Monday, March 30, 2009

Five MORE books on Genesis I could not do without . . .

My post immediately below on "Five books on Genesis I could not do without" has caused me to reflect further on other Genesis volumes that I have found particularly insightful or helpful. As I have glanced at my bookshelves since making that post, I have been plagued by a guilty conscience. "Is ____ really that much more valuable to me than ____?" Perhaps I should rename the original post "Five books on Genesis I ABSOLUTELY, WITHOUT A DOUBT, CERTAINLY could not do without"? (but I fear that would only introduce greater guilt!) So, perhaps in a sympathetic vein, I submit to you another list of five books on Genesis--some of them perhaps little known--that I could not do without . . .

1. Michael James Williams, Deception in Genesis: An Investigation into the Morality of a Unique Biblical Phenomenon. Studies in Biblical Literature 32; New York: Peter Lang, 2001.
Williams' volume is perhaps not that well-known, but given that it deals explicitly (one of only a handfull of titles I can think of off the top of my head) with deception in Genesis, I have found it to be a worthy dialogue partner. Williams offers a catalog of deceptions in Genesis (a list to which I would add several other episodes), and traces out the way in which they were interpreted in later Jewish tradition. Ancient Near Eastern and folklore parallels round out the volume. As a conclusion, Williams avers that deceptions in Genesis are positively evaluated when they succeed in restoring shalom and are negatively evaluated when they disrupt shalom. While I ultimately disagree with Williams on many matters--for instance, I would argue that the narratives often provide either no evaluation (i.e., Jacob's fleeing from Laban in Gen 31 or his promise in 33:17-18 to join Esau in Seir, only to instead go to Sukkot) or an ambiguous/mixed evaluation (i.e., compare Gen 27; 29:26; 48:13-20)--his careful analysis of specific texts of deception, their history of interpretation, as well as their aNE precurors makes his volume a seminal one for any study of biblical deception.
2. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
I am unquestionably indebted to Alter not merely for his methodological programme put forward in this classic volume, but also for the many illustrations from the Jacob cycle he employs. Alter has, in my mind, wholly revolutionzed the study of the Hebrew Bible, and while this work comes some six years after Fokkelman's Narrative Art in Genesis (see post below), Alter has arguably set the agenda for subsequent literary readings of biblical texts (I would venture Alter to me a much 'tamer' version of Fokkelman). He has successfully demonstrated the highly literary quality of the Hebrew narratives--his work on Hebrew poetry, I feel, is less adequate, although still insightful--and his views cogently wed modern literary understandings with a careful, close, and sympathetic reading of the biblical text.
3. Susan Niditch, A Prelude to Biblical Folklore: Underdogs and Tricksters. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Niditch's study interprets the biblical text--specifically the three wife-sister stories in Gen 12, 20, 26; Jacob and Joseph; and Esther--against the background of broad, cross-cultural sensibilities regarding the underdog and trickster. Viewing these narratives as a product of oral tradition, Niditch notes how they inform an Israelite worldview and identity. Seminal to her conception of the trickster is that this irascible figure serves the purpose of cementing group identity, which I take to be a helpful starting place for deciphering the function of these narratives within a postexilic (Persian) context. I further appreciate her work as a modern attempt to continue Gunkel's work with folklore, which sees many parallels with the texts of deception in Genesis. Niditch and I are also one of only a few who interpret the extortion of the firstborn scene (Gen 25:27-34) as an episode of deception.
4. Diana Lipton, Revisions of the Night: Politics and Promise in the Patriarchal Dreams of Genesis. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 288. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999.
Lipton's volume is perhaps little known, which is unfortunate given that its content is replete with great insight and depth. She treats five dream texts in Genesis--Abimelech's dream (Gen 20); Jacob's Bethel dream (Gen 28); Jacob's dream about the spotted and speckled sheep (Gen 31); Laban's dream (Gen 31); and the covenant of the pieces (Gen 15)--in the attempt to demonstrate how these dreams seek to revise the reader's understanding of events. I have yet to finish the entire volume, but her analysis of Jacob's dream in 30:10-13 coheres very well with what I argue to be the relationship between the seemingly incompatible chapters 29 and 30 (see my forthcoming article in PRSt). Given also my view of these dream texts as ultimately 'theophanic' texts and thus of decisive importance for interpretation of the Jacob cycle as a whole--more particularly YHWH's role within the cycle--I am appreciative for Lipton's sustained treatment of these narratives in a single volume.
5. W. Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal. Louisiville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
I would contend that next to Brueggemann's commentary on Genesis in the Interpretation series (see below), very few books on Genesis focus on issues of theology or of the divine. Humphreys goes one step further, reading God as a literary character in the book of Genesis. The opening chapters offer a helpful orientation into matters of literary characterization, and Humphreys' ensuing, synchronic treatment of the Genesis text highlights God's characterization from two sources: the narrator's own statements about God and what other characters have to say about God. Against this backdrop, the diversity and ever-changing role(s) of God are discussed: designer, destroyer, patron, parent, etc. And, as has perhaps become the norm in all of these volumes discussed here, while I do not agree with Humphreys' characterization of God in relation to the texts of deception, his careful attention to the non-static roles God plays throughout the text make this work an important one with which all students of Genesis should be acquainted. I will be posting a more thorough review of Humphreys in the next few weeks.

