Beginning Sternberg’s Poetics of Biblical Narrative

I started Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative.  I have three items, which are quotes on which I will comment.

1.  Page 17: “However this may turn out, the laissez-faire gestures (‘You go your way and I’ll go mine’ or, more belligerently, ‘You keep off my grass and I’ll keep off yours’) made occasionally from both sides of the ‘literary-approach’ fence only confuse the issue.  They speak as if there were one Bible for the historian, another for the theologian, another for the linguist, another for the geneticist, still another for the literary critic…Given their interdependence, accordingly, the two orientations must join forces within each and every inquiry.  For the literary critic, success or failure in the reconstruction of the world (above all, the culture) behind the Bible is success or failure as a professional reader, not as an amateur historian.  For the historian, success or failure in the interpretation of the biblical text is success or failure as a reconstructor of the past, not as a criticaster or a dabbler in hermeneutics.”

In this quote, Sternberg appears to support both literary criticism and also historical-criticism of the biblical text.  My impression is that he opposes tendencies to isolate the two from each other, as if literary criticism is an a-historical approach to the Bible.  How this will come into play in Sternberg’s book, I do not know.  A while back, I read his discussion on Dinah in Genesis 34, and his focuses seemed to be on the story itself, not on the political or social ramifications of the story within a historical context (i.e., Richard Elliott Friedman claims that the story was bashing the Northern site of Shechem).  In my reading today, Sternberg talked a lot about Greek and ancient Near Eastern literature, but, mostly, that was for the purpose of comparison with the Hebrew Bible, not so much for providing a historical context for the Bible’s storytelling methods.  (At least that was my impression.)  At the same time, Sternberg is seeking to identify where the Bible overlaps with other ancient stories, and where it diverges.

2.  Pages 37-38: “Now, if biblical narrative is didactic, then it has chosen the strangest way to go about its business.  For the narrator breaks every law in the didacticist’s decalogue.  Anything like preaching from the narrative pulpit is conspicuous for its absence.  So is its immemorial mate and nearest equivalent—black-and-white delineation of agents, motives, causes, processes.  Instead of polarizing the reader’s emotional and ethical response in line with some preconceived scheme of values, the Bible habitually generates ambivalence: consider Jacob, Aaron, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon, Jehu…Rather than aligning divine election and moral stature, it usually foregrounds their discordance.  Rather than imposing an automatic or at least intelligible system of rewards and punishments, it undermines every rule of thumb, every simple proportion…The characterization is complex, the motives mixed, the plot riddled with gaps and enigmas, behavior unpredictable, surprises omnipresent, the language packed and playful, the registration of reality far more governed by the real and the realistic than by the ideal.  In short, where didacticism would insist on subordination, one encounters proliferation; where the discourse should move in a straight line, it weaves a net; where propositions should readily follow from premises, the premises themselves often remain ambiguous or double-edged and the propositions become multiple; where transparence is expected, we have to struggle with opacity on all levels, from word to word to thought.”

I both agree and also disagree with Sternberg here.  I think that there are moral judgments made throughout the Hebrew Bible.  Heck, the Deuteronomist labels kings good and evil in the sight of the LORD!  But there is also complexity within the Hebrew Bible.  Many characters are neither good nor evil.  Reward and punishment is often quite neat, but not always so (e.g., Josiah dies, even though he’s a good king).  And we’re not always told whether a character’s act is good or bad.  It just is!

3.  Page 89: “The Homeric narrator stands above the gods, varying their access to knowledge to suit his own requirements.  The biblical narrator and God are not only analogues, nor does God’s informational privilege only look far more impressive than the narrator’s derivative or second-order authority.  The very choice to devise an omniscient narrator serves the purpose of staging and glorifying an omniscient God.  The means-end combination typical of ancient literature this gets practically reversed in the framework of monotheistic art.”

This is a theme that occurred a lot in my reading today: that the biblical narrator is omniscient—in that he knows of the thoughts of the characters—because he is depicted as godlike.  And Sternberg talks about such issues as the inspiration of poetry and history in the ancient world, and also the omniscience of prophets in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., II Kings 6:8-12, where Elisha is said to know what the king says in his bedchamber), even as the Hebrew Bible in places tries to take the prophet down a few notches so that God gets the glory.  God is also omniscient in parts of the Hebrew Bible.  Sternberg may be correct that the Hebrew Bible (for the ancient Israelites) functioned as a divine commentary on history, but could there be another explanation?  Maybe the narrators put thoughts in the minds of characters because they think that’s what they thought—based on their actions.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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