Poetics of Scribal Culture in Inner-Biblical Oralities of Allusive Redaction-Echoes, and Stuff

My main research focus, when I can get to it, concerns literary allusion in the Bible (also called “inner-biblical interpretation,” or “inner-biblical exegesis”).

Insofar as I have a Big Idea, it mostly involves running around like Chicken Little and yelling that the field of biblical studies isn’t producing a coherent conversation about “inner-biblical allusion” because we quarantine ourselves (as we so often do) from the secular ancillary scholarship (in this case, on the poetics of literary allusion).

What disturbs and intrigues me recently is, I think that there is another scholarly context to which I’ll need to tether my continuing work in biblical allusion. You know it well, and most recently, it looks something like this.

Upside: maybe I get to blow the dust off my Akkadian again. Downside: Hier werden deutsche.

[Poetics of Scribal Culture in Inner-Biblical Oralities of Allusive Redaction-Echoes, and Stuff was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2012/01/16. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Public Evidence and Sectarian Claims in SBL

What does it look like for a person of Jewish or Christian religious faith to—as a matter of method—bracket her sectarian claims about the Bible in her investigation into the content and context of biblical texts? And why is it necessary that she be willing to learn to do so?

As some of you will know, a conversation has been underway about book reviews in biblical studies that appear, as a matter of academic method, to privilege sectarian claims (sometimes along with the reviewed book itself). Alan Lenzi has raised up occasional samples, and one in particular has generated some conversation. Calvin at the Floppy Hat wrote a thoughtful post that garnered some comments.

The readers at Art Boulet’s finitum non capax infiniti, especially, have produced a comment thread especially worthy of attention. It’s not a record-breaker in terms of length or number of participants, but it is clearly drawn and notably free of distracting polemics.

The basic question underlying the discussion—what does it mean for anyone, religious or not, to engage in “academic biblical studies” over against sectarian apologetics—may be of special value to students in higher education who are being asked to make this distinction, or to religious laypeople who wonder how seminary “book learning” differs from confessional “Bible study.” By all means, take a look.

[Public Evidence and Sectarian Claims in SBL was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/27. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Context of Scripture: And When I Say, “Context”…

…I mean, context.

(Reading COS in a year, following Charles’ schedule. Join in any time!)

The archival document for the day is a short Ugaritic letter from “The King to Ḥayyaʾil Regarding an Allotment of Logs” (3.45Q). I know! Hold your excitement! Dennis Pardee offers a record-breaking ratio of commentary to text: the latter measuring about 6 square inches, the former a hefty 52 square inches (in reduced font, no less). In the letter, the king scolds his recipient for asking where to get the logs for a certain temple, and informs him where the logs will come from. In the commentary, Pardee finds opportunity to make illustrative inquiry into

  • indicators of genre, both in the language of the text and in such non-textual indicators as horizontal strokes dividing elements of the inscription;
  • the institutions and practices associated with timber production, sale, and distribution in and around Ugarit;
  • how to “follow the money” involved with dispersal of royal funds to or through civil employees and private vendors and distributors, possibly involving alliterative wordplay;
  • and more! Seriously, lots to learn here for the patient.

The other text for the day is the “Prophecies of Neferti” (1:45). Students in Bible will appreciate this one as an example of “prophecy ex eventu,” that is the literary fiction of prophecy formulated “after the fact” (as in the apocalypses of Daniel 7–12, for example, or in 1 Kings 13:1-3). Here, the wise scribe Neferti is said to live during the reign of Snefru (4st Dynasty), predicting a future disastrous period that will eventually be corrected by a restorative, redeeming king “Imeny” (Amenemhet I, 12th Dynasty). The work itself of course derives from the reign of that same Amenemhet I, justifying his usurpation and reforms.

Students of the ancient Egyptian language will know that this 12th Dynasty defines the “Middle Kingdom” period of Egypt, considered a literary high point, the style of which is considered normative in later periods. Reading “The Prophecies of Neferti” alongside of “The Instructions of Amenemhet I” (1.36; a work likely written after his death to defuse his assassination and legitimate his heir’s succession) and “The Tale of Sinuhe” (1.38; a politically charged fantasy story also reflecting Amenemhet I’s death and succession), while attending to the notes, begins to provide a textured depiction of this watershed moment in Egypt’s past.[FOOTNOTE]

Here in “The Prophecies of Neferti,” where it depicts the disastrous period preceding Amenemet’s usurpation of the crown, we learn a lot about what scares the daylights out of right-thinking ancient Egyptians:

  • Asiatics in Egypt
  • failure to observe ritual, including mourning rites
  • violence, and indifference to violence
  • burdensome taxes
  • breaking down of social hierarchies
  • Asiatics in Egypt.