A few other important works deserve mention here:

David M. Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.

Joel S. Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election. Nashville: Abingdom Press, 2007.

Mignon R. Jacobs, Gender, Power, and Persuasion: The Genesis Narratives and Contemporary Portraits. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
I look forward to your comments!
All the best!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Five books on Genesis I could not do without . . .

Those who have read my profile are aware that my primary area of interest is the book of Genesis, more specifically, the texts of deception in the Jacob cycle. My first entry into this topic in any sustained way was a paper I wrote while getting my master's at Duke. I have since written a piece focusing on the Jacob/Laban narratives specifically that is being published in the Spring 2009 issue of Perspectives in Religious Studies (and which I will post here on the blog in the very, very near future), as well as a paper looking at the divine oracle in Gen 25:23 as it relates to and informs the deceptions in Gen 25:27-34 and 27:1-45 (see the abstract a few posts down; I will be presenting a version of this piece at SBL in New Orleans).

That said, I have done much reading on Genesis and Jacob, and I have found myself reflecting on the bibliography I have compiled, noting what works I have interacted with most or found to be exceptionally good and helpful dialogue partners (which of course does not necessitate agreement!). I here provide five books on Genesis I could not do without. I recognize this list is terribly, terribly exclusive--and to be sure there are many great and seminal volumes worth mentioning (for instance, Gunkel's classic commentary on Genesis from 1901, or Westermann's three-volume work in the 'Continental Commentary' series, or even Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative)--yet given my methodological leanings and the specific questions I am asking, these are the five books (in no particular order) on Genesis that I could not do without.

1. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox, 1982).

In my view, anything by Brueggemann is going to be a worthy read. But all prejudices aside, this volume is by far one of the most honest assessments of the theological complexity within Genesis. Foundational for Brueggemann's treatment is that the Genesis narratives--the Jacob cycle included (contra Westermann)--are highly theological. In fact, one may say that for Brueggemann, Genesis says much more about God than it does about humanity. But what I am most appreciative for in this volume is the absolute candor of Brueggemann's understanding of God's character. For Brueggemann--and for myself--God is a "scandalous" challenge in the book of Genesis (and elsewhere in Scripture, I would venture). That the portrait of God is not 'white-washed' but rather allowed to stand in all its theological complexity makes this volume a wonderfully honest attempt to interpret the 'difficulties' of Genesis.

2. J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1991).

Fokkelman's volume is devoted entirely to the Jacob cycle save for one chapter on the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). As the title suggests, Fokkelman emphasizes the artistic aspects of the Genesis text, focusing upon not only what the language communicates and means but how it communicates and means. I am grateful for his close, literary reading of the text, with an eye towards shifts in person, tense, as well as his intra-textual insights. As of yet, I have not come across a more satisfying, cogent articulation of the literary artistry of Genesis. Fokkelman, in my opinion, successfully demonstrates that literary form and meaning are indissoluably linked. To my eye, there is not another volume like this one.

