Volume 16 - Issue 3

Sternberg on biblical narrative—a review article

By Walter Moberly

Biblical study is going through something of an upheaval at present. Confidence in familiar approaches to the biblical text is being eroded, and scholars are increasingly wondering whether the questions they are asking are necessarily the best and most helpful. Two of the most important factors contributing to the upheaval are well illustrated in this book by Sternberg.

History as literature

In the first place, there is the fundamental shift from treating the OT as history to treating it as literature (though, since the OT is obviously both history and literature, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the shift is from reading the text according to the agenda and priorities of the ancient historian to reading it according to the agenda and priorities of the literary critic). Sternberg defines the key word in his title as follows: ‘Poetics is the systematic working or study of literature as such. Hence, to offer a poetics of biblical narrative is to claim that biblical narrative is a work of literature’ (p. 2). Sternberg is scathing about many so-called ‘literary approaches’ to the text on the ground that they are ultimately arbitrary, that is that they do not understand how it is intrinsic to the nature of the text that it should be read as literature. So he offers a full-scale theoretical account of what it means to understand OT narrative as inherently and intrinsically literary.

First, although he insists on the value of historical study for understanding the text (though in practice the only aspect he utilizes is a knowledge of biblical Hebrew), he is clear that attempts to pinpoint the OT writers as figures in history is largely a waste of time: ‘The sad truth is that we know practically nothing about biblical writers—even less than about the processes of writing and transmission—and it looks as though we never will’ (p. 64). What matters, and is knowable, is the nature of the writer as an artist, i.e. not who he was, but how he worked.

Secondly, all the various OT narrative writers (except the late Ezra and Nehemiah) adopt the same fundamental stance of anonymity. The basic reason for doing so is that it enables them to speak with a knowledge and authority that transcend what would be available to them as particular figures in particular historical situations. For example, a writer can say what was in God’s mind at the time of the flood (Gn. 6:5–7; 8:21–22), or what was in Amnon’s heart as soon as he had raped Tamar (2 Sa. 13:15), and because he does not draw attention to his own real-life context he does not invite the question ‘How do you know?’ This means that the biblical writer is effectively claiming divine inspiration—because he knows what only God can know—and was recognized and accepted as such within ancient Israel: ‘It is inconceivable that a storyteller who keeps in closer touch with God’s doings and sentiments than the very prophets who figure among his dramatis personae would operate as their inferior in divine sanction; or that his claim would be challenged by the only society that canonized its sacred writings because it pinned on them faith and hope alike’ (p. 79).

Thirdly, ‘the very choice to devise an omniscient narrator serves the purpose of staging and glorifying an omniscient God’ (p. 89). This means, among other things, that there is something absolute about the story the writer tells—to question it by ‘How do you know?’ or ‘But what about a different version?’ (as in so much modern historically-oriented criticism) becomes an act of distancing that subverts the nature of the text.

Fourthly, although the writer knows all, he does not reveal all; although he tells the truth, he does not reveal the whole truth. Rather, he tells a story that is full of gaps, ambiguities and puzzles. This is because the life of man, unlike the life of God, is indeed limited in knowledge and full of gaps and ambiguities. In literary terms, what it means is that the form of the communication—an ambiguous narrative by an omniscient narrator—intrinsically matches the content of the communication—the freedom of man under the sovereignty of God. Although often the reader is given information that the characters in the story do not possess, nonetheless the task of readers, as of those in the story, is to struggle to grow in understanding as best they may.

On one level, then, this is an exciting and challenging book for the Christian. In the way the concept of inspiration is moved to centre stage and in the way in which difficulties in the text are taken with great seriousness as part of a strategy of communication (the difference between the truth and the whole truth) rather than explained away by appeal to source or redactor, there is much to illuminate and inform. On another level, however, it must be emphasized that this is not a book that can be taken to support an evangelical doctrine of Scripture, for that would be a fundamental misunderstanding and misuse of it.

The main reason for this is that Sternberg’s approach is exclusively directed to understanding OT narrative as a particular kind of ancient literature, with no interest whatsoever in scriptural hermeneutics, that is, the question of what it means for a believer today to reverence and live by this material as the Word of God today. This perhaps emerges most clearly in his initial discussion about the nature of OT narrative. He is heavily critical of attempts to categorize OT narrative as, e.g., fictionalized history (history told with techniques akin to those of modern fiction), because however much the material may appear to be so in our terms today, it was not perceived as such in its ancient context. For fiction is in principle independent of factuality, so that if someone presents an alternative account it poses no problem to the validity of the account already given—it is simply an alternative. Whereas for OT narrative, ‘it claims not just the status of history but, as Erich Auerbach rightly maintains, of the history—the one and only truth that, like God himself, brooks no rival’ (p. 32). This means that the genre of the material is to be recognized as historiography, even though it contains what we consider fictional. ‘Inspiration is primarily nothing but a rule that governs the communication between writer and reader, licensing the access to privileged material (e.g. thoughts) that would otherwise remain out of bounds and giving all material the stamp of authority’ (p. 33). ‘Herein lies one of the Bible’s unique rules: under the aegis of ideology, convention transmutes even invention into the stuff of history, or rather obliterates the line dividing fact from fancy in communication. So every word is God’s word. The product is neither fiction or historicized fiction nor fictionalized history, but historiography pure and uncompromising’ (p. 34).

