I’m continuing my way through Meir Sternberg’s Poetics of Biblical Narrative.
1. I talked yesterday about Sternberg’s views on literary and historical-criticism, and I asked if the historical contexts of the biblical writings played a role in Sternberg’s interpretation of the biblical text. From what I read today, my answer is “yes” and “no.”
On the “yes” side, Sternberg stated that the Bible “directs much of its narrative energies” against the pagan “humanizing conception of the divine order and might”, as it portrays God as one who “exercises absolute sway over the universe (nature, culture, history) in conspicuous isolation and transcendence” (page 101). Many ancient Near Eastern gods, by contrast, were vulnerable to chaos or other deities. Sternberg acknowledges, however, that God in the Hebrew Bible does not always intervene, as when God allowed freedom of choice in the story of Dinah in Genesis 34 (and yet, Sternberg notes that God in the very next chapter put fear in the hearts of the Canaanites so that they would not avenge the deaths of the Shechemites at the hands of Simeon and Levi). Similarly, regarding other cases in which the Hebrew Bible appears to portray God as limited (e.g., God learns of Abel’s death, God changes his mind, God visits Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.), Sternberg states that God may choose to impose limits on himself, at times. Sternberg does not agree with H. Gunkel that these represent traces in the Hebrew Bible of pagan thought. Overall, my impression has been that Sternberg seeks to portray the ancient Israelites as different from other nations in the ancient Near East. He also believes that biblical literature is innovative. For example, on page 176, he states that “The passage from ignorance to knowledge, one of the great archetypes of literature, is another Hebraic innovation, for which the Greeks got all the credit.”
On pages 181-184, Sternberg criticizes A.E. Speiser’s claim that biblical writers were unaware of ancient Near Eastern customs that were reflected in the material that they were using (for background information, see my posts here and here). Sternberg essentially argues that the writers did not need to be aware of those customs, for those customs were irrelevant to their plot! Here, Sternberg does not deem (say) the Nuzi laws to be essential for an understanding of parts of the Hebrew Bible. At the same time, on page 134, he says that the city of Nahor in Genesis 24:10 refers to a city that is named Nahor, not a place where a man named Nahor lived, for the Mari tablets mention a place called Nakhur.
On page 127, Sternberg argues that the Hebrew Bible differs from other ancient Near Eastern works in its treatment of variants. Whereas other ancient Near Eastern works (and also Herodotus) preserve different versions of the same story and present them as different versions, the Hebrew Bible attempts to make them into a single story. For example, the wife-sister stories are not treated as three versions of the same event, but rather as three separate events in patriarchal history. Sternberg does not strike me as one who is preoccupied with identifying the different sources and layers of the Hebrew Bible, for his approach is rather synchronic. On page 155, he criticizes the “treatment of incongruity as a symptom of genetic interference rather than of engagement and pleasure in the game of art, whose name is difficult coherence.” This may imply that Sternberg seeks significance even in the bumps of the text.
2. I wrote yesterday that Sternberg’s view of the omniscient narrator relates to God’s omniscience. Today, I saw what appeared to be a slight backtracking from that idea, for he states on page 154 that the narrator “moves beyond or parallel to God’s viewpoint without challenging its authority.” On page 155, Sternberg says, “Nor does God himself, the Bible’s most voluminous speaker, share the narrator’s aesthetic norms and practices…” Somehow, the narrator shares God’s omniscience, on some level, and yet the narrator is not God.
3. In his discussion of literary elements of the text, Sternberg had some interesting things to say. On page 157, he mentions pity for Esau and Saul. I identify here, for I have often felt sorry for those characters, rather than demonizing them! And, on page 197, Sternberg talks about how David’s leisure (e.g., sleeping late) led to his adultery with Bathsheba.