3. Mark G. Brett, Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity (Old Testament Readings; London: Routledge, 2000).
Brett successfully combines a literary reading of the biblical text with aspects of social theory in the attempt to demonstrate that the Genesis narratives covertly undermine Yehudian ethnocentrism. I am especially thankful for his treatment of Jacob in relationship to God (for instance, noting that Jacob is the only character to put specific demands on the deity [Gen 31]). I am also thankful for his situating of the final form of Genesis in a specific historical context, which allows for his literary interpretations to manifest themselves (albeit in a 'coded' way) in the social reality and experience of post-exilic Judah. While I ultimately think much more is going on in the Genesis narratives than a challenge to ethnocentrism, Brett's close reading of the text has been an invaluable tool in refining my own understandings and interpretations.

4. R. Christopher Heard, Dynamics of Diselection: Ambiguity in Genesis 12-36 and Ethnic Boundaries in Post-Exilic Judah (SBL Semeia Studies 39; Atlanta: SBL, 2001).
I first read Heard's book 4-5 years ago for a class at Duke, interestingly alongside Brett (above). It is fascinating to me that they both interpret by and large the same evidence in the same historical context (Persian era Yehud) and arrive at polar opposite conclusions. As I mention above, Brett sees the Genesis narratives as challenging Yehudian ethnocentrism whereas Heard sees the text (Gen 12-36 specifically) as affirming ethnocentrism "because [YHWH] said so." Heard's literary analyses of the ambiguous characterizations of Lot, Ishmael, and--most relevant for my interests, Esau--challenge any 'easy' or simplistic conception of any of these biblical figures. His insights have surely pressed me to articulate my sense of Esau's character (and I still see him as intentionally portrayed as a bumbling, ignorant, over-dramatic buffoon who is ever-prone to being tricked . . . even in the reconcilation scene in Gen 33) with a greater level of specificity and recognition of the alternatives. Heard's volume is one of the first I go to when I plan to write on Jacob or the ancestral narratives.

5. Laurence A. Turner, Announcements of Plot in Genesis (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008) [original publication by Sheffield Academic, 1990].

When I first read Turner I was upset I had not come up with the argument myself! Put most simply, Turner avers that the 'announcements' in Genesis--for instance, 12:1-3 for Abraham, 25:23; 27:27-29, 39-40 for Jacob, and 37:5-11 for Joseph--are not reliable indicators for how the plot will ultimately unfold. Only one announcement, Joseph's initial dream, seems to be the object of perfect fulfillment. Other announcements are either partially fulfilled . . . or not fulfilled at all. I have found Turner to be a strong dialogue partner; of the five books listed here, he is the one I find myself struggling with the most. His reading of the overarching plot of the Jacob cycle is compelling for a number of reasons--but I have also come to believe it is wrong for a number of reasons (some of which I detail in my SBL paper). Yet, I must confess, Turner's careful reading of the entirety of the Jacob cycle has pressed me perhaps more than any other to hone and articulate in a careful and cogent manner my own interpretation of the whole of the Jacob cycle.

I look forward to reading your comments, thoughts, and/or questions on these volumes (or on others not listed here). It was difficult to narrow down to these five . . . but having written this post, I now stand more convinced than ever-----these are the five books on Genesis I could not do without.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An interesting discussion on dating the final form of the Psalter

In a post below (Methodological particularity . . . or pluralism?), a fascinating discussion has emerged about dating the final form of the Psalter. Please check it out. I am curious to get a sense from others regarding how to address this complex issue. I have offered my response . . . I invite others to weigh-in.

Friday, March 20, 2009

SBL 2009 - New Orleans, here I come . . .

I am happy to announce that my paper, "A Trickster Oracle in Gen 25:23: Reading Jacob and Esau between Beten and Bethel," has been accepted for presentation at the 2009 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in New Orleans. The piece will likely be the basis for a large part of one chapter in my dissertation, and also contains the seeds of at least one or two other chapters.