This is why I have to be careful not to fall behind on our reading schedule, and when I do fall behind, to simply pick up where we are instead of trying to read too much at once. The texts are just so, so good on a second reading after I have had time to marinate in the contexts for a spell.

Happy reading!

BACK TO POST The interested reader might start with Ronald J. Leprohon, “Egypt, History of (Dyn. 11–17)” Anchor Bible Dictionary 2:345-348 (Doubleday, 1992).

[Context of Scripture: And When I Say, “Context”… was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/25. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

On Not Being a Yutz: Egyptian Religion

Ancient Egyptian religion: not self-explanatory.

While I have not posted on the subject recently, I continue to keep up on reading The Context of Scripture in a year. (Joseph’s got the beat covered, as usual.) Among the Egyptian canonical inscriptions, we have completed those that have a “divine focus” (cosmologies, hymns, prayers, incantations). Over the weeks, I have come to a conclusion:

A couple of years of instruction in Egyptian language notwithstanding, on the subject of ancient Egyptian religion, I am, relatively speaking, a yutz.

Nothing to be ashamed of: my schooling in the contexts of the Hebrew Bible, anchored in the West Semitic, has tended to look eastward to Mesopotamia. But, I feel the need to do some reinforcing reading (rapidly, given my time constraints).

I’ll be working the stacks for resources for a few days. Let me know if there is anything I should especially keep my eyes open for.

[On Not Being a Yutz: Egyptian Religion was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/16. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

New Course: The OT in the NT

In Fall 2010, I will be teaching a new course: “The Old Testament in the New Testament.” Students will learn about literary allusion, and examine select examples of allusion to the Hebrew Bible in the Christian New Testament.

As part of assessing the case for specific examples of allusion, students will develop claims about

  • what the OT source text means in its literary and social/historical context, and
  • how this allusion in the NT alluding text functions as a rhetorical trope in its own literary and social/historical context.

I will be allowing students to take the course either for OT credit or for NT credit, shaping their final exegesis papers accordingly.

Besides the usual run of Masters students (mostly M.Div or MTS), the course will also be open to doctoral students, who will have to meet an appropriately higher bar in the course work.

My dissertation—“Daniel Evokes Isaiah: The Rule of the Nations in Apocalyptic Allusion-Narrative”—involved allusion to Isaiah in the book of Daniel, and I have looked forward to the opportunity to teach allusion to my students in Bible.

If you have any interest in literary allusion generally, or in “the OT in the NT,” what would your wish list be for select topics? (I have a handful of my own ideas, of course.) What related issues would you want to see treated?

[New Course: The OT in the NT was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/12. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Is it Just Me?

Or do you hear the strains of a modern Qohelet in the weary workplace recollections of a dime-store Cassandra? (Eff-Bomb Alert: grown-up language for grown-ups.)

COS in a Year: Anyone Else In?

I don’t normally make resolutions for the New Year, but Charles’ suggestion to read Context of Scripture (Brill link) in a year…well, that’s like making a resolution to, um, read really fun stuff every day.

Charles’ reading schedule (see PDF link in his post) offers enough variety to keep any one section from becoming deadening, while also providing enough continuity to keep the “C” in COS. Most of the daily readings are short enough that I’ll have time to make the most of the footnotes and, where appropriate, lexical helps.

I am caught up so far. Is anybody else giving it a shot?

Student Surveys: Suggestions and Resources?

Many teachers give their incoming students some kind of start-of-term survey. Goals for such a survey might include:

  • Establishing a provisional set of major questions that the course is designed to help students address;
  • Getting a sense of what the term is going to be like, what sort of unique character this incoming class brings with them;
  • Getting a sense of how students are prepared for the kinds of work demanded of them in the course (for example, what their previous education looks like or what sorts of careers lie in their backgrounds).

I am teaching three different courses this fall, but the one I have in mind right now is “Introduction to the Old Testament.” As most of my readers will know, this course involves (among other things) the study of history, and the study of literary criticism (broadly conceived). Importantly, the academic study of the Bible involves dealing with questions in an evidentiary way. For students who have only read the Bible in a devotional or expository way, this is an adjustment: we bring such questions to the Bible as can be worked out using shared evidence and a communicable line of reasoning. So, some of the things I wonder about my incoming students are:

  • How many of them are avid readers of narrative fiction? How many are familiar with the experience of being changed and moved by an encounter with fictional characters, lives, worlds?
  • How many are avid readers of poetry? How many believe in the truth-telling power of figurative speech?
  • How many have a background in the use of evidence and reasoning to answer questions? How many have been physical scientists, lawyers, judges, mathematicians, plumbers, electricians, medical professionals?
  • How many have had sustained or varied cross-cultural experiences? How many have learned to bring open-ended questions to a person who is “Other”?
  • How many have worked full-time jobs, in or out of the home? How many are accustomed to budgeting their time in an organized way?

