serious and sublime, etc.
Two issues in biblical poetics that relate to the frame issue are omniscient narration and perspective. Compare Nehemiah’s mind reading: “They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed,’” (Neh. 6:9–10) with the narrator’s in 2 Sam 11:27: “But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.” Readers probably apprehend Nehemiah’s words as speculations, providing an “I assume” before his statement. However, will they read 2 Samuel 11:27 in the same way: “But [I assume] the thing David had done displeased the LORD”? According to narratology, it is only in fiction that a character or a narrator can read other people’s minds. Yet many readers probably accept the narrator’s statement in 2 Sam. 11:27 as a fact in the story and still do not think it is fictive. Meir Sternberg suggests that the texts are historical and that the authors’ omniscience is explained by an implicit reference to inspiration. This issue merits further discussion.
A salient feature in the books of Samuel is perspective. The writer depicts people facing complicated situations in which they have to act. They are presented as acting out of reason, and readers are hence provided with their perspective. Readers thus know why the Philistines reacted as they did when Israel brought the arc into battle (1 Sam. 4:7–10), why Saul did not wait for Samuel but performed the sacrifice himself (1 Sam. 13), why the situation in the cave was so difficult for David to handle (1 Sam. 16), why Saul turned to a necromancer (1 Sam. 28), why Amnon raped Tamar, why David did not punish Amnon (2 Sam. 13), etc. Referring to the frame issue, one could claim that this is not an effective way to write propaganda or to present morals about how readers ought to live. Perhaps, instead, these texts make readers “imagine deeply, and critically, the concrete moral and emotional predicaments of living in history.”
Poetics is a comparative enterprise since texts are analyzed in relation to other texts or theories about, for example, narrative texts. Yet, what is the relationship between poetics and interpretation? Is poetics descriptive or prescriptive, that is, does narratology, for example, describe a universal rule-system that can be applied to biblical texts to produce better interpretations? Consider this example: Samuel tells Saul that God regrets that he made him king. However, when Saul asks for forgiveness, Samuel replies, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind,” (1 Sam. 15:29, NIV). To Fokkelman and Yairah Amit, this text is only seemingly inconsistent, because the rule is that the narrator always has more authority than the characters, and the narrator explains in 15:35 that “the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.” This might appear to be an obvious conclusion. Yet we are left with the question of why readers have been bothered by this text and not applied this rule. A possible answer is this: Given the suggested interpretation, the writer recounts that Samuel is not in psychological balance. There is thus an ironic distance between his words and the story’s norm. Samuel is hence foregrounded, and the story is not only a story about God’s rejection of Saul, but also about Samuel’s misrepresentations and their reasons. However, readers appear to have intuitions about this narrative that go in another direction. What is read is a narrative about Saul’s rejection, and readers have therefore not understood Samuel’s words as a subjectivity motif, displaying his personal, restricted view.
My point is that the interpretation of the function of narrative (or literary) forms cannot be reduced to a simple application of an assumed rule system (like a prescriptive grammar). The task is instead to describe why a text like 1 Samuel 15 provokes readers as it does.
To Interpret the Interpreters
There are many incentives for undertaking a literary study of the Bible: it provides insight into the poetics of the Bible; examines its influence on later literature; reveals devices biblical writers used to achieve certain effects; presents new readings based on the application of theories and methods from the study of secular literature; explains why readers understand texts as they do; etc. Yet although this type of study is very promising, I have argued that there are problems relating to the unclearness of the study’s object and aim. These and other issues merit further discussions.
The unclearness also opens a new field of inquiry: the interpretation of the interpreters. Why do interpreters refer to a literary approach? What do they want to achieve through a literary reading of the Bible? My impression is that scholars, at times, use a literary approach to come to grips with problems in the texts. A simple example is that a study of the reference level based on the final text might mean that one can bracket difficult historical and critical issues and still talk about the text as referring to actual events. A less obvious example concerns the theological and moral problems that interpreters are disturbed by and try to handle. This is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, these issues relate to the fact that biblical books contain individual narratives. These narratives often display, perhaps due to tellability, a different causality than the larger works in which they are placed. Secondly, when critics question the theology or the moral of the narratives or re-read the stories and suggest “better” interpretations, these actions give rise to questions about the interpreters’ apprehension of the frame of the texts (what the texts ought to do) as well as their own theology and worldview.
Andersson, Greger. 2001. The Book of Judges and Its Narratives. Örebro: Universitetsbiblioteket.
———. 2009. Untamable Texts. Literary Studies and Narrative Theory in the Books of Samuel. London: T&T Clark.
———. 2013. “The Problem of Narratives in the Bible: Moral Issues and Suggested Reading Strategies”. Narrative ethics, edited by Jakob Lothe and Jeremy Hawthorn, 59-72. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Alter, Robert. 1981. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic.
———. 1999. The David Story. New York: W. W. Norton.
Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode, (eds). 1987. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.
Amit, Yairah. 1999. The Book of Judges: The Art of Editing. Leiden: Brill.
———. 2002. Reading Biblical Narratives. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Aristotle. 1968. Aristotle's Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Arnold, Bill T. 2005. “Samuel, Books of.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson, 866–77. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Auerbach, Erich. 1991 . Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bal, Mieke. 1988. Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre, and Scholarship on Sisera's Death. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fokkelman, J. P. 1999. Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Frye, Northrop. 1981. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. San Diego: Harcourt.
Gunn, David M. 1978. The Story of King David. Sheffield: The University of Sheffield Press.
Halpern, Baruch. 2001. David's Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Klein, Lillian R. 1988. The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. Sheffield: Almond, 1988.
O’Connell, Robert. 1996. The Rhetoric of the Book of Judges. Leiden: Brill.
Nussbaum, Martha. 1990. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Polzin, Robert. 1993 . Moses and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History. Part One: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Rosenberg, Joel. 1987. “1 and 2 Samuel.” In The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, 122–45. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2001. Narrative as Virtual Reality. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Sternberg, Meir. 1987. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Trible, Phyllis. 1995 Feminist Approaches to the Bible, edited by Hershel Shanks. Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society.
Webb, Barry G. 1987. The Book of Judges: An Integrated Reading. Sheffield: JSOT Press.
 Alter and Kermode 1987, 1–2; Alter 1981, 12–13.
 Gunn 1978, 61.
 Halpern 2001.
 Amit 2001, 3; Arnold 2005, 867.
 Alter 1999, xvii-xviii.
 Nussbaum 1990, 3–4.
 Polzin 1993 ; Amit 1999 ; O’Conell 1996; Webb 1987; Klein 1989.
 In a discussion, Milne calls Trible’s “reclamation project” in question, claiming that readers do not read the texts as Trible does (1995, 98–100).
 Ryan 2001, 92.
 Cf. questions such as: What did Abraham think? How did Saul actually die? What were David’s actual motives when killing people in the beginning of 2 Samuel? Did Uriah know what David had been doing? Had David really promised that Solomon should replace him as king?
 Rosenberg 1987, 127.
 Fokkelman 1993, 30. For more examples, see Andersson 2009, 129–199.
 Sternberg 1985.
 Alter 1999, xvii-xviii.
 Fokkelman 1999, 61, Amit 2001, 100-101.
 Auerbach 1991 ; Alter 1981; Frye 1982.
 See my study on Jephthah, Andersson 2001, 83–113.
 Bal suggests that biblical scholars are guided by a “parasitic moral code” (1988, 50). Cf. Andersson 2013.