Here is the abstract for the paper:

In this study I set out to read Gen 25:23, YHWH's oracle to Rebekah, as a trickster oracle. I argue that one should not read it under the a priori assumption that it coheres with other narratives of inverted primogeniture elsewhere in Genesis. Rather, in light of Robert Alter's understanding of the biblical type-scene, what is seminal in understanding the oracle is how it differs from the convention of annunciation of birth elsewhere in Genesis.
Against this backdrop, the oracle is seen to be ambiguous in matters of diction/meaning, syntax, and context, which thus further impels the narrative's human characters--Rebekah and Jacob--to bring about their own interpretation of the divine will, which they succeed in doing by means of several deceptions. Against this backdrop, I contend that the final line in 25:23 is best translated "the greater will serve the lesser" rather than "the elder will serve the younger," which ultimately has implications for the entirety of the Jacob cycle, including the texts of deception.
With this pint in mind, I interpret two scenes of deception--Jacob's extorting the birthright from Esau (Gen 25:27-34) and the deception of Isaac (Gen 27:1-45)--in light of hte oracle. Givent he oracle's function, in all its vagueness, as an introduction to the entire Jacob cycle, God is both involved and complict in the deceptions in various ways. Corroborating this point is the Bethel theophany (Gen 28:10-22), in which Jacob receives the ancestral promise solely at YHWH's behest. And it is the perpetuation of this very promise, at times by deceptive measures, that is the principle concern of YHWH in Genesis.
In the end, the oracle does not appear ever to have been concerned with Jacob becoming the greater. Instead, he is the greater from the womb, a status substantiated through his cunning and shrewd characterization as opposed to the dimwitted and overly-dramatic Esau. A potential reason for why God has chosen such an individual, then, presents itself: God the Trickster selects Jacob because it is he, not Esau, who is a trickster from the very start.

Last year in Boston I presented two papers on the same day -- within about 3 hours of one another, actually (for those curious, they were "The Ancestral Covenant in Psalms 105 and 106: Their Function as the Conclusion to Book IV of the Psalter" in the Book of Psalms section, and "Jesus and the Patriarchs: The Imminent Fulfillment of the Ancestral Promise in Matt 8:5-13 in the Matthew section). Both went quite well; indeed, I plan to submit the Matthew paper for publication in May . . . suggestions? I look forward to a little lighter schedule this year.

Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to run into some fellow bibliobloggers. Keep me in the loop!

All the best!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

SBL Southwest Meeting Roundup

The Southwest area regional meeting of the SBL (or, Southwest Comission on Religious Studies [SWCRS]) held its annual meeting March 7-8 in Irving, Texas. It was a good, energizing meeting, and Baylor was well-represented. A .pdf of the program can be found here. Here is a brief rundown.

My paper, "A Trickster Oracle in Gen 25:23: Reading Jacob and Esau between Beten and Bethel," was first on the docket at the meeting on Saturday morning. I was pleased with the turnout: about 20-25 people. Despite my battling a cold, which my son was kind enough to share with me (I knew teaching him to share would have some negatives to go along with it!) I think the paper went quite well. No one running for the doors shouting "heresy," and no one tearing-apart my reading afterwards---both of which I consider victories! The comments during the Q&A session and afterwards were helpful. I was pleased to see the paper had engendered some thought and conversation. Victor Matthews from Missouri State University was also quite affirming; his article on Jacob the trickster in Perspectives in Religious Studies from 1985 has been a great help, and my forthcoming article on divine deception in the Jacob/Laban narratives interacts with it at several points (I do not, however, agree with Matthews' understanding of the Jacob cycle of stories, which I address in my article). I look forward, though, to further dialogue with him on the topic. I also had the opportunity to speak with another presenter in my section (Nate Lollar from Abilene Christian, whose paper on conversational dialogue in the Pentateuch was quite good) later in the book exhibit, and he expressed his sincere appreciation for my interpretation, for which I am grateful. But one of the greatest feelings--and this took me back to my time at Duke, so this may only make sense to some of you--was when during the reading of my paper at various points several people in the audience would say "mmmm" or "mmm hmm." For those that don't know, at Duke that meant you had said something poignant or insightful. For fear of asking and being proven wrong, I'll just assume it has that same meaning here in central Texas!