I could add others.

Here are my questions for you:

  1. Have you used start-of-term surveys, and if so, what are they like? What sorts of questions do you go at in such surveys?
  2. Do you know of any resources for finding samples of start-of-term surveys. Can you recommend resources or suggestions for their creation?

Thank you!

Hearing Out the Text: A Hermeneutic of Suspicion and Openness to the Voice of the Other

Bryan Bibb posted recently on Ben Witherington’s review article of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus, Interrupted. I have not closely followed Ehrman or conversations about his work, but Witherington’s review gripped my imagination, because he brought the “Ehrman conversation” into the context of some of the essential critical questions that animate biblical studies. I am interested in his words on the “hermeneutic of suspicion,” a mode of reading in which the reader remains warily alert to the text’s worldview with its peculiar heirarchies and how the text at hand will 1) reflect and reinforce that worldview, silencing and marginalizing other voices with their concerns, and also 2) seek through its rhetorical devices to reproduce in the reader that worldview and its heirarchies. (The phrase “hermeneutic of suspicion” is Ricoeur’s but the definition mine, expressed in terms of ideological criticism). Witherington writes in part:

to actually understand an ancient author you must start by giving them the benefit of the doubt and hear them out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into their own world and thought processes before understanding can come to pass. To approach the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion is to poison the well of inquiry before one even samples the water in the old well.

Reading this, I remember once hearing a biblical scholar argue that we should read without a hermeneutic of suspicion, equating a hermeneutic of suspicion with being “suspicious of God.” In that instance, my sense was that the lecturer was calling for us to move beyond a hermeneutic of suspicion, to stop reading in that vein. I do not know Witherington’s work as well as I would like, but I do not want to read him here as calling for an end to a hermeneutic of suspicion. Rather, I want to read him more literally: that a hermeneutic of suspicion is not a productive starting place in the reading process, that its right time is simply later in the game than one’s “approach to the text.”

I see a parallel claim in an essay by Norman R. Petersen, “Literary Criticism in Biblical Studies,” 25–50 in Orientation by Disorientation (ed. Richard A. Spencer; Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1980). His question is how the critic can most productively use both historical-critical and literary-critical methods when reading biblical texts. He concludes that questions intrinsic to the text (“what is its form,” “what devices does it deploy,” “how is it structured”) allow us to keep reading to the end, to “let the narrator have his say,” whereas questions extrinsic to the text (“who wrote it,” “where/when/why,” “to whom did he write”) force our attention away from the details of the text at hand. Therefore, he proposed that after having established one’s text textual-critically, one should first approach the text with literary questions, and then only after completing uninterrupted readings of the whole approach it again with historical critical questions.

It is in the same spirit that I would agree with Witherington’s admonishment that we not “approach the text” with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Taking Hosea 2 as an example: if a hermeneutic of suspicion is my initial mode of reading, I may jump straight into a moral critique of the metaphor and reject precipitously the text’s ability to speak an appropriate word to modern listeners. I would then have failed to “giv[e the text] the benefit of the doubt and hear [it] out, doing one’s best to enter creatively into [its] own world and thought processes,” as Witherington puts it. By postponing (not indefinitely) a hermeneutic of suspicion, then I have the opportunity to let the metaphor work on me to convince me of its underlying claims about God’s ways with the people Israel and with creation, before I go on to consider rejection of the metaphoric vehicle Hosea has chosen.

I do not mean to say that such an exercise of mental division can really be accomplished in strict terms; Petersen, too, certainly acknowledges that we’re talking more about mutually-infectious cycles of reading than a linear “step program.” Also, I have reservations about seeking even to postpone a hermeneutic of suspicion: once you let your guard down to a text’s attempts to persuade you of its worldview, well, there’s little point in trying to bar the door when the intruder is already in the house.

What are your thoughts on a hermeneutic of suspicion? Is it more pressing than ever, given that the marginalized are with us always, or are there reasons to think that we are “beyond” it? If we hold to a hermeneutic of suspicion, how do you describe its right relation to a vulnerable openness to be changed by the “other” whom we meet in a text?