This is all very well, and presents no difficulty if one simply comes to the OT as to any other literature—to enter imaginatively into its world while one is reading, but to step out of it, back into the ‘real world’, when one finishes. But the central issue for the believer is that the world of the biblical text is not ultimately different from the real world, but rather provides that understanding of reality by which contemporary life should be understood. The point of saying this is not to criticize Sternberg for not doing what he was not wanting to do, for that would be wholly improper; rather, the point is simply that evangelical Christians should not suppose that Sternberg’s use of the concept of inspiration in his sophisticated literary attack on historical approaches to OT narrative provides any resolution to the theological and hermeneutical problems of what it means for Christians today to regard the OT as inspired. Sternberg’s categories are those of the literary analyst, discussing ideology, rhetoric and the manipulation of the reader. Those concerned to formulate a hermeneutic of trust towards the biblical text may find straw here, but they will still have to make their own bricks.

In terms of modern literary study of the OT, this is much the most sophisticated treatment that I have read, and I would recommend anyone to read the first three chapters. But the recommendation comes with a word of warning—it’s hard work. It’s not that Sternberg writes the tortuous and tortured English of so many would-be literary theorists, but there is a density and compression that makes the reading slow and that makes it helpful to read the chapters more than once. Moreover, it must be said that as the book proceeds it becomes decidedly prolix. Sternberg clearly delights in the language and concepts of literary analysis. Lesser mortals may find the delight difficult to share, and wonder whether the amount of analysis is genuinely proportional to the amount of interpretative insight gained.

Generally speaking, despite his insights and sophistication, Sternberg is not the best place to start for anyone who wants to discover how their reading of the OT may be illuminated by the agenda of modern literary criticism. In my judgment, the best book to start with is S. Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible, JSOTS 70 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), to be followed by R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (London & Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1981). Both of these are easy to read and provide ample illumination of the text according to their agenda. Nonetheless, Sternberg has produced a major work of deep conceptual rigour, and he repays the effort required.

Jewish biblical scholarship

There remains the second reason for the ferment in contemporary biblical study that is illustrated by Sternberg. This is the resurgence of Jewish biblical scholarship. Although this is less discussed than the issue of literary approaches, it is no less important. Until relatively recently, at least two things could be confidently said about biblical scholarship. First, the creative centre where the agenda was set was Germany. Secondly, biblical scholarship was overwhelmingly a Christian, and predominantly Protestant, undertaking despite the presence of a few distinguished Jewish scholars (e.g. Buber, Heschel, Kaufmann, Cassuto). Neither of these is true any longer, and the reasons are probably interconnected. For America has taken over from Germany as the creative centre, and there is a great wealth of creative Jewish biblical scholarship in America (and Israel) but hardly at all (for tragic historical reasons) in Germany.

This is important because even those Jews who, like Sternberg, do not come to the Bible for specifically religious reasons, still come with a Jewish cultural perspective. At one level this means a difference in terminology. One is reminded afresh of what perhaps one had always taken for granted, that the terms ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ are specifically Christian terms for the Bible. For the Jew, for whom there is no ‘New Testament’, there is no ‘Old Testament’ either. What Christians call ‘Old Testament’, Jews call ‘Tanakh’ (an acronym of its constituent parts, Torah, Nebiim, Kethubim) or simply ‘Bible’. Thus the three books mentioned above, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Narrative Art in the Bible and The Art of Biblical Narrative, are all using the term ‘Bible’ in a specifically Jewish sense, i.e. excluding the NT.

At a deeper level, what is happening is that Jewish scholars are seeking to create new agendas for biblical study, and not simply to acquiesce in asking the questions that Christians (and predominantly liberal Protestants) have asked. For the historical-critical consensus of the last 200 years has been profoundly Protestant in its fundamental assumptions—liberal Protestants have set the agenda, and more conservative Protestants have modified that agenda. One might have hoped that when Roman Catholic scholars came relatively late to the scene they might have learnt from the mistakes of Protestants and avoided them; but on the whole they have simply taken over the Protestant way, errors as well as strengths (if the New Jerome Bible Commentary may be taken as a guide). But Jewish scholars are breaking free of the Protestant agenda, simply because they do not share so many of the basic assumptions.

I do not think it is accidental that the three best works (in my judgment) on literary approaches to the Bible/OT are all by Jews. For Jewish culture is rooted not only in the Bible but also in the rabbinic writings, central to which is a close yet imaginative reading of biblical narratives. It is not just that Alter and Sternberg refer much more to rabbinic readings of the text than they do to Christian readings, but also, at a deeper level, it seems to me that what they are trying to do is to re-mint something of the historically Jewish/rabbinic approach to the text within the context of a sophisticated modern literary criticism. In many ways, therefore, a literary approach to the biblical text is a characteristically Jewish approach.

What this may mean in the long run, it is difficult to say. But in the short term, there is something here that Christians can appropriate and learn much from. In British secondary education, for example, the study of the OT is virtually dead, not least because of the historical categories in which it has been taught. A literary approach, which takes the great stories seriously and sees them as addressing important questions about life, at least offers the prospect of being interesting. And even though that is still rather less than understanding the OT as Scripture, the authoritative Word of God, it is not a bad place to start from!

Walter Moberly

Durham University