It was then off to the 'complimentary' plated lunch, and some bantering with fellow Baylorites before their upcoming papers. The next section I attended focused on the Book of Psalms, which both opened and closed with a paper by one of my colleagues at Baylor; a 'Baylor inclusio,' if I may. Roy Garton's paper on the death of the psalmist in Ps 88 continues to interest me, especially his positing of a specific, hypothetical Sitz im Leben for this psalm within the worship context of ancient Israel. I too find Psalm 88 to be a terribly dark, troubling text, and to be fair, Garton's emphasis was on the psalm itself, yet I still struggle with this psalm's meaning within the overall metanarrative of the Psalter. Gerald Wilson's seminal The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter poses a possibility for me, which I asked Roy about, namely that Ps 88 has a double superscription: of the sons of Korah, which connects it back to Ps 87, and with the ethnicity "Erzahite," connecting it forward to Ps 89. Understood in this way, the compilers of the final canonical Psalter--for which there is indeed a final organizing principle, I affirm--likely saw the same difficulties we do with the psalm, and in making these editorial connections attempted to 'soften' its impact. Ps 89 too, though, is a dark text, albeit with some light at least. And I cannot help but think of Wilson's work on the metanarrative of the Psalter's five books, and the extension of it by Nancy deClaisse-Walford's Introduction to the Psalms, both which see Book III as lamenting the Divided Monarchy and failure of Israelite kingship. It seems to me both darkness and hope would be endemic to such literature; and hope is certainly what one gets in Book IV, with its movement towards and emphasis on the ancestral covenant (Gen 12:1-3), which I presented a paper on at SBL in Boston this past November.

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr. from Baylor's Truett Seminary presented what I take to be the beginning of an inquiry into anti-imperial rhetoric in the first psalms of Book V (Pss 107-110). His reading is carrying forward Erich Zenger's reading of such tendencies elsewhere in the Psalter. I was struck by several aspects of Tucker's paper, especially the implications these tendencies have in informing with greater precision the date of formation for the canonical Psalter (prior to the first century CE, with the Qumran material).

I then went to hear a paper by another one of my Baylor colleagues on wisdom intensification in the Dead Sea Scrolls. From there I decided to hit up the book exhibit, which was quite empty at the time. In the end, I only bought one book, and it is one I had already read: The Quest for the Historical Israel, ed. Brian Schmidt (with essays by Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar). I do, however, have a good-sized list for national in New Orleans!

That evening my wife, son, and I went out to eat, and then fell asleep about 9pm (my wife blames the overly-comfortable Marriott hotel bed, I attribute this to the fact that my 18 month old son was asleep about five feet away from us, and waking him up would not have been to our benefit!). Sunday morning I only heard one paper on the Psalms pesher from Qumran, which brought back fond memories of my work in the Nahum and Habakkuk pesharim a little over a year ago. I decided to take one final trip around the book exhibit, giving me the opportunity to talk one-on-one with some of the publishers there. The representatives from Fortress and Hendrickson were wonderful to speak with, and each was quite affirming and interested in the argument of my dissertation. I had a nice talk with Hendrickson also about one of two book projects with which I am helping my teacher, Dr. Bellinger.

All in all it was a very fine meeting, and getting my paper done right away on Saturday morning really helped me focus the rest of the day. Last year I did two papers within about two hours of one another, which was a nice mental exercise, especially given that one was in OT and the other in NT (yep, I'm bi-testamental). I look forward to next year's regional meeting, at which time I plan to be well into my dissertation and on the job hunt! Hoo-rah!

All the best!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Tenth Century Question (or, Finkelstein vs everyone else?)

Any student of the Hebrew Bible is likely well aware of the debate that has gone on in the field over the last decade or so regarding the tenth century. In a nutshell, the issue has two sides: those accepting what has been dubbed a 'higher chronology' and seeing evidence of an elaborate and extensive kingdom under Solomon, confirmed at sites such as Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer (see 1 Kgs 9:15). On the other side, advocating a 'lower chronology' is Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin; the implications of this position is a non-existent United Monarchy, as well as seeing Israelite statehood as emerging in the 9th century--with the Omride dynasty more or less taking over the place of Solomon as premiere empire builder, and Judahite statehood in the 8th century as a ramification largely of the collapse of the Northern Kingdom after the Assyrian onslaught. I have recently read quite extensively on the topic, and thus far I am uncertain which position has more to commend itself.

Finkelstein's challenge to the conventional chronology is grounded in two specific arguments he makes: 1) red slip burnished pottery is not de facto an indication of a tenth century context/stratum; 2) an alternative view of the Philistine settlement in Canaan, reliant upon documents such as the Medinet Habu inscription, the Harris Papyrus I, Tale of Wen Amon, and Onomasticon of Amenope, which he sees as requiring a down-dating of Philistine bichrome pottery and all subsequent pottery assemblages by 50-100 years.

