For my write-up today of Meir Sternberg’s Poetics of Biblical Narrative, I will start with something that Sternberg says on page 312. I’ll give more information about the topic of the quote in the course of this post.
“Hence the surprise now occasioned by the surfacing of the familial motive for the pursuit—the slaughter of Gideon’s brothers, who have so far played no role in the narrative. Gideon, it turns out, has not even entertained any hope of rescuing these brothers. “Where are the men you slew at Tabor?” he asks his royal captive, an inquiry whose apparent senselessness has elicited from scholarship the usual crop of textual emendations. But what really needs emending is the scholar’s sensitivity to the expressiveness of biblical dialogue. For the question is not intended to make sense as a demand for information: indeed, the addressees themselves (to dispose of another scholarly pseudo-crux) show their perfect understanding of its rhetorical drift in making no attempt to meet it. The very incoherence of the question betrays the questioner’s raging pain and indicates vengeance as the mainspring of his actions all along.”
I chose to write about this quote because I loved Sternberg’s line of “But what really needs emending is the scholar’s sensitivity to the expressiveness of biblical dialogue”! At this point, however, I’ll try to understand the context of Sternberg’s discussion. Sternberg is talking about Judges 8. I actually wrote about this chapter a while back (see here), and I said the following in summarizing Gideon’s question about the men of Tabor:
“When he captured the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunnah, he boldly confronted them about an atrocity at Tabor, in which they had slaughtered Gideon’s brothers. Gideon tells them, ‘They were my brothers, the sons of my mother; as the LORD lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you’ (Judges :19). If not for their atrocity, Gideon would have shown mercy to the Midianite kings.”
Gideon asked the Midianite kings, “Where are the men whom you slew at Tabor?” And the Midianite kings respond, “Like you, like them, one according to form, sons of a king.” English translations render this passage to convey that Gideon was asking the Midianite kings what the men whom they had slain at Tabor were like, and the kings respond that the men looked like Gideon and had a royal appearance. I do not know why there would be emendations, unless scholars’ problem is with the word eiphoh, which usually means “where?”, not “what kind?” I notice that Sternberg italicizes the word “slew”, so perhaps the problem is that the question appears senseless: Where are the men who were killed at Tahor? Well, still in Tahor, I suppose! I doubt that the Midianite kings would take the corpses with them! But Sternberg’s point seems to be that the question is rhetorical—that Gideon is not asking for information, but instead is confronting the Midianite kings with their atrocity. And the Midianite kings do not answer the question, but rather talk about the type of men Gideon’s brothers were.