Interested Parties. The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible (JSOTSS 205: Gender, Culture, Theory 1)

Written by David J.A. Clines Reviewed By Richard S. Briggs

This opening contribution to a new series from Sheffield collects together ten recent articles and papers from David Clines, all of which offer various angles on questions of ideology. The sub-title outlines the dual focus: in what ways do texts and their implied authors promulgate ideologies (often, according to Clines, unwittingly); and then in turn, how do readers ancient, modern and implied, interact with those ideologies and/or betray their own?

The opening chapter describes this programme of ‘ideological criticism’ and attempts, with limited success, to point out some unifying themes in the other ten chapters. Ultimately, the collection of essays proves a little too diverse for this programmatic statement, but one unifying theme which Clines clearly states here is his wish to move beyond understanding to critique and evaluation. It is, he avers, a failure of nerve and of responsibility when biblical scholars rest content with clarification. Ethical comment is to be required as part of the commentator’s work, and all too often biblical critics have worked hard to uncover the world-view of, say, Psalm 2, and then had not a word to offer on whether its aggressive overtones were admirable, repulsive, or whatever.

Of course it is true that a great many critics have stopped short at just this point, and Clines has great fun illustrating the ideological tangles of commentators who confuse their own ideological commitment (usually a Christian one) with objective scholarly critique. This he does with particular wit and clarity in chapters on Haggai’s temple, the book of Amos, and Psalm 2. He even coins the term ‘metacommentary’ to describe what he is doing: noticing what commentators do, rather than just cataloguing what they say (p. 76).

But although this book contains many worthwhile insights, and challenges some preconceptions which do need challenging (a good example being his critique of how our modern conception of masculinity interferes with our ability to see the textual possibilities of David’s masculinity), it is ultimately disappointing. The key problem is that Clines seems determined to disqualify almost any reading except one which allies itself with a view of human autonomy (on p. 268 he comes close to making this claim explicitly, while on pp. 110ff. He makes his case for saying that religious commitment is a hindrance to scholarly endeavour). Thus on the one hand scholarly critique is faulted for failing to offer ideological comment, while on the other ideological comment is faulted for pretending to be scholarly critique, and an unacceptable one at that, usually because it turns out to uphold the ideology of the text.

There are problems on a methodological level too. Some texts are to be treated in strict isolation from any others (as in chs. 5 and 6). but Exodus, for example, gets criticized for failing to take the Genesis narrative into account (pp. 194–5), The claim that the Song of Songs is pornographic literature (p. 113) seems a gratuitous remark unsupported by the more careful arguments that precede it. When it comes to the book of Job, he is unable to buy his own theoretical line on readings being determined by interpretative communities (as per Stanley Fish), and asserts (rightly, I would say) that some readings are indeed misreadings, and ‘palpably untrue’ (p. 137), which he then has to qualify with ‘as I and people who think like me would say’. If it is all just a matter of whether we happen to agree or not then, as perhaps Clines himself sees, much of the force of his exegetical observations is surely lost.

Although the book is engagingly written, the humour at times seems somewhat bitter. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Clines’s agenda is too much concentrated on political correctness to the exclusion of theological enlightenment.

Richard S. Briggs

Cranmer Hall, Durham