Amihai Mazar has perhaps been the primary opponent in print of Finkelstein's view, although Bill Dever and Amnon Ben-Tor have also challenged Finkelstein's understandings of Gezer and Hazor respectively. The best, most concise, and most recent treatment of this topic can be found in the Brian Schmidt edited volume The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), which includes essays by both Finkelstein and Mazar on a number of topics, ranging from the historicity of the ancestors (Abraham, etc.) to the tenth century to the role of archaeology in biblical studies. This is a fine volume, and has much to commend itself. In it, Mazar--who previously in print had challenged Finkelstein vociferously--does concede in a way, accepting that the evidence does require a modification of the chronology, but not a wholesale shifting of it as Finkelstein does. Mazar rather proposes a Modified Conventional Chronology (MCC) that attempts to see the 10th and 9th centuries as one extended archaeological period, and one large stratum. While Mazar's view may be more honest about the evidence, it seems to me the difficulty still exists: do the specific Megiddo, Gezer, and Hazor sites date to Solomon or the Omride dynasty. Mazar's chronology would allow for either to stand as a viable possibility. This ambiguity may prove problematic.

Finkelstein's position seems to have garnered little support (although, in an essay in The Bible and Radiocarbon Dating, he addresses this argument briefly, but by doing no more than citing a footnote elsewhere that apparently lists those who take his side). I must admit, though, Finkelstein's chronology has several points weighing in its favor: 1) it closes an archaeological 'black hole' that has existed in the 9th century; 2) it dates state formation in Israel as coterminous with other areas known in the Levant during the 9th/8th centuries BCE; 3) it lines up more with the intellectual and material culture [i.e., writing would be important in a centralized culture, and no provenanced monumental inscriptions exist until the 9th or 8th centuries].

It does appear, though, that Finkelstein's position has some difficulties: 1) much of it is based upon assumptions; 2) while seeing himself as fashioning a middle road between maximalist and minimalist approaches to the Bible, many of Finkelstein's criticisms of Dever especially lead me to suspect he is much closer to the minimalist camp than he may be letting on [i.e., he accuses Dever of dating the Gezer city walls and gates not according to its pottery assemblages but on the basis of 1 Kgs 9:15]; 3) counter-arguments of Mazar, Dever, Ben-Tor re: the specific cites [Megiddo, Gezer, and Hazor], as well as a general unacceptance in, for instance, Ziony Zevit's seminal volume on Israelite religion, has called Finkelstein's chronology into question as well.

At bottom, both sides have their advantages and disadvantages. The archaeological picture is no doubt even muddier now than it was ever in the past; not only do archaeologists have to make difficult decisions based upon their evidence, they also now have what I would call a serious challenge to the 'status quo' that has come to be known as the low chronology. At best, I am agnostic about how much pottery can honestly reveal about a given site. In many places it has surely been helpful, but it also seems to have introduced difficulty as well. It appears, though, to me, at present, that a way forward might be to reexamine issues pertaining to the Philistine settlement, which served as the starting place for the entire debate. Finkelstein's work there has only minimally been addressed, and much of the debate has focused--since the two articles in 1995 and 1996 respectively that introduce his arguments--on the evidence he and Ussishkin gathered during their Megiddo excavations, along with the excavations at Gezer and Hazor. The debate is surely an interesting one, and I feel Finkelstein has at the very least pointed out some difficulties with the conventional chronology that need to be addressed before his arguments can be dismissed.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Methodological particularity . . . or pluralism?

One thing I have become increasingly aware of during my time in graduate school is what type of scholar I am, and what type I am not. And while scholarship seems to follow quite particular trends, what is 'in-vogue' does not, I would argue--and thankfully so--replace the 'vogue' methodological emphasis. But my struggle has always been negotiating these two voices, broadly labeled synchronic and diachronic.

I, myself, as should be evident by my blogger profile, am a synchronic, literary reader of biblical texts. I take many of my hints from Robert Alter, for whose The Art of Biblical Narrative I am tremendously grateful. This methodology has opened up the shear beauty and artistry of the Hebrew language, and I stand now convinced that the ancient Hebrew authors were far more intelligent than they are often given credit for being (which has led me to an increasing frustration when scholarship, commentaries, or the BHS critical apparatus suggests a so-called "better" reading, but cites no corroborating manuscript evidence). And I firmly believe, with this point in mind, that there is great meaning in how the text has been preserved . . . what has become its final form -- warts and all. The meaning is in the warts of the text. But how 'authentic' is such an interpretation if a responsible diachronic analysis can account for and also make sense of the warts?

Diachronic analysis (transmission history, tradition history, redactional analyses, form criticism) seem to me to have many difficulties, not least of which I would say is often a subjective dismantling of the text. For me, these methodologies themselves are often quite circular, and can be quite jarring when applied in tandem with one another. I thus found Odil Hannes Steck's Old Testament Exegesis: A Guide to the Methodology, to be quite interesting; he argues (correctly, at points) that these different diachronic methods intersect, inform one another, and cause one to rethink prior conclusions. Steck's methodology, though, is wholly bound up with the German school of thought, and while I am thankful for his contribution, it has not only helped me to dialogue with those doing diachronic analyses, it has also confirmed for me what type of scholar I am not.

The underlying question here is whether one can successfully integrate diachronic and synchronic analyses together in a single study. To this question, I would venture a modest 'yes.' I am mindful here of the work of David Carr in his volume Reading the Fractures of Genesis. He opens the volume very clearly by stating his sentiment that diachronic and synchronic ways of reading are mutually illuminating. Just as synchronic analysis may reveal the "fractures" of the text, so also diachronic analysis may lead to a greater understanding of the text's wholeness. Of course, Carr is still largely doing genetic work with the Genesis material, but there are helpful literary insights throughout. My teacher, W.H. Bellinger, Jr., argues for what he calls a "hermeneutic of curiosity," which includes an admixture of diachronic and synchronic analyses. Pertaining to the Psalms specifically, he sees five necessary questions one must ask so as to gain the fulness of interpretation: (1) What is the form of the text; (2) What was its setting in worship/in ancient Israel's context; (3) Where is the psalm in the Book of Psalms; (4) How does the text use language and rhetoric; (5) What does the reader bring to the text? It is quite easy, I think, to see how this list could be applied to any given biblical text. But I have a question: are each of these questions in harmony with one another? Put another way: does methodological pluralism lead one, potentially, to a text that is ultimately un-interpretable? Is it not likely that these questions would be jarring rather than producing a full, coherent whole? I don't know.

I lament the divide that exists within scholarship. I also, though, think there is much to be learned from one another. And while diachronic analysis is surely not for me (to put it bluntly, once I see a verse broken down into 'alpha,' 'beta,' and 'gamma' I check out!), I think it has much to commend itself and much to teach. Similarly, synchronic, literary analyses it seems have much to teach scholars of the more diachronic persuasion. But how should one bridge this gap? Can we? And are we in a period of methodological particularity . . . or pluralism?

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Greetings, friends!

Welcome to my blog! I hope you will find it to be a place to raise thought-provoking questions and interact deeply on a variety of topics. I must admit, I attribute my desire to establish this blog to two people. First, Dr. Anathea Portier-Young at Duke, who told us in my class on Genesis with her some 4 years ago that many scholars (a status towards which I am hopefully quite near!) maintained blogs. And second, Dr. Chris Heard of Pepperdine, whose blog I came across recently (and whose book, 'Dynamics of Diselection: Ambiguity in Genesis 12-36 and Ethnic Boundaries in Post-Exilic Judah' has proven seminal in my work on the Jacob cycle).

Please read my blogger profile to get a sense of who I am and some of my interests. At present, I am preparing to take comprehensive exams/prelims in April/May, so I have never read as much as I am currently! This breadth of reading has, however, opened up some fascinating topics that I hope to address here on the blog in the coming days. The other noteworthy news is that my first article, "Jacob, Laban, and a Divine Trickster: The Covenantal Framework of God's Deception in the Theology of the Jacob Cycle," will be out in the Spring 2009 issue of 'Perspectives in Religious Studies.' I may post that here also, given it is a formative piece for my dissertation, as a means of getting further feedback on the topic as I forge onward.

I look forward to reading your comments!

All the best!